No. of Recommendations: 6
Tallinn, Estonia – June 4, 2012

Estonian history is one of a virtual country. The language is related to Finnish and Hungarian. They were dominated by the Germans, then the Danes, then the Swedes, then the Russians. Estonia was finally granted independence in 1918 with the agreement of the Soviet Union that they relinquished their claim forever (apparently a variable term). They were overrun by the Germans during World War II and then taken back by the Russians again. They finally gained independence again around 1992 and, as part of the deal switched to the euro last year. When our tour guide expressed sadness over the fact that Estonia had never been ruled by the Finns, I politely pointed out that the Finns have had their own speckled past of similar rulers. The nearly glamorous (arguably questionable taste) tall glass monument to independence is topped by a cross within which lies the image of the highest governmental medal which is a curved “E” next to an armored gauntlet clutching a sword (but which looks like a euro symbol next to either a pistol or a hash pipe depending on your point of view). This towers over an overpriced park built on what was rubble left over from a (disavowed) bombing by the Russians which destroyed half of the city at the end of World War II before they liberated the Estonians from the Germans (who had already departed). Most of what can be seen has been financed by Swedish banks (who now basically own most of anything valuable) and the rest belongs to Skype which is headquartered here (which is now owned by Microsoft). Education is free through the post graduate university level, but there are not enough jobs to go around. The birth rate has dropped, but the available jobs seem to have dropped faster and there is an outflow of educated young Estonians.

We explored, on foot, the excellent Medieval Old Town, built in the 15-17th centuries. This compact area is best explored on foot. I picked up another free walking tour hosted by a student ( which offers similar tours in other Baltic cities as well). Our young guide was as much fun and as irreverent as the young lady we had in Copenhagen a few days ago from a different outfit. We entered the town near the Fat Margaret tower in the medieval walls and made our way to the Town Hall. The buildings are generally medieval in style, but the odd Art Noveau building fills in the gaps.
As most of you know, I can’t spell worth a hoot, so the names in the following were copied for correctness rather than attempted al fresco.
The Raekoja Plats is the square in the heart of the Old City, ringed with cafes and restaurants. Raekoda (Town Hall) was built in 1371. This heavy stone structure dominates the square. It now houses the Tallinn City Museum. According to myth, Toompea Hill was built on top of the grave of legendary Estonian king Kalev, but more historically, it's solid limestone and the site of the Danish castle that founded the city in 1219. Toompea was the home of the Danish aristocracy and relations between the rulers and the unwashed masses were often inflamed, which is why it's surrounded by thick walls and there's a gate tower (1380) guarding the entrance. There are great views over the city from here. There's also a cluster of amber (merevaik) shops around here (not Estonian origin but popular among cruise tourists).
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a classic onion-domed 19th-century Russian Orthodox church that has become a touristy symbol of the city, much to the annoyance of nationalist types who regard it as a symbol of oppression. It was almost demolished in 1924 during Estonia's first brief spell of independence, but though the Soviets left it to deteriorate, it has been restored to its former glory. Nearby is the Riigikogu, Estonia's pink parliament building (as the tour guide spoke, a periodic stream of Mercedes left its unguarded gates, so I guess politics pays well here as well). St Mary's Cathedral (Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, originally built as a Catholic church in 1229 but renovated and expanded many times since then, becoming a Lutheran church in 1561. The Ex-KGB Headquarters, Pikk 61, now the Interior Ministry and not open to the public, was where the KGB detained and tortured suspected dissidents. A Soviet-era joke says that this was the tallest building in Estonia: even from the basement, you could see Siberia. Interrogations were conducted in the basement and you can see even today how the windows were crudely bricked up with concrete to mute the sound.
The Old City is packed with restaurants claiming to offer authentic Estonian food, particularly on and around Raekoja plats. Prices at restaurants near the Raekoja Plats are generally more expensive, yet offer the same quality of food, as restaurants off this main square.

White Nights! It is now a bit past midnight (another clock change) and the sun set less than an hour ago, but the sky is brightly lit by a full moon. I expect dawn is not far off. I’ve put in a wakeup call for 6AM as I want to get of the ship tomorrow before the ship’s tour groups clog things up. We just got an email that our Israel to Cyprus flight has been rescheduled to 4:20 AM (arriving a bit over an hour later). That not only screws up the last night in Israel, but gets us to Cyprus hours before the car rental places open. I’ll have to try to fix this when we get to Israel (the boss is not amused).

