Saturday, August 31, 2013


I've been away on a Baltic trip, travelling from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg, Russia aboard a luxury cruise ship. Our ports of call on this amazing journey included Warnemunde, Stockholm, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Copenhagen.

My travel companions were husband Robert and his grandchildren Sara and Jonathan, 12 year-old twins.  This was a first-time cruise for all in our party, so we boarded the ship in Amsterdam with only a vague brochure-fuelled notion of what it would be like.  Previous trips to Europe have always been self-guided tours involving marathon suitcase lugging, deciphering foreign train schedules, standing on street corners looking for a restaurant, washing underwear in hotel sinks, muddling along in spite of crowds, traffic, weather, roadblocks, detours, bomb threats and other challenges.    We have always accepted the fact that the verb "to travel" comes from the French "travailler" which means that work is involved.

At sea
The Baltic trip was more of a breezy holiday, a complete break from the usual routine.  I enjoyed a total disconnection from the Internet.   Days at sea were spent reading in a lounge chair on deck, watching the wake of the ship, drinking green tea and eating sushi.   No emails to answer, no spam to delete and nothing to search Google for.  My personal guideline for the trip was simple:   Be. Here. Now.

For the 12 year-olds, a trip without the Internet was akin to a failure of an essential life support system.  These are children belonging to a generation raised with cellphones, video games and apps that turn real experiences into virtual ones though a series of seductive, dancing, touch-sensitive, backlit screens.   Grandpa had requested that no electronics other than digital cameras accompany them on the trip, but their mother (shame on her) had provided an iphone.   The twins suffered withdrawal symptoms after Amsterdam, and by Day Two of the cruise, we noted pouting, complaining, lack of energy, short attention span, general despair as their device failed to connect to the German network.  The magnificent castle we visited at Schwerin, Germany was less impressive than the McDonalds at the Bahnhof, with its promise of wi-fi.  At this point, I suggested we order two Happy Meals.

Schloss Schwerin

McDonald's, Schwerin train station -  looking for a hot spot
When the wi-fi failed to connect, we faced a total meltdown, complete with tears and screams of "I want to go home!"   After lengthy discussion about homesickness, internet addiction, and travel etiquette, we gave in and  bought the wi-fi package offered on the ship at a ridiculously expensive per-minute rate, with a deadly slow-paced connection.  The deal was that the twins could use the Internet while on the ship, but were required to leave the iphone locked in their cabin while we toured the ports of call.  This compromise was a great relief for all concerned and it was smooth sailing for the rest of our trip.

Highlights of the Baltic included:

  •  the Vasa Museum, Stockholm and its comprehensive presentation of a restored ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628
  • the Nobel Museum, Stockholm where we learned the six categories of international prizes - Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economics.  What a surprise to find out that Nobel laureates' signatures grace the underside of the chair seats in the museum cafe! 
  • Medieval architecture in Tallinn, Estonia contrasting the ultra-modern art museum KUMU
  • Opulence of the Tsar's winter and summer palaces, St. Petersburg, Russia.  Baroque gold, amber, marble, silk, mosaic and wood decoration in every corner, ceiling and floor of every room.  Over the top artifacts include a private pavillion where the table was set on the main floor and hoisted through the ceiling to the second level for guests of Peter the Great.  This practice prevented servants from eavesdropping on intimate dinner conversations.
  • the Glyptotek, Copenhagen, with its fine collection of classical marble sculpture.  An excellent presentation of the working sketches and sculpture of Edgar Degas.
  • Facades of medieval houses in Tallin, Estonia
  • Old Town, Tallinn

    KUMU art museum, Tallinn
Ballroom,  palace of Peter the Great

Baroque decoration with gold leaf

Hand-painted silk wall coverings

Baby satyr seated on a monumental palace vase
Matisse at the Hermitage 
Onion domes, Church of the Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg
Fountains at the Grand Peterhof Palace, Russia
Glyptotek collection, Copenhagen

The cruise was comfortable, pleasant and fun, but for my taste, a far too easy, laid-back vacation.  In the end, I didn't have the distinct feeling of accomplishment that comes from finding your own way in a foreign country, making do with less-than-ideal conditions and accepting the serendipity of chance encounters, wrong turns and scenic backroads.   I don't relish an itinerary that includes a formal dress code, bingo games, happy hour at the martini ice bar, zumba classes and ballroom dancing. A second class rail pass and a map are all I need for a fully enriched European adventure, complete with off the beaten path discoveries and plenty of self-guided wandering. 

A few years ago, while driving in the Aveyron region of France, we stopped a local farmer to ask for directions to the next village.  Gesturing with his hand in a snake-like motion, he said, "You take le zig, and then le zag."  That's a perfect description of the way I prefer to travel.

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.  I travel for travel's sake.  The great affair is to move."                                                                                  - Robert Louis Stevenson