Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Home of The Hamburger

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Yes, it is true; Hamburg, Germany is indeed the home of the hamburger. I had heard that one time and thought someone was joking, but our guide today confirmed that legend.

Hamburg is a harbor city with a 1,000 year history that is today alive and vibrant. Unfortunately for us, the day was overcast, rainy, and quite cold, so we mostly stayed close to our bus, and what few pictures I managed to get were not very good.

There are a couple of things that I think are worth sharing. 70% of the population in Hamburg is solidly middle class. 20 % of the people are millionaires, and only 10% are considered lower income. Business in Hamburg is booming, with an unemployment rate of only 3%; one of the lowest in Europe. In fact, the city has a shortage of engineers for its vibrant aircraft industry. Most couples in Hamburg are both working professionals, which is why the city only has a birth rate of .4 per couple.

As we entered the harbor last evening, we passed by the huge Airbus assembly facility. It was amazing to look through the glass hanger doors at all the aircraft that were being assembled. In addition to the aircraft industry, Hamburg is the third largest port in Europe, and is a leader in the advertising, publishing and banking businesses, not to mention that it is a center of the arts for Eastern Europe.

I explained previously that today was a “turn around” day for our ship. They did offer guests who are “in transit” a 4 hour tour of the city, which we took. Because of the heavy rain, and the morning rush hour traffic, this turned into something of a “spam in a can tour” which had us riding for what seemed forever up and down narrow streets. I clearly came away with a favorable impression of the city, and can imagine that it would be a fun place to re-visit sometime.

Our bus made only a few stops. The first was to allow us to photograph the magnificent City Hall building, and then to step inside to marvel at the interior of the entryway.

Hamburg, Germany Next, we visited Hamburg’s renowned St. Michael’s Church. The Church just underwent a $28 million dollar restoration, and it was absolutely beautiful inside.

Hamburg, Germany It had a large and beautiful organ, and an added bonus was that during our visit a concert was underway. Even though the Church dates to the 1400’s, it has burned down on three occasions, so what we see today is not the original interior. Our last stop was at an open air museum, but here it was raining so hard, that everyone pretty much stayed on the bus.

Once again SilverSea did a wonderful job of managing to dock our ship right in the downtown area. From where we were docked, it was a mere 15 minute walk to the center of town. That is pretty impressive compared to all the times on our Princess tours we were docked 2 hours or more from the city because of the large size of the vessels.

I was just looking at our schedule and the next 9 days promise to be quite exciting. In order, we will visit Amsterdam, Netherlands and Zeebrugge, Belgium, and if you can believe this, I have never been to either country. From there, we continue to Honfleur and then St. Malo both in France, before ending our second cruise in Southampton, UK. The following two days will be spent in Ireland, both Cork and Waterford, before we cross the Atlantic on our way home.

I hope everyone is well and still enjoying our travels.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Kiel Canal

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I think we all know of the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, and I can think of several others, but until today I had never heard of the Kiel Canal; yet, it is the busiest canal in the world. Not only is it the busiest, but it is also one of the oldest major canals in the world.

The German Kaiser Wilhelm I laid the foundation stone for the canal in 1887, but it took 8 years to fully construct the canal. Originally, the channel was called the Kaiser Canal. It is 61 miles in length, and connects the Baltic Sea with the North Sea. Prior to that, travel from the Baltic to the North Sea required a 280 nm trip around Denmark and Cape Skaw at its northernmost point. Today, ships using the canal can make the trip in only 7 hours. The canal has been enlarged many times over the years, and today it is transited by over 65,000 ships annually.

I guess I have never been on this canal before because a large cruise ship would not fit the locks.

Kiel Canal, GermanyHowever, our small ship can make the transit easily. Our journey today takes us across the very heartland of the German countryside. At times, I feel as if I can reach out and touch the trees as we glide on our magic water carpet. Both sides of the canal are lined with walkways and bike paths, and we literally cut right through the middle of some towns. From our vantage point, we have a fascinating look at everyday German life.

What is absolutely amazing to watch is the reaction of the people. I would think that with 65,000 ships going by each year, they would be pretty immune to our passage. Not so! The canal has been lined with people, some standing in pouring down rain, so that they can wave and cheer our passage. Someone said the reason for all the interest is that most ships using the canal are cargo vessels, and that most cruise ships are too large for the canal. So our journey is somewhat of a rarity. Anyway, it is very heartening to see the reaction. Entire families have lined the canal banks, and cars are pulled over, and all traffic is stopped as we go by.

We just passed under the largest highway bridge over the canal, and at the base of the bridge is a special restaurant which plays the national anthem for every ship that passes. When we reached the bridge, the restaurant and the surrounding area was full of people all cheering and waving as the restaurant loudly played the national anthem of the Bahamas. The Bahamas because that is where this ship is formally registered. As we passed, the Captain gave them a 3 horn blast salute, and the crowd went wild.

So with this shortcut, we will arrive tonight at 8:30 into Hamburg, Germany. The ship will spend the night there and tomorrow is a ‘turn around day” which means that technically our first cruise has ended, and many people will leave tomorrow and a new batch will arrive. Interestingly enough, there are a great many people onboard who, like ourselves, will remain until the ship reaches New York on September 21st. For those passengers “in transit” the ship offers a short tour of Hamburg tomorrow, and we will tag along to see what there is to see. After leaving Hamburg, we then have 9 straight days of new ports, one right after the other. I was able to keep up so far because we took some time off having been to some of these places before. But for the next leg of the cruise, it will be pretty much a new city each day, so without question I will fall behind. Just hang on, and I’ll try to keep you in the loop.

Take care,


Behind The Wall

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Yesterday our ship docked at the seaside resort of Warnemunde, which is itself a suburb of Rostock, Germany. Rostock is a quaint old German town which is home to around 200,000 people. It has the typical cobblestone narrow streets that are so common in this area. Ships come to this area not for the local scenery however, but as the stopping off port that allows easy access to Berlin. I would imagine that well over 2/3 of the ship’s passengers made the 12 hour round-trip into Berlin for the day, but having done that, we were looking for something different.

Before leaving home, I saw that the ship offered a full day private trip with a guide and a driver, and so I assumed there must be things to see in this area and signed up for that option. Shortly after joining the ship, the Shore Excursion Manager phoned to be sure we wanted to stay in the Rostock area and not drive into Berlin; apparently that was an unusual option. After confirming our desires, a day or two later we get another call advising that the local agent says there is just not that much to see in Rostock, and suggesting that we do a half day tour instead. OK, so we decide a half day it is. Meanwhile, I start looking at what material I have about the area, and I see that one tour the ship offered is a 5 hr. trip to visit the nearby Palace at Schwerin. I figure that with just the two of us and a private car, we could visit the castle and still have time left over to make a quick visit to Rostock, I advised the excursion office of my desire to visit Schwerin, too. Well, that became a big deal with the local tour office. They insisted that a local guide for Rostock would not be knowledgeable about Schwerin, and so they insisted that they obtain a special guide for the Palace. Fine – whatever! I told you this background in order that you will appreciate what actually happened on our tour.

Most tours left the ship very early, around 7am, but we had to wait until 9am for our “special guide” to arrive by train from Schwerin. At the appointed time, we duly met our guide and driver, and set off in a beautiful new Mercedes limo for the German high speed run to the city of Schwerin, which was about an hour inland. Once on the autobahn, where there are no speed limits, we buzzed along at around 160 kph, or roughly 100 mph. Even at that, cars were whizzing by us in a constant stream. As we settled in for our drive, our “guide” opened some material she had brought and started to read to us in a rapid non-stop monotone. It sounded like something out of a textbook, e.g. the area is so many hectares, it has a population density of…., the average rainfall is…. etc. She had photocopied many pages, and carefully highlighted certain items, and she was in full bore to read it all to us.

Thank goodness we finally arrived into the town of Schwerin where she finally got into a disagreement with our driver about where to park. She obviously did not know what she was talking about, and so he ignored her and went to park as close to the palace as he could. The day had dawned cloudy, cold, and very windy and it looked as if it would rain at any minute, so closer was indeed better. The palace was beautiful from the outside.

Schwerin, Germany It was described in a brochure as “architecturally one of the most important buildings of European history, having been built from 1845-1857. It has been owned by the State since 1918, and today houses the government of the State Parliament, however the original rooms of State within the Palace have been preserved in excellent condition.” According to our brochure, “the palace church is an architectural gem, not to be missed. It was built in 1560-1563.” It was then later incorporated into the Palace structure.

After obtaining our tickets, our “guide” was not sure which way to go to enter the exhibit. Finally, she finds some stairs and says that we need to climb three floors. When I asked if we could use the elevator, she told us that there was not one in the building, so we trudged up three flights of stairs. Once there, she could not find the exhibit, and so a guard came over to explain to her where to go, and finally we had arrived at the old State Rooms. I was disappointed that they would not allow photographs, because some of the rooms were absolutely beautiful. The Throne Room, in particular, was a sight to behold. Sadly also, our “guide” really did not know much about the Palace. We would enter a room and she would shuffle through a sheaf of papers pulled from a three ring binder until she found the one that seemed to match the room we had entered. Then she would start to read to us about the room. Finally I asked about the Palace Church. She told me that there was no Church in the Palace. I was sure I had read that somewhere I assured her, but she was adamant that no Church existed! To shorten a long story, it was very obvious that our “expert” was really not an expert at all. She was a recent college graduate working in journalism part time, and her only connection to the Palace Schwerin was that she lived in Schwerin!

