Explora BalticsJune 2015
Bedazzled by the Baltic
Duration: 13 nights, 14 days
Locations: Copenhagen-Denmark, Berlin-Germany, Klaipeda-Lithuania, Visby-Sweden, Helsinki-Finland, St.Petersburg-Russia, Talinn-Estonia, Stockholm-Sweden
Our friends, Carolle, Ron and Rosie had arrived the previous day so they were fresh and ready to go.
By David Jones from Isle of Wight, United Kingdom – Entrance to TivoliUploaded by DavidJones, CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia.org
When Mario arrived, he too, washed and brushed but did not sleep. Instead, we all decided to take the train and meet our pals at Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli is one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. Constructed in 1843, and approved by the King Christian VIII, it was said, “….when the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics“. The park is beautiful. It is a mix of gardens, a giant sound stage, concession stands and rides. The rose garden was on the brim of blooming, but a few flowers had opened to reveal huge blossoms that we all “stopped to smell”. The stage had a performer and my favorite was seeing live chickens sunning themselves in the afternoon warmth, all around the fountains and gardens of the park. It was pretty strange to see them but wow, they let us get super close. Mario went to stroke the feathers of a grey one with long lashes but she gave him a “bok bok warning” under her breath. Mario and Lilly went on all the rides. The rest of us ate hot dogs and cotton candy and ice cream. It was not very crowded, as it was in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. The weather was sunny and bright but too chilly for my now warm Florida blood, at about 60 degrees.
We had a great night’s sleep and woke up to bright sun. This was cruise day but we had some time in the morning to do something. We all ate a big breakfast and took the train to Nyhavn. Meaning “New Harbor”, the waterfront canal area once was notorious for beer, sailors, and prostitution. Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lived here for almost 20 years. It is a big hub for canal tours. We hopped on a leaving-soon boat with many other tourists. The morning was beautiful. All around were brightly colored townhouses built with wood, bricks, and plaster. We saw Noma- named World’s Best Restaurant 2014 and third best of 2015.. Sigh, if only we had another day in the city…..on the walk back to the train we passed by the Stroget, Copenhagen’s shopping mecca but did not stop. We were ready to embark on the cruise.
Our little bus picked us all up as a light drizzle fell. I asked the driver to stop on the way at The Little Mermaid for a photo opp, for I had heard it was on the way to the pier. Traffic was awful. But we did finally pull up alongside a park at the famed statue. Made by a Danish sculptor in 1913, she gets more than 1 million visitors a year and is photographed more than 5 million times yearly. Luckily, because it was a bit grey and rainy, perhaps, there was only one person ahead of me to take photos. It took us less than ten minutes from start to finish getting prime pics, yay.
We relaxed on the ship that evening and the next day, as we had a day at sea on the way to Rostock, the port of Berlin. Lilly broke up with me on this trip as she discovered the kids club. She loved, loved, loved it.
We arrived in Brrrrrlin and boy, it was COLD! Sunny, thankfully, but easily, 45 degrees. I think I froze just on the short walk disembarking the ship to our little bus. Our drivers name was Reich. He was a double for Fred Armisen. We zipped into the city within 2 hours. Our city guide, Emily, was fresh out of college and a music student who spoke fluent German and English. Actually, all of our guides this trip seemed to fit the same description: mid-twenties, college educated, hip and fluent. Reich took us to first meet Emily at the entrance to Charlottenburg Palace; the largest palace in Berlin, and the only surviving royal residence in the city. During the Second World War, the palace was badly damaged but was being reconstructed as we were there. It reminded me of Germany’s version of Versailles. I asked my usual “guide questions” (What one place in the US would you like to see?” and “What is the biggest problem plaguing your country?”) Emily surprisingly did not give me the “usual” answer, which always seems to be the “Grand Canyon” but she mentioned some major US cities. But hey, she was a young, hip chick- I’d probably take L.A. over the Grand Canyon, too. We stopped near Tiergarten Park, by the Soviet War memorial. A controversial site, it is a monument to the Red Army that lost lives during WWII. The park was absolutely beautiful. Verdant and fresh, Mario and Lilly ran around while the rest of our crew took photos at the memorial. Then, we drove over to Reichstag. The building was once for the German Empire Imperials to govern but once the Third Reich started encroaching into the city and country, Nazi’s took it over. Then, during the Battle of Berlin in 1945, it became a central target for the Russians to capture because of what it symbolized. There is still Russian graffiti inside the building, which was preserved during the reconstruction after Germany became unified again, in 1990. Today, the glass dome at the top represents a “transparency” into the German government, for “all the world and people to see”. One can visit the dome, but we did not since getting in is timely and complicated.
