Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Stockholm, Sweden

Well, I have now arrived in Costa Rica for my semester abroad, but somehow I have managed to not even finish my blog posts about the cruise. So, here goes the last one. Unfortunately I don't have my notes about all the places we went with me, so this is going to be painfully vague.

Our last stop on the cruise was Stockholm, Sweden. In the morning, my family took a tour of a famous park. Within the park were a few buildings with some pretty random arcitechtural influences - it was certainly interesting. After eating lunch within the park, we visited a really neat butterfly house.

After our tour of the park, our bus dropped us off in the "old town" of Stockholm. My family elected to wander about near the castle for a few minutes, during which we saw some kind of Stockholm equivalent of the changing of the guards. Afterwards, we walked down the bay back to our ship. Later that night, my sister and I went out to a local bar with some friends from the ship as well as a friend of a friend who lives in Stockholm, which was pretty fun. Main observation: Swedish people are intensely good-looking - it's pretty crazy.

The remainder of the cruise consisted of a few sea days and finally disembarking back in Harwich, England. We had an amazing time, and I was certainly sad to leave. We spent one more night in London, during which we saw Avenue Q on West End, which was of course amazing. :)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Helsinki, Finland

On Monday, 11 August, we docked in Helsinki, Finland. There, my family took our only all-day tour of the trip. Our first stop was in Porvoo, which was founded in 1346 and is the second-oldest town in Finland. I somehow managed to lose my entire family when we arrived, so I spent about an hour wandering around Porvoo in the rain. It was actually really enjoyable - the town was, as one would expect, quaint and quiet with cobblestone streets and colorful buildings. The shopping part of town was pretty touristy, so after buying some uber-delicious chocolate from a shop there, I wandered into the residential section of town and up to a church at the top of a hill.
After eating lunch near Porvoo, we visited an old church on our way back to Helsinki. To me, the most striking thing about the church was the extremely well-tended WWI and WWII memorials that were outside. There were headstones for Finnish soldiers that were killed during the wars as well as a larger headstone for both wars with a list of the names.
Finally, we drove back into Helsinki. There, we visited the Church in the Rock, which is pretty much exactly what you would think - a church built into the side of a large rock face. During a bit of free time at the end, we walked down to the market near the harbor. There were stands everywhere selling all kinds of touristy-items as well as fruits, vegetables, and grilled food. At some point the rainy weather had turned into a beautiful day, and I finally got some nice pictures.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Even though I've been back in America and preparing to leave for Costa Rica since Sunday, I somehow haven't managed to get even halfway through my cruise postings. So, here goes.

On Saturday, 9 August, we docked at Saint Petersburg, Russia. Saint Petersburg was the turn-around and halfway point of our cruise, and we spent two days there instead of the usual one. Unfortunately, no one in my family realized that we would need Russian tourist visas to explore the city on our own until about a week before I left for Tanzania. Because you have to mail off your passport to get a visa, it was a no-go for me, and luckily my loving family decided not to desert me. Since we didn't have visas, we had to stay on cruise-sponsored tours/events the entire time we were there. We went on three tours the first day and two the second.

Saturday, 9 August

On Saturday morning, we took a tour of the State Hermitage Museum. The Hermitage is, according to our guide, the second-largest art museum in the world (rivaled only by the Louvre in Paris). The Hermitage collections include over three million works of art, and its six buildings include the former residence of the Russian Czars, the Winter Palace. My favorite part of our tour was the Golden Rooms, which house items, figurines, and jewelry from as early as 4000 B.C. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the Golden Rooms, which made me pretty sad. Some notable paintings we saw were Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son" and "Old Man in Red" and El Greco's "Saint Bernard."

^The line outside of the Hermitage as we were leaving.

That afternoon, we took a tour of the Russian Museum and then the Church on Spilled Blood. The Russian Museum is essentially a large collection of Russian art, and it provided a great context for lots of history lessons from our guide. The Church on Spilled Blood was probably my favorite building of all that we visited on the cruise (!!). Its construction was completed in 1907, on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It is certainly eye-catching from the outside, but its interior is what I found most intriguing. Pretty much every inch of the interior is covered with beautiful, colorful mosaics... see the pictures.

^Church on Spilled Blood, from the outside.

^Church on Spilled Blood from the inside - everything is mosaic.

^A little piece of the interior up close.

Finally, on Saturday evening, we returned to the Hermitage for a private ballet just for our cruise tour in the Hermitage Theatre. It included excerpts from various ballets such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and it was an absolutely beautiful performance - especially from the second-row seats that my family managed to grab.

^Ballet at the Hermitage theatre.

