The Hermitage and hockey

St. Petersburg, Russia

No trip to St. Petersburg is complete without a visit to the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest art museums. Empress Catherine II started the collection back in 1764 when she purchased a few pieces from a private collection. Since then, it has ballooned, and today comprises over 3 million pieces of art, covering the entire spectrum, from Ancient Egypt to the 20th century.

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It is also one of the most popular attractions in Russia so — given our experiences here so far — we were unsurprised to see a massive line that we grudgingly joined. We waited with the masses for close to an hour, slowly freezing our faces off. While Derek held our spot, we walked around to warm up and saw a Tour Office.

We stepped inside to get out of the cold and talked with a guide, who told us that we could join a 2 p.m. English-speaking tour. And if we bought tickets to it, we could also buy entrance tickets now that would allow us to skip the queue. The price? About $8. We signed up immediately, cursed Lonely Planet for not instructing us to do this sooner, found a frozen Derek and made our way inside.

One of the strangest practices in Russia is the mandatory coat check. Every museum and restaurant has one. Some are free, some are paid. All are absolutely required. What doesn’t make sense, however, is that these coat checks, especially at busy spots like the Hermitage, fill up very quickly. The mandatory nature of the check is not then dropped though — which creates massive lines, like this, while everyone waits for spots to open.

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We joined the lines for 15-minutes before realizing that although the coat checks were full, the lockers for checked bags were not. We threw all of our jackets in my bag which the babushka checked for us. Why they simply were not checking jackets in those same spots is beyond us.

Alas, we had done it! Jumped the queue, bought tickets and checked our jackets, it was now time to explore this massive complex, which comprises of five buildings, including the Winter Palace. We started at the Jordan Staircase, a fantastic introduction to the palace’s opulence.

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While making our way to the third floor, we peeked out the window and saw the massive line — this was probably half of it, with the other snaking far into the courtyard beyond.

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Upstairs, we found the impressionist and post-impressionist rooms, with colorful Monet’s and Renoir’s, strangely devoid of anyone else. Our good fortunes continued. No one except a babushka was there to bother us when checking out the many Picasso’s from his Blue Period.

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We checked out the 37 paintings by Matisse, including The Dance. Some of my favorite paintings were the super-realistic works by Francois Flameng, a French painter I’d never heard of before.

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Our terribly unfriendly tour guide would later bring us to the museum’s real classics, including those by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. To her credit, she did a great job of explaining the 1812 War Gallery, with its many military portraits, as well as the Imperial Apartments and Pavillion Hall.

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Exhausted from taking in the museum, we returned to the hotel and hopped on the Metro. Burt had found us tickets to a hockey game for the local team, SKA, and we thought that going would be part of a quintessential Russian experience. The $5 seats were decent and the crowd rambunctious, especially the gold-toothed man sitting to our left. We drank beers and ate corn on the cob.

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Thankfully, SKA won. Although we were confident that if they didn’t, the 100 riot police — in full gear, sporting various forms of guns and weapons — patrolling the stadium would have kept the crowd under control.

Except maybe the gold tooth man.

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