It’s back to Civilization – or Brussels on the Cheap….


After our uneventful flight to Brussels – and equally uneventful train/metro to our hostel – we are delighted to be welcomed at the “Sleephere” Hostel!

Karl is an incredible host – and our palace on the 3rd floor (yes – it’s a walk up – again) – is glorious. We finally have our own bathroom – and it has marble everywhere! Shower, sink, floor, walls – it’s so beautiful – and just ours! No sharing. I hate sharing – there is something about dealing with other people’s mess that just doesn’t work for me. The Intrepid Traveler and I have our corners – we allocate our spaces and know automatically whose towel is whose. I suppose it’s a bit like an old married couple – but with none of the strains!

Our Palace – besides having it’s own bathroom – is lovely. It’s in the attic of a home built originally in the 1600’s – then renovated in the 1800’s – our room was one of the last added – and our ceiling height ranges from 10′ in the center to under 5′ on the sides. I know this for certain – I’m bumped my head twice already. But it’s clean, it’s got windows on 4 sides – and we’re very very happy to have a space that is ours alone.

The common area of the “SleepHere” is awesome. Leather furniture everywhere – and super comfortable. There’s a Piano (which our host plays occasionally), a large TV, a giant dinning room table where they serve a lovely breakfast (can you say – coffee please), and a huge kitchen with tons of working space, a nice fridge, lots of dishes ands of glasses.

Most importantly to me – and the reason I reserved here in the first place – a garden terrace. The Intrepid Traveler and I are so very pleased to have a terrace – and the roses and peony’s are in bloom.

I chat up Karl – and get a quick tour of the dorm rooms. We’re in the only double – but the house sleeps 20. The dorm bathrooms – like ours – are all done in marble – and equally glorious. Unlike Russia – where the name of the game was to cram as many beds into a sleeping space as possible – here there are no bunk beds, and everyone has a ‘dresser’ to call their own. It’s dorm living the upper class way! Karl proudly shows me the historic parts of the house – the current entrance was the original carriage way – and when they had to do some repairs to the ground floor – they dug up the original foundations – from the 1600’s. This place is amazing.

We dump our gear, relax with our bread and cheese in the garden for a late dinner and it’s relatively early to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day.

Some quick notes – Brussels, in comparison to St. Petersburg, is dirty! There’s dog poop everywhere, overflowing garbage cans, and homeless camped out here and there. This is when I realize what I didn’t see in St. Petersburg – homeless and garbage. Interesting, eh? I also realize that people smile and say hi a lot more here – and the kids are playing. All things we missed for 2 weeks.

Up early on Saturday, we relax over breakfast at the hostel – our host makes a point of joining everyone at breakfast – and it’s time to share information. Where are you from? Where are you going? What are your plans for the day? Did you see something cool? We relax – we chat – and then it’s on to our plans for the day – Laundry first!

That is when Sticker Shock really hits us – and it hits hard. In St. Petersburg – laundry was free. Here it’s 3.5 Euro a load to wash, and since the token machine was empty at the laundry mat – drying is going to be done the hard way – on a line, in our room. And it’s not just the laundry that pricy – fruit is twice the price, wine in the grocery store is double what it was in St. Petersburg – even the bread is more expensive.

Quick lunches – which we could find for $5 (4 Euro) in St. Petersburg are 22 Euro here. I’m sure they are worth the extra money – but how as budget travelers are we going to survive? It’s going to be take out and grocery stores for us here!

Laundry done – we walk the streets of Brussels. The area near the hostel is closely packed with restaurants and shops – and of course a Catholic Church – so services are on the menu for this afternoon. We also tour the Grand Place – the tourist heart beat of the city. 6:00 finds us at the Cathedral – listening to the organ play as services start. For dinner we opt for take-out – Peking Duck, Rice and a nice bottle of White Wine. Like St. Petersburg – it’s light out till almost 11:00 PM – so while it feels early, it’s actually quite late when we crawl up the 2 additional flights of stairs to our palace.

Sunday – up somewhat early – we head out to the Weekly Flea Market – and not surprisingly – anything nice is very expensive. The sellers (mostly professionals who do this for a living) are clearly very aware of the value of every single thing that they own – and price it accordingly. Silver – real silver – is extremely expensive – and while stuff from the 50’s and 60’s abound – anything that smacks of history or value is long gone. I struggle to find a set of silver spoons – and end up with 12 nice looking silver plated ones. Not as great as I’d hoped – but better than no spoons! Oh well.

For lunch we need to sit down – so we find a relatively inexpensive cafe – and share a bowl of onion soup and a Croque Monsieur. It adds up quickly – but we are so happy to have a toilet and a place to just sit – we just quietly camp out and let the world pass by for a while. This is why we can’t do organized tours anymore – when we crash and burn – we need to stop!

Vitals restored – we walk towards our next destination – the Royal Art Musuem. On the way – we pass a ‘Frite’ Stand – and I do a hard left! No way I’m not having French Fries here – they are so yummy with Mayonnaise. We share a big cone of awesome frits – and continue on our way.

At the museum – they are doing a major exhibit on Chagal, one of my favorite artists – but at 15.50 Euro – each – it’s well over our price range. We opt for the much less pricy permanent exhibits – and tour the ‘Margrite’ museum, and the old masters. Rubens, Rembrant, Bosch, and of course 6 paintings by the Bruggers – 3 younger, 3 older. All magnificant. Dinner is wine, bread, and brie. Yum.

Monday – all museums are closed in Brussels – at least all the major ones. So we do the public tram tour. You buy a one day ticket for just a few Euro, and ride from one end of the line, out all the way to the other end – and back! It’s really interesting to see what Brussels looks like when you aren’t in the heart of historic Brussels!

Back at the hostel we have a lovely easy dinner – bottle of wine, cheese, some of the lovely sausages that are literally everywhere – and conversations on topics ranging from life in the US, to finding and keeping a good boyfriend, to getting into a good university, to the challenges of deciding on your direction in life. All the things that young people worry about – and old people – like us – love to listen to! (and secretly sing – “I’m so glad I’m not young anymore”)

Tuesday – our last day together on this trip – and we decide to tour 2 different museums – the Military life museum and the Museum of Ethnology – I want to see the statue from Easter Island. We keep running into fellow re-enactors – the Battle of Waterloo 2015 (200th anniversary) is this weekend – and of course a tour of the Military museum in Brussels is a must. I will admit that the exhibit they had on World War II – from the Belgium perspective – was extremely well done, and very very interesting.

Despite the sticker shock – our economies have paid off – and we actually have enough Euro’s left to spluge on a nice dinner. Our decision – Waffles and Hot Chocolate at one of the top chocolate makers in Beligum! Oh my – it’s delicous. Awesome actually. Seriously finger licking good.

Wednesday – Victor – lovely Victor – picks us up at the hostel with his rental car and we battle our way out to the airport to send the Intrepid Traveler home. These 4 weeks have just flown by.

