“From Petersburg with apathy and indifference” („Из Петербурга с апатией и безразличием“) is what many hip-looking postcards in the famous House of Books (Дом Книги) read. Yet, while I was seeking temporary shelter from the freezingly humid February wind inside the antique bookstore, getting lost amidst rows of shelves with books old and new, foreign and Russian, surrounded by the mingling crowds of tourists and locals, I felt neither apathy, nor indifference.
It feels a bit like treason to start off my blog with a love letter to Saint Petersburg, when my home for the past six months has been Moscow, and you don’t need to live in Russia to know that the rivalry between these two cities goes back centuries. And yet, when I think of “travel blog”, the first thing that comes to mind is not my journey of getting to know and learning to love this cold, strange, magnificent city that is the Russian capital – rather, it’s my latest opportunity to get away from it.
Off to a rough start
My four-day trip to the Venice of the North was hardly love at first sight. To be precise, it was love at second sight, my first visit to the city having been only four months ago. Our first encounter had been a sloppy one-night stand, too quick, too brisk, too much alcohol involved for it to be truly enjoyable. In the three days I spent in Saint Petersburg back in October, along with a huge group of Erasmus students, most of it consisted in rushing from one guided tour to another, complaining about the non-stop rain and hopping from shitty touristy bar to shitty touristy bar all the way to an aborted attempt at a boat party (hint: there was no party; it was just a boat).
There were, of course, a few positive highlights, such as the Hermitage, which is always stunning and luckily big enough to escape from your tour group, as well as a few artsy cafés, revealed to us by our friends who live there. But overall, my first trip to Saint Petersburg had been a disappointment, not with the city itself, but with the way I spent my time there, and I was looking forward to correcting that.
It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey…or is it?
Come my second trip, I had learned from my mistakes. This time, I was to travel with only a small group of trusted people – my best friend Rachel and three other girls from our university, all of us internationals. In other words, a solid girl squad hopping on the night train and heading towards a long weekend full of crazy adventures. You can already imagine how it all began – sipping vodka, sharing embarrassing stories, Britney Spears blasting in the platzkart…AS IF. Nope folks, don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise, the night train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg is basically a nine-hour sleeping contest with obstacles such as fitting in a sleeping cot half your size, ignoring the snores of the fat Russian dude above you, as well as the smell of the toilets next to you, cause you just had to save those 800 rubles, didn’t you?
And so we arrive at Moskovskiy Vokzal (they named the train stations in Russia after their main destination, isn’t that cool?), tired and in intense need of a shower, but happy to have gotten here in one piece. But what to do now, where to go, the opportunities are endless! So how did we spend the rest of the day? You’re damn right, we stayed in and chilled at Boris’s house, who was hosting three of us in his nice urban apartment, far away from the center.
Now, I see how it might seem regrettable to spend the whole first day in a new city closed inside a boring apartment, but you have to take into account our living situation back in Moscow. Rachel and I share a 12-square-meters double room in a typical ugly Soviet dorm, our window facing another typical ugly Soviet dorm. Therefore, being able to sit and sip tea with our friend in a real kitchen, looking at the snow fall down on an equally Soviet-looking, but somehow noticeably livelier and cozier street below, was a much-needed sense of home that we couldn’t get in our own living space.
Food, fashion and biopolitical art
Another thing that was harder to find in Moscow and that we were eager to try out here was good restaurants. Russians aren’t exactly famous for their amazing food culture (which can be essentially summarized with the words “mayo and whipped cream on everything yay!”) and Saint Petersburg is no particular exception, but due to its geographical and cultural proximity to continental Europe, it had become more cosmopolitan and was now competing with some European capitals in number and diversity of restaurants specializing in international cuisine.
Our choice for the night was “Meat Bar”, a minimalist stylish place serving an overpriced, but nevertheless exquisite variety of finely cooked meat and equally fine French wine. Even more than the food, I fell in love with the interior and overall aesthetic, which I’m already planning to steal for my Paris studio next year.
Above all, Saint Petersburg is a stylish city. You can see it in the people walking down Nevsky Prospekt, from the teen fashionistas with their faux fur and bathrobe coats, to the techno hipsters, sporting statement fanny packs (yes, you read that right) with black Adidas sportswear from head to toe. We too tried to be fancy. We risked hypothermia while doing a coatless photo shoot on top of the Saint Isaac Cathedral. We strolled down a small street rounding up a dozen designer stores, fell tragically in love with a Gucci bag and finally found our way back to Nevsky, where we came upon a four-story 17th-century shopping center with floor-to-rooftop display windows called “Дом Мартенса” (the House of Martens).
It was not the first time we spotted a very French-looking and French-sounding place in Saint Petersburg (I guess we have to thank Peter the Great and the entire two centuries after him for that). This is probably the only city I’ve seen so far that has actually beautiful malls. And that one was just a small shopping center, wait till you see the Galeria Mall! Built in 2010 in classical Greek style, a true contemporary pantheon of consumerism, it would have been incredibly tacky, if it wasn’t stunningly beautiful.
Not everything in the city was beautiful, of course, but even the occasional ugliness seemed to serve its specific purpose. Once, while crossing a bridge above the fully frozen Neva river, we stumbled upon a curious piece of urban art. Just next to the bridge, in the few inches of snow that had fallen on the frozen river, there was the name of the Russian president, spelled in capital letters, each one roughly the size of a car. Just below it, a large male reproductive organ. It was unlikely that the drawing had been the creation of an innocent, perhaps bored, group of teenagers on a casual day after school. Rather, we decided, it must have been that Petersburg-based oppositionist street art group that we talked about in one of our classes just a week ago. Anyway, this version seemed way more exciting and we were happy to have been at the right place in the right time to see the controversial political statement before it was covered by the snow.
Peterhof is where the world ends
Having mentioned the frozen river, we now get to the part of the trip that left the biggest mark in my memory. It involves another frozen natural water source, but before that, a castle. More precisely, the famous Peterhof Palace, often referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. Now, I’ve never been to Versailles, but from the front entrance, Peterhof looked very much like the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, only with more snow. It was behind the palace, in the royal gardens, that the real fun began.
First of all, I don’t think I had ever seen that many golden statues in one place. The contrast with the shining white of the snow cover made the non-functioning fountains look kind of surreal, like something out of an Andy Warhol painting. Most of all, it gave me the creeps, because it made me think of the weeping angels from Doctor Who.
However, we were still about to experience the most surreal part of it all. As we were walking around the palace gardens, we suddenly reached the end of the world. And no, I did not do drugs the previous night. Not knowing that the Peterhof was built right at the shore, we had reached the Baltic Sea without even realizing that it was there. The best part? It too, it was frozen! Covered by a thick layer of snow, the surface of the sea had blended in with the white sky and I swear, for a few mesmerizing seconds, it really felt like we had reached the end of the universe. It wasn’t until we walked a couple hundred meters in on the frozen salt water, that we became fully aware of where we were and what we were doing.
It was in that moment, while we were walking on the sea into the white nothingness, that I thought to myself, during this whole trip I had felt everything else but apathy and indifference.