Monday, May 27, 2013

The Adventure Ends

Can travel to three advanced countries, Russia, Estonia and Finland really be called an adventure? We certainly weren’t “roughing it” unless you count three days on a Russian river without internet access. But, in my view, any trip that involves air travel is an adventure. Security hassles, delayed planes and lost luggage all loom as travel hazards. A tip of the hat goes to Delta Airlines. Our flights were good, schedules worked, staff smiled and luggage arrived. Life was good.

Grand Circle Travel, their ship and staff did an excellent job. The itinerary was full but not packed and the guides and literature gave us an excellent taste of history and culture of all three countries. It was alarming how little I knew about the history of that part of the world. I still have much to learn but have sufficient foundation to bore friends with trip stories for months to come. (Anyone interested in viewing our 1700 photos should just drop us a note! A viewing can be arranged.)

Would I recommend the trip, Delta and Grand Circle? Absolutely, it was an “adventure” we will long remember.

Helsinki Adventure Ride on the M/S J. L. Runeberg

The Estonia-Finland trip extension officially ended Tuesday evening with guests departing for the airport early Wednesday morning. We booked an extra day so we could see a bit more of the country, outside of Helsinki.
Our Monday guide suggested a trip to the historic coastal town of Porvoo, 30 miles east of Helsinki. The plan was to take a classic boat, the J. L. Runeberg, out to Porvoo and a bus back. We could see the beautiful island studded coast from the boat and the Finnish countryside from the bus. It seemed like a good idea but didn’t quite turn out as planned.

The morning wind and rain did not deter us. The Runeberg brochure indicated the boat had four salons or cabin areas. Rain? No problem.

We purchased our tickets and boarded a very busy boat. As we explored the boat, looking for a protected seat, we discovered a new Finnish word on little gold cards in every salon.—RESERVED! It seemed all the inside salons were reserved for tour groups. I later discovered the boat can carry 200 passengers but has room for only 78 in its “salons.”

I suspect the boat, launched the same year as the Titanic, might have been designed by the same guy. In the Titanic case lifeboats were provided for only some of the passengers. In our case, inside space was provided for only some of the passengers.

Had we fully understood the situation before casting off, we might have canceled. But, once at sea, we were out of options. It was interesting how quickly the salon dwellers protected their spaces from intruders. We could have been dripping wet and frozen and I don’t believe we would have been granted entry.

On a warm sunny day it would have been no problem. There was storm swept seating on the bow and on a sundeck, topsides. Covered seating was available on the port and starboard sides, against the cabin. But the wind was so aggressive those seats were wet as well. Some of the other “salonless” passengers huddled on stools or the floor in the narrow passageway to the coffer bar, below deck by the engine room. Of course they couldn’t see anything but at least they were dry.

We and a family of four finally made the best of a bad situation and claimed two benches along the centerline on the back deck. The wind still whistled through but most of the rain couldn’t quite reach us. We appropriated some blankets from down below and, wrapped like mummies, were able to ward off hypothermia during the three hour ride.

So, how did we feel about the trip? It was a great way to see a beautiful coast that is laced with hundreds of small islands. But frankly we felt cheated. It was like buying a bus ticket and being put on the roof. The frustrating thing was that we had many more layers of clothing sitting in our hotel room but had no reason to believe we would need them.

As for Porvoo, it was a charming place with a wonderful “old town.” I would recommend it, rain or shine. And the bus back did give us a taste of the country. As for the boat ride, caveat emptor.

Exit Estonia; Ferry to Finland

Last stop on our travels was Helsinki, Finland. We rose at a respectable time and headed the short distance to our 10:00 a.m. Tallinn-Helsinki ferry. The Baltic Sea ferries are nothing like the smaller scale Washington State Ferries of home. These are made for the open sea. Our ferry, the Tallink “Star” was not the biggest we saw but was still impressive with seven decks and space for 2000 passengers and 450 cars. At 24 knots it made the crossing in just two hours.

We noticed many Finns returning from a weekend in Estonia ladened with liquor. We were told prices are so high in Finland that it pays to make the trip just to stock your liquor cabinet. (Later, in Helsinki we paid 19 Euro for a beer and a glass of wine!)

After settling into the Scandic Grand Marina Hotel, right on the waterfront, we boarded a bus for a quick orientation of the city of Helsinki and Finland, in general.

The official languages are Finnish and Swedish though most speak good English. Our guide claims the Finns are quiet and reserved.
• A Finnish bride will hear “I love you” just once. After that the husband will let her know only if there is a change of status.
• Finns can be silent in at least two languages.
O.K. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the story.