Then my husband and I head back to the area near my hostel to eat a seafood lunch of mussels (yum) and frits. I’m really getting addicted to those frits – and while mussels aren’t in season – (June has no “r” in it) – they still beat the pants off most of the mussels we get in Montreal. Then it’s on to our BnB and to the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball.

So – having basically caught everyone one up to date – I’m signing off now.

Blog alert – the next blogs are going to be re-enacting based – Napoleon’s forces are massing on the borders of Belgium – the trumpets are sounding – and it’s off to war I must go.

The Soup Lady

Things I couldn’t say until I’d left Russia behind


I’m currently in Brussels – we left St. Pete’s behind us – an overall uneventful trip via Estonia. But now that’s I’m comfortably at a distance from Russia – here’s some parting observations I didn’t feel good about sharing earlier. Enjoy the read.

Russia – aka St. Petersburg – is exciting, interesting, spooky, uncomfortable, awkward, unfeeling, unsmiling, quiet, clean, oppresive, sad, and worth a visit.

Maybe this is a totally personal perspective, but both the Intrepid Traveller and I agreed that there is something – well – odd about being in Russia. Maybe it’s just us and our memories of the Cold War, of the injustices of Stalin’s regime – but maybe it’s more than just that. In any case – here are things that bothered and/or intrigued me about being in Russia.

Awkward 1 – There are a lot of police and military around. All the time. Everywhere. In cars, in armored vehicles, just walking the streets. Sometimes they sport machine guns, sometimes it’s just hand guns. But it’s a lot. A whole lot.

Awkward 2 – The insignia of the miliary guys are velcro’d to their uniforms. That means they can quickly ditch any indication of who exactly they are. I find that very uncomfortable. We tried to ask about it – but were politely told – none of our business.

Awkward 3 – We saw at least 2 groups of people stopped by the police and/or military and questioned. We were warned to carry photo-copies of our passports around, not the real thing – and to never give our passports to anyone in the police and/or military. We were told by fellow tourists we met outside of Russia that they had been hasseled while in Russia – As members of a visual minority – they were targeted and money demanded to make the issue go away. This is not a good thing if you want tourists to come to your country.

Awkward 4 – MacDonald’s in an airport doesn’t make me forget that buried deep inside are individual booths used to control both incoming and outgoing travelers. We’d seen the booths in a museum on the Cold War in Berlin. Imagine our shock to see that Russia is still using the same booths today. You line up at the border station, divided by passport type. Each booth has a door in, and a door out that closes and opens under the control of the guards. Travellers are requested to enter as individuals (Yes – even kids go in alone). There is a mirror over your head so that the unsmiling border guard can see behind you as well as in front of you. The desk of the guard is high, and protected so that at least I could not see what they were doing while they had my passport. There is plate glass between us – stretching all the way up to the ceiling. When they finish doing whatever they are doing – the door in front opens automatically. There is no – have a nice trip, welcome to Russia – nothing at all is said. Just hard eyes, unsmiling faces, and papers. Yes – it’s spooky, macabre, uncomfortable, spine tingling, and not the way to encourage visitors. I almost turned around to get back on the plane right then.

Awkward 5 – Kids – even little kids – don’t smile. I am 67 years old, 5’4″ high, and a grannie. I smile at kids. In every country I’ve ever visited before Russia – the kids eventually smiled back. Not here. Not once. In other countries – parents have encouraged their kids to speak to me – to practice their English – to wave. Not here. Not once.

Awkward 6 – The metro and buses are silent. People don’t chat, they don’t greet friends, they don’t smile. The corners of their mouths tend to go down – not up. This was really obvious when we rode the metro in Brussels – we immediately were innodated with the sounds of people using the time on the metro to share news, greet each other – whatever. This just didn’t happen in Russia. Even in restuarants and museums things were hushed. I laughed loudly at a funny video segment – and not only shocked the locals – I embarrased the Interpid Traveler. There’s a constraint, a – don’t look at me – I’m not really here – feeling that even as tourists, we were well aware of.

Awkward 7 – We were warned by our host to not drink the water from the tap. That’s not unusual – I’ve been in tons of places where tap water is not entirely safe for our delicate stomachs – but this was awkward in Russia because we would buy water only to see it being used by other people. I don’t mind sharing – but water is heavy! And the supermarket was a distance from the hostel – far enough that for us – carrying the water was an issue. If you are going to use someone else’s water – at least buy some yourself to share too! I had to ask our host to supply us with some water – which he did. But I had to ask. You can understand that this is awkward.

Awkward 8 – Constant security just doesn’t feel safe. There were ‘administors’ whose job it was to sit up all night at the reception desk – keeping us safe. Since we had only a shared bathroom – that meant getting up in the middle of the night and walking past the guard to get to the toilet. He would smile and wave – but while it did feel safer knowing that there was someone between me and whatever – the smile and wave with me in my PJ’s was odd. But that’s not the only example. To get into our hostel – we had to enter one code at the gate, then ring another code at the door to the building. They would have to pick up the phone – then buzz us in. Once in the hall way – they would open the door to the hostel, visually checking to be sure we were who they were expecting. At the MIR hostel – the final inspection was via video – at the two smaller hostels – the administrator had to get up and physically open the door for us. I don’t know about you – but it felt weird to me.

Awkward 9 – There are no thrift stores and no flea markets. So what do Russians do with their old stuff? I’m guessing that the no flea markets has to do with people being able to sell stuff on their own – and unsuperised by the government – free enterprise is bad afterall – but no thrift stores. Really? Maybe they just don’t want me to know about them?

Awkward 10 – we were told by the Hostel folks, and it’s implied on the Canadian Consulate website that bringing things to the attention to the Russian Police is not a good idea. Why is this awkward – my wallet was stolen, and the credit card folks – to cover their bums – want to know if I have a police report – and I don’t. Apparently – a phone call telling them to block the cards wasn’t quite good enough. Go figure.

Pro Russia 1 – It’s clean. Really clean. Yes we did see a bum pee into a bush once, but in general, the streets were spotless. One morning we were even up early enough to see them vaccuming the streets. It was a huge vaccum cleaner – it towered over the head of the operator, and it was on wheels. He moved around the cobblestone square – cleaning as he went.

Pro Russia 2 – There’s no dog poop. Anywhere. Ever. Dog’s yes – plenty of them, including a completely charming pair of pugs – but no dog poop. I have no idea where they put it. And despite the huge number of horse drawn carriages – no horse poop either.

Pro Russia 3 – Still on the clean issue – the public garbage cans were always mostly empty. Here in Brussels we’ve seen them overflowing – that was never ever the case in Russia – even in our courtyard the public bins were emptied at least twice a week – and maybe even more often.

Pro Russia 4 – there is a massive coffee cult! Roadside Expresso stands were the norm – my personal issue with them – they only opened in the afternoon – and I won’t drink coffee after lunch – too much caffine for my system. But they sure looked good.

