Flannel and Fur. Saint Petersburg!

Old Oct 29th, 2018, 09:48 AM
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Flannel and Fur. Saint Petersburg!

No need for the former, and most glad I had the latter.

The Up Front. If you are reading this trip report for a gallery-by-gallery account of the State Hermitage Museum, or seeking fawning descriptions of other “must see, must do” headliners of this fairy tale city I write now that you may, and likely will be disappointed.

The Background. DH needed to schedule a work trip; and DD wanted us out of the house during the school autumn break to knock out a couple of IB essays and otherwise enjoy the silence. This is why late October was chosen. Plus, DH’s rationale was that the possibility of snow in October far outweighed the certainty of soul crushing tourist hoards and cruise ship day-trippers in a more pleasant climate month. Smart man.

The Flights. Rossiya, the little sister carrier to Aeroflot. We enjoyed all of the luxuries of this €230 flight: a fully booked plane; one sad cream cheese-laden sandwich each way and a meager cup of beverage to go with. But at least Rossiya checked my 22kg bag for free.

The Lodging. Not on our Euro cent so I will limit my slight displeasure to that of the hotel room heat being equivalent to that of the tropics, and lamenting the flannel jammies I had packed. We had to turn the heat completely off and open the window on the -1C and -3C overnights just to keep the room temperate.

The Itinerary. Of no matter, for it went “POOF” within the first couple of hours upon arrival. See, The Weather.

The Weather. On our departure morning the forecast (on the official Saint Petersburg tourist website, which should be gospel truth) called for three days of “Sleet and Snow.” Gospel truths are open to interpretation, we learned. Our arrival and the first two days offered cold, cold sunshine with intermittent clouds against a late autumn sky, adding a brooding effect to my snaps that Dostoyevsky himself would be impressed with, but also upending my scripted plan. Our final day was more like the forecast suggested, but that was of little matter since we were indoors touring the Hermitage. Overall, thank goodness for the fur-trimmed hats I inherited from my Babushkas to wear on this holiday.

The Wardrobe Malfunction. Bracing for the Hermitage I packed a favorite skirt, tights, and my trusted ballerinas with urban trekking soles. On Hermitage Day I pulled the tights from my Tumi to discover that I had somehow packed DD’s footless tights instead! (Note to self: never, ever, ever again share a laundry load with DD). A quick run to the 24 hour-market down the street came up empty, too. A bleak sadness fell upon Room 812 on this morning. I was eventually resigned to a 6,4km hike through the great palace in heeled ankle boots and jeans. Sigh.

The Food. Overall I estimated that I devoted a good work weeks’ worth of time to reading, researching and otherwise planning this trip; a good fraction of that time devoted to what and where we would eat. (As a trailing spouse I have this luxury; however I did this planning when I was a working gal and raising young children I can not recall.) Along the way I had also read that Saint Petersburg is known for its gastronomic offerings. Being of Polish heritage I know my way around pelminis, pierogis, and all of the stuffed dumpling variations on this side of the former Iron Curtain; and our meals in the many seriously good Balkan restaurants in Vienna have earned DH his Shashlik street cred, so we sought “something more” than the stereotypical Russian dishes one might enjoy. I set the bar high with my restaurant selections, and scored a perfect 10.

The Final Impression. We would return in a heartbeat.

All the details are forthcoming.
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Old Oct 29th, 2018, 10:30 AM
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Looking forward to all of the details!
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Old Oct 29th, 2018, 10:37 AM
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Any cheap Nina Ricci?
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Old Oct 30th, 2018, 01:59 AM
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Our airport driver was in the mood to take the slowly, plodding, getting-stuck-behind-the-trash-truck neighborhood streets to reach the main road leading to the Autobahn and VIE, and so we arrived at the airport to meet a check-in queue longer than a Soviet breadline. I suggested to DH that he queue in the “Priority” line while I held a space in the Cattle Class line; because he was traveling on his official passport, perhaps that would count as “Priority.” It worked, our cases were tagged and we were on our way. Little victories.

