Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Baltic Cruise Notes, Day 11: Gdansk, Poland

Today, we went on the only serious tour we scheduled. Throughout the trip, we (mostly I) chose day tours for their interest and fun value. This one was one we felt we should do. After a light breakfast, we alit in Gdynia, Poland. This is one of the "Three Cities" that include Gdansk, Gdynia, and Sopot. I might be able to pronounce the last one the way the locals do, but the others, forget it. We boarded a bus for Stutthof, which is about an hour away. Stutthof was one of the Nazi death camps, and the mood on the bus grew more and more somber as we approached the grounds of the camp. We entered through the gate that prisoners would enter, and went into the administration building to see a film that was shot by the Soviets when they arrived. By that time, the Nazis had evacuated most of the prisoners to other camps in the west, nearer to Germany. The evacuation occurred on foot, and the number of prisoners at the beginning of the journey was about 25,000. About 17,000 arrived at their new concentration camps. The gate to the prisoners' part of the camp was called the death gate by the prisoners. Here, they stood for up to an entire day in the cold, as they were processed in. They were told on entry that this was the end of their life, and there was one way to leave: through the chimney that was visible at the far end, maybe 200 yards away. Surprisingly, about half of those who died in this camp were Catholic or protestant. Jews, however, were sent more or less immediately to death, while the other prisoners would work until they became ill or did something the guards deemed worthy of death. The barracks were long, low wooden buildings with no heat. Prisoners were allotted one square foot, meaning that they could not lie down to sleep. Many of the barracks were no longer in existence, and some had been reconstructed, but a few were original. In one was a very large (about 25 feet by 10 feet by 4-5 feet high) pile of shoes. In the original camp, they found piles of shoes that were comprised of over 300,000 pairs. The prisoners had to wear wooden clogs. A few of the people on our tour had lost family members in the concentration camps, and our guide, although she was young, said she had lost much of her family as well. I won't detail the stories we were told. If I did, I doubt that you would read anything I write in the future. Just one more thing: near the chimney, we saw the gas chamber and the building with the chimney attached, containing three ovens. It was a sight I will never forget, and one I hope never to see again. On our return, our guide told us about the rise of Solidarity, with Lech Wolensa and the ship-builders who led the revolution. Some paid with their lives. But by that time, in the 1980s, even the communist rulers realized that the tide had turned against them. To me, it seems like yesterday that this all occurred, but it was in 1989. The election of Karol Wojtyla, who was a Polish cardinal, as Pope in 1978 was the beginning of the end, as he came to Poland in 1980 and delivered a speech to hundreds of thousands of people, that love would overcome adversity, and that they should remain faithful. The Poles gained tremendous strength in their opposition to the communist government, and over the next decade there were several nationwide stikes, enough that the Soviets threatened to invade at one point. But the dominoes had started to fall, and it was only a matter of time until communism would no longer rule eastern Europe. We entered Gdansk and were dropped off in the old town section. It is very charming. the city is about 800,000 (I think that is the entire Three Cities), and a river runs through center of old town. The buildings are of the type I expected to see in eastern Europe--narrow row houses several stories high, painted in various pastel shades. Denise and I split from the group and strolled the streets, as there was a festival and vast swarms of people. It reminded me of Tempe's Mill Avenue festival, but without the insipid art. At one point, we saw the entrance to the building that houses Lech Walensa's office. He still works every day, now well into his 70s. As you may know, he just endorsed Romney for POTUS, and whether you agree with him or not, he is obviously still an actor on the world stage. Our return to ship was at 3:00 in the afternoon, after seven hours of a five-hour tour. After naps and reading, we had dinner and repaired to the lounge where the string quartet plays every night. Then, we returned to the theatre, where we enjoyed a second round of Jimmy Travis, the comedian and singer I mentioned a few days ago. He provided some excellent humor, poking gentle fun at almost everyone--the audience, the band ("We're all from the South. I'm from Florida, and these guys are from southern Ukraine."), and the cruise line. It was a lovely way to end the day. Tomorrow, the island of Bornholm, if we can land there. Good night.

