Head for the Baltic Sea to follow the paths of wild Vikings, Russian conquerors and enterprising German merchants. A cruise is especially suited to the Baltic Sea, a 1,000-mile-long sea, as narrow as 50 miles between Helsinki and Tallinn. This offshoot of the Atlantic Ocean is bordered by Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany. Several cruise lines–Princess, Norwegian, Holland America and more–have varying itineraries, but Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg are almost always included. My husband and I chose Princess Cruise Line trip of ten days that called at seven ports, beginning and ending in Copenhagen.
We arrived three days early before the cruise embarked to spend time exploring this safe and compact city, which proved easy to navigate on foot and by bus. If you choose a Baltic cruise that allows only one day in Copenhagen, you will have to make some hard choices on what to see and what to save for another trip. Copenhagen’s city square, the Centrum, is a good focal point for mid-town touring. Say hello to famed writer Hans Christian Anderson, immortalized in bronze as you head for Tivoli Gardens, the 160-year-old amusement park. Even an hour here is a treat, to stroll past endless trees and flowers, fountains and lights.
You’ll also find thrill rides, classic play performances and mimes, concerts and marching bands. A few blocks away, the Danish National Museum houses archaeological treasures: preserved log coffins dating from 1350 B.C.; ancient rune-stones with hieroglyphic-like symbols; lavish gold and silver Viking hoards. On the run? Grab a guide for a couple of dollars: 10,000 Years in 60 minutes.
Nearby, Christianborg Palace sits atop the ruins of Denmark’s first castle (1167 A.D.). Both are open for tour. Across a canal, Nyhavn — “new town” for 18th century sailors — has canal boats for riding and outdoor restaurants that serve open-faced sandwiches and Tuborg beer.
Ships dock in Langeline Harbor, in sight of Denmark’s famous Little Mermaid statue. Join the crowd taking pictures, and then walk the park-like harbor area and to the Queen’s palaces. Back at the Centrum, shop for Royal Copenhagen porcelain in a 300-year old town hall on the Stroget, the closed-to-vehicles walking street.
The ship sailed in late evening followed by a luxurious day at sea with pools, spas and entertainment galore. Then, we were ready for the cruise line’s Adventures Ashore as we docked at the next six ports.
Stockholm is comprised of fourteen islands and peninsulas connected by graceful bridges. Claims to fame and interesting to tour: the Stadhuset (city hall), where Nobel Prizes are presented; the ornately carved Vasa Ship, now in a museum, that was launched in 1628, sank the same day, and was preserved in harbor mud for 300 years; the Royal Palace (1691) and the changing of the guard; cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan, old town, bordered by ancient buildings filled with shops and inviting cafes. Across one of many bridges, there’s a modern shopping district…and Ikea.
Sweden founded the city in 1550 and built Suomenlinna, the largest sea fortress in the world, that’s now a UNESCO site. We took a catamaran around the fortress, and along Helsinki’s forested shoreline. We saw Helsinki residents standing on over-water platforms provided by the city, scrubbing their rugs in the sea water.
“Helsinki’s sea water is only .5 percent salt, and people wash the rugs with non-polluting soap,” the guide said.
“The Finns have clean water four miles out to the sea, but St. Petersburg (Russia) puts drain water directly into the sea. We are trying to educate them.”
The festive downtown marketplace, where we debarked the catamaran, beckoned with banners and accordion music and the scent of deep-fried Baltic herring. The Baltic herring season begins in mid-July. Huge, open vats of oil are used to deep-fry the fish, but big as they are, they still produce barely enough to keep up with the demand. People ate big red strawberries as they walked and shopped the open stands selling fur hats and jackets, fuzzy reindeer toys and skins and hand-carved wooden gadgets. As I was buying, I asked the young vendor where he was from. “Lapland,” he said.
“Above the Arctic Circle?” “Very close.”
“So what do you do in the winter?” I asked.
“Travel!” He said, and laughed as he raked in my dollars.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
Ah, two days in St. Petersburg: magnificent palaces, onion-domed, jeweled cathedrals; the Hermitage with priceless art and architecture; the fortress and palaces of Peter the Great; canals dug in the 1700’s, spans of ornate bridges with towers that flame to light the sky.
Most ships dock in St. Petersburg for two complete days, a big bonus for cruisers. With Russian visa requirements strict and visas expensive, most passengers booked ship tours shipboard and let the cruise line take care of all arrangements.
Countless buildings along the city canals need plaster, paint and more. But the famous Hermitage, which includes five palaces, was different. One of the palaces is the stunning Winter Palace, home of the czars and czarinas. On our 3½-hour tour, we whizzed through four palaces, past art masterpiece by Rembrandt, Rafael, Van Gogh and Matisse. We climbed magnificent gold and white staircases, walked beside marble walls and glistening, green malachite pillars. In one ballroom, sparkling chandeliers covered the ceiling. Excellent guides, speaking perfect English, provided historical narratives as we rode 18 miles outside the city to the magnificent Peterhof Palace, to the ballet and to the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Six hours in Tallinn is too short a time for one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. Tallinn was spared from destruction in the wars. Its “Old Town” dates to the 13th , 14th and 15th centuries. A tall hill, Toompea, holds a fortress built by Danish crusaders who captured Tallinn in 1219; now, the Parliament meets there. At the base of the hill, the Hansa shows the preserved remnants of the medieval Hanseatic League, its trade centers scatt ered throughout Europe.
I felt an affinity for Gdansk, Poland, the next day’s port stop (actually at Gydnia, six miles away). Its proud citizens rebuilt this lovely city, 90% of which was destroyed in World War II. The Germans battered it in 1939, capturing a route to the sea. The Russians, considering Gdansk (Danzig) a German city, finished the destruction in 1945. Then, a quiet “revolution” against Russian domination occurred when workers dared, in 1970, to strike against the state-owned (Russian) shipyards. In 1989 , the Polish Solidarity Party came into power.
What’s to do and see in a few hours? Walk the cobblestone streets and squares with fountains. Stop at 15th century St. Mary’s Basilica, the seventh biggest church in the world. View the historic, tall Great Crane (1441) beside the river, where workers lifted heavy cargo by hand-pulled ropes. Chat with the outdoor vendors, maybe with just gestures, as you shop for amber jewelry and embroidered linens. Have a $2 beer and a sausage sandwich at an outdoor cafe along the river.
We left the Baltic for the North Sea and docked for just six hours in front of Oslo’s city center, beside the ancient Akershus Fortress.
Our three-hour shore excursion included the Bygdoy Peninsula with the Viking Ship Museum; the Hollmenkollen Olympic Ski jump, 1200-feet up the mountain overlooking Oslo; Frogner Park, the backdrop for bronze and stone Vigeland sculptures, found only in Oslo. Vigeland’s expressive figures represent people of all ages and portray human emotions of love, compassion, joy and fury.
We also had time to eat fresh boiled shrimp at the waterfront, roam through a grocery store and buy an ugly troll doll. The ship eased out of the harbor in mid-afternoon, and afforded passengers a magnificent ride down the Oslo fjord. It drifted past tall, green mountains and waving sunbathers who lined the shore on rocky beaches. We rode out of Norway to Copenhagen with only one sea day to go — much too short a cruise for such delightful lands.