Sunday, June 29, 2014

Baltic Cruise: St. Petersburg, Part 2 (Hermitage Again)

Ok, I know I just posted pictures yesterday but if I don't get a move on with these Baltic cruise pictures then it will be Christmas before I get to Wales and Scotland pictures, so we're back at the Hermitage.  Besides, yesterday's post was a little short.

As promised, here's a close-up of the fabulous gold peacock clock.  They don't run it every day, even though it is still in good working order and it's a couple hundred years old (they don't want to wear it out I guess), but they had a video showing how it moves.  Lucky for me YouTube has a video of the clock in action:

Pretty amazing, huh?

Another picture of the unbelievably gorgeous interiors of the Hermitage.

And a mosaic on the floor.  Lee and I think it would be really cool to have a mosaic floor, I wonder if we could DIY such a thing for ourselves?

Another bit of ornately decorated ceiling.

We did also see artwork in the Hermitage; this is one of the museum's two pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, the Benois Madonna.

I vaguely remember our tour guide saying that this hallway was modeled after one in southern Europe...maybe the Vatican? but the original was open to the outdoors.  That's not practical in St. Petersburg since it's snowbound for so much of the year, so it had huge windows on the left instead of open doorways.

This Madonna is by Raphael, and I think maybe it was the only Raphael in the Hermitage Collection.  Alas, memory grows fuzzy already.

Yet another cool ceiling.

This is an unfinished sculpture by Michelangelo, so if you're keeping track the only Ninja Turtle not represented was Donatello.  Actually I think we missed seeing any of Donatello's work in Italy too.

Hermitage selfie!  That was at the main staircase just past the entrance.  Though this place is seriously huge, it probably has several main staircases.  As I said before, we only saw a tiny fraction of the collection; this is one of those places like the British Museum or the Louvre where you could move in for a solid month and not see everything.  Our tour guide basically pointed out the artists that everyone has probably heard of (like the Ninja Turtles) and then pointed out all his favorite paintings where something is amiss--there was one of a small group of people looking at a waterfall, but a young man in the group has his legs and feet facing a different direction than his upper body.  In another one, a guy is wearing one glove and the other one is sitting on a piece of furniture behind him, but they're two right gloves.  So ya know, that was kind of entertaining.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Baltic Cruise: St. Petersburg, Part 1 (Hermitage)

We are officially moved out of our house and living in a hotel until we fly back to the States at the end of next week.  Almost there, Mom!

Anywha, I am reminded again why I shouldn't blog late at night, I forgot to share some more funny stories that Heli told us on our walking tour of Tallinn!  So in downtown Tallinn, there's this really big fancy hotel and back when Estonia was under Soviet control, the KGB set up shop on the 23rd floor.  Of course, they couldn't have guests on that floor, so they came up with a story as to why people weren't allowed to stay on that floor...the view was SO beautiful from the 23rd floor that if you looked at it, you'd go totally CRAZY.  Yeeeeaaahhh that doesn't sound suspicious!  But the hotel was still the place where most foreign visitors were put up in Tallinn, and one time there was this singer from Finland or something staying there.  She discovered that there was no toilet paper in her bathroom, and knowing that the KGB was listening in (and not wanting to go back down to the front desk), she stood in the middle of her room and said out loud, "Wow, I wish I had some toilet paper in the bathroom!"  Two minutes later, there's a knock at the door and a hotel employee is standing there with a new roll of toilet paper, and he tells the singer that if she needs anything else just holler : )  When Soviet rule collapsed and the Baltic republics declared independence, the KGB cleared out of the hotel in a hurry and left most of their spy equipment on the 23rd floor, so nowadays you can go up there and see it for yourself.  Alas, we didn't have time to do that.

Heli also told us that when she has cruise passengers take the tour, sometimes they're surprised at how modern Tallinn is since you hear all these stories about how far behind the times the Soviet Union was when it comes to luxuries the West takes for granted.  One lady told Heli that she was surprised that Estonia had electricity...I mean really?!  (Heli did say that within about 10 minutes of any conversation with an Estonian, they will mention that it was a group of Estonians who invented Skype; it's their claim to fame.)  We also heard a story about a guy from Tallinn who, during the Soviet era, went to Finland or Sweden for some kind of work conference or something and came back saying that those people were MAGIC because they could pull money out of the walls!  Like, literally!  Well, I imagine that to someone who's never seen an ATM, that would be kinda like magic.

