My 4-year-old grandson was admiring the scarf I bought for his father in Finland (lots of cute cartoon reindeer) His comments:
“Grandma went all around the world on a boat!”
“She was paddling really fast!”
My 4-year-old grandson was admiring the scarf I bought for his father in Finland (lots of cute cartoon reindeer) His comments:
“Grandma went all around the world on a boat!”
“She was paddling really fast!”
Last day: We stuff our sturdy luggage with everything we won’t need for 24 hours and set out for a last walkabout in Copenhagen. Our first stop is the City Hall, and it turns out to be our last, also – there is much to see.
The most fascinating room contains Jens Olsen’s World Clock – a meticulously engineered marvel which tells the date and time world wide plus forecasting solar and lunar eclipes and the relative positions of the planets for milleniums to come, with tolerances much closer than my Timex. And it is beautiful, both front and back:
After spending a lot of time reading the fine print on how the intricate mechanism works, and strolling around the City Hall admiring the beautiful tilework, memorials, and banners, we decided to head for the Copenhagen Airport.
It’s an easy 20 minute ride, but once we arrived it was not so clear where we were to go or what we were to do. Our taxi driver dropped us at the domestic terminal rather than the international, so we started off iwth a walk, Mom gallantly dragging her case behind her and trying to keep up as I pushed our way through the crowd and scanned the lighted signs for information about our flight and gate. .
By evil chance, the display which should have given that information was the one temporarily not working. I was casting about desperately for an information booth when my eyes lit on a familiar sign - “Star Alliance Gold” over a nearly empty ticketing station. I pulled my Gold card from my passport wallet, silently blessing my former employers and all those travel miles I booked in their service. After one glance at my card, the kiosk attendant whirred into efficient Scandinavian action, and we were home free.
We were waved to a nearby seat, waited a few minutes, and then our wheels arrived – a wheelchair guided by the etimable Fraulein Martin. She took charge of Mom and both our carryons and whirled away, by-passing checkpoints, dodging through “Staff Only” doors and up inconspicuous elevators, and deposited us in minutes at the head of the boarding line for our flight.
At Frankfurt, we had leisure to enjoy the luxurious Lufthansa Lounge which we had missed on the way in, complete with hors-d’oevres, a hot buffet, a dessert tower, and an open serve-yourself bar. A far cry from the packaged crackers, cheese, and cookies at the United Lounge at SFO where we passed three hours of flight delay at the beginning of our trip!
And then we were on the plane. And then we were home. The ever-shifting kaleidoscope of countries, cultures, cuisines, and cruise events and excursions was finally laid to rest. It has taken me almost four months to sort out the impression, notes, and photographs from this trip. I hope you enjoyed taking the journey with Mom and me.
Next: A couple of brief visits to interesting spots, then my next Adventure with a different means of transport and a different travel partner. Hope you stay tuned!
[Note: I was reviewing my notes, and discovered I had skipped our last day in St. Petersburg - sorry for time warp!]
Today started early : Alarm at 7:30 AM for bus departure at 9 to take us for our Hermitage tour.
Mom agreed to use a wheelchair reluctantly but very glad of it by the time the two hour tour was over . We had access to the elevators instead of the stairs, got preferential deference from the 30-odd Japanese tourists who were grouped on our bus – they were charmed by my Shibuya jacket and my three sentences of Japanese. They beckoned us to the front of the crowd for each of the picture stops, insisted we get ahead in the loo for access to the handicapped stall – It is good to be a dowager. I got all the privileges as the designated pusher.
I didn’t have my camera at the Hermitage, but Duke Zoran – entertainer on the cruise ship – took many pix, including the Return of the Prodigal Son, which was one of my favorites also (parental love, sibling rivaly). Other faves: Raphael’s amazing ceiling frescoes of God creating the Heavens and the Earth (so sweeping and dynamic – conveys a real sense of the Power that created all we know), Titian’s “Danae” (an orgasm in progress – makes Rembrandt’s painting of the same subject a few rooms later look positively prudish) – and a bunch of Pisarro’s and Picasso’s that we had to zoom by as our time was running out.
The Monet’s and Degas’s were B level, the Gauguins were more interesting to me than those at the Louvre. It was all a bit overwhelming – especially in the context of the incredibly ornate, marble-columned, gilt chandeliered, parquetry-floored Winter Palace and Hermitage rooms. Oh yeah, there were some da Vinci’s and Fra Lippo Lippi – just more than you could stop to take in.
Back at the boat, we had our first served lunch rather than the buffet – delicious salad, beautifully served – irresistible desserts. Back in our spacious suite, Mom napped while I struggled to send a simple email – it seems Hotmail is technically challenged in exotic locales.
So I vented my frustration with a brisk walk along the English Embankment. Oh, how good it felt to walk at rated speed after several days of accommodating Mom’s tentative pace! I stormed along, found my tension easing, and was able to come up with some alternative communication strategies (Facebook! Mom’s gmail account!).
The Engllish Embankment where we were docked was easy distance from St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the big civic park which also houses the iconic statue of Peter the Great commissioned by Catherine. I saw children somersaulting in the park, saw an intrepid 5-year-old scaling the Thunderstone and then sliding down as if it were playground equipment. (It does have potential as a slide – see photo from rear above.) There were brides and grooms canoodling in the grass for photographers and relatives; I used my odd rubles in the W.C.; I struck up some conversations… a fine liberation!
5:00: Lifeboat drill. An example of “First tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them”. We lined up in our orange life vests at our muster stations and received our safety instructions (if you see someone fall overboard, throw a life preserver and holler “Man overboard!” If you see a fire, push the red fire alarm button nearest you and holler “Fire!”)
6PM – we launch from the dock. Slowly, slowly, we edge away from the pier, turn end for end, sail out past the mothballed submarine, the tall ship used for training Russian naval cadets, the container port. We can see rain sweeping up over St. Petersburg behind us, but we are just ahead of it. West to Finland!
Dinner at “Il Terrazo” – the Terrace café reconfigured as a semi-luxe Italian restaurant. there were some glitches with the menu, but what we ended up with was just what Mom wanted (spaghetti with meat sauce- most basic and authenic) ; we both enjoyed the eggplant wrapped around fresh tomato and cheese; my “osso bucco” was really veal shank, not ox tail, but it was ok. And that will end our “gourmet” dinners for the cruise – the really swank restaurant was booked to overflow the afternoon of the first day, so we don’t have to deal with it.
We are skimming along the Bay of Finland under clearing skies at 9:20 PM – seems like 6PM at home. Mom is wrapped in a terry robe under a comforter and about to be gone; I am enjoying my journal but not thinking about stretching to anything more serious – I guess this is vacation.
We arrive at port about 6AM with a tremendous grinding and bustle of engines. From Rostock it is possible to train to Berlin, wander that city, then return by train – 6 hours round trip to wander for three. Mom and I opt for the local bus tour of Warnemunde instead, as we have both visited Berlin, albeit decades ago. It is a beautiful day, about 70 F. out, I can see the tram passing, see people wandering along the promenade, but Mom doesn’t want to go out until the scheduled outing to make sure her feeling of chill and digestive unease is past – not un-anticipated, but a bit frustrating. I resolve to go for a long bike ride when I get home.
Finally the bus ride/ walking tour – we are in the bus with the South American Contingent – only one other couple speaks English as a first language. The guide, Irene, a sweet young thing with wispy voice , has a hard time keeping control.
A Lutheran church which coopted a Catholic church in full ornate mode – somehow they adjusted, by not insisting on restoring the historic stained glass windows which were destroyed in the war.
It is stunning to realize that we are in EAST Germany – the gray side of the Berlin Wall when I last toured as a student. Instead of the Stalinist blocks which I had seen before, we see sunny plazas, brightly-dressed people, frolicking children, flowers – and McDonald’s and TJ Maxx. Some Stalinist statuary remains, but mostly on a sunny day that past does not show.
After the tour, which ended up covering quite a bit of cobble-stoned pavement, Mom decided to recuperate, and I bolted for the gangplank to do a little unguided exploring. Of course there was a souvenir mart close to the cruise ship docks, and evidently there had been some sort of civic sand sculpture competition quite recently. The theme seemed to require some reference to Warnemunde’s history; the themes ranged from serious to sensuous. (see below).
In my previous post I mentioned that Copenhagen is home of the Tivoli Gardens, the inspiration for Disneyland. The whole city has somehow taken on this aspect – there is the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor, now inextricably linked to the Disney movie rather than the Hans Christian Andersen tale. There are the fairy-tale his-and-hers palaces for the Good King and Queen, complete with toy soldiers guarding them. And there is ice cream.
I’m ensconced on the fourth floor of the Grand Hotel in Copenhagen. It was probably grander in former days, but it is certainly nicely located very near the train station and Tivoli and the famous clock. We had a bus tour of the city including the obligatory stop at the Little Mermaid statue (which actually you could see from our boat this am), a couple of palaces, and lots of medieval towers. The bus dropped us just around the corner from our hotel at the Radisson Blu (formerly the SAS Royal – still has the old signs).
We tried to lunch at the Ida Davidsen restaurant that friends had recommended but our concierge checked for us and it is closed for vacation until July 7. So instead he recommended Frk Barners Kaelder - a restaurant about two blocks away where we were able to enjoy some stupendous Danish open-face sandwiches in the company of a huge tableful of huge Danes all drinking Carlsberg by the tankard and passing around platefuls of herring, fried fish filets, and lots of condiments. Very fun, except Mom had a hard time dealing with the openfaced-ness of the sandwich.
While Mom was napping I went over to the station two blocks away to get some kroner for the evening. The neighborhood is a bit dubious – the train station is surrounded by dozens of freshly refurbished “boutique” hotels with Danish design furniture and orchids in the lobbies, but also there is a generous sprinkling of sex shops and strip clubs. I resolved to get to Tivoli early, find some food, admire the lights, and return decorously to our hotel via the busiest and best-lighted streets.
We walked out of the hotel intent on a scenic stroll; I took a wrong turn at the Hard Rock Cafe and the stroll turned out to be a bit too long – By the time we got to the scenic shopping streets Mom was already worn out and ready for her preprandial cordial. So we hiked back to the Library Bar at the Copenhagen Plaza Hotel by the RR station which a cosmopolitan friend had touted as “One of the top 5 bars in the world” per Malcolm Forbes. Well, shucks – the bar was pretty and cozy and dark and lined with books and leather armchairs, but the service was so poor they ended up comping our brochetta out of embarassment, and the list of available drinks did not include any Canadian whiskey or Crown Royal, so Mom had to make do with Makers Mark on ice.
We then went to Tivoli, which is indeed charming with its thousands of tiny glass lanterns and interesting buildings – we oohed and aahed and had some authentic Danish rhubarb ice cream, ran out of steam and returned to the hotel and bed by 9PM.
So…Copenhagen – a kind of vanilla experience. A nice king and queen, pretty national monuments, quaint old architecture, vibrant new architecture, but you can’t get to know a country from a bus. I felt more of Copenhagen in my 10 minute brisk walk to the train station to exchange money than in four hours of bus tour with photo stops and another two hours of shuffling along in step with Mom.
Guess I’m ready to come home,
Years ago my husband spent his summers as a bus tour guide, sometimes heading up an expedition of seniors going from New York to San Francisco. His problem was – what do you talk about after Chicago until you get to the Rockies? He emcee’d a number of trivia contests, draw-the-buffalo contests, sing-a-longs – anything to make the hours pass as they cruised through the open blank spaces of South Dakota and Iowa and Nebraska.
The challenge for our Baltic cruise planner was similar – on one end you have St. Petersburg – the Paris of the Baltic, glittering with history, palaces, and art. On the other end is Copenhagen – home of the Tivoli Gardens , the historic inspiration for Disneyland. But in between? Once you have spent a day in Helsinki and a day in Stockholm, then what?
Our cruise planners did the best they could. Ronne (Denmark’s laid-back resort island) provides at least an excuse for parking the boat for awhile, and at best a real sense of what life might be like out of the urban tourist centers. On Ronne it would be possible to rent a bicycle and see the land from an inhabitant’s perspective. From a bus, the experience was like flipping through postcards – stop here at the unusual round church…
….stop there are the American expatriate glass-blower’s studio,
….have lunch at the Danish deli for kippers, open-face sandwiches and Danish beer (see above)…… Other than these brief emergences, we were in the tourist bubble at all times.
Still, I must not under-value the emergences. I saw wild-flowers blooming against the seawall, smelled grass drying in the sun, ate a kipper, felt the sun’s heat radiating from the cobbles on a warm day – these will stay with me.
After only three days on the boat we are learning about the culture of cruising. Life is divided between the Boat and the Bus - cruising from port to port, followed by at least one bus tour at each stop. As a companion/escort for the oldest person on the boat, my goal is :Don’t be last to board the bus. This is not easy.
In Stockholm we kept no-one waiting as we left the boat, nor after the Vasa Museum.
But we were the last on the bus after visiting the Stockholm City hall where they hold the Nobel Prize banquet each December 10. Here is what the guide (a charming Swedish Carol Channing type) said in her Swedish accent: “When you exit the souvenir shop go through the arch on the left there will be your bus waiting.”
We were not the only ones who heard: “When you exit the souvenir shop, go through the arch. On the left there will be your bus waiting.”
She meant :” When you exit the souvenir shop, go through the arch on the left. There will be your bus waiting.”
The issue – there were two arches – one IN FRONT of the exit, as well as a much less prominent arch in the dark on the left when you exit. So we got lost (along with Christine and Mark from Pennsylvania, bless their hearts) and were retrieved twenty minutes later by the assistant guide who was supposed to be bearing up the rear to make sure all laggards were accounted for, but somehow lost track of us. Bah!
Doing the bus tour each day feels like being part of a canned travelogue in a bubble, but I can’t leave Mom on her own, so I have abandoned the bike tours which were going to be my variety. The lap of luxury is still a lap – we are used to being a bit more active.
Back on the boat, at a cocktail party for first-timers we met two other sets of mother/daughter voyagers. The 89 year old said to Mom –” so sorry to hear you have beaten me by two years – I’m not the oldest on the boat!”
Mom rapped back instantly “I’m sorry too!” General laughter.
Mom at lunch: “There’s a statue over there – it’s a copy of something that is very familiar; I think it’s Rodin;, can you name it?” I look, see no statue. “I don’t recognize a statue,” I say to her. She gets up, goes closer to see. The waiter mimes anxiously, as she wanders toward the deserted corner, “Is she all right?” I mime “It’s ok.” Mom looks about in the corner, returns . “It was a pile of dirty napkins. That’s AWFUL!”
There are a lot of groups, but we are not part of any. Even the mothers-and-daughters have other family members they are with, and no invitations to join them are forthcoming So we are spending a lot of time together. I have much more understanding of the handicaps Mom is living with – and more admiration for the way she gallantly overlooks and surmounts them.
It is what it is. Her eyesight and hearing seem to go in and out – she can spot a sign out of the corner of her eye “Did that say ‘teleferique’?” No, it was “telegraf” – pretty close; and then mistake a pile of napkins for a statue by Rodin. She can rap right back in conversation, and then not be able to hear me across the table. Meanwhile, I am learning to go at a slower pace, to listen, to think ahead, to appreciate the small comforts of a cozy robe, a sunny balcony, a reclining chair.
Stockholm – Another sparkling day spent in buses and museums. You can imagine being a Viking on a day like this, cruising through the inlets and isles of the Swedish coast, riding the wind on a dragon boat, monarch of the world!
Some museums are worth it. The Vasa Museum in Stockholm is a jaw dropper! Nothing had prepared me for the impact of this one-of-a-kind, perfectly thought-through museum. Walk into the darkened hallway and enter the cavernous museum hall and there is a 17th century war ship levitated from the deep like something in a fevered dream of Pirates of the Caribbean, except that not even Jack Hawkins could imagine the demented level of decoration (when you look up the work ornate in the dictionary … or did I say that before ?) – spars and shrouds and rigging all looking like it is ready to sail off into a night sky to join The Flying Dutchman. Instead, on its maiden voyage in 1628 the weight of all that decoration caused it to capsize, then sink. Its masts sticking up from the bottom were a hazard of the harbor until the embarassed king (who had taken over design when the shipbuilder died) had the masts cut off.
The museum design allows you to view a ship model up close, then go from the top floor down level by level, giving you a close-up view of every detail from the crows nest to the keel. Videos, slide show overlays, and artifacts document both the building of the ship, the tremendous engineering feat which brought it up in one piece from its resting place of over 500 years, and its meticulously imagined and executed restoration.
The next Notable Site was the Stockholm City hall where they hold the Nobel Prize banquet each December 10, the anniversary of the death date of Alfred Nobel. It was fun imagining oneself dancing in the art-deco gold-mosaic ball room. The mosaic which dominates the hall does its best to be ecumenical, with Europe and the US represented on one side of the giant goddess of knowledge, and the domes of Istanbul, a tiger, an elephant, some vaguely Chinese mountains and an Arabian flag on the side of Asia. What about Africa? India? South America? I guess to the Swedes of 1920 most of the Southern Hemisphere was just geography.
After the official bus tour I joined up with a fellow cruiser and took the shuttle back to central Stockholm. Stockholmers tall, healthy, erect, slender, tending to blond. Streets clean, wide, lined with parks and trees. What’s not to like? (It’s a bait-and-switch – think about December when you have only 5 hours of weak sunlight per day!)
[Note: one of the cruise entertainers has written several blog posts about this same trip - for a different point of view, check out Duke Zoran's Blog on Stockholm]
Tourist shopping tip: to avoid impulse purchases and subsequent buyer’s remorse, be pre-armed with an idea of something you would actually like to buy; if you find it, you have a successful souvenir; if not, you at least have a way to fend off souvenir hawkers. My comrade was looking for knitting wool; we poked around some very interesting shops in the course of finding something wonderful.
Next day – on the bus once more for a tour of the Viking Golden Hoard in the Historical Museum and a visit to the Royal Armoury in the basement of the Royal Palace. The lean and acidulous retired professor leading the tour enthralled us with the political maneouvreing between Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark during the 18th – 20th centuries – seems the Swedes were quite accustomed to cutting their coat to suit the prevailing winds (AKA neutrality).
It was a beautiful day to be passing in a dungeon (the locale of the armoury) so we were glad when the tour brought us back to the boat. The clouds were hovering and the wind freshening as we left Stockholm harbor , but now post-lunch we are on the sunny side of the boat and Mom is wrapped in a cozy terry robe snoozing on our balcony as the Baltic Sea rustles by.
Failing strength, advancing years, and weakening eyesight may not dull the wanderlust in the heart of the traveler – what alternatives are available to ease the travel experience for the itchy-footed elderly? There are many – the cost often varying in direct proportion to the level of ease and convenience provided. Careful shopping and the assistance of a good travel agent can help.
One of the most popular alternatives for an elderly traveler is the boat cruise. The advantages are immediately clear:
Having a boat as home base eliminates the bother and confusion of packing and repacking, saving energy for the important business of sight-seeing and socializing. Every night spent in the same bedroom eliminates the possibility of something critical being left behind.
Having the same bedroom layout, dining room access, and elevator access each day is a great help to a visually or mobility-impaired traveler. If the goal is to relax, eliminating the tension of getting to know a new “home base” is a big plus.
The ratio of personnel to guests is usually high on a cruise ship, ensuring there will be plenty of assistance available as needed, either for embarking and disembarking or for planning and enabling excursions along the cruise route.
Being on a cruise ship allows the scenery to come to the traveler. One elderly friend of mine enjoys cruise after cruise on the same ship. He has become friends with the crew, enjoys the amenities on board, observes the constantly changing scene at the ports of call and in between, but never leaves the boat.
Cruises can be pricey; look for discounts at the edges of the season. We were able to book a seven-day cruise on a 6-star cruise line at a very considerable discount in the spring of 2012 during the European economic crisis and just after the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground . If your times a bit flexible, you may luck out. A travel agent can be very helpful in sniffing out the best deals.
Cruises do depend for success on smooth water, good weather, and capable crews. There are storms on the Baltic, hurricanes in the Caribbean. There is no calm-water guarantee, and no way to pull over to the shoulder of the sea until the roughness goes away. And those pictures of the Costa Concordia are not reassuring.
Cruises can be cliquish. Use the Social Director or equivalent to match you with other unattached pairs if you are not part of a family or tour group .Mom and I were hoping to connect with some other couples and singles during the cruise, to lighten the dependence on each other, but it didn’t happen natuarally. When toward the end of our cruise we mentioned our wish to the Cruise Social Director, he swept us into a group of other unattached pairs and we had a wonderful evening – we should have done this right away.
If you are on a cruise where there are “deluxe” dining areas, rush to sign up for these the instant you arrive on the boat – we never made it to the top-of-the-line restaurant on our boat because it was completely booked by the time we arrived just an hour past the earliest boarding time. Fortunately, the other restaurant choices were delectable – no worries.
The buffet is good if you are in a hurry to eat in order to be on time for some activity; otherwise don’t waste your calories here if there is a full-service restaurant available. After our first day on the boat we never served our own lunch again.
I awake at 6:30 (fortunately we get an hour back as we journey westward toward Copenhagen) and catch a glimpse of Finland’s World Heritage site Suomenlinna skimming by the railing – an old fort, a tower, and then we are at the port and docking. We have a bus tour of the city scheduled; we endeavor to be ready on time, but Mom has misplaced the key card which she needs to get on and off the boat and by the time we get to the bus they have been waiting pretty patiently for almost 15 minutes. But everyone is very nice to a smiling nonagenarian and her escort.
Helsinki is a small city of only about 600,000 people, so the bus drives in circles to spend the time required to justify the cost of the expedition. We see the Senate Square, the Parliament Building, pass the National Museum twice before going inside, park several blocks from the Church of the Rock and walk a few blocks. Helsinki is all about the architecture –the gleaming white Lutheran cathedral which gives the White City of the Baltic its nickname, the red brick Russian Orthodox church on an opposing hill, and the eco-modern architecture of the Church of the Rock (so called because it is built into a hill so as not to disturb the neighborhood sight lines.
We end at an outdoor café by the harbor for Finnish snacks: rye flatbread with smoked reindeer and mustard; Karelli Pie – a sort of cheese pastry with diced hard-boiled egg on top, then we browse the adjacent food and craft open-air market. After lunch Mom opts again for a nap and I go storming off up the hill to Marimekko, drawn irresistibly by the SALE 40% sign I had spotted earlier. I admire Finnish design in all its maifestations, purchase a few gifts, and amble down the warm sunny tree-lined streets full of mimes, street musicians, outdoor diners – it is like Paris without the horns and humidity. I step into a shop to price their postcards, step out again without buying and the day is transformed. It is pouring rain – I mean a real gully-washer – gutters overflowing, street flooded, rain-spouts fountaining… everyone is laughing at being so caught by surprise.
Luckier than some, I am wearing my nearly-waterproof windbreaker (only because it had a nice pocket for the camera) so I raise the hood, cover my purse with the Marimekko bag, and make a dash for the boat. Fortunately I am not very far from the harbor, and there are a couple of covered arcades to shelter in. I make it through the customs center and wait on the porch looking at the ship with a couple of other soggy but smiling passengers until a helpful and vigilant sprite from the ship spots us and comes over with a couple of huge umbrellas – so of course the deluge stops as suddenly as it began.
Tonight is Formal Night and the Captain’s Cocktail Party, so I shed my wet clothes and we dress for the occation, then go for tea in the Panorama lounge. As we linger over our finger sandwiches, cookies, and mini-pastries, a couple scurries in from the outside promenade- it is pouring rain again. We retreat to our room to watch the lightning and the rain bouncing off the balcony railing.
This first evening shows off the crew: first the cocktail party and introductions, then a full restaurant where we shared our table gregariously, then a Musical Extravaganza - an all-white Motown show, complete with feather boas and choreographed dance moves – I was remembering seeing the Temptations in Las Vegas years back. I talked with “Duke” , the tenor, afterward; he said the group were somewhat limited in their dancing due to the movement of the boat. I thought “yeah, right” but now that I am typing in the quiet of my cabin I am aware of the shifting basis of the boat world I am on.
[Note: Turns out Duke Zoran has written his own blog posts about this trip - Check it out!]