Wednesday 14 November 2018

A short break in St Petersburg: In Russia's empire of the senses

A short break in St Petersburg is entirely possible, says Anna Coogan. And you can pack a huge amount in...

The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded by assassins in 1881
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was fatally wounded by assassins in 1881
Anna at Palace Square in front of the Winter Palace, the Hermitage and the Alexander Column
Anna Coogan

Anna Coogan

As the plane touches down in St Petersburg, there's a great feeling of excitement. No one in our small travel group has been to Russia before, or had thought a four-day city break in St Petersburg was actually possible, assuming it would be too far to travel for a short visit in what is the second largest city in the world's largest country.

We have flown business class with KLM, first into Amsterdam and then onto St Petersburg, leaving Dublin at 9am and arriving in St Petersburg at 4.30pm, and have managed to snooze on the planes, while the great inflight food makes the time fly too. Pulkovo Airport signs are in Russian and spelt out in Cyrillic script, with letters a different shape from the Latin ones we're used to, so the feeling of foreignness is instant.

On the drive into the city, it's immediately obvious there are no skyscrapers in St Petersburg (a city with a population of five million), bar one way out on the edge of the metropolis. This is because height restriction laws decree buildings can't be taller than the Winter Palace, the official residence of Russian monarchs from 1732 to 1917, a time when St Petersburg was Russia's imperial capital.

Today St Petersburg is Russia's cultural capital - Moscow is the country's business centre and people in the capital are said to be fast and dynamic, while in St Petersburg they're considered slow and romantic. But we can't afford to be slow if we're going to see a chunk of this city which has the look of a set of a historical period drama - its historic centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Anna at Palace Square in front of the Winter Palace, the Hermitage and the Alexander Column
Anna at Palace Square in front of the Winter Palace, the Hermitage and the Alexander Column

As luck would have it, our base is the five-star Corinthia Hotel, which is perfectly located on St Petersburg's main street, Nevsky Prospect (named after the 13th Century Russian prince Alexander Nevsky) and close to many of the city's landmark buildings. This sumptuously elegant hotel is a pleasure to stay in, and staff will go out of their way to make you feel special. The executive lounge will keep you fed and watered all day long should you splash out on an executive room. We dine in its Imperial restaurant on our first night, on crab salad, cod confit and roast duck breast, having kicked the night off with Champagne and caviar.

Jonathan Pace is general manager at the Corinthia and fills us in on how, as recently as only three years ago, there was only one restaurant which came recommended (besides his own, that is) in St Petersburg, but after a sudden and unexpected gastronomic explosion in the city, the place is now falling down with good restaurants.

The following morning we head off to see the historic heart of the city, which has witnessed its fair share of turbulent political changes over the past 100 years, and first we visit the city's oldest landmark; the Peter and Paul fortress. Peter the Great built the fortress on Hare Island on the Neva River in 1703, to protect against invasion by Sweden (St Petersburg is built on 32 islands and has 342 bridges, and is unusually young for such a significant city, at just over 300 years old). And located here is the beautiful Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the resting place of almost all the Russian emperors and empresses. It has a gold-painted spire which is picture postcard Russia, and is amazingly preserved in spite of the fortress being seized during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 - while all places of worship were confiscated during the Soviet Union (1922-1991) when there was "No God, Only Government".

It's filled with Chinese, as indeed are all the tourist sites we visit, while Indians also have Russia at the top of their travel list. Yet following an approximate three million international visitors during the World Cup, it's expected that positive media coverage will result in greater numbers of tourists from all over the world coming here.

We lunch at Percorso Italian restaurant in the five-star Four Seasons Hotel, located in what was once a 19th Century royal palace. This restaurant is split into several rooms, each with its individual and breathtaking interior. Our six-course menu, with a different wine for each course, includes crab, veal, artichoke ravioli, pan-fried sea bass and marble beef fillet. This memorable meal costs 9,800 rubles, or approximately €122.

Next we head to Palace Square, the main city square in St Petersburg, and once the main meeting place for the most powerful in the former Russian Empire. This is a square on a grand scale, and home to the Winter Palace, the one-time official residence of the Russian monarchs. Listen and you'll hear the sound of horses' hooves, the rustle of ball gowns and whispers of courtly gossip. Inside it's hugely ornate and features opulent stucco work, like a cake iced to within an inch of its life. Also part of the Square is The Hermitage Museum, the second largest art gallery in the world, and we see Rembrandts, Michelangelos and a couple of da Vinci's Madonnas.

