Monday, 19 July 2010

Final ports of call

The approach to Norway is very picturesque as we sail through narrow channels observing quaint and colourful wooden buildings perched high on rocky outcrops close to the water. The weather is somewhat cooler than we have been used to as we arrive in Oslo and for the first time in 10 days the skies are overcast. Nonetheless, the city looks welcoming and very manageable for walking. We first head towards the Royal Palace which is in the city centre then meander down the wide main avenue through to the lively shopping areas. Its a nice mixture of old and new and it seems to be quite a relaxed place. This was the home of the artist Edvard Munch so its quite surprising how such an intense painting as 'The Scream' was ever created here. The next day we visit Kristiansand which is far more traditional with its white washed weatherboard homes. It is smaller and less sophisticated than Oslo but is similarly positioned in a scenic harbour which we enjoy as we start to begin our journey back to Southampton.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Helsinki smiles!

Although Helsinki in Finland is only a few hours away from St Petersburg the atmosphere is completely different. While St Petersburg appeared to be quite serious and austere, Helsinki on the other hand is clearly a relaxed and happy city. The locals are extremely friendly and keen to assist newcomers in experiencing the very best they had to offer. As trams bustle around the streets, it reminds us very much of Melbourne, as does some of the art deco architecture around the harbour that is similar to St Kilda. The warm weather (high 20s) saw many market stalls setting up around the docks area while sidewalk cafes lined city streets. On the harbour there are plenty of boats taking tourist groups around the coast. We spend several hours in the design district, which is home to dozens of great shops selling a wonderful range of Finnish products. If only we had more room in our suitcases!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Russian around in St. Petersburg

The weight of social and political history that surrounds St Petersburg is quite overwhelming when we finally arrive at our furthest destination. From the days of Peter the Great to the Russian Revolution, you can see that it is a city that continues to live through significant periods of change. As we tour around we can see many grand buildings in the centre but also sprawling residential and industrial constructions that seem to go on for ever ... it is a huge place! Our Russian guide is Polokov, who takes us to the major spots that represent the significant events of a bygone era such as Isaacs Cathedral, the Rostral Columns and the Battleship Aurora whose guns signalled the start of the Russian Revolution. Of course, the highlight for us is the Hermitage, which is no longer a palace for the Czars but one of the great art museums of the world. We arrive early the next day with our tour group in order to beat the rush of tourists to view a magnificent collection of works that would certainly rival the Louvre in Paris. With more than 2.7 million works of art on show, we only begin to scratch the surface after several hours. We do our best to lose our group in order to explore more of it alone, but to our disappointment, we are eventually found.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Estonia surprises!

We have absolutely no preconceived ideas of what to expect when we reach Tallinn, Estonia. Upon approaching, we are able to see two distinct sides to the town ... the modern industrial sector with its high rise buildings and a quaint traditional quarter with its numerous spires from the many cathedrals. We decide to limit ourselves to the old town and are pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the cobble stoned streets which are lined with restored buildings leading to flourishing piazza styled squares. Clearly the tourist dollar arrived many years ago and free enterprise is now flourishing. There are plenty of market stalls, restaurants and shops, each with a friendly local eager to usher you in. We avoid temptation and continue to follow the numerous lanes that lead you in and around the old walled city, eventually reaching Toompea Castle. Perched on the steepest slope of the hill, it provides a panoramic view of the city and we are able to sit under shady trees and sip a nice cool drink while I complete a quick sketch. In the distance, we can see the docks and even more cruise ships arriving and as we walk back down, the lanes are packed. Tallinn has well and truly been discovered by every possible nation and is making up for lost time after gaining its independence from Soviet rule. It's not surprising that this picturesque old town has been given UNESCO World Heritage status as it is now clearly a major tourist hot spot.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Keeping cool in Stockholm

