Quaint and leafy Poltava is all about one particular turning point in history. Had Russian Tsar Peter I lost the decisive battle on the town's outskirts in 1709, he wouldn't have become Peter the Great and Ukraine could have celebrated the 300th anniversary of its independence in 2009. But the Russians defeated a joint Swedish and Cossack force, marking this event a century later by rebuilding the city's centre so that it looked like a mini St Petersburg. This is a fairly odd sight, considering that Poltava is surrounded by quintessentially Ukrainian countryside, which nurtured the talent of writer Nikolai Gogol and served as the scene for many of his stories. Besides, Poltava became the centre of Ukrainian cultural renaissance in the 19th century, as if avenging the lost battle.