On St. Petersburg

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

November 4th, 2009

It has been a long –held dream of mine to visit St. Petersburg, home of the Tsars, of one of the worlds greatest museums, of caviar, vodka and the famed palaces of the boyars of old. Appropriately, it was Russian opera that inspired me – hearing that Anna Netrebko was to sing the leading role in Tchaikovsky’s opera “Iolanthe” at the Mariinsky, conducted by Valery Gergiev – well a night at the opera doesn’t really get much better. Accordingly tickets were booked online paid for, and all I had to do was a get a Russian visa. Now the palava with that is another story – I find it hard to be in one place at one time long enough to stay the week or so needed to process a visa, but this time it was complicated as I needed to apply for work visas for China and India too. In one of those horrid quirks of life, all my major visa applications had to be completed all at the same time. And with time running out, I made the final, Russia visa with just 48 hours to spare when Anna Netrebko was due to walk the boards at the Mariinsky.

But as you know from my previous article, that deadline was met, with more than satisfying results. However, what of the rest of St. Petersburg?  Quite simply, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Curiously reminiscent of Venice, Peter the Great built it to rival the canals of that wonderful city. He also visited Manchester, in England, another canal-riven European city whose regrettable treatment of their waterbound legacy means much of it is now buried amid industrially inspired wasteland. But Peter succeeded, and St. Petersburg is grand indeed. Canal trips can be taken along the Neva as it wanders through the city, stuffed full of architectural wonders. Palaces exist on every corner, and it was one, the Taleon Imperial Hotel , where we decamped. Built for a sister of Catherine the Great, it stands, proud as ever, on the canal. Evenings were spent at the Hotel Grand Europe, where I would sit in a corner of the bar, enjoying an excellent Bossner Baron cigar and splendid Armenian brandy. The cigar – and I have searched assidously to find a supplier to no avail – are apparently the work of a Russian from Siberia, (of I presume German extraction) whose business prospered, and now wealthy, wanted to find a cigar to his own tastes. In doing so, he travelled to Nicaragua, where the Bossner brand is made. The Baron, which is a thick, dark torpedo served in its own sandalwood box, is an excellent smoke, in fact one of the best I’ve had. But apparently only available at the Grand Hotel Europe. However, I shall keep an eye out for its availability elsewhere, and if you like full bodied cigars and see one, purchase immediately.


As for the Armenian Brandy, Winston Churchill would drink nothing else (apart from half bottles of Pol Roger champagne) and thought it superior to Cognac. I suspect he may well have been right, and it was with some glee I procured some in Gum in Moscow the week after.

The Hermitage, needless to say, was magnificent, and it really does need two days to do it justice. One day to take in the exquisite grandeur of the actual building and get a feel for it, and the other to study the artefacts. Meggie is an architect so we had a splendid time exploring the many rooms. It was intended as a palace, and served that function until the revolution. The wonderful film The Russian Ark  in fact describes in much detail the exhibits, mixed in with the ghosts of the people who lived within Russia’s history, and culminates in a recreation of the very last Tsars ball ever held there. How good is it as a museum? The current curator describes it thus “The Hermitage may or may not be the finest museum in the world. But it is certainly not the second.”   

The treasures of St. Petersburg are too many to list, suffice to say that it is an excellent city to explore on foot. The architecture is outstanding, the many parks (especially in autumn) most beautiful, and the avenues are an amazing mix of splendour, and conspicuous wealth. As for Russian cuisine, which tends to be mangled overseas, I had the most mouth-watering cured salmon, caviar by the bucket and I loved the soups. Mix that in with liberal servings of vodka and its difficult to go wrong really.

We had a final huzzah back at the Mariinsky’s new theatre, to see Valery Gergiev take the company though Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in preparation for a fully staged production to be staged at the Mariinsky proper in the winter. It promises to be a spectacular with a ninety piece orchestra, singers in full costume, and at four hours long it won’t be lacking in magnificence. I have a feeling Russians like their operas long because it’s so cold in the winter. In the meantime we vowed to return for the White Nights Festival, and may stay for the entire month.