Our history found at sea

02 November 2006

THE SPIRE of St Alban’s church stands proudly above the medieval fort where the cruise liners dock in Copenhagen. It is just a ten-minute stroll to Denmark’s only Anglican-Episcopalian church with many diversions on the way.

First is one of the world’s most famous sculptures — the Little Mermaid, coiled demurely on her rock on the tideline. Initial thoughts might be of the childhood enchantments of Hans Christian Andersen until noting that the statue’s benefactor was Mr Carlsberg — the local brewer. There is also a Victorian Gothic church in the vicinity, consecrated in 1887 to celebrate Edward VII’s marriage to the Danish Princess Alexandra.

Copenhagen is just one of the many Baltic capitals on 10-14 day cruises departing from the UK.

It was here that the foundations of the two political events that shaped the 20th century in Europe began: the formation of the German states into one nation at Konigs-berg (in 1871), now Kalingrad, and Lenin’s storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1917.

A cruise ship is possibly the best way to explore the historic Baltic cities. Perfect hominess in a cabin combine with splendid dining, informed destination lecturers, evening entertainment plus being rocked to sleep on summer seas to awake in another country where a selection of shore excursions covering the main sights await.

Our ship also visited Oslo and moored opposite the town hall — the venue for the Nobel Peace prize ceremony. Other highlights are Carl Vigeland’s demented human sculptures and Munch’s The Scream.

The essentials for sailing enthusiasts are the Viking Museum and maritime museums, commemorating Norway’s seafaring explorers, like Amundsen, Nansen and Thor Heyerdahl with his fabled crossing of the Pacific on the Kon-Tiki raft.

Some cruise ships enter or leave the Baltic via the Kiel Canal. This a full day’s voyage through the flat farmlands of northern Germany.

Stockholm, built on many islands, is another pleasing capital. Like all Scandinavia with high standards of eco-green awareness, it prides itself on its water quality. The salmon from its inner-city canals are even fit for the table.

The old town, the Gamla Stan, is perfect for strolling, with visits to the palace or town hall. The Vasa, the giant, top-heavy galleon that sank on its naming ceremony in 1628, has been superbly restored and should not be missed.

A night’s sailing away from Stockholm is Helsinki. An evening voyage there is scenic as the ship twists a course through the 26,000 islands, rocks and skerries of Stockholm’s archipelago, culminating in the docking of the ship right in the centre of Helsinki.

One disembarks into a market beneath the steps of the cathedral, thronged by locals and packed with handicrafts and local produce. Wonderful smoked herrings and, in late summer, stalls packed with wild chantrelle fungi and berries including, rowan, blueberries, cranberries and the local delicacy, cloudberries, are found there.

Be sure to visit the Lutheran and Orthodox cathedrals, and to see the charming Temppeliaukio underground church carved out of bare rock, topped with a glass dome.

St Petersburg is spectacular with its worn grandness reflecting its past opulence. One has to have a visa to go ashore independently (not required for arranged shore excursions). There are trips to see the treasures of the Hermitage; Peterhof, the summer residence of Peter the Great with its gardens; the Peter and Paul Fortress with the tomb-filled church of the tsars; St Isaac’s Cathedral and the extravagant Palace of Catherine the Great.

Back at sea, the islands of Bornholm with its curious round churches and Gotland are also possible stopping-off ports, as is Warnemunde in Germany, home of the bath chair.

Cruise liners
Saga Shipping: phone 0800 50 50 30
Fred Olsen Cruises: phone 01473 742424
P&O Cruises: phone 09845 3 585 585

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