In the long summer evenings, music lovers head to St Petersburg with one name in mind: the Mariinsky. With three principal venues hosting major events each day, the White Nights Festival is a big draw – and white means white: it takes a while to get your head round the process of coming out of a concert at 10pm into broad daylight.

Mariinsky Theatre - view from parterre © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Mariinsky Theatre - view from parterre
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

Each of the Mariinsky venues has its own distinct character. The original Mariinsky Theatre breathes tradition and imperial grandeur, from the chandeliers to the gilt lobby areas to the individual seats in the parterre to the real church bells backstage. The foyer even has a pair of immaculate scale models of the theatre to help you select your seat numbers. The new Mariinsky II, completed just four years ago, is modern, spacious, elegantly finished in light wood and packs a bigger audience. The slightly older Concert Hall (it was finished in 2006) has the same airy, light-wood feel and boasts every bit as good an acoustic, but in a more compact space without the theatrical accoutrements.

Mariinsky Concert Hall © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Mariinsky Concert Hall
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

The Bronze Horseman - Peter the Great © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
The Bronze Horseman - Peter the Great
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

The feeling of space and scale strikes you as soon as you arrive in Saint Petersburg: the river Neva is wide, the canals and avenues are wide, the squares and city parks are huge and some of the public buildings are simply gigantic. Start at the wrong end of Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum) and you can have a ten minute walk to get round to the entrance. The collection of works of art on display is so extensive that it can’t fit inside even this enormous building: the late 19th and 20th century paintings – including jaw-dropping selections of Matisse and Picasso – are exiled across the square (another 5-10 minute walk) to the General Staff Building. By the way, if you’ve hit the time when the cruise ship parties are in town, they *all* go to the Hermitage and very few of them go to the General Staff Building.

Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage Museum © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Winter Palace, home of the Hermitage Museum
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

The other thing that hits you in the face is that the Romanov Tsars really did love their gold leaf, and the Soviets were more than happy to embrace the opulence – no Cultural Revolution here. Whether it’s the rooms in the Hermitage or the Mariinsky, the altar and its surround at the cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress (the burial site of the Tsars), the icons at the Church of the Saviour on Blood, the dome of St Isaac’s or the fountains at Peterhof, Peter the Great’s palace just outside the city on the banks of the Neva, there’s enough gold on display to send King Midas into paroxysms of jealousy. Love it or loathe it, you can’t help but be impressed, and the Soviets were sufficiently mindful of their national heritage that when the Germans threatened the city in World War II, most of Peter’s personal residence Monplaisir (in the Peterhof complex) was lifted to Siberia for safe keeping: it has now been elegantly restored.

Fountains at Peter the Great's palace Peterhof © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Fountains at Peter the Great's palace Peterhof
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

The spacious streets and canals and the preponderance of lovely architecture make the city centre a pleasant place to wander round. One tip, though: it’s relatively easy to learn enough Cyrillic to read the road signs and it’s worth doing so: many street signs have an English transliteration but it’s in very small print. Once you’ve mastered a few of the false friends (Cyrillic P => Latin R, H => N, B =>V etc), it’s pretty easy to get your bearings.

Henri Matisse - Music (General Staff Building) © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Henri Matisse - Music (General Staff Building)
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

We were expecting good vodka, caviar and salmon, and all those things were as expected. But we really weren’t expecting the breadth and quality of the food – which we should have been: after all, this place is a gigantic country. European staples were augmented by seafood from as far away as Murmansk or Kamchatka (cod and crab respectively, both superb) and Georgian cuisine on its own has an incredible array of dishes (think Turkish cuisine meeting Persian cuisine meeting anyone else who happened to be passing by on the Silk Road). Our top restaurant pick was The Repa, literally a stone’s throw from the two Mariinsky theatres, but it’s also worth noting that it’s cherry season during White Nights and the unprepossessing-looking cafe a few metres down the road from the Mariinsky Concert Hall does a cherry strudel to die for.

Peter and Paul Fortress: Madonna and Child © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Peter and Paul Fortress: Madonna and Child
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
The visa process for getting into Russia is moderately onerous (depending, obviously, on where you’re coming from) and when you get here, bureaucracy can be a little erratic. The details of opening times and ticket types can be decidedly opaque and we missed out on going to the Catherine Palace (somewhat out of town) after being given the wrong closing day by our hotel concierge. It’s a good idea to do your own research and double check it. By the way, we felt perfectly safe walking around the city even during the couple of hour period that passes for night at this time of year. At some point, you’ll want to take the Metro: pick one of the more picturesque stations like Admiralteyskaya (by Nevsky Prospekt and near Palace Square) and marvel both at the Soviet-era mosaics and at the staggering length of the escalators.

Admiralteyskaya Metro Station © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Admiralteyskaya Metro Station
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

So coming here isn’t just about the music: this is a great city to visit, the palaces are exceptional and the architecture of the city streets is unique, as is the sense of being at the former centre one of the world’s great empires. And the art collections in the Hermitage and the Russian Museum are nothing short of stupendous. Ultimately, if you have any pretensions to knowing the great cities of the world, Saint Petersburg just has to be on your bucket list.

 

David's trip to Saint Petersburg was sponsored by the Mariinsky.