Monday, July 26, 2010

Cruising the Baltic

I am a blogging delinquent, and now I find myself in the unenviable position of trying to summarize a ten-day Baltic cruise in a few paragraphs, nearly two weeks after the fact. So here, in one photo, here is that summary:

(I'm on a boat.)

The ship was very elegant. It was the Ritz of the seas: attentive service, bountiful food, and lots of old people. Quite a change from the hostel life, and a welcome one.

Some highlights: Within hours, every waiter on the boat seemed to know my default drink (Perrier, to replace the Diet Coke in my life) and would bring them unprompted. I actually managed to tire of eating lobster tail. And with the ship's near-geriatric clientele, my sister and I found it easy to be the life of the nightclub on karaoke night.

The Baltic itself was stunning. With still waters and slow-motion sunsets, it looked like we were floating on a sea of iridescent mercury.

With only two sea days, though, we had very little time to lounge by the pool. We were booked on excursions at every stop: Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Warnemunde, Kiel and Copenhagen!

Stockholm was everything I expected: clean, green, simultaneously historic and modern. Beautiful people speaking impeccable English. The clear highlight of our couple days there was a visit to the Vasa museum. The Vasa is an enormous Swedish warship which sank in the... oh gosh, was it 1600s?... because they put too many canons too high on the ship. It's first and only sailing was about 300 meters. Oops. Now this titanic ship (pun intended) lives ashore in it's own building, astonishingly well-preserved.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, was not what my family and I expected. We were picturing a very eastern, very foreign looking place with visible scars of communist repression and, perhaps, ongoing limitations on freedom. What we found was a European-feeling city, except for the Cyrillic alphabet and the, ahem, provocative attire of nearly every woman on the street.

Our guide Maria pulled and pushed us around the city for three full days. We saw museums, churches, palaces, gardens, canals, monuments, and even an opera. Having a private guide felt very exclusive. We ate several of our meals in former palaces (nothing but the best for the Levin's), took a private boat ride around the city, and even got a tour of an art museum from the director on the day it was closed. Best of all, we got to set our own pace, which got slower and slower as the days went on.

The highlight of St. Petersburg for me were the gardens, the name of which I of course forget, with their incredible fountains.

Helsinki was small, picturesque and enjoyable. We took a scenic bike ride around the peninsula of the city wearing ridiculous safety vests.

In Warnemunde, we trekked three hours inland to Berlin, toured for six hours, and came back. It was a brief but amazing time. Our guide carried with him a self-assembled flip book of historical images of the city. At every vantage point, he could show us what the city looked like before the Nazis, during the war, and during the postwar period. The history of Berlin is befuddling, but he made it come alive. The photo below is taken at the Jewish memorial in Berlin. I hesitate to call it the highlight-- that was our guide-- but it was the most visually stunning.

In Kiel, my family cancelled our bike tour due to Berlin fatigue and instead spent the morning walking around town trying to find free wifi. We did, and it was glorious.

Our last stop was Copenhagen. We took a beautiful canal tour of the city, saw the quiet residential streets of an old fishing village, bought the day pass for rides at Tivoli Gardens, and visited the ice bar.

This blog post doesn't do justice to the months of planning, thousands of dollars, or many unforgettable moments that happened during the cruise. But I'm writing this from the airplane ride home, and I need to get you home at the same time as me!

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