Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Russian Waterways - August 2007

My friend Kit and I decided we just had to take a Russian waterways tour linking St. Petersburg and Moscow. Our only serious error was to choose Grand Circle Tours to do it with. Since they're the parent company of our favorite tour company, Overseas Adventure Travel, we figured we couldn't go too far wrong, which just goes to show how wrong we could be! At least we had good weather and a wonderful Tour Manager for the occasion!

We started in Helsinki, Finland, a town with advanced design sensibilities and some wonderful Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture, both of which we love. The first two photos are of the wonderful Art Deco Train Station, designed by Eliel Saarinen

Sibelius monument

The Finns are justly proud of Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957), their most famous composer, so there is a lovely monument to him there, made by sculptor Eila Hiltunen over a four-year period. It consists of about 600 stainless steel tubes, welded together to look rather like a hallucinatory pipe organ, each pipe beautifully textured. The overall effect is nearly organic, along the lines of a birch forest or the aurora borealis.


This is Temppeliaukio, The Church in the Rock, built, or more accurately, excavated from a huge chunk of granite, in 1969. All that can be seen from the street is the saucer-like roof, but the interior is very organic and spiritual. Below is the roof from the inside, all woven copper strands, the main sanctuary and one of the many beautiful walls showing the veining of the rock.


Senaatintori, or Senate Square, was the focus of the town plan drawn up in 1812. Helsinki is a relatively new city, which surprised me, with buildings dating only from the 19th century. Senate Square is dominated by the Lutheran Cathedral, Tuomiokirkko, which began construction in 1830. It was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, who was responsible for much of the city's early development. It was originally called the Nicholas Church, after the Russian Tsar Nikolai I. Engel died i 1840, before the work was completed, and four side towers and two separate pavilions were added by architect E B. Lohrmann by the time it was consecrated in 1852. After Finland gained its independence in 1919, the cathedral's name was changed to the Great Church, and finally came by its present name in 1969.

Along the Helsinki harbor area...

This is the lovely Uspenski Cathedral, built in 1868 to serve the burgeoning Russian Orthodox community. It's still the largest Orthodox church in western Europe. The brick exterior was mostly salvaged from a disused fortress and its cupolas were covered in 22-carat gold.

Esplanade Park

This is the lovely Esplanade Park, a leafy confection linking two of Helsinki's most stylish streets near the harbor. It's lined with restaurants and populated by street entertainers.

While we were there, the Esplanade Park was lined with dozens of bronzes by Manolo Valdes, one of my favorite Spanish artists. These are called "Las Meninas," after the Velasquez painting in the Prado Museum. These sculptures are traveling to various cities and I felt very lucky that we happened upon them in Helsinki.

Next, a tour to Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a 260-year-old sea fortress. Fortification began in 1748 as a defence against the Russians when Finland was under Swedish rule. While it worked for 60 years, it eventually fell to the Russians because they took the overland route instead of approaching from the sea. It remained in Russian hands until Finland became independent in 1917, but it was by then little more than an administrative and logistical center since it had been badly damaged by Anglo-French troops during the Crimean War. Today, a small colony of about 900 people live on the islands year round and it even sports a respected art college.
The old prison...

Suomenlinna, continued

Our perfectly fabulous Guide for this trip, Svetlana Kosheleva, a lovely young lady from St. Petersburg area.

Tallinn, Estonia

After a couple of days in Helskinki, we took the hydrofoil ferry to Tallinn, Estonia, a wonderful medieval city with so much of its historic fabric intact.

Town Hall Square, with its 15th- and 16th-century buildings and towers.

The inside of one of the original limestone bastions, now a haven for sellers of things that tourists simply must have...

Tallinn Lower Town

The first two photos below are the entrance gate to the Lower part of the old medieval city.

A narrow alley by the church
Now quite a distance from the harbor, this used to be the harbor gate in the 14th-century, before the land started to rise. This 16th-century addtion, a stocky cannon tower, became a jail for political prisoners in Tsarist times, and was set on fire during the Russian Revolution.

This colorful 1587 doorway belongs to the house of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, whose patron saint was the African St. Mauritius (his profile can be seen above the door). The Blackheads were an association of Baltic German bachelor merchants, goldsmiths, and intellecturals, founded in 1399 and disbanded only after the Soviet takeover in 1940. They were keen patrons of the art, as well as wild party-throwers...

Tallin Lower Town, continued

OK, so if you know me, you know you're just going to have to look at a lot of buildings...

Check out this cool Art Nouveau facade:

Another view of Town Hall Square

Tallinn Upper Town

Toompea is a windy hill on which the upper part of the old town sits. It was the seat of foreign power and nobility between the 13th century and Estonia's short-lived independence in 1918. Many of the buildings were built after a great fire in 1684 and are more neoclassical than medieval.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, completed in 1900, an unmistakable symbol of Russian authority at the time and still disliked as such by Estonians.

One thing the upper town has in spades, though, is fabulous views...

The back of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Toomkirik, or St. Mary's Cathedral, built by the Danish in the 13th century, although much of the interior was rebuilt after the 1684 fire.


Our view of Tallinn's old town from our hotel window...

Kadriog was an aristocratic seaside resort in Tsarist times. It's still a very leafy, park-filled area of painted wooden houses and groves of trees.

Estonians love singing and this Song Festival Ground has room for an audience of 300,000, while the stage can accommodate 30,000 singers. The National Song and Dance Festival takes place here every five years. In between, it's used for rock and classical music concerts. In 1988, a "Singing Revolution" against the Soviet occupation took place here.
Nearby was an outdoor folk museum where this lovely lady was playing a traditional dulcimer