When the clouds of steam parted, Natasha emerged with a handful of birch twigs. “Ready?” she asked. I stretched out on the slatted bench.
It is midwinter in St Petersburg. The nights have drawn in, the canals are frozen and the statues are mantled with snow. At the Winter Palace, frost has patterned the windows, while the golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral shimmers against a white sky. In the mornings, after a fresh fall of snow, I watch from my hotel window as a dark calligraphy of pathways is slowly etched by pedestrians across the snowy expanse of the squares and public gardens.
And somewhere beyond the outermost suburbs, on the edge of a frozen lake, I am stripped down to the basics for one of Russia’s winter rituals, the banya — hot steam room, birch twigs to stimulate circulation, a plunge in a frozen lake. “I love winter,” Natasha was saying, as she started thrashing my shoulders. “It makes me feel so alive.”
Winter becomes St Petersburg. This is the city of Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina, where everyone looks fabulous in furs and rosy cheeks. Down Nevsky Prospekt, winds from the Gulf of Finland chase flurries of snow, while the fat globes of street lamps blossom in the early dark, and the windows of the shops glow invitingly. Across town, beyond the Moyka canal, crowds hurry towards the Mariinsky Theatre, where Nijinsky and Nureyev both performed, to catch the latest production of The Nutcracker. At the Grand Hotel Europe, the doorman stamps the snow from his boots and opens the doors for a party arriving for dinner beneath the stained-glass windows of the dining hall where a string quartet plays Tchaikovsky and where Rasputin used to slobber over his food in front of his aristocratic lovers.
For all its Dostoyevskian slums, St Petersburg was always a city of aristocrats, cultured, indulgent, wayward, more than a little demented. When Peter the Great founded the city at the beginning of the 18th century, noble families from all over Russia hurried to build grand residences in his new capital. Three centuries on, after a turbulent history of assassinations, coups, revolutions, civil war, the world’s longest and deadliest military siege, and a couple of decades of cowboy capitalism, St Petersburg is rediscovering itself. Russian aristocrats may be thin on the ground but culture is central to St Petersburg again, along with a happy dash of the demented. Nowhere is ever quite so cool as a city entirely at ease in its own skin.
In An Unfinished Woman (1969) American playwright Lillian Hellman called St Petersburg “a silent, lonely beauty”, isolated from Moscow and the rest of Russia. But St Petersburg was never just a city. It was an idea, a longing, a desire for sophistication, a chance to turn its back on a creaky Asian empire and look westwards, where the express trains were arriving from Paris with the latest fashions in liberalism and hats.
Opulent, magnificent and radiating outwards from the spire of the Admiralty in elegant symmetries of stone and water, the city remains one of the most beautiful in Europe. It boasts the architecture of grandeur — neoclassical academies with hushed figures at their desks beneath chandeliers, state institutions of sweeping staircases and gilded assembly halls, famous theatres, ornate libraries, gilded churches and perhaps the world’s greatest museum, the astonishing Hermitage, with more than a million exhibits, from Pharaonic Egypt to Kandinsky.
Palaces form the framework of the city. They number almost 200, forming a collection almost as bewildering as the Hermitage. Imagine all the stately homes of England assembled in a single city, within walking distance of one another. In St Petersburg, the noble families of Russia were next-door neighbours, inhabiting an aristocratic ghetto in residences that would make Clarence House look like a suburban bungalow.
Each one is crammed with stories and ghosts. In the Winter Palace, home to the tsars, I made my way through gilded throne rooms and vast ballrooms to the apartments where Catherine the Great entertained her lovers. In the Yusupov Palace, I searched out the Turkish room where its last occupant, Prince Felix, assassin of Rasputin, loved to recline in his mother’s frocks.
On the other side of the frozen River Neva, not far from the Peter and Paul Fortress, where many of the Romanov dynasty lie entombed, I stumbled into the office of Lenin in the Art Nouveau Kshesinskaya Palace, now remade as the wonderful Museum of Political History. At the desk by the window Lenin wrote the speeches that would delude both himself and the Russian populace. Before becoming the Bolsheviks’ headquarters, the palace had been home to the great ballerina and lover of the last tsar, Mathilda Kshesinskaya.
Across town, in the Shuvalov Palace, I popped in to see one of the world’s greatest collection of jewels. In 2004, the oligarch Viktor Vekselberg spent more than $100m on nine Fabergé eggs held in foreign collections, to bring them home to Russia. Once presented every year by the tsars to members of the family, they are now the star exhibits in the Fabergé Museum.
