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‘Like Stepping Into a Russian Novel’

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On the edge of a frozen lake, somewhere outside St Petersburg, I am stretched out on the wooden racks of a rickety banya, or sauna. Clouds of steam part to reveal several lobster-pink Russians on the racks below. Some maniac has just thrown a bucket of water on to the hot stones in the corner, and the temperature – already somewhere between gas mark 8 and Dante’s Inferno – rises dramatically. I feel my bone marrow is melting. Meanwhile, my new best friend, Seva, is whipping me with birch twigs – “For improving circulation,” he grunts. 

St Petersburg is the city where everyone looks fabulous in furs and rosy cheeks. As the afternoons draw in, the fat globes of the street lamps blossom along the Nevsky Prospect, and the frosted windows of the shops glow invitingly. In Theatre Square ballet fans hurry towards the brightly lit Mariinsky Theatre, where Nijinksy and Nureyev both performed; its season begins in autumn and runs through the winter. Across the city, frost patterns decorate the windows of the Winter Palace. Not far away, the great dome of St Isaac’s hovers like a vision in the early dark, while the statue of Peter the Great rearing on his horse above the bare trees carries a mantle of snow around his shoulders. 

St Petersburg is not an old city, or an Asian one, like Moscow. It was built to be Russia’s window on the West. In the spring of 1703, Peter the Great, flush from victory over the Swedes, got down from his horse in the marshes that bordered the Neva River and cut two slices of turf with his bayonet. Laying them in the form of a cross, he announced, here there shall be a city. 

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So began the 18th century’s most extraordinary building project. A quarter of a million serfs, soldiers and prisoners of war were press-ganged into Peter’s grand new project. Millions of logs were floated down the Neva, and stone work was forbidden elsewhere in Russia so that the nation’s supplies could be diverted here. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

The Peter and Paul Fortress, where the Romanovs kept political prisoners in medieval conditions  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

The nobility was commandeered, too. A thousand of Russia’s best families were ordered to construct houses and palaces in the new city. In muddy fields and clapboard towns across the sprawling distances of Siberia, peasants listened to tales of how Peter was creating his city in the heavens then lowering it down to earth. Within 50 years, St Petersburg was one of the most sophisticated and opulent cities in Europe. Palaces and academies, cathedrals and theatres, ministries and state institutions lined the avenues and canals as they radiated from the golden spire of the Admiralty. Peter’s new capital, his window to the West, had turned its back on its creaky empire and on “Asiatic” Moscow

Seva was born in St Petersburg and would never live anywhere else. I met him through mutual friends and he guided me around the city he loves. “Peter,” he said – he had the curious habit of calling the city by this single name – “we are always falling in love with Peter. It is a city of romance.” An artist, a bohemian, a romantic, Seva could have been the archetypal St Petersburg citizen. 

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Real and imagined, romantics have always loomed large in Peter’s life. For instance, it was in St Petersburg that Anna Karenina fell in love with Count Vronsky . Tchaikovsky studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory and conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony in the city only nine days before his death; he is buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery alongside other St Petersburg romantics – Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Dostoevsky. But it was Pushkin, the great Russian poet, who set the bar for gallant St Petersburg romantics, conducting numerous love affairs and fighting no less than 28 duels. He succumbed in the 29th, fatally injured by a man he accused of trying to seduce his wife. His seconds carried his body to his home on the Moika River Embankment. It was midwinter. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

Fog envelopes one of St Petersburg’s parks  Photo: AP/FOTOLIA

Russian winters have made St Petersburg a world of interiors and, with 500 palaces in the city, many are magnificent. Step inside the double doors, shed the overcoat and fur hat, and you enter a world of sweeping staircases and gilded moulding, of forests of chandeliers and ballrooms measured in acres, of battalions of nude statues and regiments of headscarfed babushkas with mops trying to keep up with the cleaning. 

In the Yusupov Palace, you can follow the assassination of Rasputin by the cross-dressing Prince Felix or attend a concert in the tiny rococo theatre. 

The best of the palaces are a carriage’s drive from the city – Peterhof, Tsarskoye, Pavlovsk, the Catherine Palace. To see them in winter when snow drifts across the parklands is to step into the pages of a Russian novel – as we shall witness when the BBC’s spectacular adaptation of War and Peace airs tomorrow night (some scenes were shot on location at Catherine Palace itself). 

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But the mother of St Petersburg’s palaces is the Winter Palace, a building that would make Buckingham Palace seem cramped. There are said to be 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases. Its excess reflected that of its creator, the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for 20 years in the mid-18th century. Her wardrobes were said to be stuffed with more than 15,000 frocks while her floors were littered with unpaid bills. When construction costs ran 300 per cent over budget, she ordered a series of beer halls to be built across Russia to finance the shortfall, knowing she could rely on peasants to drink her back to solvency. 

But let’s bypass the endless swank of Russian aristocracy and the stunning private apartments, many with a view across the Neva to the Peter and Paul Fortress where the Romanovs kept political prisoners in medieval conditions. Let’s head, instead, for the little museum tucked into several adjoining wings. 

The Hermitage seems to reflect the scale of Russia – 6.5 million square miles across 10 time zones. Apparently you would need nine years to spend just a few moments in front of each of its exhibits, assuming you paused occasionally to eat and sleep. Catherine the Great was responsible for the nucleus of the vast collection; her artistic appetites seemed to be as impressive as her sexual ones. There are Egyptian collections, Near Eastern, Classical, Renaissance. But it is the paintings that really overwhelm – this is the largest collection in the world. Interested in Rembrandts? You will see some of his best work. Keen on Matisse? You’re in for a treat. 

But it is winter: don’t get stuck indoors. Some of the best ice hockey teams are over at the Ice Palace. There is sledding, tobogganing, sleigh rides, cross-country skiing. And there are the Russian banya. Seva is an enthusiast. “Whatever is ailing,” he says, “banya is the cure.” We take a taxi to a frozen lake on the outskirts. A rickety hut is perched on the shore, with two tin chimneys belching woodsmoke. Disrobing in a side room, we follow an attendant through to the hot room. A couple of strapping women shuffle along a bit and Seva and I hunker down among the fleshy bodies. Despite the sweltering conditions, everyone is in a jolly mood and a woolly hat – the Russians believe extreme heat is bad for exposed hair. 

St Petersburg in winter: 'Like stepping into a Russian novel'

The Petersburg plunge: winter swimmers prepare to take an icy dip  Photo: AP

After 20 minutes of sweating like a self-basting turkey, I follow Seva outside into the Russian winter. Wearing nothing but small towels, we scamper along the frozen path to the end of a dock on the lakeshore. A set of steps leads down through the hole cut in the thick ice. A rope has been thoughtfully laid on so that we might have something to hang on to as our vital systems shut down. 

Taking a deep breath, I lower myself into the water. For a moment I can’t feel anything; my body is numb with shock. Then the cold hits me, so cold that my body seems to be burning. We shoot back out of the lake as if there were a trampoline beneath the water and flee along the ice path to the enveloping heat of the banya. The endorphins are buzzing. 

Back inside, Seva claps me on the back and smiles broadly. “Winter,” he says. “Bracing, eh?” That’s Russian understatement. Winter in St Petersburg is more than bracing. 

It is beautiful, it is exciting and, down here at the banya, the sharp smack of a proper winter is absolutely exhilarating.

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Shocking news, Irish people may be sanest in Europe

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Ireland is running low on loopers. If we don’t watch out, we could emerge from the pandemic with our reputation for wildness completely shredded. We are in danger of being exposed as the sanest people in Europe.

Vaccines go into the arm, but also into the brain. They are a kind of probe sent into the national consciousness. In Ireland’s case, the probe has discovered exciting evidence of intelligent life.

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Vienna school under fire for sex ed class using doll for children as young as six

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According to Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper, a teacher used a doll to explain “how sex works” to the children, while also encouraging them to use their hands and fingers on the doll. 

She said she wanted to “enlighten” the children about aspects of sex education. The children in the class were between the ages of six and ten. 

The teacher also explained to the children that “condoms should be used if you don’t want to have babies”, the newspaper reports. 

