Copyright Jim Bellomo • 2013
Jim & Kathleen go to Europe-2013
This was a very port-intensive cruise and with exception of one day, I felt they were perfectly spaced out. A great cruise has a good mix of sea days and port days and this one came close to being perfect. There was just one point (after our second day in St. Petersburg) where a sea day before we got to Tallinn, Estonia would have been very welcome. Actually we joked that a sea day between our first and second day in St. Petersburg would have been even more welcome but that was obviously impossible. Here's what we did in each port and my thoughts on doing it our way.
First, let me say that we did not do any Celebrity shore excursions. We did every port other than Copenhagen and Brugge with Alla Tours. We are not big fans of cruise line shore excursions as they are usually too big and have too many people on them. We (My buddy Mike and I) believe that big ports like these are "a race." Our buddy Bob tells us, "It's not a race," but to us it is. We want to see it all. So do our wives but sometimes they can't keep up with us. I want to give them both credit (our wives that is). They both did the best job possible keeping up with their running husbands. I think they coped with us by just letting us go on our own knowing we would come back to them soon enough. They are total troopers. The love of my life, Kathleen has a bad hip and really needs a hip replacement. I was not sure she was going to make it on the second day in St. Petersburg but she did it all except the subway which I fully understand. She was amazing. And Carol found out that the "St. Petersburg Comfort Tour" was not really a comfort but almost as bad as the "Grand Tour" we were on. With that said, here's our ports.
First, we love the movie In Bruges. If you haven't seen it and you are going to Brugge (the movie spelled it wrong) and you should. Be warned it is a DARK comedy but funny and full of Brugge and fun to see before you go. We did not do a tour in Brugge but joined two other couples (Renda, Jennifer, Paul and Angela) in reserving a taxi to go into the town. Cost was 50 euro each way and worth every penny. Our taxi was waiting at the gate to the port so we first had to get on X's free shuttle that took us the very short distance to the port gate where our taxi was waiting.
I need to make a quick comment to Angela who arranged our taxi. Thank you so much. Mike and I are so sorry that we made you get up that early. We know that you were on the "other cruise" and probably got a whole one or two hours sleep the night before but you put up with us and booked the taxi for 7:30 on a Sunday morning.
That said, I would still go into town that early. No one else did. We got a wonderful chance to take pictures of a very cool town before it was filled with huge crowds of people later in the day. Even our wives thought it was too early but it's never too early for Mike and I to start the race. When we got in, the other six taxi-riders went for coffee at the one open cafe and Mike and I took off on an early morning photo expedition. Unfortunately the biggest photo subject in Brugge is the central Markt Square. We arrived on the day after their annual triathlon and it was filled with temporary buildings and scaffolding from the race along with mountains of trash.
After our photo expedition (took about 40 minutes) we decided to do a horse-drawn carriage ride around Brugges to get a general overview of the city. We got the first carriage out and a wonderful young lady as our guide. This is really Brugges version of the Hop-on, Hop-off bus as the streets and the city are really too small for big buses.
We enjoyed the trip and when we were done we left Carol to find someplace warm to sit and we went exploring. Found a cool church, some nice shops and met Carol again at a Belgian lace shop. From there we were off to lunch at a place I had scouted pre-cruise as having the best beer selection in all of Brugge. Kathleen's daughter Michelle and her husband Brian are true beer aficionados and have been to Belgium. Kathleen asked them pre-cruise what the best beer to try would be (I don't drink beer). They told her Augustin Blond but they doubted we could find it. I found a restaurant that had it and we had lunch there (great beer, not so great food for us--good food for Mike and Carol) and I was off to find Brugges artwork.
After everyone else was done with lunch we hit the canals for a boat tour. We can also highly recommend this as you get to see lots of great stuff and if you get a good guide between them and the horse-drawn carriage tour in the morning, you will see all that is really important to see in Brugge.
