Cruising by Helsinke, Finland

We didn’t spend long Helsinke today. In fact, we stayed in bed until Noon before deciding to go into town. We knew that most places would be closed because it’s Sunday, and we were still pretty worn out from the 2-day-marathon tour of Russia.

We grabbed a cab and had him drive us to two camera shops we were hoping were open – no go. Jake had bought a 35mm film camera in Russia and we were looking for film for it. He’s particular about his film, Kodak won’t do. The driver dropped us off in a large shopping district.

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It was supposed to be mostly cloudy and a high of 61F today and I’m very glad we brought our rain coats. We ended up getting rained on for much of the walk, but the cool air felt great.

We managed to find some film for the camera. Bruce was very excited! He was going to be using it. He has taken so many digital pictures, but hearing Jake talk about film has made him interested in trying it. He wanted to use black and white film, but we got him color too.  Black and white was loaded before we left the store.  So we continued to walk randomly and let him take pictures.

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We happened upon a train station and grabbed a cab back to the boat, then spent the next several hours lounging around.

Today was pretty relaxing. 🙂

Tomorrow we’ll be in Stockholm. I sure hope the Ice Bar is open!

Day two in St. Petersburg

Note: I wrote this and didn’t have time to post it, so it’s a day late. But hey, I’m on vacation. 🙂

We didn’t have to get up as early, which was nice. We were meeting our guide and driver at 9am and immigration/customs was going to be quicker. We had a new guide as our other guide was requested by a group of art historians (which she knows a ton about) but our new guide was just as friendly.  Christina was a little easier to understand, too.

We went to a church (no pictures) and took a ride on the world-famous Metro. No pictures are allowed on the metro either, as it’s still considered a state secret. Kinda funny, if you think about it — it’s public.

Our next stop was at the Church of St. Paul on the way to the Peterhof. Bruce got his Russian hat that he had been asking for from a vendor next to it, and it was camouflage (his emphasis).

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We drove to the palace and got our tickets.  The “tickets” looked like a certificate, it was kind of cute.  We wandered into the palace grounds towards the fountains and waited for them to turn on. They were scheduled to come on at 11. I wondered what all the fuss was about, but when they were turned on, it was quite fabulous!

IMG_1109 We saw a few more fountains, including a “trick” fountain (which apparently there were a lot of) that Peter the Great built to play tricks on his guests. A hidden rock or something would make the fountain come on.

We toured the bath house, which is the first that was ever built in Russia. Again, no pictures allowed in here –  not sure why.

Next to the bath house was a Japanese garden that was quite beautiful. The vases in the picture are Japanese porcelain and are from the 17th century.

IMG_1133Then we rode a boat (hydrofoil) back to St. Petersburg and were going to the highlight of our trip (okay, one of them!) – lunch with a Russian family.

It wasn’t an actual family, it was a Russian woman. Her apartment was on the fourth floor and was just as I imagined it would be. She had lived there her entire life (she’s probably in her late 50’s) and her mother had lived there since she was seven. She was also born in the house, as was her son and daughter.

She made an incredible lunch for us: appetizers of crab salad (delicious!), vegetables, salami, borscht for a soup, chicken and boiled potatoes for the main, and cookies  and tea for dessert. We were stuffed. Oh, and candies with dessert too. Bruce tried one and it was chocolate covered marmalade…hahahaha! He doesn’t like marmalade. 😉 He had ice cream though, always a crowd pleaser.

Jake did most of the talking and our guide interpreted for us. When asked about what it was like to live during Soviet times, she said she actually preferred it to how it is now because she never really wanted for anything. She had a job in manufacturing and could get or do anything she wanted. Now, not so much. Our guide thinks the opposite – it’s better now for her family than it was back then.

There is also quite a rivalry between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Each city inhabitants think theirs is the best, and the best AT everything too.  The best theater, the best chocolates, the best cookies, the best buildings, etc. It was really interesting to talk to them about the history of their city – it’s a perspective you just can’t get from a history book! Too soon, we had to go.

We stopped at a souvenir shop. We had actually asked to go shopping, so I guess that’s what they thought we meant. We were pressed for time however, so probably couldn’t SHOP shop. I got an absolutely gorgeous jewelry box. It’s hand painted and truly amazing.

Jake and Bruce toured the Cruiser Aurora. We didn’t have much time and it was raining and very windy so I stayed in the car. I picked the wrong day to wear a skirt – yesterday was much warmer! Bruce was thrilled, however, and thought it was the coolest.  🙂

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We had just enough time to stop at the mosque that Jake wanted to take pictures of. It’s the (second?) largest in the world. We made it back to the boat in plenty of time.

Bruce and I grabbed a bite to eat and hung out for a while. Then Jake and I hit the tables at the casino. We played some blackjack and got decimated, so he went to play poker and I played Pai Gow.

Oh, and I made a cruise-friend, Carolina. We went up to the Spinnaker lounge and danced for a while before chatting on the deck. She’s on the cruise with her family.

Tomorrow, Helsinke!

