Thursday, June 5, 2014

Exotic America: A Day in Puerto Rico

In March 2014, I went on a whirlwind week long Carnival cruise with ten of my closest friends. We traveled to St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas - some of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean; however one of the highlights of the cruise was our embarkment and disembarkment port: San Juan, Puerto Rico! We only spent two half days exploring this lovely United States territory, but I saw enough of Old San Juan city to know that I want to return to Puerto Rico again (and hopefully soon).

Fort San Cristobal
Upon arriving at the port of Old San Juan, we immediately set off to take our own walking tour of the old city. The sunny 80 degree weather was sublime as we aimlessly meandered along the cobblestone streets and between vibrantly colored buildings. I've always enjoyed walking on cobblestone streets, like the ones in the most spectacular cities of Europe, but the streets in Old San Juanwere special: the stones were blue, which gave the city an even more vibrant and exotic feel.

Blue Cobble Stone Streets of Old San Juan
Our first find was the bright and white Capitol building that stood on a hill, surrounded by palm trees and overlooking the Caribbean Sea. After passing the capitol, we made our way to Fort San Cristobal, a fort that dates back to the seventeenth century. I would have liked to explore this Fort more; it was quite amazing to watch the deep blue ocean, white sands, and palm trees shine in the Puerto Rican sun while standing behind the ramparts of this stone fort wonder. As we explored the rest of Old San Juan before boarding our cruise ship, we ran into several other highlights. These include La Forteleza and the San Juan Gate overlooking a picturesque view of the piers and bay near San Juan. Even the U.S. Post building in Old San Juan had fascinating architecture. I also enjoyed walking down the road, Calle Sol, which arguably holds the brightest colored buildings in Old San Juan. One of the greatest (and most memorable) surprises of the day occurred as we walked between the walls of El Morro Fort and the water, along Paseo de Morro and Paseo de Princesa back toward the cruise ships. We reached the shore just as the red, orange, and pinked hued sun set over the sail boats and yachts that floated in the ocean. Festive music and dancing greeted us as we enjoyed our walk back to the piers from the stone walls of El Morro Fort.

The Cathedral of Rum and the Bacardi Factory
Eight days later, my friends and I returned back to San Juan after an exciting week in five other islands of the Caribbean. Before catching our plane back to mainland United States, we hopped on a ferry across the bay, grabbed a taxi, and sped toward the Bacardi Rum Factory. First off, the ride to the Bacardi Rum Factory has the best views of the hilltop El Morro Fort. Second, the tour of Bacardi Rum Factory is well worth it! I learned an abundance of information about the rum making process and the variance of taste in different types of rum. Better yet, the tour of the Bacardi facilities is free and each visitor over the age of 18 receives two free Bacardi drinks as tasters (try the peach rum). While on the topic of food and drink, my friends and I sampled chicken mufungo, a plantain based traditional food product of Puerto Rico. If you want to try authentic Puerto Rican food- you've got to buy mufungo, which can be found almost everywhere in Old San Juan.
Watching the Sunset from the ramparts of El Morro

Visiting San Juan was definitely a bucket list item for me; I was able to cross this island right off my very long list of places I still need to explore. While I would love to return to the blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, two places outside the city are still must sees in Puerto Rico; hopefully, one day I will walk among the beautiful landscape in the Yunque rain forest and kayak in the Vieques bioluminescent bay. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Scandinavia’s Unknown Gem: Visby, Sweden

Central Town in Visby, Gotland, Sweden
The quaint town of Visby situated on the western coast of Sweden’s largest island can easily be described as an unknown Baltic gem. Not many people would think to visit the more relaxed pace of Swedish island life, but this ended up being my mother’s favorite port city, even surpassing the Baltic highlights that are Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn. And really this small city should be better known by tourists through out the world. Visby, a city that has been given the coveted UNESCO World Heritage title, is unique in its preservation of medieval Scandinavia. The city had played an intrinsic role in the Hanseatic Trading League. It is impossible to miss the ancient 12th and 13th century church ruins and ancient walls while simply strolling through the town. Even though my parents and I only had the time to spend 4 precious hours in Visby, we were certainly able to explore many of the highlights that historic Visby has to offer. 

