Sunday, August 17, 2008

August 13 - back to reality

Wednesday August 13 – Back to reality
Our Bed and Breakfast, the Ocean Hotel is a beautiful Victorian home turned into a B&B. We had a great night's sleep, and it's almost walking distance to the airport (I'd do it with carryon only, but not with 2 checked bags apiece and carryon). The hotel is called Ocean Hotel because it used to be right on the coast, until the little harbor and International Airport were built.
Our flight from Copenhagen to Washington DC – Dulles left at 12:28pm and the flight was smooth and comfortable, with adequate leg space and friendly flight attendants. We arrive on time, and head for Customs. We're toward the front of the line and it takes us an hour and fifteen minutes to clear Customs – jeez, what a pain. It takes 10 minutes when going into other countries. I'm thinking I should have taken a flight to Nogales and walked across the border; that might have been quicker. I go through security at airports quicker where I have to take off my shoes, belt, and pull a laptop out of its case, all the metal from my pockets, and get my carryon bag scanned. And that is done with far fewer lanes than Customs has, and all they have to do is swipe the passport, use a stamp, and say “Welcome back”. What's wrong with this picture?
Next is the Dulles to Portland leg. I won't mention the airline, but this is why I don't like to fly on United and vow again to never fly with them again. It's my second flight from hell with them.
The flight is delayed – twice. Lord knows why we we're delayed 20 minutes from leaving the gate. Maybe some last minute calls to passengers that are in the bar dreading the flight to come. Then we're 10th in line to take off. Then we're first in line but there are thunderstorms. After an hour we finally get off the ground. After an hour we're off.
There is NO legspace in Economy. I'm 5'10” and my knees are about ½ inch from the seat in front of me. The seats aren't particularly comfortable and the plane is the older Boeing 757. I'm naturally in the middle seat. The girl in the seat in front of me has inclined her seat ALL THE WAY BACK. No one else does because they don't want to start a riot of complaints. I can't even reach under the seat to pull out a book to read. I am occasionally able to get out to use the restroom – there's plenty of legspace there. I'd like to say I spent the entire flight there – it would have been better, but I'm a nice guy. I just stood in the back of the plane in the galley area talking to the flight attendants and to other passengers with similar horror stories. The flight attendant tells me I could upgrade to Economy Plus for just $49.50. My thought is just give everyone Economy Plus seating (if it's so much better) and raise the stupid ticket price. Everyone is so freaked about about fuel prices and they're taking away services or charging extra that I feel nickel and dimed to death. Just raise the stupid ticket prices – I understand why, and I'll pay.
We finally arrive – at the same time as four other United flights arrive. Our baggage claim is carousel #10. So is everyone elses. Every other carousel is empty and no flights. Is this dumb or what?
We do arrive home safely. I unpack and am in bed at 12:15am. I'll be up at 6:30am to go to work.
Such is the official end of our little excursion this year. It's been a blast.
I still have to go through my 700 or so photos and put up a slideshow. Give me a week or so.

August 12 - Alingsas, Sweden

Tuesday August 12 – Alingsas, Sweden
Alinsas at 9:00am is asleep. The shops are closed and there is no traffic. It's a weekday, it's not a holiday, and the whole town can't be on vacation... The town and surrounding suburbs, if that's what you would call them, amount to about 15,000 people. After that it's farmland, rolling hills, lakes, and little villages of five or six homes spaced apart by ¼ to 1 mile. It is quiet and peaceful in the country, and reminds us of Minnesota. That explains why a lot of Swedish immigrants settled in Minnesota.
At 10:00am the shops open, cars drive by, and people scurry around. Lots of bicycles. The town is awake.
I'm winding down and starting to think about returning home tomorrow. We already have our train tickets back to Copenhagen – we were able to get them on the internet – without a pin number.
The train we're on is probably an express. There are limited stops, and it is fast, smooth and quiet. We watch the countryside which looks similar to the Willamette Valley of Oregon zip by. It is overcast and drizzly today, and looks like it will continue until we get back to Copenhagen. I've been reading a book and dozing off. An announcement regarding the next station is made on the intercom. I don't understand a word, but her voice has the typical sing-song intonations. I tell Claudia it reminds me of the Swedish Chef on “The Muppet Show” - we both chuckle.

