In St. Petersburg time seems to flow with no rule or rhythm: different pasts merge in a fragmentary present and the idea of future loses its meaning. The palaces of the tsars face streets crowded with old vans, which have probably been around since the Soviet Union era, and luxurious ultra-modern SUVs. People talk of Pushkin as of an old friend they have just lost.
At the heart of the city, the State Hermitage, one of the biggest and oldest museums in the world, and the Russian Museum, the largest depository of Russian fine art, stand as eternal reminders of St. Petersburg’s identity, torn between Europe and Russia. It is impossible to explore every room and to appreciate all they have to offer in the short period of the average holiday, but stopping in St. Petersburg without paying a visit to these two temples of art would be a waste.
The Hermitage was founded by Catherine II, the famous enlightened tsarina, in 1764. Today, the museum occupies six historic buildings, including the majestic Winter Palace. The collections of the Hermitage comprise a great variety of artworks, from Prehistoric art and Egyptian antiquities to post-Impressionist masterpieces. Rooms such as those devoted to the Italian Renaissance, with works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Titian and Raphael, or to the Dutch Golden Age, with paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt are celebrations of Western art and culture.
Canova’s sublime Neoclassical sculptures are not to be missed. In the General Staff Building, in the same square of the Winter Palace but opposite to the rest of the museum, nineteenth and twentieth-century paintings are kept. Although the locals insist on December being the worst month to visit St. Petersburg, the virtual absence of tourists make winter the best period to visit the Hermitage: being alone in rooms filled with Impressionist artworks and Matisse’s canvas make up for the darkness and the cold.
Strolling around the Hermitage enjoying the free admission for students and admiring well-known masterpieces is somewhat comforting, and yet in St Petersburg there is space for new discoveries. One needs to leave the Palace Square, walk along the Nevsky Prospect and turn towards Mikhailvosky Palace, the seat of the Russian Museum. There, the curious visitor will become acquainted with the masters of Russian art, such as Isaac Levitan, Ilya Repin, Mikhail Vrubel and Konstantin Somov.