Visby, Gotland

June 12th, 2018

Gotland—the island of a hundred churches!  No, we didn’t see all of them!  Many were built on Gotland, a part of Sweden, during the Middle Ages due to the prosperity of the island.  Visby was the centre of the Hanseatic League from the 12th to the 14th centuries.  It also has a well-preserved town wall, almost completely surrounding the city.  We entered one of the defensive towers which served as a jail.  The ram is the symbol of Gotland island.

Narrow streets and lovely old houses.  St Lars (Lawrence) Church, built in the 13th century resembles the Byzantine style.  St Clements Church was also built in the 13th century.

We visited a museum which showed what the town was like during the Hanseatic League period.  But it also had some rune stones from the Viking age.

On our own, we visited a lovely botanical garden and St Maria Cathedral, built 1225 but still active today.  Near the altar was a stone shaped boat ready to carry our joys, our sorrows, and our wishes.

Off to Gdansk, Poland.  We had a visit to the bridge with the captain of the ship.  Fascinating.


June 11th, 2018

Another city/country of the Baltic Region, formerly under Soviet Union domination, now independent–Riga, Latvia.  We had a city bus and walking tour with some time on our own.

Riga has one of the highest concentrations of Art Nouveau architecture with about 1/3 of all buildings in the centre built in this style.  Most built between 1904-1914.  Art Nouveau features natural forms and structures—flowers, plants, and human form.

On our walk we also saw the “Cat House.”  The building was built in 1909 and has two cat sculptures, with arched backs and raised tails, on its roof.  The story is that the owner wanted the tails (rear ends) to face the Great Guild which was nearby because he had a grudge against the members.  Later the cats were turned to face the guild house.

Some years ago the Mayor of Berlin presented Riga with a small section of the Berlin Wall.  For Latvian’s it is a symbol of the difficult times under the 50-year Soviet occupation.

We visited a very large market.  In groups we were given strips of paper with names of local foods in Latvian language and were asked to buy it.  We were asked to buy “zefir.”  Turned out it was sort of like marshmallow.  The market was fascinating.

There were outdoor musicians in the city squares.  There are a few remaining visible pieces of the medieval city wall.  Many churches in Riga — Protestant, Russian Orthodox, Catholic.

St Peter’s Church (Lutheran) is Riga’s tallest church.  We took a lift to near the top and had some great views of the city.  (in second photo below, our ship is the tiny white dot to the right of the church steeple.)  Inside the church also had interesting items.  It was built the beginning of the 13th century but burnt and was rebuilt and reconstructed over centuries.  On top of the tower, starting in the 15th century, there have been a total of seven different wind vanes—roosters.  The first was bent by a storm, the second was blown down, the third was removed because it was damaged, the fourth fell during a storm, the fifth collapsed, the sixth came down when the tower collapsed, and in 1970 the seventh was erected!  (Photo of the sixth.)

“Singing together brings nations together” is on the Peace Bell reminding all of the World Choir Game’s mission and goal: singing fosters understanding and peace amongst all people and cultures around the world.  The World Choir Games have been taking place since 2000 and occur bi-annually, each time on a different continent.  It was held in Riga in 2014.  The Chapel for Victims of Repression was meaningful.

A favorite drink of Latvians is Black Balsam made with many different natural ingredients mixed in pure vodka.  The drink is also used in traditional medicine.  We tasted some and decided it tasted like cough syrup!

Freedom Monument symbolizes independence.  At the base is the motto: For Fatherland and Freedom.  At the top is a young woman holding three stars above her head, symbolizing the three historic provinces of Latvia, and national unity.  Nearby is a lovely park.

In the evening a small group of young Latvians entertained us with traditional songs and dances.

On our second day in Latvia we took a 1 ¼ hour drive to Rundale Palace.  It was especially nice to be in the countryside for once.

Rundale Palace was built for the Duke of Courland in mid-18th century.  Since then it has served as a hospital during World War I, a grain storehouse, and a school.  In the early 1970’s it was decided to restore it as a museum and work continued until 2015.  The grounds include a French baroque garden which as been restored to its original layout.  At the time of our visit, the rose gardens were in full bloom—about 2 weeks early.  Lovely.

In the evening we got to visit the galley.  After dinner entertainment was “Baltic fairytales.”  Hilarious.  Ron played the part of the White Horse who carried the prince and later the prince and princess to safety!  (Sally Jo didn’t have her good camera so the photos were not good.)

Set sail for Visby, Gotland, Sweden.


Tallinn (2)

June 9th, 2018

Our tour stopped in Tallinn, Estonia.  The ship was late in arriving because we were late in leaving St. Petersburg.  It was stormy weather and the captain was trying to time our voyage to miss the worst of the storm.  We had only about 4 hours in Tallinn.  We were very glad that we had spent 2 days there previously.  We still did not get to see some places that we had hoped to see.

We went to the Song Festival grounds.  There have been Song Festivals in Estonia since 1869 and is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world.  The present stage was built in 1960.  A joint choir of more than 30,000 singers perform for an audience of more than 80,000.

We stopped in to see one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe; it has been in business in the same building since early 15th century.

We did enjoy strolling the streets again to see the sights and the people.

St. Petersburg

June 9th, 2018

We had a bus tour of St Petersburg with a local guide.  We have many photos but we don’t remember the names of all the buildings!  So much history.  We felt that nearly everything was either a palace or a museum!

We visited the Hermitage, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world.  It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since the mid-1800s.  The collection has some three million pieces, including the world’s largest collection of paintings.  It is said that if you spend one minute in front of each piece, it would take you at least eight years to see everything.  Obviously, we didn’t see everything nor did we spend one minute in front of many items!  The visit was highly regulated—as we guess it needs to be in order for more than 4,200,000 visitors to pass through every year.  We were given an exact time to enter as a group. And everywhere we went, there were staff to make sure we kept moving.  The exhibits were fabulous.

We passed the Narva Gate which commemorates the victory of Russia over Napoleon in 1812.  And another Peter the Great statue!

We visited St Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city and the fourth largest in the world.  It is dedicated to St Isaac of Dalmatia, a patron saint of Peter the Great.  It was completed in 1858.  Here again, it was very crowded, we were given a time to enter, and were rushed through!  It is listed as both a cathedral and a museum but it would be very difficult to find any quiet place to pray!  The original paintings deteriorated due to the cold, damp conditions so that many have been reproduced as mosaics.

On our second day in St Petersburg we drove an hour to visit Peterhof Palace.  This is a series of palaces and gardens designed by Peter the Great.  He visited Versailles, France, and wanted the same here.  German troops captured Peterhof in 1941 and destroyed much but most has been restored.  Here was another palace we were given an entry time and “herded” through.

Looking out over the lower gardens from the palace, one sees the Sea Channel to the Baltic Sea.  (Some guests used to arrive by boat.)  A popular part of this scene is the Grand Cascade.  This huge water installation begins spouting at 11:00 and everyone gathers to see it start.  Samson Fountain is at the center.  The sculpture is of Samson tearing opening the jaws of a lion.  This represents Russia’s victory over Sweden.  One amazing feature is the fountains operate without the use of pumps.  Water is supplied from natural springs which collect in reservoirs and the elevation above the fountain creates the pressure.

One last visit that we made on our own was to the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood.  This is Russian Orthodox completed in 1907.  The church is built on the site where Emperor Alexander II was killed in 1881.  It is really a museum of mosaics.  The outside is very colorful and looks very different from other churches in St. Petersburg.

Our ship was docked close to the shipyards.  We left St Petersburg late hoping to miss a potential storm in the Baltic on our way to Estonia.

Helsinki (2)

June 8th, 2018

We returned to Helsinki – after a stormy night on our ship.  We had left Helsinki 5 days before but in completely different weather.  Then the skies were sunny and temperatures were in the low 80s.  This time it was cloudy, rainy, windy with temperatures in the low 50s.

We visited the Uspenski Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral built in the 1860s.  It had been closed when we were in Helsinki before.

We then visited the City Hall where they were having a special exhibit of five decades of film production in Finland.

We returned to the Esplanade Park & Boulevard just to watch people.  And completed our time in Helsinki at the Market Hall.


June 7th, 2018

We began our next journey in Stockholm.  (We took an overnight ferry from Tallinn to Stockholm.)  We walked around parts of the city and enjoyed the buildings and people.

We had a tour of the Stockholm City Hall.  The Nobel Awards banquet is held here every year in the “Blue Room” and the formal ball after the dinner is held in the “Golden Hall.”

We had a typical Swedish meal of meatballs and lingonberries.

We continued the tour in the Old City.  Colorful buildings.  Sometimes residents gained space without paying tax for land by building rooms between buildings on 2nd and 3rd floors.  Narrow streets.

We also watched the changing of the guard at the palace.

Finally, we headed to our ship, boarded, and sailed toward Helsinki.  Our room is the 4th window from the front of the boat on the lower level.

Tallinn (1)

June 4th, 2018

Between our two organized tours we spent two days in Tallinn, Estonia on our own.  We had a wonderful time.  Tallinn is fascinating, especially the Old Town—which is the only part we saw.  We happened to arrive during Old Town Days which are held every year at the beginning of June and celebrate the city’s cultural heritage.  In addition, this year they are also celebrating 100 years of being a Republic.  There were lots of street stalls with foods and crafts, many street musicians along with a number of stages set up for musical events, and other activities, such as medieval sword fighting, bow & arrow shooting, etc.  We didn’t see all the activities. Long ankle-length dresses seemed to be favored by many women. We don’t know if that is just current fashion or related to tradition.

Tallinn is a medieval walled city with much of the wall still intact and many corner towers.  And cobble-stoned streets.

