22nd July, and so, as Mr Pepys would say, to Copenhagen, where that delightful ship, ISLAND SKY, waited for at us at her berth near the centre of the Danish capital. Bright sunlight, calm sea, all set fair for a peaceful and elegant cruise amidst the cities and archipelagos of this inland sea.
Next morning finds us sailing into the port of Danzig/Gdansk, depending on your linguistic preference. Ashore we are met not only by the omnipresence of amber-sellers in varied colours and ingenious manifestations, but also the architectural splendours of the restored town. Much less crowded than on my last visit and also devoid (thank goodness) of all those stands frying onions and purveying hamburgers. As a result a much better chance to survey the plethora of decorative architecture which makes the centre of the town so visually exciting. Most splendid is the spire of the Town Hall, copper-clad, soaring heavenwards as a centrepiece. But also unforgettable is the white-painted Marienkirche which can contain 25,000 worshippers. All this elaborately and painstakingly restored after the devastation of the last World War.
As a painted ship on a painted ocean we glided over the water to Tallinn and Riga. In Tallinn we were moored close to the town and able to walk in at our leisure, so much better than being moored out in the main port where all the floating blocks of flats deposit their passengers. Did I really see a guide with party numbered 37 from one such ship? Very hot it was in Tallinn and some of us sampled the speciality of liquorice ice-cream….an acquired taste, which I personally have no wish to acquire. But what I did find was a good old-fashioned bookshop where prices were still seemingly as in the “bad old days” where a few satisfactory purchases were made. On to Riga with its extraordinary Art Nouveau buildings and also the grim “Museum of the Occupation” bizarrely situated next to “Dine in the Sky”. Past and present vividly evoked. This strange arrangement allows you to be lifted by a crane 50 feet above the ground on a platform, where your meal will be served. Not a good place to drop a serving-spoon!
As we sat on deck enjoying our breakfast we sailed into St Petersburg. Again we moored in the centre on the English Quay, adjacent to the former palaces of the nobility, with Peter the Great’s Academy of Sciences just across the swirling River Neva. Full of the odd collections of the founder of St Petrsburg, this is the oldest museum in the city, pre-dating the Hermitage, having been started in 1718. It is rarely visited and certainly is devoid of the seething masses in the former Winter Palace. In some ways this is not surprising as many of the exhibits are not for the squeamish. Medical specimens in formaldehyde stand cheek by jowl with such items as Peter’s turnery equipment and his surgical instruments. Peter was known to offer his services to his friends as an (amateur) surgeon. Certainly less terrible and certainly more beautiful is Peterhof, across the Gulf of Finland. Not just the palace itself is beautiful but all the delightful little haunts which dot the grounds, such as “Mon Plaisir”. This trianon sits on the edge of the gulf with enchanting chinoiserie interiors surrounded by plashing fountains. The fountains of Peterhof are unequalled and on this hot summer day their foaming waters glittered in the sunlight. Back to ship for dinner on deck surrounded by Russian naval vessels with pennants flying, for it was “Navy Day” and the town was en fête. Helsinki, next day, was a pleasant relief from the throb of mid-summer St Petersburg. To the Museum of Contemporary Art I go, leaving behind the delicious tastes and smells of the food market on the quay-side with its strange beverages and mouth-watering baking. Museum of Contemporary Art, situated adjacent to the severe classical Parliament building is a metal-clad modern building curved like a shell. Much glass and bare plaster. Parked in the Atrium is a Skoda police car. A strange place for a police car. It is only when closer examined that it becomes evident that this is an “Installation” for every detail of the car, windscreen, wing-mirrors, police insignia, tyres and number plate is covered with a knitted “jersey” which faithfully replicates each detail of the car underneath. Makes a change from knitting socks on those cold dark Finnish nights, I suppose.
Finally, into beautiful Stockholm. Moored behind the Grand Hotel right in the centre we once again have a chance to saunter around the city after dinner on deck. A gallery not to be missed is the Thiel Gallery. Set on the end of a promontory overlooking the archipelago is this former private house built in the manner of the Viennese Secessionist movement. Not only is this gem a little-frequented spot, but it contains a rich collection of paintings by Scandinavian artists like Carl Larsson, Edvard Munch,(eleven in number) Anders Zorn and Bruno Lilljefors. The latter unknown to me but the painter of magical scenes of birds and animals. Quite the most delightful gallery to visit on this sunlit day with lunch served in the garden. Such was the climax to this Baltic cruise with a dauntingly early departure on the following morning back to London and reality.
Nicholas Merchant’s next cruise for Noble-Caledonia departs on board the Johann Strauss on the 11th September for the Great Houses and Gardens of Franconia.