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2019: Going POSH on the Baltic Sea

1. From Southampton to St Petersburg

POSH

As posh as it gets

Having cruised through Russia from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and then through Europe from the North Sea to the Black Sea, we now felt the need to complete this "Eastern European Ring" by cruising from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea. We decided that we should do it the POSH way, ie travelling on a P&O SHIP, although when we knew our cabin number (Deck C cabin 3) people pointed out to us that it was more like Star Wars (C3PO). Actually we were delighted with our cabin: it was long and narrow (a shape that we are well used to) and extremely well appointed with a splendid view out over the bows of the ship.

The ship sailed from Southampton so there was no air travel involved, which made packing our suitcases a lot easier; also coach travel was included in the fare so we didn't have to worry about any complications such as a breakdown on the Motorway (it was the coach company's problem, not ours; when the wheels fell off the coach on the way to collect us, they simply sent another coach).

 

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Arcadia. Our cabin window is one of the two which is 2 decks below the bridge
The cabin was fantastic
The forwards view over the bows was just superb

Our first port of call was Kristiansand, on the southern tip of Norway. We had booked a walking tour of this pretty little town, and it started very well indeed. We strolled around the marina area with its parklands and ancient fortress, and visited a wonderful fish market, but then we had a absolutely torrential rain-shower. The good thing was that there was only one such shower; the bad thing was that it lasted all day and we got utterly drenched! Even the pockets of my waterproof jacket filled with rain, but that turned out to be a good thing because the water soon warmed up and I found that I could keep my hands warm by keeping them in my pockets. We had great sympathy for our tour guide, who was suffering from a severe cold; she of course was also soaking wet, and almost completely lost her voice, but somehow she soldiered on with her job to the very end.

 

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We all gathered on the rear deck for a "farewell to Southampton" party
Debbie soon got into the party spirit!
Outside the fish market was this statue of a Norwegian fish-wife
Near the Marina there was a beautiful water-fountain

Threading our way out through the maze of tiny islands around Kristiansand, the ship set course for Copenhagen while we started to adapt to shipboard life. With almost 2000 passengers, this was by far the biggest ship that we had cruised on, and at first we were highly impressed with the high level of organisation that ensured co-ordination of the activities, the entertainment, and the dining on board. We booked "freedom dining" for dinner, which meant that we could dine at any time that we wanted - but soon discovered that this usually meant collecting a pager from the restaurant and waiting for a random length of time to be summoned as soon as a table was free; this meant that sometimes our pre-dinner drink was suddenly curtailed but sometimes it stretched on and on. We considered buying their all-inclusive drink package but it was extremely expensive and was extremely inflexible; instead their wine package was both flexible and affordable, which meant we could have a very good bottle of wine with dinner each night.

We had booked a walking tour of Copenhagen, including (of course) a sightseeing trip on its canals, so we were keeping our fingers crossed that the weather would be better that day. We started by seeing the famous Little Mermaid statue (it really IS little) and then, passing the NATO naval fleet which was visiting, we strolled along in the sunshine while our guide pointed out various other statues and Royal palaces.

 

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The 'Little Mermaid' statue gazes wistfully out across the harbour of Copenhagen

Suddenly the weather changed and another shower began, luckily just as the guide was leading us into a little restaurant to taste some delicious Danish pastries. By the time we had finished eating, the sun had come out again and we walked happily through the streets of wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen (oops, sorry, I got a bit carried away there!). Actually the older streets are stunningly beautiful, very similar to those of Amsterdam, and soon we were boarding the canal boat to see some of them from the water. As well as the beautiful houses we saw fabulous churches, we saw their amazing new opera house which even has a ski-slope on its roof, and we also passed a large floating community whose population, living mainly on old ferry-boats, have apparently declared themselves to be an independent and self-sufficient country.

I noticed that the roof of our boat passed very closely beneath the many small bridges that span the canals, and yet there was clearly also very little spare depth beneath us, which intrigued me because there was no entrance lock separating the canals from the tidal waters of the open sea. When I enquired about this I was told that the Baltic is virtually tideless; indeed, we were there at the time of a Spring Tide which meant that there would be an unusually high rise & fall of nearly 10cm from high to low tide!

Luckily our boat had a good roof, for there was another torrential shower just before we finished the trip (one unlucky couple got soaked because their window got jammed in the Open position).

 

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This impressive statue, on a very tall pillar, commemorates a major 19th century naval battle
In this fine statue the Norse goddess Gefion ploughing the sea to create the island of Zealand.
The waterside of Copenhagen is very similar to that of Amsterdam
This tower is unusual in having an external stairway that runs anticlockwise

We now had 2 days at sea to enjoy the wide range delights that the ship could offer us. As time progressed, however, we began to find the high level of on-board organisation was somewhat restrictive, and made the whole experience rather impersonal. There was a highly impressive programme of activities available every day, but after trying a few of them on the first couple of days we found ourselves looking down the list each morning and mentally saying "no" to each of them. The Scavenger Hunt around the ship was fun (even though we came almost last) and we joined in with a few quizzes but were disappointed to find that some passengers took them very seriously instead of regarding them as just a bit of fun; for example when answer papers were exchanged with neighbouring tables for marking, many of our correct answers were deliberately marked down as wrong, whereas other people surreptitiously added correct answers to their own papers when they were returned after being marked. We were not feeling competitive in that way, and soon gave up on them.

