Join friend of the departureboard.com Mark Spurgeon as he shares his musings and tales onboard a P&O Cruise around the Baltics.
Mark left Southampton on 3 July 2012 as part of the P&O’s 175th Anniversary celebrations!
End of the Journey
After 16 nights all good things must come to end, our arrival at Southampton draws nearer even with the best attempts of the British weather to keep us at bay.
As for the a highlight of the trip its difficult say, watching the sun sink into the sea at midnight is magical, a new day another city simply inspiring and all in a regal ship that skipped majestically over the waves.
The overall highlight has to be the people and sharing their experiences. Iain Joyce, Derek, and Barbara our enchanting dining companions. Jensen and Radju who made great food, even better with their incredible service and for Angelo our cabin steward or ‘ghost’ who made our small cabin feel palatial.
A feeling of belonging or being part of something exists on a ship at sea, becoming like one big family, everybody being there for everyone else, politeness and manners rule as people relax enabling lifelong friendships and relationships to blossom. Not just at sea, our guides sharing their experience of home cities. Countries previously under duress or foreign rule now welcoming with open arms and freedom, something we so often take for granted.
The whole adventure has been magical and at times moving, it’s has brought history, culture, and scenery that will be hard to forget and a deep routed longing to return. I would like to close my adventure with a few chosen words from the great Mark Twain “20 years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbour and catch the trades winds in your sails. Explore, Dream Discover.”
A New Beginning
On the Elbe River is a welcome point about 15 miles from the city centre and a hearty ‘hello and welcome’ is blasted across the river to all ships on approach to Germany’s second city and the world third largest commercial port after Shanghai and Rotterdam.
This salute is a sign of friendship and appreciation, making what would be my first visit to Germany soil and eagerly anticipated experience.
Like Oslo, Hamburg is in the middle of Europe’s largest urban regeneration project covering an area of 2.2 kms and costing currently somewhere in the region of 5.5 billion euros . The centre piece was turning the Speicherstadt or warehouse district (below) into housing and thus increasing the capacity of the city by another 40%. The 18th century red brick buildings give the city and incredible façade and contrast agreeably with the new buildings currently been constructed by the dockside area.
The other side of the river is a mechanical tapestry of noise, colour and industrial might, as ships of every size and nationality await their turn to shed or gain their cargo. The city is never far away from water, with a maze of canals (below) crossing the centre and allegedly has more bridges than Venice. The Binnenalster and Aubenalster Lakes are beautiful distractions from life in the city.
The skyline is again dominated by spires with St Michaels and the City Hall (below) being particular prominent. However, there is one tower that stands majestically, St Nickolai. Although no stranger to fire, the events of 25th July 1943 and the raging fire storm inflicted on the city by the Allies now highlights to us all the horrors of all-out war on civilians. There are no words or emotions that can be used to describe the rights or wrongs of this strategy or the pain and suffering that it inflicts. It is simply a sentinel for peace, hope and understanding that man will one day learn to live happily with those around them and stride to make it a better place for us all.
70 Years on the phoenix that is modern day Hamburg make it amazing a city at peace with itself and with those who visit, if you get a change please come and see for yourself as I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
They Love You Yeah Yeah…
The 70 mile Elbe/Kiel Canal takes you through the amazingly picturesque and stunning north Germany country side. Although flat the tapestry of woods, fields and villages make for any amazing site as our mountain of a ship glides serenely past. Eventually the rural landscape gives way to industry as we approach the heart of our next destination Hamburg.
The year is 1960 in a small club called the Indra Bar just out of the Reeperbahn red light district, cigarette smoke and a strange excitement hangs in the air. To the right of the stage a door opens and four young Liverpudlians walk through it. The music starts and so does a new chapter in the history of popular music The Beatles have arrived.
For two years The Beatles plied their trade in the Indra Bar, Kaiserkellar and Star Clubs developing the personal skills and musical talents that would take them from musical underlings to a global phenomenon.
