Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Vladimir Putin’s Sudeten-esque power play in the Ukraine is potentially redolent with big implications for the 2014 cruise season. With the region slowly but steadily growing in popularity over the last few years, more and more lines were committing themselves to two, three and sometimes more departures in and around the region.

Most lines will now be hedging their options, or trying to read the situation as it unfolds; a stance about as practical as trying to stuff a cloud in a suitcase. And, while summer temperatures in that region can, indeed, be hot, I suspect the unwelcome heat of the moment will dampen the enthusiasm of many potential visitors over the next few months.

In the upper echelon, both Crystal and Azamara have plans to cruise the Black Sea. When it comes to adventure cruises, Voyages To Antiquity had a couple of round trip cruise tours scheduled for the Aegean Odyssey. But it is the main stream lines, such as Costa and MSC, that stand to be hardest hit by the current situation.

It may well be too early to state definitively yet just what the end result of Putin’s hard ball game will be; the principal Black Sea ports of Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta have always been popular draws. So, too, is Sochi, a city that would have been a landmark port for many after the recent winter Olympics.

Of course, Russian itineraries might already have been impacted to some extent by a gay backlash and boycott, the obvious consequence of Putin’s shocking acts of regressive demonisation, and the potential consequences of that alone could be significant. But as Russia keeps its foot firmly on it’s neighbours’ wind pipe, the residual, simmering world wide anxiety of the moment could well spread like a forest fire.

The magnificent Swallow's Nest in Yalta

The magnificent Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

And it is not just the Black Sea that could take a hit. Summer time cruises in the Baltic are hugely popular, with a large number of ships- from the standard to the ultra luxury-  offering cruises that have overnight stays in Saint Petersburg as their main attractions. Some ships make a normal daytime visit, but by far the great majority stay from anything between one and three nights.

If things were to spiral further downward, and cruise lines start to boycott Russia’s star attraction, that would be hugely disappointing for many passengers. Admittedly, it would also put one hell of a dint in Russia’s local tourist economy. Not to mention triggering a sudden rush to find alternative ports, each for the most part woefully ill equipped to cope with the sudden potential tidal wave of cruise refugees.

Of course, all of this could be snuffed out as quickly and easily as a candle. Cold blooded, callous and calculating as he undoubtedly is, Vladimir Putin is not stupid. Money still talks louder than any of the sycophants whispering in his ear.

But it would be a very blase cruise line indeed that did not keep an ear to the ground, and a raft of options at least ready for launch. These are, indeed, scary times.

As always, stay tuned.


Saint Petersburg skyline

Saint Petersburg skyline

Many people want to visit Saint Petersburg for a couple of days, and it’s very easy to see why. Though just a little over three centuries old, few other cities on earth have such a rich, tempestuous past as the ancient capital of Russia.

And the attractions are legion. Just consider the Hermitage, the Winter Palace, or the stupendous Church of The Spilled Blood, for openers. Saint Petersburg was hugely influenced by the raft of contemporary European capitals that it’s creator, Peter the Great, scoured in search of inspiration for the new capital, his fabled ‘Window On The West’.

The houses and public buildings that throng the edges of the broad, meandering River Neva have grand echoes of Palladian and ancient Greek majesty. The waterside boulevards, lined with plane trees, are so Parisian as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. All things considered, it has always been a city that should make for a great European short break.

Except for just one problem…

Russian bureaucracy seems to be as set in stone as Lenin’s mausoleum. Obtaining a visa takes time, travail and expense on such a scale that it has put legions of potential tourists off going there for at least five decades. But now, at long last, there is a way around it.

A Russian ferry company called St. Peter Line has been operating a year round, overnight sailing for a couple of years now, between Helsinki and  Saint Petersburg and back. The line has an exemption that allows them to offer visa free round trips- each one including two nights in a Saint Petersburg hotel- from either of these easily reachable Baltic hub ports.

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

The voyage takes about fifteen hours in either direction, offered on large, comfortable ferries that have more than enough bars, dining and entertainment venues to be considered as an integral part of the overall holiday experience. The emphasis is on Russian ‘hospitality’, something to bear in mind if you are perhaps accustomed to travelling amid levels of luxury equal to the Ritz, or the Savoy. This seems to be one of those quixotic travel experiences where you might well just have to roll with the punches.

That said, this is a unique, year round opportunity to see one of the greatest cities in the world. And it really is worth seeing. The serially adventurous among you can always tie in such a jaunt with a few days in either Stockholm or Helsinki, both marvellous propositions in their own right.

This is a trip I might look at doing myself in 2014. As always, stay tuned.

Also- thanks to intrepid blogger Kalle Id for bringing to my attention another option, also offered by St. Peter Line. This takes the form of a four night, cruise ferry round trip- Pearls Of The Baltic – that allows potential passengers to embark in either Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm or, indeed, Saint Petersburg itself.

Kalle is a regular contributor to the excellent Maritimematters website, and is alway swell worth a read.



Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

One of the last publicised aspects regarding the hugely controversial 22nd Winter Olympics, due to be held in and around the Black Sea  city of Sochi between 7th and 23rd of February next year, is the surprising number of cruise ships and ferries that have been chartered for use as static hotel accommodation.

Of course, there is nothing new in the use of chartered cruise ships as temporary static accommodation. Events such as the Olympic Games of 1992 and 2004 saw the use as accommodation ships of some of the most illustrious names in the cruising firmament- including the then brand new Queen Mary 2. Similarly, the Barcelona Expo ’98 had no less than six cruise ships, including the then world’s longest liner, the SS. Norway, offering accommodation.

Last year’s London 2012 Olympics saw the use of Fred. Olsen’s Braemar and her original sister ship, the now laid up Gemini, as fully functioning, static hotels docked on the River Thames at Tilbury.

What is, of course, different about Sochi 2014 is the hugely controversial nature of these games, with widespread calls for a boycott over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s excessive, increasingly repressive crackdown on gay rights in Russia as a whole.

So, who is going to be there for the duration? Five cruise and ferry operators have thus far confirmed their operation of chartered tonnage.

First off, Russian owned St. Peter Line is sending both of it’s large cruise ferries- Princess Anastasia and Princess Maria- from their regular, year round overnight runs from Tallinn and Stockholm to St. Petersburg. The Princess Anastasia was once well known in the UK as the popular Pride Of Bilbao, a stalwart of the Northern Spain run for many years. Rooms on these two ships are advertised from 63 euros upwards per night.

There is also another ferry, the Italian SNAV Toscana, a 30,000 ton vessel usually operated on overnight runs between Civitavecchia and Palermo, Originally built as the Wasa Star back in 1981, she has accommodation for around 2200 people in normal service.

Seasonal Greek islands operator, Louis Cruises, is sending two ships, the aptly named 38, 000 ton Louis Olympia and the 33,000 ton Thomson Spirit; sensible and gainful employment for two ships that would have otherwise remained laid up in Piraeus until March. Unlike the two ferries mentioned above, these two vessels are full service cruise ships. Rooms priced from 168 euros per night.

Spanish operator, Iberocruises is sending the 46,000 ton Grand Holiday, which originally started life in 1985 as a Carnival ship. Rooms on board this ship start from 158 euros.

Largest of all, Norwegian Cruise Line is sending the 92,000 ton Norwegian Jade, with rooms on board starting at the highest rate of all, at at 208 euros per night. Unlike most of the others, the Norwegian Jade offers the added plus of a large number of balcony cabins.

Between them, these six very different ships can offer in excess of some twelve thousand berths. While the cruise ships of Louis, Norwegian and Iberocruises are usually in the Mediterranean for the spring season anyway, the long voyage to and from the Baltic by the two Russian ferries represents a significant redeployment on the part of their owners, albeit an obviously lucrative one.


Charming place, pity about the apparatchiks

Charming place, pity about the apparatchiks

I’ve just returned from a few days in Saint Petersburg, at a time when the old rivalries between east and west seem to be once more butting heads. From Putin’s appalling crackdown on gay rights to the potential disaster that is Syria, it was a strained, strange time to be in the very cradle of the Russian revolution of October 1917.

Now, I’ve been to Saint Petersburg quite a few times since 2000. In those days, you were not allowed off the ship unless you had a Russian visa, or unless you bought tours to see many of the numerous, incredible sights of this fascinating and convoluted city.

Thirteen years later, that still holds true. Not one hint of a crack in the facade has developed.

What makes it even more weird was the  fact that we docked, quite literally, in the heart of the historic old city. Virtually within spitting distance of Saint Isaac’s and the Church of the Spilled Blood.

Not that I would dare to spit in Saint Petersburg, mind you.

But I digress. We were attached to a kind of floating pontoon, that contains the usually unsmiling customs and immigration people that check you in and out of the city. Back in the day, that same pontoon contained a small bar. A nice place, you might think, to go and spend a few roubles, drink a little vodka, and indulge in some old style glasnost with your erstwhile Russian hosts?

Er, no. Nyet. Not possible….

Now I’m not getting at the ordinary people here. They are just as much prisoners of an unflinching, bloodless bureaucracy as ever they were in the days of Stalin or, indeed, the hapless Tsar Nicholas II. I’ve talked before about a residual siege mentality that exists in this marvellous city- a product of its turbulent, tortuous history. And, unlike the ice on the springtime Neva, it shows no signs of thawing out any time soon.

The sunsets are truly phenomenal

The sunsets are truly phenomenal

Methinks this could backfire spectacularly in time. Many passengers from our cruise ship came back on board distinctly unimpressed with the attitude, welcome- or rather the lack of it- from the stony faced scions of Comrade Stalin that scrutinised our papers, passports and personal appearance with all the warmth of a Baltic ice breaker.

