Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn was the perfect respite from the opulence and grandeur of St. Petersburg.   We boarded a bus early in the morning for Viking’s included walking tour of the old town. Our ship wasn’t scheduled to depart until 9 PM that evening, so my thinking was that the tour would give us an overview and we would return later to visit the sights that most interested us.   At least that was the initial plan.

I don’t know whether it was the dreary weather, or the lingering effects of sensory overload from St. Petersburg, but after the tour concluded, WE concluded that the afternoon would be best spent partaking in some of the delights aboard our lovely ship.  Still, we have a few photos to share:

Notice the umbrellas in the foreground. It rained off and on during the tour.

Notice the umbrellas in the foreground. It rained off and on during the tour.

View of the medieval "lower town" from a lookout in the "upper town".

View of the medieval “lower town” from a lookout in the “upper town”.

Cars and buses are not allowed inside Tallinn’s old town, so we followed the city wall down the hill to the town square,

where we found an abundance of shops, cafes, and a medieval pharmacy, which is still in operation today.

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We didn’t need to replenish our supply of wood louse infusions, earthworms in oil, or dried deer penises, so we left the pharmacy empty handed.

The Estonians seem to like three dimensional advertising.  Here are just a few examples.

I loved the fire breathing dragon with the crown on his head, and the maiden advertising the “super sale”?  She had lots of similarly attired companions scattered throughout the square.

That evening, we had dinner at one of Viking’s specialty restaurants, The Chef’s Table.  This is a five course fixed menu, with wine pairings.  That evening we enjoyed the “Asian Panorama” menu.  The fixed menus change every three days, and we sampled three of them!

We started with chilled king crab made with coconut foam and curry, followed by lobster and chicken shu mai, which was a soft dumpling.  Now ordinarily, I am not a fan of either of those seafood items, but these were delicious.

Next up was a lemongrass and red chili granita with lychee foam (there was a whole lot of foaming in this restaurant), followed by the main course–Peking duck with a mandarin pancake.  Dessert was an Asian trilogy of chocolate banana spring roll, green tea cheesecake and yuzu creme brulee.

Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph the food–I was way too busy eating, drinking and talking, but if I had, you would have seen that the portions weren’t huge.  At the end of the meal we were satisfied, not stuffed!

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Our happy traveling companions, at the end of our dinner, after lots of wine!

St. Petersburg, Home of The Greats

The port of St. Petersburg was one of the main reasons we chose the Viking Homelands cruise, so we wanted to be certain we made the most of our two days there.

You can’t enter the port unless you are either part of an organized tour group or have obtained a Russian visa.  Although the ship offered several options, we chose SPB Tours.   Through Cruise Critic’s Roll Call we were able to identify others that were interested in joining us on their deluxe option. SPB’s  two day tour was significantly cheaper ($570 for two of us versus $938 through the cruise line) and included everything we wanted to see, plus a couple of nice surprises.  The best part was our group of 15 was very congenial; we thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company!

Cruise Critic’s Port Reviews gave several helpful hints for maximizing our time in St. Petersburg, and warned about the possibility of long lines going through immigration.  We all disembarked as early as allowed, because there were several large ships in port that first day.  We were delighted by the speed with which we made it through, and yes, they checked to make sure we had confirmation from the tour company.

SPB’s Mercedes van was very clean and comfortable, with more seats than needed to accommodate our group.  Both our driver Igor and our tour guide Olga were excellent, and the tour was well planned to maximize our time in the city.  And what a city it was!

I never would have thought that this Jersey girl would be enchanted by a subway system, but I was.  Clean, beautiful, efficient–no homeless people, no smell of urine–quite a contrast to NYC’s subways.

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The St. Petersburg subway is DEEP!

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Olga pointing out the 6’7″ Peter the Great, who was immortalized in one of the many mosaics in the subway.

What a whirlwind, dashing through the humble homes of Peter and Catherine (middle names “the”, last names “great”). We covered a whole lot of real estate during our two days, and let me tell you, if any place on earth deserved the adjective “awesome”, it was these palaces and gardens.

We took a quick hydrofoil ride to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer cottage.

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Olga told us that all of the fountains are powered without electricity!

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That long “thing” in the back is a cascading fountain, with dragons atop it.

See those dark skies?  We were lucky to get to the garden before the rain came.  Olga provided us with rain ponchos, which came in handy just as we were getting ready to leave.

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The dragons were a gift from China

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If you have the time and the inclination, you can rent costumes and dress up as Russian royalty

After lunch, we traveled to Catherine’s Palace, which was originally constructed for Peter the Great’s wife Catherine I (who was NOT Catherine the Great).  Their daughter Elizabeth expanded it a bit, then Elizabeth’s son’s wife–who WAS Catherine the Great –took over.  She was its last resident; the palace was destroyed by the Germans during World War II. Fortunately, it has since been restored.

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The palace goes on FOREVER.  The gold domes on the left are atop the chapel.

Somehow Olga managed to get us into the less crowded “lane” during the tours.

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This hall was modeled on Versailles.  Our tour group was able to wander to the left of the ropes

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The grounds were beautifully landscaped.

Catherine’s Palace is on the outskirts so we were glad that we visited it on the afternoon of the second day.  We didn’t have to worry about being caught in traffic and being late for a departing ship!

We had a little extra time, so our tour included an impromptu stop at a synagogue.

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A lovely, but much less ostentatious place of worship.

We started our second day with a boat tour through St. Petersburg’s canals.  Olga informed us that Peter the Great wanted his city to be known as the Venice of the north, so most of the important sites were built on the waterfront.

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While waiting to board for our canal tour, we had a great view of the Admiralty

fortressThe canal tour provided the best view of Peter and Paul’s fortress, which was the city’s first structure.  Peter the Great lived in a log cabin on site during its construction.  Today, members of the Russian imperial family are buried in one of the buildings.

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Check out the beautiful railing on the bridge.

We got our first view of the Church of Spilled Blood during our canal tour, and our first view of the Hermitage, which is actually FIVE buildings.hermitage canalIn case you are wondering how the Hermitage got its name, here’s the story.  “Hermitage” is derived from  French word for hermit–someone who dwells alone.

Catherine The Great was actually a very selfish hoarder, but instead of collecting newspapers and soup cans, she collected art treasures from all over the world.

Now we get to the “hermit” part.  She then decided that SHE would be the only one allowed to view those treasures.  (What kind of person DOES that? )   After a few years she relented, and let 300 people per year take a look.  Big deal, right?

The Hermitage wasn’t opened to the public until 1852, almost 50 years after her death. Here are just a few highlights of this incredible place.

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Olga got us an early entrance.  This is the Hermitage’s “back yard”.

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This is a typical stairway.

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The throne room.  The throne is under the red canopy in the back.

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A typical hallway

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This is what it looks like if you just wait a minute or two for the crowd to move on.  Isn’t the floor beautiful?

Okay, so the art was incredible, the architecture breathtaking, but my VERY favorite thing was this peacock clock.  On the hour, the peacock fans its tail and moves its head.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to hang around, waiting for the show.  To the right of the clock was a screen playing a video that showed how the clock operated.  I LOVED it!

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Next up– a visit to the Church of Spilled Blood.  I had thought that the blood that was spilled referred to Christ.  But no.  This church was built to honor Czar Alexander II (Remember him from Helsinki?)  He’s the one that freed the slaves (serfs), which annoyed many of the slave owners, who assassinated him on this very spot.

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It was very difficult to get everything in to one photo.  I had to tilt a bit, and even then cut off the top.

church interior

During the revolution, churches were repurposed as warehouses.  One actually became a skating rink.  They were recently restored to their former grandeur.

Right about the time that  we were completely saturated with art, we took a break for an excellent lunch at a nearby restaurant.

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A beautiful setting, great food and wonderful company!

Our final stop on our itinerary was the Yusupov Palace.  We were not allowed to take  photos, which was too bad, because it was spectacular, indeed.  Oh to be rich during the 18th century!  This home included a  beautiful theater with a private box for the czar and a full orchestra pit.

The palace’s greatest claim to fame, however, was that it was where Russian nobles attempted to assassinate Rasputin.  The basement room in which it took place was set up to illustrate how the deed was done.

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downloaded from Google Images

Overall, it was a fantastic two days, spent with “my dear friends” (as Olga called us), viewing a majestic, historic city.  It made me want to come back again for a slower paced visit that would allow us to savor all the city has to offer.

Helsinki 

Usually my blog functions as a substitute for postcards.  It is a way to stay connected with family and friends–a way for them to share in the wonder and excitement of travel without enduring the long plane rides, jet lag, and other miscellaneous discomforts of life on the road.

For this cruise, however, the free wifi was not robust enough to allow photo uploads.  Being a very visual person, I saw no point in posting without photos.  So, now that I’m   home, I’m playing catch up.  These postcards were way delayed!  But maybe my posts will be helpful to anyone that is considering the Viking Homelands cruise, or might be touring any of the Baltic ports we visited.

Now about Helsinki…

Helsinki was the perfect respite between the two sensory overload ports of Stockholm and St. Petersburg.  We took the included Viking tour, which was a morning bus trip with three stops.  And that was enough for us.

First stop was the Sibelius monument, which consists of 600 welded stainless steel tubes,

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The individual pipes really are quite spectacular

and a bust of the composer.

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Is it just me, or  does it look like he’s been beheaded and impaled?

The guide told us that Sibelius’s bust had seven wrinkles–one for each of his symphonies.  I wasn’t able to verify, but I’m not so sure I like that way of displaying accomplishments.  If that were the universal yardstick,  I’m either way behind  with achievements or way ahead with wrinkles.

Our guide told us that when Sibelius died in 1957, at the age of 91, the US Embassy was the only one to have a moment of silence in his honor.  Nicely done, USA.

Next up, the Rock Church, which is not its real name, but its real name is long, hard to spell, and not as descriptive.  So here’s the story:  two brothers got the bright idea to hollow out an enormous hunk of granite, turning it into, of all things, a church.  Lo and behold, their idea was the competition winner.   After four years of applications, permits and paperwork, plus one year of construction, the church was completed.  And here you have it.

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Our final stop was at Senate Square, where Russian Tsar Alexander ll stands, with the Finnish constitution in his hand and a bird atop his head (Just so you know, the bird is not a permanent part of the statue).   He was quite beloved in Finland, much more so than in Russia, where he was assassinated after freeing the slaves, providing an example of  common ground between Russia and the USA.
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Behind him is the Lutheran Church, which we opted not to visit.  Did you see all those steps?   Instead, we stopped inside the tourist information center, where we discovered this promotional brochure from a Finnish company.

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The Bonk Brochure

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One of many hilarious pages

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I was completely taken in by this brochure, and thought that
  1. the company was realand  2.  that it had a amazing sense of humor.
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Being a curious soul and having access to the internet, I decided to check this company out and discovered that it is actually fictional — the work of Finnish painter and sculptor Alvar Gullichsen.   I wish I’d known that when we were in Helsinki.  I would have explored that yellow building in the background, rather than posing for a color coordinated photo.