A last look at Manhattan

After our less than salutary experience with the hotel’s breakfast the previous day, we went off to find a café nearby that offered breakfast. This would be our last day in New York. We were heading for Washington the next day. We spent a fun morning enjoying some of the quirkier bits of the city. And another quick trip to Central Park, though not for long.

Toy Story characters. I suppose a bit like the dress-up Roman soldiers at the Colosseum

A Jewish tailor working on his sewing machine. It illustrates what used to happen in that area of New York

I don’t know what Christian sect they belonged to. They sang beautifully and offered free christian literature right outside H&R Block.

We headed back to the hotel so we’d be ready to meet a friend. My editor, Diane, lives in Pennsylvania and she had agreed to catch a bus to New York so that we could actually meet. I was looking forward to that. I’ve met a few online friends in real life and always found it very comfortable. We’d already met at an intellectual level, so this was just a matter of putting a face to a person. We returned to our room and waited for her to call from the lobby.

It was the weekend and a bunch of girls in their early teens were booked into the hotel. I assume it was a school group on an excursion. When Diane rang to say she’d arrived, I caught a lift to go down to meet her. We were on something like the 23rd floor and when I entered, the lift held about four people. From there on down it was stopping at all stations. More and more kids entered the lift. I was at the rear, my back now firmly pressed against the wall. Bear in mind I’m an introvert with a tendency to claustrophobia. When the lift stopped again I felt sure you couldn’t fit another person in that car. The kid didn’t agree, though, winkling her way into that scrum while I begged all the deities I don’t believe in not to let the lift breakdown.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief when we finally reached the ground floor and everybody poured out. It must have looked like one of those Benny Hill sketches where far too many people climb out of a mini or something.

Diane was lovely, of course.

After a while we decided we’d head for New York’s natural history museum, easily reachable on the subway. We bought tickets and sat down. After a couple of stations an announcement was made via the PA. It seems to be a requisite for railway stations that all announcements are unintelligible. We stayed where we were and the train started off again. And picked up speed and zipped through stations. It seemed that the powers that be had decided that this train would be an express. We seemed to go a long way before the brakes came on and the train halted. We piled off and watch the rear carriage disappear into the tunnel. Now what? The sign said Harlem. Gosh. We’d heard all about Harlem back in Oz, not the best place to be. Oh well, All we really wanted was to know how to get back toward the central city. Reading signs didn’t help much. In the end Diane went and asked a passing lady and returned to report we had to go over the bridge to a different platform.

A train soon arrived and we climbed into a packed carriage, where we were forced to stand. One young woman sitting on a bench made to get up. “One of you can have my seat.”

“Nah,” we all said. “It’s okay. We’re not going far.”

Pete being Pete added. “One of us can sit on your knee.”

She looked us over for a second, decided we were a trio of harmless old coots, and patted her lap.” Okay. Which one of you?”

All of us laughed.

This episode stuck in my mind and a couple of years later, a suitably embellished version of this experience (along with Central Park) was used in my urban fantasy novel, White Tiger. Did you know that there are more tigers living in America than out in the wild? They’re kept as pets in backyard zoos – or even backyards in often unsuitable conditions, although thankfully, the number of states that permit the keeping of wild animals has reduced. It’s a fact that somebody actually kept a pet tiger in an apartment in Harlem. I wove that (fictionalised) into White Tiger as well.

Ahem. Back to New York, 2011.

We got off the train at the natural history museum and spent several enjoyable hours wandering through the exhibits.The museum is excellent, with fantastic displays of skeletons, reconstructions, explanations of evolution. There are other sections displaying Mayan, Incan, and Native American artefacts.

Triceratops skeleton

The evolution of the horse – much more complicated than the simple straight line that we were told about when I was young

Eohippus – the dawn horse

Part of the Ican exhibition

Then we went to find dinner. It seemed every restaurant we went to either didn’t do much for us, or didn’t have a table. We ended up back at the Irish pub where, if memory serves me right, Diane had shepherd’s pie for the first time. Later, we walked Di back to the bus station, then went back to our hotel to prepare to catch a train to Washington the next day.

A wander around Manhattan

The statue of liberty on her mist-shrouded island

We started our first full day in New York with breakfast at the hotel, part of the tariff. Even back in 2011 (let alone now) we found it hard to come to terms with the hotel’s approach. Everything in the dining area was throw-away, either paper or plastic. That included cutlery, bowls, cups, beakers, plates, serviettes, single use tiny containers of jam, butter, and honey. You made your own toast and coffee, and you could make pancakes using a machine. Hot food wasn’t much more than scrambled eggs. Management had obviously set up to avoid the need for washing dishes. All the staff did was chuck everything into one of those bins lined up outside the front door. I assume the bins were emptied into trucks and taken off the island to landfill somewhere. I can’t imagine how much garbage this hotel generates every single day.

It was raining down there

Pete and I had worked out how to use the subway and took the train down to Battery Park at the end of Manhattan Island. From there we could get over to the Statue of Liberty. But it was a bleak and dreary day and the queues to get on the ferry were already past my patience level, especially when we overheard some comments suggesting turnaround times had increased by about an hour. So we had a good look around the park instead. It’s called Battery Park because of a historic fortification which has a roof. We spent some time reading about the building, then admiring some of the monuments set around the site.

