Moving through the Baltic Sea highlights the shifting sands of the European balance of power. This strategic brackish “lake” was variously controlled for hundreds of years by German, Russian and Swedish/Danish entities.
During the first half of the 20th century alone, Russia (and the USSR) first lost control of their grip on the eastern Baltic when Finland and Estonia were wrested away after the First World War and then gained control of the southern Baltic coast with the acquisition of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia at the end of the Second World War and then losing them again towards the end of the century. During the same period, German interests first lost the Lithuania and Latvia and then coastal Prussia. Finland was lucky not to have been reabsorbed into the USSR, due to their being allies of Germany during the Second World War and pledged to be neutral while actually favoring the Soviet Union, rather than the US – a promise only now being subjected to change.
This cruise has had a very fluid itinerary – starting from the U-Turn in the Pacific which sent us through the Panama Canal instead of continuing to Asia and, more recently, with the cancelling of our calling at St. Petersburg, Russia being cancelled because of the Russian-Ukraine War. This caused the cruise line to try to figure out what to do with the ship in unanticipated ways. These have included docking at undesirable piers (because they were what was available on short notice), calling at ports rarely visited by English-speaking cruise ships and, in one case (between Warnemunde, Germany and Gdansk Poland) slowing the ship to 7 knots in order to insert an unnecessary sea-day.
We are, for the first time in a long time, visiting ports that we have not seen before – including Gdansk, Klaipeda, Riga, Mariehamm and Rønne – and I’ve had to do quite a bit of preparation in advance. The first three of these (that we’ve visited at the time I write this) have been easy to walk through and, especially in the case of Riga, have enough unexplored sites and museums to entice a future visit.
I also learned an “interesting” fact about my Google Project Fi mobile phone service. It seems that, after three months outside the US, the data link stops working (while we’ve been away longer, apparently our re-touching in Los Angeles and Miami when we made our U-Turn reset its clock). Regular telephony still works, as does Wi-Fi, but apps like Google Map and the search engine have died. So I’ve gone to my off-line GPS software (like Sygic, OSM+ and Maps.Me) with maps pre-loaded from the ship’s Wi-Fi instead.
I figure, by now, at least 30% of the passengers have cycled through COVID isolation of 5-10 days (depending on test status) over the past month and the crew has started taking significant hits since they started being let off the ship to sightsee maskless.
Currently there are roughly 40 passengers in isolation and at least 20 0f the crew – 10 of which are galley cooks, so the specialty restaurants are not booking tables at this time. These are unofficial numbers gathered from chatting with the crew and passengers who are keeping track, but certainly are not numbers being disseminated by the cruise lines. After all, who in their right mind would voluntarily sail on a plague ship?
To the best of my knowledge, there have been no deaths or hospital evacuations, but there have been a number of cases serious enough to require being put on oxygen, etc. We are continuing to mask and have been far less sociable than in the past (no card playing, eating at tables for two, masking in the ship’s theatre, wearing masks inside and off of the ship) and so far, so good. It’s not that we are particularly scared of getting a “bad case” (though I remain concerned about the long-term effects of a COVID infection), but it seems a lousy trade-off to throw away a week of the cruise just to play in a card game. Let’s see if we can manage to get home without catching the bug.
In a sign of the times, NYC has just chucked its last telephone booth. These have now gone the route of the Automat, fire alarm box and the dodo bird – to only be seen again in old movies and the Smithsonian Museum.
In another sign of the times, the young lady who has been picking up our mail in NYC, and who has been as careful as anyone we know about avoiding catching COVID just informed us that it’s finally caught up to her (presumably from a visit to the 99 cent store). Today, all of the crew got tested for COVID and, while the complete results have not been divulged to the passengers, on of the tango dancers is now in isolation (for the second time this cruise – and her husband/dance partner is not amused).
Quite a few guests have been sprung from 5-10 day isolation, but all passengers will again be tested tomorrow. A negative would be a good thing.
Poland is one of the few continental European countries not using the Euro. The Zloty (which means “gold” in Polish) is currently worth $.23 USD, so about a quarter. Some tourist shops will accept USD or Euros, but will likely give change in Zloty, so small denomination banknotes (or preferably credit cards without a foreign transaction fee) are preferable.
As they say in retail, the three most important factors are Location, Location, Location. Before we get into what there is to do and see in Danzig/Gdansk, it is important to understand its unique place in history as a regional point of inflection. It would be, just another former bombed out German Hansiatic city. like Lubeck or Rostock, if it weren’t for its position at the point where empires changed along with borders a number of times over the last century.
Gdansk rose to prominence in the 16th and 17th centuries as one of the most vital towns of the Hanseatic League, an association of seaport cities that controlled much of the trade in the North and Baltic seas. Due to its wealth, Gdansk was hotly contested between German and Polish interests, but it managed to retain its status as a semi-autonomous city-state. After the Polish partition at the end of the 18th century, the city fell under Prussian rule and was known as “Danzig,” its German name. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the city became the “Free City of Danzig” – neither German nor Polish – alongside a Polish-ruled strip of land, “the Polish corridor" that effectively cut off Germany from East Prussia.
Between the two World Wars, Germany had the Danzig shipyards build their new naval vessels. Because their interests were intertwined, Hitler chose the port of Gdansk to launch his war on Poland on September 1, 1939 by bombing the Polish fleet which was trying to take Danzig Harbor.
On September 1, 1939, the Invasion of Poland was initiated by Germany when the Schleswig-Holstein battleship opened fire on the Polish-controlled harbor of Danzig. Danzig paramilitaries and police, supported by Germany, immediately joined the offensive to take full control of the city, by capturing the Polish post office. Polish personnel defended the building for some 15 hours against assaults by the SS Heimwehr Danzig (SS Danzig Home Defense), local SA formations and special units of Danzig police. All but four of the defenders, who were able to escape from the building during the surrender, were sentenced to death by a German court martial as illegal combatants on October 5, 1939, and executed.
After Hitler and Stalin parted ways, the Soviet forces pretty much bombed Danzig to rubble when, later in the war, they pushed the Germans out of Eastern Europe.
After the Second World War ended, Danzig was added to previously German territory given to (now-Communist) Poland with the Polish name Gdansk. During the 1980’s, Gdansk became notorious as the home of the Lenin Shipyards and the Solidarity Trade Union. It was here, where intense negotiations in August 1980 between Solidarity, led by Lech Waesa, and the government resulted in the August Treaty, an official recognition of the first independent trade union in Communist Central and Eastern Europe. The government later reneged on the agreement and imposed martial law.
The ship’s shuttle bus dropped us off along a major thoroughfare outside of the Old City named “Podwale Predmiejskie” overlooking a Novotel. It’s only about a five minute walk to the impressive “Green Gate” at the head of Dlugi Targ, the main pedestrian path through the center of the Old City along which many of the major sites are located. At the other (western) end of Dlugi Targ is the even more impressive “Golden Gate” and the Prison Tower beyond.
The Gdansk Tourist Information Center (Dugi Targ 28/29; tel. 58/301-43-55; www.gdansk4u.pl), run by the city authorities, is just inside the Green Gate (on the right). They sell the Gdansk Tourist Card (may, or may not save you money). Pick up a copy of Gdansk, The Royal Route, a complimentary pamphlet from the tourist information office, for details about the notable Renaissance houses in town.
Just inside the Golden Gate, most days at 11am, there are “tip-only” walking tours available here: https://www.freetour.com/gdansk/main-town-gdansk-free-walkin…
The city was severely damaged in World War II, with the Russians and Allied bombers effectively finishing up where the Germans left off. Gdansk’s newly built/restored Old City feels thoroughly authentic and lived-in by the locals and has been crafted into a beautiful seaside town. Unlike other Polish cities, the heart of Gdansk is technically not called the “Old Town” (Stare Miasto), but I remain a creature of habit.
On the day we visited, kids seemed out from school and all the municipal museums were free. It was a Monday and those museums which were open, opened late.
The Gówne Miasto is where you’ll find the main pedestrian walks, ul. Duga (Long St.), Dugi Targ (the Long Market), and the parallel Pinwa/Chlebnicka and Mariacka are primary tourist shopping streets. North of Podwale Staromiejskie, you’ll find more plebian shops like supermarkets and pharmacies. Dugie Pobrzeze, a pedestrian walkway, outside the city’s walls, along the Motawa Canal (part of the original moat which surrounded the city).
Since medieval times, the center of the Baltic amber trade was Gdansk. It washes up on the beaches during storms and, since it floats in salt water, can be “mined” by shoveling sand (which may have amber mixed in) into tubs of salt water and gathering the amber which floats to the top or using ultraviolet light on the beach at night. It comes in all shades of brown, sometimes cloudy white and sometimes black. It frequently has inclusions like air bubbles, pieces of vegetation and even insects trapped inside. It’s known by its German name; “Bernstein” (burned stone). Stores and street stands sell the stone throughout the city, but are concentrated on the main street of Dluga and along the prettier but just as crowded Mariacka (at least a 10% discount is easily achievable), While the majority of the dealers are reputable, amber fakes abound, so it’s caveat emptor. (Note: Real amber floats in salt water, while the fakes simply sink, in addition, fluoresce a bright blue or yellow green will fluoresce a bright blue or yellow green under ultraviolet light.)
Gdansk has a number of museums with multiple sites. The one we concentrated on during this trip was the Museum of Gdansk.
Because we took an early shuttle bus to town, we decided to walk out to one of the further branches of the Museum of Gdansk, the Museum of the Polish Post in Gdansk and the associated Memorial to the Fallen Postmen. The museum records and the modernistic memorial sculpture commemorates the stand made by a group of Polish postmen against the attack of Danzig SS troops supporting the Nazi German invasion of Poland during the beginning days of the Second World War.
The Museum of Gdansk Artus Court, located on Dluga, is a fabulously ornate guild house. It’s a bit tricky to find as its entry is from a balcony above a restaurant. Absolutely a must-see.
The Museum of Gdansk, Main Town Hall, located on Dluga, has a number of floors of palatial exhibits as well as a viewing tower which can be climbed to give a bird’s eye view of the city. Absolutely a must-see.
The Museum of Gdansk, Uphagen’s House, located on Dluga, is a reconstruction of an early 19th century merchant’s mansion. It’s not as interesting as the museum’s other branches.
The Museum of Gdansk Amber Museum on Rajska is a great place to see how fancy amber can get, but is a bit of a walk.
The other muli-site museums, all of which were closed on the Monday we visited, include the National Museum, the Archeological Museum and the National Maritime Museum. That leaves a lot more ground to cover next time we return.
There are viewing towers in St. Mary’s Church, the Town Hall as well as the Archaeological Museum (Mariacka 25/26; tel. 58/322-21-00).
St, Mary’s Basillica has an extraordinary alter overlooked by a fantastic modern stained glass window, one of the world’s most fantastic pipe organ and now houses its original clock on an inside wall where all can see the show close-up when it strikes noon (be there ready with your camera set to take videos). This church is a must-see (preferably at noon to see the antics of its original 600 year old clock inside the building. There are roughly another dozen churches in town – which while we didn’t have the time to see them, we heard that St. John’s Church was impressive as well.
The Gdansk shipyards and the Solidarity memorial, and the Roads to Freedom exhibit are located in
Stare Miasto, about a 15-minute walk north of the Old City.
If you are looking for a lunch of Polish food, you might try one of the better places to get pirogues. A great place, just around the corner from St. Mary’s Basillica is Pierogarnia Stary Mlyn (ul. Swietego Ducha 64). Another great place, a bit further north and west in town is Pierogarnia Mandu Gdansk Sródmiescie (Elzbietanska 4/8). If you are looking for a local fish restaurant, Restauracja Rybakówka (Stagiewna 7/1), near the Novotel (and the shuttle bus stop), is a good choice.
