Text and Photos by Natalia Zaboltina

We are living in bizarre times. Coronavirus and all these quarantine measures have definitely put its imprint on the whole our life; things will never be the same. Like it or not, we have to adapt to new realities. Nevertheless, as odd as it sounds, the current situation has shown surprising benefits. 

I never had enough time to discover St. Petersburg properly. Don’t get me wrong, I have visited it a couple of times, but always strictly on business and in a rush. Suddenly, this last July some free time and closed borders gave me the idea of visiting and discovering this beautiful city slowly at a leisurely pace.

I took a Sapsan[1] train and 4 hours later here I am, in the cultural capital of Russia. I was lucky enough to get there before hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the country rushed there after the easing of quarantine restrictions.

Frankly, the city creates a mixed impression on a visitor. St. Pete[2] is a unique open-air museum on water. Architectural masterworks and magnificent pieces of art can literally be found at every step. We were lucky to breathe the air of the glorious old days and admire the illustrious past of the city. However, watching many of these artworks falling apart from neglected makes one sad. Seeing the deplorable condition of many historic monuments is painful. The St. Pete I saw is in despair need for helping hands and loving hearts; the city administration owes a debt to its residents.

St. Petersburg has personality. It is different. The city is made for leisurely walks, long strolls along the canals and embankments, sitting at a café tables watching passers-by in a relaxed afternoon. It has a wholesome effect on a chronically bustling Muscovite. Time passes slower when in St. Pete. When the weather permits, explore the city on foot not to miss out on unique details. 

I won’t dwell on obvious city attractions such as Hermitage Museum, Palace Square or Kazan Cathedral. I’m sure you all know them too well. I will tell you about the places I managed to visit during my July stay.

The Faberge Museum

The museum goes mostly unnoticed by tourists, because it’s fairly new. Be this as it may, it usually comes as a pleasant surprise for visitors. The world’s largest collection of Fabergé eggs is housed in the magnificent 18th century Shuvalov Palace. This is a private museum, founded by businessman Viktor Vekselberg and his foundation in 2013 to represent all the many areas that the House of Faberge specialized in: jewellery, small goods, silverware, interior and religious objects. The collection is mostly famous for its 9 Faberge Easter eggs which were commissioned by the Russian emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II.  One can also enjoy the works made by other outstanding Russian goldsmiths of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Sazikov, Ovchinnikov, Khlebnikov, Rückert and others. 

The museum is a rare example of respect and cherished attitude towards our cultural heritage. The amount of love, energy and money invested in the restoration and management of this building is impressive. The Palace has been extensively refurbished and being maintained with great care. The interior is very well designed and includes wonderful exhibition halls, a souvenir shop, café and left-luggage office at a ground level. Obviously, this must be on the list of important things to experience at least once in a lifetime. I recommend visiting this on your own, not as part of a tour.

New Holland

This was once a forgotten island. Being recently renowned, it is now one of the trendiest places in the city.

New Holland was created by Peter the Great in the 18th century as a centre for shipbuilding and a warehouse. After three years of reconstruction, it has finally become a major recreation area of the city. The island has been turned into a small but very beautiful European park with a summer theatre, linden alleys, herbs gardens and art pavilions. Surrounded by canals and framed with beautiful arches, it has a cosy lawn area with chaise chairs for lounging in, some specially designed souvenirs and bookshops. Dozens of street cafés and restaurants for every taste can be found here. It is a great venue for fashionable events, musical concerts, and art exhibitions.

I was impressed by this elegant, manicured and clean public space in the heart of the city. This place has something for everyone. Hipsters, families with kids, students, and senior couples feel comfortable here. New Holland is perfect to spend a romantic day in the park.

Pavlovsk – a walk à l’Anglaise

You need to take a local train to get to Pavlovsk, but it is absolutely stunning! I immediately fell in love with it the moment I set foot on this land. At the entrance to the park, you immediately find yourself in a magnificent alley of century-old spruces scattering their roots to the ground. Twilight reigns here, making the atmosphere mysterious and fabulous. The park with many pavilions and sculptures has a very tranquil feel to it. Slavyanka River, with its picturesque banks, flows through the whole territory of Pavlovsk and is a connecting thread of the reserve. It is a genuine paradise for those who enjoy walking and cycling.

Here one can find some of the most beautiful views of the landscaped park, also called the English Park, since the fashion for such parks came to us from England in the second half of the 18th century. The author of this imperial ensemble was Charles Cameron, an outstanding Palladian style neoclassical designer and architect. Cameron was recruited by Catherine II and arrived in Russia from England in 1779. Distinctive features of this style – simple lines and flawless geometry, minimum of decoration and frills, pure aesthetic pleasure.

The Grand Pavlovsk Palace is a crown jewel of this exquisite ensemble. 

The white-gold building was erected on a high hill next to the river, so it can be seen from all remote corners of the reserve. The mansion fascinates the visitor with its strict and harmonious beauty, as can be seen by the unity of the architecture and the interiors. The palace interiors are of discreet colours and elegant proportions. It houses fine collection of paintings, porcelain, bronze, furniture and sculpture. 

I believe Pavlovsk is the most unusual of the Petersburg palaces. Compared to the overcrowded and buzzing Tsarskoye Selo or Peterhof, it looks restrained, modest, yet elegant and sophisticated. It is a great joint creation of man and nature. Visit Pavlovsk once and it will pull you like a magnet over and over again!

The popular belief is that St. Petersburg steals a man’s soul. Quite so! Leaving the city, I was certain I would return to it very soon for another look at its beauty, and find inspiration.

[1] Sapsan: High speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

[2] St. Pete: As St. Petersburg is nicknamed by Russians.