Sunday, May 11, 2014

Baltic Cruise

I just got back from a week trip cruising the highlights of the Baltic Sea. We stopped at Tallinn, Estonia first, then Saint Petersburg, Russia and ending in Helsinki, Finland before our last ship brought us back to Stockholm, Sweden. It was unlike any other trip I have been on so far in so many ways.

First of all, it was organized by a travel company called Scanbalt Tours, so despite some free time, we had everything planned for us. I have to admit, it was really nice just to be told where to go in these unfamiliar cities. It has been amazing to explore on my own on other trips, but it was much less stressful this way and due to the short amount of time we had in each place, I didn't feel like there was so much unseen.

Also, I had never traveled by ship before. We were told we were getting on a ferry, but uh-uh, that thing was no piddly ferry used only for transportation purposes. We were on a full blown cruise ship. Not only was it like a hotel (with tiny rooms, of course), but it had shops, bars, restaurants, clubs, saunas, playgrounds, everything you could need. It was a very comfortable way to travel I thought. You could hardly tell you were moving except for a little bit of a sway every now and then.

Brace yourself for a lot of pictures...for this particular trip, I feel like they give a better idea of how it was compared to writing more.

Day 1: Pretty much a travel day. Boat from Stockholm to Tallinn, doing karaoke, and group bonding

Day 2: Arrival in Tallinn, walking tour of Old Town, lunch at a Schnitzel place, free time, pub crawl. I fell in love with this medieval town, it kept reminding me of Duloc from Shrek!

Day 3: Morning free in Tallinn, a boat to Helsinki to get to our connecting boat to Saint Petersburg. Not going to lie, I was nervous for the passport control into Russia after our guide told us they are hard on "some nationalities". But, all they did was look at my documents very carefully, and hand them back after not saying a single word. What a relief. Another fun night was had on the ship, and we even saw some sort of a Russian talent show, which was...interesting. 

Day 4: Arrival in Saint Petersburg! After a repeat of the passport control scenario with the same outcome, we embarked on a bus/walking tour. The sky was a crazy shade of gray but we somehow dodged a downpour. We checked into our (awesome) hostel, and then headed out for some free time. We did a little shopping, found an amazing restaurant, and got ballet tickets to Cinderella for the following night, thanks to a translator we pulled off the street to help us communicate with the ticket seller. English is not as prominent there as in other big cities. It also doesn't help that they use a different alphabet, so it was tricky at times to know what you were getting.

The church where the Romanovs are buried...such a crazy story in history.

Day 5: Morning was free, so we went shopping, sent postcards, and had an awesome lunch (Russian pancakes rock my world). We all met in the afternoon at the incredible Hermitage museum, with its main building's old purpose of being the winter palace for the Russian monarchs. It was incredible, and had works from pretty much every famous artist you could imagine. Our guide told us that if you were to take time and appreciate every single item, it would take you 8 years to get through it, and I can definitely see why. After the museum, we saw the ballet. It was so beautiful, with an amazing set and costumes. It was so cool to see how music and dance can tell the story, no matter what languages the audience spoke.

Hermitage Museum

We love audio guides

The theater where our ballet was

Day 6: Day trip to Peterhof Palace and Gardens, which was Peter the Great's vacation home situated in Peterhof, Russia, about a 45 minute drive from Saint Petersburg. He tried to emulate the Versailles Palace, which I could see right away. The number of fountains was unbelievable, and everything was so nice and spread out. It is also right by the Gulf of Finland, so the views of the sea are amazing. 

On our way back, we stopped at a memorial for the Great Patriotic War, during which 1 million Russians died.

Then, we had a little bit of free time, during which we took advantage of the opportunity to relax. We got some last minute souvenirs, then settled in at Starbucks. We especially got a kick out of our names written in Russian on our glasses.

We then boarded the ship to Helsinki and relaxed for the night.

Day 7: We arrived in Helsinki to the most miserable weather. Ever. Freezing rain, dark skies, and winds so bad you couldn't even use your umbrella because it would turn inside out. After a short walking tour, we had a nice lunch, went and saw a couple of churches before boarding our final ship back to Stockholm. We were not too happy to be back to Scandinavian (expensive) prices. That night, everyone enjoyed our last times with some karaoke and hanging out together.

This church was built into a cave!

A map of our last ship...yes we slept under the cars :)

Day 8: We arrived in Stockholm to a milder version of the Helsinki weather. We pretty much hung out until our train arrived to come back to Karlstad. We were tired, cold, and happy to return to our own beds after such an awesome trip. 

As the days go by, I find it harder and harder to believe how fast the time has gone and it makes me so sad to think that I will need to leave these incredible friends so soon. On the bright side, my parents and little sister are coming to see me in 3 weeks already! I plan to make the most of my time here until then. I feel so lucky to have been able to do all that I have and could not be any happier with my decision to study abroad. I wish more people could know how it feels to explore the world, there really is nothing like it. Talk to you soon :)

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