All posts by Corey Sandler

Corey Sandler has been a storyteller all of this life. He worked as a newsman for Gannett Newspapers and later as a correspondent for The Associated Press before entering the worlds of magazine and book publishing. He has written more than 200 books on history, travel, sports, technology, and business. He currently is a destination and special interest lecturer for Silversea Cruises, one of the world's best luxury cruise lines. If you'd like to contact him, please send an e-mail to this address: corey[AT] (Replace the [AT] with the @ symbol, please.)

2 July 2014
 Bergen, Norway

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Our last port of call on this cruise is the lovely Norwegian coastal city of Bergen, always a surprise even to those of us who have been here many times. It is one of those cities where the people seem to seek to enjoy every moment of every day.[whohit]-Bergen 2Jul-[/whohit]

Bergen is an ancient city and a modern town.

A bustling commercial center, an active fishery and a great public fish market, a laid-back Scandinavian culture, and a quirky freewheeling university city-state.

It was gray and drizzly for most of the day, but Bergen’s charms shone through. Here are some photos from 2 July:

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All photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

And here’s a photo album of some of my favorite spots in Bergen from many visits.

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Bryggen, the ancient trading district along the harbor, and a fishing boat nearby. Photo by Corey Sandler

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A funicular runs from just above downtown to a hill overlooking the city. Photos by Corey Sandler

BERGEN6 Bergen University Museum

The University district is a city within the city, including a fine old-school museum filled with skeletons, stuffed animals, and missing most of the crowds in town. Photo by Corey Sandler

Bergen is said to have been founded by Olav Kyrre, also known as Olaf III.

Olaf was King of Norway from 1067 to 1093. He was present at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in England.

That battle, considered the end of the Viking Age, or at least the beginning of the end, took place between an invading Norwegian force led by King Harald Hardrada and an Anglo-Saxon army led by King Harold Godwinson.

King Hardrada (Olaf III’s father) and most of the other Norwegians were killed in a bloody battle.

Olaf survived and returned to Norway, where he founded the city of Bergen in 1070.

If he had won in England, London might well be a Viking capital. Salt cod in the pubs of Camden Town. Bangers and mash as the national dish of Norway.

The background music of Bergen is Peer Gynt by composer Edvard Grieg, who spent much of his life in Bergen.

Peer Gynt is the leading character of a favorite Norwegian folk tale about a poorly behaving boy who falls in love with a beautiful girl but is denied her hand.

He heads out to the country—meets up with nasty trolls at the Hall of the Mountain King and then to remote Mongolia, all the while still smitten by the girl back home.

I don’t mean to spoil it for you, but in the end, he gets the girl. Or she gets him.

The great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen wrote a five-act play in verse about Peer Gynt.

And when it premiered in 1876 in Oslo, it was accompanied by incidental music written by Edvard Grieg.

Modern Norway is a constitutional monarchy.

From the time of Harald Fairhair until the present day, Norway has had more than 60 named sovereigns. The current King belongs to the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, which has ruled Norway since 1905.

King Harald V, age 77, is well-connected.

He is first cousin once removed of King Philippe of Belgium and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg; second cousin of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, and the second cousin once removed of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

And in waiting: 40-year-old Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit.

Speaking of princesses, last year, Norway received a huge gift to its tourism business when Disney released its film, “Frozen.”

Yet another Disney princess, this time Anna of Arendelle.

We proceed tonight for a day at sea and then the end of this cruise, at Copenhagen.

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

1 July 2014
 Kristiansund, Norway

In the Hall of the Mountain Data Farm

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Our northernmost call on this cruise is at Kristiansund.

It’s a small place, much less populated than the confusingly named Kristiansand which is one of the most southerly points of Norway.

Kristiansand was named in honor of King Christian IV, who founded that southerly city in 1641, on a spit of SAND.

As should be very obvious, Kristiansund was named after King Christian VI in 1742. It gets the second half of its name from SUND as in STRAIT. A Strait is a long body of water that connects two larger bodies: sea to sea, for example.

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The ferry, claimed to be the oldest continually operated mechanized transportation in the world, crosses the harbor at Kristiansund to the various islands that make up the remote town. Just outside of town is a stretch of the spectacular Atlantic Road which connects many of the small communities along the western coast of Norway. Photos by Corey Sandler

So Kristiansund is where we are headed, about one-third of the way up the Norwegian coast at about 63 degrees north latitude.

That’s pretty far north, but not quite within the Arctic Circle, which is an arbitrary demarcation at 66 degrees 33 minutes and 44 seconds north, about 384 kilometers or 239 miles further north than Kristiansund.

The position of the Arctic Circle is not fixed.

It directly depends on the Earth’s axial tilt, which fluctuates within a margin of 2 degrees over a 40,000-year period, mostly due to tidal forces resulting from the orbit of the Moon.

The Arctic Circle is currently drifting northwards at a speed of about 15 meters or 49 feet per year.[whohit]-Kristiansund 1Jul-[/whohit]

Because it exists on small islands, Kristiansund is one of the most densely populated cities of Norway.

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Bales of hay and other food for livestock, stored for the short summer and the long winter ahead. Photo by Corey Sandler

On the day of our visit, there were almost 20 hours of daylight. Six months from now, about 20 hours of dark.

So what do they do in the winter? Sing, I guess.

The splendid Art-Nouveau Kristiansund Opera House, completed in 1914, is the oldest opera house in Norway and one of the few that survived World War II. Each year Kristiansund puts on Opera Festival Weeks in cold February: Norway’s largest opera and musical theater festivals, one of the largest in all of Scandinavia.

I’ve been to Norway and Kristiansund many times, but always have concentrated on the mountains and the fjords. This time, I dug deeper–underground to the Naas marble mine between Kristiansund and Molde.

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The barges to the interior of the cave, and a banquet hall 500 meters below ground. Photos by Corey Sandler

The mine has been in operation for decades, a family affair. It began as a source of slabs of marble and cemetery markers. In more modern times, the marble has been used for industrial purposes: ground up for use in other products including as a principal ingredient in the high-gloss paper used in some magazines and books.

But the global consumption of paper for books and magazines has been in decline since the advent of the personal computer and especially reading tablets like the Kindle and the iPad. And so the Naas marble mine has looked for something else to do with its mountain and the 60 or so kilometers of roads and caverns within.

Ironically, it may be computers that saves the business they are threatening.

The owners of the mine are installing high-power electrical lines and fiber optic cables and hope to rent out the caverns for use as data farms, holding huge amounts of information for companies all around the world.

Why in a mine? Because it offers a controlled and stable environment with inexpensive cooling for the thousands or millions of disk drives and memory chips.

That’s the plan. In the meantime, we took a tour by raft and on foot in what I would expect Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg would call the Hall of the Mountain Data Farm.

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Inside the Naas marble mine. Photos by Corey Sandler

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer (Kindle Edition)




30 June 2014
 Geiranger, Norway

Deeper into the Fjords of Norway

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We head inland from the Norwegian Sea on one of the most spectacular watery highways into the interior of coastal Norway.[whohit]-Geiranger 30Jun-[/whohit]

Silver Whisper followed a twisting and turning pathway along the big Storfjorden, then into the smaller Sunnylvsfjorden, and finally the even narrower Geirangerfjorden.

On our way in, we made a brief stop in Hellesylt to allow guests to debark for an overland shore excursion that reunited with the ship at Geiranger, at the dead end of the fjord. The fjord, which includes sheer cliffs, impressive waterfalls, and patches of green and white, is one of Norway’s most visited tourist sites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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In the fjords near Hellesylt. Photos by Corey Sandler

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The Seven Sisters waterfall between Hellesylt and Geiranger. Photo by Corey Sandler

The town of Geiranger is a pleasant little place in a spectacular setting.

This isolated little town is the third-busiest cruise ship port in Norway. As many as 180 ships visit during the four-month tourist season, depositing as many as 300,000 passengers—not all at once—in Geiranger, which has a permanent population of about 250.

