June 1st It should have been an exciting occasion. This evening we were scheduled to join my parents in Philadelphia where all four of us would continue on to England and begin our anticipated two-week Baltic Cruise aboard Celebrity's Constellation. However, Lynn (my husband) and I were off to a bad start: Stuck on the runway at the Pittsburgh Airport for 3 hours because of bad weather. Now we would miss our Philadelphia connections to London and the June 2nd sailing of our ship from Dover. The final "nail in the coffin" was the pilot's announcement that he was returning to the gate where all international travelers' luggage would be off-loaded. Unceremoniously "dumped" from the plane at 9:30 that night, we resentfully collected our baggage. After waiting in a long line to rebook, we were told to come back in the morning. By the time we got home, it was almost 11:00 p.m. I was despondent, although Lynn took the turn of events better than I. (Always expecting the worse, he had fretted about the short connections in Philly for months and, on some level, actually felt vindicated). Thanks to Tylenol p.m. I drugged myself to sleep, but Lynn was awake most of the night.
June 2nd and 3rd Obviously, we had missed the Dover embarkation and would now need to meet the ship by June 4th in Oslo Norway, the next port of call. Since our air-travel arrangements had been booked through the cruise-line, I foolishly believed a phone call to them would remedy the situation. No such luck: Celebrity insisted it was now the airline's responsibility and we must get US Air to issue new tickets to Oslo. Back at the airport again, we serendipitously found ourselves in the capable hands of William, a US Air ticket agent who, with unbelievable patience, spent almost two hours rebooking us. The problem: Our original reservation only authorized two legs of flight (Pittsburgh-Philly and Philly to London) and now we required three. Worse, since it was a weekend, the Celebrity group-travel agency was closed. But William persevered stating, "I will NOT give up!" and eventually got us booked through Philadelphia, then on to Frankfurt Germany and finally via Lufthansa Airline to Oslo. (Best of all, the Lufthansa tickets were business class). We called Celebrity and notified them of our new schedule, urging them to inform my parents who were already onboard the ship and undoubtedly frantic with worry. (My folks never carry a cell phone and there was no way of contacting them). Our flight to Philadelphia was scheduled to leave at 5:10 p.m. that evening and it was a long, tense wait at the airport, since thunderstorms were again predicted. Fortunately, everything went well and though exhausted, we could sleep on the overnight flight to Frankfurt. One small "glitch" occurred in Germany: Over Lynn's objections, I mistakenly led us out of the international area, thus forcing a lengthy re-entry through their security lines. (Lynn was not pleased with this turn of events, but couldn't overtly express his annoyance for fear of attracting unwelcome attention from airport personnel). Fortunately, with a several hour layover in Frankfurt, no real harm was done. Approaching Norway by plane was really delightful, with an aerial overview of the islands and fjords. Unfortunately, the local Celebrity agent supposed to meet our flight was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, an attendant at the airport visitor center located him by cell phone. It was almost an hour before the agent, Bjorn, appeared. He denied any prior notification of our arrival and spent an additional 20 minutes searching for lost luggage of another cruise passenger before we were finally on our way. Oslo is quite a distance from its airport and Bjorn was most loquacious. We would be staying at the Grand Hotel close to the harbor. It was very difficult to get reservations there, but as the Oslo port agent, he "had connections". Grand Hotel was expensive, but not to worry: The cruise-line "pays for the room." Furthermore, someone would pick us up the next morning and make sure we "got on the ship before anyone else disembarked". He even made dinner suggestions. Arriving at the hotel, Bjorn held a long conversation in Norwegian with the desk clerk and then handed us our room key with a flourish. As he left, we tipped him generously for all his help. The hotel was lovely, and our room graciously appointed. We took long overdue showers and headed off to see the sights. Even though it was early evening, the northern latitude provided plenty of sunlight. Oslo extends along a beautiful harbor lined with marinas and restaurants. The ancient castle/fortress of Akershus, perched on a cliff, overlooks the port. Sidewalks were crowded with people enjoying an evening stroll or sipping beverages at outdoor cafes. Across the water excited shrieks emanated from a gaily lit ferris-wheel. Following Bjorn's advice, we located the Lofoten Fiskerestaurant. Not many patrons were at this restaurant and after seeing the menu prices (and converting them to the dollar) we knew why. Service was impeccable and our fish delicious. But despite splitting a salad and dessert and having only one glass of wine, the bill (including tip) was almost $150.00. After dinner we walked up to the Akershus, only to find the fort closed for the evening. Choosing a different route back to the hotel, we paused to admire an attractive park with fountain and reflecting pool. Once in our room, sleep came within minutes.
