The Ship

In case you’re wondering about the ship we were on, it was the Norwegian Breakaway, one of the largest vessels in the Norwegian Cruise line’s fleet. 3900 passengers and 1500+ crew!

The highlight of every evening was watching the sun set as we left port.



The last port of call our Baltic cruise earlier this month was Stockholm, the capital of Sweden — another city that I have always wanted to see. And like the other cities on our trip, it did not disappoint either!

In fact, I would say that it’s location on the water and old world architecture make it truly one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

And of course, as was the case in Denmark, for this Minnesotan, everyone looked vaguely familiar!

It was a fantastic trip; hard to believe I was just setting out a month ago. If you ever have a chance to do a Baltic cruise, do it!

And now I’m off to Hong Kong for a meeting! Back Sunday!

Three Layers of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is a city of layers with each layer corresponding to a different historical era and and each visible in the architecture and various sights around town.

The first is the classical layer which can be seen in the ornate architecture of the city built by Peter the Great. Many visitors assume that it is classical Russian architecture, but our guide reminded us that St. Petersburg was built as a European city, not a Russian one. It is this layer that most attracts visitors.

The second layer is that of the Soviet era, during which the city was named Leningrad. Vestiges of that era can be seen in the giant, nondescript apartment blocks that dominate the outer areas of the city.

Seeing these giant housing blocks was quite disorienting since they looked exactly like the thousands of apartment buildings that are commonplace in Chinese cities. As soon as we got out of the center of town — the old city — I felt like we could have been in Beijing (minus the crowds, mind you). In fact the photo above looks a lot like my old neighborhood in Beijing.

It was quite disorienting!

The Soviet era is also visible in the subway system, with its ornate Stalinist art extolling the virtues of the working class.

The third, and most recent layer of St. Petersburg is that of the post-Communist era, characterized by traffic jams, shopping malls, and gleaming skyscrapers.

During World War II, Hitler ordered his army to capture and destroy the city. Although it was under siege for 900 days, they were never able to take it. It is estimated that more than 1 million of the city’s inhabitants died, either of starvation and disease or during the frequent bombardments.

An excellent book about the siege is The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, by Harrison Salisbury.

The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad


The Prodigal Son

One of my all-time favorite books is The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri J. Nouwen. As such, one of the highlights of our visit to St. Petersburg was seeing the Rembrandt painting that inspired the book. It is housed in The State Hermitage Museum.

It was another one of those moments I almost curled up in a corner and cried, so overwhelmed was I to be seeing the painting.

Here’s the description of the painting from the museum website.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. 1606-1669

Return of the Prodigal Son

Holland, Circa 1668

In the Gospel According to Luke (15: 11-32), Christ relates the parable of the prodigal son. A son asks his father for his inheritance and leaves the parental home, only to fritter away all his wealth. Arriving at last at sickness and poverty, he returns to his father’s house. The old man is blinded by tears as he forgives his son, just as God forgives all those who repent. This whole work is dominated by the idea of the victory of love, goodness and charity. The event is treated as the highest act of human wisdom and spiritual nobility, and it takes place in absolute silence and stillness. The drama and depth of feeling are expressed in the figures of both father and son, with all the emotional precision with which Rembrandt was endowed. The broad, sketchy brushstrokes of the artist’s late style accentuate the emotion and intensity of this masterly painting. This parable in Rembrandt’s treatment is addressed to the heart of everyone: “We should be glad: for this son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”


St. Petersburg

Because I have long been a Russian history buff, our 2-day port of call in St. Petersburg, Russia was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. My fascination with Russian history began in high school when I read the book Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family), the story of the last Czar and his family, who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family)

The first stop on our tour of the city was the Peter and Paul Cathedral, inside the Fortress of Peter and Paul.

The Cathedral is where all of the Czars are buried, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

In 1998, the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children were interred in a side chapel of the cathedral.

I’ll be honest and say that I was so moved at the chance to be there and see these graves that I almost curled up in a corner and cried.


In preparation for our visit to St. Petersburg, I read the book St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva It helped put into context what we were seeing.

St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva

Now I’m reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (author of Nicholas and Alexandra).

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman


Estonia Did Not Disappoint

Even though our Baltic Cruise came to an end (sniff, sniff) less than 2 weeks ago, I still have some things to say about the places we visited.

After leaving Germany, we sailed north to the city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Like every other destination on this cruise, it was a city that I’ve always wanted to visit. It is small enough that we were able to get off our ship and explore the medieval city on our own for the day.

It did not disappoint. Here are a few pics.

As we disembarked, there was a sign on the dock welcoming us to Estonia, and telling us a bit about the country. For some reason, the Tourism Board thought this was an important thing for us to know.

More than half of the city’s 13th century city wall remains in tact. In a park near the wall there are three  rather creepy statues of faceless monks. According to this blogger, they are statues of Danish monks who, during a battle, prayed for victory on behalf of the Danish king.

The old city sits on the side of a hill, the top of which has this fantastic view.

It’s definitely a city I want to visit again.