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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Eating in SP (Grand Hotel edition)

While in SP, I must admit that I wasn't the most adventurous thing when it came to food.  Believe it or not, it wasn't because of the guardia in the water, although that would've been a sensible reason to be conservative.  Frankly it was because of the schedule that Jaime and I just happened to fall into.

Most mornings we'd stagger downstairs somewhere around 9:30 or 10--don't worry, I'd fortified myself with my in-room espresso maker long before--and we'd go to this cafe/bar they had in the building's courtyard.  Actually the whole thing was very comfortable and clever.  They'd glassed in the opening over the courtyard to make this usable year-round, but they set up the chairs and decoration like a high-end cafe, albeit one with much more space than most outdoor cafes I've ever been to.

I couldn't tell if the balconies were actually real, but my impression is that they were not; it seemed to me like most of the GHE rooms looked out over one of the neighboring streets.  Then again, it might be nice to have the light the courtyard provided but with less noise than some of the busier streets.

Whatever the layout, it was a great place to get good breakfast, snacks, other lighter food, drinks and desserts for what was a reasonable price by GHE standards.  In fact, my impression was that most of the restaurants in the hotel, or at least in our end and floor of it, used the same kitchen, so Jaime and I were pretty pleased we found this one on the second day.  $70 a day for fancy breakfast just wasn't what either of us wanted.

That being said, we were pretty decadent when it came to our main meal.  Like I said above, we often ended up on this schedule where we left the hotel c. 10-11 am and toured crazily until c. 3 pm by which time we were dying for some food.  Then, sheer, unadulterated laziness set in; it just seemed like too much effort to go out and try to find someplace that was good, where we didn't feel taken as tourists (standard tourist city problem, not a comment against SP), and that was safe with the water.  So we fell back on the hotel's restaurants, which were really quite varied and good.  In fact, it was only by the last night that I think we both were getting to the stage that we wanted to head out and, even then, we'd been too busy that day to bother.

That being said, we did somehow find time to drink.  In fact, one night we made our dinner out of drinks and bar food, pretty funny for two people who aren't generally heavy drinkers (Jaime especially).  It wasn't hard to do when the setting was like this, though, and they brought us multi-tiered trays of nuts, olives, and high-end party mix with every round of drinks.  For some reason, we just didn't feel like moving, especially when there was an extensive cocktail list to try!

The real dining highpoint of the trip was, however, the Sunday brunch at the GHE.  I'd read about this in multiple places, and even thought it wasn't cheap, Jaime and I decided to go for it.  Definitely worth every penny!!

First of all, the main dining room at the GHE really is one of those 19th-c. dining palaces, and it's been beautifully restored.  Most of the seating is on the ground floor; it's possible to go up into the balcony, but I don't think there are any dining tables there.  As you can see here, the stained glass truly is extraordinary, and musicians on the stage played both beautifully and discreetly.  Given how much I generally hate live music at a restaurant, that last point was important to me!

This gives you a little bit of the sense of the buffet set-up, but this is just an "ordinary" morning.  Yes, the restaurant is buffet for its breakfasts and brunches and turns into more formal seating at night.  That being said, the buffet here is quite understated compared to the Sunday brunch set-up.  First, there are no enormous ice sculptures; second, there are no fountains; third, there is no special buffet for caviar and vodka.  No, I'm not making any of that up!

Here's another shot of the room in the more traditional dining room arrangement.  Now imagine down the center this series of large buffets.  First the caviar and vodka, then all sorts of elaborate crudities and salads (and not the stupid and cheap green salad variety) followed by another salads and casserole-type buffet and the most enormous circular, 4-tiered display of breads and rolls I've ever seen.  Then, curving around the side by the stage, in front of the stage, and under the balconies were huge displays of fruits and fruit salads, an Italian-style antipasto bar, a collection of warmers with eggs, meats and other hot foods, a chef who would make custom blinis or omelettes, a display of c. 15 different cakes plus chocolates and gelati, and (finally) a tea, chocolate, and espresso bar with a barrista that puts any other I've ever seen to shame (and he clearly too great pride in doing the perfect espresso, cappuccino, you name it).

When we arrived, our lovely waiter (he's pictured below) seated us and made sure that we immediately had coffee, champagne (Ukrainian--and I'd buy it again in a MINUTE.  It was lovely!) and vodka.  Wouldn't want us to want for anything, right! :-)

Jaime and I both gained new respect for vodka that morning--and not for the reason you think!  Honestly I've always thought of vodka as particularly nasty: thin, burning, tasteless.  This was the hotel's "house" brand, so I was braced for something somewhat like that, albeit maybe a bit smoother.  I figured I'd drink it to be polite, then move to what I liked, and Jaime was on much the same wavelength.

Well,  vodka at the GHE is not served in any ordinary shotglass; it's served in this miniature wineglass that must hold the equivalent of 2-3 shots per pour.  (Jaime's IPhone is next to it for comparison.)  Then, there was the vodka itself.  It was smooth.  It was warmish.  It was oh so easy to drink.  Unlike Jaime, I just couldn't do the "down in one" the waiter recommended, but even then it was completely pleasant--and completely unexpected.  I now understood the Russian obsession with vodka, even though I switched from there to the yummy Ukrainian champagne.  Jaime continued to show his respect for Russia by alternating vodka and champagne throughout our 4-hour meal.

Yes, you read right: 4 hours.  There were just so many amazing dishes there, all prepared with a quality-level of the best restaurants, not the over- and re-heated things you associate with a buffet.  Then, too, our waiter was so good (that's him below); he believed in the glass half-empty, not glass half-full school of pouring.  Then, three, Jaime and I had LOTS of catching up to do, and vodka and champagne do ease the talking!  Then, four, the people watching was extraordinary.

Not surprisingly, a $100 breakfast in a city and country with the economic issues of modern Russia brings out a certain group of people.  While Jaime was fascinated with some of the elderly folks behind me and the "we're too cool for school" French speakers next to us, eventually we both focused on a group sitting slightly behind Jaime.  They were two Russian couples; one had two impeccably dressed little girls, while with the other the wife (who was stunning) was probably 7-8 months pregnant.  We both got a kick out of the mixture of celebration and nonchalance the women showed, while the guys were clearly getting a kick out of taking their wives for a big birthday celebration.  The high point was when our waiter brought out the birthday cake, complete with sparklers.  Everyone was suitably pleased and embarrassed at the reaction of everyone around (smiles & applause), while our waiter handled it with charm and aplomb.


After cake and sparklers, Jaime and I were inspired to, once again, sample from the dessert buffet, while of course, washing things down with champagne or, in my case, spiked cappuccinos.  Is it any wonder that we had to go wander around for an hour or two after this and just didn't have any appetite for dinner that night?  (although there the chocolates and drinks in the room, enjoyed on the sun porch, surely helped).

Yep, it was a meal to end all meals.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Church of the Spilled Blood

As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the Church of the Spilled Blood is by no means the largest, most beautiful, or most historically or religiously significant church in SP, but I'd guess that it IS one of the most photographed.  That's probably based on a couple of factors.  One is location; it's right between Nevsky Prospekt and the Winter Palace and easily visible down one of the main canals.  You'd have to be blind to miss it.  Two, it is this amazing confection of Orthodox gingerbread, vibrant colors, and imperial symbolism and aspirations, all in this compact and immediate package (unlike the scope and grandeur of St. Isaac's or the grandiosness of Kazan Cathedral).  Three, you can even feel virtuously historical while taking photos, since the whole reason for the church's existence is to commemorate and inspire prayers for the "spilled blood" of Czar Alexander II.  I mean, it's a tourist trifecta!

So here is Jaime's homage to the Church of the Spilled Blood.  Really wonderful photos!

I couldn't decide which of these photos I liked best.  The top one gives a better sense of the colors, while the bottom one is more suggestive of the ambiance.  Besides, I like the glowing dome on the bottom!

One of the great things about the church is that you can easily walk all the way around it, so here are some close-ups of our circumnavigation.

The mosaics and other decorations above the doors outside were striking.

One of the things I've always found both beautiful and exotic ever since I first saw them in Alaska as a kid are the "onion domes" on the Orthodox church towers.  Here they're covered with colored, geometric decorations.

 (Yes, I know this picture is ostensibly underexposed, 
poorly lit, whatever, but I actually prefer it for its atmospherics.)

I particularly had to giggle at the prominent display of Romanoff eagles everywhere, but given the church's origins, it makes a twisted sort of sense.

Across the street, next to the little market that's developed there, is this interesting, much more understated building.  I was wondering if it was the church's baptistry, but since the gates were locked whenever we went by, I didn't go check it out in more detail.  One of its aspects that really struck me was the shape of the building itself and its tower; you can see the latter better in the second picture.

On a somewhat tangential note, you should see what Blogger tries to substitute for grandiose, Romanoff, and baptistry.  Is it required that we be illiterate to blog?!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Last Homage to Winter

As I sit here on a sunny day, albeit one that's still only 45 degrees, I figured I'd post my last flurry of winter photos.  (Sorry I couldn't resist.)  So here's to the memory of a winter past!

You know, I actually kind of think Ted misses the snow, although he rarely rolled or went crazy in it.  It just had so many new smells!

Ah, yes, the days of walking the corridor of ice bounded by mountains of snow!

In memory of massive fuzz ... you know, the fuzz that I'm now brushing off almost everyday!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Wandering the St. Petersburg Streets

First off, let me apologize for being so long between posts.  No good excuses, just the ones that everyone shares: life, busyness, laziness, etc.

That being said, I've decided to spend Saturday morning catching up on some of my blogging and to get some of the information about and inspiration of St. Petersburg on paper before it fades completely away.  So here goes!

Like many tourists we spent most of our time within the inner rings of the city, that is, the part that was really developed by Peter the Great and his immediate successors.  Being someone who HAS to have a visual to make sense of any city, here's Lonely Planet's simplified map of the heart of St. Petersburg. (The Grand Hotel, GHE, is at the "r" in "Nevsky pr.")  For us foreign tourist types, one of the things that makes this part of the city so impressive is its relative architectural uniformity.  It's a beautiful city in part because the extremely powerful, absolutist rulers of Russia were able to make it a political and social necessity for their nobility and bureaucracy to build palaces there, and once the Russian nobility started building, with their enormous wealth, the city just took off.  In other words, St. Petersburg is filled with 18th- and early 19th-century palaces, and even the buildings between the palaces share the architectural style in the city center.  As a planned imperial city, it's really quite striking.

When you walk out of the Grand Hotel on of the many impressive and nearby sights is the tower marking the seat of the Duma, that is, the town administration.  If you look to the left, you'll see this other building--today I think it's part of a series of stores--modeled on a Grecian temple.  I must admit that one of the things that amused me was the number of buildings in St Petersburg that were modeled on famous buildings elsewhere.  While I realize that much 18th- & 19th-century architecture was derivative, as you'll see, there's a difference between derivative and a copy.  You'll see what I mean when we get to the mini-St. Peters.

This is one of the many palaces lining Nevsky Prospekt, which is today one of the main and more fashionable streets in St. Petersburg.  While I'm probably wrong about this, to me, it really seems like a "typical" St. Petersburg palace: imposing facade with high windows (that is, it can be defended if necessary), neoclassical style with perhaps just a bit too much gingerbread to make it truly neoclassical, and this amazing pastel color.  The colors, in particular, really surprised me, although they shouldn't: I mean, the Romans painted their buildings and I'm always telling my students how the "simple" interiors of Gothic cathedrals were riots of color in the past--we just seeing their structure, their bones, if you will.  Still, it's funny to see your words in practice.  And I just don't get the pastel fetish.

On our first full day there, Jaime and I went for a long walk down Nevsky Prospekt, around and past the winter palace, out to the Peter and Paul Fortress (across the river), through the Fortress to its far (left-hand) end, across two bridges alongside the naval school and Botanical Gardens, and meandering back towards the GHE on Nevsky.  It took about 3 hours in weather in the teens, but since we were decently dressed and it was sunny, it only felt that bad the last 1/4 mile.  I mention this because you'll see snow in most of the pictures.  Those were the ones Jaime took and reflect how it really looked when we were there.  Don't I plan things well, traveling with people who are both good at and like to take pictures? :-)

Just down Nevsky Prospekt from where we were staying (towards the Neva river) was the Griboyedova canal, one of 3 main, semi-circular canals that mark the old part of the city.  Like Venice, St. Petersburg was built on a marsh for military purposes, so it has tons of waterways running through it, all designed to control overflow.  Unlike Venice, these canals freeze in the winter.  No night-time canal tours for us!

In the distance is a famous sight that we walked past almost everyday: the Church of the Spilled Blood.  (It was named because Czar Alexander II was assassinated here, and the church was meant to honor him.)  It's an amazing confection in blues and gold with, not surprisingly, imperial eagles everywhere.  More specific pictures are coming in a later post; Jaime had a field day with the details and the lighting, like any photographer would!

Here's a picture from a few days later when it was brighter.  Even this doesn't give you a sense of the detail and glitter in this amazing church.

Right behind the GHE and between it and the Church of the Spilled Blood was the main branch of the Russian Museum.  The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg is much like the Smithsonian in DC: although there is ostensibly a central building, there are actually many museums and even a few palaces in the city under its curatorship.  It holds a really astonishing collection of early Russian history, and I'm sure it's Revolutionary materials are outstanding, given what happened in St. Petersburg, but I ran out of time to see them.

This is the Stroganoff Palace, famous and very prestigious Russian noble family, family for whom especially yummy dinner is named!  If you want information about the city's MANY palaces and about the city in general, I recommend two websites: and  Several Russian colleagues recommended the former, while I found the latter a great resource about a whole series of impressive but less prestigious palaces scattered around the city.  Both also have great photos!

Just behind us was one of the main renovation projects going on in the city.  To be honest, one of the more striking things in SP was the variation in restoration.  Some buildings were in great shape, while others were missing huge chunks of plaster.  Then there were the differences between what was visible publicly and what was in the inside courtyards; the latter was STRIKING at the Peter and Paul Fortress.  While some of it is understandable given the difficulties of maintenance in SP's climate, it was also a testimony to the way capitalism run rampant underlies so much of modern Russian society.  Basically the buildings that were in good shape were ones that people, companies, or the government could make money on.

Here it is, the Russian St. Peter's, otherwise known as Kazan Cathedral.  Impressive church, but when you've seen the real thing, it becomes more impressive as a statement of imperial aspirations and resources--and that isn't necessarily flattering.

A great bookstore and a good, if overpriced, cafe is housed here in the Singer building next to the canal pictured above.  And, yes, it's now called Singer based on the Singer of sewing machine fame.

One of the things I've liked about architecture both in SP and here in Helsinki are the details on the buildings.  The next few pictures show the type of decoration that was found all over the buildings in the heart of SP.  And, by the way, look at the bright turquoise building across the canal from the Singer.  See what I mean about painted buildings.  (While it does look odd to me, I must admit that it really brightened up the place on cold and gray winter days.)

Did you really think I'd leave out the Hermitage/Winter Palace?  (Yes, they're officially two different things, but it's too complicated to explain and, in the modern world, doesn't really matter.)  Yep, the reason I went to SP for the art collection--most of which isn't on display.  When Jaime gets his more detailed pictures of the Hermitage loaded, I'll post separately about it, but let's just say it is quite impressive, although, funnily enough, not as grandiose as I expected.  I think part of the reason it seemed more understated than I expected was because of the huge public square in front of it, one that was clearly designed for staging entrances, performances, etc.  Another reason is that because, in many ways, all of SP is an imperial stage, and there are so many other impressive palaces in close proximity that it simultaneously blends in and stands out.  The blue-green paint is odd to see in person, too, although I'd see it in tons of photographs.  It makes it stand out, but it also makes it homier, too--probably not an impression the czars were going for. :-)

Once we walked across the huge square we slipped into one of the side streets that now exist between wings of the palace.  Is it just me, or does this look like something straight out of Venice (minus the ice, that is)?

And, remember, don't try to moor in the ice!

You can imagine what fun these cobblestones were to walk on, although SP was actually much easier to navigate than Helsinki at that time.  By early March, the ice was off the main walkways; it helps when you have a MUCH larger population.  Some side streets and all the parks were still treacherous, but it didn't keep the Russian women from running around in 3-4" heels!

I dealt with the issue by slipping and basically genuflecting in front of the Winter Palace.  I'm sure someone was wondering why I was so overcome.  Jaime had another problem; his boots just couldn't take the pace!

I've always thought "walking my shoes into the ground" was a metaphor.  Yes, we learned all about Russian shoe repair!