A Tale of Two Cities: Pushkin & Peterhof, Russia!

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Peterhof Palace, Peterhof

St. Petersburg, Russia provides an excellent home base for exploring more of the splendor of Russian culture outside of an urban setting. Pushkin and Peterhof are both nearby towns that can be visited on the same day (albeit in rushed fashion) in an excursion from the city. The highlight of both of these towns is that each is home to a spectacular rococo palace that will leave you both gasping for breath and awe-inspired!

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Catherine’s Palace, Pushkin

Pushkin is home to Catherine’s Palace, summer palace of Russian royalty about 18 miles outside of St. Petersburg. With grand staircases, larger-than-life halls, and abundant with masterpieces of art, it is lavish and luxurious on a scale impossible to contemplate without witnessing it first hand. Unfortunately, many people seek to do just that – and the crowds here are suffocating. But the experience of being able to witness the surreal spectacle of this place is worth the effort.

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Catherine’s Palace: Pure Rococo Splendor

The incredible exterior is a mere sample of the rococo majesty that you will find when you enter its sumptuous interior. You progress through rooms, each one so rich and indulgent in detail, size, and extravagant materials it gives you a feeling like a sinfully sweet dessert buffet with no end would give. I felt spoiled rotten and stuffed full indulging in so much eye candy.

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Incredible Interior

While the gilded trim may be the most eye-catching decoration, I found my favorite rooms to be the complexly detailed and highly colorful rooms like the one pictured below. I was reminded of Wedgwood and cameo style of interior decor objects and jewelry pondering the majestic qualities of rooms like this.

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Intricately Detailed Interiors of Catherine’s Palace

Peterhof Palace, as pictured below, and about 24 miles from St. Petersburg, is best known for it’s grand gardens and fanciful fountains. For very quickly apparent reasons, it is often referred to as the “Russian Versailles.” Like Catherine’s Palace, the crowds are unbearable – but well worth bearing.

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Peterhof Palace

Here gilded statues gaze as whimsical waters perform a delightful dance. To have a sense of the size and scope of these fountains, compare the size of the people processing along the paths that surround it. These fountains are larger than life, and still only a small part of the immensity of the meticulously manicured gardens in your midst.

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Gorgeous Gardens at Peterhof

But the beauty doesn’t stop there. Venture inside to complete the spectacle, feasting your eyes on interior details and rococo extravagance only rivaled by Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin.

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Playfully Pastel Peterhof

Whether the room is a pastel paradise (above) or gloriously gilded (below), each room is different yet equally as flamboyant and fanciful as the last. It is a maze of wonder that will leave you flabbergasted.

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Peterhof: Gilded Grandeur

You can find your paradise in Pushkin and Peterhof, soaking in their ornate opulence and imagining what life would be like to live within these gilded walls. The visit is well worth the side-trip from St. Petersburg!

You can view my full tour of Pushkin and Peterhof here!:

 

 

 

 

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Seductive St. Petersburg, Russia!

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The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

An overnight stay in St. Petersburg, Russia was the next stop on my Norwegian Breakaway Baltic Sea cruise, and this seductive city turned out to be the most exotic, enticing destination I had ever visited!

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The Hermitage Interior

The Hermitage, in all of it’s baroque brilliance, was worth braving the overbearing crowds. Dripping with glistening gold and brilliant, bold pastel and jewel-toned colors, it was a spectacular sight to behold! The priceless works of art housed within were almost an afterthought to the marvels of interior architectural design! Room after room I was breathtakingly awe-inspired!

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Church of the Spilled Blood, Under Restoration

The Romantic Nationalist design Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, built between 1883 and 1907, is a St. Petersburg landmark, with its signature onion domes in brilliant gold and bright colors. It was under restoration, so my view was unfortunately limited. It is well-known for it’s magnificent mosaics.

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One of Two Rostral Columns (Lighthouse)

Two towering columns, the “Rostral Columns,” served as lighthouses commemorating Naval victory. The statues at the base represent Russia’s major rivers. The Old Stock Exchange can be seen in the background.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, originally St. Petersburg’s citadel, now houses the State Museum of St. Petersburg History. The St. Peter and Paul Cathedral is another bastion of baroque brilliance, and is celebrated as St. Petersburg’s oldest landmark. Packed with people, it was difficult to navigate – but given some extra time it is possible to slowly work your way to the front for an enthralling view of its spectacular baroque altar.

