Baltic Cruise Day 7

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Friday, May 20, we arrived in Helsinki quite early, and docked by Kauppatori (Market Square). So, after breakfast we disembarked, and walked the Senate Square, got a map in the City Hall, where we also took the opportunity to check our email thanks to the free wifi, and went on, passing by the Helsinki Cathedral, the Palace of the Council of the State, the main building of the University of Helsinki, and the National Library.

Through the commercial avenue Aleksanterinkatu we reached the Finnish National Theater, the Ateneum Art Museum and the Central Railway Station.

The Station is an impressive building in the outside, but not that exciting inside.

Next to it, and past the main Post Office, is the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, where we spent a while before continuing on to the Green District passing by the Helsinki Music Center, the Parliament Building, and the National Museum.

Walking up Karamzininranta, we strolled around the Töölönlahti lake, before coming back towards the station via Alvar Aallon katu.

Since we still had a little time, we decided to visit the Design District, walking down Erottajank all the way to the Eira Hospital before turning back towards the the ship via the Tähtitornin park.

Once back on the ship we were invited to any treatment in the spa. We had fun doing the Kneipp Walk (cold and hot water at ankle height), followed by a couple’s massage that lasted over an hour. After the massage I went into the sauna: almost 100ºC (200ºF) at 10% humidity for 15 minutes! The funny thing is that I did not break a sweat until minute 12.

Since the ship was departing Helsinki, we had a late lunch on the deck by the pool, and then went back to our suite to rest.

Baltic Cruise Day 6

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Thursday May 19 we had an early breakfast again, and were met by Slava who drove us to Peterhof, as Marina told us stories of Soviet era daily life.

Peterhof is another one of those tourist destinations that can get unbearably packed, so I truly appreciated that my wife and Marina arranged for a special visit before they officially opened their doors.

It is amazing the excruciatingly detailed job the Soviets did to document, preserve, and restore the palace, including using original equipment to weave the tapestries and silk.

Although it was raining, at 11 o’clock the daily fountain show in the gardens was full of tourists with umbrellas and selfie-sticks. After the water show, which is amazing considering all those fountains operate without pumps, we took a long and very pleasant walk through the gardens towards the embarkment. So many picture perfect postal settings!

We took the Hydrofoil back, which dropped us off in front of the Hermitage. From there we walked to the Four Seasons Hotel (in the former Ministry of Interior building, perfectly restored), and Marina gave us a last art lesson in St. Isaac’s catholic Cathedral. I still can’t get over the mosaics, the size and weight of elements such as the doors, the engineering behind the acoustics (inserting hollow clay vases inside the domes) or the mechanisms that allowed four men to erect columns that weighted dozens of tones each.
We thanked Marina for all she taught us, and went back on board, since Captain Sigurd Darbakk had invited us to an exclusive tour of the Bridge, led by Tony, one of his officers. It was exciting, since I had never been on the Bridge of a large vessel, and it is really interesting to learn about all the technology that powers the ship and enables its amazing maneuverability.

Before we departed Saint Petersburg, we attended a lecture on the end of the Romanov dynasty, the Japo-Russian War and WWI, and the Russian Revolution.

We sailed away at 6pm from the Blagoveshchenskiy bridge through the Neva along the city, past the shipyards, onto the Gulf of Finland, in one of the most beautiful sail-aways (along with others like Venice).

To end the day in an amazing note, we were invited to have dinner at The Grill, led by world-renowned Chef Thomas Keller, the culinary genius behind The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Per Se.

Chef Keller, named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and the only American-born chef to hold multiple Michelin three-star ratings, has put together the impeccable, albeit (as was to be expected) conservative menu for The Grill. Based on his signature carefully selection of suppliers (“purveyors” as he calls them). For example, he has been purchasing Ingrid Bengi’s lobsters since his early days as a chef in New York, and his restaurants consume the entire annual production of Diane St. Claire’s butter. The gluten-free flour they use was invented by Lena Kwak when she was a chef at The French Laundry (going on to found Cup4Cup to commercialize it worldwide), and the lambs the use come from Elysian Farms, founded and headed by former investment banker Keith Martin, who monitors each individual lamb throughout their lives, and gets direct feedback from the chefs at The French Laundry and Per Se to continuously improve the quality of the lambs. And sometimes those purveyors are deep connoisseurs and even “ambassadors” of the produce they trade, like Céline Labaune and her truffles from Gourmet Attitude.

