Archive for August, 2015

Thursday 27 August Copenhagen sightseeing

This morning, after a good night’s sleep, we woke to an overcast and showery morning. We had breakfast on the 20th Floor, overlooking the city sights. After saying goodbye to Carol and Tony and some of the others who were heading home this morning, we went around the corner and hopped on a Hop On and Off Bus to Nyhavn, which was the starting point for a canal cruise. We had a chuckle when we saw one of the other canal cruise boats heading out, with no protective cover and some people sitting with their open umbrellas, while others had rain ponchos on to protect themselves against the light rain. Our boat had a clear Perspex cover that could be retracted in fine weather.
We had decided that we would do the Canal Cruise, providing it wasn’t pouring with rain, as we really wanted to see Copenhagen from its various waterways. The “Grand Tour of Copenhagen” took us from Nyhavn, with its old and colourful buildings, through different canals, under many bridges, into the inner harbour, passing many of Copenhagen’s attractions including: Our Saviour’s church, the island of Christianshavn, the Royal Danish Playhouse, the Black Diamond, the National Museum of Denmark, Christianborg Palace, The Old Stock Exchange, the Opera House and the Little Mermaid – we were so pleased that we saw her yesterday as there were several people all cluttered together under umbrellas vying for position on the bank of the harbour, all looking like drowned rats, as by then, it was pouring with rain! Despite the inclement weather, we thoroughly enjoyed our cruise, seeing Copenhagen from a different perspective and undaunted by the weather, Richard stood outside in the light rain (ducking his head as we went under bridges), with Sandy’s waterproof camera, taking photos until the rain got really heavy and sent him back under cover.
We walked back to the Hop On and Off bus stop and were lucky that there was a bus there, so we climbed onboard and enjoyed the sights again as we headed back to our hotel. We met some people from our APT tour, who told us about a great place to eat which was a bakery called Andersen’s(!!) in the street adjacent to the hotel, so we decided to have our lunch there, which was a good decision. We got to choose what sort of bread or bread roll we wished to have and they had several options for fillings – Richard had a Roast Beef, caramelised onion, mustard pickles and lettuce sandwich and Sandy had a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich – both of them were toasted and were so full of fillings that we could hardly fit them in our mouth and they were delicious. We had a big and hot cup of coffee/tea and bought a pastry to have for afternoon tea or after dinner.
We then waited for about 40 minutes for a Hop on and Off bus that took us on a different route to Carlsberg Brewery, Copenhagen Zoo, Frederiksberg Gardens and the Planetarium.
We returned to the hotel for a cuppa and a rest before having showers, getting our suitcases organised for tomorrow’s flight home and then headed out for dinner.
We decided to go back to the Irish Rover Pub as we had enjoyed it so much last night. We enjoyed our walk along Stroget for the last time, even although it was spitting with rain. We had a chat to the Irish Manager of the Pub – he comes from Cork and has been here for about 10 years. Our dinner was just as good as last night and Richard once again had a couple of Danish pints before heading back to the Radisson Royal Hotel. On the way back we ran into the Doctor from the ship, who claimed us like long lost friends. The ship is in dry dock for 2 weeks while they do some outside work and some inside renovations and the doctor was saying that he caught the train over the sound from Sweden, which took about an hour, so that he could go for a walk in Copenhagen before heading back to the ship to continue to take care of the staff. We chatted to him for a few minutes and then continued back to the hotel.
So, all in all, another lovely day in Copenhagen despite the rain.

Wednesday 26 August Disembark Ship, Copenhagen (Denmark)

