Part Three of Roman’s report on the trip to the Finnish Worldcon, wherein he visits the Winter Palace and catches up with various fannish types back in London. [Note: click on small images to view full sized]
It was Tuesday morning of the 15th
of August that I checked out of my Helsinki hotel and walked the four blocks to Central Station, arriving at 11am, in time to change some currency, grab some breakfast, and board the 11:40 Allegro train to St Petersburg.
I had a slight scare when the con newsletter noted that the train workers were out on strike from Monday night to Tuesday night; luckily, the strike didn’t include international services. I was only staying two nights in St Petersburg, as I had to gamble on getting a Russian visa in time for the trip [Various Melbourne fans had suggested it best to take the ferry, because the operator included a visa for the 72 hour stay; but I wasn’t interested in a tour where everything was scheduled. My visa came through five days before I left Australia.].
When I had noticed there were four trains a day from Helsinki, all high speed light-weight rail, I couldn’t resist catching the train to Peters.
After all, what better way to arrive in Petrograd on the centenary of the revolutions than to arrive in Finlandia station by train?
I had purchased a Lonely Planet guide to St Petersburg, complete with maps and recommendations.
The train was a little scary: three or four separate waves of armed guards in various motley asked to see my passport and visa, inspect my luggage and queried the purpose of my trip. After the first half hour, we could relax for the next 150 minutes, as the train sped along the tracks at 137 km/hr to its destination. The assortment of border guards and passport control re-appeared about half an hour out of Finlandia Station.
We disembarked at the station, and were shepherded to a side entrance — no need to mingle with the locals! I walked past the waiting taxis, and caught the metro #1 line to a station near my hotel. It was a bright sunny day, and quite warm when I emerged from the depths of the metro via a very long, steep escalator.
I trundled my luggage along the broken pavements for five blocks to my hotel — a discrete door leading to a set of flats, reception on the ground floor. My room was on the third floor, with a window facing west: the three o’clock sun streamed in to my room, warming it. I dumped my case, turned on the air conditioning, and lay abed to cool down and plan my first foray.
An hour later, I was at a local trolley bus stop. 45 roubles and I had a ticket to ride down Nevsky Prospect to a stop near St Isaac’s Cathedral, with its golden dome (right).
Unfortunately, it was 5pm and the cathedral closed at 5:30, so I had to make do with a walk around the outside. I walked around the front, and got some nice snaps of the ironwork on the doors.
To the South of the cathedral was a public park, with grass, benches and purveyors of ice popsicles. I wandered a bit further, past a series of restaurants and fashion shops, to the paved Isaakiyevskaya square with an imposing statue in the middle of the area.
Note the bright sunlight and deep blue skies, at 6pm!
Though it was getting late in the day, I took one last shot of the Cathedral, just to capture some sinister (weeping) figures atop the structure.
After a quick meal at a Subway — similar menu, though the meat slices were chunkier and there were some local “extras” — I caught the trolley bus back to my hotel, where I caught up with email correspondence.
Unexpectedly, it included a message from my travel agent, informing me that the tour of the Hermitage had been moved to earlier in the day, starting at 11am rather than 2pm, and asking if that was OK. Sure, I replied.
August 16th: To the Winter Palace!
Breakfast was a mix of muesli and fruits, and toast with jam, scoffed while watching early morning TV: all in Russian, including the ads. I left around 9am, catching a trolley bus up Nevsky Prospect, and alighting a few blocks before the Winter Palace, near Zelyony Most as I wanted to walk around the area.
We were meeting the guide at the base of the Alexander Column in the Palace Square, on the north side, facing the Winter Palace, at 11am. I strolled around the area, following the river through the neighbourhood in search of Pushkin’s house, then returned to the Palace square via the Triumphal Arch.
I was at the Alexander column with fifteen minutes to spare: there were lots of tourists waiting for their guides: at least three from the Walking Tour company which offered the tour of the Hermitage museum.
I found four others waiting for the guide: another Aussie, two Irish and a Spaniard. Irena, our diminutive tour guide, appeared spot on time. She introduced herself, gave a quick outline of our itinerary — basically weaving through the rooms of the Winter Palace — and held aloft her glittery red phone case which would be her beacon for us in the crowded space. We were also warned to watch out for pickpockets and to keep our valuables close.
The tour price included tickets to the museum, which meant we wouldn’t have to queue for entry. We were much relieved at this when we saw the crowds in the palace grounds.
We bypassed the queues entirely, entering via a side door. Fairly soon, we were ascending a stunningly rich baroque staircase to the second floor, to enter a large room with a table for conferences. There were two interesting features in this room: the chandeliers had hundreds of candles — they had to be lit via a fuse wire as it would take too long to light them all manually —and there was a balcony running around the room, near the ceiling.
Clearly, there was access from side rooms for discreet eavesdropping on the high level discussions of state below.
The next room was a ballroom, where the various regions had their local crests on the chandeliers: a nice reminder that they were all part of the greater Russia! There was a costume exhibit in that room, showing off the exquisite ballgowns.
As we progressed from room to room, there was a definite ‘wave’ of tourists, crowding each space, followed by a relatively empty patch as one wave receded and the next was yet to arrive.
Of particular interest was a portrait gallery of senior military commanders: major leaders were astride horses; all the portraits were painted after the conflicts, so those who didn’t survive were honoured by an empty (green) portrait, bearing only an inscription with their name and rank.
One room had an entrance to the (private) royal family’s garden, where only the immediate Czar(ina)’s family were allowed.
The garden was completely enclosed by the surrounding rooms of the palace.
The adjacent room housed various gifts to the royal family, including a glorious gold peacock timepiece: a gift to Catherine the Great by one of her admirers.
The clock was made in London by the famous 18th Century English watchmaker and jeweller, James Cox, and was purchased from him as a gift for Catherine the Great by Prince Grigory Potyomkin, her favourite.
The museum activates it each Wednesday at 2pm to display the clockwork mechanism — you can view it in action on youtube:
Catherine was responsible for the extraordinary collection of Western European art housed in the Hermitage: the core of their collection was once her private collection. She had agents though out Western Europe on the lookout for major works to add to the collection in the Winter Palace.
The Peacock Clock in action with feathers raised (from the video)
Some works couldn’t be put on public display: this painting, The Lovers by Guilio Romano, for example.
Under the bed is a cat, symbol of infidelity.
At the doorway is a dog, symbol of faithfulnesss.
Decoded, this painting is of a woman with her lover, discovered by (perhaps) a household servant.
Given Catherine’s penchant for multiple lovers, this painting was a trifle too outrageous to be on public display, and remained part of her private collection.
One of the most extraordinary sights in the hermitage was this corridor.
Catherine the Great saw the original corridor in the Vatican. With the permission of the Pope, she sent a team of artists to the Vatican, where they painstakingly copied all of the panels onto plywood, then shipped them back to be reconstructed as the facsimile corridor in the Hermitage.
The Hermitage collection is an extraordinary sampling of Western European art, including two Madonna and Child by Leonardo, statues by Michelangelo, entire halls containing paintings from Dutch, Flemish, French & Italian Masters, and statues and sculptures.
If you want to see more of the Hermitage,
I can heartily recommend the film Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov’s tribute to the Museum. He takes us on a walk through the Hermitage, as a large cast perform excerpts from the Hermitage’s history: all filmed in a single take!
An urn fashioned from a single block of stone. Impossible to steal unless you demolish the walls of the gallery.
After the October revolution of 1917, the communists decided not to demolish the palaces, but open them up so the wealth of artwork might be shared by the masses.
By the time we’d finished our lightning tour — two hours later — most of the tour group were museum-ed out. Though the Hermitage would be open for several more hours, most of us decided to have a late lunch in the cafeteria and then explore the outside world, on a bright, sunny afternoon.
As I emerged into the square, I was approached by an attractive blonde in a stylish “red guards” uniform. She asked me a question in Russian — presumably asking if I wanted my picture taken with her, rather than offering other services. I shook my head, and she immediately switched to English. She was joined by another young lass: I demurred, feeling a little wary of what might occur in a side alley!
Instead, I walked around to the rear of the Winter Palace, the road adjacent full of tourist buses, where I took snaps of the river and the fortress opposite as I strolled down the road to the nearby park, Mars Field, in search of the statue of Pushkin.
I passed by the Marble Palace, where they housed art of the Russian Museum — artwork by Russian painters, ironically ignored by the Westward looking Catherine, and thus ill represented in the Hermitage — a fine statue of Alexander III in their courtyard. I strolled through the Mihailovsky Gardens, with its war memorials, to the golden spire I saw in the distance, on the right of the park.
