Monday, September 12, 2016

Favorite Part(s) Of My Baltic Vacation

Similar to the post I wrote last year when we returned from our European-Vacation-Slash-Delayed-Honeymoon, this is a post about what I liked about each city we recently visited on our 2,158.4 nautical-mile-cruise around the European capitals on the Baltic Sea.  And like last year, I preface it all by saying that my most favorite part about traveling anywhere is doing it with Kevin.  Fortunately for us, we travel well together.  And this time we had the added bonus of his parents, Pat and Dianne, joining us for the escapades.

Copenhagen, Denmark

I'll start off by saying that ALL of the cities we visited this time felt completely different than the ones we visited last year.  The standouts from last year's trip for me are Bruges and Ghent, both in Belgium.  Both were small, contained towns where little has changed in the last few hundred years.  But on this trip, all of these cities have been modernized and, to some degree, westernized as well.

Copenhagen was the first stop and the embarkation of our cruise.  We arrived on a Friday afternoon and the cruise began the next day, so we really only had a few hours to enjoy the city.  Once we dumped our luggage in our hotel (that had no A/C, I might add), we went out to walk the town.

The Promenade Pavilion
Inside Tivoli Gardens
The standout for me was Tivoli Gardens, which, somehow, I didn't even know existed. Opening in 1843, it is the 2nd oldest functioning amusement park in the world.  It is essentially the European Disneyland.  AND - I got in for free!  While standing in line to buy 4 tickets, a stranger approached me and said he could get one of us in for free on his pass.  And my family, completely disregarding my safety in a foreign country, said, "Great, see you inside!"  Once I got in, the stranger shook my hand and wished me a fun time, then walked away.  Odd, but economical.

What was also cool about Copenhagen is that it was the only city on our trip that we saw at night.  On future stops, the cruise ship sets a return-to-ship deadline of 4 or 5PM, so you don't get to see what places look like at night.  And frankly, that's when most of these old cities are at their most charming, in my opinion.  It's fun to walk around and see the lights.  Every place is a different place when the sun goes down.

A fun surprise occurred after we departed Copenhagen port on the ship.  The captain, who was a pretty chatty fella when you stick a loudspeaker in his hand, invited the guests to look off the port bow of the ship where, in the far distance, you could see the outline of an old castle.  The castle, Kronberg off the coast of Denmark, was the castle William Shakespeare immortalized as Elsinore in his tragedy play, Hamlet.  I mean, nothing really noteworthy actually happened here, but it will be cool to be able to visualize Elsinore the next time I see or read any part of Hamlet.

Schwerin, Germany

Schwerin Palace in Germany
There is really only one thing to see in Schwerin (pronounced Shver-EEN), and that's the Schwerin Palace or castle. The palace is a behemoth that rises from a tiny island in the middle of the city's main lake.  The castle is certainly impressive and parts of it date back to the 10th century.  The palace had gardens, a stone grotto, a throne room, paintings of long-dead ancestors, the whole shebang.  Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and super cute (she had spent a year living in Wisconsin on an exchange program so we chatted about Chicago).

After the palace tour, we walked through a little bit of the town, which was hosting its version of a Renaissance Fair.  It seemed much more authentic than the few we've visited here in the states with friends.  We mostly just took photos for "Ye Olde Neil".  There was this ONE entertaining thing that happened....

This stop on the cruise was mainly so folks could take a high speed train from the port in Rostock to Berlin.  We opted not to do that, since we were in Berlin last year.  So we took this day trip as part of an excursion with some other folks.  It was nice to drive through the country and see what lies between Berlin and the port.

Tallinn, Estonia

Linnahall
Since Tallinn was the first Baltic capital we visited, it was pretty much the first REAL stop on our trip since we bypassed Berlin.  And Tallinn did not disappoint.  After disembarking, Kevin led us all to Linnahall, a 5,000-seat relic of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.  Forgotten in an ugly/gorgeous kind of way, it was interesting to think about how impressive this must have been at one time.  The sad part was that we could no actually enter this monstrosity, but it was still cool to walk around.

After that, we relied on Rick Steves to guide us through the rest of our town tours.  This guy is priceless.  Seriously - buy his guidebooks before you go anywhere!  He led us down Pikk through the lower old town of Tallinn.  Tallinn, like most old European cities, was a walled city in the good ol' days.  Tallinn actually had 2 walls, that separated the upper town from the lower town and also served to double the town's defenses against attack and invasion.

Highlights of our walking tour were 1) the views, which were amazing.  Tallinn was smart enough to create viewpoint plazas on some of its highest streets.  So even on a rainy day, which was how we experienced Tallinn, the views were still amazing.  Foggy, but amazing.

And 2) having coffee atop one of the wall sections.  This was not part of Rick Steves' tour, but we were standing in front of a section of one of the walls that was probably about 40-45 feet high.  We we looked up, we could see people walking across the top.  So we climbed the most narrow set of winding stairs that exist in Europe and reached a coffee shop, the Kohvik Dannebrog Cafe, that was amazingly doing a nice business atop this wall.  And they had free wifi!

For me, this drove home the fact that sometimes you just have to go off-path and allow your curiosity to dictate the next steps you take, especially when visiting a (safe) foreign country.  This was how Kevin and I experienced Europe last year.  We certainly learned more about what we were seeing this time, but perhaps the best way to sightsee is a mixture of organized tour and just following your nose.

