Tag Archives: Oceania Marina Northern Europe Cruise

Oceania Marina Visits Poland

Sopot and Gdansk A Hurried Day
by Linda and Tim O’Keefe

Due to the Oceania Marina’s schedule, we have limited time in Poland. The ship docks at the port of Gdynia at 8 a.m. and will depart at 4 p.m.  That’s pushing it since we want to see Gdansk, a thousand years old and the largest city in northern Poland.  But it’s about a 45-minute drive from the port to Gdansk’s colorful Old City.

Among the first to leave the Oceania Marina, we search for a taxi.   As in Klaipeda, we’re bypassing guided tours to wander around on our own.  We like setting our own pace, spending time in a place that interests us and leaving quickly from those that don’t.  And we like the ability to return to a spot when the photo light is right.

Six taxis wait near the Marina. The drivers have a  set price of US$200 to take us to Gdansk, wait while we explore the town and then return us to the ship by 3:30, our all-aboard time.  We assure one driver we’re definitely interested but wait a few minutes to see if we can find two others to share the cost.  Before long, we find a couple agreeable to sharing the cab. The four of us strike a deal with the taxi driver and we’re off.

Unexpected Visit to Sopot

Our driver seems a nice fellow but he wants us to follow an itinerary he thinks is more rewarding than going straight to Gdansk.  Uh-oh, what have we gotten into?  The other couple doesn’t object so we say nothing.  We’re skeptical that our first stop, the seaside resort of Sopot, although our driver assures us Sopot is very popular with tourists. Tim and I look at each other: the Baltic Sea temperature today is 60 degrees, not exactly ideal beach conditions.  Hopefully this won’t be a waste of time.

The driver gives us 25 minutes for a quick look around Sopot. The natural thing for a Floridian to do is check out  the “popular” Polish beach.  We’re astonished to discover Sopot Beach is spectacular, one of the best beaches we’ve ever seen anywhere.  Its soft fine-grained silky sands put it near the top on our list.  By comparison, the beautiful sands of Florida’s panhandle seem rough and drab.  No wonder almost two million people visit Sopot annually, whose sheltered waters are supposed to be warmer than those of other Baltic beaches.

Beach at Sopot Poland Baltic Sea                 Sopot Beach is a lot more impressive when you stand on

Understandably, Sopot has been a favorite destination of Europe’s rich and famous for decades.  Walking along the beach, we come across the palatial-looking Sofitel Grand Hotel, perhaps the area’s most famous place to stay.  Built in 1927, the hotel has accommodated guests ranging from Adolf Hitler and Charles de Gaulle to Fidel Castro.  American leaders apparently have yet to discover Sopot.

From the Grand Hotel we walk quickly to Sopot’s pier, the longest wooden pier (1,676 feet or 511 meters) in Europe.  It is used not only by fisherman but as a ferry dock and a vantage point for watching windsurfing and sailing championships.

We’re running out of time so  we return to the taxi via Sopot’s main street, Bohaterow Monte Cassino Street, which is packed with pubs, coffee cafes, restaurants and galleries.  Unlike those at most beach towns, this street is well shaded but not by trees.  The tall buildings bordering it provide the shade as they also  hide any view of the beautiful beach.

Sopot Poland Monte Cassino Street with American KFC and Subway storesA taste of home on  Sopot’s main promenade  

Side Tour to Oliwa Cathedral

Our driver’s next destination is Oliwa Cathedral, a mix of architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic and Rococo dating from the 13th century.  Oliwa Cathedral also is Poland’s longest church.  This is another good choice by our driver, who quickly takes us inside the cathedral by a side door and urges us to sit in the last row.  It turns out we’re just in time for a  20-minute organ concert.

The organ, made up of more than 7,000 wooden pipes, has such a wide range of pitch and sounds it can mimic everything from animal noises  to human voices.  The elaborately crafted organ is also celebrated for its moving wooden cherubs and trumpet-playing angels.

Sitting in the last row is  perfect for viewing the moving figures.  The concert of hymns is stirring.  The last selection, The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, gives Linda goose bumps.  Enjoy the impressive sound of the Oliwa organ concert here.

