Saturday, June 25, 2016

Copenhagen tourist trail to Palaces, a mermaid and gentrified fishing port

It was another incredibly hot day in Copenhagen. Every night we were kept up by people partying while others rummaged around in garbage bins for cans and bottles to recycle for money so they could continue partying. We saw many people searching in rubbish bins for recycling while we were in Copenhagen. While some seemed to be down-and-out, for others it looked like regular employment. We weren't sure what to make of this. We saw many street people including some with apparent mental health issues.

We had a quick continental breakfast outside before touring the sites of Copenhagen. Our first stop was the grand Christiansborg Palace, on the tiny island of Slotsholmen. It contains the Danish Parliament Folketinget, the Supreme Court, and the Ministry of State. Parts of the palace are used by the Royal Family for various functions and events. The Royal Reception Rooms include The Tower Room and The Oval Throne Room where foreign ambassadors to Denmark are received by the Queen.

From here we went to Nyhavn. The last time I was there I stayed in the newly opened Nyhvn hotel in a converted warehouse. A quiet walk to catch the bus usually involved avoiding passed out sailors in doorways. It was an area with character. Today we found Nyhavn totally overcrowded with lots of locals and tourists having lunch or waiting to board river cruise boats. The small hotel was now shrouded in plastic for renovations and was four times the size I remembered.

We had planned to have lunch here but instead walked along the river to the Amalienborg Palace, considered one of the greatest works of Danish Rococco architecture. Constructed in the 1700s, it is made up of four identical buildings: Christian VII’s Palace used as a guest residence, Christian VIII’s Palace used as guest palace for Prince Joachim and Princess Benedikte, Frederik VIII’s Palace, home of the Crown Prince's family and Christian IX’s Palace, home of the Queen and Prince Consort. In the middle of the palace square there is a 1771 statue of King Frederik V. There are no visible links between the residences. Seamus leaned up against one of the buildings to read his map in the shade and got yelled at by a guard.

We took the bus to see the sculpture of The Little Mermaid. Unveiled on 23 August 1913, The Little Mermaid was a gift from Danish brewer Carl Jacobsen to the City of Copenhagen. The sculpture is made of bronze and granite and was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a mermaid who gives up everything to be united with a young, handsome prince. Every morning and evening she swims to the surface from the bottom of the sea and, perched on her rock in the water, she stares longingly towards the shore hoping to catch a glimpse of her beloved prince. Carl Jacobsen fell in love with the character after watching a ballet performance based on the fairy tale at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. The brewer was so captivated by both the fairy tale and the ballet that he commissioned the sculptor Edvard Eriksen to create a sculpture of the mermaid.

Later we walked a little way along the high-end part of Copenhagen's largest shopping area around Strøget in the heart of the city. Strøget is one of Europe's longest pedestrian streets. Of course it was Sunday and all the shops were shut. This was quite incredible as the street was jammed with people.

By now it was late in the afternoon and we hadn't eaten. We stopped at an outdoor restaurant and had a very welcome beer and local fish with dill sauce. As big fans of Scandi-noir it would have been nice to take a bus trip across to Malmö in Sweden across "the Bridge”. But there were no busses running on Sunday, and the train runs under the main bridge deck and would not have given the same views.

In the evening, another movie, this time enjoying George Clooney and Julia Roberts in Money Monster.

Roskilde Viking Ship museum inspires the imagination

Today we were visiting Roskilde, the site of the Viking ship museum, a short train ride away. We walked through the cobblestone pedestrian streets stopping for a coffee and a piece of what looked like a cross between a nutty bread, or cake. It tasted good but was very dry. The locals in the little cafe laughed when we said it was a little dry and might taste better with some jam. In fact it was incredibly dry. We window shopped our way along the street with the intention of coming back and buying some shorts and t shirts and exploring further the book shop which had lots of English language books.

It was a beautiful walk down towards the Viking museum. We passed lovely old, ochre-colored half timbered houses before walking along a pathway through lots of wild bushes and lush green trees. Lots of people were enjoying the sunny day in the park. Finally we reached the museum. We opted not to buy tickets to go out for a sail in a small replicaViking ship as someone didn't want to do any rowing.

The museum is made up of two main sections: the Viking Ship Hall, where the vessels are kept; and the Boatyard, where archaeological work takes place. The five Viking vessels originate from a blockade approximately 20 km north of Roskilde. They were deliberately sunk in a shallow channel during the 11th-century to block enemy attacks. Roskilde was the capital of Denmark at that time.

In the boatyard the traditions and culture of the Viking Age are brought to life, especially by the building of replica boats using authentic materials and techniques. Some of these are used in sea voyages to research Viking travels. We were able to board one, loaded with bales of trade goods. There are also exhibitions of other crafts, such as rope-making.

In addition to Viking ships, the museum collection includes a large number of Scandinavian fishing boats that all have their roots in the open, slender, clinker-built Viking ships. This kinship can most clearly be seen in the boats from the Faeroe Isles, from Norway and from Sweden. Boats from Finland and the Shetland Isles also clearly show their connection to the ships of the Vikings.

In Denmark boats were also subject to influences from Southwest Europe. Larger vessels that plied international trade routes gradually became heavier in design, enabling them to carry more cargo, and developments in rigging led to smaller crews.

On site was a restaurant whose menu was based on older more traditional food. We both had an open faced gravad lax — marinated salmon — topped with dill sandwich. Delicious. It was a beautiful day for a sail in a Viking ship but sadly by the time the reluctant rower changed his mind the tickets were sold out.

We retraced our steps hoping to visit Roskilde Cathedral, where 40 members of the Danish Royal family are buried. Unfortunately, there was a wedding taking place so we couldn't see inside. By now it was very hot. We walked back through the town hoping to do some shopping but it was Saturday afternoon and the shops were closed.

Back in Copenhagen we ended our day at the cinema — it is a are treat for us to be able to see movies in English. We saw the spy thriller, Our Kind of Traitor. We could have gone to Tivoli Gardens instead, but the crowds around the entrance gates discouraged us —too many loud, shirtless men often covered in tattoos and carrying Tuborgs. A quiet evening with Ewan MacGregor was much better.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Maritime heritage beautifully displayed at new museum

Only a few minutes from the castle was the Maritime Museum of Denmark. Since opening in 2013, it has won a number of international awards for its exhibitions and architecture. The underground building is placed around a former dry dock creating a natural connection between the exhibitions and the history outside.

We navigated the sloping floors, waves and wind as we viewed the interactive and atmospheric exhibitions of life at sea in old fishing boats. With the howling wind it was like being back in the Port. Then it was on to see Denmark's role as one of the world's leading shipping nations throughout the ages from a personal and historical viewpoint. There was a big display of the  technology that has made it possible to navigate the oceans — compasses, sextants, astrolabes, compasses, depth sounders, parallel rulers and even traverse boards, made of pieces of string and wood, where sailors would mark their course according to the half-hourly compass readings. The interactive displays allowed you to help a captain find latitude and longitude using classical navigational tools.

Displays showed how shipping has connected the world from the 1700s up until the present, where more than 90% of all goods are transported by sea before reaching our shopping baskets. We could even have received a real sailor tattoo - that comes off again. We didn't.

It was time for some much needed refreshment in the ultramodern cafe looking out over the bottom of the dry dock. I had a cold rhubarb drink, which was a bit sweet and we shared a rhubarb tart. Delicious. Rhubarb is something we never see in Spain so it was quite a treat.

Back in Copenhagen later in the evening we walked to the old Meatpacking District in Vesterbro, one of Copenhagen’s most popular places to go out. It used to be home to Copenhagen’s meat industry and still consists of three separate areas, referred to as the White, Grey and Brown "Meat City" for the dominant colour of their buildings. In recent years it has changed into a new creative cluster with a trendy nightlife and a broad range of high quality restaurants. We aren't used to arriving at eating places before eight o'clock at the earliest. Unfortunately for us, the place was jam packed with people taking advantage of the warm weather to have their dinner outside. We settled for a lovely authentic Thai dinner a short distance away from the hubbub of the meat packing district.

