I’ve been travelling, hence the long silence. As many around me fall sick or grow too frail to haul luggage I decided to leave my comfort zone for a couple of weeks and scratch my itch for Russia while I still can. It was a very personalised trip. No-one else I know would have drawn up the same itinerary, so I travelled solo and then relied on local guides for the lowdown.
Penates is a fabulous, light-filled testament to the man who created it and lived and worked in it until he died in his eighties. Repin was a man with strong opinions and a sense of humour. He disliked the (then) Russian habit of keeping dozens of servants and installed a sign in the entrance hall announcing in clear terms that Penates was a help-yourself establishment. Hang up your own coat, says the sign. Don’t expect to be announced. Sound the gong and walk in.
The theme continued in the dining room, whose table was the biggest Party Susan I’d ever seen. The rule was simple: serve yourself. When you’ve finished, put your dirty dishes and cutlery in the drawer beneath the table top. There was a penalty for anyone breaking the rules: they were required to make an extempore and entertaining speech on something of topical interest. This was to be delivered from a kind of pulpit or tribune Repin had installed in the corner of the dining room, a sort of naughty step for grownups. If I still had a dining room this is an idea I’d steal, not because my guests ever sat around waiting to be served but to caution those who talked endlessly and exclusively about themselves.
You’re probably wondering, as I did, who cleared those dirty dishes from the drawers of the serve-yourself table and washed them. I think we know the answer. Nevertheless, 9 out of 10 to Maestro Repin for trying to live in a simple, unentitled way.
If you’re ever in St Petersburg and have a spare day, go to Penates. Pine trees, sea air and an extraordinary house.