Around the Baltic: Old Towns and New Cities
by Alan K. Cubbage
From the bow of the cruise ship M.S. Andrea, the Baltic Sea stretches endlessly in all directions to the horizon. In the late-night summer twilight only the occasional lights of another ship appear in the distance, though the Baltic is one of the most heavily trafficked seas.
The Andrea, a compact, recently converted freighter with a capacity of approximately 100 passengers, cruises some of the Baltic's most interesting port cities as part of the Historic Countries of the Baltic tour offered by the Northwestern Alumni Association. Stops include Riga, Latvia; Tallinn, Estonia; Gdansk, Poland; and Stockholm, Sweden, each with a historic old town area that is a maze of cobbled streets, beautiful churches and interesting shops.
In Tallinn, dozens of ferries from Finland and Sweden arrive daily, and cruise ships line the recently remodeled docks. The old town's central square is lined with stores selling locally made sweaters, the historic city hall and numerous sidewalk cafés offering a ringside seat perfect for watching the ever-changing crowds. The tall 14th-century walls that once encircled the old town for defense now provide a home for a cozy pub where tourists can enjoy the view and a local beer.
By contrast, the once-busy shipyards in Gdansk appear almost deserted. However, the recently established Solidarity Museum there offers a fascinating look at the historic strike that challenged communist rule in Poland and helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe. Exhibits include the hand-painted wooden sign that hung on the shipyard gates listing the demands of the workers striking for freedom, and some dramatic film footage of street fighting between the authorities and the Polish people.
The highlight of any trip to the Baltic, of course, is St. Petersburg, Russia, which recently celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding. A bustling city of more than 4.5 million, St. Petersburg is one of Russia 's largest seaports and remains a shipbuilding center. The trip up the Neva River to St. Petersburg is a fascinating journey in itself, with both sides of the busy river lined with towering loading cranes, ships of all sizes and varieties — including nuclear-powered icebreakers critical to keeping the port open in winter — and an often-bleak industrial landscape.
A completely different city scene awaits in St. Petersburg. Built as Russia's "Window to the West," St. Petersburg now offers historic museums, churches and broad walkways along the Neva perfect for strolling. The trip includes a guided tour of the world-renowned State Hermitage Museum, home to one of the world's most comprehensive and remarkable art collections.
Another highlight of a St. Petersburg visit is an excursion to Catherine's Palace, the former summer residence of the czars and home to the recently re-created Amber Room, where all of the décor is made from amber, which is native to the Baltic area. The immense palace, which is surrounded by extensive gardens, provides a look at the opulent lifestyle of the czars. Almost completely destroyed by the German army in World War II, the palace is now being gradually restored.
While St. Petersburg may be the most spectacular city on the cruise, all of the cities offer their own special treats. For example, a large district of Riga contains numerous art nouveau-style buildings, accented with elaborate and fanciful ornamentation. Helsinki's many parks and extensive paths along the coast provide great walking opportunities, while its downtown markets offer everything from beautiful fresh flowers to native foods — salmon soup and reindeer meat among them.
A very small ship, especially compared with the new massive cruise ships that carry more than 1,000 passengers, the Andrea provides snug but comfortable accommodations. And with wine flowing freely at every lunch and dinner, meals tend to become opportunities for extended conversations. Both breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style so passengers can choose among many different offerings, and several of the dinners offer special regional cuisines as well.
A full 10 days aboard ship with visits to eight different cities, the Historic Countries of the Baltic tour provides a great overview of some of northern Europe's sophisticated capital cities, along with a fascinating look at the rapidly changing Baltic countries of the former Soviet Union.
Alan K. Cubbage (GJ78, 87) is Northwestern's vice president for university relations.