We’d lined up a tour guide for our first full day in Russia. Igor came and met us outside our hostel/hotel. He was a serious, middle-aged, academic type, and spent a long time untangling four sets of headphones he said he wanted us to use while he talked into a microphone as we walked the noisy streets of Leningrad. Working out I wasn’t American or English, he asked where I was from.
“Ireland. Have you ever been there?”
“No, but I’ve met a few Irish people, and the one thing I’ll say is: whatever they say, they say with total conviction,” he said, in mortal combat with the headphone leads. When he was finally ready, off we went, over the Blue Bridge, past the Hotel Astoria, towards Leningrad’s heart of gold, St. Isaac’s Church.
I had to stop calling the city Leningrad. This naming confusion I originally put down to watching too many documentaries about WWI or II or some other revolutionary period of Russian history, but I was surprised to find out, standing at one of those great Metro murals, how recently the city’s name was changed from Leningrad:
- 1703: St. Petersburg
- 1914: Petrograd
- 1924: Leningrad
- 1991: St. Petersburg
So when I’d learned the names of the places of the world for the first time as a kid, Leningrad had indeed been Leningrad. Those early facts are hard to unlearn; that’s my excuse.
Strange and inexpressive he may have been (although having spent about two weeks in the country at this stage, I sense that being inexpressive is not that strange in Russia) Igor ending up walking us off our feet all day, with an itinerary that would take us north over the Neva (we were staying in the so-called Historic Heart of the city, south of the river, where most of the big-ticket sights like the Hermitage and the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood were), skirting Vasilyevsky Island, and onto the Peter and Paul Fortress, the star-shaped fort occupying all of tiny Zayachy Island. Formerly Swedish, Zayachy is the core around which St. Petersburg has been growing these three hundred odd years.
At the Rostralnaya columns, two lighthouse oddities with boats sticking out of them on either side of a fork in the river, Igor pointed out the Gazprom Tower out to the west in the bayside. This massive shard is even bigger than The Shard. Indeed, it’s the tallest building in Europe, and the 13th tallest in the world. Huge The Shard may be, but it’s not so out of proportion to its surroundings as this monster is. We got a closer look at it a few days later as we scythed through the water on the hydrofoil back from the Peterhof Gardens.
One of the stories Igor told us had a particular resonance: the origin of the пиво (beer) neck flick. This is a gesture we’d got used to seeing our Polish friend Maciej do regularly (“Now we go to get some пиво, yes?”, he’d say, chopping or flicking the side of his neck) without knowing why he did that. We thought, if we thought about it at all, it was just his thing. Little did we know at the time that what Maciej was doing was written into the elongated, golden spire of one of the oldest buildings in this three-hundred year old city, the one we were standing in front of, looking around, wondering where exactly our guide, whose voice we could hear fading and crackling in our ear pieces, had wandered off to. So we learned that Russian and Polish shared the same word for beer. But why the neck flick?
Well, during some historical episode, somebody or other had climbed the (very high) spire of the Fortress bell tower for some doubtless very good reason, which pleased some powerful people enough that they gave the climber a token entitling him to beers on the house anywhere he went for the rest of his life. (If that explanation sounds unsatisfactorily vague, very well, but you try remembering everything from an all-day tour.) Of course, the guy soon lost the token, probably as a result of all the free beer he was getting, so they tattooed the token on the side of his neck; now all he had to do was turn up at some pub and pull down the collar of his greatcoat and flick himself in the neck to flash his tat and collect on his beer.
Igor kept up a running commentary in a flat tone as he shuffled through the crowds in the packed rooms and courtyards of the Peter and Paul, while we tried to find him before the reception started to go on the headphones, which meant we’d lost him. The boys, fascinated as they are with all the colourful flags of the world, liked the one he told us about how Peter the Great, a keen boat-builder, especially of the Dutch variety, had simply rearranged the colours of the Dutch flag when he needed a flag for his own country’s fleet.
We had lunch at a stolovaya called Leningradskoye Kafe where I sipped cold borsch – beetroot soup, basically – and Alex and Eoin enjoyed shnitzelesque chicken. Oh, and, of course, there was more black rye bread. For the entire duration of our trip we’d rely on these stolovayas, old-fashioned, canteen-like joints with plastic trays, whose plain signs, in Russian, you had to keep your eye out for. They usually had no English but that was alright since they operated on a buffet-type of arrangement so you could just point to the things we didn’t know how to say. Alex and Eoin could get their pasta or their pizza slices, the prices were still Brezhnev-era, and they often had Baltika on tap.
Of the many aspects (historical, literary, arts and galleries, Sputnicky space stuff) of Russian culture we wanted to learn about, we were determined to learn a bit about its cuisine too. As part of our research for this trip Tina had borrowed a bunch of old Russian classics. Of course we never got through half of them, but one of them I did read was a book of stories by Nikolai Gogol. Exploring the neighbourhood later this first week in St. Petersburg we found a fascinating restaurant called Gogol (“Gastronomic Play, St. Petersburg style“) just off Nevsky Prospekt (apropriately enough, since one of the Gogol stories I’d read was called ‘Nevsky Prospekt’) whose menu comes in the form of a book (Chapter 1: cold hors d’oeuvres, salads, Chapter 2: soup, etc.).
But, you know, with two kids in tow, we were always going to end up in places like Teremok, the fast-food restaurant chain that saved us at the end of a couple of long walks. They mainly serve bliny, which are traditional Russian pancakes, and the Teremok crew make them in front of you with smoked salmon and cheese (‘Morskoi Bogatyr‘: ‘Maritime Hero’), minced meat and mushrooms (‘Myasnoi Bogatyr‘: ‘Meaty Hero’), or even red caviar (no translation offered, but I imagine it’d be ‘Oligarch Hero’), which I got.
Back on our tour, south of the Neva again, finally, we ended up sometime late in the afternoon at the Mikhailovsky Castle, the building, Igor informed us, in which Tsar Paul had been murdered by a conspiracy of generals and higher-ups. Caught up in all this splendid history, I’ve recently started Adam Zamoyski’s 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow in which I read that in the war of words leading up to the epic confrontation between Russia and France the then Tsar Alexander (Paul’s son) joined in the robust international condemnation of Napoleon following the abduction and murder by the emperor of the Duc d’Enghien, to which the great leader coolly responded, “Yeah, well, at least I didn’t kill my Dad.”
“Oooh, I hate Napoleon,” fumed the Tsar, stung by the veracity of the retort. From this point on, war was inevitable.
By Mikhailovsky Igor had walked us to death. He gave good tour, in fairness. He made us do what we knew we had to. In the end, you could have counted on one finger the number of times he smiled. Too tired to count, or even to smile, we straggled home, like Napoleon’s Grande Armée.