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11:58am on Sunday, 19th November, 2006:

Places I'd Like to Visit #2


Continuing the occasional series...

St. Petersburg.

I've wanted to visit St. Petersburg since my mid-teens. It was quite a specific desire, too: I didn't want to visit Leningrad, as it was then called; I wanted to visit St. Petersburg. Even back then, I was aware of the difference a label can make.

Why St. Petersburg? Well, I had — have — a combination of reasons. It was the capital of Czarist Russia for 200 years, and was planned to look grand. From the pictures I've seen, it is, too. It has palace after palace, park after park, church after church, all in the same of-an-era style. It's built on the banks of a wide river, the Neva, complemented by dozens of canals and 300 or so bridges; again, from the pictures, it looks very special.

Several cities share some of these features, of course. Venice has the canals and the palaces and the churches, but a different architecture. Stockholm has the canals and the churches and the architecture, but on a more compressed scale — no wide, leafy boulevards or extensive parks to space things out. Washington DC has the boulevards and parks, but not so much water and the architecture is more modern.

On this basis, I'm sure I'd enjoy St. Petersburg anyway, as I like all the cities I've just mentioned. However, what tips the balance so that I actually want to go (as opposed to liking it when I found myself there for some other reason) is the Hermitage.

I really, really want to see the Hermitage. It's one of the world's great museums and galleries, containing not only the works of famous Western European artists I admire such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Canaletto and a string of impressionists (Renoir, Monet, Pissarro) and post-impressionists (van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse), but also a large number of works by Russian artists with whom I am completely unfamiliar and would like to become acquainted. The place is vast, too — it would take several days just to glance at everything.

I've been to the Louvre, the Prado and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, plus all the main London museums and galleries, and was awed by every one of them. I like being awed. There's awe galore in the Hermitage, and I want to experience it.

Of course, my impression of what St. Petersburg is like won't match the reality, whether this is my over-idealistic image of Chekhovian pre-revolutionary empire or my over-realistic image of Stalinist Soviet empire. It won't all be Fall of Eagles doomed greatness, but neither will it all be brutalist tower blocks.

Will I ever manage to visit St. Petersburg? Probably not. My wife doesn't like cold places (she doesn't even relish visiting East Yorkshire because of its "Arctic climate"), so we won't be heading for the Baltic any time soon on holiday. The chances of my visiting for business or academic reasons are slim, too; I suppose it's possible there may be a major games conference held there some time in the next 20 years, but whether I'd get to participate is another matter.

Still, you never know.

Referenced by Away!.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).