Bornholm Island, Denmark | Photo Credit: Peter H. Wick

2017 Best of the Baltic Field Report

Susan Langley|August 29, 2017|Field Report

Saturday & Sunday, July 15 & 16, 2017 - London, England / Embark Island Sky

Welcome to London! Arriving at the historic Paddington Hilton, we met our vivacious Cruise Director, Lynne Grieg. Some soon set off to explore Kensington Gardens or the newly revamped Natural History Museum; others elected to catch up on some rest before we all assembled for the welcome reception and dinner where we met Expedition Leader, Nadia Eckhardt, and were introduced to the other members of the team.

The following morning, we enjoyed a full English breakfast and some of us set off for the National Gallery. Housing one of the finest art collections in the world, our guides steered us through a selection of works by various artists that were relevant to the areas we would soon be visiting. The rest of us headed to Greenwich where we trekked down to the Greenwich Maritime Museum; and some had the chance to straddle the Greenwich Mean Time line and view John Harrison’s chronometers that enabled the determination of longitude!

We all met up at the historic Trafalgar Inn for a lunch overlooking the Thames, once described by Member of Parliament John Burns as “liquid history.”  After lunch we all proceeded to the Port of Tilbury, the site of Elizabeth I’s stirring speech to her troops. Here we embarked the Island Sky, our home for the immediate future, and after quickly settling in and the necessary safety briefing, we were all on deck to bid farewell to England’s shores. The birdwatchers started early, spotting not only barn swallows and common swifts but even scarce green sandpipers. Not to be outdone, the history-minded among us spotted the abandoned clusters of World War II observation outposts standing like forlorn elephants in the water along the way, until it was time for dinner and we were well out to sea.


Monday & Tuesday, July 17 & 18 - At Sea / Sylt, Germany

A day at sea! A chance to sleep off a little jet lag and to hear from the lecture team. First up, Susan Langley, our maritime archaeologist, presented The Maritime Archaeology of the Other Mediterranean; soon after, historian Olga Stone prepared us for our travels ahead with, A Blue Ribbon Between Two Seas: The History of the Kiel Canal. After lunch, naturalist Tom Hiney gave a Zodiac briefing, and Nadia went over our plans for the coming days. After teatime, classical and maritime archaeologist Hector Williams spoke on, The North Sea Through the Millennia. Birding folk, ever vigilant on deck with ornithologist Jim Wilson, were pleased to observe the northern gannet, and even happier to spot a common guillemot male with his chick, at least 170 miles from the nearest possible nesting site since the chick was still flightless.

The next morning, we arrived in Sylt, pronounced “zoolt,” the largest island in the North Frisian Islands and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our birders set off first thing with Jim and were rewarded with a plethora of shorebirds like whimbrel, northern lapwings, and ruff. The rest of us toured the island and its more than 1,000 picture-perfect thatched structures; homes, cottages, and businesses. We also had the opportunity to enter the Neolithic passage grave of Denghoog, transporting ourselves back 3,000 years.

After a beachside lunch, some joined Jim and Tom for a cycling tour of the island, while the rest of us enjoyed a more sedate walk through narrow streets between bijoux cottages and boutiques. We were able to visit the brick-and-thatch Altfriesisches Haus museum, an 18th-century captain’s home in the capital of Keitum, once the island’s most important port.

Soon it was time to take our Zodiacs back to the Island Sky, and to weigh anchor for the Kiel Canal. On the captain’s recommendation, many of us made plans to arise early for our approach and entry into this freshwater canal.


Wednesday, July 19 - Kiel Canal Transit

Almost everyone was up early and on deck for our entry into the lock at Brunsbüttel. The locks are relatively small, within hailing distance of ships departing the canal nearby, but large enough that a number of smaller vessels can share the enclosure. Once through and into the canal proper, the initial industrial nature of the entry rapidly gave way to a surprisingly verdant rural countryside. Even where industry inserted itself, it was not unusual to see sheep or cattle grazing around the installations, with cottages and cycling paths lining the shores.

Throughout the seven to eight hours a transit requires, there was plenty to watch from the deck and our birders spotted such birds of prey as golden eagles, red kites, and common buzzards. Information about passing points of interest was provided by Hector, the captain, and Olga. And, mid-morning we celebrated our time in Germany when the hotel staff provided a Frühschoppen of snacks on the Lido.

This afternoon we joined Ann Wilson, our art historian, for Art, Design, and National Identity, an intelligent explanation of how these aspects of culture relate to the regions we would soon visit. Then it was time for tea and to watch our first entry into Baltic Sea waters. A flotilla of small sailing craft scurried into the lock with us like eager ducklings, and just as quickly scurried out when the gates opened. We celebrated our onward voyage to Denmark with an ice cream social then joined the team for a recap and briefing as to what the next day would hold for us.


Thursday, July 20 - Bornholm Island, Denmark

Landing by Zodiac at Rønne, the largest settlement on this Danish Island, our adventurous cyclists headed off on this bicycle-friendly island, while the rest of us took a leisurely tour. Our first stop was Hammershus Castle, a mammoth construction on a bluff overlooking the Baltic. Our guides pointed out the indigenous plants, placed here due to their documented presence in the past for medicinal and culinary uses. Mostly floral, they made every photo colorful as we visited the granaries, jail, chapel, and residential areas of the fortress. From here we headed to Østerlars Rundkirke, one of four 12th-century round churches on Bornholm and iconic symbols of the island. They served as refuges in times of attack by pirates or enemies in war, with the upper galleries serving as points from which to shoot, as well as houses of worship; all still hold Sunday Services.

We stopped at the atelier of the well-known Baltic Sea Glass company for a little shopping and a chance to chat with the owners about the processes involved, before stopping for lunch where our cyclists joined us. They noted that their trails had included both woods and meadows and they saw singing yellow hammers, skylarks, and woodland blackbirds. After lunch, we all enjoyed free time in the charming seaside town of Gudhjem; we saw active glass blowing, explored the historic herring smokehouses, many of which are now shops, tried the ubiquitous ice cream stalls, and almost everyone found some little memento to bring home.

Enjoying the scenery as we returned to Rønne, everyone agreed this was definitely a favorite place. Back aboard, we joined Ron Wixman, our cultural geographer, for his presentation, Baltics: Between the Anvil and the Hammer before attending the briefing for tomorrow.


Friday, July 21 - Gdansk, Poland

Our first stop of the day, several of us visited the recently renovated Solidarity Monument, dedicated to the victims of communist oppression in 1970, while others toured the Nowy Port Lighthouse near our berth. This lighthouse made history when, on September 1, 1939, shots were fired from its windows that led a German battleship to commence bombarding the Polish Westerplatte across the river, effectively starting WWII. On top of the lighthouse is a time ball, similar to one we saw at Greenwich, which moves at noon each day permitting sea captains to set their chronometers accurately. Although not functioning as a lighthouse now, the climb is worth it for the views.

We then set off for Oliwa Cathedral, begun in the 17th-century with Gothic towers framing a Baroque central section. The showpiece is the organ; begun in 1763, it took 30 years to complete and includes mechanized angels, cherubs, stars, and planets, that blow trumpets, jingle bells, and spin, respectively, when it is played.

After lunch, we set off on walking tours of the old city, which looks much as it did 300-400 years ago. We all enjoyed seeing the beautiful Neptune Fountain next to the Town Hall, which once ran with the city’s trademark liqueur, Goldwasser. We viewed the best-known house in the city, Artus Court, then visited Long Market, where we sought some of the amber for which the area is known. Finally, we spent time in St. Mary’s Church which dominates the city center; begun in the mid-14th century, it reached its current proportions in 1502. Deceptively simple in appearance at first, it actually houses a replica of Memling’s The Last Judgement, which we saw in London, as well as 300 graves underfoot and many works of art in its 30 side chapels.


Saturday, July 22 - Klaipeda, Lithuania

We were spoiled for choice today in Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city. Some of us set off for the Plokštinė Missile Base Museum, a Soviet Cold War-era nuclear weapon site now within Samogitian National Park. The underground, multi-story installation is barely visible yet in its heyday it housed four medium range ballistic missiles with thermonuclear warheads.

Those of us wanting to be closer to nature enjoyed a scenic ride through the sunny Lithuanian countryside to visit one of the most famous bird banding stations in the world at Vente Cape. Up to 900,000 birds are banded each year at the station, which was established in 1929, and has run continuously since then. We were treated to a fantastic tour of the station, with its huge bird traps, and some of us even had the chance to release a few banded birds.

Another group headed up the coast to the town of Palanga to visit the Amber Museum housed in a 19th-century neoclassical palace. One of our guides was the great-granddaughter of the builder, Count Tiskevicius. In addition to seeing the collection of more than 20,000 pieces, some with amazing inclusions, we were able to tour the palace and grounds, including a lovely botanical park. Many of us met for local beer and snacks at Theater Square, and enjoyed some local music, shopped for amber, or explored the small town before we all returned to the Island Sky for lunch and headed towards Gotland.

We joined Hector for his presentation, The Vikings: Traders, Raiders, and Much More, and after tea, Jim enlightened us with Common Birds of the Baltic.


Sunday, July 23 - Visby, Gotland Island, Sweden

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medieval port town of Visby is a 13th-century walled town steeped in history. It is home to more than a dozen medieval churches, including a fairy-tale cathedral, most of which date from the early 12th to the mid-14th century.

Depending on how much walking we felt like doing, the tours varied but generally covered the same sights. We strolled along the park-like Strandgatan, passing the ancient granaries and Powder Tower, the oldest building in Visby, until we reached the Botanical Gardens. There, beautiful blue tits flitted through the gardens as we strolled along. Out of the gardens we embarked buses to the Cliff of Hogklint for a view over the city, before we re-entered the city through the Dalman’s Gate. Working our way downhill, we visited St. Mary’s Cathedral; this venerable edifice was built in the late 12th century but has been continuously added on to, resulting in the Baroque wooden cupolas surmounting the towers, and now serving as ornate beehives.

Continuing downhill, accompanied by large flocks of swifts screaming overhead through the streets, we reached the excellent Gotlands Museum. Exhibits date from the Viking era onward and it includes the legendary Spillings Hoard of silver, as well as exhibits of life in the city through time.

From here, it was easy to amble at our own pace back to the harbor for a little free time before rejoining our friends aboard the Island Sky for lunch, and watch Gotland disappear over the horizon as we steamed toward Latvia. After lunch, we joined Ron for his presentation, The Baltic States in the 20th Century. After tea, Ann provided a terrific introduction to the architecture of Riga in her Art Nouveau presentation.

Although four of our fellow travelers left us here, we gained four new chums, as well as naturalist Rich Pagen. After joining the team for a briefing on tomorrow’s possibilities, it was time for dinner with another wonderful sunset.


Monday, July 24 - Riga, Latvia

Once again, there were choices to be made for our time in Riga. In addition to the city tour, there was a boat tour, and a chance for a Jewish Heritage Tour. On the latter, our guide told us much of the history of the Jewish community of Latvia, as well as that of Riga itself. In addition to seeing the "murder site" of over 70,000 Latvian Jews, plus another 25,000 from northern Germany and visiting the site of the destroyed great synagogue, we also visited the only working synagogue in Riga and the outdoor museum of the Riga Ghetto.

Those of us on the walking tour of the city were treated to block after block of Art Nouveau buildings, giving the impression of a confectioner gone mad; it is easy to see why it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Those of us choosing to cruise enjoyed a boat trip along the canal that marked the line of the original moat of the earlier fortified city. It wended its way from the cruise ship terminal around the edge of the original town, passing most of the major buildings of the city like the Opera House and the big market (once Zeppelin hangers). It flowed into the broad river and our trip continued along its expanse under bridges and past postmodern structures like the National Library. We also managed to see the diminutive little gull, a stunning bird in summer plumage, and our first common merganser of the trip.

We came together at the beautiful Dome Cathedral for a private organ concert, before heading back on board for Olga’s introduction to Russia, A Giant Awakes: A Millennium of Russian History. To further prepare us for St. Petersburg, after dinner, Olga presented a “Russian Renaissance” piano recital to send us off to Zhivago-esque dreams.


Tuesday, July 25 - Tallinn, Estonia

Throughout its turbulent history, Tallinn served many masters—the Danes, the Germanic Hanseatic League, the Swedes, and the Russians—all of whom left their mark on the city. In the last 20 years, the Estonian capital has become a chic and dynamic destination effectively blending the medieval and the new, and earning its well-deserved status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our various walks through the Upper and Lower Old Town permitted us the opportunities to enter the citadel via the Nunne’s Gate and see the imposing 16th-century tower known as Fat Margaret. Passing Toompea Castle, with its vibrant pink Baroque façade, and the Parliament House, we reached the magnificent onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. By contrast, St. Mary’s Lutheran Cathedral seemed almost spartan in its simplicity.

Life in the Lower Old Town centers on the large, bright Town Hall Square, where this Gothic edifice dominates the scene. We enjoyed time to explore streets lined with buildings the colors of after-dinner mints; the Latin Quarter with St. Catherine’s Passage; the historic Town Hall Pharmacy, on a site where such a business has existed since 1422; the Great Guild Hall; and the Holy Spirit Church, one of the most beautiful churches in Tallinn. While some of us drank in the architecture, others preferred to imbibe something more tangible in one of the many cafes around the Square.

Meeting at the ivy-covered towers of the Viru Gate, which Disney must have used as a model somewhere, we passed the extensive flower market to return to our buses and continue our tours. Some visited the Kadriorg Palace Art Museum, originally built as a summer palace for Peter the Great, while others opted for a drive through the surrounding area.

Returning to the ship, we enjoyed a bountiful barbecue lunch on the Lido Deck as we departed for Russia. At teatime, Susan and the hotel staff set up a honey-tasting of several varieties collected along the path of our travels, including some from the endangered and endemic Nordic brown bees. This was a prelude to her presentation, Viking Bees? All the Buzz About Scandinavian Beekeeping.


Wednesday, July 26 - St. Petersburg, Russia

For our first morning in Russia, we set off to explore Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland. Known as the Versailles of Russia, the present palace is a far cry from the cabin Peter the Great had built here originally. The grounds and its palaces and baths alone would take a week to view in detail since there are 500 acres, 200+ statues, and 144 fountains! We limited ourselves to the breathtaking gravity-fed Grand Cascade, flanked with gilded statuary that begins the Water Avenue; the smaller garden with Adam (there is a matching one for Eve across the grounds); the Chessboard Cascade; the Firs fountains; and several others. We were also able to come very close to a precocious red squirrel, one of many on the grounds but quite scarce in other parts of the world. We enjoyed a delicious Russian lunch in the historic Grand Orangerie, once the greenhouse to supply the imperial table with exotic citrus fruits.

Returning to Saint Petersburg, we visited St. Isaac’s Cathedral and discovered that, as it was officially closed this day, we were its sole occupants! Started in 1818 by a French designer with no architectural training, the Cathedral was not completed until 1858; partly because Nicholas I insisted on an even grander scale. Proof of grandness was in the numerous beautiful “paintings” that on closer inspection are micro-mosaics, which withstand the extreme temperature changes of Russia weather better than painting.

We enjoyed an early dinner onboard, and some of us headed off to the glittering Alexandrinsky Theatre to watch a performance of Swan Lake, enjoying champagne and caviar during the intermission. Those not so inclined boarded small boats and went gliding around the many canals of St. Petersburg, the "Venice of the North." It was a great experience as we passed splendid 18th-century palaces and grim Soviet-era buildings. You never really know the heart of St. Petersburg until you have traveled its canals, passing under many bridges so low you have to sit or lose your head!


Thursday, July 27 - St. Petersburg

En route to the famed Hermitage Museum, we made a photo stop at the beautiful St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral. Not open to visit, the exterior and free-standing belfry were a study in blue and white. On reaching the Winter Palace, we were again very appreciative of our early- entrance passes and timed tickets for the jaw-dropping Gold Room—even more so when we saw the length of the lines on our exit! Knowing just how much there is to see in merely one of the several palaces that comprise the Hermitage Museum, our guides provided an overview and we sought out whatever areas were of special interest to each of us in the renowned pale green Winter Palace. Assembling at the Jordan Staircase, we departed for another Russian lunch before visiting the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, better known as the Church on the Spilled Blood (and variations).

Making our way to Zayachy (Hare) Island, we entered the large defensive works of Saints Peter and Paul Fortress. The capture of this island from Sweden by Peter the Great in 1703 was the beginning of the city of St. Petersburg. It was in use as a prison in the 1920s and still houses one of Russia’s three functioning mints, but is best known as the site of the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral, where virtually all of the tsars of Russia are interred.

Back onboard, we assisted local dignitaries in greeting an incoming Chinese naval vessel arriving for the Naval Week festivities as we gathered for a farewell to Russia cocktail party. Steaming down the Neva, Hector provided some insights and commentary about the Kronshtadt naval base as we passed it and finally, we were able to see the floodgates installed to protect the city from flooding, much like those installed on the Thames and around Venice.


Friday, July 28 - Helsinki, Finland

We enjoyed a leisurely morning in the calm, beautiful approach to Helsinki and gathered with our expedition team for a final recap and briefing about the day’s explorations. Our walking tours proceeded through a large Central Park-like esplanade full of fountains, statues, and families enjoying outings and ice cream. Reaching the larger Senate Square, we enjoyed a band from the Finnish army giving a public concert in front of the Senate building and surrounded by the Tuomiokirkko, the main Lutheran Cathedral, and University of Helsinki buildings. Continuing on we passed the central railway station of Eliel Saarinen, with its famous Art Nouveau statues across the front, the National Theater, modern design icons like the Sanomatalo offices, the Sibelius Academy for music, the quirky metallic Kiasma building, the Finnish Parliament, and many others until we reached the charming Temppeliaukion Kirkko, the famous Rock Church. Carved into the granite bedrock, this exquisite little church blends completely into its environment.

Returning to the ship, we immediately set off to catch the ferry to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Actually, it occupies several islands that are connected by small bridges and includes a dry dock/one-time shipyard, prison, defensive works, and church. Today, there are art centers, shops, small museums, and interpretive signage, as well as highly desired residences and apartments.

We saw our first barnacle geese as well as four species of the crow family—jackdaw, rook, hooded crow, and magpie. We all agreed that the Helsinki-Tallinn connections could be explored pleasantly for some time; but for now, it was time to return to the Island Sky for Captain Henrik Karlsson’s farewell cocktail party and dinner. The ship staff entertained us with some farewell songs and after a wonderful dinner, we had to start thinking about the realities of packing and onward travel, with just one more day ahead of us.


Saturday, July 29 - Turku, Finland

One of the joys of traveling on a small ship is that we are not restricted to the main channels; as we wound our way into Turku through multitudes of small cottage-rimmed islands, we thought about our morning plans. So as not to overwhelm any one site, we divided into groups but visited all the same sites, and there was an added bonus: a large folkdance festival was taking place, and everywhere we went there were groups performing.

The oldest city in Finland, Turku had little to prove it, thanks to the Great Fire of 1827 that destroyed most of the structures. However, recent construction for a new art gallery located the archaeological remains of a substantial portion of the medieval city. We also enjoyed Turun Linna, the mammoth Turku Castle at the mouth of the Aurajoki River, where we saw 13th-century frescoes and student-knight graffiti in the warren of rooms and towers; as well as the beautiful Turun Tuomiokirkko. The colossal brick cathedral is Finland’s mother church for the Lutheran faith and had an unusual temporary exhibit of aquaria in the various side chapels, as well as famous frescoes and paintings.

After lunch aboard, many of us opted to wander through the riverside parks and shops, and to hop the constantly running ferries across the River Aura to watch the folkdance festival and, especially, to view the parade. Others elected to visit the relatively new maritime museum, the Forum Marinum, across the river and then continue to a modern working shipyard.

Finally, it was time for everyone to rejoin the Island Sky and enjoy the gorgeous scenery as we steamed toward our final destination in Sweden. After our last delicious dinner aboard, we joined Jim to view the terrific slideshow he had been creating along our route.


Sunday, July 30 - Stockholm, Sweden

Those of us finished packing were on deck early to watch another glorious sail into port through more quiet channels amid the archipelago surrounding Stockholm, with as many as 30,000 islands, it is said. Berthing in the heart of the city, even those who had to leave earliest for their onward travel had a chance to enjoy the Swedish capital. Those of us staying on were quite convinced we were the envy of everyone else, and those of us with slightly later flights had the opportunity for a scenic driving tour on our way homeward.

Regardless of one’s interests; from Viking battles to Russian ballet; rocky castles to Baroque cathedrals; from Art Nouveau to IKEA-clean architectural lines, or borscht to caviar, we have definitely seen the Best of the Baltic.



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