The history of Battery Park

A touch of Amsterdam (see the crest of the city at the top?) New York was once New Amsterdam.

From there, we decided to walk up Broadway. I’d always thought ‘Broadway’ was a kind of theatre district. Um… no. It stretches for kilometres up the island and we would be passing quite close to a few of New York’s icons.

I didn’t take this.

The weather started to clear as we approached the famous charging bull on Wall Street but somehow neither of us took a picture. Probably because of the squillions of tourists taking pictures.

The new trade centre rises on the site of destruction

We detoured to the site of the World Trade Centre where the new tower and the memorial to the horrific events of 2001 were rising. We stopped for lunch at a café in the Greenwich Village area, then we went on to Central Park.

Alium flowers at Central Park

The falconer brings in his hawk

Strawberry Fields

The twelve Chinese zodiac signs

We recognized this bugler at Central Park zoo

It probably says a lot about me when I tell you that Central Park was my favourite place in New York. I’m not a big city person. The park is a welcome burst of nature, a wonderful contrast to concrete and glass canyons. There were lots of people there but it was easy enough to find space. Central Park has placid lakes, grassy knolls, rock-strewn hillsides – and Central Park zoo. That, of course, always reminds me of Madagascar the Movie. We found John Lennon’s memorial with its reference to Strawberry Fields.

We walked back down 5th Avenue and took pictures of sky scrapers reflected in sky scrapers, and found out that Batman’s Gotham City really was New York. The fashion district in this classy end of town had fewer examples of scaffolding, and generally fewer people.

We passed by the Empire State building, where the queue for the ride to the top went around the block. We’d been told the Rockefeller Centre was easier to get into – but the queue for that snaked around the block, too. Whatever. I’d seen the view in Sleepless in Seattle. Here’s a picture somebody else took.

Manhattan from above – not taken by me

Reflections in glass

A couple of tourists gawking at the sights

Gotham is real!

A sky scraper reflectd in a sky scrper

I’ll bet it’s hideously expensive.

From there, we wandered back to 8th Avenue and looked over the restaurants. Nothing particularly floated our boat, so we ended up back at the Irish pub. We liked it there.

New York, New York

Manhattan under the clouds

I’d never been to the USA. Peter had, several times during his working years, once not too long after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the parks in Utah… But we wouldn’t have time for any of that. This was going to be a ‘taste of America’ – three cities for a few days each. What the hey. It was all new to me.

Wheeling my brand sparkly new bright red suitcase, we went into Copenhagen airport to board our Lufthansa fight to New York via Frankfurt. It all started in the increasingly common way. I was stopped by security who wanted to check my carry-on luggage. I had to open the bag for the man. I’m not sure if it was a random check or whether they really did get their knickers in a twist over the little metal container filled with mints. Must have done. The man took the mints out and re-scanned the bag. I’ve become inured over the years, though I still can’t help a sigh. Flying used to be fun but all that security has taken the gloss off.

The flight was generally uneventful, although one passenger was a pain in the butt from Frankfurt to New York. The cabin crew were up and down to his seat every few minutes and he had his entertainment system on so loud I think everybody could hear the dialogue for the movie he was watching. And, of course, he was first out of his seat, talking loudly on his phone as soon as we arrived at the gate at Newark.

We collected our luggage and joined the lines to pass through immigration. When it was my turn I marched up to the end of the long counter where the immigration officer sat and handed over my passport. Officer Wong (he had a name tag on his shirt) looked me over as if I smelled bad, looked at my passport, was probably disappointed my online visa was in order.

“How long you stayin’ in the US?”

I’d prepared for that. “We’re going home next Sunday.”

He looked down his nose at me. “Ah don’t care when you goin’ home. How long you stayin’?”

I admit to being slightly flummoxed. Well shit. Let’s see… three nights here, a few in Washington…

Pete must have noticed things were not going according to plan. He came up behind me. “I’m her husband,” he said, handing over his passport.

Officer Wong took a look at the page. “You’re married? You got different surnames.”

“Yeah,” Pete said. “She didn’t change her name. Makes it easier for the divorce.”

Officer Wong’s demeanour changed instantly, clearly a fellow-traveller in that respect. “Oh, yeah. Makes sense.”

A bit more banter between the boys and we were outta there.

We’d arranged a shuttle service for the trip to New York City before we left home. All we had to do was find where we were supposed to go. It took us a while. Signage in Newark seems to be aimed at American people who fly a lot. But we got there in the end, joining half a dozen other people in a small van. How do I describe the traffic? Sydney on steroids? Or maybe St Petersburg on steroids. Our driver cut and weaved and dodged between lanes, pushing into lines of traffic to take the tunnel to Manhattan, all the while messing about with a tablet on her knee. Eventually she pulled up around the corner from our hotel in Hell’s Kitchen and fetched our luggage. I stumbled out, glad to have made it alive. I expect she does it all the time – but I don’t.

Pete took out his wallet to tip her – and couldn’t find his passport. The driver waited while he checked the vehicle, his pockets, his carry-on… I was starting to wonder where the nearest Australian consulate was and the driver was glancing at her cab and its load of passengers. She wanted – needed – to leave.

Pete gave her the tip and she headed off. Then he went back through everything we’d done since meeting Mr Wong. And at last, Bingo! We’d had to produce passports at a desk somewhere, to do with the taxi service, and he’d put his passport somewhere unusual. It was there.

