If you’re bound for St. Petersburg, you’re heading for a city that cannot be described as simply majestic. This city is ready to tell you stories about czars, czarinas, authors, musicians, heroes, conductors, ballerinas, and poets.
The sparkling Russian city of St. Petersburg surprised me even before my arrival. I was making a list of things I need to see in the city, and, at some point, I felt like the list could go on and on: the Hermitage Museum with its art collections and priceless artworks, the Church of the Resurrection designed as a festival of colors inside and out, Mariinsky Theater that witnessed the golden age of Russian ballet, Peterhof Palace, the Russian State Museum… Canals, drawbridges, the statue of the Bronze Horseman named after one of Pushkin’s poems, the historic Gostini Dvor lined with hundreds of shops like chain links, the museum house where Dostoevsky completed his novel The Brothers Karamazov… Menshikov Palace, Kunstkamera, Cruiser Aurora, and Nevsky Boulevard about which Lermontov said, “What can be more joyful, more illuminated and more spectacular than this street?” As the list grew longer, I, as an homage to Lermontov, asked myself, “How can one city be so charming?” The answer ended up adding new names to my list: Peter the Great, Leningrad, Romanovs, Nabokov, Repin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mendeleev, Tchaikovsky, Gogol… I put the pen on the table and am excited to begin my journey to St. Petersburg.
This feeling becomes real as I stroll down Nevsky Boulevard. The light reflected on the historic buildings on this street and the alleys that cut through it gives hints about the beauty of St. Petersburg. The enameled, onion-shaped domes of the Church of the Resurrection shine under the bright sun. The wall and dome mosaics of the church turn the structure into a unique work of art. Outside, the guide on the tour boats along the canal recalls how the church was built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Meanwhile, I’m walking towards the Russian State Museum on Arts Square. Paintings -each rarely discussed by Western art historians but each a masterpiece- stand witness to the high level of aesthetics of Russian art. Serov’s Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova, Vasnetsov’s Knight at the Crossroads, and Makovsky’s Fair Booths on Admiralty Square are only a few of them. The Russian Museum of Ethnography right next to the museum is founded to house artifacts of world cultures including the people of the former Soviet republics.
I leave the museum and head back to Nevsky Boulevard. Pushkin is sitting at the table at the entrance of Literaturnoye Café (No 18)! The mannequin looks so much like the Russian poet that you cannot help but think it’s real. Although it breaks my heart to learn that Pushkin stopped by this café before heading for the duel that led to his death in 1837, I fight the sadness by listening to Shostakovic's "The Second Waltz" -he was also a frequent customer of the café. Next comes the glamorous Kazan Cathedral and Pushkin’s museum house. Pushkin spent most of his life in St. Petersburg. The most impressive of the rooms that display his belongings is his study with a library with over 4,500 books in 14 languages. The poet’s fans bring flowers to the house on January 29, the anniversary of his death.
I spend the rest of the day at souvenir shops filled with matryoshka dolls of various sizes, Fabergé eggs, amber accessories, blue-and-white Gzhel porcelains, and lacquered boxes with depictions of scenes from Russian tales. They are all so beautiful that I feel I am shortchanging them by calling them souvenirs as they are works of art created with workmanship and skill. I also stop by the bookstore Dom Knigi on the boulevard. Although I don’t speak Russian, it feels good to breathe in a bookstore’s atmosphere. Looking at children’s books filled with magnificent illustrations makes me realize that Russians have expanded their artistic skills from architecture to education. The beauty continues with special design scarves at Passaj, which is filled with stylish stores and whose one gate opens up to Italyanskaya Street, and the clothes at the giant shopping mall Gostini Dvor. In order to resist the urge for a shopping frenzy, I take myself towards Eliseyev Emporium! This is a venue that blends a restaurant, a café, and a delicatessen with a showcase decorated with puppets of fairy tale characters. The interior cannot be described with words -it is filled with a palatal feast from rare cheeses to the most expensive caviars, mushroom chocolates to colorful candies. For dinner, I choose koryushka fish beloved by the people of St. Petersburg.
The Fabergé Museum was opened at Shuvalov Palace in 2013. The valuable bejeweled Fabergé eggs in the Blue Room are memorial jewelries of Russian czars. The Fabergé jewelry masters gave way to a new tradition by placing ships, watches, birds, and horse carriages inside these priceless eggs. After the October Revolution in 1917, Carl Fabergé moved to Germany and this Russian tradition came to an end. In addition to the eggs, the museum mesmerizes with decorative objects in gold, silver, and porcelain.
“By day, a mysterious wood, near the town / Breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume,” writes Anna Akhmatova. Though I arrive early at her museum house, it’s already filled with her fans. Akhmatova lived nearly 30 years in this house which is a part of the Sheremetev Palace. I see her baggage, books, and photographs as witnesses to her life. I bid farewell to poetry and head for the St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a wonder of architecture. Gazing at the city and Neva River from the balcony on its dome, I think about hundreds of museums including the Bread Museum and Freud’s Dream Museum and feel the respect I have for this city grow in me for protecting a piece of every heritage that came to pass here.
The dessert I order at Hotel Astoria's café is named after a prominent ballerina, Diana Vishneva. While enjoying it, I see students carrying violins from Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory walk from the nearby Theater Square. Meanwhile, Moyka’s waters bear the reflection of a yellow structure. It’s Yusupov Palace where Rasputin, a villager with a perplexing power over the palace administration, was killed in 1916. You’re lucky if you can watch a concert at the palace’s Rococo theater. And like them, I regard myself lucky as I take my seat for the opera Don Quichotte at Mariinsky Theater. This is where Diaghilev founded Ballets Russes, one of the world’s most famous ballet companies, in 1909. Their shows, which are staged for 20 consecutive years each, continue to shape the history of ballet. This St. Petersburg company has presented the world with great dancers such as Nijinsky, Nureyev, Pavlova, and Vaganova.
I spend my third day in the city at the Hermitage. The journey which began with the unique artworks collected by Catherine the Great gave birth to one of the world’s most valuable museums. The museum is an artistic paradise which displays works by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Gauguin, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. Its halls and storage facilities are home to nearly three million artworks from prehistoric examples to the meticulous works of the Far East -only 10% of them is on display. Nestled in the crowd before the Peacock Clock at the Pavilion Hall, I wait for the time this golden bird will spread its wings. While waiting, I try to figure out how many weeks it would take to do justice to the Hermitage, a unique cultural treasure of the world!
I feel something similar walking around Peterhof. The Grand Palace, whose construction was initiated by Czar Peter the Great on the coast of the Gulf of Finland in 1709, became something else in 1755 -an example of mesmerizing wealth with spectacular interior décor, fountains, and gardens with ornamental pools. Peterhof is a world in and of itself with its smaller palaces, the Amber Room, the Neptune Fountain, and its numerous sculptures. But still, I prefer the 960-page-long The Brothers Karamazov of nearly 365,712 words -it’s a “palace of words” built on the human soul and completed in St. Petersburg!