I was already in love with the notion of St Petersburg long before I arrived there. It was one of those cities of the world I had romanticized about since I was very young. I, therefore, was almost afraid to visit it, lest I be disappointed. Snapshots of the city, some imagined from Russian classics, some borrowed from movie adaptations of the same, were lodged inside my head over the years and I had longed to see if St Petersburg was anywhere close to what I had imagined it to be. This has always been my concern when I visit holiday destinations for the first time. Burdened with a vivid imagination, I am almost always anxious when I arrive first at a city, that, I will feel let down when the landscape of the city turns out differently from the carefully nurtured images inside my head.
As our taxi drove over the myriads of canals and entered the heart of the city, I arrived at the happy realization that my imagination, for once, would feel ungenerous, incompetent even. To call St Petersburg beautiful is to somewhat unjustly simplify its stature and to reduce its greatness. There is a dreamlike quality to this spectacular city of canals and bridges, where the past and present coexist seamlessly in a technicolour reality.
The reminders of the city’s historic past begin right from the time we check into Hotel Astoria. Despite the austere exterior, that belies the inner beauty and charm of this historic hotel, it was the most preferred venue for lavish banquets hosted by Russian Dukes where famous ballerinas danced into the wee hours; where Rasputin spent a night with the wife of a high-ranking government official and where prolific guests such as HG Wells preferred to stay when they visited this grand city. In this very hotel, Hitler had presumptuously planned a Christmas Party, going so far as to send out invitations, when it looked like the German Army was on the verge of capturing St.Petersburg (St Petersburg held out for over 900 days). The Germans could not last through the freezing temperatures, the all-agog Russian troops and an acute shortage of food (caused when Russian’s most cleverly set their fields on fire).
Pardon my rather lengthy digression but St Petersburg makes you want to revisit history, or at least seem sufficiently knowledgeable about the past lest you should come across as a complete ‘idiot’. Pardon that wordplay, but I feel compelled to pun on Dostoyevsky’s epic novel The Idiot (1869) that was set in St Petersburg.
There is Dostoyevsky’s apartment and museum somewhere in this city as is Tolstoy’s and I have every intention of seeing at least one of the two over the next four days. But for now, there are other things on the itinerary that need to be paid attention to. It is our first day in the city; we are a large bunch of tourists from Mumbai and are being driven to the outskirts of St Petersburg to get a taste of some military combat, Russian style.
The Russian military band is playing when we arrive at the venue. Slipping into our camouflage uniforms we begin the drill by singing the national anthem while the Indian flag is hoisted. Oh no, not one of us is nearly as patriotic usually, but it is India’s independence day today and it calls for a celebration, even though things back home are dismal and the UPA is diligently working towards retarding our growth.
The commander divides us into four teams and we get started on our drills soon after. The Kalashnikov machine guns have everybody excited and we spend an hour learning to put them together and disassemble them. There is a strong breeze and we are aiming at the target with clenched teeth. Seems like the men in berets who are teaching us to use these guns, have been briefed to look angry, bordering on menacing. The chap working with me however, is made of gentler stuff, for he shows me how to disassemble the gun patiently, watches me struggle with its various parts and finally says “Da” in happy approval.
Later that day, I get to drive a tank with rusty gears. I go full throttle in the open field and the person who has chosen to sit on top of this mean machine being driven by yours truly, is doing all he can to prevent getting thrown off by my sudden jerks and speedy turns. If I were in a real army combat, I would be crushing my own infantrymen under those wheels right now.
We are taught to identify land mines, jump through tyres and fire a canon. Provisions have been made for coffee and snack inside a tent. The hosts are expecting us to partake in these after our drill is over, but we are Indian civilians and are drawn to it every fifteen minutes. The ex-army chap who is in charge of training us is not impressed by our proclivity to eat in the middle of the drill and is looking at us disapprovingly.
In the meanwhile, his colleague places a hand grenade in the hands of another gentleman from our group, who is having a perfectly nice day up until this moment. The Russian is telling him in Russian that he has removed the pin but this bit is lost in translation. I am standing not far from this person and I hear an explosion from his direction. The grenade has gone off and his hand is bleeding profusely. Thankfully, there is an ambulance stationed at the site and he is rushed to the hospital with a hole in his hand, which he will carry back to India as a lasting memory of his trip. The Russian chap seems unperturbed by this event and shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly, as though it were an everyday occurrence.
It is late afternoon and all of us gentlemen cadets are starving. We have eaten only Russian cuisine since the husband and I stepped into the country four days ago, and our taste buds are planning a mutiny against us. I am delighted to discover that a sumptuous Chinese lunch awaits and we all indulge to our heart’s content. The only way to digest the guilt is to walk back to the Astoria and what a good decision this turns out to be for the only way to see St. Petersburg and admire it is to walk through its prospekts and alleys. It is too picturesque for words and a short walk to the hotel ends up becoming a long one because I cannot stop taking pictures of the multihued buildings lined along the canals on the way. Peter the Great was surely a man of taste and to the credit of the people of this city, they have gone to great lengths to preserve the beauty of St Petersburg.
In the evening a fleet of vintage cars arrive to drive us to dinner. It feels surreal to be driven around an old city in an old car. Once again, I am convinced, that I am born in the wrong era. I belong in the past. Make that “a past that includes a life of regalia, grand balls and soirees, because the proletarian way of living, as it were, holds little appeal for me.
The next day we aah and ooh as we are given an elaborate walk through inside the St Issac’s Cathedral and the Church of Spilled Blood. The gilded ceilings of the church are breathtaking and remind me of illustrations from Russian fairy tale books I read as a kid. Then there are all the images of Mary and Christ. I have a high opinion of Jesus as a saint, but his appeal to me, as a muse to a gazillion commissioned artists around the world, is on the wane. No offense meant, but overexposure is never a good thing.
The same evening, we are taken to the stunning Heritage Museum, which has been cordoned off for our entourage for a few hours on that particular evening. The tour guide allotted to my group is a wonderful young girl, and much to the joy of the men in our group, attractive too. We walk around the Winter Palace or the proud room that houses all the Rembrandts. The tour ends on a high note, quite literally, what with us being treated to a scintillating performance by the State Symphony Orchestra right inside one of the elaborate rooms of the museum. The grandeur of the setting is enhancing the experience leaving me torn between focusing my eyes at the swaying arms of the conductor in front and the Caravaggio painting gracing the walls to my side.
A delightful boat ride to the imposing Peterhof Palace, aka the Summer Palace the next morning reveals the sumptuous living of Peter the Great and a bunch of other Russian Imperials. I am only interested in the intelligent, ruthless, sexually insatiable Catherine II also known as Catherine the great who not only ruled Russia for 34 years but also ruled it well and won the support and respect of her public. She took on many lovers, while her husband Peter was still alive and gave them many extravagant gifts in return for their affections.
In her portraits inside the palace, she does not look very pretty to me at all, and although she was German, she looks like an English nobleman in a Victorian silk dress in these paintings. I suppose when one looks like that, one has to pay for amorous favours, which explains her lavish gifts to her lovers.
The guide tells us about honey bearing lice traps that women in those days had to wear under their wigs and the herbs they used over their body to mask the ghastly odours from having infrequent baths. We walk through the chambers where the royals had meals that lasted eight hours at a stretch. We see the salons where they relaxed, propped up, after their hours of gluttony. Suddenly, I am not so sure I belong to the bygone era anymore.
A bunch of us skips the tour of the Yusupov palace in the evening for we have no intention of leaving Russia without watching The Swan Lake. Three hours later we walk into the sit down dinner at the impressive palace of gilded arches and crystal, in a trance. I can hear the strains of Tchaikovsky’s compositions in my head for the rest of evening and everything else seems insipid or irrelevant in comparison. I snap out of my reverie only when we spot a gigantic white piano, which one is forbidden from touching. I tell my friend B that it reminds me Richard Gere from Pretty Woman and she concurs. We giggle as we channel our inner Julia Roberts, rue the absence of a Richard Gere, and pose against it. Yes, we are all about Hollywood inspired moments. The woman, who, at our behest, is taking pictures of us leaning against the pristine piano, ironically is there on duty to make sure none of the palace’s objects on display are touched. I have changed my mind about the Russians. Russians are not the same everywhere. Russians in St Petersburg are almost endearing.
We sample the nightlife of the city by going to a nightclub called XXXX. In spite of what the name suggests, there is nothing anything X about it. The husband is disappointed as are his friends. But the night is young, even if some of us are old, and we linger on. It is 3 am by the time we decide to head back but all the bridges over the river Neva are open to let the ships pass. Incidentally, Neva divides the city into islands, which are connected by a few hundred bridges. Those along the main canals are drawn every night during the navigation period to let ships pass in and out of the Baltic sea.
We are told that there is no other way to cross the river and get to the other side to our hotel but to wait for the bridges to close again at 4 am. This is an ingenious system that we witnessing first hand. Apparently, married Russian men often cite the blessed bridges as the reason for returning home late, to irate wives, after a night of debauchery.
My friend D, who is an artist, is with us in the taxi and we have plans to forgo sleep so we can head back to The Hermitage early next morning. I have been called a museum whore and have a reputation to protect. Hence, I am determined to cover as much of the museum as is possible early next morning before our respective departures in the afternoon. It is daybreak by the time I am done packing and two hours later I am up again. I have panda eyes and look like something the cat brought in. D on the other hand looks fresh as morning dew and has a bounce in her step as we walk towards the museum. In our enthusiasm to see Matisse, Cezanne and other great masters, we have arrived forty-five minutes before the gates open. It is D who has to navigate for us as I am only sleepwalking and looking like an exhibit that has been retrieved from its mummy box from the Egyptian rooms of the museum.
We finally find our way to the rooms that hold Renoir, Velazquez and Monet and once, in the presence of greatness, I can stay in stupor no more.
A tour of an art museum with an artist who has majored in art history is an unequivocally illuminating experience. Before we knew it, it was time for me to head back for the hotel and leave with the husband for the airport.
As we were driving out of the city, I decided that I wasn’t quite done with St Petersburg. There were still many unchecked things on my to-do list and another trip at another time would have to be planned.