A frosty winter trip remains a truly unforgettable experience for Roslyn Dee
It’s dark and cold — very cold — when we leave the warm embrace of our hotel, walk across the square past St Isaac’s Cathedral, and make our way along the river until we can get close to the water’s edge.
Even in the darkness of a late winter’s night, the sight is breathtaking — great ice floes, massive sheets the size of flattened double-decker buses, are all drifting gradually towards each other in a slow but mesmerising ice dance.
All around us the city is silent, so what, then, is that strange noise?
We drop our heads closer to the river to listen; ah, there it is again; the sound of the ice itself as it grinds its way to a halt, gradually fusing into one massive slab, until the whole river is covered in a thick, white, winter blanket. On this late November night, just a few hours after we arrive into the city of St Petersburg, the River Neva freezes over, its flowing water now stemmed until spring comes around again.
“You’re going to Russia in the depths of winter?” That was the “are you mad?” implication of the question that our imminent departure prompted from friends when, some years ago now, my husband and I announced that we were off to St
Petersburg, just a few weeks before Christmas. Aware that most people visit the city for the ‘White Nights’ in June when daylight hours give the place a 24-hour party appeal, we were contrarily determined to go in winter.
So we booked our flights (via Helsinki) and our hotel (the historic Astoria), sorted our visas, and off we went.
And what a magical experience it was to visit that stunning city in winter. The most northerly of the world’s large cities, St
Petersburg lies only 800km south of the Arctic Circle, so little wonder, then, that it was cold. But how cold? Well, whenever we walked in silence for a few minutes and my husband then turned to speak to me, tiny icicles cascaded out of his moustache. Yes, that cold. But so very, very beautiful.
I’ve been thinking back in recent days to the wonderful time we had in St Petersburg. Walking the streets again in my head, remembering the old lady who sat begging on a bridge near our hotel, herself and her two dogs wrapped together in mountains of blankets, and recalling also how the city simply bowled us over with its beauty.
But why now, I have been wondering — why, right now, have all my St Petersburg memories invaded my head?
The time of year is obviously part of it, but also because I have such a yearning in these lockdown times for somewhere new, for somewhere to surprise me, bowl me over, and stick in my memory for ever. And when I think like that, it’s always St Petersburg that I see in my mind’s eye.
What I remember most clearly are the blue skies, the white-frosted pavements, the ice-covered canals, the sudden snow flurries when the clouds gathered — and a biting, almost crackling, cold like I had never experienced before. With our breath steaming ahead of us as we walked and talked, the ice-cold air rendered our faces virtually numb. It was utterly exhilarating.
Against this wintry backdrop, the beautiful coloured buildings that so distinguish St Petersburg stood out in stark relief, emphasising both their scale and their colour, and creating an almost fairy-tale effect.
There’s the green of the Winter Palace, stormed by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917, a massive building which houses the world-famous Hermitage Museum, standing resplendent and beautiful, on the shores of the white-carpeted Neva; there, in another part of the city, overlooking the Griboedov Canal, is the pale blue of the beautiful naval church of St Nicholas, while the mustard-yellow of the Mikhailovsky opera house jumps out at you on Arts Square, the blue of its more famous competitor, the Mariinsky (better known abroad as the Kirov) doing exactly the same on Theatre Square.
For real jaw-dropping ‘wowness’, however, it’s the stunning, multi-coloured onion domes of the extraordinary Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood that remain so vivid in my technicolour dream of St Petersburg in winter.
A stroll along Nevsky Prospekt, the 4.5km-long artery that runs through St Petersburg, is a must-do. The commercial hub of the city, with its shops, cinemas, churches, hotels, hawkers and high-life, it’s also along here that you’ll find such highlights as the huge colonnaded Kazan Cathedral, the Literary Café from where writer Alexander Pushkin left for his ill-fated duel in 1837, the beautiful Grand Hotel Europe (where afternoon tea is a real treat), and the massive shopping emporium known as Gostiny Dvor.
So what memories still linger of this winter-wonderland city?
Unquestionably the ‘morzhi’, for how could you ever forget these so-called ‘walruses’, the men we stand and watch in disbelief on a Sunday morning as they break the ice on the river near the Peter and Paul Fortress before plunging into the holes, straight into freezing water of unimaginable temperature. And without a wet-suit in sight. The Peter and Paul Fortress, located on the northern banks of the river and the place where the original city sprang up in 1703, is an extraordinary complex.
Here you’ll find the rather grim Trubetskoy Bastion Prison, the place where Leon Trotsky and the writer Dostoevsky were incarcerated and also where the son of Peter the Great met his death.
The gleaming, 122m-high, needle-thin spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral can be seen from all over St Petersburg and the cathedral itself is beautiful — all chandeliers, wood carving, and pink columns — and bursting with history.
A final resting place for almost all of the tsars, it was also here, to a lovely side chapel, that the remains of the last of the Romanovs were brought and re-interred in 1998; Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children, finally laid to rest in the city of the tsars some 80 years after being executed at Yekaterinburg in the summer of 1918.
Just to stand there in the silence of the chapel and read the names and ages of those children is a deeply moving and unforgettable experience.
On our final night in the city, the opera beckons and off we go to the Mikhailovsky Theatre to see Borodin’s Prince Igor.
After the wonderful music, the spectacle of the performance, the sumptuous surroundings, and a glass or two of Russian sparkling wine, we float out into Arts Square to head back to our hotel.
The icy night air snaps at our faces as we walk along frozen pavements, noticing the beauty of the city’s trees as they stand sentinel like white, ghostly skeletons against the night sky.
Yes, it’s freezing cold. But wandering through this historic city in all its muffled, winter silence, it’s also nothing short of magical.
No direct flights from Ireland currently, but good value is available in 2021 (Covid-19 permitting) with KLM from Dublin via Amsterdam: skyscanner.ie
A tourist visa is required to enter Russia. If you are visiting only St Petersburg, however, you can apply for a free-of-charge e-visa, via; dfa.ie
Three must -dos
Visit the Hermitage with its stunning art collection. With 350 exhibition rooms, you’ll walk over 10km to see it all; hermitagemuseum.org
Dine at 1913 God, an atmospheric restaurant near the Mariinsky Theatre. Try some zakuski (smoked sausage, cheese and pickled cucumber): restaurant-1913.spb.ru
A visit to the Yusupov Palace where Grigori Rasputin was murdered in 1916 is a must: yusupov-palace.ru
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.