Thursday, August 23, 2007

Baltic Cruise, part 4: Helsinki and Stockholm

August 17 - Helsinki, Finland

Let me just start off by saying that Helsinki was our least favorite of all the destinations. I was a bit concerned when the Lonely Planet guidebook I brought along proclaimed that there are few must-sees in Helsinki (it recommends Helsinki more for its atmosphere and the liveliness of its people than for its architectural, artistic and cultural virtues). Lance and I, having only 7 hours in Helsinki, certainly couldn't get a true sense of the local flavor. And that's too bad, because I think I might have liked Helsinki more if I had been able to spend more time there (days, as opposed to hours). It had some bright spots, but I think you have to dig deeper to find the city's true beauty...and you don't have that kind of time on a shore excursion.

To Finland's credit, they are on the euro, so it certainly made things easier on us. It was the only time during the cruise where we didn't have to exchange money.

We took the "Helsinki City Highlights" tour, which visits the Sibelius Monument, Senate Square and the Temppeliaukio Rock Church. There is a little time for going to the Market Square, which is a thriving and colorful area where tourists mingle easily with the locals. Our time there was much too brief. That is the one area in the city where we could get the briefest taste of Helsinki's ambience.

Mostly, we were on the bus, as per usual. Our guide, Anna, pointed out things of interest on the way. We passed the Olympic stadium, site of the 1952 Summer Olympics (if you've read all my posts, you might remember that the Winter Olympics that year were held in Oslo). We drove along the coast for a brief time and she pointed out some embassies and ambassador's mansions...and we went past some parks. The parks in Finland are pretty.

Our first photo stop was at the Sibelius Monument, which honors Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I'm not sure how many people outside Finland are familiar with his music, but he is certainly a national hero to them. He wrote Finlandia, one of their most patriotic songs, which was banned by the Russians when Finland was part of the Russian Empire (they generally played it anyway, but changed the title to avoid censorship). Anyway, the monument is pretty's made up of a bunch of huge steel pipes (it's supposed to represent the forest, or something), and if the wind blows right, the pipes make a sound. Well, it was windy that day, but there wasn't any sound coming from it.

Our next stop was at the Temppeliaukio Rock Church, a church built into solid bedrock. It was built in 1969, so it's not exactly steeped in history. The acoustics inside are very good, one of the reasons this church is famous. The organ was playing at the time we were there. But it's very plain inside...kind of interesting, but not much to look at, really. The novelty of it is how it was built, and that's pretty much it.

Our last stop was at Senate Square, which has two prominent features: a statue of Czar Alexander II (you should remember him from my St. Petersburg post...he's the one who was assassinated where the Church on Spilled Blood stands now) and the Tuomiokirkko (Lutheran Cathedral). We went inside and it was very plain. It's much prettier outside. Neither of us felt that the inside was worth our time, but I photographed the two things inside the church that stood out. I don't think we even spent even one minute looks much smaller inside than it appears on the outside.

(There is the Russian Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral in Helsinki too, which is the other major church in town. We didn't visit it, but it is probably worth checking out, especially if you haven't already been to Russia. You will see it in the background in a couple of my photos.)

We had half an hour or so around Senate Square, so we went to the Market Square nearby. The Market Square is on the waterfront, and that is the heart of Helsinki. It's open everyday, and this is where the locals come for their produce, fish, meat, cheeses, flowers, and handicrafts. Lance and I found a handpainted wooden bell Christmas ornament for our tree. We couldn't stay here long, and we grabbed the bus to go back to the ship.

We had discussed staying in town (since that was an option) and taking a public shuttle bus back to the ship. It was easy enough to do, but in the end, we decided against it. It was windy and I was feeling a bit chilled, and as much as I liked the Market Square, I didn't have a specific reason to stay there.

So we were back on the ship early in the afternoon, and we got together with some other people in the Wheelhouse Bar for a rousing game of Outburst. Our team lost (by one point), but we still got a prize - Princess Cruises lanyards (2 for each of us). Whoopee. If any of you plan to take a Princess cruise, let me know and I'll send mine to you. It makes it much easier to carry around your cruise card, once you punch a hole in your card so you can attach it (and why buy one in the Princess boutique when I'll give you mine for free?).

The ship set sail around 4 PM, and the wind was pretty bad, so the water was really choppy. This was the first time I experienced any actual motion sickness, although I didn't get sick. And it actually wasn't that bad at first. Around 4:30 or so, I decided to go to the gym and do a workout before dinner...that was a bad idea. Between the boat rocking and the elliptical machine, I got extremely dizzy, and I gave up on my workout after 20 minutes. I stumbled back to our stateroom...I had to keep my hands pressed against the walls to keep from falling over as I made my way down the hall toward our room...that's how dizzy I was. I took a shower, we had dinner, and then I laid down for a bit. There was a show I wanted to catch that evening, and I wanted to get there early because I had a feeling it was going to be a full house.

