"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.
Guessing that Regent's Russian Shopping excursion would give me a chance to explore the city a bit on my own, I signed up for that trip on our first day.
Taking the bus ride from the port into the city was like watching a timeline of St. Petersburg's recent history. At the port's gate, stern guards used mirrors on long poles to check under the bus for contraband. Crumbling brick buildings sagged behind fences topped with barbed wire; boxy communist-era concrete structures such as the Sovietskaya Hotel filled the landscape.
Soon, though, the streets widened, and we found ourselves paralleling silvery canals arched by bridges with intricate wrought iron. Moments later, St. Isaac's massive golden dome came into view, and before long, our heads were swiveling like high-speed pendulums as the baroque Stroganov Palace, the small blue-and-white Armenian church, the immense statues of Peter the Great and the rest of St. Petersburg's treasures went by in a blur. This was the city I had longed to visit.
After the requisite tour of the souvenir shop, I found myself giddily alone in St. Petersburg. With just a couple of hours before I had to be back on the bus, I set off. My first stop was the State Museum of Russian Art, where I examined portraits and statues of members of the imperial family, including a large marble sculpture of Catherine the Great looking regal and benevolent as carved gargoyles looked down from the high ceiling.
Afterward, I ducked into a bakery and used hand signals to purchase a diet Pepsi and three varieties of Russian cookies and watched Maria Sharapova look-alikes clad in Chanel trolling through the shops on Nevsky Prospect, the city's main drag.
The best fun was at the grocery store, where a group of customers helped me choose which brands of vodka to bring home. I ended up buying so many — vodka was the one thing friends had asked us to bring them — that the checkout clerk arched an eyebrow to ask whether I could possibly have enough rubles to pay for so many bottles of top-shelf spirits. When I got back to the bus, clanking the whole way down Nevsky Prospect, I did the math and realized I had spent $34.28.
We had heard that the Hermitage would be packed, and it was, even when our group arrived at 9:30 a.m. That didn't take away from the jaw-dropping opulence of the rooms or the mind-boggling array of art.
Hidden from Western eyes for hundreds of years at the Hermitage is a czar's ransom of masterpieces, including about 37 works by Matisse, 31 Picassos, more than 20 Rembrandts and two da Vincis, just a few of the nearly 3 million pieces in the museum's collection. By contrast, the collection of the National Gallery of Art in the District numbers about 110,000 objects.
In the portion of the museum where the royal family lived, we examined tabletop mosaics formed from slivers of marble, lapis lazuli and amber so small that they required a magnifying glass to see the individual tiles.
Urns taller than a man sat on swirling parquet floors so intricate they looked like Oriental rugs. In the Treasure Rooms, which often are referred to as the Gold Rooms, we saw sabers, horse bridles, chest pieces and harnesses — all diplomatic gifts to the imperial family and all so encrusted with precious gems that we wondered how the powerful horses could have held up their heads.
Scythian jewelry from the fourth century was so detailed that we were told modern attempts to re-create it have failed. Given that no magnifying glasses existed at the time, it was a miracle they were created. Our guide told us it would take nine years of round-the-clock viewing to see each piece on display, and we believed her.
The more time I spent in St. Petersburg, the more beautiful it became, as its trees, quirks, lovely carvings and ironwork and the scale of the city crept out of the shadows of the grand buildings and statues. Three days wasn't enough, but St. Petersburg, like all great cities, isn't meant to be toured in a day or a week but over a series of visits.
Regent, which until recently was Radisson Seven Seas, has offered Baltic itineraries since the cruise line was founded in the early 1990s. Unlike Caribbean cruises, on which passengers tend to enjoy days of sunning, shopping and water sports, Baltic bookings often appeal to people who want to explore the art, culture and history of their ports.
Regent offers a program called Circles of Interest, which enables passengers who choose to join the circle (at an extra cost) to focus on their interests through workshops, lectures, special publications and private tours — such as the Hermitage-after-hours, open only to Circles of Interest participants.
One of the great holdovers from the name change is a fine group of experts who travel with the ships on their European itineraries. One is Sandra Bowern, a British historian, writer and researcher. Although the topics of her lectures — the treasures of the Hermitage, the history and culture of Russia and Russian writers and artists, Scandinavian composers and the history of the Hanseatic League — sounded dry, her lively delivery and judicious use of film clips, photographs and music made them anything but dull.
"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