About 10% of the five million Finns live in Helsinki. Commercially they are perhaps best known as the home of Nokia and Angry Birds.

Sweden ruled Finland for nearly 400 years. Russia kicked them out in 1809 and loosely controlled the country for the next 100 years. When the 1917 Russian revolution came about the Finns negotiated their freedom from the new government. Later, in 1939, Stalin decided to get Finland back and invaded. The Finns stopped them cold but, after four months with no international support, had to accept a cease fire and give up some territory. A year later, when Germany invaded Russia, the Finns joined in to get their lost territory back. When World War II ended they had to again give up territory to the Russians but kept their independence which they enjoy today.

Armed with a tram pass we spent the next day walking and riding in the Finnish sunshine. It is a most enjoyable city and the hotel was close to the outdoor market, good shopping and good wandering space. The pass was also good for a water taxi to Suomenlinna Sveaborg, a two hundred year old fortress guarding the entrance to Helsenki harbor. A World Heritage Site the fort offers visitors a view of history and of Helsinki in the distance. It was worth the trip.

Our stay in Finland was short but most enjoyable and educational.

Lights Out In Tallinn

Our Hotel Euroopa, in Tallinn, was four star in every respect. But when the local power tranformer burned up the hotel grew dark and quiet.

One evening the lights went out with a clunk. When we began to smell smoke I decided to investigate and discovered a smoking transformer and firemen on the other side of the hotel. By morning a large generator was supplying power and crews were busy replacing the equipment. By sundown, after a great deal of hard work, things were back to normal at the Hotel Euroopa.

But it was exciting while it lasted!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

From Collective Farm to Real Dairy Business

Grand Circle Travel likes its guests to meet real people in the countries they visit. With that in mind, Sunday we visited the dairy farm of "Villo" for lunch and a tour. Villo's story was most interesting.

Public records of the farm date back to the 19th century. Then it consisted of 2 acres of farmed land, 15 acres of forest and two horses. (He points out that he now has 350 horses powering his Massey Ferguson tractor.)

In 1940, when the Russians made Estonia a part of the USSR, the farm had grown to 200 acres, 7 cows and 2 horses. All were "nationalized." The family was assigned 1.5 acres of land where they could raise vegetables, apples, pigs, sheep and keep 2 cows.

In the late 1980's rules were relaxed and they were allowed to sell a portion of their produce directly to consumers. With this money they could afford vodka with which to bribe the collective farm tractor operator to work their field. What a great system!

Villo attended an agricultural academy and received a mechanical engineering degree in 1981. In 1989 he began running the farm. When Estonia gained independence, in 1991, he was able to begin running a real and most efficient farm.

Property was returned to those it was "stolen" from in 1940; he got his 200 acres back. He now owns 500 acres and leases another 700 where he grows crops for silage and hay to sell to another business. He employs five people, runs 170 head of cattle (half dairy and half beef) and produces 300 tons of milk annually which he sells as milk, yogurt and cheese.

He is the only family member working on the farm. His wife is a dentist, daughter a caterer and son a banker.

I tell this story because I find the Soviet and post Soviet story so striking. Living in the U. S. A. we really didn't fully appreciate the stifling effects of Communism on a people that had no choice. They have a choice now and are thriving.

The farm visit reminded me of an old political joke that distinquished the differences between various 'isms....

Socialism: You have two cows. The government takes one and gives it to your neighbor.
Communism: You have two cows. You give them to the Government, and the Government then gives you some milk.
Fascism: You have two cows. You give them to the Government, and the Government then sells you some milk.
Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull.
Nazism: You have two cows. The Government takes both and shoots you.
New Dealism: You have two cows. The Government takes both, shoots one, buys milk from the other cow, then pours the milk down the drain

Three Days in Estonia

We have mixed touring with resting during our Estonian stay. Our Euroopa Hotel, right on the water with a view of the ferry terminal, is well located with an ever changing view.

The Baltic Sea ferry network is massive. Several lines serve the city and, at times, there are several ferries in at once. Monday we will board one for Helsinki, Finland.

We have made several trips to Tallinns old town with its shops and restaurants, only ten minutes away. There are actually two old towns, upper for the nobel families and lower for the rest.

We took a bus tour of the city, which was quick since the city is relatively small. Soviet era apartments are overshadowed by new, contemporary buildings, built since freedom was obtained in about 1991. The tour included a stop on the highest point in this flat sea coast city, a "mountain" nearly 1000 feet above sea level.

