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

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