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Sunday 15th December 2002

I woke up just in time for the weather report on Euronews at 7:57am. It's going to be -6C in St. Petersburg today, but -12C in Moscow. I had a shower and lounged in my complimentary dressing gown and slippers. Julie woke around 8:30am, and we had a discussion about whether or not the complimentary slippers are OK to take home with us! Not that they were at all comfortable or practical, just that we could. The dressing gowns had a little note attached that reminded you that they cost $60!

We leisurely got dressed and went down for breakfast in the Davidov's Restaurant. They swiped our room key card, and asked me to sign for breakfast, and at $48 it was shocking! We were a little concerned that it would be added to our bill, despite having pre-paid for 'bed & breakfast'. For the time being we left it and went to enjoy our food. (We later sorted out the confusion. We hadn't given them our booking voucher when we checked in, and so they placed us on a room only tariff.) We walked into the restaurant and the choice on offer was incredible, especially if you were a meat lover. There was a dazzling array of sliced sausages, smoked salmon, caviar, cheeses, yogurts, bread, fresh chopped fruit, fresh fruit juice, even sparkling wine. No vodka though!

We both went for a bowlful of chopped fruits, followed by a cooked breakfast. The highlight of which was described as Hash Browns but 'Dill Herb Potato Dumplings' would be a more accurate description. Very filling! Julie said that tomorrow she'll be a bit more adventurous and try the caviar and sparkling wine!

We popped upstairs to put on our layers, and empty our bowels before we leave the comfort of our hotel's conveniences. Apparently Russian public toilets are meant to be terrible. We decided not to put our thermals on today so that we could try and gauge the temperature. We certainly didn't want to be too hot walking around the city.

Shortly after 10am we stepped out of the hotel into the cold weather and after some ten minutes we noticed that our top halves were quite warm but jeans were no protection against the cold for our legs!

We decided then to wear our thermals long johns from tomorrow onwards!

We walked past St. Isaac's Cathedral, down towards the Neva River to see the 'Bronze Horseman' statue (A statue of Peter the Great, the founder of the city).

The pavements were very icy, and Julie adopted the 'walking like you've just shat yourself' approach to better grip and stability.

We shuffled along at a slow pace, but that was fine. We'd made a promise to each other that we would not be rushing in Russia!

From the horseback tsar we walked around the Admiralty onto Palace Square. Unfortunately the central column was covered for restoration, and the majority of the square was full of storage containers.

In fact most of the pavements were being dug up, and many buildings were covered in scaffolding, including in the distance, Peter & Paul's Cathedral.

The city is celebrating its tercentennial next year and so it is frantically trying to restore everything!

My breath was condensing in the very cold air, and forming small ice particles on my beard. Not quite a la Dr. Zhivago after trekking home to the Yurals, but ice on my beard just the same! We laughed about condensation after I farted and asked Julie to check to make sure my backside wasn't steaming!

It wasn't as stupid as it sounds as we had just walked over a steaming manhole with a disgusting smell of sewerage.

From the Palace Square we headed back down to the river and crossed it over Dvortsovy Most bridge.

It was incredible to see this wide river totally frozen over but for a small narrow channel kept open in the middle.

We continued riverside towards the two 'Rostral' columns where a troop of street sellers cornered us. They had furry hats, caviar, soviet military badges and stamps. They weren't too pushy at all, and accepted our 'No, thanks' without complaint.

Perhaps it was mostly because a coach stopped for a photo opportunity of the Winter Palace and they all scampered in its direction. 

Onwards we waddled, over another bridge, making our way towards the Peter & Paul Fortress.

We saw several people out on the frozen river, sitting down, fishing through a hole in the ice.

I was itching to walk out to join them but I didn't have the balls.

A narrow bridge took us over the ice and onto the island on which the Peter & Paul fortress is built.

Continuing riverside we walked around the outside of the fortress walls. The longer I had to walk alongside the river, the more foolish courage I was accumulating about walking out onto the river.

Julie could sense this and said "You're going to go out onto the ice, aren't you?" That was my green light! I seized the moment and stepped out onto the ice.

It was incredibly slippery, but it must have been very thick. I'm sure you could have driven a tank onto it without cracking the ice!

A little further along we reached a point in the wall where I recognised from the book.

It is popular for standing up against it, and sunbathing, even in winter. It is also the spot where the 'Walrus Club' come to break the ice and go for a hypothermic dip in the river! They must be barking mad! We hadn't noticed it until we read the guide book, but we had just walked over a sandy beach. I dug a little in the snow to in fact reveal coarse sand. I thought about building a sand castle, then perhaps a snowman, but ended up just piling up some chunks of ice.

