Travel: Ballet, Berlioz and bare legs: Nigel Rees joins a group of art trippers in St Petersburg, and finds his fellow travellers as entertaining as the cultural offerings

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The Independent Travel
Even before our party of culture vultures left London, we notched up our first artistic experience. At Heathrow, as the Aeroflot jet wobbled down the runway for take-off, we were entertained with a tape of what sounded like a Russian pop song. Only later did I realise that the John Lennon soundalike was, in fact, Paul McCartney played at the wrong speed.

Still, the cultivated sensibility should be able to take anything in its stride, and we were sufficiently cultivated to be setting off for a week of opera, ballet and concerts in St Petersburg during the city's 'Stars of the White Nights Festival'.

Our tour was billed as marking the 'Tchaikovsky centenary' (of his death, that is). However, when appropriate, it was as much a 'Rachmaninov 120th anniversary' (of his birth) tour. Since St Petersburg has played host to almost every Russian musical, literary and artistic figure you have ever heard of, a few more anniversaries probably could have been worked in, as at Radio 3 on any normal working day.

In addition to the evening concerts and performances, we were promised art-gallery tramping and historical sightseeing during the day - a programme that soon began to take its toll of the (mostly) middle-aged and elderly art trippers who had signed up. Apart from a student and a management person in this thirties (wearing a suit and travelling with his godfather - no, really), our two dozen travelling companions were mostly stricken in years. Widows were fairly thick on the ground and almost outnumbered the spinsters.

For other (apparent) singles, the trip was a chance to get away from husbands who did not wish to be seen prancing about at the Kirov Ballet, or wives who had apparently lost interest when told they would have to clean their teeth in mineral water (to avoid St Petersburg's notorious germs). There was a doctor daughter accompanying her widowed father. She rather sweetly admitted having left at home a partner ('I'm too old to call him a boyfriend') who was taking the opportunity to indulge his interests on a golfing holiday.

For Zoltan, an 86-year-old professor of immunology from New York, it was the last chance to see the Hermitage museum - and also to meet up again with Eva, a widow from St John's Wood. Many years ago they had been at school together in Transylvania when it was part of Hungary rather than Romania (or possibly the other way round). 'Do you have dual nationality?' I asked him. 'No, seven,' came the puzzling reply.

For the veteran producer of 900 editions of Desert Island Discs, it was an opportunity to have an artistic wallow amid the glories of the old Russia, free at last of the dreadful Communists. She was also able to see whence Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto (one of the most requested Desert Island discs) came.

My favourite was the Scottish widow who had heard about the trip on Classic FM - and, therefore, had presumably signed up expecting a week of wall-to-wall Tchaikovsky hits performed in bite-sized chunks. Alas, she was to be disappointed. There was a chance to see the Kirov Opera's full-length, slightly old-fashioned Queen of Spades set in St Petersburg, and to hear a few Tchaikovsky piano waltzes in recital; but no 1812 Overture or Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy came her way.

Of course, that is the problem with any 'arts' tour. It did not so much matter that we booked the trip with little idea of what we would end up seeing, because the Mariinsky Theatre and the concert promoters seem to decide on their programmes relatively late. But most arts enthusiasts know what they want, and do not have equally strong passions for opera, ballet, concerts, paintings and anything else on offer. 'We are not here for the visual arts,' said one of the two seventyish sisters, who had a formidable memory for musical performances over many decades (and a devilish fund of gossip about people in the arts).

If you were to go to everything on offer, it would make for a daunting week, especially as the programme was coupled with much sightseeing. As a result, there was a good deal of opting out of visits and performances. There was also a good deal of unilateral opting in (to spend more time in the Hermitage, for example), as soon as people realised this was possible. Felicity, the former ballet dancer, could put her feet up (though I don't think she actually did) while Henry, the former singer, seldom missed an opportunity to pop off on his own in search of a real hotel in which to have a drink. (Henry wore a panama hat, carried a walking stick and had festooned about his person various items of vintage photographic equipment, including possibly the last 8mm cine camera still operational in the whole of Europe.)

One or two of our number seemed to be going native by adopting the Russian approach to alcohol. Faces were missing from the party for whole afternoons, and sometimes evenings, too. Several of the performances were optional anyway. Due to the late planning, additional concerts, at extra cost, were offered in the last few weeks before departure. A special Rachmaninov concert in the Mariinsky Theatre included Lexo Toradse grunting and sweating through the Third Piano Concerto. He was billed as 'from the USA' but was making a return to his native land under the new dispensation.

