Sunday, 16 September 2012


The story of the crushing disappointment of a poorly-planned attempted excursion.
One hungover morning, we awoke to the news that two creepy Russian men sitting on our floor of the hostel -having made it through the gate, past reception and up three flights of stairs - were accosting sleepy passers-by, animatedly trying to find two of our friends that had gone out (to a Stolovaya) the night before. Being the sensible people that we are, we pointedly avoided their room, texting and calling around to warn them. 

About an hour later, we found out that after one of the Russian guests tried to point out their room (creepy enough), the Russian receptionist had gone downstairs to look up the right room number and given it to the two men. Why is it Russian workers are suddenly really helpful in the most inappropriate circumstances?

Anyway, our extremely hungover friends opened the door to be gifted with a pineapple, strawberries, champagne and a SIM card. Apparently when they were extremely drunk the night before, they'd stormed out of the Stolovaya having had enough of the locals' forwardness, to be followed by the security guards at said cafeteria, who presumably spent the rest of the night sourcing exotic presents and generally being creepy.

My roommate and I, after our 'ice-cream, wine and Bridesmaids' night, were feeling fairly under the weather, but we all perked up enough to set off to see Peterhof, residence of Peter the Great and the biggest tourist attraction in St Petersburg. There was a festival on Friday and Saturday night to mark both 200 years since Russia's victory over Napoleon and shutting off the fountains.

Not sure if like Fireworks' Night or they need to get over it...
We trudged off through the ornate Metro stations (apparently it's a criminal offence to take photos) and after some negotiating with the locals, found the right marshrutka (minibus) for 'Petergof'. It was quite refreshing to get out of the city and see some ugly buildings for once and reminiscent of the countryside in Kazan. 

That is, until we found ourselves on a dirt track through the forest, with the whispered news that our hungover friend at the front of the marshrutka was being sick out the window. We were quite disconcerted when the marshrutka slowly pulled over, worried we would all be unceremoniously left in the forest as punishment. Luckily, my roommate had just bravely gone out to find our chundering friend's glasses, which had fallen off her face as she had lunged out the window. Unluckily, there was a resounding 'nyet' as she returned, and we drove off, leaving the glasses somewhere in the forest.

Rather than being a result of her heavy night before, we found out she had been drinking cold water from the dispenser marked 'Only hot water' - leaving her queasy and a bit frail for the rest of the day. We soon found a place to eat - the familiar-sounding 'Pizza Express'. On entering, there were three drunk and mistrustful Russians to our right, and one on our left, slumped on a table and later dragged out by the police. The pizza we ordered was exactly what we needed, but we beat a hasty retreat when we realised that the toy gun our neighbour was fiddling with was real.

Finally, we made it into Peterhof! The grounds at the front were free entry and there were many brides taking advantage of this to take pictures. 

The fountains were absolutely beautiful and we were all excited to see the extensive collection inside the 'Lower Park', which were what we'd really come to see.

We slowly made our way through the grounds, leisurely taking pictures until we reached the ticket offices which were definitely closed. Then a sign was put up, informing us that the offices had closed at 14.00 and would reopen at 17.30. It was 14.30. 

Having for some reason got up at 8.30 that morning with a swilling hangover, I was less than pleased at this information. However, we decided that since we'd come such a long way, we could kill 3 hours meandering around the immediate area. 

We attempted to find some pavilions that the guidebook reliably informed us were just up the road (they weren't). Instead, we found a pond and some local wildlife.

We did find a cathedral that was a copy of St Basil's in Moscow and after finding various ways to cover our heads, we went inside. 

Not St Basil's
The interior was typical of Russian orthodox churches - every inch of the walls and ceiling was daubed with paintings of icons, along with gilded frames and statues of more icons. It was interesting to note the old Russian alphabet used a lot more Greek letters before it evolved into modern Cyrillic. Women with covered heads crossed themselves and bowed while we shuffled through the candlelit silence in awe at the overwhelming decoration and trying to stop our headscarves from falling off. 

When we were done with the church, we discovered for a small donation of 50r (£1), we could ascend a rickety staircase for a panoramic view of Peterhof and a collection of icons. Aside from the overall instability of the staircase, they had helpfully made it look like scaffolding and blocked out most of the light.

