The City of White Nights

 In July 2018 I visited Saint Petersburg, the city founded by and named after Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. History seeps through every pore of this magnificent city. The city was founded on the territory captured from the Swiss and was initially named as Sankt-Pieter-Burch — the Russian equivalent of St. Petersburg. The naming and renaming continued through Petrograd, then, Leningrad until the original name, St. Petersburg, was given back to the city on September 6, 1991, through a popular referendum after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The cityscape is studded with ancient architectural marvels, and there are restrictions to construct high-rise buildings as a measure to preserve the city’s seamless historical and architectural uniqueness.

How did Tsar Peter earn the epithet: ‘The Great’? Tsar Peter the Great is considered as the most visionary Russian leader who embarked on a journey to modernize the Russian Empire. He traveled to Europe to get a glimpse of the progress being made there, and after the return, he appointed the renowned French architect, Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond, who designed and built the city that continued to be the capital of the imperial Russia till October 1917 when the Bolsheviks stormed the city during the October Revolution. 

The awesome beauty of the historical architectures is further amplified in the nights, with lights providing uninhibited wholesomeness to the wonders that stand towering tall over the years. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, built over 40 years from 1818, is a jaw-dropping view at night when lights clad it in golden reflections. St. Isaac was the patron saint of Peter the Great, and the cathedral was built as a tribute to him. It is no more a cathedral as it was turned into a museum in 1931.

You can walk around at night for hours, enjoying the beauty of the light-clad buildings. It is safe to venture out at night, and I went out to explore the city, with my return to the hotel only in the wee hours.

The Winter Place is another iconic building in the city. It was the official residence of the Russian emperors. The building had been converted into a museum: Hermitage Museum.

Some more architectural wonders of the city:

There are roadside-entertainers whom you can rely on for short breaks while roaming around in the city.

The city has many cathedrals built in the early 1700 and 1800, with the following being some of the famous ones:

The belfry of Peter and Paul Cathedral sits at a height of 404 ft, making the cathedral the tallest Orthodox Church in the world. The Cathedral and the associated Fortress were the city’s first landmarks built by Peter the Great. The golden ornate interiors of the cathedral are mind-blowing, with its painstakingly-carved golden structures and murals catching the attention of the visitors’ eyes with awe.

The remains of almost all the Russian Tsars lie inside the cathedral. The last Tsar, Nicolas Romanov, his wife Empress Alexandra and their five children were caught by the communist revolutionaries in 1917 and moved to Siberia. The whole family was killed in cold blood in 1918 by firing squads on the order of Vladimir Lenin. The remains of the Romanov family were, however, brought to the city and re-interred in a state funeral in this cathedral in 1998 — 80 years after the executions — thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, also known as the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, is a memorial to Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated on the spot where the cathedral was erected. When I visited, the cathedral was undergoing renovation. The cathedral has a fantastic mosaic collection covering biblical scenes and ornamental patterns.

The Simolny Cathedral:

The waterscape of the city, especially in the nights, is another attraction that should not be missed out if you happen to visit the city. The city is laid out on the banks of the Neva River at the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. A night-cruise will give you unforgettable take-home memories for a long time to cherish for. There are paid boat-services that take you through the crisscrossing water-lanes of the river before safely down-streaming you into the estuary with the Baltic Sea. It is a 3-hour water-extravaganza starting around 11 p.m. and ending with the witnessing of the opening of bridges.

Over the years, St. Petersburg became one of the main naval bases of Russia, which celebrates July 26 as its Naval Day, and the city became the center of naval exercises on that day. President Putin was in the city to lead the day, and  the preparations for the celebration were already visible on the penultimate day, on which I went  for the night cruise. The waters were dotted with warships, submarines and other naval weapon systems.

As the city is built on the banks, there are twelve drawbridges connecting the two sides. The bridges are opened both for facilitating ship movements between the Neva river and the Gulf of Finland as well as tourist entertainment. Among them, the most famous is the Palace Bridge. This and other bridges are opened around 1 a.m. every night, and it is a unique experience to watch the unfolding of the bridges from a boat in the choppy waters. I was excited to witness the opening of the Palace Bridge from a few meters away. 

The sequence of the lift of the Palace Bridge, or Dvortsoviy Most — the Russian name.

St. Petersburg is called the City of White Nights, for in summer, the nights of the city do not get completely dark due to a natural phenomenon at the polar region. The White Nights last from June 11 to July 2, the best period to visit the city. The scientific reason of this phenomenon is as follows: “The White Nights are a curious phenomenon caused by St. Petersburg’s very northerly geographical location — at 59 degrees 57′ North (roughly on the same latitude as Oslo, Norway, the southern tip of Greenland and Seward, Alaska). St. Petersburg is the world’s most northern city, standing at such a high latitude that the sun does not descend below the horizon enough for the sky to grow dark.”

I visited Saint Petersburg twice so far, and I will love to visit the city again if a chance comes in my way.

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