Day 6 - St Petersburg (Day2)

Welcome to Day 2 in St Petersburg. The fantastic Elena today takes us back to the embankment where we are loaded onto a river boat for a quick tour of the river and canals with commentary. This may have been better if we took a smaller boat and got to experience the side canals but the best buildings are right on the waterfront and impressive they are, including the KGB headquarters.We're on our best behaviour!

We get a close up look of the Aurora battleship which is placed directly in front of the Naval College. A typical St P building beautifully rendered in sky blue. In fact a lot of the buildings have recently all had a nice new coat of paint in St Petersburg (mainly due to the fact Putin claims it to be his birth place and has directed a lot of rubles here.

The Hermitage also looks great from the river. Remember Catherine the Great from yesterday - this is Winter Palace. There are also several more palaces behind that you can't see which are all now part of the Hermitage Museum complex - more on that later as its our last stop.

First Stop is St Isaac's Cathedral whose golden dome can be seen wherever you are in St Petersburg. A little unusual for a Russian Orthodox church in that it lacks the onion domes and seems more like a European cathedral. Inside the mosaics are an absolute joy to behold.

For lunch we drive into the city to what is best described as St Petersburg's version of Harrods food hall. A wonderful art deco building that sells everything from tiny little patisseries to tins of caviar you would have to sell your car to buy.

Kupetz Eliseev's Food Hall
In the basement next to the  bakery we have a champagne lunch which includes a mushroom soup to rival the 'bistro restaurant' on the ship, a sort of creamy chicken goulash like affair and is finished off by a freshly made vanilla patisserie that is heaven on a plate.

Inside Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall
Next stop is the  Spilled Blood Cathedral - Russian Orthodox church with its enamelled and gold leaf onion domes, when in Russia!

interior Spilled Blood cathedral.
Once again every inch of the inside is covered in wonderful mosaics, gold leaf and iconography.

Next stop at Yusopov Palace which is located in the center of the city on the banks of the Moika inside is of course lavishly styled. It's a manageable size compared to the other palaces too.

However it is  famous for  being the spot where the plotting and eventual murder of Rasputin took place in December 1916 - Rasputin was poisoned, then shot but eventually drowned after dragging himself as far as the river.. Elena gives us the full history of the palace which belonged to Felix Yusupov and the story of Rasputin; he was more a political advisor  than a crazy monk. One thing you must not miss is the private theatre - decadence gone wild. Rasputin was buried at Catherine's Palace, Pushkin but was exhumed after the October Revolution and cremated.

Next we're off to the Hermitage. A collection of winter palaces which now houses several museums. If you spent time looking at every item displayed it would take every day for 5 years! Elena has rightly  decided we should concentrate on the collection of Impressionist Art because you wont see any of these originals anywhere else and of course the Faberge rooms.

Van Gogh
If you're wondering why you won't see many of these Picassos, Renoirs, Degas etc anywhere but here it's because they are basically un - repatriated Nazi loot.  The Germans stole them from conquered European countries; later they ended up in St Petersburg when the Nazis occupied it, then when the Russians liberated St P the paintings stayed here. There's a good chance if they ever did go on tour that they would not be coming back unless quite a few European countries start playing swap shop and return certain missing Russian art treasures.

It really is a stunning; the Faberge collection occupies a smaller set of rooms and is jaw dropping. Items range from the most intricate diamond encrusted crowns  to simply enameled cigarette cases to of course, the eggs.

Its here that we finish the tour and head back to the ship in good time for dinner. Nothing booked tonight so we head to Savor for dinner (our favourite MDR room) where a bit of a line has developed and they are handing out complimentary champagne whilst awaiting  a table. Dinner is excellent and as we eat we slide slowly out of St Petersburg.

As the sun sets and we pass the island of Kronshtadt, ( naval base) and MSCs Magnifica puts her foot down and sprints past us  - I think they have to get back to Copenhagen whilst we have a leisurely jaunt across the Gulf of Finland north/west to Helsinki.

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Day 5 - St Petersburg (Day 1)

Viking Sky arrives in to St Petersburg, just behind us. Quite amazing to be in Russia!

Another gloriously warm morning greets us as we have tea on the balcony and slowly edge into the port of St Petersburg, The Viking Sky is now shadowing directly behind us.  We are in Russia; not quite sure what to expect. We have been told by SPB to expect at least 45mins to clear the immigration and not to expect anyone to crack a smile during this process :) 

It does indeed take exactly 45minutes and none of the ladies ever do manage a smile. It actually looks like it shouldn't take half as long as it does. We spend the time in the line with a NZ lady watching each booth and the time seems to range between a few minutes if you have all your paperwork in order to up to 30 minutes per person or sent back if you dont have your tour papers which act as your visa.

Anyway we finally get through and meet our guide for the day 'Elena' who speaks perfect English and guides us to our 18 seat Mercedes Bus, opulently decorated in an Amber wood effect (your going to see a lot of this in Russia)
Russian orthodox cathedral of St Peter & St Paul within the Peter and Paul fortress.
Once we are all assembled, which takes time as everyone has to get through immigration, we are on our way. St Petersburg is made up of many interconnecting islands (by road and canal) and our first stop is to one of these on which stands the Peter and Paul Fortress. Within the Cathedral here lie the tombs of all the great Czars and Elena does a great job taking us through the history(tomb by tomb)

 The Czars' remains are beneath the tombs. The green one is Alexander II's, the red jasper one is his wife Maria's.

We have often visited exhibitions at the National displaying selections of Icons from the Eastern States - but these are usually panels or individual paintings removed from there original purpose so its very impressive to see how a proper Icon Screen  is actually used in a Russian Orthodox Church.

Unlike a Christian Church the Alter/Sanctuary is hidden behind a gate of icons from the nave of the church when a service is not being held. Overtime this gateway has become so decorated with gold leaf and the icons themselves that its now the most decorative part of the building. They are simply stunning.

The pulpit is never used, services are conducted from the iconostasis screen.
Back on to the bus and into the air conditioning - phew. And its time to head out to Peterhof which we will reach by one of the many Hydrofoils you see darting around the river Neva. Its a short wait on the riverside and a relatively quick trip (though I do doze off).

Hydrofoil across Gulf of Finland to the Peterhof Palace
Elena is the master of handing the SPB flag to one of our small group and darting ahead of us to get our admission tickets before we even catch up. The first thing that surprises you when you arrive here is how big the hydrofoil port is. There's room for 6  and they zip in and out like clockwork - and this is just people arriving by water at the beginning of the season.

Peterhof Hydrofoil Port
So where are we. Its very hard to try to simplify Russian history but basically it was a hugely powerful and rich royalist country before the revolution. It also had extremes - it was hot and warm or bleeding freezing so you had to build a few palaces; one for winter; one for summer and one for your dresses and one for your art etc etc etc .. And basically every Czar that came along decided they needed to do a bit of home improvement/extension on what the previous Czar had built.

Peter the great started this little homestead for himself as a summer cottage.  He had a bit of cash to burn and wanted to impress and had seen Versailles. He also liked fountains (by the way every fountain is powered naturally - no pumps - just pure gravity; and miles and miles of pipes and lakes and pipes and lakes and smaller pipes and pressure.

Its opulent - its impressive and its vast. The gardens stretch for ever: fortunately we walk around at quite a leisurely pace through the woodland, as its getting warmer and warmer.

This is the garden shed
Goodbye Peterhof
Its soon time for lunch and Elena drives us to a little hotel that has a banquet dining room attached to the back and seems to be a venue SPB use a lot as the car park is full of their mini buses.

Borscht is served!
Lunch is traditional Borscht, Chicken Dumplings and a dessert and is included in the tour price - as are the shots of ice cold vodka to wash it down with. Lots of `down in ones` followed by grimaced looks - when in Rome! (though Elena points out Vodka and Russia is a bit of a myth as the Fins/Polish are the biggest drinkers of it)

One tiny corner of the palace
Next we are off to Catherine the Great's palace at Pushkin. Clearly having that little summer place that Peter built at Peterhof wasn't enough for Catherine (especially for a lady who had 15000 dresses). Its hard to actually stand in any position to get a sense of scale using the camera of this place so I'm going to borrow a drone photograph from the palace's own web site.

