Touring the Gulf of Finland

00.59 Onsdag, 24 April, 2013

This past weekend, I went on a(nother) cruise with a few other exchange students from KTH.  This cruise was a 4-night cruise with St. Peter Line, which stopped in Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia), and Helsinki (Finland).  Don’t forget to check out the updated ‘Places I’ve Been’ map!

Steering the ship!

Just wait until Moscow finds out the Americans have one of their ships…

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the one above is no exception…that is a picture of me standing on the bridge of the Russian cruise ship/ferry Princess Anastasia on Monday morning in the port of Stockholm.  However, it’s not that simple; there were so many things that happened leading up to this picture that it’s probably best to just start from the beginning of the story.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really involve hijacking Soviet ships, as the caption implies, but it is still pretty exciting!

The cruise left on Thursday evening, and after we were settled in our room, we went to watch the show in the lounge.  It turns out that the show was pretty good, but what was more interesting was that during the intermission, the cruise director announced that she was going to have a guest competition and that she needed volunteers.  The competition was going to be a ‘vodka contest,’ so naturally, a group of drunk Russian guys went up to participate.  However, as soon as they brought out the vodka, the guys just drank it and left!  So she needed new volunteers.  For some reason, she only got one more volunteer (also Russian), so she volunteered us…  After a little hesitation, we went up to the stage to join.  The game was like musical chairs but with shots of vodka instead of chairs; I was eliminated pretty quickly, and the Russian guy obviously won, but participating in this contest led to so many more things that made the cruise amazing, so it was definitely worth it!

After the vodka contest, there was another contest, which involved putting a life jacket on your partner and carrying her to ‘safety,’ aka the bar.  Two of the students I was with volunteered to participate, and some Russian girls volunteered to be their partners.  So, they did the contest and one of them won, and they chatted with their new Russian friends for a while.  This was the next bit of luck, which will become clearer soon.  Later that evening, we were approached by some Swedes who recognized us from the vodka contest and wanted to know what two Americans were doing on a cruise from Sweden to Russia.  So, we chatted with them for a while and eventually went to bed.

Estonian Flag

The Flag of Estonia

The next morning, we arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, and, after a little while in the customs line (the ship was ‘Russian territory,’ so we had to go through customs to get on and off), we were walking around in the old town.  For such a small city (less than half a million people), you may think I would be bored, since it was my second time there.  However, my second trip to Tallinn was completely different from my first trip!  First, we walked around the old town and saw the major sights.  Then, we found a little restaurant inside the city hall that was medieval-themed and sold traditional Estonian food.  We had a great lunch there, and it was cheap, too!

Tallinn skyline

Tallinn is a mix of old and new – and the home of Skype!

In the afternoon, we visited the KGB Museum, which is located on the top floor of the Viru Hotel in the city center.  During the Soviet times, the KGB had offices on this floor where it carried out the important task of monitoring all of the suspicious foreigners staying on the floors below.  Our guide took us through the offices (the museum only consists of about three small offices and some balconies with good views of the city) and explained the story of the hotel, its guests and staff, and the KGB’s activities in Tallinn and the hotel.  It was very interesting to hear about life in Estonia during the time of the Soviet Union and to find out how tightly the Russians controlled the people (and foreigners) in their satellite countries.  For example, visitors from Finland would often smuggle such luxuries as chewing gum or bananas into Estonia and sell them to the hotel workers, who would then either go home very happy or use them to buy other things that they needed.  Obviously, this was all illegal, though, and hotel workers were often punished by the KGB if they were found to be communicating with the guests.

Calling the direct line to Moscow in the KGB office

Don’t do anything suspicious – I have access to the direct line to Moscow!

Unfortunately, we had to leave the KGB tour a little early because we had also booked another tour directly afterwards.  The next tour was of one of the bastions and fortification towers surrounding the old town of Tallinn.  Tallinn has many old fortifications surrounding it because the city has been controlled by several different countries – the Danish, the Swedish, the Germans, and the Russians – who contributed to building up the old town and reinforcing its strategic position on the top of a hill near a harbor.

