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St. Petersburg is a wedding cake of a town. Everywhere you look, there are ornate palaces, richly painted mansions and whimsical architectural details. St. Petersburg's city center is architecturally intact.
So, one of the great pleasures of walking around here is the sensation that you're stepping back in time. In 2005, that sensation has slightly faded -- but only slightly. St. Petersburg has retained its 19th-century feel, though the effect is now muted by a glut of new storefront signs and advertising.
The sun lights up St. Petersburg's Palace Squrare (David Hillegas)
There was also always a mystical air to this city, a deliciously weird undercurrent of aristocratic debauchery. People often referred to Petersburg, with her crumbling facades and slightly run-down mansions, as an aging, eccentric grand dame. But for the 300-year anniversary of the city in 2003, the grand dame underwent a facelift.
After intensive renovation work, the area around Nevsky Prospect, the city's main avenue, is cleaner and brighter than it's been in years. Yet it's beautiful in the same way a supermodel is beautiful: perfect and slightly surreal, without the odd, endearing flaws that give character. The gleaming windows of a new Nike store on Nevsky Prospect may signal a welcome upturn in the city's economic fortunes.
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