St Petersburg goes back to the future
The Winter Palace, housing the State Hermitage Museum, can be seen in the background, with the Alexander Column on Palace Square in front. (BBC)
Achingly beautiful St Petersburg, with its baroque palaces and sweeping broad boulevards, seemed immune from the sweeping tides of change remaking the architectural and cultural character of Moscow.
You came here to drink in the grandeur of the Winter Palace, to float down the majestic canals, to be transported to its gilded czarist opulence. But focusing on the past is out of line with the city's history.
Founded by the forward-thinking emperor, Peter the Great, the city has always been Russia's cultural capital. This is the city of Balanchine and Baryshnikov, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. It was from here that Peter undertook the first great modernization of Russia, where citizens agitated for the October Revolution that ushered in the Communist age, and where residents later pushed for Democratic reform as Communism crumbled.
It is odd that a city that has been at the forefront of so many radical changes should, more recently, come to be defined by its old world character. Eclipsed by the economic powerhouse of Moscow, St Petersburg feels a bit like a large museum. But with the opening of the city's first contemporary art museums, the country's first W Hotel, and a growing restaurant scene, tourists are starting to get a taste of the vibrant cultural life that has been bubbling beneath the city's ornate veneer. But you have to experience St Petersburg's past to be able to appreciate its present. So consider this our back to the future guide to St Petersburg, past to present.
The Grand Hotel Europe has been open since 1875, its own history a microcosm of Russia's history. Rasputin dined here, Dostoevsky wrote in a corner hotel room, Tchaikovsky supped with his bride on their honeymoon. The grand dame morphed into a cramped halfway house of sorts while families awaited apartment allocations after the October Revolution put the city under Communist rule. It later became a hospital during the siege on the city in World War II. But now it is every bit as grand as the day it opened with Russian oligarchs scooping up caviar from gold-rimmed china and sipping champagne from cut crystal flutes. Rooms awash in precious antiques feel firmly routed in old-world grandeur with modern benefits like flat screen TVs and wi-fi.
Building codes designed to preserve the architectural character and historic facades of St Petersburg have also stymied the development of inventive architecture. And hotels in particular have stuck to a tried-and-true formula of stuffy historic design. That is why the opening of the new W, the city's first truly contemporary hotel, is such a breath of fresh air. The W took a cue from the St Petersburg's original planners, hiring Italian architects to design the 137 rooms and suites. The only debt their designs owe to the city's past are the bright pops of jewel tones as accents throughout the hotel, a nod to the famous Faberge Eggs produced in the city. The hotel otherwise sits firmly rooted in the future, with low-slung mod furniture lit by glittering gold lamps reminiscent of disco balls, and Russian power players dining in the new Alain Ducasse restaurant, miX.
The Palkins are some of Russia's oldest restaurateurs and their crowning jewel opened in 1874 with 25 dining halls, a billiard room, a marble fountain and a sweeping staircase. The current incarnation, reopened in 2002, may not be quite so sprawling but the massive crystal chandeliers, heavy raw silk draping and elaborately carved walls certainly evoke the days when czars and czarinas supped within these walls. The food is also a bit of a history lesson as Palkin's chefs were the first to incorporate French techniques into Russian cooking. Today, you will find evidence of that tradition in dishes like sea scallops served mille-feuilles style with red caviar and passion fruit balls or stroganoff made with wild boar and fox berries.