St. Petersburg, Russia - June 5 2012-June 6, 2013
Geopolitical opinions at end of this section
We are entering a land of the midnight sun and white nights. It stays light here until after eleven in the evening. As we bounce north and south on this trip (we will be as far south as Israel and as far north as Flam Norway) it will be getting dark at all different hours of the night. While we will be clicking a time zone or three on this trip (and back/forth), it doesn’t come close to last year’s Asian one where we ticked off an hour each day for over a week. As an aside – while we will not be taking it on this trip, the bullet train from St. Petersburg to Moscow takes about 3 ½ hours to go the 800 km. It seems that the US is the only civilized country left which does not have any of these toys. Gasoline is about 29 rubles per liter for 96 octane “super” per liter. The US dollar is at about 32 rubles. That would make 4 liters of “super” about $3.60 or a gallon at about $3.25 (doing this in my head, so check my work). There are few Lada’s and Volga’s in evidence and there is a broad spectrum of foreign cars on the streets (ranging from Ford, Chevy, Kia, Hondai, Infinity, Porsche, Volkswagen, Skoda, and even one of the longest stretch Hummers that I have ever seen). There are numerous high end recognizable names to be seen on the major shopping street – Nevsky Prospekt and in the department stores. Yes there are McDonalds and KFC.

Russians have a sense of humor and are capable of laughing when the see something worthy of the effort. What they lack is a sense of irony as they have grown up in a country where situations that we would think are Kafkaesque even by Monte Python standards are the norm. The young ladies at the immigration window would not crack presumably because they saw nothing funny about the cue of passengers walking past. Pointing out to a Russian that the sidewalks were in poor repair would likely get the response that one should be careful when walking on them – this is not a country of happiness, but one of coping (sometimes better than at others).

We took an unusual (for us) guided tour while in St. Petersburg. Because of the Russian visa restrictions: nowadays (wasn’t the same last time we were there), without a hotel reservation or an invitation (though we just found out we could have gotten one from a student on the internet for $8), a tourist visa will not get you off the ship. By taking a tour, you also saved the high expense of a visa (at least that’s how I rationalized the high cost of the tour). Either you join a ship’s tour or a private one. The private one we selected, while not exactly how we would have allocated our time, was acceptable and was limited to 16 people instead of the huge buses used by the ship’s tours and somewhat cheaper than the ship provided tours (it ended up costing us $285 a person for the two days including meals and all the entry fees, etc. – expensive but we would not have been able to accomplish what we did in just two days on our own):
The tour outfit (Alla Tours) met us at the ship in 30 minutes after the ship docked and drove us around for a City highlights drive tour. Valentina, our tour guide had a PhD in Russian history and showed up in a new Mercedes tour bus easily fitting the 14 of us and with a professional driver. They also supplies each of us with a radio receiver and ear piece which was linked to Valentina’s transmitter so she could continue her explanations in the subway, loud museums and in other environments (thou she used the pa systems on the bus and on the boats. `They took us into the subway system for a short ride. A ride is less than a US dollar. The stations are over 100 meters deep (on the longest elevators I’ve ever ridden on – you stand to the right so those in a hurry can run down the left side). The depth is supposedly because the system has to go under wet and swampy land, but I suspect the tunnels double as bomb shelters. The station, though relatively new (1955) are extraordinarily fancy with marble walls and bronze chandeliers. The trains look a bit rincky-dink compared to NYC subway cars (and are light years away from those used in many Chinese cities). There are five different colored lines and the maps on the wall translate the Cyrillic text into Roman characters so they are easy to follow.
We left the subway and went into a covered building housing a local farmer's market. While the food looked like it was top quality (fruits, vegetables, cheeses, honey combs, etc. - all of which looked like they were just picked that day), there were no prices and no customers, we were told that the supermarkets were cheaper and the prices there were fixed (and everything in the farmer’s market had to be negotiated.
The tour company arranged for early entry into the Hermitage museum. When talking about St. Petersburg, it is nearly impossible not to use strings of superlatives. The Winter Palace of Catherine the Great (and her descendant Czars) with its Hermitage art collection is no exception. The size, beauty and unbelievable wealth demonstrated by the buildings themselves which cover a number of city blocks is more than equaled with room after room of grand masters of painting and sculpture. These are comprised of the vast collections of Catherine the Great, augmented by the art confiscated from the aristocracy and bourgeoisie during the Russian Revolution, art taken from the Nazis during World War II (itself generally stolen from its original Jewish owners) and art acquired from other sources (such as Picasso’s first wife). Where other collections might be satisfied with a single Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Picasso or Vermeer, this collection boasts rooms of each (and of virtually every other artist you might have heard of). Both the collection and the palace are jaw dropping and a reflection of the almost incalculable wealth of the Russian Aristocracy. We only spent a few hours hear, but I would think it is likely that a couple of weeks might be required just to see everything once. Those who have spent significant time in the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC have a bit of an idea of how large and varied an art collection can be, but neither prepares you for the lavish environment and sheer scale of the Hermitage.
The neighborhood around the Winter Palace is crisscrossed with canals lined with other lavish palaces (many retasked by the Soviets to other purposes. We took an hour long boat ride past the palaces, churches, bridges and fortresses from the water angle.
We drove a bit to Saint Isaac Cathedral. This Russian Orthodox cathedral is indescribably over the top. With its hundreds of kilograms of gold leaf, its dozens of twenty foot tall Byzantine style mosaics, its dome over a hundred foot high and green malcolite and blue lapis columns, this is a building with a huge amount of taste (whether it is good taste or not would depend on one’s personal point of view - but whether good or bad, there certainly is a lot of it there).
Almost three miles (five km) long, Nevsky Prospekt is one of the best-known streets in Russia and is the main thoroughfare of St Petersburg, starting at the Admiralty whose gilded spire is a famous city landmark, to the Moscow Railway Station and then to the Alexandr Nevsky Monastery where some of the country's most celebrated artistic figures are buried. It has been the hub of the city for centuries, cutting through the most historical part, and home to the most important sights in the city.
As well as many churches the street boasts St Petersburg's finest shops and restaurants, old manors and impressive buildings, and a beautiful mixture of architectural styles from the different periods of its history. Lunch was at an attractive, fashionable restaurant and consisted salad, borscht, chicken Kiev, dark bread, good coffee and an almost edible piece of cake. Other than the desert (which might be an acquired taste) the lunch was fine. When I asked the tour guide about the cost, she indicated that the meal cost more than in New York City, but less than London – more or less like Copenhagen (say about $35 +/- for lunch).

