And you thought our Royal Family was mad...

MY ROUGH GUIDE
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The Independent Travel
First impressions

Awesome. The whole city centre looks like a Canaletto painting, with scores of palaces along granite embankments, gilded spires and cupolas, and majestic bridges at every bend. Anything can happen here - and does. The interweaving of myth and reality, triumph and tragedy, grief and joy has forged a unique identity, more powerful than in any other city I've encountered.

Essential knowledge

It's said that 40,000 serfs died to lay the foundations of Peter the Great's dream city on the marshes of the Neva, and certain that 670,000 citizens perished during the "900 Days" siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. It's also the city associated with most of the great figures in Russian literature, music and art, and such characters as Rasputin and Catherine the Great. Oh, and it's -30C in the winter, but sweltering hot in June and July, with White Nights when darkness never falls.

Best monuments

The Hermitage, with nearly 2.8 million exhibits, from Scythian gold to paintings by Leonardo, Picasso and Matisse. The Mariinsky Ballet - better known abroad as the Kirov. Five incredibly opulent Imperial palaces, outside the city. Chilled vodka and red caviare caressing your tongue. Bathhouses where they flail you with birch twigs.

Hoariest myth

The one about Catherine and the horse. She was 67 when she died and had never shown any interest in bestiality, though she certainly had a succession of ever-younger lovers, the first of whom disposed of her husband, the impotent, soldier-mad Peter III.

Maddest royalty

Empress Anna, who made her chancellor and a lady-in-waiting have sex in an ice palace on the frozen Neva while she watched from the Winter Palace. Paul I, who was so ashamed of his pug nose that he formed an entire regiment of snub-nosed giants to accompany him. Peter the Great, who... well, you get the idea. The only one not connected with St Petersburg is Ivan the Terrible.

Best scene of a crime

The two crimes that foreigners associate with Petersburg are the murder of Rasputin by Prince Yusupov, and Raskolnikov's killing of the old money- lender in Crime and Punishment. Tours of the Yusupov Palace on the Moyka include a visit to the cellar, with a mock-up of the moment when the prince shot Rasputin in the back, having lost hope that the poisoned cakes and wine would do the trick. Raskolnikov's crime is thought to have occurred at 104 Griboedov Embankment, a typically decrepit apartment block. Though resigned to strangers coming to peek at the stairway, the occupants of flat 74 hate being bothered by callers.

Slyest act of revenge

Stalin opined that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and consumed the lives of millions. If only he had copied Pyotr Klodt, the sculptor of the four equestrian statues on the Anichkov Bridge. Klodt was infuriated by Nicholas I, who, whenever a pair of statues was finished, gave them to another monarch and ordered Koldt to start again. When he finally completed the last stallion, Klodt depicted the Tsar's face in the swollen veins of its groin.

Most fruitful union

Britons have made a tryst with destiny in Petersburg since the city's infancy, so my own experience isn't unusual. On my second trip in 1992 I arranged to meet an Englishwoman who invited her Russian friend Anna along, in case I was boring. We fell in love at first sight, and got married in Petersburg two years later. Our daughter Sonia was conceived in an apartment facing a giant statue of Lenin, pointing towards our window. Before the age of two, she learnt to recognise him as "Lemon", which she still thinks is a synonym for "statue".

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Flights & package tours

For flights, call Scott's Tours (tel: 0171 383 5353). London (Heathrow & Gatwick) to St Petersburg by British Airways (pounds 450) and Aeroflot (pounds 240); indirect flights by Finnair (pounds 227). Two package deals from Interchange (tel: 0181 681 3612) are four nights B&B in the three-star Moskva hotel from pounds 330; and three nights in a Russian home, with half-board, from pounds 395.

Visas

Package tourists can get their visa through the tour operator. A trick is to get a business visa (which doesn't require you to have pre-booked accommodation). MK Classic Services (tel: 07000 561707) quotes as little as pounds 48; also try East-West Travel (tel: 0171 938 3211).

Accommodation

Try the St Petersburg International Hostel (fax: 007812/3298019; email: ryh@ryh.spb.ru; Web site http://www.spb.ru/ryh), which can arrange visas for its guests. The hostel is well run, clean and safe, with 3-to-5-bed rooms; pounds 11 per night including breakfast.

Dan Richardson wrote 'The Rough Guide to St Petersburg'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

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