Monday, August 31, 2009


Our next port was the much-anticipated St. Petersburg, but before I jump into the wonders of Russia, I wanted to preface with an ode to my husband's intelligence and the total coolness of

CruiseCritic is the for the cruising industry. You can go there to learn all the scoop about what other people are saying about their voyages. Everything from the food, service, ports, to the excursions are evaluated in detail by other travelers.

We booked this Princess cruise because it went to St. Petersburg. And it was to be the absolute highlight for us. It wasn't until after we were locked in that we discovered how difficult it was to get into Russia from the boat - you must have a tourist visa which is expensive and difficult to obtain. The Princess Excursion will conveniently get one for you if you sign up for their 2 day Grand Tour for the bargain price of ~$600 apiece...oh and Connor counts so that would have been $1800! Gulp. Ummm. No thank you.

There had to be another way. We just knew it. Kirk referenced this CruiseCritic website to investigate. Sure enough there are private companies that do this for a fraction of the price and no charge for Connor - you just have to research and pull back some layers to find them. With the added bonus of being in very small tour groups instead of the ship's behemoth sticker-wearing mass. (It was Kirk's goal NOT to have to wear a sticker identifier anywhere we went on the trip!)

Alla Tours and CruiseCritic helped match us with 2 other couples who coincidentally were in our age bracket and also seeking a way around the Princess pricetag. They were all very patient, friendly and engaging with Connor. We did the "strenuous" 2 day trip in St. Petersburg and had an absolute ball!

The best part was that even before we left home we had exchanged numerous emails of anticipation and excitement with our new friends....John & Abbey and Brian & Rebecca. In Copenhagen Brian and Rebecca happened to even be staying in our same hotel and we received this sweet note from them as we arrived. What a bonus!
Morale of the story - there is always an answer out there when something seems too expensive. We definitely had more fun, saw more sights and paid maybe a third of the cost for our St. Petersburg tour.Thank you CruiseCritic!!!!


Next up, Finland - Hello Helsinki!!! It is funny to me because as we are waiting to depart the ship everyone mingles and small talks and asks, "So what are you doing?" - as if to compare and be sure we are in the know about all there is to see and do. In Helsinki the uniform answer was, "Gotta see those three churches!" And the highlight of the Helsinki day was indeed the "Three Churches!"While we were on a mission to see the three churches, we detoured for our first stop to the Sibelius Monument in a park on the perimeter of town. The day was blue, blue, blue so we didn't want to waste the weather with immediately ducking inside. This monument of six hundred stainless-steel pipes honors Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius.Then we walked to Church #1 - "the rock church" as we called it, officially named Temppeliakio Church and a part of the Lutheran denomination - Lutheran is the national religion.I know it doesn't look like much from the outside, but when we walked inside "the rock church" was surprising and made us gasp. The interior was blasted out of solid rock. The way the light streams into the church is peaceful, calming and very special.And the dome top is a coil of 13 miles of copper.We grabbed lunch at McDonald's and checked in online. All McDonald's in Europe have free wifi making them more coffee house-like and trendy. Plus our Connor just loves them. Here she is showing off her Balu toy in a McD's cup!Church #2 was the Lutheran Cathedral smack in the middle of town. We hiked the stairs with a sleeping Connor in tow. And pulled up a pew. Rick describes this church as "Neoclassical nirvana. Physically, this church is perfectly Protestant - austere and unadorned - with the emphasis on preaching (prominent pulpit) and music (huge organ)."After the ornate masterpieces of Europe, I have to say this simple church style seemed to stick out. I felt like I was back at home with the plain walls and clean architectural lines. Thankfully though they still had candles to light. Connor awoke in time to make her prayer! And she must have woken up on the "right side of the stroller" because she let me snap these cute shots just outside the church. They just melt my heart.Church #3 was the Uspenski Cathedral, which is Orthodox. It was a stone's throw from the Lutheran Cathedral and a reminder how different our religious styles can be.
On the exterior the uppermost "onion dome" represents the "sacred heart of Jesus," while the smaller ones represent the hearts of the 12 apostles. The cathedral's interior is a potentially emotional icon experience. Its rich images are a stark contrast to the sober Lutheran Cathedral.
We dodged the rain drops and headed to Helsinki's Market Square. There was a mish-mash of all things Finnish being sold. But the one that stuck out the most were these pea pods. They were on every corner, sold by the handful and eaten raw. Helsinki and all of Finland was taken over by the Russians in 1809. They moved Finland's capital from Turku to Helsinki in order to shift things closer to St. Petersburg. The oldest parts of Helsinki feel very Russian - stone buildings in yellow and blue pastels with white trim and columns. In fact Hollywood used Helsinki for the film Dr. Zhivago because filming in Russia was not possible during the Cold War. You know, I still haven't seen Dr. Zhivago all the way through - Mom tried to get me to watch it when I was little, but I didn't retain. Maybe I will have to try again now that these places are familiar!
Our very last tourist check in Finland was to ride the 3T tram loop around the entire city. We repeated some of the spots we had traveled on foot and also caught a glimpse of the Olympic Park. This complex was built originally for the 1940 Summer Olympics which were cancelled due to WWII. So instead the space was used to host the 1952 Summer Games. Surprising that it was a Summer Olympic host country when you so naturally think Winter when picturing Finland. Connor thought the tram loop was a fun time to make faces and play games with her parents!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Stockholm's City Hall and the Nobel Prize

I was so enamoured with Stockholm's City Hall that I decided to make an appendix post about it. Is that such a thing? An appendix post? Oh well - there is in my blog world! As I said before, we cut our time too short to actually take the inside tour of City Hall, but I found these photos online and wanted the e-memory to stay of the stunning interiors. At least until I go back one day for my own pictures!City Hall (Stadshuset in Swedish) is an impressive mix of eight million red bricks, 19 million chips of gilt mosaic, and lots of Stockholm pride. One of Europe's finest public buildings (built in 1923) and site of the annual Nobel Prize banquet.

Here is a photo of the famed annual December dinner in the "Blue Hall" followed by some shots of the empty room. The Golden Room shimmers warm and brilliant. This got me thinking...who are our most recent Nobel winners? Who are those movers and shakers of the academic world? Here is the list I found by Nobel Prize category for 2008. A good reminder of how globally linked we are in all areas of life - the arts, sciences, and efforts for worldwide peace:

*** Peace - Martti Ahtisaari (Finland) - for mediating and resolving international conflicts

*** Physics - Yoichiro Nambu (USA, 1/2); Makoto Kobayashi (Japan, 1/4); Toshihide Maskawa (Japan, 1/4) - for discovery of mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics

*** Chemistry - Osamu Shimomura (USA, 1/3); Martin Chalfie (USA, 1/3); Roger Y. Tsien (USA, 1/3) - for discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP

*** Medicine - Harald zur Hausen (Germany, 1/2); Francoise Barre-Sinoussi (France, 1/4); Luc Montagnier (France, 1/4) - for discovery of human popilloma viruses causing cervical cancer and discovery of human immunodeficiency virus

*** Literature - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (France) - author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization

*** Economics - Paul Krugman (USA) - for his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity

PS - Al Gore won the PEACE prize in 2007 for his work on man made climate change. Interesting that it would be the peace prize. Although I guess as the world's climate is more "hot-ly" debated it could and likely will come to that.

Click here to learn more about the Nobel Prize - its origins, previous winners, and lots of other cool stuff. Stuff, what a descriptive noun --- yeah, look out Mr. Nobel and the literature prize - here I come.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sweden Stop

