The watery element plays a special role in the appearance of St Petersburg. It is impossible to imagine a description of the city that does not mention the Neva. It is not only the central waterway, but also a living nerve setting the rhythm of life for the whole city.
Of course, the Neva is a northern river and its waters do not prompt the same associations with refreshing coolness, bathing and the irrigation of crops that arise in the south with, say, the Amu-Darya or the Nile. It has a certain severity, restraint and even epic solemnity about it. But the granite-clad Neva, bearing its waters to the sea year after year, has its own unique poetry. The river itself would, of course, be simply dull without its granite finery, without the magnificent buildings lining its banks, the finely proportioned columns of the Exchange, the indescribably stirring curves of its bridges and, finally, the spire of the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral glistening in the sun.
The Neva is also a fairly broad river. You immediately realize the positive effect of this, if you compare it to the Seine, for example. Without disparaging the attraction of the Parisian river, it becomes obvious at once that it loses out to the Neva because of its narrowness which renders it somehow more prosaic. In Paris the opposite bank is clearly seen and looks less romantic, mysterious and fascinating than in St Petersburg. At the same time, the Neva is not so wide that the other bank is simply lost to view; it seems to be just sufficiently remote to allow one’s thoughts to escape from the mundane and plunge into the contemplation of eternal beauty.
Water gives St Petersburg a sense of space and spaciousness. The Neva is highly suited to the panoramic viewing of Classical architecture, while the smaller rivers and canals create an impression of intimacy and mystery.