Walking Tour

A journey through a metropolis that, once seen, can never be forgotten

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.

A Word About Crime

In general, the city is now very safe, despite what you have heard. Yes, the occasional band of Gypsies does sweep down upon unwary visitors, swarming with chattering tongues and quick hands, but they are easily deterred by buttoning up your pockets and standing very stiffly until they eventually go away. In the upscale shopping districts where you are likely to be, city officials are careful to provide plenty of police officers. In addition, most of the better food stores (magaziny) hire their own armed security staffs. In the fancy groceries, for example, young, blond ex-soldiers with up-to-date automatic weapons stand guard over racks selling imported breakfast foods like Mueslix, Cinnamon and Apple Flavored Quaker Instant Oatmeal, Cap'n Crunch, and Froot Loops, whose sky-high price tags put them beyond the reach of everybody except wealthy visitors and local criminal gangs.

Illustration by Ingo Fast

Froot Loops, in particular, have a long association with crime. Introduced in the early 1960s, when Kellogg's, the American breakfast-food giant, was trying to move away from its rather staid products like Corn Flakes and All-Bran and into cereals with high sugar content deliberately aimed at children, Froot Loops immediately won a large market share, thanks mainly to a saturation campaign of television advertising featuring a colorful trademark toucan. Coincidentally, at about this same time clothing manufacturers in the U.S.A. and Great Britain began to put a small loop at the back of men's and boys' shirts, just below the yoke and at the top of the pleat between the shoulder blades. These loops, of no apparent purpose aside from the decorative, were seen by some as overly affected and perhaps effeminate additions to the garment and thus were dubbed "fruit loops," the implied reference to a street word for homosexual combining with a pun on the recently introduced cereal brand.

Among adolescent boys in the American Midwest in schools somewhat akin to the local gymnasia, a sort of game developed in which the object was to sneak up behind one's companion and, with a quick motion, rip the "fruit loop" from the back of his shirt. For the author of these words, nothing evokes the near-frenzied school days of adolescence more vividly than the recollection of snatching at someone's "fruit loop" in a crowded hallway between classes, or of having one's own suddenly and unexpectedly torn off.

Naturally, illegal activity soon followed. In a small-town high school in the Great Lakes region of Ohio, in the spring of 1964, a boy by the name of Jim Robey, while attempting to snatch the "fruit loop" of a boy named Randy Case, happened to tear the other boy's shirt virtually in half from top to bottom. A full-scale fistfight broke out in which most of the eighth-grade boys ended up taking part; the school administration became involved, parents were called in, criminal charges were almost filed, replacement of the shirt was demanded, and bitter resentments lasted even after the Cases had moved to Illinois.

Thankfully, the chances of this happening to you are small. Nowadays, in the widespread euphoria over the rise of free-market economics, the terrors of high school in the past century seem very far away, with good reason. If, however, you are one of those travelers visiting the city as part of a high school tour group, it pays to exercise all the caution you would at home.

On the Boulevard Joe Namath

This lovely wide avenue lined with linden trees, the city's favorite promenade for seeing and being seen, was not originally named for the American professional football star. Someone or other who was King during the Hundred Years' War apparently named it after his son or close friend who was killed in 1346 at the Battle of Crécy. Laid out to form one of the arms of a commemorative Maltese cross (the other three arms were never completed), the avenue quickly attracted the city's most fashionable society and became the scene of many historic events. Pope Anatoly I, "the traveling Pope," pitched his papal tent along its upper reaches in 1495; some years later Martin Luther, in an act of defiance, held an eel-pulling on the very spot where the Pope had lain. More recently Joe Namath, whose victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts (which he himself predicted) in Super Bowl III will never be forgotten, was also here. Enormous banners advertising Namath's appearance in a touring production of Li'l Abner at the Mariinsky Theater stretched high above the street from one side to the other, causing some visitors and tour guides, for convenience' sake, to refer to the boulevard by his name. So cleverly is the city designed that no matter where one sets out from or which direction one follows, one seems always to end up back on this glorious boulevard.

Illustration by Ingo Fast

It is here and in similar places, not in airport shuttle buses or in the duty-free shop at the airport, that the true life of the city goes on. Here young couples walk arm in arm in the evening, enjoying each other and the cosmopolitan crowd—priceless entertainment that even the poorest can afford. On the narrow streets feeding into the boulevard, and in its basement cafés, and even on the pedestals of the Art Nouveau sylphs of the apartment façades, the city's inhabitants gather at day's end to socialize. Some are dressed in the height of fashion; some do not yet know the dangers of mixing stripes and plaids. All are savoring this brief respite in their lives, and their faces alone tell a story more eloquent than any book. A few, indeed, are wearing the distinctive green-and-white jersey of the New York Jets with the number 12, the number Namath always wore. These jerseys, given out perhaps for nothing or at cost to promote the show at the Mariinsky, can provide a lively opportunity for impromptu conversation. Disregarding your lack of knowledge of the language, you might mention to the jersey wearer the outline of Namath's life: how he grew up in the gritty steel town of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; how he played college football at Alabama under the great coach Bear Bryant; and how he went on to New York City and the Jets and became "Broadway Joe," etc. Accompanied by appropriate gestures, a few simple phrases can convey a lot.

And above it all the serene, overarching sky, so limpid and infused with light, continues to offer inspiration as it did to poets and painters of old. In its depths you can perhaps see the spires of the ideal city of which the real one surrounding you is merely a magnificent approximation. The towering clouds, like the ones in that Virgin Airways ad, draw the eye ever upward above the rooftops into higher, brighter realms. There is, quite simply, no other city like this in the world. Of course you will come back, perhaps as early as next year, depending on the fares. And if, by some misfortune, you see the city only once, yet you will always keep it with you in memories and photographs. The great Goethe once made a very famous remark about the city. It may be found in almost every book of well-known quotations, cross-referenced under his name. And yet, we feel, even Goethe himself, for all his talent, failed to capture the spirit at the city's heart. It eluded him, as it always, finally, eludes us all. Shimmering beyond the reach of those who seek it, the timeless city remains unknown and uncaptured, waiting for new eyes to discover it with the dawn of every reasonably priced vacation day.