Category Archives: Travel

Views of Ancient Rome

 Pantheon Is Best Preserved Building of Ancient Rome 

The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s were interesting but that is all “new” Rome. I’m ready to see some of what made ancient Rome so powerful and, to me, more appealing.  I’m particularly interested in seeing old Rome’s Pantheon, first built between 27 and 25 B.C as a temple to honor all the Roman gods. It supposedly was erected on the site where one of Rome’s founders,,  Romulus, died and an eagle carried his body into the skies to be with the gods.

The Pantheon is listed on our scheduled stops but not on our guide’s. Sigh, this is why I hate guided tours. Despite their descriptions, you never can be sure where you will go—or won’t.  Mutiny time. Several of us strongly point out the Pantheon is a scheduled stop and we do expect to go there.  She keeps saying there is no time.

Instead, we stand in front of the Trevi Fountain obscured by scaffolding and about as romantic looking as a garbage can. I know we are close to the Pantheon. I bring it up to our guide again. “No time.”

Then, without any advance warning, the skies literally open up and dump what look like marble-sized raindrops on us. Linda and I happen to be standing in front of a small storefront canopy that is wide enough to shelter us and our camera equipment.  We step back under it. The others have rain jackets and umbrellas so no one is drowned. As fast as the rain started, it instantly stops. Is this normal Roman weather?

Something has changed the guide’s mind. She agrees to a compromise. She will take a 20-minute gelato break. Anyone who wants to visit the Pantheon may do so. Where is it?  Down that street, she gestures.  “That will take you right to it and it’s very close.” It looks more like an alley than a street and only 4 of about 30 of us begin to move rapidly that way.  Ice cream is that important after a big lunch?

The Pantheon at Last!

Pantheon interior is cylindrically shaped.
 From the outside the Pantheon seems a boring square building and not what I expect. The Latin inscription on the façade: M. AGRIPPA L.F. COS TERTIUM FECIT  (“It was built by Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time”) pinpoints this as the right place.   Marcus Agrippa, who defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in a naval battle, constructed some of the most notable buildings in the history of Rome, including the Pantheon.

The interior of the Pantheon  is what I expect to find: a large cylindrical-shaped room covered by a huge dome with a hole in the center of it. The hole, known as “the eye” or “oculus,” brightens the entire room. There are no windows. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved ancient Roman building.  The colorful marble floor with geometric patterns is still the ancient Roman original. Missing, unfortunately, the bronze that once covered the ceiling. That was all melted down by Pope Urban VIII.

On the other hand, the Pantheon is in such good shape because is has been in continual use since it was built. The Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface the IV in  608 AD and it was used as a church ever since.

When Michelangelo first viewed the Parthenon, he reportedly said “it looks more like the work of angels, not humans.”  It is actually the work of the emperor Hadrian who in 126 AD replaced the two earlier Pantheons destroyed by fire and lightning.

There is only time for a single walk around the Pantheon to meet the guide’s deadline.  The building feels like a perfect space and it is a unique space: the interior height and the diameter of the dome are the same dimensions, 141 feet. 8 inches. Modern engineers marvel at the construction work here.

Pantheon is the the best preserved ancient Roman building        The eye or oculus provides the interior light

But I am continually drawn back to the rotunda, with an inner diameter of 142.4 feet or almost half the length of a football field.  It reportedly is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome as well as the largest unsupported dome in the world.

The oculus in the dome center conjures up thoughts of the eye of God.  What it must have looked like when the sun moved across the bronze ceiling!  This eye also sheds tears because rain comes right through it, splashing on the floor where it drains away.

I could spend at least an hour in the Pantheon but off we go to rejoin the group. From the  Trevi Fountain, we walk downhill to the Colosseum  and our bus, passing several recent excavations.

More Views of Ancient Rome

Colleseum of Rome exteriorIt wouldn’t be Rome without the Colesseum,  built 70 AD

 

Forum of Trajan, 112 ADThe Forum of Emperor Trajan,  112 AD,  shows
a section of  the markets and the column of Trajan.

Arch of Constantine-1Arch of Constantine I, erected circa. 315 AD

The Arch was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over the Emperor Maxentius, who stopped the persecution of the Christians.  This is considered the largest surviving Roman triumphal arch and the last great monument of Imperial Rome.

