Europe 2023

For our first post-pandemic trip out of the country, we decided to book a Tauck river cruise on the Danube. It would allow us to visit several cities and countries we hadn’t been to before.

To allow us time to get on schedule I booked several days in London beforehand.

We began our travels Sunday evening, April 23, flying out of the new Terminal C at Orlando International Airport. It’s a beautiful terminal. The first-class lounge is okay, nothing spectacular, but it has a great kids’ area designed to wear them out before they get on the plane. Brilliant.

I had found some great deals on business-class flights using Chase membership miles, so we have a weird assortment of airlines. Our first was Iceland Air, connecting through Reykjavik. (In retrospect, none of them except the final Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Orlando was what you would expect from business class, but that was the most important one.)

The trade-off for the great price was a tired 757 with no beds in first class, but the flight to Iceland was only seven hours, and the views of the Greenland ice cap and the Aurora made up for it.

Aurora over Iceland. The UFOs are fasten seat belt signs.

Keflavík Airport is the largest airport in Iceland and the country’s main hub for international transportation. The airport is 50 km southwest of Reykjavík. It’s an okay terminal, but the planes don’t pull up to gates, and the connection by buses on the tarmac is a bit inconvenient. I have no idea what they do with wheelchair-bound passengers.

After a short layover, the flight to London (on a much newer 737 Max) was only two hours. Aside from the mile walk from the gate to immigration, Heathrow Airport was a breeze. Immigration is now all electronic, with passport and face scans, and in no time we had our baggage and met Eddie Manning, our long-time driver while in London. We’ve used Eddie for about ten years now, and I highly recommend him.

The trip into London was slow, as always, complicated by road closures left over from the previous day’s London Marathon.

We tried a new hotel this trip, The St. Martin’s Lane Hotel, and it turned out to be great. It’s ideally located a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, and Leicester Square tube station. Our room was one of two large ones in the hotel, in a very utilitarian U shape. It wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, so we hung out in the downstairs cafe, which was a bit weird–my Caesar Salad was more like a bowl of Caesar dressing with a head of lettuce in it!–but tasty enough.

Once our room was ready we got several hours of much-needed sleep, then walked a few blocks to our favorite restaurant in London, Clos Maggiore.

Clos Maggiore

What a meal! Probably a top ten of all time. We sat in a room we hadn’t been in before, an intimate upstairs space with a cozy fireplace. Not a tasting menu, but just two stellar courses that couldn’t have been better. My scallops starter and white asparagus entry were simply stunning. But the real show-stopper was a sublime Grand Cru Burgundy: 2005 Clos de la Roche from Nicolas Potel. I don’t think we will be able to top this meal on the trip!

White Asparagus

Tuesday we slept in, and had a lovely traditional French brasserie lunch next door to the hotel at Côte.

Covent Garden

After lunch, we walked over to Covent Garden to check out the London Transport Museum. It does a great job of interpreting the history of transport from horses through the latest tube extensions. The signage is just right, interpretive without being overwhelming, and for kids (of whom there were many) there are lots of things to climb on and buttons to push.

London Transport Museum

The new Elizabeth line is a 100km long trip East to West!

Then after another nap, we headed to dinner at our other favorite restaurant, the Michelin-starred Pied a Terre.

Perhaps it was just memories of the night before, but the ten-course tasting menu didn’t really stand out. However, the thing we really love about this restaurant is that they will serve the wine pairings blind and let you guess. So between one standard pairing and one reserve pairing, we had 18 wines to identify!

We did fairly well with varietals (at least the Sommelier said he was impressed) but not so much on regions. It was hard, though–Mourvedre from Greece, and Riesling for Marlborough? Who knew?

Wednesday didn’t quite go as planned.

Le Garrick

We slept in and then went to lunch at another charming bistro, Le Garrick, just off Trafalgar Square.

In the afternoon we had a short nap in preparation for seeing The Play That Goes Wrong, one of the funniest things we’d seen in the US from a touring company, and still playing in London at the original theatre. But just as we were about to leave for the show, I got an email from Air France saying our flight Thursday from London to our Paris connection had been delayed. Then I got another email saying they’d rebooked us on another flight at 6:20am so we could make our connection. This meant getting up at 3:00am! Yikes. So I gave our tickets to the concierge at our hotel in the hopes that someone else could use them. Fortunately, shows are much cheaper in London, and these tickets (I had somehow gotten fourth-row center in a fully booked theatre) were only 50 pounds each. Ah well. After a quick light bite at Côte, we went to bed.

To no avail, for me, anyway. Knowing we had a flight in just a few hours, I just couldn’t get to sleep. Oh well.

Eddie Manning dutifully picked us up at 4am, and we headed to Heathrow.

It took only 37 minutes to fly to Paris, and another two hours to Krakow, but with the now almost five-hour layover, we arrived just in time for our 5pm welcome dinner in the salt mine.

All of the fields in Poland seem to be long and skinny.
Nine people squeezed into each level of the elevator to the mine.

There are nine levels to the mine, but our dinner was only on the third level down, at about 400 feet. The elevator was quite fast, a good thing given how we were squeezed in!

This was not a working mine, it is historic, and was clearly hand carved.

Quite a few spaces have been carved into rooms and chapels.

Dinner was really quite good, and it was nice to get to meet some of our fellow travelers. While the river ship can accommodate over 120, we learned there are only 42 on this tour. Perhaps starting in Krakow seemed too close to the war in Ukraine for some, although it’s hundreds of miles away.

It was nice to finally get some sleep after 36 hours!

The next morning we met for a walking tour of the old city, making our way from the hotel to the market square.

The castle by the hotel
Look! It’s a church!
The Central Square

It is tradition to play a tune on a bugle in all four directions from one of the towers, every hour, even all night (so don’t stay in a hotel on the square!) The fourth time, the tune ends abruptly to commemorate a bugler who was shot in the throat while warning of an attack.

Linda eyeing a sculpture

They serve only breakfast until noon at the restaurant in the square, so I had French breakfast and coffee, and then Linda got a tuna sub from Subway on the way back to the hotel.

In the afternoon we took a 90-minute bus ride to Auschwitz, the first of the Extermination Camps built by the Nazis. It was not what I was expecting, as it is not a wooden stalag, but rather brick buildings constructed as Polish army barracks prior to WWII.

Until 1942 it was a concentration camp mostly for non-Jews, with the intent of killing Russian prisoners and anyone else who couldn’t work in the nearby factories, (which was almost everyone). After that it was a place to gas and cremate as many Jews, Poles, and gypsies as efficiently as possible, 1.4 million in all.

“work will set you free”

I chose not to take any photos inside the camp.

In the evening we had dinner at the hotel. We chose to sleep in on Saturday, skipping another walking tour, and spent the day at the hotel resting up.

Sunday was the all-day bus ride from Poland through Slovakia to Esztergom, Hungary to board our Danube River cruise boat, The M.S. Joy. The drive through the Carpathian mountains was really beautiful, with many villages, meadows, and mountains still encrusted with a bit of snow. Our lunch stop was at a ski resort near the top of the pass.

The ship is lovely, with large cabins and bathrooms, a Panorama lounge, Compass Rose dining room, and Arthur’s informal all-day dining room. Since we are at 1/3 capacity, there are almost as many crew as guests! The staff is wonderfully welcoming.

Esztergom, Hungary

Our tour guide said in case the ship sinks, just go up on the sun deck. The river isn’t that deep!

Dinner was a bit disappointing. Not bad, but certainly not Oceania-level dining. And despite the large number of dining staff, some experience and further training are needed.

Nice view from our cabin in Bratislava, Slovakia

As usual, I got a cold shortly after the trip began, but have been muddling through. My first night on the ship was pretty restless, and we were both tired after all the travel. Also, May 1st is a holiday, with most shops closed, so we decided to skip the walking tour of Bratislava and have a quiet day.

View from our cabin in Vienna!

One thing different about river cruises from ocean cruises is the view when docked. The ships dock side by side, so your view is likely to be of the ship next to yours. In fact, the passengers must often pass through other ships in order to get to and from the port! (This was actually the only time that happened on our cruise.)

In the morning Linda went on a tour of a palace in Vienna, and took a selfie. It might be her first!

In the afternoon she toured the ship’s helm.

We’ve been eating dinner in Arthur’s at the rear of the ship. The server there, Alex, is fantastic. The food is actually better and fresher than in the main dining room, and there’s almost no one there, so it’s like a private restaurant.

Vienna, Austria
Dinner in Vienna

Well, Linda got the sniffles just as I was recovering, so I headed off to the Tauck dinner in Vienna on my own. It was in a beautiful palace. The seven-piece chamber orchestra, four opera singers, and two dancers were all extremely talented. The music consisted largely of waltzes, most by people named ‘Strauss’ which means ‘bunch’, so a bunch of bunches. There was a lot of opera. So much opera.

The next day I went on a short morning excursion to Krems, an old town with a population of 25,000. There is a single main street in the old part of town, which is mostly tourist shops now.

Baroque church in Krems

We visited an ornate church, and an eclectic museum in an abandoned abbey.

