Friday, June 17, 2005

White Nights


Here in St. Petersburg, we are so far north that it doesn't get dark. Although the sun technically sets around 11:30 and rises at 4:30, you wouldn't know it from the twilight that takes the place of darkness. June 21 is the longest day of the year and we are right around the time where the all-night festivals kick in.

It has been an intense two days. We got off the train from Moscow at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, went straight to the hotel to drop off our bags and went to breakfast. The local bleenie place makes the best bleenies I have had in Russia (bleenies are the Russian version of crepes). Yummmmm. Our local tour guide was waiting for us when we got back from breakfast and took us on a 4-hour walking tour of the city. My feet were still sore from the day before.

St. Petersburg is nothing like Moscow. The architecture is more like what you would see walking down the street in Paris or Vienna. There are canals here and there and it is more artsy. We went into old neighborhoods where artists used to gather during Communist times to listen to the Beatles and other music that was banned. There are statues of authors and poets in parks scattered around town just like Vienna has parks of the great composers. Although this city is really pretty, I prefer Moscow. Moscow has a great energy, is more colorful and, essentially, is uniquely Russian whereas St. Petersburg, on orders from Catherine the Great (who was a German), is modeled after Western European cities.

Our walking tour ended at the Hermitage, one of the great art museums of the world, which was once Catherine the Great's palace. We spent three hours of the afternoon racing through the halls, trying to see as much as possible. 3,000,000 Exhibits fill 400 opulent, ornate rooms, so we aimed low. We got through the impressionists, Picasso, Da Vinci and a bunch of the state rooms. Just like the Louvre, it would take days to see all that the museum holds. Walking through the halls, it is not hard to understand why the Bolsheviks had enough of the excesses of the czars.

This morning we toured another example of the czars' excesses -- the Peterhof Summer Palace where the czars once spent their summers frolicking in the gardens. It wasn't as big as the Hermitage, but it was just as magnificent. Interestingly, though, what we saw as the Summer Palace was a complete recreation/rebuild of the original that was destroyed by the Germans during World War II during the siege of Leningrad. The palace and the meticulously manicured gardens overlook the Gulf of Finland, where the czars once kept their eyes open for the ships of foreign invaders.

You want to know what an uncultured American I really am? I was admiring the fountains that scale the hill behind the palace and first thought to myself, and then said out loud, "this looks a lot like Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas." This is my ultra-low baseline by which I compare the architectural masterpiecers of the world. So sad.

Here in St. Pete's, there are more gypsies and pick-pockets and the gypsies are really aggressive. We ran into a pack of them in Moscow on the subway, but they left after one of the guys on our tour pushed one really hard and told her she better keep moving. They scour the streets here for their prey and the crowded streets provide them plenty of opportunity. Nevsky Prospekt is the main street of town along which we were strolling when I felt someone pulling at the bag on my left arm. I pulled the other way and put my fists up ready to fight and saw a gipsy letting go of my bag of cherries and moving on. My adrenaline hasn't been jolted like that in a while. The guys on our trip kept guard for the rest of us as we made our way to the Hermitage.

On a lighter note, I have been having real issues with zippers the last two days. I tried to close a pocket on my pack last night and ended up zipping up the material of the pocket and breaking the whole thing. No biggie though to lose one outside pocket. The more embarassing mishap, however, was this morning at the Hermitage. Today was finally the day I could wear shorts on my vacation and I pulled out my trusty Diesel knock-offs from Thailand. Everything was fine until we got to the Hermitage and were told to use the restroom before starting the tour or to forever hold your peace. As I was wrapping up business in the ladies' room, I zipped up my shorts and sucked up the material like I did the night before. When I tried to get the material out, my zipper broke and there I was in all my glory, fly down, pink polka dot underwear. I tied my fleece around my waste and I still am not sure if I was successful in concealing my undies from the world. At least the weather didn't cool down too much.

Tonight is the last night of the tour so I bought a decent outfit for our night out. We're heading for traditional Russian food and a show. Parting is such sweet sorrow. I am excited to get home and I am not ready to leave.

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