Arriving in St Petersburg in late May I was looking forward to some warmer weather than London had been serving up and to catching up with my SFINX Women; Connie, Sandy, Helga, Veronique and Christine who had flown in from Los Angeles, Florida, Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Sydney. This is the 8th year of our amazing adventures and it promised to be another great one!

I’d been to St P in 2001 with my now ex-husband and our then 10 year old son: we had driven in from Helsinki amid fears from everyone we had met who implored us not to go, or at least to go with an armed guard or be armed ourselves. Driving in, they said, in a new car especially, was utterly foolish and we would be hijacked and our car stolen and disassembled within minutes before our very eyes. Well, it wasn’t and we had an amazing time, staying at an apartment owned by the Swiss Consulate with our car happily sitting in the street for 10 days in front of an armed guard in a steel box 24 hours a day.

This time I was expecting St P to offer a little more civility now that it is firmly on the tourist map and although hideously expensive, welcomes visitors from far and wide: hopefully the filthy Chechen kids who were our greatest problem in 2001 have now grown up and gone home.

Our brilliant guide Anya met Veronique and me at the airport and sent us off to the Grand Hotel where we were more than welcomed with a glass of champagne and a bevy of smiling Guest Relations girls offering to support our every need. Connie was already in our room which had been kindly upgraded to a suite of grand proportions overlooking the ever busy Nevsky Prospekt and a wonderful painted church. Fruit, chocolates and flowers are laid out on our coffee table and already I am feeling this is going to be a wonderful trip.

Two days before I had received an invitation from the hotel’s Managing Director, Leon Larkin, who was keen to host my guests for first night drinks and meeting Leon in the bar at 6.30 was the start of an amazing series of utterly generous gifts from him. ‘You’d like Champagne, I imagine?’ and the first of many bottle of Roederer was produced and our glasses filled. Immediately likeable not just for the bubbles, Leon, with a Russian father and Ukrainian mother, was the quintessential Aussie from Sydney with sophisticated habits from a lifetime in 5-star establishments in Europe and elsewhere. Within 10 minutes he had cancelled our dinner out, organised us a dinner in, in his special restaurant, ordered entree and first course and introduced us to his head chef to take care of the rest. All as his guests.

We were bowled over: then, and for the entire stay, by Leon and his generosity. But first the dinner. After a good 2 hours of Roederer bottles being consumed and our entire group having arrived, we were ushered to a beautifully decorated round table in the mainly empty restaurant and our entree of egg-in-egg with Beluga caviar arrived with a wonderful French white wine. First course of French lobster and red caviar was equally delicious and followed by a soupcon of sorbet floating in Vodka to cleanse the palate then out of nowhere came a procession of 6 waiters each conveying a plate covered by a brightly-polished silver cover, positioned themselves to our left and with symphony-like precision each silver cover was lifted simultaneously to reveal mostly an enticing plate of Wagu beef accompanied by fois gras. Red wine, dessert, dessert wine, chocolates. We were all done in. SFINX Women had arrived in town!!

Anya returned after our first amazing breakfast in the art deco dining room (complete with morning kisses from Leon who came to make sure our dinner had been satisfactory and that we were partaking of the breakfast offering of champagne) to take us out of town to the Catherine Palace and its famed Amber Room, after a short talk I had done on Catherine the Great whom I admired for trying to bring the west to Russia and for her brilliant acquisition of so much art to commence the Hermitage collection. Later, clearly, Anya did not have the same opinion of this woman who had more lovers than hot dinners and was rumoured to have died having sex with a horse.

Recently restored after the amber had been removed by the Germans during WWII, the Catherine Palace is overwhelming with its silk, its gilt, its paintings, its furnishings and its grandeur. Not to mention the brass band that welcomed us. The ballroom is extraordinary with more gold than should be legal and already one knows why the peasants revolted! Beautiful silk panels in each room, heated with vast Delft stoves and furnished from France, the rooms go on and on until suddenly there is one like a piece of Wedgwood china that is marginally less opulent than the rest. We are exhausted and hungry and move on to the simple wooden Podvorye restaurant for blinis.

The ensuing Master Class in Amber was a tad ordinary but our private visit to the famed Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was murdered made up for it.

Our guide Anya was an amazing treat. A physicist by profession, she had arrived at a research institute on her first day of work under the Communist regime to be asked was she willing to devote her life to science….and told her fellow workers had not been paid for 8 months and they worked in semi dark because light bulbs were not on the budget. She did not return for day 2 and instead studied to be licensed by each of the 9 major institutions on the tourist menu to become a guide. Her knowledge was incredible and she delivered every piece of information as if she was telling a story, weaving together facts and suppositions, humour and death in the same sentence, in a magical way that compelled us to gather round every time she found a quiet place to stop and share with us.

From Anya we learn of her choice to study Physics: under the former regime it was not safe to have an opinion and in the sciences it either was or it was not. Finito! She also tells us there are 5 million people in St P; we are 6 degrees south of the Arctic Circle; it is made up of 65 islands and there are 365 bridges – one for every day of the year. Ten percent of the city is covered by water and whilst the city started out at St Petersburg in 1703, by 1914 it was Petrograd, 1924 Leningrad and happily back to St P in 1991 when the former USSR was broken up.

Life under the Communists was difficult: if one wonders at the suspicious looks one still gets, one must remember they were told not to smile and if they did to think of something sad at the same time and they learned to keep to themselves for safety, even as school children.

Later that night our treat was a performance by the Kirov Ballet of The Nutcracker Suite from the box beside the former Czar’s box, at the Mariinsky Theatre which opened in 1862 after the circus on its site burned to the ground 3 years earlier and sports a 2.5 ton crystal chandelier with 23,000 pieces for the peasants to clean, one by one. It was all fabulous until we encountered the grim faced waiting staff at 1913 Restaurant for supper afterwards, but there you go: it’s a fledgling tourist city and most of the staff has no clue about service or customer satisfaction.

