- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2007


“It looks like Ohio.” True as the statement was, none of the dozen or so Americans traveling from the Stockholm-Arlanda International Airport into the city wanted to hear it.

So what if the rolling green hills, McDonald’s signs and fringe of hardwood trees visible from the bus window resembled a certain Midwestern state? Headed for Stockholm’s port, where the Regent Voyager was waiting to take us on a weeklong cruise through the Baltic Sea, we were ready to be awed by the imperial riches at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, charmed by Swedish Visby’s twisting warren of medieval cobblestone streets and fascinated by Tallinn’s recent history as the capital of formerly Soviet-occupied Estonia. The last thing we wanted was Ohio.

We shouldn’t have worried. A few hours strolling Stockholm’s birch-lined sidewalks, past grand palaces and over graceful bridges with nary a Gap in sight did the trick, replacing trepidation with enthusiasm.

Unlike the Mediterranean Sea, which laps the shores of glamorous resorts from Spain to Turkey, the Baltic burrows into a region where vikings once ruled and tourism is just taking hold in some nations. Just 1,000 miles long and 120 miles wide, it connects mainland Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Eastern Europe, providing a look into separate and diverse cultures.

In its heyday between the 13th and 16th centuries, the Baltic was a major commercial route as textiles, beer, wax and fur made their way across the narrow passage. The route was so important that the Hanseatic League, the world’s first organization devoted to international trade, was founded in the region.

About 400 years later, cruise ships have found profits in the Baltic, and for good reason. The countries that border this body of water form an amazing mosaic of ancient and modern history, superb art, natural beauty and high style. Strict visa regulations, somewhat limited choices for lodging and dining in former Soviet-bloc cities, language barriers and safety issues mean that unless you’re a particularly adventuresome traveler, arriving by ship is your best bet.

Take Tallinn. Thanks to its strategic position just 50 miles across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, this preserved medieval village spent the better part of the 20th century as one of the KGB’s most important listening stations. Glasnost changed everything. Today, tourists, not spies, roam the cobblestone streets. Magnificent Gothic churches such as St. Olaf’s, with its 403-foot spire that once housed a Soviet radio tower, have reopened as tourist attractions and houses of worship.

Within the town square, a bustling crafts market selling everything from clothing made from local linen to carved wooden decorative items has set up shop alongside outdoor cafes where waitresses in medieval garb serve traditional plates of sausages and shepherd’s pie. To wash it all down, they offer Tartu and Saki, refreshing beers brewed in Estonia, as well as mead, the potent honey-based wine that was a favorite of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Here and there, signs of Tallinn’s recent occupation crop up, and the contrast is jarring. Most establishments, probably out of habit, are hushed and nearly silent. Entering the shop of a young jewelry designer, I needed a few minutes to notice and then realize the significance of the Motown tunes playing joyfully in the background.

Farther down the block, an antique store’s shelves brimmed with the expected treasures of imperial silver, lovely porcelain and Faberge-style eggs. The back of the shop, though, told a different story. There, Kalashnikov rifles, buffed to a high gloss, leaned against a table groaning with gas masks, buckets of Red army medals and ribbons, stacks of books featuring imposing portraits of Stalin and Lenin and framed propaganda posters.

Army uniforms hung from racks, and there even was a section in a corner where Nazi-era goods, including alarm clocks whose numbers had been replaced by portraits of Hitler or Stalin, were on display.

As Tallinn again moves from its medieval roots and the nightmare of occupation into the fresh breeze of optimism, St. Petersburg — younger, sassier and dressed to impress — has embraced its history of extravagance. Gilded palaces, golden church spires and domes and even the baroque silver lamps that line the mahogany escalators of the main subway station have been scrubbed of the grime of nearly 75 years of Communist neglect, and they gleam with self-assuredness.

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, I was captivated by the U.S.S.R. and St. Petersburg in particular. It was so mysterious, nearly romantic, and I desperately wanted to go, but given the times, I thought I never would. Now, here I was. Well, sort of.

Most cruise ships calling on St. Petersburg — except vessels carrying several hundred instead of several thousand passengers — dock in a container port on the outskirts of the city. Because the ride into town is at least 30 minutes long, exploration requires either having a tourist visa and hiring a car or participating in a Regent excursion.

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