Cyrillic Code and a Tsar’s Sense of Humor – Peterhof, St. Petersburg, Russia – I was fortunate to visit this country at a time when relations between Russia and the US were much more amiable. Starting in the Baltic States, then traveling to Sweden, we made our way south, eventually ending our trip in Moscow. First, though, we traveled to St Petersburg on a train that, although colored green, reminded me of Strelnikov’s red train in Dr. Zhivago:
There was definitely a surreal feeling of being thrown back in time. When we reached the Russian border, the train stopped and Russian custom agents in full uniform came on board. We had been briefed NOT to wear sunglasses, NOT to smile and certainly NOT to make jokes while our passports and visas were taken and recorded. Luckily, we didn’t end up being sent to a gulag and I could breath again as we entered St Petersburg. Surprisingly, the city was not all industrial and formal as I suspected, but rather was filled with ornately decorated Art Nouveau castles:
And, the Versailles Palace look-alike, Peterhof which I will discuss below.
We lodged in the center of town in the Grand Hotel Europa, an opulent Old World beauty built-in the 19th Century with many high level guests that had their own secret service with “hidden” earphones – as well as a number of older burly “uncles” escorting their nubile, young “nieces.”
For some unfathomable reason my friend and I had a hankering for Ukrainian food (how ironic). With mouth-watering images of borscht, sausages, goulash, stuffed cabbage, pirogies, and tortes in our brains we arrogantly assumed that with a map and some garbled directions from the front desk we could easily find “Khutor Voelogray” restaurant which was supposedly only 20 minutes walking distance from the hotel. Please note that the above is a translation – here is the restaurant’s actual sign:
After walking about an hour our self-assurance disappeared. We could not follow street signs as they, as well as the name of the restaurant were written in Cyrillic. The directions we had gotten were phonetically pronunciations and were no help. And, to add to our dilemma, Most passers-by spoke no English. What to do? With a sudden epiphany that would make James Bond proud, we looked up a Cyrillic alphabet in our guide-book. We then transposed our phonetic words and created a side by side “decoder.” Thusly armed we honed in on our target and as quick as you could say “ура́!” – there it was. Fantastic meal, including home-made wine called Nalyuka made from cherries, raspberries, bilberries, gooseberries, blackberries, plums, blackthorns, at 15% alcohol. And to top this we were entertained by singers and dancers – great night:
My second (and not the last here, by the way) off-course WTDGAP moment occurred during our stop at Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. Trivia: After the victory over the Swedes in 1709, Peter the Great decided to build a palace of triumph “befitting the very highest of monarchs.” A fortuitous visit to Versailles in 1717 furthered Peter’s architectural ambitions and when Peterhof opened in 1721 the Palace included a Hall of Mirrors that rivaled that of Versailles:
This is how the hall looks today, recently reopened after a major renovation to bring it back to its original sparkling glory (from the internet):
The outside of Peterhof is no less spectacular, including the Grand Cascade, a sequence of 37 gilded sculptures, 64 fountains and 142 water jets descending from the terraces of the Great Palace to the Marine Canal and then the sea itself:
The adjoining gardens also show off Peter the Great’s wicked sense of humor and it is here that I literally my “Water-loo.” We had walked down an esplanade that concealed rows of pipes that could shoot out jets of water over and on unsuspecting poor souls, who at the time of PTG were dressed in pounds of silken clothes and powdered wigs – they couldn’t have been very happy getting doused. The guide then brought us to some secluded areas built specifically for romantic trysts such as this little bench settled in a bed of cobbled stones, hidden from view.
The guide beckoned for someone to cross the stones and enjoy the garden view from this sweet perch. Being the shy, introverted type I immediately volunteered and followed the guide over the stones. However, I didn’t follow her footsteps exactly and, stepping on the WRONG stone activated a series of water jets that soaked me through and through:
I should have mentioned that although I had the foresight to bring a rain hat in case of inclement weather, I had handed it off to my friend before crossing the stones. No towels – I arrived at our lunchtime restaurant drenched and forlorn. I am sure the restauranteurs had seen fools like me before for the waiters promptly started plying me with some of the best vodka I have ever tasted (we’re in Russia!) and all in attendance toasted to my bravery. After countless shots I no longer noticed I was wet:
We won’t discuss the next day hangover. More WTDGAP surprises to come in future posts – stay tuned!