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“Russian Folkloric Extravaganza”

The Russian Folkloric Extravaganza, and evening show held in St. Petersburg, provides a poignant peek into Russian cultural heritage! Fabulously filled with traditional costumes, acrobatic dancing, sword throwing, soulful singing, and a bear costume (!), it is a delight to witness. Added bonus: the theater it is held in gives a glimpse into gloriously tacky Soviet-era architecture and art!

A visit to St. Petersburg, Russia is a rare treat, and, I would argue, I must-visit for anyone given the opportunity! If you visit aboard a cruise ship a visa will not even be necessary – your excursions serve as your visa, and customs-immigration is a breeze to pass through (it was easier than customs-immigrations in the U.S.!) On the downside you can’t explore on your own, but your day will be packed full of spectacular sights nonetheless. If you have more time a visa – booked several months in advance – may be the way to go.

You can watch the St. Petersburg video tour here:

 

Tantilizing Tallinn, Estonia: A Medieval Marvel

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Tallinn, Estonia provides a fascinating glance into medieval times, and into modern-day life in a former Soviet controlled country. The residents of Tallinn proudly embrace and celebrate freedom, and they cherish their medieval heritage in one of the best-preserved examples of medieval-architectured old towns anywhere.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is arguably the most fascinating attraction in Tallinn. It is a Russian Revival style Cathedral built between 1894 and 1900, a time period when Tallinn was a part of the Russian Empire. The namesake of the Cathedral, Alexander Nevsky, was victorious in the Battle of the Ice, Lake Peipus, present-day Estonia. Its signature onion domes burst up into the sky towering above all else, guiding all to witness it in all of its spectacular glory!

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Kadriorg Palace

The Kadriorg Palace of Catherine I of Russia is a baroque masterpiece currently serving as home to the Art Museum of Estonia. Its fanciful pink pastel exterior shines brightly, providing a warm welcome to those entering the city at this popular entry point.

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Cobblestoned Streets, Hard-Bitten Buildings

Tallinn has boldly risen from the ashes of Soviet dominance, and has a plethora of meticulous renovations on historic architecture as well as cutting-edge modern buildings to show for it. But head off the beaten path, down a cobbled side street, and you can catch a glimpse of the “other” Estonia – the impact that Soviet rule had on their economy and the hard work the Estonians have taken around the city to restore their urban landscape. Understandably, it will take time for these restorations to be complete. For now, the decay of some of these buildings provide important historical reminders.

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Views from Patkuli Viewing Platform over Old Town

From the Patkuli Viewing Platform you are afforded spectacular views over old town, into the modern district, and of the port (note the docked cruise ships here!) Tallinn’s signature red rooftops blanket the old town district.

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Tallinn: Old and New

This overlook is an ideal “first stop” before you head into Old Town, to catch an overview, and gain a perspective that includes both old and new that you cannot witness from street level. This view encompasses the spirit of the Tallinn of today – as a meticulous caretaker to history and modern metropolis all at once.

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Surprising Spires around Every Corner

Old Town in Tallinn is a medieval history buff’s playground, with spires popping up around many corners, hilly cobbled pedestrian paths, and street musicians galore. I enjoyed the talents of more street musicians here than I have in any other city I have ever visited!

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Cafes in Town Hall Square

Town Hall Square is surrounded by powdery-pastel gabled buildings, brilliantly adorned with intricate details. Cafes abound here – an ideal place to enjoy the magnificent architectural surroundings and observe Tallinn residents enjoying their freedom and fulfilling their ambitions.

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Gustav Ernesaks Memorial

The Gustav Ernesaks Memorial, dedicated to the Estonian composer of the same name, is located at the Song Festival Grounds. Gustav Ernesaks is perhaps most well known for composing ‘Mu isamaa on menu arm,’ which the tourism bureau describes as “the unofficial anthem of the Estonians during the Soviet era.” (visitestonia.com) My guide explained that this location is of great sentimental importance to the Estonians because of this connection, symbolic of their independent spirit.

