Saturday, July 9, 2011

St. Petersburg: Day 1

[And so, the big day arrives...]

July 8, 2011

It's been a busy few days. We're now sailing back to Amsterdam. Sunday, July 3, marked a historic day in my life: my first steps on Russian soil.

That's Alla on the right
We hired a private tour guide and driver for the two days through DenRus, a course I cannot recommend highly enough. Our guide, Alla, a young woman in her late twenties, was old enough to remember life in the Soviet Union. While we really appreciated her commentary in the Hermitage Museum and the various palaces we visited, she grew up in St. Petersburg, and it was those windows on life -- both as a child there, and then as a young woman travelling for the first time, after Perestroika -- that gave the visit such humbling significance.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to know our driver, Mikhail, as well. Alla said his English wasn't good, but I think it had more to do with his taking a while to warm to us: late in the second day, Nancy was asking about typical working hours -- we questioned Alla constantly on such seemingly mundane subjects throughout the two days, and her patience, and, as I've said, insights on ordinary life there, is something I'll treasure -- when Mikhail suddenly spoke up (pretty much for the first time), "Well, I can tell you that this factory on the left finished work at 3 p.m. sharp, as I used to build tanks there."

As it turned out, he was a military engineer, building tanks under the Soviet regime, and then industrial-grade tractors and earth-movers after its fall. We all lamented that we didn't have more time to tease out his memories of a life lived mostly behind the iron curtain.

From the port, St. Petersburg was daunting. Soviet-era apartment complexes formed a wall on the horizon. As we drove to the UNESCO-protected portion of the city, a sense of oppression descended upon us. It wasn't until later in the day that we realized that it was the unrepresentative lack of locals (even for a Sunday), typical signs, businesses, etc. that was getting us down -- in spite of the beautiful architecture and views on display. By that first afternoon, we were in the heart of local life, aware that St. Petersburg (now) offers a lifestyle closer to home than anywhere else in Europe (e.g., huge supermarkets with ready-to-serve food, their own version of Home Depot: Castorama, etc. -- all on a scale unknown in Spain, France or Italy, for example). [I've since learned that Castorama is a French company, which does hurt my argument a bit; I'll amend it to "anywhere else in Europe that I've visited."]

I even picked up some unpasteurized beer at their supermarket chain, O'KEY; they were bottling it right there in the store, in plastic. It was an excellent ale, in the English style, so I guess you could argue that they live better than I did in Ottawa. [Again, since then I've had excellent ales in Ottawa -- cask-conditioned in one case, and IPAs that'd knock your socks off (e.g., Flying Monkeys' Smash Bomb Atomic IPA and Muskoka's Mad Tom IPA) -- so I'm looking forward to living very well when I return, thank you very much.]

Our first major stop of the day was St. Isaac's Cathedral, one of the biggest domed churches in the world. Alla explained that under the Communists, all religions were banned, and so began an inventory of all places of worship. Any that were not deemed to be of architectural value were slated for demolition. Those that passed muster, such as St. Isaac's, were converted to new purposes; the Museum of Anti-religion in its case, or warehouses, etc. Alla remembered skating in another church as a young child.

Our next stop, the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, faced worse than that ignominy: despite being just about the best surviving example of the fantastically colourful Russian medieval architectural style, the Communists wanted it destroyed. Luckily, however, it was surrounded by so many sites to be preserved, and with demolition techniques so imprecise at the time, it was converted to a warehouse instead; before long, locals began calling it the Cathedral of Potatoes, according to Alla.

All the mosaics inside have now been beautifully restored, and a museum in one corner gives you an idea of the extensive work that was required. It also gave Alla an opportunity to point out that while city life under the Soviets was very secular, both her grannies, out in villages like those depicts in the museum, never stopped attending mass, even as they were excited by the possibilities under the new regime; such dichotomies rested easily on their shoulders, she said. (Similarly, the irony of Lenin's legacy, according to her, is that his body -- on display, and looking three days dead at most -- is worshipped, like some patron saint of anti-religion; a state of affairs Alla claimed most of her generation deem ridiculous.)

Inside the Cathedral on Spilled Blood
You really got a sense of a place in flux. Alla said even up until 2000, the old style of shops selling two types of overcoats, two types of shoes -- and the rush to grab new stock as it arrived, even if it didn't fit, so you could barter for something more suitable with your neighbours -- was still prevalent. She said that the changes between then and 2005, and again between 2005 and today, have been nothing short of exponential.

Up next was a boat tour, finishing at the Peter and Paul Fortress. It was there that Peter the Great's vision of a cultural centre and a "window to the sea" for Russia first began, back in 1703. Here the movie-set or abandoned-city feeling began to dissipate, as many locals sunned themselves on the fortress' rocky beach. (We were very lucky with the weather both days.) After visiting the cathedral of the same name -- housing the remains of most of the Romanov tsars, including Peter I himself -- it was time for lunch.

"We always have soup at home," Alla explained. And while we had to wait 'til the second day for our first taste of the traditional borscht, a beetroot soup, it was well worth it. Speaking of traditional foods, we'd asked Alla about vodka early on, of course: the younger generation drinks anything but, she said. Vehemently so! (I feel a bit like a prophet, transcribing the words of Alla... Wocka wocka wocka!) But if they waver in this, it's only for Russian Standard -- this really surprised me, as they heavily advertise it in the UK; apparently television isn't all lies! (Smirnoff is crap, apparently.) [I've since heard the same thing about Russian Standard, incidentally. And I learned to take Alla's opinions with a grain of salt as we spent more time together; those on the 2002 Nord-Ost siege were colourful at best -- almost revisionist, in truth.] That said, while I did sample this vodka in a few shops, it was their champagne that they were eager to showcase. (It was very good, for all my opinion is worth on such matters.)

Inside Peter and Paul Cathedral
We spent the afternoon at the Hermitage, a museum on the scale and grandeur of the Louvre. It was very, very busy, as it always is in the summer, Alla assured us. (Tourism dips in the winter, for reasons I can't fathom!) The extensive Rembrandt collection was the highlight for me.

A final comment on the first day: Celebrity took the opportunity of overnighting in port to invite the local Moroshka ballet on board. They put on a fantastic show, singing and dancing; it was probably the best entertainment I've ever seen on a cruise ship, and the perfect cap on the day.

Up next: St. Petersburg, Day 2

There are more pictures of St. Petersburg in our Picasa album.

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