Trip to St. Petersburg, June 2002

Before visiting St. Peterburg, I had prepared for my trip by reading some of the latest books on Russian history. I felt quite grief stricken at the extent of suffering inflicted on the Russian people, though absolutely no fault of theirs; world wars and extreme bad luck had contributed to their woes.

Yet instead of a sense of tragedy I found just the most vibrant and joyous celebration of life and of all that is good and beautiful.
We knew in advance that visits to the Hermitage would show us many art treasures of the world as well as the grandeur of both the architecture and the decor of the famous Winter Palace. Queues were not a problem. Three of us, having travelled under the guidance of dear Olga Vikhrova, were able to spend as long as our stamina would permit studying and enjoying the fabulous contents of the Hermitage.

But this was only part of the total experience. Travel in St. Petersburg is easy once you have studied the Metro map and, if fatigue sets in, a taxi back to the hotel is not expensive by UK standards. The thing that made a day of sightseeing so particularly non-stressful was that cafes, bars and restaurants are to be found everywhere, with excellent coffee, delicious cake and, if you wish, an exciting desert which can be eaten at any time of the day. The main meal of the day is available from about 1pm. We were amazed at the quality of the cuisine, varied, delicious and of wonderful quality. The availability of food and drinks, lavish at all times and venues, from the gardens of the Peterhof Palace to the antirooms of the Maryinsky Theatre, is something I have not expereinced in the UK nor in parts of Europe I have visited. It contributes so greatly to the delight of the hungry traveller.

In almost every situation the service given by Russian people in hotels, restuarants, shops and transport is kind and very helpful. If you had a problem they would try to find someone who could speak English to provide the answer.

Our visits to the palaces of Peterhof, Pushkin and Pavlovsk were a lovely contrast to the traffic of St. Petersburg. We were entralled by the beauty of meadows full of wild flowers, lakes, ponds and trees. It was June, but the abundance and tranquility of the semi-forested coutryside out-did even the New Forest in my estimation.

At Peterhof, the gardens, containing numerous fountains and leading down to the Gulf of Finland , were both fascinating and delightful. Our tours around the smaller buildings in the grounds, especially Monplaisir, showed us delicate craftmanship and the loviest art of interior decoration within the setting of an inimate royal home, where close friends would meet to dine, discuss and enjoy recreation away from the constraints of a formal palace.

All this was the greatest treat and by itself would have offered more than many holidays. But the highlights were our four visits to the ballet.

We were lucky enough to be in St. Petersburg during the period of the "white nights", when there are only two hours of darkness, and this is a Festival of Arts. Consequently we had the thrill of visiting the Maryinsky Theatre, all turquoise, gold and crystal chandeliers, to see three different programmes. The Kirov company were dancing in their home theatre and their skill and artistic vitality could probably never be matched.

Our fourth ballet visit was to the newly refurbished musical theatre in Pushkin Square, to see the St. Petersburg City Ballet, who often tour England, performing the Nutcracker, which they do superbly. The feast of culture that evening was made complete by a string quartet playing in the foyer before the opening act and in each interval, while glassess of champagne, open sandwiches, delicacies and chocolate were laid out on tables for the audience to buy and enjoy.

I believe that I have never had such a wonderful holiday, memories of such life affirming joy will keep me going for many months to come, until, perhaps, I visit St. Petersburg again?

Elizabeth Anderson