Copenhagen: The Greenest City

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Disembarking from our ship on a rainy day in Copenhagen, we got into a line for a taxi to take to our hotel. The line was not moving. As in many large cities a good portion of the taxi drivers are Muslims in Copenhagen and as luck would have it, our cruise ended on a Muslim holiday. Travel is like that. There are many situations you can’t control or predict, so you have to be ready to adapt. We decided to take the hop-on, hop-off tour (with bags in tow) around the city to the stop nearest our hotel. The ride itself was probably three times as long, but we got the extra bonus of a recorded tour of the city and saw some sections we were not going to have time to visit. And we learned… that Copenhagen is the greenest city in the world and will likely become carbon neutral by 2025. And we saw lots of bikes!

After a half mile walk to the hotel, we headed to Nyhavn, a touristy little boat harbor with restaurants and shops. We had a nice lunch there (I had the famous Smorrebrod – open faced sandwich) and visited a store in the small building where Hans Christian Andersen lived. We could have taken a harbor tour from there.

A few blocks north of our hotel was the Bosenborg Park and Castle. This is one of Copenhagen’s most popular attractions. It is an interesting contrast to the massive palaces of St. Petersburg…more compact and less ornate. The interior shows how the Royal Family lived from the 17th through 19th centuries with portraits, wall treatments and furniture. Three floor above ground are the living and public spaces of the royal family. The top floor is the throne room. But the highlight of the museum is the treasury housed in the basement, where you will see the gold, royal guns, amber and ivory sculptures and much more.

CPH-Bosenborg_Park1

In the late afternoon we strolled down the city’s main pedestrian shopping street, Stroget, which starts near Nyhaven and ends a block from Tivoli Garden. There were street performers and many tempting shops along the way.

Eating out in Copenhagen is surprisingly expensive. We looked at a dozen or so menus hoping that we would find something with prices closer to what we were accustomed to, but it never happened. We finally settled on a trendy little place across from our hotel. My small pizza and dinner salad were about $20. Being on a cruise insulates you from local prices, since you generally only eat lunch on land and the other likely purchases are of decorative items. Tallinn and St. Petersburg were relatively inexpensive, but the other cities (Oslo, Warnemunde / Rostock, Helsinki and Stockholm) were closer to Copenhagen.

CPH-Dixieland

The list of things we didn’t see in Copenhagen is long – Tivoli, other palaces and museums, Christiania, the Little Mermaid. Like Stockholm, this is a city with many treasures and there is no way for a short visit to do it justice. But the nice thing about a cruise is the opportunity to sample many places and find out which are the ones where you want to spend more time. Sadly our Baltic cruise did not help us narrow down the list. They were all wonderful!

Stockholm: Island City

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Our ship was too large to dock in Stockholm proper so we were at Nynashamn which is about a 45 minute to the south. We saved money by walking off the ship and taking a walk-on, walk-off bus into the city. Our ticket included the hop-on, hop-off boats that the islands of Stockholm as well. In order to accommodate our large ship, Nynashamn built a folding dock which unfolded to connect with the Regal Princess. (The picture below is actually from the evening when we were about to leave.)

Stockholm-Folding_Pier

Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, was established in the center of a massive archipelago of 30,000 islands. The four islands of Gamla Stan are the historic center where you will find the Royal Palace and walk narrow cobbled streets with shops, restaurants and a few museums. The changing of the guard is fun to see. Apparently there is a horseriding band that performs as part of the ceremony, but unfortunately we missed that. Not all the long-haired guards are women.

Stockholm-Guard

The most popular attraction in Stockholm is the Vasa Museum which is built around the wooden warship, Vasa. Warships of that time (1628) generally were usually lost in battle, but this ship was just a little too narrow and tall, so it sank 40 minutes into its maiden voyage in the Stockholm harbor where it was left undisturbed for 333 years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the history of the ship is how it was raised from the sea floor in 1961 and preserved. This museum is fun for everyone!

The Vasa Museum is on the island of Djurgarden which also includes the open-air museum, SkStockholm-Coasteransen, featuring replicas of historic buildings and dwellings of Sweden’s past. This museum was built 125 years ago and was the original on which other Open-Air Folk Museums were copied, including the Oslo Folk Museum in a previous post. You can visit several other museums on Djurgarden, including the new ABBA museum – tragically we missed that one. Or you can ride roller coasters at the amusement park.

From Djurgarden we hopped on the tourist boat to get to Gamla Stan, where we wandered, ate and shopped. And saw the changing of the guard (see above). Below are some typical street scenes on those streets.

After a while the shoppers and the non-shoppers (that would be me) separated. I wanted to see the Stadtshuset (City Hall). Sadly, I was not carrying an ID so they wouldn’t take my credit card to pay for the inside tour (rookie mistake – always your driver’s license in Europe.) But I did see the stunning exterior.

Here we are on the docks of Djurgarden enjoying a beautiful day.

Helsinki: Trendy Harbor

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Helsinki_Lutheran-Church

We arrived in Helsinki on a gloomy Sunday. On every tour or cruise some destinations fall on a Sunday. Sadly, there is no way to avoid it. Large ships dock about mile from the center of the city, so we took a shuttle from the New Terminal in an area filled with new construction of ultra modern apartments and offices. Somehow this area was tidy and clean – so typical of the region. (Of all the places we visited on our cruise, only St. Petersburg had the ugliness you see in some areas of North American cities.) Helsinki_Balcony

Helsinki is the newest of the Baltic capitals and grew during the early 19th century so that most buildings are from the the 19th and 20th centuries. The iconic Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral (above) stands on a hill one block from the Central Market and City Hall. It is a gathering place for tour buses. With a church service going on we were unable to go in.

We arrived downtown and by about 11am the stores in the center city started to open and the boutiques offered high quality products, both local and international. Slightly off-kilter public art and advertising dotted the squares, streets and parks. Helsinki clearly relishes it’s reputation for modernism and progressive politics. The Blacksmiths sculpture, just outside the Stockmann department store, is from the 1930s and shows the Finns enterprising spirit.

The Central MaHelsinki_Marketrket was right at the small central harbor and the stall sellers were waiting for us. Fried smelts and reindeer kabobs were on offer at the Lapland food stalls. A sample smelt was tasty, but I was not hungry yet. Local crafts were high quality, even the t-shirts. Temptations were many, purchases few. Having to haul everything on a plane tends to dampen the desire of acquisition.

Across frHelsinki_City-Hallom the Market was the City Hall which had another display of the Finnish imagination. The surrounding streets and alleys had small boutiques with locally crafted items mostly with the clean, modern look that is typical of the region. The city is filled with Museums, but our limited time and the lovely city kept us outside wandering. We took the local tram about a mile north of the center to visit the most popular architectural attraction in the city, the Church of the Rock. The exterior is a pile of rocks with an entrance. The interior walls are cut from stone capped with a copper disk roof and edged with fanned windows. Most of the time the interior features recorded sacred music, but we arrived during a pipe organ concert.

We had a tasty lunch at the Kiasma Museum and admired the gigantic moving plastic flower above the entrance. Back at Stockmann’s the shoppers shopped and the others (that would be me) watched the heavy traffic in the store. Men and women seemed a bit taller, fitter and blonder than in the US. Make-up and high heels were uncommon though I sat near the make-up and perfume kiosks. People getting in and out of the elevators seemed decidedly polite and patient. All in all Helsinki seemed a nice place to be – open and friendly…despite the gloomy Sunday.

 

St. Petersburg II

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The morning of our second day in St. Petersburg took us far out of the central city along the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland to the Summer Palace built by Peter, which is often called Peterhof. The drive gave us a glimpse of how locals live today. We passed by two massive apartment complexes. The first was from the Brezhnev era during the 1960s and 1970s and were are among the least expensive places to live in the city. They were apparently poorly constructed, noisy and un-repairable. The second was built by a Chinese construction company. These newer buildings were popular and featured a space age shopping mall.

STP_Mall

At the end of the forty-five minute drive from the city we reached the town of Peterhof, which was where the servants of Peter’s summer palace lived. A short drive in the woods leads to the Upper Gardens of the Palace where we first saw the golden domes of the Palace Church. Photos are not allowed in the Palace and the docents keep visitors moving rapidly through the ornate rooms, mainly decorated by later Romanovs than Peter who had a plainer taste. The most popular feature of the palace are the fountains and the lower gardens that lead to the gulf. At 11am with a musical fanfare the fountains are turned on and the display of water and gold come to life.

From the palace looking down the fountains is the Grand Canal which leads to the sea and was how many dignitaries arrived at the palace in centuries past. Now low bridges over the canal prevent navigation, but allow the throngs of tourists to enjoy the woods and gardens. Smaller coastal palaces and fountains dot the wooded park.

On the drive back to the city center we saw the locals sunbathing in parks. The temperature was mid-seventies, but for gloomy St. Petersburg it was a balmy day. (These are the Brezhnev era apartments mentioned above.)

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Instead of riding all the way back to Nevsky Prospect in our van, we took the Metro. St. Petersburg is renowned for the beauty of it’s Metro stations. Though conceived prior to World War II the first line opened in 1955. Each station has a unique design. Many have ornate chandeliers and columns, but my favorites had simpler designs.

Walking up from the depths of the Metro (due to the swamps of the city, this is the deepest subway in the world) we exited onto Nevsky Prospect, the wide boulevard that is central to St. Petersburg commerce and society. I found it brutally urban and chaotic, much like areas of New York City. But the walk was broken up with views of canals (or rivers), churches and parks.

One of the visual highlights of our trip was Yeliseevsky’s Delicatessen which offered colorful food, mostly candies, in an Art Deco setting with a jazz combo playing from a balcony. Prices at present in Russia are very low, so while this shop likely was very expensive for Russians, it was reasonable for us.

STP_Nevsky-Deli

Time was short and we were unable to see a few interesting attractions along the way including the Russian Museum and the varied churches which served the international community which was invited by Peter the Great to inhabit his new capital.

And our guide Alexandra took us to a lovely Russian restaurant – Katyusha – where I had excellent warm borscht and fish stuffed pasta garnished with caviar. Everyone found the food and service excellent and the prices reasonable.

STP_Nevsky-Restaurant

In our quick walk from the restaurant to the waiting van we went into the Kazan Cathedral, the second largest church in the city.  Driving back was saw all the construction that is underway (I suspect slowly due to the economic downturn in Russia) on Vasilevsky Island. This is the largest of the city’s many islands and where the largest ships dock. A massive suspension bridge, which will significantly ease traffic in the dense city, is being built along with many high-rise apartments. Modern St. Petersburg is growing and hopeful.

STP_from-ship

St. Petersburg, Russia I

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St. Petersburg is one of the great tourist cities in the world with an incredible concentration of attractions within a small area. Starting with Peter the Great in 1703, the city was built on the swampy eastern limit of the Gulf on Finland. Peter wanted Russia to have an outlet to the West, build a Navy and combat Charles XII of Sweden who was encroaching on Russian territory. This incredible city was built on inhospitable land in an uninviting climate. Today tourist boats float on the large Neva River and the smaller canals and rivers which were once part of the swamp. We were fortunate – on average St. Petersburg has 50 sunny days each year. We were there for two of them.

Because of the popularity of the city during the season – May to September – the attractions can be overrun with tourists. Timing is key so I would suggest that you spend the extra money and get a private tour. (See below for the tour company we selected.) A good company will get you in early before the crowds overrun the most popular attractions.

The Hermitage, which served as a winter palace for Romanov Czars and Czarinas, is now one of the world’s great art museums. You will also see the public rooms of the rulers with all the gold and glitz that characterized the Russian monarchs. Above is the Grand Staircase and the front of the Palace (in the distance is the spire of the Admiralty – Peter’s Naval Academy). Amazingly the staircase is a toned down version of the original Baroque creation which burned in a fire.

There are many sources for information about the art contained in the Hermitage so I won’t go into detail on that. What I will say is that the craftsmanship of the decor is breathtaking. What I remember of the art were Renaissance masterpieces including 2 DaVinci Madonnas and one Michelangelo sculpture, classical sculpture from Rome and Greece and Dutch masters including many works of Rembrandt. What we didn’t see were the Impressionist and Modern works which have been moved to an Annex very recently. If you want to see these you will need to make a special request or select a tour that mentions them.

In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by anarchists on the spot where the Church of Spilled Blood was built. The design of the building is an exuberant variation on the traditional Russian Orthodox style. While the onion domes are it’s most famous feature, I found the interior more appealing. The walls are entirely covered with icon-like portraits and illustrations. Nearly all are mosaics. Only the ceilings painted since the weight of tiles would not be possible inside a large dome.

The largest church in St. Petersburg is St. Isaac’s Cathedral (above). The columns weigh 80 tons each. (Above our guide, Alexandra, tells John Miele how they were able to raise the columns.) This cathedral is the fourth largest in the world and took 40 years to complete. The exterior looks very similar to the US Capitol which was built during the same period.

