Baltic Sea Smörgåsbord: Six Ports of Call

IMG_7633We had a smooth and happy departure from Copenhagen as we set sail for ten days on the Baltic.

Nothing is quite so pleasing as unpacking your luggage in a cruise ship stateroom, wandering around the ship to get oriented, and then standing on the deck as great vessel inches away from the dock and slides out into the harbor.

IMG_3425When the captain sounds the horn, it absolutely fills your heart with joy.

We loved the cruise.  It allowed us to get our feet on the ground (literally) at each port of call, and to immerse ourselves (ever-so-briefly) in the different cultures of this scenic and (for us) ancestral region.

Join us now as we recount the highlights of this memorable voyage.

Oslo

Oslo Harbor Aerial View.jpgOur first port of call on the Baltic cruise was Oslo, the capital of Norway.  In a strict geographical sense, though, we had left the Baltic, since Oslo is on the North Sea.

Oslo is an especially picturesque harbor city, situated at the upper end of a long fijord, with hills rising up on all sides.  The weather on the day we visited was sunny and pleasant.

Our first impression was the striking contrast between Oslo, with its verdant hills, and Copenhagen, which is completely flat.

Akershus Fortress - Oslo Harbor
Akershus Fortress, Oslo

The harbor in Oslo is protected by the Akershus Fortress, an impressive medieval military garrison perched on a rocky hill above the docks.

Our massive ship was able to tie up just below the old fortress.  We looked directly across at it from our stateroom balcony.

This was the best place we have ever seen to dock a large cruise ship, right in the heart of the city.  It was a short, pleasant walk from the wharf up to the city center, with its impressive Town Hall.

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Brian, Son of Norway, Day of Arrival

We spent an exceedingly pleasant day in Oslo.

In fact, perhaps because we were feeling the special magic of travel, we remember our day in Oslo as one of the happiest days of our life together.  And that means a lot, because the two of us have been very happy as a happy couple for almost 19 years.

We lingered briefly at a café in the town center to use their WiFi.  We had coffee and delicious pastries  Then we started walking toward a park about a mile west of downtown.  We were hungry for exercise.  It felt invigorating to walk the hilly streets of Oslo in the fresh air and sunshine after two days aboard ship.

IMG_3144We stopped along the way to have a look at a grand church.  We pulled the door handle in front, and found it was locked.  But no sooner had we done so when a friendly woman who was gardening in the churchyard approached and cheerfully asked if we would like to see the interior of the church.

Yes, thanks, we replied, we would!

She had a set of keys and used them to open a side door, in the rear near the sacristy, and so we found ourselves entering the church on the altar itself.

The interior was quite beautiful.  It looked very much like a Roman Catholic church.  Our volunteer guide explained that this was a “high” Lutheran congregation that retained many of the trappings of the predecessor Roman church.

She explained that this particular church had a large and active congregation with an excellent music program led by a professor of music.  She was sweet and hospitable.  It was peaceful to sit and chat with her in the large nave of the church on a quiet weekday when nobody else was there.  Golly, we thought, Norway is just so nice!

We continued our walk.  The neighborhoods through which we passed all looked prosperous and neat.  The housing stock in Oslo is clean and upright, and the architecture generally first-rate.   The city has a slick, extensive tram system, but we were quite happy to be on foot in the nice weather.

Our overall impression was that Oslo is a very nice city indeed.

Eventually we came to Oslo’s famous (so we learned) Vigeland Park, which features a huge number of statues of human beings in various phases and aspects of life displayed in a beautifully designed garden-type setting.

The entire park and all the statues were the work of a single artist, Gustav Vigeland, in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Perhaps because we had no prior knowledge of this unique park, it made a huge impression on us.

The park is meticulously planned, the entire expanse a showplace for these amazing sculptures.  Although swarming with visitors and tourists on such a fine day (including many passengers from our cruise ship), our visit to the park was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.  The weather could not have been nicer.

