Sights to See and Sights of the Sea

For a city that has a handful of extremely recognisable and world famous icons, I didn’t do an awful lot of sightseeing in Rio de Janerio. James had mentioned the cable car ride to Sugarloaf Mountain, a pretty popular tourist attraction on the eastern edge of the city. Though, when I’d probed Tom about it later, he had shrugged, appearing pretty indifferent.
“I mean, yeah, it’s a great view,” he said. “It’s one of those things that everyone just does, know you? Almost without thinking about it. If you do go, just make sure it’s on a day when the weather is nice and clear.” I’d taken the advice into account, but there was no denying that on the bright and sunny days, the allure of the beach down the road was far more powerful than any urge to climb a mountain. The same could be said for Christ the Redeemer – the journey to actually get up the mountain to the base of the monument wasn’t a breezy walk in the park, and I can’t admit to having any strong spiritual calling from Jesus to go look at the huge idol up close. So I settled for the glimpses that Tom and I had had of the statue through the clouds on our hike a little closer to home, satisfied that I was probably experiencing a few more interesting things in Brazil than statues and landscapes.

But there was one other sight in particular that James had described that had piqued my interest much more than either of the mountains. “There’s the steps at Lapa,” he’d said as he rattled off a quick list of things that would be worth seeing, and perhaps it was the fact it was something I’d never actually heard of that made me research the steps and eventually want to go and see them. I jumped on Google and did a brief search of some of the other sights in the area – Lapa was a neighbourhood closer to the centre of Rio de Janeiro – and on one of the afternoons where Tom was at work, I set out via the bus and metro to explore a little bit more of the city.

***

I found Rio to be a curious city because it felt very decentralised. I’m much more familiar with the concept of a city centre, an obvious hub of activity that has a greater population density, is usually a little more expensive than the rest of the city, and has lots of things to see and do and entertain the tourists. But as soon as I stepped off the metro and emerged into the more central streets of Rio, I realised this wasn’t the case. The touristic focus of the city is by and large the coastal areas, and the regions that have the gorgeous beaches and natural beauty within the landscapes. That’s what people want to do and see when they come to Rio – I too had been primarily more interested in catching some rays and working on my tan than I ever had been about the sights I was about to visit.

Now, Rio is a pretty big city, so maybe there was a more accurate, central hub that I didn’t know about. To be fair, most of the city it actually based long the coast, around the mountains and the landscapes, and so the “centre” really just seemed to be the midpoint between the northern and southern parts of the coast. But the area I was in looked not far off being a ghost town. A lot of the buildings looked particularly old and run down, graffiti and litter were present – not overwhelmingly, but consistently – and I was very quickly introduced to another far less glamorous side of the city, which I had a feeling didn’t see half as many tourists as the beaches at Copacabana or Ipanema. It told a different story, a toned down version of the rife poverty that existed in the favelas over the hill, the concentration of the Brazilian slums. It was actually quite confronting, and for the first time during my stay in Rio I actually felt the mild presence of danger and the need for a little more caution than usual – a fear that I had been secretly harbouring about the city yet had never before now been actualised. But I kept my wits about me and moved on, taking a few photographs of the significant buildings and trying me best to not look too much like an ignorant tourist. Firstly there was the Teatro Municipal, considered one of the most important and beautiful theatres in the whole of Brazil.

Teatro Municipal

Teatro Municipal

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

After that I made my way further west over to Lapa, where there were two more sights that I had read about. The first was the Arches of Lapa: the ancient Carioca Aqueduct. When I first read about them, I assumed I had just misheard James say ‘steps’, but they were actually something else entirely. I have to admit, I was expecting a little more than what I saw. To be fair, there was nothing misleading about the name – the were definitely arches. However, they’re been described as great architectural feat, a landmark of the city, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when I discovered the building looking particularly dirty on one end, as though it had suffered some major neglect. Although in the end it all ended up feeling rather fitting for the ghost town vibe I was starting to get from the area.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

But as I followed my directions down a few small side streets, levels of fear and uncertainty slightly but gradually rising, I turned a corner and instantly felt like I was in another city, with an entirely different mood and atmosphere. Escadaria Selarón – Selarón’s Staircase, or the Steps of Lapa – loomed ahead of me, an explosion of colour that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the otherwise dank and drab corner of the city.

