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We Discover Northern Europe, #4 – Finland

October 26, 2016

Next was Helsinki, Finland’s capital. A nation shaped by climatic extremes: “endless summer days and the blackest of winter nights.” According to Insight Travel editors, it is today one of the best-kept secrets in Europe. Though it has no world-renowned attractions, no superlative fjords, no medieval monasteries, and few spectacular old towns. But what it does have are 180,000 lakes in which to canoe, swim, or fish in the summer; and on which to skate in the winter. It also has 37 national parks, 19 nature reserves, and 400 protected areas. The aurora borealis (northern lights) can be seen here year round.

helsinki-national-lutheran-church-scanThe National Lutheran Church

The sami race came here first. Since Sweden considered Finland to be its “eastern province,” its rule lasted from 1157 to 1809. On and off through the centuries, Russia has been an ever-present threat; finally, in 1808, Czar Alexander I attacked and occupied Finland. By 1809, it had become a Russian duchy. In 1917, when the October Revolution toppled the Romanovs, Finland declared its independence; in 1919, it became a republic. During the 1939-40 “Winter War with Russia,” Stalin forces Finland to surrender 11% of its land mass to the Soviet Union. In 1995, Finland joined the European Union.

Helsinki was founded in 1550 by King Gustav Vasa of Sweden-Finland to compete with Tallinn just across the Gulf of Finland.

helsinki-rock-church-scanInterior of the Rock Church

We found it to be a very clean high-tech city, but with little historic architecture that stood out; most everything is modern. Our bus stopped in front of the National Lutheran Church, a most imposing structure. Outside of it, in a very large parking lot, an old gentleman, with a weird old instrument that magnified sound, stood up and belted out recognizable music—he attracted quite a helsinki-rock-churck-pipe-organ-scancrowd. Then it was on to the now world-famous Rock Church. Great acoustics in this natural open-rock amphitheater. A gentleman playing saxophone and clarinet alternately, gave his guests a concert. Then it was on to Sibelius Park, much celebrated because of Sibelius’s great composition, Finlandia, that celebrated Finland when there wasn’t much to celebrate. Today, Helsinki is one of the most innovative, creative, high-tech cities in Europe.

Pipe Organ in the Rock Church

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We Discover Northern Europe #3 — Estonia

October 19, 2016

Estonia City View - from, "Insight Guides" to Baltic States
Estonia City View – from “Insight Guides” to Baltic States

All our lives, we’d heard about the three fascinating Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; three small neighboring Northern European countries that have shared histories, similar geographies, different languages, and separate identities. They lie between Scandinavia to the north, Poland to the south, and Finland and Russia to the east. Their combined total land mass is only 67,000 square miles, about the size of Oklahoma—even smaller than Austria. Although they are much alike, they are also distinctively different from each other. According to Insight Guide editors, Lithuanians are stereotypically the most outgoing and nationalistic. Latvians are the most rural in outlook; because Russia did its utmost to swallow up its identity, today only 60% of Latvians are Latvian rather than Russian. Estonia is more influenced by Scandinavia. Under the heading of “Showing Affection” in the guidebook is this thought-provoking paragraph:

Old Town Fortress
Old Town Fortress

“Estonians have mastered the art of being impeccably polite without being friendly. Friendship, for them, is for life…. Despite their differences, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are united by a love of nature and the outdoors. Admittedly, they enjoy it in different ways. Lithuanians will drive their car to a beauty spot and blast their surroundings with pop music, whereas Latvians will organize barbecues or swimming parties. Estonians tend to regard such habits with horror, going to great lengths to find a truly solitary spot where they can sit in silence.”


Walking to Old Town
Walking to Old Town

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, it was only possible for us to visit one of the three: Tallinn, the fairytale capitol of Estonia. It was a heartstoppingly beautiful blue-sky day when the Zuiderdam arrived. It took some getting used to for us to shake off distance misconceptions. Tallinn is only 53 miles from Helsinki, Finland; and 80 miles from St. Petersburg, Russia. This close proximity to giants such as Russia has resulted in a tragic past for the Baltic States. Every time Russia sneezes, they shudder. This is one reason they pay so much attention to U. S. politics, for if Russia should once again swallow them up, if the U.S. refuses to honor its treaties, one gobble and they’d be erased from the face of the map.

But it’s not just Russia that has dominated Estonia. The first conquerors wereestonia-alexander-nevsky-cathedral-scan the Danes; since the Estonians held off 1,000 ships, Denmark called in Teutonic Knights; together, in 1227, they took over Estonia. Sweden was next, but proved so repressive that Estonians turned to Peter the Great. By 1721, Russia was firmly in control. Estonia remained subjugated for 270 years until on August 20, 1991, with Russian tanks rolling into Tallinn, Estonia formally declared its independence. Thus, Estonia has only been independent for a paltry 25 years in its entire history!

