Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Budapest- Photo feature of this lovely city

Being right on the banks of Danube gives the Parliament a great deal of elegance.

View from the top- the Buda Castle 

The Danube did not look too blue as we sat on the ramparts of Buda castle while taking in the view of the magnificent city of Budapest. It may not have looked too blue but it looked lovely as it flowed freely dividing the cities of Buda and Pest. At the moment we were parched up on Buda castle having walked up rather than taking a funicular . The views from this vantage point were magnificent and the boats and ships sailing up and down the river added to the flavor of the place. As Danube is a mighty river flowing from city to city and country to country, the river cruises on this river are very popular. Luxury boats like those of Viking, offer several cruises and some of them last as long as 21 days. At a later stage we also did take a cruise but that lasted just 2 hours !

A View from the Buda Castle

After every few minutes my eyes would automatically get stuck on a magnificent piece of architecture across the river. On inquiry it was revealed that this was the Parliament of Hungary and it was a major tourist attraction. The 3 major landmarks of Budapest (The Parliament , the Danube and the Chain Bridge)  were being captured in one frame while I sat atop the 4th landmark- The Buda Castle. We decided to do the Parliament the next day as it appeared to be the most important landmark of the Hungarian Capital.
The boats go under many bridges and it all looks lovely from the top

We were on the last leg of our 2 week trip and till now we had been to several countries on cruise ship and otherwise. The idea was to relax in Budapest and spend 4 days of quality time in this lovely city. Our apartment was located just a lane away from the fashionable Vaci street and a short walk from Danube. Our apartment 'Vaci point Deluxe apartment' was owned by Agnes who had made us comfortable on arrival and had placed a bottle of wine and some soft drinks in the fridge. The WI- FI worked well here so the kids were very happy. Kunal and his family were lodged in another apartment just a short walk away. On the first evening itself we were well settled to take on the city with gusto next day onward. While day one was spent getting acclimatized to the city and climbing up to the Buda Castle, day two was the day we decided to do a tour of Parliament besides doing other touristy things.

The Hungarian Parliament - fit to be a palace.

A Panoramic view from the other side of the Parliament. Looks great in Black and White

Forget the Buda Castle and surrounding areas for the time being. Let me jump to the Parliament right away. The trip to the Hungarian Parliament was fascinating. We had not booked in advance but luckily got the tickets at the venue for a tour which was still a few hours away. They have tours in many language and obviously we have taken tickets for the English Tour. You could only enter the building with a tour and had to stay with your group through the 90 odd minutes. The Parliament building is wonderfully designed and looks majestic as it faces the Danube - one of the rare parliaments facing a major river.

 Not wanting to waste the time waiting for the tour to start, I told the family to hang around near the Parliament till the tour started while I took a metro the the main rail station to book our train tickets for Vienna. Hungarians are perhaps not as efficient as the Western Europeans and what should have taken just a few minutes took a couple of hours and by the time I returned the tour had already started and luckily family had their own tickets and I had mine so they could go for it while I was stranded outside. On my request the management decided to transfer me to another tour but the next English tour was 3 hours away. I decided to join a Spanish group instead and for the next hour or so it was all señor, señorita, gracias and thousands of phrases about which I had no clue.

Everything glitters inside the building

Though I missed out on several stories which our lady guide was rattling off,  it was wonderful to see the parliament in session in their Assembly halls and MP's walking around. As we walked up great ornamental stairs, we saw frescoes on the ceiling and passed by the bust of the creator. The Holy crown of Hungary was a big attraction and a reprimand by the guide to me as she shouted señor and looked at me brought the attention of everyone in the crown room to me. The guards jumped to attention.  All this happened while I was innocently clicking away and photographing the royal crown. Apparently the guide had warned a few times in Spanish that photographing the crown was prohibited but as expected I was totally oblivious to this. Spanish is Greek to me.

Inside the parliament building. Richness all around. 

At many places there were these  gold plated cigar holders built into the structure. The cigars remain safe here while the members of parliament debate on burning issues. As far as many stories that I missed out on, my family was kind enough to update me on those at lunch time.

Cigar time !

Buda Castle and the Castle Hill District

The Buda Castle has seen many wars and had been extensively damaged many times. The chain bridge joins Pest to Buda. 

