Friday, August 31, 2012

The Hermitage and Herring: Russia Day 2

With more than 65 canals, Saint Petersburg is known as the Venice of the North. We started our second day in Russia on a canal cruise up the Neva River. It was a fantastic overview of the city, and we got a glass of champagne and Russian chocolates. That's my kind of tour :)

Canals on the Neva River

Our tour company arranged for us to have early entry into the Hermitage museum, which was amazing. There were other tour groups there, but it was much less crowded than it was later in the afternoon. We heard from other people on our boat that they didn't enjoy the museum because they could barely see the art through the throngs of people.

I loved it though. The art was great, but the buildings themselves were incredible. The Hermitage is made up of five buildings, and each room is different. I loved the ceilings that were painted in a 3D effect making it look like it was carved.

The Hermitage has 15,000 paintings and 12,000 sculptures. It gets 3 million visitors a year! One of my favorite rooms was the portrait gallery. It had 336 military portraits that were painted by one guy. It took him ten years, but he painted five or six paintings a day!

I liked this sculpture. It was made out of marble but it was painted to look like bronze. I've never seen that before.

We spent the rest of our morning at the Church of Spilled Blood. It's offical name is Resurrection of Christ Church but it's known as the Church of Spilled Blood because it is the site Tsar Alexander II's assassination. The outside is breathtakingly beautiful, but it's nothing compared to the inside.

The inside of the church is covered in 7,000 square miles of mosaics! The pictures do not do it justice at all. It was spectacular.

I was studying Russian before we moved to Harrogate, and it was great being able to use some of that in real life. One of the most fun parts was when we took a lunch break and were able to order Russian comfort food off the menu. We got pickled herring and blini (pancakes) with caviar. So delicious!

After lunch we made a brief stop at the metro (tip: it's not as cool as the Moscow one is) and then visited the Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was murdered. Rasputin's story is so interesting. He was rumored to be a healer who was helping Tsar Nicholas's son with his hemophelia. The Russian public didn't know that Alexis had the disease. People close to the Tsar decided to kill Rasputin to prevent the public from learning the truth. They tried poisoning him, shooting him (twice), and finally drowning him. He was a really tough dude.

They had a little wax figure display of Rasputin in the basement, but the real star was the palace's theater.

This chandelier is made of paper!

We certainly packed as much as we could into our two days in Russia. It wasn't nearly enough time though. Hopefully one day we'll be back. Until then, dosvedanya Russia!

Read about our other ports of call:
First port: Copenhagen, Denmark
Second port: Stockholm, Sweden
Third port: Helsinki, Finland
Fourth port: Saint Petersburg, Russia (day 1)
Fifth port: Tallin, Estonia
Sixth port: Gothenburg, Sweden

Thursday, August 30, 2012

From Russia With Love

Our time in Russia was a whirlwind of activities. Fortunately, we were able to spend two days in Saint Petersburg, but I could easily have spent a week or more. This city was the main reason we booked a Baltic Cruise. Dan's family is from the former Soviet Union (his dad's from Belarus and his mom is from Azerbaijan), and Russian is actually Dan's first language. I heard so many great things about Saint Petersburg that I was worried it wouldn't live up to my expectations. It not only lived up to them, but exceeded them!

Peter and Paul Fortress

Months before we set sail we booked a private tour company for our time in Russia. We knew we wouldn't be allowed off the boat without an official escort. We got a good tip from my parents to look on Cruise Critic to hook up with other people from our boat. We were able to get a great discount on a semi-private 2-day tour with TJ Travel. If you're ever in Saint Petersburg, I highly recommend TJ's. They were fantastic.

Since we only had two days though, we ran around like chickens with our heads cut off. First up was the Peter and Paul Fortress. This was built during the war with Sweden in 1703, but it never saw military action. For years the fortress, nicknamed the Russian Bastille, served as a political prison. Inside is the Peter and Paul Cathedral where Tsar Nicholas II and his family are buried.The whole church is made out of sandstone  painted to look like marble.

Tombs of Tsar Nicholas II and family

Next we went to Peterhof, the summer home of Peter the Great. It is sometimes known as the Russian Versailles, and it's easy to see why. This was one of my favorite stops of the entire cruise. It is stunning! Of course it didn't hurt that we had absolutely perfect weather. When he planned the city, Peter the Great wanted buildings painted in bright colors to offset the fact that Saint Petersburg only gets 40 days of sunshine a year. We were blessed with two of those forty days!

Peter's wife Catherine had her own palace. Known as the Russian Cinderella, Catherine started her life as servant named Marta. Peter fell in love with her and sent his first wife to a convent.

Each room in this palace was incredible and opulent. The paintings, the Dutch tiles, the gold's overwhelming.

What is more incredible is that the majority of this palace has been skillfully restored. It was mostly destroyed during WWII.

Catherine Palace post WWII

We were able to customize our tour to see the Grand Coral Synagogue. This synagogue, Europe's second largest, has operated continually since 1893 --even during the soviet era when religion was officially banned.

Prayer books in Hebrew and Russian

Unlike the Grand Coral Synagogue, St. Isaac's Cathedral was stripped of its religious connotations during the Soviet era and was turned into a museum. Today it hosts religious services only a few times a year. This is the fourth and largest church built on this site. Construction lasted 40 years! Peter the Great married Catherine I in the second St. Isaac's Cathedral.

