"" Writer's Wanderings: July 2009

Friday, July 31, 2009


There are many sites to see in the city of Helsinki and we remembered fondly our first visit when we saw the huge cathedral and climbed all the steps to its door; stopped to see the Temppeliaukio, the huge rock church carved out of solid rock, and the pipe sculpture in Sibelius Park, and of course the wonderful Kauppatori Market Square.

Upon our arrival this trip, we purchased a shuttle bus ticket into the city and immediately upon deposit on the corner of a street, were disoriented. Thankfully there were a couple of young men who appeared in neon green vests with the international tourist information symbol on them and replied to our question by pointing in the direction of the market square and saying, “That‘a way.”

Once we turned the corner, we recognized the long Esplanade, a huge pedestrian area that runs down the middle of the main street and is a beautiful park where many congregate on benches or stroll along the shaded walkways and watch those who come to entertain—mimes, dancers, singers, jugglers, musicians.

At the end of the Esplanade we found the Kauppatori (Market Square) and located the ferry that would take us to the island of Suomenlinna where there is an old fortress. We were dismayed when the ticket machine would not accept our credit card. Many of the areas we visited on this trip would only accept credit cards in machines if they had a micro-chip in them. The ticket seller would only take cash so we set off to find an ATM. Their ATMs are called OTTO and it took a while to locate one.

Once we had cash and tickets, we boarded the next ferry (they ran about every 15 minutes) and made the short trip to the Sveaborg (fortress). The weather was again very pleasant and we spent a couple hours strolling around the island and seeing the various parts of the fortress.

Sand dunes camouflaged bunkers and huge cannon on large platforms that could be turned pointed out to sea. In its day, (the fortress was originally built in 1748) it must have been a formidable defense for the city. Down one side path, we found a U-boat on display.

A tasty lunch of vegetarian pizza with blue cheese and a couple of ciders at the Kings Gate end of the island, and we were fortified to finish seeing the sites and enjoying the view of several wedding parties lining up at the church. By the way, the church is surrounded by a fence made up of heavy chain links and upside down cannons. A statement, I wondered?

We sauntered back to the ferry dock and returned to the city that was now alive with tourists and citizens bustling along the Esplanade as we made our way back to the shuttle bus stop—proudly arriving without getting lost or having to look for the “green men.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Since we were doing back-to-back cruises, we had a turn-around day in Amsterdam we visited the Riksmuseum and drank in the beauty of the Rembrandt masterpieces I studied in art history books in school. New passengers boarded our ship and we sailed for Scandinavia, arriving in Stockholm, Sweden, after a day at sea.

To our delight, we could see from our ship the hop on-hop off boats that Dave from Friends of Dave, had told us about. It was a lot more fun to take a canal boat than the shuttle bus that was offered. Our ticket allowed us to get off and on at several stops that were conveniently located near the primary tourist sites.

After taking an hour tour around the city by boat, we stayed on for two more stops and exited near the Royal Palace in time to secure a prime viewing spot for the changing of the guard. At 12:14 p.m., the Royal Guards unit marched into the courtyard from the obelisk accompanied by a military band. The ceremony then began at exactly 12:15.

With precision, the guards navigated through the ceremonial change. They marched to each guard station and exchanged orders as the old guard was replaced by the new. After the total exchange was made, we enjoyed the musical presentation of the military band complete with marching band maneuvers. It may not have been on as large a scale as the Buckingham Palace guard, but it was certainly an impressive presentation.

Hungry, we made our way to a market area where we happened upon a gourmet hot dog stand. We ordered a special with no idea what we were getting. It turned out to be a large tortilla wrapped around two hot dogs and stuffed with mashed potatoes and lettuce with a special sauce. Good but way too much to eat.

