Russia 2019 day 8: St Petersburg

It was raining when I woke up although by the time I got out of bed and had breakfast and packed and got outside it was merely grey and threatening drizzle.

Today was the Hermitage which I’ve been putting off. Finding it was no problem; I ran into it by accident yesterday but finding the entrance was harder – there was no queue yesterday to show me the entrance. That’s because it’s closed on Mondays.

The entrance on the embankment is for your groups. Back to Palace Square. I go in the front door – what’s misleading me is the lack of queue here. People don’t come here on their own without pre-booked tickets and they really should. There were four people in front of me at the ticket machine where there was the population of a small city at the tour entrance and of a large town at the internet tickets entrance. Then it’s maybe ten minutes to get through security and ticket control. “Take a sandwich and a bottle of water” says the guidebook. Nope. No liquids – although if you play stupid enough you clearly can because that tourist didn’t buy that litre carton of orange juice in the cafe. I’m glad I brought a refilled Fanta bottle today and not my own plastic bottle because I would not be surrendering that. Still, probably not many people hiss furiously what I did at the security gate. I don’t like this city half as much as Moscow.

First, the big staircase. Oh, and all the tour groups posing on it. Then back downstairs to see the Egyptian stuff and go in the cafe-lounge for a new drink and a croissant because I was very hot and sweaty and thirsty and furious.

Once I’d done that I could go and have a try at the Hermitage. I’m really not an art person or a museum person but you can’t not go to the Hermitage (and for 700₽ – less than £9! That’s a ridiculous price for something on this scale! Imagine tickets to the Louvre costing €10!) The first few rooms were palace rooms and I did like the Malachite Room, which is mostly a fairly ordinary imperial room, only with endless fireplaces, vases, pillars and tables made of malachite.

Other highlights: the red & gold throne room, the red & gold sitting room and the room that was gold from floor to ceiling. When I have a house, I need a room as gold as that. I charged through the Winter Palace with very little regard for art, though. I paused at the necessary pictures mentioned in my guidebook but the rooms themselves were far more interesting.

As for getting around the place – well, there’s only one staircase to the top floor and only one to the stuff on the ground floor under the nice gold room, which has no public connection at all to the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art in the New Hermitage. Entire corridors on the middle floors are closed and the obvious routes round them one-way only. There’s no way at all to get into the coins & medals upstairs unless that staircase in a closed room is actually open.

They say it would take a year to see the Hermitage properly. I saw plenty in the four or so hours I was in there. No, I didn’t look at most of it properly but I found more that I liked than I expected to. It would be nice if there were more places you could stop to drink that bottle you brazenly removed from the cafe-lounge – it’s a pain to have to return to the corridor by the Egyptians every time you’re thirsty.

When I left, feet very flat and tired, there were soldier-types practising marching in Palace Square. The mini-platoon in ceremonial uniform was absolutely surrounded by Chinese tourist cameras. The two in camouflage uniform apparently counting steps were getting less attention. Then the platoon returned to their bus on the edge of the square and mini military band took their place, although they took so long about it that I gave up and went home, amused to find hundreds more soldiers in green uniforms waiting at both zebra crossings on the way back to the metro.

I had a quick break back home and then went to find Vladimirsky Cathedral which is almost as close as my local metro & therefore easier and quicker to just walk to. It turns out this is a working cathedral (although it became an underwear factory during the Soviet era) populated by babushkas in headscarves and not a tourist in sight. I didn’t have a headscarf. So I stayed by the door, very quiet, not taking photos, not wandering, just standing silently and looking for a couple of minutes. It’s not very spectacular. Either it has a low ceiling or the main domes are closed inside as well as outside – it’s covered in scaffolding.

And that’s it for St Petersburg. Tomorrow I leave the realm of vaguely-European cosmopolitan cities I’ve been to before and safe-if-boring chain hotels and head to Russia’s ugly industrial slightly-radioactive port city in the Arctic.

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