Drunken walks

'I want to walk about this city all the time now, all day'. Lucia, planning to emigrate, in Colin Thubron's Among the Russians

In his youth, at least, a man born in this city spends as much time on foot as any good Bedouin. And it's not because of the shortage or the price of cars (there is an excellent system of public transportation), or because of the half-mile long queues at the food stores. It's because to walk under this sky, along the brown granite embankments of this immense gray river, is itself an extension of life and a school of farsightedness. There is something in the granular texture of the granite pavement next to the constantly flowing, departing water that instils in one's soles an almost sensual desire for walking. Joseph Brodsky, A Guide to a Renamed City

Gulyat: walk; make merry; take time off; get drunk. Russko-Anglisky Slovar (Russian-English Dictionary)

Walking has a special importance in this city. Drive around St Petersburg, and you will see only what you expect to see: beautiful palaces, breathtaking views along canals and rivers, great collections of art, funny-looking people in heavy coats and fur hats. But walk - take to the streets on foot, surrender yourself to the intricacies and intimacies of this city's geography - and you will find yourself in a different world.

The pedestrian wanderings below can be walked comfortably inside two hours, but may take two days or, in the event of protracted pokhmelye, a couple of weeks. If you are a tourist or visiting businessman, please check the date on your air tickets before leaving your hotel.

Walk One

Start this walk with an initiatory bottle of Dzhigulovskoye bought from a kiosk or pile of crates outside Metro Chernishevskaya. Drink purposefully, but without hurrying. Turn left into Ulitsa Saltikova-Schedrina, where, on the right, behind tall iron railings, you will find the former Lutheran Church housing Kinoteatr Spartak, the best arts cinema east of Berlin. Here St Petersburg kinophiles come to clue up on Fellini, Godard and Fassbinder. The programme changes twice daily, and in St Petersburg everyone is a kinophile - everyone, that is, who is not actually a film actor or director. Iosif Brodsky, incidentally, wrote a line calling Spartak a 'plush womb - nicer than evening in Europe'. When you go in, bear in mind that watching the film is not at all compulsory (more important is talking about it afterwards) and that it is considered bad form to buy a ticket (you are supposed to sneak or charm your way past the babushkas on the door). Inside, you will find a comfortable enough bar, where you can top up on coffee, champagne, konyak and the latest gossip.

Leaving Spartak, turn right onto Liteiny Prospekt. Liteiny, like all the main St Petersburg prospects, slices through the heart of the city without ever really quite touching it: a broad, noisy, ramrod-straight conductor of traffic and exhaust fumes, which is dull work to walk on for long. Fortunately, you won't have to. At the corner of Liteiny and Ulitsa Pestelya, glance up briefly at the 6-storey Moorish building on your left. Here Joseph Brodsky lived with his parents in one and a half rooms of a communal flat on the second floor. Brodsky occupies an almost unique position in Petersburgian and Russian literature, in that he managed to become a great poet practically without the benefit of alcoholic assistance.

Passing the turning into Ulitsa Belinskovo - where, incidentally, you might be tempted to drop into 'DessertniHoll', the dessert cafe, for more coffee and cognac and a chat with the artists from the Mukhina School of Art - slow to a crawl and start looking for dvori on the righthand side of the street.

It is impossible to emphasize too strongly the importance of dvori in the life of this city. If the classical architectural ensembles of the street fronts are St Petersburg's elegant face, arch with a pedigree expensively imported from abroad, the dvori are its hidden soul, the point at which St Petersburg becomes approachable and intimate. Before entering this complex inner territory, stock up on portwine or vodka, to taste, from the street kiosks. And be sure to ring through to your airline (from the battered avtomat outside Dom Znaniya, the House of Knowledge) to rebook your flight for a week later than planned - since you have no idea when you will be back.

