Northern Europe Expedition 26 June to 15 August 2014
Part #3 - The Baltic Sea
Part 2: July 6 to 20, 2014 - Iceland and Norway
Part 4: August 3 to 15, 2014 - The British Isles
20 July 2014
- Dover, England
. Today was the end of my previous cruise to Iceland and Norway
and the beginning of the Baltic Sea adventure. As it was pouring with rain, so foggy that I could not see the sea, and I am suffering from a cough, I decided it would be prudent to stay on board and not walk 4 km into town, since not much would be open anyway, it being a Sunday. In any case, for the first few hours, I was kept busy by moving from my port-hole stateroom on Deck 3 to my balcony stateroom on Deck 7. Otherwise, as usual on the first day of a new cruise, I was chasing round the ship getting my new card validated, my shipboard account credited, logging into my new free internet package, deciding which tours to take, participating in the Spa raffle (this time I won nothing), collecting stamps for the treasure hunt raffle (I won nothing) and waiting until 8:15 p.m. so as to meet my new table mates at dinner. The meal was not great and the menus had started to repeat themselves from the last voyage, so on non formal nights, I might just eat my dinners at the buffet this voyage.
21 July 2014
- Amsterdam, The Netherlands
. The day started out lousily. I had not slept well and had had some stomach upsets, so I was not sure if I should cancel my meeting in Amsterdam. I switched my phone on at around 7 a.m. and found a message from my friend F in Brussels that he was delayed, but on his way, and would arrive in Amsterdam at about 10 a.m. This gave me a couple hours of reprieve, time to rest a bit longer, and once I got up and had had a hot shower, I felt better, but still did not feel like eating anything. The weather was no better from yesterday, still covered in thick cloud and heavy rain was ominous. Nonetheless, I repacked my backpack with raingear, and took only the one camera plus a souvenir from the last voyage that I planned to present to F. Via periodic texting back and forth, we let each other know of our respective whereabouts, as F advanced in his train from Brussels to Amsterdam Central via Rotterdam and the Hague, and I left the ship to take the free shuttle to Sloterdijk train station, where I bought a day return ticket to Amsterdam Central (we were berthed about 6 km from Amsterdam central and this was the recommended route to the main Dam square). I found out at which platform the train from Brussels was arriving and texted F this information and that I would be waiting for him at the Starbucks downstairs.
We managed to meet without a hitch and immediately went to the other Starbucks upstairs, which was less congested and quieter, so as to have coffees and something to eat, which my body accepted without any fuss, to my delight. We then tried to plan out our day and due to the fact that we had already explored the usual tourist spots of Amsterdam - a canal boat tour, Anne Frank's house, the red light district, etc. - together in our youth, we found another way to spend the time together. As it was, my camera remained the entire day inside my backpack, so I have no photos to share with you here. There are a number of art museums in Amsterdam - just saying - but the time we spent together was well worth it and I am so glad I decided not to cancel the rendez-vous
22 July 2014
- The Kiel Canal, Germany
. I had had a pre-conceived idea that today would be as boring as a sea day. I had been several times to Germany and yet, curiously, had never known of the existence of the Kiel canal. Nor had anyone who'd done this trip before me ever told me of the splendours I was to behold. And beholden I was. So glad to have been upgraded to a balcony room, I would not now have had it otherwise. I was genuinely fascinated by the life that was going on outside, the minute details of everyday life on a (happily) very sunny day. I had imagined erroneously that this would be the case on my Amazon cruise last winter but the Amazon was so wide that it was not possible to be so close to shore as we were in this canal. For those of you who are still clueless as to what I am talking about, the Kiel Canal is the world's busiest artificial waterway, surpassing even the Suez and Panama Canals in the number of ships. Originally called the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal and stretching 61 miles or 98 kilometres through the German Land
of Schleswig-Holstein from Kiel on the Baltic to the North Sea locks at Brunsbuttel near the Elbe River, it was opened in 1895 by Wilhelm II of Germany and since then 5 million ships have passed through it saving them a detour of 280 nautical miles (519 kilometres) around Denmark's Jutland Peninsula. It is crossed by 10 major bridges and one road tunnel.
This was an all-day experience as it took us from about 8 a.m. until almost 10 p.m. to traverse the canal. In the morning, we sat in the first locks waiting for small yachts from Denmark, France, Germany, Norway etc. to park side by side in groups of three. Then finally when it was decided that the lock was at full capacity, the gate closed behind us all, water rushed in to bring us up a few inches and when the gate opened again, all the yachts were free to leave before us. The passengers on these yachts, down upon which I was able to look from my balcony, seemed for the most part to be families, surely on vacation. One family of three children fascinated me and I watched as the two older boys got off on the side to run around while the mother put sun cream on her young daughter and then pushed her in a swing suspended from a metal rail on the back of the yacht. Then one of her brothers came to push her in the swing while their mother helped their father gather up all the lines again to cast off and motor away.