Sunday, 10 August

After returning to the ship for the night, my dad and I went on a walking tour the next morning. Because of the lack-of-visas situation, this was really our only chance to walk around the city and feel like we had actually been there, so I was really glad we got to have the experience. It was a rare beautiful, sunny morning, and we walked along and near the Neva River for about three hours. Among the sights we saw were the Peter the Great monument, Senate building, Building of the Ministries, General Headquarters Building, Royal Stables, and Michael's Park.

Our last tour in Saint Petersburg was that afternoon, before the ship left at 6 PM. For this, my dad arranged a private tour for our family. First, we stopped at St. Nicholas's Church, which is a famous Russian orthodox church. It is customary for women to cover their heads when entering a Russian orthodox church, and I was glad to have grabbed one of my African scarves on the way out that morning. Our next stop was St. Isaac's Cathedral, which is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The most striking difference between the Russian cathedrals we saw and other European cathedrals I have seen in the past was that there are no pews in the Russian ones. Worshipers - even royalty and the elderly - are expected to stand during services as a gesture of respect. After leaving St. Isaac's Cathedral, we visited Peter and Paul's Fortress. We stood at the burial sites of Peter the Great, Catherine I & II [the Great], Paul I, Elizabeth, etc etc - pretty much all the Russian czars who were buried were buried at Peter and Paul's Fortress.

^Tomb of Peter the Great. He's actually buried in the ground, underneath the empty coffin.

All in all, our visit to Saint Petersburg was a wonderful and memorable one. Although it is generally known as an unhappy place, our guide told us that the people of Saint Petersburg are currently experiencing a generally very happy time. This was evidenced by the ridiculous number of wedding couples we saw while we were there - at one point, we saw about six wedding couples and wedding parties standing on the same bridge trying to take pictures at the same time.

^How many wedding couples can you find?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Tallinn, Estonia

After a relaxing day at sea, we docked in Tallinn, Estonia on Friday, 8 August. 08/08/08 was also marked by the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, but I have unfortunately been pretty far removed from outside events save my daily dose of CNN Asia while I'm on the elliptical at the gym.

In Tallinn, my family took a walking tour called "Glory of Old Tallinn," which took us through the historical section of town. We first visited a cathedral with strongly Russian architecture, then a Lutheran church. We all found it pretty funny that the Lutheran church had a balcony for the king and queen, even though Estonia has never had a king and queen. At one point we had a short break for shopping, and then we visited one last church for a wonderful concert by a string quartet.

^View of lower Tallinn on a rainy morning.

^This cathedral was our first stop.

After the walking tour, we headed back to the town square and ate lunch at a lovely little outdoor café. While we were there, a horse-drawn carriage with a newlywed couple aboard rolled into the square. I ran out and took lots of pictures, but the most interesting picture of the carriage is one I took later, when we saw the same carriage trotting down a main traffic road in the modern part of Tallinn. All in all, Tallinn was one of my favorite places that we visited (despite the fact that it was pouring rain half the time we were there). The buildings were colorful and picturesque, and it seemed to be a peaceful and quiet location in general.

^The town square where we ate lunch.

^Horse and carriage meets the modern world.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Berlin, Germany

On Wednesday, 6 August, about half of the passengers on our ship (pretty much all the Americans) took a three-hour train ride from our port on the coast of Germany to spend the day in Berlin. It was quite a long day (we departed at 6:45 AM and returned at about 9 PM), but it was definitely worth it to see the myriad of historically important sites in Berlin. After our train arrived in Berlin, we boarded a tour bus, on which was waiting for us the craziest tour guide you could ever imagine. His name was Burkhart, and he was probably the most flamboyant (yet straight) person I have ever met. My sister Jessie and a couple of our friends spent most of the tour laughing at his antics and trying to capture them on video. Seeing as we were all running on less than three hours of sleep (we’ve been having a little too much fun), Burkhart was probably the only thing keeping us awake for most of the tour.

Anyway, sorry for the tangent. After becoming acquainted with Burkhart, we were first taken to visit a surviving section of the Berlin Wall. The wall is covered with graffiti, but it is strangely beautiful. Some of it is extremely goofy – for instance, there was a picture of a dinosaur along with a hilarious quote that is unfortunately not appropriate for me to copy here. A good deal of the graffiti, though, is meaningful in some way – politically, socially, morally, or otherwise. One thing that caught my eye was the words, written in small letters, “¿Cuándo dejará Colombia de sangrar?” which means (translated from Spanish), “When will Colombia stop bleeding?” I found it quite poignant that many travelers to Berlin had found some hope for their own homelands in the fact that Berlin’s painful struggle had ended.

