The Northern highlights of St Petersburg
Dec 10 2010 By Barry Phillips
Barry Phillips stops off at some Scandinavian gems on a cruise around the Baltic en route to St Petersburg.
Mission impossible. This was the consensus of my companions aboard 28,338-tonne Black Watch as we cruised the Baltic. Ahead lay St Petersburg – and we would have barely 36 hours to visit the best of its 90-plus palaces, museums and churches.
But the rare feat of this 4,100-nautical mile odyssey from Southampton to Scandinavia and Poland too, was already behind us, in Lapland.
Some 600 of the 773 passengers voted with their feet and explored the little-known cultural centres and vast unexploited forest, lakeland and tundra terrain of the Sami people.
Most were attracted to this 16-night Fred Olsen cruise by its one-off scheduling this summer of a 1,100-nautical mile diversion from the direct route between Stockholm and Helsinki to reach the remote ports of Lulea (north-east.Sweden) and Kemi (north west Finland). .
Adding 48 hours’ sailing to the trip, no more than five cruise ships a year – not all from the UK – berth at these twin gateways to “Europe’s last great wilderness”, as on-board travel lecturer Paul Robinson put it.
Unspectacular small cities – 75 miles apart at the head of the Gulf of Bothnia and about 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle – they are export centres for timber, paper and iron ore, ice breakers on hand for the long, harsh winter.
Despite worthy features these two working ports were surely no match for the fabled magnificence of the amber, gold and crystal yet to be seen in Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg, or the Fountains of Peterhof?
But a compelling hinterland was revealed as we drove north keeping a lookout for wolves, wolverines, reindeer, moose and brown bears.
From 74,000-population Lulea, a high-tech centre, which does have an outstanding 19th century red-brick cathedral of pristine white interior contrasting with red and gold galleries, one may visit the UNESCO World Heritage “church town” community of Gammelstad.
Here as early as the 16th century Lapp farmers and traders built wooden refuges – now 400 privately-owned preserved cottages – to be “stopovers” when ski-ing or sleighing long distances to attend their “local” church.
Others in my group, brought together by Abbey Travel of Selby, tackled the challenging nine-hour excursion penetrating the Arctic Circle at 66 deg 33 min N latitude to reach the Sami Museum at Jokkmokk.
Simple tools, handicrafts, trophies and folk art on display were fascinating, if in a different league to the stately Hermitage museum complex and its 2.8 million world-renowned art exhibits awaiting us in St Petersburg.