Dvori come in all shapes, moods and sizes. Just to the south of Dom Znaniya, at No. 46, is an imposing dvor with enclosed garden. This is a large, fairly pleasant space with no particular sense of oppression, intensity or claustrophobia - which is to say that it is a fairly good example of what a typical Petersburg dvor is not. The stairwell entrances here are all paradniye, i.e. front entrances, and their openness to view offers the pedestrian drinker no great prospect of hospitality. Cross over to the other side of the street. At No. 49, through the archway, is an unremarkable-looking courtyard which is actually the entrance to a whole maze of interconnecting dvori. Go through the archway opposite, in the right-hand corner, and you are already in another, more open, yard. Turn right again, through a passage, and you now find yourself suddenly hemmed in by a narrow, steep-sided dvor, whose archway, if you look, leads back out onto Ulitsa Belinskovo and the DessertniHoll. Dvori of this type - tall yards where the light filters down from a narrow mouth formed by steep banks of flats on all sides - are called kolodtsi, 'wells'. Dvori giving access to other dvori or other streets are known as prokhodniye, 'through yards'.

Now retrace your steps to the dvor of No. 49, and you will discover that this is, in fact, prokhodnoi in two directions: the stairwell entrance in the far lefthand corner doubles as a passageway leading through to the neighbouring dvor at No. 51. Before crossing over to 51, however, stop in the tiny kolodets which lies in-between. The stairwell entrance in this hidden yard makes a good place to organize some traditional Petersburg hospitality. Sit down on the stairs, or stand, make yourself comfortable, take out your vodka or portwine, your cigarettes if necessary, open your mouth, and ... when the words start tumbling out, when monologue chases monologue over the hurdle of your now decaying teeth, make no attempt to resist. This is all part of the stairwell tradition. Conversation in St Petersburg may be an art, but it is also a necessity: it is one of the only ways the Petersburger has of relieving himself(1).

Emerging from the stairwell some time later, press on through to the dvor of No. 51, where the grand facade of the Theatre-on-Liteiny stands unfazed by the grimy backs of buildings and rocket-like glass lifts that surround it. Skirt the theatre, passing to its right, and you are into a long passage-like dvor which edges past various auxiliary buildings before decanting, after a left turn, into the front courtyard of the imposing Sheremetovsky Palace. You are now on Fontanka. Liteiny Prospekt is far behind. Turn left, alongside the broad sweep of the steely river, and you are on Nevsky Prospekt. From here forwards your feet will find their own way.

Walk Two

A gentle stroll involving ten or so laps of the pivnoye or beer bar on UlitsaMolseyenko. This is one of the few remaining workers' beer bars left in St Petersburg, and you should make sure you see it before it gets turned into a flower shop, computer warehouse or Mercedes Benz dealership. At the moment there is a strong clientele drawn from local factories and the nearby tram workshops, so you may have to stand for 10 to 15 minutes in order to claim your first two or three litres of warm, sloppy, draught pivo (beer). This pleasant wait gives a good opportunity to take in your surroundings: you are in a dimly-lit, starkly-furnished cave of a room; there are puddles everywhere - muddy puddles on the floor, beery puddles on the serving-counter, more puddles on the chest-high tables where huddles of fully scarfed and hatted men stand drinking and muttering, muttering and drinking; two or three tough-looking cats have stretched themselves out by the radiator; there is a strong stink of fish. Do not be surprised if the woman serving gives you your beer in a glass jam jar - she's not being rude, it's just there aren't enough proper glasses to go round (there never were, in fact). And, when you come away from the counter, don't spend too long looking for a place to sit: there aren't any of those either. There are only the chest-high tables.Anyway, the Petersburg beer-drinker would not dream of sitting down to drink - that would interrupt his flow; most of the time, he does not even remove his hat and scarf.

A word about fish. Fish and beer in Russia are inseparable. The various kinds of fish laid out in puddles on the counter - salted pike, smoked salmon, fried bream - may be unpleasant to look at, but are actually tasty enough. When you have finished eating, wash your hands with a little beer to remove the smell (only beer will get rid of that tell-tale aroma).

