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Fantastical journey in St. Petersburg

In the frozen winter, a romantic trip to St. Petersburg, complete with palaces, concerts and ballet.

October 12, 2003|By Susan Spano

we spent our first day together driving from site to site, beginning, as is appropriate, with the St. Peter and Paul Fortress on the north bank of the Neva, where Peter the Great's city took shape, first in rough wood, then in stone designed in large part by Italian architect Domenico Trezzini. Within the fortress walls are museums, a prison, military parade grounds and a richly gilded cathedral where the floor is lined with the tombs of Romanovs, the family that ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. Most poignant to a romantic--especially one, like me, who shed a teen-ager's tears all the way through Robert K. Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra"--are those of the last czar and his czarina, imprisoned and executed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks near the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg. Their remains were moved to the cathedral just five years ago in a gesture that seems to bespeak the way Russians have begun to cautiously re-embrace their imperial past.

On the riverbank, just east of the fortress, we stopped briefly at Peter the Great's simple log cabin, where the czar lived while workers wrested St. Petersburg out of the Neva swamp. It's hard to imagine, but at the beginning, the city was as mean and muddy as a Western mining camp, peopled by serfs, prisoners of war and members of Peter's court who were forced, under protest, to move from Moscow. In 1715, a woman was devoured by wolves in the vicinity of the Menshikov Palace on nearby Vasilevsky Island. There were no bridges over the Neva, which suited Peter, a maritime enthusiast who required St. Petersburgers to cross the many-channeled river exclusively by sailboat; only when several people died doing so did he rescind the order.

Peter, one of history's most fabled rulers, is hard to fathom, even if you spend your days touring the city he created out of nothing and reading Massie's biography of him at night, as I did. Though his education was spotty, the czar was a man of countless enthusiasms, including science, engineering and war. As a princeling in Moscow, he played soldier with Russian troops and live ammunition, and later toured Western Europe incognito, more captivated by Dutch shipyards than the court of the French king. Throughout his life, he also routinely drank himself into stupors and was subject to embarrassing seizures, which only the Lithuanian peasant girl who became his second wife, Catherine I, seemed able to quell.

Ultimately, Peter's city grew up on the south bank of the Neva, around a shipyard now occupied by the magnificent Admiralty building. Its yellow Neoclassical facade, stretching 1,335 feet along the river, bordered by parks and topped by a 218-foot gold spire, dominates the city center. Nearby are all of St. Petersburg's grandest architectural ensembles and main tourist attractions--with such notable exceptions as Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo, imperial palaces in the suburbs.

But my time was limited, and winter weather discouraged wandering. So--with and without my guide--I concentrated on the walkable Admiralty, where streets that recall the film version of "Dr. Zhivago" are lined by facades painted in pastels to break up winter's white monotony. There the arts, culture, society and wealth of the czars came to full flower at the turn of the last century.

Most likely the black-haired woman in my Russian fantasy was coming home from a ball at the Winter Palace. Just east of the Admiralty, the palace is the historic heart of the Hermitage Museum, commissioned in the mid-18th century by Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's giddy daughter. The designer was Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who, together with other artists and architects imported from Italy by the czars, put his mark all over the city. What stories those lettuce-green walls could tell of lavish balls, assignations, plots, murder, revolution. Russian director Alexander Sokurov tried to tell it all in "Russian Ark," a movie released last year that looks back at the age of the czars with more than a little nostalgia. It was filmed in one continuous take inside the Hermitage, with 850 actors and costumes galore. In the last memorable scene, a throng of party-goers--men in 18th century military uniforms with epaulets and sabers, women in ball gowns, jewels, fur and feathers--crowd down the gorgeous Jordan Staircase.

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