The Peterhof Palace and its gardens filled with trick fountains was our next delight and again we were gilted out at the extravagant furnishings. Yes, the peasants were right to revolt! He died at 52 after reigning for 42 years, leaving his second wife Catherine I, commonly known as The Washer Woman because of her origins and a daughter Elizabeth who accumulated no less than 16,000 dresses.

Returning to the centre by hydrofoil we later visited the Peter and Paul Fortress with its 122 meter high golden spire topped by a 4 metre high angel and containing the graves of the Last Czar, Nicholas II and his wife Maria and their children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexi and innumerable numbers of his forebears and relatives. I have read dozens of books on this family and remain connected to it at some strange inexplicable level so for me seeing those graves provoked a moment of grief as if I was observing my own amongst them.

The Church of the Spilled Blood with its magnificent onion domes is beautiful inside with every space painted and decorated with holy pictures and, yes, more gold and the doors to the alter are breathtaking. It is the death place of Czar Alex II, killed by students in 1881 because he would not introduce a constitution: little did they know he had one in his pocket at the time of his death!

Like most of the St P churches, this one was closed for 80 years from 1917 to 1997. But they all had their uses: the Church of the Spilled Blood stored potatoes. Others became garages, ice skating rinks and swimming pools in the Soviet era.

After our less than wonderful evening dinner the previous night we decided to eat in: visiting an amazing Deli in Nevsky Prospekt to stock up on mouth watering goodies and bottles of Russian champagne. With Leon’s input (a conversation with his head of room service delineating all our needs and ‘please put all this on my bill Michael’) we had a wonderful evening dining in our suite on salads, cheeses, salmon, tuna, tomatoes, breads and a most delicious selection of sweets to finish. And the Russian bubbly was more than acceptable.

We thought our impending marathon in The Hermitage needed breakfast fortification of French Champagne (with the accompanying morning kisses all round from Leon) and we were right. More gilt, more excess, more beauty and a mere 8 kilograms of Siberian gold required for the pillars in just one room! Vast lapis and malachite urns, brilliant chandeliers, extraordinary icons, da Vinci, Rafaello, Monet, Matisse, Gaugin and a stunning white marble statue of The Three Graces: my all time favourite was Matisse’s Ballerina.

There were also half a dozen rooms of masters, 50 years in storage, dull and lifeless, all of them: found in East Berlin after the War, now claimed by estates and descendants, all under legal dispute from West German owners. Putin is reluctant to rule on whether they are returned or not and was reported in the recent press as saying it opened up a can of worms about what should, in his belief, be returned to Russia and generally in the too hard basket.

Anya’s stories continue. The one that touched my soul was that of the diligent curators of the St Petersburg treasures who packed what they could in the first summer of trouble, and vanished into the depths of Siberia for several years with over one million items that would otherwise have been lost for ever. Two trains were packed to the gunnels and the third, with the Yusopov chandeliers and other gems went out but later came back and the items were stored in the vault of the magnificent St Isaac’s cathedral.

But we were ready, after 3 hours, to leave the Hermitage, glad to have had, like to all our venues, a specially arranged early arrival before the hordes descend. Nowadays there are 30,000 visitors a day to this building, originally built by Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, she of the 16,000 dresses, as the Winter Palace but died before it was finished.

Backstage at the Mariinsky was next where we learned there was a connecting alleyway from the Czar and Grand Dukes box to the stage because they had their mistresses performing and they liked to be close to them, and we were told we could not photograph the Czar’s Box which of course I did.

Our last dinner was hilarious. Billed by our travel agent as ‘showy’ and to wear our killer heels, we must have looked like a mother’s club to the bevy of well-dressed Russian stick figures with their own killer heels, on the end of their legs up to here, skirts shorter than their mothers would have approved of, and haughty looks in our direction as they circumnavigated the restaurant throughout the evening, presumably just to be noticed. Or was it to avoid the bunch of ugly looking men they were clearly paid to accompany? It could have been either but forced us to comment how stunning the women were and how ugly the men were in this city. Our waiter was incompetent, the food manager was rude, the music was deafening but the food was lovely (after the long wait for its arrival) and the view of the dome of St Isaac’s, which killed 80 of the men affixing the gold with mercury poisoning) was breathtaking.

There was more champagne for breakfast, to celebrate Sandy’s birthday and to farewell this magnificent city. Leon came up trumps again with a gift for Sandy and indeed one for us all as he left us to faff around waiting for Prince Frederick to arrive in an hour or so. Glad we were in such good company.

After a bit of shopping, (and my reluctant decision to leave behind a €25,000 magnificent sable coat that looked as if it had been made for me), a quick lunch at the Singer Cafe where sewing machines were previously sold and a viewing of the Olympic Torch flashing down Nevsky on its way to the next Winter Olympics, Connie and Helga flew out home and the remaining four of us took off from the worst airport in recorded memory, for the medieval city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia.

After the hugeness of St P, the ease at which we walked around Tallinn for a couple of days was magnificent. We saw everything – many times – and fortunately most of it before 8 cruise ships docked and voluminous tour groups took over the town. We enjoyed lots of gin and tonics in the hotel garden, shopping for more amber and beautifully made linen napery, two magnificent restaurants and the peace and quiet of this enchanting small city.

Eventually all good things had to end and we left Tallinn for wherever home was, for me, London, at the end of yet another very special SFINX Women adventure….with plans to meet again in Jordan and Burma for the two adventures for 2014.

Until next time
With Heart