You read that right! Viking Ocean Cruises.
Join us as we sail aboard the brand new Viking Star and explore the spectacular Baltic Sea region of Northern Europe!
DAY ONE: All Aboard the Viking Star in Stockholm—and a mind-foggy jaunt through the city!
Not too big, not too small; our home in the middle of Stockholm
Morning: We Arrive
We arrive in Stockholm, Sweden bright and early, actually it never got dark as we flew over the arctic from New York, and as always Viking was waiting right there to take us to the ship.
The view of Stockholm's Old Town from the Star
The amusement park, Gröna Lund, from our private balcony
The Viking Star awaits us in the very heart of Stockholm.
After dropping our luggage and grabbing a bite to eat on board, we head out into the city to check things out before the jet lag completely destroys our ability to function.
Wish us luck!
Afternoon: Fantastic Views and Oddities in Södermalm
Since we had been through the famous old town, Gamla Stan, when we visited the Swedish capital a year and a half ago we decided to look around the area near the dock known as Södermalm, or Söder for short.
We learn that this was once the roughest part of town as we explore Master Mikaels Gata (the street named after the city's famous executioner).
The hill overlooking the rest of the city served as home to the gallows, but now the neighborhood has become trendy, described as the Brooklyn of Stockholm.
And what a view! We can't imagine a better place from which to get hanged.
This new gentrified Söder seems perfectly comfortable with its past though, as shown by the preschool we find that bears the name of the old hangman.
How cool would it be to bring back these ladies?
Some other interesting characters that we discovered in Stockholm's past were the Rowing Madams, or Roddarmadam, that carried people between the fourteen islands that the city is scattered upon back before bridges were built.
They were best known for the large "weather hoods" they wore for rowing in bad weather and their extensive use of foul, um, shall we say colorful language.
Accounts of women ferrying passengers in row boats go back over five hundred years, but as Stockholm's famous fifty-seven bridges were constructed their numbers dwindled, and by the early nineteen hundreds they had disappeared altogether.
It's not Sweden without a fika!
Before moving on, we could hardly let the day go by without a fika. This Swedish version of the coffee break has become an important part of the culture.
It's a fun word, fika, both a noun and a verb.
So fika we did.
We popped into a bakery and fika-ed our little brains out with coffee and another Swedish tradition, Kanelbullar or cinnamon rolls.
The proper fika also involves socializing, which we did, and we learned how the practice has had an effect on business relationships in Sweden. Employees and bosses often fika together, and that leads to a more relaxed and better working environment.
Evening: Sunset over the Old Town
We've been up for over twenty-four hours straight — having opted to race around town rather than nap and restore like most of the sane folks aboard the Star.
So we've decided to hang out on our private veranda (every stateroom on the Star has one!) and watch the sun set over Old Town's many spires to finish our day in a civilized way.
DAY TWO: Stormin' Stockholm!
Morning: A Spectacular Sunrise and our Spectacular Stateroom
In what seemed like minutes, the sun popped back up over the horizon. Seriously, it was only mere minutes of darkness between sunset and sunrise!
To begin the first full day aboard our home for the next two weeks, the Viking Star, we have our steward, the fabulous Willy, walk us through all of the features of our supremely stately stateroom. As with their river cruise vessels, every room has a private balcony, which is great, but mostly we love the in-room coffee maker!
Watch Willy showing us around:
Also like the river cruises, every day has a tour of the port of call included, so today we board busses for a spin through Stockholm.
We can't wait to get an up close and personal look at some of the spires we've seen off in the distance. You might say we are inspired by the spires.
Traveling by motor coach we cover a lot more ground than yesterday, including a quick spin through several of the city's islands, beginning with Södermalm and moving on to Kungsholmen, known as King's Island, where we stop for a look at the City Hall which in addition to its government function hosts Nobel Prize banquet each December.
On the grounds of City Hall
Afternoon: Island Hopping—Swedish Style
Our bus is way too big for any Rowing Madam to handle so we take bridges on to Helgeandsholmen, which serves as home to the parliament and government buildings, and to where we passed the Royal Dramatic Theater and one of many whimsical statues throughout Stockholm.
This one depicts the actress Margaretha Krook standing beside the building at the spot she was famous for occupying before each show.
Even stranger, she wasn't thrilled at the prospect of being depicted as a cold statue, so her likeness is heated, kept at actual body temperature year round.
We could see the rubbed off spots where folks have snuggled up against her to keep warm in the winter.
The Djurgården was originally the Royal Game Park, but now is home to the amusement park Gröna Lund.
Many of the city's museums, most notably ABBA: The Museum, the Biological Museum, the Nordic Museum.
Our tour ends with a walk through the oldest part of town, Gamla Stan, on Stadsholmen.
We pass the massive baroque Stockholm Palace on our way to the main square and spend some time browsing through the shops and cafes that line the busy plaza.
Along the way our guide pointed out a runestone that had been used constructing one of the buildings.
These inscribed rocks can be well over a thousand years old and are common across Scandinavia.
They were originally erected in honor of dead men, not as grave stones, but as memorials.
We make one more stop to gather a bit of good luck for our journey.
As is the case in many cities, there is a statue that is said to bring good fortune if given a rub, so we stroke the Järnpojke, or Iron Boy, on our way back to the ship.
Sculpted in 1954 by the Swedish artist Liss Eriksson, at less than six inches high he is renowned as the smallest statue in Stockholm.
Let's hope Iron Boy works his magic!
Evening: Sailing Stockholm's Skärgård
We set sail for Helsinki by making our way through some of the 24,000 islands of the Stockholm archipelago, known in Swedish as Stockholm's Skärgård.
The islands were once home to fishermen and farmers, but now are mostly inhabited by urbanites escaping from the city into the 50,000 holiday cottages that dot the coastlines.
Deciding that we didn't want to miss a single moment of this thirty-seven miles stretch, we raced around the Star looking for every angle and took in view from...
... above the pool's retractable roof...
... poolside in lounge chairs...
... and our own private veranda.
DAY THREE: To Helsinki and Back
Morning: An Inspirational Breakfast and a Church that Rock(s)
Comfy robes and a hidden vanity: Veronica loves her new
We start the day with breakfast on the balcony while the ship pulls into port at Helsinki, Finland greeted by a rainbow.
The rainbow proves to be a good omen as the sky clears for us to head into the city from the docks.
Our first stop is the unique Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church), which is carved into a block of underground granite and covered by a domed copper roof surrounded by a skylight laminating the interior in natural light.
This big rock...
... blasted into this:
Early Afternoon: Art and Architecture
This stunning piece of art is dedicated to Finland’s most famous composer Jean Sibelius, who is best known for his symphonies but is regarded as more than just a composer by most Finns.
He is more of a national hero because his music was inspirational in Finland’s fight for freedom from Russia.
The rest of our day is spent exploring the center of the city. The focal point of Finland’s elegant capital is definitely Senate Square where the massive Helsinki Cathedral is flanked by matching mirror images of the University of Helsinki and the Government Palace.
These surround a statue of Russian Czar Alexander II who is credited with building Helsinki into the grand city that it is today after Russia took control in the early eighteen hundreds.
It is said that he patterned much of the city after St. Petersburg, so it gives us a little preview of our next couple of days.
Perched on a hill on the other side of the Senate Square sits the magnificent golden-domed Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral.
While the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it also commemorates Alexander II, who was the sovereign of the Grand Duchy of Finland during the cathedral's construction.
Without a doubt the Finns liked Alexander, who they came to call “The Good Czar.”
A Tad Later in the Afternoon: What has to be the Most Surprisingly Elegant Burger King on the Planet
Working our way out from the square we come to the train station (and because David the Train Nut is such a, well, train nut, every station in every city must be visited).
For nearly one hundred years this has been the transportation hub of the country, but we found the Burger King inside to be the most curious feature.
It’s not every day we find a fast food joint with such elegance and style. A huge fresco designed by Eero Järnefelt was kept in place above the counter and protected from the kitchen grease and fumes by powerful air conditioning.
Even some of the original chairs have been incorporated into the décor.
Though the ambience looked lovely, we decline to eat here and head out to find ourselves some authentic summer street food. When in Helsinki, we do as the Helsinkians do...
Evening: Finnish Street Food!
Below the cathedral on the edge of the harbor there is a big open air market that takes place in the very aptly named Market Square.
Since we are here in the middle of the short summer fruits and vegetables are the big attraction and the vendors were happy to offer free samples.
We snack on cherries, strawberries, and peas while strolling through the rows of stands.
Clothing and trinkets are popular too, but food tents seem to be the big favorites of tourists and locals alike.
The choices run the gamut of traditional Norse country foods such as reindeer steaks and sausages, moose (which they know as elk in these parts), and a wide variety of seafood.
One thing we see at several booths is muikku, whole small fried fish. Being as adventurous as always, we order a plate, along with some salmon soup, and then ask what they are afterwards.
Luckily they are delicious little fresh water fish known as vendace and, served with garlic sauce, are considered a summer-time delicacy in Finland.
Full GypsyNester seal of approval!
DAY FOUR: Can't Believe We're Actually in Russia!
Morning: You Can't Swing a Cat Without Hitting a Czar
Due to some quirky visa laws here in Russia, we are only allowed off of the ship with a government certified tour group.
It is possible to get a visa that includes the freedom to roam about freely, but the process can take quite some time.
Cruise ship passengers are exempt from needing a visa, but were are restricted in our movements.
On this first of our two days in St. Petersburg we are taking an introductory tour.
This is an overview of the city touching many of the highlights.
We start at the place where the city began, at least as far as its Russian history is concerned, the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Peter the Great began building his city here immediately after taking the land from Sweden during the Great Northern War in 1703.
Thus began the home of the czars and the capital of Imperial Russia that more than lived up to his vision.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral (the exterior pictured above and interior to the left), inside the walls of the fortress, also became the final resting place for all of those czars.
The interior is fairly small as cathedrals go, and is filled with tombs of the leaders and their families.
Perhaps that is where the old saying You can't sling a cat in here without hitting a czar came from… oh wait, that's not a saying.
Afternoon: Over-the-top oppulance and giant hunks of rock
We get a great view of the opulent lifestyle of those Russian emperors directly across the Neva River at Catherine the Great's house, the Winter Palace.
Her penchant for collecting fine art has made it now one of the most impressive galleries on the planet, the Hermitage Museum.
Driving across the bridge we also get a look at Palace Square on the other side of the Winter Palace.
This huge plaza was built as a monument to Alexander I and the Russian victory he led over Napoleon. The square is centered around the huge solid granite Alexander Column, which at 150 feet high is the tallest of its kind in the world. It is so heavy, about 500 tons, that it stays in place with no support or attachments.
Speaking of huge chunks of rock, our next stop features the largest one ever moved by humans, weighing in at a mere 1250 tons.
Just for comparison sake, that is more than ten times as big as any of the Easter Islands figures and twenty times more than the largest stone at Stonehenge.
The equestrian statue of Peter the Great in Senate Square, commonly called the Bronze Horseman, stands atop this giant stone known as the Thunder Stone.
Catherine the Great had it made in an attempt to position herself as Peter's rightful heir after taking the throne in a coup.
Deeper into the Afternoon: Spilled Blood Anyone?
We took a quick walk by nearby Saint Isaac's Cathedral before boarding the bus to head over to our last stop of the day, the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood.
For today we will only see the outside of both churches, but we are planning to come back tomorrow to see the inside.
Saint Isaac's is a landmark not only for its size—the fourth largest cathedral in the world—but also for the gold plated dome that can be seen all across St. Petersburg.
There are over two hundred pounds of the precious yellow metal spread out on the thing.
While that is most certainly impressive, the oddly named Church on Spilled Blood is even more eye catching with its wildly colorful onion domes and plenty of gold gilding of its own.
The name comes from this being the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in March 1881, but it is not officially called this, it is formally the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.
Night: The Jammin'-est "Buffet" We'll Ever Encounter:
We can't talk about a Viking cruise without taking about the food aboard!
We've been hitting the World Cafe for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so far—just too much to see in the destinations and not enough time to sit down in the fabulous restaurants yet!
Though the Cafe is served buffet-style, it's not your typical cruise ship offering—we're blown away by the fresh seafood, the hot, made-to-order dishes, the gelato bar, and the sushi and pizza selections.
We're going to attempt to drag ourselves away from the Cafe in the next few days and share other eateries—maybe!
DAY FIVE: St. Petersburg as it was Meant to be Seen, on the Water!
Morning: We can't believe our luck! Our guide says St. Petersburg gets only thirty-two sunny days a year—and we got two of them!
St. Petersburg is thoroughly connected to the sea.
The reason Peter the Great wanted this particular spot was based solely on his desire for Russia to have a sea port and to build a navy.
As a part of this maritime vision he also designed the city to be structured around a system of canals, an idea he brought with him from his time spent in Amsterdam as a young man...Continue on to our second day in St. Petersburg and Estonia, Poland, Denmark, Germany, and Norway!
Written aboard the Viking Star on her voyage through Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. Thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own.
YOUR TURN: Isn't this a fantastic group of cities to visit? Any on your bucket list?
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