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Back to St Petersburg

Viv Groskop
13 June 2012

Returning to St Petersburg 20 years after her first visit as a vodka-swilling student, Viv Groskop finds one of Europe's most romantic cities in the grip of reinvention...

I first visited St Petersburg as a language 
student in the summer of 1992 and lived 
there for the best part of the next two years. It was a strange and wonderful time. I turned 21 when I was there, celebrating my 
birthday with a party on a canal boat with vodka and caviar. I lived in a communal flat, learnt to speak Russian fluently and went through several ill-advised boyfriends who were quite drunk a lot of the time.

So far, so student life. But in St Petersburg you also can't fail to soak up culture on every corner. This is the city of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. It is home to one of the greatest dance companies in the world, the Mariinsky Ballet (the Bolshoi's great rival). This is where Russia's greatest poet Pushkin wrote most of his major works — and was killed in a duel with his wife's lover. Twenty years ago I spent three hours travelling by tram in the snow to the exact spot where he died, only to discover that it was a patch of grass in the middle of a housing estate.

St Petersburg is seductive, charming, and a little eccentric. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as an act of will — most of the city is built on swampland, with mosquitoes still a problem — and almost all of its original Baroque architecture remains intact. But the city is undergoing rapid renovation — and on the 20th anniversary of my first visit, I've come back to see just how things have changed.

The first shock is when I find out where I'm staying: W Hotel, a design-led luxury venture, which would have been unimaginable in the 1990s. Its address? Voznesensky Prospekt, number 6. I used to live at number 4. At first it's confusing. How could they turn that building into a hotel? It was all flats. But, of course, they've bought up the whole block. When I look out of my seventh-floor hotel room I can see my old courtyard — and my old window on the fourth floor opposite. When I lived there, there was a piece of cardboard across part of the window. It's gone. All the apartments look like they've been converted into luxury accommodation.

Later, I try to get into the courtyard, which used to be public, but it's all locked up. I wonder what happened to my flatmate, Sasha, who wanted to be a DJ but spent all day sitting in the kitchen smoking, his underpants hanging on a makeshift washing line above the stove.

As for the city itself, my first impression is that everything and nothing has changed. In the early 1990s, I had originally chosen St Petersburg, which was still often referred to as Leningrad, and not Moscow or Voronezh — the other cities British students were encouraged to visit — because it seemed most like Paris. Which it was — and still is. Paris with cobwebs, a 19th-century city preserved in an attic. The place it now also reminds me of is Havana. It's like a living museum. Some of it is still dusty and messy. If you step away from the main drag, you'll find half-ruined mansions and palaces crumbling under the weight of accumulated dirt. But it's pulling itself together — without destroying its old façades — and the city has an upbeat, forward-looking feel.

This was not the case 20 years ago. In those days the Soviet era was still very much alive, all bureaucracy and poverty. Life was not easy for Russians then. It's not necessarily easy now, but at least it is predictable. When I arrived this time, I spent an hour looking for somewhere to change money. No banks were open because it was a Sunday and all the old 'exchange money' places I knew were long gone. I eventually gave up and went to the Grand Hotel Europe where a sweet young girl showed me how to operate the new hole-in-the-wall machines, which convert dollars into roubles. I was shocked. Two decades ago you could change money in virtually any shop and you never changed more than you needed for 24 hours because the exchange rate was so variable. When I tell the young girl this, she laughs. 'Wow. Instability. Horrible.' She shudders. She was not born then.

The times I remember are ancient history to someone like her. Years ago, when I first took a rickety Intourist bus from the airport down Moskovsky Prospekt, the road leading into the centre, the Soviet Union had virtually collapsed and Yeltsin's star was in the ascendant. I remember looking out of the window, bug-eyed with amazement that people were wearing 1970s clothes, including flares and corduroy jackets. They looked utterly grey and miserable. There were food shortages everywhere. I lived with host families at first, and a typical breakfast would be one boiled egg or one tomato. People constantly borrowed money from each other to get by and used blat (influence or contacts) to find out which shops had had a delivery of food. Once you got to know them, people were not unhappy, just poor. They were about 30 years behind the rest of the world culturally and always had a lot of questions about The Beatles.

Now St Petersburg is (almost) like any other European city. You can get a latte on every corner, there's free WiFi everywhere and you're as likely to face a queue for food as you are to see a performing bear sitting in the passenger seat of a Lada (as I once did on my way to class). It was, is and always will be one of the most romantic cities on earth. For my money, it wins that competition hands down. Its architecture is stunning, the palaces' faded pastel façades gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. This time of year it is at its most magical. Between the end of May and the start of August is 'the season of the midnight sun', when the sun never quite sets and there is daylight 24 hours a day. It's called the White Nights or Belye Nochi.

People tend to stay out partying all night, carrying bouquets of flowers and bottles of fizzy wine. The White Nights are a perfect time to explore by boat the city known as 'the Venice of the North'. You can rent water taxis all night — often they're the only way to get around, as the bridges over the River Neva legendarily stay up through the night, stopping overland traffic from passing between the islands that make up the city. It's one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities you will ever visit, too. The metro system is efficient, but St Petersburg is best explored by foot, and I spend most of the four days I'm there just walking around and reminiscing.

Virtually nowhere I know has survived. The old fish shop — which only ever sold herring — has become a lavish branch of Zara. The two bakeries I used to visit are still going but, instead of selling one kind of black bread, they now specialise in baguettes and French pastries. There's a Subway around the corner from my old flat and a McDonald's down the road. Part of me is sad that everything has become the same everywhere. But everyday life is now effortless rather than a slog and that can only be a good thing.

I rarely ate out when I lived here — there was nowhere to go — but now 'retro nostalgia' Soviet-style canteens are hugely popular. Stolovaya no. 1 on Nevsky Prospekt, a good-value chain offering traditional Russian food like borsch and pelmeni (dumplings), is so packed I can't get a seat. I end up eating one of my old favourite dishes, buckwheat porridge with mushrooms (trust me, it's delicious), at Coffee House, Russia's answer to Starbucks.

The next day I treat myself to a slap-up meal at Tarkhun, a Georgian restaurant, which I love from the second I walk in: the smell is incredible. I feast on chakhokhbili (a chicken casserole made with a dozen herbs) and khachapuri (cheese pizza) for around £15. Considering I used to live on five-pence cabbage pies bought from old ladies outside the metro (they would carry them in buckets warmed by hot bricks), it's not cheap here. But it's not cripplingly expensive, either. Although do avoid tourist hotspots where prices are the same as in Moscow. (Don't be surprised to pay £10 for a latte in a hotel. At Coffee House it's £2.)

One of the biggest pluses of the past two decades is that St Petersburg has become easier for tourists. There are more signs in English than ever, and far more English speakers. It's easy to find your way around on your own. In the early 1990s it was hard to visit without being part of a tour group. It was a pain getting into museums, galleries and theatres without pre-booked Intourist tickets. Now it's just like visiting any other European city. All the places I want to go to — The Russian Museum (for Russian painters) and The Hermitage (for one of the best art collections in the world) — have efficient, informative websites (all in English), with opening hours and ticket prices listed.

Unfortunately for me, I can't quite shake off my post-Soviet mentality. I find myself walking down Nevsky Prospekt — St Petersburg's Oxford Street — in my usual brisk, suspicious manner, as if I'm being followed. Not because I was used to having a KGB tail but because, when I was younger, I would regularly be hassled and followed by youths and dodgy types who wanted to say hello or change money. What everyone wanted most was dollars. Those days are long gone. The only way you'll get noticed for being a foreigner now is if you're woefully underdressed for the weather. One babushka in a fur coat and headscarf stops abruptly and makes the sign of the cross over her bosom while glaring disapprovingly at my hatless head. I smile. It's still Russia.