Friday, July 5, 2019
Welcome to Stockholm! Sweden’s capital calls itself “beauty on water” and today also a little under water, but showers could not deter those of us who arrived early from setting off to explore the city’s many offerings. Gathering for a welcome reception and dinner at the Clarion Sign Hotel, we had the opportunity to meet our fellow travelers with Zegrahm Expeditions and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT), our Expedition Leader Nadia Eckhardt, VENT leader Rick Wright, and the rest of the expedition staff. It also gave us the chance to renew old acquaintances, make new friends, and compare notes about the discoveries of the day before catching some much-needed sleep.
Saturday, July 6
Stockholm, Sweden / Embark the Serenissima
Founded in 1250, this northern beauty has kept her looks and fashion sense; so evident in the Stadshuset. Dominating the architectural landscape with its three gold crowns on a spired square tower, the City Hall harmoniously integrates old and modern lines and design. Built over 12 years and incorporating the work of hundreds of artists and craftspeople, it proudly hosts the Nobel Prize banquet each year. Departing the striking blue and gold halls for Gamla Stan, one of the 14 islands over which Stockholm spreads, we entered the museum housing what was once, briefly, the pride of Sweden’s Royal Navy. Standing dwarfed under the bow of the massive 17th-century warship Vasa, raised intact from the seabed in 1961, is a breathtaking experience. Sinking fully loaded and supplied, the vessel is an archaeological treasure trove of science and sociology, but the exhibits humanizing the individuals recovered from the wreck also makes it a poignant one. Seafaring always works up an appetite so we headed into the cobbled lanes of Old Town to the noted restaurant Mårten Trotzig for some tasty regional cuisine.
Those of us keen on birding had a great start to our trip with sightings of two birds of prey, the northern goshawk and the white-tailed eagle while on the regular city tour. We knew this boded well for the rest of the voyage!
The afternoon found us wending our way through the quaint streets of 15th and 16th-century houses and shops to the Royal Palace. Today more the office and official showplace than the residence of the royal family, many of the 608 rooms are open to visitors and exhibit magnificent Baroque and Rococo décor. Having seen our lovely Serenissima docked nearby, made it easier to tear ourselves away from the palace.
Embarking on this vintage charmer, our home for the immediate future, and after the necessary safety briefing, we were all on Serenissima’s deck to bid farewell to Sweden’s shores. Soon we were gliding through quiet channels amid the archipelago of some 30,000 islands surrounding Stockholm and out to sea toward Finland.
Sunday, July 7
One of the joys of traveling on a small ship is that we are not restricted to the main channels and as we wound our way into Turku through multitudes of small cottage-rimmed islands, those of us on deck found ourselves comparing them favorably with Maine, northern Ontario, and upstate Minnesota. Coming alongside, nearly in the heart of the city, makes this one of the most delightful and walkable cities to visit. The morning began with a charming regional dance display by local youngsters alongside the ship.
Any birder in Finland will tell you to head immediately for the beautiful 188-acre Raisionlahti Park and Nature Reserve and we wasted no time ourselves. This is an excellent place to view birds, with boardwalks and a birdwatching observation tower. Those present were treated to a fishing display by two ospreys and a close fly-by of a flock of barnacle geese.
Those of us unable to resist all things maritime found ourselves sporting jaunty green hardhats and staring up at a nautical behemoth that is the Costa Smeralda in the largest drydock of the Meyer Turku Shipyard, in business since 1737. This yard builds many of the largest cruise ships afloat today and we were able to get up close and personal with this one.
Because it was Sunday, we couldn’t tarry long in the beautiful Turun Tuomiokirkko, the colossal brick cathedral that is Finland’s mother church for the Lutheran faith. As well as famous frescoes and paintings, it is known as the resting place of many members of the aristocracy but most famously for Karin Månsdotter, Queen of Sweden, who died in 1613. The hourly bell is broadcast nation-wide at noon; a holdover from WWII when this hour was designated for the nation to pray for victory.
