|With only 2 places left on the bluelist, I was determined to see Moscow and stand in Red Square.Problem was, its expensive and none of my friends fancied going. Adventure Company don’t run trips there, so I signed up with a company called On The Go tours.They didn’t do just a trip to Moscow, it was called the Vodka shot tour, and included 2 days in St Petersburg and an overnight train to Moscow as well as the ubiquitous 2 days in Moscow.Id never been struck by St Petersburg, so looked at the trip there as a bonus.
Here I stand at Eternal flame, on the Fields of Mars.
|It was Russia after all, and after 90 minutes getting through passport control, where the staff on the gate simply walked away and left us helpless, I realised this was the start of things to come.My bag wasn’t there when I got through, our guide Artem spoke to them. Although they treated us with indifference, the procedure was explained.I had to fill in 2 forms for the administrator (as a matter of routine), once checked I had to fill in 2 forms for the security team (in case my bag had been impounded.Once these forms had been filled in, I was permitted to speak to the lost luggage official, who had 2 further forms for me to fill in.
This process took more than 45 minutes. On one occasion, I had filled in 2 very detailed forms, and a full stop on one, wasn’t duplicated on the other, which they flagged up to my annoyance.
After all of this, the lost luggage official had a quick look at the computer and pointed out that my bag was still in Paris.
It would be 40 hours before I would be re-united with my bag. Nobody at the airport looked concerned if I ever saw it again, and I believe that without Artem, I wouldn’t have.
Never mind, we all leave the airport, jump on a coach, and we are off to our hotel.
|There were some pretty cool people on the trip although I was surprised at just how many there were (I think there were something like 24 all together).
|We were all taken to a briefing room in the hotel for some advise and also shown loads of optional excursions that we could sign up for.I thought charging admission to the Hermitage was a bit unreasonable on a pre-paid tour, but there was a trip to the Ballet, that was only 40 quid, so these sort of balanced out.Artem took us all to a bar across the road. It was pretty good inside and they had their own micro brewery.
|The next day, we are up for breakfast, then jump in the coach for a morning tour of St Petersburg.Several times, our coach was stopped by the police, for a routine inspection of “papers” (basically, they saw it was full of tourists and stopped our driver for a bribe).Artem said simply “The police are not here to help you”.We stop of at St Isaac’s square.
The square features 3 interesting sight’s all in the same square.
This statue of Tsar Nicholas I has pictures on the pedestal, said to be of his wife and daughters.
It also has scenes from his life (2 of the scenes show suppression of rebellions).
|St Isaac’s Cathedral.Thousands of wooden piles were sunk into the marshy ground to act as foundations for the building.St Petersburg suffers sever flooding, and although beautiful to look at, you have to wonder why it was built there (its said after only 3 months of construction, everything Tsar Peter had built was washed away, but he carried on regardless).During the soviet era, the Cathedral was designated as a museum and is still technically one now.
|The Astoria hotel.American write John Ree author of the famous eyewitness account of the revolution Ten Days that Shook the World, was staying here when the Bolsheviks seized power.Hitler had famously arranged a banquet here to celebrate his conquest of the city. A victory, which never came.Whilst I found some of the Russians I met (most of them in fact) to be obnoxious and offensive, there was little doubt that they were a proud people.
Artem talked proudly about the siege of Leningrad and the courage of the ordinary people who had stood against the Nazis.
|Artem was very modern and enthusiastic. Standing in the square he gives an impromptu talk on Modern Russia.The trip was a real whirlwind, and I don’t think I ever got to thank him for his enthusiasm throughout the week.
|St Nicholas Cathedral.Founded by Sailors and Admiralty employees, it took its name after the patron saint of Sailors where it later became know as the “Sailors church”.The 4 tiered bell tower opposite has an unusual folklore tale attached.Its said that a local man, climbed to the top, to fix it, and was awarded a certificate of free beer for life.
He repeatedly (and quite understandably) lost the certificate many times, and in the end, the award was tattooed onto his neck.