Intersected by rivers and canals, the most beautiful part of Nevsky Prospect surrounds the Griboedova Canal. Here the impressive colonnade of the grand Kazan Cathedral catches the eye, curving around a small grassy square, and opposite the view along the canal towards the multi-colored onion domes of the Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood (officially called the Resurrection of Christ Church) which is a breathtaking, vast cathedral built on the site of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881. This is yet another “must be seen to be believed” church. Modeled on St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and adorned with exquisite mosaic panels the church is one of St Petersburg's most striking landmarks.

We then crossed the bridges to St. Peter and Paul Fortress including a visit to Cathedral. This was the original citadel of St. Petersburg and is where the Czars and their wives have their coffins displayed.

While we could have gone to see Swan Lake at the ballet tonight, we were beat and decided to rest up instead (we could always see Russian ballerinas dance it in NYC anyway).

On the second day we started off (after the obligatory hour stop at an overpriced souvenir place allegedly to pay the bill for the sightseeing) with a trip to the Yusupov palace. This family was descended from the leader of the Moslem Tartars (Mongols from south-eastern Russia) who made peace with Ivan the Terrible. While they had converted to Christianity three generations afterwards and had intermarried with the Romanoff’s (the Czar’s family), they were seen as the defacto liaisons to Russia’s Moslems. As a contrast to the really big palaces of the Czars, this aristocratic mansion (one of 50 estates owned by the family – five of which were in St. Petersburg; They also owned about 500 businesses of one sort or another) was a more modest 160 room affair requiring only a couple of hundred servants to keep things running. Needless to say, despite its relatively small stature, the inside of the house would rival most European royal palaces (and win). The significance of this mansion is that the Monk Gregory Rasputin (more on him later) was assassinated here and there is a series of exhibits explaining that event. According to the tour guide, there were about 500 palaces of this stature in St. Petersburg which should give some indication of the size of the Russian aristocracy. That would seem to make them about .1-.01% of the population – about the same percentage that the US has of high and ultra-high net worth individuals, but our country’s wealth is far more evenly distributed and this upper tranche in the current US is far less differentiated from the general population on the basis of relative wealth.
We then took a short bus ride to a broad canal where we boarded a hydrofoil to Peterhof Palace and gardens. While this palace is lavish (what else is new here), the attraction of this resting point for Peter the Great between St. Petersburg and his Kronstadt fortress are the fabulous gardens with their array of both whimsical and impressive fountains. Natural water pressure is used to blast fountains out of massive gilded statues and joke fountains which drench you from unexpected angles.

Our bus took the land route and picked us up to travel to Tsars Village (Tsarskoe Selo) for an excursion to the Catherine palace (with its Amber room as one of the attractions). Yes, I know I’ve been using a lot of superlatives but this “shack” (excluding the art collection as this place has little of that sort of thing) threatens to eclipse even the Winter Palace. The building looks as large as the Pentagon (unrolled into a straight line) and has enough gold leaf to fill Fort Knox. Every time I think I’ve seen the ultimate house here, there always seems to be one a little more over the top than the last one. It makes it hard to remember more than a blur of unbelievable level of opulence and wealth not able to be equaled today by the wealthiest oil sheik or Oracle of Omaha.
After acquiring St. Petersburg from Sweden to gain access to the Baltic Sea, Peter the Great set his eyes on Kronstadt island in the (very shallow – outside of the shipping channel, only 3-4 meters deep) gulf of Finland. Sweden occupied this in the summer with its fleet but the ships left each winter to avoid the ice. One winter, Peter sent soldiers and guns out over the 20 miles of ice to fortify the island. He also had holes broken in the ice and built another nine islands in a row to its sides to create an arc of forts protecting the sea approaches to St. Petersburg. The Swedes were not amused when they showed up in the spring, but turned around and left. It was this line of defense which prevented the Germans from taking St. Petersburg during the siege in World War II and provided bases for raids. We passed Kronstadt on the way out of St. Petersburg and I ended up with some pretty cool photos of a submarine taking a suntan there (and we were told that they have underwater submarine gates across the channel to prevent uninvited NATO visitors).

Our tour guide regaled us with a completely different history of Russia over the past hundred years than I had read. I will not comment on my personal thoughts as to its accuracy. My perceptions of Russia were forged during the Cold War and are likely subconsciously as inaccurate as hers in some respects. What is important is that she, and presumably many other educated Russians, believe her version.

She started with Ivan the Formidable (the dude we insist on calling Ivan the Terrible). Up until his reign there had been an area of southeastern Russia which was the destination for runaway serfs. These wandered the area, stole, were hard to catch and return to their rightful owners and didn’t pay taxes. These Cossacks (apparently a Russian word for “wanderer”) formed an army and the developed a degree of discipline rare at the time. Ivan was the first Czar to reach out to their leadership and make a deal. If they came to work for him, he would send them to the far reaches of Siberia (the sleepy place in a local dialect, she said) to claim it for Russia. In return he would give them legitimacy and legal status. They rode around and stuck flags in the area without upsetting any of the denizens and then came back to collect their rewards. From then on, the Cossacks were loyal to the Czars and each royal palace we saw had a very fancy, large portion set aside as their barracks. Their loyalty was the reason that Lenin broke up their military units and it was not until Gorbachev (a Cossack himself) recreated the elite units. Ivan also forged an agreement with the Moslem Mongol Tatars by elevating the patriarch of the Yusupov clan to a ducal level and paying them off with huge wealth.

It was Peter the Great who made the decision once and for all that Russia was to be facing towards and imitating Europe rather than Asia by moving the capital of Russia from Moscow to a newly built City, St. Petersburg, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. He copied what he felt was the best of German, French and Dutch culture and military tactics and had the accumulated wealth pulled from Asian Russia in Siberia to buy what was needed. Peter, like those before and after him, augmented the low population of Siberia with workers (willing or not), frequently exiles and prisoners, to work harvesting timber and in the mineral mines.

The grandfather of Nicholas, the last Czar was Emperor Alexander II who was assassinated by a member of the bourgeoisie in 1881 in retaliation of his freeing the serfs. When the world was approaching the first world war, the Russian royal family was dependent on the advice and assistance (for a number of reasons which don’t bear going into here) of a monk by the name of Rasputin. Rasputin’s counsel was that since Germany had not attacked Russia, Russia should stay out of the war between Germany and Britain/France. The British and the French dangled the prospect of giving Russia control of the Ottoman Empire (Germany’s ally) so that it could be converted back to the Eastern Orthodox faith. In order to promote this goal, a cabal of conspirators headed by the Yusupov’s son lured Rasputin to the basement of the Yusupov Palace’s basement and shot him a number of times before dumping him into the canal. This event removed the counterbalance to Czarist Russia entering World War I on the side of the British and French. The war didn’t go well for the Russians and the bourgeoisie revolted, taking the Czar’s family captive and withdrawing Russia from the War and forming a government under their leader (Kaminsky, if I remember correctly). While the Czar’s immediate family was executed, many Russian aristocrats (such as the Yusupov’s) were permitted to leave the country with their wealth. This government lasted for a short while until a leader of the relatively small Bolshevik party (and a close friend of Kaminsky), Lenin was handed the reins of power in a bloodless and friendly manner. Lenin had been trained and lived in Germany and had close ties to them. This made it easy for him to sign a peace treaty on favorable terms to the Germans and, giving them considerable Russian territory remove Russia from the war. He then disenfranchised the bourgeoisie and took their property for the benefit of the State. He broke up the Russian Empire into a series of separate republics bound together in the USSR. After World War I ended (our tour guide continued), Russia was attacked by a well lead “White Russian” army (including Cossack units) as well as expeditionary forces from England, France, the US, Germany and Czechoslovakia (while I had heard about British and US involvement, the others came out of left field). Despite overwhelming odds, the poorly trained Red Army was victorious and pushed the invaders out of Russia. At this point, Trotsky (another Bolshevik leader, but with less affinity to Germany and more towards the UK and the US than Lenin) pushed for using the Red Army to push for the conversion of the working class of Britain, France, Germany and the rest of Europe to Communism. When Lenin died, he was placed on display in a refrigerated mausoleum in Moscow (where he still rests today), but shortly it was expected that his body would be removed and he would be buried with his family in a cemetery. Stalin, Lenin’s successor thought the Red Army had seen enough action and needed a rest. Stalin prevailed and Trotsky’s supporters were rounded up and slaughtered. Trotsky got away to the US and later met an unfortunate end on the sharp part of an ice pick. The Russian Orthodox Church (as well as all other religions) was discouraged by the Communists (replacement name for the Bolsheviks) and many of them were closed and fell into disrepair. While World War II was fought against the Germans, the current attitude seems to be that it was a small group of leaders which was the cause, but Russia doesn’t have a beef with the German people (a somewhat different attitude than the Soviet soldiers showed at the end of the Second World War with their death marches of German prisoners).
After Stalin bit the dust, Khrushchev took over, but was pretty dumb. Among other things, he took an island in the middle of a river from the Chinese (even though it was on their side of the accepted border) ticking them off and ruining relations. Putin recently gave the island back and relations with the Chinese are now much better. After Khrushchev, Brezhnev took over as Secretary of the Party in the USSR and was remembered with nostalgia. After he died, Andropov, former head of the KGB (and Putin’s patron) ran things for a year until he too died. Another premier (whose name I forget) held the office for about a year, croaked and the baton passed to Gorbachev. He tried all sorts of ways to keep things running. He suggested the reunification of Berlin (treated lukewarm in the US). He accepted the US dollar as the standard trading token causing an immediate devaluation of the Ruble. He opened the USSR to foreign consumer products but no one would buy any Soviet products (including petroleum – even though it was being offered at lower prices than OPEC). Eventually, this imbalance destroyed the economics of the USSR. Since Lenin had broken up the Russian Empire by separating the provinces into separate republics, Gorbachev held a referendum to find out if the population wanted the union to dissolve (it seems that only Russia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan were profitable and they supported the balance of the union. Anyhow (again according to the guide) a couple of days before the results indicating that the union was to be maintained, Gorbachev went on a vacation. The president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin had him arrested, held a coup, and took over the nation. Gorbachev went into retirement and shortly afterwards Yeltsin broke up the union and Russia was born (shorn of its protective buffers provided by the other republics). The wealth of Russian enterprises was divided between many of the former Communist party members (and many of these became very wealthy). Yeltsin drank too much and wasn’t very good at running things.

Putin was elected for the first of his terms. He had served as an intelligence officer in Germany before rising to the head of the KGB. Many of the oligarchs (generally former powerful members of the Communist Party who ended up owning the former State owned enterprises) started moving money out of Russia. Putin forced them to bring it back and brought one of the oil oligarchs to trial (since sent to jail) to teach the others a lesson (the fact that this particular one had started a political campaign to challenge Putin was not mentioned). Putin had the government open up and help pay for the renovation of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Since the number of clergy had dwindled under Communism, he opened schools and the Church has become very aligned with the government. Putin had close ties to Germany (having served there) and now Russia both exports significant quantities of gas and oil to Germany and imports vast quantities of German manufactured goods (and German companies make up the majority of their trading partners). Laws are meant to be followed and not a week passes without a new high visibility corruption trial. Other laws, such as those establishing term limits should be changed to allow leaders like Putin to serve longer. While the Communist party is second most popular with about 15% of the vote, Putin’s National Party gets around 66% of the vote. Putin is trying to bring everything in Russia back to how it was before 1914 (again according to the guide) – a time when it had prestige and power. The guide admitted to not trusting the Russian news media (I told her the old Soviet joke that there is no Pravda in Isvestia and no Isvestia in Pravda – these being the two Soviet news outlets: Pravda = “Truth”, Isvestia = “News”). The Soviet Union had a free, highly successful educational system (with almost 60% of the population receiving college degrees) and teachers/professors earned more than many other classes of professionals. After the breakup of the Union, teachers had to charge for their services and the current system resembles ours with the best education available from private institutions, but even there (as teachers are now on the lower rung of the current economic ladder and paid less than before in relative terms) quality has suffered greatly.

Helsinki, Finland – June 7, 2012
Carl Ludvig Engel (1778–1840) was appointed to design a new city center as the capital of the Russian province of Finland all on his own. He designed several neoclassical buildings in Helsinki. The focal point of Engel's city plan is the Senate Square. It is surrounded by the Government Palace (to the east), the main building of the University (to the west), and (to the north) the enormous Cathedral, which was finished in 1852, twelve years after C. L. Engel's death.
The "Gibraltar of the North" was once the greatest sea fortress in the Baltic, built by the Swedish in the mid-1700s at great expense to protect their eastern flank. But when the Russians invaded in February 1808, the bulk of the unprepared and bankrupt Swedish army hastily withdrew, allowing the Russians to conquer Helsinki without a fight and besiege the fortress. With no reinforcements in sight, commander Carl Olof Cronstedt surrendered unconditionally two months later, and Finland was ceded to the Russians. Cronstedt's actions probably saved countless civilian lives, but King Gustav IV needed a scapegoat and sentenced him to death for treason; fortunately, the losing king was himself soon overthrown, and Cronstadt lived out his years gardening. I’ve read that Helsinki was sometimes used as a movie set during the cold war as a stand-in for St. Petersburg, Russia. While there is one street that has the same feel, you would have to be squinting a lot (or drinking a lot) as it’s like comparing the town of Lake George to New York City. That said, this is a lovely place and feels like it mixes the ultra-modern Spartan interior design of the Nordic countries with the feel of a city best suited to black and white movies. As the trams whip down the streets, the unmistakable squeal of overhead electric sparks (something like a mixture of a carillon bell and fingernails dragged across a blackboard) rings out. The streets are clean and many of the buildings ornate. Bank lobbies are decorated with blocky sculptures worthy of images of workers in Soviet Russia. Outdoor cafes reminiscent of Vienna are scattered through the small business district.
Helsinki is typified by Stockman’s Department Store who has about a half floor devoted to sauna supplies. Small shops generally don’t have air conditioning because Helsinki has about five minutes of summer per year (but it sure does get dark late over here). In the square next to the harbor, there is a flea market. The Finns do not bargain. They don’t even understand the concept of haggling over a price, get confused and flustered. Last time I was here (in 1993), some of the booths were owned by wily Greek guys who sat in the background and watch their blond sales girls. They would sometimes take pity on the ones that deal with me and will take their place and enjoy a bit of negotiation just to break the boredom of watching Nordics buy all day. Nowadays, bargaining seems to be an acceptable practice in street markets.

