Today we saw two very different sides of Saint Petersburg. We spent a few minutes at an Orthodox service at Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral and then decided to try out the metro by taking a ride up to a flea market. When we travel Scotty and I inevitably find ourselves waffling between the extremes: opulent (Versailles, Peterhof) and grimy (Clingnancourt, Udelnaya). Udelnaya was five very long stops past the Nevskiy Prospekt. And before I get to all of that, let me say my very limited experience on the Metro here was excellent. Easy to follow, super cheap (we’re talking about 50 pence or 75 cents one-way), clean. The eeerie thing about it is how deep it is. The escalators are super steep and go down, down, down, down. You must spend a good couple of minutes on each escalator. Anyway, we went out to this market and it was such a hodgepodge. There were permanent booths with cheap clothing, shoes, belts, etc. Nothing that would really interest a tourist. But beyond that, in an area that may very well have served as a dump at one time, there are hundreds of people who have laid down cloths, boards, sheets, pieces of tin roof, anything to separate their wares from the dirt. On top of this one finds everything from old Soviet paraphernalia: jackets, pins, medals, mugs, lighters to old household items. Most of it is useless junk but we did manage to find a few things. I bought a set of vintage pillowcases that I have plans to turn into cushions (a bargain at 40 pence) and a couple of silver charms. I’m really glad that we went out there because after seeing the gems of Saint Petersburg it was good to have our perspective adjusted a bit by walking through this weekly market with its gnarled old women in scarves selling anything to make a little money. It’s a reminder that the gilded domes were built upon a system of vast and gross injustice. While walking through Peterhof anyone who knows a bit of Russian history has to think about the amazing hubris it all represents. Russia has obviously improved – it no longer operates on a system of serfdom – but every nation has its history of tragic negligence when it comes to recognizing the humanity of those people who work at the lowest rungs of a social ladder. It also brings the appeal of socialism into perspective. After centuries of a system in which the serfs supported an insanely extravagant autocracy, the promise of social equality would have been irresistible.
After the market we walked further down the Nevskiy Prospekt and discovered a few more sights. We’ve also discovered a phenomenon I haven’t seen outside Russia. The combination sushi/pasta restaurant. If you’re ever in the mood for some tuna maki but your date wants fettucini alfredo, your answer is found in these strange fusion restaurants. One half is decorated like Little Italy and the other half is a Japanese sushi bar. You can order sushi if you’re sitting in the Italian section and vice versa. It’s really strange. We ate lunch at one and the food was pretty good – although I didn’t try the sushi. It’s just so weird to sit there and see people sitting at tables eating a sushi appetizer followed by a plate of pasta. Surely that is not supposed to happen.
Following our late lunch we stumbled into a great area. Scotty and I are incredibly predictable when it comes to discovering quiet little alcoves in the middle of cities. We did it in St. Louis, we did it in Edinburgh, we had our favorite spots in Paris, and in Saint Petersburg we fell for a quiet grass bordered canal area. There was a new coffee shop (surprise!) that was run by a young couple who seemed really excited to have some customers. They had renovated this cool room with a vaulted brick ceiling and specialized in making great coffee with a lot of care. After having our first “real” coffee since leaving Edinburgh, we wandered along a beautiful canal and through a positively pastoral garden. We really enjoyed a break from the rushing around and we needed it. Little did we know we were going to stumble upon a market where we would eventually purchase some gifts and souvenirs from extremely pushy salespeople. These men and women saw us coming from a mile away! I think they were a bit surprised that we proved to be such tough sells. While our guide books said that haggling was generally not the practice we found that by simply walking away we were being offered better and better prices. Hmmm. We ended up with a few things and made our way over to Millionaire Mile, a street just off of the Winter Palace where the wealthiest of Saint Petersburg once lived. It’s now really run down and I’m not sure why it appears in every guide book. The buildings are in disrepair and it’s frankly a bit grimy. I guess those buildings could tell some stories. We were so tired at this point that we had some traditional Russian food at a place near our hostel – knowing that once we sat down it was going to be difficult to get back up. I enjoyed some borscht and a traditional Russian salad. Ate more beets in that meal than I have in the past ten years combined. And Scotty had some sort of Russian chicken dish that was delicious. One thing to note is that dill has appeared on every single dish we have been served. Every.Single.One. That’s a lot of dill.
Tomorrow we leave Saint Petersburg and I have mixed feelings. I’m excited to go back to a country where you can flush the toilet paper oh the things one misses. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of St. Petersburg and yet I know we covered a lot of ground. Hopefully we’ll sleep well tonight and get in a full day before we get on that bus back to Estonia. Tallin here we come!