Travelogue Baltic 1: Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN

15 – 16 June 2016

The Baltic cruise had actually originally been our second choice for honeymoon destination (behind a Costa Rica and Panama combination), but trumped thanks to our – in retrospect very wise – decision to opt for the “one stop shopping” cruise option. The first half of the year had been very hectic, so having a single booking translate into the majority of an itinerary was an absolute blessing! (Not that all the busyness has prevented us from booking our next 3 getaways already, mind! 😀 )

Quite used to our usual double-barrel flight arrangements through Dubai, the journey was as painless as any, marred only slightly by my sinus infection’s insistence on using cabin pressure as a valid reason to flare up, leaving me gasping for breath, sniffing and sneezing. Fortunately we had a row to ourselves, so tissue plugs in the nostrils and full horizontal allowed me to sleep through the worst of it. A very glamorous and romantic start to the honeymoon indeed!

We arrived to a very moderate 20 degree Copenhagen. As per pilot’s update, a smattering of cumulonimbus threatening some light late afternoon showers in an otherwise perfectly pleasant day.

The airport is really tourist friendly with English translations on all the signage and simple options on how to move from the airport to Copenhagen Central (or catch a train to Sweden, or a host of other presumably popular options).

We mastered the automated ticketing machine and were soon headed to Track 2, which we trusted was the correct one since we arrived to a platform of tourists all equally unsure of the same decision – and all audibly joyous (little more than 10 minutes later) as we all pulled into the Central Station, as planned.

We’d picked up a tourist map at the airport and the short train ride was more than enough time to navigate our path from Central Station to our hotel, which was only a few hundred metres and an almost straight line away.

Cabinn Inn is a very functional and conveniently located hotel in a city where the word “bargain” simply does not apply to accommodation. The rooms are tiny, with a small double bed taking up the majority of the floor space, a single bunk fitted above the head of the bed and the en-suite little more than a shower head above a toilet cubicle. The Rand:Krone might literally be more or less 2:1, but you’d get way more than double the value for this R1600 room (excluding breakfast, which is another R170 each for a continental selection) back home. Nevermind though, it was just a place to rest weary heads – and, no doubt, good practice for our cruise cabin.

Denmark is a Nordic country attached to Northern Europe by a bulb of landmass, with a collection of islands – called the Danish Archipelago – stretching into the Baltic Sea. Copenhagen is the capital, situated on the Eastern side of the largest island Sjaelland (Zealand) and spilling over to the Western side of neighbouring island Amager (which is where the airport is).

Denmark is joined to Sweden by a combination of tunnel and an 8km suspension bridge over the Oresund strait which houses both rail and motorway. I can imagine this modern convenience would have been quite handy back in the 10th century when the Vikings established their little fishing village and more so in the 15th century when Christian IV started working his magic to elevate Copenhagen’s standing – and in so doing, requisitioned many of the regal buildings which are among the numerous tourist attractions in the city today.

Our plan for the arvie was to move immediately towards the main canal (the one that runs between Sjaelland and Amager) to walk the length of the waterfront until Christian Bridge and then veer inland to meander the main city centre en route back to the hotel, catching some dinner somewhere along the way.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Mostly because a) things are a lot closer together than they appear on the map and b) there are some supremely consequential things that maps don’t show, like bridge maintenance that renders a route unplayable. A good combination of problems to have seeing as the former dilutes the latter.

Our walk was very pleasant. And a lot less traumatic than me having to bicycle, like 9 out of 10 residents of Copenhagen do, apparently. The lay of the land is very flat so amenable so consequently there are hoards of bicycles everywhere. Fortunately for us, being the middle of the work day, we saw them in slots in parking lots. Can only imagine there must be a proper cycling rush hour before and after work!

Barely a block and we were at Kalvebod Brygge. The waterfront consists of wide wooden decks fringing the canal on our side and what looked to be restaurants and cafes dotted along a similar waterfront on the other side of the water. There was no railing separating deck from water and there were several people socialising, sprawled out on the wood, chatting on the steps and sunning themselves on deck chairs, like the canal was a beachfront (and like it was hotter than it actually was). All very orderly good clean fun, which is probably why there were none of the usual barrage of signs prohibiting this, that and the other.

We detoured from our waterfront walk when a pole of tourist signs caught our attention with a pocket of places of interest a block or two inland and, in so doing, wandered along Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard. With the Glyptoteket and Tivoli in front of us we realised we’d come full circle, so took a turn into Ny Kongensgade figuring the ‘kongen’ bit was something to do with king, royal etc. It did. And we caught the (outside of) a few museums, churches and the Christiansborg Palace a block or so in.

We learnt that a “lapidarium” is where stone sculptures and carvings are retired to; Copenhagen’s Lapidarium of Kings is found in Christian IV’s brewhouse. We also learnt that The Glyptoteket is an art museum, built around the personal collection of Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. Combining these bits of information with a sighting of a BK billboard announcing that beer is an option of drink in their meals meant we learnt a third thing – beer is a big part of Danish culture – and a fourth thing – we were going to like this place!

We extracted ourselves from the cultural part of the walk to cross the bridge to Christianshavn, a semicircular island pocketed in the close section of Amager.

The buildings along the water on this side were quite different to their historic counterparts on the side we’d just come from, with lots of metal, glass and shiny facades. With no particular agenda in mind, we wandered along Christianhavns Canal – a bit like Amsterdam, with all the brightly coloured boats moored on either side and the bars and cafés spilling onto the streets – thinking we’d reconnect with the Sjaelland side over the next bridge.

Our plan was thwarted however when the next bridge, which also seemed to be the last bridge, was under construction. A pity too because we’d spotted a hive of activity on the other side that we wanted to check out… but now that would mean walking back all the way we came and then retracing all those footsteps on the other side. Typical.

We did also see a couple of big cruise ships docked and assumed one of them to be our destination for the next day (excitement!), so logicked that we could do that end of the waterfront along with the citadel and Little Mermaid the next day when we moved over that side to board our cruise. Thus, we followed the next part of the plan and took Borsgade towards Stroeget (the main shopping street).

All the walking had activated our appetites, but it was awkwardly too late for lunch and too early for dinner so we reverted to Old Faithful from previous travels and hit the 711. This was our first real exposure to Copenhagen prices and we got quite a fright when a slice of pizza and a Carlsberg each was about R250!

It was good (pepperoni!) pizza though and the beer was cold, so it’s hard to complain when you’re able to sit on the steps at the base of a regal horseman statue, in the sunshine, with a view across a pretty canal at a collection of beautiful centuries-old buildings… when one could just as easily have had to be working in the winter back home. Not that (m)any seemed to be working here – there were swarms of people “beaching” canalside!

Stroget – at 1.1km, the longest pedestrian street in Europe – stretches from Radhuspladsen (City Hall Square) where we were all the way up to Kongens Nytorv Square (the back end of Tivoli), with a healthy collection of high-street shops, restaurants and bars. We combined our sight-seeing with hunting for a dinner place, for which we were hoping to do something traditionally Danish since we only had one evening in Copenhagen.

Also, it seemed like as good a time as any to tick the traditional Guinness off our list. R312 for 2 pints of Guinness at The Dubliner officially puts Copenhagen in first place on our Guinness Index!!

We had happened upon a tourist publication while in The Dubliner that suggested Vesterbro (the suburb on the far side of Tivoli) as a good destination for casual dining, which made for as good as any a next mission.

We walked a fair way down the Istedgade and didn’t see anything by way of traditional food – although by their sheer numbers, you’d think schwarmas, burgers and Italian food were local specialities! – so sought refuge in an grungy alternative bar called Simpelt V instead.

Hard to say how long we were there since it was as light as day when we left as when we arrived – our first taste of white nights on travel-fatigue day (compounded by my watery-eyed sinus haze) was very confusing!

It had also confused our bellies so, determined not to have the Tuborg and Carlsberg be our welcome dinner, we got a bacon and cheese hotdog at the 711. The Danes are as passionate about hotdogs as the Icelandics, so it was a legit bit of on-the-go dining, mastered by the 1-man-band who was working the tills, toasting our rolls and even catching a shoplifter simultaneously – easily a 3 or 4 person shift back home (and the shoplifter would have gotten away, for sure).

Flaking while it was still light felt very defeatist, especially on our first night.

… but a long night’s sleep (plus a Med Lemon, an Allergex and a generous slathering of Vicks) did me the world of good and I woke in a far better state.

Pity the weather wasn’t as complicit. We woke to grey skies and it was already drizzling as we hit the streets in search of breakfast.

It was coming down a fair bit by the time we got to the top end of Stroget so we sought solace in, you guessed it, 711. It didn’t disappoint and we procured delicious fresh Danish pastries (in both sense of the word) with melt-in-your-mouth pastry, light creamy custard and rich smooth glacé icing.

With renewed vigour, Chris then very cleverly sourced us a cheapo brolly, which made our walk in the rain that much more manageable.

Beyond wanting to tick the few sightseeing boxes we’d missed the day before, our new mission was a (warm, dry) place that served smorrebrod, the Danish traditional open-faced sandwiches.

We struggled on the main shopping street since most places only serve from 11 or 11.30. We should have guessed as much from the day before where there was much advertising (and reviews in the travel guides) for brunch and lunch, which seems to be the focal meal for the day.

We eventually came right with nondescript Restaurant and Cafe Nytorv (which I later found out is actually a bit of a heritage site, being 150 years old and one of the oldest inns in Copenhagen), where a humourless hostess looked very unimpressed that we wanted to order off the lunch menu a full half hour before time! She did begrudgingly concede – although it took so long for the food to come we thought she might be holding out until the legit serving time!

When it was served, we could see why it had taken a bit of time. Each plate was a beautifully constructed pile of things atop a dark crusty bread base. This was no simple “grilled cheese sarmie”!

Unwilling to try the adventurous traditional herring smorrebrod, we’d opted for one meat and one seafood to sample a variety. The meat one was a thick wedge of warm liver paté with sautéed mushrooms and crispy bacon; the seafood was (cold) shrimps with sliced boiled egg, caviar and lemon. Both were very tasty… but certainly not the portions one would expect Vikings commanded (especially not at R160 apiece!)

The rain had stopped, so it was a good time to get back to the hotel and make our way to the cruise ship.

It was very easy to do since the front desk called a taxi for us and we paid with credit card so didn’t have to worry about running out of or having too much currency (which was a double relief since we hadn’t drawn any cash since Copenhagen is so card friendly).

The harbour was further on the other side than we’d thought so we didn’t get a chance to see those last few sights… but it didn’t matter because we were so excited to be at our big ship, Serenade of the Seas.

