St Petersburg: Tsarry-eyed Wonder

VISITORS TO FLORENCE will be familiar with Stendhal’s Syndrome, a kind of panic or ecstasy brought about by seeing too many wonders in too short a time, named after the impressionable young 19th-century French novelist.

I’m sure the Russians have a parallel name for those overcome by the arguably even greater wonders of St Petersburg – probably something like Jaw-Drop Syndrome.

Where does one start? Well, we’ve all heard of the State Hermitage Museum – a complex of six magnificent buildings on the embankment of the River Neva, forming the heart of the city.

Jewels of the crown Chief among them is the Winter Palace, former home of the tsars, and the core of the museum is the vast collection of art and treasures they collected when Russia was at its imperial height.

With about three million items in total, only a fraction can be displayed and, no matter how long your visit, you’ll see only a part of that. All you can do is buy a guidebook – even better, hire a guide as well – and plan carefully what you want to see.

One of the original rooms of the Winter Palace was unimaginably rich, lined with amber. Called the eighth wonder of the world, it was presented to Peter The Great in 1717 – a gift from the King of Prussia.

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Moved to the Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg in 1755, it was stolen by the occupying Germans in 1941 and destroyed in the latter stages of the war. It’s a romantic and mysterious story that now has a happy ending.

Since 1982, a team of craftsmen have been working to recreate its wonders, combining tiny pieces of amber into ornate coverings for four entire walls. The reality can never match the fantasy, of course, but there’s an awful lot of artistry and wealth on show.

Even more impressive is the ambition that brought it all about – a sign Russia may be down but this sleeping (a troubled sleep perhaps) giant can never be counted out.

But, if you can imagine standing in the near-mythical Amber Room and being only slightly moved by its opulence, you get an idea of the problem of constant exposure to excess. Spreading around you are countless more rooms, each designed by the leading European architects of their day, inspired by great rooms in Venice, Vienna, Florence or Paris.

Each room is filled with priceless objects – paintings, porcelain, clocks. And this Catherine Palace is only one of several just in Peterhof, the ‘Russian Versailles’ on the Gulf of Finland.

After you’ve finished with the palaces and museums – and you’ll never see all of the Hermitage in one lifetime – there’s still the cathedrals and other monuments to see.

Then you have to tackle a few of St Petersburg’s many fine restaurants and leave time for some luxurious shopping.

Russia’s vastness has famously defeated both the European dictators – Napoleon and Hitler – who tried to conquer it. Looking at a map and seeing what a tiny part of it you’ve covered when you reach St Petersburg and, finding yourself overawed by a tiny fraction of its treasures, you can only admire their ambition in even trying.

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