Pictures, Palaces and Pies... St Petersburg

| July 22, 2014

Penny Whitney, a Cox & Kings client, tells of her experience on the St Petersburg: Pictures and Palaces Royal Academy tour with Colin Bailey – and a one-of-a-kind leader named Igor.

Mariinsky Theatre.

There was a huge contrast in my two visits to St Petersburg. In 1966 it was still Leningrad and much of the sightseeing was related to the start of the revolution – the cruiser Aurora, and the square in front of the Winter Palace.

Turn the clock forward 48 years and this schoolgirl is now a recently widowed 'pensioner' still full of girlish enthusiasm. And this enthusiasm was shared by the other 13 members of the Cox & Kings’ Pictures and Palaces tour in May 2014. Our English art expert, Colin Bailey, walked us along the banks of the river Neva on our first evening to orientate us. On the opposite bank were St Isaac's Cathedral, The Hermitage and Peter the Great's statue.

Our first morning was bright, sunny and quite cold. It was wonderful weather for photos, and there were plenty of opportunities for these on our city tour.

We met our Russian guide, Igor – a larger than life character, who gloried in a black cape and high boots, spoke excellent English, had a good sense of humour and a liking for pies! Of which, more later. We followed him like the wake behind a bow wave, as he cut a swathe through the crowds.

Left: Wandering around St Petersburg.
Right: Igor.

Each day we saw beautifully restored buildings and contents – see the itinerary for full details. Day three was a wonderful day out, spent seeing three palaces with totally differing styles. The first was the Pavlovsk Palace, designed by Charles Cameron. Next was the Catherine Palace, which houses the fabulous Amber Room; reconstructed in 2003 as the original was stolen by the Nazis in the second world war. If you like baroque and rococo style, then this is the palace for you. The hall of mirrors was exceptionally impressive, and every floor seemed to have a different parquet pattern. Then we moved on to the neoclassical Alexander Palace, which was apparently the favoured summer residence of the last tsar, Nicholas II. I particularly admired one of their rooms, which had my favourite art nouveau and arts and crafts style. It was so much less ostentatious than the other opulent palaces we had visited that day.

Left: Interior of the Catherine Palace.
Right: Alexander Palace.

My girlhood memories of a Russian food were mostly of cucumbers and sour cream. Nowadays food is plentiful and international, as well as traditional dishes such as borsch and beef stroganoff. But the unexpected lunch stop was the pie shop! Cheese and leek, chicken and mushroom, herring, apple, cranberry, you name it, they had it. Amazing choice and amazing prices – very inexpensive. Evidently a favourite with Igor!

On our city tour we ended up on Nevsky Prospekt, at a fin de siècle shop selling superb chocolates, caviar and more – the Russian equivalent of Fortnum & Mason. Nevsky Prospekt was elegant and affluent, like Paris or London without beggars.

A 'must do' is to go to the Mariinsky Theatre for a ballet or opera. I bought a ticket from the hotel concierge for an opera at the new Mariinsky concert hall. The acoustics were excellent; it was modern and very well designed. Exquisite refreshments were on sale prior to the performance and during the interval I indulged in a glass of prosecco, a smoked salmon open sandwich and a delicate little chocolate eclair – yummy!

Left: Pies.
Right: Refreshments at the Mariinsky concert hall.

My dream since 1966 was to be able to see Matisse's The Dancers at the Hermitage, again. That painting made a huge impact on me and I have to say that it was still enthralling for me all these years later.

Colin Bailey was an astounding guide at the Hermitage. He ensured that we saw all the 'essentials', his knowledge was mind blowingly impressive and he has incredible stamina. He conducted us around many of the dozens of galleries, keeping up a running commentary for about five hours. Bring your good legs on this trip and comfortable shoes.

Left: Matisse's The Dancers.
Right: Colin Bailey.

Colin was a charming and attentive host. All too soon we were in the bus on our way back to the airport – enthused, entertained, exhilarated and not a little exhausted!

Penny Whitney travelled on the Royal Academy tour St Petersburg: Pictures & Palaces. Cox & Kings runs art tours to many destinations, see the website for more details or call one of our specialists on 020 7873 5000.

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2 thoughts on "Pictures, Palaces and Pies… St Petersburg"

  1. I too was on the 1966 tour mentioned by Penny in the above article. Cox & Kings have always had an excellent reputation & Penny’s mouthwatering account of her recent holiday has certainly whetted my appetite all over again, not least for Igor’s favourite pie shop! A beautifully illustrated piece too, which really brings her comments to life & makes the item so vivid.

    • Compass Online says:

      Dear Adele,

      It is lovely to hear that you were with Penny on the original tour, and I’m glad you enjoyed her article – almost all of the photographs were taken by Penny herself. It certainly makes for a great story and I hope one day you are able to revisit yourself to see the changes that have occurred over the years.

      Kind regards,