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Sunday, July 15, 2007, in a small anchorage among the islands in Finland

Hi everyone. Last week, we’d just arrived in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and now we’ve just returned to Finland. This will be a kind of long note, because we did a lot this week. I promise I won’t do this to you every week.

We’d gone through the formalities with Russian Customs and Passport Control with the help of our agent, Vladimir. We’d been communicating with him for months and he’d given us good instructions on the paperwork we’d need and how to sail into Russian waters, and he accompanied Art into the Customs office, which is always a big help when you’re in a new country. The Customs guys wear hats that are a normal shape for a military cap, but for some reason they’re very big. Vladimir told us later that there’s no standard for the size of the Russian military cap, so each branch of the service makes its own designs, and each one wants to have the biggest hat. So the hats are almost comical, and all of the military personnel look like they have tiny heads.

Then there was our dock. It worked out well, but it wasn’t a very traditional marina. It’s behind the convention center, LenExpo. At first, I thought that the convention center was named after Lenin (and there had been a big economics conference there earlier this year: take that, Lenin!). But it wasn’t that; the center was named for the city, Leningrad. It’s only been called Saint Petersburg again in the last ten or fifteen years. For that big conference, they��d taken out the docks and let the harbor freeze, and then they���d had a big ice skating show with some of the country���s top professional skaters. There was never a conference going on during our visit, so we got to walk around in the building by the big, empty conference area.

There weren’t a lot of amenities there, no laundry, no sauna (boo hoo), and no showers, but we have mostly everything we need on board. The onshore bathrooms were the ones in the convention center and they were immaculately clean. There was also a handy ATM right in the center of the building. We had to take a “trolleybus” ride into town, those buses that are powered by overhead electrical wires.

We had our first meal in Russia on the conference center grounds, directed there by a worker who didn’t speak English. In the restaurant, not a single soul spoke English either. This was the restaurant for an international conference center, so this wasn’t promising for finding English speakers anywhere else.

Once we’d found our way into town, we took a walk along a route recommended by one of our guidebooks. This walk began at Palace Square, flanked by some of Saint Petersburg’s most famous and most beautiful buildings. This includes the Winter Palace, built by Peter the Great, embellished by his granddaughter Empress Elizabeth, and finally added to by her successor, Catherine the Great. The Palace now houses the Hermitage Museum, which we toured later in the week.

This walk also took us by the Alexander Column, an 1812 structure that commemorates the victory of the Russian army over Napoleon, designed (ironically) by a Frenchman, and the General Staff Building across the square, with its triumphal arch crowned by a bronze Winged Victory, riding in a chariot drawn by six horses and flanked by warriors. There were doubts that the arch could support the large statue, so the architect sat on top of it when they took the scaffolding down. He proclaimed that if the arch fell, hed fall with it. It hasn’t fallen yet.

Jack stood at the triumphal arch and looked at the long, admirable wall of the Winter Palace and noted that you could take any six columns of the façade and make a beautiful palace out of just that. Yet this façade was three or four times that width. Our walk took us across wrought-iron footbridges and along canals. Though Saint Petersburg once comprised 101 islands, many have been filled in, and today’s city covers 42 islands, linked by 432 pedestrian, automobile, and railway bridges. In fact, Saint Petersburg has more bridges than any city in the world, including Venice or Amsterdam, and 315 of them are in the downtown area alone.

While we walked around many of the city’s most famous and picturesque spots, we encountered brides everywhere we went, and every day of the week. It turns out that there’s a tradition to get bridal photographs at all of the famous spots. There’s apparently also a tradition to drink champagne at each one and break the glass there. The young women in town are very fashion conscious, and at least in Saint Petersburg, they’re not very shy about showing off their skin in the summertime. The young men we passed all had the rugged looks of Mikhail Baryshnikov, blue eyes and a broad forehead. But apparently they all grow up and begin to look more like Boris Yeltsin.

Our walk culminated in a visit to the Church on Spilled Blood. Commissioned by Alexander III to commemorate the assassination of his father, Alexander II, the church was built from 1883 to 1907. It had originally been built as a place of contemplation for the Tsar, but the Bolsheviks opened the doors to the public. Its condition deteriorated, and by the time Stalin closed all churches in the 1930s, it was used as a storage facility for potatoes and theater sets. Finally, someone with vision in the Soviet Union decided to restore it. So it took 24 years to build and 27 more to restore. The interior boasts 7000 square meters of mosaics. But the outside is the most thrilling part of experiencing this church, with its onion-topped domes and mosaic panels all around.

