Monday, August 15, 2005

The trip home and final thoughts

The trip home was very long. I woke up very early (4:30) though we did not have to meet our bus until 6:30. Walking the ship – that’s all there was to do. As we were waiting to get on the bus, we heard a loud crash. Two taxis had an accident in an empty parking lot. Hard to imagine how they managed it. At least no one seemed to be hurt. The trip to the airport brought us through Copenhagen – lots of familiar sites. We stopped at a corner and a taxi driver warned our bus driver – ducks ahead. Make Way for Ducklings! Sure enough a duck and her ducklings had just crossed the street and were waddling towards the water. Once at the airport we had a three hour wait until our flight. There was no comfortable place to wait. It was long and boring – a preparation for Heathrow. Our flight was uneventful.

We arrived at Heathrow. It was a long haul through a long hall. June was exhausted from her stuffed head due to her cold. We had a five hour wait at Heathrow. There is only so much time you can walk past shops and sit. Finally our flight was called. We sat down. The lady behind us put her bag up in the compartment without much thought and down it came on June’s head. Poor June – a seven hour flight with a sore head, headache etc. The staff were solicitous, but not helpful when she mentioned that she thought she deserved some compensation. We were not assured of their concern for safety when someone in the other aisle got something out of a compartment and left the door open. The staff walked by – oblivious. We asked them to please make sure it was closed. It took them a good 10 minutes.

We both received wonderful greetings. My children were waiting with a beautiful bouquet of flowers. It was so good to see them. June had a large contingent waiting – Alli, Mieke, Patty-Mae and Mrs. D.

Good to be home. I love to travel – but I love to be home!

We travelled a total of 2281 nautical miles under captain Cesare Ditel

Would I go on another cruise? not very quickly.
I don't like the feeling of getting off in Europe and going back each evening to Las Vegas. It is true that it is convenient not to have to pack and unpack, but finding ones way is part of the adventure of travel. The tours, though very informative, were a bit like going to the zoo. The real life of the city is kept apart from you as are the animals in a zoo; you go and gawk but you don't take part. I saw many things, amazing sites, beautiful cities, but I did not live the cities. Much was rushed and I don't feel I did any of the cities justice. I am not sorry I went on this trip; I have many unforgettable memories, but I won't be travelling on this kind of cruise again for a long time. – except perhaps to Alaska where you see things while you are on the ship and the contrast between ship and shore are not so marked.

What would I like to go back to?
I definitely want to spend more time in St. Petersburg and I would like to see more of Russia. It would be nice to spend more time in Norway, spend more time in Vigeland Park, see a museum and perhaps, take a boat trip up the fiords. It would be great to hear a concert in the Church in the Rock in Helsinki – but I doubt I will be back there. So much still to explore….

Sunday, August 14, 2005


I am not sure what it is about Oslo, but I loved it from the moment we arrived. Maybe it was the fresh-smelling air, the many green spaces, the prominence of art in the city. Whatever, I had a good feeling about the city. We docked right next to Akershus Castle and fortress. Our ship is so large we towered over the hill on which the fortress sits. Oslo is on a fiord and past some buildings, in another inlet you could see another ship (perhaps the Queen Mary II) which looked almost like an office building with smoke stacks.

Onto buses for our tour. Oslo, in area is one of the 10 largest cities in the world and with a population of only .5 million that means there is a lot of open space. It was originally called Christiania and became Oslo in 1925. It was founded in 1040. After a fire in 1624 the town was rebuilt. All streets had to be wide and perpendicular and no wood structures were allowed. Akershus castle is about 700 years old. During the Second World War it housed the Nazi headquarters. Now there is a Resistance Museum on the grounds. Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian fascist politician at the time who collaborated with the enemy forces. His name has become synonymous with traitor.

We drove through the city and then up the hills to the Holmenkollen ski jump. The view from the site is beautiful – right down to the fiord. I can not imagine going to the top of the ski jump, much less skiing down it. There was not much to do at the jump and I feel we spent too much time there. Nearby was an old church built of wood. Many homes in the area are built of wood, some with sod roofs. In Norway there is a law granting free access to all uncultivated land. You can even camp on private property provided you are no closer than 150 meters from a house. There is a series of wooden huts without electricity (“hitte”). You can pay for a key and stay in any of the huts.

Our next stop was the Viking Ship Museum in Bygdøy I learned that Vikings raided and pillaged over a very large area, through the Mediterranean to Italy where they attacked Pisa thinking it was Rome. The Rus, Vikings from Sweden, went to Russia down to the Black Sea. Other Vikings went to Iceland, Greenland and across to North America. Some settled in areas such as Normandy (Norsemen). The Vikings were not one nation but were differenet nomads from Northern Europe – Angles, Saxons, Jutes. The majority were farmers. Only some went seafaring. If they had devoted more time to conquering and less to looting, they might have ruled a large part of Europe. On my return home, I picked up a book, which I first saw at the museum: Historical Atlas of the Viking World. It is an easy read and gives a good idea of Viking life. There are several photographs of objects we saw in the museum.

In the museum are several Viking longboats, or drakkars (dragon ships), as well as other relics from Viking times. One ship was found in 1903 near Osbork. It was a Viking queen’s funeral ship and was found in a burial mound. It has been 90% pieced together. It would have carried 30 oarsmen, who would row when the winds were not strong enough, and is 70’ by 16’. The ship was built some time around 820 and was used as a burial ship in 840. There is some elaborate carving on the wood of the bow. There is a myth that Vikings had helmets with horns. This does not seem to have been borne out by the artifacts and drawings I saw in any of the museums in Scandinavia.

From the Viking Ship Museum we went to Vigeland Park in Frogner Park. Vigeland was born in 1869. His father was a wood carver. Vigeland could not afford to study art. At the age of 20 he showed his sketches and drawings to a sculptor and was invited to work in is studio. Later he won a scholarship and studied abroad. He made several visits to Rodin’s studio, which influenced his work. When he came back to Norway, he won a commission to redo Trondheim Cathedral, but after a period of time he wanted to work in a more modern style. The city of Oslo (then Kristiana) lent him a studio. When it had to be demolished to make way for a new building, he made a deal with the city. He would bequeath all his work to the city in return for which he got a large place to live and work. His masterpiece is the Vigeland Park, completely designed by him, and including over 200 sculptures, wrought iron gates. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place – green, serene and awesome. The sculptures, all naked, deal with every aspect, age and emotion of human existence. It would take a long time to really look at them all and appreciate them. I took over 100 photographs in the park, hoping to look at greater length later as we only had about an hour in the park. I would gladly go back and spend days just sitting, walking and stopping and appreciating. The breadth and depth of his work is astounding.

On the way back to the ship we were let off near the city hall, a short walk back to the ship. It is here that the Nobel Prize for Peace is presented each year. The medallion that is given was designed by Vigeland. June and I went in. Walking up to the doors, on either side of the driveway in a covered walkway are lovely wood relief sculptures of Norse legends. It is obvious that Norwegians appreciate art. We did not take a tour of the building, but did look in the main hall with its huge murals. The area around City Hall, as in many port cities, used to be seedy and run down. Now it is beautiful. Large sculptures can be found on the large plaza near the water. We walked back to the ship which looked bizarrely huge parked beside the fortress – like some oversized object placed in a Lilliputian world.

We went for lunch in the buffet restaurant on the 14th floor of the ship and looked down on the fortress. Then for about three hours, the ship sailed through Oslo fiord. I loved the scenery, especially on the less settled side of the fiord.

We went to afternoon tea – a bit odd to be served a British tradition with waiters in vests or cummerbunds in stars and stripes fabric. However, sitting at a window table, we could watch the lovely scenery as we sailed past. I (a bit late) discovered that you could walk around the whole ship on deck 7 with a little detour up to deck 8. I did a few rounds, enjoying the scenery as I walked.

Dinner (again formal) was very American. The waiters, once again wore their stars and stripes and red, white and blue balloons floated above each table. We had to have our bags packed by 10:00, so we went back to our room to be ready.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Once more at sea

Time to rest, time to explore the ship, time on our hands.

In the morning we went to a “kitchen show” which was unimpressive. The humour was puerile and a “joke” cooking with hot pepper which made many in the audience cough, was not really funny. However, June’s friend had told us that one of the highlights of one of her trips was the kitchen tour. We were both very disappointed because the kitchen tour turned out to be a quick walk through part of the kitchen (and yes – you could buy a cookbook!)