Baltic Crise Note, Day 10: Visby, Gotland, Sweden

We were to have a bicycle tour of Visby, the main city on the island of Gotland, which is a resort island that is part of Sweden. Apparently, they do not have a proper port for a ship this size, so we were supposed to "tender" to shore. I think the source of the term is that such boats would tend a ship. Anyhow, no such luck. There were enough swells and waves that the captain decided it was not safe to go in. We spent the day on ship. Having seen the level of waves later in the day, we appreciated the captain's decision, because we would certainly have been spending the night on the island. Denise and I are fortunate that we are not prone to motion sickness. From mid-afternoon on, everyone on board the ship appears drunk. There are rails and handholds everywhere,so there isn't much risk of falling, but it just feels odd to be rolled around on a structure this large. We had a nice dinner with our new friends from Canada. He is the mayor of a medium-sized city, and she teaches special education. We have had a nice time with them. Short notes tonight. More tomorrow.

Baltic Cruise Notes, Day 9: Riga, Latvia

Today, we landed at Riga, Latvia about 10 AM. Riga is a city of about 800,000 people, which is about 1/3 of the population of Latvia. They use the Lat for their currency, and it trades at 2 dollars per Lat. In many shopping places, especially stalls, you must have Lats or you can't buy anything. Quite a few take Euros, though, and some even take dollars. Our tour was a bus tour to Turraida and Sigulda, which are ancient cities, as is Riga. Riga was established in 1201 by a conquering group of Crusaders from Germany, I think. Leading them was a cleric who established the city, then proceeded to give large plots of land to the knights while he was building churches and converting the populace to Christianity. Sigulda was founded in 1207 (they are very definite about these dates and times), as a defensive castle city. In medieval times, these areas were powerful trading cities, similar to Talinn, Estonia. All were members of the Hansiatic League, a trading and military association of Baltic states. We did not learn the intricacies of Soviet and Nazi takeovers, but in my peregrinations, I came across a monument honoring the children who were deported to Siberia from 1941 to 1949, so I know there was a great deal of hardship during the Soviet times. At a talk last night, we learned about the 'Singing Revolution' that was the beginning of independence for Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. On a day in 1989, the people of these countries formed a human chain from Lithuania to Estonia, along the highways. Then they simply sang songs. It was the beginning of the end for the Soviets in these countries, because the time in which they could send everyone to Siberia was long over. Independence occurred in 1991. Many of the buildings in Riga are in the art nuveau style from the 1920s, during the brief period of independence from the early 1900s to 1940 when the WWII invasions and Soviet occupation started. There are not that many of the really ugly Soviet buildings that graced St. Petersburg and Talinn, partly because there was a thriving economy before the Soviets took over, so they could use existing buildings rather than build their own. We arrived in Sigulda and saw some very beautiful castles and walls dating from the 1200s. The castle in Sigulda is the "new" one, built in the 1600-1700s, but behind it are the ruins of the earlier one that was demolished in the 1600s. The castle at Turraida, close by, is largely intact, and the grounds reminded us of the Skanses museum in Stockholm, as several buildings had been moved there and restored. There was a tower that was about 5 stories high, and we trudged to the top on winding stone staircases with no rails. Meeting people coming the other was was interesting, at least. On our arrival back at the ship, I decided to go exploring in town while Denise napped. The old town reminded me of Talinn, but there were not as many booths and shops dedicated to tourism as in Talinn. Back on ship, we ordered dinner in our cabin: onion soup, a cheese tray, steak with steamed veggies and French fries, and iced tea. Nothing fancy, but really good stuff. After that, Denise went to get her hair cut in the spa, and I sat on deck as we left the port. Later, we went to a show with a lot of singing and dancing about something or other. It was good, but I'm tired. Tomorrow, Visby by bicycle. Good night.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Baltic Cruise Notes, Day 8: Talinn, Estonia