August 11 - our 35th wedding anniversary

Monday, August 11 – It's our 35th wedding anniversary
Today is our 35th wedding anniversary. What could go wrong?
Let me count the ways...We're up at 6:45am. Checkout is between 6:45am and 9:45am. We haven't been able to dial out on our remaining cell phone. Claudia has a new inventory sheet to fill out for the music aboard the ship. Yep – it has new categories so she has to count those. We have breakfast and are able to say our goodbyes to our favorite waiters and our stewardess. They were so great. I think I have enough internet time to send out last minutes emails. While Claudia counts music, I send out the emails with 3 minutes 59 seconds to spare. Sounds like a lot, but it's easy to burn a minute just making an internet connection.
Oops! Our photographs – we haven't picked up our photographs yet (is the photo shop even open??). Fortunately they are. I get them and head off to the reception desk to verify how to dial our cell phone (We have an Oregon phone number dialing from Denmark to Sweden – 3 country codes involved). We need to dial 011 then the country code. Now to get off the ship – done with 5 minutes to spare. Into the taxi and off to store our bags at the hotel by the airport, then to the airport/train station to catch the train.
So far we're squeaking by.
It's 10:10am and we're trying to buy train tickets for the 10:36am train. They do accept credit cards as we do not have hardly any Danish money left – but wait, they need the pin number. In the US, a pin is only needed when getting a cash advance, not a purchase. We try four separate cards, even the emergency one where I set the pin before we left. Nothing works. Great. We're stuck at Copenhagen Airport, and probably can't even buy food. We head over to the Information booth and describe our plight. The attendant tells us “Oh, that will be a big problem for you here.” That's all I need to hear. She suggests we go to the bank around the corner (50 feet away). We do and after showing our passports, we are able to get enough Danish money to get to Sweden and hopefully back. Lord pnly know what the bank fee will be for this. Back to the ticket boot to buy our tickets. Down the escalator and onto the train. I get squeezed by the closing doors, but manage to get them open so we can both get on the train. We grab the closest seats, probably in steerage (we have 1st class seats). I don't even know if we're in the right car. After scurrying back and forth for a while, I find the seats and relax as the train pulls into Malmo. We're in Sweden. I wasn't even aware that we had gone through the tunnel under the strait between Denmark and Sweden. We laugh – another memory for our anniversary.
We still have a train change at Goteborg (and to buy tickets for Alingsas, our final destination). That is still a couple of hours away.
Finally, Goteborg and a change of train. We have 30 minutes until the train arrives. No sweat. We go to the ticket office. They have a “now serving machine” so we pull ticket #288. They're serving #253 and nothing seems to be moving. Apparently, Goteborg is a MAJOR transfer point. I ask Claudia about the train after the one we want – she says it's an hour later. Somehow, we finally get called and get our tickets with 5 minutes to spare.
A couple of hours later we're in Alingsas, and meeting her cousin and uncle. Off to their home in the country (another 30-45 minutes) and a nice Swedish dinner with another cousin and two nieces. After dinner, we do some limited sightseeing as it is getting dark – we see some family graves outside a little church that has existed since the 1200's. The pulpit dates to the 1500's and some writing on the walls goes back to the 1200's. There are even some runes (etched stones) dating back even further. Just amazing..