In the cellar they had some beautifully carved old wine barrels, one of which had a carved cat on it.

The story was that the cellar cat would sit on the warmest barrel, which due to its high sugar content was the most prized wine, so that’s the one people wanted to buy. Of course, before the buyers arrived the winemaker no doubt put the cat on the barrel he wanted to sell!

Back at the ship, we went to lunch in the main dining room. Wow, the food is uninspired there. Not sure why it’s so poor, but that’s why we’ve been living on pub food at Arthur’s at the rear of the ship.

Water height markings along the Danube for various years. They now have eight-foot-high steel walls they can install along the river, but I’m not sure they would have helped in 2002 and it was even higher in 2013–so high that for a while the river flowed backward.

We cruised up the river to Spitz where I took a short drive to Weingut Christoph Donabaum, a small 2000-case winery, for a wine tasting hosted by the owner and his girlfriend. We had two 2022 Grüner Veltliners and the tartest Riesling I’ve ever had.

We had dinner at Arthur’s, which we again had to ourselves, with our delightful server Alex, who has been the highlight of our trip. Arthur’s looks out the rear of the ship, so we got to watch as we passed through a lock.

Friday Linda was still sick, so I did the trip to the lakes region of the Austrian Alps solo. This is the area Americans associate with The Sound of Music, although Austrians aren’t into that movie. We took a boat ride across one long lake, then reboarded our bus and drove to another lake and the town of Saint Wolfgang. He’s a saint because he decided to build a church there 1000 years ago, and also struck the ground with his staff and water bubbled up that magically cures your eyes, yada, yada, yada.

The town is very good at monetizing things. You can buy holy water, salt, salami, fake leather purses, and cuckoo clocks, all within feet of one another.

This is our excellent guide for today’s excursion. She came from Guatelama 20 years ago.

We’ve been seeing these things in every town:

They’re not cell towers. They’re Maypoles. They’re put up the last day of April (by hand) and then guarded for a few days. If the neighboring town manages to vandalize it, you have to buy them drinks. Or something like that.

We had lunch at Dorf-Alm zu St. Wolfgang, a decent meal of sauteed perch and boiled potatoes. I liked their barstools.

This is a Steirische Harmonika made of special wood that our guide’s husband purchased for his 40th birthday.

Lunch entertainment was provided by our guide’s husband, as this is the town they are from (or close to it). She had traveled by train to meet us in Linz this morning, and will need to go back tonight. It’s about 1-1/2 hours by train, but the cost is essentially free, since you pay 1000 Euro a year for all transportation. The bus ride back to the ship was mostly on high-speed highway, and we were back before 5pm.

The chef’s “signature dinner” was at 7pm in the dining room for everyone, and was actually pretty good.

Saturday Linda was still under the weather, so we skipped the walking tour, and after lunch at Arthur’s, I went for a short walk around Passau, Germany.

Sunday we said goodbye to our ship and took the bus to Regensberg, perhaps the most interesting of the cities we’ve visited on this trip.

The city has a long history, and you can easily spot the Roman fortifications on which the central part is constructed.

These are the units of measure that visiting merchants had to use in selling their wares.
We had lunch in a lovely biergarten. My chance to try the local bratwurst and sauerkraut, which were very good.
High-speed train to Berlin. It takes a bit over four hours. Germans tend to be “seat squatters’ so boarding was a hassle.
Finally got into our reserved seats!
The lovely Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin. We had dinner in their Brasserie Quarré, which is much nicer than the name implies.

Monday morning we should have gone to breakfast earlier–it’s fantastic, with several rooms of buffet including Champagne and caviar! We did a short walking and driving tour around Central Berlin. Our hotel is really near the Brandenburg Gate (it’s outside our window) and it’s really interesting to see all the vibrant new buildings that stretch through the center of the city on the former no-man’s-zone or killing ground where the Berlin Wall was. There’s little trace of it any more, save for some different colored paving stones.

A little piece of the wall, which I think they had to put back up so people could see what it was like.

We visited a few of the locations of Nazi bunkers and such, but there is nothing left, as they have been intentionally erased. We also visited an excellent museum about WWII, Topographie Des Terrors, and I ordered a book that contains everything in the museum to look through at our leisure. We also passed tourist spots such as a reconstruction of Checkpoint Charlie, and the place where Kennedy delivered his address.

It’s no longer obvious where East or West Berlin was, as there has been so much modern development. The city is obviously thriving, and is really quite attractive.

We had lunch a couple blocks from the hotel at an all-you-can-eat converyor belt sushi restaurant, Yakoolza. It was really quite good, and we had it to ourselves.

