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Russia, Part I - St Petersburg

By Ben Williams , 18 November 2016

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St. Petersburg

I had long wanted to visit St Petersburg, to walk among the palaces and tie the history of the Romanovs to the Bolshevik revolution and the Cold War to the modern day economic powerhouse. I could not have prepared myself however for the scale and elegance of the historic centre of St Petersburg and the power and beauty of Moscow.

St Petersburg’s sapling was the first ‘dacha’ or cottage built by Peter the Great in 1703. He so loved the spot, our guide Maria informed us, that he decided to build a palace for all weathers which would be followed by many more, making St Petersburg the great city it has been ever since. The original dacha is still in place, but the much more impressive adjacent complex, the Peter and Paul Fortress, is the first essential sight in the city. The most interesting part of the complex is the Peter and Paul cathedral, gold outside, with a magnificent spire, and a classic mix of red, black, green and gold inside. It is the final resting place of almost all of the Romanovs, their marble tombs elaborately decorated and inscribed in ancient Russian script.

A city built on many islands, St Petersburg is best explored by boat with a selection of day cruises and private pleasure boats chugging along the rivers and canals throughout the summer months. From the ancient entrance to the Peter and Paul Fortress on the banks of the river Neva we shared the river bank with fishermen and some very brave swimmers, savouring the views back toward the Winter Palace with the golden dome of St Isaac’s cathedral rising in the distance.

Best known as the home of the Hermitage museum, the Winter Palace was another of Peter the Great’s creations. The museum’s collection, begun by Catherine the Great, is the largest in the world, ranging from prehistoric artefacts to Russian religious icons to Renaissance art and beyond. Our guide gave a quick but detailed overview as we climbed the rococo Jordan Staircase and walked through the adjoining palaces for the first time before reflecting in more depth on individual paintings. I was particularly impressed by the array of French impressionists and more recent artists, including works by Monet, Matisse and Picasso.

A short walk away is the golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral, which stands at over 100m, larger than any in Russia. Inside are numerous mosaics, recently restored and once again sparkling the way the architect intended. St Isaac’s Square in front of the cathedral served as a cabbage field during the siege of 1941 to 1944, yet more recently many buildings have been converted into luxury hotels. Alongside the Astoria which opened its doors in 1912, W launched their first Russian venture in 2011, while Four Seasons have just opened their first hotel in Russia in the Lion Palace, built by Auguste de Montferrand at the same time as the cathedral. Along with the classic elegance of the Grand Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospekt and the Kempinski Moika 22 very close to the Hermitage, there is now an excellent choice of very comfortable accommodation in the city – please do call us for our personal advice on which hotel would best suit your requirements.

In 1881, Emperor Alexander II, despite starting an agenda of reform, was killed by revolutionaries. On the site of the killing was built the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood in commemoration of the events, the colourful tiled onion domes are based on St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. As a fan of the mosaics of Italian churches in Rome and Ravenna, I was astonished by the interior, covered in mosaics so intricate that they almost appear painted on.

The highlight of many Russian holidays is a trip to the ballet at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre or the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. I was lucky enough to enjoy this taste of Russian society watching Giselle from a comfortable gallery seat in the Mariinsky. The theatre had been described to me as an upturned wedding cake with its many layers of balconies and galleries! The ornate frescoes and chandeliers made it feel every bit as palatial as our daytime visits without a baker in sight. As the dancers played out two acts of exquisite moves I tried not to dwell on the fact that I will never be able to stand en pointe let alone leap into any adagios and just enjoy the poetic moves, dramatic staging and fine setting.

The towns and countryside around St Petersburg became popular with the Tsars as summer retreats from the city. Today it is possible to visit several stunning palaces on day trips from the city. They are best visited in summer, when the gardens and impressive fountains are in full swing, and it is even possible to arrive at Peterhof by hydrofoil in good weather. Ask the Kirker Concierge for more information, or to arrange a guide and driver for the day.

The town of Peterhof, approximately 80 miles away around the south end of the Gulf of Finland, saw the construction of Peter the Great’s summer palace. The real highlights are in the lower gardens, where over 1km2 of lawns, pavilions and spectacular fountains culminate in the Grand Cascade which welcomed royal guests arriving from the sea.

Pushkin, with upmarket dachas lined neatly on streets resembling early New England settlements, plays host to a couple of palaces. The Catherine Palace, built by a Swedish noble family in the 17th century but given as a gift by Peter the Great to his wife Catherine, is the most impressive. Built in flamboyant baroque style the sweeping golden ballrooms and hidden bedrooms are magnificent to behold.

10 miles from Pushkin is the large pleasure garden and palace of Pavlovsk, built for Catherine’s son Paul to keep him close – but not too close. The gardens are used in winter for skating on frozen lakes and even skiing on the gentle slopes; while in spring, summer or autumn they make for a delightful stroll. When Paul married Maria Feodorovna they spent their honeymoon visiting the courts of Western Europe and the lavish gifts they received on their travels still adorn their house. The whole estate at Pavlovsk, although ornately designed, has a more relaxed feel than Pushkin and the two make a perfect contrasting pair, easy to visit together in a day trip from St Petersburg.

It is easy to get from Pushkin or Pavlovsk to St Petersburg airport as both are south of the city centre. I was whisked away in a comfortable car as the morning’s cold mist began to clear to head for Moskovsky train station and on to Moscow. 

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