Heaving a huge sigh of relief, we checked into our hotel. We were on the 23rd floor or thereabouts with a view of the river, not a large room – we didn’t expect it would be – but with everything we’d need. The hotel was a few blocks from Times Square, so in a good location.

The view from our room

That afternoon we went for a walk getting a feel for the lie of the land. The things I particularly noticed were the rubbish bins lined up along the kerbs, the food vans at just about every corner, the external fire escape stairs, the apparently abandoned scaffolding where building projects had been started. Remember, this was 2011, only a couple of years after the global financial crisis. And I learned that Times Square is an intersection.

We went to the post office to post a parcel and managed to mightily offend another customer because we didn’t understand the protocol involved before you could approach anybody at one of the counters.

Roads like canyons, with the Empire State in the distance

Food vans at every corner. They were left there overnight. We wondered how fresh and safe the food would be.

Eventually we ended up in an Irish pub, where we rested out sore feet and downed a drink or two while chatting to the Irish barman. On the way back to the hotel we felt in need of some food. Nothing substantial, just something to soak up the alcohol. We passed a few uninspiring convenience stores, then came across a sign advertising chicken sandwiches.


Except the Australian idea of a sandwich doesn’t line up with the American one. We were expecting a couple of slices of bread containing slices of chicken and some salad – lettuce, tomato, cucumber. What we got was a bread roll about 20cm (~9″) long, stuffed with shredded chicken mixed with something like barbecue sauce. A shred of lettuce and half a slice of tomato appeared on the plate as garnish. We’d bought one each, but one between us would have been more than enough. We left more than half of it, but we ate the garnish.

We were about ready for bed. Tomorrow we’d go and do some more exploring.


The end of the Baltic cruise

Under the bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden. Note the wind turbines.

Nynashamn/Stockholm was the Norwegian Sun’s last port of call before we headed back to Copenhagen. After such a lovely sunny start, the weather had come over all horrid and the swimming pool and sun deck were deserted.

I suppose this is a good place to talk about the ship.

We were sold a package in Australia which included the sea component, meals in the main restaurant and the buffet, onboard entertainment, and all tips and gratuities. Land-based tours, booze, meals in the specialty restaurants – and internet access – were extra. The charges for internet packages bordered on extortion so we did without, and the only ship-based tour we took was to the Vasa museum.

The crew was mainly from places like the Philippines and India, nice people often sending the money home to families. We did tip our favourite staff. I’ll bet they’re not paid much.

We’re not much into shows and the like, so we gave those a miss and we mainly ate in the main dining room, where the food was good. We tried the buffet once, but fighting your way to the food in competition with a couple of hundred other people is never my idea of fun. The tables were crowded too close together, too.

The ‘tips and gratuities’ thing only lasted as long as the first drink. A ten percent surcharge was added to everything and there was nothing the wait staff could do about it. Most of the passengers were Americans, to whom the tipping business is second nature. But it isn’t for Australians. Besides, the terms of our holiday stated tipping was included in our package. We weren’t the only (Aussie) couple to complain. We approached management and it was agreed that we would be refunded for tips paid when we got back to Copenhagen.

One thing that I found interesting was art sales. I gather the idea is that because the paintings are sold in international waters the sales don’t attract taxes. I read a great book which included just such a scenario after we got home. It’s well worth a read. Estelle Ryan: The Gauguin Connection. It’s the first of a series and it’s free.

All up, the cruise was fine if you like that sort of thing. I discovered I don’t. I’ll never go on a ship that size again. Too many people for me.

When we arrived in Copenhagen the crew had to manage getting us and our luggage off and set up the ship for the next load. Pete and I collected our confiscated Johnnie Walker black label and our refunded tips then joined the other two thousand three hundred and ninety-eight folks out in the drizzle to get a taxi to our accommodation in the city. I think we waited there, shuffling our bags along as the queue moved, for something like three hours. No, not happy Jan. Surely the cruise’s admin could have organised something better, if only a bus to the city centre.

We’d booked for two nights in a hotel close to the city centre so we’d at least have a day to look at Copenhagen before we left for New York early in the morning. I suppose we could have gone on an organised city tour but like most old European cities the historic parts are relatively small and easily walked. Besides, we had to go and buy a new suitcase. Mine, which had been around for a while, had suffered on the cruise and was in serious danger of falling apart en route to America. So we spent a lot of time in Copenhagen’s main shopping street, visiting every purveyor of suitcases. Denmark isn’t cheap. Even Macdonald’s is more expensive. We paid a LOT for that nice red suitcase.

The city’s main square – a popular meeting place. The shopping strip is behind the fountain.

A corkscrew tower and I assume a copper roof

They do boat cruises here, too

The bridge to the palace?

We had a good look around town, though we didn’t go to find Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid. We walked past Copenhagen’s famous amusement park, the Tivoli. We admired the royal palace and wondered if Our Mary would invite us in for tea with Fred. And we went down to the old wharfs which used to be bars and chandlers and warehouses and are now bars and restaurants and tourist shops. My main memories are of brightly-painted houses and severe Victorian edifices and statues.

The line of colourful shopfronts along the wharf

It was as cold as it looks down there

One of the many bars along the waterfront

We needed that Irish coffee

Inside. It’s probably been like that for ages

A local steamer

When we left, some cleaner would score a slightly battered suitcase and half a bottle of Johnnie Walker black label. We were off to New York City.