As I said, it’s a beautiful set of fjords and a handsome, peaceful place.

Except: it is under constant threat of severe damage or even total extinction. Scientists worry that a big piece of a mountain called Åkerneset could one day collapse into the fjord.

And, they say, this would cause a tsunami that could destroy downtown Geiranger. Studies indicate as much as 100 million cubic meters or 130 million cubic yards of rock and earth could collapse. They estimate the tsunami would be about 30 meters or 98 feet high.

We hope the people of the fjord (and those of us aboard ship) are spared that particular bit of excitement.

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Silver Whisper at anchor in Geiranger. We climbed up the hill for a better viewpoint, stopping at the picture-perfect Geiranger Church, built in 1842. Photos by Corey Sandler

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)


29 June 2014
 Flåm and Gudvangen, Norway

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Our epic journey leads us from Copenhagen in the Baltic Sea through the Kattegat and into the North Sea, and beyond to the Norwegian Sea.

Silver Whisper swung out to sea and then into one of Norway’s most spectacular waterways, the Sognefjord, to visit Flåm and Gudvangen.

About the name of our first call: if you call it Flam as in ham, they’ll know what you mean.

But the Norwegian and Danish letter Å, with the little diacritical overring at it top, is not “a” but more similar to “o” in most other languages.

So, FLOME, or something like that.

The village of Flåm is at the end of the Aurlandsfjord, a small arm of the spectacular Sognefjord which extends in from the Norwegian Sea.

The 204-kilometer or 125-mile-long Sognefjord is said to be the longest and deepest fjord in the world.

Flåm is on one leg of a horseshoe-shaped fjord; at the end of the other leg is Gudvangen, where our ship repositioned in the afternoon.

The sail-in on the Aurlandsfjorden in the early morning is always spectacular; so, too, the sail-out in the still-bright evening.

Not far from the open sea is the statue of Fridtjof at Vangsnes on the Sognefjorden.

Fridtjof was the hero of an Icelandic Viking saga. The original version dates from the 8th century, updated and continued about the year 1300.

German Kaiser Wilhelm II was a regular visitor to this part of Norway, and in 1913 he gave the statue as a gift to the Norwegian people.

Flam has been a tourist attraction since the late 19th century.

Truth be told, though: few people come to see the port.

It’s basically a train station and a few gift shops. The 20-kilometer (12-mile) Flåmsbana railway rises from the town at sea level to the high village of Myrdal on the steepest standard gauge railway in Europe. The trip takes about an hour in each direction.

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A sunny morning in Flåm, a spectacular setting with a gravity-defying railroad. Photos by Corey Sandler 

About lunchtime, Silver Whisper departed Flåm to sail around the corner to God’s Place by the Water.

I’m not attempting to make a religious commentary here.

Gudvangen means just that: “God’s Place by the Water.”

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Scenes along the way from Flåm to Gudvangen, ending with the hoisting of the “black ball” to tell other ships we were at anchor. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Approaching Gudvangen. Photo by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.


27 June 2014
 Copenhagen, Denmark. Hello, Goodbye

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

After a couple of loops of the Baltic, we are taking a jaunt into the North Sea and up the coast of Norway.

We say goodbye to guests who were with us, and welcome new friends aboard.

Here’s our itinerary:

Silversea Map 4415

Our voyage takes us from Copenhagen to the Norwegian fjord and coastal towns of Flam, Gudvangen, Hellesylt, Geiranger, and Kristiansund and to the glorious city of Bergen.

I’ll be posting new photos and text as we sail.

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Scenes of Copenhagen on a sunny day, a rare event in this preternaturally cool summer of 2014. All photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.


25 June 2014
 Helsinki, Finland

The Old and the New and the Strange

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Silversea Silver Whisper docked right at the base of the city of Helsinki, Finland. One of the many advantages of a smaller ship is the ability to come in close; there were several other much larger ships in port but we didn’t see them–only the shuttle buses bringing their guests from the hinterlands to the city.

For more details on Helsinki and a bit of the complex story of Finland, please see my blog entry for 14 June 2014.

On this visit the downtown market square held something old renewed, and something old in a modern version.

The old renewed was Kauppahalli, an indoor marketplace. The building has been closed for the past several years for restoration and has just reopened. It offers a glorious selection of the fruits, vegetables, seafood, and other comestibles of Finland.

The old in a new version was the Finnair Sky Wheel between our ship and the market. It opened a few weeks ago. Ferris Wheels, of course, are an old entertainment but this one is a of a modern design. It stands 40 meters tall, about 130 feet. There are 30 cabins, each holding as many as eight passengers. For a few Krone more, you can book the VIP gondola which includes a glass floor and a bottle of champagne.

We chose to go shopping instead.

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Kauppahalli Market, near Market Square and our ship. Photos by Corey Sandler

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The Finnair Sky Wheel. Photos by Corey Sandler

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A modern shopping mall in an old district of Helsinki. Photos by Corey Sandler

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The old railway station in downtown is one of our favorite places, although a recent change has verged deep into the strange: one of the grand halls has been given over to a Burger King. Photos by Corey Sandler

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You want fries with that? Statues outside the railway station with the Burger King. Photos by Corey Sandler

We bid farewell and wish safe travels to our friends who have traveled with us on this cruise, from Stockholm to Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, Helsinki, and on to Copenhagen.

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer (Kindle Edition)


22-24 June 2014: Saint Petersburg, Russia

Looking for New Things in an Old Place

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We returned to glorious Saint Petersburg, this time greeted with near-summer-like weather. You can read more about an earlier visit this month in my blog entry for 15-17 June 2014.

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The spectacular Kronstadt Naval Cathedral is the central gathering place of the island. The old church, which suffered the indignity of being converted to a cinema during Soviet times, has been beautifully restored. All photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.


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The interior of the church is one of the most spectacular we have seen, mixing ornate Russian Orthodox elements with ring lighting that reminded us somewhat of Agia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. All photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.


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Kronstadt island was first developed by Peter the Great, and many of the naval elements includng canals, locks, and stone quays remain. All photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.

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You must see the Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s fabulously decorated palace. The problem, though–especially in the summer months–is that it can be almost impossibly crowded. It sometimes feels as if the entire population of small towns–or countries–stands between you and the treasures.

On this cruise, though, we took advantage of a special evening tour after hours. We had a brief tour of some of the great halls and then a  performance by a talented Russian orchestra in one of the halls. As is perfectly appropriate for Russia’s European window on the world, most of the music was European: Mozart, Brahms, Mascagni. In a nod to one of Petersburg’s greats, we also heard from Mikhail Glinka.

All test and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact me.


21 June 2014: Tallinn, Estonia

A Soviet Flashback

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Tallinn is a spectacular old city in an old land that has seen its ups and downs. I wrote about its history and some of its culture in my post of 18 June 2014, which you can read in the blog page for that date.

On this visit, I went on an shore excursion run by an Estonian who helps visitors gain a sense of the mostly unhappy times when Estonia was a Soviet Socialist Republic–the years after World War II until the early 1990s.

The tour–in an antiquated Soviet bus–veered between moments of great poignancy and humor. We heard of family and friends jailed or deported, of lack of food and culture, and we learned quite a bit about the resiliant sense of humor of ethnic Estonians.

And we visited a most unusual cemetery: a graveyard of deposed statues of Soviet herors including Lenin, Stalin, and others.

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All photos by Corey Sandler, all rights reserved.


20 June 2014: Stockholm, Sweden. Goodbye and Hello

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Goodbye to old friends, leaving us here in Stockholm, and hello to new guests coming aboard today.

Stockholm is the largest city of Sweden, the capital, and the official residence of the Swedish monarch as well as the prime minister. We begin another cruise here, back for a loop of the Baltic: Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, Helsinki, and Copenhagen. Here’s our itinerary:[whohit]-Stockholm 20Jun-[/whohit]

Silversea Map 4414

Stockholm city was founded about 1250 and has been at the country’s military, political, economic, and cultural center for almost all of that time.

