Saturday, June 30, 2007

Copenhagen, Denmark

This was an odd sight we kept seeing as we wandered around Copenhagen: Decorated trucks full of screaming youths driving around town. All the kids wore what looked like naval hats and were yelling, singing, and drinking beer. A friend later explained that comprehensive exams had just finished, and this was the students' traditional way of celebrating.
Copenhagen is a very picturesque town. Unfortunately, the spire formed from the entwined tails of four copper dragons was covered with scaffolding for refurbishment. This sight, however, was at least as interesting: These two were piping classical pieces on their tuned beer bottles. Their sign says: "We collect money for new and better INSTRUMENTS." We enjoyed their playing -- they were really quite talented and had clearly put in some practice -- and before we moved on, we made a contribution.
A little later, we were caught in a cloudburst and decided to get out of the rain by riding the subway for fun. Copenhagen just put in their subway, so it has all the latest innovations. The trains are computer controlled and carry no attendant, so we were able to sit at the very front and take pictures as we rushed down the tunnels.

At one stop, a cute little blond-haired Danish boy got on with his parents and made me move over so that he could sit at the front of the car, too. He then proceeded to "drive" the rest of the trip, his foot on an imaginary accelerator regulating our speed and his fingers stabbing imaginary buttons to open and close the passenger doors at the stops. As he and his parents got off the train, his father asked me, "Did you have a safe and comfortable trip?" We laughed and I complemented the 5-year-old on his excellent driving skills. (Too bad we didn't get a photo of him.)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Warnemunde, on Germany's Baltic Coast

June 28 was to have found us visiting Gdansk, Poland, but the weather gods deemed otherwise. Our ship steamed on to Warnemunde, Germany.I guess we were still a little sapped from Russia, because we just enjoyed wandering around the town and shopping in this Farmers Market.
The word "quaint" leaps to mind, but I think we've already used it a few too many times in this blog.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tallinn, Estonia

Having taken the intensive approach to touring in Russia, we felt we deserved a more relaxed day in Tallinn. It's a nice place. Recommended. Visit and learn the history and lore that we didn't...Here is the quaint & well preserved ancient walled city, where we...
...wandered the streets...
...and the town square....
...and shopped for inexpensive, finely-knitted sweaters.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

St. Petersburg, Russia (Day 2)

Looking across the Neva River to the Hermitage Museum (at right)

Interestingly, when Peter the Great originally envisioned St. Petersburg, he saw a city of rivers and canals instead of streets. Impressed by memories of Amsterdam and Venice, he laid out St. Petersburg on the same principles. In fact, no permanent bridges were allowed across the Neva River until 1850!

On this our second and rather rainy day in Russia, we visited the Hermitage. Over the centuries, through wars, trades, and other acquisitions, the tsars of Russia collected tens of thousands of priceless works of art. Those that remain after the burning and pillaging of World War II (a whole 'nother story) are now on display in this palace-converted-to-a-museum -- itself a work of art.
The interior of the Hermitage -- art, architecture, and decor in dizzying array

It would be impossible to convey the immensity of the Hermitage. We were overwhelmed by the multitude of exhibits, themselves lining ornate hallways that alone would dazzle the senses. Toward the end of our visit, we were actually relieved to spend a few minutes in a plainer section that houses its impressionist art collection.

The blue urn above is an example lapis lazuli -- with amber, one of Russia's characteristic "gemstones" (ok, amber is really not stone). On closer inspection, the work is amazing. What we see on the surface is actually a veneer of lapis fragments, but so carefully selected and fitted that the grain of each piece matchs the next, making the urn appear to be carved from a solid block.
On this rainy day, it seemed that all of Russia's tourists had flocked to the dry haven of the Hermitage. Thus, we spent these hours with -- as the saying goes -- "ten thousand of our closest friends".St Petersburg's Resurrection of Christ Church is also know as The Church of Our Savior On Spilled Blood. Within this classic sanctuary lies the the section of cobbled pavement where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by an assassin's bomb.

It was a tragic end for this forward-thinking tsar, best known for emancipating the Russian serfs. Change is always difficult -- even change for the better. Tsar Alexander II produced considerable change and thereby excited much opposition. Some said he went too far; some, not far enough.

He had already survived an attempted shooting, a railway sabotage, and a bomb detonated in his dining room. This time, an assassin threw a bomb under his carriage, damaging it and killing some of his guards. When the tsar got out to inspect the damage, a second assassin threw the bomb that killed him. And if that hadn't done the job, a third was standing by with another bomb.

