Looking west, St Petersburg named after the Apostle Peter, by the Europe loving Tsar Peter was first a Swedish settlement on the bank of the River Neva. In line with a few cities in Alaska it is the highest in latitude city with a populace of over a hundred million, with no city further not being home to that many people. Crown prince Peter, unlike his predecessors enjoyed the great outdoors and would go to any length to quest his love for travel but when he inherited the Russian empire he was tied down to the Kremlin. Hating the hierarchy and utterly convinced that the Boyars were scheming to kill him he boldly attested to shift the capital to a Swedish rampart that was recently won by the Russians after defeating the Swedish in an unlikely defeat. The very swampy marsh eagerly looked out into the Gulf of Finland, easily connecting to the rest of Europe accessed by boats. Six-hundred odd kilometers away from Moscow he was convinced of the location prodding the rest of his subjects to move along virtually deserting the Kremlin. Loving Italian architecture, which left a deep impression on him as a young boy, he commissioned Rapheal to build the city of his dreams, which would look as beautiful as Rome, Venice, Pisa and Milan all rolled into one. When he discovered that the traditional medieval white stone was not easily available in the precincts of his new town he imposed a stone tax(!) commanding citizens coming to St Petersburg to carry a sizeable amount of stone into the new capital city. So brick by brick, or rather stone by stone St Petersburg was built right from the scratch.
It now is the second largest city in Russia and by far the quaintest town drizzled in art and peppered with culture from upper-crust Marinnsky performances to the more humble but just as good street performances. While Moscow is intimidating in most places, apart from its parks, St Petersburg is delightful in every turn of the road. The buildings hardly ever go higher than the prescribed four-storey limit and unless absolutely essential, the proportion of the streets and the side-walks are maintained to lend to the city a grand yet warm feel. The river Neva is tapped into the city through various canals marked by tiny bridges at safe distances. The city itself is hinged on the two banks of the Neva crossed by iron-bridges that lift up to let ships into the city facilitating movement of goods into the city. With every building mimicking the proportions of Rome in massing and doused in pastel colors of France, the city is widely candy-like reminding one of a well built cake. The whizzing of the motorcars may just be the draw into reality! Though Peter the Great did establish the city and faced the other royals head-on he did not live long enough to see his vision turn into a reality. After his death the politics of the heavy-headed royals put a brief stop to the city development which only continued in full swing under his daughter Ekaterina as the Russians call her, or Catherine the Great as more popularly known. Steering the city to a fine completion Catherine the Great was known for her golden rule of Russia. Under her thumb the various monuments of the city were built, monuments that just-married couples tour across the city. It is customary for brides and bridegrooms in the city to walk around to major monuments across the city after a simple church wedding, wedding party intact, taking in the sites and mostly letting the city and it’s monuments know of their tryst with holy matrimony! So tourists can behold several beautiful brides and dapper grooms prance around with best men and maid of honor in tow! Most brides wear a fur coat too all in the ensemble!
With a not so long history and a more youthful geography St Petersburg is widely chilly in winters but glows very warmly in the few months of summer. As the snow melts away and the warmer climes approach, the people shed all those layers to emerge in a happy-go-lucky fervor matching their easy smiles with pretty flowers in full bloom. With white nights unfolding, a natural phenomenon where the sky is lit all through the night due to the sun’s angle with earth’s horizon, the city comes alive donning a hat of fun and frolic in a shroud of un-leaving sunlight. Artists of all kind take to the street, performing rock, singing aloud, drawing the weary or thrilled passerby, completing an art project, dishing out an ice-cream, doling out hot yummy corn on the cob, jiving to a dance move and hence sending out those precious vibes into the atmosphere, dressing up in face-paint, standing as still as a perfectly chiseled statue, standing on poles to become a rather out-of-proportion cartoon character, performing a randon trick or two, blowing out massive soap bubbles into the atmosphere, selling rare manuscripts or even playing a tune on the vibrofone! The vibrofone was undoubtedly my most favorite of them all, the subtle and sweet sounding organ could easily make one pause in their tracks and in tune with bright pink sky transport one into a painting nonetheless!