One boy was told to remove the clothes of the doll but refused before being told that he had to do so. 

The boys parents removed him from the school, saying that he was “overwhelmed” after the class and had started touching his sister inappropriately. 

“We have never seen our son like this before, he was completely overwhelmed” the parents said anonymously, “we are taking him out of the school.”

“We can already see the consequences. 

“A few days after these disturbing lessons, a classmate came to us to play. Like many times before, the boy also played with our ten-year-old daughter. This time he suddenly wanted to pull her pants down.

Peter Stippl, President of the Association for Psychotherapy, said that while sex education was crucially important, it needed to be age appropriate in order to be effective. 

“(This type of sexual education) scares the children! They get a wrong approach to the topic and their natural limit of shame is violated,” he said. 

“Sex education must always be age-appropriate and development-appropriate. Many children are six, seven or eight years old – or even older – not interested in sexual intercourse.

“We should never explain sexuality in schools in isolation from love and relationships. It makes you feel insecure and afraid. It harms the development of children.”

The Austrian Ministry of Education will now set up a commission to determine who will be allowed to teach sex ed in schools. 

The city of Vienna is also investigating the specific incident. 



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Madrid’s Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado granted World Heritage status | Culture

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Madrid’s famous Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado boulevard have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The decision, made on Sunday, brings the total number of World Heritage Sites in Spain to 49 – the third-highest in the world after Italy and China.

Up until Sunday, none of these sites were located in the Spanish capital. The Madrid region, however, was home to three: El Escorial Monastery in Alcalá de Henares, the historical center of Aranjuez and the Montejo beech forest in Montejo de la Sierra.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez celebrated the news on Twitter, saying it was a “deserved recognition of a space in the capital that enriches our historical, artistic and cultural legacy.”

Retiro Park is a green refuge of 118 hectares in the center of the city of Madrid. Paseo del Prado boulevard is another icon of the capital, featuring six museums, major fountains such as the Fuente de Cibeles as well as the famous Plaza de Cibeles square.

For the sites to be granted World Heritage status, Spain needed the support of two-thirds of the UNESCO committee – 15 votes from 21 countries. The proposal was backed by Brazil, Ethiopia, Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Mali, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.
Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.Víctor Sainz

Prior to the vote, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the organization that advises UNESCO, had argued against considering the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park as one site, and recommended that the latter be left out on the grounds that there were no “historic justifications” for the two to be paired.

This idea was strongly opposed by Spain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Andrés Perelló, who said: “What they are asking us to do is rip out a lung from Madrid. El Prado and El Retiro are a happy union, whose marriage is certified with a cartography more than three centuries old.” The origins of Paseo del Prado date back to 1565, while Retiro Park was first opened to the public during the Enlightenment.

Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado.
Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado. Víctor Sainz

The ICOMOS report also denounced the air pollution surrounding the site. To address these concerns, Madrid City Hall indicated it plans to reduce car traffic under its Madrid 360 initiative, which among other things is set to turn 10 kilometers of 48 streets into pedestrian areas, but is considered less ambitious than its predecessor Madrid Central.

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in the Chinese city of Fuzhou and was broadcast live at Madrid’s El Prado Museum. Perelló summed up the reasons to include Retiro Park and El Paseo de Prado in less than three minutes.

“When people say ‘from Madrid to heaven’ [the slogan of the Spanish capital] I ask myself why would you want to go to heaven when heaven is already in Madrid,” he told delegates at the event, which was scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, UNESCO evaluates 25 proposals for additions to the World Heritage List. In the case of the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park, the site was judged on whether it evidenced an exchange of considerable architectural influences, was a representative example of a form of construction or complex and if it was associated with traditions that are still alive today. The famous park and boulevard sought to be inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1992, but its candidacy did not reach the final stage of the process.

Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).
Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).Biblioteca Nacional de España

The effort to win recognition for the sites’ outstanding universal value began again in 2014 under former Madrid mayor Ana Botella, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), and was strengthed by her successor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist Ahora Madrid party, which was later renamed Más Madrid. An advisor from UNESCO visited the site in October 2019.

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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