Russia's former imperial capital captivates visitors with its history,
its culture, and the splendid riches of its palaces
The dark river flows and does not sleep,
it whispers quietly, tells tales to keep,
about tsars, tsaritsas, and their palaces,
about their past of glory and their countless odysseys.
The river knows, it's seen it all, through this enormous town it's always flown,
under many bridges it now runs, so that its loyal night guards they become.
They gather together, tear apart, fascinate and prettily enhance.
Bring us to it with their embrace.
A boat sails by, then quietness befalls.
And in the quietness, a love is born.
The light from the street lamps is bouncing on the surface of the water as though an Impressionist painter's brush is caressing the canvas with rebellious strokes. Seagulls are hovering over the river, their throaty screams greeting the boats that are cruising along. The song "Kiss Me" by Sixpence None The Richer is heard from one of the boats, like an unplanned greeting to the romantic couples strolling along the banks. Over their heads, bunches of balloons are tangled up in the wires over the bridges, probably released from one of the boats. The romantic mood is interrupted only by a group of jet skis that zoom past and down the river. It is almost 11pm, but it is still as light as if the sun has only just set. That's what the month of August is like in Russia's erstwhile capital.
Saint Petersburg is a city of contrasts. And pleasing contrasts at that. Between an aristocratic history and a glitzy modernity, between the boundless soul of the East and the pragmatism of the West, between the ostentatious imperial pompousness inherited from the Russian tsars and the slightly nihilistic and casual worldview of the city's contemporary inhabitants. We can already sense these surprising contrasts when we arrive at the airport. We get into a taxi and its driver, a friendly older man in a cardigan, greets us. I blurt out the address of the apartment we've rented through Airbnb, the driver puts on his glasses, curiously mumbles, "I wonder where that might be?" and leans forward. One might expect him to take an ancient city map out of the glove compartment, but he says the address aloud instead, the GPS system automatically recognizes it and pulls up the route on the screen. We whizz to the center in 25 minutes, almost without stopping, along an eight-lane boulevard that doesn't have even a single turn in it (welcome to Russia where things have a different scale). The boulevard is lined with old buildings from the socialist era, on whose façades contemporary neon signs for restaurants and shops now glow. Most of them are in Russian – even the Starbucks sign is written in Cyrillic. We finally reach our destination. The building we're staying in is probably the only one in the area that's not a designated monument of culture, though I can't be sure, as the city center seems to be chock-full of palaces. In the next few days, I notice so many palaces that I eventually come to the conclusion that the local aristocratic families must have built themselves a new home every year, but that's another topic. Our landlady Masha, although she isn't wearing glasses or a cardigan, or speaking into a GPS system, is just as friendly as our driver, when she tells us that she's about to open a fearsome door with a fearsome key. Located on the second floor of a stately apartment building, the unmarked metal door in question opens with a blood-chilling screech, worthy of a horror film whose soundtrack was composed by Hans Zimmer. Since the place is a former communal apartment, and is now divided into two parts, another door to the left of the shabby entrance hall now leads to the part belonging to Maria. A recent biology graduate from the Saint Petersburg State University, our host caresses the black display at the door and it flickers, then Maria passes an electronic chip over it, and the door opens on its own. We cross the threshold while the electronic lock automatically closes behind our backs. I feel as though I'm in The Matrix. This is steampunk and sci-fi mixed into one. But rather than making us choose between a blue pill and a red pill, Maria shows us into a cozy and spotlessly clean apartment, where everything is new and from Ikea, and whose ceilings must be at least 13 feet high. The windows have built-in nooks, where one can sit or lay down and gaze at the Fontanka River across the street. The Fontanka is the Neva River's biggest branch, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider the competition. Saint Petersburg is crisscrossed by a total of 93 rivers and channels (with hundreds of bridges over them), turning it into one of the many cities that have been nicknamed Venice of the North and lending the city a uniquely romantic atmosphere. There are numerous tourist boats constantly cruising along the rivers and channels, and some of them even host mobile parties with music and dancing. It is most interesting to go on a night cruise (which usually leaves at least an hour after midnight), when the vessels get to sail underneath the raised wings of the drawbridges. There is actually no shortage of interesting tours in Saint Petersburg, and perhaps the most unusual one among them takes visitors around via the city's rooftops. Although we don't go on it ourselves, I occasionally spot young people peering down from the old buildings' rooftops during our visit.
Masha starts to complain that the government isn't investing the money from her taxes into repairing the potholed streets. "Good thing you haven't seen those of Sofia," I think to myself, because the streets here seem to be in good shape. If they weren't, the Russian drivers wouldn't be able to drive along them in their usual fast and aggressive manner. This driving is also made possible by the mighty local car fleet. Of course, besides the fancy latest model cars, one can also spot the occasional old Lada, like the grubby one that's been parked in front of our building. Its owner must have given up on washing it or perhaps is a fan of muddy off-road driving, because he's placed a sign on the rear windshield that says, "The dirty tank is invisible in battle!"
Nevertheless, Maria gives us some useful tips on what sights to visit and when. She tells us to go over to the nearby Rubinstein Street, named after the composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, who in 1862 founded Russia's first conservatory, where Tchaikovsky himself was a student. The street turns out to have connection to Bulgarian history as well. Located at No. 15-17 is the beautiful home with the high Renaissance arches, which was constructed in 1910-1912 under the aegis of Major-General Count Mikhail Pavlovich Tolstoy, who commanded the Third, and then the First Opalchentsi Brigades during the Russo-Turkish War and fought at the frontlines during the Shipka Pass battles. Nowadays, the artsy street is filled with trendy restaurants, bars, and Irish pubs, where one can easily spend a pleasant evening at not too high a price. All in all, Saint Petersburg does not turn out to be any more expensive than Sofia, as we were warned before coming. Some things here are even cheaper, such as the public transport, for which the passengers buy their tickets after they board from conductors who squeeze through the crowd and give advice to the tourists on where to get off and how to orient themselves.
Before she say goodbye, Sharapova's namesake asks us if we have WhatsApp or FaceTime, in order to avoid calling her cell phone, since calls to Russia from Bulgarian phones cost 7 leva (around 3.50 euro) a minute . . . After she leaves, we find ourselves on our own, with the rain trickling down the windows in the Saint Petersburg night. We don't mind it. Neither do the city's residents, who have grown used to it a long time ago. It has become one of the local attractions – appearing suddenly, falling lightly, then stopping, before starting once again . . . Keeping it company is the wind, which rushes in along the channels and rivers all the way from the Baltic Sea's Gulf of Finland. We are located far up in the North and have to get used to the weather conditions. A local joke, which sums them up well, goes like this:
"What's the weather like in Peter (as Saint Petersburg is colloquially known)?"
"Has it been raining for a long time?"
If you're wondering why 1703 precisely, that was the year that the city was founded. It was then that Peter the Great decided to turn the area's swampy marshlands into an exemplary city that would demonstrate Russia's growing might and its opening up to the West. The architectural and decorative splendor that gradually accumulated as a result is so impressive that even today the city's more sensitive visitors get a headache from the brilliance of all the gold that is gathered here.
Peter the Great's present-day heirs have found a solution to the wind and rain problem – the special water-repellant and reinforced umbrellas, which are decorated with Saint Petersburg's most famous sights and available for sale everywhere. We head out to see those sights the next morning, which is also when we discover that this "Venice of the North" can also be quite sunny. Fortunately, we're staying just a stone's throw away from the city's central boulevard, Nevsky Prospect. Our walk down the boulevard begins at the Anichkov Bridge, whose four corners boast statues of a bronze young man in various stages of taming wild horses. What is interesting is that two of the horses from the statues have horseshoes, while the other two do not. According to the legend, during the eighteenth century, there used to be foundries and blacksmiths' workshops near the bridge, which is why the horses "coming" from there are shod, while those on the other side of the bridge are not, since they haven't yet reached the blacksmiths' workshops.
Svilen Georgiev is the former editor-in-chief of InGlobo and is currently looking to bring the now defunct magazine back to life. During his career as a writer and editor he has worked and published with a number of print and online media. In his work he often embraces creative non-fiction as a means of expression. His interest in the field has led to a substantial amount of travel writing, essays and journalistic stories about people, events and processes portrayed with purely literary techniques. Besides non-fiction, he writes also fiction and poetry as a hobby.
THE ELIZABETH KOSTOVA FOUNDATION and VAGABOND, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers and original works of English-language writers emerging from the EKF’s international programs. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian and English-language writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of the Bulgarian authors have been translated into English for the first time. Enjoy our fiction and creative non-fiction pages.