Copenhagen: we dodge partyers and visit Hamlet's castle

Just over a week ago we arrived in Copenhagen, a city I hadn't been to for a very long time. When we arrived there were hordes of people walking and cycling down the street. What was going on? We found out that there were four nights of music festivals being held in various parts of the city and tonight was the district we were staying in. Later, when we sat outside having dinner the hordes kept coming and coming. There was a fair bit of drinking going on but no one was really unruly. Several people were sitting in boxes attached to the fronts of bikes. Often the boxes would have three or four people in them. There was a huge amount of litter and cigarette butts everywhere.

The next morning we woke up to a beautiful, hot sunny day so we decided to take the train to Elsinore. The trip on the train was lovely as it ran parallel to the sea. As we passed through little towns and villages we couldn't help but notice the homes with their high, sharp sloping roofs and lovely gardens. In fact everything was a lovely green.

Once we arrived in Elsinore we decided to wander around its many charming pedestrian streets and find lunch. There were lots of interesting little shops. We settled for lunch outdoors at a restaurant full of locals. We opted for a platter with three open faced sandwiches: smoked salmon with dill; small shrimps; and breaded fish with a delicious mustard sauce. A glass of white wine completed the delicious meal.

Now it was time to roam back along the marina to Kronberg Castle, probably the most famous Danish castle, known worldwide from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet's spirit is still roaming the hallways of Kronborg, and today we encountered actors performing scenes from Hamlet in and around the courtyard.

Frederik II's Kronborg is at once an elegant castle and a monumental military fortress surrounded by considerable fortifications. It has not been inhabited by the royal family since the late 1600s. The castle houses collections of Renaissance and Baroque furnishings, and among the main attractions is the 62-metre ballroom, the very well-preserved chapel and the royal apartments. We found them all quite austere compared to royal living quarters in other parts of Europe.

Beneath Kronberg are the gloomy Casemates, which served as soldiers' quarters during times of war. These dark and damp rooms accommodated up to 1,000 men with enough supplies to withstand a six-week siege. We could see the large stone vessels used for supplies. Still down in the Casemates, we saw the statue  of Denmark's legendary hero, Holger the Dane, who sits dormant but ready to stir into action the minute the Kingdom of Denmark is threatened by an enemy.

Finally, we visited the Hamlet exhibition, which displayed photos of the many actors who had played Hamlet on stage and screen over the years. Back in the courtyard I had time to have my picture taken with Polonius, chief counselor of the king.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Connecting with friends in San Remo

It was only a short flight from Barcelona to Nice. It is always beautiful flying in over Nice seeing the beautiful blues of the Mediterranean. We picked up our car and set off for San Stefano not far from San Remo on the Italian Riviera. Once in Italy the landscape changes. Every hill is terraced and used for vines or flower greenhouses. Unfortunately, most of the greenhouses are in disrepair as flowers can be grown much cheaper in other countries.

As we came closer to San Remo the sun disappeared, and we saw very little of it for the remainder of our trip. The weather here was no better than in the Port. Not once did we go swimming or go to the beach but at least we could walk along the Pista Ciclabile, a 23-kilometre-long section of old railway track converted to a bicycle and pedestrian path. Or we could walk along the seafront promenade. On our first walk we saw that waves had washed away some of the beaches. Every year fresh sand is trucked in and left in large piles. A couple of these piles had been washed away before anyone had a chance to distribute the sand.

The first evening we had dinner with our friends in the restaurant that was part of a butcher's shop. By day the husband and wife were the local butchers and at night the restauranteurs. They just brought food starting with Russian salad, shrimps doused in rather a lot of mayonnaise sauce and some raw meat, not my thing. The main course was veal scallopini, something that we never see on menus as it is considered to be old fashioned but it was very good.

The next evening we met friends at the local pizzeria. While we were waiting the chef brought us some pizza bread, just plain pizza cooked in the wood oven with some basil on it. Delicious. After some starters we had our pizzas but of course were too full after our starters. We didn't mind as it was lovely to see our friends.

We had a trip into San Remo and a look around their high-end shops. It is always fun to people-watch here and especially to see all the fashionable Italians walking along the pedestrian streets making sure they are seen. Another trip took us up the mountain to beautiful Ceriana. We loved seeing all the vineyards and old houses. The first sight of the ancient hill town is always breathtaking. We visited Pellegrin's bar for an espresso. The owners are always happy to see us and vice versa. They are well on in their seventies and don't open all the time so on some visits we miss them.

On Sunday afternoon the weather cooperated with us and we had lunch outside on the beach with other Ceriana friends. I had some lovely tuna in sesame seeds. Delicious. It was fun to go inside and see a baby's christening lunch with a huge family filing the whole restaurant and the baby being passed around. The massive cake looked very good.

Probably our most delicious traditional food was eaten at our friends' house, beans and potatoes with garlic and lots of olive oil. The salad ingredients came from a little grocery store that sells primarily produce grown within one kilometre.  Italian tomatoes taste like no other, especially the small tomatoes from Sicily. We had rabbit and farinata made from chickpeas, water and oil. The local bakery made wonderful bread, gigantic grissini sticks and something called Pane de

It was perfect seeing all of our friends but such a shame about the weather. Now, two weeks later our weather in the village is still not very good with mostly wind, rain and clouds. Today there were some people in the water but it is still cold. Usually, we are swimming every day by now. With all the bad weather we have completed almost all our packing except for the essentials. What a tedious job.

Orangutans steal show at Barcelona Zoo

A couple of weeks ago we traveled to Italy to see our White Rock friends. Instead of driving we flew from Barcelona to Nice. It would have been much more convenient to fly out of nearby Gerona, but unfortunately Ryanair has cut many of its flights from there.

We couldn’t find the local taxi driver in any of his usual haunts so Seamus called him on his cell. The conversation ended with Seamus saying we will see you in "dos horas”,  two hours. We were outside ready to go but still no taxi driver. Finally, Seamus called him again and he came speeding along the street. Our cabbie speaks no English at all. He thought we had called for the next day, "mañana." This was nonsense. We lurched from one side of his van to the other as we sped to the station. The ticket office was closed and the ticket machine didn't seem to work. We couldn't persist with the machine any longer as the train had been announced. Once on the train we kept waiting for the ticket collector and for the first time ever, no one appeared. Our plan was to pay once we were in Barcelona but the exit led us straight outside to Passeig de Gracias. I suppose you could say the taxi driver did us a favour. However, we won't be using him again.

It was so lovely to be outside in Barcelona with no wind. We decided to make our first ever visit to the Barcelona Zoo, which was only steps away from our hotel. We watched the hippos, rhinoceros, cheetah, flamingoes, Bongo, mouflon and some monkeys. The stars of the show were the gorillas including two tiny babies, and of course the orangutans, who also had two very young additions to the group. They put on a wonderful show sitting right by the glass posing as if they wanted to have a conversation. The male was in his own enclosure wandering about with a piece of canvas that he enjoyed using as a coat.

Our dinner was at the Santa Caterina Market restaurant. It is always busy and we always end up sitting right by the open kitchen where we could watch eight chefs preparing their specialties. As always it was entertaining, especially watching the head chef making sure everything on the plates was perfect before the servers took it away.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Across placid Baltic to Helsinki and home

This time we took the highway back to St. Petersburg and the ferry passing by coniferous forests and rock outcroppings that reminded us of British Columbia. Finally, we were back at the ferry, where a trainee customs officer took a painfully long time examining our passports.

We went out on deck as the Princess Maria headed out to sea through the vast St Petersburg dock area. It was eerily quite with seemingly none of the countless huge cranes at work. We saw a few freighters tied up and a little activity around one of them but nothing like we would expect from a port this size. And outside the port not a single freighter waiting to enter. Perhaps the sanctions have something to do with this.