Greater Stockholm spreads across fourteen islands on the south-central east coast of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Mälaren.

Stockholm’s core, the Old Town or Gamla Stan, was built on the central island beginning in the mid-13th century.

The city rose to prominence because of the trade with the Hanseatic League and links with Lübeck, Hamburg, Gdańsk, Visby, Reval (today’s Tallinn], and Riga.

In the past few years, the Royal Family has been busy with weddings and baby showers. But they need not worry about running out of space for the in-laws and the sisters, cousins, and aunts.

The Stockholm Palace is the official residence and major royal palace of the Swedish monarchy.


The Royal Palace in the heart of Stockholm. Photos by Corey Sandler

The palace has 609 rooms and is one of the largest royal palaces in the world still in use. Alongside is the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament.

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Out in the country is Drottningholm Palace, the primary residence of the royal family. Commoners can tour the public rooms; in my opinion the classy way to arrive is aboard a century-old steamer that runs from near City Hall. Photos by Corey Sandler

Stockholm has an extraordinary collection of museums, about one hundred of them.

The National Museum of Fine Arts is in central Stockholm across the harbor from the palace. The museum was founded in 1792, installed in its North Italian Renaissance style building in 1866.

The collection include about half a million drawings from the Middle Ages to 1900, plus porcelain items, paintings, sculptures, and modern art.

The Moderna museet, the Museum of Modern Art, on the island of Skeppsholmen in central Stockholm, opened in 1958. Its collection includes pieces by Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí and Picasso, but not as many as there were when they were first put on display.

In 1993, life followed art. Burglars came through the roof at night, basically borrowing the technique laid out in the 1955 French movie Rififi. Six works by Picasso and two by Georges Braque were stolen. Only three of the Picassos have been recovered. On the plus side, an Henri Matisse work called “Le Jardin”, stolen in 1987 and worth about $1 million, was recovered in London and returned to Stockholm in 2013.

There’s also the Nordiska Museum, filled with cultural artifacts of Sweden.

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The main hall of the Nordiska Museum. Photo by Corey Sandler

In town in the History Museum, with a small but rich history reaching back millennia.

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The Historical Museum in Stockholm. Photo by Corey Sandler

But for my money—or yours—the must-see museum in Stockholm, and one of the great exhibitions anywhere in the world, is the Vasa Museum.

When your eyes adjust to the dimly lit hall you see before you the only nearly intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged and put on display.


The extraordinary Vasa Museum. Photos by Corey Sandler

It is the 64-gun warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628, nearly four hundred years ago. It was one of the largest and most heavily armed warships of her time, decorated with hundreds of sculptures, all of them painted in vivid colors.

Apparently they should have spent just a little bit more, on design and engineering. The ship was top-heavy and did not carry enough ballast down low near her keel.

On August 10, 1628, the ship sailed less than a nautical mile and then fell over and sank.

After then, Vasa was all but forgotten.

It was not until the late 1950s that the ship was found again, in a busy shipping lane just outside the Stockholm harbor. On April 24, 1961 she was brought to the surface, her hull mostly intact.

Thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least 15 people, along with articles of clothing, weapons, cannons, tools, coins, cutlery, food and drink, and six of the ten sails.

The Vasa Museum, constructed specifically for the ship, opened in 1990. Today, it is the most visited museum in Scandinavia.

One of our favorite places in Stockholm, not all that well-known and certainly not crowded, is Hallwyl House. This is the palatial home of Count and Countess Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl, constructed in 1898 as a winter home for the immensely rich couple.

Last year, Stockholm added another museum to its trove of great treasures.

I didn’t say it was a great museum…but that’s just my opinion.

Abba The Museum opened on Djurgaarden island, next to the 17th-century Vasa museum and Skansen.

For better or for worse, the four members of Abba are back together, dressed like they never left the 1970s.

It appears that the group never threw anything away: costumes, instruments, ticket stubs, and hair gel.


Not high culture, but you might want to take a chance on it if your goal is to be a dancing queen. Mama mia! Photos by Corey Sandler

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

18 June 2014: Tallinn, Estonia

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Two Millennia of Ups and Downs

The penultimate port call on our superb cruise in the Baltic Sea was Tallinn. On this cruise we had just about everything: history, culture, art, music, great food, and good company. The only thing we lacked was a touch of summer: we finished our tour in near-wintry temperatures and winds.

Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[whohit]-Tallinn 18Jun-[/whohit]

Over the centuries Estonia has been assaulted, occupied, liberated, and reoccupied by: Crusaders, Danes, early Germans, Swedes, Russians, Lithuanians, the Soviets, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union again, modern Russia, electronic pirates of the Internet, and tourists.

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The Lower Town of Tallinn on Toompea Hill. Photo by Corey Sandler

Estonia was on the front line during the Livonian War of 1558-1583.

Combatants included the armies of Ivan the Terrible of Russia, Denmark, and Poland. The winner was Sweden, but battles with Poland continued for decades.

The Swedish period in Estonian history was a time of great cultural advancement. The University of Tartu—still in existence—opened in 1632.

In the Great Northern War—the same conflict that led Peter the Great to found Saint Petersburg—Sweden fought Russia, Denmark, and Poland. Russia claimed Estonia in 1710, and for the next two centuries its people were powerless serfs to the Tsars.

The Russian empire brought its own customs, architecture, and the Russian Orthodox religion.

TALLINN Alexander Nevsky Cath

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the upper town of Tallinn, a reminder of the Russian presence in old Estonia. Photo by Corey Sandler

Peter I began building the magnificent Kadriorg palace in 1718. Nicolo Michetti (who later designed Peterhof in Petersburg) created a Baroque version of an Italian villa for the Russian Emperor.

Kadriorg: Catherine’s Valley.

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Kadriorg in Tallinn; across the park is the elegant Swannery. Photos by Corey Sandler

It’s not always possible to start out with a palace; sometimes you need more modest accommodations during construction.

Peter bought a little cottage nearby. The house, with a kitchen and four rooms, is pretty much the way it was when Peter used it. His extra-tall chair dominates the tiny dining room.

Outside Kadriorg is Swan Lake. Some of the trees were supposed to be replanted in gardens in Saint Petersburg. After the death of Peter I, the horse chestnuts and the swans stayed in Kadriorg.

In the 19th Century came the National Awakening, spread by schools, literacy, books, and newspapers.

In Tartu in 1869, a song festival launched a movement to revive the Estonian national identity.

Tsar Alexander III, the repressive ruler who took the Russian throne in 1881 after the assassination of his father in Saint Petersburg sent troops to Estonia to enforce Russification.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is Tallinn’s largest and grandest cathedral. The richly decorated Orthodox church was built on Toompea Hill in 1900.

Taking advantage of the chaos in Russia caused by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, Estonia declared independence on February 24, 1918.

That did not last long. Within days, Germany took over. And then in November of the same year, Germany capitulated and the Soviets moved back in.

But the Estonians fought back while the Soviets tried to sort out their own internal conflicts.

In the Tartu Peace Treaty, signed February 2, 1920, Soviet Russia renounced claims to Estonia and Finland “for all time.” In 1921 the Republic of Estonia was accepted into the League of Nations. Social and political reforms were enacted and the country became a presence in the Baltic.

But as war again raged across Europe in 1939, Hitler and Stalin engineered the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact, carving Eastern Europe into spheres of influence between Germany and the Soviet Union.

On June 16, 1940, Stalin accused the Baltic states of aggression and demanded the right to occupy them. Elections took place in July, with Soviet-approved candidates.

The peace between Hitler and Stalin ended abruptly on June 22, 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and its occupied states. Germany held Estonia for three years.

Soviet forces began air attacks in March of 1942, seriously damaging Tallinn in an attack two years later. By September 1944 the Germans retreated.

Estonia declared itself an independent Republic once again on September 18, but Soviet forces reached Tallinn four days later.

