After staying in Peterhof for three nights we still hadn’t managed to see much of the city, as we pretty much spent the first day sorting out our visa registration and eating, and the second day seeing the sights in Peterhof. So we decided to stay one night in a hostel in the centre of town, which turned into two nights… and a side trip to Vyborg (which I’ll come back to).
In the city we did some wandering around a central cemetery, which had some pleasingly soviet gravestones, ate some delicious vegetarianised Russian food, and watched the bridges over the river being raised at 1.30 am to allow ships through, as they are every night while the river isn’t frozen.
The ‘must see’ thing I wanted to visit in St Petersburg was the Hermitage museum (which is disappearing behind Arthur in the photo at the top). Mostly the Hermitage is just ridiculously vast, which was the appeal for me. You can get lost in it. It has a bit of everything, but lots and lots and lots of art. We limited ourselves to an afternoon for our visit, and though I enjoyed walking around the building I was pretty bored of looking at paintings by closing time, so this was probably a good call.
There was some absorbing stuff to look at, like an extremely elaborate mechanised clock the size of a small car, and some impressive paintings, especially an eighteenth century one of a saint keeping his iPhone close at hand, even on his deathbed.
The best thing about the museum, though, was the cloakroom.
First off, we gave in our coats, and were handed some jazzy green plastic tags in return. Then we tried to hand over our bag, but the babushka behind the counter was having none of it. We were bemused, because the lady in front of us had stowed hers without mishap.
Unwilling to give up this easily, we tried the next counter. The cloakroom, you see, was in fact 8 or 10 small cloakrooms in a line, each with its own attendant.
Arriving in Russia you can’t help but feel that there’s a policy of full employment being pursued, irrespective of the productiveness of that employment. For example, the border was staffed by seven or eight guards when we arrived, one of whom was checking passports, while another swept leaves into Estonia, and the rest smoked round the back of the building. Seemingly superfluous leaf sweeping is a popular pursuit actually. We observed one lady walking the length of a city block in order to sweep a single leaf from the pavement to the road, and continue on her way.
The next cloakroom babushka wouldn’t have our bag either, but did give us a tantalising clue as to why. Amidst shaking her head she pointed at the green tags we were still clutching helplessly. After some intense discussion we still hadn’t solved the riddle, but were clearly looking increasingly distressed, because a passing Russian girl took pity on us and manhandled the green tags out of our hands, marched us back to the first babushka, and got our jackets back for us.
Initially we were even more confused, but then, after a second round of discussions, we twigged. (Or at least, we think we did.)
You could only deposit a bag in the cloakroom if you deposited your coat at the same moment. Clearly this rule was strictly observed, and handing your coat over immediately followed by your bag was not acceptable. Now all we had to do was get a coat back, move onto a third babushka, who wasn’t yet in a rage with us, and hand over both at once.
Flushed with victory, we marched smugly up to the airport style security barring the way into the galleries, only to be told that the water we were carrying wasn’t allowed. We thought the sign showing a picture of a bottle of wine with a line through it meant no wine allowed, but no.
This time in the cloakroom we were old hands, and got our coat and bag back from babushka number three in no time, stowed the water, and swiftly moved on to babushka number four to deposit coat and bag (together).
This wasn’t the end of the fun though, after a brief interlude actually looking at the exhibits, we were back at the cloakroom among a sea of people leaving as the museum closed. We got our stuff back without any elaborate moves or ritual slaughter, but were then subjected to a lengthy telling off (in Russian). From the fact that the babushkas were all wearing their coats (presumably so that they were allowed to carry a bag), and the animated wrist jabbing that accompanied our telling off, we surmised that the cloakroom was closed. Before the galleries. Obviously.
Buoyed by our authentic Russian experience, we went off to celebrate with a beer, whereby we were confronted by a man attending the pub cloakroom who looked like he might actually kill you. We didn’t try and leave our bag.
Another illustrating experience in St Petersburg was our visit next day to the vodka museum. This was mostly a collection of vodka containers of varying vintages and designs. They even had vodka in a tube.
We splashed out on an audio-guide, which had some interesting social history, told through the life and times of vodka. The guide was at pains to make it clear that vodka drinking is central to Russian culture, but it’s NOT about getting drunk. It’s very important to ‘maintain mental clarity’ at all times when drinking vodka. This is why Russians ALWAYS eat a small snack after each shot. The guide pointed out, shocked, that the first Russian pubs ‘didn’t serve any snacks’, but presumably this travesty has faded into history.
When we got back to the hostel there were three dizzyingly drunk guys outside, having a stand-off with two of the hostel staff. The staff member left inside apologised for the scene, explaining that they’d had to kick some guests out because they’d ‘broken a lot of rules’.
As an afterthought she added, in an only slightly perceptible Russian accent, ‘I hate Russians’.