We spent some time wandering the ship taking photographs so we could show our friends just how big everything was. It is hard to describe in words. It is not my world; I feel much more comfortable in more modest surroundings.. I have become quite tired of the constant push to spend money (tooth whitening, art auctions, the shipboard stores, photographs, books, the spa, classes at the gym, the casino, the bar, you name it!). This place is all about consumption.

The nicest part of the day was spent watching the water go by. We sailed past Copenhagen and saw the Great Belt suspension bridge – the second longest in the world. We passed many wind turbines. Denmark takes advantage of the wind for electricity.

It was another “formal” night, something I found quite arbitrary. Maybe it is different if you are there with a spouse and the evening seems special – time to go dancing. But as a single woman, I found it silly to have to dress up for dinner. Yet again, the camera crew was out taking formal portraits. I guess if you had a special reason to commemorate this trip (being with a big family group, a special occasion celebrated) it would be nice to have pictures. In my case, my digital photos will do me fine.

I much prefer the days when we are in a port.

Friday, August 12, 2005


The harbour in Gdansk (Gdynia, actually) had a different feel from the harbour elsewhere. There were NATO warships docked. We got off the ship and went to our bus. Our tour guide, Jacek was determined that we would learn a lot about Poland’s history and, particularly, its many years of occupation by everyone from the Germans, the Russians, the Teutonic Knights, etc. He was passionate about Poland and wanted to be sure we understood his story.

Gdynia is part of the tri-cities – Gdynia, Sopot and Gdansk. Gdansk was an “independent city” and the Poles wanted their own seaport so they built a harbour at Gdynia, about 30 miles away. Sopot, in between the two, is a seaside resort.

People first settled near Gdansk in the 7th century. It was in 997, when the bishop of Prague christened all the inhabitants, that it became part of the Polish state. In the 13th century it was taken over by Teutonic Knights and became part of the Hanseatic League. Over a period, the knights were driven out and Poland was once more independent. Heavy wars with Sweden (remember the Vasa – it was on its way to Poland) weakened the Poles and though they were not conquered, they were then vulnerable to attack by the Russians. In the 1700s Poland was partitioned. For 123 years part of it was Russian, part Austrian and part Prussian. And yet the culture survived. And so it went. Gdansk became a “free city” At times it was more German than Polish. After the first world war, Poland became independent again, only to be fought over by both the Russians and the Germans in World War II. Gdansk was devastated in the war and it is miraculous to see how it was reconstructed to have the same look as before.

In the 1970s there was the first uprising. The shipyard workers in Gdansk and Gdynia went on strike for better working conditions. The strike was brutally put down. Our tour guide, who once worked in the shipping industry, remembered running from the melee. In 1980, Lech Wałćsa started the Solidarity movement

We left the bus and walked through the Upland Gate onto a pedestrian street (in the rain). Umbrellas up we trudged along the street looking at buildings reminiscent of Amsterdam. Dutch architects had left their mark. Here, too, there had been a window tax, so buildings were built long and narrow. We walked toward the Golden Gate which has the slogan “With Unity small states rise, with Disunity large states fall. We meandered through streets and went to St. Mary’s Church, built in the Gothic style. The tall windows bring light into the church. At one time they were all stained glass, but wars and the Reformation destroyed most of them. At one time St. Mary’s was shared by the Catholics and Lutherans. Then it became Lutheran, but it is back to being Catholic. In 1945, many Polish Catholics from the east moved into the area. Pope John-Paul visited there in 1979. His visit to Poland was a catalyst for Poles to think again about independence. During the riots in the 70s and later in the 80s many people took refuge in St. Mary’s church.

There are 3 naves in the church. Originally there were frescoes, but during the Reformation everything was simplified. Fortunately they did not destroy the elaborate altar piece. They only closed it. It was only reopened in 1945.

You can see burial stones through out the church. The more important people were buried closer to the altar. Slate was very expensive and after a number of years they would reuse the markers, turning them over and carving on the other side. An important piece of art is the 10 Commandments. It illustrates each of the commandments so that the illiterate people could have access to the text.

A number of important works of art can be found here. A large astrological clock, dating to the 1400’s is magnificent.. There is a copy of a triptych dating from 1475 – The Last Judgement and a pieta dating from 1410.

We walked through some narrow streets and then went to see the stores selling amber. Amber is at least 40 million years old. The very old amber is 45-50 million years old and is mainly white. The best known colour is cognac, but amber also comes in green and yellow (the youngest amber). For many years amber was used as an ingredient in incense in churches. Amber is so light, it floats on salt water. We watched a jeweler polish some amber and then had a bit of time to look around. On the buses to lunch we passed the spot where the main synagogue stood. A smaller one is going to be built shortly. Most of the Jews from Gdansk left the city before the war. Because of the heavy German presence, they learned of what was happening in Germany and fled. Another structure that is going to be rebuilt is an Elizabethan Theatre. It was there in Renaissance and actors came from England to perform Shakespeare.

Our guide spoke of his time participating in the Solidarity Movement. They knew what they wanted to get rid of, but what next? We passed the Solidarity Monument, which had been put up to honour those who died in the strike of 1970. Our guide worked designing ships for Warsaw Pact countries.

Who was born in the Gdansk area – Gunther Grass, Joseph Conrad.

During the years under Soviet domination, Poland was better off than parts of Russia. 21% of the agricultural land was kept in private hands and so they did not suffer the extensive famine that happened in Russia when people were put in charge of collective farms who knew nothing about agriculture.

After lunch, we drove to Oliwa to a Cistercian Chapel. Along the way we saw “Leningrad Housing”, immense blocks of apartments with no personality. Apartments seemed small and rundown.

In the chapel in Oliwa we heard a short organ concert. Their organ is well known. The choice of music was interesting. The organist played some more traditional church music such as the Bach / Gounod Ave Maria. But he also played the opening to Pictures at an Exhibition and showcased the organ in a very modern piece, which at times sounded almost electronic, bell-like. Back’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor was thundering. As we sat I looked up and delicate starts are painted on the ceiling of the church. We walked through the church and the grounds.

Our guide said that many houses are being privately bought, though they are still out of the range of many Poles. Those privately owned are better maintained.

Our guide was great – though perhaps a bit bitter. He worries about the Germans buying up Poland and about the many Poles who leave the country to work throughout the EU. To be sure we would continue to learn about Poland he recommended some books which are listed here.

Our tour guide's website

Books he recommends about Poland

1. Lynne Olson & Stanley Cloud: A Question of Honor (the Kosciuszko Squandron: Forgotten heroes of World War II)
2. Norman Davies: White Eagle, Red Star (The Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1920)
3. Norman Davies: Rising '44 (The Battle for Warsaw)
4. Norman Davies: God's Playground (A History of Poland)
5. Matthew Parker: Monte Cassino (The hardest fought battle of World War II)
6. Intelligence Co-operation Between Poland and Great Britain during World War II (the report of the Anglo-Polish Historical Committee

Now I have been on Russian soil where both my parents were born. Growing up hearing my mother speak Russian with her friends - it was oddly emotional to hear it around me. This was not a pilgrimmage, but I do feel touched to have come, in a very small way, closer to my parents' beginnings. And today I have been to spot where my mother (and possibly my father) left her homeland forever.

Coming back to the ship with all its opulence certainly eats at my conscience.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


Thank goodness we gained an hour last night. The extra sleep was needed! We docked in Tallinn in bright sunshine and went for yet another early tour – this time a walking tour of Old Tallinn. We boarded our buses to go to the centre of the city. Our guide was a lovely, bright young woman of 19 who was headed off to university in Manchester in September. She was a natural storyteller and enjoyed telling jokes. Her first tale was that Tallinn’s weather is like a baby’s butt. You never know what will come – sunny, wet or wind. As the day progressed this tale proved to be correct.

Estonia is only 45000 square miles and is quite flat. As we drove we passed a cannon tower, Stout Margaret. The language that Estonian is closest to is Finnish. The population of Estonia is 1.4 million, but there has been a decline with many young people leaving. Estonia has been occupied many times over the years by Danes, Germans, Swedes, Livonians, and Russians. In 1918, Estonia became independent and in 1940 it became part of Russia. We disembarked near Toompea Hill. Near the top was a boulder. When the Russians tried to stop the push for independence in 1990 the citizens of Tallinn placed large boulders to try to stop the tanks. One boulder has been left as a testamony to their resistance. At the top of Toompea Hill is the parliament building (1773). It was built by Tsarina Catherine II. It was built on the castle grounds. Now it flies the Estonian flag which was originally a student protest flag. Blue symbolizes the sky, black the soil and white hope. It was consecrated in 1884. Near the parliament is one of the towers of the medieval battlements. It is about 50 meters tall.

Also on Toompea Hill is the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox church. It was built by the Russians. Some say it was built there to show Russian superiority. It was completed in 1900. It has 11 bells the largest of which is 11 meters wide and weighs 5 tonnes. The main religion in Estonia is Lutheranism. About 26% of the population is Russian, but there is some animosity towards things Russian. About 50000 Estonians were sent to Siberia.

We started to walk and passed the first school which was established in 1319 by the Dome Church. Next door is the current home of the Estonian Ballet School. The arts play a prominent role in Estonian life. There are 10 theatres, many choirs… There is a singing festival held every 4 years with 30000 singers and about 100000 spectators. Everyone wears national costumes.

Our next stop was the Dome Church, built by the Danes. The original church was built out of wood, but after a fire in the 1600s (there seem to have been fires all over Europe in that decade), it was rebuilt. It was originally a burial spot for the nobility. Many coats of arms, carved in wood, decorate the walls. The floor dates from about the 15th century. The guilds had burial places in the church and we saw stones carved for the shoemaker’s guild and the butcher’s guild. In the organ loft is an organ that dates to 1858. The red and white stripes are for Denmark. Near the door is the tomb of a local Don Juan. It is said that either – everyone steps on him going in and out of the church which would rid him of his sins, or – lying there, even in death, he could look up the skirts of the ladies walking over him.
We passed a baroque palace part of which was never finished. It was commissioned by Peter the Great. It is being renovated to be the Fine Arts Museum and will open in 2007. We looked over the lower part of Tallinn. St. Olaf’s Church steeple is the highest point. No building may be built higher than the spire. As legend goes the merchants of the city wanted to build the tallest church in the world but didn’t know where to find a builder capable of this feat. Suddenly, a stranger came to town and offered to build the church. His fee was very high, but he agreed to waive his fee if someone could guess his name. He kept to himself and work progressed quickly. Finally, someone spied on his home and heard a woman singing to her baby about his father “Olev”. When he was affixing the cross to the steeple crookedly, someone called out “Olaf the cross is crooked” He was so surprised, he lost his balance and fell to the ground. When he landed, dead, a frog and a snake crawled out of his mouth. Was he cursed?

We could see the TV tower (built for the Russian Olympics as the sailing events took place near Tallinn). When the Russians tried to take it over in 1991, people went to protest. A human chain was made all the way from Tallinn to Vilnius made up of 2 million people.

In medieval times there were two roads that led to the castle – the long leg and the short leg. Each led to a gate. A wall went all around the town joined by 27 towers. Several remain standing. One is the Virgin’s tower which used to be a prison for prostitutes. Another is Kiek in de Kök, or Peep into the Kitchen. The soldiers could climb up and see what was going on in the kitchen. We walked down into the Danish king’s garden. Here we could see the spot where a “miracle” happened. The Danes were losing the battle, but the skies opened a flag came down. The leader picked it up and the tide of the battle changed. The Danes won. This was the first flag of any country. We had seen a painting of this event in Copenhagen. As we walked lower we came to St. Nicholas’ Church. It was built in the 13th century and was badly destroyed in World War II, but has been rebuilt. An organ festival is held here.

We came to a wheel well. It is said that there was a witch living at the bottom. The citizens were frightened and threw down dead cats which very soon made the water undrinkable. Then we passed a garden with a statue of a deer. It represents a story of how Tallinn got its original name, Reval which means fall of the deer.

In 1316 the Holy Ghost Church was built. The first book to be published in Estonian is there, a catechism book. There are pictures so that the illiterate could “read” the stories. The motto on the church says “the hours strike everybody whether they are rich or not”.
Tallinn is built near a lake. The legend from
goes as follows:

Once a year in autumn at dark and gloomy midnight a grey-haired old man Yarvevana comes out of Yulemiste’s lake, goes down the hill to the city gates and asks the guards:
- So, is the city ready yet, or is it still being built?
In big cities there’s always enough work for the construction workers, if no new buildings are being build, then the old ones make trouble. You have to fix this, repaint or reconstruct that – the work never stops and there hasn’t been one day, when everybody was relaxing. However, if this happens, this old man of the lake should not know about it. The guards at the city gates are ordered to tell him the same old answer:
- The city is not ready. A lot of time will pass, until all the work is done.
The old man, then, shakes his head angrily, mumbles something indistinctively, and quickly goes back to the lake, his eternal habitat.
But if the old man of the lake receives an answer that the city is ready and there nothing to build out there, then the waters of Yulemiste will go down from the hill Lasnamyagi to the coastal lowland and flood Tallinn

Our guide rhapsodized on the rye bread found in Estonia. She took us to a shop (like our depanneurs) and some of our fellow walkers bought bread and butter. They shared their samples with us and it was, indeed, good.
We walked through a passageway to the town square, passed a Garlic Restaurant. The Town Hall was built in 1404. The weather vane is called Old Toomas; the original was installed in 1530. This is about the 5th. There are cafes in the square and at different times there are markets, concerts and, at Christmas, fir trees.

We next went to the Dominican Monastery, now a museum, where we were treated to a concert of Medieval and Renaissance music accompanied on vielle, hurdy-gurdy and lute. The music certainly wasn’t Estonian – Dowland, a French song, a Spanish song… But it was lovely. We walked through the Katariina Passage to a market place where women were selling Estonian knitware. The sweaters were beautiful and the prices very reasonable. As we started back to the buses it started to drizzle and by the time we were back on the buses it was raining hard.

The walk from the buses to the ship was a good distance and by the time we got off the buses the rain was pelting down driven by strong winds. No one was dry by the time we got back and it took time to get us all back on the ship as we had to scan our card and put our bags through xrays each time we got back on the ship. People with mobility problems got the worst of it as they could not move quickly through the rain.

Tallinn surprised me. It was a charming city in a lovely setting. As in many of the places we saw, I would have like to have time to explore more and to just enjoy the atmosphere.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Just Cruising

Leaving St. Petersburg you go through a fairly long canal. It was delightful to walk the ship - the sea sir, the water going by and at times land. As we made our way through the canal seagulls glided in the air currents created by our ship.

During dinner we were still going through the canal. We saw the pilot boat zip towards us - I don't know if he was picking up the pilot or letting him off. We went through quite a narrow canal eating at a table near a window. We passed people in a small boat fishing, a couple of barges going towards St. Petersburg. It is so relaxing to sit and watch the water go by. The days are so full of amazing sites, it is great to have down time to sit, to stroll or be entertained.

10:15 pm and still light outside. We passed what may be a fishing trawler. According to the ship's newsletter the horizon is about 13 nautical miles - and its clear enough to see it!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

St. Petersburg - Day 2 continued

After St. Isaac’s we went for lunch in a “5 star hotel”. It is the first time I have ever eaten in a 5 star hotel with my coat on and no shirt under it! We again were served vodka (this time much smoother) and champagne with our meal. It felt good after being chilled by the damp clothes.

After lunch we continued on. We drove past the former headquarters of the KGB. It was said to have been the highest building in the world. From the bottom floor you can see Siberia.

Our next stop was the Peter and Paul Fortress. The Peter and Paul Cathedral, on the site, is the burial place of the tsars from Peter the Great on. The Romanovs were the ruling dynasty from 1613 until 1917. Michael was elected to be tsar when the previous dynasty had no herrs. Peter was his grandson. Peter was married twice. His first wife produced 2 sons, but Peter fell in love with serving girl. He sent his wife to a convent and eventually married Catherine. He and his sons from his first marriage had little in common. His first son was accured of conspiring against his father and was the first prisoner to be held in the Peter and Paul fortress. He was tortured, confessed and was sentenced to death. He died the day before the sentence was to be carried out. Some historians believe that he was secretly put to death as Peter could not bear to see his son executed publicly. It is now believed that he was falsely accused by Peer’s second wife who wanted her own children to inherit his title. Peter changed the rules so that the tsar could name his / her own succesor. Ultimately, their son died and Catherine reigned for 2 years. A neice of Peter – Anna from Germany, became tsarina. A coup d’état took place as she was more interested in balls than government. Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth became tsarina and was responsible for commissioning many of the well-known buildings in St. Petersburg, including the Catherine Palace and the Winter Palace.