On Tuesday, our agent Vladimir took us for a tour around the city. The Peter and Paul fortress and the Peter and Paul Church in the same location were the first architectural marks that Peter the Great placed in his new city when he founded it in 1703. This church would fit in anywhere in the Netherlands, borrowing a façade that is common there. The museum shop is crowded with a replica of Peter the Great’s sailing ship, which has the side leeboards of Dutch vessels. Peter had several loves, and one was sailing and shipbuilding.

The fortress was the first major building in Saint Petersburg, built as a defense against the Swedes but breached before it was even finished. It served as a prison until 1917. In fact, Peter the Great incarcerated his own son there. Paranoid that Alexei was trying to steal his throne, Peter had him brought back to Russia and then he was tortured, with the knowledge of his father, until he died.

The church holds the entire dynasty of Romanovs, all in marble tombs, and including the recently-found remains of Nicholas II and his family. Peter the Great, his second wife Catherine, and his daughter hold the best positions at the front and have coffins made of semi-precious marble.

At noon, we were a little startled by cannon fire. The cannons go off every day at the same time, a tradition begun by Peter the Great. We had lunch at a bakery that would have been at home in any of the great cities of Europe, right in the neighborhood where Dostoyevsky lived and set the story for “Crime and Punishment.”

As Vladimir drove us around the city, we passed the Artillery Church, with its gate made of cannon muzzles, and the Smolny Institute and Church. The monastery of this cathedral became a school for women under Catherine the Great, later moved to larger quarters in a separate building. The Bolsheviks took over the Institute in 1917, and installed their Revolutionary Committee. The inscription “Workers of the world, unite” is on a pavilion at its entrance. Because Saint Petersburg was the home of the Tsar and all of Russia’s government, the Bolshevik Revolution started there, not in Moscow. There’s an obelisk marking the exact spot where the October Revolution took place.

The church is sand-castle eye-popping, with blue Baroque features. There’s lots of Baroque architecture in Saint Petersburg, and Vladimir showed us some of the distinctions between different variations. We took our photos and lumbered back into the car, where Vladimir drove us back out to the street. With our brains still filled with the ornamental buildings of the Smolny, he indicated a flat, brown, concrete structure across the street. He referred to that style of architecture as “Stalin baroque.”

We finally went to Saint Isaacs Cathedral. We couldn’t help asking to see it, as its shiny dome and surrounding statues dominated the skyline across the Neva River every time we came to town. In fact, 100 kilograms of gold leaf were used to cover the 21.8 meter (70 foot) dome alone. Unfortunately, the design of the church was given in 1818 as a patronage assignment by Alexander I to someone who was a designer but not an architect, and, as the real architects in town gleefully pointed out, there were some serious design flaws. The cathedral took so long to build (40 years) that Tsar Nicholas I took the opportunity to improve the structure over its original design, at great cost. Its construction cost ten times what it cost to build the Winter Palace, and that’s a big, ornamental building. The French designer’s last wish was to be buried in the Cathedral, but Nicholas I refused to bury a Roman Catholic in an Orthodox church, and considered it too high an honor for a mere artisan anyway.

We decided to devote all of our next day’s energy to the Hermitage Museum, so we took the trolley into town. We’d found a restaurant with a business lunch that looked interesting. The restaurant was called Stroganoff Steak House, housed in the old stables of Nicholas I, and it was very English-language-friendly. It’s true that we’d like to shy away from restaurants with lots of tourist infrastructure. Some guidebooks smugly tell you never to go to restaurants where the menus have pictures of the food or where the menus have English translations. That’s all fine for guidebook writers, whom I assume speak the local language, but when you’re lost in both the words and the alphabet of a country, being in the local luncheonette with people who offer good food but don’t speak any English is very frustrating. There were lots of local people there, though, most in business attire, so we knew that it would be tourist-friendly and good anyway.

