Saturday, 24 May 2014

60° North

Day 54 - Vilnius - 18,526 km travelled

Hot. That's the best word to describe our exit from St. Petersburg. We opted for 3rd class, where the train carriages didn't have air conditioning, and opening the tiny windows seemed to blow a lot of wind onto someone else's bunk without actually managing to circulate any air at all in the rest of the carriage. We lay on our beds wearing as little as possible, coated in films of sweat, trying to get some sleep before 2am when we knew we'd be woken up for the border crossing. We'd only worked out the uncivilized hour the day before—had we realized earlier we might have opted for a day train—but actually it was relatively painless compared to our earlier crossings: it took only an hour on the Russian side and 45 minutes on the Latvian and the whole process was pretty respectful of the fact that we were half asleep and sticking, half-undressed, to our bed sheets.

The train into St. Petersburg was air conditioned, which was great because St. Petersburg was hot too: highs of close to 30°C most days. Our beds—carriage 11, berths 18 and 20—would have been great too if it weren't for the conspicuous and total absence of a carriage 11 on the train. They sorted it out eventually with beds in another carriage.

St. Petersburg is an attractive city, spread out across several islands and sort of a cross between Amsterdam, Stockholm, Vienna, and Venice, which is not surprising given Peter's attraction to all things European. It's also much further north than I realized: we were still a month ahead of the solstice and the sun was already staying up until 10:40pm. One night we stayed out until 2am to watch the bridges over the river lift to allow ships to pass; this is a common activity and there were locals out socializing, running, roller blading, and so on well into the night. The bridges stay up for a few hours, so if you're caught on the wrong side of the river you basically just have to carry on partying until 5:00. The sky still wasn't pitch black when we went to bed. Next week is the start of the White Nights festival, which brings concerts and events all over the city to celebrate the season when darkness never falls.

One of the cultural highlights of St. Petersburg is the Hermitage, an art gallery housed in the old summer palace. I thought the combination of great art, fashion, and furniture shown off in magnificent, opulent architecture was wonderful. Wandering the palace rooms with their gilded ceilings, intricate floors, and amazingly fine mosaics was probably the best part, but you could absorb it passively without the feeling of dead, empty rooms that often comes with palace tours.

Another highlight for us was a trip to see the ballet La Bayadère at the Mariinsky Theatre. It was really impressive and quite beautiful. The first act had really great storytelling, though I was glad to have read a synopsis. The second act seemed to have been structured specifically to allow all the dancers to perform various solos and small group choreography; having only been to the ballet once in school I have no idea if this is common practice or not. Some of the routines were very impressive, though I did find the device wore a bit thin. The final act includes apparently one of the most famous scenes in the world of ballet, a dream scene with 32 ballerinas descending a ramp in single file. The whole act was wonderfully designed, lit, and choreographed for maximum visual effect. The whole experience was great.

We also really enjoyed our trip out to Peterhof, Russia's answer to the palace at Versailles. Tsar Peter filled the grounds with fountains, all running off gravity without a single pump. I actually found the fountains a bit underwhelming given how impressed everyone sounded in reviews and guidebooks, but the overall effect of the gardens was great and we spent longer than expected—most of the afternoon in the end—strolling around the grounds. Peter had a sense of humour too and there are a number of trick fountains that will soak unsuspecting visitors.


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