Latvia: The Switzerland of the Baltic

Location: Riga, Latvia

Actually, only a small part of Latvia is considered to be like Switzerland, and even that is a stretch: the highest point of land here is only 80 metres above sea level. But that’s impressive for a region that’s almost entirely flat, and Latvians are pretty proud of their little patch of paradise.

And it IS something to be proud of. The area around the twin villages of Turaida and Sigulda, about an hour outside of Riga, is a beautiful river valley nestled among acres of pine forests. Rising just above the trees is the watch tower of Turaida Castle, built in 1214. A fire in the 18th century destroyed part of the castle, and what was burned was never rebuilt, so you can still see the ruins. We got some amazing views from the top of the tower.

Our next stop was the Gutmana Cave, a natural sandstone cave fed by a freshwater spring. Legend has it that washing in the water makes you prettier; drinking it makes you younger. So naturally the women all lined up to take a sip. Chris didn’t bother washing or drinking; I guess he figured he was pretty enough. Huh.

We’re supposed to be sailing for Visby, Sweden, right now, but the captain announced that high winds and choppy seas mean we have to cancel that port (nuts). We’ll stay here overnight instead and then have a day at sea tomorrow before arriving in Poland.

What to do tomorrow…

Old Town, Modern Country

Location: Tallinn, Estonia

Nobody I know has Estonia on their list of must-see destinations. Until this trip came along, all I knew was that it was a former Soviet republic, and that didn’t sound like a great place for a holiday. But a little research told me that Tallinn has one of the best preserved medieval centres in Europe. True, the climate sucks (it was 12 degrees today with rain and a cold wind, and this is the end of June), but if you want to jump back in time, this is one of the best places to go.

Walking through the winding cobblestone streets of old Tallinn is like stepping into the Middle Ages. Settled by the Danes in 1219 but occupied by Germans, Swedes and Russians in the centuries since, the city is a mish-mash of architectural styles. The town hall is from the 14th century, when German merchants dominated city life; the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is from 1900, when the country belonged to imperial Russia.

Remarkably, Estonia is also one of the most technologically advanced countries in Europe. Citizens carry ID cards with chip technology, and they use computers for everything from voting in national elections to ordering pharmacy prescriptions. Their engineers are world leaders in the field of artificial intelligence. Huh.

I wonder if Latvia will have the same kinds of surprises tomorrow…

Palaces and Prisons: Day Three

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

It’s not often that I get praised for my obsession with royal history. (Most people just think it’s weird.) So I felt pretty good when our guide congratulated me on my knowledge of Russian czars. That was high praise indeed from a woman who knows every detail of every palace, bridge, monument, church and building in this city. Cool.

Today’s highlight was the Winter Palace, the St. Petersburg home of every Russian ruler from Catherine the Great in 1762 to Nicholas II in 1917. Today it’s also the main building of the world-renowned State Hermitage Museum, and while art museums are not my thing (Chris and I gave the Louvre 10 minutes), I wanted to see the state rooms and royal apartments, so off we went. It was spectacular. I don’t know how else to describe it. Awesome.

Even palace junkies need a change of pace every now and then, so it was a relief to tour the Peter and Paul Fortress this afternoon. This is where Peter the Great first established the city of St. Petersburg in 1703. It soon became a prison for politically difficult citizens, including Peter’s own son Alexei and the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the late 1800s a new prison was built within the fortress (this one would become famous for housing dissidents like Trotsky and Lenin’s older brother), which is now open to the public, so we walked through some of those cells. Scary.

The fortress also houses the Peter and Paul Cathedral, burial place of every Russian czar since Peter the Great. There’s even a special alcove dedicated to the memory of the last imperial family, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. My eyes normally glaze over in cathedrals, but I love royal tombs, so this was pretty cool.

When I planned this trip I knew our days in St. Petersburg would be the most exhausting (seven hours of walking every day really starts to wear you down), but I feel like we got to experience the real Russia in a way that you don’t often get to do from a cruise ship. Having our own local driver and guide for three days allowed us to get to know them and the city far better than if we’d been herded around on a bus in a group of 30 people. What a cool experience.

And now we sail for Estonia…

Long Days and White Nights

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

My internal clock’s taking a beating this week. First there was the nine-hour time change between home and Stockholm. Then we jumped ahead another hour in Helsinki, and another hour here, and then tomorrow night we go back an hour as we start circling back. We’ve been changing time zones almost every night since we left home. Plus of course these are the famous White Nights in Russia, when the sun never really sets, so my body’s been mighty confused.

Fortunately, a little adrenaline can go a long way. I was stoked for our visit to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s summer palace on the Gulf of Finland. It’s much smaller than the Catherine Palace but we thought it had much more interesting state rooms. The main attraction is not actually the palace itself, but the park around it: 150 fountains, several mini palaces and loads of trees and flowers make for an amazing walk, especially when you have brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the low 20s. Wow.

After a cafeteria lunch of beef stroganoff (we’re really getting into this Russian cuisine), we toured yet another palace, this one belonging to the Yusopov family. At one time the Yusopovs were among the richest families in Russia. They owned five palaces in St. Petersburg alone, plus others throughout Russia, France, Britain and Germany. (Yet it’s still not uncommon for Russians to live in apartments where they have to share tiny kitchens with other families — the gap between rich and poor is not to be believed.) The palace we were in is best known as the place where Rasputin was supposedly murdered, so of course they had wax figures depicting the dirty deed, along with documents trying to clear up the historical mystery. It was pretty interesting.

One more day in Russia…

A Real Russian Experience

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

Now THIS is the way to travel: a driver and guide (in our own private Mercedes) whisking us around town, moving us to the front of most lines and showing us exactly what we asked to see. I arranged this private tour a few months ago when I discovered it was better and actually cheaper than taking the ship’s tours — what an amazing deal.

And what an amazing city! We started at the Catherine Palace, built in the early 18th century for the wife of Peter the Great. Later empresses (including Catherine the Great) expanded and altered the palace, but the blue-and-white facade stayed the same. The interior is famous for the Amber Room (even Chris had heard of it), an entire chamber lined with panels of amber and mirrors. Much of the palace was destroyed in World War II but has since been restored.

After touring the palace, we walked through the surrounding royal park, which is full of canals, lakes and pavilions. At the edge of the park was a small building housing the court carriages used for the coronations of emperors, which naturally I found pretty cool.

I’d like to note for the record that I managed to go five and a half hours without food (and without complaining). For lunch our guide took us to a local restaurant, where I amazed Chris by ordering Russian borscht and potato pancakes, all of which was delicious. (Later in the day I amazed him still further when we were offered free vodka shots and I actually drank one. When in Rome…)

Everything that came after lunch is a bit fuzzy cause we were so exhausted and overloaded with information that we could hardly think straight. The one thing that stands out is our stop at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood — you know, the one that looks like St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. This one is dedicated to the memory of Alexander II, who was mortally wounded on this spot in 1881 when an anarchist blew up his carriage. It’s one of the best known landmarks in the city.

More opulence awaits us tomorrow…stay tuned..

Fun Times in Finland

Location: Helsinki, Finland

We’re a bit of an oddity on this ship. For one thing, all the other passengers are old enough to be our parents (the first thing our cabin attendant said to me, in her heavy Polish accent, was, “I think you are youngest person on ship, yes?”) Plus, unlike some people we’ve seen, we aren’t used to being waited on hand and foot. In the dining room last night, six different people were involved in getting our meal: one to decide which table we’d be at, one to actually lead us to that table, one to pour our water, one to look at us with disdain when we said we didn’t want wine, one to take our order and another to actually bring the food. Naturally we’ll be tipping all these people at the end of the cruise. Wow.

Nevertheless, we’re having a great time. Our tour today covered the main sights of Helsinki (i.e. churches), and then we drove out to a small town called Porvoo. It’s the second oldest town in Finland, founded in 1364, and it has a well preserved old town with colorful buildings and a quaint wooden bridge. The whole experience was made immeasurably better by the gorgeous sunny weather and our awesome guide, who was a fountain of information on all things Finnish. A great day.

Tomorrow is the first day of our three-day stint in St. Petersburg. Adventure awaits…

Setting Sail

Location: Stockholm, Sweden

“Hurry up and wait” has been the theme today. Wait for the bus to take us to the ship…wait to get our passports checked by security…wait for an hour to check in and get our room key…wait another two hours for the rooms to actually be ready…wait for our luggage to get delivered…ugh. I know that’s just how it goes on embarkation day, but blech.

The good news is, since we’re up with the dawn, we had time to go for a nice walk before boarding the ship. Stockholm is such a walkable city that we haven’t even had to bother with public transit — every major attraction is within about a 30-minute stroll. The streets are clean, the people are friendly and absolutely everyone speaks English, so it’s easy to feel comfortable. Chris commented that he could imagine living here, and I know what he means. We like Sweden.

So this morning we wandered down to see Stockholm’s cathedral. I’m not normally big on seeing churches, but this one is where royal weddings, coronations and baptisms take place, so that piqued my interest. The Crown Princess of Sweden just baptized her little princess here a month ago. Cool.

I must admit, the ship is beautiful. The decor is much classier than any other ship we’ve ever been on. And while the stateroom bathrooms are tiny, the beds are amazingly comfortable. Once all the embarkation stuff was done, the passengers seemed to spread out and it hasn’t been hard to find a good seat in the observation lounge.

We’re about to set sail. On to Helsinki…