Pushkin once wrote of St Petersburg in summer as being “where sunrise runs to meet sunset”. This is when they celebrate the White Nights in St Petersburg, a wonderful festival of both culture and partying.
In July the sun sets about 11.30 in what the locals refer to as ‘Pieter’, rises a few hours later and the sky is never really more than a deep blue above the city in between. It is certainly a perfect city for wandering the night away.
On my first morning in St Petersburg I was scoffing a vagabond traveller’s breakfast in a park beside the apricot-coloured castle of Tsar Paul’s engineers and found myself among the hangover brigade and the rubbish from last night’s festivities.
I think visually St Petersburg is sort of an alliance between Venice and Paris. The canals crossed by elegant bridges remind me of Venice and the homogeneity of the architecture of Haussmann’s Paris.
Facade after imposing facade of grandiose architecture make for a grim picture at times but the faded and dilapidated glories soften things somewhat. The palaces and grand houses along the canals are prettily yellow, crimson or turquoise.
The churches and cathedrals of St Petersburg are elaborately European, in other words non-Russian. All except the candy-decorated onion domes of the Saviour on the Blood church, which was modelled on St Basil’s in Moscow’s Red Square as one in the eye for St Petersburg style.
Inside glorious mosaics cover every surface with detailed New Testament scenes and incandescent faces. They sparkle with semi-precious stones trimmed with flowers and leaves.
The Peter and Paul Fortress looks very foreboding from across the river, with its bastion rising from the shore and an immensely tall golden spire. Unpleasant thoughts for the prisoners once held in this stronghold of Tsarist power are dispelled by the hundreds of locals swimming and sunbathing on the rocks and grass below.
The mighty collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg’s Winter Palace seems sometimes overwhelmed by their surroundings. All that gilding and overblown ceiling painting and elaborate parquet.
In Pushkin’s highly elegant apartment the study is full of books and portraits. This is where this most revered of Russian writers expired after being wounded in a duel. On the desk is a Blackamoor statuette to remind him he is the great grandson of an Abyssinian slave brought up by Peter the Great.
If you like Russian literature or literary-themed travel, the Dostoevsky Museum is an unsurprisingly more modest apartment than that enjoyed by Pushkin’s family. Pictures and maps bring the 19th-century St Petersburg of Crime and Punishment to life.
But my favourite thing to see in oh-so-grand St Petersburg is tiny. Near the Saviour on the Blood church, down by the wall of a bridge is the life-sized bronze statue of a bird. It’s called the Chizhik-Pyzhik and the nickname comes from a drinking song enjoyed by students of a nearby 19th-century school for imperial administrators.
“Chizhik-Pyzhik, where have you been?” it goes. “Drank vodka on the Fontanka. Took a shot, took another –
Got a headache.” Seems appropriate for the White Nights.
On the day I visited the Chyzik Pizhik was crowded with groups of St Petersburg school girls throwing coins at it. The story is that if you hit the statue with a coin your wish will come true.
By Natasha von Geldern
If you hit the Chyzik Pizhik in St Petersburg with a coin what would your wish be?