Our major focus of this cruise was to see St. Petersburg, but the other ports were of interest too. We left from Dover, England, and stopped at Copenhagen (Denmark), Northern Germany, Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg, Helsinki (Finland), Stockholm (Sweden) and back to Dover.
by NiceGinna on May 20, 2009
This was our third cruise and, again, there are certain aspects we love but a lot that we don't. The obvious plus is getting to various locations without having to pack and unpack. How can you beat that? We also like that you can be fairly flexible: if you want to sleep in and just go in to town in the afternoon, you can. If you are an earlybird, you can skip the evening entertainments (which we don't find all that terrific) and get an early night and be off the ship as soon as it docks. Tours are a bit less flexible. Of course, being on your own is the most flexible.The downside:We definitely didn't care for NCL. This was our second cruise with them and we almost definitely won't use them again. They nickel and dime you to death. There are a couple of dining rooms that are included in your basic fare plus the buffet. And then there are specialized restaurants that charge a per person cover charge. Of course you don't have to go to these restaurants, but it's nice to try something different, as the same food gets a bit tiresome after a week.The size of the cruise ship is also something you will want to look at. These NCL ships carry more than 2,000 people and the new one carries even more. We preferred Oceania with 600 people on the ship. Strictly a personal choice. The smaller ship will offer fewer restaurants and perhaps fewer choices in entertainment. Oceania was certainly more expensive than NCL.The excursions from any cruise lines are quite expensive. We don't usually use these. During this cruise, we used only one, in Northern Germany, as we felt it would be difficult getting anywhere interesting on our own. It was quite good. But in other places, particularly when we were docking in a city, we used the Hop on Hop off buses that are usually available right at the dock. They're not dumb: they know where the business is. Some cities you don't even need that: in Copenhagen we just walked in to town. We'd been there for 2 weeks on a home exchange several years before so felt there wasn't anything we really needed to see; we just had lunch and walked around the city a bit.We did arrange for a tour of St. Petersburg through a local (Russian) agency instead of through the cruise line. This was a big savings and, I think, a better experience. See the "Experience" about St. Petersburg in 2 days.Friends who had never been on a cruise before signed up for an excursion in almost every stop and were quite disappointed in several. They had a "crazy" tour guide on one.
When planning a visit to the Tate Britain, why not plan to have lunch there also? You'll find excellent service, nice linens, and delicious food. But the main attraction is the mural on the walls. It is one continuous scene, around the world in a very romantic style, with castles, hunts, and mills. There are repeating themes, such as the bike rider who apparently represents the artist. And who was this artist? It was Rex Whistler, a 22 year old artist, who painted it in the 1920's. Sadly, he joined the army at age 35 to serve in WWII and was killed in Normandy in 1944.We did enjoy the lunch too. David had grilled kidneys followed by sea bream (sole) while I had poached salmon with a watercress/radish salad followed by a very fresh pasta with tomatoes and spinach. Our desserts were apple/rhubarb crumble (such a British treat) and a maple pecan parfait. With all of this we had a nice Riesling wine. The servers were very good and very knowledgeable about the art.The restaurant is certainly not inexpensive. I think lunch for the two of us with the bottle of wine was about $110.
We had spent 2 weeks in Copenhagen several years ago on a home exchange, so we didn't feel a big need to run around and see everything. The ship docked within an easy and pleasant walk of the city, so there was no need to use a Hop on Hop off bus.Denmark is a Constitutional Monarchy; it is both a Capitalist State and a Welfare State. The country includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands and is part of the Nordic States which also includes Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Denmark has more than 1400 islands, making for very expensive infrastructure. Germany is to the South; all other borders are water. During WWII, Denmark tried to protect its Jews, sending many to Sweden. They surrendered in 1940 in only 2 hours. Denmark is part of the EU, although Greenland and the Faroe Islands are not. The population is 5.5 million; they are active in NATO and the UN. They have the highest level of income equality and offer free education through college and of course free health care. Their VAT is 25%. A survey has shown that it is the happiest country in the world; it is also the least corrupt and has very low unemployment.Copenhagen is a wonderful city for bikers. But watch it when crossing the street! You could be run over. There are bike lanes reserved for them and they have the right of way.Greeting us at the harbor are the beautiful windmills providing much of their electrical power needs. We were very lucky to have a bright sunny day.
I'm not necessarily recommending this particular restaurant although it was fine. But you must have a meal somewhere along the Canal, especially if you have a warm and sunny day.We each had a plate of smoked salmon with a nice Pinot Blanc from the Alsace region of France. For dessert, we opted for something we remembered something we had tried the last time we were here: Old Danish Cheese (served with minced red onions and radishes, Hansen’s golden rum, Maille mustard, on dark bread) and a glass of brown aquavit. Fun. But it's the casual and relaxed feeling along the Canal that's the real draw. There are fishing boats docked all along the Canal and there's great people watching. While we lunched, a band came along and entertained us. Does it get any better than that?
Since it was such a beautiful day, we decided to walk through the King's Gardens (we thought to go to the Kunst Museum, but were too tired once we got there, but it's definitely worth a visit if you haven't been). These gardens are from the early 17th century and on this day there were many people walking babies, having picnics or sunning themselves, or just enjoying the walk. The castle itself is a beautiful building with soaring towers built in the Dutch Renaissance style; it was built in the first years of the 17th century as a summer residence to be surrounded by the beautiful park. Later it was enlarged and the Great Tower was added. It has been made into a museum which holds the Crown Jewels and other royal items from the first 300 years of the history of the royalty through the 19th century.
Our favorite museum is the Statens Museum for Kunst (Danish National Gallery), one of the best museums we've ever visited. The art is wonderful, with interesting juxtapositions of older and newer works with commentaries by the newer artists relating the pictures to each other. The modern addition (1998) is joined to the original building (1889-1896) by a lovely glass-covered sculpture street, a most successful addition.
Our ship docked in Warnemunde, a town in Mecklenberg, part of what was East Germany not so many years ago. It's not an industrial area except for ship building; agriculture is the focus here with rapeseed (for cooking oil and now being converted to fuel for trucks), wheat, corn and so on. Mecklenberg is now one of the Federal States, associated with the Pomeranian area which is nearer to Poland. There are over 2000 lakes in the area, connected by rivers and canals, so of course tourism is a major growth area, not just with cruise ships but for Europeans looking for second homes in a lake district.The Hanseatic League was founded in 1329 in Lubeck, just to the west of where we were. It was a merchant league of the cities on the Baltic Sea, connected by the Via Reggia, which is now a modern route. The symbol of the League was the Griffin, a combination of a lion and a dragon; this is still the symbol of the area today.Route 20, the road we took to Schwerin, was built with great regard for the environment. There are special bridges built for the wildlife so that they may get from one side to the other without danger. There are many windmills along the route – about 50% of Mecklenberg’s power comes from windpower. These windmills are built in Rostock, another of the few industrial ventures in the State.We docked on May Day, the European version of our Labor Day, with parades and crowds. The advertised destination was Berlin but it is a 2 1/2 hour train ride away which did not interest us. Instead we opted for a ship excursion to the town of Schwerin with its beautiful Palace.
Our tour bus left us at Schwerin Lake where we boarded a small boat that would take us for a pleasant cruise on this sunny day across to the island where Schwerin Castle sits. The approach to the town is lovely, as we reached the inlet where the castle is situated. Schwerin has a good strategic position; it is surrounded by seven major lakes. The Castle is on an island next to Fortress Lake. In the area there is much boating and sailing, biking, and swimming. Tourism is a major industry.There were Germanic tribes in this area 4000 years ago. Then the Slavic tribes arrived and ruled until the 12th century. There are still many towns with names ending in "-ow" or "-in", which are Slavic endings. In the 12th century (1160) the Duke of Lower Saxony, Henry the Lion, came and conquered the last Slavic king, Niclot. Henry had his daughter married to Niclot’s son who became Christian. In 1348 Albrecht I was the first Duke in Schwerin and had the first castle built. It was reconstructed in the 16th century. The Mecklenburg Dukes intermarried with European nobility, including George III of England and the Tsars. They abdicated in 1918 and lost all their property. In 1969 the last Duke died and his son ended the family in 2001 when he died. The Castle was last redone in the late 1800’s and today is the seat of the State Parliament of Mecklenburg West-Pomerania. We toured the beautiful rooms with their wood inlaid floors, silk wall coverings, and painted and decorated ceilings. One of the things we were shown was a pair of painted porcelain urns, a gift from the Russian Tsar. How were such things transported in those days of rough travel? They were packed in wooden crates filled with butter! Much of the ceiling and wall decoration, which looked like plaster, was instead papier mache, actually a valued craft in those days! The gardens surrounding the castle, with the views of the lake, are lovely. We saw Ginko trees, Plane trees, a weeping beech with branches joined. Then back to the bus and the ride home. It really would have been nice to have more time here to see the full gardens and the rest of the town.
The cruise ship docked at Warnemunde and offered trips to Berlin 2 1/2 hours away by train. Five hours of travel in a day - and May Day crowds in Berlin - did not interest us so we opted for an excursion to Schwerin Castle. In the afternoon I visited, on my own, the town of Warnemunde itself. There's not really all that much to see, although their May Day celebrations made it a lively place to see on this day.I walked along the waterfront where there were booths for the May Day celebration and there were bands playing and singers entertaining the crowds. I walked to the beach where there were sand dunes and lots of families flying kites. In town, there's an old light house and a sweet church, but nothing un-missable.
The Hop on Hop off bus worked particularly well in Tallinn. It picked us up right at the dock and took us to all the places we wanted to see. In Tallinn, they are quite spread out. We first stopped at Kadriorg Park and Palace, then remounted the bus for a ride through the further areas of interest such as the ruins of St. Bridget's Priory. We just did a "drive-by" for those areas, and then arrived back in the Old Town where we had lunch and explored the Lower Town and the Upper Town. We had from 9 AM until 5:30 PM which was plenty of time for visiting all these places.As we arrived in Tallinn a band, dressed in blue uniforms, greeted us, making us feel so welcome. We were the first cruise ship of the season, so I'm sure, in many ways, they were happy to see us.Tallinn has a population of about 400,000 which is a third of the total Estonian population!Tallinn was another of the member cities of the merchant Hanseatic League, founded in 1329 in Lubeck (Germany).
There was a Hop on Hop off bus right at the dock area for about $17 each. This proved to be a very handy way to get a view of the city. We first took the bus out to Kariorg Park to visit the Palace, built as a summer residence by the Russian Emperor Peter the Great in 1718 and named for Catherine I, his wife. We passed the very pleasant Park and Swan Pond with its picturesque gazebo in the middle and walked up to the Palace, which is now a fine arts museum, although there is not a lot of art to see. It was mostly the building itself that we were interested in.The main hall, with a painted ceiling and beautiful ornamentation, is an exquisite example of Baroque architecture. There are display cases with interesting porcelain and ceramic items of the time.From there we could walk to the sea where we could again pick up the Hop on Hop off bus to continue with the tour of the city.Then we walked a bit in the gardens and then through the park to the sea
We took the recommendations of other igougo members and had lunch outside at Olde Hansa. The service was incredibly slow, with us waiting an hour before our order was taken! But we were lucky to have a gorgeous day for sitting outside and interesting people to talk to at the next table.The food, when it finally arrived, was wonderful. We started with a shared bowl of the highly recommended mushroom soup, which lived up to its reputation. Then I had a plate of elk/boar/bear sausages that were outstanding and they were accompanied by interesting and delicious side dishes: a sort of cranberry sauce, an almost sweet sauerkraut, and onion "jam", all of which went so well with the sausages. David had a plate of pork which he thought was terrific too. This was all washed down with a Chilean Merlot.Everything is served in old crockery type dishes and bowls and old-style glassware, which are available in the gift shop. The young servers are dressed in medieval costumes. Inside, it's extremely dark, with only candlelight - authentic but disorienting. The bathroom also is quite dark and done in as medieval a style as possible for indoor plumbing.But the long lag in service really bites into your day of sightseeing.