I love how lavish Russian Orthodox Cathedrals are. This one was pretty amazing, but nothing compared to the Church of Spilled Blood that we saw the next day.

We had time for a little bit of goofing off in a souvenier shop before heading back to our boat for the evening. Don't worry, there's lots more to come tomorrow!

Read about our other ports of call:
First port: Copenhagen, Denmark
Second port: Stockholm, Sweden
Third port: Helsinki, Finland
Fourth port: Saint Petersburg, Russia (day 2)
Fifth port: Tallin, Estonia
Sixth port: Gothenburg, Sweden

Monday, August 27, 2012

Happy One-Year UK Anniversary to Us!

As of yesterday, Dan and I have been in the UK for an entire year! That blows my mind. Time is definitely speeding up. While I have so much more I want to do while I'm here, I'm really proud of what we've accomplished so far. We were given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I'm glad we're not wasting it.

Every day has brought something new and exciting, but there are definitely some highlights. Here are some of my favorites:

Top 5 U.K. Adventures:


Edinburgh, Scotland

The Lake District



Top 5 World Adventures:

Helsinki, Finland

Giza, Egypt

Bruges, Belgium



This only skims the surface of all the amazing things we've been lucky enough to do while we're here. I can't even imagine what the next year will bring, but I'm ready for it. I hope you are too!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Horsing Around in Helsinki

This morning we woke up in Helsinki, Finland. A few days earlier, on our first sea day, we went to a lecture discussing our upcoming ports. The speaker said that many people are disappointed with Helsinki because it is much smaller and less charming than the other ports we're visiting. She recommended getting out into the Finish countryside for the best Finish experience. Dan and I initially planned on just walking around town, but we decided to follow the speaker's advice and book an excursion.

Porvoo, Finland

Our tour took us to Porvoo, a medieval sea town south of Helsinki. Unfortunately, I was kind of disappointed by it. It was much smaller than I thought it would be and it was kind of touristy. There was one main street that ended abruptly with a giant supermarket and bank. Not exactly the 15th century vibe it was billed as.

Porvoo, Finland

We didn't spend much time in Porvoo before heading to a horse farm in the countryside. We had a three-course, home-cooked meal that was really delicious. My favorite part was the stinging nettle soup! It tasted just like a creamy spinach soup. We have tons of nettle in England and it's really nasty stuff. Since it burns when you touch it, I have no idea who first thought to eat it.

Stinging nettle soup

We also got to see some of the new horses on the farm, including a shetland pony foal.

We had a (very little) bit of time in Helsinki before we had to head back to the boat.

Lutheran Cathedral

Huge servings of salmon, whitebait, potatoes and reindeer sausage

Uspenski Cathedral

We did have time to visit the Rock Church. It's a church built into a rock with a massive copper dome roof. It's very different.

Rock Church

I wish we had more time here just to walk around and explore. I heard from some people on the boat that they were pretty bored most of the day though, so who knows. I guess Helsinki is just not the best port in this itinerary. No worries up is Saint Petersburg!!

Read about our other ports of call:
First port: Copenhagen, Denmark
Second port: Stockholm, Sweden
Fourth port: Saint Petersburg, Russia (day 1, day 2)
Fifth port: Tallin, Estonia
Sixth port: Gothenburg, Sweden

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stockholm in a Day

After a relaxing day at sea, we arrived in Stockholm early Saturday morning. The captain of the boat recommended we watch the ship sail in to the city, and I'm glad we listened. It was incredible to watch the boat navigate the hundreds of little islands outside of Stockholm. At some points we were so close to shore it felt like we could swim.

Sailing into Stockholm

Coming into the city from the water was stunning. I immediately fell in love with Stockholm.


Again Dan and I jumped on a free city tour. This one was a lot more crowded than our Copenhagen tour, but the guide did a great job keeping us all interested and informed. She gave us some great bits of trivia; did you know that 10 percent of all Europeans under the age of 30 were conceived on an IKEA bed? Also, IKEA uses Swedish words to name its furniture, but uses Danish words for its rugs. The Swedes like to say its so Sweden is always on top of Denmark.


Farmer's Market

I loved watching the changing of the guards at the palace. It was very crowded, but it was worth the hassle. It was interesting to see how many of the guards were women. You don't see that everywhere. My favorite part was when the guards did a sort of skip-run. It looked like they were prancing. Unfortunately that's not in the video.

We had a fantastic lunch at a great little spot. You know it's a local place when the menu is only in Swedish. Luckily a nice waitress helped us out. We had a lox sandwich and a delicious poached salmon with dill new potatoes. SO GOOD!
Swedish salmon
After lunch we headed to the Vasa Museum. We were on the fence about whether to visit it but our friend Jeff highly recommended it. I'm glad he did. It was awesome. The Vasa was a 17th century warship that sank on its maiden voyage. The ship sat in the brackish Baltic waters for 300 years until it was salvaged (whole!) in 1961. I loved seeing the intricate carvings on the ship and the  personal items saved from the workers' trunks.
The Vasa, built in 1628
To end our great day in Stockholm, I took part in a Scandinavian national sport: ice cream. I have no idea why they love it so much, but they really do. When in Rome Stockholm, right?
Enjoying a melon ice cream
Read about our other ports of call:
Third port: Helsinki, Finland
Fourth port: Saint Petersburg, Russia (day 1, day 2)
Fifth port: Tallin, Estonia
Sixth port: Gothenburg, Sweden