Daz­zling show of strength

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

Two decades of mas­sive in­vest­ment in St Peters­burg has paid off, write Tom Masters and Simon Rich­mond.

NCE a des­o­late swamp, Rus­sia’s im­pe­rial cap­i­tal is to­day a daz­zling me­trop­o­lis whose sheer grandeur never fails to amaze. Not since the paint first dried on Ras­trelli’s build­ings in the late 18th cen­tury has St Peters­burg looked so good. The city’s fa­cades are bursts of beau­ti­fully painted colours once again. Built from noth­ing by west­ward-look­ing Peter the Great, St Peters­burg was, from its in­cep­tion, to be a dis­play of im­pe­rial Rus­sia’s grow­ing sta­tus in the world. Fine-tuned by Peter’s suc­ces­sors, who em­ployed a host of Euro­pean ar­chi­tects to add fab­u­lous palaces and cathe­drals to the city’s lay­out, St Peters­burg grew to be the Ro­manovs’ show­case cap­i­tal and Rus­sia’s first great, mod­ern city. It has re­tained this sta­tus de­spite the cap­i­tal mov­ing back to Moscow af­ter the revo­lu­tion. De­spite all that his­tory has thrown at it, St Peters­burg still feels ev­ery bit the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal, a city largely frozen in time. Whether you’re cruis­ing the el­e­gant canals, cross­ing one of the city’s 342 bridges or watch­ing ships on the mighty Neva River at night, you’re never far from wa­ter in St Peters­burg. With the his­toric cen­tre’s canals lined by Ital­ianate man­sions and bro­ken up by strik­ing plazas adorned with baroque and neo­clas­si­cal palaces, it’s un­sur­pris­ing that the city is of­ten com­pared with Venice. St Peters­burg is an al­most un­ri­valled trea­sure trove of art and cul­ture. You can spend days in the Her­mitage, see­ing ev­ery­thing from Egyptian mum­mies to Pi­cas­sos, while the Rus­sian Mu­seum, spread over four sump­tu­ous palaces, is per­haps the best col­lec­tion of Rus­sian art in the world. Add to this world-class ballet and opera at the Mari­in­sky Theatre, clas­si­cal con­certs at the Shostakovich Phil­har­mo­nia and nu­mer­ous big-name mu­sic fes­ti­vals over sum­mer, and you won’t be stuck for cul­tural nour­ish­ment. If con­tem­po­rary art is more your thing, there’s also the fan­tas­tic Erarta Mu­seum, show­cas­ing the best in mod­ern Rus­sian art, and a small but buzzing gallery scene.

1. White Nights

The ul­ti­mate St Peters­burg ex­pe­ri­ence is in mid-June when the sun slumps to­wards the hori­zon but never fully sets, mean­ing that the nights are a won­der­ful whitish-grey. Peters­burg­ers in­dulge them­selves in all-night revelry, sev­eral fes­ti­vals take place and the en­tire city en­joys an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally re­laxed at­mos­phere. It’s the busiest time to visit the city and most ho­tels are booked up weeks in ad­vance, but there’s noth­ing quite like it, so don’t miss out – even if you come in May or July you’ll be im­pressed by how late the sun stays out.

2. The Her­mitage

Per­haps the world’s great­est mu­seum, the Her­mitage’s vast col­lec­tion is quite sim­ply mind­bog­gling, with Egyptian mum­mies, more Rem­brandts than the Lou­vre, and a col­lec­tion of early 20th-cen­tury art un­ri­valled by al­most any other. Plus your en­try ticket al­lows you to walk around the fas­ci­nat­ing apart­ments and daz­zling state­rooms of the Ro­manovs. Then there are still the other mu­seum sites: the Win­ter Palace of Peter I, Gen­eral Staff Build­ing, Men­shikov Palace, Im­pe­rial Porce­lain fac­tory and ex­cel­lent Her­mitage Stor­age Fa­cil­ity (her­mitage­mu­seum.org).

