Port and Shore Excursions
We wanted to see how people live plus the typical tourist sites, and we selected an older taxi driver - excellent decision. We negotiated with an older taxi driver outside the passport control area for a private tour. Oliwa Cathedral had a 10:00 a.m. organ recital of their almost 8,000 pipe organ. The wooden carvings of the organ case include figure with trumpets which move slightly while the organ is played. Gdansk Stone Hill park has a giant cross and the first half of John 8:28 at its base (I pray that the younger generation and all visitors grasp why!) Sopot is a brand new beach resort - American style with a new Sheraton, cineplex etc. Gdansk old town is an amazing example of rebuilding and restoration. Unfortunately, after seeing the grandeur of St. Petersburg and the beauty of Tallinn, this was "nice" but no "wow".
Our taxi driver took us past Lech Walesa's estate (modest plot), and through neighborhoods to show how Stalin and Breshnev-era apartment blocks had been rejuvenated.
Helsinki had clear weather, and the history of a small nation maintaining independence from USSR/Russia based on about 2 Million people praying (and still praying) moves me. We walked from the ship through the flea market to the main shopping street. Shops have very high quality wool products, and good prices (we're buying winter clothes in summer). The Temppeliaukio (Rock) Church is awesome as architecture and metaphor - a church built in the rock, not just on the Rock of Jesus. Unfortunately, this Lutheran parish church had mixture - selling icons and had votive candles (?!?)
We had 80 degree weather in Oslo. The Noble Peace Prize is awarded here at the same time that the other 5 prizes are awarded in Stockholm. Oslo is OK, great shopping. MacDonald's meal would cost USD 23.00.
St. Petersburg is grand. It's Paris times 3, Washington DC times 6, Rome times 10. Not ready for do-it-yourself. Princess tours were delayed by up to 3 hours, but we left the ship earliest (7:20 a.m.) and DenRus is excellent. Weather cooperated (St. Petersburg has 300 rainy days a year). Hermitage Museum crowds are oppressive, but elsewhere was fine. Palaces, parks, canals, churches were grand. Most of them have cinsiderable gold plating on the fronts and steeple tops. The city has a "ring of glory" chain of parks and monuments from WW 2, and it is a portent for the future. The tour guide described the current transition after communism - still very painful. 30% still live in 20 bedroom apartments, wkae up at 4:00 a.m. to use the 1 bathroom, watch the stove to ensure that other families don't put detergent or poison into the stew, evicted at any time.
The Peterhof gardens have over 300 fountains with over 8,000 gallons/day water, but these are turned on after 11:00 a.m. - we were there in the afternoon, but other tours were cheated. The river is very wide - more like a sea. The Catherine Palace, the Hermitage, the Cathedral of Spilled Blood and the St Peter and Paul fortresses are overwhelming - I am still processing the experience 2 weeks later... The advice of using the toilets whenever you can is very important, but fortunately we had 3 souvenir shops stops plus the toilets in the Hermitage. The crowds in the Hermitage are oppressive, but the rooms and key works of art moved me to tears. St. Petersburg is a city worth returning to, and it seems to require a week to see what I want to see...
Stockholm had clear weather, caught the changing of the guard etc. Traffic was snarled because a key drawbridge was raised for a boat parade (we were able to avoid this). Town Hall is wonderful architecture - 5 of the 6 Nobel prizes have their banquet here. The wait to climb the tower was too long for the brisk weather and the short shore time. Central Stockholm has several great views - it's a set of hilly islands. Didn't have enough time to visit the Vasa museum or the amusement park with its scray-looking roller coaster ride. The cruise through the archipelago is beautiful - reminds me of the Thousand Islands area just east of Lake Ontario (Canada-U.S. border)
Tallinn is a jewel. HOHO bus wasn't worth it (not enough time for the money). The old town is a magnificent setting - every view, especially staying towards the west and north in the upper and lower parts, is memorable. There is a viewpoint next to the parlaiment building (a small sign names a restaurant) which overlooks the lower part, the cruise ship and the sea. The most beautiful walk is from the fortress in the upper part, down through the L-shaped lane, and then stay left. This street stays next to the wall with turrets, and opens to the flower park. Gift shops were great.