THE BALTIC 2007
This trip on the Lindblad National Geographic Endeavour introduced us to the countries of the Baltic. Given the almost constant ebb and flow of power and control in the area we saw many old fortifications. Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Russia struggled constantly to dominate, and each had their turn at control. We flew to St. Petersburg where we toured and then joined the ship for the cruise. After the cruise we flew back to Washington, D.C. where we toured the new Smithsonian air and space museum next to Dulles International airport for a day before flying home.
We arrived at LAX 3 hours early for our United flight to Dulles. I had done early check-in by Internet yesterday however when we approached the first class podium to check in our luggage the clerk said she could get us on an earlier flight. So we went immediately to the gate, using the expedited security line. Passing through security was easy since the TSA people were discussing the soaps and paid no attention to the x-ray or anything else. After a brief wait we boarded the plane. First class on United is somewhat less than business class on any foreign carrier. It is however a bit better than Delta business. The one stew in our section worked very hard. We were on an Airbus. The only good thing to say about it was it had the largest toilet I have seen on an airplane.
When we arrived at Dulles we found that, despite the clerks assurances that our luggage would travel with us, one bag didn’t. I went to the claim office and the clerk found that the bag was still in LA. It arrived at our hotel sometime during the night.
Our room at the Dulles Hilton was quite nice and featured a 48" flat screen HDTV mounted on the wall.
We asked for a delayed checkout so we departed the hotel at 2 pm for our 5:45 flight. After check-in at SAS we went to the Northwest lounge where we whiled away the time. The big airbus A330 we flew on had seats that almost fully reclined.
Copenhagen airport was a bit confusing. We arrived early in the morning to an empty and unmanned terminal. There was no info about our continuing flight on any of the arrival and departure screens so we wandered down the hall until we came to security which we had to pass through, surrendering our water bottles. We also had to go through entry passport control How we reached an unsecured area by arriving I don’t understand. Anyway we found ourselves in front of the very large SAS lounge so we went in and had them get our boarding passes. When time came to board our flight we had to again pass through passport control to reach our gate which was near the gate at which we had arrived. Fortunately we didn’t have to go through security again.
We flew on to St. Petersburg and passed through immigration, found our bags and the Lindblad person, got on the bus and went to the hotel. The Hotel Grand Europa is a very nice, very old, classic hotel. Our room was adequate except for an uncontrollable warm temperature and duvets for bed covers. Since the duvets are thick and warm and the room temperature was warm we slept with no covers. Usually it was cool enough in the morning to cover up a bit. The room window opened into a closed-roof atrium. One interesting feature was a TV located at the foot of the bed that rose out of a cabinet when you wanted to watch. At first we couldn’t find the means of arousing it but finally we found a switch on the wall.
An elegant welcome cocktail reception followed by dinner in the Krysha ballroom culminated the long day. We encountered several people at the reception with whom we have traveled before.
St. Petersburg is built on many islands and therefore has many bridges over canals and waterways. It has been described as the Venice of the North. Our visit was a series of museum and castle tours. I always thought that the Communists invented the monolithic block building style however it seems that they were preceded by the royalty of old Russia. The Hermitage, for example, is a bunch of interconnected block buildings or palaces. Although the face of each building is covered with different embellishments the overall affect is a slab-fronted building. Given the town’s age and its history as the capital of the country from 1712 to 1918, the royalty built many palaces all over the place. Many have been restored and are employed as museums. Many others are owned by the new aristocracy that has sprung up under the Russian version of democracy.
A tour of the Hermitage started our first full day in St. Petersburg. Although it was closed, our tour guides arranged for our special entrance. Apparently several hundred others also arranged special entrance. We had toured the Hermitage before however it is such a vast place we saw many rooms or things that we hadn’t seen before. One highlight was the Scythian Gold room which was filled with gold crowns, jewelry, and other adornments.
Lunch was at the Last Palace restaurant. In the afternoon we toured the Peter and Paul Fortress and St. Isaac’s Cathedral and enjoyed a brief outside view of the Cathedral of the Spilled Blood. Peter and Paul Fortress is the burial location for many of the Romanoffs. The included dinner was at the Europa restaurant at the hotel.
It was an hour’s drive from the city center out to Catharine’s Palace in Pushkin. This palace was in the area occupied by the Germans during the siege of Leningrad. Before the Germans’ arrival the staff made a valiant and desperate effort to hide or protect the many treasures the palace contained. The Germans looted whatever they found, some of which has been located and returned but others have never been found. Either from vengeance or spite, the Germans burned the palace when they were driven out. Restoration began almost as soon as the war ended. Surprisingly the Communists did much of the restoration. The feeling being that these palaces are an important part of the country’s heritage.
After viewing this palace it is difficult to imagine how people lived there. There are rooms after rooms with gaudy, gold embellishments and delicate silk wall paper. The surfaces of one room are completely covered with amber (the million year-old polymerized tree sap.) A staff of hundreds was required to maintain the palace when royalty was not present. When the royals were in town, with their usual retinue, a staff of thousands was required. In one room we were treated to a four-man vocal group to demonstrate the acoustics.
We had a fairly elaborate lunch at Podvorye Restaurant which included folkloric entertainment.
Dinner was on our own. We found a grocery store and purchased a bottle of wine and then came upon a Subway fast food store where we purchased a sub. We felt pleased to have negotiated purchases from non-tourist locations using rubles. So we flew for hours so that we could have a dinner just like home in front of the TV.
We checked out of the hotel, said goodby to our luggage, and drove to Peterhof to visit the Grand Palace. As a testament to the basic honesty of St. Petersburg, we were told to lock our luggage and leave it in the room. (As a further testament, my camera was taken from me yesterday in a sort-of crush attack.)
The Grand Palace was another gaudy, gold-encrusted, multi-room building. What walls aren’t covered with baroque decorations are covered with ancestral paintings. After finishing with the palace we strolled through the garden and saw, among other things, a rather simple structure on the sea shore which was Peter the Great’s favorite dwelling. He did not care for the gaudy and elaborate palaces. It was his successors who got carried away. We had lunch at the Orangeia restaurant on the grounds. All of our lunches have included a shot of vodka and Russian champagne.
After our visit to Peterhof and lunch we made our way back to the city through the heavy traffic. St. Pete is affected by the new prosperity of its people who have abandoned public transit for the automobile. We eventually found the National Geographic Endeavour at English Dock, passed through Russian Immigration, and boarded.
Thoughts about St. Pete: What male can help but be impressed by the lovely, young ladies who are attracted to mini skirts or have resurrected hot pants. Their resulting fully exposed legs are enhanced (?) with vividly patterned hose. Of course, they all seem to wear very tall, spiked heels. (Don’t know how they manage on the cobble stones.) Their beauty is offset by the feeling of insecurity that pervades the streets. Although locals stroll the streets carrying day packs with no apparent concern a tourist is at great risk. It is not comfortable to walk the streets, especially later in the day. Prostitutes can be seen trolling starting in the afternoon.
5/18. Tallinn, Estonia
We arrived around noon and toured the town after lunch. The tour started with a bus ride of about an hour and then a walking tour of the old town, both the upper town, where we started, and the lower town. The prosperous merchants lived on one; the nobility in the other. Both the old and new parts of Tallin seem quite prosperous. There seems to be no regret for the loss of Russian control. Midway during the walking tour we enjoyed tea and the Estonian version of a Graham cracker and Cool Whip layered dessert. Later, while we were standing in the main square a small group of Hari Krisnas (spell check doesn’t know how to spell that either) marched through banging on their drums.
One place we visited was a giant concert shell, capable of holding 30,000 singers. The audience area on the grass would hold at least 200,000. Near the end of the Soviet occupation a performance ended with the singing of the forbidden national anthem by all the performers and audience. Every four years competitions among European folk choir groups are held here.
5/19. Helsinki, Finland
If its Saturday morning it must be Helsinki. We did an early morning two-hour walking tour of the downtown area then took a boat to the Suomenmlinna Fortress. This was once known as the Gibralter of the North. It was built by the Sweds with French money and was intended to prevent the westward expansion of Russia. The brief half day we spent in Helsinki was inadequate.
Tonight was the welcome dinner. We dined with Capt. Karl Ulrich Lampe.
Stockholm is built on 14 small islands. Our entry was a bit different. As we approached we left the ship at 6:30 am and took zodiacs down a beautiful, narrow canal. One of the kings got bored with the usual approach and ordered that the Djurgården canal be dug. It is now lined with green with a few houses scattered around. We encountered two trees filled with great blue heron nests. When we rounded one bend we encountered Peter, the hotel manager, Gaylord, the dining room manager, the pastry chef, and one of the stewards in an anchored zodiac passing out coffee, tea, hot chocolate and delicious pastries.
The canal opened into the main harbor. As we toured in our zodiac we admired the picturesque skyline and many ships lining the harbor. Eventually we re-boarded the National Geographic Endeavour which was docked at Stadsholm, one of the islands comprising Stockholm.
After breakfast we took zodiacs across the harbor to visit a tribute to failure. On Sunday, August 10, 1628, the mighty warship Vasa with two gun decks, embarked on her maiden voyage. When the first puff of wind filled her sails she promptly keeled over and sank. As the result of vigorous finger-pointing between the king, the architect, and the builder, no blame for this expensive and embarrassing failure was ever assigned. She remained in her watery grave until April 24, 1961, when she was raised. Since that time she has been restored and is now in the Vasamuseet, an excellent museum not far from where she rested under water for 333 years. The Baltic is almost fresh water so the marine worms that inhabit salt water were not present to consume the wooden ship.
It was impossible to photograph the intricate carvings that decorated the ship. These elaborate and colorful decorations of a ship of war are a startling contrast to a modern warship with grey slab sides.
In the afternoon we had a walking tour of Gamla Stan, the old town.
5/21. Swedish Archipelago
Our departure from Stockholm was along the main channel which was literally lined with ships (or boats) of every description. There were beautifully maintained wooden sail boats and power boats, some boats that I suspect were steam powered, and many, many modern boats.
The voyage out through the archipelago of 30,000 islands was a passage through time. The entire area had been compressed under a glacier. Isostatic rebound is allowing the land to rise with the removal of the massive weight. This rebound is further along near Stockholm than in the outer islands. As a result, there is a reverse progression of vegetation recovery from Stockholm out.
In the afternoon we stopped at the island of Bullerö, a nature preserve where we hiked over the shield rocks and then enjoyed some smoked arctic char and beer, snaps, and vodka. The views were spectacular however the terrain was tough. One of the passengers broke her ankle on the hike.
The Swedish attitude toward a nature preserve is interesting. The original warden was fond of preserves from a certain kind of berry so he planted them all over the place. They have since expanded at the expense of native plants. He also planted a lot of non-indigenous plants. Now a flock of sheep has been brought in to control his plantings. One feature of this visit was a wood-fired sauna. One of the naturalists and several passengers took advantage of the sauna.
5/22. Stora Karlsö and Visby, Gotland
Finally a really good nature stop. Bullerö certainly was a nature stop however it was mostly rock and stunted trees. Stora Karlsö or Big Karl was beautiful. Once we got to the top of the limestone plateau we found wild flowers everywhere, including several vanities of orchids. The air was filled with the songs of many birds, all valiantly trying to establish their territories this spring. We hiked to a fenced area that overlooked a sheer cliff where razor bills and gillimonts were nesting. This was also the location of a lighthouse. This stop was a triple delight, the birds, the flowers, and the pleasant walk.
In the afternoon we stopped at Visby on the large island of Gotland. There was the usual town walk over the steep hills upon which the old town was built. The town was one of the Hanseatic League cities and was once quite prosperous. So prosperous that it was thought necessary to surround the town with a defensive wall. The wall still encircles the old town. There were once seven elaborate churches in the town; now there is one functional one and six ruins. The steeple of the one functional one also contains the local cell phone antenna, providing good coverage for the area. There is a very modern, bustling town outside of the wall.
5/23. Riga, Latvia
After a morning at sea we entered the harbor of Riga via the Daugava River. Although the facilities are extensive there seems to be little activity in the harbor. We tied up near the spectacular, single-tower Vanŝu Bridge.
Riga is noted for its art nouveau buildings, the result of the emergence of a prosperous urban middle class at the turn of the last century. Our 1-hour bus tour wound back and forth among these buildings. There are also many churches, most with rooster wind vanes on top. The rooster indicates that the church is Lutheran; even the Catholic Church had a rooster wind vane because it spent some time as a Lutheran church.
One building we saw on our walking tour had a cat poised on top of a tower. It was facing the Guild Hall. When the tower was first built, the cat’s rear was pointed toward the hall. The owner of the building had been denied membership in the guild so he was expressing his contempt. The guild, of course, was quite upset and sued. After prolonged negotiation the cat was turned and the owner admitted to the guild.
We entered the Guild Hall and viewed the Dzintarins folk dance group. This is a group of talented and well trained children. One group aged 10 thru 13 performed first and were followed by a group aged 4 thru 10. Both were well costumed and quite talented. I’m sure that they were constantly exhorted, “Smile, Smile, Smile,” because constant smiles were present throughout their performances.
The Guild Hall itself was interesting however we heard almost nothing about it. There were many elaborate stained-glass windows depicting the various trades. Some were easily identified, such as baker, carpenter, house builder, by the implements the figures were holding. All of the faces seemed almost photographic so I assume that they were of actual men.
After that we wandered around a bit more then we went to the Catholic Cathedral for an organ concert. This manual organ was once the largest in the world with over 3,000 pipes and over 250 voices. ( I don’t know what “voices” means, I’m only parroting what we were told.) The church was built of soaring arches with little embellishment. Some stained-glass windows are being installed currently. The organ was loud and powerful however there seemed to be some unfortunate interfering reflections where I was sitting that “mudded” the higher notes.
After the concert Jodie went off amber shopping while I continued on for the very brief remainder of the tour and then returned to the ship. By the time Jodie was ready to return to the ship, laden with amber, the buses were held up in traffic so she walked back.
5/24. At Sea
We have just had the final lecture by Ron Suny concerning the history of the area. These lectures have been very interesting. He is a very good lecturer who speaks without visual aids. I would like to summarize his lectures but I can’t. The rest of the expedition staff included David Cothran who was the underwater specialist; Sharon Grainger, botany and shopping; William Lopez-Forment, botany (we traveled with William on the Gulf of Cortez;) Tom Ritchie, generalist (Tom was the expedition leader on the trip up the coast of South America;) Lisa Trotter, generalist; and Richard White, birder. This may seem to be an excessive number of naturalists however they all are required to drive zodiacs and accompany groups of passengers on shore.
5/25. Gdansk, Poland
The day started with a visit by patriot, Nobel Prize winner, and ex-Polish president Lech Walesa. He spoke through an interpreter for about an hour about globalization and the need for principles to guide the new world. He likened them to rules for driving however gave no examples. At the end of his remarks he asked for questions of which there were a few. The most interesting question, “Why did you go over the wall?” His answer wasn’t very clear but was just sort of you did what you had to do at the time. After speaking he willingly posed for pictures with anyone who wanted to.
After his visit we visited a new old town. Gdansk was totally destroyed by American and British bombs during WWII. Since then most of it has been rebuilt to look as it once did. It is a very attractive, picturesque city with a bustling business section. We did the usual bus survey and then a walking tour. After lunch I spent a wasted 2 hours in the maritime museum while Jodie had a very productive shopping trip. We both separately took a zodiac back to the ship through the famous shipyards.
Very low salinity, 1/3 of ocean
Plied by very large car (truck) ferries
Quite smooth this time of year, almost never any motion on ship.
Shores fortified because of continual struggles for control.
Fisheries collapsing like the rest of the world.
5/26. Christiansø and Bornholm, Denmark
Christiansø is a very small resort island. We strolled around the island (actually two) before the day boat arrived. Like so many places in the Baltic, this was once a fortified island. When we landed the local fishermen were cleaning the fish they had caught and selling some to the locals. There were many, many gulls on the outlying islands and also many eider ducks swimming in the harbor or sitting on nests. There were also many lovely wild flowers. We left just as the day boat was arriving.
Bornholm is a very large island. We did a bus tour to the remarkable, lovely Olskars Round Church. It was designed with three levels with a dual purpose of worship, and protection in time of war. I guess you could call it a fortified church.
We then visited Hammershus Castle which occupies a prominence on the island. It was quite large but now is in extensive ruin.
Our final adventure was a real treat. We went to a shop where we were served a whole smoked golden herring, a raw egg yolk, some chopped onions, and dark bread. After sampling it, it was no better than it sounds, although many people cleaned their plates. A large glass of beer was provided to wash it down.
5/27. Lübeck, Germany
We approached Lübeck cruising up the scenic Trave river where we saw some white tailed eagles. There were also many white swans, common to most of the rivers we traveled. After docking, we all boarded some canal boats for a cruise about the city. The route had to be altered since the water level was too high to pass under some of the bridges. This was followed by a walking tour.
One of the more interesting things were homes constructed behind businesses. Access was through very narrow passages between the businesses. The width of the passage was dictated by the width of coffins. These homes were secluded but had beautiful, small gardens. We were also given a opportunity to purchase some famous marzipan.
We spent the remainder of the day packing. The farewell Cocktail party was this night.
5/28. Copenhagen, Denmark
Off the ship for a two-hour tour. Of course, we got to stop by the Little Mermaid. It was very foggy with a light mist so nothing was very scenic.
We checked in rather promptly and then passed through security and passport control and spent the remainder of the time in the SAS lounge. The flight to Dulles was long and uneventful. We checked into the Hilton Dulles again.
We left the hotel on the 10 am shuttle to the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center and met our guide, Vince Mazzola for a tour. He showed us around until noon and we spent the remainder of the day on our own. Jet lag set in about 3 so we caught the shuttle back to the hotel.
Although we were flying first class we were denied access to the UAL lounge at Dulles. We went to our gate and found it crowded by the passengers from a flight to Puerto Rico that was supposed to have left an hour earlier. They had been told that there were mechanical problems with their aircraft, then all the United personnel left.
Finally they were told to go to a different gate where they would find a replacement airplane.
Our departure time suddenly slipped by an hour and then our gate changed. We finally left 1¾ hours late. On the plane we enjoyed abysmal but typical United service. It was good to reach LAX however we had an extremely long wait for our luggage, but it all did arrive.