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We Discover Northern Europe #6, Germany

November 16, 2016

Seekanal in Warnemunde
Seekanal in Warnemunde
The Travelers: Joe and Connie
The Travelers: Joe and Connie

During our cruise, our ship, the Zuiderdam, stopped in two ports in Germany: Warnemünde and Kiel. We had been to other parts of Germany during previous trips to Europe, but these two ports were new to us.

At Warnemünde, many passengers took the train to Berlin. But since half the day would be spent on the train, we opted for just walking around and savoring the little port town of Warnemünde.

Street Art
Street Art

When our ship returned to Germany the second time, we docked in Kiel. This time, we decided to visit the medieval city of Lübeck. Every so often we’d see, outside our bus window as we were riding along, the blinding yellow fields of rape (a variant of the mustard family used for bird-food, rapeseed oil, or canola oil). But finally, we arrived at Lübeck, the most important town in the Baltic basin by the end of the Middle Ages. Today, it is a magnet for fans of Backsteingotic (Gothic brick architecture). In Lübeck (beautifully rebuilt after World War II), church interiors, facades of buildings, the famed city gates, and even the Medieval hospital add up to illustrated pictures of historic architecture. Fans of its most important literary figure, Thomas Mann come here as well.

Rape Sead Field
Rape Sead Field
Lubeck Medieval Gate
Lubeck Medieval Gate

We were able to spend some time exploring the Holstentor, the only entrance into old Lübeck, constructed 1466-1478. We also gazed upward in amaze in Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church), a brick modification of a Neo Classical French cathedral. Its vast interior boasts the highest vaulted brick ceiling in the world (131 feet). It dates back to the early 1300’s.

St. Mary's Cathedral
St. Mary’s Cathedral

As a historian, I have long been aware of that powerful trade organization called the Hanseatic League. Now we were in Lübeck, the capital city of that merchants trading power that dominated Baltic trading for hundreds of years. It all started in 1241 when Lübeck and Hamburg agreed to join forces in order to safeguard German trade in the North Sea. Other towns, such as Lüneberg, Wismar, Rostock, and Stralsund, joined them in 1256.

Lucy Earp enjoying Marzipan and Chocolate
Lucy Earp enjoying Marzipan and Chocolate

Because Germany was so fragmented, the Hanseatic League, as it added more and more cities, became as powerful as were political states, trading in Flanders, England, Russia, etc. In the charter of 1226, the Emperor Frederick II elevated Lübeck to an imperial city., The merchant princes who represented these Hanseatic cities (eventually around 72) wielded great financial power. That power lasted for several hundred years, then gradually the Hanseatic League lost its trading monopolies. Even so the League, even in diminished power, held on for almost half a millennium until closing shop in Bergen (1775), London (1852), and Antwerp (1863).

Medieval City of Lubeck
Medieval City of Lubeck

What a run!

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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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August 24, 2016

Turns out that traveling makes us
far happier than any material wealth
ever does. – Bright Side

Ah the lure of the open road, the ever-changing sea, the trackless sky! And travel-writers are right when they postulate that anticipation trumps destination. Without anticipation: planning, scouting, researching, dreaming, etc., travel would be ever so much the less.


As our faithful blog-readers may remember, we have done our best to infect our two grandsons, Taylor and Seth, with the travel virus by taking each of them on separate cruises to Europe. The catch: they had to master the entire geography of the world before their 13th birthdays—took each of them an entire year to accomplish.

After we visited them recently, en route home from our 24,000-mile trip, Taylor addressed a card to:

“Dear wonderful wandering-all-over-the-world grandparents.”

We suspect both boys will turn out to be wanderers as well.

As for us and our faithful traveling accomplices, Bob and Lucy Earp, we never leave home without first singing “On the Road Again” with Willie Nelson.

I once wrote an article for Ministry Magazine titled, “When Missionaries Go Forth, What Happens to Their Children?” What happens is that children of missionaries (also ministers and Armed Forces personnel) grow up with a permanent case of wanderlust. Home for them, [us] is not a place, but rather wherever in the world their parents happen to be at a given moment. My parents certainly bequeathed that great gift to me and my two siblings.

Scan0005But it is oh so frustrating to be tied to such a short life-span. So many places to see and experience, so little time. I felt it keenly in these two recent trips: In most cases, we only got to spend a couple of days in countries we’d have liked to have spent months. All we got were hummingbird-brief tastings.

Indeed, life is so brief, as I get older I’ve come to resent traveling on routes I’m already familiar with—worst of all: freeways. So, instead, my wife and I find backroads we’ve never explored before whenever possible.

I suspect that much of America’s current isolationism, myopia, and narrow simplistic thinking is a product of squirrel-cage living: just mindlessly spinning around and around on the same trajectory, never going anywhere new. Same for the failure of millions to learn anything new. Instead of reading, they waste their lives away on mindless yada yada. Or as Ted Koppel famously put it: “Almost everything said in public today is recorded; almost nothing said in public is worth remembering.”

As for travel, St. Augustine’s great quote is worth going back to again and again:

“The world is a great book, and those who do not travel—
have read only one page.”

Scan0006As for the money it takes to travel, we are anything but wealthy. However, like everyone else, our lives are governed by priorities: In order to travel, we do without things others may consider essential—like new cars for instance.

The more that I live, read, experience, learn, and become, the more I’m convicted that deep in our DNA, God has implanted a yearning to explore, to become, to grow. No one revels in sitting on something day after day. Always, each day, God expects us to stretch towards growth like a spider casting out filaments. Or as Robert Browning memorably put it in Andrea del Sarto:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”

* * * * *

Then there are those who yearn to travel but are incapacitated or anchored to one vicinity because of the illness of someone dear to them. Millions are in this situation. Many of these travel vicariously, and grow in the process.

Nor should we forget visionaries such as Thoreau who expanded his world mightily for two long years—yet never left Walden Pond.

* * *

With this preamble, I shall begin our new two-part series:

We Discover Northern Europe
We Discover America’s Backroads.

Not all at once, of course, but in small doses at a time.

Look forward to traveling with you, beginning next week.