For our journey overnight from St Petersburg to Moscow, I wanted to travel on the Red Arrow train (Krasnaya Strelya), largely because it’s the only train I’ve ever heard of that has its own theme tune. As the train leaves, just before midnight, the stirring Hymn to the Great City (the anthem of Saint Petersburg) plays over the station’s tannoy system. In Soviet times, the Red Arrow transported the Communist Party elite between Moscow and the town formerly known as Leningrad. “Lenin travelled on this train to Leningrad and it has its own theme tune!” I said to my spouse. “Can a train get any better?” In fact a train could, because on the night we needed to travel, the Red Arrow had no available tickets. I sulked, sighed, then booked what turned out to be an equally enchanting (and much cheaper) experience on the beautiful blue Smena train, leaving slightly earlier.
The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ is its official name. It’s also known as the Church of the Saviour. However, most of us know this most recognisable of St Petersburg’s landmarks as the Church on Spilled Blood. Because that is literally what it is.
Many rhapsodise about its other-worldly beauty, its glittering mosaics, its kaleidoscope of colours. Of course it is beautiful, and of course you must visit if you are in St Petersburg, but I found it sad, despite all the artistry.
Whatever else you may want to say about Catherine the Great, Empress of all Russia, she was an anorak when it came to art. She started her collection by buying a couple of hundred paintings in 1764. Nothing too fancy, just a few Rembrandts, a couple of Holbeins and Raphaels, and a nice Titian. A bit later, she acquired several hundred more paintings, as well as some prints and drawings. Gradually, Catherine branched out into other arts, commissioning extensions to her imperial home in the Winter Palace to display her belongings; the buildings are today collectively called The Hermitage. Catherine eventually acquired thousands of paintings, thousands of drawings, thousands of books, thousands of engraved gems (her passion), alongside coins, medals, sculptures, silver, clocks, furniture, porcelain and archaeological artefacts. Later Romanovs added to the collection, which also grew after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when private art collections were claimed for the people. The result is one of the largest museums in the world. We’d read about The Hermitage, knew something of what it contained, but nothing prepared us for what we found when we walked across that courtyard and through the doors of the Winter Palace. All that glass and gold. Marble floors. Crystal chandeliers. And so much art.
What time is it? Not late for my meeting. Yet.
Where am I? The jewel of the Baltic.
Where am I actually supposed to be? Not by this flower shop, that’s for certain.
Who could not love Saint Petersburg?
I knew I was going to like it the moment we arrived at Pulkovo International Airport (ПУЛКОВО) and the driver met us as promised. “Dosvedanya,” I said confidently. (I later realised it meant “Goodbye”.) I raised my eyebrows and waved my arm in the internationally acknowledged mime for “Is the car very far away?” I envisaged the endless car parks of Heathrow. The already baffled driver looked even more baffled, opened the airport door and said, “Прямо здесь.” And there the car was. Right outside the door.
There are certainly disadvantages to going to Niagara in January. The main one is freezing to death. It was so cold when we turned up, the falls were partially frozen. (It’s the fault of my job. I travel. But always in the off-season.)
Another outstanding example of customer-service memory was at The Oberoi in New Delhi. I was there to meet one set of people, and in the evening serendipitously ran into a friend from home — she was treating herself to a little luxury before embarking upon a walking tour of Nepal — along with her friends. I joined their party and ordered a gin and tonic (you have to: the quinine in the tonic has strong anti-mosquito properties; at least, that is what I always tell myself).
The waiter demanded precision in the ordering. Ice? No Ice? What type of gin? What type of tonic? Were olives required in any number? A slice of lemon? Lime?
November 2012. The Oberoi Gurgaon.
I was staying at this hotel for a catch-up revive weekend between business weeks in India. The hotel staff are at their busiest during Mondays to Fridays, although they normally have weddings and social stuff going on at weekends. Not the weekend of the November I stayed there, however. Starting on Monday was the most astrologically auspicious week of the whole year for weddings. Anyone who wanted to get married in India that year probably got married that week. Newspapers had headlines: “Wedding Week Approaches“. In Delhi alone, they were estimating 5,000 weddings a day.
One of the things that will live forever in my head, when it comes to Kuala Lumpur, is our farewell at the airport. The car drew up and a smart, white-jacketed young man was waiting to meet us. He handled the luggage, ceremoniously paraded us to the check-in desk, and made sure we went to the right line.
Once our luggage was checked in, he began a small hymn to Malaysia and its glories. Had we found our stay comfortable?
“Very comfortable,” I said. Sensing that this was not enough, in the silence that followed, I added, “Extremely comfortable. In fact, that was one of the most comfortable stays I think I’ve ever had anywhere, don’t you agree, Peter?”
“I can’t think,” said Peter, “of when I have been more comfortable. The five items of laundry a day was a particularly nice touch.”
My husband, Peter, and I had found a special package at this hotel for our stay and, before we arrived, wondered why the laundering of 5 items per DAY was included. Humidity innocents, we soon learned. We were out on the street for 10 seconds before our clothes were soaked with sweat.
“I understand about the laundry, now,” I said.
“Yup,” said Peter, peeling off his jacket.
My name is not kind for people whose first language is not English. It has four consonants in a row. If your language prefers the pattern of consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel, a cluster of four consonants in a row is terrifying. Across the world, hotel receptionists have blanched. They want to make a good impression. They are eager to make a good impression. They look at my name and know they haven’t a hope. In hotels in India, they get round it by calling me Mrs Anna. (That’s one of the names in my passport, not actually Horatia.) Anna is a familiar name to Indian hotel receptionists. It is a man’s name, in India, but they silently forgive my obviously deluded parents (or construct for me a transgendered past that does not exist but is necessarily dramatic) and fall comfortably into its rhythm.
At the W in Seoul, however, no member of staff was going to be defeated by four consonants in a row. When I arrived, the young man who showed me to my room asked me if I would mind having my photograph taken. He produced a digital camera. I had no idea why he might want a photograph and, at my age, could instantly discount any theories that he had become besotted with my ethereal beauty. I assumed it was for some mysterious Korean security law. After all, in Russia, they take your passport away. Photograph ceremony complete, I admired the view.
At breakfast the next morning, I was greeted by name by every member of staff who bumped into me. “Good morning, Mrs Marigali.” “Good morning, Missy Marigili.” “Good morning, Mrs Maralilo.” I can only conclude that, at night, after all the hotel guests are asleep, the staff huddle round the print-outs of that day’s new arrivals and memorise the names to go with these faces. I thought they were splendid.