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Location, Location, Location, the Arts and Historical Insights

Aug 21, 2014

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Helsinki

There was something about the atmosphere about Helsinki that was light and agreeable. A really friendly place and so innovative in their achievements and creative arts.

Arriving in Helsinki the ship was located slightly further away than it had been the past two ports, but still an agreeable distance from the port for the transfer buses and tours available.

I took the second of my tours with Cruising Excursions. A city sightseeing tour. Our guide originally from Lithuania was an absolute delight. Her enthusiasm for the country, now 30 years her home, was infectious.

We travelled first to the city centre and along the picturesque harbour. There were a selection of new art installations around the city and some of them like the one room cube hotel and the room of silence as well as the large naughty boy statue were interesting and thought provoking. When we arrived at the imposing Senate Square our guide said they’d had two off the cuff art installations appearing in the Senate Square recently, one a collection of old coats and then a large arrangement of bicycles from a cooperative in the square. Nearby a small museum (Helsingfors Stadsmuseum), which is free to enter, tells of the history of the city and has a diverse collection of treasures and some quite eerie and lifelike animated information displays too.

The buildings of the city are an interesting mix, some functional but many with Russian influence reminding us of Finland’s previous past. The grand stucco buildings blend well and make for a delightful hotch potch of design. Many of the shops also sell interesting one off art pieces and design classics.

People in Scandinavia really love to be outdoors during the summer months and the residents of Helsinki can be seen socialising, cycling and walking their dogs and generally really enjoying the outdoor life to the full. They often travel to summer houses on surrounding islands for weeks at a time and in winter enjoy another famous invention the sauna. Many of the locals have up to 6 weeks summer holiday during the light summer months and a week’s ski holiday in the winter.

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Arriving at a large partially forested park we were treated to sculpture celebrating one of Finland’s most famous sons – Sibelius. Consisting of 600 vertical tubes all with personally hand crafted textured designs the display really does evoke the music of Finlandia. Our guide was particularly enthusiastic and being a woman of many talents including a teacher and singer she had translated the words of Finlandia into English specially for us and treated us to a rendition. It was very beautiful, with such poignant and apt lyrics.

Incidentally the statue, which at the time didn’t court favour with some of the citizens, is now much loved and its depiction is of a forest.

Onwards from here it’s a short distance to the Rock Church. Designed by two architect brothers, it’s unique and restful design melds into the rugged rock perfectly. On entering the space the dome with copper elements floods light into the main body of the church. A pianist was playing as we entered and it was a truly spiritual and restful place. Even with its modern yet ageless design.

St Petersburg

Reluctantly leaving Helsinki and its smart shopping boulevards, grand hotels and interesting people we set sail for St Petersburg; where we arrived early the next morning. Our berthing location in the heart of the city was impressive, next to a tree lined boulevard popular with locals beside many noble buildings and onion domed churches.

This set the scene for the overnight stay here in St Petersburg, which gave us maximum time to explore the city, but still left us wanting more due to the nature of its treasure trove of magnificent buildings and artefacts.

Guests to St Petersburg, unlike other ports on this cruise cannot go aboard without a visa, so the easiest & most effective way to do this is to organise a group tour with Fred Olsen or Cruising Excursions (with Connoisseur) and you can then go ashore and be met by your coach immediately as you leave the ship to be whisked to your nearest sight of interest. St Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof are around an hours’ drive outside the city centre whilst the Hermitage, Church of the Spilled Blood, new Faberge Museum and walking tours are based in the city centre.

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Peterhof has gardens modelled on Versailles. You quickly get used to the vast amounts of gold in the state rooms and marvel at the opulence of the rooms. For many the gardens are the highlight with the daily 11am ritual of the 155 fountains being switched on, powered soled by gravity.

The Hermitage is a worldwide renowned centre of some of the greatest art from our finest masters. It was a long held ambition to visit and it didn’t disappoint. With over 1000 rooms, only 500 are ever open at one time. Even on a very extensive and brisk two hour tour of the main three buildings which includes the blue and white facaded Winter Palace and two km of walking you still won’t even scratch the surface.

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But there’s always another visit in the future if you want to see more, which many of us did. Instead you can be satisfied in part with the name dropping vastness of choice you will see with works by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Rafael, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Cezanne to name a few of the many many wonderful artworks.

Groups receive advance opening admission but it’s still busy year round.

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A new and very exciting addition to the museum scene is the Faberge Museum. Opened in September 2013, this special collection held by a private owner includes 14 imperial eggs and numerous enamel works and gifts made by Faberge and his 500 highly skilled employees. It’s impossible to describe just how exquisite these fabulous priceless creations are. Beautifully displayed over several rooms, his imagination was immense. The design of the objects and the materials used is inspired. You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum but this adds to the overall gravitas of the new exhibition housed in one of the cities winter palaces and many books on the subject are available in the shop after the visit.

Stockholm

Bidding a sad farewell to St Petersburg, which had been such a welcoming host a day’s sailing heralds the arrival of the final stop of the cruise, an overnight stay in Stockholm. Moored at a very agreeable cruise terminal about 10 minutes from the city centre, there’s many choices of transport options from pre-booked tours to taxi, shuttle buses and hop on hop off tours.

Taking a hop on hop off bus from directly outside the terminal we visited nearly 20 stops on a city tour which criss-crossed over numerous islands comprising the city and alighted at stops of interest.

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The first of which was Skansen. A village created on the island which was previously the Royal Hunting Ground, this open air museum of building collected from around Scandinavia was a very easy way to spend three hours viewing the exterior and interior of these preserved properties. It’s a favourite of Stockholmers too. There’s extensive gardens, cafes a funicular railway and also a zoo consisting of typical Scandinavian animals from bears to reindeer to elks and lynx.

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Practically opposite this marvellous museum is another new visitor attraction, the ABBA museum. Opening in May last year, it’s interactive, fun and a must for all ABBA fans. You see real life costumes worn by the band, guitars and other memorabilia and insights from Sweden’s most famous export.

Of course all of these locations visited are also city breaks options and places which guests can book river cruises too and many fellow passengers were like me already considering doing just that as a cruise is an excellent taster to help you crystalize what you want to do on a future visit, perhaps next time taking along other family and friends.

Leaving at midday on our second day in Stockholm we depart for Rosyth. As we do we sail through the archipelagos around close to Stockholm to the North Sea, many happy memories and new found friends.

Next blog details of life on board

 See our pinterest board on places of interest from the cruise. 

 



Category: Ocean Cruises