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

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. [whohit]-Petersburg 10July-[/whohit]

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.

Alta Tirpitz in Fjord

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.

 

27 June 2013 Murmansk, Russia: Still Frozen in Time

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

The beautiful Silver Cloud arrived in Murmansk on schedule in early morning; several hours later–presumably after they had finished drinking coffee and eating cakes and running their rubber stamps dry–the local bureaucrats cleared our ship. It was a first indication of a place frozen in time.

Why is there a city of 300,000 people at 68 degrees 58 minutes north latitude, about 2 degrees within the Arctic Circle?

It is in fact the largest city within the Arctic Circle. (Reykjavik in Iceland is just outside the circle, and about half as large.)

Murmansk is a cold, lonely place dark for months in the polar winter and disturbingly bright in the summer of the midnight sun.

This is truly one of the corners of the world, specifically Russia’s northwest crook, not far from the border with Norway and Finland.

Remote as it is, it is also a place where you can get some sense of the size of our planet. As far north as it is, Murmansk is only about halfway between Moscow and the North Pole and there are still about 1,458 cold miles to the Geographic North Pole.

The last time the sun set in Murmansk was at 2 a.m. local time on May 21. Seven minutes later the sun rose and it has been above the horizon ever since.

The next expected sunset is at 1:25 in the morning on July 23 and locals plan on partying all night long…until the sun rises again at 2:11.

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Love Locks installed on a railing above the port.

WHY MURMANSK?

So why a city at the icy cold top of Russia?

There is a magnificent port on an inlet that extends about 12 kilometers or 7 miles inland. There are many inlets like this in and around the Kola and White seas, but most of them freeze solid for several months in the long, dark winter.

What is different about Murmansk is that just offshore is a tongue of the North Atlantic Drift Current. That undersea river is the far northern reach of the Gulf Stream, which comes up from South America, along the Northeast coast of the United States and Canada and ultimately peters out near Murmansk.

That stream keeps the port of Murmansk nearly free of ice all year round. And that made it a great asset in the north.

CONVOYS TO THE NORTH

Murmansk was the last city founded in the Russian Empire. In 1915—during World War I—Russia needed an ice-free port in the Arctic to receive military supplies from its allies.

And so in 1915, a railroad was built from Karelia, east of Saint Petersburg.

From 1918 to 1920, during the Russian Civil War, the town was occupied by the Western powers as well as the forces of the White Army.

In World War II, after the Germans broke their tenuous non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union nd declared war in June 1941, Murmansk became an early target.

Operation Silver Fox, officially a join effort of the Germans and Finns, was aimed at the capture of the key Soviet port. Murmansk suffered extensive destruction, rivaled only by the destruction of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and Stalingrad (Volgograd).

However, fierce Soviet resistance and harsh local weather conditions prevented the Germans from capturing the city.

THE HERO MONUMNET

Today, the fighting around Murmansk is remembered by a monumental monument of a soldier in a greatcoat.

He is known locally as Alyosha—the diminutive of the name Alexei—and he stands 36 meters or 116 feet atop a hill in the city, visible from almost everywhere. He faces west, toward the Valley of Glory, where the fiercest fighting of the Arctic Campaign occurred when the German invaders were turned back.

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Once the Russians had managed to beat back the German advance, the port was open for business as one of the principal reception centers for supplies from the Allies.

Arctic convoys sailed from the United Kingdom, Iceland, and North America to northern ports in the Soviet Union, primarily Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and Murmansk.

There were 78 convoys between August 1941 and May 1945.

The challenges were immense: fierce opposition by German naval, submarine, and air forces including those operating from occupied Norway, very rough seas, heavy fog, and ice. A convoy set off each month, except in the summer when the lack of darkness made them very vulnerable to attack.

Sailing around the northern tip of Norway, the convoys were exposed to one of the largest concentrations of German U-boats, surface raiders and aircraft anywhere in the world.

Strict orders forbade the halting of any ship for even a moment for fear of being attacked by prowling German U-boats. A ship which suffered a mechanical breakdown or a sailor who fell overboard were left behind.

Between August 1941 and the end of the war, 78 convoys made the perilous journey to and from north Russia, carrying four million tons of supplies for use by Soviet forces fighting against the German Army on the Eastern Front.

Amongst those who made the trip was my wife’s father Daniel Keefe, who came from upstate New York to North Atlantic and ten convoy crossings.

The last surviving British warship from the Arctic Convoys is HMS Belfast, now moored on the Thames opposite the Tower of London.

 

STILL FROZEN FROM SOVIET TIMES

During the Cold War, Murmansk was a center of Soviet submarine and icebreaker activity.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the nearby city and naval base of Severomorsk became the headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet; it is still somewhat of a closed city to outsiders.

The Northern Fleet was in very poor condition. Many of its nuclear ships were scuttled or beached on the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya, which still serves as a radioactive graveyard.

UNGLORIOUS MONUMENTS

Not far from Alyosha are three other monuments that between them tell the story of Murmansk pretty well.

First is the Russian Orthodox Church, the Saviour on the Waters. Although it is a modern, post-Soviet structure, within are some very old and impressive icons and decorations.

The church is meant to commemorate the risks and travails of those who went to sea.

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Down the hill from the church is another recent construction,  a small lighthouse that is meant as a symbolic remembrance of those who were lost at sea. Inside are plaques and a book of remembrances that is said to include the names of all ships that were lost from the port of Murmansk since its founding. There are many gaps; few believe the list to be anywhere near complete.

And then, just outside the lighthouse, is the recovered remains of the conning tower of the great submarine Kursk. The nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine sank in the Barents Sea in August of 2000.

Though the British and Norwegians offered to assist in rescue, Russia declined their help. All 118 sailors and officers aboard Kursk perished. The Russian Admiralty at first suggested most of the crew died within minutes of the explosion; however, some of the sailors had time to write notes.

Parts of the sub were eventually raised and most of the bodies recovered.

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The recovered conning tower of the submarine Kursk

But the Kursk remains as one of modern Russia’s inglorious naval moments, not one that its leaders choose to much discuss.

AN INGLORIOUS MONUMENT

Above the port, within sight of Alyosha and the church and the city is one more monument: a statue of Sergei Kirov.

Kirov was a close friend of both Lenin and Stalin, and rose to head the Communist Party of Leningrad. He was assassinated in 1934 at his office at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad (today’s Saint Petersburg.)

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Kirov waves goodbye

The case was never solved, although here are some of the threads we can pull at: He had apparently fallen out of favor with Stalin. Stalin had reduced the number of bodyguards who were assignbed to protect him. Stalin remains at the top of the list of suspects.

This much is also true: Stalin used Kirov’s death as one of the pretexts for the repression of dissident elements of the Party, culminating in the Great Purge of the late 1930s. In that purge,  many of the Old Bolsheviks were arrested, expelled from the Party, and executed. Perhaps the most common charge brought against those who were involved in “show trials” was complicity in Kirov’s assassination.

Notwithstanding Stalin’s probable involvement, a monument was erected in Murmansk, and the Mariinski Theatre in Saint Petersburg was named in Kirov’s honor: both acts at the direction of Stalin.

Circling the city are some spectacularly ugly Soviet-era housing blocks; beyond them are mostly featureless tundra.

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The apartments are a depressing reminder of times past. Today most of the occupants “own” their apartment, but not the building or the land beneath.

Here the North Atlantic Drift has not thawed much.

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

 

26 June 2013. Honningsvåg, Norway: Almost All the Way North

26 June 2013. Honningsvåg, Norway: Almost All the Way North 

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Honningsvåg is the northernmost city on the mainland of Norway.

There are a few gotchas in that description. Mainland, not on an island.

A city, not a town or village or settlement.

That said, Honningsvag has only about 2,436 inhabitants which is below the Norwegian definition of a city as a place with at least 5,000 residents.

But its status as a city was grandfathered in place.

A CAPTAIN EARNS HIS PAY

We arrived to face a stiff wind coming out of the north, and blowing across the dock where Silver Cloud was due to tie up.

It took us three tries, the last one with the help of a boat that came out from shore to take our lines and pull them to mooring points in the harbor. We winched ourselves alongside.

There are times when a ship’s captain earns his keep in ways other than shaking hands at a formal reception line; this was one of those days.

A MEAGER PLACE

Honningsvåg is within a bay on the southeastern side of the large island of Magerøya. That name speaks volumes about the fruitfulness of the land: it means “meager.”

All that seems to grow on Magerøya is lichen, huge numbers of fish, reindeer (only when they visit on summer vacation), and cloudberries.

I’ll pass on the lichen, but I have tried reindeer (and caribou, the same creature) and I’m sorry to report that Rudolph is rather tasty. It reminds me of a mix between beef and calf’s liver.

Cloudberries, which grow only at very high latitudes—in places like Norway and Scotland—are delicious, delicate fruit and very high in Vitamin C.

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HOW FAR NORTH?

Searching for a northeast passage to India in 1553, British navigator Richard Chancellor came upon a crag 1,007 feet (307 meters) above the Barents Sea.

Chancellor named the jut of rock North Cape.

The Norwegians would later adjust that to Nordkapp.

It certainly is far north, but first of all, it is not the North Pole, and secondly it is not actually the farthest north piece of land in Europe.

The neighboring Knivskjellodden Point, just to the west, extends about a mile further north.

It’s a lot harder to get to, though, and so the more convenient North Cape gets the glory. And the visitor’s center, gift shop, and restaurant. The northernmost gift shop in Europe, of course.

But actually, since both of these points are situated on an island, some purists will maintain that neither is on the mainland of Europe. Instead they point to Cape Nordkinn (Kinnarodden)  about 70 kilometers or 43 miles to the east. It’s not quite as far north, but it is on the mainland.

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The marker at North Cape, near the gift shop

And just to put things in perspective, the steep cliff of North Cape at 71 degrees 10 minutes North latitude is about 2,102 kilometers or 1,306 miles from the geographic North Pole.

In any case, the North Cape on the northern side of Magerøya island, is a dramatic place, a rite of passage for many visitors to the far north.

The drive from Honningsvåg—a city in name alone—is about a 40-minute trip across a slightly green moon-like landscape that is mostly empty. There are not that many settled places in the world above 71 degrees North, and the geography shows why.

In Finnmark County at the top of Norway, an area about the size of Switzerland, there are about 1.5 humans per square kilometer; reindeer outnumber people two-to-one.

THE SAMI

All through this region of Norway, and then across the border into Finland, are the Sami people.

They are also known in some languages as Lap or Laplanders, although modern Sami may reject that term.

Traditionally, the Sami have pursued a variety of livelihoods, including coastal fishing, fur trapping, and sheep herding.

Their best-known livelihood is semi-nomadic reindeer herding.

Since prehistoric times, the Sami people of Arctic Europe lived and worked in an area that stretches over parts of what is now northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula.

On our way to the North Cape we visited the remote home of a Sami couple. The man, who spoke little Norwegian and no English, posed with one of his favorite reindeer. His wife worked inside at the gift shop counter.

Changes in latitude, changes in attitude.

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Text and photos copyright 2013 by Corey Sandler. If you would like to obtain a copy of a photo from this blog, please visit the tab Order a Photo.

 

25 June 2013: Tromsø: Good day, sunshine, and never mind the clock

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Greetings from the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Also the 3 a.m. sun and the noontime sun and cocktail hour sun.

This is also one of the best places in the world to experience the Aurora Borealis.

Except, of course, when the light is on all day. Midnight Sun means the Northern Lights are out of sight.

That doesn’t mean the sky is always blue. We have been in and out of the mists and rain for the past few days as we headed north up the west coast of Norway.

But this morning—morning by the clock—dawned bright and sunny and we happily headed into town.

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Silver Cloud at the dock, along with an ocean-going tug

Tromsø is the largest city and the largest urban area in Northern Norway, and the second largest city and urban area north of the Arctic Circle, second only to Murmansk.

But please don’t expect Paris.

Even though at one time this small settlement did lay claim to the nickname of “The Paris of the North.”

Tromsø has very much the feel of a place near the end of the world. The shops and houses are painted in brilliant hues and modern structures feature mirrored glass to extend the views all around.

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It has a lot more color and liveliness than Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, which lie ahead of us on our journey.

Most of Tromsø is located on the small island of Tromsøya, 350 kilometers or 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle, at 69 degrees 40 minutes north.

Among its civic claims to fame: the world’s northernmost university, botanical garden, cathedral, and most importantly, the northernmost brewery in the world.

Despite only being home to around 80 people, Tromsø was issued its city charter in 1794 by King Christian VII. The city quickly rose in importance with trading, fishing, churches, and a bit of culture.

Arctic hunting, from Novaya Zemlya to Canada, started up around 1820. By 1850, Tromsø was the major center of Arctic hunting, and the city was trading from Arkhangelsk to Bordeaux.

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Polar Museum

It was at this time that the small settlement bestowed upon itself the nickname “Paris of the North.”

The Macks Brewery was opened in 1877, and still maintains a presence.

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Macks Brewery, the northernmost brewery in the world, or so they say

By the end of the 19th century, Tromsø had become a major Arctic trade center from which many Arctic expeditions originated.

Explorers like Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile, and Fridtjof Nansen made use of the know-how in Tromsø on Arctic conditions, and often recruited their crew in the city.

It was in Trondheim, about 100 miles from Tromsø, that the Germans parked their prize battleship Tirpitz during World War II.

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.

By the end of the intense cat-and-mouse game in the North, the Tirpitz had been moved to a cove right outside of Tromsø, and it was there the battleship was finally sunk.

We enjoyed our morning in the sun, even when it began raining again. Later in the all-day morning, about 2 pm, blue skies returned.

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, EAT ‘EM

In town, as we usually do, we visited a supermarket to learn about the real way of life in a foreign port. There we saw some things we expected–like whale meat–but one thing that caught us by surprise.

At the seafood counter was a basket of extra- extra-large brown speckled eggs, about two- to three-times the size of chicken eggs. They were, we learned, from seagulls. The price, about $4 each.

This is a great delicacy in northern Norway, despite the fact that here–like many places around the world–seagulls are referred to as “flying rats.” They are said to have a mild flavor, usually boiled and served on a piece of flatbread with melted butter atop them. (I can’t help imagining they actually taste like garbage bags and soda pop tops, but I did not put my theory to the test.)

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Here’s the way we experience Sun Shock here on board the beautiful Silver Cloud: we come back to our suite from an extended dinner at the end of the day, perhaps at 9:30 or 10 pm, and find the curtains tightly closed.

But a few beams of brightness leak through, and it’s all but impossible to resist opening the curtain:

Good morning, Tromsø, whatever the clock says.

Text and photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. To obtain a copy of any photo, please visit the Order a Photo tab of this blog.

 

24 June 2013 Harstad, Norway: An Ancient Church, A Recent Horror, and Weirdness in Pink

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant, Silversea Cruises

Harstad may not be quite what you imagine when you think of a visit within the Arctic Circle.

Yes, it feels Scandinavian.

And yes, even on Midsummer Day in late June you can see the memory of winter past up on the mountains and feel in the air the hint of winter to come.

The Northern Lights are spectacular, and this is one of the best places in the world to see them. Except, of course, at this time of the year because the sun never sets.

For the next eight days we will not see true darkness.

Harstad developed as a herring and fishing port in the 19th century.

Today, the oil industry of North Norway—a major operation—is headquartered here. That brings jobs: shipbuilding, provisioning, and management.

Population about 24,000, Harstad is located on Hinnoya, the largest island in Norway.

AN ANCIENT CHURCH

One of its more famous sights is the Trondenes Church, the northernmost medieval stone church of Norway.

There is a bit of uncertainty about exactly how old it is; some call it a 13th century structure while modern scientists date its construction to about 1434.

Either way, it’s old.

This relatively small parish church was the main religious center of Northern Norway for a period during Medieval times.

The church is especially known for its rich decorations, including three gothic triptychs, one of which was made by the German Hanseatic artist Bernt Notke or by his workshop.