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Performers with Traditional Medieval Instruments

What better way to complete a visit to Tallinn than with a concert performed in the traditional medieval style? You can see these performers and more on my tour of Tallinn here:

 

Captivating Copenhagen: Scintillating City

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen

My Baltic Sea Cruise on Norwegian Breakaway began with embarkation port Copenhagen, Denmark. I relished the opportunity to spend a couple of days in this unexpectedly alluring city!

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Borsen (old stock exchange)

If you can overcome the high cost of staying in the city, the rewards are priceless! I made it my mission to make the most of my precious time in Copenhagen by getting a comprehensive overview and then prioritizing which locations I wanted to investigate further with a double-decker bus tour. I was thrilled to learn that not only would I get the second morning of touring the city free, but that Gray Line Bus has an arrangement with the cruise lines that provides shuttle service to the ports included with your double-decker ticket. I would be able to spend the whole day on day one, and all morning on day two, exploring the city with transportation provided – followed by a convenient means to reach the port for my cruise.

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Little Mermaid Statue

What I like most about the double-decker bus tours is your ability to explore independently, at your own pace, without spending valuable time on public transportation and with long-distance walking. I don’t mean to knock public transportation – and often take advantage of it when traveling – but I find that in a very expensive city where I have limited time the convenience of the double-decker bus is a good value, because I can spend more time enjoying what the city has to offer and less time worrying about how to get from “point a” to “point b,” and then doing it.

Ultimately, I ended up getting off the bus at almost every stop – something I don’t usually find myself doing on these tours. You don’t hear as much about Copenhagen as some other European capitals – yet Copenhagen is no less endowed with incredible sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.

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Tivoli

I started my day walking to the bus stop with a detour into a coffee shop by the train station (my very modest but very expensive hotel only offered breakfast at an additional mind-bogglingly high charge.) The aroma wafting from the cafe was mesmerizing to my sense of scent, enveloping me and dragging me in for what turned out to be some of the most delicious specialty coffee and pastry I had ever savored. The barista was tolerant of the few pitiful words of Danish I could muster, providing service with a smile. I gazed out at the locals strolling past Tivoli across the street, and tourists stumbling out of the train station in the other direction, looking baffled and enthralled all at once, just as I had done the day before.

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City Hall

I left the cafe immanently satisfied and made my way to the bus stop next to City Hall. Tourists frolicked in the square facing City Hall, its tower proudly rising up into the skyline like a boastful exclamation point. I boarded the bus brimming with excitement of how the city would inspire my other senses – and my expectations were exceeded!

The bus meandered through spectacular public squares patriotically lined with Danish flags, past indulgent old palaces dripping with opulence – and the sleek lines of ultra-modern structures exemplifying the cutting-edge Denmark of today. I departed the bus filled with wonder at almost every stop, and strolled along the canals, pedestrian retail zones, and historic areas. All of my senses fully satiated, I felt happily whole.

Copenhagen was a fitting first stop on this cruise through the Baltic – a preamble of the exciting, thrilling, and inspiring journey I was about to undertake!

My video tour is available here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Journey of Anticipation Waiting to Travel

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“Party Store,” Houghton Lake, Michigan

It has been said that the journey is more important than the destination. A destination can be spectacular, but in a way the arrival is anti-climactic – something that often doesn’t occur to us until the time comes. The building of anticipation can be an important factor in the experience of travel – a journey in and of itself, and one of the elements that make travel so rewarding. I am often asked if I ever get tired of traveling so much – and my answer is a resounding “no” because I never tire of the exploration factor. That said, however, when you travel frequently some of that anticipatory energy gets lost in the whirlwind of planning and taking off, without as much time to contemplate the thrilling journey ahead. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been dumped into the destination stage without building up to that climax when my travels are back-to-back.

It can be tough, though, waiting when you are anxious to get going. The two best ways to deal with this are through savoring the experience of planning and preparation, and through finding distractions to pass the rest of the time. Through researching more about the places you are going, you will not only fuel the fire of that anticipation, you will have a more rewarding experience once you arrive, because you will have a better understanding of the place’s culture… whether that means sampling different types of sushi at a local restaurant to find your favorites before your trip to Japan, researching Mayan culture before you visit the Ziggurats of the Ancient Mayans in Mexico, learning about the life of the black bear before your trip to Smoky Mountains National Park, or, as I did a couple of weeks ago before my road trip through Michigan with a local, watching some videos and tutorials about the local accent and lingo! (Thanks to that, I arrived informed, realizing a “party store” is a “convenience store,” the “U.P.” means “Upper Peninsula,” and a “refrigerator” is a “frigerator.” [Added bonus: it’s fun to get “fluent” in regional dialects from your home country!])

