St Petersburg, the finest neo-classical city on earth
Early one morning, I set off from my St Petersburg hotel, which looked a strollable distance from Palace Square at the other end of Nevsky Prospect. I stopped for coffee on the bank of a canal but when I checked my map, I’d come less than halfway. By the time I reached the top end of Nevsky Prospect and rounded the wing of the Admiralty Building I was ready for lunch, and there, confronting me on the far side of the square was the great dismal bluff of the Hermitage.
The Hermitage is one of the top five art museums on earth. Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Canaletto, Rubens, Titian, Monet and Renoir hang on its walls in a Who’s Who of great art. Paintings are only a small part of its treasury, which also include Greek and Roman sculptures, Eastern and Oriental art, archaeology, furnishings, carpets and glass. Someone has calculated that it would absorb nine years of your life if you devoted just one minute to each exhibit.
Out of the square, I made for the Palast Bridge, crossed the green and speedy Neva and entered the building just to the left on the far bank. This is the Kunstkamera, also known as the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. More than that, it is a museum dedicated to the mind of Czar Peter the Great. Peter was also a man of infinite energy, an architect, an engineer, a sailor and a military strategist. At the age of 25 and a year after be became absolute ruler, he travelled incognito throughout Europe. On his return, he embarked on a mission to transform Russia from an inward-looking, Asiatic empire into a modern European power.His capital, St Petersburg, was to be his window on the West. He employed architects from Italy and decreed that no stone buildings could be built anywhere in his realm until his city was completed.
The Kunstkamera was his cabinet of curiosities. This odd collection of toys, deformed foetuses, surgical appliances and gadgetry were the souvenirs collected on his European tour – the spark that energised Peter’s imagination. Geology, astronomy, anatomy, engineering, navigation, shipbuilding, carpentry – nothing escaped his enthusiasm.
The vast palace complex of Petrodvorets became the Czar’s country pile when it was completed in 1752, long after Peter’s death. This is another whopper. The façade of the palace is 275 metres long, and in style as well as scale, Petrodvorets echoes the Palace of Versailles. Best of all is the fountain.
It’s easy to get palace fatigue in St Petersburg, but one you should not ignore is the Yusupov Palace. By the standards of Petrodvorets or Catherine’s Palace at Pushkin, this is a modest little affair, yet it drips with ornamentation.While the upper levels are reason enough for a visit, the real interest lies in the cellars. It was here, in a dark brick cavern, that Rasputin was murdered.
Set in a grove on the north bank of the Neva near Peter and Paul Fortress is Peter’s Cabin, a Russian shrine. From this simple log cabin, three metres by five, Peter the Great supervised the construction of St Petersburg. Here’s the curious thing. Peter himself was a bear of a man – two metres tall, which must have made this something of a squeeze. Curiouser still, Peter suffered from agoraphobia. Imagine – from this tiny cabin, while bumping his head, this titan of a man built a city of vast spaces which he probably hated.
The best time to visit the city is during the White Nights, which coincides with the summer solstice (June 21), however this is a popular time of the year, and accommodation can be scarce. Best accommodation is the Kempinski Hotel Moika 22,
For information on touring Russia, contact the Eastern Europe Travel Bureau