Blog

Days 11 & 12 Scandinavia – Berlin, Germany – It Was the Best of Times and the Wurst of Times

img_3882
Sunset in Germany as we drove from Berlin back to our ship in Warnemunde. There is a modern art aspect to the multitudes of wind generators against the skyline. I think they are rather lovely. Germany has a large focus on getting away from a petroleum based energy source.

Day 10 – Sea Day

This will be a short paragraph on Day 10.  We woke up late, ate, rested, ate again and read our books. The previous four days had been an energy sucking (but fun) experience, and we were ready to relax.

We had thought we had two days at sea and then would be in Berlin.  Wrong!  We had one day to Berlin.  This took the wind out of my sails a bit; I was really looking forward to two days of rest.   This cruise has had a lot of stops.  I know there is a possibility that I won’t be returning, so I feel compelled to get in as much as possible.  Doesn’t always make for a relaxing vacation – but I can be a inactive at home.  This is my chance to see a bit of our world.  That’s why a Sea Day is lovely – it is a chance to recoup from the previous days adventures – and the couch is there for me to curl up on with my book.

Day 11 – Berlin

George has decided to pass on Berlin and explore the local sites of Warnemunde and Rostock, which is a 15 minute train ride.  Rostock has the oldest continuing university in Europe, founded in 1419.  Both cities were heavily bombed in WWI and WWII, because of naval and aerial factories.  When Rostock went to rebuild their city center, they chose a happy Swedish village model for their architecture, in order to take the focus away from the grim past.

I offered Ellie the choice of a 12 hour excursion to Berlin or staying local.  She opted for Berlin, so off we went.  They offered a bunch of different types of tours, but we had had enough of being shuffled in a group and eating “authentic” cuisine.  There was a bus that would take us to the heart of Berlin and return to pick us up.

Berlin is 2.5 to 3 hours from the ship.  I figured we could rest/nap/watch the countryside.  What I wasn’t expecting was Jakob, our summer college student guide.  It’s nice young men like this that make me wish I was a few decades younger and my body parts hadn’t taken a decidedly southern route in the last few years.

Jakob took his job seriously, and regaled us for most of the trip with German history, both local and national.  He is a student at Rostock University, and was keen to share the cheap student way to see Germany.  He also did a great job of describing how post WWII Germany ended up divided as West and East Germany, particularly in regard to Berlin.  The area we are docked in had been in East Germany.  The good old Russian architecture style of building gray block apartment buildings is still very evident.

Surprisingly, food was a part of our bus trip.  I had eaten a good zero point breakfast, because I wanted to have a great pretzel and an apple strudel.  Jakob served us a snack box that took me by surprise.

img_3689
Snack box held a small loaf of pretzel bread, cookie, apple and orange juice and a bottle of water. I probably should have just left the bread alone…..

 

I had already decided to have a honest to goodness, absolutely delicious, saliva-generating authentic pretzel.  In the snack box was a pretzel bread mini-loaf.  Hmmmmm.  Ellie took a bite of her bread and said “Oh, Grandma……”

img_3698
“You have to try this. It is so good….”

And it was.  The Devil obviously works in this bakery.  They had also injected it with salted butter.  The points started racking up like a twirling casino slot machine.  And I ate the whole thing.  I decided to call it 10 points.

I usually have one day on each trip that I just don’t worry about the nutritious content of food – and I plan for it.  The Berlin trip wasn’t part of my plan.  But when Ellie said, “Let’s try pretzels all over the city today and find the best one!”  Taking another bite of salted buttery pretzel goodness, I mumbled “That sounds like a great idea!”

When Jakob came by with coffee, to go with the cookie (which was great, by the way), I asked him about vegetarian food options in Berlin.  He sat down, looked serious, and said “That is a problem in Germany, we do love our meat.”  He said in the more modern, trendier sections of Berlin, there was places.  In the older, more touristy areas – not so much.”  It appears that the Pretzel Gods just want me to eat pretzels (and apple strudel) today.

And our pretzel trek began.  First off, we learned they are called brezels, at least in Berlin.   All in all (besides the pretzel bread), we tried six pretzel/brezels.  We did share, and some of them I only ate a few bites, because they weren’t worthy of our quest.  We went into shops, off the street, even in a gas station.  The best of the day?  Even though it technically wasn’t a brezel, we both declared the tour bus mini-loaf was the best pretzel flavor of the day.  It probably says something about our palates, but this was pre-packaged food in a silly snack box.  All I have to say is it is a good thing that American Ding-Dongs aren’t done as well.  And that we don’t have the German pretzel loaves stacked up like those disgusting little packaged fruit pies from our childhood (that I loved).

img_3704
A reject. Crust tough, dough dry. Didn’t pass muster. This came from a gas station.

