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St. Petersburg bridges herald joy of summer

Midsummer's Night: The name conjures up frolicking spirits and merrymaking men, a night when nearly anything can happen.

Monday night, the people of St. Petersburg were celebrating this magical time of the summer solstice in their usual madcap way:

They gathered, in the middle of the night, around the city's drawbridges and watched them open.

It was the longest day of the year, when light stays until midnight. For about two hours, dusk settles. Then, by 2:30 a.m., the sun rises again. By 3 a.m., it's bright daylight.

Such a long dose of sunshine is exhilarating here, where in the middle of winter people go to work and come home again in darkness, spending the intervening hours under deep gray skies, trampling through several inches of slush.

It's no wonder people want to let themselves go and just get out there and look at a drawbridge.

The bridges remind them of how blessed they are, if only briefly.

St. Petersburg, built on the delta of the River Neva, encompasses islands and enough small rivers and canals to crown it the Venice of the North.

The city has about 400 bridges, according to Yevgeny Smerdyagin, a technologist with the Bridge Authority. Twenty of those are drawbridges, and nine of the drawbridges are regularly opened in the summertime.

For most of the year, ice makes the 45-mile-long Neva impassable as it flows from Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland. But as the days begin to get longer, the ice melts _ and the drawbridges open.

"St. Petersburg is the only city in this country," a proud Smerdyagin declares, "that has so many beautiful bridges that can be opened."

Many say that St. Petersburg has the only drawbridges in Russia. It's difficult to know for sure in a country where until recently it was illegal to photograph a bridge. But it gives St. Petersburg residents a clear reason for pride _ and it brings tourists from other parts of Russia to gawk at these engineering marvels.

The bridges are only opened at night _ restricting the pleasure to the dedicated connoisseur. Once opened, they stay up for a couple of hours, no doubt so the nuances can be savored.

Despite schedules announcing closings between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., the idea of getting caught on the wrong side of an open drawbridge has taken on a mythic life of its own.

In one well-loved movie from the '70s called Autumn Marathon, an errant husband tells his wife he couldn't get home all night because he got caught on the wrong side of the bridge.

Perhaps calculating that for some tourists a bridge is a bridge is a bridge, the city has held a White Nights festival for the last two years. The party began Thursday and ended Monday night with a huge outdoor rock festival.

The all-night bus and boat tours to the bridges kept drawing their own fervent crowds. The people of St. Petersburg know too well that the days are shortening now. Too soon, the bridges will close tightly once again. The inexorable march to the long, cold winter has begun.