A Wine Lover’s Diary, Part 662: Baltic Cruise

Saturday, August 12th: Final preparations and packing (including four bottles of wine) to leave for the airport to fly to Munich. Grabbed a meal at Susur Lee’s restaurant at Pearson’s Terminal 1 (excellent). The Lufthansa plane is late arriving so our departure is delayed. Deborah’s seat is two rows behind me. I watched an abysmal Tom Cruise movie called The Last Samurai. Had a glass of Chardonnay with a sleeping pill and got about three hours’ sleep.

Sunday, August 13th: At Munich airport transferred to a flight to Stockholm where will join the Azamara Journey to begin our cruise to Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Warnemunde (Berlin). We are met at the airport by our Iranian taxi driver, who drives us to the boat, a journey of about 45 minutes.

The Azamara Journey has a crew of 400 to look after 650 passengers. Once in our cabin we unpack and are summoned for an emergency lifeboat drill at muster points on the fifth deck. Much emphasis is put on health aboard – injunctions not to shake hands but fist-bump or elbow-bump to avoid spreading infectious diseases or viruses. We are asked to use Purel whenever we enter the dining room and when we return our order.

Our first meal is a seafood reception. We order a seafood pasta cooked on board from an expedition off the boat. Wines are complimentary and the waiters keep filling our glasses – Sicilian Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Periquita and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon followed by a great sweet table and ice cream.

Monday, August 14th: After breakfast (eggs Benedict) we join the off-shore tour of Stockholm. They bus us to the Vasa Museum. On the way our guide, named Asa, tells us this has been the coldest summer in 15 years but it is a beautifully sunny day. Sweden, she says, is the fifth largest European country, the same size as California, with a population of ten million. Stockholm of which she is an ardent advocate, is “one third green, one-third water and one-third buildings.” Then she counts off the number of cultural institutions – “87 museums, 62 theatres, 4 opera companies, 40 concert halls – and 38 marinas.” Fifty-four per cent of the country is forest.

Our first visit is to the Vasa Museum, dedicated to the shipwreck of a magnificent galleon that sank after launching because of design miscalculations by two different national naval architects. It sank in 1628 and spent 330 years under water. The vessel is in a marvelous state of preservation. Apparently, one in five people in Stockholm own a boat.

The Vasa galleon

Next stop, City Hall, built in 1923 and the venue, every December 10 – the death day of Alfred Nobel – of the annual dinner for Nobel laureates. Built with 8 million hand-cut bricks, it houses the largest organ in Europe with 10,000 pipes and an extraordinal gold room decorated with 18.5 million pieces of gold mosaic made in Germany.

Stadshuset in Stockholm, where the Nobel laureate dinner is held

Then, a tour of the city, including the old town and a distant sight of the world’s largest spherical building, which houses the hockey stadium. Back to the boat for lunch and departure from port at 2 pm.

We lunch on chicken with a glass of M. Chapoutier Rosé 2016. The scenery is reminiscent of Georgian Bay with hundreds of rocky islands. I drop in on a lecture by Dr. Karl Muslis on “Helsinki, From Ice Age to Space Age.”

Dinner with a couple from Somerset. I brought along a bottle of Black Hills Roussanne 2015 (rich and full with caramel and tropical fruit flavour – 91). I order snails, salmon and cheesecake. After dinner to the disco to dance to Diana Ross. A final of forgettable red wine before bed. Clocks go forward an hour as we enter a new time zone.

Tuesday, August 15th: We’re docked in Helsinki. We can see the big wheel and the outdoor market about to set up. After breakfast, we board the bus for a tour of the city. All the buildings have black roofs.

Our first stop is Sibelius Park to see the monument to Jean Sibelius (an installation of 600 steel pipes covered with chrome and nickel) by sculptor Eila Hiltunen.

Memorial to Sibelius

Next stop, the Church of the Temple Place. Designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Soumalainen, the church is excavated out of bedrock. The rock of the altar dates back to the Ice Age. The ceiling has a gigantic wheel of copper wine that measures 22 metres.

Interior of the Church of the Temple Place

Final stop, the Lutheran Cathedral.

Lutheran cathedral in Senate Square

We decide to walk back to the boat, which the guide said would take five minutes. Forty minutes later we’re still walking.

map sign: NO DRONE ZONE

Eventually made it. A late lunch with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and then we walk over to the market. Most of the stalls sell rustic artisanal jewelry, elk horn bottle openers and the like, gloves in leather and wool and reindeer rugs.

Grabbed a nap before Dr. Karl Muslis’ lecture on St. Petersburg. He tells us St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 on swamp land, now the beer capital of Russia and home of the world’s largest collection of paintings, the Hermitage.

Today is the 70th anniversary of India’s independence so the buffet tonight is Indian cuisine, washed down with Argentinian Sauvignon Blanc.

Wednesday, August 16th: Woke up at 3 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. A quick breakfast at the coffee bar one deck above our cabin, then joined the immigration line to go ashore for our day’s touring. Our guide from Den Rus is Lyudmila, who used to have her own travel company but now acts as a guide. Our driver, Rudolfo, has a Mercedes so we are comfortably installed in the back.

It’s a beautiful sunny day. Lyudmila says that St. Petersburg only gets 40 days of sunshine a year – so we’re lucky. Our first stop is the main synagogue of St. Petersburg.

Synagogue in St. Petersburg

Pop up souvenir store in St. Petersburg

From there we drive by the Bridge of Kisses (where young couples congregate) and Nabokov’s house (now a museum) and then take a hydrofoil to the Peter and Paul island fortress. On the ride a woman tries to sell passengers guide books and umbrellas decorated with scenes of the city.

Church inside the Peter and Paul fortress

We walk by the Czar’s summer home, “Mon Plaisir,” with its formal gardens and elaborate fountains (including one joke fountain that only operates if you find the right stone to stand on – Czar Peter liked a good joke, apparently. I got rather wet trying to find the activating stone). The palace and the Czar’s summer home stand in 220 acres of formal gardens.

Petrodvorerts church

Next stop is 40 minutes’ drive away – Pushkin Peterhof, where we stop at a memorial to 1,000 Jews who were massacred by the Nazis in 1941. The inscription reads: “Their blood was spilled like water and nobody to bury them.”


Then on to Catherine’s palace. Before we tour the palace, we have a small glass of Stolichnaya in a vodka bar (200 vodkas offered) in a converted water plant; then up to the restaurant for lunch (cole slaw, chicken and rice soup, followed by chicken croquette with cold rice, followed by ice cream and berries).

The Ultimate vodka bar

Grand Cascade at Catharine’s summer palace

Then the highlight of the day, touring the palace of Catharine II, whose walls were painted blue – the same colour as her eyes. The palace has been lovingly recreated following its destruction by the Nazis. Spectacular statuary and onion-shaped domes covered with 24-karat gold. To protect the inlaid wood floors visitors have to wear protective paper over their shoes. The amber room, which we are not allowed to photograph, has walls covered with intricately designed amber pieces which took 25 years to reconstruct. In the house by the artificial lake we sit and listen to a choir of five men sing a traditional Russian song. Then we drive back to the boat and have to go through the immigration process again.

After dinner most of the passengers are bussed to D.D. Shoshtakovich St. Petersburg Academic Philharmonia for a concert performed by the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Kantorov preceded by a welcoming glass of Cavit Lunetta Prosecco.

Thursday, August 17th (Our 20th wedding anniversary): After breakfast, we leave the ship to meet up with Lyudmila and Rudolfo for a tour of the city. Rudolfo drops us at the subway so that we can ride the train and see the stations, all on a 50-ruble token.

St. Petersburg subway station

St. Petersburg subway

Built in 1955, the subway is 100 metres below ground and was difficult to construct because of the marshy ground. The stations are beautifully kept and decorated with huge mosaics.

Mosaic at Komendantskiy Prospekt station, St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg subway map

We get off at Komendantskiy Prospekt, where Rudolfo picks us up to drive to the Czar’s Winter Palace, which is connected to the Small Hermitage, the Big Hermitage and the New Hermitage buildings. Apparently, some 60 cats live in the Hermitage buildings – they’re known as the “Imperial cats” and the locals can adopt them. If they do they get three free admittances to the Hermitage. There is even an Imperial Cat calendar.

