From Russia with Love: The Friends Flyaway to St Petersburg

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A view across the Neva river, which leads to the Baltic Sea. We were greeted by a beautiful Spring morning on our first day

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the city’s most famous literary sons, once called it ‘the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe’. At each turn there is a palace, a monument, pivotal historical moments captured in time by an army of anonymous artisans, and yet all seemingly in their naturally appointed place.

Arriving on a crisp Spring afternoon, we were delighted by a small flurry of snowflakes as we reached the airport. Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack to Dr Zhivago rings in my ears.

Staying in the centre of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we were led by our Russian guide, Tatiana, to our hotel, the four-star Petro Palace. A short walk from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Hermitage and the Mariinsky Theatre, we were truly in the heart of the action.

Luckily, our tour company, Kirker Holidays, had organised a full and thorough programme to take in all these sites and more. Tatiana noted each of these as we passed – each shining golden dome a promise of the delights to come.

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The Friends gather in Palace Square in front of the Hermitage Art Museum

Our Friends events are not just about having fun for an hour or two. They are about experiencing something different, getting the ‘inside track’ and meeting new friends. The annual Friends Flyaway offers this in abundance, and our tour of St. Petersburg was no exception.

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Tatiana guides us through the Grand Hall of the Catherine Palace

Each day we were treated to the wonders of the city. On Friday we visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, burial place of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky amongst others. Here we witnessed a Russian Orthodox service, followed by a tour of the Russian Museum. Saturday morning was devoted to the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest collections of fine arts, of which there are two million items including works by Da Vinci, Rembrandt and the Impressionists. If one spent a single minute looking at each item in the galleries, it would take over 10 years to see them all!

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The beautiful gilded dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral

The absolute highlight of the tour was when we were joined by Elizabeth Wilson, cellist and biographer of Rostropovich and Shostakovich. She studied cello under Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatoire, so was uniquely placed to guide us around the private homes of her former tutor and his mentor Shostakovich, giving us a real insight into both their home and working lives.

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Elizabeth Wilson (centre) tells us more about Rostropovich’s life during the Soviet era.

Having viewed the royal palaces of Catherine and Peter the Great, Elizabeth’s personal reminiscences in these domestic settings revealed another side to St Petersburg as a real powerhouse of artistic and musical creativity. Only on the Flyaway could we have such a privileged view.

As part of our tour there was also the option to attend several musical performances in the evenings; what could be better than Swan Lake performed in traditional style by the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) with Tchaikovsky’s original score?

When Peter the Great built St Petersburg three centuries ago on this former wetland beside the Baltic Sea, each newcomer was invited to bring with them a stone to form the city’s foundations. On our Flyaway we saw the astounding results of their efforts.

If you’re a Friend or Annual Donor, you will be excited to hear that we have just gone to press with our 2015 Friends Flyaway to Leipzig, which you can book now. Bach lived and worked in Leipzig for 27 years, and was Kantor at St Thomas’ Church, where the Boys Choir still sings every week. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mahler and Grieg also made the city their home! Our Flyaway will take in a concert of Sibelius by the Gewandhaus Orchestra and a Choral Concert at the Thomaskirche in addition to the Bach Museum, the Schumann House and Colditz, amongst many other cultural and historical sights.

If you’re reading this and would like to find out more about becoming a Friend or Annual Donor, do take a look at our ‘Support Us’ pages, or drop me an email on kreading@aldeburgh.co.uk

Look out Leipzig, here we come!

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The Friends gather around Rostropovich’s piano