So, I’ve been quiet for a while whilst we have been travelling from place to place. From Tallinn, we headed by bus to Narva and stayed with our friend’s mum for a night. She was lovely, great fun and very welcoming, as was her husband, who beat Luke hands down at chequers, but we had to communicate via Google translate and plenty of confusing sign language! Paul always said his mum’s cooking was the best, and we weren’t disappointed. We had homemade borsch (a traditional Russian beetroot based soup), and each subsequent course seemed to be followed by another course until we were fit to burst – particularly as we had made the mistake of eating sandwiches on the coach!
That evening we caught the bus and Paul’s mum took us to the Estonian seaside for a wander along the shore. This was the estuary where the river Narova meets the Baltic Sea. Here, we saw this intriguing sign. We thought it might indicate ‘beware, dogs may be lurking in the water’.
The following day we spent in the area surrounding Narva castle. Narva is in Estonia, but over 90% of inhabitants are Russian speaking. Here, the river Narova separates Estonia from Russia, and from Narva castle, you can watch cars, lorries and pedestrians crossing the bridge going through customs from one country to the other. In fact, this is the bridge where our friends Paul (who lived in Estonia) and Anna (who lived in Russia) used to meet. This is where they would whisper sweet nothings to each other before the customs officials moved them on their separate ways. Now they are married and live in England! Very romantic.
One of the most exciting things about this area is seeing the two castles facing each other on opposite sides of the Narova. Narva, or Hermann castle on the Estonian side and the Ivangorod Fortress on the Russian side. I have never seen anything quite like this before – it is pretty impressive!
We then had a short tour of some of the other sights of Narva. We kept seeing wedding parties, and eventually gatecrashed one by the monument of the Swedish lion on the prompting of Paul’s mum, who told them we were newlyweds ourselves. The lion was gifted to Narva by Sweden to commemorate the success of Karl XII of Sweden against the Russian invasion of 1700. The original lion was destroyed in WWII, but Sweden gifted the second in 2000 to mark the 300th anniversary of the battle. Apparently, the lion has its backside presented to Russia in a gesture of mockery! It was here that we toasted the happy couple with plastic cups of champagne!
That evening we got back on the coach and joined those in the customs queue on the bridge. Most passengers wandered through without a problem, but Luke was held up going through customs for several minutes. The customs official examined his passport, looking suspiciously at him, then made a phone call where she said barely two words and received a short answer, after which he was allowed through. We have had some conjecture as to what this conversation was. “This one’s photo is really funny” – “Ha ha, great, that’s one for the hall of fame!” Please feel free to comment if you have any ideas!
We arrived late at night in St Petersburg. We felt like we had entered a scene from The Arrival (a graphic novel by Shaun Tan). Everywhere there were symbols that we didn’t understand, when we tried to buy a metro pass the card was empty and when we went to buy a ticket from the desk we were confused to be only given coins in change – until we discovered that one of the coins was actually a metro token, equivalent to a ticket. As we bumbled about, even without our hefty rucksacks, we might as well have had TOURIST emblazoned in big red letters on our foreheads. In Cyrillic, of course.
After successfully navigating the metro, we eventually found our hostel with the help of a friendly young Russian couple, who had clearly read what was written on our foreheads. Having arrived at 120 Nevsky Prospekt, we found no sign of our hostel. Of course, silly us, the entrance was on the back of the street, on the other side of the building down a dingey urine smelling alleyway – which we had naively thought was a different street altogether. We collapsed onto our hostel bed and Luke read aloud some Wind in the Willows to help assuage the culture shock!
Sunday in St Petersburg. What a fantastic day!
We started off by visiting the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood – which I think is currently my favourite building of the world. Beautiful and crazy; colourful higgledy piggledy onion domes, exquisite mosaics – a marked contrast to somewhere like the Taj Mahal where the beauty is in the symmetry (which is more traditional); here it is in the acquisition of a wonderful haphazard balance of various patterns and shapes. You might be wondering at this point why it is called Church on Spilled Blood. In 1881, the Russian emperor Alexander II was murdered on the spot on which the church was built. What a fantastic memorial! If you were going to be assassinated, you might as well have something like this built to mark the occasion. Best not to be assassinated at all though, really.
We nearly didn’t go inside, as I thought it could never be as amazing as the outside – but I am so glad we did. I never knew there could be such artistry in mosaic form! The walls were covered in biblical scenes, each bordered with intricate patterns, which varied from wall to wall. Rather than the usual scenes depicted in churches where the art work is often staid, the figures stilted and facial features display a limited range of emotions, here the expressions on the faces really told a story, each panel was like entering a little scene, it made you want to read on, like some sort of wonderful gigantic comic strip. And all done in tiny little bricks! If I had been able to read Russian, or had invested in an audio guide, I might be able to tell you how they did it. As it is, I can only wonder; but in a sense, the ignorance is just as fun. I can unweave the rainbow at a later point! That’s what Wikipedia is for, right?
The Russian Museum was our next port of call. We chose this over the Hermitage (well, okay, we didn’t realise that the Hermitage would be closed the following day), as we were really keen to see Russian art, rather than paintings by artists more familiar to us. It was well worth the trip. As well as the superb folk art rooms, with their fascinating displays of traditional, prettily decorated pottery, toys and clothing, there were rooms filled with wonderful paintings and sculptures by artists which I had never heard of before. Many of the paintings depicted scenes from Russian history and the Aussie-narrated audio guide was really enlightening.
My favourite newly discovered artists include Ilya Repin and Vasily Surikov. Surikov painted this brilliant picture of the General Suvorov crossing the Alps with his Russian troops. It was thought impossible, yet here Suvorov is egging the men on with a joke: they start off laughing, but closer to the drop they grow more worried, until we see the plummeting soldiers with abject terror on their faces. Apparently, he visited the Alps himself to study the movements of sliding through snow to get the different stages of acceleration. I like to think he had loads of fun doing this, sliding on his palette, leaving painty streaks in the snow.
We finished up with the sculpture walk through the Summer Garden where we did some sketching, then dinner in lovely restaurant, where I had my first true Russian beef stroganoff. There were slapstick silent movies from the 1920s playing on loop, the toilets had typewriters and old communist propaganda leaflets in them and there were rabbits in cages in the back room. They looked healthy, but their cages were small; I hope they are let out often for a lollop!