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St Petersburg's been a dream for as long as I can remember, I tell the foursquare blonde at the Russian embassy as she checks my visa application, "Finally, I'm going. First time in Russia!" "Interestink," she says without raising her eyes, in a tone that suggests quite the opposite.
A fortnight later I'm on a train from Helsinki, hurtling through a blizzard. It takes about three hours to reach the famed St Petersburg-Finlyandsky Station. In April 1917, Lenin arrived there from Zurich, and the world changed.
Possibly he stepped out at the same platform. He certainly wouldn't have encountered the likes of my taxi driver, who blocks my path with an ursine solidity as I exit the station. "Vear to?" he demands.
I offer the name of my hotel, which I've chosen for its proximity to the Hermitage Museum. He quotes me five times the going price, and I submit to the laws of the market. Where are you now, Lenin?
I drop my bags at the Hotel Angleterre, on St Isaac's Square opposite the imposing neoclassical cathedral after which it's named, and cut across the faded grandeur of Nevsky Prospect: old St Petersburg's main axis. Ahead sprawls the Winter Palace, resplendent in green, gold and white, home of the lavish Hermitage collection. My god, it's beautiful!
I've arrived on a rather auspicious day. The Red Army is out in force to commemorate January 27, 1944, when Stalin's forces finally broke the 900-day Nazi siege of the city. Thousands of soldiers bearing red flags mass between the Winter Palace and the scimitar-shaped General Staff building opposite – the repository of the city's modernist collection.
I could leave St Petersburg at this moment in the knowledge that I've caught some essence of the city founded in 1703 by Peter the Great: the ghosts of tsars and bolsheviks swim before my eyes. Nor is Dostoevsky, one of my favourite writers, forgotten. Much of his psychological masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, is set in and around Nevsky Prospect.
I retreat to a Georgian restaurant, take a seat, and study the menu. And then I remember. "Wasn't Stalin born in Georgia?" I ask the waiter. He shrugs apologetically. The past is pursuing me.
Early next morning I'm at the entrance of the Hermitage, and an hour later I feel like I've overdosed. Housed in the old imperial palace is one of the world's richest and most comprehensive art collections and I need to make some edits. I head to the Rembrandt hall and luxuriate in the Dutch master's deeply compassionate later portraits in burning browns and impasto daubs and swirls.
After lunch at the monumental General Staff building with its cool, contemporary interior, I sweep through its magnificent Impressionist collection: it's like an eternal spring. I pause for an age before a painting that once obsessed me: The Red Room by Matisse, in which pictorial space becomes decorative space. No reproduction can do it justice.
The next day, my circle widens to take in a bit of shopping. An Astrakhan hat, from a department store behind the Nevsky Prospect, seems the go. In stark contrast to the crowded souvenir shops on the street front, the store is nearly empty. The sales assistant insists that the hat is "shipya". Is it a style? A brand? Finally I get it – she's referring to my new headwear's fleecy origins: "sheep".
It's a short stroll along Griboedov Canal to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, an extravagant rebuke to Peter's ideals of classical proportion and restraint. It was built to honour Tsar Alexander II, who was fatally wounded on this spot by an assassin in 1881 and died in the Winter Palace, hence the creepy name.
That night I buy a ticket to the opera, where I see perhaps my 10th performance of Tosca but my first in a private box surrounded by Russian aristocrats – the new tsars.
When I return to Helsinki the next morning, I feel as if I've traversed both space and time. In St Petersburg, the past is at once a scenic backdrop and a vital presence – a force. It may be the world's most beautiful city. And even when it's broken down, totally over the top, or just plain weird, it's never less than interestink.
A ROOM FOR THE ART-LOVER
The elegant Hotel Angleterre, on Saint Isaac's Square, comes highly recommended by aficionados of the Hermitage, which is an easy 10-minute walk away. The rooms on Voznesensky Avenue boast knockout views of the neoclassical St Isaac's Cathedral, while other rooms enjoy the tranquillity of an inner courtyard. The hotel is a '90s reconstruction of a late 19th-century building, which in turn replaced a hotel frequented by Tolstoy. Or so it's said. The security guys in the lobby are a little gruff but everyone else, front desk to bar staff, is warm and super-helpful. angleterrehotel.com
Gogol restaurant, named after the author of Dead Souls, would seem a little nostalgic in most places outside St Petersburg, where nostalgia rules. Enjoy standard Russian dishes such as borscht, made with produce sourced from the region and a French touch in the kitchen (appropriate in a city where French was once the language of the elite). This item on the menu says it all: "Soup made of wild mushrooms after the old fashion, of fascinating flavour." restaurant-gogol.ru/en
NIGHT AT THE OPERA
If you've neglected to book in advance, the Hotel Angleterre has its own box at this sumptuous 1830s concert hall, which backs onto the Griboedov Canal. While it ranks behind the Mariinsky in stature, the Mikhailovsky Theatre compensates with intimacy and accessible luxury. It's a good idea – and good value – to book a table for intermission with the bar staff the minute you enter: your glass of wine and smoked salmon sandwich will be waiting for you. mikhailovsky.ru/en
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