From Russia to Finland

When we awoke on Sunday morning, we had left the European Union behind and entered a country that most of us couldn’t have dreamed of visiting even ten years ago: Russia. Nowadays St. Petersburg, which sits at the mouth of the Neva river and the Baltic Sea, is a popular port of call for cruise ships. We were one of at least four (at my count) ships docked at St. Petersburg when we arrived.

Perhaps to make those countless stories about Russians waiting in eternally long lines hit home, every entrance and exit from our ship onto Russian soil required waiting in a line, usually a pretty long one. Clearly this was a different country than any I’ve visited before, a point hammered home by the Cyrillic writing on the signs and the still-clear signs of 70 years of Communist rule. (To see all the photos that go with this blog entry, visit Mac Mania 3.5 photo gallery 3.

Still, St. Petersburg is full of dramatic sights. As a city on several rivers, there are lots of waterways spanned by lots of bridges, and it seems that there’s a canal around every corner. Shiny gold onion domes top Russian Orthodox churches. And hordes of capitalists at every turn, trying to make money off of busloads of western tourists.

Different cruise groups took different tours of St. Petersburg. (Without a tour, you would have to spend the time and money to seek a Russian tourist visa, which brave Macworld contributor Ben Long did.) Ours took a tour of the city before entering the Hermitage, a building that would be among the world’s finest based solely on its own merits — but one which also happens to contain one of the finest art collections in the world. Built for the Czars and Czarinas as their Winter Palace, the Hermitage is decorated in gold leaf, with spectacular painted archways meticulously copied from the Vatican and immaculate doors, ceilings, and walls.

Large parts of it aren’t air conditioned, which in this part of Russia is probably not a major problem. But we have been very lucky with the weather on this Cruise, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. And the Hermitage is a very popular museum, packed with people. As a result, the museum was stuffy and hot. After a couple of hours that featured names like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Monet, and Manet, several of us (some toting small children) formed an Escape Committee and, with a minor amount of drama, repaired to the large square outside of the Hermitage for a nice Russian ice cream pop purchased from one of the numerous vendors on the site. Those who chose not to escape, but preferred to view more French impressionist paintings, joined us later — but no ice cream for them.

Sunday we woke up to the oddity that many of us had expected for some time: it was the Fourth of July, and here we were… in Russia! Talk about a confluence of events you’ll never forget. Our Independence Day activity was to visit Peterhof, the Czar’s Summer Palace. A modest dacha by the seashore this is not. Instead, it’s a massive palace, even more beautiful buildings that flaunted the Czar’s massive wealth. Peterhof was impressive on the inside, but frankly, I was more impressed with the grounds, which feature hundreds of fountains, all powered by gravity, from a series of pools on the estate.

Upon returning to the ship, we shifted gears from Russia to America. The crew of the Westerdam was kind enough to put on a good old-fashioned American barbecue around the swimming pool, and we took advantage, finding a bit of Fourth of July spirit far, far from home. Hamburgers, baked beans, hot dogs, chicken — the works.

Our visit to Helsinki, Finland, on Tuesday was comparatively short — only about eight hours. It must’ve been the hottest day of the year, or close to it, as temperatures were easily in the 80s. The beaches and parks were packed with sunbathers, honestly not the sight I expected to see when visiting Finland for the first time. Ferries were everywhere, taking tourists and locals alike to small islands that are part of Helsinki and are popular as parks, especially on warm days like this one.

We took a bus tour around Helsinki’s pretty downtown, including two interesting Lutheran churches. One, near the center of town right off of Senate Square, is a majestic cathedral. The other, further outside of the main downtown area, was built in 1969 and was carved out of rock. During our bus tour, I took advantage of a tip I got during the Fourth of July barbecue from David Pogue: iPod Shuffles loaded with kids’ music are great at distracting kids when they get bored. I was smart enough to bring a Shuffle loaded with my daughter’s favorite music, and so I heeded David’s advice and brought it along on our bus tour. Sure enough, my toddler got bored with the audio tour description in a hurry, but she enjoyed listening to her songs on the Shuffle.

When we returned from our day in Helsinki — after my wife bought a Smurfi soda entirely based on the fact that there were Smurfs on the label, which was unfortunate since pear-flavored Smurfi is one of the most vile drinks ever known to exist on planet Earth — we went up to the pool deck for a late lunch. It turns out that the pool deck on the ship offers AirPort access, so you can sit by the pool and check your e-mail, rather than venturing down to the more staid environment at the ship’s Internet Cafe. In both locations, though, I notice a whole lot of PowerBooks. There’s no doubt whose operating system wears the pants on this particular ship.

Next up for us is a country that actually has its own edition of Macworld , even though they insist on capitalizing the W in Sveriges MacWorld . On to Stockholm, Sweden!

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