Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Europe 2016 Part I 24 July – 11 August

Each time we go overseas I write a blog so when people ask me how was the trip (or trips in the past) or any tips I point them to my blog. 

The flight from Sydney to Dubai was on a Emirates 380.  The whole of the top deck was business class and there would have been 30 rows at least or 120 people.  We were at the front so got served first.  Dubai to Stockholm around 6.5 hours was even better as we were upgraded to first. 

We arrive in Stockholm at around 1pm and had a chauffeur driven Mercedes take us to our hotel in Gamla Stan which is in the centre of Stockholm and easily the best place to stay in Stockholm.  We were located next to the Royal Palace, the hotel the Lady Hamilton has tremendous character and is really cool.

That afternoon we staggered around the island, (Stockholm is built on 14 of them) grabbed a great meal at Osterlangg 17.  I also made my first mistake at a money changer who charged me a percentage 14% instead of fixed amount. The address was 29 Vasterlanggan, don’t go there.  The standard charge is 50 kroner irrespective of the amount.

The next morning we set off to the biggest department store NK to buy some boxer shorts I had forgotten to pack and mummy then bought some shoes.  We ended up going to a tour at the Konserthuis, a big blue building where besides concert they do the annual Nobel Prize Awards of 1 million dollars each for physics, chemistry, literature, and economics.  The event started in 1902 and is funded by the Nobel estate (inventor of dynamite).  The peace prize is done in Oslo in accordance with the will of Nobel to try to keep Sweden and Norway together.  It failed as 3 years later Norway split off.  We also heard a lunch time concert there.

That afternoon we did the Royal Palace tour.  The palace is the second biggest in Europe after Versailles and is really impressive.  We learnt a lot about Swedish history; nothing else matters as long as they beat the Danes.  Sweden broke free from the Danes in 1523 which is the most common pin code in Sweden.  The other interesting item was that due to assassination they had to import a Napoleonic Marshal in 1809 to become king with instructions to regain Finland which had just been lost to the Russians.  He decided that was too risky so he invaded Norway and conquered that country instead.  This was the last war Sweden fought.  Since then the country has been neutral.  Now you know why Sweden appears to be very wealthy.

That night we has an Italian meal at Sally's which I booked online via trip advisor and got a 30% discount.

The next day began with a 2.5 hour boat tour under the bridges.  It gave us an excellent understanding of the Stockholm topography.  There are 14 islands and 60 bridges and we are staying on the oldest and most central.  In the afternoon we went to the Vasa Museum.  In 1628 the Vasa was built on the orders of the King to be the first double decker warship.  Unfortunately it was top heavy and on its first voyage made about 800 metres before a slight breeze caused it topple over and sink.  They managed to salvage nearly all the 64 cannon but the location of the ship was lost and only raised some 333 years later in 1961.  98% of the original boat was salvaged and they then built a museum around it.  It is a really unbelievable sight.  The boat is massive and the exhibitions superb.  It turned out that everyone thought the boat was unstable but no one had the courage to tell the King.

That evening we had another Italian on Vasterlanggan.  I ate Bambi, it was my first reindeer filet.  It was excellent and much better than venison.

The third day we walked south to Sodermalm, Stockholm's hipster area and the setting for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  We foud it disappointing so after an hour we returned to the centre.  We did a tour of the Riksdag or Parliament House and learned how their democracy worked.  44% of the 350 members are women.  They abolished their Senate in 1961.  If only we could do the same in Australia.

Then in the afternoon we did a tour of the Opera House.  During the summer they drop rhe massive chandelier to change the light bulbs.  They have over 250,000 costume which are worn by various singers and dancers.  Each costume has the date and wearer sewn in and some costumes are over 50 years old.  The back stage was massive with 75 different drops possible.  During the tour we met a couple (Jacqui and John Baker) with whom we had done our Turkish tour in 2014. It truly is a small world.

