In Moscow, June 1672, a Tzar was born with a vision. He was unusually tall, bright, clean shaven, non-religious and kept his eyes to the West.
He dared to challenge traditions, domestic structure and the modus operandi of Medieval Russia, advancing it to be the new powerful kid on the block. He led a massive cultural revolution by cutting beards, opening math and engineering schools, encouraging youth to travel abroad, forcing French fashion on his court, and introducing potatoes (ha!) to Russian cuisine. He moved New Year’s day from September to January 1st and adopted the German custom of decorating Christmas trees. Believe it or not, he was also the father of Russian ballet. Sound like a lot? Well, he could also twist and roll silver plates and assemble anything ranging from kid’s chairs to real warships. He topped it all when in 1703 he chose the site and laid the foundation stone for the new capital of New Russia, Saint Petersburg, which he believed was and forever would be the”window to Europe”. Long Live Peter the Great!
The legend says that when Tzar Peter and his entourage scouted islands in the Neva river delta for a perfect location (or a fancy sunset view), an eagle appeared right above them and that’s how it started. Well, superstition runs deep in Russian DNA 🙂
Modern St. Petersburg consists of 101 islands, it’s the largest, youngest European city with the most number of bridges and a confident promise to amaze. Today follow me on a tour of Peter’s city…
We’ll start across the Neva river and the Winter Palace on Zayachay (Hare) Island at Peter and Paul Fortress. It was built as a bastion to counterattack Swedes, but soon turned into the “Russian Bastille”, where prince Alexey (Peter’s son) conspired against reforms and was interrogated and imprisoned. While still fresh and eager, climb up the Bell Tower, the second tallest local structure to discover its tragic past (a victim of several fires caused by lightining) and a panoramic view from 42m platform. Then enter the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the eternal home of Romanov family, and the oldest church in the city. It was built in stunning early Baroque style, greatly influenced by Western Europe. Its interiors were decorated with golden ornaments, icons and bible-themed paintings. On the way out, look up to spot the famous angel weather-vane on the golden spire.
Continue your walk along the walls of Peter and Paul Fortress, take panoramic photos of the historical center on the other side of Neva river and then turn to Petrovskaya embarkment to visit the first residential house, a little cottage built for Peter himself in record 3 days, Cabin of the Peter the Great. Protected from the harsh weather by the pavilion, it was originally assembled in traditional Russian log cabin style (izba) with large windows and a high roof. Interestingly, its exteriors were painted to imitate a brick pattern as Tzar was building a city of stone on a limited budget. The interiors were simple, practical and decorated with essentials only.
Photo credit St. Petersburg’s card
Our next stop is the opposite of practical. It was one of the fist luxuries, proudly designed for the eyes and soul by the Tzar himself and with his active involvement (he loved to be a part of all his projects). So cross the Troitskiy (Trinity) bridge to take a romantic stroll down the alleys in the Summer Garden. Yes, it was laid out as an entertainment park filled with early 18th century urban luxury trends – strict geometric principales, trimmed trees, swans, rare plants, sparkling fountains and marble statues. The river that supplied water to feed its fountains was eventually called Fontanka. Through its history, the Summer Garden has witnessed secret rendez-vous, powerful celebrities, assassination attempt, love scandals and impressive fireworks to end imperial ball. Sadly, most of the marble statues (except one) were replaced with copies during the latest restoration. Keep an eye for the Peace and Victory statue, it’s the only original left.
Now it’s time for “I spy with my little eye”. Turn around and find another golden spire with a weather vane in the form of a little ship shining high in the sky (or use Google maps). It’s the Admiralty tower strategically located on the Neva River in close proximity of Peter and Paul fortresses canons, so it could be easily destroyed if overtaken by enemies. The Admiralty at first was functioning as a shipyard to build the new Russian Baltic fleet and to support Peter’s Imperial ambitions (produced 262 warships). Peter himself was seen over there working hard as a craftsman on docks. Today the Admiralty is one of most recognizable symbols of the city and a starting point of 3 main avenues. One of them is Nevsky prospect.
It’s impossible to visit St. Petersburg and miss the Nevsky’s. It’s a happening place, the hub of entertainment and nightlife, one of the best-known streets in Russia and a history itself. Around 2 million people walk up and down it every day (pickpockets too, beware!). Nevsky is lined with fancy shops, restaurants and the most impressive buildings in St. Petersburg, including Kazan Cathedral, Singer House, the Passage Mall and Anichkov Bridge across Fontanka River. Stop over here for a water adventure that will take you on a tour of bridges and water canals to discover St. Petersburg from a different angle.
Our next stop is Menshikov’s Palace located right in front of the Admiralty. It was built for a childhood friend of Peter the Great, his supporter and later the first governor, Aleksander Menshikov (not of noble origin but promoted to Duke by the Tzar). Being the first stone residential building in the city and a magnificent structure featuring a rare mix of Baroque style with traditional Russian architecture, the palace was often used for official receptions, balls and carnivals. Rich interiors were decorated with silk, gold, Dutch tiles and marble. The legend says that many of the guest were frightened to step on unusual looking 3D parquet designed by Peter himself and kept their feet up while seated.
If it happened that the eagle responsible for Tzar’s decision flew through time, this is how amazed it would be by the beauty of this eternal city (watch the aerial video)