We were not sure what Sunday entailed but it turned out to be quite interesting. First we visited what we would call a regional park, the Rocca Al Mare. If that sounds Italian it's because the land was owned by an Italian nobleman many years ago. Home, barns and other farm buildings, moved from original locations across the country, are displayed along with medieval crafts people displaying crafts from bygone times. (Think Estonian Williamsburg.)

We then moved to a working dairy farm for lunch where we heard the story of Villo and how he developed his booming dairy business following the departure of the Russians.(More on this in the next posting.)

It may not sound like an exciting visit but it was most interesting to see how quickly this vibrant people has recovered from 50 years of Soviet repression.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Surprising Estonia

My ignorance of Estonia knows no bounds.

* I thought it was south of Sweden. It's east.
* I thought it was east of the other Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania. It's north.
* I thought it was west of St. Petersburg, Russia. At least I was right about that.

I knew nothing about its history, size, ethnic make up. I still don't know much, despite what I've learned in the past few days.

It has a rich history going back to the 14th century though it only became an independent nation in about 1920. Prior to that it was overrun by the Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia, not necessarily in that order and often several times. Their independence from Russia of 1920 was cut short when the Russians moved in again in 1940, only to be pushed out by the Germans in 1941 before returning in 1945 to absorb the Republic of Estonia into the USSR.

Finally, in 1991, a peaceful revolution took place as the USSR was coming apart and Estonia became independent once again. Now they are a part of the EU and NATO.

They are a small nation, about the size of Belgium, with only a small army and an air force with no planes. Their total population is only 1.4 million, with about 425,000 in their largest city, Tallinn. Given their strategic location and small size their best defense from a foreign invasion would be speed bumps at the border. So they enjoy their NATO and EU relationships.

Are they Scandinavian, European or what? Their smart, style and architecture reflect their close ties with Finland and Sweden but even the Estonians are not sure how to describe themselves. They are often referred to as one of the Baltic states

Thus endeth the geography and history lesson.

One thing we do know. They are a very friendly people who have burst to life since coming out from under the Soviet yoke. Tallinn's picturesque old town and vibrant downtown reflect that new look and attitude and they welcome visitors.

We are fortunate to be here.


Friday, May 17, 2013

St. Petersburg Exceeds Expectations

Our guide is a St. Petersburg resident. A week ago, when we departed Moscow, he assured us St. Petersburg would exceed our expectation--it was beautiful place. As he often says, "wow!"

Peter the Great founded the city in the 1700's. His goal was to create the "Venice of the North" on the banks of the Neva River. To achieve this he adopted European architectural styles and laced the new city with bridges and canals. No building could exceed the height of one of his palaces, about five stories. His dream, restored after the Germans destroyed it during World War II, survives today.

Rather than Venice, the wide canals actually remind me more of Amsterdam and the five story height limit and many parks and plazas remind me of Washington D. C.

We are told that the city experiences just 60 sunny days a year. We experienced five of them. (Sorry to later sunless travelers 😢) The sun makes the many golden domes sparkle and walks in the gardens much more enjoyable.

Over the past few days we have visited:
The Church of the Spilled Blood, built where a Czar was murdered.
St Isaac's Cathedral, restored after World War II.
Peter and Paul Fortress where all the Romanov clan is buried.
Peterhof, a summer palace complex on the shores of the Sea of Finland.
The Neva River and connecting canals in a canal boat.
The Hermitage Museum, home to some of the largest art collections in the world.
The Yusupov Palace, home to a local nobel man.
Catherine's Palace and Park, home of the Amber Room.

I suspect we have only scratched the surface.

This is an incredible place whether you are interested in history, art, architecture or just seeing new and interesting places. This is a bucket list "must see."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

People of the Good Ship Rossia

Group travel offers an opportunity to observe group dynamics. With 200 personalities on the ship there is plenty to observe.

The ships open seating dining room is a good place to start. Each guest appears to approach the dining experience in a different and personal way. Travelers can be grouped in a number of general categories.

The Claim Stakers: They stake a claim to a table early in the trip and then protect it from claim jumpers. Often these are people traveling in a group that choses to eat with their friends. That's understandable. But still it an be amusing to watch them spread napkins, coats and other items around to perfect their claim.

The Friendly Claim Stakers: Like those above they lay claim to a table and hold it. But they will allow and, in fact, often welcome "outsiders" to their tables if there is space and/or a regular member is not coming to a particular meal.

Loners: Loners usually come in pairs, since there are no single seat tables. But they seek the two seat tables so they don't have to share the table with or talk to strangers. Some make ready eye contact, as if saying "ha, you can't join me!" Others glance down or gaze out the window as if ashamed of their solitude.

