Whenever someone says “white nights” I think of two things. One of them is my favourite movie of all times, White Nights (1985) with Mikhail Baryshnikov in which he performs one of the most powerful choreographies in the history of dance, Capricious Horses on Vysotsky’s equally powerful music. The second thing that comes to my mind is the land in which the sun never sets: the glorious Saint Petersburg during the White Nights. And this is the one I am going to talk more about in this article (sorry, Baryshnikov!).
As a ballet dancer, I fell in love with the Russian culture, language and art at a very young age. At some point before finishing high school I gathered up a group of friends and together we decided to discover the wonders of Mother Russia. I’ve even learnt how to read Cyrillic for the occasion. Needless to say, it was in vain since I could not actually make sense of the words I was reading. But hey, I tried.
What are the White Nights?
Beliye Nochi or the White Nights refer to a natural phenomenon that occurs from May to mid-July in regions fairly close to the Arctic Circle such as some cities in Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The atmospheric marvel makes it so that during that time of the year, the sun never fully sets. And the effect is absolutely mind-bending. There is a slightly odd midnight sun shining romantically over these lands and it makes everything seem just a little bit otherworldly.
St. Petersburg is the most well-known place that people who want to experience this phenomenon go to. The number of events you can attend and things you have to absolutely do while in Saint Petersburg is really big, as the whole city celebrates the never-ending days.
Here are some of the best experiences I had here and I hope you too will enjoy.
Midnight cruise on Neva River
Even if you skip all my other recommendations, you are not allowed to skip this one. Taking a night cruise on Neva River and watching the raising of the city drawbridges is a one-of-a-kind experience. The view is incredible. The city’s imposing buildings are lit up and their reflections in the water make the atmosphere very romantic and mysterious at the same time. The grandeur of the Russian architecture on the sides of Neva River is overwhelming and the simple act of opening and closing the drawbridges makes for a magnificent show.
What’s funny is that this whole thing is basically just a technological and administrative procedure executed in order to let through cargo river ships along the Neva River to the Gulf of Finland and back. There are twelve bridges in Saint Petersburg that undergo this procedure, but most likely you’ll visit the Palace Bridge (Dvortsovaya), as it is located right in the centre of the city.
Make sure to check the schedule of the drawbridges before you go and book a river cruise in advance, as it can get pretty crowded.
White Nights Festival
The Stars of the White Nights is an annual festival usually starting around the 12th of June and lasting until the beginning of July. It features classical ballet shows, opera and orchestral performances at the Mariinsky Theatre and Mariinsky Concert Hall. The Russians are well-known for their state-of-the-art cultural performances and this festival is a pure example of that tradition. I got to see Giselle performed by the Mariinsky ballet troupe and it exceeded my expectations. I definitely recommend you to get a ticket for at least one show during the festival.
The Carnival of the White Nights is also a fun event to attend. Usually taking place in the Palace Square, the shows feature actors wearing tsars’ and tsarinas’ costumes and re-enacting historical events. It really takes you back a few hundred years and totally immerses you in an authentic Russian experiences. Totally loved it!
Scarlet Sails Celebration or how to feel like a high school kid in your 30s. The Russians love to party and they will take every opportunity to do it. So don’t be surprised by the Alye Parusa festivity which is basically a huge party culminating with a massive show and big fireworks, all in celebration of the end of the school year. It is an old tradition that started after the World War II when all the school kids will unite and party together bringing to life the message of a popular children book called Scarlet Sails by Alexander Grin.
The brigantine with scarlet sails is now the symbol of the freedom and beauty of the adult life beginning upon graduating from school. Nowadays, there are over 3 million people attending the event. Even Antonio Banderas showed up at some point! You probably don’t want to miss it.
Alice in Wonderland or…a visit to the Hermitage Museum
After all the parties and shows you’ve attended, it’s time for a different experience: a visit to the Hermitage Museum at the Winter Palace, the home of the world’s most famous pieces of art.
I have watched the Russian Ark by Alexander Sokurov a few months before my trip to Russia and I recommend you do the same. The experimental historical film was recorded in a single day, using a one-take single 96 minute sequence shot that takes you on a journey through the 33 grandiose rooms of the Hermitage Museum. With a cast of over 2000 actors portraying real historical figures or fictional characters, the movie pictures the museum as a real life time machine transporting you through 300 years of history. You’ll walk together with an unnamed narrator, supposedly a ghost, and The European, a 19th century French traveller.
Watching the movie before your actual visit to the Winter Palace will make it a much more psychedelic experience. Not that Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Pissarro Titian and Picasso are not enough for you to feel like walking in Alice’s Wonderland!
Apart from the main highlights of my Russian adventure, you should also check out the Peterhof Palace and its beautiful golden fountains, Tsarskoye Selo (now part of the town of Pushkin) – the little town featuring the residence of the Russian Imperial Family, the Peter and Paul fortress, the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood and a long stroll down the Nevsky Prospekt under the midnight sun gentle light.
P.S. If you’re a Dostoevsky fan, then this city will give you goosebumps. You can visit the apartment museum where the famous writer spent the last years of his life, the Sennaya Ploshchad square, where Crime and Punishment is set and the residence of Alyona Ivanova, the old moneylender murdered in the book. Bring a copy of the book with you for an enhanced experience!
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