Saturday, September 15, 2018

Hung Around Saint Petersburg...

The next morning we were still mildly astonished that we had successfully navigated our way into the heart of a major city which was all in Cyrillic.  Our hotel room looked down on the extremely wide Neva River, which was only half of the Neva River, since we were situated on Vassilevsky Island.  As it turns out, St Petersburg was originally built from scratch on marshland, which explains why everything is so flat and minor rivers are so wide.

Peter the Great built it, then made it the capital of Russia, and thus it stayed until after the Revolution, when for strategic reasons the capital was moved back to Moscow.  This is why the city is just swarming with stately 18th and 19th Century buildings, all grand and low slung and clustered right across from the tip of Vassilevsky Island.  So walking down there, about a mile, was our first objective on our first day.

When we got to the tip, though, and before we crossed the river, I wanted Maureen to see the Zoological Museum, which I had run across back in '92.  Right when you enter there is this skeleton of a blue whale, which, as you may know, is the largest animal to ever have lived.  Even bigger than the biggest dinosaur.  Then the rest of the museum, which is basically 19th Century taxidermy gone wild.  Hundreds and hundreds of every animal imaginable, from the smallest to the largest, all mounted and stuffed and piled next to each other. 

The most amazing specimens, though, were the mammoths, including a baby which had been found with flesh and hair still un-decomposed.  Then there was the skeleton of this massive mammoth that must have been fifteen feet high at its shoulders.  I've had a giant wild elephant standing right next to me in Africa, and it would have been a small buddy of this thing.

Then across the bridge to the Hermitage, which next to the Louvre is the Queenest of the world's museums.  Maybe more so than the Louvre.  It's held (mostly) in the Winter Palace, which is this mint green Italian designed 18th Century building which had been the main center of Czardom.  We bought our tickets and started cruising the rooms.

But, like the Louvre, and most other museums that I've been to, after the initial excitement, and after about forty rooms, one starts to get museumed out.  Anyway, all the 19th Century Impressionist stuff was across the giant open plaza in another building.  So over there we went.  And it's much harder to get bored when one is trudging through rooms of Monets and Van Goghs.

Except that our bodies were not keeping up.  As in Moscow, literally pounding the pavement was not going well for my collapsed arches.  Especially since they were encased in bad shoes.  And Maureen's hip problems were even worse.  In fact, by the time we got to Picasso she was in incredible pain.  Especially when we had to walk all the way back through all of those rooms to get out of the place.

We finally found the sidewalk, though, and I deposited her at a place to sit in front of the buskers while I walked up a couple of blocks, found a Subway, and got a sandwich for us to share.  After about forty minutes enough feeling had returned to her leg that she was able to walk a bit.  So we hobbled over to St. Isaacs, which is this giant St Peter's dome church, not Russian looking or feeling at all.  Then they wanted 800 Rubles to enter.  I remembered from '92 that inside it was all Italian and rococo anyway, which I don't find spiritual in the slightest.  So we blew it off and walked back to a Metro station.

Now the station by the hotel is right across the river.  But, as I said, it's an extremely wide river, so I had thought that we would have to walk that additional quarter mile to get home.  Instead, though, there was one of those airport moving walkways which took you all the way across under the river.  Cool.  And there we were at the hotel.

Diminished bodies lead to diminished adventures.  Saturday morning we took the Metro 'downtown' and walked over to the Kazan Cathedral, kind of a mix of the Italianate and the Russian.  Afterwards, across the street at Starbuck's, I reflected upon the fact that if normal giggling teenage girls could afford Starbuck's prices, then the economy couldn't be all that back at all, now could it?

Then it was walking down one of the canals, of which St. Petersburg has many, and coming face to face with The Church of the Spilled Blood, finally truly Russian, and also truly amazing.  As spectacularly onion domed and inscribed outside and muraled within as any other example in the entire country.  Suitably satiated, we then strolled and park benched in several parks, found a Metro station, and traveled a few stops so to check off something else on Maureen's bucket list: Eating at a Russian Pizza Hut.  (To add to her list of Pizza Hut countries, which now extends to six continents.)
And if you're wondering why we weren't eating at more Russian restaurants, that's because Russians are into eating bear meat, boar meat, and just about anything else which is not vegetarian.

Anyway, Sunday Maureen's body was feeling better.  So we walked from the hotel down to the Peter and Paul Fortress, which is this large historical area that is also across the river from 'downtown'.  Festive crowds and a very loud cannon boom at noon.  Then one of the thoroughly ubiquitous tour boats that take you through the canals and along the river.  Then it was a walk to the Metro, a quick trip to the big monastery in town, and another trip to Dostoevsky's church.  Compared to what we'd already seen on the Golden Ring, though, both were kind of diddly.  So we realized that we had pretty much 'done' St. Pete.  After all, we had seen the outer city pretty thoroughly on our drive in.  So back to center city, a meal at an Indian restaurant, then back to the good ol' hotel.  On the way marveling, as in Moscow, at the sheer throngs of normal Russians in festive spirit just out for a Sunday walk.

Monday morning it was time to close up all our bags and try to find our way back out of said city.  Which wasn't too hard, since we took  the newly constructed freeway that loops north and west on to a causeway across the Baltic Sea.  Midway across we exited to tour the small city of Kronstadt, home to the Russian fleet and also to another pretty impressive (not onion) domed church.  Also a chance for Maureen to dip her feet into the Baltic.  Although the weather had finally turned on us a bit, and it was a cold, damp day.  So she just pretended to.

Then there was an attempt to find Peterhof, another over the top Czarist castle.  But I got lost and time was running short.  So it was back to the Saint Petersburg beltway, and off of it to the M-10 and south towards Moscow.  The M-10 alternated between semi-congested and not too congested at all.  And three hours later we were in Novgorod, birthplace of Russia in the year 862, and the namesake of our Russian t-shirt business thirty years earlier.

Novgorod is mostly a smallish Soviet city.  But at its center is a brick kremlin (wall enclosure), and inside that old churches and buildings.  Our hotel was conveniently across the street from some old churches and a park which led to a footbridge across the river to the kremlin.  So we walked there on a perfect fall-ish afternoon.  I had been pushing to get there because the museum was open today but wouldn't be open tomorrow.  And it had the largest collection of icons in the entire country.
Now you may ask: Can someone ever get tired of Medieval Russian icons?  And the answer here is: Well, yes you can.  Especially when each room contained a Soviet-style lady warden, who got up and followed you suspiciously as you walked through, as if she thought you were going to try to steal one of the massive 4x6 icon paintings.

The first hundred or so, though, were pretty neat.  And we suitably took more photographs to go with the hundreds of church art photographs that we already had.  Then it was a stroll around the grounds, a stroll back across the footbridge, and then a stroll back through the park area and to a Russian restaurant, where the menu showed that they had bear meat and boar meat.  We got some mushroom soup and some potato pancakes.

Tuesday, after a final circumlocution of Medieval Russian churches, it was back on the road to Moscow.  After an hour or so on the M-10 it hooked up with the M-11, the half completed new toll road.  Which was as modern and well engineered as anything anywhere.  Although most travelers between the two cities use the new high speed train, which moves at 150 mph and only takes four hours to cover a distance greater than that between San Francisco and LA.  How is our Amtrak doing?

So as we cruise controlled along, it gave me time to reflect upon what we had just experienced.  The shabby, authoritarian Russia that is always portrayed in movies is twenty years out of date.  Nowadays they've all got their faces staring at their smart phones as much as anyone anywhere else.  Although the culture still feels homier and less overtly degenerate than in the West.  I suppose that some of that is because Russians have always thought of themselves as one big family.  A family that is often highly paranoid of each other, maybe.  But a family nonetheless.  And those 'family values' are no doubt why the Church has made such a roaring comeback after over 75 years of enforced atheism.

Also, politically speaking, there are just no politics to speak of.  Either positively or negatively.  I mean, nobody cares.  And in a good way.  After all, the government seems to be doing its best to fix the roads, keep the parks neat and clean, and spruce up the cities, even the minor ones which had previously been neglected.  Virtually no litter.  And the everyday Russians are not smilers, and certainly not enthusiastic back slappers.  But every interaction we had, whether in gas stations or hotels or stores, was friendly and polite.  Even though we spoke no Russian.

Oh, and since Putin got into power the mafia have been totally curbed.  Cops no longer demand bribes.  Average wages have gone up 600%.  We Americans tend to be oblivious to the fact that other peoples are patriotic, also.  And Putin has restored pride in a country which had been totally kicked around when it was down.  By us.  So no wonder the dude is popular.

But, hey, this isn't a political blog.  And now we were back on the outskirts of Moscow, just outside of the airport.  And for once my maps, which showed an easy exit and ensuing airport layout, were totally inadequate.  Totally jangled and confused by all of the road spaghetti, we pulled into the first parking garage we could find.  Then I walked and walked through the massive terminal to find the car rental guy.  Who nicely walked back with me, took command of the car, and then even nicely-ier drove us to our hotel.  Which we would have never found the turnoff to on our own.

And then it was over.  Once again I had successfully so immersed myself into an alien world that I completely forgot about the cares of the normal one.  But now it was time to go back and face them one more time.