Distractions can include packing ahead (a good idea anyway because it helps keep you from forgetting things when you add to your suitcase piecemeal over the course of a few days as you think of them), working more (more money for travel = good thing!), cleaning out your car before a road trip so the journey will be more comfortable for you, cleaning your house so you have a pleasant environment to look forward to when you return, or, my personal favorite, becoming a “tourist” in your home town by revisiting the local sites, taking in a concert, or sampling a local craft brew you hadn’t yet tried.

It’s inevitable – the day will come when you embark on your trip. And once you reach that point, the time building up to it will be gone for good. Make it count! Consider it part of the journey, part of your experience, and allow yourself to take the time to allow the anticipation and excitement to build in you and embrace that delectable feeling – one of the greatest pleasures in life!

I’ll be back next week with a continuation of my Norwegian Breakaway Baltic Sea cruise – I thank those who came seeking the next installment for your patience while I am posting “from the road” (still exploring Michigan) with limited time. And if you are interested in my off-the-beaten-path Michigan road trip with a native “Michigander” that will be coming up too so follow my blog!

Brilliant Berlin: City of Contrasts and the Vital Lessons of History

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Checkpoint Charlie

Aboard the Norwegian Breakaway’s Baltic Sea cruise, the first stop (after embarkation point at Copenhagen) is Warnemunde, the gateway to Berlin for cruise ships. However, it’s no small feat to get to Berlin from there – as a 2 hour train ride each way is required. Fortunately, the trip is well worth it! Be prepared for a very long but exciting day if you decide to make the trip!

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Holocaust Memorial with Reichstag in the Background

The Holocaust Memorial is one of the most compelling sites in Berlin. I was fascinated by the positioning of the Holocaust Memorial in relation to the Reichstag building. The official name for the Holocaust Memorial is the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” but this name is controversial given the fact that Jews were not the only population of people sent to concentration camps or the gas chambers. As someone with Polish ancestry I can appreciate the spirit of this controversy and will refer to it as the Holocaust Memorial here. The memorial encompasses 2,711 concrete blocks of varying heights lined up in rows. It is a sombre sight, in many ways resembling a cemetery, but one where the departed are nameless and without individual identity, perhaps a metaphor for the way that those who died in the Holocaust were perceived by their executioners. It is movingly fitting that the Reichstag stands tall in the background – its giant glass dome a metaphor for the new transparency that would be imposed on German leadership for the people. It is the Parliament building, where the general population can advance up through the dome and have an overview of the political proceedings below. Like many landmarks in Berlin, these places and their design serve as reminders never to repeat the mistakes of history.

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Kaiser Wilhelm Church

Another stunning reminder is the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, standing crippled next to its modern reconstruction. It stands testament against the perils and destructive forces of war, at once eerie and beautiful, a deeply moving sight to behold.

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Checkpoint Charlie “soldiers”

Checkpoint Charlie is yet another reminder of the possible consequences of war – of people divided, of people deprived. This was the gateway through the Berlin Wall, passing through which was a dream for many that would never come true. Despite the fact that it is a highly touristy photo opportunity, it is still well worth the visit for its historical significance and the chance to reflect on the lessons of the past.

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Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall is an impressive span of eclectic art, much of it promoting freedom and celebrating human resilience and will. Given that the wall previously represented oppression, this is a fitting message for the former East German area of modern Germany.

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TV Tower

The Fernseheturm, or TV tower is the tallest structure in Germany. It towers over the city of Berlin, in the heart of the former East Germany, like a giant exclamation point amid the capitalist bastion of Alexanderplatz, abound with corporate skyscrapers and an abundance of retail shops. The irony is inspiring!

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Brandenburg Gate

No visit to Berlin is complete without a visit to the Brandenburg Gate, symbol of Berlin. Originally commissioned by Prussian King Frederick William II and completed in 1791, it was here that the ceremony to celebrate the reunification of Germany post-Cold War took place. It aptly represents the span of German history and resilience of the German people.

