Baltic Cruises: History and Grandeur

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

Statues in Peterhof Courtyard
Statue at Peterhof.
Two full days in St. Petersburg were the highlight of our Baltic cruise, a summer itinerary that promises something for everyone. This route features stunning scenery, lively towns for good people-watching (especially those rosy-cheeked Scandinavian kids), abundant history, culture and architecture and a first-hand look at the changes in St. Petersburg and in Eastern Europe, in ports such as Tallinn, Gdanksk or Riga.

This is a very popular itinerary, so there's a ship that will be the ideal match for your budget and lifestyle. Cruises run throughout the summer months and range from seven to 14 days. Copenhagen and London are the most popular embarkation and debarkation ports.

ST. PETERSBURG

We knew things had changed in St. Petersburg as soon as the band on the dock struck up a snappy medley of American and Russian tunes--and as soon as we saw the tip box. When we were here in 1983, our greeting was dour soldiers who searched my purse, to the extent of opening lipstick tubes, and confiscated our passports, in exchange for a red document, until we left town.

In 1983, Peter the Great's "Window on the West" was

Lady in Peterhof Ballroom
Peterhof Lady. Click for Pic.
Leningrad, a dreary place of grim faces and grey buildings. We didn't recall Leningrad as being a beautiful city--St. Petersburg now definitely is. Along the canals, magnificent palaces glowed in soft shades of yellow, green, coral. It seemed as though there wasn't a street with some sort of restoration underway. The stunning Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood brought gasps from the passengers on our shuttle bus into town. The church, its grim name derived from its location on the site of Czar Alexander II's 1881 assassination, was vibrant with golden domes, domes in blue and yellow, every surface ornately decorated. Why didn't we remember seeing this before? We were told that in 1983 it was in ruins, blocked from view by a wooden fence. St. Isaac's Cathedral's monumental glory and the vast proportions of everything in it--the red granite, malachite and lapis lazuli columns, the paintings, the mosaics, the iconostatis, the gilded dome, the capacity for 14,000 worshippers--were sights never to be forgotten.

Nevsky Prospekt, the main street, was terribly crowded. Many of the residents were stylishly dressed, often laughing (something we didn't see in 1983), stores were displaying Escada and Armani, and customers queued up to get into a Lancome store and a lingerie shop.

The half-day tour of the Hermitage was excellent, and proved the best way to see the highlights of this unbelievable collection without getting hopelessly lost.

Most cruise ships offer passengers an evening show. The shows vary from week to week, and we were fortunate in seeing the State Krasnoyarek Dance Company of Siberia, one of the country's best dance groups. The show was a phenomenal non-stop display of energy, strength, grace and color.

This was also the time of the famed mid to late June "White Nights," and we were here on the longest day of the year, when the sun set at in a pink glow at 1:30 a.m., only to rise again, in a similar pink glow at 3 a.m.

OSLO

With the sun shining, the lilacs in bloom and leaves shimmering in the groves of birches, Oslo was at its best.

We immediately headed to Frogner Park for the Vigeland sculptures. As many times as I've seen them, I'm still taken in by the amazingly moving and realistic expressions of the figures, from babies to old people, sculpted and forged in granite, wrought iron and bronze.

We wanted to get out of the city center, into the green open

Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo
Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo
areas. So we took the efficient underground system (T-bane) up the mountain to the Hollmenkollen ski jump. The elevator to the top of the jump was under repair, so we bypassed a few hundred steps in favor of the ski museum. With most displays out in the open, instead of in cases, the museum covers the history of skiing, showing old and equipment and clothing, photos of various ski competition, the Norwegian royal family on skis.

As we sailed out, down the Oslofjord, I sat on our veranda, soaking up the scenery with Grieg on my walkman and grapes in two forms--off the stem and bubbling in a glass. It doesn't get much better than that. After dinner, the savviest passengers bypassed the formal entertainment in favor of just sitting in the observation lounge watching the midnight twilight over the sea.

STOCKHOLM

Stockholm's Stadshuset (City Hall), completed in 1923, is one of Europe's finest examples of modern architecture. Its "Blue Hall" is the setting for the annual Nobel Prize Banquet. Upstairs is the unforgettable "Golden Hall," where 19 million gold mosaic tiles shimmer on the walls.

Walking the narrow cobblestone streets, poking into the many art galleries and antique shops, wandering off the tourist path into even narrower side streets frequented by locals were the main pursuits in Gamla Stan, the Old Town. After hours on foot, we were happy to board one of the sightseeing boats that cruises around some of the 14 islands that make up Stockholm.

TALLINN, ESTONIA

Our sightseeing in Tallinn, Estonia, focused on the old town, the 13th century medieval town that comprises about one percent of the city. We wandered cobblestone streets, looking down narrow byways unchanged by time or politics, passing the walls of the old fortified castle. Food shops appeared clean, well-stocked; clothing was not as stylish as we'd see a few days later in St. Petersburg. There were rusting ships in the harbor, but lots of recent-model BMWs, Mercedes and Audis zipping around the streets. N's role as the sailing venue of the 1980 Summer Olympics was impetus for building new hotels, a TV tower and a marina, but many buildings obviously needed repairs, for which, our guide said, there is simply not enough money.

HELSINKI

Our last port was Helsinki, where passengers spent a blustery day exploring the colorful produce and flower stands in the waterfront marketplace, enjoying Carl Engel's graceful 19th century architecture in Senate Square, the more modern buildings such as the new Opera House, the unforgettable Temple Square Church, carved into a hill of granite, Eliel Saarinen's Railway Station and Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall. Along the Esplanade, stores brimming with beautiful, simply designed glass, ceramic and textiles gave passengers an opportunity for one last round of shopping.

COPENHAGEN

As many of these cruises do, ours ended in Copenhagen. We wound up our trip with an evening in Tivoli, replaying highlights of the cruise over a couple of Carlsbergs and open-face shrimp sandwiches.

We remembered that it had been raining when we left St. Petersburg and that our guide had said that the Russians consider this a good omen, "If it is raining when you leave a place, you will return." I hope so.

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