The Peter and Paul cathedral is built in European, not Orthodox style. The “marble”columns are simply painted columns. The iconostasis is made of linden wood and is covered with gold leaf. All the tsars have identical tombs. The family of the last tsar, Nicolas II, is now buried in a separate room outside the main chapel. This is because he was not tsar when he was killed. His bones and those of this wife, three daughters and 4 servants are buried together. This tomb is the only one that is different. Nicolas’s mother, a Danish princess (the one seen in the family picture in Christianborg) will be buried in St. Petersburg in 2006.

We drove past the wedding building. It is customary to throw small candy or small coins. One custom is for the best man and maid of honour to go the room where the newlyweds will be sleeping and to fill everything with rice. We went to the Rostral Columns – a chance for photos. We were not the only ones taking advantage of a photo op. There were 2 newly wed couples with their best man and maid of honour posing for photographs.

Then there was the compulsory shopping stop. What do tourists buy in Russian? Matrioshka dolls, laquered boxes, vodka, amber. The tours always leave enough time for shopping.

It was an exhausting 2 days. On the way back we saw a sculpture of a soldier helping someone who was leaning heavily on the soldier. One of the people in the bus said - “that’s how they get us on the ship after 2 days in St. Petersburg.

And so – back onto the ship.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

St. Petersburg - Day 2

Alla suggested that we meet a little earlier so we would be first at Peterhof, so we boarded the bus before 7:00 and were first to arrive after a drive through the city, through suburbs and finally to Peterhof. Along the way we sawt the triumphal arch built after the Napoleonic War. We saw large apartment blocks built in Soviet times. W passed one of the first subway stations which were built like grandiose temples. Some of the subway is over 75 feet deep, running under the Neva River. Along the way we saw dachas – modest county homes. Now the newly rich entrepreneurs are building large homes.

We arrived at Peterhof before it opened and were the first to get in, donning our museum slippers to preserve the beautiful parquetry. This was the area of some of the fiercest fighting during the siege. The Nazis occupied the palace and surrounding area for almost 3 years (the siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days) and they destroyed many of the nearby palaces as well as Peterhof, the gardens and the fountains. Fortunately about a third of the artwork was hidden before the arrival of the Nazis and is back in the reconstructed palace. Over a third of Leningrad was destroyed and people lived without heat and barely any food. Adults got 250 gm of rye bread a day and children and the elderly got half that. The flour was mixed with cellulose, so the bread provided only about 100 calories. The death rate was high, from the bombing, but mainly from starvation. The total death toll was 1.2 million.

Although Peter began the construction of the palace, much work was done subsequently by Empress Elizabeth ( an extravagant lady and dauaghter of Peter the Great). The main palace is very extravagant. Each room was opulent and overdone. Peter the Great wanted a palace greater than Versailles and he certainly created something over the top. The ballroom had amazing parquetry floors and gilt everywhere. The Chesme Hall celebrates the Russian victories at sea. The artist had never seen a ship blown up, so the navy blew up an old ship in Livorno harbour so he could properly depict the naval battle. As in the Hermitage, I was so impressed with the floors. I don’t think we have many craftsmen today who could create floors like these. One room is the picture room. It is filled with paintings – portraits of women, reminiscent of Vermeer. Room after room of silks, gold, elaborate floors. It is hard to imagine the lifestyle of the people who lived there.

The garden is extensive, but the jewel of the palace are the fountains. They are fed by a system of reservoirs and pipes and are gravity fed. The fountains are extensive and there are even trick fountains, so that when someone steps on a spot or sits on a chair, the fountain starts. We did not need trick fountains on the day of our visit. As we waited for the fountains to start, a light drizzle started and as the fountains spouted more strongly, so did the rain. Many of our group decided to go back to the bus, but I felt that this may be my one visit to Peterhof and I did not want to miss the gardens and a glance at Monplaisir, a smaller palace on the site. By the time we had walked that far, the heavens had opened up and we huddled with one of the gardeners under a tree to see if it would let up a bit. There I heard a story about Peter’s obsession with promptness. If you were late to one of his dinners at Monplaisir you had to down a litre of vodka. His son-in-law was subjected to this punishment when he arrived 10 minutes late. Upon downing the pitcher, he promptly passed out and did not come to until the next day when he wrote about his ordeal. Thus we have a first hand account of the punishment.

As the rain did not abate, we had to head back towards the buses. It was hopeless trying to stay dry. Some of the people in the group bought tshirts so they would have something dry to wear. They changed on the bus. I stupidly decided not to. June had already taken her shirt off on the bus and was wearing her coat. Finally, feeling quite damp, I decided to try to wriggle out of my shirt and into my coat. At the point the bus was travelling through St. Petersburg so changing without being seen either by my fellow travellers or the people outside the bus was a challenge. June helped by holding her damp shirt in front of me.

On returning to St. Petersburg we went to St. Isaac’s cathedral. Several of us wore nothing under our jackets. Others wore their new tourist tshirts. We were a well-dressed crowd! St. Isaac’s Cathedral was designed by a French architect, Auguste Montferrand. Like much in St. Petersburg, its size and ornateness was overwhelming. Massive red granite columns, each of which weighs 80 tons stand on each façade. The mosaics go from floor to ceiling and the ceiling is very high. Semiprecious stones such as malachite and lapis lazuli are used liberally – including solid columns in the iconostasis. Even the floors have designs made from different shades of stones and marble. Have a look at some of my photographs to appreciate just how elaborate St. Isaac’s is. Montferrand died a month after the church was completed. He wanted to be buried there, but this was refused as he was not a member of the Othodox church.

Going to the ballet

After dinner it was time to board a bus again for a trip to the ballet. My dream had always been to see the ballet in St. Petersburg. This is the home of Pavlova, Nijinsky, the Ballet Russe, Ulanova. I had really hoped to see a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, but unfortunately we were at the theatre across the street. The evening was somewhat disappointing. It is obvious that this is a performance put on for the cruise ship audiences, with programmes in English. We did not see a first rate company. I believe that these may have been mainly students from the school. The costumes and orchestra were lovely. The dancers were good but not great. The theatre was extremely hot, and people around us were grumbling about the temperature. We saw the ballet, Swan Lake. One odd thing that happened is that at the end of the second act they all bowed and were presented with flowers. At the end of the third act they again took bows and more flowers, including someone who ran up from the audience and presented flowers to one of the corps members.

We left the theatre after 10:30 and the sky was still light – St. Petersburg “White Nights”. Back at the ship around 11:00 the sun was just setting.

St. Petersburg - day 1 continued

Lunch was held in the restaurant of the Hermitage. We were treated to vodka (it was quite harsh) and champagne. We ate and were serenaded by some singers who sang traditional Russian songs. We sat near a couple. It turns out that the man, Si was born in Grodno, the city where my mother was born. His uncles had emigrated to Canada, but his mother only left in the 50s.

On to see more. We passed the Rostrum Columns. They were originally built as beacons to lead ships to the port. Then we went to see the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood. It was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. There had been assassination attempts on him before. Someone threw a bomb at his carriage and he was not injured. He got out of the carriage to see how his driver was and then a second bomb exploded and he sustained fatal injuries. He died that night. Every inch of the church is decorated, whether with mosaics, marble or gilt. The decorations are both inside and outside. It was closed for restauration and was only reopened in 1997.

After a short stop at an outdoor market, we went on to see Yusupov Palace. Every room is decorated in a different style. The original Yusipovs were of Muslim descent (Yusupov ancestor, son of the Great Khan Musa-Mirsa, Yusuf). The palace is also known as the place where Rasputin was killed. The Yusupovs were collectors of musical instruments (Nicolas Yusupov was a great violinist and was in charge of all the theatres in St. Petersburg – he started the collection). One room in Renaissance style is dedicated to the collection (most now gone). There were secret rooms where family valuables were kept. The billiards room is in moorish style. The main staircase, leads to an oakwood Venitian style dining-room. The tapestries in the sitting room were a gift from Napoleon III. In the banquetting room we heard a short concert by a quartet of male singers. One sang while the others provided almost a hummed harmony underneath. There was room for a choir above or an orchestra. In the Yusupov time, banquets were held for up to 2000 guests, with the main guests in the banquet room and others in adjoining rooms. The chandeliers are made of papier maché. The ceiling would not have been strong enough to support metal chandeliers of the size.

And so --- back to the ship for a rest, dinner and preparing for the next outing.