Of these bars only the Indra Bar survives today, plaques and fond memories are all that remain of the others. Beatles Platz and statues give a reminder of the fab 5’s original line up John, Paul, George, Pete and Stuart, although the line would change as fate and tragedy played their part. The Beatles would leave Hamburg under a cloud mainly due to George being under age something that still erks local fans and band members alike.
Decorated as it would have been in the 1960’s the Indra Bar was almost like a time machine, and for many on this excursion, brought back fond memories for many on whilst reliving the sights and sounds of their younger years and the music of their generation.
New For Old
There’s something majestic about arriving in port, aboard a cruise liner but today’s embarkation was a little bit special. The 60 mile Oslo Fjord is simply magnificent, its numerous pine clad islands, rising sides and brightly painted coloured houses leave a lasting impression.
At the head where the water finally broadens out into Bundefjord and surrounded by the heights of Ekeberg, Holmenkollen and Grefsenkollen lies Norway’s capital, Oslo. The city’s surface area, make it one of Europe’s largest, although when surrounded with hills, protected forest and water space is fast running out for is expanding population of 650,000.
As a result “fjord city” project is currently on going and looking to resolve this issue. All brown field sites are currently being turned in to modern apartments, each with their own shops, restaurants and tourist attractions. Underground roads will link these areas, whilst on the surface pedestrian thoroughfares with connections to Metro and Tram networks will allow the moment of people around the city.
Work is already underway, with the centre piece already in place. The Opera house (below) shaped like ice berg slipping into the sea, built from locally sourced Aluminium and marble is one of the best modern buildings I’ve seen on this trip.
Opposite the Opera house lies the Akershus Fort and Castle, built in the 1620’s to guard the approaches to the port but today grants splendid views over the cruise port and public marina. Following the coastline round takes you round to city hall and the Nobel Peace Centre, where the annual Nobel prizes are presented.
A short climb takes you to the Royal Palace, whilst the students walk returns you to the city centre marked by the world renowned theatre house at one end and the parliament building at the other is separated by an interesting mix of fountains and sculptures.
Although being governed by its Danish and Swedish neighbours for much of its history, Norway became independent at the turn of the 19th Century. The Germans became unwanted guests for 5 years in the 1940’s but Norway suffered lightly when compared to other Baltic states. However, the events of last summer were to shock both this peace loving nation and the world at large. A lone terrorist with two attacks massacred 77 people. Instead of dividing the country it brought people together, ever creed and colour stood side by side revolted by these actions used the impressive St Olav’s Cathedral as its centre point. Today almost a year on the city prepares as one to commemorate these events with a day of remembrance.
Our final port of call and well earned rest stop comes courtesy of the Ice Bar Oslo. A spin off from the high successfully Ice hotel located on the River Torne in Sweden, provides customers with a totally unique drinking experience. Here your surroundings are not so much built as crafted from ice. With a constant temperature of -5 degrees, a fur lined poncho and gloves are provided, as drinks are served in ice goblets. An exquisite way to end our day in a charming and beautiful city.
All At Sea
Our home for the last 14 days has been the sumptuous and wonderful vessel Aurora . Built in Germany and launched by her Royal Highness Princess Anne or “godmother” in May 2000. With a length of 270 metres and a breadth of 32 metres she is able to accommodate 1,849 passengers and crew, who all fall under the watchful eye of our excellent captain Neil Turnbull.
When fully loaded Aurora weighs in at a staggering 76,152 tonnes and in order to stay afloat displaces an equally mind blowing 43,405 tons of water to a depth to 8.4 metres. Whilst on the surface power comes from two diesel generators that in the right conditions propel her along at 24 knots per hour, or as described by our captain “the speed of a thousand gazelles”.
A day at sea like anywhere else starts with breakfast. On Aurora both self -service or waiter served meals are available in one of three locations and you are free to eat as much and as many courses as you like.
In port passengers are free to leave the ship and explore their new surroundings and can return for coffee, or lunch. The ship also runs its own excursions for those who prefer a local guide and transport in order to check out the latest landfall.
Once back on board hot or cold food and water or juices are available free of charge only alcoholic drinks are chargeable. For those who wish to remain on board and if weather conditions allow the following outside activities are available; swimming, cricket, tennis, golf, shuffleboard and deck quoits. Inside swimming, jacuzzis, table tennis, dancing and a gym or spa all provide entertainment for those of a more active nature. The entertainment committee also run quizzes, talks on shore visits, art and language classes and films. For some simply a sunbed and a good book is all that is required.
Night time is when the ship comes alive. Two main restaurants cater for 900 passengers over two sittings and provide five course gastronomic feasts on a nightly basis, accompanied by the finest beers and wine from around the world.
The headliners theatre company provide excellent after dinner entertainment, with their energetic dance routines and soulful singing. Stars from stage and screen and alternatives to ensure that there is something for everyone. Bob Champion, David Copperfield, Bonny Langford, Lee Wilson, Colin “fingers” Harvey and Bruce Morrison have all added some variety, hilarity and musical inspiration to our trip.
Finally what better way to watch the sun go down, than a cocktail of the day and the chilled out sounds of probably one of the world’s best but least known cover bands Caravan.
While we sit back and relax an army of what seems like ghosts go to work. Rooms are checked and cleaned twice a day, with a little help from the chocolate fairy. Public areas are always sport-less whilst for the crew we do see everyone is polite, courteous and willing to go that extra mile to ensure that our expectations are continually met.
A City of Spires
A new day saw us arrive at the estuary of the River Daugava and our water borne gateway to the charming city of Riga. As we sailed anxiously up the river, a new adventure faced us all, especially the captain and his ship that had never made port at this location before. Even though the channel and our berth had been dredged, just two foot of water was all that stood between us and running a ground.
Our journey up river gave us an interesting insight into Latvia’s economic infrastructure. Being ice free all year round makes it one of the Baltic’s most important ports. Commercial interests and natural resources run side by side adding to the charm of this historical city.
Like it’s is neighbour Estonia, Latvia has been governed by its Baltic neighbours from the 12th century who in turn tried to impose their ideology on the inhabitants and it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that Latvia, gained the independence it so richly deserved.
Initial settlement in Riga was based around the Dom Church, founded in the 13th Century by the Lutheran priest Bishop Albert, an incredible monument containing one of the world’s biggest organs, made up of 6,700 pipes and coupled with the superb acoustics becomes an engaging location for concerts. Surrounding the church is Dom Square which encompasses many ornate and Art Nouveau buildings.
As with many medieval city’s Riga was originally surrounded by towers (28 in all) and a wall, however, through the centuries it fell into disrepair and in the 18th century most of it was pulled down and used to create the Boulevard Circle. Here lies an ensemble of canal lined parks full of shrubs and flowers dominated by the Freedom Movement Monument and Opera House. Parts of the fortifications are still prevalent with the Powder or Sand Tower, Jacobs Barracks, Swedish Gateway and the Riga Palace which is today home to the Latvian President.
The Occupation Museum is a stunning memorial to the 550,000 Latvians that lost their lives between 1939-1949. This is a staggering story and highlights mans’ inability to live peacefully alongside one another. The stories and first-hand accounts from life in pre-war Latvia to life in the Siberian Gulag’s is poignant story and shows the power and endeavour of the human spirit.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now fully established, independent countries, who are like a garden awaking after a harsh winter. Already there is colour and new growth, although there is a lot of work still to be done but they are heading in the right direction and believe that finally their time has come.
A Tale of Three Towns
A across the sea from Sweden and Finland a peninsula juts out into the water, dividing the Eastern Baltic Sea into the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Riga, this country with is offshore islands is better known as Estonia.
Comparable in size with Belgium or Denmark, it has a population of only 1.3 million of which 400,000 live in its capital and chief port Tallinn. Your first thoughts on arrival are of a picturesque, fairy tale town and whose colours and architecture date back to the middle-ages, however, the tranquillity and serenity we see today represents a history of turmoil and suffering.
Tallinn was founded in the 12 Century when a Citadel was built upon the steep limestone rock known as Toompea, and as time went by became known as the upper town. This area became home to the nobility with grand residences, exquisite court yards and narrow winding streets. Today highlights include Pikk Hermnn Tower, Toompea Castle and Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin.
