White Nights along the Baltic Sea- Part One.

Copenhagen, Denmark was our departure point for a ten-day journey on the Baltic Sea aboard the Holland America, Eurodam.  We arrived in Copenhagen after a long  flight from Miami to Düsseldorf, Germany, and since we had an eleven hour layover we decided to explore the city along the Rhine river.  The quiet town in the morning turned bustling mid-day just about the time jet leg and lack of sleep overcame us.  The solution… a few beers and a cruise along the Rhine with the hopes of snuggling on a bench or even better a couch without interruption.  While most visitors sat on the deck above listening to the history surrounding us, we quietly slept below.  An hour later we were rudely awaked by engine noise and a solid bang against the dock.  Dazed and bewildered we wandered around town exploring shops along Rheinuferpromenade and Altstadt then returned to the airport for our quick one hour flight.

Eagerly greeting Copenhagen the following day we had no agenda and a basic knowledge of popular sites.  Map in hand we walked around the city.  Our hotel was directly across from Tivoli gardens so we paid the pricy entrance fee, strolled around the beautiful grounds and had lunch.  Pretty, yes. Worth the $40 per person fee without the overpriced lunch, no.  We soldiered on, stumbling upon open markets, the changing of the guards at the royal palace, historic churches, sand castles, town hall, the little mermaid, and my favorite Nyhaven street.  We hit up the famous Andersen’s bakery where I procured a delicious Danish and my husband splurged on a devilish fudge filled chocolate.  Simply divine.  The streets were bustling with pedestrians, tourists and bikers. Bike cycles as a form of transportation in Copenhagen is more popular than cars and both exist in harmony.  We scheduled a bike tour for the following morning and had an easy dinner and evening adapting to the late sunsets of 11 p.m.

In the morning I ran with the locals on a popular trail along the lakes, just minutes from our hotel.  As always I ran with a smile and received the same in return.  We met our guide, Mike, at  his bike shop joining a handful of  tourists for our three-hour tour.  We covered some of the spots we’d seen the previous day and quite a few more, all with an excellent and sometimes humorous commentary.  After a late lunch we bought a few bottles of wine and vodka, collected our bags from our hotel and hailed a taxi to board our ship around 4 p.m.  I was a bit nervous about our late arrival since the ship would set sail within an hour.

A few staff members surrounded the gangway taking our luggage and passports in exchange for our boarding cards.  Only a handful of cards remained in the young gentleman’s palm.  “Are we the last one’s to check in?” my husband asked.

“Probably, the last ones to make it at this port,” he responded.  “Check-in ends in 10 minutes.”

“Holy shit,” I mumbled.  “Leave it to us,” I nudged my husband.  He grinned with satisfaction not having to endure long check-in lines.

Our first day was one of the few full days at sea so we explored the ship and settled into our Verandah suite.  The vessel was a good size without being a floating mall.  Perfect for my taste.  Someone on board had a medical emergency, so we had a quick diversion and drop off in Sweden.  At one point the fog was so thick you couldn’t see more than a few feet below the balcony.  A bit eerie as the fog horn blasted every few minutes.

“Have you seen fog like this often?” I asked the bartender.

“Never,” he replied.

 The following morning we arrived at our first port Tallinn, Estonia.  A city I was excited to explore, it being the only port during this trip that I hadn’t visited in my youth.  I had pre-scheduled a walking tour of the old mid-evil fortified city later dominated by the Soviet Union in the 20th Century.

Our guide was a young bright-eyed vivacious Estonian with a gift for story telling and communicating history.  Only eight years old when the soviets left she remembered playing with the food stamps needed to purchase necessities.  Her grandparent’s, like many families in Estonia, were relocated to Siberia.  Under Soviet rule it was an attempt to silence the educated and one out of every five families in Estonia have been affected by the exile.

Walking along cobble streets and alleys we got a good feel for the quaint historic yet lively atmosphere of Tallinn.  After the tour we had a late lunch then made our way back to the ship for our 5 p.m. departure.  In the evening we hung out at the casino and neighboring bar, retiring to bed past midnight when the sun was still looming on the horizon.

St. Petersburg welcomed us in the morning.  We passed through immigration finding our tour bus among a sea of others and hopped on board to listen to Olga tell us about Peterhoff Palace, our first stop.  The crowds were already immense at 9 a.m., but we were pre-warned.  Equipped with an audio-guide that would allow us to hear Olga throughout the tour we set off in our group of 25.  The palace was built for the first Czar’s daughter, Elizabeth, and improved upon and taken over by Catherine II. It was every bit spectacular and grand including the canals and fountains that alone attracts thousands.  Afterwards we walked through the royal park booming with locals picnicking for the weekend.  A hydrofoil transported us back to the city and our bus driver for a tour of the St. Petersburg.

The city had changed from my first visit in 1991 with dilapidated  buildings and empty streets.  Now it’s a lively, vibrant metropolis and the tenth most expensive city to live in the world.  The “Temple of Spilt Blood” was especially rewarding as we explored the inside with all its art, history and grandeur. We were able to hear Olga in our audio-guide while accidentally getting separated from the group, so we decided to do a bit of self exploration by sneaking away to the black market for a quick ten minute shopping spree prior to re-boarding the bus.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat on the ship then joined our next tour, “An Evening at the Hermitage.”  A great way to visit this world-class museum nearly unoccupied at night and offered exclusively for our ship. We examined famous works by Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo to name a few of my favorites.

The following day we did an easy river cruise followed by a visit to Yusupov Palace made famous by the murder of Rasputin.  Seeing this beautiful city by boat was exquisite and relaxing.  In an area plagued with cold weather we were blessed with a 90 degree day.  My husband and I again slipped away with our rubles to buy a local bottle of Vodka prior to setting sail.

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