In The Footsteps Of The Tsars
St Petersburg’s imperial past lives on in its architecture, the large squares and majestic palaces
WE DON’T consider ourselves Asian or European. We are large enough to have an identity of our own,” my Englishspeaking taxi driver, Elena, says as she drives my husband and I into the city from the airport. This was obviously a debate she’d had many times before.
As we speed through the streets of St Petersburg, the contrasting shades of its history are striking. Between rows of neoclassical buildings and quaintly tucked away cathedrals, I spot typically grey and sparse Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks, telling signs of its tumultuous past. My first brush with St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was known back then, was through old black-and-white photos of my grandfather’s visit here in the early 1960s. I’m told ‘burg’ was too Germanic sounding for the Soviet leaders, who changed the name multiple times before coming full circle in 1991. But the St Petersburg I had set out to discover was that of the Romanovs.
TRAILING THE ROMANOVS
To understand the city, a short history lesson was in order. On our first evening here, our tour guide told us that in 1703, Tsar Peter I (popularly known as Peter the Great) decided he wanted to build a modern, more European capital for Russia. The result was a jewel of a city that was an amalgamation of all the great western European cities and then some. Situated at the head of the Gulf of Finland and divided by the Neva and countless other smaller rivers and canals, Peter I named his city after his patron saint, Peter.
Next morning, we cross the Neva to visit Zayachy Island. Here sits the majestic Peter and Paul Fortress, the first structure to be built in Peter I’s new city. The cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul,