I do appreciate that my interpretations of the photo challenges set by The Daily Press may appear a little random to the casual observer but I can assure you that I do have a process. I clock the word, in this case ‘afloat’ and then I scour my photographs for something that strikes a chord within me. It’s a bit like when I was at primary school. We had the most inspirational music teacher, Mrs Russell who pursuaded the Headmaster, Mr Caldicott, that we should do music every single day. So we did. And we had an orchestra and a choir of course but we had so much more – Miss Gardner-Brown led the pop group in which we sang Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel songs, 59th Bridge Street Song being a favourite on account of being allowed to click our fingers; I played double bass in the orchestra and we had a subgroup of 2 violins, 2 cellos a viola and me and a recorder group with the impossibly beautiful Sarah Chant trilling on her sopranino. We went to Eisteddfods and won prizes and we went to other schools to demonstrate what music could be in a school. We played in the Church of St James The Less down the road (I always wondered about St James the More) and they used my Bass to stop the traffic as we crocodiled giggling and higgle-piggling through the lychgate. And sometimes I was given chime bars to play and I loved it when the sound of the chime rang true and sweet and gave vital chime-ness to the piece that we were playing. So simple – strike it when asked and it resonates perfectly. In principle, that is my process – find it, strike it and hey presto, bongo we have lift-off. In principle.
Voila! Here is a picture that, for me, evokes the algaefied tree island in TheLife of Pi or Asteroid B-612 when the baobob trees have invaded it and forced The Little Prince to leave his beloved home planet. It is afloat in a lake in the park that surrounds Tsaritsyno Palace one of many summer palaces built on the periphery of Moscow for the uber rich of their day, these days superceded by equally super-rich oligarchs who strut and swagger and swamp the city with petrol fumes from their hefty cars steadily choking their planet in no less a profound way than the baobob trees have ruined the asteroid and made the Little Prince’s Rose ill or the algae has made the tree island an acidic flesh eating hell whilst appearing to be a tranquil haven to Pi or any other cast upon its shores.
PS: There is the odd day when I wish I was on Asteroid B-612 or afloat with Richard Parker in a vast ocean. Just the odd day you understand. An odd one here and an odd one there. I try not to let them join up too much for Donne is right – I’m no island.
When asked to produce something that says ‘symmetry’ I instantly struggle because, like Michael York who once remarked that his fortune was made when he broke his nose as an adolescent, his face otherwise having been too perfect to be handsome, I rather shy away from the precision implied by symmetry. But the Fountain of Eve (she’s standing calmly at it’s centre looking a little manly to be frank) in the Peterhof Palace Gardens in St Petersburg, has a glorious symmetry to it and the light catching the slender sprays of water makes me think of a glistening crown for Neptune. And the quote? Mr Darcy contemplating Elizabeth Bennett whom he has mentally picked to pieces and found in her every fault imaginable is forced to admit to self that despite the lack of symmetry to her form she is pretty damn gorgeous. I rest my case.
The full sentence in the title is ‘And why is it, thought Lara, that my fate is to see everything and take it so much to heart?’ Pasternak’s Lara, of course in Dr Zhivago. My father first saw David Lean’s masterpiece film of the book that he had read some time before, in a tiny cinema in Andermatt (Swiss Alps) in February 1966. He reported that his nose and his toes were cold throughout. He was wearing gloves and a bobble hat. I was only 5 at the time so I didn’t see it until much later in the comfort of our drawing room and was I captivated. The book I read soon after. The story set the bar for the Russia that I wanted to find. The politics, the literature, the love, the soul. I waited what, had I been told I must, at the age I was then, would have seemed an impossible time to visit for the first time (for I am quite determined to go again and see far, far more of this vast and extraordinary place) and she didn’t disappoint. Not even slightly. I loved the people, as I knew I would. I love their relationship to art and dance and literature and science and intellect. It is quite captivating. Their frankness, their ability to feel to the depths of their soul and not be ashamed of feeling so. To be able to laugh and cry willingly. It is quite beautiful and at odds with the image of the stony faced, ice-eyed KGB torturer of cliché. We went and we scratched the surface and we returned home a little changed. As you always should be when you have seen something and taken it to heart.
Here are my best bits – each one a character in the little story of my stay:
And some of me enjoying my favourite bits:
PS: At lunch in the summer with local friends back home, we were assaulted with a barrage of the most appalling and misinformed propaganda gleaned from stories on the internet. Drivel it all was but the venom with which it was thrown at us left us breathless with rage. Politics is politics the world over and the globe is an increasingly small place but to tar a population with a filthy brush based on no more that what you have read is quite quite wrong. In any language.
You may remember that we spent some time in Moscow and St Petersburg earlier this year and this is the penultimate part of the story. Part 12a because I just can’t rid myself of silly supersticions and I am wholly triskaidekaphobic (that’s afraid of 13s before you look it up). Part 14 will follow hot on its heels and then my first Russian odyssey will be neatly parcelled off. The tardy nature of this last but one is not entirely due to inefficiency or laziness. I felt that my timing needed to be a teeny bit diplomatic since, as will be revealed, some might have felt it inflammatory had I posted it earlier. They may still but I can’t help that.
You might also remember that we were in Moscow for the May Day celebrations and that I noted these are not in any way a show of military force as they had been under the old guard but rather a celebration of the worker and an opportunity for demonstrators to demonstrate about whatever they feel they need to demonstrate in Red Square. However, May 9th (Victory Day) is another matter and we were priviliged to watch several rehearsals for the Military Parade as it processed past our hotel in readiness for what, as it transpired, eclipsed the parades of recent years.
That Mr Putin used the opportunity to demonstrate his country’s strength and to leave the world in no doubt of how strong she is was not a small surprise given the caning he and Russia were, at that moment, taking on the world stage. A stage full of those who will always throw a rock when facing a glass house. Those who will invade and interfere at the drop of their own hat but who flew into a frenzy of screeching disapproval when The Bear roared. It seemed to me that many had not even looked at the facts nor examined the history books. The invasion and annexing of Crimea was inevitable. It should have been included in Russia when the USSR was broken up but had been parcelled into Ukraine in 1954 because Mr Khrushchev was Ukrainian. That Ukraine has been a sorry and angry mess for 20 years is surely an unmissable fact. I try to be Apolitical on this blog but surely reason dictates that what Russia did was not more nor less than her Cold War foe the United States of America has done on a regular basis whilst The Bear slept. And why on earth does it have to naturally extrapolate that this means that Russia is set to take over the world? Really? Nonsense. I believe it is blather and nonsense.
So we watched the immense cavalcade of tanks and armoured vehicles rehearse the route that went past our hotel more than once. No one stopped us from taking pictures. The police were happy for us to stand and watch and many did – both citizens and visitors stopped to enjoy the free floor show.
On our last morning we went shopping for souvenirs. It was a challenging journey because Red Square and its surrounds were entirely closed off and Police guarded every attempt to exit the Metro within hundreds of yards. It was May 9th. After a convoluted agility test in Metro hopping we managed to find Old Arbat the street which Sergey (he of the Dukely perfect English) had recommended. It should be noted that the day before we had gone to Izmailovsky Market where you will find the best bargains but sadly May is too early in the year and the market was no-where to be seen … we strolled in a ghost park where the mothballed fairground was just being unwrapped and not even the kiosk was open for business … the birds and squirrels, eager for a treat were disappointed. Sergey had also recommended a particular shop so we walked past all other possibilities (and this is the Piccadilly Circus of Moscow in that it is tourist nick-nack central) and headed purposefully into the shop of the name he had carefully written on a piece of paper the night before at dinner. It quickly became apparent that Sergey has never in his life set foot inside a souvenir shop in his city, let alone this two floored monstrosity. In fairness that is hardly surprising – I don’t frequent the aforementioned purveyors of Beefeaters, Union Jacks and Royal Family memorabilia in London and wouldn’t know which were good, which bad and which horrid. As we stepped through the door we were cast back in time to the communist regime and confronted with a shop assistant (all on her own in this monolyth of a store) who had not caught up with Glasnost in any way or blinked at all in the sunlight of the new-born glossy Moscow that now surrounded her throwback-to-the-fifties-in-no-way-that-was-good shop. No matter how cheerily we smiled her face didn’t flicker, her unblinking ice-cool exterior never once waivered with even a passing nod to warmth. We beat a hasty retreat clutching a tiny bag of overpriced trinkets – naturally, being English, we were far to polite to just say good day and walk out. As we walked back up the street passing another and another and another shop we decided to brave the last one and, baiting our collective breath for another freezing were greeted with two funny charming smiling young girls who made far more money than Iron Icicle Babushka from our visit. Our purchases included a hat of fox-furred deliciousness which, I am shallow enough to admit, made my trip complete. We strolled back to the Metro in bright warm sunshine, me insistent on wearing the hat and doing a little light modelling for the camera en route.
Back at Pushkinskaya we hurried past the underground boutiques (there are scores of them – tiny little shops selling everything from dumplings to diva handbags) eager to grab brunch at our beloved Paul one last time. A freezing wind bit us as we ascended the stairs and as we alighted on Tverskaya we were blown back by a blizzard.
In 15 minutes Moscow had gone from summer to winter – it was like walking out of the wardrobe into Narnia except that there was no forest, no strange mythical creatures but rather tanks and armoured vehicles splendidly processing through the snow. It was a fitting end to a fabulous stay. Russia came in from the cold just over two decades ago. The world put her back there in the Spring. I say look in the mirror, Baby – you might not feel comfortable with the reflection.
PS: There is an old joke from The Second World War that Russian tanks have only one gear – forward and that they are fuelled by vodka – I have no idea if this is true but can state with authority that they work in all weathers ….
If you walk everywhere in Moscow, however sunny the day or take a bus (trolley or otherwise) or a taxi all the time you are missing what in some ways is her biggest treat. It’s not her oldest and its certainly not her most expensive (on your pocket) but come to Moscow and miss out on the Metro and in my view you have missed the heart of the city. When we arrived we took the metro from Bellarusskaya to Tverskaya (though the stunningly beautiful Mayakovskaya is actually closer to our hotel it turns out) and I was literally stopped in my tracks. Despite leaving home at 05:00, despite the normal wear and tear of a 4 hour flight, despite being overwhelmed by trying to dredge the grey cells for some grain of the Russian I had learned all those years ago in school, the Russian I had read I instantly woke up and, I am sure, gawped like a simpleton at that first station. Talking to Sergey we quickly understood that this was not unique. In fact there are multiple stunning stations in Moscow. A little history research revealed that work commenced in 1934 on the first line (Red of course) followed by Dark Blue, Dark Green and Brown (the circle or ring line as it is ubiquetously known). All the lines have proper names but are generally coloquially referred to by their colour. They are like underground palaces with beautiful embellisment – here stained glass, there mosaics, there again stucco but look again and you see that these artworks are homages to the workers. They celebrate soldiers and sailors and airmen but also railworkers, guards, fieldworkers. The women are as revered as the men. Family is celebrated. They are, in my view works of exquisite beauty and further enhanced by their expansive nature – the tunnels wider than I, as a London Tube user these past several decades am used to by a factor of at least 3 or 4.
These stations, this metro is vast. It is deep, the escalators seem to go on and on and they are rapid, to cope with the 7-9million people who travel on the system every day. The trains (lovely rather retro looking and practical rather than luxurious) flash into the stations every 2 minutes at peak times and the longest wait we had was maybe 4 minutes at midnight which seemed a long way north of reasonable.
Like their ballet dancers, the Muscovite train drivers are point perfect. Many platforms have yellow arrows which if you stand on one will absolutely guarantee that you are by a door when the train stops. A male voice announces your arrival – the line, the station and immediately afterwards the next station, a female voice tells you when the train is departing, to mind the doors and where it is going next. And do mind the doors – they are heavy and they slam shut – I would not risk a last minute jump onto a Moscow Metro as so many do on the London Tube.
I shan’t harp on as though I am an expert, my experience is simply that, my experience. I would urge you to go and see for yourself. But I will share with you my favourite vignette. We had alighted by mistake at Ploshchad Revolyutsii and were trying to make it look as though we intended to be there. Taking pictures of the stunning bronzes, Two Brains was well disguised. I was standing, obviously foreign and effecting nonchalance in the way that only makes you look more self-conscious when my attention was drawn by people walking and without stopping nor even hesitating as they passed a bronze of a watchman and his dog each one polished the dogs nose. All of them. The very old, the middle aged, the young, the obviously well-heeled, the obviously less-so, every one stroked his nose. His very shiney nose from all that polishing. Then a father and his possibly 20 month old baby and babushka stopped. The infant wide eyed as first granny then daddy dutifully petted the dog. Then, held aloft, the child tentatively reached out, hands quivering, a look for half wonder-half terror in his young eyes he stroked the nose and then beamed and beamed and beamed as nothing tangible happened to him except that his daddy squozed him and nuzzled him and granny kissed him – because now he too will have the good luck that I have since discovered is imparted by this dog (or actually any one of four dogs all identical one on each platform and one each on either side of the main corridor). Did I stroke his nose? What do you think?
To me, and I have no documented evidence to bear this out, it is just my feeling having experienced these underground monoliths and read about their history, the metro was built, of course to ferry the workers, but as beauteous as can be so the workers were reminded as they went about their day that they were valued, celebrated, equal. These were Palaces for the People.
St Petersburg also has a stunning network of underground stations – smaller but still breathtaking. Theirs, though have firmly closing doors on the platforms so that the trains are isolated until stationary. A reflection on the number of bodies under trains according to one Muscovite friend. I guess we will see the idea adopted across the world (as we have on the Jubilee Line in London) before too long.
PS: A rather welcome echo of the old-regime is that you can travel anywhere on the network for a single price (30 rubles which translates today to 50 British pence, 63 French centimes or 87 US cents) meaning that if you live in the cheaper suburbs and work in the centre you are not paying a larger chunk of your wages in travel than those who can afford to live in the more expensive middle. Fair fares!
The final week dawned drizzly, mizzly and dull. I consider this to be a very good thing as you can so easily wear the rosey specs if you are in a place for the first time in warm sunshine or indeed just sunshine. Dull skies alter the perspective. I still love this city. We are off to the lab. Edward takes control. We should know better by now. On the metro, we change onto the dark blue line from dark green and I am confident that we need to go 4 stops. After 3 I am herded unceremoniously off the train to alight into another uniquely gorgeous station, up the rapid escalator and into the drizzly mizzly outside where Edward declares we are in the wrong place. We need to go another stop … bite thy tongue, I council self. Edward, having exited the station, has no ticket, we have three passes, we lend him one for the ride which he gleefully pats in his pocket and says ‘just enough rides left until I leave tomorrow’. Two Brains had carefully calculated that between the three cards WE had just enough rides – we exchange silent laughter through the aether and bite our collective tongues again.
Eventually we get to the lab and I am entranced by my tour. One thing I absolutely love about scientists is their make do and mend attitide. Of course, these high end boffins make shiney new discoveries but they do it using cast out stuff as well as hideously expensive and inexplicable machines. I am away in my B-movie mad scientist imagination and it is bliss. They showed me experiments along the way (which at the time I entirely understood, honestly but I don’t think I had better try and explain – sound, water, waves, vibration and all terribly clever) but the best bit, for me, was the second floor where they have saved equipment dating back to the 19th century and through to the revolution (1917) … these are beauteous things and stunningly crafted even if, like me, you don’t really understand what they do. If you have never been to the Science Museum in Oxford (and to my shame despite living in and around the City most of my life, I didn’t know it existed until Two Brains, or HB2 as he shall now scientifically be known, took me there when we first met in 2012) you should a) visit if you are in Oxford and b) understand that much of what they have in this living, learning place, this University is better than anything you will see in Oxford. Sergey, who is finding his passion in teaching told us that they use the items when teaching because the size of old-school items makes it easy for the students to see from anywhere in the lecture halls what is being demonstrated. He lit up and it was intoxicating … there is nothing better than an explanation from a passionate person. Look closely at one glass piece and you can see a cross engraved in the glass …. ‘this certainly pre-dates 1917’ said Sergey.
Given that the main cathedral (Of Christ The Saviour) was a swimming pool under the Communist regime, I guess that would be a certainty! The rebuilt cathedral, incidentally (the 19th Century original having been destroyed in 1931) is the highest Orthodox Church in the world and was constructed in the 1990s. It is a bling eye-catcher.
After my tour, Anna (Sergey’s wife) took me across the street to the Novodevichy Monastery. Built in 1524 the name means Young Maidens monastery (which is a tad confusing) and was named such to avoid confusion with the Old Maidens monastery within the walls of the Kremlin Palace … the mind boggles.
We didn’t go in. Just walked (in the now driving rain) in the park to the front which runs along the river. Along the way I met some ducks. Bronze ducks. The exact same ducks I had encountered (or rather hunted down as the one thing I HAD to see) in Boston. Those ducks are an homage to the delightful childrens book ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ by Robert McCloskey which I read and read to the girls when they were small. These ducks were given to Raisa Gorbachev by Barbara Bush in 1991 when they were both first ladies as a symbollic gesture when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was being agreed. I can report that they are absolutely identical and that I was thrilled to meet them. Anna took a photo of me with the ducks – typically Russian and very direct she did not conceal her amusement at my moment of pure tourist indulgence. I rather love the fact that a childrens book had a role in those historic negotiations. The book, incidentally was published in 1941 – the year Russia joined the allies in fighting in WW2.
