“Palaces and Restaurants”
Eventually, the Russians wore us down, and we decided to visit them in Russia. Actually, it did not take much convincing because we had always thought Russia would be a fascinating place to visit.
Travelling to Russia was not easy, at least not as easy as most other European countries. We had to apply for a Visa, and pay top dollar to get one after several weeks waiting. Of course, there was always the option of paying extra to ‘facilitate’ or ‘rush’ it through faster. Once that was in hand, we could book airlines and notify our friends that we were coming. At first, we thought we might stay at a hotel or something close to their place, but no, we were to stay with them at their apartment.
The flight was uneventful, Vancouver to Frankfurt and then to St. Petersburg. We arrived at the old Pulkova Airport in St. Petersburg, and were crowded into a large waiting room, more like a small warehouse with nothing of note to see, just long queues of passengers trying to clear passport control. There was no air conditioning or air circulation of any kind, so it was hot and humid and the air was thick and heavy with body odour and smoke from the many passengers lighting up after the flight. We slowly advanced to a tall cubical holding the customs official. We had to fill out more paperwork in duplicate, and save one copy to enable us to exit the country! I’m not sure what happens if you lose this copy? Maybe they won’t let you go, but send you to Siberia instead? Eventually, we had to hand our passports and Visas up to a mysterious person who grabbed the passport, studied it, then stamped it violently and handed back down to us.
This scenario left such an impression on me that I used the same scene in one of my novels,(“Reaction”) when one of the ‘bad guys’ (Kurt Landau) arrived at the same airport under similar conditions. It was easy to describe as I had lived it myself.
I do not know how many of these passport control cubicles there were in the old airport, but the new Pulkova Airport has 110 passport checkpoints. Quite an improvement!
Finally we were out! Of course, the entire Bondarenko family was waiting for us, Tanya and Tolik, and Ira and Sasha had all come to meet us with two vehicles. They presented a huge bouquet of flowers to Diana, followed by hugs and tearful greetings all around . . . here we are, meeting in person for the first time after years of correspondence from a great distance. Although we had met Tanya and Tolik during their trip to Canada, but we had never actually met the two children. Children? Of course they were both all grown up! Irina was a beautiful woman with the most striking eyes, and her husband Sergei, a pleasant young man who was a lawyer in St. Petersburg. Sasha, Ira’s brother, was a tall, serious individual. Since then, Sasha and his lovely wife have two beautiful girls, Esenia and Emilia. It was quite an occasion!
It was a fairly short drive of 14 miles and we were in the beautiful village of Gatchina, where they lived and we pulled up in front of their apartment and unloaded our luggage. Tolik and Sasha parked the cars somewhere and came to help us in. The apartment was a grey, concrete structure with no decoration of any kind. We entered a dark ground-level entrance, lit by one light bulb hanging from a wire. We were told that any other light bulbs or decoration of any kind would soon disappear . . . everything had to be nailed down or locked up.
Up the stairs, four stories, about seven or eight flights of stairs. I mentioned in my last story that they refer to their apartment being on the third floor. Actually, in Russian they do call it the fourth floor, but many use the UK (third floor) version of reference, because so many are learning English from the UK. It is interesting to see the influences that one language has over another.
Another depressing fact, apartments in Russia do not have elevators until they have six floors! Very difficult for seniors or even slightly disabled people. We managed to get up, Diana’s knee was getting worse and this was the beginning of a serious problem for her.
Finally, after climbing the stairs, we approached the front door of their apartment, we noticed it was a steel clad door, with multiple locks requiring elaborate keys to unlock it. Once open, there was another door, a beautifully crafted wooden door that again was double locked. After Tolik had completed his magic, we finally entered their flat.
The inside was beautiful decorated with handmade articles of furniture and other knickknacks that Tolik had made or Tanya or Ira had crafted over the years.
I will not get into a lot of detail about what followed, but they had prepared a room for us to stay in, I think it had been their living room. We were treated like royalty, and the food and drink soon appeared and we all sat down to become more familiar with each other.
Not much time to waste, much like their trip to Canada, the Russians had a full schedule for us, the first on the agenda was a ballet. Not just an ordinary ballet, but a Russian Ballet! We were thrilled, not just any Russian ballet, but my favourite, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ at the famous ‘Mariinsky Theatre’.
So off we went, dressed as finely as we could, considering we had not expected to go to the ballet shortly after arriving. Tanya had arranged wonderful seats on a balcony on one side of the theatre, almost directly over the stage – fantastic! There we were, in wonderful seats at a very special ballet performance by Yuri Grigorovich, and Ballerina Anastasia Volochkova! As we gazed down on the ‘common folk’, we felt very special indeed. Tanya had pulled a few strings to get these seats, including some ‘special papers’, from her work, signed by the Director of the Russian Academy of Science that declared me to be a ‘visiting scientist’ from Canada (which I was, actually). This allowed us to gain access to many events, museums, (even the Hermitage) etc. with the same status as Russians for the entrance cost. The system in Russia calls for foreigners to pay much higher prices for tickets than Russians. This can vary, sometimes as high as twenty times the cost according to google or Wiki! This ‘special paper’ as Tanya called it, allowed us to get in as Russians. Our first test of this was at the ballet that evening, as we heard Tanya arguing with the official at the theatre. I guess it worked, because we were soon seated and enjoying the performance.
August was a good time of the year to visit, no snow, but lots of fresh vegetables. It was actually too hot on most days, over thirty degrees. I think the Russians were not used to this weather as well, as nobody had air-conditioning, and very few had fans to move the air around.
