Posts Tagged With: Norwegian Cruise Line

Helsinki, Finland!

The third port of call on our Baltic Capitals cruise was Helsinki, Finland.  Talk about a place we don’t know anything about!  If someone were to ask us what Helsinki is known for, we would have a hard time coming up with an answer.  After spending the day there, we still can’t give a great answer to that question, but we can at least speak to it with a bit more confidence.

In order to make the most of our day, we got up bright and early, disembarked from the ship and made the lovely 30 minute walk from the cruise port into the city center.  One of the first things we noticed in Helsinki was the number of public art projects scattered throughout the city.  We came upon a park which had “knitted graffiti” covering many of the trees.  Essentially, people have knitted all kinds of patterns–stars, sunshines, flowers, etc.–and covered the park’s trees with them.  It is an interesting and surprising twist on the idea of graffiti.  We also noticed these red tags on many of the major landmarks.  A project called “Helsinki Tagged” has 80 different red tags spread around different landmarks throughout the city.  Each one has a quote which shares someone’s memory of that spot. These are designed to give insight into Helsinki as well as create a fun image for passersby who read them.  We were definitely amused by them, and it was fun trying to spot them as we roamed the city.

As we wound our way into the city center, admiring the public art, we soon found ourselves at the train station.  I should have known this was where Phil was leading us.  He loves trains and is very curious to see all these European train stations he has heard so much about.  Helsinki’s station is not quite as classic looking as Copenhagen’s, but it is still very impressive.  It was clearly designed for functionality, with large open spaces where people can easily find the train schedule or wait for arriving passengers.  Luckily for us, they had a small exhibit featuring the history of trains in Finland, including a discussion of how to build a system which works all year even through copious amounts of snow and ice.  As it turns out, it is more effective and efficient to have people maintain the signals so they stay free of ice and other obstructions.  They tried to do it automatically, but it didn’t work.  Not sure that’s a job I’d like to have, but hey, someone has to do it!

After the train station, we stumbled into the Helsinki Cathedral, a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral which was built in 1852.  This beautiful, old cathedral is still in use today and the majority of the Finns in Helsinki belong to this parish.  As with most cathedrals, this one is filled with artwork and sculpture.  We were particularly taken with the sculptures of the 12 apostles which dot the roof.  When we endeavored to name all 12 of them, we came up short by about four.  At least we knew some! We ventured inside and discovered we had arrived just in time to wander around for a few minutes before it was closed to visitors due to accommodate a midday service.  From the steps of the cathedral we could see much of the city.  We looked on the horizon and spotted another cathedral, so we decided to head towards it and find out about it.  This red brick building turned out to be the Upenski Cathedral, the main cathedral for the Finnish Orthodox Church which also claims to be the largest Orthodox cathedral in all of Western Europe.  That is a bit surprising to me since it didn’t seem all that large.  And just like the Orthodox cathedral in St. Petersburg, there are no pews or chairs since everyone is expected to stand.  Why?  Don’t they want people to come to services?  Give ’em a chair and I bet attendance would soar!

By this point we had definitely had enough of cathedrals on our improvised self guided tour, so we headed toward the waterfront and the open air market.  As we were walking there, we heard a band playing, saw men in uniform marching and a processional of some important looking people walking into a large, gated building.  A crowd gathered around watching, so we figured something important must be happening.  We stood for a bit, watching the band and soldiers march by playing music which can only be described as patriotic.  (For all I know it could have been the Finnish National Anthem, it isn’t like I would have recognized it!)  Once the band had marched away, we headed across the street to inquire as to what we had just seen.  Apparently, this was the formal welcome for the new ambassador from Norway and this building we watched them go into was the Presidential Palace.  It was pretty awesome that we just happened to be at the right place and right time to see this event.  What a welcome!

We wandered through the market for a while, seeing that the main handicraft in Helsinki is knitting.  Sweaters, hats, gloves and socks abound in this market and I’m sure if you live in such a cold climate, these become life’s essentials.  The sky began to look ominous, so we decided to grab a late lunch and then head back to the ship.  We weren’t wrong about the Ca–it started pouring as soon as we began the 30 minute walk back.  We were wet and cold.  Luckily, Norwegian had set up hot chocolate and cookies to welcome everyone back on board.  The weather continued to get even worse and the wind really kicked up.  It wasn’t an hour after we got on board that a rumor began to spread throughout the ship–our next port of call, Stockholm, Sweden, may have to be skipped.  Much speculation and distress occurred and finally after a few hours, the captain came on and told us that due to the weather we would not be going to Stockholm.  Apparently they weren’t concerned about getting into the port, but they were concerned we might not be able to get out and get back to Copenhagen.  Of course, we were very disappointed, but after seeing the 6 meter swells in the water, it started to make sense.  Thank goodness I was wearing that motion sickness patch–there were a lot of green faces on the boat!

And so, great day in Helsinki but sadly no Stockholm for us.  That means we have 2 days at sea on the Norwegian Sun.  Free food, music, open casino and activities all day.  Sleeping, reading, hanging out in the hot tub.  I suppose there are worse things!