If you’ve traveled in Scandinavia or the Baltic you’ve likely seen other works by Notke, not nearly as hidden-away as this one.

Notke’s most famous work is his sculpture of Saint George and the Dragon) for the Storkyrkan in Stockholm. There’s a copy in Lübeck.

Parts of his Danse Macabre for Reval are on display at Saint Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn, Estonia.

The baroque pulpit is equipped with an hourglass to allow the minister to time long sermons, or perhaps to enforce a limit.

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Trondenes Church was closed when we arrived, but our guide went to the secret hiding place to retrive the 600-year-old key to the 600-year-old lock on the door.

She allowed me to hold it for a moment, but not to stray. Apparently there is only one key still in existence.

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Harstad was another obscure battle site of World War II.

British and Free French naval forces battled German occupiers who were holding the port of Narvik in early 1940.

And from Harstad, Norwegian General Carl Gustav Fleischer led the Norwegian Armed Forces in a successful retaking of Narvik in May of that year.

However, Norway would eventually fall fully under control of the Nazis.

As part of the Axis defenses, Germany installed four of its huge Schnelladekanone guns, also known as the Adolfkanone or Adolf Gun.

The gun’s barrel was about 20 meters or 66 feet long. Mounted on land, they could fire a 600-kilogram or 1,300-pound shell about 56 kilometers or 35 miles.

After 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and pushed Russia back onto the side of the Allies, Harstad became the seemingly unlikely place for a prisoner-of-war camp.

A RECENT HORROR

Some 3,000 Soviet soldiers were held in a very difficult and unsanitary compound near the Trondenes Church.

They were forced to work on the construction of the massive platforms for the huge guns. And 800 of them died in the process.

The Russians were at first buried in the churchyard, but later moved elsewhere in Norway—never returned home. A few decades ago, the Soviet Union erected a monument in their memory here.

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THE YOUNGEST MARCHING BAND

Back in Harstad, we happened upon the Festival of the Norwegian North, which coincides with Midsummer Week.

There were melancholy rock bands (Goths in the land of the Vikings?).

We were also entertained by the youngest marching band I have ever seen. They were, uh, enthusiastic.

And I believe I saw Professor Harold Hill of The Music Man at the front of the somewhat ragged march.

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And then for something completely different: the Pink Invasion.

I’ll let my pictures speak for themselves, except to say that they made Cirque du Soleil seem quite tame.

They were a different Mood of Norway.

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

 

 

22 June 2013 Hellesylt and Geiranger: A Midsummer’s Ascent Back to Winter

COREY SANDLER, Destination Consultant, Silversea Cruises

It was a day of clouds and cloudberries, of mist and fog and a glimpse of one of the stranger stories of World War II.

We saw more waterfalls and lakes and peaks than I could count, and there were also long stretches where all we saw was a whiter shade of pale.

Silversea Silver Cloud entered into the great Storfjord north of Bergen early in the morning and then pulled into a dock at the tiny town of Helleysylt. There about 90 guests (about one-third of the passengers on our small luxury ship) debarked for a journey to the Roof of Norway.

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We were heading for Honningsdalen Lake—said to be the deepest lake in all of Europe—and then on to the town of Stryn and then Grottli before ascending up the impossible road to Dalsnibba.

For us, though, we would rise 1,500 meters or more than 4,700 feet to a world of rivers and waterfalls and massive glaciers including the huge Jostedal Glacier which helped carve the Storfjord and still is the source of much of the water that was almost everywhere as we traveled.

On this day before Midsummer, we would even pass through a summer downhill skiing station.

Norway—and especially the central fjords and glaciers—is the land of the trolls. Speaking for myself, I could not see them, although our guide tried his best to convince us that they were all around.

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A Royal summer house in Stryn. The King was expected later in the day, but we had to leave our regrets

We saw mostly fog and mist; for all we knew, we were indeed surrounded by trolls. These fearsome but ultimately rather slow creatures are said to be thick in these mountains. Why are there troll stories? My best explanation is this: in the cold and dark winters up here near the Arctic Circle, momma and grandma had a lot of time on their hands to entertain—or frighten—the kids. And the landscape is so rocky and craggy. The stories they created brought the rocks and waterfalls to life.

At Stryn we saw a sudden glimpse of pink. Pink tractors to be precise. This town up in the mountains above the fjord was the birthplace of what is now an international retail fashion empire: Moods of Norway. Two locals founded the company there and it has now spread through Scandinavia, Europe, and to the United States. I believe they employ trolls in their knitting factories.

Jostedal Glacier still is huge, but the snows of yesterday seem to have gone away. At the Stryn Summer Ski area, thirty years ago a typical winter would bring as much as 19 meters or 60 feet of snow to the base. This past winter: only about half a meter, or 20 inches fell.

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When we stopped at the ski hill, we saw skiers loading onto the bottommost chairlift from a field that was mostly mud. There were two more chairlifts to take, far above us and hidden in the clouds, before skiers could make runs on the snow above the glacier.

I wish we had time to make a few runs; my knees were aching in anticipation. But we pressed on.

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We arrived in Grotli, near the end of a long valley that runs hundreds of miles up the spine of Norway. And there we found, crunched against a snowbank, a reminder of the odd events that happen in war.

On April 27, 1940, a German Luftwaffe medium bomber (a Heinkel He 111) was shot down near Grotli by an RAF Fleet Air Arm Blackburn Skua fighter (a carrier-based dive bomber.)

The German plane made a crash landing near where it still stands.

The British plane also fell to earth, landing in the cold water of Breidalsvatnet Lake.

Both pilots somehow survived, and once on land began shooting at each other with sidearms. But they also needed to find a way to survive the harsh conditions and they ended up sharing the same mountain cabin in what began as a tense standoff but ended up as an unlikely friendship that continued after the war.

If all this sounds like the plot of a movie, well you’re right. The 2012 film, “Into the White” was based on the true story and partly made at Grotli.

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After Grotli, we rose up on the Dalsnibba Road to the actual Roof of Norway, or at least the highest point of Norway that can be reached on a tourist motor coach. The Dalsnibba Road is an unpaved, vertiginous set of switchbacks with no guardrails.

Our driver deftly navigated the bus up the road, we reached 1,500 feet above fjord and sea level where there was an observation platform with a spectacular view of Geirangerfjord below and the glaciers all around. Except of course, on a day like we were experiencing.

“Welcome to the Roof of Norway,” our guide announced, “where we can see absolutely nothing.”

That was not technically true. All around we could see trolls…or at least rocks that look a bit like trolls. The legend says that trolls live below bridges, emerging only to collect tolls from passersby. Or to eat them if they are not paid or if there are bad little girls or boys in the vicinity.

The other thing we saw were thousands upon thousands of rock piles. They look sorta-kinda like the Inukshuks of the Inuit and other Arctic tribes. Inukshuks are erected to mark pathways or hunting grounds; the word means “something that acts as if it were a person.”

But the rock piles in Norway have nothing to do with Norwegian culture, I was told. Instead they have all been created by tourists passing through. “I have been here,” they say. The Norwegians just shrug.

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And then we carefully descended on the Geiranger Road, one of the engineering wonders of the 19th century. It was completed in 1889, after 11 years of construction. (The workers could only dig in the short summer.) It has 78 curves in 20 kilometers or 12.5 miles, including 22 bends of 180 degrees.

When we finally descended to near the level of the fjord, we caught a glimpse of Silver Cloud, which had gone on ahead of us to put down an anchor in Geirangerfjord. We took the tender back to the ship, and back into the crystal-clear world of high luxury. Champagne and lobster, thank you very much. No trolls aboard.

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All photos Copyright 2013 Corey Sandler. To obtain a copy, please visit the Order a Photo tab.

 

21 June 2013 Bergen, Norway. Mood swings and guilt trips

COREY SANDLER, Destination Consultant, Silversea Silver Cloud

We’re embarked on an extraordinary journey, from Copenhagen in the Baltic Sea through the Kattegat and into the North Sea.

Silversea Silver Cloud is headed up the coast of Norway with stops at some impressive harbors and spectacular fjords, then above Lapland to an historically important but still-relatively hidden corner of ancient, then Czarist, and then Soviet Russia. 

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Moody weather in Bergen

MOODY BERGEN

Our first port of call on this latest voyage on Silversea Silver Cloud is Moody Bergen.

Why moody? Well, the people here are almost always unfailingly pleasant and accommodating.

The weather: not so much.

I told our guests in my lecture about Bergen that this is a place where you can experience all of the seasons. All in one day, that is.

Right on schedule, we arrived at our parking spot very close to the heart of town…and it began raining. It changed from a drizzle to steadier rain and then a peek of bright sky before moving toward a hint of winter.

BRYGGEN

Bryggen, on the north side of the bay, was used as a dock and warehouse area by the Hansa between 1350 and 1750.

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Bryggen

AN ANTIQUE MUSEUM

I am a big fan of the Natural History Museum at the University of Bergen.

It is a very old-fashioned museum—think wooden cabinets with specimens pinned in place, stuffed animals of all sort, and huge whale and other skeletons hanging overhead.

Some of the creatures—and the design of the museum—are extinct.

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Bergen Natural History Museum

ABOUT BERGEN

Bergen is home to about 268,000 people in the city itself and 394,000 in the surrounding area.

It is thus the second-largest city in Norway, behind only Oslo, although the capital city is much more populous: 1.4 million.

Oh, and a whole bunch of fish.

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Scenes about town, including back alleys of Bryggen and an extraordinary vessel that is part of the service fleet for the North Sea oil fields

FISH MARKET

The great fish market occupies the center of the horseshoe-shaped harbor; the market has recently been extended from outdoor stalls to a handsome indoor building.

The fish is about as fresh and tasty as you’ll find anywhere, and all you need to do is look hungry to be offered a sample of smoked salmon or boiled crab or fish chowder.

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King Crab at the Bergen Fish Market

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This guy looks quite surprised at the situation he has found himself in. It’s an Ure fish, which means red fish, similar to red snapper.

MY GUILTY SNACK

One other point worth noting: Norway is one of the few countries that still hunts whales for meat.

(The others include Iceland, Japan, and a few tiny island nations.)

Norways catches a few hundred Minke whales, mostly in waters at the northern end of the nation.

Minke whales are not considered an endangered species, although their numbers—like all other varieties of whales—are greatly reduced.

My wife and I live on Nantucket Island, which for a period of time in the 19th century was the whaling capital of the world.

It way the Saudi Arabia of whale oil.

But the whalers who left from our island on voyages of as much as three or four years did not eat the whale meat. All they wanted was the oil as well as baleen and whale bone.

And today, although Nantucket celebrates its heritage as a whaling port (including the fine Nantucket Whaling Museum), it is at the forefront of a nearly-universal boycott against the harvesting of whale for meat today.

