Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The oldest museum in the world

Although most of the time we spent in St. Petersburg was blessed with good weather, we did have one day of full on rain. Cats and dogs type stuff! Having investigated the weather forecast before we got to the city we'd decided this was definitely the best day to visit the Hermitage. One of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Unfortunately we didn't book a taxi door to door from our hotel so we did end up with wet feet before jumping in an incredibly overpriced taxi. One piece of advice for St Petersburg taxis: agree a price before you set off, because they do NOT use meters! 

The Hermitage is situated inside the old Winter Palace. A fantastic building, and the art collections are enormous. We picked up a map while there, but trying to keep our costs down we didn't pay for an audio guide. I had already downloaded the Hermitage app which was pretty useful, and it's easy to find the really famous or interesting pieces as there will usually be a huge tour group gathered around them. I also booked my ticket online, (our hotel kindly printed off the confirmation) which saved me joining a large queue. 

We began our tour on the ground floor, away from the European Art, which was a good place to begin as it wasn't busy. We planned our tour direction, and started wandering. When we arrived at the art, to begin with we were looking at all paintings in each room. However, we soon realised this was going to take too long, and we were in danger of art burn-out. So, borrowing a pen from one of the attendants, we went through our iPhone app and marked on our map where each painting or sculpture was. Then we were able to go straight to each piece in the rooms and read the description from the app. I would recommend this, as it's impossible to see everything anyway and this way you really know something about the paintings you do see. The only issue was when we couldn't find a few of the paintings as they were on loan around the world. The attendants in the galleries are very friendly and helpful however so you can quickly ask if you're having trouble locating something.

We paid for the use of one camera, and did get a little carried away with taking pictures, so I have picked out my top picks as a taster of the art on offer at the Hermitage. If you're on the way to St Petersburg, definitely have a look at the hermitage website as it has lots of information on there, and if you have an iPhone the hermitage app is free! Bonus!

Posing with a massive box

Ruisdael 'Marsh' Mary's particular favourite. Also another warning; if you lean over too much you set off an alarm sensor, hense Mary's awkward pose.

Rambrandt 'David and Jonathan' (Sorry about the glass reflection)

It was very difficult to get a good picture of this Rembrandt, not least because of the hoards of people but more due to the terrible lighting in the Hermitage. I still couldn't get rid of all the glare. Not only for picture taking, just admiring the art with your naked eye it was a mission to find decent angles to view the picture, and if they were very large being very close up makes it difficult to take in the beauty of the whole picture. I think that would be my only criticism of the whole museum. The rest of my experience there was excellent.

Rembrandt 'Return of the Prodigal son'

St Sebastian

 I took a fancy to this set.

Thomas Gainsborough 'Woman in Blue' One of the small amount of British Art

and I recognised this little tyke as Prince Edward Tudor!

Jean-Honoré Fragonard 'The stolen Kiss'

Mary had taken a liking to one of the ceramics listed on our iPhone app, so we went to look for it. Named simply 'teapot and lid' with silver, uncut diamonds, emeralds and rubies we were looking forward to seeing a grand and impressive piece. When we finally located the teapot in one of the cabinets, we were extremely under-whelmed. Unfortunately this picture is not very good because the patterned floor reflected onto the glass but we had to get a picture of Mary with the crazily small teapot. For reference, please don't ever bring me tea this small.

In all it's glory

 Andre Derain 'Portrait of an Unknown Man reading.'

Henri Matisse 'Dance'

Some still life Cezanne

Auguste Renoir 'Roses in a Vase'
In this room are portraits of Russian Generals who fought against Napoleon in 1912. There are some missing portraits, likely to be of Decemberists who fell from grace.

and there's a great cafe on the way out that serves amazing cake!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Exploring St Petersburg

 Our final destination on our trans-Mongolian trip was to St Petersburg. I was so happy to get there as I hadn't enjoyed Moscow and heard from a variety of sources how different, and more European it was. In fact I'd read it described as the 'Venice of the North' because of the many canals and rivers. I can now tick of; Venice, Italy, 'the Venice of the East' Suzhou and of the North, St Petersburg. Is there a 'Venice of the south'? It's nothing like Venice in reality but I really loved it there anyway! Our first day we had our last pre-arranged city tour, the weather was pretty good, very sunny but with a slight nip in the air. Our guide, Maria, was around the same age as us which made it easy to ask even the daftest of questions without feeling like a wally. We did a lot of walking that first day and were glad our last Russian accommodation was in a decent hotel (The Cronwell). Thankfully we decided to visit the Hermitage the following day as it was pouring with rain. For some unknown reason we didn't book a taxi from our hotel however and got pretty wet until we found a (stupidly expensive) cab take us there. I wandered around with wet feet the whole day. 
Our last day was one of the best of my whole trip. I plugged in my headphones, and although I had a rough plan to visit St Issac's Cathedral I was in no rush to get there and wandered back and forth along Nevsky Prospekt in the sunshine alone with my thoughts. 

On our walking tour in Moscow our guide had talked a little about Gorky and his literature. She'd told us about the weird story called 'The Nose' about a man whose nose removes itself from his face and goes about St Petersburg living it up at parties and the such. The man however, becomes a recluse, as he cannot go out without a nose. There was, she said, a model of the nose near Gorky's statue off Nevsky Prospekt. I had asked Maria about it, and she pointed out the road it was supposedly on, commenting that she'd never seen it. So on my day of wandering I decided to look for it. I walked up and down the street Maria had suggested and the two either side, but I simply couldn't find the nose. It's either too small to see with the naked eye, or it's not there anymore. I was pretty disappointed.

The last place we made a visit to in St Petersburg was the St Peter and St Paul Fortress. Having made out journey through Yekaterinburg and learnt the fate of the Romanov family, we wanted to see their final resting place. Inside the fortress was a prison where many high ranking political prisoners had been held. One thing that struck me was the size of the cells. Not that it's ever going to be a nice experience to be locked up, the cells were huge! Having taught in an English prison, I was surprised at how much space the prisoners there were allowed. 

Our last night in St Petersburg was the last time sleeping in a bed for two days as we embarked on two overnight train journeys, through Moscow and on to the Ukraine.

A nice day outside the Hermitage

The world's most parallel street, accredited by the Guinness World records.

The Singer Building. Now a bookshop and cafe.

Where you can get a lovely cup of tea and a good view of the street.

Kazan Cathedral, which Lenin ironically changed into a museum of Atheism during the Soviet Union.

Statue celebrating the victory over Napoleon. This is made of solid granite and so heavy it has no foundations holding it down.

The Winter Palace (Hermitage)

St Issacs

Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great.

Entry to Sts Peter and Paul Fortress
The Romanov's final resting place.
Sts Peter and Paul Cathedral, on a pretty dull and wet day.

The Church on spilled blood. Modelled on St Basil's in Moscow.

The View from St Issac's
St Issac's from the front

Looking from St Issac's towards the Winter Palace and Sts Peter and Paul Fortress.
Networking with some Russian socialites. ;-)

Where the nose should have been.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Lenin and Gorky


Our tour guide had pointed out a few places of interest for the remainder of our time in Moscow and we liked the sound of the 'underwater' interior of the Gorky House Museum. Inside it was less of an underwater theme and more just a smooth, fluid-lined staircase but I enjoyed walking around nonetheless. I was excited to stand inside the very room where during the Soviet Union, writers discussed Socialist Realism and what it meant for their work and Russian literature in general. Many of the writers who convened here were considered too radical to fit the mold (Including Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr Zhivago). Gorky was brought to live in this house as literary royalty but he was uncomfortable with it's luxury and used only the ground floor. He disliked being referred to as the 'master' of the house. He welcomed all writers into this house and liked to think of it more as a place for the literary community rather than his own private residence. 