One of the reasons we wanted to go in so early was that the ship leaves Brugge at 3:00 pm so you need to be back on board no later than 2:45. That's an early day and we definitely made the most of it. I really want to go back to Brugge. It might have been my favorite port on this cruise.
After our first sea day, we awoke as we pulled into the cute little port of Warnemunde, Germany. This is the port where about half the ship did what we did (a six hours round trip on a bus to tour Berlin for 5 hours). The other half either wandered around Warnemunde or Rostock (a nearby town) or went to tour a nearby castle. We chose Berlin because we wanted a taste of the city to see if we would want to come back later. We do that a lot. Use our cruise stop to decide if the port is someplace we would want to do a land vacation. We were booked with Alla Tours for this and the next four ports after it.
First, Alla Tours is a St. Petersburg-based tour company that contracts in all other ports. In St. Petersburg you get actual Alla guides. Everywhere else you get contracted guides and it shows. That about covers Alla tours. I will detail each contracted guide as well as how I like their actual guides below.
Now as to my expectations. I have been following the advice of the man I call the "God of Shore Excursions" my best buddy Mike Preisman for years. If we don't' cruise with them and do the same tours, we take the tours they took on previous cruises to the ones we are on. We followed him around Alaska on some great shore excursions, we did the same with them in SE Asia. We took the same tours they went on in Ville France, Naples, Capri, Amalfi and used all Mike's guides in New Zealand and Australia. In every case, I didn't bother doing any research. If Mike booked it, I booked it too. Never had a problem. So this time I had expectations of a different kind of tour than the ones we got in Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn. I want to make it clear right here that this is not Mike's fault. It's mine. The tours were fine. I just thought they would be different.
I mentioned earlier that I don't like to do cruise-line based shore excursions because there are just too many people on big buses. On every other tour I have ever done that Mike has "led" me on, we have never been in a van bigger than one with 10 people. On this cruise in Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn that's exactly what we got. A big bus. Alla advertises that they will not have more than 16 people on a tour and that may or not be true but no matter how many people there were, we (except in St. Petersburg) were in a BIG bus.
The big buses are slower than molasses and totally uncomfortable. For Berlin that meant riding three hours (with one rest stop) into Berlin on a big, packed bus where we were split off into two groups and put on two buses of approximately the same size with a new guide and we were off. It's not just the size of the bus (which are amazingly uncomfortable) but rather the ability to control the situation. For instance, if it had just been 12 or 15 of us on the three hour trip to Berlin, we could have told the driver to stop someplace other than the truck stop for food, etc. The same with Berlin lunch stop. It just gives you more control on a smaller bus. You can reach a quick consensus with a small group. On a big bus, you can't even talk to everyone.
On the three hour trip in we had a guide who thankfully did not think he had to fill up the entire time with info. He did however tell some really bad jokes. But when he did talk it was often to tell sad and pathetic jokes that we think, due to the language difference, never quite had a punchline. We knew they were jokes because he kept announcing he had another joke for us. We all groaned. He did the same on the way back.
Once we got to Berlin about half of us were arbitrarily moved to another bus (about the same size) and we headed off with another guide (a Frenchman named Yves) to see Berlin. I need to mention that our entire day in Berlin, it POURED rain. If it wasn't pouring, it was steady. All day long. It made for a dreary day.
As far as I am concerned we got off on the wrong foot with this guide immediately when Yves told us that he was taking us someplace not on our itinerary, the Olympic Stadium. Now if we had wanted to see the Olympic Stadium (looked pretty much like every other stadium) we would have asked to see it or made sure it was on our itinerary. But we were not given a choice. We spent almost an hour driving to it, stopping for a few minutes in front of it, driving around the back of it, stopping to take pics (not a single person got off the bus to take pics) and getting back to the tour. Now if you had asked almost any of us, we would have skipped the Olympic Stadium and spent the time at Checkpoint Charlie (which we drove by at 35 mph) or any of our other stops.