It was also our final view of the city. Unlike the long morning bus ride to Rome, trip back to the Prisendam took about 45 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

ms Prinsendam Rome Excursion

Touring the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica

On the second day the Prinsendam is docked at Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, the foul weather improves significantly with alternating spells of sun and clouds.  It’s also our day for a Prinsendam Rome excursion.

We’re not fans of guided tours but Rome is too big for us to waste time figuring out how to reach every destination before the ship departs at 7 p.m.  We join an 11.5-hour that departs at 7 a.m.  Unfortunately, it takes us about two hours to cover the 45 miles to the Vatican Museum due to the clogged roads caused by the morning commute.  Apparently it can be worse in summer when 14 ships could fill the cruise port.

The Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel

Although it’s the off-season, it’s hard to imagine how the Vatican Museum ever can be busier than it is today. One of the world’s greatest and most visited art museums, the Vatican Museum was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century.  It now houses pieces dating going back to Egyptians and Etruscans but is best known for the marvelous works by Europe’s greatest artists and sculptors.

Prinsendam rome excursion Vatican Museum ceiling

Once inside, we soon enter a hallway with an endless shuffling column of people looking from side to side to view sculptures and paintings while at the same time craning their necks to see the vivid painted ceilings.  The bright ceiling decorations and colors are irresistible for photographers and many of us pause whenever we can to shoot them. Photography will not be permitted later in the Sistine Chapel itself.

Profane Secrets Hidden in the Sistine Chapel

Our guide tells us that Michelangelo, who considered himself foremost a sculptor, was forced by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling.  Michelangelo worked over a four year period from 1508-1512 on the  project  which was never intended to be open to the public, only to the Pope and other church officials.  Our guide says Michelangelo clearly made a mockery of the Pope in many parts of his 12,000-sq. ft. masterpiece. The ceiling panels, which depict stories from the Book of Genesis covering the Creation to the story of Noah, are filled with numerous scenes of joyful nudity that shocked the church.

In addition, there were hidden messages:  shapes making up the figure of God are an anatomically accurate figure of the human brain, complete with stem, front lobe and artery. He also shows God’s derriere and the dirty soles of his feet.  In the Creation of Adam, Adam has a naval yet he was never born. The Last Judgement, painted much later, is rampant with nude saints, female breasts, animals, buffoons, dwarfs, drunkards and other provocative elements that caused the Sistine Chapel ceiling to be censored.  Offending figures were covered with fig leaves or clothed by other artists. It took 300 years, during 20th century restorations, for the alterations to be removed.

Now that we know what to look for in certain panels removes any pious feeling when our turn comes to view the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The room is overcrowded, making it difficult to see the painting well.  It is actually easier to view the Sistine Chapel on a computer screen than in person. The Vatican offers a 3-D virtual tour but manage the tour yourself. The autopilot tour moves much too fast. This site loads slowly; it’s worth the wait:  http://vatican.com/tour/sistine_chapel_3D

Surprising Facts about St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome                                       St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome Italy

From the Vatican Museum it’s only a few steps to St. Peter’s Basilica, where there is far more room to move about freely.  Well, this is the largest church in the Christian world, able to hold 60,000 people.  Our guide has some more surprising facts about St. Peters. First, it is only a church, not a cathedral, since it is not the Pope’s own cathedral. However, because of St. Peter’s size and location, it is used by the Papal authorities for many church functions.

Michelangelo also has major influences here.  He designed the basilica’s famous dome, a city landmark viewable for miles around.  His famous sculpture, the Pieta, is also located within the church. It is said to be the only work he ever signed.  For all it fame, the statue  of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ appears surprisingly unguarded; it is actually encased in bulletproof glass .

The first St. Peter’s was built here in the 4th century because it was thought to be where St. Peter’s bones were buried.  Bones indeed have been found here in recent years and claimed to be those of Peter.  Pope Francis in 2013 displayed a box apparently holding the remains during a mass in St. Peter’s Square.  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/24/vatican-st-peters-bones-display-pope-francis

The bones have not been scientifically tested to verify their age nor are they likely to be. They carry a 1,000 year old curse verified by Vatican documents that state anyone who disturbs the peace of Peter’s tomb will suffer the worst possible misfortune. But doesn’t it seem that has already been done by being dug up decades ago and then displaying them in a box in public?

