Circumnavigating the Baltic Sea: Denmark, Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Germany

A cruise through the Baltic sea: Shakesperean castles, Churches of Finland, Market Square, historic buildings and beautiful sunsets.

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When we travel, we normally pick an area and see it in depth. But in the summer of 2002, we had a very different trip: a cruise around the Baltic Sea, stopping at eight ports in ten days. There are some advantages to this method: no constant unpacking and repacking, no worries about finding a place to stay or where to eat, no headaches navigating foreign road signs or transit systems, laundry and money changing right on the boat where they don't take time from sightseeing—and most of the traveling is at night, so you have the days open for exploration. But ultimately, you see quite a bit less of any one place.

With that in mind, we arrived in Copenhagen three days before departure, so that we'd get to explore at least one city in some depth.

While my wife and I have been to Europe several times, it was the first trip for my 9-year-old son, and the first for my 14-year-old daughter that she'd be old enough to remember.

Copenhagen and Elsinore, Denmark

We discovered immediately that we've been pronouncing the name of the city wrong for our whole lives—it's co-pen-HEY-gen, not HA-gen, Danny Kaye notwithstanding. A woman at the airport warned us that only the Germans did it the other way, and other Danes confirmed this.

Copenhagen is a lovely and friendly city, with a rail network that's very efficient. Plenty of new construction but mostly sensitive to the existing historic architecture.

Our first host, Julie, is a 20-year veteran of a 25-year-old collective house in Hellerup, an elegant suburb of huge houses. We were told that there were many collectives formed at that time because only a large group could afford to buy those huge houses. Currently, 14 people live there, including immigrants from Rumania and the UK, and several children. Our second hosts, Peter and Lena, live in Gentofte, which he describes as *the* wealthy, conservative suburb—ironic, since Peter is a trade union professional and did research on the working class. His yard opens on a lovely marsh and it feels quite countrified. Peter and Lena bought 10 years ago but say that housing prices have nearly tripled since then. Both our hosts are close to the Orsund, and Peter took us swimming.

Our first real excursion was to Helsignore (Elsinore), where Shakespeare located Hamlet.

The real, historical Hamlet, King Amled, lived about 3500 years ago and never saw this castle. Yet his story was full of much the same kind of intrigue as in Shakespeare's plot, and there was a contemporary English language retelling with which Shakespeare was probably familiar—but his version survived and the other did not.

The self-guided castle tour opens on a couple of rooms devoted to the play and its various stagings at the castle, then moves to a description of the castle's place in history. Built in the 16th and 17th century—and, strategically placed at the narrowest crossing between Sweden and Denmark—its soldiers extracted tolls on all passing ships.

Then to the royal apartments and finally, the storage areas and dungeons below—including a statue of legendary Viking leader Holger Danske.

The town is very charming, with a busy pedestrian mall and many ancient, beautiful buildings. We bought lunch at a cheese shop (with hundreds of varieties) and nearby bakery, and had a picnic in front of the castle.

The next day, we explored Copenhagen's Old City. The transit system seems excellent; we've found it very easy to get around on the S trains. We got off at Norreport (North Gate) and headed down Kobmagergade to the harbor.

On the way, we climbed the Round Tower, whose interior is a curved ramp up several stories—perhaps the inspiration for New York's Gugenheim Museum, but much steeper—to a flight of stairs at the top. That in turn leads to a balcony with spectacular views of the old city's church towers, waterways, and tile roofs.

A lower floor contains an art gallery that had some beautiful sculptures of Asian dancers. There seems to be a lot more traffic to Asia and Africa here; adventurous Danes frequently vacation in Thailand, Indonesia, or southern Africa. Airfares and travel times are comparable to an American vacation, and of course, once you arrive, travel costs are much lower in those countries. We've met quite a number of people who've been to Bali or Bangkok (or both).

The street (one of many pedestrian-only streets downtown) also passes the Post and Telegraph Museum and the Erotica Museum before meeting the harbor just at the beginning of the island that contains the Parliament, the 17th century Stock Exchange, and other key government buildings.

Bicycling seems to be enormously popular all over Scandinavia—mostly on heavy old three-speeds, though there are a few newer high-powered bikes. The outer edges of many sidewalks are bike lanes, and pedestrians had best keep to their side! Unlike most other European cities, Copenhagen has no on-street tram system (and not all that many buses, either); the S-train runs in its own right-of-way and is heavily used.

