The Venice Of The North: Saint Petersburg Is A European Paradise

When Inayat Naomi Ramdas visited Saint Petersburg in the summer of 2017, she discovered a city both charming and mysterious
Atlas figures on the facade of the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace in Saint Petersburg
Atlas figures on the facade of the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace in Saint PetersburgFlickr: Jobove - Reus

"How do you say 'I love you' in Russian?", asked the guide. I squinted with suspicion at his intentions; maybe all Russian men weren't as stony as President Vladimir Putin. "Yellow blue bus", he chortled, before settling back into his usual deadpan expression.

In the Russian language, the phrase is pronounced as Ya lyublu vas. It's true; Russians are awkward in the humour department.

I had always been a little sceptical about travelling to Russia. It hadn't featured on my list of places to go to before I die, and my knowledge was restricted to Putin, Joseph Stalin, freezing Siberia, vodka, Matryoshka dolls and Boney M's 'Rasputin'.

But, my 2017 summer sojourn to Russia threw all my inhibitions out the window when I found myself there to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

The Peter and Paul Fortress
The Peter and Paul FortressWikimedia Commons: Florstein

A Road Trip

My first encounter with a Russian on this trip was at border control when our bus drove in from Helsinki. With a smile, I handed over my passport to the stony-faced official, who proceeded to scan me up and down as if she were a KGB agent.

I was later informed that the Russian smile was as rare as the blue moon.

For the most part, the three-hour drive from the EU border was uneventful and a little bumpy. Our tour guide had warned us about it but it was nothing a hardened Indian couldn't take. The countryside changed from thick forests to rolling hillocks with dilapidated houses, and scattered here and there were vestiges of Russia's communist past.

An abandoned village in the Tver region
An abandoned village in the Tver regionWikimedia Commons: Dmitry Makeev

During the height of communism, all citizens were provided with accommodation, which is why most Russians today pay for utilities only and not rent. In cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow the apartments are tiny, but the countryside has big houses which are falling into disrepair because their owners don't have the means to renovate.

One minute I was staring sleepily at crummy houses and the next, BOOM! Saint Petersburg exploded right in front of me. At first, its wide roads and skyscrapers made it seem like any modern city. But soon, fancy cars gave way to vintage 1970s Ladas and tall buildings with imperial Italian architecture. Saint Petersburg was a European paradise.

The Winter Palace is now the Hermitage Museum
The Winter Palace is now the Hermitage MuseumWikimedia Commons: Florstein

A Grand Beginning

Built on a swamp, the erstwhile capital of the Russian Empire was christened Saint Petersburg after its patron saint and was intended to be a testament to the Romanov dynasty's growing status in the world. Tsar Peter the Great and his successors were Westward-looking, employing a number of architects from across Europe to add extravagance to the city.

Our visit began at the Peter and Paul Fortress, a former prison fortress founded by the tsar in 1703. Inside the fortress is the city's oldest landmark: The stunning European architecture of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. It's famously known for its 404 foot-long golden spire that can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral
The Peter and Paul CathedralFlickr: Photos Girados

Ironically, the cathedral became the resting place of most Romanovs after a firing squad executed the family at the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917.

Guides will brush past the fact that both Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin's brother, Aleksandr Ulyanov, were incarcerated in the fortress. Communism is a touchy topic with most Russians, and it's best not to talk politics with locals.

The Tsarina's Treasures

Inside the Hermitage Museum
Inside the Hermitage MuseumFlickr: Muammer Özal

If you were impressed by the Louvre or the Vatican Museums, the Hermitage Museum will leave you astounded. This regal green, white, and gold structure wraps itself along the edge of the Neva river like a necklace that seems to hypnotize the unsuspecting visitor.

It is difficult to describe the moment I crossed the ticket barrier to ascend the grand staircase—an explosion of gold and marble beyond my wildest dreams. I spent three hours barely skimming the 360 elaborate rooms which house more than 3 million artefacts, ranging from various Picassos and Rembrandts to early Stone Age tools, Egyptian obelisks, and more. All of them are a fraction of the collection of the promiscuous tsarina Catherine the Great, who commissioned the museum in 1764. There's about 20 times more artifacts housed in the vaults.

What is truly amazing is the fact that Russia's treasures managed to survive since most of them were hurriedly shipped off to Siberia for safekeeping during World War II. Still, many remain lost to obscurity.

The Bloody Church

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
The Church of the Savior on Spilled BloodFlickr: Mares Mason

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is perhaps Russia's most iconic one, having been built on the site of tsar Alexander the II's 1881 assassination. Outside, it is a medley of colourful lollipop-like domes, hardly reflective of the church's dark beginnings inside. Thousands of stones like lapis lazuli and jasper intermingle with gold to make up the 7,500 sq ft of mosaics, linking the story of Alexander's murder to the resurrection of Christ.

Back in the good old communist days, churches were razed to the ground since religion had no business existing. The remaining ones like the the Savior on Spilled Blood were relegated to being food shelters. For years, putrid potato crop ruined the church, and it was only after years of restoration that the structure regained its former glory.

Interior ceiling of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Interior ceiling of the Church of the Savior on Spilled BloodFlickr: Tim Adams

Bombs during World War II did strike the church but thankfully didn't cause much damage. If you squint at the statue of Jesus right above the altar, you can just about make out a crevice under his arm where an explosive was lodged. Russia's own Hand of God.

Venice Of The North

I couldn't have asked for a better end to the trip as I cruised down one of the many canals on the Neva river, which has a whopping 342 bridges— comparable to Venice. The red sunset, the Shampanskoye and the vodka, the smelly caviar, the lone man running along the canal trying to keep up with our boat—all of it was unforgettable.

Although, I couldn't help noticing the crumbling apartment complexes juxtaposed with the imperial remnants of the Russian Empire—reminders that even this regal city had something to hide. That's a mystery I reserved to solve on another visit.

The Finland Railway Bridge on the Neva river
The Finland Railway Bridge on the Neva riverWikimedia Commons: A.Savin

As Winston Churchill rightly exclaimed, Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Saint Petersburg is exactly that—a city that has changed as many times as its name, and yet seems to be frozen in time.

For one last visual treat, our guide pointed out a former KGB building, which totally eluded me, and cracked a joke which I am still trying to figure out.

Oh, those Russians.

Canals in Saint Petersburg
Canals in Saint PetersburgFlickr: Alevtina Alekseeva

Getting There

There are no direct flights from Indian airports to Saint Petersburg. Fly to Moscow from India and take a connecting flight onwards, or transit via Dubai, Doha, and Istanbul to Saint Petersburg.

Apply for an e-visa at least 40 days prior to travel from The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. A digital photo and a scan of the information page of the passport are some of the documents you will need to file as part of the e-visa application.

Inayat Naomi Ramdas is a digital nomad and a history and language aficionado. When she is not planning her next adventure, she can be found trying to find a good cup of coffee.

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