Did you ever own, or covet, or know someone who owned one of those intricate, delicate dolls houses that was painted gorgeous colours, beautifully furnished with luxury upholstery in miniature, and had a teeny tray of buns on the kitchen table?
To me, St Petersburg’s historic centre feels like a vast collection of these houses, but lifesize – too pretty to be real. At every corner we turn is a neatly painted sash window reflecting back the crimson sunset, or a decorative arch, its detailing accentuated in the shade cast by the setting sun.
Although it was only founded in 1703, it was the capital of Russia until the revolution in 1918. But if ever I’ve been to a city that thinks it still is the capital, this is it. There are wide shopping streets lined with tourist tat and international chains, endless hip bars and restaurants, and some of the most flamboyant architecture I’ve seen.
Despite its beauty there’s a sense of melancholy to it. Perhaps the spirits of the tens of thousands of serfs who died building it don’t want to be forgotten.
First things first
All the eye candy comes at a price – accommodation is very expensive. But that’s okay, because we’ve found a hostel with excellent reviews and double rooms which we can barely find our way to we’re so busy craning our necks to check out the views.
The hostel is in a hip little courtyard stacked with co-working spaces and design workshops. Men with floppy fringes and black t-shirts and wary eyes are propped against doorframes, smoking. So far, so way too cool for us.
The staff are friendly and there’s a nice communal space, but the sacrifice we have to make for having a ‘double’ is all the other space in the room. We shuffle down the side of the bed, (which is a thin mattress on top of a raised palette) sideways and deposit our packs. The room smells quite strongly of cats.
I suspect if you’re backpacking and sleeping in a dorm, this place is just about perfect. For couples maybe not so much, but the location is really good on Ulitsa Vosstaniya, close to the major attractions.
That evening we take a wander, and as we’re passing some gated gardens a statue catches my eye. It’s a woman sitting in contemplation, and in her pose there’s a serenity and a sadness that really moves me. It’s a monument to the famous poet Anna Akhmatova, an extraordinary woman who survived the hostility of Stalin, witnessed the siege of Leningrad and spent 20 years banned from publishing by the USSR’s cultural commissar. Her beloved son was twice arrested and sent to the gulag.
How little we appreciate the freedoms those before us fought for.
Right to roam
The second day is about roaming – roaming the famous Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square), roaming the banks of the Bolshaya Neva river. We stop at Koryushka for Georgian food at a beautiful spot overlooking the river. The wind has picked up and it’s too cold to stay out but too scenic to go inside, so I just sit and let my face go blue.
We visit the Peter and Paul fortress next, the first structure built in St Petersburg. It served as a political prison, the first prisoner being Peter the Great’s son Alexei, whom he had executed there for conspiring against him. And you moaned when your dad made you finish your green beans before you left the table.
Dostoevsky was also imprisoned at the fortress for his connections to a group of socialists. I did not realise this until after I left Russia, and it’s left me even more keen to go back and explore Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg, given the profound effect Crime and Punishment had on me when I read it at 16. His city was a long way from the grandeur we experienced on our trip. Winter would be the right time.
The next stop on the walking tour is Nevsky Prospekt, another haunt of Dostoevsky. There’s sight after sight – The Art Nouveau Bookhouse, the Anichkov Bridge, and Yeliseev’s food hall set in a space with stained glass windows and towering ceilings and chandeliers where I go googly eyed over the lines of macaroons and luxury liqueurs.
Our appetite for gilt columns sufficiently sated, we spend the evening at Café Botanika taking in some vegan cuisine to counteract all the bread and dumplings of the past few weeks. Matt gets to work on some Mata India, and I have a Warm-a-Stan salad which the waiter applauds me for ordering. When I eat it I can see why.
All of humanity is at the Hermitage
We dedicate the following day to the Hermitage. We have to queue for a long time to buy tickets. But it’s not like waiting at Norwich Bus Station in the 80’s (ie wee-scented and dingy) – the surroundings are stunning, and you can pretend you’re in a Tolstoy novel about to be whirled into a high society scandal. When people stare at me photographing a cat in a gutter and swishing my skirt I just remember Count Vronsky is coming for me (but with a happier ending).
Being inside The Hermitage is like being inside that doll’s house I mentioned earlier, only one million times posher and with lots of world famous artworks. Oh, and with a large number of other dolls crammed into it. You turn a corner in a corridor and you can see your destination (normally a work of art) at the other end. It all seems simple. Keep walking forward and you’ll get there. But every time you’re metres away it seems a gigantic tour group comes surging towards you, and you’re being swept away in a sea of people, your hands grasping at the air as you go down, your final words as an orthopaedic shoe crushes your cheek: ‘gnnnnnnrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr’. You wonder if your demise will become part of the history of this place, in the annals of Catherine the Great.
Some essential souvenir shopping follows – I need to find my dad some booze with the strength to impress him. We stop into an off license where we are greeted by a large man with an expressionless face.
‘Hallo’ he says, tonelessly.
We head for the spirit aisle, squinting at bottles with various different types of indistinguishable berry on the label. Flailing, we call the attendant over, asking for a recommendation, expecting he will simply pluck the most pricey bottle from the shelf. He ponders a few moments and then reaches for a bottle of seriously cheap brown liquid, with a label that might as well have a skull and cross bones on it.
‘This good.’ He says, suddenly grinning. ‘Like jagermeister. Very strong and give good feeling.’
I should have bought it but I didn’t. I’m not sure even my dad would have a strong enough consitution.
Our final meal in Russia is at Skoro Vesna, and predictably includes beer and steaming dumplings. It had to really. It’s quite a polished little place, but the food is really good as is the service and the setting.
The evening stroll home is lit by the most amazing rosy dusk. The city’s quiet archways and elaborate brickwork are thrown into relief by the gathering shadow. Whilst exulting in the architecture, every so often we pass dim passageways in which I can sense the ghosts of the city’s tumultuous history.
It’s a fitting end to our trip in Russia – a vision of splendour, built on death and struggle. A story to discover around every corner.
We booked our Trans-Siberian tickets via Real Russia which has a handy route planner and assigns you a dedicated agent on hand to answer any queries.
We stayed at Art Kultura hostel which was in a brilliant location. It was fine if you’re looking for friendly staff and guests, and don’t mind a small room with shared bathroom.
I would recommend buying your Hermitage tickets in advance online. In typical Tanya style I didn’t, but you might as well skip the queues if you can.
One restaurant I didn’t mention above is Duo Gastrobar. It’s quite flash but if it’s warm you can sit outside in a nice garden, and both the food and service is excellent. To Matt’s (perhaps understandable) horror, I order cabbage with homemade cheese sause and truffle. But it was so delicious I’ve banked it to memory and can still taste it now.