Leaving the palace, we walked a little around the grounds, but it was chilly (around 50 degrees), very windy, and a wet mist was in the air. Finally arriving back where our car was parked, I headed towards the car, but our guide said that we should follow her. I was getting a little tired of her, but she insisted that we must stroll through the old town on our way to the church and anyway, our car was not meeting us there. Funny, because I could have sworn I saw it parked where we left it. Assuring us that it was a quick walk to the church, we set out on our stroll of the old town. I am going to guess that we “strolled” about 30 minutes uphill in the wind and rain to the point that I could no longer feel my nose from the cold and wind. Poor Lisa’s face was beet red, and sweat was pouring from her forehead. Occasionally our guide would stop in front of some building or another and pull out a sheet of paper and start to read to us about the building – at this point I got a little pushy about our moving along to the church.

Schwerin, GermanyFinally, we arrived at the church – frozen and tired. It was a pretty church – built around 1200, and very pretty with an organ housing over 6,000 pipes.

Schwerin, GermanyUnfortunately, as was becoming the norm, our “guide” did not know anything about the church, so after sitting awhile, she said we would walk back to the car! Wait a minute – “do we really have to walk all the way back there? Can’t the car come and pick us up here?” She tells me that no, because cars are not allowed to drive in the old city. Horse hocky- right out front of the church, cars were buzzing along in a steady stream. And so, I dug in my heels, and suggested she phone the driver to see if he could come pick us up. Looking flustered, she said that she had to step outside because she had no phone signal in the church, and she would be back in a few minutes. What she did not have was the driver’s phone number, not a lack of a phone signal. We sat in the cold church interior for almost 40 minutes before she arrived back, and said to follow her. Now when we left the church, all the traffic had stopped. It seems that the Chancellor of Germany was to give a speech nearby, and they had just closed the streets in preparation for that event, but our driver had managed to come up a back street and was just a block away.

On our drive back, I pretty much blew the guide off as useless. I sat up front with the driver, while she sat in the back with Lisa and proceeded to eat twinkies and drink some juice she had brought with her. Before we got back to the ship however, she got car sick, so in spite of the driving rain, we opened the windows to get her some air.

Enough about the “guide” already; I quickly learned that our driver spoke fluent English, in fact, better than the guide. He was about our age, and was a fascinating person to talk with. In his real life, he had been a manager for a well-known rock band and as such, had travelled all over the US and Europe. In fact, he had even spent two days in Kansas City and remembered it well. We got into some really good discussions, and then it hit me ----- we were behind the Berlin Wall! As he talked, I came to realize that he had grown up under communist rule, and that the area in which we were travelling was formerly East German Territory. I can’t believe I missed that fact. So, I bluntly asked him what it was like to have lived behind the Wall. He smiled and explained that life was actually pretty good. He said that people lived normal lives, had parties, started families, etc. In fact, they could travel to Prague and Bucharest, but not of course to the US, but he admitted that you can’t miss what you did not know. He admitted that it was a crazy system. For example, let’s say he needed toilet paper. He might go to the store to buy some and they would not have toilet paper, but they had toothpaste. They would have toilet paper next week, but next week they would have no toothpaste. He told me that knowing what he does now, he never wants to return to the old regime or to see the wall rebuilt, but there are those who do. That shocked me.

Well, he pointed out that many old people today are scared and long for the good old days. He told me about his parents. Think about it he suggested. They grew up under the Nazis, and when that government fell, they lost everything. Then came the communists, and they had everything provided by the State. They did not have to worry about retirement or medical care, or where or how they would live. Now that is all gone, and they have nothing! Most elderly rely on their children, or they try to keep working as long as they can, but it is very hard in the new economy.

On our way back to the ship, he detoured to the town of Rostock to show us the old city and some of the magnificent churches. However, it started to pour down rain. He ignored our guide, having obviously figured out she was useless, and in spite of the rain, gave us a wonderful driving tour of the city. I could not get any pictures, but sometimes you have to take memories home and not pictures.

I am sorry this is so long, but it was an interesting day. Today I figured we would just have a day at leisure, but we are going through the Kiel Canal and a great deal is going on – I think that is the subject of another missive. So, I hope everyone is well, and I hope to get caught up on pictures later today if I can.


PS Just to update you on the “guide” situation, I told the Shore Excursion Manager of our experience and she was very upset that the local service had pulled this stunt. She found us at dinner and let us know that the fee for our trip had been cut by 1/3, which seemed fair.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Gotcha on Gotland

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OK, I admit it – I goofed yesterday when I sent out my e-mail about Gotland, and its capital city Visby, Sweden. I directed you to enjoy the photographs in order to better understand the medieval city, but there were no photographs posted yet. I had meant to hold that blog until I got the pictures all organized, but in my rush, I went ahead and sent it – so, what can I say- sorry.

So, all the pictures for Visby are now posted, and the blog pages are all up to date at our web page:

This also allows me the opportunity to add something that is quite important about the ancient city of Visby. Unlike Florence, Italy, or just about any other medieval city I can think of, Visby is a lively and vibrant community which is lived in even today. Even one of the smallest old homes there will cost over $1,000,000 to purchase, and the citizens jealously guard the historic treasure that has been handed down to them. On the other hand, medieval cities like Florence are no longer really lived in, but merely exist to serve the tourist. The actual citizens of Florence live in the surrounding modern city and leave the old city to the hoards of tourists to frequent. So, the city of Florence is filled with shops of all types, from ice cream parlors to expensive leather goods. On the second floors of some of the old building college students will rent small apartments, but the city itself is for all practical purposes now a museum. That is what makes Visby so special. It is very much alive and well.

Anyway, enough of my babbling; today we docked in Copenhagen, Denmark. Our arrival was a real caravan since we were following two giant cruise ships into the harbor, and three more were following us. Having spent many days in Copenhagen and the surrounding countryside, we decided to take a day off for ourselves. The day dawned so pretty, that we could not resist at least going into town to visit two famous art museums. So you will see posted a few random pictures of our quick travels.

Copenhagen, DenmarkFirst we got some great photographs of a church and an old fort right next to our ship. Then we went to the two museums, and were back by lunch.

Tomorrow promises to be more exciting. We will dock in Warnemunde, Germany, where we have arranged for a private car and guide to take us to visit the Castle Schwerin in the countryside. We should be gone from the ship for around 5 hours and if time permits we will grab a look at the nearby town of Rostock. The primary reason that the ship docks here is to allow passengers to make a 12 hour day trip into Berlin. Having done that once, we certainly did not need to do that to ourselves a second time.

We hope everyone is doing well, and this time you really can enjoy the photographs at:

Where in the World is Gotland?

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Today, I present you with a new challenge – where in the world is Gotland? I will give you a clue or two. It is located smack dab in the middle of the Baltic Sea, and its capital city is Visby. It is an extremely popular summer destination, with the population of the island nearly doubling during the holiday season. Today, however, with the summer season having ended, it was quiet and very laid back.

Gotland is the largest island in Sweden. Besides being yet another very idyllic island, it is filled with history and extremely well preserved medieval ruins. The Medieval city of Visby was granted World Heritage Status in 1995. Note the emphasis on “Preserved.” The locals decry what other nations do in “restoring” their treasures. Here in Gotland the emphasis is on preservation, and the results were stunning. Most Medieval cities in Europe today are vacant of life, and simply exist to house shops and services for the tourists. Not so in Visby. It is a vibrant and living city. Even a small old home in the inner city cost well over $1,000,000 to purchase.

Like yesterday in Aland, we were here in Visby for only 5 hours, and since the ship had to anchor outside the small harbor which was full, our time ashore was shortened by having to transfer on and off the ship by tender. Unlike yesterday, we had arranged for a private car, and a local guide, who it turns out, was the English teacher on the island’s High School.

Our tour started with a drive south of the city to the small town of Stenkumla. Here was located one of the oldest and best preserved early churches on the island.

Visby, SwedenThe church was built in the 1100’s and is still very much in use today. Because the air on the island is so clean and the environment so pristine, these early structures have survived to this day in virtually their original state.

Visby, SwedenOn the interior walls, drawings still survive testament to their original artist’s creativity since they are still clearly visible and un-restored. Indeed the plain interior is like something right out of the past – because that is exactly what it is. Outside to one side of the church is the graveyard. It struck me that most of the headstones were not all that old. Our guide pointed out that here on the island, it is traditional to bury one generation on top of the previous ones. She had me note that the level of the grave yard was actually above the plain of the church itself.

When we finished that visit, we drove back into Visby, and she showed us the modern town, but clearly the highlight of this city is the walled inner city. Visby grew in importance and wealth as a member of the Hanseatic League, becoming one of the most important cities in the Baltic region in the 12th and 13th centuries. The city’s medieval architecture was dominated by majestic stone buildings, of which over 200 survive today.

Visby, Sweden In the late 13th century, the city undertook to surround itself with a massive series of stone walls to protect against foreign intruders. Today over 3 miles of these original walls still remain, along with all three of the city’s main gates, and 36 of its massive guard towers.

We started our visit by visiting an overlook of the massive wall and its towers. From there, since the holiday season had ended, our driver was even allowed to drive us around the narrow streets of the city.

Visby, SwedenWe got some amazing photographs of the Santa Maria Cathedral which dates from the late 12th century. Besides this massive cathedral, the city is home to over 200 other churches which is somewhat of a mystery to historians as to why so many churches were built for such a small city. Following our drive, we parked and took the opportunity to just walk the narrow cobblestone streets, and paid a visit to the Botanical Gardens – an amazing micro-climate that withstands the harsh winters of the region.

Visby, Sweden

All too soon it was time to re-board our ship. Gotland was a fun and very historic place, and not to sound too much like a broken record – do look at the pictures, because they tell the story so well.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Where in the World Are We?


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I will give you some clues. We are in the middle of an island chain which is comprised of some 15,000 islands. If you only count the islands which are as large as a football field in size, then there are only 6,500, and of those, only fifty five are occupied on a permanent basis. This island chain is an independent Republic, a member of the EU, and the legally required language is Swedish. The capital city is Mariehamn, which was founded in 1861. So, my friends – do you have any idea as to the name of this autonomous area?