With expansion of the port and population a lower town Allinn developed, providing houses and public spaces for merchants to both store and sell their wares, whilst in the city centre a town hall and market square were created.
Places of interest surrounding the square include the Apothecary, Pikk (Long) Street, Guild Houses and the city wall with its towers and gate houses. Outside the wall, lies the new town with its modern buildings and associated transport networks, providing a stark and vivid contrast in styles.
Estonia has been in existence for over 5,000 years but has spent most of it being governed by others who have influenced its layout and architecture. Since the 12 century Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Russia have all fought one another for control of its lands and people. In 1918 the country finally got independence which lasted all of 20 years, before the Germans (1941) and then the Russians (1945 -1989) returned. Between 1939 -1989 10% of Estonia’s population were killed or sent to Siberia as Russification was brutally and comprehensively enforced.
Finally in 1990 Estonia regained its independence and became fully-fledged members of both NATO and the European Union. As our guide said “buying a ticket for the titanic (the Euro) was potentially suicide, however, the moral support and security it granted them, was priceless.”
A tour of St Petersburg on foot is stunning, but by boat it is compelling. Part of St Peter’s master plan was to turn his new city into the Venice of the north, at the time a wondrous idea. All parts of the city are easy to navigate which adds extra perspective to its amazing landmarks.
St Petersburg is split over 42 islands on the estuary of the River Neva and in order to allow transition across the city there are 400 bridges that cross the various waterways. Today’s visit focuses on one Hare Island and the site of St Petersburg’s first recorded settlement.
The fortress was built under the leadership of Peter the Great who realised the strategic advantages of placing such an outpost on an island in the Neva Delta. Building the new city out of stone was one of Peter’s concerns. A special decree was issued prohibiting stone construction of edifices elsewhere in Russia and all master stonemasons were ordered to the banks of the Neva.
Dominating the city’s skyline is the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul. At a height of 122.5 metres the spire was one Russia’s tallest building and is easily visible from all over the city. Being a Russian orthodox church, there are no pews, whilst the inside is dominated by a gilded Iconostasis and exquisite decorations. This church is also unique as it houses the tombs of all the Czars, with those of the Romanoff dynasty being particularly poignant.
Although the fortress complex never served a direct military purpose, it soon took on a dark and sinister role, that of a political prison. Over two hundred years its 69 cells and two torture rooms held countless enemies of the state whose famous inmates included Dostoyevsky, Gorky and Trotsky. However as our guide later said “Russia has always had free speech, but speaking freely often resulted in loss of freedom”.
St Petersburg is an amazing place to visit, with a history to rival any city and has a unique character and charm that defies anything that man or nature that can throw at it. The experience was far greater and moving than expected whilst providing a fantastic insight into a country undergoing huge economic and culture change.
A City For Heroes
The midnight sun continues to shine brightly our Baltic cruise heads eastward leaving Western Europe behind and instead look forward to a new city, new country and essentially a new ideology.
Although our previous destinations have brought great surprises and wonderful memories St Petersburg is the one place on everybody’s mind, whether it’s a first or return visit the anticipation and excitement is building.
In 1703 Czar Peter 1st became dissolutioned with Moscow and decided to create a new city, his favoured location, a swamp on the west coast. By bringing in Europe’s finest architects, Russian investment and local initiatives such as a stone tax, saw the development of one of Europe’s most beautiful, artistic and colourful cities.
On arrival your first view is a block of tenement flats that must stretch two kilometres in length and eight storeys high and the run down inner city area’s lead to believe that is just another capital city. However, once you arrive at the city centre and the banks of the River Neva the magic begins.
The gold topped dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral, is immediately visible, as you head towards the city centre and Palace Square. Here the breath-taking sight of the Winter Palace leaves you stunned, its colours, ornaments and general architectural beauty is beyond words. Watching serenely over it is the Alexander Column the highest monolithic structure in the world. Equally impressive on the other side of the square is the Imperial Palace, the world’s longest building at 580 meters.
