The Summer Palace of Peter the Great, at Peterhof, on the Gulf of Finland. Another encounter with Russian Immigration could do nothing to take away the shine.
And shine it did. Defying the weather forecasts, the Sun appeared in a cloudless sky and stayed that way throughout our visit.
Again we were lucky with our guide, a very knowledgable lady with the entire history of the Palace at her fingertips. Her pace and delivery was perfect and she had the authority or seniority to tame the “babushkas” - the female dragons that guard the halls of Russia’s iconic buildings. We arrived early with other groups. We were admitted first. When a babushka made some comment, our guide responded and the babushka fell silent.
Peterhof on a sunny day is, in our opinion, almost without equal. We spent several hours here, 5 years ago and still found new and beautiful things to see and a serenity in the gardens which are home to over 160 fountains.
The palace interiors are opulent, breathtaking & defy description.
The gardens and its fountains are magnificent and provide a sense of calm and tranquility.
Last time we visited we said, “We’ll never have another chance to come back,” but we are back. Maybe we will for one more time in the future? Hope so!
We bade a fond farewell to the Russian Border Agency and returned to the ship early afternoon for some R&R before a superb dinner in the main restaurant as we set off for Tallinn. What a wonderful 2 days in Russia.
We docked in the hamlet of Eidfjord around 7am. It's a small place. The cruise ship more than doubled the population! It’s located at the end of Norway’s second longest fjord, Hardangerfjord Our excursion today was an all day trip, travelling to Flåm to board a scenic train then transfer to a scheduled service at the highest point (960m) to return to Voss for lunch and then return to the ship. The day was spectacular.
Firstly the drive to Flåm. Why does Norway have so many trolls? They build road tunnels. We drove through dozens of them. The longest, 19km, had a road junction with a roundabout about 4km in. It wasn’t the only subterranean roundabout. There’s a newly opened bridge across the fjord. The road enters a 2km corkscrew tunnel to go down to meet the bridge. Unbelievable! Waterfalls? Everywhere! We stopped en route to see one of the most spectacular.
Obviously a tour bus stop, so in the car park, the inevitable souvenir shop - with toilets. Now, clearly these toilets belong to the shop and they make a charge of NOK10 (about £1). As most tourists don’t have krona and they don’t want to miss out on valuable revenue, you enter the toilet by paying by credit card. Chip & Pin & Pee!
Our next stop was at Gudvangen, where some enterprising new-age hippy types have set up a Viking Village. To be honest - pathetic. They’re still building it! The location is also a pier/dock for cruises along the fjord and there’s a good looking restaurant. This, and the souvenir shop, are roofed in traditional Nordic turf style (although I suspect it’s grass layered on tiles).
Arriving in Flåm, we boarded our scenic train for the 1 hour journey to the top of the mountains. The train wound it’s way through some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. The Alps on steroids! About halfway through the journey, we stopped near Myrdal, and were able to disembark, to view the Voringsfossen waterfall famous for being the home of a siren (the Norwegian is unspellable) who lured unsuspecting men to their deaths. All of a sudden music and song burst from speakers and some poor, cold, wet young girl acted the part. What ever they’re paying her, it’s not enough. The spray was soaking us and the temperatures were well below 10℃. What condition was she in? And there’s a train in each direction every 30 minutes!
At the end of the “scenic” journey we stopped at a station whose only purpose was to connect our train with the Oslo-Bergen service. Changing trains was straightforward. The service train arrived at exactly the same time on the adjoining platform. Carriages had been reserved for our tour and off we went to Voss. The journey was just as scenic as we descended through the mountains.
Lunch was at Fleisher’s Hotel in Voss, conveniently located at the end of the platform. An extensive and generally good quality 3 course buffet was provided, with the starters all being Norwegian specialities. Our return had one more stop. Another incredible waterfall, reached by 13 hairpin bends down a 1:18 incline. Worth the white knuckles! Exhausted and exhilarated we were back on board for 5pm.