Now I played a small trick with my question. The autonomous area is known as Aland, and while it is independent, having its own parliament and Prime Minister, it is also, in fact, a completely self-governing region of Finland. But wait a minute you cry – I thought you said that Swedish was the official language. Well, you heard correctly. As strange as it sounds, we are in an interesting place that is quite unlike any other I have seen, where they are officially a part – albeit a distant part, of Finland, but where they speak Swedish. It was created in 1921 by the League of Nations, and today is home to over 28,000 people.

The islands are to be found in the Gulf of Finland located halfway between Finland to the East, and Sweden to the West. Our stop at the capital city of Mariehamn was only for 4 hours, and so we elected to participate in a ship sponsored tour. Sadly, that meant that many things which we saw, and which were worth a photograph, can only be taken away in our memory because it was not practical for a bus to stop too often for pictures – there just was not enough time. I will tell you that what I saw was perhaps the most idyllic and picturesque island I have ever encountered. There was way more land than people. Even in the dark overcast of the day, the temperature was moderate, and the landscape beautiful.

People here enjoy a very high standard of living and are very well educated. They enjoy all the modern conveniences, but in a small and caring environment. In the last 20 years, there was only one murder, and people never even consider locking their homes or cars. The islands are connected to Helsinki and Stockholm by a very active ferry system. Both ports can be reached in a short 3 hour ride, and the transportation is cheap. This makes these islands a favorite vacation area during the holiday season, but that ended last week, and during our visit, it was very quiet and tranquil.

We took a scenic 45 minute drive into the countryside to visit Bomarsund Fortress, which was built by the Russians, and then destroyed by the French-English navy during the Crimean War.

Mariehamn, AlandNow I have to admit, viewing the ruins of a very old and much destroyed fort is not my idea of the perfect tourist spot – but hey, when in Rome and all! So, we came, took a couple of pictures, and got back in the bus for our next exciting stop. This time we visited another set of ruins of Kastelholm Castle; a medieval castle from the 1100’s that had been partially restored by some prisoners who were housed nearby, but who were moved in 1980.

Mariehamn, AlandIt offered one or two interesting pictures, but our guide, who very much loved to hear himself talk, turned what should have been a 20 minute photo stop into over an hour of listening to an endless stream of minutiae.

At this point, we were running late, and so we quickly walked uphill through the adjacent Open-Air Museum which houses historical buildings moved here from around the islands in 1931 for preservation. With no time to stop really, we grabbed a few quick pictures, and boarded our bus back to the ship.

Mariehamn, Aland

So, I do think you will enjoy the pictures, but from my perspective it was a long and not very interesting day. However, I would willingly come back to visit this quiet tranquil place, and take the time to explore.


P.S. When you look at our pictures, you will see some very beautiful photographs that were taken in Helsinki, Finland yesterday. Having been to Helsinki many times, we decided to take a day at leisure for ourselves and had not really planned on leaving the ship. Two things happened to change our minds. First, our ship docked literally in the center of town, and second, the day was bright and sunny. From our room, we could see some very interesting pictures, and so we went out for about 90 minutes to walk around. Not much to tell, but some interesting photographs to enjoy.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Petrograd – Leningrad - St. Petersburg

Petrograd – Leningrad - St. Petersburg


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We just completed a whirlwind three day visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. Founded in 1703 by then Tsar Peter the Great, the city was established to be European in architecture and design. Even today, the city feels much more European than any other city within Russia, having beautiful boulevards and flowing buildings from bygone eras. The name of the city has changed over the centuries; it was first known as Petrograd; then following the Bolshevik revolution, the name was changed to Leningrad; and finally, in 1991 the citizens voted to rename the city to St. Petersburg. Today it is home to over 5 million people, and as such is the second largest city in Russia after Moscow.

There are, in my mind, two main attractions of this city. The first are the magnificent palaces from the Tsarist Era, and second, the Hermitage, which is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. First let me talk about the Palaces.

To discuss the Palaces, it is first necessary to recount the history of this city during the Second World War. The Germans laid siege to the city in 1941, and continued for over 900 days before abandoning their effort to seize the city. During that time it is said that over 1million people lost their lives and the destruction of the city and its treasures was one of the most destructive in modern history. Of the roughly 13 major palaces, all but one was completely destroyed. They were first bombed and shelled, and then troops took refuge in the ruins and while doing so systematically destroyed everything in sight. When they withdrew, they then set the buildings on fire. For example, the fire at Catherine’s palace alone burned for three days. Fortunately for the sake of history, the citizens of Leningrad took it upon themselves to remove from the Palaces as much as they could and hide it from the Germans. It was a massive undertaking with rare items of art and furniture systematically removed and hidden by ordinary people in basements, homes, and virtually everywhere. Amazingly after the war, most of these items were returned to the State.

So, what we see today was the result of a massive, long and costly reconstruction effort by the State to restore seven of the former Palaces to their original states. The results are nothing short of spectacular! I do hope you will take a minute to look at the pictures which tell the true story. During this trip, we visited

St. Petersburg, Russia Catherine’s Palace,

St. Petersburg, RussiaAlexander Palace,

St. Petersburg, RussiaYusupov Palace,

St. Petersburg, RussiaPavlovsk Palace and

St. Petersburg, RussiaPeter & Paul Fortress.

The second main reason to visit St. Petersburg is to see the State Museum at The Hermitage. Opened in 1764 by Catherine, The Great, it is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world, being home to over 3 million items. The Hermitage currently houses the largest collection of paintings in the world. It is said that if you were to spend only 30 seconds looking at each painting in their collection non-stop, then it would take you 30 years to view the complete collection. Today, the collection is housed in six historic Palaces along the Neva River, including the Winter Palace which was the residence to Russian Emperors. As such, any visit to the museum usually begins with a visit to the State Rooms of the Palace, and our visit was no exception, even though we told our guide that we had been here several times previously and that our main focus this trip was to be the impressionists’ paintings. It made no difference –“you must see the State Rooms,” she said, and so we did. We finally got to the paintings, and it was the most awesome display I have ever seen. Along the way, we tripped across theSt. Petersburg, Russia Rembrandt Gallery, and again, I have never, ever, seen such a display of his works.

Just as we were preparing to depart the museum our guide casually mentioned that there was a special exhibit on the first floor of Impressionists’ Paintings “on loan” from France. All I can say is that this “special” exhibit was absolutely the best I have ever seen. As it turns out, the State expects this “loan” to turn into a gift from France in payment for art taken during the war – so the “loan” has been here for six years, and as far as the museum is concerned it will never leave Russia.

On a more personal note, I would share some interesting stories with you. This is our third visit to St. Petersburg, and the changes are most impressive. I recall when we first visited the city, it seemed drab like most Russian cities. It was dirty, lots of people living on the streets, and very run down. That is not what we saw this visit. Indeed, flowers were everywhere, we saw no one living on the streets, and the streets themselves were clean and in good repair. When I asked about this, I was told by two different people that it was because Putin had become President of Russia. Putin came from this area, and as President he saw to it that money was given to improve the conditions in his home city.

It was also interesting that I never saw an iPhone! When I asked our guide about it, she honestly did not even know what an iPhone was! Now can you imagine a place in the world where Apple does not have a foothold?

Finally, I have to share a bit about our departure yesterday. Our small ship was able to sail right up the Neva River to within sight of the Hermitage itself. The only thing that kept us from docking alongside the great museum was a bridge in our way. This is one advantage of the small ships that can literary go right into town in many places. However, when it came time to depart I looked around and wondered how in the world we would manage to get out of there. The river at this point was fairly narrow, but even worse there were ships docked along both sides of the river making the channel even that more narrow. Just to add to the mix, the river was flowing at a rapid rate.

When we departed, every corner of our ship had an officer stationed there, even in the pouring rain. The officers of ALL the surrounding ships were also standing at the rails to watch the show. The lines were dropped, and our ship moved sideways into the rapidly flowing river, having to increase the propellers just to stand still. Then ever so slowly the ship started to inch FORWARD. Wait a minute! Going forward meant we were headed straight for the bridge – our way out was behind us! This was bound to get interesting. Ever so slowly the great ship inched forward. I thought for sure we were going to hit the bridge – at this point, we were only a block from the Hermitage – what a disaster. I ran to the room and turned on the TV where I could get a picture from a camera view of the front of the ship. I swear I do not think the bow of this ship was more than 10 ft. from the bridge, when we came to a stop, engines straining to hold us steady in the running river. Suddenly the giant side thrusters fire up on the bow and at the stern in a maneuver to pivot the ship around 180 degrees. Ever so slowly, the ship responded, but this meant that we would now be turning sideways against the river, which was already beginning to move us back downstream quite rapidly, as well as pushing us backwards right towards a Russian Patrol Boat. We missed that boat just by a few feet and ducked in towards the jetty right in front of a freighter. “Whew,” I thought, until I looked at the TV screen and saw that our bow was now only feet from another small cruise ship that had been docked in front of us.

I will make a long story short – I don’t know how the Captain managed that maneuver, but my hat is off to him. He made it look easy, but I could tell from the tension among the crew it was far from a normal departure.

Today we have pulled into Helsinki, Finland, but Lisa and I are taking a day of rest, having been here many times. We might go walk around later, but we’ll see.

I hope everyone is well, and I do encourage you to look at the pictures of St. Petersburg.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Give Us A Break

Map picture

Give Us a Break!

“Travel Days” are stressful to begin with so when our phone rang around 8:15 am just before our scheduled 9am departure from the house, I got this creepy feeling that things were about to go south. I just did not know how far “South” they would end up.

The phone call was an automated message from American Airlines informing us that our scheduled 11am departure had been canceled, and advising us to standby the phone while they worked on alternative flights for us. I learned a long time ago that when stuff happens during a trip, you don’t just “wait” for anything, and so immediately I was on the phone to American looking for a way around this problem. When we booked out flights to Chicago, we had purposely elected to fly earlier than necessary, just to cover a contingency such as this. I was on the phone holding for almost 40 minutes, literally sweating bullets. On my computer meantime, I ran a check to see what other flights were available, and there were only two, both of which were showing full. Eventually, American came back and said that they had switched our tickets to a United flight leaving KC at 1:14 arriving Chicago at 2:30 which would give us plenty of time to make our 4:25 SAS flight to Stockholm – or so it would seem. Unfortunately, the agent could not give a seat assignment just a ticket, and then he said a funny thing – we needed to wait at home until we received an e-mail with our electronic ticket or else we might need to go to the American counter and “work it out, somehow.”

I just had a gut feeling that not all was well in flightsville, and so rather than sitting at home doing nothing, we immediately headed to the airport to check in way earlier than should be required. As it turns out, that was a lucky move. When we pulled up to the United counter for check in, the agent actually looked at us as if we had to be kidding. I gave him my sad story and showed him the electronic ticket I had received by e-mail, but all he would do was to shake his head and say there was absolutely no way we were getting on that flight. Eventually he was joined by yet another agent, and the two of them got into a heated discussion. They wanted to know who had issued this ticked and at what time it had happened. Finally a supervisor was called over. More discussion ensued, but at each opportunity the original gate agent would look at us and let it be known we were not getting on that flight, no matter what.

It turns out that the hubbub was the result of the local American Gate agent having phoned earlier this morning and asking if they could put us on United’s flight. The flight was already overbooked, and American was told “no.” So as far as the local United counter was concerned, their counterparts had ignored what they had said and tried to pull a fast one, which made them angry. That meant that they were being asked to offload one of their paying passengers to accommodate American’s problem. I think that two things occurred to modify this situation. The supervisor was able to confirm that I was indeed issued a valid electronic ticket on United in exchange for my American ticket, and that the voucher then gave me certain rights with United. Also, he was able to determine that the ticket was not issued by the local counter in violation of their discussion, but by American’s home office in Dallas. While all this was going, on Lisa and I kept sweet talking anyone who would listen – playing the poor old first time travelers who were so confused by all of this on our first big trip, and if we missed this then (boo, hoo) we would miss our cruise of a lifetime. I don’t know exactly what turned the tide, but quietly the first agent hit some buttons and slipped us boarding passes and told us to hurry to the gate before this became an issue…….Hooray and Hallelujah!

My heart was still pounding from this encounter when we approached the dreaded TSA. For those of you who have been following my experiences with the TSA at Kansas City, I have not once be able to pass through security without my entire carryon being literally stripped apart. Since my last flight, I had made a number of changes, including placing all my medical breathing equipment into a separate shoulder bag, and to my surprise, I sailed right through. BUT WAIT- Lisa was caught by TSA and denied entry into the screening area. Just to have some fun, take a moment and see if in your wildest dreams you can imagine why she would even be denied entry into the screening area. All that is required is a valid photo ID, and a current boarding pass, both of which she any ideas yet???

Well the eagled-eyed TSA agent who looked at Lisa’s passport became unglued. She used her little light over and over, and then she took her jewelers loop and examined it very closely. Finally she held it up to the light, and then begins holding it in all different directions, finely going through each and every page. Obviously completely in over her head, she picks up the microphone on her shoulder and calls for a supervisor, which brings everything to a halt. The hapless supervisor comes over and he is as dumbfounded as the gate agent. It is clear from his look that he has no clue, but he has to make a decision – want to make a guess? All of this was because Lisa’s passport over the years has obviously had pages added as we have travelled. They could not figure out if these pages were illegal or not and therefore, she was using a forged passport! After about 15 minutes of this nonsense, the supervisor gives a senatorial wave of his hand, and at last, she is allowed entry. Boy have we created a monster in the TSA.

We finally sit back and relax to wait for our flight, still a little shaken, but assured now that the worst is behind us; yeah, right!

As we hand our boarding pass over to be scanned, it comes back with a little baggage tag. It seems that we are flying on a small regional jet and all cabin bags other than purse size, must be checked at the entrance to the aircraft. Whoops – those bags were never to leave our side. As you can imagine packing for a five week trip, things such as cash, medications, cameras and computers are meant to be safeguarded at all times, but we had no choice. The flight itself was uneventful, but it arrived late into Chicago around 2:45, but since our overseas departure was at 4:25, I was not worried – but I should have been. After exiting the aircraft almost every passenger was told to line up along the ramp to wait for our bags. The entire group stood there in close quarters for almost 30 minutes before the “checked cabin bags” appeared. Now we are up to 3:15 for a 4:25 flight.

