Nevskiy and the Canals


After our very relaxing Monday together, Alisha decides she will return to work in the morning and hands me the spare key to the apartment.  This allows me a delightful sleep-in before launching my first real journey into St Petersburg.  I decide I’ll return to the city and walk along Nevskiy prospect to absorb the feeling of the place again and allow whatever takes my attention to consume my day.  I pass through the St Petersburg Metro like an old hand already – thanking my foresight in learning to read the Russian alphabet for the fortieth time.  I emerge in the middle of the city again, through Nevskiy Prospect Metro station and into the surging street.  I can see the spire of the Admiralty building at the end of the street, sitting on the edge of the Neva river; St Petersburg’s river and heart. 

Because pavements are for cars too…man.

I spend the next few hours drifting and floating on the waves of people crowding the city.  I decide I’ll walk away from the river first, back down to Vostanniya square and Moskovskiy station; where I had arrived the previous day.  I pass a huge building that has scaffold placed along its entire frontage and wonder what it is.  There’s no signage I can find, so I consult my guide to discover it is the huge bazaar they call Gostinyy Dvor.  Inside is Russia’s answer to the department store.  Broad passageways about twenty metres wide lead around the whole building on two main floors.  You can move between the floors via regularly placed stone staircases.  In those passageways are an endless series of stalls and shops of various sizes and types; each one run by a different person or people.  Sometimes the whole passageway is taken up by an electrical goods supermarket or a fabric shop.  Other times there are just a couple of benches or display cabinets with a single, bored looking shopkeeper hoping someone will stop.  I find one that only sells batteries and take the chance to stock up, since they are less than half the price of exactly the same battery in Australia.  I find myself wandering through the passageways faster and faster, enjoying the endless flow of different shops with people swarming in every direction.  There seems to be one shop I see over and over again that sells the same set of jewellery, umbrellas and t-shirts.  I wonder if its some kind of weird franchise stall as I sail into a hobby shop filled with radio controlled devices.  The experience is strange to me, different from the bazaars in Istanbul; somehow more modern and consumeristic. 

Then I turn around and amble along most of the length of this fabulous road to land at the Admiralty and the statue of the Bronze Horseman.  Crossing the Fontanka canal at the Anichkov bridge I wish the amazing four statues on it weren’t under restoration.  The statues on the bridge are by Pyotr Klodt and are all very beautiful renderings of men taming wild horses; engaged in the battle of strength as man bends the natural world to his will.  This is a particularly appropriate place to have them displayed so centrally; in this city that represents that idea to perfection.

After Peter had travelled in Europe for a year (1697-98), working to learn boat building and absorbing culture everywhere he went, he returned to Russia with an astonishing plan.  Russia would have a port on the Baltic Sea that would be the equal, or superior, of any European city.  This was the first time any Russian leader had taken this view.  So he did what any six foot eight inch Tsar with a mission does; he started a war with Sweden.  In just a few years, in 1703, he had secured the mouth of the Neva River as the location and started building the SS Peter and Paul Fortress (the double S there is for the two Saints) on an island there.  Opposite was a shipyard that he planned would become the birthplace of Russia’s navy.  He fought Sweden and enslaved prisoners for another six years until the battle of Poltava where he led a decisive victory against their forces; Sweden had been one of Europe’s most powerful countries at the time.  Amusingly the fortress was never actually used or defended during that war, but by then, the city was being planned and built at a reckless pace.

There’s more than one way to TAME a horse

His determination to see this city come into being drove him for the rest of his life; and considerably shortened the life of the tens of thousands of Russian serfs he conscripted to the cause.  The land was a foetid bog that flooded constantly, it is far enough north to have limited sunlight for half the year, as well as the river and ground frozen at the same time.  Despite everything being piled against this proposition, his will held iron to the end, in 1712 he made it the Russian capital, when he died in 1725 there were 40,000 people in residence and many more in labour camps nearby.

 Kazan Cathedral

Strolling down the Nevskiy Prospect is something I enjoyed doing quite a few times during my time in St Petersburg.  So many beautiful buildings.  The canals, statues and the constant buzz of the people is addictive.  There is little sign left of the torment and death that went into producing this city, it has been replaced by one of the most photogenic and inspirational landscapes I’ve ever seen.  This is a testament to a further three centuries of history, construction and life in the heart of the empire.    The Dom Knigi (House of Books), Kazan Cathedral and a host of other buildings form a constant flow of visual feasts.  each have their own style about them and all locals have their favourites.

