Put that in your pipe and smoke it…but only in designated sections…

Poor Mother. She’s finally arrived in Russia, a country where everyone smokes all the time and everywhere….except that’s no longer the case.

One short month ago, the smoking rules changed, and now Russia is much more in line with places like France. It hasn’t stopped people from smoking, it’s just pushed them outside like everywhere else. Okay not quite, there’s a smoking area inside the M-Hotel, but the rooms are smoke free.

She waited her whole life to arrive at her Mecca, and missed it by 30 days.

Today we woke up to torrential downpours. Change of plans, instead of making our way out to Pushkin, we would do the Hermitage today and save Pushkin for tomorrow.

It truly is the Louvre of Russia, with a collection of about 3 million pieces assembled over 250 years. It has so many treasures that apparently it would take 5 days to see them all. We restricted ourselves to just 2 areas — the Palace interiors and the additional guided exhibit, The Diamond Room. And still we were at the museum for 4 hours.

The Hermitage is probably the most famous building in St. Petersburg. The best way to approach the Hermitage is through the Triumphal Arch from Nevsky Prospect (the main road in the city), through the Place Square and into the Winter Palace, which is the main building of the Hermitage (there are 7 in all). The museum was founded by Catherine the Great with a large purchase of European artworks and has been further amassed ever since.

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An absolute awe-inspiring highlight of the Hermitage is ascending the Jordan Staircase, two wide flights of marble stairs bedazzled with gold, statues, chandeliers and columns…these Russian Tsars like their gilding, by god! Opulent only begins to describe it.

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Room after over the top room follows, filled with so many treasures and masterpieces that it finally becomes just overwhelming and you have to leave…or go to the café for a coke, which is what we did.

The Diamond Room pretty well makes up for missing the diamond fund at the Kremlin. Made up largely of Catherine the Great’s jewelry collection, personal ornamentations like snuff boxes and all manner of diplomatic gifts, it soon becomes apparent that she believed in the adage more is more! I’ve truly never seen so many diamond encrusted things…it’s a marvel that there are any precious stones left in the world.

I thought diamonds were quite rare, but apparently they are as common as sand on a beach. Like a magpie, girlfriend loved a sparkly object.

After a bracing cup of hot tea for Mother and a glass of beer for me in our hotel room, we ventured out for dinner. Tonight we ate at the little bistro on the corner. They didn’t speak English. We don’t speak Russian. Because of the preparation styles, the food isn’t always readily recognizable, but with some hand gestures and some sounds (apparently Russian chickens go cluck cluck too), we managed to get ourselves a fantastic dinner. Including a shot of vodka for me (when in Russia), we ate a very hearty and quite delicious dinner for less that $15 for the two of us. I kept checking my currency converter in astonishment.

When you eat like a local in a place where locals eat, you pay local prices, and encounter really nice and quite helpful people. When the two men at the adjacent table left, they bid us farewell with their best (and perhaps only) foreign language good bye…adios!

We agreed that dessert would be had at the brasserie that we passed last night. Mother secured a seat (it was incredibly busy, so we figured that bode well for the pastries), while I stood at the counter to order. A VERY old babushka came to stand next to me and started speaking in rapid Russian. Once again I used my very handy, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Russian… and her face turned a little. German? American? (This woman was old enough to remember what the Germans did to her city, so I’m glad I didn’t have to cop to that one). When I said no, Kanatskii… her face lit up and she started chatting away excitedly in Russian. So I think she was pleased…

We Canadians are so lucky. we truly have the world-wide passport of friendliness. I know we sometimes take umbrage at the international teasing we get about being so nice…but let me tell you, we should never take that for granted.

When she left, she gave me the biggest toothless grin.

And tomorrow, should we make it back from the Summer Palace without getting horribly lost and ending up in Finland, we shall return to the train station for our journey back to Moscow. This won’t be any old train ride…we’ve got sleeping bunks on the over night train….

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