Rather than take the $6 shuttle available from the ship, we walked the less than a mile into town, stopping at the street market at “Market Square” at the “top” of the harbor. We nibbled on samples of fruits, breads and cheeses and I ended up buying my wife a refrigerator magnet for “all the spare change in my pocket” held out in my hand (5 euro thing for about 3.40 euros – still overpriced, but at least a moral victory). We continued to a festival street market of food and handmade items a block or two away at “Senate Square” in front of the cathedral. I started a day long negotiation (eventually resulting in about a 20% discount) over a Damascus steel bladed handmade Nordic style knife (called a puukka). The Finnish blades tend to be softer than the Danish ones, but their construction is designed to provide an easy angle for sharpening (a design trade-off). We then wandered down the street to Stockman’s department store and I wandered around the pots, pans and kitchen appliances area. The quality of the items sold were all top notch (Kitchenaid, but about , Kenmore, Bosch, Krup, Le Cruset etc. as well as some local lines of knives from Fiskars and pots from Ittala), but were about 1.5 times the price of similar products in the US (the boss picked up some sort of moisturizing cream which was allegedly a good buy here). We then had a snack in the basement of Stockmans which was then augmented by world class pastries and coffee at the Karl Fazer Café (a place dating from the 1880’s) at Kluuvikatu 3 a block away (you need to get used to multiple double letters in a word here). We then walked down the street to the large Ittalia store which showcased some extraordinary custom pieces of glass along with the more mundane (and nearly reasonably priced) machine made ones. We continued further down the street to Meremekko, a very extreme (and expensive) fabric and clothing designer (no attempt to help the local economy made here).
If you see only one place in Helsinki in the summer, make it Suomenlinna. Entry to the island is free. The HSL ferry from Market Square is the cheapest and most convenient way of getting there at €4 for a 12-hour tourist round trip (return).
Today's Suomenlinna is still living in its own time with only old buildings, few cars, fewer than a thousand inhabitants and lots of old fortifications, catacombs and cast iron cannons. But it's not just a museum: the sprawling complex houses restaurants, cafes, theaters and museums, and is a very popular place for a picnic on a fine summer day, watching the vast passenger ferries drift by on their way to Estonia and St Petersburg. It was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1991 as a unique monument to European military architecture.
I was able to do the last bit of bargaining (with both the knife maker and my wife) and picked up my new toy on the way back to the ship (where it was not picked up on the security X-ray).

The sail-away took us through the narrow headlands which serves as home to the forts which protect the harbor of Helsinki.

The last thought I had about Finland is that no one seems to remember that they were allies of Germany during World War II (presumably because we then became the enemy of their enemy) and that Russia still owns about half of the land that Finland thinks belongs to them.

Stockholm, Sweden – June 8, 2012
Stockholm joins Copenhagen as one of the earth’s most picturesque of the seaside capitols. The sea surrounds you everywhere and the city has retained its medieval appearance. It comes complete with swans in its harbor.
About an hour away from Stockholm, the ship passed through a narrow slit in a fiord, passing forts on both sides which protect the entry to the city. The forts, originally built in the 16th century, now sport modern armaments and underwater torpedo tubes. After the hours long ride up the relatively narrow fiord at the end of which lies Stockholm (docking at the Viking Ferry pier at Stadtgarten), we meet with our friend, Odella. Years ago, I hired her as a consultant in order to resell her talents to my customers. She moved to Sweden 19 years ago, immersed herself in a language program at the university, 9 months later passed her written and oral exams and added Swedish citizenship to her collection. ( She says Swedes can understand Norwegian, but while Danes can understand Swedes, the reverse is generally not the case). Apparently, some of the training and advice wore off and she reinvented herself, later moving to Stockholm to start a career culminating as an executive in a software firm before recently retiring.

We passed on picking up Stockholm Cards (available at Arlanda Visitors Center situated in Terminal 5) which would have allowed us to use the transit system and offer some museum discounts and did things a la carte instead. Odella had said not to eat breakfast as she had a surprise in store for us and we started off with a walk to the Fotografiska Museum (the Photography Museum). We started off with open faced sandwiches for breakfast (Odella’s was shrimp/Raksmorgas, my wife had salmon/Laxmacka and mine was unsalted anchovy – think herring – with chopped egg and sliced potato on thick “pumpernickel” bread/Ansjovismacka). These were a bit expensive by US standards and (I picked up the tab) ran about $60US including coffees. The museum’s exhibits included a large one of Olympics photos and was a worthwhile stop.

Stockholm is built on a number of islands. We continued across the bridge into Old Town, the medieval portion of the city and happened to arrive at the palace in time to see the changing of the guards, complete with marching band and a troop of saber toting soldiers with spike topped chromed helmets.

We’ve been to Stockholm before, so we decided to forgo some of the important sights. To truly see this city, a tourist should budget at least a week. (When tipping remember that restaurants and taxis already have a 13% gratuity figured into the bill; if you want to add 5% more for exceptional service, it’s appreciated, but not necessary. Most shops in Stockholm are open 10am to 6pm from Monday to Friday, and from 10am till lunch on Saturday. The VAT charged on all products can be refunded on purchases exceeding €78 with the presentation of a tax-free check from the store. *Note: do not unwrap the goods before leaving Sweden – I don’t think we can get the money back because we are on a ship, rather than an airplane).

From Old Town, we took a ferry (about $5US) to Djurgarden, the former royal hunting grounds that became the world’s first city national park. This place has its own Tivoli Gardens, complete with multiple roller coasters, etc., but not the sort of thing I was looking forward to after a fish sandwich for breakfast.

