St. Petersburg, 04.06.2019
It had been almost six years since I discovered the beautiful St. Petersburg for the first time. Reading my post from back then again now, in a restaurant on my first night back in town, I was surprised I had just stayed so little time. Admittedly, the weather was different. Back in October 2013 the rain made touring town a lot less fun. Approaching the city from the north in Sunday night traffic I had the chance to roll slowly through suburban St. Petersburg and admire a “Mega Ikea” close to a vast area of seemingly new high rise residential buildings. Everything is XXL here, although more in length than height. As I left the motorway and closed in on the center of town, I opened all windows on this warm and sunny evening and absorbed the first impressions. Past Kalininsky district the older part of town felt familiar and memories from my last visit came up – large avenues with fast traffic, bridges over canals and river, parks and baroque and neoclassical palaces. Once I reached Nevskyy Prospekt I turned off Google maps as I knew my way around, making the place feel close somehow. In an own car I feel I get to know cities in a different way. I manage to see areas a tourist normally doesn’t reach and I see them from a familiar environment (the vehicle). It was the same during Eurasia2013.
After checking in at the hotel I went to find a place to eat. It was about 22.00 and the sky was still shining light blue, creating a wonderful contrast with the buildings colored in yellow by the street lights. Strolling through the streets I almost forgot I had to look for a restaurant as it was getting late, although it didn’t feel that way in this part of the year approaching the white nights. Walking back to the hotel after midnight, the light was still there, and the reflection of the buildings and lights on the canals were magic. There were few people around the streets, creating a lonely, romantic sensation – night-dreaming so to say.
Late next morning I drove out of town to see Peterhof, Peter the Great’s “modest” suburban mansion. The road out of town took me through neighbourhoods I didn’t cross last time, from several smaller palaces and parks, to more Soviet style (including a monstrous university complex that reminded me of the Palast der Republik in Berlin in its final days). Just bigger, because remember, everything is XXL here. XXL were also the palace and especially gardens at Peterhof. While the palace was closed that day, the gardens, surrounding buildings, fountains and waterfalls had to withstand an invasion of tourist hordes of all nationalities. The amount of shiny gold on any kind of surface (roofs, statues, wall decorations) reflected the need for bling. Pictures of the 1940 and 1950 showed how the place had looked after WWII. Unbelievable it got fixed to the present glamour. Walking through the park, with it’s freshness on this hot, sunny day, made my mind wander to the many walks in the Retiro during my time in Madrid, and the Villa Borghese in my hometown. The high trees and curated lawns and little pavilions emanated a peaceful, romantic atmosphere.
Back towards the city I took a detour through Kronstadt, the village on an island in the bay of St. Petersburg that hosts one of its major ports. On the other end there’s a modern business district, featuring the Lakhta Center with the new Gazprom headquarters, the tallest building in Europe (again, XXL) in its final stages of construction. Petrogradsky district was the next stop, with the Aurora cruiser and the small house Peter the Great built after conquering the city to plan the city he was about to build. The house is for once not too big, but they call it a “cabin”, and for that it is – XXL. The Peter and Paul fortress next door I had already seen during my last visit. But what I didn’t know was that the fortress island has a restaurant with spectacular views (and great food) on the end facing the Hermitage across the river. Exhausted from the day I went back to the hotel for a siesta. The many tourists everywhere were too much. A few days ago it was “out of season”, now every tourist seemed to have sprung out of every corner of the world to run around SPB. I’ll skip the rant at this point. There was so much more tor me to see in the city I decided to add a day to my stay.
During my siesta I fell into a deep sleep, and woke up suddenly only at about 22.30. Hungry, I ran out of the hotel to try to find a place to eat. The light was still there. A few streets from the hotel, behind a neoclassical facade, a modern glass and steel courtyard of a Gazprom office building opened up. On the top floor was the Mansarda restaurant, that apart from great food and service had a direct view on St. Isaac’s Cathedral, beautifully illuminated at night, plus the rest of the city skyline, under the shining deep blue sky. After dinner I took a long walk, past the Admiralty embankment, Hermitage, Palace square to the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood and Kazan cathedral. History everywhere, beauty everywhere. Coffee trucks, musicians of all types and band sizes, couples strolling around. And in the midst of it, on a sketchy courtyard, there were a range of clubs, incl. Stackenschneider that I wanted to check out, but everything was closed, wrong day of the week. It felt very East Berlin in the 1990’s.
The next day I struggled with myself over breakfast if I should really do a Hermitage visit. The disdain of the tourists was very strong, but the culture curiosity won. So I left in the heat of another sunny day for the palace and museum. The tourist hordes come in groups of all nationalities, fulfilling all my expectations. In most rooms it was so full I could barely move. The combination of tourist + smartphone + WiFi is really lethal for any attempt to enjoy a place. Every day terabytes of picture content of dubious quality of the exact same items must be taken. I wondered if this was really a desired state for such a spectacular cultural gem. Some Asian groups were particularly loud and evidently either video recording their entire tour or video chatting with somebody to share the experience with. After having seen Crazy Rich Asians I even suspected that some of them might have their tacky architect on the other end of the line to show him what to build back at home in their next mansion. At some point it became just too much for me, and I tried to find the exit to get out. It turned out that wasn’t an easy task. As I kept looking I ran into one room more opulently decorated than the previous one. During the entire visit I took less than a handful of pictures. Impossible with that crowd around.
After lunch on a terrace overlooking the Kazan cathedral, the Fabergé museum was next on my cultural agenda. It’s a privately run museum in a beautifully renovated palace on the Fontanka river embankment. While the exhibition compared to XXL Hermitage was tiny, the Shuvalov palace itself was wonderful. The type of tourist here was very different. In this much more quiet and civilised atmosphere, with more space around me I could appreciate the marvellous masterpieces of jewellery on display. I’m not a fan of these types of items (tea sets, pendants, cigarette cases, decorative figures, not to speak about the easter eggs). But the level of sophistication in the use of materials for the decoration of all the objects was something I hadn’t seen before like this. The palace also has an amazing ballroom, that wasn’t used for the exhibition, but I could admire its grandeur through the open door.
Still under these impressions, I walked back to the hotel. Cultural overdose for the day. A slight summer breeze blew along the streets and canals. People around were enjoying the sunshine while strolling through their city or sitting in parks. Back at the hotel I noticed I had walked almost 20km during the day and needed some rest. If I would fall asleep now I knew I would wake up only the next morning. So I tried to stay awake at all cost, to be able to take a last tour later to see this city at night. Because while St. Petersburg is beautiful during the day, at night when the tourist hordes are gone, the water of the canals calms down, reflecting the blue sky and the yellow street lights a special magic spreads across the old city center. Couples, first dates, groups of friends or dog owners go for a walk through the empty streets, sit on the embankments and bridges, sometimes with a bottle of wine and some snacks. Occasionally a sightseeing boat glides by, shortly interrupting the silence, before the magic comes back. And the lonely narrator in Dostoyevsky’s novel walks the streets of St. Petersburg at night, dreaming of romance.