So I started a new job recently, hence a conspicuous lack of updates. But yay money.

Next up on the Northern European tour: Russia.

More specifically, two days in St. Petersburg, formerly known as both Leningrad and Petrograd, the second largest Russian city that sits at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. It is considered the most Westernized city in Russia.

Though Moscow was the traditional capital of Russia, Tsar Peter the Great moved the seat of power to the city named for him in the early 1700s. The influence of these years is on display around the city and without, manifesting in opulent palaces and grand Russian Orthodox churches around the area. The Hermitage, housing one of the largest art collections in the world, partially occupies the Winter Palace, which was the official residence of the Russian monarchs. It’s impossible to escape the history, even if it’s interspersed with the more modern and familiar.

After an early morning tour corralling, our first step was to go through customs, which was simultaneously awesome and terrifying. None of the other countries along the cruise route required a customs check (besides an easy one in Denmark at the airport) so it was already something new. When combined with the generally intimidating element of Russian military scrutinizing your passport, that passport photo being seven years old and 40 pounds heavier, plus my very suspect long, dark beard, I was little tense. The two Russian male personnel looked down at my passport and gave each other a look. They studied the photo, bouncing from my visage on the page to the one in front of them. The two then laughed a bit, joked that I was  heavier, remarked on my beard, then sent me along. It wasn’t the international spy thriller I was expecting, but I still breathed deeply afterwards.

The tour bus took a fairly direct route to the Hermitage, stopping briefly across the Neva River for some great photos and an opportunity to be accosted by Souvenir Salesmen/Pickpockets. Our first day was overcast, so the photos weren’t as vibrant as they could have been, but the view of the Winter Palace across the water was no less stunning. Our expeditious journey to the museum was to stay well ahead of the general admission crowds. As we were a specially designated tour group, we entered a couple hours early.


Our first introduction to the decadence of the Tsars was a giant marble staircase with bright gold statues, wall details and chandeliers. This led up to the throne room, where a large portrait of Peter the Great hung behind the red and gold chair. I won’t labor over every detail of this palace (and many others), but it was appropriately awe inspiring to view these places. All of the palaces have some degree of restoration because of destruction and looting after the revolution. Still, to know that these sights were typical of the Russian monarchy leaves no question why the communists eventually came to power.

The Hermitage was originally set up in a much smaller space adjacent to the palace. Another later addition makes the museum complete. We didn’t get to see all of the exhibits, naturally. It sounds like you need a couple days to enjoy the entire collection. But we did see some Renaissance art (including Davinci), some Dutch painters like Rembrandt, Rubens and various others. I’m not sure when I’ll ever get back to St. Petersburg, so it would’ve been great to see more. Time was limited, though, and there was still much to explore in the city.

Next, we saw Yusupov Palace (aka Moika Palace), the famous site of Rasputin’s murder in December 1916. We had a fairly quick walk through, but it was neat to see the actual rooms where Russian nobles carried out the deed. They wanted him gone because of his increasing influence over Tsar Nicholas II. Rasputin’s death was infamously drawn out. First he was given cyanide laced food and wine, which failed. Then he was shot at close range, which failed again. As he woke up from the gunshot, he attempted to escape the palace. Rasputin was discovered, shot again, beaten mercilessly. Somehow still breathing, he was then bound and thrown into a freezing river. His actions during WWI are seen as contributing to the revolution’s ultimate rise to power and even though his death was celebrated and welcomed, the Bolsheviks still overthrew the monarchy.

For lunch we had a multicourse meal that began with fish roe on bread, a shot of vodka and a glass of sparkling wine. Then came a simple salad with dressing (not Russian dressing, but I guess it technically was). Next, some of creamy, very tasty soup. Then, a floured chicken dish with potatoes. The dessert. I’ll go ahead and spoil it ahead of time, but this lunch was almost exactly the same as the one on the second day, save some slight variation in the soup and dessert. It was unusual and probably meant to cater to tourists unfamiliar with Russian food, but I would’ve appreciated a more diverse experience. The food was perfectly tasty, though.


The last two stops of the day were Russian Orthodox churches. The first was St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the second was the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. I’m used to seeing occasional opulence from Roman Catholic churches, but nothing compares to how ornate and beautiful these cathedrals actually are. They don’t exactly adhere strictly to the modesty synonymous with Jesus Christ, but to each his own. It’s common to cover your hair in these buildings and, indeed, there were sections within that you couldn’t go without doing so. St. Isaac’s was the larger of the two and less traditionally styled. Tsar Alexander I opted for a neoclassical dome and column arrangement, as opposed to the more recognizable spiral domes of other churches (Including Spilled Blood). The latter was traditional, with green, blue and golden domes at the top of several towers of varying heights. Inside, images of saints, angels and Jesus are prevalent in painted scenes similar to Passion depictions in stained glass. Anyone, religious or not, can appreciate the detail of these places.


Let’s pause for a brief intermission that lines up with the end of our first day in Russia. These two days were exhausting. Briefly summarizing it conjures up memories of blisters and sore feet. One thing I learned on this trip was that I like my laid back sightseeing vs. action packed days. Staying in a place for a week, sightseeing casually, and living like a local appeals to me more than the Cliffsnotes version of a 300 year old city. Luckily, some impromptu happenings awaited us on Day 2.

The second day began with a canal tour through the city. There are a series of waterways that intersect with the Russian rivers periodically and allow you to see the significant sights from water. A photographer’s dream for the most part. As we floated along, an abundance of military equipment and soldiers were visible along many of the streets. Turns out May 9th is Victory Day, which commemorates the Allied triumph over Nazi Germany in WWII. Russians consider this their biggest holiday and this happened to be the 70th anniversary, so the planned celebrations were huge. The parade in Moscow’s Red Square was the largest ever. We got some good shots of The Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, but these military displays dominated most views.



We escaped the city and drove 30 minutes to Peterhof Palace, the Russian Versailles equivalent. Many of the rooms here were recreations of their documented state during the reign of the Tsars. Between the grounds, the interior and the large fountains in the rear, I’ve never seen a more quintessentially royal location. It wasn’t the primary residence, but if I was picking where I’d like to rule, it would be a place like Peterhof. This was also one of our UNSECO World Heritage Sites.



Lunch, which I’ve already described. Only other notable was that we sat with a couple of offensively pleasant British Columbians who sickened me to my core.


So now, our driver was tasked with getting us to Peter and Paul Fortress, adjacent to large swaths of Russians out celebrating Victory Day. Russian police warned us we couldn’t pass a certain point because the street was blocked to automobiles for the parade. We parked about a mile from our destination and continued on foot. Russian children carried balloons of submarines and WWII era fighter planes, there were Soviet flags waving in force and staying together became exponentially harder as we approached the fortress. At one point, our walk was stopped completely by a procession of WWII era vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Everyone seemed jovial, which cast Russian stereotypes of cold and removed individuals to the wind. Honestly, even in massive crowds, nobody ever seemed pushy or rude to us, and we were conspicuously out of place tourists. We grabbed some ribbons a girl was handing out; in my opinion, a cooler souvenir than the most decorated Faberge egg or Matryoshka dolls.


The Peter and Paul Cathedral, on the fortress grounds, is particularly neat because it contains the remains of 46 members of the Romanov dynasty. Morbidity and history converging nicely. It was another beautiful, elaborately detailed building. By this time, though, I was definitely ready to call it a day. Russia was truly amazing, but two full days of touring left me ready for a much needed rest.

Would I ever actively seek out returning to St. Petersburg? Tough to say. Viewing more of the Hermitage collection would’ve been great. Having an authentic Russian meal, equally so. Russia is a notoriously difficult country to navigate without the language. And supposedly dangerous. I was expecting to feel more threatened by pickpockets, but the element was largely absent besides that first photo stop. Perhaps the feeling would be present if left to fend for myself. After seeing so much, it’d be tough to justify a trip back on my own. Despite the incredible experience, it always felt like a country at arm’s length. The impromptu Victory Day celebration was fun, but I’m not drawn back like some of the other countries on the tour.

I also thoroughly enjoyed figuring out the Cyrillic alphabet. Still doesn’t stop me from thinking “Pectopah” in my head every time I see the Russian word for restaurant.


Maybe a Moscow trip is in my future.

Next Stop: Helsinki. I discovered a particular affinity for both Finland and the Finns.


Hey everyone. It’s been awhile since I’ve updated and I just wanted to write a quick blog to check in. These past two weeks have been a wonderful mixture of busy and relaxing, but I’m ready to get back to work.

Fourth of July weekend was an overall success. The Goose Rocks Beach 5K was held on Sunday, July 5th and I set a new Personal Best, coming in at 23:14. That was good for 100th overall, out of over 700 runners. I saw the Portland Sea Dogs get pounded (dog pun) and two long fireworks shows. One highlight was listening to an enthusiastic old man sing all four verses of the Star Spangled Banner (who knew). A lowlight was being forced to endure “Proud to Be an American,” perhaps the worst song ever made by a human.

Lobster was eaten twice. Once from the shell and once on a lobster roll. I almost braved the McDonald’s lobster roll for my third of the trip, but I elected to wait until later in the summer for that one.

The reliability of available Allagash and Shipyard beers is an appreciated feature of traveling to Maine. I was sad to return home, but everything has a beginning and end.

I’ve got a lot of ideas for upcoming blog posts. The final trip reports for St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Stockholm are forthcoming, complete with photos of all your favorite Russian palaces, Finnish kites and that sexy Swedish infrastructure. I’ll be writing an analysis of Westeros from A Song of Ice and Fire (that’s Game of Thrones for all you illiterates). A longer rant about the South may be on the way, too. Marathon training begins next week and periodic updates are in the works. Plenty of other thoughts in the nascent stage, too.

Stay tuned for your regular programming.

A day at sea was just what we needed after a long visit in Germany and as we looked forward to five straight days in various ports. We used it to relax, exercise, possibly play Bingo (although you won’t hear me admitting to that) and generally just enjoy the Baltic Sea’s stunning beauty.

This was also the first time change during the cruise, which pushed us from six hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time to seven, which means we lost an hour over night. This was especially brutal due to a late night of drinking where we met a young couple who were the only other native English speaking people our age.

That evening was formal night, so we donned our best and met that couple for a drink at the wine bar a half hour before we ventured to dinner at 8:30. The day wasn’t quite the recovery we needed, but it definitely helped.

The Estonian port was one of the easier ones to navigate. There was a large open air cruise terminal where many peddled traditional Estonian goods such as handicraft woodwork, sweaters, ornaments and more. Baltic amber is also a popular souvenir in the region. Beyond this was a relatively short walk to the Vanalinn, or Old Town. This is where we spent our entire visit.


The Medieval architecture and fortifications were remarkable. Having never visited Southern and Western Europe, this was my first taste of authentic buildings from the middle ages. One of the more noteworthy feelings I had was that the entirety of this section felt like it was built in forced perspective. Walt Disney World often uses this trick to demonstrate large scale in a limited space, but it has always seemed a little off to my eyes. Here, though, as I viewed buildings at a distance with some open space, I gained a newfound appreciation for this art. The buildings were obviously real, but I felt like I was on a movie set. It would’ve been easy to overlook Tallinn as someone browsing our itinerary, but for the Old Town alone (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the day here was totally worth it.


We’d made a short list of possible lunch spots ahead of time, all closeby. Although there was one particularly intriguing joint specializing in super authentic Estonian cuisine, we weren’t able to find it, so we defaulted to our second choice, Hell Hunt. The name sounds ominous, but it actually means “Tender Wolf” in Estonian. The food was decidedly not authentic, but they did serve Scandinavian and Russian fare along with an extensive drink menu that included most major beer producing countries and its own proprietary brews. I had a Hell Hunt Tume, which was tasty. This to go along with two “snacks,” an order of Russian dumplings and an order of pickled herring with dark rye bread. Both were around 5 euros and either would’ve been a more than satisfactory lunch portion on its own. They had the Hockey World Championship playing on a large television, so the total experience was fantastic.

There were several antique shops in Tallinn, which featured interesting items in their display cases. Several coins and medals from Nazi Germany were available, but without enough knowledge of the era or research done beforehand, I couldn’t attest to their authenticity. Soviet coins were present in abundance, which were more likely the real deal. A collector could probably have a great time here, assuming everything wasn’t a reproduction or an outright fake.


In search of an Estonian newspaper, I entered a grocery store and had a look around. It was quite cool to see the products locals would use regularly. Some was familiar, some was foreign and some I wished was more readily available here at home (See: Quail Eggs). Also worth mentioning was an entire shelf devoted to Brooklyn Brewery.

After being satisfied that we’d seen every last inch of Old Town, we started back to the ship. Of all our stops, Tallinn ranks as the most underratedly enjoyable. It was relatively inexpensive compared to the high cost Nordic locales, but it had some of the best architecture. There was a certain quaintness related to its recent freedom from Soviet rule that was easily detectable. Estonia is a country finding its own identity, distinct from Russia or Scandinavia, but also heavily influenced by both.

Next Stop: St. Petersburg, our two day adventure into Frenemy Territory.


Early on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, our ship docked in Rostock, Germany, adjacent to the resort town Warnemunde and two and a half hours train ride away from Berlin.

The evening before we were informed via PA that Germany was in the midst of a train strike, which would complicate travel from the port to the capital. Thankfully, the speaker didn’t bury the lede and assured us all scheduled tours would be operated through private charters, so we were unaffected. As much as it would’ve been nice to have Berlin to ourselves, we were pretty thankful that we made a point of joining one of the tours well in advance. I’m sure there was a scramble to sign up following this late breaking development.

A wet morning ensured we moved quickly from the ship to the train, which was visible from our disembarkation point and only a short trot. Each tour group was assigned a car with multiple 6 seated cabins like the Hogwarts Express. Our trip to Berlin was long and relatively uneventful. We met an older French Canadian couple from Montreal and chatted with them a bit. I also spent some time reading Underworld, by Don DeLillo. We were provided a snack, a drink and some coffee if we wanted.


Wolfgang, our tour guide (stereotypical, I know), met us at Berlin Ostbahnhof, the eastern railway station. Once we were gathered we headed to our bus and began our tour of East Berlin.


The first stop was a still intact section of the Berlin Wall. It was crowded, as you’d expect, but there were good opportunities for photos here. The graffiti on the wall was so detailed and vivid that we could easily see why the Germans allow it to keep standing despite the dark period it represents. The messages are all positive displays of unity and progress; hope for a better future.


As we crossed the street back to the bus, I snapped a photo of the Ampelmännchen, the famous traffic signal that has become an icon of East Berlin.

Our next stop was the Kathe Kollwitz Pieta in the Neue Wache, a Neoclassical-styled memorial for victims of war and dictatorship. The inside centers on the Pieta, which is a statue of a mother mourning her dead son.

Next was the Brandenburg Gate, one of the principal symbols of Berlin and the site of a number of historic events during its existence. This area was heavily traveled, by locals, tourists and even some obvious pickpockets trying to weasel their way to people’s wallets. There was a rally taking place by Sozialverband Deutschland, an advocacy group for wounded veterans and the handicapped, just nearby.


After learning some history about the gate, we walked a few blocks over to see the Reichstag, another Neoclassical building that housed the old Weimar Republic’s parliament. Following the unusual 1933 fire, the Nazis used it as a pretext to suspend most liberties under that constitution in favor of national security. This essentially ended the Weimar Republic and ushered in the Third Reich.

