I’m peering at an egg in the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg. Not the hardboiled variety, you understand, but one encrusted with diamonds and miniature images of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s two eldest daughters. Crafted over 120 years ago for the Russian royal family by master jeweller, Carl Fabergé. It is one of nine eggs in the museum, which opened its doors in 2013 and has been on my wish list ever since. The eggs are exquisite. One contains a miniature of Nicholas II’s coronation carriage, another, marking 15 years on the throne, is decorated with tiny images of his family, palaces and coronation.
I was in St. Petersburg for a fabulous three days on a voyage around the Baltic on Regent Seven Seas Cruises ship, Seven Seas Explorer, ‘The Most Luxurious Ship Ever Built’ with all-suite all-balcony accommodation, acres of marble, extravagant chandeliers and even leather flooring. She is stunning and the itinerary - Stockholm to Copenhagen with calls into Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Riga, Klaipeda and Warnemünde - was brilliant but want to know the icing on the cake? That excursion to the Fabergé Museum didn’t cost me a thing; likewise seven others I took during the 10-night voyage.
Free unlimited excursions are one of Regent’s many charms. Having flights, drinks, dining, gratuities - actually, almost everything - included in the price, is another. Just about the only things that cost extra are spa treatments and either top-shelf or small group tours and they are all optional, you can easily leave your cruise with a nil bill. If that appeals (and why wouldn’t it?), and if I can tempt you to go to St. Petersburg, Seven Seas Explorer will be in the Baltic again next summer.
There was certainly plenty to discover on my Baltic cruise. In St. Petersburg, as well as seeing the Fabergé eggs, I joined a Jewish Heritage tour to a Moorish-style synagogue, where we were treated to a lively violin and piano concert and learned about the events that shook the world in 1917 on a revolutionary tour of the city. In the vast Hermitage Museum, where you could literally spend years trying to see everything, guide Olga skillfully manoeuvred us around the gems of the collection - the ornate palace rooms, a 250-year-old Peacock Clock made in London that still works, tables inlaid with mosaic, priceless works of art by Titian, Da Vinci, Rafael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and others.
I also splashed out on a couple of paid-for evening tours - one to Swan Lake at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, which was superb (the ballet and the theatre), the other a tour and classical concert in a palace built by Alexander Menshikov, one of the wealthiest men in St. Petersburg until he upset Peter the Great and was sent to Siberia.
So, that was three days and six tours. Phew! I took a well-deserved day off in Helsinki but was back on the touring trail in Riga and Klaipeda both of which were new territories for me. Riga’s old town was beautiful, packed with lively bars and restaurants and adorned with glorious baroque and gothic architecture, all of which hides a tragic history. The Nazis invaded on 1st July 1941, destroyed the city’s biggest synagogue and murdered the city’s 70,000 Jewish population. In 1944, the city was liberated by the Red Army but to quote my guide ‘they forgot to leave,’ so Latvia became part of the USSR until it collapsed in 1991.
From Klaipeda, I went to an amber museum in the nearby seaside resort of Palanga. The gem is actually fossilised resin that bled from pre-historic trees about 55 million years ago and then hardened. Any insects unlucky enough to be in the vicinity were trapped inside, which is why you can buy amber jewellery with ants or spiders inside. “Women don’t usually like earrings with bugs,” guide Natalija whispered to me. I can’t say I am surprised.
There was a lot of history to uncover in Klaipeda (just eight people were in the city by the time the Red Army got there at the end of the Second World War) and in the German city of Rostock, which is 20minutes from Warnemünde and was heavily destroyed by the RAF in the last war and then trapped behind the Iron Curtain until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It’s a pleasant city to wander but the highlight has to be the astronomical clock in St. Mary’s Church. At midday, a door opens and 11 apostles pass in front of Jesus before entering heaven (the 12th, Judas, is shut out). It is quite spectacular, even more so when you discover it was built in 1472 and still ticks along to this day.
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- Jane Archer