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St. Petersburg-Spirituality hidden in the North

"This is a city of half-crazy people... there are few places where you'll find so many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of a man as in St Petersburg."

Fyodor Dostoevsky “Crime and Punishment



Flying off from the autumn-warm Balkan peninsula heading towards the far north of the continent, meant I was soon going to re-visit the cold but grandiose city of St Petersburg. Russia’s capital of culture, literature, history and art.

Despite heading there for the second time, my imagination still confused my secondary expectations. It made me feel as if I am visiting Russia’s Romanticism times with all its specificities: the literaly mood, the peculiar atmosphere and its, in a way, frantic characters walking down the colossal streets. Indeed that is not at random; there is something in the dense representation of “that kind of” Petersburg that stamps an imprint in our minds; and this “something” refuses to retreat and give way to the actual. Yet that is why the city’s spirit is filled with a dense poetic air, a slow-paced metropolitan vibe that reminds of the nostalgia of old times where things were harsher but yet simpler. All this is set in wide endless boulevards that are awake during rush hours and at night they completely “fall asleep”; along with this is the architectural clush of the renovated startling masterpieces, in harmony with the same ones that are simply left to romantically rot. 

Saint Petersburg feels like an organised pandemonium of the old London, Paris and current Havana… All these cities multiplied by many times with grandiose and therefore mixed with Russian flavoring and scent, turn this built-on-swamps city into one of the last standing ties of the cultural past with the cultural present. When you wander, you can notice the intellectuality of the average people, whether they are journalists, teachers, taxi drivers or waitors. While Dostoevsky’s mouzhiki haven’t left the scene too; in every corner you can spot the red-faced men silently and harmlessly squating next to a mini market observing with moistened drunken eyes.

During the day you might wander around the canals for hours, masochistically enjoying the chilly weather (because what is Russia if not cold weather!), and then you can simply jump into a tiny underground café/restaurant (many of those, indeed) where you’ll get to taste the hot gastronomic wonders of the northern cuisine (another instresting trait of this northern place is that they actually have their own proper cuisine!). In these cosy places you will instantly feel the soft heat coming from the turned-to-the-max heaters and immediately you can feel your circulation activated: the rushing blood into your ears and cheeks. The atmosphere is silent; only some whispers can be noted of some people talking. Moreover, I can assure you that you will spot someone sitting next to the window reading a book… every corner in this city is an utmost setting for a painter, a photographer or an artist looking to capture somekind of slowness and immateriality. Here you can easily find places where  soups like borsch, solyanka and ukha will blow your mind away with smell and taste. You will instantly overcome the pain from your frozen fingers once you touch the little cute hot cup. The feast can continue with a humble portion of pelmeni with sour cream. Or if you wish to go in a more grand way you can have pancakes with chaviar or salmon along with a cold shot of vodka (the types are many and they will definitely surprise you).

In this chain of thoughts I cannot forget to mention the nightlife of Tsar Peter’s city. The bohemian’s capital undoubtedly boasts the country's liveliest drinking scene. Despite being situated in an uttermost northern point, with its nearby neighbours –Helsinki and Stockholm- racing for which one is the coldest metropolis of Europe; Petersburg stands out by its lively nightlife that no Scandinavian city can own the perks for. The streets of Dumskaya and Rubinstein are part of the mandatory streets to be visited. Rubinstein was rated as one of the top main restaurant and bar streets of Europe according to the Washington Post. The first bars appeared during the 90s, while nowadays the street consists of numerous cafes, bars, restaurants, coffee houses spilled around yards and alleys. There you will find bars with large variety of alcoholic drinks and fascinatingly atmospheric and designed spaces. And if you wish to do as the Russian’s do, then you can dedicate one night for celebrating New Year’s Eve, whatever the day of your visit is, even if it’s summertime. In Purga bar you can join the crowd and witness a mocking TV address by Russian leaders, join the midnight countdown of New Years and then encounter Ded Moroz (Russian Santa Claus) who is gonna make you play some larky and hilarious interactive games.

Of course, being in Russia’s cultural capital means much more than just hedonising with gastronomy and roaming around the majestic streets and boulevards.

The State Hermitage Museum is of course a number one must-see sightseeing. The Hermitage gathers the greatest masterpieces of art of different ages and nations from all over the world. There you can experience the atmosphere of the “Louvre” without the tourist melee, the international variety of the British Museum, since all collections of the hermitage have been personally acquired by Empress Catherine the Great from the Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. In the Hermitage Palace you can get a glimpse of what it felt for somebody to rule this grand empire from a basis where creative mastery erupts and fills ones soul with beauty and emotional might.

Last but not least under this cultural section I would add the Imperial Academy of Arts as another important must-see place. The Academy represents one of the biggest preparatory and training centres for specialists in the field of arts; and it undoubtedly is one of the leaders of the toughest educational institutions for classic arts in the world (along with the universities in Rome and New York). Once you enroll in this educational space you can experience the way that the big grand masters lived and worked within a strognly creative artistic space. This institution feels like travelling back in time where the Arts were treated with absolute importance and seriousness, something that is undoubtedly missing from today’s schools and any other related establishments.

Saint Petersburg is a pallete of imperial architecture somehow filled with cultural diversity, inspirational atmosphere and gastronomic surprises. Whether you decide to visit during the summer to enjoy the magical white nights, or during the winter when facing the cold becomes part of the so-called “Russian experience”, or during any other time of the year… Saint Petersburg will enchant you equally much to any other European megalopolis (if not more!) with art, history, culture and food; but what makes it more special is that the negative tourist factor, will not impact your journey not in the slightest. A factor that has been brutally drawning all the major European metropolises, for a while now; a factor that restrains one from involving in the true temperament the urban ambient.

This is not a city to be polished, in order to be forced to become an ultimate tourist destination and that’s for sure. Saint Petersburg is a song, a celebration of the harshness of the soul. And it is very rare that you can experience such thing in such a northern place.   

Undoubtedly, Saint Petersburg is the last standing European imperial city that can grant you this exceptional food-for-the-soul experience.

Photo: Elma Neykova

This text was realized thanks to the visit of a member of the “WELCOME TO GREECE" team in St. Petersburg, Russia during November 2018 who attended the Media Congress and the “Dialogue Of Cultures” forum which gathered over 400 young journalists from around the world.