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday August 10 - Copenhagen and end of cruise

Sunday August 10 – Copenhagen and end of cruise
Today was the last day of our cruise. The finality set in when we returned from our all-day castle tour ans saw our luggage on our bed ready to be packed. I hate packing.
Our tour today was an all-day tour covering a castle, a palace, and another castle up to the tip of land closest to Sweden (2 ½ miles across the channel). They were Fredriksborg, the Queen's summer residence except in August when she is staying at her vineyard in southern France, and Helsingor Castle (sometimes called Hamlet's castle). We had a terrific guide, some beautiful Danish countryside away from the city, and a Norwegian buffet lunch with herring, salmon, breads, a couple of hot dishes (beef, salmon, and chicken), and some beer.
At dinner tonight, there were balloons at our table, the trio played “The Anniversary Waltz” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, accompanied by the singing of what appeared to be all the waiters. We were given a cake with a candle decorated with Happy Anniversary on it (it's our 35th tomorrow). We divided the cake with our table mates. It was a nice little celebration.
Tomorrow we leave the ship, drop our luggage off at our “last night in Copenhagen” hotel for storage, and then proceed to Sweden to visit Claudia's cousin and other relatives for a day.
This is probably my last blog for the this trip unless I can find a place for wi-fi access. I'll check emails tomorrow morning before we leave.
Hope you have had as much fun reading this as I have writing about it.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

August 9 - at sea on our way to Copenhagen

August 9 – at sea on our way to Copenhagen
Calm seas with a little wind, overcast but not raining. I am sore – not in my legs, but my arms, just like the guide said. I'm better after getting up and about and eating breakfast. I may not walk today – there are a lot of shipboard activities today. Claudia teaches two classes, there are a couple of speakers we really want to hear, a big buffet lunch, so time is at a premium...
Claudia and I have had a full day so far. She taught her piano class this morning, we went to the two lectures (one on Islamic Extremism, the other from a gold and bronze medal winner in women's swimming at the 1976 Montreal Olympics where the East German women looked like men because of their steroid use). The lunch, an art class, and for me a one and a half mile walk sqeezed in before Claudia's next class. In class I am able to start writing the blog. The skies have cleared, the wind has picked up to 20-25kn (add the ship speed of 15 kn and you're walking
against a 35-40kn wind – which made my 1 ½ mile walk seem like three). The seas have picked up to 6-10 feet now so you can feel the ship pitch a little.
After class, we have just enough time to eat dinner, shop for some souvenirs, and catch the evening stage show.
Just another day in paradise.

August 8 - Helsinki

August 8 – Helsinki
We arrive in the morning to overcast skies and rain. And I'm supposed to go on a 7 mile nordic walk this afternoon. I'm ready to chicken out, but I meet a friend who convinces me to try it. She says “It's not a competition; what's the worst that can happen – you'll get wet.” True, true, and I call Oregon home. It's not like I've never seen or walked in the rain before. By the time 2pm rolls around, the rain has stopped and it's down to an occasional sprinkle. Temperature is above 60 degrees. Everybody but me shows up in long pants and layers of shirts and jackets. Me, I'm in a very lightweight water-wicking shirt, lightweight shorts, a hat, and a light jacket. It's not that cold out so I stow the jacket in my backpack (more of a light rucksack). Do they know something I don't?
We are taught the technique for using the nordic walking poles. They are very lightweight but strong because they are made of carbon fiber. Their use definitely makes a big difference – the whole upper body, shoulders, triceps, abs are all affected. Your breathing changes and your stride gets longer but you don't feel the change in stride.
Seven miles is a long way, but we stop several times during the walk to talk about the area of the city we are in, the buildings, the history, future community plans, and even discuss the economics of the country. We have a great guide.
About halfway through the walk I comment “Am I the only person in all of Helsinki wearing shorts?” Everyone, I mean everyone that I have see is wearing long pants and sweatshirt or jacket. I am not cold at all. About half our group answered saying they wish they had worn shorts as well. We're caught in a light shower, and while everyone else is wet, my clothes have pretty much self dried. Thank you REI!
I was worried that I might have trouble doing seven miles. I was actually the one who was the most capable. I was up front most of the time and only dropped back so someone could stay next to the instructor. They would just as soon have me up front. I didn't mind; it gave me more time to chat with the guide about all sorts of topics – Finland, economics, power (wind in the west, water in the north, coal in the south, and their movement toward nuclear), urban renewal, nordic walking history and popularity. When we finished I wasn't even winded and felt I could have done another seven miles without needing to stop. It was great exercise.
After the walk, I had a hot shower, and were pleasantly surprised to get a call from one of the ship's specialty restaurants that had been fully booked (we were on a wait list). They had a cancellation, so we were able to have dinner there with our friends after all.
A perfect end to a perfect day.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

August 7 - St Petersburg

August 7 – St Petersburg
St. Petersburg is a very busy port. I'm doing a three mile walk around the ship this morning at 6:45am and already there are four container ships coming into port. This is our last day in St. Petersburg and we are taking an afternoon tour of the Peterhof Palace. Another beautiful weather day.
The Peterhof Palace is one of 600 palaces in St. Petersburg. It is situated an hour's bus ride out of the city facing the Gulf of Finland. The outdoor area is not as big as Versailles, but the fountains with the gold covered bronze statues surpass it. The inside has been mostly restored since the German occupation in the siege of Leningrad pretty well destroyed it. What remains and what has been rebuilt is just fantastic. A very memorable visit.
Our tour ended with a hydrofoil ride back to the city. The ride was scenic and as smooth as glass.
Dinner tonight was a Russian theme with the waiters dressed in colorful Russian tunics. I had the borscht soup, heart of iceberg lettuce over tomatoes and mushrooms with a balsamic dressing, arctic black cod over lobster stroganoff, with broccoli and potato croquettes, wine to drink, and cherries jubilee for dessert. This is fairly typical of the kind of food we get every night. That's why I walk in the morning...
We're on our way to Helsinki, and I am going on a nordic walking tour, since I didn't do it the last time I was here. I heard it's 7 miles.
We were sitting with some friends tonight for the evening show which featured a comedian pianist. After the show we were still sitting and talking and the entertainer came out and sat with us for a few minutes and chatted. That made the evening really special (and funny too).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

August 6 - St Petersburg

August 6 – St Petersburg
Clear skies in the morning. We just hung around the ship all day. Our tour is tonight to see a performance of Swan Lake at the Alexandrinsky Theater. It's just as well we weren't on one of the day tours – there are three other cruise ships (bigger than ours) docked nearby, so any sights would be extremely crowded. Staying on board had some advantages – no crowds, a chance to talk to some of the few remaining on board, I had the outdoor jacuzzi all to myself (104 F – nice!) as well as sunbathe. We also took the opportunity to eat lunch at one of the buffets on the Lido deck without a crowd.
I've also worked on organizing and backing up all the pictures I've taken. Looks like I took 489 on the last cruise alone. Not so many this time, as I didn't have much time to myself since I was escorting a tour, and haven't gotten of the ship in St Pete's yet. So now, the pictures are on the camera chip, the laptop hard drive, and a pen drive.
I'm still trying to figure out why I am unable to upload pictures to the blog, and really can't spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, since internet time costs me about 43 cents a minute. Maybe I'll just email my daughter-in-law the pictures and have her post them for me.
...I have seen the Nutcracker Suite in Portland. Swan Lake is the second ballet I have seen and seeing it in the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg was extremely special. The dancers glided, floated, spun, and lifted like it was effortless. I can't describe it any other way. A great performance and a memorable night.
The ballet ended about 10:45pm and it was still light until about 11:15pm.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

August 5 - Crossing the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, Estonia