Oh, Oslo!  How did you have the foresight to allow Mr. Vigeland to carry out his potentially crazy scheme?  What if it had turned out badly?  But, no, it did not.  Vigeland Park is uniquely beautiful and moving.

We hope it lasts a thousand years!

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On our way back to the ship, we stopped to visit the “Resistance Museum” in the old Akershus Fortress.  It commemorates the grim period of Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

We visited a similar museum last year in Amsterdam.

In both Norway and the Netherlands, resistance to the Nazi occupation persisted against frightening difficulties.  The resistance fighters and supporters received encouragement from their governments-ivia brodcasts from England.

What a dreadful period of history that was.

Nazi Collaborators – Norway 

We ended our happy day in Oslo with a stroll along the wharf, just across the narrow harbor from where our ship was docked.

What a perfect hour we had there on the beautiful harbor!

There was a long, drawn-out Nordic sunset, characteristic of the Scandinavian region in summer, so far up in the Northern Hemisphere.

We passed a group of locals performing swing dancing.  Then we wandered out on a floating dock where we were virtually alone.  It afforded us a great view of the harbor and our massive ship docked just across the water, its bright sunlit image reflected brilliantly in the water.  The sun was setting to our backs.  We watched ferries and other watercraft coming and going between here and there.

It was a memorable and sweet encounter, out there on the dock.  Never have two lovers had a more perfect moment in time.  We were so happy to be in Oslo!

A short time later, we got to see the whole Oslo harbor waterfront scene again, this time from high up on the Lido Deck of our cruise ship.  We watched as the captain (with the assistance of a harbor pilot) eased the great ship away from the dock, spun her slowly around, and began sailing down the fiord toward the North Sea.

Farewell, Oslo!  Farwell, dear old Norway!

Oslo Harbor

Warnerműnd, Germany

IMG_7691We really liked this seaside resort town on the Baltic.  We strolled through town, the out along the strand, a beautiful wide sandy beach along the peaceful sea.  On the outer reaches you reach the famous “FKK” area where public nudity is permitted.

We kept our clothes on, but we did admire the boldness of the naked Germans.  They are famous for pioneering naturism, and this beach on the Baltic Sea is a place where you can see it in practice.

The town of Warnermünd was delightful.  We met an English couple who told us they had visited previously on a cruise and had liked it so much they returned the following summer and spent a week here on holiday.  We could understand their desire to return.

We did not know until we got there, but the weekend of our visit Warnermünd was hosting a Tall Ships exposition, featuring a great variety of sailing ships, some very large, from all over the world.  We briefly boarded and toured one of them, from Brazil.

With all those tall ships in port, the town was crawling with handsome, smartly dressed young sailors.  They could make you swoon.

The atmosphere for the Tall Ships event was festive, with thousands of visitors from all over Europe.

Warnermund StrandNear the end of the day, we stopped at an outdoor stage on the edge of the beach, at the foot of a tall, 100-year-old lighthouse.  We were drawn by the sound of a capable electric guitar band playing classic 1960s and 70s American and British rock music.

The late afternoon light was beautiful.  We took seats and enjoyed the music.

It was all just a bit incongruous, this blending of cultures.  The crowd and the band members were 100% German, yet all of the songs were sung in English, and the style of the music was rhythm-and-blues.

Be all that as it may, the musicianship was of high caliber, and it was fun to see the little German kids dancing spontaneously to the rhythmic music.  We stayed for the entire set.

By the time it was over, we had to hurry to get back to our ship for the departure.

Tallin, Estonia

Tallin Aerial ViewTallin is Estonia’s capital city and its principal port.

On the day of our visit, the weather started out fine, then it rained, and then the weather turned fine again — typical, we were told, for this Baltic city in August.

IMG_3407We joined an informative walking tour led by an articulate, university-educated young man who spoke good English and had a ready sense of humor.

