Less History, More Chocolate

Location: Bruges, Belgium

Once we gave up listening to the history lesson and just let ourselves relax, we had a pretty good time on our tour of Bruges today. The city is full of churches, guild halls and palaces from the 13th and 14th centuries, but we’ve seen dozens of those on this trip. Chris won’t even look at churches anymore, and I stopped taking pictures of palaces a few days ago.

We were more interested in the chocolate. Our tour included a chocolate-making demonstration and a Q&A session with a master chocolatier, who explained the difference between true Belgian chocolate and the cheap imitation crap we’re all used to buying. It was actually pretty interesting, even for someone like me who doesn’t really eat the stuff.

Afterwards we had some free time, so we did a little shopping and then had some lunch on the patio of a restaurant in one of the old market squares. (This was actually a rare treat — a lot of our tours are so busy that we don’t get a chance to eat until we get back to the ship.) We just sat there enjoying the sunny weather and watching the horse-drawn carriages ferrying tourists around. Very peaceful.

Tonight we sail for Dover, and tomorrow we fly home from Heathrow. I can’t believe it’s been over two weeks since we’ve seen the kids — we’re looking forward to some big welcome-home hugs.

Now to relax…

Going Dutch

Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Maybe it’s vacation fatigue, or maybe it’s because I’ve been to Amsterdam before, but I really had to make an effort to be interested in what we saw today. On our canal boat tour, we heard about the 16th- and 17th-century buildings we were going by, and I couldn’t even bring myself to straighten up to snap a picture. I was just too tired, and the seats were just too comfy, and all I wanted to do was relax and let the world go by.

Of course, I might have more energy if I could get a good night’s sleep. It turns out Chris has a throat infection (he saw the ship’s doctor this morning), which explains the God-awful snoring that’s been driving me crazy this week. He’s on antibiotics now, so things should get better soon. Let’s hope.

The ship is having a special pow-wow tonight for all the Canadian passengers (happy Canada Day!), so we’ll probably check that out, and then we have reservations at the fancy steakhouse on board, and then there’s a Broadway-type show in the lounge that I’d like to see if I can stay awake that long. Wish me luck.

And now on to our last stop: Belgium…

From Sea to Sea

Location: Kiel Canal, Germany

Scenic drives usually leave me cold, but even I can appreciate the beauty around us today. The ship is going through the Kiel Canal, an artificial waterway in north central Germany that connects the North Sea with the Baltic Sea. Without it, we’d have to go up around northern Denmark, in an area known for rough seas. (And actually, most cruise lines do have to go around, as their ships are too big to fit through the canal — ha!)

The canal was built between 1887 and 1895 so the German navy could link its bases in the Baltic and North Sea without sailing around Denmark. It was internationalized in 1919, although Germany still administered it. Hitler closed it to other nations in 1936, but free navigation was reinstated after World War II, and today the canal is a major passage for shipping in the Baltic region.

I knew most of that before we got here. What I didn’t realize was how beautiful the trip would be. We’re surrounded by gorgeous countryside, quaint little towns, and plenty of wildlife in and around the water: swans, ducks, deer, cows…wow. I was up uber early this morning, so I hit the gym (which offers amazing views) and then went out on deck to get pictures. Nice.

Next up: Amsterdam…

Hitting Our Limit

Location: Warnemunde, Germany

It seems even I can suffer from castle fatigue. The brochure made today’s tour sound so good: a scenic lake cruise followed by a tour of one of Germany’s most picturesque castles and some free time in the city of Schwerin. But it rained during the cruise, the guide ran late so there was no free time, and we’ve already seen so many famous castles that it was hard to care about this relatively unknown one.

Nevertheless, we tried to look interested. Originally built in 1160 but modified many times in the centuries since, Schwerin Castle was once the residence of the grand dukes of Mecklenburg. Today most of the castle is occupied by the state parliament, but 20 rooms in the old ducal residence are open to the public. We walked through most of them in a daze, but I did perk up for the Throne Hall, which was pretty cool. But we’re just so done with castles. Thankfully that was the last one.

Tomorrow is a day at sea, although technically we’re transiting the Kiel Canal, which has Chris all excited. Maybe we’ll finally get a chance to try the pool.

Stay tuned…

Our Day in Denmark

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

I’ve long been fascinated by Denmark: home of the Vikings, Lego, Hans Christian Andersen and the world’s oldest monarchy. None of the ship’s tours covered everything I wanted to see, so we opted to wander around on our own. The up side is that we got to see everything. The down side is that we had to walk for miles and miles and miles to do it (oh, my feet…)

After snapping the obligatory photo of the Little Mermaid statue, we made our way to Amalienborg Palace, the winter home of the Danish royal family, where we just happened to catch the changing of the guard (nice timing!) On the ground floor of the palace is a museum depicting the living quarters of former Danish kings, complete with family pictures and memorabilia. It also had a special exhibit of royal gowns and uniforms, which was pretty cool.

We also saw the royal theatre, the Danish parliament, the colorful Nyhavn harborfront, and Tivoli Gardens (the amusement park built in 1843 that inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland).

The real highlight of the day came just after lunch: Rosenborg Castle. What began as a country residence for Christian IV in the early 1600s is now a museum that houses a wealth of royal treasures, including the Danish crown jewels. It’s the first royal treasury I’ve ever been to that allows you to take photos — awesome.

Tomorrow: Germany…

Poland: Plenty to See

Location: Gdansk, Poland

I could get used to these private tours. It’s just amazing to zip around in our own private Mercedes with a guy (a hot young Polish guy, in this case) who knows everything about everything and who can take us right to the front of the line.

I booked a private deal for this port because none of the ship’s tours went where I wanted to go: Malbork Castle. The world’s largest brick castle, Malbork was built by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century as the headquarters of their grand master. We saw the kitchen, dining hall, living quarters (Copernicus lived here for a while) and chapel, along with a couple of interesting exhibits on amber (a huge industry in this area) and medieval armor. Pretty cool.

That’s all we’d paid to see, but since it was still early, our guide offered to give us a city tour of Gdansk at a discounted rate. Founded in 997 AD, Gdansk celebrated its 1,000th birthday just a few years ago. About 90 percent of the city was reduced to rubble in World War II, but the historic center has been carefully restored, and it’s magnificent. We thought it was much more impressive than Tallinn. I can’t believe we almost didn’t see it.

We also drove by the famous shipyard with the monument to the workers who were killed by security forces during a 1970 strike. The Solidarity movement began here, and in 1989, Poland became the first country to peacefully overthrow the communist regime. We’ve heard many stories of what life was like in Soviet times — to have a peaceful revolution after all that is nothing short of a miracle.

And now we’re off to Copenhagen…

Killing Time

Location: Somewhere in the Baltic Sea

Since we’re stuck on the ship all day (argh), I thought I’d do a post of some memorable moments from this cruise that haven’t been mentioned yet:

– In the dining room one night, the sommelier asked if she could bring us some wine or any other drinks — and Chris asked for a ginger ale. I wonder how many years of training she had to go through to pop open a can for him.

– Our Russian guide had a minor heart attack when Chris casually leaned on a priceless statue in the Hermitage. I actually heard her struggling to get air. Wow.

– Driving through the streets of St. Petersburg, I saw a billboard advertising an upcoming Nickelback concert. Go figure.

– A woman on the ship asked if we were newlyweds (nope…married 10 years), then blurted out that I looked like a kid. I was tempted to tell her she looked like an old hag, but I didn’t. (Chris had a similar experience: some guy assumed he was one of the performers from the lounge. Not that we stand out on this ship.)

And what have we done today? We had breakfast at the buffet, played Scrabble in the games room, went our separate ways for a while (I hit the treadmill, he had a massage), had lunch on the pool deck (wearing a fleece…it’s mighty chilly out there), watched a movie in the room…ho hum. Tonight we have reservations at the swanky Italian restaurant on board, and that will probably be our whole evening.

Next up: Poland…

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…