Think Russia; the Kremlin, the KGB and St Basil’s Cathedral. But as is so often the case, a country’s second city can be the more alluring for a taster of its myriad historical and artistic treasures, and its people. So instead of Moscow, for me it’s St Petersburg, home of the Kirov Ballet, Shostakovich, Dostoyevsky and the birthplace of one Vladimir Putin. It’s a port city with a commanding overview of the Baltic Sea and was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. The tsar liked a bit of travelling and had been so impressed by Europe’s grand cities, he decided that Russia was missing out. Therefore, he spared no expense in creating the city that became the country’s imperial capital for two centuries. Few cities have undergone as many name changes as St Petersburg. In 1914, it was renamed Petrograd and in 1924, became Leningrad, reverting to its original name in 1991. During World War Two, the siege of Leningrad was one of the longest and costliest in history, beginning on September 8 1941, when the last road to the city was severed with the blockade finally being lifted 872 days later. In modern times, only the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 is longer.
Although St Petersburg is awash with palaces and museums, it is the churches that really do it for me. My favourite is The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built between 1883 and 1907 and erected on the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Like many Orthodox churches, it illuminates the most magnificent hues of every possible shade while exuding a lavish opulence.
While the city is no longer the country’s capital, it can still boast the resplendence of its stately, magisterial past. Home to the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet, it’s a paradise for classical music fans and arts aficionados. The great composer Dimitri Shostakovich, who was an air raid warden in the city, wrote his Seventh Symphony – known as the Leningrad Symphony – during the siege. This was premièred in the city in 1942 and broadcast at full blast at the encircling German army. The score, reduced to microfilm, was flown to the West and many performances followed. Many of the city’s artistic delights can be enjoyed at relatively low ticket prices.
The weather, the weather, the weather. Brutally cold for much of the year, the suffering of its besieged citizens can only be imagined. Pack lots of warm clothing if you visit St Petersburg in the winter, and lots of insect repellent if you visit during its brief summer.
Russian nesting dolls and military regalia are popular. I bought my son-in-law a Russian naval hat.
My wife and I visited St Petersburg as part of a Baltic cruise, but any web-based booking site will offer you lots of choice, from budget-priced hotels to hotels of imperial grandeur, with prices to match.