Monday, 15 August 2011

St. Petersburg, Russia

What a city! What a river! An unparalleled city! … Look what harmony! How all the parts complete the whole! Such beautiful surroundings, such taste and altogether such variety springing from the union of water and buildings” – Russian poet Konstantin Batiushkov.

During a two week cruise in the Baltic seas the undoubted highlight of the trip was a two day stop in St. Petersburg, Russia. Before leaving home we researched and booked a two day tour with a Russian company, Alla Tours (, and it was easy and hassle free from start to finish. Our tour meant that we did not have to wait in a single queue for anything as our wonderful tour guide took us to the front of every queue and saved us hours of time by doing so. We quickly learned that queuing is a thing that Russians simply do not do- the tourists queue and the Russians simply walk to the front!

The first thing we did was to take a boat trip to view the city from the water which was a great way to obtain an initial overall view of the city and its many beautiful and ornate buildings. This was followed by a visit to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress and the inside of the Cathedral where many of the Russian Tsars are buried. The history of the Tsars is fascinating and wonderfully scandalous. We then travelled to Peterhof via hydrofoil (which took just 30 minutes rather than an hour by coach) and wandered through the beautiful, ornate gardens and taking in the many fountains, which are all powered by gravity.

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Catherine’s Palace is a place which any visitor to St. Petersburg should visit. The strikingly beautiful blue and white exterior of the building did little to prepare us for the stunning interior with many rooms decorated in gold, ornate ceilings and dazzling chandeliers adorning the Palace.

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The second day of our tour began in the Hermitage Museum, the third largest in the world. We spent more than two hours there admiring yet more stunning rooms decorated in gold and marble and saw original paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Claude Monet and Titian to name but a few. The Hermitage can get very busy and another advantage of having a private booked tour was obtaining early entry into the museum which allowed us to see much of it comfortably and without too many crowds and this is something which I would highly recommend.

This was followed by a visit to The Church of the Spilled Blood, one of the most awe inspiring buildings I have ever seen. The bright blues and greens of its exterior together with its shining gold domes are something not to be missed. The interior is just as striking- it's mosaic covered walls and ceilings were painstakingly restored after the Bolsheviks went on an offensive against religion and destroyed churches all over the country in the 1930’s. The restoration of this, and many of the other buldings in the city, serve as a testament to the brave and couragous Russian people who have been through so much politically and socially in their country in relatively recent years.

The Church of the Spilled Blood

The final stop of our two day whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg was the Yusupov Palace and a walk through the room where Gregory Rasputin was allegedly poisoned and spent some of his last hours before escaping onto the streets of the city. Like the lives of the Tsars, Rasputin's life was also very interesting and somewhat scandalous.

Overall St. Petersburg is a fantastic city with so much to do and see. Despite having been lucky enough to visit a large number of cities in Europe I was wholly unprepared for the entirely different architecture which I found here. It is a city I would love to return to and spend much more time exploring.

Côte D'Azur

The south of France is without a doubt one of my favourite places to visit because of the sheer range of beautiful places to go and interesting things to do within a relatively small area. The largest area of the Cote d’Azur is the bustling coastal city of Nice and this is where I chose to stay on my visits to the south of France.


Nice is quite a large city with just under half a million inhabitants and has a beautiful setting on the coastline of the Mediterranean. Nice Cote d’Azur Airport serves the city and is around 20 minutes from the city entre with buses and taxis readily available at reasonable prices.
My hotel of choice is the Grand Aston Clarion, a recently refurbished hotel in the centre of the city. Its setting at the heart of a large square with lovely fountains and gardens on the Pl. Massena and the fact that it is only five minutes walk from the sea and just under ten minutes walk from the train station means that is it the perfect base to explore Nice. The location of the hotel on the square means that it is both quiet and incredibly central at the same time and this is just one of the reason why I like it so much. It also has a rooftop pool which is great to cool down in the hot summer months and has a popular bar on the top floor which often has live music and features lovely views out over the city towards the sea. From the hotel the main street, Avenue Jean Médecin, which has many shops, restaurants and cafes, is less than a minutes walk and this street and leads to the train station.

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From the train station many different places can be easily accessed including Cannes, Monte Carlo, and a particular of mine, Villefranche-sur-Mer. The trains in France are quick, efficient and, in my experience, almost always on time. They do run a reduced service on a Sunday though so make sure you check the timetables first.


Cannes, home to the world famous film festival, lies to the west of the city of Nice and has its own train station around 5 minutes walk from the front promenade, the Boulevard de la Croisette. A stroll along this street is a perfect way to see the gorgeous speedboats and yachts in the harbour and will also take you past the venue of the world famous Cannes Film Festival which is held annually in May.

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A great way to see more of Cannes is to take one of the train rides that leave from the front promenade throughout the day. This will take you past places such as the famous Carlton Hotel- the favourite of the rich and famous-, the chic boutique shopping areas and then up into the hills, with a stop for photographs of the city from above.


Villefranche-sur-Mer is a small town to the east of Nice and is one of the most beautifully picturesque places I have ever been lucky enough to visit. The stunning (and very expensive!) homes perch on the side of the steep cliffs which rise out of the impossibly blue Mediterranean Sea. The train station is right above the shingle beach and two minutes
from the heart of this small, quaint town.

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VilleFranche Sur-Mer

There are many cafes and restaurants along the waters edge that offer great food with the added bonus of the beautiful view out over the bay. This is a stop for some smaller cruise ships but the people from the cruises usually head straight for Cannes or Monaco and as such Villefranche is usually quiet even if there is a ship in. A nice place to have lunch or dinner is Les Corsaires which serves up everything from tapas-style starters to traditional French food and has the most delicious crepes for desert!

Monaco and Monte Carlo

No trip to the south of France would be complete without visiting Monaco and Monte-Carlo. A visit to the Café de Paris is a must and isn’t too expensive to have a coffee or a drink whilst watching the numerous Ferrari's and Aston Martin's which drive past and getting a glimpse of the rich and famous entering the casino or Hotel de Paris.

The marina here features even more impressive and luxurious boats than the marina in Cannes and often some of the smaller cruise ships dock here. A walk round the marina is a must do for any boat enthusiasts because of the sheer number of expensive boats and yachts that are docked here.

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Monte Carlo Bay

A walk around the famous Formula 1 circuit is a must for any car lover and for anyone who loves sports cars there are many places which offer Ferrari driving experiences- a once in a lifetime opportunity which I was lucky enough to have!