The Retirees sailing for Tallin – Farewell St Petersburg

After our canal cruise and the evening with the folk dancers of St Petersburg we spent some lesuirely time aboard our ship before sailing to our next destination – Tallin Estonia.

Whilst we waited for the ship to sail out of the harbour there was plenty to do on board the ship but it was just too cold for us subtropicals to think about a dip in the pool or the hottub. So we strolled around deck and noticed we had been joined in port by an MSC Line ship. Our ship has this curious gangway which took you out over the ocean with a glass floor so you could see what sixteen stories looked like. Or we could laze in the weak northern sun and watch TV. Or take in the views such as the new bridge or the tourist boat racing to Peterhoff. when we finally did saiwe were surprised how big the harbour is. We passed a navy base which has become more a museum than active. And like all good sailors you must have a church to protect you whilst at sea. Only this one is part gold.

And we sailed on. This old harbour remains in use as shown by the new Patrol boat moored amongst the exhibits of the museum. There also appeared a vest of the earliest use of the harbour – a fortress with gun ports pocked across it.  As we passed the last gates (the storm surge gates to protect against tidal surges) we knew we were leaving St Petersburg – sailing into a glorious sunset.

The Retirees aboard the “Love Boat” – SS Regent Princess – St Petersberg

St Petersburg is just around the corner from Helsinki at the head of the Gulf of Finland. Russia’s second-largest city after Moscow, with 5 million inhabitants in 2012, is an important Russian port on the Baltic Sea. It is situated on the Neva River, and was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. Saint Petersburg has been the capital of Imperial Russia until 1918, when the central government bodies moved to Moscow.

It is often considered Russia’s cultural capital. The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saint Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world. Many foreign consulates, international corporations, banks and businesses have offices in Saint Petersburg so it is an interesting place to visit.

We had been here in 2007 to undertake a canal tour to Moscow through Lake Ladoga and down the Volga. So we had done the Winter Palace, the Hermitage, Peterhoff and a few other things and wanted to do something a little more Russian rather than tourist.

We had previously arrived by plane but this time our arrival by cruise ship surprised us with the size of the new cruise terminal, the reclaimed land yet to be built on and the new monumental buildings on the skyline. Whilst we were taking in the vista we noticed a freighter along side and I guessed this was refuelling as it hung around all day. We also found these strange balls on tees on the highest deck on the ship. Remember I mentioned the medallions issued to us at boarding; well these are the tracking devices monitoring every medallion on ship and recording everything the medallion wearer does as well as identifying the medallion wearer to open his cabin charge his account etc.

We had selected a canal cruise for todays excursion. Peter the Great had lived in the Netherlands doing an apprenticeship in  ship building which gave him the knowledge when later as Tzar he built the port of St Petersburg. Hence he had copied the Dutch and their use of canals. We left the ship but found that the customs officers were on a break so we were unable to leave the ship and were left to wander aimlessly looking for a route to access our bus. When the officer returned he was somwaht indignant that we were concerned about missing our bus. As it turned out we had ample time to kick around in the Russian gift shops on the wharf – none today thanks!

Waiting for us outside were the tour buses looking like suckling pigs nussling the sow – that is a pretty big sow! All aboard the bus and off we go to find our canal boat. Round and round until we came to the Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood. One of the main sights of Saint Petersburg, it is erected on the site where political nihilists fatally wounded Emperor Alexander II in March 1881, the church was constructed between 1883 and 1907, funded by the imperial family. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the church was ransacked and looted, badly damaging its interior. The Soviet government closed the church in 1932. During the Second World War when many people were starving due to the Siege of Leningrad, the church was used as a temporary morgue for those who died in combat and from starvation and illness. The church suffered significant damage. After the war, it was used as a warehouse for vegetables. In July 1970, management of the church passed to Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and it was used as a museum. The proceeds from the Cathedral funded the restoration of the church. It was reopened in August 1997, after 27 years of restoration, but has not been reconsecrated and does not function as a full-time place of worship. We stopped for 15minutes to get a picture of the “church” and 10 of those minutes were spent by the guide tracking down lost passengers.

Following our stop at the Church we took a much more direct route to the canal and boarded our boat. The canal boat was not  flash but basic and rudimentary in many ways.  We cruised out into the Neva to see St Petersburg from the water. The city has many historic buildings, universities, archane lighthouses ( for the traffic on the river), residences and decaying decadence. Not the best tour but looking back we were sheltered from the rain and able to sit down and take in the view. I took the following photos;

Our canal tour ended and we boarded our bus for the reutrn to the ship – oh no not before we visit the souvenir shop. Not just any shop but St Petersburg’s biggest! Our tour guide is paranoid about losing tourists so I check out with her about looking around outside rather than looking at the mind numbing tourist trinkets. She agreed and we bolt for the outdoors and find ourselves in the suburbs with a mall stretching away from us. At the commencement of the mall is a pink and grey cathedral with a maroon church beside it. These are the places of worship for the citizens of the suburbs and whilst plain when measured against the tourist sites, interesting in their own right.

After viewing the cathedral and the church we walked down the mall just looking at everyday people going about everyday business. Our tour guide had asked us to be back in 30 mins so we turned around and returned to the souvenir shop to board the bus with the rest of our group who were loaded up with crap from the shop. Back to the ship and rest up for the night activities. I noticed the daily paper for the ship announced a folk group was the special entertainment in the auditorium. Hey we going off ship to see the same thing – how does that happen? Free on the ship or pay for an excursion – not happy Jan!


The Retirees in Finland – Helsinki

Our time in Berlin had expired. Our flight to Helsinki awaited.