Our meal was special. We began with Russian salad, served attractively in a cylindrical tower garnished with a hard-boiled egg, and containing potatoes, peas, chicken and other seasonings held together with mayonnaise. Jack, the nonconformist, had a green salad, proclaiming it delicious. For the main course, all but Art tried the beef stroganoff, a dish originally created by the chef to the Stroganov family, whose palace was nearby. I don’t know if I’d ever actually had the dish with original ingredients of mushrooms and sour cream, or if my only previous experiences with it had been made with Campbell’s undiluted cream of mushroom soup (no offense, Mom). Art said that his sausage was delicious, too. We also tasted kvas, a mildly alcoholic beverage made from beets. Throughout our meal, we heard toast after toast being given at a long banquet table in the next room, and after each toast, everyone at the table gulped down a vodka.

Then we visited the Hermitage Museum, which began as Catherine the Great’s collection of arts and antiquities. Now the museum takes up the buildings she’d dedicated to it as well as the entire Winter Palace, which was the residence of the tsars. We began by walking up the Jordan Staircase, a marble structure that takes you up two flights, one direction and then the other, a staircase that makes the one at Tara look a little ordinary. The sculptures that decorate its sidelines were brought back from Italy by Peter the Great.

Though the collection is extensive, and though only about five percent of the holdings are on display at any one time, the building itself competes with the displays inside it and often wins the competition. We started in some of the state rooms, including the gilded, enormous ballroom called Armorial Hall, and the Great Throne Room, where the floors are inlaid in sixteen different species of wood and the designs mirror the gold designs on the ceiling.

Further along, we examined the Impressionist and post-impressionist art collections, and then we regrouped and tried to find the Malachite Hall, where two tons of columns, boxes, bowls and urns are in malachite. It was closed, though, so we visited the Russian antiquities wing instead, in awe over Neolithic and Bronze Age artifacts from the region, including some intact petroglyphs, which are pictures carved in stone. By the time the museum closed at six o’clock, we were all out of energy and satisfied that we’d seen just about as much as we’d wanted to see.

The next day, nothing was on the schedule until the ballet in the evening. We used the day to explore our neighborhood around the convention center. First, we visited the supermarket by foot. Vladimir had taken us there at the end of our day tour, but there’s always a reason to take a trip to the market. It was in a small mall with an electronics shop, some clothing boutiques, a shoe store; it looked like any small, new mall in any town in Europe or the US. On our walk back, we stopped at a café about midway between our boat and the market.

A family-run establishment, this was a café/restaurant during the day, a night club, with karaoke and live entertainment at night, and nestled between the two dining rooms was the door to a hair salon. So you could relax with a cup of coffee and a pastry while you got primped, and never even venture out into the rain to go out partying in the evening.

The ballet was our opportunity to dine at a restaurant in town and dress up. Sammie and I donned nearly identical long black dresses, Jack looked dapper in his silk shirt, and even Art relented and dressed up a bit. Vladimir had suggested a restaurant called the Pushka Inn, a play on words about the famous writer Pushkin.

Our meal began with vodka, served in shot glasses. Men are supposed to drink their shots in one quick gulp, but nobody at our table did that. Art and I shared a serving, and even I could tell that the Russian Standard Platinum vodka was silky smooth. Our first course was blini, crepes served with chopped onion, red caviar, and sour cream, or cold beet borscht, garnished with hard boiled egg and sour cream, or marinated Baltic herring. For main courses, Jack had a rabbit casserole, Sammie a pork dish covered with cheese and a shrimp sauce, Art had pike perch, a local fish, and I ordered patties of beef and pork served with a side of kasha. Yes, the Russians call it kasha, but they don’t serve it with bowties. For dessert, we had black forest cake. Of all the desserts on the menu, this one had the least fruit (fruit wasn’t the main ingredient, at any rate) and the most chocolate (which is to say, any.)

The ballet was held in a side theater of the Hermitage Museum, and there was no doubt that this sort of performance was for tourists only. The dancers were real Russian ballet people, though, and the venue was obviously the eighteenth-century equivalent of a screening room for a palace, so the event was all fine with us. The ballet was Giselle, with its very implausible story about a common girl who was so horrified that her fiancé had deceived her by not admitting to be a prince that she went insane and died. In any case, the dancers were lithe and graceful, the choreography was magnificent, the costumes were magical, and we all brushed away tears at the end of the performance.

Our next day’s destination was Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. We took our usual number 10 trolleybus to the city, and picked up the hydrofoil ferry that takes you there. The day wasn’t expected to be sunny, and it began to drizzle as soon as we arrived. Luckily, we got ourselves situated in the restaurant just before the downpour, and it stopped just as we finished our lunch.

