Ah St Petersburg, you temptress of a destination. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great sure knew what he was doing when he took a collection of swampy marshes and built you, the European city of his dreams and what was to become Russia’s grand imperial capital, right over the top of them.
You’re a city of remarkable grandeur you know; your sumptuous baroque palaces, onion-domed cathedrals and bejeweled theatres are fit for a fairytale, and your canal-lined streets make you the true Venice of the North.
In summer you treat visitors to boat rides down your sunshine-soaked waterways and all-night parties during your infamous White Nights, while in winter you bewitch them with snow-covered rooftops and impossibly romantic troika rides.
And me? Well, you gave me the most delicious introduction to the birthplace of my paternal grandmother, and these five moments that I’ll treasure forever.
Just standing in front of The Hermitage – that gargantuan mint, white and gold erstwhile Winter Palace of the Russian royal family that houses one of the world’s oldest and biggest art collections – was overwhelming. With more than three million exhibits inside, it was more than anyone could hope to see in a lifetime, so I didn’t feel too bad about only squeezing in a few masterpieces (Da Vincis, Rembrandts and Rubens among them) during my few hours there. Especially since it was the Baroque staircases, the two-tonne chandelier and the famous Gold Room with its solid gold life-sized peacock clock, that I was really there for.
We zoomed across the Gulf of Finland for 40 minutes on a hydrofoil, then stepped off into another world at Letny Sad, Peter the Great’s summer gardens. Set on an island, the gardens – modelled on France’s Versailles Palace – were filled with dozens of gilded statues by 17th and 18th-century Italian sculptors, more than 200 spurting fountains, lakes, rose gardens and forests of oak, maple, linden, birch and poplar trees. Heaven on earth.
The sun only graces St Petersburg with its presence about 38 days a year, and I was blessed with two of them during my stay. I made the most of it, hopping on one of the many boats puttering down the sunshine-soaked waterways an hour before sunset. I watched painters working and lovers canoodling by the water, saw the otherworldly Spilt Blood Cathedral with its colourful onion domes rise and slip away above me, and realised that St Petersburg is called the Venice of the North for very good reason: it’s spread across 42 islands, crisscrossed by 62 rivers and canals, and connected by 300 bridges.
Up above the world
As dusk settled in, I climbed up to the colonnade of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to take in the panoramic view of the city – particularly spectacular because the city centre doesn’t have any tall buildings except cathedrals, thanks to a 19th century rule stating buildings couldn’t be any higher than the Winter Palace. A peaceful moment watching the night lights start twinkling all over the city as a summer storm rolled in.
A night at the ballet
Was I dreaming? There I sat, surrounded by Russia’s diamond-encrusted elite sitting in the gilded red velvet-clad boxes above me, in the opulent Alexandrinksy Theatre. On stage, the Russian ballerinas leapt and twirled their way through Swan Lake, making me very, very glad I had taken that stranger’s advice and booked a front-row ticket. This was indeed, as she had suggested it would be, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My trip to Russia was organised by Beyond Travel, who put together my itinerary, got me the necessary letter of introduction into the country, helped sort out my visa and made my stay absolutely unforgettable. Highly recommended.