St Petersburg: looking across the River Neva

Canals And Culture

19th March 2010

Jill Glenn falls for one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

A network of picturesque canals… stunning baroque and neo-classical architecture… world-renowned monuments… museums… galleries… a city full of history…

Venice, right?
Wrong.

St Petersburg…

…the 'Venice of the North'. With numerous canals – and over 400 bridges – this vast city, an urban project begun in 1703 under Peter the Great, certainly justifies its nickname, and its iconic status as one of the world’s great cultural attractions. The entire historic centre is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, with awe-inspiring architectural marvels at every turn. Both in and around the city, though, the buildings of the socialist and communist eras still remain: some abandoned, some inhabited, they act both as a foil to those distinctive baroque palaces and over-the-top Orthodox churches, and as a salutary reminder of the country’s turbulent past.

For a city only three hundred years old, it has a substantial history. In the 20th century alone, for example, it underwent three name changes (St Petersburg – Petrograd – Leningrad – St Petersburg), three revolutions (1905; February and October 1917) and a 900-day siege (1941–1944) from which it is still, slowly and painstakingly, recovering. Despite the evidence of the privations of the past, and the stories that the guides will tell you of their and their parents’ childhoods, the city has an engaging atmosphere all its own.

In the height of summer here, the sun barely dips below the horizon. The White Nights, as they’re called, are at their peak in the last two weeks of June; it’s never darker than twilight, the streetlights are unnecessary and evening merges seamlessly into morning. It’s a popular time to visit, especially for culture vultures: the city’s White Nights Festival celebrates the endless night with opera and ballet, concerts and carnivals. Tickets for these are so sought-after that the Festival itself has expanded quite dramatically, beginning in May, and ending in July with Scarlet Sails, a range of events on and around the Neva River. It’s a tradition that began after World War II, when a ship with red sails would pass the English and Admiralty Embankments, on its way towards the Winter Palace, to mark the end of the school year. Now it’s the largest public event in Russia.

A coach tour around the historic centre is useful as an initial orientation, especially if your visit is short. Most of these will take you along impressive boulevards, past St Isaac’s Cathedral, for example, with its huge golden cupola, and the Church on Spilled Blood (built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881); some will include the Peter and Paul Fortress, often called the birthplace of the city. The St Peter and Paul Cathedral, inside the fortress, contains the tombs of many of the Tsars. It’s almost a place of pilgrimage now.

It can be hard to get away from the crowds in St Petersburg; if there’s a downside to this beguiling city, it’s the number of other people it’s simultaneously captivating. The Hermitage Museum is a must, of course, but you need to be at your most tolerant of human nature. Even with advance tickets, and timed entry, you’re still in the company of thousands. Breathe deeply, shuffle slowly. It is worth it. This irresistible complex of buildings, stretching along the banks of the Neva, is a window onto Russian history and an endless panorama of pictures and sculptures and jewellery. Every artist you’ve ever heard of is represented here (along with a fair few you haven’t, but will marvel at nevertheless), and housed in surroundings that are genuinely breathtaking. The heart of the Hermitage is the Winter Palace, built in the 1750s on a tremendous scale, with staterooms designed to impress – especially the Malachite Room, with pillars of lapis lazuli, jasper and malachite, and the Armorial Hall, now used for society balls and receptions.

Even the floors – in all St Petersburg’s palaces, actually – are beautiful. So are the ceilings. You don’t know where to direct your attention. If you want a definition of opulence you’ll find it here, in every square inch of every room.

There are around 2.7 million exhibits (and a similar number of visitors per year), so it’s impossible to see everything. It pays to do some planning in advance to ensure you see the parts of the collection that interest you most. Ultimately, though, you have to accept defeat; as one travel company mildly puts it, the Hermitage Museum ‘rewards repeat visits’.

For a breather from all that gold and glory, don’t miss a trip along the canal system. St Petersburg is at its best from the water: sit back, relax, admire, and sip a glass of champagne (or vodka, of course…). And mind your head on low bridges!

The city is laid out as an open fan spreading away from the riverbank. The main street – crowded (of course) with people and cars, trolleybuses and taxis – is Nevsky Prospekt, lined with pastel-coloured mansions interspersed with cafes and upmarket shopping opportunities (downmarket shopping opportunities are readily available from souvenir bureaux and enthusiastic street corner postcard sellers). There are lively bars and restaurants on Vasilievsky Island, and the city has an efficient metro system, although there aren’t many stations in the historic centre.

Beyond the city’s boundaries are other astonishing palaces… at Pushkin, 25km south, is Tsarskoye Selo – the Tsars’ Village – of which the centrepiece is the magnificent blue, white and gold Catherine Palace. Commissioned by Peter the Great for his wife, the future Empress Catherine I, it contains the Amber Room, known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Or rather, it doesn’t. The original Amber Room was looted during the war, and the amber eventually ‘disappeared’. What you see is an impressive replica, a testimony to the Russians’ intention to restore and preserve the monuments of the past. They take their heritage very seriously.

On the shores of the Gulf of Finland, some 30km west of the city, is Peterhof or Petrodvorets: Peter’s Palace. Built as yet another summer residence, this luxurious Imperial palace and estate, bears more than a passing resemblance to Versailles, with cascades and fountains and gilded statues that gleam in the sunlight. Peterhof was badly damaged during the German occupation, and restoration, which relied on pre-war drawings and photographs, took decades.

Walk down to the shoreline, and on a fine day, you’ll see St Petersburg itself, low on the horizon and shimmering like a mirage. It’s hard to believe it’s real…

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