Tuesday, May 31, 2016
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Sadly, it was time to leave. We could have spent hours just walking around the gardens and canals.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Hermitage Theatre was built as a private theatre for Catherine between in 1782-1787. A keen theatregoer, Catherine even wrote libretti for some of the operas performed there, and arranged for St. Petersburg's various theatre troupes to stage performances there two or three times a week. Most performances were attended by a select group of the empress's closest friends and advisers.
The theatre's fully restored interior is magnificent: it features rich decorations including statues of Apollo and the Muses, and bas-reliefs depicting famous musicians and poets. The Hermitage Ballet theatre is one of the best Chamber Ballets in Russia. The artistic director is Lev Bruskin, a classmate of Mikhail Baryshnikov.
We thoroughly enjoyed our step back in time to watch Swan Lake in this historic jewel of a theatre.
Monday, May 9, 2016
As we drove around crossing magnificent bridges we passed the Hermitage, the Admiralty Buildings, Nevsky Prospect and stopped at St. Isaac's Cathedral, which was originally the city's main church and the largest cathedral in Russia. It was built between 1818 and 1858 to be one of the most impressive landmarks of the Russian Imperial capital. Today the gilded dome of St. Isaac's still dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg. The cathedral's facades are decorated with sculptures and massive granite columns made of single pieces of red granite, while the interior is very ornate adorned with incredibly detailed mosaic icons, paintings and columns made of malachite and lapis lazuli. A large, brightly colored stained glass window of the "Resurrected Christ" takes pride of place beside the main altar.
The church, designed to accommodate 14,000 standing worshipers, was closed in the early 1930s and reopened as a museum. Today regular church services are held and we were fortunate enough to see one. It was interesting to see the standing worshippers spread out all over the church rather than in one main area. The service was accompanied by a lovely choir, also standing, set off to one side. Apparently, services can last for several hours at a time. All that standing certainly takes some
Our next tour was the Peter and Paul Fortress, which guards the city of St. Petersburg and is located on an island, facing the Hermitage museum across the River Neva. When Peter the Great re-claimed the lands along the Neva River in 1703, he decided to build a fort to protect the area from possible attack by the Swedish army and navy. The fortress was founded on a small island in the Neva delta on May 27, 1703 and that day became the birthday of the city of St. Petersburg. The Swedes were defeated before the fortress was even completed. For that reason, from 1721 onwards the fortress housed part of the city's garrison and rather notoriously served as a high security political jail. Among the first inmates was Peter's own rebellious son Alexei. Later, the list of famous residents included Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
One major attraction is the tombs of most of the Romanov rulers of Russia from Peter the Great onward. Peter's tomb is at the front right, and people still leave fresh flowers on it. Also here are both Catherines, Elizabeth, all three Alexanders, Paul, Peter III, Anne - and now Nicholas I and II. The remains of Nicholas II and his family were re-interred in the small Chapel of St. Catherine on July 17,1998.
On top of the cathedral’s gilded spire stands a magnificent golden angel holding a cross. This weathervane is one of the most prominent symbols of St. Petersburg, and at 404 feet tall, the cathedral is the highest building in the city.
Finally, we drove to our hotel passing more historical buildings and wonderful views of the Neva.
There was plenty of time before departure for us to explore the Princess Maria, which had several restaurants, a casino, a disco, bars, lounges and a duty free. Once we set off the duty free opened and was jam packed with people stocking up on vodka and other duty free drinks to get them through the trip. People of various ages were wandering around drinking, beer, champagne or vodka, ‘yobos’ I would call them. This wasn't really our thing. However, the people watching was interesting as well as entertaining. This was only the second ferry of the year from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. By taking the ferry we would be able to spend 72 hours in St. Petersburg without needing a visa. Many of our fellow passengers were taking advantage of this provision, while others were Russians returning home. Some women were very dressed up in slinky dresses and very high heels. I wondered if some were hookers but others looked like regular people traveling with friends.
We had dinner in the Explorer restaurant that served Russian food in addition to a regular menu. We both had a fairly mediocre meal. I had halibut that didn't really taste the way I remembered it. The baked apple for dessert was much better but a bit tasteless. Fortified we decided to check out some of the entertainment. In the lounge there was a rock and roll cover band that started out with Del Shannon and worked backwards through Elvis to Bill Hailey and all done with a Russian accent. Next came something that can be described like a Russian game show with contestants drawn from the audience. People seemed to enjoy it even if we didn't have a clue what was happening. Then came the St. Petersburg show with singers, dancers and showgirls. We watched for a bit before returning to our cabin.
It was a very long night in a most uncomfortable bed. Finally I put a layer of the duvet under me as a barrier against the lumps but it still didn't help eliminate the noise and vibration of the ship. After not too much sleep but a refreshing shower we watched the approach to St. Petersburg through endless dockyards. It just kept on and on right through breakfast. Finally, the Princess Maria tied up. At that point we joined the scrum to leave the ship but had to wait and wait. Once off the ship we waited another hour in lineups at Russian immigration where we presented our arrival cards and passports. Then we stood facing the officer for what was a very long time before the passport was returned to us. At last we headed out of the terminal to be immediately greeted with the sign, "Visa free excursion. Mr. and Mrs. Nesling." This was Oxana who was to be our guide for the next few days. We had finally arrived in Russia.
The next day we explored the downtown area. I remembered the huge square from my previous trip. Somewhere on that square was an excellent restaurant called the Ritz where they served really good food. I remembered quite horrible food and soup with glops of powder in it and that was at a good hotel.
The Finns are known for their design. There were several Marimeko stores with their huge splashy patterned clothing. They weren't the only design store with the shops displaying trendy, fashionable and expensive clothes. The store I liked best had lots of cushions with pictures of scenes in Helsinki. Pictures were taken, photoshopped and then printed onto the pillow covers. But €150 was too rich for us. Still, it made us think about doing the same thing with our own photos.
Although the food was a little better this time, it still wasn't very good. Perhaps we were unlucky. By the middle of the afternoon we were ready to start our adventure. It was time to take a taxi to the St. Petersburg ferry.
One day the wind let up and we went for a walk along the waterfront. Shadowy areas in the shallows caught our attention. Literally millions of medusa - jellyfish - had swum ashore or perhaps been pushed there by wind and currents. In the clear water we could plainly see their poisonous tentacles trailing behind. They were along along the length of the Port for several days and then disappeared. Maybe it was a good thing that the water was too cold for swimming.
We did have a couple of calls but people just didn't have the money. They viewed our almost five-year-old car as being new. One neighbour who was very interested said she wouldn't really need a car for another five years. We have always been a little skeptical of the "crisis" here as the roads are beautiful, buildings are always being maintained and the healthcare, even with a few cutbacks, is excellent. Now we were beginning to understand much better. The people themselves do not have money and loans are expensive and not easy to come by. Unemployment is still relatively high. With a few upcoming trips and an end of June deadline we had to sell the car. Fortunately for us the Fiat dealer where we bought the car bought it back from us. So, one less thing to think about. Now we could head off on our trips without trying to sell our car while not even being in the country. However, it was a sad day to see the last of our little red car.