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Love, war and art make St Petersburg the most compelling city in Russia

MailOnline. 21 September 2012

Every once in a while, a country decides it needs a new capital. The result is usually a disaster. Canberra is an Australian monument to tedium. Ankara, Turkey's seat of government, has little to recommend it, apart from ancient ruins and being the home of the Angora cat.

But there is an exception to the dismal list of purpose-built capital cities. St Petersburg, Russia's imperial capital from 1713 to 1918, is one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

St Petersburg the most compelling city in Russia

Onion-topped marvels: The colourful Church of the Resurrection of Christ

My wife and I had just four days to explore the city Peter the Great founded - a maze of waterways and islands, museums, galleries, parks and palaces. A miniature chocolate piano and reproduction Faberge eggs greeted us in our room in the historic Grand Hotel Europe, in the heart of the city, just off the main boulevard Nevsky Prospekt (a more attractive version of Oxford Street).

The Grand was the meeting place of everyone who was anyone in St Petersburg, from Dostoyevsky to Rasputin, in the years before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Today, its beautifully restored suites host the divas and virtuosi who come to perform at the concert hall opposite. If you visit, it's worth paying for a good guide. We were shown round by the well informed Tanya. As we dawdled past the Leonardos and Raphaels in the Hermitage gallery in the former Winter Palace, she pointedly said while German visitors may be pushy, the British are the slowest.

St Petersburg the most compelling city in Russia

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If you spent a mere 30 seconds examining each item in the collection it would take six years to view them all. After the Hermitage, we strolled across the massive Palace Square that fronts the gallery and through the city, passing the onion domes of the Saviour on the Blood church (marking the place of yet another assassination of a tsar) and into the newly restored Summer Gardens.

I couldn't help noticing how well turned-out the city's female population was - what would be seen as party frocks in Britain seem everyday wear here. Things haven't changed in that respect. In the 19th century, Tolstoy portrayed Anna Karenina, the tragic heroine of his great novel, as the epitome of a fashionable Petersburg society lady.

An English guide from the time advised British women:­ 'Russian ladies dress very richly and in great taste. It is necessary to come provided with all necessary toilettes.'

We walked to the small Hare Island, which is opposite the Winter Palace, across the wide Neva river. Here, in 1703, Peter the Great laid the foundations of the fortress of Saints Peter and Paul.

Now it's part museum, part theme park. Thousands of Russians come at weekends to wander along the battlements or visit the marble sarcophagi of the Imperial Romanov family in the fort's gold-spired cathedral.

I was fascinated by the tombs of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family and servants. In 1918, Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and their children were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks, their bodies dismembered and hidden.

They were discovered only recently and identified. During the Communist era their very existence was barely mentioned; now at last they are allowed to rest in peace in their family's vault in the heart of a city haunted by their dynasty.

St Petersburg is dominated by its past - by tyrannical tsars, assassinations, revolution and war. Yet despite the violence of its history, the city is remarkably well preserved and tastefully restored. By ancient decree, no tall buildings have been permitted since its foundation.

St Petersburg the most compelling city in Russia

Visit Catherine Palace, the blue, gold and white architectural gem that was built between 1744 and 1756

And the beauty of the place is enhanced by the care with which it is preserved. St Petersburg's rows of tightly packed baroque palaces and museums are repainted every seven years in soft greens, pinks, yellows and blues.

The best way to see them is from the water, on a rather over-priced boat trip along the canals and into the Neva, but it is also a lovely city to wander around.

In summer the city never sleeps. It is so far north there is barely any darkness. During the 'white nights' of our stay we sat outside at midnight in balmy twilight in the square by our hotel.

The Communists turned many of the city's churches, such as the imposing golden-domed Cathedral of St Isaac, into museums. Yet when we visited on Sunday, services were in progress, women with their heads covered, crossed and re-crossed themselves as bearded priests led services from behind ornate gilded screens.

At the baroque St Nicholas Cathedral, a choir hidden in the vaulted recesses of the upper floor chanted the beautiful plainsong liturgy. Another more mundane enigma facing the visitor to St Petersburg is what and where to eat. The best Russian cooking is found in the where mothers and grandmothers cook recipes handed down the generations.

St Petersburg the most compelling city in Russia

A maze of waterways: The best way to experience St Petersburg is by boat

Restaurants can be disappointing and overpriced; a very ordinary bottle of wine in a cafe cost us more than 1,000 roubles (about £20) and good Russian cooking is hard to find.

At the Grand Hotel Europe, the celebrated brunch rescued the reputation of Russian food. Serenaded by a jazz quartet, we munched our way through a glorious buffet.

It started with caviar and blinis, taking in pike perch ‘Polsky style’, stolichniy chicken salad made with pickles and beans, marinated wild mushrooms and a delicious dish of ground beans with mushrooms and sour cream - all finished off with lots of champagne.

Before taking our flight home, we thought we should make a pilgrimage to the museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad. Between 1941 and 1944, St Petersburg – it was called Leningrad during the Communist era – suffered appallingly.

More than a million died when it was besieged by the Germans. During the first bitterly cold winter, the population was reduced to eating shoe leather and grass.

The museum takes some finding - in the Fifties Stalin ordered its director shot and moved the collection to a back street (as a Moscow resident he was said to be jealous of the city’s heroism). But it’s worth the trek even if some exhibits are showing their age and most of the information is in Russian.

The endurance of the city is one of the greatest tales anywhere of collective courage in the face of a barbaric enemy. Churchill once said Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

And that remains its greatest draw today.

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