A slice of 17th century maritime history

Heading off for shore leave

The Norwegian Sun’s next port of call was Nynashamn in Sweden. It’s the ferry port for Stockholm, which is about 55km away. The ship sailed in between islands and anchored offshore. From there we were ferried across to the port in the lifeboats. It’s quite an operation when a couple of thousand or so people have to be moved. This was one time when we went along with everyone else. After the boat trip we boarded buses according to our destination in the city. For us it was a no-brainer. We went for the quick city tour and then a visit to the Vasa Museum.

Lifeboats to Nynahamn

The bus drove on a motorway through wonderful scenery but while we had greatweather in Tallinn and St Petersburg, by the time we reached Helsinki the clouds were gathering and now it was cold and drizzly. As we drove our guide told us a little about Swedish history. For instance, did you know the present royal family is descended from one of Napoleon’s marshals, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte? He was invited to become king in 1818 at a time of upheaval in Sweden, which had just lost control of Finland. Sweden had been a great power in Northern Europe during the 17th century but had lost most of its external possessions by the early 18th century.

I mentioned last time the rivalry between Sweden and Finland in ice hockey. The relationship between the countries in this part of the world are a bit like England and Australia in cricket, or New Zealand and Australia in rugby – friends but competitive.

The visit to the Vasa Museum was a bucket list item for me. The Vasa was a warship built by Dutch craftsmen, who were recognized as the best in the world at ship construction. Vasa is a contemporary of the famous Dutch ship Batavia and the similarity is obvious, although Vasa was always supposed to be warship, not a merchantman. In fact, Vasa’s demise preceded that of the Batavia. Vasa sank in 1628 on her first and only voyage just outside the port, rather like the Mary Rose in England. At least Batavia made it to the other side of the world before she hit a reef in the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Australia in 1629. (I wrote a book about that – click here to learn more).

A model of the vessel

Her richly decorated stern

Like the Mary Rose, Vasa sank because people in power who knew nothing about ship construction poked their noses in. Like so many of the nobles of the time, ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ was a driving force and the powerful king of Sweden was right there with the rest. Like all merchant ships of the time, Batavia carried guns for protection. She was configured with a gun deck, an oorlop deck, and the hold, and carried 32 guns. But the king of Sweden wanted TWO gun decks, so he got two gun decks. The thing is, this style of ship wasn’t designed to have all that weight on the top decks. As soon as Vasa encountered a breeze stronger than a zephyr, she keeled over. The canons broke their restraints and slid over to one side, and water came in the open gun ports. She foundered just outside a major shipping lane and lay there in the mud complete with the remains of at least fifteen people who went to the bottom with her, passing out of history (a bit like the One Ring) until 1950.

Crowds admire the real ship’s bow

Her remains were rediscovered in 1950. The task of lifting Vasa‘s timbers, preserving the material, and reconstructing her started in 1961. In 1990 she was moved to the present museum, along with fascinating exhibits showing how the original vessel was constructed. Willem Vos, who built the replica of the Batavia, worked here for a time learning the skills of ship-building in the 17th century. Many of the skills had been lost because they were passed from master to apprentice, often father to son, and never written down.

A model of a shipyard showing how vessels were built

The intricate rigging on the reconstructed ship

Historians have also delved into the history of the people who went down with the ship, providing information about their jobs on board and how they lived. Needless to say, the captain and the officers weren’t among the dead. Sorry, photography was difficult.

If you’re ever in Stockholm, take the time to visit the Vasa Museum. It’s a fascinating slice of 17th century history.


A taste of Finland

It’s a short trip from St Petersburg to Helsinki. In fact it’s a short trip between Helsinki and Tallin. Large, colourful ferries ply between the cities. I expect a few hundred years ago they would have been raiding parties, not ferries but we’re more civilized these days. Aren’t we?

An island outside Helsinki

Finland is a very wet place, dotted with lakes and islands. As we sailed into Helsinki’s harbour we passed many islands and lots of small boats. One thing about cruises is that you’re never anywhere for long enough to get more than a superficial glimpse at a place. Helsinki was no exception. I would have loved to go to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, built when Finland was still part of Sweden, but it’s too far away to do the place justice in such a short day. So that was out.

Once again, Pete and I wouldn’t be joining the tour groups leaving the Norwegian Sun. Our Finnish Friend, Heikki, was kind enough to meet us at the quayside and act as tour guide for the day. We’d met Heikki the year before in London when his book, Tulagi Hotel, and my book, To Die a Dry Death, were first published. But in fact Heikki and I had known each other online for a few years via the writer site (now passed into history) Authonomy.

That year, Heikki, Pete and I were all stuck in London when European air traffic was halted because of the eruption of that volcano in Iceland with the impossible name. It was pretty amazing to see signs on the motorway stating that Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world was closed. While Pete and I held our breath that the emergency would end before we were due to fly home, Heikki at least had other options. He made a mad dash across Europe using trains, hire cars, and ferries, to finally make it back to Helsinki. It took nearly two days. A flight takes a smidge under three hours.