Now I come back to the Castle. Perched on top of the hill is the Buda castle. It looks elegant during the day and looks lovely lit up in the evenings. It is visible from almost everywhere.To reach it we crossed the famous chain bridge on foot and then decided to ignore the castle funicular but instead took some stairs and a long escalator. Once the abode of the kings, it is now a world heritage site and views from there are lovely. It has gardens, museums and a full article can be written about the castle. Budapest is full of history and has seen many wars and destruction's. It had had even become a part of the Ottoman Empire in 16th century. The palace had been damaged many times but yet with restorations etc it stands tall. Many people take a walking tour which is very informative and takes you around the castle district which has great walking streets and not far from the castle is the famous Mathias Church.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge was considered to be an engineering marvel when it opened in 1849. It spans the Danube from Buda to Pest.

The Mathias Church and the square around it is a big tourist attraction. 

Mathias church is also known as Church of our lady and located in the castle district. Though it was built in 1255 it is named after King Mathias who ruked at the end of 15th century. It was ravaged in 17th century when the Turks were being pushed out of Budapest by European Alliance. Reconstruction happened in late 19th century . Inside is beautiful with paintings and stained glass. One of the highlights inside is the main altar which is well decorated . The Loreto Chapel, beneath the South Tower, holds the statue of the Baroque Madonna, a replica of the original in the Italian village of Loreto.

Need to know the prominence of Lions in Hungary. The statues are found on chain Bridge as well.

What these guys were doing outside Mathias Church- we never could find out !

Thermal Baths of Budapest

The outdoor pools. The front one is heated but one behind it is a lap pool and the water was cold. 

When someone asked me what I intended to do in Budapest, one of the things on top priority was thermal baths. Thanks to a unique geological feature, Budapest 'sits' on over 100 thermal springs that feed the city's famous bathhouses.
There are many Thermal baths in Budapest and most have medicinal value. We just visited the Széchenyi Baths in Budapest and spent around 4 hours there. This was the largest and most popular of the public baths. What you see above in the photograph are the outdoor pools but there were as many as 15 indoor pools. Each pool had different temperature and there were steam rooms and saunas located in different places. The pools are added with calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, sodium and sulfate, with significant content in fluoride and metabolic acid. The waters are recommended to help cure degenerative illnesses of joints, chronic and semi-acute arthritis, and orthopedic and post-injury treatments. The sulfur gives slight smell in the indoor pools. but that is to be expected.
They have several plans written outside but we chose the basic entry one and a towel on rent. The price was approx HUF 4100 ( $ 15.00) and we could very much go everywhere and to any of the pools and each one of us had a locker also to store our goods. 
On Saturday nights there are big parties in these thermal baths lasting till 3 AM and I wonder how they are. Hope people don't get drunk and make a mess everywhere.

The Danube Cruise

The sunset cruise of Danube was all about Champagne, great views as the sun sets, lovely music and the sound of the water as the boat took us from end of the city to another. We went under many bridges and saw some lovely buildings. We had chosen just an evening cruise without dinner. We were given a glass of champagne each and another drink as per our choice. The colour of sky changed as the sun started setting. The musicians arrived and it was a nice sightseeing experience of around 2 hours.

Buda castle and adjoining areas look wonderful from the cruise boat as the sun sets.

Champagne time !

Romancing on the Danube !

A Visit to the Ruin Pub - Szimpla Kert

A Glenlivet at the pub

You cannot be in Budapest and not visit one of their ruin pubs. The story started around 2001 when some derelict buildings were converted into pubs so the locals could get affordable drinks.

Szimpla Kert was the first ruin bar -- it moved around before settling into its home in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest’s seventh district in 2004. It has room after room serving liquor and food. The rooms are never ending and they continue as you climb the stairs. It has  mismatched furniture. It has a garden. It has some kind of art. There are DJ's and loud music. 

There are many ruin pubs in the city and they really are popular. The recipe is simple: search for an old building in downtown Pest, rent the cellar and the ground floor, do not renovate anything, invite some contemporary artists and designers, recreate the atmosphere of the 70’s, build a bar and serve some drinks, invite a band and be open until the morning comes. Some famous ones are Corvinteto, Durer Kert and Instant. 

