by Lee Foster
A cruise in the Baltic can take you to some of Europe’s most intriguing cities. Based on a Baltic cruise I took on a Princess Cruise ship, calling at seven ports, here are my judgments advising a consumer on shore excursions and how best to encounter the cities. At least 10 cruise companies deploy ships to the Baltic, so you’ll have plenty of ship and cruise line options.
The ports (and nearby capitals) I visited were: Hamburg/Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Le Havre/Paris/Normandy.
After some comments on approaching all these Baltic ports, I’ll discuss in more detail four of them, starting with St. Petersburg, the unquestionable highlight port in the Baltic. Other prominent port cities are Helsinki and Stockholm, whose northerly and easterly locales makes them relatively less known to many travelers. One of the inland capitals, Berlin, which is almost a new and fresh city, having changed drastically in the last decade, can be visited from the German port of Hamburg.
The first question many cruise travelers will ask is: should I take a tour or should I do this port on my own?
Some cities are easy to explore on your own, either with advance preparation or with the shipboard shore-excursion talks and literature as your information sources.
Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam fall into this class. A ship shuttle can take you to the center of the city and drop you there for independent exploration. If the ship remains in port for the full day, a morning guided group tour orienting you to the city, followed bythe afternoon on your own, often balances the desire for an overview with the impulse to explore independently. On all-day stops a passenger can have lunch in town or come back to the ship for lunch, as you like. I found that Princess Cruises provided each passenger with extensive documentation, including maps and write-ups, for all ports. Shipboard port talks and slide shows assist passengers with a wealth of information.
For some cities I strongly advise that one should take a tour, especially St. Petersburg. To be on your own in Russia, you may need a separate, advance visa, some Russian-language skills, plus plenty of savvy to deal with the ever-changing government rules and urban uncertainties. Safety can be an issue in St. Petersburg because some Russians survive in an unsettled environment strained to provide food and other essentials. With a tour you can move efficiently to the major sites, such as The Hermitage and Peterhof. Chances are the tour will have pre-arranged a competent, multi-language-speaking guide to show you around.
Still other port cities have distant locations, rather than the port, as the main attraction. For Hamburg, the main attraction is Berlin. For Le Havre, the choice destination is Paris. In both cases, the drive is about three hours, leaving you four-to-six hours in the city. At first this seemed daunting, but the buses were extremely comfortable and the guide I had in Berlin was excellent.
Within these two major capitals, Berlin must be explored with a bus drive to the city and then an organized city tour. Paris can be savored either on-your-own or with a city tour after the bus drive to the capital. Berlin’s size and complexity, including the inadequate public transit system and uncertainties in East Berlin, make it impossible to do the city on your own, especially in the time allotted. A traveler will want to have an informed Berlin guide to discuss how life has changed here so profoundly in recent years. By contrast, Paris’s compact center and excellent subway make Paris on-your-own a viable option.
A traveler with any mobility impairment will want to weigh shore excursions carefully. All tours will be described in shipboard talks in terms of the amount of walking required and the stairs to be climbed.
Cost of shore excursions is a further matter to be considered. Shuttle buses to the center of the port cities will cost relatively little. Simple half-day city tours to Copenhagen or Amsterdam will cost more. The more-complex full-day tour of St. Petersburg, including lunch and all the admission fees, will probably cost the most and is definitely worth it. A cruise traveler will want to weigh the costs and benefits of various tours. When a traveler has invested a substantial amount to get this close to a choice destination, it’s also important to experience each port as fully and efficiently as possible.
St. Petersburg was Peter the Great’s window to European technology and progressiveness, as well as his defense against European invaders. One senses in St. Petersburg contact with a vast, restless, and powerful land.
St. Petersburg requires a guide and provided transportation. The urban situation is too complex, the public transportation too problematical, and the major sites to see, such as The Hermitage and Peterhof, are too far apart to do on your own. The ideal situation would be to get a car/van with driver and guide. Vans with this service can be shared by five people.
Ask the guide for an overview city tour of the downtown area and then concentrate on two high points, The Hermitage and Peterhof. The guide will also know the shops where a traveler can get the main gift items of St. Petersburg, such as nested dolls, lacquer boxes, amber jewelry, caviar, furs, and art books. The guide will know which sites require camera fees for taking photos. The bus or van tours offered by cruise ships include a collective visa issued to the cruise company. It would be unwise in St. Petersburg to wear ostentatious jewelry, leave your guide, or drink the water. There are few independent restaurants because the local people can’t afford such a luxury. A sightseer’s meals in the city will generally be taken at the major hotels.
A city tour will alert you to the power and prominence of St. Petersburg, a city founded in fairly recent times. Peter the Great decreed that the city be started in 1703. St. Petersburg is definitely regal, easily the “Empress of the Baltic,” as her admirers put it. She is also called the “Venice of the North,” a phrase referring to her watery environment, extensive canals, and use of Italian architectural talent. The nobility of Russia established impressive residences and the czars focused their immense wealth on this city, their trading venue with Western Europe.
