Category Archives: Baltic Cities

Aarhus, Denmark

Today, we made our final port stop of the voyage. Due to unforseen circumstances, our planned visit to Nynashamn yesterday had to be cancelled. Instead, today we visited Aarhus, in Denmark.

We arrived at about 12 noon, with all-aboard time being 4:30. Three shore excursions had been hastily cobbled together, but Tracey and I had asked for a day off from escorting, which meant we had several hours to explore.

As with Helsinki, the weather was cold, but dry. First impressions, as we alighted onto the quayside, were a little uncertain; extensive building work along the harbourside gave the impression of having arrived at a very large building site. Once in the town itself, however, I found myself warming to the place.

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We’d been given a map of the town by a local representative. It wasn’t a great deal of use, since it wasn’t in English, but it did help us to navigate towards the Cathedral, a magnificent Romanesque basilica, which was quite impressive. With a length of 93 metres, Aarhus Cathedral is the longest church in Denmark, with the capacity to seat 1200 people.

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From the cathedral, we headed towards the Museum of Modern Art, another large, but quite modern, building at the other end of town, alongside the canal. With an entrance fee of almost ¬£40 for the two us, though, we opted for just have a coffee and a cake in its cafe area. It seemed just that little bit too high a price to pay to see work that we’d almost certainly not fully appreciate, modern art not really being our thing (if it had been a tenner, we would almost certainly taken the plunge, but 20 quid each?… naaah!).

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Browsing through some of the shops on our way back towards the ship, we soon realised that Aarhus is an expensive place altogether. There was one point, in an designer shop when we almost succumbed to spending some money, but, again, the price was, ultimately, just that little bit too high. Designer clothes, designer furniture and designer jewellery assailed our senses at every turn… quite an exclusive place… it was with a sense of relief, then, to discover a little Viking museum which was… wait for it…. free!

Despite being small, we quite enjoyed the short time we spent in the Viking museum, which told us all about the history of the city, and potted history of how extensively the Vikings spread throughout Northern Europe.

We were back on board ship by 3:30, just in time for afternoon tea, so we were able to compensate for missing lunch.

As I write this, we’re making use of our last bit of wi-fi, and a final opportunity to upload anything to the blog before we arrive back home in Tilbury on Friday. It’s formal night again tonight, and tomorrow is a sea day, when I will be running the last of my painting classes followed by an exhibition.

I may get the chance to add a final post on Friday while we are waiting to disembark, but if not, I’m happy to report that it’s been a successful cruise. All the watercolour classes have been well-received, and St. Petersburg didn’t disappoint.

As always, though, I’m looking forward to getting back home to our fast broadband and big shower…

An Unplanned Day at Sea

Today, we were supposed to be visiting Nynashamn in Sweden. Last night, however, the Captain announced from the bridge that due to bad sea conditions in the port, the visit would have to be cancelled, giving us an unplanned day at sea.

So; today, I held my penultimate watercolour class, which had the passengers painting a dramatic seascape, and using sandpaper to create seaspray.

Other activities were laid on to take passengers’ minds off the fact that we weren’t where we supposed to be, and a replacement port was announced for tomorrow… Aarhus, in Denmark.

Helsinki, Finland

Whichever way you look at it, St. Petersburg was always going to be a hard act to follow.

Helsinki is an interesting city, with lots of interesting features and locations, yet it all felt so very different to what we’d experienced over the two previous days.

Tracey and I had been assigned to a City Tour, which basically means a lot of sitting on a coach while it drives you around and the guide tells you as much about the city as she can within the time allowed. Not our favourite kind of excursion, but I think everyone was feeling the effects of all the walking in St. Petersburg, so some quality coach-sitting time seemed quite a welcome contrast(and coaches just send me to sleep).

Our first stop was to a park featuring an unusual monument to Helsinki’s most famous composer, Sibelius. It’s an abstract piece of work that looks much like a bunch of organ pipes glued together. The good people of Helsinki complained when it was erected that Sibelius didn’t compose organ music, and that the monument was far too abstract to be appropriate, so a more figurative feature was added to it, showing the composer’s face. It’s difficult to get a good photograph of it with all the Japanese tourists taking selfies next to it, but I think I did okay…

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As we drove around the city, our guide told us about the the population’s biggest pastime, and passion; saunas. She also explained how the sea freezes over in the winter, so all the boats in the harbour have to be taken up and put into storage. The ice is so thick that you can walk across the harbour to the various islands there. More importantly; I was relieved to hear that they cut holes in the ice so that those taking saunas can follow them up with a spot of winter sea-swimming, which is hugely popular in these parts. She told us that if they can’t get into the sea, then they can always roll in the snow… presumeably in their pink and crinklies. I worry about the Finnish…

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Our next stop was to The Rock Church. This isn’t a church where they play rock music, but a church that is literally built out of, and into, the rock. It’s a strangely beautiful building, with an ornate dome ceiling made out of copper strands (apparently).