Claim Jumpers: They enjoy disrupting the Claim Stakers either for the enjoyment of being a bit of a rebel or just to disrupt things. Any observant diner can gain some enjoyment watching the reaction of the Claim Stakers when they arrive to find "their" table has been usurped. I have seen some try to reclaim their spot claiming a privilege they don't have. Others begin to wander, bewildered, trying to find an alternative place to sit.

Happy Wanderers: They will eat anywhere. They wander in, often late, and will join most any table. They are resilient. If rejected by a Claim Staker or Loner they just move on. There are always enough seats so, no problem.

Bus seating dynamics are interesting as well. I will have to say our "Orange" bus was peaceful with little territorial conflict. For more on the topic of bus people see THE PEOPLE OF THE BUS.

Are any of these travelers better or worse than any other? Not really. I personally believe you get more out of a trip by meeting new people. Others are happy just to be with friend or family. To each their own.

But I can still enjoy watching them!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Catherine the Great

Signs of Catherine the Great abound in St. Petersburg. We have visited her summer home, winter home, the Hermitage (which she founded) and even her tomb. Who was this woman that lived during the time of our revolutionary war?

Fortunately we read "Catherine the Great" by Massey before we left home and our guides have filled in the many gaps. Still, sorting all of the Catherines, Peters, Alexanders and other Romanovs can be a challenge.

Massey took hundreds of pages to explain the woman. I can best give only highlights.
She wasn't Russian, she was Prussian.
She didn't ascend to the throne. She claimed the throne after a coup against her reining husband who was soon killed by the brothers of her lover.
She had 12 primary lovers; 3 before she became empress and 9 after. (Massey questions her child and heir to the throne was even fathered by her husband who was one strange nobleman.)
She expanded the Russian empire and gave it access to the sea with wars against Turkey and "border adjustments" with neighboring Poland.
She was attracted by the period of "enlightenment sweeping Europe and corresponded regularly with Voltaire.
She collected the finest art from collections throughout Europe and created most of the collection now housed in the Hermitage.
She started the first school for girls of Noble rank.

The list could go on. She was a part of the Romanov Dynasty that ended with the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Romanovs were held up as examples of evil during the Soviet period but now tourists, including Russians, flock to see the palaces and emblems of the Romanov past.

She was quite a lady then, still respected now. Here are a few views of Peterhof, her summer palace, and the Hermitage collection.

Monday, May 13, 2013

St. Petersburg, The Icing on the Cake

Our guide says it is best to start travel in Moscow and end on St. Petersburg. Moscow is the cake and beautiful St. Petersburg is the icing. It is true.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Yulia of Svirstroy

A feature of Grand Circle tours is a home visit in the country visited. Ours took place in the village of Svirstroy on the river Svir. It's population peaked in the 1930's during construction of a dam on the river. It is home to 700 in 2013.

86 year old Yulia and daughter Olga welcomed us to her home for tea. Her story is quite interesting.

When she was 14 the Finnish army invaded from the north while the Germans came from the west. Hearing gun fire they grabbed a few things and went deep into the forest for safety thinking they would return soon. Seven years later they returned to find the village totally destroyed. Homes were rebuilt by German prisoners of war and they moved into a 3 room flat at the end of a four unit building.

Both she and her daughter worked at the school. When the USSR collapsed they became the owner of their flat.

When asked to compare life under communism vs life under capitalism she replied, "no change. I work hard before. I work hard now. I have a roof over my head, heat, food and my garden. Life is good. I need nothing more."

Random Thoughtlets on the Russian Visit

Weather: Considering the weather I was reminded of a sign in a Juneau Alaska bar. "If we fail to meet your expectations, please lower your expectations."

It is May in a northern latitude. We should expect and, in fact have experienced, a range of weather conditions. We had rain, clouds and sun in Moscow. On our waterway trip we have experienced similar conditions. Temperatures have floated in the 50's and 60's. On Saturday we sailed through heavy fog that put us behind schedule. We have encountered patches of ice on a lake and had to skip one village stop due to ice conditions further north.

Most guests , with a sense of adventure, take the conditions and changes in itinerary in stride. A few need to lower their expectations.

The Alphabet: The Russian alphabet creates challenges for me when shopping in smaller towns. First, the signs mean nothing to me. I have not learned the word for "grocery" for example. Second, many of the shops look like houses or office buildings with no window displays or posters to indicate what's inside. I feel awkward going up to a door and peeking inside to see what is for sale. Clearly I need to spend more time on my Russian language lessons.

The Convenient Convent: During the 16th and 17th centuries the Russian church frowned on divorce so the noblemen, seeking a new chamber mate, had to devise a new approach. They would send their wives to a convent. As soon as they took their vows they were no longer considered married and the husband could move on. Very interesting....

I doubt the practice will return to Russia. In this "enlightened era" women might agree to the idea provided they had the opportunity to send their men to a monastery!

Freedom of Speech: There have been many changes since the fall of the Soviet Union. One of the more pronounced is the introduction of freedom of speech. It is not perfect and some business people have had problems after commenting on the current government. But the people (guides for example) have no qualms about commenting on what they like and dislike about the government or any other topic. It has not always been so. In the old days a KGB agent might be present on a tour bus and let the guide know if they strayed from the party line. Not now. The USSR came apart 20 years ago. The younger generation doesn't know what it was like. Those that are 20+ can recall and they relish the new freedom.

St. Petersburg Traffic: During Soviet times cars were hard to get and very expensive. Now they are plentiful and congestion is the new way of life in big cities like St. Petersburg. We have experienced it so we appreciated the joke told by our guide.

A guy is walking along the street. A taxi pulls up and offers him a ride. "No thanks," he replies. "I'm in a hurry."

OK, maybe you have to be here to appreciate it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Russian Waterways

The cruise left Moscow on Tuesday and arrived in St. Petersburg on Sunday, Mother's Day, with four travel days in between.

We traveled 1000 miles down (or up?) rivers, through 18 locks and canals and across two of Europe's largest lakes. We traversed an interior waterway system that dates back to the 19th century when efforts were first made to link rivers and lakes with canals and locks and create a path to the sea from Moscow. They claim the scope of the construction exceeds that of the construction of the Panama or Suez canals. It wouldn't surprise me if it's true.

We have visited the small town of Uglich and the large city of Yaroslal. We stopped at Goritsy and visited the ancient monastery of Kirillo-Belozersk. It is interesting to compare the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Moscow with the more traditional style of the smaller towns and villages. It is like comparing New York City with the small town of Malta, Montana. There is a certain "flash" to the former and a rugged independence to the latter.

Some things have not changed since our Moscow departure. The people we meet are friendly and the villages are clean an orderly. The recent villages, being further north than Anchorage Alaska, show signs of the harsh winter weather they endure; wood is weathered and country roads need repair from the frost damage.

The land is very flat and forested. That has been a surprise. I expected more topography.

Now we are moored along the banks of St.Petersburg's Neva River surrounded by the bustle of a city of over 4 million. Our water travel time is behind us. The Hermitage awaits.

9th of May In Russia

The 9th of May is a day of celebration and remembrance in Mother Russia. On that date, in 1945, the great patriotic war with Germany came to an end. Events to mark the day are held on towns all over the country.

In Moscow we witnessed the celebration preparations around Red Square. Red, white and blue bleachers were in place and practice sessions were held that included a fly over with hundreds of planes. We also suffered through horrendous traffic jams during the rehearsals.
Before we left Moscow three aging but spry veterans visited our ship and spoke of their experiences.

In Uglich, on May 8th, the stage was being erected in anticipation of the speeches and marching scheduled for the 9th..

In Yaroslavl we witnessed the May 9th festivities and visited with two veterans on their way to the event. The streets were crowded with families as they converged on the town plaza. Army vehicles were parked nearby to join in the parade.

It was very impressive to see the widespread support for the event and the focus on the few surviving veterans of the war.

We we finished our city tour we returned to the ship where our crew staged a flag raising ceremony on the bow of our ship, raising American and Russian flags. As our guide said, "20 years ago who would have envisioned an American owned cruise ship on the Volga River flying both nation's flags?"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Good Ship Rossia

We are cruising across Russia on the good ship Rossia. It is not a flashy cruise ship with casinos, spas and pools but is perfect for a river cruise. Built in East Germany in the 1970's it was completely overhauled in 2006. The number of guest rooms was reduced by one third allowing for more space per room. Everything about the ship is clean, well maintained and modern.

The shape and size (425' X 54') of the ship is dictated by the height of bridges and size of locks that we pass through on our journey. So, the outside shape matches that of other similar river boats. Our normal speed of 8 knots allows plenty of time for enjoying the passing scene.

The three guest decks contain 110 cabins, all with outside views. The dining room is large enough to serve all guests at once and two bars, one big and one little, provide inside lounge space for those who chose to avoid the sun deck in foul weather or just need a vodka tasting. Add a small library, gift shop and wifi access and you have all the ingredients for happy guests (at least most of them, most of the time!)

The Russian crew is well trained, gracious and all speak some English (which is, any case, better than my Russian.) All in all, the good ship Rossia is a wonderful way to get around the waterways of Russia.