June 4th That morning in the hotel lobby we encountered another couple also awaiting transportation to the ship. They, too, had missed their air connections and worse, all luggage was lost. They were not happy with Celebrity. Arriving at the dock, a behemoth of a ship loomed above us. Finally, our cruise on the Constellation could begin! But wait: A big chain-linked fence prevented any access! Without the "ship identity card" issued to all passengers back in Dover, the port security guards would not let us onboard. I saw Bjorn through the fence, but he made no effort to remedy the situation. By now a third couple had joined us and everyone was getting upset. Finally, I informed the security guard that if someone from the ship didn't let us on within ten minutes there was going to be a big riot on the dock. She murmured into her walkie-talkie and the ship's front-desk manager "miraculously" appeared to escort everyone onboard. He was checking us all in when Bjorn arrived to insist that the two couples who stayed at the Grand Hotel needed to pay for their rooms. This was the last straw! The desk manager got quite an earful about Celebrity's shabby treatment. However, he quickly rose to the occasion, escorted Bjorn out of the area and assured us no payment was necessary. We dropped off our bags in the room and rushed off to locate my parents. They were having breakfast and delighted to see us! We exchanged horror stories: Nobody had informed them of our whereabouts for almost 36 hours. Worse, my father had fallen down ten escalator steps in the London airport and emerged covered with blood. (He was still terribly bruised). My parents had visited Oslo on a previous trip and with my father in pain, decided to stay on the ship for the day. However, they knew Lynn and I were anxious to see more of the city and urged us to "go have fun". Lynn was hesitant to use the local ATM machine and instead had the ship's bank exchange twenty dollars for local currency (in hindsight an insufficient amount). We bought tram tickets to get to our first attraction, Vigeland Park. The place is famous for its 212 monumental nude sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland, who died in 1943. Arriving at the park, we were amazed to see the sculptures, which depict the whole cycle of human life from birth to death, displayed along an impressive promenade and amongst lovely flower and water features. Masses of lilacs were in bloom. It was just the peaceful antidote we needed after the last two days. Next, stop: Bygdoy Peninsula, an affluent section of Oslo that also is home to a number of museums. To get there, we needed ferry tickets which we attempted to purchase dockside. Informed they were only sold on the boat, we dashed onboard just as the ferry was departing. But surprisingly, during the entire crossing, tickets were never mentioned by any of the crew. Once there, it was a long walk from the dock to the museums and we were thirsty. The purchase of a cold Pepsi wiped out the remainder of our Norwegian money. Fortunately, the Kon Tiki and Fram Museums accepted charge cards. The Kon Tiki houses the balsa wood raft Thor Heyerdahl used to prove his theory that the original Polynesians could have sailed from Peru. Also on display is his papyrus raft that sailed from Morocco to Barbados. The Fram contains the famous ship which took Nansen to the arctic in 1893 and Amundsen to the South Pole in 1910. Visitors can walk throughout the ship and numerous polar artifacts are on display. Both museums were very interesting. On the return ferry, the crew was more organized and tickets were required. Too late we learned only local currency was acceptable. This created an embarrassing predicament. Since our Norwegian money was depleted, they hesitantly agreed to accept the equivalent value in American dollars. We ate a quick lunch back on our ship before our final visit of the day: Akershus Castle (closed the previous evening). Now the Constellation was berthed right beside it and the huge ship towered over the castle grounds. The old stone walls and cannons, set amongst shaded lawns and lilac trees produced an immediate response of tranquility. From the ramparts, incredible views of the Oslo harbor stretched beneath us. Concerned about the possibility of missing the boat again, the ship's proximity allowed Lynn to really relax for the first time all day. We were back onboard in time to join my parents who were attending a lecture about Copenhagen, tomorrow's port of call. Afterwards, I approached the speaker concerning an internet tidbit I had previously gleaned. "Isn't tomorrow a National Holiday in Denmark?" I asked. "I don't know," was his response. "If so," I persisted, "will the museums be closed?" He was clueless. The ship sailed at 5:00 p.m. In our room was a letter of apology from the front desk offering a $500 onboard credit for our "inconvenience". At dinner, my parents introduced us to our fellow table-mates, Paul and Bilha (a nice middle-aged Canadian couple) and we bought wine for everyone to celebrate our arrival. The food was very good and the evening's entertainment by Brooks Aehron, a talented concert pianist, excellent.
June 5 It was another beautiful day and also our 41st anniversary! Things were definitely looking up. Mom and Dad were staying onboard, but we were off to see Copenhagen. Disembarking, I encountered the director of shore excursions and asked her if this were a Danish holiday. She had no idea. Since our ship was docked several miles from the city center, a shuttle bus (for a hefty fee) provided transportation to King's Square. A local Danish woman supervised the shuttle service and I repeated my question to her. "Yes" she replied "it's our Constitution Day". (Finally, some answers!) "Are the museums still open?" I queried. "I don't know" was her response. Sigh. Our ultimate destination was the Visitor Center, quite a hike from King's Square. We arrived in time to join a two-hour walking tour of the old city. Part of the stroll covered areas that we had just passed through, but the sights were much more meaningful when enhanced by our guide's comments. Not only did he provide explanations of what we were seeing, but also insight into modern Danish society. We were impressed with Copenhagen: The city is clean and attractive. Most of the population utilizes bicycles rather than cars and they love the sun. The parks were filled with people "enjoying the rays". Since Danes also seem to have few inhibitions, sunbathing topless as well as in undergarments is condoned. When observing such sights our guide informed us, "It is permissible to look, but no suggestive comments should result." Our tour ended at Amalienborg Slot, the castle of Denmark's current Queen where we watched the Changing of the Guards ceremony. After tipping our guide, I inquired about the museums. Unfortunately, even he didn't know if they were open today, but promised to get us there by bus. (During a "potty break" earlier, Lynn had rushed off to a nearby money changer to acquire local currency for the fare). With the guide's assistance, we hopped onto the correct bus, paid our fare and were eventually deposited near the Ny Carlsberg Museum. (This was the one attraction in Copenhagen that Lynn really wanted to see after an antique dealer back in Pittsburgh had raved about the place). Alas, the museum was closed! Disheartened, and with little local currency left, we headed back on foot. It was past 1:00 now and we were getting hungry. Stopping at a local Burger King, we had just enough money to purchase a "kiddy meal" to share. Finally, the lesson was sinking in: Use of credit cards was unreliable. There were too many places that would not accept them. When the shuttle returned us to the ship, we ran into my parents who had been perusing the shops along the harbor. We gave them our tickets and insisted they at least take a quick visit into the city. Meanwhile Lynn and I went to see the famous "Little Mermaid" statue which perches on a rock in the sea. (During our earlier tour, we learned she has been the object of many acts of vandalism, including several beheadings and, recently, covered with red paint). A leisurely stroll along the shoreline and past a marina brought us to the attraction. I was surprised to find the statue life-size, as I had imagined her to be much larger. Still, as an icon of Copenhagen, we would have hated to miss this sight. It was late afternoon and after our "tiny" lunch, we were starving. Fortunately, the 4:00 extensive "tea" was still being served aboard the ship and we took full advantage of all the goodies. Of course this meant we weren't very hungry by dinner, but managed, nonetheless, to "rise to the occasion" and even enjoy the special chocolate cake provided (along with singing waiters) for our anniversary dessert.
