Malachite Hall, St Petersburg

It has been a while since I crossed a border with all the officialdom of Customs and Immigration and that is my only excuse for making a minor mistake on entering Russia. With stories of long delays and Bridget’s possibly embarrassing registration number uppermost in my mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the process was both straightforward and efficient at the border and I was 40 miles inside Russia before realising that I had completely forgotten to purchase insurance. In Russia, like most countries, car insurance is compulsory and the police are reportedly enthusiastic in stopping cars with foreign plates and checking their papers.

I had plenty of fuel for the journey, but the road conditions for the first forty miles were poor and the standard of driving a little erratic. Just when I thought I would have to get used to the road surface it improved considerably even though the driving didn’t. A condition of my visa was that I had to pre-book a hotel and I managed to find it quite easily which was a relief because Bridget was becoming something of an attraction with people taking photos from their cars and honking their horns and giving me the thumbs up.

I was relieved to check into the hotel and safely lock Bridget in the underground car park away from the prying eyes of the police. The hotel concierge was brilliant in helping me to locate a company to insure Bridget and found it enormously amusing that her registration is SPY.

I had been looking forward to this first visit to Russia, particularly St Petersburg. Many people have said how beautiful it is, which perhaps set my expectations rather high. Anyway my first impressions were not encouraging. The main highways are exceedingly wide, for example their equivalent to Oxford Street is six lanes wide, but it was immediately apparent that the architecture although interesting, is in desperate need of repair. I decided that I was tired, concerned about the insurance situation and needed to keep an open mind and explore properly the next day.

Friday and I had decided to do the typical tourist bit and discover the city. I would leave visiting specific attractions until Saturday and Sunday. I literally walked, the only way to discover a city properly, for eight hours and included although I hadn’t intended too, a visit to Peter and Paul’s fortress. There are indeed some beautiful and interesting buildings dotted around the city. St Petersburg is in European history terms a relatively new city, only being founded in 1703. Peter and Pauls fortress was formerly the Noteburg Fortress belonging to Sweden until the Russian army started to make some gains in their war. It is recorded that Peter the Great decided to build a new capital city around the fortress partly because he liked the area, but also to exert his authority over the establishment in Russia at the time. Within nine years St Petersburg was officially declared the capital and even today is considered the capital of Northern Russia.

The population of the city at the last census was 5 million. The October Revolution of 1917 started in St Petersburg and I spent the whole of Friday evening sitting in the hotel lounge listening to a balalaika and waiting for Julie Christie to join me. She was privileged to meet me in 1966 but she probably still doesn’t realise what could have been hers.

The city was of course renamed Leningrad in 1924 after Lenin’s death, only reverting to its original name after a referendum in 1991. During World War II it was subjected to 872 days of siege, but the majority of its historic treasures have survived. There are 221 museums, 2000 libraries and more than 80 theatres in St Petersburg, so the culture is very rich.

The whole of Saturday was spent in the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum that is housed within the same building complex. The Hermitage is the made up of the Old and New Museums, the Hermitage Theatre and the Auxiliary House as well as part of the General Staff Building. It is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world and has a collection of over 3 million items. Even without the museum’s collection the Palace itself is more than worthwhile visiting. The state rooms are breath-taking, in particular the Jordan Staircase, the Malachite Room and the Pavilion Hall. For me the Winter Palace, ranks along with the Golden Palace in Amritsar, The Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and The Sistine Chapel in Rome. Few places leave me feeling this way.

I spent most of Sunday walking, again, and visiting the Church of Resurrection and St Issacs Cathedral whilst negotiating the crowded celebrations for Russia’s Navy Day. This gave me an unexpected photography opportunity that I will post on Wednesday.

There has been so much to see and record that one problem has been to select a range of photographs to post to the site gallery. For convenience I have divided the photos in the Gallery into General, Historic and Winter Palace, plus the extras to come later. Hope you enjoy them.

The Russian people, certainly in this area, rarely appear happy. It is unusual to see anyone smiling, let alone laughing and unfortunately there is a strong male chauvinistic element both toward their country and themselves. Watching the Navy Day celebrations whenever two men met they had to bearhug each other with lots of backslapping, etc. Reminded me a little of Blackadder and Bob, all thigh slapping and ‘matey’ chat to emphasise their gender. It is not helped by the language being rather harsh. Even when telling a joke they sound angry. A minor victory however, I managed to get three of the iron hard security ladies in the Hermitage to crack a smile. No mean feat I can tell you.

I have made the decision on the next part of my journey. I am going to bow to the financial realities of life and return across the border into Europe. Tomorrow I will make my way to Tallinn in Estonia and the desert of Mongolia will have to wait for another time. It’s always good to have another place to dream about for the future and there are several European countries Bridget hasn’t visited.

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