It is hard to believe that we have reached the halfway point in our trip. Yesterday, for the first time, I thought about how it would be nice to get back home, in the normal swing of things. Then I woke up. We started early this morning, to board the bus for Talinn, Estonia, old town. Now, this is the first city on our tour that has the sorts of buildings I thought we would be seeing. Frankly, we have been mildly disappointed in the architecture on this trip, having become acquainted with buildlings that were extremely ancient, in Scotland. Talinn has buildlings that are that old, some even older. For instance, the city wall is mostly intact, built in medieval times. One structure that was pointed out, a church, was almost dismissed by our guide as being modern, built in the 1700s. We stopped in the higher area of the city, next to their parliament building and across from a Russian Orthodox church. Since it was Sunday morning, we noticed the faithful gathering at the foot of the steps and crossing themselves repeatedly while looking at the ground, then up at the icon that was on the high parapet of the entrance. We were allowed to go in, even though their service was starting, as long as we were very quiet and respectful. Denise had brought a scarf that she put on, and we stood and listened to the choir as the priest began preparations for the mass. In these churches, there is no instumental music, and there are no seats---all of the congregants stand throughout the services, whieh can last for two hours or more. The singers' pitch was variable, but their harmonies were lovely and haunting, and very worshipful. Inside the church were multiple domes that must have been 40 or 50 feet above us, so the acoustics were amazing. After the church, we followed our guide through a maze of very narrow medieval streets paved with extremely uneven cobblestones. This was the first guide we've had who was not so good at describing the history of the surroundings. He was very young, and spoke excellent English. The language here is Finno-Urgic, and our guide explained that it has been voted by some group that votes on things like this, to be the most beautiful language on the planet. Well, maybe. Anyhow, we're almost becoming jaded with all the architectural wonders in the various cities. Talinn is a city of about 400,000 people, which is about 1/3 of the population of Estonia. This is a very old city that has been important for centuries for trade on the Baltic Sea. It was conquered in the fifteenth century by the Swedes, who brought Christianity and education to the masses, and it was then sold off and on to other countries, including Germany. In the early 1700s, the country was taken by Russia after its successful war with Sweden. Then all education and building of the country's infrastructure stopped. In the early 1900s, Estonia won independence, until the Russians invaded in 1940. A year later, the Nazis occupied Estonia, until 1945, when the Soviets took over. They deported or killed 35% of the population, and moved a large group of ethnic Russians into the country. It's a pretty grim history, and yet the country has thrived since 1991, when it won independence again from the collapsing Soviet Union. Estonia is part of the European Union, so they use the Euro here, and the average Estonian makes about €19,000 per year. The country has avoided many of the problems other small EU countries like Greece and Spain have suffered, by a program of careful spending and austerity. Sort of like the U. S. Oh, wait.... We returned to the ship for lunch, something I can't remember--all the amazing food is running together--then a nap on deck chairs. It's a hard life, but someone has to do it. Laundry figured in somewhere, as well. In late afternoon, we listened to a lecture on Riga, Latvia, so we are a little better-prepared for tomorrow's tour. Following the lecture, we had an ecumenical prayer service led by Willie Aames, a former actor who has been in dozens of well-known productions. You might remember him as one of the teens on the show "Eight Is Enough." He had, according to Wikipedia, troubles with alcohol until his conversion to Christianity, and he is now an ordained minister, who worked with Franklin Graham on a project with a superhero named "Bible Man." Look, I'm not making this up. Anyway, he is the cruise director, and he gave a nice talk on First Corinthans 1:11-13 that fit well with a very mixed and small congregation. We had dinner, then there was a show, the first one we've made it to. The "headliner" for the show was Jimmy Travis, a guitarist and comedian who has, according to the cruise notes, written over 150 Christian children's songs, as well as jingles for many different ads for companies including Toyota and Nascar. He is an excellent guitarist, and sings in a mostly country-western style. The whole audience got enough belly laughs to cause abdominal pain. For instance, he lamented how much Adam suffered for Eve, and all men since the Garden of Eden, as God took a rib to form woman, the rib that held in the belly. Okay, I can't tell a joke, but it was really funny. Tomorrow, Latvia. Good night.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Baltic Cruise Notes, Day 7: St. Petersburg

Today was the second day in St. Petersburg, and we went to the Hermitage, a museum that was established by Catherine the Great in the late 1700s. She decided that she was going to gentrify the city, so she started buying collections of art from other collectors. When the art arrived, she ordered a building to be built near the winter palace to show the art, and she is the one who named it the Hermitage, a French word that can mean "place of solitude." She kept buying art after that, and when she ran out of space, she ordered another building, then another. Eventually, there were five buildings, all connected and collectively known as the Hermitage. The museum opens an hour early for the cruise ships, and we had to go through Russian passport control again, something we did not have to do in Finland. Seems we won't be getting passport stamps in all the countries after all. We arrived to a very long line of groups, but were inside within about 20 minutes, thus avoiding the rain that followed. Inside, the stairway looked a great deal like the summer palace, with gilded columns, large windows, and huge vases made of single pieces of malachite, jaspar, jade, and other semi-precious stones. The whole place was larger than life. They display 15,000 pieces of art, out of the collection of 3 million. As our guide told us, if you looked at paintings for eight hours a day, one minute each, it would take eleven years to see the entire collection. There are certain pieces on display all the time, but they rotate the rest of the collection through. I was very glad we had a guide, First, she was very knowledgeable, and she communicated with us by small radios with earpieces, so she could speak even in the large crowds, and we could hear her. Second, I would never have known where to go, to see the "important" art. Third, she was pushy enough to get through the throngs of people, and to thread our group to the front of the groups near the paintings she was telling us about. After two and a half hours, Denise and I were exhausted, as were all the others. I can't begin to catalogue all the paintings we saw. From early Italian artists, to Renaissance painting and sculpture including da Vinci and Michaelangelo, to the Dutch masters, especially Rembrandt, to the French impressionists, including Monet, Matisse, and Picasso, our heads were spinning after a while. Denise was particularly moved by the painting, "The Prodigal Son," by Rembrandt. There is a theologian named Henri Nouwen who wrote a book with the same title, and Denise has read several of his publications. She found this book very insightful. By the way, if you have an iPad, you can download a Hermitage application that is free, and you can see some of the art, with explanations. These post-Peristriuka Russians are really modern! After the museum, we returned to the ship for lunch. We went to the Waves grill, and had hamburgers. The meal gave a new meaning to "fast food." The grill is on the pool deck, and a waiter brought the burgers to our table, which was right by the rail, looking out at the harbor. I have exulted enough about food, so just understand these were really good hamburgers. We had the afternoon "off," so I read for a while in the coffee shop with my favorite drink (triple espresso with an inch of steamed half and half), and Denise found a place to take a nap in an armchair. A bit leter, she went to an art class, and painted an egg, while I repaired to the room to read some more, and to take pictures from our veranda. I used the telephoto function on my little camera to take photos of some of the soldiers around the customs office, and then I filmed a downpour that engulfed the ship. You couldn't see more than 100 yards during the rain, but it passed quickly. We caught dinner in the Terrace Cafe, a buffet that serves new gourmet delights for every meal. I had a salad, and handmade pasta with a sauce the cook made with the ingredients I chose. Then, we had ice cream with that handmade caramel sauce that is to die for. We had cast off from the harbor just before dinner, and during dinner we watched as we passed a shipyard that had some military vessels, including a couple of Russian submarines. We ate dinner with a couple we met on board. He is the mayor of a city in Canada, and she is a teacher of at-risk high school students, as well as a consultant for autistic students. Our conversations are lively and fascinating, including their takes on the American political scene and medical insurance situation. After dinner, we moved to the topmost deck, where there is another lounge called Horizons, where there was a Russian bazaar to buy the last few souvenirs, in case we hadn't spent enough money on Russian soil. Then, a younger lady and her mother, whom we had met on our Hermitage tour, came in and we conversed with them until the lounge filled with people who somehow still had the energy to dance the night away. Tomorrow, Talinn, Estonia. Good night.