After a restful afternoon we walked a few blocks to the two-Michelin-starred Facil for a lovely dinner.

After another amazing breakfast buffet at the Hotel Adlon we took a short bus tour around the city again and spent a couple hours at the Pergamon Museum.

It’s like a tiny version of the British Museum, filled with things stolen from elsewhere.

We split off from the group’s German lunch and wandered back through the Brandenburg Gate and had lunch at Mama Trattoria, across the street from our hotel.

Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin lobby.

Today is May 9th, traditionally Victory Day, which commemorates Russia’s defeat of the Nazis in WWII. However this year, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlin actually tried to ban the display of Russian flags. That didn’t go through, so both Russian and Ukranian flags are on display, but celebrations are muted and there is a large police presence everywhere.

The most likely thing to disrupt traffic in Europe this year, which we encountered in Vienna and Berlin, is protestors gluing their hands to the pavement in intersections to protest climate change. I’m not sure how tying up idling cars for hours improves the climate, but whatever. Because it’s very good glue, the authorities have to cut the chunk of pavement out with their hand still attached, and then send them a bill for repaving. Meanwhile, in Paris, they are still protesting raising the retirement age from 62 to 64! Also while on this trip Charles II was crowned in London. Glad we missed that by a week!

We finished our tour with a lovely visit to the Reichstag, with a view overlooking all of Berlin, and a lovely farewell dinner. A talk by a former escapee from East Germany was the climax.

Then it was back to the hotel for some sleep before our early wake up call to fly home on Aer Lingus via Dublin to Orlando.

In all, an interesting trip with some good highlights, a great group of people, and the usual Tauck professionalism.

Baltic 2002

England, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, 2002

This summer we decided to explore a completely different part of the world. None of us had ever been to any of the ports on this 12 day cruise around the Baltic.

We left Orlando Friday afternoon, August 2, and arrived in London around noon on Saturday. This timing seems to work better than the usual morning arrival, because the hotel room is likely to be ready by the time we get to the city.  

Even though we were lugging nine(!) bags — including carry-ons — the express train from Gatwick to Victoria Station was an easy connection, and London cabs are big enough for almost anything.  The Marble Arch Thistle hotel is a recently refurbished art deco building on Oxford street, the main shopping drag. Although we’re not shoppers, we were pleased with its convenient location. The Marble Arch underground station is right beneath the building.

Saturday night, after a refreshing nap, we wandered around the neighborhood looking for a restaurant that didn’t serve English food. Since Danielle is still wary of most ethnic cuisine (the best bet in London) this provides a challenge. We happened upon a Marriott hotel and had a delightful meal of broiled scallops, pasta and salmon,  and a mediocre Australian Cabernet by Wynn’s (a good producer).  

Sunday we wanted to go to the food courts at Harrods, but it was closed. Since it was our only full day in London there wasn’t much we could do. Our contingency plan was Covent Garden. Originally a “convent garden”, in the 1600s it became the main produce market for London. Falling out of favor in the 1900s, it was largely derelict before being converted to tourist shops and cafes. We had a nice lunch of wine, cheese and pate in a cellar-turned restaurant, and listened to an excellent quintet play spirited classical selections to an appreciative crowd in the courtyard.  

Dodging raindrops, we walked down to the mall and took Linda to the Cabinet War Rooms, which Danielle and I had enjoyed the previous summer. This is the underground complex where Churchill and his cabinet operated during the Blitz. It is virtually unchanged from the day it was vacated in 1946. Next year they plan to open a new section of it where Churchill’s family lived. (Interesting: they had a collection box and it was full of dollars. . . )

Dinner was at the Sugar Club, an Asian fusion restaurant near Piccadilly. An Australian Semillon went well with the lemongrass soup and Danielle’s duck.  Yes, Europeans aren’t hung up about serving a kid a taste of wine.

Sunday morning we survived a disorganized crush of geriatric travelers and caught our transfer “coach” to Dover. We heard that there were 186 rooms(!) of fellow cruisers booked at out hotel for the two-night pre-stay option. That amounts to almost 25% of the ship’s capacity. Average age of these guests appeared to be shy of three digits, but barely. If there’s anything more disagreeable than a tired American traveler. it’s a tired old biddy American  traveler, so we spent most of our time trying to look Belgian.

It took the usual hour to find a way out of London, and then another hour to reach Dover, where the cruise check-in was fast and efficient. We were onboard by 1pm.   Hey, the cliffs of Dover really are white, or at least ivory.

By chance, our friends the Siegles were traveling out of Dover just a few days later aboard a Radisson ship. You see it here, docked behind our ship, the Norwegian Dream. And yes, Ron, size does matter.

The Norwegian Dream is a smaller and older ship than most of the others we have taken, but it has a certain charm. It was launched in the early 90s, then had a 160 foot section added to the middle in 1998. It features NCL’s “freestyle” cruising, which allows you to eat in any restaurant at any time and at any size table you like. This feature is pretty unique, and works perfectly. While we slightly missed the experience of meeting new friends at an assigned table, it was great to have complete flexibility — and no schedule — every evening. We met our maid, Madalina, our butler Karan, and concierge Carlos.

Linda was lucky to book the cruise only a couple months in advance, when a balcony stateroom cancellation opened up, and was lucky again to upgrade to one of a dozen “owner’s suites” just two weeks before sailing. That was a fortunate upgrade, because our cabin was a lovely space, with a living room, bedroom, bath with tub, and a large enough walk-in closet that we made Danielle sleep in it (I’m not kidding). The room also came with free drinks, hors d’oevres, a concierge and two butlers. The next level of accommodation down was a shoebox with a pet door in comparison. The cabin came with a DVD player and library, and an assortment of CDs.

I said I wasn’t kidding. This is the closet.

The Kiel Canal cuts across the base of Schleswig-Holstein, linking the North sea with the Baltic Sea and thus avoiding the dangerous route via the Skaw and through the Danish Sound and Belts. (Interesting that they worded it that way, since that’s exactly the route we’re taking on the way back. . . ) Monday, after a lazy morning, we entered the Kiel Canal. I was somehow expecting the locks to lift us up to cross the peninsula, but instead we went down about three feet. Maybe it was high tide. This was the first day of an uninterrupted string of perfect weather that would follow us throughout or entire trip. At times the crew seemed amazed at the wonderfully temperate days and absence of clouds, and when we crossed the North see, it was apparent that even the captain was startled by the smooth sailing.

While waiting in the lock a German band boarded and played marching music for the rest of the afternoon. Built in 1887, the canal is 338 feet wide, 37 feet deep, and 61 miles long. It takes eight hours to traverse it. The Norwegian Dream is the largest ship to ever make the trip. To do so, it must collapse its funnel and mast (seen here on the way down) to fit under the seven 140-foot high bridges that cross it.

It’s quite an event for this ship to pass by. All along the way townspeople stood along the bicycle paths, waving to us and shouting greetings. Many waved handkerchiefs or American flags. It was quite moving.

In one village a brass band played as we passed.

And on this bridge a crowd of more than a hundred who have “adopted” the ship display a different banner for each passage.

Wednesday we spent a relaxing day on the Baltic Sea. The ship’s facilities are a bit modest compared to the Voyager class of ships we’ve been on before, but our cabin is great, and the food is substantially better than on Royal Caribbean. After lunch Linda and Danielle played a windy game of ping pong, and Danielle and I went swimming. The day before, the aft pool had accidentally been heated to over 100 degrees, and we felt like lobsters. Today is was a much more pleasant 80 degrees. With cool air wafting past and the scenery floating by it was quite pleasant.

Around noon on Thursday we docked at Tallinn, Estonia, a picturesque town on the southern Baltic near the entrance to the Gulf of Finland. The country of Estonia is only 45,000 square km, and has only 21 towns. Tallinn is the largest, and with a population of 500,000 represents about a third of the total Estonian population. It is clear that Estonia is benefiting greatly from getting out from under the thumb of the Soviets in 1991. Every evidence of the Russian language had been erased from public signage, and the young people don’t even know what the Soviet-era monuments symbolize. 30% of the buildings in Tallinn are less than 10 years old; and unlike the Soviet buildings, they are attractive. 60% of the population are ethnic Estonians, with 35% Russians who, according to our tour guide, “All work at McDonalds for $1 an hour. ” 

The weather was beautiful — mid 60s and clear. We took a bus ride around the city, then walked through the medieval town, looked at a couple of churches, and bought a fabulous piece of amber containing a complete lizard.

We awoke Friday morning in St. Petersburg. The cruise ship dock is. . . well, rather industrial: coils of raw steel and bags of fertilizer stacked between giant cranes. Considering this is the main seaport for a country the size of the US, there is amazingly little activity. Yes, our tour guide and bus driver really were named Olga and Vladimir. All of the people we met were extremely friendly. They were well dressed and drove reasonably nice cars (although not many could afford them). But St. Petersburg is a city of 4. 5 million people clearly struggling to recover from the Soviet era. They’ve restored the city’s name (after nearly a century as Petrograd and then Leningrad) and the streets’ names, but restoring the city itself will take a lot more work. The entire central city is comprised of buildings in various states of decay. The Soviet apartment blocks on the 1970s look worse than some demolition zones I’ve seen. There wasn’t a single building that didn’t need work.