The horeshoe of buildings at the back of the lawns were for cooks and servants
If you thought Peterhof was a little  bit "flashy" - this place is so plush that if you stood still in the rooms for too long you would probably end up coated in gold leaf. Its no surprise to learn Elton John has declared it his favourite place in the world  and has performed at several private parties here (wonder if Putin was invited ;)

A Dining Room - One of Many
Ballroom - Eltons favourite venue
Nice little surprise on the way back - it was planned but we didn't realise just how much fun this would be. Elena has decided we must have a trip on the St Petersburg Metro System as there is nothing like it in the world. 

After a quick recon and distribution of barrier tokens we are fully instructed and ready to go. If we get separated we have to head to an unpronounceable station thats a few stops down the line. The trains run strictly every 60 seconds in each direction and the doors are allowed to be open at the platform for 6 seconds (it must be great fun in the rush hour). It's beautifully clean & efficient, unlike NYC.

This - is a platform, the pillars are cut glass!

Every station is slightly different in design with classical marble and frescoed decoration all styled in iconic communist motifs. Chandeliers hang from the ceilings - the subway in Soviet times was considered to be the Palace of the People and was to be decorated as such with statues of the working man from various industry decorating throughout.

Its 6pm by the time we return to the ship - a simple process to get back through immigration. A fantastic few drinks in the sun on the Waterfront Deck and a great meal again finishes our first great day in Russia.  The Getaway stays here overnight for another full day in marvellous St Pete.

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Day 4 - Tallinn Estonia

A cloudless sky greets us when we awake, the ship is  slowly backing in to the dock at Tallinn. Its just ourselves and Viking Sky here today so hopefully not too crowded. We dont have a tour booked for Tallinn as we have an intensive package booked starting tomorrow for the two days in St Petersberg - so after a nice relaxing breakfast on the balcony  we head out down the gang plank to take ourselves around Tallin with the help of a tourist map and some bits and pieces on the ipad.

Mmmmm Croissants :)
NCL hull art - you always know when an NCL ship is in port.
Its a short walk from the ship across a couple of roads to the old city walls. From here you find yourself in a lovely medieval town - hardly touched by the Second World War as the bombing focused on the more modern industrial and port side of the city. In fact the whole town is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Entering through the gated walls you find yourselves walking towards the beautiful town square which is a little reminiscent of Brugge which we visited last month. Its a good (though typically for a town square - slightly overpriced) place to sit down for a nice fresh coffee and to get your bearings on where to head next. Tourism (and especially cruise ships) is a huge industry here and you will notice most of the restaurant waiters and waitresses dress in costume - It adds a slightly odd Disney feel to the whole place.

Tallinn Town Hall Square
Also worth noting is that the other big industry here is technology; Tallinn is in fact Europe's equivalent of the Silicon Valley California - so its a bonus to get non stop city wide wi fi and whilst here: time to delete those hundreds of useless emails sent to you whilst on holiday.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The town is split into two parts - the lower town (All-linn) where the Town Hall Square is located and Toopea which sits on a fortified hill and is topped by Toopea Castle part of which is now the parliament and several fine churches including the  Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky. Beautifully decorated inside and out with gold leaf and mosaic.

Toopea Castle Walls
After a morning exploring we head back towards the town square where we are accosted by a couple of not so buxom wenches trying to entice us with  large 'gentleman sized beers' in huge clay vessels. Who can say no to such an offer. The bar/restaurant is called Hortus and is directly behind the town hall. You can choose to sit in a tent inside or use the lovely sun deck next to the town hall tower.

We wander back through the stunning flower markets and the south gates of the city. Its still lovely and warm. We are both highly impressed with Tallinn its an exceptional little jewel of a medieval city - despite the weather we buy a new umbrella (this should guarantee we have no rain)  as we left the Berlin ones on the coach - Doh!

Viru Gate - Tallinn
Lifeboat testing on the Getaway.
We take a late lunch back on the ship.  Today the buffet excels itself with some of the thickest, juiciest  and meaty king prawn burgers I have ever tasted - mmmmm. Perfect with an ice cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc or two. As usual the time soon flies by when you're doing nothing and we and the Viking Sky are pulling away together and heading out into the Gulf Of Finland towards St Petersburg. Woohoo!

Oyster Rockefeller at Ocean Blue
Dinner tonight is another visit to the Ocean Blue. We have tried to book most of the premium restaurants to tie in with the nights when we are not out touring all day and half asleep by the evening.  The food is excellent as usual - in fact tonight its better than usual if a little sinful (Scallops and Belly of Pork really ought to be banned under some cholesterol law - but the 18 hour slow roasted pork is like butter (wait that sounds even worse)and the scallops like pure silk).

Scallops and pork belly with veal jus and grapefruit
Its a great meal and another great evening - but can you  please go dark at a decent time - tomorrow I suspect is going to be a seriously busy day.

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Day 3 - Sea Day

It's a  gorgeous sunny and nice warm morning to wake up to  just as the Captain promised. We have a relaxing breakfast on the balcony having now mastered how to fill the order card in correctly. We are on the starboard side and have the sun streaming in. Its lovely  and the sea today is like a mill pond. The map shows we still have a long way to go but there is  a full day and night to sail before we reach Tallinn( we're almost north of  Gdansk, Poland)

We spend the afternoon on the deck lying back enjoying the sun chatting and reading - its amazing how time just drifts away.  It's soon time for lunch (great Indian meal for me ) and wine and blue moon beer (these wash down the Indian perfectly)  followed by Camparis in the sun. There's lots to do but I think we will give the slides and the rope walking a miss until another day. More than happy to relax after yesterday and sit on the deck above the pool so we can watch the various bands on the outdoor poolside stage perform..

Rope Course deck 17- you can walk the plank and stand 170 ft above the sea.

Deck 15 pool and stage from deck 16
We have dinner booked in tonight at "The Bistro" always one of my favourites both on the Epic and  Jade (who can resist the Mushroom Soup in the Bistro - its an NCL must do). However a small complaint - the food is great (as usual) the service excellent; but who  on earth decided that this position on the Getaway was a great spot for what is suppose to be a premium restaurant - an interior room - seriously!! Now to be fair the one good thing the room  does have going for it is it's small and cosy and therefore a nice quiet experience (though they can't seriously think that anyone would want to sit outside  practically under the casino in what is  basically a corridor pretending to be a street.

Bistro - French restaurant
The food though is excellent. Veal for me and Dover Sole for Jack - starters Crab and horseradish and of course the mushroom soup.We ate dinner quite early so it gave us some time to catch the end of the first show of Burn the Floor (yes the professional ballroom dance show I said I didn't like when we are on the Epic). Oddly I preferred it  here. The sound in this theatre is much better (loud and powerful) and the live percussion comes across really well (it's just lacking that full live band though). Maybe the dancers and the staging was a bit better too. Did our usual trick of standing at the back so Jack can dance and I can pretend I can dance in the dark - Argentine Tango bring it on - oops another chair broken.

Burn the Floor - Main Theatre
Coming out of the dark theatre and wandering  out onto the promenade deck we had forgotten that as we head further to the North the sunset is getting later and later. There's no land in sight at the moment though the cruise ship 'Viking Sky' can be seen a few miles ahead of us. Revitalised by the fresh air and inspired by watching the dancing we head off to the Fat Cats club to hear Into the Drift, who are great!

Vikings ahoy - load the cannons
I have to say the Japanese and Chinese (like the Italians and Spanish on Costa)  take their dancing seriously. In fact they seem to be so focused about getting the feet and hand positions correct and cha cha cha ing to everything that  I'm not even sure they can relax or hear any of the soul of the  music, such is their concentration. I dont think Len Goodman would be pickling his walnuts to this but  Bruno would say its entertaining to watch and they put my lack of effort to shame so they get a 10 for effort (note to self- remember to book dance lessons before next cruise - I probably said this after the Costa cruise)

And then its time for bed. Its still not gone dark and I'm not sure it ever will. An enjoyable sea day that was welcome after an exhausting day in Berlin. Tomorrow should be nice and relaxing as when we reach Estonia we will be docking practically on the doorstep of Tallinn.

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