The excitement still wasn’t over. Viking had decided to film our departure for promotional material for this itinerary. So, for about an hour the ship was buzzed by a bright orange helicopter as we sailed up the fjord on our journey towards Bergen.
An amazing day.
Docked this morning at around 7:30am to a beautiful clear blue sky. Once again the weather has defied the forecasts!
As Viking were offering a complimentary shuttle into town (even though it’s only around a 5/10 minute walk), we decided to skip the escorted walking tour excursion and do our own walking tour instead.
The first shuttle service at 9am had very few passengers so conversation was struck up with the usual, “Where are you from” opening. It turned out that the Canadian sitting 1 row ahead had been born in Station Road, Penarth in 1940 and emigrated to Canada in 1952. He’d been to school in Victoria Primary and had returned to Penarth a few years ago and had been invited to the school and into his old home. Now a director of the Vancouver Orpheus Male Voice Choir (what a Welsh name!) he was just as surprised as we were to confirm it’s a very small world.
Tallinn is a pretty little city with a charming historic area. Very reminiscent of Kraków or Bratislava. As with so many “Germanic” European cities it has a vast central square lined with cafés and restaurants. We took the opportunity for a pitstop at one where the waitresses were dressed in pretty traditional costumes.
There's such a lot to see as you stroll around. Split into an upper and lower town it’s not that difficult a task to go to the upper and stroll back down.
Eastern Europe loves flowers. We passed a beautiful flower market. Each stall was repeated maybe a dozen times, each display just as wonderful.
Glorious weather, lovely surroundings and a relaxing environment. That was Tallinn.
We spent the late afternoon relaxing on our verandah watching the ferries come and go between Tallinn and Helsinki. Another beautifully prepared and presented dinner in the main restaurant completed another glorious day cruising the Baltic.
It’s a day at sea tomorrow. A much needed opportunity to recharge the batteries!
We thought we had a great plan. An early departure from the ship, a flight Bergen-Amsterdam, a 55 minute stopover, AMS to Cardiff. Should have been going through our front door around 10am. Then at about 7pm, 30 minutes before dinner, an email arrived…
“For operational reasons your flight Bergen-Amsterdam has been retimed for 7:10am… etc, etc”. No way that was going to connect with the Cardiff flight.
A long phone call to KLM's London number gave us a routeing through Edinburgh. Not happy, but nothing else seemed on offer; arrive in Cardiff not 9:30am but 4:30pm. Online check-in issues a set of boarding passes. We get another set of boarding passes issued at Bergen, because whilst KLM can check the bags through to Cardiff, they can only check in people for the KLM sectors. Edinburgh to Cardiff is Flybe. "Check-in at EDI."
The delayed flight was delayed once again until 7:35am (Schipol congestion). Arriving at Schipol, I thought, “Don’t ask, don’t get” so I decided to go to the KLM transfers desk to see if they’d issue food vouchers. “Of course,” said a charming Dutch lady, after a fairly long wait. “Can I see your boarding passes?”
“What’s this?” she asked. A frown creased her brow. “Why are you going to Edinburgh? Your original destination was Cardiff.”
I explained that KLM in London thought it the best option.
“But if you don’t mind arriving a few minutes later, I can give you a direct flight to Cardiff.”
“And the bags?” I asked. “We can reroute them too,” she smiled. (Believe that when I see it).
So more boarding passes issued with around 6 hours to wait in Schipol.
"Just asking" had worked once… Try it again?
We went to KLM’s First Class Crown lounge, smiled, explained the saga so far and another charming Dutch lady said she’d admit us for the small fee they charge qualifying partner airlines. So €35 each got us up to 12 hours of unlimited hot & cold food, beverages, alcohol, high-speed wifi, and “re-entry” - a real bargain.
So far we’ve enjoyed several teas, coffees, pastries and hot lunch items. Wine with lunch. Money well spent for sure, and it’s clean, quiet and comfortable. Let’s hope this saga has drawn to a close - although I’m still not expecting to see our luggage for a while!!
The luggage did arrive. Schipol Airport must be one of the most efficient airports in the world. A very patient taxi driver waited for us (without charging a waiting time fee!) and we were at home by 17:00 BST.