We had a Volunteer Fire Department brass “Oompah” band join us on the ship at the locks and they played three sets of about forty-five minutes each during the day on the top deck by the swimming pool. Passengers were congregated by the pool anyway in their (too small) bikinis. All along the banks of the canal there are walking paths as well as running and biking tracks, and vacationers can also enjoy ship watching as part of their holiday. People seemed genuinely happy to see us! People would literally stop their bikes and wave at us; people would stop their cars and wave at us, people sitting in their own gardens or in pub gardens would stand up and wave at us; people sitting on the longest bench in the world waved at us. People were shouting Hallo and waving at us. We felt like royalty. As an added privilege, I twice saw deer unperturbed by our passing behemoth calmly eating the bushes on the banks of the canal. There were also magnificent views of modern and traditional windmills, houses with window space maximised to full capacity, grain being harvested and poured into canal barges...simply, life going about its normal daily business. Fascinating indeed! I kept on photographing until the bitter end, which was marked by the locks at Kiel, at which time the brass band left us, and I was standing at the stern of the ship watching the setting sun.
24 July 2014 - Stockholm, Sweden. The sun woke me up at about 5 a.m. and I found that our ship was already gliding soundlessly past the islands of the archipelago, of which the islands that form Stockholm are part, and I sat on my bed mesmerized by the early morning light reflecting off the buildings and the sea. Sweden has a population of about nine million and Stockholm, its capital, is located on the South-East coast. The Gamla Stan (Old Town) of modern Stockholm was recorded as a fortified town as early as 1250. Modern Stockholm is known as Venice of the North as it is built across fourteen islands linked by boats and bridges. It was King Gustavus II Adolphus who established Sweden as a major power and it was the leading country of Northern Europe in the 1600s.
I took the free shuttle into town at 8 a.m. as, like for Amsterdam, we were berthed far away, and wandered on my own into the old town taking photographs. As I was so early, it was nice to see it pedestrian- and tourist-free. I was disappointed to find out that one had to pay to enter the Cathedral, and I waited half an hour for the Nobel Museum to open only to be told that it had a cost as well (someone on the ship had told me it was free), so I gave that a miss as well. I hung around the royal palace for a while and then wandered round to the main thoroughfare to the Kungstrad garden in search of a theatre of gold I had seen on the bus, but I did not find it and instead ended up on the pedestrian shopping street. It was disconcerting to be approached by gypsy women asking for money (something I was used to seeing twenty or thirty years ago in Europe - apparently once Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU, Scandinavia was flooded with gypsies from these two countries!) but I ignored them and carried on. My route brought me back to the Royal Palace again, so I decided I would stake out a prime photography/filming place and wait for the changing of the guard, which I was led to believe would be well worth it. It was a long wait, however, and at first I was in the shade, but the sun moved and then the guards set up a cordon so I moved up to the rope and was in the full sun among other spectators for a good half hour. A few minutes before the guards were to be changed, I began to feel uncomfortable, so relinquished my prime spot in order to regain some space in the shade, to sit down on the pavement and cool down. Consequently, by the time the ceremony started at 12:15 all the tall people were in front of me and I saw very little. What I did see and hear did not seem particularly special when compared, say, to the changing of the guard I had experienced in Athens, or London, Monaco, Malta or even the Dominican Republic, so I escaped before it was over, so as not to be engulfed by the retreating throng of tourists and, more especially, so as to be in time to catch the free shuttle back to the ship. Stockholm is certainly a beautiful city, but today was just a little too hot to appreciate it fully.
25 July 2014 - Tallinn, Estonia. With a population of 431,000, the capital city of the Baltic state Estonia, Tallinn, was founded in 1154 A.D. and is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and became a member of the EU. Influenced by Teutonic, Polish, Russian and Soviet regimes, Estonia has retained many western traditions such as the Latin alphabet and strong Catholic and Protestant faiths. With its cobblestone streets, Tallinn's old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once again I was disconcerted to find that one had to pay to go into churches. The only ones I was able to enter without having to pay a fee were the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St. John's Church on Freedom Square. Did you know that both marzipan and Skype were invented in Estonia? Moreover, the first daily newspaper in the world was published in Tallinn in 1675. England did not produce a newspaper until 1702!
