Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hermitage Museum etc, 19th August

The Great Palace of Tsar Peter 1st, otherwise known as the Hermitage Museum, is 10 minutes walk from our hotel. Yesterday we walked through the square outside the palace buildings; photographing monuments and crowd scenes. Today we’re heading inside.. we wanted to get going at 10am but for some reason I just could NOT sleep last night, so it’s more like midday by the time I catch a bit of zz after dawn and M pours coffee into me.

We join the queue at 1.45. It’s cool and grey, raining just a little bit, but quite comfy. The queue looks to be about 300 people long, to the front of the building. But as we get closer we see that it snakes inside a huge courtyard, and once we’re inside there, it snakes along nearly three sides of the courtyard to the main entrance. All the way along, people, mostly women, come along and try to persuade us to leave this queue and go over to the other side of the square to buy tickets. We’re not sure why, it doesn’t seem to be linked to joining a guided group. We watch closely to see what other people do. No-one goes off, so we stay put. M wanders around a bit, looking for any English signs, or any sign that leaving this queue is the right move. Doesn’t seem to be. After we’ve been waiting for about an hour, the wind has strengthened and we are cold. The queue has more or less stopped moving, and many of the people in summer tops have goosebumps. M trots back to the hotel for extra clothes for both of us, and I stand using my umbrella as a wind-shield, jiggling my legs and saying to myself ‘isn’t it LOVELY to be COLD?’, over and over...

M takes a bit longer than I am happy with.. can I see the end of the queue? Has he been shut outside in the square, according to some Russiansk rule of gate that we didn’t know about? Has he fainted and fallen over a cobblestone and been carried off by a noble Russian horse-ambulance to the nearest field hospital? Has he (and we know, don’t we dear readers, that he is entirely capable of this) stopped on the way back to get me a takeaway coffee??? I shiver and try to think more positive thoughts, like ‘Won’t I enjoy the museum by the time I get in, it must be so incredibly Russian royal extravaganza’ .. hurray, here he is, carrying an extra t-shirt and my trusty, warm and wonderful pashmina. [Dearest reader, if you go anywhere that might be the tiniest bit cool or rainy, take a pashmina. They work wonderfully well as raincoat, umbrella, shawl, jumper, arm-warmer, kidney-belt and (even) twisted into a small bag. They don’t stretch, run, fall to bits, chafe, loose colour or show the dirt. One of my best ever purrchases, thanks Cath for talking me (easily) into it!]

The goosebump girls have sent one of their party over to a kiosk to get coffee and rolls. They devour them, then light up slim cigarettes. I guess all additives might help at this stage. 

We get to the door of the ticket office not quite 2 hours after we join the queue. While we’re in the doorway (a revolving door held unmovingly open by force of numbers) lots of people are pushing past, trying to get to the loos I think. They really shove, one woman nearly takes off my arm with her bloody alligator of a handbag. I get rude, saying ‘NO WORRIES, SHOVE AWAY ME DARLINS, IT’S ORRIGHT I DON’T NEED THAT ARM, WHAT ARMY DID YOU GET THROWN OUT OF?’ and it’s ok, no-one understands a word, in fact they don’t even react to my tone of voice. Grrr....

At the ticket office there is a sign saying we can buy a multi-visit ticket. But asking for one is hopeless, the ticket-seller just scowls at me and gestures towards the information desk around the corner. Why on earth would the ticket-seller to THE most important museum in St Petersburg speak English?? I am NOT abandoning this queue! Two tickets for one expensive visit please. The museum closes the doors to entries at 5pm, and closes overall at 6pm. We don’t have much time, and we must have something to eat.

Getting in is another hassle - we go through the security sensor thing (like at an airport) and the guard gestures to M’s plastic carry bag and growls something. We ask politely what he means, and he shouts ‘GARDAROB’ at us. Oh, ok, we’ll go and put the nice plastic bag in the cloakroom will we? Okey-doke. Here we go, just harmless little Aussie tourists, nothing worry about at all, at all... down a flight of stairs past a very pongy loo, and the cloakroom attendant doesn’t want to take the plastic bag. I say “Sorry??’ and she smiles, takes the bag, and waves me away. Phew. We go back through the security sensor thing and once again the guard shouts at M. He doesn’t like M’s raincoat. We’re going to explooode... a woman rushes up to us and says we must check his coat in too; when we ask why she looks at us as if we came down in the last shower and says ‘It is the rule.”. Right. Down ze stairs; out wiz ze cloakroom card... the nice lady takes the raincoat and this time we’re ok, we get through the sensor and stagger towards the cafe. Two hours and counting..

Something substantial is required after all that. And of course, now we’re inside it’s stuffy and hot. Of course. We have ham rolls and a pizza thing, beer, coffee and some fairly magnificent chocolate and poppy seed cakes. M is so far gone he actually asks me to go back and buy more cake! Wowee.. I’m so impressed I give him the rest of my beer (Petersburg-brewed Baltika beer, 5.5%, I’ll be wobbwy if I drink it all, it’s a 375ml can..).

Now, 4.50pm and here we go, French Impressionist collection. Up one flight of stairs it says. They don’t say ‘up one four-staged flight of stairs equivalent to nearly three flights of normal stairs’. Puff puff. Then we hike to Room 143, only to find the nice museum attendant taking in the sign which says ‘Room closes at 5pm’. Ripped off! We nip in anyway, and have 5 minutes of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Seurat, before another nice museum attendant (all middle-aged Russian battle-axes with formidable handbags) chucks us out. I’m thinking ‘We spent all that time and money for 5 minutes of THAT??’ but what can we do?

All is not lost, we keep walking through huge galleries and along tapestry-lined hallways, admiring the parquet, marquetry, urns, thrones, gilt everythings, marble everything-elses, and see a number of salons, ballrooms, throne rooms, a huge bronze tomb, dozens of noble portraits of generals (including Wellington, who looks a right snob). There are of course dozens of portraits of the nobility and the royal family members, especially the dainty princesses in their ornate satin gowns, and the dowager duchesses in their HUGE strings of HUGE pearls, and lace caps like waterfalls down their back, and rings and crosses and jewels set into the bodies and swathes and swathes of fabric in the skirts, like theatre curtains. And dawgs. Cavalier King Charles, and Pointers seemed to be the favoured types. The dogs are universally painted as barking playfully at the satin-slippered feet of the be-gowned and curlicued madame. I bet it took ages to pose for a portrait like that, probably took up half the day when you were filthy-rich and had nothing else to do but count your peasants.

We’re both reminded very much of the looooooooong walk we had through the Vatican when we went to see the Sistine Chapel - that was at least an hour and a half of stomping up marble staircases and along obscenely-richly decorated galleries and through panelled salons and around gilded atriums.. it made us both quite angry, to see the lavishness of the art and sculpture and think of all the starving folk who paid for it. This palace is much the same, but dingier. There has been a lot of restoration work, pictured in photos around some of the galleries, but a lot of the walls and floors are very dirty, and the higher reaches of the rooms (I don’t see a single ceiling less than eight metres high) are very grey and dusty. Think of what it must take to keep even basic cleaning up to par... armies of floor-sweepers and mops and dusters...

I enjoyed a throne room which had rows of urns on each side - the urns were made from huge pieces of polished malachite and lapis lazuli and Belarus quartzite. Gorgeous colours. I rather liked the effect of a ballroom lined with gilded marble columns, and a pale marquetry floor. That was a very light room, with about 10 bronze and gold chandeliers, each 3 metres in diameter and positively bristling with chunks of crystal. We found a small salon of Italian 17thC religious paintings from the San Bernadino monastery in Italy; allegorical Renaissance scenes. These paintings have been restored and the blues and reds really glow. We were thrown out of that room too.

Our last room before we give up (it’s hot and terribly stuffy, of course none of the windows are open, I expect nasty fresh air is bad for museum pieces..) is a small display of porcelain - just little fribbles exchanged between Tsar and Duke, for example. Like this: the Duke and Duchess of Russianovsky took part in a play ‘After Homer”, and the Tsar had a token of his esteem made to thank them: a porcelain THING (an epergne?) about two feet high, possibly it’s an urn underneath but it’s so ornately decorated with maidens and sheeps and flowers and garlands; gilded, painted, glazed and embellished, that the original form is quite hard to discern. It probably cost the average yearly income for about 500 starving villages. And these pieces were the tiniest fraction of the collection - another piece, nearly a metre wide, made from very fine china, depicted Catherine the Great seated on her arched throne, wearing a dress at least thee times her width (ie with panniers; what a crazy fashion - then again, it meant you could balance yourself out with really big hair!); down a flight of steps decorated with Roman statues were a number of noblemen and women paying their respects; and a fountain played behind the throne, water splashing down into a little circular moat surrounding the base of the steps. This piece was part (part!) of a dessert setting. Only dessert. Nothing special...

Museum fatigue, heat, outrage and sheer gobsmackery are the end of us. We totter towards the exit signs, joining the throngs who are slowly being herded out from the vast reaches of the palace. The hatchet-faced attendants don’t muck around, I can’t hear any please or thankyou going on. We’re buffetted by guides rushing through with last-minute tour groups, who are using pretty aggressive body language to get to see things along their way. As they are walking against the tide, the tide gets biffed. I nearly lost my balance when a determined woman stepping right in front of me and just shoved me out of the way. M said he’d biffed her right back as he passed her, my hero..

Retrieving the bag and raincoat is no problem. Getting outside only requires one last charge through a crowd.. into a cool breeze coming off the river. In the distance we see more huge, gilded monuments, two significant churches, and more palace-type buildings. I feel a bit faint-hearted, all this history!

Totter totter back to the hotel, my only thought being to cool off and get some grog into me. M has been out for wine (Romanian Chardonnay -- A$7.5) and lemonade, so the soothing sound of a B gargling will commence any minute now.

Tomorrow we may well choose the City Bus tour, followed by the City Canal tour, to save our feet! We want to go back to Hermitage Museum, but I think a day’s grace is a good idea. And we’ll have to get there a lot earlier to have time to look at the other 7/8ths of the museum we didn’t see today!


A couple of NBs: when M went out this morning to try to buy newspapers, he ducked back to the big bookshop on Nevsky Prospekt and, although he failed to find the St Petersburg Times (due out today), he bought me a little fridge magnet; a tiny photo-frame with a silhouette of a little black cat. He’s going to translate it for me in a minute... it says ‘Cats leave their paw-prints on our hearts’; aww...

In the museum queue, there was a bloke wearing another grunge t-shirt - he was, like Matti, also getting on, I’d say in his 60s, with watery green eyes, possibly German. His t-shirt said PHANTOM LIMBS in black-dripping-blood font.

Did I tell you we found the Stroganoff Palace yesterday? It doesn’t remotely summon up the urge to eat sour cream in me, but if we get there to have a proper look I’ll report back about any connection with the dish.

Russian fashion: many of the women, all ages and sizes, wear very beautifully cut trousers. I saw some very elegantly-dressed people today; a woman in a red linen dress which suited her so well, she was stunning; a man in a stone-coloured textured linen suit, with dark loafers and THE most understated, well-fitted and tailored dark grey jacket I’ve ever seen; and several 30s-aged women in trouser suits who were wearing purrfect trouser shoes. Beautiful. I am not making comparisons with myself, because this is designer gear, for really rich people, and I am a pragmatic Aussie tourist in my trusty red shoes.... and anyway, *I* have hand-made silk nighties from Bangkok, so ner. (M took a spectacularly horrible photo of me in one, this morning, but the glazed-puffiness of face and air of fatal bleariness was far too confronting for me to keep it. You can make do with the funny shots I took of myself in the mirror at the Helsinki Modern Art Museum.)

The other variant of Russian fashion is the babes: skinny black jeans rool, worn with the highest heels you can imagine. Seeing some of these young women teetering across the cobblestones today made me even more determined to stick to flats forever. The prevailing look is coloured hair - anything but your natural colour, and for preference fairly big splodges of colour rather than any attempt to look blended; baby pink lipstick; smudgy dark eyes; long fake fingernails; candy-coloured plastic shoes, little midriff-exposing tops, or cleavage-central. The blokes wear their shirts out, tailored straight across the hem so they don’t dip at the back, with loafers rather than sneakers, and nearly always with black jeans or grey trousers. I only see goatees on foreigners. Occasionally you see a Viking with wild red and orange hair flying everywhere; these blokes invariably wear old dark green t-shirts and long shorts, and have incredibly huge ugly feet.

We stopped at a “Produkti” shop - this is a very small room down three steps from the footpath, divided into three counters; one selling booze, one selling chocolate, sweets and soft drink, and the other what we would call a small delicatessen. The woman there is NOT going to smile, she doesn’t understand our English, and even making a gesture towards the fridge where the “Moloko” (milk) is seems to test her patience. We bought some UHT milk here the other day .. this time I see a plastic bottle (a la Lite White) and think goodie, fresh milk...

Today brought to you by ... a fabulous cup of tea* at 3am, which I made myself. I disturbed the night-receptionist, who came rushing out of her little room looking adorably flushed and sleepy.... some Gucci which I can’t really smell; eau de St Petersburg Museum dunny, which I can :/ ; sweaty old man; and the sizzle of the lamb shaslik I had for dinner in an Azerbaijani cafe. We went there because they play classical music, but as soon as we sat down they put MTV on. Damn.

The fabulous cup of tea nearly didn’t happen, because when I poured the milk into the cup it was so sour it was completely solid curds and whey. YukkkKKKK. Made me feel quite ill. I turfed the whole lot into the bin, I couldn’t even tip it down the sink, thought I might block it!

[... and why, do I hear you ask, did I not notice this when I bought the milk? Because the milk bottle is entirely encased in a heat-shrunk plastic cover which is the label, nutrition info, cute lil cow symbol, and measuring marker for quarter-litre gradations up the side. So mere globs of blecccchhh can’t be seen by the untrained (not cynical enough) Aussie eye.]

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