A Taste of the Baltic

IMG_4375Nicola here. Last month I was fortunate enough to go on a cruise of Medieval Baltic Cities of the Hanseatic League with Fred Olsen cruises. We chose this particular cruise because the destinations were fascinating; I’ve been interested in the history of the Baltic region for decades and a number of my distant ancestors came from that area. This was the perfect opportunity to get a taste of the Baltic. Mary Jo has also blogged about her Baltic Cruse experience but a big difference for us was that these days the itinerary doesn't take in St Petersburg. Instead we got a couple of stops in other places.

Our cruise departed from Rosyth in Scotland. We got off to a good start because as soon as we arrived at the cruise terminal, I spotted the ruins of Rosyth Rosyth_Castle _Fife _where_Oliver_Cromwell's_mother_was_born Castle somewhat incongruously fenced off on the edge of the naval dockyard. I had to hop out for a photograph and to discover more about the castle. It turned out that it was originally a tower house rather than a full-scale castle and had been built in the 15th century on an island in the Firth of Forth that was accessible only at low tide. It was built for Sir David Stewart and remained in that family until the late 17th century. As time went on, the castle was unoccupied and the stone used for other building projects. In the 20th century, land reclamation on the Forth river bank led to it being marooned within the dockyard. It’s a shame that it has never been restored but it was a treat finding it here at the start of our holiday. The pictures shows a drawing of the castle by Thomas Pennant. The image is available from the National Library of Wales, Public Domain.

Kaart_Hanzesteden_en_handelsroutesFrom the ruins of Rosyth Castle our cruise took us across the North Sea, calm as a millpond in exceptional warm and dry weather, to our first stop, which was Gdansk in Poland. On the way we were treated to several lectures introducing us to the history of the Hanseatic League, an organisation that was founded by German merchants to protect and promote commercial activities in Central and Norther Europe. The League had an incredibly complicated history – inevitably the story involved trading rivalries, wars, piracy and politics. The map shows the main cities that developed as part of the League. (Attribution: Doc Brown, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.)

We explored Gdansk on foot, strolling the pavements and old alleyways to admire the architecture. Although the city has some original buildings that survive Gdansk
from the medieval period, a lot of it was destroyed in the Second World War and has been rebuilt in the earlier style which has created a stunning landscape of streets, squares and waterways which has got a fairytale feel about it. When we had walked around for several hours and needed a rest we took to the skies on a big wheel so we could see a different view of Gdansk from the air!

IMG_4334Our next port of call was Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland. Visby was one of my favourite places on the entire cruise, the best place I’d never heard of before the trip. A walled medieval city with lots of twisty narrow streets and ruined churches, it also had a beautiful cathedral, a beach and a stunning botanical gardens. It's a world heritage site and one of the best-preserved medieval city in Scandinavia, but even more importantly, Visby also had the best cinnamon buns that I have ever tasted! We walked all the way around the city walls, admiring the castellated towers along the way, and exploring the twisty medieval alleyways. It was the sort of place where you felt you could easily have stepped back in time! I later discovered that there is a series of crime novels by Swedish author Mari Jungstedt that are set on Gotland and in Visby which I thought I might look out for.

Meanwhile, back on the ship there was the opportunity for tea-testing, wine-tasting, lessons in Martini mixing and more talks, book club meetings, spa visits Martini and, of course, sitting on deck and looking at the view. Bliss!

Riga in Latvia was next on our itinerary, where, as well as the medieval history there was also some very fine art nouveau architecture to admire. I didn't take to Riga quite so much as I did the other places; it seemed very busy and noisy to me and the centre of the old town didn't impress me as much as some other places. That said, this was the one day when I wasn't feeling 100% (possibly I had overeaten the night before at the "all you can eat" buffet) plus it was very hot for walking around. One thing I loved, though, was the parks, which were absolutely beautiful and a haven of green space and cool water amidst the busyness.


Kuressare Castle2Estonia was a country I hadn't known much about until this cruise and we visited two places, Saaremaa and Tallinn. Saaremaa is the largest island in Estonia and I found it absolutely gorgeous. The capital, Kuressaare, has the most glorious moated castle that you can imagine as well as the obligatory attractive old streets. Here we had a tour guide who was not only very knowledgeable and interesting on the historical buildings and other sites on the island but also gave us an insight into what it had been like growing up on the island in the Soviet era.  This was fascinating and made me realise how easy it is if you come from somewhere like the UK to take your freedom and self-determination as a country for granted. Her talk really made me think about how precious our freedoms are and how we should always remember that.

We had been told that in the town hall in Kuressaare was ho,e to an extraordinary painted ceiling from the 17th century that was well worth seeing. Nicola and the painting Unfortunately we wandered into the wrong building and a bemused receptionist with perfect English had to re-route us to the correct place. Once we had found it, though, we had to agree that it was an amazing picture which had apparently been found in an old house during the 20th century, restored and relocated to the town hall. There are lots of mysteries about who commissioned it and what it means – definite inspiration for a story! Here I am admiring from the best position – lying on the floor!

Visiting Saaremaa also gave us the opportunity to take a walk in the countryside which, again, was absolutely beautiful. The port was near an old fishing village where all the old cottages had been converted into modern, upscale homes on the sea shore. I should also mention the culinary speciality we enjoyed on this part of the trip – Estonian Rhubarb Crumble Cheesecake. Yum! 

TallinnPart 2 of our Estonia trip was to the capital, Tallinn, which is a place I have wanted to visit for many years. Tallinn is also a World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It's also a very popular destination so we were lucky that we arrived very early in the morning and so were able to explore the old streets and amazing buildings before it got too hot and too busy. Everything about Tallinn was just magical from the old castle on the hill to the city walls and the ancient buildings. History bliss!

It wasn't all medieval stuff on the cruise, however. Whilst we were in Stockholm I mixed my old history fix with some a bit more modern but still retro – the Abba Museum! This is a fabulous interactive museum of all things to do with the iconic Swedish pop group which I remember so well from my childhood in the 1970s. It was great fun to sing along to their songs in a karaoke but that video definitely isn't for sharing!

We were coming to the end of our trip and after a wonderful sail through the Stockholm archipelago, we were heading towards the German town of Warne Warnemunde, which had an old-fashioned seaside vibe about it. We took a bit of a rest day here, with some time on the beach, shopping along the waterfront and climbing the old lighthouse for a great view out to sea! This was another place where the once-basic fishermen's cottages have been transformed into something rather more fancy as boutique hotels and residences!

And then it was our last day, with an early morning visit to Copenhagen in Denmark. Copenhagen is right up there at the top of my list of places I'd like to visit again. The old trading area of Nyhavn looked very picturesque in the sunshine and we wandered along all the waterways, ending up at the Little Mermaid, one of the most famous tourist sites in the city. In fact the Little Mermaid is so Instagram famous these days it's impossible to get close to her for a selfie because of all her fans! It was a little weird to see that; a small statue surrounded by people all wanting their photo taken with her. 

RosenborgOne of my favourite castles of the trip is in Copenhagen, Rosenborg, which looks exactly like a fairytale castle should and is at the top of my list of things to do on a return visit. And I suppose that is one of the few downsides of a cruise. You only get a few hours in each place you visit, enough to get a taste of somewhere but not enough time to immerse yourself in the history, culture or other aspects of a country. But sometimes a taste is just what you need to whet your appetite for more! Not only am I planning a return visit to a number of destinations but I'd also love to do another cruise sometime. The ship was small enough to feel friendly and very comfortable but big enough to offer all sorts of amenities – and great food, and it's a very relaxing way of seeing something of the world.

Is there anywhere in the world you would particularly like to visit? How do you prefer to travel? Air, sea, road trip or armchair?