The sea is in the blood of the Baltic cities. Every one of them has a history of formidable sea battles, the creation of navies or medieval trading empires. They are graced by canals and bridges and lined with rustic log cabins, fondant-coloured townhouses or noble palaces. On Fred Olsen’s Braemar, I was to visit some of the best: Warnemunde and Rostock in former East Germany, Turku and Helsinki in Finland, Copenhagen and – the undisputed jewel in the Baltic crown – St Petersburg.
This was, though, a cruise with a twist. I was once told – and I can well believe it given the quantities of food available night and day – that the average cruise leads to a weight gain of around half a stone. Fred Olsen Cruise Lines may, though, have come up with a secret weapon. It has teamed up with the Ramblers Cruise & Walk Holidays so that on some cruises instead of bus trips and in many instances simply looking out of the window, you can stride off boldly with a group of newfound friends for guided walks that help keep the pounds at bay.
So at the first port, Warnemunde, rather than heading for the excursion buses, 30 Ramblers with leaders Alec and Gwen made for the station and boarded the double-decker local train to historic Rostock. After a leisurely stroll into town we met our guide Johannes who took us on a two-hour walk through market squares and cobbled streets, past the houses of wealthy medieval merchants and to St Mary’s Church and the world’s oldest working astronomic clock and calendarium – it tells you the time, the Zodiac month, the date, the phase of the moon, the time of sunrise and how to calculate Easter!
But this wasn’t what Ramblers would call a walk. After the tram and train back to Warnemunde, we were off along the coast, first on the promenade then on a sandy path through the forest to – all good intentions overturned – coffee and cake in a local restaurant.
The next two stops were both in Finland where for me the highlight was Helsinki’s Ice Hotel. It may be housed in a rather unprepossessing aircraft hangar of a building but inside, you enter the twilight world of the Arctic winter. There are rides on husky sleighs, rinks for a quick game of ice hockey, icy slopes for toboganning and Father Christmas’s log cabin. Everything is made of ice. The hotel’s rooms are igloos with ice beds (you sleep in double thickness sleeping bags). But I wasn’t staying so made do with a shot of cranberry vodka at the ice bar – in an ice glass, of course.
After a day at sea – packed with quizzes (the Ramblers turned out to be highly competitive!), foxtrot lessons, and brisk walks on deck to keep up our walking quota, we arrived in St Petersburg. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site. Often called the Venice of the North, it is built on numerous islands on the River Neva, criss-crossed by bridges and canals and lined with 18th century palaces. The ship moored in the very heart of the city, two blocks from the Hermitage on the appropriately named English Embankment.
Here, I discovered another Ramblers’ Cruise & Walk benefit. In Russia, most passengers are restricted to the ship’s visa and can only go on specific organised excursions. As Ramblers we all had our own visas so we were indeed free to ramble. With three full days, we started in Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Russian Baroque palace on the Gulf of Finland, famed for its cascades of fountains that rival Versailles.
Back in the city, we went to St Isaac’s Cathedral and, of course, the Hermitage. One of the world’s greatest art galleries, its five buildings were created by Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. We sauntered down Nevsky Prospekt and visited the extraordinary Church of the Spilt Blood, built in the unmistakable Russian style that is simultaneously magnificent and childlike, a kind of baroque gilded gingerbread.
When the Empress Elizabeth built Catherine’s Palace, she extended an invitation to all of the important European ambassadors to visit her “little toy”. Painted blue and white, covered in gilt and reached via the massive Golden Gates, inside it’s a riot of white Carrera marble, gilded carvings, priceless porcelain and crystal chandeliers. The Great Hall mimics the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. The Amber Room, made entirely of 25 different varieties of the precious material, is mooted as an eighth wonder of the world. There are silk-covered walls, a Wedgwood Room, stoves made of Delft tiles and countless precious objects, artworks and furniture. Not bad for a “little toy”.
Our last port was Copenhagen where we had another wonderfully central mooring, minutes from the Little Mermaid statue and a stroll along the waterfront into town. We walked from one end of the city to the other through Botanical Gardens, up towers and down pedestrianized streets filled with superb Danish design. After busy St Petersburg, Copenhagen is laid back, full of tranquil parks set around royal palaces, though it gets livelier around the canals and the famous hippy colony at Christiania. The former merchants’ houses and warehouses are painted pastel colours and cafés spill out on to the streets, busy with people soaking up the last of the autumn sunshine.
On our last day at sea, the Ramblers Cruise & Walk group indulged in a special high tea complete with scones and cream – so much for good intentions. But all that walking must have paid off. At least, the scales didn’t deliver quite such a shock as they might have done when I got home.
www.ramblersholidays.co.uk/cruise-and-walk 01707 386 767
www.fredolsencruises.com 01473 742424