NOTEBOOK: White Nights and rooftop tours reveal the secret St Petersburg

A Russian with an offbeat - and unlicensed - sideline offers tourists the unique thrill of `urban mountaineering'

They never look up, the hustlers of St Petersburg, as they bully tourists into sitting for street portraits at midnight, or hawk tickets for canal-boat rides during what the locals call the White Nights, under a sky whose summer sun barely sets. They scan the street, peering through the crowds of promenading couples in the hope that some will agree to part with extra roubles for one last treat before the summer finally ends, and the former capital of the tsars returns to its sombre, northern self.

But they never look up, above the eyeline, to the silhouetted turrets and rooftops that frame their own city. Business is business, even for the beggars, prostitutes, or elderly women selling just-born kittens, and business takes place at ground zero.

If they did lift their gaze at the right time of night, as the light fades to a cobalt blue for an hour or two, they might glimpse a small group of foreigners, backpacks and cameras over their shoulders, earnestly picking a path among the chimneys as silently as possible. The rooftop tourism season is in full flood in St Petersburg, unknown to its four million residents: except, perhaps, those who hear the footsteps overhead.

Its chief advocate is Peter Kozyrev, a 26-year-old Russian freelance journalist and - a rare breed this, in a country whose population until recently could not usually go overseas - an avid and widely travelled backpacker. He never advertises his services as a roof guide, apart from distributing fliers in English at the international youth hostel. He never gives interviews to the Russian media. The essence of successfully roaming the roofs is to be as discreet, and low-key, as possible.

Being discreet, however, is not easy when you are clambering up a steel ladder in darkness but for the beam of Peter's small torch. Moments earlier, we had ducked (guiltily, I thought) into an archway, and walked up a dark six-storey staircase inside a damp-blistered, pee-reeking apartment block. Our destination was one of his favourite spots, a small, crumbling brick turret on a roof just off Nevski Prospect, the city's Oxford Street. It commands a view that sweeps from the port on the Gulf of Finland to the church that marks the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a bomber, and beyond. "Shhhhh," Peter whispered, as I tripped over a pipe. "We don't want to piss off the neighbours." He patted a wall as we were passing through a dust-caked attic. "There are people living right behind here."

When we got there, the view was marvellous. "Once you are up here, above everything, it's all worth it," he said, eyes shining. "It is a feeling that you cannot get anywhere else in St Petersburg. You see, there are no skyscrapers here, and no hills." He calls his tours an "urban version of mountaineering".

St Petersburg has plenty of official guides, bustling women who used to go from museum to museum spouting history of behalf of the KGB-controlled Intourist agency, and have carried on ever since, though under new management. (It is not hard to imagine how their former bosses would have reacted to the idea of Western tourists creeping about the roofs). Peter Kozyrev is not one of these. He is, as he points out in his perfect English, a guide for the Alternative Tourist. He does not have a guide's licence - which is one reason for the need for discretion; nor could he ever get one for his rooftop work. His clients are few in number and, he says, "like-minded people", mostly other youth hostelers.

Putting together his tour was a sizeable undertaking. For weeks he wandered the streets, padding up and down apartment stairways and trying the doors used by the city workers who go on to the roofs to clear the snow and icicles in winter. Even as we walked along Nevski Prospect later, he seemed to be constantly looking upwards, wistfully.

"It takes a long time to find a good one," he said. "You walk along the street, see a building with a nice railing, and say to yourself, `It must be great up there.' You try several staircases. If you can find one that's open, you try to find a safe way in. Sometimes the neighbours give you a hard time. If not, you can start taking people in."

The residents are his biggest bane, even though he says most of the roofs he tramps upon are municipal property. He used to have access to the roof of the tenement in which Dostoyevksy housed Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, but the inhabitants got fed up with the disturbance and bolted the door. It can be far worse: on one occasion he and some friends were locked up on a roof by outraged tenants. On another, he was confronted by an angry man wielding a rifle.

He has persevered, not only because his work earns him a bob or two (though not much more), but also because he loves showing off his patch. With only 1.9 million tourists last year, St Petersburg has failed to make the most of its beauty, because of its crime - an Australian was murdered last month, and contract killings are a blight; overcharging - the top hotels are ludicrously expensive; and Soviet practices - you can still be fined for not registering your visa.

He admits to all these problems, but points to the city's fabulous art and architecture, the legacy of nearly 300 years. "People say Petersburg is the Venice of the north but that's bullshit. St Petersburg is St Petersburg. If anything, Venice is the St Petersburg of the south."

For now, he and his fellow back-packers are enjoying these riches from above, moving in the shadows above the melee. And, for now, Peter Kozyrev sees no reason why he shouldn't carry on: "We are invisible. No one looks up. Have you ever seen anyone around looking up?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future