I enjoyed the atmosphere at Szimpla Kert and the drinks were much more affordable than most parts of Europe we had visited. The next day I wanted the kids to see how the pubs were created in such localities and out of nothing. I did show them the 'Instant' but unfortunately it was still early by the nightlife standards set by the city and all they could see was the decor and no people.

Inside the Szimpla Kert- the most popular Ruin Pub

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Norway in a Nutshell- breathtaking beauty of Bergen and the Fjords

The Fjords of Norway

Delightful Bergen

I had never heard of Bergen before I started planning this trip. Now that we were going all the way to Baltics we did not just wish to be restricted to the places where the cruise would take us. We had a few days which we could spend in Northern areas. The thought of going to Laplands did enter the mind but in June there are no Northern lights visible due to long days so we turned our attention towards Norway. The name of Bergen railway figured in many forums that I went through and many described it as one of the most scenic rail journeys of the world. I also read about the Fjords tour from Bergen and that sounded really good. The decision was made that we would fly to Bergen from Stockholm after the cruise. This is exactly what we did.

We planned disembarkation in such a way from Cruise ship so that we could go directly to the airport. It was a short flight from Stockholm to Bergen. The Norwegian Air plane did not fly very high and sitting in the window seat I got spectacular views of  the areas and the eye pleasing views of green landscapes would give way to views of snow and glaciers. Scandinavia is wonderfully beautiful and these untouched parts of lakes, rivers, glaciers and mountains made this flight a spectacular one.
I had been following Bergen’s weather pattern and throughout the temperatures were around 6 deg C less than other places like Oslo, Stockholm etc. They were predicting rain on the day we were to take the Fjords tour. I hoped that this prediction would be wrong.Eventually the prediction wasn’t wrong but while it rained in Bergen we were already exploring the Fjords and it did not rain where we were.

The colors of Bergen
First impression about a city and country always helps in forming an opinion. The taxi guys advised that we should take a large taxi as with 7 people and luggage we would save money. They even organized a larger vehicle for us ! Our hotel was right in the middle of centre and we just checked in, dumped our luggage and were out on the streets. It was already 4 PM so I could not go and collect the tickets for the Fjords journey , as on Saturdays  the ticket window shut at 4. Neverthless I went strolling to the station to see its location as I would have to go to station earlier than rest of us to collect the tickets before our journey the next morning. It was just a 10 minute walk and with this out of mind I decided to explore the town.  

Salmon and Caviar
I did not venture very far from where we stayed. Devicka and Sanya went shopping and Kartik decided to relax. I walked towards the waterfront and came across the tourist centre  from where I got some information about the town. The fish market was very interesting and it was full of people. There were a few stalls outside selling Nowegian food and a few shops selling lovely Salmon, Caviar and crabs. I spent a lot of time here tasting the salmon and other interesting things and seeing how they were marinating the fish. The evening time was here and the pubs were getting louder. There were quite a few of them near the waterfront.

Busy pubs on a saturday

I walked back to collect the family so we could go up the funicular to the mountain top for spectacular views of the city. 
Scary if you stand as train goes down
The colourful buildings, river and mountains looked really lovely from the top. We went into the woods nearby and took a nice walk. It was beginning to get very chilly so it was time to get back. We skipped the bars and the pubs which had really come alive by now and there were people everywhere. We had to get up early in the morning so had a nice Thai meal and got all set for the Fjords tour. 

Norway in a Nutshell

This is the name of the tour which we took. We boarded 8.43 AM Bergen rail till a town called Voss. We boarded a bus at Voss which took us through spectacular scenery and scary hairpin bends to a place called Gudvangen. This journey was full of natural beauty and there was snow, waterfalls and mountains. The Japanese girl sitting next to me the window seat kept clicking pictures throughout.

One of the many villages we passed. The average age of these villagers is highest in the world. Credit goes to quality of water and quality of life. 
At Gudvangen a nice looking boat awaited us. I secured my seat at the top deck but ensured that I was well clad. It would get very cold when the sun disappeared and it would be nice but cold when sun shone albeit weakly. The rest of the gang chickened and stayed confined to the covered area downstairs. I must say that they missed out on a lot. Fjords are the mountains which rise from below the water and go right up. The boat was turning and twisting to go through the passages.

