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THAT old misery Lenin must be spinning in his mausoleum as St Petersburg gets set to mark the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution this month.

The original capital of Russia, it was here on October 25, 1917 that thousands of mutinous soldiers, sailors and peasants stormed the Winter Palace and seized the country's provisional government, which had taken over when the Czar abdicated.

And so the long and frequently bloody history of Communism was born.

But while Communism has come and gone, St Petersburg is still alive and very much kicking. It's one of the truly mustsees of Europe and a great destination for a short break.

The city was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, who moved his court from Moscow and created St Petersburg out of the marshes. The huge River Neva runs through it, along with the string of canals that have earned it the nickname The Venice Of The North.

So the whole city got a fantastic wash-and-brush-up to mark its 300th anniversary in 2003. Your very first stop has to be the stunning Winter Palace (where you can still spot the odd bullethole). This was the official residence of the Romanov dynasty which ruled Russia - and what a magnificent building it is. A huge staircase leads you up into the ballrooms and chandeliered halls.

And attached to it is the world-famous Hermitage museum, which was stuffed full of priceless paintings and sculptures by generations of Czars. It seems to go on for ever... indeed, the experts say if you took just a few seconds to look at every exhibit it would still take you SIX YEARS to see everything.

The rulers of Russia certainly knew how to live it up. When one 18th Century empress died she left behind 15,000 gowns, 40,000 pairs of shoes - and just 40 roubles in the state treasury. "Now that," my wife muttered as our guide Andrei told us the story, "is my kind of girl..."

Other highlights include the looming Peter and Paul Fortress, where the rulers were buried. There's one moving corner of it where Czar Nicholas and his wife and children - all shot dead by revolutionaries in 1918 - were re-buried in 1998.

In World War Two St Petersburg - which had been renamed Leningrad by the Communists - was besieged for three years by the Nazis. The Russians wrapped all their historic buildings in huge bundles of straw to protect them from the constant bombing and shelling. And, miraculously, most of them survived.

Then there's the cruiser Aurora, moored on the river, which sealed the Russian Revolution's success by lobbing shells at the Winter Palace. You can scramble around the decks, pose by the guns and buy yourself a sailor's hat.

Another must destination, an hour's drive away, is the Czars' Summer Palace. This was their actual family home, set among acres of beautiful parkland and lakes. Inside you'll find poignant photos and mementoes of Czar Nicholas and family... including a book with a pencilled message from the Czarina saying: "To my darling Nicky... with love for Christmas 1912". You can wander through apartment after amazing apartment, including the legendary Amber Room completely panelled with walls of Persian amber. The retreating Nazis smashed and burned the entire Summer Palace, but the Russians painstakingly rebuilt it by using pre-war photos.

Back in the city, we stayed in the central area in the excellent Petro Palace Hotel and strolled out at night to sample the local restaurants. One had wild bear on the menu, but we boringly stuck to Russian staples like borscht (beetroot soup) and blinis, delicious pancakes filled with everything from meat to honey.

Don't bother getting roubles - everyone accepts US dollars or Euros and all the tourist menus are priced in them. But DO try some of the many different-flavoured vodkas. Russian vodka is like anti-freeze to keep you warm - have a generous slug and you feel your veins getting hotter!

In the depths of winter you'd need it - temperatures in the city have been known to hit MINUS 40 deg C, and the people remove the batteries from their cars and take them inside at night so they can start their motors in the morning.

But I promise the tourist coaches are a lot warmer than that...

What's the deal?

VOYAGES Jules Verne (call 0845 166 7035 or see offer four-night trips to St Petersburg from pounds 545pp, with flights, transfers, excellent hotels in central locations (like the Petro Palace, left) and breakfast. Their reps in the city are knowledgeable and friendly, and offer guided trips round the palaces and museums, including the Hermitage. It's worth paying your travel agent to get your Russian visa for you (otherwise it's a torturous affair).


Hire a coach to see the grand Winter Palace in Imperial style Pictures: ALAMY/ TRAVEL LIBRARY/ PICTURES COLOUR LIBRARY; A few of the treasures in the vast Hermitage museum; Cruise past the ornate Church of Blood
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 14, 2007
Previous Article:DAYS OUT IN THE UK.
Next Article:Cut the cost & pay just pounds 8 a night; FLIC METCALF reveals how to cut the cost of a stay in St Petersburg - by renting a local apartment instead...

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