Russia: Abode of the Tsars
St Petersburg dazzles with its grandeur and mesmerises with its art and architecture. Truly, royally regal, every bit of it
An aerial view of Peter & Paul Fortress and the Neva River
“Ya lyublyu tebya,” in Russian means ‘I love you’. Almost every visitor says this when leaving St Petersburg, currently touted as one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the world. Strong reasons for this love affair become explicit the moment I arrive at the city centre, from where the former capital of the Russian Empire grew three centuries ago. Never in my life have I glimpsed such a grandiose ensemble of glittering and colourful architecture flanking wide boulevards, manicured parklands and streaming canals that add graceful embroidery to the city’s fabric.
Being familiar with many European cities — Paris, Vienna, Rome, Prague and Venice — the silhouette and character of St Petersburg strike me more like them than typical Russian, usually dominated by red bricks and onion domes.
The glittering ornate spires of Catherine Palace
Digging into history unfolds the mystery. Back in 1703, the Tsarist Emp-eror Peter the Great founded St Petersburg on a swampy wetland as the capital of his young empire; Moscow for him was too far away from the strategically important Baltic region. Having a great taste for art, he invited the best European architects to come and build his new city to make it the crown jewel of all imperial capitals. As a result, the city was developed drawing inspiration from Versailles’ chateaus, Roman cathedrals, Venetian canals, and imperial Vienna’s aura imbued in all of them. Interestingly, most of what was built has survi-ved the carnage of the wars and revolutions, the mayhem of the infamous siege during World War II and the pressures of communism — and has remained as a grand relic of the extravagant Tsars.
And if any glamour has been lost over time, native son Vladimir Putin, now the nation’s President, restored them back to its former glory while celebrating the city’s 300th anniversary. So, locals proudly say today that the only change they know of is its name: from St Petersburg to Petrograd during World War I, then to Leningrad during the Soviet era, and finally back to the original after Perestroika or national restructuring in the 90s.
The Kazan Cathedral illuminated at night are just some of the sights of St Petersburg
Like Venice, St Petersburg, which comprises of several islands, was built on water with a complex network of rivers and canals, all spanned by countless ornamented bridges, the mighty River Neva being the main artery. Often described as the ‘Venice of the North’, a cruise along the waterways is a perfect way to grasp a good understanding of the cityscape and its jewels.
From the comforts of a luxury boat, I visually capture a never-ending line-up of architectural marvels that comp-rise forts, palaces, churches, noble edifices and monuments, many of which are the city’s star attractions: Peter and Paul Fortress (whose golden spires dominates the city’s skyline), Winter Palace, State Hermitage Museum, St Isaac Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, Church on Spilled Blood and Mariinsky Theatre — the place for opera and ballet lovers — are just a few.
MUST-SEEs: (Clockwise from far left) A chandelier in the State Hermitage Museum; taking a river cruise, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood; the canals of the ‘Venice of the North’; and the fountains at the Grand Cascade at the Grand Peterhof Palace
St Petersburg evolved as an abode of the Tsars, so it got packed with numerous palaces that depict nothing but the extreme pomp and grandeur of imperial Russia. The Winter Palace located in the heart of the city aptly claims the top position. Designed by famous Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, this 1762 built royal residence with a glitzy fascia presides over the bustling Palace Square that has witnessed many key events of Russian history, the most significant being Lenin’s Bolsheviks storming into the palace in 1917 to bring an end to the epoch of the Tsars. Inside the palace quarters you will find the Hermitage Museum, where the collections are so vast that at any one time, only one-twentieth of it treasure trove is displayed — masterpieces from Raphael, Rembrant, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Canova, whose marble sculptures have always fascinated me.
Getting There – Fly Emirates (www.emirates.com) direct to St Petersburg
Accommodation – Solo Sokos Hotel Vasilievsky (www.sokoshotels.fi) is located close to public transport and iconic sites.
Currency – Russian uble (1 AED = 8.85 RUB)
Catherine I of Russia had a summer palace built for her pleasure in 1717. In 1756, the updated, gold-gilded edifice of the palace was unveiled to Empress Elizabeth
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Opened in 1860, the Mariinsky Theatre was known as the Kirov Theatre for most of the Soviet era. Today, it is home to the mariinsky Ballet, Mariinsky Opera and the Mariinsky Orchestra and one of the most stunning venues in the world
Peterhof and Catherine Palace are two other royal abodes that demand a visit as well. Both are located just outside city limits and testify to the lavish lifestyles and spendthrift taste of the Tsars. Gold glitters from almost every angle. Peterhof was built by Peter the Great in the early 17th century, following styles of Versailles Palace. The fountains and golden statues are something to see there, while at Catherine Palace, built a few decades later; the 300-metre long, blue, white and gold Baroque fac-ade adorned with a profusion of atlantes, columns, pilasters and decorated window frames will stun onlookers. The extreme opulence in some of these royal quarters tells me why there was a revolution in Russia.
However, not many remnants of that revolution and its aftermath or from the Communist period come to my notice other than some impoverished apartment blocks, built during Stalin and Khrushchev’s time, and a couple of Lenin’s statues; the key one is located outside the Finland Railway Station, marking his arrival in 1917 from exile in Finland to kick start the revolution.
Not everything you come across in St Petersburg is antique. Superimposed over the historic city is an avant-garde metropolis that provides all the needs of the modern generation, from excellent accommodation options and good public transportation to trendy markets, fashionable shops, hordes of cafés and restaurants… and most importantly, a rejuvenated atmosphere that never fails to bestow a powerful grip even on the most jaded traveller.
Leaving the city a few days later, I get the feeling you do when parting with something that has acquired a special place in your heart.
MUST-VISITS: Monument to Vladimir Lenin in front of Finlandsky (Finnish) railway terminal in St Petersburg
Our train speeds out of St Petersburg’s famous Moscow station, from where trains depart for the capital, and I bid the place goodbye: “Ya lyublyu tebya, St Petersburg”.