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]sandlerbooks.com (Replace the [AT] with the @ symbol, please.)

21 September 2013: Prince Christian Sound, Greenland

That’s Ice…Prins Christian Sund, Greenland

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Let there be light.

And ice, snow, glaciers, and whales.

After an abundance of gray and some unmusical rock ‘n roll, Silver Whisper arrived at Greenland at midday on Saturday. And the skies turned blue and the sun shone on some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.

The Prince Christian Sound (Prins Christian Sund in Danish) is below the mainland of Greenland and includes Christian IV Island and other islands.

The sound connects the Irminger Sea to the west with the Labrador Sea to the east.

There is only one settlement along this sound, Aappilattoq.

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Sea Smoke passes above icebergs in Prince Christian Sound. Photo by Corey Sandler

We spent about seven hours passing…carefully…through the 60-mile-long Prins Christian Sun (Prince Christian Sound) at the southern end of Greenland. I’ve been to Greenland before, but this was the most glorious day we have ever seen at this high a latitude.

I was up on the bridge to give commentary to the guests, and there I met Magnus, the Ice Pilot who had come on board the ship to assist the captain and crew in navigating in the sound. Ice Pilot is a very specialized job: he is not there to advise on navigation, but instead to share his understanding of the currents and winds and the ways in which huge icebergs move.

Magnus joined us in Reykjavik and will stay onboard until Cornerbrook, Newfoundland.

I did mention icebergs, right? There were hundreds of major ones in the sound and thousands more once we emerged. The largest were the size of apartment buildings, and we were seeing only the one-third or one sixth that was above the surface.

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Ice in the sound. Photos by Corey Sandler

On our starboard side, the cliffs rose 1500 meters (about 5000 feet) in a near vertical wall; a few miles inland the plateau was more than 2000 meters high. And nearly all of the interior of Greenland, perhaps 80 percent, is still covered with snow. The snowpack and glaciers are declining, yes, but there is still a huge amount of ice in Greenland.

At the end of the day, the temperature dropped into the mid- to lower forties, and temperature inversions cause fog and sea smoke to hover above the water, bisecting some of the bergs for dramatic emphasis.

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Aboard Silver Whisper in Prince Christian Sound. Photos by Corey Sandler

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After Ansel Adams. Photo by Corey Sandler

All photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. All rights reserved. If you’d like a copy, please contact me.

19 September 2013 Reykjavik, Iceland

REYKJAVIK, ICELAND: A WILD RIDE TO THE MOON

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We arrived in Reykjavik on Wednesday night, more than 12 hours late. It wasn’t a traffic jam that held us up, but rather a pretty fierce ocean storm between the northern reaches of the United Kingdom and Iceland.

While we were in Belfast, with plans to move out the next night to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, our very capable and cautious captain Angelo Corsaro wore a ridge in his worry beads. There was a storm, with huge swells and high winds, heading our way.

The decision was to stay overnight in Belfast and delay our departure before heading west toward Iceland. Doing that would give us the chance to come below the heart of the storm and miss its worst effects. It also meant we would have to skip our call at Stornoway, which was a shame: I had planned on shopping for a replacement for my 20-year-old Harris Tweed jacket at the looms there.

The plan worked, but we can only imagine how bad it would have been if we had attempted to stay on schedule. We traveled for two days in an extra-tropical hurricane—the remnants of Humberto—that spread in a spiral more than a thousand miles across.

Barometic pressure dropped below 960 hectopascals; that’s way low. And that low pressure engendered high winds of as much as 95 kilometers or 55 miles per hours. Wave heights were as much as 30 to 35 feet.

That said, Silver Whisper acquitted herself very well. The stabilizers stabilized most of the roll and our navigational plan reduced much of the pitch from bow to stern. But it was a noisy, somewhat bumpy ride.

Throw things at me if you will, but I am one of the horrible people who actually enjoys the feeling of motion on a ship.  Excuse me while I duck the plate someone just threw at me.

Most of our guests managed quite well, and I gave three lectures during the storm. The guests in the theatre were nicely seated; I was the one sliding to and fro on the stage.

ARRIVAL IN REYKJAVIK

What do you do if you get lost in a forest in Iceland? Stand up.

That’s a local joke in and around Reykjavik, which—to be charitable—is not the most green place on the planet. Green as in trees, that is. When it comes to sustainable energy, they’re way beyond Green.

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Hot springs and fumaroles just outside of the capital city of Reykjavik on the Erykjanes Peninsula. Photos by Corey Sandler

We’ve been to Reykjavik many times. It is one of our favorite places because of the spectacular landscape. In and around the capital city is mostly a lunar landscape, but the rest of the island includes green meadows, huge icefields and glaciers, waterfalls, and rocky coasts.

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A hot spring and a hot geothermal plant. Photos by Corey Sandler

The weather, though, is always challenging.

When we arrived Wednesday night we were heartened by the fact that the sky was clear. There was a hunt of the Northern Lights, obscured by the artificial lights of the city.

But when we awoke Thursday, we were back in the rain. A cold rain. In places just a few degrees above the point where we would have been in a snowstorm.

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Climbing a (small) volcano for a peek within. Photos by Corey Sandler

Before I met guests on our tour, I spoke with a local, asking for the forecast. What a shame, she said, it has only rained here twice this summer. She took a beat, and then continued: once for 20 days, and the next time for 40.

So we dealt with the rain but still had a glorious time at hot springs, hot geysers, and lava all around.

At the hot springs there is a distinct odor of sulphur in the air. The Icelanders, of course, have an explanation: the hot water they use to heat their homes and fill their tubs comes second-hand, they say. The trolls have already bathed in it, which accounts for the odor.

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Iceland is split down the middle by a fissure, one side moving toward Europe the other toward the United States. Insert your own political commentary here. At this bridge, we walked from one continent to the other, at least as defined by geographers. Photos by Corey Sandler

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Love Locks again, on the bridge between the continents. Photo by Corey Sandler

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Inside the Pearl, a huge storage tank for geothermal water in Reykjavik. There’s a gift shop, too. Photos by Corey Sandler

The solution, I learned, is to hire ourselves a magician to clear the skies ahead of us as we head out tonight for Greenland. When Icelanders refer to a magician or a wizard, they speak of someone who “knows beyond his nose.”

Presumably that means brimstone and sulphur is not involved.

All photos copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy please contact me through the Order a Print tab on this blog.

16 September 2013: Belfast, Northern Ireland: A Titanic City and a Giant’s Causeway

A Titanic City and a Giant’s Causeway

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We headed north from Dublin to Belfast, the capital and largest city of Northern Ireland, which is—like it or not for some residents—part of the United Kingdom.[whohit]-Belfast-[/whohit]

A tenuous peace has more-or-less taken root in the past two decades, with some level of power-sharing between the two sides:

The Unionists or Loyalists (mostly Protestants supporting the continued link to the United Kingdom) and Republicans (mostly Catholics who want a union with the independent nation of Ireland.)

You can call it a religious conflict.

Or a political divide.

Or a clash of cultures.

Locally, they call it The Troubles.

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Queen’s College, Belfast. Photo by Corey Sandler

In the Industrial Age, Belfast flourished as a center for two major industries: linen (which is the source of one of the city’s nicknames, Linenopolis), and shipbuilding.

At the sprawling yards of Harland and Wolff, the RMS Titanic was built.

The shipyard is still there, now devoted to new industries like wind farms and offshore drilling.

But the newest major attraction is Titanic Belfast, which opened last year to coincide with the centenary of the incomplete maiden voyage of the luxury liner.

The angular metallic structure was intended, according to its designers, to evoke the image of ship.

It stands 126 feet (38 m) high, the same height as Titanic’s hull.

Locals have already applied their own nickname: The Iceberg.

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Belfast Titanic Museum

The museum on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard tells the stories of the ill-fated RMS Titanic and her sister ships RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic.

That last ship had been intended as a liner, but was converted at the start of World War I to be a hospital ship; it struck an underwater mine off the Greek island of Kea on the morning of November 21, 1916 and sank.

There were 1,066 people on board, but only 30 died.

The Britannic was the largest ship lost during the First World War.

ANOTHER GIANT

One of the more extraordinary natural wonders of Northern Ireland lies along the Antrim Coast.

The Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption.

The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea.

Most of the columns are hexagonal (six-sided), although there are also some with four, five, seven or eight sides.

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Giant’s Causeway. Photos by Corey Sandler

Some 50 to 60 million years ago, Antrim was subject to intense volcanic activity.

Molten basalt intruded through chalk beds to form an extensive lava plateau.

As the lava cooled rapidly, contraction occurred.

Horizontal contraction fractured in a similar way to drying mud, with the cracks propagating down as the mass cooled, leaving pillarlike structures, which are also fractured horizontally into “biscuits”.

So much for science.

According to legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant.

The Irish giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner.

Finn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet.

In one version of the story, Fionn has second thoughts about his upcoming battle when he realizes that his foe is much bigger than him.

Fionn’s wife, Úna, disguises Fionn as a baby and tucks him in a cradle.

When Benandonner sees the size of the ‘baby’, he reckons that its father, Fionn, must be a giant among giants.

He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn could not follow.

I like that version.

I think of it as another Titanic, a half-completed crossing of the sea.

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Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland                         The bay at Giants Causeway

Photos by Corey Sandler

12 September 2013: Setting Sail for the New World

SOUTHAMPTON TO CANADA: 12 September 2013

The next leg of our journey will take us from Southampton to Cornwall at the southeastern tip of the United Kingdom, Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, Belfast in Northern Ireland, and then on to Iceland, Greenland, and Atlantic Canada.

Here’s our plan.

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FALMOUTH, U.K.: 13 September 2013

PASTIES AND PIRATES

This is an interesting part of the United Kingdom with a great deal of history, and not all that much visited.

Cornwall forms the southwestern tip of the mainland of Great Britain.

One of the local specialties is the Cornish Pasty, which was one of the original fast foods. It was developed as a way to provide a hot, sealed meal for the workers in the mines of Cornwall.

The ingredients include “swede”, which some people call turnip but is a yellow turnip or rutabaga.

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A Pasty maker in Falmouth. Photos by Corey Sandler

The word is pronounced PASS-TEE, by the way.

Not PAIS-TEE, of course, which is something completely different.

In the Caribbean, on the French island of Les Saintes, native women still bake something similar: Les Tourments d’Amour, the torments of love which had their origin as a packaged meal given the fishermen heading off for a day’s work at sea.

 

DUBLIN, REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: 14 September 2013

Upstairs, Downstairs, and Out in the Paddocks

Dublin is always a lively place: a city of students, of writers and poets, and a great brewery to lubricate the creative process.

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There’s Guinness on draught in those tankers. Photo by Corey Sandler

Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland, the now-fiercely independent nation that shares the 32,600 square mile (84,400 square kilometer) island of Ireland.

The island is the third-largest in all of Europe, behind only Great Britain—a bit more than twice its size—and Iceland, about 25 percent larger.

We began the day driving out of Dublin along the River Liffey. The city has grown on both sides, and the waterway—once an untamed arm of the sea—is now crossed by a set of graceful bridges including one by architect Santiago Calatrava that uses the form of an Irish harp for its superstructure.

Our first goal was the National Stud, a sprawling home for retired racehorses and some of their offspring. The rulers of the roost were half a dozen stallions who lounge around for half the year before entering into a rigorous six months or so as studs for thoroughbred mares.

They (or at least their owners) are paid handsomely for their services.

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Photo by Corey Sandler

Later we moved on to Castletown, a restored private house that in other locations or circumstances would be considered a palace.

Castletown is Ireland’s showpiece Palladian-style mansion, located in Celbridge outside of Dublin on the River Liffey in County Kildare.

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Castletown: A drawing room and the stables. Photos by Corey Sandler

All photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. If you’d like a copy of any photo, please send me an email through the contact box on this page.

8 September 2013: From the Baltic at Warnemunde to the North Sea

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant, Silversea Cruises

Warnemunde, Germany: 8 September 2013

Love Locks and Whale Kites

On the pedestrian bridge that leads from the harbor where Silver Whisper was docked, the railing is festooned with hundreds of brass locks.

It’s not something you see every day…unless you travel a lot in Western Europe, where it has taken hold as a form of declaration of romantic entanglement. They call them “love locks.”

Here’s the idea: Hans and Angela decide to go steady. To signify their commitment, they head to the hardware store and buy a padlock.

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Love Locks

They write their names on the lock with a pen, or go the extra yard and enscribe them with a power tool. The lock is brought to the bridge and attached…and then the key is tossed into the water below.

And if love turns out to be less than permanent, I suppose one or the other returns to the bridge with a lock-cutter to remove the evidence.

We’ve seen these love locks in many places, most notable on the famous Accademia bridge in Venice. Sometimes the bridges end up bearing so many locked-up declarations that the authorities have to come in and remove them to prevent the bridge from falling down.

Warnemunde is a quirky, attractive little seaside resort in what was for four decades part of East Germany.

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Warnemunde

It was mostly spared from Allied bombing raids in World War II.  Across the Warne river, Rostock was all but leveled because of its many aircraft factories and shipyards.

And so in Rostock, you are able to see some interesting iconoclastic pieces of architecture.

There are hundreds of little seaside cottages in various German, Bavarian, and even Alpine designs. There are several distinctive Bauhaus-style structures, boxy buildings that place function over form.

And then there are the remnants of the quite unimaginative East German authorities: more than a few dreary Soviet-style apartment blocks and the Teepott, a large restaurant and conference center more-or-less shaped like a teapot.

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For us, the best part of our visit on a sleepy Sunday at the end of summer was the discovery that one end of the beach had been taken over by a kite club. They were flying objects of just about every description: dragons, snakes, twirling boxes, and best of all a large whale that rose and sank in the sky above the waves.

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All photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. If you’d like a copy of any photo, please send me an email through the contact box on this page.

 

AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS: 10 September 2013

Almost Anything Goes

The last time we visited Amsterdam, a few months ago, we made a beeline for the reopened Rijksmuseum, newly emerged from a ten-year makeover as one of the most spectacular art museums in the world. You can read about that visit in an earlier entry in this blog.

This time we had cheese on our minds.

We walked from our ship toward the floating flower market of Amsterdam and I began my day focusing on tulips and other wondrous blooms. The colors seem to be painted using a palette not found in nature: the artist Van Gogh, the centerpiece of another great museum in Amsterdam, made more than a few studies of flowers.

Later in the day, with an hour or so to spare, I devoted myself to learning a few new tricks in Adobe Photoshop: I converted a photo to black and then hand-selected a few blooms to pop through in full color.

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Flowers, As Arranged by Corey Sandler

But I mentioned a hunt for cheese. Growing up in New York City in the 1950s, I fondly remember neighborhood specialty food shops including cheese stores. My favorite was Kimmel Muenster, a form of slightly sweet muenster cheese laced with pungent caraway seeds.

As supermarkets and big box stores took over the sale of nearly everything, Kummel Muenster disappeared along with the specialty stores. I have spent decades trying to recapture that flavor.

Silversea corporate chef David Bilsland—you can read a bit more about him in earlier postings of this blog—had put me on to a possible substitute: cheese with comino seeds. And so that was our quest: comino cheese.

Across from the flower market was our target: a row of stores selling many varieties of Dutch gouda and other cheeses. And there, hidden in plain sight, were rounds of komijn kaas: comino cheese.

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Gouda is not quite muenster, and comino is not exactly caraway. But after all these years, it was close enough for a celebration. We’ve got the evidence in the refrigerator in our suite.

In other news, there’s a new King in town: 28-year-old King Willem-Alexander took the throne on April 30 of this year.

This followed the abdication of his mother Queen Beatrix, who in retirement has taken the name Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrix.

Oh, and the Argentinian-born wife of Willem-Alexander is now Queen Máxima, although that is a title without office in the parliamentary nation of the Netherlands.

Somewhere, Prince Phillip sighs.

A PILOT TAKES TO THE SKIES

The weather in the North Sea and the English Channel can be rough this time of year, and we were reminded of that when we left Amsterdam and headed for what was supposed to be the last port of call on our cruise, at Zeebrugge in Belgium.

Amsterdam, like most of The Netherlands, lies at or below sea level and so its harbor is protected by locks that help prevent high or low tides from affecting commerce and property.

