Category Archives: Oceania Marina

St Petersburg Trinity of Cathedrals

Three of St. Petersburg’s Most Famous Churches

Following lunch on the Oceania Marina, we’re off to visit three of St. Petersburg’s most prominent cathedrals.   Russia is a land of paradoxes and nowhere is that more apparent than the country’s attitude toward religion in the last century .  After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and atheism became the country’s official  doctrine, churches were  stripped of their valuable  objects and closed.

Churches were converted into whatever the government needed them to be: storehouses for vegetables or warehouses for equipment, an ice skating rink or a  swimming pool.  When religious freedom returned in 1991, the majority of Russians went back to their Russian Orthodox faith. However, many churches badly needed repair and restoration due to wartime damage and decades of Soviet neglect.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Our first stop is the enormous St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Russia’s largest church and the fourth tallest cathedral in the world.  Its gleaming gold-plated iron dome is a landmark visible from many parts of the city. St. Isaac’s reportedly cost six times more than the Winter Palace and took 40 years to build. One of the greatest engineering problems was to make a stable foundation for the church in St. Petersburg’s mushy, marshy soil.  To accomplish this, entire forests were cut and turned into  pine logs. The timbers then were coated in tar, driven into the ground and covered with compacted stone.

St. Isaacs Cathedral Cupola Interior St Petersburg RussiaEye in the sky, St. Isaac’s cupola interior

Inside the church, I find the soaring interior dome especially impressive. It’s decorated with a magnificent fresco of the Virgin Mary surrounded by saints and angels, all looking down on us from a lofty 260 feet. (If you have the time and energy, you can climb the  300 steps up to the dome base and view St. Petersburg from the observation walk there.)

At ground level, the cathedral has lavishly colored mosaics, tall columns and fine statuary.  There is so much here it’s impossible to describe this colossus adequately.  For more information, click here and herefor more photos, here.  The Soviets converted St. Isaac’s into a Museum of Atheism so it doesn’t suffer as much as some others. The cathedral continues to function largely as a museum, holding regular religious services in one small chapel, not the main building.

You won’t find anywhere to sit inside St. Isaac’s.  There aren’t any seats or pews because most Orthodox churches don’t have them.  Worshippers are expected to stand before God during services. Also missing from St. Isaac’s is a church organ. It wasn’t carted off by the Soviets because there wasn’t one. The only musical instrument used in Russian Orthodox churches is the human voice.  What a difference from the rest of Europe where a  massive organ is a famous feature of many churches.

Lady of Kazan Cathedral

From St. Isaac’s it’s a short drive to Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, notable for its semi-circular 96-column outdoor colonnade that encircles a fountain and garden area in front of the church. This elaborate decoration is something you’d expect outside a palace, not a church.  Kazan Cathedral is special, built in the early 1800s to be the home of a famous icon of the Virgin Mary found almost a half century earlier near in the city of Kazan. The icon, known as The Lady of Kazan, was famous for its miraculous powers associated with various Russian victories in battle and with the country’s destiny.  It was so popular that exact replicas of it were made in several places in Russia. All were said to perform miracles like the original.

Kazan Cathedral St Petersburg RussiaInterior of Kazan Cathedral

The icon went missing early in the 1900s–or did it? A popular  belief states someone stole it from the church around 1903 or 1904 for its jewel-encrusted frame.  Others claim the icon never was lost but in the possession of various Orthodox clergy in the following decades.  There were even reports that Leningraders marched it around the city in World War II.  What does not seem to be in dispute is the icon’s present location: the state of New York, in the possession of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad where the icon is venerated as the Kazan Mother of God. But is it genuine?  At the same time, Pope John Paul II had a Kazan icon, too, which may have been made too recently to be genuine. Regardless, the Pope returned it to Russia.

The interior of St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral contains an impressive array of columns   equal to any found in many palace halls.  The statues here are noteworthy—fashioned only by Russian sculptors, not a common practice at the time when Westerners normally made the city’s religious statues. The overall décor of the  Kazan Cathedral is simple yet elegant, certainly more relaxing and less overpowering than St. Isaac’s. And there is  a greater religious feeling, too, as people pray and light candles in an intimate atmosphere.

Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood

Our final stop is one of St. Petersburg’s most popular churches. Its name is a mouthful to say: the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, or Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. Locals refer to it as the Spilled Blood church, so named because it sits on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The cathedral, built by Tsar Alexander III to honor his father’s memory, is dramatically different from St. Isaac’s, Kazan Cathedral and most other city churches built in the European Baroque or Neoclassic style.  Spilled Blood is designed in the traditional Russian style with multi-colored onion domes and other eye-catching decorations. The ornate façade exhibits not just a riot of colors but scores of smaller embellishment, many appearing as icons.

