Much to my relief, my friend Lisa just got back from a gala northern European cruise, and unlike some of my friends (Denise Martin. Yes, you, Denise Martin. What would Anthony Bourdain think about being too shy to write about travel?) she's agreed to have her missive about her trip posted here. So without further ado, here's an Amazing Race-esque tale, complete with snotty Stockholm teenagers, reindeer sandwiches...oh, and landing in Heathrow on the day everything went to shit.
After Janet dropped me at LAX on Wednesday evening, Aug. 9, I had a delayed but otherwise uneventful flight to Heathrow... until we landed at about 3 p.m. (local time). As we're waiting to deplane, they make an announcement: "As you know... [ As we know? We've been on a plane for 10 hours! We don't know anything! ] there has been a terrorist incident. All passengers will have to clear immigration and collect their luggage here at Heathrow."
Well, that's not how things normally work, since I was in transit and just supposed to head off to a different terminal... but OK. So I go through Immigration, and the guy asks me how long I plan to be in the U.K. and I say, "About three hours," and he gives me a funny look and I explain I'm in transit. So he tells me I don't have to collect my luggage, it will just be sent over to British Airways to take to Copenhagen.
I hang around the baggage carousel anyway for a few minutes, and sure enough, all the bags coming down seem to be for people staying in London, so I hike over to the tram and head for Terminal 4.
Terminal 4 is total chaos. Monitors are blinking "flight canceled" for a LOT of flights, including all of BA's, including the one I was supposed to be on. There are huge lines everywhere, and everyone is shlepping their giant bags around with them. They all look very confused.
As am I -- no one I have asked along the way has given me a decent answer on what the "terrorist incident" was, and no one knows what's going on.
However, it becomes clear to me that I need to go get my suitcase, so I get back on the tram to Terminal 3. En route, I meet a family who also are heading to Copenhagen, for a cruise due to depart 2 days later than mine, and they've been told by their airline that it looks unlikely they'll get there in time!!! This is not good news.
I go back to the baggage collection area, which is not easy. First I have to find someone to get me in there -- that's easy. Then I have to call an American Airlines person to escort me down there -- also easy, much better than the people in the same boat waiting for a United person to show up! The AA person is there right away. However, I can't take my carry-on stuff with me -- I have to leave it at the Left Luggage desk. That's 6 pounds (money) per bag, and I have 2 little bags, and the pound is worth about $2... and this is when I start getting cranky. But the lady at Left Luggage says she'll only charge me for one bag, which is nice, and away I go to find my suitcase, which I do immediately -- lying (great security, folks) in the middle of the floor between 2 carousels. Then it's BACK to Left Luggage, where there's a long line of people doing the same thing, and the guys can't find my bags, because the lady is keeping them, as I asked her to, handy because I'll be right back... Oy.
Then it's back to Terminal 4 and the chaos. I finally find someone who works for BA who seems to have a brain, a nice middle-aged Indian gentleman, and he advises me to either take the train to Waterloo and get on the Chunnel to Paris to get a flight from there... or go talk to the lady selling tickets at KLM, because (a) their planes are taking off; and (b) there's no line there.
So off I go, and the KLM lady is extremely nice and helpful. She can get me on a flight, business class even, that will get me to Copenhagen in plenty of time for the 5 p.m. sailing the next day -- but it means spending the night in Amsterdam, and spending a lot of money on the ticket! Well, I think, I have to get there, and my original ticket was basically free (mileage), so I go ahead and buy it.
Ticket in hand, for a flight supposedly leaving in 15 minutes (it's now about 6:15), I head over to check-in. This is the first I learn of the new carry-on regulations: Basically, you're handed a clear plastic bag, in which you may take your passport, wallet, ticket and prescription drugs. No reading material, no iPod, no food, no nothing else. Fortunately, my suitcase is expandable, so I throw my carry-ons into it and check that through. Then it's into the security line, where they're making people give up any drinks/food, cosmetics, liquids of any kind, even my ballpoint pen, and finally onto a virtually empty KLM flight to Amsterdam. (Lovely airline, by the way -- I can't recommend it highly enough.)
