Having resembled the Michelin man in my several layers last night, worn to combat the cold in my bones from the open windowed bus tour, I am fully prepared to don every single article of clothing I packed for this little trip in order to stay warm in the biting wind, but mercifully it is a smidge warmer today so the people are spared a 6′ weeble wobbling down Nevsky Prospekt meet our coach to the Peterhof Palace. On the way we drop into the Arctic and Antarctic Museum. Our first plan (you have learned our plans are fluid at all times) was to visit this museum given Two Brains connection to Greenland and abiding interest in Polar Exploration and then visit the Dostoevsky museum – Fyodor D lived much of his life in St Petersburg (both before and after his enforced time in Siberia) and many of his great works are set there. That we both wanted to visit both museums is evidence of the fortunate nature of our relationship – we morph so many interests and often spark an interest one in the other that is unexpected. I digress. The fact is that we were late leaving the hotel after the rigours of breakfast – one of those typical continental buffets where you have to keep one eagle eye on several tables lest you miss the single thing you might like to eat and often find yourself in combat over a croissant with a stranger. I always find it fascinating to watch people rapaciously grabbing vast quantities of food and stashing it in their bags for later. Somehow, I can never quite bring myself to do the same … Unencumbered by snaffled and concealed food but nontheless tardy we only have time to pop into the beautiful 18th Church that houses the Polar Museum. I am so glad we did. The interior is beauteous, the frescos depicting arctic scenes, animals and polar explorers presumably replacing the original religeous paintings. We only have time to swiftly browse the books and gifts and Two Brains buys a book on Greenland in Russian (he speaks none but intends to be able to read it oh so slowly as he learns the language). The sales-lady is delighted and says she will welcome us when we return – ‘I will wait for you’ she says. Dostoevsky will have to wait as well.
A quick snack and a cuppa and we find our coach. The journey out to Peterhof takes 1.5 hours and the place does not disappoint. Sadly we disappoint the guide by opting out of the tour of the Palace on the basis that we want to enjoy the garden with the statuary revealed and the fountains turned on for the first time after their winter sleep. We will return, we know this and tour the interior in winter when the rooms are less crowded. The fact is that we are ill-suited to guided tours – irascible and intolerant of waiting for people who have been asked to be in a particular place at a particular time and aren’t (paying 5000 rubles to stand next to a convenience in a car park marking time for strangers is not my first choice of recreation it has to be said). Besides, it is clear that with a total time allocation of 5 hours for the trip, 3 of which will be spent travelling on the bus an hour touring the rooms and now a quarter of an hour standing by the lavatories, will leave us with next to no time in the vast and beautiful gardens. So there you have it Maverick and Wife part with the party, enjoy the grounds (we covered about 1/5th of the total) and are first back at the bus bang on time. We loved Peterhof, will return and will arrive at opening time, leave at closing time. It is that expansive … I would urge you to do the same should you care to visit.
Back in the city we buy metro passes and find out that the stations here are splendid, the escalators rapid and the trains frequent. We flitter about and take dinner in an Italian (Gogol, a good looking Russian Restaurant having refused us entry – its Saturday night and we haven’t booked) which is charming and relaxed. The food is enormous and I can barely stagger. I am confident that the two large glasses of Montepulciano had nothing whatsoever to do with this. Back at the hotel we collapse, stuffed culturally and culinarily for a short night before the return to Moscow.
And so it is that at 05:00 on Friday morning I am crawling out of my extremely comfortable, warm and cozy bed and exiting my lovely Moscow room with its marvellous views up and down the broad highway that they call a street and blearily getting into a large status-grabbing Mercedes with blacked out windows to head for Leningradsky Station to catch the fast train to St Petersburg. On arrival we enter the great, cavernous hall of the station through security and bag-checks and head through more security to the train. You may have gathered by now that we are not enormously planned, though I like to think that together we are an unassailable team. The point here is that we had not actually looked at our tickets. Don’t panic – this was the right station and the right train but Sergey had booked us and it turns out we are first class all the way.
