Friday, 18 August 2017

High Summer - High Downpour

Well it has been a real mixed bag of weather this summer. Its either very warm (or as the press likes to call it a scorching heatwave which they seem to apply to any temp above 18C) or to put it bluntly its hammering it down so hard that Noah would be building a boat.

Really have missed the Cosmos this year. Last year we had them filling all the beds and they give that colour and bloom you need in August when all the early flowers have  done there thing. My experiment of starting them off in the cold frame in March was an unmitigated disaster - resulting in not a single seed shooting; and as I forgot to open the frames on a couple of sunny days I now have  a collection of melted seed trays. Live and learn - I'll either order them in as plugs next time or start them indoors again (not ideal)

The Roses though are doing superbly. Even the climbers and ramblers this year are putting on a second showing whilst the continuous varieties have just been - well - continuous. Two newcomers for this year from David Austin are a these Lichfield Angels.

Inside a couple of changes  to the downstairs cloakroom. It used to have solid oak tops which really didn't work in any practical sense due to the amount of water spillage that the badly designed sink caused  and the cottage seaside theme was a bit 'meh'.  So out with the wood and in with a classy marble - and a  new sink. Farrow and Balls "downpipe estate eggshell" is used on the panels  to make the white porcelain & radiators pop and the marble shine. The wallpaper is Kelda Scion. This has transformed this room from twee seaside to classic modern.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Day 8 - Stockholm

Awoke this morning to the odd sound of what at first sounded like a helicopter landing alongside but turns out to be some huge flexible self propelled pontoon that is slowly snaking out from the port of Nynashamn to attach itself to the ship.  The NCL Getaway is  too large to dock directly in Stockholm as there is an archipelago to negotiate also, so we find ourselves this morning in this deepwater port  nestled among some pretty archipelago islands that make up most of Sweden's beautiful coastline -  we seem to also have finally lost the Viking Sky - for the first time it's is not here with us. (TBF it's got one over on us and is docked in Stockholm city centre- grrrr)

We already had NCLs timetable beforehand and had carefully worked out how to get to the railway station from the port, the train times and  how to get to from the station in Stockholm to Vasa Museum which is situated on one of the many small islands that make up the city - quite a walk from the railway station. It was going to be  a tight squeeze especially with the tight timings as the ship leaves quite early.
Here we are at Nynashamn, an hour away from Stockholm.
A cpl of things changed though. A few days before we arrived Captain Roger announced that the ship would be staying longer in Nynasham as the previous trip had shown the stay was too short. But secondly we still had cabin credit  so we killed two birds with one stone A) how to find a way of ever spending it  -  and B) take the stress out of getting to and from Vasa and Stockholm.

Our guide for the Stockholm tour
So we find ourselves on  a coach this morning heading into Stockholm for the Vasa museum. After seeing the HMS Victory last year (click here) this was a must. A rather bizarre history - the Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage on the 10 August 1628. Like most Swedish warships of the time the symbolic artistic adornment carved into her was unlike anything ever seen before. Upon completion she was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world yet the most ornate and beautiful - partly due to the fact the impatient King was always tinkering with her design and there was nobody politically strong enough to shout back at him "enough already"

On her launch day as she inched her way from the dockside  into Stockholm's harbour a gust of wind caught her sails and she toppled and sank in moments - being far too top heavy. The king ordered an immediate inquiry looking to find someone to hold responsible  - however as the years passed this was abandoned with no results - hmmm I wonder why.

The galleon stands 5 storeys high.

It's a beautiful well laid out Museum (the recovery and restoration is as impressive a story as the actual ship) and after parting with cash in the Vasa gift shop we have on a short scenic drive around some of the islands to view among other things all the Embassies (beautiful buildings in predominantly classical Swedish architecture except for some bizarre reason the American Em; who seem to have built a grey concrete 1960s blemish in the middle of the park.

We also pass queues for the Abba museum which is - after the Vasa - one of the most popular tourist spots in Sweden. Must be all those long dark sunless winters - it does strange things to people.

Stortorget square, Gamla Stan
We are finally dropped off in the middle of Stockholm, right on the doorstep of the Royal Palace (If we time it correctly we should be back  for the changing of the guard). The Royal family here - rather like in Britain - play a non political role now and judging from how our guide talks about them are very well liked and respected - you cant look any where on the streets without sewing some shop selling Royal Family postcards or tea towels.

Stockholm itself is a beautiful city - one we could both easily move to; full of fantastic buildings, small characterful streets and lovely little hidden gems around each corner. Its historical past sneaks up on you in places such as this Viking cornerstone now part of a shops wall, the 18C cannon was put her to  protect the corner from damage cause by horse drawn carriages clipping it.

After the group splits for some free time we have a nice little coffee in a tiny little trendy bistro that seems to be cross between an Ikea showroom and a Marrakesh tea room - lots of table and cushion swapping to accommodate people and lots of  "Tack" (my one word of Swedish from watching "The Bridge") before we head back to the main Royal Square just in time to watch the changing of the guard.

Back onboard the Getaway we take dinner tonight a litltle early so we can catch the show "Million Dollar Quartet"- good (nice and loud); though it did mean a little more to us having only been in Sun Studios last year (Click for details). It did feel like a show that needed some tightening up in my opinion - but it was great pleasure to listen to fully live music for a change.

Afterwards the lovely Russian band "Sweet Beat" had taken up  place in the atrium  and (nice and  predictably as we sail away from Sweden) were  doing an entire tribute to Abba; so lots of dancing and singing. Anyway a nice sea day tomorrow to recover before we head back home.


Saturday, 1 July 2017

Day 7 - Helsinki

A cloudy but still quite warm morning in Helsinki. We have not booked a tour here (we decided to use our cabin credit for the Vasa trip in Stockholm tomorrow - its the one thing we want to see and it just saves us the hassle of the train). Back to Helsinki - getting into the city is quite simple as a tram stops practically opposite the ship - just follow the coloured lines on the floor  - though they do appear to have built another station even nearer to where our ship is but not updated the floor line.

A quick look at some port guides and tourist maps tells us if we take the tram all the way to the railway station we can head out to the rock church then double back to the senate square then the market and harbour covering most of the sights.

The railway station itself is worth a look. Built in a Art Deco with a neo classical Russian twist its dramatic and bold and reminds me in some ways of the metro entrances in Paris. Very Nouveau.

A quick check with a Japanese couple who tell us we are  heading in the correct direction for the Rock Church (Temppeliaukio) though as the map doesn't really show where the front is we end up practically on top of it without knowing.

This actually proves to be a stroke of luck and a top tip. There is a small cafe built into the side, it's accessible through a rather small door; if you didn't wander around to this side you would not see it from the church entrance. Here the bathrooms are empty and you can buy your church admission tkts from the  cafe counter at a discount. When we walk around to the front entrance for the church we simply walk pass the two huge queues - one for the ticket booth and one for the bathrooms.

It feels a bit more like a church inside a concrete box rather than hollowed into the rock - it's very starkly lit with floodlights (perhaps that's the Lutheran style). Today there just happens to be a guest gospel choir singing but other than that it really is an in /out visit.

We head back the way we came towards the senate square a lovely area in the oldest parts of the city. Here we find the Government Palace and  Helsinki Cathedral all presided over by a statue of Alexander II. One thing the Senate square is missing though is anywhere to sit outside enjoy the surroundings and sip a nice strong coffee. So after some time inside the Cathedral (again very stark and brilliant white walls - the Lutheran style obviously is not one of high decoration but simple classical lines) we head towards the old harbour and the market.

If you want to buy fresh fruit the markets your place - if you want to buy tourist tat or that wolfskin coat you promised yourself for the winter, look no further. But if you want a nice coffee you'll have to wander a little further down the harbour.

With coffee in place we can relax and take in the sights of the pretty harbour all overlooked by the Orthodox Cathedral Uspenski. I was going to say relax but today of all days there is a military trade fair taking place in one of the parks and two Dassault Rafale fighter jets are constantly flypasts  over the harbour. Still lots of free baseball caps, keyrings, pins and tote bags are yours for the taking courtesy of  Rafale Aviation.

Uspenski from the inner harbour
Inside the Uspenski

We walk back along the harbour passing the old lighthouse boats. The jets are still roaring above and at the far end of the peninsula we can see the giant icebreakers docked and resting for the summer. Hard to imagine when the weathers like this that the Baltic Sea would be literally impassable in places if not for these vessels.

Back on board for afternoon sun, nice.

We eventually find ourselves at  a tram line that seems to be pointing in the correct direction,  a quick look at the map and the tram numbers has us heading back to the ship in time for a late lunch on the sun deck.
Dinner tonight is at Cagneys - not as good an experience as it has been on previous occasions - though the food was excellent as usual. The staff seemed just a little overstretched with the restaurant this busy. Also the design of the room for this ships version of Cagneys is not quite as spacious as on others. It has the usual stern view windows but the design having to incorporate the (unused) outside eating areas makes it feel a  bit more corridor like and certainly more noisy. I had the veal chop - superb though far to big ;) - Jack feasted on the surf and turf (now lobster free unfortunately).

Click here for the next day 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Day 6 - St Petersburg (Day2)

Welcome to Day 2 in St Petersburg. The fantastic Elena today takes us back to the embankment where we are loaded onto a river boat for a quick tour of the river and canals with commentary. This may have been better if we took a smaller boat and got to experience the side canals but the best buildings are right on the waterfront and impressive they are, including the KGB headquarters.We're on our best behaviour!

We get a close up look of the Aurora battleship which is placed directly in front of the Naval College. A typical St P building beautifully rendered in sky blue. In fact a lot of the buildings have recently all had a nice new coat of paint in St Petersburg (mainly due to the fact Putin claims it to be his birth place and has directed a lot of rubles here.

The Hermitage also looks great from the river. Remember Catherine the Great from yesterday - this is Winter Palace. There are also several more palaces behind that you can't see which are all now part of the Hermitage Museum complex - more on that later as its our last stop.

First Stop is St Isaac's Cathedral whose golden dome can be seen wherever you are in St Petersburg. A little unusual for a Russian Orthodox church in that it lacks the onion domes and seems more like a European cathedral. Inside the mosaics are an absolute joy to behold.

For lunch we drive into the city to what is best described as St Petersburg's version of Harrods food hall. A wonderful art deco building that sells everything from tiny little patisseries to tins of caviar you would have to sell your car to buy.

Kupetz Eliseev's Food Hall
In the basement next to the  bakery we have a champagne lunch which includes a mushroom soup to rival the 'bistro restaurant' on the ship, a sort of creamy chicken goulash like affair and is finished off by a freshly made vanilla patisserie that is heaven on a plate.

Inside Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall
Next stop is the  Spilled Blood Cathedral - Russian Orthodox church with its enamelled and gold leaf onion domes, when in Russia!

interior Spilled Blood cathedral.
Once again every inch of the inside is covered in wonderful mosaics, gold leaf and iconography.

Next stop at Yusopov Palace which is located in the center of the city on the banks of the Moika inside is of course lavishly styled. It's a manageable size compared to the other palaces too.

However it is  famous for  being the spot where the plotting and eventual murder of Rasputin took place in December 1916 - Rasputin was poisoned, then shot but eventually drowned after dragging himself as far as the river.. Elena gives us the full history of the palace which belonged to Felix Yusupov and the story of Rasputin; he was more a political advisor  than a crazy monk. One thing you must not miss is the private theatre - decadence gone wild. Rasputin was buried at Catherine's Palace, Pushkin but was exhumed after the October Revolution and cremated.

Next we're off to the Hermitage. A collection of winter palaces which now houses several museums. If you spent time looking at every item displayed it would take every day for 5 years! Elena has rightly  decided we should concentrate on the collection of Impressionist Art because you wont see any of these originals anywhere else and of course the Faberge rooms.

Van Gogh
If you're wondering why you won't see many of these Picassos, Renoirs, Degas etc anywhere but here it's because they are basically un - repatriated Nazi loot.  The Germans stole them from conquered European countries; later they ended up in St Petersburg when the Nazis occupied it, then when the Russians liberated St P the paintings stayed here. There's a good chance if they ever did go on tour that they would not be coming back unless quite a few European countries start playing swap shop and return certain missing Russian art treasures.

It really is a stunning; the Faberge collection occupies a smaller set of rooms and is jaw dropping. Items range from the most intricate diamond encrusted crowns  to simply enameled cigarette cases to of course, the eggs.

Its here that we finish the tour and head back to the ship in good time for dinner. Nothing booked tonight so we head to Savor for dinner (our favourite MDR room) where a bit of a line has developed and they are handing out complimentary champagne whilst awaiting  a table. Dinner is excellent and as we eat we slide slowly out of St Petersburg.

As the sun sets and we pass the island of Kronshtadt, ( naval base) and MSCs Magnifica puts her foot down and sprints past us  - I think they have to get back to Copenhagen whilst we have a leisurely jaunt across the Gulf of Finland north/west to Helsinki.

Click here for the next day 

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Day 5 - St Petersburg (Day 1)

Viking Sky arrives in to St Petersburg, just behind us. Quite amazing to be in Russia!

Another gloriously warm morning greets us as we have tea on the balcony and slowly edge into the port of St Petersburg, The Viking Sky is now shadowing directly behind us.  We are in Russia; not quite sure what to expect. We have been told by SPB to expect at least 45mins to clear the immigration and not to expect anyone to crack a smile during this process :) 

It does indeed take exactly 45minutes and none of the ladies ever do manage a smile. It actually looks like it shouldn't take half as long as it does. We spend the time in the line with a NZ lady watching each booth and the time seems to range between a few minutes if you have all your paperwork in order to up to 30 minutes per person or sent back if you dont have your tour papers which act as your visa.

Anyway we finally get through and meet our guide for the day 'Elena' who speaks perfect English and guides us to our 18 seat Mercedes Bus, opulently decorated in an Amber wood effect (your going to see a lot of this in Russia)
Russian orthodox cathedral of St Peter & St Paul within the Peter and Paul fortress.
Once we are all assembled, which takes time as everyone has to get through immigration, we are on our way. St Petersburg is made up of many interconnecting islands (by road and canal) and our first stop is to one of these on which stands the Peter and Paul Fortress. Within the Cathedral here lie the tombs of all the great Czars and Elena does a great job taking us through the history(tomb by tomb)

 The Czars' remains are beneath the tombs. The green one is Alexander II's, the red jasper one is his wife Maria's.

We have often visited exhibitions at the National displaying selections of Icons from the Eastern States - but these are usually panels or individual paintings removed from there original purpose so its very impressive to see how a proper Icon Screen  is actually used in a Russian Orthodox Church.

Unlike a Christian Church the Alter/Sanctuary is hidden behind a gate of icons from the nave of the church when a service is not being held. Overtime this gateway has become so decorated with gold leaf and the icons themselves that its now the most decorative part of the building. They are simply stunning.

The pulpit is never used, services are conducted from the iconostasis screen.
Back on to the bus and into the air conditioning - phew. And its time to head out to Peterhof which we will reach by one of the many Hydrofoils you see darting around the river Neva. Its a short wait on the riverside and a relatively quick trip (though I do doze off).

Hydrofoil across Gulf of Finland to the Peterhof Palace
Elena is the master of handing the SPB flag to one of our small group and darting ahead of us to get our admission tickets before we even catch up. The first thing that surprises you when you arrive here is how big the hydrofoil port is. There's room for 6  and they zip in and out like clockwork - and this is just people arriving by water at the beginning of the season.

Peterhof Hydrofoil Port
So where are we. Its very hard to try to simplify Russian history but basically it was a hugely powerful and rich royalist country before the revolution. It also had extremes - it was hot and warm or bleeding freezing so you had to build a few palaces; one for winter; one for summer and one for your dresses and one for your art etc etc etc .. And basically every Czar that came along decided they needed to do a bit of home improvement/extension on what the previous Czar had built.

Peter the great started this little homestead for himself as a summer cottage.  He had a bit of cash to burn and wanted to impress and had seen Versailles. He also liked fountains (by the way every fountain is powered naturally - no pumps - just pure gravity; and miles and miles of pipes and lakes and pipes and lakes and smaller pipes and pressure.

Its opulent - its impressive and its vast. The gardens stretch for ever: fortunately we walk around at quite a leisurely pace through the woodland, as its getting warmer and warmer.

This is the garden shed
Goodbye Peterhof
Its soon time for lunch and Elena drives us to a little hotel that has a banquet dining room attached to the back and seems to be a venue SPB use a lot as the car park is full of their mini buses.

Borscht is served!
Lunch is traditional Borscht, Chicken Dumplings and a dessert and is included in the tour price - as are the shots of ice cold vodka to wash it down with. Lots of `down in ones` followed by grimaced looks - when in Rome! (though Elena points out Vodka and Russia is a bit of a myth as the Fins/Polish are the biggest drinkers of it)

One tiny corner of the palace
Next we are off to Catherine the Great's palace at Pushkin. Clearly having that little summer place that Peter built at Peterhof wasn't enough for Catherine (especially for a lady who had 15000 dresses). Its hard to actually stand in any position to get a sense of scale using the camera of this place so I'm going to borrow a drone photograph from the palace's own web site.

The horeshoe of buildings at the back of the lawns were for cooks and servants
If you thought Peterhof was a little  bit "flashy" - this place is so plush that if you stood still in the rooms for too long you would probably end up coated in gold leaf. Its no surprise to learn Elton John has declared it his favourite place in the world  and has performed at several private parties here (wonder if Putin was invited ;)

A Dining Room - One of Many
Ballroom - Eltons favourite venue
Nice little surprise on the way back - it was planned but we didn't realise just how much fun this would be. Elena has decided we must have a trip on the St Petersburg Metro System as there is nothing like it in the world. 

After a quick recon and distribution of barrier tokens we are fully instructed and ready to go. If we get separated we have to head to an unpronounceable station thats a few stops down the line. The trains run strictly every 60 seconds in each direction and the doors are allowed to be open at the platform for 6 seconds (it must be great fun in the rush hour). It's beautifully clean & efficient, unlike NYC.

This - is a platform, the pillars are cut glass!

Every station is slightly different in design with classical marble and frescoed decoration all styled in iconic communist motifs. Chandeliers hang from the ceilings - the subway in Soviet times was considered to be the Palace of the People and was to be decorated as such with statues of the working man from various industry decorating throughout.

Its 6pm by the time we return to the ship - a simple process to get back through immigration. A fantastic few drinks in the sun on the Waterfront Deck and a great meal again finishes our first great day in Russia.  The Getaway stays here overnight for another full day in marvellous St Pete.

 Click for day 6