What this is all about
In late July and into August, I was one of a foursome of travellers on a cruise vacation around the Baltic region, originating in Amsterdam. The group consisted of my partner and myself (a long-term gay couple), plus friends of ours from back home (a straight married couple). I wouldn't necessarily mention the sexual orientations of the travellers in a diary like this, but there is a controversial side issue that I will get to momentarily.
The countries of the Baltic are rich in history and culture. There have been wars, genocide, lands changing "ownership" over and over, beautiful music and art, and pure hatred of a kind not seen anywhere else on the planet. So much to see, learn, and absorb.
The cruise itself lasted 12 nights. Our friends flew from home to Amsterdam four days prior to the cruise start. By the time we joined them there a day later, they had already figured out how to navigate the city, making things easier for us. Post-cruise, our friends flew back home the same day as the ship returned to Amsterdam. Partner and I took the opportunity to have a brief layover, one night, in Vienna before flying home.
This diary is the first in a mini-series of perhaps three diaries, representing a photo recollection of some of the highlights of the trip. The focus of this initial diary is our time spent in Amsterdam, itself a wonderful city to explore. It is photo-heavy, by intent. Although all four of us carried DSLR cameras, and the ever-present cell phone cameras, the photos presented here were all shot by me, unless otherwise noted.
Planning for this trip began more than a year ago. Partner and I have cruised several times already, this being our sixth. Last year, we started looking at cruise itineraries for this summer, and settled on a Baltic tour. Our travelling friends had cruised once before, and in joint discussions we agreed on the embarkation date, port, ship, and land excursions into the ports of call.
The cruise itinerary, beginning and ending in Amsterdam, included these ports of call:
- Warnemunde, Germany
- Stockholm, Sweden
- Helsinki, Finland
- St. Petersburg, Russia
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Copenhagen, Denmark
Don't go there!
Yes, I said St. Petersburg, Russia. At this point I feel obligated to say something specifically about that. As those of you reading this surely will know, Russia has been in the news lately for its extreme anti-gay policies. A new law passed in June has brought more world-wide attention to the issue. The winter olympics in Solchi, and the G-20 meeting coming up soon in St. Petersburg, are now wrapped up in controversy. I don't need to reiterate the details for this audience.Moving forward
When we chose this particular cruise itinerary last year, we were aware that Russia was not an entirely friendly place for LGBT people. Of course, the situation has gotten much worse since then. What many readers may not know is that cruise lines typically require payment in full 70 or 75 days prior to embarkation, and that date is a line in the sand: the payment is not refundable after that point in time. In our case, final and full payment was made to the cruise line in May. Things started to turn ugly (or more ugly than previously known, if you prefer) in June. We were, by that point, locked into the cruise with no refund possible. To not go would mean forfeiture of the entire amount. Although we did purchase travel insurance, canceling because you don't like the politics of the destination is not one of the conditions under which you can get a refund.
If we were looking to the Baltic as a destination now, obviously we would stay away from Russia. Call it a boycott, call it avoidance, whatever you want, we wouldn't go there. But we were caught between a very expensive rock, and a hard place on this one. Our travelling friends were in the same pre-paid situation.
I'm sure there are some absolutists reading this who will say "you shouldn't have set foot in St. Petersburg, period". I can't say that's completely wrong; as one half of a gay couple, I certainly abhor what the government of Russia has been doing, and I don't want to be seen as endorsing or contributing to that in any way. But the money was already spent.
So, we went ahead. I will have more to say about St. Petersburg, and Russia in general, in an upcoming diary in this series.
The upshot is, now I've been to Russia, and I can talk about what I learned. Stay tuned.
The photos below are hosted on flickr. You can click on the photos to see higher resolution versions, if desired.
The adventure begins below the orange kroissant.
Getting there is half the fun, isn't it?