Gdansk Old Town, Finally! 

By the time we reach Gdansk it’s almost 11 a.m., much later than anticipated.  Fortunately our driver has a special parking place near Old Town’s main street.  The spot happens to be conveniently located across from the public facilities.  Linda is ready for a break and determined not to repeat the long toilet hunt at St. Petersburg’s Peterhof Park.

As at every other Baltic port city, we must pay to use the facilities.  An attendant is always ready to make change but the process still is a nuisance when you need different currency day after day.  The Euro is accepted in many places, although in St. Petersburg only Russian rubles were taken.  Dollars have no value in some places.  Polish banks in Gdansk won’t even convert them into Euros.

We need to be back at the cab by 2 p.m. in case heavy traffic delays our return to the Marina. Gdansk will have to be one of our fastest city tours ever.  We start our walk on the wide pedestrian street called the Long Market.  The architecture here looks like a time capsule from the medieval ages.

Yet  almost everything that appears old is actually new.  World War II started on the outskirts of Gdansk after a German battleship fired on a Polish artillery unit.  By the end of the war, Gdansk was devastated from both German attacks and allied air strikes and Poland belonged to the  Russians.

Gdansk Poland Old City buildings architectureA restored section of Gdansk that reminds me of Aruba

Knowing how much the city suffered in the war makes its striking appearance today all the more amazing.   Walking toward the city’s High Gate, we notice how Old Town’s historic buildings and houses all shine with vivid colors ranging from dark green to dull red, from burnt orange to gleaming white and gold.  Reconstruction that  took decades didn’t leave an imperfection anywhere, making Gdansk more attractive  than most cities with an equally long history.  The Old Town literally is picture perfect, one reason it’s become a popular cruise destination.

We walk to the High Gate (or Upland Gate), a massive structure that’s the  only remaining part of the city’s medieval walls.  The gate served as the entrance to the Old City,  the beginning of the Royal Route where local officials greeted visiting royalty and escorted them into the city.  Linda wonders what it was like as a royal during the 16th century.  Tim suggests it might be better to consider the life of a peasant. (Why is it that every girl wants to be a princess?) Besides, he points out, we have more riches than they ever did; including deodorant.

Next: Exploring Gdansk Old City

 

Exploring Klaipeda Lithuania

Klaipeda’s Clock Museum and Magical Statues
By Linda and Tim O’Keefe

Exploring more of Klaipeda, Lithuania, takes us to the Dane River, which separates the Old Town from the more bustling commercial area of New Town. Crossing the Dane River by the Birzos Bridge, it’s impossible not to notice the mast and glowing white sails of “The Meridianas,” a tall sailing ship built in Finland in 1948.  For a time the ship was used by the Klaipeda Navigation School for training. Afterwards, “The Meridianas”  turned into a derelict vessel, left to rot at its anchorage. The ship was saved by a prominent lawyer who purchased it for the equivalent of $1. He restored  it and turned “The Meridianas” into a floating restaurant. The ship is now one of Klaipeda’s proudest landmarks.

Klaipeda Lithuania the tall ship "The Meridianas" on Dane River       The “Meridianas”  tall ship on the Dane River

Across Birzos Bridge is the new  “Arch, Monument to the United Lithuania,” a garden with a large granite formation marking the 80th anniversary of the Klaipeda Region joining with Lithuania.  Small red granite columns represent the country’s various regions. One stands apart from the others, representing the status of the Kaliningrad Region of Lithuania, now part of the Russian Federation.

A little more than a block from the bridge is Liepu Street,  the 17th century home of city merchants and aristocrats.  Many elaborate buildings remain in such architectural styles as neo-Gothic and Jugend, a 19th century art nouveau style also  popular in some other Baltic countries. Jugend buildings feature a curb roof, vegetable-type ornaments, gargoyles  and  other decorative details.

Discovering Time at Klaipeda’s Clock Museum

With map in hand, we turn right onto Liepu Street, looking for the Clock Museum, a little known place Linda read about in a guidebook. She is interested in the engineering behind how things work, such as our grandfather clock back home. Unfortunately our local tourist board map lacks building numbers, making this search more difficult than necessary.  With strip clubs sandwiched between stores and office buildings, Liepu Street may have changed a bit since the 1700’s.

We pass one of the city’s most stylish buildings, the Old City Post Office in a red-brick neo-Gothic palace from 1893.  It’s now known for the carillon of 48 chromatically tuned bells playing a 30- minute concert here every Sunday. It’s not Sunday and we continue looking for the Clock Museum. The map indicates it’s just beyond the post office.

We know we’ve gone too far when we reach Sculpture Park on the edge of a heavily forested area. The park has more than 116 sculptures, some located atop an old cemetery. We retrace Liepu Street but still no Clock Museum.  A local who speaks English explains the Clock Museum entrance is up a staircase and the museum sign is visible only across the street from it.  Not the easiest place to find and no effort to make it visible.  Makes you wonder if they care about visitors.

The museum is well worth the trouble. This fascinating and historical showcase of clocks shows the evolution of the essential but little considered necessity that manages our lives.  Examples of sun clocks, water clocks, fire clocks and sand clocks are on display. Multi-language information sheets at the entrance of each clock display room contain excellent explanations of their history and how they work. We have more respect for our grandfather clock and whoever came up with the idea of such an impressive precise time that works so well decade after decade.  Worth the visit alone is the  imaginative and brilliantly colored stained glass window near the tour end.  Leaving the museum, we take the Birzos Bridge back across the Dane River to the Old Town and toward the Oceania Marina.

Klaipeda Lithuania clothing store sign in English                               Klaipeda store appealing to cruise passengers

Klaipeda Old Town’s Magical  Cat and Mouse

We are determined to find two of Klaipeda’s more famous magical sculptures, a cat and a mouse supposedly able to grant anyone’s strongest wish. They’re among the better known Old Town magical sculptures which include the Old Town Chimney Sweep (he grants luck for a full year to anyone touching his coat button on New Year’s Day) and the Old Town’s Post, a column for residents to drop letters containing  wishes, useful suggestions or ideas which actually could be granted. These letters go to prominent local business leaders, the movers and shakers, who have the power to make dreams come true. You have to admire Klaipeda’s quirky attitude about wishful thinking.

Our map is worthless for finding any specific location. When we ask about the cat and mouse statues from a man passing on the street, he seems mystified we want to find them. He provides some general directions and off we go, feeling somewhat confused. If these statues are  so noteworthy, why can’t we find them?  And why did that fellow seem to think we’re crazy to be interested in them?

Following his directions, we turn the corner of the next street over where the Old Town Cat with a face of a gentleman should be. Sure enough, in the front yard of an apartment building on Blacksmith Street, struts the elusive magic cat. We both have to laugh, feeling a little foolish. The cat is smaller than our three-year-old grandson. It’s claimed that if you rub the cat’s magic tail, your wishes will come true. This cat’s upright bronze tail has been rubbed shiny.  After photographing the cat, and feeling every bit the dumb tourists, we start down the street seeking the magic mouse.

No, we don’t rub the cat’s tail. It seems some Klaipeda sculptors like to instill their creations with magical powers to attract attention to them, and legends about their statues’ powers spread over time. That publicity stunt has to include the cat and mouse.

The cat can’t be too far from the mouse; that would spoil the game. We stalk back down Blacksmith Street looking for the rodent. Two teenage girls walk the street in front of us, going in the same direction. Two men behind us have an adorable black dog. The taller man gives the dog a hand signal. It starts wagging its tail and barking, running up to the girls. They think this dog is the cutest thing they’ve ever seen! The guys talk to the women who, after a minute or two, continue down the street without the guys. Linda cannot help laughing out loud. She thinks this is one of the best pickup tricks she’s ever seen.

Klaipeda Tourists Are Peculiar Creatures 

One of the men, named Budrys, speaks English and overhears us discussing his dog. He laughs and walks over and we begin talking. He doesn’t understand why we bother to visit Klaipeda. “All, we do is walk here, walk there, then walk back. The same every day. There is nothing to do here!”

