CITY SLICKER ST PETERSBURG

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The Independent Culture
`Hidden Treasures Revealed', an exhibition of 74 artworks looted from `the German occupation zone' at the end of the Second World War by Red Army brigades, caused a sensation a few weeks ago when it went on display at St Petersburg's Hermitage musuem. The original German owners would, understandably, like their Renoirs, Picassos, Van Goghs and Gauguins back, thank you very much. The Russians have very politely told them not to hold their breath. This none the less fabulous exhibition runs to 29 October.

Basic conceit: Only posh port on the planet. Locals reckon they have the best of all worlds, viz classical influence (prettier than Moscow - but so is Birmingham), moderating influence of the sea (unlike hinterland, which is too cold in winter and too hot in summer) and the glory of being Russian to boot (was capital from 1712, when it was founded by Peter the Great, until 1918).

Reasons to be cheerful: People were and are less oppressed in St Petersburg than in most of Russia. "White nights" during summer contribute to a magical atmosphere. Much of the film Orlando was shot here.

Emblematic costume, traditional: Basically the same as everywhere in Russia, which is scarves, shawls and layers of bright colours for the women, and black cloth trousers tucked into boots and puffy sleeved embroidered shirts for the men.

Emblematic costume, daywear: Remains three years behind Moscow, which is two years behind the Czech Republic, which is a year behind London. Anything goes so long as it is not the latest thing. Brown slacks atop cheap white trainers is not rare. Sailors in uniform, in plentiful supply, are considered pretty cool.

Food: Standard Russian fare for most people, which is bortsch with smetana (beetroot soup with dubious meats and sour cream), pelmeni (flour and water mixture, like heavy pasta, wrapped around cheese or dubious meat) and stews, often containing dubious meat. However, the port business means that quality foreign foodstuffs are available to the few who can afford them.

Restaurants: The Grand Hotel Europe has possibly the best eatery in Russia, certainly in St Petersburg. It rescues Russian traditions with French cuisine: rich sauces accompanied by vegetables that are not boiled to a pulp or smothered in salt and which will be accompanied by prime beef that does not call to mind a stray alsatian yelping as it meets a cook's cleaver. Bella Leone is also worth a visit. It's more atmospheric, modern and cosy than the above. It's also half the price ($120 for two) and Allah Pugacheva, 55, Russia's top pop star likes it. Mainly for young rich Russians (read "mafia", but they behave in nice restaurants).

Bars: The Senat is a tasteful cosmopolitan hangout, but the friendliest haven is the Irish pub Mollie's. This unfussy bar, with its stark wooden furnishings, was one of the first inns when Communism collapsed. Usually has draught Guinness.

Club life: The best clubs tend only to last a few weeks in one venue, which might be a squat, former admin building, a shed belonging to an imprisoned crook and even, occasionally, a building suited to clubbing. The weekly English newspaper, St Petersburg Press, keeps track in its (essential) What's On section.

Shopping: No chance.

Tricky situations: St Petersburg is crawling with criminals. Last year a US State Department report estimated that the crime rate is 30 per cent above Moscow, the supposed epicentre of the Wild East. Anatoliy Sobchak, the mayor of St Petersbuerg, plans to bid for the 2004 Olympics, which means getting his town in order by decision day in 1997.

Staying alive: Don't get drunk on your own; muggers prey on such types.

Best pub legend: Two long-haul Danish truck drivers met a nice Russian woman and took her back to their lorry for some intercultural discourse, whereupon they suddenly fell asleep. They woke up possession free, attired only in socks. Feeling rather dejected, they took a drink of the orange juice lying beside the bed. It knocked them out for another nine hours. This tale is true.

Art: More icons than you can shake a stick at. Nabokov is a source of modern pride, but Dostoevsky is still thought to have caught the mood of St Petersburg better than anyone.

All the rage: Unemployment.

Focus of rage: Caucasians. They are all gangsters and they steal jobs, didn't you know?

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