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August 2nd 2019
Published: August 2nd 2019
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Day 4 - 6 from 80

St Petersburg is, mostly, a delightful city. So spacious. When they were laying this place out, draining the swamps, building the canals, they made sure to make the streets wide. There are no 'narrow back streets' that we can see in St P. The pavements are generous too. Maybe they needed the space for the enormous hoop bottomed dresses that the women wore, as modelled by many locals touting for 'take a photo with me' business. There are also many 'set back' areas.

However there are far too many buskers and street performers. The musical buskers are a particular menace and affront to the senses. Regrettably we are not talking about Ed Sheeran wannabes, with moderate acoustic instruments. No, we are talking full on heavy rock bands complete with drum kits, guitars and amplifiers, and microphones. Their noise shatters the peaceful enjoyment of the wonderful surroundings. And also, regrettably, they are popular and draw significant crowds which, to put it bluntly, buggers up easy passage around them.

We have been asked how we have found the getting around with the Cyrillic writing.

The Metro has been fine. The signage there is very good, with stations named in both Cyrillic and Roman alphabet. And the line maps are simple too, with 5 colour coded lines. Ticket machines have an 'English' option which you can select.

Everywhere we have eaten, or snacked, have had english translations on their menus, though as usual you sometimes think there is an opening somewhere for someone to go around correcting poor grammar, spelling and translation on tourist city menus.

General non tourist shopping is not straightforward. We have used a number of mini-marts and a couple of supermarkets - there is a largish Spar about 100 yards away. But there is no English whatsoever on the labelling eg we came without any shampoo or body wash, and our cheapo - though very nice - hotel has only provided a pump action hand wash at the basin. We scoured the shelves in the appropriate area for quite some time before establishing which bottle contained what we wanted. And we can't totally trust just the pictures on the outside eg we contemplated soup a couple of nights ago but couldn't find any obvious 'soup' tins. Those cartons that showed tomatoes could have had soup, or sauce, or just peeled tomatoes.

And road signage - don't think we've seen names in English on the streets, though this isn't a problem for us as we use, very detailed, MapsMe as our sat-nav when walking about town.

Tuesday and Wednesday was set aside for two complete days within "The Hermitage".

It was 'founded' in 1764 by Catherine the Great, when she acquired, through purchase, an impressive 237 piece art collection. Though why it was classed as The Hermitage Museum back then we are unsure of as it wasn't opened to the public until 1852. Those starting paintings are still in the collection.

The place is vast. Firstly, If you have seen pictures of The Hermitage what you may probably have seen is The Winter Palace. This is the familiar greeny turquoise building. The Winter Palace is actually just 1 of 5 interconnected buildings along the edge of the River Neva that comprise the Hermitage complex. In addition there are other offshoot buildings. Most noticeably across the square the General Staff Building which, amongst other items, currently contains the Impressionist Paintings collection.

They say:
There are 3 million items in the collection, though half of them are coins, medals and the like. Only about 5% is on display.

There are 1057 rooms, 18800 doors, 167 staircases ... and almost bugger all toilets for the 3 million + visitors it gets each year. Pip didn't find, in the main complex, a queue shorter than about 50 ladies whenever she needed to 'go'.

You would walk 22 kms if you took a route past all the exhibits on display. More significantly if you spent a minute looking at all of them (or is it just a minute at each 'masterpiece' ? The tales vary on this) it would take you 6 continuous years to see them all without any stops for eating, sleeping or those toilet queues we have just mentioned. At least that's what various internet references have said but I doubt they have been updated to take account of the absolute hordes of Chinese visitors that fill every space in the museum

At least, that's what they say. Just who the heck are 'they' though? ?

We started in the General Staff Building. .. the entrance queue was considerably shorter. The first gallery room we went in to had 6 Picasso, 4 Degas, some Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec. The 2nd Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Sisley and Pissarro. The 3rd was just Renoirs. The 4th just Gauguin, and the 5th Cezannes. And so it went on.

We must remember that large swathes of the collection's art up to the early 19teens was probably in private hands until it was 'liberated for the people' by the Russian Revolution in 1917.

We could list and show photos of endless masterpieces.

After about 4 hours in the General Staff Building, where we did, because of its recent refurbishment and pretty continuous flowing route through, all the display rooms, we went across to the main Winter Palace complex. For the remainder of Tuesday we concentrated on those rooms that are classed on the museum map as 'palace interiors', where the focus is as much on the rooms as used by the Romanov family as it is upon the art within them.

The Large Throne room, the centre of Imperial life and work. The scene of court balls, and of royal proclamations. Of grand ceremonies and formal ambassadorial receptions.

The Malachite Room, where on the night of Nov 7th, 1917, the last meeting of the counter-revolutionary Provisional Court took place, then the ministers arrested in the adjacent dining room.

