Saint Petersburg-The Spirit of the Czars

Czar  Peter  the  Great  had  a  brainstorm: What  Russia  needed  was  a  new  capital.  A major  seaport  was  essential,  he  knew,  for his  landlocked  country  to  claim  its  place among  the  nations  of  Europe.  And  so  in 1703  Peter  the  Great  captured  a  chunk  of marshy Baltic coast from Sweden and proceeded  to  build  a  glittering  new  capital there, with a network of canals draining the Neva River delta into a cluster of islands.

Moscow regained capital status after the Revolution  in  1917,  but  the  ghosts  of  the czars linger in Saint Petersburg, at elegant Palace  Square  (Dvortsovaya  Ploshchad). Standing  under  the  Alexander  Column—a 600-ton monolith topped by a cross-carrying angel, commemorating the Russian victory  over  Napoleon—imagine  all  that  this asymmetrical  plaza  has  seen,  from  royal coaches pulling up to the baroque Winter Palace on one side, to Communist solidarity  marches  in  front  of  the  long,  curved General Staff Building. Through the grand courtyard  of  the  Winter  Palace  today,  you enter the State Hermitage Museum,  which  houses  the  peerless  art  collection of the czars. The Hermitage’s extravagantly    decorated    salons    display    an incredible catalog of Renaissance Italian art and loads of Dutch and Flemish masters; it has   more   French   artworks   than   any museum outside of France.

If you stand on Strelka, a spit of land on Vasilievsky  Island,  you’ll  view  a  panorama  of  nearly  every  major  landmark  in Saint  Petersburg—a  classically  harmonious  assemblage  of  architecture,  which luckily   escaped   the   massive   Stalin-era reconstruction  that  blighted  many  other Russian   cities.   Over   3   centuries,   Saint Petersburg—dourly  renamed  Petrograd during  World  War  I,  and  Leningrad  from 1924 to 1991—gradually spread out from the  south  bank  of  the  Neva,  but  under Peter the Great its center was the Peter & Paul  Fortress  (Petropavlovskaya  Krepost),  on  Hare’s  Island  (Zaichy  Ostrov) across  from  the  Winter  Palace.  The  complex includes the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which holds the tombs of all Russian czars  from  Peter’s  day  through  the  last czar,  assassinated  Nicholas  II  (he  and  his family were reburied here in 1997). Also at the   fortress,   the   Trubetskoi   Bastion housed  such  political  prisoners  as  Fyodor Dostoevsky,  Leon  Trotsky,  and  Vladimir Lenin’s brother.

You  may  also  stroll  around  the  formal gardens of the Summer Palace; glean literary  insights  at  the  Dostoevsky  House (5/2  Kuznechny  Pereulok)  and  Nabokov House   (47   Bolshaya   Morskaya   Ulitsa) museums;  walk  along  Nevsky  Prospect, Saint   Petersburg’s   greatest   boulevard; and photograph the blindingly bright beveled domes of the Cathedral of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, commemorating the spot  where  Czar  Alexander  II  (who  freed Russia’s serfs in 1861) was assassinated in 1881. Exploring the city, you’ll cross a lot of bridges—342 of them, many exquisitely designed  and  adorned  with  statues.  If you’re  lucky  enough  to  be  here  in  June during  White  Nights,  when  the  sun  never dips below the horizon, perch on the quay at  2am  to  watch  the  Neva’s drawbridges unfold in careful rhythm to allow nighttime shipping  traffic  through.  Just  be  careful not to get caught on the wrong side of the river from your hotel!