After the Olympic Stadium it seems like we spent the rest of the time before our 2:00 pm lunch driving around avoiding construction. This was in no way the fault of our guides but certainly the detour to the stadium was. And what is it about Olympic Stadiums? Our Helsinki guide pulled the same thing on us.
Our tour said, "Time for lunch." The one thing it didn't say was a decent place for lunch. While other people from the ship who were not on our tour got great German food for lunch we were dumped in a spot with no choices at all but tourist fast food. Not at all nice places. The kind of place I would never go to here at home.
We did get to see everything else on our itinerary which included the Charlottenburg Palace (from the outside when we returned), the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Tiergarten and Victory Column, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the site of the Hitler Bunker, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmentmarkt, Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz (Book Burning Memorial, Humboldt University, State Opera House), Neue Wache Memorial, Museum Island, and Alexanderplatz (TV Tower and Red Town Hall). We did see all of these…many at about 30 mph through rain-streaked windows. Other places we got out for a quick picture and back on in no time. At more than three sites only Mike and I got off the bus and shot photos and everyone else just stayed on. We promised to share. One thing that really bugged some people on the bus was that the guide took us to many of these out of order. Now we understand they did that in order to avoid traffic delays but he never announced where we were going or in what order.
We had the same bus set up on the way back and we arrived back at the ship at 10:40 pm. Our only stop on the three hour drive back was at a truck stop for a 10 minute "comfort break." This meant no dinner (not that we were in any way in danger of starving to death) but it would have been nice if we had stopped at the same type of place we stopped in the morning that had food other than candy bars and ice cream.
All in all, I did not like Berlin. I would not go back. It wasn't just the weather. The city was just dark, dreary, uninviting. Lastly, I have a VERY hard time with a country who went through what they did and yet still let the neo-nazi's have their hate speech. Our guide talked about the neo-nazis as if it they were the "good guys." (Note: Carol heard this differently than I did. She felt our guide was not happy with the popularity of the ne-nazis.) The popularity grows. That's sad. The people I met (other than one lady in a Starbucks--where I went to by what else--mugs) were just downright nasty. My least favorite city in the world...so far. And I would not tour it again. In fact, my advice even to first time Baltic cruisers is to skip it. Everyone who did the local tours in and around Warnemunde told us they loved them. Given those were mostly the Brits who could get back to Berlin easily on a cheap flight later on. And I would not tour Berlin with Alla. Poor choice of guides. Poor choice of stops. Poor choice of food stop. Just poor. Take a ship's tour. You will get the same thing and better food. They all had big Berlin feasts with beer.
Since we had gotten back from Berlin at almost midnight we were thrilled to have another sea day the next day and on the following morning we woke up sailing into Stockholm. Let me tell you how thrilled we were that we got to sail into Stockholm. The cruise previous to ours was not able to do that. Due to high winds they had to tender in at an industrial port almost a 40 minute drive from Stockholm. The sail in to Stockholm through the archipelago of amazing Swedish islands (and then back out again at night) was something I would not want to have missed. Really amazing. See my pics for the kind of things we saw. In many places the ship came within a few hundred feet of some beautiful islands.
We were again on an Alla tour in Stockholm. And again on a big bus. But this time we had an outstanding guide and an outstanding driver. They took us where we were supposed to go (no unannounced side trips) and the guide was very knowledgeable. (That's Marien on the right.) Our first stop was the Vasa, a 1600s warship that sank in the Stockholm harbor was raised and is still being restored in an amazing museum. She is Sweden's national treasure and a very impressive sight. (See my pics.) We spent almost 2 hours touring the Vasa and it was pretty much worth it.
Then we did some touring around downtown Stockholm with outdoor picture stops before heading to City Hall. I know…City Hall. But this place is amazing. This is where they hold the Nobel Prize Awards. Not to be missed. Go see it. Impressive outside but amazing inside.
Our last stop (no lunch on this tour) was old town Stockholm which is very cool. We decided that we would love to come back to Stockholm if we could afford it. Stockholm is VERY expensive. Food, souvenirs and other small artwork we bought were very expensive. I can imagine what a week's stay would cost with food. Yikes! But it is a beautiful city and I hope to return someday.
Would I do the Alla tour again? Only if I could be assured of our guide. Otherwise take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus. You will probably get a better tour. Make sure to hop off at the Vasa, City Hall and Old Town and you will be all set.
The sail out from Stockholm, in the sunshine was glorious. Just beautiful. Do not miss it. Be on deck in both directions with your camera in hand. See my pics.
The day after Stockholm we sailed into the port of Helsinki, Finland. If we had to skip one port, this would have been it. Even as much as I did not like Berlin, Helsinki was a bore. Again we were on a big bus. We drove to a church, to a square in front of a church, to another Olympic Stadium, through downtown, the Sibelius monument and that was about it. Here's the thing. We spent 45 minutes at the Olympic Stadium (What is with guides and Olympic Stadiums?) and driving by and hearing the entire history of Helsinki and Finland. This guide (that's her above) was like the elderly lady in the old alert commercial, the one that's fallen and she can't get up, except that this guide was talking and she couldn't shut up. Seriously, she started talking from the minute we got on the bus until the minute we got off. And when we did get off for what was supposed to be a scheduled full hour of free time in downtown Helsinki that had shrunk down to a very short 15 minutes at the local farmer's market due to our unscheduled Olympic visit.
We might have really liked downtown Helsinki if had had more than 15 minutes there.
This was it. The reason you take this cruise. The amazing port everyone is waiting for. And you get to stop there for two days. We docked early one morning and were off the ship as soon as we could be and ran right into…Russian Customs and Immigration. You need to know that you will probably wait in line for about 20 minutes before you are interviewed by your very own Russian agent. He or she will want to see your passport (the only port that ever asked), a form that X will give you advance and a ticket for your excursion if you are taking a guide tour. This ticket is your visa to enter Russia. So if you aren't booked with a private tour company or taking a Celebrity shore excursion, you probably aren't getting off the ship in St. Petersburg. And it's really worth getting off the ship.
We were touring with an actual guide from Alla Tours. Our guide was Angie and our driver was Yuri and thank God we weren't in a big bus but in a very nice van that only held 12 of us. And because Carol was on the "Comfort Tour" we only had 11 with us.
Angie and the rest of the Alla crowd were waiting for us as we came out of Customs. We were in the van and off to downtown St. Petersburg in no time. Our day started with a an overview of downtown, a boat ride, a visit to the Yususpove Palace where Rasputin was killed and we jumped on a hydrofoil to take us to Peterhof to see the gardens (UNBELIEVABLE) and then finally we went on an hour long van ride so we could tour Catherine's palace. Again, truly UNBELIEVABLE! See just a few of my pictures of either place. One thing I have really come to believe is that if these palaces are really as they were before the Bolshevik revolution, while the peasants starved, then I would have led the revolution myself. What a gaudy piece of gold-plated decadence. Seriously, when you see it, at first you are blown away by the beauty, then it hits you what it must have cost to build and then you think about the difference between the very few rich and the very many poor.
We have been to Versailles in France and it is very much like both these castles; Peterhof and Catherine's palace. Both incredibly decadent. I think it is no coincidence that the two more radical revolutions in European history took place in these two countries. I also need to say that both these palaces have been beautifully restored in the last few years since the changes in Russia have taken place at the end of the Soviet Union. An amazing amount of money has been spent to restore so much of these historic tributes to decadence to their former glory, all for tourists. Amazing.
The first day in St. Petersburg was a VERY long day. Kathleen's hip was really hurting and she was even considering staying on board for day two so she wouldn't slow us down. But she decided to go for it and I'm glad she did. We started day two with a stop at a local church that was near a special place we needed to go to when it opened. At least special to our guides…the souvenir shop where we would pay for our tours. After about an half an hour of souvenir shopping and paying for the tours we were back in the van and on our way to what is arguably the greatest art museum in the world, the Hermitage. We have been to the Louvre, the Met in NY and other art museums in London, Rome, Florence and Venice among others and if the Hermitage isn't the best, then it certainly one of the top two or three.
One of the problems we ran into that others probably will not was that this was the day of the annual White Nights Marathon. This multi-nation marathon shut down parts of the city. Unfortunately many of the streets that were shut down were streets we needed to drive on to get to the Hermitage. But our amazing driver Yuri got us there a few minutes before the Hermitage opened for our early entrance. Alla has some kind of deal with some museums and palaces that lets her tours either go into museums before they open or to jump to the front of lines at those that are already open. At a couple of churches, even though there were long lines Angie would say that we were going to imitate a Russian poet---Pushkin. Sure enough, we would just push…in front of the lines. Long lines.
Besides the Hermitage we also saw the Church of the Spilled Blood (at left), St. Isaac's Cathedral, a ride on the St. Petersburg subway and we finished up at the St. Peter and Paul Fortress/Cathedral where the great Czars are all buried. See my pictures for some idea of the amazing places that were packed into these two days.
Some thoughts on this two day tour. Would I do it again? In a minute. Would Kathleen? I can't say. She will add a note here I am sure. (Kathleen's note: It was a very strenuous 2 days. Maybe if my hip hadn't gone out, it would not have been as bad. It was also a lot warmer than what we expected which did not help. But I did enjoy my time there & I am glad we went. It is definitely a do not miss port.) Was there anything I didn't like? Of course…nothing is perfect. On the first day we were told we would have a "lunch on the go." Lunch on the go consisted of a "pancake" (blini) with chicken in a foil pouch, a juice box, a chocolate bar and an apple. We were given the "lunch" on the van on our way to the hydrofoil that took us to Peterhof. But that meant that between the balance of the van ride, the wait for the hydrofoil and finally getting into a seat, the blinni turned from pancake to rubber. And the chocolate bar melted. Not a good choice. Not good at all. Totally indelible. On the second day we got an excellent sit-down lunch in a very nice restaurant. Salad, soup, goulash and dessert.
I also jokingly called this tour the "Bataan Death March" and there were times it felt like it was. I am in good shape and work out daily, but I know that many people on this tour had a hard time with it. It is a vigorous tour and if you think you might have a problem going, going and going then you might want to look elsewhere. We were on the Alla "Grand Tour" which included an amazing amount of attractions and walking. Others took the "Comfort" tour which was billed as a less strenuous tour but we kept running into them at different places on our Grand tour. I think both tours are pretty strenuous although the Comfort tour did get an actual lunch on day one.
I remember waking up the day we sailed into Tallinn, Estonia and asking Kathleen if she still had one, more day in her. She said, "No but I really want to go," so she did. Tallinn is an interesting town. It's the capital of Estonia and still in many ways a fairytale, medieval village. At least in the old town section that we toured.
This was to be our last Alla tour, and it was another contracted tour. We were met by a very sullen tour guide who pointed at a bus and told us to get on. We were driven to the top of the hill that forms the old town and split into groups and we then spent about 3 hours walking down the hill with our guide (not the sullen woman who directed us to the bus). This guide was related (at least we think he was) to our guide in Helsinki in that he could talk for hours without shutting up. He basically talked for three solid hours.
We did a walk that Mike and I could have done in 20 minutes. Seriously. We heard (but I can't remember) most of the history of Estonia. By the end of the tour, when we had heard at least three references to drama and theater and toured a theater where the ladies knew him, I figured out our guide. He was a frustrated actor looking for an audience. I just wish it hadn't been us.
