Tuesday, 19 June 2018

#10 Cruising The Baltic with #Fred Olsen’s Balmoral - Stockholm

Stockholm Skyview!

Since my time in Stockholm wasn’t long, I opted for a city tour with the added highlight of a ride in the Skyview and then had time for a short stroll around the old town before embarking the ship once more.

There was a minor time constraint at Stockholm that hadn’t yet happened on this cruise, but did occur on my Greenland cruise last year. The Balmoral ship was at anchor a short way out from the harbour at Stockholm and anyone leaving the ship had to be ferried by Balmoral ‘tenders’ back and forth to the shore, a journey of only a few minutes. This was incredibly well-organised by Olsen representatives, on the way to the city and there was only a slight wait of some ten minutes in a queue to return to the ship.

Like other cities already visited on this cruise, Stockholm has many beautiful buildings built in the classical styles with pastel facades. However, one difference in some of these buildings is that builders in Stockholm had (have) access to local stone, and granite is a popular building material.

Stockholm is another city that has many islands (14) connected by bridges (57) across bodies of water, like St. Petersburg, Copenhagen and Tallinn. Our guide, however, was fond of telling me that it’s really only 2 masses of water that have to be crossed in Stockholm -  a lake and the Baltic Sea.   

I really enjoyed the commentary as my coach made its way around the islands, one in particular that I’d like to have spent more time on. This was a small island that houses many museums including a Viking Museum, The Abba Experience, and numerous other small museums. My guide was also at pains to tell me that Sweden has no Viking remains of note. No Viking ships have been found, and nothing else that she considered to be substantial Viking remains - unlike those that have been found in Norway and Denmark.

My Skyview experience was similar to many other lifts and city tower-top viewing platforms that I’ve visited, all of which give a circular view of the cityscape from the top. My main impression on overlooking Stockholm was that I didn’t expect the city to be so flat, though with some 7 million inhabitants (according to the guide) I’m sure they’re quite happy that their bridge building didn’t need the additional infrastructure needed to wend around foothills as well.

The Skyview, however, does boast of itself as being a unique feature. The gondola scales the outside of the World’s biggest dome. It comes to rest for some 6 minutes at the top and a 360 deg panorama can be appreciated by Skyview visitors. I’m glad that the day was only a little cloudy because the view really is very good from the top.

The Skyview Dome is part of a complex of four arena spaces that house many different forms of entertainment. Ice hockey, football, major concerts and gigs are only a few of the options for entertainment in these huge spaces.

After my coach tour dropped me back at the harbour-side there was time for a quick walk around the cobbled streets of Gamla Stan- the old town of Stockholm. The ones I wandered onto were narrow, mostly pedestrian and full of coffee stops and eating places. Since I had to be in the queue for a ‘tender’ back to the ship by 3 p.m., I opted not to eat lunch out in case it took too long.


#9 Cruising The Baltic with #Fred Olsen’s Balmoral - St. Petersburg

More fabulous St. Petersburg delights! 

My other two guided tours in St. Petersburg were a city coach tour and a trip to the Gulf of Finland. The first mentioned tour gave me a 3 hour taste of the main public buildings which are absolutely fantastic considering their age and the climate.

I’m very glad to have been given a brief overview during the port talks by Ian Gunn and Simon Rees because I’d otherwise not have realised that the fabulous buildings are brick built rather than made of solid stone. The harsh winters must be severe on the facades of the mainly neo-classical buildings but it’s clear that massive expense is being shouldered to repaint them on a regular basis.

Being driven around the city centre was actually a much more pleasant experience than in Copenhagen. There was a lot of traffic in St. Petersburg and some of the streets were also relatively narrow but the traffic seemed to flow more easily in St. Petersburg. I will have to find some time slots when I return home to make new Pinterest Boards from my hundreds of photos taken in St. Petersburg.

The second trip out to the Gulf of Finland gave me the opportunity to see a lot of what’s considered the social housing of St. Petersburg. Our guide had said that almost everyone lived in apartment buildings and I was keen to see if there was a big difference between those in the city centre and the outskirts. I was delighted to find that the high-rises of the suburbs seem to compete equally in terms of trying to make each building a tiny bit different from its neighbour. Some post WWII housing was pointed out to us, but it was clear that many of those blocks are undergoing current renovation programmes and we drove through no areas of deprivation. That cannot be said for a lot of UK cities that I’ve been to in recent years.

