Which is pretty much what Peter the Great said in 1703, according to one story, when during one of his many extreme drinking binges he decided to found St Petersburg in the middle of a swamp. However, although it may be true that he was drunk at the time of his decision, seeing as he consumed half a gallon of vodka a day, there was also some method in his madness: he was in the process of turning Russia from a relatively small, landlocked country into a major trading power, and the River Neva on which he built St Petersburg emptied into the Baltic Sea and provided a route to Europe.
He ordered hundreds of thousands of serfs, at that time and for another 150 years to come regarded as mere property and passed down with estates from one generation of landowners to the next, to drain marshes, fill in lakes, cut down entire forests and shovel millions of tons of earth often with their bare hands. Up to a hundred thousand of them died of starvation, freezing, overworking, dysentry, malaria and execution. The result was, eventually, Russia's most beautiful and most European city, it's capital for over 200 years
until the Communist Revolution.
I found myself wandering its streets for the fifth time with my brother and his girlfriend, who were out visiting from England. As always it was incredibly relaxing and provided a wonderful escape and breath of fresh after Moscow. The lack of traffic on its streets, even in the centre, always leaves me gobsmacked. The air is cleaner and fresher than in Moscow, perhaps due to its proximity to the Gulf of Finland, and high rise concrete has been restricted mostly to the outskirts, leaving the centre a charming maze of winding canals and backstreets lined with Tsarist-era buildings in a multitude of fading blues, pinks, yellows and greens.
At the same time it is hard to escape a feeling of some sort of decay; pavements are crumbling, streets uneven and filled with holes, buildings stained with dirt and their paint peeling. If one steps off a backstreet and into the darkness of one of Petersburg's many narrow, tall courtyards one may be greeted by the site of entire houses almost on the verge of collapse, windows gaping hungrily with all their glass long ago smashed out.
In Petersburg one may visit the
Hermitage, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world, containing almost 3 million items, marvel at Russia's biggest, most spectacular and most unusual cathedrals, eat an excellent Greek or Indian meal (impossible in Moscow), take day trips to the stunning nearby palaces of Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo (no pictures provided as we didn't have time on this trip). Whatever its drawbacks as a place to live, as a tourist on a weekend break there from Moscow everything seemed so positive; on every street something attracted my attention and aroused my interest. The whole city seemed almost unbelievably laid-back and light-hearted.and it managed to draw me out of the tired, sunshine-deprived sluggishness that had set in over the 5-month winter that was now so nearly at an end.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia
, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.
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