St. Peter's Basilica, RomeSt. Peter’s Basilica, Rome Italy

The Unexpected Egyptian Obelisk in St. Peter’s Square

Afterwards we wander through one side of St. Peter’s Square located in front of the church. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the huge expanse—besides the sea of chairs used for special occasions—is the presence of a 4,000-year old Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square.  Although it lacks any hieroglyphic markings, that isn’t actually a Christian symbol. Why is it there?

Brought from Alexandria, the obelisk was erected by the Emperor Caligula to mark his Circus where he held horse races. Later it was the site of the Nero Circus, a place were numerous Christians were martyred, among them Peter.  When the new St. Peter’s Basilica was built in the 1500s, Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk transferred to the center of the square so it could stand in front of the church.  It took 13 months to move and re-erect. It remains standing as the final witness to the martyrdom of St. Peter.

Amazing how these obelisks turn up in so many important places in Europe and the U.S. And wonder why they’ve been considered symbols of power for thousands of years across cultures.

Next:  The Pantheon and views of ancient Rome.

 

ms Prinsendam Med Cruise Foul Weather Days

Bad Weather Soon Prevents Two Scheduled Port Visits

The ms Prinsendam Mediterranean & Aegean Explorer cruise spends many more days in port than at sea, or at least that is the schedule.  Foul weather ahead will alter the Prinsendam’s scheduled stops after a call at Toulon, France.

Toulon France Harbor and Marina                        Overlooking Toulon Harbor from Prinsendam

After embarking at Barcelona, we dock at Toulon the following morning. Regrettably, all the main attractions are a good distance from the port. These include the Old Harbor at Marseille and the Provencal city of Aix-en-Provence, usually pronounced simply as the letter X.  Aix is famous as the home to Cézanne and for its 17th and 18th century buildings bordering narrow streets in the city center.

Aix is known for its famous flower markets held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Linda is most interested in the Saturday flower market, supposedly the largest, but the ship is docked on a different day.

Having seen the day’s cloudy forecast, Linda is happy to forego Aix and for the walk around Toulon to view the food markets and other sights. Speaking of views, we have an excellent one from the ship of Toulon’s harbor, marina and waterfront buildings.  Toulon’s skies are kind most of the day, a mix of cloud and sun.  It’s the last good weather we see for days.

Prinsendam Captain one of its greatest assets

When most cruise ships leave a port, it’s customary to hear some sort of announcement about the weather and the upcoming day. On the Prinsendam, this is not done by the cruise director but the captain himself, who makes almost all of the public announcements.

It’s not an ego thing but an obligation Captain Tim Roberts seems to feel is part of his job.  More approachable and with a greater presence than almost any cruise ship captain I’ve ever met, Captain Roberts was born in Liverpool and resides in Scotland.  His quiet, competent manner and daily announcements add real flavor to the cruise.  We look forward to hearing his comments, which can be wry or serious or a bit of both.

Tonight, he has bad news for us. We will not be able to dock in Calvi, Corsica, tomorrow as scheduled, which is disappointing.   It is where Christopher Columbus was born.  Calvi is one of two ports where tendering ashore is necessary. Unfortunately, the seas will be too rough for us to attempt landings in Calvi.

However, Captain Roberts says he has an alternative port where the Prinsendam can dock:  Ajaccio, Corsica, France, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sounds good, trading one famous Corsican for another. And Bonaparte is far more interesting. However, the weather at Ajaccio also will be iffy with possible clouds and rain.

Foul weather sends Prinsendam to birthplace of Napoleon 

Ajaccio appears a pleasant and compact town. We are not the only ship to deviate here.  A big floating city with at least 3,000 to 4,000 passengers is docked near us. The Prinsendam is toy-like in comparison.  That larger ship has lots more bells and whistles but we’ll visit ports later it could never enter, an advantage of small ships.

Napoleon is celebrated as a great hero in Ajaccio.  A military general and first emperor of France, he is commemorated in monuments, street names and the Ajaccio Napoleon Bonaparte Airport.  The entire Bonaparte family of the 1800s also is held in equally high esteem.

