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

Friday, July 3, 2015

St Petersburg - Combination of history and beauty.

Winter Palace - main building of Hermitage museum

The Gulf of Finland is very shallow and the cruise ship docked at St Petersburg around 8 AM. As I mentioned earlier, visas for Russia are not easy to get. An exception is made for cruise ship passengers. Russia has realized the potential of cruise tourism and many cruise ships dock here. This has resulted in good revenues for the city . Most cruise ship are here for 2 days so that the entire city could be experienced by passengers. We could have chosen shore excursions for this city through the Costa cruises itself but I learnt that certain Russian Companies were better and cheaper. I had chosen a Company called SBP. The booking was fairly simple and was done on website in advance ( ). No advance payment was made but all passport information was provided to them so they could submit them to Russian authorities in advance for processing of visas.
We had to carry our passports and tour booking tickets to show the immigration personnel. We had to remain with the tour guys all the time and if required we could have taken an evening tour as well. Evening tour could have been a ballet tour, a boat ride or  what is known as a Vodka tour. One could just ask them for a car and driver and he would have taken us where we wanted to go but I was sure that no one would have energy to go out in evening after all the Museums and churches. I was proved right here as the days were exhausting. And during that time there is no 'night life' as it does not get dark till 11 PM !

I must be happy with SBP tour company

Luckily not many cruise ships had docked at the same time as us so we did not have to stand in long queues for immigration. We got past quite quickly and were delighted to see a nice black Mercedes Van/mini bus standing there waiting for us with a driver and guide. They had promised no more than 16 people for our group and thankfully there were just 4 more people besides the 7 of us. The mini bus was very comfortable and we all were provided with water bottles and an audio system so that the guide could keep us informed about the history in Museums and churches.

SBP tour’s signature tour was a 2 day deluxe tour which shows you a lot of places in and around St Petersburg but is very hectic. I don’t think any of us were enthusiastic enough for a grueling sightseeing. I would go on to say that amongst the 7 of us, I was most enthusiastic so I had to take a call on behalf of all of us and I knew Kunaal and Jyoti would not want anything hectic and the teenagers would start cribbing if we overdid the sightseeing bit. So what I chose was a tour called the ‘2 day highlights tour with Amber workshop.’ The cost was approximately $ 240 per person including tips. I was happy when our guide Danay announced that we would be visiting the world famous ‘Hermitage Museum’ as our first sightseeing stop.

The Hermitage Museum- you need days here.

The tour companies have special arrangement with the authorities to let the tours enter the Hermitage Museum before the official opening hour. This was wonderful as we could enter  before the general public. As I had mentioned earlier, on this particular day there were not many cruise ships docked so Hermitage was not crowded at all. During peak season in July and August the queues are long and it gets hot and stuffy inside. It also encourages pick-pockets and thieves to target the tourists. The weather on this day of June was nice and cool at 16 deg C.  

Hermitage Museum comprises of several buildings and the main amongst them is the famous Winter Palace of the Czars. It has 3 million pieces of exhibits so you can imagine that how little we must have seen in just a couple of hours. Museum had been started by Catherine the great in 1764 but opened for public in 1852. The museum dazzles you. Your eyes dart all around. Each room is exquisite. As you move from room to room you are greeted by great paintings, sculptures, gold pillars, exquisite painted ceilings, tapestries and you can understand why Czars had this reputation of opulence. Danay enriched our knowledge by giving a nice and simple commentary explaining the significance of the rooms and pieces of art which were prominent. He made us spend more time in the room which had Leonardo da Vinci paintings.

Leonardo da Vinci's work has been given one full room here

We were in the Museum for 2 hours but even for a person with average knowledge of art, I would have liked to spend a couple of days here.

Art and art everywhere

Churches are like this ?

‘Church of our savior on the spilled blood’ is striking. It is a kind of building where you want to start clicking pictures the moment you see it. This Church was built on the site where Czar  Alexander II  was severely wounded and died in March 1881.The church was built from 1883 till 1907.
It is a well known fact that Soviets who came to power after the Russian Revolution were against religion.  Many churches were damaged and priests sent to prisons in Serbia. This church was damaged and looted after the revolution and during the WW II it was damaged badly.  It was restored and opened in 1997 but not as a normal place of worship.  You have to visit this church if you ever visit St Petersburg. Without this visit your trip would be incomplete.

Inside the church is as beautiful

Russian food and feel of the city

Danay suggested that to save time we have ‘Piroshki’ for lunch so that we don’t spend too much time eating. These are meat, cabbage, rice filled pies and are either baked or fried. We vetoed the idea and he took us to a local restaurant where the Russians were eating their lunch. It was a nice place and we could pick up from variety of soups, chicken, pork, beef, skewers ,vegetables and get them billed. The food looked good and it turned out to be pretty good and nice tasting and I got tempted by a soup called ‘Borscht’ which was made out of beetroot but had vegetables and beef in it. It was quite decent.
We did get a feel of the city as we walked on the main avenue ‘Nevsky prospect.’ The economy must be hurting the normal citizen very much as there were hardly any people in plush stores on this avenue. Danay said that Putin's adventures and his trying to emulate the Czars in their conquests was hurting the Russians badly. The oil prices had crashed, the western economies had put sanctions on Russia due to Ukraine misadventure and the Ruble had crashed. Normal Russian citizens were not happy at all. 

