More Jewels

Whew!  Yesterday was such a full day (in St. Petersburg) that I completely forgot that the Russian Experience (™) didn’t end when we returned to the ship.  No early night for us.  Royal Caribbean had a troupe of dancers on board for a Russian folkloric show.  Check it out…

Video – Russian folkloric show

Video – Russian folkloric show 2

454a Russian folkloric show

Russian folkloric show

Now it was Day #2, and we headed out into the unseasonably cold morning for a canal boat ride on the Neva River.  Fortunately, the boat had a glass canopy and we were protected from the wind.  Unfortunately, there were another thousand tourists with us to get on the boat.  Our guide, Maria, was chosen to do the narration for everyone.  Not only did that mean she’s the best there is (in my highly unscientific study), but it also meant she got her group (meaning us) to where we needed to be before everyone else.  Yay!

We disembarked our canal boat and waited for a few minutes on another boat for our hydrofoil – slated for the second bit of fun for the day – to arrive.  (It was a very nautical morning.)  We sped off for a much faster ride this time, which was exciting until I fell asleep.  Stephanie tells me the entire trip was lots of fun.

The hydrofoil took us to Peterhof Palace.  Designed by Peter the Great,  Peterhof Palace is sometimes referred to as the “Russian Versailles,” and it is just as ornate as its French counterpart  We didn’t go inside the complex as it is vast; we were there to see the gardens, and we arrived just as the fountains came on to greet the new day.

Video – Peterhof fountains

The tree fountain above would turn on and off, and had a tendency to soak people trying to run past it.  It took us a while to spot the little shack in which the sat the fountain’s controller, but it was fun to watch people try and stay dry.

After Peterhof we stopped for lunch where we had borscht (among other things).  It was much better than I had expected; it was a hot, light and tasty beet-based broth loaded with good stuff, and not at all what I had prepped myself for.  Since I was dreading the taste so much, I didn’t take a photo before I ate it all, but as a public service, here’s what I always thought borscht was…

borscht

Blecht!

On our way to our next stop, traffic was held up while a huge military convoy got on the highway.  They must have been heading into St. Petersburg for the Victory Day parade, and not as some of our tour-members joked, mobilizing against Donald Trump.  It was pretty neat to see honest-to-goodness missile launchers drive by as though they were the family station wagon.

Finally, the tanks were gone, and we were off to Catherine Palace. “What,” you ask, “another palace??”  I was starting to think that St. Petersburg was all palaces, and no actual homes.  Catherine Palace was built for Catherine I in the late 1700s.  Just a little recreational summer home.

534 Catherine Palace

Catherine Palace

We were not allowed to take photos in the famous Amber Room which is decorated in floor to ceiling amber mosaic so as to preserve postcard sales.

At last, with our heads good and saturated with Russian beauty and history and just a touch of vodka, we bade goodbye to St. Petersburg, and boarded our floating home to head to our next port of call.

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The Jewel of the Baltics

The highlight of our Baltic cruise was a two-day stint in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  Now, one does not simply walk into Russia.  It is a country known for its very bureaucratic approach to tourist visas.  In order to be allowed off the ship, we needed to show Russian immigration officials that we had a sponsor – in other words an organized tour.  So did the other 2,000 people on board.  When they made the announcement that we were clear to go ashore, the line wrapped up six decks worth of stairs, and stretched halfway across the ship.  By the time we caught up with our tour group 40 minutes later, we were the last ones to arrive!  Luckily no one decided to hold it against us toooo much.  We opted to go with SPB tours in a small van of 15 people.

Saint Petersburg is overflowing with beauty and buildings of historical significance, and we had only two days to see it all.  It was a whirlwind visit to be sure, but come with us now as we try to stuff everything that is Saint Petersburg into a single blog entry.

We started with St. Isaac’s Square which is home to:

  • Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – notable for being the 4th largest cathedral in the world,
  • a monument to Nicholas I – notable for being the first equestrian statue in Europe where the horse was only supported on its two rear legs, and
  • Mariinsky Palace – notable for being the seat of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly.

Whew!  That’s already a lot to take in, and that was only the first 15 minutes.

As we drove through the streets of Saint Petersburg, we got to see a bit of that famous Soviet Architecture where function is everything and form doesn’t matter.  We also got to see how the inevitable spread of capitalism was creeping in.

We took a quick peek in the very deep Admiralteyskaya metro station, but didn’t actually get a chance to ride the subway because we were already running behind schedule.  We had arrived only two days before Victory Day which commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.  All the festivities meant tons of people were pouring into the city, and traffic was being redirected everywhere.

After the subway station came the Hermitage Museum.  This is one of the largest museums in the world with over 3 million items in its collection.  It’s comprised of six buildings – most notably, the Winter Palace of Russia’s emperors going all the way back to Peter the Great.

HermitageAcrossNeva

Before we get to the photos inside, let me just tell you that two hours with a tour group is no way to see this place.  When you’re in Saint Petersburg, make sure you set aside a couple of days for the Hermitage Museum.  All was not lost, however.  Our guide Maria gave us some great advice which I will now impart to you: leave your jacket in the car.  The Hermitage insists that coats be checked (free of charge).  It is worth being a little (okay a lot) chilly while you wait to get it in, in order not to have to deal with the zoo that is the coat check room.  Seriously, she saved us about 40 minutes!  Okay, on to the photos.  Let’s start with some of the amazing ceilings inside.

Among other great names in art, we saw works from three out of four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Leonardo (Da Vinci), Raphael and Michaelangelo.

We saw many other amazing works of art as we continued on…

We were particularly fascinated by this painting by Canaletto.  The perspective actually shifts as you pass in front of it. Notice how  in the first painting, the palace seems to extend to the center of the canvas.  In the second photo (taken from the left hand side), the palace now appears way on the right.  Take that, Photoshop!

My favorite thing in the museum (aside from the dog that looked like Vladimir Putin) was the Peacock Clock.  This gold clock was a gift to Catherine the Great in the late 1700s, and features a life-sized peacock, owl and rooster – all of whom move when the clock strikes.  They weren’t running the actual clock while we were there, but here’s a really neat video of the it in action.

309 This dog looks like Vladimir Putin

This dog looks like Vladimir Putin

314 The peacock clock

The Peacock Clock

There was no rest for the weary as we moved on to the Church of the Spilled Blood with its fabulous gold mosaics.

354 Church of the Spilled Blood

Church of the Spilled Blood

We stopped for a fabulous lunch.  I’d show you,  but I think it’s a law that all food pictures must be posted exclusively to Facebook.  Rested and replenished, we paid a visit to the Yusupov Palace.  The Yusupovs were a wealthy aristocratic family, and their home was where the plot to murder Rasputin was carried out.  Rasputin was a monk who had the ear of the Royal Family.  The Yusupovs (and others) didn’t like that and decided to eliminate him.  One night he was invited to the palace where he was served poisoned wine.  When that didn’t kill him, he was shot.  Still undaunted, he tried to escape, but was discovered and then drowned in the Neva River.

Could we possibly fit any more into one day, you ask?  Well, remember St. Isaac’s Cathedral from this morning?  It was time to go inside.  This is one of those places you have to visit to fully appreciate, but here are some pics…

Hang in there – only one site left to visit:  The Fortress of Peter and Paul.  The cathedral there is the resting place of the ruling families of Russia, including the Romanov family whose remains were discovered in the 90s and interred there.

Day 1 was a long day, and we only scratched the surface of Saint Petersburg.  It looks like we didn’t fit it all into one entry after all.  But, tomorrow is another day, and I’ll be ready.

