Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Thou Swell, Thou Witty

And so we bring another “trip of a lifetime” to a close. Today was our last full day as we are disembarking tomorrow between noon and three; we wish we knew the actual time.

Our trivia streak was broken today, a fitting way to end the cruise. [Which city’s airport is named for Marco Polo? At what temperature are the Celsius and Fahrenheit measurements the same? What do we call a group of 13 witches? Which airline was the first to institute a frequent flyer program?] We weren’t even close today.

The big event of the day was packing to go home. Once MA had her clothes bundled and bagged, D loaded up suitcases with his and her clothing, purchases, electronics, etc. The hanging bag was left until after dinner [Cobb salads with romaine lettuce] because tonight was formal night and we had to get duded up one last time.

The captain erred on the side of caution last evening – we had no giant swells although there was a nice gentle roll to the ship. No luggage walked across the room; no tchotchkes fell from the shelves. We continued with quiet seas all day today. We have been very lucky for the past five weeks and hope we stay that way for the next several days.

Scooby announced at 1:00 today that he expects to be in Tilbury around 10:00 tomorrow morning and that we should be free to leave the ship between noon and 1:00. This would make us early by at least two hours, so we will have to contact Maria, our hostess for Friday and Saturday, in case she can get to the dock early. It would be to her advantage to be ahead of rush hour on the way home.

Tonight is also Envelope Night when the Tip Fairy descends on the wait staff. It is traditionally the last evening, but Ed and Roxanne will be rewarding the staff with us tonight rather than waiting. Roxanne hopes that they still get good service tomorrow.

Tipping has always been voluntary, especially on HAL, but in recent years a “hotel charge” has been added to each guest’s bill to compensate the crew. Currently, the charge is $11 per person per day and is divided up with a set amount going to the housekeeping staff and a set amount to the dining staff. Anything passengers give is above and beyond. Passengers also have the option of raising, lowering or eliminating the hotel charge if they wish. We tip above and beyond for good service; some years we have not tipped everyone and sometimes we have not tipped very much. This year, we think everyone will be quite happy with us.

Perhaps the biggest event of the cruise was the arrival of the UPS delivery man. D has gone anxiously to the room each day looking for mail and packages. Eventually, he started looking for a UPS package. Finally the UPS man showed up and we found a package for D on the doorstep. It contained candy bars and M&M’s a present from Ed and Roxanne with a little connivance from MA. Oh, joy! Life is good.

We fly home Sunday and try to adjust to what passes for normal life. Rats!
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oslo Encore

Most mornings we have had to drag ourselves out of bed to be ready for 9:00 or even 10:00 o’clock tours. Today we were up at 8:00 because we could not disembark until 11:00. Go figure.
At breakfast this morning, we were watching what we assumed was the Oslo Fjord slide past us. The closer to Oslo we got, the more housing and small towns were visible among the pine forests. MA thought these semi-isolated houses and cabins would be good places for writers to live and work. When one of the MDR captains came to the table to pay his respects and hustle tips, MA said, “I wonder what kind of people live in these houses.” Without skipping a beat, he replied, “Norwegians.”

Our objective for this visit to Oslo was Vigeland Park. D has wanted to visit this park for over forty years, ever since he saw photos taken by his parents when they visited here. So off we trooped to find a taxi to take us to the park. We could have taken the HoHo again except that [1] it would have taken an hour to get there and [2] we weren’t docked at the regular passenger pier this time. A taxi might have been more expensive but it saved us time. With the threat of rain heavy in the forecast, time was an important factor.

Vigeland Park is a sculpture garden and public park. The vast majority of the park is open grassland suitable for picnics and play, but the real reason for tourists to visit is the sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland [VEEG-land to the locals.]. Vigeland created a series of figures in both bronze and granite depicting the “ages of Man.” Statues commemorate everything from childhood to adolescence to courtship, marriage, old age and death. The faces are obviously Nordic but nevertheless anonymous and age is depicted through expressions, beards and body sag. It reminded us of both of The Family of Man and the recent movie Babies. The themes are universal.

The park is bisected by a stream and the bridge over it has bronze statues on the balustrade. Each piece of sculpture is different from the others but the total effect is like the entrance to Angkor Thom in Cambodia [except there all of the statues were the same face]. Beyond the bridge were steps leading to a fountain and a series of granite figures. MA and Roxanne waited on a bench at the end of the bridge while D and Ed explored more of the park.

The fountain was at the head of a flight of steps. There were more bronze statues here supporting the fountain itself. These figures all showed groups of people intertwined with trees. At the base of the fountain were friezes depicting more of the cycle of life. Beyond the fountain was another flight of steps which lead to the granite statues.

These last sculptures showed more complex relationships of people young and old. There were grandparents and children; groups of children playing; and couples of all ages, both mixed and same gender but none of them sexual by any connotation. In the center of this display was a “totem pole” of intertwined figures seemingly climbing to the top, a Tower of Babel, in a sense. It appeared to be one solid piece of granite perhaps thirty feet tall.

Vigeland created all of these pieces and willed them to the government on the condition that they be displayed free for anyone to see. The park was created following his death in 1943. We don’t know if he did all of the work himself or designed them for subordinates to finish. Regardless, they are magnificent. [Pictures will be available on Shutterfly in a week or so for anyone who is interested.]

We decided to be adventurous and go to the city center on the tram or light rail. Finding the station at Vigeland was easy but figuring out which train we wanted and how to use the ticket machine required a bit of help from some locals who spoke English. We finally had everything we needed just as a tram arrived at the station. Again, we needed help to validate the tickets once on the tram but were rescued again. And again when it was time to get off – a group of high school students let us know when it was time to get off at the City Hall stop.

We wandered like the Israelites for a bit, inadvertently circling City Hall where D had seen a few cafes when we were in Oslo on August 12. Too late we discovered that they were all either Italian or closed, so we settled on Italian for lunch. We found a taxi to return to the ship and were there in time for trivia.

We did not do well today but were still able to eke out a win, n umber eight in the streak. Perhaps the competition will be stiffer tomorrow when we have a sea day and no one is off on a field trip. [What song from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid won the Oscar for best song? What novel depicts an epic 1885 cattle drive? What religion was Christopher Colombus?] As usual, there were grumblings about some of the answers, but the answer on the host’s sheet is always correct, at least for that day.

We read; we napped; we had dinner [sesame noodles for both] and then went “home” to read some more. The captain predicted strong winds and heavy seas after 11:00 tonight as we exit the Oslo Fjord and enter the North Sea. The seasick bags were mounted on the banisters by the time we finished dinner at 9:30 and Scooby-do urged passengers to secure anything which might “wander” during the night. Our cabin stewards picked tonight to take our luggage from under the bed so it could fall over in the predicted heavy seas. D stowed the bags in the closet where there wasn’t room for it to fall over.

Tomorrow – Our last sea day

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bakery or Bus

We were in Warnemunde, Germany, today. Warnemunde is a little seaside resort town popular with Germans as a summer vacation spot. It has a nice beach, moderate temperatures and enough shopping to keep tourists happy. It is also a gateway to historic Rostock which gained prominence as part of the Hanseatic League centuries ago and, for the ship’s purposes, a starting point for a 13-hour bus trip to Berlin. The various Berlin excursions attracted several hundred passengers today, but we were not among them.

We walked into town around 10:00 and wandered past the train station. Because it is on the coast, it is the terminus for the Rostock commuter line. We saw passenger trains going in both directions today but no freight trains; that may have been just a matter of timing. The center of tourist Warnemunde is centered on the church square. There are shops of all types surrounding the square and the streets feeding into it as well as parking lots in front of and behind the church. The town was crowded with tourists today as there were 3 cruise ships in port, but we think one of them uses Warnemunde as its home port. We also saw numerous big ferries [again] throughout the day.
We stopped to buy two lace doilies for the night tables in the guest bedroom and later for some glass beads which MA will have strung when we get home. Our only other stop was for a mid-morning snack at a bakery. We split a Coke and D had an apple pastry; Ed and Roxanne got hot chocolate and a doughnut. We had thought about sausage, but it was too early for lunch. We were back on board by 12:10.

We read for a while before lunch. MA has just started and D is almost finished the last book in the Stieg Larssson series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. We have read the other two already on the trip. We ate in the Lido because the MDR was closed. After lunch, we read some more before going to trivia.

Our usual trivia host Kevin was not in attendance today. We had seen him earlier as we were leaving and he told us that his grandmother had died last night and he was going home, but that he expected to see us in the spring when we return to the Prinsendam. As it turned out, the train from Warnemunde would not have gotten him to the airport in time to make his plane, so he returned to the ship and will fly from Copenhagen tomorrow. HAL is good about family emergencies, we have been told, so we expect that the company will pay his air fare home and back. He told the girl who is covering trivia for him that he hoped to be back for the next cruise which starts Saturday in Tilbury.

As for trivia itself, we laughed, we cried and then we tied for first again, so our streak is still going. Instead of having a tie-breaker, Denise, covering for Kevin, simply gave Prinsendam pins to both teams. It seem a little unfair since there were only three teams playing and we felt a little sorry for the odd team out. We laughed and sang our way through the game – What was Jeremiah? We sang the answer when it was time to score the papers? Whose trial included the skulls of her parents and an axe? We sang that answer, too. [Yesterday in old Fall River Mr. Andrew Borden died/And they got his daughter Lizzie on a charge of homicide….] Naturally, the other teams thought we were more than a little crazy.

D read while MA napped after trivia and then we got ready for dinner. We ate dinner in the Pinnacle Grill with Roxanne and Ed. The Pinnacle is primarily a steak house with a surcharge. 4-Star Mariners get a 50% discount, so, for example, it only cost Ed and Roxanne $10 apiece when they went for their anniversary. More on that shortly.

MA had shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad and a lobster tail. D had lobster bisque, fixed tableside; the Caesar salad [also fixed tableside]; and a bone-in rib eye steak big enough for two people. Side dishes included creamed spinach, asparagus, sautéed onions and baked potato. For dessert, we both had a trio of crème brulees. It was delicious but too much food.

When it came time to pay, the waiter approached the table and D handed him gift vouchers we had received the day we embarked in July. We assumed they were for one person each but the waiter took them, apologized for not realizing that we had them and never came back. We waited a reasonable time while we continued talking but no one came to ask Ed and Roxanne to sign for dinner, so we left. It will be interesting to see our bills when we leave this week.

We read before bed and then braced ourselves for

Tomorrow – Copenhagen, Denmark.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Just Riding in the Rain

Here’s what kind of day it was -- the most famous landmark in Denmark was on vacation.

We decided to take the Copenhagen HoHo so we could see more of the city. If time permitted, we planned to return to places of interest. There are three HoHo routes, but only one stopped right in front of the ship. [There are other tourist buses, too, but the HoHo is always reliable.] We “hopped on” around 10:15. MA and Roxanne sat on the bottom level while Ed and D were able to snag front row seats on the top. These are the best seats because there is unlimited visibility directly ahead. The bus had a retractable roof which was closed today.

We drove first past a section of the old defensive wall of the city but which now houses retail shops selling mostly clothing. It was right on the pier with us and was opposite another cruise ship. The first stop on the itinerary was the Little Mermaid statue famous in stories, movies and travel books. People could get off the bus here to take pictures or to wander around and wait for the next bus, due in 30 minutes. We saw no reason the so much as move – the Little Mermaid is currently housed in a Danish exhibition in Shanghai and has been there for several months. All that appears in her usual place is a flat-screen monitor showing people in China looking at the sculpture. We knew this ahead of time so we were not surprised; others on the bus were taken aback, though.

Like most HoHos, ours wandered in a quasi-circular path so that it passed some of the high points of Copenhagen such as the Amelienborg Royal Palace, the Rosenborg Castle and Tivoli Gardens amusement park. Sight-lines were not very good, so we could not see very much of the historical landmarks, but we had excellent views of the Nyhavn area. There were brightly painted shops and cafes on all sides of a canal and the surrounding streets. Once considered seedy, the area is now one of the entertainment centers of Denmark’s capital. Tour boats [the ever-popular bateau mouche] were present in the canal.

We reached the end of the line in the center city at City Hall Square and had to change buses. We thought about switching to another line but while we waited, light rain began falling. We decided instead to board another red line bus and return to the ship. This way, at least, we would have seen everything on that route. The first stop after city Hall Square was just around the corner at the entrance to Tivoli, one of Europe’s best known amusement and entertainment areas. We could see the sign but nothing else. Right next door was the obligatory Hard Rock. If we had known, we might have walked over and then caught the bus there. Sorry, Tim.

All the while, we had been having intermittent showers, some of them heavy and some almost misty. Many of D’s photographs show the rain drops on the bus window better than they do Copenhagen. It was not raining when we returned to the ship before noon but an hour later, the skies opened up for a deluge. We were at lunch in the MDR and watched it for all of three minutes before it ended as abruptly as it had started. The weather gods have let us down for the last few days.

We barely kept our trivia streak alive today. We tied for first and had to win a tiebreaker. [What oil had been used for 2000 years for anointing Catholics? How many states border the Great Lakes? What is the fastest animal on 2 legs? What basketball player was known as “The Big O?”] We have now won the seven contests in which we have participated on this segment and would have tied or won if we had played on Sunday instead of eating with the captain. This cannot last, but it’s fun so far.

We were back in the MDR tonight and, frankly, it was nice to be home. We were not that impressed with the Pinnacle Grill but the price was right. We don’t know if we will go on next year’s cruise even at half-price. MA had the vegetarian again, spicy lentils this time, and d had the leg of lamb. We are becoming jaded by the food choices and are looking forward to eating “normal” food when we get home next week.

On the weather front [pun intended], the captain said this afternoon that the wind and rain we are experiencing are the result of tropical storms which have traveled across the Atlantic. How ironic that we missed storms or hurricanes in Florida only to get them in Europe.

Tomorrow – Oslo, Norway [again]

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sunday, August 22, 2010


We don’t often go to the evening shows because most seem to be a waste of time. The “cast shows” are simply amateurish compared to what they were when we started cruising and many of the other acts are second-rate or just not appealing. We went to the magician’s show the other night in the hope that Ed would be picked as a volunteer [as he was on 2008’s Grand Asia cruise]. He was not although Marvin had been a few weeks earlier.

We have gone to the ethnic crew shows. Both of us saw the Indonesian show and D went to the Filipino show mostly to support Hernelia, our favorite bar server. Somewhere in there, we saw part of a comedian’s routine in which he made fun of the ship’s captain. Captain Albert Schoonderbeek looks like an accountant. He has a ready smile, is pleasant to talk with but is definitely in charge.

Every day at 1:00, as people are finishing lunch, he makes an announcement concerning our position, course, the weather and whatever else crosses his mind. He is always followed by Thom, the Cruise Director, who promotes afternoon activities like bingo. This routine is followed on all the HAL ships. Captain Schoonderbeek always begins, “This is the captain speaking.” Last year’s captain frequently began with, “It’s me again.”

The comedian we saw spent some time talking about shipboard life, as all cruise comics do, and repeatedly called the captain “Captain Speaking” and “Captain Scooby-do.” At least he tailored his material to this ship. Of course, he also called Thom “the Boy.”

The point is that we had lunch with Captain Schoonderbeek and his wife today. On each cruise, there is a Mariner luncheon for repeat passengers. According to the captain, there are almost 500 repeaters on board but it was obvious that, if that were true, many chose not to attend. We got special treatment because we were among the most traveled HAL passengers on board.

Before lunch, the captain and his wife hosted the “senior sailors” in his quarters. There were only eight of us who have sailed 200 or more days on Holland America, so the captain thought it would be more comfortable to use his living room than one of the ship’s formal meeting areas. [Several weeks ago we met the Hotel Manager in the Explorer’s Lounge before dinner.] It was a lovely little gathering. Ed and Roxanne were there, too, as well as four other passengers we had never seen. Over drinks and snacks, we sat and talked primarily about cruising. It was interesting to hear the captain say that he prefers to cruise on his vacations but that he travels on competitor’s ships so he can be anonymous.

When he left us he explained that he had to go make some noise – the daily announcements. We were led by Syarif, the dining room manager, to the MDR and, once again, seated at the main table in the center of the room. We found our place cards and were seated. D was next to Mrs. Schoonderbeek and MA was between him and a lady from Connecticut. Ed and Roxanne were on the other side of Mrs. Schooderbeek.

The meal itself was quite good. We had curried pumpkin soup followed by quiche [MA] and tenderloin [D] and dessert. We did not finish until almost 2:15, too late to participate in trivia even though the start time had been delayed to accommodate Mariners. We wandered into the Ocean Bar as Kevin was asking question 19 [of 21] and decided to sit and listen to the questions and answers just for fun. As Kevin read each of the questions, we made quick answers at the table and would have had a score of 17 correct even without debate or deliberation. As it turned out, the top score was 17. We would have tied, at least. Oh, well, there’s always tomorrow. At least our streak of victories is still intact.

Tonight was another formal night, the second in three days. With so many port days, it is difficult to squeeze in four formal nights, but tonight was number three and our last night aboard will be the last one. After dinner that night we will return to the room, take off our party clothes and pack. MA had scallops for dinner and D had Cornish hen. The poor little thing never had a chance.

The Prinsendam will be docked in Warnemunde, Germany, tomorrow. Syarif says that over 400 passengers are going out early for long trips to Berlin and other cities. Breakfast will be served starting at 5:00 a.m. Some of the trips will not return until 9:00 at night. We are staying in Warnemunde and looking for a bakery for strudel and maybe wurst for lunch.
Tomorrow -- Warnemunde, Germany

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

To Market, to Market

We slept late this morning to make up for the last two days. We have no more tours scheduled and enjoyed having no elaborate plans. We were even happier to gain an hour’s sleep last night as we moved westward to Helsinki, Finland.

The usual suspects met at the usual place at 10:00 and went in search of a HoHo bus. What we found instead was a shuttle from the ship to the Market area by the harbor. Unlike some HAL shuttles, this one carried a 5 euro tariff for all-day use. We didn’t intend to use it more than once in each direction.

We passed a number of large ferries in port this morning. They all seem to arrive at about the same time in the morning and leave at the same time in the evening. Unlike our vision of ferry boats crossing small rivers or even a bay, these are designed for overnight travel with cabins for passengers as well as room for cars and trucks. They are a favorite form of transit in this part of the world and tourists use them as readily as we use airplanes.

The Market area was really a collection of stalls like a flea market, but it had a prime location. Not only was it on a direct path taken by tourists from both the cruise ships and the ferries, it was across the street from City Hall, the Presidential Palace and Uspensky Cathedral and other government buildings on Senate Square. Several public squares and two cathedrals are close by. It was tushy-to-tushy crowded.

Vendors were selling locally made handicrafts as well as tchotchkes of dubious origin. There were lots of things made from wood and many sellers with handmade knit products. Jewelry stalls were also popular, especially with MA and Roxanne, both of whom made purchases. We think we have now completed all of our shopping except for the commemorative boxes we collect. MA could not find a box she liked here so she bought a crystal block instead. She also found a necklace she liked and Roxanne bought a bracelet.

This was not just a crafts market. Fresh produce, most of it local, was also available. There were blueberries in three sizes, just as we had seen in Kristiansand, except here the salesperson spoke impeccable English. We saw miniature cauliflowers; small potatoes and ears of corn; peas in the pod, and lots of fresh herbs. The aroma of dill was prominent.

There were also at least a half dozen food stalls but everyone was selling pretty much the same food. Little silvery fish which looked like skinny sardines were fried and then kept warm on a large flat-top. One vendor offered one to D who accepted and decided that it tasted like, well, fish. Large calamari rings were on the same griddle as was salmon steaks and salmon cakes. There were rice and veggies, too. It was really local street food but it was too early for lunch.

The skies were bright when we started out but grew darker and darker as the breeze increased. We decided that an early retreat to the ship might be a good idea. We were sure it was going to rain. We caught the shuttle back to the ship, had an early lunch in the MDR and read/napped before trivia.

Ah, trivia! We had not played in several days and were coming off a three-peat, three victories in a row. We do not count the days we don’t play. We were afraid we might be rusty and tired, but we pulled out a close victory by having a perfect paper again. That makes twice we have answered all of the questions correctly. Today’s prize was the travel mug, again. [What are the names of the two moons of Mars? India defeated which European country in a two-day war in 1981? What did Captain Cook called the islands we know as Hawaii]

Tonight was another formal night [tortellini/lamb chops]. Big yawn. We were in bed early again and we gain another hour tonight as we steam to Stockholm for our fifth port day in a row. We really need a day at sea.

Tomorrow – Stockholm, Sweden

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Taking Stock[holm]

The ship did not clear Swedish customs until 9:00 this morning, so we had time to eat a leisurely breakfast in the MDR. We met as usual at 10:00 and disembarked. Practically at the security check-point, we found a HoHo bus and, naturally, hopped on. We discovered that this was a special bus on the yellow route designed to ferry passengers to the city center where could ride the yellow, blue or green routes interchangeably all day. The HoHos were double-decker buses with sliding roofs, but we stayed on the lower level on the yellow line.

We opted to start the tour on the green line and Ed and D climbed to the upper deck so they could see better. The Hard Rock Café was the first stop after we began and we weren’t aware enough to get off to get the traditional shooter glass for MA’s brother Tim, not to mention that it was too early for lunch. Sorry, Tim, but we didn’t go back. The green line went on a north-south axis and, while it was interesting, there was nothing terribly important to us. As we rode through the downtown area, we saw a military band marching down a main street; a V-formation of propeller planes flying overhead; and the same fountain three times. We rode the complete circuit back to our starting point and transferred to the blue line.

The blue line had more to offer in terms of things we remembered. Once again, we saw the same fountain and some of the same streets we had already seen in the city center. Two of the sites we passed had been the scenes of political murders including that of Prime Minister Olaf Palme. We also had a stop at the Nordiska Museum which chronicles Swedish culture; it is next to the Vasa Museum which houses a 300-year-old ship which sank before it was even commissioned. The Vasa sat at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor for all of those 300 years before being salvaged and put on display. Next on the list of places we did not visit was Skansen, a large recreation area which has museums and a zoo and is next to the Grona Lund amusement park. It is directly across the harbor from us and we can see the roller coaster and tower drop from the ship.

Perhaps the most unexpected part of the trip was the air show we passed between stops. In a large grassy field, we saw hundreds of spectators examining aircraft [helicopter, fighter jet, personal flyer] as others watched aircraft in the sky. We wondered if the flying formation we had seen earlier was part of this but had no way of finding out. We watched as a fixed wing/fixed gear plane did some barnstorming tricks as it flew overhead. At our distance, it appeared to be a wooden plane, but, again, we will never know. The next stop after the air show was the TV tower and as we waited there, we saw the barnstormer again. We discovered upon starting up again that we had simply circled the field and were on the opposite side.

We were back in the city itself in no time and got off at the next-to-last stop in an area full of shopping and restaurants [according to the HoHo brochure. The shopping was high-end – Georg Jensen, Orefors, Boda – and the restaurants were pricey as well. We wanted a simple but typical local meal but did not see anything that qualified unless we wanted soup; we did not want the large, heavy meals which were available. We wanted what the Scandinavians would consider a snack since they eat their big meal at mid-day. We ended up at TGI Friday’s, and, while the nachos were good and even hit the spot, we were disappointed in ourselves for compromising. On the other hand, we have eaten at Pizza Hut in Paris; McDonald’s in Versailles; and the Hard Rock in Buenos Aires, so should not have been surprised.

After lunch, we waited about fifteen minutes for the HoHo and returned to the city center which was the next stop. Once again we had to wait for the yellow line bus to return us to the ship. It was behind schedule, but our wait was not very long. By 3:10 we had returned to the Prinsendam and were heading to trivia. In a case of “déjà vu all over again,” we won for the sixth straight time although we did not have a perfect paper [What is the only insect which can turn its head 180 degrees to see behind itself? Who was the voice of the title character in the movie E.T.?]. We read and wrote until supper time.

The benefits of the 4-star cruiser visited us again. We received an invitation for to a reception in the captain’s quarters tomorrow at 12:15 to be followed by a private Mariner’s luncheon at 1:00. This afternoon, a Guest Services representative called to confirm our attendance. The 4-star cruisers have sailed at least 200 days with HAL and we have been treated well although the biggest benefit has been the free laundry service. We have also taken advantage of the 50% discount at the coffee bar. By this time next year, we will have passed 300 days on HAL, but there are no additional benefits that we know of.

Oopdate -- At dinner tonight [vegetable lasagna/fettucine de mare], Syarif came to the table to inquire about our intentions for tomorrow’s Mariner festivities. When we assured him that we would be at the captain’s reception as well as at the luncheon, he told us that we will be eating with the captain. The table will have the captain and the 4-Star Mariners. There are only eight on board, and we are four of them. It just keeps getting better.

Tomorrow – A sea day at last!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Emerald City

It happens on every cruise: We find one city which becomes The Emerald City. This year it has to be St. Petersburg, Russia. This is not to say that it is completely wonderful. There are blocks of Soviet-era apartment blocks which look depressing. Traffic is horrid. And there are way too many tourists! We were one of seven cruise ships in port today including two Costa ships [the Macaroni and the Manicotti] and a Royal Caribbean monstrosity. Each of these ships holds over 3000 passengers and they were all on tour buses today trying to see the same things we were.

We started with a new version of the Passport Dance. We had to go through Passport Control at the passenger terminal before being admitted to the country. Since we were not on a ship’s tour, we had to present proof that we were being met by a licensed tour agency as well as our passports and an entry ticket. The entry tickets had been distributed by HAL yesterday evening with almost all of the required information filled in. We simply had to underline the word “tourist,” check off our gender and sign both parts of the form. Once we were in the line, though, things slowed down. The process was slow and we were mixed in with a tour group of ten thousand. As a result, we were late meeting our guide Julia. Our introduction to the tour was hampered when the driver drove to the wrong ship when Julia called on her mobile. It was a comical start to the day.

Julia was wonderful. Her command of English was good and she was able to understand some of our jokes, a difficult proposition in a foreign language. She speaks French as well as English and Russian and is picking up other languages through her customers.

Once we were settled in the Mercedes mini-van, we had a tour of St. Petersburg, hereafter called SPB. During this tour we stayed in the car except when there were photo opportunities. Detailed visits came later. We spent some time at St. Isaac’s Square, a large square surrounded by three-story buildings which looked like they had been imported from Paris. This was not accidental and will be explained shortly. The center of the square held a monument to Czar Nicholas I. It was one of only a few monuments honoring the Czarist regimes not to be destroyed when the Bolsheviks took over the government in 1917. For the most part, the new government spared only monuments honoring Peter the Great and Katherine the Great. The statue of Nicholas was spared because he is shown riding a horse which has both of its front hooves in the air. The sheer size and balance of the work were enough to leave it in the square.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral is on one side of the square. It is an imposing edifice, it is one of the world’s largest domed structures and, although we did not go inside, we know that tourists may climb to the top. We could see a ramp enclosed by caging running outside a lower level to the dome itself. Neither Ed nor D was tempted to climb another tower for a long time.

When Peter took control of the city which now bears his name, he wanted to transform it into the Paris of the East. To this end, he created wide streets and lots of green space. The architecture mimicked that of Paris, but the dominant colors were pale yellow with white trim; Paris’s buildings are mostly white on white. Other colors sneaked in later, but the quintessential SPB building from the early days is yellow. SPB is also known as the Venice of the North. It is really a collection of islands at the mouth of the Neva River which runs right through it. There are 67 river segments and canals which separate the islands. There are far fewer bridges. Peter did not like bridges and only allowed pontoon bridges which had to be replaced each year.

The city is still filled with parks and statues. At one point, the Communist government started to tear down all of the historical monuments but reason prevailed when they realized that they could not erase or ignore the country’s history. With the fall of Communism, the statues erected to Communist leaders have not been removed. There is still a statue of Lenin in one of the city’s best-known parks; he looks like he is trying to flag down a taxi.

We drove past the Admiralty buildings. Because SPB is a deep-water port, it has been important in the Russian and Soviet military. The navy is headquartered here and there are training facilities across the city. We saw the Peter and Paul Fortress from across the river but did not get to visit. It has its own walled compound and ramparts as well as a cathedral and a public beach which was empty of sun bathers today. We drove to the point where the river splits and saw twin lighthouses [really towers] which warned sailors of the split in the river as they approached; today they are called the Rostral Columns and serve as a memorial to sailors. There was also a 1909 warship, the Aurora farther down the Neva; it was iron-clad, looked like it was made of cement yet still had two masts. Ed the sailor could not believe that anyone would try to sail this ship. Naturally, we lots of pictures at all of these places. Nearby was peter the Great’s ‘cabin which was directly opposite a high-class souvenir store where we didn’t buy anything. We did avail ourselves of the washrooms and free cookies, so the stop was not a total loss.

During the drive, we also drove past the collection of buildings and former palaces which now constitute The Hermitage, perhaps the world’s largest art museum. Although one could take weeks wandering through it, we will have only two or three hours tomorrow.

Finally, we pulled up outside The Hermitage and boarded a hydrofoil, a speed boat which rises onto fins to travel fast and far. The boat was fairly full with maybe 60 passengers for the ride from SPB to Peterhof, the site of Peter’s summer palace. The palace complex looked to be quite intricate, but we stayed outside in the gardens. Here we saw a series of pathways and fountains which reminded us for all the world of the grounds at Versailles. There were fountains everywhere – Julia said that there are 180 altogether. Some were simple, others ornate, and all of them worked on a gravity-feed system. Water from springs 22 km away is collected and stored overnight, then released through a series of pipes. The height of the fountain is determined by the difference between the height of the source and the height of the fountain. Or something like that.

Some of the fountains were quite unique. There were several “cascades” which were more like waterfalls than fountains, and there some which exhibited a bit of whimsy. In several locations, the fountains were triggered by innocent passersby stepping on hidden triggers so that they soaked themselves. We tried to beat the system with mixed results. Julia had no trouble crossing one [think of walking barefoot on hot coals] and dared us to try it, too. Ed was first and he got soaked, but he claims some child tripped the fountain. Roxanne, MA and D had no trouble crossing. We theorized that the trigger was close to a park bench so that people wanting to sit down would get wet. At another location, Peter had workers create a 20 meter fountain that covered a path from both sides. He would sit near it and wait for some unsuspecting person to walk down the path. When the victim reached the middle, he would trigger the water knowing that there was nowhere for the victim to go – there was a 10 meter fountain in each direction.

Julia gave us the choice of eating when we finished with Peterhof or waiting another 90 minutes. Of course, we chose to eat. She called ahead to a local restaurant and reserved a table for us. Lunch was to be a fixed menu and we all chose the traditional SPB meal.

We started with a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta and [maybe] julienned cabbage along with warm rolls. This was followed by the local version of borscht, a beet and cabbage soup served with a dollop of sour cream and accompanied by warm garlic rolls. Next we had the most marvelous dumplings. There must have been 10 on each plate! We have eaten dumplings in China and Indonesia, but these were the best we have ever had. To finish off the meal, we were served pancakes [crepes, really] with cranberry sauce and tea or espresso.

We had invited Julia to eat with us. Lunch cost us a total of 2000 rubles for five. That equates to about $60 for more food than we should have eaten and we would do it again. When we went to pay, the real fun began. D’s Capital One World Mastercard was rejected by the computer gods; Ed’s Citibank Mastercard met a similar fate as did D’s AARP Visa. Finally, D’s Bank of America Visa/debit card hit the jackpot and lunch was paid for. We left a cash tip in USD for the waitress. It will be exciting to find out how much lunch really cost.

We drove from Peterhof, the name of the town housing the summer palace, to the village of Pushkin. This village is named for the famous Russian poet and is home to Catherine’s Palace. We followed Julia through the palace where she explained the significance of each room as progressed in a straight line from start to finish. There were thousands of people in the palace or waiting in line to gain entry. The resourceful Julia got us to the head of the line and then insinuated us into another group long enough to get through the turnstile. After that, it was just our group of four against all of those boat people.

Once again, we were reminded of Versailles as we entered the Grand Ballroom. There were mirrors and candelabra on all of the walls, but the main attraction was the gilt decorations. According to Julia, artisans used 22 pounds of gold to gild all of the decorations. Many of the other rooms contained gilt décor as well. It was overwhelming. Each room had its own theme. One was covered in paintings, not in frames but glued cheek-by-jowl to each other on all of the walls. Another featured portraits of Catherine I and her descendents. Generally, they were not a pleasant-looking group. Each room had a parquet floor but no two had the same pattern; the oldest dates from the late 18th Century. The most famous room is the Amber Room whose walls are covered with pieces of amber. It has been reconstructed to approximate its appearance prior to the War.

During WWII, German forces took over the complex and tried to destroy it when they retreated from SPB. Most of Catherine’s palace was destroyed including the roof over the Grand Ballroom. Luckily, much of the gilt work survived as did that oldest parquet floor. Most of the rooms and the exterior were damaged extensively. Much of the art work was saved because it had been removed and stored in Siberia until hostilities ended. Restoration efforts began in 1944 and did not end for about twenty years.

Our itinerary called for us to be done at Pushkin at 4:30, but a good lunch, traffic, accidents and construction caused us to get there late, so we didn’t finish our tour until 5:00. We decided to skip a ride on the SPB Metro despite Julia’s telling us how beautiful it is. The tour of a local farmer’s market was scrapped, too, in the interest of our survival. We were exhausted after losing an hour’s sleep to a time change and touring all day. We went straight to the ship, a drive of about an hour, and arrived just past 6:00. We spent another fifteen minutes getting through Passport Control [again!] and got to our cabins a bit before 6:30. Dinner, journal and bed rounded out the day.

Tomorrow – more of SPB

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blueberries and Babushkas

This morning was not quite as bad as yesterday. We were up early again, but at least we did not lose another hour’s sleep. We skipped breakfast and met Julia at 8:30.

Our plan was to have breakfast at the Stolle pie shop, but it had not opened yet when we arrived at 8:50, so Julia and Vladimir changed the itinerary around and we visited a working Russian Orthodox church. The sanctuary was filled with icons, most many years old. At one point, religious icons were the only art allowed in Russia. Ed and D went inside while Roxanne and MA stayed in the van. They took pictures outside and had to practically fight their way inside with Julia. There was a steady stream of worshippers leaving and they all stopped outside the door to cross themselves one last time.

We noticed that most of the parishioners were elderly women. Perhaps they have help to the old ways more than anyone else, but there were few young people in evidence. Julia says that services may last two to three hours and that people come and go as they need to. There are no seats in the Orthodox churches and that may add to the turnover; it would be difficult for many of the elderly to stand for so long. We were not allowed to take photos inside this church.

We left the church and returned to Stolle which was open for business. We heard about the pie shop from Marvin and Barbara who toured SPB two years ago. In fact, the guide they used then is now the owner of the tour company we used. When D e-mailed about tours, he specified the same itinerary that they had. He would not have known about the synagogue or the pie shop otherwise.

The pies in this shop are not traditional round fruit pies. Granted, some are round, but most are really strips resembling strudel and filled with all kinds of things. They are sold as large or small pieces and are sliced so that a piece resembles an oval with filling. Roxanne said that the crust was made from a yeast dough with little shortening or butter, so it was light but not greasy.
Roxanne and Ed had four slices allegedly to share, but there was little sharing going on. Roxanne got two savory pies – cabbage and mushroom; Ed got blueberry and cheese. MA ordered apple and D, like Ed, had the blueberry. All of the fillings were made from local produce and the pies came to the table hot. We could see the morning’s supply lying on the cutting-board counter when we entered and the aroma was heavenly. When we finished, we discovered that the shop was a cash only, rubles only establishment, so Julia had to rescue us. She paid in rubles and we repaid her in US currency.

We drove to the Great Choral Synagogue. We have already seen the synagogues in Shanghai and Florence as well as the Jewish Community Center in Sevastopol, Ukraine, so this seemed to complement the earlier those visits. We were not disappointed.

The Great Synagogue has been totally restored and is magnificent but not overstated. There is lots of wood evident, especially in the pews, but there is also a hint Moorish décor throughout. The area surrounding the Ark is in blue and white mosaic tile with key-hole architecture mimicking Moorish designs. The bima, or altar, is in the center of the sanctuary rather than at one end and the balcony was designed for women to use during services in keeping with the separation of the sexes. This is a working synagogue, not a museum.

We were also able to see the “bride’s room,” a large room containing a chair under an awning where a bride awaits the marriage ceremony and the appearance of her husband-to-be before the ceremony. This room also had display cases with photographs, documents, books and other things and reminded us of the displays in the old synagogue-turned-museum we saw in Shanghai in 2008. We don’t know if all of the guides know to ask about this room, but Julia told us that her mother-in-law is/was Jewish so she is familiar with the Great synagogue. She told us that there are at least 100,000 Jews in SPB out of a population of 4.5 million, a surprisingly high number we thought. She was only aware of one other synagogue, though, and said it was a very small one which non-Jews [like her] were not allowed to enter.

Yesterday, we saw parks and palaces which were some distance from SPB proper. Today we spent all day downtown. From Stolle, we drove to the Yusupov Palace. The term “palace” is used loosely here to indicate a really large home. The Yusupov’s were not royalty but they were so rich that they may have had more cash and property than the Romanov czars. The Yusupov Palace is important for two reasons: it was a magnificent collection of rooms and it was the site where the Mad Monk, Rasputin, was murdered.

We began with the story of Rasputin and Julia told it like an actress. Although uneducated, Rasputin claimed to have mystical powers although they may have been simply the powers of persuasion. He claimed to have “cured” a friend of Alexandra, wife of Czar Nicholas II. He became a trusted family advisor because the Romanov’s hoped he would be able to cure their son of his hemophilia. It was not to be. Others close to the Romanov’s were jealous of Rasputin’s influence on the czar and plotted to murder him. Legend has it that they gave him massive doses of cyanide masked in food and drink to hide the almond aroma. An ordinary man would have died very quickly but the massive, 6 foot 6 inch Rasputin should no ill effects, so Yusupov finally shot him.

Even then, he did not die and dragged himself from the basement where he was shot up a flight of steps. He really scared the plotters, so they also shot Rasputin and then rolled him in draperies and carried him to a boat. His body was dumped far from the Yusupov home. Because they did not weigh him down, his body floated to the surface the next day and the entire plot came undone.

We went upstairs after hearing about Rasputin and walked through the public rooms of the Yusupov Palace. Julia explained the artwork, furniture and color schemes but it was so involved that the details have become hazy. We did see one room that was designated as a women’s bedroom. Originally, it was unused and served as an example of sleeping quar5ters available for female guests staying overnight. Later is was actually used and a doorway was cut into the wall [but wallpapered to match the room so it was not noticeable]; the doorway led to a set of stairs which connected to the private quarters of the Yusupov’s. Draw any conclusions you wish.

We were also treated to an a cappella mini-concert while we were there. In one of the ballrooms, a quartet sang old Russian folk songs and then tried to peddle their CDs to the tourists who heard them. They were quite good and sounded like Il Divo. The acoustics in the room were excellent and enhanced the sound and the experience.

The Yusupov Palace also contained its own theater with seating for about 150 people. It was the 18th and 19th Century version of the home theater. There was also a study which looked more like a library because of the walls filled with bookcases. Another feature of the study was the hidden passage built into a corner bookcase, one of five hidden exits in the Palace; we saw another under the pool table.

When we finally left the Yusupov Palace, we went to the Church of the Spilt Blood. It is officially the Church of the Resurrection but it has been called this ever since Czar Alexander was murdered in it. He was the victim of an assassin’s bomb and the cobblestone area where this happened is still preserved albeit cordoned off so tourists can’t really see it clearly.

Both the exterior and interior of the Church of the Spilt Blood are covered in mosaics. In fact, the entire interior is done in mosaic tile. There is not a square inch which is not; the exterior has some mosaic panels and onion-dome spires reminiscent of St. Basil’s in Moscow. It is the interior which one remembers most despite the almost Disney-like appearance of the outside. There are religious scenes from both the Old and New Testaments done in mosaic; there are pseudo-icons with halos over saints’ heads done in mosaic; there are panels large and small. The most amazing thing, though, is that it all looks brand new even though it is not. A massive restoration project, which took twenty years or more, had art students [primarily] cleaning and restoring each tile by hand. Some of the damage may have been as a result of the War, but much was also caused simply by age, dirt, and soot from candle smoke. The restoration work is chronicled in display panels and show before and after pictures. The results were truly amazing.

This might be a good time to talk about tourists, especially those on shore excursions from cruise ships. We saw none of these people at the Orthodox church, the pie shop or the Great Synagogue, but they became noticeable and obnoxious when we got back on the beaten track at the Yusupov Palace, Church of the Spilt Blood and, finally, the Hermitage. They were loud, rude and pushy. Despite signs in the Hermitage that said flash photography was forbidden, they kept flashing away. Worse, though, was the sheer number of them, each group following a guide holding up a sign with their group number so they would not get separated.

We were overrun by groups from Costa and MSC today. To get an idea of how big these ships are – and how many tourists they spewed forth this morning – we saw group numbers as high as 78 from one cruise line. Think of how many people that represents if each of the 78 tours has 35 people. MSC had so many people that could fill buses by the language used on the tour. We decided that the Costa passengers were even ruder and more physical than the Japanese have been. HAL did not come put innocent, either. MA heard a guide with a Holland group say that if any of them were pushed, they should push right back. That’s real class.

The largest number of groups was at the Hermitage, our last stop for SPB. While it is purportedly the largest museum in the world, it was hot and crowded. Tour leaders thought nothing of walking in front of other people and dragging their groups so that no one could take unobstructed pictures or see anything. The jockeying for position was ridiculous.

Anyway, we toured the second floor of the Hermitage but not before we grabbed a quick lunch in the museum café. Julia sort of made her own line and we ordered one stromboli and one Coke per couple and shared. Julia declined our offer to buy her lunch. The stromboli contained peppers, mushrooms, onions and maybe meat; were tasty; and hit the spot. Once again, we ran into the cash/rubles only policy and once again Julia had to come to our assistance.

We might have preferred the Impressionist paintings on the third floor, but we didn’t know about their location until too late and it would have meant another long flight of stairs. We did see some Picasso works which were part of a temporary exhibit but we were forbidden to photograph anything in a temporary exhibit. Once past those works, we began in earnest.

The hermitage contains more than three million works of art – paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, etc. – housed in five buildings: the Winter Palace, the Old Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Small Hermitage and the Theater. They are all connected and face the Neva River across from the Rostral Columns and Peter and Paul Fortress. We had to remember that the Winter Palace and some of the others were constructed as residences, not museums. The rooms are so large, though, it is easy to forget.

We felt, in retrospect, that Julia was trying to show the best of Russia and, as a result, we spent so much time on older masterpieces and illustrations of Russian artistry that we missed the Impressionists. Among other things we saw a mechanical clock of gold shaped like a peacock and other animals where the time was displayed in a mushroom. There were mosaic tabletops with pieces millimeters thick and others with larger pieces. Vases and tables which appeared to be solid malachite and lapis lazuli were actually veneers. It was hard to imagine how the veneer was created and applied to large fluted urns. We could not get out of Russia without more icons and triptychs or the jewels in the museum’s crown.

Each room, or gallery, contained not only antique works of art, but also antique Russian women. These babushkas were there to protect the displays but seemed not to care. It was up to the schoolteachers and Julia to remind people not to use the flash attachments on their cameras, reminders that were not always met with humility.

There were large [and pushy] crowds in front of the two Da Vinci works on display. It was as if to say, “See, we’re a good enough museum to have two of the fourteen Da Vinci’s in existence.” These paintings were behind glass, as were most of the Hermitage’s pictures, as protection from idiots and vandals. The idiots kept shooting flash pictures [despite us and the babushkas] so the glass may have protected the priceless canvases from damage due to the bright flash of light. Vandals have damaged pictures in the Hermitage before with the most serious case involving someone who threw acid on a Rembrandt.

We progressed to Rembrandt and Reubens as well as other Old Masters and were pretty much on culture overload by 4:00. We still had a little time left in the schedule to see the impressionists, but we did not have the energy, so we went back to the ship. We were home at 4:30, a mere 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

We all managed to rest a little before dinner [galumpki/fish] and went to bed almost immediately after. If we ever return to SPB, we will have to allow a lot more time.

Tomorrow – Helsinki, Finland

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

This and That

Today was almost a sea day. We passed from the North Sea into the Kiel Canal around 9:00 this morning and spent the rest of the day traversing its 60 mile length. It was a leisurely transit and so smooth we felt like we were on a conveyor belt. Our only stop was only long enough to off-load passengers for a side trip to Hamburg.

We were at breakfast when the Prinsendam began its journey through the locks and in to the canal. The ship had to be raised to match the water level of the other side of the lock. Once the ship was in position, the rear lock slid closed and the water slowly rose until it matched the water level ahead of us. Then that lock slid back and we sailed into the Kiel Canal.

As we moved into position, a tug boat followed us, attached to the stern [round part, in captain-speak]. We theorized that it was there to assist in moving the stern left or right as needed so the ship did not bump into the side of the slip between the two locks. Although the line between the Prinsendam and the tug was taut, it was only a hawser made of rope and was certainly not capable of actually towing the ship backwards. Ed said that there had been a similar arrangement when we went through the locks at Amsterdam last night.

The Prinsendam is the only HAL ship small enough to travel through this canal. With a draught of approximately 35 feet below the surface of the water, it barely clears the bottom. It was obvious to us that few passenger ships cruise here. The banks on both sides of the canal were filled with locals who came to wave at us as we slid past. At the entry lock, there was an actual crowd as well as flag-wavers and a brass band. The captain said that the couple waving the flags – a “welcome” flag and a US flag – would follow us all the way to the end of the canal, but none of us went on deck long enough to check. Still, it was a gesture of goodwill that we all appreciated.

This is a much-traveled waterway full of boats of all sizes. We were followed into the canal by a huge container ship which made us look tiny. It followed us for hours before we were able to pull over and let it pass us. There were smaller boats, too. We saw a three-masted sailing ship just as we went through the lock and into the canal, and there have been power boats and sail boats as well. It is Sunday and the local populace is enjoying it in many ways.

Since people were still waiting for us on the bank five hours after we started through, we assumed that there must have been some notice or article in the local press. On a normal Sunday most of these folks would have had some other way to amuse themselves. Although the largest crowds appear at ferry boat crossings [which had roads leading to them], a number of the well-wishers have been standing on the tow paths on either side of the canal. Others have taken a break from their bicycling to stop and wave. For the most part, the old tow path has become a bike path now. Regardless, there have been very few places where there weren’t onlookers.

We have ducked under a number of bridges, some automotive and others rail. The ship may be high enough in the water to clear the bottom, but the radio masts must be lowered to clear the bridges. Standing on the upper decks when we pass under a bridge can be a nerve-wracking experience. You know the ship will clear the underside but you still flinch. We had a similar experience in 2008 on the Main-Danube canal. Then, the ship was a small riverboat but the problem was the same – the bridge had to be lowered hydraulically in order to clear the bridges. There are other similarities, too. People crowd the deck to gawk [and duck] at the bridges and to marvel at the countryside. In 2004, we were looking through the trees and now we can see over them, but the farmland and cattle look the same.

Ever since we started in the canal, and even before, we have seen many small ferries taking people from one side of the canal to the other. These ferries can hold 4 – 6 cars as well as pedestrians. It is at the ferry slips that the largest crowds of locals have been, perhaps because of the traffic jam we have created. The ferries must operate continually to provide everyone the opportunity to cross if they are not near a bridge.

Speaking of bridges, ours was busy today, too. Periodically throughout our transit, the Port Lecturer Frank Buckingham has talked about where we are and what we are seeing in addition giving some historical background of the canal and its environs. The captain has offered some comments, too, when Frank has taken a break; the captain is a lot more interesting than Frank who is rather boring and full of himself [This is our third straight cruise with Frank]. He is considered the best in the fleet, but that still doesn’t make him lively or entertaining.

The weather continued to be on its good behavior. Although sun gave way to overcast and warmth to breezy, we had no rain. It was pleasant enough that we had hamburgers on the rear deck at lunch time and were able to watch the canal and Germany glide past. It also gave us the chance to watch the “newbies” who boarded yesterday in Amsterdam. They are easy to spot – deck plans in hand trying to find the MDR; peering at the elevator floor guides; asking how to get to their cabins – and we are trying not to act condescending or superior.

The arrival of the new passengers and the departure of most of the Top of the World cruisers created an interesting situation last night at supper. All of the tables around us were empty. The one nearby table which was occupied had different continuing people at it. We thought that it had something to do with our rowdiness, but Syarif and Tommy led newbies to the tables; we don’t know if these will be permanent assignments or just the overflow from the free-style dining room.

In a bit of irony, the husband in the continuing couple who now sit near us is our new trivia partner. He approached us a week ago to ask if he could join us because the rest of his team was leaving at Amsterdam. We agreed and he started today. It was a good thing, too. We won more of the once-coveted coasters but would not have without him. We graded the paper of a solo player who got 14 correct, second to our 15, so we invited him to join us, too. He did not realize that trivia is a daily event and was concerned because he will be on excursions on port days. We assured him we would be as well. If there is trivia, and if we have players, fine. If not, that’s okay, too. Hmmm…coasters or St. Petersburg??

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rijsttafel Redux

Once again, we are inundated with invitations. Yesterday we received an invitation to another rijsttafel. It was scheduled for noon, so we would have time for trivia before reporting for another good lunch. At dinner, Syarif asked if we would like to have the rijsttafel with the Hotel Manager, Francois [Fermin had left the ship at Amsterdam for an assignment on the Veendam]. We would be delighted, we said. Roxanne and Ed said the same thing when he approached them in the Pinnacle Grill [the steak house restaurant] where they had gone to celebrate their anniversary.

This morning, after a short night due to a time-zone change, there was a new invitation in the door, this one specifying our lunch with Francois and asking us to meet in the Ocean Bar at 11:30. That was good news and bad news. We were already expecting to be in the Ocean Bar at 11:30 for trivia. Meeting at the same time for lunch meant that trivia was out. We arrived at the OB early, of course, and were joined by Roxanne and Ed. Assistant Cruise Director Kevin arrived to conduct trivia and was heart-broken when we said we would not be able to take part. Alas! What to do?

Well, it turned out that the Prinsendam staff had screwed up the schedule somehow. First, trivia was late because another group [cooking?] came in for cheap, flat champagne and cookbooks. They created a god-awful racket and Kevin had to wait for them to quiet down and leave before he could start. Then Syarif came to tell us that the rijsttafel would be delayed for a few minutes because the dining room was not ready. Hurrah! We could play.

We had already told Mike, the new guy, that we were not participating today and then stormed the table to tell him we were. As it turned out, we were able to stay through the first 20 questions before we were called to assemble for lunch. As we started out, Kevin asked the bonus question – What does the acronym SCUBA stand for? We rushed back to tell Mike that we knew, but he did, too, so we trooped off to the dining room. We passed a non-contact receiving line consisting of the captain, Francois, Thom and his wife Tina [the future cruise consultant] and were seated at a table replete with place cards again.

Once we were settled, Hernelia came rushing into the dining room to tell us we had won again. We were collectively surprised since we were unsure of so many questions and answers today [How many expeditions are permitted to attempt to climb Mt. Everest at the same time? What organization awards the Pulitzer prizes? ]. D excused himself and went to collect the goodies, more of the tote bags, and brought them to the dining room to distribute. Our other new player was also at the luncheon, so he got his prize as well.

This rijsttafel was held for those passengers who have continued from the TOTW to the Kiel Canal and Baltic Gems cruise. The captain said there about 40 of us although not all came to lunch. We could not see from our table, but we assume that not everyone was seated with a uniformed staff member.

The menu and the captain’s speech explaining it were almost word-for-word what he said at the last one [see the entry for August 3 for details]. He did mention that tomorrow is Indonesian Independence Day and that there will be ceremonies on the pier if the weather is good in Tallinn.
Tonight was formal night, the first of four planned for this two-week cruise. It will be difficult to get them all in since there are few sea days. On the first segment, only five of the scheduled six took place. There was no special theme tonight, either. Still the food was good and the company was better. After dinner, we read and wrote the journal and then to bed for a day of walking around Tallinn, we hope.

Tomorrow – Tallinn, Estonia

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Neither Rain nor Snow

We finally were inundated by rain today but not until we had been in Tallinn a while.

We met at 10:15 and walked into the “old town” of Tallinn which is now a UN Cultural Heritage site. The walk was about a mile and ended with us climbing stairs to the historic part of the city. [The not-so-historic part of Tallinn seems to be a thriving shipping hub filled with new buildings.] We started in the north end and didn’t travel too far south as it turned out.

We entered by the Great Coast Gate which led directly to the Fat Margaret Tower, built in the 16th Century, which now houses the National Maritime Museum. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so we could not look in, but the outside as plaques honoring Estonian sailors who assisted the Finns in WWII and British seamen who aided Estonia, too.

Just outside the Great Coast Gate is a memorial sculpture dedicated to 852 people who died when a ferry capsized in 1994. There was an explanatory marker, of course, and the sculpture which was striking – two pieces separated at the entry path. Had we not read about its purpose, we would have assumed it was just art for art’s sake.

We walked past the Maritime Museum and turned away from the crowds. This part of Tallinn is a tourist magnet or trap depending on your point of view. We elected to stay away from the throng for as long as we could. A quick right and then left brought us smack up against the Oleviste Church, a Baptist church in a predominately Russian Orthodox country. The church was barely decorated and seemed to have been built in stages. The central section appeared oldest and the two side seating sections seemed new by comparison. The two side sections have such poor sight lines that services are televised via closed circuit to the congregants. There are TV monitors and speakers throughout the outer areas. The old section does not need the technology because congregants can see what is happening.

Unlike a Catholic church, Oleviste did not have a crucifix behind the altar. There was a large painting of Christ on the Cross. It was impossible to see it from the sides, however. The church was very long relative to the center seating area.

The high point, literally, was the tower. While entering the church was free there was a nominal charge to climb the tower. When Ed bought the tickets, he asked for two. Before he could take them, d asked if there was a senior rate. The little old lady selling the tickets and other church tchotchkes said something uncomplimentary under her breath before reissuing the senior tickets which were half the price of the regular ones.

We think the ticket money is used to pay for the emergency workers who respond to the cases of cardiac arrest brought on by the climb. It was brutal. The steps were hand-carved stone, steep and deep. The spiral they made was so tight that it was difficult passing other people when they approached from the opposite direction. There were several level places where one could rest or pass others with little danger. Ed and D stopped at one of these to take off their jackets and D stayed to catch his breath after Ed continued climbing. This may not have been as high as the Wallace Memorial several weeks ago, but that may have had more places to rest.

D eventually made it to the top of the church spire safely but winded. Once outside on the parapet, the breeze cooled both off quickly. Then it was a matter of walking gingerly around the narrow walkway. If another person wanted to pass, someone had to lean into the steeple so there was enough clearance. There was simply no way to get around someone at the corners.

The view was magnificent. We could see all of old Tallinn in the foreground as well as new Tallinn and the cruise ship dock in the distance. We were one of three cruise ships in port today and were, by far, the smallest. For comparison, we know that the Costa Marinara [really the Atlantica] sent out at least 40 shore excursions today. While Ed and D huffed and puffed to the top of the tower, Roxanne and MA stayed safely below in the church waiting for the thump-thump-thump of our rolling return.

Once we left the church, we started walking again although we had no destination in mind. The weather gods assisted us in our decision-making by creating a downpour. We had an inkling it was coming when the first few drops landed and we immediately put on our rain jackets. Within a minute, though, it had turned to a real cloudburst and we made haste to the nearest pub/restaurant we could find. We had rejected an several Italian places before the rain, but now we were not so choosy. We were drenched when we went in and were grateful for the respite.

We ate at the bar rather than climb more steps. While we might have enjoyed a traditional Estonian meal, whatever it was, we settled on ham, cheese and tomato paninis with Cokes. Ed had goat cheese and raisin bread and a local draught beer. We ate through the thunder and lightning and left the restaurant to dry but overcast skies.

It was 1:30 or so when we left, so we wandered in the general direction of the Great Coast Gate and home. We stopped to buy The Box before it was too late and Roxanne and D walked into a marzipan store where everything, including the three-foot high “doll house” in the store’s window was made of marzipan. There was even a marzipan museum in the basement but we left without seeing it. Meanwhile, Ed was off buying a t-shirt he had seen a few minutes earlier.

We took more pictures on the way out of old town and returned to the Prinsendam around 2:00, enough time to read, relax and dry off. Trivia was scheduled for 3:30 although that was not a factor in our return to the ship. We took our regular place around 3:00 and thought for a while that we would win by default, but two other groups showed up and, mid-way through the contest, so did Gary the New Guy. He confirmed our answers for several questions and jumped right for the blast half of the match. Scores for the day were 10 point out of 23; 13 points out of 23; and our 20 out of 23. We have now won three games in a row but will miss the next two days while we tour in St. Petersburg. Today’s prize was key rings which we already won [and gave away], so we gave Gary and extra one for his wife and we will give one to Mike the Other New Guy when we see him later this week.

Tonight, we and lots of other people had drinks and snacks with the captain before dinner. Each time we do this we hear the same speeches but the drinks are free and the hors d’oeuvres are better than in the bars. Between the cocktail receptions, the rijsttafel, dinner with the hotel manager and other perks, we could get used to this sailing stuff.

Tomorrow – St. Petersburg, Russia