The town of St Petersburg is spread around Neva river and as you stand there you see a nice flowing river around which the town is built. The architecture of many buildings is striking and many of them are churches.  It indeed is a very pretty city.

Dazzled by the metro ride 

Each metro station dazzles you

We were taken by surprise when Danay told us that a metro ride is a very important part of our tour. He started by saying that this metro was deepest in the world. I really thought that we would be wasting our time. I have seen enough metro systems in world so really wondered what the big deal was. My assessment turned out to be totally wrong ! We visited 2 stations and really, they were stunning. I can’t imagine why anyone would make such beautiful metro stations  and spend so much money on them. 

The stations are very ornate and very impressive

One of the stations called Avtovo had  chandeliers, lamps, ornaments decorated with laurel branches, swords and other emblems of valor. The far wall of the central underground hall is a decorated mosaic called 'Victory', with the image of a woman and her child. This Avtovo station has been voted as one of the best in the world. No wonder all of us kept clicking picture after picture. I think we were all very keen to post these pictures on Facebook to show our friends that metro ride can be so wonderful and full of ornate stuff. 

The day was rounded off after we visited Peter and Paul's fortress and Cathedral. The remains of last Czar Nicholos II and his family were buried here. After the revolution the Czar had been taken to Siberia and had been assassinated along with his family. Decades later his remains were found and brought here to be buried. No one had been sure what had happened to him. 

We had learnt quite a bit in this one day. It had been a tiring day but really exhilarating as we had seen and learnt so much. No one was complaining about tiredness so this meant that the day had gone off well for everyone. All of us were asking questions about Russian history to the guide and this meant that interest had come alive.

It was time to go and relax in the spa and get prepared for another long day tomorrow. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cruising the Baltics on Costa Luminosa

The lovely city of Tallinn in Estonia

It must be the relief of being on the plane taking us for the long planned summer vacation that makes me doze off as soon as the plane starts to taxi. The mind ignores the call for drinks and food by the stewards and it also ignores the turbulent weather which tosses the plane around for good 15 minutes. The uncomfortable economy class seats makes the back stiff and the neck goes topsy turvy but I keep my eyes closed and try to keep the mind relaxed. The next 15 days will take all seven of us (My cousin Kunaal and my family normally travel together during summer vacations) to seven countries. The mind and body has to be fresh and kicking for what the next fortnight has to offer.

Arriving at Stockholm

Our group on the roads of Stockholm
Stockholm and its approach looks lovely from the skies. Our 7 day  Baltic Cruise starts from here. The embarkation time is after 1 PM. We have a lot of time to kill. The mind says that with so much luggage it is better to stay put at Arlanda Airport and keep having croissants and coffee.  The heart says that we are already in Scandinavia and time wasted is opportunity wasted. Opportunity to explore a new place. The heart wins. We board a nice bus which takes us to city centre. The place is very near the central station. We roam around the town on a crisp morning. Our suitcases wobble on cobbled lanes. We admire the candy shops and buy cakes and coffee. The legs and hands start to tire after a couple of hours. We see a few tents and activity a few hundred yards away and walk towards it hoping to find some place to sit and waste time. 

What a food feast !

International street market- the FOOD market !
What we actually stumble to is something called ‘International  street market- Geraud markets Scandinavia. ‘ It is actually an international food market which travels from city to city in Scandinavia and is hugely popular. Today was the first day of this market in Stockholm and the crowds were gorging on around 20 different kinds of international cuisine. The smell of food was too difficult to resist. The pork ribs, Kangaroo meat from Australia, Pastas, Thai cuisine, fish and chips ………all kind of food was being cooked right in front of us. I settled for German Bratwurst with chillis and then hailed the taxi to go to the port to board ‘Costa Luminosa.’

All Aboard

Our group aboard the ship
In 2012 Costa Concordia sank near Italy killing many people. The Costa Cruise Company has been able to put that nightmare behind and has many ships operating now. We chose Costa Luminosa as its dates suited our schedule for Baltic’s. The check in process was quite smooth and we had half a day on board that day as ship was scheduled to sail the next morning. We could have gone back to Stockholm city centre but all of us were in a mood to relax on the ship. We were all tired as we had been travelling the night before and then walking the streets of Stockholm in morning. On the 9th deck we were greeted by a hostess who took us around the spa of the ship. On the previous 2 occasions I have cruised on Carnival ships and Carnival is the parent company of Costa. The layout of Carnival ships and Costa was exactly the same. The main difference was that in none of the Carnival ships I had come across such a nice spa. 