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Charlottenburg Palace

Charlottenburg Palace, completed in 1713, is the largest palace in Germany. It serves as Berlin’s best answer to the baroque style of architecture so prevalent in many of the historic structures throughout Germany. Here in Berlin, this baroque style fascinatingly stands in such sharp contrast to the brash and minimalist Socialist Classicism architecture of the former East Germany that you can still find in other neighborhoods of Berlin.

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Bebelplatz

Bebelplatz is the site of the State Opera, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and university buildings. The greatest draw to Bebelplatz, however, is that it was the location of the Nazi Book Burning in 1933, where approximately 20,000 books were burned by the Nazi Students’ League and Hitler Youth following a speech given by Joseph Goebbels. A memorial of empty bookcases can be viewed beneath a glass panel on the ground.

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Lunch featuring German specialties

Berlin’s a big city to explore, and what better way to refuel your resources mid-visit than a delicious lunch of German specialties? This plate of Sauerkraut, German potatoes, sausage, pork, and tasty meat patty can really give you the energy boost you need to embark on such an adventure!

Berlin is a fascinating city of contrast and the vital lessons of history. You can view my tour here:

 

 

Breakaway to the Baltic: Norwegian Breakaway Cruise through the Baltic Sea

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Norwegian Breakaway: Canvas for Artist Peter Max

The Norwegian Breakaway can hold a capacity of 3,963 passengers (double occupancy), 1,657 crew members, and launched in 2013. It is one of the larger ships on the NCL fleet. I sailed on the Breakaway through the Baltic Sea in May-June, featuring the destinations of Copenhagen, Denmark (embarkation port); Berlin, Germany; Tallinn, Estonia, St. Petersburg, Russia (overnight stop); Helsinki, Finland; and Stockholm, Sweden.

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Trendy Studio Cabin on the Breakaway

I booked a studio cabin for the trip, which, as you can see from the photo, was somewhat cramped but comprehensive, classy cabin. With the studio cabin category, NCL inspires solo travelers to feel like VIPs, through locked door access to the studio cabin hallways (think: velvet rope), a studio lounge with a specialty coffee machine and other amenities, and a dedicated solo travelers’ concierge that arranges meet ups like group dinners, entertainment, and activities for those craving some companionship for others in the same “boat…” Being an introvert myself and someone who tends to stay very busy during a cruise I opted out of these gatherings, but was pleased to see that such an effort was being made to accommodate solo travelers paying a premium to book passage alone.

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Ice Bar, Norwegian Breakaway

The Breakaway has spent much time sailing out of New York City, and this association with New York is heavily apparent in the decor of the ship. One example would be the Ice Bar (photo above,) which features images of the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, and Empire State Building. I found this to be an oddity, since I tend to associate the concept of an “ice bar” with Scandinavia, not New York. The Spice H20 outdoor lounge features images of a Rockaway Beach in Queens. Artist Peter Max’s signature Statue of Liberty image proudly graces the front of the ship, and more. Perhaps a reader will “get it” and leave a comment, but I couldn’t grasp the motivation behind featuring New York so profoundly in the ship’s decor. If you are from New York taking a vacation on a cruise ship, isn’t New York probably the last thing you want to look at? Or wouldn’t you want to “breakaway” from the Big Apple?

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Lido Deck, Norwegian Breakaway

The Lido Deck is expansive and features a water park boasting enormous water slides! Also available are a rock climbing wall, basketball court, ropes course, mini golf, and more. Due to lower Spring temperatures in the Baltic, the Lido was not heavily trafficked on this particular itinerary.

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Bliss Nightclub, Norwegian Breakaway

The Breakaway is almost daunting in its sheer size, but once you get your bearings there are many options for dining and entertainment. Aboard you will find multiple theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants (both complimentary and specialty.) The Breakaway has some of the finest entertainment I have experienced on a cruise ship, including a Cirque du Soleil show, wine tasting musical, and ballroom dancing show all of which I found to be outstanding – a quality comparable to Las Vegas shows. Be prepared to pay extra for some of the shows.

