St Petersburg - The best time to visit Saint Petersburg is early autumn. In mid-summer, you'll get smacked with a selfie-stick in the 5-block queue for the Hermitage.
In winter the wind blows off the Baltic like a jagged gust of financial austerity.
By late September, the crowds have abated but it's still warm enough to bask in the garden of the Lyceum, Alma Mater of Alexander Pushkin, immortalised in bronze. Down the drag, twinkle-toed trumpeters wow the crowds outside the Catherine Palace, with some nifty footwork to accompany their Tchaikovsky tunes. Luckily, being part of a four-person package group meant no queues.
Golden domes and crosses atop the Rococo palace roof twinkle like tsars overlooking ponds, pavilions, marble statues, and manicured lawns. Empress Elizabeth, whose penchant for excess makes today’s yacht-owning oligarchs look like cut-rate cheapskates, renovated this 1km² white, gold, and turquoise edifice, using 100kg of gold just to gild the roof domes. The resultant baroque facades take your breath away. And this just her summer residence!
Hawk-eyed babushkas dish out shoe covers to protect the hectares of decorative flooring and marble Grand Staircase you ascend like Jacob’s Ladder to the heavenly Great Hall where a monumental fresco covers the ceiling. Sunlight sparkling on gilt-framed mirrors amplifies the brilliance of the ornate golden carvings and reclining cupids.
Lapis lazuli, jasper and malachite line room after room, but most spectacular is the amber chamber that Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli created in 1770 using 450kg of amber given to Peter the Great by Frederick of Prussia.
In 1941, German troops purloined the priceless panels and in 1982, the Amber Room was recreated at a cost of $12-million (R167m). This time around, icy glares preclude a second theft. Photographs are forbidden here too, and watching a barking babushka berate an errant foreigner for whipping out his selfie-stick, provided a frisson of Schadenfreude.
The Peterhof Palace’s Grand Cascade - three thundering waterfalls, 67 fountains and 37 golden statues - made me gasp with amazement. Amid its epic gardens trick fountains spray unsuspecting visitors. I could imagine Peter the Great chortling away as drenched noble women sank on to the benches nearby, only to be sprayed again. Today, running children set off the fountains despite parental admonishments.
To tour St Petersburg, starting at the main boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt, is to explore a living history book and nowhere more so than at the Hermitage, housing Europe’s greatest art collection in four palaces that stretch along the banks of the Neva River for 1.6km. It would take six years spending a minute at each of the 3 million exhibits to see them all.
Think key works by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Titian, Monet, Cazanne, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Seurat, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso, but perhaps the biggest treat was being taken down into the Treasure Room to see Siberian artefacts and Scythian gold from 7 to 4 centuries BC.
For more modern art, the Erarta on the north bank of the Neva showcases more than 2 300 Russian works created since 1945, providing an intimate glimpse into the hearts of the people.
Dominating the St Petersburg skyline is the 21.8m dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral -the world’s largest - with 48 granite columns, each weighing 116 000kg. In November 1837, St Isaac’s French designer Auguste de Montferrand fell from the scaffolding around the dome but a few workers caught him just before he hit the ground. Talk about an instant conversion!
At the Peter & Paul Fortress and Cathedral - the world’s highest - our Tour de Force guide Veronica Pominova told us about a Russian peasant who climbed the vertigo-inducing 122.5m spire to touch up the gold leaf after it was struck by lightning. Peter the Great rewarded his bravery by getting him a neck tattoo that entitled him to drink for free in any of the city's taverns. The man died five years later from alcohol poisoning.
All the Romanovs lie in marble tombs here, including the last tsar, Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their children, butchered by Bolsheviks in 1918. I haven't even touched on the spectacular St Petersburg ballet, the Faberge museum, the world's deepest metro, or the generosity of the Russian people that feels like a bear hug. Suffice to say that visiting St Petersburg feels like you're getting seven major European cities in one.
l Caroline Hurry was a guest of the Russian Federation's Tourism Development of Saint Petersburg.
IF YOU GO
Visa: South Africans visiting St Petersburg for more than three days need a visa, which is easily obtainable from the Russian Embassy in Pretoria.
Guide: Tour de Force (http://www.tourdeforce.travel/) will devise your itinerary including accommodation, meals, all excursions, and excellent English-speaking guides
Accommodation: The Grand Emerald Hotel (http://www.grandhotelemerald.com/en/) - close to the Nevsky Prospect and Moskovsky railway station
Places to eat: Pushka Inn (http://www.pushka-inn.com/en/restoran-en) - an intimate bistro vibe
Podvorye (http://www.podvorye.ru/) - authentic Russian cuisine with folk singing.
Taste To Eat (http://tastetoeat.tastetoeat.ru/) - Russian fusion food with a twist
Schengen (http://schengen.spb.ru/) - good, simple ingredients.