Baltic Cruise Day 8 – Riga

As we pull into Latvia up the Daugava River, I see ships being loaded with coal, wood, wood chips‎, containers as well as some conveyor belted product stored in large globe shaped tanks I cannot identify (possibly grain?). I see massive amounts of water being sprayed on coal piles presumably for safety purposes. This goes on for miles and miles – all pretty industrial stuff but essential products for our daily lives. I see what looks like an airport control tower presumably for harbour traffic. Riga is the largest Baltic state city at 750,000. It shows in the massive size of these port facilities.

I hear part of a lecture how each of the Baltic state countries have to treat their Russian minority populations with care. Otherwise they risk a Russian invasion witness Ukraine. ‎Apparently Lithuania came close to being invaded last November.

We walk into the old town on cobble stoned streets. Everything is really well kept and clean. Gorgeous pubs and outdoor cafes dot the feet of art deco buildings. People are extremely well dressed. This could be Paris or London. We walk for 3 hours gazing into churches and stopping at souvenir shops‎. We here jazz and other music wafting out of windows. It is very sophisticated and beautiful. The currency is the Euro and prices are high eg Riga tee shirt $26CDN vs $12 in Helsinki. We stop at a very upscale McDonald’s for a McCafe tea served in white pots and tea cups – boy has McDonald’s changed at least here we think. I sample a very good blackberry based local wine. We try to see more but soon tire and head back.

I notice gasoline is priced at about $1.90CDN/litre. It was less than a dollar back in Russia. ‎Founded in 1201, Riga is the largest Baltic city today at 750,000 and has prospered in trade ever since it’s founding. Known for it’s old town centre, it’s art nouveau buildings, there is too an ultramodern side across the river we see from the ship. Since declaring independence in 1991, Latvia has enjoyed one of the fastest growing economies of Europe. We don’t see any visible evidence that the Soviets were here.

The morning started off sunny. It clouds over and sprinkles lightly – our first rain. By 4:30 the sun comes out again.

We eat in Toscana, the Italian specialty restaurant with 3 American couples. The end of another great day is here.

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Baltic Cruise Day 7 – Helsinki

We sadly say goodbye to Bruce and Judy today as they are heading home for a funeral. We had lot’s of fun together. To be continued again next time we meet.

‎Helsinki. The shuttle bus drops us at the central square on the waterfront. We stroll through some lenders stalls and booths with giant slabs of salmon cooking. It’s a perfect sunny day and everyone is out for a stroll.

We enter the Uspenski Cathedral, one of the largest Orthodox churches in Western Europe. A service is on. People stand facing the icon stand. There are many candles up front and the smell of insense. We can see several priests partially hidden behind the stand. One occasionally comes out and reads lines from a book. The choral choir of 3 or 4 people and organist respond each time. People are crossing themselves and bowing. It is all very sacred.

We walk by the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral. It is crowded in the square out front. Everyone is very calm and pleasant here. We ask for directions to the WC and bank machine. The attendant understands and can speak English clearly. We see coffee stalls and bars everywhere. Finns are the greatest drinkers of coffee in the world. We stroll through a shady park and stop for lunch. After a little shopping, back to the shuttle bus we go after 3 hours of pleasant walking.

As we cruise out we see dozens of flat islands with Finns sunbathing on. There was a big outdoor swimming pool and sauna facility right in the harbor area. Finns are famous outdoor enthusiasts.

At the Oceania Club party, we meet an Armenian couple now living in FL. Ara tells me he was born in Istanbul and that the Armenia was the first nation to officially adopt Christianity as their faith predating all other Christian communities outside Jerusalem. Wow I did not know this.

We call it a night and sleep well.

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Baltic Cruise Day 6 – Saint Petersburg

Our sunny day starts with a boat cruise along the Neva‎. A young man jogs beside our boat and waves to us from each bridge. Cute. We see many palaces, gorgeous buildings and the little yellow building that houses the log house Peter lived in when he was building boats and the city. We meet Alexander the jogger at the end of the cruise and he poses for a picture with Marie. Cute.

