Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Helsinki to St Petersburg

In which a visit is made to a very posh prison and a boat engine catches fire.
And starring Anastasia and an extremely fat American

From Helsinki I got a hellishly expensive 5hr train along the coast to St Petersburg.

I LOVE St Petersburg (didn’t manage to find that on a badge or hat though).  It is utterly beautiful and has more bridges than even I could want (347!)­.  Each uniquely designed and named for their decorative elements which include (non-comprehensive list): griffins, 

birds, lions, horses (being held down by naked men) and all manner of lattice work.  

There is a red bridge, a blue bridge and a green bridge (formally yellow bridge).  

At night a series of 13 bridges over the Neva River are raised on a strictly adhered to schedule for about 3 hours at a time to let river traffic through (and entertain the tourists who flock to the river banks and bob about in boats to watch it all happen). Once the bridges are up there is no way to get to out of the city without taking an extremely circuitous route – the equivalent of getting to Dulwich via Twickenham from central London.  

This was one of the first thing the tour group I joined here did so we were all very much ‘getting to know’ each other which meant I had to contain to my excitement at bridges going up to normal levels.  They go up in sequence so we watched one and then set off down river to catch the second. Half way there, smoke started billowing from the engine compartment and our guide, unphased in the middle of a history of the city, announced (while the skipper opened a hatch and poured a bucket of water into the hold) that “now is the time for putting water on the engine”. The water, alas did nothing to extinguish the smoke and in fact worsened it as the boat now filled up with steam as well before grinding entirely to a halt.  We bobbed gradually downstream all glancing apprehensively at the fairly distant shore until another boat turned up and we walked a gangplank from one to the other across the freezing cold Neva River. 

Everything in St Petersberg is on a grand scale – the buildings are enormous, ornate, towering. The streets are wide, the river is deep and fast flowing.  You will never feel as diminutive as you do in the churches of St Petersburg where the standard height of the first floor is around ten meters – this makes for rather breathtaking climbing to the cupolas for views across the city from St Isaacs Cathedral or out in the suburbs, from Smolny Cathedral. The main square Dvortsovaya Plaza in front of the Hermitage Museum takes at least 10 minutes to cross.  The old horse stables are the size of Kensington Palace.  And there is a cat fish the size of an actual cat in a tank at the Floral Exhibition Hall. Even the main shopping arcade – Gostiny Dvor covers about six blocks. 

To add to my list of odd medical museums I went to see the Ethnographic Museum which is a generally fascinating collection but also has a whole floor of deformed babies and fetuses in formaldehyde that were collected by Nicholas I in attempt to address superstition around birth deformities – including a cyclops! Incredibly gruesome *** grins ***.

St Peter and St Paul fortress, set on its own island, has a recently rennovated prison which looked frankly, quite comfy. Some cells had nice stripey wallpaper that wouldn’t have looked out of place in House and Garden magazine.  The cathedral in the fortress (horrifically crowded by boat loads of Spaniards following their flag wielding leaders) contains the tombs of all of Russia’s Tsars including the recently recovered remains of Nicholas II and his family (the last tsar).

The Hermitage was also a treat – though quite an exhausting way to spend the day. It’s extremely crowded and you really have to work out what you’d like to see or risk spending the entire day there.   The building almost outdoes the paintings with its extraordinary galleries, staircases and Royal chambers all perfectly preserved.  The slightly gaudy decadence of it all – gold everywhere, garish colours – is somehow beautiful in a way it just wouldn’t be anywhere else.  Also, rather randomly, stumbled upon a wonderful exhibition of Annie Liebowitz photographs. 

Highlight of the week was going to see Swan Lake at one of the Mussorgsky-Mikhailovsky theatre (Marinsky unfortunately closed in August).  My seat was in a little ‘cabin’ shared with Anastasia and Zoe (earnest 18 year olds) who were both extremely knowledgeable about ballet and felt the performance to be lacking in almost every respect (including choice of outfit colours clashing with the sets).  

Having recently seen Black Swan I felt pretty well informed myself – particularly about everything going on back stage.  Anastasia was also very critical of people who displayed their ignorance of Russian Ballet attendance etiquette which includes not taking pictures during the performance, not leaning forward onto the railing not drinking champagne in your ‘cabin’ or being a “rich, fat American”.  

The man sitting next to me in the neighbouring compartment was one such fat American.  He was so large that he couldn’t fit into a normal chair and so had been seated there by the usher with a sign placed in front of him which I will translate here as “Nil by mouth”.  His wife was a few cabins down and so at both intervals he hefted himself into a standing position and hollered down to her to meet him in the hall.  Then he would stagger off and reappear as the bells announced the next act. 

I conceded that Anastasia had a point.  She gave me her phone number so that if I’m ever back in St Petersburg I can get discounted Marinsky tickets through her which I think was a way of saying I passed the etiquette test.


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