454 Comrade Elliottski

Comrade Elliottski

 

Tallin, Estonia, Where Beauty Comes in a Small Package

We knew very little about any of the Baltic countries, and probably the least about Estonia.  It turned out to be quite a surprise then, when I led us and some new cruise friends on a self-guided walking of the city of Tallin, and every turn brought a new beautiful sight.  In the end it was one of the highlights of the cruise!

136 Our first view of Tallin

Our first view of Tallin

We were able to walk to the walled, Medieval town from the ship, and we entered through Fat Margaret’s Tower – the large, fortified gate that protected the city of Tallin from attacks that came via the harbor.  Immediately inside on the curvy main road were three, skinny buildings that were homes to wealthy merchants in the 1500s.

The Church of the Holy Ghost dates to the 14th century, and features an incredibly detailed clock on the outside.  Just past it, down “White Bread Lane” which was traditionally a baker’s street, an archway led us into Town Hall Square.  The giant building that looks like a church is in fact the 15th century town hall.

Town Hall Square also sports a pharmacy that dates all the way back to 1422, and is still in service today.  We had fun looking around at all the odd stuff in there.

Then it was time for the all-important stop for food!  We found a beautiful lunch spot where we shared wine and snacks with our new friends.

Up a hill and through a gate, we reached the old city of Toompea.  Tallin was originally two separate medieval cities that didn’t exactly get along with each other.  Even though it’s one city now, the gate between the two was where the leaders of the towns would meet to conduct discussions.  Just past the Danish King’s Garden is one of the old lookout towers with the (childishly amusing) name of “Kiek in de Kök.”  It means “peek in the kitchen” – a reference to what the guards there would do.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist cracking a grin every time the name came up.

196 Yup, its still funny

Yup, it’s still funny!

Beyond the garden and the still-giggle-worthy tower is the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  This is the place you see on tourist brochures of Estonia.

200 Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The church is a functioning Russian Orthodox church, and was built intentionally facing the Estonian parliament building as a reminder by Russia that they were there.  The parliament building itself is the pink Toompea castle.  I’m sure being pink, it makes a statement, I’m just not sure what.

201 Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

203Toompea Castle Estonian parliament building

Toompea Castle

As if we hadn’t seen enough churches already, the Dome Church was next.  It dates back to the 13th century and is filled with wooden coats of arms of wealthy merchant families.  The smaller the coat of arms, the older the family.

There was one more amazing view of Tallin, before we exited the Old city through the Viru Gate and were back in the real world.

Apparently I had tired our friends out with my comprehensive tour, so Stephanie and I were now on our own.  She wanted to explore the newer area of the city a bit, so we kept going once outside the gate.

255 Old Tallinn looks all castle-y

View of Old Tallin from the new part of the city

Looking back, we paused at the sight of our favorite small city in the Baltics.  Then there was only one thing left to do, of course…stock up on Estonian candy!

258 Estonian candy

Estonian candy

Let the Baltics Begin

Latvia is one of the last places I ever expected to find myself.  (Okay, maybe Yemen or Afghanistan are less likely.)  Having no idea what to expect, we decided to download a self-guided walking tours and explore on our own.  Boy am I glad we did!

Come with us now as we visit the historic Old Town of Riga, Latvia.

One of the most notable buildings in Riga is the House of Blackheads.  The Brotherhood of Blackheads was a guild for unmarried merchants in the 14th century.  Apparently being unmarried made one ineligible to join the Great Guild (whose building is much less impressive).

24a House of Blackheads, Riga Latvia

House of Blackheads, Riga Latvia

31 Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

Unfortunately, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was closed.  It details Latvian occupation by the Soviets and Nazi Germany.  It was also our first look a genuine Soviet-era building where functionality was clearly much more important than design.

We left the medieval old town, and walked past Freedom Monument to Riga’s Art Nouveau district. This area of town is recognized by UNESCO as having the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere in the world!