Afterwards we were bidden backstage to tell him how wonderful he was. I caught a glimpse of one of our widows - it might have been the one from Cheltenham - admiring his hands. Was she actually stroking them? It was very dark backstage. We also had an audience with the Kirov Opera's unstoppable conductor, Valery Gergiev. Obviously keen to build bridges with anyone from the West, he invited us to a performance of the Berlioz Damnation of Faust in the Great Hall of the Philharmonia the following night. Thus we became his devoted fans and were duly present when he triumphed, a few months later, in the pit of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. His bridge-building worked with us, at least.

Being on an arts tour meant that our view of St Petersburg was restricted to its cultural past: we hardly had any contact with the city and its confused, miserable and, at times, murderous goings-on. We stayed in a totally capitalist, Western enclave where not even the expected hardships materialised. Everyone on the party seemed to have brought a bath plug, as instructed; but in the swish Astoriya hotel (it must have been built by Swedes or Finns, because it works) we had no need of such things.

Geared to vast tour parties, the Astoriya has even abolished the tradition of a concierge with a samovar on each floor, and replaced them with a snack bar. The hotel is less than perfect in another respect, too. At about five o'clock one morning, my wife and I were awakened by a voice coming out of the loudspeaker by our bed. 'Popov]' the man seemed to be saying. 'Popov]' Sleepily, we scrabbled about looking for the Russian phrasebook. Was 'Popov', by any chance, the word for 'fire'? It turned out, since I asked later, that someone's portable phone - yes, lots of them in today's St Petersburg - had somehow been picked up and broadcast over the hotel's internal address system. Unlikely, but there it is.

By this time, in any case, I was in an indulgent mood, having been won over to almost everything Russian. Much of the winning over has to be put down to the young, slim, stockingless women who acted as guides to such places as Rimsky-

Korsakov's apartment and the Tsarist dwellings at Pavlosk.

There is little trace left now of the official Intourist force-feeding of collective farm egg production statistics and the like. The only question that remained unanswered was how these sylphs get transformed into the large Russian ladies who are the only other species of womanhood one sees. There appears to be no intermediate stage.

Yelena, our locally based tour guide, joined forces with one of the sylphs to take us through the protracted murder of Rasputin in the Yusopov Palace. We sat in the tiny underground room in which the bloody deed had actually been done (well, bits of it). I was disappointed that the wax model of the Mad Monk now seated therein did not give off the odour of goat's cheese apparent to all who met him in real life. At the end of the visit, the Russian-speaking guide, an even younger woman in an even shorter skirt, was approached by Zoltan (from New York via Transylvania). 'How old are you?' he grunted. 'Thirty,' she replied. 'No,' he said, 'you are sixteen.' And that was that really.

A week of so many (as well as such rich) experiences might appear indigestible, but only the crabbed and carping would not enjoy it. Some members of the party began to wilt towards the end, it's true. I overheard one say to another: 'You're a bad-tempered old woman. There's an Aeroflot plane leaves every day for London - and you could be on it . . .'

Our fellow travellers added to the entertainment. They were as mixed a bunch as ever became trapped in an Agatha Christie thriller, although no actual murders were committed as far as I could make out (nor did anyone die of natural causes, despite the rigours of the programme). Despite some complaints about arrangements and performances that were not as good as ones enjoyed 20 years ago at less expense and in different places, most agreed that an arts tour was a perfectly sensible way of visiting St Petersburg.

It would also have required a knowledge of the language and more street wisdom than we possessed to have found out for ourselves about the various performances and side-trips. By all accounts, getting tickets for operas and concerts is not the easiest of tasks to bring off without a guide.

The early summer weather enhanced the experience. To emerge from the Mariinsky Theatre after an evening of opera and find yourself in broad (well, broadish) daylight is almost magical. To see octogenarian Transylvanians tottering off, arm in arm, for a walk down to the River Neva in the 12 o'clock twilight is strangely touching, too.

The author travelled to St Petersburg with Travel for the Arts, 117 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 8UR (071-483 4466). This year's 'White Knights' tour, 23-30 June, costs pounds 1,250 per person sharing. The 1994 programme also includes Rimsky-Korsakov tours to St Petersburg (30 January- 6 February, pounds 785pp sharing; 3-7 February, pounds 645pp sharing) and Easter trips to Vienna and Budapest.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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