Literary St. Petersburg: Nevsky Prospect

“There is nothing to compare with Nevsky Prospect, at least not in St Petersburg, where it embodies everything. There is no end to the glamour of this street – the belle of our capital city! I know that not one of its pale and high-ranking residents would exchange Nevsky Prospect for the world.”

Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospect

The street goes right through the heart of the city, beginning at the Admiralty, which once was the headquarters of the Admiralty Board and the Imperial Russian Navy, and ending at the St. Petersburg – Glanvy or Moskovsky Station, the oldest in the city. The street shares its name with prince Alexander Nevsky, who lived from 1221 to 1263, many, many years before the foundation of St. Petersburg. It is 4.5 km long and its full of cafés, churches, stores, theaters, cinemas, and ghosts of artists.

The Admiralty

“The other day at a Russian library, relegated by illiterate fate to a murky Berlin alleyway, I took out three or four new items, and among them your novel The Admiralty Spire. Neat title – if for no other reason than that it is, isn’t it, an iambic tetrameter, admiraltéyskaya iglá, and a famous Pushkinian line to boot.”

Vladimir Nabokov, The Admiralty Spire

We went there a couple of times. We saw the fountain, the busts, the plaques, the imperial architecture, and the spire that has a ship at the tip.  But we didn’t stay for long, since it was cold, and we still had a lot to see. The Admiralty is present in a lot of literary works set in St. Petersburg. Nabokov’s short story is but one of them.

Restaurant Literary Café

At the corner of Nevsky and the Moika channel is the restaurant Literary Café, once called the Café Wolff & Beránger. It is a place with a lot of history and a lot of art. It’s easily found due to the plaques on its outside wall. Some say that’s where Tchaikovsky drank one of his last glasses of water, in November 1813, and the writers Mikhail Lermontov and Fiodor Dostoevsky were also seen there.

You may have noticed the profile of Alexander Pushkin in one of the plaques. As soon as you go in, on your right, you will see a wax figure of the writer. He’s always sitting there by the window, with his quill in his hand, thinking.

Alexander Pushkin died in February (or January in the Julian calendar), 1837, in a duel against Georges d’Anthès, who kept trying to seduce the author’s wife, Natalia. A couple of days before going to the duel that would end his life, Pushkin met at the Literary Café with his second, who gave him his gun. Pushkin’s house is a few meters from the Café.

The place is not too big. It is an old-fashioned, warm place with live music. There is a pianist on the ground floor, and a violinist on the first floor. You may remember that we went to Russia during the first week of January, which means that we got to be there during Orthodox Christmas, on January 7th. We chose to spend it at the Literary Café.

We assumed it would be super expensive and planned to eat an entrance and maybe dessert. The café is, after all, very popular, it has a lot of history, it is located on the main avenue in one of Russia’s most famous cities. It was to be expected.

Imagine our surprise upon seeing the prices in the menu! The prices were so accessible, that we ended up ordering a main dish, dessert, a cold drink and two coffees!

Very in line with their theme, they brought us the bill in a box shaped like a book.

The House of Books, Dom Knigi

Located at the corner of Nevsky Prospect and the Griboyédova channel, House Singer was built in art nouveau fashion in 1910 for the Singer sewing machines. It became a book store after the revolution and it is currently the biggest one in the city.

With its academic and literary books, with its newspapers and magazines, with its calendars and office supplies, and with its big foreign languages section, the House of Books is a place where you can easily lose track of time.

Because of the season, they had several Christmas sections that included things such as decorations, presents, food, books, and cards. Miriam and I spent many hours looking at everything, and we returned more than once. She had more books to choose from, since she understands and speaks Russian. I went through every floor, but spent most of my time in the foreign languages section, which included both Russian and international literature.

There are two things that I always do when I go to a book store in another country: 1) I look for one or two books written in said country, and 2) I look for Julio Cortázar.

This time, I found both.

Moskovsky Station

Nevsky Prospect ends at the oldest station in the city, Moskovsky Station, which connects St. Petersburg with Moscow. It was built between 1844 and 1851 and it is the station where Anna Karenina took the train to Moscow in Tolstoy’s novel of the same name. I googled it and saw that it was a very beautiful building. I went there and saw that they were working on it, so I didn’t get to see it. Well, at least they put up an image of it, so we got the idea.

And this is how the first literary route to Russia ends. One needs to visit St. Petersburg several times to truly appreciate everything it has to offer. After all, it has an abundance of museums, literature, music, art, and culture.

One thing is clear, though: whatever the reason of your visit, whatever the type or place or event, you cannot be in St. Petersburg without stumbling upon Nevsky Prospect, not in real life, neither in books.

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