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, St. Petersburg 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’.
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. 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.
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.
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
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...
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.
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.