Private tour of St Petersburg, Russia (Vacation Part 5)

We got up so early this morning. I practically had to drag Jake and Bruce out of bed. Jake was out pretty late, I think he might have had 2 hours of sleep, while Bruce slept and I wrote my blog last post and read until about midnight. We knew customs/immigration was going to be slow so we had already planned to be up and at it early. We had a private tour set up with a local tour company (DenRus) and we were scheduled to meet them as early as possible – our customized itinerary was really packed in.

We were one of the first people off the boat, even before they announced disembarkation, and we were through the immigration line in just over 30 minutes. Our guide (Tsania, “tsAYnya”) and driver (I can say it but I don’t dare spell it) met us and quickly covered our itinerary for the day as we drove out of the port and into town.

I’ll say this now, Tsania was very knowledgeable and extremely friendly. She was awesome. She has a Master’s in Art History and knows a ton about the city. Before we even left the port (which is HUGE) we knew we were going to be covering a ton of Russian history.

We spent the first couple of hours hitting some city highlights. The first stop was St. Isaac’s Cathedral. I’m disappointed I didn’t get a better picture, but at least I got one.

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Shortly after that we went to a cafe recommended by Tsania for some food. We were all starving after skipping breakfast to get off the boat quickly. And J needed to feed his hangover. 😉 We ordered a sample of all different kinds of pies, meat pie (beef), salmon pie, cream cheese pie, cherry pie, and apricot pie. I liked them all, Jake and Bruce ordered themselves more meat pie. Bruce absolutely loved it, but none of the others.

IMG_0887Then we drove over to visit the sphinxes on one of the canals. I thought she said they were created in 1832, but she actually meant 1832 BC. There were also two gryphons there that, supposedly, if you rub one of the heads and make a wish, it will come true.

Here’s one of the sphinxes:

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We visited a church (I need to look up the name when I have an internet connection, it’s not on our itinerary) with an actual ceremony going on. I felt a bit like I was intruding, but Bruce and Jake seemed to like it. It was pretty cool to see.

This cathedral was stunning.

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Our next stop was the Peter-and-Paul Fortress and the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison. Apparently Peter the Great built the fortress first when he built the city, and it has never been attacked. This was taken just inside the fortress:

IMG_0927Then we toured the prison. Surprisingly, the prison cells were actually larger than we expected they would be. They were probably the size of a master bedroom (12x14ish?) and didn’t hold more than one person. We also went into the solitary confinement room, just for fun.

After the prison, we got some food at a local restaurant recommended by Tsania, again. We were relying on her for a lot! We had no idea what we wanted, we just wanted some traditional food. She picked perfectly. Bruce chowed down on some pork ribs and Jake and I got meat soup. My God it was good.

IMG_0988 Next up was the Hermitage. We knew we didn’t have enough time to see everything, the Hermitage is enormous, but Tsania got us through the highlights and some of the cool stuff we wanted to see (the Egyptian and Roman exhibits) in about 2 hours. It didn’t feel like we were there for very long. There were tons of picture taking opportunities, and Bruce even took about 100 pictures of his own. My only regret is that I wish I had taken my wide angle lens in, but you couldn’t take backpacks so I stuck with my Tamron 28-75. Still, I got enough good pictures that it’s hard to pick just one for this post! 🙂

One of the monuments we requested to see was the Tsar and Carpenter monument, not far from the Hermitage. Jake and I play a board game called, funnily enough, St. Petersburg quite frequently. The Czar and Carpenter card in the game is his favorite.

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Our final stop was the Church of the Spilled Blood. On the way we walked through the park that was built in honor of all the deceased as a result of WWI and WWII. In the center of the park is a flame that has been burning for years (1952?). 

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Between the park and the church was a short bridge. Apparently newlyweds frequently come to the bridge because the custom is for the groom to carry the bride across the bridge, and sometimes they leave a padlock attached to the bridge to symbolize their wanting to be together forever. Also, they picked that bridge to do the carrying because, well…it’s the shortest. 😉

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As you can see, the Church of the Spilled Blood is being restored a bit. Apparently Stalin wanted to blow it up, but the day it was scheduled to be demolished, the Soviets were invaded.

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That was it! Bruce and Jake were exhausted and I think I was just getting my second wind. We headed back to the boat.

Tomorrow we’re going to the Peterhof, having lunch with a Russian family, and touring the Cruiser Aurora. Time for me to go grab a few minutes on the internet and upload this so I can get some sleep!

A day in Talinn, Estonia (Vacation Part 4)

We stayed up pretty late last night – mostly because we were doing well in the casino. 🙂 We woke up around 10 am or so and grabbed a quick bite to eat before walking into town.

Talinn is beautiful. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Again, we had no set plan other than walking around and getting a bite to eat. Oh, and we were going to visit a market that was rumored to have old cameras, which J wanted to check out.

IMG_0792Right outside the dock they had vendors, as usual, but there was a young man with medieval gear on display and some old-style bow and arrows. Bruce wanted to see the swords and shields. We noticed he had targets set up – Jake donned a cape and a knight’s helmet and shot the bow and arrows.

 

So we walked into the city. It’s really only about a 5-10 minute walk from the dock.

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We made it to the street with all the shops and touristy stuff pretty quickly.  There was a cute little park overlooking the street that we hung out at for a little while.  Bruce got to play for a bit and we people-watched.

We continued up the street and someone handed me a flyer for a Museum of Torture. Of course, I had told Bruce about some of the castles in England having torture chambers, which was very interesting to him, so he wanted to go. The “museum” is quite small, but Bruce loved it.

We went to the kitschiest restaurant! There was no customer facing electricity – candles everywhere, even on the stairs going down to the WC. They served traditional food like bear, elk, duck, etc. Jake got the bear dinner, I got duck (which I’ve never had) and we ordered sausages for Bruce. We didn’t tell him what kind of sausages they were until he was done. ;-)  He did try everything on his plate, but he only liked the sausages. They also served berries, sauerkraut, turnips, some kind of grain-rice stuff and something else I can’t pronounce so I can’t spell.  Unfortunately I had about two too many Raspberry Torte martinis last night so I wasn’t able to thoroughly enjoy it, but it was really good..

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We got Bruce some ice cream (he tried pistachio and loved it) a little further down the street and then caught a cab to the market about 10 minutes away, I got my mom a souvenir spoon (I get her one every where I go) and we just walked around.  It was quite a bit bigger than we expected so we didn’t really have time to look for the camera place. We walked around most of it however.

We found a cab driver and explained we wanted to get back to the dock. Neither of us were entirely sure that he understood what we meant, so we got in and hoped for the best. The market isn’t in a touristy part of town so no one spoke English. Luckily, he must have understood us because we were at the boat in 5 minutes.

Jake and I dropped Bruce off at the Kids Club and went to a Mystery Theater Dinner, which was pretty fun. Neither of us had done it before. I was the table captain, and if you know me then you know that talking to a bunch of strangers is NOT my thing. I managed. Jake was highly amused at how red my face would get.

We went to the spa to relax for a while, then I took Bruce to get some food and turn in for the day. We’ve got to be up early tomorrow – we need to get down to the dock as early as humanly possible so we can get through immigration in a sane amount of time.

I’m SO excited for St. Petersburg tomorrow!

Exploring Berlin (Vacation Part 3)

We got up bright and early so we could make the most of the day. We didn’t have to be back on board until 9:30 but we opted to rent a car and drive to Berlin from the port in Rostock. It was going to be about a 2.5 hour drive. We caught a cab from the port to the car rental, and this was our first hurdle over the language barrier but it was an easy one because the cab driver knew the place  we were talking about. He did “offer” to drive us to Berlin for a mere $450 (US). Geez! Anyway we picked up an Audi A3. It came with a GPS so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost. Thankfully the GPS spoke English. 😉

We stopped at a little cafe to grab some light breakfast. Bruce learned what ”WC” meant.  Shortly after we were on the autobahn! Jake was pretty happy about that. It was a gorgeous day for a drive. I didn’t know A3’s could go that fast! We even had a Camry (or whatever the German Toyota equivalent is) pass us when we were going 180kph. Crazy!

Our first stop was the Brandenburg Gate. There was a tourist information place there so we wanted to get some ideas of where to go other than what we had already picked out. Bruce picked up a piece of the Berlin wall to display on his ever-growing collection of items from around the world.

IMG_0684Our next stop was part of the  Berlin wall. The tourist information guy told us where to find it. There are a few all around Berlin, but apparently this one was pretty easy to get to.

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We left and headed to Checkpoint Charlie. Parking in central Berlin is a HUGE pain in the butt. We ended up parking at hotels all day, with the exception of the first stop. Oh, and the squeegee kids were out in full force. Anyway, we parked at a hotel and found a pizzeria. The pizzas were enormous, but we were hungry. 🙂

The intersection near Checkpoint Charlie was packed full of people. It’s pretty cool to see though. We briefly went in the museum but decided not to stay.

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We then went to the DDR Museum. This was probably both Bruce and Jake’s favorite place. Bruce because it’s very interactive – you can touch pretty much everything. Jake loved seeing the history and reading about what it was like to live back then.

This is directly across the canal from the DDR Museum, which I thought was a beautiful building:

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Jake has a friend in Berlin so we met with him at a Schnitzel house. I never knew there were so many different ways to make schnitzel! Bruce and I split one and it was enough for both of us…it was really very good.

We headed back to the ship. We hit a small storm on the way there, but the roads were mostly dry and we made it back around 9:10 or so. It was a long day but we were so glad we had decided to make the trip into Berlin instead of staying in Rostock.

Today is an at-sea day so we’re relaxing. Jake’s at the casino playing a Texas Holdem tournament, Bruce is in the Kid’s Club (and is very excited about the make-your-own-board-game thing they have going on tonight), and I plan to hit the spa in a little while. There’s an Old World wine tasting in a little while and I’ll take Bruce to the pool this afternoon.

Tomorrow we’ll be in Talinn, Estonia!