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Finally, we arrived at Senate Square; a large square sporting a monument and lots of Japanese tourists taking selfies. Along the bottom edge runs trams, and along the opposite edge, a large flight of steps takes you to the Cathedral. We had 35 minutes to explore at leisure, so I went to take a look inside the Cathedral and wandered around filming the trams before it was time to reboard the coach to take us back to the ship for lunch and a leisurely afternoon of blog updating and tea drinking.

St Petersburg – Day 2

This morning, we awoke to find ourselves still in St. Petersburg – which was a bit of a relief. If we’d drifted off in the middle of the night, that would just be embarrassing.

Day two of the two-day package saw us heading back into the city; both Tracey and myself, and three other volunteers, each assigned to a coach of roughly thirty passengers. An escort’s duties are really rather straightforward; count heads and don’t lose anybody, monitor the progress of the tour and write a full report at its conclusion, stating whether or not the itinerary had been as advertised, log any complaints and look after the welfare of the passengers under your watch. I can only recall a couple of occasions when I’ve lost people, and that’s mostly down to folks deciding they’ve had enough of the tour halfway through it, heading back to the ship without notifying either the escort or the guide. I recall spending an anxious hour or so in Portugal on one occasion, frantically scouring a little village looking for a passenger who, unbeknown to me at the time, had done just that. It eventually transpired that they’d caught a local bus back to the ship, and totally, selfishly messed up the excursion’s itinerary in the process. I’m pleased to report that, on this occasion, I was blessed with two good, largely well-behaved groups of passengers on both days in St. Petersburg; I didn’t lose anybody, and everyone stayed together… bliss!

The first part of today’s excursion was a City Tour featuring several photo stops and a visit to a souvenir shop. Our final stop of the morning being a visit to the Church on the Spilled Blood.

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Typically – this being St, Petersburg – it didn’t disappoint; it’s impressive enough from the outside, with multi-coloured onion domes and brightly coloured mosaics, but when you step inside, its impressiveness is ramped up to 11. Every wall, from floor to ceiling is totally covered in intricate, and quite beautiful, mosaics. It’s become one of the top tourist attractions of the city, second only, I should imagine, to the Hermitage.

We had lunch in a science museum, which I think was called ‘Connect’. The meal was very nice (much nicer than yesterday’s) – veg soup followed by pork and wedges, all washed down with white wine. There can’t be many places where you can eat lunch with a full-sized satellite hanging above your head…

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After lunch, we headed for the Hermitage (pronounced as if speaking French; it rhymes with barge…)

The Hermitage is a vast space that actually consists of 5 different palaces. If Catherine Palace was the Summer residence, then this was the winter residence – in fact, the first part of the Hermitage tour is actually through what is called the Winter Palace.

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Think of any great museum you’ve ever been to (National History Museum, The Louvre), picture the hordes of visitors milling through its myriad halls bursting with goodies, and you have a mental picture of the Hermitage. It is said to be so big that if you spent one minute looking at every single exhibit, without sleep or meal breaks, then it would take you eight years to see it all.

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Like Catherine’s Palace yesterday, the Hermitage features some staggeringly beautiful rooms. Interestingly enough; visitors to Catherine’s Palace are made to wear simple coverings over their footwear, to help protect the intricate marquetry of the floors. The floors in the Hermitage are just as ornate, but no foot protection is required.

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The art collection alone is colossal, with several galleries bursting with well-known classical artists. They are very proud of their Michelangelo and two works by Leonardo De Vinci, both of which had crowds of folk vying for a good position to take photographs. I watched as a crowd of Japanese tourists burst into one of the rooms, looking to all intent and purposes like a human wave. I swear they would happily have climbed over each other to get to the front, with their eager little faces and clutching their expensive cameras and plastic selfie-sticks. Naturally, once they managed to get in front of the paintings, they insist on taking a picture with themselves stood next to it (ruining any possibility of anyone taking a tourist-less photo until they’d finished).

