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Saint Petersburg

Majestic metropolis

Join journalist Ivo Weyel to explore Saint Petersburg, a fairy-tale city where art and history are revered, hip little restaurants are run by delightful staff, and Fabergé eggs are within reach. Well, almost.

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There are cities where you go to hang out on sidewalk terraces,wander about at your leisure and simply relax for a few days. Saint Petersburg is not one of those. It’s possible, in theory. But this is a city that deserves full immersion. To fully enjoy this grand metropolis brimming with art and culture, you’d do well to read up on it before you arrive because there’s a lot of ground to cover – both experience- and expanse-wise.

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    Magical sunrises

    As soon as I set foot in my hotel, the Grand Hotel Europe, I find myself steeped in Saint Petersburg’s history. Having first opened its doors in 1875, the hotel, with its beautifully preserved facade and interiors, is where the tsar used to stay. My suite is named after the 19th-century novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), whose works can be found in the bookcase next to the minibar. (And just a few streets away, there is a museum dedicated to the great author, located in the apartment he occupied for many years.) Every Friday evening, diners at L’Europe (the hotel’s restaurant) are treated to a ballet performance during the restaurant’s Tchaikovsky Night.

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    Quiet allure and gracious manners

    I am welcomed with a glass of icy vodka and a soft-boiled egg with a generous dollop of caviar glistening on top. This is Saint Petersburg the Hospitable, a very different place to hectic Moscow, where new money and stone-cold business dealings set the tone. Saint Petersburg exudes the quiet allure and gracious manners associated with old money. It boasts a character that sets it apart from the rest of the nation. The people are friendly and polite, and the centuries’ worth of art and culture that they are exposed to are reflected in their open minds – proving that art really does bring people together. The majestic Neva River is an expansive waterway, with such a rapidly swirling flow that it’s hard to imagine it frozen over during the winter months. Candy-coloured palaces sit along the shore, each one grander than the next thanks to all the noble families who resided here during the 18th century.

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    Saint Petersburg exudes the quiet allure and gracious manners associated with old money

    City of bridges

    Giant bridges span the two sides of the Neva, their decorations so sublime it has made them a travel destination in their own right. Especially at night, between April and November, when the bridges are romantically lit and open up to let ships pass on their way to the Volga. In case roaming around at night isn’t quite your thing, try getting up at dawn as a river sunrise is an unforgettable experience here. Equally famous are Saint Petersburg’s White Nights – a natural phenomenon in areas of high latitude, where the sun doesn’t set completely during midsummer nights. This wonder is celebrated with a myriad of festivities in the second half of June; with revellers flocking to the city from all over the world.

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    The State Hermitage Museum

    Another treasure of Saint Petersburg are its subway stations. They are so beautiful, they might well be rooms in a museum and during the days of Stalin (1878-1953), they were known as ‘the people’s palaces’. A visit to the cathedral-like Avtovo station is a must. I take the metro to Saint Petersburg’s number-one destination: The State Hermitage Museum. Occupying six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the tsars’ Winter Palace residence, it’s safe to assume this was never originally intended as a place for commoners to spend the day. With several locations abroad too, the Hermitage is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world; its enormous collection largely accumulated through Catherine the Great’s love of art and appetite for shopping. The Russian empress gained money and power during a time in which many of Europe’s royal and noble families were impoverished and in need of funds. They were happy to divest themselves of their collection of arts and antiques to the voracious tsarina. Other treasures were added later on.

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    New Holland

    The next day a cab takes me to the other side of town, to one of the city’s up-and-coming neighborhoods where hip Saint Petersburg flourishes. The project, that goes by the name of New Holland, is named after the shipyard where Dutch shipwrights from as early as 1704 helped build Russia’s fleet. Or several fleets to be precise, of both warships and mercantile vessels. Peter the Great brought these shipwrights over from the Netherlands and put them up in a makeshift Dutch enclave. Things have recently been spruced up, the area completed with a vast and elegantly landscaped park where a variety of renovated buildings now serve as galleries, theatres, bars and trendy shops.

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    The atmosphere is lively, especially on weekends. The many youngsters employed in these establishments are happy to shower you with advice on where to find hip eateries and clubs. That’s how I end up at Hamlet + Jacks, a restaurant in a small back alley I would probably have overlooked myself. It turns out to be a marvelous contemporary little spot (whatever you do, don’t skip their Siberian venison Carpaccio). And still, said youths take equal amounts of pride in the old history of their city, I quickly discover. They point out the various palaces, now museums, once inhabited by celebrity fellow denizens. “The revolution in visual arts started in Saint Petersburg,” states Anna, who works at New Holland’s visitors’ centre. “Because it is here that Malevich (1878-1935) first exhibited his legendary painting Black Square in 1915, which signalled the beginning of abstract art.”

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    See a ballet where the tsar once sat

    In addition, Anna also strongly advises me to see a ballet or opera performance in the 19th-century Mariinsky Theatre. Which is exactly what I do that evening, seated in the imperial box. A wonderful experience. Not just because the theatre still exudes the splendour of yesteryear, with its richly adorned ceilings, columns, halls and corridors, which make it easy to imagine pompously dressed noblemen milling about for a round of see-and-be-seen; but also because you’re sitting exactly where the tsar once sat. And that does add a special dimension.

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      Wide expanses

      Boulevards such as Nevsky Prospekt and Bolshoy Prospekt present us with a blinding array of souvenir shops, so I decide to jump in a cab and head to the Smolny Convent – a 20-minute drive from the city centre – instead. This is a primary example of Saint Petersburg’s taste in baroque. With its sky-blue facade, shape that is reminiscent of a multi-tiered cake, golden domes and cupolas, and joyful little plaster cherubs leaning out from the walls, it’s so idiosyncratically Russian that I can’t help but walk around with my mouth agape. The convent was built during the reign of Elizabeth of Russia (1709-1762), Peter the Great’s daughter, with the purpose of educating young noblewomen about the joys of a respectable and pious life. Her successor, Catherine the Great, didn’t do pious and respectable, or baroque for that matter, and the building process came to an abrupt halt. It would take another 100 years for the bell tower to be finished, during the reign of Nicholas I (1796-1855).

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        Matryoshka dolls

        Seldom have I visited a place as multi-layered as Saint Petersburg. The comparison with Matryoshka dolls – those famous hollow dolls that open up to reveal smaller and smaller versions of themselves – springs to mind. There’s the story of the tsars, the incredible art history, war and peace, and the unique combined interpretation of them all, which suffuses modern city life. Saint Petersburg celebrates modern cuisine with an old-fashioned toast. Cool DJ’s play in historical palaces. And the venerable local porcelain manufacturer Imperial Porcelain (established in 1744) now brings avant-garde design to the table. Respectfully idiosyncratic: that’s Saint Petersburg in a nutshell.

        Respectfully idiosyncratic: that’s Saint Petersburg in a nutshell.


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