What was understandable thirteen years ago is just not so any more. Russia has moved on in so many ways, and yet the officialdom involved in getting ashore has all the warmth and welcome on show at Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow.

Smile, guys. Ladies, you too. It’s later than you think. Please- less of the strutting, and a few less frowns? Thanks so much.


Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

This short piece is mainly for the benefit of my American friends who might be thinking about coming to visit northern Europe in the near or distant future. Whether you’re on a cruise, or just working through some self devised itinerary, these are five of the great buildings and attractions of the continent that I would argue deserve your attention. They are not listed in any particular order of preference; the impact of each upon the individual is too damned subjective for such a superfluous kind of batting order. But each is uniquely compelling in it’s own way…

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli is the jewel in the crown of Scandinavia’s most boisterous and exuberant city; a shimmering, ethereal, twenty three acre wonderland of a theme park that dates back to the 1800’s. Here, a Chinese pagoda towers above a lake where a giant pirate ship provides the perfect grandstand for the twice nightly midnight fireworks each week in summer.

A wondrous maze of fountains, fairy tale lights and fun fair rides, Tivoli was beloved of the immortal Hans Christian Andersen. It’s also the place where one Walter Disney got the idea for his own, subsequent string of theme parks. He visited Tivoli in the 1930’s, and fell in love with the place. Chances are, you will too.

Geiranger Fjord, Norway

God blessed the twelve thousand miles of Norwegian coastline with an almost obscene level of beauty, and most people agree that Geiranger Fjord is pure, platinum chip scenic porn.

Sailing between the silent, towering, pine carpeted walls of rock is an incredible adrenaline surge. The silence is almost deafening You’ll see meadows in forty shades of electric green. Butterflies and jagged, snow capped mountains. Cows grazing by water so still that the scenery is reflected to mirror like perfection. There are vibrant, splashing streams that tumble down the mountain sides, and gaunt wooden stave churches, some of them hundreds of years old, scattered about a landscape that looks like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Petrodeverts Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

A monumental, swaggering statement in gold, gilt and marble, Petrodeverts was the summer palace of the Tsars of Russia. Built to exceed even Versailles in terms of beauty, scale and grandeur, it’s epic Italianate facade is the prelude to a stupendous spread of public rooms, each one almost awash in gilded opulence. Vast, impossible chandeliers hold sway above galleries lined with floor to ceiling mirrors.  Lacquered Chinese cabinets frame rooms filled with a glut of silver banqueting ware set on tables the size of the Titanic. The staircases are sweeping, magnificent, marble accented ascents.

In the gardens, a series of stunning, stepped fountains sweep right down to the edge of the Baltic itself, each terrace flanked by pairs of gilded, golden cherubs. When you see this vast former Royal playground, you get a sense of what truly triggered the revolutions that ultimately culminated in the Communist take over of October, 1917.

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

The most commanding building in this amazing city. And quite literally in many ways, since this is the seat of the German parliament. The vast, sprawling neo classical facade is impressive enough, with elements of ancient Greek architecture on display as well. The new, magnificent glass cupola, added by British architect Sir Norman Foster, offers almost Olympian-like views out over the most vibrant city in Germany.

It was famously burnt down in a coup orchestrated by the Nazis, in order to frame the opposition and consolidate Hitler’s total grip on power after his election in 1933. Today, children sit eating ice cream on the same steps that hordes of Russian infantrymen stormed in 1945 in the face of a desperate, fanatical resistance. Nazism died on those steps in many ways.

The Tower of London, London, United Kingdom

Even on the brightest days, the Tower manages to look at once menacing, sinister and forbidding. Hardly surprising when you consider it’s almost thousand year history. A site of great pageantry and a place of unimaginable pain and cruelty, every one of it’s gaunt, bleached stones seems to have centuries of agonised history seared into it.

You can see the amazing. glittering glut of the crown jewels, and some of the fetid, one time rat infested cells where scores of doomed men and women eked out their last pitiful days. You can even walk the silent, immaculately manicured lawns, and see the spot where no less than three Queens of England- Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey- met their grisly fates. All are interred in the adjacent, small church of Saint Peter Ad Vincula, once described as ‘the saddest place in all of England’.

This is just a snap shot of some of the great sites that litter the shores and cities of Europe like so many random exclamation marks. They all have amazing stories to tell. Many are poignant, all are powerful, each one is a  pointer to the past glories-and follies- of this proud, often prolifically violent continent.


ImageThe Baltic in high summer never, ever gets completely dark. This is the season of the fabled ‘White Nights’, where total darkness on one side of your ship is offset by an amazing, spectral, gleaming wall of light on the other.

ImageWith vibrant shades of red, gold, blue and electric green, this magical display shimmers on the waters of those far northern latitudes until the sun comes creeping back up over the horizon, back into full view.

ImageThe sheer sense of calm and serenity that nights like this engender cannot adequately be quantified, or even translated into really effective prose. Nights like this speak to you on a profoundly different level. Just feel it and enjoy….ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage