Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To walk the streets of Saint Petersburg is to navigate a basket of Easter eggs. Yellow buildings, red buildings, white buildings, more yellow buildings, light blue buildings, a few more yellow buildings, green buildings, another block of yellow buildings. Each with ornate molding and designs in their fa├žades. Each part of a monument – the city itself. Clear intent. Impress the foreigners. Intimidate the subjects. Make the guy who detest being pegged as a tourist keep his camera out and up. Saint Petersburg is as much a tsar as those who reigned from its banks. You cannot say no to it. My interest in Russia began and continues to focus on the Romanovs, so traveling to Saint Petersburg has never been just an wish. It has been a high-ranking priority. An obligation.
As our bus brought us into the city the night we arrived, I found the difference between the black sky and light-colored, floodlit buildings striking. Still, the narrow streets between imperial palaces, former mansions, and government buildings were flanked by sidewalks fit for one. The grids of windows on each side were dark, and these streets seemed to stretch like shadows. I was fascinated with each portico and dome, but there was no shortage of archways leading to the dingy courtyards that caught my eye. Some seemed to beckon.
Saint Petersburg is not all buildings and statues, though. While waiting on the bus, I watched a wedding couple taking their pictures on a bridge near the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood. An elderly woman – black dress, white head scarf, yellow plastic bag in hand – crossed the bridge, but when she saw the newlyweds, she stopped, set her bag down in the snow, and blessed them, making the sign of the cross at them until they had finished their pictures. Then, she picked up her bag and went on her way. Earlier, on that same bridge, a ballerina danced and had her picture taken.

No bus stop in the city is empty. Swarms of black coats shuffle through the metro stations and along the streets. Heeled boots. Balance and poise. Neon signs and marble steps. Splendor and squalor. The city is constrained by nature, by the islands and swamp on which it was founded, by laws regulating construction. The constrained city that was built as a monument to and model for an expanding empire.

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