Hello Saint Petersburg, where east meets west but Russia’s most western city has always been a gateway in both directions. A treasure trove of Russian history, from Peter the Great, to the Tsars to the Revolution, it also preserves a unique collection of European art. But what is outside its museums and galleries is every bit as interesting as that inside.
The sun is out as I stroll along, gazing at all the lively young people dressed in Western clothing. Fortunately, a babushka shuffles by every now and then to remind me I’m actually in Russia; something not easy to forget in Moscow, where the Soviet-ness of the locals is much more apparent.
Russia is still right in the middle of the wild adolescent phase of capitalism. People here buy Gucci, wear Rolex and drive Mercedes. It might be the most modern city in Russia, but Saint Petersburg hasn’t quite attained hip status. Some up and coming designers are in vogue, but I have not seen a clunky but freshly polished Lada anywhere on the roads. Yet.
The area that is now known as Saint Petersburg was originally 101 small islands in the basin of the river Neva, that continues on to the Gulf of Finland. While the islands themselves make for a rather chaotic landscape, the area of interest to tourists is much easier to navigate. The central island, Fontana, houses almost all the must-sees and must-dos, such as the Winter and Summer Palaces, the Hermitage Museum, St. Isaac’s Church, the Admiralty and much more. These attractions are all highly recognizable and easy to find, ensuring little chance of a wasted walk.
The Nevski Prospekt, the “Champs Elysées of Saint Petersburg”, is a wide, almost straight street that runs through the island. It originates in the heart of the city and trails off somewhere in the suburbs. Established fashion houses all have their stores here: Armani, Boss, Versace (the latter even has its own park) and the famous Russian designer Tatyana Parfionova, with a daring collection that pleases the eye. The typically Russian Gostiniy Dvor warehouse, right next to the metro station, also houses a bunch of Western brands. Looming across the road at number 56 is Yeliseyev’s, a delightful art nouveau food store established in 1903 that comes highly recommended.
Limousines with heavily tinted windows
The biggest thrill, though, isn’t in the shopping but checking out all the bloated Mafiosi arriving at 4pm with their illicitly young girlfriends in limousines with heavily tinted windows. There is a generational conflict on show here between the older Russians, who can’t get used to the rampant new capitalism, and the new kids on the block, totally at ease with the Western way of life. To understand this split, I suggest any visitor should first read a recent history of the country. A good start might be the autobiographies of former statesmen Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
Across the way, on the opposite side of the wide Neva, lies the Peter & Paul Fortress. Built by Peter I in 1703 to protect the city, Petersburg subsequently took its name from its defender. The high spires of the cathedral, which defy the Russian Orthodox convention of building massive domes, can be seen from almost any point in the city.
Saint Petersburg is, by design, a walking city. Most major attractions are a short distance from one another and the beautiful historical centre practically invites you to wander among them all. The banks of the Neva, with panoramic views and the wind in your hair, are incredibly romantic; this is the perfect place to canoodle with your loved one at sunset.
But the best walk in Petersburg is not actually done on foot, but by boat. Really. The shift in perspective once you’re on the water is amazing: Saint Petersburg changes from an already substantial city into a wonder of canals, streams and rivers. Once out in the middle of the Neva, you realize how vulnerable this city has been to the threat of flooding for all these years.
Winter Palace, former home of the tsars
All roads, and all cruises, should lead you to the Hermitage, Petersburg’s world famous museum, a complex of six magnificent buildings on the embankment of the River Neva, forming the heart of the city. Chief among them is the Winter Palace, former home of the tsars, and the core of the museum is the vast collection of art and treasures the former rulers collected when Russia was at its imperial height. With about 3million items in total, only a fraction can be displayed and, no matter how long your visit, you’ll see only a part of that.
Even though I came with huge expectations, fuelled by enthusiastic reports from those who’d been here before me, I was still awed. Every painting, every sculpture, every thing is of an impeccable standard. Works from all the most famous painters of the early Middle Ages to the 20th century are on display. There is a breathtaking collection of Rembrandt, Rubens and other masters such as Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck. The walls display more works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Matisses and Gaugín than you could conjure up in your wildest dreams.
If I were forced to compare the Hermitage to, say, the Louvre, the Prado or the Rijksmuseum, then the Hermitage would win hands down. What makes it so special? The fantastic collection, the huge halls of the Winter Palace, the grandiose staircases and the ceilings that are worth a visit in themselves. One of the original rooms of the Winter Palace was unimaginably rich, lined with six tons of amber. Called the eighth wonder of the world, it was presented to Peter The Great in 1717, a gift from the King of Prussia. Moved to the Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg in 1755, it was stolen by the occupying Germans in 1941 and destroyed in the latter stages of the war. It’s a romantic and mysterious story that now has a happy ending.
A team of craftsmen spent 25 years working to recreate its wonders, combining tiny pieces of amber into ornate coverings for four entire walls. The reality can never match the fantasy, of course, but there’s an awful lot of artistry and wealth on show. Even more impressive is the ambition that brought it all about, a sign that the sleeping Russian bear can always awake. It was readied for St Petersburg’s 300th anniversary in 2003 and opened by then President Vladimir Putin, a native of the city.
Visitors may feel overwhelmed by choice
Standing in this near-mythical Amber Room, you are surrounded by countless more rooms, each designed by the leading European architects of their day, inspired by great rooms in Venice, Vienna, Florence or Paris. Each room is filled with priceless objects: paintings, porcelain, clocks. And after Catherine Palace, you still have Peterhof, the ‘Russian Versailles’.
The city has so many other museums as well that visitors may feel overwhelmed by choice. Any suggestions? Well, Petersburg is well known for its famous writers such as Dostoyevsky, and anyone who has read Crime & Punishment will want to visit his house, which has been converted into a small museum. You won’t discover anything new or shocking about him here, but instead the world of his novel springs to life – and when you leave, you almost expect a chance meeting with Raskolinov himself, caught planning the murder of his wicked mistress. Roughly translated, Raskolinov means “one who divides”.
Search out also the Art Room, a collection of curiosities, housing the most bizarre creatures, and the Russian Museum, where you’ll find a 400,000-strong collection of Russian art. If you have any interest in history, you will also want to stand on the deck of the Cruiser Aurora, which fired the first shot of the Russian Revolution in 1917. That was the signal for the workers to storm the Winter Palace, a scene famously recreated in Sergei Eisenstein’s film October (1928). The month-long drinking binge that followed the seizure of the palace’s opulent wine cellars has been called the “biggest hangover in history”.
Clear-headed or not, to have any chance of seeing a fraction of what the city has to offer you will need a good guide. I was lucky enough to find Anna. Born and raised in Saint Petersburg, she studied English at the university there, where she also made the decision to become a tour guide. “It stemmed from idealistic motives”, she says, because “I’m so proud of Pieter!” Pieter is the nickname locals have for the city. Anna tends to lead groups who like to follow a fixed route but, when families from Moscow come to visit, she maps out something a bit different.
I can smell the history around me
“I take them to the Summer Palace – my favorite place – that, strangely enough, many tourists seem to pass up,” she says. “I often go there alone to sit and daydream. I feel like I’m being taken back 300 years – to the time before the city existed, before it was even built. It’s like I can smell the history around me – and even perhaps meet Peter I himself. The park with all its beautiful statues strengthens the idea even more so. Those gargantuan palaces, such as the Peterhof and the Winter Palace attract many visitors, but only in the Summer Palace do you discover who the real Tsar actually is. It’s as if you’re looking straight into his soul.”
The soul of “Pieter” these days gives off an oddly Mediterranean vibe – something that I didn’t expect at all. No dour faces rising above ill-fitting grey-brown rags or unkempt overgrown moustaches, but instead tall, rosy-cheeked boys and girls, zooming around on skates or with sunglasses on their heads. The second surprise was this: they drink beer from the bottle. On the street. All of them. Young and old. The entire city is blissfully sipping away, even elegantly clad ‘ladies’ walk by, shamelessly swigging from the neck of the bottle as they go. I do know, however, that the Russians see beer not as an alcohol, but as a soft drink.
To them, vodka is the real McCoy – that’s the stuff that will get you drunk. So what do you do when you’re thirsty? Buy a beer, of course – and usually half a liter as that’s more economical. And because people have relatively little disposable income, the terraces are almost always empty. But, free from the idea that drinking beer on the street is socially unacceptable, it may appear to the unsuspecting tourist that Saint Petersburg has a drinking problem.
You might also think it is an upmarket drinking problem when you see the railings around the grand statue of Peter I decorated with “Champansky” bottles. It’s a tradition for wedding parties to come here for a toast to the city’s founder. A steady flow of newlyweds step out of big limousines to immortalize themselves in a photograph. With a bit of luck you’ll bear witness to the groom drinking this Russian bubbly from the slipper of his new bride. Hopefully it improves the taste. Next to the statue is a musical trio playing a wedding march in the hope of earning a few rubles, along with a woman trying to rent you a ride on her horse. Crazy kids, those Russians.
No need to worry, they’ll find you
If you are feeling a bit crazy yourself, you might like to get to know the locals a bit better by using some of the many illegal taxis. They are used just as often as regular taxis, yet cost much less (around 25 per cent). How do you find them? No need to worry, they’ll find you. Just walk along the street, stick out your arm and presto – a car pulls over for you. Don’t worry: I’ve done this many times, without hassle. As with regular taxis, you must agree on the fare first. I would recommend however, that for evening rides and journeys outside the city centre, to dig deep and take a regular taxi. It’s worth that little bit extra to ensure your safety. There are also many locals who rent out their rooms to tourists, sometimes with breakfast included. Apart from being cheap, it’s a great way to get an insider’s view.
But if you really want to pass as a local, try swimming in the Neva, dirty as it is. There is a group of swimmers who call themselves the Morsch, the Walruses, so named because they swim all year round. Even a Russian winter doesn’t stop them; when the Neva freezes over, they just hack a hole in the ice and jump right in. More sedate is a banya, the Russian equivalent of the Finnish sauna or Turkish hammam, which are very popular indeed. Most have special days for men and women. The best is reputed to be the Yamskie Bani at Ul. Dostoevskovo 9.
Make the effort to look behind the eye-catching splendor of Saint Petersburg and you will find a real city of 4.5 million souls. Of course, it is showcase of art with a capital ‘A’ and, for most visitors, that’s the most important reason for coming. But Russia’s most western city, both geographically and culturally, is also a politically restless place in a politically restless land. That makes what is outside its museums and galleries every bit as interesting as what is inside.