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ON TOUR: Around the Baltic with Saga

With Leningrad now off limits the cruise companies have been quick to respond with some interesting Baltic destinations.  #####

TNU’s Editor-in-Chief Malcolm Ginsberg (and wife Linda) took a 12-night vacation on Saga Spirit of Adventure in early June and found the weather warmish, sunshine and shorts during the first part of the trip and only wet and doubtful the last sea day, across the North Sea towards the home port of Dover.  The cruise is repeated 4 August.

His words follow.

“Saga we’ve been on before, this trip nearly full, the Plc reporting 83% cruise ship occupancy at its June AGM.  No news was given on future ship plans.  The river cruise subsidiary reported 78% capacity.  

The Baltic takes in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Sweden.  Norway is the gateway to the North Sea.  A lack of docking facilities meant that Wismar was replaced by Warnemünde, our good fortune, Germany’s most popular beach seaside town, far superior to anything in the UK.


Gothenburg (Sweden)

Saga generally provides courtesy transport from the ship to the local town plus a selection of alternative trips which you pay for. At some ports what is known as ‘included tours’ are provided. It is very easy to take in the ‘free’ trip in the morning, go back for lunch and then jump onto the bus into town.

Sweden’s second largest city is on the west coast and at the end of the Gulf Stream.  It was our first stop after a day at sea. For whatever reason it is not that popular with ex-UK cruises, which is a pity.  Not quite Amsterdam in terms of canals but good for an inexpensive one-hour cruise on a sun-blessed day with a fine English commentary.

With its canals, fascinating architecture, trams and art, this is one of Sweden’s trendiest cities and very cosmopolitan. After our boat trip we soaked up the Scandinavian atmosphere strolling along the waterfront and into ‘Haga’ – the city’s old quarter. The city has a choice of museums and galleries to visit, from the Gothenburg Museum of Art with its fine collections and the cutting-edge Roda Sten Art Centre, to the niche Radiomuseet (Radio Museum).

Brand new is the Volvo Museum, saluting one of Sweden’s iconic motoring brands.  Sadly Saab, of rally driver Eric Carlson’s fame (and wife Pat Moss) seems to be largely forgotten and based in Trollhättan, far to the North.


Copenhagen (Denmark)

The multicultural Danish capital is an eclectic mix of architectural styles which attest to its long history.

Once a small village, it was fortified when Bishop Absalon of Roskilde built a castle here in 1167. Attractions include Tivoli Gardens, characterful Nyhavn Canal graced with 17th-century houses, the Baroque-inspired Christiansborg Palace and Rococo Amalienborg Palace, residence of the Danish Royal Family.

The Little Mermaid Statue, which has been plucked straight from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale of the same name, graces the waterfront and was just a short walk back to our berthing dock.  This was another two-hour courtesy tour finishing close by the statue.


Klaipeda (Lithuania)

Lithuania's main port was built in the Middle Ages by the Teutonic Order, a German crusading military force. It is the country’s third largest city.  Once known as Memel, and part of the Prussian kingdom for centuries, it has had a turbulent history with repeated invasions from Sweden, Russia and Germany. Much of the city was destroyed by fire in the 19th century and rebuilt predominantly in an art nouveau style. Klaipeda has numerous sculptures, including a statue of Ann from Tharau and a Magical Mouse, a diminutive bronze sculpture reputed to convert good wishes into reality.  

The ship’s ‘Today’ programme warns of cobblestones, a feature of many places on the Spirit of Adventure's itinerary. Take with suitable footwear!  At Klaipeda included tours were available and with the ship moored only 800m from the Old Town Hall it was easy to manage a morning and an afternoon visit. Once a major trading port, stop to take a look at a superb model of the waterfront from the Middle Ages.  

The Jewish heritage in Klaipėda has been in existence since the 15th century and now has its Community Centre and Synagogue with about 300 members. We were made welcome.  In the memorial cemetery and park there is a plaque dedicated to David Wolffsohn, a Lithuanian Jewish businessman and major early Zionist activist, and a creator of the Israeli flag popularly known as the Star of David.   


Bornholm (Denmark)

Not heard of Bornholm.  Or our tender landing pier at Gudhjem.  

Bornholm is a Danish island in the Baltic Sea, 80 miles to the east of the rest of Denmark, 50 miles south of Sweden, and only 20 miles from Germany and north of Poland. Strategically located, Bornholm has been fought over for centuries. It has usually been ruled by Denmark, but also by Sweden and by Lübeck. The ruin of Hammershus, at the northwestern tip of the island, is the largest medieval fortress in northern Europe, testament to the importance of its location. From the parking area it is a good half mile walk up a steep hill.

Bornholm and the nearby island of Ertholmene comprise the last remaining Danish territory in Skåneland east of Øresund, having been surrendered to Sweden in 1658, but regained by Denmark in 1660 after a local revolt. As part of Demark, German forces occupied the island in WWII and in 1945 the Soviets attempted a takeover which was quicky dealt with.

Gudhjem is a tiny town perched on a hillside, the many smokehouse chimneys bearing witness to the heyday of smoked fish exports.  It can only be visited on foot.

And the tour.  We have been on better but loath to miss out on a destination not likely to be visited again.


Warnemünde (Germany)

The major German holiday destination of Warnemünde was not supposed to be on the itinerary but the programmed port could not take us.  No loss and a plus for guests and the ship's crew.  

It is a delightful town with a sandy beach and puts similar UK resorts to shame.  There is a railway terminus next door to the cruise pier where you can take the train to Rostock, and if you have never been, Berlin.  Americans are keen to try from their cruise ships but Saga did not even offer the four-hour journey.  Don’t attempt the 30-minute bus ride to Rostock (or taxi).  The traffic to that historical city is horrendous.

Within a short walk of the ship Warnemünde offers a delightful canal-side shopping and eating area, very busy during our visit.  Also on offer is a one-hour electric train experience called The Mollie with a fine English commentary as well as free walking tours organised by the Tourist Board.



Aarhus (Denmark)

Denmark’s second city with a population of around 300,000 sits on the Kattegat, a stretch of ocean that links the North Sea to the Baltic.  It is not very accessible from the UK, only Ryanair flying in from Stansted.  On the ship Aarhus was called “Our House”.

Whilst the port is easy berthing for cruise ships it is not often on the itinerary for British-based cruise ships.  Even our experienced Captain had not been before.  

We night-stopped, one couple getting back at 23:25, and winning a top quality bottle of champagne as the last arrival.  Aarhus proved very popular with the crew who gained plenty of shore time.

Aarhus has an array of art galleries and museums, such as the ARoS Art Museum and underground Viking Museum where you can learn more about the local history.  It has a fine Botanical Garden, best by taxi from the ship and then downhill from recreated historic village, Den Gamle By.

In 1914, the museum opened as the world's first open-air museum of its kind, concentrating on town culture rather than village culture, and to this day it remains one of just a few top-rated Danish museums outside Copenhagen, serving more than 400,000 visitors annually. Today it consists of 75 historical buildings collected from 20 townships in all parts of the country. The town itself is the main attraction but most buildings are open for visitors; rooms are either decorated in the original historical style or organized into larger exhibits.  Price during the summer months is €27 each, but children go free.


Kristiansand (Norway)

This was our final port with the courtesy bus tour provided.   The most exciting part was the docking at 08:00.  We were due to tender but Captain Kim Tanner had negotiated with MSC for a freight ship relocation and Spirit of Adventure to slot into a docking area rather like a large garage and then back out in the evening. A smart piece of seamanship carefully viewed by keen cruisers on the sun deck above the bridge.  Due to the choppy seas, we would have given Kristiansand a miss.  

The sunny southern Skagerrak coast paints a different picture of Norway from its magnificent fjords with its lowland countryside interrupted only by the occasional painted waterfront houses. Kristiansand is a popular holiday resort and was founded in 1641 by King Christian IV. At its heart is the Quadrature, where streets follow an orderly Renaissance style grid pattern. The city is also very walkable, so you can get from here to there very easily. First off, as we exited the ship we found ourselves at the start of Fiskebrygga, the old fish quay. This is a lively restaurant area which is also close by the architectural landmark, the Kilden Perming Arts Centre.


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