Great itinerary, great trip!
We docked early in Bergen to overcast skies. Can’t win ‘em all - the weather’s been pretty kind so far. What a busy harbour area. Boats everywhere! Our tour of Bergen was by coach. There’s not a lot of “Old Bergen” left, so we were taken on a very interesting excursion around the suburbs.
In 1944, on Hilter’s birthday, an “accident” happened in the harbour aboard a munitions carrier. It blew up! Its anchor was found 900m up (a nearby mountain) and 3km from the dock. Pretty well every traditional wooden house in Bergen was flattened. There's no proof but Norwegian Resistance fighters were very active around that period. A small section was rebuilt as a focus for the harbour area.
Trivia: House colours indicate status in Norway. Red paint is cheapest; it was made with animal blood. Next is Yellow; made of plant materials. Highly expensive is white; zinc and magnesium had to be imported to make white paint.
On the quay is a fish market. The crabs’ legs!! I wouldn’t want to find one of those alive and kicking!
The main part of the town has good shopping and lots of bars and restaurants. Definitely a place worth visiting.
Along the quay, three tall ships were docked. Our guide said this was unusual and she’d heard a rumour they were sailing out during the afternoon. And at around 5:30pm they did. The sun had broken through the clouds. An incredibly good view as they sail so close by to our ship.
Bergen was proving to be a delight…
… and then an email from KLM changed the mood . The next day… !!!
Breakfast in Bed. A great idea except, with Viking, the kitchen HAS to be absolutely sure everyone has what they want.
I followed the rules. Honestly, I did. I put 1’s or 2’s next to the items we wanted. However, it’s possibly not the clearest thing to understand (for the staff) if the 2 guests are ordering very different breakfasts on a sort of mix-and-match basis.
Their solution, a simple one. They brought 2 full cooked breakfasts, 2 full cold meat & cheese platters, 2 toasted bagels, 2 toasted breads, 2 muffins and then threw in breads, jams, honey and marmalade just in case. We could have opened our own restaurant!! As good as it all was, we didn’t get close to eating it all.
Our excursion set off at 10am - “Panoramic Stockholm” - a coach tour around many of the 14 islands that make up this city. Our guide’s English was better than mine and she had a wealth of knowledge, an ability to distinguish between the interesting and not so interesting and a lovely pace and tone. One of the best guides we’ve had.
Stockholm is lovely. She told us that it’s about 10% waterways and lakes and 40% parks and gardens. Almost all of the architecture is interesting - only a few of the glass, metal and concrete monstrosities that fill almost all capital cities. It feels relaxed, ultra-safe and ultra-clean. Because of its islands, however, unless you've studied its public transport system (buses, trams, trains, ferries & boats!) or take a tour-bus, it might prove difficult to see it all despite its relatively small size.
From around 2:45pm, we sailed out through the thousands of islands that form the archipelago. Those nearer Stockholm are covered with expensive looking dwellings. A little further out, large “exclusive” homes with private docking. Within 90 minutes, however, it’s mostly trees and a cabin or two. Really pretty scenery, almost a river cruise by ocean liner.
Tonight dinner was at “The Chef’s Table” a set taster menu with paired wines. Margaret doesn’t like fish and is allergic to some, and Chef’s Table always has at least 1 fish/shellfish course. In addition, she can’t have any uncooked alcohol (present in so many desserts). So she met with the restaurants’ supervisor who offered her replacement course(s) and has said she’ll meet her everyday to check all menus to make sure she has plenty of choice. The Viking Difference!
Chef’s Table - an attempt to offer a Michelin Star experience on a cruise ship and it almost works. Service is very very good, but doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi. The tables are well presented but lacked that perfect style. The premium wines were pretty good, but premium-ish and the “pairings” were close but not completely on point. The food however! They hit every nail on the head (maybe a small extra twist of salt on the scallops!). They dragged out every inch of flavour each ingredient had to offer.
We’re there again tomorrow for a Norwegian menu. Should be interesting.
We decided one breakfast adventure was enough so we ate in World Café!