A cluster of landmarks can be explored in central St. Petersburg along the Neva River. The Rostrum Columns are tall columns into which have been embedded trophies of war against the Swedes–the prows of their captured ships. The Bronze Horseman is a prominent equestrian statue of Peter the Great placed on a giant boulder. Peter looms large in Russian history as the visionary leader, who stood six-feet-eight-inches tall, a man of boundless energy who needed little sleep, the man whose fleet defeated the feared Swedes, the leader who sought to modernize, with European technology, his semi-Asiatic domain. The Smolny Cathedral, by the architect Rastrelli, is a blue, onion-domed structure, one of the loveliest churches in Russia. From the warship Aurora, still visible on the Neva River, a shot in 1917 signaled the start of the Revolution. The gold spires of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial site of most of the Russian czars, rise above the river from the walled island stronghold of Peter and Paul Fortress. The green Narva Triumphal Arch recalls the Russian successes against Napoleon in 1812. St. Petersburg defeated the Nazi siege, but over a million people starved to death. Some 600,000 are buried in mass graves in the Piskarav Cemetery. Fully 20 million Russians perished in World War II.
The challenge of modern day life for many Russians is a sharp contrast with the opulence of the past at The Hermitage and at Peterhof, the two most-prominent palaces of the czars. A visitor will be stunned by the accumulated art and wealth, as well as the architectural visions that these two structures represent. The Hermitage, or hermit place, referring to Catherine the Great’s reclusiveness, is part of the Winter Palace in the center of the city. About 300 of the 1050 rooms of the Winter Palace are now open to the public for viewing. The Peterhof is a summer palace outside the city, along the coast. Peter built this royal residence as his grand venue, rivaling Versailles. Both sites overwhelm a visitor. It is best simply to walk through them with a guide and then buy a detailed guidebook to savor the contents at a later time. Because the Peterhof is a 45-minute drive south of the city, considering the traffic, you can do only the city tour, The Hermitage, and Peterhof in one full day.
At The Hermitage, a visitor is impressed by the art-collecting propensity and grandeur of Catherine the Great. She purchased 28 Rembrandts, for example, including a portrait of the artist’s wife, Saskia. Catherine’s gold coronation carriage gives a sense of her commanding presence. At the Peterhof, one of the engineering achievements is the hydraulic system of natural water pressure that perpetually powers gracious fountains. The inlaid wood floors, crystal chandeliers, gilded walls, grand staircases, and huge dimensions of the rooms dazzle a visitor at both palaces.
A traveler leaves St. Petersburg with a cluster of strong memories. One has seen the second capital of a recent superpower. The visitor has also perused superb collections of art in an unsurpassed architectural setting. One can only speculate on the labor of serfs required to produce the wealth that built these gilded palaces. As one guide expressed it, “You have to see The Hermitage to understand why we needed a Revolution.”
Helsinki, called “The White City of the North” because of the light color of some of its buildings, is the capital for an independent tribe, the Finns, who view themselves as different from their neighbors, the Russians and the Swedes.
Just how independent the Finns are can be seen in their language, which is related neither to Russian nor Swedish. Moreover, Finnish is not a Germanic derivative. Rather, linguistically, the early Finns shared ancestry with Hungarians and Turks.
The premier architectural site in Helsinki is the neo-classic Senate Square, where the severe Lutheran Cathedral and the Greek-inspired Government Palace and University Buildings express an eclectic architecture. Built in the 19th century by the German architect, Carl Engel, the Square mixes an appreciation for Greek columns, an Italian love of color, and the theologically-influenced simplicity of the Lutherans, who abhorred adornment. About 90 percent of the Finns are nominally Lutheran.
Beyond Senate Square, the outdoor markets are colorful, especially at Market Square, where furs and craft items augment the expected produce. The Market lies beside one of several harbors in Helsinki that cater to pleasure sailing craft. A traveler enjoying Helsinki on a sunny, summer day does not get the full climatic picture of the winter chill here. It’s sobering to encounter the huge, icebreaker ships resting in the harbor, passing the summer quietly. Their winter duty amounts to crushing ice that sometimes becomes a meter thick.
When walking in central Helsinki, the design shops are a visual treat. Designer Marimekko’s clothing and household items shop, on The Esplanadia, is a place to start. Along this park-like promenade, design boutiques abound. It’s refreshing to browse where the famous Finnish skill with shapes and colors can be seen in fine art, clothing, furniture, and daily, household items.
The geographic position of Finland has been politically perilous, historically. Finland has been caught between the expansionistic ambitions of Sweden and Russia. Overrun time and again, the Finns retained their identity. The complexities and ironies of these political relationships can be seen when one visits Senate Square, where the most-honored place for a statue in Helsinki salutes a revered Russian czar, Alexander II. To the Finns he was “The Good and Liberal Alexander.” Follow that with a look at the Hietaniemen cemetery, honoring the thousands of Finnish soldiers who perished in the Winter War with Russia in 1939. Helsinki has been called the “Daughter of the Baltic.” Over the centuries, she has been courted forcefully by her suitors from the west and east. The Swedes were the early victors. Russia assumed control in the 19th century. Finland finally became independent in 1918.
