Friday, August 12, 2011

Soul Food and Other Foods

Today, in a cafe, a very handsome Russian man in an expensive suit tried to flirt with me. It was going swimmingly for about ten seconds, until he realised that I didn't actually speak Russian, even though I'd ordered in it. We were both a bit embarrassed, after that; I stuck my head in my Lonely Planet and he bolted his coffee and left.

However, I wasn't sitting around in cafes all day, hoping that gentlemen would make abortive attempts to speak to me; the day was devoted entirely to The Hermitage. (Well, not entirely. There was also pirogi, which I will explain shortly.)

It's been said that if you stood in front of every piece in The Hermitage for one minute, you'd be in the museum for thirty years. That's to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it's certainly a vast collection. The sensible way to approach it is to read up beforehand and be certain what you want to see. There's a very impressive antiquities section - lots of Roman emperors and Greek amphoras and Egyptian mummies - but what I enjoyed the most on the ground floor were the rooms themselves: palatial and colourfully grand with vast bay windows. I went on to pay my dues to the French, the Italians, the English, the Dutch - very worthy collections - but in my heart of hearts I was impatient to see the Impressionists. As it was, I stumbled on them unexpectedly. Room upon room of Monet and Cezanne, Pissarro and Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh and Gaugin: enough gorgeousness to make the hardest heart leap. Oh, it made me very, very happy. I sighed with delight in each room, and tried not to judge the silly people with cameras. (I am working hard on my judgmental nature, and am pleased to say that I think progress is being made: but I will not stand idly by - because judging people isn't being idle, is it? - while they snap pictures of themselves next to a Monet and then complain that the lilies don't look like real lilies.)  Then, I tried very hard to like Matisse, and failed (if someone would explain his genius to me, I'd be very grateful); discovered Picasso's absinthe drinker and peculiar pottery; and wandered the halls of Henry Moore's wartime sketches.

The Hermitage itself is endlessly stunning, a palace decked out in French style. Outside, it's all white columns, gold leaf, pale mint-green walls, statuary. Inside, there's even more gold leaf and the grandest red velvet and chandeliers you'll ever see. Also, a royal stairway filled with gold and light and ceiling frescoes. It holds its own with comparable museums in France, England and America. If you can get over the perpetual crowds (and if art is your thing) St Petersburg is worth the trip for this alone.

The art of The Hermitage was food for the soul; unfortunately, I'm not composed entirely of soul, and was ravenously hungry after four hours of art-gazing. So, I went in search of a restaurant called Stolle, which is known for its pirogi (Russian pies). I found it easily and had a really excellent meal of sweet cabbage pirogi with fried potatoes (peasant food! but I never claimed to be anything else) followed by apricot pirogi and black tea. After waiting some time to see if I'd suffer a coronary, it seemed safe to leave, so I walked heartily and hastily for miles around the canals, trying to exorcise some gastronomic guilt.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Russia. I intend to climb the belfry of St Isaac's, visit the Russian Museum, and maybe one of the islands. I will also pay my last respects to Zoom cafe, where the good coffee is to be had.


  1. I told Luke you were visiting Russia. "Ah," he said very wisely, "I know about that place. People are always going very fast everywhere." You can know so much at 5 apparently.

  2. Yes, they're always rushin' in Russia. He's a smart lad, and clearly very well read.