This morning we had breakfast in the Lido Outdoor Café while we watched the ship sail towards Copenhagen. We were surprised to see a couple of Wind Farms in the middle of the ocean!
After we had arrived in Copenhagen and been cleared by the Port Authorities, we said our goodbyes to the Captain and all the staff and disembarked for the last time. We boarded a bus and were taken, along with several other passengers, to the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel. Check in time was not until later in the afternoon, so we headed off to explore Copenhagen.
Copenhagen, the former 10th century Viking fishing village, is now the premier capital of Northern Europe and is one of Europe’s oldest capitals, with its monarchy in Denmark being the oldest in the world.
As it was raining lightly, we decided to catch a Hop On and Off Bus, which stops right outside our hotel. We got off at the Little Mermaid, which is down at the Harbour. The sculpture of the Little Mermaid, who turned 100 years old on 23 August, is made of bronze and granite and was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a mermaid who gave up everything to be united with a handsome prince on land.
The Hop On and Off Bus has a 7 minute stop at the Little Mermaid, so we were able to take photos and get back on the bus again. We continued to Rosenborg Castle and as it had stopped raining, we had a wander around the gardens, before hopping back on the bus for our next stop at Stroget. Stroget, 1.1 kilometres long, is one of Europe’s longest pedestrian streets with many shops, from budget brands to the most expensive brands.
We wandered along the street until we found the Round Tower, which was built in the 17th Century and is the oldest functioning observatory in Europe. To get there we needed to walk up the spiral path, which is 268.5 meters long at the outer wall and only 85.5 meters long close to the core of the building. This means that we walked around 209 meters to get to the top even though the tower is only 36 meters tall! We thoroughly enjoyed the view from the top, looking out over the City of Copenhagen. We continued wandering along Stroget, amazed at the number and variety of shops and the hundreds of people who were using this pedestrian shopping precinct. There were a number of pedestrian streets that crisscrossed the main one, so it would have been very easy to become lost or to be disoriented. We found a nice little Irish Pub to have lunch before continuing on to the Town Hall Square at the end of Stroget. One block further on, we passed the Tivoli Gardens, which is an Amusement Park and on the next corner was our hotel. We checked in and we pleased to find that we had a really nice corner room on the 12th floor with huge windows on two walls that gave us views over Tivoli Gardens and much of Copenhagen.
We decided to head back to Stroget to find somewhere for dinner and after walking, looking at menus and being indecisive, we found ourselves back at the Irish Rover Pub. Richard had Steak and Guinness Pie and a couple of Danish beers and Sandy had battered fish and chips, which we thoroughly enjoyed. We wandered back through Stroget, stopping to listen to an American Indian playing the Pan Pipes – such beautifully haunting music.
We had a cuppa in our lovely room and enjoyed watching the lights come on at Tivoli Gardens across the road.
Apart from the disappointment of our wonderful cruise ending, we have had a really enjoyable day -the two of us out exploring and adventuring on our own.

Tuesday 25 August Visby in Gotland (Sweden)

We arrived early this morning in the town of Visby on the Swedish isle of Gotland, which is known as the Island of a Hundred Churches.
Visby is one of Scandinavia’s well-known medieval cities and has cobblestoned streets that wind through the city to the Old Town. The 13th Century Old Town Wall that stretches three kilometres around the city, was once used as the city’s defense from intruders.
Our local guide, Gunilla, took us on a 2 hour walking tour around this beautiful town, talking to us about Viking history while we looked at the medieval buildings. She told us that the original town had very big cobblestones, but they were changed to the later ones when the town was raised to try and keep the sea out.
We visited a lovely park near the sea and Gunilla told us that originally the town was built near the harbour and as we walked, we saw some of the original town wall and the Gun Powder Tower, which was built in the 12th Century. We walked through the main town square and then we saw a house that was built in the late 18th Century using no nails – they did use wooden anchor points to hold it all together.
From there we visited the Botanical Gardens and saw an old Stonechurch Apple Tree that was lying down but still bearing fruit.
As we wandered along, we heard the St Mary’s bell ringing at 9.00am, but before we visited Visby’s beautiful Cathedral, we were taken to some of the old church ruins. We saw St Clemen’s ruins and Drotten, which was built in the 13th Century and dedicated to the Holy Trinity and we also St Lawrence’s, (they call it St Lars’), which was built in the Byzantine style.
Then we visited St Mary’s Cathedral, which was originally built for German merchants on Gotland – 1225 was the earliest known dedication date. The interior was beautiful and not over the top and had some lovely stained glass windows as well as a beautiful altar, lime wall paintings and sculptures in wood and stone.
From there we walked up Church Mountain (really just a big hill) for a lovely view over Visby. There were lots of houses, dating back to the 18th Century, built on this hill to protect the families from the sea. We continued our walk, back down the hill using a different set of steps further along ad passed the Visby school, which is from 1st grade to 6th grade and has 120 students,
We thoroughly enjoyed our brief visit to Visby, wandering slowly through the cobblestoned streets, listening to Gunilla telling us about her beautiful city that was really more like a town. We have decided that we prefer casual strolling through areas like this, rather than the rush and traffic of the big cities.
We re-boarded the MS Island Sky and the Captain set sail at 10.30am. The rest of the day was spent onboard, enjoying our last day on this beautiful small ship as she sailed towards Copenhagen.
After packing and getting organised to disembark the ship tomorrow, we went to an interesting and funny talk by the Hotel Manager, Wendy – it was about how to run a “hotel” on a cruise ship and was similar to the one she did at the end of our first cruise of Norway.
We enjoyed the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party and also the Captain’s Farewell Dinner – we sat with the same people who we have been sitting with the past few nights and had a wonderful time, laughing and enjoying our last dinner onboard this beautiful ship.

