Evoking Russia’s Past

Minutes after my arrival in St. Petersburg a brash college student snatched my guidebook from me and began rewriting my travel plans. I had stopped to ask her for sightseeing tips and in reply she reached into my backpack for a pen, unfolded the book’s pull-out map, and circled location after location.

“You will go here, here, and here,” she said. Then, just as briskly, she tucked the pen into my shirt pocket and disappeared into a stream of humanity on St. Petersburg’s teeming streets.

The student’s directive nature, at once charming and unabashedly blunt, captured the spirit of this grand Russian city on the edge of the Baltic Sea. Designed as Peter the Great’s showpiece, St. Petersburg is as photogenic as any European city, with rows of stately neoclassical and baroque mansions and palaces lining a maze of canals. That outward beauty also belies a hardiness born of czarist oppression, revolutions, civil war, Nazi siege and Stalin’s purges. The combination makes St. Petersburg an art, architecture and history buff’s dream.

A week was just enough to sample some of the city’s most fascinating attractions. On my first day, I visited the State Hermitage Museum, which grabs you from Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s gilded double staircase in the main entry hall and never lets go, treasure-filled room after room. As a space for viewing art, it’s odd and daunting, with dusty rooms, windows flung open, and roaming packs of tour groups. Crowds overwhelm the famous impressionist collection (the spoils of war with Germany in 1945), but the museum rewards wanderers. Fumbling through the maze of galleries, I discovered a striking Paul Bartholome sculptural rendering of Adam and Eve tucked in a niche beside a third-floor gift shop, the Italian and Russian sculptures lining the New Hermitage’s main staircase framed with red-gray Finnish granite columns, and the jaw-dropping “Big Vase,” a 19-ton elliptical behemoth made from a single block of Siberian jasper.

The next day, the wannabe art connoisseur in me couldn’t resist a more intimate look into how the museum preserves its vast collection, and I toured the Hermitage Storage Facility in Staraya Derevna, a working-class neighborhood 20 minutes away by subway. Noteworthy pieces, often displayed unlabeled and without much fuss, include royal carriages used for czarist coronations and a pristine sultan’s tent gifted to Catherine the Great in 1793 by the Ottoman Empire’s Selim III that she apparently opened once then ordered tossed away in a closet.

Everywhere I went in St. Petersburg, I felt the pull of history, but unlike in Rome, where the relics of the past overwhelm the present, or London, whose residents hold at arm’s length their landmarks and monuments, Russians here incorporate those spaces into their lives. In summer’s extended daylight, wedding parties abound: grooms twirl their brides on the Strelka, the city’s stock exchange complex flanked by two beet-red rostral lighthouses, or on Millionaire Row, where newlyweds rub for luck the colossal 15-foot granite Atlas statues propping up the New Hermitage portico. Two expansive parks, the Field of Mars, honoring the October Revolution, and the Summer Gardens, once an exclusive royal playground dotted with baroque sculptures, make for a relaxing place to join locals searching for respite from the bustle of the city.

The parks were designed by Italian-born Russian architect Carlo Rossi, whose classical style defines many of St. Petersburg’s public landmarks. Another of his grand spaces is Arts Square, home to a statue of Alexander Pushkin, the country’s most beloved poet. It is bordered by the Mikhailovsky Palace, which houses the largest national collection of Russian art.

Midweek, I explored the area between the Griboedov and Fontanka canals and toured the exuberant onion domes and multicolored mosaics of the Church of the Spilled Blood. The church is St. Petersburg’s most typically “Russian” structure, built in the style of the Kremlin, and marks the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Just outside, I shopped for the famous matroyshkas, the nesting dolls, in the souvenir stalls, haggling with a merchant who admitted she didn’t get Westerners’ fascination with the dolls (which originated in Japan). She shrugged and took my money anyway.

My home for the week was Nevsky Inn, a comfortable bed-and-breakfast near the Hermitage, the Winter Palace and literally steps off Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare, which blends Champs-Elysées chic, Big Apple noise and Las Vegas kitsch. Tourists intermingle here with businessmen meeting over vodka and sushi, modelesque beauties sashaying past designer boutiques and babushkas hawking their wares.

For an introduction to Russian cuisine, Irena Larionova, who runs the Nevsky Inn, pointed me toward Tolstiy Fraer, a friendly pub-style restaurant. I sampled the typical fare, including pelmeni (dumplings), potato pancakes and Irena’s favorite, schi, a tangy cabbage soup. I skipped dessert and headed for one of the ubiquitous street-side Teremok chains, whose chocolate blinis were a daily addiction.

Next to those tasty pancakes, the sweetest experiences to be had take place on the water. In the city known as “the Venice of the North,” the romantic in me couldn’t resist taking several boat tours, even if only one of them was given in English. In any language, a canal ride presents St. Petersburg at its most beautiful. We floated under an array of iron-latticed bridges, past facades of aristocratic residences; the pink Beloselky-Belozersky Palace, once the city’s communist headquarters; the golden yellow Yusupov Palace, where the mad monk Rasputin was killed; and Peter the Great’s summer residence, awash in shades of orange sherbet.

The ride was even more enchanting on the Neva River, where a network of fountains sent plumes of water dancing into the air. Near twilight, when we turned back toward the canals and drifted along the length of the Winter Palace, an evening breeze carried the figurative voices of the czars, artists and revolutionaries of Russia’s past across the white night of the St. Petersburg sky.

CAPTIONS: (top, right) the golden spire of the Admiralty and the massive dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. (middle, left) vast Palace Square is home to the Hermitage and the crescent-shaped Winter Palace. (bottom) locals set up a makeshift farmers’ market on a side street off Nevsky Prospekt.