Final Days on the Baltic Sea

So it’s been nagging on the back of my mind to finish writing about my Baltic trip and I finally have the time (and motivation) to sit down and do it. I also spent a week in Indiana after flying back from Copenhagen, so I’ll write a few words on that as well. Be prepared, it might be a long post!

I left off with our brief sojourns into Latvia and Lithuania, both beautiful countries on the Baltic Sea. Our next stop after Lithuania was Gdansk, Poland, also called Danzig in German. First established in the early 1200’s, Gdansk was, for most of history, an independent free state. Today, Poland is the newest member of the European Union (2004) and the port city of Gdansk is one of the greatest examples of reconstruction in Europe, as it was restored from the piles of rubble that remained after WWII. After meeting with Lech Walesa in Stockholm, it was interesting to step foot into Poland and see how he, among many others, helped to create a democratic state after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We spent the morning on a walking tour through the Old Town of Gdansk, stopping by St. Mary’s Church and Neptune’s Fountain, both located along Dluga Street where many merchant houses were reconstructed like jigsaw puzzles from the destruction. Today the street is lined with aesthetically charming apartments that are finely decorated and colorfully painted. Gdansk is a very pretty town, but after joining numerous walking tours and countless churches in 6 or so countries already, I was ready to see the city on my own terms. I broke off from the group and meandered down a narrow street along a canal, browsing the shop windows (I have never seen so much amber jewelry in my life) and looking at the boats tied up to the canal walls. Near the end of the street I found a nice cafe with outdoor seating (with blankets to cover your legs) and ordered a latte. I sat, content, for an hour or so watching people pass by and enjoying the sunshine.

When my latte was gone (one of the best coffees I’ve ever had – perhaps it was just the setting?) I continued to explore the old city. I came across a young woman sitting on a bench with her guitar, singing in Polish in a voice that was utterly captivating. If she had had a CD I would have bought it in a second. I took a seat on the bench opposite from her and listened to her sing and strum her guitar. There was another man sitting next to her with a fistful of goldenrod he was halfheartedly trying to sell to passerby’s and a can of beer in his pocket that he discretely sipped. I loved watching the interaction between the two – she politely trying to ignore him and he offering her a yellow flower in between songs. It got even better when another older gentleman sat down between them and started eating his lunch. These kinds of experiences are what traveling is all about. Rather than checking places off on a list or buying souvenirs that say you’ve been to a city or town, it’s better to create memories that you’ll remember ten years from now.

I hadn’t returned to the ship for lunch, so I was getting kind of hungry and slightly worried that I wouldn’t find anything vegetarian in a country known for kielbasa, pierogies (often stuffed with meat), and kaszanka (blood sausages). To my amazement, though, I came across a (tiny) restaurant with big letters spelling VEGETARIAN across the awning. Yay! I ordered a layered crepe pie with spinach and fresh carrot juice. It was delish.

At the appointed time, we met back at the historic Green Gate that once served as the formal residence for Polish monarchs, but now marks the entryway onto Dluga Street and Long Market. We had the choice to return to the ship by bus or to take a Zodiac cruise back through the Gdansk shipyard. As always, I chose the Zodiac ride. Along the way, we passed enormous cargo ships and tugboats – some lifted out of the water for maintenance and others waiting their turn for service. The Gdansk shipyard was once a bustling place that provided jobs to over 20,000 people, but due to hard times and it has been severely diminished and now employes only 2,200 workers.

Back on board we said goodbye to Poland as the National Geographic Explorer sailed away from Gdansk heading east toward tomorrow’s destination – Lubeck, Germany.

Our last full day on the ship! Or off the ship, more precisely. We had the entire day to explore the beautiful town of Lubeck, Germany. Just as the sun was rising over the horizon we reached the port of Travemunde at the mouth of the River Trave. There we picked up a local pilot who navigated the Explorer through the last 20 miles of the winding river. Lubeck was once the capital and former Queen City of the Hanseatic League – “an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (ca 13th–17th centuries).” Lubeck was founded in the 12th century and prospered until the 16th century as the major trading city for northern Europe. It has remained a center of maritime commerce to this day, particularly with the Nordic countries. Despite damage suffered during WWII, the basic structure of the old city, consisting mainly of 15th and 16th century patrician residences, public monuments, churches, and salt storehouses, remains unaltered. The inner city of Lubeck is one of the finest examples of medieval Gothic architecture in Northern Europe, and as such, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

We began our tour of the city with a canal boat cruise through the waterways surrounding the town. From the water we could see the tall spires of multiple churches throughout the city and a green parkway that rings the perimeter. It’s a very picturesque town. Then we had time to explore the city by foot. I opted out of the walking tour and instead set off to find what interested me. That turned out to be chocolate and tea shop and a marzipan cafe with ungodly amounts of incredible looking desserts. I don’t think I had ever tried marzipan, but since this one cafe sold the worldwide famous Niederegger marzipan and sweets, I had to try it. And now I have a new found appreciation for everything marzipan. For the remainder of the afternoon, I wandered along the cobblestone streets and found a nice park bench to sit on that looked out over a clear pond. Then all too soon it was time to return to the ship for our final leg to Copenhagen, Denmark.

That evening we had a Captain’s farewell dinner and a slideshow that featured everyone’s best photos throughout the voyage. It was a great way to end the trip and remember what we had seen way back in St. Petersburg, which seemed ages ago!

We docked in Copenhagen early the next morning and disembarked around 8:30 for a canal boat tour of the city. Our fist stop was at the famous opera house, situated right on the shores of the harbor. Costing well over $500 million US dollars (all provided by one gentleman who was the co-founder of the container ship and supply vessel operator company, Maersk), it is quite the piece of architecture. Too bad we couldn’t stay to see a performance!

After the canal tour, which took us right through the heart of Copenhagen, we continued by foot through the beautiful city to the Museum of Natural History where we wandered through the exhibits and had lunch. Then it was time to part ways! I was flying out early the next morning and wasn’t sure where I was going to spend the night, so Louisa, another single traveler, offered to share her room at the Hilton next to the airport! I took her offer and after collecting our bags, we set off in a taxi to the hotel.

From there it was a long, but uneventful, journey back to the US of A. I flew from Copenhagen to Paris to JFK (a fiasco of an airport) to Atlanta to Indiana. Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Indianapolis (at 12:15 am), I was ready to be done traveling! I’ll save my adventures in Indiana for another post – hopefully soon. But as a conclusion I’ll just say that my trip to the Baltic was a great insight into a part of the world that I have not yet had a chance to explore. I would love to return to explore some other areas of the nine countries that I stepped foot in and learn a bit more about the history of each place. All in all in was an amazing trip and it was great to get to see life on the NG Explorer!