The oldest city in Finland, Turku was originally its capital city until Russian occupiers felt it was a little too close to Sweden for comfort. Those of us exploring the city’s history started at Turun Linna. Turku‘s huge defensive castle sits at the mouth of the Aurajoki River, where we saw 13th-century frescoes and student-knight graffiti in the warren of rooms and towers. After the castle we visited a section of the city spared by the 1827 fire that razed most of the largely wooden buildings. This area has been preserved as the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum with 30 buildings interpreting different pursuits and crafts of the early 19th century.
After lunch aboard, we reunited for a cruise down the Aura River in a lovely classic wooden boat and went around picturesque Ruissalo Island one of the more than 20,000 islands in the Turku archipelago giving us great views of the Finnish landscape and the many beautiful houses nestled in the forests along the water’s edge. Back ashore there was free time to wander around this pretty town or do a little primping for the welcome reception and dinner hosted by our charming Captain Etien Bonacic as the Serenissima sailed toward Helsinki.
Monday, July 8
Many of us were on deck for our arrival into the picturesque capital of Finland. Founded in 1550 by King Gustav Vasa (for whom the famed Swedish ship was named), Helsinki was intended to rival the Hanseatic City of Tallinn, today a short ferry ride away. It was razed by its citizens in 1713 to prevent its capture by Russia and suffered grievously from bombing in WWII, so much of its architecture is of cutting-edge design. Even structures erected for the 1952 Olympics look new because of the clean lines of classic Scandinavian design.
We came alongside in front of the covered market housed in a former train station and within an easy walk of the stalls of the local outdoor market selling a wide range of Finnish food and crafts. Again, we were spoiled for choice for the day. Espoo Park in the Nuuksio Lake highland is geographically close to Helsinki but worlds away from the city as one of Finland’s premier nature sites. A number of us traveled to its Environmental Center, where the woods and marshes bordering Laajah Bay produced sightings of nesting pied flycatchers, a family of Eurasian treecreepers, and singing sedge and reed warblers. The thrushes were a special treat here, with big, bold fieldfares and a small family of secretive redwings in the open forest. Two adult whooper swans and several Eurasian wigeon, some of the males still relatively bright, were the waterfowl highlights, while the Caspian tern hunting here was the only one we would see over the entire tour.
Those of us opting to explore Helsinki proper passed the market house and the vast open-air market on the way to Senate Square, where we took photographs of the white neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral. Continuing our tour, we viewed a range of landmark buildings including the impressive granite railway station from 1919 designed by Eliel Saarinen and the magnificent Oodi, Helsinki’s new library building by the Finnish firm ALA Architects, whose top floor has been called “book heaven.” We also visited the Sibelius Monument, a grouping of around 600 vertical steel pipes accompanied by a mask-like portrait of the composer, and finally the famous Temppeliaukion Kirkko, or Rock Church, a beautiful structure excavated directly into solid rock, where we spent some time absorbing its peaceful atmosphere.
Others among us with a more military interest, or perhaps just wanting fabulous views of the city from the ferry, set off 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 ship yard, prison, defensive works, and church. Described as the lion that squeaked, in the first attack by Russia in 1808, the Commander immediately surrendered to threats of harming civilians to spare his soldiers and their families. The Russians did little to enhance it after moving the capital to Helsinki from Turku until the outbreak of the Crimean War, but the hasty improvements were to no avail. When Britain pummeled the island with shells, the cannon at the fortress were so inadequate they could not even reach the attacking vessels. Today, it houses art centers, shops, small museums, and interpretive signage, as well as highly desired residences and apartments.
As we sailed from Finland, Susan Langley, our Maritime Archaeologist, provided the first lecture of the voyage entitled, Maritime Archaeology of the Other Mediterranean and shortly after, Olga Stone, our Historian, presented, Tales from the Amber Sea: Historic Overview of the Baltic States.
