In July I traveled to Russia for a week, largely because the Russian visa I acquired two plus years ago was still valid (it’s still a mystery to me why a three-year, multiple entry visa cost the same as a two-week, single-entry one), and I was keen to see St. Petersburg (especially in it’s summertime glory), which I didn’t visit last time. Most splendidly, a new friend from choir, originally from St. Petersburg, generously offered to show me around while she was on summer holiday back home — and, my friend in Moscow was also keen for another visit!
Now, I was a bit unsure that all the travel arrangements would come off as smoothly as they looked on paper. After all, the “multiple entry” label on my visa was in Cyrillic, which meant going in faith. And, I was a little nervous about the overnight train to St. Petersburg — when I bought my train ticket online, the website asked for a photo ID number but wouldn’t accept my U.S. passport. (Hmm.) My Austrian visa was in the middle of the renewal process, so that didn’t work; so I ended up giving the very unofficial-seeming number of my Vienna public transport card. Would the Russians find fault?
All my logistical worries proved groundless. Arriving in Moscow, I more or less sailed through customs, took my time sorting out the directions I’d been given for getting to the train station, and enjoyed the warm summer evening in between train and subway connections. To my great delight, the rather cheap seat I’d booked on the train to St. Petersburg turned out to be an upper bunk on the upper deck of a sleeper car, which was a lot more comfortable than I’d been expecting, complete with pleasant cabin-mates.
Arriving the next morning in St. Petersburg, my first impression of the city was the number of Chinese tourists exiting the train station. (Politically correct and historically informed statements aside, throughout the city it felt as if the ancient invading Golden Horde had transformed itself into the peaceable and art-enthusiast horde of Chinese sight-seers.) Thankfully, I soon found my way to the subway station where my friend Anna met me. We started the day together with a leisurely breakfast at home before embarking on a very full day of walking.
Thanks to my excellent tour guide, I learned that the capital was moved from Moscow by Peter the Great (1672-1725), who was eager to establish a “window to the west” and who was enamored by Western European art and culture. (Apparently, he forced his nobles to shave their beards and smoke cigarettes. Noblewomen were expected to adopt the dress of their western counterparts, despite the uncomfortably low necklines.)
A large fortress area, built by Peter the Great, was our first stop for the day. Later, we tried out the popular cuisine of the Caucasus, sat on the sandy beach of the river, and took a boat tour. The city was in the middle of preparing for a yearly naval parade, so their were plenty of boats and ships on the river.
We visited the beautiful “Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood” (built as a memorial for the assassinated Czar Alexander II). I also spent a while exploring the State Russian Museum. Late in the evening, we enjoyed the long walk home — it’s a late-night culture (at least in summer), and the buildings and bridges are beautifully lit along the wave-tossed Neva.
On Friday we started with good conversation over another leisurely breakfast, and then around noon we took a bus to Petershof, a former royal residence sporting opulent fountains, fantastical statuary, extensive gardens, and a view out to the Gulf of Finland. We took a boat back, taking in views of the approaching city. The harbor cranes looked to me like the ungainly skeletons of robotic dinosaurs.The evening attraction was being out late enough to see the draw bridges on the Neva open for the nightly shipping traffic — around 1:30 a.m. Of course, one must be sure to be on the correct side of the said bridges, since the subway doesn’t run all night! What was just about as intriguing to me as the views of the city by night was the fact that at 1:15 there was still a discernible deep, deep blue in the western sky, above a cloud bank on the horizon (see photo below!) — and when we went to bed at 3:00 a.m., it was most definitely getting light! (In case you are as geographically challenged as I am, St. Petersburg lies a bit north of Stockholm, Sweden, or about on the same line as where the Canadian provinces meet the territories.)On Saturday I checked off the main item on my St. Petersburg wish list, a visit to the Hermitage, former royal residence/government complex and now home to one of the great art museums of the world, rivaling even the Louvre for size and opulence. Funny side note: Wondering how the museum got its name? Apparently, one of the queens particularly liked a certain room, which — besides boasting small indoor fountains, a picturesque stair to a small gallery on an upper floor, a decorative peacock in a large class case, and an exit to a garden courtyard — could also accommodate all the necessities of a private dinner without the bother of servants present. Hence, the queen’s “hermitage.” Here’s a glimpse:The building, even minus the art hanging on the walls, offers ample reason to visit. The decadent apartments for this and that royal figure — one room almost completely overlaid with gold, another showcasing immense jade urns, a third fitted with mirrors even on the ceiling to give the sense of greater space — were definitely over-the-top. Many of the rooms had beautifully painted ceilings, which were easy to overlook, what with everything else to look at. Although I enjoyed some truly ancient Siberian art and lots of galleries that I can’t remember anymore, I aimed, as is my wont in any art museum, for Dutch art and spent quite a while observing the Rembrandt painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s not actually my favorite Rembrandt, but partly because of how it features in Henry Nouwen’s book of the same title, I wanted to see it. I found myself wondering what the tour group guides were saying about the piece, whether any glimmer of the story sifted through to the hearts of passersby, or afresh to my own.Museum sickness (what we called it growing up when you are sated on art and your feet feel like they might fall off) having set it, I called it a day and retired to my own “hermitage,” the company of a book, at a nearby cafe.
