Gdańsk, Poland, 5/12/2023, National Geographic Explorer
National Geographic Explorer
Europe & British Isles
The second day of our explorations around the Baltic Sea brought us to the historic Polish city of Gdańsk. National Geographic Explorer tied up at a wharf right beside Westerplatte, the site where the opening shots of the Second World War were fired on September 1st, 1939. During the day, we focused on the long history of Gdańsk and toured the medieval Old City. We admired the beautiful buildings that were completely rebuilt after being bombed into rubble during the war, visited museums focused on the war and on the period of the Solidarity union protests in the enormous Gdańsk shipyards, and enjoyed a delicious lunch at a gourmet restaurant in a medieval granary.
We docked in Helsinki early in the morning. It was raining and the sky was gray, but we knew it was a matter of time. The weather forecast predicted sun a little later, and, indeed, the sky cleared up, helping us enjoy a fabulous day. Guests were divided into two groups. One group visited the second oldest city in Finland, Porvoo. The other visited the open-air museum located on the island of Seurasaari. The good thing about doing activities outside the city of Helsinki is that we were able to cross the entire city by bus. We had the chance to see firsthand all the most relevant monuments and buildings, such as the library and the train station. We took advantage of the afternoon to explore on our own. After dinner in the evening, a small group took a tour of the port and admired the icebreaker fleet docked nearby.
We spent half the day at sea as we made the long crossing from Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia. We passed the island of Saaremaa and the low Estonian coast. During the morning, Stephen Fisher gave an extensive overview of the military operations in the Baltic in World War II. Some of these were quite surprising – the awkward involvement of the Finnish leadership with Hitler’s regime, for instance, a careful balancing act between two aggressive superpowers which managed to secure Finnish independence. National Geographic photographer Sisse Grimberg followed with a fine exposition of her National Geographic assignment, portraying the history and practice of the Hanseatic League. It was very topical, as the cities we are visiting were at one time or another part of that intricate network of enterprising merchants. As always, Sisse’s images were highly personal, finding a view of practices that have survived through the ages and creating a direct link to the past. Then: Tallinn. On a gloriously clear and sunny day, the city presented itself from the sea with perky spires and medieval towers with bright red tile roofs – and with a whole lot of very recent architecture, testimony of the brilliant revival of Estonia from the drab Soviet occupation. National Geographic Explorer guests came prepared – not just by Stephen Fisher, but also after viewing The Singing Revolution , a moving documentary on the Estonian struggle for independence in the 1980s and 1990s. A long and winding walk through the old city brought historical and contemporary energies together. The upper city, Toompea, the seat of Estonia’s government, is a quiet and dignified maze of spruced up official buildings. The not-so-old Russian Orthodox cathedral towers over some of it, a token of older attempts to dominate Estonian culture. The ancient Maria Church is much more genuinely ‘Estonian’ in that respect. The gravestones are in German, and the walls are covered with elaborate coats of arms of the old German nobility, which ruled these lands for hundreds of years. We took a breather on the terrace that overlooks the lower city, once the domain for those busy merchants. We enjoyed a long stroll down Pikk Jalg, where nifty painters of cityscapes peddle their canvases, and headed into the bustling centre. ‘Spruced up’ is not saying enough. Since independence, Estonia has flourished, and everything here is testimony to that. Colourfully plastered gables offer ample indication that this is a very old city. We had a cup of coffee in an ancient merchant’s house that dates to the 14th century. On the same street: two old Guild Houses. This particular hall is the seat of the Tallinn Philharmonic. Boys and girls went in an out in what looked like school uniforms – but then again, not. They told me it was because they are involved in their end of term school presentations. One boy reluctantly told me he was to recite a poem later that evening. The others were to dance and sing. Like many 13-year-olds, they dreaded what was to come. After the tour ended, guests and staff had plenty of time to walk around this great old city and have a beer or two. Still, the day was not over. On the back deck of National Geographic Explorer , two Estonian musicians, masters of the ancient harpa, performed a highly unusual mix of traditional music and contemporary sounds with some of the most hilarious commentary we have ever witnessed, including songs about loneliness and cross-country skiing, for a start. All guests joined in a marvelous “flat-footed waltz.” Then it was time to cast off and sail to Helsinki.
Three days after starting our cultural expedition around the Baltic, we finally enjoyed a full day of sailing on board National Geographic Explorer today. Our comfortable and elegant ship allowed us to enjoy a magnificent navigation while we traveled to Riga, the capital of Latvia. Under a pleasant sun, our historians offered various lectures on the history of the Baltic to better understand the sociological and historical phenomena that have occurred over the centuries in this very special region. During the late afternoon, we crossed the bay of Riga and entered the estuary of the Daugava River whose banks are the berth place for dozens of merchant ships loading and unloading cargo. Once docked in the middle of the city, we were lucky to be welcomed by a traditional Latvian dance group. They performed during cocktail hour at sunset. We could not have asked for a more beautiful welcome!