When I was a junior high-school student at Karachi American School in Pakistan (in the early 70s), my art teacher was a woman from Finland. I liked her (even though I was terrible at art), and ever since then I have wanted to visit Finland. So I was thrilled that Helsinki, Finland was one of the ports of call on our cruise earlier this month.
As the ship docked early in the morning, a thick fog descended onto the city. We missed some of the wider views of the city, but it still managed to be impressive.
After a drive around the city, we travelled 35 miles east to visit the historic city of Porvoo, a charming 800-year-old town.
The town is dominated by the Porvoo Cathedral, a Lutheran Church that contains a statue of Russian Czar Alexander I. He looms large in Finnish history as the Russian ruler who granted autonomy to Finland after it was taken from Sweden.
One of the books I read in advance of the trip was The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, by Michael Booth. It’s a great book that examines the history and contemporary social/political issues, as well as cultural characteristics of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It’s a great read.
And a book I now have on my wish list is Finland at War: The Winter War 1939–40, by Vesa Nenye and Peter Munter about the the Soviet attack on Finland during World War II. It’s a lesser-known story about that war.
And for a fun link to China, here’s an interesting article in The Guardian about the popularity of Finland among many Chinese:
Why do millions of Chinese people want to be ‘spiritually Finnish?” A Finnish cartoon about a socially awkward stickman has become a hit in China — even inspiring a new word in Mandarin. Why has it struck a chord?
St. Petersburg is a city of layers with each layer corresponding to a different historical era and and each visible in the architecture and various sights around town.
The first is the classical layer which can be seen in the ornate architecture of the city built by Peter the Great. Many visitors assume that it is classical Russian architecture, but our guide reminded us that St. Petersburg was built as a European city, not a Russian one. It is this layer that most attracts visitors.
The second layer is that of the Soviet era, during which the city was named Leningrad. Vestiges of that era can be seen in the giant, nondescript apartment blocks that dominate the outer areas of the city.
Seeing these giant housing blocks was quite disorienting since they looked exactly like the thousands of apartment buildings that are commonplace in Chinese cities. As soon as we got out of the center of town — the old city — I felt like we could have been in Beijing (minus the crowds, mind you). In fact the photo above looks a lot like my old neighborhood in Beijing.
It was quite disorienting!
The Soviet era is also visible in the subway system, with its ornate Stalinist art extolling the virtues of the working class.
The third, and most recent layer of St. Petersburg is that of the post-Communist era, characterized by traffic jams, shopping malls, and gleaming skyscrapers.
During World War II, Hitler ordered his army to capture and destroy the city. Although it was under siege for 900 days, they were never able to take it. It is estimated that more than 1 million of the city’s inhabitants died, either of starvation and disease or during the frequent bombardments.
An excellent book about the siege is The 900 Days: The Siege Of Leningrad, by Harrison Salisbury.
One of my all-time favorite books is The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri J. Nouwen. As such, one of the highlights of our visit to St. Petersburg was seeing the Rembrandt painting that inspired the book. It is housed in The State Hermitage Museum.
It was another one of those moments I almost curled up in a corner and cried, so overwhelmed was I to be seeing the painting.
Here’s the description of the painting from the museum website.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. 1606-1669
Return of the Prodigal Son
Holland, Circa 1668
In the Gospel According to Luke (15: 11-32), Christ relates the parable of the prodigal son. A son asks his father for his inheritance and leaves the parental home, only to fritter away all his wealth. Arriving at last at sickness and poverty, he returns to his father’s house. The old man is blinded by tears as he forgives his son, just as God forgives all those who repent. This whole work is dominated by the idea of the victory of love, goodness and charity. The event is treated as the highest act of human wisdom and spiritual nobility, and it takes place in absolute silence and stillness. The drama and depth of feeling are expressed in the figures of both father and son, with all the emotional precision with which Rembrandt was endowed. The broad, sketchy brushstrokes of the artist’s late style accentuate the emotion and intensity of this masterly painting. This parable in Rembrandt’s treatment is addressed to the heart of everyone: “We should be glad: for this son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Because I have long been a Russian history buff, our 2-day port of call in St. Petersburg, Russia was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. My fascination with Russian history began in high school when I read the book Nicholas and Alexandra (Tragic, Compelling Story of the Last Tsar and His Family), the story of the last Czar and his family, who were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
The first stop on our tour of the city was the Peter and Paul Cathedral, inside the Fortress of Peter and Paul.
The Cathedral is where all of the Czars are buried, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.
In 1998, the remains of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children were interred in a side chapel of the cathedral.
I’ll be honest and say that I was so moved at the chance to be there and see these graves that I almost curled up in a corner and cried.
In preparation for our visit to St. Petersburg, I read the book St. Petersburg: Madness, Murder, and Art on the Banks of the Neva It helped put into context what we were seeing.
Now I’m reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (author of Nicholas and Alexandra).
Even though our Baltic Cruise came to an end (sniff, sniff) less than 2 weeks ago, I still have some things to say about the places we visited.
After leaving Germany, we sailed north to the city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Like every other destination on this cruise, it was a city that I’ve always wanted to visit. It is small enough that we were able to get off our ship and explore the medieval city on our own for the day.
It did not disappoint. Here are a few pics.
As we disembarked, there was a sign on the dock welcoming us to Estonia, and telling us a bit about the country. For some reason, the Tourism Board thought this was an important thing for us to know.
More than half of the city’s 13th century city wall remains in tact. In a park near the wall there are three rather creepy statues of faceless monks. According to this blogger, they are statues of Danish monks who, during a battle, prayed for victory on behalf of the Danish king.
The old city sits on the side of a hill, the top of which has this fantastic view.
It’s definitely a city I want to visit again.
Even though Berlin is nowhere near the north coast of Germany, it was the first city in our cruise itinerary. Our day “in port” involved a 3-hour bus ride from Warnemunde, where our ship actually docked, to Berlin, taking a 5-hour walking tour, followed by a 3 hour bus ride back to the ship.
For this Cold War history buff, being in Berlin was, even if just for a few hours, a dream come true. We saw, or glimpsed from the bus window, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the 1936 Olympic Stadium (whose bell I wrote about in my book), Checkpoint Charlie, and the remnants of the Berlin Wall.
One of the most moving spots was a fence near the site of the Berlin Wall that commemorates those killed trying to escape over the wall. The last victim was killed in May of 1989, only 6 months before the wall collapsed.
An excellent book about how the wall came down is The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte.
Perhaps you remember the classic Danish film, Babette’s Feast. It was set on the cold, wet coast of Denmark in the 1800s. A French cook comes to be a servant in the house of an austere Lutheran minister and his family.
For dinner in Copenhagen on Sunday night we signed up with a program called “Meet the Danes,” which offers tourists a chance for a home-cooked meal with a a local. In our case it was a man who cooked us up a meal he said his grandmother would have made.
We ate straight from 6:30 to 10:00PM!
Our very own Babette’s feast!
This week I have I am cruising the Baltic Sea with my friend and former colleague, the indomitable Amy Young (and a few others). We set sail on Monday from Copenhagen, Denmark, after meeting up in baggage claim at the airport and then exploring the city for the weekend.
Copenhagen is a beautiful city with historic architecture, charming sidewalk cafes and bikes. Lots of bikes—so many bikes that we almost thought we were back in Beijing!
One of the most interesting observations: everyone looked vaguely familiar.
Then it hit me: when you’re from Minnesota, everyonein Denmark looks familiar.
I’m anticipating that will be the case in Finland and Sweden as well!