As any avid reader of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina or Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment there is one city that you would look forward to exploring more than any other in Russia and that is St. Petersburg. Known as the “Venice of the North” its intricate canal system snakes through the city streaming life to the already picturesque metropolis. The imperial grandeur of the 19th century Russia as the burgeoning centre of art, culture and decadent excess, minus the selfie-taking tourists, feels very much alive through its architecture and avenues. The list of art galleries, museums, churches and palaces to visit is mind-blowingly too much for the week we had planned.
Drifting dreamily through the 1500 rooms of the Winter Palace, that is now the Hermitage Museum, and being spellbound by every jewelled object created by the House of Fabergé collected in the Shuvalov Palace by Fabergé Museum, makes me wonder. In a world where, in ideology we champion democracy over absolute monarchy, and in design we favour minimalism over opulence, it is romantic to fantasise a place in history where time flowed slower and things took longer to accomplish because we were not addicted to the instantaneity of everything and things were not mass produced to such an extent. Alas, we want our “liberté, fraternité, egalité”!
At night, lit up by skilfully placed spotlights on each building and fronted by the shimmering black water, the city transforms into a dreamy park that would make any couple brace themselves at its sight. Not to mention the sunsets that momentarily turn the turquoise sky into molten gold. Bound by the spell of ignorance when travelling as an outsider, even the dark side of a city is romanticised in my eyes.
On climbing onto the roof top of a narrow residential building that fitted together in the nooks and crannies of space, that catered for low-income earners at the time of its creation, was the city developer’s response to the influx of peasants flooding the city around the turn of the 20th century as industrialisation accelerated. The buildings formed “well courtyards” that describes the claustrophobic proximity of flats to one another. It can’t have been pleasant to reside in them. Yet to me, gazing out across to a city synchronised with a burning sun slowly setting in the horizon, was quixotic. I embrace being the ‘other’ and admit this city has won me over tenfold.
Moscow on the other hand has a different story to tell. It was with reluctance that we left St. Petersburg behind for the capital because our Chinese visa was overdue for pick up from the embassy and we needed to ‘set sail’ for Siberia if we wanted to spend any time around Lake Baikal.
The city has remnants of New York with the commercial district reminding me of Singapore’s financial district. While zero skyscrapers rose from the grounds of St. Petersburg, with the exception of Gazprom’s new controversial HQ, buildings could not be higher than the Winter Palace because of a height limit that existed until the 1960s. In contrast, parts of Moscow are dominated by glass and metal structures that twist and turn in a frantic fight to touch the clouds.
By chance we stumbled on a bustling Red Square that was celebrating 871 years of Moscow city. Locals and tourists flooded the pedestrian-turned streets to see the various shows and events taking place. The energy was surely infectious. The modern equipment and pop-up stages made a striking contrast against the red bricked buildings that surrounds the square. But I guess that is what Moscow is about, unlike the harmonious collection of neoclassical architecture in St. Petersburg, you would expect to find Tsarist-era mansions next to a Soviet-era concrete block and somewhere in between a glass business related building. That is part of its charm. Just be sure not to miss a left turn because you’ll find yourself driving to the centre of town before you can make two right turns.
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