As in Amsterdam, the harbor is a network of canals and natural waterways, and is central to the city's identity in a way that's rare in the U.S. (San Antonio is one exception, where the river is thoroughly integrated into city life.) Houseboats line many of the canals and numerous bridges provide a feeling of connection to the water.

For a different view, we climbed the spiral stair that winds its way atop the outside of the spire at Our Savior's Church. This is another very amazing building, with a feeling of tremendous age in the wooden support beams, the ancient carillon, and the ever-narrowing stairs up the outside. By luck, we caught a glimpse of the simple but elegant chapel, because the door was open for a moment as a wedding rehearsal took place. The other churches we've seen here are quite ornate; this one was uncluttered, airy, and very beautiful. According to the brochure, this particular church is considered part of the birthright of every Dane, it has often had royal congregants, and also serves as the parish church for the nearby alternative community of Christiania (the 70s squatters who took over a former military base, sell dope in shopfronts and refuse to pay taxes).

Although the culture is definitely not oriented toward vegetarians, it hasn't been at all difficult. Restaurants seem very expensive and with few vegetarian offerings, but it's easy to get a vast range of cheeses and breads. Most of the cheeses are strongly flavored, with a live foods taste to them like an aging brie. Breads range from white sourdough to dense, dark whole-grain rye—and then there are several kinds of flatbread as well as pastries. American-style crappy white bread is popular for toasting.

Our last morning, we took a guided tour of the Danish Resistance Museum. I found it more depressing than inspiring, with the violence much emphasized on both sides. There was only one showcase about the rescue of the Jews, and a little descriptive plaque that said the story of the Danish king wearing the yellow star was a myth! I took a photo of an illegal underground press made of old bike parts.

On the way, we passed the famous Little Mermaid statue. Personally, I think there are many far more interesting statues in downtown Copenhagen, but it was crowded with photo-snapping tourists.

Tallinn, Estonia

From the moment we first saw it, out some way in the Baltic Sea, we were enchanted by Tallinn's beauty. Very ancient, and one of the most visitor-friendly cities I've ever seen: maps all over town, postcard sellers all happy to give directions, several information kiosks. It's an easy walk from the port to and through the old city. And there is no hint of the former Soviet government, not even a Cyrillic street sign.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be Estonia Independence Day, and all the museums, towers, etc. were closed—and most Estonians weren't around if they weren't in tourist services.

Nevertheless, it was a terrific way to spend an afternoon. We walked through the old city, up to Toompea (Dome Hill), with its small remnant of the original protective walls (thick stone, with doors of heavy wood reinforced with enormous metal plugs).

Dollars are welcome almost everywhere downtown (though we did have to use a credit card at a local supermarket just outside the tourist area, to buy a dollar's worth of—three good-sized bars, probably over a pound, total—of Estonian chocolate).

Much of the medieval city still exists, including one street with a series of narrow stone arches that I am guessing lend structural support to the ancient buildings on either side of the narrow alley (I believe it was Katherine Street). Toompea is easily reached by stairs that go buy a number of galleries; the one on the bottom has particularly beautiful ceramicware.

Best prices we found were in a little crafts market on an alley off Peek Street; we bought fine hand-made woolen items for far less than on the tourist strip ($7 for a pair of tight, warm mittens). Other local crafts include beautiful amberware, Orthodox Church artifacts, and the ever-present nesting dolls.

Many of the ancient sites have unusual names: Fat Margaret Tower, Peek in the Kitchen.

Written Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language, written with Roman characters and with lots of cognates. I found it easier to understand than Danish, by far. But I couldn't make anything out of the spoken language.

The city is full of spires, fortifications, and ancient alleys, very photogenic—and three cruise ships were in port, so the streets were full of cruisers on walking tours.

We ate lunch at a trendy local spot, the Pegasus, which featured Italian, Japanese, and Thai cuisine, very well prepared. Lots of stainless steel, including the men's room, which looked like something out of a Bauhaus art exhibit. They make their own pasta, which we sampled, and their own ice cream, which we didn't. We paid about $25 for the four of us, and the food was excellent. All the typical Estonian places we saw were substantially more expensive and without much in the way of vegetarian choices.

St Petersburg, Russia

St Petersburg is a tired, once-beautiful city of crumbling facades, broken windows, trams and buses that look like they were salvaged many years ago from another city that had used them up, freight containers with years of rust and decay. I'm writing this from a tour bus with a bent headlight.

It's easy to see why the peasants revolted; the royal palaces are beyond opulent, beyond even extravagant. Gilt paint everywhere, imported Italian marble, and vast expanses room after enormous room, filled with ornate and expensive art objects.

The Hermitage is misnamed; it's right in the center of town. Its main building, the Winter Palace of the Russian Revolution, is a gaudy display of ostentatious wealth and is worth a look just for that—but the art collections are extraordinary, and it's frustrating that there's so little time on the tour to see it. The collection is the one reason I've seen to try to do Petersburg on your own, in spite of the very expensive visa you need. Since the visas would have cost $600 for the four of us, and since we were only there a day and a half—and as it turned out, the (primarily industrial) port is several miles from town, and taxis don't venture there, this was a wise choice. So instead, we took five group tours in two days! The Hermitage, two other palaces, a Russian dance and music concert, and a boat ride through downtown on the Neva River. A bit much? Well, yes—but when were we going to be in St. Petersburg again?

Peterhof, the summer palace, is more of a retreat—and to get to it we faced a two-hour traffic jam on a small road, because the main road was closed for construction.

On the way, we passed dozens of drab, decrepit Soviet-era high-rise apartment developments; when we got there, we were greeted by a sorry band in Baroque dress playing the Star Spangled Banner and Dixie—like third-graders. At least the musicians in front of the Hermitage (playing the same tunes, though wearing street clothes) could manage their instruments.

On the way to Peterhof we also went through an extended neighborhood of dachas. These summer houses are not the country homes I'd thought they would be. Rather, they are close together in blocks, vaguely Victorian in style, mostly pretty run down—and definitely not winterized. They reminded me of Catskill bungalos or beach houses in a run-down, once glorious summer resort. They all have gardens. Some of them are in an agricultural area without much charm. The next day, on the way to Pushkin, we passed through some much prettier countryside.

Pushkin is a pretty town of 100,000, buildings in generally better shape, very lovely urban parks, and of course the palace complex-Catherine the Great's, which we toured, and Alexander's, which we saw from the outside.

After the bathroom in the Hermitage, which must have been some sort of tribute to the noble suffering of the Russian soul—no seat, just two rubber sit pads, and toilet paper that would be better used to scrub pots—it was a relief that Catherine's palace had a seat and coarse but usable toilet paper. Still, it's a good idea to bring your own TP.

If you have to choose between Pushkin and Peterhof, I'd choose Pushkin. Though the palace itself is not as ornate, it's a good deal more approachable, and is surrounded by parkland that feels real in a way that the formal gardens and fountains at Peterhof do not. Also a shorter and more pleasant trip.

By this time, with a little crash course from my mother-in-law, we were beginning to learn our way around the Cyrillic alphabet—many cognates once you break the code. For instance, the word for restaurant is PECTOPAH and is pronounced "restauran"—the same word, except without the final T; the P shaped letter is an R, just as it is in Greek, and the C is always pronounced like an S.

Other differences: the rail cars are different, especially the hopper cars; their wheel trucks are outside the hopper, which makes me suspect that some of the rails have very tight turns.

It feels really exotic to pass through a highway junction and see signs not just for Tallinn, but for Kiev and Moscow. I've seen many signs for Odessa (ODDECA) but they don't appear to be directional signs and may have a different meaning.

Though it feels much more like what I imagined Eastern Europe would feel like, western commercialism is creeping in. There are a few billboards, and I saw one or two Coca Cola vehicles and a McDonald's. The most popular car is an older model Russian-built Fiat but there are a number of newer cars—mostly small sedans and a few wagons and micro-vans.

Much less public smoking than I'd expect, and also the cars seem to have pollution control (in all the countries we visited).

The just-for-cruise-tourists folklore concert was actually quite good. Dancers clearly were ballet-trained, one of the singers could get a lead role in an opera, and the rest of the musicians were competent. Costumes were wonderful. But when we took the Neva River boat tour, the Gypsy musicians who serenaded us were just plain awful—and the visual effect of their costumes was spoiled by the cell phone the fiddler had in her belt (it was on, but luckily it didn't ring). Also disturbing on that boat ride-the nuclear power plant standing at the edge of the harbor, probably two miles from the center of town (though in all fairness, the Swedes have built one almost as close to Copenhagen, and the nuclear-free Danes are not very happy about it).

Yes, we're in the tourist places, but still, shopping has been very cheap. At 30 rubles to the dollar, we got a malachite necklace (many beads) for $10, an amber-and-silver one (three pendants) for $30, and a warm Russian winter hat for $12. An original watercolor was also $12.

Best line from a guide: "St Petersburg's summer is nine months of anticipation followed by three months of disappointment." But we've been blessed with great weather, temperatures in the 60s and 70s and sunny.

Helsinki, Finland

After St. Petersburg, clean, modern Helsinki, small and easy to get around, is like coming out of a deep cave. No more bus tours for us! Public buses run all over the city, even out to the far port, where we docked (the close port is right at the market square). For two euros (a euro was worth almost exactly a dollar during our visit), you can go anywhere, with free transfer within an hour.

It took us about half an hour to orient ourselves once we reached downtown, but we did find our way with the aid of a good map. After walking downtown for a while, we caught a bus to Saurisaari—a lovely island of marshes and birds, worth the trip even without the historic village. Very peaceful, yet only 15 minutes by bus from the bustling center of Helsinki. Buildings, furniture, crafts, and folk materials (primarily 18th-19th century) from various parts of Finland are displayed, with costumed interpreters to explain as necessary (but they mostly wait until asked). Nearly all the structures were wooden, but there was an 18th-century brick house and stable that had belonged to a prosperous merchant family.

In one day, we saw four churches, all very different. First, the Church in the Rock, a modern, gleaming architectural marvel carved out of a boulder, combining airiness and peace in a sleek design. Then a rustic country church in the historical park on Saurisaari Island—it felt like the kind of church Heidi and her grandfather might have attended in their mountain village in Switzerland—and two huge, elegant cathedrals: one Lutheran, with a sparkling white exterior and a relatively unadorned (though cavernous) interior, located on the main square (Senate Square), adjacent to the Parliament and a block from the presidential palace—and also on that block, an art museum then featuring an exhibit of Socialist Realism. The other was Russian Orthodox, red bricked and onion domed, much like cathedrals we'd seen in Tallinn and St. Petersburg, and as ornate inside as any of the Czar's palaces.

After the downtown cathedrals, we went to Market Square, hoping for lunch. But we got there right at 2 p.m., and all the stalls close from 2:00 to 3:00. Instead, we found a very nice Russian restaurant, where for $25 we got a large bowl of borsht, a large bowl of beans with pecans, two mushroom blintzes and a good-sized sparkling mineral water from the Republic of Georgia. It was amazingly cheap for its location, half a block from both Senate Square and the very touristy Market Square. And then, alas, it was already time to take the bus back out to the pier.

Stockholm and Kalmar, Sweden

A big, sprawling metropolis, Stockholm remains elegant and almost litter-free. Some of the nicest architecture in Europe. Lots to see and do, of which we only scratched around the edges.

As in Helsinki, local transit is surprisingly expensive, but effective. Boats are very much a part of the transportation scene here.

We spent the morning at the Vasa museum: the 17th century Swedish king's prize new warship, which sank on its maiden voyage and was salvaged almost entirely intact, centuries later. From there, we walked through the government area and Gamla Stan, the old town.

The quality of the crafts we saw was extremely high all over Stockholm. However, Stockholm is also quite expensive, and seemed to have the heaviest police presence of any place we've been—even St. Petersburg. I felt it even before we stumbled into an area that had been sealed off, where police with helmets and riot shields faced demonstrators demanding justice for something. We only saw the fringes, but it looked like a number of demonstrators had been hurt or arrested (it was hard to tell exactly what was going on).

We saw the parade of the guard to change at the king's palace (though not the actual transfer). They march accompanied by a military band, wearing green camouflage uniforms with white helmets. Yet the guard itself is a motley bunch, including many who seemed to be over 60, and several women.

