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September 23rd 2011
Published: September 23rd 2011
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Helsinki, FinlandHelsinki, FinlandHelsinki, Finland

We are on Senate Square, with the Neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral behind us.
July/August, 2011

One of our favorite cruises was the 12-day Baltic Cruise that we took several years ago on Royal Caribbean, so when we discovered a shorter, slightly different version of that voyage, we decided to book it. Some of the ports of call that we particularly enjoyed on the earlier cruise (Stockholm, Helsinki, and especially St. Petersburg) were included as well as new ones we had never before visited in Latvia, Poland, and on a Swedish island called Gotland.

We flew to Stockholm, Sweden, on Swedish airline SAS because it offered discounted business class seats, and what a pleasant experience it was! Upon being seated, we were offered Champagne and mimosas. The seats were spacious and reclined fully, and the food, which had a Scandinavian flair, was yummy.

Soon after taking off, we were offered a snack of cream cheese and vegetables, followed by a first course of prosciutto and reindeer sausage. The main course was a choice among four dishes, including poached salmon, ribs, turkey, and gnocchi, followed by goat Brie and Port caramelized onions. Dessert was chocolate cheesecake and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. In addition, during the entire flight there was a buffet available with a variety of food. It was as if we were already on the cruise ship. Then before landing, we had a breakfast of yogurt, fruit, cereal, rolls, eggs, ham, Gouda, and jam. Even going to the toilets was pleasant because they all had fresh cut flowers!

We landed at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm early the next morning at 7 a.m., cleared Customs quickly, and waited in an airport café for the Royal Caribbean bus to the cruise ship terminal. We experienced déjà vu immediately, as we bought tiny, four-ounce cups of Cappuccino that cost about $7 apiece. Things are very expensive in Scandinavia.

We boarded the Vision of the Seas around 11 a.m. and pondered going back into the city to wander around. We decided, instead, to have lunch on board and enjoy the ship’s amenities for the rest of the day. The ship sailed at 5 p.m., and we found a quiet spot on the deck to be entertained by the magnificent scenery of the Stockholm Archipelago as the ship made its way to the Baltic. The Stockholm Archipelago extends over sixty kilometers from Stockholm, encompassing over 30,000 islands and islets, only 1,000 of which are inhabited. The views were spectacular, especially around sunset when they were bathed in the yellows and oranges of the setting sun.

The next morning, after making our entrance in Helsinki, Finland, past Ice Age formations of small islands, we boarded a bus for a tour of this modern capital city of 560,000 inhabitants. Helsinki is actually a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water and dozens of islands, but all that changes in the long winters when the bay freezes over to a depth of five feet and it actually becomes possible to drive to the surrounding islands on the ice!

As we started out on our shore excursion, we remembered the graceful architecture and elegant gardens from our earlier visit, but this tour also took us to some sights and areas that were new to us. We began our tour by passing the shipyard along the coastal road and saw the icebreakers docked for the summer season. Finland is heavily dependent on its ice breaker fleet. Finland is one of a very few countries whose ports are all ice bound in a normal winter. The fleet of 9 ice breakers keep more than half of Finland's ports open all winter long. Six of those impressive, imposing-looking ice breakers were in port for summer repair and maintenance. The other three are multi-purpose vessels that work for hire in other parts of the ocean for the summer.

Our first stop was at the Neoclassical Senate Square, surrounded by the University of Helsinki, State Council Building, and, perched above the square’s wide steps, the Neoclassical Lutheran Cathedral, one of Helsinki’s most recognizable landmarks.

Education in Finland is free for everyone (even foreigners) through four years of college. The government even pays a living-expense stipend to each university student of about $750 per semester. The University of Helsinki is one of the world’s top research universities, and teaching is done in Finnish, Swedish, and English. Enrollment is about 36,000 students. Teachers from K through university are excellent and chosen only from among those who were in the top 20% of their graduating class.

After some time for shopping, we hopped back on the bus for our next stops at the Olympic Stadium, which was home for the 1952 Olympics, and Sibelius Park with its

Michelangelo's "Crouching Boy" c. 1530 in the Hermitage
monument to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The sculpture is made of six hundred stainless steel tubes of varying diameters, and the design lends itself wide open to interpretation.

