Peter the Great must be feeling pretty smug

Cruising the Baltic Sea

by Mary Hartman

Peter the Great must be feeling pretty smug from his quarters in the Hereafter.

Everyday, from early spring through late fall, legions of visitors stream through his palaces, fortress and gardens in St. Petersburg, Russia's historic "Window on the West."

It's enough to make any megalomaniac smile. And, by all definitions, Peter, with his lust for power and his 20-year war with King Charles of Sweden that wiped out thousands, was a megalomanic. But he also was a dream-maker and on the backs of his minions he created a city that is a showplace to the world.

And today's cruise industry has heard the word. A two-day stop in St. Petersburg is a staple on virtually all Baltic Sea cruises.

My husband I cruised the Baltic last summer when St. Petersburg, founded in 1703, was celebrating its 300th anniversary. The celebration meant that some, though not all, of the city's dirt and grime had been washed away or painted over. (Look behind the palaces, however, to the Soviet Era apartment bloc buildings, and the traveler gets a glimpse of the St. Petersburg of old - grime and all.)

Couch potatoes be warned: A Baltic Sea cruise, specifically this Baltic Sea cruise aboard the 2,000-passenger Celebrity ship, "Constellation," is not for the faint-of-heart - or body. If you are looking for lazy days at sea, it might be a good idea to cruise elsewhere. Baltic Sea ports are close together and each of them offers enticing, historic sights to see - enough sightseeing to fill a month-long cruise.

Most mornings, the Constellation was docked by 7:30 and we were off the ship by 8. Of the 14-day cruise, only two were "at-sea" days. Of course, no one forced us into all those ports and shore excursions, but why travel the world if you don't want to see it?

And, see it we did, highlighted midway through the trip by two intensive days in St. Petersburg. We'd like to say "two sunny days," but St. Petersburg weather can be on the bleak side: "We have 30 to 50 sunny days a year - nine months of expectation; three months of disillusion," quipped Elina, one of our Russian tour guides. Another guide, Svetlana, added to the weather discussion conceding that Russian meteorologists are right only about 30 percent of the time. "Why don't they choose the opposite forecast?" she asked rhetorically, "Then they'd be 70 percent right."

Weather aside, St. Petersburg is something to see and the cruise companies do it with aplomb. Celebrity offered no fewer than 20 guided tours, including outings to the ballet, plus the option of hiring a personal tour guide for the Hermitage, the city's renown art museum. Or one can cough up $675 for a flight and day-long sightseeing trip to Moscow. (We opted to stay in St. Petersburg, but our table mates made the Moscow trip and returned with glowing reports.)

A word of caution about passports and VISAs while traveling via cruise ship to Russia: Everyone needs a passport, but only those who strike out on their own in St. Petersburg or environs need a VISA. Those who participate in excursions sponsored by the cruise line will not need a Russian VISA.

Choosing St. Petersburg tours is akin to parading past a dessert buffet and knowing you can have only three or four of the goodies. Barrie and I elected to see the Hermitage. (Doesn't everyone?) "See," however, hardly applies. The Hermitage, a French word meaning "place of seclusion," is a collection of four palaces, culminated by the Winter Palace . The complex also includes the Hermitage Theater. Publishers of the St. Petersburg "Insight Compact Guide" speculate it would take 70 years to see everything there, an estimate that puts in perspective what we saw on our one-half day tour. Still, a good look at Peter's gilded horse-drawn coach, the Red Throne room, the baroque-style Jordan staircase and Rembrandt's "Prodigal Son" provided a tantalizing glimpse into the glittering lifestyles and the riches of Russia's elite during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Hermitage was followed immediately by an excursion dubbed "Lenin and the Russian Revolution," during which we visited the Museum of Political History and the Smolny Institute, which became the headquarters for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Those outings took up our first day in town, though we squeezed in one more with a vodka-and-champagne-laced evening cruise on the Neva River. (Remember, we're in Russia, where vodka is the nation's version of water.) The entertainment, a raucous Russian folkloric show, nicely complemented the liquid refreshments.

The following day, we hopped a bus for an out-of-town trip to Peterhoff, Peter's summer palace, 22 miles west of St. Petersburg. En route, Svetlana tells us that 50 percent of Russians live in government-owned apartments, "but when you get to Peterhoff, you'll forget all about the apartments Russians live in today," she added in the understatement of the trip. Built to imitate France's Versailles, Peter's little summer home includes 300 acres of landscaped gardens with 173 fountains and, inside, enough china to serve 6,000 guests. And, the gold leaf - the place drips in gold, which is all the more astounding when one learns that Peterhoff Palace and its gardens were completely destroyed during World War II, but have since been restored to their 18th century splendor.

Back to real world, the traveler faces the inevitable and the welcome (at least to the shoppers within the crowd) souvenir vendors. Strung out like beads in a necklace, in front of the castles and cathedrals, they offer everything from postcards and Russia coffee mugs to (are we ready?) George Bush nesting dolls. While the current president decorates the outer doll, the inside likenesses consist of Clinton, Bush I, Carter and Reagan. "Five presidents for $12," barked the vendor. Clearly, capitalism has arrived in the old Soviet Union.

For many, St. Petersburg is the highlight of this cruise, but the eight other ports are jewels within their own rights.

Departing Stockholm, a city of canals and of Scandinavian color and efficiency, we steamed overnight across the Baltic for a stop at Riga, Latvia's historic capitol. Freed in 1991 from the yoke of Communism, this Baltic state, along with its neighbors Estonia (also on the cruise itinerary) and Lithuania, vibrate with economic activity. For an hour before the Constellation docked in Riga, we were greeted with cranes and miles of shipping containers, symbols of economic revitalization in this part of the world.

Not all of Latvia's or the Baltic's economy, however, moves out of the harbor in boxcars. The prize in this part of the world is amber. Dubbed the "diamond of the Baltic," amber is a translucent gem originating from fossilized tree resin. It can be shaped into a variety of items ranging from jewelry to figurines - all of it shimmering in a golden beauty. Indeed, in ancient times, amber was sold at the price of gold and judging by some amber objects on sale in Riga, it still is! Kate, one of our tour guides, told us that "in Medieval times, if you found amber, you gave it to the king. If you didn't, get ready to die."

Beautiful Riga, with its classic baroque-style homes in hues of blue, tangerine and yellow, showcased both the upside and the downside of organized tours. How fortunate we felt to be here, riding past these magnificent mansions, each one oozing with the tumultuous history that helped create today's free and independent Baltic states. But, oh, how we longed to stop - to enter some of the homes, palaces and churches that, on an organized tour, are but a drive-by or a photo stop. When travelers choose organized tours, it must be with the understanding that someone else selects the itinerary. To keep the tour on time and on track, some of us always will pass by a lot of "want-to-sees."

So, next stop: Helsinki, again with a myriad of tour options including, for railroad buffs, a 40-minute ride into the countryside on a private steam train. In another effort to squeeze something out of every moment, we journeyed to the quaint village of Porvoo, a town of charming wooden houses and narrow cobblestone streets 23 miles east of Helsinki. Founded in 1346, Porvoo is built on slopes that always seemed to be going down. Navigating the centuries-old, worn-smooth cobblestones gave us great appreciation for the Finns who do this balancing act in winter when snow and ice cover the stones. More than once we latched onto nearby railings or flower boxes to hold steady. Crutches and a banged up derriere were not options on this action-packed trip.

A modern speedway takes us back to Helsinki. Just how modern? The speedway is laced with high-tech fencing to keep moose off the road. In sections of no fencing, flashing lights warn motorists if a moose is in the vicinity. Finland and a lot of its European neighbors once answered to the moniker of "Old Country." Old Country, hardly - not when every third Finn wields a Nokia cell phone and certainly not when blinking lights warn motorists that moose are nearby.

Today's cruises ships are modernity at its best - Internet access, phones and televisions (read: CNN in every room). So, imagine our jolt the following morning when we docked in St. Petersburg and no CNN. "Now, we ARE behind the Iron Curtain," some of us clucked, mindful that the Iron Curtain came down more than a decade ago.

With all due apologies to CNN and other news organizations, St Petersburg offered enough wonders to make us forget the outside world - at least for awhile. What we found in this city of rivers and canals was an area capitalizing on its tourist sites, though tourism hasn't met Nirvana there yet. Garbage lines many a street; a good sweeping and scrubbing would do wonders. So might some good manners. Visiting the Battleship Aurora, from which the first shots were fired signaling the beginning of the 1917 Revolution, several of us attempted to use the water closet. A gruff "babushka," however, informed us it was either rubbles or one dollar each (long live capitalism!). Otherwise, the door would remain closed. Most of us decided Mother Nature could wait.

