Thawing out in cultural capital

ARRIVING in St Petersburg in July I was surprised to find the city’s inhabitants basking in temperatures of 35C – a far cry from Russia’s severe winters when most of its rivers and canals are frozen solid.

The 3hr time difference meant that my body clock was out, and it was even more confused by the ‘white nights’. This is the period from June to mid-July when the sun never sets so it never gets dark.

As a result of the constant daylight I found it difficult to sleep so I took the opportunity to start sightseeing, undisturbed by the crowds.

I was amazed at St Petersburg’s similarity to other European cities – it has numerous canals, rivers and parks – and is a contrast to Moscow in many ways.

The statues in St Petersburg are cultural and humourous – unlike the political effigies in the capital -Êand the people are far more laid-back and light-hearted than the Muscovites. In St Petersburg the conversation is about arts and culture – a far cry from the heavy political issues discussed in the capital.

The St Petersburg sense of humour is also evident in the many souvenir markets. I purchased a Matrioshka nest of dolls of President Clinton together with miniatures depicting his various love affairs.

It was at this market I spotted a replica of St Basils Church in Red Square, the Cathedral of Spilt Blood – so called because it was built on the place where Alexander II was assasinated. When the communists banned the orthodox religion, Stalin intended to have it destroyed but then converted it into a vegetable store. It is now fully restored and is well worth a visit; as is one of the oldest buildings and the birthplace of St Petersburg, Peter and Paul’s Fortress.

This was built by Peter the Great to defend the city against the Swedes, but its main use up to 1917 was as a jail for political prisoners. Some of its famous residents have included Gorky and Lenin’s older brother.

It is also where the last ruler, Tsar Nicholas II and members of his family have been laid to rest. Murdered by the Bolshevik revolutionaries at the end of the World War One, their remains were hidden in unmarked graves in the Urals where they laid undiscovered for decades.

In an emotional ceremony last year, their remains were driven through the crowded streets of St Petersburg to their final resting place. Visitors to the fortress should not be surprised to hear a loud canon fire at midday – an old tradition that used to signify that it was time for the workers at the fortress to break for lunch.

This sent food alarm bells ringing in my stomach and after a short search for a restaurant I stumbled across the the trendy Launa Café on Nevsky Avenue, the Russian equivalent to Oxford Street.

After a bowl of beetroot soup served hot with sour cream, plus blini pancakes filled with a choice of interesting combinations – all for just £2 – I headed off to digest some culture.

One of the highlights in the city is the Hermitage. Once Catherine the Great’s winter palace, today it houses one of the most famous art collections in the world. If you want to get in, be prepared to queue.

Outside the city, Peterhof is definitely worth a visit. This was Peter the Great’s summer palace, on the Gulf of Finland. You can get there by coach, but a more popular way in summer is by hydrofoil.

The palace is stunning, but save time for the gardens. They are full of fountains – including some that suddenly shower unwary visitors. It was Peter’s idea of fun!

St Petersburg

Abercrombie and Kent: offers a five-night escorted tour The Treasures of The Tsars. Clients stay at the centrally located five-star Astoria Hotel, where former residents include Margaret Thatcher. Featured in the company’s Journeys of Discovery brochure, it leads in at £1,798. This includes flights; transfers; full-board accommodation; a night at the ballet and/or opera; all sightseeing and services of a professional guide. Visa not included.

Fregata: offers a two-night break in a three-star hotel on a bed-and-breakfast basis from £447. The deal, which is based on two people sharing, includes flights with British Airways from Gatwick; return transfers and a visa. The price is valid from January to March next year.

Intourist: offers a two-night break at a lead-in price of £345 in January next year, based on two people sharing. Clients stay in a three-star hotel and get a continental breakfast. The price includes flights with British Airways; return transfers; services of an Intourist guide and a morning city tour. Clients also need to purchase a visa from Intourist at £35 per person.

Sovereign: offers two nights at a three-star hotel including breakfast for £349, based on two people sharing. The deal includes flights with British Airways from Gatwick; guide book; return transfers and services of a Sovereign agent. The price does not include a visa.

Time off: offers a two-night break at the centrally-located five-star Grand Hotel Europe for £589 per person. The price includes flights with British Airways from Gatwick or Heathrow; buffet breakfast and return private car transfers. The price is based on two sharing a twin or double room. Visa not included.

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