June 6 This was to be a full day at sea and, since we were changing time zones, all clocks had to be turned back one hour. We met my folks in the "usual spot" for breakfast (everyone had grown quite fond of the waiter assigned there) and planned our day. At 9:00 a.m. the four of us attended a lecture on St. Petersburg, Russia, and to my dismay, the shore-excursion manager implied that a visa was required if not taking the ship's tour. This was a very sore subject since I had been responsible for contracting with an independent Russian agency, Alla Tours, to visit St. Petersburg and none of us had visas. (I had been sending Alla intermittent, anxious emails about the visa issue for months and in each response, she assured me they were unnecessary). As soon as the lecture ended, I rushed off to the front desk where I was relieved to learn we should have "no problems" using Alla Tours in Russia. As Captain Club members, Lynn and I had been invited to a free wine tasting at 11:30 in a private dining room and the four wines offered were excellent. Slightly "woozy" afterwards, we ate lunch before joining my parents for a 2:00 p.m. lecture/performance on music history, which featured the songs of Gershwin. (With such relaxing music, I kept nodding off). At the conclusion, we remained seated for a second performance by the pianist Brooks Aehron, back by "popular demand". There was yet another Captain Club event scheduled at 5:15, a sort of "meet and greet" accompanied by champagne. (Free drinks are always an incentive for us). Tush, the front desk manager, was present and pleased to discover we now had a much more favorable impression of the cruise. Dinner featured a scrumptious fish and was followed by the evening's entertainment: A very talented man who played multiple instruments. It had been a very relaxing day.
June 7 Today's port was Talinn, Estonia. My parents had signed up for a ship excursion but I had previously corresponded via email with the Talinn tourist board and Lynn and I intended to take their city bus/walking tour. I asked the ship's shore-excursion manager if there were a visitor center near the dock, but she thought not. Her advice: Take the ship's shuttle to the downtown area and from there seek information at the Viru Hotel. It turned out that she was wrong again. (Note to self: stop listening to that woman!) Once more we purchased the pricey shuttle tickets and arrived at the hotel, only to be informed that the bus tour actually began at the visitor center near the dock area! Since the hotel was the second stop for the bus, if all seats were already taken, we were out of luck. At a nearby visitor center we purchased a Talinn Day Card, which gave us free admission to museums etc. as well as including the bus/walking tour. Then we set off at a brisk pace to return to the port. Once there, at least twenty busses were parked at the loading dock and, unable to speak the language, we had no idea which one was ours. At the last minute, we made the correct choice and hopped onboard. The hotel had obviously grossly overestimated the tour's popularity for there were only seven other tourists in the bus. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and the tour, excellent. Our guide was quite fluent in English and divulged copious "tidbits" about the country's history. After centuries of foreign domination, Estonia gained independence in 1918, only to be forcibly incorporated into the USSR in 1940. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that Estonia finally regained its freedom. Throughout all these occupations, Estonians fiercely maintained their culture. If our guide's attitude was any indication of popular sentiment, the remaining Russians (who currently constitute twenty-five percent of Estonia's population) are an unwelcome subgroup of society. The one hour bus tour provided an opportunity to view the city surrounds, including coastal attractions and Kadriorg Park before disgorging us at the Song Festival Grounds. Our guide proudly pointed out their large modern outdoor amphitheater which hosts international folk festivals and showcases Estonia's heritage. Apparently these are hugely popular events for the locals. The bus brought us back within the city walls to the medieval section of town, where our 1 ½ hour walking tour would begin. Talinn was at one time a rich trading center along the Baltic, until conquered by its powerful neighbors. The ongoing wars and occupations left Estonia financially depleted and, with no money to "modernize", Talinn reportedly is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It certainly was ranked among the top of those we've seen, and we thoroughly enjoyed the city. (Our only complaint: A few public toilets would have been nice). Once the tour was completed, we visited the Estonian History Museum with artifacts and exhibits dating from the 1800's back to pre-recorded time. Fascinating! Next we climbed to the top of St. Olaf's Church Spire. At 124 meters, this was once the tallest spire in the world. A little winded when we finally reached the top, the reward was a magnificent view of all of Old Town. We could even see our ship in port. It was a pleasant walk back to the ship, but our mood was shattered by a note in our room from Guest Relations insisting that "Prior to disembarking, all individuals taking independent tours tomorrow in St. Petersburg must first convene on the 11th floor at the ship's bow". (The exit gangplank was located on the opposite end of the ship and on 1st floor). I "smelled a rat". A woman had previously sent a letter to my favorite travel magazine describing Celebrity's efforts to discourage independent touring in Russia by segregating such groups to ensure their delayed disembarkation. (In a written response to the magazine, the president's office of Celebrity had categorically denied the use of such ploys). Fortunately, I had brought a copy of that discussion with me and off we went to the Guest Relations Desk. I respectfully asked that because of my parent's age, we be allowed to leave the ship without a prior sequestering on the 11th floor. My request was denied. To bolster my case, I presented the agent with the aforementioned magazine copy. She wavered, but ultimately remained steadfast. In desperation, I mentioned we knew her boss. At this, she finally relented and told us to come to her desk and she would personally escort us off the ship. But "don't tell the others!" We joined my parents for pre-dinner drinks in one of the lounges and recounted our day before heading off to dine. The entertainment that night was a very funny comedian.
