Saint Petersburg doesn’t reveal her beauty to you all at once. To discover her secrets, you must work at it patiently, like a sculptor who reveals the appeal of a cold slab of stone by chipping away at it gently until the statue beneath is revealed in all its glory. So to appreciate this city properly, you must be prepared to spend a few weeks (or months)…impossible for a mere tourist, of course…but there you have it.
I say this because, even though I have spent a considerable amount of time and money to see the best attractions here, I’m always left thinking that I hurried too much and left much unseen. There was that corridor in the Hermitage filled with Grecian urns and Etruscan antiquities that I couldn’t break free from my tour group to see. There was the crypt with the relics of St. John of Kronstadt that I should have requested to view long in advance. There was the dingy bar off Neva Street that offers over 100 flavors of vodka, many of which contain the dregs of some unknown herbs or spices, and all of which the bartender can explain to you in exquisite detail and completely incomprehensible English if you ask him. I know this because on my first trip I only tried a few of them, leaving me wanting more when I finally woke up. And now, having just left this grand city, once again, I feel like I barely scratched the surface of her charms.
So yes, I saw St. Pete again, and would gladly go back now if I could. It bristles with golden domes and magnificent palaces, so grand in concept and execution that they leave you breathless. Witness the baroque extravagance of the Peterhof, with its fantastic grand fountain, or the dramatic mosaics that decorate every square inch of the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. It bustles with Russians, people who have the reputation of being cold and remote, but, belying that rather foreboding reputation, some locals once gratuitously befriended me, a lone American and a stranger, while we were all waiting in an endless hydrofoil line. It has world-class art, so much so that it compares favorably with the Louvre or the Prado, beautiful waterways filled with naval vessels and sailing ships, ornate bridges, grand avenues, and a culture that promotes the arts, music, and literature.
Peter the Great, who directed the construction of the city and many of its most magnificent palaces, wanted to outdo the Western Europeans at their own game, and to my mind, he succeeded. Like Washington, DC, St Petersburg was intended to be a nation’s capital, and just like the American city, it was built on top of a swamp, largely using (the equivalent of) slave labor. Because it’s almost completely surrounded by water, it’s criss-crossed with canals and bridges, causing some to lend it the moniker “Venice of the North”, but I hate such comparisons, partly because they are almost never true (Detroit was once called the “Paris of the Midwest”, believe it or not), but also because it serves to denigrate both cities at once. Venice is an absolutely unique place deserving of its own special niche in the pantheon of world-class cities-and so is St. Petersburg.
This was my second visit to St Petersburg, and I love it as much now as I did the first time around. In fact, I appreciate it even more, especially since, unlike other European countries, Russia hasn’t opened up its borders to an invading army of Muslims and Africans. I’m OK if I never see Londonistan or Nigeria-on-the Seine again, but St. Pete is still a recognizably European city filled with beautiful and timeless art and architecture: still worth seeing, and still great after all these years.