Russia: Art fit for the Tsars

By Susan Buckland

St Petersburg is full of treasure amassed by royalty, finds Susan Buckland.

A night view of St Petersburg's Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ - one of many striking buildings in the city. Photo / Thinkstock
A night view of St Petersburg's Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ - one of many striking buildings in the city. Photo / Thinkstock

Propped up on feather pillows in my hotel room, temptations leap off every page of the St Petersburg In Your Pocket guide. I wish I had skates. I have barely three days to explore 300 years of history ranging from glorious to explosive.

Leaving the complimentary bottle of vodka unopened on the table, I focus on what is doable.

The famous Hermitage Museum with its countless treasures will gobble up the best part of a day. But to visit St Petersburg and not visit The State Hermitage would be like flying to the moon and not taking a second step for mankind. And you don't want to wind up cantering past Monets, Van Goghs, Kandinskys and Picassos to glimpse the Goyas, Titians, Da Vincis and Botticellis before the doors close.

So I lace up my Gortex-lined boots and set off for the mother of all museums in scarf, beanie and rainproof puffer jacket - essential kit in November when the temperatures of St Petersburg's northern latitude begin to bite.

A grand route to the museum is The Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg's main street and widely regarded as the most famous street in Russia.

The Prospekt retains the splendid palaces and classical buildings constructed in the glory days when the imperial city of St Petersburg reigned supreme over the Russian empire.

En route you cross bridges with dramatic bronze sculptures that span the canals and rivers of the city. Wistfully, you realise your beanie and sensible shoes can't compete with the fur-lined apparel of the high cheeked-boned, long-legged beauties of St Petersburg you pass en route.

But once inside the warm museum, you can peel off your winter kit as you begin to explore the 365 rooms spread through six historic buildings along the Neva River embankment, the most important of which is the former winter palace of the Tsars.

The Empress Catherine the Great, a champion of the arts, started the extraordinarily rich collections in 1764. The museum opened in 1852 and the world has been flocking to it ever since.

The first hour can easily slip by on the wide marble staircases under glittering chandeliers imagining Tsars, Tsarinas and their children descending the same stairs in centuries past, their voices echoing off the gold-leafed walls.

After you've torn yourself away, think about the fastest way to negotiate the rest of this World Heritage city in the time you have.

The hop-on, hop-off City Bus Tour is time- and cost-efficient, especially when teamed with the St Petersburg Guest Card. The card buys discounted entry to many attractions and tours, including cruises along the city's waterways and to the Neva River as it courses through St Petersburg and to the Gulf of Finland.

An initial, intriguing place to hop off the City tour bus is the Peter and Paul Fortress where Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 and began building it into a magnificent capital to rival the best in Europe. The fortress houses the famous cathedral of Peter and Paul, numerous museums and knock-out riverside views.

Lots of people hop off the bus outside the very grand St Isaac's Cathedral. They climb its huge central dome for a bird's eye view of the city after marvelling at the cathedral's ornate interior and mighty columns of malachite and lapis lazuli. The much older St Nicholas Cathedral, with its pastel blue colouring, entices people off the bus, too.

To conserve energy for an evening at the famous Mariinsky Theatre the final hop off the bus is a toss-up between visiting the apartment of renowned Russian writer Alexander Puskhin or Yusupov Palace where the sleazy, womanising peasant monk, Rasputin, met his maker via the sword of Prince Felix Yusupov. The beautifully preserved palace wins the toss, being conveniently close to markets selling trinkets. After a lightning splurge on Russian dolls and fur-lined hats and gloves, it's back to the hotel to spruce up.

Founded in 1860, the Mariinsky Theatre and its ballet company rival Moscow's Bolshoi. It is a quintessential St Petersburg experience. The Russians love their ballet the way Kiwis love their rugby. And to sit among them in the glorious old theatre and be carried along by their passionate responses to the performers (Nureyev and Pavlova before them), tops off a ridiculously short time in St Petersburg like almond icing on a fruit laden cake.

The Guest Card comes in handy during my final morning when I use a combination of taxis and the underground to get from place to place. The 4.5-kilometre long Nevsky Prospekt has five underground station stops, many artistically embellished and with signs in English as well as Russian.

I never got to flash the card at the Russian Empire restaurant in the Stroganov Palace or to discover if the menu included the famous meat dish named after its 18th aristocratic inhabitants. But taking the recommendation of the English language St Petersburg Times, I dined at Kavkaz Bar on Karavannaya St on the piquant cuisine of the former Soviet state of Georgia. Eggplant slices slathered in walnut-garlic paste preceded beef stuffed with pomegranate seeds.

The meal enhanced not only an appetite for Georgian food but also a return visit to St Petersburg in which three days had been a tantalising entrée.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

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 on Nevksy Prospekt.

Susan Buckland travelled to St Petersburg as a guest of Emirates and the Corinthia Hotel, St Petersburg, with assistance from Russian Union of Travel Industry (North-West Division Office).

- Herald on Sunday

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