Fashioned out of mosquito-infested marshes adjoining the Gulf of Finland, St. Petersburg is a metropolitan marvel. Goethe romantically coined it the “Venice of the North”, while its stately embankments are equally reminiscent of Paris. This is a majestic city of golden spires and gilded domes, of pastel palaces and candlelit churches, conceived by a visionary emperor and studding it with tantalising treasures. Visit St. Petersburg in May or June and the enchantment ratchets up a notch with the fabled White Nights, when the sun sets only long enough to leave a dim glow, as festivities abound.
I visited in October, in the full flush of autumn, and one of the best ways to get to grips with the cultural richness of the city is to glide through its waterways on a river or canal cruise, admiring the finer details of the city’s grand confections and former residences of nobility, artists and painters. On my Trafalgar guided journey to Russia, it was the pitch-perfect introduction.
A quirky novelty to bear in mind, if you’re out late painting the town red, are the bridges. Between April and November, nine bridge roads are closed to traffic, as the drawbridges are raised to let large ships pass through, starting at around 1:30am for several hours. It’s Cinderella pumpkin hour, St. Petersburg-style, so don’t get trapped on the wrong side of the bridge!
Beyond the glorious imperial treasures of the Hermitage, which my Trafalgar guide whisked us through with precision, take a stroll across the cobblestoned expanse of Palace Square, the staging post for the Russian Revolution. Off limits to cars, clip-clopped over by horses and carriages, and back-dropped by the curved facades of stately ensemble constructions like the General Staff building, the vista is timeless, evocative and barely changed in centuries.
Adjoining the square is the celebrated main artery of the city, planned by Peter the Great, Nevsky Prospekt. This historic avenue, frequently compared to the Champs-Élysées boasts some of the city’s storied landmarks and retail gems. Are you a fan of Beef Stroganov? Keep an eye out for the Stroganov Palace, where legend has it that the dish was created here because Count Pavel, Stroganov, a Russian military commander, didn’t have any teeth.
Stepping out on bustling Nevsky Prospekt, the graceful curves of the 18th century shopping arcade, Gostiny Dvor are sight to behold. The city’s oldest department store is one of the world’s oldest shopping arcade, an indoor complex of more than 100 shops took twenty-eight years to construct. It remains a tractor beam for fashionistas with a variety of upscale boutiques, fur hat specialists, homeware offerings, plus some great souvenir stores if you’re short of matryoshka dolls and faux Faberge eggs.
Across the road, I had a furtive saunter around the baroque extravagance of the Grand Hotel Europe, a hotel confection that has charmed a litany of luminaries, from Tchaikovsky to Bill Clinton. Another essential stop is the Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall. This glittering and gilded emporium, resembling a cross between Fortnum & Mason and the Ritz Hotel, has been a signature destination for over a century. The food hall preserves the original seven departments, including colossal display counters of loose produce and exquisite delicacies spanning a French patisserie, bakery, cheese, charcuterie, smoked salmon, caviar, wines, spirits and a cafe.
The largest display is dedicated to the drool-worthy confectionery, featuring marzipan, luxury chocolate and exquisite macarons. Lustily decorated in Art Nouveau style with gilded stucco ceilings, glitzy chandeliers and hand-finished floral cornices, the bourgeois atmosphere permeates the ground floor brasserie, from the exclusive porcelain to the gold leaf glasses. As you sit down to take tea and cake, a gigantic palm tree sprouting in the heart of the store, underscores the sense of escapist decadence.
My Trafalgar guided holiday offered a range of optional experiences, including the opportunity to savour a classic ballet production, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, in the historic Hermitage Theatre, the personal theatre of Catherine of Great. Opera and ballet devotees can also soak up a vintage performance in the sparkling Mariinsky Theatre. The green and white theatre, built in the mid-19th century, has been a cultural hub of Russia, ever since.
I’ve always had a fascination with Cossack dancing so I plumped for a folklore performance at Smolny Concert Hall by the Bagatitsa Cossack Dance Company. Widely regarded as the best Cossack dance production in St. Petersburg, the music and dancing spectacle was absolutely electric. Cossacks, who previously guarded the Russian Tsars, call a bonfire a bagatitsa – very apt. This exhilarating performance burns bright, the elasticity and acrobatic brilliance of the dancing will leave your jaw firmly dropped. Unsurprisingly, this troupe tours the world, and many of the artists are hereditary Cossacks.
Trafalgar’s 8-day Wonders of St. Petersburg and Moscow guided holiday is priced from $2,625 per person twin share with savings of up to 10% available for bookings and payments prior to December 15, 2016. Departures from April 2017. Includes sightseeing, guides, accommodation, many meals, transport and the services of a travel director. trafalgar.com, 0800 872 325 or ask your travel agent.
Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame.