8th – 13th July
St Petersburg was built on the irrepressible ego, rampant aspiration and tyrannical driving of an endlessly disposable and replaceable labour force. In the late 1600’s Peter the Great, determined to match the great capitals of Europe with one of his own, marched tens of thousands of workmen from all over Russia to build this city on the mosquito ridden, marshy and flood susceptible deltas of the River Neva.
It was both a construction and humanitarian nightmare: thousands died of dysentery and thousands more deserted, only to be replaced with thousands more, ruthlessly escorted to complete the greatest new city project of its time. At the same time noblemen and gentry were equally brusquely treated, ordered to build great stone houses on the new avenues and prospects and to originate new trade in the nation’s new capital.
The result, irrespective of its history, is breathtaking. We enter the city from the north, first gasping at the latter additions on the outskirts: mammoth concrete clad apartment blocks, impossibly high and bulky, lining mathematically straight avenues and to huge to be considered ugly. Gradually these give way to row upon row of avenues decorated with glorious, embellished mansions, increasing in beauty as we approach the centre. Eventually we cross Troitsky Bridge, with its spectacular plethora of views over some of the Neva’s tributaries, each with its own streetscape rising above in impeccable beauty.
And it goes on. Past the 200m façade of the architectural wonder that is the Hermitage, we turn on to Nevsky Prospect, possibly the grandest avenue in Russia: eight lanes of cacophonous traffic for three miles straight, lined by endless palaces, mansions and cathedrals, each with its own architectural merit.
We spend our first full day happily sightseeing, first the Russian State Gallery then the remarkable, incongruously resplendent Church of the Saviour of the Spilt Blood, sitting alongside one of the many canals. This extraordinary cathedral, more Muscovite in appearance with its confusion of multicoloured whorled and jagged, faceted domes, was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded in 1881, hence the unusual name. Inside, virtually every square inch is covered with mosaics, some 7,000 square metres, a shimmering miasma of copper sulphate blues, brilliant golds, reds and tan. It is breathtaking, yet astonishingly during the atheistic Soviet era introduced by Stalin in 1930, it was used as a warehouse, storing potatoes and stage sets for a nearby theatre. It fell into deep disrepair and took 27 years to renovate, reopening in 1997, despite taking just 12 years to build originally.
It would be possible to write endlessly about this city’s wealth of beauty, but The Hermitage complex deserves a mention. Built for Empress Elizabeth in 1754, The Winter Palace (now part of the greater Hermitage complex) is ostentatious in the extreme, it’s vast, turquoise façade punctuated by immaculate columns, cherubim, statues too innumerable to mention. Inside, its 1057 rooms are a testament to the Tsar’s unimaginable vanity, wealth and aspirations. One entire wing was redesigned in the 1840’s on the sybaritic whim of the then Grand Duke’s spouse.
The state rooms are an endless, stupefying panoply of delicate frescoes, immaculate and gleaming gilt cornicing, vast crystal chandeliers, marbles in numerous shades of pinks, greens and reds, hewn from far corners of the earth, intricate alabaster and plaster ceilings, malachite pillars and gold – gold leaf, paint, too much to take in.
Anaesthetised by so much beauty, we stumble round the gallery and museum also housed within (it contains 3 million artefacts and pieces). Monet, Matisse, Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Vos, Cezanne, Gauguin, Gainsborough… to name only a fraction of the most memorable; all meander by in a seemingly perpetual pageant of indigestible glory.
There is only so much opulence and culture you can take in in one day, so after the Hermitage we called it a day. Our final major sightseeing trip, to the Summer Palace in Peterhof some 20km outside St Petersburg, we saved for the following day. This is worth a mention too, especially the arrogant extravagance of the gold leafed domes which adorn the main body of the palace. It gets easier to understand why many of the Romanov Tsar’s who built these endless palaces were not popular with their nation.
Below the palace, innumerable fountains powered by gravity alone, cascade their way majestically towards the sea, perpetually witnessed by an army of gold statues: Venus and a multitude of gods, cherubs, lions, fish and frog all angrily spume forth water into the principle channels of the fountains.
We shall need a day or two off from this sort of stuff before we reach Moscow, so we can fully appreciate what lies in store for us there…