Not scary at all
When we reached the top we were met with a charming whitewashed tower, that we assumed was the main dome. There were a lot of plants, a lot of light and a beautiful ceiling, in stark contrast to that stupid staircase.

We also discovered that the 'panoramic view of Peterhof' actually meant 'panoramic view of the immediate boring area, which was the whole reason we came up here but we're so bored we'll take it anyway'. There were some lovely and mysterious rooms that felt like peering into someone's attic and finding a startling collection of Jesus paraphernalia.

I did manage to get a picture of the cathedral overlooking the 'Hotel Complex', a seeming retreat for the Peter-emulating oligarchy, where we presumed you get your own hotel. Of course. 

Lots of Hummers outside there. Lots of bling.
Once we'd squeezed all the fun out of the cathedral, we gave up and went back to wait by Peterhof, in the cafĂ©. We were all looking forward to giving our feet a rest and getting a hot chocolate 'without milk' for 80r (£2), which seemed fair considering we would eschew the milky kind for the thick, melted chocolate anyway. 

What we actually got was the disappointingly small instant kind, made with hot water. Like the kind we drink back at our hostel, but smaller. Peterhof strikes again.

We attempted to kill more time by using their free wi-fi, going for a wander to the toilet (20r. Gah!) and exploring the mini-market (absolutely nothing to see there, it was a shop). 

The Russians are coming!
There was a brief glimmer of excitement from the parade of policemen that marched by. We took lots of pictures and tried not to get arrested. Though to be fair, that would definitely have killed some time.

Eventually, we followed the cunning Russians who started queuing an hour before the desks were due to open (Soviet-era smarts, anyone?) and queued from 16.45 to 17.30. In this time, our feet and ankles got sorer, we noticed a few Russians with handfuls of large, autumn sycamore leaves and it started to rain. 

By this point, we were all laughing (a lot) at the failure that was this day and imagining what else could go wrong. Our guess that only one ticket desk would open and it wouldn't be our one was totally wrong. We didn't imagine that once the desks did open, rather than the 200r we were expecting, the price would be 500r 'for all categories of citizen'. Ie, no student discounts. 

We discussed it and decided that it was worth a tenner to go inside even though we'd be too tired to stay for the show at 21.30 (and have no way of getting back). We got our tickets gruffly and with brevity so they wouldn't spot our foreignness and double the prices - yes, they actually do that.

Then, the excitement picked up - large speakers were blasting the 1812 ouverture, men in long overcoats lined the steps and through the bustling crowds we could make out gold statues, fine architecture and carefully sculpted grounds. One question remained: why were the fountains not working?
It quickly became apparent that the one thing we had really come there to see, that would have made the entire day worthwhile had been wrenched away from us. It hadn't occurred to us that a festival to celebrate the fountains being turned off would occur after the fountains had already been turned off. 

Nevertheless, we were in, finally and we set about trying to make the most of it. We were followed down the path by the Lord of the Rings-esque battle music, with really intimidating drums, and then dubstep, because this is Russia.

The gardens really were pretty, but it was difficult not to be somewhat bitter:
'Water Avenue', with significantly less water
Probably quite nice when it's less slimy
Little house with no moat
Ugliest fountain...ever
Until we found this one round the corner
We also met two girls called Nastya and Masha on the Gulf of Finland who told us our Russian was bad and took our emails. Hopefully the start of a beautiful friendship. We did have a great time getting out of the city though and even without water, the grounds are seriously impressive. Highlights being:
The gardens
This ridiculous thing
The Gulf of Finland - Finland is the dark blue line. You can't see it but I saw it and it was great.
Red squirrel/Bigfoot
This fricking mushroom
Leaf-fight therapy
The fountains came back on!
We all got given free flags and were surrounded by Russians loudly lecturing their children about the Russian victory - I still think get over it.
Mine broke after about 5 minutes. Thanked my stars Russia's a democracy now.
There was a respite from the onslaught of disappointments on the way home, apart from managing to get the exact same marshrutka with the exact same driver (bit embarrassing for some). 

Then we ran all the way home and I slept for about twelve hours. 

Edit: We have since found out we managed to pick the one day the fountains weren't on before they get properly turned off in October. There are no words.

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