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.

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

The Magnificent Russian State Art Museum is definitely not to be missed!

Lonely Planet suggests seeing the Russian Museum on the afternoon of Day 4 in St. Petersburg – after you’ve spent the morning at Catherine’s Place in Pushkin.

Are they NUTS?

This huge monster of a drop dead fabulous art museum should never be squeezed into a space on Day 4. It’s right up there with every other top museum I’ve ever seen – glorious art, and amazingly beautiful rooms that in fact once functioned as rooms. And it is huge. The collection is so massive – that there are at least 4 other Palaces used to display bits and pieces, and probably a collection twice the size of what is on view put away in storage.

To say that we found it fascinating would be an understatement. And unlike the Hermitage (aka Winter Palace) – it’s not mobbed. In fact, it’s actually a bit hard to find the entrance. It’s an understated wooden door – quite near the Church of the Spilled Blood. So it was obvious to combine the two on the same day.

We left the hostel after a light breakfast, and walked the short distance to the Church of the Spilled Blood. This church is famous for being built over the exact spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, for having over 7000 sq. meters of mosiacs, and for going 1 million ruples (a huge sum at the time) over budget. And it is well worth the visit.

We opted for the audio tour – which not only described the assassination in great detail, it also drew our attention to many of the intricacies of the mosaics that we would have otherwise missed.

Upon existing the church – we were quite literally at the door step of the Russian Museum – our next stop. Inside the museum and directly across from the entrance was a rather lovely cafe where we enjoyed a quick lunch before we braved the intricacies of Russian Art.

Wow – who knew that Russian Art was so amazing. I particularly loved the art from 1900 onwards – as Russia went thru it’s revolutions, wars, and hid behind the iron curtain, its artists were producing amazingly beautiful pieces of art – and who knew? The art from Russia that I saw as a child was what the then Russian government wanted me to see – but it was hardly representative of what was actually happening. Cubism and Surealism had found their way East – and quite the impression they made too.

But there was more – so much more! In addition to wonderful art, there are the rooms of the justifiably impressive Mikhailovsky Palace. We ran short of time – We had originally thought to do an English language boat tour tonight – that’s going to have to wait – but we also have reservations for a Geogian Restaurant – and that’s going to have to happen!
We quick march back to the entrance to the Russian Museum, gather our back-packs – and head out on our way to dinner. We walk past the front of the Palace – ya know, I think that might be the main entrance… – past the Mikhailosky Theatre (we’ll be back) – and to our restaurant of choice – the Aragvi. We’d ventured in the day before to check it out – tiny, cozy, priced ok – and it looked yummy.

We were welcomed graciously – and seated at a lovely table with a view over the canal. Based on my husband’s experience in Russia – I ordered a jug of Geogian Wine – and the very knowledgeable waiter proceeded to explain the menu to us. He recommended two starter dishes – a ‘fried’ chicken in a prune and spice sauce, and a dish described as dough stuffed with cheese.

Not sure about the portion sizes, we opted to have the wine and these 2 starters – and decide on the rest of dinner later.

Great plan! The 2nd dish was a huge huge pizza shaped dough stuffed with delicious cheese. By the time we’d drunk the wine and eaten the 2 starters – we were full! Stuffed even. So we opted to skip the main course and go to dessert. We shared one dessert among the 3 of us – a sampler of Georgian dry pastries that was also excellent.

Rolling out around 10:30 – meals take time in Russia apparently – we walk back home.

Nice dinner, nice day – great company. I’m begining to really like St. Petes.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and her travel buds – MP and IT

Ah plans – such great plans we had for St. Pete’s

When I was doing my research on St. Petes – the best hostel for our purposes seemed to be the MIR. It is extremely well located – 2 minutes to a metro station, 4 minutes to the Hermitage – and it offered private rooms. I carefully took 2 rooms – one for the Intrepid Traveler and I to share, and one for MP and her suitcase. And they were extremely helpful and efficient at getting us the papers needed for our Visas.

In Russia – in order to get a visa – which is required before you leave home – you must know where you will be staying, and of course you must have your tickets to leave. No problems if you are using a travel agency based in Russia – but if you are an independant traveler like MP, IT and myself – well – not that easy. So while in Canada, I had relied on the wonderfully efficient folks at MIR to get me the necessary paper work – and do it again when we realized I’d given them the wrong names.

So – we arrive at the airport and must admire the size of MP’s suitcase – it literally dwarfs both IT and my tiny carry ons (MP is travelling for 10 days, we’re travelling for 4 weeks – go figure). To get to St. Pete’s – you have several choices – Taxi for around 900 ruples and bus/metro for 68 ruples. We choose bus/metro! What we don’t know is that MP’s suitcase needs it’s own ticket. One for her – one for the suitcase – on the bus, and on the metro too! Hence the nickname!

We quickly realize that there is a HUGE difference between the metro’s in Berlin and those in St. Petes. In Berlin, every station has an elevator – plus escalators. And they are all well signed and easy to find. Not so in St. Pete’s. Ignoring the issue on Cyrillic – which since it’s their language, one expects them to use it – the Russian Metros just don’t have elevators. We did find some escalators in the biggest and deepest stations, but certainly not everywhere – and often they are connected by stairs.