The chef in the kitchen this time was Michel Sandoval, previously chef at Bouchon, one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants.

Michel came out to have a chat with us and to explain some of the things that go on behind the scenes, like the fact that he has been on board the ship for months, getting the restaurant ready, which should have been opened weeks ago, but not everything was to his liking, so they delayed the opening of the restaurant until… this week! So we were lucky to be amongst the first ones to try it.
The dinner menu itself is self explanatory from looking at the pictures. Everything was “classical”, from the pisco sour cocktail to the double-consommé to the T-bone steak or the coconut cake. But the magic is in the details. Everything was absolutely perfect, and it tasted the way it should always taste but never does.

One very nice surprise was to find out that they had brought on board a unique Goat Gouda cheese from the Netherlands. They did not have it in the menu, but they offered to us and it was a true revelation. It had the consistency, and almost the flavor, of parmiggiano regiano, but it was gouda made out of goat cheese!

The cheese sommelier, who was from the Netherlands, told us she had received training directly from the owner of the cheese purveyor, and that they put a lot of passion into their cheeses. It was, indeed, quite a unique one.

Baltic Cruise Day 5

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Wednesday May 18 we asked Marina to start the day visiting the subway (Metro), which gave us an opportunity to have an interesting political and historical discussion. I still remember the monumental Moscow’s Metro. While Saint Petersburg’s Metro is not as spectacular, there are many examples of Soviet era art and decoration. The Metro itself is old, but impeccably clean and maintained.

Marina insisted in inviting us to a cup of coffee at the famous Yeliseevskiy Gastronom at 56 Nevskiy Prospekt. A beautiful Art Nouveau building by architect Gabriel Baranovskii with a very fine selection of delicatessen.

From there we went straight to the Russian Museum. Marina gave us a very comprehensive and detailed lesson on the history of Russian art. I dare to say that it was quite primitive until the Czars insisted in imitating and catching-up with the rest of Europe, so until the early XX century, most works were quite “derivative” if you ask me. Nevertheless, some amazing artists, largely unknown in the rest of the world, were producing some moving works. I particularly liked Ivan Kramskoi’s “Portrait of Ivan Shishkin”, the military officer Vasily Vereshchagin’s “Outing in a boat” (an impressionist style painting before the Impressionists), or his pointnaingly anti-war “Battlefield at the Shipka Pass” (which is nothing less than remarkable coming from a military officer). I was also impressed by Perov’s portraits and their accurate psychological characterizations, and by Nikolai Ge, a mathematician that was definitely a precursor of Impressionism, way ahead of its time.

I wish we would have had more time to explore Russian’s XX century art, which I really like. But we had to whisk by Kandinsky, Malevich, and their contemporaries. On our way out we also saw the temporary exhibition “Circus”.

After a quick late lunch in the ship, we changed to go to the ballet. I bought two tickets to see the ballet ”Swan Lake” at the Mariinsky II Theater for my wife’s birthday.

It was exciting, since I had been to the Mariinsky Theater and the Mikhaylovskiy Theater (where I saw the Rimsky-Korsakov ballet “Scheherazade” years ago), but had never been to the Mariinsky II. It is a modern building, and while you may miss the palatial setting of the original Mariinsky, this one has much better visibility and acoustics.

We had great seats, and enjoyed tremendously the over 3 hours of performance.

The music, of course, was by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and the revised choreography and stage direction was by Konstantin Sergeyev. But everything was sublime, from the enveloping set designs by Igor Ivanov, to the gorgeous costume design by Galina Solovyova.

Vladimir Shklyarov was good as Prince Siegfried, and the whole group were spotless, but I was completely amazed by the natural and effortless ability of Yaroslav Baibordin (as Jester), who, by the way, Marina told us was recently in her apartment to discuss some aspects of the play with one of her nephews and she found him to be quite nice and charming.

Needless to say Viktoria Tereshkina was absolutely breathtaking. Her transformation as Odette-Odile was incredible. You could have sworn it was two different ballerinas, and she was excellent as both. But definitely, when she was playing Odette, you were witnessing a swan dance in front of you. I have never seen anyone move the way she does.

We returned to the ship absolutely entranced and delighted. A night to remember for years to come.

Baltic Cruise Day 4

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Tuesday May 17 we docked at 4:00am so downtown Saint Petersburg that people walking on the sidewalk could see into our suite. We were a few minutes walk from the Hermitage Museum.

After clearing immigration (you need a visa to enter Russia, unless you have arranged private escorted tours like we had), we were met by Slava, our driver, who for the next three days would take us everywhere in a large white Mercedes Benz. Marina, an Art History professor at Saint Petersburg university, who used to work at the Hermitage, was our very knowledgeable guide.

Having our priorities straight, we went to the Hermitage Museum. With over three and a half million pieces of art in its collection, although only less than 5% are in public exhibition, it is still too much to see in a day. As a matter of fact, if you could spend 30 seconds in front of each piece, and made it your full time job, you would need over 15 years to see the full collection, or 36 weeks for the works in exhibition. What would you see? Works by Raphael, Leonardo, Michel Angelo, Rubens, El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Rembrandt… you get the point.

I had been in the Hermitage a few years before, and I do not remember almost any of the works I saw this time. It is as if it was a completely different collection.

It was very nice to not have to stand in a long line, entering through a side door with Marina, who used to work there. She led us very efficiently in a way that avoided the crowds of the otherwise packed museum. Even more of a surprise is the fact that 6 months ago they moved the Impressionist collection to another building across the Dvortzovaya square, and the only sign at the door says “General Staff Building” (because the building used to be the General Staff Quarters). The very nicely renovated building holds an incredible collection of works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Seurat, Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Rodin, Gauguin…

After the overdose (not really, never in fact) of art, Slava drove us around the city, while Marina told us little anecdotes about its many famous inhabitants, like the way Tchaikovsky’s friends used to party, or why “drinking” is symbolized by flicking your neck with the index finger.

Of course we stopped at the Church of the Spilled Blood, and she told us all about the story, construction, use and symbolism of that particular church. I still find it delightfully ironic that this church used to be the Museum of Religions and Atheism.

We went back to the ship for a quick late lunch, to shower and change for “An Intimate Evening at Catherine’s Palace”.

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My wife surprised me by arranging a private evening visit to Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, which is usually not accessible to the public after hours.

After an hour ride to Pushkin, we were greeted by the Royal Guards in the palace’s courtyard. A guide showed us, using a cool wireless headset to allow us complete freedom, the Romanov’s portrait collection, private chambers, and the Golden Suite, with the famous Amber Room, once considered the Eighth Wonder of the World (where normally photography is not allowed, but we were allowed to take all the pictures we wanted). In one of the rooms a flute player delighted us as we passed by. In another one, live music from a harpsichord. Anachronistic fairytale? Corny? In any case it was delightful and a real pleasure to be able to visit the Palace without masses of people surrounding you.

In the Throne Room we enjoyed a champagne reception. As the sun set, flooding the room with a warm amber light that made all the artificial light and gold plating pale in comparison, a chamber string ensemble masterfully played for us pieces by Vivaldi (“Sinfonia in G Major”), Mozart (“Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”), Strauss (“Valsul Imperial”), Mascagni (Cavalleria Rsuticana: Intermezzo”). To top it off, Angelina Bychkova entered the room and sang for us a couple arias by Giordano (“Caro Mio Ben”) and Verdi (“Siciliana”), and a waltz by Arditi (Il Bacio). What a treat!

After the musical surprise, we descended the main staircase to the park, where Imperial Guards paraded on our way out.

Baltic Cruise Day 3

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We arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, at 08:00h. Before disembarking, we ordered a hearty breakfast in the suite, so we would have energy to walk all day. It was a delight having breakfast in the room while enjoying the view of St. Olav’s church from our balcony.

Right after breakfast we took the shuttle to go downtown (although it is so close that it was quite unnecessary). Tallinn is a small city, being Estonia the smallest of all Baltic states. So we walked all over.
Since I had scheduled a business meeting at noon near the airport, at the headquarters of an Estonian software company, we had time to explore the old city center before my meeting.

The shuttle dropped us off right next to the Kanuti park, and we walked through Vana-viru and the Viru Gates into the old town, which is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. We walked along Viru to Raekoja Plats and marveled at the metal dragon water-draining gargoyles protruding from the Town Hall., and continued walking towards the citadel (Toompea). The 13th century Toompea Castle, which today serves as Estonia’s Parliament is surrounded by a fortified wall. Inside the wall we passed by the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its onion domes, and the cathedral of Sr. Mary the Virgin, on our way to the Patkuli viewing platform, from which you get an excellent view of the Old Town.

We walked back down into Pikk, where we saw the Holy Spirit Church, Kanut Guild Hall, the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads, and St. Olav’s Church. Then, passing by Fat Margaret’s cannon tower, we exited the Old Town so I could get a taxi to go to my business meeting.

After my meeting I returned to meet my wife at a central cafe, where I took advantage of an open wifi to have a long business teleconference with some customers in Dubai, after which we walked back to the ship, in time for our departure.

Tallin is an adorable city with medieval buildings, winding cobble stone streets, pointing spires and turreted towers that is worth a visit.

Of course we did not see everything there is to see (no one ever does). Next time we have to visit places like the Japanese Garden, the Kumu Art Museum, or the Kadriorg Palace and Museum.

Back in the ship, since we missed lunch-time (and unlike other cruises, this one does not have a 24/7 buffet), we went to the Observation Lounge, where we enjoyed tea time, with some delicious little sandwiches and cakes, and a very talented piano player delighting us with some tasteful easy listening jazz sprinkled with small blues improvs.

After taking a break in our suite for reading and writing, we went to dinner, and before going to bed we watched the movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”.

Baltic Cruise Day 2

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On days at sea during cruises, we tend to oversleep. And that’s exactly what happened. Sunday May15 was a day at sea, and we did not get up until noon (in our defense we will say that during this cruise we crossed the time zone lines several times, so it was difficult to keep the right time in mind).

We headed directly for lunch at the restaurant. It was so empty, that we had to double check. Apparently everybody prefers the buffet! Call me spoiled, but I’d rather be seated at a nice table by the window and be properly served my food, than having to sit on a stool and cue in line fighting for the last piece of stew in the casserole.

After enjoying a light lunch, we went to the suite to read a little (my friend Raminder gave me a copy of “Regenesis” by George Church and Ed Regis that I brought with me to the cruise) and at 15:45 we attended a lecture on the history of Saint Petersburg by Niki Spesas. It was a weak lecture, but full of trivia and factoids.

At 16:30 executive chef Henning Giese gave my wife and I a private galley tour, complete with caviar and champagne. We have really received the VIP treatment! Since this cruise is not as big as other ships we have been to, we were not as impressed with the logistics and volumes. But it is still amazing the clock-work operation that a cruise galley really is.

After showering and changing for the formal night of the cruise, we went to the Gala Reception at the Grand Salon, where Captain Sigurd Darbakk introduced his crew, followed by a delicious dinner.

At night we attended a show by Master Magician (and humorist) Peter Mehtab, member of the Inner-Magic-Circle in the Grand Salon. Peter has performed for Queen Elizabeth II, and has appeared in the James Bond film “The World is not Enough”, and his magic show is truly amazing.

Right after the magic show we enjoyed a delicious caviar and lobster dinner, with a fancy caramel-chocolate-icecream-banana-hazelnut dessert.

Before going to bed we watched the movie “Anomalisa”.

Baltic Cruise Day 1

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The next day, Saturday May 14, we had breakfast at the visitor center (with yet again some more deliciously rich Danish pastry) and took a taxi to the Cruise Terminal where we boarded the Seabourn Quest for a 7 night Baltic cruise.

The ship is absolutely fantastic. It’s fairly new, exquisitely decorated, and we were assigned an amazing suite with a walk-in closet. Of particular excellence was the suite’s bathroom. I have only seen such a great bathroom in places like The Ritz Carlton Hotel (any, since they are all the same) or the UAE Emir’s Palace. I was seriously impressed with it!

For a small ship (450 passengers, versus over 5000 at Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Sea) the all the services were quite good (from the gym to the spa), and even the art was legitimately decent (although not as impressive as the Quantum of the Sea).

If I was forced to be critical of something, I could have said that the book selection in the library was weak, and the food could have been a bit more imaginative. But I was in for a wonderful surprise about the food (more abut it in another post).

So after toasting with the in-suite champagne and smelling the fresh flower welcome bouquet, we toured the ship, had dinner, and went back to our suite to select one of the many movies and documentaries available in the on-demand entertainment system. We chose a great documentary that I had been meaning to see even before it came out: “Citizen Four”.

Two days in Copenhagen

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Thursday, May 12 we travelled to Copenhagen, Denmark. We had many things on our list, and being there for two days only, we had to make many sacrifices. But overall, we covered a lot of ground.

We had many things on our list, and being there for two days only, we had to make many sacrifices. But overall, we covered a lot of ground.Upon arrival in the airport we took the very convenient and modern train that took us to the Central Station, and our hotel was next door. The Radisson Blu Royal was the original design hotel, and you can see Arne Jacobsen’s hand in everything, from the staircase to the chairs.

Upon arrival in the airport we took the very convenient and modern train that took us to the Central Station, and our hotel was next door. The Radisson Blu Royal was the original design hotel, and you can see Arne Jacobsen’s hand in everything, from the staircase to the chairs.We checked in, left our suitcases, and walked towards our dinner reservation at Taarnet, the restaurant in Christiansborg Palace and Parliament tower, walking by the Royal stables, the

We checked in, left our suitcases, and walked towards our dinner reservation at Taarnet, the restaurant in Christiansborg Palace and Parliament tower, walking by the Royal stables, the library, and the Danish Jewish museum.

Dinner was, as we expected, delicious. All the dishes were excellent, but without a doubt the most amazing one was a seemingly simple one: the cheese platter. Three absolutely perfect Danish cheeses, with an incredible rye bread toast that tasted so distinctively good that I can perfectly recall it several days later.As an added bonus we got to go to the top of the tower and enjoy some great views of Copenhagen.

As an added bonus we got to go to the top of the tower and enjoy some great views of Copenhagen.

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The next morning we had breakfast at the bakery in the Nimb Hotel.

Danish pastry is famous for a reason. TheSmørrebrød open-faced sandwiches were good, but the pastry was divine. These Danish sure know how to work their dairy!

After the hearty breakfast, we left for a long walk that took us to the City Hall Square, through the pedestrian Strøget Nygade and Østergade, all the way to Nyhavn with its lively marina full of tourists and locals enjoying the sunny day.

We walked back through Havnegade (jumping in the public trampolines as the kids we are) past Kayak Republic, to cross the Knippelsbro bridge, so we could make it to Freetown Christiania.

I must say it was a disappointment. There are many examples of self-organized communities around the world and throughout history that prove its sustainability, and even desirability… if done right. But cheesy merchandise stalls and many people smoking weed do not a community make. The saddest part? Their “Museum”. The coolest? The indoor skate park.

In a shameless contrast we headed straight for Noma, the culinary temple. I’ve wanted to dine there for years, but never had the chance. I knew it would be pointless to try to make a reservation a few days ahead (as they take reservations months ahead), so our best and only chance was to go there and hope for some last minute cancellation. Unfortunately nobody had the misfortune to miss their reservation, so we left sad and dragging our feet, promising to be back with a proper reservation next time.

On our way out we visited the Icelandic Cultural Center, although the exhibition on display was not really worth it.

We crossed the bridge back, and went through Søren Kierkegaards Plads into The Black Diamond (modern extension of the library and quite an active cultural center). After a little break, we continued through the pedestrian Købmagergade to the Round Tower, and ended up in the Kings Gardens, filled with teenagers having a great time enjoying the sunny day. We walked all the way to the Rosenborg Castle, and then back to Kongens Nytorv to the Hotel D’Angleterre, with its adorable Lego reproduction of the hotel in the lobby. It is a fine hotel, very tastefully renovated, and definitely our choice for next time.

My wife had a business meeting there, and once she was done, we walked towards our dinner reservation (after all, what were the chances that Noma would have a last minute cancellation?) in Almanak. It might not be Noma, but everything was artisanal (even the apple sparkling wine) and local, and absolutely delicious.

To call it a day, we went to Tivoli Gardens.

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Tivoli Gardens is quite charming at night with magical gardens, carnival rides, fairy lights. Some of the highlights of the night: we attended three outdoors rock concerts, saw a robotic lawn mower in the shape of a rabbit that had its own “mini hotel-reproduction charging-station”, and basically enjoyed walking through such a darling place.

Two things that really stick out in Copenhagen: how homogeneous the population is (like my wife likes to say: everyone is tall, thin, healthy, blonde and so white), and the incredible amount of bicycle riders absolutely everywhere; as a matter of fact, quite often you see many more bicycles than cars waiting behind a red light!

Wimbledon breakfast

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In England, Summer apparently lasts about 3 days. And it arrives (and leaves) in May.

Those three days were very nice: we went for walks in the parks and village, we enjoyed the flowers blooming and seeing families have fun and catch their vitamin-D-processing-sun-ray-yearly-dose, and we had a lovely breakfast in our castle’s balcony seeing a group of elders play cricket in the Wimbledon Practice Courts.

It was nice, albeit brief, Summer.