Best of the Baltic
Published on Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Wednesday & Thursday, July 3 & 4, 2013 - Stockholm, Sweden / Embark Island Sky: Today we arrived in Stockholm from all corners of the globe to begin our journey together. A brief introduction to the majority of the expedition staff was provided before dinner at the hotel, and guests soon sought the welcome comfort of their beds.
Our city tour of elegant Stockholm commenced at City Hall with its impressive Blue Room, where the Noble Prize ceremony takes place, and its sumptuous Gold Room, the walls of which are covered with monumental mosaics celebrating the city and its history. We explored the picturesque Old Town (Gamla Stan), full of narrow, winding cobbled streets with shops. After lunch we visited the Vasa, a massive 17th-century Swedish warship which sank suddenly on its maiden voyage, only raised from the seabed in 1961. Afterwards, we made our way to the Island Sky, our home for the next two weeks.
Friday, July 5 - Helsinki, Finland: Our day began with Dr. Colleen Batey setting the scene for the Vikings in the region with Sweden, the Baltic, and the Eastern River Routes. Our second lecture of the morning was given by Professor Roberta Frank of Yale University, who provided an introduction to the linguistic background of the region with The Languages Spoken Around the Baltic. We sailed into downtown Helsinki in brilliant sunshine, through myriad small islands that form the Finnish archipelago, in great anticipation of our afternoon excursions.
A city walk encompassed Senate Square with the main Lutheran church and university buildings, as well as major landmarks such as the National Theater, Finlandia Hall, National Museum, and Parliament House. The impressive rock-cut church was also memorable, before some of us wandered along the large market within sight of the ship.
Alternatively, we had the chance to cruise by small boat to one of the defended islands in the archipelago, the fort of Suomenlinna. The largest fortification in Finland, this impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site was founded in 1748 by the Swedes as a bastion spanning six separate small islands which formed a coastal protection for Helsinki.
Once back on board and sailing away, we enjoyed cocktails hosted by the Master of the Vessel, Captain Henrik Karlsson, followed by the welcome dinner.
Saturday & Sunday, July 6 & 7 - St. Petersburg, Russia: Saturday morning began early as we sailed towards our berth on the English Embankment in St. Petersburg, with a reflection of life in the Soviet Union by Elena Myasoedova, entitled My Soviet Union: A Very Personal Perspective. After great opportunities to photograph the Aurora and the outside of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, we made our way to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first structure in the marshlands of St. Petersburg. At its heart is the Peter and Paul Cathedral which houses the burial monuments of the Russian Emperors since the time of Peter I, including Nicholas II and much of his family.
Lunch was at the Russian Vodka House, with delicious highlights of borscht and beef stroganoff, before a drive through the city out to the wonderfully restored Peterhof Palace, created initially by Peter the Great as a summer palace. Room upon room of gilded woodwork, fine paintings, and luxurious furnishings, including several Chinese dressers, chandeliers of Sevres porcelain, Wedgewood dinner services, and exotic silks were a feast for the eyes.
The next day, we had an early visit to the Hermitage Museum, its thousands of rooms filled with unbelievable collections of porcelain and paintings by Rembrandt and da Vinci. The awe-inspiring Gold Room held treasures of Scythian gold, from the collections of Peter the Great, and Fabergé eggs.
We enjoyed lunch on the water by canal boat, and observed a unique perspective of the city’s layout with magnificent and imposing stucco frontages embellished with noble columns. Our next stop was the Church of the Resurrection; unbelievably elaborate, we marveled at the mosaic surfaces, intense colors, and the newly re-installed gates of the Icon screen. We visited the magnificent St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its vibrant mosaics and icons, before heading back to the ship. As we sailed away to the strains of Russian music and vodka shots, we passed the decayed docklands, the old sign of Leningrad, and the newly completed flood barrage system, protecting St. Petersburg from flooding of the Baltic.
Monday, July 8 - Tallinn, Estonia: A beautiful blue sky highlighted the colors of this spectacular city, with its limestone walls and red-tile roofs. We embarked for our morning tour to Kadriorg Palace; 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 palace is surrounded by flower-filled gardens, a small pavilion, and swan house amidst a decorative pool.
A brief stop at the Singing Fields, with its impressive 30,000 capacity stage, and a drive along the scenic promenade of the Bay of Tallinn, brought us back into the walled town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our walking tour began in the Upper Town with the Orthodox Nevsky Cathedral and Lutheran Cathedral of St. Mary’s. The look-out point afforded spectacular views across the city and back to the harbor, and the winding cobbled streets leading down into the Lower Town provided insight into the town defenses, with small niches providing refuge for shopkeepers and artists. The Main Square and adjacent Town Hall were picture-postcard perfect!
An afternoon with free time to explore was much enjoyed. We rejoined the Island Sky and Olga Eggert gave a presentation entitled, A Giant Awakes: Millennium of Russian History, which provided a valuable framework for the information supplied by our guides in St. Petersburg.
Tuesday, July 9 - Riga, Latvia: An early morning sail from the open sea via the River Daugava 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 which focused on stucco frontages, colored tiles, and distinctive but varied window forms—this was truly an exhilarating experience and for most, totally unexpected.
In bright sunshine our tour continued to the Old Town, through the narrow cobbled streets and flower-filled squares. The large Guild houses, 15th-century Three Brothers merchant houses, the Swedish Gate, and the Hanseatic Blackheads house formed the framework of our tour in the city. A period of quiet contemplation was enjoyed in the massive brick-built Cathedral, where we enjoyed a short organ recital by Aivars Kalējs.
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.
Once back onboard we enjoyed a lecture by Professor Walter Goffart of Yale University, entitled The Baltic Germans and Their Disappearance, as we sailed towards our next port of call.
Wednesday, July 10 - Visby, Gotland Island, Sweden: We began our morning with two lectures, the first by Ron Wixman entitled Religion and Cultures in the Baltic, followed by Ann Wilson’s presentation on Art, Design, and Nationalism.
We eased into the central harbor in Visby under pale blue skies, bolstered by the hope of some sunshine, as we disembarked for our afternoon in this most picturesque of walled cities. Ringed by virtually complete high limestone walls from the 12th century, St. Mary’s Church dominated the skyline of the red roofs and tall Hanseatic gables; the tall white spires can be seen rising majestically above the medieval town buildings.
The Gotland Fornsal Museum held the display of the world’s largest Viking silver hoard from Spillings on Gotland. Brought together in 870AD, it showed that Gotland once had contacts throughout the known world, from North Africa and Spain to Iraq.
The town of “Roses and Ruins” lived up to its name; roses of reds and pinks snuggled up against the walls of the old houses and framed their doorways. The narrow alleys, once home to poor fishermen, are now prime real estate! Strolling through the calming and fragrant Botanical Gardens, the peace and tranquility of this beautiful island lived up to all expectations.
Thursday, July 11 - Klaipeda, Lithuania: Warm sunshine and local musicians in colorful costumes greeted our arrival in Klaipeda, Lithuania’s only coastal port. Three options for the afternoon were available, including a trip into the Lithuanian countryside and a visit to the former home of a British military attaché; a visit to the amber museum and coastal resort at Palanga; or for the more athletically-inclined of the group, a bicycle ride on the nearby Coronian Spit.
The ride out into the Lithuanian countryside revealed rolling agricultural lands, and storks on the tops of poles was a common sight. The first stop was to the village of Gargždai where a local women’s choir provided a beautiful welcome. The museum there housed details and images of the period of Soviet deportations, when villagers were sent to Siberia and family groups were decimated. The next call was to the remote home of former British Defense Attaché David Holliday, who regaled us with stories of the Cold War. The location was delightful and the local brew memorable!!
The bus ride to nearby Palanga introduced us to the rolling farmlands around Klaipeda. Once we had reached the designated national parkland around the historic building housing the National Amber Museum, we were able to stroll through the peaceful French-designed parkland and gardens, punctuated with lakes and fountains as well as 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. A brief walk to the shore nearby ended this stage of the excursion, which then adjourned briefly to visit a large brick-built Neo-Gothic Catholic church in the centre of Palanga.
Once back in Klaipeda, we sampled locally brewed beer at a hostelry before our city walk along cobbled streets between half-timbered buildings.
The third group embarked on a bicycle excursion onto the famous nearby Coronian Spit, a place of exceptional natural beauty. After the short crossing, the ride was 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.
Friday, July 12 - Gdansk, Poland: Berthed adjacent to Westerplatte, where the first shots of World War II were fired on September 1, 1939, our visit was destined to be dominated by both modern historical events and more ancient ones. We visited the emotive and fascinating Roads to Freedom Exhibition and the impressive Solidarity Monument before our walking tour of the Hanseatic Old Town, largely rebuilt following massive destruction in the last war. Commencing at the misnamed Green Gate, our walk took us through the wonderful main street lined with buildings of Hanseatic stepped-gables and the magnificent Neptune fountain, and on to the Golden Gate. The smaller side streets, paved with cobbles and lined with shops stocked with amber of all hues and designs, led us to St. Mary’s Church, a majestic and prominent brick-built structure so clearly defined from its neighborhood buildings. A demonstration on amber identification rounded out the tour.
The day’s events ended with the last of the lecture series, given by Ron entitled Hansa, the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution.
Saturday, July 13 - Bornholm Island, Denmark: As we pulled into the protected harbor of Ronne on the west coast of Bornholm this morning, we were delighted to see the sun had returned and Bornholm was able to live up to its epithet, “Sunny Island!” 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 further north we spent an enjoyable time at 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. We enjoyed lunch, a typical smorgasbord, at Gudhjem, before a gentle guided stroll among the picturesque houses in welcome sunshine. We boarded Zodiacs for the first time this voyage and returned to our vessel which had repositioned from Ronne.
The captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner followed by the slideshow of our voyage, created by Jim Wilson, was much enjoyed. Soon it was time to pack, as we would be disembarking for our final day.
Sunday & Monday, July 14 & 15 - Copenhagen, Denmark / Disembark: Formalities executed, we departed the ship for our full-day excursion of the highlights of Copenhagen. We began at the Christiansborg Palace, with Rooms of State and magnificent tapestries executed in Danish design by French workers. These portrayed in vivid color the history of Denmark and graced a splendid dining room. We stopped at the Little Mermaid statue for photographs and drove past the National Museum, barracks of King Christian IV, and the Glyptotek art gallery. After a typical Scandinavian lunch and a brief walk around Nyhavn, the tour ended at Rosenborg Palace. A beautiful pocket-sized palace, with wonderful rose gardens, it was also the home to the crown jewels of Denmark.
Our odyssey across the Baltic had come to 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!