Church on the Spilled Blood St Petersburg RussiaChurch on Spilled Blood onion domes

As a religious memorial to Alexander II, the extravagantly decorated church was never officially consecrated and never conducted religious services. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the church was looted and the interior turned into a garbage dump.  After World War II, Spilled Blood became a storage house for vegetables, prompting locals to call it the Savior on Potatoes.  For many years it was commonly believed the building would be torn down due to extensive damage, yet it remained standing.

Spilled Blood’s salvation came in 1970 when St. Isaac’s Cathedral brought it under its management and its museum fees paid for the 25-year restoration of  Spilled Blood. Fully restored , the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood reopened its doors in 1997 containing walls and ceilings decorated with more brightly colored mosaics than perhaps any other church anywhere.  Never consecrated, the cathedral is both a museum of mosaics and a memorial to Tsar Alexander II.  The dominant theme of the murals is said to link Alexander II’s killing with Christ’s crucifixion.

Spilled Blood is a reminder how often history is full of strange contradictions and inconsistencies.  On our first Baltic cruise stop in Helsinki, we see the popular landmark statue of Alexander II erected in Senate Square by the Finnish people to honor the “good tsar” who granted them greater political freedom than the Russian leaders following him. Here in Russia, Alexander II  is best known for freeing the serfs from their masters and instituting other radical reforms. Now we stand at the very place a bomb killed the tsar considered to be the greatest reformer since Peter the Great. What a weird world we live in.

Touring the State Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg

State Hermitage Museum Is A Former St. Petersburg Palace

The State Hermitage Museum is one of St. Petersburg’s must-see attractions, normally choked with as many as 35,000 tourists daily in summer. We appear to be the first ones entering the museum today. There’s a reason for this: cruise ship tour groups enjoy early admission to the Hermitage well in advance of the museum’s normal operating hours. And we’re on an Oceania Marina tour.

The State Hermitage Museum art collection,  housed in the Winter Palace and four additional buildings located side by side near the Neva River, began when Empress Catherine the Great purchased several hundred paintings from the city of Berlin modestly in 1764.  She probably never could  have  imagined what that modest beginning would grow into. Who could?

An estimated 2.7 million art objects are now held by the Hermitage. One of the world’s largest collections, it’s far too large for all ever to be exhibited there. In recent years, the Hermitage has opened exhibition centers to share more of its collection with the world. The satellite Hermitages  are located in Russia and several cities in Europe, including Amsterdam.

Interior of the Winter PalaceWalls and walls of painting, State Hermitage Museum

Arriving at the Hermitage, our guide stresses where our bus will depart from in case anyone loses contact with the group. Inside, she indicates where we’ll exit the museum. Perhaps my Peterhof experience yesterday is responsible for these essentials being pointed out? Or is this the standard procedure and something our guide yesterday ignored?  No telling.

Lost In A Throng of Art Work

For the next two hours, we experience a cram course in European art history. We explore the exhibit rooms and hallways of the Hermitage, pausing occasionally but more often advancing steadily. There is so much to see and our several hours are so little time. Surprisingly, we can take still photos and video everywhere. No flash, of course, so anything in a dark room is a problem,

About half-way through the tour, for me it all becomes slightly overwhelming, an excess of color and shapes displayed on canvas, on porcelain, in marble and in bronze. Yes, it is a rare privilege to see so many great works by Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Rubens and others. Yet so many distinguished works are merging into a blur.  Sensory overload.

Rembrandt Painting State Hermitage MuseumOh, just another Rembrandt…

Our final stop is a small, once forbidden room that guides still often bypass. It is the controversial exhibition of French Impressionists with works by Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh and Gauguin. The exhibit is controversial because the Soviets took the works from Germany and then forbade their display or for them to be studied until the paintings were made available for public view in the Hermitage in the 1990s.  See a few of the paintings here.

I’m not the only one feeling a little foggy headed as we prepare to leave the museum. Fortunately, the State Hermitage Museum has an excellent website depicting a fairly extensive and growing display of its artwork, a scrapbook containing much of what we see. It is a way to relive what we see, though it can never match actually being there.

Hermitage Museum Staircase-1Staircase in the Winter Palace

As we exit the Hermitage, its doors are just opening and a jostling crush of visitors is just entering. Glad we didn’t have to be part of that. Sometimes it really pays to be a cruise passenger, especially when the Oceania Marina pays for your tour.