Being tsar -- or being associated with one -- was a perilous occupation. To the dying Alexander II's bedside was summoned his timid and impressionable 13-year-old grandson, Nicholas. Nicholas later became Tsar Nicholas II and married Alexandra (granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England), who bore him four daughters and then a son, Alexei.

Alexei suffered from hemophilia. The strange and mesmerizing monk, Rasputin, seemed able to help Alexei's condition. Because of this power, Rasputin was enabled to exercise increasing power over Alexandra, which extended through her to Nicholas and thence to Russian government. Russian aristocrats plotted Rasputin's assassination, a bizarre sequence of events that ended with the monk's body being found shot, bound, and drowned, under the ice of the Neva River. (We also toured the Yusopov Palace where Rasputin met his end.)

Shortly thereafter came the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks placed Nicholas & Alexandra and their children under house arrest, eventually moving them "for their safety" to a villa in the Urals. They were murdered in the basement of this house on July 17, 1918. All were shot (including the imperial physician and three servants who attended them), but the four daughters were also bayoneted, as the several pounds of diamonds sewn into the linings of their clothing rendered them partially bullet proof. Their bodies were then soaked in acid, burned, and buried in an unmarked location. And then, in 1998, eighty years to the day after their deaths, their exhumed remains were laid to rest with state honors alongside their forebears in the St. Peter & Paul Church in St. Petersburg.

The complete tale combines elements of royalty, revolution, sex, genetics, religion, politics, intrigue, psychology, drama, and pathos.
... But to return to the Church on the Spilled Blood ...

This was probably our favorite church in St. Petersburg. With its stunning interior mosaics, its characteristic exterior architecture and color scheme, its fenced shrine enclosing the patch of cobblestones where Alexander II bled (nearly) his last, its history in the pageantry and pathos of the tsars, it is certainly the most memorable.

Monday, June 25, 2007

St. Petersburg, Russia (Day 1)

The real reason we took the Baltic Cruise was to visit St. Petersburg, Russia -- arriving and leaving the easy way. Case had heard much about the Hermitage and wanted to see it, and since we'd never visited Russia before, we decided this was our chance.

Well, St. Petersburg has much more to offer than the Hermitage. In fact, to me (Case) visiting St Petersburg (nee Leningrad nee Petrograd nee St. Petersburg) is first and foremost an opportunity to learn a history and a culture that we tend to think we know -- but don't. As I was growing up during the "Cold War", we spoke of "the Russians" and the "Soviet Union" as though we knew all about them. But it wasn't until I got older, met a couple Russians, and read some Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky that I learned how little I knew about the Russian soul. (This is not a cliche. Soul is important to Russians. Just ask one.)

Even the list of names the city has been known by provides a history lesson. First it was "St. Petersburg" -- named after the German rather than Russian style by Tsar Peter the Great. Then, when Russian nationalism arose, it became Petrograd, after the Russian style. Under the Communists, Leningrad. And now, with the fall of Russian Communism, it has reverted to the original name.
Catherine's Palace in the Tsar's Village, Russia

Russian history doesn't begin with the Soviet Union, or even the Bolshevik Revolution. It doesn't even begin with the tsars ... but you won't get farther back than the tsars in St. Petersberg. After all, there was really nothing on this spot until Tsar Peter the Great decided he would build a grand city of European style and culture here.

You see, Peter was an expansive thinker. While a young man, he traveled all over Europe, studied and worked at several trades, and learned all he could about European art, culture, military might, and technology. He was in line to become the ruler of the largest politically united land mass in the world, and with his growing admiration of things European, he felt a need to bring his nation out of the "Dark Ages" and into the modern (18th century) era. Visionary, military expert, politician, paranoid autocrat, and tyrannical despot -- he was all of these things.
The grand ball room of Catherine's Palace

Peter the Great was determined that Russia should take its place among the military and cultural powers of Europe, and St. Petersberg was to be Russia's "window to Europe". Of course, there was the small matter of the Swedes owning all of the adjacent Baltic coastline, but that was easily resolved by picking a fight with them and taking the needed territory in the resulting war.
A Delftware stove in Catherine's Palace

(Peter had spent much time in Holland and loved their art and culture. Hence, the many Delft-blue-tiled stoves in this otherwise gold-gilded palace.)