It was about this time that we realized Diana’s knee was getting worse, aggravated by the climb up the seven or eight flights of stairs to their apartment, and the multiple stairs/no elevator wherever we went. We decided she could not continue on foot. The entire Bondarenko family went into action and soon searched out a pharmacy/medical supply place in St. Petersburg that would rent us a wheelchair. We were at their mercy and they soon had somebody track it down and bring it to the apartment. They were so good to us, they would have to carry Diana in the wheelchair up the seven or eight flights of stairs because she was basically immobile. God bless them all! This continued for the rest of our trip, with Tolik, Sasha or Sergei (Ira’s husband) pushing her wheelchair wherever we went. I wasn’t much use at that point because my knee was also failing. (Ah . . . the pleasures of traveling in ‘old age’.) We eventually purchased the wheelchair and brought it home, which actually made airlines and airports easier to navigate.
I cannot describe all of the wonderful sights the Russians showed us. St. Petersburg is an incredible city, filled with spectacular palaces, churches, museums and historic buildings and monuments. I will not spend a great deal of time to try to describe these monumental sites, as they are covered in detail in any Russian tourist information or ‘google’ search. Places like the spectacular Catherine’s Palace, and the Konsantinovsky Palace. It was at this location that Tolik’s firm had built twenty small ‘mini-palaces’ used for visiting dignitaries, one for each country.
In this story, I will mention the palaces briefly, and try to describe the fantastic restaurants in more detail, as we had never heard of most of them before visiting Russia. After the Konstantinovsky Palace, we enjoyed lunch at the Restaurant ϹТРЕЛъНА, Strelna (Arrow). This was an incredible lunch in an incredibly beautiful restaurant! I’m sure the Russian have small restaurants and coffee bars, but most of the ones they took us to were works of art, almost like palaces themselves or at least fancy tourist attractions.
The next day was another spectacular experience, a trip out to Pushkin. The highlight of the day was the Palace of Tsarskoye Selo. It was here we saw the famous ‘Amber Room’. Another place Tanya managed to get us in as special visitors, so we could enter without a guide and with Diana’s wheelchair.
I was fascinated by the craftsmanship of the parquet floors in almost every room in every palace, huge floors inlaid with exotic hardwoods in beautiful patterns. I mention the details of the carved marble statues, as a marble carver myself, I could appreciate the workmanship.
Later we managed to catch a tour boat that took us for a ride on the Neva River, which runs right through the middle of St. Petersburg. It was a fast hydrofoil vessel, first crossing the Bolshoi Neva (large Neva), towards the Peter and Paul Fortress, out the Malaya Neva (small Neva) out towards the ocean. Our route took us past many other boats, floating dry-docks and industrial areas, a very interesting look at the ‘working’ heart of St. Petersburg. We were soon in the open water of the Gulf of Finland (Baltic Sea), and continued to Petrovorets (Peterhof). Another fabulous restaurant!
I will only describe one more restaurant, this one in the village of Pavlosk, Podvoriye restaurant, which looked on the outside like an old Russian Village, log cabins, towers, and fancy woodwork. There was several stories to the place, many dining rooms, gift shops etc. There were animal skins decorating the walls, some looking pretty vicious! A large bear stood in the foyer, greeting guests with a tray of drinks in his hand.
The menu was unbelievable! 24 different soups; four pages of hot or cold starters, salads, mains, wines, spirits, and about twenty different vodkas, cognacs, etc. I had a lovely beef stroganoff, Diana had pelmeni. There were choices of boar, beef, pork, bear, elk, deer, steaks and chops, and an incredible selection of fish.
Behind the restaurant was a large structure with stairs, and a large slide on one side. Apparently in the winter this is covered with snow and the guests have fun climbing up and sliding down the ramp. This little plaything is called a Russian Gorka (Горка), or what we would call a slide.
These ‘gorkas’ or slides have been popular for centuries in Russia, dating back to the 1600’s, and is recognized as the beginning of the roller-coaster craze. Even Catherine the Great loved to slide down a Gorka, so much so that she built a roller coaster at Katalnaya Gorka, also known as the Sliding Hill.
The following day, it was Ira’s Birthday. We began with a fabulous Russian breakfast of special pancakes served with sausages, veggies and sour cream or jam. A great way to start the day!
We spent most of the day in the village of Gatchina, at the local ‘Birch Palace’, which from the outside looked much like a great pile of fire-wood, but inside it was fantastic! After another lunch at the ‘Restaurant Kare’, a restaurant decorated in a medieval motif, with armour, chain mail and old swords. We tried some БОРЩ УКРАИНССКИЙ С ПАМПУШКАМИ – Ukrainian Borsch with Dumplings, served with meat and sour cream! Delicious! We then returned to Gatchina for a short nap to prepare for our evening out.
In Russia, it is traditional that the birthday person treat all those who attend the party. So Ira had treated all her co-workers to lunch that day and was treating us all to an evening of bowling. Apparently, bowling is a big attraction in Russia, a wonderful form of entertainment for an evening. The bowling alley was very modern, with everything brightly coloured, including our shoes, the balls and lit by UV lights throughout! Everything glowed! A modern, computer controlled system which made it easy to keep score. We enjoyed the music, snacks, beer, wine and lots of laughter. An enjoyable and very memorable evening.
Thank you , Ira!
Back to the apartment for some rest before another big excursion tomorrow!
To view a list of all the Travel Tales, click here
Thank you for reading what I have to share. If you think anyone else would be interested in this post, please use the share buttons below to share with your friends. Do you subscribe to my blog? If not, enter your email address below to receive notification of new posts in your inbox.