Walking Tour

A journey through a metropolis that, once seen, can never be forgotten
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The city has always been here, its proud inhabitants will tell you. Since before the last great ice sheets departed the European continent, human beings have dwelt on this gentle eminence above the mouth of the Imber River, where the "salubrious exhalations" (Stendhal) of the Pripet Marshes mingle with the cooling winds sweeping from the Alps and the Pyrenees. Some indefinable quality of the surrounding sky, a peculiar vividness of its light, seems to call forth civilization. Primitive tribes stopped here to graze their flocks and build their huts of stone and mammoth ivory; later the legions of Julius Caesar, extending Rome's imperium, fortified the site with walls, towers, and an ingenious aqueduct, parts of which still stand. Century upon century of human endeavor, the soaring cathedrals of the Middle Ages giving way to modern American-style high-rises, created the splendid city spread out before you today.

Illustration by Ingo Fast

It's a city one peels back, layer after layer. According to many admirers, not even a lifetime is long enough to experience it all. Naturally, how much of the city a visitor sees depends on how much time he or she can spend. If you choose, you can explore the city by trolleybus, metro, hired car, or (in certain months) guided helicopter tour. Your schedule will of course determine your mode of transportation. For our money, however, the best way to see the city is as its most infatuated visitors always have—slowly, savoringly, with an itinerary of leisurely meandering, and most important, on foot. The routes suggested below may be used by all kinds of travelers; we admit without apology that they favor the pedestrian.

City Center and Castle Enclave

Begin your tour where the city itself began, in the cobbled square (Fontanka Ploschad) surrounding the fountain of Neptune, original site of the artesian well that supplied the defenders during the siege of the city by Alaric and his Visigoths in A.D. 401. The multi-figured composition of dolphins, sea nymphs, hippocampi, and tritons is a signature of the famous fountain designer Bartolomeo Torrelli, whose mother was the mistress of Charlemagne. Keeping the fountain on your left, proceed to the eastern entry of the castle at the gate to the outer rampart (admission 250 groschen, credit and debit cards accepted). This is the former periphery of the ancient city, whose massive stone structures served in later years as a prison and a meeting place of the first Constituent Assembly. Parts of the castle were heavily damaged during World War II and are permanently closed.

A museum in the former throne chamber houses a collection of church and state treasures, including diadems, scepters, reliquaries, and flails. The miter worn by Saint Vitus at his ordination is in a case at the center of the hall. Beyond the museum is a grassy courtyard cluttered with statuary of many periods, and farther still is a walkway always bustling with tourists and local people coming and going from the many points of departure at the city's core. Here self-employed craftsmen, buskers, and berry sellers compete for the busy trade. Here also you may encounter a cheerful young woman in a bright-green T-shirt and baseball cap passing out free boxes of Tic Tac candies, small oval mint-flavored capsules made in North America. Competing for the candy market dominated by Life Savers, a venerable American brand, Tic Tac has frequently promoted itself during the past thirty years with vigorous advertising campaigns involving similar free-sample giveaways.

The Cathedral of Saint Martha-Sophia, looming above the metro station opposite, honors the city's patron and protector, believed to have saved some of the population during the plagues of 1576, 1598, and 1611. The cathedral's fire-gilded dome was carted off in sections by invading Swedes under Charles XII, but was later returned. An allegorical mosaic of the saint rescuing a sinner from a runaway horse representing lust enlivens the ceiling of the narthex. Elaborate inner doors of Renaissance gold filigree lead to the cathedral's cavernous nave, once the largest in the world, whose roof of high groined arches is supported by sixty-four columns of native marble. Imagine, if you will, the thousands of patient workmen who sawed these columns from living rock using the crude tools of that time. Small pieces of this same marble, ideal for paperweights and memo holders, may be purchased at the gift shop by the cathedral's side door.

Illustration by Ingo Fast

The gift shop, in its nondescript kiosk of obviously recent construction, also sells postcards of the cathedral, small fringed flags bearing the city's coat of arms, commemorative snow globes, and other items. To divert the shop's young attendant, a radio in the kiosk is constantly playing popular music such as "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)," by Cher. Cher, a late-twentieth-century American singer and actress, had her first popular hit with her singing partner and then-husband, Sonny Bono, in 1965. Their plangent ballad of young love, "I Got You Babe," gained them wide recognition and, briefly, a network television show of their own. After the TV show they divorced. Cher married one or two other rock stars, while Sonny Bono ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from the state of California, only to die in a skiing accident some years later. Cher is best known for her long, straight black hair, her penchant for baring her midriff, and the alluring charm of her navel. "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)" dates from later in her career, c. 1991. (It was, of course, a remake of a much earlier hit by the R & B singer Betty Everett.) As you listen, turn again to the cathedral dome, which, thanks to an inspired placement of slate-gray shingles on the pitched roof just below it, often seems to float fantastically unmoored in the pewter-colored sky.

Business District and Market Row

Hard by the city's center is a busy commercial neighborhood extending for a mile or more along William Tell Prospekt. In the eighteenth century this area was called Englishtown (Anglischeberg), after the many merchants of that nationality who came here to buy furs and hemp. The disastrous Revised Economic Directive of the 1930s bulldozed every third building and replaced them all with blocks of solid cement, which have proved troublesome to remove. Though visitors in the recent past have complained of a lack of quality merchandise and a poor selection of colors and styles, you'll find the shopping situation better now.

Wear comfortable shoes, take your time, and don't be afraid to bargain. At the motley open-air stalls (isby) that line the curb, prices are so low that you'll have a hard time keeping a straight face as you do. That's part of the fun. Farther on, crowds thin out as you enter an area of expensive shops that have taken over what once were grand city houses for the aristocracy. A riot of Neo-Baroque terra-cotta bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the hunt adorn the front of No. 128, where the fabulously wealthy Von Hoffman family used to hold their glittering parties; now it houses an Italian clothing concern. Note the twin Atlases, beautifully restored, that support on their broad shoulders the frieze of acanthus leaves over the door to the cell-phone outlet across the street at No. 131. When this building was a gentleman's club, it served as a frequent trysting place for Albert Einstein's barber and the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt.

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