Max and Jenny are finally on their way – cruising the Baltic. As one of the most popular river cruises in operation, what are the standout sights?
Our first port of call is Warnemunde/Rostock in Germany – part of the old German Democratic Republic (DDR). Warnemunde is a quaint fishing village on the mouth of the river Warnow – a seaside resort with a vast windswept sandy beach at one end of town. The beach area is riddled with 19th century invention, strandkorbs – basically wicker basket chairs, with cushions, shades, footrests and storage to prevent your gear being blown away.
The town is very attractive with a mix of old colourful timber dwellings of traditional German architecture and modern hotel complexes. The maritime atmosphere is enhanced by hundreds of screeching seagulls along the touristy picture-postcard river promenade. It has an abundance of fishing boats of various sizes, as well as restaurants, cafes, ice cream stalls, chocolate shops, souvenir and boutique shops, and I could just imagine the buzz here during the summer regatta season. Even in the quieter seasons, with three cruise ships in town and the sun shining, the place is certainly alive. We can’t leave this place without tasting the local speciality – fischbroetchen – sandwiches of fried fish. Many from our cruise opt to go to Berlin – which can be reached by train in a few hours from here – for the day. More than six hours travel for a one-day port stop – not for us!
Instead, we decide to go to 12th century medieval Rostock, a 20-minute train ride from Warnemunde. Some of the old buildings were destroyed during WWII but, nevertheless, the remaining gates, towers, walls and restored buildings give this university town a special feel. It’s not difficult to be impressed by the architecture during a leisurely stroll around town. Sadly, it’s Sunday and most of the shops are closed. However, the standout feature of this town is the astronomical clock at St Marienkirche church and it’s certainly worth exploring. The clock, which dates back to 1472, is very elaborate and still works. It is the oldest remaining piece of its kind and can predict phases of the moon with absolute accuracy.
We are supposed to head to Stockholm the following day but, alas because of strong winds, which might have prevented docking, the destination is cancelled. The backup port is Helsinki. Finland only gained its independence in 1917 after Swedish and Russian occupation from the 12th century. We have been to Helsinki before for an overnight stopover and didn’t think much of the place. However, this time we take a city tour (ship excursion @ $85 each for three hours) and after a number of stops at iconic locations, learning more of its history, we see much more of this city to consider it worth visiting. The final stop iss Senate Square and a walk around the nearby shopping region reveals an upmarket and rather expensive side of Helsinki.
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Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is the next port and what a wonderful place this is. Next to the modern city is the medieval-walled town, with so much history and character. We have a 2-3 hour tour pre-booked with Viator – a great tour that only cost about $30 each, and there is only four in the group. It’s worth noting that the ship tour price is almost three times this rate and you’re part of a full coach load.
We are fortunate that it is market day when we’re here and a sunny day. The town square is abuzz with swarms of people, alfresco style restaurants, cafes and bars. This is also the location of the second-oldest pharmacy in Europe, established in 1422. And if you’re lucky enough to pass through, search for the small medieval themed basement café in the town hall. I try the Elk soup (which is ladled from a large vat and drunk from small clay pots with handles) and pie (cooked in an ancient wall oven) – very tasty indeed.
St Petersburg is located on the Neva River, at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. It is often described as the most Western city of Russia and has survived three revolutions. It is a major cultural European city and is home to the largest art museum in the world – The Hermitage. Amazingly, if you spend 30 seconds on each of the 3 million display items at the Hermitage, it would take 17 years during normal opening hours to see everything and you would walk 25km of hallways. Unfortunately, we only have a measly two hours to spend there, with our private tour costing US$160 each. The cost covers the day visa, the museum entrances, lunch and the guide and driver.
The city reminds you of notable European destinations, such as Prague, Paris and Venice. The architecture is fabulous, even if the upkeep is a little lacking. As well as visiting The Hermitage, we take a hydrofoil trip on the Neva to Peterhof – the 18th century summer palace of Peter the Great. The palace was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII and rebuilt to its former glory after the war. The gardens are spectacular and boast 100 gravity-fed fountains. We have lunch at a Russian restaurant, which consists of Borsch (a beetroot soup) and a pancake filled with minced meat. We also take a look at the underground metro during the morning peak – 89 metres deep!
We need a day at sea to recover from our whistle-stop tour of St Petersburg. So now we are back where we were exactly seven days ago in Copenhagen after our wonderful cruise experience. After our initial experience in the city, we go a little upmarket and book The Palace Hotel, right at the centre square opposite the Town Hall. What we don’t realise is that there is the annual Gay Pride Festival happening. And as our room looks directly over the square, which is what we requested, we have a great view and are grateful for the earplugs provided by the hotel.
If you are wondering whether we would do another cruise, the answer is most certainly!