Helsinki is the major educational and cultural center for Finland. The Universities of the city are prominent. The arts flourish here. A striking monument of metal tubes honors Jean Sibelius, the native son who became a great composer.
One bright spot in the Finnish economy is the building of cruise ships. The Wartsila shipyard in Helsinki is one of the foremost ship design and building centers in the world, turning out some of the massive cruise ships of the modern era. The rest of the Finnish economy is closely dependent on the prosperity of its adjacent trading partner, Russia.
Helsinki can easily be explored with a morning city tour, then afternoon on your own. For lunch, try the traditional Finnish restaurant Kosmos, on Kalevankatu. Consider a salad featuring smoked reindeer and perhaps an entree of fried Baltic herring or vorschmack, a dish with an unusual mix of beef, lamb, herring, mashed potatoes, beets, sour cream, and cucumbers. Kosmos is popular with businessmen at lunch and writers/artists in the evening.
Stockholm can best be seen by engaging a morning city tour, which will focus on two main attractions, followed by an afternoon of exploring on your own. The city’s two primary attractions are its City Hall and the Vasa Museum.
The City Hall consists of two large rooms, where the Nobel Prize banquet is given each year. The wealthy Swedish inventor, Alfred Nobel, established a foundation supporting the grants with money he made on many patents, including one for dynamite. A guide will explain the architectural beauty of the Blue Room, where the banquet is held, and the adjacent Gold Room, where wall mosaics celebrate Swedish culture and mythology.
The Vasa Museum, devoted to a single superlative subject, is a tour de force. This museum was built to enclose one of the grandest warships of the 17th century, the Vasa, which sank 15 minutes after launching in 1628 and was finally resurrected, more than 300 years later, largely intact, in 1961. Although the earlier Vikings were great shipbuilders, the Swedes of the 17th century had lost their touch. King Gustav decreed that he wanted a ship with many, many cannon, 43 in all. So top heavy was the ship with cannon that it overturned, as it was being launched, and sank, ignominiously, remaining on the sea floor. Aside from the power of its cannon, the Vasa was a notable masterpiece of wood carving decor on the outside of the ship.
Beyond these two attractions, Stockholm can be explored easily on your own. Wander the Old Town, Gamla Stan, and seek out the statue of King Gustav. Peruse the open markets, such as Oster Square, with its fruit and flowers. The Swedes enjoy outdoor cafes during good weather. Stop in to see the current art exhibit at the Kultur House, perhaps taking lunch at its Cafe Panorama.
My ship glided up the Elb River some 70 miles to Germany’s major port, Hamburg. The city is is a thriving, cultured river town, with chic shops and wealthy residential areas. It’s easy to walk Hamburg on your own or take a city tour. Hamburg has been a thriving river port for centuries, importing bananas from Africa or coffee from South America. The number two port in Europe (after Rotterdam), Hamburg is a busy duty-free distribution center giving traders access to the German market.
For most cruise visitors, the main attraction of Hamburg is Berlin, three hours away. The German tour operators, using modern buses, take the cruise passenger comfortably to Berlin, passing bucolic fields of grain and safflower, interspersed with forests of thin pine trees. Occasionally, you still see the tall, abandoned guard towers from which East Germans watched traffic on this approved corridor into West Berlin, insuring that there was no contact between people on the highway and those in the countryside. The bus proceeds at a moderate pace because bus speed limits are controlled by law. However, Germans in Mercedes pass the bus at incredible speeds. There is no speed limit on private cars on the autobahn, nothing to impede the efficiency of the individual German.
Once in Berlin, the attractions are spread out, and an expert guide is essential, so you’ll stay on the bus and stop at poignant sights in this great German metropolis, now a united entity.
Here are some memorable stops:
* The Reichstag, the traditional headquarters of the German State. Behind the Reichstag, at a section of The Wall, you see a memorial where 588 people died, over the years, while trying to swim across the river to freedom. At the Reichstag, a traveler ponders the swift-moving events in modern Germany, where The Wall came down in 1989 and the country was officially united in 1990.
* Brandenburg Gate, once a tax gate, but symbolically the eyewitness to German history. Today, Turkish vendors sell chunks of The Wall, Soviet medals and military hats, and painted Russian dolls.
* Checkpoint Charlie, the guard station at the border crossing where East-West tensions often came close to a flashpoint during the Cold War.
* The former East Berlin. A traveler will be impressed by the grandeur of Unter den Linden, a street displaying the architectural and cultural treasures of German history. Adjacent, you find Marx Street, where the deadening, proletarian architecture of the Soviet era created miles of drab, pre-fab buildings.
* Airlift Square, a poignant monument to the massive allied airlift that saved West Berliners from capitulation to the Soviets during the blocade of 1948. The stark, arched monument recalls 80 soldiers who died in the inevitable accidents that resulted from the frequent, repetitive landings.
* Ku’Damm, the posh shopping street, where fashionable stores with plenty of patrons attest to the German miracle of recovery after the war.
Berlin was, is, and will be the cultural, political, and commercial capital of Germany.
For someone who cruises the Baltic, the ports of call are endlessly fascinating, with St. Petersburg perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch.