There’s something to be said for venturing beyond your comfort zone. It’s exciting. Everything has the sweet flavor that comes from the curiosity of the new, the different.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take an eight-day Viking Cruise that ventured from Stockholm, Sweden to Helsinki, Finland, St. Petersburg, Russia, Tallinn, Estonia and Berlin, Germany. This part of Europe is otherworldly for a little Black girl who was born in Indiana, raised in Northern California and has spent much of the past 30 years in New York City. Talk about uncharted territory!
I soaked up the culture. I was smitten, especially by St. Petersburg, where we spent three days. Russia is renowned for ballet and the St. Petersburg Ballet lived up to the reputation. The Mariinsky Theatre where they perform is not massive with some 1,600 seats, but it is grand with its opulent ceilings that are works of art. The ballet’s “Swan Lake” was a highlight of the voyage. Then there are the palaces and outrageous, lavish architecture, with those classic onion-shaped domed buildings, overlays of gold everywhere and museums brimming with world-class art that you could spend hours and hours perusing. What everyone couldn’t stop talking about was the Hermitage Museum. It’s six buildings in the legendary Winter Palace. Be ready to take your time. There are more than 150,000 pieces of art from the masters, painting, sculptures and beyond. Accept that you will only see a small portion, even if you spend all day there. Although the Hermitage gets all the buzz, the Russian Museum is none too shabby. It has the largest collection of Russian art anywhere on the planet, some 400,000 pieces. Another plus, it’s in the Mikhailovsky Palace, which the Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich once called home. The Faberge Museum boasts the world’s second largest collection of Faberge Easter Eggs. The canals and bridges add charm to Russia’s second largest city that is more than 300 years old. Among the canals, you’ll find City Blues, a restaurant housed in a boat that features jazz music. Your trek through St. Petersburg should include the beloved street for shoppers, Nevsky Prospekt. Do glimpse Senate Square to see the iconic Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great. For more of Peter, there’s the Peterhof Palace and Gardens. The city is fascinating. You can’t get away from politics. You’ll see Russian “nesting” dolls and coffee mugs with the face of President Trump and President Putin sold along with other souvenirs from street vendors.
How can you go wrong if you’re set on the Baltic Sea and a fresh water lake? So it is for Stockholm, nicknamed the “Venice of Scandinavia,” because it has 14 islands and 57 bridges that connect them to the mainland. Top sights include Parliament, the Royal Palace and the Royal Opera. You’ll always remember strolling the cobblestone streets of Old Town. If you feel adventurous, kayak around the island of Långholmen. The island is a hot spot for locals to picnic. You can also sign up for a tour of all things Viking. Learn what it was like to be a Viking. Stockholm is one of the fastest growing regions in Europe, although it has slowed a bit recently. Folks there love Big Macs. Stockholm has the distinction of having the most McDonald’s per capita in the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get great food. There are plenty of restaurants, pubs and nightclubs. Shoppers who love flea markets as well as Prada and Gucci will be content.
Tallinn, Estonia is a step back in time, with the cobble stone, narrow streets. You’d swear it was the 14th century. You can see dancers in traditional garb performing an Estonian folk waltz. It feels like a fairytale. Visit St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in the Russian Orthodox style. Then there’s the Baroque Kadriorg Palace, where you’ll find the foreign art collection of the Art Museum of Estonia. Eat like a local and go for marzipan, a honey and almond treat. Tour Upper and Lower Town. Between the two, you’ll find shops, Town Hall and churches, and you’ll likely see street musicians and lots of amber jewelry. For a different sort of adventure, there’s the Soviet Flashback tour. You know you’re in for something special. Your guide is also an actor who plays many roles, including funny guy and militiaman. Ride in an authentic Soviet era bus and listen to tales about life in the USSR. Enjoy the guitar and Russian songs. Check out the Soviet propaganda and the unfinished bridge to Finland, a monument to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). There’s a Soviet-style picnic on the bus and plenty of pickles and vodka shots.
In Helsinki nobody is sweating you. They’re too busy taking part in the national past time— enjoying a sauna. In the “White City of the North,” one must-see is the Uspenski Cathedral. Its 13 green and gold domes represent Christ and the apostles. Go to the home of Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius, at Ainola and take in a concert at the summer school. Another highlight is the Temppeliaukio Church, also known as the “Rock Church”—a subterranean sanctuary with rough-hewn walls of granite. Then there’s the neoclassical elegance of Senate Square in the heart of the Old City. The Helsinki Cathedral, Parliament buildings and the medieval-inspired facade of the National Museum of Finland should be on your itinerary. You know Finland must be a great place to be. After all, Santa Claus lives there, and in 1906, Finnish women made history, becoming the first women in the world to vote. When it comes to cuisine, you must eat some boiled potatoes with herring. Coffee is huge here. Folks on average have nine cups a day and often with a cinnamon bun. Do stop in Kappeli, the oldest coffee house in Helsinki.
Berlin is open, receptive to ideas and people. It is a melting pot of interesting people and excellent cuisine, a bit gritty and a party ‘til the sun comes up kind of place. You can find whatever you’re looking for, be it history, art, music, great beer, wild nightlife or family fun such as Zoo Berlin. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum showcases remnants of the Berlin Wall. Explore Alexanderplatz, the largest public square in Germany, with shops, hotels, multiplex cinemas and more. Berlin is home to Museum Island, which includes five museums: Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum), Bode-Museum, Neues Museum (New Museum), Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) and Altes Museum (Old Museum).
So, what did I come away with from my visit? Besides being pampered by the staff on Viking, stuffed with fab food and refreshed by the amazing spa onboard, I came away with a taste of history, art and a bit of a correction. I had some misperceptions about Russia. Although I only saw St. Petersburg, I had expected to see long, sad faces of the downtrodden. Surely there are some, but what is more common and remarkable are the signs of wealth, such as the ornate buildings and designer shops. But true to the stereotype, some of the police had a harsh look, more grimace than grin. In fact, I wondered if they had ever smiled. However, they were the exception. I fell in love with Russia. Mostly, I got just enough of a taste that now I wrestle with a hunger that comes from being partially sated. I want to go back for more.