As one who seeks out the freaky and far out in my travels, serendipity seems to be the best GPS for the fiendishly, often funnily, strange. Mostly this is in the form of art, mainly sculpture and statue and the occasional painting. (Or some decidedly unfunny human cremations in India and Nepal — I’ll spare you.)
Sure, it’s superficial this fascination. (So weird! So hilarious!) What does it mean? Not much. It’s aesthetics of the outré, stimuli out of left field, tailored, perhaps, to the oddballs among us. It’s striking, warped and wonderful. The more ghastly the better. The more shocking the cooler. (Note: I have yet to stumble upon art or artifact that’s sincerely blasted my senses. It’s out there, and I will find it.)
Here, meanwhile, are irresistible curiosities I’ve come across around the world:
In St. Petersburg, Russia, catching an Uber the hell out of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was nigh impossible and immaculately exasperating — client and drivers just could not connect and a flurry of cancelled rides ensued — so I found myself trekking down bustling Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare in this wonderfully massive city, pocked with shops and banks and restaurants, groceries and souvenir kiosks. I strolled contentedly (ignore the steam poofing from my ears) till I could stroll no more, and located a spot at a landmark from which to finally hail an Uber ride. (Did I mention the average Uber fare ran me about $1.50 US? A dollar-fifty. Yes, at this point I’m grinning.)
What I was doing at the famed, winsome Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the tippity-top of Nevsky Prospect, was looking at graves, mostly those in the famous Tikhvin Cemetery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other brand-name bodies lie.
For about $7 US, one is invited to amble the leafy paths of the 19th-century burial grounds and, with map in hand, á la those furnished at the unsurpassed cemeteries of Paris, seek out the eternal mattresses of the famous and infamous. The weather was cool, distinctly autumnal, the leaves turned and fallen. It was bliss.
Dostoyevsky lurched at me:
As did this distressed woman, who perhaps witnessed my Uber travails:
For this visitor, St. Petersburg was glorious that way, in its vibrant, tumultuous history, which is epic and bracingly complex, riddled with shake-ups, triumphs, reversals, oustings, wars, creeps (that’s you, Rasputin), revolutionaries (that’s you, Lenin), and cataracts of blood. Where else would there be this, the knockout, perversely titled Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the spot where Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb:
Endless canals stream through St. Petersburg, requiring scores and scores of small bridges, reminiscent of Amsterdam and its canals, or Paris and the regal Seine.
And, as I boasted in an earlier entry, I located unfettered beauty at the ballet in the legendary Mariinsky Theatre. I watched, and reveled in, Stravinsky’s landmark fairytale “The Firebird,” perched in a fine dress circle seat. It was lush and extravagant. My view:
Bonus shots: The Winter Palace, once the official home of the czars in the 1700s, in the sprawling Palace Square. This is the main building of the boggling Hermitage Museum.
Below, a Hermitage guide describes Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite “Madonna and Child” from 1478:
And that’s all from Russia. I’ll spare you the food porn.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, no one in a bar bumptiously offered me a shot of vodka as I had been cautioned they would. (Sad face emoji.) The only offers came from poised waiters in nice restaurants — not from chummy, drunky, rambunctious imbibers who wanted me to be their new American comrade in guzzling. This, surely, is a good thing.
I took it slow and easy, tossing back my first shots of the typically clear, but sometimes amber, libation in the controlled environment of the illuminating Russia Vodka Museum, an expansive and engrossing shrine to Russia’s national beverage.
In a brisk and fact-packed 30 minutes I was shown the place by the delightful, fluently-English Veronica as my personal guide. I learned scads about the history of Russian vodka, from pre-Ivan the Terrible days in the 12th century to Putin’s relationship with the gullet-stinging spirit. The museum is top-shelf, full of text (in Russian, alas), colorful bottles, distillery artifacts, Stalin-era propaganda and unintentionally comical human wax figures. It’s thorough and classy.
If you opt for it — and you must — the tour concludes with a vodka tasting of three regional samples, and includes “chasers” of pickle, herring and onions and something else that escaped me but was fishy and delicious. The tour and tasting cost barely more than $10 US, a steal.
Before my only official shot of vodka in a bar-restaurant setting, I became a regular at the enchanting Dead Poets, a relaxed, stylish gastrobar where the bartenders are hipster mixologists with expert instincts and eye-crossing dexterity. They fashion quite the concoctions — like my favorite, the whiskey sour, which they do with care and panache — that are elaborate and fanciful but just the right amount of modest and unembarrassing. Nothing was too fru-fru, too tawdry, despite the simpatico bartenders’ twee haircuts and rococo facial hair.
No, my sole shot of ice-cold vodka (curiously, the shots at the museum were room temperature) occurred at the acclaimed Duo Gastrobar, a tiny, mid-range restaurant, serving delectable meals, like amazing bone marrow with ginger sauce and crunchy apple pork rib.
