After what had been a surprisingly good sleep, on what was without a doubt the best train we had been on throughout our entire journey, we woke up to a miserable-looking overcast day in St Petersburg. I was still excited though – partly because St Petersburg was supposed to be a beautiful city, but also because our tour was coming to an end. While I had made a handful of new friends who I had absolutely loved travelling with, I was itching to break out on my own again and enjoy the free and spontaneous style of travelling that I had done in South-East Asia. It was a little funny to reflect on the fact that two weeks ago, I had been yearning for the exact opposite – a little bit of structure, and someone to tell me where I was going and what I was doing. I guess it’s all about mixing it up and trying to find a balance, as well as learning the style of travelling that suits me as an individual. I think I’ve already learnt a lot about myself in that regard, though I do have quite a while to keep discovering.
We met Vladimir, our St Petersburg guide, at the train station, and there was a conversation between Maria and Vladimir that seemed slightly awkward but was entertaining to watch, though none of us could understand what they were saying. Within the first half hour, after dropping our bags at the hostel – actual check-in to our rooms wasn’t until 3pm – and meeting at a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, it was already clear that Vladimir was a very orderly and structured person. He knew the facts about his city: the main sights to see, how to get there, and when they were open – a welcome change from the Kremlin fiasco. It would have been interesting to know what Vladimir had made of Maria’s impromptu excursion to St Petersburg, but he wasn’t one for a great deal of chit-chat, so we never really got a chance to ask him. Another thing we weren’t quite expecting was for Maria to tag along with the group – she’d said she had a friend to visit, but we would later find out that that friend was busy on the day we arrived, and Maria ended up booking a night into the hostel with us. Her spontaneous holiday just kept growing and growing, and while some of the others in the group thought it was a little weird that she had come along for the ride, I just found it simultaneously awesome and hilarious.
We had arrived in St Petersburg on Sunday, and our Trans-Siberian tour officially finished on Tuesday. A lot of people were scheduled to leave on that morning, but Vladimir had advised us that the the Hermitage, the famous art museum of St Petersburg, was closed on Monday.
“Well then, looks like I know what I’m doing today,” Tim had said in the coffee shop where we’d had our briefing. “I won’t have another chance to do it, and it’s of the things that I really want to see here.” Alyson had shared similar sentiments, and while there were other ideas among the rest of our party, the familiar grouping of Alyson, Tim, Kaylah and myself all decided to hit the Hermitage that afternoon. While I was actually staying in St Petersburg for two extra days after the tour was over, I could see myself getting particularly lax after the others were gone, so I decided to do the typical tourist things while I was still with my companions, and save the city exploring for when I was flying solo again.
But first we set out as a group to have a tour of the main streets of St Petersburg. Vladimir showed us the way through some smaller streets around our hostel, taking us past a cathedral called the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It takes the morbid name from the location on which it was built – the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – but the style is an obvious homage to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood seemed slightly bigger though, and while I did return on a later, sunnier day to take a picture of the building, as a group we never actually went inside. We continued walking along the streets – stopping at a small souvenir market were I bought a small Russian style pocket watch – until we hit the famed Nevsky Prospekt, a street that in itself was considered an essential St Petersburg experience. A wide and bustling street, it stretches through the southern bank of the city and is home to a number of landmarks, such as the Kazan Cathedral.
However, we had arrived in St Petersburg in a supposedly exciting time. It was the city’s 310th birthday, and a major section of Nevsky Prospekt had been closed for some kind of parade. The streets were lined with people jumping up and down to get a glimpse, climbing up staircases and buildings to peer over the amassing throng. I myself climbed up onto a concrete ledge to get a better view, but at the time there was nothing more than a group of cheerleaders doing what appeared to be a poorly rehearsed and actually quite boring routine. I could hear marching bands in the distance, so I figured the entertainment was going to pick up a little, but Vladimir had told us that the lines to get into the Hermitage could be painfully long if you wait too long into the afternoon, so those of us who intended to visit set off up the street, making plans to meet up with the rest of the group for a late lunch.
My grandmother had been constantly reminding me to visit the Hermitage, wishing she could have been there herself, so this one is for you, Nana! The main façade of the building, which had originally been used as a Winter Palace, was covered in scaffolding and construction materials, which seemed like a bit of a shame – especially since almost every major attraction I’d visited on this tour was undergoing some kind of reconstruction – but I wasn’t too worried, as it was what was inside the State Hermitage that interested me the most.
It did not disappoint. From the moment you enter the building, you feel as though you haven’t just visited a museum to view the works of art, but rather you’ve actually stepped into one yourself. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the most lavish and extravagant gold trimmings, and the images of gods and men were carved out of marble and extending their limbs into the cavernous rooms. I spent the first five or ten minutes with my eyes pointed upwards and my mouth agape with wonder, so much that stumbled up a few of the stairs. Alyson had wanted to go off and see the museum at her own pace, and I would have been happy to do the same, though I found myself sticking with Kaylah and Tim for most of the time.
There are several floors in the museum, and it was easy to get lost. A couple of times we found ourselves wandering into dead end rooms, or trying to get into rooms that were unfortunately closed for renovations or refurbishing. We moved through room after room of paintings and sculptures, seeing everything from early European art of classical portraits and flawless scene depictions, to the ambiguous and abstract work of Picasso, to the ancient sculptures of characters and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. I’d like to think I have a little bit of culture in me, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art critic, and I certainly know I couldn’t do any better. I liked some of them more than others, but I discovered that I had a particular love for the sculptures. I’d always been quite interested in the mythology of those cultures, and there was just something more interesting about a 3D piece of art that you can literally consider from a number of angles.
There was a statue of a man with an eagle perched upon his shoulder, to which Kaylah had said, “Look Robert, it’s you in Mongolia!” After that, I think we may have been a little delirious, because wandered through the rooms laughing at the simple, unoriginal names – such as Portrait of a Young Man – and generally just making humorous observations about the artworks. We also looked at some interesting Asian art, and I recognised many representations of Buddha that I had seen throughout South-East Asia, and together we also recognised quite a number a traditional Chinese and Mongolian styles of artwork. That made me a feel a little cultured, to know that I had come halfway around the world, and recognising the different styles of artwork and culture that I had seen along the way.
We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, getting lost in its beautiful and dazzling halls, but in the end my feet grew so sore I could barely stand up. I hadn’t had a shower since our last morning in Moscow, so after the copious amounts of sweating I’d done on that afternoon combined with the overnight train, I could tell I was starting to get a little foul again, and I was ready to head to lunch and then onwards to showering at the hostel. It had been a good day at the Hermitage, but I think the greatest feat of our day was that there had been absolutely no lines to buy tickets or get inside. Despite Vladimir’s warning of waits that can be up to several hours, we walked straight in with such an ease that it almost felt suspicious. We put it down to the fact that the parade had taken up most of the city’s attention, and were thankful that we had decided to visit the museum when we did.