The original location of St. Petersburg was a small island in the middle of the Neva River, which Peter the Great built as a fortress to defend against invading Swedes. The fortress was never needed but Peter’s first home in the city (gold building – lower left) and the Peter and Paul Cathedral remain. Within this cathedral are the crypts of the Czars, Czarinas and many members of the Romanov families from Peter the Great onward. The church is not at all Russian in style reflecting the influence of European architecture on Peter. In an annex to the Cathedral is a nice display about the Romanov dynasty from Peter onward to Nicholas II whose family was massacred by the Bolsheviks.

That was the end of our first day in St. Petersburg. Next: Day 2.

We booked our private tour with Star Travel DMC. If you want a wonderful guide ask for Alexandra.

Tallinn: Old Town in a Modern Country

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The consensus in our group was that Tallinn was the most enjoyable port on our Baltic cruise. The food, the people, the historic buildings, the convenience and the shopping made it very inviting. Over half a million people live in Tallinn’s metropolitan area (over a third of Estonia’s population), but the historic center is small, well-preserved and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking off the ship, it is just over half a mile to the entrance at the tower known as Fat Margaret. Some have compared the walled city to a fairy tale.

The buildings are a mix of the medieval and other styles as recent as Art Nouveau. Many streets are cobbled and pedestrian only. When we arrived in the morning the crowds were light, but it got moderately crowded by late morning. There were three cruise ships docked there the day we visited.

As part of the Hanseatic League during the late middle ages, Tallinn was wealthy and international in it’s population with many Germans, Danes and Swedes living there. Once Peter the Great won his war with Sweden in the early 18th century, Russia came to dominate Tallinn and Estonia. But after independence in 1991, Estonia progressed rapidly. It is the wealthiest (per capita) of the former Soviet republics and was the birthplace of Skype and is home to a vibrant high tech economy. (Estonians have free Wifi even in the forests!)

The population of Tallinn is just over half Estonian and over one third of the population is ethnically Russian. So the old city’s historic churches include Lutheran, Estonian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Russian Orthodox – 3 onion domes above) is in the small upper town next to the Toompea Castle. Huge crowds jostled to get inside to see the impressive gilt iconostasis and mosaics – no photos allowed inside. We also visited the Church of Holy Ghost (Lutheran) in the lower town (altar and tower above) which was just off the main square.

Mainly we just wandered around, shopped and had a lovely lunch. Estonia has the lowest prices of all the Baltic ports on our itinerary, so if you are in the market for amber or even Russian items, this is probably the place to make your purchases. Our group purchased sweaters, t-shirts, purses and linen.Tallinn_Boot

Now lets get back to that lunch – always my favorite part of any visit. The most popular bread in the whole eastern Baltic seems to be a dense, whole grain black bread. And in Estonia they like to fry strips of this bread and serve it with a mayonnaise like sauce. Everyone loved it. I had a local pork barbecue with a berry sauce. The others ate soup and salads and offered excellent reviews. I did not write down the name of the restaurant, but it is near Toompea Castle and has a brass boot hanging outside.

Cruising is a great way to discover lots of places in a short period. Some places you will want to spend more time in. Tallinn (and Estonia) is certainly on my list now.

 

 

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Warnemunde & Rostock: German Baltic

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Berlin is certainly one of the great cities of Europe with much to see and do. But it is also over three hours drive from the Baltic coast. Unless you know you will never visit Berlin again, I would not recommend six or more hours of driving for a city visit of about five or six hours in Berlin. I would stay on the coast to see Warnemunde, a quiet beach town with nice restaurants and shopping or historic Rostock, one of the wealthy Hanseatic ports that became rich during the late middle ages. If you know you will not return and you have not visited Berlin, perhaps the drive is worth it.

We had a nice time in Warnemunde and Rostock without visiting any museums or other traditional sites. We just wandered and shopped, enjoying the ambience of the medieval Baltic towns.

Warnemunde’s main tourist drag is called Alter Strom and winds along a canal that empties into the Baltic. It reminds me of a New England beach town with it’s quaint beach houses and tourist boutiques. The beach is wide and active with nice white sand. You can take a harbor cruise or just have an ice cream while watching the tourists walk by. There are a few attractions, but mainly it is just a nice place to relax.

Inland along the Warnow River, Rostock is about 8 miles from Warnemunde. We took the local train which took a little less than 30 minutes and included fare for the tram to get into the historic walled city center. Several beautiful churches, towers that once served as gates in the wall, city squares and the harbor are the main attractions here. We went into one church, but otherwise just enjoyed the medieval appeal of the place.