I was in St. Petersburg for three days in 2013. Three days specifically because it's the longest we could stay in the country without requiring a tourist's visa, so long as we entered the country via boat. We sailed overnight from Helsinki to St. Petersburg on one of the strangest cruise liners and to this day, it's the only cruise experience I've ever had. This post is not about that cruise but also that cruise deserves some space because it is one of the most memorable, weird travel moments of my life.
We checked into our rooms which had bunk beds that were basically Murphy beds mounted to the wall, one above the other. My brother and I in one room, my parents in another. They also had the twin-Murphy beds. The rooms were cramped as you are not meant to stay in your rooms on a cruise. Cruises were for activities. We decided to get drinks on the deck and watch Helsinki shrink in the distance. At the bar, there was both gin and vodka on tap as well as some simple beers and hard ciders in bottles. My dad tried to order a gin and tonic. The bartender poured him a hefty glass of gin. My dad asked again for the tonic water and the bartender asked why. He did not get any tonic water. We went inside for the buffet which was mostly a drab selection of unnamed cold-cuts, cheeses, and what looked to be questionable seafood. I grabbed food from the only two heated trays--potatoes and sausage. There was gambling but it was mostly older men and smelled like they had all been there a while. My parents decided their night was done. I wasn't far behind--I ordered a drink for my room and went back to read. My brother on the other hand, newly eighteen, decided he would stay out for an extra drink and go to the "club" they had on board. He came back to the room a half hour later with a drink in his hand. "That was surreal."
To this day St. Petersburg is one of the most fascinating places to me both in actuality and in memory. There is so much history, tragedy, resilience, beauty contained in one place.
In actuality, it's a coastal city that was pivotal in several historical contexts. From afar, the buildings were painted bright colors and accented, punctuated with any architectural flourishes that seemed fitting; when I got up close, the bright pinks and yellows and greens were dingy as though it was covered in cigarette smoke and history. It was the beginning of summer and was either sunny or slightly overcast, and even still the city looked grey.
In memory, the city looks greyer still. In 2013 I had just graduated college. I knew that Putin was the president and that he wasn't the best, but my political acuity and awareness were low. Looking back now, and even then, I think my bias of the city and the country were fairly minimal. I was excited to visit a new place in the world and get my passport stamped. The people were lovely; a tour guide recommended her favorite restaurant and a couple other places that weren't very touristy. But in talking to her, every answer was cautious, which she said openly. This was seven years ago so I do not remember all of our conversations with her in detail, but she shared stories about the education system, how her family lived, what her childhood was like. She shared all of it with a sort of sullen pragmatism. She said she and her family were lucky because she was able to learn English and get a job in tourism but even then tourism revenue couldn't be trusted. I remember her telling us that most Russians would not say they shared some or most of the same opinions.
If you ever get the chance to visit St. Petersburg, there is one place I would tell everyone to visit--The Hermitage Museum. The building had a slight bend and was painted the dingy yellow and white. Hundreds of tourists were outside in the palace square. It reminded me of the Louvre in some ways. When I entered most buildings in St. Petersburg, there was a stark transformation from the exterior to the interior. The Hermitage was no different. Every piece of intricate molding was gilded gold. Wood inlaid floors looked like paintings, fitted so tight together one could barely see the seams. Lapis Lazuli and Malachite urns stood on either side of multiple staircases. At first I thought they were carved. They looked solid and heavy. I was very surprised to learn that they are all mosaics with the respective stones carved to precision to fit the convex surfaces, more fine and intricate than the wood inlaid floors.
Past these grand halls and atriums was the real treasure of the Hermitage. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, textiles--every medium of art you might imagine lined the walls from floor to ceiling with very little space in between. The sheer volume of art was overwhelming and impressive. Highly regarded paintings by canonical painters hung, nearly hidden, amongst the collections. I asked my brother, a history buff, how much of it was likely stolen art. "It depends on your definitions of stolen versus appropriated," he said. I nodded. A lot of it was likely stolen, but an impressive collection nonetheless.
After our three days, we took the same weird cruise back to Helsinki.