Few Estonians speak well of the Soviets, who exercised tight control over almost every aspect of life.


The former KGB headquarters in Tallinn; a plaque out front tells passersby that this was at the core of the Soviet oppression. Photo by Corey Sandler

Over the coming decades, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians were sent to live in the Estonian territory: Russification once again.

A bit of perspective: the Estonians lost more people during the first years of the Soviet occupation than during the German occupation that followed.

And Estonia lost more Jews during the Soviet times than the German occupation. The Jews were doctors, lawyers, teachers; the Soviets considered them class enemies and they were deported, many to Siberia.

Estonia would not regain its independence for fifty years, a mostly unwilling member of the USSR until 1991.

On February 24, 1977 a small act of rebellion: the blue-black-white Estonian flag was briefly raised in Tartu to mark the 59th anniversary of the first Estonian Republic.

Ten years later, a series came a second National Awakening.

TALLINN4 Song Grounds

The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn. Photo by Corey Sandler

In June 1988, more than a hundred thousand people packed the Song Festival Grounds, across the harbor from the heart of Tallinn. A few months later came the first public demand for independence.


The very avante-gard Kumu museum, near Kadriorg, includes a room full of busts with a hidden speaker system; they murmur to each other. Photo by Corey Sandler

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The very modern side of Tallinn, across from the old city. Photos by Corey Sandler

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

15-17 June 2014: Saint Petersburg, Russia

Cradle of Revolution, Capital of Culture

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Trick question: from the 9th century until the 19th century, which country was the big fish in the Baltic?

Not Russia.

Not Germany/Prussia/Austria.

It was Sweden.

In 1240, Prince of Novgorod Alexander Yaroslavich led the Russians to victory over the Swedes in the Battle of the Neva.

He changed his name to Alexander Nevsky, meaning “of the Neva.”

The victory became symbolic of Russia’s fight for independence.

And Nevsky became a Saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.

A Photo Album of Saint Petersburg. Photos by Corey Sandler, June 15-17, 2014

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The view from our ship of the Church of the Dormition, one of the lesser-known beauties of Petersburg. It includes ancient icons and fabulous frescoes; it is only now emerging from decades of Soviet abuse includeing a period of time when it was used for an indoor ice skating rink.

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Saint Isaac’s Cathedral,  left, and Kazan Cathedral (modeled after Saint Paul’s at the Vatican, an unusual adaptation of a Roman Catholic design for a Russian Orthodox Church.)

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The newly reopened Central Naval Museum, moved from the former Stock Exchange to a handsomely rebuilt old structure on the other bank of the Neva, includes artifacts dating back to Peter the Great himself.

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The Singer Sewing Machine building on Nevsky Prospect, a handsome shopping mall, and one of the many canals in what some call the Venice of the North.

Below Saint Petersburg: The Metro

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The Saint Petersburg Metro was actuall begun during World War II, but not completed until the 1950s. Because of the many canals and rivers, it is one of the deepest Metro systems in the world, and its stations amongst the most ornate. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Constantine Palace was already a burned-out shell when the Germans occupied the suburbs of Petersburg. It was only rebuilt and reopened in 2003, as a personal project promoted by Vladimir Putin as a showcase for international summits including the G20 and the G8 when Russia was still welcome as a member. We went out to make a visit and saw Putin’s empty pride. All photos by Corey Sandler


Petersburg 17June2014_DSC7058 Petersburg 17June2014_DSC7053 Petersburg 17June2014_DSC7071 Petersburg 17June2014_DSC7065 Petersburg 17June2014_DSC7084

The grave of Piotr Tchaikovsky, upper left.  All photos by Corey Sandler

StP16 Russian Museum StP17 Russian Ilya Repin

Not on the usual tourist path: The Russian Museum, with a fabulous collection of homegrown art. At right, a work by Ilya Repin. Photos by Corey Sandler

In 1613, the second and final Russian imperial dynasty began when the Romanovs took power.

In 1682, Peter the Great was crowned at the age of ten in an arrangement brokered by Sophia, one of Tsar Alexei’s daughters from his first marriage.

Peter cared little for intrigues of court.

He was much more interested in playing with his toy soldiers, and later his real soldiers.

Peter’s goal was to open trade with Europe. At that time Russia’s only outlet to the sea was at Arkhangelsk on the cold White Sea.

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Menchikov Palace, along the River Neva across from the Hermitage. Photos by Corey Sandler

The Swedes held the Baltic Sea ports to the north. The Ottomans controlled the Black Sea to the south.

Peter visited Europe, sometimes in disguise, which is hard to imagine, since he stood about six-foot-eight-inches tall and sometimes included dwarves in his traveling court.

In 1695, Peter tried to capture Azov on the Black Sea from the Ottomans. After several attempts, he succeeded in 1698—but the port was useless because the Ottomans still controlled the exit from the Black Sea at Constantinople.

And so Peter launched the Northern War with Sweden in 1700.

On May 27, 1703 the Peter and Paul Fortress was begun on an island in the Neva. Several days later Peter built a wooden cabin, the first residence.

By 1712 Saint Petersburg was Russia’s capital.

After Peter the Great died in 1725, his wife Catherine briefly took the throne but not much power. Peter’s daughter Elizabeth became Empress in 1741, leaving most affairs of state to her advisors. She concentrated on art and architecture and Saint Petersburg blossomed.

Elizabeth ordered Peter’s estate at Peterhof remodeled, combining Italian and Muscovite Baroque styles. The Grand Palace and fountains at Peterhof were covered with gold and precious stones, a great expense for an impoverished nation.

StP11 Yusopov StP12 Yusopov StP13 Yusopov

Yusupov Palace, along the Moika Canal, was owned by a fabulously rich noble–not a member of the royalty. It was here that Rasputin’s extended murder took place. The home includes a private theater, today used for small recitals. Photos by Corey Sandler

StP22 Pavlovsk StP1 Stock Exchange StP2 Rostral

Pavlovsk Palace out in the country, and the Stock Exchange (pre-Communist, of course) and the Rostral Columns on the Strelka across from the Hermitage. Photos by Corey Sandler

In 1744, princess Sophia Augusta Frederica arrived from the German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst (today’s Szczecin in Poland).

She came to meet her future husband, Grand Duke Piotr Fiodorovich. 14-year-old Sophia converted to Russian Orthodox and changed her name to Yekaterina.

They married in 1745; in 1762, her husband assumed the throne as Peter III.

Didn’t work out that well.

Six months into his reign, with Catherine’s consent or knowledge, he was overthrown by the Imperial Guard and killed.

That’s a cold marriage.

Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) set about turning Saint Petersburg into one of the grand cities of Europe. She decided to decorate the walls of the Winter Palace.

Thus was born the Hermitage, and the development of the handsome, European-oriented city of Saint Petersburg was well underway.

StP18 Ethnographic

Another less-visited gem: The Museum of Ethnography, begun by Nicholas II. It was completed after he was killed, but somehow managed to hold on to its fabulous collection through the Soviet years. Photo by Corey Sandler

Okay, that was just enough history.

In the Venice of the North there are something like 300 bridges, many of them works of art.

Our handsome, smaller ship Silver Whisper is able to sail almost right into town: along the Angliyskaya Nabererzhnaya, the English Embankment just downriver from The Hermitage.

Those monster cruise ships? They have to dock miles away, not quite in Finland but you just might be able to see Helsinki from their upper decks.

StP19 Metro StP23 Mus Cosmonautics

Two means of transport: the Petersburg Metro, not quite as opulent as the Moscow subway but still an amazing system. At right, a display the Museum of Cosmonautics at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Photos by Corey Sandler

Here are some more photos from Saint Petersburg; some are ones quite familiar to visitors. Others are off the beaten track; most foreign visitors to Russia require a visa for any independent touring.