We confess we’re looking for the magic mouse. We’ve already found the cat. Budrys laughs uproariously, shaking his head, exclaiming, “Jesus Christ, you come all the way here from America to see a f***ing cat and mouse? Do you tell your friends you take a cruise to see this cat and mouse! They must think you’re crazy!”

Klaipeda Lithuania tourist whispers to statue of a mouse that grants wishesKlaipeda’s “magic mouse” draws tourists

Put that way, it’s hard to disagree. But this foolishness is a good icebreaker for starting a wide-ranging conversation about life in Klaipeda, politics, Putin, spies and drones. We sit with the two men on a low wall across from the magic mouse statue. The mouse may be all of 8 inches tall. An Oceania tour group arrives to see the mouse.  We watch how they react to the mouse.  It’s more fun to be spectators than unsuspecting tourists.

Legend has it if you whisper into the mouse’s ear, your wish will come true.  That echoes words inscribed on the collar on the bronze cat: “Convert your ideas into words–words will become magic.”  We laugh with Budrys and his friend as  tour members proceed to whisper wishes into the tiny mouse’s ear. Some women kiss it (not a requirement) perhaps for added good fortune.

We enjoy the company of Budrys and his Ukrainian friend but it’s late in the afternoon and we have early dinner reservations with others . We need to start back to the Oceania Marina.   Budrys accompanies us. When we reach the town square, he explains why the statue of Ann from Tharau disappeared during War II World. He says Hitler gave a speech from the steps of the Drama Theater.  But the statue faces away from the building and Hitler was so outraged at  speaking to the back of a sculpture he had it removed.

We turn down an invitation from Budrys to buy us a beer. It would be fun but we need to get back to the ship.  Klaipeda, however, is famous for is its beer, Svyturys, and Linda talks Tim into stopping at a pub near the ship. Besides enjoying  the quick taste of a new brew, it is another chance to see more of the locals while discussing our day in an interesting city we never knew was there.

Oceania Marina Visits Klaipeda, Lithuania

Exploring  Klaipeda Old Town  on Foot
By Linda  and Tim O’Keefe

Today the Oceania Marina visits Klaipeda, Lithuania’s oldest city and largest port. Considering the total rainout yesterday in Estonia, it’s a relief to see the sun return.  Lithuania is a country neither Tim nor I know much about except, like most Baltic countries, it was under Soviet rule from World War II until 1991.The Marina’s stop here is one reason we chose Oceania’s Viking Trails cruise.

Klaipeda (pronounced “kli-pe-de”) was founded in 1252 near the Dane River, which flows directly into the Baltic Sea.  The city’s name translates as “bigfoot” with a good story there.   According to legend, the name originated when two brothers set out to find a location for a new city. One brother chose the longer route down the river while the other took a shorter route through thick marshland, where he died.

When the first brother located the body, he discovered the print of an “enormous” (klaika)  “foot” (peda) beside it. He decided to name the town Klaipeda “bigfoot”  in honor of his sibling, using the killer’s description instead of his dead brother’s name; which seems the strangest part of the story. In Klaipeda’s Old Town, we will search for the steel sculpture called “dragon” which recalls this legend.  The less imaginative claim Klaipeda’s name comes from “klaidyti” (obstruct) and “peda” (foot) due to the area’s once boggy terrain.

With the Old Town just a 10 minute walk from the cruise port, we bypass the guided tours to explore on our own. A map of Klaipeda shows it should be an easy afternoon’s ramble.   Klaipeda’s Old Town looks surprisingly familiar, as if we are in Bavaria or Switzerland. It’s due to the distinctive half-timbered style of several old warehouses built in the mid-1800’s.  Known as fachwerk construction, the buildings are framed with heavy timbers arranged in horizontal, vertical and diagonal angles with white plaster filling the spaces between.

Klaipeda Lithuania bilingual directional signs in English and LithuanianDirectional signs in Lithuanian and English

It takes only a few minutes to walk to the heart of the city and Klaipeda Square, also known as Theater Square after the Drama Theater bordering one edge of the plaza.  The square’s other three sides are lined with vendors in colorful stalls selling small trinkets and souvenirs.  In the middle of Theater Square stands a sculpture of a woman known as Ann from Tharau. The monument is in fact dedicated to Simon Dach, a German poet born in Klaipeda in 1605. Dach fell instantly in love with Ann when he saw her for the first time. Unfortunately, it happened at Ann’s wedding and she was marrying a minister. The love-stricken poet dedicated a poem to her entitled Ann from Tharau.

Dach’s poem turned out to be extremely popular.  It was translated into several languages and eventually became a well-known folksong in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  In 1912, an artist from Germany came to Klaipeda to create the statue of Ann which also contains a small bas-relief of Dach.  During World War II the sculpture was carted away by the Germans but recreated in 1990.

Before exploring more of Old Town, we need to cash a few dollars into Lithuanian litas but we’re unable to find a bank that will do it. So we visit the casino across from Klaipeda Square. They not only are happy to change dollars into litas, they change our litas back into dollars later.

From the square we walk heavily cobbled streets in search of the Dragon statue. Along the way we find a street lined with more fachwerk style buildings occupied by art galleries, boutique shops and small restaurants. I am beginning to fall in love with this town and its charm.

Our map provides little help in finding the Dragon, supposedly nearby. We locate it in an unanticipated place. It’s not a big statue dominating one of the small city parks as we imagined. Instead, it’s hidden inside an old narrow street and the Dragon actually is the end section of a long drain pipe hanging from a building. Hardly what we expect.

Klaipeda Lithuania statue of mythical dragon that gave city its nameArtist’s vision of Klaipeda’s  “bigfoot”  

Although the dragon certainly looks fierce and dangerous, it’s only about three feet long. This is as much of a fairy tale as Klaipeda’s bigfoot legend. You’ll never see this dragon belch fire but its mouth will gush plenty of water every time it rains.

More satisfying is the large and impressive is a section of the old earthen fort built in  the 1700’s to defend the city.  As a port city, Klaipeda held considerable strategic value and the ramparts reaching almost 12 feet high emphasize its importance. As at fortifications elsewhere in Europe, ditches were dug around the walls to create a moat, with the Dane River providing it a ready water supply. Although the complex network of irregular shaped walls (called bastions) was considered on par with many great castles, they were soon neglected, allowed to fall  and crumble.

In the 1990’s, a section of the fortress was restored on Jonas Hill at the end of Turgaus Street.  We view the surviving  bastions from a high vantage point. The moat beneath the grass-covered walls, filled with fresh water from the Dane River, resembles a small lake. Overall, the complex looks like an appealing park.

It’s time to move on to what some call Klaipeda’s New Town with its main business district.

 

The Curse At Peterhof Palace St. Petersburg

One of St. Petersburg’s Most Popular Attractions

It’s about a 45-minute drive from the Oceania Marina to the palaces and gardens at Peterhof, often called the “Russian Versailles.”  Peterhof Palace is a place I look forward to with anticipation and dread. (Note: See previous post for origin of the curse)

Our lively guide Marie briefs us on the past of St. Petersburg and Vladimir Putin. We pass through countryside that is green and eye-catching. There isn’t a single visible scar from the horrific 900-day German siege of  St. Petersburg, at the time known as Leningrad. When the Germans attacked Leningrad in 1941, the city was an important industrial center as well as the country’s second largest city.

One of the first Russian prizes sought by Germany, Leningrad was nearly surrounded and its major supply lines cut off. The effort to keep the city from falling to the Germans was both heroic and horrific. An estimated one million Leningraders and Russian soldiers died in the conflict here. It’s believed hundreds of thousands of city residents perished not from bullets or bombs but from starvation and cold.

Lower Gardens fountain, Peterhof, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe fountains operate only from May to mid-October

Peterhof palace and its surrounding grounds were occupied by German troops for 28 months. Leningraders knew of the impending German attack and Peterhof staff and volunteers were able to remove numerous pictures, statues, and thousands of art objects, sent by train to other parts of the country. Unknown to the Germans, many of Peterhof’s marble and bronze sculptures were hidden beneath their boots, buried in the ground. Anything left standing was stolen.

Peterhof’s Great Palace was almost destroyed by an explosion and various palaces and buildings elsewhere on the grounds were also badly damaged. A third of the 30,000 trees growing there were cut down. After the war, the Soviet government restored or replaced Peterhof’s eight palaces and more than 150 of the fountains at tremendous expense. Strangely, our guide Marie never mentions any of this on our bus ride.

