I keep my blog as a personal record of what I'm up to, which might be seen as working towards "An elegant sufficiency, content, retirement, rural quiet, friendship, books, ease and alternate labour, useful life"

I'm certainly not there yet.  There is quite some way to go!










Entries in Russia (12)


A night at the opera


When we knew we were to be in St Petersburg for a few days, I consulted the Mariinsky Theatre website.  What might we go to see?  Amy had expressed an interest in seeing a ballet and I wasn’t too worried what I saw – I simply fancied going to the theatre to see a “real” show rather than some tourist compilation.  It seemed that we were in the city during the last few days of a ballet festival, but sadly none of the classics were to be performed and our choice was limited.




Prince Igor seemed a good choice though, for a real flavour of Russia!  I found a great website with seat advice – a kind of seatguru for the Mariinsky and booked the last four tickets together, which amazingly were on the front row and highly recommended.  I had a series of email confirmations in Russian, a phone call from my credit card company to check that I’d just made a transaction in Roubles and printed out the ticket pdf at home.




Though the theatre wasn’t so far from our hotel, we booked a car with Denis the concierge and so arrived in style in a black BMW 7 with Dmitry, our driver. 

“I’ll give you my card in case you want to leave early”, he said.  “You’ve chosen the long one”.




Well, yes, we had.  But our seats were fantastic and we settled in for the long haul, thanks to Amy’s little tin of fruit sweets purchased earlier in the day.  We’d hoped there would be a bar or at least some refreshment on offer, but sadly that was not the case.




The chairs were generally comfy enough, until the last hour or so!




The audience were mainly Russian, there were quite a few children in the audience and people were smartly dressed.  We felt we were part of an occasion.




The opera itself was grand – a little dated perhaps, but the spirit was there and the sentiment absolutely spot on for the moment.  Ah Russia!




Being able to see everything was key – I loved to watch the conductor (with his waist-length pony tail!) and the orchestra as well as the performers on stage.  That website was spot on advice, by the way.




But when the curtain came down after the last chorus, it was good to stand up and move!




Sure enough, Dmitry was there, right outside waiting for us and in no time at all we were back in the hotel for a nightcap in the bar named after the Tsar

The perfect way to spend our last night in St Petersburg, I think.


Palm Sunday




We had a terrific supper last night!  We’d asked Denis, the concierge for a recommendation for an alternative to the beef-stroganoff type Russian food we’ve enjoyed the last couple of nights.  His suggestion was ChaCha, a Georgian restaurant along the canal by the Church on the Spilled Blood.  Great idea – my hero and I were in Georgia thirty years ago and remembered the food as being almost as distinctive as the red wine from the region.  Secretly, we hoped the offering would be better than we remembered, for in those pre-Gorbachev days, the food was none too great.

Thankfully, ChaCha more than delivered and a series of shared plates just kept coming, each one full of the most delicious food, well cooked and extraordinarily tasty.  The whole place was great – few tourists and mostly locals, I’d guess; there was a jolly and laid back atmosphere and the prices…well, let’s say it was about half the price of a similar meal at home.




As we left, the church was looking gorgeous.




Back on Nevsky Prospekt, the Kazan Cathedral was looking similarly good.




We were back there this morning, Palm Sunday, not especially to join in a service, but to stand with the people, to absorb the very special atmosphere and listen to the chants from the choir standing high above us.  There is something rather emotional about being present in a Russian Orthodox service – somehow, in spite of all the comings and goings, the congregation manage to focus and  I appreciated being able to slip in and out unnoticed.  We noticed the ladies selling small bunches of pussywillow, sometimes wrapped together with a palm leaf outside the church this morning and as we walked around the city today, it seemed we were in the minority without one.




I’m not sure if it’s possible to make any accurate deduction about the numbers of churchgoers from that observation, but it would appear that the Russian Orthodox church is faring better in that respect than the Church of England right now.




Anyway, having made a couple of small purchases in the bookshop of Nevsky Prospekt, we walked down towards the Church on the Spilled Blood.




The souvenir stalls were all open for business but there were few customers about this morning.




Once inside, we stood back and took it all in again.  No less stunning than the first time we were here, those mosaics are simply magnificent.




This time, I was as interested in observing the people as I was looking up at the ceiling.




Though of course, I couldn’t resist taking the odd photo or ten of small details I hadn’t noticed previously.




I loved the floral decoration of the icons here, in celebration of the day.




An hour or so later, we were done.  We walked back along the canal, admiring the reflection in the water and noting how the temperature had risen in just the short time we’d been out.  Another lovely Spring day!