The guided part of the tour was a walk through the tunnel that goes through one of the bastions (a bastion is basically a large earthen mound built to reinforce and complement a city wall).  While the tunnel itself was not particularly impressive, its history was quite interesting.  It turns out that the bastion tunnels in Tallinn have been used for several purposes over the years.  Their original purpose was to allow easy transfer of ammunition to different locations around the city, but over time, it came to be used as storage space, a prison, a public refuge during World War II, a public bomb shelter during the Cold War, a hiding place for delinquents, and a favorite hangout/home for homeless people.  In fact, the tunnel was only turned into a museum eight years ago, and large parts of it are still not open to the public.

After the bastion tour, we climbed the fortification tower, which is called Kiek in de Kök (‘A Peek in the Kitchen’), because it is so tall that it gave the occupying army the ability to see into the kitchen windows of the houses in the town.  The inside of the tower was a museum with artifacts from the history of Tallinn, and at the top, there were some nice views of the old town.

Kiek in de Kök

Kiek in de Kök

After we were finished at Kiek in de Kök, we walked a little more around the town, and then headed back to the ship.  In the evening, we went and watched the show again, but this time, we did not participate in any of the volunteer activities (our Russian is limited to спасибо (‘thank you’), so the trivia game would have been a little difficult!).  Instead, we found the Swedes we had met the previous night and talked with them while watching the show and enjoying how hilarious the word нет (‘no’) sounds in Russian.  One of the guys in my group also met up with his Russian partner from the life-jacket competition and when he met back up with us, we found out that she had offered to give us a tour of her hometown the next day!

Russian Flag

The Flag of Russia

Leningrad sign at the entrance to the port of St. Petersburg

This sign says Ленинград (Leningrad) the old Soviet name of St. Petersburg

The next morning, the ship arrived in Санкт Петербург (Saint Petersburg) and we made sure that we were first in line to get off, because we didn’t want to end up wasting two hours in customs (the process in St. Petersburg was a little more complicated).  Once off the ship, we took a bus into the city center and began walking around on our own because our guide did in fact get stuck in the customs line for a while.  I was very impressed by the size of everything in St. Petersburg – all of the building were huge and every street was wide enough to be a highway!  It was certainly a big change from the small buildings and narrow alleys in the old towns of cities like Stockholm and Tallinn!

St. Petersburg

Everything is bigger in Texas the Motherland

Statue of Peter the Great

Statue of Peter the Great in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Бургер Кинг

Fast-food looks so much more interesting when it’s spelled with Cyrillic letters!

We made our way around the main sights in the city center, including a couple huge Orthodox cathedrals, the Naval Museum, and a fortress.  In the center of the fortress is a cathedral that contains the tombs of several important people in Russian history, including Peter the Great, the tsar who founded St. Petersburg.  The fortress also contains a mint (the money kind) and several museums.  We went into a museum that told about the history and role of the prison that used to occupy the fortress.

After leaving the fortress, we went to meet up with our Russian friend.  With her, we went to a restaurant for lunch (I tried some Russian борщ, or borshch, which is beet soup).  Then, we went and visited the Cathedral of the Savior of Spilled Blood, which was just as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside!  We noticed that this particular cathedral is a very popular place for newlyweds to take pictures, because we saw several wedding parties pull up in limos for photo shoots in front of the cathedral.

Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood

The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood

Our next stop was, well, a stop.  We went into the St. Petersburg metro to see the famously beautiful stations and be amazed by the ridiculous depth of the platforms.  When we found out that a trip on the metro costs only 28 rubles (about $0.89 US), we realized just how expensive it is to live in Stockholm; a trip on the Stockholm metro is over four times as expensive!  But anyway, the stations in the St. Petersburg metro were very ornate, with fancy columns supporting vaulted ceilings, and marble covering practically every surface.  There were even chandeliers and intricate golden mosaics.  It was even more impressive when we realized exactly how deep these stations were.  When we came off of the platform at the central station, we had to go up two escalators, which were each at least twice as long as some of the longer escalators in Stockholm.  In fact, the escalators were so long that no one even bothered trying to walk up on the left – it was a long ride whether you walked or not, so you might as well save your energy, and maybe read a book or two!  Actually, our amazement at the metro’s depth is justified – the St. Petersburg metro is actually the deepest metro system in the world by average station depth.


