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!