Sunday, September 12, 2010


Saturday, July 3
Tallinn, Estonia

The next day, we arrived in Estonia. The name Estonia seems to derive from Aestii, used by a Roman chronicler in 100 BC to describe all the tribes east of Germany. Its capital, Tallinn, was first mentioned in written chronicles in 1154 by a famous Arab explorer Alldrisi, who back then marked it on his world map as Kolovan. The present day Tallinn was first inhabited in the 10th century when a stronghold was built on Toompea Hill, which ever since remained the seat of the ruling power and the church authorities. The location was chosen by the first settlers for its favorable geographical position – a hillside in the immediate vicinity of the port, which conveniently remained on the East-West trading route. The advantageous position of the town was an object of desire to many neighboring nations, which, at the end, turned to be motive for continuous warfare.

Tallinn is a historic city dating back to the medieval times and it was first recorded on a world map in 1154, although the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050. In 1219, the city was conquered by Valdemar II of Denmark, but it was soon sold to the German Teutonic Order for 19,000 silver marks. in 1285. The city, known as Reval at the time, prospered as a trading town in the 14th century, and much of Tallinn's historic center was built at this time.

Tallinn then became a pawn in the geopolitical games of its big neighbors, passing into Swedish hands in 1561 and then to Russia under Peter the Great in 1710. By World War I and the ensuing brief Estonian independence (starting 1918) Tallinn's population had reached 150,000.

Estonia was eventually occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, only to be conquered by Nazi Germany (1941-44) and then retaken by the Soviets. In World War II, the city was quite extensively bombed by the Soviets, even though luckily the medieval town remains. The Soviet Union undertook a program of massive Slavic migration, and just over 40% of Tallinn's current inhabitants are Slavic (compared to an average of 28% for the entire country). On Aug 20, 1991, Estonia declared independence and Tallinn became its capital once again.

We started the day with a tour of Tallin. Tallin means “danish city”. Alas, the new town sprawling all around is largely built in typical concrete Soviet style, now joined with glass-and-steel cubes celebrating the post-Soviet economic boom. The new centre of town is Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) at the edge of the old town, and nearby is the giant matchbox of Hotel Viru, the former Intourist flagship and notorious den of Cold War intrigue (every room was tapped and monitored by the KGB!).

Close to 50 percent of the land is covered by forest, so forestry is a big industry, as well as tourism. Most of the tourism is by Finnish people. Finland is only 80 km away and the prices are much lower in Estonia than in Finland. We also learned that the average monthly salary is about 800 euros, the average pension is 400 euros, taxes are 20 percent, and education and health care costs are included in taxes.

We first visited the song festival grounds. It is an outdoor stage that accommodates up to 30,000 singers. They have a three day festival every five years during the first week of July. Although we were visiting during the first week of July, they just had the last festival last year. They sing traditional folk music, which sounds like church coir music.

On our way to the city center, we passed by Kadriorg Palace, an imperial Russian summer residence built by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti for Tsar Peter the Great in 1718. It is situated in a 90 ha (222 acre) park in the eastern part of the city. The Tsar himself, a classic and mysterious Russian soul, preferred to stay in a modest house nearby. This event signified the beginning of Tallinn's fame as a summer resort for noble and rich Russians for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Currently the palace is housing some paint collections and other art. A portion of the complex is now occupied by the Office of the President and not available to the public.

The next visit was to the old town. The old town is split between the upper town at the top of Toompea Hill and the lower town. The noblemen lived in upper town while merchants, craftsmen, and peasants lived in lower town. This distinction still exists today. Government buildings, churches, etc are in the upper town, while shops, pubs, etc are in the lower town. The bus dropped us at the top of Toompea Hill. According to myth, the hill was built on top of the grave of legendary Estonian king Kalev, but more historically, it's solid limestone and the site of the Danish castle that founded the city in 1219. Toompea was the home of the Danish aristocracy and relations between the toffs and the plebs were often inflamed, which is why it's surrounded by thick walls and there's a gate tower (1380) guarding the entrance. The Upper Town was completely destroyed by a fire in 1684 when all the wooden structures burned down.