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Le Bistro, a Specialty Dining Venue on Norwegian Breakaway

Public areas of the ship are extremely clean, luxurious, inviting, and well-maintained. Typical of Norwegian’s style, the decor is modern and trendy. The ship is kept in immaculate condition – I found no signs of wear-and-tear or rust.

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Lobby Chandelier Spanning Three Floors, Norwegian Breakaway

The Breakaway Baltic Cruise features a 9-day itinerary, which I found to be far more satisfying than the typical 7-day itinerary. At this time of the year, the Baltic area is experiencing the “White Nights” effect, where it only gets dark for a couple of hours out of each 24 hour day (in the winter, the effect is the opposite, with limited time of sunlight.)

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White Nights: Moon in a Bright Sky at 3:00am

I highly recommend the Norwegian Breakaway, whether you choose to embark on the Baltic Itinerary in the Summer or a Winter itinerary closer to home! You can view a full tour here!:

 

Hamburg, Germany: Industrious, Iconic, and Inspiring

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Hamburg: “Venice of the North”

My visit to Hamburg, Germany was intended to be a stopover to facilitate catching a train to Copenhagen the next day – but turned out to be so much more than I ever could have anticipated! What an unexpected pleasure! Often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Hamburg is adorned with cerulean canals and boats bobbing in the breeze everywhere you look. But it has so much more to offer than that.

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Elbe Philharmonic Hall

Perhaps the most captivating building in Hamburg is the Elbe Philharmonic Hall on the waterfront. The modern glass top mimics the waves of the water below, poised atop an old brick warehouse. This structure perfectly exemplifies the spirit of Hamburg, at once old and new. Hamburg embraces its future while honoring its past through its architectural wonders.

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City Hall

Opened in 1897, City Hall showcases the older side of Hamburg. Bedecked with intricate detail, it is a majestic sight to behold, and provides and impressive backdrop for the crowds of locals congregating to socialize, enjoy the spectacle of street performers, or conduct business.

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Modern Metropolis

Modern structures in Hamburg challenge the passer-by to discover the many inter-mingled components that allow them to be viewed in different ways from different perspectives and by different people. As diverse a city as Hamburg is, the diversity of architecture is distinctly fitting. Playfully defying our assumptions and notions about geometry, function, and color, Hamburg’s modern buildings are a delight to examine from every angle!

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Waterways, boats, and towers are omnipresent in Hamburg

Hamburg qualifies as a hidden gem, and highly underrated tourist destination in Germany. Hamburg’s many charms should not be overlooked! Whether you spend your time strolling along the canals, reveling in the sounds of street musicians, or marveling at the industriousness of it’s massive port, a memorable time is sure to be had by all who give Hamburg a second look!

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Hamburg’s busy, bustling port

Video tour of Hamburg is available to watch here!:

 

Marvelously Medieval Rothenburg, Germany

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Marvelously medieval Rothenburg

Rothenburg is probably the best place to see medieval architecture… and maybe one of the best places to see crowds of tourists as well! Admittedly there is an over-abundance of tacky souvenir shops and getting trampled by legions of tourists is not out of the question, but if you can overcome these downsides Rothenburg is a fascinating place to explore.

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Quaint, cobbled streets

Here half-timbered houses painted in bold hues compliment cute clock towers on cobblestoned streets. Fortunately, it’s an easy enough escape to slip down a side street and get away from the touristic masses and gaudy commercialism.

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The side streets are quieter

The Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Museum and Shop probably is well packaged in the category of “you either love it, or you hate it.” If sugarplums are dancing in your head at the thought of being enveloped in the wonder of Christmas in July (or June, or August… or whenever you’re there), and boisterous decor does not bother you, you may love it. If “Scrooge” is more your style, you may want to say “bah, humbug” to this attraction. It’s replete with both people and baubles, like Black Friday on Christmas themed steroids.

Feel free to stroll aimlessly, for the city is surrounded by medieval walls and no matter how far you walk you will eventually make your way to the main square again. It’s a great place to safely get lost in.

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The main square

Rothenburg is charming, colorful, and distinctly delightful, despite the crowds. It’s a great place to step back in time a reasonable day trip from Munich.