The next day was the start of our Baltic Cruise.  We were to board our boat at midday so we took the opportunity to tick off two more nearby sites.  The first was the Stockholm Cathedral which is the most important church in Sweden.  It is famous for a massive statue of St George slaying the dragon.  According to the Swedes St George is Sweden and the dragon is Denmark.  Nothing else matters if you are beating Denmark.  The second was the Nobel Museum which is dedicated to the Nobel Prize.  We had a very interesting talk.  Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite and held over 340 patents.  When he died it was estimated his estate was worth $1.4 billion.  He had no wife and children.  To the chagrin of his remaining family he left them nothing.  Instead he said every thing was to be sold up and invested prudently and that the annual interest was to be distributed to five prizes: physics,chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.  The first four were to be decided in Sweden and handed out there while the peace prize was given to Norway.  The first prizes were handed out in 1901.  The peace prize was given to Norway in an attempt to keep them in a union with Sweden.  The union was terminated in 1905 but Norway kept the Peace prize organisation.  The only problem is that the prizes are handed out on the date of Nobel’s death 10 December which is not the greatest time to visit Stockholm.  The prizes are awarded internationally only to living people.  At the time of the first prize the King of Sweden joined the family in trying to get the will overturned because he wanted the money to stay in Sweden.  900 Nobel prizes haven awarded, no more than 3 people per prize.  Prize currently worth $1 million and prize winners can invite 14 people to prize giving and dinners etc.  So far 48 women have won the prize.

We then got on the boat and did the life boat drill and then had our first of many enjoyable meals.  Oceania claims to have best food of any cruising line and they could well be right.  I would not know as this was our first cruise. 

The next day (30 July 2016) we woke up in Helsinki.  It was a very full walking tour lasting some six hours.  Helsinki is only around 800,000 people.  It is clean but not rich as Finland has only 5 million people, fought on the side of the Germans against the Russians and suffered badly in WW2.  Not so much in damage but in very tough repatriations it had to pay to Russia which it did.  Funniest thing was at the end of the tour when we viewed the Jean Sibelius monument. Very modern art that looked like a mass of disjointed organ pipes supposedly to represent the birch trees of Finland.  The Finns demanded a portrait of Sibelius be installed along side the work.  The other interesting thing stop  the Rock Church which as in name implies is a modern church inside a rock.  We arrived as a wedding was being held (Korean groom and Finnish bride - very multicultural).  We only had 15 minutes viewing as another wedding was happening, it was Saturday.  The guide was very negative on the Russians and the current EEC immigration policy.  This message was repeated at every stp.

The next day we were in St Petersburg.  This was meant to be the highlight of the trip.  Unfortunately it was Russian Navy day, so Putin and about 250,000 Sailors and their families were walking the streets, many staggering under the influence of too much vodka.  We had booked an excursion to Catherine’s palace which was quite stunning and the site of the famous Amber Room.  The original was stolen by the Germans during ww2, the city then called Leningrad was the site of 900 day siege where some 1 million Russians died most through starvation.  Then we had a typical lunch borscht – Beetroot and cabbage soup with a glass of vodka.  That afternoon we went to the first building in St Petersburg the Peter & Paul Fortress where the church is the resting place of the Tsars and their families.  Fairly amazing history.  Finally we went to the outside of the Church of the Spilled Blood where Tsar Alexander 2 was assassinated in 1881.  He survived a bomb thrown by a first assassin, got out to remonstrate with him, and was then killed by a second bomb thrown by an accomplice.  It is fair to say that since then remonstrating with assassins has not be the preferred choice of action.

That night we were meant to go to the Hermitage for a music evening and private viewing.  That had been cancelled due to lack of interest according to the ship but as we met two other couples who hoped to go as well we decided the Hermitage had been taken over for a special function by Putin.  So what had been the main raison d’etre for doing the cruise went up in smoke.  But that’s life.
The next day we had another excursion to the Peterhof Palace which has all the trick fountains and gold plated statues.  Peter the Great spent very little time in it dying way before its completion.  It was destroyed during ww2 but has since been rebuilt.  So that was our visit Leningrad; SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed) is not interested in returning.

2nd August saw us in Tallin in Estonia a country of 1.4 million unified by their language and getting rid of the Russians in 1991.   The old town is small (450,000) and quite charming.  We visited the top town which is the political centre as part of the tour and then went to the Kadriorg Palace started by Peter the Great and now is a 25 room art museum.  In the afternoon we wandered around the lower old town.  Quite charming and not much damage during ww2.  Again the guide had little love for their neighbours or the EEC immigration policies.