Helsinki Cathedral at Senate Square – with statue of Czar Alexander III

Heikki took us on a driving tour of the city, pointing out some of the major buildings. Senate square is dominated by the white Helsinki cathedral with its dome. In the depths of winter the wide steps leading up to it are covered with snow and lads enjoy doing a bit of skiing. The statue in the middle of the square is of Alexander III, Czar of Russia. I hadn’t known about that comfortable relationship with Russia. Finland became an autonomous part of Russia in 1812 and Alexander re-established the Diet (parliament) of Finland in 1863, further increasing Finnish autonomy. Things certainly changed after the communist revolution.

Uspenski cathedral

Wonderful religious art

One of the domes

We went to visit the imposing Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral which towers over the city. Here again, the Russian influence was obvious in the art, the style originally coming from Constantinople.

As it happened the local military museum had an exhibition about the Winter War, a little-known conflict between the USSR and Finland at the beginning of WW2. Heikki is a keen military historian and we were more than happy to take a look and hear all about it.

Note the swastika – not the Nazi version. This is a Finnish vehicle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_use_of_the_swastika_in_the_early_20th_century

Machine gun emplacement, Winter War (photo from Wikipedia article)

Having just taken over half of Poland in September, 1939, Stalin decided now was a good time to bully other smaller neighbours. He demanded that Finland hand over part of its territory near Leningrad, for ‘security reasons’. At the time, Finnish territory came quite close to Leningrad. However, the Finns refused the demands. So Soviet troops invaded Finland in November, 1939. You’d think they would have learned from Napoleon’s disastrous attack on Moscow. But No. They expected to walk in and take over easily. The Ukrainian troops used for the offensive were ill-equipped and unused to fighting in forested mountains. The Finns might have been outgunned and outnumbered, but they knew the mountains and forests and the bitter cold. And they could ski. They conducted essentially a guerrilla war, using white garments as camouflage, skiing into Soviet camps, firing as they went, then vanishing. The tough little local horses replaced vehicles. After initial setbacks the Soviets reorganised and pressed the Finnish defences. The Finns couldn’t win against such a large adversary. The war ended in March 1940, when the Finns agreed to lose 11% of their territory near Leningrad. The tiny country could not afford to engage in a long war. But they’d enhanced their own reputation while making the Soviets look inept.

Heikki’s relatives had fought in the war and he had done two years conscription in the armed forces. It was fascinating to hear some of the stories from those times as we looked at the museum’s artefacts. Like the Swiss, the Finns are prepared to defend their territory. But the greatest rivalry they face is against the Swedes in ice hockey.

We went to a lovely restaurant for lunch and enjoyed the local salmon, chatting all the while. There’s nothing like sharing a place with someone who lives there. You can visit cathedrals and castles, ooh and ahh over beaty spots – but that visit to the military museum with Heikki to explain gave Pete and I a glimpse of the Finnish character that you wouldn’t get any other way.

We would be sailing this evening, heading for Stockholm.

Not every hermitage is a mountain cave

Outside the Winter Palace on a lovely bright day

When I think about hermitages I image a skinny little guy in rustic robes living in a cave high up in the mountains or a tumble-down cottage deep in the forest. Somehow, the Hermitage in St Petersburg doesn’t fit the mould.

The Hermitage Museum complex. From left to right: Hermitage Theatre – Old Hermitage – Small Hermitage – Winter Palace (the “New Hermitage” is situated behind the Old Hermitage).

For a start, it’s huge. It comprises six buildings, one of which is our friend Catherine’s winter palace on the banks of the Neva River. She sure liked building palaces. It seems the museum has over three million items, although around a million of them are in the stamp collection. Even so, that’s a lot of stuff, only a fraction of which is on display.

A walkway from one building to the next crossing a canal

While our guide, Irina, went off to get tickets Pete and I hung around the entrance where we were approached by touts flogging picture books of the Hermitage and Catherine’s Palace. Pete had some fun haggling, then bought a couple to take home. Irina returned and took us inside. We were told we could take photos but please, no flash. I could understand that and set up my camera accordingly. But an awful lot of tourists can be just plain ignorant. Flashes were going off everywhere, despite the guards’ attempts at preventing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t allow photography anymore.

Once again, the building was covered in gold decoration. The main staircase is just the beginning. The Winter Palace is every bit as opulent as the Summer Palace with fantastic decoration on the ceilings and walls. The parquetry flooring is remarkable. It’s hard to imagine how much painstaking work went into creating them.

And then there’s the art. The works of every painter you’ve ever heard of is in the collection. I’ve included just a sample of European artists. There’s oriental art, Islamic art – everybody’s art. There are sculptures, porcelain ware, jewellery. There’s an Egyptian section with hieroglyphs and statues. We were supposed to be at the Hermitage just for the morning before moving on to shopping in Nevsky Prospekt but Irina was quite happy to skip the shopping trip and stay at the Hermitage. Even a day is just the tip of the iceberg. Like the British Museum, you could spend a week in here and then you’ve only just begun.

The lady herself, Catherine the Great

van Gogh



Probably Manet


The Malevich is to my mind one of those pretentious pieces where art critics look down at us plebs because we don’t recognise its worth. It’s called ‘black square’ and I seem to recall a figure like $1 million. Apparently he did four variations… don’t ask me .I’m just a pleb. Read all about it here. Give me Rembrandt any day. Look at the detail in the old man’s hands. I love the way he used light, too.

