Sunday lunch at the Taleon restaurant in St Petersburg is as good an introduction as any to the new Russia. Amidst Renaissance art and exquisite antiques, leather sofas you can get lost in, gilded ceilings and marble fireplaces, rich boys and their gliding, glamorous playthings come to relax.
Housed in the opulent mansion of a leading 19th-century merchant, the Taleon is part of an exclusive private club and casino. During the Soviet years, it was the home of the Institute of Marxism- Leninism. On a Sunday, its excellent set- price buffet lunch (NZ$70) also allows those without bodyguards and fat wallets to dine there.
For a different glimpse into post-Soviet life, go to church. In much of Europe, it is mostly the elderly who attend church. Not so in today's Russian Orthodox Church.
Those attending the service in the Church of the Annunciation - part of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery - include a bikie from the St Petersburg Night Riders, complete with leathers and chains, and a number of young women, most of whom are wearing clothes more usually associated with a disco.
As theatre, it is fascinating: the singing is magnificent, the officiates' robes colourful and the priests young. In the Russian Orthodox Church, indulging the pleasures of the flesh is not seen as compromising one's dedication to God. The only piece of the theatre that jars is the repeated kissing of multiple icons by the faithful. Perhaps issues of hygiene need to be addressed.
St Petersburg (population five million) is Russia's second city, and is sometimes called the Venice of the North. Rivers and canals make up 10 per cent of its area. Much of the city is no more than three metres above sea level.
From the early 18th century until 1918, it was the capital of the Russian Empire. Regarded for much of this time as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, it reflected the empire's cultural majesty.
For most of its 300 years, St Petersburg has been a major cultural centre and the most Western of any city in Russia. Dancer Anna Pavlova and theatrical impresario Sergey Diaghilev lived here. Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Shostakovich composed here, and Dostoevsky wrote here - the slums of Sennaya Ploshchad provide the setting for Crime and Punishment.
The progress of Russian history can be traced through the city's name changes. Formerly Leningrad (1924-91) and Petrograd (1914-24), and originally St Petersburg (1703-1914), for a city that is little more than 300 years old, it has had more than its fair share of glories and tragedies.
In March 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated here. For 872 days, from September 1941 to January 1944, the city was besieged by Nazi troops.
Not everything should be taken at face value, however. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and overthrew the Russian Provisional Government. Although the Bolsheviks later portrayed the attack as a savage battle, it was in fact relatively bloodless: more people were injured during the filming of Sergei Eisenstein's classic film about the event than during the coup itself.
The most striking feature of St Petersburg is its spectacular vistas. Walk down the grand Nevsky Prospect, look around a corner and there is the Church of the Saviour on the Blood, built, over 23 years, on the site where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by an assassin's bomb.
Walk a short distance from the imposing St Nicholas Cathedral and there, not far away, is Lviny Most, the Lion Bridge, a narrow suspension bridge on Griboedov Canal, a favourite spot for romantic trysts. Stand in the vast square in front of the Winter Palace and history conjures itself in front of you.
Like any big, serious city, the sites of St Petersburg cannot be ticked off in a day or two. To get a feeling for the city, you should start with a walk in the historic old centre. It is hard to get lost, because there are so many landmarks.
Once you have got used to its charms, it is time to enjoy the museums, churches, theatres and shops.
First stop: the Hermitage. With the possible exception of the Louvre, no museum in the world rivals the Hermitage in size or quality. The museum has major collections of Italian Renaissance and French Impressionist paintings, as well as a large number of works by Rembrandt. It is worth a visit, if only to see the room full of Matisses.
The Greek and Roman antiquities collection is remarkable, as are its exhibits of Siberian and Central Asian art. There are three million works in its collection, so it is sensible to work out in advance what you want to see.
If time permits, make a number of shorter visits to the Hermitage rather than trying to deal with it in one very long day.
But save some time for the Russian Museum. Its collection of Russian art is breathtaking. Make sure you don't miss the folk art. This is not the central feature of the museum, but it is wonderfully quirky and very entertaining.
For Russian pomp and circumstance, the Church of the Saviour on the Blood (also known as the Church on Spilt Blood and the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ) cannot be beaten.
The church, commissioned by Tsar Alexander III, son of the assassinated Alexander II, is built on the exact spot where his father was attacked.
From the outside, it is a riot of mosaics, colour and onion domes. Inside, an elaborate shrine decorated with a mix of semi- precious stones marks the exact spot of the assassination. The cobblestones on which the tsar's blood was spilled are exposed in the floor.
By way of contrast to this Disneyesque memorial church, St Nicholas Cathedral, an 18th-century Russian Baroque masterpiece, sits quietly nearby, surrounded by gardens and a tree-lined embankment.
Theatre Square is the main focus for musical and theatrical life in St Petersburg. Pride of place must go to the Mariinsky Theatre.
It opened in 1860, and Tchaikovsky's ballets Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker had their premieres there. Lizst, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss and Rachmaninov all performed there.
Tchaikovsky conducted his Sixth Symphony there nine days before his death, and an 11-year-old Igor Stravinsky was in the audience.
The Mariinsky is also home to the Kirov Ballet and Opera company. Pavlova, Vaslaw Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev all danced there.
Nevsky Prospekt, regarded by many as Russia's most famous street, is St Petersburg's main thoroughfare. Once known as the Street of Tolerance because of the number of churches of different denominations that were built there, today it is a magnet for shoppers.
The street is a mix of architectural styles. Notable buildings include the Baroque Stroganov Palace (1753), the neo- classical Our Lady of Kazan, which has 96 Corinthian columns (1801-11), and the striking style-moderne Singer House (1902-04).
Those who live in St Petersburg love their city, and are fiercely loyal to it.
The driver who took us to the airport had fascinating tales.
"I can remember when I was a little boy, I came here, to this street, with my father to see Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. They drove by in an open-top car. That was in the days before the assassination of President Kennedy. After that, there were no more open cars in the Soviet Union."
What he most wanted to know was whether we had liked St Petersburg better than Moscow. He was disappointed when we explained that we had never been to Moscow, but pleased that we had made it to St Petersburg first.
"Come again," he said as he waved us goodbye.
WIN A GUIDE
Lonely Planet's city guide to St Petersburgh is a witty and comprehensive look at the city that is Russia's most accessible, from its conception as an aristocratic stone playground in a marsh to its incredible collections of art, architecture, culture and romance. Travel has five copies of the fifth edition of Lonely Planet's St Petersburg City Guide by Mara Vorhees, including a pullout map, to give away. To be in the draw, email firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line 'Peter', with your name and address, or send same on a card or envelope to Peter, Travel Desk, Dominion Post, Box 3740, Wellington, by Friday.
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