The babushka syndrome, however, was counter-balanced by the bands of friendly musicians who greeted us at every stop in St. Petersburg playing the likes of "Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful" - even "Dixie." And, once inside the palaces and museums, we seldom were denied the chance take pictures. The exception, understandably, came when we passed priceless paintings and art objects in the Hermitage.

So, with St. Petersburg - the crown jewel of the trip - behind us, we sailed off toward stops in Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Norway. Cruising in the Baltic is a tranquil affair. Half of the trip is spent in the Gulf of Finland, a stretch of water which, at most, is 50 miles across. Big swells seldom build up here, and most cruise ships can handle whatever Mother Nature bestows. Sitting in the ship's theater, enjoying musicals, comedies, magic acts and concerts - with not semblance of motion beneath us - we more-than-once asked, "are we at sea or home in our living room?"

But, you can't visit Tallin, Estonia's capitol, from your living room, and Old Town Tallin, with its fairy-tale motif of narrow cobblestone streets and Medieval buildings crowned with steep-pitched red tile roofs, is not to be missed. Fairy tale meets reality here when you find a fortress tower dubbed "Tall Herman," and another, "Peak in the Kitchen:" From here one, indeed, can get a good peak into the fortress kitchen. The name game continues with "Fat Margaret," a cannon tower with walls almost 12 feet thick. While in Tallin, add an excursion to Rocca Del Mar, Estonia's open air museum located in a lush forest on the city's perimeter. Walking through the trees, you half expect to see Hansel and Gretel tripping along the forest path dropping bread crumbs to lead you to the 18th century farmsteads, houses and a church.

A couple of days later (if it's Sunday, it must be Poland), we bump and bounce over a cobblestone roadway, complete with a stripe down the middle. (A concession to the 21st century, or what?) We're off to visit the world's largest brick castle at Malbork. Begun in the 1200s, it survived until 1945, when it, too, became a WWII casualty. Completely rebuilt, it now houses massive collections of medieval weapons, amber and coins, not to mention a scary labyrinth of dungeons. "Are we in here for life?" my husband asked, after we had left our tour group to do a little exploring on our own.

Bouncing back to the ship over the cobblestoned road, we passed little doll-house cottages surrounded by lush gardens and fertile farmlands. Here and there, small herds of Holstein cows grazed. Could this be the same country in which more than 16,000 people died during the second world war? Indeed, the Poles are survivors.

If Riga, St. Petersburg and Tallin were jaunts through Medieval history, we were about to make a leap into the 20th century. Next stop: Spectacularly modern Berlin, via a high-speed train from the German port of Warnamunde. For a one-day WWII and Soviet occupation primer, this is it: The city hall where, in 1961, President John Kennedy gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a free person") speech; the infamous Check-Point Charlie where American and Soviet tanks faced off; Templehoff Airport, site of the famous Berlin Airlift; and the Berlin Wall. Though now just sections of graffiti-laden concrete, in its original incarnation, it actually was two walls, with a trench in between for tanks, land mines and guard dogs. "You could never cross the gulch between," Sonia, our guide told us, adding that 152 people died trying. Today, tourists buy pieces of the wall, in our case a tiny chip embedded in a plastic casing on the top of a souvenir bookmark.

Sonia personified the shore excursion guides on this cruise, and Berlin typified all of our port stops. Prior to leaving home, we had fussed a bit whether a ship with nearly 2,000 passengers could provide high quality optional tours. Would the tour groups be too large? Would the guides know their stuff? Not to worry: The tour groups were right-sized and with their extensive knowledge about each port stop, every one of the guides would feel right at home in academia's ivy halls - except, unlike one or two professors that most of us have endured, these guides were altogether captivating, even downright witty. Subsequent stops in Copenhagen and Oslo proved likewise.

History has not always been kind to the Baltic region. It has been raided and invaded. But now, with kudos to today's cruise industry, the area is seeing an invasion of a different and decidedly more lucrative sort. Not even the cranky St. Petersburg babushka could argue with that.

Mary Hartman

About the Author

Mary Hartman
Mary Hartman is a veteran sea-goer and globe-trotter. Her resume reads a media relations specialist with Colorado State University and a free-lance writer who lives in Louisville, Colorado, USA.