Almost everything, especially in the evenings, was tailored to fit to a 45 minute slot whether that was appropriate or not; for example there was an excellent concert pianist on board, but he always played just short excerpts from his pieces because there wasn't time to play them in full, and his performances were always brought to a halt just as we were settling into the wonderful music, There was a wide range of on-stage entertainment every night, including a highly professional performance by the ship's troupe; yes they were highly accomplished singers and dancers, but their performances were somehow soul-less and lacked any connection with the audience. The visiting acts however were generally excellent - particularly  the comedy ventriloquist Steve Hewlett, and the vocal trio the Base Tones - as were the resident duo RYT who appeared in a different bar every night (we followed them around) and the trio Misty Blue who gave an excellent Fleetwood Mac tribute act which again deserved to be considerably longer than just 45 minutes. Basically we began to feel as if we were treated like a herd of cattle; very well-treated indeed, but herded nonetheless and as "cash cows" who were offered the opportunity to spend additional money at every possible occasion; we realised that, enjoyable though our cruising time was, life aboard such an enormous ship was just not for us!

 

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St Petersburg, as seen from the ship just after our arrival

After a couple of days at sea, we were looking forward to our third visit to the beautiful city of St Petersburg. We had arranged our chosen excursions over the two days to be as different as possible from those of our previous trips; they included  visits to a local market and to a small shopping centre, afternoon tea and cakes, a ride on the Metro, and a tour of the inside of the iconic "Church on the Spilled Blood". We had seen the outside of this famous church, which was built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated, but this was our first opportunity to see inside it.

 

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Our coach took us into St Petersburg along the river front, with its impressive view of classic buildings including the Hermitage, and along to the main street of Nevski Prospect
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The market had the most amazing array of fish, meat, and vegetables (Debbie wanted to carry a watermelon!)

On our first day in St Petersburg, the coach took us past a number of sights which we had visited us previously and then dropped us on the Nevski Prospect so that we could visit a local food market. After visiting the food market we had nearly an hour to browse a small shopping mall, which included a small supermarket and several other shops giving us the opportunity to buy a few souvenirs before then it was time for afternoon tea.

Afternoon Tea

Doesn't this look mouth-wateringly inviting? As well as cup of tea, we were each given two large portions of a local delicacy which was similar to filled sponge or brioche. The one on the left sounded delicious, with a  filling of cooked cherries, but we were highly dubious about the one on the right which was apparently filled with cabbage and swede. Amazingly, this latter was even more delicious than the cherry filling, and we greedily finished every mouthful despite wanting to save our appetite for the fine-dining dinner that we had booked for ourselves on board the ship that night.

We were then led along the streets to the nearest Metro station. I was intrigued to find that their ticketing system is completely different to ours, for you must pay to enter the system (although at certain times such as late evening it is apparently free of charge) but you do not pay according to the distance to your destination so there is no need for any ticket check either at any intermediate point or at the exit, which seems to make the system very smooth-running. As a group we followed our guide down the escalator, deep beneath the streets of St Petersburg, and then made our way individually to our destination where the coach was waiting to take us back to the ship.

 

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The Metro system is extremely ornate - although not as ornate as the one in Moscow - as well as being efficient and well signposted. We travelled for 3 stops on two different lines, and nobody needed to make use of the sheet of  emergency instructions which we were each given before we travelled.

Before boarding the ship we took advantage of the duty-free shop at the dockside which was offering some good deals on bottles of Vodka; I was particularly pleased to be able to buy myself another bottle of the spectacular chilli-and-honey vodka which I had discovered on our previous visit to Russia.

By now we were beginning to notice that there was a distinct hierarchy amongst the elderly passengers (we may be 70 ourselves but we were among the youngest people on this ship) based upon their displayed level of physical immobility. Just above us mere 'able' mortals there were the people who needed to use a walking stick, but  this barely counted for any status. A walking frame was good, especially one with wheels, and was very useful for obstructing a lot of other people to demonstrate a sort of dominance over them. A wheel-chair of course was highly desirable, and their occupants jostled with each other to demonstrate that theirs was bigger, more versatile, or more ornate, than the others around them; when several wheelchairs were waiting for the arrival of a lift, as they often did, the opening of the doors resembled the start of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. At the top of the hierarchy were mobility scooters and motorised wheelchairs (in that order); the clear winner was one person with a high-speed wheeled electric chariot that could probably have competed at the Santa Pod drag-strip, and you really had to jump clear quickly when its driver aimed for you. What really annoyed us what that many of these people did not really need to use their mobility aids at all, they simply revelled in the degree of inconvenience that they could cause to lesser individuals. For example there were several people who used their frame or chair as a way of reserving a place in a queue, or a seat in the restaurant, while they simply stood up and walked away from it to buy their shopping or collect their self-service food items etc.

The next day we took the coach back into the city, where we had a short walking tour before arriving at the Church on the Spilled Blood.

Church on the Spilled Blood

The exterior of this beautiful church is a positively iconic symbol of St Petersburg. There were long queues for admission, but as a pre-booked party we were let in with the minimum of delay. The interior was absolutely stunning to behold, intricately covered in mosaics of mainly semi-precious stones. Much of it is  a re-creation of the original which was badly damaged during the war, but it is nevertheless simply wonderful to behold. The intricate artwork on the Altar Screen is particularly fine

 

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The interior of the church is just incredible to behold
The Rood Screen is fabulously detailed
Looking up to the ceiling inside the tower
The canopy over the precise spot where Alexander II was assassinated

After 2 days in St Petersburg we were sorry to leave this beautiful city, but it was of course time for us to begin our journey home.

 

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The bay of St Petersburg is protected by a long embankment which stretches out into the Baltic Sea from both sides to leave only a narrow gap through which ships can pass. A major roadway crosses here, with a short tunnel under the centre section.
Leaving St Petersburg we headed Westwards towards a spectacular sunset

Now we had the excitement of knowing that we were about to visit two countries that were completely new to us: Latvia and Estonia.

 

Into the night

With St Petersburg behind us we sailed into a beautiful cloudless night

 

 

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