Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Baltic Cruise, part 2: Gdansk and Tallinn

Monday, August 13 - Gdynia/Gdansk, Poland

Our day in Poland began early, so Lance and I were up before dawn to get ready for our shore excursion. We docked in Gdynia, which makes up part of the Tri-City area (Gdynia, the resort town of Sopot, and Gdansk).

We had chosen the Gdansk On Your Own tour, where the bus drives us through Gdynia and Sopot (not sorry we missed these, as neither town seemed to have anything that captured our interest) and through some of Gdansk until we reach the Old Town. There, we are dropped off and allowed 4 hours to explore on our own. This was ideal for us, because normally I really hate guided tours...I'm more of an independent traveler.

As we were driving toward Gdansk, our guide, Witek (a fresh-faced 19 year old who didn't even have his tour guide license yet), told us a little bit about the town's history and its most recent past with Communism. I thought Gdansk was pretty depressing. There was a lot of graffiti and run-down buildings and ugly Communist-era apartment complexes. The Old Town, however, is splendid...colorful and amazing and wondrous. It was rebuilt after almost complete destruction in World War II (Gdansk, in fact, is the site where the first shots of WWII were fired, at a place called Westerplatte). There are plenty of places around Gdansk that still haven't been cleaned up since the war, so we saw a few bombed-out shells of buildings here and there.

Once we were dropped off just outside the Old Town, Lance and I walked down what is called "The Royal Road" (AKA Long Street or Dlugi Targ in Polish), the route the kings and emissaries traveled when they came into Gdansk. It's a breathtakingly beautiful street, full of colorful buildings with very detailed paintings on their facades. It's flanked on both ends by gates: the Golden Gate and the Green Gate, which is now a gallery. There were two primary spots of interest in this street: the Old Town Hall and the Neptune Fountain.

The other main attraction in the town center is St. Mary's Church, which is the largest brick church in the world, and can hold 25,000 worshippers, although when we went inside, it didn't look that big. One of the most noteworthy treasures is the large crucifix that hangs near the altar. The sculptor who created it, as legend goes, nailed his son to a cross so that he could replicate the agony of Jesus' face (I heard this, I think, from our cruise director, but I can't find a source to corroborate it). There is also a medieval astronomical clock, and supposedly, the clockmaker's eyes were gouged out after he created it, so that he could never make one better than that. (I'm so glad I didn't live in medieval Poland.)

I liked walking along the river, where the ships came into Gdansk. The most noticeable sight here is Zuraw, a giant wooden crane from the 15th century, which was once used to hoist cargo onto ships. It now serves a purpose as part of Gdansk's Maritime Museum.

Lance and I didn't really do much in Gdansk. We just enjoyed ambling down the streets and I peeked into amber shops as we went. There is a big market for amber in the Baltic region, and for Gdansk in particular, and amber shops lined each street in the Old Town. Mariacka Street, which ends at St. Mary's Church, is the best place in town for amber shopping, and also considered to be the most scenic street in Gdansk (I liked the Royal Road better). It also has the oldest house in Gdansk, a tiny dwelling that is now a bed and breakfast.

Had we prepared better, we probably would've taken one of the boat tours to Westerplatte, but by the time we thought of it, we didn't have the time.

There seemed to be markets going on everywhere in Gdansk, and the town was swarming with people, particularly along the riverfront. We noticed many of them had their Princess Cruises stickers on (we took ours off, since we didn't want to be obvious as tourists). We were still obviously identified as Americans though, because some shady looking guy approached Lance on the street and offered to exchange his money. We already had zloty though, so we ignored him and moved on (and even if we didn't have zloty, we surely wouldn't be stupid enough to exchange money with a stranger on the street).

We didn't eat many meals off the ship during our cruise, but we had one here. I insisted that we had to eat pierogi, and I knew just where to go. The best pierogi restaurant in town is Pierogarnia u Dzika, so we went there around the time it opened, and ran into several other Star Princess passengers who were also grabbing a bite (apparently, word got around about this restaurant). Lance and I ordered one plate to share - Russian-style pierogi - which are filled with cottage cheese and herbs. The service was good and very fast (faster than you can get McDonald's here in Europe) and the pierogi was delicious.

We still had a little time after our light meal, so we browsed the souvenir shops until we found a place that sold Christmas ornaments. We bought a handpainted glass one with Zuraw on it, and then went to our meeting point for the bus. On the way back to the ship, Witek had the bus driver take us past the longest apartment building in the world - a Communist-era building that spans over 1 kilometer long. He said that people hate to live there, because the apartments are tiny and thousands upon thousands of people live in that one building. It also looked delapidated and falling into disrepair.

We got back on the Star Princess early in the afternoon. There was a pretty long line for boarding this time, and the lady behind us in line was whining very loudly about how she couldn't find any pierogi places in Gdansk. Lance and I were trying to stifle our laughter. HELLO! DO SOME RESEARCH! There is something called, and if you type in "Gdansk, Poland," all these wonderful websites come up that tell you what to do and where to eat, etc. And even if you don't have internet, it's mentioned in the guidebooks (it's a HUGE pet peeve of mine when people don't read up about places before they visit, and then have the audacity to complain that they don't know what to see or where to eat...if you're investing that kind of money in a trip, you should know what you're getting, right?).

Anyway, once we got back to our room, Lance decided to go to a free gaming lesson in the casino. So while he was learning to play craps, I headed to the Portofino dining room for their afternoon tea. It was really quite posh. The waiters came by with trays of little finger sandwiches, pastries and cookies, and they had musicians playing some classic tunes like "Moon River." I would've stayed longer, but because I was there alone, they seated me away from everyone else, right next to the waiters' station, and I felt like a leper. But I had some delicious little bites to tide me over to dinner.

I don't really remember how we spent that evening, although I suspect Lance was at the casino (he spent a few evenings there playing Blackjack)...I know there was one night where I just wandered around the ship, listening to the music in the various public rooms. That could've been the night we left Poland. I know for sure that I attended the cruise director's lecture on Tallinn. Lance wasn't with me for that, but they show these lectures on the Princess channel later on in the evening, so he caught it then.

August 14 - Tallinn, Estonia

We weren't scheduled to arrive in Tallinn until after lunch, and we had to set the clock forward one hour, so we slept in to make up for that lost hour. There was an arts & crafts project scheduled in the Wheelhouse Bar at 10 AM, so I went to that. We made little gift boxes out of construction paper, without using any tape or glue. It was dead easy, and I made a little blue box. I was so proud. :)

We went on deck to watch the approach into Tallinn. The Old Town sits up on a hill (part of it, anyway) and we got a gorgeous view of it as we slipped into our berth. We docked next to a Royal Caribbean ship, and it was funny, because the people on our ship started making observations about that ship (one kid remarked about the giant slide in the kid's pool on the Royal Caribbean ship...the Star Princess had a tiny slide in a tiny kid's pool). People on the Royal Caribbean were waving at us and we were waving back.

Lance and I scheduled the EZ Tallinn tour, and we had hoped to have some extra time to explore the city on our own. But we found that impossible to do, since there wasn't a lot of time left after our tour, which took longer than it should have. Our guide was Marko and the driver was named Georg, and they took us through all of Tallinn. It's a very nice town. Tallinn, in fact, was a revelation. I expected it to be very much like Poland, with a bunch of depressing and ugly Communist buildings and a lot of graffiti. But in fact, it's very clean and thriving and modern. We saw very few areas that looked run-down. Tallinn looked very prosperous compared to Gdansk. I have to say that this was one of my favorite places during the cruise, but we picked a horrible tour. We very briefly went into the Old Town (which was, in my opinion, the best part). Tallinn's Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's one of the few European old towns that was untouched by the ravages of war, so it's remarkably well-preserved.

The tour took us past such sights St. Brigit's Convent, which is now in ruins. I didn't get a photo of it, because we were on the wrong side of the bus. We went past the Russalka Monument, which is a memorial to Russian sailors that died off the coast of Tallinn in the 19th century. We stopped at the Estonia Song Festival grounds, which is an important place for the Estonian people, because this was the site where 300,000 Estonians gathered to sing their national anthem, which was banned by the Soviets. It was their act of defiance toward the end of the Communist era. I took photos and bought a couple of souvenirs there. We also stopped near Kadriorg Palace - built by Peter the Great for his wife - but never actually got within sight of the palace. We had a brief photo stop to see part of the gardens, which are the most famous part of the palace.

We drove by the site for Olympic boating events from the 1980 Moscow Olympics...these events were held in Tallinn. The Olympic Village is now a hotel. No pictures of this, because it was a typical ugly gray concrete Soviet building.

Our last stop was the Upper Town, an area of the Old Town known as Toompea, where the Estonian Parliament is located. Across from the pink palace (Toompea Castle, the seat of government) sits Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church that is reviled by most of Tallinn's citizens. They wanted to tear it down, but it's good for tourism, so it remains. We visited this cathedral, although our tour guide refused to step foot inside (comparing notes with those on other tours, their guides also refused to go in).

We went in one other church, the Lutheran St. Mary's Church (also known as the Dome Church or Toomkirik), which was founded by the Danes in the 13th century. It is the oldest church in Estonia, and pictures weren't allowed inside.

And that was basically all we got to see in the Old Town. I was bitterly disappointed, because the pictures I saw in the cruise director's slideshow looked so tempting...the cobblestone streets were just begging to be explored.

Immediately after we got back to our stateroom, we grabbed our dirty laundry and high-tailed it down to the laundromat. We got a notice that the Star Princess would be shutting off the water supplies to the self-service and main laundry facilities, in order to conserve water while in St. Petersburg. So we figured that everyone would be trying to do their laundry that evening. Our timing could not be better. We found an available washer and dryer (note to potential cruise passengers: go to your local laundromat and pick up a tiny box of detergent to pack in your suitcase...bring your own dryer sheets, this stuff is expensive on the ship...and I thought ahead and brought our own)...and no sooner were we in business than half a dozen other people came in with their laundry (there are only 4 washers and dryers per self-service laundry, and there is one on almost every deck except the one we stayed on). HAHA. Lance and I congratulated ourselves on our impeccable timing...we're good like that. Although, don't do what Lance did...he thought he could get change down in the casino (the change machine in our particular laundry room was out of quarters), but he got slot machine tokens instead, so we had to go spend those later. HAHAHA.

We left Tallinn at 6, bound for St. Petersburg. Shortly after we left port, the captain came on the loudspeaker and announced that a lifeboat had been dispatched to pick up a passenger who missed the ship. They were very adamant about us being back onboard half an hour before departure, and made it clear that they weren't going to be held up for late-comers or stragglers. I guess it's good that I'm not the captain of the ship, because I would've left her there. But many of us watched as the lifeboat went back to shore and then returned, and applause started once the boat was lifted back up onto the ship. I'm sure the woman was mortified, and will never be late for anything ever again.

That night, Lance and I went to the Vista Lounge to see the comedic stylings of British funnyman Duggie Brown. He was really hilarious, and we very much enjoyed his show.

After that, it was off to bed, as we had to set the clock forward another hour, and be up before dawn to begin our 2 day Grand Tour of St. Petersburg.

Here's the next photo installment...some of the photos were taken through bus windows or without flash (most museums and churches prohibited flash photography), so the photos may have glare or be a little blurry. I haven't retouched any of these, as I have so many photos and not enough time, so some of the church photos are a bit dark.

~~ Click for photos ~~

No comments: