Thursday, June 24, 2010

Long Nights Call for Long Beers


More from Russia!

We’ve finally jumped into our sight-seeing after a long recovery from the grueling overnight bus ride. It’s lucky for us that we’re traveling with our Czech friends Vojta and Zuzka. They are much more familiar with the culture here in Eastern Europe and Vojta speaks enough Russian to survive. I can’t really begin to list all of the minor differences that make this place so strange. It would be hard to explain without sounding xenophobic or culturally elitist. It’s just unfamiliar, and the inability to communicate whatsoever is a new sensation.

Yesterday, we got off to a pretty late start, relatively speaking. The “white nights” here are really perfect for John and me because we like to stay up late and sleep in. That lifestyle works out well here. To explain, right now it’s 11:30pm and still daylight. Very cool. Later this evening we might go out and watch the opening of the bridges. Here in St. Petersburg, there is a network of canals, and at certain times of night, they draw them up to allow large boats to pass through. It’s supposed to be pretty cool. And we can drink beer while watching it! Hooray!

Back to the sights. We started off yesterday with a visit to the Kazan Cathedral, an impressive church whose architecture represents the fusion of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a combination that Tsar Paul, commissioner of the church, saw as a sort of “super-Christianity.” The interior is dark, cavernous, and decorated in the Baroque style – lots of colorful, veined marble, gold, and elaborate carvings. The mood inside this place of worship was very somber. Through the center of the church, people formed a long line, waiting to kneel before and pray to an icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Most of the women wore head coverings, and each of the faithful appeared deep in thought, choosing his or her prayer carefully. You would know a Russian icon if you saw one – paintings, usually of Mary and Baby Jesus, composed in a Pre-Renaissance style, without a sense of spatial perspective, often inlaid with gold and rich pigments. In Russian Christian traditions, touching, kissing, and praying to these icons is an important ritual. We purchased a small replica of an icon, a little shiny Jesus, at the church gift shop. This visit was very interesting because of the architecture and mood of the cathedral, and also because we were able to see the church-goers in action.

When we exited the cathedral, the rain had begun. It rained. And rained. And rained. And then it got cold. Then colder. Then colder still. It was the worst weather we’ve had so far. We had the brilliant idea to visit St. Petersburg’s main museum, Hermitage, to get out of the rain. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We arrived at Hermitage, a magnificent palace painted mint green and white, situated in a huge open square. There was a very long line. We guessed it would take up maybe 45 minutes to get in. It rained the whole time we waited, and when we finally reached the gate, we found that yet another line formed inside, twice as long as the one we had already waited in! This was when the really bad rain started. I think Zuzka almost died of hypothermia. Our friends aren’t really art fanatics, so I started to feel pretty bad that they were enduring all the shittiness just so John and I could up our Caravaggio count by one (There were also other things we wanted to see…). Eventually, they got fed up, and left us there. After two hours of waiting in the cold and rain, we finally made it in. Then we had to wait in another line for tickets!

Pardon my language, but there is only one word for this whole situation – clusterfuck. It was the most inefficient thing I’ve ever seen. We were also pretty upset because by the time we got in, the museum was only going to be open for another hour and a half. We tore that place up! We collided with small children, elbowed through tour groups, and took the stairs two at a time. This was the most crowded museum I have ever been to. Around every corner lurked a guided tour, blocking the view of important, famous works that we needed to check off our list. We got extremely frustrated and started standing in front of the groups, pretending not to notice them. John got scolded by a saucy Italian lady leading a group of Asians. “Excuse me, sir! Can’t you see there’s an excursion here!” she said. “Yes,” John said, then continued looking at the tiny da Vinci painting that was about as interesting as a dog turd, in retrospect. “Do you understand?!” she said. “It’s an excursion!!” John finally caved, and stepped out of the way. It was infuriating, trying to look at paintings when groups of twenty-five to thirty people were crowded around every single one. The most upsetting part about this museum is that you can pay extra if you want to take pictures, otherwise you are forbidden. Included in the price for photography is permission to use a flash. Fragile paintings, like those by da Vinci, can become ruined over time when exposed to flash photography. I guess whoever is in charge of the Hermitage doesn’t really care. I’ve never been to another museum housing such treasures that permits flash photography. It was shocking.

Anyway, bitching aside, Hermitage is indeed one of the most important museums in all the world. The depository itself, in this case, is just as beautiful as the art work. The former palace boasts astounding, elaborate architecture and some of the most beautiful interiors that I’ve ever seen. I wish we could have had more time there. Nevertheless, we saw our Caravaggio, along with some unique works by Rembrandt and Rubens. The modern-contemporary galleries were also fantastic. We saw a whole roomful of Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, which are some of my favorites. There were also a handful of works from Matisse’s Orientalist period – very interesting. The modern German section was displaced by works on loan from the Picasso museum in Paris, a real bummer. I was looking forward to those paintings, and I’ve seen enough Picasso to last me several lifetimes. All in all, Hermitage was a hectic, but satisfying experience.

After the museum, we reconvened with our friends for some authentic Russian food. We dined in a small restaurant decorated to look like the inside of a cottage – dim lighting, rustic wood tables, knickknacks and scenes from fairy tales painted on the walls. We had borscht, a traditional Russian beef and cabbage soup, another sour pork soup, the name of which escapes me, and also some hearty dumplings filled with potato and mushroom or pork and beef. We had been freezing all day, so this meal was unbelievably comforting, and certainly more delicious than most of the overpriced fare we had in France. Oh, and there was beer. More Baltika 7.

Today, finally, we had beautiful weather. It was sunny and pleasant all day, perfect for walking around the city. The sun is brighter, for lack of a better word, here, and today ir was encircled by a rainbow all afternoon. It was so beautiful. We started our day with a walk to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This is one of those sweet, quintessentially Russian churches that looks like stacked cupcakes. You’re probably familiar with St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This one is very similar, and completely dazzling. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside, but the exterior was completely breathtaking. Nearby, we visited a souvenir market where we picked up some gifts for family and friends.

After the church, we walked to St. Petersburg’s point of origin, Zayachy Island or The Fortress of St. Peter and Paul. This island is the site where Peter the Great first founded the city, after seizing the area from Sweden. There are multiple buildings on this island, most of which were closed today because it was Wednesday, whatever that means. We were able to visit the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, notable because it is the burial site for several famous Russian leaders such as Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and the last family of tsars, the Romonovs, who were murdered in 1918. The circumstances surrounding their execution are sad and interesting. It was several decades before their remains were actually located, and the bones were only moved to the Cathedral, despite some contention from the church, in 1998. The inside of this cathedral is also typically Baroque, however, there are floor-to-ceiling windows that let in enormous shafts of light, illuminating the whole space. This church is characterized by lightness, where many other churches of this same style are weighty and imposing. It is a truly lovely space.

We left the island and took a walk down to the river. We got in some incredible people watching down there due to the astounding number of weddings and proms taking place this evening. Since all of us are newlyweds, it was fun to watch the other couples having their photos taken near the water. One Russian wedding tradition that we observed involved drinking a glass of Champagne, then breaking the glasses together. This left a precarious mess for the young prom-goers to tread over. The dresses on the young girls were pretty interesting, and everyone was wearing pantyhose, even with open-toed shoes. Zuzka informed me that this is customary among Eastern European women. She and I had more fun that we should have, making comments on all the fashion statements. It was a great way to spend the evening. Oh, and we were drinking beer, again.

After the people-watching fest, we took dinner at a really great Georgian restaurant. The cuisine is a fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking – lots of skewered meats, spicy stews, and a homemade bread called levash. I had a cold, summer dish of poached salmon in cilantro and garlic puree, along with a Greek style salad with the creamiest, most flavorful feta cheese I have ever had. John had pork skewers, potatoes, and chicken soup. We also had some Georgian wine (a lot like Pinot Noir)…and more beer! Could you guess? Now we’re back at the hostel, chatting with our Ukrainian roommates, two very nice girls who plan to become teachers of English. This makes it easy for us! We’re having a great time and we hope for more sunshine ahead, despite the fact that I got a little fried today. (My sunscreen got confiscated at the London airport. It was my fault. We haven’t found any more yet. It’s so expensive!) We might visit a place outside the city tomorrow, if the weather holds out. We miss all of you and hope things are well. Much love!


  1. Kate, once again I wish I were a stowaway on your trip. Your posts provide me a great deal of pleasure everytime I read them. I do have one concern however. Do you think they will have enough beer on the continent to keep you and John afloat thru the long summer? LOL Thank you for providing such an interesting narrative of your adventures. Be safe. I know you are having the time of your life. Wish John a belated brithday for me. One question, just when do you have time to read?

    PS - John just can't seem to stay out of trouble can he? Next time tell him to just throw up his hands, put a bewildered look on his face, and act like he has no concept of what pushy tour guides and trying to tell him.

    Love Aunt Karen

  2. Trust me, Aunt Karen, they have plenty of beer! They treat it the same way we would a Coke. You can drink it anywhere. It's quite glorious.