August 5 – Crossing the Baltic to Tallinn, Estonia
This is what I think of when I hear the Baltic Sea mentioned. Cold, overcast, 10-12ft waves with whitecaps from the wind. I awoke today to 38kn winds, 12 ft seas, and low gray skies with visibility of 5 to 6 miles. The prior cruise was full of sun and calm seas. Perhaps this is a sign that this cruise will gives us a taste of more typical weather. We should arrive in Tallinn in about an hour. We will be escorting tours in the morning – Claudia, a bus tour; me a walking tour. It helps that we were just here a few days ago.
I didn't get my usual morning walk today. The doors were roped off because of the high wind and rough seas. Not that I am really interested in walking during a gale on a pitching deck.
August 5 afternoon – Tallinn
We escorted separate tours, the first time we have ever done escort duty. And with evaluaqtion forms to fill out after we returned. Imagine walking in cold, driving rain with 20mph winds for a couple of hours, trying to make sure all 27 people in the tour stay somewhat close by, and converging on the sights at the same time as four other groups from three other ships. This is not my idea of fun, and I didn't get to see too much as I worried about those people that went into that store and haven't come out, or the ones that were tired of this and just wanted a taxi back to the ship. I just went with the flow, reminded of early November weather back home in Oregon. Claudia's tour was mostly by bus, and as a group voted to just return to the ship early. Gosh, we were here just a few days ago and it was beautiful, and not nearly as crowded. My guide said there were five cruise ships in at the same time. On our previous cruise, there were only two.
August 5 evening – back at sea
After our short stay, it's on to St Petersburg and another time zone change (lose an hour). We'll now be 11 hours ahead of home in Oregon. The rain is gone, but we still have 12 ft seas. Rock a bye baby...

Monday, August 4, 2008

August 4 - Lifeboat drill

August 4 – Stockholm (Lifeboat drill)
Lifeboat drill gives everyone a chance to practice dressing in stylish orange, and for some of us (like me), a time to practice chest-bumping skills. I got a good laugh from two of the stewardesses and the trombone player. Sorry to say, many just don't take this drill seriously. Many came to the drill unprepared – either no life vest or just carrying it. Others just gabbed away and took their time, blocking the doorway to get to and from the lifeboat station. Just hope we never have a real emergency. As we were dismissed, it started raining, so some people got wet. We barely avoided it. The captain came on the intercom and confirmed it was indeed raining and we could expect choppy seas (5-6 feet), and 50 mph winds this evening. Fun, fun, fun...

August 4 - Stockholm (Ending and Beginning)

August 4 – Stockholm (Ending and Beginning)
Today is the end of our first cruise and the beginning of the second. Rather than go back into town, we decided just to kick back and relax - am I seriously saying this? We're on a cruise. Since most everyone has left the ship (other than crew), it's been like having our own private yacht for a few hours. We have a chance to talk to the staff a little more than usual.
We strolled around on the sun deck this morning and just talked about the places we've been, the people we've met, and made plans for this cruise. I've even had time to walk 5 miles to work off some of this never-ending rich food that has elevated my blood sugar levels a bit.
We both have escort duty tomorrow (we volunteered) and are trying to do a lot more of that this time around since we're kind of familiar with the cities we'll see (we were just there).
Lifeboat drill is in about 45 minutes, then we depart for Estonia.
By the way, I made a mistake in my previous post regarding the size of our ship versus the “mother ship” Carnival Splendor. I miscounted the number of lifeboats WE have on each size. The correct number is 4 regular and 1 small on each side. Don't want to make it sound bigger than we really are.
Silverware – I am used to using one fork, one knife, and one spoon. Here, every time we turn around it seems the waiters and replacing multiple versions of the above with every course. Seems like a waste. Why not just omit any silverware until the course is ordered? Would be much more efficient, but then again, it's the programmer in me talking – we ARE in a very nice dining room. It's different here; get used to it. I am but it is still a bit comical. And yes I have tried rearranging things, but they catch on to that real quick.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

