I’ve never liked early mornings at the best of times. Staring up at the pre-dawn, purple-black sky of a St Petersburg winter, my first instinct is to crawl back under the duvet.
Yet a hearty Russian breakfast of kasha (buckwheat porridge), blackcurrant jam and sweet black tea has a curious way of fortifying the soul. Decked out in ushanka (fur hat), thermal leggings and most of my wardrobe, I’m soon among the bundled-up crowds on the street outside, jolted fully awake by a stinging, icy breeze. A cloudless sky heralds the start of another bone-chilling January day.
At the entrance to the local metro station, a smell of musky human warmth permeates the air. Pushing through a pair of heavy swing doors, I clutch the 35 rubles for my ticket tightly in hand. Babushkas in headscarves, sharp-suited businessmen and tottering women on impossibly high heels jostle past as we ride a never-ending escalator into the bowels of the earth.
From dilapidated, Soviet-era drabness to breathtaking imperial splendour, a nine-stop subway ride from the outskirts of St Petersburg to its main street, Nevsky Prospekt, is a transformative architectural journey — not unlike heading underground in a dreary Croydon suburb, only to resurface in Pall Mall 25 minutes later.
Emerging onto Nevsky Prospekt’s crowded pavement, the baroque and neoclassical facades of St Petersburg’s legendary thoroughfare are resplendent in bright sunshine. Despite the Cyrillic signs and sporadic onion dome, I’m reminded just how European this city feels compared to Moscow, 400 miles to the south east. Just over 300 years since it was founded by Peter the Great, this is still very much Russia’s ‘window to the West’.
Culture & commerce
“I couldn’t see myself in any other Russian city,” says the Dutchman, a St Petersburg resident for nearly three years. “It’s European enough to make it habitable, but Russian enough to make living here a real adventure.”
Today, Jonathan is keen to show me the view over St Petersburg from St Isaac’s Cathedral. But first we’re going to indulge in a spot of grocery shopping. Rather than head to the nearest supermarket, our destination is Apraksin Dvor, a market with Central Asian overtones, just off Nevsky Prospekt.
“Best place in St Petersburg to buy pickled garlic and adjika (a spicy, red pepper paste from Georgia),” explains my Dutch friend. “Not to mention fur hats, Putin memorabilia and pomegranates.”
Nevsky Prospekt and its environs are a mass of cafes, theatres and museums. Crossing the icebound Griboyedov Canal, we pass the whimsically iconic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, followed by the more sombre columns of Kazan Cathedral. The former, with its nine multicoloured onion domes and gingerbread exterior, recalls a giant, Russian Orthodox sweet shop.
Contrasting sharply with the imposing and impeccably maintained religious buildings of Nevsky Prospekt, Apraksin Dvor turns out to be a rundown rabbit warren of commerce. A stone’s throw from the tourist buses and flashy SUVs of St Petersburg’s grandest boulevard, here I discover ordinary Russians stocking up on pickles, pans and pelmeni (Russian-style dumplings).
A stallholder named Natalia glares at me when she sees my camera, but flashes her teeth after Jonathan picks out his garlic.
“About 10 years ago, the authorities said they would redevelop this market, but I’m still here selling my vegetables,” she says with a toothy smile. “In Russia, you get used to living with an uncertain future.”
From the colonnade below the mighty golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral, I look out over a mass of pastel facades and frosted trees. Beyond the gleaming spire of the Admiralty Building, the frozen expanse of the Neva River extends toward the fog-bound horizon, the Baltic and Europe.
“It was in 1703 that Peter the Great decided to found his great city here,” explains Jonathan, indulging in a quick history lesson. “An admirer of all things European, he wanted to modernise Russia by making St Petersburg a window to the West. He even taxed Russians with beards because he thought most European men were clean-shaven.”
Many will have marvelled at the grandeur of the St Petersburg depicted in the recent BBC One adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Those wandering around the city centre today will certainly be delighted to find much of this beauty still intact.
Yet many of Russia’s greatest writers despised St Petersburg for its decadence. Tolstoy’s great contemporary, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who lived at 20 different St Petersburg addresses in his adult life, rejected the need for a so-called window on Europe. To the idealistic Russian novelist, that window led to nothing but social injustice and moral decay.
“As far as Dostoyevsky was concerned, St Petersburg was an artificial, Europeanised city that was simply grafted onto Russia,” says Jonathan.
Today Petersburgers appear more appreciative of their artificial city. We meet with two young Russians, Pavel Zaitsev and Alexei Molchanov, on the Neva’s granite embankment, and take a walk out onto the river’s supercooled skin.
“It’s the great Russian paradox,” laughs Pavel. “Whether to be European or Asian. But just take a look at the fashion trends, the music, the sport here. Geographically we might be at a crossroads, but it’s clear where the attention of most Russians is focused.”
“We’re not obsessed with Europe,” adds Alexei. “But you can’t deny St Peterburg is Russia’s most beautiful city. Dostoyevsky equated Europe with bourgeois inequality, but there’s always been plenty of inequality in Asia.”