Dedicated to the Holy Kazan icon of the Mother of God, the Kazan Cathedral also acts as a unique memory to the Napoleonic hero Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who ended Napoleon’s dream of a Russian empire in 1811. Decembrists or senate square is one of the city’s oldest parks containing one of the first statues to Peter 1st and latterly marks the site of the first organised protest for freedom in 1825. Following its brutal suppression, the first steps in what be a 92 year journey to revolution had begun.
The assassination of Alexander in the 1860’s was another act of remonstration against the ruling monarchy, however, the monument or memorial that has risen from this act of terrorism must be one of the world’s most eye catching and instantly recognisable buildings. The Church on the Spilled Blood or Church of the Resurrection took 25 years to build, mainly due to the impressive interior mosaics and sculptures that climb from floor to ceiling.
In August 1917 a single shot fired from the battleship Aurora marked the start of the revolt as the Winter Palace was stormed, the Czar along with his family brutally murdered and the government arrested for treason. Lenin and communist colleagues now ushered in the dawn of a new era.
This new order saw the demotion of St Petersburg to Russia’s 2nd city following its 200 year reign as the Czarist capital; from now on Russia would be governed from Moscow. Years later another chapter in this city’s amazing history was written, when in 1941 Hitler’s armies invaded Russia and for 900 days laid siege to the town. In the process great areas of the city were raised to the ground and over 450,000 people perished.
Land Of The Midnight Sun
Leaving Stockholm and watching the sun set over the archipelago is a must see as the colours and texture of both the sky and sea are enhanced and give a romantic glow to the horizon. The 10.30pm sunset meant it was almost midnight before the light finally faded, which can only mean one thing, that I am now further north than I have ever been before.
Unlike Copenhagen and Stockholm, who have lived relatively untroubled over the last 200 years, the Finns had been troubled by both their Russian and Swedish neighbours. In 1550 Gustavus Vasa founded the Swedish named settlement of Helsingfors and over the next 150 years control passed between them as they continually fought for control of the country and it wasn’t until 1809 that the full Russian Jurisdiction was fully established. Yet unlike most conquered countries Finland became an autonomous grand duchy, with its own constitution and ability to make its own laws.
In 1812 Russian Czar Alexander 1 and Grand Duke of Finland sanctioned the transfer of the capital city from Abo to Helsinki, thus creating a centre for trade and industry that we see today. Although the next 100 years brought growth and stability it also saw a rise in anti-Czarism culminating in the October revolution of 1917 and with it the long established dream of independence which finally came true in July 1919.
Helsinki is a compact city with inhabitants totalling around 600,000 or 10% of the total Finnish populous; it remains a bilingual city with signs in both Finnish and Swedish although the latter is rapidly declining in use.
In a country that is 65% forested, it is surprising not to see any wooden buildings, however cold winters require warmth, and fire has done more damage to Finnish heritage than all of its wars put together.
As a result Helsinki is a city of contrasts, with neo-classical designs based around its administrative buildings and railway station. Alvar Aalto a prominent designer from the 70’s is responsible for the Finlandia Hall and Opera house, whilst downtown modern glass and steel buildings, such as the Academy of modern art or shopping centre show the modern side of the city.
However, the rock church opened in 1969 is an incredible piece of ingenuity and architecture, whilst the shape and structure of the other denomination churches add to any already fascinating skyline.
Swimming On The Sea
A famous author described “Stockholm as swimming on the sea” and how true she was. The journey into the harbour is via large archipelago made up of 34,000 granite islands, extending out to sea for about 50 miles and grants an amazing view by which to start your day.
With a population of 2 million inhabitants, the capital is spread over 14 islands, connected by 54 bridges and is intersected by more broad water ways than any other city. This equates to a 1/3 of the city’s surface being covered by water. One in eight of Stockholm’s population own a boat and the waterfront is continually in motion as boats of all shapes and sizes go about their business.
Founded in 1252, by Birger Jarl, the city got its name from the Swedish for wood (holm) pile (stock) which is quite appropriate for a country with 65% land covered by forest. However, it was Gustavus Vasa who developed the blue print for the country and its capital that we see today. There are many statues and buildings to remind us of him but his most famous legacy came about as a result of vanity.
In 1625 work started on a ship that was to head his fleet. This ship was to be bigger, more ornate and out gun anything else on the water. For three years, craftsmen from around Europe worked diligently to make this dream come alive. Unfortunately 15 minutes after it was launched it sank and resided 100 feet below the surface for the next 300 years.
In the 1960’s the ship was raised and underwent restoration and 95% of the original ship is now on display at the Vasa museum. It is a truly magnificent sight and gives an interesting insight into life in the 16th century.
Gamla Stan or the old town is dominated by the Royal Palace and represents the original island settlement of Stockholm and contains the old quarter. The old town links together the two most important districts of the city known as Norrmalm (north) and the busier, larger Sodermalm (south).
However, to the west lies the Kungsholem or administrative centre and its famous city hall, where annually on the 10th December, the Nobel prizes are awarded with the reception held here. With the reformation all Sweden’s monasteries were destroyed, but the remaining brickwork was recycled and used in projects around Sweden, with Stockholm’s city hall being the most famous. The building consists of two rooms the blue room with impressive colonnade of arches which in turn leads to the gold room. This room is simply stunning, decorated using gold mosaic and chronicling Sweden’s history via picture grams.
Wow what a destination, wasn’t sure about Stockholm but I thoroughly enjoyed my time here and can’t wait to come back.
Cold War Warriors
With the onset of the Korean War and the breakdown of relations between Russian and the western allies, Denmark found herself on the door step of a potentially unwanted neighbour. Its location on the western end of the Baltic Sea meant that it was ideally placed to monitor the moment the large and dangerous Russian surface fleet took to the Atlantic Ocean.
100 kms south of Copenhagen is the Stevnsfortress one of Nato’s best kept secrets for over 50 years. The fort could accommodate up to 300 men and in the event of war they could all be accommodated underground. A mile of tunnels link the operation rooms, accommodation and ammunition silo’s and its sub-terrainian atmosphere gives a damp and somewhat eerie atmosphere.
Cliff top defences at the site also are of great interest. Four 11” guns from the German pocket battleship “Gneisenau” dominate the skyline, ably supported by Hawk Antiaircraft missiles, Centurion tanks and ground troops.
The end of the cold war saw the requirement of the fort diminish until it was eventually retired. Like many cold war weapons the Stevnsfortress played a vital role in the defence of the western allies, its major contribution came during the Cuban Missile Crisis when its surveillance of Russian shipping kept the Whitehouse informed and was the first agency to report the U-turn of the missile carrying Russian cargo ships.
Stevnsfort is an incredible place to visit, its history and construction is unique whilst the service it provided made it a vital cog in Europe’s defence should be recognised.
Further down the coast from Stevnsfort lies the quiet romantic village of Hojerup and its amazing former village church. In 1928 a large landslide carried half of the church crashing down to the beach below. The partly ruined church has since become one of the area’s most visited attractions due to its serenity and peacefulness.
Denmark is a fantastic country with a population of 5.6 million, of which 52% live in and around the capital Copenhagen. Under its control is Greenland, the Faroe Islands and 400 islands plus the main land peninsula. Although part of the European community the Danish have similar views to the UK and have retained the Kroner as their currency.
Outside of the capital the infrastructure is good, road and rail links criss-cross the country providing links not only to the islands but to Sweden as well.
Having known very little about Denmark before my visit I have to admit it’s been a real eye opener and I’ve loved every minute of my stay here and can’t wait to come back. It you get a chance come and see for yourself as I’m sure you’ll love the experience.
Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen
Never did Hans Christian Anderson pen a more honest sentiment. As soon as you leave Europe’s no1 cruise port and enter the city the magic begins.
The Polar Bear and Little Mermaid welcome you, although her geo-modified ugly sister leaves a lot to be desired.
Medieval Copenhagen was created within the walls of an amazing citadel built to protect the fledging town from sea-borne invasion. Surrounded by a moat, high ramparts and canon, this walled city could protect its citizens and soldiers for up to a year. However as time and technology expanded the population of Copenhagen outgrow its safe haven and developed in to city we see today.
Churchill Park and the liberty museum, documents life in the dark days of occupation 70 years ago and is especially poignant in reflecting the stories of the resistance workers who laid down their lives in the fight their country.
As you head further into the city, the Palaces of the royal family take centre stage. The stunning Amalienborg square and its rococo influenced palaces, is the modern home for the Danish monarchy that via Princess Alexandra is closed linked to our own royal family. King Frederik was the man responsible for their creation and their magnificent local marble church which is crowned by the 3rd largest dome in Europe.
Other significant buildings built in this area include the Christiansborg Palace, the stock exchange, national library and university which still play a major role in modern day Copenhagen, were also started around this time.
The Nyhavn canal provided a major artery to the development of the city. Today it acts as a major social centre and is surrounded by brightly coloured houses, bars and restaurants. Every year it hosts a jazz festival which adds to its aura and attracts visitors from not just around Denmark but by Europe.
Movement around the town is easy with buses, the metro and canal boats being easy to use and readily available, however, most of the city is a comfortable walk away and with numerous bars and restaurants; to visit provides a great way to explore and enjoy this splendid city.
After 36 hours at sea our first landfall homed in to view, with it came the opportunity to set foot in the region of Scandinavia and the chance to experience both a new country and city.
The approach into Gothenburg is a passenger’s delight and a helmsman’s nightmare. The harbour entrance is a maze of rocky islets and islands, some habitable useable as light houses or weather stations whilst the majority are slowly eroding outcrops, but given a respectful berth nether the less.
Due to the size of our ship we were berthed a 20 minute bus ride outside of the city, which enabled a good view of both the city and its surroundings. Gothenburg comes across as a green city surrounded by woodland and gentle low lying hills, with the Rivera Gota running through the middle of it, along is banks are Oil and gas terminals, which alongside the new wind farms provide its life blood.
Trade Shipping and international contacts have set their stamp on Sweden’s 2nd City ever since it was founded in 1621 by Gustav Adolf II. Being on Sweden’s west coast it has seen its fair share of turmoil over the years as the Baltic nations fought for control of the Baltic Sea and its precious harbours. The Danes, the Dutch, and the English have all fought for a foot hold in the country only to lose it again years later. Their influence in terms of layout, culture and defence can still be seen and it came as some surprise that it took Swedes until the turn of 19th century to develop their own identity.
Entertainment, shopping and administration centres are grouped together making journeys worthwhile and all are linked in to well established tram, bus and cycle networks, whilst Toad barges enable a waterborne, method to view the city using the original canal network built by the Dutch. Walking around the city is easy the streets are wide and open, with green spaces never far away.
Due to a clay base and former legislation, Gothenburg has a fantastic low level skyline with no tall buildings and following a recent vote the public wish to keep it that way. The city is never far away from its maritime history, Stena has is main base and HQ here, the Feskekorka or fish church (market / restaurants) and the poignant missing sailor statue is testament to this. Volvo was developed here in 1927 and plays a major role in the local economy and its museum chronicling its life and times from a small national motor manufacture to multibillion global conglomerates is a definite must see.
Gothenburg has something for everyone, whether it be shopping, entertainment or culture but is strange that a town of such historical importance has very little in the way of physical history to show us.
Life On The Ocean Waves
It doesn’t take long to discover why cruising is so addictive. Once aboard the 800 or so P&O personnel are there to ensure that your every need is catered for, from dawn to dusk and beyond your every wish is their command.
An exploration of Aurora is an adventure in itself. Containing 3 swimming pools, a gym, spa, theatre, cinema, shops, library and countless bars / restaurants you are never stuck for something to do or somewhere to go.
For some a deck chair and sunshine is all that is required, whilst for others the activities are endless, catering for all abilities and tastes. Cards, quizzes, dancing and sporting abilities both enthral and entertain. Today’s highlight was an audience with Bob Champion legendary Jockey and fund raiser, whose presence, dignity and all round fighting spirit was an inspiration and unforgettable experience.
Days spent at sea end with a formal meal and the chance to dress properly. Starting procedures was a welcome aboard party hosted by our captain Neil Turnbull, who because of his standing must be a fine sailor, but could also double as a good stand-up comedian. His ability with people was incredible and this can be seen in the exemplary performance of his crew and reminded me of the Noel Coward line from the film “The Cruel Sea” “… a happy ship is an efficient ship and an efficient ship is a happy one “, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Britannia Rules The Waves
After what seemed an eternity to reach The Ageas Bowl, near Southampton we then faced a debacle of a check-in system, which infuriated both passengers and stewards alike. In an old fashioned case of demand far out stripping supply, tempers flared and impatience soared as passengers waited for the chance to check in and in turn their coaches to the docks.
Finally our time came and through the low leaden skies and drizzle seven white mega structures appeared menacingly out the mist, towering over the docks and surrounding skyline. The nearer we got the more everyone’s spirits rose and the tiredness and anguish of the early starts and traffic chaos was replaced with smiles and excitement.
On board you are meet with an aura of peace and tranquility, your cabins immediately feel like home, although there was little time for unpacking as a safety drill proceeded an almost immediate departure.
Where there was quiet became noise rasping horns, sirens, helicopters, people cheering and singing whilst out of the grey colour abounded, flags, streamers and fireworks, everywhere you looked action, motion, life.
Headed by Adona, the mighty fleet headed off into the Solent. Ventura, Arcarda , Aurora, Oriania, Azura and Oceana following closely behind and ably supported by a flotilla of watercraft large and small. The noise continued people shouting and waving, public spaces packed as people savoured the sights and sounds of these seven ocean going giants on what is probably their first meeting.
Once in the Solent the armada turned for one last action, ahead lay the trinity house ship Patricia with its very special guest HRH Princess Anne, and the Royal Navy’s latest addition HMS Dragon, ready to salute the ships as they sailed passed. With great gusto three cheers echoed from ship to ship before horns and sirens shattered the peace once more. Then with a farewell wave the flotilla broke up and headed off to their different destinations.
The only disappointment was the weather but as our captain said “the queen had the same conditions for her jubilee regatta and if they were good enough for her, then today they’ll be good enough for P & O” and how right he was.
Batten Down The Hatches
Can’t believe the departure date is so close, the list of things do, far out weighs the things completed. Washing may be up to date but don’t mention the ironing. The list of things to take seems never ending. Ahead of us are 4 black tie nights, four smart nights and 8 casual evenings, plus 10 daytime excursions. Add to that laptop, Ipod and my trusty camera.
The amount I’m taking seems scary, but will seem small when compared to my sisters luggage so not sure if our trip to Southampton is by car or removal van. Awaiting us is a 5* hotel supplied by P&O, our floating home from home, scarily my only ever big boat experience is the dover to Calais ferry so hopefully on board conditions should be vastly improved.
Suddenly the dream’s awakening, St Petersburg and the former Russian states are calling and are already my pre trip must-see-places. Saying that I can’t wait for Denmark, Norway, Sweden or Finland either. The sights, the sounds and even the smells will be a feast for the senses and a joy to behold.
Stay posted for the next part of my adventure…
My name is Mark Spurgeon I’m 41 years old and enjoy experiencing new destinations whether it is locally within the UK, or travelling further afield. Over the years I’ve ventured into North America, Australasia and seen plenty of Europe, but this summer sees me experience a totally new voyage, cruising through the Baltic. Join me here and follow my adventures courtesy of Si & Gav on thedepartureboard.com.
My journey starts at Southampton on the 3rd July aboard the P&O cruise ship Aurora and heads North on a trip of a lifetime, to where social harmony and peace flourish between former enemies . Witness the differing cultures of the Baltic and life onboard our floating metropolis.
It’s going to be the trip of a life time, so don’t miss it.
by Mark Spurgeon