Saturday, August 28, 2004

Anyone For Boar?

St Petersburg

Took living beyond our means to a new level last night. We went out to a restaurant and I ordered a double portion of wild boar as the third course of my meal. I'd actually wanted elk but clearly David Hasselhoff had been there before me because they'd run out.

Found a bar with a remarkable peasant trio playing various folk songs. At one point they dropped the sound they themselves described as "Yugoslavski" and moved into a very strange version of "The Final Countdown" by Europe. I've said it before and I'll say it again - that would never have happened in the USSR.

We stayed out until 5 again after having the first vodka of the trip. Breathing out before drinking is the sensible way to do it and it actually went down reasonably well. Can't keep up this pace indefinitely though.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Two Geeks On The Town

St Petersburg

Made it to the Hermitage yesterday afternoon, it's an enormous exhibition and with much of it housed in hugely opulent surroundings it's hard work to try to take it in. In fact it's impossible to even try to take it all in so we concentrated on the Western European art (French good apart from Matisse, Flemish and Dutch pretty dull apart from Rembrandt) and the 1812 gallery of Russian war leaders which was well worth seeing for the fine array of facial hair they displayed.

We had a languid three hour dinner which included some very fine borsch and a few quiet drinks before easily my earliest night of the week - tucked up in bed by half past midnight.

Checked out the Museum of Political History again today, a really great way for two sad men to spend an afternoon, we both enjoyed it much more than the Hermitage. The revelation that the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 was merely an excuse for peasants to raid the wine cellar and go on a massive piss-up was particularly interesting. Some of them stayed down there for a week. That's the kind of revolution I'd like to be involved in.

Dodging the rain we found the spot where the sex priest himself Rasputin was finally dumped in the river after being poisoned, shot and beaten. Ra Ra indeed. Then, once again failing to dispel the notion we're just a pair of sad studenty tourists, we walked round like a latter day Raskolnikov and Razumikhin and tracked down the flat where Dostoevsky wrote "Crime and Punishment".

We're hoping to throw off the geeky image for one night at least and turn ourselves into Count Vronsky figures for an evening on the town. Another three hour dinner could be in order then maybe even some vodka.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Rowan Collinson Is Unwell

St Petersburg

The two of us went out with a couple of other British guys last night. After a couple of quiet beers at a bar near the hostel one of them took us to a place further into town reliably informing us it would be "buzzing all night". And so it was. Trendy young Russians were hanging out being self-consciously scruffy so, being actually scruffy, we fitted right in. The place was done out like a living room circa 1976 and was just about small enough to actually be somebody's living room, so maybe it was. It was a bit like those hip bars you get in areas like Shoreditch only here one of the toilets was covered in porn, something you don't get in most London establishments. Once we found a distressed-looking sofa to squeeze on we were well set up for the night and didn't get to bed until nearly 5.

Just over eight hours on and Rowan is still fast asleep. Our planned "all day" trip to the Hermitage collection at the Winter Palace has been curtailed and may have to be delayed indefinitely unless he gets his arse out of bed soon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

History Is All Around

St Petersburg

Rowan and me went out to a restaurant on the Petrograd side last night with the Russian girl from the hostel and a big gay Dutchman. Rowan struggled to keep a straight face throughout the meal after the Dutch guy - in his stereotypical Grolsch ad-style accent - tried to tell us his parents had visited him, only for it to sound like "my parents have been fisting me all last week". Got to love the Dutch.

Checked out the Peter and Paul fortress earlier on, the building of which in 1703 by Peter the Great marked the foundation of the city. He was fed up with the Swedish navy swanning up and down the Neva with impunity so got some PoWs to knock it together in a few years. Just imagine it, crazy warmongering Swedes bringing Russia to its knees. These days they're more likely to bring about gradual change by infiltrating the place with flatpack furniture.

The Church on Spilled Blood built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881 is a sight to behold. It has multicoloured domes much like St Basil's in Moscow. Seeing it from the nearby canal makes it seem as if Russia has somehow ended up in the middle of Amsterdam. St Petersburg is definitely much more European than I'd expected, there are definitely echoes of London and Vienna here and Rowan assures me Prague as well. I don't think the rest of the country will be quite like this.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Champagne and Caviar

St Petersburg

Went out for a meal at a wild game restaurant last night with a Russian girl who works at the hostel and an American called Tony. After the food she decided to drive the two of us on a quick tour of the city in her car. The river and the bridges look great by night and the lit up Winter Palace loses nothing of its opulence.

We spotted a party going on in some bar, the people had tied balloons to a couple of trees outside. Tony looked upon this as something of a challenge, so after the car stopped he got out and quickly shimmied up to grab a handful. He drew a crowd of local crazies including one old drunk woman who after applauding demanded money from us as soon as he got down. The tramps here are so demanding these days - they want to be entertained AND they want cash. Bet it wasn't like that in the USSR.

On our way back to the hostel we stopped at a shop and picked up some bottles of local fizzy wine and some cheap caviar and sat at a table in a room overlooking Nevsky Prospekt until 4.30 partaking of both. We even found St Petersburg's number one easy listening radio station which added to the civility of the whole evening.

Rowan's just got here so hopefully we'll find something similarly fun to do tonight.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Made In Russia From Girders

St Petersburg

Travelled like a king on the train up from Vilnius. Much more plush than the previous night's sleeper - as the former USSR whizzed by outside I reclined on my ample bunk reading a Graham Greene novel, and a Lithuanian attendant brought me a cup of tea. Fleetingly it felt like the imperialist days of the British Empire had never finished.

Talking of imperialism there's plenty of the Russian variety in evidence round here. It's grand, opulent and, I imagine, hedonistic. Plenty of time to find out once Rowan gets here tomorrow. In the meantime, I was delighted to find Irn Bru on sale here. Not just in the odd shop either, you can get it on every street corner. I'd always treated those reports of "Irn Bru is popular in Russia" as complete rubbish, but it really is true. It seems to be as big here as it is in, say, the south of England. Hearing that familiar fizz and smelling that familiar smell when I opened a bottle just now has put a ridiculous grin on my face. Promenading along Nevsky Prospekt swigging from a bottle of Bru is just the thing to put me in a fine mood for the rest of the day. I'm sure it's what the Romanovs would have done if they were around today.

I've now lost two hours in two days. Careless you might think, and certainly the time on the bottom of these posts is beginning to bear no resemblance to the actual time where I am, but I think I'll leave it as it is.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Just Passing Through


The train from Warsaw was my first ever proper sleeper. I didn't have much space to stretch out and after clambering on to the top bunk I didn't even attempt to get down again until the train got here, but it was still great and truly the only way to travel. Listening to Europe rattling by out of the window as I drifted off to sleep was fantastic.

Lithuania is in the grip of a national hangover after their basketball team's win over the USA in Athens last night. Arriving at the hostel a few hours ago I found a couple of Germans trying to wake the reception guy up. He'd passed out with a bottle of beer under one arm and plenty others scattered around the place. We tried for half an hour to rouse him, eventually I started dripping cold water over his face which at least got a reaction although it sounded like a very dirty Lithuanian swear word. I decided it was probably better to be somewhere else when he finally woke up.

Sadly it's going to have to be a flying visit here. I've found out I have to get a train to St Petersburg tonight (I've rewarded myself with another trip in a bunk) because the one I was going to get tomorrow passes through Belarus and I haven't got a visa. It's a shame because Vilnius seems a very pleasant place indeed and a few hours isn't nearly enough to spend here, but it'll still be here when I decide to come back.