Kashubian folk art (Kashubian is an ethnic minority group) in the form of embroidered linen is also a unique regional gift which you can find on Mariacka Street or at Galeria Sztuki Kaszubskiej (Sw. Ducha 48; tel. 503/005-978; www.gskart.pl).
Hala Targowa (Plac Dominkanski 1; tel. 58/346-31-33; www.halatargowa.pl) is a traditional fresh produce and household goods market frequented by locals. From Monday to Saturday starting at 9am, you can pick up seasonal fruits, cheese, sausages, and pierogi for picnics.
NOTE: DO NOT speak Russian here. While many may understand you, there is such bitter anti-Russian sentiment that using the language is counter-productive.
The Teutonic Knights founded Lithuania’s only port, as Memelburg in 1252 as a separate entity from the rest of Lithuania. The port was renamed as Klaipeda during the 16th century (the name was based on Lithuanian for “bread eater” – a somewhat insulting way of referring to townspeople who ate bread but didn’t grow their own grain). Before the Republic of Lithuania was created, Klaipeda and the surrounding area continued as an autonomous region known as Lithuania Minor (Mažosios Lietuvos) and subjected to a very turbulent history. Its history also explains why its architecture does not mimic the Dutch rooflines favored by the Hansiatic cities we’ve been walking through in the Baltic and North Sea, but rather the building style more likely to be found in towns along the Rhine River.
During the Seven-year war from 1757 until 1762, the city belonged to the Russian Empire. Afterwards, in 1807-1808 Klaipeda became part of Prussia and a royal family residence. Much of the older parts of the town was destroyed in the great fire of 1854 and was re-built to look as close as possible to its former state.
Although only unified with the rest of Lithuania in 1923 (after WWI), Klaipeda still considers itself the heart of the country. Its monument celebrating unification represents Lithuania Minor as a brown pole a part of the whole yet not wholly a part.
Much of the southern part of the city was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War and has been restored. The Soviet Union seized Lithuania, in 1945, at the end of WWII and Lithuania remained a Soviet Socialist Republic until the breakup of the Soviet Union over four decades later. It is now the fourth largest port on the Baltic Sea,
Fachwerk architecture (a wood framework filled with bricks and clay) was popular for the construction of warehouses at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the town was expanding rapidly. Clusters of these buildings around the old town and near the port survived the great fire. They have been preserved and converted to different uses. Around the port these warehouses, usually two-stories in height, have been converted into hotels and restaurants.
Located inside the ramparts facing the cruise ship’s dock, the Castle Museum is a fantastic place to explore the history of Klaipeda and its development and, among many other exhibits has a detailed model of the castle fortification alongside other interesting artifacts.
It’s about a kilometer to walk from the cruise ship, past the earthwork ramparts and over a bridge to the Theater Square. There is a small flea market in the square which sells souvenirs and some pretty nice handicrafts.
The beautifully restored Drama Theatre in Theatre Square sits in the heart of the city. Hitler stood in the balcony when he announced Klaipeda’s involuntary annexation to Germany. The Führer threatened to occupy the whole country if the Lithuanian government declined the ultimatum. A statue by Ann from Tharau, dedicated to Simon Dach, a German poet who was born in Klaipeda, adorns the square. Rumor has it that Hitler ordered to remove this statue from its original place as it bothered him that its back faced him.
Also on the square, are two Lithuanian restaurants with local menus which are worth considering for lunch. We ate at Etno Dvaras (Sukileliu g. 8), having bowls of excellent borsht, stuffed potato dumplings (frankly one of these is enough for a lunch) and great potato pancakes. The other restaurant, across the square is Senoji Hansa (Kurpiu g.)which offers another Lithuanian option.
We walked up Targuas ((Turgaus st. 7), and reached the Tourist Information office where we picked up an annotated map (I asked them to print out an enlarged center portion of the map).
Then we headed up Pasjuntiniy to the former local cemetery which was transformed into a wonderful sculpture park back in 1977 and is now a memorial and an outdoor museum. The creative process of this park took over 15 years and a total of 116 impressive granite sculptures live in the park, representing the modern sculpture era in Lithuania.
The History Museum of Lithuania Minor (Didzioji Vandens Street 4) started off real slow, but as we roamed through the rooms, sort of grew on us and became one of the most interesting sites in town.
In Crafts Yard (Menu kiemas, near Didzioji Vandens), also known as the Ethnic Culture Center, is an arcade of Fachwork buildings that have become craft workshops where visitors are invited to touch, feel and learn about the spirit of past times by making local traditional goods themselves with the help of resident experts. Master classes, seminars and other events are regular features here.
Behind the Ethnic Culture Center, on Saltkalviy Street, is the Blacksmith’s Museum. Well known since the sixteenth century, in the mid-nineteenth century, the blacksmiths of the Klaipeda region began casting and making metal crosses and fences for graves all over the country. A serious concern was the decay of Klaipeda town cemetery and its subsequent destruction in 1974. Fortunately, Dionyzas Varkalis, a blacksmith and metal restorer from Klaipeda, succeeded in saving some cemetery monuments which are now on display in the Blacksmith’s Museum.
We checked out the wonderful Meridianas ship moored on the River Dane bank. Built by the Finnish back in 1948 and beautifully restored in 2012, the vessel now houses a luxurious restaurant. Check out the ‘Little Mermaid’ beneath the bridge, on the right bank of the river. Just like all the other marvelous statues in the city, this rather seductive Mermaid is unique. Closely look at the tail which used to appear on a pre-Euro Lithuanian coin.
On the opposite side of the Dane, across from the cruise terminal (about a two kilometer walk) is the restored and converted 19th century Prussian/German coastal defense fortress which houses the Lithuanian Sea Museum. Badly damaged during the Second World War, it was restored during the 1970s and now houses a series of historical exhibits and a large aquarium.
