Jumping roofs in the cultural capital of Russia.

23/12/2017 - 30/12/20171Photography

It was an early Saturday morning when the sun was starting to rise slowly on the horizon. The city was waking up with a Friday hangover looming around while in some districts people were already working.

We (me and Dorian) met with our friend (let's call him Yura) with whom we arranged access to a roof of our interest that was to present a unique view of the city. We met at a metro station and switched to a short tram ride soon after and got to the designated spot in no time. The building from the outside was fairly renovated but the backyard resembled a derelict factory with dodgy corners and indifferent windows with a thin smell of urine. We entered by one of the doors using a small forged magnetic contraption and climbed the stairs to the fifth floor in order to reach a dark attic with pigeons. Watching our steps we tried to avoid the ubiquitous pipes that were peculiarly arranged as if being an installation by an artist without much idea but a lot of time. Our friend pointed to a small 'door' which showed the way to the roof.

Quick rewind. When I was having a conversation with Yura prior to coming to Saint Petersburg I curiously asked him on VK in Russian:

In general, how safe it is up there? - I have to admit that there were few scenarios going through my head and they weren't pleasant.

So so. - he answered and that felt as an underestimated judgement of an experienced roofer.

In general, walking the roofs of Saint Petersburg is a treat. Mainly for locals but not limited to. In order to do that, you have to know a guy that knows a guy. When you connect there is another challenge - walking. The roofs are generally steep and there is a certain strategy to move through them - especially during winter time. In order not to slip, you have to step on the corners of where the roofing sheets connect and/or on the soot. There is a lot more freedom on a dry and corroded roof as you get better traction. Although, in most cases, there are certain metal barriers on the verge of almost every roof which might create a sense of security but they don't seem to be sufficient for a person. Their function is to protect the pedestrians from heaps of snow that get stuck on the roof from falling down during the wintertime. That being said, their usability, on some roofs, is dubious at best.

The worst case scenario is when the roofing has been recently refurbished and the city experienced some rain and snowfall complimented with the temperature dropping below zero. In that scenario it's a roller-coaster not only for your feet but also your heart. No pair of shoes will suffice. Nothing will help you. In our case, the roof has been refurbished, it was wet with bits of snow here and there but the temperature was circling around 1 C. Not the best circumstances to be honest.

The city lights were sequentially switching off and the sky changed to some warmer colours taken from its morning palette. We went out through the small door and sensed a gentle breeze. Together with Dorian, I started climbing the wet rooftop to see the sunrise at it's fullest potential. It was to encompass the whole architecture of the city. At times, I slipped. Sometimes, I didn't find anything to hold and needed to improvise. I've carefully chosen this view from hundreds of others in Saint Petersburg so there was no option for quitting. During this short ascent, I felt an adrenaline rush in my veins. Having climbed the top, I found a rather firm and steady piece of metal to stand on and a chimneystack to hold. I started looking around.

It was Saturday and the shipyard cranes seen afar were already working diligently. The streets were less occupied but slowly gaining their weekend momentum. The clouded sky started to get its reddish vibes. Warmer colours started appearing on the facades of nearby buildings.

I was observing Yura diligently. He seemed to be a reincarnation of Spiderman. He cut corners, jumped chimneys and was doing one move for every seven of ours. With this significant ease, I sometimes thought he was playing with our nerves when we observed his near-falls. He had over three years of experience in walking these places and seemed to dug adrenaline more than anything.

This whole experience had a certain romantic atmosphere to it and let's you experience a superficial conquest of the city. Most buildings are the same high thus no matter which rooftop you enter you will see vast panoramas. The trend itself started to go viral on social media a while back and gained attention of locals wanting a thrill. Some of the buildings that you can visit are derelict. Others are occupied but some people have the necessary (and forged) means to enter them. Some get closed because the residents get pissed off by groups of people stepping everyday on their roofs making noise. It's hard to say how long will it last. British Guardian made a piece in August 2014 on this peculiar practice. This indicates that it lasts at least 3-4 years now and I bet it's much more than that.

There are even deals which offer you a breakfast on a (flat) rooftop. You can take a tour of many roofs or one. One problem with those standard tours is that you don't have any choice of view. You have to surrender to what someone offers you. The market is highly dispersed with dozens of people holding a multitude of keys to hundreds of rooftops in the city. The only way to get where you want to go is to dig deep on Instagram, VK (Russia's Facebook) and other portals. It's also very useful to have some friends there. Sometimes, you'll get an answer while another time you won't. Some people will be very communicative while others will barely care. Very few will know English.

The same Saturday, with Dorian, we did few other roofs in the city following similar scenario. Sometimes we entered one way and left through another small door. We changed buildings and explored even more courtyards. We smelled the smell of urine and seen ubiquitous bird shit. We've tripped, slipped and tried to catch some vistas that only could be seen from the above.

It's really interesting how some constructions are left in a poor state while people are still living there. Some staircases are really artsy whilst others are like the smells surrounding them. Many such buildings have adapted elevators that are quite tiny (barely fitting three people) and placed outside the building as none would fit inside. They are made and tailored in a typical Russian fashion - to be productive not necessarily pretty. In the above photograph you can see those white, balcony-like constructions in the far background adjacent to the building. A better view on them is on the fourth photograph. They hold the elevator inside but it is only accessible from the inside of the building.

The architecture of Saint Petersburg and the old tenement buildings can be beautiful and enthralling but also full of peculiarities (like some exhibitions in Kunstkamera). The same goes for the city itself although I would say the former dominates. That relates to the venues, museums, attractions, events, day and night life. One could cut short my viewpoint by saying: "It's Russia" and he or she would probably be right. Yet, having seen a bit of Russia here and there the cultural capital of the country seems to differ. It's less vulgar and more stylish - to an extent of course and both sometimes mix in the above mentioned peculiarities. You can be sure to experience lot's of variety in Saint Petersburg. It may inspire or "kill you" and you never know which one will happen. That's a kind of charm the city has.

Getting back to the whole roof shebang. It gives the impression of a sense of freedom. In Eastern Europe bound by strict laws and people being more involved in their communities would render this option impossible. Here you explore it on the verge (both, the roof and law) which makes it more appealing. The tolerance given to the practice somehow incorporates the spirit that's present in Saint Petersburg. It's illegal but people don't make too much fuss about it. It might be dangerous but not impossible. It's thrilling and unnerving at the same time. It's an ideal mix as for the Russian capital of culture and it's beautiful vistas.

Footnotes: Nikon D750 + Tamron 24-70 mm / December 2017

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