The Heart of Northern Europe
by Mary Jo
I never thought much about the Baltic Sea until we decided to take a cruise called Viking Homelands, which meant cruising the Baltic. "Viking" is a general term for the Scandinavians who were great navigators, raiders and traders. Norwegian Vikings usually headed west across the North Atlantic, the Danes sailed south to harass Britain, and the Swedish Vikings traveled east into the Baltic, where the established numerous trading settlements.
The Baltic, like the Mediterranean, is a marginal sea, meaning it's largely enclosed by land with only limited access to the ocean. For the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar are the only link to the Atlantic. For the Baltic, the connection is a strait that runs between Sweden and Denmark. Naturally, there was a lot of fighting about who controlled these vital waterways. (A Dane said that these days, Denmark and Sweden limit their aggression to football games. I'm not sure I entirely believed him. <G>>
The Baltic and the Mediterranean are bordered by many nations with distinct cultural identities and languages, . Hence, both seas were hotbeds of trade, selling products to each other along with culture and inventions. Those cross-Baltic connections are alive and well–in every port we saw large ferries designed to take people, cars, and trucks from one country to another.
The Baltic was the heart of the Germanic Hanseatic League, which pretty much controlled the sea for three centuries. The League also included the Low Countries and Norway. The map above shows the itinerary of our cruise on the Viking Sky. As you see, we set off from Stockholm and sailed due east, stopping in Helsinki, Finland, and then going on to St. Petersburg. From there, we turned around to head west, stopping in various cities on the south side of the Baltic.
I'd never visited Stockholm before, and I didn't realize that the city is built on an archipelago of islands: 14 major islands and 57 bridges, which is why the city has been called the "Venice of the North."
We took the "Under the Bridges" harbor cruise. The prerecorded narration was excellent (and available in six languages) and it described not only the sights of the harbor, but also discussed the history of Stockholm and Sweden, as well as more subjects like national character. (I realized as never before that a Swedish-American in-law of mine is really very, very Swedish in temperament even after several generations in the Midwest.)
During our harbor cruise, we stopped at the Stockholm City Hall, which is where the Nobel prizes are awarded. (Except for the Nobel Peace Prize, which is awarded in Oslo, Norway.) This year's Nobel winners have been announced in the last couple of weeks, and I like imagining the grand banquet (over a thousand attendees) and the presentation of the awards by the King of Sweden. (To the right is a picture of the gardens of the City Hall.)
After the dinner and the awards, there is ballroom dancing. I couldn't help wondering how many Nobel winners are up for the dancing–they tend to be an elderly lot!
We did another harbor tour in Helsinki, capital of Finland. (What can I say? I like water!) Helsinki is a beautiful little city, called the White City of the North. Finns treasure and protect their connection with nature. Many of the islands in the harbor reminded me of untouched landscapes in the Adirondack Mountains, (see left) but there were also many simply built saunas, a ritual which most Finns love.
The next stop on our cruise was St. Petersburg, but I'm going to save it for a later blog and hop ahead to Tallinn, Estonia. I hadn't realized the strong connections between Finland and Estonia. The languages are similar to each other–and to no other languages except a more distant kinship to Hungarian. It's only a two hour ferry ride between Helsinki and Tallinn, and an Estonian crew member on the ship said that some Estonians work in Helsinki during the week and take the ferry home for the weekend.
Tallinn was probably our favorite stop of the whole voyage, and not just because it's a beautifully preserved medieval city. We hired an excellent private tour company and they did a great job of showing us everything, including older areas being revived as creative and tech sites.
As our guide walked us through the beautiful historic center, we took a coffee break at a café and were introduced to the Fat Margaret cake–think of a light chocolate mousse cake that looked too large for one person. I should have taken a picture, but somehow the cake slices disappeared before I could pull out my camera. <G>
But what stirred me most about Estonia was its recent history. Along with the small neighboring Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, they were brutally annexed by the Soviet Union at the beginning of WWII. All three countries had a passion for freedom, and they were leaders in breaking free of Soviet control in the late 1980s.
Estonia has a tradition of choral singing, and their Song Festival Grounds regularly host an internationally famous Song Festival. (All songs have to be Estonian and sung in the Estonian language. Foreign choirs fight for the chance to be perform at the festival.)
A powerful event in Estonian history is the Singing Revolution. It took place over several years, but a particularly memorable day was in 1988, when 300,000 people came together to sing for freedom. That is about a third of the whole country singing in solidarity, and it was a catalyst for Estonia winning its freedom without a drop of blood being spilled. (The image to the left is from a poster showing the size of that crowd as it gathered in the Song Festival Grounds. The national anthem is always sung first.)
Another element of this quiet revolution was the Baltic Chain. On August 23rd, 1989, TWO MILLION residents of the Baltic states came together to create a human chain which ran from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, clear across Latvia and all the way to Tallinn, the northernmost of the Baltic States. Our guide was only a little girl then, but she remembers it vividly.
It's a tremendously moving story, and I was awed. I'd love to visit Estonia again for a longer visit. And maybe more of their cakes. <G>