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Window on the West

Laurence Grech joins IHI shareholders’ tour of Russia’s beautiful imperial city, staying at the top-ranking Corinthia St Petersburg.

The first time I visited St Petersburg, Russia’s former imperial capital and second-largest city, was in September 2000, when my wife Lilian and I were on a Baltic cruise on the P&O liner Arcadia, celebrating our silver wedding.

The hotel is ideally positioned to explore this city of five million people, with its 46 islands, 350 bridges and 80 canals (hence its nickname, Venice of the North)

In the eight hours we spent ashore, on an unusually sunny day, we were given a whirlwind tour of the beautiful city’s major sights – and also managed to have lunch at the famed Astoria Hotel and attend a performance by an all-male choir in the Smolny cathedral (this was a classical music cruise, after all.)

What we saw was enough to make us resolve to visit St Petersburg for a longer stay one day. The opportunity came last month, when we joined a large party of shareholders of International Hotel Investments and their guests on a tour of St Petersburg organised by the Corinthia Group to provide an opportunity to sample both the city’s delights and the luxurious comfort of the IHI’s Corinthia St Petersburg. (IHI regularly holds annual trips for shareholders, staying at its five-star properties all over Europe).

The hotel is centrally situated on the elegant Nevsky Prospekt – the majestic main thoroughfare which is a staggering 4.5km long.

Of course, this second, and more exhaustive, trip to St Petersburg was different from the first: this time we went by air – a direct Air Malta flight of four hours and 10 minutes. And it was raining, mostly, bar short spells of sunshine, with temperatures hovering around 10-11˚C. But the beauty of St Petersburg is impervious to the weather.

The Corinthia team, headed by Alfred Fabri, the IHI board secretary, laid on a wonderful programme for the shareholders and their guests, while the hotel’s French-born manager Eric Pere and his staff ensured we were truly pampered.

The hotel is ideally positioned to enable one to explore this sprawling city of five million people, with its 46 islands, 350 bridges and 80 canals (hence its nickname, Venice of the North), its architectural jewels, ornately decorated churches and palaces, and simply magnificent Imperial residences not to mention, of course, the absolute must-visit attraction: the Hermitage Museum.

As a foretaste of what to expect, a walk along the Nevsky Prospekt is quite sufficient: sumptuous palaces, restaurants, fashion boutiques, banks, shopping centres and elegant apartment blocks line the boulevard, which is to St Petersburg what the Champs Elysee is to Paris.

Tsar Peter the Great started building St Petersburg in 1703 as Russia’s “window on the West”, employing thousands of foreign craftsmen and other skilled workers, mostly Germans and Dutch, but also tens of thousands of Swedish prisoners-of-war. He moved the capital there from Moscow in 1709.

The Russian imperial family, the Romanovs, ruled the vast country until 1917, the year which saw two revolutions – the February one which brought the Social Democrats to power only for them (and the monarchy) to be swept away by Lenin’s Bolsheviks in the more famous October Revolution (it was actually in November, since Russia had till then followed the Julian Calendar, which was 11 days behind the Gregorian Calendar adopted in the West in the 16th century).

The city, which was briefly renamed Petrograd after the outbreak of World War I when Russia fought against Germany and Austria-Hungary, became known as Leningrad after the death of the Communist leader in 1924. Leningrad was subjected to a devastating 900-day siege by the invading German army from September 8, 1941, to January 27, 1944 – 670,000 of its citizens are believed to have died in the siege.

The city’s name reverted to St Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Venturing out on our own the first day, we decided to walk to the left of the hotel: we did not take long to come across some of the avenue’s landmark buildings. I will only mention a few: the Beloselski-Belozersky Palace, with its bearded, muscled atlantes, its Corinthian pilasters and sinuous window surrounds, is one of the most striking of the scores of palaces on Nevsky Prospekt.

Further on, we reached the church of St Catherine’s, run by the Dominican fathers. It was reopened only 20 years ago, after it had been turned into a store by the Communists and later burned down. It is the city’s main Catholic church.

The Singer Building is a beautiful example of Style Moderne beauty restored to its past splendour as the headquarters of the sewing machine company. Since Soviet times it’s been the home of Dom Knigi, a huge bookstore chain, with a café on the first floor.

Facing it is the Kazan Cathedral, built between 1801 and 1811 to house the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, reputed to have appeared miraculously overnight in 1579. It was brought to St Petersburg by Peter the Great but miraculously disappeared in 1904.

Tsar Peter the Great start­­ed building the city in 1703 as Russia’s ‘window on the West

Modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the cathedral features a colonnade like a pair of outstretched arms. Turned into a Museum of Atheism in Stalin’s day, this Russian Orthodox cathedral is a centre of great devotion and is enriched with numerous icons and precious altars and iconostases.

In the constantly drizzling rain, we managed to get a glimpse of the remarkable Church of the Saviour on the Blood (pictured on page 1of the Travel section), built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

Resembling St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, it boasts the most flamboyant exterior in St Petersburg, with its gilded, faceted onion domes (“like psychedelic pineapples”, as The Rough Guide to St Petersburg describes them), plaques recording the events of Alexander’s reign (he was famous for emancipating the serfs), mosaic scenes of the New Testament and 144 coats of arms of towns and cities across Russia.

That was as far as we got that day. We decided to take the tram back to the hotel, having walked some three kilometres.

To be concluded.

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