Our journey begins on a Saturday evening, leaving home en route to Amsterdam. Our friends had gone the day before, giving them extra time over there. Partner travels a lot on business, and his company allows employees to keep the accumulated travel points for personal use. So we had the good fortune to fly for free, on points. Unfortunately, the airlines often put restrictions in place when using those points. Our friends, who paid for their flight personally, were able to fly directly from Calgary to Amsterdam. We had to take the long way around, Calgary to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Amsterdam. That may seem nonsensical, but that's the airline business for you.
Flying time on our Air Canada A330 was 9.5 hours, arriving in Frankfurt around noon CEST on Sunday. There's about 5 hours of "lights out" time on this flight, during which time you presumably sleep. Fat chance. I am never able to sleep on airplanes, except for maybe a few precious moments. Partner does a little better.
The Frankfurt airport is a major European hub. It seems to be operating at over-capacity, as quite a few planes park remote from the terminal itself. I was surprised to see out the window, a long row of planes, side by side, away from the terminal, each surrounded by portable staircases and utility vehicles. And then I realized we were headed for a spot in that row. As we rolled to a stop, a couple of transport buses rolled up alongside. The buses loaded up, and drove us across the airport field to the terminal. It was hot and humid, but at least not raining.
Here is my first official vacation shot, from my cell phone, standing on the tarmac at Frankfurt airport, next to our plane. The buses are off-screen, to the immediate right, very close to the plane.
Going through Immigration at Frankfurt was easy. As I approached the counter and slid my passport across to the female agent, she smiled and said "Good morning, how are you?" in English.
I think I managed to hide my shock. Polite, friendly, speaking English to a traveller arriving in Germany (I guess they have clues about that). A government official in an airport setting not being impatient, snarly, and rude, or at the very least aloof, to a traveller? I must do this travel outside of North America thing more often. It is refreshing. Anyway, she opened my passport, scanned it into her computer terminal, stamped it, and passed it back, still smiling.
About 4.5 hours later, we departed Frankfurt for Amsterdam, this time on a Lufthansa A319. It's a short haul flight of about 1 hour. This A319 seemed to have been built a hundred years ago. I guess it just seemed that way, with the total lack of video screens, plugins of any kind, or entertainment other than hard-copy magazines. Business class, where we sat, has the identical seats as economy; the only difference being that the airline does not sell the middle seat in a business class group of three seats. This, presumably, is what counts as "extra space". I suppose it gives them extra flexibility if they have to reconfigure the aircraft for all economy seating on some routes.
Now, when you travel among the countries of the EU, immigration is by design very easy. Security checks are enormously less annoying than in North America, and Immigration check points are pretty much like going through any other doorway. This was the case on arrival in Amsterdam; we picked up our luggage at the carousel, and walked through the door labeled "Nothing to Declare". A few agents were having a conversation nearby, but otherwise paid little attention to passengers walking right through the door.
We stayed in a different hotel from our friends; we made contact that evening, but didn't see them until the following morning. For our dinner that first night, we found a little restaurant a short walk from the hotel, sitting at one of their sidewalk tables, drinking wine, eating a little, and people watching. That's definately one of the things to do (repeatedly) in Amsterdam.
Our hotel (Hotel Pulitzer) served a very nice buffet breakfast every morning. I enjoyed some of the sweetest strawberries I've had in a while there, along with pastries, strong coffee, fresh cooked eggs, yogurt, and more fruit. As hotel buffets go, many of them are crappy; this one was excellent.
The first sight-seeing expedition we made within Amsterdam was to the Rijksmuseum. This is a well-known, and well-visited institution, with a vast collection of art, artifacts, ship models, weapons, and on and on. A serious patron of the arts could spend days in there. We limited our time to about 3 hours. Among the four of us, we have two who want to walk through any museum quickly, one who could spend the above-mentioned days, and myself, somewhere in the middle. We had limited time with lots to see, and we compromised.
This image in one of the museum hallways, gives a hint at the stunning architecture and colors to be found inside.
