03 Sep 2017 16:28 IST

The imperial show

The grandeur of St Petersburg’s buildings and its fabled White Nights never fail to amaze

There was a spring in our step, in fact we were almost jogging. The skies were ominously dark, dripping a trickle on our faces, and the train ride from Moscow had made everyone ravenous. For Punjabis in a new town, damp and freezing, there is no better comfort food than some hot naan and kali dal. Fortunately, we don’t have to work too hard to find it in almost any corner of the world.

Tandoor, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, was brimming with foreigners eating kebabs and discreetly muting the spices with sips of water. The Bollywood music playing in the background reaffirmed the belief that time often stands still in the minds of those who live outside their country of birth.

The evening chill in St Petersburg, Russia’s erstwhile capital, made us wonder what winters are like in this Arctic neighbourhood. But next morning, as though in jest with the weatherman, the city was bathed in bright sunlight. It gave us a hint of what it is like to be in the midst of the famous White Nights, a couple of months when the sun doesn’t set.

Just how seriously St Petersburg takes the celebration of its short summer is something we learnt later that night. It was 1am and the traffic was a straight endless line down the Nevsky Prospect, a street that was planned as the starting point of the road to Moscow by Peter the Great. The main thoroughfare was bustling with people, no one in any apparent hurry. But, we were. Firecrackers had already lit the sky in peach and orange, announcing that it was almost time to see the first opening of the drawbridges, a summer street festival around Neva river. But with an entire city partying, we didn’t make it that night.

I had underestimated St Petersburg’s grandeur — after Moscow, I had expected a quaint, cold city that is far up and away on the globe. But this is no speck on the map. It is the historical city which the Nazis blockaded for two-and-a-half years during World War II, leaving a million dead in the infamous ‘Siege of Leningrad’. Hitler’s army had destroyed most of the city and its countless palaces, yet today, it stands tall in neoclassical glory.

It was while walking along the palace embankment that I realised how St Petersburg can compete with Vienna’s imposing architecture. Six sprawling buildings adjacent to each other glimmer in the sharp sun, as though enveloping the city in their arms. The most prominent, the green-and-gold Hermitage, once the winter palace of the czars, is one of the largest museums in the world.

But the decadent charm of the Peterhof Palace, on the city’s outskirts, is tough to emulate. Referred to as the Versailles of Russia, it is a series of palaces with 300 fountains. A walk through the gardens takes you to the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. With the Scandinavian country barely 100 km away, it gives perspective on how the Finn army fought Russia in the Siege of Leningrad.

Inside the main palace, neoclassic architecture competes with loud baroque. The rooms reflect how widely travelled the czars were. Chinese rooms, the Diwan room for women — it is fascinating how no two rooms are alike in it.

Like Moscow, St Petersburg gives you a sense that although this is Europe, the cities have distinct identity. Whether it is the golden onion-shaped domes or the people, Russia feels different. They say there is only one driver in the country who is not drunk and that is the chauffeur at the famous Bolshoi theatre in Moscow. We may be stereotyping the Russians and their vodka, but some passengers on our day train weren’t sober.

We had an inkling that Russians aren’t very easy on those who aren’t fair-skinned. Perhaps it’s just the language barrier. But if the Russians welcome someone, it’s the Chinese. Apart from the architecture, the next overwhelming sight was that of buses packed with Chinese tourists. So while we welcome Russians in Goa with menus, directions et al in their language, here, in St Petersburg, even the airport announcements are in Chinese.

A few days earlier, at Moscow’s Red Square, I was told that as the seconds count down to the New Year, revellers write their wish on a piece of paper, which is burnt and its ashes consumed with champagne — all this in the last 12 seconds of the year. During White Nights, you can almost feel that frenzied aura of celebration.

As we set out on foot to steal one final glance of the city, the snapshot became a whirl, going beyond the imposing colonnades and statues. Beating the Punjabi at his own game, a cavalcade of limousines readily fired the imagination with tales of shady Russian tycoons. The joie de vivre of students celebrating their graduation at the summer garden showed that life can also be simple. And there was the pregnant bride posing for that memorable photo. No one judged her, she only brought a smile on the faces of passers-by.

As did St Petersburg.

Getting there

St Petersburg is a convenient four-hour ride from Moscow on the high-speed Sapsan train.

Stay

Use a credible hotel booking website and choose a familiar chain.

Preferred location: Nevsky Prospect.

Tip

The weather can change from sunny to biting cold anytime of the year, courtesy the rains. Pack clothes and shoes accordingly

(Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava is a freelance journalist based in Delhi. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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