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

Mobile toilets, St. Petersburg

Outside the New Hermitage, on the street, is a public washroom which is actually two busses connected with waste pipes. Before entering the Hermitage, we walk along Nevsky Prospekt. The Hermitage, built for the daughter of Peter the Great, was the residence of Russia’s Czars. We visit the room in which the Provisional government was arrested in the October 17th Revolution. Then through many halls of paintings. I ask Lyudmila if there are any Zurbarans in the Hermitage and she leads us to a couple.

Hermitage entrance


Next: to the St. Isaac Cathedral. Construction started in 1818 and finished 40 years later. St Isaac was the patron saint of Peter the Great, on whose saint’s day the czar was born. The huge mosaics look like paintings. Lyudmila tells us that 400 kilos of pure gold were used inside and out.

Next, to the pier for a boat trip along the canals before lunch at the Court of Leningrad, a former law school where Tchaikovsky studied. The menu: borscht, beef stew, mashed potatoes and cole slaw, followed by a gargantuan slice of apple pie and green tea.

Canal cruise, St. Petersburg

Peter and Paul fortress from a hydrofoil on the Neva River

Bolshaya Neva

Next stop: the Faberge Museum to see the eggs (I wanted to ask the girls who handed out the electronic guides where I could find the Faberge hens).

Faberge egg

Our final stop: the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb under his carriage in 1881. His son had the church built as a memorial to his father. The walls are covered with mosaics depicting the life of Christ and his miracles. During World War II officials decided to have it demolished by blowing it up. During the preparations for demolition an unexploded shell was found and there was such an outcry from the citizens of St. Petersburg – the idea that the city was prepared to finish the work that the Nazis had started – that it was decided to restore the church to its former glory, complete with mosaics copied from old photographs.

Church on the Spilled Blood

Back on board we find that our cabin has been decorated with a “Happy Anniversary” banner. We celebrate by dining in the ship’s best restaurant, Prime C.

Our anniversary decorations

cake with Happy Anniversary on it,  with an icing rose and a single candle

In the bar before sitting down at the table we have glasses of David Frost Sauvignon Blanc 2016 from South Africa and Dark Horse Chardonnay 2015 from California. I start with crab cakes, Deborah has tuna tartare, then beetroot salad (Deborah: lobster salad) followed by Chateaubriand, which we share. I brought along a bottle of Checkmate Endgame Merlot 2013 from the Okanagan (deep ruby in colour with a smoky, cedary blueberry nose backed by spicy, vanilla oak; medium-bodied, dry and elegant, richly extracted blueberry flavour; beautifully balanced with ripe tannins with a creamy mouth-feel and a spicy, clovey finish (92)). For dessert, apple soufflé in a hollowed-out apple and then a surprise anniversary cake. To end the evening, on to the dance floor at the discotheque and chatting with a personal injury lawyer from Florida and his Venezuelan wife.

Friday, August 18th: A quiet day on board. Lunch: lamb shank with Ryder Estate Pinot Noir 2014 from California. Stop in for a consultation with Jingbo Miao, a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist. I have a touch of Montezuma’s Revenge so I went to see the ship’s doctor who suggested I spend the evening in our cabin – which means I miss White Night, an outdoor barbecue with entertainment with everyone dressed in white. I have a dinner of consommé and chicken alone.

Saturday, August 19th: Rain this morning. After breakfast, an excursion to Tallinn. Our guide Margit tells us that in Tallinn, “we know it’s summer if the rain is warm.” She tells us proudly that Skype was an Estonian invention, and that Estonia was the first country to introduce electronic voting in 2005.

On the way into town we pass “Fat Margaret,” a 16th-century round tower by the port. Another tower in the upper town is known as Tall Herman.

Estonia was established as an independent state in 1978. On its Independence Day Margit says they parade their “five rusty tanks.” The medieval town of Tallinn, population 45,000, has been recognized as a UNESCO heritage site. We walk along Bloody Street in the upper town, so called because it is very narrow and ladies in their big gown had to rely on their menfolk to fight their way for precedence to pass through. From the lookout over the town we can see two cathedrals.

Cathedral in Tallinn

View of the new town of Tallinn

We walk down Long Leg Street past a shop where Margit says they invented marzipan. We tour the thirteenth-century town hall in the main square and stop in at Peppersack for coffee and cheesecake. Back to the ship for lunch – roast chicken and Trillum Verdejo 2015 from Rioja.


Nut seller in traditional costume, Tallinn

Tallinn’s town hall

Woodwork in the town hall

We are invited to join a table hosted by a ship’s officer for dinner: Alina, a Romanian, is Azamara Journey’s shore excursion officer. We share the table with two other lady passengers and a couple from Bedford in England.

Prime C menu

The wine: Tenuta di Arceno Chianti Riserva 2010.

While Deborah gambles at the slot machines in the Casino I drop even more money by purchasing a Chagall print for our new house.

Sunset at sea

Sunday, August 20th: After breakfast, a lecture by Dr. Karl Misulis entitled “Berlin since Perestroika: Rebuilding a global city.” A dim sum lunch with Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. The weather is fine but windy and there are notices telling us not to go out on deck.

After lunch, a lecture about amber. During the Ice Age the pressure of the glaciers on tree resin created the amber, which to be genuine must be one million years old – petrified resin, “the first jewellery known to mankind.” Amber was given to sailors as a talisman against drowning since it was considered a gift from the value of the same stolen from the Am the sun god. Myrrh is the ancient Hebrew name for amber, apparently. The amber stolen from the Amber Room in the Winter Palace by the Nazis is valued at $155 million. Amber comes in different colours – honey, green, cherry and butterscotch, the colour depending on time, exposure to oxygen and heat.

Dinner: salmon tartare, lamb chops with five spices. I brought along a bottle of Black Hills Chardonnay 2015 from the Okanagan (straw colour; spicy, vanilla ok and melon bouquet; rich, full-bodied, ripe tropical fruit flavours). With the lamb, a glass of Claystone Station Zinfandel 2014.

Monday, August 21st: Deborah’s alarm didn’t go off and we awoke at 7:40 am. We had to be off the boat and on the tour bus at 8 am for the three-hour drive to Berlin. Rushed like made and got on the bus at 7:55.

First stop, apart from a pit stop in a gas station half-way to Berlin, is Schloss Charlottenburg. The castle was built for Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Frederick Wilhelm III, and completed in 1699.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

Our guide, Ulli, tells us Berlin has 40% green spaces with 45,000 trees, each individually numbered. The city’s symbol is a bear and there are many colourful bear statues set in public places.

The bear symbol of Berlin

Brandenburg Gate

Reichstag in chocolate at Fassbender & Rausch chocolatiers

We pass the Victory Tower, photograph the Reichstag, the memorial to the murdered Communists, the Brandenburg Gate, before walking through the Holocaust Memorial – an entire city block of grey stones like immense, unadorned grave stones at differing heights. A very moving experience.

Holocaust memorial, Berlin

Frank Ghery interior of DZ bank

We drop into the DZ Bank in Pariser Platz to see the dramatic Frank Gehry interior. Lunch in a restaurant in the Sony Centre – a medley of German sausages with sauerkraut an a pint of lager.

Sony Centre, Berlin

Visit the German History Museum and stand outside the Friedrich Wilhelm III Museum, from whose steps Hitler addressed the people.

Friedrich Wilhelm III’s museum

Lenin on red square in the German History Museum

Next is a visit to what remains of the wall that divided East and West Berlin, now painted by many artists of varying talents. And finally to see Checkpoint Charlie before the drive back to the boat, arriving at 8 pm.

Remnant of the Berlin Wall

Tuesday, Augut 22nd: After breakfast I attended a lecture by Carl Misulis on “Stockholm and Alfred Nobel.” I join Deborah for a buffet lunch and then start packing, as we arrive in Stockholm tomorrow morning. Deborah plays Bingo and wins the first game, scoring a lot of Azamara souvenir loot. Our last dinner on board. Brought along a bottle of Checkmate Silent Bishop Merlot 2013.

Wednesday, August 23rd: An alarm call at 7am to ensure we got up in time for breakfast before disembarking and taking the bus to Stockholm Airport.

Flew to Frankfurt, where we ran into Julian Hitner, back from a German wine tour. And unbeknownst to us Gurvinder Batia, my friend from Edmonton, was on the same flight to Toronto.


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