Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, July 02, 2007

From Russia with love, lager and long legged ladies
St Petersburg was a stimulating, sensual start to the Russia leg of our trip. I didn't realize the magnificence of the city's cultural and political history until we got there and began to see signs of it all over the city.

Our train from Helsinki to St Petersburg helpfully displayed our destination in three languages.

Peter the Great declared St Petersburg capital of Russia in 1712, and for the next hundred plus years, substantial investment was made in the construction of grand palaces, churches and government buildings. During the same period, the city established itself as Russia's cultural capital, with first class ballet, opera, symphony and drama performed in elaborately ostentatious theaters. Around every St Petersburg corner there's a majestic classical building, a bold monument, an eye catching theater or a museum, many of them carefully restored to their original 18th century splendor.

A view of the classic mint green Winter Palace from across the Neva River

The city sits proudly on the banks of the river Neva, with the Fontanka and Moyka rivers and the Griboedova Canal streaking through the historic center. These flowing waters and the land between them are the perfect stage to show off the city's architectural gems. Needless to say, St Petersburg quickly enveloped us in its magical sights and intriguing history.

Jason captured this shot of the Midnight Sun and street light reflections on the Moyka River after a night out on the town

We struck gold with our accommodation and found ourselves staying in a comfortable, bright room overlooking the Moyka River. We were well looked after by Polina, our host, who rents rooms in her home to visitors. Staying at Polina's was a rare treat, allowing us to see beyond the walls of an ordinary hotel room, into real Russian life. Although Polina's home was clean and comfortable, the hallways were dungeon dark, her walls decorated with faded, gray paper, giving the place a distinctly drab, communist era feel. Polina's careful distribution of our breakfast items was also reminiscent of past times, when food shortages and conserving what you had were a way of life. Polina was open and friendly, taking us under her maternal wing, and enhancing our visit with her kindness.

Polina posing with us in her cosy kitchen. This was the only time we saw her in the kitchen without the TV on during our entire stay. The background hum of Russian TV didn't help us with our Russian much though.

We did our fair share of sightseeing in St Petersburg, starting with the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a striking, colorful landmark, lovingly (and expensively) restored.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is a classic St Petersburg landmark, although we thought it wouldn't look out of place in Disneyland.

We also visited the St Peter and Paul fortress and its cathedral, where most of Russia's tsars, including Peter the Great, are buried. Mars Field was a sobering sight, with an eternal flame burning there in memory of Russians who died during the 1917 revolution and the ensuing Civil War. Even more sobering was the Blockade Museum, where we learned the gruesome details of the Nazi siege of Leningrad (as St Petersburg was known during World War II) that cost a million Russian lives.

The signature gold spire of the St Peter and Paul Cathedral can be spotted from anywhere in St Petersburg

The interior of the St Peter and Paul Cathedral is suitably opulent to be the final resting place of Russia's royal tsars

We spent an hour or two exploring the metro. The architecture of the built-to-last underground rail network is a sight in itself, adorned with marble pillars and ornate chandeliers. The metro's real treasures are found at the ends of the platforms in several stations. Impressive sculptures, paintings and reliefs depict patriotic scenes, many portraying Lenin in heroic form, often surrounded by loyal proletariat.

Although there was plenty to see in St Petersburg, we found wandering the streets, getting a feel for Russia and its people just as engaging. One thing we noticed right away was the boozing. We spotted locals with cans of Baltika lager on trains, on park benches, in their cars, and in pretty much every other public place. Plenty of Russian champagne was being consumed on the streets too, mainly by bridal parties doing photo shoots around the city's photogenic spots. We even bought a bottle ourselves, and sat on a street corner drinking it, just for kicks. The novelty wore off after a few swigs of the none too tasty fizz. Perhaps the biggest culprits of public drunkenness, ironically, were young soldiers who could often be seen staggering around, singing marching songs and looking disheveled.

An elated bride is waltzed around one of St Petersburg's picturesque bridges, while her friends chug champers and enjoy the festivities in the sun

Russian women proved particularly interesting 'people watching' material. Many of them are skinny, stunning and sexy, in their high heels and short skirts. The 80s look is definitely 'in'. However, I noticed two distinct versions of 'the look'. The 'high fashion' version involved new, pricey, retro style clothes and posh mullet hairdos. The 'real deal' version was sported by those who clearly still owned their 80s wardrobe, and had been going to the same hairdresser since the 80s too. The women sporting the good stilettos and 'high fashion' outfits tended to ooze wealth, and could often be seen stepping out of a shiny black Mercedes. The 'real deal' women were more likely spotted on the metro, or in one of a million Ladas. 'High fashion' versus 'real deal'; Mercedes versus Lada. This crude but obvious indicator of the polarization of wealth in Russia is suggestive of a country whose transition is still very much in progress.

This skinny Russian beauty isn't sporting a mini skirt or trendy mullet, nor is she anywhere near a Mercedes. She is actually performing in a contemporary dance piece which we stumbled upon on the beach by the city fortress.

Another observation we made was the rather frosty response some Russians give to foreigners. Several Russians we approached simply refused to communicate with us. Granted, it must be frustrating to deal with non Russian speakers, with our coy smiles and nervous attempts to reproduce something intelligible from the phrasebook. But the unapologetic stone wall we received from several locals (many of them in the service industry) was a bit disheartening. On the flip side, finding people who were willing to help us, like the one friendly employee out of the hundred at the central train ticket office, felt like a real triumph.

This huge sign marks the entrance to the daunting Central Train Ticket Office, which became a regular hangout of ours, in our numerous and usually fruitless attempts to buy train tickets.

Surely the unwillingness to engage is a cultural thing, perhaps stemming back to the old days of repression and Gulags, where Russians had to be tight lipped for their own safety. Reassuringly, we have noticed that many Russians who seem cold at first often warm up after persistent friendly advances and being blitzed with smiles. No doubt our charm skills will be finely honed by the time we are done exploring this huge and fascinating country. If the rest of the country is as impressive as St Petersburg, it will be worth the effort.

Pausing for a breather from Cyrillic, chaos and city stress in the delightful Summer Garden

Check back soon to hear about our escapades as we delved into St Petersburg's famous cultural scene.


Post a Comment

<< Home