In the Footsteps of Tatiana Metanova

After an early morning flight over Russia’s vast tundra, laid flat like moss-green jigsaw pieces interspersed with connecting waterways and small lakes, we were finally on descent into Leningrad, or Saint Petersburg, as it is once again known as today. From my window seat I had a perfect view of Lake Ladoga.

Here in the winter of 1941 the 219-kilometre ‘Road of Life’, was built on the lake’s 90-150cm thick frozen surface, giving the sick and starving safe passage out of the besieged city of Leningrad, and allowing food and munitions in. It saved the lives of thousands.

The Bronze Horseman Медный всадник, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Paullina Simons’ best-selling novel The Bronze Horseman depicts a scene involving the Road of Life that shook me to the core. A starving Tatiana Metanova flees Leningrad, where there is no food or water, electricity, coal or wood, aiming to reach a field hospital on the lake’s opposite shore to save her dying sister, Dasha. Like more than one million civilians and soldiers who perished from starvation, stress, exposure and bombardments during the 900-day blockade, Dasha’s fate was sealed. Tatiana was forced to bury her by pushing her body through a small hole in the ice into the waters below.

Although at times emotionally draining and gruesome, Simon’s novel manages to celebrate nearly every aspect of this grand and glorious city. Today, Saint Petersburg stands strong as a monument to the creative spirit, love, strength and pride of the Russian people. It is without doubt Russia’s cultural capital, an engineering marvel, and an architectural masterpiece that will win you over.

My goal was to walk in the footsteps of Tatiana. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the surprises that unfolded while travelling along this beautifully painted, well-worn path. I had arrived in the Hero City and it settled my soul.

Saint Petersburg, or Piter, as many Russians lovingly nickname it, contains a busy network of canals and rivers that connect to wide, slow-flowing Bolshaya Neva, that big river that snakes its way around the city centre and into the Gulf of Finland. It’s hard to imagine its surface icing over completely in winter.

Bolshaya Neva River, Saint Petersburg

Upon my arrival in late autumn, the temperature, is a mild -1C, yet the hotel concierge congratulates me and announces that my arrival is special as it marks the first day in negative digits. Many Russians I’ve met share this love-hate relationship with the onset of winter, both looking forward to the snow that can magically transform any landscape, and dreading the accompanying bitter chill, freezing toes and isolation.

The tourist guides continue to expound the extravagant visions of Peter the Great crafting his opulent Venice of the North. But I was here to follow Tatiana’s journey, and first needed to check into the Angleterre Hotel, the stunning sister property to the adjoining Hotel Astoria, on Saint Isaac’s Square. Crossing the Moyka River, passing the huge bronze equestrian monument to Nicholas I, and rounding a corner, my eyes were drawn upwards to the glistening gold dome of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. It’s a lot to take in. The sheer scale of Saint Isaac’s floors me: its red granite columns, all 112 of them, each erected as a single block, define the meaning of disbelief. I find myself shedding a few tears of joy.

Astoria Hotel, Saint Petersburg

Trying to remain calm, I pause to admire the flower boxes lining the hotel’s entrance. A doorman swings open the polished brass and timber doors and welcomes me. Stepping into the foyer, I see plush velvets, shimmering crystal chandeliers, high arches, classical statues and detailed ceiling frescoes. As I glance back through the doors, the cathedral is in full view.

My home for the next four days is an extremely comfortable room and the best-value hotel breakfast money can buy – a fresh-daily continental offering larger than any I have seen. If there were a hotel breakfast and service benchmark, the Angleterre, one of the many properties in British hotelier Rocco Forte’s group, is firmly it.

Summer Garden (Letniy Sad), beside the Nevsky River

Saint Isaac’s Square is within easy walking distance of many of Saint Petersburg’s main attractions, including the Admiralty Building – former headquarters of the Imperial Russian Navy – in the grounds of Alexander Garden, where Australians may be surprised to spot a mature eucalyptus tree, a rare and welcome sight this far north. Also nearby is the Winter Palace and the State Hermitage Museum, the Summer Garden (Letniy Sad), the majestic Mariinsky Theatre, and one of the world’s great boulevards, Nevsky Prospekt.

Nevsky Prospekt, Saint Petersburg

A walk along Nevsky’s crowded footpaths is a must, not only for the architectural spectacle of its many cathedrals, canal bridges, statues, grand shopping promenades and 18th-century townhouses, but also for the people-watching. Walking along this grand avenue, admiring the cultured and fashionably dressed locals making their way gracefully along Nevsky’s gigantic stone pavement squares, is both a surprise and a delight.

Another great way to roll with the crowds is to ride the metro rail network, one of the deepest in the world. In geological terms, for structural stability, its tunnels are constructed beneath buried valleys: ancient river or stream valleys that have been filled with glacial or unconsolidated sediment – gravel, sand, slit and clay. A ride on the escalator at Admiralteyskaya Station (also close to Saint Isaac’s) takes commuters 86 metres underground.

Admiralteyskaya Station takes commuters 86 metres underground

Platforms on Saint Petersburg’s metro system stations are exquisitely decorated with polished floor-to-ceiling marble, most lit by enormous chandeliers. Taking a train from here to Ploshchad Vosstaniya (Uprising Square) delivers me to the heart of Tatiana Metanova’s neighbourhood.

Paullina Simons reveals in Six Days in Leningrad, her diary-style follow-up to The Bronze Horseman trilogy, that Tatiana’s home was based on her own family residence, in a four-storey Soviet-style apartment building on the corner of 5-ya Sovetskaya Ulitsa (5th Soviet Street) and Grecheskiy Prospekt. I walk here wearing a ski jacket, woollen gloves and hat and I’m still cold. The temperature, now many degrees below zero, feels far more biting because of the wind chill factor. The cold works its way into my leg and cheek bones and I gain the beginnings of a brain freeze without the icecream.

5th Soviet Street and Grecheskiy Prospekt

The apartment building, like many in the area, has a central courtyard entrance, just wide enough to fit a small car and no doubt designed for a horse-drawn sleigh. It is a little less crumbling than many of its neighbours; its decorative plasterwork, although a little green-tinged with age, is in a moderately fine condition. Windows and small cantilevered balconies are accented with decorative ironwork, a feature that details almost every corner of Saint Petersburg’s parks and gardens. As I look toward the large, flat roof, I imagine Tatiana and her friends up top, witnessing the onset of enemy air-strikes. My hands – gloveless while I take photos – become uncomfortably chilled, and I begin to understand a little of the desperation, cold and hunger the people of Leningrad experienced during the siege. I stop taking photographs, out of respect for those who lost their lives.

For many, a visit to Saint Petersburg will illustrate just how culturally connected to Europe the city has become. In shops, hotels and restaurants, many staff speak English and welcome tourists. Hotel beds, consumer goods and entry to most tourist and entertainment centres is virtually half that of Australian prices, making tourist dollars stretch that much further. But for me and my travelling partner, taking the time to walk Saint Petersburg’s streets, breathe its cool, fresh air and gaze upon its streets, was a far more magical experience.

Does a city ever really have a soul? Do the buildings carry the weight of such deep, rich history? In Saint Petersburg, there is without doubt an unspoken sense, a connection that is formed between the city and its inhabitants. This spellbinding and magical city is truly far more than the sum of its parts.

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