StP4 Hermitage StP3 Church on Spilled Blood StP8 Cath Palace

The Big Three of Petersburg for most visitors: The Hermitage, the Church on Spilled Blood, and Catherine’s Palace. Photos by Corey Sandler

StP7 Hermitage StP6 Raphael Loggias StP5 Palace Square

Inside and outside the Hermitage. At times I have waited hours to be able to grab a shot without hundreds or thousands of tourists in the frame. Photos by Corey Sandler

StP14 Isaac StP15 Isaac

Outside and on top of Saint Isaac’s. The shaky climb is worth the effort but not for those with fear of heights. Photos by Corey Sandler

StP10 PPFort StP9 PPFort

Within Peter and Paul Fortress. Photos by Corey Sandler

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a copy of a photo, please contact me.

14 June 2014: Helsinki, Finland

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Both Sides Against the Middle

Helsinki is a thoroughly modern Scandinavian city with a typically complex story for this part of the world.

Helsinki is the capital and largest city of Finland, but its roots reach back to Sweden, interrupted by war and occupation by Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.

Finland, roughly the size of Germany, is on the Gulf of Finland, just 300 kilometers or 186 miles from Saint Petersburg. Tallinn, Estonia is 80 kilometers or 50 miles across the Baltic Sea.

Modern Helsinki is Finland’s center of politics, finance, technology, and education with eight major universities.

Helsinki Scenes2 HELSINKI Scene2 HELSINKI Scene1 Helsinki Ateneum

Scenes of Helsinki: The Helsinki Cathedral and the Ateneum. Photos by Corey Sandler

Helsingfors (Helsinge Rapids) was founded by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550. It was intended as a trading rival to the Hanseatic city of Reval (today’s Tallinn in Estonia.)

In 1703 Peter the Great founded his new Russian capital, Saint Petersburg, at the end of the Gulf of Finland.

From the start, Peter was determined that Russia be a great maritime power—as a young man he traveled through Europe to learn about shipbuilding and tactics, even working for a while as a tradesman.

Once Peter had his capital, he began to expand his reach toward the Baltic and his neighbor to the west: the Finnish region of Sweden.

In the Gulf of Finland he built the fortified naval base of Kronstadt.

This didn’t merely upset Sweden. Other European states were also concerned, especially France, with which Sweden had a military alliance.

In 1757 the Swedes decided to fortify the Russian frontier, and to establish a naval base at Helsinki as a counter to Kronstadt.

Work began on the islands off Helsinki in 1748. It became the great naval fortress of Sveaborg.

Svea as in Mother Svea, the national emblem of Sweden. Borg as in fortress.

Helsinki Sveaborg1

Sveaborg, now Suomenlinna Fortress in the harbor of Helsinki. Photos by Corey Sandler

In a brief diplomatic somersault during the Napoleonic Wars, France’s Emperor Napoleon agreed to allow Czar Alexander I to push Sweden out of Finland in 1808.

The Russians easily took Helsinki and began bombarding the fortress. To the consternation of the Swedes, the commander of Sveaborg negotiated a cease-fire and surrendered almost 7,000 men to the Russians.

He may have realized he was in a no-win situation. He may have sought to save civilian lives in Helsinki. And he may have fallen victim to psychological warfare by the Russians who surrounded and isolated Sveaborg.

In the 1809 Treaty of Fredrikshamn, Finland was ceded from Sweden and became an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire.

Although the Finns never particularly liked the Swedes, they were even less happy with the Russians.

But the Russians helped develop Helsinki into a major city. The Russians expanded Sveaborg with more barracks, fortifications, and naval facilities.

During the build-up to World War I, the fortress was beefed up again as part of the outer defenses of the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg.

The Russians rebuilt much of the heart of Helsinki in neoclassical style, resembling Saint Petersburg.

Just above our ship on the hillside is the Uspenski Cathedral, one of the last obvious vestiges of Imperial Russian occupation of Finland. Completed in 1868, it was modeled after a 16th century church near Moscow.

Helsinki Uspenski1

Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki. Photo by Corey Sandler

But in 1917, as Czarist Russia was devolving in Revolution, Finland won its independence.

Among the first acts by the Finns was to drop the Swedish name Sveaborg in favor of Suomenlinna, which means Finland’s Castle.

The Finns headed straight for a small Russian Orthodox Church on the island. They took down the onion domes, converting its tower into a lighthouse.

Today Suomenlinna is no longer a fortress. Instead it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Helsinki Market1 Helsinki Market2 Helsinki Market3

More scenes of Helsinki: the market. Photos by Corey Sandler

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The old-fashioned National Museum and the very, very modern Kiasma art museum. Photos by Corey Sandler

After World War I, the relationship between Finland and the Soviet Union was tense.

Some Finns held a dream of “Greater Finland” which included the Soviet-controlled portion of Karelia.

That did not sit well with the Soviets; the 1930s Finnish border was only 20 miles away from Leningrad—today’s Saint Petersburg.

In addition, the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland—the sea approach to Petersburg—was Finnish.

Up north, the entrance to the vital port of Murmansk was also flanked by Finnish territory.

And so, the military history of Finland during World War II is mostly shades of gray.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Finland was on the side of the angels at any point.

Between 1939 and 1945, Finland fought three wars: the Winter War alone against the Soviet Union, the Continuation War in association with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, and finally the Lapland War at the instigation of the Soviet Union against Germany.

So, they fought against the Soviet Union before they fought with them.

And they fought with Nazi Germany before they fought against them.

All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a copy of a photo, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

12 June 2014: Riga, Latvia

Reborn Free

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

I was once 22 years old.

And my wife and I raised a couple of children from birth to adulthood—including a not-so-wonderful period of time in which they were 22 years old.

You remember the time, right?

Latvia and Estonia each emerged from behind the Iron Curtain 22 years ago.

Both countries are by no means newborns; their history goes back thousands of years.[whohit]-Riga 12Jun-[/whohit]

They were under the thumb of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for the second half of the 20th century.

And now they are in their twenties: full of energy, embued with talent, prone to momentary flashes of brilliance and great, clumsy stumbles.

A Photo Album: Riga, Latvia 12 June 2014

RIGA Street

On the street in Riga. Photo by Corey Sandler

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Riga BLOG 12June2014_DSC6845 Riga BLOG 12June2014_DSC6847

All photos by Corey Sandler, copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

This year, 2014, Riga takes the spotlight as the European Capital of Culture.

We’re coming in summer, but Merry Christmas nevertheless. Riga claims that the idea of a decorated Christmas tree began right here. There are documents from the House of Blackheads reporting a tree was raised in 1510.

It wasn’t an evergreen with tinsel and LED lights. It was a pyramid-shaped wooden structure, decorated with dried flowers, fruit and vegetables, and straw toys.

RIGA Christmas Tree

A Christmas Tree in downtown Riga. Photo by Corey Sandler

Then, some say, the tree was paraded around the meeting hall before being set on fire to signify the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

Actually, the Blackheads were active in Riga and in Estonia and both places claim bragging rights.

Russian and Soviet Shadows

In the 1880s, under Czar Alexander III, a period of Russification began.

When the Soviet Union swept in at the start of World War II and then again in the Cold War years from 1945 to 1991, there were more intense efforts to Russify Latvia.

RIGA Soviet War Monument

A Soviet World War II Memorial in Latvia. Photo by Corey Sandler

Waves of Russian immigrants came from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia itself. In 1935, ethnic Latvians made up about 80 percent of the population; today, about half.

With independence in 1991, Latvian was made the official language. There is, though, bilingual education in primary schools for ethnic minorities including Russian, Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Estonian, and Roma.

At the same time, they are trying to remove foreign words, mostly Russian and English terms.

Despite two world wars and German and Soviet occupation, Riga has managed to retain a colorful and handsome central core, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rebuilding some of its greatest churches and buildings has only been completed in the last decade. They range in design from Gothic to Modernist.

The city is particularly notable for its extensive Jugendstil or German Art Nouveau architecture. Many of the more spectacular structures were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, a Russian architect who worked in Riga early in the 20th century.