St. Petersburg, Russia

A few weeks later and I still cannot believe I was actually in Russia.  Despite having initial trouble getting into the country, St. Petersburg was everything I had always hoped it would be.  The City of the Tsars was a place I had been reading about for many years.  Similar to my interest in British Royalty, I've also had a great interest in the Tsars of Russia.  And like London, St. Petersburg was a place I never thought I would ever visit.

What surprised me the most about St. Petersburg was the colors of the buildings.  There is a rule or law (according to our tour guide, Anna), that because  this city only gets about 60 days of sunshine per year, certain buildings must be painted a pastel or Caribbean color such as light blue, pink and yellow.  Otherwise, gray would be the only color everyone would see due to lack of sunlight.  Makes total sense - but was still a surprise.

We had two days in St. Petersburg, so Day 1 was spent visiting Peterhof (above), the summer palace of Peter, The Great, and Catherine Palace (right), the summer palace of his wife, Catharine.  To say these places werre opulent would be an understatement.  Russians love gold leaf.  And they used it ad nauseam in their decorating.  Peter loved fountains; Catherine loved amber.  And both were on full display in their respective palaces.  We also got to visit a few Metro (subway stations).  Why?  Because Metro stations in St. Petersburg are amazing!  Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev built them double as underground bomb shelters during the Cold War.  So they are ornate and vividly decorated.

On Day 2, I stayed behind on the cruise ship because I wasn't feeling well.  Coming off of the summer I had, I didn't want to push myself and risk getting a sinus infection or even a cold.  So my family went on without me to visit Church on Spilled Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and then did some shopping in downtown St. Petersburg.  If I learned anything on this day, it was that I would never want to cruise alone.  I got a lot of reading done, but mostly just napped and wandered around the ship.  It was kinda fun to sit on the balcony and see them return from their day trip, though.

Helsinki, Finland

The next day we left the bright colors of Russia for the earth tones of Helsinki.

Missing the 2nd day in Russia proved to be a good idea, as I'd seemed to abate my cold.  As much as I hated missing the place where the Tsars are buried, it was good to not push myself and then possibly miss Helsinki and Stockholm.  Plus I was able to finally finished the book I'd been reading for almost a year!

Again doing a walking tour, we left the ship early and walked through the town to start at the Market Square off of the Esplanade.  From there, we wound our way through the city, seeing such sites as Senat Square, the train station designed by Eliel Saarinen, and the Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall.  But the two highlights in Helsinki for me, interestingly enough, were both churches:

The Chapel of Silence, or Kamppi Chapel, is located in the middle of a market square at the entrance
to a shopping center.  The chapel is intended to be a place where people can have a moment of silence and meet each other.  It offers the opportunity to calm down in what is arguably the busiest area of Finland.  There are no services conducted here; it's simply a place for quiet reflection and peace.  Outside, the chapel is imposing without being overbearing.  It's curved shape allows pedestrians to easily pass by it.  But inside, the oval shape creates a feeling of safety and embrace.  I'll admit, it was difficult to leave this sanctuary.

The second church as aptly named, Rock Church or Temppeliaukio Kirrko.  Outside, it resembled an old burial mound.  But inside, the circular church is essentially carved out of bare rock with a ceiling made out of copper wire.  The natural acoustics make this an excellent concert hall as well.  Water trickles down the rock walls and the place is about as serene as it can get.

Panorama inside Temppeliaukio Kirrko
We put the guidebook down for the walk back to the ship and just followed whatever interested us.  Helsinki, like Copenhagen, does a good job as mixing its old and new.  It seems as if both Helsinki and Copenhagen just modernized organically.  Tallinn had its obvious "old town" area separate from its growth.  But in Copenhagen and Helsinki, it all seemed to blend together - and quite nicely, too.

Stockholm, Sweden

Our last stop on this trip was Stockholm, birthplace of IKEA so I expected to love every piece of furniture I saw.  And once again, the colors of the building changed.  Where St. Petersburg was pastels and Hensinki was earth tones, Stockholm was deep rust and orange and dark yellow.  I'm betting all these places look amazing in the snow.  And perhaps that's the reason for the color variations.

Of all the cities we visited on this trip, I found Stockholm to be the most charming.  Narrow, cobblestone streets, twisting pathways, little market squares.  But the architecture in the modern section of town was equally interesting.  There was a definite separation between the old and the new, but I enjoyed being in both spaces.  Of the 6 cities, Stockholm was the one in which I could live, if I needed to make that choice.

We spent a good amount of time just walking down Vasterlanggatan, the touristy drag, and (left) Prastgatan ("Priest's Lane").  We popped our heads into a German church ("Tyska kyrkan") on this street which was originally named for the residences of three chaplains and a bell ringer built there in the 16th century.

We visited the royal palace and managed to witness the changing of the guard ceremony.

It was really cool to see the Nobel Museum where the annual dinner is held and the Prizes are awarded every year.  Its located on Stortorget, the oldest market square in Stockholm that includes the original water well for the town that's still connected to today's water conduit.

We walked back to the ship knowing this was pretty much the end of our cruise (still had one full day at sea).  This was an AMAZING vacation and truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I doubt I will ever go back to any of these cities again - the thought of which was not lost on me.  So I really tried to absorb as much as I could.  There were moments when I would just stand and look around me, listening to the pulse of a foreign city, hearing people conversing in a different language, smelling the unfamiliar foods, watching people going about their everyday lives - no doubt inconvenienced by the myriad of tourists who descend upon their cities every day.