Wednesday May 30, 2018

IT’S SUMMERTIME HERE IN THE NORTHERN BALTIC, and we’re getting used to the weird lack of darkness. But winter in these parts must be equally weird, when the sun comes up at 10am, darkness falls at 2pm, temperatures drop way below zero, and everything freezes over. Which probably explains why every Finnish home worth its salt has a sauna – usually down on the water’s edge – so, after turning red like a lobster in the steamy heat, you can plunge into the icy sea and turn blue.

It also explains why HELSINKI builds more big-bowed ice-breakers than anywhere else in the world – to ensure its waterways stay open through the thick sea-ice.

The Finnish capital is loved for its striking architecture, wide boulevards, leafy parks, market square, fresh sea winds and open-air cafes – all of which make it a perfect stopover!

Our tour took us past Senate Square and the Sibelius Monument, the Uspenski Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and more. We then enjoyed a cuppa-plus-pastry-snack at a waterfront café near the Opera House – before walking through Hesperia Park to the Temppeliaukio Rock Church – blasted into solid rock and topped with a stunning copper dome.

YOU MAY NOT KNOW WHERE STOCKHOLM IS (check the map). But many first-time visitors to this Baltic capital are unaware of its most spectacular geographical feature: the Archipelago. This magnificent maritime landscape of more than 30,000 islands, islets and rocky outcrops is unique in the world – and, from the spacious decks of the Koningsdam, we Kiwis enjoyed it twice: early yesterday morning on the way in – and again, in the evening, on the way out.

Founded as a fortress in the 13th century, Stockholm encompasses several peninsulas and 14 main islands, interlinked by canals and bridges. After docking, we drove along the shores of Lake Malaren through several hard-to-pronounce districts – Södermalm, Östermalm and Djurgården – then boarded a motor-launch for stunning views of other hard-to-pronounce spots around the waterfront: like Fjäderholmarna, Waldemarsudde and Fjällgatan. (Go on – try them!)

We then walked to the cozy medieval Old Town (Gamla Stan) to chase down lunch – Mrs Cooney and I enjoying meatballs (a Swedish favourite).

Later, we crossed another bridge (or was it three?) and visited Scandinavia’s most popular tourist attraction: the Vasa Museet (museum). Here we were confronted with a sight-for-sore-eyes: a 17th century Swedish warship! This magnificent wooden vessel, boasting more cannon-power than ever before, took several years to build back in 1626, and was supposed to be the pride of Sweden’s navy. Instead, however, on the day she was launched in the city’s inner harbour, the top-heavy Vasa took just 20 minutes to roll over and sink.

Oh dear, imagine the embarrassment!

The story of Vasas amazing salvage in 1961 – after 333 years on the muddy bottom – is a story our Mad Midlife Kiwis will want to tell you when they get home!

COMING UP: We’re back in Germany, saying hello to the Free Imperial & Hanseatic City of Lübeck! What’s that, you ask? Stay logged-on and I’ll tell you …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Monday May 28, 2018

HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK, ‘THE BRONZE HORSEMAN’? Well, guess what? We SAW him on Saturday, in the flesh (well, in bronze actually), up there on his rearing stallion – Tsar Peter the Great, without whom there would be no ST PETERSBURG.

This grand city was built by the Tsar in 1703 as Russia’s ‘Window to the West’ … designated that country’s new capital in 1712 … then had its name changed to Petrograd, and later Leningrad, following the 1917 communist revolution … and finally, in 1991, when the Soviet Union upended, returned to its original name: St Petersburg.

Confused? Well, imagine how the St Petersburglars (or whatever they’re called) must feel!

These days Russia’s largest port is a mix of magnificent extremes: grey, drab and boring in places (thanks to the Soviet era), yet breathtakingly gorgeous in others. And in this latter category are the grand leftovers from the tsarist era: fabulous monuments, museums, domed cathedrals and gilt palaces that are still either pretty much intact or brilliantly restored.

Our first taste of Russia was the unfriendly, unsmiling bureaucracy we encountered as we filed through Custom’s Clearance. But that impression was quickly changed by our tour guide, who soon introduced us to St Petersburg’s historical and architectural landmarks – including Vasilievsky Island, the Neva River, the Rostral Columns, the Peter & Paul Fortress, and the Hermitage (including the Tsar’s 1000-room Winter Palace) where several million priceless works of art are displayed.

If you spent just one minute on each item in this monster-museum, they reckon it would still take you 11 years to get around – but we managed to cram the best-of-the-best into a busy hour and a half!

Next, we drove through the countryside to Peterhof – a stunning estate crammed with posh palaces, vast gardens, gushing golden fountains and glittering statues, built by Peter the Great to rival Versailles.

Finally, we returned by hydrofoil to the city-centre where an evening extravaganza of Russian folklore, music and incredibly athletic Cossack dancing awaited us.

Our long day was made even longer by a slow, traffic-jammed drive along Nevsky Prospekt (the city’s main street) – which, at midnight, was still crammed wall-to-wall with happy crowds celebrating the start of summer. Eventually, heads spinning and feet aching, we collapsed into our big turned-down Koningsdam beds for some welcome shut-eye. Zzzzzz …

ST PETERSBURG, PRIDE OF THE ROMANOVS, managed somehow to escape the architectural vandalism that occurred during Stalin’s era, plus total destruction during WW2. And Sunday gave us another chance to explore. We started at St Isaac’s Cathedral with its great gold dome … then moved on to my personal favourite: the colourful fantasy-cathedral of Our-Saviour-on-the-Spilt-Blood (built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated, and decorated floor-to-ceiling with the most amazing mosaics).

Lastly, a 45-minute drive took us from the port to Tsarskoye Selo (the Tsar’s Village). Peter the Great had this estate and its masterpiece-palace built for his wife Catherine in 1710. It was ransacked and burnt by the Nazis during their awful 900-day siege (and lots of its treasures were stolen), but it has since been gloriously restored.

And, I’ve gotta tell you: ‘gloriously’ is no exaggeration! The blue-white-gold exterior of Catherine’s Palace is glorious. And the gold-embossed interior, with its Great Hall and its world-famous Amber Room, is even glorious-er!

Oh boy! As you can probably tell, St Petersburg got under our skin and exceeded our expectations … and it’s safe to say that we Mad Midlifers will never feel the same about this Baltic corner of Russia!

COMING UP: Another day, another adventure, another European capital – this time Helsinki, in Finland! So don’t go away …

PEOPLE-NEWS: We’ve been far too busy to dish out more Oinky Pink Pig awards … except one, which the group decided was earned by the Tour Leader …

  • YOURS TRULY received the ‘Salt Mines Award for Civil Disobedience’ – after getting told off twice by grumpy coach-drivers, plus reprimanded by a security guard for daring to walk on the grass in the gardens of Catherine’s Palace. When the guy first blew his whistle, I thought I’d heard a bird, and stood there, camera-ready, looking up into the trees. His second whistle-blast convinced me this was a rare bird I’d never heard before, and I continued to ignore him. So he rushed at me, making an X with his forearms and pointing at the grass. By which stage (duh!) I got the message and retreated back onto the footpath. Ahh, what fun!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Friday May 25, 2018

QUESTION: WHAT SMALL CITY IS WIDELY REGARDED as the most stunningly-preserved walled capital in Northern Europe?

Answer: TALLINN.

And, when we woke up on Friday morning, Tallinn, in the tiny Baltic state of Estonia, is where we found ourselves.

Like many small nations in this region, tiny Estonia (pop 1.5 million) got unfairly pushed around (by the Danes, then the Swedes, then the Germans, then the Russians) before gaining its freedom in the early 1990s. You’ve probably never heard of Tallinn – right? – but for over 700 years, this one-time coastal fortress guarded the Baltic approaches to Russia from behind thick defensive walls. And today it’s a medieval jewel that simply oozes with atmosphere!

Our route took us, first, around the coast for a look-see … then back into the cultural heart of this UNESCO World Heritage Site … along narrow cobblestone streets to St Mary’s Gothic Cathedral, crammed with hundreds of really old Coats of Arms … around those ancient stone walls with their fairytale turrets (two of them nicknamed Tall Herman and Fat Margaret) … into the Upper Town’s Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, famous for its gorgeous domes, mosaics and icons … then up Toompea Hill to the Palace Square where we peered over the Lower Town rooftops.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the flowers were blooming, and a top Tallinn day was had by all.

Oh, a word about the weather: we’ve been exceptionally lucky thus far, with blue skies and warm days everywhere we’ve been. Not bad when you consider that this part of the world gets only 30-50 sunshiny days each year – and freezes rock-solid in winter. One of our guides summed up their weather patterns as “nine months anticipation followed by three months disappointment”. And another guide reckoned their weather was “like a baby’s bottom: you never know what will come out next!”

COMING UP: Our much-looked-forward-to weekend in Russia, featuring the spectacular highlights of St Petersburg. Don’t miss this, whatever you do …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Thursday May 24, 201

IT’S HARD TO THINK OF A NICER WAY to unwind at the start of our Baltic Cruise: a full day sailing through the North Sea, with time to find our way around the Koningsdam … eat our hearts out in any number of classy restaurants … participate in 101 onboard activities … take in the first-of-many informative talks about our upcoming destinations … enjoy a toe-tapping, hand-clapping song-&-dance spectacular on the World Stage … relax in our spacious staterooms (cabins) … then fall asleep in our very comfortable beds.

And (like the song says) … we’ve only just begun!

WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL COPENHAGEN: In the 15th century, this lively city was capital of not only Denmark, but also Norway and Sweden … and is home to the oldest monarchy in the world. Copenhagen’s history and charm are reflected in the picture-perfect Christianborg and Amalienborg Palaces, the harbour-side restaurants and 500-year-old gabled houses of Old Nyhavn, Rosenborg Castle, and the church steeples that punctuate the skyline.

Sounds appealing?

Well, after sailing through the night, we woke on Tuesday to find our ship docking in Denmark. And our first stop, when we went ashore, was the statue of the Little Mermaid – Copenhagen’s world-famous symbol. While taking the required photos, we all-but brushed shoulders with Denmark’s handsome Crown Prince as he made his way up the gangplank onto his Royal Yacht. (Some women in our group were left feeling quite weak-at-the-knees and faint!)

We then did a leisurely whizz-around the city highlights referred to above, before heading to the whimsical Tivoli Gardens for some free time and Danish tucker. Founded in 1843, Tivoli is a romantic, flower-filled fun-park that has inspired many people.

You don’t believe me? Well, Hans Christian Andersen took the idea for his fairy tale, The Nightingale, from Tivoli … and Walt Disney drew inspiration for Disneyland during several visits here in the 1950s. Do you believe me now?

BERLIN REUNIFIED: Yesterday, after carefully tying up in the coastal resort of Warnemunde, we travelled by speeding train to one of Europe’s most fascinating, ever-changing capitals – Berlin. On the way, we visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (in what used to be East Germany) where the Nazis first experimented with organised mass killings. A sobering experience, the horror and awfulness made all the more real by our eloquent young German guide.

We moved from there to a yummy pub lunch at a traditional German oompah-pah ‘biergarten’, before touring the main city highlights – including the former Checkpoint Charlie (where spies used to cross during the Cold War) … the Reichstag parliament building … the imposing Brandenburg Gate … remnants of the notorious Berlin Wall … and the Holocaust Memorial, opened in 2005 as a lasting memorial to Europe’s murdered Jews.

A long, emotional day, but one we will never forget.

COMING UP: A full day at sea, while the waters of the Baltic churn by and we enjoy luxury ship-board life to the full. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

PEOPLE-NEWS: Two more hotly-sought-after Pink Pigs have left the pen for greener pastures – oink-oink …

  • ALISON was nominated for double-honours with our ‘Meet the Captain Award’ – she not only got her toilet-signs muddled and entered the men’s loo by mistake – she managed to barge in on the Koningsdam’s somewhat embarrassed skipper.
  • ROBIN T took away our ‘Tip-Top Award’ – when he was spotted in the ship’s buffet restaurant, feeding his two-or-three-times-a-day addiction to ice-cream. He’s promised to reform, and we’ve arranged counselling and detox.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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Thursday May 24, 2018

YES, I KNOW. THIS IS THE MOST OVERDUE BLOG I’VE EVER POSTED. And I’m sorry, I truly am. We left home just over a week ago, and you poor anxious fretting friends back home have heard not a squeak from us since. For all I know you’ve sent out a search-party. And I don’t blame you. But it’s honestly not my fault.

You see, the WIFI on this near-new, oh-so-luverly, state-of-the-art cruise ship has been all-but non-existent. Some complicated fault that’s had technicians running around like blue-arsed flies, and many people like me getting increasingly grumpy. And for all I know it’s still not fixed. If you’re actually reading this it means I’ve managed to steal some WIFI from a café ashore and post these words and pix at last.

Am I forgiven? I hope so. Anyway, time to catch up …

DUBAI: We left Godzone a week ago … flew forever across Australia’s vast Red Centre … and landed 17 years later (okay, 17 hours, but it felt like years) on the other side of the world, in the United Arab Emirates.

The first thing we noticed about Dubai is the temperature: this place is stinking-hot! And the second thing we noticed is that it lays claim to lots of biggests, longests, fastests, tallests-in-the-world. Like the Burj Khalifa, for example, the world’s tallest tower. The concrete alone in this architectural wonder weighs more than 100,000 elephants – although we failed to see any elephants as we zoomed up-up-up to the observation deck (124th floor) for some super-lofty views.

Back at ground-level, we then toured the city, ogling a forest of modern skyscrapers plus Arab forts, mosques, palaces and wind-cooled houses. We rounded-off the day with dinner in the humungous Dubai Mall, home of the world’s biggest indoor aquarium, before watching a fabulous water-and-light show. Impressive? I think so – but by now we were ready to kill for a bed!

LONDON: Next morning (Friday) we flew a further seven hours to oh-so-familiar wouldn’t-it-be-luverly London – where the entire population (including a squillion visitors) was getting hysterically happy over the Royal Wedding, timed to take place next morning when we Mad Midlifers were in town!

Despite looking like sleep-deprived zombies, we enjoyed a luxury Bateaux Dinner Cruise on the beautifully lit-up River Thames, then hit the pillows (zzzzz). Come Saturday, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we ventured out to in search of this city’s iconic landmarks: West EndRegent Street Piccadilly CircusTrafalgar Square Whitehall Downing Street Houses of Parliament Big Ben Fleet StreetBuckingham Palace Westminster Abbey St Paul’s Cathedral … and the Tower of London.

‘Twas a glorious sunshiny day in London, made all the more glorious by the snippets we heard (over the radio on our coach) and saw (on one of the huge screens erected all over the city) of Harry & Meghan reciting their vows.

‘Twas beautiful, simply beautiful. (Eat your heart out, royal-watchers!)

COMING UP: We’re airborne again (briefly), flying to Amsterdam (in der Nederlands) … transferring to the cruise-terminal … then boarding our floating hotel (for the next 21 days): Holland America Line’s elegant Koningsdam. Stay tuned, coz the fun’s about to get funner!

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our internationally-renowned Quacky Yellow Ducks have been replaced for now by Oinky Pink Pigs – and two have already found new pens (homes) …

  • TIM effortlessly won our ‘Cosmetics Award’ – for thinking, mistakenly, that our Bateaux Dinner Cruise was a Botox Dinner Cruise (and lining his wife up for treatment).
  • KAYE worked a little harder to earn our ‘Sherlock Holmes Award’ – by witnessing a likely drugs-drop in Heathrow Airport, thereafter keeping a watchful eye on pretty-much everybody, thereby contributing to global security and the safety of our group.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)