Monday 19 March 2018

St Petersburg: Tsars in your eyes

Catherine's Palace
Catherine's Palace

Lorraine Courtney

During the darkest days of winter, the Russian city of St Petersburg trembles in temperatures far below zero. But those who love the city, famous for its endless bridges, rambling squares and lavish palaces, say this is the time to visit, mixing rapturous mornings with Matisse, forays into snowy parks, and steaming teas by a simmering samovar.

First stop on the must-see list is the Hermitage Gallery with its 365 rooms of glorious art. Make sure you visit the treasure-laden Golden Drawing Room, with its Rembrandts and Leonardos, and Impressionist collection taken from the Germans during World War Two.

For morning coffee, pitch up at Idiot on Naberezhnaya Reki Moiki. It's a stylish café that manages to pay homage to Dostoevsky while pulling off a brash 1950s retro style.

Don't miss the magnificent St Isaac's Cathedral, the largest Russian Orthodox church in the country, and the Church of the Saviour on Spilt Blood, built on the spot where Tsar Alezander II was assassinated and dedicated to his memory.

At any time of day, the city's lovely old churches make a welcome escape from the bitter cold, with their warm flickering candles and calming chant.

Out of town, take a detour to Catherine Palace, the summer residence of the tsars with its Amber Room covered from floor to ceiling in the precious stone. It was once the eighth wonder of the world but during the war the Nazis removed the room's gilded panels.

For decades, searchers followed sketchy rumours about their location, but to no avail. The recreated Amber Room took carvers nearly 25 years to complete and the results are simply remarkable.

Back in St Petersburg, retail therapy flows in abundance at the Grand Palace mall, specially created for the new Russian shopping classes who expect nothing less than all things glittering and grand.

More affordable caviar, vodka, and pickled herring are on offer at the Yeliseyev gourmet food market on Nevsky Prospekt. Visit Lena, also on the same street, for fur hats and sable coats. You'll pick up traditional souvenirs like stacking matryioshka dolls and lacquered Palekh boxes at all the main tourist sites.

And no trip to the city in winter is complete without a skate on ice.

If you're not confident enough to glide along the Neva, there are plenty of outdoor rinks dotted around the city, but watch out for the nifty locals.

Soak your weary legs afterwards at Mytninskie Bani, the city's only remaining wood-stoked banya (sauna), before dressing up for a night in Podvorye restaurant, which looks like a set from Doctor Zhivago.

It dishes up excellent rustic Slavic food such as pumpkin soup with foie gras and a vast array of spiced meats and kebabs grilled in medieval fashion on open fires in the courtyard.

Naturally, there's a bewildering array of vodkas to sip your way through. Cowberry leaf anybody? Drink it back and wait for the ice to turn to fire in your throat.

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