The neighbourhood of the Vladimir Church (Vladimir Square, ul. Marata, and sidestreets)

 The area to the west of Nevsky prospekt between the River Fontanka in the north and Ligovsky prospekt in the south is a dense network of small streets and lanes dissected by a busy thoroughfare (Vladimirsky prospekt) and magnetized by the radiant, soaring church on Vladimirskaya ploshchad, whose domes can be glimpsed and clear-voiced chimes heard throughout the district. This is the other end of Nevsky from the residences of the imperial family and court. It is down-to-earth, preoccupied with the struggle for daily survival, teeming with particularly Russian forms of life. Dostoevsky is its genius loci.

The original inhabitants were mostly tradesmen and service people, as the street names still bear witness. Stremyannaya is ‘Stirrup Street’; Povarskoy pereulok, ‘Cook Lane’; Dmitrovsky pereulok was presumably inhabited by people called to the capital from the ancient city of Dmitrov, 70 km from Moscow; Kuznechny pereulok means ‘Blacksmith Lane’; ulitsa Dostoevskogo was originally Yamskaya or ‘Coachman Street’. There is also Svechnoy pereulok (‘Candle Lane’), and there were ‘Table’ and ‘Tablecloth’ streets and a ‘Bread Lane’. Slightly later, from perhaps the middle of the 18th century onwards, the area became a natural home for the patriarchal merchant class. The latter supplied the city’s markets and formed the backbone of a close-knit religious, traditional community that was prosperous enough to support three busy religious centres (‘church’ is too modest a word to convey the scale of these establishments) within 500 metres of each other: apart from the cathedral-like edifice on Vladimirskaya ploshchad’, there were also large churches on the corners of Kuznechny pereulok and ulitsa Marata and ulitsa Marata and ulitsa Stremyannaya, as well as podvorya (daughter churches belonging to out-of-town monasteries) at Fontanka 44 and on the corner of Raziezhaya and Marata.  As the 19th century progressed, the area kept step with the times – brewing, distilling, imbibing, and spitting back out a powerful concentrate of contemporary problems. In its decidedly non-aristocratic, semi-provincial streets patriarchal wealth and comfort lived side by side with extreme poverty. Journalists, musicians, and writers – attracted by the cheap rents, but also, one imagines, by the intensity of life here - flocked to the district. The construction of the railway station on Znamenskaya ploshchad (now ploshchad Vosstaniya) added even more vigour, more colour to the mix: hotels, taverns, noise, dirt, disease, beggars, drunkards, fraudsters, entrepreneurs, patisseries and prostitutes. Then, in the last third of the 19th century, came a wave of profit-driven development, as landowners rushed to expand vertically where they could not horizontally. Zagorodny prospekt and the second third of Nikolaevskaya ulitsa (now ulitsa Marata) soared skywards, turning into narrow canyons. A whole new street – called, presumably for want of time to think of a better name, exactly this, New Street (renamed Pushkinskaya in 1881) – was built between Nikolaevskaya ulitsa and Ligovsky prospekt. Parts of the neighbourhood became popular with the new middle classes.

 Today the area retains much of its original character: alternately dozily quiet and rumbustiously noisy, glamorously smart and filthily dirty, drunk at nine in the morning and soberly religious at all hours, equally rich in both crude vices and fine arts. The spirit of Dostoevsky is still very much alive.

Atmospheric guesthouses

The Old Church Courtyard (www.church-courtyard.ru).

Visiting Bubyr (http://www.visiting-bubyr.ru/).

Shops

Marata 20 has a small food store, which is open at all hours. A much larger selection of foods, including ready-made dishes, plus wines (fairly expensive) and everything else that one might conceivably need, is to be found at the ‘Land’ (Лэнд) supermarket on Vladimirskaya ploshchad, which is also open throughout the night (Vladimirsky prospekt 19; entrance through the building’s main door; the supermarket is in the basement). There is a more moderately priced wine shop (Aromatny mir) at ul. Marata 13.

Don’t miss the shop of the Leningrad Porcelain Factory (LFZ) at Vladimirsky 7. LFZ porcelain is almost as much part of the cultural fabric of this city as, say, the Winter Palace or the statue of Peter the Great.

The neighborhood has two smart new shopping centres: Galeriya at Ligovsky prospekt 42 and Stockmann at Nevsky prospect 116.

Kuznechny rynok (Kuznechny market) at Kuznechny pereulok 3 is the most spectacular – and most expensive – market of its kind in the city. Look out for heart-shaped tomatoes from Samarkand, red and black caviar sold by the kilogramme, many different varieties of aromatic honey, traditional Russian pickles and preserves, and thick yellow smetana (slightly soured cream) and tvorog (curds) from just outside St Petersburg at Gatchina.

Museums

The Dostoevsky Museum at Kuznechny pereulok 5, the house where Dostovesky lived during the last years of his life, is well worth a short visit. Fyodor Dostoevsky is famous all over the world with his novel "Crime and Punishment". In the neighbourhood of museum you can see houses laid in the basis of the novel, same houses that Dostoevsky saw and lived in. You can walk the steps of Raskolnikov and just feel the spirit of that time.

Other museum apartments that give a fascinating flavour both of their occupants and the period in which they lived are the Rimsky-Korsakov Museum (Zagorodny pr. 28; entrance in the courtyard; open Wed-Sun, 11-18), the Akhmatova Museum (Liteyny pr. 53,; open Tues-Sun, 10.30-17.30), and, further afield, the Chaliapin Museum (ulitsa Graftio 2b).

Eating out

Ulitsa Rubinshteyna (parallel to and just to the north of Vladimirsky prospekt) is packed with restaurants, bars, and cafes, offering food from every part of the world (except Russia itself). 

None are outstanding. The best and most reliable are:

Navoy (Навой), Rubinshteyna 23: atmospheric and reasonably cheap Uzbek cuisine.

 Macaroni, Rubinsheyna 23: Italian. Spacious and usually quite quiet. Good risotto.

 Fartuk (Фартук – which means ‘Apron’ in Russian): a new restaurant opened in April 2011 by three young guys, who seem to do all the work themselves. Reasonably low prices.

Pravila povedeniya (Правила поведения), Rubinshteyna 38. I’ve never eaten here, but this supposedly resembles ‘a trendy bistro in New York or Berlin’. The food is eclectic in origin; prices are moderate (200 -400 rubles / main course).

Sardina, Rubinshteyna 6: Expensive Italian.

Web guide to St Petersburg

 www.other-st-petersburg.ru: an unusual site and an unusual take on the city. Strong images, old photos, Petersburg stories, and a good feel for the darker sides of the city’s beauty.