I had no idea the size and scale of some of the famous artworks, by Rembrandt and others. When you see reproductions of a painting online or in a book, you don't see how big some of them are. Here are a couple of examples:
There are so many artifacts to see, such as this canon sporting fine detail. No plain steel tube here, this is a piece of art:
There's plenty of stained glass about. This sample is about 3 stories high:
Scattered throughout the museum, you might come across students and other art appreciators drawing sketches. In this shot, the fellow on the right is sketching one of the tall ceramic pieces inside the glass case at the center of this room. I tried to get a better shot of his notepad and the piece, but it was difficult to be unobtrusive and get just the shot I wanted. I didn't want to be too obvious what I was up to.
I love ship models, and this museum has plenty. The detail that has gone into the construction of these models is incredible.
The Rijksmuseum isn't all about historical art. They cater to the modern era also. At first glance, when you pass by this clock, it seems that there is someone in behind the frosted glass face, repeatedly erasing the hands and redrawing with a marker as each minute goes by. But there's nobody in there. It's a small box, set away from the wall, so that there is obviously no room for a live person to be doing a performance art piece. It is, in fact, a computer animation or video of a shadowy figure redrawing the hands of the clock for each minute. Very, very clever. My camera is capable of recording video, but of course I didn't think of that until we were well past this exhibit. Neither did the others. D'oh.
A few moments later...
Outside the museum, there is this shallow pool, that on and off had some kids and dogs playing in it. The Rijksmuseum is behind the camera, and in the distance beyond the pool and green space is the Van Gogh museum.
Walking further along past the pool and looking back, you can see the Rijksmuseum from the outside. It is a magnificent old building, that has undergone significant modernization inside. You can also barely make out in this shot, the "I amsterdamn" logo that is seen in a number of public spaces around Amsterdam. It's here, as well as at the airport, and the cruise ship terminal. The "am" letters are red, the others white.
This beautiful green space is just past the museum property, and heading in the general direction of the Van Gogh museum.
This particular building happens to be near the Van Gogh museum, but it is an example of architecture you will find all over old Amsterdam. Near the roof line on buildings like this, you will see a beam and hook protruding. They are everywhere. We asked, and confirmed our guess: these were/are used for hauling up furniture and other items into upper floors of a building. In many cases, stairways and hallways are too narrow and with twists and turns, to carry furniture upward, from the inside.
The building on the right hand side in this photo is the Van Gogh museum. I tried to get a sense of the long line of people waiting to get in; lines stretch not only to the left, but also to the right of the building, and around the block. This was a bit past noon; we decided to bypass this, and come back for opening time the next morning.
This shot is just a random old door we passed by in our walk. I like the colors and texture.
The Diary of Anne Frank
Now we are about to enter the Anne Frank house, which is only one block from our hotel. The lines here wrap around the building and to the left, and would likely take hours to navigate just to get in. Fortunately, one of our friends had the forethought to book an appointment and buy advance tickets online, which turned out to be a timesaver. If you have advance tickets, you can enter by a door on the side. If you try to get in on the spot, you are going to have a long wait.
You can read about Anne Frank from many online articles, or start from the house official website here. Many of you are of course already well aware of what Anne, her family, and four other people went through, hiding from the Nazis until they were discovered and sent off to the concentration camps. Anne herself died presumably of typhus, at Auschwitz.
It is humbling to walk through the building, and climb the steep narrow staircases to the upper levels where they hid. The building is kept dark, and quiet, much as it must have been in those days. Most furniture has been removed, perhaps for the practicality of moving visitors through the house and among the rooms in an orderly fashion.
One thing that I found distasteful is the barrage of Samsung logos now scattered throughout the house. There are video monitors here and there showing short clips, interviews, brief documentary segments, and so on. Each of these monitors has attached to it a blazing Samsung logo. Not the kind of logo you might have on a monitor or TV at home, but an illuminated, glaring, IN-YOUR-FACE Samsung logo. Tacky and distracting. Shame on whoever is responsible for that hideousness.