The city was mobbed today with truckloads of drunken graduating high school students screaming their heads off (according to Odella, a yearly ritual).

Stockholm has more than 70 museums, but the crown jewel is the Vasa. It is almost impossible to prepare yourself for what you will see inside the museum: a warship — yes, the actual ship, not a reproduction or model — that capsized after being launched on its maiden journey in 1628. The Vasa was brought up from its watery grave in 1961. Many artifacts were found in the deep freeze of the harbor, including butter whose expiration date had long passed. There are free English speaking tour guides here.
Do not leave Stockholm without seeing the Vasa, or you’ll experience a sinking feeling when you return home, kicking yourself for having missed the city’s most popular museum. That said, make it snappy. You could spend half a day marveling at the Vasa, but we’re on a tight schedule as we have to catch our own ship soon. One hour is all we have.
We head back to the main street Djurgardsvagen and, without crossing, follow the sidewalk until we reach the Bla Porten Cafe for a Swedish fika.
To the casual observer, a fika appears to be nothing more than a snack, but to the Swedes, a fika is when you take time over coffee and ice cream (though I had a half liter of very good local beer) to chat with friends and just relax. (Payment by credit card for this stuff came to about $22 for the three of us). To understand fika is to begin to comprehend, at least in part, the complex Sweden soul. Fika is an important social institution.
We head across Djurgardsvagen to spend a about an hour walking through several centuries of Swedish history at Skansen. The world’s first outdoor museum serves up “Old Sweden” or “Sweden in Miniature,” with farms and villages reconstructed from more than 150, 18th, 19th and 20th century buildings that have been brought here from throughout Sweden.
Costumed guides and performers add to Skansen’s authenticity. We skipped the zoo (featuring primarily Nordic animals such as bear, lynxes, wolves and wolverines) as our time had about run out.

We took the “Hop-on Hop-off” ferry for a one-stop ride back to the ferry port and the ship and we bid adieu to Odella and watched the ride back out the fiord.

Incidentally, on a personal note, Odella was preparing to go to Kenya about two months ago for six months of volunteer work at an orphanage. She had to take the expected battery of shots and the apparently seemed to have affected her badly as she still felt ill over a month later. Further tests (long story) indicated that the real problem was an enlarged spleen (turned out to be 4kg!) which was removed a few days later in one of Sweden’s (and Europe’s) top hospitals. Total cost to Odella under Sweden’s national health program was $140 (soup to nuts). She said that if the operation had taken place in Kenya, she would have been dead and if it had taken place in the US, she would have been bankrupt.

Visby, Sweden – June 9, 2012
Visby is on the Swedish island of Gotland, home of the ancient Goths. Visby is encircled by medieval fortifications dating back to the time of the powerful Hanseatic League, and the city has been a UNESCO World Heritage City since 1995. We tendered to the town of Visby (only have a few hours here as last boat back to the ship is 12:30) to explore the place on foot so that we can enjoy the cobbled streets, quaint homes, ancient churches, and flower gardens. The tourist bureau is on the walk from the ferry pier and we picked up a map there to explore the city on our own.
We walked through the botanical gardens and then went a little further west to the western wall. The Visby Ring Wall was constructed in the 13th century and has numerous gates and towers surrounded by moats. Now a World Heritage site, it is the best-preserved city wall in Northern Europe and surrounds a bunch of ancient stone churches and houses. Visby is famous for its 16 ancient churches, but all are in ruins except for the Cathedral of St. Mary's, which has been restored. We walked past the real Villa Villekulla, Pippi Longstocking's colorful house. We finally found the subterranean tunnels of Lummelundagrottorna, Northern Europe's longest caves with their impressive stalagmites, stalactites and fossils.

Time flies and we have to return to the ship.

Our next posting will likely be at the end of a hectic week of a stop in Germany, a cruise through the Kiel Canal, disembarking after a month on the ship, a bit of time in Amsterdam (not enough time on this trip to see much else in Holland and we will only scratch the surface of this one city in the time we have) and our post will be on the far end of our flight to Israel (after a few days in Tel Aviv). It will be a busy week.

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In 1990, I went to what was then called just brought back memories of that trip. My 17 year old self was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of everything - art, gold leaf, size of the castles. Even now, looking through my photo album from that trip can cause me just to wonder. You have a gift for expressing what it is like to be there.

I also kept a diary while on that trip...interestingly, I predicted the fall of the Soviets within a year. I was off by one month. I also can't eat cucumbers - had them for every meal (the guide said "It was a good year for them").
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