Yes, we're fully aware that it's been a MONTH since we posted the first installment.
And we've been back from Europe for a solid 6 weeks.
Can we say lazy bloggers? Yes, yes we can.
But better late than never, right? Here's Josh:
Before we left on our trip, this former capital of the Russian Empire was probably the thing that I was most looking forward to seeing. While it may not have completely lived up to these lofty expectations, it’s safe to say that it was definitely a highlight of the trip.
When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg in 1703, his goal was to create a capital that would rival the great capitals of Western Europe. With his love of all things Dutch, it’s very easy to see the influence that Amsterdam had on the layout of the city. Being in St. Petersburg, however, we saw many similarities with a host of European cities. It has the “history on every corner” feel of Rome, the grand avenues of Paris, and the seedy, somewhat neglected reality of Istanbul. Above all of this, it just feels like an incredibly important city, and it was great to get a chance to spend a day exploring it.
Unfortunately our experience was restricted a little bit by the Russian government. They don’t allow people into the country on their own without a tourist visa that is relatively difficult to get. In order to get around this, we had to sign up for a tour group to get into the country in the first place, and we had difficulty getting around to all the sights that we wanted to see.
To focus on what we did see, however, we started with a great tour of the Hermitage – the grand museum that accompanies several buildings including the magnificent Winter Palace of the tsars. We toured the Peter and Paul Cathedral that houses the tombs of the Romanov dynasty and spent some time at the onion-domed Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. This magnificent church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
We really appreciated St. Petersburg, and we’d love to go back someday with a tourist visa and a more relaxed timeline to gain an even better appreciation for this fascinating city.
We only spent a few hours of our trip in Bergen, but that was definitely enough time for it to rate as one of the highlights. This city on the North Sea has a long, important history as the one time capital of Norway and prominent trading city in the Hanseatic League. Although Bergen has certainly added the modern flourishes that you see throughout Norway, it has maintained much of the old-world charm that sets it apart.
We had heard that good weather was rare in Bergen, one of the rainiest spots on the European continent, be we were fortunate enough to have exceptional weather for the evening that we were there. To take full advantage of the weather, we decided to take a ride up the funicular railway to the top of Mount Floyen for the spectacular views over the city and the harbor. From this vantage point, the city is quite reminiscent of Seattle with water practically surrounding the city.
Bergen used to be the largest city in the world that was populated exclusively with wooden buildings, and a piece of this heritage is still on display in the old harbor district. These buildings (most of them leaning in one direction or the other) that used to serve as the focal point of trade in the city have been turned into a quaint (although not overly touristy) collection of shops and restaurants.
On the whole, Bergen was a very walkable, very charming city that allowed us to see another side of Norway. We wish that we would have had more time to spend in Bergen, but it was a fun place to spend a few hours and it really emerged as one of the most memorable stops on our trip.
Our second favorite stop on the cruise, Tallinn proved to be a very unique destination. Where it was easy to compare some of our other destinations to places we’ve been in the past, this well preserved medieval (get used to reading that word) city was unlike anywhere we’d ever visited. The streets were narrow, curvy, paved with cobblestones, and a pleasure to walk around; the architecture ranged from massive medieval guild halls to the onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Church. If not for the hordes of English-speaking tour groups (I realize that it’s somewhat hypocritical to criticize tourists) and the ugly Soviet-era apartment towers that dotted the horizon, it may have made the top spot on our list.
This city really has a fantastic history. In the early years, it was controlled by the kings of Denmark and developed into a powerful Hanseatic trading town like Bergen. It then passed to Sweden and Russia before briefly becoming the capital of an independent Estonian nation. It wasn’t too long before it was overrun by the Soviet Union the city suffered under communist rule for over 70 years before successfully breaking free in the Estonian “Singing Revolution”.
The Soviets certainly didn’t do Estonia any favors, but at least they had the sense to leave the Old Town alone. From the magnificent viewpoints in the upper town to St. Olaf’s church (the soviets set up jamming equipment in the spire to block TV signals coming across from Helsinki) in the heart of the lower town, the city was packed with compelling sights. Out of everything, however, my favorite spot was the spacious main square of the lower town. The medieval (there’s that word again) town hall is featured in the center of the square and outdoor cafes are set in a ring around the outside. It was a great spot to take in this great city, and we really enjoyed the time that we got to spend in Tallinn.