Dessert menu? Pass. Let’s move on to liquid pleasures. For about $4 Duo offered one kind of vodka, the classic Beluga Noble, in a shot. Vodka in Russia, they say, must be served chilled, otherwise send it back. This was a frosty, good-sized shot, with lemon slices to bite after quaffing it down. Vodka, of course, is the smoothest liquor to shoot, as it tastes of hardly more than alcohol fumes. It has character if scant flavor.
As he delivered it, my server volunteered his confusion as to why vodka is his country’s national drink when tequila and whiskey, for instance, contain so much more texture and nuance. True, I nodded, and we laughed. But it was bracing and fine and if I wasn’t heading over to another bar, the youthful, disco-lighted Mishka, where drinks are two-for-one during a very long happy hour, I’d have ordered another. When in Russia …
As promised I made it to the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week. Also known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography — the oldest museum in Russian, opened in 1727 — it’s also known to connoisseurs of the grisly and gross as the Great Hall of Deformed Human Fetuses in Jars (not really). It’s a delight.
And yet there aren’t as many specimens as I was hoping for, nor was there much in the way of the truly macabre. A few tweaked human skeletons — that fella’s really gigantic — a two-headed stuffed fox and some rusty surgical tools complemented the array of squishy, floating babies. Those twisted wee ones delivered the goods, a frisson of the freakish that some of us crave.
I was expecting more in the way of anatomical and medical exhibits, but the museum is largely dopey ethnographical artifacts — Native American beads and pottery, African huts, Eskimo furs, in tiny dioramas — you can see at your local natural history museum, but newer and brighter. There’s just one small floor of jarred bambinos and gnarled bones. It’s up top. Follow the arrows, greedily.
It’s pretty good — three stars — but not quite enough to nourish its reputation as a world-class repository of the ghastly. I went for the morbid, not the ethnography, and found myself in and out in 30 minutes or less.
Philadelphia has Kunstkamera beat. Its famed if smaller Mütter Museum is a richer, more concentrated, more intense experience: jarred fetuses; innumerable human skulls both ghoulish and elegiac; various startling skeletons of the diseased, deformed and degraded; cankered floating body parts; chilling surgical devices; and the topper, Chang and Eng’s death cast and conjoined livers.
I don’t want to knock its Russian counterpart, but the Mütter, as specifically a physician’s institution, is more complete and well-rounded, satisfying the more ambitious demands of creep-seekers. Kunstkamera is very much worth a visit — do go — but know its limitations. While it offers a world of wonder, the Mütter offers galaxies.
Just before I embark on my vacations people reflexively ask if I’m excited and looking forward to it, assuring me I’ll have a wonderful time and wads of other tinkly bromides. Invariably I grimace and nod, “Yeah. I think so … Sure. OK, thanks.”
But I’m never sure, and it’s not OK. As I pack and prepare I’m a minor wreck, wracked, withdrawn — enthused, yes, but freighted with the cargo of myriad far-off what-ifs and other terrifying variables.
I have no qualms about flying; I like flight. My innate angst resides in about, well, pretty much everything else: Flight on time! Make my connection! Will it rain at my destination! Will my Airbnb be as cool as the photos! Will I be able to communicate with the locals! Will I get robbed! Will I contract a food-borne illness! Is that baby-jar museum as rocking as it looks!
I had a small stroke applying for my Russian visa recently. As I’ve noted earlier, it was a multi-tentacled task and very pricey. With the stroke, I developed a bleeding ulcer. For some reason this trip — much more than my jaunts to China, Vietnam, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria — has me more angsty than ever.
I write this today attempting to relax in United Airlines Terminal C at the airport, from which I’ll depart to St. Petersburg, Russia, with a brief stopover in Zurich, Switzerland. I have mere minutes to catch my connecting flight. The layover is impossibly miniscule.
It is not promising. I have four stomach-twisting inklings: 1) I will miss my connection. 2) I will be spending the night in Switzerland, on my dime. 3) My luggage will be in Russia. 4) I will lose a day in St. Petersburg. (Bonus inkling: I will sob.)
Besides that eventuality, I am also worried about the fact that you can’t drink the water in Russia — it will do a number on you. That’s barely a concern. Bottled water is a cinch and I’ve done the don’t-drink-the-water routine in several countries. But will the hair dryer work sufficiently? Will I fumble financial transactions, not knowing well the rubles/dollars exchange? Will my accommodations’ TV have satellite or simple local cable (I kinda need my CNN)?
These are obscenely, stupidly first-world worries, of course. I do swimmingly out of my comfort zone while traveling and I revel in the developing-country experience. I’ve proven it repeatedly. But I’m weirding out a little this time.
Relax, you’ll have a great time, they say. And I believe them, shakily. I’m conjuring my own anxieties via my own dark thoughts. These are fictions. I’m in the airport, through security, decompressing, with hours till my flight. I have a glass of wine. The journey has begun, and it’s not half bad.
