St. Petersburg's Magical White Nights

For two months a year, St. Petersburg is bathed in never-ending light.

June 23, 2010, 9:30 AM

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia June, 25, 2010 -- On a recent Saturday night in mid-June, the banks of St. Petersburg's Neva River were packed. Mostly young people armed with drinks, mingled with couples and families admiring the sunset from parks and paths along the shore. A pair of bongo players banged away in the shadow of St. Isaac's Cathedral, and hundreds lounged on the wall that lines the river.

It was 10:30 p.m. and the sun was just starting to dip below the horizon, but no one showed signs of heading home anytime soon. After all, these are the famous White Nights in Russia's second city, a two-month period from May to July when St. Petersburg is light almost 24 hours a day.

"It's just marvellous," said Jonathan Knaus, an American banker who has lived in Moscow for almost two decades and has visited St. Petersburg during White Nights several times over the years. "Great atmosphere, people are wonderful, very nice. Everyone's just out having fun."

Situated on the Bay of Finland, St. Petersburg's northern location at the same latitude as southern Alaska means that during the summer the sun is never far below the horizon. From mid-May until mid-July, most of the hours between sunset and sunrise look like dusk and the darkest moment, around 2 a.m., is short-lived.

"It was too long and too cold [a] winter," said local Ikbol Kobulov. "I think we deserve it."

Visitors to St. Petersburg often express frustration that there isn't enough time to see everything during a short stay, a sentiment the city capitalizes on during White Nights. Museums stay open later, the Mariinsky theatre offers an expanded program of ballets and operas. The city's numerous drawbridges are drawn in the wee hours of the morning during summer months for ships to pass through, rimmed with lights and admired by sightseers.

"Everyone's just so ready to be with other people and really embrace everything the city has to offer, which is a lot," said Emily Moder, a Princeton University student in St. Petersburg for the summer. "You have really all 24 hours of every day to do it."

Peter The Great

Moder and a gang of fellow students was weaving through the masses on the street that runs along the Neva River, past the famous Hermitage Museum and a statue of Peter the Great - the city's founder - on horseback.

The statue is known as "The Bronze Horseman", after Alexander Pushkin's poem of the same name in which he details his love for the city, as well as its White Nights:

The gentle transparent twilight,The moonless gleam of your nights restless,When I so easy read and writeWithout a lamp in my room lone,And seen is each huge buildings' stoneOf the left streets, and is so bright The Admiralty spire's flight,And when, not letting the night's darknessTo reach the golden heaven's height,The dawn after the sunset hastens -And a half-hour's for the night.

This Saturday night was especially busy. One of the highlights of White Nights is one night toward the end of June called "Scarlet Sails," taking its name from a Russian love story. The night celebrates St. Petersburg's graduating high school students. The city throws a big party in the center of town that kicks off with a concert on Palace Square before moving to the river at the darkest point of the night.

A dazzling fireworks show lit up the pre-dawn sky above the golden spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Soaring classical music mixed with the oohs and ahhs from the thousands watching along the river.

"I've never seen the streets so crowded," said Moder's classmate Aryeh Stein-Azen. "Everyone's out to celebrate with the high school students, to have a little fun, to watch the boats go by and the fireworks and just have a great time in this twilight of midnight."

The show culminates when a ship slowly floats out to the Palace Bridge, its red sails brightly lit. It then makes a slow turn and sails out of sight.

Many go back to partying, most start to head home. As they do, a sliver of light in the distance reminds them that dawn is just moments away.

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