by NiceGinna on May 17, 2009
We were on a cruise to the Baltic States and were to spend two days in St. Petersburg, the primary focus of our trip. The cruise line, of course, offered several "excursions" but as always these tours were extremely expensive and even somewhat confusing when trying to choose which of the many trips to take while not duplicating sites.A friend of a friend recommended AlloTours, a Russian company, who offered a complete, coordinated 2-day tour. They worked with us regarding the time of our ship's arrival in St. Pete. It turned out that 12 other people on the same ship had opted for this tour group (although there were several other tour groups, we found).AlloTours deals with you on the internet. They take complete charge of arranging your "Visas", even though the cruise line will tell you that if you don't take a tour with them you will need to obtain your own Visa. You will be emailed your forms and everything worked exceedingly well. The cruise line will also try to intimidate you, saying that you will have to disembark after all their people (this did not happen) and so on.There is no need to pay AlloTours until the second day of the tour. You can pay in cash (US Dollars or Euros) or by credit card. The fee for the standard tour is $300 (plus the credit card fee). There are also more expensive tour options available which will be explained to you. We did meet a young couple on the ship who did obtain their own Visas and were going out on their own. It boggled our minds. I don't know how they could cover half the territory that we did on their own.Our guide spoke excellent English with little accent. She gave us a lot of information on history and present day conditions and was very knowledgeable about all the sites we visited. One of the greatest advantages of AlloTours is that they have arranged for their tours to be able to enter the Hermitage before normal opening hours. This is HUGE as it allows you to see so much more before the huge crowds descend upon the museum.
Catherine Palace, designed by Bartolomeo Rastralli, is one of the several summer residences of the tsars. It is located in the town of Pushkin, the most beloved writer of the Russian population. The palace, with its gilded wrought-iron gates, is stunning with its unusal blue with white and gold exterior. We toured the rooms, which are dazzling with the golden ornamentation, reflected even further in the many mirrors and shining chandeliers. The rooms have beautiful blue Delft tile stoves. There were game rooms decorated in silk, one in red and one in blue. When invitations went out, it was specified which room they would be gaming in. If it was the red room, people brought rubies to gamble with; if the blue room, they brought sapphires! The most amazing and most famous room is the Amber Room, with walls covered in amber. This was destoyed during the Revolution and has been recreated. I expected a tiny room but it's surprisingly large, with even the picture frames in the amber. There is even a workshop on the grounds where they make beautiful (and expensive) amber jewelry and other items which are for sale in the gift shop in the palace.
Peterhof Palace, built in the early 1700’s and one of the oldest palaces in the area, is surrounded by a 2,500 acre Park. The Palace was, again, designed by Rastrelli. Sadly, we were too early for the many fountains to be working but we could see how stunning they would be. There are golden statues leading down a waterfall, called the Great Cascade, to a canal that runs out to the Gulf of Finland. Samson, the symbol of Peterhof, is the main statue in the fountain. We passed by the Orangerie and another fountain, this time of Triton. We walked to the small favorite palace of Peter the Great, Mon Plaisir, flanked by Catherine’s yellow palace and the boathouse.
Our first stop on our organized tour was Peter and Paul Fortress and Peter and Paul Church, with its 400 foot spire, where so many of the Tsars/Emperors are buried. Here we saw the place where the remains of the last Tsar, Nicolas II and his wife Alexandra and their children (the son, Alexei, and the 4th daughter whose remains have recently been discovered are soon to be interred here) are buried. The bright green interior is startling and is highlighted by the sumptuous gold of the altars.
The Winter Palace was the Tsar’s official residence fro 1720 to 1727. AlloTour has arranged early admittance, so it wasn’t very crowded while we were there. Julia, our guide, gave us a good tour of the highlights of this huge place with 3 million pieces. She tells us if we spent one minute at each piece we would still be there in 11 years. We saw works by Da Vinci, Tiziano, a famous statue by Canova that was owned by the rich family of the Yusupovs, Raphael, Michangelo, Sisley, Cezanne, Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, Picasso, and more. The rooms themselves are stunning. I bought the option of taking pictures – the only one in the group – and I can’t imagine not doing that. Some day, I’m sure, no one will be allowed to photograph the art! No flashes, of course.The Hermitage, also known as the Winter Palace, was built by Bartolomeo Rastrelli in the mid-1700’s. Peter the Great began the use of the Palace as an art museum. Catherine II had vast collections and she placed them all in the building next door where only she and "the mice" would see them, giving the name of the Hermitage, indicating the privacy of the collection. In 1837 a fire destroyed the Winter Palace but the imperial collections were saved by throwing them out the windows. In 1839 it was decided to open the collections to the public.
I was amazed that I was the only person in our tour group who opted for the right to take pictures in this amazing museum. Not just the rooms, but the art itself. No flash, of course, but even so. I took over 100 pictures and thought that it was well worth it, to be able to remember some of these gorgeous works. Here are a few.
by NiceGinna on May 18, 2009
The Church of the Spilled Blood is a magnificent example of a Russian Orthodox Church as we expect to see it with its colorful onion domes. And the mosaics covering every square inch of the interior are also exceptional. The name of the church comes from the fact that Alexander II was killed on this spot and his son had this church built to honor him.
St. Isaac's is also the third largest church in the world, after St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London. The gilded dome is a landmark that can be seen all over the city. The outside is quite sober looking, with dark columns on each side. The bronze doors reminded me of the doors at the Duomo in Florence. Inside there are paintings and mosaics everywhere.
by NiceGinna on May 26, 2009
Arriving in Helsinki, we again boarded a Hop on Hop off bus, right at the port. However, we discovered that this was not really the best way to see Helsinki and the tickets were pretty expensive (20 euros each, I think). It would have been better to take a cab to the first place we wanted to see - Temppeliaukio Church or the Church in the Rock - and then walk back to town to visit the Esplanade, the churches, and so forth (see Experience of "Walk around Helsinki"). Then, when you are tired you can take a cab back to the ship. I'm pretty sure this would be less expensive and a lot more convenient than the HOHO bus.During the Viking times, the Finns were not Vikings, but were disorganized tribes of Finna, Tavastians, and the Karelians by the 11th century. Finland was a part of Sweden for over 700 years until 1809 when the Russian Tsar won it as reparations in Sweden’s defeat. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Finns tried for independence. Today the Finns speak Finnish or Swedish. The first woman President was elected for her second 6-year term in 2006.The Finns have a passion for the outdoors and are environmentally aware. Their diet is influenced by this, including wild game and fish, berries including cloudberries, excellent rye and sweet-sour breads.The population of Helsinki is 1.2 million. Helsinki is also called "The Daughter of the Baltic" or "The White City of the North".
Our first destination was Temppeliaukio Church, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969. It’s a low church, surrounded by beautiful boulders of brown, red, pink, and gray muted colors. The entrance door is bronze (I think) and you come into a round space, with a 24 meter-diameter copper strip roof. The struts are spaced apart, letting the sun shine in and there is plenty of rock exposed. We’re not usually interested in modern churches, but this one is a major exception.
Our first stop was the Temppeliaukio Church, built into the rock of the city. See my (and many other's) review on that. Then we walked to the Central Railway Station, designed by famous Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in the Finnish National Romantic style (Art Nouveau) in 1917. The Station has become a well-known landmark in the city.Next back to the Esplanade, a lovely street of beautiful buildings - hotels and shops and restaurants - divided by an elegant grassy walkway in the middle with a couple of restaurants at either end. After a stop for a snack, we continued on to Senaatintori (Senate Square). There’s a statue of Tsar Alexander II; the Finns and Russians had close ties in the 19th century. Dominating the square is the stark white Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral), high up a series of stairs. It was designed by Carl Ludwig Engel and built in the mid 1800’s in the neoclassical style. We then walked a couple of blocks east to view the charming red brick Uspenski Cathedral on Katajanokka island. It was built as a Russian Orthodox church in the Byzantine-Slavonic style in 1868, designed by Aleksei Govnostayev of St. Petersburg. It is very attractive with the typical onion domes soaring above the street-level. We didn't have time to explore Katajanokka Island more but it looked like an interesting place to spend some time.We then walked past the Kauppatori, the main market square with stalls offering crafts, knitted goods, furs, and so on, with the old Market Building beyond. Then past the Havis Amanda, a mermaid and dolphin fountain which is the symbol of Helsinki, designed by Ville Vallgren in 1908. Then we headed back to the ship.
As we walked along the lovely Esplanade in the middle of Helsinki, we couldn't help but notice a very attractive building that lured us in. It wasn't time for lunch or dinner, but we thought we would have a glass of wine. There is a cafeteria-style line and I was very tempted by a cake displayed there: we were told it was Daim (pronounced "dime") Cake, chocolate and nuts and someone said corn, but that may have been a translation problem. Anyway, with two glasses of wine and a piece of cake, we found a pleasant place to sit in one of the glassed-in corners of the restaurant and enjoyed our snack. The cake was delicious! I always like to try a really local treat and this was a great one.Everything else in the display case looked fresh and inviting too. I would certainly recommend it as a pleasant place to have lunch.
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