Subject: Baltic cruise report (long)
Hi Ziners,

Finally over jet lag from my Baltic region trip so can report in. The cruise experience lends itself to slowing down so when we visited cities, we were relaxed. We sailed on Holland America which was okay as cruises go but nothing special. However, we visited great spots.

Copenhagen: With jet lag in command, I managed only a short walk to dinner (mediocre and pricey) and a visit to the Tivoli Gardens. I wouldn't say this too loudly - the Danes are very proud of the TG - but I found it "cheesy"; not at all charming. But the Danes were extremely friendly and hospitable and everyone we met spoke English. This was a good first impression that was confirmed later in the trip. I really, really liked the Danes so Denmark is on the list of places to return.

Tip: If you visit, watch out for the bikes; they're everywhere.

We boarded the cruise ship and headed for points east with a first stop in Helsinki. It's an odd city - seems like it's waiting for something to happen, perhaps because of its history and proximity to Russia. Our hosts were amiable and we had some interesting stops. The Sibelius Monument, which the Finns hated when it was first unveiled, is a lovely "musical" sculpture with a flow that mimics musical notes. The Church of the Rock, built right into a huge rock, must be seen to be believed.

St. Petersburg was, of course, the highlight and I want to return for an extended stay. Thanks to Ziner Candice's suggestion, we used Red October for a private tour. Natasha, our guide, was knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. Gennady, our driver, was professional and attentive.

We hit the high points - the Catherine Palace, the Hermitage, the Church on the Spilled Blood, Peterhof, the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Yusopof Palace, and some small village stops outside of St. Petersburg. All are overwhelming and part of the culture of the nobility of Tsarist Russia that created a beauty that is beyond our wildest dreams. At times I felt uncomfortable (an experience I've had in the Vatican) because so much beauty was created on the backs of labourers, but as a seasoned traveller I put those feelings aside and enjoyed the magnificence of my surroundings.

We had the good luck to arrive in a village outside of Peterhof at a church while a service was underway. The congregation comprised older women and we stayed at a polite distance to witness the mass.

Natasha spent a lot of time talking with us about the WWII three-year siege of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and pointed out the areas where the German Army was stopped. This became a recurring theme throughout our trip, perhaps because so many of the areas we visited were involved with the movement of the German army toward Russia.

Red October took care of our Russian visas. The cost for a two day tour for two people was approximately $980 (U.S.) with lunches both days. The cruise tours were between $150-$200 per person, per day. Compared with the experience of being herded on and off of buses with 60-70 other passengers, we think we came out with a good deal. We weren't forced into shops - a travel item that is at the bottom of my list of things to do - but I'm sure they would accommodate any guests who want to shop.

I use the word "guest" purposely because that's how they made us feel. Natasha and Gennady are very proud of their country and wanted to ensure that we saw places that interested us so that one day we might return. I have a smattering of Russian and studied both Russian literature and history. When I mentioned this to Natasha, she shifted into a different gear and spoke to me in a way that showed respect for my little bit of knowledge and gratitude for my interest in her country.

Tip: There is an elevator in The Hermitage which the Russians don't want anyone to use unless you are in a wheelchair. Insist, if you have any difficulty with stairs. You will be accommodated.

Sailing in the Baltic during late June is the best time to witness the White Nights - sunset at 11:30 p.m. and sunrise at 3:45 a.m. on June 22nd. In between, there was a dusky stripe of rose between the black sea and sky.

Berlin: I like this city. Seeing the reconstruction that is going on makes me want to return when the work is done. This will be a magnificent place to visit. It was magical to see places written about in books or seen in movies. I was particularly moved by the stop we made at what is left of the Berlin Wall. It was a very quiet tour bus that day as we all imagined what it was like to live in the divided city - as if we could.

On the way back to the ship we stopped in Potsdam. Its claim to fame is Sans Souci (Frederick the Great's country home) and the WWII Conference but my memory is of a lovely small town with beautifully restored houses.

Tallin: This little town appears not to have been touched by the 20th century - at least the old town - and gives the visitor a glimpse of a Baltic area mediaeval town. I found myself comparing it to towns of similar vintage in Italy and France, which was probably unfair, because the cultures were totally different. There is still a strong Russian presence in the town with most shop keepers speaking Russian and the prevalence of Russian goods such as crystal but, for those who are interested, the shops offer interesting woolen products. My impression was that Tallin is attempting to re-claim its Estonian heritage. I may be way off on this and stand to be corrected.

Sailing down the coast of Sweden and then getting out into the Danish countryside later in the cruise was fabulous. Sweden's coast looks so much like areas of Ontario (one of the other passengers said it looks exactly like Wisconsin). Our last stop was Arhus (Denmark) and I went to Silkeborg - a lovely town with a very interesting museum that houses Tolund Man (corpse of a bog man many thousand years old). We even tasted mead, which we were assured the Vikings drank! A first for me.

I had a taste of the Baltics and want to return to some parts. Lucy, Toronto