St Petersburg: A Pattern of Islands

  • WRITTEN BY Philip Game
  • DATE December 3, 2018

Conceived from the first as one of Europe’s great cities, St Petersburg grew from the vision of one extraordinary man. Peter the Great engaged Europe’s finest architects to design his showcase capital, an ice-free port to be his kingdom’s gateway to the West. The entire city took shape on the marshy delta of the River Neva after Peter’s defeat of the Swedes in 1703. Later, the German-born Catherine the Great would also leave her mark.

Peter envisaged a Venice of the north, with boats taking the place of horse and carriage, but over the centuries, three hundred bridges were built. Of these, twenty are drawbridges.

Locals stay up on the endless summer ‘White Nights’ to see the drawbridges raised in the small hours to allow ships to pass… and the city reverts to an approximation of Peter’s vision. It’s a happy tradition to while away the time with a vodka or two when the way home is blocked.

Construction began with the Peter and Paul Fortress erected on the northern shore in 1703.  The Strelka, or Tongue, forms the easternmost tip of Vasilyevsky Island, separated by two arms of the Neva from the Peter and Paul Fortress and the city centre on the south bank. The golden spire of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral rises above the last resting place of Russia’s emperors – although the remains of the last Romanovs, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, returned here only in 1998.

South of the Neva, street after street boasts rows of pastel facades, often facing the canals. The colonnade around the massive golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral affords views clear across the city. The grand Nevsky Prospekt cuts across the waterways as it runs southeast from the Winter Palace and the General Staff and Admiralty buildings. Along the way lie many fine pre-Revolutionary landmarks including major hotels, the Gostiny Dvor shopping arcades and the Kazan Cathedral, modelled on St Peters in Rome. Behind the Cathedral, don’t miss the golden gryphons which guard Bankovsky Most, a footbridge over the Griboedova Canal.

St Basil’s on Red Square, Moscow, provided a model for the Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood, at the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1863. With him died hope for reforms which might have averted the Russian Revolution.

Tsar Paul I commissioned a mounted statue of his great-grandfather Peter, which stands outside the Mikhailovsky or Engineers Castle. Some believe the horse’s hooves come to life at three in the morning. Paul himself fulfilled a prophecy that he would die at 47, felled by a candlestick wielded by a trusted guard.

The Mikhailovsky Castle later became a military engineering college whose graduates included the writer Dostoevsky. Close by are the Summer Gardens and the Mikhailovsky Palace housing the Russian Museum, one of the finest collections of Russian art.

The much-vaunted Hermitage often teems with package tourists, but there are many more fine museums to discover. On the Strelka, the Kunstkamera is a quirky anthropological museum founded by Peter himself. Others were the homes of literary and artistic giants – Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov – or of Lenin or other political figures.

“Come to me!” the motherly woman urged. Rather than embrace the curator at the Blockade of Leningrad Museum I accepted the spirit of her invitation to tour the unobtrusive townhouse, commemorating the 900-day siege of Leningrad, as it then was, by Hitler’s armies: one million people died.  Under heavy aerial attack, vital supplies were hauled in from the east across the metre-thick ice of the vast Lake Ladoga.

As in Moscow, the Metro system can be challenging: escalators plunge down to platforms which are not always labelled with station names. Around the city centre there’s usually no alternative to walking. Sensible shoes rule! In these high latitudes, summer’s china-blue skies give way quickly to bone-chilling drizzle.

St Petersburg cannot be ‘done’ in one or two days: you would miss the palatial country retreats built by Peter, Catherine or their courtiers. Peterhof or Petrodvorets, Peter’s Great Palace, is set amidst formal gardens on the Baltic coast. Peter himself designed the gilded fountains.

Other ‘suburban’ attractions along the Gulf of Finland include the Oranienbaum or Lomonosov estate, and Peter’s two further palaces. South of the city stands the Romanov family’s Tsarskoe Selo, with the Catherine Palace and its restored Amber Room, walled from floor to ceiling with the lustrous fossil resin.