I walked into Tallinn on my own, as it was a mere 500 metres from the cruise ship terminal. Another hot day, but there was enough shade to walk in and many interesting and colourful buildings - even some in Art-Deco style. I managed to visit all the monuments mentioned on the tourist map and hit the best spots for views. There were many tourist groups being shepherded around on foot in both the upper and lower towns, but I was so glad I had not booked a tour today, and could go at my own leisurely pace, ducking into interesting alleys, listening to musicians, resting in the shade and tuning into the multitude of languages being spoken around me. I spent about 3 hours in the old town before heading back to the ship, and felt I had done all I wanted to do.
26-27 July 2014 - St. Petersburg, Russia. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703, St. Petersburg was Russia's imperial capital from 1713 to 1918, and called Petrograd from 1914-1924 and Leningrad during the Communist regime. It became St. Petersburg once again in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and currently has a population of over 5 million. By contrast, Moscow's population is about 14.5 million. It was an exhausting two days in St. Petersburg: the weather stayed warm and it was Navy weekend in the city so streets were crowded with Navy boys and girls in their blue-and-white-striped maillots as well as visitors to the city from the countryside. I had opted for the two-day tour, enabling me to get off the ship without the need for a Russian visa. We were berthed on the Neva River within sight of Saint Isaac's Cathedral, yet only as far as the first bridge, as they were all too low for our ship to pass underneath.
We were extremely lucky in our guide, Leo, for the two-day tour, for he was a young, personable fellow with a couple of university degrees under his belt - surely one in Russian history, for he knew it all, but his knowledge of art was fairly extensive as well. He had studied in Iowa, where, coincidentally, he met his Russian wife. Our first day started out at 7 a.m., after passing through Russian customs, and we left immediately for Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, located outside the city, so it took about an hour to get there. We visited the many rooms of the palace first, then were given about 45 minutes to visit the grounds and wait for the fountains to turn on at 11 a.m. accompanied by music. They are left on all day and turned off again at 6 p.m. This ornate palace overlooks the Gulf of Finland and the Grand Cascade Fountain in the gardens features Samson prying open a lion's jaws as water pours down the terraced steps. The video below shows the fountains at the time they are turned on at about 11:15 a.m.
We then drove back to the city and visited the Peter and Paul Fortress, built to protect the city from Swedish attack and once a prison for political prisoners, now housing the tombs of many Tsars, including Peter the Great, who, we learned, was nearly 7 feet tall. We visited the church where these tombs were located, and left for last the room dedicated to Nicholas II and his family, whose remains were all buried together, we were told, since there were not many left.
We stopped at a restaurant for lunch during which we were entertained by a very good pair of woman singers accompanied by an accordionist. After lunch, we visited the palace belonging to the Yusupovs, the site of the murder of Rasputin. There was time for shopping at a very reasonably-priced shop, where I bought a book on the tsars since Leo had been giving us some very good stories about them all. We were dropped off at the ship at about 4:30 so as to have time for a shower and change of clothes before our evening's visit and entertainment. At 6 p.m. we were back on the bus and this time driven the opposite way out of town to Catherine's Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Designed by Rastrelli, this opulent baroque palace is set in 1400 acres of parklands and gardens. Upon arrival, we were invited to toast our visit with vodka and at every meal have been treated to sparkling wine, table wine and vodka! Built in 1717 under Catherine the Great, who was originally the German Princess Sophia Augusta Frederica, the palace was originally covered in solid gold until 1773 when Catherine II had it removed in favour of olive paint. The palace has been torn down and rebuilt six times. Now painted blue, it has some fabulous rooms, including one decorated in amber. As we were privileged in having a private visit to this palace, we were allowed to take as many photos as we liked, and were treated to several pieces of music, more wine and a couple of ballet dancers accompanied by a string quartet, as shown in the video below. We then visited the hall containing the emperors' and empresses' carriages. For dinner, we were driven to Paul's Palace in Pushkin, and once again were entertained by singers and instrumentalists.
