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City of the Tsars.

Just over three centuries ago, Peter the Great splashed on horseback across a stretch of smelly marshland in northern Russia and decided to build a city.

As much of a visionary as the Tsar was, one wonders if even he could have foreseen what an incredible place that bog on the Neva estuary would become 301 years later.

From the swamp rose a fairytale city as unique, beautiful and enchanting as the snowflakes that fall here in winter, or the sprite-like performers pirouetting across the stage of its world-famous Mariinsky Ballet Theatre.

But with such illustrious sons and daughters as Empress Catherine the Great, literary geniuses Dostoevsky and Pushkin, musical maestro Tchaikovsky, mad monk Rasputin and modern-day President Vladimir Putin, St Petersburg could hardly fail to be fascinating.

Just a few days in Russia's window on the West is enough to appreciate what inspired Pushkin to compose the lines: "I love thee Peter's own creation/I love thy stern and comely face."

Little wonder the proud inhabitants of Leningrad, as she was called during the Second World War, when the German army laid siege to her for 900 days, were prepared to eat one another rather than surrender her treasures to the invader.

The city has more layers waiting to be discovered than a Matryoshka doll, or the onions evoked by the domes of the church basilicas which dominate its skyline.

Imagine the dreamy canals of Venice bred with the style and elegance of Paris, then topped off with an icing of snow, and one is close to capturing the sheer romance of the place.

A three-hour flight with Czech Airlines from London via Prague is all it takes to reach the former imperial capital.

And strolling down its vast boulevards, one is soon struck by the epic scale of the place.

I stayed on the city's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospect, at the classy and friendly Corinthia Nevskij Palace Hotel, where ex-Russian President and Glasnost architect Mikhail Gorbachev likes to cool his heels when in town.

There is more than just a touch of Byzantine Old Mother Russia about St Petersburg - but don't expect to find dancing Cossacks, babushkas or balalaika-strumming buskers because this is a modern European-style city.

It was also the cradle of the Russian Revolution and reminders of its communist past are everywhere, from the sinister former KGB headquarters in the city centre to the innumerable giant bronze statues of Lenin.

Despite the upheaval of 1917, St Petersburg's magnificent Russian Orthodox churches and palaces, where visitors walk in the footsteps of the Tsars and Tsarinas, remain intact.

Most people start with the tourism show piece, the State Hermitage, a dazzling green, white and gold riverside art gallery and museum, which merits comparisons with the Louvre and Versailles.

The attraction is dominated by the magnificent baroque Winter Palace, home to the Russian royals from 1762 until it was stormed by the Bolsheviks.

But I preferred the fragile faded splendour of the Catherine Palace, former home of the empress, in the suburbs of the city.

The German army ransacked the priceless panels from the world-famous Amber Room in the heart of this 1,000ft turquoise and gold wonder during the war.

Following a 25-year restoration, using six tonnes of the precious resin mined from near the Baltic Sea, the former state room reopened to the public last year in all its jaw-dropping original splendour.

For sheer creepiness, it would be hard to beat the Yusupov Palace, where the bizarre murder of Rasputin (poisoned, repeatedly shot and finally drowned) is recreated in waxworks.

Then there's the haunting Alexander Palace in Pushkin Village, former home of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, before they were murdered by the Bolsheviks.

St Petersburg's grandiose churches too, each have their own story to tell.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral - where religious icons bear a suspicious resemblance to the Romanovs - is the burial vault of Russia's tsars, while the Church of the Spilled Blood, with its gaudy domes, is built on the spot where Alexander II was murdered by a revolutionary assassin in 1881.

It deserves a visit, if only for the souvenir market outside, where, as if to cock a snook at the dead royal, the nearby stalls groan with Communist kitsch.

A five-minute walk from here is a real gem in the home of Pushkin.

The poignant apartment-museum by the Moyka River is where the father of Russian romanticism lived with his famously beautiful wife Natalia.

But the highlight of the visit was undoubtedly a trip to the Mariinsky Ballet Theatre, which - even for a parvenu like myself - was mesmerising.

I especially loved the intervals, watching Russians strut beneath the chandeliers and mirrors of the Long Room, quaffing champagne and scoffing caviar.

For the hungry sightseer, St Petersburg is full of restaurants offering an affordable and delicious fusion of European cuisine with traditional Russian fare.

Our hotel alone had five eateries, with everything from pub grub or cafe snacks to slap-up meals.

And when out, it would be rude not to stop for a drink - vodka of course - at one of the city's many fashionable bars.

We wound up one night at Zov Ilicha, also known as Lenin's Mating Call.

Any Marxist ideologue would admire the bar's busts of the father of the Revolution and screened newsreels of his speeches on the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But those old Politburo Cold warriors would choke on their borsch if they saw the kinky Young Communist Pioneer uniforms worn by the waitresses.

As the snow fell gently outside, we raised a comradely toast. Cheers, or "nazdororje", as they say in Russia.

* Jude Sheerin stayed at the Corinthia Nevskij Palace Hotel where double rooms start at 300 Euros per night. His visit was organised by Baltic Travel- www.baltic.spb.ru - which runs excellent tours of St Petersburg.

* CSA Czech Airlines London - St Petersburg flights start at pounds 144. The carrier also flies from Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. CSA Czech Airlines enquiries: 0870 444 3747.

* UK operators offering St Petersburg short breaks include Cresta Holidays, which offers three nights' B&B in a four star hotel from pounds 681, including return BA flights and private car transfers, from pounds 681 until October 19.

* Cresta offers a similar package from Manchester, flying KLM via Amsterdam, for pounds 785, and from Edinburgh, also via Amsterdam, from pounds 810. Cresta Holidays bookings: 0870 161 0900 or visit www.crestaholidays.co.uk
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Title Annotation:Travel Destinations
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 3, 2005
Words:1075
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