The Baltic is one of the most compelling places on earth to cruise during the summer months, when the ‘white nights’ bathe the whole northern half in a surreal twilight that ensures that it is never really totally dark. Though the night may fall like a guillotine blade on one part of the horizon, you can guarantee that the other will be bathed in a spectral glow of gold, reds, blues and greens until the sun comes up, just scant hours later. It’s an exhilarating thing to see, and it is served up every night in the high summer months.
This alone would be compelling enough reason to sail these fabled waters. But the entire region is strung out with a series of extraordinary cities, like jewels on a particularly extravagant necklace. Many of them are the founder members of the ancient Hanseatic League, dating back to the thirteenth century. As befitted rich trading posts of the times, they were heavily fortified against attacks by rivals. Many of these walls, castles and ramparts remain stunningly intact to this day. Their sturdy stone facades have not been bleached almost white by centuries of endless sunshine, unlike their counterparts in the Mediterranean. They remain every bit as grimly impressive as when built in many cases.
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is a classic example. The lower, harbour area of the city has narrow, cobbled streets flanked by rows of vaulting, medieval houses, many now converted to shops, restaurants and bars. There are vast, onion domed churches and cathedrals of the kind seen all over the old USSR. Like the rest of the Baltic capitals, Tallinn was part of the most brutal game of attrition in history, as the Nazis and Soviets played ping pong with it for five years. Tallinn then endured several decades of oppressive Soviet occupation, until 1989. Though the people have since shaken off the yoke of communism, the local architecture has still not changed in centuries.
On the higher plateau overlooking the harbour, you can see the original walls, turrets and towers of Toompea. Some of these, like the charmingly named ‘Tall Hermann’ and ‘Fat Margaret’, are among the most distinctive landmarks in the region; a series of gaunt, grey edifices, frozen in space and time that still dominate the landscape, just as they did in the 1400’s.
At the very apex of the Baltic circuit- quite literally- Saint Petersburg is a very different creature indeed. Conceived by Peter the Great as his ‘Window on The West’, it has broad, sweeping boulevards far more reminiscent of Paris, rather than some medieval them park. Hundreds of canals thread through its centre, right up to the River Neva, where most cruise ships come in to dock.
Another ship lies not far away. An antiquated, steel grey warship, with three spindly funnels that claw at the sky. This is the preserved cruiser, Aurora. Her forward gun fired the signal shot that triggered the Communist revolution of October, 1917. She was preserved by the Communists as a floating shrine to their cause, and she remains there to this day.
The Communists also preserved- or, more accurately, restored- something else that can induce fevered bouts of head scratching. In this case, we’re talking about Petrodeverts, the Tsar’s former summer palace on the very edge of the Baltic.
It was built to rival the Sun King’s fabled Versailles and, in many ways, Petrodeverts is even more excessive. The palace itself resembles an overly frosted wedding cake on an epic scale. Inside, room after room is lined with glittering, gilt edged mirrors. Vast, fabulous chandeliers hold sway above acres of rich, thick carpets, Ceilings are rich, magnificent art works in their own right. Old masters line the walls like ranks of the Tsar’s Imperial Guard.
The gardens are something else again. A series of vaulting, stepped terraces runs right down to the very edge of the Baltic itself. A waterfall tumbles lethargically downwards, flanked by a phalanx of stunning, stupendous fountains. Gold cherubs stand like guardian angels on every tiered level of this magnificent descent.
When you see this incredible place, you understand why the starving Russian peasantry revolted. But the entire complex was destroyed during the war. It was occupied by the Germans. They had to be kicked out, room by room. At the end, all that was left was the blackened, skeletal facade of the palace.
Saint Petersburg has seen more turbulence in its three hundred years than any other city I can think of. Revolution. Siege. Starvation that resulted in a million deaths. Three name changes, and the assassination of Tsar Alexander III. Rasputin’s botched, bloody demise. The Communist revolution was born and buried here, too. Yet it remains an amazing, culturally overwhelming city; a must see for anyone with a taste for the epic.
Many cruises spend two or three days here. You’ll need at least that just to scrape the surface of this fascinating, multi faceted sea city. From ballet performances to the fabulous artistic glut of the Hermitage, the Winter Palace to the wondrous Saint Basil’s cathedral, Saint Petersburg will seem almost overpowering at every level.