We did not have time to shop.   No matter The Hermitage offers online shopping of reproductions of some of its famous canvases and other art media at surprisingly reasonable prices.  For instance, Faberge eggs sell from $25 to $249.  Linen canvas reproductions of Da Vinci’s “Madonna and Child” are only $19.  Shipping is from the U.S. and depends on the item’s weight. There’s a U.S. 800-number for questions   You can also download a shopping app from the Hermitage Facebook page. Very capitalistic, these Russians.

Evading The Peterhof Curse

Finding The Tour Group: Time Runs Out

(In case you’re coming in at the end of this  three-part tale, it  begins at the end of this post, continues in the next one and now concludes here.)

Continuing to search for my Oceania Marina tour group, I  leave Peterhof’s Lower Gardens and go to the one spot where we should meet at some point. The overlook above Peterhof’s famous Grand Cascade with its 64 different fountains, and more than 200 bronze statues and other decorative objects. This iconic spot is a place any decent tour group should visit. It also turns out to be both a good observation post for overseeing the Lower Gardens sidewalks as well as nicely situated near Peterhof’s main exit on the right side of the palace.

I stay there, glued to the Grand Cascade overlook, never going anywhere else for photos. Yet never a glimpse of Linda or our group. I estimate the bus will depart around 12:45 p.m. since the tour is supposed to be back at the Marina at 1:30 p.m. When the group fails to appear by 12:45, I decide to search the parked rows of tour buses lining the roads behind the palace.  No Oceania bus and not a single bus driver who speaks English! It doesn’t look good for getting back with the others. At least there’s no worry about the Marina sailing without me. It’s only the first of our three days in St. Petersburg.  Still, I’ll pay dearly for getting separated; it’s bound to be an exorbitant taxi ride to the Oceania Marina.

Peterhof Grand Cascade, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe famous Grand Cascade. So much to see but not today.

At 1 p.m., I play my last option, visiting the information booth next to the main exit. Thankfully, the woman there speaks English. I explain my predicament, that undoubtedly the bus has left without me. (although deep down inside I’d really like that bus magically to appear). What I need to do is inform the Marina—and for them to let Linda know–that everything is fine despite my disappearance.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.

The woman closes the information kiosk and leads me to a large building adjacent to the main Palace. She suggests I take a chair and then walks behind closed doors into what I presume is an office area.  I sit and watch Russians talking and sometimes laughing as they come and go through the entrance hall.

My Very Strange Day

Several things about today seem odd.  Despite Linda’s usual quiet manner I’d expect her to create a memorable disturbance to have me found.  She and I are out of touch because we didn’t bring our cell phones on this trip. With unlimited internet on the ship, we didn’t think we’d need them. Worst of all, we left behind our small walkie talkies for staying in contact aboard ship. Those walkie talkies have a range of five miles, perfect for this situation.

The woman from the information booth reappears with a colleague who asks me a series of questions in Russian. Those  are translated into English for me and my answers converted into Russian for her. What easily could be a complicated dialogue is efficient and brief.  Interview over, the two women disappear back behind the office door.  I glance at my watch: 1:15 p.m. That Oceania bus definitely is long gone.

The other thing that seems odd about today: our guide does carry a cell phone and yet no one at this main office has been notified about a wandering American tourist now MIA for more than two hours. Losing a tourist in Russia used to be a very bad thing for a guide. Maybe not so much anymore?

The office door abruptly swings open again and the two women reappear with a colleague. In fluent English, the newcomer says “Your bus is waiting. It’s just around the corner. Come with me.”  The relief I experience is hard to describe. I ask her how she can possibly know where the bus is. Or know who I am? As we briskly walk to the left of the palace– the exact opposite side of where I searched–from our conversation I come to realize this woman essentially is the-boss-of-all-guides. And Marie only has just phoned in that I am missing. The big boss does not look pleased.  Is she upset with me or Marie?

An Unexpected Outcome

After perhaps two minutes of walking, we reach a row of craft shops, turn left at a corner and standing there are Linda and Marie, with our bus parked behind them. I profusely thank the woman who reunited all of us, clamber up the bus stairs and immediately apologize to the group for making them wait so long. They probably have waited for at least 30 minutes yet no one seems upset. Thankfully. I plop into my seat beside Linda. I tell her I’ve searched everywhere for the bus but where we are now is so far from the main exit—I had no idea this small out-of-the-way area even existed.

She updates me about her day. “We only got on the bus 5 minutes ago,” she says. “I let Marie know you were missing as soon as we lost you this morning. But she never did anything.  When we found the bus and you still hadn’t shown up, I told her this bus wasn’t going anywhere without you. Some of the others felt the same way. Only then did she start making phone calls.”

How did everyone disappear so quickly this morning? Turns out the prolonged restroom search consumed almost all of the group’s time at Peterhof. From the Chessboard Fountain where I’d lost everyone, Marie marched the group a short distance before taking a sharp right to walk away from the Lower Gardens and into a forest with thick tree cover.

Marie’s promised 5-minute stroll instead took around 20 minutes before reaching a remote area with little for tourists to see but trees. No wonder the restrooms were empty. From the time we boarded the train tram until everyone had restroom access must have been over an hour.  If I’d been on Linda’s expedition and had an urgent need I’d have watered the forest. Wasting everyone’s tour time like this was senseless considering the restrooms available before the tram ride.

Linda says that from the restrooms Marie retraced their route until reaching a bridge over the canal flowing between the palace and the Gulf of Finland. Everyone crossed to the other side, then continued plodding through a wilderness of trees. Once they reached Peterhof’s open Lower Gardens and its fountains, the group then ascended the stairs beside the Grand Cascade, never pausing long enough for Linda to take any video.

Instead of taking the group to the Grand Cascade overlook, Marie immediately exited everyone through an out-of-the-way turnstile far from the main exit. Then she gave everyone time for craft shopping near the bus. “You saw a lot more of Peterhof  than we did because we saw hardly anything,” Linda points out. “And I wasn’t the only one looking for you. Some other passengers were, too.” While being lost wasn’t the best of times, it was a lot better than being part of that ridiculous, unnecessary trek.

Riding back to the ship, I reflect on my decades-long curse at Peterhof. Was it active yet again today? My cameras may have worked well but I don’t get to use them much because I spend most of my time at the Grand Cascade overlook. Having my tour guide receiver cut out as it did is strange yet fortunate. That malfunction allows me to avoid joining Linda’s walking tour to hell and back. At least I get some photos. But it doesn’t compare to what I normally take on such a perfect sunny day.

One thing is certain. This is my last time at Peterhof.  For whatever reason , I am forever jinxed there.  It is a place of bad juju for me.  This is my forever farewell to it. .

 

 

The Curse At Peterhof Palace St. Petersburg

One of St. Petersburg’s Most Popular Attractions

It’s about a 45-minute drive from the Oceania Marina to the palaces and gardens at Peterhof, often called the “Russian Versailles.”  Peterhof Palace is a place I look forward to with anticipation and dread. (Note: See previous post for origin of the curse)

Our lively guide Marie briefs us on the past of St. Petersburg and Vladimir Putin. We pass through countryside that is green and eye-catching. There isn’t a single visible scar from the horrific 900-day German siege of  St. Petersburg, at the time known as Leningrad. When the Germans attacked Leningrad in 1941, the city was an important industrial center as well as the country’s second largest city.

One of the first Russian prizes sought by Germany, Leningrad was nearly surrounded and its major supply lines cut off. The effort to keep the city from falling to the Germans was both heroic and horrific. An estimated one million Leningraders and Russian soldiers died in the conflict here. It’s believed hundreds of thousands of city residents perished not from bullets or bombs but from starvation and cold.

Lower Gardens fountain, Peterhof, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe fountains operate only from May to mid-October

Peterhof palace and its surrounding grounds were occupied by German troops for 28 months. Leningraders knew of the impending German attack and Peterhof staff and volunteers were able to remove numerous pictures, statues, and thousands of art objects, sent by train to other parts of the country. Unknown to the Germans, many of Peterhof’s marble and bronze sculptures were hidden beneath their boots, buried in the ground. Anything left standing was stolen.

Peterhof’s Great Palace was almost destroyed by an explosion and various palaces and buildings elsewhere on the grounds were also badly damaged. A third of the 30,000 trees growing there were cut down. After the war, the Soviet government restored or replaced Peterhof’s eight palaces and more than 150 of the fountains at tremendous expense. Strangely, our guide Marie never mentions any of this on our bus ride.

We begin our tour of Peterhof in the 284-acre Alexandria Park located east of the main palace grounds. The park is named after Empress Alexandria, wife of Tsar Nicholas I, who granted her the land as a present. The property became one of the imperial summer residences of the Romanovs.

At Alexandria Park we’re supposed to take a “miniature train” to Peterhof. I’m not sure what kind of miniature train I expect, probably something similar to the ones at Disney parks, certainly something that runs on tracks . The “train” turns out to be a regular parking lot tram with a locomotive-shaped engine pulling the carriages.  Most carriages are open air but we’re herded aboard one with windows  that don’t open.

When Things Start to Go Wrong

Before boarding the carriage, several Oceania passengers ask to use the restrooms located  about 10 yards from the tram.  A sign with the letters WC–denotes Western commode or water closet but also a flush toilet–points the way.  Marie insists everyone wait until our “train” arrives at Peterhof.  So we sit there, perhaps another 5 to 10 minutes, waiting for another group to arrive and board their carriage. We have more than adequate time for a quick restroom break.  Marie’s refusal to allow us to use those empty restrooms will create a series of needless problems.

