Our Mythological Baltic Cruise

Our first day of cruising brought us to Warnemunde, a summer beach town on the coast of Germany. Apparently, Becky’s family comes from near here. Her parents told us that we’d be sailing right by her ancestral lands. They warned us that the Danes had a bad reputation back in the old days for raiding German farms and carrying off spoils of war. I’m pleased to report we encountered no Viking raiders, just a lot of German families on holiday, enjoying the beach and the beautiful little town.

We walked around the town square and had no real trouble asking for things. Many Germans speak at least a bit of English, and it turns out ice cream is a fairly universal language! We saw lots of flower stands, fresh fruit vendors, cafes, and funky clothing shops with enough tie-dyed dresses, New Age jewelry and embroidered purses to outfit an army of hippies. One of the German tourist shops was selling a T-shirt that said, “New York,” which was fairly bizarre. Warnemunde was one of the friendliest towns we visited. A huge crowd came out to wave goodbye to our ship as we sailed out at sunset. As you can see from the photo, it was quite a sunset.

The next day we arrived in Gdansk, Poland. I had no idea what to expect of this place. I knew very little about it, except that the Solidarity movement started here in the shipyards in the 1980s. This proved to be the first crack in the Iron Curtain, the beginning of the end for the Soviet bloc. We saw plenty of leftovers from communist times – depressing block houses and apartments, gray industrial areas, scrapyards and rundown shops. But Gdansk also had many beautiful areas: forested hills, parks, tree-lined avenues, and a beautiful city center that had been restored to its former glory after being heavily bombed during World War II.

You probably wouldn’t expect to see a lot of Greek gods in Poland, but they’re everywhere. On the central street in old town Gdansk, one of the most famous landmarks is the Neptune fountain. Poseidon’s trident is awesome. Each spearhead splits into three smaller points, all of which shoot water. You have to love that strategically placed fish tail keeping Poseidon’s modesty intact.

The rest of the Greek pantheon decorated the tops of buildings: Hermes and Hephaestus, symbolizing commerce and industry, were all over the place:

Athena and Zeus, both gilded with gold, glared down from one rooftop:

Poland was the last place I expected to see so much mythology, but it just goes to show you how widespread the Greek gods are. So many nationalities have used that symbolism at one time or another to play up their own greatness, and emphasize their connection to Ancient Greece and Rome.

We sailed from Poland into a completely different setting – the town of Visby on the island of Gotland, part of Sweden. Here, I felt much closer to Norse mythology. The day was foggy and cool, with a light drizzle. We quickly got lost in the winding cobblestone streets of the old city. 

I could easily imagine the Vikings living here, their longboats filling the harbor and sailing out on the choppy cold waves. The climate is mild by Baltic standards, which allows for roses and other flowers all over the island. Every home and doorway seemed to be festooned with blooming plants. 

The cathedral had wonderful gargoyles that reminded me of Bes, the original gargoyle god. The wooden spires reminded me of the old Viking tradition of building their important buildings from the hulls of warships. 

We really enjoyed exploring the island, and most importantly, we discovered lakrits – licorice ropes of many different flavors and colors – that are sold by street vendors all over Sweden. Yummy!

The next few days we explored the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia. Both seemed less touristy than other cruise ship stops. In the city of Riga, I was surprised how many people speak English. To me, it seems like not long ago this was a communist country, and traveling here would’ve been difficult at best. Riga has a beautiful Old Town with stone churches, local crafts shops, and a riverside park where you can rent a paddleboat, buy a soda, or simply stroll through gardens and watch the ducks on the water.  One of the landmarks in Riga is the ‘black cat house,’ named for the metal cat on the roof. Why is it famous? Dunno. But it’s hard to miss!

Tallinn, Estonia had a more of an urban feel. We found more shopping malls, more chain restaurants, and we could tell the nightlife was a little edgier, though traveling as a family, that’s not something we looked for. We did get a great recommendation for pizza, though – a regional chain called Vapiano. Good stuff! 

We also went shopping at an Estonian grocery store, which is a great way to experience a new culture. Chocolate is big in Estonia. This much I can tell you.

Next up on our cruise: the place I had been looking forward to most – St. Petersburg, Russia. If you’ve read The Throne of Fire, you know the city figures prominently in the Kane Chronicles, and I was anxious to explore it firsthand.

If you get a chance, go. The city is incredible. Unlike the other places we visited, where history was layered from medieval to the present, St. Petersburg was a planned city, the brainchild of Peter the Great to give Russia a naval presence in the Baltic. Designed and built in the 1700s, much of the city still seems frozen in that time period – rows of pastel 18th century townhouses, over-the-top palaces, wide canals with intricately decorated bridges, and soaring cathedrals and public monuments.  The only other city I can think of with such a uniform look to it would be Bath, England.

Our first stop was the palace of Prince Yussupov, best known as one of the plotters who murdered Rasputin, crazy monk and advisor to the tsarina. The palace was chocked full of Greek and Egyptian imagery – from the Artemis and Apollo chandeliers to the statue of Dionysus in the party room to the sphinx details on the furniture.

It was creepy seeing the tiny basement room where Rasputin was invited to dinner, poisoned, clubbed, stabbed, shot, etc. (the guy just wouldn’t die) though I think the wax Rasputin took away some of the atmosphere. 

We certainly got a feel for how opulent life was for the Russian nobility. One female Yussupov decided to go into acting. Since it would’ve been scandalous to act in public, her family built her a private theater in the palace. Good thing she didn’t take up elephant hunting.

As we took a canal cruise through the city, we saw yet more Greek mythology. The caduceus of Hermes was everywhere –symbol of commerce. 

Poseidon’s trident was also all over the place, since Peter the Great wanted to stress Russia’s sea power. I especially like the trident on top of an obelisk -- what a great Egyptian/Greek mix up!

One bridge was decorated with hippocampi. Another was lined with Zeus’s aegis, complete with the head of Medusa. And of course we passed the sphinxes mentioned in The Throne of Fire, along with the palace of Prince Menshikov, who held the infamous dwarf wedding to entertain the tsar.

The next day, we took a trip to the Hermitage, one of the greatest and biggest museums in the world. They say it would take eight years to see the entire collection, and I believe it. Fortunately we started at the room I most wanted to see – the Egyptian room, where the secret entrance to the Russian Nome is found in Throne of Fire. I got my photo taken at the scene of the crime, and also with a giant malachite vase like the one used to trap Set. 

After visiting the Egyptians, we moved on the Greek and Roman – another fascinating collection of gods and monsters. I hung out with Augustus Caesar, said hi to Apollo and Ganymede, and wondered what Poseidon was serving on his snack platter (Marbles? Candy?) in the mosaic – an exact replica of one from the Roman emperor’s palace.

The Winter Palace – part of the Hermitage -- was the tsar’s summer home. Hard to believe, but the place makes Yussupov’s palace look humble. Every room seemed bigger and grander than the one before. It’s hard to capture that feeling in photographs. The symbolic ties to imperial Rome were obvious, though – laurel wreaths and eagles. Any Roman would’ve recognized that they were in an emperor’s palace.

Our last day in Saint Petersburg, we road the Metro and got some time for shopping. I visited Nevsky Prospect, the main drag, and found the Chocolate Museum – one of Bes’s favorite places. I did indeed buy a chocolate Vladimir Lenin head. They had larger ones, but I picked the smaller version so it would fit in my suitcase.

That night, we sailed from Saint Petersburg, heading back toward Scandinavia and the end of the tour. Little did I know, the best was yet to come! More on that in my next post.