Our bus cutie, Jakob, made sure that each of us had a good grasp of where we wanted to go.  He outlined a suggest route and gave ideas on the fastest way to get there by foot.  I loved his starving student outlook.  He knew all the free toilets and cheap food spots.  He suggested everyone try the popular street food currywurst.  A sausage cut into chunks and served with fries.  I have to admit, I used to love a good sausage in my pre-vegetarian days.  And the best sausages I have ever eaten were in Germany.  There aren’t many times I regret my healthy veggie diet (supplemented with fish, so I’m really pescatarian) – but smelling those sausages………oh good grief, I’ve started drooling while typing this!

Jakob was correct, finding veggie dishes as an entree was tough.  But I took it as a sign to enjoy another pretzel.  Jean Nidetch, founder of Weight Watchers, just turned in her grave.  Surprisingly, however, as we passed a street vendor the words VEGGIE SCHNITZEL popped out at me!  Whoa Baby!

As any reasonable, slightly food educated person knows, just because it is veggies doesn’t mean it is healthy.  After a brief, and slightly confusing, conversation with the lady in the food cart, I ordered it up.  Schnitzel is by tradition, a thin cut of veal which is breaded and fried.  My schnitzel was veggies in a patty, breaded and fried.  Not exactly low caloric!  But it was tasty – and so were the huge pile of french fries that accompanied it.

I don’t know if Jean Nidetch was buried, but if she was, the ground was probably shaking in the cemetery.

img_3815
My veggie schnitzel. I didn’t show the amount of fries on purpose. I ate all the schnitzel, but I honestly did leave a stray fry or two on the plate.

Ellie tried the recommended currywurst.  It was a sausage chunked and covered with a sweet curry sauce.  Maybe it was our stand, but it seemed pretty lackluster.  She ate it but wasn’t enamored.

img_3812

I’m an amateur student of history, and my children can testify to how many eye-ball rolling lectures their mother has inflicted upon them.  Ellie was a captive audience in one of the 20th century hotspots of the world.   As gently as possible, but trying to make her understand what mankind is capable of, we walked through streets filled with history.

We walked miles.  We stood next to remnants of the Berlin Wall.  The largest piece left is at an optimistic site called Topography of Terror.  It sits next to a beautiful building that housed the Air Ministry of the Third Reich and I believe was also the office of Joseph Goebbels, of unfortunate Nazi fame.  Hitler didn’t like the name Berlin, which was derived from a slavic word.  He wanted to create a city called Germania with it’s own style of architecture.  The Air Ministry building was one of his creations.  There are two large statues on the front of the building which appear to have been bludgeoned and destroyed.  I’m sure there is a story.

The Topography of Terror has a long display that outlines the story of Hitler and the War.  It ends next to this building.  Just above and behind the display, stretches the remnants of the Berlin Wall.  Powerful without saying a word.

img_3730img_3731

img_3736img_3735

The war left devastation on a very personal level throughout Germany.  If you were in East Germany, under the Russian regime, what can be said?   When Ellie saw the wall, the first thing she said was “This is it?  It isn’t very tall or thick.  I thought people could walk on top of it.”  She’s right – it is only 12 feet tall and about a foot thick.  It doesn’t look that formidable.  How could it divide a people, a culture into two separate states?  It struck me that the very fact that it isn’t huge, that it could be climbed and crossed easily was part of it’s very intimidating power.   The frustration and reality of the people who died trying to cross.  Stories of people hiding in a cow carcass, sewn into an automobile seat, digging tunnels, attempting to climb over a 12 foot wall in the dark of night.

Jakob, our youthful bus leader, grew up in West Germany and said he only knew the stories and what he has read.  Our bus driver was older and had grown up in East Germany, post-war.  He agreed it was hard, but he had never known different, and didn’t understand it until the country was reunified.  He had been arrested three times and his home searched several times.  Not because he had done anything, but because the police could.

I don’t want this to be a depressing blog, but it is sometimes important for us to recognize the dark side of man.  The only way we can avoid repeating history is to recognize the past and not allow it to happen again.  Pretty profound for the woman who avoids watching the news and would rather see an episode of Father Knows Best than watch a R-rated movie.

