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ST PETERSBURG HISTORIC CENTRE
Peter the Great's visionary city is a masterpiece. In 1702, seeking a Baltic outlet and disliking Moscow's unplanned chaos, he fashioned a grandly elegant capital. Buildings had to be of stone, side-by-side along the "red line" (flush with the street), without traditional front gardens and on a grid plan with boulevards and canals. Straight rather than curved streets preserved sightlines. Swiss-Italian architect Domenico Trezzini developed the Petrine baroque architectural style of white columns, arched windows, pastel walls and internal courtyards. The River Neva delta city sits atop 42 islands on a "swamp of bones" – many workers died. Today, unscrupulous developers illegally demolish 10 to 15 of the UNESCO world heritage city's buildings annually.
Go early, before the sea of tourists – 2.5 million annually – becomes a tidal wave. The Hermitage Museum's six historic buildings sprawl along the Palace Embankment, with the Winter Palace, the imperial residence for 150 years until 1917, the crown jewel. This gorgeous colonnaded green, white and gold complex houses in 350 rooms one of the world's most prestigious art collections, established by Catherine the Great. It would take 11 years to view each of the three million artworks for a minute. The Winter Palace staterooms also highlight Romanov extravagance. Ascend the marble, granite-columned Jordan Ambassadors' staircase into a truly opulent world.
This Romanov summer palace is a cream-filled, blue-icing, gilded cake. Built as a modest, two-storey building for Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, their daughter, Empress Elizabeth "pimped her palace" on a Versailles scale. The rococo blue-and-white exterior (to honour blue-eyed, blonde Elizabeth) uses 100 kilograms of gold; Catherine the Great later condemned this excess, preferring neoclassical to "whipped cream" architecture. The cupid-bedecked state staircase sweeps the gobsmacked tourist up to the "Golden Enfilade" of staterooms, including the 1000-square-metre Great Hall of Light, White Dining Room, Portrait Hall and legendary Amber Room. St Petersburg rebuffed Germany during the Siege of Leningrad but the Nazis destroyed Catherine Palace on their retreat. It's mostly reconstructed.
CHURCH OF THE SAVIOUR ON SPILLED BLOOD
Its classic Russian Orthodox exterior, 7500-square metres of internal mosaics and five ornate onion domes make this St Petersburg's most extravagant church, resembling Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral. It's officially the Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ but the informal name refers to the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II at this location. The church, on the Griboedov Canal, is a memorial to the visionary tsar and is architecturally different from St Petersburg's predominantly baroque and neoclassical architecture. The intricate mosaics of mainly biblical imagery cover internal walls and have gorgeous pattered borders.
PETERHOF PALACE, PARK AND GARDENS
This "Russian Versailles" is Peter the Great's tribute to his passion – water. The centrepiece is the Grand Palace with its ornate baroque interiors embellished with neoclassical and late rococo detail, but the fountains are majestic. The Grand Cascade of 64 different fountains, 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs and other flourishes tumble from the palace along the Marine Canal to the Gulf of Finland. At its centre, a mighty statue of Samson wrestles a lion. Peter the Great's daughter Empress Elizabeth undertook an expansion. Every room contains masterpieces including the Oak Cabinet of Peter the Great, white-and-turquoise Throne Room with Romanov portrait gallery, gilded Ballroom and Western Chinese Study with its red and green walls.
The monumental Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Theatre is the home of St Petersburg's – and probably Russia's – best ballet and opera companies. But the little Hermitage Theatre, one of Russia's oldest, and part of the Hermitage complex, is a gem. Catherine the Great built it between 1783 and 1789 specifically for the imperial family and guests. It's a rare monument to Catherine's individual tastes and preferences – she loved comedy – but she also hosted opera and ballet. Anna Pavlova, among many other luminaries, danced here. Enjoy a ballet, such as Swan Lake performed by the Russian Ballet in the 250-seat semicircular, coloured-marble auditorium surrounded by statue niches for Apollo and the muses.
Alison Stewart was a guest of APT's Best of the Baltics small ship cruise.