Letter from Europe

From Bilbao to Murmansk: A Tale of One Princess

Issue no. 2021/10

Picture above: The Princess Anastasia approaching the docks in St Petersburg (photo © Eugenesergeev / dreamstime.com)


Large ferries often go through multiple incarnations and we developed a sort of vicarious attachment to the Princess Anastasia, a vessel which we saw in Bilbao in 2008, and which is now based near Murmansk where she has become part of the infrastructure for tackling the COVID pandemic.

Dear fellow travellers

We have had the Princess Anatasia marked down for a possible trip for many years. This particular princess is a ship which from 2011 served a number of appealing routes in the Baltic region. She is the flagship vessel of a ferry company called St Peter Line. Until March 2020, she worked a complex timetable that saw this handsome cruise ferry routinely calling at Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki and St Petersburg.

Large ferries often go through multiple incarnations, and we recall seeing the same vessel many years ago when she was docked in Bilbao. That was back in about 2008, and in those days she was called the Pride of Bilbao. The ship was used by P&O Ferries on their Portsmouth to Bilbao route. P&O dropped the route at the end of the 2010 summer season. Interestingly, that wasn’t the end of the Portsmouth - Bilbao route; these days it’s operated by Brittany Ferries.

Nor was it the end of the Pride of Bilbao. She was sent to Cornwall for refurbishment and by the following spring was back in commercial service in the Baltic with the newly created St Peter Line. Now sailing under the Maltese flag, she had been renamed Princess Anastasia. For this princess, the return to the Baltic was like coming home. She had been built at a Finnish shipyard.

The commercial strategy of St Peter Line depended largely on being able to offer visa-free trips to St Petersburg, exploiting a loophole in the Russian visa regime which allowed short-stay visitors arriving by ship not to have to go through full visa formalities. And it worked well for many years.

We developed a sort of vicarious attachment to the Princess Anastasia, confident that one day we would sail on her. So we would check her whereabouts on shipping websites which plot vessels’ real-time positions. We knew whether she was in Stockholm or St Petersburg, or perhaps making a rare foray to Gdansk, Riga or elsewhere.

Of course, with the confinements that came with the pandemic, the Princess Anastasia stopped sailing. In April last year she had a spell in Gdansk. Then, in the last week of that month, we saw she was on the move. On 29 April 2020, she passed Skagen, slipping from the Kattegat into the Skagerrak. A year ago today she made a decisive turn to the north. We then followed her long voyage up the Norwegian coast, rounding North Cape and then heading east through the Barents Sea.

On 2 May 2020, Princess Anastasia arrived in Murmansk. At that time a Kola Bay industrial community and construction site just outside Murmansk was struggling to cope with what was at the time the fastest growing Coronavirus outbreak in the Russian Federation. The challenge was to provide secure accommodation for workers who were not affected by the virus. Cramped living quarters on the site only fostered the spread of the virus, and that’s where the Princess Anastasia could help. The vessel effectively became an offshore hotel, providing accommodation for workers. One year on, she is still providing sterling service in the Murmansk region. One wonders if she will ever return to the Baltic.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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