If you do get to Berlin, there is one exhibit that doesn’t have a single word of explanation, no lectures, no apologies or stories to horrify.  The artist meant for each person to feel it in their own way.  It is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews.  In downtown Berlin, just a very short way from Hitler’s bunker where he committed suicide, is a 4.7 acre site covered with 2,711 rectangular concrete blocks in varying sizes laid out in a grid pattern.  Some are quite low, the tallest are 12 feet.

There are a variety of low blocks on the outer edge, which felt to me, as if we were entering a large cemetery.  There is no right or wrong way to go through the blocks – or decide what it represents.   Deep into the grid, we felt uneasy and vulnerable.  What if someone unexpectedly jumped out at us?  Like a Jewish person hurrying down the street, trying to reach home?  To a home that wasn’t safe.

It was easy to get lost, even though it was laid out in a grid.  No benches, no place to stop and even think, only stark bare concrete on every side.  Cold, hard, and you couldn’t ask for help.  At at any minute, a young child might come skipping by while laughing, not understanding the meaning of it all, as did much of the world during those tragic times.  The metaphors are almost endless.

For me, it was gut wrenching.  Ellie didn’t understand it.  I quietly asked her how she felt about the huge blocks of concrete.  “Confused, uneasy, I wouldn’t want to be here at night.  I don’t like this.”  “It’s so big, I can see the end way in the distance, but we don’t ever seem to get there.”

img_3764
Walking up to the memorial, the concrete blocks are low to the ground, they reach varying heights, up to 12 feet tall.
img_3753
Walking through the higher rows of blocks. What do you think they represent?

The genius of  architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, who designed the memorial is the very lack of explanation.  It forces each viewer to consider and feel.  I have seldom seen anything so profound.

Sadly, the grim past is evident throughout Germany.  The first time we went to Germany and I saw the destruction of WWII decades later, and it brought me up short.  As an American whose father was on the ill-fated ship the Arizona in the Pacific, and as a girl  who grew up watching American/British WWII movies, I came with my preconceived notions.  As I looked at the still remaining destruction it hit me that this destruction was wrought by America and England.  A relative of mine may have been in the bomber that caused this destruction.  My view from the ground of Germany suddenly had emotions of a mother looking about the destruction of her home and world.  How would I get food, fuel, water?  Is my family safe or dead?  I will never forget the feeling.  Until then I guess I had looked at the war as a movie episode.  Not when I came to Germany for the first time, nor now – as I stood with my granddaughter in Berlin.

This has nothing to do with who was right or wrong, or that the war was necessary.  God forbid if Hitler had won.  War is complicated.  Heroes and the horrific number of victims, good and evil, and the ultimate consequences for those left behind.  The ramifications live on and on.

Not all of our day was about war – Berlin is a lovely city and the people were generous and courteous.  Bathrooms are free in the multitude of Starbucks!  I went into a pharmacy to get Ellie some cough syrup.  I had a hilarious exchange with a pharmacist, whose English was limited.  Of course, my German was non-existent.  I asked for (pantomimed) cough syrup.  She wanted to know if it was a dry cough or a loose chest cough.  Is a head cold a dry cough?  I said “head cold” and she looked perplexed.  Then she smiled, pointed to the chest and said “Slime?”  and pantomimed hacking up globs of slime.  Ooooooh.  We decided it was dry, and she smilingly gave me cough syrup and free kleenex packets to go with it.  We were both laughing by the end and she patted me as I went out the door.  And the cough syrup really helped Ellie!

Ellie decided she wanted to see Berlin’s largest shopping mall, so we went to the multi-story Mall of Berlin.  Everything we have at home, and more.  Nothing gets a teen girl more excited than buying mascara in a German makeup store!

img_3836
This place is huge. Thank goodness we didn’t have hours to shop there, or Ellie would have drug me to every single store.

Thanks to Jakob, we navigated our way around the city without trouble.  We saw the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Reischtag, Tiergarten Park.  We walked, ate way too many pretzels, laughed and a few times when Ellie wasn’t looking, I got pretty teary eyed.

From the mall, we hustled our tired tootsies back to our meeting point.  When we arrived in the morning, there had been a large child’s plastic swimming pool filled with soap for bubbles.  The kids were still at it, and giant bubbles blew their away across the plaza.  It looked like so much fun and soon Ellie and I were dancing and popping bubbles.  The great thing about aging is you don’t care about looking like an idiot.  It was a lovely way to end the day.

img_3711img_3848

A three hour bus ride later, we were back to the ship around 10 pm.  We still had immigration to go through, and the Germans were the friendliest of all countries we encountered. Apparently, we were the last group to arrive.  Our ship took off five minutes after we were aboard.

The ship was offering a German Oktoberfest type feast, complete with an oompah band, but we went straight to our rooms, showered and jumped in bed.  It was a great day, and a thought provoking one.  I’m sure Ellie will remember it her entire life, I know that I will.

img_3692

img_3770
A bridge and groom drove up in front of the Brandenburg gate to take photos. Their moped had cans hanging off the back and a Just Married sign on the back.
img_3726
Checkpoint Charlie where the American’s had the gate to the American zone at the end of WW II. The original was demolished, this is a replica, complete with replica soldiers. For 4 euros you can have your picture taken with them.
img_3772
The Brandenburg Gate, the old historic gate to the city.  Note the bride and groom getting off their moped for pictures.  The Tiergarten Park is across the street, where pre WW I aristocrats would hunt. It is a HUGE park, covered in trees. After WWII the entire forest was cut down by residents to use for firewood to survive. The British donated new trees and the park was replanted. Looking at the beauty of it now, you would never guess its history.
img_3791
A memorial on the edge of Tiergarten Park commemorating the deaths of some of the individuals who tried escape East Berlin over the wall from 1961 to 1989. Fresh flowers, including large bouquets adorn the crosses.  It made me cry.

Day 10 St. Petersburg – Weirdest Bathroom Trip Ever

img_3666
Raining hard when we woke up, so no sunrise. This is the sunset as we sailed out of the harbor leaving St. Petersburg.

We have a gorgeous view from our room; we overlook the flat roof of the immigration building.  As the wind blew and the rain poured, I admired the way the waves of water seemed to dance on the tar paper roofline.  Ahhhhhh, the day looks like an adventure.

Our call time for the excursion was even earlier this morning.  We had to report at 7:00 a.m. for another ten hour guided mass sojourn to the summer palace of Catherine the Great.  Ellie is feeling a bit better, but definitely moody.   More than a bit of teen attitude.  Grumpy, I mean Grampy, would rather have a case of jock itch than get up to stand outside a palace in the rain, but he gamely agrees to go.

I have to give it to George.  Yesterday was a long day, and this day won’t be any better.  A guy with a fainter heart would have refused to get up, but here he was.  Grouchy as hell, but there.  Alternately cajoling and/or threatening my loved ones, they got up, dressed and agreed to do it one more time.

This was the day that I could check one more item off my bucket list.  Years ago I read about the Amber Room in Catherine the Great’s palace.  She is one of the more remarkable women in history, and when not sending people to their death (like her husband, the Czar) she made some remarkable achievements.  I mean, she was Great, right?

Did you know she wasn’t Russian?  She was a 14 year old girl of great aristocratic lineage from Germany, but her family had lost all their money.  The future czar was a bit odd, but crazy about Prussian (German) soldiers.  She sucked it up for the family and married the royal prince.  At 14, the same age as my granddaughter, Ellie.

img_3326
A small piece of the palace facade. I couldn’t get the entire U-shaped building in one picture. This sucker is HUGE.

Catherine was smart as a whip and fell in love with Russia. When her husband became czar, she started taking an active role in ruling while her husband spent his time marching soldiers around the parade ground.  He loved the Prussian army model so much that he started dressing his human toy soldiers in Prussian uniforms and hanging out with his mistress all the time.  This totally alarmed the Russian military leaders.  Catherine had given birth to an heir, so if they got rid of the czar, she could rule as regent.

The czar had a bizarre fatal “accident” one night when he just happened to fall on a knife.  It was never proven Catherine ordered his death, but she didn’t hesitate to step into the role as regent.  Apparently her son was a slow grower, because she ruled for over 30 years.  She was incredibly smart and started schools, founded over 200 towns in the first urban planning seen in Russia (possibly Europe), fought wars and built one heck of a palace.

The Amber Room story is pretty cool.  The King of Prussia was the original owner of an amazing room made of amber panels.  Because amber is petrified pine resin, it has a very low melting temperature.  The room took a ton of maintenance because it kept falling apart.  It was driving the king nuts, and costing a fortune, so he didn’t want it any longer.  What to do with a priceless room made of amber that is a total pain in the royal butt and bank account?  Peter the Great came for a visit and admired it.  Why not give it to  Russia as a totally unique gift – a diplomatic coup, impress the crap out of the unsuspecting czar, and get rid of a never-ending home maintenance money pit.

Long story short, it was a wonder and no complaints on the maintenance problems.  Maybe Russia is cold enough that the amber never overheated.  Catherine moved it from Pete’s place to her own.  For 200 years it was the pride of the palace – until WWII.  At some point in the 900 day siege of St. Petersburg (by then re-named Leningrad), poor Catherine’s palace was bombed and looted.  Among the stolen treasures was the entire Amber Room, often billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  And it is still missing to this day.

Modern day Germany felt pretty bad about this, and in 2003 replaced the missing panels as a gift to Russia.  How could you not want to see a room with such an exciting history?  You won’t be seeing any pictures of the room here, cameras are forbidden.  I am also sorry to say that I had built up a vision in my head of what it would look like – and it fell quite short.  I had regaled Ellie with the tale of the room and when we were there, she looked at me and said “I thought it would be more spectacular.”  Sadly, I felt the same way.  Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful and interesting in a rock collecting type of way.  But Eighth Wonder of the Worldish?  Not quite.  Obviously better than the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas (also on my bucket list), but a little bit disappointing.  That’s what can happen when you let your imagination get carried away. Continue reading “Day 10 St. Petersburg – Weirdest Bathroom Trip Ever”

Days 9 St. Petersburg, Russia – Going for the Gold

The early morning skies were misting and cool as we came into St. Petersburg.  I had missed sunrise, but I’m not sure there would have been much to see.  As I was hanging over the railing looking through the misting fog, the building complex above appeared in the middle of the bay.  I have no idea what it was, but believe me it was spooky dooky.  These were large buildings, and they appeared to be on ground, but it was smack in the middle of the bay.  The abandoned, derelict concrete buildings on either end  had a fair sized pond between them, and the whole thing was ringed with a low concrete wall.  A narrow opening (see above) went into the pond.  Definitely not large enough for anything military (so no dead Russian sailor ghosts), but perhaps something for fishing?  Very perplexing and it lent a definite air of mystery into our trip.  If anyone has an idea what this was – let me know!

We have a two day visit to St. Petersburg.  Visas are not required for cruisers, but it also means we have to stay with a government sanctioned guide.  This is not only expensive, but our time is just not our own.  No wandering around town seeing the sights on our own.  We could have purchased visas, of course, but the added expense for two days didn’t seem worth it.

Last year we visited Siberia, which was a hoot.  It was a sunny day in late March, but freezing.  Snow on the ground, as you can imagine.  We were all bundled up like human-sized Yeti wannabes.  The residents, thinking it was a sunny warm day, were all in shorts.  I guess it is all relative.  The residents were definitely not friendly and I had a guy spit at me when I said hello.  And immigration was a nightmare.

St. Petersburg is a tourist mecca, so we were sure it would be different.  And it was.  The people we encountered were all wonderfully warm and helpful.  Immigration?  Not so much, but they weren’t rude, either.   We stood in line to get out and stood in line to get back out any time we left the ship.  No eye contact, except to verify our picture matched the passport.  No verbal communication, unless it was to correct something (I had Ellie walk up with me).  Not warm and friendly, but those poor folks see thousands of people a day, and it can’t be easy for them.  I would have taken a picture, but there were signs up saying no photography.  Not wishing to see the inside of a gulag, I kept my camera in the bag.

We almost didn’t make the tour.  Ellie had been suffering from a head cold for a few days.  During the night her ears had started hurting.  She was definitely not feeling well.  George, ever hopeful for a reason to stay on ship, declared she needed emergency medical intervention and stay on board for the day – and he would happily volunteer to play nurse.

As mother of six, I’m not easily panicked about a head cold and earache.  Her ears were definitely aching, but she didn’t have a fever, and her throat wasn’t red.  George was adamant that we have her seen by a doctor.  Now mind you, the tour starts at 7:30 a.m.  This is 6:30 a.m. and the medical clinic doesn’t open until 8 a.m.

George, convinced her throat might close and need resuscitation, insisted she stay.  Then happily reached for his book.  Ellie, hearing of her imminent approaching death, started to get alarmed and felt worse.  I started getting cranky.  Another fun day in paradise….

I called the 24 hour nurse on duty and she said Ellie would need to see the doctor.  I explained the time crunch (we now had 45 minutes).  She said she would wake the doctor and he would see us, but it would cost double.

Madly, Ellie and I jogged to the tour excursion site and asked if we had time to make an emergency run to the medical center.  They are used to everything – they put tour stickers on us and said “RUN!”  George, sipping his coffee, strolled to the excursion site and took a seat.

We raced to get to Deck 2, which also was the disembarkation site.  Explaining our problem, the staff escorted us downstairs to the medical center.  Which was closed, with a sea water Titanic door, of course.  We got a special tour of the crew quarters and entered through the staff entrance.  The nurse appeared, took info, called the doctor and he came stumbling in.  He said she had no fever, no red throat and yes, her ears were plugged.  His diagnosis?  Head cold.  He handed us some antibiotic spray for her ears that might help and a bottle of Dayquil.  And a bill for $300.

We ran back to the excursion site, but they had left.  We raced back to other end of the ship, where we had just left, and after a huge search – found George.  And left for the tour.  Poor George, outwitted again.  It would have been cheaper for us not to use his excursion ticket, and let him stay on the ship.

Our first day out was a guided tour (of course – no choice!) to the Peterhof palace, authentic Russian lunch and a tour of a modern art museum.  Our guide, Svetlana, was gracious, warm and helpful.

Tip:  When traveling to Russia in August, remember EVERYONE is taking a tour (because they have to) and the lines will be long.  So long that you cannot see either end, and the thought of a toilet is more important than food and water.  Although, when not longing to pee, there is a fear that you will die of starvation.  Imagine the longest line you have ever been in at Disneyland and multiply it by 27.  Then add another thousand people.

Svetlana earned her tips.  She got us in the  line and told us to wait while she tried something.  Pretty soon she came back, motioned for us to go quietly with her and not say anything.  With an air of authority, she quietly marched us past an estimated 7,000 people and stopped next to a Princess Cruise group (we are Celebrity).  She conferred with their guide (must have been a friend)  and motioned for us to join their group.

Oh my goodness.  How rude to the multitudes of people behind us.  And we loved her for it.  I know, when I’m at the Pearly Gates asking for admittance, they will probably have this on their Top 100 Reasons She Should Not Be Admitted list; but it was such a sweet surprise.

The Peterhof was the summer palace of Peter the Great.  So named because, well – he was pretty Great.  I’m not a Peter expert, but he was quite remarkable for his time.  Both in stature (he was nearly seven feet tall), and for his westernization efforts of Russia.  He was the first Russian monarch to travel to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century.  He went to France, which began their close cultural relationship, and fell in love with the architecture and gardens.  He returned to Russia and decided to create St. Petersburg.  Mind you, this was a large swampy area of small islands.  No prob if you are a Tsar; just set your slave peasant labor pool onto it and create a city.  He wanted a good seaport to open Russia up to Europe.  Big changes for a big, isolated kingdom.

He built himself a summer palace, which is now known as Peterhof.  A tiny little cottage on the Bay of Finland.  Ha.  It is now much grander than the original he started in 1705, as it was added onto by various rulers.  Let it be said that the rulers and rich of Russia loved gold.  I’m sure they had gold plated toothbrushes.  And commodes.

img_2918
This is a typical hallway in Peterhof. Don’t get excited, it isn’t solid gold – they used gold leaf. I could, however, probably retire on the proceeds of one doorway.

There are many royal palaces in St. Petersburg and the surrounding area.  The wealthy lived a lifestyle far different than the people who served them.  We walked through room after room of gold and beautiful antiques.  Sadly, many of the palaces were destroyed and damaged during WWII.  St. Petersburg is famous for their 900 day siege by the German military.  Aerial bombings and looting destroyed much of the former grandeur.  There has been a remarkable effort to rebuild and restore the palaces.  Unless you have knowledge of the horrors of the damage, you wouldn’t have any idea it had taken place.

img_3006
This is a chair used by Peter the Great. Note it has five legs. At seven foot tall and rather hefty, he felt more stable in a chair with five legs.

I was dazzled, Ellie was interested for the first 50 rooms and George wanted to sit down after the first room.  In fairness, we had been on our feet for quite awhile before ever reaching the first room.

After the palace tour, we had a tour of the famous gardens of Peterhof.  Inspired by the gardens of Versailles, Peter began creating the ultimate garden.  160 acres with 150 fountains.  It was truly incredible.  The fountains are all unique and large.  At the time it was created, one fountain had the highest spouting water in Europe.  All gravity fed without pumps.  An engineering marvel.

img_3057
The steps on the backside of the house ring these fountains as we walk towards the bay.
img_3076
These are metal tree sculptures with water jets. From a distance it was hard to tell that they weren’t living trees.
img_3101
A man of whimsy, there are several fountains that are activated when stepped upon. Unsuspecting guests would walk across a path and the fountain would erupt. This was a young boy who was having the time of his life. His parents dressed him and told him to walk across. He was dancing with joy.

We eventually reached the bay and our guide informed us it was a short one mile hike to the hydrofoil boats that would give us a ride across the bay.  Poor George, he was ready to quit, but he gamely kept on.  He was happy to have the 45 minute ride to rest.  We all were.  The boat was extremely comfortable and we sailed across the water in style.

Next stop was our authentic lunch at an authentic restaurant.  I had asked for a vegetarian meal, but they didn’t get the memo.  The guide tried to get something for me, and said they were giving everything they had vegetarian.  A glass of champagne, a shot of vodka, and a nickel sized piece of toast with caviar on top.  Followed by chicken salad, beef borscht, beef stroganoff and a cherry tart.  As you can imagine, the caviar and cherry tart really balanced out the alcohol.

Yes, I drank the champagne!  I tasted the vodka and decided to pass on it.  No problem, George drank my vodka and Ellie’s champagne and vodka.  Plus his own.  George, who had eaten a hamburger a couple of days ago, decided to be vegetarian (I think to support me) and didn’t eat his beef stroganoff  or borscht.  He loved the chicken salad, however and would have eaten my cherry tart, except I whacked him with me empty champagne glass.  Reviews of the food were less than warm, it really didn’t look good and there was a general consensus that it stunk.  You know it’s not good when the guide doesn’t ask “How did you love the food?  Great, right?”  There wasn’t any mention of lunch after we boarded the bus for our tour of the modern art museum.

Both George and Ellie were glaring at me about the next stop.  Modern art?  What the heck were we doing?  To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about it either.  When I booked it, I didn’t realize we couldn’t scamper off and do our own thing.  I thought if it wasn’t great, we could go sightseeing.  Oops.

Perhaps it was the champagne and caviar bite, but I absolutely loved this place.  Even Ellie enjoyed it.  George loved that there were benches to sit on and enjoy the view.  We were accompanied by a bonus surprise.  One of the artists exhibiting his work consented to show us the museum and give the artist’s perspective.  He was followed by a photographer who was documenting it for publicity purposes.  The guide was surprised and happy to have him – and it was amazing.

He talked about the artists, and what they were trying to communicate through different mediums.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but I ended up having such a great time.  Some of the exhibits were tactile and we were encouraged to touch and feel.  The last exhibit was by our artist.  In the center of a dark room, he had lined a curving path  with rows of plastic bubbles hung from ceiling to floor, illuminated so they glowed.  Each one us walked through the bubbles, touching them and feeling a bit like we were enchanted.  The champagne was probably still working its magic.  George wasn’t too enchanted (the vodka talking?), but he was really tired and wanted out of there.  He walked through the bubbles with a “I’m pretending this is fun” look on his face – to the enjoyment of the group.   I’m not doing a great job of describing it – but the group had great fun and the guide looked amazed.  I’m sure her tours here previously have not been as inspiring.

Back on the bus and the guide described the city as we went back to the ship.  Ten hours of adventure and we were all ready to stop.  None of us had eaten anything nutritious the entire day, so we ate quickly at the buffet and went to bed.  Getting ready for the next ten hour tour tomorrow.

img_3053
A hug outside after finishing the palace tour. Now to go through the gardens
img_2957
When you have a royal family, this is how you show a collage of family members. Actually an artist took 8 girls and dressed them in different outfits and painted pictures of them over and over. Pin up girls of the 18th century?

The video below is my tour through the bubbles, while still enjoying the influence of the lunch bubbly.

Day 8 Scandinavia – Tallinn, Estonia is Terrific!

img_2843
The sunrise picture wasn’t great, but the sunset as we left Tallinn for St Petersburg was peaceful and beautiful

Our best day yet!  We didn’t know what to expect in Tallinn, Estonia.  I’m sorry to say that Estonia doesn’t come up in my everyday conversations – but it earned a warm spot in all of our hearts today.  What a fun place!  If medieval cities get your blood pumping, this is the town for you.

We all liked Stockholm, but it didn’t hit a spot in our Top 10 Places to Relocate for Six Months list.  But Tallinn is right up there.

The weather finally cooled a bit and there was a brisk breeze in the harbor.  Ellie, still a bit under the weather, slept in and George and I dined on the buffet balcony.  I love sitting there in the morning.  Tallinn is a apparently a popular cruise ship port, the ships just kept arriving.  It is fascinating watching the pilots parallel park a 900 foot ship between two giant behemoths.    A Disney ship pulled in and blew its huge horn – and the opening bar to the Disney theme played.  Everyone on our ship started laughing and smiling.  Even on a competitor’s vessel, we all love Disneyland and everything it represents. Continue reading “Day 8 Scandinavia – Tallinn, Estonia is Terrific!”

Day 7 Scandinavia – Say Sayonara Sweden!

B7AD6F87-8941-4440-8EC2-74053B60EBAC
I didn’t get up in time to take a sunrise photo today. This is in the early evening as we sailed away from Sweden. We passed thousands of islands. It was hard to tear ourselves away from the breathtaking views. Of course, as soon as my stomach growled, I bailed for dinner….

Ellie’s throat was sore and her ears plugged when she went to bed last night.  We let her sleep in to get some rest.  We don’t have any rest days until after we leave St. Petersburg.  George and I slipped away while she slept and had a sunny breakfast on the buffet veranda.  It felt so nice to wake up with coffee in the warm sun.

IMG_2452
I was tired, so I had a veggie omelet with feta cheese for protein and added some pumpkin seeds to a fruit salad I put together. They have a cooking station and will make whatever egg concoction desired.

Ellie roused and we decided to forego another taxi adventure, and took the Hop On and Never Get To Your Destination Bus.  The Stockholm Hop On bus really is a waste of money.  It would be far quicker to walk.  Traffic is heavy and it took us 90 minutes to reach Old Town.  Mohammed the taxi driver had got us there in ten minutes.  I can’t count Mr. Eeyore, taxi driver number two, because that poor man has some issues that will take more than a GPS to fix.  Have to admit that every taxi we saw, we spontaneously called out “Good Taxi” or “Bad Taxi!” Continue reading “Day 7 Scandinavia – Say Sayonara Sweden!”

Day 6 Scandinavia – Stockholm is Spendy!

IMG_2343
I woke up with the sunrise and jumped up to take a picture of the sky as we neared Stockholm. Then I looked at my clock and realized it was 4:19 a.m. Sunrise comes early here! I definitely went back to bed.

In the past, when I thought of Stockholm, it was a vision of snow, ice and skis.  Never, ever was it a vision of 85+ degrees, high humidity and bottles of sunscreen.  It is HOT!  Welcome to the tropical destination of Sweden!

Sweden is such an interesting country.  I am a bit embarrassed to reveal just how little I knew about it.  Did you know that the city of Stockholm is comprised of 14 islands, which are part of the Stockholm Archipelago which has between 24,000 – 30,000 islands?  Too many to count?  Sorry to say, I had no idea.  And they are 24,000 of those most beautiful spots on earth.  At least in the summer when you can get around to them.

IMG_2356
Some of the islands we passed on our way into port. All the islands are heavily wooded, and many have beautiful summer houses on them.

I thought Alaska was beautiful (and it is), but Sweden really has the wow factor.  And the cruise ship comes so close to some of them that we could wave gaily to children and talk to each other.  Okay,  we were hollering, but it was amazingly close.  And it made George more than a bit nervous. Continue reading “Day 6 Scandinavia – Stockholm is Spendy!”

Day 5 Scandinavia – At Sea, But I Can’t See!

E057333B-7D13-4782-83E7-34DA5551EEAA

Oh the joy of a day at sea.  No commitments other than the big decision to eat at the buffet or the dining room.  Oh, and don’t forget to mosey down to the espresso bar for that cappuccino.

We all slept in.  I’ve developed this habit of waking up as the sun rises.  I snap a quick sunrise shot and hop back into bed (if there is time).  Today, oh baby, there was time, and it felt good.  But the sunrise wasn’t that pretty today.  Kind of blah – which is exactly how I felt.  Maybe the sun needed to sleep in, also.  There was a little slip of a moon in the sky, but you just can’t win at the Spectacular Sunrise Contest every day.   It still was nice, but I’m getting spoiled.  I rarely sleep late, but I didn’t get up until after 9:30 a.m.  George and Ellie were still dead to the world, but George eventually got up and we had lunch at the buffet.  I was hungry because we had missed breakfast.

IMG_2333
Ratatouille (french thick veggie stew) over roasted broccoli, seafood salad and cucumber/tomato salad with yogurt dressing. Probably 2 points? From the buffet and right to my stomach. I also ordered a fresh grilled fish fillet. They have a chef on-site who will cook steak, chicken, pork or fish to order.

Continue reading “Day 5 Scandinavia – At Sea, But I Can’t See!”