BERGEN – NORWEGIAN FJORDS

BALTIC BLOG 12

Monday July 2, 2012

The North Sea has a wild, stormy reputation – but we Kiwis struck it lucky once again as we sailed north-west yesterday from Holland. Our destination? One of the most environmentally untouched, scenically stunning regions on the planet – the famous Norwegian Fjords – promising serene waterways, plunging cliffs, cascading waterfalls, mist-shrouded peaks and colourful villages.

We woke up this morning, excited and ready to go, in stopover #1. Beautiful Bergen was founded in 1070 by a pleasant chap with a catchy name: Olav the Peace Loving – one-time King of the fearsome Vikings (or ‘Wickings’ according to the locals, who have trouble sounding their v’s). It’s a magnificent natural seaport, surrounded by steep, forested mountains – its shores lined with handsome medieval buildings, its hillsides dotted with brightly-painted gabled cottages, and smack in the middle: an impressive stave church.

We noisy Kiwis spent an enjoyable few hours in this UNESCO World Heritage Site: grabbing a funicular ride up Mount Florien for a magnificent overview of the town (where some of us introduced ourselves to a local troll) … watching a parade of marching boys hold up traffic … strolling around the bustling flower-&-fish market, where seafood straight-off-the-boats swim in brine-filled tanks … and savouring the atmosphere of ages past in the ancient Bryggen Quarter with its unique wooden warehouses and homes (established by Hanseatic traders during the Middle Ages).

If you’re a favoured friend or family member, your Mad Midlifer might even have bought you a reindeer pelt for your bedroom floor!

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TOMORROW:

We’re in Geirangerfjord, one of Norway’s most impressive sights, especially when seen from 1200 metres up a dizzy-making hairpin-bendy mountain-road! So, put on your snow-shoes, fasten your seatbelts, and stand by …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

ROTTERDAM – DELFT – THE HAGUE

BALTIC BLOG 11

Saturday June 30, 2012

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I have a confession to make. We’ve been lazy, so lazy you wouldn’t believe it. We spent yesterday and the day before at sea – cruising south, from Scandinavia back to Holland. Which meant two whole days to do all those lovely lazy things we haven’t yet got around to. And, if you’d been on board, you might have found your Kiwi friends and family members catching up on sleep … or turning pages in a good book … or taking in an entertaining lecture, a course on digital photography, or a recent-release movie (while munching on popcorn) … or stepping out for a brisk few kilometres around the teak Promenade Deck … or challenging other passengers at golf, quoits, shuffle-board or table-tennis … or catching up on emails … or writing up their travel diaries … or enjoying a gourmet cooking class at the Culinary Arts Centre … or indulging in a Royal Dutch High Tea at the La Fontaine Dining Room

Following which you might’ve spotted them working it all off in the gym (ouch, the pain!) … or sweating it all off in the thermal steam and aromatic room (phew!) … or pampering themselves with a relaxing Swedish massage in the Spa (aahh, yes!) … or just having a lie-down (now you’re talking!).

Then, early this morning, our ship docked in the busy Dutch portof Rotterdam – where our main Baltic cruise started, two weeks ago. And we quickly got back to work …

Leaving Rotterdam, we enjoyed a short coach-drive to the very old (and very pretty) town of Delft – stopping first at the Porceleijne Fles to see where (and how) they make the world-renowned Royal Delft Blue Porcelain. (The women, I’ve gotta tell you, went a little crazy here, maxing-out their credit-cards and diving into their husbands’ wallets for any leftover Euros.)

Then, for something a little different, we got introduced to the stunning art of Dutch painter, Vermeer, before sitting down to a posh lunch at the posh Kurhaus Hotel in The Hague – capital of theNetherlands and home of Queen Beatrix.

Finally, after a quick look at the nearby beach (with views out over the North Sea) … and an even quicker drive-past the Royal Palace, the Peace Palace and the new Government House … we spent a fun 45-minutes wandering around Madurodam, where a remarkable interactive display of Holland’s past-&-present in miniature attracts local families and tourists in their hordes.

Arriving back at the cruise terminal, we said a sad – and hurried – goodbye to seven of our gallant Kiwis. Sad because we’re gonna miss them, for sure. Hurried, because the other 25 of us were almost late (again) getting back on board.

While the seven headed to Amsterdam for the night (then various other parts of the planet) … the rest of us attended lifeboat drill on deck 3. Then, to the accompaniment of an enthusiastic ragtag band who were playing their hearts out on the pier, the ms Rotterdam sounded its horn and moved slowly back out to sea.

TOMORROW:

Part 2 of our Mad Midlife Cruise gets underway – in the drop-dead-gorgeous Norwegian Fjords. And we do some serious sightseeing in beautiful Bergen (founded in 1070 by nice King Olav the Peace Loving). There’s lots more fun to come, folks, so stay close to your computer …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

 

STOCKHOLM – SWEDEN

BALTIC BLOG 10

Tues-Wed June 26-27, 2012

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 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 Rotterdam, we Kiwis have enjoyed it twice over the past couple of days: yesterday, on the way in – and, this afternoon, on the way out.

After docking yesterday morning, we drove along the shores of Lake Malaren through some of Stockholm’s hard-to-pronounce districts: Södermalm, Norrmalm, Östermalm and Djurgården. We then headed for an amazing museum where we clapped eyes on a 17th century Swedish warship – the Vasa. This one-time pride of the country’s navy (which took several years to build and only 20 minutes to sink on the very day it was laucnhed!) was salvaged much more recently from the muddy bottom of the harbour – and brilliantly restored.

A sight-for-sore-eyes? You bet …

We then continued to the cosy medieval Old Town (Gamla Stan) to enjoy some lunch-&-shopping time in its narrow cobbled streets – before boarding a waterbus for stunning on-the-water views of other hard-to-pronounce highlights: like Fjäderholmarna, Waldemarsudde, the Gröna Lund Tivoli and Fjällgatan. (Ask your Mad Midlifer for the correct pronunciation when they get home.)

I’ve gotta tell you: this Swedish waterfront with its spectacular buildings, steeples, architecture, colours and boats is a one out of the box.

PEOPLE NEWS:
Another cute little rubber ducky has been pinned to the chest of a well-deserved, somewhat-embarrassed nominee:

The Bargain-Hunter-of-the-Year Award was won by Graeme – who saw iPhones advertised in a Stockholm shop window for just 220 krona. With Sue’s help at currency-conversion, Graeme worked out it was an absolute bargain: “I’ve gotta have one!” Trouble is, the shop wasn’t yet open – so Graeme sat outside, refusing to move, for 20 long minutes. When the doors finally opened, Graeme was in there, grabbing an iPhone and bragging, “You wait till I tell Bruce about this!” But, on checking the price – “Is it really only 220 krona?” they were told, “No, that’s just the monthly rental.” The purchase price was a little more – like 16,000 krona! (Poor Graeme is still feeling gutted.)

TOMORROW:
Yeehaa! We’ve got two whole days aboard the Rotterdam … resting up, catching up, living it up, and eating up aboard our floating hotel, while sailing south through the waters of the North Atlantic. Hey, we’ve worked for it, we’ve earned it, so please don’t disturb us!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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HELSINKI – FINLAND

BALTIC BLOG 09

Monday June 25, 2012

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It’s midsummer here at the northernmost point of our cruise, and I’ve already mentioned 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 house 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.

Finland’s capital is loved for its striking architecture, wide boulevards, parks, market square and open-air cafes. But we couldn’t see much of those today, through the rain-splattered windows of our coach. Instead, we drove out into the sunnier countryside to the medieval village of Porvoo, featuring cobblestone streets, quaint wooden buildings, and a divine chocolate shop that saw most Mad Midlifers parting with Euros and putting on weight. (Please understand: we hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast!)

From there we found our way through rolling farmland to the Savijarvi Homestead – famous, amongst other things, for its equestrian horses (which we got to meet, pat, converse with and be nibbled by) – where more food (a traditional home-cooked three-course Finnish lunch) awaited us.

En route back to our ship, we capped off a very pleasant day with a visit to the Temppeliaukio Rock Church (blasted into solid rock and topped with a stunning copper dome) – where a talented girl’s performance on a grand piano gave us all goosebumps.

PEOPLE NEWS:

The quacking of little yellow Midlife Madness ducks (see pic) can be heard all over the ship these days – and their popularity continues to grow:

The Behind The Bikesheds Award was won by Pamela – who wanted to compare her purchases with those of others in our group who had been in the same serviette shop. What Pamela meant to say was, “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine …” but what she actually said was, “You show me mine and I’ll show you yours …” (You had to be there.)

 

Roy hasn’t got another rubber ducky – but he has, finally, got his BAG back. Roy’s suitcase failed to join us on our flight from London to Amsterdam, and hopes of ever seeing it again were beginning to fade. But, thanks to persistence on Roy’s part and help from the ship’s purser, it was there waiting for him in his cabin (balloons tied to it and all) here in Helsinki. Roy much-travelled bag (we’ve since learned) went from London to Amsterdam (on a later flight), then back to London, then to Pisa, Venice, Tallinn and, at last, Helsinki!

 

TOMORROW:

We wake up in one of Europe’s most impressive cities, Stockholm … view a 17th century Swedish warship … and enjoy an hour-or-so on a small-boat tour of the waterfront. The show’s far from over, so don’t go away!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.

GLORIOUS ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

BALTIC BLOG 08

Sat-Sun June 23-24, 2012

Have you read the book, ‘The Bronze Horseman’? Well, guess what? We saw him yesterday, up there on his rearing stallion – Tsar Peter the Great, without whom there would be no St Petersburg, and without which we would not be here as tourists.

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: gray, drab and unkempt in places, yet breathtakingly gorgeous in others. In this latter category are the fabulous monuments, museums, cathedrals and palaces that await you here – and we’ve just spent two unforgettable days eye-balling some of them.

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SATURDAY: Our first taste of Russia was the grumpy, unsmiling bureaucracy we encountered as we filed in long queues through Custom’s Clearance. But that impression was quickly changed by our cheerful tour guide, who was soon introducing us to St Petersburg’s historical and architectural landmarks – including Vasilievsky Island, (with magnificent views of the Neva River and the countless canals that crisscross the city) … St Isaac’s Cathedral with its great gold dome … and my personal favourite: the colourful fantasy-cathedral of Our-Saviour-on-the-Spilt-Blood (built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated).

Later, after lunching on local dishes, we headed for the Hermitage, where some three million priceless works of art are displayed in what was once the Tsar’s 1000-room Winter Palace. Apparently, if you spend just one minute on each item in this art museum it would still take you eight years to get around – but we managed to cram the best-of-the-best into a busy hour and a half.

It was a fantastic afternoon – even for those in our group (like me and Mrs Cooney) who usually get museumed-out after 15 minutes – and even if our collective Kiwi feet were aching (and smelling) by the time we got back on the coach.

Finally, we returned to the ship for a quick freshen-up and a bite to eat, before being delivered to a posh city theatre for a Russian Folklore Extravaganza – where a Navy band plus a troop of colourful Cossack dancers entertained the troops.

Needless to say, it was nice, after such a long day, to crawl into our big turned-down beds (complimentary chocolates placed on each pillow) for some welcome shut-eye …

SUNDAY: Another big day … another friendly, fun-loving guide … and another chance to explore what was once the pride of the Romanovs. Somehow,St Petersburg managed to escape the architectural vandalism that occurred during Stalin’s era, plus total destruction during the awful 900-day siege by the Nazis – and many stunning leftovers from the Tsarist era are still pretty much intact.

First up today, 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. During WW2 it suffered severe damage (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 the world-famous Amber Room, is even glorious-er!

Next up, after another local-style lunch, we drove through the countryside to the gardens and fountains of Peterhof – featuring the Grand Cascade and Samson’s Fountain. This amazing bit of 1730’s engineering shoots a 20-metre-high vertical jet of water into the air (without the aid of pumps).

Oh boy! St Petersburg has got under our skin and exceeded our expectations …and it’s safe to say that our Mad Midlifers will never feel the same about Russia!

PEOPLE NEWS:

People have been rushing to claim the little yellow rubber-duckies that are given out each morning, and the St Petersburglist is a long one:

The Suppository Award was won by Roy – who, while passing through a turnstile at the Hermitage, managed to get one of the chrome-plated prongs stuck up the leg of his shorts. Ouch!

The Pick-Pocket Award went to Kevin – who had a panicky few moments in the tourist crowds when he thought his wallet had been stolen. He frantically checked all of his pockets without success – then discovered the missing wallet in his other hand!

The Early-Bird Award was claimed by Elaine – who, afraid of being late, got herself and her husband to our group’s on-ship meeting point in plenty of time. It was only after waiting … and waiting … and wondering where everyone else was that Elaine discovered they were a full hour early.

The AWOL Award was won by Evan – who was spotted marching off in totally the wrong direction during our walking tour at Peterhof. If I (John) hadn’t called him back, Evan would probably still be marching – en route, perhaps, to a longer holiday in some Siberian gulag?

Finally, the Ship-Ahoy Award was won by Alison – who was totally convinced that what she could see on the distant St Petersburg waterway was two yachts. She was actually looking at two lighthouses, but it took the rest of us a good half-hour to change Alison’s mind!

TOMORROW:

We dock in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, and drive out into the beautiful countryside for a genuine home-made lunch on a horse-farm. So don’t change channels …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this page, and add your ‘COMMENTS’! Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.