We were all ready for lunch. We told Emily we wanted something authentic. She took us to “Weihenstephaner”, a real German place in the midst of Hackescher Markt, an area for people watching and markets and tourists but yumm-o! We got our Bavarian out with fresh pretzels and some delicious ginger soda and sandwiches. It was picture perfect with the sun shining and music being played from an artist in the background. The tablecloths were checkered and little birds flit about everywhere. It happened to also be Carolle’s birthday. We asked Emily on the sneak if she could have the servers sing “Happy Birthday” and she kind of laughed aloud, as the servers sang the song yes, but in English… we explained we wanted it in German, but Emily said that German folk actually sing the English version. Ha! But then, they kind of saw our disappointment and sang some “birthday celebratory song” in their language which was perfect, accompanied by the most fantastic apple strudel I had had in a long time.
After lunch we strolled over to Rosenthaler Strasse. It was a unique courtyard filled with street art and doors leading to exhibition spaces, cafes and bookshops. There were people sitting and drinking and sitting and chatting. There were lots of bicycles parked in a neat row and multicolored flags atop our heads. I even learned that Banksy had painted here!
Emily and Reich then took us to “Museum Island”. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it houses 5 museums and we could easily see the tallest structure in Germany behind it, the Fernsehturm, or Berlin TV tower.
Of course, a wall almost 70 miles in circumference could not come down in one night. It was smashed to pieces over the following weeks, with many people taking it apart themselves with hammers and tools. The government finally destroyed the wall in 1990 although parts of it remain in Berlin and in museums worldwide. In 1990 – less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell – the republics were officially reunited. Emily explained the section we stood at was the last complete section left. It was a few blocks long but no graffiti marred it as others sections of the wall I had seen in photos.
I forgot to mention as we drove to the Wall, she pointed to “Checkpoint Charlie”, the crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Our last stop in the city was the Holocaust Memorial. But on the way, Emily pointed to a non-descript parking lot. She said that was the exact spot that Adolph Hitler had commit suicide with his wife, Eva Braun 70 years prior. I suppose Berlin thought the most fitting “tribute” to the most hated man on earth in 1945, was a place for cars to roll over day in and day out.
The Memorial were thousands of concrete slabs; all of varied sizes. It’s said it is thought it represents a cemetery or “confusion” as what must have been felt by the victims of WWII. The day had turned appropriately grey and somber in the late afternoon. We took some photos and head back towards the bus after saying “Auf Wiedersehen” to Emily. Rosie and I chatted quietly on the 2 hour ride home and everyone else snoozed.
We had one relaxing day at sea and then, the next day after that we arrived in Klaipeda, Lithuania. Named the only “ice-free port” in the Baltic Sea, one could see how crucial shipping was here.
Our next day was to Visby, Sweden.
I should say our nights on the ship were often going to a dinner (oftentimes of 2 appetizers, entrees and trying all the desserts on the menu!) and sometimes, trying to chide Lilly into having dinner with us. She just enjoyed the kids club on the boat so much she loved going there for dinner and beyond. I hated to take her away from it. She often stayed til 10pm, in which the rest of the adults went to the show or to dance after dinner. I found most cruise shows to be a bit “cheesy” and Royal Caribbean was no different, but when in Rome… the food was great though, no complaints there at all, as well as the service.
