Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Baltic Cruise and Copenhagen

This is part 2 of our recent vacation where we visited Scandinavian and Baltic countries:
    After another sea day we arrived in Tallinn, Estonia.  We were able to walk from the port to the old town area, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The old part is a gated city with cobblestone streets and lots of charm. It's almost as quaint as Brugge, which is still our favorite port.  We spent the day walking around and doing a bit of shopping. We also enjoyed a pastry snack, planning to eat a meal back on the ship.
Tallinn Town Square

Door in Tallinn
Town Hall history

Entrance to the old city

On to St. Petersburg!   We had arranged a tour through a Russian approved tour provider, so that included the visa requirement which otherwise is difficult and expensive.  Still, their passport control check was very slow like they expect all these cruise ship tourists to be a bunch of spies in disguise. The first day we began with the Hermitage Museum for a couple hours.   They say that if you spent just a few seconds looking at each item they have it would take several years to see it all. We saw works from Rembrandt, Michelangelo and on and on, so many I can't remember. But I was just as awed by the buildings themselves (there are several interconnected buildings).  They were formerly a royal palace, so they were extremely ornate. After that we went to lunch at a restaurant where we had borscht and chicken Kiev. I’d never tried borscht before and I quite liked it, I’ll have to find a recipe when I get home. Then we drove out to Pushkin Village where we toured Catherine’s Summer Palace.  Although it was only used three weeks per year, it is enormous and very ornate. It, like many of the Russian palaces and churches, had been used by the Nazis and heavily damaged during World War II, but has been extensively restored to its original looks. Luckily many of the decorative statues were buried before the Nazis arrived, so they were dug up and put back after the war.  When we returned to the ship, passport control was once again very slow.
    The second day began with a trip on the subway.   First you go down the longest escalator I’ve ever seen, like four or five stories down at once. The section of subway we rode actually took us under the Neva River.  I think they want to show it off to us because it was so clean and efficient that it puts any other subway I’ve ever ridden to shame, especially the New York City system.  After that we took a canal boat tour up the Neva and through some smaller canals. Then we drove out to Peterhoff to see the fabulous gardens and fountains there. Did I mention that we had fantastic weather, about 80 degrees and sunny every day?    They said that St. Petersburg gets about 60 days of sunshine per year, and we got two of them while we were there. We had lunch at another nice restaurant, chicken Kiev again (I thought we were supposed to have stroganoff one day). Then we headed back into town to see St. Isaac’s Cathedral, absolutely gorgeous, and the Church on Spilled Blood.  Both are Russian Orthodox. The later is all beautiful mosaics on every wall. It was built on the spot where Nicholas II was assassinated, hence the spilled blood. The guide told us that after the Russian revolution, they began fill it with gunpowder to blow it up and get rid of memorials to the czar. But World War II was beginning so they decided they would need the gunpowder for that, so luckily it wasn’t destroyed.   The ornate cupolas that are on the outside are the picture you usually see in photos of St. Petersburg; one was covered for restoration work when we were there.
     Now my overall impression of St. Petersburg: it's no wonder there was a Russian revolution.   It's easy to see that their royalty lived in opulence while no one else did. The city streets are row after row of large, five or six story apartment buildings with no space between them.   There are no individual houses (our guide told us this) in this city of five million people. But some of the buildings built during the Soviet era were the ugliest of all, made of concrete slabs with no color whatsoever.  It seems that the people are a lot more prosperous now than during Soviet times, with many European, Asian and American cars on the roads. But still their standard of living is not what we enjoy. It was an interesting place to visit, and I’m glad we did.   But now that I’ve been there I’d have no reason to go back.

Typical Building in St. Petersburg 
Street sign
Hermitage Museum main building
Inside the Hermitage
Inside the Hermitage (it's not just art)
Hallway in the Hermitage
Catherine the Great's Summer Palace
Inside Catherine's Summer Palace
St. Petersburg subway
Peterhof Palace fountain
Peterhof gardens
St. Isaac's Cathedral
Inside St. Isaac's Cathedral
Church on Spilled Blood

Mosaic walls inside Church on Spilled Blood

 Next stop: Helsinki, Finland.  Chuck started feeling sick the night before we arrived, so I toured the city alone (well, along with thousands of other people).   Funny, I can go to downtown Salt Lake and never see anyone I know, but in Helsinki I ran into lots of people I knew from our ship. I went to a pharmacy to get Chuck some medicine (a bit challenging when all the packaging is in Finnish) and then walked around the huge department store Stockmans.   It's pretty much like a Macy's only bigger. Then I went to Senate Square and went into the Lutheran cathedral there. I walked down to the pier area where there were lots of shopping kiosks, bought a couple things, and had a crepe for lunch. It was another beautiful, warm sunny day, so everyone was enjoying it.  Helsinki is quite a nice city, but I had to head back and not miss the boat.

 At Senate Square, Helsinki
 Lutheran Cathedral at Senate Square
Helsinki waterfront

 The the next day was our stop in Stockholm.  We took the hop-on-hop-off bus to see this beautiful city.  We got off at the old town area, a very picturesque area of medieval buildings and cobblestone streets.  Then we hopped on a canal boat and got off at the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a huge (226 feet long) warship that was built in 1628.  Unfortunately, the design was flawed, it was too tall and top heavy with armaments, and very unstable. So on its maiden voyage in traveled about about 140 yards, then when it encountered a wind, it tipped and sunk in the Stockholm Harbor.  It stayed there for 333 years until it was salvaged in 1961. The hull was mostly intact, but there were about 14,000 pieces of salvage to reassemble. They built a museum for it, and it is an awesome sight to see. Sailing out of Stockholm was also awesome; there are hundreds of islands from tiny to large and populated that we sailed past.  It is truly a beautiful place to see. That night the ship’s entertainment was an Abba tribute group that was so good I almost regretted not going to the Abba Museum next to the Vasa Museum.
 In Stockholm old town
Stockholm waterfront

Vasa ship in its Museum
Vasa ship deck

   After Stockholm we had a sea day, which gave Chuck another day to rest and get feeling better.  Our next stop was one he’d been looking forward to - Berlin. We docked at Rostock, a port that was formerly in East Germany, and from there we had about a three hour bus ride to Berlin on the autobahn.  We travelled through rolling green fields and forests at about 65 mph that the bus is allowed, but cars were zipping by at much greater speeds. In the city we saw all the major tourist spots - Charlottenburg Palace, Brandenburg Gate, Hitler’s bunker site, the remains of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, the Book Burning Memorial, and an array of statues and churches.  It’s interesting to see where the wall was and the “dead zone” that existed between east and west Berlin. Our guide did an excellent job of showing us photos of what these places looked like during and after the war. Now, for the most part, everything is built over with new buildings and there is little visible evidence of the city’s past. It looks like a newer, modern city without a lot of character to make it interesting.

    Our last stop, day 28, was the city of Kiel, Germany.  We walked into town and along the pedestrian shopping street.  Then we returned to the ship to pack for disembarking in Copenhagen the next day.  