Another place I visited in Moscow was Provokiev's house. I wouldn't recommend it however, the lady who 'showed' us around was unfriendly and as everything was in Russian there wasn't much for us to understand. Even when we tried to write a few notes on our phones to research about later the lady came over to stop us, presumably as she thought we were taking photos. 

I will admit here, I didn't like Moscow. There aren't many places I've visited that I really have not liked, or places I would not like to visit again. Manila is the only one I can think of at the moment. In Moscow, I did not feel welcome. Things were confusing, as they often are for visitors in a foreign land, but no one seemed approachable or was particularly helpful. The subway was atrocious. Built in the early 1930s, quite frankly it seemed not to have been updated since then. It's dirty, loud and old. I know I had come from Seoul, with one of the best subway lines in the world. But seriously, getting on the train in Moscow was downright depressing. There were no maps inside the train carriages, and the name of the station only displayed at one end of the platform so impossible to read as you whizz past on the train, even if I were able to read Cyrillic. The announcements were impossible to hear over the noise of the train. Tickets were confusing as you pay for how many journeys, not for how far you are going. I now realise we paid for 4 extra journeys that we never took.

The night we left Moscow added to my dislike for the city. Our train was late at night, and as we arrived at the train station and made our way up from the bowels of hell (The Subway) we exited the station and after a while and some confusion realised we were the wrong side of the road for the main railway station. Finally finding the correct place, there was no English. None at all, not even an EXIT sign. We got to left luggage and it looked like our bags were locked in. Panic began to rise, and thankfully Mary stayed calm and got someone from another counter to free our bags. Then began the hunt for our platform. We found our train details on the departures board, platform 6. But can we find platform 6? No, they appear to be numbered 1,3,5,7... We asked a couple of people, one of whom was helpful and could speak good English. He explained that the platform numbers would change in about an hour ready for our train. Of course, that makes absolutely prefect no sense. We found some seats in a cafe and waited out the hour or so until our train left. The station was full of shifty looking people, lurking in alleyways, noiselessly creeping up behind you, in doorways. It was so unnerving and I was very glad to board the train to finally be on our way to St Petersburg.

Gorky's desk, very tall and without drawers, the way he liked it.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

And we stopped for a cup of tea!

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Gremlin

I've always thought the Kremlin was a funny name, when I was younger I thought it was actually called the Gremlin. This also fitted well with the stereotype of scary Russians. I can confirm that Russians have a harsh exterior, serious faced and sharp. Overall the people we met in Siberian Russia were by far the nicest, friendly and approachable. In Moscow and St. Petersburg they were a lot more stern. It also came to our attention that approaching someone in a customer service role (ticket offices/information desks) often resulted in receiving absolutely no, or at the most the bare minimum of help. But taking our query to a security guard or police officer meant we were guided to where we needed to go, or shown the correct train on the display boards. This seems a bit odd, as the former are being paid to serve you (and don't) and the latter are not (but do). So if you are in need of assistance in a Russian train/bus station, head towards to police or security. 

In the Kremlin we wandered around the Armoury, where I set off an alarm because I pointed (too close) to a horse drawn carriage (be careful!) The Armoury is full of treasures and historical artifacts. Outside we walked up to Cathedral square, where there are four churches in a courtyard. A few of them were closed but we managed to take a look around the Archangel Cathedral where many of the Tsars are buried. Also outside in this area is the World's biggest cannon, whose (cannon) balls are too big and therefore it has never been fired. There is also the Tsar bell, again the world's largest, which has never rung and is missing a large chunk out of the side.

I wasn't overly impressed in the Kremlin, and left with 'Oh, is that it?' echoing in my head.

The Cathedral of the Annunciation

The Assumption Cathedral (Where Tsar coronations happened)

Tsar Cannon

Tsar Bell