Going abroad

October 4, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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J-Wire’s music reviewer Fraser Beath McEwing has added another string to his bow as he takes J-Wire readers on his travels…the jewels of Faberge.

Fraser writes:

Don’t leg it before you egg it, says the advice to Australian travellers. That means a visit to the Faberge museum, luckily only a ten-minute walk from the Hotel Belmond. The museum is on the bank of one of the canals that Peter the Great, founder of St Petersburg, envisioned as a city feature to copy Amsterdam. Most of the canals were subsequently filled in but a few have survived, now used for brief tourist trips in crouching boats – to fit under the low bridges without decapitation.

This is the maximum building height throughout the city.

I thought we were lucky with the weather since the rain had held off and the temperature seemed okayish to sit out on the open deck for the hour excursion. Wrong. By the time I returned to the wharf I was an Icypole, with seized-up legs. However, that did not deter us from observing St Petersburg from the water – firstly from the canal and later the Neva River which is exceptionally wide in parts and goes down to 24 metres deep – just where they needed to build a bridge. The Russians have been happy to call in the world’s best engineers, designers and architects for their big projects and give them credit for their ingenuity. Even though smiling isn’t popular, I detect a layer of kindness beneath the clamped jaws. Let us not forget that Russia lost 27 million people in the Second World War. Imagine the entire population of Australia being wiped out – and that still not being enough? Even today, every family has blanks on its tree where aged and venerated grandparents should be.

Taking the river cruise and seeing the city from many different angles emphasises the brilliant decision to keep the building height limit down to about seven stories. The original reason was that nobody could have a building taller than the Czars’ palaces, except cathedrals

because God has unlimited height rights. In the city, you can see the dome of St Isaac from virtually everywhere, but away beyond the city limits, and therefore height restrictions, the tallest building in Europe is being completed. It is the Lakhta Centre, 87 stories, 462 metres. It looks like a giant rocket ready to launch.

We passed a first world war battleship, the Aurora, tied up in the river and looking like a fierce old dog that has lost its teeth. It apparently survived the most unsuccessful sea battle that Russia fought in WW1. When Russia joined in the second world war the navy cranked up the Aurora for another go but it was like entering a T model Ford in a Formula One race. After failing to threaten anybody it grumbled home to its rocking chair in the river where it is meticulously maintained by the naval cadets.

Coming right down to the tiny and the historical, we went into the Faberge museum where some of the famous Easter eggs are on show along with many of the other personally precious Faberge products like snuff boxes and jewellery. The exhibition is filled out with plates, vases and exotic tableware from the 18thand 19thCenturies plus quite an extensive art collection of Russian painters. The building in which the exhibition is housed used to be a palace and has been meticulously recreated – but now as a museum.

The Faberge jewellery business was started in 1842, supplying a wide range of clients from royalty down to mid-market. By 1872 Carl Faberge was running the business and began making his famous Easter eggs, almost exclusively as gifts between members of the royal families. Besides their exquisite craftsmanship and precious materials, each egg contains a surprise. Some open to reveal tiny items inside. Two of them open at the top and a bird pops up, flaps its wings and sings. Others double as clocks. It took a craftsman at least a year to make one egg. The full collection is dispersed around the world, with pieces in museums or private hands. The largest single collection, of 10 eggs, is in the Moscow Kremlin Armory.

Press a button and the rooster pops up, opens his ivory beak and crows.

My personal experience with Faberge was many years ago when I cottoned on to Faberge

Brut aftershave. It was supposed to disarm women’s sexual resistance (unfortunately not the ones who sniffed me) and became the world’s top-selling aftershave. It was not made by the Faberge jewellery company but came from a licence arrangement with Unilever to use the name.

Not a Bondi surf boat. A painting by Ivan Aivaovsky who liked the ocean to win.

I spent some time admiring the art collection. Here were Russian artists are little known outside the country, but whose work is up there with the best – in portraiture, landscape and impressionism. One artist who I’ve now seen frequently is Ivan Aivaovsky who is well known here for seascapes. He specialises in showing sailing ships breaking up on the rocks while the poor sailors are doing badly in a rowing boat trying to save their lives – but you know that the next wave will see them all in the drink.

Leaving Russia is much harder than arriving – especially if you are going to Malta. Only Air Malta has a direct flight from St Petersburg and being well down in the pecking order it gets the most inconvenient departure times, like ten to four in the morning. Rather than stay one more bit-night at the glorious Belmond we booked into a Radisson right next to the airport to increase our chance of being on time for the flight. This hotel was designed by a kid with a Lego set where there were too many bright, lime green bricks. The bedhead had a band of light running around its perimeter and, of course, it continually changed colour. To turn it off, and save ourselves having seizures, we had to manhandle the heavy bed out the way. Having said all that, it was a fit for purpose building, within bag-rolling distance of Air Malta check-in.

 

Inside St Petersburg airport is another interesting way to create a transit hotel. Called a Capsule Hotel, it comprises rows of wooden boxes (like Great Dane kennels) with mattresses for floors, a pillow and a towel. You crawl in (accompanied if lucky) and slide the door shut. I guess you use bathroom facilities in the airport. Cost was 500 roubles an hour (about A$13).

Fit for a King (George Spaniel)

 

Checking in at St Petersburg is so unnecessarily complex it becomes farcical – but not quite so much at 3 am. First is a security check of you and your luggage just to get into the airport. Air Malta check-in then takes ages because the girl behind the counter appears never to have done the job before. From there you go to another haphazard queue (with rampant queue jumpers) to check your passport. Once through that, you line up, again with no supervision, outside what looks like a line of little bathing boxes, to again have your passport checked. Then joy! you are in the welcoming duty-free shops. St Petersburg loves you after all – because you might spend some money.  But when you are called to board your Air Malta zippy, cramped little A320, matters become vexing again because you are sent down a long stone staircase carrying, in our case, cunningly heavy cabin bags.

The flight took four and a half hours. We’d paid for business class, imagining flatbeds, but no. We got skinny, fixed economy seats with an empty one in the middle to denote business class.

Malta eventually materialised from a dawn sea, such a contrast to Russia, with small, square-shouldered Mediterranean buildings. We’re only here for one night. Tomorrow we begin a motor tour of Sicily after yet another struggle to get there with Air Malta.

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