If you did not have the opportunity to read last week’s article, which began the Baltic Cruise we experienced on Voyages of Discovery’s lovely classic ship, the Discovery, I’ll briefly fill you in on last week’s description of the first part of the cruise.
We began the cruise in England and for 14 days we sailed to Copenhagen, Denmark, Stockholm, Sweden, Tallinn, Estonia and then to one of the greatest cities in the world for art, palaces, churches and memorials, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Peter the Great, in honor to St. Peter, founded the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. In 1914 at the beginning of World War I, Russian leaders felt that Petersburg was too German sounding. So, they changed the name to Petrograd – to make it more Russian-sounding. Then, in 1924, the country’s Soviet Communist leaders wanted to honor the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. The city of Petrograd became Leningrad and was known as such until 1991 when the new Russian legislators, no longer Soviet communists, wanted the city to reflect their change of government.
Our three days in St. Petersburg was crammed with sightseeing tours so as to include the major outstanding sights of the city and area.
One of the “must-sees” was the famous Hermitage Museum. Located on the banks of the Neva River the 18th Century baroque palace, the Hermitage, was once the winter home of grand Tsars and Tsarinas. Occupying four magnificent palaces from the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hermitage Museum now houses one of the world’s most outstanding art collections, and a vast array of treasures including rare sculptures, carpets, embroidery, lace, furniture and silverware dating from prehistoric times to 19th Century Russia.
When you enter the Winter Palace you ascend a splendid staircase decorated with golden stuccowork and dazzling white marble statues. You then walk through some of the more than 1,000 rooms and halls. There is the large throne room, a small throne room, several dining rooms, bedroom apartments, galleries and so much original art that it almost becomes a smear in your mind as you view the hundreds of paintings, statues and other art collections.
The interiors are extravagantly furnished and decorated and I must say, all palaces we toured in St. Petersburg were the most fabulous I have yet seen anywhere. Art collections include those of Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titan and many, many others. This fine collection belonged to Catherine II beginning in 1764 as a private collection to which only she and her courtiers had access. Later, the Royal Russian Family continued to purchase large art collections for placement in the Hermitage.
Another “don’t miss” is Peterhof Palace and Gardens. Beautifully situated on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, Peter the Great played a part in developing the plans and with the work of eminent architects, sculptors, fountain engineers and gardeners his summer residence, located an hour from the center of St. Petersburg, opened in 1723. Since then, Peterhof has been the property of the Romanovs, each owner trying to add something to the palace and rearrange it to their individual taste.
Crowning the hill above the fountains leading down to the Gulf of Finland is the Grand Palace. Inside its lavish rooms and galleries are filled with original furniture, chandeliers and paintings. The gala staircase, Chesma Hall, the large Throne Room, Royal Bedchamber and Peter the Great’s study with its 14 carved oak panels is only a tiny part of this extravagant palace. With many hundreds of rooms it seemed as though it could have housed hundreds of people. It perhaps did with the Royal Family, servants and courtiers as well as service workers housed nearby. After a tour of the palace we had time to walk into the grounds designed by Peter the Great himself. The fountains are truly magnificent and the Grand Cascade reaching down to the Gulf of Finland is the world’s largest and most impressive fountain works. It is interwoven with gilded statues. Peter created a work of art that symbolized the idea of the emergence and strengthening of his marine power. Of all the palaces visited this was the most impressive to us. The palace itself with so many rooms completely furnished, the artwork, the floors, and the general condition seemed as though it was from a Disney film. Unbelievable!
From the days of Peter the Great up until the last Tsar, Pushkin was the rural retreat of the Romanov dynasty. Empress Elizabeth commissioned the architect Rastrelli to create, from the original and rather modest Catherine Palace, a marvelous baroque-style residence to reflect her exuberant and impassioned lifestyle. In 1762 when the palace became the favorite country residence of Catherine the Great she spent enormous sums of money modernizing it in the fashionable neoclassical style. The palace today, one of the world’s artistic masterpieces, has a stunning aqua color façade over 1,000 ft. long. It is adorned with gold and white ornaments crowned with golden domes and gilded gates.
The interior will astonish you with its plush, period furnishings, art, staircases, bedchamber apartments, dining rooms, studies, sitting rooms, throne rooms, ballrooms and much more. When you depart, you can’t believe you have seen what you have. It almost looks like a vast Hollywood set.
As in the other palaces, there are hundreds of rooms, many of which you get to tour. Perhaps the most famous here is the Amber Room, once considered the Eighth Wonder of the World. In 1717, King Friedrich Wilhelm presented Peter the Great with magnificent amber wall panels. Rastrelli set 23 narrow pilasters faced with mirrors between the panels and installed a canvas frieze above them painted to match the amber. This room is difficult to describe, but dazzling to view.