A quiet evening at home, including watching impressive YouTube videos of Anna’s uncle, a professional accordionist, playing Bach and Strauss, brought the days in St. Petersburg to a close. The next morning I took the fast train back to Moscow.
Sunday afternoon I arrived in sunny, warm Moscow and realized I could squeeze in a museum visit and lunch near the Kremlin before heading to Alexandra’s. In the process, I managed to get caught in a torrential downpour — maybe I should have paid more attention to those dark clouds! Finding my way later to my friend’s place was surprisingly easy. I was tempted to pat myself on the back, pleased with how much simpler it seemed to navigate the subway lines than when I was there two years ago. However, I eventually discovered that the difference was not due to my matured navigational skills, but to the fact that since May the stops have been announced in English as well as in Russian….
(Side note: The Moscow and St. Petersburg subways are works of art. The Moscow subway opened first in 1935, and the Art Deco/Art Nouveau era origins are well-preserved. Today the system is a sprawling network, but basically every station I saw was not just functional, but also artistic.)
It was a good reunion with Alexandra, whom I originally met when we were teaching at the same school outside of Vienna several years ago. She’s one of the more vivacious people I know, able somehow to combine walking in the door from two weeks out of town with making company feel at home and sauteing chanterelle mushrooms for supper.
Monday morning I woke up to the smell of pancakes. Man, that could send me back to childhood Saturday mornings — sleeping in, whole-wheat apple pancakes frying (if you can use such a word for the healthy, substantial — and delectable — variety Mom made), maybe a bit of Bugs Bunny, and even what we called “gum day” (Saturday being the one day of the week Hannah and I were allowed to chew gum).
In the afternoon we visited a reconstructed wooden palace and sprawling park, and oohed and ahhed our way through a vegetable market morphed into a hip place to grab lunch. In the evening Alexandra had to teach a dance lesson, so I went along to entertain myself in the nearby park. My oh my, it was quite a cool experience. Forget any stereotype of somber Russians and cold, bleak city streets. Enter summer. A long pedestrian bridge over the Moscow river, young people perched atop the upper arc of the bridge’s suspension. Down below, on the river bank, people dancing — salsa, waltz, Irish jig, practicing cheer-leading moves. Up the bank, a steady stream of people walking, cycling, and generally enjoying the summer vibe. I enjoyed people-watching and made some more progress on the book I’d brought along. (Side note: The Hunchback of Notre Dame — I didn’t feel quite up for a more appropriate Russian novel — ends horribly!!! I don’t think I ever saw the Disney or musical version, but there’s no way they could have ended like the book! French 19th century literature, with Gothic overtones, meets the pessimism of Thomas Hardy.)
Tuesday I took a walking tour of part of Moscow, and in the afternoon Alexandra and I visited another garden. Back home, we ate the lemon cake I’d baked in the morning and took a walk to an overview of the city lit up at night.
Wednesday morning I flew back to Vienna, having enjoyed good times with friends, seen many beautiful places, managed to eat beet root and herring salad at least three times, and been reminded that cities are intriguing and exhausting! As good as the trip was, I felt so happy to get home to Vienna, and have the customs agent at the airport greet me with the customary “Grüß Gott!”