Tag Archives: Oceania Marina Northern Europe Cruise Review

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.

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.

 

 

Oceania Marina Lacks Stockholm Terminal

Never a second chance to make a first impression.

Deplaning in Stockholm, we move through immigration and customs amazingly quickly. No serious concerns about terrorism here. At the luggage carousel, we meet an Oceania representative collecting luggage for passengers taking a bus tour of Stockholm before boarding the Marina. We tell him we’d just like to go to the passenger terminal and nap in a chair before the ship is ready for boarding, assuming the terminal has any seats. He assures the Marina’s terminal not only offers a comfortable seating area to wait but also a café. Sounds perfect. Little did we know that of all the cruise ships in port, Oceania Marina lacks a Stockholm terminal.

Our 28-mile taxi ride to the terminal may be lengthy we see mostly highways and only a small bit of Sweden. The small bit of Stockholm we view reminds Linda of Stieg Larsson’s famous Millennium series, a best-selling trilogy starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She imagines heroine Lisbeth Salander walking the streets we pass. Her vision of Lisbeth looks like Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who starred in the original movie.

Our taxi driver is an interesting man. From Iraq, he says he abandoned Baghdad in 2005 after his two supermarkets were set on fire a second time. He says he has no plans ever to return despite close family still living there. His regular family reunions occur in a European country, never in Iraq.

Arriving at the cruise port, we find the Marina is not at the Vartahamnen 523, the terminal address provided by Oceania. The port section, known as Vartahamnen South, has five quays  but all dedicated to ferry service, including Scandlines. Our driver takes us to the northern port section and soon locates a Holland America ship with a Celebrity vessel docked behind. The Marina is located opposite them, easily identified at a distance by its white smoke stack with a big “O.”

Oceania Marina’s absent Stockholm terminal-why? 

Instead of the promised passenger-friendly cruise terminal, we discover a curiously long column of Oceania passengers just outside the fence gate leading to the ship. When our taxi draws up, several passengers quickly approach our driver to secure a ride to the airport. It’s 8:45 a.m., which seems late for so many people still to be disembarking and without any organized transportation for departure or hotel stays. We grab our luggage, then pay the fare with a credit card. Our cab driver seems filled with new energy, surprised and pleased to pick up a new fare so quickly.

Still early, the temperature is chilly and the overcast sky has the look and feel of rain. We ask the way to the terminal. What terminal building?  There isn’t one for Marina passengers.  Apparently the only terminal is located at the pier opposite us where Celebrity and Holland America ships are berthed.  We’re advised to wait outside the fence gate where, thankfully, is a tiny gift shop with a large wooden deck containing only five plastic chairs, already occupied by other new arrivals waiting to board. We claim an edge of the deck to sit before that space is occupied. The hard deck feels identical to the SAS Premium Plus seats. Since it will be several hours before we can board the Marina, we pass the time people watching and talking to our new shipmates.

I estimate the waiting passenger taxi line at 40 to 50 people.  It doesn’t shorten for more than hour. Taxis, slow in coming, depart sporadically with handfuls of people.  As some leave, more disembark from the Marina to replenish the column. It’s almost 90 minutes for the last person to catch a ride. Never witnessed such an unusual and haphazard disembarkation procedure. Fortunate that for those departing and the swelling numbers waiting to board that the sky still only threatens rain.

Oceania-Stateroom-Bed-1.jpg
After a sleepless SAS flight, this bed is what we seek most.

Oceania cruise staff have no explanation for the lack of a cruise terminal or the lack of any facilities; nor do they seem to care. Their attitude and the situation don’t reflect well on Oceania’s claim to offer a “luxury experience.” Or match our previous Oceania experiences, either. Makes us wonder what to expect once on board. Will it be better or worse?  Can’t believe we’re questioning our wisdom about booking Oceania for this cruise.

Around 11 a.m. a large truck arrives with baggage from the airport. We lug ours over to be added to the bunch. About 20 minutes later, wonderful news! A large canopy is erected at the ship’s gangplank and officials assemble under it so we can begin boarding. As expected, no staterooms ready yet but we learn a full lunch buffet lunch is waiting at the Terrace Café on deck 12. Linda and I agree the Marina’s interior is classy but décor is hardly foremost in our minds. Where are the restrooms?

Terrace Cafe best part of the day

At the Terrace Café, the buffet reassures us how good dining on Oceania can be. Although Linda limits herself to soup and a salad, I graze the hot courses. It will be the next day, when I’m more awake, that I discover I can have a fresh, personally prepared Caesar salad at the salad bar for lunch or dinner. Seated at our table, we have a birds-eye view of those still waiting to board. The weather has changed. Anyone standing outside the canopy waiting to begin the boarding process is standing in a light rain. Strangely, don’t see any umbrellas being passed out. That same thing could have happened to us while waiting on those gift shop stairs, with no shelter waiting anywhere.

Following lunch, we remain at our table to talk with another couple as everyone waits for an announcement that rooms are ready. The couple, from the northeast, was on our SAS flight, also in SAS Premium Plus. We compare note on our experiences. Departing their hometown, they also were sent to TSA’s fast track line, so flying premium class was worth more than we knew. And they didn’t sleep much on the flight, either, due to SAS’ hard seats.  At 1 o’clock, the first rooms are ready for occupancy. They start at the top category: the suites. At 1:30 our concierge category is announced. We’re told later the bulk of the rooms were ready just before 3 p.m.

Our room is just a few decks below the Terrace Café and convenient to elevators, as planned. Our stateroom is impressive. Nice and spacious. A laptop computer with unlimited internet sits at the desk for our use. A bottle of champagne chills in an ice bucket. Our bathroom is expansive, offering both a large tub and a sizeable shower stall. Unexpectedly, we find we have a mini-fridge stocked with an assortment of soft drinks (no charge). And two impressively large bottles of water that will be replaced every day. This is going to be very nice.

Our luggage soon arrives but we leave it unpacked. One more thing to test: the comfort of the bed, which must have been suitable since we fall instantly asleep, only to be jolted awake two hours later by a blaring announcement to prepare for the lifeboat drill. Abruptly, normal shipboard life begins .