We’d planned a quiet afternoon: a late lunch and then maybe a swim.  Amy had booked manicures for the two of us and this evening, we have tickets for the opera at the Mariinsky Theatre.  Tomorrow, we head home after a few very special, memorable days here. 

But first, Prince Igor!


16000 steps later




Well, the weather couldn’t last, could it?  The home screen on my phone delivered the warning, even before I’d looked outside – sleet and snow, minus 3C.  OK.  We’d come prepared, so it wasn’t a worry and really, we’d had such luck so far.




Such weather demanded a satisfying breakfast, so I chose the syrniki again, as recommended by Valeriya yesterday.  Delicious!




Having sorted out arrangements for dinner tonight, we left the youngsters to spend the morning in the spa and set out to browse along Nevsky Prospekt.  One thing I’ve noticed here and there about the city are the memorials to people whose names I can’t read.  We can interpret most of them given time, though this one has defeated us so far.  What I noticed for the first time here was the small shelf beneath it, for flowers.  How sweet that this person is fondly remembered, then.




And how sad that just a few doors down, someone else whose name I can’t read remains unloved…for now, at least.




We’d bundled up in coats, hats, gloves and warm shoes, just like the rest of the population today, but as we walked, the rain stopped and except for the odd few flakes, the snow came to nought as well.  There was a chill wind blowing though.




There’s not much window shopping to be done here, since most everyday Russian shops have no outward facing displays at all.  But the souvenir shops make up for all of that.  How about this for a quiet and unassuming piece of jewellery?




Or a small wooden ornament to grace a corner of any home?

No, we didn’t think so either.




One bookstore had an interesting window display and for once, I could read the title!




A little further along, we came to the Stroganov Palace.  We’ve all enjoyed the dish bearing the family name in the last couple of days.




Following the lady street cleaner, we reflected on how good it is to be here and not have a set programme to follow.  We could stroll along here for as long as we fancied, go as far as we wanted and not worry about getting back on time or holding up the group.  It’s the first time that we’ve done that here and really, it made all those visa shenanigans worthwhile.




Anyway, here we were at the Kazan Cathedral again.  We’re just passing by today, since tomorrow we’ll spend longer here with Edward and Amy too.




Tempting though it is to cross the road and look in the old Singer store, we’ll stay on this side and wait till we come back on the other side to stop there.




Instead, we’ll wander through the arcade of the old department store instead.




Decide that no, I don’t need a fur hat!




And then go inside to remember how it was when we were here the first time – almost empty, save for a few, poor things which no-one wanted to buy.  Now, it’s full of small souvenir stalls and other tourist-related goods.  I stopped at one to buy a few postcards and we moved right along.




Crossing the road at this point involved a subway, where there was a news stand selling magazines – time to get Russian Vogue for Amy, then!




In the subway crossing we passed yet more souvenir stands.  Just how they all make a living is a mystery, especially at this time of the year when there appear to be virtually no tourists about at all other than the large groups, who wouldn’t be using the subway.  Still, if it wasn’t worthwhile, they’d shut up shop, wouldn’t they?




As we emerged from the gloom onto the other side of the street, we spotted a tiny patch of blue sky!  Woohoo!




Back past the Armenian Church then…




with another of those plaques that I can’t read, except that I know this one says “Armenian “ somewhere in there, and that it was by Queen Catherine’s architect – not that I can read his name.




And as a whiff of something familiar hits our noses, we knew we were near a Lush shop Winking smile




Whilst my Hero made a quick dash down the street to size up our dinner restaurant location, I lingered a little longer by the canal, before slowly making my way over to the bookshop which is in the old Singer store across the road.  At last, I got to look inside!




Inside, I found postcards galore, including these sweet ones of the Romanovs.  They looked a little familiar and I was reminded of the family photos we saw in the Ukraine a few years ago.




A couple of doors down we found ourselves on familiar territory and made a small purchase before moving on to a rather different coffee shop/patisserie.




We decided that we should patronise a Russian coffee shop where possible, and settled ourselves into a comfy table at Severs where the hot chocolate and cookies were delicious.  We had half an hour before our arranged meeting time with Edward and Amy, so made use of the free wifi too!




We watched so many people stop and take photos of the polar bear in the window, we just had to take one ourselves, didn’t we?




So, they were there waiting for us as we hurried to our meeting place at the end of the bridge by the Hermitage.  Even though the rain and snow had stopped, the icy blast from the river made us shiver.




So over the bridge we went, heading for the St Peter and Paul Fortress on the island in the Neva.