This was the only port so far where it really did not feel like enough time. I would like three days, at least. We had about six hours.

Kalmar is a much smaller town that seems much more culturally diverse—several Greek and Oriental restaurants, for instance. Very pretty, but not much of interest in the Gamla Stan (Old Town); it's almost exclusively residential. The main downtown area was more interesting, though almost everything was closed on Sunday (when we were there), except the town beach. The castle is elegant and large, and takes about an hour to see.

Rostock and Warnemunde, Germany

Rostock, in Eastern Germany, really surprised us; we hadn't had very high expectations. But it's a beautiful old place (pop. 58,000), with a university that dominates the center of town. It had a strong student presence, visible left-leaning politics (including a poster plastered all over town for a socialist candidate running on the slogan that politics should not only be for the banks and corporations), excellent shopping, and fascinating architecture. Despite its small population, Rostock has an extensive tram and regional train system. The trams stop every three or five blocks; the S-trains probably average a mile between stops. Rostock was far more affordable than anywhere we'd visited in Scandinavia. Where a single bus ride was 2 Euros in Helsinki, here we could buy an all-day pass for up to five people, good on any bus, S-train, or tram in Rostock or Warnemunde, for just 8,15. We also found bargains on CDs and shoes (Dina bought a $30 pair of Birkenstocks).

Many, many buildings date back to the 1300s-1500s, and they are beautiful. They range from ornate brick to simple peasant houses with bowed walls and half-timbered supports for the second floor. While many are concentrated near the university, we found a number in other sections as well (especially toward the harbor and behind the town hall).

Inside the town hall—itself a beautiful ancient building—we found workers putting up the final parts of an exhibit on Rostock's mission of racial and ethnic tolerance and its response to the extreme right. There were pictures of Vietnamese and Roma (gypsy) families as well as pictures of police battling neo-nazis. The signage was all in German, so we couldn't get the full picture, but certainly the idea came across.

This was also the first place where we really were off the tourist track. Though there were two cruise ships in, it seems that more people took excursions to Berlin or Mecklenberg (or stayed at the harbor in Warnemunde) and relatively few went to Rostock. We met many people who spoke only German or a little bit of English, and we communicated with much sign language and our few words in German. This was a new experience for the kids, who have been hearing different languages all around us as we wander through the Baltic, but have found that people know enough English to communicate wherever we've gone.

The boat docked across the street from the Warnemunde train station. After our afternoon in Rostock and dinner on the ship, we went back out to explore the port town—a small resort community with one harborside strip of restaurants and shops, a beautiful beach. We'd hoped to find a German bakeshop or cafe for dessert, but instead we got a beautiful sunset, lovely views of the small boats and large ships, and an enjoyable stroll through the streets.

Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus is another town with many medieval buildings, but utterly lacking the charm of Rostock. It rubbed us the wrong way, even before our daughter's raincoat was stolen when she left it unattended for one minute (she'd been sitting on it for a picnic lunch while the rest of us were on a nearby bench, and she'd come back for more food).

The best thing we saw was the Gamela By, a living history museum with a number of buildings and shops from the 1500s-1800s—mostly moved from elsewhere. But of course it lacked the natural beauty of Saurisaari, though the buildings were actually much more interesting and the exhibits contained a lot more about daily life.

Copenhagen Again

Back in Copenhagen for a few hours after our ten-day cruise, we went to Tivoli—BIG mistake! While it has a number of beautiful buildings, they don't feel authentic in their setting (Chinese, Islamic), the gardens are mediocre, and we had no interest in the rides (which didn't look all that great anyway). While it might be more interesting at a different time of day, in the late morning, it was expensive and dull.

After a short time there we went across the street to the Ny Carlberg art museum, which has a fabulous collection of ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian sculpture—better than the Met in NYC, in our opinion. They have an impressionist section, too, but it was closed for construction. Free on Wednesdays and Sundays (we hit it on a Wednesday)—and free lockers, which we used while in Tivoli.

In all, it was a wonderful trip to Europe, a very positive introduction to cruising, and a great way to spend time as a family. While not the way we usually travel, it was a relaxing and interesting vacation.

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Global Travel Review, author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and owner of the FrugalFun.com website. His travel articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Walking Journal, and many other publications.