Fencing trip to St.Petersburg, Sept 2004

Russia is full of brides. In Novgorod, gypsy brides dance round their rose-decked caravans inside the ancient Kremlin walls, in Pushkin, girls in frothy gowns released white, heart-shaped balloons over the glorious aquamarine St Catherine's Palace, while in St Petersburg, slender Russian beauties parade their new husbands around the city in a seemingly unending circuit.

I have arrived in St Petersburg alone, three days ahead of the rest of our group. Tim has insisted that I include these days in the official club diary of the first adventure overseas of Salle Gadaski, so here goes:

Thinking it will be more cheerful than staying in a hotel, I have arranged a homestay with a 45-year-old English teacher who lives near St Isaac's Cathedral. I was wrong: she turns out to be bonkers.

Thirty years spent in classrooms at the chalkface of group discipline has left her with a shriek of a voice and bullish temperament. Every morning over breakfast, she cross-questions me on my activities of the previous day and my plans for the upcoming one. She rolls her eyes at my choices and, commandeering my guidebook, loudly dictates new itineraries.

Galvanised by her disapproval, I determine to have a wonderful time. I sneak out of the house at 6.30 one morning to catch a local bus to Novgorad and walk non-stop for seven hours in the freezing cold around the sweet clusters of churches set inside and around the disintegrating, ice-cream coloured town.

I take a bus even further out of town to the Yslev monastery, where a workman is patiently removing, polishing and replacing gold stars twice as big as he from the lapiz lazuli-blue dome of the onion towers.

I buy holy water in nightmarish green plastic bottles to horrify my friends and catch the bus back to St Petersburg with a Russian man with a beard down to his knees, who barely draws breath for the four-hour journey as he tells me one animated story after another in thick, impenetrable Russian.

I also visit Tsarskoe Selo, where the guidebook warns of tourists coming to blows in the queue for the newly reinstated Amber Room, I scratch the surface of the Hermitage's mound of treasures and spend an entire day criss-crossing St Petersburg trying to register my visa - a Kafka-esque adventure that turns out to be entirely pointless when the British Embassy itself tells Tim later in the week that despite it being the law, we really shouldn't have bothered.

On Saturday night the rest of the group arrives and the holiday starts in earnest.

We are staying in apartments few minutes away from Spartak, the fencing academy at which we will have our twice-daily lessons and jousts, close to the centre of the city and, more importantly, within stumbling distance of a range of the least touristy and most lively bars the city has to offer.

Saturday night kicks off in the best of all holiday traditions with an immediate sally into the city's bars. Crawling back to our beds at 4am, we decide both we and the city have passed the first test: this is going to be good.

On Sunday, we crawl from our beds just one hour late for a tour Tim has arranged for us of the city. I was expecting a fresh, clean city spruced up at a huge cost to the Russian government earlier this year to celebrate the city's 300th birthday.

Instead, St Petersburg turns out to be a wounded, shabby city of eroded stone steps, worn corridors and peeling archways. Tattered bandages of stucco hang from scarred windows. Carious and cracked and in sooty disrepair, turn the wrong corner and the city seems diseased.

Turn a different corner, however, and the decrepitude is transformed into sheer, awe-inspiring majesty as the city shakes off the melancholia and reveals itself as the imposing, radiant and imperial centre it was created to be.

On Monday, we arrive at Spartak in the afternoon to be met by Roza, the director of the Academy. There are also coaches: Vladimir, Natasha and Sergei. We are given a long and impressive speech about how the Academy has produced one world champion after another since 1985 and how the upcoming group of students are even more brilliant than the last.

If the speech is intended to encourage us it has the opposite effect: We sit in a huddle of hangover, increasingly aware that however the greater the achievements of the club, the more shocked and disgusted the teachers will be by the amateurish nature of our fencing by comparison.

If these thoughts cross their minds, however, our Russian hosts are too scrupulously polite to show it. We are divided into groups of two or three and allotted a teacher and led in a masochistically imaginative warm-up involving strange games. Our teachers then watch from the sidelines as we attempt to uphold the honour of the British nation with our effete prancing, up and down the wooden fencing hall.

Our days shake into shape: every morning we arrive at 10 am for individual lessons in a warm fug of fresh bread drifted in from the bakery behind the Academy. We leave at around 12 and return at 6pm for two or three hours of free fencing.

In the early stages of the week, we spend the daylight hours between training stolidly visiting the city sights. As the fencing becomes more obsessive, however, we spend the hours nursing our arching limbs in the comfort of our flats, discussing new fencing moves and plotting fresh techniques.

There are cultural differences to overcome: our group punctuality is quickly found to be unsatisfactory while Nadia horrifies her teacher by asking him out for a drink - only to be informed that not only do the coaches not drink with "the children" but that drinking at all is incompatible with serious training.

While the rest of the group affect selective deafness at this last point, Nadia and her teacher, Sergei, strike a deal: she can drink if he can smoke. Unabashed by the showdown, she spends the rest of the week plotting how to lure Sergai out on the last night.

Other teachers are less scrupulous: Julia and Nikolai are not only tolerant of our British propensity to drink like fishes but are keen to encourage it. Under Julia's determined leadership, our nights are spent skipping from restaurants to bars to clubs, often returning home just hours before training is due to start the following day.

By the end of the holiday, our fencing has improved beyond all recognition. The only question now is where our next adventure will be and how soon it can be arranged??

by AH


Local horse


Inside Spartak Academy with our coaches


Getting the lessons

breaking the ice

Our coach Julia Melnik, Silver Medalist of World champs


Julia, three hours later in the bar




Chocolate Lenin (top left cell) in the Chocolate Museum


Selection of Vodkas in the corner shop. 1 pound is 50 rubels


Local tube

nadia and dasha

Nadia and Dasha


Andy and Tim

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