White Nights In St Petersburg

Adrian Tierney-Jones

Adrian is an award-winning freelance journalist, author and speaker writing about beer, pubs, food and travel.  Books include Great British Pubs,  1001 Beers to Try Before You Die and the latest Britain’s Beer Revolution.

@ATJBeer
maltworms.blogspot.com

Published

Date (04/08/2016)

I’m in St Petersburg in front of the Winter Palace; across the road over the embankment wall the broad swell of the Neva continues on its way to the Gulf of Finland. Midnight has been and gone and the sky is a dark wash of eggshell blue splashed with the faintest hue of pink at its edges. I look about and it seems as if dawn is about the break on this most beautiful of Russian cities. 

Even though the streetlights are off and the clear night sky is devoid of the twinkling reassurance of stars, it is light enough for me to read my guidebook. Not that I feel like doing much reading, as all around me is pandemonium. Cars and motorbikes roar along the road, their engines sounding like a hive of angry bees; one has parked haphazardly on the pavement and its driver has opened the door with his sound system banging out his own personal rave. 

Behind me, on the vast square that lies to the side of the Palace, a very-much-in-love couple pirouette on their roller-skates, while above them swifts race through the air, tumbling, diving, enacting what look like avian dogfights.

Crowds of people line the embankment wall overlooking the river; children are lifted onto shoulders. What looks like an ice cream van is doing a roaring trade, though as I get nearer I see that the two smiling chaps inside are selling plastic beakers of beer. Behind me, on the vast square that lies to the side of the Palace, a very-much-in-love couple pirouette on their roller-skates, while above them swifts race through the air, tumbling, diving, enacting what look like avian dogfights. 

On my first night in St Petersburg, it was well past my bedtime but I had no intention of heading back to the hotel yet. After all, it was June and the city of Peter the Great was in the midst of its famous White Nights, when no one seemed to sleep. 

White Nights? This is the period during June and early July when because of the city’s northerly position the sun doesn’t fully set and darkness is kept at bay. This lets the citizens of St Petersburg throw off the greatcoat of winter and have a month-long party of drinking, eating and music. Not only is it a joy for the locals, but also an attraction for the millions of visitors to what has always been dubbed ‘the Venice of the North’. 

 

The city rocks and rumbles with a cascade of cultural (both high and low) delights. There are rock gigs, operas, classical concerts and as the scenes on the embankment show a general sense of joie de vive. There’s also always been a romantic aspect of White Nights, especially when the bridges linking the various islands of the city open up in the night to let boats go through. 

 

Cameras were held up high, while a small fleet of boats bobbed up and down on the Neva waiting to cut loose.

Well that’s according to one woman I had been talking to earlier in the evening, ‘the bridges remain open for some time so often you become trapped on an island. There’s a real sense of intrigue and romance about the city during this time.’ She sounds like she was talking from sweet personal experience. 

 

It was now 1am and the Palace Bridge was empty of traffic and pedestrians; a sense of expectation floated like a Chinese lantern amongst the crowd. Cameras were held up high, while a small fleet of boats bobbed up and down on the Neva waiting to cut loose. Then with a cheer, the twin sides of the bridges, both festooned with lights, began to rise. I wondered who was cut off on the island opposite (and who they were with). 

 

Suddenly I felt tired and decided it was time to return to my hotel. I recalled a conversation I’d had with a Belgian expat the day before in a bar off the Nevsky Prospect. ‘The White Nights are not easy if you are not from here,’ he said. ‘You completely lose all sense of time, as there is nothing telling you it is time to go to bed.’ However, he wasn’t too dismissive of his adopted home: ‘I like the architecture of St Petersburg as well as the culture and the people are completely different from elsewhere in Russia — you can feel it when you speak with them.

 

As well as the glorious sights of the White Nights, there is plenty more to see in St Petersburg. For a start, unlike Moscow, it is a great city to stroll along, taking time on its Parisian-style boulevards and admiring the candy-coloured onion-domed churches (the Church on Spilled Blood is a must) and Imperial-era architecture, most of which was restored after the Nazi siege in World War II. Looking at it all and visiting some of the islands it’s hard to think that until the start of the 18th century and the appearance of Peter the Great on the scene, the islands was a marshy archipelago rife with malaria. 

Other places to visit include the Hermitage Museum, which, even if it feels like Cardiff on international day, is worth it for the paintings by Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Titian as well as four armoured horses that will live forever thanks to the taxidermist’s art. I also took a gander at the famous navy ship the Aurora, whose guns signalled the start of the Bolshevik coup, now moored up, and like the horses in the museum destined to live forever.  

 

I could see the Hermitage and a slew of palaces; it was like looking at St Petersburg as if Cecil De Mille had arranged the view.

On my last day, I did what everyone who visits this beautiful city should do: got on a boat that journeys along the canals that link up the islands before heading out onto the swell of the Neva. Here in the open water there was a salty tang to the air mixed in with the more earthy scent of diesel. However, far more sensual and impressive was the view of the city and embankment where I had stood on the night when the bridges were lifted. I could see the Hermitage and a slew of palaces; it was like looking at St Petersburg as if Cecil De Mille had arranged the view.

*****

As I disembarked I idly wondered what people felt when the White Nights ended and then recalled the words of the woman who had seemed positively pleased about the prospect of being marooned on an island for several hours at night. ‘When the White Nights finish the stars come out and that is beautiful too.’

 

WORDS BY ADRIAN TIERNEY-JONES