White Nights in St. Petersburg

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Anyone reading this who is a) over 50, b) straight, c) divorced, separated or otherwise floating at sea without an anchor, will shortly be tinged with the bilious green shade of jealousy if they continue reading this report from your suddenly massively pro-Russian correspondent.

However, there is a severe limit set on the amount of information I have been permitted to pass on to you, which, with some reluctance and in the greater interest of Anglo- Soviet relationships, I have agreed to curtail. Suffice to say that on one of my previous rigorous Arbuturian expeditions to Venice, last November (reminiscent of “in Marienbad, last summer”) a meeting occurred between a grumpy middle-aged artist/photographer (me) and a beautiful young Russian tourist (subsequently our “guide”). The following six months, up to and including this report on one of the world’s great cities, has demonstrated many things to me, in particular the wisdom of the young and the great disadvantages to do with the ageing process.

So I hope this goes some way to explain not just the appellation on the photographs accompanying this article, but also why myself as a visitor, and yourself as a reader, have the great advantage of our mysterious “guide” alongside us to help steer, not just my faltering prose, but our steps through and across one of the most spectacular cities I have ever visited: St. Petersburg.

This is a city literally built on blood and mud. In 1703, Peter the Great captured a Swedish fortress on the Neva River, and laid the first stone of The Peter and Paul Fortress. The city rose out of the swamp by the efforts of conscripted Russian peasants, tens of thousands who died in its construction. In 1712, Peter moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and began a period of modernisation within Russia, which led to extreme discontent amongst the aristocratic and ruling classes. At the early age of 52, Peter died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. (“Who will rid me of this troublesome ruler”?) It is generally believed this was the work of people close to him, who wanted to block his reforming policies.

St. Petersburg then lost, regained, lost and regained again its capital status until Catherine the Great decided to literally set the city in stone by lining the banks of the Neva river with enormous granite blocks, thus insuring St. Petersburg’s long-term survival.

A series of great (and mainly Italian) architects including the legendary names of Rastrelli, Rinaldi, Rossi and Quarenghi , are really responsible for the appearance of the city today, and although the architectural styles are a complex mix of classical, baroque, empire, neoclassical as well as traditional Russian, the overall sense of harmony and order is astonishingly satisfying to the new visitor. St. Petersburg is above all an aesthetically pleasing city, whose only peer in my humble opinion is Venice (another edifice basically built upon a swamp!).

Now just a word or two about travelling to The Russian Federation. I have to say that the overall attitude to English visitors is much as I imagined it was in trying to obtain entry into the old Soviet Union: отъебись!!! (Check free online Russian-English dictionary if in doubt.) After two attempts at filling in the Russian Embassy’s online visa application, and being timed out after 90 minutes of futile answering to impossibly personal/irrelevant questions (“where did you receive your secondary education?”), I was sent an automatically generated email from the embassy’s online service department: “please tell us how you rate our service”. The fact that I replied “I think your service stinks and you clearly do not want anyone from the UK to set foot in your country ever again” probably contributed to a 60 minute wait at immigration, and an official with the social skills and appearance of Rosa Klebb in “From Russia with Love”. Fortunately my wonderful guide, nervously waiting in arrivals, spotted me through the cattle-pen doors and interceded before I became over-insistent in obtaining a reply to a simple “good afternoon”, which would probably have involved a cyanide-tipped shoe knife.

A 40-minute taxi ride through suburbs showing the worst excesses of Stalinist-inspired architecture brought us, with an appropriate gasp of wonder, to the banks of the Neva river. And what a sight! Much wider than the Thames and filled with boats of all descriptions, the Neva slices through St. Petersburg with the speed and insistency of a winter wind (imagining that such a fast flowing body of water can actually freeze solid in the eight-month winter sends an involuntary shudder down the spine). 342 bridges span the river and canals of St. Petersburg, giving it the appellation “Venice of the North”.

In fact, the major bridges, which act as barriers to traffic from the Gulf of Finland, are ritually opened at 1am which is an amazing, magical sight in the “white nights” season; this refers to the time when the sun doesn’t set, neither does the population seem to sleep at all, staying awake on copious quantities of champagne (or at least sparkling wine) and beer, the containers of which are abandoned in the gutters on a nightly basis like old cigarette ends. The early-hours opening of the main bridges, which swing upwards like Tower Bridge in London, is clearly a big event, and not only locally. This is the cue to loud and continuous and drunken celebrations for the rest of the (non-existent) night. A flotilla of craft like a gigantic gaggle of swans, float down the Neva to the accompaniment of car horns, whistles, foghorns and the hiss, hiss, hiss, of releasing beer cans. Coaches come from far and wide, disgorging old and young alike, poets and peasants, and once the opening occurs, the river is flooded with craft of all sizes and kinds, accompanied by hoots, whistles, foghorns and assorted musical instruments and fireworks on the banks. The privations of a northerly winter give way to the excesses of a longed-for summer which has to be grabbed while it is there, for it will only be a short time before the city once again feels the icy grip of Siberian weather.

Oh, and by the way, I did finally manage to get a visa with the help of an expensive agent, which stipulated to the very day exactly how long I was allowed off the leash in the Russian Federation. In my case, it was precisely five days, no more no less. Illness or a flight delay would have resulted in “illegal immigrant status”, so do be warned. Incidentally, if you go via a cruise company, you will be allowed off the ship (by prior arrangement) only when part of an organized tour of the city. So no chance then of free circulation with a guide of your own choice!

OK then, five “white nights” and four days of sightseeing, so where to begin? Into the capable hands of my guide, the first stop is the local pie (patties in Russian) snack-bar (turn right out of 3 Mosta Hotel, right again along the canal, turn left over first bridge, 50 yards on right). Pies for breakfast? Why not, we are in Russia after all…Meat, salmon, herring, cabbage topped with golden pastry and a wonderful drink made from bread called kvas. So we stumble out half an hour later feeling satisfied but at least half a kilo heavier, expecting an energetic expedition cross-town to walk off the calories and there, lo, is one of the most astonishing buildings I have ever seen, right on our doorstep: The Church of the Saviour on the Blood.

Although a comparatively modern building when placed alongside many in St. Petersburg, The Church of the Saviour is astonishing in appearance and to behold, outside as well as inside. Constructed in traditional Russian style, the Church was built on the very site where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded by The People’s Will, a revolutionary group of disparate anarchists committed to the overthrow of the monarchy. Although bombs at that time (1881) were primitive, unreliable and difficult to ignite, there were four assassins positioned on the Tsar’s route by carriage through town, each with his own device. The first, tossed underneath the carriage, pretty much destroyed the vehicle from which the Tsar emerged miraculously unharmed. The anarchist, who had been apprehended within a few steps of his seeking to flee was astonished that the Tsar crossed the road to engage him in conversation (unfortunately unrecorded) and watched as the Tsar, returning to the remnants of his carriage, had both his legs blown off below the knee by a second bomb hurled at close range by one Ignaty Grinevitsky. His subsequent execution took place in the teeth of formidable opposition from famous figures, including Leo Tolstoy himself.

One strange aspect of this tragic tale is that a fortune teller a little while before had foretold him that he would die “in red boots”. Of course, nobody believed him (who would wear red boots?) but then a bomb tore off both his legs…

So the next incumbent, his son Tsar Alexander III, set in motion the building of a commemorative cathedral, which cost over five million rubles (a vast amount at the time) and took twenty-five years to build. The building itself is asymmetrical, being pentangular in shape and elongated along its east-west axis. The building is topped by a pillar-shaped bell tower, itself crowned with a massive dome. Outside, there is a conscious attempt to copy seventeenth century’s style of restored, decorative features, including arcades, arches, kokoshniks, cornices, pilasters as well as multifarious insets comprising brick, marble, limestone, granite, enamel and gilded copper. The Cathedral is the first example of the extensive use of mosaic to decorate the exterior of a building in St. Petersburg.

Inside, the visual effect is no less extraordinary for almost all the interior is similarly comprised of mosaics. 100 square metres of jeweller’s enamel are used in the lining of the building’s five domes. As you gaze upwards, your breath is simply taken away from you.

The Hermitage is the most wonderful museum, probably in the world, and could easily take up all one’s time in the city, not just because of its physical size, but because even natives get lost and have to ask directions from the pensionable staff. Also be aware that the charge for a visitor is about four times more than someone from the Russian Federation. So I was told to take off my baseball cap and speak not a word. Three minutes and some Euros better off, we were in and circulating amongst some of the greatest treasures of the Western World. The only real disappointment is the so-called “British Section” which boasts a room equivalent to a small public toilet, with about the same quality of wall decorations. Be warned!

Other “must see” places (in no special order) are: Nevsky Prospect; Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square; Pere and Paul fortress; Rostral columns and Vasilievsky Island, Summer Garden (laid out by Peter the Great); Kazanskiy and Isakievskiy Cathedrals; The Russian Museum (Mikhailovsky Palace); Aurora Cruiser; St. Nicholas Cathedral; and of course The Vodka Museum, in which one of the best places is the vodka room serving authentic Russian cuisine.

They say that the suburbs of St. Petersburg with their palaces and fountains are a fairy tale too, but this is another story, and one which I hope to tell you about next time!

Well, I had a five-day visa obtained at great personal expense, not to say loss of dignity in dealings with the Federation authorities, but I would not have missed it for the world. Of course I cannot guarantee you the same individual and personal attention as I received from my ubiquitous guide, but I can leave you with a few personal pointers towards the possibility of future success in this regard.

Otherwise, bon voyage!

Tips for attracting potential tour guides/partners/lovers/wives:

1. Circulate in favoured tourist spots (on the periphery ideally) and sport discreet but expensive camera gear.
2. Make sure you are smart, clean-shaven, with a fresh shirt and a good blast of deodorant beneath.
3. Pretend to look through the camera a lot, but keep your camera eye closed and use the other to scout for potential talent.
4. Wait for something singular and tasty to arrive (they must have some kind of camera on them but be on their own) and busy yourself with taking photographs of the favoured location.
5. Suddenly and publically notice them and gathering together your best English accent say something along the lines of, “Excuse me, but would you like me to take a photograph of you in front of the (leaning tower, Rialto Bridge, Hermitage, whatever)?”
6. Be prepared for a long wait, so check out nearest wash and brush up facilities of a tolerable kind, as well as the closest café for a quick blast of espresso (always cheaper taken at the bar!).
7. Good luck!

View Hotels in St Petersburg

Photography (c) Paul Joyce.

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