LAST EDITED ON 31-03-02 AT 11:01 PM (GMT)
Having had a chance to reflect on (and recover from!) my recent visit to St Petersburg, I thought I'd post some thoughts and observations in the hope that they might be of interest to anyone considering a first-time visit.
Firstly, I was encouraged to confirm my booking after reading others' accounts which you all kindly posted in response to my initial enquiry on this site. I would like to add my assurance to anyone contemplating a visit that such a trip is extremely 'do-able', without much more trouble than a visit to any other European city.
I arranged my trip through Intourist, and found it to be extremely good value. The package consisted of flights (BA scheduled from Gatwick, B&B in a hotel (the Pribaltiskya) which was extremely comfortable and had excellent facilities and wonderful views over the Gulf of Finland, but was somewhat remote from the centre of the city, and pre-arranged taxi transfers between airport and hotel. I'm sure that they do such trips throughout the year, and really think that this is all that is necessary, depending on the individual. I tend to find escorted tours too restrictive, and you always have the option of pre-booking guided excursions through Intourist. I found St Petersburg easy to get around, many of the central attractions being within walking distance, and it is a very pleasant city to walk around, although the pollution was noticable in some areas, and the state of the roads and pavements left something to be desired. We were blessed with mainly excellent, if somewhat chilly, weather, which certainly helped.
Taxis are plentiful, and realatively cheap, and all the drivers that we came across spoke enough English. We didn't try using public transport, mainly due to the remoteness of our hotel from public transport routes and the fact that taxis and a shuttle bus service were easily available.
As far as the sights go, we spent an entire day, plus a further visit of an hour or so the following day, in the Hermitage, and only saw a relatively small part of it. With well over 300 rooms open to the public, and numerous special exhibitions in addition to the permanent displays, suffice it to say that it's all that its reputation suggests, and then some! Also worth a visit (and somewhat under-publicised, certainly in the West, in comparison with the Hermitage) is the Russian Museum. Another vast former palace, it contains a huge collection of Russian art - I found the 19th and 20th century collections to be especially interesting. We also managed visits to the Peter and Paul fortress (notable for its church containing the tombs of the majority of the Tzars), some cathedrals, and an interesting Naval museum. All to be recommended, and there are plenty of other places of interest for a future visit.
And now to the important bit, the ballet......
Having arrived at the hotel a little earlier than I'd estimated, we managed to get to the Mariinsky on each of the three nights that we were there. Tickets for 2 of the performances, I'd reserved in advance by e-mail directly with the Kirov, but we had no trouble getting tickets for the first evening, even though we arrived a few minutes after the performance began. They seem to operate a practice of selling tickets at 'tourist' prices (about 3 times that of 'local' prices, judging by a ticket that I saw) even if they have already sold that seat to a local. The poor unfortunate locals are then moved to another seat (they put an extra line of free-standing seats up the centre aisle of the stalls, seemingly for taking up this overspill, as well as seats and standing in the entrances - so much for fire regulations!) I had been warned about double -booked seats before my visit, so was prepared for this. The staff were more than helpful in ensuring that we got our alloted seats.
Ticket prices were more than I'd been led to believe when I reserved them, but still not unreasonable (certainly by ROH standards!) - about £60 for the best seats, next price £30, then downwards from there. Drinks and programmes were very cheap (£4 for a glass of Georgian 'champagne', an orange juice, and 2 pieces of bread with caviar in the interval) but I learned the hard way not to leave my programme under my seat in the interval. They only produce a limited number of English language programmes, and invariably sell out before the interval.
Everything must be paid for in Roubles. As an asid, elsewhere in the City, US Dollars or Roubles were equally acceptable for taxis, street vendors and markets, etc, although I was surprised to find that I always got a much better exchange rate by paying in Roubles. Sterling didn't seem to be acceptable anywhere, so the advice which I was given beforehand to take only Dollars, and change them for Roubles, seems to be correct.
The Mariinsky itself is a very impressive building, although in need of some internal restoration. Many bare staircases where once were carpets, crumbling plaster, and chairs nailed onto wooden platforms in the backs of boxes to raise them above the row in front - not always with the nails driven fully home, as I found out to my cost. Ouch.... Still, the outside was largely covered up and looks as if it is receiving considerable work. They have many vendors inside selling books, old and current programmes, videos, postcards, etc, all at very reasonable prices by our standards.
Incidentally, if anyone knows where I can get hold of Programmes for the Kirov season at the Coliseum in 1996 and the second season at the ROH in 2000, I'd be eternally grateful!!!!!
As far as the ballets went, we saw the Ballanchine programme. Seranade, (which I'd seen before at Versailles last summer), including the lovely Veronica Part, one of my favourite dancers, Prodigal Son, which I'd not seen, and just blew me away - incredibly moving, and I was very impressed again with Nicolas Le Riche, and Rubies (which drew gasps from the audience when the curtain went up to reveal the costumes), with Manuel Legris and the superb Diana Vishneva (another personal favourite of mine).
The next night was Romeo and Juliet, with Aurelie Dupont and Andrian Fadeyev. Very moving, as Kevin has already mentioned, and excellently danced, but I did leave with the same impression as when I saw this Kirov performance at the ROH 2 years ago - that it was over-long at 3 1/2 hours, and some of the crowd scenes could usefully have been shortened. I'm looking forward to the comparison with Mlle Guillem at CG in a few weeks time. Still a thoroughly enjoyable evening, though.
On to Sunday evening, and Manon, a late substitution for the Neumeier programme, which was in turn moved to a matinee performance. This was also excellent, but seemed to me to lack a certain something in comparison with the RB production. Zhanna Ayupova (Manon) and the guesting Vladimir Malakhov (Legris) both danced well, and gave extremely emotional performances. This performance was very well received by the audience, and the principals gave one of the longest curtain calls that I've ever seen.
So, farewell to the Kirov for a while. I suppose I'll just have to wait until my next 'fix' at the ROH at the 2 Kirov Gala evenings in a couple of months, then it's 'cold turkey' until next summer at CG.
Thanks to you all for your postings before I went - they were all very helpful, and gave me the confidence to go ahead and book.
So, in summary, a wonderfully enjoyable trip, which has left me with many memorable moments to savour, and one that I would hope to do again some day. Nothing left now, but to plan the next trip. Hmmm, POB or the NYCB.......?