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
Riva.

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, "maƱana." 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.




Swan Lake in Catherine's personal theatre

One advantage of the visa free program is that you are free to roam around St. Petersburg on your own, something that passengers on cruise ships cannot do. We wanted to see something typically Russian in the evening. Unfortunately the Swan Lake tickets for the next evening were selling for well over €200 each so we settled on seeing Swan Lake in the smaller Catherine's Theatre in the Hermitage for much less money.



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

Cathedral spires still dominate St.Petersburg skyline

After driving through suburbs filled with high rise apartments we finally arrived in historic St. Petersburg for our introduction to this beautiful city on the Neva River. St Petersburg is a relatively young city, only founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great. Despite its short life, Petersburg has a rich and exciting history. From the early days of Peter the Great's "Venice of the North" to the modern events of the 1991 coup, the city has always bustled with life and intrigue, revolution and mystery.

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
dedication.

Back in the car we passed the Church of the Spilled Blood. This marvelous Russian-style church, complete with onion domes, was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881. After assuming power in 1855 in the wake of Russia's disastrous defeat in the Crimean war against Britain, France and Turkey, Alexander II initiated a number of reforms. In 1861 he freed the Russian serfs from their ties to their masters and undertook a rigorous program of military, judicial and urban reforms, never before attempted in Russia. However, during the second half of his reign Alexander II grew wary of the dangers of his system of reforms, having only barely survived a series of attempts on his life, including an explosion in the Winter Palace and the derailment of a train. Alexander II was finally assassinated in 1881 by a group of revolutionaries, who threw a bomb at his royal carriage. The decision was taken to build a church on the spot where the Emperor was mortally wounded. The church was built between 1883 and 1907 and was officially called the Resurrection of Christ Church a.k.a. The Church of Our Saviour of Spilled Blood. The construction of the church was almost entirely funded by the Imperial family and thousands of private donators. Both the interior and exterior of the church are decorated with incredibly detailed mosaics, designed and created by the most prominent Russian artists of the day.



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.

In the middle of the fortress stands the impressive Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of all the Russian Emperors and Empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III. The Cathedral was the first church in the city to be built of stone.  The walls of the cathedral are also embellished with paintings of various bible themes, including many paintings of gospel stories by artists of the early and mid 18th century.

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.



Overnight by ferry to St. Petersburg

We arrived at the ferry terminal for St. Petersburg where we picked up our arrival and departure tickets as well as our boarding passes after showing our hotel reservations in St. Petersburg. After clearing immigration we hauled our luggage up the gangplank and found our cabin. It was a reasonable size with two beds lining the walls, fair sized windows and a bathroom with a little shower.

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.

Gorgeous spring weather in Helsinki

We had decided to get to St. Petersburg by flying to Helsinki and taking an overnight ferry from there. After settling into our Helsinki hotel we set off for an exploratory walk. It was quite a pleasure as there was no wind and it was quite warm. I had been to Helsinki in the late seventies or early eighties but I tonight discovered a much different city. Back then it was suffering economically and was quite dowdy and I remember a lot of unkempt parks. Tonight we found a modern, trendy city even if we couldn't find anything to eat at eleven at night.

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.

April brings Medusa invasion

April in El Port de la Selva was incredibly windy, too windy to walk on many days. The sea was covered in white caps and the temperature stayed stubbornly low. Slowly restaurants and businesses began opening for the season but not many visitors came to town.

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.

Much of April was taken up with trying to sell our lovely little red Fiat. People were helpful wishing they could buy it themselves or perhaps knowing someone who might be interested. In the next village one lady, who owns a little restaurant, has a reputation of being very good at selling things including two houses and a sheep. She hung our flyer in the restaurant but  this time her selling skills didn't work.

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.