Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Bucket List Trip to the Baltics (NRR-mostly)

It was late afternoon and sunlight was pouring from all open windows scattered throughout the flat. Our luggage was scattered across one room and we were scattered across the sofa in room facing the street. The four adjoining rooms were perfectly Scandinavian. They were functional, minimalist, and dotted with slivers of personality of the owner. I know absolutely nothing about jazz, but the rich instrumental music filled the space with quiet power. As we both nodded off, I felt secure, comfortable, and complete. It was an oddly perfect few hours of our trip--one that will stand out in my memories as the museums, castles, and art blur as time ebbs on.

I had long promised Adam a non-running trip. When his 40th birthday was rolling around this past December, we had been anxiously seeking various cruises to celebrate. Dubai, South America, Panama Canal, Southeast Asia, Greece, and the Baltics were all on the table. Ultimately, we drug our feet and couldn't make any decisions for months. However, I received a tip about an airfare war in March and within a couple of hours, we solidified our trip to the Baltics. 

Visiting Russia was at the top of my own list. After taking an Imperial Russia course at Emory as part of my history minor, I briefly sought out adding a Russian Studies minor to my diploma. Though I ended up 2 credits short in the end, I truly enjoyed the classes I took in Russian history and literature. My favorite book of all time is Doctor Zhivago and my collegiate copy is well-worn from multiple readings. Sometime before I neared 30, I started writing down a bucket list and included "Visiting the Hermitage Museum".

Though I knew our time in Russia would be limited for this trip, 2 days would give me enough of a taste to satisfy a bit of my curiosity. Current politics aside, the country has such a fascinating and unique history that seeing even a smidgen of it was going to make me happy.

Top 10 (in no particular order)
The Hermitage Museum
Stockholm with new friends
Tivoli Gardens
Eating outdoors in Tallinn
Soviet Nuclear site
Listening to jazz on Saturday afternoon in Copenhagen
Table 322 antics
Ice Bar
Run in Amsterdam (side note: I ran 104.4 miles on vacation!)
Painting Russian nesting dolls

Monday, May 1-Tuesday, May 2: Atlanta-->London-->Amsterdam
We flew from Atlanta to London, London to Amsterdam. I slept for about 6 hours on the overnight flight and felt anxious to spend at least of couple of daylight hours in Amsterdam being productive. Adam slept maybe 20 minutes on the plane and was exhausted. So I left him to nap in the hotel and I took off on a 5 mile run around the town.

I finished in a park a few blocks from the hotel and walked around a bit just enjoying a chilly afternoon. When I came back, we asked the front desk for a quick and inexpensive dinner recommendation and ended up getting a Hawaiian pizza (me) and a gyro (Adam) at a little restaurant near the hotel.

Wednesday, May 3: Amsterdam-->Copenhagen
Our flight to Copenhagen was super early and we ended up paying extra for the shuttle to get us to the airport at gross o' clock. We killed a little time at the Copenhagen airport Starbucks (re: I needed a Venti and a croissant) before we hailed a taxi to the port. I was a little nervous that it was too early to check in, but luckily we pretty much just walked right up and didn't even have to stand in a line!

We spent the next couple of hours grabbing lunch, saying good-bye to WiFi, and checking out the boat. I went to the gym for a run after the muster station drill and then enjoyed some wine on the balcony before dinner.

Our table of ten started out slowly with introductions, but warmed throughout the evening. There was an older couple from Israel who would only be with us the first night as they got their seating time mixed up, but the other couples would eventually be the people we spent most of our last day on the boat with. Kevin & Nicola from Ireland, Karen & Rodrigo from Guatemala, and Mike & Derrick from Philly (via Canada) would prove to be an added bonus to our amazing trip.

Adam and I had a drink at the pub after dinner and listened to the guitarist play a myriad of classic rock songs.

Thursday, May 4: Sea Day
Going across time zones, we lost an hour on our sea day. But Adam was still catching up on sleep and happily spent half the day lounging in our room. I made my way to breakfast and then hopped on the treadmill for 15 loooooong miles on one of 2 treadmills facing the mirror. Even my iPod couldn't save me from the boredom.

Adam and I got a late lunch after that and then wandered around the ship until we stumbled on BINGO. Sleep slapped me across the face at that point and so we went back so I could catch a nap myself before we got gussied up for formal night.

Dinner was even better with more conversation this time around and luckily there were very little lulls in the conversation. It was really fun getting to know people from all over the world and as each day progressed, I began to look forward to our dinners together more and more.

Friday, May 5: Riga, Latvia
We decided when choosing shore excursions to do a basic city tour in Riga. Our guide walk us around the small town and gave us information about various sites as we passed them. Most of the tour groups ended up listening to an organ concert for half an hour in the Riga Cathedral, built in 1211. Though it has been modified throughout the years, there was certainly that "old bones" feeling about the interior.

The tour itself was okay--it was difficult to hear our guide sometimes and we often would catch just the beginning or the end of the importance of a site. However, the day was absolutely stunning and seeing a city that looked very different than home was a great experience.

After returning to the boat in the late afternoon, I headed to the gym (again) for a 10 mile run. I was hoping to retain as much run mojo as possible and wasn't sure how much I could keep up the momentum as the trip wore on.

Saturday, May 6: Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn was one of the few cities we didn't have an agenda. After speaking with my mom and a colleague, they both indicated that just walking around the old city was perfectly lovely and no tour was necessary. So we took the shuttle from the ship to the old town and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours wandering the streets of Tallinn. We saw beautiful flower markets, old fortresses, and cobblestone lined streets that looked like something out of a movie. I bought a hat from a wool shop and eventually, we sat down for beer and a hearty snack in the main square.

Sunday, May 7: St. Petersburg, Russia
Unless you apply for a private visa, the easiest way to see Russia while cruising as an America is to go with one of the ship tours. Disembarking the ship was vastly different here as each person had to have a 2-day visa created for them. Much in the way TSA checks your boarding pass and ID, the customs officials go over your documents. However, instead of glancing at you, the agent stares at you for an uncomfortable amount of time before creating your visa and handing you back your documents. 
As the Hermitage was on my "must do" list, I knew one of the excursions had to include a visit to this museum. We spent the first morning of St. Petersburg there and while it was a crazy chaotic mess from start to finish, it certainly did not disappoint me in the least. The architecture, the history, the collection of paintings, and opulence was incredible.

We were lucky that our guides gave us a few personal stories from growing up under Soviet rule, but they also seemed more guarded in sharing their overall opinions than in other former Soviet countries. The city is lined with blocks upon blocks of housing that look like giant warehouses with windows. They are simple and architecturally uninteresting. It is a vast contrast to the gilded palaces and cathedrals that were built during tsardom. 

We arrived back at the port just in time to take our second tour of the day--going to make our own Matryoshka dolls. The shop was a souvenir store, but we were tucked away in a corner with a few young women who were Matryoshka artists. A regular sized doll takes upwards of a week to paint and they do every little detail by hand. Apparently, the more decorated the smallest doll, the more the entire doll is worth. Adam and I had fun painting our absurd little dolls. He was lucky enough to get some professional help from one of the sweet girls who made the face on his look a little less scary. Mine just remained scary.

We bought a few items in the gift shop and then walked across the street as a tour group for "Russian tea". They served us blini with whipped creme and preserves and offered tea or coffee. It was a nice treat as we hadn't been able to eat any lunch between tours. We sat with a woman from Florida who had visited 90 countries and was on the boat for months at a time.
Back at the ship, we had open seating for dinner and while we missed our table mates, we ended up sitting with a sweet Irish couple who was celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and an older Texan couple. It was interesting to just sit and chat with people that I likely wouldn't meet otherwise.

Monday, May 8: St. Petersburg, Russia
The second day in Russia was an all day tour that started at Catherine's Palace in Pushkin. We were able to get the scoop on the celebrations of Victory Day--May 9th. The whole city was preparing for parades and celebrations much in the same way we celebrate July 4th in the US. Streets were decorated with orange and black ribbons as a symbol of patriotic support.
Catherine's Palace is unreal. It even has Versailles beat in my opinion. I took a billion pictures because I just couldn't get over how everything seemed to be gilded in gold. Apparently, they have to go through and re-gild every 5 years? It is certainly one of those places that pictures do not do it justice.

My good deed of the trip came from walking during this tour. We could hear the guide through radio headsets, but it was one-way. Adam and I had started to fall towards the back of the group as we made a long walk from the gardens back to the bus. There was a woman walking with a cane in our group who was falling further behind us. At one point, we started to go out of hearing range of the guide and though I saw her turn in a mass of people ahead of us, the woman with the cane and her husband were way to far back to see the front of the group anymore. So I put my running to good use and sprinted ahead to the guide to let her know that she needed to stop the group and collect the people from the back. We all stayed put while the back of the packers were rounded up.

Back on the bus, we took a few photo stops in the city and then had lunch at a local restaurant where we had Caesar salad, meatballs & potatoes, and a spongy white cake for dessert.

After lunch, we stopped at the Church of the Spilled Blood. Named for the site of where Alexander II was murdered, this was definitely a trip highlight for me. Seeing the onion domes and unique architecture that is so quintessentially "Russian" in my mind was breathtaking. Plus, the festivities of the next day meant that Russians themselves were out in full force, enjoying a beautiful day in their city and lining the streets.

Our last stop was at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Once a prison and execution ground, it still houses the St. Petersburg Mint and most of the tsars buried in the cathedral. The inside of the cathedral is another glitzy building full of marble and gold.
Once we were back on the boat, I headed to the gym for a run and then we were happily reunited with our dinner table to discuss all of our Russian adventures.

Tuesday, May 9th: Helsinki, Finland
A visit to an ice bar was on the docket for Finland. We took a short tour of the city make our way around to a couple of government buildings, embassies, and historic sites.
We ended up seeing our Derrick and Mike from our dinner table while in the square and caught up briefly before hopping back on the bus. It started snowing just as we were heading to the ice bar!
Once we got to Unique Lapland, we were given ski bibs, boots, and gloves to change into. Everyone was able to take a shot of vodka from an ice cup if they desired and then could go play in the snow. There was an ice slide, skis, igloos, and sled dogs that would take people around a training course for an extra 20 euros. The facility is also used for cross-country skiers to practice and piles of snow could be seen in the center.

An hour was just about the right amount of time at the ice bar and we climbed back on the bus for one more stop at the Temppeliaukio Church. This church was built by a carved out piece of rock and has a beautiful copper domed roof.

Our tour allowed for us to be dropped off in the city center and take a later shuttle back so we decided to hang out in town a little bit. I was hangry and Adam was tired so we ended up stopping at Joe's Juice inside a giant shopping center to grab a snack, a coffee, rest, and WiFi. Russia had been very spotty and so we spent a half hour or so catching up and posting pictures before returning to the boat.

Wednesday, May 10: Stockholm, Sweden
Our Irish tablemates Nicola and Kevin (along with latecomer Cece) did not have any excursions planned for Stockholm so we paired up with them to ride the Hop On/Hop Off bus. Somehow, we managed to purchase tickets for the 2 different tour companies and I sprinted back to the ticket office to try to exchange ours. Luckily, they were able to switch them and after that minor SNAFU, we carried on with our day.
We saw important historical sites like the ABBA museum and parliament buildings, but ultimately decided to get off the bus at the old town square. With dumb luck, we happened to walk right up to the changing of the guard at the palace right after I purchased a French hot dog from a street vendor. Because. You know. Travel food.

We lost Cece to the changing of the guard so the four of us walked around the old square for a bit before returning to the Hop On/Hop Off bus. 

We landed back at an area recommended by a local to grab beer and food. There actually weren't a ton of options and we ended up in an Irish pub with Irish people in Stockholm? I tried a local beer and opted for herring as the bartender said it was the most Swedish thing on the menu.
 The four of us crammed into a taxi giggling and happily found Derrick and Mike when we arrived back on board. All of us went to the top deck for the most magical sail away party ever. We were drinking hot chocolate with Bailey's and mulled wine and it began snowing as we started to sail away. The Stockholm archipelago was even more beautiful with snow cover on the tiny islands. Gorgeous scenery, awesome new friends, a randomly fun day--our hearts were full.

 Everyone headed back to get cleaned up for our last formal night and we continued the party throughout dinner, at the atrium disco party, and at the dance club. It was insanely fun.

Thursday, May 11: Klaipeda, Lithuania
We weren't docking until noon so I used the morning to get in a short run before starting the rest of the day. It wasn't easy after drinking with the Irish all day, but I felt better after the first mile.

Derrick and Mike had also signed up for the Soviet Nuclear Site tour and we arranged to meet beforehand to ensure we got on the same bus. We got a small glimpse of the port town as we left to head out to the site.

I kept thinking how much the countryside looked like Kansas as we made the hour long trek through Lithuania. The landscape was mostly flat fields with a few trees.

We made a stop at Aukštaitija National Park and lucked out on another beautiful day. Lithuania has the highest known density of nesting storks in the world and we were able to get up close to a colony of houses built for storks in the park. 

 After another short drive, we arrived at The Cold War Museum.
 The four white domed buildings are missile silos.
The tour led us into the main area that soldiers used to communicate and live while staying out of the eye of enemy planes. The site was discovered approximately 2 years after it was built--it's crazy to imagine how Google Earth has changed the idea of secret locations.

Though it is hard to tell from the picture, this is a very deep hole that would be used to house a missile.
We made it out!
Our guide in Lithuania was probably the best one we had the entire trip. He was articulate, personable, and a bevy of information. He shared his personal experiences with Soviet soldiers, his family life, and even had a little bit of political commentary.

We stopped at a restaurant for a meal of beer, borscht, potatoes, more potatoes, and potatoes with meat. Our guide warned us that Lithuanians really like potatoes.

Friday, May 12: Sea Day
I decided to try to run a 20 miler on the last day at sea. It was arduously boring, but I broke it up into 3 sections and just tried to keep the pace super easy. After a shower and food, we met up with the table crew and played on the rock climbing wall.
Then we froze our butts off playing 9 holes of mini golf. 

Eventually, we had to have our last supper and we laughed until we cried over glasses of champagne.
Saturday, May 13: Copenhagen, Denmark
I actually ended up seeing Karen and Rodrigo as well as Kevin and Nicola while grabbing breakfast in the Windjammer. One last goodbye!

Adam and I hung out for awhile just outside of the port as we needed to kill a little time before taking a taxi to the Airbnb. I was a little nervous because we had been without communication for so long, but we got the address, found the right place, and the Spanish girls staying prior to us allowed us to leave our luggage so we didn't have to haul it around all morning.

We walked towards the city center and decided to take the Hop On/Hop Off bus to get our bearings on the city. After about an hour, we had completed the circuit and I suggested we get off to grab something for lunch.

Once back at our Airbnb, we reversed the favor for the Spanish girls and then had a lovely afternoon of listening to jazz. Our host left us an amazingly detailed map of places to eat/shop/visit and we found a pizza place a block from the flat.
Scary stairs at the Airbnb.
After our perfect al fresco pizza dinner, we walked over to a giant cemetery where famous Danish people are buried, including Hans Christian Andersen.

Sunday, May 14: Copenhagen, Denmark
I woke up and headed out a couple of blocks to run around the 3 large lakes that separate the city center from the Nørrebro district. The lakes are lined with gravel paths and are basically a runners paradise. I ended up doing 2 loops that equaled around 8 miles or so and loved every second of being able to enjoy a city in this way.

On my walk back to the flat, I pick up a danish (because Denmark, duh) and a coffee at a cute little bakery that offered me a yummy sample of some chocolate deliciousness.
 The middle blue door is the flat!
I convinced Adam that we didn't really want to go to any more castles, museums, etc. and we should visit Tivoli--the second oldest amusement park in the world. It ended up being one of the best decisions of the trip!
People don't just come for the rides like American amusement parks. They buy tickets or season passes often just to enjoy the beautiful park spaces and amazing restaurants. Peacocks roam the grounds and we came at the peek season for bulb flowers like daffodils and tulips. Having all this plus rides?! I was beside myself with enthusiasm.

We had some snacks throughout the day (pretzel, marshmallows, mini donuts), but then ended up wanting some "real food" and decided to eat in this giant greenhouse space right next to one of the lakes. I had a stellar meal and our service was equally outstanding.

As we wandered around the park after dinner, the lights started to come on and I was just so darn happy we had such an amazing day and amazing trip.
Monday, May 15: Copenhagen-->Amsterdam
We had nearly an entire day left to spend in Copenhagen. I went on another lovely run at the lake.
 I stopped into a grocery store on my way back and awkwardly navigated the checkout for some strawberries.
Then I convinced Adam to go on a walk to grab a cup of coffee at Coffee Collective as an appetizer and a gyro for lunch.
He was pretty worn out from the trip as a whole so I let him get a little rest while I headed back to the city center to pick up a book the host had left out as a city guide. I liked it so much I wanted it as a souvenir.
I decided to stop into the Round Tower and climb the winding ramp to the top.
 The view (as usual) was worth the climb.

 I did a little more shopping and then went back to repack. We took a taxi to the airport and soon were headed back to Amsterdam for a quick sleep.
Tuesday, May 16: Amsterdam-->Dallas-->Home
We were in Amsterdam for 8 hours and had just enough time to sleep before going back to the airport. Our flight to Dallas was 11 hours and after the lovely technology of our British Airways flight, we found that they had the overhead TVs on the American Airlines flight. I ended up finishing Shoe Dog and a bunch puzzles in between a nice nap.

Landing in Dallas was jarring to say the least. Gone were all the svelte, conservative mannered Scandinavians. In their place were the 'Mericans. But I was ready to make that final flight back to Atlanta and sleep in my own bed.

Jeff kindly picked us up from the airport and let us tell stories the entire way back to our house. Being reunited with the pups was the perfect end to a pretty perfect vacation.

P.S. Thanks for the memories table 322. You made this trip 100% more fun. We hope our paths cross sometime in the future!