The Palace has within it, its own Cathedral - the Cathedral of the Image of the Saviour Not Made By Hands (!). Tsar Alex 1st granted the church cathedral status in 1807. At the rear of the Cathedral is a private room into which Catherine the Great would slip to partake of coffee between or even during services. She was apparently quite an addict. ...18 cups a day.

We finished the day with a lovely Russian - as in 'Russian as interpreted for visiting tourists by depicting friendly, young, pretty serving wenches in cute flower print dresses that blended in to the chinz fabric and wicker furnishings' - meal. Paul had elk, Pip Baltic Cod.

We returned to the main complex on Wednesday. They have longer opening hours on a Wednesday, 10.30am to 9pm. Gulp. That's a lot of potential walking, looking, .... stairs and rooms.

Again, how could we possibly summarise in a blog all the treasures we saw on Wednesday.

Just as an example, in the last 2 hours we still had a couple of absolute must-see highlights we hadn't seen yet, including, importantly, Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Madonna and Child'. We located its room on the map and set off for it.

On the way, in one close order set of rooms we happened to pass through:-
A room containing 36 Rubens, immediately followed by
A room containing 21 Van Dycks, then
Another containing 25 Rembrandts
And one with a statue by Michelangelo.

Needless to say we didn't 'pass through' them as quickly as we had expected to.

All before we reached the Da Vinci.

By being so thorough though, unlike the whistle stop tourists who go around in guided tours in under 2 hours, we did get to some of the less visited, quieter parts of the museum. At one stage we were looking at some Sumerian - Mesopotamia, around 4000 BC - clay writing tablets, which had been deciphered as student's exercise work and included one tablet which appeared to have been marked and corrected by the teacher.

Within the visit-within-a-visit, to the Diamond Room - special, limited entry, guided tour, extra cost - Pip was particularly taken by a crystal drinking goblet engraved as the property of Anne of Cleeves - Anne Clivens actually engraved on the cup - and an egg sized rose quartz pendant which was a gift from Elizabeth 1st to Sir Francis Drake.

However, despite all its riches, and in addition to the wearying nature of the many kms you have to put in to see as much as possible, the Hermitage management do a good job of making it frequently a disheartening 'experience'.

Firstly there is the notorious queuing and decisions about whether to buy tickets on line, which supposedly get you in quicker by passing the ticket office. They don't. ... we saw the 'voucher' queue. And you pay double for the supposed privilege.

On entry they don't allow ANY food or drink, not even plain water bottles into the museum at all. Don't know about you but the thought of having hours traipsing around a museum without even water available seems to us to be totally unacceptable in this day and age.

Pip has asthma and I have to say that we played on this fact, showing the security supervisor at our first entry, to the General Staff Building, her inhaler and telling him that without water there was a distinct chance they would be calling for an ambulance before her visit was over. Totally over the top of course but it worked. He let us take our water in with us. An additional factor in our insistence was that at the Staff Building its cafe is outside the ticket check barrier and exit and there are signs saying that exiting to the cafe counts as leaving the museum meaning that you have to repay to enter the Staff Building!

When we went across to the main complex that Tuesdaty afternoon our ticket let us sail past the queue and into the building, only to be met by a scene of total chaos and pandemonium. There was absolutely no organisation of the post ticket purchase entry system at all. Just a general melee of rude, pushy visitors, with no concept of what a queue is, all shoving and jostling to get to and through the single security arch and bag scanner that is used for non group visitors.

We couldn't be arsed with trying the asthma/water trick again and risked the remainder of the afternoon without any drink.

But, 3.5 hours with no drink was no joke. By the end of the afternoon, before leaving on the Tuesday, we sought advice from an English speaking information lady. It turned out that the Winter Palace cafes, 2 very close together, are within the ticket barrier area so that was ok-ish.

That in turn gave us a plan therefore for Wednesday. We went in with an empty bottle, stopped by the cafe first thing, had a coffee and bought 2 bottles of water, sat out of sight of the waiters and decanted said water into our own bottle. We just then didn't make a visible thing of drinking as we were walking around.

On Wednesday we also made ourselves 'tourists' and joined the melee as close to the front as we were able.

And, and we don't care what you think about our next comment, the hordes and hordes of Chinese tourists that swarm over major tourist attractions these days are making the experience of traveling so bloody frustrating. They are rude. They are pushy, and we mean that quite literally. They travel in swarms. They mostly look quite uninterested in any in-depth interest in what they are 'seeing' - it is all about elbowing their way to the front, snapping a photo and moving on. Or, even worse, walking along the front of a display case with their phone on video record and expecting everyone to get out of their way so they can get their next video social media upload.

We've stopped moving out of the way.