Tuesday, July 9
St. Petersburg, Russia
For our first morning in Russia, we set off to explore the famed State Heritage Museum. On reaching the Winter Palace, we were 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 Heritage complex, some of our number opted to forego the Gold Room for more time with the other offerings. Assembling at the Jordan Staircase, we departed for a delicious Russian lunch at the Stroganoff Steak House before visiting the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, better known as the Church on the Spilled Blood (and variations); being constructed on the site of the attack that mortally wounded Czar Alexander II in 1881. Begun in 1883, the Church was not completed until 1907. With its multicolored onion-domes, this church fulfills any stereotypic vision of Russian Revival architecture, the additional 8300+ square yards of mosaics in the interior are a glorious bonus. When the Bolsheviks went on an offensive against religion and destroyed churches all over the country, it was fortunately just closed for services in the 1930s. It was finally re-opened in 1997, after nearly 30 years of restoration, in all its dazzling former glory.
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 by the Bolsheviks 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 Czars of Russia since Peter the Great are interred. Created by an Italian architect with no experience in cathedral design, the interior has been likened to a state dining room with a heavily gilded and tasseled altar frame, faux marble painting on most surfaces, and heavy chandeliers down the nave.
After a delightful Russian-themed dinner aboard, we embarked on small boats for a canal tour of the city. It is not always evident that the city is built on 42 islands, but the long daylight hours of summer enabled us to view a plethora of palaces, mansions, and institutions with diverse architectural styles—when we weren’t being warned not to stand up as we passed under the many low bridges. Returning for late night snacks, there were no night owls as we had another full day planned for tomorrow.
Wednesday, July 10
St. Petersburg, Russia
Our destination this morning was 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 to enable him to oversee the construction of the nearby Kronshtadt naval base. Pleased with the location he built a series of palaces across the estate, now usually called Petrodvorets (Peter’s Palace). Extremely damaged during WWII, the palace was quickly restored in painstaking detail. We again quickly appreciated our early-entry status as once we left the congested entry, we were our own group moving through the spectacular suites with heavy gilding, beautiful textiles, furnishings, and rare art.
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! So, our guides provided the highlights, such as the breathtaking gravity-fed Grand Cascade flanked with gilded statuary that begins the Water Avenue, then turned us loose to explore as we wished, including the smaller gardens with Adam and Eve, the Chessboard Cascade, the Firs Fountains, and several others. Some of us sought out the Little Oak area where trick fountains in flower beds and environs soak unsuspecting visitors, although on a warm day like ours it might have been welcome. Also, we were 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 stopped at a rather palatial restaurant venue where we enjoyed a snack of rolls with sweet and savory fillings, and a filo fish containing the same, all referred to as “pies,” before heading back into the heart of St. Petersburg. There we visited St. Isaac’s Cathedral for a blissful private tour. Started in 1818 by a French designer with no architectural training, which outraged Russian architects, the Cathedral was not completed until 1858; partly because Nicholas I insisted on an even grander scale. Over 200 pounds of gold leaf were used on the dome alone and the granite pillars that support it weigh more than 132 tons each. However, the even more spectacular elements include the numerous beautiful “paintings” that on closer inspection are micro-mosaics, which withstand the extreme temperature changes of Russia weather better than painting, and the framing of the iconostasis by six columns covered in malachite and two covered in lapis lazuli. More surprising still is the fact that the entire structure rests on thousands of trees driven vertically into the originally marshy ground beneath.
Back on board, many of us remained on deck or took note during dinner of the Kronshtadt naval base as we passed it and a few were also able to see the flood gates installed to protect the city, much like those installed on the Thames and around Venice. Onward to Estonia!
Thursday, July 11
As we were scheduled for a later arrival in Tallinn, this provided the perfect opportunity to hear from Jim Wilson, our Ornithologist, about Common Birds of the Baltic. Upon arrival in Tallinn those of us inspired by Jim, set off for the Paljassaare Nature Reserve, which is situated on a major spring and autumn migratory route and considered of pan-European importance. This reserve had a great selection of wetland and forest habitats and they saw some new species for the trip including red-backed shrike and both icterine and barred warblers.
