So, we arrive at the final port of our cruise and it was clear as soon as we docked that this visit was going to be something special.

After all, it’s not every day that you get a close-up view of a medieval castle from your balcony. How cool is that?

The picture below is one of those shots, showing one tower of the Akershus Fortress, built starting in the 1200’s to defend the city and gradually enlarged over the years as the population grew.

Akershus Fortress

Our 100% walking tour (yeah!, no bus) began with our guide leading us across the street and through the grounds of the Fortress, which now include several museums and monuments.

From there we spent the rest of our very short time in Oslo wandering around the beautiful downtown area.  As in almost all our other stops on this trip, we were again fortunate to have gorgeous weather and many people were out in the parks and cafes enjoying it.

The centerpiece of our tour, and of the port area of the city, was the massive City Hall building which dominates the port area.

Although the exterior is somewhat bland and boxy*, the inside is something else.  Brightly colored murals detailing Norwegian history and life by native artists cover many of the walls

The ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize is held each December in the central atrium of the Hall and it’s a very impressive space, although I thought it actually looks smaller in pictures and on video.

And after another far too brief day in port, it was time to leave.  Add Oslo to that list of cities visited on this trip that we will definitely be returning to in the future, possibly at the top of it.

If you’re interested, there’s a small collection of pictures with commentary from our time in Oslo in my flickr photostream.

Overnight we sailed back to our starting point and the big trip we had planned for and anticipated for months was over.  Almost appropriately, it was raining in Copenhagen as the bus took us to the airport, just as it had been the day we left.

Anyway, I’ll have a couple more posts about our experiences on the cruise coming soon, not to mention a bunch more pictures, and then it’s time to move on to something else.

Like planning where in the world to go next.

*Our port lecturer said the building has been included on a list of the ten ugliest building in the world. That’s rather harsh since we have at least ten in DC that are worse. :-)  See what you think.


This sixth stop on our grand tour of the Baltics was my least favorite and on the bottom of the list of places from this trip to revisit.

Which is not to say we didn’t have a good time touring the area and learning something of the history and culture.

Part of my dissatisfaction was due to the amount of time we spent on a bus in workday traffic traveling between Gydinia, the port where our ship was docked, and the old town section of Gdansk.

Blame part of it also on amber.

It seems the stuff was everywhere (including “incredible bargains” on the ship :-) and the excursion we took started by touring a small workshop turning out almost every type of amber trinket possible.

And, of course, we had lots of time to shop for their products in the company store after the tour. Not my choice or my thing.

Anyway, after that came the ride to Gdansk and the view from the bus displayed an area with a very industrial face, not surprising because of their long history of shipbuilding and shipping.

It also had a look reflective of more than four decades of centralized planning under Russian-dominated Communist control.

Dlugi Targ

We passed one immense, blandly colored apartment complex that the guide said was over one kilometer long and at least ten stories high.  There were several similar structures in the same area.

At the end of the ride we arrived at the old town section of Gdansk, an area that beginning in the 15th century was a busy trading center.

While the city was heavily damaged during World War II, most of the structures in this historic area, some with very ornate decorations, have been restored in the years since the iron curtain lifted.

As you can see from the picture, the streets were very busy, likely due to the arrival of some beautiful summer weather.

This view is of the Dlugi Targ (Long Market), the main road (now a pedestrian area) through the old town section.  Shops and restaurants line either side, leading up to the prison tower in the background.

After a far too brief walking tour (maybe I do want to return), the bus headed back to the boat, taking an historical swing past the Gdansk shipyards, where the Solidarity movement that lead to Poland’s independence began in the 1980’s, and the monument to the workers killed during conflicts with the government.

However, I never did see the “very popular beaches” that were somewhere over there on our left (and then on our right).

If you’re interested, more pictures from Gdansk and the port city of Gdynia are in this set on my Flickr page.

Just one more stop on the big trip, headed to the Norwegian capital of Oslo.


Our fifth stop on the big trip was a little different since it’s probably the only city of the seven we visited that is not well known in the US.

Indeed, my only experience with Tallinn prior researching the cruise, was the episode of the Amazing Race 15 in which the teams spent about as much time as we did (as in, not much) running around the old town.

Anyway, Tallinn was a very nice surprise. The lower old town section we explored, considered to be one best preserved in Europe, has a Disney-designed medieval feel, although populated with much friendlier and more genuine people.

Viru Gate

In the picture, those towers were on either side of the Viru gate at which we started our walking tour and are part of a defensive wall build in the the 1500s, most of which still stands (largely restored, of course).

A town has been in existence on the same location since the 1150s but despite that long history, Estonia has only been an independent country since 1993 when they were cut loose from the former Soviet Union. Before that the area was claimed at various times by the Danes, Swedes and Germans.

However, in the past 17 years the people have been working hard to bring their nation into the modern age, establishing both dynamic tourism and high technology industries. Interesting fact: Skype was created by a trio of Estonian developers.

The day we visited Tallinn was near the start of the annual Old Town Days, a two-week music and arts festival that seemed to have attracted lots of visitors besides those from our ship.

And there were plenty of restaurants, all with patio seating, waiting to serve them on a sunny and relatively warm early summer day.

The charm and atmosphere of old town Tallinn is hard to explain in words so take a look at some of the pictures I took in this Flickr set.

Once again, this was another city I would like to return to explore in more depth and, since it’s only a three hour ferry ride from Helsinki, it should be easy to combine the two for another Scandinavian vacation.

But for this one, we have two more ports and the next stop is Gdynia and Gdansk, Poland.

Saint Petersburg

Our fourth stop on the big trip was yet another new experience for me but for my wife, it was a chance to return to a city she had visited 17 years before.

Way back in 1993, when the Soviet Union had collapsed and Boris Yeltsin was the embattled president of the new Russian Federation, the choir in which she sings traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra and their Russian-born conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.

I bet, however, that there have been few physical changes in that time since the first thing that struck me as our bus drove around is that there is nothing subtle about this city.

From the huge blocks of apartments around the harbor area to the imposing former palaces seemingly on every corner, it’s clear that Peter the Great right up through the Communist leaders certainly didn’t believe in building and decorating on a small scale.

Kazan Cathedral

A prime example was this view we had over lunch.  While we enjoyed a very relaxing meal in a charming little cafe on the second floor of a bookstore, the large windows were filled by the Kazan Cathedral across the street.

Built in the early 1800’s, it’s clear the builders were going for something resembling the Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome.

St. Petersburg is the only port on the cruise where we stayed overnight (a requirement of the Russians according to one of the pursers) and I found the second day even more interesting since we got a small glimpse of “average” life.

Early on that Sunday morning, we got to take a short ride on their subway system, beginning and ending in stations that make those of the Washington Metro look like wooden shacks.


I was surprised that there were so many people at that hour on a weekend (a reaction based on my western sensibilities) and our guide cautioned us about getting lost and being thrown in “KGB prison”.  I think he was only half kidding.

That excursion was followed by a visit to what he said was a “middle class” food market, although I’m still not clear what defines that part of society in that area.

On both days we also had plenty of time to walk around parts of the city to discover things on our own, which I find the most enjoyable part of these visits.

It also added a great deal to this trip when the tour guides were willing to tell us something about the social, economic, and political life in the country.

The young man who lead us on the second day was very open about those factors.  Among other aspects, he told us that economically things in St. Petersburg are certainly better in 2010 than a decade ago.

But, despite the fact that he and some friends are able to write a blog criticizing many government policies, those same politicians are very quick to suppress open demonstrations of dissent.

So, maybe there have been some big changes in Russia since my wife’s last visit.  At least this time the border guards didn’t try to extort her on the way out of the country. :-)

More pictures from our two days in St. Petersburg are in this set on my Flickr pages.

Next, we were off to another part of the former Soviet Union, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia.


The third port on our big trip was recently listed as one of the world’s most livable, and the country of Finland appeared on another rated as one of the world’s most peaceful.

After our far too short visit, I completely understand both rankings.  Helsinki seems to have a great positive energy to it, unlike the negative, even aggressive energy of many cities I’ve visited.

People, even those dressed for business, were very friendly and never seemed to be in any particular hurry.  On this sunny day, one our mid-Atlantic US-tuned bodies found a little chilly, people were out in parks and on the water enjoying a nice summer day.

Sibelius Monument

The shore excursion we selected was a little more bus ride than I would have liked but it give us a good overview of the city and the guide offered some wonderful insights to the history and culture of the area.

On the down side, I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as in the other places we visited.

Finland is very much tied to Sweden having been ruled by that country for 600 years until the Russians took over in 1809. Even today, both Swedish and Finnish are official languages with both being used for street signs and government documents.

They are very wary of the Russians, however, both as a result of fighting the Soviet Union during World War II and tensions during the Cold War.

Anyway, beyond seeing a part of the world new to us, one of the main reasons for taking this trip and for this particular itinerary is my wife’s love of Scandinavian music and design.

So, one of the stops on the tour paid homage to the Finnish national composer Jean Sebelius, a composer whose compositions she has performed many times. The picture above is the monument to him set in a very peaceful park.

Me? In my head I’m hearing Eric Idle singing “Finland, Finland, Finland. The place where I quite want to be.” :-)

After getting off the bus, we spent the rest of our afternoon in Helsinki wandering around an open air market at the harbor and through some of the downtown stores getting a small glimpse into daily living.

I’m probably repeating myself but, as with our previous two stops on the cruise, one day was not enough and this is definitely one more city I’d like to return to someday.

But for this trip, we were off to our next stop, St. Petersburg, Russia.