Baltic Cruise Notes, Day 6: St. Petersburg

This was one of the days we've been looking forward to since we booked the trip. St. Petersburg, historical capital of Russia, home of the csars, flashpoint for the 1917 revolution. History galore! We headed out from the ship early, and went straight to the Summer Palace, also known as Catherine's Palace, named for Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great. She was tsarina of Russia for 30 years, after knocking off her husband, Peter II. Nobody in 18th century Russia seemed to have any compunctions about getting rid of inconvenient family members, and although Catherine II was truly beloved of the people, she didn't like her husband very much, and some of her relatives (she was from Germany) tried to get Peter II to abdicate the throne in favor of Catherine. When he refused, he somehow ended up dead. We didn't get a lot of gory details, but I think that was gist of the story. The palace almost makes Versailles look dowdy. The outside is robin's egg blue, with columns, cupolas, and bric-a-brac that was originally gilded in gold. Now, some of the features are gold and some are painted with goldish paint. Not unattractive, although quite a bit of St. Petersburg is dirty, and there were areas in and around the palaced that were somewhat dingy. I guess if you only have a few weeks of decent weather, you don't want to waste them dusting the corners of your palace. Anyhow, we donned paper booties not unlike surgical wear, before entering the halls of the palace. The floor throughout is immaculately restored, as are the walls and ceiling. Each room was bright and airy, due to the very large windows, and every room had paintings on walls and, usually, ceiling. And each room was different, with different themes and colors. At the Amber Room, we moved from opulent to decadent. The walls were covered with several tons of amber, arranged to form pictures and decorations, including frames for other pictures. I would show you a picture, but we were not allowed to take photos in that room. The grounds of the palace to on and on. We understood the guide to say that the retinue of the csar and family would be about 3000 people, including servants and soldiers, so there were a lot of folks living on the grounds of the palace, and it looks like there was plenty of room for them. We left the palace proper, and stopped in a music pavilion on the grounds, where we were serenaded by a sextet of gentlemen, with a Russian folksong. They sang a cappella, as is the custom in the Russian Orthodox Church, and the natural resonance of the chamber, combined with the rich voices and harmonies, brought tears to our eyes. The tenors were excellent, but the bass sang below anything I had ever heard a human voice reach, and he appeared to be putting little effort, all the while staying perfectly on pitch with a rich, warm tone. If you'd like to hear them, I took a video, and when I get back to a fast Internet connection, I'm going to put it on Facebook. Following the palace, we drove back to St. Petersburg proper, and stopped very briefly at a cathedral (name escapes me), just long enough to get some photos, and then on to a restaurant for lunch. We were served several courses, ending with chicken stroganov and dessert of vanilla custard. Not quite the same as to food on-board the ship, but not bad for a quick lunch. After lunch, we drove to Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, located on the grounds of an old fortress. It is where all the csars are buried, including (since 1998) Nicolaus II and his family, who were murdered by the bolsheviks in 1917. The inside of this church was undergoing renovation, but with the parts that were already restored, you have never seen that much gold in all your life! Quoting the writer of the book Lives of a Cell, "The mind, too overwhelmed to boggle, twitches." Next was the Church of Spilled Blood, site of the murder of some famous csar or family member thereof. The details have really run together, not in least part because the names are all very similar, with a great deal of overlap. For instance, Peter I, or Peter the Great, was married to Catherine I, who was not Catherine the Great. Peter II was married to Catherine II, who was not of the royal bloodline, but who became tsarina Catherine the Great. You got that? Me neither. It all started to sound like the "Who's on First" Abbott and Costello gag, or the court scene from "What's Up, Doc?" Ryan O'Neill: "Is that clear?" Judge: "No, but it's consistent...." At the last few stops, there were several weddings going on, a veritable brood of brides and gaggle of grooms, all carrying on with great hilarity, with the grooms carrying the brides, then kissing them, as family and costumes actors looked on and posed for pictures. In one open area on a bridge, there were four or five of these situations all going on at the same time, spaced randomly, with little thought or obvious preparation. Our guide said that summer is very popular for weddings, and Fridays are the usual day for them to be carried out. On Denise's Facebook page, there is a collage of photos of brides. You should go look. We returned to the ship, more or less spent. After a rest, we dressed and went to the Red Ginger cafe. As I told Denise, I keep thinking each night that tomorrow's meal couldn't possibly top this one. And I keep getting proven wrong. We started with appetizers, Denise with remoulades of beef and me with carmelized prawns. Second was a lovely Asian soup, name escapes me. Then, on to the main course. We both had lobster pad Thai, which the chef had added a bit more pepper than usual, at our request. It was perfect. After dinner, we stopped in one of the lounges and listened to a string quartet play popular classical and romantic pieces, then took a stroll on the deck before retiring to the room. It is now a little after 11 PM, and sun finaly set. Tomorrow, we're off to the Hermitage, a spectacular museum started by Catherine the Great. Good night.

Baltic Cruise Notes, Day 5: Helsinki

Today, we awoke while we were still at sea. And yes, I was rocked to sleep last night. We went to the gym (excuse me, "fitness center") after a cup of coffee at the barista. Running on a treadmill on a moving ship is a different experience. You go up and down hills without changing the settings on the machine. We ran looking out at the ocean, and it was good. Eventually, we made it to lunch and then to our tour. We took a walking tour of Helsinki, that lasted about three hours. I must say, I was not impressed by the architecture, style, or construction of the buildings and attractions. Helsinki has been called the "Pearl of the Baltic," but I think maybe the "Oyster of the Baltic" might be more appropriate. There was one exception to the dismal architecture: the Rock Church. This church was built in 1968, starting with blasting out the center of a huge stone hill, then building a dome over the massive crater that was made by the explosions. The center of the dome is solid copper, made of 15,000 miles of copper wire. It is supported by what appear to be wooden trusses that radiate from all sides of this round space, and they allow ambient light through into the interior. The walls are solid rock, the actual walls of the crater, and the above-ground parts of the walls are made of rock that was left from the explosions. While we were there, a pianist was playing classical music, mostly Chopin preludes, and the acoustics were simply spectacular. The sound and the simplicity of the structure made for an extremely worshipful environment. I would like to go there once to church, although I might not get much out of the service, being in Finnish and all. We got quite a history lesson on the tour, and I'll boil it down for you. They were ruled by the Swedes from the 1200's until 1809, then by the Russians until 1917. In WWII, they were invaded first by the Russians and then the Germans. In what they thought was a pragmatic move, they allowed the Germans to use their country to attack Russia, and were thus considered collaborators with the Nazis. In 1944, they changed alliance and made up with Russia again. They have been independent for 95 years, and are a republic. Anyhow, we returned to the ship at 5:30, and stopped into our room for our now customary afternoon nap, then dined at 8:00 at the Grand Dining Room. Once again, the cuisine lent itself to hyperbole, although not quite the heights reached last night. Denise and I both had fish, salmon for her and some kind of fish I had never heard of for me. The meals were all lovely and delicious, and I won't bore you with the details. Better than the meal, we had dinner with a lovely couple from Mobile, Alabama, named Abe and Caroline. He is a maritime lawyer, and they had a few years on us, like most people on the ship. We had a very nice time conversing with them, and left for our room after a two-hour meal. I was surprised to learn that we were setting our clocks back another hour tonight. That means there is a two-hour time difference between Stockholm and St. Petersburg. We just won't get much sleep tonight. A word about the bed in our room. I don't know what brand or type it is, but I think I'm in love. In one night, it may have cured my back pain. This mattress is fantastic. Out of time. Good night.