Monday, 6 June 2011

St Petersburg with my sister

Inside The Hermitage
Some of you may remember that for my birthday this year, my husband surprised me by arranging for my sister and me to go away for four days to St Petersburg in Russia. This was no random location: it was chosen specifically because eleven years ago I'd fallen in love with a book that was set in Leningrad. One lovely I know actually chose to go and study there solely because of her love for this book...so a four day pilgrimage seems fairly unobsessive by comparison. I packed the book in my bag (all 636 pages of it) for rereading when I left and my sister bought a copy too. I also packed an emergency piece of paper that said: I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian, but I am a vegetarian. Russia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which I had failed to learn before leaving. When my husband expressed concern that I only knew seven words of Russian, I demonstrated quite how many different ways 'please' (Пожалуйста) could be said to convey different meanings depending upon expression. Aside from the obvious it effectively conveys: a cry for help; an ironic expression of exasperation; an enthusiastic request for more and even begging should the need have arisen. With 'thank you', 'Good day', 'Vegetarian', 'no/yes' and 'fox' in my repertoire and my emergency piece of paper in my pocket, I felt ready for most things.

A view of St Isaacs from our hotel
White Nights were only a week away when we visited, which meant that we could happily wander around at midnight without darkness threatening to disorientate us. It was this discovery that allowed us to breakfast daily at around 11.30am, having spent the morning lying in bed, at times barely able to breath for laughing as we read some of the best (or worst, depending on which way you view it) bits out to each other from The Bronze Horseman*. 

Once we had managed to get ourselves up and out we were surprised to find that contrary to our imaginings, St Petersburg is actually far bigger than anticipated and most days we walked around nine or ten miles.Over the days we spent there we noticed several things: that the skyline is dissected by the crisscrossing of overhead tramline cables, even though very few trams seem to be in use.


Russia seems to have far more Men in Uniforms loitering about than London. We liked this.


The book that I'd fallen in love with was set in 1941 in Leningrad in a time of war. During the siege 2 million of the city's inhabitants perished through starvation, leaving just one million surviving civilians living there. I had expected the streets to have been changed beyond recognition from those described in the book, but somehow, despite the impressive grandeur of many of the buildings, it felt like the vibrancy of the city had been stolen away, the streets seemed underpopulated and many of the buildings looked blank and deserted.


The food was wonderful. Our late breakfast seemed to cover lunch, but in the evenings we shared our time between Botanka in the west of the city and Idiot in the East. Both are vegetarian/vegan restaurants and it was easy to find plenty to eat. We were excited to sample Russian borsch due to our shared love of Prince Charles' Duchy Originals Beetroot soup and it didn't disappoint - utterly delicious. We also developed a new love of vodka when drunk neat with no ice and brought some home with us.



But perhaps the highlight of St Petersburg is its famous art gallery, The Hermitage. Inside, the building is jaw-droppingly impressive (see the photo at the top of this post) and I fell in love with the gathered voile that covered the windows. The artwork on display was wonderful and my sister was overjoyed to find three whole rooms of Matisse. And unlike other galleries, non-flash photography seemed perfectly acceptable and so we were able to photograph all our favourite paintings.

My favourites were these sleeping children by Henry Moore. I also like this sewing lady...I can't remember who it is by.


Our holiday was over far too quickly and we had such fun. I have so many lovely memories for the pot in my head. Not least my sister becoming trapped in the hotel's very large doormat, which seemed to try and swallow her up (or at least her shoes) like quick-sand as she walked over it.


At the airport we spent our last roubles on these tiny dolls. They are meant to represent us. For once I am taller.

I arrived home to a lovely half-term week: the children in the midst of recreating a 3D Hogwarts from the contents of the recycling box, the garden being overhauled by my husband and a flurry of room changes that somehow means that I have donated my sewing desk to my daughter as it was the only desk that would fit in her new (and tiny) room, so now I must try and carve out a new space to work. But before that my priority must be making my little boy some curtains that are not pink. And you know how much I love to make curtains**.

Florence x

* My sister's editorly opinion was that she would have happily wittled away at least 300 pages of this book. My own view was that I love the characters so much that I would have happily had a further 200 pages of poorly written bilge added on to keep them alive in my head for a little longer, however, even I would admit that it's not a literary masterpiece so if that kind of thing bothers you then please don't take my link as a recommendation. After spending many happy hours in St Petersburg playing the who-would-play-the-characters-in-this-book-if-it-were-made-into-a-film game we were delighted to discover on our return that it is actually already being made into a film to be released next year. We settled on absolutely no-one as the result of our game as the lead is impossibly handsome, strong and tall and yet refined at the same time, and we decided that he could only exist as a figment. I can't wait to see who the film makers thought was suitable for this role.

** Not at all. And in my desklessness, this will take place at the dining room table.

9 comments:

  1. It's a most magical city, isn't it? We were lucky enough to have a couple of days there last summer on our cruise. Even though there is so much splendourwith the architecture, there is certainly however a desolate feel to the place. I'm glad you weren't disappointed and had such a memorable trip with your sis x

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  2. That sounds like a really nice trip. Did you take any photos of the food? I'm very intrigued...

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  3. It sounds like a wonderful trip, especially being able to share it with your sister. Sightseeing, eating, laughing and vodka sounds like a perfect combination. I hope you're going to post photos of the 3D box hogwarts too - that sounds right up my street! Good to see you back x

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  4. So envious, I've always wanted to go to Russia, but the rest of the family is totally uninterested - and let's face it, I struggle to get to Ledbury 6 miles away. Anyway, I can dream, and I must track down that book!

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  5. Very brave, I would never dare to go to Russia for fear of getting lost. Also envious of the fact you get on so well with your sister. Mine is great but a "typical" bossy big sis who tells me off in shops for dawdling etc. Anyway, I live vicariously though others' trips abroad and this one was delightful, thanks!

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  6. I have never posted a comment before, but having found such a devoted bronze horseman lover, I have no choice! I finished reading it on the train. I cried for the remaining 20 mins on the train, plus the 15 min walk home. I was so overjoyed when I learned that both Tatiana and Alexander were still 'alive'. I envy your trip, what a wonderful way to celebrate the story.
    PS. I'm not sure I could bear to see how they turn that story into a movie - I agree with you, who could possibly play Alexander???

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  7. Oh I did love reading that post- it reminded me of my own trip to Moscow and St Petersburg (with 30 students!) 3 years ago. There are just so many people to see. I am quite tempted to read the book too...! Natasha's dance is quite a good one with lots of interesting stories of Russian history. Not quite as fun as your book though by the sounds of things...! Glad you had fun! C x

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  8. OMG that's my favourite book! The one and only book that I recommend to friends.

    How wonderful that you're able to visit with your sister.

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  9. That was a lovely read thanks... it's been a while since I have read one of your blog posts, I'd forgotten how refreshing they are. I would love to see the architecture, it has always appeared to be so mystical, however, I also see it as being quite a dark place, a sad place. Am I wrong?

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Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message - it's always really lovely to hear from people.

I now tend to reply within the comments section, so please do check back if you've asked a question or wish to chat.

Florence x