Pro Russia 5 – The food truck is in. They had bakery food trucks, they had cheese food trucks, they had sauage food trucks and food stands. There was at least once food stand a block, and in more popular (aka touristy ) areas – there might be 3 or 4 of them. Surprising to me – given the temperature – the two products most on offer – outside of sausages – were corn on the cob and ice cream. Eventually I had to try an ice cream. It was ok – but Italy needn’t worry.

Pro Russia 6 – Outdoor cafes have blankets! Isn’t that the smartest thing ever. In addition to heaters (less common) – there are blankets available – perfect for enjoying outdoor seating – and staying warm.

Neutral Russia 1 – There were no homeless people to be seen. Now given the weather in winter in St. Petersburg – that might be related – but we were in St. Petersburg during the White Nights, and the weather was outstanding every single day. Surely there must be some homeless folks somewhere. But they sure weren’t visible – something that can not be said about Brussels – or Montreal for that matter.

Neutral Russia 2 – Begging takes a different form. Several times we’d get off the beaten trail enough to see rows of elder women selling tiny bunches of flowers or herbs that they had clearly picked up. It’s not really begging per se – they just were sitting rather lifeless on the curb – in a solid row of about 20 of them. But it was clear that this was how they could earn a few ruples. The Intrepid Traveler says she read that the widows of Veterans were often forced to earn a living this way, since the pensions for soliders were non-existant – but I don’t know for sure. I would have loved to take a photo – but there was something forbidding about them. So – no pictures please.

Neutral Russia 3 – The lines. Ok – it’s a cultural thing – I get it. But I wanted to scream at them – don’t they look at books on queueing theory? It’s nuts. So inefficient, so time wasting, so everywhere!

Neutral Russia 4 – There is a museum guard per room in the museums – and the larger museums using time tracking systems to control who is where when. The guards either walk around or sit – but they are omni-present. And often there are multiple guards – like in front of the Diamond Room. There we counted 4 control points – a ‘guard’ who sat at a guard station, and 3 ladies that were responsible for taking tickets, telling you to sit and wait for your tour to start – and carefully explaining to tourist after tourist that you couldn’t buy tickets there but had to exit the museum in order to get a ticket – and you would have to buy an additional admission ticket to get back in.

Neutral Russia 5 – There are prices for Russians, and prices for non-Russians. It’s not always obvious – but with only a few exceptions, we could tell that prices went up when it became clear we were hardly locals. The few exceptions were extremely welcome however – these were some of our favorite meals and favorite events.

End of the day – Leaving Russia was a relief. Like taking off a heavy back-pack you forgot you were carrying. There was always a feeling that someone was watching, that you were being observed, overheard, criticized, evalutated, measured. It wasn’t always obvious, and we are hardly visible minorities in Russia – but it was still there. I wouldn’t want to be a visible minority in Russia. I felt awkward enough being the loud, boiterous, always smiling person that I am.

I’ve had people read this blog and suggest that I didn’t enjoy my trip to St. Petersburg, or that I wouldn’t go back. And that’s not true. I did enjoy my trip – and I would highly recommend visiting St. Petersburg. The Russians I’ve met re-enacting have all been wonderful fun people – a pleasure to be with. So why are the Russians in St. Petersburg so different. I really can’t answer that question. There were amazingly positive interactions – people helped us with our luggage without question, they got up so we could sit down all the time, and in private they were more than willing to share their stories. It was in public that one could sense the restraint and concern.

Signing off to rest easier – The Soup Lady and her sidekick – the Intrepid Traveler.

Picking up the last few pieces in St. Petersburg


We’ve done 2 to 3 museums a day since we arrived in St. Petersburg – and still have 3 more to see! First on our list is the Museum of Applied Art and Decorative Design.
Click here to see some great photos!

Described as oft overlooked – and well worth a visit – we pin-point it on the map and head out. The building is actually a school of Applied Art – and classes must be finishing up for the term. There are students everywhere – clearly getting marked on their final projects. The museum itself is interesting, but the lack of English signs has us guessing on the exact use of many of the objects. But perhaps their usefulness wasn’t really the point – it’s the level of expertise in design that would appeal to this particular crowd.

The museum was created by a rich industrialist just before the turn of the century – around 1870 – and has, like most of Russia and St. Petersburg, suffered from hard times. Like all the other museums, art was hidden away – first from the Germans – and later from the Soviets. Only now, with “The Thaw” has the work come out of hiding, and been put on display. We admire the ceramic stoves – essential for surviving a St. Petersburg winter, and can’t believe the quality of fabrics over 100 years old.

After visiting the museum, and wandering freely thru the classrooms – we visit the attached art store – and after selecting paintings ranging from $500 to $10,000 – I opt to buy some rather nifty pieces, priced right at $50 each. The art store owner tosses in some prints as well – and we leave happy with our purchases.

Our next stop is either the Museum of Zoology (they have a full whale skeleton) or the Menshikov Palace. Since I’m alone on being interested in whale bones – we opt for the Palace. Built in 1711 – it was the first stone building in St. Petersburg, and is currently decorated in the style known as Petrine Baroque. This much more understated style is in contrast to that of all the other Palaces, which have been restored to a more giltery style from 50 to 60 years later.

Interesting place – I’m not sorry we went, but it’s definitely not on the must see list.

Tonight is our last kick at the can for Theatre – and we’re seeing Don Quixote – the Ballet – not the movie or the opera! And it is something special. Yes – again there are the fab sets, the amazing costumes, the glorious music. But I do think the leads this time are the very very very best we’ve seen! The male role was made famous by Rudolf Nureyev, and while again – I’m no specialist – I thought the male lead we watched fly around the stage was clearly amazing.

Sitting behind us in the nose-bleed section were a class of young (about 12 years old) ballerinas. Clearly inspired by what they saw – you couldn’t ask for better audience members. They clapped and clapped – enjoying every minute.

Wonderful ending for a wonderful day.

Tomorrow is a travel day – we’re going to quickly do some souvenier shopping, then head out to catch the flight to Belgium.

Saying good night – and goodbye to Russia

The Soup Lady and The Intrepid Traveler.

Communal Living – Soviet Style – Still happening in St. Petersburg


During the Cold War days – finding housing in St. Petersburg was virtually impossible – so many families ended up in communal flats – one appartment shared by 2 or 3 or more families – one shared kitchen, one shared bathroom – but seperate bedrooms.

Why do I bring this up? It turns out that this life style still happens in St. Petersburg. Even though the housing crisis has long since eased up – owning your own flat is simply beyond the possible for many families – particularly if the parents are divoriced, or you are not sure you’ll be staying in the city, or you are a student. Our new friend proudly announced that she had just managed to get her own flat – and her son is 9.

We managed to experience Communal living – St. Petersburg style – personally – not by choice however.