Fabergé eggs were gifts for people who really did have everything. It took the jeweller’s workshops a year to make one. Each was unique; and each held surprises, secret catches to open unexpected interiors of tiny mechanical parts — birds that sing, miniature portraits that unfold. The Coronation Egg of 1897, latticed with gold eagles and studded with diamonds, opens to reveal a miniature carriage, a replica of the gold carriage that bore the tsar and his wife to their coronation, with crystal windows and silver tyres. Perfect in every detail, this tiny jewelled creation is less than four inches long.
The return of the eggs from foreign collections is symbolic of St Petersburg’s renaissance. Immediately after the fall of communism, post-Soviet Russia — at least for those who emerged with hard currency — seemed devoted to cheap glamour and bling, aping a west that barely exists outside of the casinos of Las Vegas. Even elegant St Petersburg had restaurants with strobe lights and waitresses tottering on killer heels.
But while Moscow may still harbour pockets of oligarch chic, St Petersburg has got over this brief hiccup of bad taste, focusing on its own traditions, on a new appreciation of Russian culture and art. The Erarta Galleries of Contemporary Art have transformed a Stalin-era office block into one of the city’s most exciting spaces, full of vibrant underground art from the late Soviet period, and exciting new work by post-Soviet artists. The Mariinsky Theatre, all gilt and red velvet and 19th-century curtained boxes, has expanded into a stunning new theatre next door, known as the Second Stage, whose illuminated onyx “cocoon” wall glows like a golden dream. I saw a new production of The Nutcracker — bold, exciting, innovative, and a reminder that the Mariinsky is still the world’s greatest ballet company.
Meanwhile, regeneration schemes are transforming New Holland, Peter the Great’s old shipbuilding yards. Its industrial buildings — the Foundry, the circular Bottle House, the Commandant’s House — are being remade as commercial premises, boutiques, restaurants, galleries and performance spaces, all set in cleverly landscaped parks and playgrounds. In winter, this is the venue for St Petersburg’s premier outdoor skating rink, where you can expect to be reminded that many Russians learn to skate before they can walk.
But Petersburg is not just about grand projects driven by state funding and international design competitions. This is a city that spawned some of the most exciting club life in Europe, and is still a byword for street culture. On the Fontanka Embankment, I discovered the Golitsyn Loft, which had more surprises than a Fabergé egg. A collection of sepia-coloured mansions were clustered around a courtyard, with dank stairwells leading up to long graffitied passageways. In this unpromising labyrinth, a creative pop-up world has taken root. Open any door and you fall into a colourful interior among young people excited by entrepreneurial opportunity. There are yoga studios and dance clubs, tattoo parlours and jewellery makers, fashion boutiques and vegan bistros, photo studios and water-pipe bars, art labs and hipster barbers.
Kazbegi, a Georgian restaurant, has recently opened on the ground floor, while Treska hosts a programme of lectures and poetry readings over dinner. My favourite haunt, all shabby chic irony, was the Doris Day café, in two sprawling rooms of a former aristocratic apartment. I sat near the fire in a cosy armchair that might have been purloined from the Winter Palace, enjoying coffee and freshly made cheesecake while watching the snow outside circling down out of a fathomless sky.
St Petersburg’s restaurant scene is emblematic of the city’s creative confidence. From Rubinstein Street, dubbed “Restaurant Row”, to the outdoor pavements of Vasilyevsky Island, stylish bars and restaurants are popping up across the city. And almost all — aside from a couple of Asian fusion stars — are passionate about Russian traditions, giving their native cuisine an imaginative contemporary twist.
Out at the bathhouse, when Natasha had finished thrashing my back and thighs with the venik, the bundle of leafy birch branches, I made the 20-yard dash along a snowy path to jump into the lake through a hole cut in the ice. This is a great Petersburg tradition — Peter the Great’s favourite moment of the day — and still a rite of passage through the coldest winters for ice bathers who love the exhilarating, heart-stopping, adrenalin-rushing plunge into the freezing Neva.
Back in the bathhouse, next to a pot-bellied wood-burning stove in a cosy anteroom, Natasha had laid out traditional bathhouse snacks, old-fashioned Russian fare — cold cuts, hard-boiled eggs, a potato salad garnished with half a pound of dill, some oily slivers of fish, slabs of dark bread, shots of vodka.