^Berlin Wall

Our next stop was Checkpoint Charlie, which was the portal of sorts through which diplomats, officials, etc. could pass legally between East and West Berlin. It was the third of three checkpoints in the wall – the first two were on the outer edges of the city, and were named Alpha and Bravo. Afterwards, we visited the Pergamon Museum and ate a delicious lunch at the Palace of the Princes. We drove by the Holocaust Memorial, which I found strangely overwhelming, considering it consists simply of 2,711 slabs of concrete. Next was Brandenburg Gate, which was formally located inaccessibly between the two halves of the Berlin Wall. Finally, we listened to an organ concert at the beautiful (and huge) Berlin Cathedral, which I particularly enjoyed.

^Checkpoint Charlie

^Pergamon Museum

^Holocaust Memorial

^Brandenburg Gate

^Berlin Cathedral

As you can imagine, after such a long and intriguing day, the train ride back to our port involved lots of sleeping.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Copenhagen, Denmark

On a chilly Tuesday, 5 August, our ship docked in Copenhagen, Denmark. Our family took a bike tour of the city for a couple of hours, which was a great break from all the walking we had been doing. One of our first stops was the famous “Little Mermaid” statue. The statue was carved as a tribute to Hans Christian Andersen, a native of Denmark and the creator of the story that was later made into a Disney movie. Interestingly, the original story had a quite different ending than the one most of us have heard. In the original version, the mermaid also visits a “sea witch,” who agrees to turn her into a human being on the condition that she will always walk with pain and will give the witch her beautiful voice. When the mermaid arrives on the shore, though, she discovers that her prince has been fooled into believing that it was another woman who saved him from the shipwreck. The prince has married that woman and is deeply in love. Out of sorrow and heartbreak, the mermaid turns into sea foam. Interesting, huh?

The city of Copenhagen was quite picturesque, but it was interesting to see that some buildings still bore bullet holes and other scars from World War II. The city is very sea-focused, and there were canals running right through town and up to one of the main squares. We ate lunch in between a row of beautiful, colorful buildings and a canal. My mom and I shopped for a bit, and then it was back to the boat so as not to be left behind.

^Bike tour

^Little Mermaid statue

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Oslo, Norway

On Monday, 4 August, we docked in Oslo, Norway for about 9 hours. My family took a walking tour in the morning, during which we saw Akershus Fortress, City Hall, the residence of the royal family, etc. After the tour, we took a ferry across the bay to visit the Kon-Tiki museum, which is really more of a Thor Heyerdahl museum, as it also includes the Ra II and Tigris boats. If you have no idea what I'm writing about (I was pretty clueless before we visited), Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian who basically re-created ancient styles of boats and sailed them for long distances. The Kon-Tiki, a big raft made of balsa wood, is the most famous as a result of a bestselling book and Oscar-winning documentary. Heyerdahl and five other men sailed on the Kon-Tiki from the western coast of South America to Polynesia in order to prove that the original inhabitants of Polynesia could have come from South America. Their journey spanned 101 days and over 4300 miles, but they were successful.
^View of Oslo from Akershus Fortress
^In one part of town, there are quotes of famous Norwegians on the sidewalk.
^ Oslo City Hall

^The Kon-Tiki!

^View of Oslo as we were leaving port

All Aboard!

On Saturday, 2 August, my parents, sister, and I left Canterbury early in the morning for Gatwick airport in London, where we would catch a bus service to Harwich provided by the Celebrity cruise line. I drove our rented Range Rover for most of the 1.5-hour drive to Gatwick - on the left side of the road of course. I'm pretty sure my mother and sister (and probably father too, although he hides it more effectively) were pretty terrified. Somehow, though, I managed to get us there all in one piece. Sweet.

After a two-hour wait at the airport and a two-hour bus ride to Harwich, we checked in and boarded the cruise ship. It's a Celebrity Constellation cruise, and we are essentially city-hopping from Harwich all the way to St. Petersburg and back. In the span of two weeks, we will visit Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Germany, and Russia.

So far, we have had a ton of fun. Being that this is my first cruise, I am thoroughly amazed at the amount of STUFF you can fit on one boat - beautiful restaurants, classy bars, a huge theatre, a "Fun Factory" for little kids, shops, a casino, a nightclub... the list goes on. The 20's-ish crowd on the ship is a really fun bunch of people, and I'm really enjoying getting to know lots of new people.

^The required "abandon ship" drill before we left Harwich, which as you can see my family took very seriously.

^Sunset at sea... glorious :)


After lots of fun in London, my sister Jessie and I took a train to Canterbury and met my parents there for a short less-than-one-day stay before journeying to Harwich to begin the cruise. Canterbury is a beautiful little town famous for (of course) Canterbury Cathedral. We toured the cathedral, took a boat tour, and then explored a little on our own. The weather was particularly beautiful, and it was nice to be in such a peaceful and picturesque place.