June 1, 2006

 

VANCOUVER to LONDON

Today we started our 24-day honeymoon trip by flying from Vancouver to London Heathrow on British Airways.  We've never been on an airlines with so many classes - FIRST, Club World, World Traveler Plus, World Traveler, etc.  We were at the back of the plane in "cattle" class, packed a bit like sardines.  Certainly we are a little bit spoiled by our recent travels on Cathay Pacific, which really is a step above!

 

June 2, 2006

 

LONDON to COPENHAGEN: DELAYS, PØLSE (HOT DOGS), AND TIVOLI

We arrived in London Heathrow and quickly went to catch our connection to Copenhagen.  Fortunately, we were pulled out of the long security line into the Fast Track line since our connection time was so short.  We made it to the gate in time and boarded the plane in a timely manner.  As we were about to taxi down the runway, the captain announced that there were six people who did not make the plane and that their luggage would need to be removed, resulting in a 20-minute delay.  When we finally got started, we made it down to the runway and to our dismay, the captain announced that there was still one piece of luggage on board but the passenger was not!  Therefore, we had to go back to the gate and that one piece had to be removed, resulting in a total delay of 90 minutes.  While waiting, it was interesting to learn that Heathrow has only two runways (unchanged since the 1960s) and that it now lags behind Frankfurt and Paris CDG as the busiest European airports (primarily due to inability to accept further capacity).  We finally touched down in Copenhagen at 4:45pm local time, got our passport stamp, claimed our luggage, and then took the S-Tog (train) to København H (central station).  We walked about 10 minutes to our hotel, the Copenhagen Marriott, where we had booked a weekend package that included water view room, box of chocolate, wine, daily breakfast buffet, and three-course dinner one night.  At check-in, we were upgraded to a corner room with a nice view but despite Doug's valiant attempt, we could not get access to the Executive Floor.  We freshened up and then found an ATM machine to dispense some Danish Kroners (DKK), and then ate a famous Danish Hot Dog (Pølse).  We went into Tivoli Gardens, described as "the world's grand old amusement park since 1843."  We thought it was a lot like the PNE/Playland, but nothing too special.  Most of the park is taken up by expensive eateries and it was disappointing to learn that in the Concert Hall, the main Gymnastics Show (National Danish Performance Team) would cost an additional DKK190 (CAD$35) per person, in addition to the DKK75 (CAD$14) entry fee to Tivoli.  Copenhagen is one of the most expensive cities in Europe - on par with London!  We decided to skip the show and wait for the next event, which was a pantomime show at 9:00pm.  Just our luck that this show was cancelled due to sickness of the performers!  It was starting to get chilly and windy, with a few drops of rain, so we decided to leave Tivoli and head back to the hotel, enjoy our wine, and then turn in early.

Arabian-style Palace at Tivoli Gardens

Gloria at Tivoli Gardens

 

June 3, 2006

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - STRØGET, WIENERBRØD, AND SMØRREBRØD

Still on Vancouver time, we woke up early at 5:00am local time and waited for the breakfast buffet to open at 6:30am.  After enjoying a large breakfast, we rested for a bit and then headed out at 11:30am.  We were greeted by a typical Vancouver sight - grey skies with showers, and a chilling wind.  The high was only 14°C!  We walked down Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard (he wrote many of his famous fairy tales in Copenhagen) and arrived at Rådhuspladsen (City Hall Square).  We followed the walking tour in our Rick Steeves' Scandinavia book and went down the Strøget - the famous pedestrian-only shopping street.  We were fortunate that it was a long weekend and the annual Copenhagen Whit Carnival was happening, with a  parade down the Strøget with music and dancers in Carnival costumes!  We made our way through the crowd down the Strøget and stopped at the bakery Reinh van Hauen (since 1897) to pick up some wienerbrød (what we call "danishes" in North America).  They are so named because they were introduced by Viennese bakers who brought the art of pastry-making to Denmark, where the Danes say they perfected it.  We walked past a five-storey Bodum store with every Bodum product one could possibly imagine!  The family-owned and operated company was founded by Peter Bodum in 1944 in Copenhagen, although its headquarters is now in Lucerne, Switzerland.  At the end of the Strøget, near the largest square in town called Kongens Nytorv, we stopped at a café where we tried some equally famous Danish open faced sandwiches (smørrebrød). 

Hans Christian Andersen

Danish Open Faced Sandwich (Smørrebrød)

Copenhagen Whit Carnival

 

The Strøget ends at Kongens Nytorv which then joins a trendy harbour called Nyhavn, which used to be a sailor's quarter.  We identified the pier for the Netto-Bådene touring company, and hopped on one of their open deck boats for a boat tour.  We saw many interesting sights, including the (backside of the) Little Mermaid statue (the Disney version is not the original story!), the hippie establishment of Christiania, the Royal Library (so called "Black Diamond" because of its shiny black granite facing), Christiansborg Palace, and the Stock Exchange.  After our boat tour, we walked to the Amalienborg Palace (home of Queen Margrethe II) and watched the changing of the guard.  We walked back to the Strøget and ate more open-faced sandwiches before walking back to the hotel.  After a long nap, we had dinner at the hotel (Italian cuisine) and then relaxed at the hotel.

Colourful Buildings at Nyhavn Harbour

Changing of the Guard at Amalienborg Palace

 

June 4, 2006

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - LITTLE MERMAID AND ALL ABOARD

Gloria woke up early again and we had breakfast in the hotel again.  Today, the weather was absolutely gorgeous - sunny and warm, with a nice breeze.  We checked out of the hotel and grabbed a taxi (a Mercedes-Benz E-class station wagon!) to the pier where we dropped off our luggage and then had the driver take us to Little Mermaid statue.  The statue was given to the city by the Carlsberg Brewery in 1912.  We strolled around the waterfront and then walked back to the ship. 

The Little Mermaid Statue

Wonderful Surprise from Katie and Wilson!

 

Once in our aft balcony stateroom, we were pleasantly surprised by roses, champagne, and chocolate-covered strawberries that our friends Katie and Wilson had gotten us - THANK YOU BOTH!  We had lunch, played ping pong, tried to get on the Internet (no luck - satellite connection was down), and then caught a movie.  We looked at the menu for dinner and it was the Sailaway Dinner menu (one we've already had twice this year) so we decided to eat the Sterling Steakhouse for the first time.  Gloria enjoyed her 16-oz. Ribeye steak (which she couldn't finish) while Doug had a 22-oz. Porterhouse steak.

Our "Just Married" Cabin

Gloria and the Display of Steaks

Gloria and her 16-oz. Ribeye

 

June 5, 2006

AT SEA

Gloria got up early to go to the Yogalaties class (part Yoga, part Pilates) and then we headed for breakfast at the Horizon Court.  At 10:00am we attended a talk about our next port of call - Stockholm - given by the cruise director, John Lawrence.  He has been cruising the Baltics for the last 15 years and shared a wealth of experience with the audience.  We also stayed to hear a talk about authentic Russian lacquered boxes and nesting eggs.  Little did we know that this was to be the last relaxing day for nearly a week!

 

June 6, 2006

 

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - VASA, GAMLA STAN, AND ROYAL PALACE

Unfortunately, the Star Princess drops anchor near the Swedish town of Nynashamn, about an hour from Stockholm, and one needs to tender to shore and then take the train into Stockholm.  All other cruise ships actually dock at the pier in the city, which makes for much easier touring!  Therefore, the alarm went off at 5:30am and we were off quickly to have breakfast and then to get our tender tickets.  The train from Nynashämn to Stockholm only runs once an hour, and in order to maximize our time in the city we knew we had to get off the ship quickly and get on the first possible tender and train.  We managed to get off the ship at 6:45am and we were in Nynashämn by 7:05am.  Unfortunately, we had already missed the 7:07am train by the time we walked to the train station (about 15 minutes), but we did have some time to find an ATM machine to get some Swedish Kroner (SEK).  We arrived into Stockholm at 8:15am and exited the Central Station and immediately hopped on the #47 bus to the Vasa Museum.  The Vasa is a 17th century warship that was commissioned by King Augustus and was ready for her inaugural voyage on August 10, 1628.  The "King" (he ousted his nephew and declared himself King of Sweden) wanted to show off the Swedish military might and ordered the ship to be large, grand, and at the very last minute, added a second cannon deck.  Unfortunately, this made the ship extremely top-heavy and unseaworthy.  As she sailed out of Stockholm harbour, the breeze caught her sails (only half were open) and she listed and tilted.  Having not even traveled two kilometers in her 20-minute maiden voyage, she started taking in water through the opened cannon holes and to the King's and country's great embarrassment, she sank to the bottom of the Stockholm harbour.  There she lay for over 300 years until 1961 when she was brought up from the ocean floor (at the bottom of which she had remained well preserved due to the absence of the destructive mollusc teredo navalis in Baltic waters).  We were very fortunate to have a museum tour with just five others when there were hundreds of people inside the museum on shore excursions (there were at least three large cruise ships in Stockholm port).  We left the museum and ate a hot dog en route to the ferry to Gamla Stan (old island core).  We started at the Royal Palace, went to the Iron Boy (the city's smallest statue - a tribute to orphans who had to transfer cargo from sea ships to lake ships before Stockholm's locks were built), and then went to Stortoget (the main city square and home of the Nobel Museum, where all 700+ Nobel Prize winners are displayed; the square also has a notorious history as the place where dozens of Swedish aristocrats were murdered by the King of Denmark) 

The Stern of the Vasa

Gloria in the Gamla Stan

Stortoget (Main Square)

 

We quickly strolled through the Royal Armory in the basement of the Royal Palace, with the most interesting item in the museum being the actual horse ridden into battle by King Gustavus Adolphus in 1631.  We stayed at the Palace for the Changing of the Guard which was very festive, since it was Sweden's National Day like our Canada Day or the 4th of July in the USA.  On the way back to the train station, we walked down the main pedestrian-only street Drottningsgatan and passed by Stadshuset (City Hall; site of the annual Nobel Prize banquet), and then headed back to Nynashämn to tender back to the ship.

 

Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace

Gloria on Drottningsgatan

 

June 7, 2006

HELSINKI, FINLAND - SQUARES, CHURCHES, AND FORTRESSES

Today, the ship arrived in Helsinki and we were off the ship by 8:45am.  We lost one hour when the clock was set forward overnight.  We headed out of the pier, walked past the port's shuttle bus (charging 5 € each way), and found the bus stop for the #16 bus (6 € for a 24 hour unlimited pass on buses, trams, and ferries).  The nice bus driver motioned us to get on and didn't even charge us!  We were dropped off outside of Stockmann, which is like the Harrod's of Finland.  We walked down a beautiful avenue called Esplanadie and at the end of the street was Market Square.  Partly for tourists and partly for locals, this market is like a flea market and has fruits and vegetables, souvenir stalls, and food stands all side by side.  We bought some local strawberries (small and sweet, like Vancouver's), tried some local jams, ate some Vandaces (small fish, like smelt) and then continued on to the Uspenski Cathedral, which is the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe.  After Sweden had been in power for over 300 years, Russia took control of Finland and the Russian influence is very evident in present day Helsinki.  The city has no medieval past, and most of the neo-classical buildings were designed for the Russian Czar, in an architectural style similar to St. Petersburg.  We walked a short distance to the second of three churches on the day's itinerary - the Lutheran Cathedral, or more commonly called "the Wedding Cake." 

