Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Nordic Explorer - Tallinn and Riga

After St Petersburg we were well and truly due for some relaxation and allow the brain to catch up with the activities of the past three days. But, the itinerary did not allow a day off. Instead, we just enjoyed 'happy hour' and enjoyed each other's company.

Tallinn in Estonia was next on our itinerary. It is another gorgeous medieval city that has happy memories. Having heard both from me and others how delightful a place it is, Jan was looking forward to seeing it for herself. Regrettably, the bug that plagued her in St Petersburg was still making its presence felt, but....... the show must go on!!

Our first view of Tallinn with the contrasting chimney stack dominant in front of the 'old city'!

 The grand entrance to a charming medieval city!
The above is just so different in contrast to the first picture above. 
Part of the city walls with in the background one of Tallinn's churches.

Following our arrival, the shuttle bus drove us near to the old city. Our intentions were to just walk around this old city and enjoy its entrancing atmosphere. Sadly, my map reading badly let me down and we found ourselves in the opposite direction where we wanted to be. Not an encouraging start! After some local help, we were finally back on track, especially when I spied St Alexander Nevsky cathedral. From there I was on familiar territory.

Some things have changed since we were in 2005, including no photography in the church. There were more tourists even though it was the same time of the year, but generally it just seemed different. The Russian Orthodox St Alexander Nevsky cathedral is beautiful as you can see below:
The domes of this church are quite outstanding!

While we were not permitted to take photos inside the church, I do have a photo of the beautiful dome that I took in 2005. Let me show you that. I hope it will convey, what I think is an ethereal impression that to me is worshipful.
 Wherever we walked there was charm and even a welcome from the 'local' below!

Having by now walked for quite a long time, we were ready for a cuppa and needed a toilet stop, which are rather hard to find. We found a little cafe on the old walls of Tallinn and spent an enjoyable  40 minutes recovering. It appeared to be run by the local theatre company. If you click on the photo it will enlarge and you will see that it is called 'Cafe in the Theatre', from which we deduce that it was both a cafe and a place to perform.

In greater comfort, we headed for a couple of look-outs that are stunning. On the way we briefly stopped and had a quick look inside the Lutheran Church. It has a lovely organ that I would love to have played!

Overlooking some of the old city towards the docks our ship was clearly visible, as can be seen in the next photograph. The most outstanding views of Tallinn can be observed from this vantage point:
 Love this scene, looking at the church spires, the walls along the city walls, and
...... our ship 'Marina'!
Looking down are the narrow streets that lead back to the docks. We have went down there and on the way, purchased a lovely water colour painting of the old city.
Through the Artist's eyes
Through our eyes
Through the eyes of another local!

 Vendors, making the best of the opportunities, especially because the tourist season is almost over. 
 This one above is certainly different and the folk were very chatty, but no transaction. Sorry!
 Finally, we headed for the market place and enjoyed a lovely lunch -
despite the rain that tried to spoil our enjoyment. 

Leaving Tallinn, we headed for the second of our Baltic cities - Riga, the capital of Latvia. Once leaving the Baltic Sea. we sailed up the Daugava River right to the centre of the old city. I was most surprised that we had to sail so far up river - some twenty kilometers.
A welcoming committee of goodness knows how many seagulls waited patiently on a warehouse roof as we edged closer to Riga. It is a busy cargo terminus and I guess that some of the freight goes on to Belarus and Russia.

Great to see the old city again. It is so different from Tallinn, which is so original. Not so Riga, which suffered badly during the war and much of it was rebuilt. Even so, still a very interesting city with delightful architecture and history. So, please share with us as we wander through the town:

As you can see, it is still early and not many people about. Lovely spire in a lovely setting. 
Let's get a little closer:
Jan is always on the lookout for beautiful flowers. She never got over the lack of abundant flowers in Hobart when we married. Well, this little town did not let her down. There were plenty of them!
Plus this delightful cart in a little corner of the street:
Unexpected cafes in every little corner provided the potential for good dining and excellent atmosphere:
And of course, more churches!

The next church has a wonderful story attached to it. The story was told about the builder of the first tower in this place who, when he installed the rooster on the completed tower drank a glass of champagne while sitting on the top of it. He then threw down the emptied glass with the words that the tower would remain standing for as many centuries as the number of shattered pieces. Alas for him, it fell on hay and only broke into three pieces. The story continued that after almost three centuries, the church tower was bombed! After the reconstruction took place they made sure there was no hay around and the glass was completely smashed.

The people of Riga recovered the 'rooster' that was on top of the tower and I believe, is now stored in the church. Great story!
We thoroughly enjoyed a luncheon on the canal's edge.
It rather reminded me of Christchurch in New Zealand.

It was also just across from the Riga War Memorial. An impressive monument!
Last time I was here, there were soldiers who guarded this monument.
Very nearby is the exquisite Opera House where in 2005 I had the joy of watching an excellent production of the Ballet Swan Lake. Riga people know how to turn it on!

But.....there were other monuments:
And the best of them all!
Go Jeanette! Great photo of a happy lady! Maybe a ballet dancer like her mum!

Time for a change of pace. The water is drawing like a magnet and the little boat below looked just the ticket:

 This lovely journey allowed us to see these panoramas of Riga
 Finally, we up-sized again to our 66,000 ton yacht! Sleek and beautiful!

Time to call it a day, as well as an end to this chapter of our journey. And now it is really time for a day at sea. See you in the next port! Where? Check out the next chapter!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Nordic Explorer - St. Petersburg

The next three days belonged to St Petersburg. We looked forward to St Petersburg! For me, it is a city with great treasure, including the Hermitage, the Fortress of St Peter and St Paul, the Church of Spilled Blood, Peterhof and lots more. Having visited St. Petersburg previously in 2005, I very much wanted to show Jan the magic of this city, but a nasty flue would not fully let her enjoy the sights.

We were through migration without a problem and met up with our Tour Company Director - Marina, who arranged our tour itinerary in St. Petersburg for a couple of days sightseeing. The guide allocated to us was Elena who had excellent English and was in fact,  a teacher of English in St P. She is very knowledgeable and took us to many of the outstanding sights ensuring that nothing on our agreed itinerary would be missed. The vehicle allocated was very comfortable and clean. So Elena, take us away!

Not long after we set out with Elena giving lots of information about the city, I asked a question (I can't remember what it was). Elena was not to be put off and let us know that being such a very full day, we should keep our question until after she had finished. Hmmmm. Yes Teacher. In absolute fairness, her number one objective was to give us the full benefit of her knowledge and ensure that we would enjoy all the sights that would give us an excellent understanding of St Petersburg's history etc. Jan and I both agreed that we could not have been allocated a better and more knowledgeable guide who served us so well. Thank you Elena!

Our first call was the Naval Cathedral of St. Nicolas, a Russian Orthodox Church that goes back to 1762. Wikipedia tells us that, 'It has always been closely associated with the Russian Navy serving as its main shrine until the Russian Revolution'.

Being a Sunday, there were large numbers of worshipers, along with tourists like ourselves. Elena showed us the different levels of this beautiful church. It occured to me how appropriate it was to make this church our first sight seeing in St. P, and to mix with other worshipers. Wikipedia further tells us that,
'St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral consists of two separate churches. The lower Saint Nicholas Church is located on the first floor, while the upper Epiphany Church is on the second floor. The altar of the upper church was consecrated in the presence of Catherine the Great.'
 Once again, the weather was excellent for photographs that we like to share with you:

 Naval Cathedral of St. Nicolas, beautifully maintained and a Russian Treasure

The Tower that forms part of the church is located in front of the Cathedral.

 A magic view of both the Cathedral and the Tower along a canal. Stunning!

I can't help it. Just beautiful, surrounded by autumn colours!

Nearby, there were so many magnificent buildings and Elena allowed us a little time to snap a few photographs. There must have been great architects and masons etc to have achieved so much so long ago, beautifully maintained:

 Great architecture in beautiful settings!
Catherine the Great, keeping a watchful eye on the city, even centuries later!
St. Isidorovskaya Church

A delightful walk in this area also included visiting the Eliseyev Emporium for a timely toilet stop. It is just a fascinating building and walking inside gives you a sense of a past era. The following photographs gives you an idea of this era.