All of these palaces are almost more than you can imagine. I thought I had seen important palaces, but nothing compares with those in and around St. Petersburg.
On each of the three full day tours, a Russian lunch was included. These lunches were served in high style with starters of soup, salad and entree followed by wonderful desserts. In Russia, part of your meal includes a white wine, vodka and beer. All three are set up in front of you as you sit down. The meal ends with your choice of coffee or tea. We were also entertained at each meal with Russian folk entertainers and dancers. What a great experience. And, friendly. Smiles everywhere!
I had expected the people on the street to appear glum, but no. They are no different than those you might find in Los Angeles, New York, Miami or Chicago. St. Petersburg is a fast and crowded city and the streets are jammed with modern automobiles headed in all directions.
During our time there we had the opportunity to visit several important Orthodox churches including the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood. This cathedral contains almost unlimited art that you can hardly believe you are viewing. It is situated in the heart of the city and has some 20,000-tourist visitors daily.
One night we opted to see a performance of Russian Ballet in the Bolshoi Theatre. Presented was Swan Lake with a complete corps de ballet, 40-piece orchestra and wonderful stars. Memorable!
The Discovery sailed out of St. Petersburg the evening of the third day in perfect weather conditions allowing us to sit outside on the back deck and view the magnificence of the city passing by. One can never forget this special place!
We enjoyed the next day at sea giving us the opportunity to relax, do a little reading and an opportunity to enjoy three more Discovery lectures. The days at sea on this ship go by fast with so much to do.
Next, we sailed into Gdynia, Poland. This important seaport was the starting point for a full day tour to Gdansk (Danzig). The city is situated not far from Stockholm, Helsinki, Lubeck and Riga and at the center of a once busy Baltic trading network. The country of Poland has had many political ups and downs and more recently was under the control of Russia until the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980’s. Today, it looks forward to a healthy economy and the people seem quite content as they go about their daily lives.
Our days sightseeing took us from the port city of Gdynia to Sopot, a spa town and then to Gdansk. These cities are known as the Tri-Cities. From the busy port of Gdynia, we drove past Abbot’s Palace and into the 13th Century city of Gdansk. This city, one of the most scenic and photogenic cities on our cruise was more than just a surprise. It also appeared to be out of a Disney set with its many hundreds of years of picturesque buildings. The old part of this city allows no motor vehicles and is walking only. There are fine shops, restaurants, department stores, and very fine jewelry stores with a fine selection of Amber. Amber is found nearby and the Polish artisans excel in creating fine pieces for your approval. We found Amber here to have the lowest prices in the Baltic. The countryside is loaded with forests and beautiful meadows and I could return to Poland for a longer stay in the future.
Our final port was the German vacation city of Warnemunde and an important port. It was founded around 1200 and was for centuries a mere fishing village. It lies just north of the town of Rostock, at the mouth of the Arnow River. Only in the 19th Century did Warnemunde begin to develop into an important seaport. It is the sea resort for Berliners. Berlin is two hours away by fast train and in the summer it is loaded with vacationers. You see many families relaxing, dining, taking sightseeing boats and enjoying the warm weather. From here, you can take a full day tour into Berlin, or enjoy a little more relaxing tour to Rostock and Germany’s secluded beach village of Kuhlungsborn. In Kuhlungsborn we stopped across the beach at a small upscale hotel and enjoyed tea and traditional homemade cakes. They were to kill for, believe me! On the journey back to Warnemunde, we boarded the “Mollie Train”, an 1886 creation to transport visitors from Rostock to Kuhlungsborn and from there back to Warnemunde by coach. The train takes 30 or so minutes and is an interesting ride through beautiful villages and countryside.
A most interesting day!
The next day we entered the Kiel Canal early in the morning and spent some 7 hours sailing through this very old, but very useful passageway. By using it, our ship saved a full day of sailing around Denmark to arrive in England. Kaiser Wilhelm II created the canal. This 62-mile shortcut, a masterpiece of engineering, links the North Sea and the Baltic. At the south end are a series of deep locks. The Kiel Canal is the busiest in the world. As many as 41,000 ships pass this way each year. It takes another 45 minutes to pass through the locks, then into the open North Sea.
We returned to England and the States after one of the finest cruises we had experienced, ever. The good ship Discovery, the great passengers who became our friends and the best crew on the high seas. Voyages of Discovery did its best again! Thank you all!