And here we are, back again. A jolly trip was had by all, including Fiona, Mum and myself. Too much food goes without saying, and strange, exotic and exciting places were explored.
The ship was the Balmoral, which carries about 1500 passengers and a crew of about 500. Built in 1988. Apparently it is quite small as such things go, though it seemed half a mile long on the inside (actually 218 metres or 238 yards) A notice on deck 7 said that 4 circuits around the outer deck was equal to a mile. I could do that in about 160 seconds, but then I knew a short-cut. I was surprised how narrow the ship was, but I guess the longer it is, in relation to the width, the less fuel is needed per passenger. The Balmoral was extended by 30 metres in 2007/8 when Fred. Olsen bought her.
Fred. Olson, who always has a full-stop after Fred, (except then) puts on a fine spread. (I'm not going to weigh myself for a week or two). He usually provides 5 courses at supper. Breakfast and lunch being 'eat until you explode' if you want to. The individual served courses were sensibly smaller than your usual restaurant blow-out, but bigger than those daft nouvelle-cuisine servings. We usually ended up feeling full, but not bloated. The Chef, who I think deserves a capital letter, was able to produce puddings with no sugar for Mum, and she was delighted to be able to have chocolate pudding and all manner of other goodies without risk. Vegetarian meals were no problem, and, once we had overcome a small language barrier, we discovered a reasonable line in non alcoholic drinks.
After the inevitably rather dull North Sea, which we traversed while sleeping and getting used to the ship, was the Keil Canal, bottom left corner. Originally Denmark-Norway territory, it became German, they re-routed part of it and widened it for warships, thereby allowing an easier way around Denmark. I'm not sure if that makes Denmark an island. I suppose the north of Scotland would be an island as well, if that were true, what with the Great Glen.
Anyway, after the Keil canal, a slightly surreal experience, being on such a large boat, but surrounded by land, we pottered across the top of Poland and dropped in on Tallin, which is in remarkably good nick considering how much knocking about it has had by the Russians and the Germans.
I suppose it is in the nature of things that Wars are not fought on the aggressors soil, or not unless they are shown to have misjudged their relative strength anyway.
Many successful countries around the baltic seem to have a population of 5 million, (which bodes well for Scottish independence), with about 1 million living in the main city.
I was thinking how attractive Tallin was, and the advantages and disadvantages of living there. If I was looking for a house I would find it useful, in this computerised age, to have a list of properties with certain characteristics. Distance from a motorway, bus route, shop, or school for example. It should, for example, be possible to run a sorting program for all properties for sale in Scotland below 500k, with half an acre of land and a couple of sheds, it's own wind turbine and south facing roof. The thought led me to the idea of a sorting of countries in the same way. Wealth, crime, national debt, mean temperature, language and suicide rate, for example. They might even get a 'average happiness' rating. Each quality would be given a relative importance. I might rate the national debt over the peak high and low temperatures, or the population density over the price of alcohol.
You'd probably find that the best place to live is where you already are, but it might throw up some interesting clues as to what is really important, and how much you value your current neighbours.
Back to the boat, Tallin (or Tallinn the extra n seems optional,) is well worth a visit, they like being independent, having been repeatedly 'liberated' by other peoples armies. They use Euros as currency, and smile often. I liked the people and it has a nice market town feel, though it is obviously rather bigger. There's loads of archaic architecture and bits are quite medieval, despite the seemingly random and certainly pointless bombing by the German and Russian military. The place feels more Finnish than Russian, although my experience was inevitably rather superficial.
Onward then to Saint Petersburg, which seems to be mostly palaces and waterways, it was supposed to be like Venice by its primary founder, Peter the Great. (Amazing how many famous people have that middle name.) I'm told it is less smelly in high summer,what I saw was is certainly less crumbly.
It is an astounding place, wide, and fairly straight, waterways and streets. And hundreds of palaces, a demonstration of how much power and sheer wealth the Tzars had, well..... have really. there are distinctly Tzar like elements in Russian leaders from Putin to Stalin, Oligarchs instead of the courts. You do begin to wonder if they ever really had a revolution, or whether it was just regime change. The trick, as always, is to watch the money, ignore the spin and look to see who has the lifestyle, they never quite hide it, because success is always measured in peer-celebrity.
I can't help thinking the left wing, right wing argument is completely spurious, it just comes down to the difference in rights (and money) between the rich and poor, and how oppressive the regime.
The Hermitage should be seen by everybody, if it has a fault, it's just too big, after a while you get numbed by the magnitude. I think it might polarise a few political opinions though. The art collection is quite astounding, if a little heavy in the ikon department, in fact it leads me to suspect that socialism was ever genuine in Russia, then the artwork would have been sold off to pay for food, industry and health-care. Instead they have conserved it beautifully, at huge expense, and surprise surprise, Putin has his own palace outside Peterhof. To be fair, most of the buildings are palaces, he may not have had a choice.
The next bit was Peterhof which we visited on a trip out of St Petersburg, again an astounding collection of art, including a huge garden of golden statues. It includes this one of Samson (I think,) fighting a lion. There's a better picture on the Wikkipedia Peterhof page. I have taken it from an angle so that he looks as though he's taking a monumental wee, but I'm sure you get the idea. The building and most of the artwork was completely rebuilt after the Germans trashed it trying to reach St Petersberg. The palace is startlingly narrow as they had to use mostly natural light, and many of the rooms have windows on both ends, being the full width of the building. It does account for why palaces had to be quite large, and why wings and internal courtyards were so popular before the electric light. They ended up the same shape as cruise liners, long, thin and tall though for quite different reasons.
There was so much gold around the place that I was rather spoiled for choice selecting a photo or two that would give a feel for the size without having all the detail disappear into the distance. Most of the ceilings have artwork panels, and the cherubs seem to have bred like rabbits. The floors are all multi-wood parquet and the walls are rarely plain for more than a square foot. I could see why any serf who had the meaning of the word equality explained would have been a bit upset by the original, and this was a complete rebuild by a socialist state. Go figure.
So I was awestruck by the beauty, but somewhere underneath very, very angry. Gilded Cathedrals have the same effect I think Cromwell must be rumbling in my ear.
I have noticed a shift in my thinking though, having been exposed to such an overload of gilt statues and huge rooms, I now look at art differently. Big and expensive doesn't cut it any more, it's more a matter of why the artist made it, and what it meant to him or her. You can see why so many great art works were, and are, made by tormented people.
One of the speakers on the Balmoral talked about paintings, including pop art and impressionism, and I finally understand The Scream by Edvard Munch. I still wouldn't have it on my wall though.
I know that Ben, my cousin, has done several cruises speaking about and teaching the Harmonica, in fact he had been on ours a few years before. It looks like a fine way of seeing the world and using the knowledge developed over a life-time. We had a speaker from the RAF, a School Governess, others from the art, and jewellery world including Faberge and Amber of course, and several musicians and singers, not least the Central band of the Royal British Legion. Because it is a captive audience, and there are limits to how much you can eat, drink, read and sunbathe, these entertainments are well attended and appreciated. Even when the audience doesn't really know what it is in for. Their success has more to do with the speaker's personality than the subject matter. The talks were more of a feature than I expected. I suppose, as an ex radiographer, 'blogger' and general know-it-all who isn't frightened by public speaking, I could probably have a stab at it. Whether they would ever invite me back I'm not so sure. I'd certainly have to reduce the food intake. One chap was making a full second career of it, wasn't too overweight and provided a useful guide to the upcoming ports and their available tours.
St Petersburg was an interesting glimpse into the life of the Tzars, and into modern Russia, from the number of western tourists it must be more westernised than the middle of Russia. We could still see flashes of the old communist state thinking, quite a lot of weaponry, and the customs posts were distinctly more paranoid and seriously unsmiling. One was a cast iron example of the tractor driving squat-model grandmother who would kill you with her bare hands as happily as stamp your passport, another was a pretty little thing, blonde and slight. Neither made eye contact, said anything, or smiled. I should point out that the sexist descriptions are for artistic purposes. I assume they were told to act like that, and probably had lovely natures otherwise.
There is a tradition of dressing up on the boat, sorry, Ship, for certain evenings, so I got an evening suit and polished up for three of those, (the girls seem to dress up for all of them), fortunately there is a large luggage allowance. I managed reasonably, I think, though the bow tie could have done with some work, and fortunately chaps aren't expected to have a different outfit for each occasion. On one we had the opportunity of getting to meet the Captain, I suppose he ought to have a capital letter, after all the Chef did. He, the Captain, must have had the patience of a saint, probably well trained by all those hours standing in the wheel-house. We had our photos taken on several occasions, but I usually looked a complete prat. I really must learn to smile naturally, or give up and just stare at the camera. The only ones that look half decent are when I look as though I want to kill the photographer. Not nice, just less idiotic. Here's a rare exception, in my opinion.
The spikey thing to the right of us comes later, although it might be an unconscious pun on how I thought I looked.
Dashing on through the Baltic, which was quite warm considering, the next stop was Helsinki. The citizens seem a jolly bunch, considering the climate, very much into saunas and icy plunges I'm told. The concept of blonde lovelies leaping about in the snow and generally frolicking might spring to mind, but I'd remind you of the effects of icy water on the male imagination, the majority is over 50, half are male and you'll still need to know all the words to Finlandia. Everybody knows about the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, of which more later. Helsinki has a truly bizarre 1 room hotel where you can sleep with a full sized bronze 'mermaid' statue called Havis Amanda I'll leave further investigation to your discretion. I always thought mermaids were fish from the waist down, which would make any fantasies a bit odd, presumably those from these northern climes needed legs to walk on the winter ice.
I rather liked Helsinki, though I can see it gets rather cold and dark in winter rather like Shetland, the natural tendency is to go somewhere warm and well lit and get a drink, but alcohol is rather expensive, so it is quite popular to hop on the Estonian ferry, pop over to Tallinn, buy lots of exported Finnish alcohol and get completely blootered. If you want to try that do not go to sleep in the street, which at -30c gets you a Darwin award quite quickly. (They are always posthumous.)
Finns are considered very friendly, but very reserved, and unlikely to chat to strangers, this is not standoffishness, they just don't bother people, preferring to respect their privacy. So you'd probably need a while to get to know them.
On, On, as Derek would have it, the next stop is Copenhagen. Bacon, mermaids, windmills and clogs, I thought, but then in 1982 I moved to Scotland knowing only of haggis, kilts and whisky, Dr Finlay's Casebook and Billy Connolly, so let's try to avoid clichés. The spiral thing referred to previously is a representation of three countries Norway, Denmark and Sweden, there are three crowns at the top. You'd think there were three dragons forming the spiral, but there are four. Presumably the architect ran into a structural problem. There's a better picture of it on the old Stock-Exchange at the Copenhagen website. It is up there next to us being posh because it had to be squeezed in and there was a gap there.
We had been repeatedly warned that the little mermaid was really small, so we were quite pleased to find that it, or she, was 4 feet tall, sitting down on a rock. I was unable to find out if that is life-sized. Inevitably accessible, the statue has been regularly vandalised, too often to have the original there, though I think it would take an expert to know the difference.
I sometimes wonder if that kind of installation could be used to pull the crazies out of the woodwork, and get them on camera for future reference. Rather like a Q-Ship. I have long suspected that you could prevent crime by leaving TVs on lorry tailgates and waiting for thieves to identify themselves, saves a lot of police work. I'm told it is entrapment. So?
Here's a picture of a horse in Copenhagen, I'm not quite sure what they were about, a tribute to Liverpool's
Superlambbanana perhaps. Nice though, maybe I'll find out one day. Maersk the container shipping line has put a huge amount into the city, as has Carlsberg the brewers. As in Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow, the warehouses and breweries are all posh flats now, I wonder how many realised what they would be worth after generally standing derelict for a while. Opera house, museums and the like are studded all over the place. There's a large copy of Michelangelo's David on the dock front, apparently it had to be moved, being a bit rude in the view of the ladies of the retirement home. The Tivoli gardens are interesting if you have middle sized children, and a lot of money. The gardens were just that, gardens, when Mum visited a few years back, but now are expensive to get into and most of the space is occupied by; A. large pieces of machinery designed to make children and attending adults re-distribute their lunch around at a great height and.
B. Expensive restaurants.
C. ? I think they were theatrical establishments.
D. A pond, with Muscovy ducks.
Presumably the idea is to eat first and be sick afterwards, since I believe one's appetite might be a bit suppressed after a repeated150 foot drop. Avoiding the vertigo element, we had some food, but found that the restaurant expected us to empty our wallets as a prerequisite, and wasn't too bothered about what else happened. If you want a garden experience, the average British stately pile will be much more satisfying, and the rides looked expensive. (You'll have to ask them yourself, the Kroner, Euro, Pound conversion rate and display methods confused me). I think a lot of the money must have been to subsidise the opera. There's a lot of that, and theatre and ballet and the like, but it isn't the kind of thing you can just turn up to in the hope of being entertained.
Alton towers is probably a better bet, not that I've been there either.
I think the water cruises were the best way to see the cities, and it helps that three were archipelagos. The view is generally clearer, the speed more appropriate to photographing and the descriptions clearer. Also the traffic doesn't get in the way. We enjoyed canal and river cruises in St Petersburg, Helsinki and Copenhagen and city tours in all four ports. I'm not including Southampton, though I'm sure it has many attractions.
However, finishing the cruise with a few snippets, here we are having a bit of Baltic sun, the weather was nice enough for the girls to have a swim in the ship-board pool where the roll of the ship produced a significant 'artificial wave', and a dip in the Jacuzzi.
A couple of left-over pictures there's an ice-breaker or two, very useful in the area. The Baltic is shallow and isn't very salty, so it freezes easily in winter, but here they are just conversation pieces. Possibly something like "What are we going to do with these ships, now the ice cap has melted?" but I imagine they will be useful come December. Incidentally, like Scotland, Finland is rising, and has been since the overburden of glacier melted. I doubt it'll be fast enough to outpace the rising sea level though. The upside is that the north sea and the Baltic (seen here) are warmer at present, much nicer without the wolf-pack too.
Overall a great experience, broadening the mind and horizon alike, not to mention the waist-line. Probably a really good way of seeing a chunk of the world reasonably quickly and comfortably, a sort of taster perhaps, and worth following up with more detailed examination at a slower pace. There were quite a few people on the ship, exploring the world, when you'd have thought they'd have trouble getting on a bus. Wheelchairs, buggies and walking sticks, and not slowing the rest of us noticeably.
Incidentally, Mum managed well, needing only the occasional prod to keep up, not bad at mumble-mumble years. Especially with the Peterhof garden steps.
See y'all later
I wonder if I could make wooden easter eggs in the faberge style, but with less gold. The mantle-piece is full of pots. I must make a box to put them in.