Throughout its turbulent history, Tallinn served many masters; the Danes, the Germanic Hanseatic League, Swedes, and 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, earning its well-deserved status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Those of us who were feeling historically minded had a special treat as we had arrived on the first day of a week-long Medieval Festival. We set off first for Kadriorg Palace. Built in the style of an Italian villa as a summer palace for Czar Peter I in 1723, it was named “Catherine’s Valley” for Empress Catherine I. Considered one of the best Baroque structures in northern Europe it now serves as an art gallery with tasteful formal gardens. En route to the heart of the Lower Town, we stopped for photos at the Song Festival Grounds where Estonians sang their way to freedom from Soviet Russia in 1988; known as The Singing Revolution.
Life in the Lower Old Town centers on the large, bright Town Hall Square, where this Gothic edifice dominates the scene. There was time here 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, the most important building in the town since 1417, and the Holy Spirit Church, one of the most beautiful churches in Tallinn, begun in the 13th century and evolving to the present when it narrowly escaped destruction by fire in 2002. While some of us drank in the architecture, others of our number preferred to imbibe something more tangible in one of the many cafes around the square, watch the medieval acts, or check out the stalls and shops. 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, walk to the shuttle stop, or even just walk to the ship since a Hanseatic port is never far from town.
Friday, July 12
We began our morning tour of the Upper Town passing Toompea Castle and the Parliament House with its vibrant pink Baroque façade to the magnificent onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, named after the Russian hero who defeated the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century. Built between 1894 and 1900, it was disliked as a symbol of Russian oppression and there were plans to demolish it in 1924, which fortunately were too controversial to undertake. A special service was underway during our visit, but we were allowed to enter and observe, and listen to the beautiful chanting. By contrast, St. Mary’s Lutheran Cathedral seemed almost spartan in its simplicity, except for the more than 100 elaborate coats of arms of church members adorning its walls.
Returning to the Serenissima, we weighed anchor for Latvia and the crew started to organize visits to the engine room to see what will soon be the last engine of its kind in operation, as her only remaining sister ship will be retired soon. Also, First Cook Michael agreed to demonstrate his skills in creating the fantasies of flowers and animals from fruits and vegetables that we had been enjoying daily. In the later afternoon, Ann Wilson, our Art Historian, presented, Art Nouveau in Riga and Europe, that prepared us well for the streets of Riga. After tea, Terrance Christian, our Archaeologist, gave his lecture entitled, The Vikings: A Cultural and Historical Phenomenon in Five Questions. While we all agreed that the Helsinki-Tallinn connections could be explored pleasantly for some time, it was time to look south tomorrow.
Saturday, July 13
Once again there were choices to be made for our time in Riga. Those of us with birding in mind set off on the one-hour drive to Kaniera Lake, one of coastal Latvia’s most productive birding areas within Kemeri National Park, Latvia’s largest national park. We visited a number of sites within the park including a great forest walk where birds seen included the hard to find, middle spotted woodpecker and the elegant common crane.
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. Included in the tour are the fabulous exteriors of the Blackheads House and other Hanseatic guild houses, as well as passing most of the major buildings of the city like the National Opera House, the Monument of Freedom, and the University. We all came together at the beautiful Dome Cathedral for an organ concert. Featured pieces were the Toccata in C major, the Chorale Prelude, and the Festival Toccata played by organist Simona Sunepa. We were able to watch her energetic proficiency on several television screens throughout the church. Continuing our walk, we saw the Powder Tower, the Swedish Gates, the cheeky Cat House with its arching feline finial, and Livu Square among many green café-strewn squares and towering spired churches before we took advantage of the glorious weather to explore the city on our own.
Back on board, the Serenissima turned her bow out to sea and we steamed back to Sweden, enjoying a little sea time to catch up with our chums and compare thoughts and notes on our various experiences. We closed the day by joining Rick Wright, our VENT leader and Ornithologist, for his presentation, Why I Bird the Way I Bird.
Sunday, July 14
Visby, Gotland Island, Sweden
As we had a slightly later arrival, it was the perfect opportunity to hear Olga’s fascinating presentation, The Way We Lived Then, My Soviet Years. This provided a perspective many of us had never heard previously. Soon we were cleared and off on today’s adventures.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the medieval port town of Visby is a 13th-century walled town steeped in history. Gotland boasts the highest concentration of medieval churches in all of northern Europe. Visby alone has more than a dozen and a fairy-tale cathedral. Most of these date from the early 12th to the mid-14th century and are adorned with frescoes and rare medieval stained glass. Because it was Sunday, we made a special effort to visit the church of St. Maria prior to services starting. This venerable edifice was built in the late 12th century, but continuously added on resulting in the Baroque wooden cupolas surmounting the towers, which now also serve as ornate beehives.
To reach the church, we started at the Cliff of Hogklint, outside the city walls, and entered across a field of wildflowers through the Dalman’s Gate and walked down to the church, peeping into beautiful gardens and lanes along the way. Continuing downhill, 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.
We ended our walk at the lovely Botanical Gardens; officially named the De Badande Vännerna (DBW) Botanical Gardens for The Bathing Friends Society that established them in 1854. There we joined our friends who had opted for more botany than history. It was the perfect time of year to visit as they were in full-flower and full of honeybees from its own apiary. Strolling into the heart of Visby along the park-like Strandgatan, we passed the ancient granaries and Powder Tower, the oldest building in the town. From here, it was easy to amble at our own pace back to the harbor for a little free time before rejoining the Serenissima for a Baltic buffet lunch. For those keen on seeing more of the island, the afternoon offered a drive to the Brucebo Mansion. More a Neo-romantic summer house from the turn of the 20th century, the house, collection of studios, limestone ice house, and barn were the home of Swedish sculptor Carolina Benedicks and her husband Canadian painter William Blare Bruce. The property is now a museum to the couple and their works, as well as housing Swedish and Canadian art students through their estate foundation. The property is now also a nature reserve and protects many rare and endangered fungi and even an iron age archaeological site. While returning to Visby, there was time to stop at the lovely medieval Bro Kyrka. The church was built on a pagan sacred site and so it is perhaps not surprising that pre-Christian designs and motifs were incorporated in the walls. The interior walls had examples of medieval painting and frescoes as well as later Baroque additions.
Those of us keen on avifauna had a full day of birding around the south end of Visby. A highlight for many of us was the visit to the art museum of world-famous wildlife artist Lars Jonsson. Lars greeted our group and joined us for a wonderful private lunch in his flower filled garden. He then led us through the museum, talking about his amazing art and answering questions.
All too soon we were all aboard and comparing our day’s discoveries with each other over dinner as we wended our way back across the Baltic to Lithuania and another banquet of touring choices.
Monday, July 15
Klaipeda & Palanga, Lithuania
Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city, was known as Memel until 1925 and was founded in 1252 by the Teutonic Order of Knights. The latter were a military order, much like the Knights Templar, that served Germanic pilgrims and fought in the Crusades. It is still an important port as it tends to be ice-free much of the year.
We were greeted dockside by local musicians, who provided such a lively and engaging vibe some of us just had to join in! This may have provided some much-needed time to think as well since there was again a plethora of choices for the day. Some of us set off for the Dvina (sometimes called Plokštinė) Missile Base Museum, a Soviet Cold War-era nuclear weapon site now within Žemaitija National Park. When it was begun in 1960, 10,000 soldiers dug four 100-foot deep silos with hand shovels to maintain secrecy. It was closed in 1978 after United States reconnaissance discovered it. The underground, multi-story installation is barely visible yet in its heyday it housed four medium range ballistic missiles with thermonuclear warheads; the same as were deployed to Cuba at that time. The entire complex was designated a museum in 2010 and includes machinery, period posters, dioramas and screens with period sounds and sights.