With just three of us in our little party, we took the chance to talk about politics. Irina told us that Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the dismantling of the USSR, is not popular in Russia. Maybe that’s why he lives in New York. Putin, on the other hand, is well liked. She also told us that when it came to changing the name of the city, many people wanted to keep the name Leningrad because of the nine-hundred-day siege during the war. A vote was taken and in the end a small majority preferred the old name – St Petersburg.

Wandering around inside a building is actually quite tiring. We were quite happy to head back to the ship for our 2pm curfew.

The Norwegian Sun sailed just before sunset, heading past the naval facility on Kronstadt. Rusting ships and submarines were tied up in holding pens, a monument to the Soviet days.

We sailed out through the barriers into the Baltic Sea. We were on our way to Helsinki.



St Petersburg – a jewel of the north

The entrance to Catherine’s Palace

The domes above the chapel at the palace

The next stop on our Baltic cruise would be a two-day stay in St Petersburg, Russia. We watched the ship being nudged into the dock by tugs. The liner didn’t need help but I expect that was part of the port dues. Whatever. We were in and ready to disembark after clearing immigration, the stations ‘manned’ by mainly dour-looking women in uniform.

Although the Russians had loosened entry restrictions to the country, we all needed a visa, which was provided by the tour company we travelled with. Pete and I had checked out the tours available via the Norwegian Sun before we left home and had a look for a better price (and a smaller group) from local providers, so once again, we didn’t go walkabout with our fellow travellers. We were met by our guide, a pleasant young woman whose name I’ve forgotten. We’ll call her Irina. We’d booked to visit Catherine’s Palace followed by a boat trip around the canals, with lunch at a local restaurant for today. Then tomorrow a trip to the Hermitage and a shopping opportunity at Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg’s premier shopping strip, finishing mid-afternoon. Our guide asked if we’d like to change to the other tour, which included visits to the Peterhof Palace as well as the famous subway stations. It would have been too long a day for us, so we declined – which meant we had a private tour just for us. Our guide stressed that we should not even think about playing hooky and coming back to the ship after the visa had expired tomorrow at 2pm. We would get into trouble. And we didn’t want that.

Czar Peter the Great

Statue of Lenin outside government buildings

St Petersburg’s port is some way from the city and Catherine’s Palace is on the other side. Our driver – let’s call him Ivan – drove off, while Irina commentated. Pete took some pictures out the windows as we passed various buildings and monuments while I kind of hung on in terror. You know those video clips of Russian drivers? They’re true. Road rules are suggestions, parking is where you can fit your car (on the pavement is just fine), pushing in is the only way to change lanes. However, we arrived at Catherine’s Palace in one piece. A small band waiting for us when we alighted from the car played a few lines of ‘Advance Australia Fair’.

Catherine’s baroque summer palace is quite a pile. It’s also very popular. One nice thing about being with a group is you get to avoid the queues, especially when it’s a group of three. We walked up the stairs with Irina and put on the issued soft booties to protect the beautiful floors from tourist footwear.

The great hall reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Note booties.

Every time I go to one of these palaces it’s no surprise to me that the peasants revolted. The over-the-top opulence is breathtaking. Most of it was for show, of course, to impress other Europeans heads of state of Russia’s power and wealth, with more than a touch of anything you can do we can do better.

Gold decoration everywhere

St Petersburg, known as Leningrad after the Russian revolution, was besieged by German troops from Sept 1941 to Jan 1944 but Catherine’s Palace, which is outside the city limits at Pushkin, was under German control. The inhabitants suffered terribly in those years, with many dying of starvation and cold. Read more about the siege of Leningrad here. I have a friend whose grandfather, a young officer in the Red army, lived in the city during the siege. He wrote a dairy which his granddaughter translated into English. You’ll find The Ring of Nine here. Let me quote from a review of the book.

Treat yourself to this beautifully written amazing history of a period and a situation that most of us couldn’t imagine. Can you imagine no food or seeing frozen bodies wrapped and laying on the sidewalk outside your building in the morning or no electricity or fearing being a victim of cannibal gangs or surviving sub-zero, dark winters? He did. Be inspired by his courage. Beyond this, I am left speechless. It is a unique period in history and we are afforded a window into this nightmare by a man who lets us look in through his very human style.

When the Nazis left in 1944 they took with them priceless art and stripped all the amber from the famous amber room, then trashed and burnt the building. When the war finally ended, Josef Stalin made the restoration of Catherine’s Palace one of the country’s priority projects, perhaps a little strange for a man who was supposed to be a communist. But really the palace was a monument to Russian might and power in older times. Just as when it was built, its resurrection was a message to the Western world. “We can STILL do this.” Work still goes on here and there. Like all of these old buildings, maintenance is continuous. The amber room has been rebuilt with new amber – sorry, no photos allowed. No one knows what happened to the original cladding, another lost Nazi looted treasure.

Before and after photos showing the extent of Nazi damage

On a side note, while we in the West see WWII as being between 1939 and 1945, the Russian monuments to the fallen all had 1941 – 1945, 1941 being the year the Nazis attacked Russia. That meant they didn’t include Soviet attacks on Finland and Poland in 1939.

And on another side note, the city is not named after Peter the Great. Czar Peter was a very religious man and he named the city after Saint Peter.

But back to Catherine’s amazing palace.