All goes well, I land in Amsterdam about 9 p.m. local time, collect my suitcase, and then try to figure out what I'm doing until 7:15 the next morning, when my next flight takes off! First thing I do (after trying to figure out the phone -- international phones are way too confusing!) is call the hotel in Copenhagen, where I had hoped to be about this time, and where I was meeting the other 5 members of my party: my parents, my brother Dave and his partner Clyde, and our friend Cookie. They all were scheduled to fly out of Heathrow earlier that day (Thursday). Now, bear in mind that I still don't really know what's happened as far as the "terrorist incident," and as far as I know they're all where they're supposed to be. Well, no. I call the hotel and am told they canceled the reservation!
Here's where I start to panic. No one in our group has cell phones (NEVER AGAIN, by the way), no one has laptops, no one has a clue that I'm in Amsterdam! So I do the only other things I can think of -- calling my friend in London in hopes someone had left a message with him (nope), calling my home phone (nothing), calling the hotel they'd been at in London (nope), checking my email (unfortunately, not the one that would have been useful, but never mind).
After spending the night in the Amsterdam airport (I can safely say, if you have to spend the night in an airport, that's the one to pick - open 24 hours, clean, safe, very nice), I get on my flight to Copenhagen and arrive at the cruise terminal at about 9:30 a.m. Friday. The cruise, which was supposed to leave at 5 p.m., now is waiting until 11:30 p.m., which is good news. However, there's still no one I know there. At about 11:30, they let me board the ship. This means I can at least lie down, which is a relief -- I haven't slept since I got up Wednesday morning, so it's about 48 hours of being awake and more or less vertical at this point.
Eventually, everyone else shows up at the ship -- Dave and Clyde about 1:30 (having flown London-Hannover-Copenhagen, not their planned route at all!), Cookie about 5:30-6 (having spent the night in Paris' De Gaulle Airport, which she does NOT recommend!), and my parents at about 6:30 (I'm not entirely sure how they got there, actually!), having spent the night at a crappy Heathrow hotel. And away we sail for Estonia!!
(In a movie or play, this would be the end of act one.)
Saturday was an at-sea day -- we ate, sat around, told and listened to tales of travel woes, and caught up on our sleep. (By the way, the food on the cruise -- Holland America -- was terrific, and the mostly Indonesian and Filipino crew could not have been nicer. Our waiter was named Eep, and he was as delightful as his name!)
On Sunday, we docked in Tallinn, Estonia, in the rain. Dave, Clyde and I went ahead into town, followed later by the "grownups" (Cookie is an old friend of my parents, recently widowed). Tallinn has a lovely old historic center, and as a legacy of its history of Soviet rule (at least, according to Rick Steves), isn't much of a churchgoing nation, which made it a good place to visit on a Sunday. Stores started opening a little after we got there, about 10, and everyone we dealt with was friendly and at least somewhat English-speaking. We went up to the old town, where we explored the very Russian-looking Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (onion domes and all -- photos to follow, at some point!), and enjoyed the view (the old town being built on high ground, for defensive purposes) before heading back down to the center.
By then it was raining pretty hard, so we decided to walk back to the ship. Lesson No. 1: Remember exactly where the ship is parked, or it's hard to find later. Lesson No. 2: Maps not to scale. It turned into a pretty major hike, which wouldn't have been so bad except that my shoes were somewhat open and my feet were getting soaked! It wasn't cold, but still - yuk. Anyway, we made it eventually. ;)
Monday and Tuesday we visited St. Petersburg. This was by far the most planned, thought-about and carefully considered part of the entire trip. Basically, you either have to take the ship's tours, or you have to obtain a visa on your own, which is a difficult and not cheap process. We decided to take the ship's tours, but that meant the only time we could leave the ship was on the ship's tours. So, no wandering off on our own. This was actually OK with me, since I had read horror stories about Russia and how unsafe it is. It turned out to be much less scary than I had thought, which was a relief.
Fifteen years or so after the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg is still in the process of modernizing -- or, I suppose you could call it Westernizing. I saw a lot of billboards for cosmetics and for various electronic gizmos, but oddly, even though I know we get box office figures every week, nothing for movies! The people we saw on the streets (non-tourists, mostly, I'm assuming) ranged from backpack-packing healthy-looking teens to babushka-wearing stooped grannies. I think things are changing for the better, but it will be another generation or two before they get there.
Our first day in St. Pete was spent at Catherine's Palace, in the company of official tour guide Boris (yes, really), a middle-aged, red-faced guy. He piled all 6 of us into a van (not easy, since my mom's not the most mobile person, having had 2 knee replacements!) and rushed us through the crowds to the interior. He then imparted a whole lot of historical information as we went through the palace and out to the gardens. It's a gorgeous Rococo barn -- beautifully decorated and furnished, gilded everywhere one could gild, but huge! The garden could have been nicer. (I'm kind of a garden buff these days.)
In the evening, Cookie Dave and Clyde went to a folk dancing show, but I was exhausted and just went to bed. They said it was great, tho.
And on Tuesday we went to the Hermitage. This was a bigger group, with two guides, Evgeny (Eugene) and Elena (Helen), which split into two -- we got Evgeny, a youngish fellow with a ponytail, a good command of English and a real love of art and the Hermitage. Before we got there, they let us off the bus in St. Isaac's Square for a few minutes of taking photos -- the cathedral was typical (from the outside anyway) Russian, and the other side of the square had the City Hall, a pretty pink building.
The Hermitage is really 5 buildings, I believe -- we hit 4 of them. As I told Ernan, we hit the highlights -- some of the historic palace rooms (not unlike the previous day's, but not as fancy), some of the top paintings (they have 2 of the 10 Da Vinci paintings in existence, although I'd have to say they're 2 of the lesser ones), and the Treasure Room, which is Scythian gold (gorgeous and amazing stuff -- jewelry, funerary adornments, weapons) and state gifts to Russia. It's a place I'd really like to return to and spend more time -- we had about 4 hours total, which is nowhere near enough. But I read last week that they have just revamped the collections of the Moscow equivalent (the Pushkin?), and now Moscow wants to reunite the collections -- apparently they were split by Lenin or Stalin or someone like that. So, we'll see.
Next day was Helsinki -- truly a beautiful city. Unlike most of the other Hanseatic League cities we visited (remember them?), Helsinki was largely rebuilt after WWI, so it has more of a mix of modern and old buildings, and some lovely Art Nouveau/Art Deco facades. Like all the places we went, it has great public transportation. I spent the day with the grownups, playing tour guide. We found a tram that did a good sightseeing loop and did that (passing sights including the Olympic Stadium from 1952), and then stopped for coffee and pastry at Cafe Ekberg, the oldest cafe in Helsinki. We also visited the Design Museum, which was very cool, and stopped for a snack at Stockmann, the major department store, where my mom had a reindeer sandwich! (It was pretty good, actually -- and did not taste like chicken. More like deer.) It was a nice sunny day in a city I'd like to return to someday.
Then to Stockholm, which is built on 14 islands, ranging from parklike and rural to extremely modern to the Gamla Stan, or Old Town. We started the day with a boat ride -- a small boat, which went around the harbor. Everyone but me got off at the Vasa Museum, a major attraction, which they all enjoyed. The Vasa was a warship ordered by King Gustavus Adolphus to beef up the Swedish navy -- I think the best way to describe it is as the Titanic of its day. Unfortunately, it was top-heavy, and on Aug. 10, 1628, it sailed out into the harbor and promptly sank. It lay at the bottom of the harbor until 1961, when it was salvaged and a museum was built around it.
However, by this point I was a little family'd out, and a little history'd out, so I went shopping and strolling in the Old Town, which was pleasant, except for the uphill cobblestone streets... (Not my thing!) But as I was walking, I heard music, which I followed, until I realized I'd stumbled onto the changing of the guard! That was very cool. It went on for about half an hour, alternating music by the military band (on horseback - you haven't lived until you've seen a guy playing a tuba on horseback!) and maneuvers by the mounted guard. Much more elaborate than Buckingham Palace!