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IMG_3382Tallin is a nicely preserved medieval walled city with a long history of conquest and reconquest by the Swedes, Russians and Germans.

Estonia today seems very proud of its independence.

Stories of life under Russian Communist rule abound.  Tallin was easily reached by television and radio broadcasts from across the water in Helsinki, Finland, which was not controlled by the Soviets.  In that period, people in Estonia were hungry for news, music and popular culture from the West.

IMG_3401We learned from our tour guide that the Estonian language is closely related to Finnish.

These are part of a family of languages in Europe (another example is Hungarian) that are not descended from the Indo-European family of language, but from a completely unrelated language family originating in central Asia.  They are really strange to the ear, Estonian and its related languages, very challenging to learn, and pretty much impossible to decipher when reading street signs, newspapers or billboards.

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Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Tallin

Russia’s presence in Tallin during the 19th Century can be seen in the large, ornate Russian Orthodox cathedral perched on a high point in the city, just across from the Parliament building.

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Interior of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Tallin

The Russian Orthodox religion has enjoyed a revival since the collapse of Communism.  This was apparent in the crowded Orthodox cathedral in Tallin, a precursor to what we would see a few days later in St. Petersburg.

Tallin Beer House
Tallin Beer House

We enjoyed a nice lunch of sausages and beer at an authentic Estonian beer hall before returning to the ship.

The lunch was a small extravagance, since we had abundant food available aboard ship at no extra cost.  But we were glad we stopped.  The food and beer were excellent, and our waiter was really nice.  He seemed happy we were there.

As Americans, we felt warmly welcomed in Tallin.

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Tallin — Brian, Frank and a Curious Seagull

St. Petersburg

Russia was an adventure, even though our experience of this vast country was confined to St. Petersburg, its one port on the Baltic.

IMG_3538To avoid the necessity of obtaining visas from the Russian government, we booked two excursions with the cruise ship company, one for each of the two days our ship was docked in St. Petersburg harbor.

On the first day, we took a boat tour along the canals and out onto the inner harbor.

The highlight of the boat tour was a blonde-headed young man who ran alongside the tour boat and waved down at us from each bridge as we passed under.  He was adorable.

We became obsessed, watching to see whether he would make it to the next bridge before we passed under.  It always seemed like he wouldn’t get there on time, but he always did.  When our boat sailed out into the huge St. Petersburg harbor, he was gone, but when we returned to the canal 20 minutes later, there he was, running alongside again.  He waited for tips at the end of the tour.

We guessed he split the proceeds with the older guys we saw there running the boat company.  It seemed like a happy arrangement.

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St. Petersburg harbor is an extraordinary place to see.  Before Peter the Great, Russia was essentially a land-locked country.  It had no navy to speak of.  Peter changed this by building a whole new city on the eastern shore of the Baltic, to give Russia a sea port.  He also built a navy from scratch.  Within a decade, he had demolished the Swedish fleet that until then had complete dominance of the Baltic.

IMG_3478Few people in history have had more impact than Peter the Great.

St. Petersburg is Peter’s legacy.

IMG_7776On our second day in St. Petersburg, we toured the Hermitage, the complex of royal palaces built by Peter’s successors.

The Hermitage was beautiful and at the same time a little bizarre.  It is an opulent series of palaces filled with artistic treasures from all over Europe – mostly from Italy, but plenty of contributions from Spain, Belgium, Germany and France.

Other than one room containing portraits of the Russian generals who defended Russia against the invasion by Napoleon, we saw few if any works from Russia.

This monument to excess is at once impressively beautiful and also a reminder of the wicked decadence of the Czarist regime.  It triggered the same feeling we had when we visited Versailles a few years ago:  No wonder they had a revolution!

On the second half of our second day, we finally got the chance to wander unescorted around the streets of St. Petersburg.

IMG_3690St. Petersburg resembles Amsterdam, but everything is on a bigger scale.  Like Amsterdam, it is built on reclaimed land in a watery, marsh area.

In contrast to Amsterdam, though, St. Petersburg’s canals and waterways are larger, the streets are wider, and the buildings are more substantial.  It lacks the quirky charm of Amsterdam.

Like Washington D.C., St. Petersburg is unquestionably a beautiful city to visit.  But for us, the main effect of visiting St. Petersburg was that it triggered a desire to see Moscow, Russia’s older capital in the interior.

Helsinki

Helsinki Aerial View
Helsinki – Aerial view

We were fortunate to visit Helsinki on an especially beautiful day.  We walked quite a bit, wandering from place to place with no particular route or agenda.

Two highlights of our brief visit to Helsinki were an elaborate and very long religious service at the Russian Orthodox cathedral, and a stroll through the most beautifully maintained cemetery we have ever seen.

IMG_3711Both in St. Petersburg and again in Helsinki, we observed the Orthodox practice of Icon worship, something that we had not witnessed before.

In Frank’s Roman Catholic tradition, images of Jesus and the saints are very common.  But in the Orthodox churches, such images are believed to have supernatural powers in their own right.  People seem to worship the images themselves.

As they say in France, viva la difference!

Stockholm

IMG_3821Our visit to Stockholm, the last port of call on our Baltic cruise, was the most abbreviated of all.  The ship anchored about 60 miles away from the city.  It was a mile walk from the dock into the small town where we could catch the train into Stockholm.

IMG_3816Adding to the delay, the ship could not dock portside because of rough water.  We had to drop anchor out in the harbor, and the passengers were ferried back and forth on tenders.

All of these factors served to diminish the amount of time we were able to spend in Stockholm itself.

IMG_7828Still, we loved Stockholm.

Frank’s great-grandfather, Frederich Lindh, was the son of a Swedish army soldier who was stationed at the Royal Palace in Stockholm.  Frederich was born in the barracks adjacent to the Palace, in a building that is still there for visitors to see.

IMG_7858When Frank explained to a couple of soldiers that his name is “Lindh” and that his ancestor was born there in the barracks, they seemed quite impressed.  “Welcome,” they said, with warm sincerity.

Stockholm’s historical center is really a charming place to wander around, which is all we had time for in any event.  It’s built entirely on an island, including the Royal Palace complex.

IMG_3758We also ducked into an ancient Christian church, originally built by Franciscan monks only a generation or two after the death of St. Francis of Assisi.  It was a revelation to see the far reach of St. Francis’s influence in this region so far from his native Italy.

IMG_7645The royal palace in Stockholm is quite grand.

It is certainly the equal of those constructed by Peter the Great and his successors in St. Petersburg.  No doubt it was a source of inspiration and perhaps envy for the Czars.  It serves as a reminder of Sweden’s history as the dominant naval power in the Baltic Region.

The time constraints on our visit to Stockholm made it challenging for us, but we made the most of our brief visit.

*  *  *  *  *

The next day, it was all over — our cruise was ended.  The great ship docked again at Copenhagen harbor.  We caught a local bus, and then a train to the airport.

Our next stop:  The Lake District of Italy, north of Milan.

File Oct 02, 10 48 15 PM
At Copenhagen Airport

 

3 comments

  1. Great post. Thank You.

    Visiting Helsinki is not the same as visiting real Finland outside Helsinki! You never cannot understand how much You missed from my country like history, customs, habits, different kind of art, handicrafts, landscapes, thousand lakes and many unique things, which are only in Finland, not elsewhere in the world.

    I give just one example, although I could give hundreds:

    World’s oldest surviving diving suit.

    Happy and safe travels.

    Like

    • This is a wonderful comment, and much appreciated! For every country we have visited, there is always so much more to see. For us, that is the principal thing we have taken from this adventure. Our sincere thanks for the thoughtful comment, Finland!

      Like

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