To reach our Scandinavian Air flight (SAS), we had to reach Terminal 5. Where we were parked put us at absolutely the worse place from which to reach Terminal 5. We were literally running as fast as we could – so anxious in fact that we were afraid to even stop for a bathroom break. I kept telling Lisa to slow down that we had plenty of time, but she would not hear of it. Finally, we come to the end of the passenger terminals, where we have to leave the secured area to board a shuttle train that will carry us to Terminal 5. I am keeping an eye on the clock, which by now is just speeding along, but still we should be fine. Whoops – wrong assumption. Arriving at Terminal 5 we run a long ways to the gate area to be once again confronted with a TSA pre-screening area. The lines are long, but not impossible so – however they are moving at a snail’s pace. I am still not worried until we clear the pre-screening and turn the corner to be confronted with a huge hall that is overflowing with people waiting to go through security. Now I finally lose my confidence, but I keep putting on a happy face for Lisa. As usual it seems I picked the longest line, and all the lines are quite literally moving so slowly. The clocks are ticking ever-onward. Just as I am passing through the new X-Ray machine giving some guy in the back a thrill, I hear over the PA and announcement for Mr. & Mrs. James Stevens. “Please proceed to Gate 15 for immediate boarding. This is your last call!” Holy cow – we throw everything back in the bags, and off we go running with my belt flapping in the wind. As luck would have it, we entered the terminal at Gate one, and we need to get to Gate 15. Again as luck would have it, the people movers were all turned off for maintenance, so we had only our fat furry little feet to get us there. Then yet another announcement for us – we are only at Gate 9. I see someone way down the concourse looking our direction and I start waving – when they start waving back, I know we will make it. And, make it we did, as they literally closed the doors behind us!

I don’t remember the flight all that well – after a number of scotches, I really did not care at that point! We reached our hotel and prepared to fall into bed in spite of what the clock said. I opened one of my checked bags only to find that Kansas City TSA had pulled a “gotcha” after all. There was a little insert telling me that my bag had been selected for screening – guess what, someone had simply turned the bag over and dumped everything out and then thrown it back into bag helter-skelter – one final remembrance from our friendly TSA at KC. They had not forgotten me after all.

This is way too long as it is, so I will just say that Stockholm is a wonderful, beautiful and exciting city to visit. We had a private car with a driver/guide for a four hour tour this morning. The driver was to be Sten. Well, Sten did not make it today, and so we had a very pleasant fellow who is actually a cab driver. As funny as this will sound, it ended up that I was showing him places to see and describing what was there, because he was merely a driver and not a guide in any sense. We did visit the Vasa museum, one of my favorite places in Stockholm. DSC_6039This houses the Warship Vasa which sank in the harbor on August 10, 1628 on her maiden voyage. Completely submerged in mud, she was brought up in 1961and is in almost perfect condition and today is housed in a beautiful museum. From there, I asked our driver to go places where we had not been particularly to get some good photographs. So, I don’t have much to add to what you will see in the pictures. DSC_6143We did visit the Stockholm Cathedral, where last year the Royal Wedding of the Crown Prince took place. We got there right at the end of the noon service when the Organ was playing Amazing Grace – a real moment to remember.

Tomorrow, we hopefully will board our ship the Silver Whisper. Sorry this was so long, but truthfully-you just can’t make this stuff up.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Restless Are The Globe-Trotters

Map picture


Map picture


Restless Are The Globe-Trotters

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To speak of many things: of shoes -- and ships" --- Did someone say "ships?" Alas, I think that is a great idea, so much so that once again, Lisa and I are setting sail, this time to the Baltic, and then continuing across the Atlantic into New York.

I will do my best to keep up with my usual blogs about our travels; however, this trip will present some challenges in that regard. All starts well enough with our flying into Stockholm and having a day to rest before spending a leisurely day sailing over to St. Petersburg, Russia. From that point, it is likely to be a blur of activity for the next eight days leaving little time to write or get caught up on pictures. Besides spending three days in St. Petersburg, we will visit Helsinki, Finland; Mariehamn, Finland; Visby, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; and Warnemunde, Germany one right after the other, before getting a one day break, before putting into Hamburg, Germany where the ship spends an overnight.

We then continue our whirlwind trip with nine straight days of new ports. We will visit Amsterdam, Netherlands; Zeebrugge, Belgium; Honfleur, France; Saint-Malo, France; Guernsey, Channel Islands; Southampton, UK; Fowey, Cornwall, UK; Waterford, Ireland; and Cork, Ireland. Whew!! While we are in Southampton, our good friends from England, will drive down to spend the day with us, which should be fun for all.

Leaving Ireland, the ship will sail four days directly East across the Atlantic to St. John's, Newfoundland, then a day at sea before reaching Sydney, Nova Scotia, and the following day stopping at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Another day at sea and we arrive back in the United States at Newport, Rhode Island, and continue the following day into New York, our final stop.

All in all, our grand journey will take 35 days, and it promises to be an exciting trip. I will be e-mailing about our travels as usual, and if you have received this e-mail, then you are on our mailing list. I will also post these articles along with pictures and maps on our web page As I can, I will try to keep photographs updated on our Picasa web page, and once I have it up and running, I will send the direct link, but you can always reach it from theglobe-trotters page.

I hope everyone will enjoy the journey, so stay posted.