The Splendour of St. Petersburg

(Part 1)

THE CITY

The flight from Paris took around three hours and we arrived in St Petersburg at mid afternoon. Our driver, organized by our tour Agent, met us at the airport. Our hotel was small, but comfortable, situated close to the center of the city. As we didn’t speak Russian, we arranged for an English speaking guide during our visit.

It was the futuristic vision and indefatigable effort on the part of Peter the Great that resulted in the making of St Petersburg, when in 1703 he determined that this edge of the BalticCoast would be turned into a city whose beauty would surpass all others.  Regardless of the high cost, St Petersburg was created, propelling Russia into the modern world. The city is made up of several islands, two major rivers (the Neva and Heba), and scores of canals, all connected by bridges. It became a centre for music, art, literature and architecture in a fantastic conglomeration of what stood for the epitome of Russian culture. It grew into a showpiece city, with palaces, parks, elaborate architecture in baroque and neoclassic style, of churches with domes in dazzling colours – gold, green, blue, red; buildings painted in salmon pinks, sapphire blues, and sunny yellows – colours  which  would glisten in the hot summer months and glow through the dark gloom of the long Russian winters.

It was first named after the ruler’s Patron Saint, Peter.  During World War I Tsar Nicholas II changed its name to Petrograd, meaning City of Peter.  In 1924 following the death of Lenin the name was changed to Leningrad, and then in 1991 the New Russian Parliament renamed it St Petersburg.

It is a city that has lived through great trauma and tragedy.  During the Second World War, German troops had its supply lines cut off with only a month’s food in reserve.  Nearly a million people died in the infamous ‘900 days’ of starvation, but finally, the indomitable spirit of the people of St Petersburg, helped them survive this crisis.

St Petersburg has been associated with a host of famous figures from Russian culture and history.  Peter the Great, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great were figures that loomed large in the history books, and their great love of learning and culture shows in every corner of this city. Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Shostakovich composed their music, while Pushkin and Dostoyevsky wrote their masterpieces here.  The present President, Vladimir Putin is a native of St Petersburg and never fails to bring State guests across from Moscow to visit his hometown. When Elizabeth became Empress she further embellished the city.  It was she who established the RussianAcademy of Arts.  Later, Catherine the Great (1762) turned St Petersburg into a grand city. She collected works of art from Europe and employed the best architects and landscape gardeners of the time.  Her Court was extremely luxurious and her WinterPalace later became the world famous Hermitage where the growing royal collection of art was housed.  Under Catherine’s patronage, science, the arts and trade flourished, and the city administration was greatly improved.  She established the first Municipal Council and the position of Mayor to the city. Her palace at Pushkin is a splendid example of her great love for architecture and artistry.

Today St Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia with a population of around five million. Because of its location, just five hundred miles south of the Artic Circle, it experiences the strange phenomenon referred to as ‘White Nights’, when the sun never sets and darkness never falls! It occurs for a short period at the end of June and we were fortunate to be in St Petersburg exactly at this time.  It is indeed a strange sensation to wake up at two in the morning and see the sun peeping through the windows, or to leave a restaurant at midnight (as we did) and step out into sunshine!  Although somewhat disorienting, we were thrilled to experience this extraordinary occurrence.

With the collapse of the Communist regime and the introduction of a free economy, St Petersburg is now beginning to cater to the needs of its flourishing tourist industry. It offers organized tours to places of interest, boasts of many restaurants with a selection of cuisine ranging from the ordinary to the exotic, as well as a taste of glamorous nightclubs.

We spent the first afternoon taking a boat ride down the canals. It was interesting to view the city from a different perspective. The skyline of St Petersburg is something unique, for the brightly coloured ‘onion’ domes and spires of the cathedrals, great palaces and museums and gigantic works of sculpture are totally different from the usual skyscrapers, bright lights and crowded streets of  big cities in other parts of the world.

The next day we toured by car, absorbing the elaborate artistic flavour of the city as well as the contrasting ‘block’ buildings which lined the geometric roadways, as also the old model vehicles on the roads. We saw bridges by the dozen, each of them flanked by enormous monuments or sculptures. Colossal statues adorned the great Squares, – The Bronze Horseman in Decembrists’ Square, the Alexander Column in Palace Square, Nicholas I on horseback in St Isaac’s Square. Furthermore there is the Rostral Column at the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island, the Flying Angel that stands on the spire of the bell tower of the St Peter and Paul Cathedral, and the monuments to Lenin, Pushkin and Catherine the Great – to pick out a few. It is impossible to describe them all, for at almost every corner of this city there is some dazzling sculptural display. The exterior view of the city with its incredible works of art prepared us for the stunning interiors of the buildings we planned to explore. Unfortunately, we had to be very selective in where we visited due to lack of time.

We planned to visit the famous HermitageMuseum the next day.

(Published in Lanka Monthly Digest 2003)

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