We have left the sunny paradise of Greece, and are welcomed into the grey clouded skies of northern Europe. To be fair, when we arrived in Oxford, England, it was warm and sunny, but that did not last long. We explored Oxford with James and Haley (friends), and went into many of the prestigious colleges to find that most of them had trimmed gardens, and large parks behind the large antique buildings. Since one would suppose Oxford to be heavily crowded from the tight streets and small buildings, it was surprising to say the least. Another evident but surprising fact was the installation of the sewer system. Instead of digging down to place the pipes under the streets, they lay them at the original street level, and then raised the street to be one story above the old one. One can see evidence of this by looking into what seems like storm drain grates to see old front doors or windows!
Our next stop was Copenhagen. I did not even need to step out of the airport to notice how it felt like Vancouver! It was clean, peaceful, and tastefully designed. During our visit, we went on a food tour to get a closer look at the culture and history of Denmark. My favourite stop was for these small, open-faced sandwiches, with unique toppings. An example would be a chicken salad, topped with crispy deep fried chicken skin and fried onions. My personal favourite was one with shrimp salad and fresh greens. All of these toppings are on a dense, dark rye bread, which is delicious, and hearty!
We then boarded our cruise, where we have a larger room with a big outside deck, where we enjoyed lots of scenic cruising through fjords and inlets. The first port of call on our cruise was Kiev Germany, and Dad and I took a bus half an hour to see a WWII era U-boat. My first impression was that it was smaller than I expected. It was perhaps 80 feet long, and around 15 feet wide. When we went inside, it was very cramped. At the very rear was the navigations room, followed by barracks, kitchen, bathroom, communications room, engine room, more barracks, and the weapons room in that order. The weapons room was the largest, followed closely by the engine room. It was surreal to see something that most people just read about in books.
Estonia was the next stop, and we booked a bike tour around the city. The best thing about a biking tour is that you can travel a larger distance than a walking tour, while still being able to experience the life of the city. Estonia as a country is very young, as it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991! It in-fact was the first country to break away, starting the fall of the Soviet Union. However, it announced its independence peacefully, without war or bloodshed. On our tour we saw plenty of evidence of Estonia’s former suppressors, with Russian monuments dotting the city. We even went to a quiet area where statues of Lenin and Stalin still lay fallen and scattered around ta field. Estonia was once a strong medieval civilization, with plans to build large walls, with lots of towers and buttresses. This all came to ruins however when they ran out of money and were overrun by neighbouring nations.
St. Petersburg, Russia was different from any place I had been before. While a democracy, it felt like it put up a facade for tourists. We took a private tour to see all the major sights of the city. We started with the Hermitage, a sight to behold. Every room was filled to the brim with priceless works of art, from sculptures to paintings, collectables to suites of armour. It was an amazing experience, walking from room to room, to find works from all of the famous artists, from all corners of the globe. After the Hermitage we visited numerous cathedrals and churches, each looming over the surrounding buildings, all decorated in golden spirals. We also saw a few of the many canals that Peter the Great had made, for he loved Amsterdam, but since he had to rule Russia, he made his own “mini Amsterdam” right in the middle of St. Petersburg. Our last stop was to visit the Summer Palace, Peterhoff the residence of the emperors of Russia in the summer months. It had sprawling gardens filled with trees, bushes, and lots of fountains. The gardens and entrance to the palace itself were full of fountains, and we learned from our tour guide that they are all fed by underground streams, with no water pumps or electric assistance needed! This ended our tour of St. Petersburg, and while we visited some of the most majestic and awe-inspiring places I have ever seen, it felt a little scripted and refined, as if they didn’t want us to see Russia as it really was and, in the end, this detracted from the experience.