I have a strategy for huge museums.
1. Get there early.
2. Start at the back of the top floor and work my forward and down.
3. Take the museum’s handout map and a colored marker so I can layer my own map of where I’ve been, what I saw, and notes on what to see again.
4 Tuck a half bottle of water and some kind of small but sustaining snack in my bag.
5. Bring my best manners.
Over breakfast I Googled up coffee shops near the Hermitage I could Uber to within in walking distance to the museum, and places to eat lunch. Breakfast was proofing the blog post, wolfing my porridge*, and making myself a croissant bacon and jam sandwich (don’t judge – my other options from the hotel buffet were smoked salmon and sliced tongue) which I thanked God for around 2pm when I realized I hadn’t eaten and could not bring myself to leave.
In honor of the occasion, I picked Uber Black, and for six bucks my ride was a silky smooth Mercedes. Hell to the yeah. High class.
I wore my Prague pink silk scarf. I saw this in a window as we smoothly navigate the streets
I was buzzing with adrenaline. We pulled up to palace square and I hopped out to the sounds of a marching band. A welcome for me? How thoughtful! A man in a Peter the Great costume was swashbuckling around.
I couldn’t believe I was in the frame of the picture I’d stared at so longingly for the past year. I asked a kind tourist to take my photo. It’s worth noting that If you want to connect with anyone you see of any nationality, age, or gender, approach them and ask, “can you take my photo, please?” The frowns, protestations they don’t speak English, defensive go away gestures instantly change when you proffer your iPhone with the photo screen open and the universal white button. Faces transform in mid-scowl, smiles and nods ensue. Not one exception so far. It is turning out to be the universal key that unlocks every door. And it beats selfies hands down.
Heart thumping, I scampered to the designated entrance. There was a small wooden door just inside, before the turnstile with a Friends of the Hermitage sign. I knocked and met Oksana, the same women who responded to my inquiry email all those months ago. It was a tiny office, crammed with papers and files and computers. Fifteen minutes later I had my official card and my own entrance (same door as security and employees). Slap the card on the turnstile, green lights and I’m in. That’s it.
Osaka leads me to the staircase most people see first. It’s so iconic even the swarms of posing tourists can’t obliterate the grandeur.
I remember to look up.
On my way to the third floor, I walked through a special exhibition; Two Enlightened Monarchs. I am captivated because here are the famous portraits of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and their coterie that I’ve seen online and in the pages of books. The nuances that are flattened out in photographs are visible here. The faces that look out at me from the gilded frames are the same ones that engineered the existence of the very ground I stand on at the cost of so many lives. There is something about the fragile humanity, the aging of their faces, versus the scale of their accomplishments. They are ghosts made visible. They will stay phantoms, because special exhibits prohibit photos. This is a universal museum rule that I (almost always) respect.
I hie myself to the top floor. A pack of small school boys in blue uniform jackets with silver buttons clatter past me on the stairs. It feels like Hogwarts is on a field trip. NOTE: This will happen again and again and I have come to love it. First, these children are the future. They are our only hope, Obi wan. No joke. Second, every uniform is different – I particularly liked one that featured magenta plaid. Third, they are short enough to easily see over.
In no time I am absorbed in the realms of old and middle eastern art, like this jolly pair of Iranian girls, sisters perhaps, who apparently forgot their shirts.
By 2pm I was running on fumes, so I sat on a hard bench in the bafflingly dismal café area. (surprisingly cheap décor, Kwik Trip calibre food (sandwiches in plastic boxes, M&Ms, stale pastry) and wolfed down my smuggled snack. I regained sufficient strength and clarity of mind to go look for some real fuel. A few short blocks away I found Double B coffee & tea, aka Dablbi (Millionnaya St., 18) ) and fantastic things happened.
Octane quality, maybe even better. A temple to caffeine for the true believer.
Returned to the Hermitage and got back on the horse. The coat check ladies waved and smiled at me. I guess they know a lifer when they see one. This time I visited the Egyptian exhibit, a single largish room, doing all the stops on the audio tour from the Hermitage app I downloaded to my iPhone. Fascinating!
I spent a good hour plus, so there goes my carefully crafted schedule. On my quest for a bathroom to get rid of the coffee, I walked through the Greek and Roman statuary rooms. Coming attractions!
I can’t wait to come back tomorrow and do a bit of sketching. Lots of drawing going on, with really young kids who were focused and serious.
The map has been a bit confusing, but the numbers are over most of the door so I am carefully marking my path. It makes all the difference to getting me oriented.
I left at 5:30, unsure of what to do next. Thanks to my pre-made Googlemap I had a restaurant to aim for, Fruktovaya Lavka (Bolshaya Konyushennaya, ul 15.) No regrets – this little gourmet market and café had a small but choice menu. I ordered the buckwheat pasta, mostly because it came with seafood, and honestly, I didn’t know buckwheat could be this delicious. I can come back and eat here another dozen times.
Back to my hotel via Uber Black. Traffic was a bitch, but it was still six bucks.
* Porridge. My hotel offers it, but it was a bland paste, without any seasoning. On the first day, I asked them to add cinnamon. On the second day, I asked them to add chopped apple. On the third I was bold enough to ask for raisins. I have this every morning and they are getting pretty good at it.