Sweet summer sweat
This is the time — as memories of the latest harsh winter begin to fade away — that Petersburgers crave the kind of relaxation that only steam and nakedness can bring. The banya — Russia’s take on the sauna — was about to be the focus of my first serious cross-cultural experience.
Not many Westerners will have heard of banyas, let alone appreciate their importance. As I found out, however, they still form a cornerstone of Russian social life, with a history dating back over a thousand years.
But Igor Pestovnikov wasn’t interested in history. As he leant over the fence of my newly rented dacha (country house) on the outskirts of St Petersburg, the retired engineer was still coming to terms with my general ignorance. “You’ve never been in a banya before?” Igor asked in heavily accented English. “What do you do in summer in England then?”
While the centre of St Petersburg is home to a clutch of public banyas, most can now be found attached to private dachas located in the forests encircling the city. With the chimney of Igor’s sauna already belching smoke, the amiable Russian appears determined to break my banya duck.
“Birch or oak?” he enquires, holding up two twiggy bundles resembling miniature brooms. “Birch is good for aches; oak helps lower blood pressure. If your body is in a bad way, I can beat you with both.”
Bracing myself for a truly unpleasant experience, I slipped through the fence. Up close, my neighbour’s wooden banya was a real work of art, with a wide balcony and intricate carvings on the doors and walls. The stove was packed with Altai cedar, heating the stones in the steam room to red-hot temperatures.
“The hotter the stones, the more steam we make,” explained Igor. “The more steam, the more we sweat. Sweating rids the body of toxins and keeps the skin young.”
Halfway through the banya session was apparently when the ‘flogging’ with veniki (supple birch or oak branches) would begin. “Think of it more like gentle massage,” said Igor with a grin, gripping his leafy cat o’ nine tails like a bosun on the quarterdeck. “It opens pores and increases circulation.”
I’d only been in St Petersburg a week and I was about to be whipped naked by a hirsute, slightly overweight Russian man. It was one more thing to tick off the bucket list.
Of parks & pies
Daria and her friend Diana Beleva have offered to show me their favourite St Petersburg hangouts. But my friends from language school seem to have underestimated the severity of the weather.
“It’s hard to believe I was sunbathing here a few months ago,” says a shivering Diana, as we stare across the frozen Neva at the distant facade of the Winter Palace. “Let’s go and drink tea.”
There’s hardly a soul inside the fortress’s cobblestoned courtyard as we admire the exterior of the magnificent cathedral. A curious statue of Peter the Great with a tiny head and enlarged torso sits in one corner.
“At first locals hated this statue because of its strange appearance,” says Daria. “Now everyone rubs one of Peter’s fingers in the hope of becoming rich. Chasing the new Russian dream, I guess, one can forgive a little strangeness.”
After tea, we take a taxi to Yelagin Island, Daria’s winter destination of choice, located in north west St Petersburg. The northernmost island in the Neva River delta, Yelagin is today home to a sprawling park with an idyllic network of paths, snow-clad greenery and a beautifully restored imperial palace. As loudspeakers pipe classical music, nimble-footed babushkas dance to the sounds of a hardy, al fresco chamber orchestra. We watch rosy-cheeked children perform circuits of the local skating rink before the cold begins to take its toll.
There’s nothing like winter exercise to work up an appetite. Returning to the city centre, we call in at Stolle, the best pirog (pie) shop in town. From savoury chicken and succulent salmon to sweet redcurrant and apple, the mouthwatering creations of this St Petersburg institution are a good advert for Russia’s sometimes-maligned cuisine.
Appetites sated, my companions beg their leave. Craving French cheese, they’re both off to the Eliseyev Emporium, an upscale art nouveau food hall on Nevsky Prospekt. East-West trade embargo or not, there isn’t much money can’t buy in this city on Europe’s edge.
British Airways runs seven direct flights a week from Heathrow to Pulkovo Airport.
Average flight time: 3h 30m.
St Petersburg’s metro is cheap, extensive and convenient for many of the top sights, with many signs in English. LingoTaxi offers reasonably priced taxis, with English-speaking drivers and online booking available. Jonathan van Dijk’s Wow Russia Tours offer popular guided tours around the city in a Soviet-era Volga car.
When to go
Besides the weather (St Petersburg has fairly warm summers but severely cold winters) also consider the calendars of the top attractions. The Mariinsky Theatre, for example, takes two months off in summer, while the Peterhof Palace fountains only open June-October. For many, the ‘White Nights’ of summer (late May-July) are a big attraction.
Need to know
Visas: UK passport holders require a tourist visa ru.vfsglobal.co.uk
Currency: Ruble (RUB).
£1 = RUB113.
International dial code: 00 7 812.
Time difference: GMT +3.
How to do it
Exeter International has four nights’ B&B at the five-star Hotel Astoria, transfers, two days of private guiding and return economy-class flights with British Airways from £965 per person.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)