Since both the Intrepid Traveller and I have issues lifting our suitcases – tiny as they are – and MP is dragging Mrs. P, well the lack of elevators is going to be a problem.

Only it turns out – it’s not!

MP tells IT to just wait at the bottom of the staircases until she carries Mrs. P up the steps – she’ll come back for her suitcase. But before she can get back down – and often even before she gets to the top – a young Russian gentleman has noticed IT’s issue – and has grabbed her bag and is carrying it up – or down the steps. Over and Over again! We’re impressed. Is it her white hair? IT says she thinks it’s her bewildered expression!

In any case – we navigate the Metro – figure out fairly quickly how to recognize the first few letters in Cyrillic for each station name – and get where we are going – the front door of the MIR hostel.

As advertised – it’s perfectly located – right on Nevsky Blvd.

Unadvertised – it’s also up 5 flights of stairs – with no elevator.

Ensuite bathrooms or not – this won’t work. The Intrepid Traveller and I stayed in a 5 floor walk-up in Sicily – it almost killed us. And we’re older now. We can’t stay here.

MP and I walk up and up and up, go thru security to enter the hostel (video ID required) – and I throw myself literally on the feet of the hosts. Fortunately the hosts speak excellent English – and they take pity on us. They will both cancel our reservation (no refund on the deposit however) – and find us somewhere else to stay. They call around while I search the internet. It’s a challenge. We can’t find any where that has space, 2 rooms, and ensuite bathrooms – and under 3 flights of stairs. It’s impossible in the hostel world of St. Petes.

Finally – the MIR folks find one that can give us the 2 rooms – but we will be sharing the bathrooms. And the reviews aren’t great – noisy, and small and not well located. But at least it’s a bed for the night. MP and I drag our suitcases and our tired bodies back down the 5 flights – and together the 3 of us head back towards the Metro.

My nose suddenly does a sharp left turn. What is that delightful smell? It’s a Pastry shop – and what a wonderful pastry shop it is too! Traditional Russian Pies – some with meat, salmon, onion and egg – and some with Strawberry, Cherry, Cranberry, and Apple. And coffee. Good coffee.

No lunch – little breakfast – and 5 flights up and down have me feeling completely drained – it’s time to stop. So we do. And it’s delicous. And the lovely young waitress speaks excellent English. Sigh – things are looking up in St. Petes.

The name of this haven – Stolle – and afterwards I look it up in Tripadvisor – it’s #88 of 8,034 restaurants in St. Pete’s. Pretty good nose, eh?

While MP and the Intrepid Traveller relax over their tea and crumpets – I search the net for another option – and I find one – the Suricata Hostel

It’s about 7 minutes walking from where we are – only one flight of stairs to navigate – the half-a-dozen reviews are all positive – and at this point. I’m ready to try anything that doesn’t have a description that includes noisy. But how to make sure they have room? And we have reservations elsewhere. It’s back up the 5 flights of stairs to the only people I know in St. Pete’s that a) speak English and b) have a phone that isn’t calling Canada first.

The folks at Mir come thru again – they reach the owner of the Suricata – and we’re booked into a 4 bed dorm – holding all 4 beds for just the 3 of us. Yes we’ll have to use a shared bathroom – but there’s only one short flight of stairs – and the reviews are good.

We’re off.

The Suricata is a brand new hostel – I think we are the 2nd guests – and everything still has it’s IKEA labels attached. We are the only guests – so it’s really a fairly large apartment for 3. The bathrooms aren’t en-suite – we have to walk past the extremely friendly security and front desk and consierge all rolled into one very pleasant young Russian man – to get to the bathroom or the showers – but the beds are nice, the room has a huge window, and there’s a washer! The kitchen is tiny by hostel standards – and if they ever get the dorm rooms (there’s one with 8 beds and another with 10) filled – there won’t be enough room or toilets for everyone – but for us – for now – it’s perfect.

We’re home.

For dinner we wander the streets, eventually finding what turns out to be the most standard of designs for ‘low-cost’ eating in St. Petes – a cafeteria. But it’s a nicer cafeteria – with friendly helpful ‘chef’s’ behind stations – and prices clearly posted. I have a chicken dish, The Intrepid Traveller feasts on a version of a sauage roll and MP enjoys veggies and chicken dish as well. We’ll actually probably coming back – the combination of easy to understand what you’ll be eating – even if the seasoning – while delicous – is surprising at times, and the low cost is hopelessly appealing!

Bed time for bunny rabbits – tomorrow will be a busy day

The Soup Lady and her traveling companions – the Intrepid Traveler and Mr. Piatgorsky signing off.

The Basics on Getting Out and About – Pre-Planning matters!

How do you start planning a trip? Do you decide when, pick a place – and then find out what’s going on there? Or do you do the reverse – decide what you want to do – find out when it’s happening – and then move foward?

I take a combo approach.

First step – Pick some place interesting to visit. That’s the most random part for me – because basically anywhere I’ve never been – and sometimes places I have been – are on the hot list. Budget matters too of course – we’re very restricted – $3000 for 4 to 5 weeks of travel – including air fare – doesn’t leave a lot of room for places to sleep and food to eat. So Cheap places tend to perk up to the top of our list – seriously expensive to visit places – like London – tend to perk down. But there are other concerns besides value for our Canadian bucks.

We love interesting places – historical places – places off the more beaten paths. While that may explain China in 2007 and Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in 2005 – it doesn’t explain Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Brussels in 2015. Nope – this next trip is not off the beaten path – but it will deviate from the norm in terms of how long we’ll be staying in each city.

Unlike most of the folks I’ve chatted with – we’re spending 2 whole weeks in St. Petersburg. Our inital thought was to have enough time to do the Hermitage slowly – 4 days felt right to us based on our inital reading. This contrasts with the more normal visit of 1/2 day if you are off a cruise ship – or even 3 days as is described in many guide books – including Honestly – how can you possibly see anything in 3 days in a city as complex as St. Petersburg? On tripadvisor – the 3 day plan puts the Hermitage, the Faberge Museum, and the State Russian Museum – all in one day. Are you supposed to run thru the museums? Just find the greatest hits and go?

Not my style.

Berlin was a must do for the Intrepid Traveller – she’s never been – and historically it’s a really interesting place. Great museums too – so win win as far as we’re concerned. A week there is the minimum. But then – for us – a week in a city is pretty much a minimum regardless of the city!

And last but not least – Brussels. We’re cutting that one short – just 5 nights – but the Battle of Waterloo looms large – and I hear the trumpets calling me to battle! (More on Waterloo and fighting for the Emperor in another blog).

So on to inital planning.

Once The Intrepid Traveller and I had agreed on where – it was a question of when. I first check weather, and then check for when a place gets crowded. I want to avoid the worst weather, and I definitely want to avoid high season. Shoulder seasons work best for budget travellers – restaurants have better specials, theatre offerings are more geered towards locals, lower cost housing is easier to find.

High season is definitely to be avoided!

So – St. Petersburg in late spring sounded perfect. And we totally lucked out with that option – because low and behold – there’s the ‘White Night’ Festival. We here in Montreal know all about ‘Blanc Nuit’ – but for us – it’s held during our coldest month – an attempt to cheer us up during the doldrums of winter. In St. Petersburg – it’s about 24 hour long days! And even better – it’s all about theatre – the major ballet troops (at the Marlinsky and Mikhallovsky Theatres) are performing one outstanding ballet after another. By shopping early – I scored center seats in the 3rd tier – I could have paid a lot more and been on the partiere – but hey $20 to see ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – I’m so on it!

Even better – the opera troops are also performing almost nightly – for similar prices if you are willing to buy early and sit in the 3rd tier. Tickets to Aida and La Travaita – here I come.

So – take advantage of what’s happening when you are there – don’t berate yourself for not being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – plan ahead.

Planning to Feed the Mind. The Intrepid traveler and I adore going to Museums. 42 museums in 5 weeks in Italy is probably our record – spurred on by free museum week in Florence. So before a trip – I research. What is happening in all the major muesums. How do I get tickets? Are there senior prices? Are they closed on specific days – are they super busy on other days? Knowing this information helps prevents standing forelornly in front of locked doors. And more importantly – when you hit the ground in your city of choice – read the signs, get the newspapers – even the touristy ones, and chat up your host. What happening this week that’s special? How do we get to see it? You never know until you look around and ask.

For St. Petersburg – I’ve already bought my passes to the Hermitage – and for Berlin, I’m pricing out the Berlin Museum Card. The options can be overwhelming – which feels frustrating – but the results are generally worth it.

Some more ‘beaten path’ options I tend to avoid include tour buses. I’ve had great experiences on tour buses – the trip in South Korea to the temples springs to mind – but more often than not – bus tours are about the common denominator. You rush past stuff so fast, you can barely read the signs, let alone see things. And too often your fellow tourists are – well – tourists! So generally we avoid the bus tours – considering them expensive and too fast paced. Instead we opt for the slower, more patient route of simply walking a city – or riding public transit! Never underestimate the joys of public transit. Bus routes in most cities are clearly explained in pictorial fashion, so our lack of language skills doesn’t kill us. And they are cheap. You can spot stuff that looks fun – and hop off if you feel like a visit. With no time contraints – and no herding into pricy lousy restaurants for mandatory rest stops.

Ok – enough for this blog – Next up – feeding the Body – so do follow me – I love followers! Signing off to create a blog on eating in strange and wonderful places… The Soup Lady

Planning to feed the body

Ah restaurants! One of the intense joys, and most frightening aspects of extended travel in an unknown city is deciding where to eat. I’ve picked winners so good I was blown away – and losers so bad, I feared for my digestive system. But along my culinary journey into the unknown – I have learned some important lessons – which I happily share.