Though it didn’t look very far, it’s a huge river and those bridges are long.  Not only that, but there was a fair way to go on the other side and another bridge to cross too.




From this side of the river, there’s a fine view of the Winter Palace and the Hermitage.




And there was a bit of fun there on the embankment by the Rostral Columns with “Peter the Great” (he gets everywhere) and Catherine having a giggle with a group of women and a wedding party taking selfies with glasses of something pretty strong in hand, judging from the raucous laughter.




The T shirt seller wasn’t doing much business though.




Two bridges down and just one to go.  At last, our target was in sight.




Not that it was easy to find our way in.




Edward and Amy even took a look along the beach for the entrance but no, that fortress was impenetrable.




At last, having retraced our steps and watched where other people were headed, we made our way in through a gateway around the other side.  Not easy!




And here was the map we’d needed about half an hour ago!




Once through the gateway, though, it was fairly straightforward to find our way.




We had a golden spire to aim for, of course.




And once we’d got our tickets (thank you, Amy!) we were in.  The Cathedral of St Peter and Paul, that is.




Ooo.  Lavishly decorated, just like the other cathedrals we’ve visited here, though in a rather more subdued palette of colours.




We’d come to see the Romanov’s memorial, the place to which their remains were brought in 1998, with the remains of their servants who were murdered alongside them.  Two names were missing though – Princess Marie and the Tsarevich Alexei.  Where were they?  The answer was given by a dear Russian lady who asked if she could answer any questions for us and who used her very best English to explain that their remains are still in testing and maybe – who knows – next year, they too will be brought here.




The subdued Romanov memorial was in contrast to the other, more elaborate white marble tombs arranged in the body of the church.  Most were fairly anonymous, save for a nameplate, though Marie, the Danish mother of the last Tsar and sister of our own Queen Alexandra had a small personal memorial by her tomb.




The most prestigious spots by the altar and overshadowed by gold and flowers were where the tombs of Peter the Great, his wife Catherine and Empress Catherine II were to be found.  Peter the Great’s tomb had been adorned with a variety of posthumous medals and awards and an explanation of these was to be found nearby.




It might have been a quiet spot in some respects but the decor was anything but.




The gold stretched into the spire as far as the eye could see.




And the whole altar was filled with icons and other gold statuary.  Wow.




But strange as it might seem, having taken so long to get here, we felt that was it.  We’d seen what we had come to see – and there wasn’t as much of that as we’d imagined. Never mind.  We were happy to have been here and now, it was time to move on!

And look!  the weather has cheered up!




Whilst my hero and his boy went to take a look at the Aurora, Amy and I decided we didn’t need to see a warship and returned to the hotel.  Walking along the embankment on the opposite side of the river, we could see where we had been.




We’d walked miles – and how pleasing a sight it when our hotel came into view.  Footsore and feeling very weary indeed, we were glad that there were young men to open doors for us, because even that might have taken more energy than we could muster at that point.

An hour in the spa recharged the batteries, of course!


Top of the list




We couldn’t believe our luck when we looked outside this morning!  Another bright, clear day to look forward to.




Today, I remembered to look the other way from our terrace as well.  I hadn’t realised we could see St Isaacs so clearly from here.




We had only a short walk to the first place on our list: The Hermitage.  I couldn’t resist stopping in the middle of the pedestrian crossing to snap a picture of the Admiralty, shining in the sunshine though.




Just a couple of hundred yards further and we were in Palace  Square.  The Winter Palace looks super in the sunshine and hopefully, if we got it right, we should be there before the crowds.




Opening hours here are clearly posted. How long will our stamina last? (not till 8pm, I’m sure of that!)




We bought tickets from the machine – a bargain, really, at just R600 or about £8.50 each for all the Hermitage museums combined.




Pretty ticket, too Winking smile




First stop the cloakroom.  If this is the small one though, how many does the large one take!?




No sooner were we through the turnstile than we were there – at the foot of the grand staircase, just as magnificent as we’d remembered from our previous visits.  We stood a while and took it all in. 





We did need to know where we were going though, to decide what we wanted to see and how best to get there. 




Still, we can’t go wrong if we start by walking along the corridor with the paintings of the Russian Royals, can we?  I love those hats/crowns/whatever; conical with a fur band!




Each room we visited had some breathtaking feature, be it a chandelier




a beautiful floor




or just an interesting door handle.  (Before the advent of plastic/acrylic, what do you suppose that great “jewel” in the claw might have been made of?)




From time to time we gazed out over the River Neva through the rather dusty windows.




Some rooms were just too much and not to our taste at all.




Others looked like they had been brought from another part of the world altogether.