June 8 We docked in St. Petersburg by 7:30 a.m. and despite all my worries, linking up with Alla Tours was effortless! The Guest Relations agent personally escorted the four of us off the ship, where we breezed through the Russian immigration office and emerged to find Alla Tour personnel holding up identifying signs. Our guide, Natasha, was very experienced and spoke fluent English with only a minimal accent. Val, our driver, was waiting nearby to assist us into an air-conditioned Mercedes minivan. My father had been concerned about the amount of walking on the tour, but since the group consisted of only my parents, Lynn, and myself there was the opportunity to customize the tour to meet our needs. For today's agenda (Catherine's Palace and Peterhof) we would be heading south of the city and most of what we would be seeing had been reconstructed after suffering extensive damage during the World War II siege by the Nazis. In September of 1941 the Germans began a 900 day assault on Leningrad (now the city of St. Petersburg). The citizens refused to surrender, despite almost unbearable hardships. By the time the siege ended, the population of the city had declined from three million to one million with a death toll of almost 800,000 people. The drive to Catherine's Palace gave insight into the daily lives of the Russian people. We passed massive apartment buildings, where often several generations shared a few rooms. Such apartments have no designated bedrooms as each room must be multifunctional. What I assumed were small homes in country villages were actually dachas, a type of "weekend retreat." Despite the fact that many dachas are without heat, water or central plumbing they are a cherished possession and allow Russians to indulge their "love of the soil" with tiny garden plots. We stopped at a small park to view a particularly poignant memorial to Russian Holocaust victims: an abstract sculpture in granite that suggested an individual kneeling in abject despair. The gates were still closed when we arrived at the palace of Catherine the Great. However, we had early admission passes and were amongst the first tourists allowed into the compound. Built between 1719 and 1723, the palace was huge with a stunning aqua colored façade decorated with statues, gold and white ornaments and topped with gold onion domes. The public rooms had been restored and despite the lack of furniture were most impressive. I particularly liked the Great Hall with its painted ceilings and large windows encased by lavish gildings and the Green Drawing Room composed entirely of Wedgewood china. Of course, the Amber Room, filled with panels of amber is probably the most famous one in the palace. Touring the castle involved a lot of walking so while my folks rested on an outdoor bench, Natasha took Lynn and myself through the gardens. We learned none of Catherine's private living quarters had been restored since the Communists wished to "dehumanize" the rulers and emphasize their lavish lifestyles at the expense of the "common man". We stopped for lunch (an extra $20 per person) in the town of Peterhof to experience a typical Russian meal. A larger group touring with Alla joined us at the restaurant. Then it was off to Peterhof, the summer residence of Peter the Great. Giving Russia access to a port was one of Peter's greatest triumphs and he commissioned his massive palace to be built on the shore of the Baltic Sea. The fountains and gardens of the palace grounds are spectacular but also encompass vast distances. Natasha suggested hiring a rickshaw to transport my parents and Dad eventually acquiesced to her plan. Meanwhile Natasha, Lynn and I strolled amongst the palace grounds, enjoying all the attractions. Many of the fountains, while striking in appearance, also were created to perform "tricks" on palace visitors. (Peter the Great apparently derived great pleasure from the unexpected dousing of his guests and, of course, no one dared object). Nowadays, the fountains provide entertainment for children who, clad in bathing suits, relish the soaking. Back in St. Petersburg, our next stop was a visit to the Russian subways. Dad elected to stay in the car with Val, but the rest of us followed Natasha down a long escalator to the station. We were amazed to see the pillars, fixtures and even the walls adorned with marcasite and crystal. We hopped onto the subway to visit two more stations and each one was ornate and unique. (Unfortunately, photographs were forbidden as they also function as bomb shelters). On the train, it was heartening to see how quickly men leaped up to vacate their seat for my mother. Exiting at the third station, we ascended the longest escalator I have ever encountered to find the minivan with Val and Dad waiting for us at the entrance. Before returning to the ship, Natasha suggested we stop at a store near the Bolshevik Ballet Theater with "nice bathrooms and authentic amber". She was right, and although I typically eschew souvenir shops, this one had some quality merchandise at very reasonable prices. Mother purchased earrings and a lovely amber sling for her necklace while I got some amber "goodies" for our daughters and grandchildren. We were back onboard by 5:00 p.m. and Mother and Dad went to their room for a pre-dinner rest. Lynn and I headed to the bar and over a glass of wine agreed that we had been very pleased so far with Alla Tours. I could hardly wait for our second day in St. Petersburg.