Those of us wanting to be closer to nature enjoyed a scenic ride south through the sunny Lithuanian countryside, stopping here and there to look at the many storks nesting on the roadside. However, our destination was to visit one of the most famous bird banding stations in the world at Vente Cape; established in 1929 and in continuous operation since. This state-of-the-art facility bands a staggering 120,000 birds each year and boasts the largest bird trap in the world. Our tour was guided by the head bird bander and we were treated to a fantastic tour of the station and some of us even a chance to participate; releasing some banded birds caught that morning.
Another group of us, headed up the coast to the town of Palanga to a lovely old mansion once owned by Count Feliksas Tiškevičius but now part of the Lithuanian Art Museum. We started with a leisurely stroll through beautiful gardens and woodland to a beach, and once inside the house we admired furniture and objects from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The highlight however was the amber museum on the second floor, where we saw some amazing specimens of amber and learned about the origins and many uses of this fascinating substance.
Back in Klaipeda, we had the opportunity to sample the local beer and have a snack near Theatre Square. Thus refreshed, we enjoyed a walking tour through the Old Town before shopping for amber at the best prices in the Baltic, or just taking a little time to enjoy the small-town feel. Klaipeda is full of sculptures from the small and whimsical such as the mouse—touch it for luck—to the more ominous ghost climbing onto the dock from the sea at the small wooden pivoting pedestrian bridge near the port.
Back on board, we gathered on the aft deck for a group photo, all sporting the wind-blown look. After dinner, we were treated to a piano recital by Olga, not only a historian but also a concert pianist, for her Russian Renaissance performance sending us off to Zhivago-esque dreams.
Tuesday, July 16
Gdańsk, also historically known as Danzig, had a tempestuous past. Its important port made it a prize desired by many states and governments throughout history. As recently as the 1970s-1980s, strike action in the shipyards and the formation of the Solidarity Trade Union under union leader Lech Walesa, led to the end of Communist rule in Poland and swiftly thereafter the rest of Europe. With this in mind a group of us determined to be on the afternoon tour of the recently renovated European Solidarity Centre for the Roads to Freedom exhibit. The exhibition was a very engaging interactive multimedia experience, telling the inspiring story of the central role of the Polish workers’ union Solidarity in the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of us even added our own contribution to the Solidarity Wall of visitor messages, and then we all gathered outside for a group photo at the famous shipyard gates.
Some of us wanted the chance to look at the region’s deeper historical roots and rode through the beautiful Polish landscape and villages with their ubiquitous stork nesting platforms, to mammoth Malbork Castle. The largest brick castle in the world, as well as the largest Gothic structure; it is four times larger than England’s Windsor Castle covering 52 acres not including the grounds. Built by the crusading monastic order, the German Teutonic Order of Knights on the Nogat River, it was started in 1274 and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. A week-long festival of reenactments had just concluded, but many participants were still visiting and provided an opportunity to envision the site as it was, with tents on the grounds and knights roaming the courtyards. At this size, we were able only to sample a portion of the museum’s many rooms but these were sufficiently intriguing that we all agreed we would be happy to return again, but there were other temptations for the afternoon.
The core of the old city of looks much as it did 300-400 years ago; a rich collection of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles, although as much as 80% reflects detailed restoration after the devastation of WWII. We agreed to meet at the Green Gate (1560s), which is not green, and not the Gold Gate (1612), which is not gold! We did, however, all enjoy 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 immediately adjacent; Artus Court, then strolled down the Long Street and associated Long Market, where we of course sought some of the amber for which the area is known, and finally spent time in St. Mary’s Church, called the Crown of Gdańsk, another brick edifice that dominates the city center. Begun in the mid-14th century, it reached its current proportions in 1502. Deceptively simple in appearance at first, one quickly realizes that it houses a replica of Memling’s The Last Judgement, as well as 300 graves underfoot and many works of art in its 30 side chapels.
For a more nature-based experience, some of us found Sobieszewo Island, less than 10 miles from the center of Gdańsk, calm and relaxing. Its beautiful nature reserve is called Ptasi Raj (Birds’ Paradise). We had a wonderful walk through a mixed forest of Scots pine, silver birch, and alder and saw a red-backed shrike feeding young close to the trail and a couple of white-tailed eagles soaring overhead. At the end of the morning we were treated to an unexpected visit to the nearby Bird Research Station where we learned about the birds of the Gdańsk area.
Back aboard our floating home, the captain reversed out of our berth so as to position the stern between the Nowy Port Lighthouse, a twin to the one in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Westerplatte and its memorial to WWII. The lighthouse made history when, on September 1, 1939, shots were fires from its windows effectively starting WWII and Terrance provided historical context for these important sites. Soon it was time to join our colleagues to learn what tomorrow would hold for us.
Wednesday, July 17
Coming alongside at Rønne, the largest settlement on this Danish Island and its commercial center since the Middles Ages, we set off northward to visit the ruins of Hammershus Slot (Castle), a huge, sprawling construction on a bluff overlooking the Baltic. The castle is surrounded by indigenous plants that have been encouraged to repopulate the site because of their documented presence in the past for medicinal and culinary uses. Mostly floral, they made every photo colorful as we traversed various areas of the fortress that had begun in the 13th century and grown and expanded over time and was still in use as a prison in the late 17th century before being abandoned in 1743 and cannibalized for stone. From here we headed for 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.
On the way to the quaint town of Gudghem, the countryside exhibited varied topography, villages, farms, rocky hillsides, and plenty of parks. We stopped at the atelier of the well-known Baltic Sea Glass company to watch a glass-blowing demonstration and perhaps the chance to find a memento, before strolling through the hollyhock and rose-bedecked streets and lanes to lunch at Brøddan Restaurant. After lunch, we all enjoyed free time in the charming seaside town of Gudghem. Some of us saw additional glass blowing, some explored the historic herring smokehouses, many of which are now shops, some had to try the ubiquitous ice cream stalls, and almost everyone found something to bring home.
Even Nadia couldn’t resist joining the birders for today’s final opportunity to seek Baltic birds and we set off for Ølene Lake and Nexø Sydstrand. The former is a boggy area with a shallow lake, old peat ponds with reed beds and large meadows, all attracting diverse bird life and with viewing towers to do so. Nexø Sydstrand is a low-water coastal area, characterized by horizontal sandstone benches and has viewing towers as well as providing an opportunity to come close to resting wading birds. Birding across this beautiful island was a fitting end to a memorable trip to the Baltic with almost 70 species of bird seen including fantastic views of many migrant shorebirds such as little stint, bar-tailed godwit, and curlew sandpiper, all still in their glorious summer plumage.
Enjoying the countryside as we returned to Rønne, everyone agreed this was definitely a favorite place. Finally, it was time to rejoin the Serenissima and enjoy the scenic views as we steamed toward our final destination and joined Captain Etien Bonacic for his farewell reception and dinner. After our last delicious dinner aboard, we joined Rich to view the terrific slide show he had been creating along our route.
Thursday, July 18
Those of us finished packing were on deck early to watch another glorious sail into our final port through sculpture-strewn paths filled with early-morning joggers and fishermen. Those who had to leave earliest for onward travel had a chance to enjoy quiet views of the Danish 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 palaces; rocky castles to Baroque cathedrals; from Art Nouveau to IKEA-clean architectural lines; rare sightings to common sea birds, or borscht to caviar, we have definitely seen—The Best of the Baltic!
*With special thanks to Jim Wilson and Rick Wright for information on the birding tours and Ann Wilson for providing material for the tours I was not on.