View of Visby and Baltic Sea from Klinten
From the shore, the structure that infamously dominates the Visby skyline remains Visby Cathedral. This Luthern Cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, is a most see while in Visby. It is most remarkable as a beautiful example of Swedish church architecture. The towering black spirals of the church are easily visible even from our cruise ship anchored away from shore. And just beside the church are stairs that lead to one of the best vistas on the island. Lined by vibrant red, orange, and yellow tulips, these stairs head toward the region of town known as Klinten where views from a winding walkway offer a panorama of the city, its stone wall, and the Baltic Sea. 

Santa Katarina ruins
View from thee top of Drotten ruins
Other highlights in the city include a visit to the vast array of 13th century church ruins that are interspersed between houses and boutique shops that are in use by the residents of today. One of my favorite church ruins was named Santa Katarina. This church hosted unforgettable archways that towered overhead and grass that grew in bunches on what was left of the church’s ancient roof. Even though most travel informational centers highlight St. Nicholas with its beautiful rose window as one of the must see church ruins in Visby, I personally think the ruins of Drotten were more memorable. Drotten, like Santa Katarina, showcases large vaulted ceilings and towering archways. The best part of this ruin was the stairs, still intact, that allowed visitors to climb to the upper levels of the ruins. Climbing the winding medieval staircases brought its own small adventure and will certainly last in my memory forever. I only wish we had more time to spend in Visby and the surrounding Swedish countryside, to walk along the stoned wall and to visit the neighboring cliffs of Högklint. Visby, Gotland is quite the historic destination. Hopefully, I will return soon to wander along its cobblestone streets once again. 

With this port, we had finally visited all the locations on our Baltic Sea tour. As I travel more around this world, I will continue to write about my adventures and offer more recommendations. Happy Traveling and Hello again America!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Stockholm, Sweden

Finally after almost completing our entire ring around the Baltic countries, we had arrived at my favorite destination of our two week cruise- Stockholm, Sweden.  Two full days in Stockholm just wasn’t enough. I would love to spend more time wandering the 14 islands that make up this national capital on another trip to this country. But, I must admit that we did see plenty of the main wonders to get a comprehensive view of what this northern city has to offer. 

View of Sodermalm from Gamla Stan
First stop- a self guided walking tour around the island Gamla Stan, known as old town Stockholm. One of the best parts of Stockholm is taking in the breathtaking scenery of the island city and walking along the streets admiring the beautiful architecture. And that is exactly what we did. We explored the cafe lined cobblestone streets of Stockholm where the Swedish blue and yellow flag hung from every corner. We made sure to stop by all the historic highlights of this small island, including the residential Royal Palace (we even witnessed the changing of the brightly colored Swedish guards as they road on the Stockholm streets on horseback). Then it was off the the royal cathedral before we walked upon a square in Gamla Stan on which the Nobel Prize building is located. Since we were visiting on a Monday, the building where Nobel Prizes are awarded each year was unfortunately closed, but on any other day it is possible to take a tour of the interior halls where some of the world’s peace keeping leaders have walked. The most memorable aspect of my time exploring Gamla Stan was most definitely the view of Stockholm from the southern and eastern sides of the island. From this vantage point, it is possible to see the large brown Parliament complex across a small canal and the Royal Palace perched upon a sloping hill above the cobblestone streets of Old town. And across the major waterway, a bridge connects Gamla Stan to the beautiful region known as Södermalm, where impressive Swedish architecture, quaint seaside cafes, and strikingly beautiful spires dominate the landscape of the city. Most of all, we were lucky to have visited the city on such a nice day; the suns rays glittered in the blue waters of the surrounding water, allowing the natural beauty of this northern capital to be more easily admired. 

Vasa War Ship as seen in Vasa Museum
After lunch, it was time to visit one of the most highly recommended attractions in Sweden - the Vasa Museum. To be honest, before our trip to Sweden I wasn’t too excited with visiting the museum. However, almost every Swedish travel site demands a visit, so I felt obligated to check it out. Let me tell you, it was worth it (even for the $30 per person price). The Vasa Museum’s entire focus is centered around the Swedish Vasa warship which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628 (pictured left). For more than 300 years the ship sat on the bottom of the Baltic Sea’s floor until 1960’s when the ship was resurrected and found to be 98% preserved. This massive 17th century ship is now housed in the Vasa Museum as a testament to ships dating back to the age of exploration. It was really neat to see a warship from the 1600’s up close and personal; the ship was very similar in size and style to ships seen in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean. Very cool indeed. The museum offered information about how the ship sunk (it was top heavy- the ship held too many canons and was decorated with heavy ornate statues). I also learned about the harsh and draconian treatment of the Swedish people during this time period. Punishments onboard ships were extremely harsh and often deadly. Plus ships from this era were constructed from oak trees. As a result, Swedish citizens who were caught chopping down an oak tree three time were given the death penalty. This museum was highly informative and interesting- I definitely recommend a visit to this unique attraction if in Sweden. 

Ice Bar, Nordic Hotel
The end to our first day in my favorite Baltic port involved a walk through the financial downtown district of Stockholm where more modern architecture and restaurants inhabited the streets. To be honest, we were lost looking for our final destination of the day- Stockholm’s infamous Ice Bar in the Nordic Hotel, but I did enjoy our time among the locals in the non-touristy area of the city where we noticed how few people drive cars and how many people bike everywhere. No wonder Swedish people are in such great physical shape. When we finally arrived at the bar, we donned on the provided parkas and headed into the wildly unique bar. Yes it was a bit touristy, but what a fun experience! For $30 we were provided a parka, gloves, and given a drink of our choice. The ceilings, floor, walls, tables, seats, the bar itself, even the glasses were all made out of ice. It was an entirely enjoyable experience which was made our time in Stockholm even more memorable. 

Drottningholm Palace surrounded by water
Our second day in Stockholm involved a long excursion to Drottningholm Palace in the suburbs of Stockholm. Technically a residential palace of the Royal Family, the palace is most memorable for its picturesque location on a remote lush island in the Swedish archipelago. To get to the Palace, my parents and I found our way to Stadshuset City Hall in Stockholm where we hopped on an hour boat ride out of the city to Drottningholm. We were probably the only tourists on the full boat, so it was interesting to interact with local Swedes who spoke English impressively well as they spent a gloriously beautiful day in the sun while enjoying the natural wonders that Stockholm has to offer. The scenic ride through the smaller islands of the archipelago offered beautiful views of the deep blue water winding between the tree studded islands. Interestingly, as we made our way the palace, 5 Swedish military vessels followed us there and then again followed us on our return journey to Stockholm. When we arrived at the palace, it was already noon, perfect timing to watch the changing of the guards in front of the palace’s front doors. The exterior of the castle was quite spectacular. Sitting on a remote island overlooking the water and adjacent to the lovely royal gardens, this UNESCO world Heritage sight is quite memorable and worth the trip if you are spending a few days in Sweden. However, I don’t know if I recommend touring the inside of the palace. Photos were strictly forbidden, the price of entrance was steep, and no where were there signs inside offering historical perspective to the palace’s significance. Overall, our second day in Stockholm marvelous day spent in the Swedish countryside among the locals. 

As we frantically attempted to make it back to our cruise ship in time for departure on public transportation, I was sad to be leaving this city so soon! Even though I want to return to this city and country one day, I don’t think I could ever live here. Prices are astronomically high. Among our many discussions with the Swedish people, we learned that the Swedish minimum wage is very high, but so are the tax rates. Yes many of the Swedish do enjoys these benefits of what can be considered European socialism, but the results of theses high wages and high taxes are high prices for everyday items and food, making it exceptionally difficult for tourists to stay in this country for too long. Along with this line of thought, it cost $17 for each of my family members to buy a 24 hour public bus transportation card. Once, we even attempted to take the metro, but we decided against it when we figured out it was a little over $6 one-way to our next destination (making Sweden 6 times more expensive than Russia). Next time though, I would love to travel on the metro in order to see some of the top ranked metro stations in the world for design (rumor has it that Stockholm’s blue line is the best).