And then Peter started building. At great cost of men and material, he created a city and, by regal decree, made it his capital (demoting Moscow in the process). For the next two hundred years, his successors called this city "home" and -- as you can see from the photos -- spared no expense to equip it with art, architecture, culture, and palaces rivaling those enjoyed by their siblings, cousins, and in-laws in the royal houses of Europe.
The Grand Cascade and Samson Fountain at the Peterhof Palace

These are only the largest of numerous fountains scattered over the grounds of this "Russian Versailles". The grounds and fountains were laid out on orders of Peter the Great himself -- which left me wondering, "Where does all that water come from?" After all, pump technology in the early 18th century was mostly powered by wind, animals, or humans. And I didn't think it was up to feeding this many fountains.

As it turns out, there are no pumps. The fountains are all supplied by aqueducts feeding water from higher elevations. The water channels down the gradient aqueducts, gushes high out of the fountains in a dazzling display, and then flows gently out into the Baltic sea.
And then there are the churches! We passed this one near the Peterhof palace and stopped for photos. To me, it seems the Russian church architects have an unequaled eye for color and design. (Read on to day #2 to see more.)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral ...
... the interior simple, tranquil, awash with light.
A fine place to sit and do needle point (as Jolene did) ...
... or read and experiment with interior photography (as Case did).
Our batteries recharged, we headed out with our trusty guide book to see a little more of the town.
We attended the afternoon international (English) service at Helsinki's Temppeliaukio (Rock Church). Unfortunately, the regular congregation and their minister were away on the mid-summer's weekend retreat, so it was a sparser group of primarily visitors and tourists who gathered for the service.

The church is much visited by tourists because it is built into solid rock. According to the story we heard, two brothers wanted to build a new non-denominational church in Helsinki and petitioned the city for land. Initially, they were told that Helsinki had enough churches and were turned away. They persisted, however, and finally, they were permitted to build on a large rock formation in the middle of a multistory apartment complex. The brothers blasted into the rock to create structure, turning the site's most discouraging feature into the sanctuary's central motif.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Stockholm, Sweden

We didn't spend any time touring around Copenhagen. Our goal here was to embark on a Baltic Sea cruise. Our first stop was in Stockholm, Sweden...
a beautiful city built on several islands, part of an archipelago of 24,000 islands!
We wandered around the old town (the Gamla Stan) ...
... and arrived at the royal castle in time for the changing of the guard.
The Swedes had a tradition of having their ships blessed by the clergy, then hanging a small replica of the vessel in the church. Here, the pipe organ and brick arches are visible behind the model ship in Gamla Stan's central sanctuary.
Stockholm is also known for the Nobel prizes. (Only the Nobel Peace Prize is decided and awarded outside Sweden. No one really knows why Alfred Nobel chose to delegate this particular prize to a Norwegian committee.) We spent a couple of hours at the Nobel Prize museum, and learned a lot about the prize(s) and recipients. It was quite inspiring.

At the time, the museum was also hosting a display of Winston Churchill's water color paintings. (Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.) Interspersed with the paintings were quotes from Nobel laureates, captains of industry, statesmen, and other accomplished folk answering the questions, "What do you do with your leisure time? How do you take time to deal with stresses and overload?". It was an interesting display -- perhaps we should have taken notes on those responses.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Berlin to Copenhagen, Denmark

Berlin's central train station was quite impressive. The top floor is enclosed entirely by glass, the second floor consisted largely of food stores, restaurants, and even a full grocery store, and the lowest level was where the trains passed through. Very organized...
even there trash is organized. This is a typical trash can in Europe -- they take their recycling quite seriously.
We traveled by train from Berlin to Copenhagen. Here our train (three cars long) is loaded onto a ferry to travel from Germany to Copenhagen, which is located on an island. I was quite fascinated by the process.
The train tracks extend right onto the ferry; we were surrounded by large trucks for the 45 min trip.
We got off the train to have a look about the ferry boat, but after facing the choice between the brisk outdoor winds or the cigarette-smoke-filled interior, we returned to our train car, which was warmer and cozier than outdoors....
and certainly fresher than indoors.

A second day in Berlin, Germany

Case explores Potsdammerplatz, the booming center of reunified Berlin.

We were looking for the site of Hitler's bunker. We walked around the area where we expected to find it but saw now signs -- nothing. The numerous construction projects in this area that was, not so many years ago, the "death zone" just east of the Wall, made it hard to figure out what might be an old bunker site and what was just work-in-progress.
After much hunting around, we did find a sign stating that this was the place, describing the bunker that once stood under it, and telling of Hitler's final hours here.
The grassy patch behind the sign is probably about as close as one can come nowadays to the place where Hitler met his self-inflicted end, and where his assistants cremated his and Eva Braun's bodies. A bicycle tour was on the spot when we arrived, and the tour leader noted that -- quite fittingly in her opinion -- the patch of grass behind the sign is where the apartment residents potty their dogs every day.
The Holocaust Memorial, the Brandenberg Gate, the Reichstag building (center of government), Checkpoint Charlie, Potsdammerplatz -- all are within 2-6 blocks from this site.