Walk Three

(Only to be attempted in a state of extreme pokhmelye)

Walk 3 begins at ten in the morning and comprises a short stretch of Ulitsa Professora Popova on Petrogradskaya Storona and one and a half circuits of Mikhailovsky Sad (Garden), on the other side of the Neva. How the reader gets between these two points is up to him - there is, after all, a limit to how much a writer can do to coddle his reader. However, I should say that getting from A to B - or even Z - in this city is never a problem provided that you are sufficiently drunk. Which brings us back to Ulitsa Professora Popova.

Ulitsa Popova is famous for two reasons. At ten in the morning, the first reason is hardly important. The second is this: at the eastern end of the street stand two blue kiosks with, in front of them, two permanent queues. The two kiosks sell draught beer, and have endeared themselves to the two permanent queues by being open at times of the day and night when other such beer-selling kiosks are not.

Now, you are here, in case you are wondering, because in your condition you cannot afford to make mistakes - you have to be sure of bulls-eyeing your pohkmelye first time. As you join one of the two queues, note that your fellow-queuers have come prepared for the occasion. Each carries with him a container, or containers, of some sort (bottles of various sizes, jars which at some time in the past held half a litre of jam or three litres of fruit juice or pickled cucumbers), which he will put under the beer tap when his turn comes. The rushed or the desperate -categories from which, by the way, no one in your condition is quite exempt - carry polythene plastic bags, having been unable to put their hands on anything more solid. The polythene bags leak, of course; but in such circumstances this is hardly important. In one and a half minutes - the time it takes for a pokhmelyaic Petersburger to dispose of one litre of sweet, honey-coloured, slightly frothy, soothing beer - even the most incontinent of polythene bags will not leak very far. When your turn comes, silently shove your bottle or glass jar or polythene bag across the counter of the kiosk; stand threateningly as the attendant, half drunk himself, dithers with the pump; silently slide across the required sum of rubles; and, without saying another word, turn back towards the huddle of pokhmelyaic Petersburg males gathered in busy silence ten yards away, drinking as you go. Keep on drinking until your head suddenly clears - like Everest shaking itself free of the Himalayan cloud - and you experience a profound, blessed, sensation of relief. You are now in a fit state to start the day.

Mikhailovsky Sad: that you have found your way here says a lot for your strength of character. Or rather, for the strength of what you have been drinking. To celebrate, have another one. Then sit down - whilst you still have the choice.

Mikhailovsky Sad (Garden) is an important station on the alcoholic map of St. Petersburg. Close to the junctions of Moika and Kanal Griboyedeva and Moika and Fontanka - which meet here like three members of fashionable young society homing in on a tussovka(2) or three strangers coming to an agreement to share a bottle of vodka, - this is, in fact, a difficult place to avoid: open a bottle of portwine anywhere within the bounds of the city and start walking and the odds are that, sooner or later, and usually sooner rather than later, you will end up here. Once you have arrived, though, it may at first be difficult to understand what for. The Garden, considered as a garden, is a disappointment: its lawns are threadbare and uninviting; its borders contain few flowers or enlivening shrubbery; and its grounds are not even very large. Furthermore, the place is permanently, even on a sunny summer's day, in the grip of a strange, dampening gloom. This gloom, though, - this wonderful, Petersburgian, pohmelyaic, gloom - is precisely the main attraction.

It is hard to convey this experience to those who do not know it. Put simply, the gloom is a comfort: gentle, forgiving, understanding, like the best pokhmelye. You sit. You drink. You talk. The sodden air mops up excess words. The tight claustrophobia of St. Petersburg's architecture rolls back a few paces. And suddenly you are free.

From here on I leave you to find your own way. No guides are necessary.

(1) Perhaps the finest example of a St Petersburg conversation - or rather, monologue - is Kharms' short story 'The Old Woman', printed in the appendix to this book. The raconteur in 'The Old Woman' is self-absorbed, neurotic, loquacious, whimsical, theatrical, intelligent, philosphical, confused, funny, sad, indecisive - and, like every St Petersburg conversation, his 'rasskaz' or story ends in a a bog of its own making. Return

(2) Tussovka: 1) a fashionable gathering; 2) any social gathering in which there are more people than purpose. Return