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Live like the Tsars at St Petersburg

St Petersburg’s imperial past lives on in its architecture, the large squares and majestic palaces

brunch Updated: Oct 08, 2016 19:29 IST
Audience at the Mariinsky Theatre, a historic theatre of opera and ballet
Audience at the Mariinsky Theatre, a historic theatre of opera and ballet(Ashwin Pai)

We don’t consider ourselves Asian or European. We are large enough to have an identity of our own,” my English-speaking 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.

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, also within its confines, is the oldest in the city and its 40-foot-high gleaming golden spire is an iconic part of its skyline. The church’s cheery pink-and-green marble interior is the resting place for all, except for two, Romanov rulers.

Next on the itinerary is Peter I’s first residence. Surprisingly unassuming by royal standards, this wooden cabin, painted to resemble the stone structures of Europe, was the Tsar’s residence from 1703 to 1708. As evening falls, we brave the freezing wind and rain and walk back across the Dvortsovyy Most bridge towards the Palace Embankment and onto the city’s main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. The setting sun puts on quite a show for us and the view is overwhelming. Baroque palaces in shades of blue and green, and rococo mansions stretch endlessly ahead. I realise that St Petersburg’s UNESCO protected city centre is in effect a museum in itself.

The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg’s city centre

In the following days, even a casual stroll down its streets is like a crash course in history and architecture. It is, after all, home to great structures such as the Kazan Cathedral and St Petersburg’s most famous landmark, The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. We make our way to Senate Square to pay our respects to another city landmark, the statue of the Bronze Horseman, which was commissioned by Catherine the Great to honour Peter I. The larger-than-life representation of the city’s founder seems apt after all we learnt about him during the day.

The dining room at Peter the Great’s original winter palace

The next day we head to the State Hermitage Museum. This is the largest art museum in the world with over three million works housed in 10 buildings, seven of which are monuments of historical significance. The spectacular mint green, white and gold Winter Palace situated in Palace Square is the museum’s main building and was the official residence of the royal family from 1732 to 1917. After spending the better part of a day here, we head next door to Peter’s original Winter Palace. Catherine the Great built over this palace when she commissioned the Hermitage Theatre. But archaeologists were able to recover an enclosed fragment of the palace and its courtyard. The museum has on display exhibits related to Peter’s life, including his carriage, a recreation of his workshop, his dining room and an almost eerie life-sized waxwork of the emperor.

The following day, our trail leads us out of St Petersburg and into its suburbs to visit two of the finest Romanov residences. We’re told a visit to Catherine Palace and Peterhof is a must.

Named after Peter I’s second wife, Catherine I, the long and flawless blue, white and gold façade of the Catherine Palace makes for a pleasant sight against the day’s grey sky. Located in Tsarskoe Selo, the palace is surrounded by acres of parkland. There isn’t any sign of spring for miles around us, but the bare trees lend the gardens a certain stark beauty. As I wander through the almost fairytale-like hallways of the palace, it becomes easier to understand how a line of great rulers became increasingly disconnected from the needs of their subjects – the main reason for the revolution and the subsequent violent end to Russia’s imperial era.

A short car ride away is Peterhof, Peter I’s summer residence, built on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, it became a symbol of the new Russia and in many ways outdid its inspiration. Each generation of Romanovs added their own style to the palace and today the interiors are dazzling. Baroque rooms, stuccowork, gilt and chandeliers are everywhere.

The palace’s most famous feature is the cascade fountains. The Grand Cascade comprises of 64 fountains at different levels and is decorated with 200 ornamental statues. The majestic gardens around Peterhof are home to smaller cascades, beautiful landscaping and even the famous Joke Fountains that spray unsuspecting passersby if they happen to step on certain paving stones.

On our second-last day here, we visit the Yusupov Palace on the banks of the Moika. The imperial yellow residence that belonged to the Yusupov family makes up in beauty what it lacks in size. But its main claim to fame is that it was here that Grigory Rasputin, the mad monk and mystical advisor who caused Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna’s downfall, was killed in 1916. With a prior booking, visitors can visit a display that uses pictures, documents and life-sized wax figures to recreate the assassination.

In July 1918, just months after Rasputin was assassinated by the Tsar’s inner circle, the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas II and his family. And just like that the Romanov’s 300-year-reign, and with it Russia’s monarchy, came to a macabre end.

Belosselsky Belozersky Palace, a neo-baroque palace, at the intersection of the Fontanka River and Nevsky Prospekt

We decide to take a canal cruise later that evening to give our feet a break from all the endless walking. Viewing the ‘Venice of the North’ from the water is a special experience. In the distance we see the blue, white and gold onion domes of the Spilled Blood Cathedral built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. As I step out of the boat, I recall that first evening and our tour guide telling me that St Petersburg is more European than Europe itself. Her statement makes perfect sense now.

From HT Brunch, July 10, 2016

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