Sandra Simpson cruises through some 'great' Baltic history.
At 2.03m Russian Tsar Peter the Great was unusually tall for the 18th century so was literally "great" but was also a great thinker — the city of St Petersburg was his vision — and a great joker. But, like any autocrat, he had his nasty moments so his pranks could be amusing or cruel.
The main attraction at his summer residence, the Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland, and his version of Versailles, are the fountains, with 64 gilded beauties in the Grand Cascade alone.
Peter ordered visiting aristocrats to have a good time — and then soaked them with fountains disguised as trees and park benches. Oh, how they must have laughed as the cheap flour they'd used on their wigs (instead of powder) began to turn into glue! Not smiling at Tsar's jokes was not an option.
St Petersburg is the highlight of any Baltic Sea cruise with its palaces, museums, canals and overwhelming sense of history, so having the Oceania Marina tie up there for three full days — most other cruises stop for 2 days, some for only a day — clinched the deal when we were choosing our tour.
To make sure we used the time fully, we booked a private tour before leaving New Zealand and upon arrival were met by Insider Tour guide Irina, a former history teacher, whose knowledge of people, places and dates was astounding, and driver Vladimir and his immaculate Mercedes van.
The 1250-passenger Marina started its 12-day itinerary in Stockholm before heading to Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallinn, Klaipeda, Gdansk, Warnemunde (access port for Berlin and Potsdam), Copenhagen and Bruges, finishing in Amsterdam. Other passengers we spoke to agreed having St Petersburg early in a busy itinerary was the best way of doing it.
Originally held by the Swedes, the marshy, flood-prone islands in the Neva delta were captured by Peter the Great, who then imagined a city, fit to rival anything in Europe — and in 1712 made it his capital.
Building began in 1703 with the island fortress that includes the Peter and Paul Cathedral, until 2012 the tallest building in the city with its 122.5m golden spire. Finished in 1733, the Russian Orthodox cathedral houses royal tombs, including Peter's. It's also where the last of the ruling Romanovs finally came to rest – Nicholas and his family, identified by DNA in 1998, while his mother, who died in her native Denmark in 1928 but wanted to be buried in St Petersburg, "came home" in 2006.
Only 14 of St Petersburg's more than 200 churches were allowed to operate during the Soviet era but most are back in business with the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood a must-see. With its coloured onion domes, it's one of the few buildings that isn't in a European style. The church was built over the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 and its breath-taking interior is a mosaic symphony of saints.
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Catherine the Great, born a Prussian princess, took control of Russia after conspiring in the 1762 coup against her husband, Tsar Peter III (grandson of Peter the Great), who shortly afterwards died in mysterious circumstances. Catherine carried on the modernisations started by Peter the Great but her most enduring legacy is the Hermitage collection.
Buying art by the bushel, in 1764 Catherine built the first Hermitage museum next to the Winter Palace, the royal family's official residence from 1732 to 1917. But the museum was soon full so another building was added, then another — today there are more 3 million objects spread through several buildings. Irina calculated that if she went every day and spent one minute per object it would take her 10 years to see the lot.
Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth ruled in her own right and took a keen interest in the Catherine Palace, which became her summer residence. The palace was named for her mother, as was the Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, Estonia, which Peter also built for his wife (again, after shooing away the Swedes) as a summer retreat.
The hobby of Empress Elizabeth, according to the indefatigable Irina, was "changing gowns" so picnics and hunting parties at the Catherine Palace were a chance to indulge. After her death courtiers found 15,000 dresses, two trunks of silk stockings and 200 pairs of unworn shoes — and the state treasury was empty.
The palace's highlight is the Amber Room, re-created over 24 years after the original, looted by the Nazis in 1941, disappeared in 1945. Ironically, cash from a German company helped purchase the 5.7 tonnes of amber, in 350 shades, to remake the mosaic panels. How it must have shimmered in candlelight.
Many of St Petersburg's historic buildings, including the Catherine Palace, were severely damaged during World War II — the two-year siege of Leningrad, as the city was then known, killed anywhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million people — and there's usually a photo display in the buildings to show the destruction.
In Gdansk, Poland, the photo display is in the main street and makes for sombre viewing – more than 90 per cent of the city, then called Danzig, was destroyed, including by Allied bombing. The 17th-century buildings that make central Gdansk look like something from a fairytale are an illusion, carefully reconstructed in the 1950s and 1960s (though no German architecture has been re-created).
Daniel Fahrenheit was born here in 1686 and there's a thermometer and barometer on the Royal Route to commemorate him, while the Gdansk Crane beside the Motlawa River was the largest in medieval Europe, operated by men in 'hamster wheels' who could hoist two tonnes at a time, and testimony to the city's glory days as a Hanseatic League trading centre for grain.
There's another "great" waiting in Potsdam — Frederick the Great of Prussia. A military genius and a renowned flute player and composer, he was mercilessly bullied by his father to the extent that the young man and his best friend, and possible lover, tried to flee to England. Dear old dad hauled them back and sentenced Frederick to death, commuting it at the last moment in favour of his friend. And, of course, his son was made to watch the beheading.
Ascending the throne in 1740, Frederick ordered a garden in Potsdam in 1744 to grow grapes, figs and plums, saw the view and decided to build the small, charming summer palace that is Sanssouci (Without a Care).
Before his death at Sanssouci in 1786 aged 74, Frederick made clear he was to be buried on the garden's top terrace, beside 11 of his beloved greyhounds. Instead, for 205 years he lay next to his hated father — including in a Potsdam church and a salt mine — before German reunification in 1990 finally saw his wish granted.
Instead of flowers, admirers leave potatoes on his headstone, a way of thanking der Kartoffelkonig (the Potato King) who cajoled, tricked and, finally in 1756, ordered his subjects to grow the root vegetable, providing him with something nearby rulers didn't have — a well-nourished army and a happy, well-fed population.
As happy, well-fed cruise ship passengers we understood completely.
The cruising advantage
Arriving in St Petersburg by cruise ship simplifies the Russian visa process — the cruise company does paperwork for those booked on its trips, otherwise your private tour company does it. Getting through passport control the first day was a little slow, as we'd been warned, but after that it was a breeze.
Travelling in a small group means moving faster than a large bus group, including at entry points and with a private tour you can tailor the itinerary (we swapped an art gallery for the Faberge Museum).