Gloria Trying Vandaces

Gloria at Uspenski Cathedral

Lutheran Church ("Wedding Cake")

 

Next we took the tram to the Temppeliiaukio Church (Rock Church).  This was designed by two brothers who built the church by blasting out solid granite and then capping it with a copper-and-skylight dome.  From an aerial view, it looks like an embedded alien ship!  From here we took a train to the Sibelius Monument, which commemorates Jean Sibelius, the Finnish famous composer.  We continued on the tram until it did a full circle (with a stop at another market - Hakaniemi) and ended up back at Market Square.  Tempted by the many busy food stalls, we decided to have lunch there and ate a Norwegian Wild Salmon Paella and fried Vandaces.  After eating, we hopped on the ferry to the Suomenlinna Fortress, which is a World Heritage Site.  This fortress protecting Helsinki had never fallen in war (despite being besieged by Russian forces in 1808 and bombarded by English and French fleets during the Crimean War) but had been turned over three times voluntarily.  It is sometimes referred to as the "Gibraltar of the North."  After visiting the Suomenlinna Museum, we took the ferry back to Market Square and then the #16 bus back to the ship, just in time for dinner.

Temppeliiaukio Church

Gloria at the Sibelius Monument

Gloria at the Suomenlinna Fortress

 

June 8, 2006

 

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - PETER THE GREAT'S "VENICE OF THE NORTH"

We lost another hour overnight as we moved eastward another time zone and we were up bright and early to get off the ship quickly to enjoy the fascinating city of St. Petersburg.  We were ashore by 7:15am but our meeting with our guide, Alla Ushkova, was not until 8:00am.  We passed through Immigration (we did not need visas because we were on organized tours) and then waited in the chilly breeze for Alla, who came on time, but not early as we had hoped.  We hopped into a nice Mercedes minivan and off we went!  Our first stop was the St. Nicholas' Cathedral, with its gorgeous pale blue façade and gold cupolas.  We then drove past the Mariinskiy Theatre (also known as Kirov Theatre), home of the famous ballet and one of the most important cultural institutions in Russia (unfortunately, opera was playing that night and not ballet).  We passed by the Bronze Horseman (1,625 tonnes equestrian statue of Peter the Great - newlyweds are supposed to pose underneath it for good luck) and the two 14th-century BC sphinxes situated in front of the Academy of Arts

St. Nicholas' Cathedral

The Mariinskiy (Kirov) Theatre

Equestrian Statue of Peter the Great

 

We next stopped at The Strelka, or "spit," which used to be St. Petersburg's main centre of commerce.  The most obvious feature here are two large, 105-ft  russet-coloured rostral columns, which were originally lighthouses guiding ships through the busy port of St. Petersburg.  They are interestingly outfitted with the front ends of Swedish ships defeated by the Russian navy!  From the Strelka we had great views of the Hermitage Museum and of our next site of visit, the Peter and Paul Fortress.  This is where St. Petersburg all began in May 1703 on the orders of Peter the Great, and now the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral houses the tombs of Tsar Peter I himself and all subsequent monarchs of the Romanov line (with the exception of three).  In 1998, a controversial decision was made to rebury the remains of the last Romanov tsar, his wife and children, and the servants that died together with them in a chapel by the entrance to the cathedral.  The Peter and Paul Fortress is also famous for being a prison, having held such people as Dostoyevsky, Trotsky, and Peter the Great's own rebellious son, Alexei.  Our next stop was the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood, also known as the Resurrection Church of Our Saviour.  This Russian Revival style church was started in 1883 and comes with a fascinating story: Tsar Alexander II (ironically, one of the most popular tsars in Russian history and known as the People's Tsar) had seven assassination attempts prior to his fateful death.  The eighth attempt would occur on March 1, 1881.  On this day, a bomb went off and destroyed the Tsar's carriage, but remarkably, he walked away unscathed.  Unfortunately, as he was walking away from his bomb-proof carriage, a second assassin threw a grenade which landed at his feet and critically injured him.  The Church on the Spilled Blood is built on the exact location where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and it is an absolutely stunning monument to him with its colourful onion domes and beautiful tile mosaics inside. 

Rostral Column at the Strelka

SS Peter and Paul Cathedral

Resurrection Church

 

We next headed to the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest art museums in the world.  It was started by Catherine the Great in 1764 and over a decade she amassed over 2,500 paintings, 10,000 carved gems, and 10,000 drawings.  It has since added many more pieces and now includes the Winter Palace (originally built for Empress Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter) where the Imperial family lived until the Revolution.  With over three million pieces of art now, it is said that if one wanted to view every piece in the museum for one minute, it would take over 11 years to see it all!  We saw some of the most famous paintings: The Litta Madonna (c.1491) by Leonardo da Vinci, Ea Haere Ia Oe (1893) by Paul Gaugin, La Danse (1910) by Henri Matisse, and even visited the Gold Rooms (housing 1500 gold items dating from the 7th century B.C. to the 19th century A.D.).  We had a quick lunch and then enjoyed the great view of Palace Square just behind the Hermitage. 

Winter Palace

Gloria at the Hermitage

Palace Square

 

In the center of Palace Square is an enormous column - the Alexander Column - built to commemorate the victory of Tsar Alexander I over Napoleon.  The red granite pillar has no attachment between the column and the base; it is actually balanced by a 600-tonne weight with no grooves and no cement, making it the largest free-standing monument in the world!  In WWII, a German shell hit the pillar head-on, and it didn't even sway - only a tiny piece of marble chipped off!  After leaving the Hermitage Museum we stopped at Yusupov Palace.  The Yusupovs were aristocrats with strong ties to the Imperial family.  While beautiful in and of itself, the palace is most famous for being the site of the murder of Grigoriy Rasputin by Prince Felix Yusupov.  An uneducated peasant and "holy man" from Siberia, Rasputin exerted an extraordinarily powerful influence over the Royal family and was therefore murdered in dramatic fashion - poisoned, shot, left for dead, shot again three times, and then dumped into the river (autopsy later showed that he died of drowning and that someone had removed his penis, which is alleged to be a legendary thirty cm (!) in length).  We were exhausted but soldiered on to our next stop - St. Isaac's Cathedral.  One of the world's largest cathedrals (second in height to only St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London), its construction was a major engineering feat.  Thousands of wooden piles were sunk into the marshy ground to support its weight of 300,000 tonnes and 48 massive columns were hauled into place.  The golden dome (with 200 lbs of gold; so well-made it has never needed reguilding) can be seen from across all of St. Petersburg.  Inside the cathedral, the inside is full of mosaics, painstakingly assembled tile by tile, instead of paintings.  After leaving St. Isaac's Cathedral, we fought St. Petersburg traffic (Russia must have some of the most aggressive drivers anywhere in the world!) to get to the Mussorgsky Opera and Ballet Theatre.  We actually ended up walking the last two blocks to the theatre because it was so gridlocked that it was faster than driving!  There, we watched the ballet "The Moon Princess" (aka "The Story of Taketori").  When trying to enter the theatre, we noticed that, as with everything in St. Petersburg, money is the key.  We had to buy special "tourist tickets" at additional cost even though we were in the same seats as everybody else!  In our two days in St. Petersburg, we saw that to bypass lines or rules, a few rubles are necessary to pay off traffic police, regular police, entrance personnel to the major tourist attractions, washrooms, etc!  Completely exhausted after the ballet, we made it back to the ship just before the dining room closed and had dinner before going immediately to bed.

