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“Who says you can’t fool all of the people all of the time?” she asked rhetorically after showing the large audience a photo of Stalin addressing a mesmerized throng. “You know, they really had a bad patch there,” she continued as she listed Russia’s premiers from the Bolshevik Revolution until Mikhail Gorbachev.
Having a historian on board giving lectures so dynamic that large audiences stay through the last word is typical of the quality of the Regent cruise experience. The talented jazz band that entertained after dinner jammed late into the night, often with guest musicians from whatever city we were visiting.
Staterooms are elegant and polished, filled with thoughtful details such as blankets to use on the balcony on chilly nights, an IPod and charger and blackout curtains to keep the midnight sun at bay. Guests aren’t nickeled and dimed, either: Bottled water is handed out freely; soft drinks are complimentary; wine flows freely at night; and staterooms come stocked with a passenger’s choice of liquor.
I expected Helsinki to be a letdown after St. Petersburg, but the city’s effervescence and design sense charmed us. Finland is an enigma: Neoclassical buildings of stone and brick give the city a rich, Old World look, but a peek inside reveals sleek, functional interiors that illustrate the modern Scandinavian design aesthetic.
We thought it odd that Helsinki’s city center looks a bit like St. Petersburg but later found out why: The green-domed Lutheran church that towers beside Senate Square and the brightly colored facades that line the city’s wide boulevards were built in the early 19th century, when Finland was under Russian rule. In fact, Helsinki so resembles a Russian city that it has been used in a number of movies as a stand-in for Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Yet where St. Petersburg glitters, Helsinki, with its Scandinavian sensibility, glows. Form has followed function, and with it comes elegant simplicity. In the design district, clean-lined chairs are surprisingly comfortable, and flowers take center stage in vases that are plain yet, somehow, not.
Strolling along the Esplanade, Helsinki’s parklike main shopping avenue, I wondered why Finnish designers used such vivid colors for their clothing and accessories. Looking around and seeing the crowds enjoying the gorgeous days of Helsinki’s fleeting summer gave me the answer. Helsinki’s vibrant summer colors — the sapphire Baltic, shockingly red summer berries, and sunsets (when they occur) in a kaleidoscope of pinks, purples and yellows — aren’t around for long. Having winter clothes in those wonderful hues is a warm reminder of the days to come.
Finns aren’t the only northerners who want to make the most of their perfect but brief warm weather. Stockholmers flock to the city of Visby on Gotland island, the easternmost point in the country, to take advantage of the island’s summer days, longest of any location in the country. Voyager joined them on a particularly fine day, when the cool breezes off the ocean made sitting in one of the outdoor cafes around the town square a delight.
Pulled straight from the pages of Hans Christian Andersen, Visby is a charming hamlet of winding cobbled streets, medieval gabled cottages, fragrant rose gardens and an ideal town square.
On most days, visitors and residents can stroll through an open-air market filled with booths selling locally made handicrafts such as soft sweaters knitted from the wool of some of the island’s sheep and crunchy biscotti flecked with black pepper in the Scandinavian tradition.
Towering above it all are the dramatic ruins of St. Catherine’s, a Gothic cathedral built in 1230 that is one of 13 churches within the town’s walls constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries and abandoned by the 17th. Though these noble structures may have lost walls, ceilings and windows, their sjar — the Swedish word for spirit — remains.
Spend part of a day exploring the island’s coast and spruce-scented interior by bike — a network of trails is well-marked, and rental bikes are easy to find. In town, the bike I rented increased the range of what I could explore, including lovely private gardens on the outskirts of town, a ruined church with no signage alone in a field, and a coffee shop within the crumbling walls of yet another romantic ruined cathedral. I also discovered several shops where the owners sold clothing — mostly modern knits and unstructured jackets of their own design.
After docking in Copenhagen, we boarded a bus to take us to the airport for the long flight back home. Along the way, we passed green fields bordered by a filigree of elms and oaks. It looked a little bit like Ohio. This time, we didn’t mind.
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Regent Seven Seas Cruises: www.rssc.com or phone 877/505-5370
By Brahma Chellaney
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