The hotel driver’s name was Vladimir and he drove like a maniac. But after surviving the ride to the airport in Minsk (“At one point I just closed my eyes and hoped for the best”) I was calm, taking blurry snaps as we sped and wove through traffic to our hotel. At this time of the day the sun was setting in between the clouds, completely in contrast to the forecast. DH and I dropped our cases, tore up the carefully planned itinerary and made haste to The Palace Bridge, where I captured the pale green of The Hermitage against the steel blue skies.



On our way to dinner, St. Isaac’s Cathedral glowed brilliantly. The hours for touring had passed, but we would return later.



The cheese from the sandwich no longer sustaining me (the bread was too cold, and the meat (?) too weird to eat) dinner was the first of two important activities for the balance of the evening. The second would be to reconfigure the itinerary before we retired for the night.

Gogol was our restaurant. This former apartment of the noted author has been turned into what became the coziest restaurant of our culinary journey, and dining here was like dropping in on your Babushka on a Sunday, your taste buds anticipating the Stroganov you know she has been preparing since dawn. We did not begin with the “Frosted Sliced Lard in Three Different Ways Complemented with Garlic Rye Sippets” but instead with the Pelmeni, silken morsels filled with “minced meat of two kinds” in a shallow puddle of aromatic broth.

The bread and herbed house butter, homemade, naturally. When I remarked to our server that the bread was especially delicious, she only replied, “Yes. I know.”

The Stroganov, so much unlike the preparation that I know that I have relegated that recipe to the recycling bin. Even mushroom-loathing DH agreed that I should devote kitchen time to creating this masterpiece, from just one taste! And DH’s canard with pear sauce? No words. About that Russian wine we ordered I have a few words, but they are not kind words. Going forward it was Georgian whites, which we adore, and a crisp New Zealand when the Georgian varietal was not available.

Who could pass on the Green Apple Tartine with Thin Caramel Crust for dessert? Not we. We were informed that we must wait 15 minutes for dessert because each tartine is made to order. The wait was worth it, in case you wondered.

Our concierge had informed us the following day would be sunny, with “No snow.” So, with happy tummies we strolled back to the hotel and reconstructed the following day’s plan to capitalize on the nice weather. But not before opening the window and turning the heat completely off in Sauna Room 812.

Up next: Crypts! "Red Phones!" The Very First Egg Made by Carl Faberge! and more...
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Old Oct 30th, 2018, 01:48 PM
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I'm hooked and want to read more!

If you ever get that stroganov recipe worked out, I'd be interested. We also used to go to a place in Berlin that served a stroganov that wasn't creamy -- they called it Radzwill style and it had sliced pickles. Very yummy, too.
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Old Oct 30th, 2018, 03:07 PM
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I'm dying to read the rest of this, as I've always wanted to visit St-Petersburg, and now it's not such a big trek. Plus, the writing is compelling. Thank you.
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Old Oct 30th, 2018, 04:45 PM
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This is terrific! I'm savouring every minute.
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Old Oct 31st, 2018, 12:32 AM
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If only Alexander Litvinenko could have seen you enjoying yourselves
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Old Oct 31st, 2018, 06:08 AM
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This first morning dawned…sunny! We put ourselves together and hurried to the morning meal. Breakfast is the one meal I seldom look forward to at home because all of us take a different approach to the start of the day, so it’s either three preparations or someone is left unsatisfied. When we travel, though, I can have herrings, cucumbers and oatmeal; and DH can have fried eggs and bacon, and everyone is happy.

But I digress. Sergei Kirov’s apartment was our first destination, and getting there was best accomplished by bus. I asked the concierge about purchasing tickets and she replied, “Look for the person who is dressed differently.” Our bus arrived and we boarded. As I was looking for someone “dressed differently,” a nondescript woman came up to us and spoke loudly—the ticket person! We paid our fare (€0,54 equivalent each) and were given two tiny pieces of paper that I was terrified of losing.

Finding Kirov’s apartment was a little confusing. Google Maps on my iPhone and the museum address weren’t speaking the same language, so I went old-school and asked a group of gentlemen talking in the park for help. (DH vapor locks in any language other than English, so I’m the one always hand signaling or using the wrong tense when we need assistance in a foreign tongue.) “Kirov!” “Kirov!” “Kirov!” each of them exclaimed, and then one of them escorted us down the street to a building, the museum sign about as small as our bus ticket affixed to the front.

The building had a lift (prominent partisans lived in luxury!), and we creaked and groaned to the fifth floor. Barely had the words, “Here is where we pay.” left my lips than we were paparazzi-ed by the docents. Three elderly women who took our coats, ushered us to the desk, and proudly offered us the English-language guide to the museum. Given the pristine condition of the booklet, we guessed that perhaps not too many English speakers pop in for a peek at the rooms of a Communist leader. Naturally we were followed, room by room, by one of the docents.

For lovers of Russian history, the apartment is well worth a visit for insight into how the wealthy people lived before the revolution; and how party leaders lived afterward. Kirov was an avid hunter; his bear rugs decorate the floors, and the animal heads adorn the walls. In between, portraits of Stalin and Lenin in every room (except the bedroom, thankfully). A table in his office holds four telephones, including the “Red Phone” direct line to Stalin; in the adjacent library are volumes (in red) of party meeting notes. Fascinating. In the kitchen, one of the two actual General Electric refrigeratorsin all of Russia at the time! The former pantry had been converted into a mini-history exhibit, with photographs and documents (ration cards and the like) describing life for ordinary people under Communism.

About a half dozen other people were in the museum with us, to our surprise. As we were preparing to leave, however, a massive school group was arriving, and we chuckled as the docents tried to keep the teenagers in order.

From the museum we followed a route past Kazan Cathedral, modeled after, in part, St. Peter’s Basilica, with bronze doors copied from the Baptistry in Florence. Very European. The massive 96 column colonnades extending from each side of the cathedral, very Russian. After the Revolution the cathedral was “reopened” as the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, and returned to Orthodox Church in 1996.

A slight diversion to the pretty book store across the street yielded postcards worth framing; and a second diversion to a whimsical art nouveau style cafe to ogle the beautiful (and expensive, even in Rubles) tins of caviar. If we hadn’t been on a schedule, pausing for a tea would have been lovely. Next time.

The Shuvalov Palace, home now to the Faberge Museum, has its own delicious soap-opera history. Purchased by Tsar Alexander I’s mistress, herself a Polish noble, she and her husband blinged it out with marble and art and all of the other tchotchke that wealthy persons collect. It was the “glittering salon” of Saint Petersburg society, even hosting the future Tsar Alexander II’s 16thbash. During WWI the house was donated as a military hospital; and after the Revolution the palace was nationalized. (Rather amazingly, the art was hidden in secret rooms in the palace during the Revolution, and only discovered in 1919; much of the art was later donated to The Hermitage.) Someone needs to write a book about this for me to read.

By the by, a foundation of some name purchased the Faberge Egg collection of the late Malcolm Forbes for the pocket change of $100 million, along with about 4.000 other pieces of decorative arts, and needed a place to display the trinkets, including the very first, and very last Faberge Eggs made!

The palace itself is worth visiting if you like to look at grand rooms (I do); and many of the trinkets are worthy of a glance. But I came for the eggs, and my eggs-pectations were egg-ceeded. The collection of nine pretty, pretty eggs is only bested by that in the Kremlin (which we have also seen). I have also seen, several times (I am not eggs-agerating), the Faberge collection at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. so it is possible I am an eggoholic.

Now approaching mid-afternoon DH suggested a light lunch, as we had early dinner reservations. We learned it was quite common to sit for dinner early in Saint Petersburg; on our first night at Gogol we secured the last open table. At 1830!

With clouds moving in we made our way instead toward the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood for photos. Lo and behold, the top spire of the church was under scaffolding for restoration! Perfect! Some travelers collect magnets; we take pride in always seeing something important covered in scaffolding wherever we travel. Still, snaps of the remaining colored domes brought high praise from a photographer friend on social media. It wouldn’t be until after lunch that we would return to tour the even more spectacular, 7.500m2 (!) mosaic-filled interior. So many little sparkling tiles. Alongside the canal by the church is a market of sorts where I hemmed and hawed over a hand carved wooden Santa Claus that I now regret not purchasing, a bad travel habit of mine.

The Pushkin Inn was relatively nearby and we took a chance that at 1400 there would probably be no one sitting for dinner. Haha. We actually secured the lastopen table, again! Our “Russian cuisine, made with love” began with a lightly dill-perfumed chicken soup (oh, my) followed by Pelmeni. The Pelmeni presentation made us salivate (rhetorically, not literally): a wooden board upon which was placed the bowl of dumplings, a cup of real sour cream; and a small pitcher of hot broth to pour over this sumptuous creation. Russian cuisine, made with love. Indeed.

At this point in the afternoon (after we had returned to the church) we had a choice to make: should we visit the Russian Museum, or should we visit the Museum of Soviet Era Arcade Games, both of which were nearby? We went with the former, but wished we had gone with the latter. Six thousand icons are a bit much to take late in the afternoon (or, really, at any time of day); and the “Russian Expressionism” temporary exhibit that had initially drawn my attention was disappointing. Again, next time.

A subway connection took us back to the hotel for a little put-the-feet-up time before dinner (12,4km we walked, and that was with using public transit efficiently). That lasted all of 30 minutes, and we donned our shoes again and walked over to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest Orthodox church in the world. Bronze doors, malachite and lazurite columns and plenty of sparkly inside—you get the impression. A mass was underway in a side chapel with the “NO PHOTOGRAPHS DURING MASS” sign as clear as day, yet that did not stop several ninnies from clicking away. For shame.

Our dinner reservation was for All Seasons, a self-described Russian “Gastronomic Pub.” I share a snap of our starter.


This was definitely not my Babushka’s Beet Salad: sweet, roasted, and warm sliced beets topped with cold and creamy Stracciatella cheese and dusted with beet powder. It was here that we opted for the New Zealand white because the Georgian was not available; though, the server did try to get us to order the Russian White. Nyet.

For the main I selected the “Tail with Millet and Borodinsky Bread” which translates to, Oxtail with Millet and Russian Sourdough Crumbs. Perfectly portioned comfort food for a cold evening. DH ordered “Machete with Potatoes on Charcoal” and was in his happy place with steak and grilled potatoes. Our shared dessert was not the “Cheeseake with Chokeberry and Scurvy,” but instead a contemporary take on apple pie that included lemon sorbet and a graham cracker crust. So much indulgence.

Back at the hotel, we opened the window that housekeeping had closed, and plotted the next day before retiring. Once again the concierge had assured us, “No Snow.”

The adventure continues...
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Old Oct 31st, 2018, 06:20 AM
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Thank you, Kathie and muskoka for tagging along!

Trophywife, I have unearthed an old recipe collection from my Babushka that I thought was back in storage in the U.S., and as soon as I translate it from Polish there just may be a Stroganov recipe in there to try! (The Stroganov I grew up with was creamy and with sliced pickles, so perhaps that's the recipe I will discover in my grandmother's notes, though.)

St.Cirq, from what I glean of your traveling style vis a vis your reports and comments, I think you might find Saint Petersburg to your liking.
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Old Nov 2nd, 2018, 07:25 AM
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The second day involved a great deal of DH sipping tea in the late afternoon while I perused, and perused again, the Russian Imperial Porcelain offerings at Gostiny Dvor and other dealers. In the end nothing “spoke” to me; instead I came home with a Gzhel vase produced by an independent artisan that I adore, and that is what truly matters. (DH only paused from his tea-sipping long enough to raise an eyebrow when I asked him what he thought of a ginormous ceramic Samovar at “only” ₽53.000 (€700). I decided against it but oh what an impression it would have made at our dinner parties.

For DD, a stunning hand painted wooden box depicting a Pushkin Fairy Tale scene. While discussing the boxes with the clerk, I found it charming that she coaxed me toward a less expensivebox because the artistry was, in her opinion, of much higher quality than the box I had been considering. DD loved it, and spent the evening of my return thumbing through the Pushkin Fairy Tale book I had also purchased in order to find “her” story.

Where was I? Once again we awoke to a (partially) sunny day, and with a full agenda. Breakfast accomplished in under 20 minutes, we set out for the Peter and Paul Fortress, its highlight being the Cathedral and the burial place of all but two Russian Tsars. Tour group swarms were light, the good part; but they were rather obnoxious in how easily they became agitated with those of us independent travelers who wished to view the highlights of the cathedral. (DH was so wise to schedule his meetings for late October; if our visit had been in a more crowded tourist time I may have written a much different trip report.)

A tour of the Stroganov Palace was on the early afternoon agenda, before the shopping. No, not a gilded room-by-room history of the famous beef dish, but a painstakingly restored building that belonged to the wealthiest merchants of 16thcentury Russian Tsardom.The Stroganoffs were closely aligned with the czarist government and loved Europe; their son and namesake to the dish, Count Pavel Stroganoff was actually born in Paris, and the original Stroganoff recipe is derived from a French recipe. The Stroganov lineage is extinct; the palace is a now a delightful wander into the rooms of an aristocracy from long ago.

Our snack at the Gostiny Dvor cafeteria was classic milk bar: a Kotlety and a deliciously creamy potato puree for me; and something like a pork cutlet topped with diced vegetables and the same potato puree for DH. Served on plain white china, though. We sat amongst several employees of the “mall” and watched them watching a grainy black-and-white Russian television show on the flatscreen. A different dining experience to date, certainly.

Back to the hotel for an hour of regrouping before dinner. Gosti, a traditional Russian and Serbian restaurant was our reservation for this evening. The setting was adorable, with Russian and French (?) countryside fusion décor and a cozy booth into which we settled. Our server appeared as we sat down and informed us, “I will help you in five minutes.”

Roast Beef with Pickled Onions (and another basket of warm, delicious dark breads) began our epicurean adventure. For the mains I chose wisely with a honey grilled half-chicken that appeared with a little boat of something like a salsa; DH selected a Stroganov-like preparation of creamy chopped steak (sans mushrooms) over crispy potato gnocchi. Delight with every bite. We parted ways on dessert, though: Apple Pie for DH and a lighter-than-air Russian Honey Cake for me.

On the return to the hotel a light snow had begun to fall. And on this night the concierge reported, “Snow” for the following day. This was of no matter to us, as our final day would be The Hermitage Day...
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Old Nov 2nd, 2018, 09:07 AM
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This is wonderful, 44T. Did I miss how you got your VIsa?? More please!
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Old Nov 2nd, 2018, 09:21 AM
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Very forgiving after the Red Army let Warsaw get flattened.
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Old Nov 2nd, 2018, 10:12 AM
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Originally Posted by bilboburgler
Very forgiving after the Red Army let Warsaw get flattened.
Or not - after Moscow was nearly destroyed under Polish-Lithuanian occupation of 1600...
History is very important and a keystone in building one's understanding of places you visit, but considering tumultous development of Europe, you'd be hard pressed finding any two nations that have never crossed swords or had other grievances against each other.
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Old Nov 3rd, 2018, 12:44 AM
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Loving this (finally got our internet back, so am ‘catching up’), hoping for a photo of that painted wooden box gift....
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Old Nov 3rd, 2018, 05:18 AM
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Originally Posted by napoxoguk
Or not - after Moscow was nearly destroyed under Polish-Lithuanian occupation of 1600...
History is very important and a keystone in building one's understanding of places you visit, but considering tumultous development of Europe, you'd be hard pressed finding any two nations that have never crossed swords or had other grievances against each other.
I'll leave this and your interesting thread alone, but really you push back about the destruction of Warsaw but not the poisoning on allies soil in the last 20 years. Let's hope no one interferes with the election process in the US (oops) ;-)
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Old Nov 3rd, 2018, 08:15 AM
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Hermitage Day began cloudy and quite cold but otherwise dry. Just about 3 million pieces of art spread across more than 1.000 rooms, the second largest collection in the world after the Louvre. We were ready!

As part of the planning I had attempted to use the Hermitage Museum’s online trip planner that plotted a route based on one’s galleries of interest. At first it was awesome; I was able to establish “My Route” and add numerous galleries to the plan. And then I could never log back in to finish the path.

The Hermitage website is a disastrous planning tool otherwise; the app was generally useful when in the museum, but really, it all came down to the deskwork of researching each of the gallery categories in order to tailor the tour to our interests. “Yemen in the Hermitage” and “Antiquities from Siberia” won over Michelangelo’s Crouching David and even, really, the Peacock Clock. Any piece deemed a “Must See” had a guide-led horde surrounding it, only to be replaced by overly made up Russian girls taking numerous selfies in front of said “Must See” piece.