Day 2 of our St. Petersburg tour started at 7:30 a.m. and after driving round the city streets for a while and stopping for a walk on Nevsky Prospekt, we next took a canal tour on the Fontanka and Moika Rivers, while sipping on sparkling wine, and out to the Neva River passing the Cruiser Aurora, which was full of Navy men in uniform, probably undergoing an inspection. Each bridge was different and offered a variety of decoration. We then walked to the Hermitage, aka the Winter Palace, built by Peter the Great from 1711. It has 1786 doors, 1945 windows, 117 staircases, 1500 rooms and can sleep 6500. Having us enter from the back of the Palace, Leo took us first to the Gold room, which was not, as I had imagined, one room made of gold, but rather a number of rooms containing a collection of very expensive jewellery that had once belonged to the Russian royal families - either their own purchases or gifts given them by other royal families, etc. It was absolutely exquisite and worth the visit, though, unfortunately, photography was not permitted. Then Leo led us through to some of the more important art collections, including two Da Vinci paintings, two Rafaels and a room of Rembrandts, past Egyptian sarcophagi and Greek marble busts and statues. We were then left to our own devices for about an hour and I visited a collection of clothing from the 16th through to the 19th centuries, some French army paintings, and a small collection of French impressionists that had been captured by the Nazis during World War II. The museum was crowded by then and I was afraid of getting lost, so I returned to the rendez-vous area to wait for our appointed meeting time. In all, we spent about 3 hours in the Hermitage yet covered only a tiny portion of the entire collection. However, it was enough for a first visit, I felt. We then had a quick visit to St. Isaac's Cathedral, which boasts a massive dome covered in 220 pounds of gold and was commissioned by Alexander I in 1818, before stopping for lunch. Our last visit was to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which marks the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on 1 March 1881. This is my favourite place in St. Petersburg, chock full of brightly coloured mosaics, and I could photograph it for hours, but I already photographed it extensively during my last visit a few years ago. It cost approximately 4.6 million roubles to be built, way over the budgeted 3.6 million. We were dropped back at the ship by 3:30 p.m. and I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on my photos and blog. I also had two days of e-mails to answer. The sail out was spectacular as we turned the ship around and cruised back down the Neva. People were out in full force to wave us off when we left as they were visiting navy ships, coast guard vessels and submarines. Further out, we passed along a channel and watched people wave to us from the embankments, and then from islands where they were fishing, picnicking, swimming and boating.
28 July 2014 - Helsinki, Finland. With a population of 5.38 million, Finland has successfully remained independent since 1917 and both Finnish (92%) and Swedish (6%) are the official languages. Finland uses the Euro as currency and is the only Scandinavian country to do so. Helsinki's population is 590,000. As for religion, 78% of the population is Lutheran and 1% is Orthodox. I had booked another all-day tour, and this one took us past the embassies and the main buildings downtown, the Olympic Stadium, built for the 1952 summer games, and North to Sibelius Park, which has a large monument in stainless steel to honour Jean Sibelius, composer of Finlandia. There was also a mask of his face in steel. We were asked by our excellent and amusing guide, Lisa, what the monument reminded us of and most of us said organ pipes, though apparently they were supposed to represent Birch trees. Next, we took about an hour to drive past fields of wheat, barley, oats and rye to Porvoo, Finland's second oldest city, founded in 1346 by Swedish King Magnus Eriksson. A quiet town, the highlight was free chocolate provided by a chocolate store. There was a handicrafts market and cobblestone streets, but basically nothing much of interest (to me) to photograph.
After lunch at an estate, we drove back to Helsinki while Lisa told us about Finland's sauna traditions. We visited the Temppeliaukio Church, designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, blasted and carved from solid granite rock in 1969 and covered with a copper dome - a photo of the inside of which you see above - made of several miles of copper wire. Our final visit was to Senate Square and its impressive Lutheran Cathedral of St. Nicholas. A couple of streets further on was the Kauppatori Market Square where vendors sold fresh fish, fruits and vegetables as well as souvenirs. I then walked up the hill to the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, but it was closed on Mondays, so I was unable to see inside.
29 July 2014 - Riga, Latvia. Latvia has been ruled by Poland, Sweden and Russia. The current population overall is about 2.5 million and Riga, Latvia's capital, now with about half a million population, was part of the Hanseatic League from 1282. Unfortunately, our visit to this country was a washout, literally, and I have no good photos to display. We did not arrive until noon and my tour was in a bus around the major art nouveau and art deco buildings (seen from the bus window, and therefore not worth photographing, what with the reflection) and then to the seaside town of Jurmala, to look at nouveau-riche-Russian-owned summer houses, again from the windows of a bus. When we finally got out of the bus to visit the Euros800 a night Baltic Spa Hotel for coffee, and meat-filled pirogies (no catering for vegetarians), it began to rain and then it poured down. So, instead of visiting the beach or shopping at the resort's stores with massively inflated prices to cater to the posh Russians, we sat inside the hotel restaurant and watched the rain and the lightening. There was so much rain that the roads became flooded (no doubt we were due for rain and storms after seven straight days of sunshine and heat) but nevertheless, not a fun day and certainly not amenable to photography. Neither were we supplied with maps of Riga or Jurmala on the bus, so I asked for one specially from the hotel, nor did I find a flag of Latvia to photograph, so a very disappointing day. The tour guide was a bit of a laugh too. She kept on repeating herself, several dozen times, saying the same thing, and she never stopped talking, so it was very tiring in that respect as well. Despite all that, though, she did provide some interesting facts about Latvian economics and about the nouveau-riche Russians that live here. With hindsight, I should have given up the idea of a tour and just walked into the old town on my own at my own pace. Well, perhaps next time.
30 July 2014 - Klaipeda, Lithuania. Lithuania was restored to independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 and is now a member of the EU and of NATO. It is set to adopt the Euro as its national currency in January 2015. Located 193 miles northwest of Lithuania's capital Vilnius and, with a population of 160,000, Lithuania's third largest city, Klaipeda (pronounced CLAY-pe-da) was part of the Prussian kingdom for most of its history and is now a prosperous harbour town. Our half-day tour took us to the Curonian Spit, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and drifting sand dune, split between Lithuania and Russia and located between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon. According to legend, it was created by a giantess and it has reputedly one of the best beaches on the Baltic Coast. Its fisherman's village of Juodkrante has become a resort town and we visited its Witches' Hill, where our guide, Monika, led us past a total of 80 giant wooden sculptures carved from Oak trees and told us of the Lithuanian fairy tales they depicted. Lithuania is also famous for its amber and Monika gave us each a gift of a bag of amber particles to take home with us. Apparently, if you soak a piece of amber for a certain amount of time in a glass of vodka and then drink it, it can reputedly cure all sorts of ailments!
31 July 2014 - Copenhagen, Denmark. Copenhagen, with a population of 1.2 million, was the last stop on this trip before arriving at our destination of Dover. The total population of Denmark is 5.5 million and they still use the Danish Krone. There are lots of bicycles in this nation made up of several islands, and a number of royal castles. Our bus tour took us toward the south of Copenhagen, past the international airport and out to the fishing village (founded by Dutch inhabitants of Denmark) called Dragoer and pronounced “DROW-er” From the banks we were also able to see and photograph the six-mile-long Oresund bridge cum tunnel that links Denmark with Sweden. At the village of Dragoer, we first had coffee and a delicious almond Danish pastry (known locally as Wienerbrod i.e. “Viennese bread”) in a top hotel/restaurant, then we had a walking tour around the cobblestone streets and yellow-painted houses - some with thatched roofs and all with strict building codes - that sell for about 2 million dollars each. The weather was fine and not too hot but plenty of Europeans, speaking a number of languages, populated the town's streets and, due to the weather, many were devouring either Italian or Danish ice-creams.
On our return to the capital, we made a stop at the Amilienborg Castle, the royal family's winter residence, watched a change of the guards and photographed the silhouette of the Marble Church opposite, as well as the statue of King Frederik V in the middle of the palace square. We also drove past the Tivoli Gardens and Nyhavn. Another short stop was made to photograph the Gefion Fountain, which depicts the legend of how Denmark was formed.
Our final stop was to view the statue of Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid, the symbol of Copenhagen and most popular icon. Sculpted by Edvard Eriksen, she was a gift to Copenhagen in 1913 by Danish Brewer Carl Jacobsen. I overheard one guide say that her body is based on two different women, one who modeled for the top half (Eriksen's wife) and another who modelled for the bottom half. She was recently loaned to Shanghai for their World's Fair and has, during her history, lost her head and some of her limbs to vandalism.
In the late afternoon, we were entertained on board by a Danish folkloric trio called Halfdanskerne, consisting of Lars Grand, accordion, Mads Westfall, guitar and Rasmus Vennevold, double bass. Below is a video I put together of a few of their songs so as to give you an idea of what Danish folkloric music is all about.
3 August 2014
- Dover, England
. My third time in Dover in just over 4 weeks, it was a sunny day for once, the white cliffs were looking their best and fisher people were out in force suspending their poles over the bridge hoping to catch something. I was off the ship by about 8:00 a.m. and onto my coach for Heathrow, which took about 2 hours along the M25 and past miles of England's “green and pleasant land.” I was duly deposited at Terminal 3, quickly found the group gathered for transit to the Ruby Princess and got onto another coach, which travelled about 1.5 hours to Southampton. As the Ruby Princess is a much larger ship and consequently able to transport a much larger number of passengers, it took a while to get checked in and proceed through security and onto the greater behemoth and find my way to my outside cabin on Deck 8 at the stern. Thus concludes my second cruise and I will continue the narration of my experiences on my third cruise on a different webpage
If you wish to read more about my travels, you are welcome to follow via the following links: part 2
and part 4
All the above photos are copyright Angela Fairbank. Please contact the photographer for usage rights and/or copies