As soon as we cleared the lock out of Amsterdam, we came head-on into a fierce storm.

My wife and I are pretty rugged seafarers and so we had already dined and were fast asleep when a bit of excitement took place on the top deck of Silver Whisper.

Because of the rough conditions, the pilot we had taken on board in Amsterdam was unable to get off our ship to the small boat that had been sent to bring him home. And so a helicopter was brought out, and the pilot was winched up from the pool deck.

We slept through it all.

The next morning came the other shoe: it was too rough to take on a new pilot for the approach to Zeebrugge, and so we were forced to miss that port call. Instead, we crossed the English Channel and pulled into Southampton that evening to spend a peaceful night tied up at the dock.

September 2013: Out to Sea Again to Tallinn, Saint Petersburg, and Helsinki

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

First of all, apologies to all for the delay in posting. We’ve been experiencing some technical difficulties in the Baltic (I blame Vladimir Putin. Why not? . . . our satellite uplink got bollixed while we were in Saint Petersburg during the G20 meetings.)

We are now aboard Silversea Silver Whisper, on a two-month journey from the Baltic through the North Sea to England and Ireland and across the pond to Canada and America.

Tallinn, Estonia: 3 September 2013

The Answer is Blowing in the Winds of Change

There’s change in the air in Tallinn, Estonia.

But that’s hardly news.

Estonia has been through more changes than just about any other country. An ancient tribe (the Aesti), the Swedes, the Livonians, the Germans, a brief sniff of freedom, the Russians, the Germans, an even shorter breath of liberty, the Soviets, and then finally the Baltic Way.

Estonia is still a place apart, though. The architecture is wonderfully quirky and the folk tales are even quirkier. But the principal barrier to widespread integration is Estikel, the almost-singular language of Estonia.

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Tallinn Old and Reborn

Estikel is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, which include Finnish, Estikel, and Hungarian. It actually is said to have its roots in the Indian subcontinent.

But things change. Estonia is one of the technological hubs of the Internet; Skype and several other elements of the computer lingua franca were developed here.

And there has also been a burgeoning invasion of tourists. At first from Europe, and now from around the world.

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We arrived on Silver Whisper in early September and there was a whiff of fall and a promise of winter in the air. We also found that the billboards are becoming more and more oriented to the outside world: Europeanized and (increasingly) Americanized.

We could have gone to see the latest Jennifer Anniston movie, dubbed into Estikel (probably would have been every bit as intelligible as the American version.) Or we could have ordered a hamborger at the new Striptiis joint along the waterfront.

It’s still a fascinating country, populated by mostly lovely people who all seem to be ready to burst into song at any time to declare, “We’re free, we’re free!”

I’ve decided to cut them a bit of slack for that reason. I just hope the Estonians will hold on to much of their character and culture along the way.

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Saint Petersburg, Russia: 4 September 2013

The Long Haul to Nicholas’ Last Stand

Saint Petersburg and all of Russia is never an easy place.

Russia is one of the bastions of bureaucracy. This one country (all right, it is the largest country on the planet, but still) is probably the principal reason that the rubber stamp industry still survives.

Silver Whisper arrived this morning for a two-day visit. The lovely, smaller vessels of Silversea usually get the best parking space in town—right on the River Neva at the English Embankment—but today we had to settle for circling the block and tying up at the somewhat further-out Sea Passenger Terminal at Ploschad Morskoy Slavy.

Why were we denied our view of ancient Petersburg?

Because the town has been taken over by the muck-a-mucks and the minions of the G-20 global economic summit.

River traffic has been curtailed, roads are closed, some museums are subject to sudden and unexpected and never explained lockdowns.

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Views of Alexander Palace in Saint Petersburg, the final home of the Romanovs

I covered some of these sort of political events when I was a reporter, and I know this: nothing gets accomplished at the meeting itself. Everything has been pre-wrangled, pre-edited, and scripted. All that remains is the grip-and-grin photo session of world leaders.

Putin is here, of course: it’s his country (at least that’s the way he thinks of it.) So too is Obama and 18 or so other world leaders.

We wish them well, and expect little. (Okay, maybe not too much for Putin; he’s a scary dude.)

In any case, our goal was to stay out of their way.

And so this morning we headed from the ship to the Primorskaya Metro station about a mile away and zipped beneath the traffic jams and the police checkpoints to Vitebsky station to catch a train to Detskoye Selo (also known as Pushkin.)

We went not to see Catherine’s Palace (been there, done that, very nice but way too crowded) but instead Alexander Palace.

We were sitting pretty when we got to the ticket counter at a few minutes after 10 in the morning. . . until the agent told us in Russian and sign language that all trains had been cancelled until after noon. Why? Just because. (G-20…)

We finally made it out to Pushkin and walked through the town and out to Alexander Palace, which has been on our list of should-sees for some time.

The palace was designed in 1792 for Catherine the Great as a gift for her grandson, the future Alexander I. It is a relatively simple palace, some say austere, but it certainly has more than a bit of grandeur about it.

The reason it is of interest is that it was the final personal residence of Nicholas II and his family from 1904 until their arrest in 1917. They went from there to a lockdown 850 miles east of Moscow and eventually to their mass execution.

Like nearly all of the treasures of this part of Russia, the palace was severely damaged by the Germans who encircled Petersburg for 900 days during the blockade of World War II. It has not been fully restored, but a dozen or so rooms are open and they are grand…and a bit poignant.

Nicholas and Alexandra were, by the standards of their peers, not really party people. They kept to themselves most of the time, even choosing not to live in the spectactular Catherine’s Palace just down the road.

At Alexander Palace, we were taken by some of the portraits and toys and riding uniforms of the Tsarevich Alexei and some of the clothing and dolls of his sisters.

Not to defend the Czars particularly, but Alexander Palace is one place to go for a sense of the last of the Romanovs as a family. Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof are spectacular but hard to relate to. Alexander Palace was a home.

If you would like a copy of any of my photographs, please contact me through the tab on this page.

 

Helsinki, Finland: 6 September 2013

A Glorious End of Summer in Finland

There must be a Finnish word that is the equivalent of the American expression: “Indian Summer.”

And Indian Summer is a short but very sweet reappearance of warm temperatures and blue skies while autumn and winter are preparing to arrive.

That was certainly our experience in Helsinki this time. On previous visits in the heart of the summer we have experienced winter-like weather; today we could have gone to the beach.

Which is pretty much what we did. We took the public ferry from the city market to Suomenlinna Island in the middle of the harbor.

Suomenlinna was first built up by the Swedes, who held Finland for seven centuries from about 1200; they called it Sveaborg, as in the fortress (borg) of Mother Sweden (Svea).

Finland, which for nearly all of its existence has lived in a very rough neighborhood, has been occupied and assaulted by just about all of the powers of the Baltic: Sweden, Germany, Napoleon, and Russia amongst them.

Suomenlinna (renamed by the Finns when they gained their independence), is a sprawling complex of fortresses, barracks, armories, and dozens upon dozens of very large guns aimed out to sea to protect the entrance to Helsinki.

We spent a few hours strolling in the Indian Summer sun, storing up some warmth for the coming months as we head to northern Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, and Atlantic Canada on the next few cruises.

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Helsinki and Suomenlinna, Helsinki. Photos copyright 2013, Corey Sandler

2 September, 2013: From Stockholm, Here We Go Again

From the Wind to the Whisper…it’s a wonderful life.

After a short break to recharge our batteries…and the ones in my cameras, cell phones, GPS, and toothbrush…we’re headed back to Europe to meet up with Silversea Silver Whisper.

We’ll come aboard in Stockholm on September 2 and then head to Tallinn for the day and on to the glorious city of Saint Petersburg. Russian politics are always complex, but in the past few months we seem to be back in the days of a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

The full quote, from the eminently quotable Winston Churchill, was this: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Churchill said that in 1939, when the Soviets were temporarily allied with the Nazis. Later, Russian national interest would align with the Allies.

In any case, we will be in Petersburg during the G-20 Economic Summit. And so a city that always presents  a few extra levels of complexity will probably be more difficult than usual.

The summit will mostly be taking place at Constantine Palace, which is between Saint Petersburg and Peterhof.