We are welcomed to Stockholm, Sweden with clear blue skies and sparkling waters. Remarkably high temperatures remain with us as the thermometer again reaches into the mid 30s. This further enhances the beauty of this city with its combination of modern and grand old buildings that hug its extensive waterways. We explore the cobbled streets of the old town before going in our own directions. Jules checks out the local shopping and the Royal Palace, while I walk across the island footbridge to the Moderna Museet. This is another nice gallery with several significant works by Matisse, Dali and Picasso. We agree to meet in the afternoon and to visit the Absolut Ice Bar which is quite an experience. We sip vodka cocktails from a large ice cube while leaning on a bar totally constructed from blocks of solid ice in a room that was at a temperature of -5 degrees. Although we had been given woolly ponchos and gloves, we could only last 20 minutes and were quite relieved to eventually step back into the warmth of the Nordic sun. The journey out of the harbour was as picturesque as Stockholm itself. The estuary was stunning with giant granite boulders that dropped straight into the clear waters that are set against a heavily wooded backdrop ... picture perfect!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Seeing the light in Copenhagen

After about a day and a half at sea we arrived at the picturesque city of Copenhagen in Denmark. We are quite surprised by the warm temperature that greets us (above 30 degrees) as we take the short walk along its Langaline Pier into town. As the sun shines, the centre of the city is buzzing with numerous canal cafes crammed with patrons, while street musicians celebrate the Copenhagen Jazz Festival and add to the happy atmosphere. We walk along the shopping street called Stroget, browsing around the many shops that display wonderful Danish design. We also take some time to inspect the newly renovated Royal Palace for Australia's very own Princess Mary and the future King of course. As Palaces go, it is very livable with some interesting creative touches provided by several leading contemporary Danish artists. Another pleasant surprise is the NY Glyptotek which is a gallery that includes an excellent collection of early Impressionists works and other modern masters. After being inspired by these, I indulge in a bit of sketching while Jules climbs to the top of the Rundetarn for a great view of the city. The tower is one of the tallest and oldest buildings in the city centre and houses a fully functioning observatory. She returns thrilled by the opportunity to actually view the sun through the giant telescope, something that not many of us can say we have done.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Back to where it all began

We arrived back in London and it's like visiting an old friend. The circumstances may have changed but the underlying character of this wonderful city remains the same. After all, it was here that our adventure began over fifteen months ago. It's great to be back yet again, even if it is just for a short while. We hop on the tube with such confidence these days, barely glancing at the underground map as we dart around to familiar spots that leap straight from the monopoly board. It's a busy schedule, as we catch up with family and friends, while the mid year summer sales tempt us to add to our ever increasing luggage weight. We find some time to catch a West End play (Prisoner of Second Avenue with Jeff Goldblum) and we finally visit the Saatchi Gallery (it was closed on our previous visit). All of these pleasantries prevent us thinking too much about what we have left behind in Paris and the challenges that lay ahead. The deception continues as we head to Southampton to board the Queen Victoria for a very indulgent cruise of the Baltic ocean.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Au Revoir Paris

On Saturday night we spent our final evening in Paris. We sat perched on a park bench close to the Eiffel tower sipping champagne in celebration of a truly remarkable year. Tomorrow we would say goodbye to our cosy little apartment and board the Eurostar for London, so we were feeling quite reflective about the many wonderful people we had met and memorable places we had seen during the course of the year. As usual the place was buzzing with tourist excitement that was further heightened by the added ingredient of the world cup being televised on the big screen across the Seine at Trocadero. As we watched the hourly twinkle of lights on the tower and analysed our mixture of emotions, we would be occasionally distracted by the distant raw of the crowd watching the Spain v Paraguay game. At its conclusion the Spanish supporters emerged singing, dancing and waving their red and yellow flags. Clearly they had won! Their noisy celebrations near to where we were sitting signalled it was now time to shoot the last of our photos and take a final lazy stroll back to Rue de Javel. One chapter had ended, but another was about to begin.