Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny and we knew it was a perfect day for a cruise on the Bosphorus. We ate at the hotel buffet and made it across the bridge by 9:15am. We were trying to get to the IDO boat docks by 9:30am. Even though the boat wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10:30, we had read that on nice days people start to queue up early for the best views and today was no different. About 50 people were already in line so we paid for our tickets (25 lire round trip) and managed to find great seats on the side of the boat looking out at the European side of the city as we departed. These seats proved to be an excellent choice. Palaces, embassies and a castle were on offer as we made the 90 minute trip down the Bosphorus to our docking point: Anadolu Kavagi, which is located on the Asian side of Istanbul. We enjoyed a nice walk up to castle ruins and then ate lunch seaside. On the menu…fresh fish, of course. We had prawns in butter and friend calamari and then concluded the meal with chicken shish kebabs. We were in the little fishing village for about 2 hours before the boat made the return trip back to Istanbul. It was an absolutely delightful way to see the city and catch a quick glimpse of life on the water in Turkey.
Our next stop was the Hermitage. Like all great cities, a good art museum shows off how powerful you really are. The Hermitage was originally a residential palace and many rooms are open to tour. In the 1800s, the decision was made to allow commoners the opportunity to stroll through the building and admire the collections. It is a “must see” for anyone visiting St Petersburg and the crowds were intense. Our tour guide led us through the main highlights and then gave us some time to browse on our own. We enjoyed gazing at the Impressionist collection and saw some artists’ work up close and personal. Very little of the Hermitage is kept in climate-controlled environments so you can really see the brush strokes and shading the artists employed.
To round out our tour of the city, we stopped at the Church of Spilled Blood, an impressive onion-domed church which is more colorful than St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. We also visited the sphinx from Egypt and gazed at Peter and Paul Fortress on the water. It was a grand view of a truly remarkable city.
Of all the stops on our cruise, perhaps the crown jewel was St Petersburg. Partly due to the fact that few have ever seen this city and partly because it was the end of our week-long cruise, we were eager to get off the boat and take in as much of Russia as possible. I was able to secure a tour through Red October Tours prior to leaving the States and our tour guide, Svetlana, was waiting for us when we got off the ship. We were among the first passengers to clear customs in Russia and we kept thinking we were going to be stopped for some reason. But, it was an easy process and we made our way to the private coach hired to take us around town.
Our first stop was the Winter Palace, a 30 minute ride from the ship. The palace was built in the small village of Pushkin and it was interesting to see the combination of small private homes, large apartment buildings and government monuments along the drive. Probably the first thing your eye takes in is the fabulous blue the palace is painted. No where else in Europe is this color used so predominantly. We were struck by the sheer grandeur of the building, which was built not as a residence but as a show piece to prove how rich and powerful the Russian nobility was. The rooms were filled with gold, mirrors and lots of decorative touches. The palace grounds are immaculately groomed and offer sweeping views of the property.
Following our stop at the Winter Palace, we took the opportunity to eat at the original stroganoff restaurant. Legend says that a soldier, who lost his arm in a battle, was served this beef main dish because he could eat it without using a knife. It was absolutely delicious. My personal recipe doesn’t even come close. Accompanied by a cream of mushroom soup and a drink called kvass (like root beer but has some fermentation process) it was the perfect break to reenergize for the afternoon.
Following another filling dinner meal and night at sea, we pulled into Tallinn Estonia at 7:30am. From the ship, we could see tall spires and red roofs dotting the coastline. We were eager to embark on our city walk. We left the ship and walked through a little market village set up expressly for the purposes of hawking goods to desperate souvenir shoppers. We browsed quickly through the wooden shacks on our way to old town, about a 10 minute walk. Estonia’s history is a constant tug of war for domination of its ports by both Sweden and Russia. The people, however, demanded independence and currently enjoy a vibrant economy and tourists to Tallinn are not disappointed.
The town reminded me of the Medieval Times Restaurant, with old town walls, wooden market stalls and vendors dressed in Renaissance garb. The smell of sweet-roasted almonds wafted around the town square and quartets entertained us with lively folk music. Several of us took the walking tour of the city and another group rented tandem bikes for an exhilarating tour of the streets. Cobblestones make for a bumpy ride but the weather was pleasant and everyone was in a good mood.
We returned to the ship back through the market stalls and managed to satisfy our souvenir craving as well with painted tiles and hand-made jewelry.
August 9 Our view from the ship’s cabin was dotted with little cottages and small boats as we docked in Stockholm. Another city based on water trade, Stockholm is home to many fishermen and the downtown doesn’t disappoint.Tall ships, frigates and numerous cruise lines all make a stop in Stockholm. We disembarked and bought a ticket on a water ferry over to see the VASA ship, a Swedish fighting ship that sank just a mile from shore on its maiden voyage. As our guide said, “it was a very important sinking. Much learning about ship building came about from the failure.” I like to think that statement can be applied to all of life.
Following the museum tour, we headed to old town, Gamla Stan, where we queued up for the Royal Changing of the Guards. This was a long show but we got to hear a marching band and watch soldiers exchange duties in perfect formation.
The highlight for several in our group was the excursion to the Absolut Ice Bar in downtown Stockholm. Imagine drinking delicious cocktails in ice glasses while you’re surrounded by carved ice sculptures not to mention the mittens, heavy cloaks and hoods that we wore to keep us toasty while sitting in the ice bar.Everything in the bar is made from ice, including the stools to sit on. Lindsey and Lauren wore flip flops and they instantly felt the cold. The kids were served non-alcoholic drinks and the adults had the opportunity to try unusual concoctions with names like Sleigh Ride.
We returned to the ship in fine form after our day of sightseeing in Kiel and got dressed for dinner. We had 2 tables in the L’Hibiscus dining room, a table of 8 and a table of 4. This proved a bit of a challenge because we had 7 adults and 5 children. We decided to rotate who sat at the “little table” with Tim drawing the lucky spot for night number 1. Our servers, Adriana and Lucas, kept us entertained with incredible food and magic tricks throughout the evening. Since MSC is an Italian-owned ship, each evening featured dishes from different regions through Italy. I have to admit, they all started to taste somewhat the same by day 4 but we still enjoyed the opportunity to choose from the menu up to 6 courses, with dessert always being a highlight.
Our day at sea was absolutely perfect. Lots of sunshine (even on the Baltic Sea), warm temps, refreshing pools and a rousing game of mini-golf on the top deck. Will and Troy spent hours preparing an “Olympic games” competition for our time on the cruise which was great fun until we discovered that supplies for events (like ping pong and suffleboard) were a bit limited. Not to fear…as the sun began to set, all of us were a bit weary from the day’s tiring schedule of sunbathing and drinking tropical drinks. Following dinner each night, the entertainment crew put on a gala spectacular in the ship’s theater. It reminded me a bit of Vegas, a little opera, death-defying acrobatics and even an appearance by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.