Our excursion today was “A Glimpse of Helsinki” - a very similar format to yesterday. The difference was the guide, a lady “of a certain age” who was delighted to be a History Buff (Capital Letters Essential). We were regaled in great detail with the history of Finland since the Ice Age! I’m sure we passed several interesting locations whilst learning how the Laps, the Magyars, the Novogrods and many other long dead tribes were distributed and why the Hungarian and Finnish languages share common grammatical constructions.
Fortunately, just before I slit my wrists, we stopped at the Sibelius Memorial, a fascinating sculpture on the outskirts of the City.
The respite was all too short. We returned to the coach to drive into the City centre accompanied by a spoken dissertation on the 19th & 20th Century vagaries of Finnish/Swedish/Russian politics to the accompaniment of Sibelius’ “Finlandia”. There was little relief available as Monday morning traffic didn’t speed us to our next stop.
Helsinki is a small city, around 600,000 people (just a touch bigger than Cardiff). It’s a clean and safe environment, but it lacks “interesting" locations. It looked a great place to live, but if I was looking for a single word for it, that would be “functional”. I suppose that, as during winter ALL the water freezes, including the sea and daylight is down to just a few hours, functional is a pretty good plan!
Viking were offering a complimentary shuttle bus service, so at the last tour stop we quit the lecture room, looked around the city for a while and had a peaceful return to the ship!
A Norwegian feast on the menu at Chef’s Table tonight. Forgive me! I had Rudolf for my starters! He’d been made into a reindeer soup. The whole meal was simply magnificent and surprising in so many ways. Peasant dishes raised to restaurant standard.
When you think of Denmark, you think: open green fields, pigs, basking in sunshine, waiting to become bacon and Hans Christian Andersen's trolls hiding under pretty little bridges waiting to jump out and surprise you. Industry doesn’t leap to mind. The outskirts of Ålborg, therefore, are untypical. It’s very industrial. The town, however, doesn’t match it’s grimy approaches. It’s fresh and clean.
The ship docks so close to town, at first you think you might be in a “Pay & Display” car park. Seriously close to town! Admittedly, the sea here is narrower than most of the Danube. Technically, it's a fjord. The last few hours have felt like River Cruising.
There’s not much to say about Ålborg. It’s pleasant and provincial and we enjoyed strolling around for an hour or two looking in shops and taking in the crisp fresh air.
Did I mention the temperature has decided to match these northern latitudes and is around 14℃ with a “refreshing” breeze? The Sun has battled the clouds and managed to keep showers at bay most of the time.
By the time we sailed at 1pm the Sun won the fight and puffy white clouds decorated a pale blue sky. The temperature, however, stayed stubbornly around 16℃.
Choppy seas and perfect stabilisers. Fresh breezes (wind really) and sunshine on the water. A lovely way to sail towards dinner.
Copenhagen (Kobenhavn)… not wonderful, but pretty damn close!
A complimentary shuttle took us right to the heart of the city, and the local guide at the shuttle stop advised us the best and easiest way to see most of the sights was to take a canal boat tour.
She was right. For a very reasonable fee, we were taken into the harbour and through canals and had a fine view of almost everything on the “to see in Copenhagen” list… and without crowds of people standing in front of you!
After the boat tour, we walked around the centre. Lots of shopping, more interesting things to see in a gentle, relaxing atmosphere.The Danes are proud (and famous) for design. This was evident everywhere. Whereas in most cities the modern architecture grates against the traditional, here it blends together. It’s a beautiful city. Well worth visiting, well worth returning to.
Back on board for lunch and a quiet afternoon and then dinner at Chef’s Table.
I woke at 4am and looked outside. We appeared to be passing a naval base. Hope it’s not illegal to photograph Russian military installations!
Back to bed, to awake again docked in St Petersburg’s cruise port ready for the day ahead.
Our first excursion began with, what was to become the ritual of, meet & greet with Russian Border Control. This first visit took about 5 minutes (after reaching the front of the queue) whilst the stoney faced agent tapped away at her keyboard, pausing every few seconds to glance up with distinctly suspicious looks. Finally, passports duly stamped, we exited the immigration area to board our tour bus.