June 9 Just Mom, Lynn and I met Natasha this morning since my father had decided not to join us. First on the agenda was a tour of the city's most famous attractions. We passed Yusupov Palace where the monk Rasputin was assassinated and paused by the historic cruiser Avrora, which fired the shot signaling the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution. (This cruiser supposedly is a cherished relic of the Soviet era, but according to Natasha, it is locally known for sending up "a big blank that created a big mess"). Three particularly noteworthy places we visited were: (1) St. Isaac's Cathedral, the city's largest with its huge golden dome and lavish interiors consisting of 14 different minerals and semi-precious stones. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander I in 1818 to celebrate his victory over Napoleon, it took 40 years to build. (2) Peter and Paul Fortress, at the founding site of St. Petersburg which now houses the burial vaults of all Russian Czars. (3) Church on the Blood, built where the assassination of Czar Alexander II took place. This church personifies 19th century Russian architecture with its incredibly ornate façade and colorful onion domes. The interior is as extravagant as the exterior, with glittering stretches of mosaic from floor to ceiling and stone carvings with gold leaf adorning the walls. The floors are made of pink Italian marble and the altar constructed entirely of semiprecious gems with four jasper columns. (I personally liked it the best, since it is the most unique cathedral I have seen). Since I needed a potty break, we stopped at another shop. Natasha advised us to "look like we might buy something" before availing ourselves of the store's bathroom. Unfortunately, while pretending to browse, I came upon an absolutely gorgeous green amber pendant. Lynn, always generous, insisted I buy it for myself. Our afternoon was to be spent at the Hermitage Museum. Once the private art collection of the czars, this world-famous museum is virtually wallpapered with celebrated paintings. Housed in the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, the museum itself is an outstanding example of Russian baroque magnificence. An extremely popular attraction, it was packed with tour-groups and visitors. As I had requested a quick lunch, Natasha suggested the sandwich bar located within the Hermitage. Only a few tables were available but fortunately one soon became vacated. The sandwiches, although pre-packaged, weren't bad. The museum is huge, and Mother good-naturedly agreed to use a wheelchair for transportation. Wheelchairs were available for free, but to take one you are required to leave a passport at the admission desk. Natasha wanted it to be Lynn's since, upon completion of the tour, she planned to leave Mother and me at a bench near the exit, while she and Lynn returned the chair and retrieved his passport. Lynn gallantly agreed to the plan. (I knew this was a real testament to his affection for my mother since he is always so paranoid about losing his passport, especially in Russia). Another problem with the wheelchair: There are very few elevators in the museum, and one of those was only large enough for two people. Fortunately, Natasha was quite familiar with these obstacles and knew exactly how to overcome them. Lynn and I wished to see the Impressionists paintings, our personal favorites, and Natasha took us straight to them. (Since most Hermitage tours focus on its collection of "Old Masters", this section of the museum was much less crowded). Room after room filled with such famous artwork took my breath away. Even those works by Gauguin, our least favorite artist of the period, contained a painting we loved. (A humorous side note: Lynn kept a "death-grip" on the wheelchair whenever Mother hopped out to view the artwork more closely). Natasha persuaded us to detour and see the famous collection of Rembrandts, which were exceptional. En route we passed an enormous ornate gold clock given to Catherine the Great by one of her lovers featuring life-size animals. (Now that was impressive). Our last stop was a visit to a gallery of works that had been "appropriated" by the Nazis before ultimately falling into Soviet hands. (Supposedly, all traces of the original owners had disappeared in the Holocaust). These paintings were magnificent! Back on the dock by 4:30, Alla joined us while we bade a fond farewell to Natasha and Val. Once onboard, we caught up with my father for "cocktail hour." He had spent the day relaxing and reading, without regrets for staying on the ship. At dinner, there was no sign of our Canadian tablemates. (They had been missing the previous evening also, but we assumed they were attending an evening performance in St. Petersburg). When questioned, our waiter claimed Bilha was sick. For us, it had been an action packed day. Mother went off to bed right after dinner while Lynn fell asleep during the evening entertainment.