The grandest monument of Napoleon is on the ocean side of the large de Gaulle Square (formerly Diamant Square).  The statue depicts Napoleon on horseback dressed as a Roman consul and  wearing a gold wreath. He is flanked in front and back by the standing statues of his four brothers, Joseph, Lucien, Louis and Jerome.

Napoleon Bonaparte Statue at Ajaccio Corsica     Statue of Napoleon and his brothers, Ajaccio France

Not far from the square is a simple but spacious house where Napoleon was born on August 15, 1769.  He spent his early years at this house on the Rue Saint-Charles but never returned.   The building is now houses the National Museum of the Bonaparte Residence in Corsica.

After leaving Ajaccio, Capt. Roberts has an especially disturbing weather report for next day’s port, Olbia in Sardinia, Italy.  Captain Roberts says the mayor of Olbia has issued a Code Red due to heavy rains that “could cause flooding and loss of life.”  All cruise ship tours there are cancelled and passengers are not allowed to leave their ships.

Instead of wasting a day in Olbia watching it rain, the Prinsdendam will continue to Rome, our next stop, to spend an extra day there.  Unfortunately, the weather report for Rome  is “heavy thunderstorms.”  That is not surprising.  BBC news shows show severe flooding in France and neighboring countries.  We never receive news about the extent of damage (if any) in Olbia.

Our first day docked at Civitavecchia, Rome’s cruise ship port, the weather is beyond dismal. The rain easily compares to some tropical storms. Those who try to reach Rome return saturated, and not by wine.  A good number regret their outing.

We have to be optimistic. The sun will come out tomorrow, right? Actually, it does.

Getting to Know the ms Prinsendam

Prinsendam Holland America’s Smallest Ship

The embarkation process for the ms Prinsendam is amazingly smooth. Our American Airlines flight 112 from Miami direct to Barcelona arrives at 10:15 a.m. A cab puts us at the cruise port by 11:30, and within half an hour we are aboard the Prinsendam and in our stateroom.

When I did my initial Google search for “Prinsendam,”  what comes us first is the sinking of the ms Prinsendam  off Alaska in 1980. No, Holland America did not raise that smaller 523-passenger Prinsendam,  scrape the barnacles off and  place it back in business (as some recent passengers believed  based, on their web  posts).

The new ms Prinsendam was built in 1988. It carries only 793 passengers, making it Holland America’s smallest vessel.  And like the original ms Prinsendam, it is one of Holland America’s most beloved ships. We quickly learn that a substantial number of ultra-loyal passengers on board prefer not to cruise on any other vessel.

Prinsendam Small But Comfortable

Ms Prinsendam's tiny size is part of its appeal

Prinsendam dwarfed by mega-ship. Tiny size is its appeal.

At only 669 feet long and 106 feet wide, the Prinsendam is an easy ship to move around.  Although it is only 51 feet shorter than the 1,258 passenger Maasdam, the  Prinsendam carries about 450 fewer passengers. That gives the ship a comfortable, homey feel, a place where everyone relaxes.  The Prinsendam quickly works its charm on us. (While writing this, I notice the Prinsendam 2016 voyage is extended from 25 to 30 days. I have a surprising desire to do it all over again.)

Still, there are a few things about the Prinsendam that take us some time to adjust to. The Lido restaurant has two separate buffet areas but for some reason, most passengers congregate in the starboard (right side) buffet.  They’re missing a lot.

At breakfast, it is the ignored port side restaurant only that offers eggs Benedict.  We soon  choose to have breakfast only on the port side where Edwin cooks better eggs than anyone else on the ship; his omelets are the best I’ve ever had.  After a few days, we will graze at both buffets but usually sit on the less crowded port side.

We inquire at the front desk about the possibility of upgrading from our ocean view room to a verandah suite.  There are vacancies but it’s not clear which staterooms are available for the full length of our cruise.

Our Prinsendam Cruise Becomes Two Cruises 

Our 25-day cruise turns out to be two back to back segments: a 14 day Mediterranean & Aegean cruise and a 12-day Black Sea segment. New passengers will be coming aboard for the last part of the cruise and some staterooms that are empty now may be reserved for later.   If that is the situation, we may need to switch cabins, not a problem for us.  As it’s the weekend, the Seattle office is closed. We are also 7 to 8 hours ahead of them. It will take time to determine where and when we might move.   In the meantime, we partially unpack and continue exploring the ship.

Looking at the Black Sea itinerary, we see we will disembark the Prinsendam in Istanbul two days before the second  segment  ends  in Athens. The one port we will miss is Kusadasi, Turkey, known for its excavated city of Ephesus. We should be able to see Ephesus at Izmir on the Mediterranean segment. No loss there. And Istanbul over Athens also is a better place for us to disembark.

Waiting until boarding the ship to make excursion reservations for Sochi, Russia, turns out to be a problem. Sochi is on the Black Sea part of the cruise.  The excursion office will not allow us to reserve any Black Sea trip until that cruise leg starts in another 12 days.   The woman in charge of excursions is adamant in enforcing this rule. She could care less we technically are on a single cruise itinerary.  Since anyone on the Black Sea segment is free to schedule trips until they embark in another 11 days–and we’re blocked from doing so–it’s probably good-bye Sochi for us.

The cost of a Russian visa fee is $160 for anyone going ashore who is not part of a tour, it’s safe to say we won’t see Sochi–due to excursion office red tape, not the Russians’.  Fortunately, most other departments—particularly the front office staff—are operated with more reasonable and accommodating people.

If you join the 2016 cruise, book all your excursions ahead of time. You can always cancel when on board. It’s what we should have done, but who knew this is a twosome?  We have questions about the tour that can be answered only aboard ship.

NOTE:  In 2016, this Prinsendam cruise is extended from 25 to 30 days and is more accurately named Mediterranean and Black Sea Explorer.  I like this itinerary even more. As I said, for a few minutes I consider doing the cruise  over again.

Apostrophe in Name Causes Computer Chaos

Outdated Computer Codes A Problem for Many Nationalities

Back in Florida, trying to access airline reservations for our 25-day Prinsendam Mediterranean and Aegean Explorer cruise, I face an obstacle most people never encounter.  It is the dreaded  mark added to Irish surnames by the English. The  apostrophe almost always causes computer chaos.   

I never know how a computer will treat the apostrophe.  It may implant a gap between the letters O and K, use a hyphen to join them or entirely erase my name from the system. People with a deliberate name gap (as in van Damme) or a hyphen (Smythe-Jones) face a similar crap shoot with computers.

Apostrophe replaced by blank space 

My passport contains the apostrophe. Linda’s new one, however, does not.  I ask Holland America not register me with an apostrophe. They insist on using it to comply with my passport.  This causes computer chaos. The computer removes the apostrophe and inserts a blank space between the O and K. This new name certainly does not match my passport. I hoped the HAL system at least would bunch the letters together, as systems do for easier name recognition.

For our cruise, I know in advance how Holland America spelled our names differently.  At least I can access my airline reservation but that space lodged between the O and K differs from my frequent flyer accounts.  Unable to link those accounts with my airline reservations, I will have to save the boarding passes and send them in afterwards for mileage credit.

It’s maddening that more than 50 years into the so-called Information Age, sloppy software programs are unable to handle anything but simple last names like Smith or Jones.  Computers are not capable of processing the world’s multi-ethnic names.  (Which is why this blog’s URL is Travels with Tim OKeefe without the apostrophe.)

Losing the apostrophe for foreign travel

Following the cruise, I apply for a new passport under the name OKeefe.  My old one was due to expire in a little over six months, anyway.  But will the new passport arrive with or without the dreaded punctuation mark? Thankfully, it does not contain the computer confounding apostrophe.

This experience is one more illustration how the Internet has taken over our lives in many incremental ways, just as Skynet did in the Terminator series.  My new U.S. passport may be computer compliant but the new name also strips away a distinctive part of my family heritage.

Yet I haven’t totally sold out to Skynet. Having dual citizenship, my Irish passport retains the apostrophe.    As does my driver’s license. And my tombstone damn well will read O’Keefe.

Note:  Google’s search engine is smart enough to understand the apostrophe, find a name with it and post it properly.  Corporate America’s computers are out of date.

Ms Prinsendam Mediterranean & Aegean Cruise

Prinsendam Cruises to Lands of the Legendary

The email from Holland America about its Mediterranean & Aegean Explorer cruise on the Ms Prinsendam is unexpected and a pleasant surprise. We had not heard a word from the cruise line since our 35-day Caribbean trip 2010 aboard the Maasdam.   The email title “President’s Picks -Private-Sale Fares,” is interesting enough to   open it.

Linda and I prefer longer cruises and the Med voyage is 25 days. It is especially appealing to me because of my past interest in Greek and Roman history. In high school, I took 4 years of Latin and another 4 years in college for reasons still hard to explain.

The truth is I simply enjoyed reading the thoughts of Roman generals, historians and poets in their own language.  My Latin-English dictionary was dog-eared when I left Washington & Lee Univ.  (Amazingly, instead of a single Latin teacher as in my time, W&L now has a full classics department offering majors in Latin, Greek or both.)

The Prinsendam itinerary stops at many ports where some of the ancient world’s legendary figures lived or fought in battle. I am convinced to book the cruise and like the bonus that it ends in Istanbul, a place Linda and I look forward to spending three days after the trip ends.

jason and the argonautrs
             Jason and the Argonauts Seek the Fabled Golden Fleece  

The emailed “invite” arrives August 12. The cruise departs September 28. At the moment, we are in Virginia and aren’t able to return to our Orlando home until September 15. That is only 12 days before the flight to Europe.  Can we get ready in such short time?

The cost of the almost last-minute airfare will decide whether we go. On Kayak and other sites, flying into Barcelona and returning from Istanbul is about $2,500 for each of us, or more than half of the cost of the cruise. Maybe Holland America can do better.  They do much better with flights under a thousand dollars each with very good connections.  That settles it. After booking an ocean view stateroom on the Prinsendam, I borrow Linda’s passport to enter both our travel documents online.

The Long Way Home

When we depart for Florida almost a month later, we listen to a CD audiobook as we always do on the 12-hour drive home.  One of the characters mentions something about her passport and Linda turns to me. “Just where are our passports?”

We stop at the next rest area and frantically search the camera bags where we routinely keep our respective passports. They are not where they should be.  Are they still in the computer desk at the family cottage where we stayed?  They must be.  What a blunder on my part to place them is a drawer after filling out the online forms.

The drive to retrieve the passports is 4 hours.  Then another 4 hours to retrace our route and return to North Carolina. This back and forth journey will add a second travel day. It also means one less day to prepare for the cruise. Not good. At the next I-95 exit, I turn the car around, back to Richmond.

The ancient Greeks and Romans undoubtedly would interpret this passport fiasco an omen. Is it good or bad? This mistake should never have happened but discovering it now definitely is a “good” thing.

What are the odds our audiobook would mention “passport.”  Arriving home without ours would mean finding someone in Virginia who could quickly retrieve and FedEx them. That could be tricky.

The disc takes up where it left off. This story will end by the time we return to where we are now. Luckily, we have two other audiobooks to fill the remaining drive time.  Wonder what we might discover from them?

Exploring Gdansk Old Town

Gdansk Old  Town Full of Unusual Surprise
By Linda and Tim O’Keefe

To continue exploring Gdansk Old Town, we depart the High Gate, the entrance through which the Polish king passed when visiting Gdansk (pronounced “ɡə dænsk”).  From the High Gate it’s a short distance along the Royal Route to the arch of the Golden Gate, the entrance to Long Street . Constructed in 1512,  the Golden Gate is built of white stone and decorated with gold trim.  Eight statues atop the wall represent  traits varying from piety to wealth.  The Gdansk coat of arms appears just above the archway.

Inside the gate’s arch, we have a perfect view of Long Street (Dluga on the city map), Old Town’s historical heart offering a showcase of museums, architecture and some of the city’s best photo opportunities.  We make an unexpected tour from Long Street when Tim is attracted by several ornate spires on an avenue to our  left. The impressively ornate building is the Great Armoury built in the early 1600’s to hold the armor and weapons of the city guard.  Many armories of today may be featureless blocks of concrete but the Great Armoury reflects the 17th century Gdansk tradition that every building should be pleasing to the eye.  Made to blend in with its surroundings, the storehouse is designed in the shape of four attached brick apartment houses. Instead of armaments, the building now houses the Academy of Fine Arts

Town Hall and Poseidon Statue

Returning to Long Street, we’re soon standing beside the imposing town hall dating back to the 13th century.  A fire in the 1500’s created an opportunity to expand the town hall and to change  its architectural style to Dutch/Flemish mannerism.  The town hall is a grand building, five stories high and topped with a 272 foot-high tower.  No longer the seat of local government, the town hall is home to the Historical Museum of Gdansk. A  tour of the  building and its magnificent halls isn’t possible today. Not enough time.

Town Hall Old City, Gdansk, Poland Enormous Town Hall in the Old City

A short distance beyond the town hall where Long Street changes into Long Market Street we find the famous Neptune Fountain from 1633.  Now the symbol most identified with Gdansk, the Neptune Fountain was built to emphasize the city’s dependence on sea trade. Linda points out no one is throwing coins in the fountain.  Maybe that’s due to the legend that Neptune grew so angry when people threw golden coins in his fountain he slammed his trident into the water with such power the gold coins changed into small golden flakes. Those flakes have been fluttering around a long time, said to still shine in the local vodka Goldwasser.  Every bottle of the vodka contains small thin flakes of 22 or 23 karat gold, based on the belief gold has medicinal benefits. Whether gold is good for you is uncertain but at least the vodka’s tiny flakes won’t hurt you.  Goldwasser purchased in Gdansk isn’t a great souvenir since it’s been made in West Germany for the past several decades.

The Green Gate and Motlawa River

At the end of Long Market Street we arrive at the Green Gate, a building intended as a residence for visiting royalty. A wasted effort since only a single visitor appears to have used it, a woman stopping here briefly on her way to marry King Ladislaus IV. The Green Gate—named for the color of stone used in its construction—is managed by the Polish National Museum and houses numerous exhibitions and galleries.

Motlawa River bridge with Gdansk Old Town in background, PolandBridge over Mohawk River with Old Town in Background

Passing under the Green Gate arch brings us to the banks of the Motlawa River which allowed  Old Town to become the center of Poland’s sea trade. Walking down Long Market Street we noticed something rising into the sky behind the Green Gate but we couldn’t  determine what it was.  Now,  across the Motlawa River,  it towers bright and shiny before us : a giant white Ferris wheel carrying very few riders. The modern contraption doesn’t really fit in with the Old Town scene. We linger on the bridge crossing the river to the Ferris wheel, viewing the boats on the Motlawa.  In 1687, a ferry service began carrying  passengers across the river and it still operates today. What a tradition, going back almost a century before the
American Revolution.

The Old Town river bank is lined with stores and popular outdoor cafes.  Sticking out like a sore thumb is the mid-15th century medieval loading crane known as The Zuraw. The largest crane in Europe at the time, it could transfer loads up to 4400 pounds as well as install masts. The crane’s double towers make it the largest and most distinctive of Old Town’s waterfront gates. We wind our way past the river bank stores to the behemoth crane to take an inside look at the immense wooden wheel used to power the machine. The wheel was turned not by water power but by men  literally walking  inside the wheel, a job that must have been back-breaking.

Amazing! Not Your Typical European Churches 

After inspecting the guts of the crane, we go partway back toward the bridge next to the Green Gate, turning right at narrow cobbled Mariacka Street. Stepping back into the Old Town, we wander the street known for its narrow three-story townhouses that feature individual front terraces, a rarity in Old Town.  Mariacka Street is our gateway for visiting gigantic St. Mary’s Basilica.  Constructed over an extended period from 1343 to 1502, the length of the church’s full name–the Basilica of St. Mary of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary–rivals the building’s colossal scale.

One of Europe’s largest brick churches, St. Mary’s interior is immense,  supposedly able to hold 25,000 people comfortably. Overpowering in its dimensions, the ginormous building and its soaring ceiling makes us feel totally insignificant. Light fills the whitewashed interior through 37 huge windows, some seemingly as large as an apartment building.

With so much bare wall space,  the church at first appears surprisingly empty.  We soon realize it is handsomely decorated with crystal vaults and, closer to ground,  numerous works of Medieval and Baroque art.  Among the items not to miss are the high altar, the stone Pieta from 1410 and the large astronomical clock by Hans During.  We’d like to climb the bell tower to enjoy its panoramic view of Gdansk but the price—400 steps–is too steep.  Not us, not today.