But let's move on now, shall we?  Our next stop after Tallinn was St. Petersburg, which was the port I was most excited about and really the main reason why we went on the Baltic cruise.  When I was maybe about 14, there was an exhibition that came through Dallas of jewelry and other items which belonged to Catherine the Great, and my mom took me to it.  I think that might have been what sparked my interest in Russian history, and now I can say I've been to St. Petersburg and seen things like some of Catherine's art collection at the Hermitage!  Rather than doing a tour through the cruise ship (overpriced, don't really get to do that much stuff) we signed up for a two-day tour with a company called Alla Tours.  Our tour guide was mediocre at best but that didn't keep me from enjoying the sites.  And as I mentioned, our first stop on the first day of the tour was the Hermitage.

There I am in front of part of the Winter Palace, which is where the entrance to the Hermitage is.  This is another one of those mega-museums like the Louvre, so of course in two hours we only saw a tiny fraction of the museum's collection.  Wikipedia (source of all knowledge on the interwebs) informs me that the facade of the palace has been painted yellow and later dull red; personally I like the green.

This is a funky-looking lighthouse, one of a pair visible across the Neva River from the Hermitage; Lee took this pic while we were waiting for our tour guide to get our tickets.

And now we start with some pictures of the interior of the Hermitage.  Of course it was originally a palace where Catherine kept her art collection, so a lot of the interior design is as much a work of art as the artwork on display.

Makes the ceilings in your house look downright plain, doesn't it?

This was a long, thin gallery of military portraits of important military dudes after some important battle that I don't remember.  A very few of the pictures are just plain green with no portrait, and that's because a few of the guys died or else were horribly scarred after the battle and didn't care to have their portraits painted.

I think this was a ballroom?  I probably shouldn't be trying to blog about this stuff without consulting my little trip notebook, though I'm not sure how helpful even that would be.  Usually I write about the day's activities in the evenings when we travel, but we saw SO MUCH in St. Petersburg that it would be impossible to remember the particulars of everything we saw and took pictures of.

However, I do know that this is the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Russian royal house.  The eagle was a symbol of the Roman Empire (legions carried a golden eagle standard into battle) and later, of course, the empire was split into the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.  Russia saw itself as a successor state to the Byzantine Empire and adopted the double-headed eagle, which represents the tsar's authority over both church and state.  The West is a bit unusual with its insistence of the separation of church and state, compared with other civilizations where they are not separated and often controlled by the same people.

Inside that case on the left is a giant golden clock, which I'll show you in more detail next time : )

And one last photo of the sumptuous interior of the Hermitage.  More museum pics next time, but for now, cheers peeps!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Baltic Cruise: Tallinn, Part 2

Well!  Lee and I got back home tonight after a whirlwind six-day road trip to Wales, and our Internet should have been disconnected when we got home but it's still on!  Our trip was great, I think we got some good pictures and we saw I think 9 castles, one abbey, and several other historical sites, plus we went horseback riding.  But for right now I'm posting more pics from our Baltic cruise : )  So back to Tallinn.

There was a wall in the city that divided the richer people from the poor people (I think that was the division?) and there's a tower along part of the wall called Kiek in de Kok, which literally means "Peep into the Kitchen" because guards on duty in the tower could see into the kitchens of nearby houses (Heli:  "It was 14th-century reality tv!").  The tower is round though, I thought at first that I included this pic because it was the tower but now I think I'm wrong.  But it was too funny a story not to share.

There's a couple views of Alexander Nevsky CathedralNevsky was a rockstar historically speaking and has all kinds of things named after him in this region of the world (in addition to being a prince and a military leader, he's a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church).  Heli said that although there are quite a few churches in Tallinn, only about 15% of Estonians are particularly theory is that most of the major denominations (such as Russian Orthodoxy) are associated with one or another country who conquered Estonia (which, yeah, Soviet Union...though the Soviets kind of declared war on religion too...) and so the population of Estonia kind of eschews organized religion because they associate it with the conquerors.  It's a theory.