Cruising the Stockholm Archipelago
As our cruise ship departed and we said Adjö to Stockholm, we were gifted with a three hour cruise through the larger islands of the Stockholm Archipelago. Luckily for me, the Stockholm Archipelago had been on my bucket list, and I was all too excited to see the beauty of more than 3000 islands as we made our way south to the largest island in Sweden, Gotland. As the wind blew in our faces and the seagulls followed our cruise ship, we passed beautiful scenery and took pictures of some of the archipelago’s most famous destinations: Voxholm and the large Swedish fort. The archipelago was definitely a site worth seeing and I would recommend a boat tour through the area for anyone visiting the Stockholm area. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Helsinki, Finland

The Rock Cathedral
If I could choose one word to describe my short day in Helsinki, it would be: lovely. I don’t think I had ever visited a more peaceful or calm capital city. In the city itself, there aren’t as many “must-see” attractions as there are in St. Petersburg, but Helsinki is surrounded by a gorgeous shoreline that rivals the craggy coastlines of Maine. 
In order to get a comprehensive picture of the history and culture (and easy access to the major highlights) of the city, my parents and I hopped on board a tour bus. Our first stop was the Rock Church (picture above). An architecturally distinct building, this church is made from rocks and is complete with a beautiful wood ceiling. To be quite honest, the Rock Church didn’t quite match up to marvels such as St. Isaac’s in St. Petersburg, but the church was certainly still memorable for its uniqueness (and worth the visit if in Helsinki). 
Finnish architecture in the Archipelago

The next location could be considered equally as unique: the monument to Composer Jean Sibelius. The monument was a huge cluster of stubby silver poles. I don’t know if I would ever make a special trip out to see the monument, but if you are familiar with Siberlius’ music, then I’m sure the visit would be worth it. Next stop on the bus tour: the Helsinki Olympic Stadium from the 1952 Summer Games. Unfortunately, we were unable to take a comprehensive tour of the complex. The Finns were holding the Helsinki Marathon starting at the site of the stadium. However, this might have been even more interesting to witness. To be honest I wasn’t at all surprised by the vast number of Finns who were ridiculously in shape. Yes, this was a skewed sample, but everyone in the country seemed to be in an excellent fit condition. We especially saw this at the World Festival we stumbled upon near the downtown train station in Helsinki. We were surrounded by thousands of Finns as we walked around the ethnic food tables (the most popular being Indian cuisine) and enjoyed listening to some music from a Finnish Rock band. We were most astonished by the calm nature of the rock concert and the organization of the event. All the food tables were categorized and labeled on maps for easy access to all the festival’s events. My family agreed, we were quite lucky to have been able to witness a cultural event such as this one in order to people watch and try to better understand Helsinki culture even though we were in this city for such a short period of time. 

Fleet of Finnish Icebreakers
Some of these previously mentioned Helsinki sites are deemed “highlights of the city” by many tourist organizations. Personally though, the highlight of my experience in Helsinki occurred when my parents and I momentarily left the city itself. Mid-day, we boarded onto a one and a half hour sightseeing boat cruise of the Helsinki Archipelago. Not as famous or expansive as the Sweden Archipelago, the tiny islands that surround the capital of Finland offered stunning landscapes of green alpine trees, red Finnish cabins, beaches, and craggy rock formations. On our journey through the islands, we passed bridges, the Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Helsinki Zoo (located on an island not far from downtown Helsinki), Fininish Banyas (saunas), and most interestingly a fleet of Finnish icebreakers. While on the cruise, I learned that these impressive ships can travel through up to 5 meter thick of ice and that 60% of the world’s icebreakers are built in Helsinki. 

Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
During our last few hours in Helsinki, we walked along the marina where lapping waves met beautiful shale rock formations landscapes. We walked past cafes where, interestingly, those sitting outside oriented their chairs n a line all facing the streets instead of around a table facing each other. I guess this allows for an optimum people watching setting, but we also saw cafe chairs organized in the same manner in Stockholm, Sweden. I never noticed it anywhere else while on our Northern Baltic cities journey, so maybe it was customary of Scandinavian countries? Of course, while we walked along the Helsinki shoreline, we took notice of the massive Uspenski Russian orthodox Cathedral that dominates the Helsinki skyline. Then it was off to one of our final stops on our whirlwind Helsinki tour: the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral (pictured below). The Cathedral, which can be seen throughout the city, is perched on top of its own ledge overlooking the city. Once you get to the base of the Cathedral, there’s many staircases to climb before receiving a rewarding view of the Senate Square below. To be honest, the inside of the Lutheran Cathedral is nothing special compared with the Orthodox Cathedrals of Russia, but the exterior architecture of Helsinki’s main church was certainly memorable. 

Our day in Helsinki was certainly enjoyable. Even though, I’m sorry to say, Helsinki isn’t as breathtakingly spectacular as St. Petersburg or as eccentric and historically fascinating as Berlin, Helsinki still captivated our attention. My family greatly enjoyed our day and took notice of the little things, such as wondering why a local business added the word “probably” to the following advertisement “Probably the best disco club in the city.” We were able to glean a basic history of Finland that I certainly was unaware of before. For instance, on our Helsinki Archipelago boat tour we learned that a Swedish king in the 1500’s forced Swedish citizens to move to Helsinki in order to populate the area and build a trading city to rival Tallinn, Estonia. While our day, and the boat tour, ended with a slightly hilarious end quote “and now we don’t have to force people to live here anymore,” I can certainly see why that’s the case. Finland is filled with kind and friendly people living in a climate that may be cold and snow-covered in the winter, but offers mild temperatures and an absolutely beautiful scenic landscape in the summer. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Oh Hello Again Piter

St. Catherine's Palace and the gardens

One of our first stops was the beautiful Dormition Cathedral on the banks of the Neva River. The Cathedral with its grey and gold domes was built in the Byzantine architectural style and its interior is a smaller replica of the Church on Spilled Blood (imagine paint instead of mosaics). I had noticed this church and its domes from across the Neva before, and had meant to pay a visit. I’m glad I finally had the chance. Dormition Church had been used as an iceskating rink during the Soviet era; it was quite the experience to appreciate the exquisite restoration work on a church that had been used as a recreational facility less than 30 years ago. On another Soviet- church relations note, I learned from our tour guide that the lutheran church that stands on Nevsky Prospekt was used as a swimming pool during the Soviet Union (oh and Kazan Cathedral held the Museum of Atheism). After 70 years of the continual destruction of religion, it’s amazing that we even have these churches to visit today. And one last church fact that I’ve learned: the huge golden dome on top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral is actually made of real gold. Super extravagant and super expensive. So where did they get the money to construct the dome? from the Alaskan Purchase. The Russians used the money they received from America after purchasing Alaska. That’s a fun fact if I do say so myself. 
Dormition Cathedral

While on the tour, I had the fortune of visiting two new locations that I didn’t have the time to see during the semester. The first being an interior tour of the Summer Palace in Peterhoff. The stairs alone in the palace were gold trimmed and entirely ornate (similar to Catherine’s Palace). There were striking similarities between the two grand palaces of the St. Pete suburbs. The most noticeable similarity included the design of the ballrooms. Both were covered with large mirrors and innate gold decorations (though I learned that the “gold” was in fact gilded bronze, but this does not take away any of the brilliance and splendor of the design). Further highlights of the tour included viewing Peter the Great’s tiny bed (he slept sitting up), his toilet (that looked like a throne), and his oak office complete with his quill and office desk. We finished off our royal excursion by watching the fountain ceremony at 11:00 am. There was lovely patriotic music as the fountains slowly burst into life. 