Our final stop on this Helsinki city excursion was at one of the most unusual churches in the world. The Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church) is a unique work of modern architecture. Completed in 1969, it is built entirely underground into a massive block of granite. Inside, the church is circular and enclosed by walls of bare rock, and the ceiling is a giant disc made of copper wire. The interior has natural light streaming through 180 vertical window panes that connect the dome and the wall. In addition to Lutheran church services, classical concerts are held there because of the excellent acoustics provided by the rock walls.

We docked in St. Petersburg, Russia, early the next morning. “Peter,” as Muscovites call it, is a magnificent city of stylish sophistication. It is said to be a combination of East and West--too European to be Russian, and too Russian to be European--founded by Czar Peter the Great 300 years ago to open a “Window to the West.”

We visited the fabled Winter Palace and Hermitage, truly one of the world’s greatest museums of art and culture. With the possible exception of the Louvre, there is no museum in the world that rivals the Hermitage in size and quality (and we think it surpasses the Louvre). It encompasses the most remarkable collection of art in the world—3 million objects. It is said that if you pause for only one minute at each exhibit, it would take 7 years to see everything, and you would walk twenty miles. The extravagance of the interior is jaw-dropping, and it is huge—1,100 rooms! Catherine the Great, who had incredibly lavish and decadent tastes, enslaved over a million peasants to build and maintain the massive structures to display her royal collection of priceless treasures.

A Russian lunch included vodka, champagne, salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, potato soup, beef stroganoff, and fruit. The afternoon portion of our excursion provided more exploration of Russian culture as we proceeded to Palace Square, the main square of the city, beautifully balanced and proportioned around the Alexander Column, which is 155 feet tall and was built from a solid piece of granite to commemorate victory over Napoleon.

The bus picked us up at the square and proceeded across the Neva River to Vasielievsky Island, the largest island on the river. The island is flanked by two unusual-looking Rostral Columns that served as navigation beacons. This place has one of the best panoramic views of the city. After a brief photo stop, we proceeded to the Peter and Paul Fortress, the first structure to be built in the city. Inside the fortress is the Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Cathedral, where the Russian czars are buried in elegant tombs of white marble.

A short drive took us to a “safe” but expensive shop with traditional Russian souvenirs called Matryoshka. The trade-off for the higher prices was being able to shop in relative safety, free from the muggers and pickpockets that frequent many flea markets in the city. After the shop we continued to the cruiser Aurora, which signaled the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and the Cathedral of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated on March 1, 1881.

The cathedral is one of the city’s most beautiful sights, and it is a miracle that it is still standing. It was considered an “inappropriate” symbol of Christianity in the midst of an atheistic Soviet Union in the 1920’s and 1930’s and was scheduled to be torn down. A use was found for it, however, as grain storage, but it fell into decay until 1990, when a painstaking restoration was begun. St. Petersburg's most-photographed church, this cathedral is a mountain of bright, beveled domes topped by glistening gold crosses. Inside are more breathtaking mosaics than in any other church in the world.

We had a bit more shopping time in the markets surrounding the church, but with rumors of fellow passengers being pickpocketed, we were very careful. The prices really weren’t much cheaper than in Matryoshka anyway--unless you were very good at bargaining. Our ten-hour tour ended back at our ship.

We’ve had lovely weather on this cruise, sunny and in the mid to high 60’s, and today was no different. It was our only day at sea, and we took advantage of many of the ship’s activities, including jewelry-making and scrapbooking workshops. We also attended a repeat-cruiser reception in the afternoon and particularly enjoyed the evening entertainment in the theater called Graffiti Classics, a genius group of musicians that has moved the classical string quartet into the twenty-first century. With brilliant musicians and mischievous humor, every item in the program revealed an amazing performance with an exciting choreographed presentation that left a smile on everyone’s face. The performance was mesmerizingly unique, something we had never seen before, and great fun.

The next day brought us to a country we had never visited, indeed knew very little about, Latvia. One of the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania which gained independence from Russia after World War I, Latvia with its capital city of Riga has a population of slightly over two million. It has one of the fastest GDP growth rates in all of Europe, and recently voted to “kick out,” or recall, all 100 members of its representative Parliament because of widespread corruption among its members. Watch out, Congress!

Our excursion was a leisurely tour of Riga, which actually dates back to the year 1201, journeying through its boulevards of eclectic architecture. The historic center of Riga is a World Heritage site and has Art Nouveau buildings from the turn of the century, 19th century wooden buildings, medieval highlights, and Stalinist leftovers, often side-by-side. This diversity of styles makes for a lively atmosphere, similar to that of Tallinn, Estonia. Our first stop was at the Freedom Monument , which honors soldiers killed during the war for independence from Russia in 1920. From there we strolled through a beautiful park, ending at the elegant Opera House.

Another short walk on cobblestone streets took us through the grounds of Riga Castle on the banks of the River Daugava. The castle dates back to 1330 when it was built for the German Teutonic Knights that occupied the city. It has been extensively renovated and now houses the president of Latvia and two museums. We were allowed time to shop at City Council Square with its cobblestone streets and beautiful historic buildings, including St. Peter’s Church, which was a Catholic church until 1523, when it turned Lutheran. Our tour ended on the banks of the River Daugava with a panoramic view of the city.

The next day we were treated to the medieval charm of Poland’s Gdansk, one of the Baltic Sea’s most enchanting seaports since the Middle Ages. Gdansk got
Oliwa Cathedral: Gdansk, PolandOliwa Cathedral: Gdansk, PolandOliwa Cathedral: Gdansk, Poland

One of the largest brick churches in the world, 107 meters inlength.
the very first whiff of World War II when Hitler invaded and then occupied it for five years. Bombing raids nearly destroyed the city, but it was meticulously rebuilt and is now a modern, cosmopolitan Polish city. Gdansk was also the site of the origin of the Solidarity Movement led by Lech Wallesa in 1980. We drove past the home where he currently lives en route to our first stop, the Oliwa Cathedral. This is the largest church in Poland and one of the largest brick churches in the world. Inside are beautiful and valuable works of religious art, including the 15th century “Pieta” sculpture. We arrived just in time to hear a concert with the massive and splendid organ, which is comprised of over 7,000 pipes ranging in size from 3 millimeters to 10 meters and is decorated with moveable angels and brightly painted stars. We were riveted by its magnificent sound.

The bus then dropped us off in the “main town” area of Long Market, a picturesque pedestrian street surrounded by beautiful buildings reconstructed in elegant and historical (primarily 17th century) style, flanked at both ends by elaborate city gates, and lined with restaurants and shops. Some of the group continued on a guided walking tour of the area, but we chose to stay on Long Market and enjoy the lively atmosphere and quaint shops.

Our final stop was in the nearby port of Gdynia at a park with a monument to the great Polish writer Joseph Conrad (real name Korzeniosky), followed by a drive past the Solidarity Monument before returning to the ship.

Our final destination was the Swedish island of Gotland, situated about 60 miles off the coast of Sweden. We tendered from our ship to the city of Visby on Gotland’s west coast. The medieval town of Visby, which dates back to 900 AD, is encircled by a stone wall with over 50 towers and over 200 well-preserved medieval stone houses, churches, and other buildings. Narrow cobbled streets add to its scenic charm. We then drove out to the remarkably beautiful countryside south of the city with its picture-perfect pastoral scenery on one side and dramatic seascapes on the other.

We stopped at one of the 94 medieval country churches found on the island before continuing to the village of Frojel and the imposing burial place called “Gannarve Skeppssattning,” a stone-setting grave from the Bronze Age about 600 BC. The grave consists of stones standing on their edge in the form of a ship about 50 yards long. It was believed that the metaphor ship was to carry the departed chieftains on their voyage to eternity. The location of the grave, by the coast with a magnificent view of the sea, makes it even more impressive.

There were two more stops on this tour of Gotland’s beautiful countryside. One was at a picturesque old fishing village of Gnisvard, which dates back to the 1700’s. One of the deeply tanned fishermen showed us how they smoke fish in the wooden smokers. Finally, there was a photo opportunity at the massive cliffs of Hogklint, the highest point of the island, where we were able to admire the stunning view across the sea toward Visby and our ship.

The next morning as our cruise vacation came to a close, we departed early by taxi for our 10:25 a.m. flight home on SAS, via Newark. The return flight was as comfortable and luxurious as the flight over, and we arrived home around 6 p.m.

Bronze Age grave c.600 BCBronze Age grave c.600 BCBronze Age grave c.600 BC

Stones were placed in the shape of a ship, this one 50 yards long.
we both felt that the cruise was excellent. The ship was upscale with good service, friendly staff, a spacious cabin, and a familiar layout. We particularly enjoyed our dining companions from Dallas and would definitely cruise on this ship again.

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