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White Nights Along the Neva

She winds past the empty red brick structures standing forlorn on the weed overgrown island. Dutch shipbuilders once busied themselves here assembling hulking ships for Peter the Great. Now, their ghosts watch the unceasing ripples flowing past. She glides along the ramparts of Mikhailovsky Castle remembering the fate of paranoid emperor Paul I who built this lonely fortress to escape his imagined assassins only to be murdered in his new home forty days later. These are a few of the stories the Neva River has witnessed over the years as she courses through the heart of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Walking along the tidy streets of the city, it is easy to forget that this window into Europe was erected on the banks of waterways and canals. However, sailing on the Neva River furnishes a truer perspective of Peter the Great’s capital. Now, I visualize with perspicuity the anecdotes I have heard. What secrets did Rasputin’s corpse reveal about his murder at Yusupov Palace as he floated down the Neva? What were Catherine the Great’s thoughts as she rolled the dice to win back her lover Potemkin’s mansion? Did these silver waters know the tales Pushkin dreamt up as he played cards with countess Dolly inside the walls of Ficquelmont?Neva-basilicaThe narratives of Saint Petersburg and the river that runs through it intertwine like a child well-loved by its parent. The two belong to each other, starting and finishing each others stories. Peter the Great’s vision depends on the waterway. Just as the river embarks and terminates a thousand times, forming tributaries, departing into side streams, carving deeper into its sluices, so the tales of Saint Petersburg and its people stop only to commence again at another turn. As I observe the town from its watery highways, I perceive that I think a lot about beginnings and endings when I should be concentrating on the continuity of all things. I recall Russian summers, when the sun halts in its track, elongating the day and shaming the darkness away. It is both a hypnotic and surreal time of year, held precious because locals know that its weeks are numbered, that as with all things these “White Nights” will fade away to bring coldness and gloomy days.

“Yet, the transient days do not break off; they only sough their way into hibernation certain of their return.”

As long as the White Nights reappear, so will the tale of this enchanting city and its liquid artery. Used as a transport road, a drinking source, and a sewer system, I wonder what the Neva’s future will be.

The Neva is ancient when compared to the history of the town, a relic in terms of a human life span. Yet, in geologic terms it is a young river, created only three thousand years ago by retreating glaciers. In Rachel Sussman’s enlightening book, “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” there are eight thousand-year old huckleberry and ten thousand-year old pine trees that give meaning to the word “elderly.” In their very existence, despite their age, these antiques of our earth can be destroyed. One raging fire or decades of misuse exterminates the durable things in our world.

“I contemplate with gravity that though we live ephemeral lives, our impact on the oldest of things is far from transitory.”

Saint Petersburg without the Neva River would be unthinkable and yet who knows which of these two characters will cease its tale first and become an altered legend? The histories told on the banks of the Neva, the poems influenced by it, and the books yet to be written because of it will only happen if the river is given suitable nourishment.

Neva-cruiseNow part of my adventure involves the Neva as well, but it will not abrogate when I disembark. Instead it will take an incommensurable pivot; my sequel has changed since I have sailed upon it. Poet David Whyte described each of us as “a river with a particular abiding character.” I am not sure I have discovered what mine is yet. As for the Neva’s abiding character, I believe her to be sweet-tempered and generous, a lover of gossip, and a teller of tales.

“Oh the stories she could tell me, if I continued to listen!”

Anthropomorphizing is often the domain of the poet, eschewed by those who study science. Spending time with nature, however, makes it difficult not to believe that rivers, mountains, and trees have personality and memory. Even in their prosaic geologic records, elements like the Neva River have powerful memoirs to reveal. It is up to me to take the time to explore their chronicles, hearken to their message, and broadcast some of their never-ending romances.Neva-vista


The Neva delta used to contain over one hundred islands. Though many have disappeared over time, forty-two of them still remain. The Kamenny Islands host the dachas, or summer retreats, of Russian royalty while Petrogradsky Island was the home of Russia’s first film studio.

What natural element has inspired you in your travels? Is there a story you have learned from a trip down a river?

31 replies »

  1. Saint Petersburg is so beautiful and full of legends and stories. In fact, almost every house in the old part of the city has its legend. I am glad you enjoyed the white nights, the history and the beauty of St. Pete. I did not know about Ficquelmont even though I lived there for a few year and later visited. Your article is very romantic and intriguing and the pictures are awesome. Thank you for sharing. You made me smile.

    • I’m happy to hear my story made you smile. There are always so many stories in every destination and St. Petersburg has its share. I would love to return at some point and discover some more of them.

  2. Bespoke Traveler, I second MJ’s words above. Shawn and I were fortunate to have spent a day in St. Petersburg while on a Baltic cruise two years ago, and while we greatly enjoyed our peek into the gardens and grand rooms of Peterhof, the short jaunt in the city left us wanting more. Your tales of the Hermitage, and this river cruise make me desire to return even stronger. In all, how long were you in Russia?

    • Hello, Tricia. We found so much about Saint Petersburg to be fascinating to us and it is such a walkable city that we were able to take it all in. We were in Russia for a total of ten days, part of which we spent in St. Petersburg and the other half in Moscow and its surrounding areas.

    • Thank you. Saint Petersburg was the perfect introduction to Russia, a cosmopolitan mixture. It helped us acclimate before we delved into Russian culture more deeply in other cities.

  3. Seeing the sites of a country via river is one of the most magical means of transport I’ve come to experience. I have floated down the Thames, the Mississippi, the Seine and countless others–and now I’m hungering for the Neva too. You’ve made the history and the scenes magical.
    As an aside, one of my favorite books of yore is Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.

    • Of the rivers you listed, I have yet to do the Mississippi. Being a fan of Mark Twain I have always wanted to go gliding down it on a paddle steamer….Thank you for the book suggestion. Putting “Three Men In a Boat” on the to-read-list.

  4. I believe that rivers have souls. Your words reveal a mysterious and melancholy Neva. What a dream to be able to visit St. Petersburg.

  5. For those who have not had the privilege of visiting Russia, Bespoke’s fascinating narrative & gorgeous photos make us wanting more to see for ourselves a country rich in art, architecture & culture someday.

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