25 kilometers from the pier we came to Peterhof, the village and palace build by Peter the Great. Well behind Nazi lines during three years of siege, there was little left of the area by the time the Germans were forced out. But in the past decade an incredible restoration is taking place.    While we waited to enter, we listened to a brass and woodwind quintet play traditional Russian songs, such as “I wish I was in Dixie”.

Everywhere they are rebuilding things exactly as they were before, and repopulating them with the treasures that were removed to Siberia in advance of the German assault. What was lost they are recreating. We were skeptical of the claim that the palace and fountains were more beautiful than Versailles, but it was true. Only thirty rooms have been completed inside the enormous palace, but they were impressive. And it was quite interesting to see the rooms under reconstruction — elaborate woodwork still without gilt, or bare walls waiting for 18th century silk to be applied. It’s not hard to see why there was a Russian Revolution. Isolated in their beautiful palaces, speaking French instead of Russian, the rulers were completely out of touch with their subjects.

We walked through Peter the Great’s throne room, and the boudoir of Catherine the First.       

He may have been great, but I bet my rear end is greater than the width of his throne.

Over 100 fountains are perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the Peterhof. They are all gravity-fed, yet reach heights of over 100 feet. Many are whimsical: metal trees sprouting water from their twigs, or a park bench that unexpectedly erupts in spray.

This is where you buy your Kacca (tickets). Letters in Cyrillic are pronounced differently.   The Russians haven’t been able to shake off their penchant for bureaucracy. It cost 100 rubles ($3) for a permit to take photographs inside the palace, and 10 rubles to use the restroom. We also had to wear slippers over our shoes to avoid damaging the parquet floors. Most amusing was the requirement that we receive a temporary visa for the day, which consisted of a red piece of cardboard. Lose it and you had to pay them 50 bucks. Perhaps that was its point. Olga told us that 1/3 of the population of St. Petersburg consists of retired people. The typical family has less than one child. The average family lives in a one-room — not one-bedroom — apartment. And the population is shrinking by 30,000 a year. It seems unlikely that the careful immigration control is to prevent cruise ship passengers from sneaking into the country permanently.  

There were some nice single-family homes being built near Peterhof. These belong to the 1% of Russians who became wealthy as a result of perestroika (restructuring) — often through illegal means.   On the way back to the ship we stopped for 60 seconds in front of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul to take pictures. Danielle posed with the Eeyore we bought for Henry and Marjolaine’s Nathaniel. For more about Eeyore’s travels with us, click here.

Each day there is a new treat for us when we return to our cabin. Today was hors d’ouvres of salmon, caviar and pate. We’ve also had chocolate dipped strawberries.

The drive to The Hermitage on Saturday took us through a completely different part of St. Petersburg. We were accompanied by guide Natasha and bus driver Sasha. In this part of town nearly every building’s exterior had either been restored or was surrounded by scaffolding. The workers are rushing to finish in time for the city’s 300th anniversary next year. Along the river the pastel colored buildings looked charming in the cool northern light.

The Hermitage is comprised of five major buildings, including Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace. The museum has over 3 million items in its collection, and is the world’s second largest behind the Louvre. In two hours we rushed through as much as we could, seeing countless Rembrandts, Van Dyks, Titians, and more. In the last twenty minutes we tried to see a dozen rooms filled with Monets, Renoirs, Picassos, and Van Goghs. Back on the ship we had a relaxing afternoon and wrote some postcards. It’s funny to realize how close the time zones are this far north. We’ve lost an hour almost every day since London, so now we’re three hours ahead of GMT, 8 hours ahead of Orlando. This is our easternmost port, so we’re about to starting getting some of those hours back.

What a difference a day makes. Helsinki is a beautiful, clean, manicured and well-maintained city. The Finns are fiercely proud of their independence from Russia. Our tour guide, Tulla, kept emphasizing that they have nothing in common with their Russian neighbors — not even the roots of their language, which is related to that of Estonia and Hungary. Since they have one of the highest standards of living in Europe, it’s hard to disagree. Our tour took us about 150km out of Helsinki (a beautiful city that it would have been fun to explore) to the second oldest village in Finland, Porvoo. But our first stop was at a cattle farm.

With only 220 cows, a small gift shop, and some sugar beets, I’m not sure I understand the economics of this farm.  

We enjoyed out hayride, coffee and pastries. It was great to get some country air after two days in St. Petersburg’s very industrial harbor.

They raise the cows to age 18 months, then sell them for beef. During the winter they have to heat the watering troughs to keep them from freezing in the -40 degree pens. Of course, this only works in the warmer southern part of Finland that we visited! Perhaps in the north the cows give ice cream.

The Finnish constitution declares that all signs and documents must be rendered in both Finnish and Swedish, even though only 6% of the population speaks Swedish as their primary language. This seems silly, as all Finnish Schoolchildren learn Finnish, Swedish, English and a fourth language of their choice.

Because the buildings in Finland are made primarily of wood, not many of them are very old. But 59 have survived in Provoo since the 16th century, and are now mostly tourist shops.

The cathedral, constructed in 1418 is also primarily wood. Needless to say it has been reconstructed a few times. It is a tradition to hang a model of a ship in the church to protect those who sail aboard it. Nearly the entire religious population of Finland is Lutheran.

Other interesting facts:

The Finns are shy, love solitary houses in the forest, and often have remote summer houses where they can live a very primitive existence during the temperate part of the year. The currency is the Euro. The accent is always on the first syllable of every word, as in SOWna for Sauna. There are eight vowel sounds. Education and healthcare is free. As a result taxes range from 35-56%. Over 90% of Finns own their own homes. With a population of only 5 million, all of Finland has only a few more residents than the city of St. Petersburg.

On the way in to Stockholm we passed the most unbelievably beautiful archipelago. 24,000 thousand islands — really the tops of rocky underwater mountain ranges  — line the way, dotted with houses and docks.  

An amusement park on one peninsula (or island?), the Vasa museum on another, and downtown Stockholm on a third.

Stockholm is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It is built on a collection of islands connected by short bridges, and is located between a freshwater lake and the Baltic.

Downtown Stockholm from across the harbor.

Our guide, Anika, showed us around the city and took us to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a warship constructed in 1638 for King Gustav to use during the Thirty Years War. One thousand oak trees, many selected for their specific shapes, went into its construction. The masts were 150 feet tall, and it was covered with elaborate carvings.  

A crowd gathered on a beautiful August day to watch its launch. With four of its ten sails set, it left the dock, caught the breeze and heeled over. Water poured into the open gunports and it sank in 110 feet of water.

It was discovered in 1956. Over a period of four years divers carefully tunneled under the hull, then raised it with cables. Because of the low salinity, it was amazingly well preserved, to the point where — once drained of silt — it could actually be floated to a temporary museum for restoration. It took almost 30 years to complete the task. At the Vasa museum this enormous ship is wonderfully displayed and interpreted, recapturing its very brief moment of glory.

After our tour we caught a shuttle back to Old Town and had lunch in what turned out to be a local hangout. Because it was off of the main tourist street we had a delicious meal for less than the price of a single entree at the restaurants one block away!

Then we did some shopping. Danielle found a copy of Harry Potter in Swedish and I bought some comics books, including Spindle Manne (Spiderman).

As the ship headed out we were treated to several more hours of the beautiful Swedish Archipelago.

After a restful day at sea, we arrived in Copenhagen (which is really called Kobenhavn) in the evening, and took a bus to Tivoli Gardens.

Created in 1843 by George Carstensen, it is the world’s first theme park. You enter through an area surrounded by charming bistros, interspersed with bandstands and fountains. Farther into the park there are rides and redemption games. It’s sort of a blend of World Showcase and Knott’s Berry Farm.

Danielle and I went on this boat ride where you could steer your own boat, which proved challenging and fun.

Pick up the fish, add up the numbers, and get a $1 stuffed toy for $6. The park was quite expensive because there was a charge of 1 to 5 tickets for each ride, at 10 Kroner per ticket ($1. 40). Not counting general admission, we dropped about $70 in two hours.

Linda and Danielle enjoyed the small roller coaster.

This is the ride where you pull yourselves to the top. Danielle and I tried it at Legoland, and Linda got a chance here.

Tivoli lives up to its fairyland billing after dark, when the lights come one everywhere, Linda liked these tables.

Wednesday morning we set out on a three hour tour of Copenhagen. Our first stop was the statue of the Little Mermaid, which is within walking distance of the dock. The city of Kobenhavn regards her as their city symbol.

I had thought the statue was “in the harbor”, but you can walk right up to it. She’s lost her head twice, but was wearing it the day we were there.

We took a boat ride tour of the canals and harbor. This is the best way to see the city, as the view of the more interesting sites is unobstructed.

The tour boats have been constructed to just fit through the smaller tunnels, as evidenced by this picture of the tightest spot. After going through this tunnel, the canal turns so sharply that it took our captain about five minutes to jockey us around the corner.