The spa on board

There was a price to pay of course as there was a nominal price of Euro 110 for the duration of the cruise for use of spa. Kunaal and I got a discount of 20% by subscribing on the first day. Gym could be used by anyone but lovely facilities of sea facing Jacuzzi, steam, sauna, rest room and Japanese tea room were part of the spa which was open only to members. Each day we would go out for shore excursions and after walking for 10-12 km, this spa was something which actually refreshed me. This membership of spa was money well spent!

You could see the sea from the Jacuzzi

Sweet Japanese tea room

Sailing amongst natural beauty

Really loved these colorful houses as we sailed by them.

Day 2 was the day that ship sailed and we stood on the balcony seeing hundreds of small islands as ship maneuvered its way through them. We saw some lovely hamlets on the shore. Stockholm itself is a city which is built on 14 islands. The Stockholm archipelago extends around 60 km and we sailed next to that before we entered the Gulf of Finland. The views were lovely and there was smell of freshness. It was a day we explored the ship, spent time in the gym and spa and caught up with some reading. Thankfully we had a good time of 9.15 PM for dinner unlike the American ships where you were expected to be on dinner table at 7.45. By a matter of chance our table was next to the window and we could have lovely views from there. Being an Italian ship, each day they served us Italian food from some different district of Italy. We were served by Indian waiters so it was good fun as we shared jokes and talked in hindi. The food each day was delicious and different.

Our dining table - with a view !

Helsinki- the first shore excursion

The ship was docking at Helsinki on 3rd day morning. We had not booked any shore excursion. I had read that you could buy a ticket from the bus near the port for €8 per person and with this you could travel for full day on buses, trams, metros and even on ferry to world heritage site  Suomenlinna island. This is exactly what we did. The bus dropped us to Kampi which has a huge mall and shopping centre. We walked to the lovely Rock church nearby and spent some time here just sitting around and taking photographs.

The church hall is covered with a dome, lined with copper and supported on the rock walls by reinforced concrete beams. The interior walls are of rugged rock and rubble wall. Before noon, the sunlight spreads from the row of windows surrounding the roof periphery to the altar wall. Sitting inside the church was very soothing and Piano music was being played. 

The soothing Piano music at the Rock Church
We walked back towards Kampi shopping centre and from there towards the waterfront or the market square. We saw the University and a few more churches before walking down the Esplanade and coming to the main square called the senate square with statue of  Alexander II. From the market square we could see the city hall and the Royal Palace. If you look up you can see the most popular White Lutheran church

Walking is the best thing you can do at a new place. It gives you an idea about the people, the place and the culture. Even window shopping teaches you a lot about the place. Till now the weather had been cold and sunny but suddenly the clouds appeared. It became colder. As we boarded the HSL public ferry the drizzle started. As mentioned earlier, the price of HSL public ferry was included in the ticket we had purchased that morning. There are private ferries as well so it is important to go to the correct ferry station. In 15 minutes we were at the  Suomenlinna island but we could not move beyond the tourist information centre as it started to rain heavily.

Fresh strawberries and cherries at market square
Kunaal and I sat in the restaurant and had peanuts and draft Beer and kept a lookout on the weather conditions. The others were happy to get wi fi at the tourist centre and stayed occupied there. When it seemed that the rain will not relent, we gave up the idea of exploring the island and crossed back to Helsinki on the ferry. We will just have to read about the island to know what we missed. A tram from market square took us to the familiar Kampi where we had Chinese food at Empire Palace. The food was pretty decent. From there we took the bus back to the port as the schedule departure was 6 PM. In just half a day we had become quite pro at using public transportation at Helsinki.

Planning for St Petersburg over Glenlivet 12

We met up at the Atrium of the ship later in the evening before dinner for drinks.The musicians were playing some nice music and the place was buzzing with well dressed people who had come down for dinner . On a cruise ship people are very particular about what they wear for dinner and they want to be at their best. I was feeling fresh after spending an hour in the spa. We made friends with Christopher who happened to be manning the bar. Christopher was from Mumbai and he had a lot of stories to tell about cruise ships as he had been sailing for more than a decade. He suggested that we buy a bottle of Glenlivet 12 (instead of buying on per drink basis) as it would work out cheaper and on top of that he promised to get a further discount after speaking to superiors. He kept his promise the next day. Costa cruises allows no outside liquor and one has to buy drinks on the ship itself.  Whisky is not served in dining hall (only wine and beer in dining room) but if you have your own bottle bought from the ship you could carry it to dining hall as well. 

our evening time was spent here in the Atrium
The ship was docking at St Petersburg for 2 days the next morning. Russia always seems a faraway country as visas etc are still not easy to get. Having read many books about Russia and having studied its history, one actually didn't know what to expect from St Petersburg. There was some thrill in the expectations about visiting the city. All we knew was that we had to meet the agent after crossing the immigration counter next morning at 8.30 AM. The agent was suppose to arrange for visas and take us around. We had been assured by many people that visit to St Petersburg would be the highlight of our trip. We anxiously looked forward to explore this totally new world. 

Helsinki has statues, Museums, churches and a nice waterfront. 

------To be continued----