Our first port of call was Stockholm, Sweden. Connor learned to say "STOCKHOLM!" and she has the cutest rhythm to the way she matter-of-factly clucks the two syllables.Kirk woke up before 6:00 AM to venture out on the ship's decks. He wanted to welcome Sweden by photographing the famous Stockholm Archipelago as we cruised in. This latticework of 24,000 islands and smooth glacier-polished outcroppings dot a 150-mile stretch of the eastern coast. Connor and I stayed in bed, but it did look like a worthwhile wake up call in Kirk's photos! I wonder who lives in these incredible mansions in the middle the islands??!!?? Sweden lived up to the "green" stereotype rumored.We did get to see the tail end of the archipelago at breakfast. The ship's historian narrated the entry via overhead speakers. Look out Stockholm - here we come!Although if it had been up to our little Connor I think we would have stayed by the pool all day! She was a little reluctant to pass it by as we readied to disembark the ship. She especially loved gazing at the "big kids" splashing and swimming around.
Once we pryed Connor from the pool we skampered off the boat and took the public ferry immediately over to the Djurgarden island, which was used 400 years ago as the king's hunting grounds - but today houses some great tourist picks. Our first stop was to Skansen, Europe's original open-air folk museum founded in 1891. It's a huge park gathering more than 150 historic buildings (homes, churches, shops, schoolhouses) transplanted from all corners of Sweden. It was a kid-friendly way to kick off our day as Skansen not only had incredible architecture but also had a zoo interwoven throughout. It was a hot, sunny day yet we were delighted the crowds were minimal while we took in maximum fun! I would probably spend an entire day at Skansen if we had more time. It is much more of an all day event than the 2 hours we allowed."MOOOOOO!" says Connor (see her lips!)And the Moo Cow answered back with a "Moo!" of her own.Skansen's biggest hit was the "Bears Taking a Bath!" Connor loved watching the baby bears wrestle and frolic around in their "bath." Doesn't it look like the front one is looking right at us?!?Swedish phone booths are colorful and made me smile with the double half doors, the green wood and the red top!From Skansen we walked to the nearby Vasa Museum. Considered a #1 must-see spot in Stockholm, we made sure not to miss it.This glamorous but unseaworthy warship sank 20 minutes into her 1628 maiden voyage when a breeze caught the sails and blew her over. After 333 years at the bottom of Stockholm's harbor she rose again from the deep with the help of marine archeologists.The Vasa, while not quite the biggest ship in the world, had the most firepower, with two fearsome decks of cannons. The 500 carved wooden statues draping the ship - once painted in bright colors - are all symbolic of the king's power. Painstakingly restored, 95 percent of the wood is original.Here is a model of the ship in its pint size glory...We found the Vasa ship fascinating. The photos really don't do it justice since it won't all fit in one picture. And the 3 enormous masts poke through the roof of the building giving perspective on the size. It all felt very much like the "Goonies" pirate ship images to me.We walked from the island into town. It was a lengthy journey but it gave us the opportunity to experience Stockholm harbor-side. We found many beautiful buildings that made us do a doubletake.
You can't go to Stockholm's Old Town area (Gamla Stan) without noticing the teeny, tiny narrow alleys. They are everywhere. Definitely makes connecting streets easier, efficient, and a bit mysterious.We stumbled upon this fist-size Iron Boy statue - the tiniest public statue in Stockholm. Supposedly Swedish grannies knit caps for him in the winter! He was very cute.This is Stortorget, Stockholm's oldest square. It was the heart of the medieval city. On this day it was the site of where Connor fell asleep for her nap (with one shoe on and one shoe off, of course)!Sweden is the home of Pippi Longstocking. I didn't know that! Kinda makes me wonder why Pippi was given red hair instead of the everpresent blond hair and blue eyes?!The biggest surprise was Stockholm's City Hall building - the site of the annual Nobel Prize banquet. It was a moving building and I couldn't help but to reflect on the geniuses who have celebrated and been celebrated here. Not wanting to miss the boat on our first stop we didn't have time to take the guided tour, but will be sure to put that on the top of my to do list next time.'Sleeping Beauty Connor' awoke from her slumber and was ready to run. City Hall's green lawn on a picture perfect day made a good spot to let out some toddler energy.
Stockholm really was a great first stop; although when you are a city known for the ABBA dancing queens and the Nobel Prize what better spot could there be? As Rick Steves describes it: "One-third water, one-third parks, one-third city, on the sea, surrounded by woods, bubbling with energy and history, Sweden's stunning capital is green, clean, and underrated." We rated it an A and will hopefully return for a longer visit one day!