Monday, June 16, 2008

Euro Trip

I have finally discovered why I tan so well-I come from the land of eternal sunshine (of the searing kind). Norway slumbers through endless winters and awakes to endless summer. But I get ahead of myself, admiring my not inconsiderable tan from the Baltic. My grand European adventure lasted three spectacular weeks and starred a cast of characters from around the world, not the least of whom was my irrepressible family. In usual Schlichting style, we arrived in Amsterdam realllllly early, trailing semi-obscene amounts of luggage. I say semi-obscene because we (at least, mom and I) made concerted efforts to pack ‘lightly’-which is quite challenging when your wardrobe calls for cocktail dresses and high heels, swimsuits, warm jackets, jeans, shorts, tank tops, loungewear, semi-formal dinner wear…Somehow, I condensed my clothing into one average-sized suitcase. Father, on the other hand, filled the green behemoth of a suitcase (the one that I bring with me when I move overseas for a year) with Lord knows what.
Thus outfitted, we crammed into a cab and arrived blearily at our first hotel, the Zanbergen, near the center of Amsterdam. Rather than sleep, however, we doughtily stored our luggage in the narrow lobby and wandered into the quaintness of Amsterdam. I had always supposed Amsterdam a transit city-one to transfer through on NW, but not an actual destination. But soon, its charming canals, Baroque architecture, spiraling churches, city squares wooed me-not to mention the red light district J Of the many countries we visited on our trek, Amsterdam harboured, perhaps, the friendliest and politest citizens. Almost everyone spoke perfect English, rode bicycles, and didn’t stare This last attribute, for me, was particularly welcome after the harassment of Egypt and the Middle East.
In two days, we toured the Anne Frank house, ambled through the parks and avenues of the old city, ate in quaint sidewalk cafes (and McDonalds), explored the red light district, visited the countryside of Zaanse Schans and its windmills, took the train to Den Hague, and found horses (upon my impetus, of course). The Ann Frank huis was subtly disquieting-the original house where her family lived has been turned into a museum, sans furniture, that leads visitors through the rooms she lived lived, loved, and laughed in. The rooms are rather ordinary, with the original wall paper and kitchen sink still evident, and it seems almost charming-and then we realize that the laughing spirit of its young inhabitant was brutally removed from the little attic annex and extinguished in a concentration camp.
On a lighter note, we also stared at prostitutes lounging in windows lit by red lights. Encouraged by our hotel manager, we roamed through the streets of this infamous quarter, which, coincidentally, boasts some of the city’s most stunning architecture- human flesh not included. Greeted by signs advertising “The most vibrating sex shop in Amsterdam” and “The happiest sex store in town”, we checked out the resident prostitutes posturing in their little rooms, trying to avoid wondering what was happening behind the closed curtains of certain windows. Honestly, morality just gets in the way sometimes.
Armed with really good cheese from the village of Zaanse Schans and several miniature windmills, we headed to London for two nights-while the three of us had already seen it, Andrew needed to get caught up. So, bravely confronting the horrible exchange rate, we crammed into the quintessential London taxi and piled out at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, a former palace, now a luxury hotel. Because they were doing some renovations, the rates were ‘reasonable’, for London anyway. Aside from the usual culprits (Big Ben, Buckingham, British pub with adorable bartender etc), Dad finally fulfilled his dream and showed us Hampton Court Palace, a castle about 30 miles from London. Once the home of Henry the VIII, William and Mary, and other venerable monarchs, it is now a living museum that has recreated much of life in 16th century England. In the castle kitchens, they use the same utensils and ingredients that Elizabethan Britain used to churn out soups, breads, and other items. They cook in front of visitors and regurgitate fascinating information- for instance, Henry VIII diet consisted of about 70% meat because it was a status symbol to consume lots of flesh. The fireplaces that cooked the huge chunks of meat can easily house an elephant inside. It was more than interesting to see another aspect of palace life-every former royal residence has enough gilded halls and richly tapestried chambers to impress, but these rooms reveal little about how the rulers actually lived. And the kitchens provided a fascinating glimpse into that facet of royal life.

