January 2010 Baltic Cruise and Berlin Visit
One of our most agreeable holidays in recent years was our cruise to various Baltic countries from June 1-11, 2010, and a subsequent six days in Berlin.
We embarked on the cruise with some trepidation, this being our first one. Would shipboard life be unpleasantly crowded? Would shore tours and outings be so hurried as to be unpleasant? Would bad weather intervene? In the event none of our fears turned out to be justified. Perhaps we were lucky but the success of the trip bodes well.
The Princess liner, an immense affair worthy of television dream dramas, seemed new and comfortable. Our cabin was small but clean and functionally adequate; its tiny balcony allowed us to view some arrivals in the early morning and avoided claustrophobia. The food on board was so excellent and varied that Tim overate on several occasions. He swam only twice, but found himself agreeably alone in one of the small outdoor pools. The ship library offered several interesting books, including an Alistair Horne one of Kissinger’s 1973, another by Karl Rove, yet another by Paul Johnson and so forth. Of the innumerable opportunities for entertainment, some boring for one or other of us, various genuinely comic skits, opportunities for dancing, full-length movies and musical sessions were worthwhile. The various nooks and crannies of the immense ship offered magical viewpoints and endless variation. Overall, the staff seemed enthusiastic, courteous and hard-working. (Tipping was supposed to have been included, but human nature is such that envelopes for additional giving were provided.) Shore tours were very well organized so that on and off movements occurred with acceptable speed. We had debated beforehand which tours to take and where to explore on our own, the decision being difficult to take without knowing where the ship would dock and which sights were the best for us. In the event we took tours in Stockholm, Helsinki and Gdansk and did the rest ourselvses, and that worked out. Docking location is sometimes not predictable in advance, but in Tallin and Oslo it seems likely to be near the city centre.
Some of our observations are recorded in the Picasa collection of photographs sent to several interested friends. The following short notes mention several particular highlights:
- Copenhagen: The weather was variable but could not hide the attractions of this large city with its felicitous mixture of old and new, its waterways, and architecture combining unique spires and rooftop decorations atop impressive institutional buildings and palaces bespeaking the influence once enjoyed by this once powerful regional state. The population made heavy use of bicycles, propelled at high speed by often well dressed riders.Though jetlagged, we recovered at the Opera Hotel, conveniently located near the western end of a long pedestrian mall that took us through the city centre and on which we enjoyed an expensive coffee, sharing one meal. Of particular interest was the National Museum because of a lengthy and often beautiful exhibit taking the visitor through Denmark’s economic, technological and social development, its political ups and downs, its empire and bittersweet rivalry with Sweden and many other facets of a development every bit as complex and impressive as that of bigger European countries. One gained some impression of what separated but also joined the various Scandinavian countries, whose populations amount to an appreciable almost twenty-five millions. In the face of this history and modernity, respect increased! Our short initial stay whetted our appetite for a second meeting after the cruise.
-Stockholm: Tim had visited the Swedish capital twice, deplaning at the airport and noticing the similarities to Canada. Now, the arrival by sea brought something new and beautiful: the approaches through a narrow channel separating the mainland and islands occupied by impressively picturesque summer houses, illustrating the apparent ease, sometimes even opulence, of the way of life of many Swedes and as a climax the truly beautiful spectacle of this capital’s city centre, with its historic buildings, magnificent hotels and palaces, coloured facades, greenery and omnipresent waterways. Our outing was limited, taking in mainly the royal palace and related ceremonies and a boat tour, but under sunny skies it was all very impressive and agreeable. We missed greater acquaintance with the imagined complexities of Swedish life so well hinted at in the movies of Bergmann and the novels of Stieg Larsson and Kurt Wallander. Optically, Stockholm came across that day as the most impressive of all the Scandinavian capitals. More time required!
- Helsinki: Knowing of Sibelius’ music, Nokia, Finland’s heroic defense against Russian invaders and this city’s status as the long-time refuge used by western embassy personnel in communist Moscow, we were curious to go beyond the clichés. Time did not, however, allow more than a lengthy streetcar tour through various parts of town, but that served to show us many impressive districts reflecting acceptable prosperity, an emphasis on parks, a mixture of traditional nineteenth century buildings and many newer ones, and an evidently industrious and seemingly happy enough population speaking a non-Indo-european language along with some English (though less than in Denmark and Sweden). We had refreshments at a traditional coffee house on the main drag, looked at examples of Finnish design in clothing and admired the striking Lutheran cathedral. The half day available to us was insufficient, but left us with warm feelings and plenty of curiosity.
- The opportunity to visit St. Petersburg was for the us the chief initial drawing card of a Baltic cruise. The result justified the trip, despite several minor reservations. On the positive side, though everything corresponded to pictures and movies one had seen, we came away impressed by the sheer extent of the Czarist capital’s acreage of palaces, squares, monuments and cathedrals. No wonder the downtrodden masses revolted!
The Hermitage was the highlight, and we had the good fortune to have an excellent, artistically knowledgeable guide. It was a Saturday, and the heavy crowds, we were told, were not as bad as usual. Most of the Hermitage was not constructed with museum purposes in mind so the exhibits are not presented with the skill and visual props common in the best western institutions, but the holdings and quality of paintings are incomparable and seemingly endless. “Vaut le voyage”. The second day was not as good: the Catherine Palace, an hour away, is beautiful and a must, its park pleasantly extensive but pleasantly simple, but the Peterhof – very crowded on a Sunday –an unnecessary duplication. Again, however, the guide – different from the previous day’s – was very competent. New country villas and suburban developments reflected the wealth of a new business class. For political junkies, there was little nourishment in a brief incursion of this kind. However, the two guides conveyed their happiness at greater freedom of speech, a desire for international understanding and hopes that material things would continue to improve. The urban scene around St. Petersburg was of course noticeably less opulent than in Scandinavia – in fact the presence of lots of able bodied men selling trinkets in many places suggested poverty - but consumer goods, cars and advertising suggested an upturn in the standard of living and opportunities, no doubt much more so than in the countryside. Again, even an all-too-brief visit of this kind stimulates one’s interest and attentiveness.
- Tallinn: Only half a day but it sufficed to convey a hint of the beauty of the old city and a hint of the progressive development of this tiny republic as it continues to emerge from the Soviet embrace. The centre goes back to the era of the Hanseatic League and domination by a German merchant and landowning class. Its architectural plethora of restored palaces, villas, churches and squares makes the visit well worth it, while the mélange of poor Russian beggars, trinkets and occasional Cyrillic signs remind the visitor of the none-too- distant past. Signs of western investment were evident in the extensive port facilities and the growing new town. Less than a million Esthonians – what a triumph to have regained their independence!
- Gdansk: We were curious about this stop, not least because of the invitations of our departed friend Witold Weynerowski that we never found time to accept. We now understand why he regularly took friends to see the city centre of Gdansk. The resurrected area, larger than a mere square once seen in Warsaw or the small core in Havana, was indeed lovingly restored. Ornate four or five story burghers’ houses and the original styling of their rich and variously painted colourful facades adorned the main pedestrian thoroughfare, while substantial bridges crossed the main canals and impressive religious and commercial institutions testified to the city’s importance. Those who know Luebeck or other Hanseatic cities would feel at home here, and indeed the German heritage – not mentioned by the guide – was evident in some of the restored plaques and statues in the principal cathedral. The guide naturally laid great stress on the heritage of Solidarnosc, the heroic shipbuilding union that defied the military regime and played such a role in Poland’s eventual recovery of independence and democracy. We saw Lech Walesa’s villa amongst others in the leafy suburb of Sopot, reflecting the degree of prosperity once enjoyed by this area and which it may be on the way to recovering. In the wonderfully sunny weather we enjoyed throughout the trip, one felt this was Europe and that, despite the signs of derilect old buildings and workaday clothing, these people seemed on the march. Unlike that in St. Petersburg, our lunch was excellent, and our credit card accepted. Again, these were very superficial impressions, though positive.
- Oslo: Having once been offered a Head-of-Post job in Norway (declined because inconvenient), Tim was particularly interested to glimpse the capital of this small but very prosperous country. As the books suggested, a stroll on foot from the dock through central Oslo gave some impressions. The impressive layout of its principal ceremonial avenue, the measured size of its attractive but simple royal palace and small gardens, the attractive municipal opera theatre, the excellent national gallery and the seemingly leisured but purposive temper of urban life sufficed to create a very attractive package. Beautiful blonds completed the pleasant picture. A Canadian tourist exhibition at the harbour may have been money not well spent, but a most well-spoken Norwegian public affairs officer was convincing evidence of the quality of local personnel. No trolls here!
In summary, we were favourably impressed by this trip. Of course, the good weather helped. While it was frustrating to have so little time and gain only very superficial impressions, what we did see was interesting as far as it went. The prosperity and beauty of Scandinavian capitals is evidence of achievements, though clearly they share many of our problems as well. National museums and galleries were interesting both to sample the ways these countries present themselves and to view great paintings. One’s curiosity is aroused. Life on board (and the food) was agreeable, the administrative side well handled. Our appetite for cruises has increased.
The six-day Berlin aftermath was also a highlight. Gloria spent much of the time with her former school comrades, a unique experience after almost half a century. Both of us enjoyed a photography exhibit at the German National Historical Museum, several outings into the countryside in the company of her brother Frank Hagemann, and a good performance of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann at the Comic Opera. Downtown Berlin (“Mitte”) now seems overwhelmingly prosperous and institutionally impressive, with crowds enjoying outdoor cafes on Unter den Linden, in the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt or in many other locales beside the rivers and canals criss-crossing the centre. The National Gallery of Modern Art is now open again and offers a thrilling permanent collection of expressionist German art. Politics was everywhere in that, as in so many buildings themselves. The local newspapers having listed free lectures on their cultural sections, Tim found time to attend two of them, one on the justice meted out – or not – to officials of the former German Democratic Republic, the other on the ambiguities in the interpretation of historical photographs. In addition to seeing two plays and locating a good second-hand bookstore, he met with former friends of his “Round Table” circle of 1963-66, who included a historian, a German-American theatre director and a businessman. The latter is of East Indian origin, the creator of a successful Berlin engineering company. This detail coincided with the evident internationalization of the German population, now teeming with immigrants from the Third World and eastern and southern Europe, many speaking German with each other. As usual, the everyday news was of interest – the difficulties of coalition building, the travails of economic adjustment and the challenges to be faced with others at the upcoming Economic Summit. Altogether, a gripping week in a fascinating city.
Heading for Manhattan? Looking for a scenic, comfortable and economical alternative to flying, and a more restful option than driving the distance? You might enjoy the train, if you are not in a hurry.
I have travelled from Ottawa to New York City many times, often by car with family or friends, less frequently by air. Once I returned from New York to Ottawa on the overnight Greyhound bus via Montreal, a choice I mention here only to caution any picky travellers who may read this article that, at times, I can be a flexible, undemanding cheapskate.
In July 2009 I decided to try the train. The US national rail passenger service, Amtrak, operates a train named Adirondack daily between Montreal’s Central Station and New York City’s Penn Station. The Adirondack runs for long stretches along the banks of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, offering close-up views of waterways and bush country the highway does not reach. The watercourses form a historic transportation corridor linking Montreal and New York that was the theatre for nation-shaping encounters among French, English and First Nations people.
Rails snake along the edge of Lake Champlain, leading the Adirondack south near Ticonderoga, NY. From the lounge car, July 24, 2009.
The Adirondack route has a reputation for being picturesque. Carl Fowler has 30 years of experience selling Amtrak travel through his company, Rail Travel Adventures, which specializes in scenic train tours in the USA, Canada and Europe. Fowler ranks the Adirondack as the fourth most scenic Amtrak route (in a comment on a blog on Trains magazine’s website). All three trains that Fowler ranks higher than the Adirondack traverse mountains in the American West. The Adirondack is the most scenic Amtrak route in the East.
Looking east toward Vermont across Lake Champlain at Port Kent, NY. From the northbound Adirondack, July 27, 2009.
Between Plattsburgh and Saratoga Springs or Albany, the more interesting view (Lake Champlain) is from the east side of the train; that is, from the left side of a train heading south toward New York. The opposite is true between Albany and New York, where the Hudson River is to the west (right side when heading southbound).
If your coach is too crowded to enable you to switch sides, or if you wish to enjoy the view through larger windows, you can move to the lounge car (sometimes termed a café car). In my experience travellers can linger for long periods in the lounge car because many customers prefer to take their food back to their coach seats.
The lounge car sells pre-packaged food and snacks as well as “soft” and alcoholic beverages. Healthier items appear to have been added since my trips on the Adirondack in 2009. The menu can be viewed here: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/508/956/Adirondack-Cafe-Menu-201110.pdf
The train has free Wi-Fi that Amtrak describes as a basic service that “supports general web browsing activities. Due to limited bandwidth onboard the trains, our Wi-Fi does not support high-bandwidth actions such as streaming music, streaming video or downloading large files.”
Lake Champlain near Ticonderoga, NY. From the lounge car, July 24, 2009.
There is a drawback to the Adirondack but I can suggest an alternative itinerary. The drawback is that combining the VIA Rail trip from Ottawa to Montreal with the Adirondack makes for a long travel day. The weekday schedules in effect on April 14, 2013, require a 6:29 am departure on VIA Rail from Ottawa, arriving at Central Station at 8:23 am. The Adirondack leaves Central Station at 9:30 am but does not reach New York’s Penn Station until 8:20 pm.
The Ottawa transfer on the return leg is more problematic. If the Adirondack arrives in Montreal on schedule at 7:06 pm, making the last VIA Rail weekday departure for Ottawa at 7:15 pm might be possible for a sprinter. Unfortunately, about 25% of Adirondack trains arrive late. My own return to Ottawa entailed a Métro ride to Montreal’s intercity bus station and a long wait standing in line for the Greyhound to Ottawa.
It is important to note that VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak are separate rail systems. If you miss one system’s train due to the late arrival of the other system’s train, you have to work out the problem in accordance with the conditions attached to the ticket for the train you missed.
I devised an alternative itinerary after learning, 48 hours before my long-planned trip, that VIA Rail engineers would go on strike the morning of my departure, July 24, 2009. I did not have to implement the alternative because the strike did not begin until noon and the engineer on my crack-of-dawn train from Ottawa to Montreal seemed to be as anxious as I was to avoid delay.
The alternative is to drive to Plattsburgh, NY, park the car, and board the Adirondack there. This should save Ottawa residents a couple hours on the way to New York City and about four hours on the return, in my estimation. There are two main reasons for the savings of time. First, Ottawa-Montreal and Montreal-Plattsburgh are two sides of a triangle while Ottawa-Plattsburgh is the diagonal shortcut (hypotenuse). Second, border agents can process a single auto more quickly than they can handle a trainload of passengers. Amtrak schedules a one-hour stop for US customs southbound, and an hour-and-a-half for Canadian Customs northbound.
The sights missed by boarding at Plattsburgh, such as the Montreal skyline and the crossing over the St Lawrence River, probably are already familiar to most readers.
Google Maps estimates that the drive from Ottawa City Hall, via the Cornwall border crossing, to the Amtrak station in Plattsburgh takes three hours. I would allow at least another hour or 90 minutes for delays at the border and, if you are unfamiliar with the two-lane roads in northern New York state, for finding your way. Amtrak recommends arriving at the station “at least 30 minutes before scheduled departure,” but as the Plattsburgh station offers no services it would not surprise me if some passengers arrive on the platform only 10-15 minutes ahead. For me, this itinerary would boil down to an 8:00 am departure from my house in Orleans and the promise of an early lunch in Plattsburgh, instead of dashing out of the door at 5:45 am headed to the Ottawa VIA Rail station.
The Plattsburgh station is adjacent to downtown and Google lists 19 restaurants within a half-mile. Long-term parking is not available at the station but the Plattsburgh/North Country Chamber of Commerce confirmed on April 15, 2013, that parking is still free at the “downtown parking lot” at the corner of Durkee St and Bridge St, a half mile from the station and near many of the restaurants. I suggest reconfirming with the Chamber (518-563-1000) before going.
The Adirondack requires reservations. Rail tickets booked at http://tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak can be printed at home. Adult tickets one-way from Plattsburgh to Penn Station were priced at $72 for travel on Sundays and $65 for the rest of the week, when I checked on April 14, 2013. (Fares are the same from Montreal.) Some travellers qualify for discounts. For example, CAA/AAA members can get 10% off; seniors (aged 62+), 15% off; and children aged 2-15, 50% off.
According to the schedule effective April 7, 2013, the train leaves Plattsburgh at 12:35 pm and arrives at Penn Station at 8:20 pm. The sharp curves around lakes and mountains north of Albany limit speeds. The northbound Adirondack takes 45 minutes less, leaving Penn Station at 8:15 am and arriving at Plattsburgh at 3:12 pm.
Amtrak’s website has more information about the Adirondack. The schedule (effective April 7, 2013) is at: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/298/343/Adirondack-Schedule-040713.pdf A route guide that provides information about the historical significance of the cities and towns along the way can be read at: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/307/184/Amtrak-Adirondack-Train-Route-Guide.pdf
I hope this article is helpful. I would appreciate your comments if you ride the Adirondack. Please email them to DavidMcLellanATRogers.com. (Replace the AT with 1654@).
April 15, 2013