Sunday 29 September 2019

We stayed around town for our last day with our guide Vlad and driver XXXLski. Vlad talked about the frantic apartment building projects on the outskirts of the city. When Russian developers put up a block, they make it a whopper. A hundred thousand people can find themselves living on a small footprint, many without car spaces. This leads to crushing traffic congestion, since every apartment would have at least one car. If you arrive home late at night by car you may have to walk kilometres to get to your address. If there is an emergency, help can’t get through. Even so, there is a desperate housing shortage in and around the city, with corresponding escalating rental prices. 

A tall building in a city

Description automatically generated

Love thy neighbour but not his car

If you rent an apartment, you must pay a bond equal to one month’s rent, plus one month’s rent in advance plus the equivalent of one month’s rent to the agent as commission. If you engage an agent all you get is a list of probable vacancies from a data base. You then trail around yourself to suss them out and if you like one you politely call the agent and grovel. No such thing as an open for inspection. The power is firmly with the landlord and agent.

The Russian experiment with communism has had an odd effect. When the revolution came in 1917 many of the places of great opulence and historical significance were either wrecked, neglected or used for government purposes. Now that communism has gone and Russia is trying to get back democracy, what do tourists want to see?  Not the austere leftovers of Soviet Russia but the old, totally over the top opulence found in the palaces, monuments and churches. 

A picture containing indoor, mirror, table

Description automatically generated

Gold, glory, and famous tombs are what pulls the tourist crowd. This eye-waterer is in the Peter & Paul cathedral in the Peter & Paul Fort built to house the tombs of royalty and army heroes.

We stopped at a mammoth statue of Catherine the Great in a city garden. Beneath her feet are included the figures of the men who won battles for her both in the field and in the bedroom. Cathy was partial to quite a bit of nookie, so the story goes. She had at least 20 lovers – but not all at once, of course. 

A picture containing outdoor, tree, sky

Description automatically generated

Across the road from Catherine is, to me, is the most attractive building in St Petersburg. It is the Kupetz Eliseevs food hall. In 1903 two wealthy Eliseevs brothers talked the city fathers into letting them build the last new building allowed in downtown St Petersburg. (Since then there have been only restorations – no building). They wanted to sell classy food; think David Jones food hall but better. Tut tut, said the fathers. This is a cultured part of town, so no retailing. How about if we put a beautiful comedy theatre on the first floor? Mmm, okay. And that is how it is today. You must enter the theatre via the shop which stocks the most exotic food known to man. There is an invisible pianist playing a small grand piano near the front of the store while high up, near the ceiling at the back, are waxworks of the brothers waving greetings to the customers. The windows feature moving cartoon figures all engaged in comic moves with food. I had the best hot chocolate in my long tasting experience of the genre and a combination honey cake/halva that might turn out to be addictive. Although prices are high, they are not excessive, and certainly in keeping with the quality. 

A close up of a busy city street in front of a building

Description automatically generated
A store filled with lots of furniture

Description automatically generated

Godly matters called us to St Isaac’s Cathedral just when I thought I couldn’t be stirred by another church. I was wrong. It was soaringly magnificent (being the second tallest Orthodox church in the world) made all the more impressive by the singing of a choir as part of a Sunday service. The head priest (maybe he was a bishop or above) was conducting an intricately choreographed service dressed gorgeously in purple with matching crown. 

A picture containing outdoor, tree, building, street

Description automatically generated

St Isaac’s Cathedral. Apart from miracles inside, the construction was a miracle in itself 

A picture containing indoor

Description automatically generated

Our final look at Russian Orthodox cathedrals was the church of The Saviour of Spilled Blood (the blood in this case had belonged to Alexander II who was bumped off there). Again, the building was awe inspiring but hard to digest along with all the other magnificence we’d seen. 

We came down earth to when we rolled the dice with a mussel dinner at a Belgium style restaurant not far from our hotel. While the mussels were severely junior in size, they were submerged in a superb bisque. My attention was progressively diverted by the fruit beer which turned out to be a needful anaesthetic when the bill arrived. 

A picture containing person, man, indoor

Description automatically generated

Fruit beer can be deceptive, and was.