Secret St. Petersburg: Fantastic Facts about the Venice of the North
Built by Peter the Great to serve as a window to the West, St. Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire for over two centuries and retains much of its imperial grandeur today. Its Italianate palaces, domed cathedrals, broad boulevards and exceptional museums draw millions of admirers each year and, in addition to its legendary architecture and cultural attractions, there’s plenty more to discover about the port city’s past and present. We’ve delved into the secrets of St. Petersburg, home of Hotel Astoria, to bring you some fun and fascinating facts ahead of your next visit.
You can adopt a cat from The Hermitage
It’s widely publicised that it would take almost 10 years to view The Hermitage’s collection of more than three million exhibits, but did you know about its feline inhabits? In 1745, the Winter Palace was suffering from a rodent problem. The solution? Cats. Elizabeth of Russia ordered cats from Kazan to act as mousers and their descendants are still there to this day – around 60 can be found prowling the grounds at any given moment. They have their own dedicated kitchen, hospital and even a PR officer, and visitors can apply to adopt one of these regal hunters.
St. Petersburg Metro is one of the world’s deepest
Besides being beautifully decorated with colourful murals, mosaics and elegant chandeliers, St. Petersburg Metro is actually incredibly deep. Its deepest station, Admiralteyskaya, lies just around the corner from Hotel Astoria, with its two escalators descending to a depth of 86m. Only two Metro systems in the world are deeper: those of Kiev and North Korea, both of which were built to serve as emergency shelters. However, the explanation for St. Petersburg’s deep tunnels is less sinister and more logical: the tunnels had to undercut marshy ground and numerous canals in order to be stable.
St. Petersburg’s 342 bridges are all very different
Rumour has it that when Peter the Great built St. Petersburg, he sought inspiration from Venice’s canals. Yet later rulers became frustrated by this system of waterways, especially given the city’s freezing temperatures during winter, and hundreds of bridges have sprung up since. Among the most notable is Anichkov bridge, adorned with Peter Klodt’s iconic horse sculptures, famously buried during WW2 to prevent them being damaged. There’s the elegant Lomonosov Bridge, built in the 1780s, as well as Red, Blue and Green painted bridges over the Moika, bridges named after countries such as the Egyptian, English and Italian bridges, and of course, the modern drawbridges, which have left many an unwary traveller stranded in the twilight hours.
A canon is fired at midday – every day
As the clock strikes 12pm around St. Petersburg and cathedral bells chime, visitors might also be surprised to hear the boom of a real canon. It’s a blank shot, fired from the Peter and Paul Fortress, yet no less impressive for that. The tradition originated in Peter the Great’s time, signalling the beginning and end of the working day and alerting residents to floods or marking key events. Later, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was fired daily at noon to help citizens set their watches. This ended in 1934 and began again in 1957 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding. Get a great view across the river from the Naryshkin Bastion.
St. Isaac’s Square escaped the damages of WW2 for unusual reasons
One of the city’s most prestigious squares and home to both the eponymous cathedral and Hotel Astoria, this landmark area was untouched during the raging war of 1939-45. Many ask why St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its golden dome so obviously visible from the air and even from the Gulf of Finland, survived the siege of Leningrad when so much didn’t? One reason is that the dome was painted grey to deflect attention, but perhaps the most popular theory is that Nazi planes used it as a reference point, which is why they left it standing. Just metres away, Hotel Astoria also remained undamaged. Built for the Romanovs between 1910-13 to mark the dynasty’s tercentenary celebrations, Adolf Hitler allegedly planned to host his victory party in the hotel’s Winter Garden and instructed his forces to bypass it.
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