Here is a view of the facade of the building, looking up from sidewalk level.
The Anne Frank house is adjacent to one of Amsterdam's canals, and this view is looking from the front of the building, directly across the canal. Moored nearby is one of many many houseboats that are seemingly everywhere.
On our next full day in Amsterdam, we started out the morning at the Van Gogh museum. The exhibits are mostly tough to photograph as the rooms are fairly dark; you cross into that area where shutter speed is going to be too slow for hand-held, and flash is not permitted and would look crappy anyway. But here's a view of a staircase inside the museum. I'm a sucker for crisp, clean lines like this:
If you look closely at many Van Gogh works, you will see strokes reminiscent of the patterns on the glass doors and windows:
As you wander about and read the various descriptions of Van Gogh works, you put together a profile of a man who didn't set out to be an artist, really wasn't a natural, had to be taught basic techniques on up, and spent lots of time using geometrical rigs to replicate the works of others on different scales. When you put it all together, it's tempting to wonder what all the fuss was about. But, some of the works are truly amazing. So there's that.
Sights of the city
As you walk around old Amsterdam, you are surrounded by so many fascinating things to look at. Here we see a juxtaposition of small boats, cars, bikes, water, and sidewalks all sharing the same cramped space.
Another view, at another location. Do you wonder if people parking their cars ever go just a liiiiiiiitle bit too close to the edge of the canal?
And of course, buildings that abut the canals directly. This is not far from the famous red light district:
By the way, we were told that photographs are not "appreciated" in the red light district, and that some of the "business workers" in the area can be aggressive toward photographers. We wandered through the area, looked around, verified that yes indeed there are women standing in the windows available for customers. We did not partake.
Here, a tour boat navigates a narrow section of canal, near a lock.
We were in Amsterdam during the local Pride week. Banners were visible in many places. The main Pride events were scheduled to take place after we were to be well on our way on the cruise. Sometimes our timing sucks. Oh well.
This street is dotted with Asian restaurants, and rainbow flags. Who could ask for anything more?
We stopped for coffee and a pastry at a little cafe along the way. Their storefront was on a street much like the photo above; the seating area is downstairs, where you will find an open window that looks directly (and somewhat precariously) onto the canal, with this view:
Many of the buildings are very very old indeed, and wood pilings driven deep into the ground have crumbled or tilted in various ways. Especially close to the canals, it is not unusual to see buildings leaning against one another, as in this photo. One wonders, inside some of these, what it is like to walk across the floor.
And another view, elsewhere:
This is a terrible composition, with the tree sitting in the direct path of the camera's view of this little pub/restaurant. But it's the only angle I could get that clearly shows the lean of this building. I don't think the "Closed" sign means the building is permanently closed by any means; it's just not open for business at that particular time of day.
Various items for sale on a sidewalk. There are lots of places around selling vinyl record albums (remember those?)
Oh Matt, you're following me around, aren't you?
I. Love. Cheese.
We laughed and made politically incorrect comments among ourselves about what exactly might be on those sticks:
Canal boat tour
There are many sightseeing boats plying the canal ways; one of them was pictured above. Our hotel happens to own its own boat, which has a capacity of only 10 passengers, and their own full time captain. According to the captain, this very same boat famously took Winston Churchill on a canal tour, back in the day.
Moments before we boarded, there was a downpour of rain. It poured buckets, for about five minutes, then stopped. It then sprinkled on an off for our tour of just over an hour. Still, very pleasant all in all.
On our boat tour, we passed by the cruise ship terminal, which we would be coming to the next day, to begin our cruise.
We also passed by the Sea Palace floating Chinese restaurant.
There are a number of lift bridges over the canals of this not-so-modern design.
A view from the boat, approaching one of many, many bridges over the canals.
