St. Petersburg: The Cradle of the Vanished Monarchy
The scene: St. Petersburg. The street: Nevsky Prospect. The locals are rushing to work, the tourists are slowly strolling about and gazing around, and rollerbladers are dancing among the throngs of people haphazardly but in complete control. Welcome to the northern capital of Russia: the eternal cradle of the Russian royal heritage.
St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress that once served as a state prison for political criminals. Peter, one of the greatest emperors that ever ruled Russia, was eager to transform the traditionalist and medieval society into a modern power by opening a window to Europe and expanding the empire he had in mind. He definitively reached his goal and was followed up by his Romanov successors who continued riding the coattails of his military and economic glory. St. Petersburg became a true European pearl with marvelous palaces, cathedrals, theaters, parks and canals.
As part of our Russian vacation, we devoted three days to exploring Peter’s creation, which was definitely not enough to get fully acquainted with all its historical sites. But we did our best.
The first night we decided to take it easy and do some walking along Nevsky Prospect – the main avenue in the city – toward the Neva River. Passing by the Church of the Savior on (Spilled) Blood – an ornate Russian Orthodox basilica that was devoted to the emperor Alexander II who was assassinated on that very spot; the semicircular Kazan Cathedral built as a memorial to the Russian victory over Napoleon Bonaparte; the gorgeous St. Isaac Cathedral; the magnificent Bronze Horseman – a monument that Catherine II devoted to Peter I, thereby equalizing her greatness to his; the Baroque-style Winter Palace and Uprising Square – the playground for all the major coup d’états, and other numerous historic sites, I tried to soak in as much energy as I could to satisfy the history nerd inside me.
Going to St. Petersburg at the end of July, we managed to experience the lingering remnants of the phenomenon known as the White Nights, which normally lasts from May through July. During these fleeting months, it never really gets pitch dark and stays light until midnight and even after.
After having a bite at the great Gogol restaurant (named after the famous Russian novelist), we proceeded on a 90-minute ferry ride on the beautiful canals and the Neva River to see the lit-up so-called northern Venice. The crowds start gathering at the Palace Bridge to see the drawing of the multiple bridges so that the big cargo ships and cruise liners can pass through in the nighttime. Sitting on a ferry, wrapped in a warm blanket, and listening to romantic tunes, it was the perfect ending to my first date with St. Petersburg.
The next morning we started by touring the state museum of Hermitage in the Winter Palace. Seeing the interiors of the rooms where 18-19th century ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting bathed in the court intrigues, I felt swathed in the robes of Russian history. After the Hermitage we hired a private boat to tour the St. Petersburg canals. I was especially moved when I saw the building on the Moyka canal, where the Pushkin family used to rent an apartment and where the famous Russian poet died of a fatal wound inflicted by the treacherous George Dantes.
The next day we took a ferry to Peterhof – a series of palaces and gardens built for the royal family just outside the city. This beautiful complex is often referred to as the Russian Versailles, with its ostentatious fountains turned on each day at 11am in a celebratory explosion of opulence. Covered in marble and adorned with gold, the watery cascades sparkle in the sun, making everything around it cheerful and magical.
We devoted the rest of the afternoon to the Russian Museum (classic and modern art) but to be honest, we almost dragged ourselves through it. A lesson for the future: don’t try to jam everything into a few short days. Chances are you won’t enjoy it all so pick a few sites if you’re limited in time and focus on them.
We spent our last evening at a great restaurant called Terrassa, located behind the Kazan Cathedral with a gorgeous view of St. Petersburg, and we ended up on the rooftop of an old friend’s apartment drinking wine and contemplating the beautiful views of the city during the magic hour.
I have to say I’ve always been a fan of Moscow but this trip has entirely changed my perspective. St. Petersburg overwhelms you with its beauty, its amazing historical spirit and is definitely one of the most fascinating and picturesque cities that I’ve ever visited.