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Exil 2006-2008

From St. Petersburg, with love!


Going to Saint Petersburg meant a dream come true. I always hoped that some day I'll get to speak my first ever learnt language to real Russian people and see best art in Peter the Great’s city. I actually saw kilometres of it (art), all in three days, but nothing moved me more than looking at ballet dancers performing on the stage of Marinsky Theatre. That was what I call pure local experience, just like taking the slow train with wooden benches, destination – Tsarskoye Selo (different, but intense). The Hermitage, the palaces, the Versailles-replicas or imported beauty were grandiose, overwhelming, but similarity of styles and abundance of tourist objectives make travellers choose few locations to visit, the most representative ones (not that I wasn't tempted to check out some Museum of chocolate or another dedicated to horrors of hospital life!).

So, me and my partner (of life and voyage) began this adventure on 3 rd of August (2006) and returned on 6 th in Finland. We arrived at dawn, on a Friday and the sky was gray, the bridges and waters of Peter's city were gloomy. We saw beautiful buildings in an unkempt state and inhaled involuntarily terrible smells emanating from internal yards of houses. When reaching our hotel, situated in a central area, we felt a bit confused by one of such smelly patios, which hid the hotel rooms behind solid metal doors, which opened only after some interphone chatting. Inside was clean though and furniture was new.

We started our expedition immediately, most important objective being to get on a boat, sail on Neva river and across the sea towards the shores of Peterhof, a complex of imperial palaces and gardens, inspired by Versailles. Tourists were flooding every boat, park, room of palace, corner of town… Fortunately, we moved really fast, photographing and decided not to take advantage of the long explanations of guided tours. Information was easy to get later, reading books or surfing the net. I bought several small booklets about main attractions in St. Petersburg and thus I took my shortened version of history lesson. Anyway, many of the historical sites and buildings were rebuilt, redecorated after having been damaged during wars (like the Amber Room, a jewel of space situated in Catherine the Great' s palace, at Tsarskoye Selo, that was revealed to tourists only in 2003, after heavy restoration procedures). My point – words or information cannot surpass beauty that you see there! I loved the golden statues at Peterhof, just as I loved classic sculpture everywhere (at Hermitage, for instance). And no, they shouldn't exhibit too modern artists in paradises of old masterpieces, unless the artist feels the insane need to show off as clumsy and ridiculous. After seeing Raphael or Da Vinci, French, Dutch and Italian masters, etc. you really can't expect to enjoy some “outsider”, temporary and contemporary art exhibition, of some “famous nobody”, minimalist guy who spits randomly paint on huge pointless canvases.

Our tour de force continued on Saturday, when we ran for six hours through Hermitage, full timing the day with ballet evening at one of the most famous in the world nest of classic dance – Marinsky Theatre. It was amazing to see Russians attending such refined events as if going to movies, ”full house”, even if tickets tend to be really expensive, while tourists from all over the world sweat for the privilege and cross half the world to be there for two hours, looking at “swans” gliding and sultans flying onto the stage. After the exotic “Fountain of Bakshisarai”, we strolled along quiet streets and bridges of the “Russian Venice”, stopping for a minute to watch the sunset and relieve the feet pain. We walked next day, too.

At Gostinyy Dvor, biggest mall of them all, I stared at too expensive souvenirs, made of malachite and amber, at finely painted small boxes and ended up buying brochures about St Petersburg, Russian grammar books and of course, a white porcelain, hand made doll, wearing ethnic costume. Yeah, I know, I'm too old for dolls, but seriously, I love them… J

Sunday morning we had gorgeous weather, just good to breathe fresh air in the Summer Palace's park, see some churches, then drink coffee with lemon at one of the numerous “Coffee Hauz”-es, gobble up pancakes and hit the road, to Tsarskoye Selo. We took the train from the railway station: it was a cheap, slow as a snail ride, people were sort of warm and familiar (everybody gave money to a blind accordion player), but the prices for Catherine's palace were extortion. We saw very little (half of a quarter of it!), as restorations were in bloom (buildings and gardens). The Amber room was worth it, though. I got a bit sad on the way back to the hotel, on the verge of jumping out of the slow, ancient, rusty, agglomerated train. Such a déjà vu, déjà lived 25 years in Romania experience… Endless blocks of flats were a depressing view… as well the almost funny old Russian cars, that were going apart, but had sophisticated alarm systems.

Exhausted, but satisfied, we grabbed our luggage and crawled to wait for the bus to Helsinki, in a park filled with youth hanging out, drinking around Pushkin's statue, stretching out his arm, as if to show his old city or wave good bye to strangers that had a chance in a lifetime to see a fraction of St. Petersburg splendours.

FreeVol, August 2006.

Copyright © Katiusa Cuculescu, 2006