June 10 The ship docked in Helsinki, where my parents were hoping to introduce us to some friends in Finland who had been their hosts years ago at a Scandinavian Elderhostel event. Unfortunately, they didn't know where or when these folks would arrive. But Lynn and I, anxious to explore the city, were reluctant to wait around. We wrestled briefly with our conscience, before leaving my parents on the ship and grabbing a shuttle into town. The shuttle stopped close to the local visitor center where we planned to catch a city bus-tour. Alas, the Center's printer was temporarily out of order, which necessitated a half-hour wait before we could purchase tickets. Everyone stood there with resignation, except one American woman who broke into line and began throwing a big fit about the delay. It was embarrassing. (Eventually the printer problem was resolved, but I felt like faking a British accent when purchasing our tickets). Another twenty minutes elapsed before the bus left, since the driver delayed our departure to accommodate tourists from a second bus that had broken down. With a population of 500,000, Helsinki is a modern city surrounded by water on three sides. Our bus made two stops. The first was at the Rock Church, carved out of solid rock. Its dome is covered by 15 miles of copper wire and services are held there regularly. The church is quite famous, but Lynn and I were not that impressed. We did enjoy the second stop at a shady park where we walked to the Sibelius Monument. A series of 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern, it commemorates the composer, Jean Sibelius, of Finlandia fame. Completed in 1967, ten years after the composer's death, this large striking sculpture was created to capture the essence of his music, considered an important part of Finnish national identity. The tour was comprehensive, but our guide's heavy accent made it difficult to always understand him. When it ended, we walked to the waterfront outdoor market and purchased fried herring for lunch. . It was a beautiful day, perfect for our next activity: A ferry ride to Suomenlinna, a series of six small islands which are popular picnic areas. Suomenlinna originally served as a sea fortress for the port of Helsinki and sections of the original fort, built in 1748, still remain. The ferry was packed with local families. In stark contrast to all the cities recently visited, these picturesque islands connected by small footbridges were a pastoral delight. We loved the place with its ruined fort, rocky slabs overlooking the sea and huge old lilac bushes in bloom, permeating the air with aroma. I could have happily spent the rest of the day there, but Lynn (always worried about schedules) eventually coerced me back to the ferry landing. Returning to Helsinki, we detoured to visit two churches, the Uspenski Cathedral which is the largest Orthodox church outside of Russia, and the Lutheren Cathedral on Senate Square. (We would have been more impressed had we not just seen such splendid examples in St. Petersburg). Using the last of our local currency to purchase an ice cream cone, we walked back to the shuttle. Onboard the ship by 4:30, we phoned my parents and learned their local friends did show up. Dad had taken everyone out to lunch and we just missed their visitors' departure by thirty minutes. However, a bottle of wine and some edibles awaited us in their stateroom. Although our room had a large window, my folks had one with an outside balcony. Enjoying the afternoon sea breeze and sipping wine, we discussed our day. Apparently the two women had brought along their nephew and his son and not only did the outing include lunch but also a second establishment where they went for desserts. That night at dinner, the Canadian couple was still absent. I called their room afterwards, but had to leave a message on the answering machine. Lynn and Mother took a quick nap before the evening's entertainment, which featured a gifted violinist. (I should have done the same, since I ended up sleeping through most of it). June 11 It was yet another sunny day and we woke early to enjoy the sail through the fjords of Stockholm. It was an absolutely lovely stretch of the coast, as islands with rocky beaches, and forests of beech and firs slipped passed right outside our window. Occasionally small homes and docks could be glimpsed along the shoreline. However, at breakfast there was no sign of my parents, who always arrived before us. I used the dining room phone to call them and learned Mother had been sick all night. After eating, we stopped by their cabin. Dad opened the door only a crack, assured us she was "better now" and insisted we "stay away" in case it was contagious. Despite some trepidation about leaving my parents, we disembarked. Because of the ship's massive size, we were docked in an industrial port and had to use the shuttle to get to downtown. At the visitor center, disappointed to learn that walking tours didn't start until mid-June, we signed up for their bus and boat tour of the city. Information about passing attractions were conveyed via head phones and the bus portion of the tour, scheduled to last only an hour, dragged on for almost two because of traffic jams. (Stockholm must have been inundated with cruise ships, since tour busses were everywhere). This delay caused us to miss the boat excursion along Stockholm's harbor, but at least our money was refunded for that portion of the tour. Not too pleased with what we had experienced so far, we walked to the waterfront where we hoped to catch a ferry to the Vasa Museum. However, what ferry? Boats were everywhere. Fortunately, a local man who spoke English explained that a ferry was unnecessary. We could just continue our stroll along the harbor to access the museum, visible on a distant shore. The museum contains the Vasa, a flagship which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. In the 1960's she was raised from the seabed and restored. The ship is in a remarkable stage of preservation, because of the cold water and absence of sea worms in the Baltic. (To distinguish the few pieces of planking that had been replaced, a different color wood was used). The museum consisted of four levels of walkways which encircled the ship from top to bottom, and allowed visitors a great view from every angle. Artifacts recovered from within the ship were also on display. One wooden chest was so watertight that the plumed hat it contained survived intact. After watching a movie about the vessel recovery operation, we decided to buy lunch in the museum's cafeteria. Only local currency was accepted and the tourist in front of us in line had an insufficient amount. Having been in that situation before, we donated the money he needed. Eating at an outdoor table overlooking the water, we agreed: This was a great museum! Back at the shuttle stop, there seemed to be some confusion. The sign on the bus window said "Celebrity" but the driver, who spoke little English, was under the impression this was a Royal Caribbean shuttle. Since that ship was berthed in an entirely different dock, I insisted he check with the shuttle director before departure. He finally got out of the bus and walked up the street to confer with the director. Returning with a sheepish grin, he clapped me on the back and said, "Celebrity. Yes!" Unfortunately, there was no air conditioning and with such heavy traffic it took us 45 minutes to return to the ship. As soon as we got back to our room, we called my parents. Mother was feeling better but now Dad was sick! If they felt like eating anything, they would call room service. Lynn and I thought we would be alone at our dinner table, but the Canadian couple was present, looking a bit "worse for wear". A disastrous turn of events had befallen them! The night before arriving in St. Petersburg, Bilha had experienced severe abdominal pain, ultimately diagnosed as pancreatitis. She was off-loaded by ambulance in St. Petersburg and taken to a local hospital. Since they had been planning to tour with the ship excursion, neither of them had a visa. Her husband, Paul, was subjected to aggressive interrogations by local authorities when he tried to return to the ship to bring her some "necessities". Apparently, the hospital felt she was too ill to be discharged, but the thought of remaining in Russia while the ship left without them was sufficient incentive to galvanize Paul and Bilha into action. She checked out "against medical advice" and they were able to commandeer an ambulance to return her to the ship just before it sailed. Hmmm....maybe our table was jinxed. At the theater that night, we were surprised to see Mother and Dad arrive for the show and quickly joined them. It seemed they were feeling better. The featured singer that evening announced she was dedicating the next song to the couple "who had been married the longest". Of course that would be my parents, but they were reluctant to "promote" themselves. However, I lost control when it appeared the nearest contenders had only been married 53 years. I yelled down from our balcony seats, "Sixty-five years!" At this, Dad added his voice to mine and caught the singer's attention. She came all the way upstairs, chatted with them a few minutes and then stood beside them while she sang. (Our fifteen minutes of fame)! The woman even had a free autographed CD waiting for my folks after the show.
