From Russia with love
Updated: Aug 19
I PAID A STEEP PRICE TO SEE ST PETERSBURG’S STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM, AND NEVER EVEN GOT IN THE DOOR...
A couple of years ago, a group of us decided to do a tour of Eastern Europe, with Russia being one of the destinations where we would linger longest. Of course, everyone was excited to see attractions such as the Red Square, the Kremlin, the Bolshoi Theatre and the plethora of imposing cathedrals scattered all over the former communist stronghold. But I had always had a mild art history fascination so, to me, the most appealing prospect of visiting Mother Russia was seeing the hugely impressive State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
The Winter Palace, the main building of the Hermitage, was the main home of Russian tsars in olden days, and the extravagant Baroque architecture and sheer excess of elegant and lavish rooms – rumoured to be around 1 500 in total – make it the perfect place for one of the world’s most magnificent art museums. It houses one of the most expansive collections anywhere, with works of masters such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Matisse and Titian, to name but a few. It is said that if you were to spend one minute at each exhibit, it would take you about 11 years to see the whole collection. I was content to spend just the afternoon admiring some of the greats.
Unfortunately, some of St Petersburg’s finest pickpockets had other plans.
The queue to get into the Hermitage is dreadfully long, so if you plan to visit soon, I would advise arriving early in the morning.
At first, we were happy to queue with fellow tourists, chat and admire the building from the outside – an impressive sight and arguably St Petersburg’s greatest landmark. After an hour and a half or so, though, you’d rather see its greatest landmark from the inside.
Finally, after a little more than two hours, we reached the front and everyone reached for their tickets, which we had purchased online days before. One of our party had organised the entire trip’s itinerary down to the last detail, including everyone’s plane tickets, train tickets and packing lists, and hunted for all the online bargains to shows and attractions in Eastern Europe (if you don’t have one of these types as a friend, get one). She also advised all of us to buy a money belt to hold all said plane and rail tickets, passport, credit cards, cash, and so on. I thought it a bit pedantic, but the boss had spoken and I obliged.
The idea is that you strap the money belt to your torso underneath your clothes, or at least under your top layers. I had done just that, but in the standing around and fidgeting in the queue, it had somehow shifted and had been hanging down my side – yet still underneath my jacket. So, when I reached down to produce my ticket to the impatient ticket collector, it was to my absolute horror that I discovered nothing but the money belt’s two straps hanging forlornly, and no pouch on the end of them.
Someone had reached below my jacket from behind, snipped off the belt and made off with the loot. And what a bounty it was. A wad of roubles, a credit card, two plane tickets, three train tickets, entrance tickets to countless shows and activities, including my entrance to the Hermitage – gone. Some criminal was about to have a splendid old time in Eastern Europe.
Fortunately, my passport was safe at our hotel along with a spare credit card, and the organiser friend kindly went through the trouble of hunting down and repurchasing everything that had been lost (seriously, get yourself one of these people for your next trip).
Alas, with all the admin that needed sorting out, I never got to see the museum. I'll be back, though, this time with a vigilant eye and my money belt securely fastened.