Sophie Loueyraud - 2008-04-28
St. Petersburg - or ‘Peter’, as the Russians fondly call it - enchants the eye and the soul.
Cultural capital of Russia throughout the 19C, the city began fulfilling its destiny as an ‘open gateway to Europe’, as defined by founding father Peter the Great, as early as 1703. Overshadowed by Moscow for the past seven-odd decades, Peter has recently regained its rightful place as one of Europe’s most dazzling cities and a leading tourist destination, thanks in part to major restoration efforts. When spring arrives, St. Petersburg sheds its snowy winter coat and reveals all of its colours and grandeur. It’s the perfect time to discover the magic of the ‘white nights’.
St. Petersburg’s location in the west of the country gives it a distinctive European flavour without detracting from its Slavic charm. This ambiguity, unique in the Russian landscape, gives Peter its unique appeal.
The city is simply, unabashedly delightful, especially since regaining its lustre under the patronage of one of its best-known sons: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, born here in 1952. A fine balance of classical beauty and nature, it is admired for its palaces, canals (which evoke Venice, and can be discovered by boat), ancient bridges and the majestic River Neva which, after having crossed through half of Russia, ends up here in the Gulf of Finland.
Sights to see in St. Petersburg
The fact that the city was dispossessed of its title as Revolutionary Capital as early as the 1920s preserved it from the worst of the Stalinist Reconstruction Era. The historic centre seems to have remained intact since the revolution of 1917; it’s as if time has stood still in St. Petersburg.
The best way to discover its beauty and singular atmosphere is to wander along the canals, ancient streets and byways, admiring the many highly colourful palaces along the way.
Amongst these, the Winter Palace is surely the most renowned. It is now part of the State Hermitage Museum, one of Europe’s largest. European masterpieces dating from the Middle Ages to the 19C are on view, with notably an important collection of paintings by French impressionists.
The side of the palace that gives onto the Neva is magnificent, but it is also worthwhile walking all the way around the building in order to admire the Palace Square and its Triumphant Arch.
The splendid interiors of the lesser-known Yusupov Palace - especially the Moorish Room and the small private theatre - certainly merit a visit.
The Mikhailovsky (St. Michael’s) Palace, home to the Russian Museum, features paintings which portray the history of the city.
The many parks and gardens of the historical centre provide a few quiet moments of serenity. Nearby the Russian Museum and the Field of Mars, the Summer Garden, with its swans and statue-lined alleys, is a haven of peace.
It is situated on the Fontanka River, which itself is lined with palaces built by the Russian aristocracy. You’ll recognize the Mikhailovsky Palace, residence of Emperor Paul I, by its pink facade.
You might also take a small detour to the Panteleimon Bridge across from the palace. Russians gather to toss their spare change - very skilfully, in fact - onto the small statue of Chijik- Pyjik bird below whilst making a wish. It is believed that if the coin lands near the bird, the wish will come true.
St. Petersburg in summer or winter?
The city’s atmosphere changes radically with the seasons. If you’ve always dreamt of Russian winters and their white-coated landscapes, don’t think twice about spending a magical New Year’s Eve here. The vision of multi-coloured palaces rising above the snow banks is a scene worthy of a fairy tale. After visiting the city in a horse-drawn troika, you may enjoy a freshly-cooked blini (Russian pancakes), and/or one of the myriad varieties of Russian vodka (in moderation, of course) for a quick jolt of warmth.
If the idea of such cold gives you the shivers, the more temperate period from the ‘White Nights’ of late spring to August-September is for you. This is peak season for Peter’s beautiful gardens and fountains, and the perfect time for a boat cruise into the Gulf of Finland or along the Neva.
St. Petersburg abounds with churches and cathedrals which happily escaped the dismal fate of their Muscovite sisters. Don’t miss the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (Church of the Resurrection of Christ), built in memory of Tsar Alexander II on the very site where he was assassinated. With its highly colourful exterior it is reminiscent of its cousin, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Come close for a better look and you will see plaques depicting different episodes in the life of the tsar called the Great Emancipator.
On a hot summer day, you will find the nearby Michael Garden - remarkable for its ornate wrought iron grille - to be a fine place to have a stroll while enjoying some refreshing vanilla ice cream.
Don’t hesitate to follow in the footsteps of Russian tourists and climb the steps of St. Isaac’s Cathedral for a panoramic view of the city.
You may want to take a breather at the souvenir market below, across from the Astoria Hotel.
