As our cruise ship docked in St. Petersburg, my wife and I began discussing: What exactly is the White Nights Festival we had been hearing so much excitement about? And is it true that the sun never quite sets in the summer?
We soon learned that St. Petersburg was founded at the latitude of 60° N, a unique geographical location that brings warm weather and unusually long daylight hours in the summer, a phenomenon known as “midnight sun.” Backed by a strong Russian desire to celebrate, the “White Nights Festival” was born
We were determined to begin where the festival originated, with award-winning opera at the Mariinsky Theater. We were surprised that our stilted Russian comprehension did nothing to diminish the performances; our ears ran rich with tones of soprano. At midnight, we burst onto the street, determined to experience this magical city in full.
The midnight sky was frozen vanilla, like a Monet painting. Underneath, the streets were filled with revelers, walking hand in hand amongst the Italian baroque buildings colored with pastel pinks, reds and oranges.
Finally we arrived at the banks of the Neva River for the mainstay of the festival. Underneath the starburst of fireworks, cutter ships full of pirates battle in front of droves of Russian schoolchildren, up late celebrating their last day of school. The spectacle was incredible — but there was the palpable sense of something missing. Suddenly, cheers erupted, as they have every year since 1945. The namesake naval vessel with the “Scarlet Sails” had arrived.
As the crowds dispersed, heading off to other destinations, we found our questions answered. Here is a celebration of life, infectious and profound to all who experience its wonder. People here don’t seem to sleep. But when we were ready to call it a night, we were happy to close our stateroom’s curtains on the seeping light glistening over the horizon.