Later, we went for dinner with Sergey, Yury and Edward. The chosen venue was a ‘pub’ with more draft beers than I’ve had hot dinners. I had white wine. We ate Kaspian Pelmeni – plumptious little dumplings stuffed with salmon and sturgeon … absolutely delicious but it was the floor show that shone. The second rehearsal for Victory Day had the massed tanks and armoured vehicles parading down Tverskaya in daylight this time … but you will have to wait for my report which is a blog unto itself.
PS: It rained a little on the walk back to the hotel but I shunned the umbrella weilded by Edward. I am scarred by an umbrella related incident many years ago in Sloane Street when using my brolly as a prop to lean in my coolest pose whilst waiting for a bus, it snapped and I was left flat on my face on the pavement which was NOT the look I was trying to achieve as a sleek girl about town. Not to be deterred, Edward offered me the umbrella lest it should rain the last few days of my stay. How kind, I thought. He burst the bubble with his customary honesty ‘I have not got room in my case for it’ ….
There is a groundhog in the garden of our house in Boston … today is his day – or rather it’s a reverse groundhog which sounds like an expression for something a frightfully clever figure skater performs. St Petersburg Moscovsky Station, Sapsan Train heading for Moscow at stupid o’clock in the morning.
Seated one behind the other with more room per person than the tourist buses were allocated at Peterhof we settle for the ride back. ‘Dear Passengers, welcome aboard our Sapsan train’ utters the announcer. I play with the seat, take a cursory look at our fellow travellers and a last look at St Petersburg as we pull out of the station. The stewardess comes around with a trolley and I, armed with my new Russian directness (this is often, and they are aware of it, mistaken for rudeness by non-Russians and takes a little getting used to) say emphatically ‘Omelette’ (it’s the same word in both languages but I adopt my best rich rolled Russian accent) … she is so taken aback (I told you this was a reverse Groundhog Day) that she ignores the trays she has been dishing out to everyone else and fishes in the bottom cupboard, producing my breakfast. Later I ask Two Brains what he had – the same as the outbound journey. I, on the other hand have omelettes garnished with tomato and red peppers with green beans and sliced chicken. I rather fear I got the Captains breakfast. I enjoyed it all (the vegetable salad, the yoghurt, the wheaten roll, the omelettes and the poppy seed strudel to fill that last little crevice) and fully stuffed settle to sleep til we arrive in Moscow. We take the long route back to Tverskaya on the circle line to photograph the rest of the stations. Moscow seems quiet today so it was a good day to get those missing pictures which I will share with you later in the week in a post dedicated to scratching the surface of these dazzlers.
We settle back in our hotel and a late lunch off Red Square where we are greeted like long lost family by the lovely folks in our favourite cafe. The wind has followed us from St Petersburg so we only take a short stroll around the square, noting that the preparations for May 9th are complete.
We then throw caution to the wind and go into Gum (say Goom) – a shopping Mall. Of course it is the biggest and most ostentatious shopping centre I have ever seen and I actually don’t like shopping. Both husband and I favour the well tested ‘know exactly what you are looking for and dive in, dive out’ approach. So in a sense this was hell. I had been keen to find the source of the bizarre footwear favoured by the average up-town Russian girl and here they were, all around me shouting ‘buy me …’ – I am deaf and clearly a dull version of the girl I once was in my achingly trendy youth.
My footwear for this trip has consisted, as it ever does, of practical leather biker boots and virtually antique Converse trainers. The latter, actually have had admiring looks from the shoe savvy girls in the street for being clearly vintage and probably worth a fair bit in the right shop – most of my wardrobe is vintage not because I search it out but because I wear the same things for years and years. I remain the girl who is actually rather scared of high-end shop assistants so we contented ourselves with browsing the windows, marvelling at the bridges and trees and fountains and congratulating ourselves that we had had Coulibiac (the delicious salmon and parsely pie)and salad plus tea for under 10 euros in our modest diner as opposed to cupcake and tea here for three times that. Chaque un a son gout or is that a son Gum?
PS: We also took some photos with our Cantal sticker to go on their FaceBook page … Cantal Tourisme run a fun competition based on taking snaps when travelling holding their logo to raise awareness. The fun part is the thousand euro prize …. actually for us the fun part was the irony of juxtaposing our scantily populated departement with its natural beauty against what has to be the most un-natural environment you could possibly imagine ….
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’