If nothing else, you do get to know interesting people on Viking River Cruises. This 15-day cruise through Russia was no exception. And on one of our last days in St Petersburg, a fellow traveler and her son asked me to go on an afternoon outing, away from the ship, so we could experience places not on our itinerary. I said, yes, always up for adventure.
None of us had any preconceptions or expectations. We were the truest of neophyte travelers, all with a green curiosity, in the hands of our driver named Timor who spoke very little English at all. None of us could speak much Russian – all I could say was spasibo, meaning thank you. But that was it, so on we went.
Though Timor spoke little English, he was tech savvy, as he used his IPhone to do translations. We said where we wanted to go, and the translation dimension of his phone would translate. We also had a map, and we did a lot of pointing. It was enough – he took us to Church of Our Savior On Spilled Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress (where Peter The Great is buried) and into the massive and somber Kazan Cathedral, where I somehow walked into the supplicants line, those who waited to pray to arguably the holiest of Russian icons, Our Lady Of Kazan.
Being a devout C&E (Christmas and Easter) Christian, but not being Russian Orthodox, and having no idea who Our Lady Of Kazan was, I followed the crowd, and noted each put his or her forehead on the glass that separated human from icon. Every few minutes one of the cathedral workers had something like glass cleaner, and cleaned the glass before the next forehead touched the glass and prayed. After praying for a few seconds, each person genuflected many times, and backed away, allowing the next person to pray to the icon. I did exactly that, and asked Our Lady of Kazan for a safe journey back home, as it was all I could think of praying about at the time.
Before praying, I looked at the Our Lady Of Kazan icon, an image of a young woman, with an elderly-looking Christ child. Her wistful face, combined sobriety and sorrow. I discovered later that this icon is well known throughout the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic worlds, and its history goes back to the 14th century. Many cathedrals are dedicated to Our Lady Of Kazan, as this icon represents the essential spirit of the Virgin Mary, the Protectress of all. Praying to this icon is believed to have changed fortunes, won wars and allowed miracles to occur. No wonder the line of supplicants was so long!
After praying, I walked through the massive cathedral and out to the street where Timor waited. We were getting a bit tired, combined with being again overwhelmed at this city’s great cathedrals and monuments with their ancient icons, mosaics, wall paintings, and crucifixes. But punctuating this weariness was the time for dinner pangs we were all feeling. One of my fell travelers, Jeremy, thought it would be a good idea to ask Timor’s phone where we could eat dinner, as well as drink some vodka.
He spoke into Timor’s phone and then pushed the ‘translate’ button. Soon, Timor was driving us to the St. Petersburg Vodka Museum and Restaurant. He may have known the owner, or someone associated with the restaurant and museum, as we were treated very well. They spoke very little English though our waiter spoke it well enough. It was a simple restaurant, but with ample room, with white (as I recall) tables and chairs –nothing fancy and for a Thursday night, it was full of people. A good sign.
The waiter brought our dinner menu, then he brought the Vodka menu. The dinner menu was substantial – but the VODKA menu was massive – nearly 300 different Vodkas to choose from.
I tried to take a picture of the menu, but the menu was too large. I took images of portions of the menu and my colleague Jeremy took a picture ONE side of the menu — see above. They had various sampling shots; you could buy Vodka in larger quantities in the bar adjacent to the restaurant. In some cases, they also made their own vodka, which was not surprising because many Russians, no matter how well or ill they live, make their own. But the flavors! With dinner, which was for me Chicken Kiev, sautéed vegetables and salad, I tried two samples — Horseradish vodka, and Bitter Siberian Cherry vodka.
Full disclosure here – I am not a Vodka drinker at all, so these tastes were all the more unusual and compelling. The Horseradish vodka had that distinctive, bitter yet earthy, horseradish scent but it had a smooth taste, no burn at all, start or finish. The Bitter Cherry burned slightly, but had a distinct taste of wild fruit. Also, the finish was just exceptional. I was sold!
My fellow dinner partners also had exotic flavor samples: Baikal Green Apple, Baikal Thyme and Ginger, both probably made from the waters of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake in southern Siberia, and a Vodka called White Birch. I had a small taste of it, and indeed it tasted like the scent of aromatic tree bark.
When we went to the Vodka Museum bar , I ordered two bottles of Horseradish and Bitter Cherry home brewed Vodka to be brought home. I wrapped them in plastic bags, and prayed – maybe on some level to Our Lady of Kazan — that when I got back home to Utah, my luggage would not smelled like spilled vodka. And fast forward, it didn’t.
We returned to our Viking Truvor, pleased with our excursion, Timor, his IPhone, and our purchases. I noted that next to the Vodka bottles in my valise was a small book I bought about the Kazan Cathedral, Russian icons, the sense of deep spirituality and religion that defines the Russian character. Spirits and spirits, I thought, both in their way, symbolizing the multi-faceted essences of Russian culture, its history and identity. It was a great day indeed, to have been fortunate to experience these spirits, both liquid and religious.