Our Lady of Kazan
The stop at the Church of Our Lady of Kazan was fairly brief but I’m always amazed to find incredible architecture in the middle of what seems to be the forest fringes.

Built in the traditional Russian Orthodox style, the church is an overload of fancy but amazing to look at. It wasn’t nearly as old as I thought, having been built at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth centuries. Inside was a wealth of gilded Russian Orthodox iconography.

The road we took out of the city to the Gulf of Finland was a single carriageway road that was very busy but the fact that our tour left at 8 am gave us an advantage in using the road early. Our guide pointed out that the wide bay area from St. Petersburg around the Gulf of Finland is popular for city dwellers to visit their ‘dachas’ or other second country homes- of varying sizes. An escape to the forest and countryside is common but the fact that my visit occurred during exceptionally fine weather meant more St. Petersburg dwellers were taking advantage of the weather window.
pavilion at Ilya Repin's Penaty estate

We visited the Penaty Estate ‘Dacha’ Museum of famous Russian artist Ilya Repin. We were unable to gain inside access but the building had a fascinating construction. I expect what I saw was a simple and fairly typical frontage but the building had a most impressive multiple-glazed roof area to the rear of the building which I imagine maximised the light at all times of day in different rooms of the house. Repin had also built a retreat in the garden, the front columns of which resembled an Egyptian temple.

The last bit of the tour was a paddle in the Gulf of Finland at one of the tiny beach areas. Though not compulsory at all, I dipped my toes into the Gulf but have to say it actually wasn’t that clean. A greenish hue to it wasn’t particularly natural though there were locals swimming in it. A fellow coach traveller pointed out a dead fish floating only a quarter of a metre from my feet, so I decided that the experience was over!

St. Petersburg is an altogether fascinating city that needed a lot more time spent on it than I was able to on this cruise. I’m totally delighted to have been able to sample even just a taster session.


#8 Cruising The Baltic with #Fred Olsen’s Balmoral-St. Petersburg Hermitage

The Hermitage Museum - St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace- Hermitage Museum

My short visit to the Hermitage Museum was as impressive as the one I made to the Vatican Museums, Rome, in 2016. My Vatican Museums tour was around 5 hours so I saw a lot more there than my 3 hour tour of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Both museums are equally grand and both show displays of obscene wealth. However, putting the origins of the funding for the construction and collection acquisition aside, since I love history, art history, and architecture, I can appreciate the glories for their stunning visual impacts and for the efforts of the artists in creating the masterpieces.

But… it’s always hard to equate the lavish budgets that were spent on acquiring the exhibits in comparison to the living conditions of the poor who were, in general, heavily taxed in some way to help pay for  them- whether they were the faithful Roman Catholic flock, or the serfs of the Czar.

My initial impression, after visiting the Vatican multiple museums, was that the best aspect of the Vatican acquiring those treasures over centuries is that they have managed to keep the treasures secure for centuries. The limited access to members of the general public for a very long time (centuries) is now widened to anyone who can stump up the entry fees. This now allows millions of visitors like me to appreciate the artistic effort that the millions of exhibits represent.

Similarly, the galleries of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg are now available for people like me to view because the collections have been protected from what could have been situations of utter devastation to them. The Hermitage treasures were sent to Siberia to escape the ravages of German bombardment during WWII and the collections returned to the Winter Palace and associated buildings during safer eras.

During my guided tour, I only visited a few of the very many possible rooms and galleries available, but they clearly showed the impressive collections that monarchs like Catherine the Great had accumulated. The tour guide gave an excellent commentary via headsets that were the best I’ve ever used.

The trip was far too short but it was a very good introduction to what is a massive collection of fabulous art and architecture. Sometimes when the walls are so full of artwork it's hard to remember to look at the floors and ceilings and appreciate them because they are tremendously stunning as well. I look forward to revisiting them when i return home and make a new Pinterest board of my photos.