The turns in the Fjords would bring another spectacular landscape for us
As the boat would sail between the Fjords and make a turn there would be an audible gasp which collectively would go up as some spectacular vista would appear before our eyes which was hidden earlier. The boat made many such turns during these 2 hours and we stayed glued to our seats waiting for the new scene which would inevitably be more exciting than the last. The boat stopped at Flam where we had our lunch.

The waterfalls are exciting to watch as they gush down the Fjords. There were many waterfalls along the way.
The town of Flam was sleepy little town and we spent a couple of hours there. The idea of cycling came to the kids but by then we just had 30 minutes of spare time and the guy wouldn't give us cycles for less than 3 hours. It was working out too expensive for just 30 minutes. We were to catch the Flam railway from here . Flam Railway (Flamsbana) is a spectacular train journey that offers a panoramic view of some of the wildest and most magnificent nature in the Norwegian fjord landscape. 

The sleepy town of Flam made famous by Flam Railway

Flamsbana is one of the steepest train lines in the world on normal tracks, where almost 80% of the journey has a gradient of 5.5%. It takes an hour to cover just 20 km and even stops on way for tourists to get very close to one of the huge waterfalls.

The tourists were taken by surprise when the train stopped at a huge waterfall on the way and suddenly the entertainment came with dance and music

As we came close to town of Myrdal, the entire landscape got covered in snow as we were climbing up from Flam. This snow stayed with us for quite some time even after we boarded the Bergen rail from Myrdal till Oslo.

At Myrdal railway station. Beautiful. 

So, as you can figure out had we not taken the Norway in a Nutshell Fjords tour, our Bergen railway would have come straight from Voss  (where we had got off earlier) to Myrdal and proceeded towards Oslo. We had taken a detour to see these spectacular views. Those coming from Oslo do this Norway in a Nutshell in reverse sequence. We reached Oslo at 10.40 PM. It was still bright. We were in Scandinavia in middle of June after all.

I think this decision of going to Bergen and doing this Norway in a Nutshell tour was one of the best decisions we had taken. The beautiful scenery and landscapes we came across in one day would remain unforgettable in memory. Through the journey on Bergen Railway till Oslo our eyes stayed out of the window as this journey was also fantastic. Once the snow ended other landscapes appeared . I had carried a book to read but hardly turned a page.

Many people have wondered how we manged to do all this with our suitcases ? Walk-train-bus-boat-flam rail-train and then walk to the hotel was involved in a day which had started at 8 in the morning and ended at 11 at night. Well, we actually did not carry our suitcases. If we were to carry our luggage then all the fun would have been lost and it would have been a cumbersome journey. We had booked a service called porter service ( in advance who had picked up the suitcases from our Bergen hotel at 6.45 in the morning and delivered them to Oslo hotel before we reached. There was a price to pay but our comfort level was much more than 250 NOK which we paid per suitcase. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tallinn, Stockholm and goodbye to the wonderful Cruise

The Fortified city

Life on a Cruise Ship

While we partied at night at the ship was sailing towards Tallinn. I walked outside to go up to the upper deck of the ship which was exposed to the sea breeze. I felt a bit chilly but as I went up the steps towards the jogging track, the cold blow of wind hit my head and ears and I hastily retreated my steps to go back inside the warmth of the indoor regulated heating. It was still cold in the Baltics and with the sea breeze, it was really freezing at this time of the night. Though Costa Luminosa was nowhere in size as compared to many of the Royal Caribbean ships, it is large enough to have quite a few facilities to keep everyone occupied. The sporty types also had their gym, jogging tracks, swimming pools and other exercising options. This particular ship was docking almost everyday so time spent on board was limited otherwise in many cruises there are days where the ship is on high seas without any docking so people use more of the facilities on ship. In most cruise ships the casinos and the shopping arcade are shut during the time the ship is docked so people are encouraged to go out and take shore excursions.

Tallinn is pretty-very pretty

The Old down of Tallinn is a world heritage site of UNESCO. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and is known as the fortified city as it had to fortify itself against the armies who were all too ready to attack it. It lies on the Gulf of Finland and would be just 80 miles from Helsinki. As was with most East European nations, Estonia  was under Soviet Russia and then Nazis captured it during WWII. After the war Soviets captured it again and it was only towards the end of last century could it get independence. The cruise ship docked here in the morning and we got out leisurely as today was a day without an agenda. I had done no study or research about Tallinn and had no knowledge except the fact that the Old town was very pretty.