Some of the amazing Jugenstil or German Art Nouveau architecture in downtown Riga. Photos by Corey Sandler

 All text and photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.


11 June 2014: Klaipeda, Lithuania

The Best Port in the Country

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Klaipeda is the largest, most successful, most impressive port in the Republic of Lithuania.[whohit]-Klaipeda 11Jun-[/whohit]

It is also the only port in Lithuania. I’m just saying.

The port and city have been through many hands across its history, spending most of its modern life as part of Germany, then emerging from Soviet control as part of free Lithuania.

A Klaipeda Photo Album, June 11, 2014

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All photos by Corey Sandler. All rights reserved, copyright 2014

During the night, sailing northeast from Gdansk, Poland we passed along the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, the former German city of Königsberg. It’s a disconnected piece of Russia, not much in the news although its Baltic neighbors–Ukraine on their minds—eye it warily.

Modern Lithuania borders Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east and south, Poland to the south, and Kaliningrad to the southwest.

By the end of the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was by some measures the largest country in Europe.

It extended from the Baltic Sea at Klaipeda to the Black Sea at Odessa, encompassing Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia.

In geopolitical terms, Lithuania has always been betwixt and between, one of those countries that has both benefited and been severely punished for its location.

It stands between Germany and Russia. It once had ports on both the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.

For those reasons and others, war has ground through Lithuania in all directions.

For much of its history, Klaipeda was known by its Germanic name of Memel.

After the unification of the German Empire in 1871, Memel became Germany’s most northerly city.

It began to lose out to the nearby port of Königsberg, the capital of the province, which at the time was capable of handling larger vessels.

After World War II, it remained in Soviet hands.

In March 1990, a year before the formal break-up of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence.

All photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. All rights reserved. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

10 June 2014: A New Journey Begins. Gdansk, Poland

Gdansk, Poland

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

A Beginning and an End

Welcome aboard. Our cruise aboard Silversea Silver Whisper began yesterday in Copenhagen.

We’re set for a circle of the Baltic, from Denmark to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Russia, Estonia, and Sweden.

Silversea Map 4413

We begin our cruise in the Baltic in Gdansk, a place of great history for Poland, two World Wars, and the Soviet Union.[whohit]-Gdansk 10June-[/whohit]

Gdansk may have seen the first military action of World War II, and also the place where the first successful opposition to Soviet rule arose four decades later.

In the 20th century, a beginning and an end.

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Scenes from the old city of Gdansk on a glorious June day. Photos by Corey Sandler

Gdańsk, Gdynia, and the spa town of Sopot make up the Trójmiasto, the Tri-cities.

Gdańsk is at the mouth of the Motława River, a branch of the Vistula or Wisła, Poland’s longest river.

The Wisła flows 650 miles or 1,400 kilometers through Kraków and Warsaw before reaching the Bay of Gdańsk.

Norwegian Vikings sailed up the Vistula, and it was later a major trade route from the Polish-Lithuania confederation to Western Europe.

Sopot is considered Poland’s premier seaside resort, which might seem faint praise since the country was cut off from the sea for decades at a time. But it is a lively place today.

Sopot became part of the Free City of Gdańsk under the Treaty of Versailles and the Grand Hotel (now the Sofitel Grand Sopot Hotel) was a popular casino and spa in a golden age between the wars.

GDANSK Grand Hotel Sopot

The Grand Hotel Sopot. Photo by Corey Sandler

The First Shots of World War II

At 4:45am on September 1, 1939, the elderly German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, supposedly on a goodwill visit opened fire on the Polish garrison at Westerplatte in the port of Danzig, today’s Gdansk.

On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Within two weeks Warsaw and most of western Poland had fallen to German forces.

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Silver Whisper sailed into Gdansk and docked at Westerplatte, within a few hundred feet of where the first military action of World War II took place in 1939. Today a monument marks the unhappy moment. Photos by Corey Sandler

Under terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which carved up the region to the satisfaction of Hitler and Stalin, the Germans were met by Soviets coming west. The Germans displaced most ethnic Poles, sending millions of Jews and others to concentration or extermination camps.

About 35 miles east of Gdansk is the Stutthof concentration camp.The origins of the camp date back to the prewar Free City of Danzig. Nazi functionaries made plans for a camp to detain and eventually exterminate undesirable elements. It opened in August 1939, before the German invasion.

Under German occupation, Poland was dotted with concentration and extermination camps, about 457 in total. About 5 million Polish citizens went through the camps. About 1.1 million were murdered at Auschwitz, about 870,000 at Treblinka, 434,000 at Belzec, and 200,000 at Sobibor.

When the Soviets led the charge back toward Germany in 1945, what little was left in much of Poland was destroyed by infantry and aerial bombardment. The Soviets killed or displaced millions more.

GDANSK Long Street GDANSK Artus Fountain GDANSK Scenes4 GDANSK Scenes3 GDANSK Scenes2 GDANSK Scenes1

Scenes of Gdansk, a handsome city rebuilt from the rubble of German, then Soviet assaults in World War II. Photos by Corey Sandler

Modern Gdansk

Today Gdansk is a handsome and bustling city. It appears centuries old, but most of what greets visitors has been rebuilt since World War II.

So, World War II essentially started in Gdansk, and there followed four decades of misery as a Soviet puppet state. But the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union also has some of its roots here.

The Solidarity workers’ union rose at the Gdansk and Gdynia shipyards.

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The Gdansk Shipyard and monuments to Solidarity. Photos by Corey Sandler

Some of the people involved in the events were very well-known:

Pope John Paul II, born Carol Karol Wojtyła in Wadowice near Krakow.

Lech Wałęsa, born in 1943, was an electrician. Soon after joining the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk, he became a leader of the dissident trade-union there.

He was harassed by the Communist authorities, fired in 1976, and arrested several times. In August 1980, he was instrumental in political negotiations that unexpectedly led to an agreement between striking workers and the government.

The United States and other western powers and groups provided aid and applied pressure, emboldening the Solidarity trade union.

In the United States, some unusual overt and covert alliances formed including American union leaders and incoming president Ronald Reagan, unnatural allies.

Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. By 1989, Brezhnev was dead and the Soviet Union teetered on collapse.

In that year, the Polish government allowed part of the Parliament to be freely elected, and candidates allied with Solidarity won nearly as many seats as the ruling Communist party.

In November 1990, Lech Walesa won Poland’s first direct Presidential election.

All photos and text copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a photo, please contact me.


3-4 May 2014: Constanţa, Romania and Istanbul, Turkey

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Our politically adjusted tour of the Black Sea has come to an end. Because of bad weather in Nesebar, Bulgaria we are headed now for Istanbul.

I want to wish all of our guests—old friends and new—safe travels. I will be going home for a brief vacation, returning in June on our sister ship Silver Whisper in the Baltic.

We enjoyed a spring-like day in Constanţa, Romania. I went with a group of guests to an unusual part of Europe: the Danube River Delta, a thicket of willow trees and other flora. We were escorted by a flotilla of frogs alongside and flocks of birds (eagles, herons, hawks, and more) above.[whohit]-Constanta and Istanbul 3-4May-[/whohit]

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In the Danube River Delta of Romania. Photos by Corey Sandler

The delta reminded me a bit of river deltas in Costa Rica. Without the crocodiles and caimans.

Romania—like Bulgaria and Turkey— straddles the crossroads of history. Its past, and to a great extent its future, hinges on the land and sea bridge between Europe and Asia.

Romania is roughly the size of the United Kingdom but with only about one-third the  population, just 20 million people.

Hungary and Serbia are to the west, Ukraine and Moldova to the northeast and east, and Bulgaria to the south.

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Riverboats and a floating hotel in the Danube Delta near Tulcea. Photos by Corey Sandler

Its eastern portion, which includes the capital city of Bucharest is relatively flat and easy to traverse.

But running through the mid-section in a rambling “S” are the Carpathian Mountains heading down from western Ukraine and southernmost Poland…and heading west toward Serbia…the Transylvanian Alps.

In August 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Romania declared neutrality. Two years later in 1916, under pressure from the Allies eespecially France, which was desperate to open a new front), Romania joined with Russia and the Allies, declaring war against the armies of the Central Powers which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans.

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Tulcea, and a field of rapeseed. The crop is used to produce canola oil for cooking as well as biodiesel fuel, a renewable crop for a renewing nation. Photos by Corey Sandler

As the price for their entry the Romanians demanded recognition of their claim to Transylvania, which had been controlled by Austria-Hungary since the 17th century and under Hungarian rule since the 11th century.

The fighting did not go well, and the Allied front collapsed when the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war.

Romania, left surrounded by the Central Powers, signed an armistice.

In just a bit more than a year, about 748,000 Romanian civilians and military died in the war.

At the end of World War I in 1918, Romania was larger than it had ever been or would ever be again.

During the Second World War, Romania again tried to remain neutral, but on June 28, 1940, it received an ultimatum from the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were carving out spheres of influence, part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed with Germany in 1939.

Under Nazi and Soviet pressure, the Romanians were forced to retreat from Bessarabia and northern Bukovina.

And then Romania went one step further, joining the Axis powers.

And Romania shrunk further. Southern Dobruja was ceded to Bulgaria, while Hungary received Northern Transylvania as a payback from the Axis.

Then as is now, oil was a major factor in war. Romania was the most important source of oil for Nazi Germany, which brought bombing raids by Allied forces.

In August 1944, with Soviet Russia moving to retake Romania, Romania changed sides and joined the Allies.

King Michael was a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria by both of his parents, and a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

Still alive at age 92, he is one of the last surviving heads of state from World War II, along with the former King Simeon II of Bulgaria.

But Romania’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany was not recognized at the Paris Peace Conference of 1947; even though the Romanian Army had suffered 170,000 casualties after switching sides.

And now Romania was held by the Soviets.

In 1947, King Michael I was forced to abdicate and leave the country, and Romania was proclaimed a people’s republic.

Romania remained under military occupation and economic control of the USSR until the late 1950s.

During this period, Romania’s vast natural resources were drained by the Soviet Union. Private firms were nationalized, and agriculture collectivized.

The Communist government established a reign of terror, carried out mainly through the Securitate secret police.

Many “enemies of the state” were killed, deported, or sent to forced labor camps and prisons.

Records show hundreds of thousands of instances of torture or murder by the state.

In 1965 Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power and started to pursue a path somewhat independent of the Soviets.

Ceauşescu’s small separation from the Soviet Union drew the interest of Western powers. They saw him as an anti-Soviet maverick, or at least a pawn that could be played to widen a schism in the Warsaw Pact.

Romania received massive loans from the West—more than $13 billion—to finance economic development.

Ceauşescu ordered the export of much of Romania’s agriculture and industrial production to repay its debts. Food rationing was introduced and gas and electricity black-outs were common.

Ceauşescu shut down all radio stations outside of the capital, and limited television to one channel broadcasting two hours a day.

He enveloped himself in a cult of personality: Ceausescu was Romania, and the other way around.

By some accounts, in his final years Romania was the most Stalinist regime in the Soviet bloc.

In late 1989, demonstrations broke out.

Ceauşescu went on a state visit to Iran—another paradigm of democracy at the time—and left the job of crushing the revolt to his wife and cronies.

When he returned, he blamed the problem on foreign interference.

Ceauşescu and his wife Elena fled the capital by helicopter, but were eventually arrested by the army. On Christmas Day 1989, they were put on trial on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to genocide.

The trial lasted all of two hours. They were found guilty and immediately sentenced to death, taken outside the building and put up against a wall.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the 1989 Revolution, Romania began its transition towards democracy and a capitalist market economy, a process that has been somewhat successful.

Romania joined NATO in 2004, and the European Union in 2007.

And today, though Romania is better off than when Ceauşescu was in power, it still remains desperately poor in many regions.

We wish Romania (and its neighbor Ukraine) well. And to our guests: arrivederci. Till we meet again.

All photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. All rights reserved. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)


2 May 2014: Odessa, Ukraine

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We slipped into Odessa under cover of darkness and woke to a glorious day in one of the most handsome cities of Europe.

And at the close of the day, we sailed out of port with all guests and crew accounted for.

In between: some of us witnessed what may be the beginning of the end of peace–and independence–in this huge tinderbox nation. Riots broke out between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine factions: from rocks to firebombs to assaults on a government building and deaths.

We had previously canceled our scheduled port calls to Yalta and Sevastopol in Crimea; there was not much debate about the need to do that once the southernmost portion of Ukraine came fully under control of Russia. But Odessa seemed secure, a place with a significant history of many cultures living together and creating art and music and society.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia has found ways to stoke the nasty fires of separatism, especially in places where Ukraine has been heavily Russified over the past century: the eastern portion of the country is predominately populated by ethnic Russians who were brought there by the Czars and then the Soviet Union.

On the day we arrived in Odessa, a football match was scheduled between a local team and one from the eastern part of Ukraine near Russia. The morning started with parades of football supporters. Somewhere in that mix, it appears, were some bent on provocation and violence and by the end of the day Odessa was fully in the mix.

Competing marches of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian football supporters became marches of pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia activists and eventually violence and death.

We wish beautiful Odessa and the people of Ukraine the best. We hope to return to a free, safe, and happy country again.

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A pro-Ukrainian demonstration in the morning, and a bandura performer in the park. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Inside some of the mansions of the beautiful city of Odessa. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Church of the Assumption in Odessa, a place of solitude and grace in a time of near-war. Photos by Corey Sandler

30 April 2014: Sochi, Russia

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Remember The Olympic Games?

Sochi was a place little known outside of Russia until just months ago.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, and some of the companies and institutions under his thumb spent something on the order of $60 billion to create a show demonstrating the emergence of a “new Russia.”

And then just days after the Olympics came to a successful conclusion, Putin demonstrated a return to what many consider the “old Russia.”

And so today, while the world’s attention is riveted on the events in Crimea and The Ukraine, in Sochi the people are left to wonder, “what’s next?”

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The Maritime Terminal of Sochi and the historic Cathedral of Saint Michael, the first a vestige of Soviet times and the second one of the few remnants of the Czars. Saint Michaels was completed in 1890, left neglected during the Soviet Era and restored in 1993. Photos by Corey Sandler

When Sochi took the world spotlight in February, it put on display a place very much symbolic of the enigma that was Russia, then the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation.

Putin spent a huge amount of money on a project that may never turn a profit, but that word—even in modern Russia—does not always enter discussions.

But before Putin, another Russian ruler made his mark on Sochi.

The Winter Games might not have come to Sochi were it not for Joseph Stalin. From 1937 until his death 16 years later, Stalin came down from Moscow to the Black Sea for rest and recuperation and the other things he did as ruler.

And with Stalin came others in the Communist political elite.

Vladimir Putin has his own presidential residence not far from where Stalin stayed.

Putin came for the waters, and what was at first a rather primitive ski resort.

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The stadium built for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. It was located in Adler, about 20 miles south of Sochi. Today, like much of the sites, it stands empty, in search of a new use. Photo by Corey Sandler

Sochi, is the unofficial “Summer Capital” of Russia.

Home to about 415,000 people, it is one of the southernmost parts of the country, about 1,600 kilometers or 1,000 miles south of Moscow.

Russia is a wintry country. It’s hard to find a place where there isn’t snow and winter sports in January and February.

But Vladimir Putin, who does often play by his own rules, chose Sochi.

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Up in the mountains about 40 minutes above Sochi is Krasnaya Polyana and the Rosa Khutor ski areas. It is a spectacular site, and the snow cover in late April was still there although that is not a certainty every year. Photos by Corey Sandler

As Czarist and then Soviet Russia began to use Sochi as a summer resort, the city built attractions like the Arboretum and Riviera Park. Intensive resort construction began in the 1920s. During World War II, most of the city was given over to rehabilitation hospitals for wounded soldiers.

While coastal Sochi was developed, up in the Caucasus Mountains, Krasnaya Polyana was mostly left alone. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, some locals developed a small and very rough ski area. Pure capitalism and sweat equity.

Things began to change in 2000, when new president Vladimir Putin tried it out. He returned many times.

In July 2007, Putin went to Guatemala City to speak—in English, something he does not do often in public—to the International Olympic Committee.

In 2008, the Gazprom oil company bought the ski area. According to some, this was not a friendly takeover.

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The ski jump hill at the mountain cluster and the Rosa Khutor Olympic Village. Photos by Corey Sandler

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A branch of the American embassy at the Olympic site. Want to supersize those fries? Photos by Corey Sandler

Depending on how you choose to look at it, the 2014 Winter Olympic were one or more of the following: Vladimir Putin’s extravagant personal party and financial bonanza for his closest buddies, a sincere effort to regenerate the economy of the Russian Black Sea Coast, a signal that Czar Putin is on the throne, restoring Russia to its former greatness. At least until the bills come due.

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Gazprom, the Russian Oil monopoly about 50 percent owned by the state, developed much of the mountain cluster for the Sochi Olympics. They also built the huge Gazprom Galaktika Center as a reception area for VIPs and guests. Two months after the Olympics it stands mostly empty; we toured theaters and halls and displays about the Russian Space program completely unmolested by other visitors. Photos by Corey Sandler

But in the end, as Putin has demonstrated in Crimea, he does not really care much about what the outside world thinks of him: only those within the (expanded) Russian borders.

All photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. All rights reserved. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

29 April 2014: Batumi, Republic of Georgia

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Dear readers: an update on our visit to Batumi.

Although guests who booked this cruise thought we were going to be making a call in the Republic of Georgia, I am sorry to tell you that is not correct.

We actually arrived in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara.

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Old Batumi includes an impressive–and gaudy theater, set on a grand square with a gilded statue. Photos by Corey Sandler

Batumi is the regional capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara.

So it’s not Georgia?

No, except when it is Georgia.

The Autonomous Republic of Adjara is an autonomous Republic of Georgia.

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Scenes of Batumi. Photos by Corey Sandler

Adjara has its own constitution, and its own Parliament.

Adjara is in southwestern Georgia, extending from the Black Sea to the wooded foothills and mountains of the Lesser Caucasus. The highest mountains rise more than 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) above sea level.

The ancient Greek colony of Colchis had a settlement called Bathus, from the Greek phrase bathus limen meaning “deep harbor.”

Under Hadrian, it was converted into a fortified Roman port. Roman-Byzantine forces held it for most of the next eight centuries.

At the end of the 10th century, Batumi came under the unified kingdom of Georgia.

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks briefly conquered the town. The Ottomans returned and took the region in 1614.

Under the Ottomans most of the people of Adjara converted to Islam. And then in 1878, the Ottomans were forced to cede Adjara to the expanding Russian Empire, part of Russia’s push into the eastern end of the Black Sea.

Russia installed a railway in 1900 from Batumi to Tilibilisi and on to Baku, the capital and port city of Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea.

Soon afterwards, an oil pipeline was completed from Baku to Batumi. Oil and politics and lots of money; little has changed in the past century.

As Russia fell apart during its Civil War, Adjara was occupied by Turkish and British troops from 1918 to 1920.

In 1921, the Turkish government ceded Adjara to the newborn Democratic Republic of Georgia on condition that autonomy be guaranteed for its Muslim population.

And then under the rising Soviet Union came the establishment of the Adjar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

For the next 70 years, it was an autonomous part of the autonomous Republic of Georgia, which was in turn a puppet state of the Soviet Union with only limited autonomy.

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Gonio Fortress near Batumi. Photos by Corey Sandler

Gonio-Apsaros Fortress is about 15 kilometers or 10 miles south of Batumi, very close to the border with Turkey. The settlement of Gonio was a fortified Roman city within Colchis, dating from the 1st century or earlier.

The walls are younger, dating from the Byzantine era, and the parapets or merlons were added during Turkish occupation.

Modern Adjara has encouraged foreign investment. Batumi has a coastline punctuated with modern tall buildings:

Skyscraper City, some call it.

Kazakh investors reportedly invested $100 million to purchase more than 20 hotels in Adjara. Other money comes from the Middle East.

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They love extravagant, unusual, sometimes gaudy, and often downright odd architecture in modern Batumi. Think of Las Vegas and Disneyworld, without the high culture. And yes, that is a Ferris wheel of sorts, built into the side of a technical institute along the seafront. Photos by Corey Sandler

For an outsider, the easiest thing about the Georgian language is its name: Kartuli. Other than that, speaking for myself at least, all is lost.

Their alphabet looks to me like a mashup of Farsi, Sanskrit, and an explosion at a noodle factory.

The Georgian language is not related to any major language.

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The Alphabet Tower celebrates the abstruse Georgian alphabet. Photo by Corey Sandler

All photos and text copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a copy of a photo, please contact me.

28 April 2014: Trabzon, Turkey

Finding Trabzon

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Trabzon has been a major trading port for millennia. Modern Trabzon has a population of more than 230,000 in the city.

The Republic of Genoa had an important merchant colony within the city that was similar to Galata near Constantinople (north across the Golden Horn) in present-day Istanbul. Trabzon formed the basis of several states in its long history and was the capital city of the Empire of Trebizond between 1204 and 1461.

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The astounding Sumela Monastery, completed in 386, was somehow carved into the cliffside about 1,200 meters or 3,900 feet above sea level in the Pontic Mountains near Trabzon. We don’t know much about how they were built, and even today it is a difficult task to get to them: car or coach for an hour into the hills, transfer to a small dolmus minivan up a switchback road, and then hike up a path better suited for goats than people. Photos by Corey Sandler

During the late Ottoman period, the city became an important Christian center. One of the former treasures of the region is the Trebizond Gospel, a Byzantine illuminated manuscript with the text of Gospel Lectionary, dating from the 11th century and 10th century.

The book was richly decorated with gold and jewels by the Trapezuntine Emperor Andronicus. In 1858, the Trebizond Gospel was presented by the Orthodox Metropolitan of Trebizond to the Emperor Alexander II of Russia, who donated it to the Russian National Library, where is held to the present day. Good luck getting it back.

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Some of the ancient frescoes at Sumela. Photos by Corey Sandler

As Turkey has developed, Trabzon has grown with it.

The coastal highway and a new harbor increased commercial relations with Central Anatolia and the outside world. Nevertheless, Trabzon is by no means as developed or Westernized as Istanbul or port cities like Kusadasi on the Aegean.

The current ethnic background of the people of Trabzon is mostly Turkish. There is still a small community of Greek or Pontic-speaking Muslims and some Armenians.

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The Agia Sophia Church was built in the 13th century, converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Era in the 16th century, made a museum in modern Turkey in 1957, and returned to its role as a mosque about a year ago. Its Christian icons and frescoes are covered by curtains during Islamic prayer times. Photos by Corey Sandler

Since the end of the Soviet Union, there has been immigration from Russia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus—mostly Georgia.

Some of the original people of the region, the Laz, are also found in Trabzon and in small villages outside of the city. The Laz are descendants of one of the chief tribes of ancient kingdom of Colchis.

They were initially early adopters of Christianity in the region.

However, most of them converted to Sunni Islam during Ottoman rule in the 16th century.

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The Ortahisar Buyuk Fatih Mosque in Trabzon dates from 1316, although its earliest use was as a Christian church used for the coronation of Byzantine Emperors. Photo by Corey Sandler

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In Trabzon, on a hilltop overlooking the harbor, is a much-loved ornate home known as the Attaturk Country House. Turks come on pilgrimage, some making multiple visits, which is more than Attaturk did: he stayed only two nights.

All photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact me.