FOLLOWING OUR marvelous trip to Portugal and May-June, we made our now-traditional visit back to Michigan. Most of my family are in Michigan. Having had my career, living and raising our family in Michigan, we have also made a lot of wonderful friends there. With those connections, we spend about 2 weeks every July back in Michigan. That’s family/friends time, and I rarely produce any serious photography. But our next trip abroad, and “photographic” venue came in August.
Along came “Putin’s War”
BACK IN 2021, we had scheduled an “Iceland and Ireland” cruise. Then the pandemic changed everything. That cruise was cancelled, and we re-booked something similar, which was, in-turn cancelled. This pattern recurred for about 4 cruises, until we finally landed on the “Baltic” cruise. It seemed like it would be fun. For one thing, we would be back cruising again. But it would also take us to some new places we hadn’t been before. There was one stop that really had my interest though: St. Petersburg, Russia. I had certainly read and heard over the years about the fantastic layout and architecture of the city. The ship was due to overnight in St. Petersburg, so that was clearly the highlight of the cruise.
THEN ALONG came Putin’s War (and from everything I can see, it is his – and his war alone). Most of us “get” things like Covid 19 (even though we don’t necessarily understand it and certainly don’t like it). I try to avoid politics and controversy here. But this isn’t really politics. This is humanity we are talking about. And what is unfathomable to me is how one deranged human being can have so much control over his own country – and indeed over the world. Putin’s folly has had the inexcusable result of tragic loss of life, liberty and property for so many of the great and resilient people of The Ukraine (as well as other direct and indirect participants – including children!). Yet day after day, there he sits on this throne, with apparently zero concern for anyone but himself. He is – in my view – a despicable excuse for a human being. I want to be clear that this “rant” is not because I am pissed that he messed up my St. Petersburg stop. To be sure, I – like many other cruisers – was disappointed. Indeed over 50% of those scheduled for this cruise cancelled because St. Petersburg was dropped from the itinerary. No, I am just plain old pissed – no more or less than I would have been if the cruise had never been scheduled. But since it was, I have noted that if the cruise line had not dropped the stop, then we would have cancelled. I refuse to spend any money in a country that is led by such an evil, narcissist. O.k. I am done. For now, anyway. 😦
WE NEVER really considered cancelling the cruise. We wanted to get back out there, especially on our favorite cruise line (Celebrity). And, we have learned by experience that wherever we go and whoever is there, we make new friends and have unforgettable experiences. This cruise would be no exception. Over the next several posts, we will see what I was able to find and photograph in the Baltic.
THOUGH THE cruise was to ports in the Baltic Sea, we started from Amsterdam. If the starting port is at (or reasonably near) a city we are interested in spending some time in, we usually will fly in a few days early. These days, given the “new world order” of travel after the pandemic, there is another reason to do that. Flight delays and cancellations have become much more common. In some instances, there have also been a higher incidence of baggage problems. Two or 3 days (minimum) gives us a better chance of those issues sorting out. It is always good to remember that the ship leaves the port on schedule and waits for no one.
WE ARRIVED in Amsterdam on Thursday morning and boarded our ship on Saturday morning. That meant 2 days this trip. We had been to Amsterdam before. While we are aware that it is a large city and there is a lot to do, we had seen many of the sights previously. We had one “important” thing we wanted to do, which was to see the Ann Frank house. We had booked that tour for Friday afternoon. That morning, we took a “Free Walking Tour” of the Jewish Quarter. This was great, as it really put the Ann Frank story into perspective. The only other thing that I would like to do in Amsterdam is to take one of the tours out into the old canals and see the traditional cottages and windmills. Interestingly, though we didn’t see any traditional windmills, I was surprised to see the many modern wind turbines throughout this part of the world.
BEFORE WE got moving for our tours on Friday, I did my usual early morning walk around, armed with my Olympus m4/3 camera and 3 lenses (I now had a wide angle – 9-18mm – zoom, and a longer – 40-150mm – zoom in the bag, along with the “pancake” 14-42mm). Having acquired the 40-150mm (80-300 “full frame” equivalent) prior to the Portugal trip, I realized then that I could really use a wider lens for some of the city shooting. So before this trip, I picked up the 9-18mm zoom. I carried and used it quite a bit for this trip. I would make one more lens change/acquisition after this trip and before the next – to make up what I think is my best (given currently available m4/3 glass) travel setup. This was my third major trip carrying this gear as my primary travel camera setup. I am pretty happy with it.
HAVING SPOTTED a Starbucks between our hotel and the City Center, I first walked over there. From there, I walked around the immediate area and took as much advantage as I could of the early light. One of the things I was immediately reminded of (having observed it on my 2019 visit here) was how bicycle-centric Amsterdam is. You see them everywhere, both parked and in motion. They have a very sophisticated (and often dedicated) bike lane system, even incorporating their own traffic signals in busy areas. If you are out walking around, it is worth noting that cyclists often do not obey these traffic signs. When crossing it pays to not only look for vehicular traffic but watch for bicycles as well!
JEWISH SETTLEMENT in Amsterdam dates back to the late 1500’s. I probably began with the Sephardic Jews (exiled from Spain to Portugal and then from Portugal to Netherlands). Netherlands was known not only for its progressive attitudes, but its tolerance and religious freedoms, even back then. In fact, in the early 1600’s the Jewish occupants of were awarded Amsterdam citizenship (although certain rights were still limited). Synagogues were built and trading thrived. Some of the Jewish population became some of Amsterdam’s wealthiest citizens. The settlement grew to over 80,000 Jewish inhabitants by 1940 (there were 140,000 Jews throughout the Netherlands).
WHILE I kind of promised I was done with my rant above, I cannot help but draw comparisons to the events leading up to WWII. The parallels of an evil and twisted man, small in both physical and emotional stature, who rose to power in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, to the Russian man excoriated above are startling! While Germany at the time may have been ripe for his rise to power, it probably started as much with our 1929 stock market crash and “Great Depression” here in the U.S. as anything. Depression quickly spread to Europe and particularly to Germany, paving the way for Hitler. And perhaps the hallmark of his gestalt was his hatred for the Jews. I was struck by this quote, from JewishHistory.org:
“The rise and fall of Adolf Hitler is one of the most terrible, dramatic and unbelievable stories in history. He dealt in death in such boxcar numbers, and so irrevocably altered civilization, that it is impossible for the ordinary human being to fathom how so much evil could exist and be perpetrated essentially by a single person”
SOUND FAMILIAR to anyone else? Scary familiar, in my view. The best news is that – at least as I write this – “Hitler Jr.” is not really having the success he hoped for. But it hasn’t prevented the 1000’s of innocent deaths and loss of billions due to wanton destruction. At any rate, as Hitler began his quest to dominate all of Europe, many Jews fled to Amsterdam, hoping for safe-haven. The Nazis invasion and occupation of Amsterdam in 1940, crushed that hope. Hitler systematically began censuring, then removing their rights, and eventually, removing them to the Nazi concentration camps. Eventually, over 75% of Jews from the Netherlands were killed. The story is heartbreaking. Along the walks near the canal in the district, there are hundreds of small brass plaques commemorating the deaths of those who were taken away. Some made it back. Most did not. There are now numerous memorials to the Holocaust, including the reworking of buildings used to consolidate the Jews for transporting to the camps and care of Jewish Children, and of course the most famous in Amsterdam: The Ann Frank House. We toured the house, but there were no photos allowed. Still, it was eye-opening.
FORTUNATELY, THERE is a lot more to Amsterdam than the negative history of the holocaust. In September 2019, I blogged about our first visit to Amsterdam. We walked through the famous Red Light District, and the nearby Marijuana facilities. I also illustrated the many canals and cafe/bars/restaurants, particularly street-side. On this visit, we again saw the canals – often adorned with colorful flowers. We also learned that Amsterdam has its share of cultural points. While in the Jewish Quarter, we walked around the botanical center, a large, impressively designed greenhouse on a canal, with some ornate footbridges and ponds on the grounds.
WE ALSO learned that they have some, well let’s just say “quirky” naming conventions. If you want a nice cup of coffee, for example (reputed to be very good in Amsterdam), you do not want a Coffee Shop. You want a cafe. As you can see from the photos, a “Coffeeshop” in Amsterdam has an entirely different connotation. 🙂 I thought the sign on the bench outside one of the coffeeshops we walked by sent an interesting message.
NE OF the choices you need to make when cruising out of a city other than the one you live in, is where to stay pre-cruise, and sometimes post-cruise. For us, that often depends on what we are doing before (and after, if the cruise originates and terminates at the same port). We mostly spend time in the embarkation city. By the time we get off the ship we are both tired, and ready to get home. If we don’t think we can make our flight the day we dock, we will stay overnight in a motel that is close/convenient to the airport. If we are spending time in the city, we then want to find a place that is convenient to the city, or easy/close public transportation. On this trip we stayed at the Movenpick Hotel, which was literally next door to the cruise terminal. I have to say, it was the easiest boarding experience we have had on any cruise. The Movenpick’s advertising says: “City Center,” but it is really a short distance removed from there. The main rail station is about 1/4 mile away, but there is very good public transportation (tram line) right across from the hotel. In this instance, it really was the best of all worlds for us. We bought 2-day travel passes that gave us unlimited tram and train and bus rides (we used the tram a lot and the train to get to and from the airport). We easily got to the places we wanted to go. Our boarding time was 11:00 a.m., so we just walked our bags out the front door of the motel and about 1/4 block down, right back into the baggage drop and the terminal entrance. 10 minutes later, we were aboard. Easy-peasy. Our flight out was not until about 2:00 p.m. on the day we returned, so we felt confident about catching it (in spite of the “nightmare” experiences we had been reading about). It took us less than an hour from the time we stepped off the ship until we arrived at the airport. It probably took us about 30-40 minutes to check in, check bags, go through security and passport control, and head to the airline lounge (we did have “business class” and “priority” but we knew two other couples who did not, and they got through in about the same time frame. For ease of cruising, the Movenpick cannot be beat. It also happens to be the place where we met – in the restaurant the night before the cruise), our new good friends, Mike and Elaine. You’ll hear more about them soon.