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Second City St Petersburg

Whether it’s Chicago to New York, or Melboune to Sydney, I’m a big fan of second cities. Being runner up means they try harder. And so it is with St Petersburg, the metropolis that’s arm wrestled Moscow for capital status throughout history but was largely shrugged off by the Soviets who liked their capital buried in the middle of the USSR.

Part of the problem might have been an identity crisis. St Petersburg has been called Petrograd and Leningrad, but is known as Piter to its friends. I first came here in the mid 1990s when the country was just working out what the new perestroika (restructuring) would mean. Today on the mainstreet it seems to mean SUVs replacing trams and plenty of sushi. The only thing I remember being able to order from the menus was bifstihk (beef steak) and mashed potatoes.

One of my favorite statues on Nevsky Prospekt are the four horses that rear up at Anichkov Bridge. If you look closely the sculptor, Peter Klodt von Urgensburg, has put in a joke about Napoleon who was defeated during the 19th century Patriotic War. It may not be polite and it takes me a while but I’m inspecting the undercarriage of horses for a while before I spot it: one horse’s genitals resembles the French Emperor – they must have thought he was a bit of a tool.
The real artistic reason for visiting St Petersburg is the Hermitage or Winter Palace. The smaller building was built by the Russian monarch Catherine the Great who wanted a little ‘hermitage’ to get away from her court and enjoy her art collection. This collection has become one of the world’s best. Many art historians reckon the collection swelled in the final days of WWII when the Russians swiped art treasures back from the Nazis.

Whatever the reason, no-one has enough time in the Hermitage. There’s a dizzying array of art here. Without planning a route we see works by Da Vinci, Van Gough and Gauguin. This sweep of European art makes St Petersburg the first city of culture. Then there’s the over-the-top palace itself that boasts chandeliers the size of small cars and a glittering peacock clock that sounds the hour by flashing its feathers. And before we know it our time is up and we’re hurrying for the Finland Station to get the train to Helsinki.

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