You would think that the girl who hails from the Great Northeast would gravitate to warmer climates. Generally I have. But my travel curiosity and wanderlust lead me, on occasion, to realms even farther north than mine.
Hence, my trip to the Baltic. Running along the same latitudes as Alaska, I looked forward to looooong days and very short dim nights.
My first stop was Stockholm. I have no idea what I was expecting but sometimes that works in one’s favor. You can experience the thrill of everything being new and different. Such it was with Sweden. What a splendid city! We just loved everything about it. We loved the Old Quarter, the water, the buildings, the gardens, the museums. I could go on and on. The only thing we didn’t like was having to stay only two days.
Our hotel was in the old section which for me meant the Middle Ages, and that pleased me just fine. We did a complete exploration as soon as we settled in. The little narrow streets lined with galleries and shops were wonderful. Yes, there was an emphasis on the typical tourist trinkets and trash, but there were also some very nice places selling more unique wares and some very nice art as well.
Our plans for Day #2 were to visit the Royal Palace and the Vasa Museum. We penciled in an hour and a half each. You know what they say about the best laid plans? Vasa was first. This is a museum dedicated to a ship that sank in the harbor in 1628. OK, the ship was really Early Modern, but it was close enough to the medieval ones to attract my attention. In fact, it attracted my attention so much that we stayed for over three hours and even did lunch there. So much for the Royal Palace. Guess we have to go back now because we never made it there. We had to get back to our cruise ship.
We sailed out of Stockholm and through even more Swedish surprises. I did not expect the coast to be so spectacular. Just never had thought about it really. We spent a good part of our first day passing among numerous evergreen covered islands, a veritable verdant archipelago. A few lovely homes, fishing villages, lighthouses, and wildlife. And then suddenly, it was gone! And we were out to sea.
First port of call was Tallinn, Estonia. It offered enough for a day there. Although it has a lengthy history, most of the focus is on its more recent events. World War II and the liberation after the Cold War were the main topics of the guide’s discussion. The Old Town was quite crowded with visitors, to the point where it was sometimes not enjoyable. The shops were not much to write home about, much less buy something and take it home. I did love the old walls. They were quite extensive, well preserved, and with many delightful red pointed towers along the way. They made me happy I had come, but were not enough to draw me back for a second visit.
Next stop was the highlight of the trip and the reason most people had chosen this cruise to begin with: St. Petersburg, Russia. We were the fortunate ones who had not one, but two overnights here. Enough time to get beyond a quick look-see. This city offered much in the way of sightseeing. First there is the Heritage Museum, one of the finest in the world. There is also Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof and the gardens.
We began with a general walking tour, which proved quite revealing. For one, it really isn’t a walkable town. In fact, with the exception of the few magnificent buildings, it is a bit dreary. Luckily, those special palaces more than makeup for the ambience of the rest of the city.
Speaking of magnificent, that evening we outdid ourselves. We went for broke and attended an opera at the Mariinsky Theater! Who cared what was performing. We were going! Turned out to be Borodin’s Prince Igor, the three and a half hour heavy-as-lead, cast of thousands, Russian opera. We loved it. The chairs (wooden with a minimally padded seat, strapped together) were uncomfortable as all hell. My back complained accordingly, but I made it to the end and came out with a great big grin on my face that lasted all night. At one point, I counted over 100 people on stage. And then, right through the middle, came the horses. Yes, REAL horses. Live. These had to be the most bombproof equines I have ever seen, or they were totally pumped up on Ace. (For those of you who are not an old horse person like I am, “ace” is a horse tranquilizer.)
The second big thrill was the inclusion of the ballet company. If I had had my druthers, I would have chosen to see dance in the first place. But I had to go with what was offered that night. So when a couple of their dancers came briefly on stage before the end of the first act, I assumed it was a little cameo appearance. I had no idea that it would explode into a 20-minute performance involving more than a dozen members of the ballet. It was totally fabulous! I could have gone away happy right then, but I stayed to the very end, hours away, hoping for an encore.
Day Two was a full day of 18th and 19th century Russian history. We began with Catherine Palace on the outskirts of the city, the ginormous azure blue structure housing the Amber Room and the cavernous, golden Great Hall among hundreds of other “lesser” rooms. How many are there? No clue and no one else seems to know either. The building was severely damaged during the war and much of it has yet to be restored. It was a bit overwhelming and the crowds didn’t help matters. But I saw enough to get a true inkling of its grandeur. It really is a national treasure and a must-see for anyone heading to St. Petersburg.
From there we scooted around the back and down the road to do a brief visit to Alexander Palace. Smaller in scale (ha!) and not as inundated with tourists as its neighbor, it was worth a visit if you have the extra time. It was one of the homes of Tsar Nicholas II before he was overthrown during the Revolution in 1917.
We were off again through the countryside to visit Peterhof and the famous gardens. But first we did a tiny detour to an exquisite little place, the “Cottage.” Now for the average person, this “cottage” was quite a nice size dwelling. I started ticking off the cost per square foot calculations in California terms and came up with seven figures. This was the place that the royal family came to get away from it all. Only family and close friends were entertained here. It gave an interesting insight into life behind the royal closed doors.
Then we drove around the corner and came to the Peterhof palace. Now I understood why the Cottage was so named, as it paled in comparison to this behemoth. This was another monster palace a lá Romanov family. After seeing these, it is easier to understand the Russian Revolution. We did not visit the interior of the building. We did our tour around the famous gardens. They were every bit what I expected. The fountains and flora were designed to compete with Versailles and did a very good job of it. We wandered around the pathways, down toward the sea, and back up to the Palace past the fountains.
Unfortunately, we were scheduled to return to the ship via a catamaran, but alas, the weather was uncooperative and we had to make our journey back by bus. It made for a longer day but one well worth it.
Our final day in St. Petersburg was a visit to the Heritage Museum. I was ready for it. I had heard of the oppressive crowds and the heat (no A/C), and braced myself accordingly. Comfy shoes, tank top, jacket tied around the waste, fanny pack, no valuables. Ready! But ha ha. Crystal Cruises had made arrangements for us to go in early, before it had officially opened to the public. How fab is that!? So we were able to see the artwork up close and personal, and hear our footsteps echo down the halls! Now THAT was something to write home about. We left as the crowds were storming the doors, and glad we were going out and not in.
We sailed out that night on our way to Helsinki.
Here we go again! Another incredible Scandinavian city. I am just amazed all over. It is a lovely, lovely city. The people seem happy, services function, shopping is worthwhile. The new arts and concert buildings are fantastic. The parks and gardens inviting. Ok, yes, I know it is like this only in the summer. The winters are long and very dark. But here is a city that has heating under its major roads so that they do not require plowing. Coming from Maine, I am in awe. Why didn’t we think of that? Here is a city where the guide takes you on a tour of the train station, including the tracks themselves, because they are so proud of it. In most cities, this is the place the guides avoid. I thoroughly enjoyed my walk as well as the yummy pastries we stopped to eat along the way.
One thing is certain: I need to do a thorough trip through Scandinavia. The few days I spent there just whetted my appetite.
Next day was spent at sea which was a welcome respite. Unfortunately I suffered a minor injury that night which put a damper on the last few days of the cruise.
Our next port of Warnemunde, Germany was supposed to be the jumping off spot for a shore excursion to Berlin. However, my “tour” was of the University of Rostick medical clinic. Nowhere near as exciting but a higher priority. I did hear that the town of Warnemunde was actually very nice and worth a visit. It isn’t just a port with nothing to offer except a ticket out.
Our final stop was Copenhagen. I had improved enough that I was able to get off the ship and see a bit of the town. We spent a few hours walking around the main part of town, doing last minute shopping and generally getting a “feel” for the city. Yes, it is worth a deeper visit and put it on my future travel list. I was sorry I was not up to more sightseeing.
The final verdict: St. Petersburg is definitely worth at least one stop on the Bucket List. But Scandinavia was the real show-stealer, and Baltic cruises not a bad way to taste its riches.