It was, of course, one of the spires of the Church on the Spilled Blood, a glorious Byzantine church named after the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II.
…and close up: the Church on the Spilled Blood
I walked down a small street along the canal, full of tourist stalls selling tatt, to find myself once more on the famous Nevsky Prospect. I strolled down the street, stopping at a Blini shop for lunch. Even ran across a bookshop, whose front window was advertising a major author visit on the morrow.
I took a video of an Elvis impersonator (!!), and snapped a fine statue of Catherine the Great outside the National Library.
In due course, I came to the Anichkov Bridge across the Fontanka river, with its four famous horse statues.
The Bridge and statues are mentioned in works by Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky. The statues, The Horse Tamers, were designed by the Russian sculptor, Baron Peter Klodt von Jurgensburg.
By the time I’d crossed the bridge (and there were useful subways for pedestrians), I was sufficiently tired to hop on a trolley bus back to my hotel on 5-ya Sovietskya ul, after all, I had a train to catch the following morning at 11:30 to get me back to Helsinki, and then a flight back to London. I had an hour between the train arriving in Helsinki Central and the Plane leaving the airport, but as it turned out, the Metro was the difficulty!
Aug 17th: In Transit Mundi
It was going to be a long day travelling from St Petersburg to London. I awoke at 7am, showered, packed and breakfasted. I checked out of my hotel at 9:30, thinking two hours would be plenty of time to travel via Metro to Finlandia Station. As I left the hotel, they gave me a form in Cyrillic, saying I would need it for border control. [Basically it had my name and passport number, with a note that I had left the hotel that morning: they keep a serious eye on tourists!]
A short 20 minute walk took me to the local metro station, Pl Vosstanlya, where all I had to do is ride the train on the metro #1 line to the Lenin Station, adjacent to Finlandia Station.
Unfortunately, there are two stations named after Lenin on the #1 Metro line: Leninski Prospect and Ploshchad Lenin — the latter was the one I needed, while the former was the one I noticed on the metro line map at the station. There was a growing sense of unease as I passed station after station [I had noted the direction of travel by noting the name of the station at the end of the line on the way in, and misread this as the station I should head for on the way out: in short, exactly the wrong way] — I was sure it had been a much shorter trip earlier, but I figured it might be one of those loops. Eventually, I exited the metro — a much shorter escalator than I recalled on the way in — to find nothing resembling Finlandia Station. No-one around seemed to speak English, so I returned to the subway.
There, on the subway wall, was a map of the Metro superimposed on the map of Petersburg: I was in the bottom left hand corner at the end of the line, whereas I should be somewhere on the right, just past the river.
I realised what I’d done, and it was now 10:50. I had to retrace my steps, and get to the train before it left at 11:30. I estimated two minutes per station, and I might just make it.
I arrived at Ploschad Lenin at 11:15, and stood as the escalator carried me up out of the depths of the metro. At the top, there was an entrance to the station — blocked, so I hurried out and around the building. As I tried to enter, a security guard pointed out I needed to enter elsewhere: my platform was accessed by a separate entrance, out the building and around the corner. I follow this advice, and started looking for the entrance, only to see nothing obvious but scaffolding and screens. I asked some pedestrians, who suggested I should go back the way I came.
No, I thought, trust the security guy and continue. There it was! Straight in, through passport control, bag through the security scanner, and then I’m running down the platform with my bag, looking for carriage 3 and my seat. I enter the train, find my seat and note there are three minutes until the train leaves. All is well, except I’m sweating like a pig, and the first half hour is all passports, customs and security control, — and I look guilty as hell!
All goes well, and I find myself enjoying lunch in the club car an hour later, eating my feta and cauliflower pie while speeding along at 137 km/hr, as the train gently tilts into the curve.
I message Claire Brialey to let her know I’ve caught the train, and will be on the flight to Heathrow that afternoon. We exchange messages as to the best route to West Croydon, and I settle on the bus to Croydon Station. It’ll be late, but Claire promises that they’ll save some dinner for me.
The train pulls in to Helsinki Central on time, and I have time to exchange roubles for euros and grab a snack before catching one of the frequent trains to the airport. I pass through passport control, check my luggage and spend twenty odd minutes walking around the airport to find the departure lounge — they seem to delight in sending you back and forth, the longest path to get to the lounge! Despite all this, I catch the 4:30 flight out.
At Heathrow, it’s collect the luggage and walk to the Bus Central Station, and wait for the bus to Croydon: an hour and forty minutes trip.
By the time I arrive, I’ve been on the road for 15 hours straight: metro, train, airplane, bus. I phone Claire as soon as I leave the bus, asking where to? She says, just wait at the bus stop. Moments later, a bus pulls up. Mark exits and says “Welcome to Croydon.” I am so relieved to see a friendly face I hug him.
We catch the bus, and walk down the main street to their abode at Shirley Road. The TAFF winners, John and Valerie are there, packing for their exit the following morning.
There is a large portion of scrumptious dinner awaiting me, and I regale my hosts with details of my adventures while wolfing down the lovely meal. I have the attic room, a fine queen sized bed, and a window which faces east. After a busy day travelling, I enjoy a wonderful night’s sleep.
August 18th: All the World’s a Stage
Claire had bought tickets for us to see King Lear at the New Globe, but she had warned me the previous night that she was feeling sickly, and probably wouldn’t come with me. She wasn’t feeling any better this morning, so I spent a bit of time on the phone mid-morning. I knew I had found a companion when I heard the excitement in Alison Scott’s response. We arranged to meet at a pub near the Globe, about an hour before the play.
I caught the train to Blackfriars Bridge, and met Alison near the pub. It was a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon, so the pub was chock full of punters having drinks and pre-theatre meals. We found another eatery just up the road from the Globe, and ate a quick meal before entering the Globe, grabbing our cushions and finding our way to our seats — second balcony, rather than being groundlings. There was a cloudy night, but the rain held off.
It was a strange production, in that there seemed to be a frame featuring homeless people who arrived at an abandoned theatre, ripped down the paper/cardboard coverings and staged the play. At the end, they gathered their costumes in shopping carts and exited the stage.
It was a good production, with some nice performances from Cordelia and The Fool. Not a great production, but a good one.
At the end of the show, we noticed they’d turned on fairy lights on The Globe.
We grabbed some after show drinks at the adjacent bar, and chatted about the production while admiring the evening view across the river to St Paul’s. Eventually, we both walked back to Blackfriars Bridge (the train station takes up the length of the bridge) and caught our respective trains back home.
Aug 19th: A Dinner Party
Back at Nine Worlds, I had discussed catching up with Caroline Mullen and Brian Ameringen for dinner.
After some discussion, we’d arranged that Mark, Claire and I would visit them on the Saturday night for dinner.
This meant that we didn’t actually have to do much during the day, so we relaxed after doing a little local shopping — I had a panicky moment when I found my credit card was refused. Had my account been hacked?
After a bit of internet research, it turned out that my credit union had scheduled an outage of the electronic transfer system for that Saturday. Because of the time zones, normal operation was restored later that night, much to my relief!
Early evening, we set out to catch the trains to visit Caroline & Brian in their three-storey elegant home. They had prepared a lovely meal of various pasta dishes, and started with a round of G&Ts for everyone.
A pleasant evening ensued of conversation, discussion and debate, over the plentiful food.
We staggered home late that night, after a very convivial evening.
Aug 20th: Epping Forest beckons
On the Sunday, Mark & Claire had a friend’s 50th Birthday party to attend. I decided it would be a good time to catch up with Lisa Konrad, who lived near one of the stations on the northern line. Claire gave me clear directions, so after a very fine breakfast of Crostinis made with cherries and blue cheese — thank you, Mark! — I headed out confidently on the tube to visit Lisa for lunch at a nearby pub.
After meeting Lisa at home, we set out for a short walk through part of Epping Forest to the Village pub, where we sat in a beer garden to eat our lunches: a very tasty stew with vegetables, and a pint of cider to go with it. Again, a beautiful warm afternoon, ideal for outdoor dining. By early evening, I headed back to the train station for the ride home. Mark and Claire came in later in the evening, so I amused myself by reading fanzines and listening to music.
Aug 20th: Return to the Tower
Monday was going to be a busy day: though Mark was back at work, Claire and I would join Joseph and Judith on a visit to the Tower of London. Mark would join us later, for dinner. As I noted earlier, Joseph had never been to the Tower of London. Judith decided to join our expedition, so the four of us met around 1:30 on the riverbank near Tower Bridge.
The Lonely Planet guide advised us to start with the Yeomen’s tour, which ended in the Chapel, and we did so. Our Yeoman was a cheerful fellow, who had been employed thus for three decades and was a Keeper of the Ravens. You’ve probably heard the legend that the empire is safe as long as there are Ravens in the Tower? That’s just the most recent version of the story, dating back to WWII; it used to be the Lions. There are normally eight Ravens resident in the Tower; on this Monday there were seven.
Apparently, six are sufficient to protect the empire!
Our guide told us of the history of the Tower, initially built as a Fortress to stop the enemy crossing the river. The Traitor’s Gate was an entrance via the river, a discrete entry to the Tower famously used to bring Sir Walter Raleigh to his prison, which he occupied for thirteen years (1603 — 1616) while writing his History of the World.
Raleigh was pardoned, set off to find El Dorado in Venezuela and ultimately re-imprisoned for looting the Spanish on his return. He was beheaded on 29 Oct, 1618. While we were being shown around the battlements, a troop of the Second of the First Cold Stream Guard came past, escorting the Keeper of the Key, a messenger from her Majesty bearing the password for that day.
Once the Tower gates are locked at Midnight, no-one may enter or leave the Tower without the password, which is changed daily. Note that there is a First Cold Stream Guard, a Third, and a Fourth, but no Second.
Apparently the Cold Stream Guards are second to none, so the squad after the First are called “Second of the First”.
There was an exhibit in the White Tower of Armour and Weaponry through the ages. Not only were there suits for Henry VIII (they had to make new suits as his waistline increased), but also for the horses ridden by various knights.
We wandered upstairs in an adjacent tower to see the Royal Crown Jewels: we whisked past them on a travelator!
Also of interest were the
various metal animal statues about the Tower, representing the various animals which have been resident in the tower over the years.
My favourites were Charles I’s elephant, and the baboons on the battlements!
We saw the stairs where they found the bodies of two young boys — presumed the princes in the tower, but the current Queen has ruled out DNA testing on the remains which had been disinterred. Presumably, She prefers not to reopen sore wounds between ruling families. Or maybe She just wants to lay the whole matter to rest, once and for all.
The Ravens were obviously a drawcard. We snapped some nice shots of Elias — they all wore coloured tags, and Judith noticed a board with the names of the current Ravens.
The Official Souvenir Shop was called The Raven Shop, and the café adjacent was The Raven Cafe. I know they served a very nice bratwurst with sauerkraut, as our party stopped there for afternoon tea around fourish.
We eventually left the Tower at 5pm, when they closed the gates to visitors. Judith and Joseph went home, while Claire and I ventured into the heart of the city to meet Mark at the City of London Distillery.
This was a fine Gin Joint discovered by Claire. They serve platters of sandwiches, and five distinct types of Gin: Sloe, City of London #1 (a classic London Dry), the Christopher Wren (COL#2), the Square Mile Gin and the Old Tom. There’s a nice bar, the still room, a tasting room, and a large lounge in which Claire and I awaited Mark’s arrival.
The Distillery is in Bride Lane, just off Fleet Street. When Mark joined us, we ordered two large sandwich and cheese platters, which we each worked our way through along with three (or was it four?) gin cocktails.
A couple of cheerful hours later, we headed for the trains home.
Aug 21st: A Quiet day
My last full day in London. I had planned a quiet day, with a stroll to the local shops to buy some apples — none of my favourite, Granny Smiths, though there were a few familiar NZ varieties; sorting out the washing and packing all the odds & ends for my flight home on the morrow. Claire spent the day sleeping or working on her computer; I browsed the internet and listened to music.
In the evening, we prepared a feast for dinner: I contributed my potato & apple blini, Claire baked rissoles, and we had some nice red wine for a convivial dinner at home.
August 22nd: Up in the Air
It was the day of my long flight home: Claire kindly came with me to the train station and pointed out the next train to Gatwick, where I’d soon board an Emirates flight to Adelaide via a 2 hour stop around midnight in Dubai.
I’d had an exciting three weeks abroad, visited old friends and new cities, gotten lost, strayed afar and renewed friendships with some lovely people in London.
I was heading home tired, but happy, with many fond memories.