Our tour bus stopped at a few somewhat pointless locations, including this pretty courtyard, so we decided to leave the tour and strike out on our own for lunch. We walked to the New Harbor. It’s a canal lined with colorful buildings, sidewalk cafes and shops. It used to be the red light district.

We had a lovely lunch of Danish specialties, then walked about a mile along the seaside back to the Norwegian Dream.

Thursday morning we set off right after docking (7:45 am) for our final — and longest — excursion of the trip, Oslo Highlights and the Hadeland Glassworks. Guide Turidy and driver Odd took us first to Vigeland Sculpture Park. For over 30 years prior to World War II Gustav Vigeland, with the aid of stonecutters and the support of the government, created 200 sculptures depicting the phases of life. I wasn’t really expecting that much, but the statues really do capture the people they depict, from birth to death.

Next stop was the Holmenkollen Ski Jump high above Oslo. Originally constructed in 1892, it has been lengthened 15 times and was used for the 1952 Olympics.

Current record: 137 meters. Watch that first step.

Oslo is geographically one of the largest cities in Europe, with an area equal to that of Los Angeles. But the population is only 500,000, and the geographical center is in the middle of a forest. Many of the houses have extremely shiny roof tiles, to discourage the snow from sticking.

After an hour drive north we arrived at the Hadeland Glassworks. In operation for almost 250 years, the glassworks makes art glass, bowls, and stemware. We watched in fascination as three glassworkers turned clear molten blobs into one beautiful piece after another — all of the same design, but each unique.  

The bus struggled up 1100 feet of twisty mountain road past beautiful chalets to reach this spectacular viewpoint overlooking Tyrifjorden, Norway’s fifth largest lake.

After a delicious lunch at a hotel near the lake (a smorgasbord almost identical to that in Epcot’s Norway pavilion) we headed back to Oslo. Our final stop was at the Viking Museum, where we saw three 11th century Viking boats excavated from burial mounds over one hundred years ago. The detail work and artifacts accompanying them gave a much more elegant picture of the Vikings than I was expecting.

Tomorrow we spend a day on the North Sea, arriving in Dover Saturday morning. From there we transfer by bus to Gattwick for our flight home.

Notes for Baltic cruises:

  • A starboard cabin is definitely the way to go. The view is better.
  • The two night pre-stay in London is a great way to make sure you’re rested enough to enjoy the first few days of the cruise.
  • We’d never been on a cruise with so much scenery passing near the ship. It’s so much more interesting than the Caribbean.
  • The Kiel Canal is a surprisingly good part of the itinerary.
  • If you want to really see the art in The Hermitage, you need a Russian Visa and to hire a driver.
  • The most scenic part of the cruise is the entry and exit to Stockholm. It’s worth getting up early to enjoy it.
  • Skip a bus tour of Copenhagen. A boat ride is fun, but it’s an easy city to see on your own. You can just walk to New Harbor or the shopping districts from the port.
  • Norwegian Cruise Lines had substantially better service than the others we’ve taken. Every one really made an effort to get to know us. All the more amazing since their fixed gratuity is simply added to the bill, a great feature that avoids a last day scramble for cash. The sommelier in the Bistro, who I would have guessed was 22, told us she’d worked for the line for 17 years!
  • Norwegian Cruise Line’s freestyle dining is the way to go — no schedules, and a choice of restaurant every night. They also have a great debarkation system. You have an assigned time based upon your destination, and you can enjoy breakfast or hangout in your cabin until then.
  • The Norwegian Dream is a modest ship. I would like to try an NCL cruise on one of their newest, larger ships.
  • Amber is a great deal in Estonia. I would skip the tour and go shopping next time. Scandinavia is very expensive, so this is really the only opportunity to shop for anything other than souvenirs.

Seven Countries, Seven Currencies:

Estonia – Krooni
Russia – Rubles
Finland – Euros
Sweden  – Swedish Kronor
Denmark – Danish Kroner
Norway – Norwegian Kroner
England – Pounds

Trip highlights:

Vasa Museum
Tivoli Gardens
The contrast between Peterhof and the ruins of Leningrad
Hadeland Glassworks


Stuttgart 10-99
Stuttgart, Germany, October 1999. While visiting our European distributors in nearby Uhingen, I had a chance to enjoy the local Octoberfest, called Volksfest.

Sometimes the best part is coming home — in this case from Photokina 2000. Here’s my welcoming committee at the airport: Danielle with chocolate, Linda with Gran Marnier. Danielle held up a sign that said “Daddy”.