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?

A Baltic Voyage 1

The Heart of Northern Europe

by Mary Jo

2017_Viking_Homelands Map
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>>

IMG_4526The 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.

IMG_4540I'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 IMG_4576very, 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 IMG_4579City 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 IMG_4695it'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.

IMG_4733Estonia 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, IMG_4702TWO 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> 

IMG_4698Happy armchair traveling! (The picture at the right is of the cathedral taken through a rain spattered car window.)

Mary Jo