We moved on and reached Neva Gate, an entrance to the fortress. We saw up close the scaffolding and tarpaulin covering the cathedral. It was a shame not to have seen it in all its splendour, but hey, it's a reason to comeback. Apparently, inside are the tombs of the Romanovs, whose grizzly end was very sad, being murdered by the Bolsheviks.

We decided to continue with our march. On the way we passed a hilarious statue of Peter the Great.

The story behind it is that the head was sculptured by someone else, and obviously not anywhere within sight of the body, and they got the proportion totally wrong. This large imposing figure now has an extremely small head on its shoulders. It certainly looks comical!

It is meant to bring good luck if you rub his knee, so we did, both of them.

As we left the fortress the noon canon blasted out its boom. It made us jump, but at least we weren't still building ice castles on the beach because the canons were situated right on the ramparts overlooking it.

Next stop, a little further past the next bridge was Peter's Cabin, the original log cabin built by Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, in 1703.

It was knocked up in three days, and he only lived in it for a few weeks, but it's the symbolic birthplace of St. Petersburg.

In 1723 it was ordered to be protected by constructing another permanent building around it, effectively making it Russia's first museum exhibition.

It was very interesting, if a little small, but at only 55 roubles it was value for money.

We returned over the Neva River, this time using Troitskiy Most bridge, which was much longer than the other bridge over the Neva. The wind chill factor was really making it cold as we crossed the bridge. I was certainly excelling in my impersonation of the famous Russian Friesia Boloksov!

Numbness had set in on our legs. I'm sure I could have driven a six inch nail deep into my thigh without feeling a thing.

Once on the other side we headed straight towards a fire in the centre of open space called the Field of Mars.

The fire was the eternal flame of a war memorial commemorating victims of the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed. We felt a little intrusive and didn't stop by the fire to warm up.

From the Field of Mars we could see the impressive Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood.

It was built only 120 years ago after the murder of Tsar Alexander. It was designed in this onion-domed style to be St. Petersburg rival to the authentic 17th Century St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.

We walked up to the ornate church but decided to go inside another day.

We wanted to do the Hermitage today, and it was almost 1pm already.

More importantly we were both cold, hungry and desperately in need of the toilet!

At the back of the Church on the Spilled Blood was a small tourist market which we walked through. They sold the usual things of furry hats, soviet regalia, chess sets, lacquered balika (guitar-like instruments) and the famous Matrioshka dolls. (Those Russian dolls that contain several reducing in size pieces inside each other.) They came in all different shapes and sizes, and even came in different characters, like President Putin, George W. Bush, and bizarrely enough even an Osama Bin Laden doll?!

We headed straight for the Hermitage, via a scenic route for a photo opportunity of the back of the Hermitage, and ended up back in Palace Square.

This is the famous square they ran across when they stormed the palace during the revolution. Although I've read that the accounts were greatly exaggerated.

On the way to the front entrance we came across a cute little brown bear cub, all chained up and ready to pose for photographs with tourists. We just put our heads down and ignored them. It wasn't our idea of a photo opportunity.

We made it into the Hermitage and groaned with pleasure at the warmth. We were so obviously tourists! It wasn't long however before our bladders reminded us we needed to see a man about a dog.
I was so glad that I could stand up to relieve myself, because the toilets stank! Julie came out of the ladies shuddering with repulsion.

She could hardly bring herself to speak about the disgusting state they were in. Ladies with long fur coats were flouncing in with out a care that their sable fur was dragging in piss!

We handed our coats over to the exceptionally miserable looking cloakroom attendant, and made our way to the ticket office. It cost 300 roubles each to get into the Hermitage, and an extra 100 roubles if you wanted to take your camera!

Obviously I wanted to take my camera and ran back to the cloakroom to get my cameras from my bag. I was a little worried of getting a row from Happy Hilda, but when I arrived at the desk, I did so at the exact same time as someone else. She gestured that she didn't know who to serve first, so I gestured back, 'ladies first'. Then she cracked a smile! It was a wonderful grin and a chuckle, but in a blink of an eye it had gone, and the frown returned.

The first thing we did on entering the museum was to find the café and have lunch. It was incredibly cheap at 140 roubles for a slice of veggie pizza, cheese baguette, and two coffees. Haute cuisine it certainly wasn't, but it did the job.