We begin our tour of Peterhof in the 284-acre Alexandria Park located east of the main palace grounds. The park is named after Empress Alexandria, wife of Tsar Nicholas I, who granted her the land as a present. The property became one of the imperial summer residences of the Romanovs.

At Alexandria Park we’re supposed to take a “miniature train” to Peterhof. I’m not sure what kind of miniature train I expect, probably something similar to the ones at Disney parks, certainly something that runs on tracks . The “train” turns out to be a regular parking lot tram with a locomotive-shaped engine pulling the carriages.  Most carriages are open air but we’re herded aboard one with windows  that don’t open.

When Things Start to Go Wrong

Before boarding the carriage, several Oceania passengers ask to use the restrooms located  about 10 yards from the tram.  A sign with the letters WC–denotes Western commode or water closet but also a flush toilet–points the way.  Marie insists everyone wait until our “train” arrives at Peterhof.  So we sit there, perhaps another 5 to 10 minutes, waiting for another group to arrive and board their carriage. We have more than adequate time for a quick restroom break.  Marie’s refusal to allow us to use those empty restrooms will create a series of needless problems.

Alexandria Park train tram, Peterhof, St. Petersburg RussiaThe train tram at Alexandria Garden: note the WC sign

Rocking and swaying, our train tram travels non-stop along a wide walkway shared with pedestrians.  Bright glaring reflections cover our locked windows,  making photos impossible. Too bad since some of the park’s buildings are intriguing. My favorite is an elaborate Gothic-style building the imperial Romanov family used as their private church.

It takes the tram over 20 minutes finally to reach Peterhof’s Lower Garden and the long awaited restrooms. Peterhof is the most popular day trip from St. Petersburg and the restrooms have agonizingly long lines. Thankfully the men’s queue moves efficiently. Waiting for the other passengers to return, I test my wireless tour guide receiver. This nifty device will enable us to hear Marie’s descriptions as we navigate the palace crowds.

One passenger complains the women’s line isn’t moving, an exaggeration since several from our group are just outside the restroom entrance. To the annoyance of the women  who’ve  already waited 30 minutes for relief, Marie calls them back immediately. Instead of touring, she will now lead us to a more remote restroom “just 5 minutes away.” She guarantees fewer people there. Our Peterhof visit is disintegrating into a restroom quest.

When Things Really Go Wrong

On our walk we soon encounter the Checkerboard Fountain where water spills over a long sloping checkerboard. As it happens, a group of musicians start to play long Swiss-style horns in front of the checkerboard display. Several of us stop for photos. I pay attention to Marie’s comments as I quickly check that my camera hasn’t crashed as in the past. The camera works well. Images are recorded for my first time ever!

Abruptly, Marie’s commentary ends in mid-sentence. Her words don’t gradually fade away but suddenly cut off.  Scanning the area, I don’t spot anyone from our group, including Linda, who is seriously interested in finding that next restroom. But they all were here only seconds ago.  I even saw Linda out of the corner of my eye while I checked the camera.

The sidewalks of the Lower Garden are filled with tourists, making it increasingly difficult to pick out anyone even a short distance ahead. Marie’s logical route should be the restaurant in the Lower Grounds, though that’s also likely to be crowded. But it’s the only possible place within her promised “5-minute walk.”  Wrong location. Plenty of people but none from our group. Yet there are no other buildings anywhere nearby. Perhaps on the upper terrace near the great Palace?  That would probably take more than five minutes but I check it out anyway, hoping to hear Marie’s voice in my earbuds. Not there, either.  I check my watch: 11 a.m.

Normally losing track of one’s group isn’t a serious concern since a guide typically details a departure point and at what time. Not today. Marie briefly mentioned our bus would leave from a different place but she never said where that would be. And I don’t recall her stating a departure time, either. Still, by now she must know she’s lost one of her group. I search again back in the Lower Gardens restaurant in case she shows up there.  Again no luck.  I have no idea where to look next. This is turning into a bad morning.