For those willing to spend a few hours out of town, you might consider a trip to the Plokštine missile base (Lithuanian: Plokštines raketu baze). This was an underground base of the Soviet Union built near Plokšciai village, 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) north of Plunge, Lithuania. This was the first nuclear missile base of the Soviet Union built to house underground R-12 Dvina (NATO reporting name: SS-4 Sandal) ballistic medium-range missiles. In 2012 a “very cool” Cold War Museum was opened at the site. (https://coldwarsites.net/country/lithuania/plokstine-missile…)
NOTE: DO NOT speak Russian here. While many may understand you, there is such bitter anti-Russian sentiment that using the language is counter-productive.
While many school teachers talk about “The Baltic States”, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all have different self-images in the same fashion as the former Yugoslav states do. While they don’t have a Balkan-style rivalry, they speak different languages and are distinct entities from each other.
Riga, Latvia’s capital, is set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava. It’s considered a cultural center and is home to many museums and concert halls. The city is also known for its wooden buildings, art nouveau architecture and medieval Old Town. The pedestrian-only Old Town has many shops and restaurants and is home to busy Livu Square, with Riga, Latvia’s capital, is set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava. It’s considered a cultural center and is home to many museums and concert halls.
Riga was already an established trade center in the early Middle Ages along the Dvina-Dnieper trade route to Byzantium. The arrival of the Crusades at the end of the 12th century brought the German Teutonic Knights and forcible conversion to Christianity. The German control instituted over the Latvia and Lithuania lasted until independence—and its culture is still preserved today in Riga’s Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) architecture.
As a member of the Hanseatic League, Riga’s prosperity grew throughout the 13th–15th centuries—with Riga to become a major center of commerce and later, industry, of whatever empire it found itself a subject of. From the 13th century to the birth of nationalism in the 19th and independence in the 20th, Latvia’s and Riga’s (an independent city-state during the Hansiatic period) history are intertwined, a chronicle of the rise and fall of surrounding foreign powers over the Latvians and their territory.
Today, Riga and its environs are home to close to half of Latvia’s inhabitants. Home to Europe’s biggest food market, its oldest zoo and its finest collection of art nouveau buildings, Riga is a city of little-known superlatives.
Despite being heavily damaged by bombing raids during the Second World War, Riga’s historic center has been carefully reconstructed. UNESCO has declared Riga’s historical center a World Heritage site in recognition of its Art Nouveau architecture, widely considered the greatest collection in Europe, and for its 19th-century buildings in wood.
Because the Old Town’s streets do not follow a regular pattern (the rest of the city does), it’s important to get your hands on a decent map of the city or at least have a mobile phone with either a GPS package using pre-loaded local maps or use a data connection with Google Maps. The www.rigathisweek.lv nd www.virtualriga.com websites are in English and useful in describing events, dining, museums, accommodations, transport information, sports and have getting out of town sections.
Riga free walking tours offers a variety of “tips only” walking tours. (https://www.rigafreetours.com/)
While the ship’s literature said that the shuttle bus drop-off point was “The Opera House”, it was actually a block away. This points out the importance of being absolutely sure you know where to find the shuttle if you make your own way into town.
Many of the major sights of Riga can be seen by walking a circle in the Old City.
From the bus drop-off point, it’s a short walk down Teatra Iela to the Convent Yard (where the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design as well as the Riga Porcelain Museum). On the other side of the courtyard is the St. Petera Church (free entry) with its stunning skyline views from its observation platform.
Walking south from the rear of the church to Alksnaja Iela and then keeping an eye on the left side will bring you to the only synagogue in Latvia. A 5 Euro entry fee gets you a tour of a very lovely building.
Across the courtyard from St. Petera Church is the fabulously ornate Town Hall which contains the Tourist information Office (and whose medieval clock comes alive at noon). Walking a couple of blocks north, you’ll find Riga Cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltics which has an organ concert from noon to 12:20 every day. The Lutheran inspired interior is pretty sparse compared to most of Europe’s Roman Catholic cathedrals.
A block further north from the Cathedral is the Three Brothers, a series of three neighboring houses, each built in a different century in a different architectural style. Across the street from the Three Brothers is the Bourse Art Museum which is a great place to duck into if its raining.
While most of the city’s walls have been dismantled, some of the gates, towers and so on remain. Following the street with the Three Brothers further west gets us to the Daugavas Gate, a building complex attached to one of the original towers. Heading back east, down Troksnu Iela will bring past the Swedish Gate and a bit further to the Powder Tower and the Military Museum. About 30 meters from the tower down Valnu Iela, you’ll come to a large arch, labeled “3 Wall Street”, leading into a building. Inside the building is a courtyard with a rebuilt original gatehouse.
Crossing Z.A. Meierovica Bulvaris brings us to part of the vast greenspace which crosses the city. Continue south through the park until you reach the Opera House (Guided tours are 15 Euro).
We continued along Aspazuas Bulvaris until we saw Stockman’s Department Store and then and then made a right turn until we could go under the parkway to a series of massive dome top buildings resembling Quonset huts on steroids. Built during the 1920’s from five re-purposed German WWI Zeppelin hangars near the edge of the river Daugava, Riga’s Central Market covers 72,000 square meters (3/4 million square feet) and is officially Europe’s largest market. More than 3,000 vendors sell an impressive range of fresh local produce here and the stalls are divided neatly into separate hangars selling meat, fish, dairy and vegetables, including an amazing array of sauerkraut and huge jars full of pickles.
Behind the Central Market, in a triangular space between Maskavas Iela and the Daugava River, the Spikeri Quarter is made up of a series of renovated warehouses home to an art gallery, a concert hall and an outdoor square that hosts regular flea markets and open-air cinema screenings. It was also the site of the Jewish Ghetto and is the location of the Latvian Holocaust Museum.
Restaurants to consider:
Restaurant 3 (Kaleju iela 3), in Old Town is a bit expensive, but has a focus on natural ingredients sourced from the forest (sorrel soup, pine ice cream, wild garlic chocolate cake).
3 pavaru restorans (3 Chefs ) “Tam labam bus augt” (Jekaba kazarmas, Torna iela 4) is known for seasonal dishes served from an open kitchen.
Restaurant Domini Canes (Skarnu iela 18/20)
Vincents Restaurant (Elizabetes iela 19)
We never did find Rozena Steet, a narrow alley where you can touch the opposite walls with both hands.
Outside of the center of the Old City, there are areas now designated Creative Quarters. Across the river from the Old Town, the Kalnciems Quarter is an area of beautiful 19th-century wooden houses that have been converted into cafes, restaurants and shops selling arts and crafts. Or head northeast of the city to stroll along colorful Miera Iela (Peace Street) to browse its galleries and its vintage clothes stores before hanging out in a hip cafe.
If you feel like hitting the beach, only a bit out of town, Jurmala is a 20-mile strip of fine white sand and home to a string of beach towns facing the Gulf of Riga. It’s the largest resort in the Baltics and a popular weekend escape with its wooden guesthouses, art nouveau villas and spa hotels. You can reach the area with a 20 minute train ride from Riga’s central station. The rail track runs along the coast from Lielupe to Kemeri and round-trip tickets cost around $5. Majori is a good station from which to get off the train. It has a tourist information center and a pedestrianized main street lined with bars and restaurants.
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck
On our most recent trip to Tallinn, we visited the Tallinn Synagogue (also known as Beit Bella Synagogue) at 16 Karu Street, a short walk into the new city from our shuttle bus drop-off. The ultramodern, airy structure, privately funded synagogue was inaugurated on May 16, 2007. It can seat 180 people with additional seating for up to 230 people for concerts and other public events. It received global attention as it was the first synagogue to open in Estonia since World War II. The original synagogue, built in 1883, was not rebuilt after being destroyed in March 1944 during a Soviet bombing raid on the Nazi Germany occupied city – and Tallinn became the only post-war European capital without a synagogue. Services are held in the mornings and tours later in the day (contact them first - https://www.ejc.ee/).
We decided to try to expand our knowledge of the city by taking in some museums whose names seemed promising. “Tallinn Cards” which cost 34 Euros apiece will be hard to justify. The museum quality was spotty enough to make the investment even more challenging.
The first museum we visited was the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum (Muurivahe 12). This has some pretty good graphics, but a paltry collections of musical items and nearly nothing having to do with the theatre. On the other hand, it was built in to one of the towers along the wall and they had turned the turret into a music studio. Don’t bother with this one unless you are with kids.
We moved on to the Estonian History Museum – Great Guild Hall (Pikk 17). This place had the bones of a guild hall similar to those we have seen in other Baltic cities. Unfortunately, the place had been stripped down to whitewashed walls over the past couple centuries and contained little of interest except of modest sized miscellaneous weapon collection in the basement.
Then we finally hit pay dirt with the Museum of Puppetry Arts (Nunne 4). This was advertised as “get behind the scenes look at the present and history of the Estonian Puppet Theatre”. Actually, the museum was much, much more; containing puppets and marionettes of all kinds from around the world – all tastefully displayed in a modern customized building. I could have spent much more time there.
That said, there is a long portion of the original medieval city wall, complete with towers along Kooll Street on the northwest quadrant of the Old Town which is an interesting contrast to the Arab walls of Jerusalem, the Moorish ones of Seville, the Crusader walls of Dubrovnik.
Estonian history is one of a virtual country. The language is related to Finnish and Hungarian. They were dominated by the Germans, then the Danes, then the Swedes, then the Russians. Estonia was finally granted independence in 1918 with the agreement of the Soviet Union that they relinquished their claim forever (apparently a variable term). They were overrun by the Germans during World War II and then taken back by the Russians again. They finally gained independence again in 1992 and, as part of the deal, switched to using the euro in 2011. When our tour guide expressed sadness over the fact that Estonia had never been ruled by the Finns, I politely pointed out that the Finns have had their own speckled past of similar rulers.
The nearly glamorous (arguably in questionable taste) tall glass monument to independence is topped by a cross within which lies the image of the highest governmental medal that is a curved “E” next to an armored gauntlet clutching a sword (but which looks like a euro symbol next to either a pistol or a hash pipe depending on your point of view). This towers over an overpriced park (from a cost of construction standpoint) built on what was rubble left over from a (disavowed) bombing by the Russians which destroyed half of the city at the end of World War II before they liberated the Estonians from the Germans (who had already departed).
Most of what can be seen has been financed by Swedish banks (who now basically own most of anything valuable in the nation) and the rest belongs to Skype that is headquartered here (that is now owned by Microsoft). Education is free through the post graduate university level, but there are not enough jobs to go around. The birth rate has dropped, but the available jobs seem to have dropped faster and there is an outflow of educated young Estonians. Estonia is one of the handful of nations (the others currently are South Korea, Israel, the UK and New Zealand) who are distributing a small PC (Raspberry Pi) to their elementary school children so that they could learn computer coding (programming) at the same time as they are learning to read.
We explored the excellent Medieval Old Town, built in the 15-17th centuries. This compact area is best explored on foot. I picked up another free walking tour hosted by a student (freetour.com which offers similar tours in other Baltic cities as well). The tour leaves every 11AM from the information office located about 20 meters off the old city’s main square (the Raekoja Plats). Our young guide was as much fun and as irreverent as the young lady we had in Copenhagen a few days ago from a different outfit. We entered the town near the Fat Margaret tower in the medieval walls and made our way to the Town Hall. The buildings are generally medieval in style, but the odd Art Nouveau building fills in the gaps.
The Raekoja Plats is the square in the heart of the Old City, ringed with cafes and restaurants. Raekoda (Town Hall) was built in 1371. This heavy stone structure dominates the square. It now houses the Tallinn City Museum. According to myth, Toompea Hill was built on top of the grave of legendary Estonian king Kalev, but more historically, it is solid limestone and the site of the Danish castle that founded the city in 1219. Toompea was the home of the Danish aristocracy and relations between the rulers and the unwashed masses were often inflamed, that is why it is surrounded by thick walls and there’s a gate tower (1380) guarding the entrance. There are great views over the city from here. There’s also a cluster of amber (merevaik) shops around here (the amber is not of Estonian origin – some of it comes from other shores of the Baltic Sea - but is popular among cruise tourists who feel they are getting a bargain here).