A mannequin modelling one of Catherine’s formal gowns (must weigh a ton). Note that tiled stove in the corner. Peter came across this manner of heating rooms in the Netherlands. Yes, that’s Delft blue.

We walked through room after room filled with gold, fine porcelain, priceless paintings, gold-framed mirrors, parquetry floors, painted ceilings. Inside the building there are no closed-off passages with doors opening into the rooms. In those days, personal privacy wasn’t really a thing.

Crowds held back

A dining room setting

The ornate garden designed to be seen from above

Then it was back into town. Irina took us to a restaurant in the city for a typical Russian lunch of borscht and bread before we went on our boat trip around St Petersburg’s canals.

Riding the canals

St Petersburg isn’t a city where everybody speaks English. Our commentary on the boat was delivered via the little oval MP3 players popular in 2011. The boat’s speed was carefully controlled to match the narration. Except mine was a bit off because I pressed a wrong button somewhere. I can imagine the Russian crewman rolling his eyes at the daft old Australian after he fixed it for me. Never mind. I managed to compensate by looking back at what we’d passed.

The admiralty buildings and the Hermitage from the river

Superficially it’s a bit like Venice, drifting past rows of opulent upper-class mansions but unlike Venice there are parks and gardens, too. We caught a glimpse of the colourful onion domes of the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood through the trees and passed by Czar Peter’s own modest Dacha.

Cathedral of the spilled blood

Peter the Great’s modest summer palace, a stark contrast to Catherine’s version

The fortress of St Peter and St Paul

Out on the River Neva, with the wind as cold as we were warned it would be, we had a great view of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul on Hare Island in the Neva River. Peter the Great imprisoned his son Alexei there after he was found guilty of plotting against his father. Peter apparently despised his son as explained in this article from Russia Beyond. It’s worth your time just to look at the pictures.

Tomorrow we would be off to visit the world-renowned Hermitage museum, which we’d seen from our boat.


A day in Tallinn

Busy waterway

The Norwegian Sun pulled out of Warnemunde in the early evening and we watched the Baltic as we cruised. It’s hard to imagine the sea any calmer than it was, the only ripples made by the shipping.

The sunset is reflected in a door

Norwegian Sun above the rooftops

We arrived in Tallinn the next morning within easy walking distance of the old town on the slopes of the hill looking over the harbour. As usual, the ship offered guided tours of the city but we decided to venture forth on our own. Locals had set up a market which we would have to walk through to get to the town, but before we ventured between the tents we noticed a group of passengers gathered around a pole, all of them staring at their phones or tablets.

Free WIFI.

There was WIFI on the ship, but the cost was outrageous. It looked like we weren’t the only ones who decided to pass and/or find alternatives.

The row of tents from the ship to the edge of town

The city

Although the sky was clear and the sun was up it was cool in the shadows as we walked up the street to the town square where the main market was held.

One of the wall’s towers with the Norwegian Sun behind

Although the market was like markets everywhere, it was pretty obvious this one had an eye on the tourist dollar, with stalls full of knitted jumpers, shawls, beanies, hats, scarves, beads, necklaces, brooches, and other items that would easily fit in a suitcase. Quite a few sellers offered ‘amber’. I did the brackets because I suspect at least some of it was manufactured. There seemed to be an awful lot with entombed, perfectly preserved insects. Maybe Jurassic Park was real (dinosaur DNA derived from blood of sap-sucking insect). Pete bought a piece just for fun. Having said that, the amber used to create the famous amber room in Catherine’s Palace came from these parts. We’d be learning more about that tomorrow.

Sun and colour at the markets

I loved the witches

Jumpers, mittens, balaclavas, scarves. All pointless in sub-tropical Australia, but nice to look at.

Like most cities in the Olden Days,  Tallinn was a walled city. Red, conical roofs on the towers marked the boundaries. Like many other European cities, where you lived depended on your status. The upper classes lived up the hill, with access gained via gates in a series of thick walls. One got the impression that defence was important in this town. We wandered on up the hill from the town square and encountered a massive wall with a stairway leading to the top and an invitation to climb up to the cafe. We fancied a cup of coffee so we climbed up narrow, winding stairs with uneven and very high risers. Apparently, that was deliberate to slow down any enemies with a mind to try the ascent. We reached the top pretty puffed-out – and that’s where we were asked to pay an entrance fee. We weren’t impressed at the subterfuge but it wasn’t a lot of money and we wanted coffee. We left by a more accessible exit to wander around the town.

An imposing fortification in the middle of town

The stairs to the top. Note those HIGH risers. It’s hard work.

Note thickness of wall

Tallinn is neat, clean, graffiti-free (mostly) and fun to walk around. There are cobbled streets, fascinating laneways, fun places to eat and drink, and inviting shops selling local crafts and very much trading on the city’s medieval past. I expect, like Rostock, the citizens were delighted to throw off the Soviet yolk and get back to being Estonian.

The salmon was to die for, served with a crisp salad

Rather than go back to the ship for lunch, we found a restaurant in town offering a lunch menu and sat at a window watching people. It struck me that Estonians are amongst the most attractive looking people I’ve seen. So many tall, good-looking guys and women with long, flaxen hair. Peter Jackson could have recruited his elves from here, I reckon.

Lunch was fabulous. We had a bowl of chowder, then a piece of local salmon that was right up there with the best I’ve ever eaten. The price was good, too. I expect it might have been expensive for the locals but not for us tourists.

Cobblestones and interesting nooks and crannies

Old edifices

Al fresco dining outside a medieval pub

After lunch we did a lot more walking, soaking up what this city has to offer, stopping now and then for coffee to ease our by now aching feet. But we did climb up the hill that towers above the harbour to admire the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the consulate area. The views from up there are amazing.

Shrek and donkey pose outside the beautiful Alexander Nevsky cathedral

The view from the citadel. You can just make out the ship next to the tower

I loved Tallinn and I’d happily go again. I read somewhere that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld city, Ankh-Morpork, has elements of Tallinn in it. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Tired but happy, we meandered gently back down to the ship for the next part of our tour. Tomorrow we’d be venturing into the great Russian city of St Petersburg.


First stop – Warnemünde

We flew from Amsterdam to Copenhagen. That is to say, we sat in an aircraft that did the actual flying. It’s not far, an eighty-minute flight. We wouldn’t be staying in the city, just passing through to join the Norwegian Sun for our nine-day Baltic cruise. We were going to take the train from the airport to the sea port. It’s much cheaper than a taxi and it’s all good fun anyway, isn’t it?

We worked out which lines we’d need and where to change over from one route to another, then we were off, dragging our suitcases with carry-on bags and cameras hung off our bodies. Getting to the port wasn’t too bad, although we’d both had about enough of trundling along platforms and up and down lifts by the time we arrived. We could see the upper decks of a couple of ships from the platform but getting there was another matter. The exits from the station went to the land side of the track. It wasn’t all that far, less than a kilometre, but it was a warm day and we were about over it. We spied a taxi rank over the road from the station and waited. It was the weekend and it seemed taxi drivers didn’t bother coming out here much. In the end we looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and headed for the underpass under the railway line towing and carrying our luggage.

We arrived at the ship hot and bothered and joined the queue for security checks, much like at an airport but not as strict. To our surprise, we were called over to the desk. We’d bought a nice bottle of scotch at the duty-free in Schiphol so we could have a drink in our cabin. The scotch was confiscated but we were assured it would be returned when we disembarked. In other words, you buy your booze from us. We checked. The condition was included in the fine print on the booking.

The ship’s central staircase

Our room on the ship

We went to our balcony room and unpacked. The ‘balcony’ was more like a ledge, wide enough for a chair, but it was a nice place to watch the ships go by. The Baltic carries a lot of traffic.

After a cursory safety session, we were off. We would be sailing overnight and be docked at our first port by morning.

First port was Warnemünde in what used to be East Germany. The ship offered excursions (at extra cost) for every port of call and today’s trip was by train to Berlin, about two hundred kilometres away. After around three and a half hours on the train through Germany, guests would be taken on a bus tour of the city before catching the train back to the ship. Pete and I leaned on the ship’s rail watching group after group of passengers walk from the ship to the train.  To each his/her own, but seven hours on a train and an hour on a bus didn’t appeal.

The city gates

setting up the market

The little port at Warnemünde was pretty and the old Hanseatic town of Rostock was a short local train trip away. Although Rostock had been an important port in the Middle Ages it had deteriorated under communist rule. Since the reunification of Germany, however, the inhabitants lost no time in renovating their city. And it’s gorgeous, with houses in bright colours, a beautifully renovated city hall and more restorations going on everywhere. We did a lot of walking there, going down the hill to the old port where ships would berth back in the days of the Hanseatic League,

The town hall. It’s built over Roman ruins

Beautifully restored Medieval buildingWe walked into the town square opposite the town hall where merchants were setting up for a market. It was a lovely sunny day and we strolled along admiring beautiful vegetables, bread, small goods, and fish. Pete spied jellied eels, a delicacy hard to come by in Australia, and enjoyed a plate of them. We took a picture to show to Pete’s brother, who would be green with envy. (I passed – not my thing. I had a hot dog, a German sausage in a warm bun with mustard. Yum.)

setting up the market

Beautiful fresh produce

Jellied eels and potato salad

The prized white asparagus. And avocados – I don’t think they’re local.

But having bought the food, we were all out of cash and we would need some to buy train tickets from the machine to get back to the ship. No problem. We’d find a bank or an ATM. The search took us down the town’s main street but we ended up having to ask. No ATMs but the bank was around the corner. Banks are very different in Germany. No rows of tellers behind screens. We eventually were taken to a desk and sat opposite a lady. We couldn’t change any of our foreign currency, I’ve forgotten why. Well, that made things difficult. How did we pay for tickets? Oh well. We caught the train, anyway, and hoped we didn’t encounter a ticket inspector. We didn’t.

Back in Warnemünde, we strolled around the fishing boat harbour. Some of our fellow passengers were doing the same, checking out the rows of shops offering clothes, souvenirs, and art. And fish and chips. The local seagulls are much bigger than our silver gulls, but they have the same penchant for chips – and they’re pirates, taking any opportunity to steal your lunch. We also admired some sand sculptures before we headed back to the ship for a pre-dinner drink and to watch the ship set sail.

Fishing boats moored on the river

Seagull trying to steal chips

Sand sculpture

In most places, the captain used thrusters along the sides of the ship to manoeuvre in and out of harbour. No tug boats required. The only exception was St Petersburg and I suspect that was a Russian requirement.

Next stop would be Tallin, capital of Estonia.