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.

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

Welcome to Russia! Welcome to St. Petersburg!

Our first morning in St. Petes – and it’s lovely – cool and crisp – but clear. Our hostel – The Suricata – is located in the back of a courtyard and we feel far removed from the hustle of the city. It turns out that this is a typical construction design for buildings near the city center. There is a gateway off the road – that leads under one side of the building into a center courtyard. Then all the rest of the building faces this courtyard. Even the flats that have windows facing the street have their entrance doors off the courtyard!

The yard doubles as a children’s play ground and a car park for the apartments, flats and condos that fill the buildings. Each section has it’s own entrance off the courtyard – generally there are only 2 flats to a floor – and the max height appears to be 4 stories – that limit related to the distinct lack of elevators!

Our hostel is located on the 2nd floor – one flight up from the ground. This is the primo level because on the ground level are generally stores and shops – and as you go higher – you have more stairs to climb.

But back to elevators – We noticed it first in the metro – but as we’ve visited places around the city – it’s become even more obvious. There are very few elevators in St. Petersburg – even in the museums. Handicap friendly – Nope.

Anyway – the door to the stairwell that leads to our hostel is directly across from the gate – so we are quite far from any traffic noises. There are windows on only one side of the flat – because there is another building that abuts ours – but it is entered from the street behind us. In buildings like the Hermitage or Winter Palace – the same building design is repeated – just on a grander scale. And of course – there’s no building backing up on a palace – so they have windows on 2 sides in many rooms. One side overlooks the street (or the river in the case of one entire side of the Winter Palace) – the other side of the room overlooks that omnipresent courtyard.

The owner of the Suricata is on hand to greet us – he wants to be sure that our dates will work out – and I guess he’d like to be paid. But since he insists on cash – this is a very cash oriented society – he’s going to have to wait. We need to find an ATM.

Unlike the Cat’s Pajamas – there is no option to buy breakfast at the hostel. They do provide (for free) Tea, Instant Coffee, and some basic cooking supplies like oil, salt and sugar. One day they even offered us Oranges. But generally this is a fend for yourself food situation – so we will have to find a local grocery store – and soon. For today – we make do with breakfast from the local food shop – and head out to the Hermitage.

Following the advice on the internet – we bought 2 day tickets on line – and we want to see what the fine print has to say about what we can and can’t do. We are easy walking distance from the Winter Palace – so we amble over and check things out.

Even being pre-warned about the crowds doesn’t do the mob scene at the Hermitage justice. It’s pretty unbelievable. But there are people who speak English, although it takes us visits to several different desks to find them. Certainly buying tickets ahead was brilliant – that makes things a lot easier.

Some important notes about tickets bought ahead. They are for 2 consecutive days. No options. So you do want to be sure to pick your first day carefully. We decide to wait till Tuesday to start our Hermitage tour – that will give us Tuesday and Wednesday – Wednesday being the day the Hermitage stays open late. Since today is Saturday – we leave the crowds behind – and head out to walk the city.

Suffering from a severe lack of breakfast – we go back to that wonderful pastry shop and check out their lunch options. I have the Russian version of dumplings, IT had Stronganof, and MP enjoyed a Borcht. All 3 – delicious. For dessert we had, of course, more of their yummy pie. I had a Latte. Then MP had a latte. Then we both had another. Poor IT – she only drinks tea.

Next job – find a larger grocery store – and we do. It’s quite close to our hostel – prices are reasonable – they even offer meal options to go – roast chicken and various sausages. And a fairly decent wine selection with about 20 different Russian wines. There is also a huge selection of different Vodkas. We’re in Russia after all!

We decide to brave the metro again – it should be easier without suitcases – and travel to Dostoevsky’s Flat. On the way we visit a cathedral, a local food market (It’s going to be bread, cheese, sausage, cucumbers, tomatos, strawberres, and wine for dinner tonight), and of course get just a bit lost. I think getting lost is going to happen a lot. The good news – there are always people around to point you in the right direction – even if they don’t speak a word of English!

Dostoevsky’s Flat is really interesting only to fans of Russian Literature – but it does rather forceably remind one of how lucky we in North America to live in our fancy homes. Despite his fame, and probably because of his gambling problem, Dostoevsky’s flat is remarkably small and simply furnished. Interesting stuff. There’s an audio-tour in English, and across the hall from the flat is a collection of images of places mentioned in his books.

After our visit – and of course a mandatory break for tea and Russian pastries – We then move on to what turns out to be the highlight of the day – Russian Orthodox Services at the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Savior.

We arrive shortly before services begin. The bells are ringing – summoning the faithful to church – and the lights of the Cathedral are on – making the mosaics and gilded twirls and whirls of the decorations glow. Icons are strategically located around the nave – covered with silver and gold beaten panels to enhance their beauty. The faithful – mostly women – are all standing around quietly, waiting for services to begin. All women have their heads covered – all men are bare headed. And there are no chairs and no pews. Not for the congregation, not for the priests.

Fortunately – this Cathedral is quite large, very famous – and is aware that it draws faithful from other lands. Thus it does provide a small rack of those small folding chairs that you sometimes see in Museums. We get one each – I don’t think even MP – the youngest of us – can stand for the entire 2 hour service – and surely neither I nor the Intrepid Traveller is up for that!

The altar in a Russian Orthodox Church is ‘hidden’ behind a Iconostasis – an elaborate carved dividing screen that holds at least one if not more icons. There is a gateway in the Iconostasis that can be opened to show the altar to the congregation. When the gateway is opened – the lights above the Iconostasis are turned on to show that G-d’s light shines on the world. And this is how the service starts.

The lights above the Iconostasis are turned on – and the female choir in the choir loft behind our heads begins to sing. The altar doors open to reveal one priest with two helpers praying at the altar – his back to us. He begins to sing – and swings an incense burner.

Eventually he is joined by 18 other priests and helpers – who take turns swinging the incense burners (there are 2), singing in the most magnificent voices imaginable, and marching around the church in loops so that everyone can see them and so that they can bless all the icons on display.

At certain points during the service, Church lay people roll out carpets for the priests to stand on while they read the bible and do the sacraments in the center of the church – right in the middle of the congregation.

Throughout this entire time – a total of 2 hours – the congregants remain standing. At the end of the service – as if on some mystical cue – the congregants move to one side of the church and line up for blessing. One by one the main priest paints the cross on their forehead with holy oil, and they kiss a cross on his sleeve. Since there are at least 500 particpants – this takes a while. Next to the main priest stands an altar boy holding a bowl full of pieces of bread. Each person takes one after they are blessed.

About 1/3 of the congregation now moves to the other side of the church, and lines up again – this time for confession. It’s done in the open – although many times the priest puts a cloth over the head of the person confessing to give them both privacy.

Amazing experience. The singing of the priests and the choir are outstanding – the emotional commitment wonderful to behold. I’m privileged to have been permitted to take part.

We walk home slowly – past the Church of Spilled Blood – glorious in the glow of a late setting sun at just after 9:00 PM. Days start early and end late in St. Petersburg during the White Nights.

What a wonderful way to be welcomed to Russia.

Signing off – MR, The Intrepid Traveler, and of course – The Soup Lady.