Alexandria Park train tram, Peterhof, St. Petersburg RussiaThe train tram at Alexandria Garden: note the WC sign

Rocking and swaying, our train tram travels non-stop along a wide walkway shared with pedestrians.  Bright glaring reflections cover our locked windows,  making photos impossible. Too bad since some of the park’s buildings are intriguing. My favorite is an elaborate Gothic-style building the imperial Romanov family used as their private church.

It takes the tram over 20 minutes finally to reach Peterhof’s Lower Garden and the long awaited restrooms. Peterhof is the most popular day trip from St. Petersburg and the restrooms have agonizingly long lines. Thankfully the men’s queue moves efficiently. Waiting for the other passengers to return, I test my wireless tour guide receiver. This nifty device will enable us to hear Marie’s descriptions as we navigate the palace crowds.

One passenger complains the women’s line isn’t moving, an exaggeration since several from our group are just outside the restroom entrance. To the annoyance of the women  who’ve  already waited 30 minutes for relief, Marie calls them back immediately. Instead of touring, she will now lead us to a more remote restroom “just 5 minutes away.” She guarantees fewer people there. Our Peterhof visit is disintegrating into a restroom quest.

When Things Really Go Wrong

On our walk we soon encounter the Checkerboard Fountain where water spills over a long sloping checkerboard. As it happens, a group of musicians start to play long Swiss-style horns in front of the checkerboard display. Several of us stop for photos. I pay attention to Marie’s comments as I quickly check that my camera hasn’t crashed as in the past. The camera works well. Images are recorded for my first time ever!

Abruptly, Marie’s commentary ends in mid-sentence. Her words don’t gradually fade away but suddenly cut off.  Scanning the area, I don’t spot anyone from our group, including Linda, who is seriously interested in finding that next restroom. But they all were here only seconds ago.  I even saw Linda out of the corner of my eye while I checked the camera.

The sidewalks of the Lower Garden are filled with tourists, making it increasingly difficult to pick out anyone even a short distance ahead. Marie’s logical route should be the restaurant in the Lower Grounds, though that’s also likely to be crowded. But it’s the only possible place within her promised “5-minute walk.”  Wrong location. Plenty of people but none from our group. Yet there are no other buildings anywhere nearby. Perhaps on the upper terrace near the great Palace?  That would probably take more than five minutes but I check it out anyway, hoping to hear Marie’s voice in my earbuds. Not there, either.  I check my watch: 11 a.m.

Normally losing track of one’s group isn’t a serious concern since a guide typically details a departure point and at what time. Not today. Marie briefly mentioned our bus would leave from a different place but she never said where that would be. And I don’t recall her stating a departure time, either. Still, by now she must know she’s lost one of her group. I search again back in the Lower Gardens restaurant in case she shows up there.  Again no luck.  I have no idea where to look next. This is turning into a bad morning.

Oceania Marina Visits St. Petersburg, Russia

Exploring St. Petersburg

Probably the main reason we book the  Viking Trails cruise is the Oceania Marina  three-day visit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the free tours offered for this port. Linda and I each schedule six Oceania St. Petersburg excursions two months before departure. Normally, the tour packages would cost close to $1,000 for each of us.

Aboard the Marina, we meet frequent Oceania passengers who ignore the ship’s no charge tours in favor of using a local tour agencies like SPB which caters to smaller groups.  Among those touring independently are the new friends we make the first day over lunch. They do not want to be herded around with 40 other Oceania passengers as on previous cruise tours. That may have been a problem elsewhere but in St. Petersburg, our large bus tours aren’t a problem.

On my two prior visits to St. Petersburg, I enjoyed having complete freedom to explore the city on my own any time of day or night. That’s not an option now due to Russia’s high visa fees for independent U.S. travelers: between $200 and $300 a person. Cruise ship passengers, however, do not need visas for stays up to 72 hours as long as they join government-authorized tour operators when they go ashore.

Marine Facade St Petersburg RussiaMarine Facade Terminal, St. Petersburg

We arrive in St. Petersburg early enough for a 9 a.m. tour departure. We dock at the mouth of the Neva River beside a cruise terminal with the odd name of Marine Façade.   Well, the terminal building is a façade of sorts for now, filled with lots of empty space that easily could be made to accommodate much greater numbers of passengers. Outside, in front of the cruise terminal, is a huge expanse of barren ground temporarily occupied by a flock of sea gulls. No doubt lots of development is planned for this land, too.