The Steps of Lapa

Escadaria Selarón

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

Honestly, I hadn’t done that much research into what the steps actually were, so I was completely blown away when I stumbled across them. The entire staircase had essentially been turned into an artwork, with barely a patch of free cement that wasn’t adorned by a tile or ceramic in some way. There were words in the steps, there were flags, there were pictures – it was such a complex and diverse range of colours and images, there was nothing you could do but slowly ascend the staircase while marvelling at the walls around you, taking care to not trip up them in the process. There was a substantially larger amount of tourists on the steps, too – it seems as though this is one of the few attractions that people venture out this way to actually visit. I took my time picking out some fellow tourists who seemed trustworthy enough, and asked them to take my picture on the steps.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

It was actually quite a long staircase, and as I climbed further I realised that the staircase was actually a street. There were houses along either side, front doors opening directly onto the staircase, and I few times I actually noticed Brazilian families coming and going from their homes. I wondered what it must be like to literally live on a tourist attraction – frustrating at times, but surely a beautiful backdrop to spend even the most relaxed and casual days of your life. When I reached the top, it was interesting to gaze back down the steps and realise how unremarkable they looked from above. Almost all of the tiled surfaces faced downwards, and you could only really be confronted with all the colours as you climbed the staircase. I sat there at the top of the steps, partly to sit and marvel at the complexity and beauty of the whole thing, and also partly because I had discovered an adorable little stray cat which I couldn’t stop photographing.

The view from the top of the steps.

The view from the top of the steps.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

The steps were really interesting though, and something I was so glad I had taken the time and effort to go and see. Now, whenever I see a movie that’s set in Brazil and there is a visual of the steps at Lapa, no matter how brief or insignificant, I can’t help but shout out “Hey, I’ve been there!” to anyone who will listen. It wasn’t a hugely popular attraction, such as, say, the Eiffel Tower, and I think the fact that there were less people made it even more memorable, and something that I really will carry with me for the rest of my life.

***

That day was the only real sightseeing that I did while I was in Rio. After seven months on the road, it’s a little difficult to muster up the enthusiasm for that kind of thing all the time, but I felt satisfied with what I had managed to see. The rest of the sunny days I spent hanging out with Tom, going to the beach with him and James, and for the most part just relaxing and taking it easy. People sometimes underestimate how taxing on your mind and body travelling can be. Sure, it’s essentially an extended holiday, but you’re constantly moving your body around from one unfamiliar environment to the next, and all the new things you see and learn about and discover can build up to overwhelm your mind. Rio provided the perfect opportunity for me to just kick back, soak up the sun, sand and sea, and really not have a care in the world.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

And there's me, diving into the surf.

And there’s me, diving into the surf.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

And of course, the experience wouldn't be complete without a selfie.

And of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a selfie.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

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Where Art Meets History: East Side Gallery

The train from Prague to Berlin was probably one of the worst trips in the whole of my travels through Europe. It sat idly at the station for over half an hour before it finally departed from Prague, and suffered major delays along the way. Parts of the air conditioning weren’t working, and the cabins inside the train were reaching ridiculous temperatures, with everyone on the train dripping in sweat before we were even halfway there. When the train attendants came down the aisle at one point handing out bottles of water to everyone, I knew that the problems were actually pretty serious, and I had no hope of getting to Berlin at my previously anticipated time. But as it is with such unavoidable nuisances, all I could do was sit there in the stinking hot train with a bunch of other travellers around me. Everyone was was so hot and bothered and looking rather fed up with the whole thing that I wasn’t even going to bother trying to strike up a conversation to pass the time. I listened to my music, read my book, and closed my eyes, dozing off and dreaming of my current destination.

The last time I was in Berlin I had stayed with my family friend Donatella and her assortment of wild and zany housemates – Lola’s words about never leaving the city were still nagging at the back of my mind as I found myself drawn back to it. But after meeting and staying with him for the last two nights of my previous stay, Ralf had said that I was welcome back to stay with him any time I was in Berlin. I don’t think he had anticipated my return being quite so soon, but he agreed to let me stay with him when I told him I would be coming back on my way west to Amsterdam. I’d really enjoyed the brief time I had spent with him last time, so I was pretty excited to seem him again. Of course, the train was running late, so some of the logistics in actually finding each other were a little difficult. Yet when I stepped off the train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof there was a slightly different feeling that I hadn’t felt in quiet some time, and that was the feeling of returning to a familiar city. Not since arriving back in Bangkok after the bus ride from Hell had I arrived in a city where I was able to say: Yes, I recognise this place. I know where I am and I know where I have to go. As much as I love the excitement that comes with discovering a brand new place and city, that kind of familiarity with a place is strangely comforting. When I finally met Ralf – and had changed out of my soiled travel clothes, showered and freshened up – we had dinner, and I told him all about the adventures I’d had throughout Europe since I had last seen him. He listened and smiled as I told him my stories, and I was glad I had come back to Berlin – that adorable smile was the cherry on top of all the things that I already loved so much about the city that had drawn me back here.

***

Ralf had to work during most of the week, so I had to find other things to do to amuse myself. I spent a lot of time just resting and hanging out, happy to have a place to myself while Ralf was out, but one of the major things to do in Berlin that I hadn’t gotten around to doing last time I was here was see the East Side Gallery, which is actually the painted and decorated remains of the Berlin Wall. I had only briefly seen it in the dark with Dane on our first attempt to get into Berghain, and I wanted to go back and really take it in. I have to say, I had seen to some pretty amazing art museums on my travels – famous notables include the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Louvre, and the Vatican Museum – but I have to say that out of all of them it was the East Side Gallery that captivated me the most. The artworks are such a diverse collection, from detailed masterpieces to simple murals that could have been done by children to sections that looked more like elaborate graffiti more than anything else. In fact, despite it obviously not being allowed, many sections of the wall had been vandalised, but in a way I feel like it was almost some kind of artistic extension. The wall is part of a long history for Berlin and Germany, but the periodic graffiti that marks it almost gives the face of the wall itself a traceable history, a reflection of ideas presented in both an official and unofficial capacity.

Whether it was the graffiti or the actual murals, the thing I loved about the East Side Gallery is that there is such a strong and powerful meaning behind each and every word and image. With the wall itself long being a symbol of division and oppression, that’s hardly surprising, but I often found my slow stroll coming to a gradual halt just so I could stand there and look both ways, up and down the wall, and just take it all in. I have no idea what it would have been like here during war time – I couldn’t even begin to imagine – but for me these paintings scratched the surface of the emotions and impacts of the wall that inspired them. It was art and history seamlessly combined into one, and it gave me shivers to behold, something I can’t say for any of the other artworks I’d come across.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

I got excited because I'd been to all of these places - well, almost everywhere.

I got excited because I’d been to all of these places – well, almost everywhere.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

An image that doesn't need much explaining.

An image that doesn’t need much explaining.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

That’s not to say that all those artworks in the previous galleries didn’t have any meaning – there was plenty of beautiful and moving pieces in all of them. But there’s just something kind of sterile about the museum environment, where things are locked away behind glass cabinets, or sectioned off with velvet ropes. There’s a division between the viewer and the art, and it’s kept pristine and preserved in its slice of history. The East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall had none of that – it was real, it was there in front of you. You could feel it with your hands, and it had moved forward and changed, developing its own history, for better or for worse. It’s not your conventional art gallery, but then I suppose I don’t really like conventional art galleries all that much. There were plenty of other ones I could have visited while I was in Berlin, but I had found such a sense of fulfilment after seeing the East Side Gallery that I really didn’t see the need.

***

It felt great to be back in Berlin, but there’s a danger in getting too familiar and thinking that you really know the city when you still have so much to learn. Previously in Berlin, I had only bought tickets for the U-Bahn about 50% of the time, rationalising it with the fact that you don’t need them to actually enter the trains or platforms, and I had never seen anyone ever checking for them. I had bought them the couple of times I’d travelled places with Ralf, because I wouldn’t be able to play ‘dumb tourist’ if I was hanging out with a local. But for the times I was out on my own, I took a chance and skipped the ticket machine on my way into the subway.

Never really expecting to have it happen, you can imagine my surprise when someone did come around inspecting tickets – of course, on my journey back from the East Side Gallery when I was not in possession of a ticket. I fumbled wildly through my backpack, triple checking my wallet for a ticket that I knew wasn’t there, trying to convince the plain clothed inspector that I had bought one, and I must have lost it somehow. He wasn’t buying any of it. “For not having a valid ticket you will have to purchase an increased fare ticket,” he explained to me, which essentially is a glossed over way of saying you’re going to get a fine. “It’s going to be €40. You can pay for it now, or you have two weeks to pay for it at one of our offices.” I stopped and thought for a second.
“I’ll pay for it later, thanks.” I was only going to be in Berlin for another 4 days, so I figured if I skipped town there was little they could do about it. The guy had already taken my Australian drivers licence to record my name and address, and he told me it would be in the system for two years. He gave me a pice of paper with the payment details and was on his way again. I hadn’t given them my passport, which I feared might have caused migration problems, but he did have my address in Australia. “I’m not going to pay it though. There’s no need, right?” I had said in a discussion with Ralf. “It’s not like they’re going to send me a fine to the other side of the world.”

