City of treasures

By Jim Eagles

Our attendance at the ballet at world-famous Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg was a classically Russian experience.

The tickets came from the local mafia, the traffic on the way was chaotic, the organisation in the theatre was a shambles and the seating appalling - but the dancing was sublime.

And that, for me, says it all about St Petersburg which this year has taken over from Prague as the most popular tourist city in Europe.

The former Russian capital - known in Soviet times as Leningrad - has a fascinating history, occupies a glorious site on the Neva River and has some of the world's most magnificent museums, galleries and palaces.

But after decades of a communist-inspired be-thankful-for-whatever-we-deign-to-give-you approach, many Russians have got a lot to learn about presentation, customer service and meeting customer wishes.

For instance, the St Petersburg Hotel, where we stayed, is in a prime location on the riverbank, and the view through our window - with the old cruiser Aurora, which fired the shot launching the Bolshevik revolution, moored against the bank opposite - was beautiful. But the air-conditioning didn't work, the food was the worst of our trip and the waiters were more interested in flogging us blackmarket caviar than clearing tables or serving drinks.

Such attitudes are far from universal. The Metropole Hotel in Moscow is superb by any standards, there are plenty of fine restaurants, and in one area at least the Russians are wonderful: the phone rang in our room one evening and a woman said something in Russian. "I'm sorry," I said, "I don't speak Russian." Without missing a beat she went on to ask, in a pleasant, well-educated voice, "Would you like to spend the night with a pretty girl?" Startled, I made some sort of corny joke about how I didn't think my wife would agree. "Of course," she replied. "Sorry to have bothered you. Have a pleasant evening."

But silky customer relations of that sort are rare at anything still run by the state.

Even the magnificent Hermitage Museum, the most amazing museum I have seen, has limited opening hours and seems to issue admission tickets on the basis that anyone who succeeds in fighting through the scrimmage at the door qualifies to get in early.

Once inside, however, such quibbles are swept aside by sheer awe at the magnificence of the exhibits and the splendour of the setting.

The museum has more than 3 million items in its collection, most of them assembled over two-and-a-half centuries by the power and wealth of the Russian tsars, and its display space includes two palaces.

There is a whole room of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Two rooms of Picasso's work. Two of the handful of known works by Leonardo da Vinci. Eighteen paintings by Paul Gauguin, when there isn't a single one held in Tahiti where he painted most of them.

There's work by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, Goya, Rubens, van Dyke, Hals, Rembrandt - 20 of his finest paintings - Reynolds, Gainsborough, Watteau, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse ... the list goes on and on.

You could spend a couple of days just wandering around the collection of paintings - but they are only the beginning.

The Hermitage also has world-class collections of sculpture, coins, weapons, porcelain, prehistoric art and painted Greek and Roman vases, 10,000 antique engraved gems, 180,000 examples of Oriental art and 300,000 artifacts representing the 1000-year sweep of Russian history.

The Treasure gallery has 3000 examples of the art of the goldsmith and the jeweller dating back more than 2500 years. I'm sure I could go back a dozen times and still find fresh items to marvel at and things already seen that still give pleasure after the sixth or seventh visit.

Catherine the Great, who collected much of what is on display - at a time when the vast majority of her people lived in squalor - once famously boasted, "All this is only for the mice and myself to admire!"

Today an average of 30,000 people a day, and sometimes more than 50,000, pass through the Hermitage. Catherine would have hated it, but for a humble peasant like me it's well worth the crush.

The building which forms the core of the museum is the Winter Palace of the Tsars and the Peterhof Summer Palace, a 30-minute hydrofoil ride away on the Gulf of Finland, is almost as amazing in its own way.

The palace itself is extraordinary enough, glittering inside and out with golden ornamentation, shining chandeliers and gilt mirrors, but the highlight is the surrounding garden with its 150 fountains and meticulously manicured flowerbeds.

It is a rare experience after a boat ride from St Petersburg to walk alongside the entrance canal, lined with 14 fountains, and then to be confronted with the Grand Cascade, tiers of golden fountains rising up the terrace on which the main palace is built, with the huge Samson fountain, spouting water more than 20m high, at the heart.

The fountains, in whose design Peter the Great took a personal interest, are powered not by pumps but by water pressure from reservoirs in the supper gardens. The water for the Samson Fountain, for instance, is carried in an aqueduct from a reservoir 4km away.

It's also rather charming to discover, amid all this opulence, is that by far the plainest room in the palace is the study of Peter himself, with just a simple desk, chair, cupboard and globe of the world.

That, however, was the exception rather than the rule for Tsarist Russia's gentry and as a result St Petersburg is dotted with magnificent palaces, churches and museums.

Here you'll find the Yusupov Palace, best known as the place where in 1916 the notorious Siberian mystic, royal adviser and libertine, Rasputin was poisoned, stabbed, shot and drowned - yet still lived for several hours - by nobles who were jealous of his influence.

In the cellars is a waxwork replica of the murder scene, but the palace is also worth visiting for the insight it offers into the life of one of Russia's richest families.

Then there is the Peter and Paul Fortress, built by Peter the Great on an island in the Neva River as a defence against the Swedes. Here you'll find an incongruous mixture of popular sunbathing beaches, aged fortifications and baroque churches, including the St Peter and Paul cathedral with its 122m-tall needle-thin golden spire, and the graves of the last tsars, including, since 1998, the executed Nicholas II and his family.

But in many ways the greatest treasure of St Petersburg is its setting on a delta of rivers and canals.

My fondest memory of the city is of an after-dinner stroll along the embankment in the twilight - it was at the time of the summer solstice and at 10pm the sun still hadn't set - enjoying the sight of churches silhouetted against the night-time sun, palaces lit up by the red glow, fleets of vessels plying the river, lovers cuddling in the parks, anglers pursuing fish and families enjoying the rare experience of a balmy evening.

Unfortunately such untrammelled pleasure is not typical of this awesome city. More typical was our ballet visit which mingled extraordinary beauty with equally extraordinary incompetence.

It seemed bizarre, for a start, to have to buy ballet tickets through the mafia but apparently that is the norm. And the mafia gave us a good deal because tickets with a face value of €125 ($250) cost us €150 - whereas they were on sale at hotels for €200.

It was equally strange that when we arrived at this famous theatre there were neither signs nor staff available to indicate - in English or Russian - where our seats might be (fortunately a Russian-speaking Australian found out from some locals which door we should wait outside).

Strangest of all, as time passed the doors to the theatre remained locked, and they were still locked five minutes before the performance was due to start.

Only after a warning bell sounded did a uniformed woman rush out to unlock the doors, ushers appeared and we fought to reach our seats.

The interior was magnificent, with golden balconies, luxurious drapes and an ornate ceiling. But the setting didn't quite match the seats, plain wooden chairs bolted to a wooden crossbar, on a flat floor. As a result, most people had trouble seeing the stage.

But none of that detracted from the glory of the dancing - I was tall enough to have a good view - which was ... sublime.

And, in retrospect, the chaos surrounding the performance really added to the occasion.

It provided a fascinating insight into what life must have been like in the days of the Soviet Union, with its mix of superb science and mindless bureaucracy, glorious culture and clumsy incompetence.

If you didn't manage to get to Russia in Soviet times - and I didn't - it's great that you can still see for yourself how a communist economy operates.

Checklist

St Petersburg by air
Singapore Airlines flies 16 times a week from New Zealand direct to Singapore. From Singapore, passengers can choose from 14 weekly flights to Frankfurt, then travel to St Petersburg with partner airline Lufthansa. For the latest fares to Frankfurt and for further information visit the Singapore Air website link below.

St Petersburg by train
Perth-based Travel Directors runs regular tours from Beijing to Helsinki by train, entitled Beyond the Trans-Siberian, including time in China, Mongolia and Russia. Tours are almost fully inclusive and cost A$10,847 (just over $13,000).

Further information
Email info@traveldirectors.com.au or visit the travel director's website (link below). Alternatively, contact Travel Directors' New Zealand representatives, Go Holidays, on 0800 464646 or see the website link below.

* Jim Eagles' trip was assisted by Singapore Airlines and Travel Directors.

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