City Scene: St. Petersburg

DSC_0353 (3)St. Petersburg, Russia was a two-day stop on the Baltic Cruise we took for our 35th anniversary. It was a mixed bag of experiences, both enjoyable and not so much! We started off with a nonexistent welcome from immigration. The official didn’t smile or utter a word – he just looked at our passport, looked at us, then back at our passport. A nod of his head was our only indication to proceed through the gate. An air of unfriendliness continued throughout our visit, but the sights of the city were magnificent none the less!

The agenda for the day included a tour of Catherine’s Palace, lunch in the Czar’s Village, a visit to the world-famous Hermitage Museum, then a drive by the Palace Square, the Arch of the General and other highlights; but we weren’t the only tourists in town! Traffic was terrible, security procedures were strict, and it was crowded everywhere we went. It must be a daunting task to herd large numbers of people through historic structures while protecting them from potential harm. All that aside, Catherine’s Palace was spectacular! Even Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna was not this impressive! Although Peter the Great presented this estate to his wife Catherine in 1710, the Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who ordered it completely redone. The result is why the Palace is now ranked as one of the masterpieces of world architecture.

Inside (where you had to pay to take pictures) the WOW factor continued! From the main staircase where the ceilings were decorated with 17th & 18th century paintings, to the Grand Hall with its gilded mirrored walls, to the State Study of Alexander the 1st, each room was stunning! None more so than the Amber Room! This famous room was originally constructed with over 100,000 perfectly fitted pieces of amber, but the Nazis dismantled the amber panels and shipped them to Germany during WW II and they have never been found. Russian artists began recreating the room in the early 1980s and it was re-opened to the public in 2003. Outside on the Palace grounds, we listened to an A cappella singing group perform for the crowd at one of the two garden pavilions near the lake.

Back on the bus, we searched over 30 minutes for the location of our restaurant for lunch only to discover it was back on the Palace grounds. Disappointment with our inexperienced tour guide and bus driver was setting in! After lunch we toured the Hermitage Museum—home to one of the greatest collections of art in the world! The building itself is a work of art, but the masterpieces inside it were barely visible because of the swarms of people surrounding them. There were Raphael’s, Da Vinci’s, and Michelangelo’s, to name a few, all right there under one roof, but we could only get a glimpse of them through the crowd. I’m sure it would have been an extraordinary experience under better conditions. If we ever do this again, we won’t go in June and we’ll spend the extra money for an “after-hours” tour! We were running late due to the lunch debacle, the snarly traffic, and the packed museum so we didn’t get to drive by all the planned highlights. We did, however, find time to stop at a souvenir shop where they were offering free samples of Russian Vodka. I think everyone needed a drink at that point, so why not! We bought a few sets of Babushka dolls as gifts, plus a charming Russian Egg Christmas ornament for ourselves. We ended the day aboard ship, and after a lovely dinner and show, we went to bed hoping for a better day two in St. Petersburg.

At 8:30 the next morning we got on the bus and were immediately relieved that our tour guide was not the same one as the day before. This one was pleasant, confident and informative – she even knew how to smile! Traffic was terrible once again, but we made it to our first stop at Peterhof, the summer palace complex of Peter the Great. We waited in line for an hour before entering the Grand Palace through its formal gardens. Although the front exterior was not as elaborate as Catherine’s Palace, the interior was equally lavish starting with the ornate ceremonial staircase followed by room after room of rich colors, intricate parquet floors, painted ceilings, fine silk wall coverings, gilded statues and massive portraits of the royal families of Russia.

The gardens behind the complex were amazing, with upper and lower fountains adorning the landscape between the palace and the Baltic Sea. It is the largest network of gravity-fed water fountains in the world. We ended our tour of Peterhof with a walk from the prominent center fountain, called the Grand Cascade, along a canal that flowed through the gardens to a pier where a hydrofoil took us back to St. Petersburg.

We enjoyed our jaunt across the Gulf of Finland to the mouth of the Neva River. Approaching St. Petersburg by water gave us a new appreciation for the beauty of the buildings on the waterfront. The Hermitage, for instance, was dazzling from a distance!  After a nice lunch at the City Café, we hopped back on the bus for a drive by St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, the battleship Aurora, and the Rostral Columns before stopping at the most gorgeous sight in St. Petersburg—The Church on the Spilled Blood!

The church was built between 1883 and 1907 on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (hence the gruesome name). Both the exterior, designed in the traditional Russian onion-dome style, and the interior are decorated with bright shades of marble and detailed mosaic tiles. According to restorers, it contains several thousand square yards of mosaics – more than any other church in the world. The church was closed in the 1930s when the atheist Soviets, who were offended by religion, began destroying churches all over the country for being “inappropriate symbols of Christianity”. The church remained closed and under restoration for years and was finally re-opened in 1997, not as a place of worship, but as a Museum of Mosaics. The pictures we took of this church are some of my favorite travel photos!

It’s hard to comprehend the damage the city has endured from various disasters including fires, floods and wars, especially the cruel Nazi occupation of WW II, but all the sites we toured have been restored to their original glory. Architecturally, the city ranks as one of the most splendid in Europe. The historic district was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. While I didn’t find St. Petersburg to be a particularly congenial city, clearly there is a fondness for art, opulence and beauty here. With construction and/or re-construction continuing everywhere you look, it will one day be even more magnificent than the current city scene!

IMG_1844

Other City Scene posts:

City Scene: Vienna

City Scene: Copenhagen

City Scene: Auckland

Impressions of Italy – Part Six

DSC03037 (2)
Amalfi Coast

Finally – here’s part six and the final installment of my impressions of Italy. Part five had us leaving Positano for the return to Sorrento along the Amalfi Coast. As magnificent as this drive is, it comes with a host of dangers. Besides the narrow lanes and sharp curves, there are those daring Italian drivers who are known for their reckless behavior; like the crazy guy on the moped who felt the need to pass our van on a curve. There was a collective gasp from those of us who saw him, then a sigh of relief when he swooped in front of us just in time to miss the on-coming car.

We were dropped off at our hotel, which for the next two nights would be the lovely Hilton Sorrento Palace. The hotel is perched on a hilltop above the Bay of Naples with plenty of outdoor seating overlooking the sea. Breakfast was always a delight in the roomy buffet area where a wall of windows allowed us to enjoy the panoramic view.

DSC03352 (2)
Bay of Naples in Sorrento

After dinner the first night in Sorrento, we were warned that the windy conditions could possibly affect our morning plans for the Isle of Capri. It was suggested we eat a light breakfast since the passage across the bay would probably be rough. Sure enough, the wind was fierce – so bad, in fact, that our 7:30 departure was delayed an hour. On board, they handed out “sea-sickness” bags, and we were told to sit in the middle or back of the boat to minimize the chance of nausea.

DSC03220 (2)
Fierce wind blows water onto the windows of the boat

I’m thankful the weather didn’t keep us from Capri! It was windy, but beautiful! We took the funicular railway from the port up the side of the mountain to the main town.  Our local tour guide led us through the streets to the flower-decked terraces of the Gardens of Augustus. The view from here was stunning as the rugged landscape seemed to fall into the sea. We had time on our own to explore the town which has been a resort ever since the Roman Emperors used to come here on vacation. We walked past dozens of upscale boutiques, many displaying handmade leather sandals like the ones the late Jackie Kennedy Onassis used to wear. We heard the famous Clock Tower chime on the quarter hour several times before taking the funicular back down to the harbor.

We had complimentary granita’s with lunch at an outdoor cafe, then walked along the water-front checking out the shops and taking photos before boarding the boat back to Sorrento. The water was still choppy, but everyone from our group made it back without getting sick!

Although Sorrento is not technically part of the Amalfi Coast (which lies on the other side of the mountains), the  challenging roads are much the same. For dinner on our last night in Sorrento, Giorgio drove our tour bus through the congested streets of the city, up into the steep and curvy hillsides – hairpin turns, crazy drivers and all – to an authentic farmhouse restaurant. We toured the agri-tourism operation then sat down to a meal featuring their own farm-fresh beef, chicken, cheese, olive oil, vegetables and wine. It was a wonderful meal served by delightful hosts. The bus ride down from the hills at night was an experience to remember!

The next thing I knew, it was our last day of sightseeing! The agenda called for a stop in Pompeii before returning to Rome for our final night. Strangely, it felt like we had been in Italy forever and like we had only just begun, all at the same time. This Globus tour had been all we could have hoped for.

Pompeii, the city frozen in time, was buried by volcanic ash and lava from Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  The entire city and its citizens were totally unprepared for the eruption and therefore, doomed. Volcanic debris filled the streets until nothing of the once thriving city could be seen. Pompeii remained buried for nearly 1700 years. Excavation began in 1748 and continues to this day. The sudden and complete devastation was haunting!

DSC03575 (2)
Columns in Pompeii

We arrived in Rome from Pompeii with just enough time to dress for our farewell dinner. It was a special treat to spend the evening at Tanagra – an elegant opera themed restaurant. Not only did we dine on traditional Italian food and free-flowing wine, but we listened to famous opera arias as well, performed by professional singers from the Rome Opera House. Such a perfect way to enjoy our final night in Italy.

It’s funny how you remember the little things! We’ve been back from our tour of Italy for six weeks now and I can clearly remember every hotel and every breakfast. I remember the rush to set our bags out on the mornings we traveled. I remember trying to photograph something that hundreds of other tourists were taking pictures of as well. I remember how hot it was in Rome, Florence and Cinque Terre and how relentless the wind was in Assisi and Isle of Capri. I remember wanting more time to watch the sunset in the Tuscan Valley, to gaze at the moon over the peaceful lagoon in Venice, and to listen as waves tickled the shores of Lake Maggiorre. I also remember our fellow travelers and hope they enjoyed the trip as much as we did. On our very last night together, our tour director Anna said, “every journey tells a story”. Well, it was quite a journey and it made for a wonderful story… and even though this story has come to an end, the memories remain!

DSC03255 (5)
Isle of Capri and the Mediterranean Sea

A beautiful sunset at the airport welcomed us home!

Impressions of Italy – Part Five

DSC02856 (4)When we left for our tour of Italy, I knew I’d fall in love with Venice, and I was sure I’d like Florence and Rome; but I was not prepared for Assisi! I knew nothing about the place before our trip, so the peaceful charm of it took me completely by surprise! Assisi is the most picturesque little town I’ve ever seen and comes in at number two on my list of favorite places in all of Italy!

Assisi is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I don’t just mean the Basilicas, or the castles, or the tombs – I mean the whole TOWN is a UNESCO site! It is the birthplace of St. Francis, Italy’s patron saint. I was not aware of just how important St. Francis is to the Catholic Church. According to our local expert, Maura, he is second only to Jesus. He renounced all his possessions and devoted his life to helping the needy and he founded the Franciscan Order. For centuries, his followers have come to Assisi to visit the Basilica where he is buried. It was over-cast and extremely windy the day we were here – perhaps St. Francis had something to say! I was listening and I could feel his presence!

St. Francis’s Basilica consists of two churches, one on top of the other, with a crypt below containing the sacred tomb of the Saint. Construction of the Basilica began immediately after St. Francis’ death in 1228 and was officially completed after the addition of the upper church in 1253. It is a massive structure with the upper church being a celebration of life and beauty while the lower portion reflects the simple spirit of St. Francis and his Franciscan order. Both sections have incredible frescoed walls.

We were cautious of cars as Maura lead us down the narrow streets to the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare). This church was built in the Romanesque style and is dedicated to (and contains the remains of) Saint Clare,  another figure who deeply influenced this hallowed town. She was a follower of Saint Francis and the founder of the Order of Poor Ladies.

The Piazza in front of this church offers sweeping views of the Umbrian Valley… no doubt lovely at all times, but especially gorgeous at sunset!

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy the beauty of this captivating town. If you’re tired of visiting churches, you can always explore the medieval castles that preside over the valley, or simply stroll the cobblestone streets and admire the soft pink and yellow hues of the best-preserved medieval town in the world!

Even though Assisi has its share of touristy souvenir shops and a few hotels (ours was the Windsor Savoia), they each conform to existing urban design, leaving the entire village virtually untouched by modern architecture. Every turn of the head is a picture begging to be taken—and I took plenty!

Note to self: don’t research every little place before traveling. A surprise or two along the way can be oh, so nice; like Assisi was!

IMG_0855 (3)Because of a late start the next morning, tour director Anna and bus driver Giorgio were concerned about the traffic; but we arrived in Sorrento with enough time to drop off those not going on to Positano, then we set out for the Amalfi coast. The Amalfi coast was another agenda item I specifically looked for when choosing our tour, so of course we took the drive down the coast which Globus gave us an opportunity to do.

am10The road between Sorrento and Positano follows the physical coastline of the Mediterranean Sea and has mountain walls on one side and sea cliffs on the other. It is very narrow and full of hairpin turns, so instead of our regular tour bus, we rode in passenger vans operated by drivers with experience on this stretch of the road. The challenging route made it difficult to stop along the way, but we were able to pull over at the Madonnina photo stop for breathtaking views of the coast.

The landscape here blends impressive engineering with the stunning natural terrain. Throw in some vineyards, lemon groves and vibrant blue water—and you have all the splendor of the Amalfi Coast!

Quaint and famous Positano is known for its terraced Mediterranean-style architecture, vertical staircases, and regional products like limoncello, painted pottery and lace. It’s a fun town to walk around in if you don’t mind an incline. We took a steep pedestrian-friendly street from the parking lot down to the beach, past unique little shops, restaurants, monuments and churches.

At the base of town is the Marina Grande beach which has unusually dark sand – a striking contrast to the deep blue water. Looking toward the mountain from the beach, the tiled dome of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta prominently stands against a backdrop of colorful houses clinging to the cliffs above the sea. Just amazing!

DSC03170 (2)DSC03164 (2)We left Positano for another nail-biting drive along the coast back to Sorrento. More about that in Part Six – Sorrento, Isle of Capri, Pompeii and conclusion. Arrivederci for now!

(Note: a click in each grouping of photos allows you to see each one individually)

City Scene: Copenhagen

Baltic Cruise 042

For the second installment of City Scene, I have decided to re-visit Copenhagen, Denmark. It was from Copenhagen that we departed for our 35th wedding anniversary cruise. We had a wonderful time cruising the Northern European ports on the Baltic Sea, but it all began with an overnight stay in Copenhagen.

After a lengthy flight delay in Kansas City, we frantically ran from gate to gate for our connection in Newark. Once we caught our breath and settled in, the flight across the Atlantic was uneventful – thank goodness! We transferred from the airport to the heart of the city where we, along with good friends who were also celebrating their 35th anniversary, checked in at the historic Palace Hotel.

The hotel, a city landmark in Town Square, is right next to Tivoli and within walking distance of art, culture and museums. We had purchased tickets from home for the Hop On-Hop Off bus tour, so after 30 minutes to rest and freshen up, we made it to Stop One at the designated time – quite an accomplishment, I must say! Unfortunately, it was so crowded and confusing that we thought it best to compose ourselves over lunch. We found a quiet pub across the street from Tivoli Gardens, had a nice beer & burger, then tried the Hop On-Hop Off again. Success!

From Tivoli Square we traveled to Rosenborg Castle, the National Gallery & Botanical Garden, and the Langelinie Pier for a photo stop at the Little Mermaid statue. The Edvard Eriksen sculpture was inspired by the short story by Denmark’s favorite son: Hans Christian Andersen. It is supposedly the most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen, so we took a picture of her like all good tourists do!

Copenhagen Little Mermaid (2)

We “hopped” back on the bus and passed Fortress Kastellet, the Resistance Museum, and St. Albans Church on our way to the next photo stop at Gefion Fountain. From there it was on to Amalienborg Royal Palace, a place we would have explored further if we’d had more time; then to Nyhavn, or the “New Harbor” area, where picturesque houses along the river bank are over 300 years old.

One of the things we noticed about Copenhagen was the large number of bicycles in the city. It is known as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Nearly 70% of Copenhagen’s residents cycle throughout the year, so the city’s bicycle paths are extensive and well used. Cycle lanes are not shared with cars or pedestrians, and often have their own traffic light which gives cyclists a couple of seconds lead, allowing them time to accelerate.

Back on the Hop On-Hop Off, traffic was heavy and slow near Tivoli Park, but eventually we returned to the Palace Hotel for a brief rest. We met up with our friends again for dinner as a light rain began to fall.  Lucky for us the Stroget, a cute cobblestone, pedestrian-only thoroughfare with numerous restaurants and shops was just around the corner from the hotel. We ducked into the first little pub we came to, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. I had the Danish Sailors Stew, or Labskovs, a traditional dish originating on ships back in the 1700’s. It hit the spot on a cool, damp evening! The rain had stopped after dinner, so we continued our walk down the Stroget. A little souvenir shopping, some sightseeing, a stop at the pastry shop; then we found our way back to the hotel and wearily put ourselves to bed!  It had been a long day!

We awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and after a great breakfast at the hotel, were excited to start the day! We had the rest of the morning to further explore Copenhagen before cruise embarkation, so we walked a short distance to the canal area where Christiansborg Palace and Ruins are located. Once there, the buildings were impressive enough to coax us into taking the tour and I’m so glad we did.

The palace was the fifth building to be located on the site. The first one was Bishop Absalon Castle built there in 1167. In 1369, the Copenhagen Castle was located there and was the seat of the royal family of Denmark for more than 350 years. The first Palace was built on the site in the 1700’s, but it – and the second Palace (built in 1828) – both burnt to the ground. We saw the remains of these former buildings when we toured the ruins beneath the Palace. Rebuilt in 1928, the current Christiansborg Palace is home to the Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Supreme Court and is used by the Queen for formal receptions.

We had just enough time for a few more pictures at New Harbor and to buy one more scrumptious Danish pastry… then we transferred to the docks to board the ship! As we sailed away, we said goodbye to the colorful, captivating “City Scene” in Copenhagen!

City Scene: Vienna

IMG_0210 (2)

I am embarking on a new endeavor! I’ve added a section to my blog devoted entirely to travel, specifically to individual cities. I plan to call this new feature “City Scene”. My goal is to highlight a different city each month. They will be in no particular order, but I’m starting with Vienna. It was the arrival city on my very first European tour, so it made quite an impression. Here is my summation of Vienna:

DSC_0031 (2)

With great anticipation, my husband and I departed Kansas City on a Monday morning and arrived in Vienna, Austria the following morning their time. We were the last of our tour group to check-in and, darn the luck, had to accept the “Brahms Suite” at the Radisson Blu Palais since all the regular rooms had been assigned. Gorgeous rooms! Before we could get settled in, our tour guide lead most of the group on an unofficial pre-tour and left us behind, so we just ventured out by ourselves – a blessing in disguise really, as we felt a certain thrill in discovering the sights of the city on our own, a bit like Christopher Columbus except there were thousands of other explorers right there with us.

Across the street from the hotel was Stadtpark, the first public park in Vienna. Because Johann Strauss II gave his first concert there in 1868, a gilded bronze statue of him was erected, as well as numerous other monuments of composers who had entertained there. From the park we found our way to the center of the city where we were fascinated by the sheer number, size and architecture of the ancient buildings, sprinkled with colorful modern shops along the way. We snapped pictures endlessly even though we didn’t know exactly what we were seeing until the next day when our guide, Hannes, officially started the tour with a walk through downtown Vienna.

Most impressive on the tour was St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a massive Gothic structure in the heart of the city dating back to the year 1147. With its intricately tiled roof and tall south tower, the magnificent cathedral is one of the most important and beloved landmarks in all of Austria.

Equally imposing was the Hofburg complex which includes the Imperial Palace (home to the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire since the 13th century), the Imperial Chapel (home of the Vienna Boys’ Choir), the Spanish Riding School (with the famous Lipizzaner stallions), and the Imperial Treasury. Our first thought upon seeing both the cathedral and the Hofburg complex was how do we capture the size of these things in a photo?

That evening we had dinner at Heurige Mayer am Pfarrplatz, one-time home of Ludwig Van Beethoven where he began working on his Ninth Symphony in 1817. Beethoven moved 65 times in Vienna seeking privacy, and died in an apartment during a violent snowstorm that battered the city in 1827.

The next day in Vienna, our tour group crossed the Danube River to visit the former summer residence of the Habsburg imperial family: the Palace of Schonbrunn. After walking through the extensive gardens and fountains, we hoofed it up the hill to the Gloriette, which seemed to be an 18th century version of a gazebo, but elaborate, VERY elaborate! From the top of this hill was an extraordinary view of Vienna.

Back down the hill, we toured the inside of the Palace, a 1,441-room baroque style monstrosity built between 1696 and 1712 by Emperor Leopold I for his son, Joseph I. It was stunning and filled with Bohemian crystal chandeliers, porcelain tile fireplaces, lavish gold leaf ornamentation and hundreds of original oil paintings. We saw the Hall of Mirrors where in 1772, 6-year-old Mozart played the harpsichord for Empress Maria Theresa. It is said that after he played for her, he crawled onto her lap for a hug! We also saw the bedrooms of some of Maria Theresa’s 16 children, one of whom was Marie Antoinette, the future Queen of France who was beheaded by her own people during the French Revolution.

After a late lunch at Restaurant Ofenloch, we had a free evening. A group of us purchased tickets to a concert by the Vienna Symphony at the famous Vienna Concert Hall (Wien Konzerthaus). Beautiful!

We topped off the evening with friends and a little wine & cheese in our suite, where we discussed our favorite moments in this memorable “City Scene”!

(Note: all photos are by me or my husband)