“From Norway’s Fjords to Russia’s cultural capital, a voyage through the Baltic and Gulf of Finland goes from the majestic to the sublime.”
We were almost 16,000 kilometres from Sydney and had spent the best part of a whole day and night travelling. It seemed such a long way to go to see a series of lakes and mountains.
I always thought the Vikings took to the seas in their longships to escape the tedium of their Scandinavian heritage. But now I know that, far from pillaging neighbouring nations to escape, they always wanted to return. And after a two-week cruise through the Norwegian Fjords, I know why – it is a place of awesome, rugged beauty with picture-postcard towns and natural grandeur.
I departed Sydney with a party of 40 from 2GB, flying Emirates via Dubai and then on to Copenhagen, where we joined the MSC Poesia. Our first stop was Oslo, home to the Viking Ship Museum, Icebar Oslo and the open-air museum.
Climatic contrasts – in midsummer, the sun shines for 18 hours, and in the winter it is daylight for only six – make for a city ready for just about anything. Summers can see heatwaves and temperatures of over 30 degrees while in winter the mercury can plummet to a shivering -7.
The Viking heritage is everywhere. The Viking Ship Museum pays homage to one of history’s most ruthless marauders, with three preserved longboats and many of Viking artefacts. Another famous citizen, explorer and zoologist Thor Heyerdahl, also has a museum here where visitors can see his Kon-Tiki balsa wood raft in which he crossed the Pacific in 1969.
Thankfully, the MSC Poesia is better appointed than a raft.
While not the largest in the MSC fleet, it still features the timeless elegance and cutting-edge technology that is synonymous with this luxury Italian cruise line. There is a waterfall in the foyer, a Zen garden and a large spa. For the youngsters, there is a teens’ club and a dinosaur-themed play area.
Our itinerary offered a spectacular sampling of this exciting part of the world – Copenhagen, Oslo, Stavanger, Flam, Geiranger, Hellesylt, Kiel, Hamburg, Stockholm, Tallin and St Petersburg.
Despite all those fabulous cities,one of our most memorable stops was Flam, a quaint village in south-west Norway at the end of the Aurlandsfjord, a side arm of the country’s longest fjord, the Sognefjord, which stretches over 200 kilometres.
Flam’s location is straight out of the pages of a picture book. When we awoke in the morning and looked outside, it was as if God had magically picked up our ship and gently placed it in the picturesque, bright green Flamsdalen Valley on a passage of water not much wider than our ship, and surrounded by the most dramatic and spectacularly steep mountains. Breathtaking.
The weather gods looked kindly upon us, too, with clear blue skies and sunshine on almost every day – and this in a place that’s renowned for being damp at best, with rain a regular occurrence throughout the year.
There is only one way to really experience the beauty of the Norwegian fjords and that is by taking one of the many small boat excursions on offer. These get you up close to incredible rock formations like the famous Pulpit Rock, which towers 604 metres above the fjord, or spectacular waterfalls that seem to tumble from the sky.
Another highlight was the ancient city of Tallin, the capital of Estonia. You could easily spend a day here exploring the well-preserved old city, built between the 15th and 17th centuries. We spent several hours playing tourist and then settled into a wonderful old-world restaurant in the piazza where we savoured some great local tucker, sipped a nice wine and chilled!
Prepare to understand why so many Europeans find Australia so expensive. The Kodumaine Kalavaa Gen, or local fish platter, which included whitefish roe, trout roe, whitefish, sprats, Baltic herring, lamprey, quail’s egg, lemon, potatoes, bread and radish came in at a very reasonable €14 (about $20).
Back on board our ship, the atmosphere is relaxed and not at all formal or stuffy. At the end of a day’s exploring, passengers slip into evening attire and relax in one of the many bars and lounge areas while being entertained by a classic pianist or jazz trio. The entertainment continues after dinner every night with a bit of Vegas in the showroom.
By night we cruised the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, and slept like babies. It’s like the curtain comes down on the day’s feature destination… everyone is back on board and the night games begin, knowing that in the morning we will reach another amazing destination. And this time, it’s the Venice of the North or the Paris of the East as it’s known… St Petersburg.
Russia. Just the sound of the name sent an exciting pulse through us all. High on our list of “must visits” was the Catherine Palace – a 300-year-old glorious building located about 25 kilometres from St Petersburg and named after Catherine I, who was married to Peter the Great. On the way back to the ship, we enjoyed a cruise on Russia’s famous Neva River and, of course, the obligatory stop to buy Babushka doll souvenirs.
While on the subject of royalty, in Copenhagen we just had to drop by the Royal Palace and shout out to Princess Mary. And so a tidy group of Aussie tourists stood outside the palace doors and sang a rousing chorus of Waltzing Matilda, only to be disappointed when one of the palace guards informed us that she wasn’t home.
After two fabulous weeks, it was time to say goodbye to our floating home as our group moved off in various directions to explore other countries in this wonderful part of the world.
On this tour we’d managed 11 destinations in 14 days, and by the second week, my cabin had started to feel like home. While we didn’t get to spend long in any one place, my motto when travelling – and particularly cruising – is less is best! If you like a place that much, you can always come back another time.