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