Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 26th – Mariehamn in the Aland Islands

Where? I hear you say. Well, the Aland Islands sit in the middle of the Baltic. The people speak Swedish, but they're owned by Finland, who inherited them off the Russians after the Revolution.

Their chief claim to fame is that they once owned the largest fleet of sailing ships in the world at the turn of the 20th century – not quite as great as it sounds, because world trade was shifting to metal steamships. However, their fortune has always come from the sea – even now, they owe their prosperity to their unique tax-free status (even though they're nominally in the EU). So, tens of cross-Baltic ferries a day call in here on their way to somewhere else – as Danes, Finns and Swedes stock up on duty free booze.

The 25,000 population are spread across 80 of the 6,500 islands in the Alands but most of the "action" (such as it is) is on the main island, where the tiny capital, Mariehamn, is. Aside from one sleepy shopping street and an impressive sailing ship which has been turned into a museum, there isn't really very much to do in Mariehamn, so we took a tour to the two historic forts around the island, to see the few points where Aland has featured on the European stage.

We first went to the Bomarsund Fortress built by the Russians in the 19th century when they were looking to expand westwards into Europe. Unfortunately, the British and the French weren't too happy at this expansionism, and they sent a fleet over to destroy the fort before it was even finished (using the Crimean War as an excuse). They did a pretty thorough job at destroying it, but the size of what little remains shows you the scale of the Russian ambition, plus it's in a beautifully unspoilt location.

From here, we ventured to the nearby Swedish fortress of Kastelholm – again ruined, this time by fire rather than by warfare. The dilapidated but imposing fortress dates from the 14th century, when the Swedes were masters of Aland – they ruled here for 500 years before the Russians took over.

After the Russians were defeated in the 19th century, the islands were demilitarised for good; so it's perhaps ironic that the most enduring historic buildings of the self-styled "Islands of Peace" are fortresses.

August 25th – Helsinki in the Sun!

All these Baltic cities look much better in the sun, but Helsinki looks stunning! The harbour glitters in the sun, the Esplanade is alive with people and buskers, and the pavement cafes are busy with affluent punters. The whole place seems so alive and happy after the slightly glum faces you encounter St Petersburg.

As we got to Market Square, there was a big ceremony going on at the Presidential Palace. We asked one of the two policemen holding back the traffic who all the pomp and circumstance was for – he replied, "oh I don't know. Something to do with Lithuania". How many other countries, can you stand outside the President's Palace and there only be two policemen on duty?
We wandered around just soaking up the sun and enjoying the relaxed holiday atmosphere. While Tracy shopped, I used the plentiful free WiFi in what is the most wired place in the world – a much repeated statistic here is that internet penetration is highest in Finland of any country in the world.

For the first time on this cruise, Tracy has pronounced, "I could live here" – on a sunny day in Helsinki, it's difficult to disagree with her.

August 23rd – St P’s Aristocratic Palaces

St Petersburg is famous for the fabulously opulent palaces of the Romanov dynasty; but some of the palaces of the super-rich aristocracy were almost as over-the-top in their extravagant decorations.

We went first to the grand Vladimir Palace, located on the Neva embankment just a couple of doors down from the Winter Palace – a prime address in Imperial St Petersburg. The Palace was home to Grand Duke Vladimir, the brother of Alexander III, who became a key power broker in 19th century Russia, so we were greeted by a series of sumptuous staircases and reception rooms, with an enormous Gothic-style dining room.

What made the visit here so good was that the palace wasn't looted or damaged in the revolution, because it was immediately converted into a Scientists' Club under the Communists – the Scientists were cultured and educated people, so it was very well looked after and the original furnishings remained. And, because it's still a private club, it isn't open to the general public, and visits have to be arranged weeks ahead, which meant that we had this fabulous palace all to ourselves.

The same wasn't true of the equally grand Yusupov Palace, which had been emptied after the revolution, and was now full of tour groups. However, the sumptuously decorated halls of the enormous palace still glittered with gold and marble, which proudly declared that the Yusupovs were the richest family in pre-revolution Russia – richer than the Romanovs even.

Aside from all the impressive architecture and decoration, the Palace is most interesting because it's so closely connected to the incredible story of the murder of Rasputin, the "Mad Monk" who had enraged the aristocracy with his close hold on the Romanov Family. The Yusupov son, Felix, got a group of friends together to bump off Rasputin, so they lured him to the Palace late one night, with the promise of fine wine. In addition to the wine, they fed him copious amounts of biscuits heavily laced with poison. However, even this didn't seem to have an effect, so they shot him a number of times, but miraculously still Rasputin kept coming back at them, like something from a bad horror film.

Eventually, they shot him some more and tied him up and threw his body into the frozen Neva River, where his body came to light 3 days later. Incredibly, when the body was examined, water was found in his lungs, which proved that somehow he was still alive when he was chucked into the River.

Every building in St Petersburg has a story.

August 22nd – Back on Tour in St P

We could only get a double-entry visa for Russia, so for our third visit, the only way we could get off the ship was to go on tour – the tours are always excellent, so it's hardly a hardship. I went on the "St Petersburg Cathedrals" tour, taking us to the city's three cathedrals, which each tell a different aspect of the city's fascinating story.

Our first stop was at the monumental St Isaac's Cathedral – a 19th century Russian orthodox cathedral designed to look like one of the great cathedrals of the West. This cathedral is all about size – a huge cavernous space covered in marble and a soaring dome that declares to the world that Russia is a Great Power.

Our next Cathedral comes as a complete contrast to the Western style St Isaacs – the quintessentially Russian-looking Church of the Spilled Blood. With all its exotic onion domes decked with colourful decorations, and its glittering mosaics inside, it shows the split that was developing in Russia, as some looked to embrace its Russian heritage, after so many years of copying the West. The church stands on the exact spot where Tsar Alexander II was murdered by revolutionaries in 1881, as Russia began to get torn apart in revolutionary fervour.

Then, our final Cathedral was where it all started, the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on the St Peter and Paul fortress, designed on the orders of Peter the Great to look deliberately un-Russian, looking like a Dutch Baroque church and topped with a huge needle-like spire covered in glittering gold. The Cathedral is the burial place for all the Romanov Dynasty, from the "Greats" (Peter himself, and the horse loving Catherine), to the less than great, like the last Tsar, Nicholas II, whose remains were finally laid to rest here in 1998, 80 odd years after his murder at the hands of the Bolshevics.

It's amazing how three different Cathedrals can tell the story of a city.

August 18th – Exploring Tallinn

Just a low-key day in Tallinn – doing a walking tour, while Tracy did the cycling tour I did last week.

We did experience a strange meteorological phenomenon called the sun, which gave the town a much more vibrant air than the grey skies of St Petersburg, and the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere on the Russian streets.

After our tours, we met up to walk around the medieval walls and to climb up the tall steeple of St Olaf's church which was once the tallest builing in Europe when it was built in the 12th century - a sure sign of how important Tallinn was back then. It was still the tallest steeple in the world until the 19th century; and even though fires from frequent lightning strikes since then have reduced its height by about 50 metres, it's still quite a scary prospect when you emerge out at the top. As vertigo threatened to strike, we shuffled nervously around the top, and then fled back down to sea level as quickly as we could.

Estonia was about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its freedom from Russian rule, and the place just seems so optimistic and lively – one of Europe's success stories.

Friday, August 26, 2011

August 17th – Soaked in St Pete’s

Rather than the continual grey skies and occasional shower that have dogged our time here in Russia, today the heavens totally opened, and it bucketed down pretty much the entire day. The downside of rain in St Petersburg is that all the large buildings have massive gutters that feed into huge pipes that just empty out straight onto the street (rather than into drains), turning the pavement into intermittent fast flowing streams to be jumped across, and resulting in soaked feet for the tourist.

We had grand plans to do a big trek across town to the Smolny Convent, but the monsoon put a stop to that, so instead we went to the Russian Museum, housed in the huge Mikaelovsky Palace. The Hermitage may be the best art museum in Russia (and possibly the world?), but curiously enough, it hardly has any Russian art in it. To see what Russia was up to, you have to head to the Russian Museum.

So, we squelched around the palace seeing how Western tastes changed the face of Russian art from eastern-looking icons, to the latest styles in French art. Perhaps the most interesting art was the stuff from Soviet times, as you see how the perspective of the artist was changing from reflecting the privileged world of the few, to that of the everyday worker – albeit with a heavily politicised pro-Communist view. Just as the Russian revolution had turned the world order upside down, the artistic world was also being revolutionised by the avant garde and movements like cubism, which were well represented in Russia.

With the rain looking like it was relenting (this proved to be a mirage), we moved onto the nearby Engineers Castle, built as an impenetrable fortress by the paranoid Tsar Pavel I, who was convinced he was going to be assassinated. As it happened, he was dead right, because he was indeed murdered, although it was within his own stronghold, and at the hands of his own bodyguards. The castle also turned out to be fairly impenetrable for us – just as we were about to pay the entrance fee, the attendant said, "I have to be honest with you, it's not really worth the money". So, we took her word for it and left. I wonder if anyone goes in there?

Finally, we wandered down the deluged Nevsky Prospekt to check out whether a saucy story we'd been told by one of the guides was true. Apparently, there's a set of bronze statues of 4 horses marking one of the bridges over the canal, and the artist had fallen out with the Tsar, and so registered a protest by secretly fashioning the genitals of one of the horses into the face of the Tsar. We must have made a strange sight, umbrellas in hand, we worked our way around the statues, staring up at the nether regions of each horse, carefully looking for a Tsar's face to be staring out at us.

It turns out that if you stare at the genitals of a bronze horse for long enough, you end up seeing all sorts of things – I'm sure I saw Elvis eating a hamburger on one, and there was one that you could just about convince yourself had the face of a man (possibly a Tsar) staring back at you.

So, having ticked this fantastic sight off our St P highlights list, we waded back to the ship through the growing torrents.

August 16th – An Impressionist’s View in St Petersburg

Today we joined an organised tour of the Hermitage, so that we could get early access to its treasures before the masses (tours get in at 9.30am, while the plebs get in at 10.30am). Once we were in, the plan was to rush up to the third floor to see the wonderful collection of Impressionist masters. Unfortunately, the Hermitage only wakes up slowly, and you're only allowed in certain bits of it, before 10.30am. This meant that we were dodging round corners and darting down deserted corridors to get away from the fearsome room attendants who like nothing more than to tell off tourists.

As we sneaked around, we got busted a couple of times, but we eventually made it to the Impressionists as they were opened up – and what an excellent collection they have. Much of it had been bought directly off the artists by Russia's super-rich aristocracy before the revolution, and then appropriated from their grand palaces by the new Communist government. So, room after room is filled with glorious Renoirs, Monets, Manets, Cezannes and Degas, in the best assembly of impressionist art outside of Paris.

We then moved to the modern art section, filled with Picassos and Matisses (and many others), much of it produced after the Revolution, so I'm not sure how it would have ended up in the hands of the Hermitage. Finally, we moved onto the opulent state rooms of the Winter Palace – quite what the peasants and working classes must have felt after seeing all this extravagance and conspicuous consumption when they stormed the Winter Palace in 1917, it's difficult to fathom.

The Hermitage supposedly has 15 miles of corridors, and it was beginning to feel like we'd walked every single step of them. They say that it would take you 7 years, working 8 hours a day to see every exhibit in the Hermitage, but over the last couple of weeks we've given it a good go. I'm almost at the point where I think I could actually find my way around this huge labyrinth of art without a map.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

August 15th – Looking Down on St Petersburg

Today, we decided to get a different perspective on St Petersburg, by climbing the tall dome of St Isaac's Cathedral, the city's biggest and tallest church. The lavish interior of the cathedral was clearly designed to impress – huge paintings and mosaics, tons of marble, and colourful columns of malachite and lapis lazulai.

It must have been a disappointment to the Tsar that the dome itself is only the fourth largest church dome in the world, so he decreed that it should be covered in pure gold – over 200 kgs of it (and killing over 50 of the workers through mercury poisoning in the process). During the war, when the city was besieged for 900 days by the Nazis, the dome was painted grey, and the whole cathedral covered in huge netting to look like a park– green in summer, and white in winter.

So, we climbed up to the top to get a closer look at all the gold, and to get some great views over the imperial city below us. From up the top, you get to see how much of the city was built at a uniform height because of an imperial decree which said that no building could be taller than the Winter Palace (St Isaac's was obviously an exception), and you got to see how so many of the historic buildings seem to be decaying badly behind their magnificent facades.

But the strangest sight up there was a glamorous Russian Bride who'd tottered up the hundreds of steps in her high heals for that quintessential St Petersburg photocall, hanging off the dome. We had a sneaky look at her feet and they were glowing bright red.

Once we got to the bottom, we stopped for a surprisingly nice lunch in a little café, and then headed to the Hermitage, to continue our artistic tour around its many miles of corridors. Having queued for an hour and a half to get in last week, we'd worked out a sneaky way to get to the head of the queue quickly (I cannot divulge this naughty tactic for fear of being shot by the KGB), but our ruse worked and we were in a thrice.

The artistic highlight for us, was a part of the collection that had been stolen by the Red Army from a German industrialist called Otto Krebs as they invaded Germany. Krebs had collected a whole load of Renoirs, Cezannes and a Van Gogh, with our favourite probably being the captivating "Place de la Concorde", by Degas. Apparantly, this stellar collection lay hidden and rolled upin the Hermitage's vaults until the 1990s (up to that point, they denied its existence), and the Russians have resisted any attempts by the Germans to get it back – pointing to the fact that the Nazis destroyed so many of their palaces and artworks on their retreat from Russia.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it was a little gem of a collection that could form a fantastic museum in its own right, rather than be just a little-visited adjunct to the main Hermitage collection. I wonder what else is hiding in the depths of the Hermitage?

August 14th – Helsinki on 2 wheels again

Having whizzed around the Finnish countryside on a moped last week, it was time to take to two wheels again, but this time at a slightly slower pace, using pedal power.

Helsinki's not a particularly hilly place but there's quite a few energy-sapping undulations along the way, as we laboured our way around the clean streets and cycle lanes of Helsinki. The thing that strikes you most about Helsinki, is how the countryside is such an integral part of the city, with so many lakes and parks dotting the green urban landscape.

The air was also refreshingly clean, which was just as well as we were gasping at times, as we made our climbs up the little hills – it wasn't quite the mountain section of the Tour de France, but it got the heart pumping.

Fortunately, we had a fairly stable group of cyclists today, and only one of us had an uncomfortably close encounter with a grass verge, as she veered off the cycle lane into the greenery.

It had looked like it was going to rain all the way round, but luckily it only started once we'd got back to the ship, which was a perfect excuse to rest our aching muscles for the afternoon.

Monday, August 15, 2011

August 13th - Cruise 2 in reverse

The route for 2nd week of our trip on Silversea's Silver Whisper

August 11th – Mopeding in Helsinki

Today's tour was a throwback to the 60s, that took us out of Helsinki city centre in an antique 1960s bus to ride around the countryside on some 1960s mopeds.

So, we chugged off in our ancient but stylish 60s bus, and roared into the countryside through the light rain. Everything was going swimmingly until we noticed steam pouring out of the engine and we limped to the side of the road – I guess a fifty year old bus is allowed to demand some time off. So, we trooped off the bus while the driver found someone to lend him a watering can to fill up with water again, and we were able to carry on our journey.

A slight feeling of trepidation was now beginning to descend on me because the last (and only) time that I'd ridden a moped was 22 years ago in the Greek islands, so I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it. As it turned out, it's like riding a bike (sort of) and I was soon speeding round the back roads on my noisy old machine. When I say "speeding", that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was so noisy and full of vibration that 20mph felt more like an exhilerating 70mph.

It was all good fun until a massive crack of thunder ushered in a torrential downpour that proved that my waterproof overalls were, in fact, not waterproof and I was soaked through to the skin. My trousers were soaked and looked like I'd wet myself – Easy Rider had turned into Drowned Rat.

Nevertheless, it was excellent fun, and a great alternative to exploring Helsinki's laid-back streets.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

August 10th – Getting to Know Peter the Great

Today we decided to visit Vasilevsky Island, opposite where we're docked. This was one of the earliest parts of St Petersburg to be built, so here you get one of the strongest feels for the life and times of Peter the Great.

We first went to the Menshikov Palace, home to Alexander Menshikov, Peter the Great's best friend and most trusted lieutenant, who built an impressive baroque palace for himself that was far grander than any of Peter's residences in the city. Menshikov's father was just the man in charge of Peter's horses, but somehow the son maneuvered himself into becoming the richest man in Russia (plenty of parallels with the get-rich-quick stories Russia's new super-rich these days), and he didn't spare himself any of the luxuries.

Although he eventually came a-cropper once Peter had died (he was eventually exiled to Siberia), Peter was happy to see his friend do well – he often used Menshikov's opulent palace as a place for his own festivities. One of the most famous parties held in the Menshikov Palace was the "Dwarf's Wedding", which featured the union of 2 dwarves and was attended by plenty of people of restricted growth, purely for the bizarre entertainment of Peter the Great, who was 6 feet 6" tall.

Next we went to see the most odd legacy of Peter, the Kunstkammer, St Petersburg's first ever museum. Peter had travelled around Western Europe and fancied himself as something of a scientist, so he decided that his new city should have a new museum, to educate and westernise his people. The people weren't so convinced, but they were enticed here by the promise of free vodka – sadly, there's no free vodka these days, but the slightly creaking museum is busy with local visitors (although scarcely a foreigner in sight).

Downstairs is a fairly standard, but interesting enough, ethnological museum. But upstairs is where Peter's favourite exhibits are – pretty much a chamber of curiosities and freaks, collected by Peter in the name of science. We saw the skeleton of Peter's favourite man-servant who was 7 feet 5" tall, the stuffed body of a double-headed calf, and an unsettling collection of deformed babies, pickled in jars like something out of a horror film.
These so-called "monsters", featured conjoined twins, "cyclopses", multi-limbed babies amongst many other horrors. To be fair to Peter, his idea was to show the people that these deformities could be explained away scientifically, rather than be put down to witchcraft or the work of the devil. Tracy couldn't really stand it, and even someone as brave as me felt pretty uncomfortable at these ghoulish sights.

This rather put us off the idea of having lunch, so we walked around the island, to the imposing Peter and Paul Fortress. This was where St Petersburg started – it's massive 18-meter thick stone walls a sign that this was disputed territory back then, having been won off the Swedes at the start of the 18th century.

After exploring the fort, we returned to the ship with aching feet yet again; on our way, passing numerous wedding parties posing for photos and drinking Russian "champagne" out of plastic cups, squeezed into impossibly tight nylon dresses. Modern St Petersburg might not have the opulence of Peter's time, but it never fails to impress.