From Russia, With (Much More) Love.

So, we've had our first real day in Saint Petersburg. And it's been great. All the fears I mentioned in my last post seem to have been totally unjustified. We've had no run-ins with any criminals, the hotel is lovely - clean and spacious rooms with friendly, English-speaking staff - and the city itself is stunning, essentially a weary-looking Paris by way of Amsterdam. The photo above is taken from one of the major bridges that crosses the Neva, and gives some sense of the development and heritage that's everywhere in Russia's second city. Rampant and ostentatious Imperialism is undermined by poor maintenance, but isn't destroyed by it - the city really is beautiful.

We've had a great walk around the Fontana (the focal point for the imperial architecture), about 6 miles by our reckoning, and seen a few of the sights, photos of which will follow. Most noteworthy was our visit to the Kunstkammer, a museum established by Peter the Great to display his collection of ethnographic artefacts. Peter, as the few English language labels told me, payed well for everyday objects from indigenous people, so there's an impressive selection of weapons, tools and religious paraphernalia from most of the world's major civilisations. Interesting stuff, but I think our understanding was hampered by the Cyrillic labelling leading to us having to guess at what some of the weird and wonderful objects actually were.

This rather pedestrian (if interesting) collection was offset by the other major offer of the Kunstkammer - Peter's hall of 'Grotesqueries'. Apparently Peter was a reformer and he was keenly interested in the progression of science, particularly anatomy, to battle Russia's religious superstitions relating to humanity and deformity. He thought the best way to combat this, and contrary to the typical Russian response to reform (a bloody revolution), Peter employed two Dutch scientists and their assortment of pickled infant foetuses (seriously), to drive forward the study of anatomy and enlighten the citizens of Russia's new capital. Unfortunately, this room is one of the creepiest places I have ever been in my life. I appreciate the contribution these 'specimens' must have made to anatomy and science in general, but the sight of over one hundred infants and their various body parts staring blankly out of brandy filled jars is the stuff of nightmares and I can't help but feel that, although under the guise of intellectualism, this gruesome exhibition was developed as a guilt-free freak show that allowed Peter to indulge his fascination with the weird (it's worth mentioning that Petey also employed a giant he met in Paris to attend his court and, upon his death, the Tsar ordered his skeleton, heart and *ahem* penis to be preserved. The first two are still on show in the museum, the latter is in storage - out of a sense of decency presumably...).

Pickled baby foetuses aside, we've also visited some amazing churches and Imperial buildings, pics of which will follow. All in all it's been really interesting and, surprisingly, very hot; when it wasn't raining stair-rods, that is.

A city of contradictions then.