The next day was at sea.  We had a bridge lesson in the morning and then took part in a 7 table duplicate session.  We played east-west and won.  Vivienne has yet to recover especially as she played most of our hands.

3 August saw us in Poland at the port of Gdansk where both ww2 started and Solidarity was born in 1980 which eventually led to the fall of the communist empire and the rise of Lech Walenska.  Gdansk again is a small town with a very interesting history.  Teutonic Knights, Hanseatic league, Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath, Prussian occupation renaming city as Danzig you have it all.  Extensively damaged during ww2 by both the Germans and the Russians the city was rebuilt post ww2 by the Poles removing all traces of any German presence.  The layout comprises one long street called the Royal Way with the Golden Gate at one end and the Green Gate at the other.  The largest brick church in the world St Mary is here.  Of course Poland is very Roman Catholic so the images of Mary are every where.  However the church does have the stark white walls of the Lutheran churches when Gdansk was under Swedish rule.  The guide was anti Russian saying the Communists had taken away 30 years of her life and wishing she was born 30 years later and was another anti immigrant.

5 August saw another sailing day this time going through the Kiel Canal which is quite impressive and you see the neatness and productivity of the Germans in action.  Another bridge lesson and another duplicate match.  Not so successful this time.

The next day we docked in Bremenhaven and did a day trip to Bremen.  Again a  small town of 500,000 people but a fascinating history.  The city has always been fiercely independent.  In 888 it secured self-control to mint its own coins and hold its own markets and it 1386 elected its own mayor and senate.  You can see SPQB carved in the beautiful town hall.  Our first guide was fiercely independent and very anti Merkel.  The town square has a statue of Roland and the four musicians: donkey, dog, cat and rooster of the Grimm fairy tale.  You have to grab both front hooves of the donkey when taking a picture.  Grab only one and you are a second donkey shaking hands.  The Cathedral is very ornate for a Lutheran church. We then had a second tour around the town along the river where there was an exceptionally tacky flea market and also the Schoor which is a village of crooked lanes and small houses including a 1 room wedding hotel.  Bremen is the home of Becks beer so I had a half litre.  On the bus trip to Bremen we saw loads of wind turbines.  The guide on our bus said there was a big problem in that energy generated in the North lacked the infrastructure to ship the power to the energy deficient south.  This I have confirmed with around 850 km of power lines being blocked by environmentalists.  He also said the windmills were not generating electricity but being turned by petrol engines to keep them potentially operational.  This claim seems unbelievable and I have not been able to confirm it but he was adamant it was true. 

The next day we were in Rotterdam and we did the tour to The Hague and the Martinhaus Museum which contains the famous Vermeer painting Girl With A Pearl Earring.  We started with a drive through Scheveningen accurately described by Lonely Planet as perhaps the tackiest beach resort on the North Sea.  We did a photo stop at the Peace Palace and saw all the embassies The Hague being the political capital of the Netherlands.

Our next stop was Antwerp where we took a day trip to Bruges.  This would be the one place I would return along with Bremen.  We manage to go to the chocolate museum and the diamond museum and had the mandatory beer with fries and mayonnaise.  Bruges does have a great ambience about it with horse drawn carriages clip clopping every where and amazing architecture.

Our final Stop was Dover.  It was probably our sunniest day and the white cliffs of Dover never looked more beautiful.  Off the boat at 8:45 we eschewed the offer to get us to London by coach for $199 each by the cruise line which was leaving at 10 and getting into London by 1.  Instead we took a taxi to Folkestone  for 20 pounds, took the fast train (1 hour) to St Pancreas for 30 quid each (discounted as after 10am) so for 80 quid or $105 we were in London at 11 at one quarter the price.

Summing up not cheap, great food, very comfortable.  My good friend Anthony describes sailing as camping for rich people.  I would describe cruising as coach tours for rich people.  You go to a lot of places you would not go but you don’t really get inside each stop. We really enjoyed Stockholm, Bremen and Bruges.
Chris Golis Australia's expert on practical emotional intelligence website: www.emotionalintelligencecourse.com Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/chrisgolis Email: cgolis@emotionalintelligencecourse.com mobile: +61-418-222219

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