Sweden is made up of many islands and as we sailed away from Stockholm, we passed evergreened shores of pines and firs on tiny islands dotted with simple houses and cabins that looked like serene getaways from the city. Another lovely sunset ended our evening. As each day drew to a close, we grew to anticipate sunsets that painted the skies with promise for another day of adventure to come.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Germany--Warnemunde and Schwerin

After a day at sea, we came to our first port on the Baltic part of our cruising adventure. Warnemunde, Germany, is the port used to access Berlin which is only three hours away by train. The train station is conveniently located across the street from the cruise terminal and a train stands ready when a ship is in port to load up with passengers for the trip.

Since we had already done the excursion into Berlin on a previous Baltic cruise, we opted to stay in the area and explore on our own. Unfortunately when we did our homework for this port on the internet, we could not readily understand the timetables and procedure for buying train tickets. But we did find a recommendation from fellow Cruise Critics (a forum for cruisers) for a private tour company called Friends of Dave. We contacted Dave and set up a tour to see Warnemunde and a town nearby, Schwerin, where there was a castle to explore.

Dave met us and another couple outside the cruise terminal and we embarked on a most interesting day in Germany. Our guide, an American living in Germany the past ten years, was well versed on the area—the history and culture. He began with a short tour of the river harbor and then took us to the train for our trip to Schwerin. At this point we were extremely glad to have enlisted his help. We had to change trains and only had a seven minute window to find the other platform. We would have been left behind for sure on our own.

The town of Schwerin was a quaint German town that was fun to explore. Dave was well prepared with more of the history of the area. We were amazed to find out that he had only researched this area in May.

Lunch was at a wonderful little tavern/café with outdoor tables. We ordered wiener schnitzel with a delicious mushroom sauce and fried potatoes with bacon bits. Apple cider was an alternative to Pepsi products. This was the first place we found that didn’t have Coke Light. Cider was good though.

After lunching like true Deutscheren, we headed for the castle. It was a magnificent building outside and inside. For me, the gardens were the best part—trim and serene and teeming with blooms, color, texture, unusual and familiar plants. After our audio tour inside and our stroll in the gardens outside, we rested at the café and enjoyed cappuccinos and strawberry sundaes with fresh strawberries, vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. It was still strawberry season in this area.

After our 45 minute train ride back to Warnemunde, we finished our tour of the seaport resort. The town was charming with cobble stoned streets and lovely cottages that had enclosed “front porches” that were originally intended to be used as temporary quarters for visitors in the summer—sort of a temporary bed and breakfast in the old days.

The beach area was extensive and covered with the German version of beach clam shells. They look like boxes and open up to become covered beach chairs.

The Warnemunde light house stands tall at one end of the boardwalk and is a focal point. Soft wispy grasses covered the sand dunes creating picture perfect scenes along our walk.
A soft pastel sunset finished our day—the perfect ending.

Monday, July 27, 2009


The city of Bergen was our last stop on our Norwegian fjord cruise. After such a glorious day previously, our spirits were dampened by a drizzly rain that came and went on its own whim throughout the day.

Bergen was the biggest city we had been in since leaving Amsterdam. It was once a Viking stronghold and is known as the “Gateway to the Fjords.” Many of us wished it had been a stop on the way up the coast leaving our beautiful day in Olden as our last remembrance of the cruise.

We docked near the old section of the town known as the Bryggen Waterfront. There was a large fortress area nearby that we strolled through. As we continued along the waterfront toward the Torget or Fisketorvet (Fish Square), we wandered off the main street through some side alleys and found old historic buildings that housed lots of small boutiques and craft stores. As usual we were out early and they were just getting set up.

At the Fish Square, the fishermen and farmers were all set up with their wares. There were huge plates of small shrimps ready for. . .breakfast? Lots of salmon could be found, some stands with Norwegian caviar, and even whale meat that was in huge chunks like pot roasts only a darker color. Some of the whale meat was processed with something that turned it black on the outside. We were offered a sample but it was way too early in the morning to be eating something that adventurous.

After ambling through the market area, we happened on a city train like we had taken in Alesund. We purchased tickets for a 50 minute ride that affirmed we had seen all of Bergen that we wanted to see. The homes were neat and trim and the view from halfway up the mountain was interesting.

When we were back at the starting point, we opted to retreat from the weather at the local McDonald’s where we sat for an hour using the free wifi to check email and post some more entries to this blog. You can almost always count on McD’s to give you a taste of home. We sipped Coke Lite (Diet Coke) and used the last of our kroners to buy a medium fries—ah, just like home.

That evening we pulled away with one last look at the Norwegian coast before heading back to Amsterdam and on to the Baltic Sea Cruise. Oh yes, not getting me off this ship yet!

Friday, July 24, 2009


Olden is a little village on the Nordfjord. Besides being one of the most picturesque places I have ever been, it is also close to the Jostedalbreen glacier, the largest glacier in all of Europe. Bob’s interest was in getting to the Briksdal glacier which is a branch of the larger Jostedalbreen.

We boarded a bus for our ship’s excursion to the Briksdal. The ride was about 30 minutes through lush green farmland dotted with lots of dairy cows and took us along the edge of the large glacial lake, Lake Loen.

When we arrived at the base of the glacier, we were given instructions on which path to follow and told that there were a few strenuous places on our way to the glacial area. My legs cried out in anticipation of more climbing but we forged ahead. The climb was actually not too bad and took about 45 minutes. On the way we passed a rushing waterfall and several views of a spectacular waterfall on another mountain that seemed to fall from the top.

There was a small body of water at the base of the glacier with mini-icebergs floating in it. We could not get up close to the glacier to touch it which disappointed Bob. But it wasn’t long before we realized why no one was allowed near it. A large crack, almost like thunder, pierced the air and we watched huge chunks of ice roll down the face of the glacier and into the water below. A few minutes later another smaller section broke away and smashed against some rocks making the falling ice particles appear as though there were a waterfall.

This was one of the sunniest days we had on the trip and the clouds stayed away throughout the whole day. I spent the afternoon on the balcony of our stateroom reading and staring out on a pastoral scene of farmland on a gentle sloping hill, the lush fields bathed in the sun, the deep red buildings providing a contrast in colors. It was so perfect, it didn’t seem real. And yes, after pinching myself, I knew I was awake.

Our sail out of this fjord was spectacular as the good weather gave us lots to see in this wonderful region of the country.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


The desire to visit the Norwegian fjords began for me back in elementary school. One of the words on our spelling list was “fjord” probably because we were studying Northern Europe in our geography books. The picture that defined a fjord must have been taken at the Geiranger Fjord. It is the picture I carried in my head of what the fjords looked like.

We awoke to find our ship anchored at the very end of the fjord at the little town of Geiranger. It was another glorious morning with fresh air and sunshine streaming in the open door of our stateroom. We ate breakfast quickly and hustled to the appointed gathering place to go down to the tenders. (Geiranger does not have a cruise ship pier.)

Having researched the ferry schedule on the internet, we knew that the first ferry to Hellesylt, a little town in the crook of the elbow in the long fjord we had traveled from the sea, left at 8 a.m. Our tender deposited us on shore at exactly 7:55 giving us five minutes to run for the ferry.

Fjord 1 is a company that has ferry boats and buses and does a nice job of providing transportation along with a tour. The ferry was quite comfortable with outside and inside seating and a snack bar. We chose to sit outside on top for the best view of all the spectacular waterfalls and cliffs that make the Geiranger fjord so well-known. The trip to Hellesylt was about an hour long and was narrated in several languages so all could learn of the history of the area and the legends behind the naming of several falls—the most famous being the Seven Sisters Waterfall where seven small falls are gathered together in one place.

Hellesylt was just waking up as we arrived. Three little cafes were opening and a couple of souvenir shops. I might be overestimating, but I believe the main street was about a half mile long. Behind it on a hill was a pretty little church, Sunnylven Kyrkje, built in 1859. It reminded me of the church in Williamsburg, Virginia, where each pew had a little door opening into the aisle and each family had their own pew.

