Friday, September 25, 2009

Weekend in St. Petersburg

Why go back to Moscow when you can spend the weekend in St, Petersburg? That was the idea planted in my head by Vladimir last week. The original plan of staying at the home of a Russian rock star friend of Sasha's never actually materialized, but the ever-helpful angel Tatania contacted her cousin Natalia who is a tour guide in St. Petersburg and hooked me up big time.

I left the Ural hotel in Perm at 4 am with the "Eternal" crew in our trusty "Famous Musicians" van, and we arrived at the airport in Perm in time for our 6:15 am flight to Moscow.  It was a very old plane, and the overhead compartments could not hold anything much larger than a messenger bag, so all of us had to be very creative in finding spaces to store our musical gear for the flight. The seats conveniently folded both forward and backwards, pretty much guaranteeing that in a crash landing, you will fly forward and hit the pilot.  Unless you have one of the rare seat belts that actually stay buckled -belts that look alarmingly similar to the ones in the Dodge Dart I drove in high school. Now this is the Aeroflot Airlines I have heard so much about!

Carmen, Celeste,Chad & Joe say goodbye in Moscow

After landing in Moscow, I said goodbye to Carmen, Loren, Celeste, Chad & Joe, who took a transfer to the international airport where they had an 8 hour layover before their flights back to LA.  Huun Huur Tu took a van back to their Olympic Village digs in Moscow, and Vlad and I hung out at the Moscow terminal to wait for our flights - his to see his mother in norther Russia, and mine to St. Pete's.

My flight took off at 9:45, and the great discount I got on this shuttle was offset by the $50 in extra baggage fees I was charged, because I am lugging my keyboards and gear with me so I will have them for the trip back to NYC.  There was an offer to keep them in Moscow, but the logistics were never very clear, so I opted to drag them along on my weekend.  The shuttle plane, operated by Russiya Airlines, was even older than the previous plane.  This one featured welded-shut ashtrays in the seats, metal tray tables, and overhead compartments that must be meant to hold purses, as even a briefcase would not fit.  My travel guitar got to fly in Business class, in a space where there was a missing seat. Nice!

My hotel on the Fontanka river

The flight is only an hour, and I arrived in St. Petersburg airport around 11:00 am.  About 20 minutes later, the transfer taxi arrived, driven by a very nice man named Roman, who knew one word in English - "traffic". This was his greeting to me, an apology for being a bit late.  This was also the word he used as he pointed out various points of interest along the way - Moskovsky Propekt "traffic", Neve River "traffic", Anichkov Bridge "traffic"! Even so, I could see that St. Petersburg promised to be a city to remember.

The Anichkov Bridge - famous for the "horse tamer" statues

My mini-hotel was just off the Fontanka River embankment, close to the bridge that bears the same name as the hotel "Anichkov Bridge".  I arrived a little before 1 pm, and t was a beautiful day, so I took a walk around the city, mostly on and around the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, a name I remember well from Doestoevsky.  What a beautiful city!  And unlike Moscow, the people here smile, and seem more friendly.  Like Paris, the young lovers kiss on the main streets, and exuberant women run up sidewalks to greet each other with hugs and kisses that in other cities would e reserved for long lost reunions.  The rivers run through the city, and there are tourist boats everywhere, sliding under the many ornate bridges full of beautiful young Russians who are, yes, smoking cigarettes and holding open bottles of beer.

A poet watches over the church square

St. Petersburg is for lovers

The Palace Square (now the Hermitage Museum)

Your carriage awaits, Cinderella

In Russia there is a law that all young women must wear heels (or so it seems)

My hotel is just across the river from the former residence of the famous choreographer-impresario Diaghilev, who may have concocted the ballet "Rite of Spring" with Stravinsky watching the same view as I have today. I checked in via email with Natalia, who confirmed she would meet me at noon the next day for a tour of the city. Since I was running on very little sleep, I decided to have an early dinner and found an amazing Italian restaurant just off Fontanka called Probka (the Russian word for "cork").  A wine bar/bistro, it had a great view of the St. Simeon Church. I had a carrot cream soup followed by the special risotto with chaterelle mushrooms and a glass of malbec.  For dessert, I ordered chocolate gelato, but on the urging of the waitress, changed it to the home-made pear gelato that was one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. Incredible!  This dinner made up for all the tongue and mayo meals of Perm, and I went to sleep a very happy man.

Probka - another solo dinner in a romantic city 

The next day I met Natalia at noon, for a tour of the city.  An English teacher most of the year, she works as a professional guide when school is out, and she knew her stuff.  The photos below show some of the wonderful places we visited in the city.  Unfortunately, it began to rain about half an hour into our walking tour.  I thought it might be a good idea to cut it short, but Natalia insisted that we power on and do the complete 4 hour tour she had planned. It is just as beautiful in the rain, she insisted, and I had to agree, but by hour 4 I was sloshing around in wet sneakers and very damp clothes, so she took pity on me and cancelled the planned boat trip at 5. Since it was a Saturday, the most popular day for weddings, there were many brides and their entourages following the tradition of visiting all the romantic and holy places on their wedding day for good luck - even in the pouring rain! So who was I to complain?

At Pushkin's statue in Art Square - as for the pigeons, everyone's a critic I guess

My tour guide Natalia, cousin of Tatiana, our friend in Perm

Inside St. Ivan's church

Catherine the Great gave this statue as a gift to her husband...

so newlyweds visit it for good luck right after their wedding

These two hang at the statue and play "Here Comes The Bride" for tips

Another bride near St. Paul's fortress, where they imprisoned Doestoevsky
Not sure why that is good luck

Peter the Great was humble and never had a big head, we are told

This beautiful church is named something that translates into
"site of the bloody massacre that is now sacred"
Don't know what their parish soccer team is called.

 I got back to the hotel and put on some dry clothes and to ward off a cold, I thought I should find some soup and hearty cuisine. I headed down the Fontanka away from the touristy cafes of Nevsky Prospekt, and found a small restaurant that had a Russian menu in the window with one phrase in English - "Georgian Cuisine." I entered and through a pantomime asked about soup, and my efforts were rewarded with a big bowl of an amazing soup with herbs and spices, rice, vegetables and a small piece of beef brisket. Yum!  It came with an unusual sourdough-type bread and the only red wine they had at the moment - some Malbec.  Amazing.  After dinner the rain had stopped, and I took a walk through the neighborhood with the idea of finding some live music.  But the long day took its toll, and instead I made a circle back to the hotel and a good nights sleep.

Entrance hall of the Hermitage Museum

The next day I met Natalia in St. Peter's Square at 11 am for a tour of the Hermitage Museum.  If you do not book in advance, you usually have to wait in a 3 hour line, but she had pulled some strings, and I handed 400 rubes to a colleague of hers who looked like a character from "Crime and Punishment", and he produced a ticket from his briefcase, and we were able to skip the line, go through the "tours only" line, and be part of the first group of the day in the museum.  What an incredible collection of art, one that spans centuries.  It is said that if you spent 1 minute in front of each work of art in the Hermitage, it wold take you 8 years to look at every painting and sculpture.  So Natalia gave me a tour of the greatest hits of the Hermitage in about 3 hours - a perfect tour.

Hey, I found a great loft space in St. Pete's

Natalia was a great guide - we got there before the crowds

Detail from the throne room

This malachite vase came from the Ural Mountains near Perm

Cost Plus World Market doesn't stock this dining room set

  It was a gorgeous day, so we headed to the river and arranged for the boat tour.  Since the bat had headsets with tours in every language, it would be one I would do on my own.  I bid Natalie farewell, and to kill the hour before the boat arrived, I sat at a cafe by the river, had a pint of Russian beer and enjoyed sleepy St. Petersburg on a Sunday.  The boat tour delivered, and is a great way to view the city and really get a perspective on how it must have looked to approaching ships visiting the Palace of Catherine the Great.

Great day for a boat tour

Hey. it's the star of "The Office" with his Russian girlfriend!

The LA river is nothing like the Fontanka, but both run through the city

After the boat, I decided to head back to the Georgian restaurant and see what else was on the menu.  One motivation for going back was it is very reasonable, and I was running low on rubles and did not really want to change more dollars since I was leaving Russia the next day.  This time I had some trout shiskabob, with a great dill and sour cream sauce, and a smaller bowl of that wonderful soup. The entire meal cost about the same as a large latte at Starbucks. I headed out into the night, once again looking for some live music.  I had read about a jazz club about a 20 minute walk from the hotel, so I headed that way, but about 15 minutes into the walk, my spidey sense kicked in, and I realized that this jazz club, like many in the US, was in a pretty sketchy neighborhood.  When I saw several doorways with armed security officers guarding hotel entrances, I decided that it was better to head back toward Nevsky Prospekt, and abandoned the idea of a jazz evening. So I had another nice evening walk through the city, and went back to the hotel and packed for the long journey back to New York. At 8 am, my trusty driver Roman showed up, and as we put my cases in his car, he greated me with his catch phrase -"Traffic!".  Four hours later I was in the Moscow airport, transferring to my plane to NYC.  I spent my last rubles at the Duty Free shop on my only purchased souvenir of Russia - a bottle of Beluga Vodka. The real souvenirs are the memories I am happy to have shared with you in this blog. Dos Vedanya!

Huun Huur Tu performs in St. Petersburg on Oct. 3rd
(but not with Carmen and me)
Maybe next year...Dos Vedanya!


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