To Russia in Love back to index

Monday 16th December 2002

We both woke up around 7:30am, and headed down to breakfast after showers etc. I took the lift, but Julie decided to take the stairs. All seven floors! She really hates lifts.

For some peculiar reason my lift stopped at floor 6, opened its doors, but no one was there? Although, my confusion was short lived as I heard some giggling fading down the staircase! The little minx!

This morning we decided to relax, and take our time. We had a large bowlful of chopped fruits, and true to her word, Julie tried some caviar. Never again though, as she hated everything about them, the taste, the texture, the whole idea! Little small salty balls of puss! We were the only guests in the dining area this morning. There mustn't be very many people in this hotel at this time of year. It is very quiet and peaceful.

Our excursion was to start at 10am, so as we had half an hour to kill we went for a brisk walk around St. Isaac's Square.

It felt a little colder today, but our long johns were doing the business in protecting our legs. So we were well protected.

At 10am on the dot we went to the concierge desk, and we were introduced to Nina, our guide, and Igor, our driver.

She was a charming guide, and was very enthusiastic in her description of St. Petersburg as we left the city.

She talked with quite some emotion about the Second World War and of the Siege of Leningrad. Her parents and grandparents still remember those days when the Nazis reduced the city's population from three million to two.

We saw one or two Lenin statues, which were a rarity as most of them were torn down during the death throws of communism. She talked about how things are changing in Russia since that period, and there was almost a hint of 'missing the good old days' because of the current economic problems, and unemployment of today. In Soviet times, there were no unemployed! But in general she was in favour of the progress and the freedom achieved with the modernisation of Russia.

The war memorials, and Stalinistic architecture were all fairly interesting but the most fascinating of all were the people! I always find it interesting to watch the natives going about their every day, and the Russian people were excellent entertainment. All shapes and sizes, but with a common theme. Fur! We came to the conclusion that there mustn't be any furry animals left in the country as they were now all hats and coats!

It wasn't long before we were entering the town of Pushkin, named after its famous poet resident Alexander Pushkin.

It was formerly called Tsarkoye Selo, or Tsar's Village, due to its Royal Palaces. It was also formerly called Children's Village during a period when many children's orphanages were set up amongst the houses of the village.

They certainly have an incredible tendency to name change in this corner of the world. Where am I again? Leningrad, Petrograd? nope, it's St. Petersburg!

In a completely bizarre statement, the welcoming gates to Pushkin had been built in the style of an Egyptian Temple? The sandstone structure appeared seriously surreal smothered in snow!

Nina didn't try to attempt to explain why The Temple of Thebes could be found up here in the middle of Russia!

We entered the village to notice that all the buildings had a palatial theme running through their architecture. It was exeptionally picturesque.

We finally arrive at Catherine's Palace, and from a distance it looked impressive. As we walked closer it revealed itself to be absolutely stunning!

The golden domes of the church were especially attractive against the blue sky, and the sky blue façade.

We entered the palace, and handed our coats and bags over to the cloakroom attendance, who, in contrast to yesterday's dragon, was full of smiles and laughter. Perhaps Nina cracked a joke about us!

We then moved on to the next room to place on our feet what Nina described as slippers but were just pieces of fabric to cover our shoes in order to protect the parquet floor.

We looked hilarious with our little Elf shoes on our feet! A right pair of Munchkins!

We saw the main hall which was the ultimate in gold leaf extravagance, with lavish mirrors, saturated with candelabras that held over 700 candles. Sheer opulence.

This room is still used today to receive important guests, and only two weeks ago George W. Bush was here to meet President Putin.

We walked through several rooms with countless paintings of Tsars and Tsarinas.

Nina was full of facts about them all, and one that stuck was Catherine the Great had over 15,000 dresses!


Then came to the moment I'd been waiting for, the famous Amber Room of Catherine's Palace.


I had read about its history, and how the Nazi's had taken the panelling during the second world war, and how they were never seen again. Except for the odd piece that keeps on re-appearing in Grandfathers attics across Bavaria!

As I walked into the room, I noticed Nina's apologetic face, as she said "This is the Amber room, but it is being restored at the moment" I couldn't believe it!

It was cloaked in a dark grey curtain, with a black and white photograph enlarged onto the drape to show us what it used to look like.

The German government is actually donating $4 million towards the restoration work, estimated to cost over $12 million in total.

Well, there we go again! We've been to Bangkok but missed the Grand Palace, we've been to Rome but Caravaggio's painting of John the Baptist was in another country, now we visit St. Petersburg and the Amber Room was hidden from view!

As with all the other times before, at least it's a reason to come back. In fact, Nina explained that most of the rooms were meticulous restorations from archived pre-war photographs.

Throughout the palace there were many photographs of how the Nazis had inflicted terrible damage on the building, even using many of the stately rooms as stables. It was a sad sight to see. Such disrespect, but I guess such is war.

Nina was always careful of her wording, and always referred to the German soldiers as Nazis or fascists, never as Germans.

After the interior we went outside to the park for a brisk walk. I say brisk because we were chasing super charged Russian Ice Walking Champion Nina towards the hermitage pavilion. It was bitterly cold.

She mentioned that the park is beautiful in spring when the lilac trees are in bloom.

We finally walked over to Alexander Palace which is mostly un-restored.

It was certainly more under stated than Catherine's Palace.

This was where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were kept under house arrest before being taken to Siberia, and then killed.

Nina mentioned that it was only a few years ago that people were allowed access to items documenting these historical facts. Incredible!

At 12:45pm we met back up with Igor, and made our way back to the hotel in his Volvo. I say 'his', it obviously wasn't by the total disregard for any highway code when he overtook a half mile traffic queue, with on-coming traffic having to pull sharply to avoid us!

We somehow safely reached the end of the queue, and sped off towards St. Petersburg. Nina was giggling nervously in the front!

Just on the outskirts of the city we were given a reminder of why we're not flying to Moscow, choosing an eight hour train journey instead. We saw this Aeroflot aeroplane come in for landing, and at the moment it appeared to have touched down, it had to take off again. Julie was so relieved she wasn't on that plane!

We also had a good chuckle over a Lada car we saw that had been enhanced by adding a complete body kit, with a large spoiler, and even green lights on the bonnet. It looked hilarious, but I suppose it was somebody's pride and joy! We arrived back at the hotel just before 2pm after an entertaining ride through suburbia with Igor and Nina poking fun at pedestrians as they tried to mow them down!

We checked with concierge about our pick up to the train station, and she was extremely helpful. She phoned ASLA Ltd on our behalf and found out that we will be picked up at 11pm tomorrow night for the midnight train to Moscow. She then continued to recommend different places for us to visit, and kept on going about recommended restaurants. It was a little over the top, but at least she was very happy and smiley, which doesn't appear to be a strong Russian characteristic outside the hotel environment.

We left the Astoria in search of Café Idiot. It is listed in the Lonely Planet guide as being excellent for vegetarians, so it is a must! We knew it was at number 82, Nab Reki Moika, along the canal, so we turned left, passing number 85, then 83, ….. but then 81, followed by 79! Where had number 82 disappeared? Where were all the even numbers! Of course, when we looked on the other side of the canal we could see numbers 60, 62. It then dawned on us that we had to cross the canal, and then walk back in the opposite direction, at least 10 blocks! How infuriating.

We were also right in the middle between two bridges, but we could see a short cut across the frozen canal. Footprints in the snow over the ice showed us the way, and for the briefest of moments, until I saw Julie's face, I almost suggested we should use the shortcut. We however decided not to be so bloody stupid as to even think about crossing that way!

We eventually crossed safely over a bridge, and headed towards number 82 Nab Reki Moika. We saw number 82 on this building, then an 84 further along. We must have walked straight past it without noticing!

We turned back, and true enough the entrance to Café Idiot is an uninviting solid panel door in the wall with a small spherical light with Idiot written on it, but in Cyrillic.

Still unconvinced that this was the place, we took our time to decide whether or not to walk in.

Eventually saying that we will only experience adventure if we open a few doors!

We still felt quite foolish opening the door, but once inside however we knew we had found our café! In we went, down some steps into the basement to find a very bohemian setting. The low curved ceilings of a cellar, with subtle lighting, comfortable looking sofas, and dining tables and chairs.

It had a very intimate ambience, and we could imagine ourselves sitting here all day eating, drinking vodka, reading poetry from the selection available from a small library as you walked in, or playing chess from one of the many boards available for use, free of charge. We sat down, and sighed, hugely relieved to have found our oasis!

The menu was varied, and mostly veggie but for a few fish dishes. We ordered our food, "Siberian Mushrooms with Sour Cream and Dill", and "Potato Vol-au-vents" for Julie and I went for vegetable "Borsch" followed by a cabbage dish called "Golubsty". Complimentary glasses of vodka were brought to our table which was a thoughtful touch, and I chucked mine down my throat. Na Zdrovye! As they say in Russia!

Julie's starter was very tasty. It was also quite substantial with a plate full of wild mushrooms and roast potato with a delicious garlicky sour cream. She could see how much I was drooling, so we ended up sharing it!

My Borsch was also tasty and was served in a pint glass bowl. It satisfied my desire to eat Beetroot Soup in Russia! The second courses arrived and Julie's vol-au-vents were a little disappointing. The mushroom filling tasted a little similar to those tinned Toast Toppers. They were quite edible however. My Golubsty arrived and was again a very substantial dish. Rice filled cabbage with a tomato sauce wasn't the most delicious tasting dish, but it was certainly the most filling. We left Café Idiot a couple of vodkas later. The price was very reasonable and it was a very pleasant eating experience.

It was now about 4:30pm, and the sun was just begining to set, bathing St. Petersburg in a beautiful wash. We headed for Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping street, in search of a shop that sold some vodka.
Within a short distance of turning right onto Nevsky we came across a small local grocery store with vodka bottles on display in the shop front window. It was certainly a very traditional shop with all sorts for sale.

As we walked in the strong smell of smoked fish hit our senses. The store was narrow, and quite long, and we could see the alcohol section at the very end of the obstacle course of Russian housewives. We reached the end which was quite quiet. I then stood there for 5 minutes trying to decide which bottle to buy, eventually going for a familiar sounding "St. Petersburg" vodka. I still had to point and grunt to show the shop assistant which one I wanted. Same for the Russian Brut Sparkling wine. Point and grunt. Then add a smile and a "Spaseeba" for thank you at the end of it!

The method for payment was also traditional, a system called?, where the assistant would bag up the purchases, give us a price, (165 roubles, that's just £3.30 for half litre of vodka and a bottle of wine!), but before we could get our grubby little hands on the alcohol we would have to first go to another person, the cashier, to pay for our goods, before returning showing proof of payment, then, and only then did they finally hand over our bottles. All of this was done without reciprocating a single smile! It was all some what confusing and inconvenient but the whole experience of this shop made it into a very Russian episode.

Onwards we walked to Gostiny Dvor, a large department store. We walked through the lower ground floor, and straight back out again. We're not big shoppers, and nothing in there caught our attention. It was just like any other generic department store.

We left the building, and headed back down Nevsky but on the opposite side of the road.

We stopped at a street vendor selling watercolours, and bought a small one of the Church of the Spilled Blood. It came in a nasty frame, but the painting itself was quaint.

We were standing opposite the large Kazan Cathedral by now and it looked far more impressive than it did earlier. It was around 5pm by now, the sun was setting, and it was all lit up.

It however paled into a big ugly concrete building in comparison to the Church of the Spilled Blood when we saw it, from Nevsky, down the Griboedova Canal. It was incredibly beautiful!

Illuminated it was even more a fairy tale fantasy church. Wow!

It could be argued that it's overly ornate, but it's still a "Wow!" when you see it for the first time.

We walked down towards the Church, but first visited the small market behind it, buying a Matroyshka doll for 350 roubles.

We also saw several chess sets for sale, where a fake malachite looking chess set caught my eye, but the price of $30 was just a touch too much.

After the market we went inside the Church of our Saviour on the Spilled Blood, to give it its full title.

Its history was fascinating being built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated, but what was even more fascinating was that the original cobblestones, and canal side railings where he fell, mortally wounded, still remain in the same position but now lay inside the church!

The entire church was built around the exact spot, and the railing and cobble stone have been made into a feature beneath a large marble canopy. The rest of the interior was equally fascinating with the entire walls and ceilings cover in mosaic iconastic paintings.

Once again it was incredible stunning bordering upon the overly ornate.

It had gone 6pm, and we were getting tired now, and decided to head back to the hotel. Nevsky Prospekt was bussling, and the shops were still open. We decided not to follow the Moika canal back, but took the adjacent street, on which the House of Faberge was situated. We were too tired to go around the Faberge museum, perhaps tomorrow. Along the way we stumbled across a 24 hour supermarket and we felt quite at home with its western feel. We picked up a basket and strolled around, placing into it a few more bottles of vodka, some crisps, peanuts and a Mars bar. (or I should say a "MAPC" bar!) Far more convenient than the more traditional store we found earlier, but none of the charm of course!

At the end of the street we could see St. Isaac's square getting nearer and nearer, but it was still a treacherous course to reach our hotel. The pavements were very icy, and with our aching limbs and tired minds distracting us from the concentration of avoiding the ice, we both almost slipped on our backsides. Fortunately we just about managed to survive, and reached the Hotel Astoria in one piece.

We went straight to our room, and collapsed in a heap on the bed. It was so nice to sit down, and take the weight off our feet. I hadn't noticed, but the bed had been turned down for us, with a small chocolate on each pillow, and our train tickets for tomorrow had been delivered. We cracked open wine and vodka, and ate all our nibbles in a feeding frenzy worthy of wildlife documentary!

At about 8pm, as I was lounging on the bed with a blindfold on, (as you do), I heard Julie shout "You're belly button is bleeding!" I ripped the travel mask off, and stuffed my finger into my belly button to feel something warm and moist. On closer inspection however I realised that my stomach wasn't going to fall out through my belly button, but instead it had become a well of melted chocolate! A stray chunk must have fallen there earlier in the evening! Panic over.

Euronews weather said it was -9C here today, but we must be getting used to it as it didn't feel any colder. Perhaps it was the vodka! Julie ordered a film on the Pay TV channel. (40 days and 40 nights) I half watched it, whilst catching up with this journal.

At 10pm we decided to go out to Borsalino for some food. The bistro was busier tonight, than yesterday, and they had a Jazz singer, "all the way from America" performing mellow numbers in the corner. Tonight we skipped starters, and went straight for main courses. My Mushroom Risotto was delicious, although I'm convinced that contained parmesan, which is not suitable for vegetarians. Sometimes one just has to grin and bare it! Julie was uncharacteristically very adventurous and chose the Braised and Roasted Rabbit, but totally regretted her choice. When it arrived, the delicate rack of ribs left you in no doubt that you were eating a fragile little animal! After playing with the carcass of poor little Thumper for a while, Julie eventually started to eat but didn't enjoy the taste of the majority of the meat on offer. We spent most of the meal discussing meat eating and Julie's dilemma of not wanting to eat cute little animals, but then enjoying most meats. She considered going back to just eating fish, but she really enjoys chicken. Ah, well, each to their conscience! Quite a "Dalai Lama" Dilemma!

We both went for deserts, but were disappointed in our choices. Julie had Strawberry Terrine, which was just a posh way of saying Strawberry Jelly! My choice was Chocolate Parfait with Spicy Pear, which was OK, if somewhat small.

We left at 11:45pm after another glass of vodka. I took the cute little shot glass up to my room so that I could continue drinking, but in a measured way. By midnight Julie was fast asleep, but I took another hour to finish today's journal entries, and of course enjoy some more St. Petersburg's finest vodka! At least were not planning on an early morning tomorrow, thankfully!

Tuesday 17th>>

©Copyright 2000 - 2020