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a classic onion-domed 19th-century Russian Orthodox church that has become a touristy symbol of the city, much to the annoyance of nationalist types who regard it as a symbol of oppression. It was almost demolished in 1924 during Estonia’s first brief spell of independence, but though the Soviets left it to deteriorate, it has been restored to its former glory. Nearby is the Riigikogu, Estonia’s pink parliament building (as the tour guide spoke, a periodic stream of Mercedes left its unguarded gates, so I guess politics pays well here as well). St Mary’s Cathedral (Toomkirik) is the oldest church in Tallinn. Originally built as a Catholic church in 1229 but renovated and expanded many times since then it became a Lutheran church in 1561. The Ex-KGB Headquarters, Pikk 61, now the Interior Ministry and not open to the public, was where the KGB detained and tortured suspected dissidents. A Soviet-era joke says that this was the tallest building in Estonia: even from the basement, you could see Siberia. Actually, while Interrogations were conducted in the basement, but the windows were crudely bricked up with concrete to mute the sound.
The Old City is packed with restaurants claiming to offer authentic Estonian food, particularly on and around Raekoja plats. Prices at restaurants near the Raekoja Plats are generally more expensive, yet offer the same quality of food, as restaurants off this main square.
White Nights! it is now a bit past midnight (another clock change) and the sun set less than an hour ago, but the sky is brightly lit by a full moon. I expect dawn is not far off. I’ve put in a wakeup call for 6AM as I want to get off the ship tomorrow before the ship’s tour groups clog things up. We just got an email that our Israel to Cyprus flight has been rescheduled to 4:20 AM (arriving a bit over an hour later). That not only screws up the last night in Israel, but gets us to Cyprus hours before the car rental places open. I’ll have to try to fix this when we get to Israel (the boss is not amused).
Tallinn is one of the Baltic’s busiest ports and there are car/truck ferries plying in and out of the harbor all day long. The taxis here are quite expensive at about 6€ for “the drop” and another 5.5€ per kilometer. There are a number of ships in port and ours is at a different dock (near the ferries to Stockholm and Helsinki) than the others.
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca
Finland was the name for the eastern Swedish provinces and, while populated by a different ethnic group than the rest of the country, they were few in number. The “Gibraltar of the North” was once the greatest sea fortress in the Baltic, built by the Swedish in the mid-1700s at great expense to protect their eastern flank. But when the Russians invaded in February 1808, the bulk of the unprepared and bankrupt Swedish army hastily withdrew, allowing the Russians to conquer Helsinki without a fight and besiege the fortress. With no reinforcements in sight, its commander, Carl Olof Cronstedt, surrendered unconditionally two months later and Finland was ceded to the Russians. This, along with their ownership of Estonia, gave Russia firm control of the eastern Baltic Sea.
Carl Ludvig Engel (1778–1840) was appointed to design a new city center as the capital of the Russian province of Finland. He designed several neoclassical buildings in Helsinki. The focal point of Engel’s city plan is the Senate Square. It is surrounded by the Government Palace (to the east), the main building of the University (to the west), and (to the north) the enormous Cathedral, which was finished in 1852, twelve years after C. L. Engel’s death.
I won’t belabor the history of Finland other than to comment that they have been squeezed between Sweden and Russia for a few hundred years. They won their independence after World War I from Russia as part of the punishment meted out by the winning powers against Russia for dropping out of the war early and separately making peace with Germany. Finland had a civil war of “Reds against Whites” and the winning side was assisted by Germany.
During the 1930’s and the early 1940’s, as allies of Nazi Germany, they fought an on-going war against the Stalinist USSR – both to protect their territory and to wrest away part of the USSR that they considered the “rest” of Finland. Towards the end of the war, when it became apparent that the Germans were losing and the Soviet Union looked ready to overrun Europe, they switched sides in order to get protection from the USSR from the US and Britain.
As war reparations, they built new warships for the Soviet Navy in their shipyards and agreed to limit the size of their military. Subsequently, Finland remained technically neutral, but actually was politically an ally of the Soviet Union, rather than the US. These constraints changed in 1990 and currently, in the face of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, are considering joining the decidedly anti-Russian NATO.
I’ve read that Helsinki was sometimes used as a movie set during the cold war as a stand-in for St. Petersburg, Russia. While there is one street that has the same feel, you would have to be squinting a lot (or drinking a lot) as it is like comparing the town of Lake George to New York City. That said, this is a lovely place and feels like it mixes the ultra-modern Spartan interior design of the Nordic countries with the feel of a city best suited to black and white movies. As the trams whip down the streets, the unmistakable squeal of overhead electric sparks (something like a mixture of a carillon bell and fingernails dragged across a blackboard) rings out. The streets are clean and many of the buildings ornate. Bank lobbies are decorated with blocky sculptures worthy of images of workers in Soviet Russia. Outdoor cafes reminiscent of Vienna are scattered through the small business district.
The Baltic Sea is essentially a brackish lake as lots of fresh water enters from rivers, but little salt water enters through the small gap between Sweden and Denmark. What little tides there are run only a few centimeters and Helsinki is one of the few European cities where the harbor regularly freezes up during the winter months. The city keeps a fleet of ice breakers year around as well as the ferry lines which serve it having their ferries certified as ice breakers (and, in fact, over 75% of the world’s ice breakers are manufactured in Finland).
The first time we called here on a Holland America Line ship, they had the port supply a $6 shuttle bus and we decided to walk the kilometer into Helsinki instead. On our next visit, Holland America, instead, started suggesting that we use the Hop-On/Hop-Off buses. They have also ceased supplying maps showing the docking locations of the ship in relationship to the towns. One wonders whether this is simply due to laziness or whether there is now some sort of revenue sharing program in place between Holland American Lines and the bus company. Another possibility is that they are trying to make it so uncomfortable for the independent traveler that they will decide to buy the cruise line’s offered excursions. We have noticed (and written about in our comments) an ongoing campaign to increase revenue and cut costs at every possible level causing an ongoing cut in the quality of Holland America cruises. Regardless of the reason, our next arrival was on another line – Oceania - and we took their shuttle bus for free. When we visited in 2022 on an Oceania ship, we were docked a few blocks from the center of the city (and they still supplied a free shuttle bus).
After arriving at the “Market Square” at the “top” of the harbor, we nibbled on samples of fruits, breads and cheeses and I ended up buying my wife a refrigerator magnet for “all the spare change in my pocket” held out in my hand (5 euro thing for about 3.40 euros – still overpriced, but at least a moral victory). Around the corner from Market Square is the vast indoor market which sells prepared food of all sorts (specializing in various forms of preserved fish).
Flanking Market Square is the Senate Square, Presidential Palace and the Uspenski Cathedral. Near the Cathedral is a bay filled with old large sailboats and a light-ship turned restaurant lined with old warehouses converted into modern retail establishments. We stopped in one for some great coffee (the Finns are VERY into good coffee) and free Wi-Fi. Afterwards, we walked back to Market Square.
The Helsinki City Museum (Helsingin Kaupunginmuseo) has free entry and is located on the intersection of Aleksanterinkatu and Katariinankatu. It takes a modern view of Helsinki’s social history.
A great way to see Helsinki is to hop on tram 2 or tram 3. A fare is 2.80 Euros or 8 Euros for a day ticket. This applies to water ferries as well – including the one to Suomenlinna Island. For those heading to the airport, train lines I and P take about 30 minutes for a cost of 4.60 Euros (A, B & C Zones). The center city, harbors and airport all have free Wi-Fi. There are a number of clean, free public toilets in the city center (including one at the Municipal Museum), just follow the signs.
Wine and hard liquor are only available for sale at “ALKO” stores.
Helsinki is typified by Stockman’s Department Store which has about a half floor devoted to sauna supplies. Not far away is the Marttini knife factory store at 28 on Senate Square were you can find literally hundreds of Nordic knife designs – some at discounted prices.
Small shops generally do not have air conditioning because Helsinki has about five minutes of summer per year (but it sure does get dark late over here). In the square next to the harbor, there is a flea market. The Finns do not bargain. They do not even understand the concept of haggling over a price and will get confused and flustered. Last time I was here (in 1993) some of the booths were owned by wily Greek guys who sat in the background and watched their blond sales girls. They would sometimes take pity on the ones that dealt with me and take their place to enjoy a bit of negotiation just to break the boredom of watching Nordics buy all day. Nowadays, bargaining seems to be an acceptable practice in the street markets here.
We continued to a festival street market of food and handmade items a block or two away at “Senate Square” in front of the cathedral. I started a day long negotiation (eventually resulting in about a 20% discount) over a Damascus steel bladed handmade Nordic style knife (called a puukka). The Finnish blades tend to be softer than the Danish ones, but their construction is designed to provide an easy angle for sharpening (a design trade-off). We then wandered down the street to Stockman’s department store and I wandered around the pots, pans and kitchen appliances area. The quality of the items sold were all top notch (Kitchenaid, Kenmore, Bosch, Krup, Le Cruset etc. as well as some local lines of knives from Fiskars and pots from Iittala), but were about 1.5 times the price of similar products in the US (the boss picked up some sort of moisturizing cream which was allegedly a good buy here). We then had a snack in the basement of Stockman’s which was then augmented by world class pastries and coffee at the Karl Fazer Café (a place dating from the 1880’s) at Kluuvikatu 3 a block away (you need to get used to multiple double letters in a word here).
Then we walked down the street to the large Iittalia store which showcased some extraordinary custom pieces of glass along with the more mundane (and nearly reasonably priced) machine made ones. We continued further down the street to Meremekko, a very extreme (and expensive) fabric and clothing designer (no attempt to help the local economy made by us here).
Today was a national military event of some sort and the South Harbor was lined with all sorts of military ships which were open to the public. You could play with the mounted machine guns (unloaded) as well as poke into every orifice missile launcher and control of the ship (all under the adult supervision of Finnish Navy officers). The parking lot was filled with marines in all sorts of battle dress, camouflaged kayaks, assorted vehicle mounted weapons, some sort of German built tripod mounted anti-ship missile and so on – all out there to play with.
Across the street from this collection of hardware was a blocks-long covered “Old Market Hall” filled with food shops and restaurants of all sorts. It was packed with Finns eating lunch. It was late in the day for us, but this will be our lunch destination next time we are in town.
If you see only one place in Helsinki in the summer, make it Suomenlinna. Entry to the island is free. The HSL ferry from Market Square is the cheapest and most convenient way of getting there at €5 for a 12-hour tourist round trip (return). Today’s Suomenlinna is still living in its own time with only old buildings, few cars, fewer than a thousand inhabitants and lots of old fortifications, catacombs and cast iron cannons. But it is not just a museum: the sprawling complex houses restaurants, cafes, theaters and museums, and is a very popular place for a picnic on a fine summer day, watching the vast passenger ferries drift by on their way to Estonia and St Petersburg. It was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1991 as a unique monument to European military architecture. Its church is particularly interesting. It was built as a baroque Russian Orthodox affair in 1853. When the Fins took the island, they stripped the interior of all adornment and took off the exterior adornment (including the roof’s “onion” domes). They then constructed a fence/palisade of cast iron cannons and anchor chain. The site does not resemble the original church in any respect.
To be honest, there are better military and historical museums in other countries, but the signage and videos have good English translations and I got a series of insights that I otherwise would have missed. The Ehrensvard Museum gives a good idea about the house that a 18th century officer would have lived in (and is the first museum to open in the morning at 10am). The Suomenlinna Museum is barely worth the effort, but the Military Museum, while very modest, told the story of how, due to an agreement with the Soviet Union, the military was kept small, poorly supplied and was mistrusted by the government. While not bad, per se, it is a very expensive way to get a little bit of information. That said, the island is pleasant (if it is not raining) and worth considering as providing an easy place to hike.
From the foot of the Market Square, you can take the Helsinki Sightseeing boat (Stromma.com) on a 90 minute tour of the Helsinki bay and canal system. This provides a narrated trip which may be worth the 38 Euro fare (a non-narrated, but less expensive, alternative would be to take a couple of the harbor ferry buses on various routes).
Stroma also offers the “Helsinki Card” (51-55 Euros for adults) which, like similar cards in other cities, covers local transportation as well as admission to a long list of museums and sightseeing activities. And, like other similar cards, can be difficult to break even on without a serious string of sightseeing, so its main benefit may be its convenience.
Helsinki is a lovely place and feels like it mixes the ultra-modern Spartan interior design of the Nordic countries with the feel of a city reminiscent of St. Petersburg and best suited to black and white movies. As the trams whip down the streets, the unmistakable squeal of overhead electric sparks (something like a mixture of a carillon bell and fingernails dragged across a blackboard) rings out. The streets are clean and many of the buildings ornate. Bank lobbies are decorated with blocky sculptures worthy of images of workers in Soviet Russia. Outdoor cafes reminiscent of Vienna are scattered through the small business district. Small shops generally do not have air conditioning because Helsinki has about five minutes of summer per year (but it sure does get dark late over here).
We walked the length of the Esplanadi, a pair of streets separated by a grass mall and lined with Helsinki’s most fashionable stores. On the few warm days of the year, the grass is covered with sunbathing locals. At the other end of this strip is the Market Square – a plaza covered in tents selling cooked food, handicrafts, and furs and assorted other items. In the distance is the Finnair SkyWheel Ferris wheel.
I was able to do the last bit of bargaining (with both the knife maker and my wife) and picked up my new toy (a Damascus steel Nordic hunting knife) on the way back to the ship (where it was not picked up on the security X-ray and I was able to take it to the cabin).
The sail-away took us through the narrow headland which serves as home to the forts which protect the harbor of Helsinki.
The last thought I had about Finland is that no one seems to remember that they were allies of Germany during World War II (presumably because we then became the enemy of their enemy) and that Russia still owns about half of the land that Finland thinks belongs to them.
Tonight the sea has picked up and, for the first time this trip, we are feeling like we are rocking on a ship.
We get back an hour tonight as we head westward.
Mariehamn is an autonomous territory under Finnish sovereignty and is is the seat of the Government and Parliament of Åland. Åland is a unilingually Swedish-speaking and around 88% of the inhabitants speak it as their native language and its regional flag is that of Sweden with a red cross superimposed on the yellow one. Due to its central location in the Baltic Sea, Mariehamn has become a major summer resort town for global tourism; as many as 1.5 million tourists visit there annually.
Åland was taken from Sweden by Russia along with the rest of Finland in 1809. The town was founded in 1861 and named after the Russian empress Maria Alexandrovna, literally meaning “Marie’s Port”. When Finland was created at the end of the First World War, this small bit of former Swedish territory went along for the ride.
The city is located on a peninsula. It has two important harbors, one located on the western shore and one on the eastern shore, which are ice-free for nearly the whole year, and have no tides. The Western Harbor is an important international harbor with daily ferry and freight traffic to Sweden, Estonia and mainland Finland. A powerful incentive for Baltic ferries to stop at Mariehamn is that, as Åland is not part of the EU customs zone, duty-free goods can be sold aboard.
The town suppled a small tourist train to take the passengers on the 1 kilometer trip down the linden-lined Södragatan esplanade to the Market Square which is occupied by stands selling homemade items. Södragatan, which dates to 1859 is lined with wooden houses dating from the 19th century.
While we admired the woolen sweaters which one of the women had knitted all winter, they weren’t inexpensive, at 100 Euros, and we both have enough wool sweaters for now. On the other hand, a lady gave me a sample small cookie/pastry covered with sesame seeds and when I said they tasted Lebanese, corrected me that they were from her family’s Syrian recipe. It turns out her family had been here for three years and were originally from Aleppo. When I asked what they were filled with, she had to look the word up on a language translator and she showed me a picture of a dried date. Anyhow, they were great and we bought a bag.
We wandered down the main retail street, Torggatan Street, dropping into attractive shops and small shopping malls. Nothing here is inexpensive compared to US prices but everything seems high quality. While my wife tried to get work done at four different beauty salons, all required prior appointments (possibly because it’s a weekend). Incidentally, the price of gasoline/petrol is 2.70 Euros per liter for those who are mathematically inclined.
At the end of the street, we made a right turn and then a left at the water. A walk of about ¾ kilometer along the water’s edge brought us to the Sjokvarteret, the Maritime Quarter, which had a marina for antique boats, a number of shops, a museum of boatbuilding (which was closed due to a pending change of personnel and a demonstration of traditional home building techniques. There was supposed to be a Museum of Historical Marine Engines, but it seemed to be missing.
We jumped aboard the tourist train and got off at the ship.
Directly behind our ship was a four-masted “tall ship” windjammer named the “Pommern” and we wandered over to take a look – thereby running into the Åland Maritime Museum – a multi-story incredible collection of historical artifacts and hands-on displays of the sailing era of merchant ships including full sized rooms removed from a variety of types of ships, hundreds of expertly crafted ship models, ship simulators, engines and so on (as well as a number of rooms clearly geared towards kids). Included in the ticket was a multi-media guided tour of the Museum ship Pommern, a historic merchant ship built in 1903 (the lure that drew us there in the first place.
The ship is 94 meters long, 13 meters wide and has a main mast height of 93 meters. It was designed to carry 4,000 tons (8 million pounds), had 28 sails totaling 2,800 square meters and a crew of only 26. Her last voyage was in 1939.
She has served as a museum ship since the 1950’s. Through caring restoration, English audio guidance and well-done signage, the tour of the vast merchant vessel was the highlight of the stop. It has had a modern elevator added to make all decks available to those with physical challenges.
Interestingly, we seem to have been the only passengers on our ship to visit this museum.