Cruising the Top End of Europe


Photography by the authors



A cruise always seems to go well if it starts well and Rouen — 87 miles from Paris and only 68 miles to the sea — is a great beginning. A city charter in the year 629 mentions Rouen’s exports as “wine, honey and flour.” Today they might be cruise ship passengers. The Maritime Museum, 100 yards from the Azamara Journey dock, recalls those earlier days.


Rouen


The Ship
Azamara Club Cruises has two similar ships: the Azamara Journey and the Azamara Quest. They are small, 593 feet long and carry only 694 passengers with all the advantages and disadvantages that might imply. Its clientele, those who prefer small cruise ships, really see no disadvantages. They get what they want: an upscale cruise with a lot including wine; specialty coffees and tipping included; a sensitive and genuinely caring staff; interesting and enriching lectures; and surprisingly top quality entertainment — a surprise because space should limit a ship’s capability to entertain and here it doesn’t.


Amsterdam

Amsterdam may well be the perfect European city with an airport, cruise terminal and railway station system that connects seamlessly. The city has 60 miles of canals and 60 museums for “culture junkies” and, if they have a Rail Europe pass, a whole countryside to explore by one of Europe’s best train systems.

“A great walking city, but watch out for the bicycles.” a Dutch friend tells us. “They have right of way and come at you from all sides!”

This is the city of windmills, diamonds, flower markets, the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum and glorious Rijksmuseum.

The Captain
Johannes Tysse was born on Osteroy, a Norwegian island of only 250 people. So keen to serve on his first ship at the age of 16, he needed his parents’ signed permission to go to sea. On a previous cruise he had announced on the overhead speakers, “This is the captain speaking with the Midday Update. I know it’s 12:35, but I was taking a nap!” On this cruise, his overhead voice says, “The fog, as you can see, is lifting. This is your captain speaking from somewhere in the Baltic Sea.” And when someone asks what the most difficult challenge is for a cruise ship captain, he answers, “Not putting on weight.”


Copenhagen

This is the land of Lego and Carlsberg beer, Hamlet and Hans Christian Andersen, canals and castles, and — after Bakken, 8 miles to the north, the second oldest amusement park in the world — with a rollercoaster going back to 1914. Tivoli Gardens opened in 1843 and some claim it was the model for Disney.

The homes at Copenhagen’s new harbor, Nyhavn, were built for the workers who were digging out the new harbor in the 1670s. With its brightly painted houses, it’s the most photographed spot in town after, of course, the Little Mermaid statue. And if you’re photographing this beautiful spot try not to be thirsty; it’s such a popular place that its cafés don’t hesitate to gouge tourists.

 
The Enrichment Lectures
Where do cruise lines find such erudite yet crystal-clear speakers? George E. Munro, PhD, who teaches European History at the university level was one of the unexpected treasures of this cruise. His encyclopedic knowledge of where we were cruising captivated his audience. His Dutch history talk, for example, led passengers from the peasants in that 2nd century land of marshes on the edge of the Roman Empire, (land of such little value neither the Church nor the aristocracy cared to work it) through the 13th century creation of dams and canals that brought rewards to merchants, and finally to the country’s Golden Age where the “Dutch East Indies Company made a 100% profit every year for a century.”


Berlin

Visiting Berlin from a cruise ship docked at the port of Warnemünde does not fit in with the concept of the cruise as one of life’s languid indulgences. Whichever way you look at the visit, it will be six hours round-trip in a bus — leaving only five hours for the city itself. Passengers, who like to be independent at ports of call, may have a Rail Europe pass, may like the adventure side of travel, may even speak some German, but if they want a care-free few hours in this busy exciting city, they really should go for the ship-sponsored transportation and relax knowing that in the event of any delay the ship will wait for their ship-sponsored bus return.

The guide on the bus is upbeat and time passes quickly. “We are a country of 300 different kinds of bread and 5,000 different kinds of beer,” says Ulli, a cheerful blue-eyed blonde. She continues with information that is both interesting and useful: Germany has more than 150 castles and ketchup at McDonald’s costs extra. We won’t have time for McDonald’s. When you want to hurry through Berlin’s history you’ll be glad you had a hearty breakfast on your cruise ship.

Although Berlin has the triumph of museums like the Pergamon, it also has the pain of recent historical events. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is readily accessible a block from the Brandenburg Gate. The Memorial is a controversial monument of 2,711 concrete blocks, or stelae, spread over five acres that, despite arguments over the design and construction, opened 60 years after the end of the war. Near the Brandenburg Gate tragic crosses hang from a fence where the Berlin Wall once stood. They bear some of the names of those who died trying to reach the freedom of the West.

The Comedian
He’s Bruce Smirnoff and he sure lightens your day.

“This is a young audience,” he remarks looking at the passengers, at least half of whom are senior citizens. “I’ve been on world cruises, where some passengers were so old, they were excused lifeboat drill and told, if a sinking happened, they’d simply be handed a whisky bottle and told ‘Good luck!’ I remember that cruise,” he continues, “they all played their favorite game, ‘My Operation.’ Anyone here from out of town?” he asks as he goes into his routine.


Helsinki

For many American passengers Finland is the unknown with a great potential to be a favorite destination this century. As a result of all the lakes and islands that comprise Helsinki, 80% of the population lives on 2% of the land. Travel writer Andrew Stone once said, “Half the city seems to be liquid.”

The land is particularly important to the people of Finland and their idea of a good time is to tolerate the seven months of winter so they can picnic on some idyllic spot in the summer. Finland has 455 permanently-inhabited islands with no road access. And a favorite one on a summer’s day for the Helsinki residents is Suomenlinna, a military fortress island now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A ferry takes Azamara passengers past their ship to the grave of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the military architect who built the fortress in the mid-1750s to counter the emerging power lying to the east: Russia. Ehrensvärd was a colonel in the artillery and his mausoleum surely shows he was a soldier.

The Shore Excursions
Almost all the destinations on Northern Europe cruises are walkable cities. Many have pedestrian only areas. The people, especially the younger ones, speak English, some so well you might think they were English! Not all museums have exhibits described in English so guide books are worth carrying.

The tourist boards, particularly those of Sweden and Finland, are helpful  All provide helpful walking maps although the free map from Berlin covers too large an area (so pop into any Berlin hotel, smile and ask the concierge if he or she might give you a local city map). The company Strömma has well-run Hop-on and Hop-off boats and coaches in both Helsinki and Stockholm that cover the major attractions. Of the countries visited only France, Finland and Germany used the Euro — so you may be coming home with pockets heavy with coins.


St. Petersburg


Tsar Peter the Great built this seaport in the early 1700s to bring Russia into the modern Western world. Churches! The city has many churches, including the famous Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, a memorial to the late Emperor Alexander II who, in 1881, was assassinated like so many Tsars.

The church in this “city of the three revolutions” was built on the spot where he was murdered in the style of St. Basil’s in Moscow. Its interior decorations compete with the extravagant exterior. It is as imposing and intimidating a church as one could imagine. Then, of course, this is the city of the Hermitage and 200 other museums, of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Petersburg School of Ballet. If you want to eschew the ship’s shore excursions and wander around independently for the ship’s two days in town you’ll need a Russian visa.


Stockholm

Another place with thousands of islands, Stockholm was once described by writer Selma Langerlöf as “the city that floats on water.” It’s the original home of Garbo who lived in seclusion and Nobel a man who died wealthy with 335 patents to his name. (From a canal you can see one of Nobel’s former homes where a front window was blown out in his attempts to perfect dynamite.) It’s a city with a 333-year-old treasure: the ship Vasa, a single priceless antique with its own unique museum. And on the same island, on the former Royal Hunting Grounds, Djurgarden, is Europe’s first open-air folk museum, Skansen, where picnickers summer beneath windmills and musicians in historic costumes play in string quartets as if unaware of ABBA.

Cruising
So many myths float around the concept of travel. Some were true in the stuffy days of the trans-Atlantic liners. Now you don’t have to dine at a large table with people you may not be comfortable with and dress can be casual if you select a less formal cruise line. Tipping is now included on some upscale cruise lines like Azamara Club Cruises. (It builds customer loyalty and returning passengers may get better deals.) Individual shore excursions can be arranged by the ship or by locally-based tour operators. Shore excursion guides today really know their stuff and can impart it well. And it’s never been easier to get a preview of what might interest you at those ports of call, thanks to the internet.



The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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