And it was. Lance went off to the casino again for another blackjack tournament. I enjoyed an absolutely amazing concert by LiveWire, a husband and wife duo who play Celtic music. She's a fiddle player and he's a guitarist/bodhran player. They do traditional Irish folk/pub songs, as well as contemporary songs with a Celtic twist. They were really fun and incredibly talented, and got a standing ovation at the end. They were backed up by the Star Princess orchestra, who held their own just fine. I was especially impressed with their Riverdance finale (yes, I am aware that some of you reading this are rolling your eyes just about now).

Anyway, catch them on a cruise near you. They spend most of their time performing on various cruises. Must be an interesting lifestyle.

After that...bed. The ship was still rocking, and so was my stomach. I never took any of the motion sickness pills that I brought, and when I woke up the following morning, things were considerably calmer...

...which brings us to...

August 18 - Stockholm

Lance and I were surprised and delighted with Stockholm. We desperately want to go back. It's an incredibly beautiful and colorful city (especially its breathtaking Old Town), and one of the few European capitals untouched by the war, so everything is well-preserved.

Our guide was Marina, who was Swedish, but with a strong Russian heritage (in fact, she spoke fluent Russian in addition to English). I liked her a lot. After the guide we had in Helsinki, who spoke in monotone, Marina was a refreshing change of pace...although most of the other people in our group didn't like her, because they seemed to be hard of hearing and she was pretty soft-spoken.

We unwisely chose the "Royal Palace and Old Town" tour...not considering at the time that we would be weary of touring palaces after St. Petersburg. And even though this palace was completely different from those we saw in Russia, and beautiful in its own way, I couldn't stand being in there. We didn't have access to much of it anyway, because it's more for state functions than it is a museum. Several Princess tour groups were there as well as several from Holland America. We had very little room to move, and it was a wall of humanity. I was feeling very stifled and near panic...I freak out in large crowds, particularly in enclosed spaces (hence, one reason I hate guided tours). And Lance and I kept getting separated. (No pictures from inside the prohibited.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we even entered the palace, we took a walk through part of the Old Town (Gamla Stan), which charmed me to my very soul. That was my favorite part...I could've stayed out there and ignored the palace altogether, just wandering down the narrow streets and poking into the quaint little shops. I took note of one shop that sold Christmas decorations, so when we got a little free time at the end of the tour, Lance and I went back there to buy our Stockholm ornament for the tree. Sadly, we didn't have time to visit the 13th century cathedral next to the palace (Storkyrkan - The Royal Cathedral), which I had heard really good things about, and I was interested in seeing the life-sized St. George & the Dragon sculpture (I took a photo of a replica of it that was nearby). There was a line to get in and it would've taken too long.

In hindsight, we really wished that we had taken any tour that included the Vasa Museum. This museum displays the ship that sank in Stockholm in the 17th century (it sank almost immediately after it set sail for the first was too top-heavy). The ship was pulled up from the sea over 300 years later, barely decayed at all, and is now on display. It's a gorgeous ship (from pictures I've seen of it), and we were really interested in going to this museum. We had hoped to have enough time at the end of our tour, but we didn't. We only had about 90 minutes after the tour ended, so we decided to just go back to the ship. I wanted to walk around town some more, but there were thousands of people everywhere...I couldn't deal with it anymore. This was our last shore excursion, and it was a relief, because they really are very stressful, and I think the Stockholm excursion was probably the most stressful of them all.

We left Stockholm in the afternoon, and we spent 5 hours passing through the Stockholm Archipelago, which is the most beautiful waterway in the world. Stockholm itself is comprised of several islands. These were somewhat like the Norwegian fjords we had seen a week before, only they were prettier. Lance and I stayed on deck for more than 2 hours to watch the scenery. We were just amazed that people would live on some of these islands! They seem so cut off from everywhere else, but of course, anyone who lives there must get around by boat. But it's not like these islands had markets, or even churches. Most were too small to support villages...some only had one or two houses on them.

That night was the final formal night, and the Horizon Court, for once, was not swarming with the starving masses. We took advantage of this and sat there after dinner for a pretty long time. Again, we opted out of the formal night, but Duggie Brown was giving an encore performance, so we dressed up in the nicest clothes we had and went to see his show. Lance was a bit self-conscious since most everyone was in formalwear, but there were a fair number of people in casual clothes, so it wasn't too bad. Anyway, Duggie Brown's second performance wasn't nearly as funny as his first, so we were disappointed.

After that, it was back to our room. Our cruise was about at an end, but we still had a full day at sea, and there were a lot of good activities planned.


Okay, photo time...this set has about 85. They're all unretouched. Fortunately, most of them were actually taken outdoors or in places with good light. A few of them are dark, though. Sorry about that. I'll fix them up in Photoshop eventually.

~~ Click here for photos ~~

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