From our planning we determined that the only ticket option that would work for us was the same-day ticket, which, as might be inferred, can only be used on the day of purchase. Conveniently there are ticket kiosks in the palace courtyard that accept paper money as well as plastic, and for all of the ticket options. Easy-peasy, right?

We approached the Hermitage 15 minutes before opening, cleverly thinking we would purchase our tickets at the machine and then be ready to walk in when the museum opened. Except, no. Even the machines did not become operational until the museum opened! In the interim I had queued with everyone else as a backup while DH held his spot at the machine. (Naturally a snow squall and gusty wind had begun blowing about while I queued.)

Within a couple of moments after opening DH had our tickets and we walked right in, leaving the queue to stand in the gusty snow. Why would people queue when they could easily purchase the tickets from the machine? we asked ourselves.

The Hermitage, we discovered, is much like IKEA. One must travel through galleries and rooms that aren’t necessarily of interest to reach the ones that are. The night before we had reviewed our plan to avoid unnecessary walking through said galleries, but in the end we could not help backtracking because of dead ends and lack of staircases in some areas.

Throne rooms, in the plural. A Raphael loggia and a 19 tonne vase. Gold, very gold, drawing rooms. And so much more. It took little imagination to understand why there was a Revolution.

About two hours in we circled back to the lone cafeteria for a quick refueling. In addition to having a plan, one must approach the Hermitage nourished and well-hydrated, for even bottled water is not permitted outside the cafeteria. The no-food rules are strictly enforced; the docents have eyes in the back of their heads and snapped at me for handing DH a mint. Accepting our fate with cafeteria food we were pleasantly surprised with the fresh Caesar salad; a “Club Sandwich” and an apple pie slice that we shared. Just don’t look at the prices.

About 6 hours later we emerged from The Hermitage, art-ed out but still wanting to see the Impressionism pieces in the General Staff Building across the square, along with a little Kandinsky (I like Kandinsky). An entrance queue continued through the courtyard as we departed The Hermitage. And then we heard, “The Hermitage is closed to further visitors at this moment.” At this late hour in the afternoon, more than likely only few of the persons queued would be admitted. Why would people queue when they could easily purchase the tickets from the machine? we asked ourselves.

The galleries of the General Staff Building were peaceful and void of selfie-takers and tour groups; the docents, happy to help point the way toward a particular painting or two, and even adding a few English words in with their dozen sentences of Russian explanation. An altogether pleasant ending to our Hermitage Day.

Like the Saint Petersburgers, we sat for an early (1730) dinner at Kazan Mangal, a new-ish restaurant near the hotel serving Uzbeki, Georgian, and Russian cuisine. Khinkali, the pleated Georgian dumplings filled with lamb and broth began our dinner; we broke protocol and ate the pleats because we were famished (tradition holds that the pleats are left uneaten to prove how many dumplings you have consumed). An Uzbek pilaf arrived next, similar to a Biryani but with Caucasus spices, which we appointed as the side to our two Shashliks, lamb and chicken. The Shashliks were served upon pillowy soft Uzbek flatbread, and nary a stray morsel remained. We opted for a Georgian white, of course.

The snow gone and the sun setting in a big and glorious Russian way, we returned to the hotel where I packed for my departure the following morning (DH would be staying on for work). Promptly at 0659 my driver arrived and sped me like a maniac on snow-covered roads to the airport. The holiday had ended.

Thank you for reading.
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Old Nov 3rd, 2018, 08:23 AM
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TDudette and Adelaidean, thank you for following along.

Here is the box. The fairy tale is Pushkin's Ruslan and Ludmilla.

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Old Nov 3rd, 2018, 09:10 AM
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Great report. Brings so many memories of our visit to SP. A propos of overly made up Russian teenagers. We were recently on a cruise that stopped in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka - a wild, wild west type of place surrounded by snow covered volcanoes. The women were dressed and made up to the 9th. Even the very senior ladies were heavily made up. Those long black false eyelashes... Spider ladies.
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Old Nov 3rd, 2018, 10:28 AM
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Thanks!

Thanks for posting! Thoroughly enjoyed your trip report.
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