Those final two hours on Wednesday evening were relative bliss. Most, though not quite all, of the tour groups had gone. We got the Da Vinci 'Madonna and Child ' almost to ourselves.

On Thursday we needed to pace things out a bit more.

First stop was the Peter and Paul Fortress, the island at the edge of the Neva River upon which Tsar Peter the Great first started the construction of St Petersburg, on 1703.

Just before going in, as we arrived before opening time, we took a stroll at its base to have a view across to the river side of the Winter Palace. We were astounded to find a seagull with a live, flapping pigeon in its beak. As we watched it clearly wasn't going to let it escape despite the efforts of some visitors to distract it by pelting stones at it. When we returned 10 minutes later from around the corner the pigeon was well dead. Well, it would be, as by then it was headless.

In the meantime we had assisted in the rescue and disentanglement of two pigeons that were fastened together by fishing line. The couple trying to separate them were getting no where until Pip lent them her travel scissors. We always knew they would come in really useful one day!

The P and P Fortress is now a museum complex, with several buildings given over to different museums. But the jewel within the fortress is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, burial place for the Russian Tsars and family members, from Peter the Great through to the last Tsar, Nicholas II who, along with his family and some staff - doctor, butler, maid, cook - were interred here in 1998, 80 years after their murder in the Russian Revolution.

It was interesting to see that Peter the Great's tomb wasn't exactly in what would be called 'pride of place', just in one corner lined up with some other, identical tombs.

For Nicholas II and family though, they are in a separate room, buried in a single grave - staff at bottom, Tsar at top, family in middle - with a single memorial tomb above. The 1998 funeral was a proper, pomp and circumstance do. Over 50 members of the Romanov family attended - who knew so many still existed - along with Prince Michael of Kent, who is a dead spitting image of the last Tsar (he is related of course), and President Yeltsin.

Attached to the Cathedral is a Ducal burial hall, completed in 1908 as an overspill area for burials of future Tsars. It was, of course, never used for this purpose, though there are some Dukes buried there, including the Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, great-grandson of Alex II, who was interred in 1992 having been recognised by pro-monarchy organisations as head of the Romanovs.

After nearly jumping out of our skins at the firing of the noon cannon, and enjoying half of the exhibition about the history of St Petersburg (the first half being closed for renovation ) we looked around the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison. Built 1873, the pentagonal, 2 storey building housed 69 solitary cells and 2, windowless, punishment cells. Around its walls were display plaques about many prisoners including Lenin's brother, and early pre-revolution revolutionaries. It was the main remand centre for political prisoners before 1917.

A saunter down the St P main street took us to eat at the Singer Building, a gorgeous turn-of-the-last century art nouveau building that used to be the headquarters of the Singer Sewing machine company. It is now a bookshop with a cafe upstairs.

We had a glorious, above street, picture window with a view across to the cathedral. And we had great fun watching a bridal couple, complete with photographer, assistant, dresser, and make up artist doing a photo shoot below us, including each of the couple stepping in turn into a pop-up, stand-up tent so that they could change into different outfits (dress / suit). Maybe that's an idea.... to take such pop-up tent into the back of the mosh pit at Glastonbury for a quick, private toilet break between bands? 😕

Given that the Stroganov Palace was just around the corner it was somewhat appropriate that Paul had beef strogonov to eat.

Across from there we visited the Kazan Cathedral which contains one of the most venerated Icons
Peacock ClockPeacock ClockPeacock Clock

Many moving autonomon parts. English maker
of all Russia. Stretching from it was quite a queue. We estimated that given the 'average' length of time that some were taking to cross themselves, utter whatever words they were uttering, and then kiss the Icon, those at the rear of the queue were looking at a good hour's or more wait. We hope that the sins they were confessing or the favours they were praying for were worth the wait ... and the potential catching of who knows what from all the kissing on the Icon.

We finished the day with a 90 minute boat trip around the canals and across the Neva, with commentary. There are some beautiful properties all around the route, a further indication, if it was needed, of the wealth and opulence of the ruling classes in their days.

Some final observations from these last three days

Paul picked up a coin from the pavement. We now find that it was a 10 kopec coin. There are 100 kopec in a ruble, and 1 ruble is about 1.3p in english.

So Paul bent down for just over 1 tenth of an english pence! ..... for those of you still using pre-pre-decimalisation - hello Rees-Mogg Esq - a farthing!

The Admiralty metro station, 3rd deepest in the world. The main escalator is so very long, and steep, we've had shorter rides at Alton Towers.

On Sunday, 10,000 rubles from an ATM cost us about £125. On Tuesday they cost us over £132. Bloody Brexit and Johnson's no deal.

The mummies in the Egyptian Room at the Hermitage. What did they do with the daddies?

I thank you!

Drops mike, grabs coat and Paul has left the building.


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