Written by Pieter Cronje, Marketing Manager for the uniWines Group
I never realized how close everything was in and around Scandinavia. 5 days and four countries later and what a cultural and information overdose. Flew into Helsinki which for some reason I have only seen at night time bar one day last year. Caught the early bird ferry 7:30am(7 each day from this specific ferry line) to Tallin(capital of Estonia) which is a two hour trip south across the Gulf of Finland. I was sure that I was one of only a few that was crossing the cold waters on a Monday for business as I later on my return confirmed. Die ferries thrive on duty free trade and the one I took can take up to 2,000 passengers and 450 cars. I was astounded to see all the alcohol being bought by people on the way back. It all makes sense as Finland is a monopoly alcohol state and heavily taxed so absolutely normal for Fins to make the two hour ferry trip and stock up on unlimited amounts for own consumption. Finland has a population of 5.5mil and Estonia 1.5mil and it is said that roughly 7mil passengers use the ferries each year so can well imagine how many people do it just for the sake of alcohol.
So Tallin(UNESCO world heritage site) surprised me immensely as I was expecting unimaginative, socialistic Russian influence in the architecture etc. Was taken for a drive by excursion of the Old Town which is medieval and beautiful with a city wall surrounding it and what used to have 66 protective towers. Stunning limestone buildings and tiled roofs perched on a hill and overlooking the modern day city and port. Well worth exploring more next time!
Estonia has gone through many hands from Danish, Swedish, German, Russian(twice), etc and eventually got independence in 1991 and joined the EU in 2004. It forms part of the Baltic states(Latvia and Lithuania) and a pretty amazing style influence it seems from Southern Europe. The language shares its origin with Finnish and Hungarian I was told so very weird.
Till next time as this seriously intrigued me even only for half a day…
St Petersburg( Russia)
Another double wow awaited me in St Petersburg(the freezing cold was one!). When arriving there the phrase “it sounds Greek to me” sprang to mind as I was hit by a language which I could not place, understand or read. It must have been the Russian spy movies as I am intrigued by the place and to experience it was definitely not a disappointment. This city breathes art and culture in capital letters! It has over 200 museum and 50 odd theatres. It is referred to as the Venice of the north as it is built on the River Neva and made up of about 50 islands with bridges linking the various islands. St Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and use to be the capital city of the Russian Empire for over 200 years. He seems to have been an exceptional leader and visionary emperor and built up the city to its glory from scratch.
The importer arranged for a tour guide and took me to the Hermitage art museum(biggest in the world apparently). The museum is made up of 4 buildings of which one was the tsar’s winter palace. You can’t begin to describe the enormity of the museum and has over 3mil art pieces and artifacts. It is said that it will take up to 7 years to walk through the museum if you spend 1 min at each piece. It makes you wonder how beautiful and opulent the lifestyle was back then when you witness art pieces from Da Vinci, Monnet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Matisse, and many more. The winter palace alone has 1,025 rooms, 117 staircases and people at some point used to live there!
The evening after dinner we went to the opening night of the Laurencia ballet production. An absolutely surreal experience to see it in the Michailovsky theatre. You don’t even need to understand the language or a keen ballet enthusiast to love the experience. Very old school and during the break theatre goers enjoy caviar and champagne and can easily understand the wealth people talk about in Russia.
Palace square where the February and October revolution took place in 1917 and meant the end of the Russian Empire and the beginning of Lenin’s rule.
The wine tasting with 20 odd sales staff members were very interesting as it all had to be translated so delayed response. There is a buzz all over Russia it seems and not so sleepy anymore. The economy has strengthened and doors are opening up for those who are brave to face the cold and the Russian bear. The country is alive with opportunities and wine is only but one of the opportunities although a Vodka drinking culture.
Russia with love……