Stylist’s deputy editor Gemma Crisp takes on the palatial delights of St Petersburg and isn’t disappointed…
I have an apology to make to the French. I’m sorry, but St Petersburg’s Winter Palace makes the Palace of Versailles look like a derelict shack. Which was exactly Empress Elizabeth’s goal when she commissioned it in 1754.
Constructed over eight years on the shores of the Neva River, it is a trove of mind-blowing opulence with more than 1,000 rooms (Versailles only has 700). Fast forward 265 years and the Winter Palace is now the world-famous Hermitage Museum, stuffed to the gills with priceless artworks.
With more than three million items, only 3% of the art collection is on display at any one time – the most famous piece, Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son never travels as it’s far too valuable.
During my two-hour guided tour, I had to scoop my jaw up off the floor every three or four seconds as we trotted from room to room (each with its own unique parquetry design, naturally), up and down a handful of the palace’s 100 staircases (the most impressive being the Ambassador’s Staircase, where I took so many photos of its gold leaf-smothered columns and trompe-l’oeil cornices that I went over my iPhone storage limit) and gazed open-mouthed at decadent chandeliers that would have made Gianni Versace weep.
Even the Hermitage’s cloakrooms are remarkable – the ‘small’ one has room for 1,400 coats, while the large can store a whopping 3,700.
Note to self: temperatures can get down to -25oC in winter and it’s not considered the done thing to wear your coat inside in Russia, so make sure you don’t lose your coat-check ticket.
As you may have guessed, St Petersburg is not a minimalist city. Nicknamed ‘the Venice of the North’, it was created in 1703 by Peter the Great who referred to it as ‘the window on the West’ – Russia’s second-largest metropolis is less than 200km from the Finnish border. Designed with both Venice and Amsterdam in mind, it’s spread across 40 islands linked by 350 bridges.
Thanks to being the primary residence of the Imperial family until their demise in 1918, there are large gelato-coloured palaces lining the embankments of not only the Neva but every other river and canal in the city (of which there are many).
It’s an Instagram dream, especially when the Neva freezes (when it reaches -20oC, it’s officially declared safe to walk on the ice, which many people do), creating a quintessentially Russian vignette.
And if it’s a quintessential St Petersburg experience you’re after, there’s no other place to stay than the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, which is groaning with history.
Stretching along St Petersburg’s main street, the famous Nevsky Prospekt, it was the place for nobility to be seen when it opened in 1875 boasting a slew of new technologies like elevators and on-site ice production.
Strolling the samovar-lined crimson hallways of the historic floor, it’s slightly bizarre to realise I could be treading the same path as previous visitors Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky (who honeymooned at the hotel) and, more ominously, the infamous monk Rasputin who frequented the stained-glass splendour of the hotel’s signature restaurant L’Europe.
And of course, there’s the Romanov dynasty, whose descendants book the Romanov suite when they’re in town. It’s also the suite I’m staying in – as a fan of Russian history and politics (I studied the latter as part of my university degree), I feel privileged to browse the many portraits and sepia photos of the Tsar’s family that punctuate the suite’s sumptuous interiors.
It’s a different kind of privilege to be instructed in the art of Russians’ two favourite things: caviar and vodka.
Alexander is the Grand Hotel’s vodka-and-caviar master (a job that surely only exists here) and I’m soon learning the difference between red and black caviar (black is the ‘Rolls Royce’ version – a 30g tin costs the equivalent of £60), while washing it down with Onegin, a local artisan vodka served in tiny crystal-cut glasses embossed with a two-headed eagle, the symbol of imperial Russia. If you want to drink vodka the Russian way, it must always be drunk straight and with food, Alexander informs me.
He knows what he’s talking about because, despite having sampled quite a few different vodkas, I still feel 100% the next morning. I take advantage of my clear head to visit St Peterburg’s greatest hits.
There’s the Fabergé museum with its nine incredibly intricate Imperial Easter Eggs (commissioned by Tsar Alexander and his son Nicholas); the Russian State Museum’s collection of Russian icons (the oldest of which is from the 12th century); the imposing and sombre Kazan Cathedral (where a queue of locals patiently wait to kiss a replica of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, aka the Holy Protectress of Russia); and finally – my absolute favourite – the Saviour on the Spilled Blood church, an Orthodox place of worship deliberately constructed to resemble Moscow’s famous St Basil’s Cathedral. It boasts a not-too-shabby 7,700 square metres of mosaics depicting Christ and other religious images. The church is nothing if not staggering.
Later that night, as I slyly people-watch in the audience of the Mariinsky Theatre’s modern wing while waiting for a new-age production of The Nutcracker to begin, I hear some French accents. It seems even the French have realised that, for all their country’s many gifts, St Petersburg has the edge when it comes to culture, caviar and of course, gargantuan palaces.
Book the Cultural Heritage Experience package at Belmond Grand Hotel Europe from £334 plus VAT per night (minimum three nights) based on two people sharing; belmond.com
Images: Provided, Getty