So, onwards to the town of Vyborg. After our adventures it was quite late before we fetched up at our ‘restaurant’. With a bit of transliteration it comes out in Russian as PECTOPAH, pretty easy to recognise. Good old St. Cyril, his alphabet (particularly when almost hand written on road signs) is pretty tricky, it became even trickier in the dead of night.
The menu, at first glance, seemed impressive. In our subsequent meetings with stray westerners, (mostly stringers for western media), they pointed out that the menu was the same whether one was eating in Vyborg or Vladivostok, or any point in between.
The correlation of what was writ and what was in fact available, was very slight, if it existed at all.
In the event, food was provided and then we set off for Leningrad, as it then was. The journey was only 140 kilometres, a mere crossing the road by Russian standards, but the driving conditions were treacherous…AND….was Esmeralda sulking the teensiest bit?
In 1949, ‘The Third Man’ movie was produced. It was set in post war Vienna, an exhausted, cynical and wholly joyless city. This was compounded by the stunning cinematography and the musical score. Anton Karas’s ‘Harry Lime’ theme was a perfect fit. It all came flooding back. Did it ever.
I could hear the zither playing as we descended the hill into Leningrad. Darkened streets, everything either black or in shadow, or somewhere on the grey scale. Lifeless, eerie and almost menacing. We were the only thing that moved. Freezing. Dead.
Things brightened up at the hotel. A good welcome and a good room. The whole building was a relic of an imperial and extravagant past. Like the city itself it exuded a faded grandeur, rather like an ageing dowager who had seen much better days.
As we checked in, our receptionist turned away from us and opened two huge cupboard doors in order to find something. Over his shoulder one could see an enormous stack of banded US dollars, these were juxtaposed with cases of top class Bordeaux reds and more bottles of single malt than you could shake a stick at.
Finally, the piles of western cigarettes would not disgrace a large tobacconists.
Somebody was doing alright.
The history of the city, from its decimated construction peasant workforce in 1703 to the unimaginable siege from 1941 to 1944 ( both involving the death of at least a million people ) is awesome. Not forgetting 1917 of course.
Architecturally, a baroque Italianate style abounds, the river Neva winding its way through this faded grandeur. For my part Leningrad meant, most of all, the Hermitage museum and its art collection. At college I came across an article about the Russian collector Schukin, whose collection ranged from Monet to Picasso. How was his judgement? Not bad it would seem. I wondered.
What happened next could have happened yesterday, the memory burns so bright.
The jewels in Schukin’s crown were as magnificent as they were unexpected. Two huge galleries of the great painter and colourist Henri Matisse reduced me to a quivering mass as I contemplated the scale of his achievement. God help us. These were all great works, no bad days, glory upon glory. Deepest joy.
But Leningrad had two more tricks up her sleeve, one even more unexpected than the last…