If jarred fetuses bother you, if pickled body parts give you the heebie-jeebies, look away, click away. You have two seconds …
For my tiresomely upcoming trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I’ve found the East’s beautiful cousin to America’s incomparable cathedral of the grisly, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. It’s the Kunstkamera Museum, aka the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. I have to quote the web to get it right and concise (apologies):
“The Kunstkamera is the first museum in Russia. Established by Peter the Great and completed in 1727, it hosts a collection of almost 2,000,000 items. Peter’s museum was a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to preserving ‘natural and human curiosities and rarities.’ “
OK. We got it. (Wait. Two million items? Yes!)
Now let’s get to jarred babies. To unvarnished ghoulishness. To this:
I’ll get to more such stuff for you, via words and pictures, when I get there in a week or so. I imagine this is a mummy, or someone took a picture of me after last night’s bender.
Now some beauty before we all upchuck. The museum resides in a typically wedding-cakish palace-like edifice so common in St. Petersburg:
Right, but let’s not forget its contents:
Reviewing the museum online, a visitor notes that a highlight is the “fetus floor” (well, yeah); another notes the evocative scientific instruments (probably chilling in a “Dead Ringers” way); and yet one more declares: “After traveling over 50 countries, that’s the most bizzare thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s really gross.” (Jittery excitement.)
Why is this appealing? I can’t quite nail it, but I know it’s the same reason why wide-eyed, slack-jawed throngs packed freak shows of yore, why giggly gaggles of school children are whisked to the Mütter Museum, why macabre taxidermy and bone specimens are top sellers at the crowd-pleasing Evolution store in New York’s SoHo.
We are curious about mystery, the outré, the weird and wondrous. We are strangely enriched and even, with a flinch, comforted confronting the repellent and gasp-inducing. It’s not a game. Gallows humor may tinge the experience — hey, that looks like Uncle Mike! — but it’s surely not ha-ha funny. It’s about expanding the mind and the world of earthly experience. It is, with a peculiar poignance, about us.
My Russian visa finally arrived after an intensive, grueling process that cost half as much as my flight to St. Petersburg. It shouldn’t be so difficult, so discouraging — do they actually want visitors, you begin to wonder.
In Turkey you go to a counter first thing off the plane and buy a $20 visa sticker for your passport and you’re done. It takes 15 minutes. Syria was a bit more involved: I had to send about $100 with my passport to the nearest consulate, they stamped it and sent it back. (There was more to it than that, in my case. I had to get a whole new passport because mine had an Israel stamp, a no-no with Syria.)
But enough with the pesky visa. The minor ordeal is over, let’s hope, despite the irretrievable hideousness of my visa photo, in which I look like a low-grade Russian street gangster. I can’t get over it. The customs inspectors will probably block my entry and send me home.
On to the next level of travel planning — what book to bring for leisure reading in the airport, on the plane and wherever else down time must be occupied. This is serious. A few times I’ve taken the “wrong” book on trips only to realize at page 30 that I don’t like it and I’m then screwed until I find an English-language bookstore at my destination. (“Moby-Dick” and Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano” were two of those.) A book I bought in the Amsterdam airport was Ian McEwan’s brilliant “Enduring Love” — a blind score after I purposely left the book I’d brought on the plane.
Now, instead of risking disappointment on an untested title, I stick to classics and favorites. Rather recently I brought “Franny and Zooey” to Paris, “Catcher in the Rye” to Spain (yes, a little Salinger kick), “Stoner” to California and so on. For Russia I’ve picked a novel by a Russian titan which ranks in my top two or three favorite novels of all time: “Lolita” by Nabokov. One, there’s the Russia tie, even though he wrote the America-set book in English. Then there’s the fact that it’s a known quantity of peerless quality. I’ve read it twice, and now is the perfect moment to revisit. (As queasy as I can get about the subject matter, Nabokov’s extravagant prose, so transcendent religions could be founded on it, eclipses moral squirming.)
I also assign pre-reading — homework — for my journeys. Besides the sights and practicalities of guide books, I peek and poke through histories, ransack the web and watch as many documentaries on culture and history I can find. That means a lot about the Czars, Lenin and Stalin for this vacation. Today I picked up — more like lugged — David Remnick’s Pulitzer-winning doorstop “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.” It’s thick, it’s heavy and, so far, bloody and gripping.
And my planned visit to the free Nabokov House Museum, the author’s home from his birth in 1899 to 1917, necessitated grabbing Nabokov’s celebrated autobiography “Speak, Memory,” which I read many years ago. Much of the book is set in the house, a repository of writerly ephemera, artifacts, decor, desks and his beloved butterflies.
This Nabokov jag dovetails nicely with my St. Petersburg trip. I will read part, maybe all, of the autobiography, leaving me with “Lolita” to crack in the airport in a few weeks. Meantime, I have the Remnick opus, “Lenin’s Tomb,” to hold me over, all 12 pounds of it. Reading’s a huge part of travel, I think, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s informative, transformative, and it propels you just a little bit further on your voyage with words, wit and wisdom. It enriches, expands, excites. It’s like its own whopping journey.