From time to time, we spotted something rather covetable.  Do you think any of the elderly women who stand guard in these rooms would miss the polar bear vase if I stuffed it under my coat?




So we went on, room after room, each one as stunning as the last, if not more so.




And as you’ll gather, we had the whole place to ourselves!




Well, not really.  Whilst standing in front of the throne to take the classic front forward shot, I was elbowed out of the way by a visitor of oriental origin; a member of a large group who were just ahead of us through this set of rooms.  Rather than stand and wait for every Mei, Wang and Lai to stand in front of it for their photograph, I just went around the side and took mine.




Further patience was required when we reached the Peacock Clock in the Pavilion room.




This is how it really was…




so we looked around the rest of the beautiful room and admired the decor and the chandeliers for a couple of minutes.




After which, we had the bird to ourselves.  Shame I didn’t compose a better picture, considering that, isn’t it!?




But you knew we’d catch up with them again, didn’t you?  In the room with a couple of major works by Leonardo da Vinci, a little more patience was needed.  Actually, taking pictures of these masterpieces wasn’t easy anyway, for the lights reflected in the glass and the end result would hardly do the work justice.




On a little further then, past a couple of storyboards with photographs and descriptions of the days leading to the Revolution.  Obvious really, but it had escaped my notice until now, that this year is the centenary of those events.




By now, we were used to waiting till the crowds had moved on before we looked around.  This corridor was especially beautiful – known as the Raphael Loggias.




It led to a kind of armoury, where a couple of exhibits stood out from the rest.  This one looked a little shiny and new.




This one just looked weird – and was causing a stir amongst that group who were a few steps ahead of us.  They were both part of an exhibition




Jan Fabre’s “Knights of Despair, Warriors of Beauty” was to be seen here and there throughout the whole museum, though in this particular area, it seemed to be particularly noticeable.  The two suits of armour were amongst the most palatable exhibits, the rest of which ranged from body parts made from beetle-wings to art involving stuffed animals, some of which were a little disturbing.

We moved right along from those, suddenly feeling rather overwhelmed by what we’d seen so far and ready for a break.




Having explored the offerings at the snack bar, it was time to move on to a different building.  First though, there was the small business of the staircase.  Heaven knows how anyone with mobility issues manages here!




Anyway, over and out from this part of the Hermitage…




through the courtyard with the snazzy bollards…




and past the poster with a reminder to the dear guests, not to forget the “other building”.




Guess where we were headed?




Though first, I just had to take a look back and capture that glorious golden dome on top of the Winter Palace.




Now, the General Staff Building had served all kinds of purposes during its life.  Today, we were hoping to see some great art in there!




Behind the original facade of the former office building, there’s a new extension and exhibition space.  Lavish architecture with many interesting details – but no public lift!  Thankfully, a  member of the security staff noticed us looking at those stairs (with no consistent handrail) and offered the use of a staff lift.  He waved over to a colleague who accompanied us to Floor 2.




Actually, we’d intended to go straight to floor 4 and work our way down, but floor 2 was all that was offered.  We got out and walked through the large, modern space – not quite what we’d come to see, but interesting nevertheless.




The main exhibit in this first room was a cloth full of scribbles.




Yes, really.  A cloth at least 6m long and 3m high, fully covered with ballpoint pen scribbles.  Opposite was a similar technique on a large wooden cupboard.


We moved into the next room where there was an extension of the Jan Fabre exhibit, including what appeared to be stuffed cats and dogs.  Not our kind of thing at all (and we are not alone it seems).  We moved right along returning to our original aim of getting to floor 4.




We walked through what seemed like miles of featureless corridors like this one, doing our best to follow our map but somehow failing!




Eventually, thank goodness, we came upon the Faberge rooms and this glorious miniature copy of the Imperial Regalia, beautifully displayed on exquisite little cushions and remarkably well lit too.




From here, having now found our bearings, it was straightforward to find our way to the rooms containing the most incredible collection of Impressionist paintings we’ve seen.  A room full of Van Gogh’s work, including the one above which was my favourite.




A similar collection of work by Cezanne, including this tree (and a few hillsides).




And there, amongst the Bonnards, the Pisarros, the Monets and the Manets was one of my favourite pictures by Renoir.  Sorry about the strange angle, taken to avoid the reflections, but I included it simply to remind myself how pretty it looked in a small corner of a room full of treasure.

Sure, there were Gauguins a plenty, there were works by Degas and just about every other Impressionist painter you can think of (with the possible exception of Berthe Morisot!?)  I think we could have possibly spent a whole day in these few rooms alone…




But oh my, were our feet complaining?  Mine certainly were!  And however many great things there are to see, there’s only so much we can take in one mouthful.  so, we bade the Hermitage farewell for this time and returned to the hotel with pictures of golden rooms, malachite pillars, wonderful paintings and the sheer extravagance of it all turning around in our heads.




Just the kind of weariness that calls for an hour in the most luxurious and relaxing spa!

What a wonderful day.


Мы здесь


We are here.  In St Petersburg, that is.




I know, no sooner have I finished rabbiting on about Switzerland and all of that, and here we are, just a couple of weeks later in somewhere totally different.

Life, eh?  (Good, innit? Winking smile )

The glorious sunset was captured as we arrived at LHR last night.  With a flight leaving at 9.20am this morning, we chose to stay overnight at the Sofitel, expecting to meet Edward and Amy there sometime mid-evening.  But the hours wore on and it was almost midnight by the time they appeared, feeling slightly discombobulated by a succession of transport hiccups along the way.  Never mind.  We were all together and all was well!




Because this was Edward’s belated birthday jolly, organised in January for a supposedly quieter time, even if the quieter times only really exist in our imagination. 




A flight time of nearly four hours, together with a time difference of another two and it was mid afternoon when we arrived, in spite of that early morning start.  Never mind.  The sun was shining and we were happy!




I’d arranged a transfer from our hotel, not wanting to spend valuable time fiddling about with taxis and the like, so in minutes we were speeding down the motorway into the city.




Our travelling companions lost no time at all settling into the fine surroundings.  We quickly sorted ourselves out and decided to get out there and enjoy what was left of a beautiful Spring afternoon.




I mean, look at that sky!




We weren’t going very far – just across the road in fact, because we thought we’d begin gently and take a look around St Isaacs Cathedral first.




Now, it’s not long since we were here, is it?  Just last September, in fact.  But we had loved what we saw and we couldn’t wait to share it with Edward and Amy.




I think they were similarly bowled over.




Of course, he was there watching, still.




And I did my best not to take all the same photographs again, trying to look at things slightly differently and to notice small details which may have escaped me previously.  But actually, it didn’t matter at all.  It was simply amazing to just be here, to sit and wonder at the magnificence of it all and to enjoy the whole experience.

So that’s what I did.




When we were all ready to move on, we walked down towards the river, heading towards the large statue of Peter the Great, past a most impressive building with the name in gold letters above the arch.  I find it so frustrating to not be able to read the names of places, but at least the bright spark amongst us recognised a word which resembled “bibliothek” in there somewhere, so we assumed it includes some kind of library. ( I googled it later, and yes, it does)




I loved the view of the street through the archway.




The main thing we’ve noticed so far has been how grey everything is.  Until the sun came out this afternoon, there was a dreary look to the city with not a blade of grass or green leaf in sight.  This patch of parkland looks threadbare and brown, but the sunshine and clear blue sky brought everything to life and the whole city twinkled in the light.




Actually the sun made it hard to take a decent photo of this, the Bronze Horseman.




But looking the other way, it was difficult to stop taking them!  Cities on water have that special something, don’t they?




High above the Admiralty building, the flag flies at half mast following the incident on the Metro earlier in the week.




We continue along the river front to the Hermitage.  No time for a visit now, but it’s good to get our bearings and work out what is where, and especially good to wander independently without a guide too.




The four of us stood for a while, counting our blessings and feeling very thankful to be here.




We resisted the temptation to ride in a horse drawn carriage – or is it a pumpkin?




Because by now, we were feeling peckish.  Elena, the concierge at our hotel had recommended Gogol, a Russian restaurant serving traditional fare, so that’s where we headed next.  It was 7pm by now, anyway.




Was this his hat and coat hanging in the hall?




The menu came in the form of a book, with chapters for each course.




It made for quite entertaining reading, even before the food arrived.




Yes, of course he tried that.  No, not the tongues, but the lard!




We’ll remember Gogol for the bell on each table though.  “Please ring the bell when you have decided what you’d like”. 

Somehow, though, it didn’t seem right to ring the bell for attention, even if the moment we did so, our waitress would come running (or maybe, because that’s what happened?)  Suffice to say, we had a super meal, the beef stroganoff was delicious, as was the smoked salmon, the Siberian white fish and everything else we ordered.




Returning to our hotel in somewhat lower temperatures than when we’d set out, St Isaac’s was looking rather lovely in the mist.

We are so pleased to be here and feel that, whatever the weather chooses to do tomorrow, we will always remember a sparkling afternoon in the city!