I wouldn't go back to Tallinn but I did enjoy the experience. We had a nice lunch on our own after the tour, did some shopping and drove back to the ship on the bus. But if I had to do it again, I would not do a tour. This is an easily walkable port. It's a 10 minute walk from the ship to the old town area and from there you can walk just about anywhere you would want to see, in no time. If I went back there on a cruise, I would probably not get off the ship after the two days we had in St. Petersburg.
I will say for future cruisers, the shops at the port are outstanding. They have excellent crafts and nice folks selling them. It's a really nice set of shops.
After a wonderfully restful sea day we woke up sailing into Copenhagen. Now here is a port I loved. We had no tour planned so we got off the ship and grabbed a Hop-on, Hop-off Bus. Unfortunately, we chose the wrong one. There are two competing bus Ho Ho bus lines in Copenhagen. One is the Hop-on, Hop-off the other is the Step-on, Step off. We chose the Ho Ho. Should have picked the StepOn. The Ho Ho promised us more frequent busses and not much more. We never even made it to the StepOn. Wish we had. At one point while waiting for a Ho Ho bus to pick us up we had three StepHo busses stop and tell us sorry, we aren't the bus company you are looking for. Sad.
Also, the StepOn bus has a deal with the StepOn boats which means that for one low price you can do both a bus tour and a boat tour of Copenhagen. We paid for both with Ho Ho. And StepOn had free WiFi on all their busses. Do yourself a favor, take the Step-on, Step-off busses. They won't be the first ones you come to, you will have to walk by the HoHos to get to them.
The Ho Ho tour itself was fine. We did the entire circuit (takes about an hour) first and then went back and got off in downtown, near Tivoli, to walk around. We (four of us) walked the main shopping thoroughfare (pedestrian only) and then Carol headed back to the ship while Mike, Kathleen and I found a place for lunch on Nyhavn street/canal and did the boat tour. Copenhagen is a great city. Small and compact. Easy to get around the places you want to get to. Lots to look at. If we went back I could still find a few things to spend time touring. After our boat tour we waited quite a while for a Ho Ho bus to come by and then we were back to the ship…or at least to the Little Mermaid statue which was within easy walking distance of the ship. The Little Mermaid is really little. At least much smaller than I thought it would be. We got off there and walked through the port tourist stops and back aboard.
I loved most of the ports on this trip but most of them were a one time thing for me. I would go back to only three of them. I loved Brugges and really want to go back, found Berlin oppressive and never want to go back, Stockholm was a great sail in and I liked the city but I can't imagine the expense of a land-based stay there. Helsinki was a bore, pure and simple. Only place I would have skipped. St. Petersburg was amazing and I am sure there is much more to see. I honestly think I could spend a week in the Hermitage itself but I wouldn't just because of the general Russian government attitude towards visitors. I would definitely not want to do it without Angie and Yuri and I couldn't afford to employ them full time. Tallinn was a one-time stop. Nothing left to see. And yes to a return trip to Copenhagen. Friendly people and more to see.
Brugge--On our own
Warnemunde Berlin--Alla tour
St. Petersburg--Alla tour
Copenhagen--On our own. Took the Ho Ho bus.
Brugges--Do it on your own. Reserve a taxi into the port with friends and take a carriage and boat ride.
Warnemunde Berlin--Don't go to Berlin. Tour Warnemunde/Rostock, etc.
Stockholm--Alla tour but only if you could get our guide, Marien. Otherwise, do the Hop on, Hop off bus stopping at the same places we did.
Helsinki--Stay on the ship
(K's note: I think we would have enjoyed it more if we had taken the bus & just wandered around)
St. Petersburg--Alla tour. Beg for Angie and Yuri. They rocked. Angie is hilarious. Goes into my best guides Hall of Fame.
Tallinn--Walk into Old Town
Copenhagen--Take the Step-On, Step-Off bus and see the town. Take a boat ride.
One other note: for most of the this trip (everyday except London) we were with our best buddies Mike and Carol Preisman. For a completely different take on our trip, see their review by clicking here.