Maybe these pictures are out of order because that's a different church.

Enjoy the blue sky in that pic while we have it.

View out over the town from one of the walls...maybe the same wall that the Kiek in de Kok is on?  I don't remember.  We've been in the car almost all day and my brain seems to be fried.

There's the main square with the Tallinn Town Hall where you can get a decent bowl of elk soup.  We didn't go there for lunch though; we went to a pancake place Heli recommended at the end of the tour.  Lee and I discovered that Estonian pancakes are about as big around as crepes, but they're as thick as regular pancakes and we should have split one instead of each getting our own.  They tasted awesome, but we both felt like we coulda been rolled out of that restaurant.

After our late lunch, we went to Katariina Kaik, which is a narrow alley with lots of shops selling handmade stuff.  That wall on the left is "decorated" with centuries-old tombstones from a church...I forget why they were pulled up from the churchyard.

I thought this was kind of an interesting shot of the alley, not sure at all what purpose those beams between the buildings serve.

Hey there, honey pie!

As you might imagine, this was outside a shop selling blown glass.

And our Tallinn selfie.  I think that round tower to the left of my noggin might be Kiek in de Kok...if it isn't, then it's a twin.  Our next stop was St. Petersburg, and you KNOW we took a bazillion photos there so next up will be a long series of Russian blog posts : )  Peace out, peeps!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Baltic Cruise: Tallinn, Part 1

So today is the first day our packers are supposed to be here to really start the move-out process.  Lee and I got up early this morning just in case they got here early at like 7:30...they didn't.  And now it's after 9:00.  So for the last couple hours or so I've been sitting on the floor of the former computer room, uploading our Baltic cruise pictures into draft blog posts so that I can still share those even when our stuff gets packed up.  After all, we'll still have the iPad and laptop with us even after this computer is boxed up.

Anyway, after a very cold and somewhat disappointing stop in Germany, our next port was Tallinn, Estonia.  A friend of mine who did a Baltic cruise last year (I can't remember which one it was, actually) recommended that we look up the free walking tour of Tallinn, so we did, and even with a tour group of about 60 people, it was awesome.  That made Tallinn one of our favorite ports.

The tour started at noon, so we had plenty of time to wander around a bit on our own before it started.  Here's Lee at the city gate.

Isn't this cute?  I like it.  Not sure what it's supposed to be, but I think it would be a super-cute front door for a house...

One of the towers on the city walls.

Sometimes it's really difficult to get a picture of tall buildings...most cities in Europe are built so that you can't really get far enough back to take a picture with the entire tall building in a single frame because the neighboring buildings are too close to it.  But this was tall.

More city walls.  They didn't help much; Estonia has been conquered and subjugated for much more of its history than it's been an independent nation.

Just a cool-looking building we passed.

And a clock on the side of another super-tall church.  I took pictures of the church but they weren't like superfantastic or anything, but I do like the clock.

I like truth in advertising.  How about a "decent bowl of elk soup"?

The other sign for this restaurant...tavern...eatery.  We didn't go in.  It's in the 13th-century Town Hall building.  Imagine, that building is over 600 years old!

Here's a glimpse of some blue sky!  It clouded back over and sprinkled on us in the course of the tour but it was nice to get even a few minutes of blue.

This is a monument to commemorate those who died in the Estonian war of independence, and our hysterically funny tour guide Heli had a lot to say about it.  It was built by a Czech company for the low, low price (haha) of just under 7 million euros, and it's made out of materials that are supposedly built to withstand a nuclear blast.  Except that with Tallinn's humid climate and cold winters, the glass plates occasionally fall off.  It lights up at night from the inside, but that doesn't work so great either and is constantly being repaired and it's only 5 years old.  Heli said that it was so expensive partly because of corruption, and has the nuclear-grade materials because the guys on the planning committee just thought it sounded cool ("It'll withstand a nuclear blast?  Let's do THAT!").  The sad thing is that they recently had a giant celebration because this is the longest time period that Estonia has been an independent nation since, like, the dawn of time...23 years.  They've spent a lot more time under the rule of Russia, Germany, Denmark I think, Sweden, Poland...I mean, it's a little sad that you got beat by Poland, who was like the weakest link in Europe before either World War.  I think there was one more conqueror in there too but I can't remember the sixth one.

There's Heli, our trusty tour guide.  She's a student at the university in Tallinn, and her English is very, very good.  She had us all try to say the words inscribed there behind her, and then explained about the O with the squiggle over it...there's only a handful of languages with that character, and they all pronounce it differently.  So in Estonian, an O with a squiggle sounds like the noise Jafar and Iago make when they're talking about the possibility of getting executed for their crimes.

So anyway, Estonia declared independence in 1918 and were able to get away with it for a while because Russia was busy with their own revolution and civil war and then there was that whole World War I thing happening.  They were independent for 22 years before Hitler and Stalin decided to take over again, which is why the big celebration last year when they passed that 22-year mark of independence.  Heli told us very briefly about all the wars and different overlords and such and then commented, "I'm not really sure what kept people going during all of that.  I think it's sarcasm."  She told us up front that Estonian humor is very, very dark, so if she jokes about stealing your liver and selling it on the black market, it's all okay!

Dude, I kind of loved her.  I want a Heli clone for every tour we ever go on for the rest of our lives.  More from Tallinn next time, peeps.  Peace out!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Baltic Cruise: Rostock & Warnemunde

So today, we're three days out from our packers arriving, and Lee and I have been working on getting the house organized and ready for that (and he's also been at work all day too).  Haven't been sleeping so great either so I kinda feel like a hyperactive zombie...or at least I did two days ago until I started wearing my sleep mask to bed.  Dear Sun, it is so lovely to see you, but I'm not quite as thrilled about it at 4 in the morning when I went to bed around midnight.

But anyway!  Let's start sharing some pictures from our Baltic cruise.  The cruise started in Copenhagen, but the day we got in we didn't see any of Copenhagen but the airport, a train station, and a bus station:  we went directly to the ship and then we took a nap since we'd gotten up at 3 in the morning.  The next day of our cruise was the port of Warnemunde in Germany.  I think the main draw there is the possibility of going to Berlin, but Lee and I decided that a three-hour train ride (each way) and only having a max of four hours to explore Berlin just didn't sound like fun, so we stayed closer to the port.  We did take a 20-minute train ride to nearby Rostock.

Don't really know what this is, but it looked kind of cool.  Oh, we also did I think the first Baltic cruise of the year, so the weather was still quite chilly most places we went.  And we got rained on.  A lot.  After three years of generally perfect weather, apparently our contract with the Good Weather Travel Gods* has expired.

*Contract not valid in Scotland.  You will always get rained on in Scotland.

No idea what this is either, but Lee just really liked the brick work on the building.

This is Rostock's city hall, and it's pink : )

This building is not far from the city hall, on the same platz.  I like the design on here.

Just some fun architecture in the same platz.

Don't ask me why there's a statue of a goat next to a big church here.

This fountain is in the platz which is bordered by the University of Rostock, one of the oldest in the world (established 1419).  And I laughed when I took this picture because I lined it up so that one of the water spouts looks like it's shooting through the woman's head.


There's the main building of the university.

Walking back to the train station, there's Lee with his favorite building : )

We walked along the promenade in Warnemunde (and got ice cream even though it was cold out) and Lee took some pics of the boats moored there.

Quite like this one, it might make an appearance in the calendar for 2015.

So the lighthouse has been there since 1897, and the building was built in the 1960s.  It's called the Teapot but it doesn't look like a teapot to me so I was a bit disappointed.  I thought I'd get to see a building that looks like an XXXL version of Mrs. Potts.

Ok, somehow the pictures got out of order because this should have been one of the last ones.  Right next to where our ship was docked, there was some kind of exhibit of giant sand sculptures, and this was one of them.  The dude on the left totally looks like Bogey in Casablanca.

Or maybe they're not out of order and Lee just took these last two from the ship as we departed?  I don't know.

Yeah, we only got blue skies the last hour or so we were there.  The day started out more like this:

We took selfies everywhere : )  So our next port was Tallinn, Estonia.  Coming soon to a blog post near you.  Or if not soon, then as soon as I can manage it with everything else happening here.

Cheers, peeps!