The interior of the castle was, of course, impressive, with myriad renovations added on my successive monarchs. The gardens and grounds were equally beautiful, with a spectacular rose garden and hedge maze to explore. On the way back to London, we stopped at Wimbleton and, when we returned to the city, ventured to Leicester Square to relive our Garfunkel days, find an internet café, and despair over EVER catching a cab. Good times J

The day we checked out was bloody sodden, literally-quite cold, rainy, and miserable. After filling up at the bountiful breakfast buffet, Dad, Andrew, and I plodded through the driving torrents to view Buckingham and return soaked and shivering to drip over the marble floors of the hotel lobby. Americans at our finest! Our train left a little after 5 for Paris, so we piled, once more, into the cab for the trip to the station. As we stepped out of the cab in the drizzle, I heard someone cry, “Wawa!” And there was Deya, staring at me, dumbfounded, as I stared back at her, equally dumbfounded. It was one of those chance encounters that only occurs in the movies, two people meeting spontaneously in a city of millions. She was visiting her family in Paris (she’s studying at Cambridge) the weekend we were in London (ironically), so I had been resigned that I would not see her. However, there she was, and we took advantage of fate to gossip.

The Eurostar and a cab brought us to our next lodging in Paris, a far cry from the luxury of our London rooms, but clean and adequate. During our four nights in Paris we shopped, and, well shopped. Alright, so, we saw a few things. We spent one day touring Versailles, where I came to realize that the Brits are remarkably more efficient than the French (go figure), trundled around the grounds in a golf cart (mom’s dream), and returned to watch the sun set over Paris atop the Arc de Triomphe. Other than that, though, Mom and I shopped! Rather than return to the Louvre, we ladies decided to pursue our sartorial interests-mainly a trendy clothing store called Promod. Actually, we visited three Promods, one on the Champs Elysees, one in a department store, and one near the Opera. I mean, seriously, would you rather see priceless works of art or discover new fashions? We girls were only supposed to have one shopping day, but, alas the Louvre was closed one day, so the boys had to go back a second day…and leave us to shop J
After eating dinner in the Latin Quarter on our third night, we headed off to a hotel by the airport for a ridiculously early 7am flight to Copenhagen. Although our ‘taxi’ was half an hour late, thanks to the inept hotel staff, and cost an exorbitant fee, we eventually arrived at the detested CDG and checked in. The French (being, of course, the French)were oddly fastidious about my insulin needles in my carry-on luggage, but we boarded our SAS flight and arrived in Denmark about an hour later.

Alhamdulillah, our luggage arrived with the flight, and we ate a small breakfast at the airport. That cost about 50 dollars! To give you an idea, one bottle of water averaged five dollars. Ouch! Thankfully, we were soon to board the Crown Princess for 10 days of Baltic cruising with ‘free’ (never mind the cost of the cruise) food and American prices on beverages. Because the ship was not ready for boarding, we dumped the luggage at the pier and strolled to view the Little Mermaid, Denmark’s most famous monument situated in its harbour. I thought she was beautiful and serene, calmly gazing out to sea and resolutely ignoring the flurry of tourists flitting around her.

We headed back to the ship, ready for a bit of relaxation. Instead we were handed a pamphlet which related the unwelcome information of a Norovirus outbreak on the last cruise. At the mermaid statue, we chatted with a few guests who told us of the outbreak, but it was still rather disconcerting to read it on paper. The Norovirus is a usually ‘mild’ flue-like illness that is spread through human contact, etc. etc. And, when it occurs on a cruise ship, all hell can break loose, because people are constantly sharing spaces and food.

I will give Princess credit. Lots of credit. They somehow managed to eradicate the virus in the few hours that the ship languished between passengers. We boarded smoothly, checked into our staterooms, and sighed contentedly. Home, for 10 days! This was our first Princess cruise, and I was enamored already. As Mum and I unpacked our promptly delivered bags, I admired my new Parisian wardrobe and the view from the balcony. While our room was the epitome of order and harmony, the boys’ was quite the opposite, despite the room steward’s best efforts to line up their shoes and pick up their strewn belongings.

Lol, anyways, we slumbered briefly, donned the life jackets for the always exciting muster drill, and set sail at 8 pm into a bright Baltic sky. We had decided to take advantage of Princess’ ‘Anytime Dining’ option, meaning, as you may have presciently concluded, that we could dine anytime, in any of the dining rooms. Most cruises have a set time and table for every dinner. We found ourselves in the Da Vinci dining room at a table next to a window. Not bad. Then our waiter arrived, huffed as we declined to order beverages, brusquely took our orders for dinner, and left. Mom and I looked at each other and shook our heads. So, maybe this 'Anytime Dining' isn't so great...

