Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lost in the Hermitage

Back in Russia...

When the sun doesn't set until 4am, and rises at 6, one's sleep patterns inevitably become a bit skewed. I awoke, disoriented, after having slept a few hours on another shockingly firm Russian mattress. These Russian mattresses, I tell you, they are not cushions so much as artfully crafted sacks of plywood with rocks and sand placed in them at perfect positions to bruise your spleen and squeeze out your spinal fluid as you fitfully toss and turn. Luckily, I had no desire to sleep in, as I had the Hermitage on the horizon.

(A prohibited snapshot of the interior!)

The Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great* and is a huge complex of stately buildings, the four most prominent being the Winter Palace and its three cohorts apparently not worth their own names, the Old, New, and Small Hermitages. It is the largest museum on earth. Entering the complex after awkwardly stringing my bicycle to a solitary royal fence from where I was more than half-sure it would no longer be when I returned, I was struck by four things in particular:


2. The enormous scale of every aspect of the space. I felt like tiny Alice in an austere Tsarist Wonderland wandering the cavernous halls.

3. The opulence, and its political connotations and historic significance. The wealth and luxury were stunning- most of the doorknobs were golden talons holding giant rubies- but more so was the realization that this extreme concentration of wealth was the reason that the Russian people finally lost it in the October Revolution of 1917. I stood in one room where every surface seemed to be encrusted in gold, and reading an informative plaque I found out that it was the room that the oligarchy had sat in to eat their last meal before the palace was stormed moments later.

4. The absolute impossibility of navigating the labyrinth via the free "maps" one is given with entry. Inexplicably sponsored by Korean Air, I attempted time and again to get my bearings by looking at the large brochure with its high-quality printing and full color depictions, but it was all a cruel guise to lull me into a false sense of security. I became so utterly lost at one point toward the end of my visit that I seriously considering setting up camp and waiting for a guard to escort me back out.

Three of my favorite treasures from the museum were thus:

1. A small oil painting of what was apparently the first Russian hipster, complete with pompadour, tiny mustache, tight breeches, and various shiny and ostensibly useless accessories adorning his person,

2. An ancient Armenian artifact of what looked like small clay links, labelled in English as "snaffle bits,"

3. An enormous and unbelievable golden clock that consists of an entire forest scene, with a peacock in the middle.

The picture is good, but this video shows some of the unbelievable details. The really amazing thing is that the British gentleman who designed the clock sent it to the palace completely disassembled and with no instructions whatsoever, and it took the royal clockmaker nine years to figure it out. Well worth the effort, if you ask me, and so shiny.

After seeing these and approximately 10,000,000 other wonders of human creation, I was starving and very ready to find a curious Russian snack outside of the museum, but spent another hour trying to find an escape, becoming increasingly desperate until I finally nearly sprinted through about a mile of Egyptian antiquities to the main hall, which at that point I could only dimly recognize, the hour of my arrival being so long ago.

I celebrated the conquest of the Hermitage with a delicious and scandalously inexpensive cabbage and mushroom pie at the most adorable Russian pie shop in the history of the confection. I can't for the life of me recall its name**, but I can tell you that it was along a canal in Nevsky Prospekt, had two floors, and had a very friendly wooden cat as its mascot. Do yourself a favor and find it when you are there, and get the most pie for your 45 cents.


*I am fairly certain she chose that name herself.

**Even with the power of google, apparently "pie shop wooden cat delicious" is not enough to be able to suss it out of the interweb. I am ashamed as well because I should have memorized it by now, as I ate its wares at least three times, maybe more. Okay, okay, definitely more.

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