There is so much to see in the Hermitage it would be impossible to list them all; even picking highlights is a challenge. The guide for our group was fantastic, very knowledgeable and highly professional in the way she managed to keep the group together; more importantly, she had a good sense of humour.

Two days isn’t really enough to get under the skin of St. Petersburg, but it does give you an opportunity to appreciate its architecture and colourful history. I felt priviledged to be able to visit it again, and found it to be a thoroughly captivating place. I look forward to being able, hopefully, to visit it again someday…

St Petersburg – Day 1

Today, we arrived at the undisputed highlight of our voyage; St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg was its original founding name. It got renamed to Petragrad at some point along the way, and then for about 75 years, it was known as Leningrad, and was, at one time, the capital city of Russia. Russia is a different place, though, these days; the administrative capital is Moscow and gone is the communist regime. Instead; a newly-democratised Russian public where given a referendum, in which 59% voted to revert the city to its original name of St. Petersburg… St. Petersburg it is, then…

Cruise ship passenger options are limited when it comes to visiting the city. Only those in possession of a Russian visa are allowed to travel independently; no visa is required, however, if they belong to an organised ship excursion.

We’re here for two days, so Tracey and I were given escorting duties for a two-day package, which covers a little bit of everything…

The first job was to get through Russian Immigration, which went surprisingly smoothly. Once everyone was on the bus, we headed towards Catherine’s Palace. The weather was cool, but mercifully dry.

I must admit, I lose track of who was married to who in the history of Russian royalty. There was a Catherine the 1st and 2nd, and one of them was known as Catherine the Great; there are several Peters (and a Peter the Great, of course) and umpteen Nicholases. No matter… whichever Catherine the Palace belonged to, I’m sure she was very happy there (or not… since Russian royalty had no qualms about bumping a relative off if they decided they didn’t like them much).

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To say Catherine’s Palace is gob-smackingly impressive would be quite an understatement; the main palace buildings, painted in a striking blue and white, with gold ornamentations, seem to stretch on forever. Walking through the interior rooms is an absolute feast for the eyes, with lights, mirrors and gold leaf much in abundance. Vast ballrooms and elegant dining rooms are only trumped by the Amber Room, which is literally covered from floor to ceiling in ornate amber mosaics.

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One of the most impressive things about the palace is that the way it appears today is the result of extensive restoration work that has gone on since the 1940s. The buildings and grounds received severe punishment from the Germans in the war, and photos showing the extent of the devastation really bring home how extensive the rebuilding process has been.

After two hours inside the palace, our guide took us on a short tour of the gardens, during which time, it started to rain.

It being an all-day tour meant that we were given lunch, featuring Borsch soup, Chicken and vegetables and Russian Champagne. Very nice indeed. While we ate lunch, however, the rain started to fall heavier… by the time we had finished, it was really quite grim outside…

The final section of our first day’s tour was to the Peterhof Palace Gardens (not the inside of the palace itself). A guided tour of its many fountains left many imagining how much nicer they might have looked on a warm summers day and without the puddles. As it was, it felt a bit like a wet weekend in Scarborough.

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Having said that; despite the inclement weather, the fountains we saw (for there are many more that we didn’t see) were truly spectacular. The centrepiece of the gardens is what they call ‘The Grand Cascade’, a multi-tiered display of many fountains and gold sculptures in an installation of such grandeur that one staggers at the immense costs that must have been involved. The whole collection of fountains was nothing more than a grand idea dreamed up one day by one of the Peters (I think), who woke up one morning and decided the garden was looking a little drab. What it needed was a water feature… or two. Amazingly; all the fountains operate purely by gravity… water flows down from the upper gardens, through the fountains, and finally to the Gulf of Finland. Quite awesome!

By the time we’d returned to the coach, the passengers were quite drenched, and happy to be back in the warm and dry.

It had been a long day, but a very rewarding one, despite the rain. Tomorrow, we will be concentrating on the central attractions of the city… that’ll be another long day, then… so an early night is in order…

By the way… I recommend taking a look at Tracey’s Blog (see link to the left of your screen). Not only does she post more photos than me, but she had some interesting passengers on her coach, which makes for humurous¬†reading…