This was my second time traveling to Stockholm, the first time I’ve already written about here. As a result, I will not go into detail about it in this post, other than to say it was just as pleasant the second time around, and the city looks and feels much different in May compared to December. With the amount of people out in cafes or parks, it seemed like the city (and the others we visited) was finally experiencing its first breath of summer, perfect timing for our arrival.
My next Scandinavian capital, Helsinki, was a new experience – but not totally. Helsinki certainly bears more than a passing similarity to Stockholm due to its own network of islands and bays and the many centuries of Swedish rule that shaped it (of course, the language is completely different, and completely incomprehensible without study). However, it is almost all on a smaller scale, as Finland did not exist as a country until after WWI, and Helsinki was only a minor military and administrative center before that time. There are certainly some impressive monuments such as the Helsinki Cathedral (Lutheran) and Uspenski Cathedral (Russian Orthodox), if not the wealth of historic grandeur found in central Stockholm or other European capitals.
However, Helsinki’s most impressive collection of history is found a short ferry ride from downtown on the island fortifications of Suomenlinna. Founded in the 18th century as a Swedish naval base, and passing into Russian and Finnish hands, this “Gibraltar of the North” had an undistinguished military career but was at one time the second largest population center in Finland, and there are numerous relics from both its military and civilian uses, making a popular day trip and where Marit and I spent most of our limited time in Helsinki.
After Helsinki came St. Petersburg, a fitting choice since this city and Stockholm played so much of a role in determining the history of Helsinki, caught in the middle. Russia is certainly a very different culture than Scandinavia, though this came as no surprise given my travels in Russia last year –despite St. Petersburg’s historic connection with the West and developments befitting a modern metropolis, is not too different than Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude (though pricier and much more crowded with foreign visitors). Either way, St. Petersburg is a stunning city, and the wealth of spectacular churches and palaces make it easy to forget that this city was founded from nothing in 1703, making it one of the youngest European cities. Despite the current media focus on Russo-American interactions, being American did not elicit any particular interest (though depictions of Trump were to be found among the usual tourist kitsch). However, there did seem to be an unusually high military presence – perhaps the result of the tragic terror attacks on the St. Petersburg subway earlier this year.
While in the city, we visited the artistically splendid Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, the imposing Kazan and St. Isaac’s Cathedrals, the Hermitage (which was far more impressive for its palace design than its art collection), among other sites; went to the opera at the famed Mariinsky Theatre (true, it was the Magic Flute at the modern Concert Hall, not Boris Godunov at the historic hall, but last-minute spendthrifts can’t be picky) and spent plenty of time strolling past the canals and gardens of the central city. We also took advantage of the cultural diversity of the city, home to many migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union, in dining on Georgian, Uzbek, and Ukrainian cuisine in addition to standard Russian fare.
However, my favorite part of St. Petersburg was taking a trip out to the suburbs to visit Peter the Great’s seaside retreat at Peterhof. As befits an old imperial capital, St. Petersburg is surrounded with multiple tsars’ summer retreats, and while Peterhof was the only one we had the time to visit, it was the perfect choice for a beautiful spring day. Peterhof is famed for its gardens, which provide a striking view but also have plenty of space to get lost from the crowds in a quiet natural spot or to discover a hidden pond or fountain. The top draw at Peterhof is its fountains, which are undeniably gorgeous and likely unparalleled in Russia.
After 3½ days in St. Petersburg, we headed out on an overnight bus to the last country on this vacation, Estonia. Why does that tiny state deserve a separate post when some of the most spectacular cities of Northern Europe are lumped together here? You’ll have to read the next post to find out.