Monday 24 August Stockholm (Sweden)

This morning we woke to another sunny day with blue skies, and after a leisurely breakfast, we disembarked the ship at 9.15am for our tour of Stockholm and Drottningholm Palace.
Stockholm is made up of 14 islands and the city dates back 700 years. It was founded at the point where the fresh water of Lake Malaren meets the salt water of the Baltic Sea. It was originally founded as a fortress in the mid 13th century and evolved into a town, gradually spreading to nearby islands and the mainland until it finally became a city and the capital of Sweden.
We boarded buses and our guide Lina gave us lots of interesting history and stories about Stockholm as we drove along. We drove through the City Centre and saw the Royal Palace, the Swedish Government Buildings and we drove past Drottingatten, a pedestrian mall before heading west out of Stockholm. We crossed several bridges between the islands out into the suburbs to Drottningholm Palace.
Drottningholm Palace is the private residence of the Swedish royal family and is where some of the King and Queen’s official receptions are held. The Palace was originally built in the late 16th century and served as a residence of the Swedish royal court for most of the 18th century.
We entered the Palace by the Main Entrance from the lake side, climbed the staircase to the first floor and started our tour. The part of the Palace that the King and Queen live in was closed off to visitors of course. We visited the State Apartments and our guide took us from room to room, pointing out the interesting paintings etc and telling us stories about each room. We went down to the ground floor and continued our tour, going from room to room, hearing interesting stories. We enjoyed our tour through the Palace, which was nowhere near as opulent as the palaces that we have seen recently.
We were then taken out into the Gardens, where they had wonderful Boxwood Hedges that were very regular and straight. We walked through the English Garden and the Baroque Garden, walked down the Avenue in front of the Palace, saw several fountains and a pond with White Cheeked Geese.
We were then driven back into the City Centre and take to a viewpoint over Stockholm an some of its islands. Lina pointed out each of the areas eg City Centre, Old Town etc and interesting buildings around the waterfront areas.
After we were dropped back at the boat the two of us had a quick lunch and then disembarked the ship to go exploring. We walked along the waterfront, past the numerous ferry and sightseeing boat docks, around to the other side of the harbour, where there were dozens of restaurants, outdoor cafes, etc. We continued walking along the path beside the harbour, crossed over the Djurgardsbron Bridge and walked around to the Vasa Museum.
The Vasa Museum is a maritime museum that displays the 17th century Sailing Ship, the 64 gun warship, the Vasa. The Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in 1628, less than a mile from her starting point, as she was grossly top-heavy. The wreck was salvaged in 1961 after 333 years under the sea and the reconstructed vessel is 98 percent original. The ship is now kept in a controlled temperature and humid environment to protect it from deteriorating.
We enjoyed our visit to see the Vasa and were surprised at how big it is – there were 7 floors/viewing levels, which gave different views of the outside and inside of the ship. We were also surprised at how many carved sculptures and decorations were on the boat. We also saw a 1:10 scale model of the fully rigged Vasa with sails set.
We wandered slowly back along the path beside the large harbour, stopping to look at some interesting old boats docked there.
We could also see the MS Island Sky, our beautiful home for the past 24 days, moored on the other side of the harbour.
We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon doing our own thing in Stockholm!
At 6.00pm, the ship sailed away from Stockholm and the passengers were invited up to the top deck at the front of the ship for a sail away party – champagne and nibbles – while we listened to old ABBA hits and looked at the beautiful scenery as we sailed towards the Baltic Sea.
We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Stockholm.

Sunday 23 August Mariehamn (Aland) Stockholm (Sweden)

After a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed our breakfast while watching the scenery float past – the islands in the archipelago leading to Mariehamn on Aland Island were beautiful and the sea was like a mill pond.
Discover Mariehamn this morning, the capital of Aland. Mariehamn was named after Marie Alexandrovna, the royal consort of Alexander II of Russia and Mariehamn means ‘Maria’s Harbour”. Aland and Mariehamn have a reputable heritage in shipping. The Flying P-Liner Pommern Museum ship is anchored in the Western Harbour. The Eastern Harbour features one of the largest marinas in Scandinavia. The Dutch steamer Jan Nieveen (now called F.P. von Knorring) can also be found here.
The Aland Islands are situated between Sweden and Finland in the northern part of he Baltic sea. Aland consists of more than 6,000 island and together they constitute an autonomous and monolingual Swedish region of Finland with it’s own flag and stamps. They use Euros as their currency.
We decided to explore the Pommern sailing ship and the Maritime Museum this morning. We disembarked and walked a very short distance to the Pommern and enjoyed exploring both above and below decks. We saw the Captain and Officers’ Quarters, the Galley, Navigation Room and Crew’s Quarters. We also went below decks to see where cargo, sails and ropes would have been stored between the two lower decks. The construction of the steel hull was easy to see once we got below decks. The Pommern was fitted out with some of the equipment, ropes and furnishings from the time.
We then walked across the road to the Maritime Museum and enjoyed wandering around the various exhibits that related to the history of sailing and of the Mariehamn area. We thoroughly enjoyed “doing our own thing” this morning in Mariehamn, exploring the Pommern and the Maritime Museum!!
As we sailed away from Mariehamn, we had lunch in the Outdoor Café and then spent the afternoon catching up with our blog, sorting photos and relaxing.
During the afternoon, we sailed to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden and the most populated city in the Nordic region. The city is spread across 14 islands on the coast in the southeast of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Malaren, on the Stockholm archipelago and the Baltic Sea.
We arrived in Stockholm at about 8.00pm and after a fun-filled dinner with our now usual dinner companions, we joined some of the other passengers and went for an orientation walk through part of Stockholm.

Saturday 22 August Helsinki (Finland)

After a good night’s sleep, we woke to find that we were entering the narrow channel that led to the Port of Helsinki. We passed the Island Fortress of Suomenlinna and made our way to a berth in the very centre of the city. Helsinki, the capital and largest city of Finland, is located on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, an arm of the Baltic Sea.
After a leisurely breakfast, at 9.30 we disembarked the ship for a City Tour by bus. We drove slowly up and down the streets of the main city centre, where there were many department stores, outdoor cafes and theatres. We drove through one of the industrial areas beside the sea and saw the shipyards, which have recently been given the contract to build 8 ice breaker ships.
Our first stop was at the Temppeliaukio Church, also known as “The Church in the Rock”, which is carved out of bedrock and seats 700. The church is covered with a dome that is lined with 14 kilometres of copper wire and the walls are made of rock. Around noon each day, the sunlight comes in the windows around the roof periphery and shines on the altar – a crevice in the rock wall. When Janet was in the Queensland Youth Choir, they did an overseas choral tour, which included Helsinki – the Choir sang at this church among others. While we were in the church, a pianist played and it sounded more like a concert hall than a church. There was a Pipe Organ, which stood against the rock wall and also a granite altar. While we sat in the church, there was an overall sense of openness and peace.
We continued our drive and went past the Museum, the Finlandia Hall, the Opera building and the Fun Fair.
Our second stop was at Sibelius Park, where we saw a very unusual monument made up of a large number of various lengths of etched stainless steel pipes mounted vertically. The Monument honoured Finland’s famous composer, Jean (pronounced Shan) Sibelius.
We passed the Railway Station and also the harbour where 4 ice-breakers were moored before arriving at Senate Square. Senate Square, which is quite large, makes up the oldest part of central Helsinki. Some of the main buildings surrounding the square are the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, main building of the University of Helsinki and Sederholm House, the oldest building of central Helsinki. In the middle of the square was a statue of Alexander II with four statues surrounding him which symbolise the law, light, peace and labour.
We were disappointed to see that Helsinki Cathedral was being renovated and had scaffolding on one part of it and also that it was closed at the time because there was a wedding about to take place.
Although we have seen photos of Katharine & Steve and Janet & Adrian on these steps covered in snow, because today was bright blue skies and 29 degrees, it was hard to imagine it covered in snow.
We returned to the ship for lunch and then decided that we would head off on our own to explore Helsinki further for a couple of hours. We wandered through the markets next to the docks and then walked to the Uspenski Cathedral, which is the main cathedral of the Finnish Orthodox Church. From there, we walked further around the harbour to where we could see the 4 ice-breakers to get some photos.
We strolled back through the markets again, looking at various stalls and also into a permanent market building, where we saw small restaurants and traders selling just about anything you could think of from fish to confectionary to jewellery.
We arrived back on board at about 4.00pm because we were leaving Helsinki at 4.30pm. We stood out on deck and watched the ship sail out into the Gulf of Finland.
We enjoyed our day in Helsinki and especially enjoyed being able to just wander around on our own this afternoon.

Friday 21 August St. Petersburg (Russia)

We woke to another beautiful sunny day with blue skies – temperature 29°.
We disembarked the ship at 7.45am for our tour to Catherine Palace in the morning and a city tour in the afternoon.
The Catherine Palace is a Rococo style palace located in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, 25 km southeast of St. Petersburg. It was founded by Peter the Great and was the summer residence of the Russian tsars. It took four years to build this 325 metre long bluish coloured palace for Empress Elizabeth and was finished in 1756.
The bus took us through the outskirts of St Petersburg, where we saw lots of apartment buildings. We saw the difference in the apartment building styles between the fairly drab grey of the Russian public housing style in the inner suburbs to the modern high rises that were constructed in more recent times. Most of them had shopping complexes on the ground floor, with lots of green space around them for parks and play spaces for the children. Some of them even had movie theatres and most of them had ornate gardens. Our guide, Natasha told us that life here is more comfortable now, since 2000. The area surrounding St Petersburg is fairly flat and the highest “hill” is only 150m. We passed a huge vodka distillery, a Wrigley Spearmint factory and a joint Coca-Cola plant. Natasha told us that there are Toyota, Ford and Nissan factories in Russia now.
We arrived at Tsarskoye Selo, which is now referred to as Pushkin, before the Catherine Palace gates opened and we were the second group onto the grounds. While we were waiting for the gates to open, we listened to a band playing traditional Russian folk music. From the moment we stepped inside the gates it was a case of “Wow!” We were so impressed with the beautiful condition of the outside and the inside of the palace, which is now a museum. We walked along the front of the palace and could see the Servant’s Quarters and the Main Entrance for Carriages before our entry into the palace, where, once again, we had to put on galoshes/overshoes, this time in a brown colour and with pointy toes.
The first section that we visited was the golden Suites of Rome – we climbed The Main Staircase and into The Great Hall (sometimes called The Hall of Mirrors), the Wedgewood rooms, and then through several rooms with ornate carvings and period furniture. Only some of the rooms were not furnished and we could see the ornate gold carvings and silk wallcovering etc. One of the most amazing rooms, which was the only one that we were not allowed to take photos in, was called the Amber room, which was originally created by Rastrelli in the 1750s. The room was decorated with the use of mosaics made up of pieces of amber in various colours and dimensions – the walls were completely covered in amber. All the artwork in the room was framed with textured Amber and the doorways, and parts of the ceiling were also decorated with Amber. Surprisingly, it was not over the top and was quite beautifully done. Most of the rooms we visited had ornate Wedgewood style, blue tiled, floor-to-ceiling corner pieces that concealed the heating systems that are referred to as “stoves”.
After our tour of the inside of the Palace, we were taken outside for a stroll around the beautiful gardens. We walked through the Cameron Gallery gardens and then down to the Great Lake, through more beautiful gardens. We entered a building called “The Grotto Pavilion” – it was a small concert hall, which had great acoustics, and we listened to a 5 piece male ensemble singing Russian Folk songs.
On our way back up through the gardens, we stopped to see the Palace Church wing. The golden spires glistened in the sun against the perfect blue sky – so beautiful!! We saw some people in period costume and then wandered through the markets before boarding our bus to be taken to our restaurant for lunch.
We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the Catherine Palace because it was at a slower pace than Peterhoff and the Hermitage yesterday and also there were nowhere near as many people – this may have been because it was further out of St Petersburg.
Lunch was at Podvoriye Restaurant, which was a Russian Log House a short distance from the Palace. We were served a traditional Russian Meal, which included vodka. The entrée was various salads and meats, followed by Borscht soup and an interesting pork dish and finished off with a lovely berry crepe. The Restaurant went to a lot of trouble to give Sandy a separate meal as all of the dishes, except the dessert had garlic in them. We were entertained by a group of traditionally dressed Russian performers, who enlisted the help of some of us to play instruments.
We then headed back to the outskirts of St Petersburg, stopping at Pushkin’s Metro Station. Most of us got off the bus and followed Natasha into the Metro station, where she bought tokens for us to go down the escalator to the station platform to see the frescoes and a statue of Pushkin. Natasha explained to us that the token allowed you to ride on any of the 5 lines and 67 stations on the Metro for the whole day. She said that while the Metro is very busy (2 million people per day use it) it is very safe and reliable. She also said that Pushkinsaya (Pushkin Station) is one of the deepest Metros in the world at 85metres below ground. She also told us that the metro stations in St Petersburg are not as elaborate as those in Moscow with their chandeliers etc but we were impressed with what we saw here.
The bus then took us back into St Petersburg for a drive through the city with Natasha pointing out interesting landmarks.
We enjoyed our visit to Peter and Paul Fortress, which was the first construction in St Petersburg and built by the order of Peter the Great to defend this new city against Sweden. Inside the Fortress is the 18th Century Peter and Paul Cathedral, which is a Russian Orthodox cathedral. The cathedral’s bell tower is the world’s tallest Orthodox bell tower and the cathedral houses the remains of almost all of the Russian Emperors and Empresses. We had a short visit to the cathedral where we saw some of the tombs of the royal family. We walked back over the cobblestoned square to the bus to our next stop, the Church of the Resurrection of the Spilled Blood. The church, which was built in 1907 in memory of Alexander II who was assassinated on this site, was completely covered in 7000sqmetres of mosaic tiles. What looked like paintings, were actually mosaic-tiled portraits.
After a very full but enjoyable day, it was time to go through immigration for the last time and re-board our beautiful ship for the next leg of our journey.
We joined the others up on deck for a sail away party to say goodbye to St Petersburg – we watched the ship sail past the commercial docks and naval base – and then it was time for our briefing about our next destination and then dinner.
A couple of hours after we left St Petersburg dock, we went past Alexander’s Fort and the Flood Mitigation Gates, which protect St Petersburg from the Baltic Sea during times of flood.
We have enjoyed our visit to St Petersburg – the weather has been wonderful and we have seen a lot, we have discovered that St Petersburg is somewhere that you could spend many days and still feel as though there were things that you would like to revisit.