You’ll also be able to make out the striking blue and white exterior of the Smolny Cathedral and Convent, just outside of centre city.
Visit the Dostoyevsky Apartment-Museum at the corner of Dostoyevsky Street and Kuznechny Pereulok (Vladimirskaya metro station) for a glimpse of St. Petersburg’s illustrious literary heritage. You’ll find the Our Lady of Vladimir Church in the same neighbourhood. There is also a Pushkin Museum and Memorial Apartment in the Hermitage quarter.
White Night Magic (24 May to 20 July)
The period from late May to around 20 July is known as the ‘White Nights’. St. Petersburg is situated quite far north (latitude 59°57N); as summer approaches the days become considerably longer and the city is only dark for a few hours each night.
This is prime festival season; it is also the time when you can observe the famous raising of the drawbridges. Peter still authorizes the passage of merchant ships, barges and tankers, ‘though every evening they must wait patiently at the city gates, as their crossing is not permitted until the thick of night.
Spectators always gather to observe this traditional display of century-old mechanical know-how. If you’re out and about, mind you don’t become ‘stranded’ in a corner of the city, as pedestrians can not cross back over the bridges until early morning...
2008 Festival calendar
- City Gala: 27 May
- International Stars of the White Nights Festival organized by the Mariinsky Theatre: 11 May to 20 July
- Olympus International Music Festival: 25 May to 2 June
- Beer Festival: 1-30 June
- Festival of Festivals (international film festival): 23-29 June
For an authentic slice of St. Petersburg life, I strongly encourage you to join in the City Gala (Den’ goroda). All main boulevards are closed off to traffic, there’s a big, lively parade, and the streets are filled with spirited merrymakers brandishing banners and streamers.
St. Petersburg today
Modernism and economic development have had a very strong impact on St. Petersburg. Many of the old-fashioned shops that used to be found just below the building entrances have been replaced by supermarkets or chic bars. You can, however, still come across the old ten-storey buildings called kolodets (’wells’ in Russian, in reference to their dingy courtyards), which were equipped with rickety lifts a century or so ago.
Ten years ago the Nevski Prospekt – St. Petersburg’s spin on the Champs-Élysées – was something of a dismal post-Soviet-era void. Today it is home to the most fashionable European boutiques and any number of beautifully renovated private manors. In the space of just one decade, the urban population has begun to desert the city’s traditional covered markets in favour of modern supermarkets. The young inhabitants of Peter, who are eager to show off their gadgets, dapper clothes and piercings, will be the first to explain that yes, Russia has changed, and that the economic and social revolution that began in the 1990s carries on, full speed ahead.
While social inequality is still a fact of life amongst the Russian people, it is the new-found wealth of the middle and upper classes that is most striking. The old communal apartments of centre city (a sort of flatshare à la Soviet) are slowly being bought up by the nouvelle bourgeoisie, who also build swank homes outside the city limits. While this tendency puts the lowest-income families - who used to be able to find affordable flats in town - at a decided disadvantage, it also means that some of Peter’s oldest buildings are finally being restored by their new owners.
With the Baltic being right around the corner, many local restaurants offer a tempting selection of fresh fish. Caviar, whether black (sturgeon) or red (salmon) is always an option, but don’t hesitate to try the deep-fried small fish, served with mayonnaise, called kolyushka.
For a quick meal, have some pirozhki, small buns stuffed with meat or vegetables, blinis dipped in honey or sweetened condensed milk, or the excellent honey cake (medovy tort). You may also have traditionally prepared potatoes - kartochka - a Russian favourite, if not the lightest of meals. At breakfast, you might try the syrniki, pan-fried small white cheeses, or kefir, traditional fermented milk which can now be found in supermarkets.
If you fancy a glass of vodka, take heed! Glasses come in different sizes and you are expected to down yours in one swig. Steer clear of the ‘throw-your-glass-in-the-air-after-you’ve-emptied-it’ custom, as no one really does it nowadays... Instead, if you want to follow the Russian example, have a slice of black bread and some pickled herring with your potion, and know that tradition requires you to propose a toast with each glass.
For good value for the rouble, I recommend the Café Elvis (a Chameleon café) near the Chernychevskaya metro. Yes, the ambience is more American than Russian, but the kitchen whips up some excellent traditional dishes. Try the borscht, the shouba pod seldoï salad and the blinis. While you’re in the neighbourhood, you may like to stop in at the cathedral just a block away on Radichev Square.
