St. Petersburg: A Tale Of Cats, And Mice, And Fish

I had finally arrived in St. Petersburg. The Sapsan (сапсан) from Moscow takes just about four hours, and it felt as if I had already returned to Germany:

This doesn’t just look like a german ICE bullet train, this IS a german ICE bullet train 😉 With the tiny difference that this one here works fine at -40 °C, maybe Deutsche Bahn (the national train operator in Germany) should ask the Russians how they do it… *cough*

(For Non-European readers: German trains tend to break down when it is either too hot or too cold. The definitions of “too hot” and “too cold” don’t seem to be in line with the normal temperature range we get here, and often trains break down because – surprise – there are leaves on the tracks in fall or snow in winter. Because of this there is an old saying: “The Deutsche Bahn has four arch-enemies – Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter”.)

This nice old map in the Moskovsky railway station of St. Petersburg shows all the destinations one was able reach from the different train stations in the city. To the far left it even says Berlin…

The main attraction in the city is the Church Of the Savior On The Blood. Initially it was supposed to be a simple memorial for Emperor Alexander II., who was killed in 1881. But the citizens of the city donated so much money that this beautiful church could be constructed instead. The entrance fee of 250 rubles (about 3,60 €) was okay compared to many other sights in St. Petersburg, and the beautifully decorated interior was well worth it.

Street merchants filled the street close to the channel near the church. As always there was the usual kitsch, plus Matryoshka dolls in all shapes, colors and sizes. The largest ones consisted of 30 single dolls and went for about 25.000 rubles (350€ !).

I guess this variant is only being produced for tourists… 😉

Innovative idea from Russia: Just spray the Viagra (Виагра) spam messages onto the streets. I wonder if 150 rubles (about 2,20 €) per pill would have been a lot? Maybe I would have been able to turn a nice profit after my return!

From the Church Of the Savior On The Blood I continued to the Hermitage Museum. It may be “just” an art museum, but there’s a life-and-death struggle going on in the basement!

The Hermitage cats

Since 1745, a glaring of cats has been tasked with protecting the priceless art piecesfrom evil rodents. They’re protected and fed by special guards. Probably one of the few places on earth with “Beware of the Cat” signs.

Once a year the general population is allowed to visit the basement for free, and by chance I ended up in the right spot on May 13, 2017. The queue was already reaching out of the inner courtyard, and people were only slowly allowed to enter in one small group after the other. Down to the cat basement I go!

Somewhere between these tubes and cables there are supposed to be rodents, and cats are supposedly chasing after them. I don’t know if this is still true in the age of the mouse trap, and I didn’t see neither cat nor rodent 😉 But the school children of St. Petersburg were celebrating the Day Of The Hermitage Cats by sending them myriads of paintings. All the walls in all the corridors were full of them.

I was quite impressed by how well some fifteen-year-olds could paint 😯

Finally I was able to catch a real Hermitage cat on film: This one was being walked by its human guard.

But cats weren’t the only ones being walked around! 😯

Close to the Hermitage I was able to witness Russians doing another one of their rituals. If you touch the feet of these giants, you will receive instant luck. I have no clue what it is with Russians and touching statues, but I already knew something similar from the Moscow Metro.

A bit further down the street was the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. I wasn’t really interested in its interior, but in the panorama shot I could take from the roof…

Some entertainment…

Most sights, and therefore most street artists and other “tourist services”, are located between the Church Of The Savior on The Blood and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Instruments were played, flyers handed out, paintings painted, grimaces grimaced and tourists carried around all day.

This one probably goes into the “art” category as well… 😉

The Hare Krishna weren’t interested in spare change, but in salvation of souls. Here too – like in Moscow – there was big crowd of dancing devotees. Their religious community had been persecuted in the Sowjet Union, and the situation hasn’t become much better in modern Russia. It’s no longer prohibited to worship Krishna, yet 27 years later they’ve not yet received a permit to build their first temple.

This gentleman’s legendary lack of tact created quite some confusion 😉

On to the next tourist trap. The Peter and Paul Fortress is located on an large island in the middle of the Newa river. I was quite disappointed, apart from visiting some small museums or walking on the fortification walls there wasn’t much to do. The citizens apparently thought the same and opted for a (sun)bath instead. At eleven degrees Celsius outside. I guess you have to take what’s coming!

Some impressive carillon play at the Peter and Paul Cathedral (press Play):

Korjushka!

I hadn’t only been lucky with the Day Of The Hermitage Cat, but the same weekend I came across something which would probably pass for “cat heaven”: Korjushka (корюшка)! That’s what the Russians call the European Smelt, a fish about 15 centimeters long which lives in the Baltic Sea

Every year in April or May a Korjushka festival is held. In St. Petersburg it took place on the fair grounds far from the inner city, and I only ended up there by complete accident. The absence of other tourists was quite nice, it was still a lot of genuine and pristine fun 🙂

The small fish are rolled in rye flour and then fried in oil. The head is removed before it is eaten, but the very soft bones and tail aren’t.

Sadly I can’t eat fish, but that wasn’t an actual problem, other things were being grilled right around the corner. I usually came quite far with my Russian, but the meat was being sold by weight and the lady at the counter and I couldn’t agree on a number. Luckily her husband Alexander (all Russians are called Alexander in the end) spoke excellent English, and we started to talk a bit while he grilled things and I was waiting for my grilled things.

Alexander had an university degree and worked for an european car manufacturer, his wife was a teacher. Even though they didn’t have kids yet, their combined salaries didn’t give them an eays life. Their honeymoon trip had brought them to Croatia and Trieste (Italy) for ten days, quite a luxury for many Russians.

The Schengen Visa process was supposedly the biggest problem: As a Russian one basically has to come clean with the EU in all regards. A passport, two biometric pictures and a form are not the end of it. You have to write a full application detailing your reasons and exact itinerary, add a certified copy of your bank statements of the last six months (!), a copy of your employment contract, a note by your employer stating that you’re allowed to leave (!), and a copy of your last tax return statement. To make it clear: this data is not for the Russian authorities to get an exit visa, this data is for the EU. It is much, much easier for an European to travel to Russia!

There was a lot of entertainment for children and adults. “Catch the Fish” was a very popular game. The contestant is put in waders, gets a long-sleeve shirt with tied-up sleeves, and tries to catch a medium-sized fish in a murky pool.

The general public keeps shouting useless hints…

…and some show full physical involvement.

Most of the time it’s just luck, though. This lady had been fishing around without much enthusiasm for ten minutes:

In Sowjet Russia, you shoot actual birds at actual wood and pigs 😉

“Turning historic weapons into a playground” seems to be a popular children activity in St. Petersburg too…

This time I say goodbye with a panorama shot I had taken from my hotel room at 8:30 PM. It wasn’t as bad as when I had been to Finland in 2014, but you already get an idea for what it must be like if you come to St. Petersburg for the “White Nights” at the end of June 🙂

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