When we arrived at the MIR hostel and discovered it was 5 very long, very hard flights up and had to change, we also knew that the Suricata couldn’t host us for the last night (the 11th) of our stay. They had previous bookings – and we were not willing to share a bunk room with strangers.

So the manager of the Suricata – Sergey – arranged for us to stay in another hostel for the last 2 nights of the stay. He even helped us move our luggage – and to give him full credit – called each night to be sure we were fine. Our new landlady spoke no English – and he was concerned.

He didn’t need to be – sometimes you can manage to communicate even if you actually have no words in common. I learned she had an altar to her dead husband, discovered she was from the Crimera and I found out that she’d only been managing this ‘hostel’ for 3 days.

She worked hard every night scrubing and cleaning, and supervised two ‘workers’ – who were being paid to do the painting and repair work. She was always up before we were – and went to bed much later.

The physical space definitely had it’s issues. The hostel is on 2 floors – each one has a kitchen and a bathroom. But since each floor sleeps 10 people at least – we’re talking 1 bathroom per 10 people. And unlike the Suricata – the shower is in the bathroom – so one person taking a shower – no one is going pee! I’m thinking that it’s a good thing that a) it’s still under construction, so the entire 2nd floor is off limits – and 2 of the 5 ‘bedrooms’ is unoccupied. We had no issues – but it did make me worried.

There was no WIFI, the kitchen was insanely small, the sink in the one bathroom was cracked, the shower on our floor had seen much, much better days, and the beds were so soft you couldn’t even sit on them without sinking down to the floor. The kitchen walls were badly in need of painting, which they were working on – so I feel a bit bad saying anything. The stairs in the hall leading up to the ‘hostel’ were cracked and sagging cement – a tad scary – but I figured they had held up this long – they should make it 2 more days!

Plus – there’s the communal living issue. One room of the flat was Tanya – the host’s – bedroom – another bedroom was occupied by a young girl attending school in St. Petersburg (clearly not a tourist), and the third room was ours. It was fairly obvious that having tourists was a completely unexpected surprise – and while they were very nice about making sure we were comfortable – some standard hostel attributes were missing. No common, no tea or coffee available, and limited cooking supplies. We all shared the one toilet – and tried politely to keep out of each other’s way. Tricky in a tiny kitchen with a table with only 2 chairs. The Intrepid Traveler is fairly sure that the other ‘guests’ didn’t have kitchen privileges – based simply on their never using them!

But we took it on the chin – the company was interesting, the location very good, and there was only 1 flight of stairs. Our kind of place!

After putting our stuff in the new hostel, we still had time for 2 museums – and a really good dinner for under $5 per person!

Our first stop was the Imperial House of Porcelain – where they have a simply amazing collection of Porcelain items – some made by the Imperial House – some coming from France, Germany, or even Great Britian. I particularly liked the ‘People’s of Russia’ series of huge ‘dolls’, carefully sculptured into dramatic poses – and wearing ‘clothes’ painted to resemble the traditional clothes from that region.

Our 2nd stop was the Andrew Nevsky Monestary – and while the church was very nice, we felt that visitng trhe graves of artists and composers like Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. was back to that Russian streak of Macabre.

As we were leaving the Monestary – we spotted their ‘tea-room’ – and decided to check out their dinner offerings. I had a wonderful Borscht – I’m definitely getting addicted to this typically Russian beet soup – or maybe it’s just the sour cream. The Intrepid Traveler opted for one of those mystery meat balls with rice – it was yummy as well.

Well fed, and suitably ‘cultured’ – we head for the Mariinsky. Tonight we have tickets to Carmina Burna – and I’m excited. As well I should be – it’s perfect. Double orchestra, double choir, kids choir on the side for balance, 3 soloists – the only thing missing is the ballet component – but even the Mariinsky must have to compromise somewhere.

The concert is completely, totally, absolutely outstanding. Perfect. There is round after round of curtain calls – and we love it. The conductor decides that the audience deserves an encore – and from the stage calls for the orchestra to play and the singers to sing. More perfection!

Moral – if you find yourself going to St. Petersburg – immediately get tickets to the theatre. It’s worth every single penny.

And the 2nd dress circle – aka Balcony – is perfect. First row – as centered as possible. Stay away from the 3rd circle – it’s the highest balcony – and I got scared going to my seat. I couldn’t stand facing outwards to slide into my row – and had to file in facing the back wall of the Theatre. That’s scary!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

There’s a touch of Macabre in St. Petersburg that’s hard to ignore


I don’t know about you – but having a wax figure made of your husband 3 days after he died, using his own hair – that’s weird! And then carefully saving it for over 400 years. Really? Well – that’s the basic idea behind the Wax Persona – a life-sized model of Peter the Great, carefully ordered by his wife, and positioned on his throne for all eternity.

Want to see it for yourself? It’s in Peter’s Winter Palace – and the fee is included with your ticket to the Hermitage – so do check it out.

But that Macabre streak doesn’t end there – We went to the Staff building to see the Hermitage’s collection of Impressionist paintings in their brand new home. Awesome paintings – but no audio guide and precious little english signage. They don’t even have a floor plan yet. What they do have – beside a bit more reasonable lighting – are clear glass walkways 2 stories and more above the ground. Spooky walking let me tell you.

Great art – weirdly renovated space. Worth visiting for both – and again – included with your Hermitage ticket – which doesn’t explain the distinct lack of visitors. I’m guessing it’s just not on the tour bus circuit yet.

Which probably explains the pricing in the cafeteria as well. Least expensive food we’ve seen – anywhere. Tea for 15 ruples – that’s 35 cents. And unlimited quantity. Most places in St. Petersburg charge upwards of 200 ruples – that’s over $4.50 – for tea. Anyway – the cafeteria in the Staff building is clearly the go-to option – and it’s pretty popular – with the staff of the museums. Nary a tourist to be seen.

We wear ourselves out between the Hermitage (we did the Diamond Room tour and checked out the rather wasted 3rd floor) and the Staff building – which in addition to it’s vast collection of Monet’s and Pissaro’s has an entire wing devoted to Life Under the Eagle – Russia from 1790 to 1820. I take a ton of pictures here, it’s the period of Napoleon, and highly relevant to re-enacting. Eventually we need something to eat – and something positive and uplifting.

Dinner at the FreshMarket fit the bill – and then a visit to the Faberge Museum is the perfect antidote to too much Hermitage. Another brand new museum, this collection includes 18 Faberge Easter Eggs – the largest single collection in the world. And they are outstanding. While over-the-top decor was the norm during this period – from 1800 to 1917 – these Eggs were deliberately designed to impress a woman who had everything.

The first one – simple white egg shell on the outside, a gold egg yolk inside, and inside that a gold chicken. Inside the chicken – tada – a pearl necklace. I mean – why not?

Another one I thought was completely cool – A green tree with leaves and birds – and when you turned a key at the top – a rooster appeared, with real feathers. The rooster crowed too. Perfect toy for the bored but incredibly rich.

Still wondering about that macabre streak? Consider the Church of Spilled Blood – inside there’s a canopy (very elaborate, very expensive) built over the exact spot where Peter the Great was felled by a bomb thrown by a dissident. Gorey.

Another example – the highly touted tour to the top of the Colonnade at St. Issacs. There’s an open staircase to naviagate – with signs at the ticket office warning of strong winds. We opt to avoid that trip.

Some more examples – the room where Rasputin was reportedly murdered is now a highly visited tour option. As mentioned previously – we couldn’t even get tickets. There’s the prison at the Fort of Peter and Paul, there’s wax museums a plenty – and there’s winter. Food for the marcarbe soul – you don’t even need zombies.

Need more proof – our landlady showed us a drawer in her bedroom that is a memorial shrine to her husband – dozens of tiny icons, each one with a wallet sized picture of her husband in the corner. I didn’t dare ask if she had the ashes in there too – that would defiitely have been TMI (Too much Information).

Our desire to look at things we could never afford and your interest in the macabre side of St. Petersburg sated, we head home for bed. But bed is not on the menu.

Our new friends have found out that there might be fireworks tonight – although there is some disagreement about whether they are going to happen at 10:00 PM or 11:00 PM. Since it won’t be dark at either time – I’m guessing it might even be midnight – but they decide to go check it out at 11:00 PM – and of course I must go too. No fireworks are happening – so we head back home disappointed. Oh well – I did see a poster advertising fireworks on June 24th – so maybe we’re just way way way too early!

Signing Off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

You never run out of Museums in St. Petersburg!


You’d think after seeing the big 2 – we’d be museum’ed out! And true – the big hitters are vast beyond belief. The Hermitage collection would take years to see if you only spent 1 minute checking out each item on display, and the equally vast but less visited Russian Museum is pretty amazing. But the Intrepid Traveler and I stay longer to see more – and St. Petersburg in no exception.

Today we’ve got 3 on the list – St. Issac’s Cathederal, the Rumyantsev Mansion, which contains among it’s state rooms a museum on the defense of Leningrad during World War II, and the Erarta Museum. The last sounds the best to me – but it’s off the easy travelled path, and to get there we’ll have to metro, bus and walk! But being the sports that we are – it’s tally ho!

We arrive at St. Issac’s by foot – and immediately realize that it doesn’t open at 10:00 – it opens at 10:30. Sigh. So it’s line up – realize you are standing in front of a non-opening window – move, line up again. Get cut off by a larger guy intent on being in front of you, wait patiently, eventually get your ticket. Then it’s the mandatory 2nd line-up to enter. All this to see the inside of a church that isn’t even really a church – it’s a museum. Lots of amazing marble work, largest Dome built at it’s time – and some impressive icons. Quick in, Quicker out. We’re on to the Museum on the defense of Leningrad during WWII.

This museum is truly cool. Like almost all the other museums in St. Petersburg – it’s in a former palace that was taken away from it’s owners during the revolution. Some of the rooms have been refurshed (I love the ball room), but most are just painted bare walls used to display the entirely too intriguing exhibts. I didn’t realize how fast the German’s turned on their allies, the Russians. On day one they were friends, on day two – bitter enemies. Apparently Stalin was so amazed that the Germans attacked – he had the first messanger shot.

Such a nice guy, eh? Talk about killing the messenger.

The Germans – fresh off their astounding victories in France, the Netherlands and Belgium, could see no problem. I think Hilter should have read up on Napoleon! He effectively ran into the same problem that Napoleon did. It’s easy going at first – but by 3 or 4 weeks in – the Russians fall back into delaying actions that kill off men, without a clear stopping point. And then the weather takes care of the rest of the attacking army.

German plan? Dash into Russia, defeat the country in 3 to 4 months – Max – and Europe is ours.

It takes the Germans only about 3 months to get to St. Petersburg (Leningrad at that time) – but at the natural city walls (rivers and canals mostly), they run into serious resistance. They can’t conquor the city – so they lay seige and try to bomb and starve it into submission. The problem – the population of St Petersburg (aka Leningrad) just don’t give up. And the Germans keep pounding away.

According to the display – the Russians were able to get some supplies to the city during the very long, very hard first winter by bringing stuff across the frozen water to the West. But thousands and thousands of people straved – there are huge cemetaries built in their honor to the North of the city. Tough Times.

Anyway – it took 4 long years for the seige to resolve itself. And for a good while it wasn’t obvious who was doing it to whom. But having this unresolved thorn kept the Germans occupied, the Russians encouraged to fight on elsewhere, and removed some of the pressure from Great Britian. The Intrepid Traveller – who knows far more history than I, says that the seige was really a turning point – albeit a very slow, long drawn out one. It took the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour to get the Americans involved – had St. Petersburg fallen – there might have been no Europe for the US to save.

The exhibits in the museum are mostly from the point of view of the people of St. Petersburg – air raid shelters, life in a communal flat at the time, that kind of thing. Really facinating. And well documented in English.

I keep thinking – we’d never think to document our museums in Russian – never.

We finish our tour and decide to head to the Erarta Museum. I still haven’t figured out the bus routes in the city – so we decide to walk to the metro stop that links by bus to the museum. That means walking across another of the bridges that link parts of the city. Tied up near the bridge is one of those giant cruise ships – the SeaBourne Queen. It towers – towers – over the city scape. Historic St. Pete’s has a max height of maybe 5 stories – no elevators – remember – so having a 6 to 7 story high cruise ship tied up right at the historic heart – it’s like having a rose in a bouquet of lilies. Can you say – sore thumb?

After admiring, if you can call it that, the cruise ship – and the 3 other cruise ships tied up further down the Neva, we continue walking towards the metro until my nose does one of those hard rights! This time it’s a local little restaurant – with a 199 ruple ($5) lunch special. Cranberry/Strawberry drink, bowl of borsht with sour cream, salad, and a main course of what we’re finding to be the extremely traditional mystery meat roll with rice. Completely yummy.

Refreshed – we continue our hike. Metro located, Bus found, Museum discovered – we explore the Erarta – St. Petersburg’s Museum of Contempory Russian Art.

Nothing in St. Petersburg is small – so it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the Erarta is huge. 5 floors – countless rooms – including 3 floors of ‘special exhibits’, and complete bonus – a 35 piece collection of Vaserily’s. There’s an audio guide (natch) – and it patiently explains a great deal about at least half of the collection. There are 2 ‘media’ rooms – one of which is showing an hysterical cartoon series entiled “The Adventures of the Black Square”. I think it’s available on NetFlicks – and it’s incredibly funny. This family interacts with famous paintings that magically come alive. My favorite has to be “The Scream” – at one point they tape the mouth shut!

Another favorite – a 3-D life sized version of the last supper – covered completely in burlap. The idea – it’s obvious what it is – but then you wonder – is it really them? You are supposed to start considering your reaction to known art. Intriguing.

I also liked the huge metal worm – shades of ‘Dune’ – that occupied about 3/4 of a room. Art my size is always interesting!

We visited the ‘for sale’ area – I see a lovely small sculpture – just $1000. Right, I’ll buy two of those. Anyway – we leave the museum intrigued, but without the sculpture and head back to the city.

Dinner is going to be at the Hostel (Roast Chicken again – this time with Veggies – and another bottle of wine) – and turns out to be a lot of fun. A new group of guests have arrived, 2 women and their 9 year old sons. We swap pictures, share histories, and just enjoy the company.

Everyone Russian that we have met has a back-story that sooner or later they share with us. Generally hard times overcome – they are making the best of things, life is getting better, they finally live on their own, have their own flat, etc. It’s not that they are upbeat – it’s more that they can see that there’s a better future out there – and they want their piece of the pie.

I say – let’s all share – certainly there’s enough pie for everyone to enjoy.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

I have walked in the footsteps of Lenin


I grew up with the Cold War in full force. We feared the Soviet expertise in Space – they had launched a satelite before we did – and that scared and challenged everyone I knew. I had heard of Lenin of course – but growing up in Atlanta didn’t equate to much of a world history orientation.

True fact – I really only knew there was a World History when I hit University. Sad statement on a Southern education circa 1960.

But I digress – I’m here in St. Petersburg – visiting the Museum of Political Life – and walking where Lenin walked in 1917 – 1919. His office was right where I’m currently standing – here in the glorious home of one of the Prima Ballerinas of the time – the Bolsheviks took it over after she fled Russia when the Tsar was arrested. Lenin paced these wooden floors – He opened those balcony windows to address the mobs.

Such is the adventage of travel – that moment when you and history collide.

The museum of Political Life – like most of the museums we’ve visited – is huge. I don’t know how many rooms – but it wraps in and around 3 or 4 different buildings – sometimes I’m walking up or down marble steps, sometimes I think this must have been servants quarters. The exhibits start in 1900 – we’re talking fairly current history here – and focus on the Russian perspective. We start in the latter days of Nickolas II – see his letter of resignation, and stand in the train car that took him and his family into what he hoped would be temporary exile.

The Bolsheviks come to power, the split happens between Lenin and the ‘hard’ liners – Stalin comes to power, things go from bad to really seriously bad. Hitler invades to everyone’s surprise – Stalin had assumed that since he and Hitler shared so much in common – including a love of torturing any one who disagreed with them – that Hitler would leave Russia alone. Wrong.

The war ends with jubilation in the streets of St. Petersburg, but that feeling of new hope, new beginings dies young and the cold water starts. The museum continues thru the Thaw, and ends in 2000 – Yeltsin gives his new year speech announcing his surprise retirement, and Putin takes over.

The exhibits run the gambit from collections of old papers and photographs to multi-media effects – the culmination of which is the side-by-side faces of Yeltsin and Putin on New Years Eve 1999 – one annoucing he is retiring, the other announcing that he is taking over the Presidency of Russia.

I leave the museum not totally sure what hit me – or even how much more I really know about recent Russian History. I do know that in comparison – Canadian History is dull, dull, dull. Thank goodness. I’m reminded of the ancient curse – “May you live in Interesting Times”.

Signing off to consider how little she really knows about history… The Soup Lady

Is there no end to the Hermitage?


Today we are determined to be smarter campers. We will pre-plan our lunch meal at the Hermitage to avoid that horrid excuse for food that the Hermitage cafe has to offer. How do we do this? We visit our favorite pastry shop on Nevsky Prospect – the Stolle. They sell meat pies that remind me of our tortiere – and they are perfect portable food.

So we bulk up on Pies, load up a paper bag (backpacks are not allowed in the Hermitage – but paper bags are definitely ok) and go thru the mandatory – line, cloakroom, 2nd line to enter the Museum proper. Man – do the Russians know about queuing. At the Hermitage – unlike at Catherine II’s Summer Palace, they have realized that there is an advantage to divide and conquer. There’s one very short line for people who ordered their tickets over the internet, a similar short line for people who use the automated ticket booths to buy their tickets, and a much much much longer line for people who want personal service. The omnipresent tour groups have their own lines. Thank goodness for that.

Having learned our lesson about avoiding the crowds – and carefully picking our Hermitage day to be on a day when the museum stays open later at night – we figure we’ll have fewer mob scenes to deal with.

Well – sometimes the magic works – and sometimes you just run….

There are two additional tours on offer – the Gold room and the Diamond room. The English versions are carefully planned so that you can’t do both in one day – so we opt for the Gold Room. IT and I are coming back next week – we’ll do the Diamond room then.

But having a scheduled tour means having a deadline. You must be at this location at this time. Good luck working the rest of your visit around that!

We try hard to see sections we missed yesterday – the Imperial Apartments of Nicolas II and his wife – the last Tsar of Russia – the silver room with it’s wonderful special exhibition on vases for holding crosages during a dance – and most importantly to MP – the Loggia of Raphael. This runs along the entire Eastern wall of the ‘New’ Hermitage building – and we make our way there carefully – twisting and turning thru rooms to avoid the heavily trafficed areas with their fear inspiring mob scenes.

At the entrance to the Loggia is one of those tour group face-offs we’ve been avoiding. We watch in stunned amazement as an Italian Group and a Chinese Group battle it out for picture taking supremecy. An Italian Lady elbows a Chinese guest out of her way, and the Chinese lady retaliates with a drop kick number on her Italian foe – leaping boldly in front of her to kneel dramatically to get her shot.

For a moment – the air is filled with tension as the two groups prepare to defend their members – fortunately the Chinese tour group operator – who has probably seen this numerous times – heads off the encounter (which seriously looks to turn ugly) by announcing to his group that they are to head to the right to see an original Raphael. They ceed the ground – and move on.

IT, MP and I walk to the far end of the Loggia, where no tour groups go – and the atmosphere is quiet, relaxed, and calm. We stay there until both groups have left the next room – we are under no pressure to get that perfect shot – we leave the fighting to the clearly experienced!

We wander thru the Knight’s Hall with it’s collection of armour (not my favorite) – ending up in the Flemish Collection – Dozens of paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Snyder are displayed, each with a detailed entry in the audio guide. Color us happy.

The Gold Room tour is rather interesting – I’m not much a fan of jewelery that isn’t Regency period – or highly modern – if the stuff is more than 1000 years old, it needs to be pretty special to get me excited. There were a few pieces I thought worth admiring in the collection, including a nice ruby and emerald covered keepsake box. But generally if you’ve seen one gold leaf crown – you’ve seen them all.

We end the day in the Great Church – and truthfully – this was probably the highlight of the visit (well – aside from the fight..).

It’s not of course the church itself that is interesting – it’s the guide we bummed into that made our day.

We were trying to decide what was inside a glassed in room, and she offered to explain. Her English was perfect – and we took this opportunity to try to get a better idea about what we’d seen when we’d attended Services on Saturday night.

She explained about the gates opening to the altar and how the lights go on to show the light of G-d going out to the world. She explained that all Orthodox Services are done standing up – even the Tsar’s stood for the entire length of the service. She told us that it was indeed holy oil that was used to paint a cross on people’s foreheads – and then she explained about the kissing of the icons.

We’d noticed that people would bend down to the icons – touch them with their foreheads, then kiss them. She explained that they touch foreheads to the icons to allow the knowledge of G-d into their brains. And they kiss the icons to show love.

So interesting.

It’s well past 7:00 when we exit the Hermitage – knowing full well that we’ve yet to even enter the Staff building with it’s extensive collection of Impressionist art – but we’re done. We need to get organized for dinner – meat pies only take you so far.

Tonight we’re going to eat in – and we stop at the Grocery store to pick up vitials. There I find a Pinot Noir from Moldova, and wonders of wonders – freshly roasted Chicken. A cucumber for veggies – and a selection of Russian cookies for dessert and we’re all set.

Diner at the Suricata is yummy – and very interesting. One of our administrators – a Russian term doing everything that is necessary to the well running of an establishment – joins us for a bit of conversation. One of the reasons we like to stay in Hostels is the opportunity we get to learn a bit more about the country. The conversation covers his life story – where he was born, how he came to St. Petersburg, what jobs he’s held while here. It also touches just a tiny bit on his military experience.

People are – at the end of the day – just people.

Bedtime comes too soon – but off we must go.

Signing off – The Soup Lady – and her travelling buddies – IT and MP

Avoid the crowds at the Hermitage – you won’t be sorry!


Upscale cafeteria with an open kitchen concept. Good Food - Reasonable prices. What's not to love?

Upscale cafeteria with an open kitchen concept. Good Food – Reasonable prices. What’s not to love?

View from the next to top level balcony - dramatic, awe-inspiring, amazing. I loved it.

View from the next to top level balcony – dramatic, awe-inspiring, amazing. I loved it.

The Hermitage – aka the Winter Palace – is arguably the most famous museum in the world. For us – it was the raison d’etre of our trip to St. Petersburg – and seeing it was a huge priority.

It turns out that this is true of almost every single visitor to St. Petersburg – and apparently all of them decided to visit the Hermitage on the same day we did.

I’m not kidding about the crowd. I couldn’t even estimate the number of people that filled the room with the Peacock Clock – but I will tell you that I got scared. Both the IT and I are fairly short – by any standard – but in Russia we are considerably undersized. So in a crowd – it’s easy to lose sight of each other – and where we are going. I quickly lost sight of IT – and barely could spot MP – who is easily a head taller than us both!

We made it across the room and decided – enough is enough. We are NOT going to continue following the crowd – we’ll visit ‘less visited’ sections – and circle back later in the day – audio guide in tow.

Great idea. We headed down – away from the packed in tour groups – and slowly wandered our ways thru rooms filled with Roman and Greek antiquities. Not covered by the audio-guide – these rooms – clearly much less visited – had prepared explanations in most languages – full of interesting details and tons of facts. So neat. There’s a Diamond Room down here – available only by tour-guide, and only for an additional fee. We’re going to do this another day.

The intriguing thing about the Hermitage – in addition to it’s outstanding collections, are the room decorations themselves. This was a sort of Palace for Catherine the Great – she came here to relax, and wanted the art that surrounded her to fit in to the room it was exhibited in. So there’s distinct Egyptian visual themes to the room with Egyptian antiquities, and she even had rooms copied from the Vatican made into walk ways and Galleries to display her German and Dutch works (Rubens was clearly a huge favorite of someone’s!). Glorious. Just Glorious.

By about 2:00 pm the tour groups have seen it, done it, and left. We have the museum more to our own – although hardly empty, and we can now enjoy the sections we missed. Where before we had to peer over 30 heads to admire 1 of the 2 original Leonardo Da Vinci paintings, now we can contemplate them in piece and quiet.

The cafeteria in the Hermitage is described in the guide book as dire – and I must say it lives down to it’s reputation. Memo to us – bring our own food tomorrow.

Finally even we must admit defeat. There is still literally dozens of more rooms (maybe over 200) to see – but our feet aren’t willing to take it any more.

We drag outselves out – and walk to the Fresh Market. This is another of those cafeteria type restaurants – I’ve never seen their like elsewhere – but they are hugely popular with the Russians judging by the number of Russian guests we see. You grab a tray – go to a station and order your meal. When it’s ready – sometimes within seconds – sometimes after a quick cook-off – you head for the cash. Upscale cafeteria with nice cutlery, real plates, and low prices.

We order freshly made noodles with meat – and sit down outside to enjoy both the fresh air – and the view of Nevsky Prospect – the main shopping avenue of St. Petersburg.

Very nice, very reasonable.

Now we must head back to the Theatre – this time we are in the ‘Old’ Mariinsky Theatre with it’s gilt and ornamentation. Like the new theatre, the sightlines are awesome, and while we’re in the upper decks – the stage is visually extremely close.

The Ballet this time is not nearly as ‘classic’ as Sleeping Beauty – Called the Fountains of Bakhahisarai, it’s an interesting story about a Polish girl who is kidnapped by a Tartar the night of her wedding (Polish dancing, Love scene). He kills her entire family (lots of amazing sword fighting, sabor duels, and slashing with pikes), falls in love with her, and carries her off as a captive to his home.

At home – (nice harum dancing to enjoy) – his top Concubine realizes she has been displaced – and manages to kill the interloper (stunning interplay between 2 incredibly talented primo ballerinas – then a great death scene). For this – she is put to death, and the Tartar mourns his lost loves (war dances to cheer him up fail to do the job).

The staging is completely amazing. Real spouting water fountains, dozens and dozens of dancers filling the stage (at one point – we counted over 100), glorious music – very well played, and of course the dancing.

Oh – the dancing. Not only are the soloist beyond reproach (is it possible to lift your leg that high? do that many spins when you are in the air? Leap that far? Carry that high? Fall forward onto your knees from an on-pointe position?) – but the ensembles are even more fun to watch. Even the lowest member of the ensemble would be considered amazing if they were to perform on our stage. No expense is spared on costuming – and from our vantage point the forming and re-forming of stars, loops, lines, etc. is wonderful to watch.

Much applause – lines at the toilets and the cloakroom, then It’s a taxi home again tonight.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and Friends

It wouldn’t be an Adventure if things didn’t go wrong


Our plans for today – a Monday – are fairly simple.

MP has a list of ‘must see’ items – among them the amber room at Catherine II’s Summer Palace in Pushkin. We get another rather late start, those lazy breakfast and sleeping in mornings are going to be the doom of us – and head out by metro/bus to Pushkin.

The directions, as per the Lonely Planet Guide book are simple. The Palace is only open from 12 to 2 for individual visitors – so arrive around 12.

Oh – how I wish I’d done some internet searching BEFORE venturing out to Pushkin.

Going by metro/bus wasn’t the fastest option – it took about an hour to get from our central location to the bus stop nearest the Palace. Part of that time was wasted trying to find the correct bus stop at the metro station. Fortunately, while people may not speak English – they are great with numbers and pointing – so we eventually end up in front of a MacDonalds – getting on the right bus!

We ride, and ride – the country side of the paintings we’d seen in the Russian Museum unrolling in front of our eyes. Pushkin is a town that grew up around the Tsar’s Palace, and it’s really a bedroom community for St. Petersburg. Lots of flats and square concrete buildings dating probably to the Soviet era. Landscaping is pretty pedestrian – clearly not a priority for the flat owners. Too bad too – with a bit of care these buildings might look quite nice. Today they look badly in need of a paint job and some basic concrete repair work.

Helpful souls on the bus push us off when we arrive at our destination. We walk around a corner – and there it is – in all it’s Russian dome glory! The garden that surrounds the palace looks amazing – but it is completely fenced off from us common types. Clearly you must enter from the palace ticket office.

As we walk towards the Palace, along a small creek that has been carefully scluptured with water falls and lava rocks, we notice the begining of bad news. There is a mob of people outside of the gate. Carefully lining up – no barriers, no controls – just huge long long lines.

As we get closer – we realize that there are 3 ticket booths – each with it’s own long line. We join the shortest (but not fastest unfortuantely) and then IT and MP go out hunting for lunch.

I wait patiently in line for their return.

Lunch consists of Russian Fast Food – mystery meat rolls in a yummy bread crust. I do enjoy these things – but I wish I had some Ketscup. They are really the predecessors of our Tourtiere – only hand sized!

Anyway – once MP and IT return, I decide to investigate further. It turns out that Lonely Planet was completely, utterly wrong. Things have drastically changed at Catherine II’s Summer Palace. Today you are given a time slot based on when you arrive at the ticket booth – and the slots range from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. That’s all good – but we have theatre tonight – what times are they giving out now? Given the disorganized queuing process – 3 booths, 3 lines – worst queuing method ever – it’s not a surprise that there’s no sign saying what the next times to be distributed are. In fact – there’s no information – just endless queues. I’m totally reminded of some of the opening scenes in Robin William’s film – “Moscow on the Hudson”.

Finally I can’t take the lack of information any longer, and I go stand next to the exit line at our booth – and try to peer at someone’s ticket. Noticing my interest, they kindly ask if they can help – and I explain I’m trying to see what time slots are being assigned. 5:00 PM is the answer.

Won’t work. It’s 12:30 now – we are definitely not going to hang around the palace – you can’t even visit the garden until your time slot – and then miss ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

So we pack it in – no Amber room for MP today.

According to Lonely Planet – there is another palace, almost as nice, within a short bus ride of Catherine II’s monster. It’s called Pavlovsk – for Paul I. And it sounds really perfect. We walk back to the bus stop – and after several false starts – get on the right bus to Pavlovsk. After a ride quite a bit longer than we’d hope for – the bus actually takes us right to the ticket booth of the Palace. And there is no line. Perfect.

Oops – not so perfect. The palace is closed for Sanitary Cleaning. What? Not announced, not planned, not on the schedule – just – the palace is closed. A private tour guide is standing at the ticket booth giving grief to the poor defenseless ticket agent – who can only sigh, shake her head, and repeat – it’s closed.

Having few options – we decide to make the best of what is rapidly becoming a disaster – and at least visit the park.

The garden is lovely – no two ways about that. And it is huge. I keep thinking what an amazing place to ride horseback – or to wander in a lovely dress and a parasol. We are passed by a bride and groom in a horse drawn carriage – what a lovely day and place to celebrate your wedding. (sigh)

We enjoy the surroundings, then get back on the bus to head back to St. Petersburg. Seriously hungry by the time the bus meanders back to the metro stop, we opt to eat an early dinner/late lunch of rice with a meat sauce. Then it’s onto the metro and we head back downtown.

Thinking we had plenty of time – we get off at one of the downtown stations – and we plan our walk to include another of MP’s must sees – the Bronze Horseman. This iconic statue was made famous in a poem by Pushkin, and is the northern most anchor of a large public park. We wander past St. Issac’s Cathedral, admire the horseman, take photo’s of the Russian’s enjoying the garden around the horseman, admire the river, and than continue our walk towards the Theatre.

We thought that our Ballet began at 7:30 – and are surprised at how quiet the area around the new ‘Mariinsky’ was. Where are all the guests? The staff admitts us – points us to the cloakroom to deposit our back-packs – and then shows us the elevator (wow – an elevator). We get off on the 4th floor – but when we try to enter the theatre – the very pleasant hostess tells us that we can only stand. Surprised – we walk in – to discover that the ballet started at 7:00

Oops. It’s the middle of Act I – the child has been born, and the fairies are doing their dances. We sit on the steps (we couldn’t stand for even 10 minutes to be honest) – and watch in amazement at the spectacule. This is ballet as it should be. Even from the 4th level – we’re so close to the stage I feel like I could reach out and touch the dancers.

The ‘new’ hall is all blonde wood and muted colors – but unlike the concert hall in Montreal which also features a new design – here the acoustics are wonderful, and the dancing sublime.

Time flys by – we get to take our seats for act II, relax during Act III – but most enjoy Act IV. After the evil fairy is defeated – there is the wedding feast – and all the fairy tale characters – from Puss in Boots to Red Riding Hood and her wolf show up to celebrate the marriage. The dancing in this section is no longer the restrained classical style of the first acts – instead the dancers and the audience are caught up in the fun and delight of the fairy tale characters. Oh – such fun.

I haven’t seen much ballet – in fact I can’t remember the last ballet I saw. But it doesn’t take an expert to realize that this is ballet at a vastly surperior level. The ballet corp is both numerous and well trained – at one point we counted over 100 dancers on the stage. There were kids as well – all sorted by height, all dancing with a level of experience that is shocking for us to see. It is as if they have been dancing forever – and I suppose perhaps they have!

Perfectly sculptured legs, dramaticly high leg lifts, and men who leap and soar seemingly weightless fill the stage. We can’t help but be impressed, thrilled, delighted and pleased.

We leave the theatre promising ourselves not to arrive late the next night – and consider walking home. Nope – we’re wiped – Taxi it is. Problem – where do we live. I know where it is of course – but I have no address – certainly not one to give a taxi cab driver who speaks only a spattering of English.

Decision – take us to the Hermitage – we’ll walk from there.

He does – we do – and it’s bed time!

The host at the hostel is thrilled to see us – they didn’t realize we were going to the theatre – and had expected us back much much earlier. But all is well – and we’re wiped.

Signing off – MP, IT, and you know who… The Soup Lady!