Tallinn is a medieval walking town with      meandering cobblestone streets. Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to stay long in the lovely old city. Apparently, it is today being loved to death by Russians, Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Germans, and Danes—just for starters. Yet, in spite of it all, Estonians revel in their newly won freedom.

Just as was true of the Danes, Estonians were all outdoors, savoring the early May sunshine. They are so far north, Northern Europe is, that they have very long gloomy winters, with precious little sunshine. Consequently, when May comes, no one wants to stay indoors!

It was with great reluctance that we watched Tallinn receding from view, vowing to return in order to explore more of those three magical little nations, each reveling in its new-found freedom.

Toompea Castle



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August 31, 2016


Day One                     Copenhagen, Denmark (start of first cruise)
Day Two                     Warnemunde, Germany
Day Three                  At Sea
Day Four                    Talinn, Estonia
Day Five                     St. Petersburg, Russia
Day Six                       St. Petersburg, Russia
Day Seven                  Helsinki, Finland
Day Eight                   Stockholm, Sweden
Day Nine                    At Sea
Day Ten                      Kiel, Germany
Day Eleven                Gothenborg, Sweden
Day Twelve               Helsingborg, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark
Day Thirteen            Copenhagen, Denmark (start of second cruise)
Day Fourteen           Oslo Fjord and Oslo, Norway
Day Fifteen               Kristiansand, Norway
Day Sixteen              Stavanger, Norway
Day Seventeen         Lerwick, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Day Eighteen           At Sea
Day Nineteen           Glasgow (Greenock), Scotland
Day Twenty              Isle of Skye (Portree), Scotland
Day Twenty-one      Invergordon, Scotland
Day Twenty-two      Edinburgh (S. Queensferry), Scotland
Day Twenty-three   Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England
Day Twenty-four     At Sea
Day Twenty-five      Copenhagen, Denmark

Scan0007It’s a long way from home to Europe: Denver to Toronto, Canada; Toronto to Copenhagen, Denmark. Since our seats are in coach, we get precious little sleep en route to Europe. We get to Denmark one day early for several reasons: plane-flights can be delayed or canceled without notice; luggage is sometimes mis-sent or never arrives at all; for jet-lag reasons, it’s important to slot in an extra day to deal with it.

Neither Connie nor I had ever been in Northern Europe before, thus this for us is indeed a “trip of a lifetime.”

But before we board the Zuiderdam, it would be helpful for me to share some information with you about the Baltic Sea.


For starters, it’s cold! The 60th parallel runs right through it. Perhaps it may help to give you some specifics: Also on or near the 60th parallel are Anchorage, Alaska; Whitehorse and Hudson Bay, Canada; the southern tip of Greenland; and Northern Siberia in Russia.

The Baltic is the largest expanse of brackish water in the world. It is semi-landlocked and rather shallow for the most part. Surprisingly, it is 85 to 90 percent fresh water, mainly because so much river water drains into it and because the entrance area into the North Sea is rather shallow as well. It is because of this that thousands of ancient ships are still preserved in its waters. Because of that low salinity, wooden ships are still preserved as well. Roughly finger-shaped, it covers 160,000 square miles and drains nearly four times that. In the winter, it tends to freeze over. Countries clockwise from the west are Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark. Although it reaches a depth of 1,500 feet, predominantly it tends to be only a few hundred feet deep.

We were lucky: we visited it in early summer.

* * *

Several weeks from now, we’ll begin our cruise journey in Denmark.

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Around the World in 60 Days

August 10, 2016

Well, it was and it wasn’t. But Connie and I did travel some 24,000 miles in 60 days, and since the circumference of our world is around 24,000 miles, I thought it would be an apt title.

It started with a rather jolting birthday. Certain decade-birthdays that come to all of us, if we live long enough, are harder to take than others. This was one of them.

Knowing this, Connie decided to rummage around and see what she could do to soften the blow. She found it in a Vacations to Go travel listing: a 24-day cruise in Northern Europe for little more than one would pay for a seven-day cruise! Reason being, it was the first summer cruise to that part of the world, and Holland America wanted to fill the ship.

In early May, we flew to Denmark via Toronto, and we visited Estonia, Germany, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, the Shetland Islands, Scotland, England, and Denmark. The following month we took an extended road-trip traveling America’s back roads southeast to the Florida Keys (for our 34th annual Zane Grey’s West Society convention); north to Annapolis, Maryland; northwest to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, then southeast to Denver. About 17,000 miles on the European cruise and 7,000 miles on the American road trip, adding up to the equivalent of a 24,000-mile circumnavigation of the globe.

It will take us considerable time to share all this with you (not straight through but in batches, as there’ll be a number of other subjects I’ll wish to weigh in on along the way.

Those of you who have delayed getting book orders in to us, be advised that we’ll be able to fill book orders for some time to come. So let us know how we can be of service to you.

Meanwhile, keep your traveling shoes on.