Thursday 20 August St Petersburg (Russia)

Where to start? We have had the most amazing two full days in St Petersburg – the weather has been perfect (29°)and our program has been so full that we didn’t have time to even write up what we had done, let alone post it to the website.
Saint Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia and is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. St Petersburg is the cultural capital, has a population of over one million and is the northernmost city in the world. St Petersburg, the creation of Peter the Great, benefited from the inspiration of Europe’s greatest 18th century architects and craftsmen.
Our ship docked at the ‘English Embankment” in the Neva Riva in the centre of the city and by 8.10am, the ship had been cleared by the Port Authority and we were able to disembark the ship, go through immigration – a separate little building just for us – and board our buses.
Our first stop was Peterhof Palace, which is about 32 kilometres from St Petersburg. We travelled through the city and then into the outer suburbs where there were many apartment buildings and several new ones being built. Our guide, Natasha, told us that there are now wonderful facilities close by the apartment buildings for families as well as shopping malls, movies and green spaces for the children to play.
Peterhof Palace, which sits on 100 square hectares, was the brainchild of Peter the Great and was originally a two-storey house, which was then made into the Grand Palace that is now a museum. We entered the Palace at the Upper Garden and had to put blue disposable galoshes/overshoes on, to protect the parquetry floors with their amazingly intricate patterns. We were taken on a guided tour, from room to room, where we saw the incredible opulence of the palace. In each room there was a lady guard who had a fan and if the tour guide was taking too long she fluttered her fan and if the group didn’t move quickly enough out of the room, the fan was closed and the end of it held against the guard’s mouth, which was then the signal to “move now!” Although APT had organised an early opening booking for us before all the hordes arrived, there were still several other groups coming along behind us, so we had to move through the rooms quite quickly. Natasha gave us some wonderful information about each room as we walked slowly through the rooms, and we were not allowed to take photos, so that didn’t hinder us.
Some of the rooms that we went into were: The Blue Reception Room with amazing zig-zagged patterned parquetry floor and walls that were lined with light blue silk; The Throne Room, which is the largest room in the palace – 330sqm; the Dining Room with its Wedgewood place settings; the Divan Room – this was Empress Elizabeth’s bed chamber; and many other incredible rooms.
Just before 11.00am, we had finished our tour and were out on the upper terrace that overlooks the beautiful gardens and the 18th Century fountains, statues, and pavilions. From the top we could see the Great Cascade, the gardens and the canal that leads down to the Baltic Sea. At exactly 11.00, the music started and the spectacle of the fountains of the Great Cascade with the golden statue of Samson overcoming a water-spouting lion, began. The Great Cascade has 80 fountains, 250 sculptures, reliefs and decorative features. We walked down the stairs to the lower level to take more photos of th fountains and wandered through the gardens, before walking along the canal to the Hydrofoil Ferry terminal to catch the hydrofoil back to St Petersburg.
Our overall impression of Peterhoff Place was of opulence with beautiful rooms, lavishly decorated with gold and ornamentation, as well as beautiful gardens and amazing gravity fed fountains. It is easy to see why Peterhoff Palace is referred to as the Russian Versailles.
The buses picked us up from the ferry and brought us back to the ship for a quick ¾ hour lunch break, before we headed off on our next excursion. Each time we come or go from the ship, we have to pass through the Russian immigration office.
Our afternoon excursion was to the State Hermitage Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, and was commissioned in 1764 by Catherine the Great as a winter palace. The museum is located on the banks of the Neva River and is home to more than three million exhibits. Looking at the Hermitage Museum complex from the river from left to right: Hermitage Theatre – Old Hermitage – Small Hermitage – Winter Palace – and the ”New Hermitage” is situated behind the Old Hermitage.
As our group walked from room to room, with Natasha telling us about the interesting sculptures or pieces of art, we quickly took photos and continued to follow her. We have quiet-vox systems, where the guide has the main system with a microphone and our system, which has an ear-piece, automatically tunes in to hers so that she can keep walking and talking and we can hear what she is saying and know when she is leaving the room and going into the next one, or when she turns a corner she can tell us so that we don’t lose her if we have stopped to take photos – great system!
Some of the interesting items that we saw in the Hermitage Museum were: a huge malachite vase; some original Leonardo da Vinci paintings – Madonna with Child with Flower and Madonna with Child, the Little Madonna; Portrait of a Woman by Corregio; Bathsheba in the Bath by Giovanni Battista; a sculpture of The Crouching Boy by Michelangelo; The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt and the amazing Peacock Clock, which is an 18th century gold mechanical peacock and on the hour, its tail comes up and rooster beside it crows.
The number of original paintings and sculptures on exhibition was astounding and to fully appreciate this museum would take many days. The 3 hours that we spent at the Hermitage went very quickly and before we knew it, we were back at Palace Square, which is a huge open area in front of the Hermitage buildings. The Square is bordered by the General Staff buildings and has Alexander’s column in the middle.
We returned to the ship at 5.30pm, passed through immigration and boarded the ship for another quick meal, a shower and got “tarted up” to head out again at 6.45pm for the Hermitage Theatre for a Russian Ballet performance of “Swan Lake”. The Hermitage Theatre was commission by Catherine II in the 18th century – she was well-known for her love of the arts. The seating in the theatre was built in a semi-circular arrangement so that Catherine II could entertain a small number of guests in an intimate environment where everyone could easily see the stage and also each other. The ballet performance and acoustics were very good, however the seats were very uncomfortable.
The buses returned us to the ship at 11.45pm and the dining room staff had a midnight snack ready for us after a wonderful, but exhausting day in St Petersburg!!

Wednesday 19 August Tallinn (Estonia)

Last night, we thoroughly enjoyed the BBQ and the crew singing and entertaining us, with the passengers singing along and dancing to all the old favourites. The chefs had gone to a lot of trouble again to prepare ornate dishes, including a peacock made from fruit and also another croquenbush for dessert.
During the night the Captain has sailed from Riga in Latvia to Tallin in Estonia through the Muhu Sound (Moon Sound) – the inside passage between Muhu Island and mainland Estonia. The strait is very narrow, the waters were shallow and a rare experience for us as the strait has been closed to foreigners for 50 years.
We woke this morning after a good night’s sleep – apart from a couple of nights early in this second cruise, we have been sleeping well and the rolling/pitching of the ship out in open waters, which has occurred occasionally, has not caused any issues. It is once again sunny and expected temperature of 23°.
We arrived in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia set on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. Tallinn was named the European Capital of Culture in 2011 by the European Union, and its Old Town has achieved World Heritage status. The Olympics were held in Tallinn in 1980. Our guide told us that the main source of income for Estonia is Electronics, especially software programming.
We were taken on a guided tour of Tallin’s city walls and fortifications, the narrow medieval streets and the gateways, which remain remarkably well preserved. We drove past the “Fat Margaret Tower” and through the City Centre, where there were many modern buildings, old buildings being renovated, department stores, offices and hotels. We drove past Freedom Square with the Freedom Monument, which is a glass structure.
We drove around the outskirts of the Old Town up to Toompea Hill. We got out of the bus and walked past Toompea Castle, which was built in the 9th Century and today is the home of the Houses of Parliament of Estonia. The National Flag is hoisted on the Tall Herman Tower every day to celebrate the independence of Estonia.
We visited the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral where we were allowed to go inside the church, along with hundreds of other people (there are three huge cruise ships in port with us this morning). The Cathedral was built in the 19th Century and the interior was quite ornate.
We walked on large uneven cobblestones to the oldest church in Tallinn, St Mary’s Church, which is called the Dome Church and was built in 1233, but some of the church burnt down and was reconstructed in 1684 and the Tower was rebuilt in 1779. We were taken on a tour of the inside of the church and were allowed to take photos. On the walls, there were wooden Coats of Arms from the families who lived in Tallinn and we saw the organ from the 19th century, the Altar from the end of 17 century with carvings and a new painting of Jesus, and the Pulpit, which was Baroque style.
Just a short walk from the Dome Church and we were standing on the top of the Old Town Wall, where we got an amazing view out over the red terracotta rooftops of the lower Old Town and the scene was punctuated by turrets, the spires from many churches and onion domes. We could also see the city centre and out to the harbour area.
We walked down the oldest street, referred to as Long Leg Street, into Shortleg Street where St Nicholas’ Church, which is a medieval former church, dedicated to the fishermen and sailors and is now used as an Art Museum. We then turned back into Long Leg Street and out into a small square, with the oldest running pharmacy (Apothek) in Europe, dating back to 1422. It is not only the oldest commercial enterprise but is also the oldest medical business in Tallinn.
We were then given some free time to wander around the cobblestoned streets, visiting a few shops and met up with the rest of our group at the Old Town’s Outer Gate Towers.
We found it interesting that public transport in Tallinn is free and that all schooling, including university, is also free – children attend school from 7 years old for 12 years.
Our walking tour this morning took us through a lot of narrow cobblestone streets with interesting buildings with a lot of character. The city and the old town were clean but crowded with sightseers, both local and international. Tallinn is nowhere near as opulent at Riga but considering that this country has been occupied by so many different nations, now that Estonia has become an Independent Nation, it has retained its unique identity.
We arrived aback at the ship for lunch and then spent the afternoon sorting photos, doing our blog, going to a lecture about St Petersburg and having a lovely dinner with Tony and Carol.
A lovely day in Tallinn!!

Tuesday 18 August Riga (Latvia)

This morning we woke to blue skies and the sun shining again – the temperature is expected to be about 24°. We ate breakfast in the Lido Café and watched as the Captain sailed the ship down the Daugava River to the pier at Riga. The capital of Latvia, Riga is a beautiful Hanseatic city dating from 1201 and is one of the best preserved in the Baltic, with a blend of a medieval centre and a modern city. Riga has an interesting history, intertwined with the Germans, Swedish, Poles and Russians. Riga, which is now considered to be an affluent capital, was built in 1201 and became an independent country in the late 20th Century.
We disembarked the ship at 8.30am for our tour of Riga, which is often referred to as ‘Europe’s capital of Art Nouveau’ and is ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in Northern Europe, and we can see why this is!! There were so many beautiful buildings in City centre (800 altogether), ranging from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque to Classical and Romantic style. The Old City has narrow cobbled streets, gabled slate roofs, old warehouses, leafy boulevards and parks.
The driver and our local guide, Anna, took us for an orientation drive of the modern city of Riga and then we got off the bus and walked through some of the city streets, admiring so many beautiful buildings that were mainly pastel coloured, with many carvings and sculptures adorning them, Apparently, inside they were just as ornate, with carved wooden staircases, stained glass windows, ornate ceilings and beautifully furnished. Some of the most beautiful buildings were by an architect by the name of Eizenstein in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were so remarkable that words won’t do them justice!!
We tore ourselves away from this amazing area, boarded the bus and the driver drove around the outskirts of the Old Town, where we could see part of the old wall and also one of the 18 towers, The Gunpowder Tower built in the 18th century. We stopped at the Freedom Monument with the Angel of Freedom on the top and were able to get out of the bus and take photos. Then we walked, through some beautiful gardens, to the National Opera House, which was built in 1864.
We started our walking tour of the Old Town at the City Hall Square. We saw Blackheads House built in 1334 and renovated in 1999 and St Peter’s Basilica built in the 13th century – unfortunately there was a choir there performing so we were not able to go inside nor were we able to climb up to the observation platform where there would have been stunning views across the city of Riga and out to the Baltic Sea on such a beautiful sunny day with clear skies. We saw St John’s Church and in the square behind it we were able to make a wish on a special statue which had a pig at the bottom, then a dog, cat and rooster at the top – Sandy managed to reach the cat, which was the third one up, so she got 75% of her wish, so the legend has it!! We also saw Wagner’s Hall, where he and Liszt, Rubenstein and Berliozs have all performed.
When we arrived at Guild Square, we were taken into Maza Gilde, one of the beautiful buildings for an awesome performance by the International Latvian Dzarintarins Folk Dance Group. Boys and girls aged from 2 to 18, dressed in National costume, danced for us to lively Latvian folk music. They performed several dances, which were very lively and energetic, with every child smiling broadly the home time and appearing to be thoroughly enjoying performing for us. They had a cute little girl aged about 2½ doing one of the dances with some of the older children and she definitely stole the show!
We then walked to the Dome Cathedral built in 1211 and renovated in 19th Century – it is currently being renovated again – amazingly, it has 7,000 organ pipes. Then, we walked around to the Riga Castle, then to the Three Brothers, the oldest of which was built in the 14th century and was a bakery, then to St Jakobs, then to the Parliament of Latvia, the Swedish Barracks, part of the Old Wall, the barracks of the Swedish soldiers (from when it was under Swedish rule), and back to our bus.
We were away from the ship for approximately 4 hours including the time of the concert. Most of the time was spent walking on large uneven cobblestones. The city was clean, with not much vehicle traffic although we still had to be careful because we continually forget to look left first as the cars drive on the right hand side of the road. We saw open markets in the three main squares and a lot of restaurants had covered dining areas on the footpaths, which gave the city a wealthy, but relaxed feel. We certainly were not expecting to see such a beautifully ornate city and thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Riga!!
Not long after we boarded the ship, the Captain set sail for our next destination and we enjoyed a relaxed lunch up in the Lido Café with Tony and Carol. There was a cool breeze blowing as we watched Riga fade into the distance.
We had a quiet afternoon, updating our blog and sorting out the many photos from this morning’s adventure. We attended an interesting onboard lecture by James “A GeoTourist in St Petersburg”. We are looking forward to another BBQ up on deck tonight with the crew.