To Russia with love

We are on our way. Ian looked after the transfer to the port. Linda is house sitting and looking after the house. Kim is looking after Jane and I’m looking after the ship.

It’s a 16 night cruise to the Baltic on Queen Victoria. Many new ports and some old favourites, but the highlight is the 2 day visit to St Petersburg. Mira will be our guide for the third time, but more about her later.

We are enjoying a foggy day at sea today before our first port tomorrow. The itinerary is

Skagen – Denmark

Copenhagen – Denmark

Gdynia (Gdańsk) – Poland

Visby – Sweden

St Petersburg – Russia

Klaipeda – Lithuania

Oslo – Norway

Kristiansand – Norway

We met our dinner companions last night. We knew that Diana from Henley and Maureen from Bishops Waltham would be joining us. We had sat with them on QE two years ago and had kept in touch. As usual Jamie Firth had organised it so that we could sit at table 309. My fear was that I would be the only male on a table of eight, but I’m pleased to say that the Maitre ‘d has organised it brilliantly and Peter, Malcolm and Jim have made it four all.

Tonight is a formal night with the Captain’s party first and then, following dinner, a show featuring Phillip Browne. We have heard him many times before, but he has been starring in the West End for a number of years and we hope that his return to Cunard means that he has updated his act. He has a great bass voice.



Skagen in North Jutland is Denmark’s most northerly town.

It is the place where the Kattegat and the Skagerrak meet. It is Denmark’s major fishing port.

After a leisurely breakfast we were shuttled into town to find numerous cafes, restaurants and bars in the street approaching the pedestrianised area. That area was packed with shops so Jane and Kim were happy. They managed to lose me for a time, but I had the cash and the credit cards. Mean – me – Never!

The streets of Skagen are packed with buildings almost exclusively painted yellow with red roofs.

Skagen is clearly a popular tourist area. It claims to have more sunshine than any other area of Denmark. It was certainly sunny for most of the day while we were there. Tomorrow Copenhagen.


Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen

It was Hans Christian Anderson who said so or was it Danny Kaye?

But before I tell you about our day in Copenhagen, I must apologise for the fact that some of the images didn’t appear in the short report on Skagen yesterday.

When the blog doesn’t perform perfectly, I usually blame the slow satellite broadband on the ship, but the reality is that I am usually the one at fault. As Jane will tell you, I rarely admit to having any imperfections, but the problem with only writing a blog when at sea, is that I forget how to do it. And downloading images to the blog is one of the tasks I have to rediscover. If you look again at the Skagen entry you should now find the missing bits!

We arrived in Copenhagen on time. Cunard had managed to sort out a coach with a lift for a tour of the city and I had booked it weeks ago, for the 3 of us. Meet in the Queens Room at 8.30 am was the instruction. We did so and were told that there was only room for 2 wheelchairs and we were the third. Had we indicated that one of us was in a wheelchair, the rather brusque girl from the tour office asked. Yes indeed we had. Imagine the steam coming out my ears by then. Go over there and wait, the uncaring girl said. Not good public relations.

Jane’s smart idea was to go ashore immediately, find the coach with the lift and get aboard. We did that and all was fine. It transpired that the third wheelchair user could walk and climb the stairs into the coach and only needed the wheelchair if a lengthy walk was involved. Her chair was stowed underneath the coach.

But of course I’m not a moaner! From time to time I meet with Angus Struthers, Marketing Director at Cunard, and tell him where I feel improvements could be made. One area I always raise is excursions for those with impaired mobility. Can I report significant improvement? No. On this cruise only this one wheelchair friendly excursion has been offered. It’s a shame.

Now that that’s off my chest, I return to our day in Copenhagen. We have been here twice before on Cunard ships. The first occasion was on the maiden voyage of this ship, the Queen Victoria. Kim had not been before, so an organised tour was important. The first stop was less than a mile away at the Little Mermaid.

A coachload of Japanese tourists were milling about. The Mermaid sits on a boulder in the water with stones around to enable you to get close. After I had taken some photos, I started to move carefully up the stoney bank. I then felt someone holding my arm and supporting me. I looked round to find a young Japanese girl clearly trying to help an elderly man! And I have always thought of myself as a youngster. She thought otherwise.

Our tour was clearly designed for geriatrics, but we were occasionally allowed off the bus and the highlight was the Amalienborg Palace and Square. The Queen lives in one of the Palaces, the Crown Prince and his family in another and other royals in the Palaces nearby. The Danish royal family are said to be very popular and are apparently regularly seen in the area, walking or jogging or taking their children on cycles to school.

While we were in the Square the guards changed regularly.

Tomorrow we are at sea and then it’s Poland.


Musicians aboard

The name Phillip Browne may mean nothing to many of you. We used to find him popping up as an entertainer on these ships in the distant past, but had not heard of him for a number of years. He has a great bass voice and made his name in the Lion King in the West End.

The downside in the past was that his act was identical every time he appeared. The same stories of his life as a London bus driver and the same songs in the same order from the same shows.

But here he was again. A full 45 minute show featuring the same Phillip Browne. He was very good and hardly mentioned the buses.

