Usually my blog functions as a substitute for postcards. It is a way to stay connected with family and friends–a way for them to share in the wonder and excitement of travel without enduring the long plane rides, jet lag, and other miscellaneous discomforts of life on the road.
For this cruise, however, the free wifi was not robust enough to allow photo uploads. Being a very visual person, I saw no point in posting without photos. So, now that I’m home, I’m playing catch up. These postcards were way delayed! But maybe my posts will be helpful to anyone that is considering the Viking Homelands cruise, or might be touring any of the Baltic ports we visited.
Now about Helsinki…
Helsinki was the perfect respite between the two sensory overload ports of Stockholm and St. Petersburg. We took the included Viking tour, which was a morning bus trip with three stops. And that was enough for us.
First stop was the Sibelius monument, which consists of 600 welded stainless steel tubes,
and a bust of the composer.
The guide told us that Sibelius’s bust had seven wrinkles–one for each of his symphonies. I wasn’t able to verify, but I’m not so sure I like that way of displaying accomplishments. If that were the universal yardstick, I’m either way behind with achievements or way ahead with wrinkles.
Our guide told us that when Sibelius died in 1957, at the age of 91, the US Embassy was the only one to have a moment of silence in his honor. Nicely done, USA.
Next up, the Rock Church, which is not its real name, but its real name is long, hard to spell, and not as descriptive. So here’s the story: two brothers got the bright idea to hollow out an enormous hunk of granite, turning it into, of all things, a church. Lo and behold, their idea was the competition winner. After four years of applications, permits and paperwork, plus one year of construction, the church was completed. And here you have it.
Our final stop was at Senate Square, where Russian Tsar Alexander ll stands, with the Finnish constitution in his hand and a bird atop his head (Just so you know, the bird is not a permanent part of the statue). He was quite beloved in Finland, much more so than in Russia, where he was assassinated after freeing the slaves, providing an example of common ground between Russia and the USA.
Behind him is the Lutheran Church, which we opted not to visit. Did you see all those steps? Instead, we stopped inside the tourist information center, where we discovered this promotional brochure from a Finnish company.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I was completely taken in by this brochure, and thought that 1. the company was real, and 2. that it had an amazing sense of humor.
Being a curious soul and having access to the internet, I decided to check this company out and discovered that it is actually fictional — the work of Finnish painter and sculptor Alvar Gullichsen. I wish I’d known that when we were in Helsinki. I would have explored that yellow building in the background, rather than posing for a color coordinated photo.
Ahhh, Stockholm–there is so much to love about you! It’s a nice place to visit and I definitely would like to live here, but only in the summer. Arriving two days before we were scheduled to board the Viking Star was a very good decision indeed.
I haven’t done a numbered list in a while, so don’t you think it is time? Why not throw out 10 somewhat random reasons to love the city? There clearly are many, many more, but hey, we were a bit jet lagged and at our age, it is all about quality time. (Or was “quality time” what I told myself our kid was getting so I didn’t feel guilty about being a working mom? Doesn’t matter –both apply.)
1. THE INHABITANTS Everyone speaks English, and they do so willingly and cheerfully, without trying to make you feel stupid for being uni-lingual.
2. THE MASS TRANSIT SYSTEM Mass transit is easy to decipher, affordable, and appears to run constantly. We rarely had to wait more than 5 minutes, frequently less. Thanks to Rick Steves, we knew we should get the SL card, which was sold at Arlanda Airport. For about $16 (the Senior rate), we got a card good for 72 hours worth of rides on all modes of transportation: T-Bana, ferries and buses. When we departed, we still had 4 hours remaining, so we gave our cards (yes they are transferable) to our friends. What a deal!
3. GAMLA STAN, THE OLD CITY The old town is absolutely charming. During the ’80s the government wanted to demolish the old buildings, replacing them with concrete and steel skyscrapers. Fortunately, the citizenry protested vigorously, and the idea was abandoned. Good thing, wouldn’t your say?
We followed part of Rick’s recommended walk, but after about 5 minutes worth of the Changing of the Guard, we’d had enough. My assessment? I wish we’d chosen another activity, like visiting the Nobel Museum. The Changing of the Guard consumed far too much time. It starts around noon, but you have to get their early enough to be able to see anything, especially if you want a bench in the shade. Benches were occupied, so we grabbed a column with a pedestal that we climbed upon. Even so, this was our view.
4. THE RIVAL HOTEL
Less than three blocks from the T-Bana, in Sodermalm, this little boutique hotel is ideally located. You can sip wine on the restaurant’s balcony while you watch men play bocce in the park across the street.
We booked directly with the hotel, prepaid 6 months in advance, to get an amazing rate. The room was small, but very comfortable, although I must admit to being mystified by the strategic placement of the bathroom window. This is ONE throne room we didn’t want to view!
Perhaps those long winter months make the Swedes cherish these long, glorious summer days. It looked like EVERYONE was outside on this Saturday night, having a wonderful time.
6. VASAMUSEUM Can you imagine spending months of your life creating glorious carvings that will ultimately become bulls-eyes for cannonballs? What were they thinking??? Fortunately, this ship was as top heavy as a playboy centerfold, and shortly after setting sail, it flipped on its side, then sank to the bottom of the harbor, where it remained for over 300 years.
The museum is absolutely fascinating, especially for those of us that grew up in a former whaling port. The admission price (It was less than $20), includes a film and a guided tour. I thought “Vasa” was Swedish for boat, because “Vaca” is the Maori word and “Barco” is the Spanish word. But no, the ship was named after Gustav Vasa. He was the son of one of the beheaded victims (at the fountain) who led the revolution against the Danes and became Sweden’s first king.
We used our SL ticket to catch the ferry to Djurgården, and used it again to ride a tram between the Vasa Museum and Skansen.
7. SKANSEN The Swedes call it an open air museum. WE called it the Swedish version of Plimoth Plantation and Waterloo Village. We had the perfect day and the perfect setting for strolling outdoors.
8. CITY HALL You may never win a Nobel prize, but that doesn’t mean you can’t visit the banquet hall and stand on the staircase where the presentations are made. The blue hall (which isn’t blue) is where the prize winners receive applause and a free meal.
Although I have not visited every city hall, I going to proclaim that this is one of the most (if not THE most) glorious one on this planet. The location, the mosaics, the architecture–all breathtaking!
And if you have any breath left after touring city hall, you can climb #9.
9. CITY HALL TOWER Timed tickets ensure that the tower is not overcrowded. Yes, it IS 365 steps to get to the top, but it is SO worth the climb to for sn aerial view of Gamla Stan. Wouldn’t you agree? There are nine bells in the tower, and we made sure that we were not standing beneath them when they rang.
10. FOTOGRAFISKA MUSEUM Such luck! Our last day in port coincided with our friends’ arrival, allowing us just enough time to meet Edie and Ayhan in Gamla Stan for coffee. Right smack dab on our route to the Viking Star was the Fotografisca Museum, so of course we HAD to stop.
I had no idea that Bryan Adams was a Renaissance man–a musician AND a very talented photographer. I’m betting ( And it’s a petty safe bet) that his access to the celebrities was because of HIS fame. But for me, the most memorable part of the exhibit (and most emotional) were his photos of the British soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Something tells me this won’t be our last visit to Stockholm!
Okay, so initially we were planning to celebrate our 40th anniversary in April by traveling to Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, but as my favorite philosopher once said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Mike wasn’t able to make that trip, so instead, we will be celebrating with a Viking Ocean Cruise to the Baltic states. We start in Stockholm and before we end in Bergen, we will have popped into all of the Scandinavian countries, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdansk and Warnemunde. The Viking brochure provided this visual. In addition to celebrating both a birthday and an anniversary, this trip will be special because our friends, Tony and Helen (from Oregon) and Jeanne (from New York), will also be on the cruise.
We have been receiving Viking’s river cruise catalogues for many years, but had never traveled with them. Then, in 2015 they began offering ocean cruises and one had exactly the itinerary we wanted. We had been thinking that we should save cruising for when we were older and not able to do the more strenuous activities like hiking and biking, but after that week of Tibet’s squat toilets, I was more than ready for a little luxury.
All of the cabins have balconies, so the cruise price varies by size of cabin, amenities, initial boarding time, and priority for tour, spa, and specialty restaurant reservations. None of the above was all that important to us, so we went for a lower cost cabin. It just so happens that we prefer a lower deck, toward the center of the ship anyway, because there is less rockin’ and rollin’ in rough seas, and that’s where the less expensive cabins are.
Viking offers one free tour in each port, plus for an additional fee, you can choose among many alternatives. Those alternatives can be a bit pricy so we decided to either opt for the free tour or venture out on our own.
We will be arriving in Stockholm two days before we board the ship. Because we made our own flight arrangements (yes, I am more than a little anal about flight arrangements) and chose not to purchase Viking’s pre-trip package, we will have to get ourselves from airport to hotel, and will be exploring Stockholm on our own. I bought the Kindle edition of Rick Steves’ Northern European Cruise Ports, so that we can access the maps and information from my iPhone. Just the information on Stockholm’s unregulated taxis was probably worth the price of the book!
Cruise Critic’s website had lots of helpful information about several of the ports. One poster gave such detailed information about the Norway ports we will be visiting that I printed out her review and will be taking it with us. Thanks to her, we will be riding the scenic train ride from Flam to Myrdal, then instead of taking the train back down the mountain, we will be renting bikes at the Myrdal cafe and riding to town. Her description of the road down was the deciding factor!
Checking out our ship’s Roll Call on Cruise Critic allowed us to contact others interested in sharing a private tour in St. Petersburg. We also were able to sign up for a “Welcome Aboard” party offered by Viking crew members for Cruise Critic participants (and you become a Cruise Critic participant simply by signing on to their website). Don’t you just love the internet? I hope my upcoming posts will be as helpful to future travelers.