Out to Sea Again September 2013

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

First of all, apologies to all for the delay in posting. We’ve been experiencing some technical difficulties in the Baltic (I blame Vladimir Putin. Why not? . . . our satellite uplink got bollixed while we were in Saint Petersburg during the G20 meetings.)

We are now aboard Silversea Silver Whisper, on a two-month journey from the Baltic through the North Sea to England and Ireland and across the pond to Canada and America.

Tallinn, Estonia: 3 September 2013

The Answer is Blowing in the Winds of Change

There’s change in the air in Tallinn, Estonia.

But that’s hardly news.

Estonia has been through more changes than just about any other country. An ancient tribe (the Aesti), the Swedes, the Livonians, the Germans, a brief sniff of freedom, the Russians, the Germans, an even shorter breath of liberty, the Soviets, and then finally the Baltic Way.

Estonia is still a place apart, though. The architecture is wonderfully quirky and the folk tales are even quirkier. But the principal barrier to widespread integration is Estikel, the almost-singular language of Estonia.

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Tallinn Old and Reborn

Estikel is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, which include Finnish, Estikel, and Hungarian. It actually is said to have its roots in the Indian subcontinent.

But things change. Estonia is one of the technological hubs of the Internet; Skype and several other elements of the computer lingua franca were developed here.

And there has also been a burgeoning invasion of tourists. At first from Europe, and now from around the world.

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We arrived on Silver Whisper in early September and there was a whiff of fall and a promise of winter in the air. We also found that the billboards are becoming more and more oriented to the outside world: Europeanized and (increasingly) Americanized.

We could have gone to see the latest Jennifer Anniston movie, dubbed into Estikel (probably would have been every bit as intelligible as the American version.) Or we could have ordered a hamborger at the new Striptiis joint along the waterfront.

It’s still a fascinating country, populated by mostly lovely people who all seem to be ready to burst into song at any time to declare, “We’re free, we’re free!”

I’ve decided to cut them a bit of slack for that reason. I just hope the Estonians will hold on to much of their character and culture along the way.

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Saint Petersburg, Russia: 4 September 2013

The Long Haul to Nicholas’ Last Stand

Saint Petersburg and all of Russia is never an easy place.

Russia is one of the bastions of bureaucracy. This one country (all right, it is the largest country on the planet, but still) is probably the principal reason that the rubber stamp industry still survives.

Silver Whisper arrived this morning for a two-day visit. The lovely, smaller vessels of Silversea usually get the best parking space in town—right on the River Neva at the English Embankment—but today we had to settle for circling the block and tying up at the somewhat further-out Sea Passenger Terminal at Ploschad Morskoy Slavy.

Why were we denied our view of ancient Petersburg?

Because the town has been taken over by the muck-a-mucks and the minions of the G-20 global economic summit.

River traffic has been curtailed, roads are closed, some museums are subject to sudden and unexpected and never explained lockdowns.

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Views of Alexander Palace in Saint Petersburg, the final home of the Romanovs

I covered some of these sort of political events when I was a reporter, and I know this: nothing gets accomplished at the meeting itself. Everything has been pre-wrangled, pre-edited, and scripted. All that remains is the grip-and-grin photo session of world leaders.

Putin is here, of course: it’s his country (at least that’s the way he thinks of it.) So too is Obama and 18 or so other world leaders.

We wish them well, and expect little. (Okay, maybe not too much for Putin; he’s a scary dude.)

In any case, our goal was to stay out of their way.

And so this morning we headed from the ship to the Primorskaya Metro station about a mile away and zipped beneath the traffic jams and the police checkpoints to Vitebsky station to catch a train to Detskoye Selo (also known as Pushkin.)

We went not to see Catherine’s Palace (been there, done that, very nice but way too crowded) but instead Alexander Palace.

We were sitting pretty when we got to the ticket counter at a few minutes after 10 in the morning. . . until the agent told us in Russian and sign language that all trains had been cancelled until after noon. Why? Just because. (G-20…)

We finally made it out to Pushkin and walked through the town and out to Alexander Palace, which has been on our list of should-sees for some time.

The palace was designed in 1792 for Catherine the Great as a gift for her grandson, the future Alexander I. It is a relatively simple palace, some say austere, but it certainly has more than a bit of grandeur about it.

The reason it is of interest is that it was the final personal residence of Nicholas II and his family from 1904 until their arrest in 1917. They went from there to a lockdown 850 miles east of Moscow and eventually to their mass execution.

Like nearly all of the treasures of this part of Russia, the palace was severely damaged by the Germans who encircled Petersburg for 900 days during the blockade of World War II. It has not been fully restored, but a dozen or so rooms are open and they are grand…and a bit poignant.

Nicholas and Alexandra were, by the standards of their peers, not really party people. They kept to themselves most of the time, even choosing not to live in the spectactular Catherine’s Palace just down the road.

At Alexander Palace, we were taken by some of the portraits and toys and riding uniforms of the Tsarevich Alexei and some of the clothing and dolls of his sisters.

Not to defend the Czars particularly, but Alexander Palace is one place to go for a sense of the last of the Romanovs as a family. Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof are spectacular but hard to relate to. Alexander Palace was a home.

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Helsinki, Finland: 6 September 2013

A Glorious End of Summer in Finland

There must be a Finnish word that is the equivalent of the American expression: “Indian Summer.”

And Indian Summer is a short but very sweet reappearance of warm temperatures and blue skies while autumn and winter are preparing to arrive.

That was certainly our experience in Helsinki this time. On previous visits in the heart of the summer we have experienced winter-like weather; today we could have gone to the beach.

Which is pretty much what we did. We took the public ferry from the city market to Suomenlinna Island in the middle of the harbor.

Suomenlinna was first built up by the Swedes, who held Finland for seven centuries from about 1200; they called it Sveaborg, as in the fortress (borg) of Mother Sweden (Svea).

Finland, which for nearly all of its existence has lived in a very rough neighborhood, has been occupied and assaulted by just about all of the powers of the Baltic: Sweden, Germany, Napoleon, and Russia amongst them.

Suomenlinna (renamed by the Finns when they gained their independence), is a sprawling complex of fortresses, barracks, armories, and dozens upon dozens of very large guns aimed out to sea to protect the entrance to Helsinki.

We spent a few hours strolling in the Indian Summer sun, storing up some warmth for the coming months as we head to northern Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, and Atlantic Canada on the next few cruises.

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Helsinki and Suomenlinna, Helsinki. Photos copyright 2013, Corey Sandler