The entry to the main palace is a stunning arcade of fountains, designed in part by Peter the Great himself, and fed by gravity. Though the Germans never took all of Saint Petersburg in World War II, they did manage to take over Peterhof. Stalin’s scorched-earth policy led him to remove everything that wasn’t nailed down and bomb the rest of it, but the Nazis moved in anyway, and used the intricately carved wood panels in Peter’s study as firewood.

In front of the palace is a large gold fountain of Samson tearing apart the jaws of a lion, symbolizing Peter’s victory in 1710 over the Swedes. There are cascades and 140 fountains in front of the palace in all. Some of the fountains were trick fountains, designed to drench the unfortunate passerby who sat on the bench that triggered it.

The palace itself was lavish, and the great staircase, while not the size of the one in the Winter Palace (after all, summer is short in Russia), was every bit as ornamental, and almost garish. At the head of the stairs were four large statues (that certainly melted into the background of the large landing), symbolizing the Four Seasons. Apparently the Winter statue is the only one that isn’t a reconstruction, according to the proud woman who was overseeing that area of the museum. Musicians along the entrance gardens had been playing Vivaldi���s Four Seasons as we came in.

We walked through the twenty rooms of the museum, one after another lavishly decorated with no evident purpose. Over one of the large halls presided a large portrait of what turned out to be Catherine the Great. At first glance, we’d all thought that it was Peter the Great.

Several other buildings were on the premises, but Art and Jack had been so diligent about spending all of their Russian rubles and leaving just enough for the tram back to the boat that we had no money to get in anywhere else. We were able to walk around the grounds a bit before finding a hydrofoil to take us back.

It was time to leave, and in the morning, we got to Customs at their opening time, went through the formalities with no trouble, and headed out of the harbor, with a Customs agent watching the boat, presumably to make sure that we did indeed leave.

We knew the weather wasn’t going to be ideal; the forecast was for winds in our face, but not that strong, and cloud cover making it a little cool. But the winds continued to increase as the day wore on, until they were about 28 knots and we were pounding into seas. And the clouds became rain every so often. The direction of the winds thwarted our plan to go to Estonia, so we decided to head back to Finland. By midday, I was down below, and by mid-afternoon, both Jack and I were completely seasick. Sammie has an iron constitution, and she stayed in the cockpit until the wee hours of the morning, whiling away her watch by reading. READING. I was down below, and I couldn’t even muster the wherewithal to look at my watch. Art was up, too, and though he wasnt sick, he couldn’t putter below even when he had to. And he did have to.

For example, we discovered places for water to come into the boat in rough weather. One was a vent in the forward cabin, which drenched the sheets in the vee berth. Another was probably a gooseneck in the main cabin, through which water seeped in and dripped all over our dinette and table. Yet a third was in the engine room. These weren’t leaks; they were just places where water could get in when waves toppled over the boat in buckets.

By morning, we were all dreaming of the quiet little anchorage where we’d had dinner out in the cockpit the night before we left for Russia. We were within two hours of getting to it when a Finnish Coast Guard boat ran us down. Had we cleared into Finland? No. We had intended to clear in when we got to Helsinki. Apparently were not really allowed even to sail in Finnish waters before we clear in officially, let alone anchor out for the night. The nearest place that we could clear in was about an hour away, off of our course. We had no choice but to go there. The Coast Guard station itself was too shallow for us, but our Coast Guard guy said that he’d come out and process us on our own boat. We were happy about that, at least. They came out in an inflatable and were somewhat friendly about the whole situation, considering that we had been breaking maritime laws. They gave Art a little English-language booklet about what we’re supposed to do, and Art almost mentioned that we already had one, until he thought better of it. Clearly, we hadn’t read it.

So we lost two more hours in our quest for a calm anchorage, but it was indeed calm and empty when we finally approached it. The whole trip took about twenty-six hours. We dug in our anchor, put the boat back together, had a quiet lunch, and everyone slept but me. I’d been doing nothing but sleeping for the last twenty-four hours.

So now we’re in our quiet anchorage, and we have no idea what we’re doing for the rest of the week. But we’re all really happy that our visit to Saint Petersburg went so well, and that our overnight sails for the season are behind us. We hope you’re all doing great, and hope to hear from you soon.

Love, Art and Karen