Home turf of the Hanseatic League, later the heart of a Swedish empire, for decades a sort of liquid Iron Curtain; why not spend a couple weeks on the Baltic Sea? We combined this idea with a Backroads bicycle trip that included passage aboard an innovative new ship.
We first spent some time on our own in Stockholm, as previously reported; that entry includes a link to an account of our visits to a couple of Baltic islands that gave us our first closeup look at this inland sea.
The Baltic is different in several ways from other large bodies of water. On its surface, especially toward the north and east, it’s composed of fresh water bound for the ocean. At its Danish outlet, there’s salty water flowing in underneath, mixing only slowly with the brackish water above. The Baltic isn’t big enough to have significant tides of its own, and is protected from the tides of the Atlantic. One other big difference from, say, the Mediterranean, is the northerly location. During some winters the Baltic freezes over from end to end. We were careful to confine our visit to the month of August.
Unreasonably good weather allowed us to enjoy a lot of scenery. The picture at the top of the page is a look aft as we enter the harbor at Helsinki, our first stop after leaving Stockholm. It’s a great place for cycling, with waterside paths through birch forests.
The panorama below is from our ship’s berth in St. Petersburg. A craft our size is welcome right in the midst of things. That’s the gold dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral on the right, and just this side of the second bridge that’s the garden of the Winter Palace.
Our ship’s location, right there on the English Embankment, wasn’t the advantage that one might have supposed, though. These days, travelers from many nations, including the U.S., aren’t allowed ashore unless they have a guide or a special visa, obtained in advance. We contented ourselves this time with guided outings (and memories from our visit by train in May of 2000).
So biking in St. Petersburg was done with a local company, and using their little folding commuter bikes. (Alex and I managed to snag bicycles with bigger wheels, but weren’t any the happier for it.)
Divided into small groups and given tiny bicycles, a Backroads tour is still likely to block a thoroughfare. Here we gawk at St. Isaac’s. The big sculpture in the background is a wedding bouquet — the happy couple pose at left.
The need to use local bicycles points out another interesting thing about the trip. Our concept of the Backroads bike tour dates back to our first outing, in 1995, in the Gulf Islands. We envision two bright young leaders, one riding herd while the other drives a van along the route, providing water, snacks, repair service and perhaps the occasional lift when desired. Every couple of days a bus may materialize to move the entire group from one general location to the next.
On that first trip there happened to be only five guests. Later we would see a dozen, then two dozen, and eventually, on the Baltic cruise, forty. This has led to some big changes — one consequence being the difficulty of picking out “your” bicycle from among the fleet. (This task is eased only slightly by the fact that there are now more kinds of bicycles.)
But on this voyage, several factors meant that guests, vehicles, bicycles and some of the staff progressed along the course in different supply chains. Sometimes the bikes traveled by land or ferry and met us in port; other times, they had no choice but to gain passage with us. Support staff changed with changing venues. The relationship between steamship line and tour company is a new one (and the ship is itself brand-new): a method for crating up the bikes had to be invented, shortly before the first customers arrived. The logistics went off amazingly well. (Ours was the “return” section of the ship’s maiden cruise from Copenhagen — the various bike routes had already been run once, but in reverse order.)
To the tourist, much will seem familiar. Some architecture looks picturesque, but mostly just because it’s older. Restaurants offer lots of seafood, but none of it seems alien. There’s the possibility of hearing a Finnic language spoken (we skipped Uralic Latvia and Lithuania) but Slavic and North Germanic prevail, and English is now accepted everywhere.
There could be a mild surprise in store for bird watchers who have not been to northern or eastern Europe before. Crows here act the same, and they sound the same, but they look different. They’re best described as gray with black wings and heads.
They’re the hooded crow (Corvus cornix), the first crow named by Linnaeus. We don’t have good pictures because the adults are too wary to get within cellphone camera range. The young ones are naive (we were able to feed one in Tallinn) but they start out dark all over and so do not display the color difference well. All baby crows have blue eyes, but these are startlingly pale.
You’d have to look closely, but the picture below actually shows a ship approaching a navigation light. As intimate a sea as the Baltic is, it’s still vast enough to make humans look insignificant.
Our cruise ended in Copenhagen. This is what you’d like your bike path to look like! Half of the city’s workforce commutes by bicycle, so when it snows, the bike paths are cleared first. Our ship is docked just on the other side of the building to the right.
Cruise ships have put on a lot of weight in recent years. But, wait! What if, instead of trying to shoehorn a small city into a floating island, you took a yacht and scaled it up a bit? Le Dumont d’Urville is the newest of the dozen ships owned by the French line Ponant, and one of four its size named for explorers. (Jules Dumont d’Urville mapped much of the coast of Australia, and gave Micronesia and Melanesia their names. And Adelie Land, in Antarctica, after his wife. And thus the penguins also.)
The Norwegian Bliss, which ties up in our Seattle neighborhood every weekend during the summer, carries over 4,000 passengers, and has a five-hole golf course and a go-kart track. With 92 cabins, Le Dumont d’Urville expects to carry about 170. Its ice-strengthened hull is less than 60 feet wide and, better yet, draws only 15 feet, meaning access to a lot more of the world’s shoreline. The deck around the little plunge pool at the stern folds out cleverly to launch Zodiacs or kayaks. By the way, chow is another matter that can be confidently entrusted to the French.
One last look at our ship — it’s the tiny white blip in the exact center of this photograph.