We stood in a large square with a long pink building one side and a beautiful church on the other side. The pink building is the Parliament House. It is known as the old castle because it is built on the former site of the old castle. Some of the remnants of the old castle like a stone wall and turret still remain and sit directly adjacent to the Parliament building. The church standing across from the Parliament House is the Russian Orthodox Church also known as the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a classic onion-domed 19th-century Russian Orthodox church that has become a touristy symbol of the city, much to the annoyance of nationalist types who regard it as a symbol of oppression. It was almost demolished in 1924 during Estonia's first brief spell of independence, but the Soviets left it to moulder and it has been restored to its former glory. It was built in 1900 and is the largest church in Estonia. Only 10 percent of Estonians are religious and most are Lutheran. So the church is predominantly for the Russian community (about 40 percent of the population). Masses are every morning and evening. The main mass is on Sunday morning and lasts 3-4 hours. It was interesting to see that there are no pews in the church (imagine standing through a 4 hour mass!)

We next visited the Estonian Lutheran Church (also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin). The Cathedral of the Holy Virgin was mentioned in chronicles in 1233 and is the oldest church in Estonia. After the fire of 1684 destroyed the church, the Swedish King ordered that it be rebuilt and even donated money for this purpose. The new church was completed in 1686. The best carpenters worked to build it. The pulpit and the frame of the altarpiece, decorated with woodcarvings, were made by the celebrated craftsman Christian Ackermann. This church started as a Catholic Church and was converted to Lutheran in 1517 when Martin Luther brought Lutheranism to Estonia. It was interesting to see that there are tall separations between the pews. Masses are on Sunday morning only and last 45 min. We saw that the walls were decorated with incredibly intricate wooden carvings of the coats of arms of the old guilds of the time. These woodcarvings were also made by Christian Ackermann.

We walked down into the lower town via Long Leg Street. There is also a parallel street called Short Leg, which is why Tallin is known as the limping town.

We had lunch at a restaurant called Le Chateau and had beef stew with boiled potatoes, a traditional dish. Afterwards, we walked around the lower town and admired the old medieval buildings. Afterwards we visited the town hall square and then walked down St. Catherines Street for a concert of medieval music and dance.

We ended the tour going through Viro Gate, one of the original medieval gates of the city. Viro gate is the entrance to Viro Street, the main street of the lower town.

We took the bus back to the ship, got the kids from the kids corner, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool. It was a great, sunny afternoon. The pool water was so warm that it was more refreshing to get out of the pool than to go in. We watched the second half of the Germany vs Argentina match (Germany won 4 to 0) before sitting down for dinner with the McDonalds. We ate at the specialty steakhouse restaurant. We had huge shrimp cocktails and huge filet mignons - well worth the 25 cover charge.


Thursday, July 1
Warnemunde, Germany
On Thursday, we arrived to Warnumunde, which is the port city of Berlin. Warnemunde has 800 years of history and 160 years of tradition as a seeside resort. The site is attractive for white beaches and romantic fishermen’s houses. Living modestly from fishing, ferry traffic, trade and handicrafts, the inhabitants of Warnemunde waged a constant struggle against floods, gales and the enemies of the Hanseatic city. The old fishing village had been property of the wealthy town of Rostock, ever since the provincial rules, Heinrich of Mechlenburg, sorely in need of ready cash, sold the left bank of the Warnow River, including Warnemunde, to the town in 1323. This commenced a dismal period marked by poverty and lack of rights, until Warnemunde was discovered for tourism. Word spread that salt water and bracing air worked wonders against many afflictions, and bathing spas along the Baltic coast were becoming more and more attractive.

We did not see Warnemunde as being all that exciting, and we have already been to Berlin, so we signed up for a tour of Wismar, which is a Unesco world heritage site. The tour did not start until 2.30, so we spent the morning poolside with the McDonalds. It was beautiful weather and we had the pool practically to ourselves since most people had chosen the full day tour to Berlin. Eventually, we dragged ourselves from the pool, showered up, and had a nice relaxing lunch in the main dining room. We always prefer the main dining room as you generally have a few options that are not available at the buffet. At 2PM, we got the kids into the kids club and then got on the bus to Wismar. It was an hour and a half bus ride there, as we took the scenic route. The tour guide was pretty good and gave us some details about the history of the area. Of primary interest was the fact that the town has a bit of Swedish history. It went under Swedish rule at the end of the 30 years war, as explained below:

1229 – first documented mention of the city of Wismar
1648 – at the end of the 30 years war, the city of governance of Wismar is awarded to Sweden according to the Peace Treaty of Osnabrueck.
1716 – Sweden has to surrender the governance of Wismar to the High Nordic Allies during the Nordic War.
1803 – Wismar goes back to the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg for 100 years via the deed of security for 1,250,000 talers.
1903 – The Kingdom of Sweden, after the expiry of the 100 years period, waives its claim to the redemption of the deed of security. Wismar is finally integrated into the Duchy of Mecklenburg.