Our itinerary has been put together by the Russian National Tourist Office, which has been managing tourism to Russia for over 25 years (though on our last day it's a free-for-all and we all head off and do our own thing), and this is a great way of visiting if you think you might feel a little wonderstruck at being in a city with such an unfamiliar cultural heritage (and without a word of Russian). This evening our itinerary takes us to the Vodka Museum on Konnogvardeyskiy Boulevard. It's wonderful how the Russians pronounce 'vodka', which of course, is the way the drink is authentically pronounced, and which is "wad-ka", and which makes the locals sound as it they've already had a few. Following a tour of artefacts used in the making of Russia's national drink, we dine in the museum's restaurant on beef Stroganoff (this sauteed-beef dish was apparently named after former St Petersburg resident Count Stroganov - tourists can visit Stroganov Palace - who asked his cook to make him an easy-to-eat meat dish because his teeth hurt) and chicken Kiev, washed down with horseradish vodka,washed down with apple vodka.

Day three we visit St Isaac's Cathedral, St Petersburg's largest Orthodox cathedral, which can accommodate 14,000 worshippers, and is home to breathtakingly beautiful murals and frescoes - such is the explosion of beauty and colour that a travel companion describes it as like walking into a kaleidoscope.

Russians don't shoot the breeze about current or historical events, yet when recalling how the people of St Petersburg gather in this cathedral every year to commemorate their relatives who died in the Leningrad Blockade - when Nazis blocked roads leading to and from St Petersburg for a period of 872 days in the early 1940s causing the deaths of almost 800,000 civilians, often from starvation - they look so visibly upset that you just want to change the subject.

And while we're on history, there are dozens of statues of Lenin, founder of the Russian Communist Party and former head of the Soviet Union, to be seen in St Petersburg - which was called Leningrad ("Lenin's City") from 1924 to 1991. The city's remarkable air of grandeur and resplendent beauty, however, comes from its original Baroque and Imperial styles of architecture, with very little Soviet-style architecture on display.

A highlight of this trip is our visit to the Mikhailovsky Opera and Ballet Theatre on Iskusstv Ploshchad, to see its ballet company perform Cinderella. It isn't just the ballet, it's the experience of hearing Russians spontaneously roar 'Bravo' at ballet dancers jumping through the air, while during the intermission Russian children in tutus try to copy their heroes onstage, and of course, seeing ballet dancers tell a simple children's story through breathtaking movement. It's all pure magic.

On day four we have some free time in the morning, and as the Corinthia Hotel is located on the city's main boulevard, Nevsky Prospect, it's easy to get to the likes of Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall and Cafe, a gastronomic delight filled with luxurious foods like caviar and champagne in a charming old-world setting on the city's main street. Stopping for tea and people watching is a must. On the same street is Singer Company Building, once the location of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and now home to St Petersburg's largest and most famous book shop. This Art Nouveau building is another of the city's many architectural gems. Nevsky Prospect is a shopping paradise, on offer are many of the top fashion labels, and even it has to be said real fur, worn by Russians when the weather reaches minus 20 degrees.

Alas, with my Russian Doll in my wheelie bag, it's time to head for my afternoon flight to Amsterdam, and then on to Dublin, after what's been an absorbing and thrilling trip to Russia, proving you can pack a lot into four days.

Take two: top attractions

Mansarda

Mansarda Restaurant, located on the 6th floor of Quatra Corti business centre, offers amazing views of St Petersburg lit-up at night. The food is fabulous — including black caviar with potato pancake — but just as good is the people watching; this is glamorous Russia on a night out. en.ginza.ru/spb/restaurant/mansarda

Cruising the canals

It was the warmest September in 80 years (8°C as opposed to 0°C), so we took a boat trip on St Petersburg’s canals, which have been described as ‘Venetian’. We passed the Summer Garden, the Museum to the October Revolution, and numerous Imperial palaces. Sightseeing boats depart regularly.

Getting there

KLM flies to St Petersburg from Dublin airport via its multi-award winning hub, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. l KLM operates six daily flights between Dublin and Amsterdam and two daily flights between Amsterdam and St Petersburg during summer season.

* Return economy fares from Dublin airport start from €209 including taxes and charges. Passengers can book online at www.klm.com or by calling reservations on: +353 1 5251804.

* KLM offers a choice of 18 departure points in Ireland and the UK - including Dublin, Belfast and London Heathrow - linking the area to 165 worldwide destinations.

* Anna stayed at Corinthia Hotel, Nevsky Prospect, 57, St Petersburg, Russia, 191025 Tel No: +7 (812) 380 20 01, www.corinthia.com/en/hotels/stpetersburg

* The Russian National Tourist Office, 202 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4DP, operates as a DMC (Destination Management Company) and a leading tour operator specialising in individual and group tours to Russia. They assist clients with applying for different types of visas to Russia. www.visitrussia.org.uk

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