Our tour took in some of the highlights of the city. We’ve been here for 3 days previously and yet passed by, or stopped at, a number of places we hadn’t seen. It’s a beautiful city, somewhere that rewards a return visit with more to offer.
We all look for a new experience when we travel… and this was certainly a first. The city has found a novel way to redeploy out of date buses. They’re converted into toilets. One bus for ladies, one for gentlemen. Even more incredible on the inside than the outside, but it would have been impolite to take a photograph!
Our return to the ship allowed us the opportunity to greet our soon to become close friend at border control. It only took 3 minutes to let us through, and our passport received another stamp. Looked much like the first!
The afternoon excursion (only 2 minutes at the border - familiarity breeds contempt?) took us to the Yusupov Palace, the location of Rasputin’s murder.
We were so fortunate. Our guide had perfect idiomatic English and had been born a storyteller. She described the history as if she had been personally a witness. She dispelled myths born in Hollywood and offered small details that brought the story alive.
A splendid afternoon, and our "friendly" Border Agent (who is yet to smile) got the job down to just a minute!
Dinner in Manfredi’s, the Italian bistro. They say it’s the best Italian restaurant at sea. It could vie for best in Europe! So many menu items, so little time.
Docked 30 minutes late - headwinds. We didn’t need the Captain to apologise and explain; we knew already!
Stavanger is home to the Norwegian North Sea Oil & Gas industry. The harbour approaches had some of the strangest vessels I’ve ever seen! And for the first time it rained. Not a torrential downpour, more an apologetic drizzle. We’d brought rainwear, so off we strolled. The temperature could best be described as “fresh”!
We’d docked very close to town alongside what appeared to be a small district of traditional houses.
The quayside was home to several working ships, although there also seemed to be another port area for ferries and “industrial” craft further out. The nearby town (it's an “Old Town”, but seemed to be the regular town as well) was a short stroll away, the harbourside lined with inviting cafés and restaurants. If only there’d been sunshine!
The streets behind were narrow and pretty. Lots of normal stores and a good number of souvenir shops with a far lower percentage of junk than usual. Some good quality items on offer: woollens, padded jackets, hats, ceramics (also trolls, more trolls and even more trolls). Trolls guarded many of the shops.
Lots of street art too.
Stavanger turned out to be a surprise. I’d imagined a more industrial town. It’s actually very quaint and charming.
Yesterday was a day at sea. So where does the time go? You spend the whole day doing nothing much at all (even though there’s lots on offer) and as soon as you check your watch, it’s time for dinner! OK, there were interruptions: breakfast and lunch and snacks and gelato and books and sunshine and cocktails.
Also, surprisingly, there was time for a really interesting tour of the ship’s galleys with the Chef de Cuisine. It’s amazing how such a complicated system involving 80 chefs and 20 more support staff can produce such consistently high quality dishes across 5 venues.
The ship had already docked in Gdańsk by the time we awoke. A bright (weather, not us) and early start today for all the excursions. Departures all around 7:15am. Breakfast seemed more like a late night snack at 5:45am. We’re only docked here until just after noon, so it was inevitable!
However, once again the weather made a fool of the forecast and for most of the time the clouds were wispy and thin or totally absent.
Our excursion took us to Malbork (Marienberg), a 90 minute drive from Gdańsk, and the location of Prisoner of War Camp, Stalag XXB, where Margaret’s father spent most of his war, having been captured during the Dunkirk evacuation.
We’d learned that nothing of the main camp remained (confirmed by our guide), but as the POWs were sent out to work on local farms, the drive to Malbork gave a strong impression of where he would have been. It is also rumoured that, as the German HQ was at the castle, POWs were often assigned there as servants.
It’s an impressive structure, destroyed and rebuilt several times in its 900 year history, most recently post WWII. The Russians took exception to the German forces HQ and subjected it to heavy shelling.
The enclosed grounds are surrounded by the layered defence walls typical of medieval fortifications.
The interiors are also fascinating, and as we had a guide who sounded as if she’d experienced it all first hand, this was a surprisingly interesting morning.
The drive back was blessed by a guide who didn’t need to talk for every second we were in her charge and instead played some Chopin quietly through the PA. Soothing enough for a nap!
Back on board for around 12 noon and a light lunch (Cheesesteak & Waffles) from the pool grill.
The afternoon was spent on a millpond-like Baltic sailing towards dinner in Manfredi’s and overnight to Warnemünde, Germany.
We’re docked in Warnemünde today and 650 of 930 guests have opted to set off for Berlin on a complimentary charter train and quite a few more are off to visit assorted castles and the Hanseatic towns. We’re going to visit Rostock (just 20 minutes away) this morning and then explore Warnemünde, which is (allegedly) a pretty little town in it’s own right this afternoon.
Bottom line is that about 100 of us will have the ship virtually to ourselves until about 8pm when the train returns - great result, as a Bavarian beer and sausage buffet is a meal option from 6pm.
A pretty little town. It was practically flattened during WWII as it was the major ship-building centre for the Third Reich and controlled much of the sea access between the Allies and the Soviet Union. After the war, it became part of East Germany which didn’t do a bad job of restoring the historic centre, but added their own particular architectural flare to the blocks of flats around the city. More recent residential developments, however, are charming.
To be honest, it doesn’t have that much to offer tourists but with an excellent shopping area and many restaurants in the historic town (not tourist traps), a modern public tramway system, a delightful waterfront, and a moderate climate, it wouldn’t be that bad a place to live.
Much more a tourist town, probably because of cruise ships. Today, apart from us, there were two others, including a city on the sea, the MSC Orchestra. We’re guessing that only Viking offered a free charter train to Berlin, so the 5000+ or so passengers from the other ships mostly stayed in port (so it seems). Th town's less than 5 minutes walk from the cruise dock. Crowded, but still a good place to visit.
The main streets are either side of a canal lined with touristy shops and restaurants, with dozens of pleasure craft hawking harbour cruises. Just one block back from the “tourist streets” are some really delightful residences and boutiques.
Well… let’s have a German Buffet!
Four different würst, schnitzel, three different beers, sauerkraut, a couple of types of potato, German breads and several things for people who don’t like sausage (yes, they do exist and we even let them vote!).
What Viking hadn't mentioned was that, for starters, the world’s oceans had been emptied of crab claws and tiger prawns, and that an extensive array of “open kitchen” sushi was on offer. Nothing Germanic about desserts; simply several items with enough cream to harden arteries on contact. Did I mention 9 flavours of gelato? Oh well. Just had to take one (or two or three) for the team.
The usual trouble free journey with KLM and Viking’s outstanding transfers, saw us in Stockholm and on board the ship by 14:30 CET.
It’s a beautiful, warm, hazy sunny day. The drive to the ship showed off the City - made beautiful by the number of waterways that flow through it and the parks that adjoin them.
We’re docked quite near Gamla Stam (The Old City) and, fortunately, because of how the ship is docked, our view is across the bay. Lots of small pleasure craft and some ferries provide an ever changing scene.
This time we’re in a Penthouse Suite - much the same as our usual Penthouse Veranda. It’s a bit wider a stateroom with a dividing curtain between the living and sleeping areas and 2 TVs (not that we ever watch 1!). Worth a try, but the PV is much better value.
An outstanding touch. Last year I told Viking, when I booked an earlier cruise, that I’m not that impressed by champagne (complimentary bottle on arrival) and I’d prefer a good red wine instead. They obliged on our last cruise. This time they did it again, even though I hadn’t asked AND they left the champagne as well. Know your clients! Customer Service in Spades!
It’s been a very long day. So we took an early dinner in the main restaurant. Pretty good, as usual, and then headed back to our room for some R&R and an early night.
That’s the thing about a Viking cruise. It’s always so easy to do whatever you want to do.
Ordered “Breakfast in Bed” for tomorrow. Why not? It’s the little treats that make things extra special!