Hidden Gems - Northern Europe
I suppose I sometimes get ahead of myself about what are the best places to visit when on holiday and the ‘Scotland and Baltic’ cruise easily identified two major destinations that I considered important. The highlights were going to be Edinburgh and St Petersburg - and highlights they were indeed. An exceptionally well executed Edinburgh Tatoo on a stunning Scottish late summer but chilly evening was everything the brochure promised and then some - the Swiss Guards really are exceptional - and Petershof on a sunny afternoon with its golden fountains in all their glory are certainly hard to beat… and that, along with Hermitage, Church on Spilled Blood and many other stunning St Petersburg sights, really lived up to the billing. Except they had one thing in common - thousands of visitors in their respective cities. Edinburgh was bursting at the seams with more than the Tatoo visitors as the Fringe Festival ran concurrently and with a couple of other main stream events adding to the huge crowd. What a great atmosphere it was. And St Petersburg was as busy as I’d expected and then some as we pushed and squeezed with many other tourists at the Hermitage. How lucky we had paid for queue-jumping rights with our private guide and driver at way less than half of the cruise ship pricing. But we sailed away from both cities feeling like we needed to return on a quiet day of the year when no other cruise ships or tourists would be there. It all felt rushed and I would very much like to go back ‘out of season’ to wander around both wonderful cities again and it was this experience that highlight the hidden gems that follow. They became really special for me because they were so unexpected with the lovely and often quiet experience they delivered by comparison to the big ticket cities.
tWe arrived on a still clear and fine morning after having left busy Tallin the evening before. I could see the mounds of coal on the wharf which is so out of place for us westerners who live in such fortunate places and also a reminder of a bygone era - for me that is. The ship spun around in the narrow river and tied up at the wharf. A small brass and was playing it’s heart out and the Mayor was there bearing gifts and thanks to the captain & Seabourn for visiting their small town. We were the fifth ship to call in 2018 and they appreciated our arrival very much.
After boarding a bus we headed off on a tour of the lovely town starting with the town square and wandered the market area as people were appearing in the early morning. It was about then the guide with her dry sense of humour introduced us to the famous cows of Ventspills. There are a number of quirky sculptured cows which as an animal they hold in high regard and culminating in the viewing of a huge cow sculpture towards the end of the tour - just to make sure we understood. I did like the guide's ability to laugh at herself and their culture too - something some people have forgotten how to do.
We toured the small castle and tasted some beer in the mid morning sun, wandered along the wharf side and went and saw the church whose impressive golden domes were visible from the ship poking through the tree tops. All in all a lovely experience in stopping to ‘ smell the roses’ which also in our busy lives of today we need to do more of.
Lerwick, Shetland Is
Another smooth leg on the North Sea from Scrabster in the the top end of Scotland. I did wonder about the reputation of the North Sea at one stage but we really only had gentle swells and bumps albeit windy at times. So no complaints there. And even the run across to Bremen only afforded us a gentle roll.
Lerwick was a place I had earmarked in my mind to perhaps have a quiet day as there won’t be much to do there. Again I was pleasantly surprised with the interesting almost treeless green landscape, the cute Shetland Pony’s and that lovey crisp fresh air. We were recommended to go to a local fish & chip shop for lunch and the fish was lovely and fresh as one might expect. Small towns always seem to have friendly people who are interested in where you have come from so it's always nice to stop and have a natter from time to time. The town was architecturally very interesting as well with an impressive town hall. I was amazed to find an ANZAC wreath outside the town hall in front of a war memorial and wished someone could have told me what the connection was to Australia and NZ in Lerwick.
A Norwegian naval training yacht was berthed at the wharf as well. We heard it was quite a regular visitor to Lewick and it looked impressive tied up at the wharf.
A small coastal town towards the tip of southern Norwegian coast as you sail down from Oslo. What a beautiful approach it has sailing in between islands as you arrive in the inner harbour. We berthed just before 8 am at the head of a small U -shaped harbour that is the centre of town. Our small ship had her bow sticking out well beyond the little wharf making her look quite impressive. The welcome party singing and dancing performed by students from local high schools was energetic as we came along side. They had obviously been up early and on the road to the wharf ready to perform up the zigzag hillside pathway alongside the ship. It really was quite special.
Arendal has a welcoming appeal with the harbour being the centre of the town and restaurants are on all three sides offering quite a choice. Plus the large church on a rise from the harbour really makes it stand out. The greater harbour offers much access to the water from mainland and islands and I am sure a fantastic boating centric lifestyles enjoyed by many. People came and went by small boat as the access would have been far easier than trying to drive by car. Wandering the small town was quite peaceful and interesting and there were no tours of people from other cruise ship sharing our quiet space. There was enough to keep us occupied for more than a few hours and we enjoyed the gentler pace. A pretty small city with a population of around 40,000. I am sure there are more like this around Norway’s coast if you know how to get there and where to go. I’ll certainly head back to Norway because of the lovely experience we had.