Our buffet lunch at the Maritim Hotel was fairly straightforward. We had salads to start, sausage, potatoes and vegetables as part of our entree and apple strudel for dessert. We also had a choice of beer, red or white wine and I chose the beer, which was a simple German pilsener. We also used the extra time here to connect to Wi-Fi and see if the rest of the world was still standing.


After lunch we passed by even more Neoclassical architecture on our way to Checkpoint Charlie. The actual building that stands there is a reproduction of the original and there are fake soldiers standing for photo opportunities in front of it. This area would have been a lot more interesting to just sit and take in had it not been for the huge flow of tourists and the shadow of McDonald’s looming over everything.

The final stop of the day was the Allied War Memorial at the outskirts of the city. Here housed another section of the Berlin wall and an actual checkpoint hut used during the Cold War. There was a lot of WWII memorabilia accompanied by in depth descriptions of the history attached to it. The context was nice, but just seeing such significance on display was very humbling.

We stopped for 15 minutes to quickly buy souvenirs, then returned to our train.

The ride back included a thunderstorm and some more food, as well as conversation with the Canadian couple and another couple from Missouri. The day was long and exhausting, but worth all the effort.


Throughout the day in Berlin I noticed a few things. First, the city is diverse, easily the most multiethnic of the cities we visited. This isn’t surprising given its place in Central Europe and its proximity to the more cosmopolitan places in Europe, but it was still interesting to see. Another were the visible scars still on the city, 26 years after wall fell. Germany is the richest economy in the Eurozone and one of the most influential European powers, yet its capital still bears the marks of a long, torrid 20th century. To stand in places where great and terrible things have happened, not hundreds or thousands of years ago, but in the century I was born, and less than 20 years before my parents were, was a feeling I didn’t allow myself to forget while I was there. Berlin quickly became my favorite stop and I want to return as soon as I can.

Next Stop: Tallinn (After a welcome day at sea).


Aarhus stood out as it wasn’t a capital and wasn’t a world class city like St. Petersburg, but we still saw some interesting things during our time there.

Unlike Copenhagen, which sits on an island in the Baltic Sea, Aarhus is connected to mainland Europe, towards the Northeastern section of Denmark. It was on our way back from Oslo before we passed Copenhagen on our voyage to Germany the following day.

We took a bus from the remote dock to a drop point at the edge of the main part of the city. There was a variety of shopping in this area, and many people stuffed the local McDonald’s trying to piggyback on the free Wi-Fi. Our original plan was to use the bikeshare to navigate the city, but we soon learned the the state of the system in Aarhus was far inferior to Copenhagen. Instead, we made our way around on foot.


Our goal was to visit Den Gamle By, which was a couple miles from our drop off point. The open air museum features preserved buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries arranged in a walkable cobblestone village. There were old shops, a brewery, a bakery, houses, old carnival rides and more all with descriptions written in both Danish and English. We saw a history of Danish toys and explored old postage artifacts. These older areas were very neat and beautiful.


In a new section of the museum, there is a preserved street featuring 1970s shops. The general store had retro food and products lifted straight from the era. There was also an electronics store with vintage equipment and records. For a fan of the decade, it would be a neat slice of life.

Lunch was Polser from a cart in this section.

After a few hours in the museum, we left and meandered back towards the shuttle buses to the port. We stepped into a bookstore in the aforementioned shopping section and inspected some recognizable titles in Danish. I was searching for a book of Hans Christian Andersen stories in the native language but came up empty. However, it was cool seeing what sorts of books made the transition into the local language. It was also notable that there was a dedicated room devoted to English language books, as well.

If Copenhagen was touristy, Aarhus was definitely Danish. The cultural ties between the two were unmistakable, like the omnipresent bicycles, but we seemed to glimpse normal life here, where in Denmark we missed it in our hunt for the key city sights. It was also a Monday, which probably contributed to that fact.

Next Stop: Rostock, Germany, our gateway to Berlin.