The Yusupov Palace was owned by the richest man in the world and is in the top 10 best private residences of the world. We tour it before the public is allowed in and it feels like we live there!‎ After 4 daughters, Alexie is born to Nicholas II with hemophelia. Rasputin, the mystic monk claimed he could stop the bleeding. He became very close to Alexandra, the unpopular wife of Nicholas II. Everyone thought they were having an affair. Felix Yusupov lures Rasputin to the basement of their palace and kills him. ‎ Felix eventually marries a niece of Nicholas II uniting the 2 families. We tour the best private theatre in the world according to UNESCO and can taste the popcorn.

Next up St Isaac’s Cathedral – a massive Russian Orthodox church filled with icons, mosaics and paintings. For lunch we ‎go to the Aragosta restaurant. Borsct and stolle (a thick meat pie) are served.

Faberge Museum.‎ Carl Faberge, factory owner sends his son Carl in 1860 for an education in Paris. He learns how to repair and make jewellry. They become the royal jeweller. He makes a jewelled egg for Maria, the wife of Alexander I. All in all he made 50 Imperial eggs. We also see Russian Royal samovars (tea sets) in gold and silver that are very impressive.

We do some souvenir shopping off Nevsky Prospect (Prospective of the Neva). We are offered a subway ride or visit to a Orthodox church while a service is on. We vote to go back to the ship. We’ve had it. Our fab tour comes to an end. We say goodbye and spicy ba (thank you in Russian) to Marina our guide and Constantin our driver.

Probably the best tour and guide we have ever had. She finished with a question, “Do you feel safe here?” Yes we all answered. Then maybe you will come back here someday, learn some of our cyrilic alphabet and find your own way around. Yes we all answered!

Our long day ended with a tasty Asian meal in Red Ginger, one of the 4 specialty restaurants on board.

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Baltic Cruise – Day 6 – Saint Petersburg

The Hermitage Museum, the Tsars winter palace in central Saint Petersburg, 11,000,000 world heritage artifacts that would take 15 years to inspect individually. 80 cats. Still live in it’s basement to control the rats and mice – dating from Catherine the Great’s time. The oval portrait attached below is of Tsarina Elizabeth I, Peter’s favorite daughter. She apparently owned 2000 pairs of shoes and 15,000 dresses and partied until 6AM every morning.

The Church of the Spilled Blood. Spectacular icon stand, mosaics and golden Russian domes. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated here by a bomb, hence the name. We walk by World Cup Fanfest where many Iranian and Moroccan fans are congregating.‎ We see a few drunk people but absolutely no street people.

We have lunch at the Fyodor Dostoevsky restaurant. He lived in SP in 22 different apartments. He gambled a lot‎ and moved to the next place when the rent was due. Chicken Kiev and red wine was great. I think I saw Fyodor sitting in the shadows!

We head to the General Staff building impressionists painting exhibition.‎ Dozens and dozens of paintings from Picasso, to Matisse, to Van Gough, Rembrandt, Degas and Monet + some Russian avant garde Salvador Dali like ones too. We are starting to get museumed out but it’s great.

The city is choked with WC traffic now as we head south out of town to Catherine’s Palace.‎ The amber room is absulutely goergeous and one of the new wonders of the wotld. Carherine (II) the Great was the wife of Peter’s grandson and loved living in her palace (which was actually named after Peter’s wife Catherine I). She was a more serious type and would rise each day at 6AM. There are extensive gardens, a large lake and walking paths.

The Nazis destroyed this palace in WWII so it has been painstakingly restored. Russia has forgiven the actions of a few German politicians but not Holland according to Marina, our tour guide. We learn more about the Tsars, all very interesting. The second portrait attached below is of Catherine the Great.

