An overnight train journey from Moscow and you enter the city of St Petersburg. You instantly appreciate why it is said to be Russia’s Porthole to the West. Initially a marshy backwater, it has evolved into a cosmopolitan city with a considerable European touch because of the miraculous foresight of the ruler Peter the Great who made this city his capital against all odds in the 17th century. Hence the name St Petersburg!
It is not all about the Golden Ring towns (Rostov Veliki, Kostroma and Yaroslavl), the pride of the primordial Rus. Though Golden Ring seizes immediate attention with its golden-domed cathedrals, monasteries with blue-green domes and the breathing museums, the Peter and Paul Fortress and State Hermitage Museum give it tight competition. While the Peter and Paul Fortress is a living monument to Russia’s last royal lineage, the State Hermitage Museum is home to one of the greatest art collection on the planet with masterpieces from different countries.
Grab an evening snack of blinis (honeyed pancakes) and piroshkis (buns with a rich sweet filling) from the Idiot Café. Unlike the name calls it is a token to intellectuals like Dostoyevsky and is mostly assembled by literary enthusiasts. Stroll towards the royal citadel of Rostov that rests besides the lovely Lake Nero or stop at Kostroma, nestled at the union of the rivers, Volga and Kostroma that flow through St Petersburg. While ancient cathedrals like Our Lady of St Theodore and a 17th century white pillared fire-observation watch tower serve as its landmarks, Kostroma is the jewel of the Golden Ring.
The metropolis of fresh ideas, St Petersburg has seen and experienced huge tides of change. The global musical genus, death metal, originated here. If you have a fetish for metal rock, get an event brochure from any shop and hunt out live concert venues like the Jannus Landing, for a groovy time. The White Nights of St Petersburg, immortalized in Dostoyevsky’s namesake novel, is perhaps the most admired phenomenon of Russia steeped in the nation’s culture and heritage. The last two weeks of June is when the sun stops and stays put just short of disappearing below the sphere. It is party time.
As summer knocks on the door, people are happy, light-hearted and jaunty, which is infectious. A night cruise along the canals and Neva River as the evening sun transforms itself to crack the dawn is one experience that Russia alone can tempt you with. Large bridges interlace these water bodies and watching the White Nights from a bridge is another means to enjoy your night. But St Petersburg has layers and layers of surprises beyond these magical nights. Unlike Moscow, the coffee bars, sushi bars, beer bars, street cafes, countless art galleries and even the romantic operas of Tchaikovsky performed in Petersburg, with its total disregard for conventionalism, have a mix of Bohemian and European tang to it. And they say this is the future.
Tips, tales and opinions from travellers do no justice at all to Russia because it depends on what you are after. You experience and decide if it is a beach haven, a cultural outlet, an eco tourism centre or a lethargic holiday destination as intoxicating as a glass of the Soviet Champagne, Medovukha.