A metro platform, about 100 meters underground

After several minutes on the escalator, we finally came out into the sunlight (the weather had dramatically improved from the dreary rain we had in the morning) and went to see the Winter Palace.  The Winter Palace was the home of the Russian tsars and now houses the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest art museums in the world.  We did not have time to visit the museum, but the building was still very impressive from the outside – and just as massive as everything else in the city!  We stopped for coffee after seeing the Winter Palace, and then had to run to catch the last bus back to the ship terminal – as the first off and the last on, we probably got the most time in the city out of everyone on the ship (unless they’re Russian, which was most people…)!

Once we left St. Petersburg, we were very tired and didn’t really do much on the ship in the evening.  However, since we were now heading back west, we got an hour extra to sleep before our final city visit.

Finnish Flag

The Flag of Finland

On Sunday morning, we arrived in Helsinki, the capital of Finland.  One of the first things we noticed was that everything was labeled in two languages, and one of them was not English; actually, everything was in both Finnish and Swedish!  Even the name of the city is written in two languages – Helsinki is called Helsingfors in Swedish.  The reason for this is that there is a large number of people in Finland whose first language is Swedish.  This is not recent immigration, but rather a remnant of the time when Sweden ruled Finland; there are still areas in southwest Finland where Swedish is actually the main language.  Anyway, the point is that I could read the signs. Sourire

Many people have told me that Helsinki is not a great place to go because there isn’t anything to do, but I found it to be quite a nice city.  It’s true that there aren’t many prominent landmarks – the skyline is basically cruise ships with a church or two in the background.  However, the city is spectacularly clean, and since it is almost spring, the weather was excellent while we were there.


The Helsinki Cathedral

After seeing the main churches and walking around the streets a little, we took a ferry to a fortress called Suomenlinna (Sveaborg, in Swedish).  The fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is situated on a cluster of islands near the entrance to the Helsinki harbor.  I did not have much time to spend here, however, because I had to go to church at 12:30, so we walked around the island for a while and then I left the group to take the ferry back to the mainland, where I went to a mass that was said in Swedish – which I understood most of!  Woo!

Suomenlinnan Merilinnoitus

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Suomenlinnan Merilinnoitus

Suomenlinna – or the Shire…?


View of Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry

After mass, I had a quick look around the parks near the church, where there were some nice views of the sea and the surrounding islands.  Then, I went and met back up with my group.  Unfortunately, the ship was leaving Helsinki fairly early – 16.00 – so we did not have time to do much else, and instead headed back to the ship.

Panoramic view of Kaivopuisto and the islands surrounding Helsinki

Panoramic view of the islands around Helsinki

The voyage back to Stockholm was very interesting, for several reasons.  First, since we left so early in the afternoon, we had several hours of daylight to be able to see outside.  Since the Gulf of Finland is not very wide, we were actually able to see both Finland to the north and Estonia to the south for several hours once we got out into the middle of the gulf.  Maybe you don’t think this is so interesting, but I thought it was pretty neat!

The second interesting thing that happened that evening was that somehow, three out of the six people in our group (us and our new Swedish friends) managed to win Bingo, and then one of us won the raffle, which was a bottle of champagne.  Needless to say, that put us in a good mood for the rest of the night!

The third interesting thing is the activity we volunteered got volunteered for during the evening show – a talent show!  Our cruise director wanted something to liven up the show since all of the volunteers she had gotten so far were planning on singing sad/depressing/serious songs in Russian.  So, our job was to perform ‘We will rock you’ as the final act of the talent show.  Well, this was a little out of my comfort zone, but I tried!  When we were finished performing, the cruise director used our presence on the stage to form a conga line that we then moved around the showroom.  This seemed to work in cheering up the audience after the rather dull first half of the show!

And now, after volunteering for and winning everything the cruise director had to offer for the past four days, she offered to give us a private tour of the bridge, which brings me back to the picture at the beginning.  We went up to the bridge right before we got off the ship, and the second officer explained what everything does, then we got a chance to take pictures pretending to drive the ship, which is not an opportunity that many people get, and certainly not something you would expect from a cheap cruise you found on Groupon.  And to think that it all started with a vodka-drinking contest…then again, this is Russia, what do you expect?

About Aaron

Hej – I'm Aaron! When I'm not working my regular job, I love to travel, study languages (svenska anyone?), and learn about history and culture. I'm also a "pandemic cook" attempting to learn the secrets of Indian cuisine from my apartment in Texas!
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