- Jun. 09 2011 00:00
For confirmed urbanites intimidated by the hardships of dacha life, an afternoon in the park may be quite enough nature for one day.
Glorious though the former imperial estates are, from the spectacular manmade splendor of Peterhof to the quiet, rambling nature of Gatchina or Pavlovsk, it is possible to find a picturesque spot of greenery without spending an hour on a cramped, stuffy minibus or overcrowded suburban train. Parks and gardens are scattered all over St. Petersburg, offering a refuge from the traffic and noise of the city's streets and a perfect place in which to while away a long, lazy summer afternoon. Plus, like the rest of the city, the green spaces in St. Petersburg are all steeped in history.
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It is well worth paying the nominal entrance fee to enter the tranquil Botanical Gardens, tucked away in a quiet corner of Aptekarsky Island on the Petrograd Side. The vast, stately greenhouses date back to the 19th century and are home to plants from every corner of the world, while the gardens themselves are far more secluded than most of the city's parks. The gardens grew out of a herb garden founded on this spot by Peter the Great in 1714, which gave Aptekarsky (Apothecary) Island its name. The Botanical Gardens' vast and diverse collection includes an impressive range of lilies and the legendary Queen of the Night, a rare tropical flower that flowers for one night only — an occasion for which the gardens remain open until midnight.
The orderly gardens laid out in front of the Smolny Institute are as neat and well kept as might be expected of a park located so close to the seat of the city government, making them very pleasant surroundings for a civilized stroll. Their location in the upscale Smolny district also explains the distinct lack of tramps and gangs of youths that are ubiquitous in many of the city's other parks and gardens. The awe of authority — or at least of the large police presence in the area — does not seemingly extend to the canine world, however: The gardens are home to a pack of wild dogs, incongruously roaming among the majestic fountains and luxuriant lilac bushes of the symmetrical gardens, which were originally laid out in the 1920s and '30s and are also home to busts of Marx and Engels.
Field of Mars
The large, flat Field of Mars is a favorite oasis with sun-worshippers and cyclists. Despite the relaxed, recreational atmosphere of this former bog, the Field of Mars — so named because it was a military parade ground in the 19th century — has a somber history. The remains of those who died during the February and October revolutions of 1917 lie beneath the turf, a fact that is commemorated by an eternal flame at the center of the field.
The expansive Tavrichesky park contains enough variety within its iron railings to please everyone. There are children's playgrounds dotted around the park at regular intervals, making it popular with families, while a more secluded area reached by crossing a bridge over a stream is popular with sunbathers. On really hot days, many brave the park's lake, despite the sign declaring swimming forbidden.
The narrow garden in front of the Admiralty was built in 1872 on a former moat and other fortifications that had surrounded the Admiralty for years. While it is not really spacious enough for sunbathing or picnics, the benches encircling the large fountain — itself a popular inner-city cooling off spot — are popular with strollers, as well as with harried office workers who have stolen out for a quick ice-cream in the middle of the day. Busts around the fountain celebrate Russian writers such as Gogol and Lermontov, as well as the composer Glinka, while further toward the Bronze Horseman, Nikolai Przhevalsky is depicted together with a camel in a monument to the 19th-century explorer of Central Asia.
Park Pobedy (Victory Park)
The sprawling Victory Park in the south of the city is devoted to those who laid down their lives in World War II and the Siege of Leningrad, hence its Heroes' Avenue. The park is a great place to enjoy a summer's day by boating on the lake, risking the rusty fairground rides, or simply lazing in the sunshine.
There is not much chance of cycling, sunbathing or picnicking on the grass in front of the Mikhailovsky Palace (bikes are banned, the grass is out of bounds and the gardens are patrolled by vigilant watchmen), but the sedate gardens are home to occasional events such as the Imperial Gardens of Russia festival and outdoor concerts.
Central Park of Culture and Leisure (TsPKO)
Parts of Yelagin Island, which was designated a Central Park of Culture and Leisure in 1932, are about as wild as the parks within the city's boundaries get, making it a beautiful place in which to relax during the summer. Boat rental and horse rides are available, and the paths of the island are very popular with cyclists and roller-skaters.