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15th May Oslo Norway

May 15, 2013

11th May. St Petersburg.
The Azimut Hotel is a throwback to the communist era. Over a thousand rooms, it is a bit of a monstrosity plonked in the middle of the old city. Not sure why I picked it but, after the initial shock we have found a few things that appeal. Our room overlooks the Fontanks Canal, the window opens, our food in the restaurant last night was very good, the staff speak good English, beds are comfortable with softest of pillows. But then there is the 237 paces it takes us to get from the lifts to our room, the school groups that seem to have taken the place over and the carpets looking they were laid while Stalin was in power to balance the equation. It’s an experience and not too bad.
Rained today, a goood day to spend at the Hermitage. Caught the bus and was there in no time flat. Then it was a case of finding the correct entrance and queuing for 45 minutes in the rain before passing through the turnstile. You will no doubt know about the Hermitage and its massive collection of artwork. It really is a case of too much to absorb. If you are not careful you might bypass a Da Vinci or a Van Gogh without realizing. We wandered as is our want, for four hours until our feet were sore, dry mouths and befuddled brains. It was an unforgettable experince and little of it could we remember from our last trip in 1968. Being a long weekend the crowds were immense with guided groups dangerous in their approach.
Just the one more train trip before flying to Norway from Helsinki. That will make it ten separate journeys by train so far. Part of the idea for this trip was to see how we went travelling without our van. The train trips themselves have been good especially when the windows are clean enough to see out of which isn’t always the case. It’s a more relaxed way of travel and a good way to meet people. Don’t like the lugging suitcases to taxis and occasionally being ripped off by them like here in St Petersburg. Staying in hotels means you can travel lighter as laundry can be done more regularly. A big lesson as we bought just so many uneccessary items of clothing. Not having to trudge over to the shower is also a plus.
Train travel means you end up in large cities most of the time. Good to see the country pass by but it’s always cities at the end of the journey. Sleepers were comfortable and the trains we travelled in were clean and well maintained. The border crossings were a nuisance as they took so long but that is something you have to live with.
So, yes, I think we would do it again but we still like the van. The comfort of havng our own things around us, being able to eat at home when we want to is hard to beat

14th May. Helsinki, Finland.
After Emma informing us that Finland has been voted the most boring country in the world and both her and Adam sending us copies of the Monty Python sketch of the country it was with some resignation we alighted from the train at Helsinki. I seem to recall they have a very high youth suicide rate which might be the result of the situation here. But having a choice of either a late model BMW, Merc or Volvo taxi to take us to the apartment was a nice surprise.
It rained soon after getting to our apartment but today dawned a beautifully sunny day. One of the locals was saying that three weeks ago the sea in the Gulf of Finland was still frozen over. Hard to believe. He was saying that every year, when the ice begins to thaw, the authorities have to rescue some of the fishermen who have their lines poking through a hole in the ice then suddenly realize they are on an ice flow withouut means to the shore. There are many low lying outcrops of rock above or just below the surface in the sea surrounding Helsinki that are treachorous to careless sailors.
Something very noticeable here in the city was the rubbish lying around, especially cigarette butts. Not something we expected in a Scandinavian country.Our stay here is short and the decision was made to purchase a one day all public transport that included the ferry to the island of Suomenlinna. The island is only a twenty minute journey from the mainland but a very pleasant place to wander for a few hours. The island was turned into a fortress in the mid 1700s and has had a garrison insitu up until 1973. The battlements and buildings are in perfect condition and well maintained. A few cafes and restaurants cater for the many visitors. I didn’t realize that Finland sided with Germany during the 2nd world war. There is a submarine that is now a museum on the island, the only one that was not turned into scrap by order of the allies after the war.
The centre of Helsinki is a mall apart from trams passing through. Our day ticket permitted us to ride them for as long as we liked, we passed the railway station three times before thinking it was about time to get off.
Prices here are on a par wiith AU. That comes as a bit of a shock after Central Asia and to a lesser degree, Russia.
A word on the train that brought us from St Petersburg. It is what they call a tilt train and I think was developed here in Scandinavia. It has the ability to tilt inwards on corners thereby keeping the centre of gravity low and preventing it from derailing at fast speeds. It can run on ordinary tracks because of the tilting, saving a lot of money. The crowd who builds them came to Australia a few years ago to try and sell the idea. A Very Fast Train without the cost of a completely new tracking system. Not sure why the government or private enterprise baulked. The train reached 200kph, not as fast as the 300kph Chinese one but still went along at a good pace.
The wi-fi here in the apartment is not working, I will have to post this from Oslo to where we fly tomorrow.

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