One cannot visit these sites without learning something about the continuing controversy over them. Some would memorialize every site, fearing that to do otherwise would dishonor the past, or perhaps even lead to its repetition. On the other hand, many of these sites were obliterated, destroyed, and left unmarked after the war, in fear that they might otherwise become a shrine to the fallen regime and a nucleus for its resurgence. Should that change now?

Politics inevitably enters into the decisions. Berlin is a thriving metropolis, and the real estate under some memorials -- or proposed memorials -- ranks among the most expensive in the world. Can there be too many memorials? And where shall the money come from to build them all?

Some places rate only a sign -- should Hitler's "gravesite" deserve more?

Some memorials cover an entire city block -- should the Holocaust memorial be any less?

Some places (seen in Munich) remain entirely unmarked -- and should a pleasant beer hall be forever required to carry depressing reminders of the tyrants who once frequented it?

Some sites seem unsure, waffling between simple and stark displays and full-fledged museum-memorials (also consuming not a little money in the waffling process) -- and how should one remember the offices and torture chambers of the Gestapo buildings? With simple excavations and displays, or with exhaustive exhibits, artifacts, and stories?

Whatever the answer, there is plenty to learn in seeing what is there, in remembering why it is there (both why the events happened and why we choose to mark them), and in extracting the lessons for life (individual and in the body politic) today.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Leaving the countryside for Berlin, Germany

We enjoyed a lovely stay with Aila & Wolfgang Stammler at the Adventist college in Friedensau. They showed us around the campus, told us some of the history of the place, shared stories of their current lives, and opened their home to us. So pleasant was our stay, it seems, (or perhaps so enthralling) that we failed to record any of it in pictures. (Sorry, Aila and Wolfgang. Note: Aila was Case's high school classmate in Singapore.)

And then it was time to travel on...

We loved the beauty of the German country roads...
but we had to leave them behind as we...
once again took to the autobahn.

In the years before Germany's reunification, this road was one of three connecting West Berlin, geographically deep in East Germany, to the rest of West Germany. These access routes were the ones blockaded by the Soviets in an attempt to force a stiffening in the West's policy toward post-war Germany. (The Russians were all for division of the country and stiff reparations, a la WWI.) The response was the Berlin Airlift, which supplied the city by air, successfully supporting the citizens and the economy for over a year until the blockade was lifted.
Hey! It is the first Smart car I've seen on a freeway -- sticking to the slowest lane on the autobahn, it's true -- but nevertheless on the autobahn! A Smart car starts looking really SMART when we pull up to the pump...
... and see the European gas prices. They make US gas prices look like a steal! Yep, that is 1.39 euro per liter, or US $7.13 per gallon for the cheapest gas. Luckily for us, the car we rented, a Toyota wagon, happened to be diesel, giving our wallet a slight break at the pump.

After gassing up, we drove on into Berlin, a city full of fascinating history.
At Check Point Charlie, we spent 4 hours in the museum learning the story of the Berlin Wall. wall. This private museum also contains relics of numerous escape attempts, both successful and fatal. We saw homemade ladders, tunnels, balloons, airplanes, even a mini-submarine! And we learned many stories, harrowing and tragic.
Just a couple blocks away, we came across the Topography of Terror. On this site stood the offices of the Gestapo and several other arms of the security service and secret police during Hitler's time. In the lower half of the picture are the excavated remains of the SS torture chambers, while above stands one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, fenced off from tourists. Both are poignant reminders of the difference between freedom and oppression.
Throughout the city these plaques and a brick line....
.... mark where the Berlin Wall once stood.
In the heart of Berlin, a memorial to the Holocaust covers one square block of the city. It is filled with over 2,700 grey concrete columns resembling coffins or sepulchers.
These columns are of varying heights, but form a regular maze through which visitors wander. The number of columns, their somber greyness, stony coldness, and looming height, echo the sad stories of the museum below. They stand in honor of lives lost and other stories not told.
Beyond this stands the Brandenburg Gate, once located on the East German side of the Berlin Wall.
Amid the thriving energy and inspiring monuments of this city, it is hard to imagine the destruction and desolation left by the WWII bomber raids. And so, as a war memorial, a reminder of the 70% of the city destroyed by war, the bombed out spires of Berlin's central church were left unrepaired.
They say those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Berlin, far from mired in the past, seems to be remembering.