Brandenberg Gate
Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
marking the path of the Berlin Wall
remaining section of the Berlin Wall
Checkpoint Charlie
street in Kiel, Germany
    We stayed an additional three days in Copenhagen after the cruise ended.  So that meant buying our own food, which is quite expensive in Denmark (and all the Scandinavian countries).   We bought Copenhagen Cards that included all the major attractions of the city plus public transportation, so that was a good deal.  The first day, after checking into our hotel, we went back to Rosenborg Castle, built in the 1600s. It is now a museum with lots of stuff from the royal family including the crown jewels.  It also has beautiful gardens that we walked through on the way to the Amalienborg Palace, the current royal residence that is guarded by the Royal Guard. Later that afternoon we went to Tivoli Gardens.  Tivoli was Walt Disney’s inspiration in designing Disneyland, and we could see the similarities. It has garden areas with shops and restaurants as well as many amusement park rides. It’s not as large and elaborate as amusement parks that we are used to in the US, but it is 175 years old.  We had dinner there at a snack bar type eatery, hamburger, fries and Coke for two was $40 (missing the cruise ship about now). We also got to see their evening parade which was quite reminiscent of Disneyland, characters and floats, even a Small World float sponsored by Disney.
    Copenhagen day 2 we walked to the Christiansborg Palace which is a complex of several buildings.  We visited the Royal Reception rooms, the Royal kitchen, the royal stables, and the underground ruins of the original castle.  Like many of the old castles, parts had been destroyed by fire and wars, so new buildings were built on the same site. We also visited the Tojhus which is the Royal Danish Arsenal Museum.  It had old cannons, guns, uniforms and all sorts of displays about wars that Denmark has been involved in over many centuries of history. We also took a canal boat tour around the harbor, then walked to the cathedral that has the original Christus statue plus statues of the twelve apostles.  Then we took a bus out to the Blue Planet Aquarium. When we go back to the hotel and headed out for dinner, we found that there was a huge race with hundreds of people running up Hans Christian Anderson Blvd., so we couldn’t get across to where most of the food places are. So we ended up eating again at 7-11.  Oh well.
    For our last day in Denmark we took a train to Hillerod to see the Frederiksborg Castle.  We rode a ferry over to the entrance. It was built in the 17th century, but extensively rebuilt in the 19th century after fire damage.  It is a beautiful castle with lots of historical furnishings, tapestries, artwork, and amazing ceilings. From there we took another train to Helsingor where we visited the Kronborg Castle, which originally dates back to the 1420’s.  This castle is a UNESCO world heritage site and is most famous as being the setting for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. It is not known whether Shakespeare ever visited the castle. While the castle and setting are beautiful, it doesn’t have as much to see in the interiors.  After that, we took the train back to Copenhagen. This time we were able to get to the Stroget (the pedestrian street with lots of shops) and have some dinner.
 Rosenborg Castle
Changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace 
Rides and lake in Tivoli Gardens 
Parade in Tivoli, with tribute to Disney 
inside Christiansborg Palace
library in Christianborg Palace 
Royal Danish Arsenal Museum 
 original Christus statue at Church of Our Lady Cathedral
Blue Planet Aquarium 
Frederiksborg Castle, Hillerod, Denmark 
 fountain at Frederiksborg Castle
ceiling inside Frederiksborg Castle
 moat at Kronborg Castle, Helsingor, Denmark
Kronborg Castle

Wednesday, May 23rd, time to head home.  We took the bus to the airport for our 2pm flight to Reykjavik, Iceland.  That was a three hour flight with a two hour layover, to be followed by an almost eight hour flight to Seattle, then a couple hours wait for a two hour flight to Salt Lake.  Unfortunately, the plane was having AC issues, so we ended up staying a couple hours extra in Reykjavic which meant we missed the connection in Seattle. But the airline put us up in the Doubletree Inn and had us on the morning flight home.  That’s the downside of going to Europe (and why we decided to take the transatlantic going there), it's a long way to fly home! But it's good to be home, we missed the kids, grandkids and dogs, but it's back to cooking, cleaning, bills and all the stuff you don’t have to deal with on vacation.  We had a great time and have many happy memories from all the places we were able to visit!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Transatlantic Cruise

We just got back last Thursday from 34 days of traveling across the Atlantic, northern Europe and several Baltic countries.  We were able to visit places
I’d always wanted to see (like England, Denmark, Sweden), places I’d never given much thought to (Azores, Belgium, Finland), and places that were not
even open to visiting when I was younger (Russia, Estonia, former East Berlin), plus a few other places.  We had wonderful weather and a great time.
   We flew to Fort Lauderdale on April 21 and boarded the MS Zuiderdam the next morning.  We had been on a sister ship before (Westerdam), but were
pleased to see the recent dry dock to the Zuiderdam included upgrades to large flat screen TVs with streaming movies, TV shows, news and other features
that are nice for a trip with lots of sea days.  We started out with two sea days travel to get to Bermuda. There we took a bus around the bay to the capital
city of Hamilton. As we started to walk around we found the city hall which had a sign advertising a free walking tour lead by the town crier. He was outfitted
in traditional English dress with a tricorner hat and large bell.  We visited the cathedral and the legislature as well as seeing many parts of the city. We took
the ferry back to the Royal Naval Dockyards where our ship was docked and looked around at the shops housed in the old buildings there.

In the Bermuda Legislature
Royal Naval Dockyards, Bermuda
    After Bermuda we had four sea days to cross most of the Atlantic Ocean.   Our routine was similar from day to day on the sea days: morning lectures on
various topics, cooking demonstrations from America’s Test Kitchen, BBC Earth shows. Afternoons were usually a trip to the gym, swim or walk the
promenade, a movie and dinner.  The evenings were filled with entertainment from shows on the main stage from musicians, comedians, or a fantastic
juggler. Then off to the BB King Blues Club for a great band and sometimes Lincoln Center Stage for a string quartet and piano, or Billboard Onboard for
piano/singer duet of pop music.  
Street in Horta, Azores, Portugal

Scrimshaw carvings

Scrimshaw etchings
Our next stop was the Azores, a group of islands that are part of Portugal.   Horta, on Filal Island was first; a small, quaint town that is not a big tourist
destination.  We were only the third ship there this year since the Azores are only on Transatlantic itineraries. We visited the Scrimshaw Museum.  
Scrimshaw is etching or carvings that sailors would do on whale bone or teeth as their pastime at sea. They were very beautiful and had amazing detail.
Next, Chuck had a gum infection bothering him for a couple days, so the ship arranged a taxi to a local dentist for us. Another couple came along that had
a loose bridge.  So for a 5 Euro taxi ride and a 10 Euro consultation, we were taken care of. We were quite pleased with that, about $20 total, which would
have cost many times more at home.

    The other Azorian island we visited was Sao Miguel, docking at Ponta Delgada.  This was an amazingly beautiful place. We went on a tour that another
passenger had arranged (she’d been there on four previous cruises) that took us all over the island. The first of two main destinations was Sete Cidades.
It is the caldera of a volcano with two beautiful lakes inside.  One lake is green and the other is blue, but the weather was overcast just enough to make the
colors look about the same. Still it was a beautiful view, a magnificent setting for a town on the lakesides. From there we headed toward the other end of
the island to another volcano caldera. Next to the lake in this one is an area that is used to bury large pots of food so they are cooked by steam rising from
the volcano.  The restaurants or individuals can take them out there at 5am to be buried, then around noon they unearth them. After watching them dig up
our pot we headed to the restaurant that serves the contents - beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, potatoes and yams. It was quite tender and good. We also
had local passion fruit juice and pineapple for dessert. Then we visited a hot springs area and tea plantation. The whole island was beautiful because of
the green fields with grazing cows and many flowers everywhere.
Sete Cidades, Azores

View from Ponta Delgada

Northern European Coast
    Back to sea for three more days on our way to Southampton, England.  The ocean was a bit rougher for the first couple days. It didn’t really bother us
at all except it made it difficult to walk in a straight line; everyone looked like they were failing a sobriety test.  As we got into the English Channel we began
to see other ships for the first time in many days. In Southampton we shared a taxi tour with three other couples (arranged ahead of time on the cruise
critic forum) to Stonehenge.  Of course it's just like the pictures, but maybe not as large as I expected. Still, it is an amazing sight. It was quite crowded
(it was a “bank holiday” and the weather was gorgeous) but it's protected so you can't go right up to the stones, making it easier to photograph without
people in the way.  The countryside around there is beautiful green rolling hills. Then we went to Salisbury, which is a classic English medieval city with
some fantastic old buildings. We had a couple hours there, so we started with lunch; Chuck with traditional fish and chips, me with a shepherd’s pie.
Both were excellent.  Then we just walked around enjoying the atmosphere. People were quite friendly, a lady even told Chuck she loved his accent, haha.
I loved hers! We also walked around the Cathedral grounds and courtyard. Engraved in the rocks of the pathway and the walls are memorials to people
from the late 17 and early 1800’s.  After that we drove through the New Forest area, a protected area where horses, sheep and cows are allowed to roam
free. There are also nice country homes within the forest area.

Chuck in Salisbury
Salisbury Cathedral

   The next day we arrived at the port of Cherbourg on the French coast.   From there we went with another tour group to see the D-Day beaches. First was the town of Sainte Mere Eglise which was the first town liberated by the Allies on D-Day and was strategically important to cut off German supply lines.  Paratroopers parachuted in at great peril, many were killed. There's a great story about one getting his parachute caught on the church steeple, they have a dummy up there now to show where it happened. We went to the Paratrooper Museum there that has lots of history and many artifacts from small items to large gliders that were used.  Then we stopped at a French bakery to buy sandwiches on wonderful French bread. Continuing on we went to Pointe du Hoc where the Army Rangers scaled the cliffs under heavy Nazi fire. The landscape is full of craters created by Allied bombing and broken concrete from the Nazi bunkers, a couple of which you can go in. The views of the ocean were breathtaking.  Our French guide, who was from a small town in the area, told us about how her grandparents had run inland to avoid the bombing. Her grandmother wanted to go to the church but grandpa thought inland would be safer. She showed us the picture of the church which had been bombed out. Many French civilians were killed in the assaults, but the French people were grateful to be liberated after four years of Nazi occupation. From there we headed to Omaha Beach where the American troops landed in large numbers and many more were killed.  The beach is four miles long with a big memorial at the center. Lastly we visited the American cemetery with its many rows of white crosses and some stars of David where about 40% of the soldiers are buried. Families had the option to have their loved ones buried there or re-interred in the U.S. that's why less than half of those who gave their lives are buried there. There are still a lot of graves along with some beautiful memorials.

Church at Sainte Mere Eglise (notice paratrooper caught on steeple)

In Paratrooper Museum
German Bunker at Pont du Hoc
Cliffs at Pont du Hoc
Memorial at Omaha Beach
Normandy American Cemetery
    The next day our stop was in Belgium at the port of Zeebrugge.  We taxied with a group to the city of Bruges, which was beyond amazing.  It is like
being in a medieval fairy tale of winding cobblestone streets, canals and old brick buildings.  From the central market square we went on a two hour
walking tour of the city where we learned about the rich history that dates back to the 1200’s.  It is one of the best preserved towns in Europe because
it did not get bombed in World War II because Hitler liked the town. Of course we also had to sample the food Belgium is famous for - some Belgian
waffles with strawberries and cream and some fine Belgian chocolate.  In the central area there are a multitude of chocolate shops and waffle cafes,
all of which looked amazing, and what we ate was wonderful. We wandered around the maze of streets until our feet were aching, but loved every
minute of it.
Bruges Canal
Bruges Market Square

Bruges houses

    From there we sailed on to Amsterdam.  We had tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus and boat, so we got on a boat that would take us to the stop at
the Anne Frank house. I had bought tickets two months in advance, online, which is the only way you can get in there.  We got there right at our
appointed time, luckily, so we were able to get right in. No photos are allowed inside. First you go through an area that has photos and information
about the Frank family. Then you go through the actual annex where they and another family lived for over two years.  It is very sobering to see the
small area that 8 people lived in, unable to make noise in daytime or ever go outside. I had read her book, “Diary of a Young Girl” when I was about
her age, 14-15. I’d forgotten that they knew about D-Day and hoped to be rescued soon when they were discovered. They were all sent to
concentration camps, and only her father, out of all eight people that were in hiding, survived the war.   
Amsterdam canal

Amsterdam windmill

    After leaving there, we took a hop on bus and later another boat to tour the city and its wonderful canals.   While Amsterdam is an interesting

city with people riding bikes everywhere, it didn't seem as clean as the other places we’d visited.  It was also very busy making it slow to get
around, so we ended our time by walking around to see local businesses and buildings.

    We had one sea day traveling north to Copenhagen.  This was the end of the transatlantic portion of the cruise, and about ⅔ of the
passengers disembarked there.  Several we’d become acquainted with were heading other places in Europe, often because they had done the
Baltics before.   We had a day in Copenhagen knowing we’ be back in ten days to spend more time. So we just walked around the Nyhaven
port area, the pedestrian shopping street, and by Rosenborg Castle.  We also ate some excellent pastries. In a couple days I’ll post about the
second half of the trip; need to edit photos first (I shot over 1100 pics).
Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Rosenborg Castle