Checking in was easy enough and soon we were footloose and baggage-free, etc exploring this sea hotel that was to be home for the next 10 days.

The ship has everything we expected and more – multiple pools, multiple restaurants, countless bars, indoor and outdoor cinema, video game arcade, casino, HUGE gym, running track, basketball court, climbing wall… etc. We ended up accidentally having lunch when we wandered through the Windjammer Cafe and the curry looked and smelled too good to pass up!

By then our room was ready so we made our way to 3554 and were delighted to find that we’d been upgraded to an outer cabin, which had a porthole and lounge area – and was easily 3 times the size of our Copenhagen hotel room! Being on such a low floor, it felt from the view of the liquid horizon like we were just above the waterline. Very lush indeed!

On a less delightful note, my suitcase had already been portered to the room but, sadly, the trolley handle was broken. This compounded what can only be described as a fail for my poor luggage this trip since my personalised belly band had gone AWOL on the international flight, I’d accidentally left the pullover protective sheath cover at Cabinn Inn, Christian had lost the keys to my lock (very unlike him) and now the handle. So much for bad things happening in threes!

Guest Services were quite calm about it, gave me a form, logged the case (no pun intended) and said housekeeping would pop by to take the suitcase to the carpenter for fixing (not entirely sure what a carpenter can do for a plastic handle, but am ever hopeful and preparing to be awed).

They also despatched a fella with a big pair of bolt cutters to clip off the offending keyless lock, so I could unpack my suitcase into the spacious wardrobe before my suitcase went off to be repaired.

With all that excitement behind us, there was little else to do but leisure in our “stateroom” and Christian utilised our lounge room and the Danish cable feed on our flat-screen telly to watch the Euro Champs England/Wales game. I’m sure most of our neighbours appreciated (I know all of our neighbours must have heard) the high-volume jubilation when “our” team won.

We joined the welcome party on main deck at 5, which was (at best) very average. We had a beer to be social and cringed at the $$ pricing and mandatory 18% gratuity on everything. Fortunately though, all meals are included in the cruise cost so it numbs the pain a bit – especially when dinner is a multi-course feast at the a la carte restaurant, as we’d chosen to do. (Nevermind the cheeky quesadilla we’d munched in the Park Cafe in the Solarium en route to dinner! It’s impossible to go more than a few hundred metres on the ship without eating *something*!)

After dinner we caught a show in the Tropical Theatre. It was a frothy variety show featuring all the artists doing full shows during the duration of the cruise. Great idea to help (us) decide what to hit and what to miss.

The cruise director gave us the stats on the nationalities on the guestlist. Over a thousand Americans in the overwhelming lead, with British, Canadians in second and third and a handful of Spanish speaking countries peppering most of the remaining Top 10 slots. No mention of Saffas; guess we have the sorry state of the Rand to thank for that!

Guinness Index

Irish pubs are like seasand in a bikini – you find them EVERYWHERE!   – so we’ve started compiling a comparative pricing index of what we’ve paid for a pint of Guinness around the world.

  1. ZAR 156.12: Denmark, Copenhagen (The Dubliner; Jun 2016) – Kr65
  2. ZAR 139.78: Sweden, Stockholm (Skeppsbar; Jun 2016) – Kr74
  3. ZAR 130.55: Iceland, Reykjavik (The Dubliner; Oct 2015) – 1200ISK
  4. ZAR 129.70: Finland, Helsinki (Molly Malone’s; Jun 2016) – €7.60
  5. ZAR 117.41: Kowloon (PJ Murphy’s; Mar 2014) – HK$83
  6. ZAR 116.79: Spain, Toledo (O’Brien’s; Sep 2013 ) – €8.50
  7. ZAR 112.90: Australia, Sydney Circular Quay (PJ Gallagher’s; Feb 2016) – AUS$10
  8. ZAR 103.20: New Zealand, Auckland (Carpe Diem; Feb 2016) – NZ$9.60
  9. ZAR    68.09: UK, Newcastle Upon Tyne (Copperfields; Oct 2015) – £3.20
  10. ZAR 106.09: France, Reims (The Sherlock; Aug 2015) – €6.90
  11. ZAR    92.95: Japan, Tokyo (End of The World; Jan 2015) – ¥905
  12. ZAR    90.32: Australia, Port Douglas (Paddy’s; Jan 2016) – AUS$8
  13. ZAR    83.69: Latvia, Riga (Egle; Jun 2016) – €4.90
  14. ZAR    68.95: Estonia, Tallinn (Albion; Jun 2016) – €4
  15. ZAR    36.00: South Africa, Johannesburg (The Baron on Witkoppen; often)
  16. ZAR    32.83: Bali, Gili Trawangan (Tir Na Nog; Jun 2015) – 36,000Rp
  17. ZAR    32.05: Poland, Krakow (Mbassy; Jun 2014) – 10zls

 

PS: The index is ordered from highest to lowest in South African Rands, our home currency, at the time that the pint was procured. Bar tabs are used for local currency amounts and credit card billings are used where possible for ZAR amounts, so that both are actuals. Our currency is a highly volatile (mostly in a depreciating direction), so it makes for a wild ride on the index.

 

GUEST INDEXING

Australia, Melbourne: AU$11 (Casino; Jul 2016)

 

Travelogue Baltic 8: Stockholm

 BALTIC 8: STOCKHOLM

25-27 June 2016

The arrival into Stockholm’s Archipelago is breathtaking. As many as 24,000 islands filter from the Baltic to the city. The scenery calms from the windswept, wild beauty of the uncivilised woods, meadows and beaches into the mellow countryside of pretty little villages and summerhouses, then into the harbour, where at the mouth of Lake Malaren lie the 14 islands that make up Stockholm.

The Vikings passed through this Archipelago long ago, but the official story begins in 1252 when the fort was first built. A town grew around it and boomed when Sweden became a major Baltic power. Under Gustav III, the city began to flourish culturally and is now known for opera, cutting edge crystal design and Nobel peace prize ceremonies.

Our plan for Day 1 was to cover the islands closest to where our ship was docked in Frihamnen (Djurgarden, Skeppsholmen and Sodermalm). The hotel we were moving to the next day was across town in Soder so we would cover the further away sights from there in Day 2 (Gamla Stan, Kungsholmen and Ostermalm).

Little plays to plan though and after a brisk walk into town, we discovered that Djurgarden is essentially a big park – and the southern end of a massive “city national park”, which had been reserved for deer hunting until someone came up with the genius idea of preserving the green belt and opening it up to the public.  A very impressive commitment by the state since such a vast amount of prime real estate must be worth a mint!

Djurgarden is also home to the Nordic Museum, which looked great from the outside but didn’t stand a chance in luring us in from the bright sunny day (which we’d learnt was a gift not to be squandered in the Baltic!).

Further down the road is the famous open-air museum, Skansen, containing 150 buildings brought together as a representation of Swedish life, from farmer to aristocrat. While it sounded like it might be a better museum than most, the long queue and the promise of much more ahead prevented us from paying it a visit.

We took time to stop at the ABBA Museum and get our photos taken in one of those life-size posters with the faces cut out – so, yes, we are now immortalised as part of the Swedish supergroup! – on our route past Tivoli (same name as the one in Copenhagen; not sure if there’s a connection) funfair to catch a ferry to the next island.

We made a quick calculation at the ferryport and coughed up for an Access pass card which would cover us for all public transport for the full duration. They only do 24 and 72 hours, which is unfortunate since we needed for 48, but 250 Krone all in was still compelling versus 40 Krone per journey – and the hassle of getting tickets each time.

The hop from Djurgarden to Skeppsholmen is so short that it’s a wonder they didn’t just build a bridge instead. We posited that maybe ships pass through so the bridge would have to be too high. Or maybe there are so many islands that building a bridge feels like a slippery slope that would necessitate more bridge building. Or maybe it’s just a habit thing; there was a framed history on the wall, all in Swedish, which hinted the ferry might’ve been in operation since 1860 (as a small, open air service for a handful of people at a time).

Skeppsholmen had been home to the Swedish naval fleet since 1640. Everything had been built in “the era of the fleet” but have served as museums, restaurants and schools since military operations were phased out from the 1940s. New buildings, like the Moderna Museet, have been added and new uses are being found for dormant building, eg reopening the Torpedo Workshop for use for the performing arts.

A short bridge connects Skeppsholmen to a small island called Kastellholmen, named after the small citadel – Lilla Kastellet – at its highest point. Built in 1848, it is now a conference venue. Both islands form part of the city national park so are very green and make for a pleasant walkaround. Sad but true that some of the most wondrous places were only initially populated for their military purpose.

Our intention had been to go to Sodermalm next, for the remainder of the afternoon, but we got a bit sidetracked when we found our self-guided tour left is on the far side of Skeppsholmen so the most logical path was to walk along the bridge onto the mainland, along the harbour and then walk through Gamla Stan (the Old Town), which was the main item on Day 2’s agenda, holding and surrounded by most of the buildings of historical significance.

Nevermind though, it was lovely day so we embraced the change in plan and admired the scenery.

We’d been a bit ruined on being impressed by scale after grandiose St Petersburg, but otherwise Stockholm would be none slouch in weighing in on a Big Fancy Building competition.

The Royal Palace, at the foot of the Norrbro Bridge, contains 608 rooms making it one of the largest palaces in Europe. City Hall on Kungsholmen Island is built from 8 million bricks and 19 million mosaic tiles, houses the Municipal council and hosts the Nobel Prize Banquet each winter. Riddarholms Church was founded in the 13th Century, has been the Royal mausoleum for 400 years and is known for its distinctive open work metal spire.

Lots and lots of big fancy buildings – I just hope we can still tell them all apart when putting together the photo album!

Gamla Stan was packed and, being a 30 degree day, sweaty. The roads, being authentic in an authentic medieval town, are narrow and roughly cobbled so it’s not ideal for sightseeing, being herded and bumped around. It did smell good though from the number of open-fronted bakeries and ice-cream shops preparing and selling fresh waffles and ice-cream cones on the streets.

I’d hardly say we did it justice, but we did do it… all the way through to the bridge on the other side which connected to Sodermalm, our originally intended destination for the day.

We’d run out of steam a bit to start a whole new island, so picked a waterside pub instead from which to do some sedentary spectating.

We’d chosen well, being across the road from the ferry port, and even more serendipitously, the ferry arrived exactly when we needed it.

This took us back to Tivoli where we intended to grab a bus back to the ship from Djurgarden. Sadly, our luck had run out and we’d missed the last bus (by less than 10 minutes!), so we had to walk back but, as always, the walk back felt much shorter because we knew where we were going, so it wasn’t so bad.

Our return to the ship was bittersweet. We were glad to be back, but sad it was our last night.

Making the most of the time we had left, we did the rounds of a few of our favourite things  (like quesidilla and rare roast beef slices at the Park Café) before returning to our cabin to shower for dinner and pack (we’d been instructed to pack an overnight bag and leave our luggage in the passage by 11pm).

We’d been seated in the same section of the dining room all week, so had gotten to know our server (Melbert) and his assistant (Cesar) quite well. It was sad to be sharing our last meal – but they upped the ante with a whole basket of Christian’s favourite seeded rolls and a bonus plate of starters AND main courses. We may never adjust to real life meals again!

Disembarkation is, as you can imagine with anything with 2000 guests involved, quite a process. We were initially assigned to Group 8, designated to meet in the Safari Club at 06h45, but this would leave us waaaaay to early to check into our hotel so we pleaded and were reassigned to the second last group (30; 08h50).

This meant we didn’t have to get up at silly o’clock (although the sun would have risen several hours earlier) and had enough time for a full breakfast at the Windjammer, which was serving until 8.30!

In typical fashion, it was raining. We’d gotten first glimpse on waking that there was a light drizzle… and it hadn’t abated any by 9 when we left the Serenade of the Sea for the last time.

Our intention had been to use our Access passes to catch a bus to our hotel but the weather made that proposition far less attractive – especially since we now had 3 big suitcases to lumber. We flaked and caught a taxi to Solna.

Solna was to the East on the mainland and I’d chosen our hotel there for a few reasons:
1) diametrically opposite to the harbour so we’d sightsee from homebase to centre point and back each day
2) it was in the direction of and looked like an easy commute to the airport
3) there’s no such thing as bargain accommodation in Stockholm, which made the Radisson an unusually economical choice
4) breakfast included (which we would need after the gluttony on the cruise)
5) free wifi

The hotel was great. Even though we arrived very early (before 10), they happily checked us in and gave us our room… which was ENORMOUS  (and not just as compared with our cabin)… and on the 11th floor with a spectacular view. The hotel also had lots of amenities (sauna, gym, restaurant), attached to a shopping mall, and had a bus station and a train station across the road so very convenient. You never *know* these things from the online ads and descriptions, but this was all we’d hoped for and more.

We resigned ourselves to a truncated walking tour for the afternoon – based on the weather – and thanked our lucky stars that a) we’d gone so off course the previous day and b) we still had our (3) brollies.

The only things I really wanted to see were the Changing of the Guard (at 1pm at the Palace) and some of the sights from the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo et al).

We grabbed a Metro into town and effortlessly changed lines to get out at Gamla Stan. It was a lot more manageable than the day before, possibly because it was Sunday but probably mostly because of weather. With the rain little more than a fine intermittent drizzle, it was actually a pleasure for sightseeing – although won’t have made for such great photos as compared to a lovely blue sky.

We hightailed to get to the Palace for the stroke of 1, but needn’t have rushed. The Changing of the Guard is a lengthy affair – 70 or so marching band, complete with drummers and full brass section, so it takes some time for them to snake through town to get to the Palace. Of course, being elevated at the Palace (there’s a long steep ramp up to the entrance) gives a great vantage point and it was a sight to behold watching the soldiers slow-march from the mainland along Norrbro toward us.

… and then turn left past the Palace.

… and go around the corner.

Good to know for next time that they circle the building and do most of the show on the other side! I surmise we had placed ourselves at the back entrance.

There was quite a crowd around the other side – and people have terrible umbrella etiquette! – so we saw little, but could hear everything.  And we were surrounded by beautiful buildings and statues and a formidable church, so there was plenty to gawk at.

Our Plan B for the afternoon was exploring a pocket of museums in Ostermalm, just off town Central so, since the weather was still a bit bleak, we put the plan in motion.

Old hats at public transport by now, it was a quick ferry to Djurgarden and a tram across the bridge into Ostermalm.

Taking the opportunity while on home turf, it seemed only fitting to try the Museum of Swedish history. Their feature exhibition was on Vikings, with an impressive collection of artefacts, providing bone-chilling detail on the hard core existence people of that time lived.

There were a couple of skeletons that had been recovered and laid with buttons, gold thread and jewellery that had survived their owners, but it was the skeleton of a horse and dog that got me. They’d obviously been sacrificed “to the gods” and the horse had been killed by conk to the head and the dog on its back. Not nice.

The Museum had put some effort into making the exhibit more upbeat though and there were several interactive options in the courtyard, including archery and crafts but, like the napkin folding and towel animals classes on the cruise, we gave them a skip.

The weather was much better by this time so we renewed interest in the Millennium Tour.

The internet was rich with information on how awesome the tour is and how it’s not to be missed, but details were scant on when, where or how. Dated articles directed to the Stockholm City Museum on Sodermalm as the starting point for the tour (“on Saturdays” with no time given, not that it mattered seeing as it was Sunday anyway) or to source a map for a self-guided tour… but the museum is closed for renovations (until 2018!!)

We’d asked at the tourist office in Gamla Stan and they directed us to the tourist office in Central so, since Ostermalm neighbours Central, we hopped on a tram to find the tourist office.

The Girl With The Tourist Office Uniform (disturbingly) had no idea what we were talking about. We told her that The Girl In Gamla Stan had told us about tour maps and, with a little looksee under the counter, TGWTTOU found a Millennium Tour map!

It was in German, Italian and Spanish.

But it was a map.

And, we later found out, it was supposed to cost us 40 Krone (ZAR 80), so SCORE! (As much as a trilingual Trilogy map not in English can be considered a score).

Thrilled at our find, we made our way back to Sodermalm, negotiating our way deftly through the (now very familiar) Gamla Stan.

All this around and abouting was thirsty work so we combined lunch-on-the-go with lunch at McDonald’s so we could use their free wifi to translate the map.

Stieg Larsson’s stories of crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and his unlikely side-kick, a tattooed wildchild with a penchant for violence called Lisbeth Salander reveal more of Stockholm than its signature dramatic waterside views, designer shows and classic cafés. Larsson chose his real-time home, Sodermalm, to be the homebase of the good guy characters in his fictional works, quite pointedly having the official and evil influences across the bridge from his beloved island.

Our little tour took us past:
1. Bellmansgatan – Mikael’s attic apartment
2. Monteliusvagen – a gravel walkway overlooking Lake Malaren and the old town. Eerily misty from the rain!
3. Lundebron – Lisbeth’s original apartment
4. Mellqvist Kaffebar – hip café where Mikael met both Lisbeth and Erika, his mistress. Now just called Kaffebar.
5. Synagogue on 13 St Paul – nondescript and quite unexciting
6. Gotgatan – a main feature road where Millennium offices are and where Lisbeth shops at a 711
7. Fiskargatan 9 – Lisbeth’s new 21-room apartment  (which she only uses 3 rooms of)
8. Mosebacke – a square with a statue of entwined sisters in the shadow of the looming water Tower
9. Kvarnen – an old world tavern  (the stained glass windows say 1908) where Mikael enjoyed a drink and Lisbeth used to meet her rock-chick friends. Now 178 Krone for 2 beers!

We had planned on a traditional Swedish meal at Kvarnen for dinner – elk meatballs, smoked reindeer sort of thing – but the prices were outlandish (R400 for meatballs and mash), so we Googled a Plan B.

Sodermalm is known for being very trendy, in a sort of grungy urban way. We’d seen our first litter, more graffiti and a few hobos, which was dramatically different to the refinement of the Central district or the natural beauty of the leafier islands. But it is also (allegedly) rich with traditional food options so it was a question of cross-checking location, price and opinions.

According to several reviews, Meatballs for the People on Nytorgatan (600m away) was the place to go for atmosphere, flavour and price. Sounded like a win.

It was relatively easy to find… but closed for the summer! What?! And such a pity too because the venue looked so fun and the menu spot-on!

The sign in the window did recommend one of their other 3 sister restaurants, the closest of which was just around the corner so we thought we’d give it a try.

The restaurant we found ourselves guided to was a trendy lounge bar with an even more trendy artisanal menu. Not a thing we wanted to try and CRAZY prices!

Out of steam and ideas, we decided to go back to Solna and let fate decide.

Smugly using our Access cards to the fullest, we jumped on the Metro and crossed town to get home, grateful to have the mall annex on our hotel to fall back on. And ended up at Burger King.

All was not lost on the meatball front though and we were delighted to find that our hotel included meatballs in their breakfast buffet! Nice one, Radisson!

Travelogue Baltic 7: Riga

 BALTIC: RIGA

24 June 2016

Riga was a specific inclusion on our cruise request when we were shopping for quotes, after having seen it in the tail-end of a travel show and it seemed so quaint and pretty. There was also a cruise option a night shorter but that excluded the Latvian capital, which seemed a shame since it’s a relatively far-flung destination unless you’re already in the neighbourhood, as we would be. We were just very lucky that this cruise fell on our first choice of dates as well – a universal sign that this was the perfect Honeymoon choice.

And now here we were. In Riga.

Having learnt from our too-early start in Tallinn, we had a leisurely start to the day. Slept in a bit, hit the gym, casual breakfast at the Windjammer… and a good thing too because when we arrived we found out that the day before was their big Independence Day (celebrating the fall of the Communist regime) so the whole city was only opening at 12.

This gave us a chance to have a bit of an unfettered walk-around… everywhere, as it turned out. Riga is very small!

The shuttle from the ship had deposited us just short of the Opera House. A great big beautiful building with manicured gardens in front and a river with bridges equal in form and function alongside. Of course, it seemed a bit like Mini Town after Peterhof!

Across the gardens we found what turned out to be the Freedom Monument. A bit short on information, we tried to eavesdrop on a tour group, but we’d missed the gist of the story so moved on.

Our attentions – once we were past the McDonald’s that was doing a roaring trade, of hungover party-goers no doubt – were caught by a cylindrical castle covered in ivy. There was a weapons museum attached to it, which we would like to have seen, but it was closed on the grounds of it being The Day After ‘n all.

No mind, we could see an impressive rooftop of sorts from there so headed in that direction. It was the Church in the town square. This was clearly a major attractions because everything was at a glance geared to tourists; souvenir shops, waitrons in traditional dress, boards offering traditional dishes. On closer inspection, this was Dome Church and actually Dome Square, so we headed off to find the Town Hall Square.

We took the long way around so that we could incorporate walking along the river and in 2 short blocks time we were at the Daugava River, where we found a statue of a big fella in a glass case. Fortunately his story had an English translation:

Legend has it that a long time ago a tall strong man cold Lielaps Kristaps (Big Christopher) carried people across the River Daugava. While sleeping one night, Kristaps heard a small child crying on the other side of the river. He immediately rose to fetch the child and began to carry him. Half way across the child became so heavy that Kristaps barely managed to get to the other side. Exhausted he lay the child to sleep in his shack and fell asleep himself. When Kristaps awoke the next morning he found a large chest of gold where the child had been. When Kristaps died the money was used to found the city of Riga.

So there you have it. As good as gospel.

The other story (according to the tourist brochure) is that, being at the mouth of the Daugava River, Riga became an important port along the Vikings trade route, catching the attention of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant guilds who dominated the Baltic maritime trade along the coast of Northern Europe.

A little less romantic a story, but a trifle more believable.

Having walked the full length of the outskirts – from bridge to bridge – we then returned to the Old Town, there were signs of life, as everything opened up again, as is the way of the day after the night before.

We consulted the map to see what was left to do. The cityscape includes a 13th century cathedral, a castle, a few dreary Soviet highrises and dozens of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s a haven of museums with the Latvian War Museum, Art Museum Riga Bourse, Latvian Museum of Architecture, Museum of History of Riga and Navigation, Barricades Museum, Museum of Ancient Baltic Jewellery, Museum of Photography… Museum of film / sport / porcelain… you name it, they had a museum for it!

We went to none of those!

We did spot something called The Cat House, which piqued our interest because we’d seen the logo on lots of stuff in tourist shops.

Opposite the Great Guild stands 2 turrets, a black cat with an arched back sitting on each.  Legend has it that the Guild denied membership to a well-off tenant who was so infuriated him that he had the 2 cat sculptures made and put on the turrets with their tails turned towards the offices of the Guild. One of the Guild elders in a court proceeding turned the cats to a more appropriate angle.

But the statement was made, the annals written and the t-shirt gotten (literally in this case).

The Old Town is a UNESCO Heritage site and looks like a fairytale with its cobbled streets, but feels Parisian with its buzzing social life. Now with the town in full tilt and us having seen what needed seeing, we took our last half hour to sit and catch a breath, watching the Latvian day go by.

Travelogue Baltic 6: Helsinki

BALTIC: HELSINKI

22 June 2016

Having done little to research for Helsinki, our Cruise Compass gave a sweetly succinct history to prime us:

In 1550, the king of Sweden had big dreams for newly founded Helsinki. Unfortunately, a series of disastrous fires, plague and war kept the town from growing…. until another series of events changed its path forever. After Russia defeated Sweden and annexed Finland in 1809, Czar Alexander I moved the capital – and the university – from Turku to Helsinki to be closer to St Petersburg. The city flourished, but Russian rule was short-lived. The Finns declared their independence in 1917, endured a devastating Civil War, and emerged with a new Republican government. Helsinki has since been its sparkling capital. Noted for its graceful architecture and elegant gardens; the Senate Square’s neoclassical style has Russian written all over it. Finnish art nouveau also defines much of the cityscape, with the mermaid fountain near the fish market its symbol.

Seeing as everything we’d read about Helsinki spoke of how small and compact it is and since we could see what looked to be a church spire of consequence on the not too distant horizon, we skipped the ship shuttle into town in favour of making the walk part of our own tour.

Right from leaving the docks there were signs of life: pierside restaurants, people on bicycles and pushing prams, a large and lovely park… only problem was that our location didn’t feature on the map we had. It was from the Cruise Compass and we rationalised that either it was because people getting the ship shuttle didn’t need to know or, more cynically, that without the knowledge would be compelled to take the shuttle.

With the spire to guide us, we simply felt that we were getting the full experience; the suburbs that others didn’t get to see. It helped that it was a beautiful sunny day (but not too hot) and that the city is so pretty and green.

It must’ve been a good 3km walk to the city centre, but we did manage to tick off a recommended sight or 2 en route.

We entered Helsinki at Kauppatori Market Square, located at the harbour end of the esplanade. A lively and colourful spot with everything from fruit, flowers, vegetables and freshly caught fish to local handicrafts, the market was a buzz with locals grocery shopping and tourists stroking woollen merchandise and sampling Finnish and Lapland delicacies. Strawberries must be a thing in Helsinki because scores of people were eating them straight out of little baggies or punnets.

Our rudimentary ship map indicated that there was a tourist office just off the square, which made for a logical first stop.

The tourist office is very jacked; lots of maps and brochures, lots of fluent and friendly staff and access to buy tickets to anything that needed.

A quick flip through the “Hel Yeah” book and we’d pegged our first 2 activities.

The first was Suomenlinna, only accessible by water, by a 15 minute ferry journey. The ferry departs from the east side of the market, opposite the presidential Palace. With 6 minutes until the next ferry to  Suomenlinna, the lady at the counter chuckled good naturedly at our fluster as we stuffed our research materials in our tog bag and rushed through our thanks and goodbyes.

It was only upon reaching the ferryport – maybe a minute later, on the other side of the market and 100m away at most – that we realised why she was amused. We were possibly the only people in Helsinki rushing. There is no traffic, the people are relaxed and the public transport is superlative.

Suomenlinna is an irregular bastion fortress constructed on uneven terrain and on separate islands. Suomenlinna is also a UNESCO Heritage Site and one of the largest sea fortresses in the world, drawing over 800,000 visitors a year.

The main route across the fortress runs from North to south and takes in all the sights, so we got us a map and that’s what we did.

The brochure shared much of the back story to give context of what we were seeing.

Suomenlinna construction began in the 18th century (1748) when Finland was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden. It served as a Swedish naval base during the Russia Swedish War in 1788 before surrendering to the Russian army in the Finnish War in 1809. When Finland was incorporated as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire the fortress became a Russian base for the next 110 years, until it became a prisoner of war camp in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. In WWII it served as a coastal artillery, anti-aircraft and submarine base.

In 1973 the Finnish garrison vacated the islands and handed it over to the ministry of Education and Culture and today it is home to 800 or so permanent residents. It has the dubious honour of having served its role in the defence of 3 states – Sweden, Russia and Finland – with guns that still face west as a reminder of the period of Russian rule in the 19th century.

The islands are a completely open-air museum with guests free to explore the dark and murky tunnels inside the bastion walls. It can’t have been pleasant manning those bastions. They are far from comfortably and if chilly now on a perfect summer’s day, must’ve been freezing in winter!

Those first bastions lead to the Great Courtyard which has served as the main square since 1760s and now houses the tomb of August Ehrensvard (who must’ve been someone special, but there was no mention of him in the brochure and little more than his name and date – presumably of his death – in Roman numerals on his tomb).

The church on Suomenlinna did feature quite highly both in the materials from the tourist office and the Suomenlinna brochure. It was built to serve as a Russian Orthodox garrison church, but converted to a Lutheran church in the 1920s alongside Finnish independence. Its steeple doubles as a lighthouse for both air and sea traffic but besides that it’s a church among churches in a very church-intensive part of the world (and very plain after all the glitz and glam of the St Petersburg cathedrals!)

More interested in the military stuff (apparently), we beelined for Kustaanmiekka, which offers a view of the original bastion fortress as well as the late 19th century Russian defence line, complete with sand banks and artillery emplacements. Ramparts on Kustaanmiekka were built to house gunpowder during the Crimean War in the 1850s but with their big wooden doors and the grass grown over their rooves (presumably to hide and buffer the gunpowder reserves), they would fit just as well in The Shire.

What was more impressive was the collection of families on the postage stamp sized beach… SWIMMING!

To give perspective, it was a lovely summer’s day *for the Baltic*, meaning early 20 degrees without windchill, and clasping jersey neck together when the icy wind took up, which it frequently did.

The path next led to King’s Gate, built in 1753 as a ceremonial gateway to the fortress. The gate is built on the site where a ship carrying the fortress’s founder, King Adolf Frederik of Sweden, was anchored while he inspected the construction of the fortress. Royalty really did have it lush.

Last stop was at the Vesikko Submarine, the highlight of the tour for Christian. Built in the 1930s and having served in WWII, the Vesikko is literally one of a kind since, according to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, Finland was forbidden to have submarines and all except this one were scrapped. It was moved to its present location and opened as a museum in 1973. Fully restored, Vesikko is an opportunity to get a feel for the confined spaces submariners worked in and find out more about the tech of the time. Christian’s report was that it was very small and cramped inside and that he was surprised that it was only manned by (up to) 4 people.

Feeling culturally enriched already, the only pressure left was getting to the 2nd excursion on time. SparaKOFF is a historic tram that has been converted into a pub and offers passengers a unique sightseeing tour on a 40 minute lap of the city. Of course, the next ride was on the hour, which was in 9 minutes time from when the ferry docked… and station was 600m away.

Again the only people rushing in Helsinki, we power-walked around the market, down the main shopping street, alongside another pretty park – a rarity to finding one right in a city centre – past the elegant cafés and the smartly dressed people casually occupying them, past the lilting quartet playing Vivaldi, barely eyeing the impressive architecture, but delighting in finding the corner to turn right at… and then alarm as we realised we didn’t know what we were looking for… until we saw it.

There it was. The red party tram.

On the other side of the red traffic lights.

We thought we’d just missed it.

But this is Helsinki. And the tram driver had seen us. So he waited for us.

What a fun way to see the city! The tram seats about 24 people at tables for 2 or 4 and has a wooden bar built in at the back end. With big bay windows either side and tram tracks that run past just about everything of interest, it’s the perfect way to get a lay of the land. And have a local beer or draught for a well-rounded experience.

From what we’d mentally navigated on the tram, we made Senate Square our first visit on foot. The Square sits on a site that originally held 17th Century buildings; it is considered a masterpiece of city design and neo-classical architecture with its current 19th century tenants. The Government Palace, Cathedral (a behemoth and a beauty, easily the most recognisable building in Helsinki), University buildings and The National Library of Finland surround the Square, with boutiques and restaurants in between.

The one thing we saw from the tram that we didn’t get to on foot was Temppeliaukio Church, which sounds very impressive, carved out of solid rock, with a dome spanning 70 feet, covered on the interior by 15 miles of Finnish copper wire. It is both a popular tourist destination and working church.

In the short time we had for our afternoon in Helsinki the big takeaway is that it’s very pretty. They’ve taken care to keep a lot of green in their city and it gives the whole place an overarching air of relaxation. The buildings are elegant, the people are graceful. It’s easily navigated on foot or, preferably on a sunny day like that one, enjoyed on ass, at a cafe or on the grass of one of the parks.

If we’d have an overnight in Helsinki there are several things we saw at the market that we’d have liked to try for dinner, ranging from fresh seafood delicacies to more meaty Lapland delights.

But we didn’t have an overnight so it was back to the ship for us. As always, the walk back felt so much shorter now that we knew what we were doing and we were back at the port within half an hour, having hatched a plot to pub crawl the ship to ensure that we had explored the whole thing.

Travelogue Baltic 5: St Petersburg – City Tour

 BALTIC: ST PETERSBURG – CITY TOUR

21 June 2016

Our second day in St Petersburg started quite the opposite to the first. Both of us had a restless night, fearing we’d oversleep… and got up half an hour earlier than planned (which was *early* seeing as we had to be on the bus by 7 15!)

Fortunately, on this cruise there was no such thing as too early for breakfast and, in fact, the main dining room was ready and waiting to serve us. The main dining room offers a combination of buffet and table services, with waiters at the ready to bring you a plate of your own design. That seemed – even after the opulence of St Petersburg – a bit too decadent to be practical when there was a buffet right there, so we dished for ourselves and were soon happily munching our gravlax/bacon/eggs/sausage etc, at leisure with plenty of time to spare. As is typical, people at the table complained at how long their food was taking (no more than a few minutes), but they were damned if they’d get up and serve themselves!

Passport Control was even quicker than the previous day as they just checked the existing stamps, and we were among the first to meet on the platform, before the coach had even arrived.

The drive into town seemed that much quicker the second time around; possibly because more familiar so we were anticipating the destination with some sense of the route (you know how the way home always seems quicker than the way to a new place).

Our first familiar sight was the Neva River, the main waterway in the 6 islands that make up St Petersburg. We’d passed over it yesterday; today we stopped alongside it to cash in a wish by rubbing the brass gryphon heads that sit alongside the Egyptian sphinx statues.

This was also am ideal vantage point to get a good look up and down the wide river. It’s obvious to see why it is called rhe City of 1000 Palaces. St Petersburg is nothing short of magnificent with the grandiose facades along the riverfront of a bygone era where bigger was better and detail essential. No cost was spared in the elaborate designs and adornments  that distinguished one mansion from the next in the single continuous row. Even the exterior paint job is meticulous, with a pretty consistent palette of dusky pastel colours with the slatted columns painted white.

We made another roadside stop further down the river at the Rostrums. These are tall terracotta twin columns with ships’ props embedded. At the base of each is a huge statue of a Poseidon/Neptune type chap. This section of the river was even wider (apparently it’s a kilometre wide – in the middle of town! – at some points) and the row of riverfront palaces as grand and consistent, side-by-side, as far as the eye can see in every direction. This city is nothing short of magnificent, in every conceivable sense of the word!

Even the roads are broad, which is unusual for an olden times city. Bearing in mind it was by now around 08h30 on a workday, traffic was thick, but not unmanageable (especially for us, long-suffering Jo’burg drivers). I suppose everything is relative though because even in the 1800s there was considered to be too much carriage traffic… but then the solution was simple: only nobleman could use the roads. That wouldn’t fly nowadays where it’s all for one and one for all and the parking is even free to be fair to everyone.

The next stop was St Isaac’s Church. The previous day’s tour had ended with a visit to a souvenir shop. We’d been assigned 20 minutes to shop but since Uda had flippantly pointed out some pretty notable sights through the window a few blocks earlier, we sprinted down the street retracing our bussteps to get a photo of the church, Palace and statue she’d printed out. Little did we know that we were returning to these the next morning!

The Church is a behemoth of a building, able to seat (well, stand, since Russians stand while worshipping) 14,000 people! It is adorned within an inch of its life and surrounded by the more of the same massive mansion block buildings in every direction. Words cannot describe the scale of everying in this city to the point that your imagination can form a true picture from my words!

The statue across the road from the church is of Nicholas I, Catherine the Great’s grandson. The (magnificent) palace behind it was built for his granddaughter, Maria, who refused to live in it because she couldn’t bear the thought of the view being her grandfather’s ass. Proper First World problems.

The big excursion for the morning was a visit to the Hermitage Museum. It kicked off with a bang when even the entrance Baroque staircase was a sight to behold. The decoration accent colour is gold. As in gold leaf, not golden coloured paint. Not my idea of a good time, but gives you an idea of the reckless abandon with which construction and decorating was undertaken. It was mostly the Empresses (Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) that are credited with the elaborateness and, as Christian said, it was easier back then when the Csar/ina had complete control over all the wealth and could spend on whatever they chose. He further said it was a good thing too because otherwise we wouldn’t have these magnificent things to admire now, in a world that’s a lot more selective in its opulence.

The Hermitage tour kicks off with the Winter Palace, built for Elizabeth but used first by Catherine the Great. Catherine ceded to Alexander I, her favourite grandson. Then his brother Nicholas (from the statue) became Emperor. It’s a tricky story to follow.

“Hermitage” literally means “place for solitude” since the buildings were never meant to be public. Ironic for a building now this busy – as in queues out the door, down the street, around the corner, across the road and through the park! Fortunately we were there as it opened and had a pre-arranged group ticket so were just ahead of the rush.

The Small Hermitage is 2 buildings running parallel with a garden between them. This is where Catherine housed her art, which she was known to have never liked (but collected because collecting was fashionable). Since the art was hung as her private collection in her placw if solitude, she is known to have said “only me and the rats can see it. And I think the rats like it more”

It is a formidable collection of legendary artists – so legendary that even I know them and I know less than nothing about art!

The first masterpiece I recognised was Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”, which he is credited as painting in 1669, the year he died, but had etched 30 year’s prior so really was a life work. This painting was in a whole section of tens of Rembrandt originals… and I’ve now got an appreciation for his talent. While I’m sure one is supposed to appreciate brushstrokes, paint texture and whatnot, the ones that appeal to me are where the paint is smooth and the likeness so good the painting could be a photograph.

The Hermitage also houses 2 of the only 14 Da Vinci originals that can be found outside of Italy, both of Madonna and Child (the religious icon lady, not the singer).

The full tour was about 2 hours and took us through the Winter Palace, Small / Old / New Hermitages and the Hermitage Theatre. We also saw some of Rafael’s paintings and a Michaelangelo sculpture, so were only a Donatello short of a set of turtles!

The next stop wasn’t far from the Hermitage, but took some effort for a bus in the traffic. We found a good drop off point outside Michael’s Palace – another magnificent hunk of building, which cost 7 million Roubles to build in a time when the entire social budget was 700k!

Our destination was the Church on Spilled Blood, which is located on the spot of assassination of Alexander II  (son of Nicholas I). He was very popular because he abolished serfdom and made military conscription compulsory  for all (previously noblemen were exempt). He also encouraged Finland’s autonomy, liberated Bulgaria and sold Alaska to the USA. Obviously though you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and thus this was the 8th attempt on his life – and was aimed at overthrowing monarchy. Terrorists threw a bomb under his carriage. He wasn’t injured but the General next to him died immediately. The Csar – being the good guy he was – got off his carriage to see if anyone was hurt or needed help and the assassins got him with a second bomb. He was badly injured and died 2 hours later in the Winter Palace.

Alexander’s son commissioned the church at the place of his death in his honour. He was so popular that the nobles donated a million Roubles and the common people another half bar. 700 square metres of mosaics don’t come cheap! ..  Although they do save a fortune on pews since Russians pray standing.

We were running a bit ahead of schedule so Uda called ahead to see if we could go straight to lunch. We were initially batted, but the host venue called back about 5 minutes later saying we could come in 15, so we took a walk down to Nevsky Prospekt  (the main shopping street) to get better photos of the big church monument thing that commemorated the victory in the 1812 Napoleonic Wars.

Lunch was served at the Museum of Fine Arts. Based on how particular they were about our time of arrival and the fact that we were served at tables in the middle of the foyer, I surmise this to be a limited offer for which they close the museum over lunch.

Salad was already plated at our place settings, with caviar canapés and bread on the table for self-service. Then followed a bowl of borscht and a plate of chicken stroganoff. Strawberry sorbet to close. It probably was a treat of a meal… but we’ve been spoilt by the restaurants on the cruise ship. We may never be able to eat normally again!

Last on the itinerary was the Cathedral of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, another baroque construction, consecrated in 1733. This was the first main cathedral built in St Petersburg, as a memorial to their 18th century military glory and is the burial place for the Imperial House of Russia.

Peter the Great’s daughter Catherine had been buried in 1708 in the wooden church that stood on this spot and which laid foundation for the creation of this Cathedral to house the Royal tombs of the Romanov Imperial House, and which is currently the final resting place of 46 members of the dynasty.

We were starting to piece together the story and from what we could tell it was:
Peter the Great (unified Russia, moved capital to St Petersburg)
Catherine I (Cinderella
Peter II (Peter the Great’s grandson, last of the male direct line of Romanovs)
Anna (Peter the Great’s niece)
Ivan (Anna’s niece’s infant son, ruled for a year… as an infant)
Elizabeth (seized throne from Ivan; Peter the Great’s daughter)
Peter III (Anna’s nephew; assassinated within 6 months by his wife, Catherine the Great)
Catherine II (Catherine the Great, ruled 34 years)
Paul I (Catherine’s son; ruled 4 years, 4 months, 4 days, strangled in his bed)
Alexander I (Paul’s son, ruled 24 years and died of typhus)
Nicholas I (Alexander’s brother, ruled 30 years and died of pneumonia)
Alexander II (Nicholas’s son, assassinated at Church on Spilled Blood)
Alexander III (Alexander II’s son)
Nicholas II (Alexander III’s son, married to Alexandra)

The Romanov line ended with the October Revolution where the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas and his family so that there was no chance of returning to a Csarist regime. The whole family were buried unceremoniously at the time, but much later disinterred and brought to their own designated tomb in the Cathedral.

Quite a maudlin end to the day, but reaffirms St Petersburg as a place rich in history and stories of great victories and great tragedies.

Driving out of the city once again, it’s such a contrast of the beautiful elegant mansions built in the age of opulence versus the functional-to-a-fault grey compounds so obviously built by the Communists. Still enormous though, which seems to just be the St Petersburg way.

It was with regret that we said our goodbyes to St Petersburg as it grew smaller on what should have been the sunset, but of course wasn’t seeing as it was the longest day of the year, with darkness of less than 40 minutes so the sun was still high in the sky at 8 o’clock at night!

Travelogue Baltic 4: St Petersburg – Peterhof

BALTIC: ST PETERSBURG – PETERHOF

20 June 2016

The day started with a mad dash. We had overslept and woke – with panic! – at 07h48, almost an hour later than planned since we needed to disembark by 08h30 and of course still needed to get breakfast on board!

Fortunately the weather was good so less layers (and no brolly hunt!) meant quicker prep and we were pounding the passages just over 10 minutes later, hair-wash day ‘n all!

Christian, ever-cautious planner as he is, insisted we go past the meeting place (on the other end of the ship from the Windjammer breakfast bar) first. Turned out to be a good call as we were issued our stickers and instructions on where to meet the bus (in 45 minutes; on the other side of immigration) leaving just enough time to have a flash breakfast. Well, hopefully enough time; there was still the gamble of how long passport control would take (but it was a risk we were willing to bear).

We probably did ourselves a favour by being that little bit later judging by the queues, which were virtually non-existent. Other passengers hadn’t been so lucky, had overestimated the time required and consequently been sitting on the bus for the better part of an hour already.

A visa is required for shore excursions in Russia. If you make your own plans, you need to arrange your own visa. If you do the ship’s excursions you travel on a “Captain’s visa”, which really just means it is included in the package and doesn’t require any additional paperwork. We’d done the latter since it was so much easier and visas are an expensive exercise, so sailed (pun intended) through passport control.

We were perfectly to time, arriving at our assigned coach just before 9. Our guide, Uda, greeted us warmly. She gave it another few minutes before expressing that we were waiting on the last 5 guests on our roll for the day. When they still weren’t with us 10 minutes later, she did a few rounds of hurried counting up and down the aisles, double-checking  herself. Counting sounds like hard work in Russian (although they probably say the same about us).

Starting with the usual pleasantries, Uda told us we were lucky to have such a warm, clear blue-skies day, sharing that St Petersburg usually only enjoys around
60 sunny days a year. She wasn’t surprised at all that it had been cold and wet in Tallinn the previous day. So much for summer!

The drive into town was about 20 minutes. Uda filled the time with stories about the city, its history and its name.

The city was obviously named after St Peter. The name was changed during first World War because St Petersburg sounded too German, so it was changed to Petrograd (“grad” means city in Russian) to make it sound more Russian. In 1924 it was then renamed Leningrad after Lenin died and was only changed back to St Petersburg in 1991 with the fall of the Communist Empire.

The city is held in esteem to this day by the rest of the country, having gained hero status in the 900 day siege in WWII. The city held the Germans at bay for almost 3 years, but not without loss. Desperately starved of food, the siege shrunk the population by half (mostly because of starvation and exposure) to 1,5 million people. Soldiers and workmen were rationed to 250 grams of bread (or similar substitutes when there was no bread) and general populous half of that. To top it all off, they were subjected to one of the coldest winters, with temperatures dropping to up to 40 degrees below, with no electricity and no heating.

Now the city is back up to 5 million people, thanks to the immigre who come to work and study (this is the cultural and educational capital of Russia) and is the second biggest behind Moscow, which is 600 km away and has in excess of 15 million people.

It sounds like St Petersburg has had more than its fair share of strife, in the early days attributed to its position as strategic trade route between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. This sparked the 21 year war (1700 – 1721) with Sweden. Peter the Great won back St Petersburg against Charles VII of Sweden – a highly revered military leader of the time so it was quite the coup – and established his summer Palace, Peterhof, as monument to the victory. His vision were completed OTT, using the Palace of Versailles as his muse, complete with mansions, gardens that went on for days and endless fountains.

Peterhof was our destination for Day 1 of the tour.

On our way out of town, Uda shared with us about how the people of this city lived and live. In olden times there was a big divide between the haves and the have nots.  St Petersburg is dubbed “The City of 1000 Palaces” because it is so grand with a more than representative sample of mansions and stately buildings. The royal and noble people built enormous places, ridiculously decadent in both size and decor. The ground floor would house the hundreds (or in some cases, like the Winter Palace, thousands) of staff required to maintain the place. The owners would then occupy upper floor/s, hosting parties with reckless abandon… if they were there at all.

The Bolsheviks confiscated these inner city palaces from the aristocracy during the Revolution and nationalised them, turning them into communal flats. The palaces were reallocated room by room, such an entire family would occupy a single room, sharing kitchen and bathrooms with other families. The palaces went from being decadently airy to providing an average of 5 square metres per person.

Uda told us that most families had a dacha (modest chalet) or cottage (quite roomy generally double storey house) outside the city too. This is where they would escape the city in the summer to go to the forests or swimming at the lake (presumably dropping everything on those 60 sunny days she spoke of). From what I can gather, these may have been the family homes that they occupied before moving into the allocated quarters in the redistributed Palace accommodations. Uda’s family dacha was 100km south of St Petersburg, she told us, which had been very far out back in the day, but was the perfect “just out of town” now that the city had grown so much (sounds a bit like Hartebespoort).

We arrived to Peterhof, able to see immediately the grandeur old Peter had intended. Enormous buildings in yellow with white columns and trim, expansive cobbled and gravelled courtyard and walkways, sculpted and manicured gardens in perfect symmetry as far as the eye could see and fountains. LOTS of fountains.

The tour ended up being a wall through the gardens, pointing out notable fountains from the 150 on the property. Not naturally being one excited by such things, it was impossible not to be impressed. If not by the magnitude of the project, then by the impressive application of rudimentary physics and technology, using gravity  to move the unbelievable amounts of water to these (largely aesthetic) features. There is no internal recycling of water at all. The water moves from springs about 4km away to the storage lakes, through the fountains and then out to the Baltic Sea.  30 cubic kilolitres of water a day!

There were some fountains of deep symbolic intent – eg the Eve fountain in the Western end of the garden symbolising the end of paradise, with her matching Adam on his own fountain in the Eastern end – and some where enormous effort had been put in above and beyond the fountain, like a checkerboard cascade which had been designed to match the Palace’s blue and  white checkerboard floor and which had all sorts of statues (including some oddly out of place dragons) on either side and at the top.

Peter I also had some whimsical ideas like the water road he had put in. With jets on either side of the sand road, twice a day the road became impassable because of the solid water arch they created. He also conceptualised the trick fountains, where jets strategically hidden behind benches would be activated when certain stones in the cobbled pathway where stood upon. There were some proper upside down smiles from some of the grumpies on our tour who got “tricked”!

There was a “should have been” trick in the monument just outside of the trick fountain garden, where legend was rhat one could gain a wish by throwing coins at the metal figure. It was fortunate if your wish was for more coins because this come true simply by visiting the other side of the statue!

On our way out of the gardens we passed Catherine the Great’s swimming pool. It’s enormous. Pity the pool guy who had to maintain that! Can’t imagine she had much time to linger in the pool though, what with her husband being killed and her claiming power via coup d’etat n all. It is now the only mechanically pumped fountain in the Gardens.

The end of the circuit deposited us back in front of the Palace building, with a magnificent view surveying everything we’d walked over the past few hours. And that was only the Lower Gardens. Who knew what the Upper Gardens held.

Despite ourselves, we’d enjoyed it. We had been very fortunate with the weather; I’d imagine if it were cold and or rainy, we’d have had less good humour for the anecdotes and water features.

The stories of the Royal family, their eccentricities, extravagances and anguishes was intriguing.  Mental note to self was to figure out the chronology of the Catherines, Peters, Alexanders and Nicholases!

Travelogue Baltic 3: Tallinn

BALTIC – TALLINN (ESTONIA)

19 June 2016

Having elected to forego the tour and transfer options for Tallinn (based on our rudimentary research indicating that the town was less than a kilometre from the pier), it was reassuring that we could see the Old Town skyline from the ship as we disembarked at 9am. It was drizzling, but we were prepared this time so wouldn’t be buying any more umbrellas!

Our cruise ship was docked in the Old Harbour with a pleasant thoroughfare through a curio store and a coffee shop,  where we picked up a free tourist map. Not that we needed one; exiting the shops, it was impossible to miss the city gate atop the hill directly ahead.

We entered the Old Town through the aptly named Great Coastal Gate, protected by “Fat Margaret” – a 25m high grey stone tower with little red tile kepi roof and walls up to 5 metres thick – who has been standing guard over the entrance since the early 1500s.

The town was still fast asleep, probably because it was still relatively early and also it was a Sunday (although one might town assume that a town with such a condensation of churches might call Sunday their busy time!), so we did a spot of window-shopping as we made our way up the cobbled streets to the town square, passing the St Olav’s Church, which benchmarks building height in Tallinn and is the reason there are only 6 skyscrapers in the (new) town.

Tallinn’s Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and its town square, Raekoja Plats, built in the beginning of the 1400s, is arguably Northern Europe’s best preserved medieval town hall square, so even walking past the quaint “unnotable” buildings was picturesque. The old town is divided into lower and upper; the lower being the hanseatic traders and the upper (Toompea) was inhabited by nobility.

There was some activity on the square, with people setting up their market stalls as well as what seemed to be some sort of festival stage and benches. It was still drizzling though so we kept moving to get a head start on the tourist sites before the inevitable hoardes descended.

We managed to get ahead to the “Kiek in de Kok” tower; the entrance to the historical underground bastion tunnels, which were supposed to serve as bomb shelters for the Communist elite in case of war in Soviet times. The name means “look into the kitchen” (we had a far less mature guess) referring to its view into the surrounding homes and because that’s exactly what the soldiers spent most of their time doing while they were supposed to be on the lookout for intruders.

They would have had a grand old time if they were to be posted there now; there is a pub and cafe on top of the wall so they’d be able to warm their cockles with some of Estonia’s finest rum, Vana Tallinn, while keeping an eye on things.

The rain was putting a literal dampener on things – and ruining the view from these excellent vantage points we were visiting – so we decided to turn our efforts to the Guinness Index to wait out the weather.

A very pleasant hour in the Albion and a 4 Euro Guinness later, the rain had stopped and we were on our way again.

We retraced some of our footsteps to get a better view / pictures, but we had really already seen everything we wanted to see, so just had a bit of a wander up and down cobbled walkways, popping into the odd shop and perusing the odd menu (for nothing more than idle curiosity, mind).

The town square concert was now in full swing, with a spirited accordionist whipping up frenzy in a large group of fans in front of the stage that had organised themselves with interlocked arms into concentric rings that were twirling – at pace! – in opposite directions. The song’s tempo was getting faster and faster, as were the dancers in response, until suddenly with a few crescendic bars, the accordionist called the song to a close and everyone roared cheers, threw arms up with thunderous applause and there was laughing and hugging all round.

Since many were in traditional dress (the typical emroidered medieval derivatives), this excitement was obviously no coincidence and this concert must’ve been a big event to these local people. We were glad to have caught the tail-end of it.

We’d seen in a tourist map that there was a KGB museum in (new) town, at Viru Hotel so planned to take a turn past that on our way back to the ship. It was unfortunate that the hour-long tours were sold out for the afternoon because the exhibitions looked interesting, constructed from a old spy room that the KGB used to use back in the day to monitor the goings-on (by hidden cameras, holes in the wall and the like) in this notorious hotel.

The walk back to the ship was quite pleasant; leisurely, downhill, familiar and dry! We had plenty of time to go until curfew for boarding so got to explore the market on the harbour. We were tempted to try the Tallinn rum – based on the number of commemorative empty bottles “decorating” the pub on the old town wall, it must be quite special – but resisted seeing as we couldn’t take any aboard with us anyway (thanks to security at the embarkation points) even if we did like it.

First order of business when back on the Serenade of the Seas was lunch. Perfect timing for some mid-afternoon casual dining! Intending only to take a morsel (seeing as dinnertime was only 3 hours away), the buffet once again got the better of us with delicious pasta and con carne.

Fat and happy, it was essential that we kickback and flex our lounge for a couple of hours!

Dinnertime came all too soon. We’d had to book in the first sitting because we’d designed a series of activities for ourselves that required us to be ready by 7 or eating very late (which we don’t do).

The formal dining room is a la carte from a limited (about 10 options per course) but varied selection. The chef’s recommended 3 course combination is printed on the menu and the waiting staff – who get to know you (by name) since you always sit in the same section – give further advice based on your previous selections. Our waiter knew us a bit too well and surprised us with a bonus third dish when he served main course – a lasagne, adding to the tiger prawns and pork shoulder roast we’d ordered – which would certainly have gone to waste if everything hadn’t been so ridiculously tasty!

Our expanded dinner put some time pressure on us to get to our 7pm show – a comedy / magic show in the Theatre, but we were grateful for the leg-stretch to get the enormous feast settled.

The show was light and fun, with the host, Mel Mellis, maintaining a buoyant  monologue, heckling peppered with amusing anecdotes and punny one-liners, while performing some simple magic tricks. It was a laugh and we agreed we’d support Mel again if he had another show later in the cruise.

Next stop was a high-tail to the Schooner Bar for a music trivia quiz. Tonight was the night of Michael Jackson and the audience was tasked with identifying hit and obscure songs from snippets that the host teased. Old MJ is pretty prolific so we did rather well.

Better than the poor hopefuls participating in the game show in the Centrum. Being in the horizontal centre of the ship, the Centrum is an open 9-volume cylinder where all the decks look down onto a central floor and little stage.  There is a bar and collection of chaisses, cocktail and bucket chair tables ensconcing the performance area, but the majority of the audience settles in the protruding balconies and chairs alongside the glass dividers on the upper floors, with a perfect view of whatever spectacle is for offer below.

Tonight’s show was “Complete the Lyric”, where contestants were offered a section of lyric which then cut short and they were to continue the song.  Contestants buckled to the likes of Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson until finally ‘Chris from Tennessee’ was able to  annex the missing 26 “I Know” suffixes from Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”. It was quite a coup for him. And the whole show was quite entertaining for the rest of us.

Travelogue Baltic 2: Rostock

 BALTIC CRUISE – ROSTOCK  (GERMANY)

17 June 2016

The beauty of this cruise is that the vast majority of the sailing is done overnight, so you wake up (almost) every morning in a new port in a new country.  Today was the turn of Rostock, Germany.

Organised excursions for the day varied from a day trip to Berlin, a tour of beachtown Warnemunde and a tour of university-town Rostock. None appealed to us since Berlin was a 3 hour us trip each way, it wasn’t the weather for the beach (barely 20 degrees and gloomy) and we felt a group tour might frustrating, constantly being herded and hindered (especially since we’re a good 20+ years below the average age on this cruise!)

We made arrangements to catch a shuttle into town to make our own way around Rostock and headed for the gangway (which was conveniently on our deck!). The disembarkation process was simple enough, just requiring a flash of the sea pass to log our departure, so within minutes we were in Germany. Of course, I can’t say “on dry land” because, as dumb luck would have it, it started to rain the moment we disembarked the ship.

It was only a very light drizzle, but it brought out the crazy in everyone, apparently! A short walk down the pier and we were at the bus stop. The only thing that demarcated this was an actual bus stopped there.

We arrived to mayhem. A beanpole of a young German chap in cruise uniform was in the doorway of the bus, taking a heated verbal lambasting from some fiery Mexicans at the foot of the bus’s steps who were clearly displeased at not being able to fit on the current bus, which already had its full complement of passengers – and was clearly subject to the “only want to hear one click” German flexibility when it came to allowing additional, which the troupe of Mexicans were animatedly asserting was the solution. It escalated to the point that the little cluster tried to storm the Bastille and push their way onto the bus and had it not been for the fact that the German chap was a quarter of their age and twice their average height, they might very well have succeeded! Despite a little old lady trying to squeeze her way past him (squealing in the process), his superior wingspan outed and he scooped the lot of them out of the bus, yelling for the bus driver to close the door quickly behind him.

Poor fella then found himself on the ground with all sorts of yelling and hand waving in his face. He did his best to get everyone to form a line, but there was to be none of that – nobody was prepared to concede even a single position in case they didn’t get their seat on the next bus. Giving up, the German retreated to his box of supplies, swearing audibly to himself and pretending to look busy counting tickets. I walked up to him to ask for a tourist map and he gave me a death stare… calming only (marginally) when he realised I wasn’t there to complain.

It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two later that the next business arrived. The German had given up; he didn’t even try to get the orderly queueing system line in place. Good thing too as there was physical violence in the doorway of the new bus as an American almost leapfrogged over the Mexicans to get on the bus. It was almost comical as the American pushed them aside with his best “talk to the hand” palm, shouting justification that he’d already missed 3 busses and wasn’t missing this one, as 2 tiny old Mexican ladies grabbed at his shirt and one of their husbands threw punches. The American landed on the top step, swiveled around and was squashed flat against the driver as he tried to get in position for his old school thumb-in fist slow rotation circular undercut punching. His wife had been left behind in this skirmish and was now looking bewildered at him through the bus window as he took his seat in the front row, dishevelled but smug.

We had no such trouble. We asserted ourselves into the throng and rode the wave onto the bus. It was like very noisy body-surfing. Most of the people who missed that bus did so because they were so busy faffing with their brollies, which made us almost glad that we’d  (already!) misplaced our Copenhagen one.

It was about 20 minutes into Rostock and we were deposited on Long Street, aptly named for being the longest street in the historical centre, reconstructed into a parade street of monumental buildings in the GDR era.

We were grateful for the buildings to get out of the rain – and fortuitously found ourselves in the Galleria where we got new brollies, down from 49 Euros to a bargain 5 Euros (the Germans do know how to have a decent sale!) so we got 2.

The brollies made it more comfortable to walk to the tourist office, where we sought refuge for the 15 mins of hard rain while collecting tourist maps and plotting our course.

Rostock is a perfect day trip stop as everything is within walking distance in a convenient circuit with no double-backing required. A quick review of the map and its accompanying legend determined that our day would be a university-church-market-hall-wall-gate-church-church-harbour-church-church tour. Somewhere in the middle there would also be a leisurely visit to the craft brewery.

The tour started with a single step. Literally. The University of Rostock’s main building is adjacent to the tourist office, so taking a step outside revealed the first sight on the map. The university is one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1419, and is in a beautiful terracotta Renaissance style building so we felt we’d already achieved something.

A walk down the main shopping street, Kropeliner, got us to the New Market (well, relatively as new can be being almost a thousand years old) and town hall (“Rathaus”, built in 1270). The square is surrounded with a facade of pastel gabled houses and is a bit like Warsaw’s square, but filled with fruit and vegetables stalls instead of cafés and restaurants.

We ticked off the gates and the city wall, built in 1350 and large sections of which are still preserved today. We skipped most of the churches in favour of a walk along the harbour’s popular promenade, the end of which housed the microbrewery we’d been recommended.

Zum Alten Fritz was cosy and warm inside, with traditional German wood-intensive decor. The middle of the room was dominated by a huge wooden bar with all copper vats and pipes (presumably) delivering fresh beer to the stations piled high and wide with beer glasses of various sizes. Between the bar and the front bay windows that overlooked the (damp) beergarden were a handful of high tables, where we sat, and the rest of the space was restaurant tables and booths, with people eating enormous eisbeins and other great big pork dishes. The local brew, Stortebekker, was very satisfying so we settled in and enjoyed the view and the atmosphere.

The trip to Rostock would not have been complete without at least sampling the famous Rostock beer though so we went back into town to source some.

Ironically, the first venue with Rostock branding was right underneath the famous St Marien church, renowned for its astronomical clock (built in 1472)… and now for some pretty formidable free wifi! Fortunately the beer wasn’t as strong as the wifi, so we were soon able to mobilise to get back to the bus stop to catch our shuttle back to the ship.

The bus stop was manned by a different tour director, who had effortlessly lined the guests up in single file, had everyone waiting patiently for the next bus and managed an uneventful embarkation. It was almost disappointingly orderly after the kerfuffle in the morning!

DAY AT SEA
18 June 2016

There was no chance we were going to get cabin fever on our day at sea. While we only had one standing engagement  (pun intended) in the acceptance we’d made to the by-invitation-only Honeymooners party, there was LOTS to do on board.

Each evening a printed notice of the next day’s arrangements – called The Cruise Compass – was delivered along  with the turndown service. The sea day one was a bumper issue, with all sorts of activities arranged throughout the day covering everything from dance classes to rockwall climbing to bingo to pop quizzes to gambling lessons and an array of arty crafty things like napkin folding art and cutting and sticking things to other things. Something for everyone – and some hard to picture for anyone.

Equal parts exciting and daunting was the mealtime daily planner, which showed that everywhere was offering extended hours so our 3 favourite restaurants’ serving hours were overlapping and we could get a good feeding literally any time day or night! Not that we’d been starving by a long shot. We’d been very well taken care of by the Windjammer buffet dining, Reflections 3-course table-service and Park Café for the in-betweener quesadilla  / roast beef slices / chocolate chip cookies to see us to mealtimes.

The breakfast buffet was so extensive that we’d had to make some tough trade-offs. I’d even bypassed bacon in favour of gammon and declared “sausage of the day” to be turkey, which was surprisingly satisfyingly porky! We also tried American ‘biscuits and gravy’; a heavy scone with delicious creamy slightly peppery white sauce, which worked well with my hashbrowns.

Fed to bursting, we made our way to the Honeymooners party, held in the Castle &  Crown pub. We hadn’t been there before and it was a whole new world to venture through the casino to find yet more entertainment awaiting us, including the cinema that flighted a new film 4 times each day.

We were welcomed, ushered to a table, offered champagne and mimosa and served canapés and chocolate strawberries. We were also given a ticket for a lucky draw. There were 11 couples in total on the guestlist, so we were left to ourselves while the last few arrived.

Aysy, the cruise activities director, did a charming welcome and “live, love and laugh” speech before unveiling a magnificent giant cream cake dedicated to all of us! The cake was delicious… but it was impossible to do justice to the wedged we were served on top of what had already been a morning of straight eating!

We didn’t win the raffle (1st prize a bottle of champagne; 2nd a hamper of branded Royal Caribbean merch), but thought that maybe our ship had come in when on our way out through the casino we spotted a pokey machine with 24 credits still on it. Two spins of the wheel and we were (back to broke). A very good thing neither of us are gamblers because we’re clearly not naturally talented!

The next pressing item on the agenda was pool time.  It was a bit chilly at the main pool so we settled in the Solarium, a cosy indoor pool with fountains, glass roof and loungers facing inwards toward the pool and outwards against the floor-to-ceiling windows for an unfettered ocean view.

This did nothing to work up a lunch appetite so we did the responsible thing and visited the gym. Impressively decked out, it was surprisingly busy (especially since the ship is so big that it’s easy to do 5,000 steps a day just moving between meals!). The gym also had a spa and sauna attached; this ship really has *everything*.

The work-out didn’t do much to create appetite, but fortunately we’re driven more by taste than hunger so enjoyed a lovely pasta lunch nonetheless before progressing to bingo in the Safari Club lounge. We needn’t have rushed; we found out that bingo was $50 each when we got there, which was too rich for our blood!

In between all of this excitement, Guest Services had contacted us to say that my suitcase handle was irreparable. Hardly surprising since having the exact right handle in stock was unlikely to say the least. They instead gave me a whole new suitcase, which was very nice of them.

We had decided to skip the Captain’s Dinner in the main dining room for the sake of avoiding having to get all dolled up, and the Windjammer having a Turkish themed evening entrenched our decision as sound. There was just enough time to grab a kebab and a curry and still get to the 7 o’clock movie at the cinema, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot with Tina Fey (who will play me in the movie of my life, but not in as serious a way as she portrayed this Kim Baker war journalist person in the film).

As ridiculous as it may sound, we went out for dessert after the movie. The intention was to go for a waffle since there was a full scale station set up with The Works. It was only when standing in the queue did the magnitude of this decision hit. There simply was no more room in the inn!

Well, there’s never NO room, so we made our own softserve cones and retreated to our lounge where room service delivered us a soothing coffee and green tea nightcap. Not very rock ‘n roll, but tomorrow was another day.

Travelogue New Zealand 3: Waiheke Island

WAIHEKE ISLAND
5-7 February 2016

The whole trip had come about because Bronwyn, my most long-standing (we now shy away from the word “oldest”) friend, hatched the plan for an epic 40th birthday weekend with about a year’s worth of notice so we had time to plan. We (probably) would have gone anywhere, but her choice of destination made the choice a no-brainer. Bron had also done all the admin and bookings for the weekend so really all we had to do was pitch up in Auckland.

We’d been included in the ‘family’ plan so would be staying at a bach with Bron and James, Aunty Lorraine and her friend Di (“The Mothers”) and Tyron (Bron’s brother) and Helena and their baby, Tyler.

The term “bach” – so we were told – stems from the word “bachelor’s”, as in “bachelor pad”, and was used where men had accommodation away from the family home. In older times it possibly implied a modest dwelling, but nowadays the term apparently carries no size reference, nor implication of modesty from what we saw and experienced.

Bron and James were super organised and had sorted all sorts of groceries and drinks to take along for the weekend so they took their car across (with all our luggage) on the vehicle ferry, pairing us with The Mothers on the 09h30 passenger ferry. The ferry ride sails across the harbour and past Auckland’s largest volcano, Rangitoto. The passenger boats are comfortable, fast and frequent making the half hour odd experience a painless one.

I’d grabbed a couple of pamplets at the ferry port to do some last minute research and found out that Waiheke Island is “the jewel in the crown of the stunning Hauraki Gulf”. The name comes from the Maori language meaning “cascading water”, although the island is now equally well known for its world-class wines, freshly pressed olive oils, cuisine and art. It’s a lot bigger than we expected, with 133km of diverse coastline dotted with coves, inlets, beaches and walkways. All good to know.

Bron had updated us when they arrived to say that we couldn’t check into the bach yet so we were in no rush and opted to walk the 20 minute distance to get to Oneroa Village (what the island’s locals refer to as “town”) rather than catch a bus or taxi. You can’t often go wrong taking a walk along a road when it is named “Ocean View”.

We used the rest of the waiting time wisely to grab a brekkie at the Beach Club restaurant and browse in the generous handful of shops in the main hub.

Soon enough it was time for check in so we reversed our journey to walk up Ocean View road to the bach Bron had chosen for its convenient location across the road from the party venue for the following night.

Our bach was large and luxurious, with 4 double bedrooms leading off a spacious open plan entrance hall. The other half of the house was plushly carpeted lounge and sitting room, diningroom and large kitchen with centre island and bay windows overlooking the vineyard neighbour that stretched across the valley and infinitied into the sea beyond. A wide verandah lipped the house, dotted with comfortable couches, loungers, table and chairs and a suspended wicker egg chair. The front shared the perspective and view with the kitchen; the back looked onto a gravel courtyard with jacuzzi, outdoor patio and pizza oven with a backdrop view of Cable Bay wineries on the hilltop opposite.

We had a grand old time settling in, wanting to sit on every couch, lounger and – most of all – the egg chair. The day had also gone from the morning’s overcast to a fine drizzle so there was no incentive to leave our luxury sanctum.

Bron had some guests that had followed our thinking and made a weekend of it, and she’d invited them around to our bach for a Friday evening braai. Since we had an outdoor pizza oven as well, we had to use it, and soon had a production line going loading pizza bases with delectable combinations of toppings as starter snacks. Christian did a top job single-handedly manning the braai and delighting with rare rump fingers to whet the appetites for full grill he masterfully managed to have ready all at the same time.

The house was perfect for entertaining and there was a natural flow of people between the verandah, through the living area and kitchen, and spilling out to the jacuzzi and around the pizza oven. It was great to meet Bron’s Auckland friends and get to spend some time getting to know each other in anticipation of the big event the next day.

Saturday morning launched with the opening of presents! Bron languished over the mountain of gifts laid out on the table on the verandah and everyone ooo’ed and aaah’ed as each new treasure was revealed.

The rituals set back breakfast a bit, but Tyron (a chef by trade) hit the kitchen to make eggs benedict for all of us. The other bachful of guests had by this time arrived so poor Ty was posted at his pot on the stove for quite some time poaching 30 eggs the authentic way to feed the hungry masses.

The weather wasn’t great, but spirits were high so we all went down to Oneroa Beach. The sun was covered by the clouds and there was intermittent drizzle, but not enough to dampen our enthusiasm – and the people swimming were wet already anyway!

Christian and I then did a breakaway from the group to sneak in a wine-tasting at Cable Bay. It seemed the neighbourly thing to do since we’d been admiring them as our view since we got there – and we had to pass the entrance on our way home anyway so the odds were stacked in our favour to make it happen.

Waiheke’s climate is hotter and drier than the mainland and the ocean acts as a fan and an insulator providing a longer, warmer season and more moderate temperatures. This is why there are more than 30 different wine-makers on the relatively small island and the overall general quality of the wine is so good. The Cable Bay winery and cellars were very busy. Hardly surprising for a Saturday when it’s so easily accessible from the city. We sampled the wine, which was (almost) as good as the view!

By the time we got home it was time to get ready for the party. The ladies were already well underway, but the boys were blissfully unfettered about time, lounging in the jacuzzi.

I helped Bron with her finishing touches then threw myself together and we headed back out the driveway and across the road to Mudbrick Estate, which is where the party was to be held.

Lots of guests were already there, all “dressed to impress” as the dress code had called for. The venue was beautiful and shared the view we had from the bach but, being further up our hillside, there was just more of it from that vantage point and with the silhouette of the Auckland skyline on the horizon across the bay the whole effect was breath-taking.

Bron’s party had been allocated an outside terrace and a function room for (later) formalities and jovialities. The wine flowed and guests mingled as naturally with new friends as with old, so it was a really good vibe. The estate’s catering was as excellent as the wine and the format of finger foods and nibblybits worked well with the relaxed atmosphere and allowed everyone opportunity to appreciate the gorgeous sunset.

Bron also had a DJ lined up, who kicked in as it got dark and got the guests bopping with a playlist of Bron’s favourite tunes interspersed with popular crowd-pleasers. Bron, Tyron and I all said a short speech, but otherwise it was all fun and festive “kick off your shoes” from there.

Needless to say, we were there until closing and a bit beyond. Even though the stars seemed closer and brighter than they ever are at home, the driveway was still very dark as we made our way back to our bach in the early hour of the morning. Again we were grateful for Bron’s genius plan so we weren’t among the group of people waiting to get a taxi back to the harbour to return to the city on the last ferry of the night.

Sunday morning was a later start for everyone and once we were up and packed up, we waved The Mothers and Tyron & Helena off (they had an earlier flight so needed an earlier ferry) and walked into the village for some brekkie (conveniently having sent our suitcases down in Bron’s car).

As a last hurrah we did a midday cheeky bottle of Dog Point cab sauv at The Oyster Bar before it was time to get to the ferry and bid fond farewells and make all the “see you soon” promises we need to make to endure the parting of ways.

From there it was really easy to grab the Skybus from across the road from the ferry port to the airport. $16 and 45 minutes later we were at the airport, due to start our long journey home. We were obviously in much better stead for the great trek home as this time Christian didn’t set off the alarms as we walked through the security scanners. He had done so in Sydney where the combination of the heat and the rucksack he was carrying had left him with a sweaty patch down the middle of his back that set off the sensors and required a pat down. The security man was quite sheepish when he realised the source of concern.

on the move