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|Queen Victoria 2010 Cruises
Baltic Explorer and Jewels of the Mediterranean - Part 2
We berthed at 0840 at the Cruise Terminal along the Stadsgardsleden, where the Viking Line ferries depart. It was a short walk to the Lock and then into the Gamla Stan (Old Town) but instead we caught the first shuttle bus into town, which stopped just outside the Opera house. From there it was only a short walk to the ferries at Nybroviken. A basic ticket to the Vasa Museum, two stops away, was 40 krone. For comparison, the entire circuit to Djurgarden Island, the Queen Victoria, the Lock, the Royal Palace and back to Nybroviken costs 80 krone, whereas a HopOn-HopOff ticket for the day is only 100 krone. Entry to the Vasa Museum is 110 krone each, so for most tourists the combination ticket of 180 krone is a better bargain.
The Royal Sightseeing ferries went every half hour, and we were lucky and caught the 0925 which meant we reached the Vasa Museum at 0940. It opens at 0830 and there was no queue when we arrived, and not many people. We had time on our visit to watch the video at 1000, followed by a guided tour at 1030, and we finally left at 1300. Pauline had visited the Vasa Museum 20 years ago when she was in Stockholm for a meeting with European policy makers and had been very keen to visit again. The Vasa Museum contains just one precious object, the warship Vasa which keeled over and sank on her maiden voyage in Stockholm Harbour, on August 10 1628. She lay undisturbed there until September 13 1956 when it was announced that an old ship had been found; an engineer had been searching for the ship for 5 years and on August 25 he had found blackened oak in his homemade core sampler. She was subsequently salvaged and on April 24 1961 she broke the surface. Once floating she was towed into a dry dock at Beckholmen and eventually the Vasa Museum was erected above the old dock of the Galarvarvet shipyard. It is close to where the Vasa was built, and where she sank.
The Vasa Museum and its neighbour the Nordiska Museum are on Djurgarden Island and we walked across the bridge instead of catching another ferry. There are many large houses along the Strandvagen, built by Stockholm’s ten richest citizens, seven of whom were wholesale merchants. For the rest of the day we planned to wander around Gamla Stan – the Old Town.
We chose a green route, walking through the Berzeli Park and then to the Kungstradgarden where we were surprised to find modern live music and temporary kiosks selling food and drinks. There were crowds and loud music so we didn’t stay long. We passed Jakobs church and soon reached the Opera. Gamla Stan is just across the Norrbro bridge; straight ahead is the Royal Palace and the Riksdagshuset (Parliament building) is on the right. We wandered around Gamla Stan, but although the narrow dark cobbled streets were picturesque we were disappointed by the tourist stopping district, although some of the antique/secondhand shops looked more interesting. We walked through the large square called the Stortorget, with its pavement cafes and the Nobel Museum housed in the handsome 1776 Borsen (Stock Exchange).
Having rushed past the Royal Palace earlier it was obvious that we should look in the inner courtyard the second time and at 1400 we were surprised to see the changing of the Royal Guard in their neat bright blue uniforms. Our guide book said it all happened at 1315. The Royal Guard has been stationed at the Royal Palace since 1523, and the modern guards include a number of women. We still had some spare time and some local currency so we bought a combination ticket to visit the Royal Apartments, the Treasury, the Royal Chapel and the Tre Kronor Museum.
Having visited the Royal Apartments in Copenhagen we were not sure what to expect in Sweden. The Royal Palace is the official residence of His Majesty the King of Sweden and a significant amount of official functions take place here. In 1754 the new palace was occupied although it was not until 1770 that the interior was finally completed. The Royal Apartments were impressive and we would have like more time. Again here there are magnificent interiors, priceless 17th century Gobelin tapestries, paintings, china, jewellery and furniture. On the first floor we rushed through the Apartments of the Orders of Chivalry to reach the Hall of State, and then back to the Bernadotte Apartments which are used for audiences with foreign ambassadors, medal ceremonies and other meetings. Most of the rooms were furnished in 18th or 19th century style, except for Carl XVI Gustaf’s Jubilee Room which was designed for his Silver Jubilee in 1998 on the theme ‘a Swedish summer day’. We instantly disliked the plain modern pink and red chairs. Climbing to the second floor there are the State Apartments and the Guest Apartments. Here we were back to beautiful ceilings and marquetry wooden floors, and ornate gilding. The Council Chamber was originally Gustav III’s dinning room but now Council’s of State are held here. Charles XI’s Gallery is the venue of the dinner to which each year’s Nobel Laureates are invited. The White Sea, the old ballroom, was originally designed as two separate rooms which are now merged. It is used as a banquet hall and ballroom.