We had seen all that the Princess Maria had to offer on our previous voyage so this time we just headed towards the restaurant area for dinner. We waited a long time for a table and almost as long again for an underdone pizza. However, it was quite pleasant just sitting in the restaurant as the sun slowly set over Finland somewhere beyond the horizon.

The boat docked at eight in the morning. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that breakfast would be served until 10 and we wouldn’t have to leave the ship until 11. Needless to say we took our time over breakfast and missed the scrum leaving the boat at eight.

Since our plane didn't leave until six at night we had some time to explore Helsinki. We left our luggage at the train station and began wandering around, eventually ending up at the harbour. We decided that a boat tour might be a relaxing way to pass the afternoon, and it was. It was interesting to see all the small islands, under beautiful blue skies, enhanced by a very pleasant glass of champagne.

Once off the boat we walked around an indoor food market in what was probably the old fish market. The displays were mouthwatering with smoked salmon, gravad lax, fruit and vegetables, but the prices were staggering. With a final walk around the outdoor stalls cooking up salmon we left the port. It was time to go to the airport for our flight home. What a wonderful trip with blue skies and warm weather every day.

Back in the Port the rain, clouds and windy weather continue.

World Heritage Peterhof Palace

The trip to the palace and park at Peterhof took about an hour. We left the beautiful buildings of the city behind us and passed through endless high rise apartments in the suburbs. Many apartments were given to the owners by the state in communist times. Housing today is expensive and often grownup family members and their families share apartments while others buy very small one-room apartments in the suburbs. An average salary is around €500 a month making it difficult to buy these apartments, which cost more than €100,000. While many of the apartments have good transportation by tram or subway some of the newer apartments have very poor transportation into town.

An old tram car marked the furthest spot German troops reached during the siege of Leningrad. Seeing this made me realize just how close the Germans were to the city. Today it would be right in the middle of the suburbs. In fact Russian troops were sent to the front lines in trams.

Closer to Petersburg we passed one of Vladimir Putin's residences, essentially a small palace. Our guide seemed well aware of the astounding wealth possessed by Putin and his closest associates. It seemed to be an accepted fact. On one of our tours something came up about Crimea. Our guide was very quick to tell us that Crimea always belonged to Russia and that the people of Crimea had voted to be part of Russia. Neither of us wanted to debate this with her so we let it go.

Finally, we reached Peterhof in time for lunch in a Russian Georgian restaurant. Seamus had a cheburek, a deep-fried turnover filled with cheese and vegetables while Oxana had one filled with ground meat. I opted for an eggplant, tomato and cheese dish which was like eggplant Parmesan. I wish I had ordered what Seamus had as it was delicious. I thought the outside would be a bit greasy but it was like a very light pastry. Delicious.

Peterhof is often referred to as "the Russian Versailles", and Versailles was the inspiration for Peter the Great's desire to build an imperial palace in the suburbs of his new city.

We had some time before our tour so we were able to walk around the Upper Garden, which is quite formal with wide walkways and clipped hedges. It would have been nice to see everything in bloom in a couple of week's time.

It was time to enter the Grand Palace and don a pair of slippers to cover our shoes. Work was started on the Palace by Peter the Great and continued by his daughter Elizabeth and later Catherine the Great. Entering the palace we were confronted by Rastrelli's incredibly ornate Ceremonial Staircase, which sets the tone for what was to come with a magnificent fresco of Aurora and Genius and a multitude of gilded statues. Highlights of our tour included the richly gilded Ballroom and the splendid white-and-turquoise Throne Room, which has a particularly fine parquet floor. The Western Chinese Study was heavily Oriental, with red and green silk walls and a beautiful Chinese tea-set. The Drawing Room of the Imperial Suite was equally influenced by chinoiserie, with particularly fine silk wall hangings. The rest of the Imperial Suite, the royal family's private quarters, was furnished in grand 19th century style. Peter the Great's charmingly simple Oak Study, and the adjacent Crown Room, which was in fact the Imperial bedchamber were very interesting to see. There were staff members in each room, and these ladies made sure that people kept moving - woe betide anyone who pressed too close to the rope barriers. There was no question of trying to sneak a photo.

Like almost all St. Petersburg's suburban estates, Peterhof was ravaged by German troops during the Second World War. It was, however, one of the first to be resurrected and, thanks to the work of military engineers as well as over 1,000 volunteers, the Lower Park opened to the public in 1945 and the facades of the Grand Palace were restored in 1952. Some old photographs showed just how bad the devastation had been. The fact that the interiors had to be almost entirely reconstructed after World War ll does nothing to detract from their grandeur.

The fountains of Peterhof are one of Russia's most famous tourist attractions, drawing millions of visitors every year. The Grand Cascade, which runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal, comprises 64 different fountains, and over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs, and other decorations. At the centre stands Rastrelli's spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. The vista of the golden Grand Cascade with the Grand Palace behind it, the first sight to great visitors who arrive in Peterhof by sea, is truly breathtaking. The Grotto behind the Grand Cascade, which was once used for small parties, contains the enormous pipes, originally wooden, that feed the fountains. All the fountains work by gravity and none of the water is recirculated. Looking down on the fountains from the Grand Palace and later walking closer to them was truly an unforgettable experience.

Sadly, it was time to leave. We could have spent hours just walking around the gardens and canals.

History comes alive in Menshikov's Palace

It was another warm, sunny day in St. Petersburg, our last day. We drove along the Neva and stopped at Menshikov's Palace opposite the Hermitage. Alexander Menshikov was a good friend and companion of Peter the Great. He came from a humble background but was quickly made a duke by Peter, and then Governor General of St. Petersburg. Under his supervision the Peter and Paul Fortress and the fort of Kronshtadt in the Gulf of Finland were built. Being the Governor General, he commissioned a large palace on Vasilievsky Island, where he lived until 1727. The palace was the most luxurious house to be built in the city to that time, superior to the Summer Palace of Peter the Great and therefore chosen for many official functions.

After Peter's death in 1725, Menshikov ensured that the throne passed safely to Peter's wife Catherine I, and during her brief reign he effectively ruled the country. In 1727, a few weeks before his daughter's marriage to the heir to the throne, Menshikov was accused of treason and stealing government money and was exiled with his whole family to Siberia.

Today the palace is part of the State Hermitage and now displays some of the museum's art from the 18th century. The restored interiors have walls dressed with marble and floors are covered with expensive parquet. Many of the floor designs incorporate eight or ten different inlaid woods. The interiors reflect the design traditions of Menshikov's era. We saw whole rooms covered with Delft tiles. In Menshikov's time there were twenty rooms decorated this way. Now there are only four. There were sculptures, paintings, engravings and furniture from Menshikov's time as well as his personal furnishings and belongings such as an exquisite astrolabe.

Between 1732 and 1918 the palace was home to a military school, but in 1967 it was given to the Hermitage.

It was lovely to walk around the palace looking out over the Neva. Although some of the rooms were quite ornate and Peter the Great held functions here, the palace did have more of a lived-in feeling. We finished by having an espresso in the restaurant, which was very elegant and furnished as if in Menshikov's time.

River cruise provides impressive views of St Petersburg landmarks

After our visit to the Hermitage we had some time to explore on our own. The weather was perfect for wandering about. As we crossed the huge Palace Square military bands were practicing for the Victory Day parade on May 9, which celebrates Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.

We boarded a trolley bus along bustling Nevsky Prospekt. At first we couldn't spot the bus conductor because she was sitting in a seat like everyone else but eventually she came and sold us a ticket for thirty roubles — less than fifty cents. One lady was dressed like a babushka with headscarf, long coat and crochet skirt. The next day when we asked our guide she suggested that the Muslim woman probably came from one of the old Soviet provinces. She wasn't very complimentary about these people saying they came to Russia and worked very long hours for next to nothing and basically that they were different from the Russians.

We window shopped along Nevsky Prospect before coming to a large and busy shopping mall that had the same stores you would find in any other large European city. The prices were reasonable and Seamus bought a very nice t-shirt in Marks and Spencer's. By now we were hungry so we went up to the top floor and ate at a Marketplace — similar to Movenpick — where we went around to the different areas and chose the food we wanted. I had very nice gazpacho, salad and a Russian dish with salmon, potatoes and a cheese crust. Later we had an espresso and some Russian cookies. The meal was good and the price reasonable.

After a quick stop for Seamus to buy some shoes we returned to our hotel by cab, which was surprisingly inexpensive. We were in a bit of a rush as we had decided to take a boat ride up the Neva. Members of the French World Hockey team mobbed us in the elevator in good fun so we snapped some pictures. Unfortunately they were all at least a foot taller than me so the pictures weren't the best.

Our boat ride was very relaxing, and gave us a different view of the city and its landmarks. We sailed right up the river to the Zenit Arena where the football World Cup final will be played in 2018.

Our hotel was the home for several hockey teams: French, Canadians, Slovaks, Finns and Americans. We are a little out of touch with hockey right now and didn't spot any players we knew. The teams had their own areas so we didn't see very much of them except for the French.

Later in the evening we took advantage of the hotel's spa, complete with a strange-shaped swimming pool. We sampled the hot tub, shared the hot water pool with members of the French hockey team and immersed ourselves in the bitterly cold plunge pool. We then moved on to the hamman, regular steam room, caldarium, soft Finnish sauna that wasn't too hot and then the ice cold room. Here there was ice on the floor and no wonder because the temperature was -15. It was too slippery to walk on without footwear. Every so often we would go to the shower area to have buckets of icy water dumped  over us. Finally, we finished up in the regular Finnish sauna where we sat on log stumps. It was a lot of fun trying all of these. My favourites were the caldarium and the soft, not too hot, Finnish sauna. All this made for a good night's sleep.

The Hermitage: a stunning setting for one of world's great art collections

Our buffet breakfast in the hotel was quite interesting. It had all the usual breakfast foods that you see in European hotels with one exception. There was hardly any fresh fruit, not even a banana, but instead a selection of canned fruit including some grayish looking peaches. Later I asked our guide about the effect of trade sanctions against Russia, and she noted job losses and the unavailability of some foodstuffs.

We had a short drive past St. Petersburg university and across the river to the Hermitage Museum. From the 1760s onwards the Winter Palace was the main residence of the Russian czars. Magnificently located on the bank of the Neva River, this Baroque-style palace is most impressive. 

We were well prepared for our visit having watched a 2002 Russian movie with English subtitles called, Russian Ark, which is well worth watching. The main character takes viewers on a tour of the hermitage’s many treasures as well as back in time to experience a magnificent ball. We spent quite some time with our guide in the gallery of pictures of the czars and their families. By the time we were finished I felt like I could pass a test but it was all helpful in understanding the history of the czars.

The Winter Palace was built between 1754 and 1762 for Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died before the palace's completion and only Catherine the Great and her successors were able to enjoy its sumptuous interiors. Much of the palace has been remodeled, particularly after 1837, when a huge fire destroyed most of the building. Today the Winter Palace, together with four more buildings arranged side by side along the river embankment, house the extensive collections of the Hermitage. The Hermitage Museum is the largest art gallery in Russia and is among the largest and most respected art museums in the world. We passed through incredibly ornate ballrooms, dining rooms, throne rooms and private quarters.

The actual museum was founded in 1764 when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of 255 paintings from the German city of Berlin. Today, the Hermitage boasts over 2.7 million exhibits and displays a diverse range of art and artifacts from all over the world and from throughout history from Ancient Egypt to early 20th century Europe. The Hermitage's collections include works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, a unique collection of Rembrandts and Rubens, many French Impressionist works by Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Monet and Pissarro, numerous canvasses by Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin and several sculptures by Rodin. The collection is enormous. Experts say that if you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, you would need 11 years to see them all. We only scratched the surface but we did see all twenty Rembrandts.

Cruise boats had not yet begun visiting St. Petersburg, so there were only moderate crowds and we could fully enjoy the beautiful exhibits in this amazing museum.