Saint Petersburg, Crown Jewel of Europe
It was a warm sunny and pleasant day in July when I arrived in Saint Petersburg. I had visited Moscow a few times before but I did not know what to expect in this city, the old capital of Russia. During the communist era, Russia was perceived as being an isolated country that is dark and grey, unpopular in world opinion. The collapse of Soviet Union and its communist system changed the political map of the area and turned around the lives of the people in the countries there. I travelled to St. Petersburg to explore and experience changes for myself.
On my way from the airport to the city, I passed a jungle of boxy concrete buildings that looked rough and gloomy, real eyesores. However, my first impression of the city centre was different from what I imagined. The stone built buildings carved with magnificent architectural designs coloured in white reflected the city’s rich heritage and style. The city looked brighter and livelier than Moscow with hinted of more European sentiment.
It was the weekend and streets were full of people who were dressed as fashionably as those in other European cities. St. Petersburg people look more relaxed, less cautious; not so vigilant; less security-conscious than Muscovites. Whilst I stroll along St. Petersburg’s pavements, I saw happy faces smiling back at me. I had read accounts that during the communist era there were hardly any foreign made cars to be seen in the streets. If people saw a western car, they formed crowds around it. Now there are many imported cars in St. Petersburg, as well as, American and Japanese factories in Russia. In communist times people often wanted to buy jeans and coats from tourists. Today there are many boutiques and large, well-stocked shopping centres.
As I was walking along the banks of Neva River, I noticed several people gathered around a woman robed in a beautiful white designer wedding dress and a well-dressed groom taking photos of them. People were cheering and clapping. I continued along and saw more newly wedded couples, some in large groups, some with a few friends and some alone. It was just like what I had seen in Moscow. The parks, particularly on weekends, are painted in white wedding dresses and become a display of a large open wedding ceremony with celebrations by young couples who bring their parties to a large audience in the middle of the city. The rich and poor share their happiness and joy with other inhabitants. It was happy and cheerful scene unlike any other place in other countries.
I crossed the Palace Bridge to watch the display of the navy ships that had been anchored nearby. I became aware that many different types of locks, bolts and padlocks covered the bridge railings. I smiled and recalled the first time I saw the same things in Moscow; when it engaged my mind for a very long time. I was initially under the impression that the locks were placed there as prayers and good luck charms, as people do in holy shrines. The thought seemed unusual but persisted until I researched it and grasped that it is a tradition enacted by newly married couples. They place a lock on the bridge and throw the key into the river, as a sign, they intend to keep their marriage bond forever. It is a different kind of prayer; it is more like a wish.
I continued my journey through the city and discovered a network of canals and waterways with many small arched bridges, which resembled Venetian lagoons and beautiful bays. Its embankments were similar to those in London and resonant of the Left and Right banks in Paris. As I walked around, I got a sense that this city was planned differently as a window to resonance and to mirror the glamorous capitals of Europe.
I crossed the river to reach the Peter and Paul Fortress so that I could explore a stronghold with fortified walls to defend the city. It is the birthplace of the city and the first structure which was built in St. Petersburg. The site was never used for what it was intended. Instead, in its short history, it has been used as a military base, government offices, the site of scientific experiments and an isolated and gloomy prison. The centrepiece of the fortress and one of the most prominent buildings and landmarks in St. Petersburg is Peter and Paul Cathedral.
As I ended my tour, and left through the large wooden gates of the fortress which is topped by a triumphal arch decorated with a depiction of the imperial coat of arms. I headed towards a small bridge over a canal and a heavily populated beach. Then I caught sight of a blue dome rising majestically above leafy trees in the distance. When I got nearer, and saw two high-rise minarets erected close together, I was surprised to see the façade of a mosque decorated by oriental adornments and blue mosaics. The walls were grey granite with the ceramics covering the minarets and the dome a beautiful blue. The frontages of the building were delicately decorated with calligraphy using Quranic verses.
Many mosques and churches were demolished during the rules of the communist regime. However, Saint Petersburg mosque, which was built in 1920, has survived. It is a large place of worship, which can accommodate over five thousand worshipers. Before I entered the mosque, I saw a man standing by the fence holding it firmly, moving his head murmuring quietly as if he was praying. I could not approach him as he was engaged in his own peaceful world. I was astonished to see someone performing his prayers. It is unlike a Muslim to pray standing outside the gates of a mosque.
The mosque’s caretaker, a limping old man with a luminous white beard and wearing a sober waistcoat and black hat, welcomed me to the mosque. He told me in an unspoken sign language that this place belonged to everyone, to people of every sect. It was as much a shrine for Christians and Jews as Muslims and others who seek refuge to get answers to their prayers. Even if his comments might be a bit of an exaggeration, it is not unusual in a multi faith society to see a tendency towards a place of worship. I found out later that the whole community – St. Petersburg people of diverse religions contributed to the restoration of the mosque, another great treasure of this wonderful city.
The caretaker escorted me inside the high ceilinged mosque which was supported by green, marble columns. Several chandeliers were lighting the prayer hall, which was strewn with many handmade rugs and carpets. The mosque sanctuary, where the Imam leads the prayers, is another outstanding architectural feature combining sky-blue mosaics, marbles, and calligraphy and miniature paintings. A large wooden pulpit made of walnut wood next to the sanctuary is the place from where the Imam delivers his speech.
I was in a rush and had to leave the Mosque. The caretaker urged me to pray before I left. I told him that I have already done my prayers at my residence. He struggled to explain more, but I could not understand him. Later I realised that he might have meant to encourage me to do the prayer of Consecration.
On the way back to my residence, I reflected on the day’s experiences. I realised that this journey around St. Petersburg, named in honour of its founder, takes travellers through a dream metropolis. Peter the Great had derived his vision through inspiration from other European capitals. His aim had been to recreate Europe’s most significant places in Russia. He captured the architectural magnificence of the Palace of Versailles by building the Hermitage. He constructed cathedrals such as St. Isaac with its unique golden dome to replicate St. Paul’s in London and mirror the glory of those in Rome. The streets of Russia’s old capital have the glow of Amsterdam, yet are filled with the sensations of Vienna. Saint Petersburg is an alluring treasure, packed sprightly with pleasure and elegance, perfected by a visionary King.
Saint Petersburg is truly a must-see, a work of art with many magnificent features, a Crown Jewel of Europe and a cosmopolitan city that embraces Christians, Muslims and Jews.
How to get there
The most convenient way to get to Saint Petersburg is to fly from London. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow Airport. Aeroflot and Transaero also run flights from London Heathrow to Pulkovo airport that is only 10 miles from the city. Shuttle bus number three outside the arrival hall goes to the city and costs 35 Roubles (about 60p). There are no trains from Airport to the city.
If you wish to travel by train, there are direct trains from Berlin. The journey time is about 36 hours and passes through Belarus (transit visa is required). You can obtain further information from Europeanrail.com.
Mohammad Reza Amirinia