Immigration & Politics

As in the Cold War days, Russia remains security conscious. In St Petersburg, we must not only carry passports ashore but pass through immigration in the terminal each time we leave and reboard the Marina. Entering the Marine Façade, the cheerful morning atmosphere disappears, replaced by a cold official reception. The immigration officers are all business, never smile, never offer a hint of friendliness. These passport stampers act annoyed at our presence.

Perhaps they are, considering the disdain Russian President Vladimir Putin has for President Obama. St. Petersburg is very Putin friendly. This is his hometown, where he was born, where he graduated from law school and, according to one Russian guide, where he routinely allocates generous projects to benefit the city.  Moscow may be the capital but Putin also has an official residence here at Konstantinovsky Palace, also called Putin’s Palace, which is open to visitors.

Putins Palace St Petersburg RussiaRussian presidential residence, a.k.a.  Putin’s Palace

The Russian immigration staff may appear permanently grouchy but the average Russian in my experience is almost always friendly towards American tourists. As one Muscovite told me during the Cold War after we sled raced down a steep snow-covered hill well outside Moscow, “We are all the same. It’s the leaders who create the differences.”

Some of the ship passengers are troubled by their immigration experience. They voice their concern to our guide. She attempts to defuse the cold St. Petersburg greeting by reassuring everyone, saying “In St. Petersburg there is a saying that only fools smile for no reason.” She explains the absence of smiles also reflects the St. Petersburg temperament due to the freezing Russian winter here which can bring 19 hours of darkness during the day. Her explanation seems to mollify those upset, even though I think she’s just advised them to stop behaving like smiling fools.

This morning we visit my old nemesis, the famous parks and palace of Peterhof built by Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) about 20 miles from St. Petersburg. Originally known as Peterhof (“Peter’s Court” in German), Peterhof was de-Germanized to Petrodvorets (“Peter’s Palace”) in 1944.  The Peterhof title returned in 1997 following the Soviet era, although the area around Peterhof is still known as Petrodvorets.

Peterhof’s assembly of palaces and gleaming golden statues, one of Russia’s most recognized landmarks, sustained heavy damage during World War II. By 1947, the grounds and structures were largely repaired and for the 300th anniversary celebration of St. Petersburg in 2003, everything was restored fully.  Which means the gardens and statuary will be more impressive than my last visit, and I was thoroughly impressed then.

The Peterhof  Curse

Peterhof, built at the beginning of the 1700s, is most famous for its spectacular series of spewing fountains spread over several acres.  No pumps of any type ever powered the fountains. Instead, large reservoirs built at palace level above the statues provide the immense water pressure to power the fountains and the famous statues depicting ancient gods, goddesses, horses and fish.  Peterhof’s most important formation is The Grand Cascade, a series of terraces, fountains and statues that stretch downhill from the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal.

Despite two previous visits, I have not a single picture of the palace or the fountains or the statues. Oh, I definitely tried to take photos each time, several years apart. I even used different pairs of Nikon SLR film cameras on each trip; I always carry two cameras in case one fails. A lot of good that did at Peterhof. On both visits, cameras that worked perfectly before and immediately after my Peterhof tours inexplicably stopped working while at Peterhof itself.

The cameras simply would not function there. Naturally I changed camera batteries, did everything I knew how to do to make those damn cameras take a picture. My equipment seemed cursed. Or perhaps it was me. No one with me experienced camera problems.

I never suffered such total camera paralysis anywhere afterwards, at home or while photographing on all seven continents.  Another similar camera disaster can’t possibly happen again today. I come loaded for Russian bear, carrying three cameras this time. It’s inconceivable every one of them mysteriously will break down again. The weather is perfect this morning. I take that as a good omen. This time, no camera or anything else possibly can ruin my Peterhof visit…I hope.

Oceania Marina Visits Helsinki

Classic Architecture And Strange  Art

We have a promising day with bright sunshine, blue sky and only a few small clouds when the Oceania Marina enters Helsinki harbor. A Celebrity cruise ship follows in our wake, passing between the small ice age islands forming the harbor entrance.

cruise ship at helsinki harbor entranceHelsinki Harbor entrance

From the cruise dock, we take a shuttle bus provided by the Helsinki Tourist Board to Market Square, a major landmark near the city center and by the harbor edge. Stepping off the bus, we’re greeted by the statue of a tall cartoonish pink-colored man peeing into the harbor.

Our first Helsinki landmark! Although prominently displayed, the statue is here only temporarily. The previous summer the statue (or is it a mobile fountain?) known as Bad Bad Boy was featured in a different Finnish city.  Not everyone in Helsinki is happy to have the statue here.  A member of the Helsinki tourist board is embarrassed to admit the statue locally is known as “The Peeing Man” or something similar.  He says it’s temporarily present for an upcoming Helsinki fringe/arts festival.