On Friday, we had a fairly short visit to Visby, which is part of Gotland, which is part of Sweden. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably the best-preserved medieval town in Scandinavia! It was really pretty -- known as the city of roses and ruins, both things I like, and on a beautiful sunny day to boot. It was the only port where we had to go in by tender (little boats), which was fine going, but the line coming back was lengthy! Oh well. I started with a round-the-town tour on a little tram that looked like they got it used from Disneyland, and gave me a great overview - literally, since it got higher as it went inland and the tram took me higher up than I would have walked myself! After that, I walked back to the botanical garden, which was very pretty, and then meandered back to the port through the winding cobblestone streets. There were numerous ruined churches along the way -- thanks to the Danes and the Saxons, I think -- which were lovely and scenic. I took a ton of photos! Apparently we just missed Medieval Week, which is sort of their version of Renaissance Fair -- the townspeople wear medieval garb, and they do re-enactments and sell typical food and drink, and probably get drunk and rowdy in a medieval manner... I'm sure it was fun, but I wasn't really sad to miss it. ;)
Then it was on to Germany -- Warnemunde, to be exact, in the former East Germany. Cookie, the boys and I took the train to Rostock, half an hour away, and wandered ITS old town (everywhere had an old town!), had some coffee and pastry, did a bit of shopping... You get the idea. The boys said Warnemunde was great, but my feet were hurting and I had gone back to the ship by then. Apparently Saturday is market day, and they stumbled upon the market square on the other side of the train station. There were many people out strolling with their dogs, their babies, their bikes -- all looking very healthy and happy, and all eating ice cream! I'm hoping to be sent to Berlin by work in January, and am hoping to enjoy it as much as I did this stop. (Quite a few people did the ship tour to Berlin, which involved taking a train -- a nice historic train, but still -- for 3 hours each way, and then being shlepped all over town. We decided against that.) This former Communist region definitely had caught the modernization bug, however -- felt very European rather than Eastern bloc.
OK, by now it's Sunday, it's raining again, and we're in Arhus, Denmark. Our first stop was the Museum of Science & Medicine on the university campus (it's the oldest uni in Denmark), which was fascinating. My dad's a doctor, and he said some of the surgical instruments they had were things he had used in his day! (giving us the perfect opportunity to tease him about operating on dinosaurs and the like...) But he played tour guide that day, and I learned a lot and enjoyed it too. Then we went downtown and found a nice smorgasbord restaurant, with yummy pancakes and amazing ham and other delicacies. (I don't think I gained TOO much weight on the trip...) We tried to go to the poster museum, but it had been moved a month earlier... and it started raining some more. In fact, Cookie and I ended up in a taxi during a torrential downpour/thunderstorm, and arrived at the ship just as all hell broke loose! The driver was really nice, and said we could wait in the cab until it stopped, but I felt guilty about keeping him, so we didn't. We didn't get TOO wet... and it all moved off pretty quickly after that and became a nice day! Alas, it didn't last. Also, Sunday isn't a great day to visit Arhus -- much more religious town than Tallinn, I guess. Oh well. :)
As it turned out, Denmark was our least successful country. We had planned to have the day in Copenhagen before the cruise left -- that didn't work out. And returning Monday morning, it was still raining, the museums were closed, and we were all pretty exhausted. Still, we all had a wonderful breakfast at the Hotel d'Angleterre, where I stayed with my parents when I was 7 and it wasn't $500 a night (!), and we did get to the Design Museum (which was disappointing, but never mind). But boy, is that an expensive city! My friend had warned me that, when he was there a few weeks earlier, he'd had a $500-plus meal for 2 at a top restaurant. But I didn't expect our dinner of mainly pasta dishes to work out to $30 per person! Amazing. But it's beautiful, and again, lovely people. (I know I keep saying that, but with rare exceptions -- some snotty teen girls in Stockholm, a crappy cab driver in Copenhagen -- we had very good experiences with the locals.)
Overall, it was a really nice trip -- I'm not a cruise convert, but I enjoyed the experience (and the food - did I mention the food?!) and it was great to see all those places without having to pack and unpack every day!
After the cruise, I spent 3 days in London, and everyone else went home (they spent a few days in London beforehand, but it worked out better for my work schedule this way). I got my hair cut (I often do that there!), saw 6 shows (the best was the new Tom Stoppard play, "Rock 'n' Roll," starring Rufus Sewell -- AMAZING) and did a bit of shopping, although London is almost as expensive as Copenhagen. I also saw 2 friends, but would like to have squeezed in two more. But, ya can't do it all, no matter how you try (and I do try!).
Getting home had its share of adventures -- the longest security check-in line I have ever seen, which combined with the regular check-in took me 2 1/2 hours to get through; and then being held on the plane (again!) upon landing at LAX while customs officials boarded (and left with 4 of my fellow passengers!), not to mention the fire alarm that was ringing in Heathrow when I arrived there on Tuesday from Copenhagen! But I can't complain -- I got where I was going in one piece, and my luggage came with me every step of the way. (Some people on the cruise never did get their luggage; some joined the cruise in Tallinn; and about 200 never made it at all!)
If you're still with me at this point, thanks for reading it all. Some day, when I've got my laptop working again, I'll post some photos. But not too many! :)