That was a couple of nights ago. Last night two glamorous young women calling themselves the String Idols were the stars. Sparkling dresses and playing violins brilliantly. One said she was English but brought up abroad and the other said she was Lithuanian. We were at the back, but they looked very attractive.

They charged through a wide variety of music in a very slick and entertaining session, finishing with regulation Last Night of the Proms pieces played with gusto at a great pace.


Do you remember Danzig?

We were there on Friday. Actually we were nearby in Gdynia. And Danzig has changed its name. It’s now the Hanseatic city of Gdańsk.

Those of a certain age will remember Lech Walesa who co founded Solidarity in 1980 and was elected President of Poland in the General Election of 1990. He had been a shop steward in what was then the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk.

It was a beautiful calm day when we arrived and the sun shone on us all day. Transport was limited. No adapted vehicles were available to take us to Gdańsk, but there was a bus with a (very steep) ramp to take us to Gdynia.

Gdynia was clean and prosperous. In the area that we explored, a festival was due to take place over the weekend and staging, food outlets and stalls were being set up. Alongside were a number of vessels including the Dar Mlodziezy – a Polish tall ship and the first Polish built ocean going sailing vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

In addition the destroyer Blyskawica was berthed there. Interestingly she was built in Cowes, Isle of Wight at J Samual White’s shipyard. She was launched there on 1 October 1936. The vessel was back in Cowes in 1942 for a refit and on 15 May 1942 was instrumental in defending Cowes from an attack by 160 German bombers.

We then walked south to the marina, which was packed with a variety of yachts and motor boats. The large number of Mercedes and BMWs surrounding the marina indicated that some people in Poland are managing well.

It was our first visit to Poland and we were impressed. It appears to be thriving, which may explain why many of the Polish people who came to England for a better life have now returned to their native land. Or might their return home have something to do with our Brexit problems?



Competition time!

Who has been to Gotland?

No googling and no checking your atlas, but in which country is Gotland to be found and what is the name of it’s capital?

That’s where we were on Saturday and it was great that all three of us were able to go ashore together. The port had been advertised as an ‘Anchor port’ in the mobility information. That’s where the ship anchors off shore and passengers are ferried to and from the ship in the ship’s tenders. Those with mobility problems can’t go ashore, so when it happens, Jane has to stay on the ship and Kim and I each go ashore for half the day so that one of us is always with Jane.

Visby, which is is the capital of the Swedish island of Gotland, now has a large pier for two ships. The pier was opened last year. That’s where we tied up on Saturday 25 May. We didn’t learn of the new pier until the evening before, but it was great because Visby has a botanical garden which Jane had thought she was going to miss.

We had read that Visby is the best preserved medieval town in Scandinavia with cobbled streets so we decided against the electric wheelchair and opted for the one we push. What we hadn’t read was that Visby is very hilly. Steep cobbled streets. But it started gently and the ladies loved the botanical garden.

We explored onwards and upwards through pretty streets and colourful medieval buildings. There were numerous ruined churches and ramparts forming the old city wall. And the amazing three towered Cathedral of St Mary with dark spires and red roofs. It was originally built in the 12th century but has burnt down four times and has been rebuilt and restored many times. While we were in the Cathedral a baptism service started. The baptismal font is 13th century.

We were told that although the town was fairly busy it did not compare with the summer period. Apparently the island is incredibly popular with tourists. Visby is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Apologies for the lack of photos. The internet is so slow and I cannot download them at the moment.


St Petersburg

This is our third visit to St Petersburg. On all three visits our guide has been Mira. I cannot remember how I found her originally. I guess it was Google. On the last two occasions Mira came with a driver and met us at the ship. My recollection is that on our first visit the vehicle was a little Russian car but that on the next visit things had improved and the driver had a Mercedes.

On those earlier visits I was able to manhandle Jane from her wheelchair into the front seat of the car. That is not now possible and we need a vehicle with either a ramp or a lift. For this visit Mira was able to organise one through her friend Tatiana who runs Petro Travel.

If anyone is visiting St Petersburg in the future, I can recommend Mira, Tatiana and Petro Travel. A small group can be guided through the Palaces, Museums, Cathedrals and Churches at speed. Over the last few days we have watched large groups trailing along behind guides and seeing and hearing nothing.

Mira has been guiding us to the front of every queue while telling us the story behind every building, every room, painting, piece of furniture and their history. She has a remarkable knowledge of St Petersburg and of European and Russian history, built up over a lifetime telling the story of the city. Let me know if you would like her contact details.

On Monday Mira met us at the port. This was the adapted vehicle. Perfect. It was a cold day and we were well wrapped up and ready to go. We had decided not to go to Peterhof, and Catherine’s magnificent summer palace. We had spent a day there in the past, so it was agreed that we would drive out of the city to Tsarskoe Selo where Pushkin was educated.

First Mira took us on a tour of the city.

The buildings alongside the Neva river are breathtaking and after a number of photo stops we set off to the area named after Pushkin, some 40 minutes out of the city.

