Thursday, 8 August 2013

Stockholm and the "happy accident" (2)

After rising at a reasonable hour, we began to explore this splendid Scandinavian city. The City Lodge, where we had spent the night, was very close to the Central Station and not at all far from the older part of the city. Built on fourteen islands, connected by a plethora of bridges, there are certainly plenty of sights to enjoy. Some streets are fairly narrow and what with their painted buildings make the old part of the city a delight to explore.

Shanae pausing whilst passing through one of the city's narrow streets
We made our way to the Parliament House and then to the Royal Palace where Shanae was told off for standing too close to one of the guards - inside his designated semi-circle! We were able to view the chapel in the palace where a most informative guide, spending most of his time telling people not to take photographs, tried to explain why there were statues of only six of the twelve apostles. Appanrently larger statues had been planned for the spaces now taken up by these which were removed from a now demolished Catholic cathedral - the remainder are now in storage.

A family giving thanks to God for their food in stained glass
Passing along more narrow streets we stumbled across Tyska Kyrkan, a German church in which we found some rather splendid stained-glass windows depicting scenes of everyday life of peasants in days of yore. Further on, ascending several flights of steps to a high point, we looked out over the city across the water to the north. Then after descending and strolling along the riverfront we came to Riddarholmen, the historical nucleus of Stockholm with its late 13th century church.
Stockholm City Hall
Our final port of call before heading to the port itself was to the City Hall where Shanae hopes one day to be presented with her Nobel prize! It is a fairly modern structure, and though we didn't tour the main chambers was worth a brief visit. Feeling more than just a little peckish we grabbed a bite to eat before retrieving our packs and negotiating what appeared to be a rather ambiguous, pre-paid ticketed bus service to the boat.

On arrival we noticed that there was a rather long queue to negotiate passport control before boarding the boat. A quick word with a friendly face enabled us to bypass this queue in light of being British (at least things were working the way they ought to). On reaching the Princess Anastasia, however, things ceased to work the way they should - this was, after all, a Russian vessel.
Our first contact with all things Russian was the luggage scanning device. My small rucksack made it through OK, despite there being a pair of nail-clippers inside, but my large backpack was not so lucky. There was an evident increase of excitement among the officials which I was to come to learn was rarely a good thing. I wondered at first whether they had detected my opened jar of Marmite and began to consider spending three weeks without it, or maybe it was the PG Tips!

With a degree of enthusiasm reserved for moments like these, the official pointed to his screen and murmured something in Russian which I found myself quite unable to understand. The image on the screen was of a coiled device at one end of my pack which I instinctively recognised to be the water-heater I had been recommended to bring (one can only live so long without tea). I tried to explain that it was a water heater but he made it abundantly clear that it was to be removed at all cost.

A view of Stockholm across the water
I half wondered whether one might have received a different sort of reaction were one to have tried to bring on board an inter-continental ballistic missile, but then thought that perhaps they suspected my water heater to be some sort of thermo-nuclear device with which I planned to melt the boat and take over the world. It was no use. I began to unpack my bag, slowly, piece by piece, not remembering in which end I had packed the thing, somehow enjoying the absurdity of the situation. Finally I found the thing and revealed it to the official who took it away, bagged and labelled it before locking it securely away. I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to hear an English-speaking voice explain to me that no electrical devices were allowed on board, but no apology for the apparent rudeness of the luggage inspector nor explanation for what was to me a plainly absurd ruling. Welcome to the world of Russia.

Once I had been at least temporarily relieved of this dangerous piece of equipment, we made our way to our cabin which was not as expected. We had been expecting to be in different cabins, sharing with a number of other passengers of similar gender, and I had conjured up pictures of rowdy, drunken sea-lubbers singing Baltic sea shanties through the night, interspersed with relentless sessions of Nordic snoring. Little could have been further from what had been arranged for us. They had instead effectively upgraded us to a two-bunk cabin all of our own - and it looked luxurious by comparison.

The Princess Anastasia
It should be pointed out that the Princess Anastasia is a Russian cruise ship, seemingly mostly populated by Russians going on the holiday of a lifetime - well, sort of. By comparison, we were simply using the service as a means of transit to get from Stockholm to St Petersburg. On first boarding the vessel, after negotiating the aforementioned security measures, we had been somewhat impressed by the almost lavish nature of the decor on the main deck. Further explorations revealed a few restaurant areas, bars, casino and a cinema where "Movie tickets you can buy at a bar in front of". OK, their English is better than my Russian, I know!

Opting for the Coffee and Cake restaurant, we feasted on meatballs and mash which seemed to vaguely resemble what might be considered to be a local dish. It became clear that most of the passengers were indeed Russian, likely half way through their cruise from St Petersburg - Helsinki - Stockholm - Tallinn and back home again. It also became apparent that even when on holiday it was customary not to smile a great deal.
The incredible violinist at our spectacular show
The highlight of the evening's on board entertainment must have been the life-jacket putting-on contest. Having surprisingly never witnessed one of these before, I was a little unsure as to how this would proceed. The compere spoke first in Russian, but then explained in English that three men and three women were being chosen by "happy accident" - which I understood to mean 'at random' - to form three couples. The man was then to place the life-jacket on the lady, tying it up correctly, then she was to blow the whistle before being carried up and down the aisles by her partner. I was just hoping that by the end of the voyage we were not all going to have need to take part! Following this "amazing" contest, the really "spectacular" and "unique" show began which included an "incredible" violinist, a singing "star" and the obligatory dancing girls. What a "fantastic" treat - though not bad for the first night of a two-night journey.

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