Wednesday 25 September 2019
The train from Moscow to St Petersburg is right up there with the best in Europe. It lopes along at 250 kph, with comfortable reclining seats and a choice of combination meals served by pretty, but grim-faced young female cabin crew. A screen showed the outside temperature got down to zero but whizzed back up to a steamy 6 for arrival in St Petersburg. I think I saw the control handle captain (according to his decorated outfit) stride through, full of importance.
St Petersburg looks like the old low-rise section of Paris, but wider and grander. And the same goes for our hotel, the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe. It’s like a palace; the last update was 100 years ago but every ancient detail is in perfect condition. Our room is as tall as it is wide, with a huge tiled bathroom where the underfloor heating cannot be reduced to much below fire-walking pit temperature. The hand-held shower, although the size of a little, old-style telephone, surprises with its generous output. After a shower you can dry yourself by either using the monogrammed towel or rolling across the hot floor. We are sleeping in the biggest bed I have ever seen – just short of boxing ring size. It would hold five people with ease. Maybe there will be a knock on the door and a couple of staff will hop in with us. Female, I would hope.
Breakfast is served in what may have been a massive ballroom, with stained glass windows and a grand piano on a stage. The food selection is vast, including that provided by a jolly, rotund omeletteier, and a hotel toaster which prompted the following review.
Hotel toaster review
Known as the Extremesky Tallboyavitch, this toaster has a mean little infeed, a funeral speed journey low on fire power that then feeds into a totally inappropriate delivery portal like the interior of a cathedral. It also wears a barred hat, awarded to it by the great grandson of Ivan the Terrible for terrible services to toasting. An English lady in the waiting line (like picking up the kids from school) remarked, “I say, it is taking rather a long time. I suppose we English invented toast and they don’t understand that too well here.”
A major reason we wanted to visit St Petersburg was to see the Hermitage (local pronunciation ‘ermitarrge’) Museum. Its several buildings front the huge Palace Square featuring a granite tower made from one piece of stone weighing 600 tonnes. The square also features people who dress up in bygone garb and offer to pose for pictures, after which they nail the hapless photographer for whopping modelling fees. Professional pickpockets practice their art in the square too, taking care to pay off the cops who control the territory. The journalist in me would love to sit down with one and report on training, skill levels and sprinting speed. Our guide shrugs his shoulders: “part of the culture, I guess,” he says.
The Hermitage Museum holds the second largest art collection in the world, to say nothing of sculpture, installations, porcelain and historical jewellery. If you spent three minutes to look at each exhibit it would take you three years to get through them all. And that doesn’t take into account the enormous number of pieces in storage.
Art aside, the museum buildings themselves are breathtaking. Each gallery stops you in your tracks with its grandeur and soaring architecture. They are palaces restored or recreated.
The effect of all this is overwhelming. I quickly became numb to yet another wave of exquisite beauty festooned with gold. It was like drowning in honey. The Museum of Contemporary Art brought me down to earth a little because I love the impressionist school, Monet in particular, of which there were many outstanding examples. And Michelle picked out a few pieces in the Diamond Room that I will remember if I win a couple of lotteries.
Each day tourists descend on the museums like stampeding wildebeests, many from the cruise ships that tie up at St Petersburg. Nobody wants to miss out on taking selfies backdropped by the main attractions. Intolerable overcrowding is now the norm in the most sought-after tourist attractions like these. It is a case of see it now or never.
A doctor examines Michael Angelo’s Crouching Man who was complaining about a sore back
This statue depicts one of the contestants in the original Olympic Games giving a urine sample because of suspected drug use in the flying 100 yards.