Thursday, November 5, 2009

St. Petersburg

Clickity-clack. Clickity-clack.

That's the sound I spent 18 hours listening to on the way to and from Saint Petersburg. Katerina and I took a sleeper train from Leningradskaya Station in Moscow to Moskovskaya Station in St. Petersburg this past week. We left Moscow at 01:50, crowded into a car lined with bunk beds.

Everyone has their own and there is a little table between every two beds, so people can sit and drink and look out the window.

On each bunk there was a thin mattress rolled around a pillow and clean sheets in a plastic bag. I wasn't sure how the system worked but thankfully I had Katerina with me. She set about unrolling the mattresses, fitting sheets over them, and showing me where to stow my bag under the bunk. We had the top two bunks and a very nice-looking elderly couple had the bottom bunks.

The trip took 9 hours but thankfully, just like in Korea, I could smoke in the space between cars. After a bedtime cigarette I curled up onto my bunk (which was six inches too short for me) and the gentle swaying and rythmic clacking of the train put me to sleep within minutes.

When I awoke 8 hours later I looked out the window and saw snow-covered pines giving way to low, Soviet-style buildings. In the distance a series of Orthodox spires dominated the skyline. Saint Petersburg!

We got off the train and took a taxi to our hotel, which was also very 18th Century.

Our hotel room

After getting settled in we took the metro to Nevskiy Prospekt; the bustling, artsy main street in the city.

St. Petersburg and Moscow are like day and night. Moscow is a busy and aggressive city that never sleeps. People are either always angry or stuck-up, often both. St. Petersburg, in comparison, is gentle and cultured and peaceful. There were no skyscrapers. Old historic buildings with neon signs met us. Electric trams clanged down the street instead of carbon-spewing hummers and buses. There were what seemed like millions of beautiful women dressed in very elegant and stylish winter fashions walking leisurely along the sidewalks.

Russia is famous for having a surplus of extremely beautiful women but I was starting to believe that that was all hype until I went to Petersburg. Although I was there with an equally beautiful girl, I couldn't help but check out every second slavic princess who walked by me! "That's okay. You can look. I'm looking too!" Katerina said. People even smiled and nodded hello as they passed! After several months in Moscow I was not used to this strange display of human warmth.
Nevskiy Prospekt

This city, known as Leningrad during Soviet times (and Petrograd during the First World War because Petersburg sounded too German) is fantastic! If Moscow isn't Russia, than St. Petersburg surely is! I haven't been to Paris yet, but I would have to say that St. Petersburg rivals Paris as the most romantic city in the world. Every building is old, and 18th Century architecture is everywhere. Like Paris, cafes are squeezed between palaces along the canals and the Neva River, but with big flakes of snow falling through the soft Christmas-like lights and a pretty girl on my arm, I was swept away in old-fashioned romantic spirit. In addition, people spoke sexy Russian instead of pretentious French, so I say that St. Petersburg wins the prize.

We found a nice cafe and had borscht, blini and beer for lunch and then made our way to the Winter Palace.

This former seat of Czarist government, built by Peter the Great in 1701, is now a museum. It is so historic and beautiful that even the Communists left it alone during their 90-year reign! Alexander II (by far the best and most prolific of all the Czars) was obsessed with art, and he spent much of his career collecting pieces from all over Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He put everything in the Winter Palace and eventually collected so much that an entire wing of the palace had to be devoted to art.

This wing was renamed the "Hermitage" and rivals the L'ouvre in Paris. According to the best estimates, it would take 12 years to view every work of art in the Hermitage for 30 seconds
a piece!

After the Winter Palace we toured an old basilica and walked 200 stone steps up a spiral
staircase to "The Coppola". This is the highest structure in the city, and at the top we were greeted with a view of the St. Petersburg skyline. To the east a full moon was rising over the Winter Palace while to the west a brilliant orange sun was setting over the White Sea.

Katerina and I got back on the metro and stopped at a supermarket on the way to our hotel. We picked up some sausages, fresh buns, fruits and a bottle of wine and
then had a very simple Russian dinner in our hotel room. Katerina had brought some candles from home and we got slightly drunk and had a wonderful night in our classical hotel room.

The next day we woke up around noon, showered, and went back to Nevskiy Prospekt, this time for a sushi lunch. Then we hopped on a tour bus which stopped at many interesting places including the park where Lenin rallied the people to storm the Winter Palace during Red October in 1918, the St. Petersburg Military Academy where every Czar, Soviet leader and modern officer has studied, the battle cruiser Aurora which was commissioned in 1912 and withstood the Siege of Leningrad, the apartments where Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky lived, the spot where Pushkin was killed in a duel, and Catherine the Great's personal palace (as well as the building she had built entirely out of imported marble for her secret lover, so that he could live near her..her husband never caught on).

The battle-cruiser Aurora

After our two hour tour, with snow falling and soft lights illuminating this beautiful city, we had to kill more time. Our train back to Moscow didn't leave until 01:20 and we had checked out of the hotel, so we went to see a movie. I don't know the name, but it was whatever animated movie is out about a guy who makes a machine that rains food and all sorts of hilarity ensues. It was dubbed in Russian but it was in 3-D and I caught the gist of it.

After that we went to a small, dimly-lit cafe with stone walls and drank beer and ate, of all things, Korean kimchi soup and a sushi roll called "Kanadianskiy Roll" (salmon and avocado...apparently Canadian). Then we got a taxi to the train station, boarded the train, unrolled the mattresses and once again I was sleeping on the Russian rails.

Clickity-clack. Clickity-Clack.

When we got off the train at Leningraskaya Station in Moscow a big guy in a leather jacket with a scowl on his face shoulder-checked me as he stormed past and Katerina said "Ah, feels like home!"

No comments:

Post a Comment