94 Victory holding a wreath

Victory holding a wreath

As a bonus, a local Latvian butterfly decided that Stephanie’s shoulder was a good spot to take a rest for a bit.

On our way back to the ship, we passed the ruins of the old city wall as well as the famous Cat House.  The legend goes that a merchant who was denied membership in the Great Guild commissioned the building and placed two statues of angry cats with their raised tails pointed towards the Great Guild Hall. Eventually, he was accepted, and had the cats turned around.

We also checked out the Swedish Gate which runs right through the ground floor of a 17th century house.  It supposedly brings good luck to wedding couples who walk through it.  We walked through it just in case that luck is still good 13 years later.

131 The Swedish Gate

The Swedish Gate

We brought our visit to Latvia to a close by starting a new “tradition.”  Up until this point of our transatlantic cruise, we happened to purchase a local treat (or two) in every port we stopped at.  I declared to someone that it was our tradition to sample the local treats in every port. When Stephanie responded “It is!?”  I declared, “Well, it is now.”  We went easy in Latvia.  Only four items to sample…

135 Latvian Candy

Latvian Candy

 

The Changing of the Guard (and also Copenhagen)

Sixteen Days flew by just like that, and suddenly our transatlantic cruise was docking in Copenhagen, and it was time to change our mindset and get ready to explore the Baltics.  So what was different about the two cruises?  Well to begin with, a 16-night transatlantic sailing typically attracts a different type of passenger. Often, those with more time, and more money.  Usually these are older cruisers.  I don’t want to say that they were a whiny, complaining, self-entitled bunch… so I won’t say anything.  They were also overwhelmingly American.  The Baltic sailing was much more international with a lot more Europeans, Asians, and children on board.  It made for a completely different vibe.

The transatlantic cruise was 16 days of relaxation, interspersed with ports we had (mostly) been to before.  The Baltic sailing was to be seven new countries in a row.  Each with new sites, culture and candy to explore.  Most importantly, our friends Ben and Caitlin were joining us for this sailing, and we were looking forward to seeing them.

So what’s it like to spend all this time cruising?  Well, a picture is worth a thousand words.

On the transition day, we took a local bus into Copenhagen to do some exploring while the ship transitioned off the first batch of people, and welcomed the new cruisers on.  We really wanted to get inside City Hall, but it was closed for a wedding.  Fortunately, we would be spending a few days here with Ben & Caitlin after our cruise of the Baltics.  We did see the famous Round Tower, and found a lovely park in which to stroll around.

With time running out until our ship sailed, we made the decision to go see the Little Mermaid statue.  This statue was a gift to the city of Copenhagen to commemorate the works of Hans Christian Andersen.  By the time we got there, we had about 20 minutes to snap a photo, and find the city bus back to the ship.  A panicky crisis was averted when we saw a bus labeled “Free shuttle to the cruise port.”  We were able to relax enough to get some tourist-free photos of the Little Mermaid, and enjoy a nice leisurely ride back to the ship where we made it with seven minutes to spare before “All Aboard.”  Bye Copenhagen.  See you in ten days!

336 The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Back on board, we got settled into our new cabin.  Originally, we had arranged to stay in the same cabin for the entire sailing.  But when the price for our Baltic cruise dropped dramatically, Royal Caribbean offered us a free stateroom upgrade.  Our “guaranteed ocean view” cabin ended up being an extra-large balcony cabin all the way up on deck 10 (right next to the suites).  Usually, we stay down in the depths of the ship, so it was weird being so close to the top.  We both decided that while the views from the floor-to-ceiling windows were spectacular, we prefer being lower down so we can get some exercise on the stairwells. In fact, in 26 days of cruising, we used the elevators exactly once (by accident).

1003 Our huge stateroom

Our huge stateroom

Another factor that made the Baltic cruise a little more fun was that we had at last achieved diamond status with Royal Caribbean. What did that mean for us? It means some free photos, some free internet, and various other discounts.  Best of all, it means free drinks. The free drink menu, however, is very limited.  For example, you can get tequila, but not triple sec, so t-e-c-h-n-i-c-a-l-l-y, you can’t get a margarita. Fortunately we found a bartender who was willing to make me my daily ‘rita for free, and they were damn good!

Margarita

More importantly, Ben and Caitlin were on board at last.  Let the frivolity commence!

1004 Ready for a night on the town

Ready for a night on the town

 

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

Amsterdam was the last port of call on this transatlantic sailing that we had visited before.  Originally I thought we might not even do anything in Amsterdam, as we had spent several days there last time and had done everything I thought we wanted to do.  That was before Stephanie remembered that the Netherlands are famed for their tulips, however, and it turned out that we were going to be there around the right time for their big show!  We were a little late, but due to a colder-than-usual spring, the tulips were still blooming.

The place to see tulips is a botanical garden called Keukenhof featuring over 7 million blooming tulips.  But taking a bus there is the boring way to do it, and we don’t do boring things.  (Unless you count filing taxes.  That’s pretty boring.)  Instead, we took a train from Amsterdam about 15 minutes to the town of Haarlem.  From there we rented bicycles for the 40km round trip to Keukenhof.

But before we could be on our way, we had to run the gamut of silly little problems of the sort that crop up when you’re doing something new for the first time.  To begin with, the (somewhat brusque) bike rental guy couldn’t tell us how to get to Keukenhof, so it was off to a bookstore to buy a map of the area.  Back at the bike rental shop, he then told us he needed a €100 cash deposit.  Couldn’t you have told us that the first time, dude?

In no time at all we were on our way – to getting lost.  We thought we were following the verbal directions we were given by several different people, but we kept going in circles. At least Haarlem is a pretty town!  At last we found the road we needed, and we were headed south.  The Netherlands take their cyclists very seriously, and we had two lane bike paths that were somehow routed to get around the automotive traffic circles without having to stop for any cars!  We even had our own traffic lights.  The best part was how often cars yielded to us.  So different from some other places we’ve ridden.

 

The other nice thing about riding through the Dutch countryside is how pretty the scenery is.  In addition to Downton Abbey’s stunt double of a house, we passed plenty of tulip fields.  Because we were there so late in the season, most of the fields had been beheaded.  It turns out that the bulb is the valuable commodity, not the flower.  And so the flowers are chopped off the stems so the bulbs can be sold. Still, some of the tulips had escaped their fate, and were blooming prettily for us.

Stephanie's tulip dream has come true

Stephanie’s tulip dream has come true

 

At last we arrived at Keukenhof along with some 30 tour buses, eleventy billion bicycles and what seemed like half the population of Beijing.  Keukenhof, however, is so big (almost 80 acres) that it really didn’t feel all that crowded inside.  The tulip displays were beautiful with so many varieties we had never even seen before.  There was also an orchid display, a flower carpet and even a wind-powered windmill.  Take a look….

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing the tulips in Holland was something that Stephanie has wanted to do for decades, and was really special for her.  Even I found myself getting all excited about them.  Not bad for a non-flower guy.

After retracing our bike and train steps, we found that we had some time to spare so, we thought we’d walk around downtown Amsterdam.  Whoa!  If we thought Keukenhof was crowded, it was nothing compared to Amsterdam itself.  After about five minutes, we decided we’d had enough and headed back to the ship.

 

If you’re planning on visiting Amsterdam, let me offer you two pieces of advice.  First, don’t go during the height of tourist season unless you like crowds of slow-moving people all following someone carrying a flag.  And second, there’s something a bit fishy about the “Coffee Shops” they have there.  As you walk past them, they smell less like fresh brewed coffee, and more like a Neil Young concert I once attended.  Just sayin…

No France For You!