–Brooke

Upenski Cathedral, a Finnish Orthodox Cathedral in Helsinki.

Sittiing on the steps in front of Helsinki Cathedral.

Helsinki Tagged, public art example.

This is the inside of the Helsinki train station. Simple, functional and beautiful.

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Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Rail, Trains, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

St. Petersburg!

Naval ShipOne of the main reasons we chose to embark on a nine night Baltic capitals cruise was to take advantage of the opportunity to visit Russia. Obtaining a Russian tourist visa on your own is actually quite difficult, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and book shore excursions organized by Norwegian Cruise Line for our two days in the old Russian Capital of St. Petersburg.

Immediately upon arriving in St. Petersburg we started to hear talk of Peter the Great. He is the founder of the city which he modeled off other European cities like Amsterdam. Because of this, it doesn’t have a lot of traditional Russian architecture, and instead has several canals, fountains and brightly colored buildings reminiscent of old cities in Western Europe. We learned so much in our two days and only wish we would have had some time to explore it on our own.

Originally called St. Petersburg (after Saint Peter, not the Russian Czar Peter the Great), this city has been known by a few different names. It was called Petrograd for about ten years in the early 1900’s, until the name changed to Leningrad when Russia became the U.S.S.R. and was ruled by the Bolsheviks. It stayed Leningrad until 1991 when the local government finally decided to let the people decide on the name. Apparently there was some surprise that the people voted for the name to be changed back to St. Petersburg. Our tour guide quipped that her grandmother was born in St. Petersburg, lived in Petrograd, also lived in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg and she never even moved homes!

Our first day began with a river cruise through the center of the city. Everywhere you turn there is another museum, cathedral, park or historical monument. Most notably is the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world with over three million pieces of art. We would have loved to see it, but each excursion included a visit allotted 4-8 hours inside, and that is just a bit too much art for us. The museum was originally built for the nobility, but has become public over the years. It is housed in the Winter Palace, and its surrounding buildings where the Romanovs as well as other nobility used to reside. It is said to be impossible to see it all in two days, but we met several art enthusiasts who were willing to give it a try.

Entrance to the subway. We were actually allowed to take pictures of this!

We did not go to the Hermitage, but after visiting other landmark institutions we discovered that they are very particular about people taking photographs here. All of the museums charge tourists an additional fee to take pictures – once you have paid they give a colored sticker to place on your camera, otherwise you are liable to get fined or have your camera taken. The policy is even more strict on the subway – here, photos are not permitted in any of the stations! You can take them on the train, but none on the platform or in the buildings. This is such a shame, because their subway stations are absolutely beautiful. They are artfully designed, with huge marble columns and detailed decorations along the ceilings. It reminded us a lot of the beauty of Grand Central Station in New York City. There is even a large sculpture of Peter the Great which is set up like an art exhibit, blocked off by a velvet rope. Phil and I couldn’t help but think that this would last all of two hours (tops) in a New York subway without being vandalized and ultimately destroyed.

Probably the most iconic place we visited taught us an important lesson: It is very dangerous to be a czar. Sure, there is something appealing about the idea of being the leader: you get to rule the country, you have power and money and influence, but I don’t think it is worth it. Every other story we heard was about the killing of one czar or the brutal murder of another. One of the most notable stories is the centerpiece for the Spilled Blood Cathedral. Among a small number of buildings in St. Petersburg to look “Russian”, it was constructed on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Inside the cathedral, visitors can see a memorial directly above the spot where his blood was spilled–hence the colloquial name Spilled Blood Cathedral. The building itself is magnificent. It’s walls are lined with painstakingly detailed mosaics telling the stories from the Bible. In fact, this cathedral holds the largest square footage of mosaic art in the world. There was a notable absence of pews and when we inquired we were informed that parishioners are expected to stand or bow on their knees throughout the length of the service. Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

Besides the plethora of cathedrals, museums and stories about Peter the Great, one of the most prominent topics of discussion was the weather. It is drab, dreary and depressing much of the year. Both of our tour guides emphasized the fact that St. Petersburg is on the same parallel as Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, it gets extremely cold and snowy, but even worse than that, they have less than 55 days of sunshine per year. Yikes! In the winter there is very little daylight, therefore finding distraction is important for the local people. Stereotype or not, drinking vodka seems to be the favorite distraction of most of the people here, and we got to experience it first hand.

Our shore excursion on the second day in St. Petersburg was called “St. Petersburg through the eyes of the locals.” So, we did what locals do–we shopped at a mall, went to the farmer’s market to sample pickles and cottage cheese, and rode the subway. However, the most distinctly local thing we did was have a vodka tasting. That’s right! At the end of our tour, we went to restaurant where three shots of vodka were set up for each of us. There were three different kinds–horseradish, walnut, and cranberry vodka. They also set out some small pieces of toast and pickles to help wash it down. We had about 30 minutes to down all 3 shots, which was not a problem for most of us. However, it became apparent pretty quickly that some of the people in our group hadn’t done a shot of liquor in a while (not to mention three). The vodka was decent, I personally liked the walnut flavored one the best. However, what surprised us most is that there was no water on the table. No soda, no juice, nothing to wash the vodka down. This is so much different than it would have been at a tasting in America with all of its rules and regulations. Once 15 minutes had passed, most of the shots were gone and the stacking (and crashing) of shot glasses began. The crowd was certainly livelier after the shots, feeling warmer in both body and spirit, and we all understood the important role vodka plays in a country that can have such depressing weather!

All in all, St. Petersburg was a blast. We especially loved getting to see the magnificent subway system and learning a bit more about Russian history than we knew before. I’ll leave you with one more interesting note. One of the men on our tour asked the guide if Russia is a democracy. She said, “We are supposed to be a democracy, but are we? I don’t know.” She continued to talk about Vladimir Putin and extended term limits with cynicism and candor. It definitely showed us that perhaps the country has not progressed as far as Russia would have the world believe.

-Brooke

This is the ceiling of the Spilled Blood Cathedral. There was very little space on the interior walls which was not covered with some colorful artwork.

Here’s a sampling of the mosaics which cover the walls and account for the largest square footage of mosaic art in a single building in the world.

The bronze equestrian of Nicholas I s unique because it is the first horse statue in Europe to have only two support points, its rear hooves.  Impressive?  Apparently.

To celebrate St. Petersburg, the cruise ship hosted a “Taste of Russia” complete with borscht and stuffed cabbage.

Categories: City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Museums, Russia, The Cruise, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The China and Russia Tourist Visas

The other day, I wrote about the process of securing tourist visas for all of the countries we’re visiting on our trip.  As I mentioned, there were only two visas that required a bit of effort: China and Russia.

We found that the process to secure a Chinese visa requires painstaking detail and precise planning. First off, it should be noted that the Chinese consulate might very well be the least convenient government type building in New York City. While most consulates and embassies are located in cozy brownstones on the Upper East Side or in nice offices adjacent to the United Nations, China has built an imposing fortress at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. If you’re unfamiliar with Manhattan, that address is close to exactly nothing. And I made the trip out there three times.

Alas, that was just the first of a dozen small hassles that we encountered when applying for a China Tourist Visa. First, the hours of operation listed on the website are wrong. (That’s one wasted trip to the desolate west, west side). Second, it is not clear online exactly which form is needed. And the forms themselves are confusing. For the record, it is the four-page intense questionnaire called “V.2011A”. The forms are known to provide such perplexity that an enterprising team has set up a van just outside the consulate to assist/charge wayward potential visitors. Finally, building security will only let you enter after you show you have all the right documents in hand. We suggest you arrive early because the wait can be up to 90 minutes during busy times.

Once you wind your way to the DMV like window, the staff is curt but incredibly efficient. They expect all paperwork to be ready and they don’t seem to like questions. At one point, the official pointed out that I had not listed where I was staying in China. When I tried to explain that we haven’t scheduled a place to stay yet (“Figuring it out as we go! What fun! Right?”), I was told to come back when the form had an address where were staying. Thank Cupertino for the iPhone, because I was able to look up the address to the Guangzhou Hilton, make a reservation and keep my place in line (avoiding a fourth trip). After a five day processing period during which they kept our passports, our application was reviewed and accepted. Conveniently, you can drop off applications/pick up visas for several people if needed.

Each visa is good for 90 days and is valid for a year from the date of issue (so, in theory, we have till June 2013 to start our visit). Total cost? $140 per person. Ooof! It is all going to be worth it when we step off the plane in Guangzhou and into China! Again, living in New York worked to our advantage because we found if you can’t apply in person at a regional consulate, you must use a private service to secure the visa which comes with a significant additional charge.

The Russia visa was the one visa that just never ended up materializing. It turns out that, loosely translated, Visa means “Bureaucratic Red Tape” in Russian. We’ve learned that wrapping your fingers around a Russia Tourist Visa is trickier that a David Blaine illusion. You must have a sponsor in the form of an authorized hosting Russian traveling agency before you can even apply. And that’s apparently just the beginning of the needed paperwork.

If you’re booking a trip to Russia knowing where and when you’ll be staying (or if you’re part of a tour), this isn’t terribly overwhelming. But if you are flying by the ole seat of your pants, the visa process is enough to make you go cross-eyed. We’ve heard stories of corruption, bribes, and hassles. The more we learned about what we needed, the more complicated it seemed. Lucky for us, we’re visiting St. Petersburg as part of a Norwegian Cruise that offers a variety of Shore Excursions. We were a bit hesitant to book one since that’s not the preferred way we hope to explore new nations, but it appears to be our best and simplest bet for getting ashore.  The cruise line has a blanket visa that covers all passengers…but only for these tours. So, we’ll see a great chunk of St. Petersburg, but unfortunately we probably won’t have any adventurous exploring here.

Our one piece of advice based on our experience with the China, Russia or even Vietnam visa is to research, read and prepare well in advance of a trip to any country that you haven’t visited before. And don’t be afraid if the process seems a touch shady; every country seems to have their own way of doing things. A little knowledge and prep goes a long way to making sure you’re going to get into the countries you want to visit.

-Phil

Categories: Customs, Destinations, Doccuments, New Zealand, Packing, Permits, Transportation, Trip Prep, Visas | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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