Alexander Column

The Gold Dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral

Moon Princess at Mussorgsky Theatre

 

June 9, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

Today, we were out on the pier at 8:30am and headed off to the Choral Synagogue.  There is a small number of people of Jewish faith in Russia (Eastern Orthodox and Muslim being the most common religions).  After a quick stop, we headed out of the city to visit the Tsar's Village (also called Pushkin) and the Tsarskoe Selo (Catherine's Palace).  The sun was finally shining for us and it was a beautiful drive out of St. Petersburg, which was preparing itself for the G8 summit.  Catherine's Palace was actually built for Peter the Great's daughter, Tsarina Elizabeth, who named it in honour of her mother, Catherine I.  What an amazing place!  The stunning 300-m long Baroque façade is breathtaking.  The palace was nearly completely destroyed by the Nazis in WWII but over half of it has been restored to its original glory.  The restoration work is continuing today.  In fact, the Nazis shelled St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) for 900 days, and Hilter actually ordered the city to be burned to the ground, even if its citizens would agree to surrender.  We saw many different opulent rooms, including the Amber Room (the walls completely covered in amber), which Peter the Great saw at the Prussian palace of Friedrich Wilhelm I and subsequently he received the amber as a gift from the Prussian monarch.  We went through many other opulent rooms of Catherine's Palace before heading outside to the gardens.  For lunch we ate bliny (similar to a French crêpe) - one with chicken and mushroom, and the other with ham and cheese.  We headed back towards St. Petersburg city and our final stop of the day would be Peterhof Palace

Tsarskoe Selo (Catherine's Palace)

Gloria Enjoying her Russian Bliny

Peterhof Palace

 

Peter the Great, who was entranced by the sea, had spent many years working as a shipbuilder in Holland before founding St. Petersburg at the edge of the Baltic Sea in an attempt to convert Russia into a naval nation and to bring the country closer to Europe.  He was also very impressed with King Louis XIV's palace in Versailles.  Fittingly then, his own palace, Peterhof, was built to rival Versailles and Peter the Great wanted "water everywhere."  The palace has a canal leading out into the Gulf of Finland and the gardens (over 1500 acres) have 64 fountains and 142 water jets, all fed by the underground springs of Popsha Hills about 22 kilometres away up on a hill!  The fountains use over 30,000 liters of water per second, and even more remarkably, it is all run by gravity - there are no electric pumps anywhere!  We didn't go into the palace rooms itself as it's apparently quite similar to Catherine's Palace inside.  We finished our tour by heading back to the ship - exhausted by two days of sightseeing in beautiful St. Petersburg.

Fountains at Peterhof

The Gardens at Peterhof Palace

Gloria and the Gulf of Finland

 

June 10, 2006

 

TALLINN, ESTONIA - THE CITY OF SPIRES

The ship arrived into Tallinn at 7:00am and we were off the ship by 8:00am.  It was sunny and 18°C.  Tallinn is one of Europe's best preserved medieval cities, and it certainly lives up to this title - most of the buildings are originals, from the 15th century!  It is also known as the "City of Spires," which is also aptly named because of the many spires that point towards the sky (26 watchtowers remain).  We headed from the pier towards the old town, past "Fat Margaret" (so-called because it is a round and low cannon tower) and onto Pikk St.  The Old Town is actually made up of two original feuding towns - one Germanic lower town, for Hanseatic League merchants, and one Estonian upper town.  We walked into the main square (Town Hall Square) which had been a marketplace for centuries, but nothing was open yet as it was too early.  We then followed Rick Steve's walking tour into the upper town.  We stepped into the Apothecary, which was established in 1422 and claims to be the Europe's oldest (although so do many other pharmacies in Europe!).  We walked past the Wheel Well (so-called because of it's "high-tech" wheel), St. Nicholas' Church (completely destroyed during WWII and rebuilt), Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (a sign of Russian rule from the days of the Soviet Union), and the pink Parliament Building

Gloria and Fat Margaret

Gloria in Europe's "Oldest" Pharmacy

Wheel Well

 

We then walked to the upper town for a great view out into the Baltic Sea.   Estonia has an interesting history of suppression and retaliation.  The Russians, led by Peter the Great, claimed Estonia in the 18th century and held onto power until Nazi Germany invaded.  Subsequent to WWII, Estonia became one of the Soviet states.  However, its people disliked the Russians and always yearned for independence.  Tallinn is a mere 50 miles from Helsinki, and as of the 1980s, its citizens had only seen bananas and pineapples on television, from signals stolen from Finnish satellite feeds!  In 1987, as the USSR was unraveling, the Estonians proudly and defiantly replaced the red Soviet flag with their own flag from the Toompea Castle.  In 1988, 400,000 patriots (a third of all Estonians) gathered at the festival song grounds outside Tallinn to sing national songs and by 1991, Estonia had declared its freedom from the Soviet Union.  We finished our walking tour by seeing the famous Müürivahe Street where local women sell their knit clothing.  We bought some toasted almonds, watched a band performance and then we soon headed back to the ship as we were only docked until 1:00pm.

Gloria and the Estonian Parliament Building

City of Spires

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

 

June 11, 2006

GYDNIA/GDAŃSK/SOPOT, POLAND

Today, we arrived to the Tri-City area of Gydnia, Gdańsk, and Sopot.  This area, in the Pomerarian region of Poland, has a very interesting history beginning with the Teutonic Knights in Medieval times and more recently with its intimate involvement in WWII.  We were one of the first people off the ship and met immediately with our tour guide, Agnes.  We had booked the tour on the Internet and we were joined by another couple.  The weather was once again fantastic - 23°C and sunny.  Our first stop would be the Stuthoff Concentration Camp.  Hitler's Nazis heralded the start of WWII by invading the city of Gdańsk in 1939, which at the time was an independent "Free City of Danzig" not falling under the jurisdiction of any country.  Soon after, the Nazi reign of terror across Europe began.  Construction of the concentration camp was begun in 1939 by the first prisoners brought there from Gdańsk, and by the time the Russians arrived near the end of WWII in 1945, over 120,000 men, women and children had passed through the camp, with only a handful of survivors.  It is estimated that 60,000 died on site - either from emaciation, shooting, lethal injection, or gas chamber.  After this sobering view of Stuthoff, we were taken to the city of Gdańsk, where we we visited many highlights including the medieval Crane (from the 15th century!), St. Mary's Church (biggest brick church in the world), and Ulica Dłuca (Gdańsk's colourful showpiece main drag).  Gdańsk had always been a wealthy merchant city in the Hanseatic League, and Polish kings would visit the city and walk along the same path that the tourists do today - the so-called "Royal Way." 

Terrifying Pile of Shoes at Stuthoff

The Medieval Crane

The Royal Way

 

We then stopped at a local eatery to enjoy local perogies - filled with cottage cheese, buckwheat with bacon, chicken with nuts and raisins, meat, spinach, sauerkraut, or strawberries.  We headed past the Crane and stopped briefly at the Gdańsk shipyard and Solidarity monument.  This is where brave shipyard workers, led by a walrus-mustachioed shipyard electrician by the name of Lech Wałęsa, took on the Communist government and formed a worker's union in 1980.  This was the beginning of the end for Communism in Poland, which became a democratic country in 1989.  After this short stop, we went to the beautiful (and posh) beachside town of Sopot, which was packed full of weekenders enjoying the warm weather.  We walked along the beachfront and saw the Grand Hotel, and could see why this has been dubbed the "Nice of the North."  Sopot had been created in the late 19th century by Napolean's physician who believed that Baltic Sea water was therapeutic.  To this day, the health resorts remain in Sopot!  On the way back to the ship, we briefly saw the town of Gydnia and Gloria bought some amber earrings (the amber comes from Russia, but the silver comes from Poland). 

Gloria on the Bridge Leading to Gdańsk

Solidarity Monument

Doug on the Beach at Sopot

 

That evening, we were invited to special Captain's cocktail party for those who have sailed frequently with Princess, and there we chatted with the ship's doctor, who happened to be a British-born Chinese.  He had been promoted to the passenger doctor (from being physician to the crew) just ten days before the tragic fire that hit the Star Princess.  He told to us how he had been called to sickbay within minutes of the fire and there had been one casualty.  In addition, he had lots of interesting stories about being the doctor on board.  For example, on a world cruise lasting several months, about one-third of the passengers don't finish the cruise - either because they die or need to be evacuated due to medical illness!

 

June 12, 2006

 

AT SEA - RELAXING AT LAST!

Finally, we had a relaxing day At Sea!  And the weather could not be better - 22°C and sunny!  The sun "rises" at 3:30am and "sets" at 10:30pm in this part of the world at this time of year.  We woke up late, ate a leisurely breakfast, watched an hilarious cooking demonstration, ate two lunches, had afternoon tea, and then got ready for our second formal night.  After dinner we watched the show and went to bed early as we would arrive in Oslo at 7:00am the next morning.  Now this is more like a cruise!

 

June 13, 2006

OSLO, NORWAY

The ship actually arrived early in Oslo to evacuate a passenger with a medical emergency, so we managed to get up at 5:30am and we were off the ship by 6:45am.  It was a gorgeous day - sunny and 26°C - which is unseasonably warm for Oslo.  We found an ATM machine to dispense Norwegian Kroner (NOK) but to our dismay the machine spat out a NOK500 bill!  We wanted to get public transit day passes (NOK60 each) to take the tram, bus, and ferry but the ticket machine would not take bills larger than NOK200.  At this time in the morning, almost nothing was open (even McDonald's opens at 10:00am in Scandinavia!), and anything that was open did not have change.  After watching two trams go past as we tried to break our large bill, we decided to go back to the ATM and get NOK200.  We finally got on the tram (we watched another go by as we were buying our tickets) and then headed to Frogner Park.  Norway's most famous sculpturist, Vigeland, spent most of his life creating all the sculptures in the park, with a circle of life theme. 

Which One is the Big Baby?

"Bad Hair Day"

Circle of Life Fountain at Vigeland Park

 

After walking around for about an hour, we took the tram back to Radhusset (City Hall) and took the ferry to Bygdøy, a neighbourhood with a number of interesting museums.  We decided to visit the Viking Museum, which houses three of the best preserved Viking vessels.  While not as impressive looking as the Vasa in Stockholm, these ships were built in 900AD - some 700 years earlier than the Vasa!  Next, we took the #30 bus to the National Theatre and then took the T-Bane (Metro) to Holkollmen, which is the home of the ski jump featured in the Lillehammer Olympics.  We had heard that from the Holkollmen T-Bane station it is a 10 minute walk to the ski jump, but if one goes to the next station along the line, it is a nice 15 minute downhill walk.  When we arrived at Voksenlia station, we unfortunately had no map and started walking downhill on the only path we could see.  After 15 minutes, we ended up at the Holkollmen station!  We then had to walk the ten minutes up the very steep hill to the ski jump, and then noted that there was an admission gate (NOK70)!  We figured we only had about 15 minutes before needing to head back to the city (the ship was leaving at 2:00pm), so opted to leave Holkollmen.  We took the T-Bane back to the National Theatre and then walked to the National Museum, where we viewed the famous Edward Munch painting - Scream.  We walked down the street named after Karls Johann (the Swedish King who was actually a French soldier in Napolean's army by the name of Jean Baptiste Bernadette, and not of any royal blood).  We saw interesting sights such as the Grand Hotel and Café, the Parliament Buildings, the Royal Palace, and the Strotorvet (main square which is now a flower market).  As it was already 1:00pm, we started to head back to the ship and returned just in time for lunch.  We then had to pack our belongings and get ready to disembark the next day.  It seemed like such a short cruise because it was so port-intensive!

Viking Ship Museum on Bydøy

Holkollmen Ski Jump

Gloria at the Parliament Buildings

 

June 14, 2006

 

DISEMBARKATION; MALMÖ, SWEDEN - ØRESUND AND TWISTING TORSO

We waited as long as we could and then disembarked the ship at 9:00am.  It was another warm and sunny day - with highs reaching 23°C.  We lugged our luggage to the Nørdhavn S-Tog station and took the 30-minute train ride across the Öresund Bridge from Denmark to Malmö, Sweden.  Completed in 2000, the 16 km engineering marvel took five years to build at a cost of about $3 billion (entirely funded by tolls).  Once we arrived at the train station, it was a short walk to our hotel, the Best Western Premier Master Johän.  Only in Europe do four star hotels that cost CAD$275/night not have air conditioning!  We did, however, get upgraded to one of the largest rooms in the hotel - a business room with separate living room, small kitchenette, large bathroom free internet, and two televisions.  We dropped off our luggage and then walked around town.  We started at Lilla Torg ("little square") which is the social hub of the city, with its multiple busy cafés and restaurants.  We grabbed some food along the way and then walked along the very busy pedestrian walkway until a new shopping plaza called Triangeln.  We backtracked to the hotel and then walked to a  new development called Western Harbour.  This is the reclaimed waterfront property where one can find the tallest building in Sweden and second tallest in Europe - the Twisting Torso.  This building, designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, was inspired by his own marble sculpture of the same name.  The tower's design uses nine five-story cubes that twist as it rises; the top-most segment is twisted 90 degrees clockwise with respect to the ground floor.  Each floor basically consists of a rectangular section surrounding the central core, along with a triangular section, which is partially supported by an exterior steel scaffold.  We then strolled back to Lilla Torg and ate Swedish meatballs and moules frites at a Swedish restaurant (we skipped the traditional reindeer filet with lingonberry preserve), then went back to the hotel.

Doug at Stortorget (Main Square)

Twisting Torso

Doug's Dinner - Swedish Meatballs

 

June 15, 2006

MALMÖ, SWEDEN - SIGHTSEEING AND PEDDLE-BOATING

We had a nice breakfast at the hotel and then went to the tourist information to buy a Malmö Card - a tourist card valid for 24 hours, which includes a daily 90-minute sightseeing tour of Malmö, free transportation on public transit, and free or discounted admissions to attractions.  We got the last two tickets for the 12:00pm tour and we were taken around to the old town, Malmöhus Castle, the Twisting Torso, the Western Harbour, Ribersborg Beach, the limestone quarry (which is now a big hole in the ground since all the limestone has been removed), a UFO-looking water tower, and then to a viewpoint of the Öresund Bridge.  After the tour, we took the bus to an ethnic neighbourhood named Möllevången.  We ate a family-owned restaurant called Krua Thai, and then went to the local supermarket to buy some drinks.  We took the bus back to the canal and then rented a peddle boat for an hour as we peddled around the Slottsparken and Kungsparken.  We didn't actually find Malmö all that interesting but their Tourism Office is great and we were too lazy to go into Copenhagen!  It really seemed like a place for locals to visit - unlike most other tourist places we went to on this trip, everybody was speaking the local language in Malmö!

The Öresund Bridge Connecting Malmö and Denmark

Gloria in the Peddle Boat

 

June 16, 2006

COPENHAGEN TO LONDON - MAMMA MIA!

After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we packed up, checked out, and went to the Malmö train station where we used up the rest of our Swedish change and then headed to Copenhagen airport.  Our flight to London left on time and arrived thirty minutes early - but there was no stand for us at Heathrow!  So we sat on the runway for some twenty minutes before we managed to get on the bus to the terminal.  We collected our luggage and then headed into London on the Piccadilly line.  We got off at South Kensington station and then walked to our hotel, the Rembrandt Hotel.  The hotel was "free" when booking the airfare to London with British Airways, and we were very happy to be upgraded to a new (but tiny) executive room with air conditioning.  We headed out on the Tube to Leicester Square where we went in search of tickets for a musical.  We had seen Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in 2003, so this time we wanted to see a different musical at a different theatre.  We looked at the schedule and the one that caught our eye was Mamma Mia! at the Prince of Wales theatre.  Luckily, we were able to get some tickets (although with slightly obstructed views) for the 8:30pm performance.  How appropriate that we left Sweden only to watch a musical based on music by the Swedish group ABBA!  We had a quick dinner at the Japanese chain restaurant Wagamama in Leicester Square (only in London would one pay CAD$60 for two bowls of ramen while eating on cafeteria-style benches with a dozen strangers) before the show started.  The show was indeed very entertaining, with most of the audience singing along with the performers (unfortunately, ABBA predates us, and we are mainly familiar with the most famous songs).  Nonetheless, we had a great time!

CAD$25 for Chicken Ramen?!?!?

Doug Waiting for Mamma Mia!  to Start

 

June 17, 2006

 

LONDON - TROOPING THE COLOUR (AGAIN!) AND NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM

Sunny with a high of 28°C today, London was having some unseasonably hot weather this weekend.  The pollen count was extremely high as well, and as sufferers of severe hay fever, we were both in misery.  The pollution and smoke didn't help much either!  Red-eyed, stuffy, and sneezing frequently, we decided not to venture far from our hotel.  When we were in London in 2003, we happened to catch Trooping the Colour, which is a parade celebrating the Queen's official birthday (her true birthday is in April).  As luck would have it, again today it was the once-a-year event: Trooping the Colour!  We decided to watch on the television instead of venturing out in the heat towards Buckingham Palace.  In fact, it was actually more interesting to watch on TV as we had the benefit of the commentary.  In a carriage built for Queen Victoria, HRM Queen Elizabeth II rode toward Trafalgar Square and then back to Buckingham Palace along the same route used by England's kings and queens since 1748.  Along with her traveled a parade of over 1100 soldiers (bear hats and all), some of whom who had served in Iraq. Interestingly, soldiers who pass out from standing in the heat are carted off and then disciplined afterwards, having "failed their duty."  Since it was the Queen's 80th birthday, some additional events that we didn't see three years ago included the soldiers firing their muskets, taking off their bear hats and doing three "hip-hip-hooray!" cheers for the Queen, and also a flypass of vintage planes from WWI as well as modern fighter jets.  After the Trooping the Colour, we headed out and briefly ducked into the Victoria and Albert Museum across the street before heading to the Natural History Museum.  At the latter, we enjoyed the dinosaur exhibit.  We then walked to Harrod's and walked around their famous food hall (nothing we could afford) and then we went to Marks and Spencer to buy some Prawn Cocktail Maize snacks.  We were so disappointed when they closed the Marks and Spencer stores in Canada and we now buy these delicious chips everywhere we can find a Marks and Spencer (we last had some in Hong Kong in January).  We had dinner at the Harrod's 101 Food Hall at a sushi bar chain called Yo Sushi.

Flypass for the Queen's 80th Birthday

Gloria and T-Rex at the Natural History Museum

 

June 18, 2006

LONDON - WEST END LIVE AND BRITISH MUSEUM

It was forecast to be another scorcher with a high of 29°C, but because it was cloudier  it felt cooler than the previous day.  We packed up our luggage and relocated it early in the morning (before the hordes of people) to the Novotel Euston Hotel, our hotel for one night before we were off to Paris.  Then we returned to the Rembrandt Hotel to have breakfast.  After a nice breakfast, we went to Leicester Square where there was another once-a-year event - West End Live.  A stage is placed in the middle of the square and performers from the musicals sing and dance short clips from their productions.  We listened to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, watched performers from Disney's hit musical The Lion King, Stomp, and Mamma Mia!  Next, we walked to the British Museum where we saw such relics as the Rosetta Stone (they key to deciphering hieroglyphics), Ramses II statue, and the Amitabha Buddha.  After touring the Museum, we ate dinner at a nearby Korean restaurant Bi Won (no relation to Be Won in Portland, OR, where we often eat).  It was the first Korean restaurant where we've eaten and not received any side dishes and again, only in London would one pay CAD$4.20 for a bowl of white rice!

The Cast of Mamma Mia! at West End Live

Doug and Ramses II

Amitabha Budda

 

June 19, 2006

 

LONDON TO PARIS - EUROSTAR AND THE CHUNNEL

Once again, we packed our bags early in the morning and checked out of the hotel and headed to the Euston Tube station where we ate breakfast.  We took the Northern Line to Waterloo station where we encountered yet another flight of stairs before arriving at the Eurostar train station.  We got on the train and found our seats, which were right behind a deadly duo of terrible-two terrors accompanied by their spineless parents who were all on their way to Disneyland France.  The three hours could not have been longer and we were very glad to leave the train in Paris.  We crammed ourselves into the extremely crowded RER train and then nearly died lugging our bags up the steps from the station to street level.  However, when  we surfaced, we were staring at the Eiffel Tower!  We asked for directions in French (and got an answer in English!) and found our hotel - the Hilton Paris.  We checked in and were nicely surprised by some gifts from the management - a red rose, chocolates by Maxim, and a bottle of champagne!  As non-drinkers we would have preferred juice and free Internet access, but it was certainly a nice gesture nonetheless.  We were too hungry and tired to bother finding a place to eat, so we spotted a Monoprix supermarket and grabbed food at the deli and just ate in the hotel room.

 

June 20, 2006

PARIS - ST. CHAPPELLE AND NOTRE DAME

It was cloudy and a nice 24°C as we headed off to explore Paris.  Our first destination was St. Chapelle.  This church, considered to be the most beautiful in Paris, has the most amazing stain glass windows!  In total the church has 15 windows soaring 15-metres to a star-covered vaulted roof.  Next we ate paninis at a place called Cosi.  There is now a franchise in North America (closest location to Vancouver is in Seattle)  based on the original restaurant in Paris, which opened in 1989.  After lunch, we wandered through the Île St.-Louis hoping to get ice cream at the famous Berthillon, but unfortunately it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.  We walked across the Pont St. Louis bridge back to the Île de la Cité and got in the lineup to get to the tower of Notre-Dame.  They have a disclaimer about being fit prior to entry and with good reason - it's 387 steps to the top, with almost no breaks in between!  However, the view of Paris is spectacular from the top.  We stayed up there for a bit and then went into the cathedral itself.  It's rather amazing how a medieval church built in the 12th century could be of such large size! The gargoyles (to drain away rain water) and chimeras (purely decorative) were interesting to see, as was the bell on which Victor Hugo based the fictional Quasimodo.  Next, we strolled past la rue de la Huchette, where all the Greek restaurants are located (we would return on a later day to eat), and then took the Metro back to the hotel.  We had dinner at a Korean restaurant nearby called Odori.  Their specialty?  Steak tartare à la Coréen a.k.a. raw beef with a raw egg, marinated in sesame oil!  So it's not exactly Korean, but lots of people were ordering it.  We weren't that brave, but did manage to order some Korean dishes such as bulgogi and soondobu.

