Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Our last day before catching the bus to the airport tomorrow. How quickly has that gone!
We have spent today doing a mixture of things. We still have to be constantly reminding ourselves when walking around that we have to watch out for bikes which shoot along the cycle roads, can be a bit scary. And there are hundreds of bikes. But to date we are unscathed.
We wandered along more unknown streets this morning before getting back on the hop on hop off bus to get to the Stadhuset, the city hall. This building made from an astonishing eight million red bricks, dominates the northern shore of the bay and is a stark but imposing building
Early afternoon, we boarded the wooden steamboat to tour the archipelago. This cluster of islands numbers 30,000 islands and islets in total and becomes more rugged the further out into the Baltic that you go.
The boat's berth was situated on Strandvagen which is one of the most prestigious streets in the city. It is a wide boulevard and there is a certain air of grandeur about it as you wander along. On one side is the quay where we found our boat.
The islands themselves house picturesque, well preserved wooden houses mostly from the turn of the nineteenth century, painted in delicate pastel tones.
They were once the summer houses of the rich but now the extremely high cost of buying the property coupled with the building of new bridges to connect the islands making an easier commute to the city, has seen many of the people living here all year round.
It was a very pleasurable way of spending the afternoon.
None would ever pretend that Stockholm is a cheap place for the tourist but it is certainly a city of contrasts and is one destination that is well worth the visit.
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Another glorious day,
And we spent the morning strolling along more picturesque harbour fronts, crossing bridges to get to more islands which make up Stockholm.
As we came to the Parliament buildings, we found ourselves in a police cordon as we had stumbled upon the procession of troops and royal carriages for the state opening of Parliament. A real bonus.
And another story to tell.......we missed the boat we were catching round the archipelago and a very kind German sorted this out for us so we are going tomorrow instead!
So we went and had two very expensive coffees and two pastries for £25!
And then we boarded the hop on hop off bus and enjoyed doing the whole loop to get our bearings for tomorrow.
So an enjoyable day and an interesting one.
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Wow a day of bright sunshine, lovely.
We have walked for eight miles today, tanked up,with the excellent breakfast in the below ground vaults.
It was relatively easy to walk to the Old Town, once we had found the correct direction to take.
The Old Town is called Gamla Stan and is linked to our area by a bridge. The streets are cobbled and narrow. It is a nice place to walk around Andrew is full of tourists and shops and cafes to cater for their needs. We crossed another bridge by the Parliament buildings and walked along harbour seafronts and across more bridges to walk arround the island of Skeppsholmen. It is a picturesque place with many old historic boats moored there, some of which have now become houseboats.
On our return walk, we stopped to visit The Royal Palace, which is not worth the money. A few very shabby apartments sparsely furnished, a not very interesting chapel and a few Crown Jewels. We should have saved that money for another day.
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
At last, the sun was shining when we left Copenhagen. It was so nice to be able to walk round the streets without getting drenched so we could get the lunchtime train and be dry!
We caught the train to Stockholm With no problem at all but it was a very long five and a half journey. Disappointingly, it did not take us across the bridge which is the thing Pete wanted to do.
Never mind we passed by some pleasant and neat villages to get to our next port of call.
There was no problem getting the metro to the nearest station to the Hotel Hellstens following the Internet guidelines.
But then it went pear shaped.
The receptionist was a bit vague when I gave her the booking confirmation and said we were not in that hotel but the sister Hotel, the Rex, over the road which she had to unlock. What a grotty place. We were kept waiting for forty five minutes whilst she returned to the first hotel by which time, we were ready to argue as the booking was clear. When Pete went to find her, with the booking form, she then noticed that we were in the wrong hotel. So she ordered us a reasonably priced taxi and we were on our way again......hmph.....
Now at The Hotel Hellstens at Malmgard which is very quirky being a converted eighteenth century Manor and barns. We are in the attic.......but comfortable, just that we cannot stand upright.......went wrong somewhere.
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
An excellent but rain soaked day today! Got absolutely drenched on our day's tour but we still had such a good day.
We took a guided mini bus tour from the city centre out into the countryside of Zealand which although very expensive, we can highly recommend. Our driver/ guide was full of character and knowledge and our mini bus was full of lively Canadians and Americans, a winning combination all round.
From our driver, named Peter! we learned why the roads were not full of traffic. No lorries are allowed to drive at weekends and a 100% tax is imposed on cars in an effort to reduce traffic in the city centres. There were quite a few electric cars about and 1000s of bikes all with a will of their own! In fact you really need to watch out for bikes when walking round the city.
It wasn't long before we reached the countryside with it's neat, orderly villages, some with lovely big houses. This seems to be a wealthy country.
Power supply for the heating of many of these buildings is provided by the burning of garbage, much of which is now imported as so much is needed. There were indeed some lovely houses en route particularly on the side of the fiord but these are very expensive to maintain as the government imposes a hefty tax on houses 'with a view'
So where does all of the money come from? Pig farming is extensive with an estimated thirty million pigs to six million people. Bacon is exported to the U.K. and Japan in particular. Butter is another export and so are Christmas trees which are exported globally.
We soon found ourselves at a lovely place called Roskilde which was once the capital of Denmark. Here is the first red bricked gothic cathedral of Scandinavia built in 1170. The church is magnificent and well worthy to be on the Unesco World Heritage List. It is an architectural masterpiece, housing thousands of years of history gathered under beautifully decorated vaults and dark crypts. Here can be found the burial places of thirty nine kings and queens of Denmark. We learned much about the ins and outs of the royal family including its scandals and its mad king, whilst being enchanted by the echoing angelic sounds of a choir of children rehearsing for a cathedral performance.
A short bus ride from here took us to the Viking Ship Museum where we found the remains of five well preserved Viking ships found and lifted from the water in 1962. It was customary to scuttle ships in the narrow channels of the fiord in order to block the passage of enemy ships.
Our next stop after lunch was the unbelievable Frederiksborg Palace dubbed the Versailles of Denmark. It was sumptuous and lived up to it's nickname. When it was badly damaged in a fire, it was left for years until the Carlsberg Brewery gave the money to restore it to its former glory of Renaissance and Rococco magnificence.
What a treat. And this was the royal family's summer residence.
We then did a short detour to drive past the present queen's summer palace at Fredensborg before reaching the uppermost tip of Zealand at Elsinore, where we found Kronborg Castle built in 1420. From here on a clear day, it is said that you can see the cars on the Swedish shoreline opposite as this stretch of Oresund is only 4 miles wide.
And it is here that we found out the past source of the country's great wealth. In the past, Denmark owned both sides of the water and imposed a hefty tax on any shipping wanting to pass through its waters. More recently, it was across these waters that the Danes rowed 86% of the Jewish population to safety during the Nazi occupation, some for humanitarian reasons and others for monetary benefits! When the war was over, many Jews returned and fund that heir house had been preserved intact for them. Today religion is not held to be of significant importance in people's lives here, and most people live happily side by side.
The castle at Kronborg was in sharp contrast to that of Frederiksborg in its simplicity and starkness. It had been plundered many times by the Swedes since it was built in the early 1600s. This has been the setting for many productions of Hamlet with photos of many famous actors in main Shakespearean roles adoring the walls of its gallery but the highlight for us was the dungeon walk, along dark underground tunnels, quite tricky in places. It was impossible to conceive how these claustrophobic places once billeted 2500 soldiers along with supplies to meet the needs of those 'upstairs'.
All in all, an excellent day.
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
We can honestly say that this is the most prolonged wet period we have ever had on a holiday! The Danish are calling this the 500 year record for non stop rain!
The flight here took one hour forty minutes which surprised us. Although we were filled with a little apprehension when we arrived at the prospect of negotiating the train system to get from the airport to the hotel, it proved to be very easy. There is a good rail link to Central Station and a lot of help to make sure you get the right ticket. At a cost of 72 DKK for two, it was definitely much cheaper than the taxi fare of 350DKK to do the twenty minute ride.
Now we know why no one uses taxis here.
The Hotel Savoy was just ten minutes walk from the station. It is a small Family run business, quirky, rooms are small but spotlessly clean with everything you need. The service is excellent as are the breakfasts, couldn't want for more. The old town is just ten minutes walk a way so location is also excellent.
So our few days so far have been spent wandering round the city, taking in as much as we can. Th day we arrived on Wednesday , was World Music Festival in the City hall square so there was a lot of atmosphere. Some of the bands were very good indeed.
We think we have seen most of the highlights:-
The walk to the castle and Crown Jewels at Rosenborg took us through the main pedestrian area and the Round Tower, we took the recommended picnic to eat in the gardens but ended up eating them in the hotel room......
The Rathaus with its murals, entry is free to ogle the people getting married here
Nyhavn harbour with its colourful houses, low barges and canals similar to Amsterdam
Amalienborg Palace which was disappointing as we could only gain access to the museum, the state rooms are only open at weekends, but we did see the changing of the guard ceremony
The circular Marble Church
Churchill Gardens and the Kastellet fortress.
We walked up to the main cruise liner docks past the royal yacht, and then back past the statue of the Little Mermaid
We called into the church of St Albans to get out of the rain to be welcomed by a very gushing lady gurardian of the church who loved Robin Hood and said we could be her long lost cousins! Mmmm
We are only down the road from the Tivoli Gardens but have decided to give the nightly sound and light show a miss, too expensive and too wet to stand and wait for the very late evening start!
One fact we have learned........if we use our credit card, there is a three per cent tax, but on top of that is a two per cent Danish tax.....five per cent is a bit steep....
Location: Vilnius, Lithuania
And so to Vilnius, a very different place to the previous two capital cities we have visited and it is much more spread out.
Lithuania itself has had a tumulus existence. It was once part of Poland and still retains the hearty Polish cuisine.
It has suffered from occupation by the Germans and the Russians and many people were lost in the wars. Today there are 700,000 people living in the capital city.
The country achieved Independence and EU citizenship in the same year with Iceland being the first country to recognise its Independence.
Immediately after gaining independence, the Soviet regime sent in its troops but they eventually left in August 1993. Indeed of all of the Baltic states, this country is the most nervous of the possibility of Russian invasion. Vilnius itself is very close to the Russian border and it has in 2015, taken the step of reintroducing compulsory conscription to the army of of its young people.
Vilnius itself has seen a very high growth rate in the last ten years with many large international companies making investments here. Skyscrapers are becoming the norm for the construction of these companies. The city has the world's fastest internet speed.
Unfortunately it also has developed an alcohol problem, particularly in the cities and in particular in the Old Town of Vilnius.
Nevertheless, the city is increasing its status in the world. The Tv programme 'War and Peace' was largely filmed here rather than in St Petersburg because it was much cheaper. Whole streets were shut for filming and shopkeepers reimbursed for their closure to avoid them walking through scene sets. Other scenes were filmed in Runsdale Palace in Latvia.
Our bus took us on a city tour this morning, taking us to the sights situated in the Oder area of the city. We did manage to take a look into St Peters church as one of the many masses of the day had just finished. The many churches were packed and we joined the church of St Anne's to see the children dressed in white party gear for their first communion. There was such a pride in the family.
The sky was bright blue. Fifty percent of the year it either snows or rains. There are only 1800 hours of sunshine and we had two days of those! We were very lucky as it meant that we could wander at leisure.
We passed the Radisson Blu hotel where we should have stayed but didn't. In soviet times, this was the only hotel where foreigners could stay. Apparently when the soviets left, and the hotel was reconstructed, 100s of microphones were found hidden in the walls.
On March 11th, 1990, the country became independent, the first republic to separate from the USSR, yet within it it had its own breakaway state.
One bizarre place was the Uzupis area, just a suburb but one which declared itself an independent republic. It was once a very neglected area but it is now a rather bohemian art centre. It has its own parliament and its own currency and laws. A bit like Cornwall would be I suppose.
The bus dropped us off at the only existing gate of the defence wall, the Gate of Dawn and from here we wandered the streets to see the fine historic buildings. We wandered through one of the Jewish quarters. There was little left to see as what the nazis didn't destroy, was destroyed by the soviets. 58,000 Jews lived here and only 2000 survived.
In the afternoon, we drove out to Trakaii Castle or the Island Castle as it is known. It is a very picturesque place, sitting splendidly on the diminutive Lake Galve.
Like everywhere else, it has had a very troubled history and been extensively restored.
The village was interesting. The houses were built of wood and were the homes of the Karaite, a puritanical Jewish splinter. They survived the nazis when the head of its movement convinced them that they were not Jews and so were exempted from the holocaust.
And so that visit completed our holiday to these Baltic gems. We have been very impressed with how these three countries have progressed and gone through a process of reconstruction since Independence and since they joined the EU.
E presence of NATO groups and the flights of NATO aircraft overhead were a constant reminder of the threats surrounding them. Let us hope and pray that they continue to prosper as to lose their Independence would be such a backward step!