3. St Isaac’s View

No other view­point of the his­toric cen­tre beats the one from the stunning gold dome of St Isaac’s Cathe­dral, which rises ma­jes­ti­cally over the uni­formly sized Ital­ianate palaces and man­sions around the Ad­mi­ralty. Well worth the climb up the 262 steps, a panorama of the city opens up to you – with fan­tas­tic views over the river, the Win­ter Palace and the Bronze Horse­man. The cathe­dral’s in­te­rior is also well worth see­ing, with a won­der­fully over­the-top iconos­ta­sis framed by col­umns of mar­ble, mala­chite and lazu­rite.

4. Rus­sian Mu­seum

Even though the Her­mitage is un­ri­valled as St Peters­burg’s most im­pres­sive mu­seum, make sure you visit this lesser-known trea­sure trove of Rus­sian art, spread out over four stunning palaces in the cen­tre of the city. The main build­ing, the Mikhailovsky Palace, presents a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion of Rus­sian art from me­dieval icons to 20th-cen­tury avant-garde mas­ter­pieces, while the Mar­ble Palace houses a wing of the Ludwig Mu­seum, and the Stroganov Palace has some of the most spec­tac­u­lar in­te­ri­ors in the city (rus­mu­seum.ru).

5. Church on the Spilled Blood

The Church on the Spilled Blood never fails to im­press vis­i­tors. The church was built to com­mem­o­rate the death of Tsar Alexander II, who, in an event that gave the church its un­usual name, was at­tacked here by a ter­ror­ist group and later died of his in­juries in 1881. De­spite its grisly her­itage, the glit­ter­ing, mul­ti­coloured onion domes and in­tri­cate in­te­rior mo­saics are sim­ply stunning.

Gen­eral Staff Build­ing

The Her­mitage is in the process of mak­ing the most pro­gres­sive change in its 250-year his­tory – shift­ing its cel­e­brated stash of Im­pres­sion­ist and postIm­pres­sion­ist works from the main build­ing to the newly mod­ernised gal­leries of the Gen­eral Staff Build­ing to sit along­side a steadily grow­ing col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary ex­hibits. In­stal­la­tions should be com­plete by the end of 2015.

Mari­in­sky II

The Mari­in­sky Theatre has played a piv­otal role in Rus­sian ballet ever since it was built in 1859 and re­mains one of Rus­sia’s most loved and re­spected cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions. Af­ter more than a decade of con­struc­tion, the Mari­in­sky’s state-of-the-art new build­ing fi­nally opened in 2013. A su­perb new opera and ballet venue for the city, it’s a must for any mu­sic lover, even if its thor­oughly mod­ern ex­te­rior hasn’t ex­actly thrilled the city’s preser­va­tion­ists (mari­in­sky.ru).

Cen­tral Naval Mu­seum

The beau­ti­fully re­pur­posed new premises for St Peters­burg’s long-es­tab­lished Cen­tral Naval Mu­seum brings the im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of mod­els to life with ex­cel­lent light­ing, plenty of space and in­ter­ac­tive dis­plays, all in a new lo­ca­tion across from the for­mer ship­yard of New Hol­land (naval­mu­seum.ru).

When to go

May to Septem­ber is best, with the White Nights the peak. Win­ter is cold and dark, but beau­ti­ful. Go in early May and Septem­ber to avoid the crowds.

Ar­riv­ing in St Peters­burg

St Peters­burg is well con­nected to the rest of Europe by plane, train, ferry and bus links. The ma­jor­ity of trav­ellers ar­rive by air at Pulkovo Air­port. Flight time from Lon­don to St Peters­burg is three hours, and from Moscow it’s un­der an hour. This is an edited ex­tract from Lonely Planet St Peters­burg (7th Edi­tion) by Tom Masters and Simon Rich­mond, © Lonely Planet, 2015. Pub­lished next month, RRP: $29.99 SPE­CIAL OF­FER for Es­cape read­ers: 20 per cent off Lonely Planet print guides and PDF chap­ters at shop.lone­ly­planet.com. En­ter code ‘ES­CAPE20’ at check­out.

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