Enchanting rooftops

We strolled from the cruise ship and came across a church which was very pretty. The cobbled streets started from there and we were soon in the Old town. It must have been just a 20 minute walk from the ship.  As we reached the main square I was reminded of Prague. This appeared to be a miniature and simplified version of Prague. It appears that most tourists come from the cruise ships so there must be quite a bit of activity between 10 AM and 4 PM and for rest of the evening it must be a sleepy little town. It is a kind of town that you take liking to the moment you set you foot on it. It has an old world charm and is dotted by churches, lovely rooftops, colorful buildings, and is surrounded by sea.

Sanya and I enjoyed this town very much
We just chilled while we were in town. We started with roaming the alleys and cobbled lanes; sat down for coffee at the main square; had a leisurely beer at one of the pubs serving fresh brew; sat in the park as sun was very soothing on this cold day; and then had a leisurely lunch. While the others did some window shopping I climbed up the fort to have a nice view of the city.

We walked back through another way and entered a huge modern mall. From there we could see the modern new town. What a contrast it was.

Cruise ship is fun

The dining hall has thousands having dinner at the same time.
This was our 3rd cruise in last 6 years. I have enjoyed them all. I have seen people either love the cruises or hate them. Very few are indifferent. I do agree that the staterooms are small and at times you can get rough seas but so far we have been fine. 7 nights in one room while visiting many places is something which I like. One doesn't have to check in and check out like you do for hotels for these 7 days. In the dining hall you have a table which becomes yours for 7 dinners. The people serving you get to know your likes and dislikes. After the 2nd day, Adley knew exactly what I would like for dinner among the choices we had.

The Costa ships literally force you to get up early as now they have stopped serving hot breakfast on upper deck. If you want eggs, bacon, ham and good breakfast then you'd better get up early and be in dining hall by 8 PM. Here you can get English, German, Italian , American and some other great combinations of breakfasts. Otherwise on the upper deck you will get croissants, fruits and sandwiches etc till 10.30 AM, which frankly we didn't care much for.

With Adley and Wilson. They served us each night for dinner.
During the Alaska cruise we had spent quite some time in casino also. For some strange reason we did not go to casino on this cruise but spent time at the spa. Each evening before dinner Kunaal and I would meet at the atrium bar for drinks and would then be joined by Devicka and Jyoti. The kids would come down at dinner time. Christopher and his companions at the bar would tell us stories about different cruises they had served on. Many men would wear tuxedos for the captain's night and the ladies would wear cocktail dresses. On certain days the waiters and other staff would sing songs and entertain us at the dining hall and we would join them for fun and dance.

All set for a theme party
On most days there was some theme party going on at the top deck. We attended a few. Devicka and Kartik would go for playing of Bingo and twice they actually won some money so were extremely pleased with themselves. Kartik and I would go and play table tennis in our free time. There were a lot of activities happening at all times so the family would keep busy doing what they liked doing best.

Stockholm - the last stop of Costa Luminosa

The pretty city of Stockholm
The ship was docking at Stockholm and would do so for 24 hours so this meant that we would stay on the ship for a night before disembarking.

We paid for a Red Bus hop on hop off from the cruise terminal thinking that we will roam around the whole town on it while stopping where we wanted to. The bus service turned out to be terrible as at each stop we had to wait for a long time and the bus wouldn't come. We were told that there was a Royal wedding and traffic was disrupted due to that. But we felt our money had been wasted.

The charming old town 'Gamla Stan'

Stockholm is a very pretty city and the main point in the old town 'Gamla Stan.' It was nice walking the lanes of the historic old town and looking at great glassware's and handicrafts but as it happens in most touristy places, the food was rubbish. From there we walked to the The Royal Palace which was being readied for the Royal wedding. 

A former reality-TV star and glamour model became a princess, marrying the man who is third in line to the Swedish throne. Sofia Hellqvist, 30, married 36-year-old Prince Carl Philip at a lavish ceremony in the chapel of Stockholm's Royal Palace.There was a lot of activity happening just as there should be before such an important wedding. It was time to move on from here.

Relaxing near the City Hall

The Stockholm city hall area had nice views and we spent quite some time at the water-front. It was quite relaxing sitting here and looking at the lovely buildings across the water. There were many people kayaking and boating in the water and it was a lovely setting. This City Hall is the venue for the Nobel prize banquet which is held each year on December 10.

City Hall is the venue for Nobel prize banquet

We walked the area where we had walked with our suitcases the first day and we walked many other areas in the city centre. The shops close early so the others left early while Kunaal and I stayed behind to do some pub crawling. These were some nice open pubs filled with weekend crowds. The glass structures had come up on the pavements and they were nice and comfortable. They were also very busy and one had to work hard to get a drink. We had our scotch with the Swedish tipplers and then traveled back to the port on bus no. 1 which took us a km away from our ship. It is important to learn about public transportation and how to use it in European cities. We reached back to the port without any difficulties. We wanted to spend the last evening on the ship with the people who had been our companions for full one week. It had been a lovely cruise.

A new journey would start tomorrow as we were to travel to Norway, to the very pretty city of Bergen.

A selfie at a Stockholm Pub

Monday, July 6, 2015

St Petersburg II- Amber Room and the nymphomaniac Catherine the Great

Just as I sat down to write about our 5th day of the holiday, by sheer co-incidence Angelina Jolie announced that she would be making a film on Catherine the Great and would act in it also as the nymphomaniac queen. Before this trip I had not heard about Catherine the Great. My Russian history knowledge was restricted to the last Czar, Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet rule. Now I look forward to the film as after spending 2 days in St Petersburg the appetite for Russian history has grown. Actually this 2nd day at St Petersburg  was all about Catherine the Great. We visited her palace, heard stories about her and talked about her with our guide.

 The places we visited on the 2nd day at this lovely city were as charming and exciting as on the first day.  We drove through the city and crossed the bridge over river Neva and proceeded towards the suburbs. We kept seeing some extraordinary buildings and enriched ourselves about stories about the Czars and the hardships during the communist regime. It’s as if we were being transported in the worlds of Peter the Great, Catherine the great, Czar Nicholos II, the Russian revolution, WW2 and the communist regime under the likes of Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev.

Mightier than the sword

It so happened that I was at this time reading Jeffery Archer’s latest book ‘Mightier than the sword’ which has a few scenes set in Leningrad (St Petersburg) and talks extensively about Stalin and his dictatorial role during this Soviet regime as narrated by his own interpreter. History has recorded the kind of regime carried on under the dictator Stalin. His spies made sure that enemies were taken care of before they became more dangerous. The unexpected victory of the Red Army over the mighty Nazis during world war II gave a cult status to Stalin and he ruthlessly occupied the Easter European countries so that he had buffer between Russia and Western forces. The purges continued till the death of Stalin.
However, the places we visited on our 2nd day at St Petersburg had more to do with the Czars and the richness of the historical past rather than the purges ordered by Lenin and Stalin. People of Russia want to block the period of 1919 to 1989 from their minds. It has too many dark tales. 

The lovely gardens

Peterhof Palace and and the enchanting fountains

A view of the palace, fountains and our family

Sanya in front of a Rich Palace
As you reach Peterhof Grand Palace  (founded by Peter the Great ) and its lower fountain park and upper Garden you feel very relaxed. The lovely fountains enchant you and you can see the lovely Peterhof  Grand Palace. We spent quite some time roaming around these great gardens.The Grand Cascade, which goes downhill from the palace towards the Baltic Sea, is one of the largest fountain ensembles in the world. Some of them are trick fountains so the children loved it and Kartik enjoyed getting drenched even though it was pretty cold. The Czars did have a sense of humor and some of them took delight when they would drench the unsuspecting guests with cold water from these trick fountains.

We could have spent a lot more time here but one has to do justice to the limited time one has as a tourist. There were many things to see before heading towards the cruise ship. 

Tricked by the trick fountains !

Catherine the Great - The Nymphomaniac Queen who brought about the Golden era in Russia 

Catherine the great ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796 making her the longest serving female ruler of Russia. Her reign is also know as the golden era of Russia and she brought about a lot of reforms thus bringing prosperity for the common man.. She is also known as a nymphomaniac Queen and is said to have had 22 lovers. Paintings of Catherine II, show her as an overweight and not a very attractive woman but then she was the Queen so she could have anyone she wanted for her pleasure. She was responsible for the coup against her incompetent Czar husband who actually was from the Romanov dynasty. Catherine herself was not even Russian. It is unclear who was the father of her successor (her son Paul).  She was known to shower great gifts to her lovers like gifts of 1000 serfs along with large estates. Her summer palace houses a great museum today. 58 rooms of this palace were destroyed during WWII and around 32 have been restored till now. The Czars had a way of intimidating their nobles and ministers and guests before they gave them their audience. A person had to go through different rooms and wait for certain time and participate in certain activities before the Czar or the Queen appeared. By then the intimidation had taken its toll on most people.

This hall in Catherine's palace is available for parties and marriages. I am sure that with Russian Ruble going down, many of my countrymen would love to show off their wealth by having wedding of their children here !

The main hall in Catherine's palace is now available for weddings and parties provided you pay the correct price. I would like to think that the place can accommodate more than 3000 people so hopefully my rich countrymen, who keep looking for exotic destinations for their children's wedding would like to book this place soon to show their might. Being a guest in the ballroom once used by Catherine the great and subsequent Czars would be incentive enough for the guests to rush to this exotic locale. Provided of course that they are given visa by the Russians !

Catherine's palace

Catherine Palace is once again something you would associate with the Czarist opulence. This was the summer palace of the Czars and once again you are fascinated by each and everything inside the palace. The walls, the tapestries, the floorings, the furniture……………everything is exquisite. What we found most exquisite was the Amber Room in Catherine Palace.

The story of Amber Room

It has taken almost 20 years to re-create the Amber Room. These are spare panels kept aside for future use. 
Amber room, if it exists today would be worth around $ 400 million. Some say it would be priceless. It was made out of Amber panels and Gold and was referred to as the ‘8th wonder of the world.’ When Nazis occupied Leningrad, the first thing they did was dismantle the Amber Room and pack it away in crates and ship it out. The Soviets had tried to dismantle and hide the Amber room but had not been able to do it. Hitler had given instructions and his special team carried specialized equipment with them and get the Amber Room to him. These experts could dismantle the room in 36 hours ! The Russians had tried camouflaging the room but the Nazis knew where exactly it was. The Amber room was subsequently set up by Nazis at Koenigsberg in 1944 but it disappeared during the last days of the war. There are many theories and the main one is that the Koenigsberg castle was bombed and with it went the Amber Room. But several historians believe that it was transported out before the bombing and the search is still on. 

The lecture given by an expert about Amber Room

Amber room has once more been created in Catherine palace. We attended a workshop about the creation of panels and process. The intricate work was marvelous. Photography in the Amber room is prohibited but we were allowed to touch the panels in the workshop which was created just near the palace. Will Amber room ever be found ? I am certainly going to read whatever appears in world newspapers about this subject.

Saying Goodbye to St Petersburg and ......another party 

Time for the Cruise ship sailing was 6 PM. One didn't want to be left behind in Russia even though we had found it most beautiful. For the moment we did think that we had seen all that there was to see. There were many more places to visit but already the mind was getting muddled up regarding places. Important thing was that it was not a very rushed tour but it was informative and we did get a sense of what St Petersburg was all about. We had seen the places which we wanted to see. 

By 5.20  PM we were back in our stateroom after saying bye to our guide Daniel and the driver. They had been very good and deserved the tip of 10% and 5% respectively which SBP tours had recommended. We had got quite friendly to Daniel and he showed us his family pictures (he had married pretty young) and the stories related to his wedding. Daniel had always recommended that we leave the valuables and passports etc in the mini bus when we visited palaces and museums as he assured us that it was very safe there. St Petersburg is notoriously famous for the pick-pockets in the crowded touristy places. 

 It was then time for a nice cup of tea followed by some time in the Jacuzzi to get rid of the tiredness in the legs. As usual there was a nice Italian dinner at the dining hall of the the ship and the theme today was food from Sicily. As Costa is an Italian Company, each day we had Italian food in the dining hall but each day it was from a different region of Italy.Just when we thought we would sleep early, I was told that there was a party near the pool on the upper deck. And it is a well known fact that I don't like missing parties........

Midnight Party