Unlike Barcelona’s La Rambla or Paris’s Champs de Ely sees the urban performance-scape of St Petersburg during the white nights is not restricted to one street or one area, the entire city streets become a place of wonder with Nevsky Prospekt definitely leading the list. The UNESCO World Heritage site is also a city of museums hosting the largest number of museums in the world in one city. The Hermitage leading the pack is one of the biggest museums with large floor plates in the world, it is thronged by a large number of tourists joining the ranks of the Louvre in Paris or the Met in New York. At the Hermitage one is treated to the large collection of art ranging from the Byzantine era to the more recent modern works of art. Van Gogh, Monet, da Vinci are some of the works in the Hermitage that is also flooded with several art collections of the Tsars, the Soviets and more recent government departments of Russia. Home-town to Putin, the city is as fun as ever and a potpourri of a number of European cities with the best of Russia. The Hermitage too is not as specifically Russia as it is all about the world in general. Artifacts from Egypt, the Bahamas and even Phillipines makes the private collection very comprehensive and largely endearing, the fact that it is housed in and tied in seamlessly to the Winter Palace of the Tsars makes the journey through the museum distinctly Russian. It does however bear an uncanny resemblance to the Louvre minus Pei’s very popular glass pyramid. The grand staircase and the house of portraits are reminders of the country’s glorious past and the bravest of them all. Visiting the palace along with the Italian Prime Minister in tow serves to remind one the lack of distinction between the leaders and us humble followers. He did shake hands benevolently and chatted up with the museum goers with ease though followed by a very loyal entourage. Taking well over a day at the museum soaking in all the extents of art it is a rather tedious affair! But after a day well spent the canals make for an uplifting companion through the white nights walks!
The night/day life notwithstanding, since there is technically no night I could hardly call it a night-life, with streaks of sunlight left on all night long does hardly see any difference. The phenomena of white nights inspires a festival and is an inspiration to artists of all types, plays, musicals, ballets, visual and aural art-work. The entire city celebrates the natural wonder playing to their own strengths. Once in motion the joy of the absence of snow seems quite palpable for a city that is submerged in snow for the greater part of the year. At Peter and Paul’s fortress, across the River Neva, the walrus club indulges in active sunbathing lying down on the infill of the fortress. The famous club is also known for winter activities that includes breaking a sheet of ice and diving into the water below during the frigid winters. The thermal shock induced in the body is good for health and the skin as such as the club claims! The Peter and Paul fortress is where the Swedish first built a settlement and where Peter began his dreams of St Petersburg. The complex inside the fortress also included a prison that has never hosted serious criminals except for the revolutionaries. Comprising of an active cathedral, living quarters, government offices the fortress opens out into several gates to the island it is built on. Well documented prints displayed in the fort enclosures give a clear idea on the conception and building of the ramparts and the structure. To fill into a skewed hexagonal space the ground was infilled into the waters to create a firm foundation. Every noon a cannon ball devoid of gunpowder is fired by a volunteering tourist and one by a Russian officer to mark the tradition held in the fortress for over many years. The nearby Velikan park is a popular children’s hub and hosts one of the city’s famed metro stations.
Like in Moscow, St Petersburg’s metro station are decorated in beautiful stone, metal and plaster of paris work lit with gargantuan chandeliers and are steep with the earth at about a hundred metres. Long escalators funnel people through the escalators taking one down several floors, keep right to allow the not-so-faint hearted to run down the moving escalators where people with pace-makers are clearly asked to keep out of, noticeably so! The beautiful metro stations were again, like in Moscow, redecorated to improve the social feelings of the denizens, assuming that a thing of beauty would bring joy forever. The adage is wholly true, cause the beautiful stations do bring joy to the passers-by. Doing up the metro seemed like a great idea, as a major part of the population use the metro to commute daily. With signages in English and Russian the city is much more easy to traverse in, it also is a popular destination for tourists who take the Scandanavian cruises and touch upon Russia through St Petersburg. The city is extremely tourist-friendly. The metal bridges of the ancient times attract a huge crowd as the draw bridges are hosted up at midnight for an hour to allow ships to pass into the Neva River. Though now only a crowd puller, the draw bridges were once a very important part of the city’s progressive growth, bringing in people and material from nearby Europe.
The Marinnsky theatre too drew in it’s fair share of talent hosting several plays and ballets and is a major attraction figuring only after it’s counterpart Bolshoi in Moscow. The theatre has been redesigned to include a brand new building and hosts many events in it’s new and old buildings. As students and ballet professionals perform the pride of the country truly lies in it’s exponential quality of performing arts, mainly the ballet. The Marinnsky palace in the area is home to the city’s legislative assemble, another building built in the Italian style with fluted columns and the triangular In terms of visual architecture, the St Isaac’s cathedral is made of a beautiful Byzantium dome over a cylindrical drum located very close to the Bronze Horseman, that is the statue of Peter the Great on his horse. The mosaic art in the cathedral displays great dexterity and skill, much on the lines of the of the ancient domes of Rome. The portrait of baby Jesus with Virgin Mary is a much repeated scene while the verses of the holy books are scripted on the walls of the cathedral either as text or as visual depictions. A scaffolding model used to build the church at a scale of one-sixteenth showcases the complexity of building which took forty years to be completed finishing between 1818 to 1858. Various drawings of the cathedral made during the time of construction are keenly displayed. The walkway to the base of the dome and encircling the drum provides extremely scenic views of the city across all the sides. The beauty of the city is captured from all angles around the cathedral.
More active than the Isaac’s cathedral is the Kazan cathedral built as a confluence of two religions, the Russian Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic. It is the only cathedral of that kind in the world. It was commissioned to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napolean and modelled on the St Peter’s basilica in Rome. It is dedicated to Our lady of Kazan, probably the most venerated icon in Russia. In midst of a Sunday mass the cathedral is lit up in all its glory resonating with the chants of prayer, people singing along in a group, the cathedral lit up in golden chandelier is a prayer hall filled with positive ions. Large verandahs with columns in a semi-circular archways flank the either side of the main hall reminiscent of the St Peter’s basilica in Rome. The white stone of the Kazan cathedral is one of the usual medieval stone found extensively in the region. Of all the cathedrals in St Peterburg, the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled blood, is extremely striking with the typical onion domes but unlike the turrets of the St Basil’s cathedral, this church dons more mature and subdued colours. Its structure and placement along a canal however make it a place of attraction to artists who draw and sell a pictorial depiction of the structure.
But the most beautiful of them all is undoubtedly the Peterhof Palace popularly known as the Summer Palace located at a comfortable distance from the city of St Petersburg. Though there are several ways to access the palace and its fabulous lower grounds, the way through the hydrofoil is the most glamorous. Walking across the lower gardens which look more like a forest, because of its high expanse of trees, the palace delivers a very pleasant surprise. The water body forming a central access and reaching the palace in a perpendicular dimension leads to the central axis of the Summer palace. Painted in pleasant yellow with white coloured columns, the palace preceded by spectacularly engineered water fountains and crowned by the light blue skies, on good days mostly! The Summer Palace was also designed by Raphael and each of its rooms are equipped with mirrors, lights, chandeliers lighting up the interiors two-fold. The mirrors at different levels of the vertical space increase the quality and feel of daylight within the spaces. The palace looks the best in Summer with cheery colours and a beautiful expanse that glorifies the great Italian architect. Beautiful places leave a lasting impression more often than not, the Peterhof palace is one such place. Compared to the most beautiful palaces in the world, the Peterhof is as delightful as ever. Whether in colour or in form. The upper gardens may not be as beautiful as the lower gardens but lead one onto the interiors. The water fountains, a great sight at the palace were engineered to perfection working on gravity. Just as the Russian tycoons pride themselves on the make of their yachts, the Tsars enjoyed patronising and loved the working fountains playing with water and adding another layer to witnessing architecture, a trend also clearly applied by Tadao Ando in most of his works. The ingenuity of Russians with the water bodies is also seen in other gardens dotting the city, including the very dainty summer garden. Reconstructed in parts the garden is built over existing remains that were found in the area over the years.
Ahead of the upper gardens at the Peterhof palace is the town of Peterhof, the home of the Russian Raketa watches. Now housed in a dilapidated factory building the watches may have lost the competitive edge in comparison to their peers but they are as well-crafted and boast of many different styles and types from over the ages. Worn by Gorbachev during his time as a Soviet leader the brand saw a sharp rise in its value. A long train ride away from the city centre, the Peterhof palace presents a stunning experience mostly because of it’s make and the setting it is located in. Its an italian palace located in a truly Russian setting and it makes for a truly heady mix! Lined with cafes and restaurants, the city and its streets embraces American food, clothing but not so much it’s President, hating the leader quite openly, and alarmingly. While the malls are flooded with merchandise from all over the world, the truly Russian brands stand out with their much lower rates. Fur coats on display including mink are only just a testimony to the severity of the winters. The old architecture mimicking the buildings of Italy with a dash of France are hardly as climate responsive as the new structures drawing in ample amounts of daylight with glass fenestrations and the sun for warmth.
Built on the premise of beauty, St Petersburg is delightful and ingenious marking a world of a dainty visual splendour. From the story of Disney’s Anatasia demonstrating palace coups to the bestest macarons and fondants of Keeives, it is a visual splendour that delights all the senses!