Despite the trials and tribulations of travel planning, the long flights, and the temporarily lost luggage, St. Petersburg on Day One was absolutely worth the effort. The city has broad boulevards with commanding buildings, palaces and churches at every turn. We hired a guide, an absolute necessity. Masha, a plain, bright, wry Russian woman in her late thirties, met us in the hotel lobby and had us charmed from the first moment. We took a well thought out City Tour in a comfortable mini-bus. Stops included the “Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood,” St. Nicholas Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Fortress (where the Tsars and Tsarinas are buried), and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Since I don’t speak Russian I don’t know if “Spilled Blood” sounds cozy and charming in that tongue. We don’t have many places in the US with such graphic names. Maybe it’s our Puritan roots. We seem to gravitate towards monikers that don’t reference blood loss and I’m fine with that. We stopped for a traditional Russian lunch beginning with “Herring under a Fur Coat,” (again, is this a translation issue, or just a completely fabulous name?), followed by vegetable soup with meatballs, beef Stroganoff and ice cream.
Although the daytime hours of our first tourist day were fabulous, and really they were, the evening was a showstopper. On the advice of my local cousin who lives in St. Petersburg, we bought tickets to the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov). The Theatre was right out of what I would imagine it was like to see the ballet or the symphony in the US or the UK in the 1940s. The theater was small by US standards, seating perhaps 800. The floor seats were aging Louis XIV chairs with red cushioned seats pushed together tightly, all on one level. Around the edges were cramped boxes, also tightly filled with chairs. On my cousin’s advice we had a box, almost entirely to ourselves. The boxes were up just slightly from floor level and afford one a much better view of the ballet. We saw a contemporary set of dances called “The Lady and the Hooligan.” It was superb. The full symphony played remarkably well. The music was traditional Russian fare and the dancers were clearly world class. My father said that he felt as if we all had stepped back in time. My young boys were completely enthralled and begged to stay for the third and final dance of the evening. The adults, reeling from the full effect of jet lag, begged to head home for some much needed SLEEP. A battle of wills ensued with the collapsing adults winning the round. Off we stumbled into the 10 p.m. broad daylight for the short walk home to the hotel.
Day Two in St. Petersburg found this particular set of travelers gravely groggy. It is one thing to get accustomed to a new time zone far different than one’s own with the help of darkness when it should be dark and daylight when it should be light. Trying to acclimate in Russia in mid-summer is another thing entirely. Dinners are late, and long (but that is another story) and one leaves a three-hour meal that commenced at 7 pm and finished at 10 pm and strangely enough, outside it is noon. How can that be? In our hotel rooms we did our level best to pretend that it was evening. We pulled the curtains taught and pressed pieces of luggage against the fabric edges in a vain attempt to block out the bright daylight that came streaming through the cracks 24/7.
A new guide met us in the morning. Katya, though bright and professional, did not have the endearing gritty humor of Masha, our guide the day before. Katya led us on a brisk early morning walk to the Hermitage. I was struck by the scale of the large plazas so typical of Eastern Europe and Russia. The Western Europeans have many smaller, more intimate city squares. The Eastern Europeans and the Russians seem to prefer immense, much less personal plazas that make individuals seem small and unimportant. These huge, inhospitable squares are not places that inspire one to linger, read a paper, or sip a coffee. Rather, one wants to charge across, eager to get to the other side.
The Hermitage (located inside the Winter Palace) is quite an ordeal to see. It is vast, horrendously crowded, and depending on the room, frightfully hot. It poses a challenge for even the hardiest traveler. We stood in impossibly long lines in rooms filled with thousands of fellow travelers and heavy, hot, stagnant air. By noon the kids were wiped, the adults were weary and my poor stepmother was ill. Some combination of heat stroke, food poisoning and general travel weariness combined to do her in. A frustrating hour ensued while my father and Russian guide Katya tried to get aide for my stepmother and the rest of us tried to get the hell out of the museum. Eventually an ambulance arrived and carried my father and his wife off to St. Petersburg’s European style hospital with capable, English speaking staff. Most of a day later, filled with fluids and well stocked with medicine, they made their way back to our hotel. Though this was our only brush with formal Russian medical care, it was only the beginning of the illnesses that would color our experience traveling in the former USSR. By ten days into our holiday my funny father had coined the phrase, “The Wheel of Digestive Misfortune.” He argued that each morning we, as a family, would spin the wheel and the dial would come to a stop leaving its arrow pointing at one of the travelers. It would be that lucky person’s turn to experience a range of gastro-intestinal maladies. Hardly a day went by without one of the seven of us being sick with one complaint or another.
Unfortunately I cannot tell you much about the collection inside the Hermitage. I know I gazed at many fine things, but the effort needed to keep from wilting stole much of my attention and the rest of it was spent cajoling my over-heating children to put one foot in front of the other as we made the long march down endless hot corridors. Kid friendly it was not. Too big, too hot, and just plain too much it was.Print This Post