August 2 - Tallinn, Estonia

August 2 – Tallinn, Estonia
We are a dinghy. This morning as I opened the curtains to look at the sights of Tallinn, all I see is what I called “The Mother Ship” - the Carnival Splendor (see picture upper left). This huge, gaudy mother of all cruise ships is docked right next to us, and I have no view of the city. If I go to the other side of the ship I see the former Soviet Union prison – some view... Our ship, the Crystal Symphony can hold about 900 guests. To give an idea of size difference, I use lifeboats as a guideline. The Crystal Symphony has 6 regular sized and 1 smaller sized lifeboats on each side. The Celebrity Splendor has 13 on each side. The upper right view shows to two vessels, side by side (we're on the left, obviously).
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, and the people make no bones about their distaste of life under Communism. Much of the old town is preserved from the Middle Ages – 2/3 of the original outer wall remains intact. See the picture lower right.
We took a tour that combined a walkthrough of the old Soviet prison and a walking tour of the old town. The prison was in complete disrepair, but was unbelievably still in use in 2002. It currently has parts reopened for tours. I can't imagine that six years of abandonment would cause it to look as bad as it did. It makes any U.S. prison look like high-end condos. You did not ever want to be in a Soviet prison – bad, bad, bad.
There was a festival going on in the town square (picture lower left). Lots of tourists, lots of little shops and medieval buildings with quite a history. I'm glad our next cruise will take us back there so we can explore on our own.
Now it's on to Stockholm where the first cruise ends and the second cruise begins.

Friday, August 1, 2008

August 1 - St Petersburg

August 1 – St Petersburg, Russia
Our last day before heading for Estonia. We booked a morning tour to Konstantine Palace, sometimes called Putin's Palace because it was built during his presidency. The original palace was in ruins after World War II, so it had to be rebuilt pretty much from scratch. I saw only one artifact that looked to be original. The cost of reconstruction was $168 million. It is a current working residence for the Russian president; the recent G8 summit was held here. We had to wear plastic booties to protect the wood parquet and marble floors. A prior tour guide said it was actually worse on the floors because of the slight abrasion from the plastic – rubber soles would be easier on things. Oh, well, they'll eventually get it.

At the end of the tour, we were shown to the wine cellar for a private wine-tasting. We were shown one of only 100 bottles of a wine that exist in the world (1940 something or other). I asked if they were going to serve that to us – a big laugh from everyone, especially the guide. We were told it was worth about 12,000 to 14,000 euros ($25,000). In the picture, the bottle is on the middle shelf on the right-hand side (shiny case). The wine cellar holds about 12,000 bottles of wine.

After we returned to the ship we were treated to a partial eclipse of the sun.

Later on, some local entertainment put on a show of local dancing and folk tunes. Very athletic.
Next stop – Tallinn, Estonia.

Helsinki and St Petersburg

July 29 – Helsinki
We visited the two main sites to see – the Rock Church, and the National Museum. They were fascinating, and we really enjoyed them, but there's plenty more to talk about in St Petersburg.
July 30 – St Petersburg, Russia
We were greeted by a weather change (Oregon in March), and a brass band. Nice touch.
We took an afternoon tour, since we cannot go ashore any other way. If we wanted to be on our own we would have needed a visa which takes several weeks and several hundred dollars. Our tour was a cathedral tour. Next to the Alexander Nevisky Monastery, we visited the gravesites of two famous composers – Stravinski and Tchaikovsky. We also received a private concert by the male choir who sang some hymns and Russian folk tunes. Pretty amazing music a capella from the octet. We bought their CD.
July 31 – St Petersburg, Russia
Back to beautiful sunny weather. We booked two tours today. We probably won't do that again; we were really tired when we got back to the ship. The morning tour was to the Hermitage, the second largest museum in the world, next to the Louvre. It is in the old Winter Palace of the Czars. Having been to the Louvre twice, I believe they have a lot more paintings – they have 15,000 (too many to display at once). The museum actually does not have room to show the three million artifacts that they have. There are five different tours of the museum; we went on just one. The place is big. Our afternoon tour was the famous Church on the Spilled Blood, kind of a gross name for a church, but it was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was murdered. The inside was unique in that the wall paintings are all mosaic tile, very much like St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, Italy.
After this church we were given a canal cruise which wound its way along the small canals out to the Neva River. One enterprising young man (Dmitri – a 14 year old), followed our cruise and was always smiling and waving to us from each canal bridge we went under (there were seven or eight). Sometimes he jogged, sometimes he ran, but he was there at every bridge. I'm sure he collected a sizable donation from the passengers.