By John Simonds


Practically everyone I know in Chicago has St. Petersburg, Russia on their bucket list or fondly tucked away in their memory bank for easy retrieval should the topic come up at the next cocktail party.

It was our turn to cruise the Baltic Sea this year, with a three-day stop over in the city made famous by that six-foot seven-inch hero, Peter the Great and the equally famous, Catherine the Great whose 100 steps in the Hermitage Museum almost caused vertigo.  It is summer in the Baltic Sea only in theory, but more about that later.

My loving partner, Mary Jo Field, has an adventurous spirit. It is she who stealthily plotted this trip before announcing that I probably should think about getting a larger suit case just in case something comes up, like maybe a cruise to Russia leaving on June 26th for Copenhagen at 4:35 from O’Hare, should I be available to join her.

On our first morning in Copenhagen I opened the curtains of our 8th floor room at 6:30 a.m. and there before me was a beautiful blond Danish women doing an elegant breast stroke in the waters beside the quay. She emerged from the waters to change her clothes like a scene from a James Bond movie. Spellbinding. Those Danes are known to be the happiest people on earth.

We went to buffet for lunch that featured eight versions of their favorite fish, the always popular herring—I allowed myself the pleasure of sampling all eight, thank you. But the coup de grace was dinner at the top rated NIMB restaurant of short ribs that had been in a brine overnight and then cooked for 12 hours at 75 degrees. I have ordered the popular Instant Pot from Amazon just so I can try to replicate the Copenhagen gourmet experience and invite my foody friends.

If you are going to cruise the Baltic Sea, any time of year, it is best if you leave your Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts at home: for several days my L.L. Bean parka was the uniform of the day. Blustery with driving rain and a blue poncho for protection, and this was no anomaly. Be prepared, that’s the Boy Scouts marching song.

I am not one who grooves on old frescos in ancient churches so I repaired to cafes to watch the natives go about their daily lives, with my notebook in hand. That about sums up the day excursions to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Quaint is the descriptive adjective for these long-suffering countries occupied by the Nazis and Russians for most of their history.

We traveled in groups of around 30 other tourists, with a well-versed guide using a portable microphone and speaking in a distinctive local accent that my poor hearing aides struggle to understand. What I did hear is that the Nazis burned the Jews in their place of worship in Latvia around 1941. I wish I hadn’t heard that—I would have slept better.

After a brief stop in modern, bustling Helsinki, where there were more construction cranes than in Chicago, we saluted our arrival in Russia with a thimble of vodka. I confess that it was the perfect antidote to the weather, so I had a second helping.

Several of the cultural snobs from New York signed on to go to a ballet. No “the ballet,” just a ballet. We chose a lively evening of Russia folk dancing and singing to brighten our spirits and it by George, it worked.

The three hour guided tour of the Hermitage was simply a reconnaissance—it was a cattle-drive with minders moving us along at a fast pace. Given only 20 seconds to view Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son drove me just a little crazy. I am going to buy the coffee-table book of fine prints of the magnificent collect to enjoy over a glass of Chardonnay.

I think I will go to Paris in April next year.