Our next day was Helsinki, Finland. We met our guide Daniela right off the ship and took public bus into town. The day was a bit grey and chilly but not too bad for touring. We got off at “Temppeliaukio Church”. Built directly into solid rock, it is also known as the Church of the Rock. The inside was excavated and built directly out of solid rock and has natural light entering through a skylight surrounding the center dome. The church is supposed to have excellent acoustics. There was a pianist playing on this day. It was a nice place to sit and chill out for a bit. We then got back on the bus and head to Market Square (Kauppatori in Finnish)
The Market Square is located near the center of Helsinki. It is on the water and you could see ferries coming and going. We were told many take the ferry to and from Stockholm, a 17 hour sail. The place was bustling with activity and vendors selling fresh food and souvenirs. We saw a lot of Russian influence, as Finland saw lots of Russian invasions over time.
Daniela took us into Helsinki City Hall, which was a welcome stop for a bathroom break and juice boxes and chocolates that she brought. (Wifi, too….hee hee)
We said good bye to Daniela and headed back to the cruise ship.
When our meal finished, we walked directly across the street to board a canal boat tour. Ours alone. The day was so perfect. Mid afternoon with sunny skies and easily, 65-70 degrees. We got to see the same sights we did from land that day, but from the water. They had many covered bridges but the canals were much wider than those in Venice. The ride was hypnotic and so relaxing. So much so that Mario and Lilly took a snooze while onboard.
After disembarking our canal boat, we headed to a souvenir shop.
Our 3rd day in the city was the famed Hermitage.
It is the second largest art museum in the world. You seriously could take a month and explore every nook and cranny, but we only had one day. In that case, you do your homework and see the most famed “stuff”. To stand beside the works of Matisse, Picasso and Rembrandt is pretty cool. When you see in books and on screens these pieces and then, in “real life’, it’s pretty humbling. I was surprised at the size of the pieces. SO big, wowsa. I think the most famed thing at the museum though are the grandma ladies who watch you, watching the art. Lilly got a little too close to one of the pieces and we got a big, fat Russian scolding by one.. Nyet!
We had some time in the afternoon to head to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. It is the largest orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. Its name comes from Peter the Great, who was born on the feast day of Saint Isaac of Dalmatia. What amazed me about Russian Orthodox churches the most though, there are NO seats.
Talinn, Estonia was next on the itinerary.
We then headed to Old Town, Tallinn’s and one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I found out Tallinn was the birthplace of many international companies, including Skype. Hmm, maybe time for a call home? Nope, we were off to Patarei Prison. It’s rare that I write in any blog saying any place we have gone to is scary. But this place? Yep, for sure, absolutely. (I have since found out that it is closed for good due to “security reasons”), but wow, so glad we got to see it while it was still open! The Soviets used it as a high security facility from 1920 until 2004. Hundreds of men were locked up here – many were executed. We walked through the corridors past cells, along rusty gangways, and into the execution room; we saw nobody else. It was seriously creepy, even in the middle of a summer day. It was filled with peeling paint, rusted cell bars, decrepit furniture and graffiti. The weirdest room was some old, medical facility. It still had metallic medical equipment all about and giant brown glass medicine bottles with Russian labeling. I wore the trip there as a badge of honor that we toured it but was kind of glad to get out of there. We ate lunch at a yummy place called F-hoone, filled with Estonian deliciousness and dashed back to the boat at the dock, for it had started to pour.
Our last stop on the cruise was Stockholm, Sweden.
Just as it had been dishwater grey in Tallinn, it was bright and blue in Stockholm. Our guide came in a huge minibus to gather us and whisk us to Gamla Stan, Old Town. Reminding me much of Tallinn, or Copenhagen, Old Town looked much like other European central squares, and although it seemed familiar, I was appreciative as it was pretty. The best part for me was seeing the Nobel Prize museum in the middle of it all. Stockholm actually awards the majority of the Prizes each year, with the exception of the Peace Prize, awarded in Oslo.
We then strolled down to Mårten Trotzigs grand, or the narrowest street in Stockholm, named after a rich merchant in the city hundreds of years before who was beaten to death. We took a photo which we later used a piece of our holiday card that year.
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