Helsinki is the capital and most populous city of Finland. Located on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, it has a population of 650,058. The city’s urban area has a population of 1,268,296, making it by far the most populous urban area in Finland. Helsinki is located north of Tallinn, Estonia, east of Stockholm, Sweden, and west of Saint Petersburg, Russia. It has close historical ties with these three cities.
Helsinki was established as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550. The construction of the naval fortress Sveaborg in the 18th century helped improve Helsinki’s status, but it was not until Russia defeated Sweden in the Finnish War and annexed Finland as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809 that the town began to develop into a substantial city. Russian Emperor Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to reduce Swedish influence in Finland, and to bring the capital closer to Saint Petersburg. Despite the tumultuous nature of Finnish history during the first half of the 20th century (including the Finnish Civil War and the Winter War), Helsinki continued its steady development. A landmark event was the 1952 Olympic Games, held in Helsinki.

It was cool when we arrived at the airport and joined the queue for a cab. There is a flat fee for a cab from the airport and the volume of our luggage proved to be a difficulty until one fellow took the attitude that he would make it fit which he did. The trip into town seemed quite long and on arriving the apartment seemed not to exist. Eastern European architecture (and this looked familiar to St Petersburg architecture) approaches things differently. In this case there were two entrances one for apartments 1 -20 and another around the corner for 21 to 40. We unloaded our luggage and took a walk to get a meal. Just down the road was a Nepalese restaurant completely empty save for a little brown fellow behind the bar. Yes they were open but the kitchen would be closing in an hour. With no pressure from other customers we were soon enjoying a variety of Tibetan meals. It turns out the restaurant has been there for 25 years – just odd! At least I thought a Nepalese restaurant in the heart of Helsinki was a bit odd.

The following day we made our way to the bus station/underground station and purchased a multiride ticket and caught the underground to Central and the CBD. Later we were to find out that had we walked through the bus station we would have viewed the central railway station – we were literally 10 mins walk from the CBD. The escalator into the underground was very steep and long. That’s because the bus station is underground but on top of the underground if you get my meaning.

On board the underground train we travelled 1 station and surfaced at the Central Rail Station and a department store called Stockman. This store was to become a landmark for us to orientate ourselves. From there we walked down a park lined avenue to the markets and the wharves. Trams were everywhere. We were to learn that the trams all ran through the CBD. Each route would start outside of the CBD run through the CBD to the suburbs on the other side. There did not appear to be any inter suburban connections.

The sea is a major part of life for the Finnish people. Car ferries (moving mainly semi-trailers) criss-crossed the Gulf of Finland uniting Tallin and St Petersburg. However, we were down here to catch the ferry to the naval fortress Sveaborg. Helsinki is sheltered by a host of islands but unlike Brisbane which is sheltered by some large islands, these islands are rocky outcrops up to a few acres in size the biggest being Sveaborg. The trip was very pleasant, provided you stayed inside out of the icy wind that represented Spring and the cost was included in the bus pass.

Suomenlinna (or Sveaborg (Swedish), literal translation in Finnish is Castle of Finland and in Swedish Castle of Sweden is an inhabited sea fortress built on six islands and which now forms part of the city of Helsinki. Originally named Sveaborg (Fortress of Svea), or Viapori as called by Finnish-speaking Finns, it was renamed in Finnish to Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) in 1918 for patriotic and nationalistic reasons, though it is still known by its original name in Sweden and by Swedish-speaking Finns.

The Swedish crown commenced the construction of the fortress in 1748 as protection against Russian expansionism. Sweden started building the fortress in 1748, when Finland was still a part of the Swedish kingdom. Augustin Ehrensvärd (1710–1772) (his grave is located on the island) and his gigantic fortification work on the islands off the town of Helsinki brought the district a new and unexpected importance. Fortifications were also built on the Russian side of the new border during the 18th century and some of the Swedish ones were added to. In addition to the island fortress itself, seafacing fortifications on the mainland would ensure that an enemy would not acquire a beach-head from which to stage attacks. The plan was also to stock munitions for the whole Finnish contingent of the Swedish Army and Royal Swedish Navy there. In the Finnish War the fortress surrendered to Russia on May 3, 1808, paving the way for the occupation of Finland by Russian forces in 1809.

Arriving at the Island you first observe the naval academy still in operation on one of the adjoining islands and a long low set pinkish building forming the boundary wall to the community/fortress inside. Cobbled streets abound creating a real problem for Kerry’s feet. Still she soldiered on (pardon the pun).

To access the fort you pass through a tunnel out into an unexpected domestic looking scene. The island also supported the families of the sailors stationed here. Timber houses with odd rain catcher/water heads? In a climate as cold as this it seemed strange that timber was the predominant building material and those rain water heads must have had something to do with snow. In the centre of the island sits a very plain church far more like I expected of a protestant congregation. The fence however is made up of Swedish cannon and boat chain. The island still functions and in the distance we could see apartment accommodation. There was the occasional brick home with their own style of double insulation with memorabilia filling the voids.

As we crossed the island we came upon a bridge over a streamor canal. Internally the island supports a vibrant shipyard repairing sailing vessels but the original purpose is never far from view. We found the dry dock which once must have catered for very large vessels but today hold sundry ships awaiting attention. Stacks of cut and drying lumber stand protected and awaiting the call to service. We found a little restaurant in the boat yard and enjoyed fish soup with crusty bread. After lunch we continued our walk through the tunnel in the fortifications to a central square. The tomb of Augustin Ehrensvärd is prominent in the square and our walk continued onto the batteries hidden in their grassed mounds facing to the sea. Resting in the residential blocks behind the batteries are a number of museums, including the last surviving Finnish built submarine, Vesikko.

Having toured the battlements, we returned to the wharf where we had arrived and returned to the city. Despite it being the middle of the day I was happy to have my ski jacket to protect me from the wind.