For the duration of Travel Week, I will be on a cruise in the Baltic Sea, popping around from city to city in northern Europe. This journal will be updated daily with commentary and observations, as well as pictures and videos from my trip. Enjoy!
Thursday and Friday, Aug. 26-27
The KGB can’t catch me!
I realized in St. Petersburg that, actually, I believe the monarchy system was not necessarily negative. Now before you start jumping down my throat, let me say that if it weren’t for the monarchy, there wouldn’t be buildings like the Winter Palace/Hermitage, and it is, frankly, the most beautiful series of buildings I’ve ever stood in.
During a private, after-hours tour of the Hermitage collections, I found the art historian that had been buried deep in the back of my brain since high school, and she was overjoyed. Every room I walked into was more glorious than the last. Rembrants and Titians and Michelangelos, oh my!
That Catherine the Great really knew her art. And if it weren’t for her, none of it would be in her beautiful collection in the gorgeous palace she had built to house it all. So cheers to the royalty!
But also cheers to the Bolsheviks. After the revolution, they opened up the Hermitage to the public as a museum, which never would have happened had the Czars still been around. (Catherine the Great famously said that the art was only ever to be seen by herself “and the mice.”)
Anyway, besides the art, St. Petersburg was fabulous. Not surprisingly, it looks and feels exactly like Budapest, which had me feeling a little homesick. But I carried on.
The subways are very, very cool, the vodka tasting was interesting, and the food is weird. I discovered that I do not like pickled anything, especially not herring. Ugh, gross. But at least I tried it, right??
It’s a sleepy city at night, actually, which shocked me. There weren’t tons of people in the streets or in restaurants. Maybe they’re on vacation?
There is a lot of communism left over in Russia. The five-pointed star and hammer/sickle are everywhere, and there are monuments to Lenin and other leaders sprinkled all over.
Mostly, though, I loved watching the women. Everyone in St. Petersburg wears high heels. Crazy ones, too! Patterns and colors and all different styles. It’s amazing to watch them navigate the cobblestones, truly impressive.
What I really cared about though, was the Hermitage. It’s the only reason to go to St. Petersburg, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I could remember, and now that I have, it was even better than I expected. So now I can take it off the list!
Wednesday, Aug. 25
Medieval torture tools and a big jug of beer
Tallinn is very quaint. I believe that’s the best way to describe this sleepy fishing town. After hundreds of years of alternating between being an independent state and playing musical dictatorships, Estonia seems content to just be itself now.
I get the feeling that no matter what time period it is or which oppressive superpower is in control of the little country, nothing much changes.
In Tallinn, I spent the day wandering the Old Town. And when they say “old,” man, let me tell you! If you haven’t been in a 12th century building full of fanciful torture devices, well you’re plum missing out.
The Torture Museum was a blast, full of all kinds of arcane means of murder, each more gruesome than the next – not a place for queasy stomachs.
Overpriced handicrafts seem to be the backbone of the economy here, as you can’t swing a salted herring without knocking over a whole row of booths, each selling the exact same thing. Still, I was too happy to buy.
However, then I ran into the most annoying of all travel woes: my debit card had been frozen!! Damn you, Bank of America! Lesson learned. Always tell your bank when you’re traveling so that they don’t assume your card has been taken hostage by someone traveling in Eastern Europe. Because, of course, it can’t be you who’s taking out $40 per country to spend on shot glasses! Nope.
Luckily, when traveling with parents who are responsible enough to alert their banks they’ll be out of the country, you generally get lunch paid for.
So we had a little bite to eat at a medieval restaurant, with waiters in period costumes and toilets in what I can only assume was previously a dungeon. I had a traditional hunk of pork with red peppers, potatoes, and a huge mug of the house beer. Mmmm.
Tuesday, Aug. 24
I’m on a boat! And Valkommen till Stockholm!
Cruise ships are just like the movie Titanic. I don’t know why I expected anything different, after all, the Titanic was a cruise ship too, for all intents and purposes. But, there you go: I was surprised. It’s very posh, the service is excellent, although the DVD selection is somewhat lacking.
We departed from Stockholm after spending an afternoon and the next morning roaming the city and then having a guided tour the ship provided.
It’s a nice, little city situated on 14 islands, which are connected by bridges and tunnels.
Every city I’ve been in has a color. Stockholm is green. The amount of trees and grass and parks is extraordinary, and it makes me wonder why Sweden has such a high suicide rate. It’s so green! The country is over 70% forests. Gorgeous.
(BTW: As I’m writing this by the pool, Ted Koppel [yes, that Ted Koppel] is jogging on the deck above my head.)
Swedes are famous for their home decorating ability (IKEA, for example), and some of the best shops I stopped in were along that same vein. I wanted to buy everything!
Besides the shops, I went to the very, very cool Vasa Museum. Dedicated to a giant ship of the same name, it was one of the better museums I’ve been to in my life.
The Vasa is a 17th century warship commissioned by the then-king of Sweden to assist in the war against Poland (1626-1629) and to be the largest ship in Europe, which, at the time, it was. Unfortunately, the Vasa was a bit over-done and when it was ready and built, it sailed for 20 minutes and promptly sank, as it was top heavy.
Fun story and a fun museum. The building was actually build around the ship in the 1990′s, although the ship was pulled up in the 1960′s. As someone who loves maritime history, boats, and over-zealous kings, this was the highlight of Stockholm for me.
The Absolut Ice Bar was pretty cool as well, although it certainly wasn’t worth the $25. But I guess it was empty because it was the middle of the afternoon. Still, I enjoyed the big cloaks and hoods and the vodka drink was very yummy.
We also did a driving tour and saw Stockholm’s city hall. This was mediocre, as far as excitement, except for one room done in gold mosaic.
Then, back to the ship. We took off in rocky seas, and I had my first bout of sea sickness ever, skipped dinner, and spent the rest of the evening puking in my room.
Tallinn, Estonia tomorrow.
Monday, Aug. 23 – In transit
The Americanization of Airline Food? Dislike.
Years ago, on my first lone trans-Atlantic flight, I had a Lufthansa breakfast that put me off German food for the next decade. Airlines were notorious for bad food then, which isn’t so much the case now, but back then, not only did you know the food was going to be awful, you knew that depending on what airline you were flying, you were going to be forced to munch on whatever the national breakfast was.
For example, soggy croissants were a staple of Air France breakfasts and they were awful, the same way bangers and mash reeking of cargo hold were served every time I glided into London Heathrow on British Airways. This time, though, I’m flying Lufthansa again, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was handed a small breakfast package with Land o’ Lakes butter and Smucker’s jam.
What’s that about? I mean, yes, I have always dreaded European airplane breakfast food, but that’s part of the fun of flying a Euro airline, and traveling in general. Sometimes the food is very, very bad, but it’s ok!
If I had wanted food I could get at my university cafeteria, I would’ve flown Delta.
Also, a special shout-out/thank you to the lovely people at Camel cigarettes and the German government for allowing me to enjoy a deathstick after disembarking.
It’s good to be home in the EU!