Asia 2005 : St Petersburg

Three hundred years ago St Petersburg was a marshy swampland, infested by enormous mosquitoes that could suck all the blood out of a horse in a minute. This is a mild exaggeration, but all introductions to St Petersburg seem to feel the need to exaggerate how bad the location was prior to 1703; which seems unnecessary when you consider how stunning St Petersburg is today.

Peter the Great wanted to create the "Venice of the North", a real gateway onto Europe for the Russian empire. From his basic wooden hut on the bank of the River Neva, he supervised the creation of a thoroughly modern city with a dominating main boulevard (Nevskiy Prospekt) and other prospects.

Parallel with the running prospect was another running prospect with the same rows of boxes, the same system of numeration, and the same clouds. There is an infinity about the running prospects, and an infinity about the running intersecting shadows. Petersburg, as a whole, represents a sum to infinity of the prospect, elevated to the Nth degree. Beyond Petersburg, there is nothing. - Andrey Biely, St Petersburg.

After moving the court here from Moscow (the courtiers were less than impressed at being told to move to this mosquito-ridden building site) St Petersburg became the centre of political power as well.

Far more than in Moscow most of the city's beautiful buildings escaped the wrath of the Communists. Walking down Nevskiy prospect, the baroque and neoclassical architecture has changed little in the past 200 years. The snowfall from a few days earlier had still not entirely thawed, and a white carpet covered pavements and parks. Only the traffic noise and the aeroplanes flying overhead reminded you that you were in the 21st century.

To see the man who had started all this, I went to see the enormous statue of Peter the Great on horseback. It's considered good luck for newly-wed couples to get their photo taken in front of the statue and indeed there was a wedding party loitering, the bride looking rather chilly in her wedding dress. Discarded champagne bottles nestled in the snow.

That evening there was a pub crawl from my hostel to the far side of the Neva. The area is known as the Petrograd side, and it had only boomed when the Trinity Bridge was built, finally giving a permanent connection to the main islands. Previously the options were small boats (in summer), walking across the ice (in winter), but during several months in between, the ice being too thin to walk on, the residents were completely trapped.

Our pub crawl guide Mike was a local and happily led us down various dubious-looking dark alleyways. On an anonymous looking street he pushed open an anonymous looking door. This turned out to be an old Soviet-style vodka shot bar: just one tiny room, decorated with a particularly tasteless mural. Under Communism, since it took take several hours to queue up to get into a bar or pub, people needing a quick and cheap vodka fix out would come here. It was still extremely cheap: about 15rb ($0.50) for a shot of fiery vodka, accompanied by zakusti like herring or cheese and bread. Sadly there are only a few of these shot bars left in St Petersburg.

After a few more bars and zakusti, we ended back at the hostel in the small hours. Being 3.15am, I was expecting to creep into a darkened dorm room and go to sleep: but no, the lights were on and eight people were loudly discussing American foreign policy. Well, seven people were discussing while one guy (British, of course) was going off on a loud and tedious anti-American rant and not winning anyone to his cause.

I gave him some of my Mongolian vodka in the hope this might drug him to sleep, but sleep only eventually came at 6am with him still murmuring "America... evil empire... Simian monkey-brain..."

St Petersburg has a surfeit of impressive cathedrals. Our Lady of Kazan on Nevskiy prospect has a huge colonnade inspired by St Peter's in Rome.


The Church of the Spilled Blood is reminiscent of St Basil's on the outside (i.e. a bowl of vividly painted onions), while on the inside almost every surface is covered with mosaics. The interior had been closed for 18 years for restoration and the mosaics ands gold leaf were glowing like new.

For sheer bulk though you can't beat St Isaac's. The whole structure weighs 300,000 tonnes: quite an engineering feat on the marshy St Petersburg soil. 48 gigantic granite columns, each 114 tonnes in weight were imported from Finland and 57 types of marble were used in the decoration. Though no-one had heard of architect Auguste de Montferrand before, they certainly had heard of him afterwards.

I turn up at the Oliva restaurant a bit early. "No it's fine, I don't need a menu yet, I'll just wait for my friends to turn up." A couple of minutes go by, I start writing some of my diary to pass the time. The waitress, who is wearing a Greek-style headdress returns. "We can bring you some dishes?" "No no, I'll just wait a few minutes."

They are conspicuously fretting. "You can try some starters, no charge..." Suddenly it dawns on me they think I am a restaurant reviewer. Tempting though it is to pursue this and get a free meal, I confess that the feverish scribblings are in fact just my diary, rather than any comments on the efficiency of the staff or the crispness of my lettuce.

Sunday was the final of the St Petersburg Tennis Open. As I make a habit of attending second-string ATP Tour events, I headed to Park Pobedi to find the St Petersburg Sport Complex. Park Pobedi was full of parents failing to prevent their kids sliding manically around on the ice. I also passed an old-fashioned amusement park named Park Gagarin. Yuri had gone a bit down in the world.

The singles final of the tennis was between Kiefer of Germany and Johansson of Sweden, both countries that Russia had fought against during St Petersburg's 300 year history. The Swede seemed to be winning most of the support today however. Much of the fun at these sorts of events derives from the sideshows put on by the numerous sponsors: test the speed of your serve, put your head on Roger Federer's body etc (this has the effect of making you look EXTREMELY camp).

The Zoological Museum is extremely cool. When I was in London last, I noticed the Natural History Museum had gone very namby-pamby in places: "lift the flap to listen to the beautiful birdsong". Not so in the Zoological Museum, St Petersburg - just huge numbers of dead stuffed animals, from chickens to koalas, butterflies to blue whales and toucans to termites.

A sign at the entrance proclaimed "there is live insect zoo inside!" - whether this was a warning to people who were afraid of live insects, or an extra incentive to go inside and buy a ticket, was unclear.

Amongst the many delightful dead things was a whole baby mammoth, which had been preserved in the Siberian permafrost since the last Ice Age. I used to be very keen on mammoths; indeed I must remember to sue David McKee, the author of "Elmer the Patchwork Elephant" for his clear copyright infringement of my primary school magnum opus "The Patchwork Mamo-Quilt".

Guidebooks often tell you "you will need at least a whole day to explore" but this is rarely the case; presumably this is aimed at grannies who proceed around sights at a snails pace with frequent tea breaks.

In the case of the Hermitage however it was completely accurate: the collections are immense, filling three palaces with everything from Iranian stonecarvings to Indian miniature painting ("Beautiful, isn't it") to Rembrandt to Picasso.

The base of the collections are the thousands of objects bought or stolen by Catherine the Great, and her collections were added to by Tsars and Tsarinas down the years. Of course like many people today they thought modern art was a load of tosh (who is this Monet joker?), so many of the 19th and 20th century artworks that are the most popular exhibits today are sourced from the bequests of individual collectors.

I found Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt, a reminder I would soon have to return home! Practicalities first through: although I have been trying to skip over some of the less exciting aspects of my holiday (my clothes smelt, I went to the laundry, the beach had lots of sand, I caught a train) - this next item I found too exciting not to document! I set off with my bag of smelly clothes to Kazanstraya where I was assured I could find the "laundry bar". I assumed this was the name for a laundrette - but no! It was indeed both a laundry, and a bar. I thought this was a great idea, after all no-one has anything to do while their clothes are being washed, so why not sell them drink.

I didn't actually intend to spend all day in the laundry bar. My washing machine mysteriously developed a fault trapping my clothes inside. I was stressing and pacing up and down, while the barmaid was stubbornly prodding the START button in the hope that pressing it another 80 times might possibly make the machine come to life.

"Can we turn it off at the mains?"
"You will break the machine!"
"But the machine is already broken..."
[she prods the machine some more]

Along came Andrey, a heavily bearded interior designer, who decided the best solution was to buy lots of vodkas for everyone.

Despite earlier comments, I found once again that French was our only common language. Three vodkas later my clothes emerged, a couple more later I was convinced I was now fluent in French. I staggered out of the laundry bar and managed to catch my train to Riga with only three hours to spare.

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