In Germany, the town Husum used to be ‘the grey town by the sea’, immortalized in Theodor Sturm’s poem. The inhabitants of this town have in recent years combated this image by painting the houses all sorts of crazy contrasting colours- and this is what I had to think of when the sun went up over St. Petersburg.
We had arrived by night train and had five hours sleep in a compartment of four people. Resurfacing from the Metro, walking across canals at seven in the morning when the streets were virtually empty, we got our first impression of the bright yellow, the patterned brown-grey, a baby blue, a turquoise, that slowly lit up in the morning light. Our first stop this early in the morning was the hostel, which was a good decision because even after a breakfast and a shower, we were too early for the city. It seemed nothing opened until 10.30.
Nevertheless we wandered along the banks of the canals, photographed the Winter Palace in the brilliant morning sun. The air felt fresher, possibly due to the previous eight hours experience of a jam-packed train, the birds sang, and in the early morning no one seemed to be in a rush. We wandered and admired a city which has a completely different feeling to it than Moscow.
It’s not just the multitude of rivers or the colourful, extravagant buildings, or the lack of scaffolding on key monuments. St. Petersburg was clearly engineered to impress, a city built on aristocratic hubris. Although there are standard high-rise buildings similar to those in inner city Moscow, with less fancy frills and colour, these are connected into the visual landscape through grand entrances or by merging with more creative buildings. Even our ‘boring’ hostel building, with a wooden door that has seen better times, was attached to a grand arch through which horse-drawn carriages pulled willing tourists.
In a way, it is a city holding on to a glamour of the past, and reliving the glory of the tsars. All of the valuable monuments have been restored and are getting careful attention and care, with new coats of paint. St. Petersburg also lacks the strong connection to communism in the form of endless busts, statues and monuments. In Moscow, I make it a game to count the Lenin profiles mounted in the walls of buildings, the Marx statues, or the hammers and sickles. These are conspicuously absent amongst the lions, tigers, flowers and patterns in St Petersburg.
While the city of flair is impressive, I also found it unsettling. Here is a Russian city that has discovered how to ‘play the game’ and embrace a culture of tourism. Signs come in both Russian and English, even on the Metro. Voices speak in many different languages as you walk down the street, and on every corner someone tries to sell you something. And this in itself gives you the feeling that you have, indeed, reached the second capital of Russia: the artistic, colourful, grand, and yes, sometimes ‘kitchy’ one.