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September 2005 issue

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St Petersburg

Steeped in history and home to a mind-boggling number of cultural artefacts, St Petersburg is also a modern, youthful city with a busy social scene. Bethan Norris gets the lowdown on Russia's most cosmopolitan city.

Founded in 1703, St Petersburg was built to be the capital of the Russian Empire and has played a key role in the history of this vast country's diverse fortunes ever since. Although since 1918 no longer the capital of Russia, the city has retained its reputation for being the centre of ancient and modern Russian culture and, according to Stanislav Chernyshov from Extra Class Language Centre, this is a big attraction for language students.

St Petersburg is the ideal place to study Russian. It's called the cultural capital of Russia and is famous for its unique museum collections, great architecture and beautiful environments, he says. Our students have all the possibilities to enjoy these treasures of culture as well as an exciting nightlife.

Kate Vasilieva from Educacentre agrees. For history fans, St Petersburg is a city of palaces, monuments and other remarkable places where every stone has its story, she says, while Joanna Szostek from Language Link describes the city as a world cultural treasure, an open air museum on a giant scale that seems to consist entirely of palaces, churches and romantic picturesque canals.

As well as being called Russia's cultural capital, St Petersburg is also known as the City of Bridges, the City of 101 Islands and the Venice of the North, which hints at the city's less than promising foundations on a marshy delta on the River Neva. The River Neva flows through the centre of the city, while a number of islands linked by bridges make up some of the distinct regions within the city itself. Pro Ba Language Centre is situated on Krestovski Island in the Petrogradsky district (1), which, according to Oleg Prokofiev, is the historical centre of St Petersburg.

He explains, The beginning of the area's construction goes back to the middle of the 19th century when the first permanent bridges across the Neva River were built. Now Petrogradsky District is the centre of the city's business activity. Offices of the world's leading companies, banks, the best nightclubs, cinemas and restaurants are located here.

While adding to the distinct character of the city itself, St Petersburg's many bridges also offer visitors a unique spectacle when the larger ones are raised every night between April and November, at about 2am, to allow ships into the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. During this time the city is effectively divided into three with no way to cross the river until the bridges are lowered.

The lifting of the bridges is often a focal point for locals and tourists during the famous White Nights, which are best experienced over two weeks at the end of June, when it does not get dark at night. During this time the city is busy both during the day and evening and language schools often encourage their students to make the most of the celebratory atmosphere at this time. During the period of the White Nights, we organise motorboat excursions along the Neva and its channels and yacht cruises around the Finnish Bay where participants can visit ancient Russian fortresses and monasteries on different islands, says Prokofiev.

One thing that St Petersburg certainly boasts plenty of is tourist attractions – and visitors can find it difficult to take everything in during one visit. The most famous of these is surely the Hermitage Museum (2), which is situated in the Winter Palace, one of the many ornate former residences of the Tsars that can be seen in and around the city. According to Prokofiev, About three million masterpieces of different epochs, countries and people are kept in the Hermitage. You will spend about 15 years in the museum if you spare even a minute in front of each exhibit.

During the siege of Leningrad, as the city was called between 1924 and 1991, many of these treasures were shipped to safety in Siberia or hidden in St Isaac's cathedral (3) – another highlight for tourists. Other famous sites include the Aurora battleship (4), famed for signalling the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917; Gostiny Dvor (5), one of the world's first shopping malls; and the Peter and Paul Fortress (6). According to Elena Dovzhikova at Liden & Denz Language Centre, the fortress was the very first building of St Petersburg which has become the emblem of the city.

St Petersburg is also famous for its ballet, being the home of the Mariinsky Theatre (7), and students studying at Extra Class Language Centre can make use of the school's personal contacts with the company. We teach Russian to student singers of Mariinsky Academy and have good relations with the theatre, says Chernyshov. So we are often able to get our students tickets to the Mariinsky even during the high season when opera and ballet are sold out.

While being proud of its cultural and historical roots, St Petersburg also has a very modern, forward-looking outlook, and locals are keen to promote the more fun loving and cosmopolitan side of their city. Chernyshov emphasises St Petersburg's international scope. Being created to be open to the rest of Europe, St Petersburg remains the most westerner-friendly city of the world's biggest country, he says.

Szostek points out the recent growth of a burgeoning nightlife scene within St Petersburg, fuelled by large numbers of international visitors and students. In recent years, St Petersburg has acquired a much wider and more varied range of restaurants, bars, cafés and disco bars, she says. As well as well known international bars, there are a lot of unique independent places for a fun night out.

And at Liden & Denz Language Centre, Dovzhikova relates that their school also organises its own nights for students. Every fortnight, we organise 'Thank god, it's Friday' parties at our school with vodka tasting, snacks and music, she says. It is the perfect opportunity for newcomers to get acquainted with other students and for all of them to chat, often in Russian, to discuss their new experiences and weekend plans.

Agent viewpoint

Those who choose [to study in] St Petersburg are not disappointed either by the school or the beauty of the city. Students tell me that the inhabitants are very proud of the city and are happy to help foreign students. I would say that students enjoy the beauty of St Petersburg and the warmth of the people. Speaking of warmth, I always advise students to avoid the winter months as it gets so cold. For those who can put up with the cold weather, Christmas and New Year in St Petersburg is a real experience.
Geoffrey Bailey, AGB Séjours Linguistiques, Belgium

St Petersburg is very much regarded as the cultural and historical capital of Russia. Our students seem fascinated by the impressive buildings and especially for the White Nights, it is a very popular destination. [Students enjoy] the atmosphere and flair of St Petersburg, the friendliness and commitment of the host families and the many tourist attractions. [In their spare time] they visit the museums, exhibitions, theatres, cathedrals, [undertake] excursions to Pushkin and nearby tourist attractions.
Thomas Roth, LinguaDirekt Travel, Germany

Most students choose St Petersburg as they judge it to be the nicest city in Russia. They are absolutely astonished by the beauty and the architecture. It is also known for its great nightlife with numerous clubs and bars. A lot of students simply enjoy being in the Russian environment and stay with their host families or go for a drink with them. The cultural exchange is an important factor in St Peterbsurg.
Claudio Cesarano, Globo-study Sprachreisen, Switzerland

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