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Colorful half-timbered houses

This video will give you a tour of the town:

A Tale of Two Fairytale Castles: Neuschwanstein and Harburg Castles, Germany

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Neuschwanstein Castle

Bavaria is dotted with a myriad of historic castles, of many different ages and styles, and many of which are a relatively convenient day trip from Munich. Undoubtedly the most famous of them all is Neuschwanstein Castle, model for the castle at Disney World one of the most instantly recognized German landmarks the world over. Neuschwanstein’s tower pokes through the clouds like a giant exclamation mark, a fitting metaphor for the amazement to be experienced here.

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Tourist Establishments Below

When you arrive, whether by train, tour bus, or car, the touristy restaurants with English menus and shops sporting tacky souvenirs at the bottom of the mountain give you a sample of what’s to come. While I knew how famous this landmark was, I was unprepared by the extent to which it’s popularity would impact my experience. But all-in-all it was worth it.

The castle is actually very high up on the side of a mountain, and you have a few options of getting close: hiking it (not recommended unless you have plenty of energy and determination – it’s further than it looks from the bottom!), or taking a bus or horse carriage, both of which come with a wait and a charge. The scenery takes you through densely forested area. You must reach the top for spectacular views of the valley unencumbered by trees and other obstacles. And the view is indeed incredible – it is understandable why this location was chosen. You emerge from a tunnel of trees to wide-open views of vast landscapes, tiny houses far below, and puffy white clouds populating brilliant baby blue skies. And soaring above it all, the magnificent Neuschwanstein tower.

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View from the Top

I shared this view with a multitude of other tourists, from all over the world. It was shoulder season, and I can only imagine how packed the entrance to the castle is in peak season. Guided tour is the only way to “explore” the castle – if you can call it that. It’s not really the way I like to explore a place – free reign is by far my favorite way to go. But that was not the most disappointing aspect of my visit – I quickly realized why the tours were guided. I discovered that cameras, photography, and filming of any kind whatsoever are not allowed in the castle – and security guards are constantly spying on you to assure compliance. Being herded through the rooms at the guide’s pace (who is trying to make time for as many groups that day as possible – with a LOT of people waiting), not being able to capture the experience with my camera, and being routed through not one but two gift shops, made the experience feel like a trip through a glorified theme park. But despite this, I was enthralled by the little time I was able to spend in the lavish rooms, and the breathtaking exterior of the castle alone was worth a visit at least once, although I doubt I’d brave the crowds again.

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Colorized Photo from 1886 (Public Domain) of the Bedroom

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Colorized Photo from 1886 of the Byzantine-Inspired Throne Room

Despite being forbidden from taking photos, I didn’t want to leave you hanging without a visual taste of the interior. Fortunately, there are photos available old enough to qualify for public domain that I can share with you. I was particularly impressed with the astonishing Throne Room. As a scholar of ancient Roman art, I really appreciated the authentically inspired rendition of the brilliant Byzantine art style here, from the arches and columns, to the clerestory, to the gilded walls depicting spiritual scenes. It is no wonder this art has continued to be so cherished and emulated throughout history.

The concept of a museum denying visitors the right to photograph and film is one I find acutely disturbing – but that is an issue for another post. Ultimately, it was a tremendous hassle to visit Neuschwanstein, between the exhaustive regulations and thick crowds of tourists. But none of these drawbacks can diminish the beauty of the building and how moved I was to finally be able to witness it first hand. If you have the chance, I’d say go, and make the most of it.

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Harburg Castle Exterior

Harburg Castle stands in stark contrast to Neuschwanstein. Here you are also required to embark on a guided tour, but the atmosphere is far more relaxed and welcoming. I only encountered one room I was not allowed to photograph, and was not only free, but encouraged, to film and take photos to my heart’s content during the rest of the tour. There was no rushed feeling, and I felt more like I was exploring the place than being shuffled through it.

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Entering Harburg – a Much Warmer Welcome

I did not feel the suffocating burden of massive crowds of tourists. Harburg is much older, and many would argue not nearly as spectacular as Neuschwanstein with its more modest decor. But Harburg provided a more intimate, genuine experience that I felt offered a welcome balance to my visit to the tourist and commercialism overwhelmed Neuschwanstein.

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Harburg’s More Modest Interior Decor

I filmed a video tour of the castles (in the case of Neuschwanstein, the best I could!) you can view here!: