The crest of a wave

Wes­ley John­son en­joys the calm wa­ters of the Baltic and the splen­dour Rus­sia’s ‘win­dow to the West’

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TPETERSBURG was never de­signed to be vis­ited by bud­get air­lines. It’s not a city you can stroll through in a few hours, and it was never know­ingly un­der­stated. A city laden with this much his­tory, cul­ture and ex­trav­a­gantly dom­i­nant ar­chi­tec­ture de­serves much more.

And for my part­ner Carla and me, ‘more’ is a lux­u­ri­ous 12-night cruise of some 3,000 nau­ti­cal miles (about 3,400 miles) through the Baltics and north­ern Europe, and en­joy­ing stun­ning sun­sets and breathtaking walks around some of the most pic­turesque and quaint ci­ties we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced.

From the mo­ment we board in Am­s­ter­dam, we are in another world, start­ing with Celebrity Con­stel­la­tion’s grand foyer with its mar­ble stair­case. We’re wel­comed to our state room on the 12th deck by at­ten­dant Emanuel, who en­sures we’re never left want­ing as we sail from the Nether­lands to Ger­many and on to Es­to­nia and Rus­sia.

The tra­di­tional formalities of black ties and cock­tail dresses mix eas­ily with the mod­ern white decor of the Mar­tini bar, with its ex­trav­a­gant bar­tenders play­ing to the crowd each night, as we lis­ten to the sounds of DJ Denkoff and the re­mark­able Lady Sax at the end of each day.

Leav­ing be­hind the 4m waves of the North Sea, which rocked us to sleep as we left Am­s­ter­dam, we watch from our bal­cony as the seas in­creas­ingly re­sem­ble at mill pond. We power along at up to 24 knots on the 91,000-ton ship, which sim­ply blasts its horn when­ever smaller plea­sure craft dare to cross its path.

It is this dom­i­nance and lux­ury which is the per­fect in­tro­duc­tion to the op­u­lence of St Peters­burg.

Few ci­ties have seen more war and revo­lu­tion, and if there’s any city that shows Rus­sia’s com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with Europe, this is it.

Rus­sia’s ‘win­dow to the West’, built by Ital­ian ar­chi­tects and founded in 1703, was built on a swamp from scratch by Peter the Great who, to the as­ton­ish­ment of many, promptly de­clared it the coun­try’s cap­i­tal.

It re­mained so un­til 1919 when, in the wake of the First World War, it was rechris­tened Pet­ro­grad, as Peters­burg sim­ply sounded too Ger­man.

And as we’re driven from the port to our first stop along the im­pres­sive River Neva, which is criss-crossed with equally im­pres­sive bridges, our guide Natalia ex­plains how St Peters­burg earned its third moniker – Len­ingrad – to hon­our the lead­ing fig­ure be­hind the 1917 Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion.

When asked un­der the more lib­eral Gor­bachev regime in 1991, some 70 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion backed a re­turn to its orig­i­nal name, with many Rus­sians sim­ply re­fer­ring to it as Piter.

Now the most cos­mopoli­tan and Euro­pean- feel­ing of Rus­sia’s ci­ties – of­ten known as the Venice of the North – it is dom­i­nated by a net­work of rivers and canals.

And the bank of the River Neva, which runs through the heart of the city, is dom­i­nated by the Her­mitage Mu­seum in much the same way as the Lou­vre looms over the Seine in Paris.

As we ap­proach the bold green and white façade of the Win­ter Palace, the for­mer of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the Rus­sian Em­pire, it stretches for some 250m, but is just one of five build­ings that make up the Her­mitage.

It is linked with the orig­i­nal Lit­tle Her­mitage, the Old and New Her­mitage, and the Her­mitage The­atre to form one of the largest art mu­se­ums in the world.

With 16 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence as a tour guide, Natalia steers us through the war­ren of col­lec­tions as if she was show­ing us her own home.

Three hours fly by as we take in a wide ar­ray of ex­hibits, from the huge Koly­van vase, which was put in place be­fore the mu­seum’s walls were erected around it, to the an­cient Ital­ian art in the Hall of Twenty Col­umns.

Madonna with a Flower, one of the few sur­viv­ing works of a young Leonardo da Vinci, and a col­lec­tion of Rem­brandt’s works, which Natalia high­lights as one of the best in the world, round off our first day in Rus­sia.

After a night’s rest on the ship, Natalia takes us fur­ther out of the city to Cather­ine’s Palace in Pushkin, the for­mer sum­mer res­i­dence of the tsars.

Hun­dreds of oth­ers gath­ered with us in the queue, which stretched along the 325m length of the white and gold palace – but as Natalia re­gales us with sto­ries of how Cather­ine the Great, with whom the Ro­coco- style palace is most of­ten as­so­ci­ated, wasn’t such a great fan of the sum­mer res­i­dence and halted plans to cover stat­ues in its grounds with gold, the crowds soon ease and we’re of­fered a brief glimpse of life inside its or­nate rooms.

After lunch nearby – served with caviar and a shot of vodka– it’s on to the grand palaces and gar­dens of nearby Peter­hof.

Known as the ‘ Rus­sian Ver­sailles’, the foun­tains and lower gar­dens of this Unesco World Her­itage site are a real high­light of our trip.

We wan­der through the net­work of tree-lined paths from foun­tain to foun­tain, ad­mir­ing the Chess Moun­tain, with its colour­ful dragons spit­ting wa­ter in­stead of fire.

With Rus­sia in­sist­ing that cruise ships can only dock in St Peters­burg if they agree to stay for at least two days, the for­mer cap­i­tal an­nounces it­self as the fo­cus of our trip be­fore we’ve even set off – and it doesn’t dis­ap­point.

And as we sail back out in to the Gulf of Fin­land, we catch the tail end of the coun­try’s White Nights, when the sun barely dips be­low the hori­zon, from the mag­nif­i­cent floor-to-ceil­ing win­dow of the Con­stel­la­tion’s ma­jes­tic din­ing room.

It’s here that we’re treated to some of the finest ser­vice we’ve en­joyed, with maître d’ Slag­jana al­ways find­ing us ex­actly the right seat for din­ner, som­me­lier Ny­oman com­ing up with per­fect rec­om­men­da­tions, and head chef Gavin Baxter and his team giv­ing us such de­lights as saf­fron risotto, lob­ster tail flam­béed at our ta­ble, and mar­vel­lous chateaubriand. Per­fect.

We set sail for home, vis­it­ing the beau­ti­ful ci­ties of Stock­holm, Helsinki and Copen­hagen en route.

And slalom­ing through the 30,000 or so is­lands that line the ap­proach to Stock­holm – many of which have just a sin­gle build­ing that serves as some­one’s hol­i­day home – is the per­fect an­ti­dote to the dom­i­nance and su­per-sized palaces of Rus­sia.

Daily up­dates from Cap­tain Tasos Kafet­zis, master of the Celebrity Con­stel­la­tion (or Con­nie to its fans), also set the tone for the ship’s staff, as he tells his 2,000-plus pas­sen­gers that he has or­dered the sun es­pe­cially, jokes about per­form­ing donuts to turn the ship around, and as­sures us he’ll be putting the ‘pedal to the metal’ to en­sure as smooth a sail­ing as pos­si­ble.

He even takes time out to pose for pho­tos, of­fer­ing ‘free hugs’ as we dis­em­bark.

The splen­did Her­mitage Mu­seum dom­i­nates the banks of the Neva; in­set be­low, the Celebrity Con­stel­la­tion’s din­ing room is almost as spec­tac­u­lar as the ci­ties it vis­its

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