Then Armindo returned, and all was well. Armindo, you see, was one of the head waiters of the dining room who dealt with special diets, like mine. He, also just happened to be Portuguese and rather dashing. And a bit loquacious. He told us to come back the next night and see him.

We most certainly did. The next day was a day at sea, consummately relaxing after the ‘exhaustion’ of running around Europe. It was the first of two formal nights on the ship; tuxes for the guys, gowns for the gals. At dinner, we found ourselves in the center of the dining room, at table 461, with a sweet and efficient waitress, Diana, that both smiled and accommodated. With Armindo to bring me succulent cuts of filet mignon and crème brulee, the dining room was vastly improving. We complimented Diana on her service, and Armindo insisted we sit there every night. It was the beginning of a very enjoyable culinary affair-by about the third night, I simply told Armindo to surprise me with a meal, and he never failed to ply me with fresh scallops and seafood, superb cuts of beef, warm gluten-free bread, delicately seasoned appetizers, and multiple desserts.

But, I suppose, we were not on the ship merely to eat and moon over Portuguese men; we did manage to visit a few countries J Stockholm, Sweden was our first port of call-a surprisingly beautiful city with almost as much green space as buildings, spread across numerous islands dotted with pine forests and Ikeas. Alright, so perchance that’s a bit of hyperbole-Sweden is also famous for its Absolut vodka. And the Vasa, an original wooden ship from the 17th century that lay buried for centuries in the Swedish harbor. The Nobel prizes deserve a brief mention, I suppose, as we visited the building of their banquet, the slightly unremarkable City Hall.

After eventually clearing the lengthy expanse of Stockholm’s archipelago, we arrived the next morning in Helsinki, Finland. Our Swedish day had been graced with beaming sunshine and fair winds; Helsinki greeted us with drab clouds and steely light. Perhaps this is why I found Helsinki rather, well, mundane. We visited the town center, St. Nicholas’ Cathedral, a peculiar monument to a Finnish composer, and the Rock Church, an undeniably unique construction built of almost 40 varieties of rock, and semi-subterranean in nature. I got to climb on top of it.

With Helsinki behind us, we chugged into St. Petersburg, where we remained for two days. Bloody Russians. All of the other countries allowed cruise guests to enter without a visa; however, the Russians required either a tourist visa (which needed to be obtained before the cruise) or each guest to be on a cruise-sponsored shore excursion. I awoke too early our first morning in Russia, wandered onto the balcony, and saw the grey skies of St. Petersburg blend with the sharp angles of the port cranes that dominated my view. Yuck. Plus, long queues for immigration checks stretched below me on the pier.

Nonetheless, we successfully cleared the former Communists’ interrogation and scampered to our bus. Russia was cold, and rainy. Our guide introduced us to the city and showed us the city’s highlights: former palaces, grand cathedrals, museums, churches, fortresses-all flew by the bus windows. To compensate for St. Petersburg’s tempermental weather, the founder, Peter the Great, and successive visionaries all painted the city in roseate hues of pastel blues, yellows, pinks, and greens. This contrasted rather starkly to my view of Russia as a cold, former communist enclave of uniformity. We stopped at several of the sites- my favorite was the Church of Spilled Blood, a quintessential example of onion dome architecture, golden domes, and brilliant mosaics. A frigid tour of Peter and Paul’s fortress made us grateful for the warm cavern of our lunch restaurant, where I enjoyed a shot of vodka, a glass of champagne, and, for good measure, mom’s champagne as well. No food, of course, because it was all gluten-y. After lunch, we rushed through the Hermitage museum, a formidable rival to the Louvre, with art from every famous artist in history, all lodged in a gorgeous palace.

Sadly, we were unable to wrangle much shopping time in Day 1, and, rather than risk the wrath of Russian immigration, we decided not to sneak away from the group. The next morning, at a gloriously sunny 7 am, we headed out to Katherine’s Palace, a dreamy blue palace of gilded halls and amber-layered rooms. Our guide, Olga, coincidentally the same as yesterday’s (much to mom’s chagrin and everyone else’s delight), provided her usual narration of barely-accented English and well-executed facts. Although the palace appeared whole and beautiful, it sat, at the end of World War II, as a bare skeleton, pillaged, burned, and raped by the Nazis. Russia has sunk millions of dollars into the restoration of its monuments thanks to the barbarity of the Germans. One realizes that the horrors of World War II are not so very far away to most of Europe.

Olga led us past a fascinating street market en route to lunch but did not have time to stop. So, I made time, and eschewed lunch for the purchasing of my own nesting doll and lacquered box. After a brief bus breakdown, where Mom, Dad, and I hurried back to the market to purchase a Russian Santa (and caused the entire group to wait), we headed off to Peterhof palace, famed for its fountains. And they were truly, transcendently spectacular, gorgeous plumes of water cascading among golden statues tiered in front of the palace. And that was only one of the fountains. There were dozens more hiding in the gardens.

We left St. Petersburg that evening aboard our Crown Princess for Tallinn, Estonia. Our ship was only docked in this small country for 5 hours, but it allowed us enough time to acquire a taste of the medieval city’s rounded turrets, shadowed alleyways, and teeming squares. And, enough time to purchase a soft, hand knit jacket/poncho and matching pair of booties.

From Tallinn we sailed to Gdynia, Poland, where the 4 of us split up: Mom and I took a shopping tour to the city of Gdansk, while Andrew and dad visited a castle and Gdansk. As with Estonia, Poland was under the yoke of Soviet oppression until the fall of the Soviet Union, and we heard more commentary about the repressive regime. Funny, the Russian guide somehow forgot to mention that topic during her two days with us. Anyway, Gdansk was both like and unlike most historic European towns-however, it did boast the world’s largest brick church, St. Mary’s Bascilica. And lots of amber shops. Need I add Mom and I now own Polish amber?

The next day was a leisurely day at sea, and Mom’s birthday! We awoke to balloons outside our cabin, and treated ourselves to fruity cocktails on the deck. Perhaps here I should add that the Baltic was, other than a chilled day in Russia, HOT. I tanned (which, I know, is your utmost concern, Dear Reader) with the alacrity of a Caribbean sun. After an hour under its scorching rays, I sought refuge below deck for fear of a nuclear glow.

I informed the always dashing Armindo (who, by this time, had spent, literally, hours chatting with us and plying me with such fantastic dishes like chocolate-covered tuxedo strawberries) of the event, and for dessert, we received a lovely serenade from the wait staff and a scrumptious cake for Mom. Alas, it was slightly bittersweet. Not the cake, of course, but the evening, because our cruise was swiftly nearing its end, and none of us wished to leave its pampered decks.

Our final port was Norway, the fabled homeland of the Johnson half of the family unit, and we again split in two. Andrew and Dad saw the city highlights and a Viking ship; Mom and I saw the city and an open air museum. One of my favorite attractions of the entire cruise was the Vigelund sculpture garden, an excrescence of the human form and imagination, for it was filled with hundreds of figures frozen in the actions of Life. They were without clothing, to make their actions both universal and eternal.

Leaving behind the snapshots of Life, we headed up a mountain to see the ski jump (immensely fascinating piece of metal and plastic), and then headed to the museum, where he toured a wooden stave church from the 1200’s, houses covered with grass sod roofing, and other historical elements of Norway. For us ‘yaaa sure ya betcha’ Norwegians, it was a taste of our homeland and a morsel of our heritage. Back at the pier, we ventured into the shops where we spent exorbitant sums of money on 10 dollar pens and, all too soon, sailed away. As we passed the Norwegian coastline, Mother insisted on photographing almost island we passed because, in her words, ‘it’s a Norwegian island!’

We mournfully packed our things that evening, tucking the treasures of the Baltic into ambivalent rolls of toilet paper and suitcases. At dinner, we hugged our favorite waitstaff good-bye. This, you see, is the problem with cruises-they should never end. But they do, like anything perfect, and we disembarked the next morning and piled in a cab. The never-ending trip, you see, was not quite over. Two nights in Copenhagen and then, finally, homeward. Due to the egregiously high prices of lodging food everything, we stayed in a simple hotel (once a seamen’s hostel; since renovated) in the best location possible, Nyhaven, a quaint canal neighborhood of cafes, art galleries, and historic buildings. We wandered Copenhagen leisurely, exploring its castles, royal jewels, palaces, gardens and waterways with the slightly enervated air of an over-travelled traveler. Not I, of course. It will be long before I can be over-travelled J But half of us were sick with colds, and the other half recovering. So we basked in the eternal sunshine of the Baltic one final time, packed our bags, and headed home.

1 comment:

Mary said...

thanks Laura