June 12 On this full day at sea, there was no sign of my parents at breakfast. We phoned them and discovered both were now sick! In fact, Mother was planning to go see the ship doctor, and she never seeks medical help. Still, they remained adamant: We were to avoid any exposure. There was a lecture on Berlin scheduled at 10:00 but we left half way through it to check on their status. Only Dad was in the room: Mother remained in the infirmary. Hearing this, Lynn and I marched down and found the waiting-room filled with ill passengers. The nurse allowed us back into the "sick bay" where Mother was in bed and receiving IV fluids. Having been cleared by the doctor for the Norwalk virus, Mother avoided a confinement in isolation and was allowed to return to her room. We escorted her back and brought them both some crackers to eat. (Restaurant staff were, belatedly, handing all incoming diners a sani-wipe). Discussing the situation while having lunch, Lynn and I concluded that my parents must have contracted food poisoning on their Helsinki outing. We were feeling fine and, except for Helsinki, had eaten the same food onboard. The four of us had been invited to attend a bridge-tour at 1:50 (another atonement by Tush, the front desk manager). We stopped by my parents' room, but they were still in recovery. Approximately a dozen other passengers joined us at the bridge. Their expensive clothing, heavy jewelry and (in some cases) pompous attitude implied wealth. Unfortunately, the first mate giving the tour had a pronounced accent and was difficult to understand. Also, bright sunlight on the computer screens obscured much of the navigational aides he was trying to demonstrate. One interesting tidbit we learned: Unlike airplanes restricted to flight patterns, passing ships rely on radio communications with each other to determine their relative positions in the sea. Back in our room, we read and napped. After checking by phone on my folks (who weren't planning to eat), Lynn and I had a leisurely glass of wine in the cocktail lounge before joining the Canadian couple for dinner. Bilha had more color and looked less wan. The evening entertainment was a professional pickpocket who demonstrated his proficiency by snatching wallets, watches etc. from unsuspecting audience members. On stage, he then produced his purloined "bounty" for the owners to come up and claim. One "victim" was our tablemate, Paul, whose watch had been taken. (Paul later told us he never felt a thing). I knew my parents would have really enjoyed this performance.
June 13 We arrived for breakfast to find Mom and Dad already seated. Finally they had some appetite. This morning, the ship would be docking in the former East German port of Warnemunde. I had previously downloaded train schedules and planned for us all to take the historical "Molli" a steam-engine train which travels between the coastal towns of Bad Doberan and Kuhlungsborn. Understandably, however, my parents were not up for venturing very far from the ship. Thus, Lynn and I were on our own. The ship berthed less than a block from the train station, and after our Eurorail travels last summer, negotiating the rail system was easy. We caught a train to the city of Rostock and then transferred to another that brought us to Bad Doberan. From there, the "Molli" station was a mere 100 yards away, and we had just enough time to purchase tickets before the little steam engine arrived. The ride was quite scenic, and as our train chugged through the quaint seaside resorts it attracted a lot of attention from other tourists. Passengers could hop on and off at any stop along the way, but we elected to stay onboard for the entire two-hour excursion. This way, there would be enough time to see Rostock afterwards. Rostock remains "off the beaten path" for most visitors to Germany, but we found it to be a lovely place. Portions of the medieval city wall remain and there are watchtowers, city gates, old churches, parks and gardens to enjoy. Best of all, tourists were conspicuously absent. In fact, this was the first European city we had visited so far where few people spoke English. However, the locals were quite friendly and much can be accomplished through gestures. We had a tasty lunch at a small cafe and made a few medicinal purchases. Strolling through the streets and admiring the sights, I belatedly realized that walking on cobblestones had exacerbated my back pain. Unfortunately, the train station was now several miles away. The local trolley (which we knew originated at the train station) offered a perfect solution but the ticket vending machine was confusing. A kind man sensed our dilemma and assisted us just as a trolley arrived. Back at the port city of Warnemunde, crowds of people milled about the waterfront. Despite all the tourists, the city managed to maintain a certain charm. A pedestrian-only street, lined with shops and cafes, followed the quay before ultimately terminating at the three-mile beach. We took a quick photo of an adorable baby playing in the sand, returned to the ship, and called my parents. They joined us for cocktails and dinner, which was open-seating that night. Everyone was tired after eating and opted for an early bedtime, with Lynn asleep by 8:30.