Although I have been to Norway and Japan and Arctic Canada many times, I had never tried whale meat.

Reason 1: Political correctness.

Reason 2: Have you ever seen whale meat? It is enough to make you seriously consider vegetarianism.

Well, today, I have a confession.

I went on a market tour with David Bilsland, the leader of the Ecole des Chefs of Silversea.

And we were offered samples of king crab (wonderful…and only about $50 per pound and that includes the shells.

Also, gravlax and codfish caviar and fish chowder.

And then, a platter of small pieces of smoked whale.

I hesitated…and then took a bite.

It tasted a bit like beef or caribou. Not bad.

But I felt guilty about it. And I promise never to do it again.

There are other foods to explore without the worry of losing my credentials in the upright citizens brigade.

All photos Copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. To obtain copies, please visit the Order a Photo tab on this blog.

 

 

19June 2013 Copenhagen, Denmark: What Disney Didn’t Tell You About the Little Mermaid

COREY SANDLER. Destination Consultant, Silversea Cruises

Our ship, Silversea Silver Cloud arrived in Copenhagen about 6pm last night and we enjoyed a long, slow descent into darkness. It was a gorgeous evening, with a photographer’s light: low and orange.

Many of our guests from the previous cruise (Southampton to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden) debarked this morning in Copenhagen.

A new group, including many old friends from previous cruises got on board here.

Tonight we sail out of Copenhagen and begin to head north…all the way up the coastline of Norway, along the top of Finland’s Lapland, and then to the attic of Russia with calls at Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, and Solovetsky Island.

For the middle eight or nine days of the trip, we will be in the land of the Midnight Sun: no sunset at all.

I’m excited aboard this itinerary: it is not the usual suspects in Europe.

I’ll be posting blogs from each of the ports of call over the next 17 days.

Aside from Hamlet, not all that much is melancholy in Denmark.

The streets are lively, the shops seem to be doing a good business, and the classic century-old amusement park of Tivoli Gardens in city center was whirling by noon.

One of the most famous symbols of the city is The Little Mermaid, and this is something that existed way, way before Disney became involved.

The Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s story about Den lille havfrue (the little sea lady), was written in 1836. It became a global hit.

In 1909, Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of the Carlsberg brewery and namesake to the beer, commissioned a statue of the mermaid.

He had become fascinated by a ballet based on the fairytale and presented at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre. Jacobsen asked prima ballerina Ellen Price to model for the statue.

The statue’s head was indeed modelled after Price, but the ballerina refused to model in the nude.

And so Sculptor Edvard Eriksen prevailed on his wife, Eline Eriksen, to pose for the body in 1913.

That’s a little kinky: someone else’s head on your wife’s body. Or maybe not.

It made me think of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and the Statue of Liberty in New York: that work is said to be the sculptor’s mother’s face atop the body of the sculptor’s mistress. That is definitely kinky.

Anyhow, in 1989 Disney made a movie sort-of-kind-of based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that amounts to desecration or homage.

But the Little Mermaid—and she is littler and more vulnerable than most people imagine—sits on a rock just a few hundred feet away from our ship, docked at Langelinie.

And the other thing: when you go to visit The Little Mermaid, you will almost certainly not be alone.

The girl receives almost no privacy.

Photos copyright 2013, Corey Sandler. To obtain a copy please contact me through the “Order a Photo” tab on this blog.

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The Little Mermaid gets no privacy at all.

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Swans in Churchill Park near our ship

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The Anglican Church in Copenhagen, the only one of its kind in Denmark

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.The setting sun accentuates the colors of old military structures along the harbor

 

18 June 2013 Helsingborg, Sweden: Lighter and Brighter than Hamlet

As our voyage on Silversea Silver Cloud nears an end, we made a call at Helsingborg, Sweden, at the north end of the Øresund Strai between this country and Denmark.

Tonight we arrive in Copenhagen. To those guests leaving us here, Janice and I wish you safe travels. For the rest of you–and new friends coming aboard–we look forward to the next leg: up the coast of Norway to the top and then on to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in Russia.

Here in Helsingborg, it was a beautiful sunny and clear day, as light as a feather. It was clear enough to see across the strait to Elsinore Castle, the setting for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That great play is a masterpiece of murder, revenge, incest, and other themes no at all light on the mind.

But we enjoyed the sun, feasted on fresh strawberries and lemonade, and girded ourselves for the voyage to the attic of Russia next week.

As a reminder, if you want copies of any of my photographs, please click on the tab marked Order a Photo, or send me an e-mail at    corey[at]sandlerbooks.com    (Substitute an @ for [at] please.)

And please don’t hesitate to keep in touch. We look forward to sailing with you again.

COREY and JANICE

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17June 2013 Rostock and Warnemunde, Germany. Out from Under

Warnemünde, the beach resort at the mouth of the Warnow River, like much of this part of Europe, has risen and fallen with the tides of war and economic upheaval.

It dates back, as a mere fishing village, to about 1200.

Rostock would rise to great importance as one of the ports of the Hanseatic League.

And then it would become the home of some of the industrial might of Nazi Germany, including a major aircraft factory and port. Heinkel and Arado Flugzeugwerke grew out of the earlier aviation factories in the area.The Arado Ar 66 became one of the standard Luftwaffe trainers.

The firm also produced some of the Luftwaffe’s first fighter aircraft. Near the end of the war, Arado came up with the Ar-234, the first jet-powered bomber. Only a small number of the single-seat twin-engine plane were built, which was a good thing.

In their few sorties as bombers they proved to be nearly impossible to intercept. Not that they would have altered the outcome of the war, but they might have delayed its conclusion.

The jet, nicknamed Blitz or Lightning, was the last Luftwaffe plane to fly over England, in April 1945.

Until their liberation in April 1945 by the Soviet army, 1,012 slave laborers from Freiburg, a sub-camp of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, worked at the Arado factory.

That made it a major target of Allied bombing, and it was seriously damaged in the war.

Warnemunde and Rostock were severely damaged in raids in 1942 and 1943 and again in 1945.

The attacks on Rostock, and more importantly the historic Hanseatic city of Lübeck not far away, enraged Hitler—if such a thing was possible and led in April 1942 to a series of German raids on historic cities in Britain beginning with Exeter and continuing to Bath, Norwich, York, and later Canterbury.

The bombings became known as the Baedeker raids because the Germans supposedly chose them by thumbing through a Baedeker travel guide book about England.

Following that, the Soviets swept in…stealing what they could and then bringing the drab grayness that landed throughout East Germany.

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 WARNEMÜNDE

Warnemünde’s broad, sandy beaches are the largest on the German Baltic Sea coast, stretching about three kilometers or two miles.

It also has some pretty beachside homes, and all of the basic elements of a seaside resort including a promenade, outdoor restaurants, and tourist attractions.

There are three notable sights in Warnemünde:

Undressed bodies on the beach—some of whom you might wish would put on winter clothing or otherwise make themselves less apparent.

An historic lighthouse near the beach promenade, built in 1897.

And the Teepott, the nickname for one of the resorts most famous landmarks. It was built in the 1960s and is an appropriately odd example of East German architecture.

Today the Teepott holds a few restaurants and an exhibition hall.

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Among the many to invade this area in earlier times were the French under Napoleon, who occupied the town for about a decade until 1813.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher surrendered to the French after furious street fighting.

Von Blücher, who rose to the level of Prussian Generalfeldmarschall (field marshal) would live to fight another day, leading his army against Napoleon at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in 1813 and at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 with the Duke of Wellington.

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Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher

Any Mel Brooks fans out there? There have to be.

In the film Young Frankenstein, the great actress Cloris Leachman, a household servant in the home of Doctor Frankenstein…or should I say, Franken-steen.

Brooks never explained the joke, but everytime Frau Blucher appeared on screen we would hear the whinney of the Marshal’s horse.

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Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher

SAINT MARY’S

Saint Mary’s Church Marienkirche, on Ziegenmarkt, is an imposing Brick Gothic structure that was first built in the 13th century.

Behind the high altar on the apse is an astronomical clock built in 1472 by a Nuremberg clockmaker.

It is the only Medieval clock of its kind still in working condition with its original clockworks.

The clock has three sections.

Every hour, the apostles circle around Jesus for a blessing; the last, Judas, is shut out by a clanging door.

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15June 2013 Hamburg and Lübeck, Germany: Hello, Goodbye

Moin moin.

That’s “hello” or…later on, “good bye” in Frisian and Low German dialect or lingo.

That’s the local greeting Hamburg, where Silversea Silver Cloud arrived today.

Actually, there’s a wonderful musical coincidence here: “Hello, Goodbye” was the name of one of the many hits by a rough-and-tumble rock-and-roll band from Liverpool.

You know them as The Beatles, but they went by a number of names from 1960 to 1962 when they underwent an intensive round of hardscrabble engagements in the Red Light District of Hamburg.

They played the Star-Club, Kaiserkeller, Top Ten, and Indra.

The Reeperbahn—the word means ropewalk, a place where ropes are made—is also sometimes described as die sündige meile, the sinful mile.

The Beatles: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe, and Pete Best played at strip clubs and dank beer joints in Hamburg. (Sutcliffe would leave the band to pursue a career in art, and Best would be replaced by Ringo Starr once the group began iuts ascendancy to the Rock Pantheon.)

“Liverpool was where I was born,” said John Lennon, “but Hamburg was where I grew up.”

The clubs (and the “sex workers”) are still there, joined by a modern sculpture immortalizing the band, at Beatlesplaatz.

The symbolic heart of the city is the Rathaus or Town Hall.

It is a substantial, in-your-face neo-Renaissance structure completed in 1897. Like much of central Hamburg, the Rathaus was heavily damaged in World War II air raids, but was restored by 1957.

It still holds the office of the Mayor and the meeting places for Hamburg’s parliament and senate.

The immense building has about 647 rooms (six more than Buckingham Palace). I say “about” 647 rooms because it’s apparently hard to keep count.

In 1971 a room in the tower was discovered accidentally during a search for a document that had fallen behind a filing cabinet.

SHADES OF GRAY

Hamburg was nearly flattened by bombing by the Allies seeking to destroy the industrial facilities including shipbuilding and submarine pens, as well as other industries.

And there was also the Neuengamme concentration camp, about 15 kilometers or 10 miles southeast of the center of the city.

By the end of the war, more than half of its estimated 106,000 prisoners had died: about 50,000 dead. The camp served the needs of the German war machine and also carried out exterminations through labor.

As if that was not enough, consider this: on April 26, 1945, about 10,000 surviving prisoners from Neuengamme were loaded into four ships: the passenger liners Deutschland and Cap Arcona and two large steamers, SS Thielbek and Athen.

The prisoners were in the ships’ holds for several days without food or water.

Hamburg Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann later claimed during a war crimes tribunal that the prisoners were destined for Sweden. However, at the same trial, the head of the Hamburg Gestapo said that the prisoners were in fact slated to be killed, with one plan calling for scuttling the ships with the prisoners still aboard.

On May 3, 1945, the ships were attacked by three squadrons of Royal Air Force Hawker Typhoons. The RAF believed the ships carried SS personnel who were being transferred to Norway.

Intelligence that the ships carried concentration camp prisoners did not reach the squadrons in time to halt the attack.

About 5,000 of the prisoners died.

On May 8, 1945—five days later—most German forces surrendered and the war in Europe was over.

LUBECK

I spent the day on a shore excursion in Lübeck, about an hour from Hamburg up the Elbe River.

The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with nearly 2,000 landmark buildings including St. Mary’s Church from the late 12th century and home to the world’s largest mechanical organ.

It is a handsome place, the City of Seven Spires. There are many more churches than that–some dating back five hundred or more years–but seven steeples remain.

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Around town in Lubeck

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Inside the shell of St. Petri Church

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St. Mary’s Church was the pride of the town. It was all but destroyed in an air rad in 1942–those big clumps of metal above are the remains of the original bells, preserved within a chapel.

The stained glass windows are a modern version of the Dance of Death or the Danse Macabre of Bernt Nottke. At the bottom were added two scenes of St. Mary’s in flames.

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Lovers’ Locks mounted on a pedestrian bridge in Lubeck. The idea is for a couple to get a lock, paint or chisel their names on it, and then toss the key in the river. I imagine there has to be an occasional re-visit with a jeweler’s saw or mechanical cutter for good love, gone bad.

Hello, Goodbye.

(And I also thought of the bridges in Venice, I was there a few weeks ago, and the locks are weighing down the ancient bridges.)

 

 

13June 2013 Amsterdam: Where Something Old is New Again

There’s a lot going on in the Lowlands of Europe: the Netherlands. First of all, 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.

Somewhere, Prince Charles stifles a sob.

The other big news, which also came in April of this year, was the reopening of the spectacular Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The art gallery has been closed for the past ten years.

Any homeowner will sympathize with this: what started as a relatively modest renovation turned up all sorts of other problems that needed fixing.

And then there were political issues involving the route of a bicycle path.Trust me, along with the Royalty, Rembrandt, and a dedication to most sorts of personal liberty, the Dutch will not stand idly by when bike paths are threatened.

The Rijksmuseum opened in 1885 as the treasure house of the Dutch Golden Age, filled with paintings by masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen and Franz Hals.

The building itself is massive and hulking—nowhere near as delicate or uplifting as most of the work within. It is an odd mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, expanded upon and modified over the years in a rather haphazard way.

The Rijksmuseum closed its doors in 2003, with plans for a five-year restoration. In April 2013, after ten years of work and 375 million Euros or $500 million dollars, it has reopened right on time in a government project sort of way.

Where did the extra five years go?

Workers found asbestos, which had to be removed.

And they ran into an unanticipated protest from Amsterdam’s hundreds of thousands of bicycle riders who did not want a popular bike path re-routed, even if it ran through one of the country’s greatest cultural treasures.

The museum was officially reopened by Queen Beatrix, in one of her last official acts before her abdication.

I had been to the Rijkmuseum in its older, dark and heavy incarnation. I was happy to return to see it reborn.

Silversea Silver Cloud docked in the morning at the base of Amsterdam and we jogged over to Central Station and hopped on a tram to the museum. We had prepurchased our tickets on the Internet, although lines were short when we arrived about 9:45. By early afternoon, though, there was a serious line for tickets–and this is still early June. Visitors in July and August be forewarned.

The entrance from Museumplein is well decorated, and the interior atrium has been spruced up–and opened to the light–in a way never seen before. The atrium will be used for public events, and you can visit without a ticket–but why come all this way without seeing a bit of Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh and so much more?

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Here are some works that caught my eye. I’ll start with the museum’s most famous piece, The Night Watch by Rembrandt. It is now beautifully displayed in a hall that can be seen from many points in the museum. We got there early enough to reacquaint ourselves with the work, and came back later to marvel at the crowds.

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The Night Watch is watched.

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A beautiful 1/12th scale model of the Dutch Warship William Rex. The model was made about 1698 at the dockyards of Vlissingen (Flushing), where real warships were being constructed.

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Carvings and tryptychs

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The restored library, some impressive furniture and trompe l’oeil painting that looks like sculpture, and a set of noblemen.

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Upstairs, Downstairs. A dollhouse from about 1700 of wood, tortoise shell, and pewter.

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The Tree of Jesse, attributed to the school of Geertgen tot Sint-jans from about 1500. It is said to show Christ’s family tree, growing out of the sleeping figure of Jesse, forefather of a line of kings that gave rise to Solomon, David, and Jesus. Who knew?

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The Merry Fiddler by Gerard van Honthorst, completed in 1623. A happy fellow in extravagant clothing seeming to lean out of the frame to clink glasses with us. I loved the painting…and it reminded me of a very different place. A few weeks ago we were in Valletta, Malta and re-visited the spectacular Co-Cathedral of St. John. There we saw the work of Mattia Pretti who drew dozens of figures who lean out from the ceiling and walls.

Those sorts of connections are why we love to travel.

If you’re interested in obtaining any of my photos, please send me an e-mail at corey@sandlerbooks.com   You can also visit my websites of www.sandlerbooks.com  and www.sandlephotos.com