The palace was magnificent. As we approached it there massive queues of tourists waiting to get in. Mira led us past the hoards of people and at one point I saw a sign saying “3 hour wait from here”. She took us right to the front and through a door to a small lift which took us up to the main floor of the palace. Mira has lost none of her skills since we last met her!

Pushkin statue. This was actually in the City itself.

Sorry there is still a major problem with the broadband being a narrowband and I can’t get the photos to you. I’m now in a bar in Lithuania and their free WiFi is hopeless!

But I’m now in the Information place and the broadband is terrific!

These two photos were taken in St Isaacs Cathedral before we drove off to Púshkin.


St Petersburg Day 2

Yet again I must grovel and apologise for the fiasco over the photos. I have decided that the photos are too large and that combined with the fact that the internet beamed in by satellite is very slow means that the photos take longer and longer to download to the blog. I am pleased to say that after we had left St Petersburg I found out how to reduce them in the camera. So hopefully Lithuania onwards will be much easier.

On Day 2 Mira collected us at 10.00 with a different driver. We toured areas we had not visited before and then arrived at the Hermitage. It must be the largest museum in the world. 3.5 million exhibits, it is said. It was packed with people, but again Mira filtered us into pole position whenever there was a queue or a jam. Usually we were going against the flow, but Mira knew where all the rooms or paintings she wanted us to see were to be found.

The only problem Mira had to face was with a lift that we needed to get us down to ground level. There was a large notice on it saying it was out of order. Jane had seen a notice in it, when the four of us had used it earlier, saying that it could only take a wheelchair and one Carer. So we had probably broken it. Please don’t tell anyone.

It meant that we had to walk about half a mile on the level we were on, to another lift that would take us down. That was fine until we left the lift. The only way out was down some steps. Mira grabbed 2 male tourists, pointed at Jane and the wheel chair, and gamely they helped to lift Jane down all the steps.

It was a great day. I will not attempt to input any images today but I will tell you a little story about the internet here on the ship.

When you board you can buy a package of internet time. If you are a frequent Cunard cruiser you get a fair amount free. The clock ticks every time you log in, but what you have to remember is to logout of the ships system, when you have finished. If you don’t log out the clock continues to tick. Sounds easy, but if Jane or Kim suddenly need something then logging off can be forgotten. It’s not just a matter of shutting the laptop or iPad, you have do more than that and get out of the ships system.

The other day I forgot, went down to the lady in charge, told her what had happened and expected her to give me the time back. About 2 hours of time was involved. It was obvious that I had downloaded the Sunday Times which had taken about 4 minutes and nothing else. But she said there was lots of activity because emails had come in. Of course emails come in. But I had not used the internet. Much argument and eventually she gave it back, but what terrible customer relations. It cost them nothing. Of course if I had run out of free time then I might have had to buy time. That’s what they could have missed.

I hate being treated like some sort of criminal. The lady was effectively saying she didn’t believe me. In the past similar situations have been dealt with instantly and sensibly. I hope someone senior in Cunard reads this.


Klaipeda, Lithuania

The photo test appears to have worked. Fingers crossed I may get some photos to you. Klaipeda was a Maiden port for Queen Victoria and for the Captain. Neither the ship nor the Captain had ever been here before. The Captain was pretty confident about getting into the berth and carried out the manoeuvre immaculately.

Klaipeda is the third largest city in Lithuania with a population of 165,000. It has the country’s only significant port which is the most northerly ice-free port on the east coast of the Baltic. As it was an attractive port, it was taken over by Sweden for a time in 1629 and Russia ruled for a time from 1757.

Lithuania was occupied by the Germans in WW1, but Klaipeda (then known as Memel) came under French administration in 1918, then declared itself independent. Nazi Germany annexed the city in 1939 and Hitler came to the city on the pocket battleship Deutschland. In 1945 the city fell to the Red Army and following that was annexed to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 1991 the USSR recognised Lithuania’s independence and then in 2004 the country joined the EU.

That’s a potted history, mainly courtesy of Cunard’s port guide.

This was a house on the bank of the River Dan viewed from our cabin on the port side of the ship. This was the view from the starboard side. A rust bucket registered in Riga was on the other side of the berth.

We won’t be cruising on her in the near future. I think Marian Pahars who played for Southampton FC in the nineties, came from Riga. My recollection is that he now manages the Latvian national team. My old firm sponsored Marian when he was with SFC and we got to know him well.

But back to Klaipeda. There was a shuttle with a ramp that took us the short distance to the City centre. Kim and Jane spotted a market which they wanted to explore. The big problem was the cobbles. The roads and pavements were cobbled and those in the roads were the worst which meant crossing roads was a nightmare.

I went in search of some from WiFi. It was not good in the first two bars – slower than the ship – but the information centre had very quick WiFi and I managed to download some photos before the ladies tracked me down.

Kim was in charge of the maps and led us to what had apparently been the city cemetery but was now a sculpture park. We wandered across the river, took in the sculptures and then found a lovely walk through the town and back to the main square.

Klaipeda is clearly developing as a tourist resort and as we sailed out of the river, back into the Baltic, beautiful beaches stretched for miles.