Stained Glass at St. Chappelle

Chimera at Notre Dame

Doug at Notre Dame

 

June 21, 2006

 

PARIS - SACRE-COUER AND CHAMPS-ELYSÉES

Cloudy and a comfortable 22°C, we headed out and had lunch near the Metro station before going to Sacre-Coeur.  This lovely white-coloured church is built high up on a hill and we were very glad that our 5-day transportation passes also worked on the funicular that goes to the top, instead of needing to take the stairs!  The view of the city was truly spectacular from the top!  The church remains so white because its Château-Landon stone secretes calcite when wet and bleaches the façade white.  We wandered around place du Tertre in Montmartre, watching all the tourists getting their portraits drawn by the street artists, before taking the funicular back down and then passing through an interesting area selling fabrics and really cheap clothes.  We took the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe and then walked down the Champs-Elysées all the way to the Place de la Concorde.  We stopped at the famous McDonald's on the Champs - rumoured to be the only location in the world where the golden arches are not golden.  Apparently they are white because the city would not allow the yellow arches to ruin the look of the Champs!  We even managed to win a free cheeseburger at this McDonald's playing the World Cup instant win game!

Doug in Front of Sacre-Coeur

Gloria Looking at the Artists at Montmartre

Gloria at the Arc de Triomphe

 

June 22, 2006

 

PARIS - CHINATOWN, PANTHÉON, JARDIN DU LUXEMBOURG AND BERTHILLON ICE CREAM

It was cloudy and windy with a nice temperature of 20°C as we headed out on the Metro towards Chinatown.  Actually, Paris has not one but two Chinatowns - an older one, in the southeast corner of the city, and a slightly newer one in the northeast corner of the city (Belleville).  We headed towards the older one which is predominated by Vietnamese Chinese ("boat people"), who settled there in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The first Chinese store opened in 1982, and there are now 150 restaurants in the area.  Two brothers from Laos, the Tangs, opened up Europe's largest Asian produce market - Chez Tang - and on some days 10,000 people can pass through their store!  Paris' Chinatown is not really comparable to what we have in Vancouver or Richmond.  Almost every restaurant serves dishes from Vietnam, Laos, and/or Thailand and we have never seen so many Phó eateries on the same street!  We had lunch at the busiest Phó eatery that only served Vietnamese food - the somewhat unfittingly named "Le Bambou."  The noodle soup was tasty as were the crispy spring rolls; however, it was expensive for lunch (CAD$40), especially considering we each sat at the end of a long table, one elbow against a wall and the other one nearly touching a stranger!  After filling our tummies, we were off once again on the Metro to the Panthéon, which is so named because it was to resemble the Pantheon in Rome.  However, it actually looks more like St. Paul's Cathedral in London.  It was originally built as a church on the instigation of Louis XV to celebrate his recovery from - get this - a serious bout of gout!  It now houses the graves of the city's great citizens, such as Victor Hugo, Louis Braille, and Vincent Voltaire.  We decided not to enter and instead took the bus to le Jardins du Luxembourg, which is a beautiful park with a former palace owned by the Médici family that now houses the French senate.  The highlight of the park is the Fontaine de Médicis and Octagonal Lake, although there is also a children's playground, open-air café, a bandstand, tennis courts, a puppet theatre, and even a bee-keeping school in the garden! We sat and fed the birds as the sun peaked out for a while.  We took the bus back to the Île St-Louis to finally get our ice cream at Berthillon.  We tried passionfruit, raspberry, local strawberry, and even blackcurrant.  It was great until Doug dropped half of his raspberry ice cream on his shoe, and then we had to go back and get another one!  The ice cream portions are tiny but it was absolutely delicious!  We took the Metro back to the hotel for a break, then walked along the Champs again before having dinner in Chinatown.

Gloria at McDonald's in Chinatown

Gloria at the Panthéon

Octagonal Lake at le Jardin du Luxembourg

 

June 23, 2006

 

PARIS - INVALIDES AND OPERA

Sunny and 24°C, we left the hotel and took the Metro to St. Michel, the main street of the Latin Quarter, where we grabbed some gyros and a crêpe for lunch.  We then headed to the Hôtel des Invalides, the resting place of Napoleon.  Actually, most of him rests here in six tombs - apparently someone made off with his penis before he was buried!  We took the Metro to the Opera House where we watched a 45 minute multimedia presentation called Paris Story.  It was very boring and we slept through most of it!  We walked around the huge department stores - Galleries Lafayette, Printemps - and then went back to the hotel.  At night, we had dinner at a different local Korean restaurant, Damie and then had our usual fix of Parisian pastries, including an absolutely to-die-for millefeuille framboise

Gloria at the Hôtel des Invalides

Gloria at the Louvre

Millefeuille Framboise

 

We were a bit sad that it was the last night in Paris and the last night of our honeymoon, but at the same time we were glad to be going home after having been away for three weeks.  This was our second visit to Paris and honestly we don't really understand why it is considered so romantic - crowded with tourists, dog waste everywhere on the roads (apparently Parisians don't believe in picking up after their dogs?), and quite frequently  one gets a whiff of sewage from their 300-year-old sanitation system!  Nonetheless, we did appreciate our time in the City of Lights and look forward to returning again some day.

 

June 24, 2006

 

PARIS TO LONDON TO VANCOUVER

It was hot and sunny as we walked to the nearby bakery to enjoy our final Parisian pastries and crêpe before heading to the airport.  We decided against lugging our bags through the Metro and instead booked a hotel-to-airport shuttle.  The shuttle came fifteen minutes late and in it was a lady from New York who looked really anxious.  She told us that her flight was in less than two hours and the shuttle had been 30 minutes late picking her up.  Then it went to a Holiday Inn where the guests it was to pick up did not show up.  To make matters worse, after it picked us up, the driver stopped at a gas station to fill up!  It was a good thing that we had left a lot of time before our flight, so it was just good humour to us, but we're sure the New Yorker didn't find it funny.  We transferred through Heathrow again and then flew uneventfully back to Vancouver.