We dine at Jacques on board and meet the only Canadian working in O’s fleet, Rafael from Québec City.

It slowly dawns on us that we are being treated to something very special here: we can still feel Pe‎ter the Great’s presence in his great city.

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Baltic Cruise – Day 5 – Saint Petersburg

It’s a beautiful sunny day in Saint Petersburg.‎ We get off the ship at 9h00 and it takes an hour to clear passport control due the large crowd. There are at least 8 cruise shi‎ps in town and it is the first day of World Cup in Russia.

Out tour guide’s name is Marina – the same as our ship. She speaks excellent English and off we go as a group of 16 on a luxury tour bus – day 1 of 3 here.

Saint Petersburg is breathtaking with 400 bridges over the Neva River and canals. The streets are wide, straight and surprisingly uncrowded for a city of 5 million plus. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, it is Russia’s largest port and known as “The Venice of the North”. The only thing bad here is the weather. If it is nice, here they say wait 10 minutes and it will change. Today is glorious.

We stop for a photo shoot on the Neva. We head for the Peter and Paul Fortress and tour the golden domed cathedral. Inside we see the crypts of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and many other Tsars.

We drive out into the suburbs and have lunch at a mini-palace facility. Food is somewhat bland like Poland but nourishing. Refueled, we head for the Peterhof Summer Palace.

Peterhof, constructed on the bank of the Baltic, was Peter’s getaway place. Extensive gardens and fountains abound. We tour the palace and marvel at the gold trim everywhere and the beautiful portraits of several Tsar dynasties. The fountains out front are stunning – gold aninals and statues and dozens of smaller fountains surround a 70 ft high fountain. It is all powered by gravity using 300 year old oak pipes designed by Peter himself to the carry water. Stunning!

That night, I head out on a private world cup experience tour with Jack from Virginia. We have our own guide and driver. We take some photos of the new soccer stadium and pick up some souvenirs. We go to a local bar. Everyone is cheering. Russia has just beat Sauida Arabia 5 – 0.

We have some beer and vodka. A fan from Toronto strolls over and explains he has tickets for 5 matches. Two Russians come over and want to have a toast. We drink some vodka and part as friends. We stroll down the Nevsky Prospect. There are hundreds of fans with flags. A large group of Iranians drown out the smaller Moroccan fan contingent. Russians runs by with their flag cheeriing. Everyone smiles and high fives us. Wow, a real international brotherhood experience! We call it a night, a fantastic one.

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Baltic Cruise – Day 4 – Tallinn

Our first port is Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Estonia is the smallest of the 3 Baltic States. With a population of only 1.5 million, it is a land of plains, marshes and forests. They speak a Finnish type language and gained their independence from Russia in 1991. Tallinn with a population of 400,000 is the capital and thought to be one of the prettiest cities in the Baltic. It once was one of the largest towns in Europe known as Revel.

We walk into the old town. It’s only 10 minutes away. We enter a maze of cobble stone streets through a massive 14th century stone gate. We find St Olav Lutheran Church. Very sparse inside with upright wooden pews with doors for entry. There is a tower you can climb but we have no Euros so we pass on this.

The town square is a delightful‎, filled with vendors stalls and restaurants and ringed with 3 story colourful buildings and lots of flowers in planters. We wander around and into the shops. Finding a WC is always a challenge. We can’t seem to find any public ones and are refused entry to a restaurant WC because they demand a 1 Euro fee! Finally we stop to have tea at another place and everything works out with a credit card.

We head back to the ship doing a little shopping on the way. Our friends Judy and Bruce have had some sad news. Their nephew was killed in a car accident in Vancouver a few days ago. It’s very tragic. They decide after much thought that they must leave the cruise early in a few days to return for his funeral to be held in St. John’s, Nfld. We really feel their pain and understand their decision. We would do the same thing. So sad, so sudden.

At the captain’s party, we meet the Italian captain and senior officers. After a fun time there, we eat some great sea food in the dining room and call it a night.‎ Tomorrow in St Petersburg will be a big day.

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Baltic Cruise Day 3

We say goodbye to Stockholm today but not before we find the liquor store! It was about a 10 min walk from our hotel. We stock up on some wine for the cruise. This was after a breakfast of mackerel, carrot juice, whole grain bread and some cheese and nuts – the so called Nordic diet.

We left the hotel at 12h00 and were lunching on mahi mahi‎ at 13h00 on the Marina. One of the smoothest checkins yet! Oceania let’s you bring on as much wine as you want, so we take advantage of that!

Met an American from Virginia on board who said Trump is pummeling Ameri‎cas’ allies such as Canada with the hope Trudeau will cave in!!! It’s all a negotiation and nobody knows what will happen. The art of the negotiation, hmh.

We cruise out through the beautiful Stockholm Archipelago – thousands of rocky treed islands dotted with cabins and houses. It takes us over 3 hours to reach the Baltic. We wonder how sailors ever found their way to and from Stockholm in ancient times.

We enjoy a surf and turf dinner with our friends followed by a little dancing. My pulled hamstring (from too much golf) is slowly healing. We notice the sunset glow is still on the horizon at midnight, Back to our cabin late we drop off after another great day. We give thanks to God that everything is going so smoothly. Ciau!

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Baltic Cruise – Days 1 – 2 – Stockholm

We made it to Stockholm safely. It was a long day yesterday flying via Montreal and Munich. Everything went very well. Managed to stay up until 9 PM last night after a great feed of muscles and beer with our friends Judy and Bruce from Barrie, ON. Then we crashed!!

Today we spent exploring ‎the old town on Gama Stan Island. We spent hours touring the Royal Palace including the Royal Apartments, The Treasury, the Tre Konor and the Antiquities Museums. I really liked the Louis XVI tapestries, the military orders jewellry and the Roman and Greek busts and statues.

Saw the changing of the guard and enjoyed a fine marching band concert. After a little shopping we wandered over to the City Hall with spectacular views of the water.‎ On to the church where Sweden’s monarchs are buried.

After a short rest we headed out for a superb meal of Swedish meat balls and ‎arctic char with some great craft beer. Completely exhausted we went home very satisfied.

Stockholm is a very beautiful city spread out on dozens of islands. No wine though! We walked and walked and asked and asked and no one could tell us where the liquor store was. Seems they drink only beer here and quite a lot!

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Bell network.

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Peter the Great

Peter the GreatI purchased this book in 1981 and finally got around to reading it.  Marie read it first and that motivated me. It is a great story of an amazing man and ruler.

Peter the Great was born in Moscow in 1672 and died in St. Petersburg in 1725.  He was almost 7 feet tall and had the life long curiosity of a young boy about all things, particularly boats and the sea.  He reigned for 42 years, first as Tsar and then as Emperor of All Russia.  Brutal in repressing dissent and with a temper, he was respected by his enemies and much-loved by his subjects.  He is seen today as being an enlightened despot – a precursor of rulers who came later such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick the Great of Prussia and his own descendant, Catherine the Great.

Known as the Great Reformer, he modernized Russian society where all the land had been owned by the nobility and worked by serfs (unfree peasants) for centuries.  He did this by studying first hand (often incognito) in Holland, Germany and France, the technologies and techniques used to advance these nations e.g., boat design and building.  Then he would personally introduce these new ideas into Russia.  For example he:

  • adopted western dress in court society and required long beards to be shaven
  • modernized the army into a well-trained, lead and equipped fighting machine initially with imported foreign commanders
  • initiated Russian boat building, established the Russian Navy and opened up the Baltic and Black seas to maritime trade
  • defeating the mighty Sweden at Poltava in the Ukraine and delicately held the Ottoman empire at bay
  • built the magnificent city of Saint Petersburg – the Venice of the North on what had been vacant swamp land
  • modernized banking, currency, the justice system, foreign affairs, education and church administration
Peter rallying

Peter rallying Russia to victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava, 1709

This book reads like a novel and is a real page burner.  I particularly like how Robert Massie writes with complete command of the subject matter – his research is amazing.  He often branches down interesting side paths into the character and life of other key figures such as Charles XII of Sweden and George I of England.  There are a lot of details about the Great Northern War against Sweden but also much interesting  information about Peter’s relationship with his wife Catherine, his personality and the type of food and drink he liked (he was a prodigious drinker and eater).  The book is long at 850 pages and well illustrated with images and maps.

Russia Petertime

Russia in Peter’s Time

Prior to Peter’s time Russia was seen as a landlocked backwater and military laughing-stock of no import.  Thanks to Peter, Russia became a great power indeed as it is today.  However then as now, not many in the West fully understand Russia perhaps partially because of its geographic immenseness and location. Whenever Russia makes a move to protect her own interests, it is seen by many in the West as sinister and threatening to world peace.  I have more sympathy and respect for Russia and their history as a result of reading this fantastic biography.  I give it a 5 out of 5 rating.  It was a great way to prepare for an upcoming Baltic cruise!  Your comments are always welcome.

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Food for my Journey – St. Eugene de Mazenod

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I am a lay Associate of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), Lacombe Province Canada.  I was called to this through Marie’s contact with the Galilee Centre in Arnprior where I met my first Oblate priests – Fr. Jack Lau and Fr. Roy Boucher, some 8 years ago.

I recently took a course about the life of St. Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the Oblates.  I wish to discuss a few ideas here so that I don’t forget what I learned!

Eugene de Mazenod was born into a noble family in Aix-en-Provence, France in 1782.  His family had to flee to Italy during the French Revolution, 1789 to 1799.  Returning home, he had a conversion experience in church on Good Friday in 1807.  It led him to become a priest, found the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and become Bishop of Marseilles.  He died in 1861 with his last words practice charity, charity, charity. He was canonized in 1995 by Pope John Paul II.  You can read his full biography here.

The charism of the Oblates is a love of Church and desire to evangelize the poor about the immense love Jesus Christ has for each and everyone of us.  In the process we are evangelized ourselves: Evangelizare pauperibus misit me

St. Eugene taught us “We must strive first of all to lead people to act like human beings, and then like Christians, and finally, we must help them to become saints.”  Oblates live in community where they strengthen each other in faith, in charity, enriching each other from discovery of God and of Christ who lives and works in us and in the world.  As a lay associate I get to know many Oblates, learn from them and strive to live my life in a way that is in harmony with this charism.

It is indeed a privilege, honour and blessing.  What attracted me to the Oblates is their accessibility – as missionaries, they are among the people.  In an Oblate gathering you would not automatically know who are the priests and who are not!  Secondly, they are Christ focused.  My personal relationship with Jesus Christ is extremely important to me.  Thirdly, there is an emphasis on life long formation (learning) and conversion (perfecting my relationship with God and Jesus Christ).

Mary Immaculate is our patron saint and model.  Lastly there is hospitality, something magical that happens at every Oblate gathering. I wish to borrow a few words from Fr. James Behrens a Trappist monk as they gave me insight to write this posting about the Oblates.  He says:

“God reveals himself through the communal ritual of eating and drinking. Through the Eucharist, we believe God remembers himself for us.  He is brought to our midst and once again nourishes us with his very flesh and blood. We consume his life and he becomes, very intimately, a living part of us. When we leave the sacred table and reimmerse ourselves in the mundane routines of life, we bear God within us.  The body and blood of Jesus is indeed food for our journey through life.” (Living Faith, June 3, 2018)

Thank you St. Eugene for your apostolic zeal and the gift of the Oblate charism – love, patience, acceptance of differences and a focus on the poor which the world needs now more than ever.  And, most importantly, being nourished ourselves on the journey to sainthood.

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