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Baltic Odyssey: Scotland, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland & Sweden
Published on Friday, July 22, 2011
Wednesday, June 8, 2011 – Edinburgh, Scotland: As international flights arrived into Edinburgh, our journey together was beginning. A brief introduction to all staff members was provided before dinner at the hotel, and guests from far and wide sought the comfort of their welcoming beds to rest up from their travels.
Thursday, June 9 – Edinburgh / Montrose / Embark Clipper Odyssey: An early start enabled a packed itinerary in both Edinburgh and Perth. We commenced with a tour of Edinburgh’s spectacular architecture: Princes Street and the Georgian townhouses, with their protected facades and communal gardens, and onto the Royal Mile leading from Holyrood Palace and the new Scottish Parliament building by Morales, to the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle. Accompanied by excellent commentary from our local guides, we took time to explore the majestic walls of the castle.
Heading north out of the city and crossing the River Forth by its famous Road Bridge, we ate lunch in a 15th-century watermill, now a large restaurant, within the ancient city of Perth. Our next highlight was the Palace at Scone, home of the original Stone of Destiny from ancient times, and an integral part of the Royal Crowning Investitures in Westminster Abbey. Although a replica can be seen at Scone, the original is now housed in Edinburgh Castle, brought home to Scotland to coincide with the Devolution of Scotland and the opening of her new Parliament.
We carried on to Montrose through lush green countryside, and boarded our home for the next two weeks, the Clipper Odyssey.
Friday, June 10 – At Sea: Our sea day enabled some of our lecturers to provide an outline of the cultural components of the Baltic region in the wider context. Colleen Batey spoke of The World of the Vikings, Ron Wixman on The Norse and the Rise of the Hansa, Olga Stavrakis on the Northern Crusades, and John Buchanan spoke on Physical Geography and Geology of the Baltic Sea Region. John also provided a brief introduction to the study of sedimentary geology, and enlightened us on a pilgrimage he had made to Siccar Rocks in the south of Edinburgh. It was a full day of learning, with calm seas prevailing for Captain Peter Fielding’s welcome cocktail party and dinner.
Saturday, June 11 – Sylt Island, Germany: Located off the western edge of mainland Europe and straddling the coastlands of Denmark to the north and Germany to the south, the low-lying island of Sylt forms part of modern day Schleswig Holstein. An early call was made for the guests who wished to go ashore with Greg Homel, our onboard ornithologist, and Brent Stephenson, our Assistant Expedition Leader, to search for birds in the marshy areas and beyond. Highlights of their explorations included breeding Arctic terns, common shelduck, and little ringed plover, with sightings of a Eurasian cuckoo whose distinctive call heralds spring in much of Europe. Several warbler species were identified including the reed and sedge warblers, while the whitethroat and lesser whitethroat sang from the hedgerows and trees.
Departing slightly later, the larger group joined a bus excursion which provided a good overview of the island as a whole. The high Red Cliffs of the west coast, whose beaches were littered with the double basket-chairs so characteristic of the region, were complemented by stops to view beautifully thatched houses, old and new. We made a brief visit to Tinnum Castle, where Colleen explained the international significance of this Viking-age ring fort, before stopping for lunch.
In the afternoon, there was a choice between an 11-mile bike ride, punctuated with frequent stops for both food and drink, or a bus ride to Denghoog with free time in the capital town of Westerland. Denghoog, a Neolithic tomb, is open to visitors and many will take home memories of sitting huddled, shoulder-to-shoulder, within this 5,000-year-old burial chamber of massive stones.
Sunday, June 12 – Kiel Canal: We received a very early wake-up call to view our entry into the lock at Brunsbüttel at the western end of the massive 61-mile Kiel Canal, which links the North and Baltic Seas. Building began in the 18th century, and through modifications it was expanded from 1887-1895. It expanded once more in 1914 to enable the passage of large naval vessels. With a 9-knot speed limit, the transit was relaxing and we exited at the lock of Holtenau on the Baltic side in the early afternoon. This allowed time in the morning for a presentation by Greg entitled A Virtual Field Guide to the Notable Birds of our Voyage, and by Colleen on The Vikings of the Baltic Sea before a special German lunch buffet, Früschoppen. An afternoon lecture by Ron Wixman on The Protestant Reformation and the Rise of the Industrial Revolution brought an educational day to a close.
Monday, June 13 – Bornholm Island, Denmark / Christiansø: As we pulled into the protected harbor of Ronne on the west coast of Bornholm, the sun shone brightly in the painted skies above. Our tour encompassed much of the northern coast of the island. We stopped at one of the largest Norse runestones in Denmark, near the village of Svalhøj, and spent an enjoyable time at Hammershus, the largest medieval castle ruins in Northern Europe. The wonderful views of the coastal fringe were accompanied by the sound of thousands of frogs calling from below the castle ramparts.
Our next stop was Østerlars near Gudhjem, the largest and most famous of the four round churches on the island, dating from the 12th century. The thick-walled, white-washed drum was complemented by the adjacent bell tower and the beautifully tended graveyard. We had lunch at Gudhjem, a typical smorgasbord that was enjoyed by all.
We returned to the ship by Zodiac and sailed away to the nearby twin islands of Christiansø and Fredriksø. In wonderful sunshine and late afternoon light, we explored the fortress islands, summer dwellings of modern escapees from nearby lands, which date back to the 17th century. The sounds of garden warblers, a solitary nightingale, jackdaws, and rooks, as well as common eiders, enhanced the visit, and the sight of herring and great black-backed gulls in feeding frenzies was wondrous to see. On our way back to the ship we passed the nearby island of Graesholm, a protected bird colony, where razorbills and common murres were prolific.
Tuesday, June 14 – Gdansk, Poland: Berthed adjacent to Westerplatte, where the first shots of World War II were fired on September 1, 1939, this visit was dominated by both modern and ancient historical events. Our morning excursion was to the emotive and fascinating Roads to Freedom exhibition, and the impressive Solidarity Monument located in a square adjacent to the infamous shipyards; the same spot where the movement that changed the face of the political map in the 1980s was born and led by Lech Walesa. The story of life under Communism in Poland was starkly documented in the exhibition, and news footage enhanced our knowledge of the events that occurred in the shipyards of Gdansk. Culminating in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was impossible not to be moved by the story as it unfolded in the subterranean museum, whose entrance is guarded by a now-obsolete tank.
Our afternoon excursion focused on the Hanseatic Old Town, largely rebuilt from the original plans following massive destruction by bombing in the war. Commencing at the misnamed Green Gate, our walk took us through the wonderful main street lined with buildings of Hanseatic stepped-gables, the magnificent Neptune’s Fountain, and on to the Golden Gate. The smaller side streets, paved with cobblestones and lined with shops stocked with amber of all hues and designs, led us to St. Mary’s Church, a majestic and prominent brick structure which stood in striking contrast from its neighboring buildings. A demonstration on amber identification rounded out the tour, before we had the option to explore on our own and perhaps sample Polish delicacies.
Wednesday, June 15 – At Sea: Our day at sea began with a chance to enjoy more lectures, commencing with Olga’s, The Rise and Fall of Hanseatic Cities, and John on Glaciers and Glaciations. It was then time to switch our clocks, followed by an Ice Cream Social. The day was rounded out by Greg’s presentation, So What is Birding, Anyway?, and as we looked to starboard, the Latvian coast could be seen on the horizon.
Thursday, June 16 – Riga, Latvia: Straddling both sides of the mighty Daugava River, Riga was used in the 9th and 10th centuries by the Vikings on their journey to the silver markets of the East. Our morning tour brought us to the district revitalized by Mikhail Eisenstein in the early 1900s with impressive carved facades and stucco frontages, colored tiles, and distinctive but varied window forms—this was truly an exhilarating experience and for most totally unexpected.
In light sunshine our tour continued on foot, taking in the narrow, cobbled streets and flower-filled squares, the Hanseatic elegance only partially diminished by the heavy hand of Russian domination. The large Guild houses, the 15th-century Three Brothers merchant houses, the Hanseatic Blackheads house refurbished in the 1990s, and the enormous brick cathedral formed the framework of our tour. A highlight for many was afforded in the cathedral itself with an organ recital by Larisa Bulava, which included works by Bach, Boellman, and Lemmens. A few hours of free time enabled some to visit the impressive indoor food market nearby, housed within the modified Zeppelin balloon hangers. Flowers, fruit, sausage, fish, and bread crowded the stalls and provided insight into normal, everyday life in the city.
We departed in the mid-afternoon and enjoyed a lecture by Colleen on The League of Hanseatic Merchants, en route for our next Hanseatic city, Tallinn.
Friday, June 17 – Tallinn, Estonia: A wonderful sunny morning greeted us as we approached the walled city of Tallinn with its red roofs and golden limestone towers. Ron gave a lecture on Riga and Tallinn before we embarked on our tour for Kadriorg Palace on the outskirts of Tallinn. Built by Peter the Great for his mistress Catherine, this diminutive pastel-colored palace echoed many of the magnificent regal buildings of St. Petersburg. Housing the national painting collection, and with a temporary exhibition of Estonian icons (several on loan from Russia), the airy, gilded interiors were pretty and domestic in scale. Surrounded by flower-filled gardens and mature trees, with a small pavilion amidst a decorative pool, all vistas were beautiful.
Once back in Tallinn, the walking tour commenced in the Upper Town with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Cathedral of St. Mary’s. The lookout point afforded spectacular views across the city. Winding cobbled streets brought us down into the Lower Town. The Main Square and adjacent Town Hall were picture-postcard perfect, and dominated by a large collection of market stalls with handicrafts of linen, leather, glass, and ceramics. A sense of summer was everywhere, boosted by the end of the academic year celebrated by students carrying flower bouquets, and several weddings.
Saturday, June 18 – Turku, Finland: Our passage in the night took us through the myriad small islands of Finland’s Archipelago into Turku, a town sheltered by the islands from weather extremes, marauding pirates, and large cruise ships. The fifth largest town in Finland, Turku is also named in Swedish, Åbo, in recognition that this part of Finland also has a strong historical link with their neighboring country. We toured the magnificent cathedral with its lofty white-washed walls and traces of medieval murals, complemented by installations of modern art. Turku Castle, with thick white-washed walls and a complex history beginning in 1280 was our next call and its secrets were revealed by our local guides, whose English was impeccable. The final stop was to the open air museum, where buildings that survived a devastating fire in the early 1800s are open to visitors, with guides describing the activities that took place in the houses.
A mid-afternoon departure allowed us to enjoy the complex archipelago in daylight as we cruised among rocky islets, and saw the occasional red-painted wooden summer house lining our route away from Finland. Several sightings of the magnificent white-tailed sea-eagle were made, as well as the nest of an osprey, perched on a mid-channel waymarker; a red-throated loon could be seen in the distance.
Olga presented her lecture on Russia: East or West and we eased into the evening with a mid-summer cocktail party on the Pool Deck, where chilled vodka lightened the mood and insulated against the mid-summer chill.
Sunday, June 19 – Stockholm, Sweden: Upon arrival into Stockholm harbor and our berth in Gamla Stan, we saw the picturesque Old Town. A truly beautiful cityscape with soaring church spires and public buildings, all blended with the ochre and red painted stone buildings lining the shores of this Baltic capital.
Our touring began at the City Hall, or Stadshuset, home of the Nobel Ceremonies. The relatively stark external facade of the massive structure belied the nature of the truly exquisite rooms within. The Golden Room, so named for its 23 kg of 24 carat gold incorporated into the mosaics, was spectacular with the details both amusing and captivating. The next stop was the Vasa Museum, named for the warship of the great expansionist king of Sweden in the early 17th century, Gustavus Adolphus. Jaws dropped as the enormity of the complete vessel soared to full height at the entry to the purpose-built museum. Greg was delighted to see barnacle geese on the lawn outside the Museum, adding throughout the day mute swan and Canada geese sightings, as well as fieldfares.
As we embarked on our walk around the Old Town, the narrow cobbled streets and grassy squares enchanting, we squeezed down the narrowest street in Sweden, Mårten Trotzigs Grand.
The afternoon saw a few intrepid souls don waterproofs and take to the Zodiacs for a cruise around Stockholm Harbor and to view its interesting waterfront buildings. They returned damp but unbowed, an adventure for the memory banks!
Monday, June 20 – Visby, Gotland Island: Bolstered by the promise of a dry morning, we disembarked for the picturesque walled city of Visby. Ringed by virtually complete high limestone walls from the 12th century, and punctuated by defensive towers, St. Mary’s Cathedral dominated the skyline. Her tall white spires could be seen rising majestically above the red-roofed Hanseatic gables and medieval town buildings, many of which are in ruins.
We then visited the Gotland Fornsal Museum and its exhibit on the Battle of Visby in 1361, before exploring the town of “Roses and Ruins,” which more than lived up to its name, with roses of reds and pinks growing among the old houses and framing their doorways. Strolling through the Botanical Gardens, the peace and tranquility of this beautiful island exceeded all expectations.
A quiet afternoon was rounded out by a lecture from John on The Assembling of Northern Europe and we adjourned to prepare for the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner.
Tuesday, June 21 – Copenhagen, Denmark: Continuing on towards Copenhagen, the day began with a final lecture, The Vikings in Scandinavia, by Colleen as a prelude to the final slideshow presented by John and Expedition Leader Lia Oprea. It seemed so long since we all met in Edinburgh and the range of activities, splendid townscapes, and quiet moments enjoyed by us all were captured in the pictorial record of our adventures. Glorious sunshine had indeed bathed some of our stops, and we had the pictures to prove it!
After an early lunch we departed for our final tour around the beautiful streets of Copenhagen. A moment’s pause at the “Little Mermaid” near our berth confirmed that indeed she is tiny! Onward via the City Hall and clamorous Nyhavn, the colorful canal-front, to the Amalienborg Palace, winter residence of the Danish Royal family since 1794. The daily changing of the Guard and the presence of two flags flying above the palace confirmed that some of the royal family were at home behind the closed doors. On to Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish Parliament built on the original foundations of the 1167 Bishop Absalon structure, where we were absorbed by the Royal Reception Rooms. The highlight was the modern tapestries in the Great Hall, which were made in France as a gift to the Danish Queen Margarethe on her 50th birthday. The final palace of the day was beautiful Rosenborg, named for its rose-filled gardens and its original rural location—now absorbed into Copenhagen. Built in 1606, the small rooms were lined with wooden panels for insulation, and were beautifully decorated. The final coup was the basement vault, housing the Royal Crown jewels. Returning slowly to our home, the Clipper Odyssey, we passed the fairgrounds of the famous Tivoli Gardens and wondered if our stamina would prevail to allow a post-dinner visit to this world-famous attraction. Perhaps for some...
Wednesday, June 22 – Disembark Clipper Odyssey / USA: An early start after late-night packing and final goodbyes to newfound friends, our group dispersed by bus and taxi. With exchanges of email addresses, we were confident that at least someone would view our photographs and listen to the stories of our Baltic wanderings in the wake of the Vikings and the Hansa.