Winter is a romantic notion here in the UK, especially in the south. We don’t understand winter because we don’t really get winter. A chill in the air? Maybe. A dusting of powder on the streets until the sun gets up? If we’re exceptionally lucky. Months of grey cloud that suck energy and leave us feeling down? Definitely. But proper winter? No, not really.
So we romanticise this elusive weather, choosing deep drifts of snow for the Christmas cards we send and fantasising that we can bomb down park slopes on our toboggans that instead remain propped forlornly against garage walls, just in case. But such hope doesn’t have to be in vain. St Petersburg can be reached by air in little more than three hours from London. Once there, you’re a stone’s throw from the very best winter activities you can only dream of in the UK.
An overnight train from the city will take you to beautiful Karelia, in Russia’s far north. Hop on a snowmobile and bump your way across the tracks made on the frozen surface of Onego Lake, the second largest in Europe. The reward for rosy cheeks and numb fingers is the Kizhi necklace, the nickname given to the delightful ensemble of wooden churches, barns and houses on the islands that dot the shore of the lake like fat jewels in a choker. UNESCO recognises it as one of the world’s most special sights and you can’t fail to be impressed too.
If the thought of a snowmobile ride, even amidst such dramatic scenery, is just too modern, how about switching your horsepower for dog power? Operating the sleds takes a little instruction, but you’ll be mushing like a pro in no time. A visit to the dogs back at the farm to see how they’re raised and trained provides a fascinating insight into life up here. Ice fishing is another traditional activity that’s still treasured and you’re welcome to have a go yourself, so long as you share your catch.
Back in the city, St Petersburg is at its best under its winter overcoat and elegant promenading is still de rigueur even as the temperatures plummet. But don’t forget the traditional Russian proverb: “A man without a wife is like a man in winter without a fur cap.” Pack your warmest clothes, and then some. Or kit yourself out in one of its department stores and take a romantic stroll along the banks of its many canals as the locals do.
What is it they say? There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Come prepared and you’ll have the time of your life, no matter how cold it gets.