The Hermitage was beautiful, especially the sweeping Jordan staircase. We walked around many rooms, some stunning golden halls made for glorious golden balls, some much plainer but ideal for an art gallery.

Towards the end though, it became a little tedious.

"Oh, another painting by a famous Renaissance painter"

It wasn't that we didn't appreciate the art, just that we were shattered. Gaugin's art however did stick in my mind.

The rooms of the West Wing were a little more entertaining as they had been set up to represent how the interior of the winter palace would have looked.

The Malachite room was interesting as it was full of history being the actual room in which the government was overthrown when the palace was stormed in the October Revolution.

The door handles were particularly spectacular as they were in the shape of an eagle's claw clasping a glass ruby like ball. I was told not to touch them by one of the room attendants. They were very stern, so I did as I was told!

As we were running out of steam we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. Just outside the Hermitage a street vendor was selling what looked like doughnut style pastries. They looked very warming, so I decided to be adventurous and bought a long 'finger roll' shaped doughnut, for 12 roubles.

I was naively expecting a sweet strawberry jam filling, and I couldn't wait to take a bite. I dived straight in, and bit the top off. To my utter horror it revealed what looked like a broiled penis! This shrivelled sausage was staring right back at me with its 'one eye'.

I read later that I could have chosen savoury cabbage filled ones, or sweet apple ones. It was like Russian roulette with pastries!

I go and bloody chose the one that the guide books say are best avoided! It goes without saying that the dough was immediately spat from my mouth and thrown into the nearest bin.

We returned to the hotel and went to the lobby lounge where we experienced Afternoon Tea at the Astoria.

A seven piece vocal harmony group were entertaining us with angelic renditions of Jingle Bells and other yuletide favourites. I may jest, but they were actually very good!

It was very relaxing to sit down, thaw out, drink some tea, and listen to talented singers. (My God I must be getting old!)

We popped upstairs to get refreshed and changed for the evening.

We ate some of the Heathrow Dairy Milk Chocolate, and raided the mini bar to share a bottle of vodka, miniature of course! At 7pm we went back downstairs to the lobby bar, but had just narrowly missed the Happy Hour. We still had a drink though, Baltika beer for me, and Sovietskoye Brut Sparkling wine for Julie. They were local brews but tasted just as good as any Budweiser or Moet, (well almost).

We had booked a table at the Borsalino Brassiere in the Hotel Angleterre for 8pm. It was quite literally a 90 second shuffle from our hotel into the other one. The Angleterre was a 'sister' hotel to the Astoria, under the same management, and we could even charge our meal to our room. With it being a lot cheaper than the restaurant in the Astoria is was very convenient.

The menu was excellent, with a wide choice for vegetarians, itemised separately on the page. I went for a potato soup with dried cèps to start. I had no idea on earth what a dried cèp was! When it arrived, it was a solid lump in the middle of my soup, and had the texture, and almost the taste of a salty baked apple? (I discovered later from the internet that cèps belong to the fungi family!) It was very tasty though, whatever the dried cèps were. Julie went for the traditional Borsch and really enjoyed the beetroot soup, but as it had pieces of bacon in it, so I couldn't try any of it!

For main course Julie had Beef Tenderloin in Red Wine Sauce, with Roast Potatoes and Shallots. I went for Potato Blinis with Eggplant Caviar and roasted peppers. When mine arrived we both laughed out loud, because the portion was tiny! All I had were three small pancakes, overlapping each other (Olympic flag style), hiding beneath it a dollop of an intense tasting Aubergine dip, and placed on top was a spoonful of red pepper chutney. It was very pretty to look at, the presentation was wonderful, and the flavours were extremely rich and exciting, but when it came to satisfying my big appetite, it failed miserably!

So a big bowlful of Vanilla Ice Cream in a Hot Chocolate Sauce was ordered to fill what remained hungry in my stomach. It did the trick! The bill came to $56 and we felt that it was of reasonable value for the quality of the food.

We returned to our hotel room by 9:30pm, and phoned home to speak to Hannah for a while longer than I managed yesterday. It was good to have a chat about her day. My dad told me the day's premiership football scores with Arsenal drawing, and Liverpool losing to Sunderland. (That's a terrible result for the Scousers!)

I spent almost an hour writing today's journal whilst Julie lay in bad chuckling to herself. She was listening to Billy Connolly Live from Dublin on her Sony Walkman. Every now and again she would stop to tell me the funniest jokes.

She actually fell asleep with the tape still running, and I almost woke her up whilst trying to take the headphones off!

Today has been very tiring but rewarding.

Monday 16th>>

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