St. Mary’s was so overpowering it’s hard to imagine another church could interest us. But off to the right a few blocks away an old building catches our eye. Is it another church?  It’s strange the exterior  of such a large ancient building would be so darkly dreary,  very uncharacteristic for Gdansk. Whatever it is, the inside is likely a dump but why not take a quick look?

Unexpected  Highpoint of Our Cruise

Entering the unknown building through a small out-of-the-way door, we find a  small room where a woman mops the floor.  At first surprised to see us, she steps back with a little bow,  then points toward a small set of stairs  leading to another door.  This is odd. Is she sending us to some poorly lighted cellar?  Well, it’s still light out and this isn’t Transylvania. We head downstairs into who knows what.

At the most unexpected times the universe decides to bless you with something extraordinary.  Opening the downstairs door, we pause, stunned at what we see. An old building that outside appears so dull and depressing contains possibly the most beautiful  church either one of us has ever entered.  By blind luck, we have found St. Nicholas Church,  founded by Dominican monks in 1348.

St. Nicholas Church organ, Gdansk Old Town, Poland  St. Nicholas Church Organ with Ornate Decoration

Not only is St. Nicholas one of the city’s oldest churches, it is the only church to escape damage in central Gdansk during World War II. How it remained unscathed  is something of a miracle. Some say Russian bomber pilots refused to destroy the church because it was named after Russia’s own patron saint.  Or that they spared  St. Nicholas because the Russian Orthodox church had declared Tsar Nicholas II a saint after his assassination?  Or was it pure chance the bombs missed, while an estimated 90 percent of the city around it was destroyed?

Regardless of what happened during the bombing runs, once Russian troops were on the ground, they did not loot or burn St. Nicholas.  Perhaps the church was left intact for the same reasons it wasn’t bombed.  Or it was due to quick action by the church priest  who reportedly bribed the soldiers with alcohol reserves from the church’s cellar to spare it.

Somehow, the church and all of its 17th century contents survives untouched. Which means that for the first time in Gdansk, everything we see is original and not a reproduction. This is an amazing sight. The mostly Baroque and Rococo interior of white marble interspersed with dark marble and deeply polished pews somehow harmonize to give the church a solemn and impressive air.

Memorable decorations include a magnificent chandelier crafted in 1617, gold-framed paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries depicting the life of Christ,  a Byzantine icon of the Madonna and an elaborately carved multi-level  high altar. Linda feels she has stepped into a part of history that has been lost. She says the beauty here is overwhelming.

Strangely, we are the only people present in the church. It’s been deathly quiet the entire time here. So we’re slightly spooked when the great organ behind us unexpectedly explodes into a loud hymn. Turning around, we look upwards at the 17th century organ encased in  Baroque and Rococo decorations. The hymn resonates throughout the building, humbling us.  How lucky are we to have wandered in here during organ practice?

As we leave, another couple wanders in, undoubtedly through the front door.  We depart through the same side door, never seeing the front of St. Nicholas church. It is a shock later to see the church’s bright red exterior in online photos. It’s such a remarkable contrast to our drab entrance we wonder for a moment if we’d really been inside St. Nicholas. Online pictures of the interior confirm we were. We still find it strange so little tourist information about St. Nicholas was available in Gdansk.

Solidarity and Fall of the Soviet Eastern Bloc

Leaving Gdansk, our cab navigates the traffic with no difficulty, which allows us time for a quick stop at the famous Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers located  just outside the Gdansk shipyard gates.  The memorial of three tall steel crosses rise 42 meters above the square to commemorate the deaths of 42 shipyard workers killed during a 1970 strike.

Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers Gdansk Poland Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers, Gdansk 

The monument was erected in 1980 to satisfy demands of shipyard union leader Lech Walesa and his 17,000 member Solidarity Movement, the first non-communist union in Eastern Europe. The memorial was the first monument to victims of communist oppression ever erected in a communist country. It is credited as marking the beginning of the end of communist control in Eastern Europe. Of all the historic places in Gdansk, this is perhaps the most meaningful to Westerners.

Our driver returns us to the Oceania Marina with time to spare. It’s been a good day, though just a few more hours in Gdansk would have made it better. For us, Gdansk is the prettiest city we have seen so far. And, since it will rain at our remaining ports in both Germany and Denmark, Gdansk will be the shining reminder of our Oceania Marina Baltic cruise

Next: Why we will never sail on Oceania again.