Baltic Odyssey Field Report
Published on Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Wednesday & Thursday, July 4 & 5, 2012 - USA / Edinburgh, Scotland: We gathered in Edinburgh to begin our Baltic Odyssey; after a brief introduction to some of the expedition staff, we enjoyed dinner at the hotel. Travelers who had flown in from far and wide sought the comfort of welcoming beds.
Friday, July 6 - Edinburgh / Leith / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Our first full day on Scottish soil began with a tour of Edinburgh’s spectacular architecture. We drove down Princes Street, home to Georgian townhouses with communal gardens, 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 and keeps of the castle, which dominates Edinburgh’s World Heritage cityscape. Although a replica can be seen at Scone in Perthshire, the original Stone of Destiny is now housed in Edinburgh Castle, brought home to Scotland to coincide with the Devolution of Scotland and the opening of the new Parliament.
In Leith we boarded the Clipper Odyssey, our home for the next two weeks. As we sailed out of the Firth of Forth we were treated to the magnificent sight of Bass Rock, a volcanic plug in the middle of the firth, home to one of the world’s largest colonies of northern gannets. Over 50,000 breeding pairs are estimated to nest there, which means we saw around 150,000 birds on the island. It felt as though we arrived in the midst of a massive snowstorm, with heavy flakes filling the air and piling up on every surface.
Saturday, July 7 - At Sea: A day of calm seas enabled our lecture program to commence. Colleen Batey spoke on the World of the Vikings, followed by Ron Wixman’s lecture on Nordic Culture and the Rise of the Protestant Reformation, and Ralph Eshelman on The Baltic: The Brackish Inland Sea. It was a full day of learning, capped by Captain Alan McCarty’s welcome cocktails and a splendid dinner.
Sunday, July 8 - Sylt Island, Germany: Located off the western edge of mainland Europe, straddling the coasts of Denmark and Germany, this low-lying holiday island forms part of modern-day Schleswig Holstein. Here, the local language is Frisian, although German is most commonly spoken.
Anxious to board the Zodiacs, an early group went ashore with Kevin Clement, Ralph, and a local guide, to search for birds in the marshy areas and beyond. We saw yarrow, sea campion, northern dock, foxglove, tansy, sea mayweed, bird’s-foot trefoil, tufted vetch, fireweed, and entire thickets of Rosa rugosa, known locally as Sylt-rose, but actually introduced from Siberia. Farther down the beach we found redshanks and curlews with outrageous beaks, as well as striking shelducks, greenshanks, greylag geese, and lapwings. But beyond question, the bird of the day was the red knot, a true high-Arctic breeder.
Departing slightly later, the larger group enjoyed an island tour. The high Red Cliffs of the west coast were complemented by stops to view beautifully thatched houses old and new. At Tinnum Castle, a Viking-age ring fort, Colleen was able to provide additional interpretation on its international significance before lunch in Morsum, a small community at the extreme eastern edge of the island.
After the break some of us chose an 11-mile bicycle ride, punctuated with frequent stops for both food and drink, to traverse the route northwards. Others headed to Den Hoog, a Neolithic stone tomb constructed over 5,000 years ago, and free time in the capital town of Westerland. The transfer back to the ship by Zodiac was made more expeditionary due to the sudden and violent thunderstorm!
Monday, July 9 - Kiel Canal Transit: This morning began with a very early wake-up call to observe our entry into the massive 61-mile long Kiel Canal, linking the North and Baltic Seas. During the transit, Tim Baughman gave a stirring presentation entitled Stalin, and we enjoyed a special German snack buffet, früschoppen. Jim Delgado led the afternoon lecture, Russalka: Discovering and Diving the Czar’s Lost Ironclad in the Baltic, as we left the canal.
Tuesday, July 10 - Bornholm, Denmark: We pulled into the protected harbor of Ronne on the west coast of Bornholm in the morning, with clouds overhead. Our tour encompassed much of the northern coast of the island, stopping first at one of the largest Norse runestones in Denmark, near the village of Svalhøj. We also visited Hammershus, the largest medieval castle ruins in Northern Europe. The massive brick castle was built from the 1200s onwards and occupied as a garrison into the 1700s.
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. A brief demonstration of glass blowing and retail therapy preceded lunch, a typical smorgasbord, enjoyed by all. A gentle guided stroll among the picturesque houses in welcome sunshine was a peaceful end to the day.
Wednesday, July 11 - Gdansk, Poland: Berthed adjacent to Westerplatte, this visit was destined to be dominated by both modern and ancient historical events. Our morning excursion was to the emotive and fascinating impressive Solidarity Monument and the “Roads to Freedom” Exhibition in a subterranean museum.
Our walking tour focused on the Hanseatic Old Town, beginning at the misnamed Green Gate and taking us through the wonderful main street lined with buildings of stepped gables, the magnificent Neptune fountain, and the Golden Gate. The smaller side streets, paved with cobbles and flanked by shops stocked with amber of all hues and designs, led us to St. Mary’s Church, a majestic and prominent brick-built structure. A demonstration on amber identification rounded out the tour, just as the skies threatened to turn angry. Once back onboard, Colleen gave a brief presentation on The League of Hanseatic Merchants.
Thursday, July 12 - Klaipeda, Lithuania: Warm sunshine and local musicians in colorful costumes greeted our arrival in Klaipeda, Lithuania’s only coastal port. A bus ride to nearby Palanga introduced us to the rolling farmlands around Klaipeda. Once we reached the national parkland around the historic National Amber Museum, we were able to stroll through the peaceful French-designed parkland and gardens, punctuated with lakes, fountains, and bronze sculptures. The amber collection was extensive and varied, including raw amber blocks from the nearby Baltic shores, some with spectacular inclusions of creatures and leaves, and archaeological finds from the region. Modern design settings, as well as more traditional mountings of all shades of amber, were displayed and several were available for purchase. A brief walk to the shore nearby ended this excursion, which then adjourned briefly to visit a large neo-Gothic Catholic church in the center of Palanga.
Once back in Klaipeda, the city center was buzzing with the start of an international jazz festival and we sampled locally brewed beer at a local hostelry before our city walk along cobbled streets.
Earlier in the day, a group of us enjoyed a bike ride to the nearby famous Curonian Split, a place of exceptional natural beauty. We wheeled our bikes over the cobbled streets and wooden bridges of the old town, then onto the cross-channel ferry. After the short crossing, we found ourselves riding through hilly terrain, along paved bike lanes and forest paths, among Scots pines and downy birches. We emerged from the forest on the outside of the spit, facing the wide-open Baltic. The broad white beaches extended as far as we could see in either direction. The braver among us leapt in, and can now say they swam in the Baltic Sea!
At the next beach we saw several people running long-handled nets, like pool-cleaning scoops, through the shallow water—it turns out they were amber hunters. We copied them with enthusiasm and discovered there was so much amber in the water, you could walk along the edge and pick up chunk after chunk of it.
The day ended with a lecture from Kevin on How Plants Took Over the World: Linnaeus and his System.
Friday, July 13 - Visby, Gotland Island, Sweden: With pale blue skies, we disembarked for this most picturesque of walled cities, surrounded by well-preserved high limestone and dominated by St. Mary’s Church. Though many of the 17 churches in town survive as ruins today, the tall white spires of St. Mary’s, built in the days of Hanseatic presence on the island, can still be seen rising majestically above the medieval town buildings. We next visited the Gotland Fornsal Museum, with exhibitions on the Viking archaeology of the island and the Battle of Visby.
The town of “Roses and Ruins” lived up to its name, with roses of pink and red decorating the old houses and framing their doorways. Strolling through the calming and fragrant Botanical Gardens, the peace and tranquility of this beautiful island matched all expectations.
An afternoon at sea enabled further lectures to be enjoyed after a splendid barbeque lunch. Tim spoke on Russia Since Stalin and Ron’s presentation was titled, Germans and Russians in the Baltic. A post-dinner presentation was provided by Jim, entitled Titanic at 100—Mapping the Future for a Famous Shipwreck.
Saturday, July 14 - Riga, Latvia: An early morning sail brought us to Riga. Straddling both sides of the mighty river, a new and vibrant city emerged. Futurist high-rise structures contrasted with the old castle, Hanseatic buildings, and spectacular Art Nouveau edifices. Our morning tour brought us first to the extensive district revitalized in the early 1900s, with impressively carved facades and stucco frontages, truly an exhilarating experience.
In light sunshine our tour continued to the Old Town, with the first stop providing a quiet period of contemplation in the massive brick Cathedral. Here we enjoyed a short organ recital by Larisa Bulava, which included works by Liszt, Bach, Lindberg, and Franck. Our walking tour continued through the narrow cobbled streets and flower-filled squares, the Hanseatic elegance only partially diminished by the heavy hand of Russian domination. Along the way we saw the large Guild houses, 15th-century Three Brothers merchant houses, the Swedish Gate, and the Hanseatic Blackheads house. A few hours of free time enabled some to visit the impressive indoor food market nearby, housed within modified Zeppelin balloon hangers. Flowers, fruits, sausages, fish, and bread crowded the stalls and provided a brief insight into normal everyday life in the city.
Sunday, July 15 - Tallinn, Estonia: Our day began with a lecture by Jim entitled, Vrouw Maria: A Lost Ship Carrying the Art Treasures of Catherine the Great, followed by brunch as we approached the city of Tallinn. A gray and overcast morning muted the colors of this spectacular city, with its limestone walls and red pantile roofs. We embarked on a tour of 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, the pretty palace was surrounded by flower-filled gardens and mature trees, with a small pavilion and swan house amidst a decorative pool.
Brief stops at the Rusalka Monument and the Singing Fields brought us back into the walled town. The walking tour began with the Nevsky Cathedral and Cathedral of St. Mary’s. The look-out point afforded spectacular views across the city back to the harbor. The Main Square and adjacent Town Hall were picture-postcard perfect.
Once back onboard we enjoyed farewell cocktails, hosted by our captain prior to our early farewell dinner.
Monday, July 16 - St. Petersburg, Russia: Our arrival in St. Petersburg coincided with a severe change in the weather; donning waterproof jackets, we made our way to buses to begin our excursion. We drove out to the wonderfully restored Peterhof Palace, created initially by Peter the Great as a summer residence. Although badly damaged in World War II by occupying troops, a long program of restoration is returning this masterpiece to its original form. Room upon room of gilded woodwork, fine paintings, and luxurious furnishings were a feast for the eyes.
Jostling our way back to the coach through market stalls selling wares of all descriptions, we progressed back into the city, passing the Winter Palace (Hermitage Museum), Smolney Convent, and Nevsky Avenue. Our next stop was the Church of the Resurrection; unbelievably elaborate, we marveled at the mosaic surfaces, intense colors, and the newly reinstalled gates of the Icon screen. Our final stop of the afternoon was the Peter and Paul Fortress. At its heart is the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which houses the burial monuments of the Russian Emperors since the time of Peter I. Our minds buzzing with so many experiences from our first excursion to this magnificent city, we returned home to our vessel for a good night’s sleep!
Tuesday, July 17 - St. Petersburg: The morning excursion began with a visit to the Hermitage Museum, its thousands of rooms filled with unbelievable collections of porcelain and paintings, most notably from the Impressionist period. The awe-inspiring Gold Room held treasures of Scythian gold from the collections of Peter the Great, as well as Faberge eggs.
Lunch followed at the Russian Vodka House, where the highlights were borscht and beef stroganoff. The afternoon was spent on the water by canal boat, and allowed a unique perspective on the layout of the city with magnificent and imposing stucco frontages embellished with noble columns, visible from narrow canals with low bridges, as well as the broad River Neva. We ended the day with an interior visit to the magnificent St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its vibrant mosaics and icons.
After an early dinner we were treated to the end of trip slideshow prepared by Ralph.
Wednesday, July 18 - Disembark / USA: Very early wake up calls for many heralded the long day of traveling home from St. Petersburg. Our odyssey across the Baltic was at an end but the information gained and the friends made will form a great backdrop if we can get someone to look at all the pictures taken!