St Petersburg: the thawing city

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You’ll understand why there was a revolution when you ogle at the magnificent palaces illuminating St Petersburg.

The city’s frosty reputation is finally beginning to thaw, undeniably with due credit to the BBC series War & Peace. There has never been more incentive to bear the Russian Visa application headache and pack your cashmere socks.

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A banging hangover of decadence and excess, St Petersburg is steeped in a history of social turmoil and political upheaval, bringing their buildings, people and paintings alive with tales. The eclectic colours, characters and landscapes featured in ‘War & Peace’ having been dragged into a dynamic modern world, showing their age but keeping their unruly charm.

There are cultural heavies such as the Hermitage, set mainly in the breath-taking Winter Palace, which houses masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso and Rembrandt. The museum demands a military strategy and a bold caffeine fix to cover any serious ground. Then there is the eccentric Prince Felix’s opulent Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was infamously murdered in a plot that makes ‘The Killing’ look tame. Or darker still, the Peter and Paul fortress where the Romanovs are buried, along with hair-raising myths that set the city’s pulse today.

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Really, once you get your head around the Russians’ tumultuous history, you learn to appreciate their spiritual affinity with vodka. The word itself derives from ‘voda’; the Slavic word for water, implying its ubiquitous use and remedial qualities. Russians drink vodka like Parisians drink coffee, so make sure you memorise your route back to the hotel before the ‘Na Zdrorovie’ moments get into full swing.

But St Petersburg’s greatest ‘now’ allure, War & Peace aside, is the old-school bohemian movement sweeping its nightlife and café scene.

Quite the antithesis of Moscow’s bling bars and diamante discos, this is one of old jazz, new up-and-coming DJs and sketch shows. Yes, the city was hailed as the birthplace for the 90s clubbing scene but this has evolved into something more sociable – a form of gentrified grit. Not quite as braze or branded as Berlin and East London’s hipster scene, but St Petersburg certainly plays host to an alternative buzz, harking back to understated appeal and ‘in-the-know’ mentality.

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For a quick fix of the above, the underground haunt of Griboedov is a must. Their Saturday Sketch Show includes hip-hop, break beat roots and reggae, and Mondays usher in the jazz and deep funk DJs. But the real draw comes from the old-school dining while you watch and discuss the entertainment beyond your plate. Think ‘Chicago speakeasy on ice’.

Then there are the city’s culinary offerings – traditionally made to counter the cruel St Petersburg chill (it’s best to head there from March and avoid deep winter altogether). Pelmeni dumplings, berry kissel soup and, copious helpings of black caviar demand a test drive before leaving. The city’s restaurant scene reflects its turbulent past, resulting in a medley of Imperial Russian plates fit for a Tsar, soviet-style modest cafes, French menus abound and trendy cosmopolitan alternatives.

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Along with Russia’s moral compass surrounding the Crimea debacle, its currency has also suffered a slip, meaning you can live, eat and sleep like a Tsar for a week without flying home in destitution. Five star hotels such as The Sokos Hotel or The Corinthia will cost you a third of Paris or New York rates. Which leaves room for shopping. Explore the city’s upmarket boutiques then head to the downtown flea markets, filled with relics from both the Romanov and Soviet eras.

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If ‘down time’ features amongst this labyrinth of culture, you may want to stop and digest the mesmerising architecture.

St Petersburg is beautiful.

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From the imposing façade of St Isaac’s Cathedral to the vibrant domes of the Church on Spilled Blood, it’s like breezing through an oil painting – one that inspired writers such as Dostoevsky and Pushkin.

Our ultimate recommendation is to book around the ‘White Nights’. This is from June 10th-July 2nd where the sun barely sets, keeping you wired to the city and hostage to its resilient charm.

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