Note From Jon


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Russia Recap: Day 7

Friday April 25th

Having only two days in St. Petersburg did not deter us from trying to see everything on our tourist wish-lists. Thursday had been productive but we still had to mail postcards, visit the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Russian Museum, The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, take a canal tour and catch our train back to Moscow at 9:30. I also promised to let us fit in three full meals, since I discovered Thursday that Kristin’s body is not a fan of my trademark two-a-day big meal plan (apparently most nutritionists aren’t either).

The hotel’s breakfast buffet took care of meal number one, and there was a post office on the second floor of the building across from the hotel (the one with an advertising jumbotron on top). That went smoothly and, unlike my lost postcards from Africa, I have confirmation from most recipients that they have actually arrived (which is a good indication that it is taking me too long to post these recaps!). After a brief rendezvous with Joe to make sure he was ok (he’d had a rough trip digestively speaking) we were off to the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Due to renovation work (shocking!), the gate nearest the metro was closed, forcing us to circle the perimeter of the fortress in order to enter. As a result we witnessed someone climbing the wall into the fortress—odd because it’s free to enter, but it was in keeping with an invasion theme that played out all afternoon—and we passed by many sunbathing Russians whose techniques (usually standing) and swimwear choices (thongs… on men) I found perverse and often baffling (listen to act 4).

We arrived at the Nevsky Gate and learned that one-hour canal tours launched from their pier every hour on the hour. I was excited because this tour option combined a canal tour with our transit back from the fortress. I did some quick scheduling in my head: Noon-3:00 fortress, 3:00-4:00 canal tour, 4:30-6:00 Russian museum. Suddenly it seemed possible that Kristin and I would each get to visit our top priorities for the day (the fortress for her and Russian museum for me). All we had to do was catch the 3pm boat... Entering the fortress, we heard a thunderous explosion, which I realized was the daily noon cannon (well, artillery now) that I had thankfully read about. I took it as the starting gun for our three hour tour of the fortress.

The race started smoothly enough, with a trip to the Boat House that held the small sailboat Peter the Great learned to sail on—and which is now surrounded by the ticket office and gift shop. Then into the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where we tracked down the relatively understated tomb of Peter the Great. Surprisingly, his tomb barely stood out from the others in the cathedral. Off to the side, the only differentiating mark (unless you can read the Cyrillic name) is a bust of Peter placed on top.

Next stop was the St. Petersburg history museum in the Commandant’s House. As Kristin will tell you, don’t stop after the first two relatively uninspiring rooms on the first floor. The bulk of the museum is on the second floor, and the exhibits seem to get more and more impressive with each room (that may be biased because there was also more and more English as we went along). I enjoyed the scale model depicting how the Alexander column was erected. Held in place by nothing but gravity I was impressed it wasn’t swept away by the tidal wave that engulfed St. Petersburg a few years later (which was depicted in a panoramic painting in the same room).

It was lunch time and we set off to track down the café in the fortress before finishing our tour at the Rocketry museum and a walk atop the fortress walls. Here’s where things got interesting. We got directions to the café and set off to the east side of the fort… which happened to be under construction. In Russia it would appear there aren’t the same liability issues we have here in the U.S. and you are basically at your own risk. So nothing prevented us from picking our way through the ongoing construction (the workers ignored us completely) and making our way to the café. The café however was closed. As was the restaurant. As was the Rocketry museum. So we nimbly navigated our way back out of the danger zone, while I wondered why Russians couldn’t be as polite as the New Yorker I’d recently heard make the following statement to tourists in Manhattan: “There’s nothing for tourists on 9th Avenue, for fuck’s sake!”. Today, there was nothing for tourists on the east side of the fortress!

It looked like Kristin was doomed to a snack lunch again, or else we’d have to cut our visit to the fortress short. But she was resourceful and managed to determine that the small snack kiosk offered a microwave-heated personal pizza which provided the required sustenance. We ate lunch on top of the fortress wall at the only spot which was available to sit, right on top of the stone commemorating St. Petersburg’s recent 300th anniversary. Without spilling too much on the stone, we finished lunch and walked the rest of the fortress wall taking in the views across the Nevsky river, as well as an unusual event going on at the fortress: periodically a skydiver would appear from the sky and land (as far as we could tell) in the fortress. First someone scaling the wall and now paratroopers were attacking. It must not have been much of an issue because the soldiers manning the artillery that had welcomed us at noon seemed more concerned about me photographing them than they did about the intruders. No one seemed to notice when the helicopter swooped in later (I can neither confirm nor deny whether it was a helicopter gunship)

The prison section of the fortress was also closed for renovation but we did find a torture exhibit that had a separate entry fee. Since it was 2:30 and we couldn’t envision what would be in the exhibit to justify the separate charges we opted to head to the dock early… right after we visited the restrooms. It turned out the only thing worse than the food situation in the fortress was the restroom situation. No one seemed to know which ones were open and we got conflicting directions, none of which matched up with the map we had. Our search eventually took long enough that we were in danger of missing our tour (and more importantly to me our chance to visit the Russian Museum where I was excited to find the rest of the works by my favorite Russian artists I’d discovered at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow). Eventually we crossed the fort to a temporary restroom we’d seen by our lunch spot. From the line we found there, I am certain it was the only working toilet on the island that day. The problem was that it was a pay toilet. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t have the money… it was that the woman taking the money felt she needed to clean the restroom between each customer! We’d be on a boat for an hour so forgoing this pit stop wasn’t an option. Clean faster woman! Mercifully she skipped a couple of cleanings and we got through with about seven minutes to run (and run we did) back to the pier. We arrived to watch the three o’clock tour pull away from the pier… at 2:55. Our pleading to climb aboard was fruitless and the next four o’clock tour would leave less than an hour to see the Russian museum. I felt defeated. There would be no more sublime moments appreciating a wall-filling Ivanov, or sharing what I’d found at Tretyakov with Kristin.

But then there was hope. A previously unmentioned 3:30 tour. That might just give us time. The price was higher but I was just happy to still have a chance at seeing the Russian Museum. I relaxed and enjoyed the tour. It was in Russian so it was more about being on the water and seeing the city from a different perspective than gaining any trivia or historic insights into St. Petersburg. As advertised we disembarked at the Admiralty at 4:30 and set off briskly for the Russian Museum. We got there before five… but couldn’t find the main entrance. Screw it, we saw a door and went in. We weren’t supposed to be there but we found a woman who found a woman who found a woman who spoke English and relayed back to the first woman that we wanted to enter the museum. She looked concerned and kept mentioning five o’clock, I kept saying “The museum closes at six right?” (according to the Lonely Planet). She led us around the building and to the main entrance and indicated that we needed to run. It turns out the museum stops selling tickets an hour before closing. We ran. At exactly five o’clock we rounded the corner into the Kacca room, to find the ticket seller… surprised to see us but willing to sell us tickets. I didn’t even think to ask for Kristin’s student discount. We bought the tickets, checked our bags and set off in search of my favorite Russian artists.

The experience didn’t replicate that from the Tretyakov because we were considerably more rushed (I feared each room we entered would have the exit door shut and we’d be forced to backtrack out of the museum). Still we did manage to find all of the artists I hoped to and Kristin got a feeling for what I had appreciated so much about the galleries of Russian artists. After about 45 minutes we had skimmed through the entire collection, including the temporary exhibit of landscapes which contained a new favorite painting of bears in the woods…which I later discovered I’d seen painted as the backdrop for the bear trainer at Ismailovsky Park a week before. Success. I was happy and relaxed.

And then I saw the sign for the exit out of the wing we were in. Of course we couldn’t go out that way because our bags were checked back at the main entrance. The museum closed in less than 15 minutes. Could we still get back to the main entrance?!? Or were we about to be ushered out the nearest exit as the museum closed? I suddenly had visions of a desperate conversation with Russian security along the lines: “Museum closed” “But we have to get our bags!” “Museum closed now. You can get bags tomorrow.” Tomorrow, when we’d be in Moscow boarding our plane home… without our jackets or bags! The race was on again. Back through the halls, again hoping we didn’t find our way blocked with a closed door. On several occasions doors were indeed shut directly behind us… But we got through. And now, outside again with our bags, the race which I’d felt began with the noon cannon was finally done.

I would certainly recommend more than two days in St. Petersburg, but with a bit of a frantic (or perhaps fanatical—sorry Kristin) schedule we’d managed to do everything that was on our wish list. We were left with plenty of time to take photos at the St. Basil’s-inspired Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, finish off our shopping list at a mini-market near the church (well except for my never-to-be-found Asterix comic book), and eat a leisurely dinner at Gastranom (get the beef stroganoff, not the stuffed pike), before we caught our overnight train back to Moscow.

The trip back was a mirror of our trip up except that Joe and the empty bunk were exchanged for some quiet Russian women in our cabin. We went into a café in the Moscow station for breakfast… and quickly left when Joe was told that a coffee and scoop of chocolate ice cream would run $32 (thankfully they told us up front rather than surprising us with an absurd bill). Instead we found the cafeteria style breakfast spot where the food was more realistically priced. After a metro ride to Rechnoy Vokzal station at the top of the #2 line, and a two dollar mini-bus ride to the airport, Kristin and I were soon flying back home, passing over Greenland, and passing up the opportunity to buy the Duty-free Delta Doll. It was an amazing (and long-winded) trip. I may put together some top-ten list recollections, but for now the only thing to say is: Thank You Kristin!

<-- Day 6 ---- Reflections -->

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