Formerly a welcome alternative to the animated receptions and court life of the city, the summer residences of the tsars lie beyond the city gates. When visiting these palaces built far from the hustle bustle of St. Petersburg, often near rivers or lakes, you can imagine what a pleasure it must have been for the crowned heads to leave political affairs behind and come enjoy the serenity of their summer homes.
Peterhof, Peter the Great’s magnificent creation
Peterhof, sometimes called the Russian Versailles (by the French, unsurprisingly), outshines its predecessor in terms of its myriad fountains and outdoors features. The arrival by boat is impressive indeed, and first-time visitors are always bedazzled by the incomparable view of the famous facade and Great Cascade.
The palace boasts one perfectly restored room after the other; I was partial to the two small, original Chinese cabinets richly decorated with Asian objets d’art.
After a visit to Versailles, Peter the Great chose Jean-Baptiste Leblond, student of famous French landscape architect Le Nôtre, to design the palace parks and gardens. The result is incomparable: the gardens, embellished with a total of 150 fountains, are absolutely sensational, even more so than those at Versailles.
The Chessboard Chute and surprise squirting fountains which drench young and old alike are remarkable for their technical perfection and whimsical forms (note the Umbrella and the Oak and Fir Saplings...).
But in fact, one of my very favourite places in Peterhof is set apart from the sumptuous palace and its gardens. The Church of Peter and Paul in Peterhof Village, a short stroll from the Tsar’s residence, is a haven of peace far from tour guides and their flocks.
I encourage you to make the short detour and have a seat on a bench alongside the village babushkas in order to soak in the ambience and a few rays of sun. Women should remember to cover their heads with a scarf, in deference to the Orthodox custom.
Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin): Catherine II’s Summer Palace
Another majestic residence, Tsarskoye Selo (‘Tsar’s Village’), stands out against the St. Petersburg landscape.
Burnt and severely damaged by the Germans during WWII, as was Peterhof, Catherine Palace was saved thanks to precautionary measures taken by Soviets who removed and preserved most of the wood panels which decorate the palace interior before enemy troops arrived. Photos and descriptions presented at the beginning of the tour bear witness to this tumultuous past.
Today, thanks to major restoration projects spearheaded by the Russian government over the past few years, the palace’s different rooms are spectacularly colourful once again. Recently renovated from top to bottom, the Amber Room is a fine specimen of pre-war opulence which gives a feel for the superior skills of the tsars’ craftsmen.
Far from the rather flashy allure of Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo presents all of the sweet comforts of a country home... albeit one awash in gilding and luxury.
The gardens - so meticulously designed at Peterhof - here take the form of a natural park, complete with water, wooden bridges and footpaths. It is the perfect place to spend a fresh-air day far from the stifling heat of the city along with the good folk of St. Petersburg who come in search of a modicum of peace and quiet.
It’s easy to be captivated by the charm of this splendid nature sanctuary, with its lakes and small Oriental pavilions, even if many of the out buildings are still in sorry shape. You’ll need a full afternoon to visit the park. In addition, you can see the Alexander Palace, where Tsar Nicholas II and his family spent their last months.
Tsarskoye Selo also owes its fame to the fact that Russia’s beloved poet and novelist Alexander Pushkin studied here in 1811-16 (whence the village’s second name). After your visit, take a stroll around the perimeter of the grounds and you’ll see Pushkin’s school, the adjoined church, and palace courtyard, closed to the public.
Other palaces are well worth an outing - you could easily spend a full day exploring each of them whilst discovering the Russian countryside as well. Oranienbaum, Gatchina and Pavlosvk, the palace of Paul I, are all excellent choices.
If you have the funds for it and a bit of free time, the St. Petersburg - Moscow cruise listed by many travel agencies is highly recommended. During your journey you’ll be able to visit some of Russia’s oldest cities, such as Uglitch, Kostroma and Yaroslavl.
Visa: Procuring a visa for Russia can be rather challenging if you intend to improvise and go it on your own. It is preferable to first book a room in a good hotel, as they will send you the necessary invitation papers for your trip. You may also choose a group tour.
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Visiting Orthodox churches: women are expected to cover their heads with a scarf or shawl, and men should wear proper clothing.
Hydrofoil boats leave from the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and drop you off directly on the jetty leading to the palace. You can also take a train or bus - there’s one that leaves St. Petersburg and lets you off in the village at the palace gates.
Train travel (élektritchka) is a possibility; the ride from St. Petersburg takes two hours, but it may be rather difficult if you don’t speak Russian. The local tourist office can provide you with alternatives.