The statue is decidedly arresting, and its location near several government buildings could also be a political statement.  Hmmm…what if this was moved to Washington, D.C., and the Bad Bad Boy’s spray aimed at Congress.  Most Americans would love it, based on the  opinion polls of the last two years.

Helsinki Finland Bad Bad Boy statueThe Bad Bad Boy statue

 Classic Helsinki Highlights

Behind the “The Peeing Man “ statue  the  historic green and gold onion domes of the Uspenski Cathedral rising above a small grove of trees a few blocks away. Uspenski Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Its golden cupolas and deep red brick facade gleam in the sunlight, a popular photo subject for the numerous tourists roaming the cathedral’s grounds. Uspenski cathedral, built between 1862 and 1868 and designed after a 16th century church near Moscow, is one of many lingering but still popular monuments related to past Russian dominance.  (By treaty, Finland was annexed from Sweden to Russia in 1809 as the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland until Finland gained its independence in 1917.)

It’s a short downhill walk from Uspenski Cathedral to Senate Square and the Helsinki Cathedral,  two more of Helsinki’s best-known historic landmarks.  Helsinki Square is a large open area bordered by the University of Helsinki, Government Palace as well as Helsinki Cathedral, the Square’s main attraction.

Helsinki Finland Helsinki CathedralBikes lined up below Helsinki Cathedral

The neoclassical cathedral, also known as Toumiokirkkor and the Church of St. Nicholas, is also designed after another Russian church, this one in St. Petersburg.

Most countries topple the statues of their former rulers once they gain freedom, so it’s surprising the statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II is still a prominent Senate Square landmark and that the statue’s base is richly decorated with flower baskets.  Tsar Alexander  II obviously earned enduring gratitude from Finns as a result of  his reforms that increased Finland’s autonomy from Russia.  Once  Finland gained its independence, there definitely was talk of removing the statue, yet Alexander II remains,  a very popular place for family photos and selfies.

There’s a festive air in Senate Square today, as if everyone is waiting for a marching band or a rock concert to start.  Concerts indeed are held here but not today.  Time for us to move onto Helsinki’s famous bronze mermaid statue locally known as Havis Amanda.

 The Mermaid Trapped in a Box

Where is the celebrated bronze mermaid standing on seaweed as she rises from the water? The statue, Helsinki’s unofficial symbol, is nowhere to be seen in the wide open spaces of Market Square.   We learn she has been “disappeared” by city officials for reasons that sound like a bad Saturday Night Live comedy sketch.  It seems the Helsinki Art Museum chose an artist to hide the iconic image inside a big black box—the Hotel Manta–which also is considered an inspired work of art.  To me, Hotel Manta looks as “inspired” as a cheap prefab plywood box. I don’t get it. Or the idea of removing the mermaid statue from public view by another art object. This is like New York City deciding to hide the Statue of Liberty inside a black skyscraper.

Hotel Manta Helsinki FinlandArt hides art as  Hotel Manta obscures the  famous bronze mermaid

However, it soon becomes apparent the real purpose of  Hotel Manta is to be a cash cow for the city. There’s now a 3 euro fee for the privilege of viewing the caged mermaid  standing inside a hotel room instead of outside under the sun. Even more  money is generated by renting out the hotel room at night for those wanting to sleep with the mermaid inside the fenced off,  elevated observatory over Market Square.  (The hotel  stopped taking reservations following the summer season.)

Ironically, the mermaid’s confinement to a hotel bedroom may have fulfilled the worst fears of some Finns when the mermaid first appeared in Helsinki in 1908. Those objecting to her nudity considered her a “whore.”   Made to pimp for tourist money, some might say that’s what she’s become. We like to think the hotel is present to raise money for any needed restoration of the statue so she can return to the outdoors, though we saw no indication the hotel was only a temporary prison.

 Taste of Finland

We wander to Market Square’s famous outdoor summer market known for its variety of crafts, souvenirs and food stands.  Wonderful looking vegetables and fruits, most far larger than the ones we ever see back home, are displayed in numerous stalls.

Helsinki Finland Outdoor Summer Market The popular summer market in Helsinki

The most striking souvenirs are colorfully dressed dolls and other crafts from Lapland, Finland’s northern most region.  Lapland’s inhabitants are known as the Sami, the indigenous people who have maintained their traditional language and culture. They are best  known for their distinctive colorful clothing, for raising reindeer, traveling by dog teams and the wintertime Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle.

The Sami make wonderful dishes with reindeer meat. During my several visits to Lapland I developed a strong fondness for the region’s famous stew of reindeer, lingonberries and mashed potatoes.  One of the things I hoped when we arrived in Helsinki is we’d find Lapp food so Linda could taste it.  At a tented restaurant selling “Lapland Food” she agrees to order the stew. Then she smells the delicious aroma of ground reindeer formed into meatballs. That not only smell scrumptious but has a flavorful spicy taste.  When we order, although Linda’s choice may be more flavorful I remain loyal to the reindeer stew . I’ve wanted to taste reindeer stew again for a long time.

This simple meal will be a perfect memory of Finland. Our time in Helsinki ends as jet lag catches up with us big time. It’s like we feel hung over and it’s time to take care of it. We don’t want to feel like this tomorrow in St. Petersburg. It’s back to the Oceania Marina and a long uninterrupted sleep.

 

 

Settling in on Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise

Terrace Cafe for Nightly Lobster, Steak, Sushi

As much as we ‘d like to sleep through the first hours of our Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise, the  lifeboat drill interrupting our nap has us fully awake. We might as well unpack before grabbing something to eat before sacking out again.  Finding places to store clothing takes longer than normal since many of the drawers and shelves are not in the traditional places, near the closet. It’s a novel stateroom design, with drawers scattered throughout the stateroom.  The computer desk, located near the veranda door and opposite the closet, is an unexpected storehouse for clothing with several side shelves and deep drawers.  The hunt-and-seek for storage may reflect the imaginative design needed to squeeze both a bathtub and shower stall in our 282-square-foot stateroom.

The Terrace Café is our choice for dinner.  Serving ourselves should be faster than any other dining option including room service. The Terrace Café is surprisingly empty, perhaps because most passengers have gone to sleep, are seated in the main dining room or sampling one of the Marina’s five specialty restaurants.

Stockholm archipelago Finland      Cruising through the Stockholm archipelago

With so few people present, we easily find a window table for two. It has a good view of the Marina’s passage through the Stockholm archipelago, a cluster of  islands and rocks bordering the channel to the Baltic Sea. The larger landfalls, popular summer vacation spots,  contain good-sized homes.

At the buffet, Linda is elated to find fresh sushi and sashimi in the salad bar section.  I’m more interested in the cafe grill preparing cooked-to-order steaks and lobster tails.  I have a Caesar salad made while waiting for the meat to cook. Since the Terrace Café serves many of the items on the main dining room, it becomes a favorite dining spot.  As we will discover, the café is more relaxing than the main dining room with its harried waiters and sometimes long waits between courses. Besides, in the cafe it’s easy to combine several entrees or quickly replace a disappointing one with another and not disrupt the pace of anyone else’s meal.

Back in our cabin, a card placed on a bed pillow contains the unwelcome news that we’ll lose an hour of sleep because the Marina will move into a new time zone tonight.  How much sleep we’re likely to get is debatable. Jet lag is bound to play havoc with us. What a foolish mistake to take that nap before the boat drill. Better to have stayed awake until after the drill, ordered room service and then called it a day without much unpacking.  Sleep, wonderful sleep, so taken for granted.

Marina Concierge Lounge Sparse, Disappointing, 

Not unexpectedly, I awake the next morning  at 6 a.m., four hours before we arrive in Helsinki. I decide to check out the concierge lounge before breakfast.  The lounge, accessible 24 hours with my room card, won’t be staffed until around 8 a.m.  About the size of two inside cabins. the lounge is well arranged, with a desk near the entrance door with a computer for anyone on the concierge deck. On this trip, it’s not likely to be in much demand considering the free internet bonus in our cabins. Beside the computer is a small stack of  Helsinki maps. These same maps will be available downstairs later when we disembark but at almost all other Baltic ports, the concierge lounge contains better, more detailed city maps than any brought aboard by local tourist boards.  the Marina’s daily newsletter doesn’t include port maps so it essential to find one somewhere before leaving the ship.

Oceania Marina Concierge LoungeOceania Marina Concierge Lounge              

The rest of the lounge is laid out to resemble a mini-book library combined with a reading room. Full size copies of today’s editions of one major newspaper from the U.S., Canadian and British are displayed on a table in front of a sofa just beneath a large flat screen TV. Behind the TV is a long counter  stocked with chilled juice dispensers, coffee  and tea as well as pastries and cookies.  Although various web sites claim the concierge lounge serves daytime sandwiches and evening canapés, it has only cookies and pastries during our trip. Unlike concierge lounges in many high end hotels, wine and beer are not served in the evening, either.  Except to read a newspaper or to consult the concierge staff about what to see while in port. the facility doesn’t offer any reason for passengers to visit. . For concierge class, the lounge isn’t much of a perk .

I glance at my watch. Time for Linda to get up and for us to head to breakfast before arriving in Helsinki.