Going abroad

October 3, 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…St Petersburg on the town.Almost palaced out, we took a final lunge at the summer palace of the first, not-Great, Catherine, about an hour by car south of St Petersburg. It resides in huge gardens in the suburb named after Russia’s leading poet, Alexander Pushkin. His bronze likeness slouches, searching for a rhyming couplet, in one of the public parks now afire with autumn leaves.

“The boy stood on the burning deck . . .um, what rhymes with deck?”

The 300-metre-long palace is in the very ornate baroque style, with room upon room decorated in gold leaf-covered caving and paintings. The building, gift wrapped in gardens and ponds, was a present from Catherine’s husband, Peter the Great. The main reception room is massive, with windows on either side positioned to take advantage of the 22 hours of sunlight per day in summer. There is extensive use of mirrors to turn the large into the enormous. Even though this is supposedly a highlight of a trip to St Petersburg, it has a feeling of being too overdone to be authentic. Everything looks new, everything glittering. The famous amber room, where all the wall and ceiling panels are made from pieces of amber, was only completed (as a reproduction) in 2005.

I did like the portrait of Catherine’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was keen on schmuttas. She ruled as Empress of Russia from 1741 to1761 and when she died, left behind 15,000 dresses. Ah, the Australian fashion industry could do with a few Elizabeths!

“Dressmaker, dressmaker, make me a dress. Yes, another one!”

Although the palace left us a little underwhelmed, it is still an ever more powerful magnet for tourists. The mornings are restricted to ticketed tour groups (multiple flocks of them which included us) but in the afternoon the floodgates are opened and in stream all the rest who couldn’t book tickets but will not able to go on living until they have visited Catherine’s palace. Their queues fill the park’s pathways to vanishing point and on a typical day they can wait for four hours just to get inside the door to join the swarm of serious jostlers. Some of the tour guides call the queues the Chinese wall, indicating the number of tourists now coming from China.

I think we are nearing saturation point with tourists trying to see the most famous sights around the world. The weight of numbers is not only making visiting an ordeal, it is also destroying the very places and objects they have come to see. The future will perfect virtual reality tours and the kudos of ‘been there done that’ will diminish

Can a palace be too perfect?

After talking to locals about vodka, some interesting conclusions have emerged. In general,

Russians don’t like it. Even though it is virtually synonymous with Russia, they find the taste and the smell offensive. That’s why the way to drink vodka is to fire each shot straight down the gullet. It used to be a tradition to hold your nose while you were drinking it to avoid getting a whiff of the stuff, but modern vodka has been largely deodorised. Nevertheless, no sipping, no staring into the glass while you make a whirlpool and no commenting on its colour; it is clear anyway. Down the hatch, breathe in, say ahhh and try to smile – is the way to do it. Vodka’s only purpose is to induce inebriation.

I bought a bottle of cherry/plum vodka for private swigging. With a mere 20 percent alcohol, it takes a while to penetrate the senses. It helped me through last night at an organ recital in the blazingly lit concert hall across the road from our hotel. I had to buy a program, only to find it was all in Russian. Apart from some Bach, I didn’t know what I was listening to and obviously wasn’t meant to. However, he was a good organist and, with the help of the vodka, I came back uplifted – sort of.

We stayed around town for our last day with our guide Vlad and driver XXXLski. Vlad talked about the frantic apartment building projects on the outskirts of the city. When Russian developers put up a block, they make it a whopper. A hundred thousand people can find themselves living on a small footprint, many without car spaces. This leads to crushing traffic congestion since every apartment would have at least one car. If you arrive home late at night by car you may have to walk kilometres to get to your address. If there is an emergency, help can’t get through. Even so, there is a desperate housing shortage in and around the city, with corresponding escalating rental prices.


Love thy neighbour but not his car

If you rent an apartment, you must pay a bond equal to one month’s rent, plus one month’s rent in advance plus the equivalent of one month’s rent to the agent as commission. If you engage an agent all you get is a list of probable vacancies from a database. You then trail around yourself to suss them out and if you like one you politely call the agent and grovel. No such thing as an open for inspection. The power is firmly with the landlord and agent.

The Russian experiment with communism has had an odd effect. When the revolution came in 1917 many of the places of great opulence and historical significance were either wrecked, neglected or used for government purposes. Now that communism has gone and Russia is trying to get back democracy, what do tourists want to see?  Not the austere leftovers of Soviet Russia but the old, totally over the top opulence found in the palaces, monuments and churches.

Gold, glory, and famous tombs are what pulls the tourist crowd. This eye-waterer is in the Peter & Paul Cathedral in the Peter & Paul Fort built to house the tombs of royalty and army heroes.

We stopped at a mammoth statue of Catherine the Great in a city garden. Beneath her feet are included the figures of the men who won battles for her both in the field and in the bedroom. Cathy was partial to quite a bit of nookie, so the story goes. She had at least 20 lovers – but not all at once, of course.

Across the road from Catherine is, to me, is the most attractive building in St Petersburg. It is the Kupetz Eliseevs food hall. In 1903 two wealthy Eliseevs brothers talked the city fathers into letting them build the last new building allowed in downtown St Petersburg. (Since then there have been only restorations – no building). They wanted to sell classy food; think David Jones food hall but better. Tut tut, said the fathers. This is a cultured part of town, so no retailing. How about if we put a beautiful comedy theatre on the first floor? Mmm, okay. And that is how it is today. You must enter the theatre via the shop which stocks the most exotic food known to man. There is an invisible pianist playing a small grand piano near the front of the store while high up, near the ceiling at the back, are waxworks of the brothers waving greetings to the customers. The windows feature moving cartoon figures all engaged in comic moves with food. I had the best hot chocolate in my long tasting experience of the genre and a combination honey cake/halva that might turn out to be addictive. Although prices are high, they are not excessive, and certainly in keeping with the quality.

Godly matters called us to St Isaac’s Cathedral just when I thought I couldn’t be stirred by another church. I was wrong. It was soaringly magnificent (being the second tallest Orthodox church in the world) made all the more impressive by the singing of a choir as part of a Sunday service. The head priest (maybe he was a bishop or above) was conducting an intricately choreographed service dressed gorgeously in purple with matching crown.

St Isaac’s Cathedral. Apart from miracles inside, the construction was a miracle in itself

Our final look at Russian Orthodox cathedrals was the church of The Saviour on Spilled Blood (the blood, in this case, had belonged to Alexander II who was bumped off there). Again, the building was awe-inspiring but hard to digest along with all the other magnificence we’d seen.

We came down earth to when we rolled the dice with a dinner at a Belgium style restaurant not far from our hotel. My attention was progressively diverted by the fruit beer which turned out to be a needful anaesthetic when the bill arrived.

Fruit beer can be deceptive and it was.

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