St. Petersburg, Day 2

We booked a private tour with Tailored Tours of St. Petersburg and it was just the two of us, our guide, and the driver. We could have booked a less-expensive group tour with the same company but we wanted the freedom to design our own itinerary and adjust on the fly. Our guide was very efficient in getting us through the various sites on the first day and was more than competent in providing information and interesting perspectives. It was on the second day that she proved herself to be worth her weight in gold.

First up, the Hermitage, aka the Winter Palace. We had early entrance tickets but then it seemed like half of tourists did too. When we arrived, the line was half a block long and about 3-4 people abreast. Our guide whipped out her phone and made a couple of calls. A person showed up with tickets and we were whisked in ahead of the line. Nice!


The actual throne used by the Emperors and Empresses of Russia
The actual throne used by the Emperors and Empresses of Russia

The Hermitage was overly crowded and the small passage ways between the galleries did not hep help with the flow of bodies. Our guide, however, knew how to maneuver through the crowds and as long as we followed in her wake we were able to get through the galleries pretty quickly. No waiting 15-20 minutes to see the Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt masterpieces for us. She whisked us to the front, did her explanation, and allowed us to have a close up look, and then we were off to the next piece or art. Very glad to have visit the Hermitage, it is truly an impressive building and collection, and forever grateful to our guide for making is an enjoyable experience.



IMG_20170816_122508370She then again took us to a cute place for lunch where I had the traditional blini (pancake) and beef stroganoff (we saw the Stroganoff Palace where this dish was invented). The bathroom reflected the whimsy of the restaurant.

Our tour ended in the Fortress of Peter and Paul with a visit to the Cathedral where many members of the Romanov imperial family were buried. If you had a very critical mother who did not want you to ascend to the throne and who basically had your father killed so that she could take over the throne, what would be your ultimate revenge? For Tsar Paul, it was to exhume his father’s remains and bury it next to his mother.

Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral where Paul is buried with his parents, Catherine the Great and Peter III
Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral where Paul is buried with his parents, Catherine the Great and Peter III


Rosie revisits her hippie days with Harvey
Rosie revisits her hippie days with Harvey




The Fortress sits on Hare Island. So it made natural sense that there would be bronze statutes of hares placed throughout the Fortress. Here is Rosie with her new friend, Harvey.




As we sailed away from St. Petersburg, I can definitely say that it a magnificent city worthy of any bucket list.

St. Petersburg, Day 1

When I visit a city, I generally do not try to cram in too much and would spend a fair amount of time in one or two places a day. That approach went out the window in St. Petersburg because I don’t know if I’d ever come back. So, we booked a whirlwind tour that gave us the highlights of the city and would make my friend Maria proud.

As we left the cruise port on the way to Peterhof, all we saw were these cinder brick monstrosity of apartment buildings obviously from the Soviet era. All I could think of was where were the imperial grandeur and magnificent architecture that I was expecting from the seat of Tsars of Russia. I need not worry – Peterhof more than answered the mail.

Peter the Great’s summer palace is known for its fountains and I will cover that later but first is the palace itself. Since we could not fit a visit to Catherine’s Palace, we decided to tour the interior of Peterhof. The Russian royal family and nobles know how to do over-the-top opulence including seemingly gilding every available surface with gold without being garish. We were not allowed to take pictures of the interior of Peterhof, so here is a picture of the exterior of the part of Peterhof built for Empress Elizabeth.



And the fountains were a sight to behold.





















And then we were off to lunch as this cute and kitschy café with our guide. The interior was decorated in what you would imagine a Russian country cottage would look like in a fairytale. The food was tasty and reasonably priced. The café attracted tourists and locals alike. How do I know? As we were leaving, we passed by two police officers having lunch.

After lunch, we were off to Yusupov Palace. This is one of the great palaces of the very rich Russian aristocratic family that had ties to the royal family. Its place in history was solidified when the last Prince Yusupov and his co-conspirators killed Rasputin in the basement of the palace. Our guide had an interesting take on Rasputin. While he is generally portrayed as this sinister person who exploited the Empress Alexandria’s understandable concern for her son, our guide saw him as a courageous and unselfish peasant who was trying to save the Romanov house because he was the only one who could treat the lone heir to the throne. In any case, as we were viewing the room of the first attempt to kill Rasputin, we ran into Rosie’s friend with whom we were meeting for dinner later that day.

Beyond that historical event, the palace itself rivaled any royal residence in Europe. Beyond the usual decoration and furniture made of precious and semi-precious stone and jewels and awesome architectural feature, how about this for a home theater.



We then did a walking tour that included St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. They are as magnificent as the pictures in travel guides suggest.


We did so much walking that day that our Fitbit told us that we took 20,000+ steps that day. But we were not done, we still had the Faberge museum and dinner left. We were so tired that all we really focused on were the imperial eggs and did not really appreciate the rest of the museum which had a fabulous collection of porcelain art. Rosie ran into her friend again at this museum. I was too oblivious to notice but was happy to see them again at dinner at Palkin.

Rosie’s friend is a foodie and chose Palkin because of its long 200+ year history and its reputation of serving fine Russian cuisine. Since I was likely to have dinner only once in Russia, I went with the 9-course tasting menu. It was yummy and worth every penny.


Sea Fortress

I had never visited Helsinki before and we were in port for the day only. Rather than try see as many sights in such as short amount of time, we decided to visit one or two interesting places and spend the day there. We went to the Suomenlinna island fortress because ruins were interesting, especially since they let you walk among the old structures and ramparts, and it looked like a great place to hang out on a beautiful summer day. Built during the 18th century and re-fortified during the 19th, it was part of the defense of three countries – Finland, Sweden, and Russia. It no longer functions as a fortress, though many of the original buildings and ramparts remain, and is a world heritage site. The fortress spreads across 6 islands and we explored most of them, so we can claim to have visited 5 islands during this visit. Here are some sights from the fortress.

One of the remaining ramparts
One of the remaining ramparts
One of the windows overlooking the beach. May have been a lookout or an opening for a cannon.
One of the windows overlooking the beach. May have been a lookout or an opening for a cannon.
A house that a Hobbit could live in
A house that a Hobbit could live in.
Picnic by the water's edge
Picnic by the water’s edge


After a 4 mile walk under perfect hiking weather, we stopped by the Viapori Café to pick up our picnic basket and blanket. We found a nice spot by the water to enjoy a delicious lunch prepared by the café. Word of warning for those who may want to order the picnic lunch from the café – the minimum order for 2 people can easily fill up 4. The ducks and birds politely waited nearby for us to finish before scooping our crumbs. It was a wonderful way to spend the day and Rosie did not want to leave. I was so exhausted by the time I got back that I took a 3-hour nap and missed the sail away.



Yummy Swedish Meatballs

The Viking Homeland cruise started in Stockholm. I visited the city several years ago and loved the architecture and feel of it. Because of the jet lag and having already seen most of the tourist sites, I ended up not doing much in Stockholm. Memories of the amazing Swedish meatballs from my prior trip drove us to have dinner at Kvarnen (and the fact that it was a 15 minute walk from the ship) and again it was delicious. The sail away gave us a perspective of Stockholm and Sweden that I did not see before.  The city is an archipelago and we passed many small islands and interesting structures as the ship headed to Finland.

Bye beautiful Stockholm
Bye beautiful Stockholm
Cool sculpture/fountain
Cool sculpture/fountain
One of several small lighthouses on islands that dotted the route out of Stockholm
One of several small lighthouses on islands that dotted the route out of Stockholm

The Layover

Before I could fly to Stockholm, I had a long layover in Frankfurt. How to fill the time? Take a bath and a nap since I really did not sleep on the flight over. My niece and nephew will have a couple of new rubber duckies to add to their collection.   IMG_0079

After a light lunch I was driven in Porsche to the plane because it was not parked at a gate. We were going all over the tarmac and at one point I was convinced that the driver was either lost or was trying to figure out where the plane was parked. When we finally made it to the place, we had to wait a few minutes in the car because it was still refueling. Turns out that I was the first passenger to board. This plane had the slim-line seats. Not comfortable at all! I would hate to be in these seats for more than a couple of hours. Continue reading The Layover

Finally, my vacation is here!

After much planning, I am finally embarking on my vacation on Viking’s Homeland Cruise. First, I have to get to Stockholm to board the Viking Star. My flight is on a Boeing 747-8i, a fairly new plane that is the longest commercial jet by a few inches. I have a special place in my heart for the 747. My first overseas flight alone was in a 747. Back then, there was a smoking section and while I asked for a non-smoking seat I had no idea about planes and seating arrangements. Needless to say, my non-smoking seat was one row ahead of the smoking section. I think it was from that experience that I became obsessive about my seat assignment.

Lufthansa 747-81
Lufthansa 747-81

But back to my flight to Frankfurt. I snagged seat 1K and I was told that it’s the front-most seat and that I will be arriving into Germany before anybody else, LOL! Since I was sitting by the curvature of the nose, I had amazing views from both sides of the plane as we were taking off. The engine noise sounds quite distant. It’s the guy next to me snoring that’s keeping me up. Makes me kinda wish for engine noise to drown him out.

The flight was a smooth and uneventful and the flight attendants were super nice and helpful. I hope this good start bodes well for the rest of my vacation. Up next, embarkation in Stockholm.