Natasha reminisced about Soviet times, which evoke nostalgia for a surprising number of people. Few want to resurrect communism but they can grow a bit teary-eyed about the full employment, the free education and healthcare, the security.
“In those years, Peter never changed,” Natasha said, as if the city were a person; “Peter” has long been a nickname for the city — even when it was Leningrad. “The city was always the same. Nothing changed in the Soviet times.”
She topped up my shot glass. Vodka and the banya had made me pink as a lobster. “But now,” she went on, “it is constant change. New things are happening. Art, theatre, restaurants, old palaces finding new lives. Peter is becoming itself again.”
A St Petersburg address book
WHERE TO EAT
Birch Launched in late 2017, Birch is a joint project of four partner chefs — and at least one great designer. I love its mix of industrial (cement floors, workshop lighting) with natural materials (birch-wood tables and wall panels of birch poles, evoking Russian forests). Go for the tuna ceviche with nectarines, tomato and yuzu dotted with basil oil. Charming service and serious food. Main courses from Rbs490 (about £6). Kirochnaya ulitsa 3; birchrest.com
Azia The best of the city’s new Asian fusion restaurants. And stylish too, with lots of warm blond wood, reclaimed metal and handmade brick tiles — plus open kitchens framed by walls of spice jars. It also boasts an enviable location, on the corner of Nevsky Propekt and Mikhaylovskaya Street, tucked inside the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, but the real star is the food, from Tibetan dumplings to dim sum and sushi. Main courses from about Rbs1,000 (£12); Mikhaylovskaya ulitsa 1/7; belmond.com
Hamlet & Jacks With exposed brick walls, stone floors and tables of salvaged wood, Hamlet & Jacks offers a menu divided into two parts: “Ours”, using Russian ingredients, and “Ours+Theirs”, mixing Russian and global influences. Upcoming young chef Evgeny Vikentev creates dishes that surprise and inspire. I loved the Rostov duck breast with a pumpkin, black garlic and tangerine sauce (Rbs760/£9.30). Volynsky pereulok 2; hamletandjacks.com
Duo Gastro Bar Small, funky and friendly, Duo comes with an open kitchen, a retro vibe and a fashionable young clientele. Award-winning chef Dmitry Blinov has created a menu equally at ease with Russian traditions and international dishes. Go for the pork belly with apple and wasabi. Mains from Rbs490 (£6). Kirochnaya ulitsa 8b; duobar.ru/en
Duo Asia Same people, but a whole other thing — Asian cuisine, a sleek modern grey and black look, and a menu that manages to swing from kimchi to poke to sushi without putting a foot wrong. Dishes from Rbs390 (£4.75); ulitsa Rubinsteina 20. duoasia.ru/en
Zoom Comfy, cosy and family-friendly, this café-restaurant has games and cuddly toys for children and a cool jazz soundtrack for adults. Come for smoothies, cakes, seriously creative breakfasts, duck gnocchi and perch polenta. Mains from Rbs380 (£4.60). Gorokhovaya St 22; cafezoom.ru/eng
WHERE TO STAY
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe Inextricably linked to the history of the city, the Grand has seen them all, from Rasputin to Michelle Obama, from Tchaikovsky to Elton John. First opened as a hotel in 1875, it maintains the feel of 19th-century hotel grandeur, albeit elegantly refurbished for the 21st. The ground-floor cocktail bar — all wood and leather with a stunning alabaster bar façade — has a seductive clubby feel while the L’Europe restaurant is one of the city’s most theatrical settings, with a string quartet and opera singers in the evenings. Doubles from £146; belmond.com
Four Seasons Lion Palace Hotel With this stunning restoration of a former royal palace near the Admiralty, Four Seasons has brought new life to one of the city’s grandest properties. Its vast courtyard has been covered and turned into an elegant palm court for afternoon tea or cocktails. Doubles from £205; fourseasons.com/stpetersburg
Astoria Another heritage property, the Astoria enjoys great views of the Neva and St Isaac’s. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, Hitler was so confident of victory that he printed invitations to a triumphal banquet at the Astoria. Old world, atmospheric, and as labyrinthine as a Tolstoy novel. Doubles from £184; roccofortehotels.com
Stanley Stewart was a guest of the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe (belmond.com). It offers a three-night “cultural heritage” package including a guided tour of the Hermitage and either the Peterhof, Pavlovsk or Pushkin palace, plus tickets to opera at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, one dinner and airport transfers, from £628 per person. Steppes Travel can arrange packages. For more on the city see visit-petersburg.ru