Before we began this journey, fellow Kossack Steveningen recommended to me, his favorite restaurant in Amsterdam, Saturnino. We booked a reservation for 4 on Tuesday night, coinciding with Partner's birthday. As we arrived, we were first offered a table under the front awning, outside. Had it not been sprinkling rain, we would have taken that. Then they offered us either a table upstairs, or one tucked into the corner by the bar. We chose the latter, and what a good choice that turned out to be.
The restaurant is a family-owned Italian place, with close together tables and a terrific atmosphere. Reviews I read stated that the restaurant is very gay-friendly, and at times has a clientele of mostly men. That was not the case that night, as it was a very mixed, and also very happy, crowd. We consumed 2 bottles of the house red wine, which was not only cheap (a full litre for 20 euros) but quite good for a house wine. For dinner, I had a 4-cheese pizza, Partner had spaghetti with mixed seafood. I can't recall what our friends had offhand.
Here is one of the appetizer rounds, featuring nicely done calimari:
At the table next to us, this fellow was celebrating a birthday with his girlfriend. Even without the sparkler, he had a smile that could light up the room.
We didn't get similar treatment for Partner. That's because we didn't ask for it. We are just not the type to make a birthday announcement in a restaurant, not really wanting the attention.
We all agreed, after that dinner, it was the most memorable meal so far on the trip. And just yesterday, Partner and I were talking about food and agreed, once again, that was the best dinner of the entire trip, spanning nearly 3 weeks. Steveningen has done himself proud with this recommendation.
Farewell to Amsterdam
The morning after that lovely dinner, we boarded the cruise ship to begin the main event. We were passengers on the Celebrity Constellation. It is neither the biggest, nor the smallest, cruise ship we have been on. Many sailings, whether in Europe or North America, begin with a very similar time table: The ship arrives at port from its previous cruise early in the morning, 5:00AM to 6:00AM. Passengers start disembarking about an hour later, and all should be off by about 8:30AM. Boarding for the new cruise begins at 11:00AM, and all must be aboard at least an hour before sailaway, in this case 4:30PM. During that day, the ship undergoes a massive cleaning and restocking operation. All the guest rooms have to be cleaned, bedding changed, and so on.
We always aim to be among the first on board. After all, that day is included in the purchase price for the cruise, so we might as well make use of the ship. The buffet is open for lunch immediately at 11:00AM, though staterooms are typically blocked off and unavailable for entry until 1:00PM, while cleaning is still ongoing. Shopping and casino services are always closed while in port, and wait until the ship reaches international waters to open.
Partner and I have a standing tradition of boarding early, and heading up to the buffet for lunch, grabbing a table at the far aft section of the buffet, with a view out the back end. We introduced our travelling friends to this tradition. That corner became our rendezvous point with them. We could be off doing our own thing, and meet back there for lunch or whatever, depending on what was going on for any given day.
So here's the view from shipside, just before sailaway. The passenger loading gangway is much like the jetway at an airport, but with more glass. This terminal features a band playing us off, and you can also see the familiar "I amsterdam" logo.
From the other side, we can see one of the riverboats docked. These boats are built very low and long, and designed for river rather than ocean cruises. We plan to try that some time.
This looks like a kiddie-size container ship that we passed, as we sailed out of Amsterdam harbour. Probably some sort of shuttle for small amounts of container cargo.
Here, one of many windmill farms in the area. As you get out into the Baltic Sea, and even the North Sea, you will find windmill farms out in open water.
And finally: a shot of the TV screen in our stateroom. This particular channel is dedicated to the live bow camera, and a summary of the next port of call. First up, Warnemunde Germany. It's going to be hot!
The next diary in this mini-series will pick up at this point. We take a more serious tone as we visit the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, on the way to Berlin via train.
Until then, I hope you have at least been entertained by this journey so far. If any of you have been to this region, I'd love to hear your comments.