What We Did On Our Summer Vacation, Day 10 (Helsinki, Finland)

Friday, August 24 brought us to Helsinki, Finland.

We had no issues whatsoever getting off the ship, unlike the Grand Guignol folly back in St Petersburg. Our Finland “exclusive tour” was another bus tour to see the sights… both in Helsinki, proper, and in the quaint little town of Porvoo a half hour away to the east. Oh, and, we bought anti-perspirant in a Finnish supermarket.

Helsinki is a medium-sized city (600,000 or so people)… or at least, it felt that way. We didn’t get the sense of being in a big urban megalopolis. That might be because for the first time in a few days we didn’t have to fight enormous crowds. There weren’t any Must See stops that every cruise ship would ferry its passengers to, and consequently, we had a much more relaxed day where we didn’t feel like we were going to get trampled.

Our tour guide took us to the Helsinki Cathedral, where we parked and walked around the Kruununhaka neighborhood and harbor. There were all manner of street vendors next to the harbor and we bought some really nice sweaters from a local weaver… two for Carole, one for me. Then we got back on the bus and continued on to the Sibelius Monument, a funky modernist sculpture of metal pipes commemorating Finland’s greatest composer.

Then we were off to Porvoo, a small arty city known for its medieval architecture and chocolate shop. We parked the bus and walked around, bought chocolate, visited the old Porvoo Cathedral, paid money to use the facilities at a local for-profit bathroom, and finished our stop by dropping in to the local supermarket to buy antiperspirant.

Funny thing about taking a cruise to Europe and being bused all over various cities… it doesn’t really afford you an opportunity to replace essential toiletries you may have run out of. One would think that there’d be a little shop on board the ship where you could buy toothpaste, antiperspirant, aspirin, and so on, right? Nope. There were shops where you could buy absurdly overpriced watches and jewelry and “art” and so on, but no “convenience store” equivalent. And none of our stops in other cities had taken us within shouting distance of a convenience store or pharmacy either.

I’d run out of antiperspirant on the second day of the cruise and had been using Carole’s, but hers was kinda low also. We were gratified to be given some “walking around” time in Porvoo and even moreso when we stumbled upon the K-Citymarket. They had everything an American market would have — and amusingly, all the antiperspirants were labeled entirely in English. It appears that rather than relabel health and beauty products for each country, manufacturers just have done with it and label everything in English and call it a day.

We headed back toward Helsinki from Porvoo and had lunch at an estate hotel called Haikko Manor, right by the water and surrounded by trees and huge grassy lawns. We had the usual: meat, potatoes, bread, salad, vodka… and reindeer salami. Which turned out to be pretty much like any other salami.

Then we headed on back into Helsinki where the main thing left on our itinerary was visiting Temppeliaukio Church, a church carved out of the rock of a hill in the middle of the city. Lest the idea of a “church carved out of the rock’ imply a little chapel or something — think again. It was huge inside. Enormous organ, natural light coming in from high windows, row after row of seats… you had to have a ticket to get in and there was no shortage of people, both tourists and locals, coming in to admire the place.

And then it was back to the ship to decompress, have dinner at the “La Cucina” Italianesque specialty restaurant, and then the usual routine — wandering around, having a drink, and so to bed.

Our overall conclusion: Finland is a very polite, clean, quiet little country, one that we wouldn’t mind visiting again sometime. That said, we can’t really claim to have a thorough understanding of the place from one day’s (or parts thereof) wandering around.

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What We Did On Our Summer Vacation, Day 9 (St Petersburg)

Thursday, August 23 saw us still in St Petersburg — Day 9 of our vacation and day 5 of our cruise. We spent the day back onshore, dragging around St Petersburg and environs looking at gilt. The Russians of the Russian Empire period never saw anything they didn’t want to cover in gold leaf.

We spent the morning at a Peter the Great palace, Peterhof, west of the city along the Gulf of Finland shore, took a hydrofoil trip back into the city (really!), had lunch — and vodka — at another sit-down restaurant, and then got dragged around the rest of the afternoon to Cathedral X and Palace Y and so forth. There definitely came a point in the afternoon where if the tour guide had asked “Who’s absolutely sick of seeing one church after another and wants to just go back to the ship” there’d have been a stampede for the bus.

Peterhof is known for its fountains. The palace itself is really nice, a lot like the Catherine Palace that we’d seen the previous day… only with even larger crowds. When we got there, the line to go in was around the block, with one tour group after another slowly shuffling through metal detectors and stuff. We wound up at the end of the line and our tour guide looked very disheartened until she found the right person from her company to call and they got us moved up front (we’d paid for the “exclusive” tour and part of that, apparently, had been paying to bypass lines). But even so, holy cow, there wasn’t room to sling a hamster, let alone a cat, anywhere in the entire place. We were actually kind of grateful when we’d seen the key stuff inside and could go out to the palace grounds to see the fountains.

The fountains at Peterhof are really something. There’s the Grand Cascade, which is enormous — it’s basically the whole front approach to a very large palace. There’s the Chess Mountain fountain. There’s the “trick” fountain that sprays people when they sit down on the benches nearby. And then there’s fountain X, fountain Y, fountain Z — we found out that it is indeed possible to have “fountain fatigue”.

The hydrofoil trip back across the Gulf of Finland was fast and efficient — it’s a good way to commute between St Petersburg proper and the areas along the south shore of the gulf. We were back in the city in no time, had lunch (chicken, potatoes, salad, vodka, and sparkling wine which may or may not have been champagne), and then were off to see (ticking ’em off on my fingers, one by one) St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Cathedral (we met a very nice cat there), the Church On Spilled Blood… heck, there were probably a few more in there but we’d gotten cathedral fatigue too.

We got taken to a shop that had very expensive versions of the same cheap-ass souvenirs the sold back at the port (we didn’t buy any) and then went back to the ship. Dinner that night was at the on-board speciality steakhouse restaurant, “Cagney’s”, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t overwhelming either. Then we wandered around the ship, had a drink here and a drink there, and crashed.

Only, that wasn’t the end of it. After a nap we looked out the window and saw that the ship was passing a Russian Navy base on the isle of Kronstadt — the name deriving from the period when it had been a possession of the Swedish Empire. It was a little startling to see what looked like about half the Russian navy parked a stone’s throw off the port side of the ship. We took a photo or two (they didn’t come out well, as it was getting pretty dark) and then went back to bed for the night. We sailed overnight to our next port call, Helsinki, in Finland.

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