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St Petersberg, or do I mean Varna?

It's the vodka, you know.

St Petersberg is a big city. I dont mean it covers a lot of ground, although it certainly does that. I mean it is big in concept, big in execution, and big in significance. This place has to be seen to be believed. In the top ten cities of the world that you should visit, this has to be one of them.

St Petersberg

I have been to Russia before. I have coped with the cold, and that horizon of greyish white that just goes on forever. I have huddled in railway stations and wished I was dead. I have been seriously lost. I have stayed in draughty apartments and got drunk on vodka. The odd thing about drinking vodka in the Russian winter is that it keeps you from freezing over but doesnít necessarily make you drunk. Itís an amazing antifreeze.

A few years ago I spent some weeks in Bulgaria in February. Actually, thereís a funny story about this trip, which means I wonít get to talking about St Petersberg this week. The point is that I started by doing some serious research on different vodkas. To me, the commercial vodkas available in Britain are undrinkable. They have no taste, and vodkas should have taste.

I tried several during my stay in Bulgaria, and ended up deciding that I couldnít decide which I liked best. Thatís one of the joys of experimentation, and of vodka. I mention this because that particular february was one of the coldest on record in Bulgaria, and we had snow up to our waists. I remember one particular evening when we decided to go for a meal in a restaurant fully two hundred yards from our hotel. We were heavily bundled up against the cold, and the thermometer was so far down the scale that about halfway up the street we stopped and seriously considered going back to our hotel as the pain of the cold was so intense.

We eventually did get to the restaurant, and I was so intrigued by the waitresses legs. Yes, I know, sexist Clare. But that isnít what I mean. The girls were wearing very short socks and very short skirts. But that only emphasised those long white legs. The point was, I kept staring at them and thinking how cold they looked. I kept involuntarily shivering.

I had the same experience back in Helsinki. I ended up simply calling it some kind of illness called ĎWhite Legsí. There were all these girls walking about in short summery dresses, but the summer wasnít long enough or strong enough to turn the legs the colour Iím used to (I do, after all, live in the hot south).

Iím losing the plot here. The point of this digression was supposed to be about vodka, which itself was a digression. When I was in Bulgaria I drank roughly two bottles of vodka a day, which was the only way I could think of keeping warm when the temperature was -15C. For the record I remained as sober as a judge.

Now to the other digression.

While I was in Varna (that's a port on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria) I checked into a hotel. It brought back strange memories of my first visit to the town. This was when I was bumming around Eastern Europe and got involved in all sorts of weird escapades (Iíll write a book about it one day). I recognised the entrance lobby, which was vast, with a check-in desk right at the back, some distance away. It was now empty. Previously this part of the hotel had been stacked with prostitutes seeking to work for foreign currency.

I was given a room on the third floor. These old fashioned hotels used to have huge corridors as well. This one was about four metres wide. Back in the bad old days a bulky fierce looking woman used to occupy a seat at the end of this corridor. Iím still not certain what she was there for because at the time one didnít mention such things.

I put the key in the lock and entered my room. It was amazingly modern. It had a bathroom. Not only that, but it also had a balcony roughly the size of a large window box.

I checked out the bathroom, and noted the leaking pipes, and the trickle of water that trailed across the floor, under the door and across the bedroom. It then froze and built up by the french windows that opened onto the balcony.

It was at this point that I did something incredibly silly. I opened the french windows, crashing the bottom ledge against the layer of ice that had built up where the leak had reached freezing point and turned into a glacier. I kicked the ice over the edge of the balcony and looked out across the town. The door promptly swung to, and I was locked out.

I am now on a small terrace, just about the size of a coffin. I am seriously cold. The wind is blowing, and the temperature is well below zero. I am not even wearing gloves as Iíd tossed them on the bed. I considered my position. The prognosis was that a couple of hours out in this weather would probably leave me frozen to the floor. A night stuck out here would undoubtedly kill me.

I took the only sensible course of action. I climbed over the railing, grabbed a drainpipe, which was so cold my fingers almost immediately started sticking to the ice. I ended up having to undo my coat and push that between my fingers and the pipe, and I gently slid down a floor, banged into some junction pipes, and then slid to the next floor and more junction pipes, and finally slid to the ground. I now had to climb over fences till I reached a small street, and then head back to the front of the hotel.

By the time I got back in through the front door I was part dead. But rescue was at hand. Obviously the staff were used to customers arriving in a semi-frozen state, and a bottle of vodka was produced. I was sat in a chair while someone held a bottle to my mouth and I drank a third of the contents before stopping for breath. I was then helped upstairs, and I collapsed into bed.

Okay, fast forward a few decades and here I am in this hotel room. There is a snake-like thing on the floor. I peer at it. Yes, I thought so. Itís water. I follow the trail back to the bathroom. Hold on. I turn and walk to the window. There is the tiny balcony and I am on the third floor. Iím in the same bedroom, and they still havenít mended the ruddy leak!

Naturally I do not on any account open the french windows.

Okay, next week I really will talk about St Petersberg.

Öto be continued


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