Going Places: In love with St Petersburg

Going Places: In love with St Petersburg

Four centuries ago, when the tsars set out to dazzle the world with their showcase capital, they spared no expense.

by John Cooney

It was weird waking up that first morning in St Petersburg. I mean, our Baltic cruise didn’t feel weird. Far from it! We’d been having a fabulous time. But we had docked overnight in Russia (gulp), and I was on full alert. I’d seen enough spy movies to know that Russia was one weird, scary, sinister place. And, as we went ashore after breakfast, I bet I wasn’t the only one keeping a nervous eye out for shadowy men in raincoats carrying barely-concealed guns …

To my huge relief, however, St Petersburg turned out to be stunning. (Most of it, anyway, the bits we’d come to see.) The people on the streets looked as harmless and mind-their-own-business as people on the streets in any other big city. And I was neither arrested nor shot, nor shipped off to some frozen gulag. 

Instead, surprise-surprise, I fell madly in love with this Russian port. 

Okay, there were still a few things that seemed slightly weird. For example, the city’s had so many name changes it’s not funny: from St Petersburg (when it was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great) … to Petrograd (after Bloody Sunday and the 1905 Workers Revolution) … to Leningrad (when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917) … then back to St Petersburg again (in 1991, when the Soviet Union went belly-up). 

Also slightly weird is the Russian fondness for brass bands playing ‘oom-paa-paa’ music. Bearded men in tired uniforms blasted us loudly when we got off the ship, trumpeted our arrival at the Hermitage, and entertained us with old Russian marching tunes outside Catherine’s Palace. It was, well … different. 

Oh, and let’s not forget the Russian alphabet, because that’s slightly weird, too. “ДобрОпожАловать!” is how they write “Welcome!” And the sign below the familiar Golden Arches on the road we took into town reads “МакДоиалдс”. (Imagine having to order a “Вчз Мак” …) 

Four centuries ago, when the tsars set out to dazzle the world with their showcase capital, they spared no expense. And St Petersburg’s original marble-and-gold grandeur must’ve been a sight for sore eyes. But today, this famous city of five million leaves travellers confused. 

In parts, you see, St Petersburg looks worn-out and run-down. Which is hardly surprising, considering its long history of violent uprisings, bloody overthrows, and a truly horrific 900-day siege by the Nazis – who looted its art treasures and shot or starved one million of its residents. But when the carnage was finally over, those brave Leningradites set to and rebuilt the heart of their magnetic city. 

Day One began with us going camera-crazy at the multi-coloured, onion-domed Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood. (It earned this morbid name by being erected on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated). We then headed south of the city to Catherine’s Palace, built by Peter the Great (the Bronze Horseman) for his beloved wife. We oohed and aahed at the blue-white-&-gold exterior … stood open-mouthed in the opulent, multi-mirrored Grand Ballroom … and gazed speechless at the glorious Amber Room, gutted by those damned Nazis, but meticulously reconstructed. 

Day Two saw us following a pair of lovely young Russian guides through St Petersburg’s vast Hermitage. It’s one of the oldest and largest art museums in the world, with three million items from every big-name artist, displayed in what was once the Winter Palace – a 1000-room residence of the Tsars, with a truly glorious marble staircase. 

I’m usually poor company in art galleries. Give me 15 minutes and I’m looking for the coffee shop. But I was spellbound, no kidding, in the Hermitage – for two and a half hours! 

Next up, we drove through the countryside to the spectacular gardens of Peterhof – ruined in WW2 but brilliantly restored. Check out the Grand Cascade and Samson’s Fountain: an amazing bit of 1730’s engineering that shoots a 20-metre-high vertical jet of water into the air without the aid of pumps!

We had time that night for one last treat: an evening of Russian folksongs and lively Cossack dancing. But there’s so much more in St Petersburg that we didn’t have time for. Which leaves us, of course, with only one alternative …

We’ll just have to go back!