Fast forward a few months to me sitting on the couch, finally in the United States, with my new friend Mike in Washington, DC. As we were drinking red wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix, my phone vibrated. It was an email from my mother with the subject line: “The Germans are after you!”
Yo Bob, got a bunch of what appear to be angry German letters from your letterbox today. Something about not having a ticket. Care to explain?
Well I’ll be damned – I certainly got a schooling in German efficiency. They sold the debt on to debt collectors who had also sent me letters. I have to admire their tenacity, as I had never really expected them to send a single letter, let alone a few. In hindsight, it was a reckless disregard for another countries rules and I do feel a little bad about the whole thing now – though not bad enough to pay the fine, which to this day I still haven’t done. But I did learn a lesson from the whole ordeal – from that day on, no matter what country I was in, I made sure I always bought tickets for the public transport. 

The Seaside and Sightseeing in Beautiful Barcelona

There are many benefits of overnight transit. You kill two birds with one stone by paying for transport plus a night of accommodation in a single cost, and your time sleeping is spent productively whisking you away to your next destination, and you wake up refreshed and ready to venture into a new city. Unless, that is, your luck runs out and you don’t get a bed in the sleeper carriage and are forced to sleep in the ‘reclining seat’ class. It was described as being like business class in a plane, which really meant “You have lots of leg room but the seats are still terribly uncomfortable and actually nothing like business class on a plane”. I had fallen asleep in France and woken up in Spain, but not without the accompanying neck pain and stiff, sore legs that were the result of an inability to find a comfortable sleeping position. I would have been a little more annoyed if it hadn’t been for the fact I’d just arrived in one of my most highly anticipated destinations: Barcelona.

***

When making arrangements for staying in Barcelona, I had discovered that Rich, one of Brendon’s friends who I had met in Thailand, was also on vacation in the city. She was renting out a room through Air BnB, and fortunately there had been a second room in that apartment that I was able to rent out for myself. I’d been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts, and the fact that the price of my own Air BnB room would be less than the four bunk dorm in the hostel in Paris definitely made it a preferable option, so I had booked the room. When I arrived in Barcelona, I dragged myself off the train and through the sunny streets to meet Rich at the apartment. It was around 9:30am and a gorgeous day, with a sky that was a clear and cloudless blue, but the city around me only just seemed to be waking up, with limited traffic and only a few pedestrians. I would quickly learn that Spain generally runs several hours behind the conventional time of most daily events and activities. When I arrived at the apartment, I sent Rich a text message asking which apartment to buzz on the intercom. A few moments later, I heard a shout from above me. I looked up to see Rich hanging out of the window, a big smile on her face and waving down to me. She let me up into the apartment, and she introduced me to the owner of the apartment before sitting down to catch up over a little breakfast. The last time I had seen Rich, she was putting me in the back of a taxi in Bangkok and giving the driver directions in Thai. We’d both come a long way since then, so I told her all about my trip across the Trans-Siberian and Europe so far, and she described some of the beautiful sites she’d seen while she’d been vacationing in Spain. Rich was actually in Barcelona for part of a Spanish language component of her university studies, but she’d arrived early and done some traveling prior to the academic side of her holiday. However, she had been in town long enough to be able to play tour guide for me, so once we were done with breakfast we got ready and headed out to seize the day. Our apartment was right near Arc de Triomf which, having just arrived from Paris, made me do a quick double take. It seems erecting arches on the site of ones victories had been a pretty common tradition at some point in European history. Barcelona’s arch was a fraction of the size of the Parisian one, but it was a still a beautiful piece of architecture among the charming Catalonian neighbourhood. That was one thing I had underestimated before arriving in Barcelona – the desire to distinguish the west coast culture of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. “Argh, it’s so frustrating that I can’t read all the signs!” Rich had bemoaned out loud. I’d been confused at first, knowing that she basically spoke fluent Spanish, but it turns out that most of the signs were in Catalan – a distinction one could probably only make if they actually knew at least one of the two languages. It was at that point that I realised, despite a five week trip to Costa Rica followed by almost a year of language lessons, I really knew next to nothing of the Spanish language.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

Rich and I walked to the metro station and caught a train across town to one of the sights she suggested – the botanical gardens and Montjuïc Castle. In proper European fashion, the town was one architectural delight after the next, from the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, which comes alive with a colourful light show at night, to the beautiful Italian-style building that was Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, or the National Art Museum of Catalonia, to the classical castle itself, which also gave stunning panoramic views of both the city and the harbour and seaside. In our attempt to find the castle, we also got a little lost and somehow stumbled across the Olympic Stadium from when Barcelona hosted the games in 1992, which we were able to have a peek into as well. Afterwards we wandered through the streets on our way back downtown, with Rich pointing out all the features of the cities buildings, and we stopped for a lunch of traditional Spanish cuisine: paella. Despite it being included in every example in every Spanish textbook I’d ever used in my studies, I’d never had the pleasure of eating paella, let alone paella in Spain, so it was a small novelty that made me quite happy.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Montjuïc castle.

Montjuïc castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

From there we walked home through the historic centre of Barcelona, and up the famous main street, La Rambla. “You have to be really careful around here,” Rich cautioned as we strolled past the many shops and stalls that lined the dividing strip of the street. “Street theft is a pretty big problem. They’re not just opportunists – they actually have professional pick pockets.” It wasn’t so much a matter of safety as it was just keeping your wits about you, and your valuables out of your back pockets. While I’d fallen for a couple of irritating scams along the way, I’d been extremely lucky when it came to a matter of forceful theft on this trip, so I found myself being extra cautious so that I didn’t spoil that record, although most people just seemed to be peddling their standard cheap and tacky souvenirs. Eventually we turned off the main road and wandered through the smaller streets, adorned with art work and exquisite sculpturing, and grabbed a delicious gelato before returning home to rest and ready ourselves for the coming night out.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

The delicious paella.

The delicious paella.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

***

The following day, and in fact most of the rest of my time in Barcelona, was spent relaxing and chilling out, rather than seeing any more sights or doing anything particularly touristic. Barcelona was flooded with tourists for the summer, and I didn’t enjoy feeling like a sheep in that collective. Though one of the things I had been most excited for in Barcelona was the beach, so the next day Rich and I took it easy after our night of partying and spent the afternoon soaking up the sun on the sand, and I also ventured out into the waves. The most striking thing about Playa de St Sebastià was that it was “clothing optional”, but unlike many nude beaches I’ve known or visited back in Sydney, which are usually small strips of sand tucked away in the far corners of the city, this beach was one of the main beaches of Barcelona and it was packed. Men, women, children, families, couples, big groups – the sand was full of all kinds of people and a good 50% of them were baring all for the world to see. Topless sunbathing isn’t such a big deal in Australia, but these women had stripped off entirely, as had the men. I have nothing against nudity, but it did feel a little different from previous beaches I’d been to. I think what struck me as so peculiar was how many people, including myself, remained relatively covered up. I’ve always felt as though there’s some weird reverse taboo about actually leaving your swimsuit on at a clothing optional beach, but the term ‘optional’ is taken very literally here – you’re free to chose, and naked and the modest mingle as though there was no difference in their attire at all.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

In addition to being a nude beach, I’d also read that Playa de St Sebastià was a gay beach, though while it was frequently by gaggles of gays showing off their naked bodies, there was an equal amount of small children also running around naked, something one wouldn’t expect at a designated ‘gay beach’. I guess the atmosphere was just so liberal and carefree that it attracted all kinds of people. Rich and I stayed there all afternoon, and when we were done we decided to walk home instead of catching the metro. The streets of Barcelona were the perfect blend of seaside relaxation and a festive, lively flair. In the early evening, when the sun was setting but the streets were bathed in twilight, we went for another walk and saw may people in the parks around Arc de Triomf and saw lots of skateboarders and roller skaters, as well as street performers and other people just enjoying a stroll down the promenade. Compared to my arrival on my first morning in Barcelona, it felt like the city had finally woken up.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Although, while the city had definitely woken up during the day, there’s always a lull in activity when most people observe the beloved Spanish tradition of an afternoon nap, or siesta. They slowly take their time waking up again in the afternoon, but it’s when the sun goes down that the city truly comes alive…

Icons: Sightseeing in The City of Lights

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Getting Cultured: St Petersburg and the Hermitage

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.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

The Kazan Cathedral - I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

The Kazan Cathedral – I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

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.

Outside the Hermitage.

Outside the Hermitage.

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.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

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.