The gardens at Peterhoff
Our second day in St. Pete led us to another new location- Yusopov Palace on the Moika Canal. Distant relatives of the Romanovs, the Yusopov family owned 4 palaces in St. Petersburg alone, but the palace we visited remains the most famous. In the basement of this dwelling, Felix Yusopov poisoned and then shot the infamous Rasputin. We saw the room in which Rasputin was poisoned. The fascinating part of the story is that Rasputin didn’t die after being poisoned and shot; he only died after the Yusopovs threw him into the icy Neva. According to autopsy results, it was determined that Rasputin died due to water in the lungs. It’s unbelievable to think that he could withstand two gun shot wounds and arsenic. One of the most memorable rooms in the palace was the Moor themed room. The room looked as if the Yusopovs had built a mosque right in the middle of the palace. At first I asked myself: why? The Yusopovs were Russian Orthodox just like most people living in Russia before the October Revolution. Well our tour guide explained to us that the Yusopovs were a wealthy Muslim family that had originated from the Islamic Tatar region of Russia hundreds of years before. The moor room honors their heritage as Muslim Tatars even though they actually practiced Christianity. 
Moor Room at Yusopov Palace

It was interesting to glean a new perspective of St. Petersburg by exploring her wonders with my parents. I particularly found it amusing when my parents pointed out certain aspects of Russian life that had taken me more than a week to realize. The most obvious being the perpetual feeling of dehydration. After about 5 hours of tour, my parents began complaining about their thirst because well safe water isn’t readably available in the city. You have to learn to always carry a bottle with you, otherwise you may be out of luck. I feel like that tidbit is only funny to those on my program, but dehydration was a facet of my time in Russia. Now at home I can drink water whenever I’m the least bit thirsty. 
Location of the front between Nazis and USSR during WWII

And now it was finally a good-bye to Russia. Our two days in Russia went by in a flash, but I know my parents appreciated the ability to see and experience the location where I lived for 4 months. They were able to briefly see the street on which I lived and my campus that is situated directly across from the beautiful Kazan Cathedral. Visiting the marvelous sites of the city was an experience of a lifetime, but the cultural immersion and friends I made create even longer lasting memories. As I said До-свидания to St. Petersburg for the second time, my parents and I were able watch as Russia passed. We even happened by Kronstadt island where Russian naval ships and submarines were docked in the small port only a few meters from the beautiful golden domed Kronstadt Cathedral. My four months in St. Pete were truly and officially over, but I know I will return again. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Off to the Baltics: A Day in Estonia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Tallinn is the unknown gem of the Baltic Sea. Americans don’t seem to know very much about this small country that recently gained independence immediately prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. But maybe that’s why. Estonia’s history may date way back to the thirteenth century when the sea port was a trading powerhouse in the Hanseatic League, but Estonia’s history as a recent independent nation reaches back only 21 years. Heck, I’m even older than the post-Soviet Estonia (only by a month but still). Even though this locale doesn’t seem to hit many Bucket List radars in America, I personally feel that a visit to this Baltic city can not be missed. 

View of Old Town from Toompea Hill
As a Russian major with a particular interest in Soviet Union history, this sea side city did offer some intrigue. First stop: the Tallinn Song Grounds. As the Soviet Union’s time as a united nation quickly dwindled at the end of the 1980’s, Tallinners took to this open air concert hall to sing, hold hands, and unite in defiance against the Soviet yoke. What may be even more interesting is the lesser known Soviet related attraction that still exists in the city- the Sokos Hotel Viru, a 30 floor sky rise in downtown Tallinn. On the highest floor of the hotel remains a former KGB office. Unfortunately, my parents and I were unable to visit the museum due to time constraints, but our table mates at dinner were able to pay a visit. According to our friends, the KGB had the entire hotel under wire tap surveillance. Dinner plates had built in microphones and many of the hotel staff were paid to provide personal surveillance for the KGB. Staffers were told to give any lost items such as wallets directly to the KGB headquarters. Apparently, even though the elevator didn’t reach the top floor and the sign on the headquarter’s door read in Estonian and Russian “There is nothing here,” most everyone knew that the hotel was being surveyed. Our friends really enjoyed their tour of the headquarters, and during my next visit to Tallinn I will have to make sure to stop by to see the remnants of the Soviet Union in the city. 

The highlight of any trip to Tallinn is a visit to the city’s well preserved Old Town. The Old Town is essentially a walled city, and there are even segments of the wall that date back to the 1300’s. Personally I love walking along cobblestone paths in an ancient part of any city, but Tallinn’s Old Town was particularly charming. As we walked along, exploring the cafes and various shops, I could smell a wafting aroma of gingerbread and at times chocolate. I even stopped into a chocolate shop called Annelivik on one of the cobblestoned side streets that wound through the city. There I bought hot chocolate that was so thick that I could almost stand a spoon in the cup. It was so rich and so delicious. I think the waiter literally melted dark chocolate and added about an once of milk. I never thought I would get overpowered by such a rich chocolate, but by the end of my small cup I had enough of that delicious goodness. 

Even though strolling through Old Town was enough to create a memorable day, there were some specific highlights in the region that need to be commended. The first being Toompea hill, which boast fantastic views of the Old Town. The hill is also home to the Russian Orthodox Church called Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the rose-pink parliament buildings. Alexander Nevsky Church was particularly memorable with its colorful onion domed rooftops and Byzantine style fresco interior. My favorite section of the Old City was town plaza where medieval styled buildings and cozy outdoor cafes completely surround a cobblestoned plaza. My parents and I ate an Irish pub on a patio overlooking the plaza. We enjoyed our food (and I continued to nurse my hot chocolate) as we people watched, soaked up the sun, and enjoyed the eastern European atmosphere. As our day in Estonia was slowly coming to an end, my parents and I walked along the sector of the ancient wall in order to capture our last glimpses of the city. Tallinn was certainly an enjoyable and memory filled day. I can’t say that I loved the city as much as St. Petersburg, but I would most certainly return to the city if the opportunity presented itself. Ideally, I would love to see the city during Christmas Time when Winter Markets and Christmas lights and wreaths make the city sparkle in the snow. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Berlin: Beyond Expectations

Before visiting Berlin, I had always heard of the architectural oddity and the eclectic nature of the city. Because of this, I wasn’t all that excited to visit the city itself. I was immensely more interested in visiting the locales of historical signifance like the Brandenburg Gate, remnants of the Berlin Wall, and Check Point Charlie. However, after spending a day in Berlin, I am more than pleased to say that  the city was without a doubt a highlight of the cruise. I would love to return one day to explore some more. 

Brandenburg Gate and surrounding buildings
On May 21st we arrived in Warnermünde, Germany where we hopped on board an early morning bus heading toward Berlin. As we traveled through the rain and countryside, I couldn’t help but notice the green rolling hills and the same bright yellow patches of field that we had seen while in England. Our tour guide said the yellow fields were canola, so next time I use canola oil in my cooking I will remember how beautiful its plant form looks in the countryside of western Europe. Upon arriving in Berlin, we immediately passed the yellow tinted walls of Charlottenburg Palace before further proceeding into the city. After a brief stop at the Palace, we drove past Victory Column, a tall golden monument near the center of the city that commemorates the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. Then the remarkable part of the city tour began at the Reichstag, home to the German parliament. The building itself was quite impressive to behold- colossal columns and a massive German flag. The anthill like glass dome on top of the building didn’t quite match the impressive facade of the old parliament building, but it was interesting to learn that: 1) the white adjacent building that houses the offices of the mp’s is connected to the Reichstag by underground tunnels and 2) Hitler never made a speech or worked in the Reichstag. Afterwards, we only walked for about 5 minutes before we came upon the highlight of any trip to Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate. As a personal fan of President Reagan, it was quite the historical experience to stand at the location where he gave his famous speech “Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” On a slightly humorous note, after passing from west Berlin into east Berlin through the Gates, we stopped in front of a glamorous hotel on the plaza. This hotel was the location where Michael Jackson had held his son Blanket from over the balcony. Another fun fact about Michael Jackson and Berlin- during the height of the cold war, West Berlin brought in famous “western” musical artist to play in concerts. West Berliners would purposefully turn the concert speakers to the east Berlin side in order to spread the prohibited western music in the east. The West Berliners even did so with Michael Jackson’s music. 

Our next stop included a visit of remembrance to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate. This was one of the most thought provoking memorials I had ever visited. The memorial included over 1700 large grey stones of varying heights. While walking through the paths between the stones, eventually the grey stones overshadow you until you reach the other side. Interestingly, the creators of the memorial never provided an interpretation for the meaning behind the stone memorial. Personally, I believe that the ever increasing height of the stones represents the annihilation of the Jewish people. As you walk through the stones and disappear into the greyness, the stones represent the Jewish people. Their humanity and life were taken from them with ever more frequency as the war and genocide continued. On our way out of the memorial, our tour guide pointed out a tall tree not too far into the distance. She informed us that this tree marked the location of Hitler’s bunker where he supposedly killed himself alongside his wife at the war’s end. 
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The next three stops came straight out of a history lover’s dream. First, my parents and I got to see a large section of the Berlin Wall where we were able to stand with each foot on either side of the line that marks the location where the Berlin Wall stood over 20 years before. I was fascinated to learn that the Berlin Wall was built in less than 24 hours in 1961 while the city was at work. This original wall was simply made from barbed wire (no cement yet), but those who worked on a different side of the wall from where they lived were separated from loved ones until the collapse of the wall in 1989. Successful attempts to escape from the East were infrequent. The creativity of Eastern Berliners was especially impressive: people made underwater one-manned submarines, they jumped from buildings, and they escaped through concert sound equipment. Those who attempted to run, we learned, were often mowed down in what was known as the death strip where barbed wire, machine guns, and land mines served as deadly obstacles to freedom. Second, we drove through the city to see the small, yet infamous historic locale known as Check Point Charlie. We were able to see the check point (which served as an important barrier between the east and the west) only from a distance. Swat teams and police officers had barricaded the street on which Check Pointe Charlie was located. As we learned later, the authorities had discovered an old bomb from the WWII era in the Check Pointe Charlie area while we were visiting. What a way to remember this historical site. Third, we visited an old library, now home to the Humboldt Law School. In front of this library, Hitler had the Nazis burn any books that did not support support/complement his propaganda. On the location where all the books were infamously burned, there exists a memorial built into the guard. If you look into the glass portal of the memorial, you will only see empty book shelves symbolizes the books that were burned and forever lost. 
In the east and west with the Berlin Wall behind

The final 3 hours of our day in Berlin were spent in the trendy east Berlin. To make the experience even more memorable we stopped at a traditional German restaurant where we sampled German dark and light beer, pretzels, bread balls, sausage, sauerkraut, ham, sour potato casserole, and so much more. This was by far the best German food that I have ever eaten- absolutely delicious. Plus, we had a spectacular view of Gendermenmarkt plaza complete with identical cream and green Lutheran and Huguenot Churches from the restaurant. From the plaza, we walked to the absolutely colossal and magnificent Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) where we enjoyed strolling around the park and embankment on the nearby river. We briefly passed by Museum Island as well. There, five large museums in Neoclassical architectural style offer varying museum themes from ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean antiquities to 19th century art collections. The architecture alone of these museums is worth the visit- the cement and stone structures are islands themselves- the walls of the buildings are grounded into the large river, giving the impression that these buildings have recently emerged from the depths of the water. Unfortunately, we didn’t have to visit Altes Museum which hosts the infamous bust of Nofretete. One day I will have to return to Berlin in order to explore Museum Island further. 

Berlin Cathedral
In many ways, Berlin surpassed all of my expectations. I thought that the varying architectural styles of the city would be off-putting, but I found that to be the contrary. It simply added to the historical significance of the city. I was surprised to discover the number of vast Cathedrals that exist in Eastern Berlin, yet these Cathedrals stand alongside some drab Soviet buildings and even more modern buildings that were constructed post 1989.  Then there is Western Berlin, which has also undergone some changes. We learned that during the time of the east-west split, the area of Western Berlin that had been close to the wall had practically been a worn down ghost town. Now expensive department stores and high rises command this once empty area. Berlin has undergone drastic changes within the last 20 years. It would have been quite amazing to be able to compare the city from its divided days to the present. Berlin is rich with history, and quite a remarkable place. I didn’t think this city would touch my heart quite like it did. The history nerd in me loved this city; I hope I have the opportunity to return soon.