We searched out several less-touristy streets and courtyards and many churches.  We also saw of the major sites.  There is the lower town and the upper town.  The Alexander Nesky Cathedral in the upper town dominates many scenes.  It is an orthodox cathedral building in the late 1800’s.  (And all tourists visit!)

Dome Church nearby dates from the 13th century.  (Most likely, we will have more photos of this church when we return with our tour.)

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was fascinating with all the icons.  It serves more as a museum than a worship center.

St Olaf’s Church was lovely.  It is believed to have been built in the 12th century.  It was Roman Catholic, then Lutheran, and now Baptist.

Freedom Square is in memory of the 1991 fight for freedom from Russia.  In August 0f 1989 there was a human chain of 2 million people peacefully holding hands across the countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (about 420 miles).  There was an interesting photo exhibition on the square with photos from the bombings of 1940’s and what the present-day site looks like.

The Short Leg Gate was to keep the lower town and upper town separate.  The gate was locked at night to keep the common people from bothering the nobility.  It is supposed to be one of the most haunted places in Tallinn.

We stayed in the heart of Old Town in a small apartment.  (Carried our suitcases up–and then down–four flights of stairs.)  Because we stayed in area we could visit key spots in the evening after most tourists had returned to their cruise ships.

We will return to Tallinn during our next tour so may have more to say about the city and country.


June 3rd, 2018

We spent 1 ½ days in Helsinki—but we will be back!  Took a city tour.  There was too much to see and it was hard to actually see when sitting in a  bus.  We did sort of get a feel for the city.

We stopped at the monument for Sibelius.  The sculpture consists of series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. The purpose of the artist was to capture the essence of the music of Sibelius.  An image of Sibelius was added at the side.

We stopped at the Rock Church—carved from bedrock granite, opened in 1969.  Beautiful inside, wonderful acoustics.  We were privileged to hear a piano recital while there.

We also stopped at the Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral built in the mid-1800’s.  Again, we just happened to arrive for a short organ recital.  Beautiful music.  The inside is quite plain, but lovely.

We were near the open market and had our lunch there twice.  One can find crafts, flowers, fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, and meals.  The gulls also have found this place and are very cocky.  We saw one fly into one of the eating shelters and take fish from someone’s plate before they even knew it!

We spent an afternoon at the island sea fortress, Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Construction was started in 1748 by the Swedish government (Finland then under Sweden) to protect against Russian expansion.  The lilacs were in full bloom and very fragrant.

These maps were provided by our tour guide at the end of our trip as a summary. The blue squiggles indicate stormy weather!


June 2nd, 2018

We spent two days in northern Finland in Lapland.  We traveled by bus towards Ivalo.  We had lunch with a Sami family who run a “camp” and fixed us a good lunch.

We visited a reindeer farm run by Sami people.  They talked about caring for the reindeer (they are all owned) and a bit about Sami culture.  Only recently is the culture recognized again as being something worth keeping.  For example, the man learned only Finnish but children nowadays do learn the Sami language in school.

Gold mining used to be important in the late 1800s in this area.  We stopped at a park where a man is very enthusiastic about gold mining.  He has recreated a gold mining town with copies of buildings from Colorado and Alaska.  He himself has traveled all over the world to compete in contests in panning for gold.  He has won many awards.  The World Gold Mining Competition in 2019 is to be held here.  We had a chance to try panning and Ron found a tiny flake!

One evening we broke into smaller groups and had a supper in a Sami home.  We had a delightful family.  The wife is a health inspector, the husband leads snow mobile tours and does construction, and they have a very talkative and cute 2-year-old.  The home was lovely.  The wife had designed it and the husband built it.  The meal itself was excellent.

Activities and Scenery

June 1st, 2018

Everyday on board we had a learning session.  The first was about the Vikings.  Probably the one thing that surprised us the most was that Vikings were not an ethic group—it was a profession.  (Maybe you knew, but we didn’t learn that in school.)  Much of what has been learned about the Vikings has come via the Rune stones (Sweden), sagas (Iceland), and Skaldic verse.  The Viking time period was 8-11th century.

We had another session on Norway during World War II.  Germany invaded Denmark and Norway April 9, 1940.  Denmark fell almost immediately but Norway held on for about 2 months.  There was some peaceful resistance but there was also some cooperation.  In 1942 many Jews were shipped off the Germany.  It was said that before the war there were 2000 Jews in Norway and afterward there was only one.  The king and government fled to England.

We had a session on learning the Norwegian language.  It was fun but don’t think we got very far!

Another day we learned about various famous Norwegians explorers and yet another day we talked about the marine and bird life on the Norway coast.

One night the ship made a detour to the Trollfjord.  It is a beautiful fjord with a very narrow opening.  There was just barely space for the ship to turn around.  It was a magical night – about 11:30 pm, cold, steep walls, waterfalls, quiet. The ship served hot fish soup to drink.  Tasty!

We decided there was no reason to attach actual days to specific scenic photos. The scenes were just beautiful along the whole coast.  The farther north we went the more rugged it seemed.  But everywhere was beauty.