If I tell you that the Sapsan is pretty luxurious in cattle class you will get the idea. At the teeniest smidge under 6′ we both need a bit of leg room but I could have accomodated a small family in the foot well of my all singing, all dancing, leather seat with the comfiest head support complete with soft, freshly laundered cotton cover on the attached pillow – clearly based on first class air travel, they have the detail point perfect. After investigating the tray and the monitor (both stowed in the seat arms), nearly taking Two Brains thumb-off with the latter and playing with the four-way lumbar support and reclining and straightening several times because I could, I settled to watching the people on the train and on the platform – even at this unholy hour the train was clearly full to bursting. We are sharing our compartment with a reclined Russian man, a pair of frankly rude young women (the type who would click their fingers and shout ‘Garçon’ in France and who are apparently not strong enough to lift their own designer bags onto the rack, favouring ordering at the steward as he walks past). In front of us and late arrivals are a man of perhaps mid-sixties, stone faced, ice eyed, immaculately suited and his mistress. Not the stereotypical young stick-thin slavic model but a comely figured (podgy) middle-aged woman who looks as though she has managed a bar or a brothel. Beautifully and expensively turned out she absolutely knows how to stay number one in his eyes – I have never seen a woman work so hard to make a man feel good about himself and it is fortunate that we are looking at their backs because I am disgracefully Pinocchio and have to forcibly turn my attentions to the menu when it comes around. Russians are serious breakfast eaters and we have three ‘Ration’ choices. We choose Ration 1 which is eggs. We could have had Khasha (buckwheat porridge) or a very scary sounding mixture of hot cottage cheese and cranberries . We have juice, coffee/tea, yoghurt (I love the yoghurt here as much as I love the yoghurt in France which is A-lot), croissant, salad of vegetables and the eggs with a sausage and mini-corn. Afterwards, in case we are under-nourished we are offered cake – I choose Bulochki s Makom – poppy seed strudel – very Russian, very delicious. Replete and exhausted from the rapid eating of the melted cheese and cranberry gloop of the recumbant Russian fellow across the way, the Brain goes to sleep. I watch out of the window – forests, lakes, flat lands, connobations of wooden houses – tiny with little ground, larger towns grey, industrial. This is the real Russia. I am conscious that I tell people all the time that London is not England, Paris is not France – I must remember that I am getting the icing on Russia’s bun by being in the higher muck-a-muck centre of Moscow.
The train is called Sapsan – it means Peregrine Falcon in Russian and this is a swift bird. 650 km in 3 hours and 40 minutes and here we are in St Petersburg. I try not to be demanding but I did demand we visit this place when I knew we were coming to Russia. I know a bit about it having done 18th Century European History to A Level and being rather enraptured by Peter the Ship Building Tsar who never stayed in one place for more than a month in his life and built this city, felling huge forests to make the space to accommodate it, as anyone might having beaten the Swedes in the Great Northern War – well you would, wouldn’t you?!
The first thing to report is that it is cold. There is a bitter wind and I instantly regret my clever decision to leave my huge coat in Edwards room. The coat I brought along specifically for St Petersburg. Hotel found, we walk down Nevsky Prospekt towards the river. I had been prepared for cultural overkill. But there is no way you can be prepared for this place. Literally everywhere you look is a building that would knock you over anywhere in the world. As we proceed down the street (a Prospekt is a big street) which is 4.5 km long (I can’t help imagining what it was like cutting down ALL those trees to make it in 1712) we cross small rivers and canals and begin to appreciate why this is the Venice of the North.
The bitter wind is cutting us in two and we hastily cash in the tokens we bought at the hotel for a tour out to Peterhof the following day and head for cover and food. The fact that we have already had the mighty Sapsan breakfast and a piece of cake in a Kofe Haus (Russian chain of coffee houses) is neither here nor there. I am blinking starving and so, fortunately is Two Brains. Picking out a Georgian Restaurant on a side-street only marked by its menu in a glass case and the name over the small door we are in like flynn. Upstairs and this is what I had been looking for. The delightful waiter shows us to our table. We peruse the menu and here comes the food – a plate of herbs … parsley, coriander, chervil, tarragon spring onion and fat shiney green chilli laid out on the plate as though they have been freshly plucked – not chopped just clean and ready to eat. Bread (I forego the Cheese Khachapuri feeling that Two Brains was valiant enough last night, and go instead for the naked version which is the same but cheese-less) not a pizza base but the authentic that which looks like a matadors hat puddy, doughy and delicious. We order Khinkali, the Georgian dumplings ours stuffed with pork meat, spinach and coriander and just divine. Afterwards we have a kebab (yes, honestly!) which is the lightest chicken minced, subtley spiced and served with raw onions and thinnest laska bread – as in our Armenian favourite restaurant it looks like a lace curtain and Chahobili, a stew of chicken and vegetables which I will hunt down like a demon possessed until I find the recipe to make it. Roasted vegetables complete the ensemble and the herbs are munched as palate cleansers throughout. I can now emphatically say that Georgian wine is not to our taste which is not to say it is bad just that it is not our preference. But this was the Georgian meal I had been searching for since reading Nigella Lawsons description of her own in my well-worn copy of ‘Feast’.
The bus tour followed and we saw all the sights in 1.5 hours which makes us American tourists …. if its Friday it must be St Petersburg. This is a city of such abundant sites that in a tiny window it was the only way. I fired off 150 photos and froze with the window open (it had snowed throughout lunch but stopped as we left the restaurant which was super-polite). Cultural gluttony? Absolutely. This is an architectural showstopper of a city and I would urge you to come and take a look for yourselves. Seeing is believing they say and this is beyond belief. Between us we have travelled to over 50 countries, 75% of those are Two Brains not me and he was lost for words. I rest my case.
Having had our wonderful lunch we were not too fussed about supper. We stayed tight to the hotel – walking about 15 minutes. Trying to find a place we had looked up. It is clearly no more – mothers guide book is 10 years old so no surprise. So instead we went into a little restaurant between the hotel and the metro and we found heaven. I introduced Two Brains to Manti which I used to make for the children when they were small … billed as Russian, I believe they are actually Mongolian – like the lightest, and quite large (three to a portion) ravioli, stuffed with lamb and subtely spiced with cumin and parsley. He is smitten. Hurrah! We will make them together – after all one of the most intimate experiences is to make food together and share it with or without friends. The wine (a rioja) was stunning. Just a glass but when something is so good you don’t need to drown in it even though you might want to. We were in the non-smoking room and this is a smoking city so we were on our own. That too was delightful. Intimate. I loved the decor – slightly Cath Kidson with a floral wallpaper on one wall – grey blue with ruddy and pink wild roses scattered, behind me a dresser which featured a shabby chic large lettered declaration of my farourite word – L.O.V.E … very like a home rather than a restaurant. I also loved that the TV screen played out ‘Funny Face’ throughout our meal. I can think of nothing more appropriate than Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart silently playing out that lovely Billy Wilder tale. The waitress was delicious. Did she know that she was perfect on the eye – tall, slender, blonde … apparantly not. She was a girl who I would have been proud to call my daughter. So charming, not the greatest English (why should she … this is Russia) but disarmingly willing to try and understand our lame attempts at Russian. As we walked back to the hotel, we agreed that our friends summing up of St Petersburg as shabby (away of course from the old centre) is entirely unfair. This is a young country. Very very old, but a mere strippling, barely adult – 23 years old this year. Give her a chance – building by building they are getting there but when every single building in the city (and this a one helluva big city) is something to sing about – it will take time (and the devils own purse) to get there.
The title is from Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground ‘St Petersburg – the most abstract and intentional city on the globe’