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St. Petersburg, Day 1

Church on the Spilled BloodAn incredibly busy day. We were supposed to have a lecture from 9-10 this morning but due to the fact that the lecturer didn’t arrive until after 11 the night before, we were “spared”.  So, around 10 A.M., we climbed on to a bus and headed for The Hermitage Museum.  The Hermitage (properly pronounced French-fashion: “AIR-me-TAzhe”) is actually composed of the Winter Palace, which Catherine the Great thought was too big, so she built The Hermitage adjacent to it, mostly to house her growing collection of paintings. The collection outgrew The Hermitage and so was built The New Hermitage.  Today the museum encompasses all three buildings.  It rivals The Louvre and London’s National Gallery for art and definitely—as regards size—The Louvre, although much easier to get around.

At 9:45 A.M. it was still dark, and the sun wasn’t expected to rise until around 11 A.M.; it was colder as well, though no snow drifted down from the dark skies.  We slipped and slid across the frozen expanse of the square, watching with fascination as courageous workers sweept snow from the terrifying heights of The Winter Palace roof.  With only 4 hours to see the museum, we pretty much galloped from exhibit to exhibit. One of the many interesting things about The Winter Palace is that it burnt to the ground in 1837 but all of the precious art was rescued and piled in the vast square, all recovered after the fire save for one of Catherine the Great’s gold snuffboxes, which was recovered once the snow melted. It was promptly rebuilt.

We were somewhat startled to encounter most of the children at the museum dressed in costume, from Neptune to Winnie the Pooh, with a fair sprinkling of Russian fairy tale characters.  When we asked, it was explained to us that as today is Russian New Year’s Eve, it is a tradition that the children dress in costume (reminding me a bit of our Hallowe’en).

Once our flying tour ended, we were given some free time, with the option to ride the bus back to the hotel or walk.  Due to looking for a book on the astonishing Scythian Hoard exhibit (which I never found), I missed the bus.

So I walked gingerly across the frozen, snow-covered plaza towards the St. Isaac dome, across from which is our hotel. Our guide warned us that Russian traffic would not stop for pedestrians, so to stick to crosswalks.  It was a clear, burningly crisp walk and I inhaled the keen air with satisfaction after the overheated confines of The Hermitage.

With a bit over 30 minutes between arriving back at the hotel and the tour of St. Isaac’s, I popped into the restaurant for a bit of lunch.  I knew we had a major dinner after the evening’s symphony concert so didn’t want to order a large meal.  As she seated me, the hostess asked me if it was cold outside. I replied that I wasn’t a very good judge since I came from California and where I lived didn’t have that kind of cold.  She asked the temperature in California when I left but neither of us knew how to convert C to F, so out came my iPhone.  13C.  Her eyes widened.  “But that is warm! Where I come from it becomes -30!” Glad I don’t live there.

After the cold walk, soup sounded good, so I ordered borscht.  Somehow I’d forgotten that borscht involves beets, which I rather detest, so when the meal arrived I winced internally and reached for the spoon.  It was amazing.  Halfway through the bowl the hostess stopped by and seemed horrified that I had not added sour cream from the side plate.  So I added the sour cream and it was still amazing.

St. Isaac’s was originally a church, became a museum during the Soviet era and is now more museum than church, although services are now held at one end: in Old Russian, our guide said, which no one really understands any longer.  Another interesting tidbit was that the Soviets took down the silver dove that graced across the interior of the dome and installed a pendulum, which responded to the movements of the earth and which they used as proof that God did not exist.

The bus met us at the St. Isaac exit (another interesting experience, since it costs money to get into the building but the devout locals have figured out that if they wait where the tourists depart they can sneak in that way … which made getting out more than a bit congested).  Those of us who wanted to take a quick historic downtown tour (“quick” being around an hour) joined those who had not wanted to go to St. Isaac’s.

We passed more show-covered squares and statues until suddenly a fantastic object appeared on the skyline; the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. Another iconic St. Petersburg sight (see photo).  I have to confess that the first time I saw that name I thought there must be a typo (Church of our Savior OF the Spilled Blood, perhaps?), but the reason it was given that name is it was built on the spot where Alexander III was assassinated.  With 10 minutes for a photo-op most of us leapt out and began snapping away.

The trouble started on the way back to the hotel.  Apparently that particular street caters to very high-end products, such as Louis Vuitton, Dior, Cartier and so forth.  The people who shop there think nothing of double-parking and popping in to take care of a handbag emergency, thus blocking the street to any other traffic (especially our bus).  The girl driving the first car got in a heated argument with our driver over his right to be angry about her parking (at least she had her hazard lights on).  Ten feet down the street was another car, parked and frozen and … yes … just as much a block, only with no driver.  We were stuck, and we had to be back at the hotel so as to leave by 6 P.M. for a symphony concert.  Drivers behind us got out of their cars and swore and yelled and eventually began kicking the car, perhaps hoping it would set off the alarm.  Two cars blocked in by that double-parked car and our bus finally resorted to driving down the sidewalk (fortunately it was fairly wide and the pedestrians didn’t seem to mind).  At last most of us decided to embark on the 15-minute walk back to the hotel.

We found out later that the girl who had parked her car there came out to find a crowd of incandescently furious people, jumped into the car and tore away with some of the outraged drivers in pursuit.

I’m sure the symphony was wonderful.  But the building was too warm and most of us slept through most of the performance.  What I heard during those awake moments was stupendous.

StPetersburgDessertAfter the concert we walked across to the Grand Hotel for a welcome dinner beginning with vodka tasting and caviar.  I’m not a vodka fan but might change my mind; we sampled three kinds of vodka (small glasses, no one need panic, please), a sort of hors d’oeuvres plate of caviar, and then for the main course a beautifully prepared filet. The dessert was a sort of chocolate mousse cake with raspberries and a tiny white chocolate snowflake perched on another raspberry (see photo). I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many photos of a dessert in my life.

This was the first time I’d been able to truly meet some of the participants.  The gentleman next to me once practiced law but hated it so usually travels with his elderly mother, while the couple across from me were just delightful and on second marriages; she a Chinese woman accepted to Julliard (which she turned down because her parents didn’t want her to be homeless so she became an engineer), her husband also a lawyer.  Maybe it was the vodka, but we had a grand time.

And on that note, it’s after 1 A.M. here and I have a lecture to attend at 9 (never mind that I need to accomplish breakfast first), so it’s good night from St Petersburg.

More tomorrow.  Oh, wait, it IS tomorrow.

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