Michelin Tyres (don't ask me why Michelin), describes this landmark as follows: 
'The Eliseyev Emporium, the most famous food shop in St. Petersburg, is housed in a beautiful building built in 1902/03. (Restored in 2012, and therefore a bit of a tourist attraction) Even if you don't feel like indulging, step inside just to admire the lavish Art Nouveau d├ęcor (mosaics, wrought iron, gilding, crystal chandeliers and mirrors) illuminated by large stained glass windows.'
And yes, the toilets were very good! 
 Eliseyev Emporium - interior
 This borrowed early evening photograph gives a good view of the Emporium.

The Peter & Paul Fortress and its cathedral is a place not to be missed. The establishment has a very big history with the Fort originally dating back to 1703. It is a very busy place and Elena did her best to get us in as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, it was bit of a push with our energetic guide paving the way.
On our way to the Peter & Paul Fortress, we stopped at this lovely spot on the Neva River. The spire of Peter and Paul Cathedral is in the background. It was nice to be back after eight years. 

The grounds of the fort contain several important buildings with Peter & Paul Cathedral a particular attraction to visitors. This interesting church was built during 1712 to 1733 and today is the mausoleum for the Russian royal families. 
There aren't many spires in St Petersburg and the above is the tallest.

The cathedral is the burial place of all Russian tsars with the exception of Peter II and Ivan  VI. It has a special shrine - St. Catherine's Chapel, dedicated to the family of last tsar, - Nicholas II, who along with all but one of his children are buried here. Tsar Nicolas II was of course the deposed tsar during the Russian Revolution and later murdered in 1918.
 Views inside the cathedral with the tombs of the tsars.

While we were wandering around, we saw something special and Elena herself was very excited by who was there. It was none other than a descendant of Nicolas who, along with his wife and others, were here to pay respects to their ancestors. It was interesting to see the reaction of those there. The past monarchy obviously still means something special to the Russian people.

Paying respects to their ancestors. Was he a Grand Duke?

After a delightful luncheon in a typical Russian restaurant, we headed off to The Hermitage, home to a wonderful collection of art. I love the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but this to my eyes, was more astonishing! We were prepared that there was only limited time to explore this amazing place. Those who know it well, tell me that you need several days just to see each exhibited piece. Well, we had 2-3 hours! Elena was very patient! So lets give you a minute glimpse of this part of our St Petersburg visit.
Just a part of The Hermitage
'Come on children! Let's make the best of our time!'
 The staircase is impressive. So much walking, but all for the good. 
Just wished Jan was feeling better.
 Even the floors are part of the exhibit. Beautifully laid-in art!
and ............
we were walking on it with shoes on!

The Hermitage was part of the Winter Palace, which from 1732 to 1917 was the official residence of the Russian monarchs.
 What was this room? Perhaps a place for an audience with the tsar?

As for 'the treasure'? I can only give you an appetizer! My advice is, go to St Petersburg and allow lots of time. At the end of this blog, I will give you the details of Marina's Tours organisation. But in the meantime ........
 This is probably my favourite sculpture, Falconet's sculpture of Cupid. 
Very beautiful; displaying a cute persona! Love it!

Next, Jean Antoine Houdon's  sculpture of Voltaire, commissioned by Catherine. Jan and I were captivated by this sculpture and enjoyed what we read about it that, " was made not much before the death of Voltaire, and shows him as a frail old man, yet it captures a realistic gaze that makes him look almost alive."
 Voltaire! It showed!
'Crouching Boy'
The only sculpture by Michelangelo in the Hermitage
'Cupid’s Kiss' by Antonio CANOVA
It is time to move on. We are still to see the Rembrandts and other great paintings and there is only little time left. But we did enjoy walking through the above colonnade with the pillars made of solid malachite. Bet that cost a tidy penny!

 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' by Rembrandt van Rijn.
This is my favourite Rembrandt painting showing much emotion, love and care!

