Russia: Hijacked on the Prospekt

By Susan Buckland

St Petersburg's main street is one long, fabulous distraction, writes Susan Buckland.

Nevsky Prospekt and the Kazan cathedral seen from the Singer Cafe above Dom Knigi bookshop. Photo / Susan Buckland
Nevsky Prospekt and the Kazan cathedral seen from the Singer Cafe above Dom Knigi bookshop. Photo / Susan Buckland

London has The Mall, Paris the Champs Elysee. And St Petersburg? Welcome to Nevsky Prospekt, a monumental main street that attracts people like a magnet.

Peter the Great would be pleased. When the Emperor of all the Russias set out more than 300 years ago to build a capital to rival Europe's best he made sure its main street would measure up. He cut a 4.5km-long swathe through forest and swamp to where the Neva River runs into the Gulf of Finland. At 2.1m-tall, Peter would have cut quite a figure himself.

Next, the hard-driving Tsar began lining the street with grand monuments that reflected his imperial ambitions. The Great Perspective Rd, as the Nevsky was originally called, emerged as the centre of Peter's magnificent gateway to the West.

At great human cost, however. Thousands of serfs died of malaria and exhaustion digging the swampy delta to build the city. Peter's "window on Europe" was literally built on their bones.

The Empress Catherine the Great accelerated the cultural enrichment of St Petersburg. Rumoured to have had numerous lovers, Catherine was also a lover of the arts. The collection she started has since expanded to a mind-boggling 2.7 million treasures, housed in the former Tsar's Winter Palace, now the fabulous Hermitage Museum.

During her reign the main street scored plenty of royal patronage. Splendid palaces of marble and malachite were built and Westerners flocked to the imperial city. That all ended with the 1917 revolution, the beginning of almost a century of upheaval and hardship - and dismal architecture such as the Aeroflot building at No 7.

Enter the new Tsar, Vladimir Putin, with a billion dollar government cheque to restore the neglected historic buildings of his native city, in the year of the city's 300th anniversary, 2003. As a result, buildings such as the Stroganoff Palace (of piquant stew fame) sparkle anew.

Once on the Nevsky Prospekt it is hard to escape its kilometres of architectural marvels, shopping, people-watching, rivers, canals and bridges. The famous bronze sculptures of horses and their tamers on the Anichkov bridge over Fontanka Canal are particular show stoppers.

Occasionally, you'll be lured onto side streets. But, sooner or later, you'll be drawn back to the street where the city's heart beats strongest. Where, at times, a melancholy air lingers.

On a schoolhouse at No 14, a memorial to the horrific 1941-1944 German siege of St Petersburg is sketched. Then, next minute, the vibrant pace of 21st century St Petersburg sweeps you along.

People you ask for directions will courteously point the way. And sometimes accompany you there. Katrina was such a person. We nearly collided outside the handsomely renovated Nevsky Palace, now the Corinthia Hotel, where I was staying. Like many of the tall young women striding along Nevsky Prospekt she wore a jacket with a nipped-in waist and knee-high boots over hugging jeans. Her fur-lined hood to ward off the November cold framed an attractive Slavic face.

I fancied kick-starting the day at a Nevsky Prospekt landmark called Dom Knigi (House of Books).

The famous bookshop turned out to be one of Katrina's favourite haunts.

From its Singer Café upstairs, named after the Singer Sewing Machine Company that once occupied the building, she pointed out the captivating view of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan across the Prospekt.

Katrina often takes a break at the bookshop from her four part-time jobs. At least she is paid for each of them, unlike the schoolteacher I stayed with a decade ago, who was paid for only one of her three jobs. Communism had fallen but capitalist Russia at that point was struggling to pay salaries.

At the House of Books, I bought Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and arranged to meet Katrina next day at the author's house, now a museum.

The bookshop was doing a brisk trade, as were many other shops on the Prospekt, in stark contrast to my visit of 10 years ago when shop shelves looked ransacked. Back then, Gostiny Dvor, an elegant 18th century department store, would have struggled to fill its shops with the fancy brands it sells today. For cheaper goods, head for The Galleria and The Nevsky Centre, which sell everything from laptops to vodka.

For a dose of the city pre-Revolution I called at No 18, the Literaturnava Café, where poet Alexander Pushkin ate before his fatal duel with Georges D'Anthes in 1837. And Dostoyevsky had blinis there.

This is a place overflowing with such memories. I was following in the famous footsteps of Tschaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Anna Pavlova and Nureyev... all the way into the pre-Revolutionary elegance of the Grand Hotel Europa, a flagship on the Prospekt for 131 years.

My plan not to be side-tracked was hijacked at Griboedov Canal by a gold domed church, its mosaic exterior reflected in the water. The church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, where Tsar Alexander 11 was assassinated in 1881, is a popular photo spot for newlyweds.

Behind it are market stalls stacked with Russian dolls, trinkets and fur-lined hats and boots.

I was seduced off Nevsky Prospekt again by the Yusupov Palace, a beautifully preserved mansion where the fiendish Rasputin met his death at the sword of Count Yusupov.

"Step into it, and you step into a fairground," wrote the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol about Nevsky Prospekt in the 19th century, a time when it was swept by prostitutes doing their morning penance before being released to solicit afresh that evening.

St Petersburg's mother of a main street runs from Moscow Station all the way down to the Admiralty and Hermitage Museum on the Neva River. Where do you start? The middle was good. It's where I almost collided with Katrina, the friendly multi-tasker who paved the way.


Getting there: Emirates flies four times daily from New Zealand with direct connections at Dubai to its daily service to St Petersburg.

Where to stay: Corinthia Hotel is in the heart of Nevksy Prospekt.

Getting around: Buy a St Petersburg Guest card for around $80 to get discounted entries to many state museums, theatres, city excursions, river and canal cruises, several restaurants and shops.

Susan Buckland visited St Petersburg with help from Emirates Airline, the Corinthia Hotel and the Russian Union of Travel Industry.

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