Ian Belcher, The Guardian, August 19, 2014
I can see five cathedrals puncturing St Petersburg’s skyline, including the Trinity’s magnificent blue dome, the Vladimirskaya’s neoclassical bell tower – Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a parishioner – and St Isaac’s, with space for 14,000 worshippers. This chain of Russian Orthodox showstoppers is raked with biblical shafts of light.
Trouble is, I can’t fully appreciate it. I have two hands on a chimneystack, one eye on a dangling high-voltage cable and my heart in my mouth. From where I’m nervously perched, feet either side of a sharply sloping roof, it’s just a short tumble before a six-storey drop to the street.
Rooftop climbs in St Petersburg aren’t for anyone who suffers from vertigo, or doesn’t have a good sense of balance. They tap into the latest vogue, driven by social media, for young locals to hang out on the tops of the city’s baroque and neoclassical buildings: a digital resurgence of a romantic summer tradition.
Now some of the “roofers” are offering the experience to visitors – their tour details are often stencilled on to city-centre pavements – with the lure of widescreen historic panoramas uncluttered by skyscrapers.
I took a less random approach, using BeAbo, a company recommended to me by a British tour operator. It offers a range of alternative excursions, including Masonic St Petersburg, “Love Without Restrictions” (a spin around the history of famous locals’ dangerous liaisons) and a visit to the Soviet Slot Machine Museum.
This may be a more official approach, but the tour is still laced with cold war intrigue. When I arrive in the city I receive a blunt text: “Roof walk. 4.08. 1800. Vladimirskaya metro station. Roofer will connect with you.” The message gives no clue as to how I’ll recognise him. Requests remain unanswered.
I’m there at 6pm. I wait among a gaggle of babushkas selling vegetables. An hour passes. I’m still there, eyeing up strange men. When he finally texts, I discover that he’s at the station exit; I’m at the entrance. More Austin Powers than 007.
Sergey Genkin, my 29-year-old “stalker”, as Russians call the guides, is not alone. There’s another tour member, Katerina from Ukraine, who is sporting spectacularly inappropriate gear: hot pants, designer handbag and knee-high velvet boots. You won’t see that on the Eiger.
We zigzag through streets, before darting into the courtyard of a magnificent, if slightly tired, art nouveau apartment block, with wrought iron balconies and a Parisian-style cupola. Sergey ushers us into the building, using a forged key to unlock the door and his skill as an IT engineer to “neutralise” the alarm. The golden rule is to be as discreet as possible. Roof climbing, like wild camping in the Lake District, is tolerated, rather than legal.
After ascending the stairs in total silence, past a warning sign – “Look after your children: they can fall from windows” – we clamber out of the roof space through a wooden dormer. First the warm light hits me, then the unnerving drop.
Sergey, with a mountaineer’s whip-thin physique, offers reassurance and a strong arm. I scramble on all fours like a fat spider, and perform a toddler’s arse shuffle before sitting on the spine of the roof. I peer down, clench my buttocks and steady my nerves.
Slowly, after several white-knuckle minutes, I start to relax. Sergey explains which chimney bricks to hold, where to walk, and which of the tangle of head-high wires are safe to hold. I stand unaided for the first time, admiring the epic view.
After stepping onto rusting tin sheets that flex alarmingly – “don’t worry: they support heavy snow” – we scale a small wall to reach the next level, using a ventilation shaft for support. “We have a saying,” says Sergey, gazing towards the Admiralty’s glimmering spire. “To be a true citizen of St Petersburg, you must have shared a communal flat, and you must have visited the roofs.”
He tells me proudly that his city is the best on earth for the pastime. It’s not just the uninterrupted vistas and the kilometres of linked period buildings, he explains – it’s the Russian attitude to property. “Spot someone on your roof in Britain and you call the police or get a gun. Here people don’t mind so much.”
As I ponder using an AK47 to protect the Welsh slate on my south London flat, I realise urban climbing’s appeal works at micro as well as macro level. Across the courtyard a woman is smoking while watching television; another is watering a plant. It’s strangely hypnotic.
I expect Sergey to tell of saucy sights he’s seen – worthy of a 1970s window cleaner – but the most shocking thing for him was graffiti on the cross on top of Kazan Cathedral. “How could they? These were vandals from the former Soviet republics.”
For our second climb, we head along Marata Street. Just past a Bavarian beer hall, we enter a yellow apartment block, where Lenin’s portrait rests on an attic fuse box. The view is still superb – we’re just above Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s answer to Oxford Street – but this is more about walking than climbing, with four courtyards linking wider, less vertiginous roofs. It’s a lot less scary.
We’re not alone up here. There’s an eight-strong tour group 100 metres ahead, while an amorous couple are sharing champagne and the sunset next to a graffiti-splattered chimney. As we stroll along, Sergey talks about the buzz of climbing. “All day, I look at an office computer,” he sighs. “But after work I head to the roofs and feel free. It’s a way of life.”
We complete the square, clambering confidently between levels, using a homemade wire ladder fixed in place, with an aerial for support. Fun has now replaced fear. A stretch of shiny new tin lets us clank past Alexander Pushkin’s old flat on the opposite side of the street, before our tour ends. Had we more time, we could easily continue for another two kilometres.
We descend in a tiny claustrophobic lift. As the rickety plywood doors close, Sergey, who just minutes before had been hanging off the edge of the building with an arm and a leg over the void, crosses himself and mutters “in God we trust”. St Petersburg’s creaky roofs are one thing, its creaky lifts quite another.
• Accommodation and flights were provided by Baltic Holidays (0845 0705711, balticholidays.com), which has three nights B&B at Casa Leto hotel in central St Petersburg from £639pp, including visa support, transfers and flights. BeAbo (b-abo.com) charges £20 for a 90-minute tour. They don’t run in rain, and stop with the arrival of cold weather
Up on the roofski: more rooftop sights in St Petersburg
Russia’s stirring imperial history mixes with ambient grooves and cocktails on W Hotel’s rooftop bar. Happily the brand’s pink neon logo doesn’t interfere with views of St Isaac’s glorious dome slap bang next door.
Arrive an hour before the ballet at the new £450m Mariinsky Theatres, and pay about £1.65 to head to the roof, with its linear glass canopy and steel balcony suspended high above the street.
Tt this rooftop restaurant, decent food, sun-kissed sofas and beautiful staff come with a side serving of views of Kazan cathedral and the candy-coloured domes of the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood.
St Isaac’s cathedral
The colonnaded walkway around the majestic 101m-high dome – the planet’s largest orthodox basilica – is open until 4am during the city’s white nights. It offers sublime views of surrounding palaces, including the cathedral’s gothic angels.
• eng.cathedral.ru/raspisanie, until end of October, £5pp
It’s not cheap but the summer terrace of the restaurant on the ninth floor of the Kempinksi Hotel offer a 360-degree panorama of major landmarks including the Admiralty and the Hermitage.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Ian Belcher from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.