June 14 Today the ship was supposed to arrive in Helsingborg, Sweden, the only tendered port of call on this voyage. However, an early announcement by the captain indicated we would instead be diverting to Copenhagen, since he considered the waters too rough for safe tendering. On this revised schedule, passengers could not disembark until almost noon, while the last shuttle would return to the ship at 3:00 p.m. This allowed only a three hour window in Copenhagen, but Lynn and I were delighted. It should be just enough time to see the Ny Carlsburg Museum, previously closed because of the Danish holiday. We discussed our plan with my parents at breakfast. An hour later, Mom phoned our room and said she wanted to accompany us to the museum. Without thinking, I blurted out, "But it's too long a walk for you". After I hung up the phone, we realized that it should be possible to find a cab, and called her back. However, by now she had changed her mind about going. (I suspected this was because Mom didn't want to inconvenience us, but couldn't dissuade her). Using stealth and persistence, Lynn and I managed to catch one of the first shuttles to Kings' Square. From there it was a 25 minute brisk walk to the museum where we had just enough local currency for the admission. The imposing building had been renovated to enclose a huge atrium while broad hallways and marble staircases led up to the museum's impressionist exhibits. Of course, the Carlsburg couldn't compete with the sheer volume of artwork at the Hermitage but neither did it have the hordes of visitors. The quality of artwork was impressive: There was an absolutely gorgeous painting by Van Gogh and we really enjoyed the extensive collection of sculptures by Rodin. Thanks to Denmark's long history of conquests (and pillaging), the museum's antiquity section was absolutely amazing and filled with Phoenician and Egyptian artifacts. (Now I felt really bad about leaving Mother behind. She loves antiquities). Hating to leave, we subsequently had to almost jog back to the square where a long line of passengers awaited the shuttle. Once onboard, we visited with my parents before going to dinner. It was the first time in days where all six of us were present at the table. (Our waiters were also pleased to see everyone, especially as this was the night when tips were distributed).
June 15 This final day of our cruise was spent at sea. Unfortunately, I neglected to record it in my journal and the details now are somewhat sketchy. For the first time since the cruise started, skies were overcast. We had been incredibly lucky with the weather. In fact, the previous evening the entertainment director announced, "The Baltic area gets an average of only 67 days of sun a year and you have experienced 14 of them". Since the ocean was a little rough, I wasn't feeling very well myself. (At least, I hoped that was the reason I was feeling nauseous). Consequently, I ate very little all day. The pick-pocket expert was back for the afternoon entertainment and based on our enthusiastic reviews, my folks accompanied us to hear his presentation. However, this time the expert focused on techniques to avoid becoming a victim. His presentation was interesting, but not nearly as entertaining as his previous one had been. Early that evening, Dad became sick again. The infirmary was closed, but I made such a fuss they agreed to see him anyway. Probably because he rallied enough to flirt with the nurse, the doctor didn't share my concern about his state of health and he was sent back to his room. All the shipboard shops were holding their final big sales and we bought some T-shirts for both son-in-laws. Our library books were returned, and bags were packed. The cruise was almost over.
June 16 and 17 This morning's docking at the Port of Dover was scheduled to occur around 7:30. We met my folks for an early breakfast, relieved to see that both were feeling fine. Although the dining area was packed, our favorite breakfast waiter diverted other passengers away from an empty table until we were seated. Lynn and my return flights were booked through United Air which meant we would be departing from Heathrow Airport. Since my parents were flying out of Gatwick, we would be taking a different bus from the cruise terminal. We said our goodbyes. Except for the initial problems, Lynn and I had thoroughly enjoyed the cruise. However, it was sad to think my parents would (justifiably) consider this one of their worst trips. From the bus we could see the famous White Cliffs of Dover and our early arrival at the airport enabled us to secure emergency exit seats, invaluable on such a long flight. We flew out of London at 4:15 in the afternoon and landed in Dulles Airport at Washington D.C. around 7:00 p.m. After clearing customs we placed our bags onto the conveyor belt for our last leg of the journey back to Pittsburgh. That flight was scheduled to depart at 10:30 in the evening but, to our horror, we learned it had been cancelled due to insufficient crew. Now we needed to spend the night in Washington and rebook for tomorrow. There was a horrendous line at United's Customer Service counter and we were at the end of it. However, I just couldn't believe this was the only customer service center. Leaving Lynn waiting, I finally found a gate attendant who told me there was another one in the next terminal, only a 10 minute walk away. I ran back to inform Lynn (who hadn't advanced even one step forward) and we zipped over to the alternative Service Center. With no line at all, we were quickly rebooked and given vouchers for two meals and overnight accommodations at a nearby hotel. Our revised flight left at 2:00 p.m. the next day, allowing us plenty of time to have a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and an airport lunch. We arrived back in Pittsburgh before dinner only to discover our entire luggage was lost. Oh well, at this point we didn't care. We were home! Read Less