After this we were well and truly ready for a comfort stop and a quiet drink before going to an incredible church, both inside and outside; The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood!
Construction began in 1883 under Alexander III on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. Alexander III dedicated this church as a memorial to his father.
The story goes that "on March 13, 1881, as the tsar's carriage passed along the embankment, a grenade thrown by an anarchist conspirator exploded. The tsar, shaken but unhurt, got out of the carriage and started to remonstrate with the presumed culprit. A second conspirator took the chance to throw another bomb, killing himself and mortally wounding the tsar. Bleeding heavily, he was taken back to the Winter Palace where he died a few hours later." (wikepedia)
What can I say about this church that was never used as a centre of worship and today is a centre of breathless art? Perhaps rather than attempt it myself, let me quote from the Russian website at  
'The flamboyant exterior of the building is adorned with icons in a riot of color and becomes more mind boggling the closer you get. Amongst this colorful exterior are 20 granite plaques recording the historic events of Alexander II's reign. Inside there is almost 7,000 sq. meters of Italian marble and over 20 different Russian minerals, embellished with opulent mosaics based on paintings.'
 Flamboyant exterior!

The walls and ceilings inside the Church are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics - the main pictures being biblical scenes or figures. Elena had some difficulty with me moving away at times to photograph these amazing scenes, as can be seen as follows:

 Biblical scenes in mosaics!
The Church is also known as The Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

And finally, a photo of the exit side of the church:

Following the Russian Revolution, the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging its interior. The church was closed in the early 1930s. During World War II when many people were starving, the church was used as a temporary morgue for those who died in combat or from starvation and illness. The church suffered significant damage. After the war, it was used as a warehouse for vegetables!

Thankfully, the church was restored to its former glory. Well done!

I am sure you will appreciate that by now we were both on overload and were ready to call it a day! But there is more! The itinerary agreed to included a canal boat cruise that went through canals and the River Neva. While we were tired, this trip still had to be completed. By now it was getting quite cold and a stiff drink would have been a better option. The Canal Boat ride covered much of what we had seen that day, but this time from the water. We made sure that we kept covered with blankets provided and hence no photos.

What a day!! Many thanks Elena. You were great!

The following day after a good breakfast in our Cabin we were off the ship by 8.40 and through immigration in no time. It could have been even quicker if I had not forgotten some of the paperwork required for migration. But a quick sprint back to the ship and return fixed that. Marina had not yet arrived and was running late, having left her mobile phone home.  So I wasn't the only one! We finally got under way about half hour late and were on our way to the Unknown Peterhof, also referred to as the 'old cottage'.

Unknown Peterhof was the private residence of the tsarin. It was a gift from her husband and was apparently a quiet retreat for the family as well as used for close friends. The whole house had that 'intimate' feel and Jan  & I got the feeling that the tasrin would have enjoyed this less formal home to  soak up the gardens and enjoy time together as a family. 
 Unknown Peterhof, also know as 'Old Cottage'
So secluded!
 With Marina, admiring sculptures at the back of the house.

This lovely old home does not attract tourists that the Grand Palace and gardens does. We only saw just a couple of other visitors during the time we were there. Regrettably, we were not permitted to take photographs of the inside, but managed some public ones from I'll include those.
 Drawing Room
 Small study
 Large Reception Room
 Room of Maria Nikolayevna
  Study of Maria Feodorovna
 Maritime Study of Nicolas I

We loved our visit to the Unknown Peterhof and were glad we did! By contrast, the Peterhof Grand Palace is grand and opulent. It still has that 'wow' factor for me. The gardens are beautiful, the setting amazing, the water fountains beyond description. We enjoyed it all as we strolled together to the Gulf and then back to the fountains.
 An overview - the 'wow' factor!
 Just a little different
 Smiles all around
 Let's head over there
 Samson doing his stuff
 Fountains everywhere

All this in a great setting
'Fun, wasn't!'
 The great fountains with all that gold!
 Looking back to the palace with the cascade in front
A very enjoyable day saw us safely back on ship by 3.30 pm, in plenty of time for the planned departure from St Petersburg @ 6 pm.
Let me leave you with a photo of Jan with Marina. Together with Elena they were an awesome Team who gave us a wonderful couple of days:
Thank you!!

We warmly recommend all our friends and family who wish to travel to St Petersburg, to use Marina. Her rates are very reasonable. She can be contacted at the following: