Thursday, 30 June 2016

2016 Trip To Europe - Days 13 & 14 - St. Petersburg



Day 13 - St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg
I’ve wanted to see St. Petersburg for as long as I can remember. And when a Russian graduate student of mine told me about the Hermitage, where both his mother and father were curators, and about the extraordinary Impressionist collection there, I was hooked.

Trouble was, even though I’ve lived in Hungary when it was occupied by Russians, or perhaps because I lived in Hungary when it was occupied by Russians, I have been hesitant to travel independently to Russia, especially since I know not ONE word in Russian, and know that even their alphabet is totally different from ours. I wouldn’t be able to read even the street signs.

When JP found a cruise that spent two days in St. Petersburg and included a shore excursion to see the Impressionist Collection, I said “go for it’. We booked the Impressionist tour at the same moment we booked the cruise.

So here we are, docked in St. Petersburg. And yesterday, we finally saw my beloved Impressionists. There were major problems with our “tour” though. First, I think our tour director got her training at the gulag.

The written description of the tour said we would see the Impressionist paintings, and if time allowed, see the Fabergé Jewel encrusted Easter-egg collection, created by that jewel smith for the Romanovs.

Faberge Eggs, St. Petersburg
Clearly this was not our guide’s agenda. She took us to the blasted eggs first (in a far distant building) and proceeded to spend an hour and twenty minutes describing the history of egg after egg.

When, with some asperity, I said “Where are the paintings?” she replied, “In another building. We will get to them.”

We eventually did, and we had a total of twenty minutes to see them. I could have cried.  There were
One of many Monets in Hermitage Museum
room after room of Impressionists. Fifteen Monets just in the first room. Two huge square canvases of his garden, the largest Monets I have seen except for his water lily panels in the Orangerie.  There were Reniors, Degas, Gauguins, Van Goghs, Pissarro’s. I wanted to sit and study them to absorb them. The frustration of being rushed through them was unspeakable. I unhooked the ear phones through which we were fastened to our “guide”. She knew nothing about art. I found interesting her excuse for Russia keeping all these paintings they “liberated” from the Germans. She said they were “reparations”. That Russia had the right to keep them as repayment for all the damage Germany did to Russia during the war.

A little difficult to grasp, since most of these paintings were confiscated from Jewish families sent to their deaths by the Nazis, and should by any standard of honesty have been returned to their heirs, as were all the ones found by the British and American officers specifically assigned to that task.

The whole experience yesterday left a very bad taste in my mouth. Much as I’d like to spend more time with that glorious collection of art, I will not return to Russia. I had hoped to make this a “first trip”, but I would never feel safe here.





Evening in St. Petersburg - Day 13



Mariinsky Theatre
The other thing I wanted most to see in St. Petersburg, after the Impressionist Collection, was the Mariinsky Theatre, the historic theatre that has seen generation after generation of great Russian dancers, from Nijinsky and Karsanova to Baryshnikov and Nureyev.

We were able to obtain tickets to a performance that was a part of a music festival, “Stars of the White Nights”, the artistic director of which was Valery Gergiev, well-known to Canadian audiences.  White Nights of course refers to this time of year (June) when there is no darkness this far north. There is a sort of twilight, and then it is light again. (JP took a fabulous picture of the new moon setting in our white-night sky at midnight.)

Don Quixote, Mariinsky Theatre
The ballet was Don Quixote, and it provided us with three breathtaking hours of virtuoso dancing. That the dancing was flawless goes without saying – after all this is the original home of classical ballet with its associated ballet school. Most amazing were the children. I’m aware that the school takes them very young as residents, and that once they have been granted a place in this most prestigious of ballet schools, they have no life beyond dance. However knowing that, and seeing the product of this training, are two different things. There were children in this ballet. Quite a lot of children. And they were, one and all, polished, fully professional dancers. I would not have believed it possible had I not seen it.

This was a very good evening. We arrived back at the ship at midnight, having had nothing to eat since breakfast. Thank God for room service!





St. Petersburg - Day 14



Today was an exercise in complete frustration. We had thought an overview bus tour might be the best way to see St. Petersburg in our one remaining day. The palaces, the fountains.....  It was not.
 
In Russia, we could be covered by a “group visa” if we took tours organized by the ship. Otherwise we would have needed to obtain individual visas, a proposition that takes six months and many dollars. In hindsight, that is what we should have done, regardless of time and cost. This way we spent quite a lot of money, saw nothing, and spent four hours incarcerated with a tour guide who was related to Attila the Hun, only nastier. Enough said.

Church of the Spilled Blood
The one thing we saw today – the ONLY thing we saw, was the “Church of the Spilled Blood.” (Doesn’t that ever sound Russian?!) We were allowed out of the bus for seven minutes – I kid you not, seven minutes – to take pictures. And yet, miraculously there was time for a half hour visit to a tourist shop, where the guide, of course, would have gotten kickbacks from all sales. 


My advice to the unwary. Never take an organized tour off a cruise ship.


We are on our way to Finland now. I am not sorry to see Russia’s shore line recede.

****

Where Lemons Bloom by Blair McDowell
Blair McDowell's latest tale of Suspense  takes the reader to Italy's  beautiful Amalfi Coast.


"Adamo and Eve are two people who have both been through their own versions of hell. They are both certain that they are not ready to enter into a relationship, but love finds them anyway. Then it takes them on the non-stop thrill ride of their lives."
-   Marlene Harris, readingitall.com




 
When Eve Anderson meets Adamo de Leone on a ship bound for Europe, she has no idea of the dark secret that will endanger both their lives. She accompanies him to his home on Italy’s Amalfi Coast to open an inn left to him by his grandfather. But then she learns he spent 5 years in prison for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Could the man she loves be responsible for embezzling eighty million dollars from the investment firm he once owned?

Adamo wants to hold Eve at arm’s length until he can clear his proud family name. But when there is an attempt on his life and Eve is terrorized by a gun-bearing thug, he realizes how much he wants her, and he must accept whatever help he can get to uncover the well-hidden trail of a six-year-old crime.


Books of Blair McDowell
To review and purchase any of Blair McDowell's books, Click Here.

    

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

2016 Trip to Europe - Day 16 - Stockholm, Sweden



We opted to wander in the old town of Stockholm. It occupies an island. So many twentieth century cities in Europe had their beginnings as wall-enclosed Islands in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries and even earlier. Paris started on w
Stockholm
hat is now the Isle St. Louis in the middle of the Seine, Concarneau in Brittany originally sat on an island connected to the mainland by a drawbridge. Our favorite small Italian town, Sermione, sits out in Lake Garda, surrounded by fortifications. The reason is obvious. It was easier to defend a walled town surrounded by water than one surrounded by dry land. Where no river or lake was handy, the early Europeans built moats.

Old Houses of Stockholm
The old center of old Stockholm, known as the Gamla Stan, is a high hill steeply ascending from water on all sides.  Today it is connected to the modern city by seven bridges and also by ferries.

Rough cobblestone streets lead up to the Palace area. It was Sunday morning and we just missed being able to attend a service in the old Lutheran Church on top the hill, but were fortunate to hear a choir rehearsal in the Palace chapel. The chapel was up two very long flights of stairs. It seems one must climb endless flights of steps to get anyplace in Northern Europe. This would not have rated a mention when I was twenty, or even fifty, but I have a knee that requires TLC, and I’ve refused to acknowledge that until now. Mind over matter and all that. But today I’m paying the price. I must remember in the future to travel with gel ice packs.

Throne Room
To our surprise, the palace, the home of the Swedish Royal Family, had a lift. We didn’t notice it. A young attendant noticed me looking in trepidation at the stairs winding heavenwards to the “first floor” and took us to a lift.  So we got to see the Royal Sitting Room, the royal Bedrooms, the Royal Banquet Room and a host of other chambers. The walls were all highly decorated – covered in a pattern of gold crowns over and over, the only difference from room to room being a change in the background color, from royal blue to racing green to deep burgundy.  There was a throne room. I don’t believe I have ever seen an actual throne room before.

There were three major differences between this Swedish Royal Residence and the palaces I’ve seen before. First it is much simpler in its decoration than Versailles, or Schönbrun, or Windsor Castle, second it has no vast gardens, and third it is very much smaller. It looks, in fact, rather like a place one might actually live, although I suspect the royal family no longer does. Among other things, it would be a bitch to heat.

Leaving the chilly interiors we wandered outside to sit in the sunshine at a little café in the palace courtyard. The young man who served us spoke quite perfect English. Jeanette asked him “How many languages do you speak? “Just three,” he answered. “Swedish, English and Croatian.”  “Croatian?”
“Yes. I’m Croatian, and so are my mother and my father and my brother,” he said, pointing to the three other people working the stand.  The pastries were delicious.

We wandered out into the square and saw the
Nobel Prize Building
building where Nobel Prize winners assemble each year. A surprisingly simple building for one with so much prestige.

Then we ambled down toward the water, through shops and cafés. We found one shop that had some lovely things, hand painted Swedish designs... Wanted everything in sight, but contented ourselves with two egg cups.

I have one regret in Stockholm ... that we did not see the Vasa – the very old wooden ship brought up intact from these cold, almost fresh waters after hundreds of years, now on permanent display. I missed it by accident. I hadn’t realized this was where the museum was.

Sailing out of Stockholm
The islands of Stockholm
The sail-away from Stockholm was spectacular. Stockholm is not just a city, it is many, many islands, some connected by bridges, others only by boat. And Stockholm harbour extends many miles through islands and rock outcroppings. Our ship required a Stockholm pilot for a 50 km distance. I cannot begin to imagine how many ships floundered on these rocks over the centuries. But the passage through the islands with their low forests and beautiful Scandinavian style houses, with sailboats all around us, was the best part of our day here.

****

Where Lemons Bloom by Blair McDowell
Blair McDowell's latest tale of Suspense  takes the reader to Italy's  beautiful Amalfi Coast.


"Adamo and Eve are two people who have both been through their own versions of hell. They are both certain that they are not ready to enter into a relationship, but love finds them anyway. Then it takes them on the non-stop thrill ride of their lives."
-   Marlene Harris, readingitall.com




 
When Eve Anderson meets Adamo de Leone on a ship bound for Europe, she has no idea of the dark secret that will endanger both their lives. She accompanies him to his home on Italy’s Amalfi Coast to open an inn left to him by his grandfather. But then she learns he spent 5 years in prison for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Could the man she loves be responsible for embezzling eighty million dollars from the investment firm he once owned?

Adamo wants to hold Eve at arm’s length until he can clear his proud family name. But when there is an attempt on his life and Eve is terrorized by a gun-bearing thug, he realizes how much he wants her, and he must accept whatever help he can get to uncover the well-hidden trail of a six-year-old crime.


Books of Blair McDowell
To review and purchase any of Blair McDowell's books, Click Here.

    

Friday, 24 June 2016

2016 Trip to Europe - Day 15 - Helsinki, Finland



We awoke in the harbour of Helsinki. I must admit I
Helsinki Harbour
know next to nothing about these next three countries we will visit.

We took a “hop-on-hop-off” bus to get a general overview of Helsinki. It was a good choice. We were taken along the sea and through neighborhoods that had a quite affluent look. There were many apartment buildings, but no high-rises. Few buildings exceeded four stories. The architecture reminds me of parts of nineteenth century Budapest and Vienna, the yellow houses with white decorative trim.

Our guide told us that Finland, in addition to having a national health plan that covers all that country’s people for everything, birth to grave, also has a national education plan under which all education is free through university and post high school technical schools. No student ever has to pay a cent to attend school at any level. What a model to aspire to!

Sibelius Monument
We saw the highlights of the city, Sibelius Park, with a monument to that great Finnish composer. The monument, executed by a contemporary Finnish sculptor, looks like nothing so much as a collection of organ pipes standing helter-skelter next to each other in a large bunch. It seems the people of Helsinki were no more impressed than I, because they made him go back and insert a bust of Sibelius in among the pipes.

There is quite a lot of super-modern architecture
Finlandia Hall
tucked in here and there, particularly in public buildings. Finlandia Hall is one example, lots of glass and odd shapes.

It is always interesting to hear viewpoints on “the war” meaning WW2. These were voiced, unsolicited both in St. Petersburg and here. Finland managed somehow to remain neutral all through the war, so, according to our guide, was a hot bed for spying, as well as a refuge for those escaping from German held territories. Both the Russians and the Americans had Embassies here, in the same block for the duration of the war.

Lutheran Cathedral
The Lutheran Cathedral, visible from the harbour, is an imposing all white structure with columns and a dome, in the Senate Square.

They told us the other important church, the all brick Uspenski Cathedral near the harbour, is the largest Orthodox Church (I suppose meaning Russian Orthodox) church in
Uspenski Cathedral
Western Europe. The inside is ablaze with chandeliers and gilt and florid decoration.

After our sight-seeing we wandered through the market and bought a box of strawberries. These are small ones, a bit like the wild ones. They are sweet beyond belief!

****



Where Lemons Bloom by Blair McDowell
Blair McDowell's latest tale of Suspense  takes the reader to Italy's  beautiful Amalfi Coast.


"Adamo and Eve are two people who have both been through their own versions of hell. They are both certain that they are not ready to enter into a relationship, but love finds them anyway. Then it takes them on the non-stop thrill ride of their lives."
-   Marlene Harris, readingitall.com




 
When Eve Anderson meets Adamo de Leone on a ship bound for Europe, she has no idea of the dark secret that will endanger both their lives. She accompanies him to his home on Italy’s Amalfi Coast to open an inn left to him by his grandfather. But then she learns he spent 5 years in prison for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Could the man she loves be responsible for embezzling eighty million dollars from the investment firm he once owned?

Adamo wants to hold Eve at arm’s length until he can clear his proud family name. But when there is an attempt on his life and Eve is terrorized by a gun-bearing thug, he realizes how much he wants her, and he must accept whatever help he can get to uncover the well-hidden trail of a six-year-old crime.


Books of Blair McDowell
To review and purchase any of Blair McDowell's books, Click Here.