City breaks: A treat for the culture vultures

IT’S just over 300 years since Peter the Great built himself a new city on the banks of Russia’s Neva River, close to the Gulf of Finland. Inspired by visits to Europe, the willful tsar wanted a city of beauty and culture, close to the sea.

With a team of more than 20,000 Russian soldiers and Swedish prisoners of war, the construction of the heart of St Petersburg was completed in record time.

It’s the resulting cohesion of the city, conceived as an architectural whole with a centre of grand palaces, canals and picturesque squares, that strikes visitors. Everything’s in the right place and unlike unruly Moscow, it’s compact and easy to explore on foot.

With 60 rivers, streams and canals crossing the city and its surrounds, St Petersburg’s reputation as the Venice of the north holds true. You find yourself wandering across bridges, from island to island, and taking in the sights by boat is a must – but not in winter when the water freezes over.

Officially recognised as the cultural capital of Russia, tsar Peter achieved his ambitions for St Petersburg – today there are more than 200 museums and some of the best ballet, opera and classical concerts in the world are held in its theatres.

The Hermitage Museum takes at least half a day to navigate. Housed partly in the Winter Palace, visitors gaze at the lavishly decorated building as much as at the collection of priceless paintings and artefacts.

Other examples of the incredible opulence enjoyed by the lucky few in pre-revolution Russia are all around. Yusupov Palace, home to the wealthy Yusupov family and site of Rasputin’s murder, comes complete with its own theatre, dripping with gold. In the southwest suburb there are five major imperial residencies to explore – Peterhof, Oranienbaum, the Catherine Palace, Pavlovsk and Gatchina – with beautiful parks and gardens.

As you wander around town, exploring the extravagant palaces, it’s easy to forget that the end of the Soviet era and the collapse of the USSR wasn’t so long ago. There’s little reminder of the two major revolutions, bread queues, secret police and riots witnessed here (though you can visit the Aurora cruiser from where Lenin’s signal shot for the storming of the Winter Palace was fired in 1917).

Instead, there’s a sense of energy, a joie de vivre in the air. Ask any local and they’ll say the same: the city is changing fast. New shops, bars and restaurants are popping up and there’s scaffolding on every corner as old buildings are repaired. You’ll see BMWs driving down Nevsky Prospect and plenty of signs of Russia’s fast-emerging, designer-clad, middle class.

As more visitors flock to the city new hotels are opening and others are sprucing up their acts.

The Grand Hotel Europe has undergone a £16 million refurbishment and the Kempinski Moika 22 opened in March on Palace Square. The Corinthia Nevskij Palace is being refurbished and expanded (a conference centre for 1,000 is being added) and by 2010, 203 hotels are planned, doubling the city’s room capacity.

While the core market will always be those interested in cultural pursuits, a waterpark recently opened at the four-star Pribaltiyskaya hotel on Vassilyevsky Island offers families an extra incentive. There’s also a new oceanarium in the city, with 5,000 fish.

Clients considering visiting should bear in mind the hugely different experience offered in winter and summer in St Petersburg. The magical, snow-covered days of winter (from November to March) give way to light nights of summer, when it hardly gets dark and the streets are full of life all night. Even in early May, it was light until 11pm, a golden twilight lending the city a soft-focus glow.

But whether it’s riding sledges and wrapping up warm to explore iced palaces or strolling along the canals in daylight at 3am that appeals, St Petersburg guarantees a fascinating exotic break all just a three-hour flight away.

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