The Fontanka, Griboedova and Moyka canals are calling me to get onto a boat tour.  I notice a sign pointing to an English language one and head for the ticket box.  I’m not sure if the boat will have drinks on board, so I spend the fifteen minute wait acquiring some beer from a local shop.  On arriving at the boat I can’t help but notice that there’s only myself, the captain and two Russian crew members on board a wide canal boat with tables and chairs to comfortably seat forty.  They gesture for me to sit down and wait.  In a few more minutes a beautiful young Russian women descends the gangway and, glancing my way, walks over to speak with the captain.  It turns out I’m lucky enough to have the boat to myself. 
“Hello, I’m Ivana”, she says with a curious smile,
“I may as well just sit here then.”
She joins me at the table as I introduce myself and give her a beer to help settle into the best value for money tour in St Petersburg this year

We travel up the Fontanka, down the Moyka and then out onto the Neva past the winter palace (now part of the Hermitage museum/gallery) and the SS Peter and Paul Fortress.  Looking back and forth across the river I can see the huge, towering spires atop the Admiralty on one side and the belltower of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul on the other.  Both seem impossibly tall and slender and on top of the Admiralty spire is a weathervane in the shape of a frigate; on top of the Cathedral is one in the shape of an angel blowing a trumpet.  The two spires look particularly beautiful glowing in the warm Russian summer afternoon sun.  I see for the first time the beach in front of the fortress swarming with people in bathers enjoying the day.  Beaches and St Petersburg are still two ideas I find hard to associate, but here they are.  We float gently past gardens and palaces, cathedrals and churches, bridges and waterways.  I discover my guide is doing this work to help fund her university studies and improve her English, which is already very good.
“What hotel are you staying in?”, she asks me. 
It seemed an odd question to me when I first arrived in Russia, but it’s quite common for locals to ask where I’m staying to get an idea of what kind of tourist or traveller I am; a businessman staying in the Sheraton or a backpacker in the cheapest place that has a spare room.
“I’m Couchsurfing with a local, staying for free”, I explain.
“Couch…what?” she replies, looking very confused. 
I spend some time explaining the idea to her. It’s greeted at first with the base suspicion that the unknown always causes, then she warms up quite a bit, enjoying the novelty of a new kind of traveller.
“You have to visit this local franchise pub called Tolsti Fraer!” she exclaims. 
She marks my map where a couple of them are located and tells me to go to one in particular. It’s the one she and her friends often visit on a Friday night.  I decide I have to go there this Friday with a group of Couchsurfers to see what happens.

“Are you familiar with the Russian way to ask for another drink without saying a word”, Ivana asks me pointedly.  I think for a moment and reply slowly, still thinking,
“No.  I don’t think so.” 
She turns the palm of her right hand away from her body and raises it to the side of her neck, where she flicks her throat gently with her index finger.  I smile and say,
“That’s sure to come in handy while I’m here.” 
She returns the smile and adds,
“Do you know why we do that?”
Again I think and admit I have no idea.
“Well, when St Petersburg was a much younger city, not long after Peter the Great started building it, there was a time where storms with high winds were lashing it for days on end.  One day in these high winds the angel shaped weathervane on top of the cathedral’s belltower broke and stopped being able to turn properly.  Peter feared the new spire would be torn asunder as the high winds continually caught the weather vane.” 
I grimace, picturing the towering Tsar being made aware of the problem and likely suffering more than normal from his facial tic.
“So Peter called for someone in the new city brave enough to climb the tower and fix the weathervane.  Soon enough, one crazy Russian man approached and said he would do it, but the price would be free drinks in all of St Petersburg’s bars.  Peter agreed to this, since the act would take considerable courage.”
I had read in my guidebook that the spire rises 122 metres from the ground, glancing at it right now assures me it would indeed be quite a feat to climb it even today.
“The man took rope and the tools to fix it, consulted with the builders (the cathedral wasn’t completed until after Peter’s death) on the best way to repair it and set off.  The winds were still high and no-one believed he would make it to the top, let alone actually fix it.  Somehow he stayed firmly attached to the spire, repaired the broken angel and descended slowly amidst cheers and celebration of everyone present.  Peter arranged for a certificate to be created directing all of St Petersburg’s publicans to honour this man with free drinks, signed it and handed it over personally.”
“So I’m thinking this guy isn’t working very much anymore”, I quip. 
She smiles and continues,
“Well, you would be right, he spent many nights getting very drunk and more than once he lost the certificate and had to beg Peter for a new one.  Peter got tired of this process and arranged to have the certificate tattooed on the man’s neck, right here”, she explains, flicking her throat again,
“So all he had to do for endless vodka was flick his throat! …and all the Russian people still use this action to get another drink today”.
She sat back for a moment as I consider this awesome story and sip at my beer.  I smile suddenly and offer her another beer from my bag,
“Oh that’s not what I meant!”, she exclaims, blushing.
“But..since you have enough for me….”
She trails off as she opens the fresh can.  I look out the window again as the buildings drift past.
“I don’t know if the story is true or not, I only heard this last week and liked it”, she explains between long sips.
“Nothing lives as well as a good story, I like it too”, I agree, knowing that I will be telling it again.


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