Why St Petersburg is ‘Paris on steroids’

St Petersburg at night

Michael Murphy enjoys a grand Russian adventure filled with opulence, culture and history

Over a weekend in October, four of us embarked on an adventure to the birthplace of President Putin, prejudiced by tales of gulags and oligarchs. Russia seemed to be an exotic and forbidding destination. What we discovered was a wealthy European city with expensive cars in the streets, designer boutiques, superb restaurants, and world-class theatre. It is crammed with museums and art galleries and magnificent churches, and populated by a reserved but kind and welcoming people. Apart from the immigration officers, everyone smiles warmly.

The weekend to St Petersburg was a generous wedding gift to my husband Terry and me from our witnesses Barbara and Tiernan Quinn.

St Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities you’ll ever see. “Paris on steroids” is what Terry called it. The city was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 to be Russia’s window on Europe. And after the 1917 Revolution which began in St Petersburg, Lenin ordered the magnificent baroque palaces and neo-classical buildings that line its streets to be preserved for the people.

The “Venice of the North” is seen at its best from a boat ride we took along the city’s many waterways traversed by elegant bridges, and out into the mighty Neva river estuary towards the Peter and Paul Fortress, the burial place of the tsars, and where Dostoevsky was imprisoned.

Although the conurbation today has the same population as Ireland, the city centre is compact with the main sights close together. You can easily stroll along part of the wide thoroughfare of the Nevsky prospekt, all five kilometres of it, to explore the adjoining attractions. The Singer sewing machine building with the glass globe on top now houses a wonderful bookshop.

Nearby there is an art deco cafe serving delicious cakes and coffee. Taste a square of Russian honey cake: eight layers of the thinnest sponge filled with honey cream.

Terry suffers from polio, so we booked the services of a tour guide and driver.

It cost ¤600 between the four of us for two days, and was worth every penny. Anastasia, who spoke perfect English, turned out to be a social worker with a 10 year old child.

She was invaluable at purchasing tickets and guiding us efficiently through one of the world’s greatest art collections in the ensemble of buildings housing the Hermitage museum and the Winter Palace. She cleared a way for Terry on his three wheeler Travel-Scoot through the hordes of Chinese, so that he saw up close the two celebrated masterpieces by Leonardo Da Vinci, the ‘Litta Madonna’, and the ‘Madonna with a Flower’. “And the real Mona Lisa is reputed to be in the basement,” she told us credibly after viewing the wealth of treasures. “But they have an agreement with the Louvre not to show it…”

There were more than 20 paintings in the Rembrandt room. “What you need to see here is ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice’, and then ‘Portrait of an Old Man in Red’.”

The enormous white Winter Palace state rooms were an opulent riot of gold leaf decoration and massive chandeliers with the formal Jordan Staircase jaw-droppingly impressive.

We marvelled at a corridor which is a replica of the Raphael Loggias in the Vatican, and also the renowned green malachite drawing-room. Tiernan loved the 1812 War Gallery near the Large Throne Room which featured 332 portraits of the generals who defeated Napoleon. It took the English painter George Dawe 10 years to complete.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood and Griboedova Canal

Turning our back on the magnificent main facade we walked across the vast Palace Square, the setting for the Bloody Sunday massacre, to the General Staff Building. It is a 19th century building recently modernised into an architectural marvel through roofing over the internal courtyards. It houses new galleries for the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection. We had the place to ourselves, because the “Chinese are not interested in modern art”. Roomfuls of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the Russian Wassily Kandinsky, with no guards patrolling. I wanted to see the works by Matisse, in particular the large decorative panels of the ‘Dance’ and ‘Music’, which he painted for the staircase of the businessman Sergei Shchukin’s palace in Moscow. They were breathtaking, perfectly displayed. Lenin personally signed the decree confiscating all of Shchukin’s possessions. He managed to escape to Paris with his family before Lenin unleashed the Terror. Stalin then divided Shchukin’s modern art collection between Moscow and St Petersburg, and confined it to museum basements as “degenerate art”.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with its onion domes in the Russian Revival style is one of the city’s landmarks just off the Nevsky Prospekt. It is a riot of colourful mosaics in precious stones both inside and out. Lavish biblical scenes cover the interior walls and ceiling. The church was built on the site of the assassination of Alexander 2 in 1881, who emancipated the serfs. The shrine marking the exact spot where he was blown up has bouquets of fresh flowers placed on the cobbles.

Barbara had booked tickets for the famous Mariinsky Theatre dating from 1860, to see the Kirov Ballet which boasted Nijinsky and Nureyev. We were seated above the royal box beside the imperial crown so we felt very privileged to visit a venue which has seen premieres by Tchkaikovsky and Prokofiev. La Sylphide dates from 1832 and is the first ballet to feature toe-dancing en pointe. There was a lot of mime, it featured sylphs and witches, and while perfectly executed, such ethereal romanticism definitely belongs to a more innocent era.

The performance began at the civilised time of 6.30pm, so that parents could bring their enchanted children home to bed, and we could repair to the Stroganov restaurant for a steak dinner, preceded by borsch, a filling beetroot-based soup. The surprising entremets were shots of vodka.

There is an astonishing modernist structure next door to the theatre housing a newly built concert hall, Mariinsky 2, which looks every bit of its €500 million cost, and hosts orchestras from all over the world.

The splendour of St Petersburg’s imperial past will take your breath away.

The opulent excesses of the aristocracy’s way of life underlines the historic suffering and resilience of the city’s residents. On Bloody Sunday in 1905, a thousand peaceful demonstrators were slaughtered by the army in front of the Winter Palace. We visited the cruiser Aurora which fired the blank shot in 1917 to signal the storming of the palace and the start of the revolution. We stood where Eisenstein placed his camera above the state staircase of the New Hermitage to recreate the moment for his film masterpiece October.

Mariinsky Theatre

DURING the second world war, two million of St Petersburg’s three million inhabitants lost their lives to starvation and the bitter cold in a three year siege by the Nazis. They defiantly broadcast by loudspeakers at the German lines the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich dedicated to the city by their native son.

On the 20-minute taxi journey from the airport we were impressed by the massive granite figures of grieving mothers and soldiers in the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad. It stands on a vast roundabout marking the end of the shopping centres, and the entrance to the city proper.

St Petersburg defenders gathered again in Palace Square to protest the 1991 coup against President Gorbachev’s reforms, which they defeated. Their indomitable spirit lives on in St Petersburg through the latest protests against the raising of the pension age.

Regrets? While we came back with a series of traditional matryoshka dolls each one smaller than the next, we should have chosen those painted with Putin’s face. As a souvenir they would have been a talking-point.

A long weekend in St Petersburg is eminently do-able. You’ll need at least two full days to see the main sights, with another day or two for travel. It is less than five hours flying time through Frankfurt or Amsterdam and leave yourself two hours to transfer.

A visa at the Russian Embassy takes a week to process. We stayed at the Kempinski Hotel Moika across from the Hermitage, which cost ¤150 for a double. Breakfast was in a small French cafe around the block called Garcon. And everywhere we went friendly staff attempted or spoke to us in English.

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