After a few pictures of the town’s central waterfall and the church, we settled down at one of the cafes for cappuccinos and one of the most delicious pancakes I’ve ever had. There was no maple syrup or jam served with it but you didn’t need any. While it wasn’t filled, it had some kind of moist sweetness in it and tasted like a little bit of heaven.

Our trip back to Geiranger gave us a different perspective of the fjord and also better pictures as the sun had risen in the sky. We walked around the little town of Geiranger a bit and then headed for the ship. The view from the ship was too beautiful to waste. We made the best of it the rest of the afternoon.

In the evening, we ate at the Island Buffet. There was a special German buffet and since we eat early, we were able to get a window seat as the ship pulled anchor and began its sail out of the fjord. Unfortunately the weather turned bad with heavy rains so much of the view on the trip out was obstructed. We were glad to have ferried to Hellesylt while the day was fresh and sunny and so very much like the picture I carried in my head for so many years.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


After a day at sea heading south from the North Cape, we arrived at the port of Molde. It started out as another glorious weather day. We took advantage of an early start and explored the town area a bit before the crowds began to form for the annual International Jazz Festival held there each year. Attendance is estimated to be around 100,000 swelling the little town and filling its streets with visitors. Added to that was our 1500 or so cruise passengers.

Bob and I grabbed a map from the tourist information center and some quick instructions on how to find the path that leads up to the Varden viewpoint high above the town where we could view the fjord and the snow covered Romsdal Alps.

As we followed the instructions, we stopped along the way to visit the Molde church which is surrounded by rose gardens and right next to the town hall roof area which features thousands of rose bushes in their roof top garden. The city earns its name “The Town of Roses.”

Passing the open air museum, we headed up the trail that would take us to the “breathtaking views.” Little did we realize the breathtaking part would be in the climb. We were only going to go a little way and say we did it but the challenge became an obsession and we continued on huffing and puffing. Thankfully there were lots of benches at just the right spots (after a steep climb) and we rested often. To our amazement, we found people running down the path and even on adventurous mountain biker. How they managed to safely navigate bumpy tree roots, large rocks, and loose gravel areas is a mystery.

Our painstaking climb was rewarded with truly breathtaking views—what little breath we had left. We recuperated in the little restaurant at the top with a sandwich and a freshly made waffle that was spread with homemade strawberry jam and sweet sour cream. Yum!

It took us only 45 minutes to walk back down the mountain—less than half the time up. But we felt like conquerors—at least until we got to bed that night and the pain in our legs kept us up. What is it they say? No pain, no gain. The pain was worth the spectacular viewing of this magnificent area of Norway. Each day is a unique display of God’s glorious hand of creation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Norway--Honningsvag, North Cape

Everyone wants to be on top of the world and on our stop in Honningsvag, we were just that. This little town in Norway is the world’s northernmost village and the gateway to the North Cape, the northernmost part of Europe.

There were many choices of things to do with our time in this Land of the Midnight Sun but we chose to get away from the crowds and go on a Crab Safari. Our excursion was booked through the ship but with the group called Destinasion 71° Nord. The tour leaders met us at the pier and led us around the corner to their storefront where we donned bright orange jumpsuits that were supposed to keep us warm and act as flotation devices should we fall in the water.

When we saw our transportation, we realized why the flotation devices might be appropriate. They were zodiacs—inflatable boats whose sides are made of tubing filled with air. They are sturdier than they appear and our 15 year old young man who one day wants to be a boat captain and was assigned to help us on board, deftly directed us to our positions without upsetting the balance of the boat.

Once aboard, we headed out of the harbor and around a piece of land jutting out at the entrance. About 15 minutes later, we slowed and our guide grabbed an orange marker that designated one of the crab traps. He and the boat’s driver pulled in the trap that was about 4 feet square. It collapses as they bring it up so it is easier to handle as it reaches the surface.

From the 50 or so reddish colored crabs that were in the trap, they pulled out about half a dozen and lowered the trap again for the next group that would be coming. They tossed the crabs into the bottom of the zodiac. I watched as one of the large King Crabs cozied up to my foot like a puppy dog with claws. I was thankful I had on my sneakers and the thick jumpsuit.

From the crab traps, it was a short ride to a tiny little group of buildings that looked like a small fishing/farming village. On the deck of a large red wooden building we paused to pose for the tourist pictures with our “catch.” Then one of our hosts began preparing the crabs by euthanizing each one and then cutting off the legs for cooking. Inside several females were eggs—roe or crab caviar as it was called. The females produce around 100,000 eggs each. Bob tasted it and said it was a bit like crunchy caviar. Hmmm.

Behind the bright red buildings that housed the 71° Nord facility were two tepee-like structures that the Laps traditionally used. Inside the largest one was a double circle of benches covered in reindeer hides. In the center a stone pit blazed under a black iron kettle filled with water about to boil. As we took our seats, our hostess began slipping the crab legs into the hot water. Once the water boiled again, the pot was removed and the crab legs were cooled in sea water.

After a little history of crab fishing in the area (the Russians actually introduced crabs in the northern area and they proliferated and moved west toward Norway), we settled down with lap trays cut from logs and were served the crab legs on a plate with slices of bread a dab of mayonnaise and a wedge of lemon. The crab legs were delicious and we ate our fill from the generous offerings of our host and hostess.

Bundled back into our jumpsuits and while we awaited our zodiac transportation we were entertained by watching a herd of reindeer across the bay from us as they wandered down to the shore line to lie in the cool seaweed on what to them was a warm day. When the zodiacs arrived, we boarded and began the trip back to the Honningsvag pier. Along the way we slowed as we passed an island that was a seagull rookery and caught sight of several gray fluffy babies not yet ready to soar gracefully above the ocean.

That evening as we sat at our dinner table and swapped tales of our adventures of the day, our waiter brought to our attention that we were passing the North Cape. Since we had not taken the tour there, we hustled out on the promenade deck to have a look at the “top of the world.” It looked much like the gray cliff that is at the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn. Only this gray cliff pointed north.

Later, we observed the “midnight sun.” It never touched the horizon but dipped low in the sky only to begin its trip back up for the morning to usher in another beautiful day in the Arctic Circle.

Friday, July 17, 2009


We awoke to warm bright sunshine and watched as our ship approach Tromso and docked as we ate breakfast. By the time we donned our layers of clothes (we expected it to be cold), the ship was cleared for disembarking for our day in the scenic town known as the “Gateway of the Arctic.” It is from here that many of the Arctic expeditions set out.

A shuttle bus from the pier took us to a spot near the center of town (about a 20 minute ride) and we set off from there to find our way across the bridge that spans the water between two of the three islands on which the city is located.

About 40 minutes later, we were across the bridge and staring up at the landmark Arctic Cathedral. Since it was Sunday and services were being held, we couldn’t go inside but it was easy to see why this structure is so outstanding. The roof is glassed and the sun shines through giving it an open air feeling. There is a glass mosaic on the back wall but the sun was not coming from the right direction for us to capture the colorful picture in a photo.

Heading up the road from the church, we followed the Cable Car signs and found the Fjellheisen (funicular). For 99 kroner each (about 15USD) we rode up the steep mountainside to the observation area high above the water and the city below. By this time, we realized we didn’t need quite so many layers and began shedding. The sun was quite warming.

We enjoyed the fantastic view and the fresh air. Attracted to a young man with a baby on his back (we are such grandparents!), we struck up a conversation and were astonished to hear his Americanized English—so much so that we thought he was from the USA. No, he told us, he was a local. Apparently they watch so many American movies with no subtitles that the English they learn in school is easily Americanized. Our conversation was about comparing economies, healthcare differences,
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