Today, if a St Petersburg ‘er is in the mood for drinking and offered one, they will sometimes point at their neck, in the place where the free beer tattoo was located.
|The old war dog of the soviet Union.No, not the people in the picture, they were a really nice couple from London (The chap on the left acted as camera man for my Red Square podcast).The ubiquitous Lada. Simple DIY mechanics and un-pretentious functionality have made this the international symbol of Russia and a success all over the the world (it is the only car brand, to exist on every continent).In line with its un-pretentiousness, Lada UK, sponsor Aldershot football team.
|Field of Mars, a swamp which was drained, and used for practicing military manoeuvres takes its name from Mars, the Roman god of war.The Eternal flame nearby (built in 1957) commemorates the victims of the Revolution and the Civil war.I was awed by how seriously the Russians treated the passing of their war dead.Whatever criticism could be laid at the Russian people, a lack of appreciation of the sacrifice of others in war, isn’t one of them.
|We stop of at Vasilevskiy Island.The famous Rostral columns were originally designed for use as light houses (they are 32m high).The ridiculous looking boat features, are inspired from Italy, where it was common to decorate castles and the like with the remnants of defeated ships.
|As we drive around, we park up to take some pictures, and across the waterways is the impressive image of the Hermitage.
|Millionaires street, takes its name from the expensive properties located on it.The house at no 12 Millionaires street, witnessed the end of the Romanov dynasty.It was here that Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, Nicholas II’s brother, signed the decree of abdication in March 1917.
|Alexander Column in palace square built to commemorate victory over Napoleonic France.It was, rather ironically, created by Auguste de Montferrand,the same architect who built St Isaac’s Cathedral, who was French.The column itself is made from a single piece of granite, 83 feet long.
|Palace square taken from the Winter palace.The scene of massive protests during the 1991 Coup.General staff building, the headquarters for the Russian army. Carlo Rossi demolished an entire row of houses to build it.It was near here, that I went into a bank to change some money.
The 3 security guards there, though heavily armed, were quite friendly. I asked one of them where the money exchange was, as he turned around to speak to me, I had a scorpion machine pistol pointed at my face.
It was good natured, and he gestured with the automatic weapon, towards the exchange.
Not an every day occurrence in my life.
|The Hermitage. Incorporating the breathtaking staterooms of the Winter Palace, the world famous Hermitage holds nearly three million exhibits ranging from fine arts to archaeological finds.As we enter the Hermitage, we climb Rastrelli’s masterly staircase and are met with this scene at the top.The overall splendour of the building of almost impossible to capture.
|This was one of the many state rooms in the Palace, it actually featured solid gold paint throughout.Our guide Tanya mentioned that a popular dish cooked for visitors was bears paw.It sounded horrendous to me.When you imagine that the Royal family lived like this and millions of people were freezing and starving, its not hard to see why there was a revolution.
|Only officially registered guides are allowed to give tours of the Hermitage.Tanya, the operations manager of our tour company had taken up the reigns from Artem.This famous peacock clock was designed and built by the London jewell’er and goldsmith James Cox.His fertile imagination generated ideas that were then turned into reality by the craftsmen and mechanics of his company.
Its the largest automaton clock of its kind in the world, and features 4 mechanisms. 3 animate the birds and animals, and the 4th actually keeps the time. It works like this:
1. At the end of each hour the owl begins working. Its cage rotates, little bells ring, the owl turns its head to right and left, blinking its eyes and tapping its right foot. The cage makes twelve rotations and stops.
2. Roughly ninety seconds after the owl starts moving its mechanism starts up the peacock. It spreads its tail, stretches its neck, turns and throws back its head, opening its beak. When its tail is fully spread, the bird freezes for a second. Then it smoothly turns its tail to the viewers, again freezes for a moment, returns to its starting position, folds its tail and lowers its head.
3. At the end of its cycle the peacock mechanism starts the cockerel. After shaking its head several times, it crows.
It was a gift from Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin (secretly her husband) to Catherine the Great.
|Another of the elaborate rooms in the palace.I’ve seen some pretty amazing things while I’ve been travelling, but I have really never seen a palace as elaborate as this, it was astounding.It must have also taken hundreds or thousands of people to maintain it.The palace even had its own theatre, but it was closed when we arrived.
|Other parts of the Hermitage, are museums of various kinds.Here in the classical arts section, is one of 2 pictures painted by Leonardo Divinci, The Litta Madonna.
|The Royal family, even had their own ancient Egypt museum.
|In the contemporary arts section, was Ea Haere Ia Oe (where are you going), painted by Paul Gauguin.