St Petersburg: truly a city for all seasons

By Daralyn Danns, December 3, 2009
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Summer Palace of Catherine the Great: one of three former homes to Russian royalty

Summer Palace of Catherine the Great: one of three former homes to Russian royalty

With its pretty canals, ornate churches and palaces, St Petersburg still exudes the opulence of Imperial Russia. Wander round the streets studded with beautiful buildings and you half expect to bump into Catherine the Great or see Rasputin lurking around a corner. Yet, while St Petersburg is cleverly embracing its past, it is also confidently moving into the future.

Founded by Peter The Great in 1703, St Petersburg (named after the apostle who was the Tsar’s patron saint) is a relatively young city which started out as a fortress. By 1712, what was once a swamp had been turned into the capital of Russia. The Tsar’s original palace was a small cabin which is now a museum. Peter The Great was inspired by the West and the city quickly began to be filled with baroque and neoclassical palaces designed by Italian architects.

Buildings, except for churches, were not allowed to stand higher than the Winter Palace and the city has more or less kept to this tradition which has helped it to maintain its character.

St Petersburg, a city that inspired writers such as Dostoevsky, managed to avoid much of Stalinism’s architectural style, but the old KGB building is a stark reminder of its communist past.

A boat trip is an idyllic way to get an introduction to St Petersburg, often called the Venice of the North. But to see the sights properly it is advisable to get a private guide as there are not many good English sightseeing tours.

The Peter and Paul Fortress marks the point where the city was founded. Here, you will find the Peter and Paul Cathedral, where all the Tsars are buried. It is a good starting point for sightseeing.

After passing Admiralty Square, the Mariinsky Theatre, home to the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov), and the Bronze Horseman, the memorial to Peter the Great, we stopped at St Isaac’s Cathedral. In communist times, it was a science museum, and its golden dome is one of St Petersburg’s most renowned landmarks.

Just as impressive are the onion-shaped colourful domes of The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Plaques on the façade detail the key events of the Tsar’s reign.

The Church of Our Savior

The Church of Our Savior

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the Grand Choral Synagogue, which was built in 1893 and has now been renovated. As my great-grand parents were Russian it was interesting to get a taste of what it means to be Jewish in St Petersburg today.

According to Cantor Gregory Yakerson, the roots of the Jewish community in St Petersburg go back approximately 200 years. Under Alexander ll, a few Jews, including those with degrees, skilled craftsmen and retired soldiers were allowed to live in the city. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the community declined as many Jews emigrated.

During the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for the Second World War) while Leningrad was under siege, the synagogue was bombed by the Nazis. Some Jews managed to hold out and keep the community alive.

After the fall of communism, they began to renew their identity. Today, Jewish life in St Petersburg is undergoing a revival. Membership of the Grand Choral Synagogue, one of the largest in Europe, is not required. People can attend prayers whenever they want. The State Hermitage, arguably, St Petersburg’s main attraction has more than three million exhibits covering the Stone Age to the 20th century and has one of the finest art collections in the world.

It consists of six buildings, with the Winter Palace, home to the Tsars, the finest. Take a tour as it is easy to get lost. This museum is a must-see even if you are not an art lover.

Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare, combines the ancient and the modern. Mixed in with the stunning buildings are cafés and shops, including many familiar names that can be found at home. Saunter down some of the side streets to feel the grit of the city as well as seeing some buildings left over from the Soviet era.

May is a lovely time to visit St Petersburg as the tourist season is not yet in full swing and you will avoid the crowds and the exorbitant prices.

It doesn’t get dark until around 10.30pm as it is almost approaching “White Nights”, the days when the summer sun never sets and the city is at is busiest.

The best cultural programme starts around this time – usually early June – for about a month. Although it is warmer in the summer, many theatres are closed from July to September. However, sunny days are rare here; there are about 60 a year. Generally, St Petersburg has a four-seasons-in-one-day climate.

The city is littered with palaces. One not to be missed is Petrodvorets, also known as Peterhof, (closed Mondays), on the Gulf of Finland, (west of St Petersburg) which has been restored to its former glory. Inspired by Versailles, Peter the Great wanted to build a palace outside his new city. One of the draws of Petrodvorets is its decorative fountains. It’s easy to get to by hydrofoil which goes from outside the Winter Palace. The journey takes about 45 minutes.

When you see how glitzy it is, you can understand why poor Petersburgers instigated the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Don’t even contemplate staying at any other hotel than the Grand Hotel Europe. St Petersburg’s oldest hotel which has being playing host to St Petersburg’s high society for over 130 years. Guests have included George Bernard Shaw, Tsar Nicholas ll, Rasputin, Johann Strauss and more recently has seen the likes of Helen Mirren and Sir Paul McCartney walk through its doors.

The draw of this hotel is that it has all the mod cons but yet still manages to capture the traditions of a bygone era.

The décor of the hotel’s Europe Restaurant is extremely lavish and has a menu to match. There is a good selection of permitted fish. Recommended is the Chilean sea bass. Herring and salmon are two local fish widely eaten.

The restaurant’s weekly Tchaikovsky night, a tribute to the great composer who spent his honeymoon at the hotel, will captivate even non-ballet fans.

Sitting in these beautiful surroundings, listening to a 13-piece symphony orchestra, playing his music while watching dancers perform White Adagio from Swan Lake, is evening to be remembered forever.

Travel facts
Cox & Kings (Tel 020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk), offers three nights at Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg from £875 per person including flights with BA, transfers and breakfast daily.

Visa Application Processing for the Russian Federation is handled by M/S VF Services (UK) Ltd. 5 – 27 Gee Street, London, EC1V 3RD or visit www.rusemblon.org online application forms only are accepted.

(Advisable to do this through a travel agent.)

Getting there

Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk), offers three nights at Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg from £875 per person including flights with BA, transfers and breakfast.Visa application processing for the Russian Federation is handled by M/S VF Services (UK) Ltd. 5 – 27 Gee Street, London, EC1V 3RD or see www.rusemblon.org. It is advisable to do this through a travel agent.

Jewish St Petersburg

Jews have lived in the city since it was founded. By 1826, there were around 248. Under Emperor Alexander II the community grew and then shrank during the Communist era when religion was discouraged. There is a kosher restaurant, “Le’chaim” in the Grand Choral Synagogue at Lermontovsky 2, St Petersburg and a Beit Chabad Community Centre at24B, Souza Pechatnikov, St Petersburg.

    Last updated: 11:30am, December 31 2009