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.

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.