Transsiberian Part 3 - St Petersburg
Squeeee! I'm actually in Russia, after all the planning and sorting and all the rest. Sometimes, when somethings been building up forever, it can be somewhat weird when it actually happens. Our trip starts in St Petersburg, up in the north west of Russia.
The day begins with an early tube ride to Paddington Station from East London. We take the Heathrow Express which I suspect is still the most expensive railway ride, per mile, in the world. Arriving at Terminal 5, we need to go through security theatre. Funnily enough, I waltz on through whereas poor Katie has her bag and portable speakers swabbed and searched. A tasty breakfast and a short flight later, we arrive.
The customs point is straight out of Papers Please; it's a little dated and the lady behind the desk is somewhat severe in her little booth. At one point, I swear I hear a printer starting up as she looks at me quizzically for a second time, trying to match my face to the photograph in my passport (I used to have long hair). After getting hold of some roubles from the ATM, we are accosted by several people offering Taxis. Ignoring them all we go to the official booking desk and take a ride through town to our hotel.
The ride itself takes us all the way up Moscow Prospekt, about 17km along a road featuring high rise blocks, shops, and out-of-town retail parks, changing into the big, study neo-classical buildings I expected to see. We pass a massive statue of Lenin (odd that there is one remaining), standing in his classic pose - one arm extended forward in a gesture of triumph. This statue is dwarfed by the monument to the defenders of Leningrad. They make statues really big here and no mistake!
The Hermitage has many superlatives that I won't repeat here but goddamn, this place is not only big, but beyond ostentation. If you were a poor, working class citizen of Russia and you knew even half of what was going on inside this building, you'd be outraged. Not only is the Tsar putting gold on his bread, he's putting it on his walls, his cups, his table legs - everything! The Hermitage building itself is a museum; it even has a display of its own, retired display cases!
We spent about 4 hours (possibly more) looking at paintings by Leonardo, sculptures from around the world, and amazing 2000 year old reindeer style horse hats from Siberia. The collection holds many Rembrandts, Picassos and a whole host of old masters. You can spend days in that place and learn a lot. Its a wonderful museum and worthy of all it's accollades.
One can get quite a good view of St Petersburg from the cupola at St Isaacs Cathedral (they call it the collanade). Tickets are about £3 and you can get a 360 degree view of the St Petersburg skyline. The city is quite large; larger than I expected. You can see out to the docks with it's myriad of cranes, and over the otherside, to the Church on Spilled Blood.
The Church on Spilled Blood is jawdroppingly beautiful from the outside, with it's enameled onion domes and intricate brickwork, but pay about £2 and you get to go inside and have your mind blown by the most exquisite mosaic work. Every single wall is covered in mosaics, all the way up to the massive dome in the centre. Now I'm not a religious person at all but I loved the scenes because the tile work looks slightly like pixel art and because of that, the shading and sharp lines make it look like something out of a graphic novel.
Soviet era arcade machines are something I've wanted to look into for a few years. We all hear about the American and Japanese arcades but little known of these in Russia. Near the Church on Spilt Blood, is an inner courtyard featuring an arcade consisting solely of old arcade machines (with a branch in Moscow also). This place charges you about £4 and in return you get a set of coins to play the games with. There is a bar and a small cinema showing cartoons.
The games are quite unique - there are loads of nixie tubes (yay!) and many moving moving parts with electronics somewhat smushed into them. The majority of the games are shooting or driving games, with a few wacky ones such as "match the words to the road-signs game" and a "pull the paddle as hard as you can game". Some of our favorites include a weird tank game with model tanks and magnet, an old electronic driving game and a submarine torpedo game.
On the centre island, across the Neva river is a rather good contemporary art museum called Erarta. The museum houses the largest collection of modern art in Russia. It's quite an assault on the senses but there are some lovely pieces there that are really inspiring. One thing we did notice is that all the canvas paintings from the Ukraine have been replaced by prints. Now that could be the gallery's choice or the artists choice but either-way, it's the first sign of anything reflecting current events.
The Russian Museum finishes off the touristing with a selection of paintings from the 20th century. Another lovely building; a former palace I believe. You can see how Russian art has changed over the years with their chronological hang. WW2 and the Soviet period clearly had a big effect.
St Petersburg is a lovely city. You can see the influence of places like Paris in the architecture and similar. The city is very white, both in terms of ice (the snow has melted but the river is still frozen) and in the people. There isn't a lot of variation in terms of race. In many other ways, it resembles any other modern city in Europe, though it's definitely 'on the continent'. It reminds me of Serbia and for Katie, Vienna.
The first official train leg of the journey begins tonight, with the Red Arrow sleeper train, straight into Moscow!