The next port of call on our trans-Atlantic was Le Havre, France; or so we thought.  We had been excited to go see the beaches of Normandy.  We even watched a documentary a week before the cruise in anticipation!  Unfortunately, the port workers in France had other designs.  They were on strike, as were the pilot boat operators, and so we could not dock there.  Instead, we went to Dover, England – home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover.

119 The White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

120 I can see why they're famous

I can see why they’re famous

Dover turned out to be a charming little town.  After spending a few hours in the library using their WiFi, I dragged Stephanie off for that most important of British traditions: fish and chips.  The way to find the best food anywhere you go is to ask the locals, so we did, and we were pointed to a little take-away joint that apparently wins awards for its fish and chips.  This was one of those food experiences where I was tempted to go back for more despite being full – simply because it tasted amazing.

We tooled around the town exploring shops and parks and admiring the quaint architecture and how the streets all seem to curve in that oh-so-British way.  We walked up a huge hill to Dover Castle, but at more than £20 person just to get in, we decided that our photos and memories of Blarney Castle would serve us just fine.

There was only one logical thing to do. It was time to hike up the White Cliffs and check out the views.  We had seen the cliffs before on our crossing of the English Channel from London to Paris, but this time we could get up close and personal. It was only about a half hour by foot from the center of town to the visitor’s center up on the cliffs.  As the land dropped away behind us, the views just got better and better.  The cliffs themselves are white because they are made largely of calcium carbonate (aka chalk).  Considering how soft and soluble chalk is, it’s amazing that the cliffs have stood for so long.  They reminded me of The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.

Next stop was Bruges in Belgium.  We spent about five days here before and completely loved it.  We were still in touch with our couch surfing hosts, so we had arranged to meet them. Unfortunately a communications snafu led to delayed transportation.  Once we realized we had to make the short run into Bruges on our own, the shuttle was sold out.  We took a different shuttle to the town of Blankenberge, only to find that we had *just* missed the train to Bruges, and the next one was in an hour.  That was fine with us!  We explored Blankenberge a bit, and checked out the seaside promenade.

By the time we got from the port in Zeebrugge to Bruges itself, we only had about two hours to spend there, so we had to be efficient.  This is Belgium, and in terms of edibles, it’s known for four things: chocolate, waffles, beer and French fries.  Guess which one was most important to Stephanie.  We wasted no time at all in heading to local chocolate shops.  Stephanie’s favorite of all the Belgian chocolates is Leonidas, where she hand selected a whole pile of assorted truffles to sample.  My favorite is Neuhaus – more expensive, but seriously yummy.

Elliott's favorite Belgian chocolate

Elliott’s favorite Belgian chocolate

As a result of our quick turnaround, our friend Pascal wasn’t able to make it, but Yannick met up with us, and took us through more of Belgium’s culinary delights.  We went to Chez Vincent’s, for what Yannick said were the best fries in Belgium.  Remember what we said about trusting the locals when it comes to food?  Well, the line out the door backed up Yannick’s claim, and we were not disappointed.  French fries were actually invented in Belgium, and I believe they truly are the best in the world.  They have a double frying technique that renders them crispy on the outside, yet soft on the inside.  By the way, the trivia buff in me wants you to know that the word “French” refers to the way the potatoes are sliced, and not the country of origin.

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Lastly, we stopped for a Belgian waffle. Again, it was amazing.

174 Finally - a Belgian waffle

Finally – a Belgian waffle

Suddenly, it was time to go.  Yannick, sweetheart that she is, walked with us (and her bike) back to the train station, and waited with us on the platform until we pulled away.

Back in Blankenberge, we stocked up on Belgium chocolate to bring home with us.  The Belgians take their chcocolate VERY seriously.  As a result, the stuff in the supermarkets is held to the same high standards as the artisan chocolate houses.  We took it easy, and only bought about €30 worth to take home.  With our case of chocolate in hand, we felt our quick return trip to Belgium was a complete success!

177 Our Belgian candy haul_cr

Our Belgian candy haul