St Petersberg, or do I mean
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.
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
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
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
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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