The Real Venice Of The North.
St. Petersburg, Russia
These days it seems that any city which has even a single canal
running through it gets the soubriquet ‘Venice of the North’ slapped on it.
‘Amsterdam, Holland – the Venice of the North!’ cry the travel brochures. You
can even find ‘Manchester, England – the Venice of the North’ if you look hard
enough, though any city less like Venice than Manchester is hard to imagine.
The real Venice of the North is St Petersburg, Russia. As
European cities go, it’s really young. St Petersburg was built in 1703 on the
of Russian emperor Peter the Great. Peter’s guiding aim was to stop Russia
being seen as barbaric and backward by the rest of ‘civilized’ western Europe.
His aim in making St Petersburg his capital was to move closer, both
spiritually and physically, to the European capitals he so admired. Moscow, it
was felt, was just a bit too far east to be properly European.
Savior On the Blood Cathedral
You only have to walk the streets of St Petersburg today, or
along the side of the River Neva, to appreciate Peter’s European dream. The
architecture is far removed from the onion domes of the present-day Russian
capital. Columns, statues and classical facades dominate the streets of the
Make sure you see the Winter Palace, the 200-metre frontage of which dominates
the riverfront in the centre of the old city. This royal residence, completed
in 1763, houses one of the finest art collections in the world inside the
Hermitage. This building was added by Catherine the Great as a further royal
bolt hole. These days it is solely occupied by a staggering 2.8 million works
of art. It is also often surprisingly empty. On a quiet day you can virtually
have the place to yourself – which is a stunning experience if you love great
art. The collection contains pieces by all the major European masters. You
could wander around for months and still not see everything it has to offer.
St Petersburg has been through a lot. This spirit of endurance is reflected in
the buildings and in the character of the people, who are charming but tough
(they have to be – in winter it gets so cold the ice on the Neva is often a
foot thick). After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the city changed its name,
taking the moniker of another great political leader, albeit one more in tune
with the communist times. ‘Leningrad’ the city remained until 1989, when it
reverted to its old name.
During those seventy years times were hard –
mainly due to the encroachments of Nazi Germany. During World War Two
Leningrad/St Petersburg was pretty much on the frontline between Soviet and
Nazi forces. Large parts of the city were reduced to rubble, to be rebuilt
later in one of the most extensive and sensitive reconstructions of the
A few survival tips for the city:
Try to book a central hotel. It’s a big old town and although
being based right in the middle may be a little more expensive up front you’ll
save a lot on public transport fares.
Wrap up warm! St Petersburg can have the odd cool day even in
the middle of summer. In winter it is freezing. Plenty of layers, sensible
shoes or boots and a woolly hat are vital.
Take some hard cash. The rouble isn’t the world’s most stable
currency, so some dollars (or Euros, or sterling, if you’ve been touring
Europe) can come in handy. Many major outlets, hotels and restaurants – and
some smaller ones – will happily take dollars. Before you go, check out the
rules about the amounts of different currencies you can take in and out of the
country – it varies.
Stay safe. While it’s true that St Petersburg is really no
more dangerous than most US cities – and arguably safer than some – it has had
a pretty turbulent time over the past few years, especially with organized
crime. You’re very unlikely to run into the Mafia, but the city suffers from
the usual run of tourist hazards such as pickpockets. Take sensible precautions
and you should be fine.
St Petersburg is a wonderful city – as much a true meeting point between east
and west as Istanbul is. It’s also a great place to visit to get a real feeling
for what’s going on in modern Russia. In 1917, the Revolution kicked off in St
Petersburg when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. The city remains a
cultural and political barometer of the nation, and as such should not be
missed – even if it is a little short on gondolas.