Travel

Cultural St Petersburg

Original text Sonia Lazzari Additional research Elaine Coaton Eksteen Photographs Jean-Marc Palisse/Côté Est See & Do A visit to St Petersburg in winter will leave you convinced of the following truth: Russians are specialists at enjoying themselves, despite – or perhaps because of – the weather. Take a stroll through the former capital of the tsars on a winter’s morning and you might well spot, as we did, a couple of middle-aged swimmers challenging polar temperatures as they dive into the icy Neva River. Though it’s –15˚C, you’ll see children playing in the Summer Palace garden as if it’s springtime, with snow-clothed statues for their playmates. And on Yelagin Island, cross-country skiers weave between well-wrapped-up joggers and walkers... it seems that here there’s no place for winter blues. In addition to the many outdoor sporting pursuits, this is a city with a strong arts and culture offering. An experience not to be missed, and a great way to get a feel for the heartbeat of St Petersburg, is a visit to the Mariinsky Theatre (1–2 Teatralnaya Pl., Admiralteisky, 007-812-714-1211, mariinsky.ru/en), where you’ll be treated to world-class ballet, opera and musical performances. Its stage has been graced with the pirouettes and jetés of the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Pavlova. Art enthusiasts should make their first stop The State Hermitage Museum (2 Dvortsovaya Pl., 007-812-710-9625, hermitagemuseum.org). (Tip: go on a weekday when it’s quieter, and buy your ticket online to avoid having to queue.) Housed in the Winter Palace, this former private collection of the tsars contains European and Oriental paintings and sculpture, spanning from antiquity to the impressionists. There are more than three million exhibits – including works by Michelangelo, Velázquez, El Greco, Rembrandt and Picasso – so give yourself enough time to do the place justice (at least a full day). If your time is limited you’ll need to do some research and work out which rooms (of the 400) you want to see beforehand – take a virtual tour on the website to get an idea. Cézanne fans should head straight to rooms 144 and 318, while Gauguin-lovers should make a beeline for room 143. The Winter Palace, with its gilding and decoration in agate, jasper and malachite, is worth its own visit. Another must-see is the most impressive of all Russian royal residences,  Catherine Palace (7 Sadovaya Ulitsa, 007-812-465-2024) with its turquoise exterior. Situated in Pushkin just 25 kilometres outside of St Petersburg, this grand baroque lady stands regally within some 600 hectares of parkland that contains fountains, ponds, bridges and a bath house. Its ornate white-and-gold interiors are filled with a wonderful collection of 18th-century paintings. Almost completely destroyed during World War II, the palace has been meticulously restored. Visit the Amber Room to see the replica engraved amber panels that took some 25 years to remake – the originals were either destroyed by Allied bombing or stolen by the Nazis. For the more literary-inclined visitor there’s the meticulously assembled Dostoyevsky Memorial Museum (5–2 Kuznechny Pereulok, Vladimirskaya, 007-812-311-4031, md.spd.ru), which honours the life and work of this cultural commentator and philosopher. This is the apartment in which the writer of Crime and Punishment spent his last years. Passionate and knowledgeable, the guides here add much to the experience. Built on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood (2a Kanal Griboyedova, 007-812-315- 1636) is currently a museum rather than a working church. The interior is decorated in floor-to-ceiling mosaics – a sight as impressive as the architecture. Purchase your ticket from the traditionally dressed women in the little wooden booths. Also a museum, the landmark St Isaac’s Cathedral (1 Isaakievskaya Pl., Admiralteisky, 007-812-315-9732) offers almost outrageously ornate interiors with gilding, precious stones, marble and mosaics. Head up the spiral staircase for panoramic views of the city from the cathedral’s colonnade – a great photo opportunity. The Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts (13 Solyanoj Pereulok), formerly the Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts, is now an art school. Apart from interesting exhibits that include decorative arts and crafts, furniture, porcelain and artistic metalwork, there’s a gallery selling work by recent graduates and prominent contemporary Russian artists. Visit the glass-engraving workshops of Russian glassware company Macgrav on Vasilievsky Island to get an insight into this craft. All work is goblets with double-headed eagles, to exquisitely detailed crystal items and elaborately engraved chalices. It just wouldn’t be right to spend any time in the city and ignore two local passions: ice-skating and chess. Russia’s Olympic medals for iceskating speak for themselves, but as a pastime for non-professionals it’s practised everywhere... on skating rinks, in the Tauride Gardens and on the frozen canals, where you’ll see friends and families twirling and dancing together on the ice, no matter how cold. And then there’s chess. In St Petersburg in particular, this has been raised to an art form. Step inside the Chess Academy, which caters for players of every level, from beginners to aficionados, to catch something of the excitement for this game. The beginners gather in a 1950s-style classroom, observed from above by the illustrious grandmasters from the past and the present, whose portraits hang on the walls. (Nothing, not even the flash of our cameras, seemed to disturb their concentration.) Eat & Drink Head to Teplo (45 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, 007-812-570-1974) for a cosy meal (teplo means warmth) in an interior that’s modelled on those of a real home: patrons can choose to dine in the conservatory, living room or kitchen, and there’s an open fire. Order the Tyoply Salat (lettuce, rocket, herby croutons, warm crumbly chicken livers and bacon strips drizzled with a balsamic dressing); this warm salad is the eatery’s signature dish. There’s an on-site bakery, so finish your meal with a Cognac and one of the freshly baked tarts or pies – the berry pie is a winner. The Idiot (82 Moika Embankment, 007-812-315-1675) is the place for a soul-warming glass of mulled wine or hearty Russian vegetarian food (choose something with wild mushrooms, and you won’t be disappointed) and good seafood. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (of The Idiot fame) is rumoured to have hung out here. Join locals for a spot of grocery shopping at the Kuznechny Market (3 Kuznechny Pereulok, Vladimirskaya) – you’ll find yummy delicacies great for on-the-hoof lunches, such as berries, smoked fish, caviar, various cheeses and, for the brave, tripe.  Sleep Grand Hotel Europe (where we stayed; 1–7 Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa, 007-812-329-6000, grand-hotel-europe.com) is just that         - grand. The baroque facade encases an Art-Nouveau interior, with sumptuously carpeted rooms that are stylish and comfortable. Guests can enjoy a Sunday jazz brunch at restaurant L’Europe, which offers French - and European - style food, or opt for vodka, caviar and blini (pancakes) in the Caviar Bar & Restaurant, which serves up Russian cuisine. There are four other restaurants to choose from. The Astoria (39 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, Admiralteisky, 007-812-313-5757; english.hotel-astoria.ru) is the perfect mix of contemporary and classic design, and is situated in a great location, near the Hermitage. (Hint: ask for a room with views of St Isaac’s Square.) The sumptuous Davidov restaurant serves modern Russian cuisine on Villeroy & Boch crockery beneath crystal chandeliers, and there’s also a traditional Russian menu each night – think chicken kiev and beef stroganoff. The friendly staff at Pushka Inn (14 Moika Embankment, 007-812-312-0957, pushka-inn.com) will arrange everything from theatre tickets to limo transfers and tour guides. Rooms are comfortable and well appointed and the ample breakfasts are a great way to start a day of sightseeing (you can even have yummy made-to-order pancakes). The hotel is pleasantly situated on one of St Petersburg’s canals. Hotel guests qualify for 20 per cent off at the restaurant, which serves a mixture of tasty European and Russian food. Try the fried pike perch in almonds with potatoes, or the home-made pelmeni (meat dumplings). They also offer apartments for those who prefer self catering. This article was originally featured in the February 2009 issue of House and Leisure