The Treasury seemed to be a much smaller display than in Copenhagen but the items were spectacular. The silver throne and large silver baptismal font dated from 1650s but the main items are the National Regalia. Gustav Vasa’s sword of state, dating from 1541, is here, as well as a number of royal crowns, including the King’s crown first used for Erik XIV’s coronation in 1561 and the Queen’s crown, designed in 1751, and studded with almost 700 diamonds.
We were only able to get a glimpse of the Royal Chapel because it closed at 1500 and we reached the door at 1456. When the old palace was destroyed in the fire of 7 May 1697 it was all rebuilt and the present Palace church was consecrated on 8 December 1754, the day after the Royal family had moved into the completed Palace. The first organ was constructed in 1753 by Green and Strale, and has recently been reconstructed. We had just missed a lunchtime organ concert.
Our last visit was to the Tre Kronor Museum in the vaults of the northern wing of the Palace. The building itself was interesting and there were several models showing the Palace at different times.
We knew very little about Estonia and its capital Tallinn before this visit. The history of Estonia is complex and goes back a long way. For much of the time Estonia has been a province of other countries rather than a state in its own right although the Estonian people have retained an ethnic integrity and their language throughout many centuries. Their roots are more aligned to the Nordic countries than to Europe. Tallinn has remained more intact than most cities and its walls remained largely intact. In fact the old walled parts of Tallinn are divided into two sections with walls between them and at times the two areas have been very different and the internal walls have, on occasion, proved a very necessary separation between the ‘Nobility and Foreign Rulers’ living in Toompea - the historic seat of power in Estonia and the merchants and traders in the lower town and port which was part of the Hanseatic League coming from different ethnic backgrounds. Tallinn – the lower city walled city, port and surroundings - and Toompea – the upper city on the hill - were only finally united in 1880.
The Estonian people go back well before Roman times and Tallinn seems to have come into existence in the 12th century when a wooden fortress was built on Toompea hill and it appeared on contemporary maps as a ‘seasonal stronghold’. Its importance grew rapidly as a major trading port on the route between East and West and it became a member of the Hanseatic League, a powerful association of cities that held a monopoly over trade in Northern Europe. Tallinn was the key port for trade with Russia and a major and valuable commodity was salt 0n which much of it’s wealth was built. Much of the time from then on Tallinn and Estonia was under foreign rule, sometime benign, sometime not, with a predominantly German base to it merchant base.
By the late 19th Century there was a great cultural revival referred to as the ‘National Awakening’ and German dominance gave way to Russian. Finally Estonia declared independence in the late stages of the First World War. The Second World War brought an end to independence with first Russian, then German and finally Russia domination. They once more threw off the Russian yoke and declared Independence in 1991 after the ‘Singing Revolution’ and Estonia was recognised by the world once more as a sovereign state. It has made faster progress than most of the rest of the old USSR and became a model of progress and democracy and succeeded in joining both the EU and NATO in 2004. Although Estonia has not adopted the Euro there is currently a direct linkage.
Tallinn has retained its original medieval character of the walled parts much better than most cities. It is in some ways reminiscent of Dubrovnik and both have been declared UNESCO Heritage Areas.
We began the morning by taking a shuttle bus to Mere Boulevard Hotel, close to the Viru Gate on the east side of Tallinn Old Town. It is just possible to walk instead, and the cruise terminals are east of the north side of town. It is only 90 minutes away by hydrofoil from Helsinki, and only an overnight ferry trip from Stockholm and St Petersburg. The Old Town is still largely encircled by the original city wall, although only a small part is open to walk, unlike Dubrovnik where hourds of tourist tramp along their wall. The Old Town is made up of two distinct pieces – Toompea Hill, the home of the gentry and the representatives of Estonian ruling power and the Lower Town which was an autonomous Hanseatic trading city populated by merchants and craftsmen.
There are lots of opportunity to buy local craftwork; we had noticed a long row of huts at the coach park by the ship, including a currency exchange. From the shuttle bus we walked along Mere pst (that is how it is written on our map!) passing a craft market, then turned towards the Viru Gate, passing rows of flower shops which we decided might be worth a stop on the way back to the ship.
Entering the historic Old Town we were immediately faced by a McDonald's – was that a pre-condition of gaining UNESCO Heritage Status! the city wall stretches in both directions. To the right, the Muurivahe runs along the city wall – it is a long line of shops selling woollen jumpers and the typical local headwear which is a combined hat and scarf. Hellemann tower gives access to a length of the city wall, at a small charge, and there are good views from the second floor. The lower parts of the tower were completed in 1410. The oldest parts of the city wall belong to the 13th century. Originally it was 2.35 kms long with 46 wall and gate towers. Large sections remain, including 26 defensive towers, but it is now only 1.85 kms. Just opposite, the Katarina kaik is a famous narrow road with craft shops of St Catherine’s Guild – it features on every tour and many postcards and one can see why. On the other side are the remains of Catherine Monastery and tomb stones from the former St Catherine’s Church.
Amber is found everywhere in all shapes and sizes in jewellery. One shop on the corner of Vene had amber lampshades for sale, similar to one we purchased many years ago in Guernsey. It is many fold more expensive now, at approx £1500 – or is this an indication of the mark-up in the town. We were attracted to their window display by a pretty poster with a little Birman kitten. Margarita and Art have seven amber shops in Tallinn. Almost opposite their shop is the Peppersack restaurant. This is the heart of the Old Town. It is hidden under Gothic arches, and offers Estonian and European cooking, with a popular pavement cafe. They advertise Medieval sword fighting every evening which reminded us we must go to the fencing classes on the Queen Victoria before we return.
The Raekoja Plats is a large empty space dominated by the Raekoda (Town Hall) which has a tower open for visit. It is the central focus and there are lots more pavement cafes around the square. We follow signs towards Toompia (Dome Hill). The important buildings are all here, in the south west of the city. The Hill is 78 ft high and limestone and is an obvious natural site for fortification. At the top we are confronted by the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a spectacular onion-domed church, and said to be the most spectacular Orthodox church in Estonia. Built from 1894 to 1900, it is relatively new and was built to demonstrated Russian power by cultural dominance – it was built in the middle of the main square right in front of their centre of power, Toompia castle. To add insult to injury it was named after Alexander Nevsky was a Russian hero who defeated the Baltic-based German crusaders in 1242 rather than a Saint. We saw a Russian church of the same name in Copenhagen. A mosaic on the wall of the Cathedral shows Count Vsevlod of Pskov who led raids against Estonian in the 13th century. It was a clear statement of Russian dominance in Estonia. Toompea Castle contains Estonia’s parliament and is not open to visitors but we were able to visit the pretty Governor’s Gardens with the tall Hermann tower in the corner with a view out to the west. The tower was built onto the corner of the castle in 1371 but only reached its present height of 46 metres in 1500. The Estonian flag, blue black and white, flies here
The Toomkirik Dome church is nearby and we climbed up the tower for good views in three directions. The tower is 69 metres high and the observation gallery and belfry is at 28 metres, which is 140 steps. We were first to climb in the morning and we reached the top to find the trapdoor closed and the windows all shuttered. We had just completed opening everything when the custodian came running up the steps behind us. She pointed out the landmarks and gave a good summary of the history. Inside the organ began to play and we assume it was practice for the lunchtime concert by Ene Salumae, later in the morning. The area has some distinctive old public buildings, including the Estonian Art Museum opposite and the Stenbock House which is now the office of the Government of Estonia. There are two superb viewpoints on the city walls. The first, Patkuli trepp ja vaateplats, also gives view of Stenbock House, which is built on the edge of the cliff. Kohtuotsa vaateplats has a slightly different outlook, just around the corner.
We realised we had not seen all the parts of the city wall, so retraced our steps to see the Stable Tower, Maiden’s Tower, and Kiek in de Kok. The latter is a powerful cannon tower, and is now a museum. It is on the edge of a park which leads down to Freedom Square. One new feature here is the tall glass cross, constructed in 2009, to commemorate independence from Russia. On the opposite side of the square is St John’s church, which also promised an organ recital but at 1330.
We had explored most of the Upper Town so headed back to look at more of the Lower Town, specifically on the north side. We were lucky with our timing. The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul closed for lunch just after we arrived. Then St Olav’s church closed, but this time for a wedding. We managed to see both inside but not to look in any detail. Our target was to see Fat Margaret’s Tower, the most northern tower of the city wall. It is memorable, and is really squat. It was built from 1511 to 1530 and with its walls up to 5 metres thick and overall diameter of 25 metres it is the largest of all the towers. The entrance to the Maritime Museum is here. Outside in the gardens is the Estonian Ferry Disaster memorial, (often refered to as ‘the broken line’) a curved piece of metal with a gap in it sweeping down the hillside. The ferry from Tallinn to Stockholm sank on 28 September 1994 and 852 people died.
This is the closest place to the port and we wondered whether to walk back but there was plenty of time and so we had a second walk through the historic centre. This included passing the St Petersburg Imperial Porcelain shop where we saw some more of the nice blue and gold china – the famous Cobalt Net pattern was created in 1950. Further down the road we were tempted by a coffee shop which was in the style of Betty’s of Harrogate, and included the marzipan museum. We heard music and the Holy Spirit Church next door was full of cruise passengers listening politely to a local group singing.
It was an excellent day, and in spite of the congestion in the old town caused by too many tourists and far too many souvenir shops, we would visit again.
The next part covering St Petersburg starts here