Our tour guide took us on a brief walking tour of the city. We visited a number of different churches, and at the end of our tour, visited a brewery. We learned that during the Middle Ages, water was filled with bacteria and was not safe to drink. However, beer, because of the brewing process, was safe to drink, so most people at that time drank nothing but beer. At its peek, there were 183 breweries in Wismar, serving a population of about 7,000 people. Today, there is only one. We had a visit there and had a chance to try their Mumme beer, a dark beer brewed since medieval times. We received an introduction to the brewing process. We learned that in medieval times, all beer was dark. Pilsner, when it was created sometime later, became a popular alternative to dark beer. So we had a chance to try their signature Pilsner beer as well. After the tour, we hopped on the bus and headed back to the ship. This time, we took the highway, which was about 30 minutes faster. We got the kids and enjoyed the rest of the sunny afternoon poolside. The kids had a late lunch, so we decided to leave them in the kids corner, while the adults had a nice meal on their own. We caught the evening entertainment again, which this time was a magician. As a time saver, we picked up the kids directly before the show and brought their meal into the theater. It worked out well as we could shovel food in their mouth while they were being mesmerized by the magic tricks.

Friday, July 2
Sea Day
The second sea day was fairly relaxing. I attended a lecture on Catherine the Great, who was quite a colorful character. She led a coup against her husband to steel the throne. She had a vast number of boyfriends that she rewarded with money and power when the relationship was over. She even had former boyfriends pick the new boyfriends and in her later years was dating guys half her age. We spent some time in the library with the kids playing games and practicing our letters. All in all, a pretty relaxing sea day.

Tuesday, June 29
Sea Day
The next day was a sea day. The sea days are great for relaxing and recharging the batteries. We spent time together exploring the ship, playing golf and ping pong, and we also let the kids spend a little time in the kids club, while the adults checked out the casino – we started off strong on the roulette table and ended in the black. It was cold at sea, so we did not use the pool. Additionally, it was dress up night, so we cut our afternoon short so that we could get ourselves ready for pictures and dinner. We ate in the main dinning room and had rack of lamb with mint jelly. After dinner, we hit the shipboard entertainment, which was Cirque Pan, a kind of Cirque du Sole, but with a Peter Pan theme – the kids really enjoyed it, as did the adults.

Wednesday, June 30
Copenhagen, Denmark
On Wednesday, we arrived to Copenhagen. Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and has a population of about a million. Copenhagen was first mentioned in the twelfth century and was referred to as Portus Mercatorum, which is really just a fancy Latin version of Købmannahavn. This has since been mangled into København in modern Danish, and even further mangled into Copenhagen in English, but all it really means is "merchant harbor."

We did not have an organized tour. We wanted to see the Carlsburg brewery, but that tour was sold out. Instead, we ate a late breakfast, got off the boat, and made our way to Tivoli Gardens, which is one of the world’s oldest leisure parks, dating back to 1843. This is the amusement park that we hit on our very first cruise that went from Amsterdam to Copenhagen to Oslo. That was three years ago, so it was nice to have the opportunity to go back and see it again. The kids still remembered it from the first cruise. At that time, they were too little to go on any of the rides, but they made up for it this time around.

When we came three years ago, we did the hop on hop off bus tour and saw a number of the great palaces: The four identical classicist palaces of Amalienborg, make up the main residence of the Danish royal family. The octagonal courtyard in the centre is open to the public and guarded by the ceremonial Royal Guard. The relief takes place every day at noon and is a highlight for any royalist visiting the city. There is also a small royal museum on the premises. Rosenborg Palace is a small but pretty renaissance palace, surrounded by the lovely King's Garden which is one of the most lively parks of the city. The palace both serves as a museum of Royal history and as a home for the crown jewels which are on display in the catacombs beneath the castle. Unusual for a well-founded democracy, the palace that houses the parliament, Christiansborg, is also a royal palace. It is usually possible to visit the Royal reception rooms, stables and the old court theatre here.

We decided to spend the afternoon at the amusement park and not visit any of the other historical sites, so I got my fill of the history of Copenhagen by visiting Wikipedia. Here is a summary if you are interested:
***Around 1160 AD, King Valdemar handed over control of the city to the archbishop of Roskilde, Absalon, one of the most colorful characters of the Middle Ages — a curious mix of great churchman, statesman, and warrior. As the country's only city not under the king's control, Absalon saw it thrive and erected a castle on what is today Slotsholmen (the remains are still visible in the catacombs under the present day parliament). As a man of religion he also built a great church, and with those necessities taken care of, Copenhagen quickly gained importance as a natural stop between the two most important Danish cities, the old royal capital Roskilde and Lund in present day Sweden. Endowed with an enviable location on the banks of the important Øresund Strait, it slowly but steadily surpassed the old urban centers. Copenhagen's rise was greatly aided by entrepreneurial trading with friends and foes alike and by prosperous fishing which provided much of Roman Catholic Europe with salted herring for Lent. But with prosperity comes envy and in the years to follow Copenhagen was laid waste and pillaged time and time again, mainly by the German Hanseatic League, which at one point completely destroyed the city.

But like a phoenix, Copenhagen repeatedly rose from the ashes. When the Danes kicked out the Pope during the reformation, Roskilde lost its importance as a Roman bishopric and after taking control of the city twenty years earlier, the king moved his residence to Copenhagen. Not terribly keen on seeing their new capital laid waste once more, successive kings built massive fortifications around the city. None more so than King Christian IV, who embarked on a building rampage which not only included the ramparts still visible throughout much of the city but also many present day landmarks like the Round Tower and the stock exchange. Since then Copenhagen was besieged by the Swedes, and then famously bombarded, set ablaze, and nearly destroyed by the British vice admiral Lord Nelson, who in one of two battles for Copenhagen, famously responded to the order to withdraw by saying "You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes," and then raised the telescope to his blind eye and touted "I really do not see the signal."

Again, the city shook off its struggles and the population mushroomed during industrialization. When a cholera epidemic did a fine job of killing nearly everyone there wasn't room for, the King finally conceded that long range cannons would render its constraining walls irrelevant, and thus allowed the city to grow outside the now antiquated ramparts. But it was not long before a new modern fortification was built (known as Vestvolden today), which made Copenhagen Europe's most fortified city of the late nineteenth century.

After being subjected to yet another invasion during WWII, the whole idea of a fortified city was thrown out the window and replaced with one of the finest examples of urban planning anywhere — the Finger Plan. Copenhagen is one of few cities in the world to devise a long term plan for growth and then actually stick to it; try placing your hand over a map of Copenhagen with the palm as the city centre, and it's quite obvious why it's called the finger plan. Despite being the laughingstock of the country through the seventies and eighties when wealthy residents all moved out into the fingers, leaving behind an impoverished bankrupt city, a visit these days will prove that the Phoenix has risen once more. End of history lesson.***

After spending three hours at the amusement park, we made our way back to the ship for a late lunch. Before we knew it, it was time for dinner and we were meeting our friends the McDonalds for happy hour. After happy hour, there was a teddy bear party for the kids at 6PM. So the kids did that while the adults had a quiet meal on their own. After dinner, we picked up the kids and took them for a late dinner at the buffet and then got them to bed. The ship left around 5PM from Copenhagen, so we decided to try our luck again at the casino. We went back to the roulette table, but were not so lucky this time around. Our friend Brian showed up and won $50 in the first 2 minutes, so we decided to stick with him. We made our way to the blackjack table and played for about 2 hours. We ended up winning about $150 when we decided to call it a night.

Summer Vacation 1st take

Monday, June 28
Departure Day – Travel to Dover, England
The kids and Sandy had six weeks off from school, so I decided to take some extra vacation time to spend it with them. We started our long vacation with a Baltic cruise with our good friends the McDonalds. Brian and Megan have two daughters: Marion (4) and Betty (1). This family has been in Switzerland for two years and they return back to the US in August, so this was our last hoorah together. We signed up for this cruise about a year ago, so it has been a long wait. We flew from Zurich to London and then a car service took us to the port in Dover. The kids enjoyed sitting together in the same row on the plane and then again in the same bench seat in the car. The first day on the cruise was uneventful: we got unpacked, went through the standard emergency drill (which we found has been shortened significantly as we now just need to know where the muster station is) and got the kids signed up for the kids program. We left port somewhere around 5PM and were anxious to hit the casino, but we were pretty beat from the travel, so we ate dinner and then hit the sack early.

Before the end of school year

Before the end of te school year, I have to take 20 kids to a 5 day overnight fieldtrip. Before doing so, we had to scout things out and went on a Sunday with my team and my family to Kandersteg.