I expect motorcades, traffic jams, lots of extra security, and some cold stares between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama and a few others thrown together in a place they might otherwise prefer to avoid. Or perhaps they’ll keep the conversation to caviar and blinis.

After Petersburg, we will work our way out of the Baltic by way of Helsinki (cloudberries and chantarelles), then Rostock/Warnemünde (are the strawberries still in season?) and through the Kiel Canal into the North Sea. From there a stop in Amsterdam and Zeebrugge (Belgian chocolate and beer) before reaching an end in Southampton, U.K.

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Voyage 4323 from Stockholm to Southampton

We will be on board Silver Whisper for all of September and October, heading across the top of the globe from Southampton to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in northern Scotland (shopping for Harris Tweeds), then Iceland and Greenland before arriving in Atlantic Canada for a series of cruises from Montreal (smoked brisket and a cream soda, hold the poutine please) to New York.

It’s a nice time to travel (actually, when is it not?) and we can hope for good weather on the transatlantic crossing and for fall foliage in Quebec and New England.

I’ll be posting from our ports of call, and I hope you’ll join me here.

Silver Wind in Zadar, Croatia
Silver Wind in Zadar, Croatia
Silver Whisper in the foreground, Silver Cloud in the background on the River Neva in Saint Petersburg, Russia
Silver Whisper in the foreground, Silver Cloud in the background on the River Neva in Saint Petersburg, Russia
Silver Cloud passes beneath the Tower Bridge in London
Silver Cloud passes beneath the Tower Bridge in London

16 July 2013 London Tower Bridge: Hello, I Must Be Going

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

From London to London, June 8 to July 16. [whohit]-London Tower Bridge-[/whohit]

Along the way, we visited France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia (Murmansk and Arkhangelsk), Sweden, Estonia, Finland, and Russia (Saint Petersburg).

We crossed the English Channel once in each direction, and sailed through the Kiel Canal from the North Sea to the Baltic and returned the same way.

Our final cruise, one that is not enjoyed by very many any more: a stately trip up the River Thames that ended with a passage through the Tower Bridge. It does not get much more dramatic than that.

Only a few dozen cruise ships pass through the bridge each year these days. You’ve got to be on a small vessel, not one of those monstrous megaships. I’m just saying . . .

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At the mouth of the Thames, the remains of Maunsell Forts erected during World War II to protect the entrance to the river.

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Passing through the Thames Barrier, a flood-control system

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Cruise Director Judie Abbott, one of the gems of the sea. She will mark her 50th year as a performer and cruise director in 2014, a Jubilee worth celebrating at every port of call.

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Gondolas pass over the O2 Arena near Greenwich. And just beyond, we see the spans of the Tower Bridge opening to let us pass through.

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We pass through the Tower Bridge.

This also marked the conclusion of this leg of our voyages. Beginning in the second week of January, we have been at sea on Silversea Silver Spirit, Silver Wind, and Silver Cloud  for five months with just two short breaks.

We fly home for the remainder of July and August and then return to join Silver Whisper for one more loop of the Baltic Sea and then a transatlantic crossing to Atlantic Canada, New England, and New York.

I hope you’ll join me here on my blog again, starting in September.

Until then: safe travels. 

Corey Sandler

All text and photos Copyright 2013 by Corey Sandler. If you’d like a copy of a photo, please contact me. To see my upcoming schedule of cruises, visit http://www.silversea.com/life-onboard/enrichment/destination-consultants/?staff=6417

14 July 2013: Moon Over Schwerin, Germany

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

As I write this, we are sailing through the Kiel Canal, exiting the Baltic Sea and heading for the North Sea. About 3 p.m. tomorrow, July 16, we will enter into the outer reaches of the River Thames and then make a stately procession to London.

The London Tower Bridge is scheduled to open for us about 8 p.m. and we will pass through the great landmark and then tie up to the historic HMS Belfast for the end of this voyage.

It’s been quite a journey. This cruise began July 6 in Copenhagen and also included two other bright and lively Scandinavian cities: Helsinki and Stockholm. Silver Cloud also took us to Saint Petersburg, which is lively and exciting in the unique Russian way. The city includes some of the most spectacular palaces and museums in the world, in a place that has seen all possible extremes of wealth, poverty, siege, war, the rise and fall of the Soviet Communists, and the rise of Vladimir Putin and modern Russia.

It may take a while before we understand whether Putin is a democrat or a would-be dictator in the Soviet or Czarist mold. Speaking for myself, I think Putin sees his model not in Stalin but in Peter the Great. That may not be great.

We also visited the beautiful bucolic island of Gotland, the home of the medieval city of Visby. And then our final port of call, before our exit from the Baltic through the Kiel Canal and our upcoming trip up the Thames, took us to Warnemünde, the beach resort at the mouth of the Warnow River.

I wrote about Warnemünde and the nearby larger city of Rostock in my blog entry of June 17, when we came here on our way into the Baltic. On this visit, I went in a different direction, to the fairy tale castle at Schwerin, about 90 minutes away.

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Schwerin Castle. I used a bit of computer magic to paint the colors like an old Photochrome postcard

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Schwerin’s Lutheran Church towers over the town. It dates back to about 1158 as a Catholic Church, and progressed through the Reformation to its current design

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Schwerin’s Lutheran Church

Schwerin’s history, in castle terms, dates to at least the year 973. For centuries it was the home of the dukes and grand dukes of Mecklenburg and later Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The castle as it stands now dates as far back as the 15th century. Many updates and changes have been made over the years, but it is still an ancient place within and without. The final look of the castle includes some 19th century touches.

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Inside Schwerin Castle

Why is this called a fairy tale castle? Just take a look at fables and stories from across Europe: you’re likely to find some form of Schwerin or another famed palace, Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. It just seems to fit the description nicely.

And then there was Walt Disney. He began as an artist, and spent time studying in Europe as a young man; for a while he was working in Èze, near Nice in France. When Disney came home to California and launched his moviemaking company, one thing led to another and we ended up with Disneyland and Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Nice Digs

We toured Schwerin Castle, which had some beautiful and rich public rooms. About half of the place is open to the public; the other half is used by the regional parliament. Schwerin Germany Jul14 2013-6211 Schwerin Germany Jul14 2013-6205 Schwerin Germany Jul14 2013-6198

Mooning

But what really caught my eye was this most unusual piece of statuary on the town square of Schwerin. One side depicts the bloody assault of Henry the Lion, who was Duke of Saxony and Duke of Bavaria in the mid-12th century.

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The violent face of the monument

Let’s just say he was not much loved. The other side of the sculpture shows people—how should I put this?—expressing their extreme lack of respect for him. The sculpture, a modern work from post-reunification Germany, shows rows of men and women mooning him. I bet you thought that was a modern form of political expression.

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Moon over Schwerin

All text and photos Copyright 2013 by Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of a photo, please contact me.

13 July 2013 Visby, Sweden: The Island of Roses, Ruins, and Rings

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Visby is a wrinkle in the fabric of time.

It is one of those places on this planet where you can time travel, in this case back to about the year 1300.[whohit]-Visby-[/whohit]

This is a small place, with not a huge amount of things to do.

But it is a very interesting place to experience.

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A tall ship in the modern harbor

Visby is on Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea, about 3,140 square kilometers or 1,200 square miles in size.

The two-mile-long Ringmuren (Ring Wall) encircles the city and the ruins of its ancient church.

The wall, about 11 meters or 36 feet tall, was completed in 1288.

There were originally 51 towers of various designs; 27 of them remain.

The purpose of the walls was primarily not to protect from enemy attacks, but rather to isolate the local residents from the city’s foreign traders.

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Roses

At Almadalen Park and elsewhere around Visby, all around are the town’s namesake flowers: Visby Roses.

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Churches at Every Turn

Gotland has a notable collection of medieval churches; there are some 92 still in use, and ten of them are in Visby itself.

The treasure is the Visby Cathedral, the Church of St. Mary’s, which served German merchants during the city’s commercial heyday.

Dedicated to Saint Mary, it was first constructed in the 12th century, and rebuilt a century later.

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Party Times

Today, Visby is one of the more popular vacation destinations for Scandinavians in the summer.

Each year, Visby is the scene of Almedalen Week (Almedalsveckan), an important retreat for everyone involved in Swedish politics. In August, at the peak of the tourist season, they hold Medieval Week. Many of the locals dress in costumes and events include jousting tournaments, theater, music, and souvenir stalls.

On our visit today, though, we arrived betweern the politicians and the jousters. I believe those are two different groups of people, but I’m not fully certain.

All text and photos Copyright 2013 by Corey Sandler. If you would like a photo, please contact me.

 

12 July 2013 Stockholm, Sweden: Royals, Near-Royals, and Royalties

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Stockholm is one of the gems of the Baltic, very much worth a visit, especially on a spectacular Scandinavian summer day.[whohit]-Stockholm-[/whohit]

Stockholm 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.

We have been to Stockholm many times. If you’re new in town, there are more than a few wondrous major attractions. At the top of my list is the Vasa Museum. You come in from the bright Swedish summer day through a pair of dark glass doors which close behind you. There is another set of dark doors ahead of you.

You exit that buffer zone and enter into a dimly lit hall that holds a nearly intact 17th century ship. It is the 64-gun warship Vasa.

They spared almost no expense in building the Vasa, equipping her with the latest technology and outfitting her in great style. Vasa was completed in 1628, and set sail on her maiden voyage. She did not get far.

Within a mile, the ship rolled over and sank in the harbor.

For all of the money spent on her construction, they should have spent just a few more kroner on engineering. The ship was top heavy.

The cold water and silt of the harbor preserved her. When Vasa was rediscovered in the 1960s, the Swedes employed modern technology to raise the ship and preserve it in one of the finest museums of its type anywhere in the world.

The Swedish Royal Family has been busy with two weddings and a baby shower in the past few years. But I don’t think they have to worry about running out of space for the in-laws and the sisters, cousins, and aunts.

The Stockholm Palace (Stockholms slott) is the official residence and major royal palace of the Swedish monarch.

The palace has 609 rooms and is one of the largest royal palaces in the world still in use.

It is located on Stadsholmen (“city island”), in Gamla Stan (the old town).

King Carl XVI Gustaf and the other members of the Swedish Royal Family have offices here, and there are formal rooms for state occasions.

You can visit the Royal Palace in town, or one of the many, many others in the country. There’s Drottningholm, the current private residence of the royal family. And Rosersberg out in the suburbs. An often-overlooked palace—very close to town—is Rosendal, a pleasure palace built in the 1820s for the imported French marshal who was brought in to head the Swedish royalty.

You can stroll the streets for shopping or dining, or just to absorb the warmth that seems to infuse the personality of most locals; I have a theory that they are soaking up the sun and storing away its warmth in preparation for the not-so-sunny and much colder winter to come.

But, as I said, we have been here many times before. On this port call we set about to visit some of the lesser-visited jewels of Stockholm.

A Wheel Over Stockholm

We began by taking the Metro to the developing suburb of Globen where a set of arenas and shopping malls is sprouting like mushrooms. The biggest of the mushrooms is said to be the largest spherical building in the world; it is an arena used for ice hockey, basketball, and concerts. And on the outside is a most unusual piece of engineering called Skyview.

It looks like a half-completed Ferris wheel. The glass cars are not hung from the frame of a wheel; instead they ride on a track on the outside of the building. It is a most impressive piece of engineering. The view: well, it’s pretty enough.

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Skyview

Another Royal Vessel

Next we headed for The Maritime Museum, another gem not often visited. It contains ship’s models and artifacts, as well as the entire stern and part of the opulent captain’s quarters of yet another significant ship from Swedish history: the Royal Schooner Amphion, completed in 1778 and in service until 1885.

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The Royal Schooner Amphion at the Maritime Museum

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A figurehead and ship’s model at the Maritime Museum

A Private Palace

On our list for a visit was the Hallwyl Museum, a magnificent palace in the heart of Stockholm. I call it a palace, because few other words would suffice. However, this was the private residence of the von Hallwyl family. The patriarch was a baron of a different type: a lumber baron.

This treasure is nearly in the center of Stockholm, not far from the Dramatiska Teatrn, the ornate gilded theater near the end of the main harbor.

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The Hallwyl Museum

The spectacular dining room and private rooms would more than suit a royal. Most of the furnishings were given by the family for the museum.

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Inside Hallwyl

In a special exhibition, we saw some of the clothing of the time: men’s formal wear as laid out by a proper valet. (Downton Abbey’s Bates would approve.) And in another room, a display of ladies’ “unmentionables” which looked to me more like protective armor than underwear.

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Ladies’ unmentionables, and men’s mentionables at Hallwyl 

They’re Back…

The Swedes have a pretty fierce history of military scuffles: with Denmark-Norway, Napoleon, and the various trading unions of the Baltic.

But in modern times, one of the fiercest powers was a group of four musicians who played catchy tunes and wore a lot of Spandex.

In May of 2013, Stockholm was invaded by ABBA: The Museum.

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A recreation of one of the places where some Abba songs were written, or so they say

It is located on Djurgaarden island, next to the 17th-century Vasa museum and the Skansen outdoor museum.

For better or for worse, the four members of Abba are back together, dressed like the 1970s never ended.And they’re still collecting royalties.

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Costumes of the Abba people

In one room, computer-generated holograms are projected on a stage with an extra microphone, and for no extra charge you, too, can lip-sync to an Abba song and dance with strange, jerky motions.

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You, too, can lip-sync and twitch on stage

In fact ABBA has never sounded better…that is to say, modern technology may make them sound better than they ever did…or perhaps the passage of time heals all wounds.

Sorry, but they just don’t ring my chimes.

But the museum was packed and the visitors seemed to greatly enjoying the music.

Mama mia!

All photos copyright 2013 by Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of any photo please contact me.

 

11 July 2013 Helsinki, Finland: A Loaf of Bread, A Slice of Reindeer Sausage, and Thou

 By Corey Sandler, Silversea Destination Consultant

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

It is the capital and largest city in Finland, but its roots reach back to Sweden, interrupted by war and occupation by Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and side battles against and with Nazi Germany.In fairness, Finland lived in a very tough neighborhood in the 1930s and 1940s; they either chose to or were forced to play both sides against the middle.[whohit]-Helsinki 11July-[/whohit]

Silversea Silver Cloud has the best parking space, right at the base of the city.

The Port of Helsinki expects 283 cruise ship calls this summer. This could bring as many as 400,000 visitors to the capital. Both figures would be records.

Today, though, we’re the only show in town and it’s been great to get out and about.

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Helsinki

Monumental Buildings

In the heart of downtown is the imposing Lutheran Cathedral, built from 1830 to 1852.

The church on the hill can seat 1,300.

It’s worth a visit; if you approach it on foot, though, you’re either going to have to climb a long hill or scale a huge set of steps.

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Helsinki Cathedral

Grocery Shopping

For the past three cruises, we’ve been traveling with Silversea Culinary Trainer David Bilsland, a Scotsman with an international cooking pedigree and a somewhat skewed sense of humor.

His knives fly as fast as his jokes; neither are lethal and the food is great.

We traveled with Chef Bilsland and some guests from the ship to one of the local markets of Helsinki.

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Chef David Bilsland sizes up the fish

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A fish monger prepares a salmon

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Pick your own lox

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Luncheon Meat, and Fresh Bread at the delicatessen at Stockman’s

Bilsland helped the local economy with the purchase of cheese, reindeer meat, bread, and fruits and vegetables.

Tonight, he’ll combine them at a demonstration aboard ship.

Life is tough aboard Silver Cloud, but we do the best we can.

All text and photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. If you would like a photo, please contact me.

 

10 July 2013: Saint Petersburg, Russia: A Boy and His Mother

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We took the Metro way out of town to a beautiful part of Saint Petersburg, well off the tourist path. It was so far off the usual route that there were no shore excursion buses within miles.

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Riding the Saint Petersburg Metro

We went to visit Yelaginoostrovsky Dvorets or Yelagin Palace. The buses don’t go there; you’ll need a visa or a private tour and a bit of time, but it is very much worth the visit.

Completed in 1822 on Yelagin Island in one of the branches of the Neva River, it was yet another of the royal summer palaces.

This is a much more intimate, more human-scale place but still very much a reminder of the vast wealth and resources of the Czars.

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Yelagin Palace

The villa was designed for Alexander I’s mother, Maria Fyodorovna. It’s nice when a boy takes care of his mother.

Alexander employed the Italian architect Carlo Rossi, and he produced a lovely Italianate mansion with columns and porticos.

When my wife and I arrived, we had the same thought: this reminded us more than a little of the “cottages” of Newport, Rhode Island in the United States that were built during the American Gilded Age.

Yelagin Island was named after its original wealthy owner: Ivan Yelagin, a close ally of Catherine II from her early days as Grand Duchess.

Like many of the very idle, very rich of the time, Yelagin had his own peculiarities. He was fascinated by the thought or dream of alchemy: producing gold from ordinary materials. He made his experiments at his house there, without success.

After the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna decided she was too old to make daily trips from Petersburg to the outlying royal residences, including Pavlovsk Palace and Gatchina Castle, her son Alexander I bought the estate from Yelagin’s heirs and asked Carlo Rossi to redesign the villa.

The Bolsheviks turned the palace compound into “a museum to the old way of life”. In the Siege of Leningrad during World War II it was damaged by a shell and burned to the ground.

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Inside Yelagin Palace

It was rebuilt in the 1950s and now houses a collection of furniture and art from the 18th and 19th centuries.The entrance is guarded by two lion sculptures, inspired by the Medici Lions in Florence.

The entire island is now a lovely park, with music and theater pavillions, playgrounds, and views of the branches of the Neva.

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When we left Petersburg at the end of the day we had a lovely salute from our sister ship Silver Whisper, which was also departing. We waved to friends we know on the ship as the two captains exercised their greatest perk of office: the ship’s whistle.

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Silver Whisper in the foreground, our ship Silver Cloud to the aft.

I mentioned that no tourists were in sight. For a while, no Russians either. Janice and I strolled through lovely Yelagin Palace completely alone and pretended it was ours.Next time we visit–this coming September–we’ll bring our luggage.

All text and photos copyright 2013 by Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of a photo, please contact me.

 

9 July 2013 Saint Petersburg, Russia: Diversity and Politics

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

The Russian Federation is the largest country in the world, nearly twice the size of Canada, China, or the United States.

It’s a wonder that it has held together as a country at all: it has one of the most diverse set of cultures on the planet. [whohit]-Petersburg 9July-[/whohit]

It does strain the mind very much to realize that Russia—ancient, Czarist, Soviet, and modern—has more-or-less held together because of tight central political control.

Some leaders have been more autocratic than others. History will judge where Vladimir Putin fits on the scale. In my opinion, he sees his model not in Soviet leaders but in Czarist times. Peter the Great reborn, at least by his own measure.

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The Church of the Dormition, alongside our ship in the River Neva. This beautiful ancient cnurch was used by the Soviets as an ice skating rink. Work is still underway on its restoration.

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That was very much on our mind as we spent a glorious day wandering Petersburg. We arrived in early morning, sailing up the Neva River almost to the heart of the city, something only small ships like ours can arrange. We met up with one of our sister ships, Silver Whisper. Five other monster ships from other cruise lines were docked miles out of town. It’s not the same experience.

Otur goal—almost always—is to find a place where we are not surrounded by tourists. And we certainly found it when we paid a visit to the Russian Museum of Ethnography. And so we used our visa to take a long walk across Petersburg for an extended visit.

This huge museum was completed in 1915, near the end of Czarist rule, by decree of the last of the Romanoffs: Nicholas II.

The museum itself is a jaw-dropping work of art.

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Museum of Ethnography

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The Main Hall of the museum

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An exhibit hall

On display are some of the 500,000 pieces from 158 different nations of the former Russian Empire.

We saw costumes and artifacts of European, Asian, Baltic, and Black Sea Russia.

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Decorations from a chimney piece. That is one fat cat.

Some were somewhat familiar, some were (speaking with all due respect) quite bizarre.

To their credit, at least in modern post-Soviet Russia, there is some acknowledgement of cultures that were nearly wiped out by the commissars including Jewish rites of Eastern Europe, pre-Christian beliefs including Buddhist and pagan Russia.

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Scrimshaw from Asian Russia

 

Ancient artifacts from pre-Christian and Christian Shrove Tide rites

Almost unmentioned: Muslim Russia. That was probably not an accident.

In a modern coda—perhaps a hint from Vladimir Putin—an introductory video tells visitors that the museum aims to “realize its role in preserving social stability” in this diverse, fractious, and still uncertain nation.

Veiled Threats

One rite that has grown greatly in modern Russia is the Wedding March.

Modern Petersburg is right up there with Las Vegas as one of the wedding capitals of the world.

The Russians have a tradition of touring the town with their wedding party.

Nowadays they bring a camera crew.

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All text and photos Copyright 2013 by Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of a photo, please contact me.

 

8 July 2013 Tallinn, Estonia: Free at Last. . .

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Silversea Silver Cloud arrived this morning in a sunny, warm, and happy Tallinn, Estonia.

Over two millennia, Talinn has had its ups and downs. It still does. Its ancient center is the city on the hill. [whohit]-Tallinn 8July-[/whohit]

But more to the point: in the 800 or so years, Estonia has had only about 40 years of independence.

And 20 of those years have come in the last two decades.

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Tallinn

Ancient Estonia was first settled about 3,000 BC mostly by Finnish, Estonian, Karelian, and Ugric-Hungarian tribes from the east.

But Tallinn as we see it now: winding cobblestone streets and rough stone buildings date mostly from the 11th to 15th centuries.

Estonia’s golden era was between the early 15th and mid 16th centuries when it was a member of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic.

Being an important trading center had advantages and disadvantages: there were great riches and culture, but also the need to defend against enemies.

And so, over the centuries it has been assaulted, occupied, liberated, and reoccupied by: Vandals, Crusaders, Danes, early Germans, Swedes, Russians, and Lithuanians. And then in the 20th century by the Soviets,  Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union again, modern Russia.

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Fortifications of ancient Tallinn

Peter Casts a Huge Shadow

Peter the Great of Russia annexed Estonia in 1710 and began making visits.

In 1713 he purchased the land for Kadriorg Palace and an already antique 17th-century cottage nearby. The house, with a kitchen and four rooms, is pretty much the way it was when Peter used it. It includes a small dining room with an extra-tall chair for the Czar.

Peter was about six-foot eight-inches tall, huge for the time. But just for good measure, Peter sometimes traveled with dwarves to accentuate his size.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church on the hill

Sprouts of Freedom

The Estonians were under the thumb of so many invaders, but to their credit the people were constantly looking for a way to push through a sprout of freedom.

In the 19th Century came a period called the National Awakening, spread by the evils that come with schools, literacy, books, and newspapers.

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.

In the Tartu Peace Treaty, signed February 2, 1920, Soviet Russia renounced claims to Estonia and Finland “for all time.”

Good luck with that.

In 1921 the Republic of Estonia was accepted into the League of Nations.

But as war again raged across Europe in 1939, Hitler and Stalin engineered the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact, a treaty that carved 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. And then the Soviets came back to take hold.

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

By September 1944 the Germans retreated.And so Estonia declared itself an independent Republic once again on September 18.

That lasted just four days before Soviet forces reached Tallinn.

Estonia would not regain its independence for fifty years, a mostly unwilling member of the USSR until 1991.Life in Estonia took on the repressive, bureaucratic culture of much of the rest of the Soviet Union.

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 of environmental protests began a second National Awakening.

The Song Grounds in Kadriorg, completed in 1960, was considered an achievement in Modernism.

Meant to celebrate all things Soviet, the song festivals held here in the 1980s became an important part of Estonia’s independence movement, the Singing Revolution.

In June 1988, more than a hundred thousand people packed the Song Festival Grounds.

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The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn

A few months later the crowd was three hundred thousand and they heard the first public demand for independence.

On August 23, 1989 some two million people joined hands along the 600 kilometer road between Tallinn and Vilnius.

On August 20, 1991 Estonia declared its independence. Three days later, Lenin’s statue came down in Tallinn.

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A musician places a modern recreation of a medieval lute. The instrument combines a bit of the lute and a viola. It does not have a modern name in Estonia: think of it as a violut. 

In November 1999, Estonia joined the World Trade Organization. Membership in NATO and the European Union followed in 2004. In January of 2011, Estonia made the switch to the Euro, and that is now the official currency.

An Estonian told me, “Some people ask why we would sign on to the sinking Titanic with the Euro.

“We joined NATO, the European Union, and the Euro Zone so that people would remember that Estonia exists and is now independent.”

It is a worthy hope.

All text and photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of a photo, please contact me through the tab on this blog.

6 July 2013: Another Journey Begins. Copenhagen to London on Silver Cloud

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We arrived in Copenhagen early this morning to a day that could scarcely be improved upon: sun, puffy clouds, and a lively set of markets from the waterside up to town.

We joined Chef David Bilsland on an expedition in search of cheese, fish, vegetables, and advice. Tonight we sail out of Denmark, heading across the Baltic to Tallinn, Estonia and then on to St. Petersburg. I’ll be blogging from each port once again,

Here are some photos from a glorious Saturday in Copenhagen.

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Silver Cloud reflected in the windows of a building along the water

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Nyhaven, Copenhagen

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Window peeping

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Lost in cyberspace

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At the market

All photos and text copyright Corey Sandler. If you would a photo, please contact me through the tab on this blog.

 

6 July 2013 Copenhagen: Hello, Goodbye

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

As we return to Copenhagen, some of us are looking forward to a natural phenomenon not much seen in the last two weeks: darkness at midnight.

We have been up north for the past 17 days, sailing from Copenhagen to Bergen and then up to the top of Norway at Nordkapp and then across to the attic of Russia: Murmansk, Solovetsky Island, and Arkhangelsk. Most of that time we were within the Arctic Circle, and most of that time we experienced the disconcerting experience of bright sunlight all the time.

I remember a visit we made to Longyearbyen in the Svalbard archipelago where we reached to a bit more than 80 degrees North latitude. I interviewed a woman there and asked her, “How can you stand being here in the Polar Night of December and January, when the sun never rises?”

She said: “That’s no problem. We can always turn on the lights.”

But, she continued, “It’s the Midnight Sun in summer that can drive you crazy. If a friend calls you up and asks if you want to go for a hike, you might say, ‘yes, sure’ and then look at your clock and see that it is three in the morning.”

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Silver Cloud in Kristiansund, Norway on 4 July

We’ve had a touch of that here on the Silver Cloud. We eat very well aboard ship, and sometimes linger at the table until 10 p.m.; when we return to our suite, our butler has drawn the curtains to make it dark within. That’s fine, although there is an almost irresistible urge to open the curtains and look at the sea and the mountains and the glaciers. And when you do that, there’s the bright sun and it feels like morning again.

Many of our guests are leaving us here in Copenhagen, and we will miss them. More than 50 are continuing on the next leg, and we look forward to meeting about 200 new friends.

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Klippfish in Kristiansund. Dried, salted cod.

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High architecture and haute couture in Kristiansund

The next cruise is also quite an adventurous loop. We leave Copenhagen and head for Tallinn, Estonia and then Saint Petersburg, Russia for two days. Then on our way out of the Baltic we’ll have stops in Helsinki, Finland; Visby, Sweden; and Warnemunde, Germany before heading through the Kiel Canal and end our voyage by sailing up the River Thames and through the Tower Bridge to dock in London.

I’ll be blogging from each port of call. I’ll see you right here.

To obtain a copy of one of my books or photos, please send me an email through the contact page on this blog.

 

2 July 2013: Alta, Norway: In Search of the Ghost Ship of World War II

By Corey Sandler, Silversea Cruises Destination Consultant

We crossed over the top of Norway yesterday, and as we reached 71 degrees North we sailed into a chilly summer fog bank near the top of Europe at North Cape.

The Silver Cloud is fully equipped with radar and radio and GPS and all of the other modern navigational devices.

But our captain also turned on the fog horn, and its deep bass blast rumbled out in front of us.

I couldn’t help but think of the conditions under which the North Atlantic Convoys had been forced to travel between 1941 and 1945: in radio silence, blizzard and ice storm, polar darkness or (most dangerously) Midnight Sun…all the while nervously on watch for German U-boats, aircraft, and surface ships.

I’ve written about this in previous blogs: although the German battleship Tirpitz never engaged in open-sea fighting, she nevertheless had a major impact on the planning and operations of the convoys.

British, Canadian, and American convoys were in constant fear that the Tirpitz would emerge, and so they had to sail away from the Norwegian coast…and into the path of U-boat wolf packs.

Its presence—if not its use—diverted the efforts of dozens of Allied ships, thousands of Allied airmen, and became a five-year obsession of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

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The Tirpitz in her lair in Kåfjord. (Historical photo)

The British had unsuccessfully attempted to destroy Tirpitz while it was under construction in Germany.

They were not able to mount a major air assault early in the war.

Winston Churchill turned to the secret labs.

The daring—perhaps crazy—plan for the Chariots—human torpedos, actually, failed because of bad weather conditions.

But another plan was hatched: the X-Craft.

Three of the four X-Craft actually made it to Norway and two got through the submarine nets to come beneath Tirpitz.

Their mines exploded, causing major damage to the Tirpitz, but she was only partially repaired.

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A memorial to British submariners lost in attempts to sink the Tirpitz in Kåfjord

hen the British sent aircraft: at first from carriers offshore and then from a base in Murmansk in northern Russia. It was from there that one huge “Tall Boy” bomb miraculously found its target through the smoke screen laid down by the Germans.

The crippled Tirpitz was moved to Håkøybotn, a cove west of Tromsø, and there she was finally destroyed on November 12, 1944.

On our way up the coast from the start of this voyage in Copenhagen, we had visited Tromsø. And then later we sailed to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, the two ports used by the Soviets to receive aid from the Allies during the war.

Today I went with a group of guests to visit the place where the Tirpitz had hidden for most of the war, and where she was repeatedly attacked by British naval and air forces.

Kåfjord is at the dead-end to the long and winding Altafjord that leads out to the sea.

We visited a small, private collection of artifacts from the German occupation and a few pieces of the Tirpitz. That was not the most impressive part of the visit.

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A piece of radio equipment said to have been used by the Norwegian resistance in Alta

Instead, it was the view of Kåfjord itself that will stick in my mind:  It’s a typically pretty piece of Norway, with only a few small markers to remind you of the terrible threat that lurked here for nearly four years in the war.

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Kåfjord today

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The Kåfjord Church, one of the few old buildings to survive the German occupation. Today it includes a memorial to British submariners as well as to local copper miners who died in the mountside mines 

But to most historians, it was the successful Atlantic Convoys to the Soviet Union that allowed the Russians to hold off and eventually push back the Germans and mark the beginning of the end of World War II.

That effort came at a huge cost in lives and treasure, much of it because of the ghost ship that once lived here.

All text and photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of any photo, please contact me through the Obtain a Photo tab of this blog.

 

30 June 2013 Arkhangelsk, Russia: Old Times Not Forgotten

By Corey Sandler, Silversea Destination Consultant

Silver Cloud snuck into Arkhangelsk in the early morning, about 6:30 a.m., and we were gone before the sun set.

That’s not hard to do: the sun on June 29 set at two minutes before midnight: 11:58 p.m.

And then after a brief rest below the horizon, it rose at 2:46 a.m.

By 3 a.m. on June 30, at least one intrepid photographer aboard ship was out on the deck in the sunlight to take photos of rafts of logs being transported on the Northern Dvina River to mills.

Regardless of the time of day, this is another part of the far north that has had a history of fading in and out of the Russian consciousness.

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Old Arkhangelsk

THE OLD PORT OF RUSSIA

Arkhangelsk spreads for more than 25 miles or 40 kilometers along both sides of the river near its exit into the White Sea.

For much of Russia’s history this was Russia’s main port for international maritime trade, conducted by the Pomors, the seaside settlers.

The White Sea-Baltic Canal—mostly dug by prisoners at the Gulags in and around Solovetsky Island—connects the White Sea with the Baltic Sea.

Arkhangelsk is without a doubt a fine port, but unlike Murmansk, its surrounding waters and the bay itself are blocked by ice for months of each year, usually from October or November until May or June.

The modern economy of Arkhangelsk is based on trade in timber and paper, as well as its commercial and fishing port.

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Logs on the river

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Mountains of sawdust and acres of disused fishing trawlers line the Sverny Dvina River, Arkhangelsk’s outlet to the White Sea

Tourism is a small but slowly growing component of the economy.

In 2013, I know of three cruise ships scheduled to make calls: all of them in the month of June.

In addition to the beautiful Silver Wind, two older and somewhat downscale vessels, Braemar of Fred Olsen Lines, and Discovery of Cruise and Maritime Voyages are due.

 

A LONG HISTORY IN A REMOTE PLACE

For such a remote place, there is a pretty substantial population: about 350,000 or so, although that number has been dropping in recent years to the lure of the big cities and elsewhere.

But as I have noted, even this remote place has a history that goes back well before the Soviets and indeed the Tsars.

The area where Arkhangelsk is situated was known to the Vikings as Bjarmaland. There are records from about the year 800 of a settlement by a river and the White Sea, and also of a Viking raid in 1027.

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The Sunday morning market: meat, beets, and clothing made of wood

It was explored because of its commercial significance for navigation and coastal forests rich in fur animals.

In the 12th century, the Novgorodians established the Archangel Michael Monastery in the river estuary.

By the 16th century, the time of exploration for exploration’s sake—if it had ever really existed—had come to an end. Instead, voyages were being mounted for direct trade or in search of shorter and safer routes from Europe to Asia.

In 1607, the Muscovy Company would be the initial sponsor for the voyages of Henry Hudson in search of a Northeast Passage to Asia.

You can learn more about Henry Hudson in my book, Henry Hudson: Dreams and Obsession. If you’d like an autographed copy, please contact me by sending an

e-mail to corey[at]sandlerbooks.com         (Replace the [at] with an @ symbol, please.)

PETER SETS A COURSE

Peter the Great was determined to expand the reach of Russia.

In 1693, he ordered the creation of a state shipyard in Arkhangelsk.

However, Peter also realized the shortcomings of Arkhangelsk: five months of ice.

And so, after a successful campaign against Swedish armies in the Baltic area, he founded Saint Petersburg in 1704.

By 1722, Peter the Great began the shift of the bulk of Russia’s international trade to Saint Petersburg.

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An old Communist building from 1954, soon after the death of Stalin, near Lenin Square

BETWEEN THE BOLSHEVIKS AND THE ROYALISTS

The city resisted Bolshevik rule from 1918 to 1920.

It was a stronghold of the anti-Bolshevik White Army, which was supported by the military intervention of British-led Entente forces.

Once the Bolsheviks prevailed, most Russian sea shipments were diverted from the White Sea to the new port of Murmansk, where the waters did not freeze in winter.

THREE DIFFERENT RUSSIAS

On this cruise, we have made three port calls in northern Russia.

Although only a few hundred miles from each other, Murmansk, Solovetsky Island, and Arkhangelsk are each quite different from the other.

They are each quite Russian, but they are each frozen in different time periods and states of mind.

Murmansk is a relatively young city, less than a century old. It was established near the end of the time of the Tsars and used as a port to receive supplies from the Allies in fighting Imperial Germany. It was then built up by the Soviets and used for the same purpose in World War II.

In many ways, Murmansk was a trip back to dreary and unimaginative Communist times.

We then entered into the White Sea and spent an extraordinary day exploring Solovetsky Island, home to a 15th century monastery and the ghosts of religious and political prisoners. It was used for that purpose first during the Tsarist era and then became the prototype and laboratory for the Soviet Gulag. Tens or hundreds of thousands died on or near the Island of Tears.

And then there was Arkhangelsk, which is in many ways frozen in Tsarist times. It was also used to receive supplies in World War II, and there are some remnants of the Soviets including ugly apartment blocks, a Lenin Square, and a few lingering hammer-and-sickle architectural elements. But a time-traveler from midsummer of 1918—just before Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed—would feel pretty much at home.

Yes there are too many cars, traveling much too fast, on very poor roads—many of which end abruptly at what seem to be decades-old construction roadblocks.

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Soviet remains at Lenin Square

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Apartments for the proletariat

are a few modern buildings including a 24-story Soviet-era office tower and ugly and ramshackle apartment blocks more-or-less hidden in the unlandscaped outer reaches of the city. But much of Arkhangelsk is still made up of old wooden houses and buildings, many of which were standing when the last Tsar was still dreaming of a return to power.

But what is the biggest construction project in the heart of today’s Arkhangelsk?

Right along the waterfront, near the cruise terminal and visible from much of the city, workers are nearing completion of a huge new Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Holy Trinity.

Artisans are nearly finished with the brick structure and have erected wooden scaffolding near the top for the installation of five golden onion domes.

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Church of the Trinity, under construction

And so, modern Arkhangelsk will soon greet the world with a brand-new old church of the Tsars.

In about ten days, we will be around the corner in the Baltic Sea to visit Saint Petersburg, yet another Russia: its portal to Europe.

 All text and photos copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of a photo, please visit the tab on this blog.

 

29 June 2013 Solovetsky, Russia: A Visit to the Island of Tears

By Corey Sandler, Silversea Cruises Destination Consultant

A Russian proverb says: “Life is an onion. One peels it while crying.”

So it is on a place like Solovetsky, called by some the “island of tears.”

Solovetsky Island—the largest of the six dots of land in the Solovki Archipelago—is the attic of Russia, a place where the Czars and then the Communists chose to store people and things they did not want have to deal with.

People who had the serious flaw of permitting themselves independent or non-conventional thought.

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The Solovetsky Monastery was the greatest citadel of Christianity in the Russian North. Founded in 1436, it became one of the wealthiest landowners and most influential religious centers in the remote White Sea.

Just as the serfs were the property of the Russian ruling class, so too were the acolytes of Solovetsky bound to the monks.

Or, for that matter, places like the great estates of England and the villages with which they were linked; Downton Abbey, if you will.

The Solovetsky Monastery had a religious core, but it was also a citadel and something close to a factory state or a company town.

Its business activities included salt works, a fleet of fishing vessels, trapping, mica works, ironworks, and more.

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In the 1650s and 1660s, the monastery was one of the strongholds of the Raskol or schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. What happened was a split between what became the official church and the Old Believers movement.

Here at the isolated attic of Russia, the idea of reform was not embraced. About 500 rebels took part in the Solovetsky Monastery Uprising, which began under the slogan of the struggle for the “old faith.”

The uprising was supported by local peasants and workers. Food was smuggled into the monastery during more than seven years of siege.

The rebels had been successfully defending themselves until they were betrayed by one monk who showed the Streltsy an unprotected window of the monastery’s White Tower.

Only 60 rebels out of 500 survived the seizure of the monastery. Nearly all of the remaining insurgents were later executed.

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In 1694, Peter the Great visited the Solovetsky Island. wrapping himself in the cloak of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Later this island of tears met the newborn Soviet Union. The Solovki islands were the birthplace of the Gulag system, a place where as many as one million people were imprisoned, many tens or hundreds of thousands of them never to return.

The Soviets used the camps as prototypes for what were called the Solovki Special Purpose Camp where the dreaded NKVD (the internal secret police) developed and tested various means of repression and punishment.

After protests were raised in Western Europe and the United States, the camps were spruced up a bit.

The writer Maxim Gorky began as a bitter opponent to the Russian Imperial family but later fell out of favor with Lenin and sought exile in Europe. In 1929 he returned to the Soviet Union at the invitation of Joseph Stalin.

Gorky visited Solovki and wrote an essay praising the beautiful setting of the islands and making little mention of the political prisoners and the conditions under which they labored.

Why? Russians say that Gorky came back to a place where he would emerge from the obscurity of exile and once regain celebrity in his homeland.

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Tall crosses made in the monastery’s workshop mark the islands’ many mass graves, home to tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands who died in the camps or in forced labor on canals and other projects in the difficult north.

The skin of the onion began to be peeled back by dissidents like the more courageous writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote about the “Gulag Archipelago.” He called the Solovki Prison the “mother of the Gulag.”

Today it is still a remote place, still capable of drawing tears and thoughts. We are sailing away now from Solovetsky Island, but it shall remain forever in my mind.

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The buildings were transformed into a naval base for the Soviet Northern Fleet, with the navy cadet corps deployed in the monastery buildings.

All text and photos copyright 2013 Corey Sandler. If you would like a copy of a photo, please visit the Obtain a Photo tab of this blog.