Travel: St. Petersburg (part I) 

Russia’s window to the West is a unique blend of eastern and western cultures

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When Czar Peter the Great chose the site for Russia’s “Window to the West” it wasn’t much more than a stretch of swamp where the Niva River empties into the Gulf of Finland. But ownership of the strategic Niva Delta had been a source of conflict between the Russians and the Swedes for centuries and in 1700, when Peter decided it was the perfect place to build his new dream city, the delta was occupied by the Swedes — a bothersome inconvenience that was ultimately resolved by the “Great Northern War” (1700 – 21).

Early in the War the Russian army drove the Swedes from their outposts on the Delta and in 1703 Peter built the “Peter and Paul Fortress” on an island near the mouth of the Niva. The fortress is still there and the city that has grown up around it surpasses even the wildest dreams of a Russian Czar. In every respect, economy, culture, and sheer beauty, St. Petersburg has become one of the world’s most extraordinary cities.

During our three-day visit in June, when the long summer days stretch into the “white nights” of the far north, St. Petersburg was basking in a stretch of balmy clear weather and bright sunshine. “It’s not always like this,” cautions Victoria who describes the climate as “three months of anticipation and nine months of disappointment.” The city is about the same latitude as the southern Yukon and the cold and heavy snowfall of winter combined with sea fogs that role in from the Baltic can make it a dreary place. But, despite the weather, Victoria, tour guide extraordinaire and long time resident of St. Petersburg, is passionate about her city. “It’s certainly the most beautiful city in all of Europe,” she says as we pile into her van. “We won’t stop for lunch today,” she explains, “There is just too much to see so snack in the van between stops.”

On the drive from our ship at Salt Pier to our first stop Victoria tells us more about her city. “Some people call it the Venice of the North. It’s built on 101 islands, has 66 canals, and more bridges than you can count. But unlike Venice and most big European cities St. Petersburg is only 300 years old and from the very beginning it was built to a plan.” That plan, of course, was the vision of Peter the Great who, with unlimited power at his command, let nothing get in his way. His magnificent creation has also been called “the city built on bones.”

Born in 1672, Peter I came to the throne at 10 and died at age 52. But during his short lifetime he transformed Russia from a backward eastward-looking country into a powerful and progressive part of Western Europe. Even as a child he was fascinated by Western culture and as a young man he traveled extensively and studied western science, technology and art. After the death of his mother in 1694 the 22-year-old czar embarked on a plan to westernize Russia and creating St. Petersburg — a modern European city on the Baltic — became his obsession. But draining the boggy marshes of the delta was a formidable task. Peasants were drafted to dig canals and thousands of forced labourers died of exhaustion and disease even before the foundations of the new city were laid. In 1712 Peter, then 40, moved the seat of government from Moscow and threw the doors of his new capital city open to the world. European architects and planners worked with their Russian counterparts on the evolving city. Foreign scholars were invited to share their knowledge and scientists were offered free research in the new Academy of Science. When Peter died prematurely in 1725, only 22 years after founding his city on the Baltic, it had a population of 40,000 and St. Petersburg had become the portal for 90 per cent of Russia’s foreign trade.

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