Visby has been on my bucket list since Old God’s Time. Since I was born I have examined maps and saw the big island of Gotland off the coast off Sweden in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Visby is the capital, and I read about it in a book. City of Roses, walled town, hanseatic city, Unesco World Heritage city. I had explored the possibility of flying there with SAS via Stockholm, but the air fare was ridiculous, so I put it on hold. Then, in November 2012 my eyes were drawn to a newspaper supplement – Mini Baltic Cruise, including Visby. It was a bargain, I booked it straight away.
The package from Cruise Escapes included return flights from Dublin to Copenhagen with SAS, transfers to and from cruise terminal, 4 nights full board on the ship MSC Poesia, and a coach tour of Copenhagen on the last day with ample time for lunch. The Itinerary was Copenhagen – Visby – Gdansk – Kiel – Copenhagen. Gdansk was also on my bucket list, but I knew little enough about Kiel and area. I had visited Copenhagen on an Inter-Rail trip with a friend when I was a teenager, and had happy sunny memories of that.
Came early May, I arrived in Copenhagen cruise terminal to Board MSC Poesia, an Italian run vessel. It was a bad start. The Italian ground staff failed to give me a cruise card and I was turned back from the ship. I thought it was odd that all I had been given was a slip of paper, and I queried it and was just stared at. English was a very foreign language to them. Half an hour and no apology later I was given a cruise card to gain admittance to ship, open my cabin, pay my bills etc. I was allocated a cabin different to that stated on my luggage so I waited...got fed up...and retrieved it myself from original cabin location. I was not in good humour, especially as they tried to take photographs of me smiling for profit, and feeling quite stressed. Next moment the safety drill alarm went, just as I was hauling my case into my room. At least they had a proper safety drill; it was a matter of bringing life jacket from cabin to muster location and being shown how to put on. I was in no mood for this necessity, and sweating from the combination of my efforts of traipsing down stairs and my fury.
Fifteen minutes later was time for dinner and I was still feeling grumpy, yet hungry enough. The Indonesian wait staff was superb as were the Madagascan cabin attendants. The food was Italian, and apart from my disdain for cheese, I am having serious doubts about the quality of that nation’s food. The nosh on my Italian Christmas holiday was hit or miss, and the food aboard this ship was not too much better. In contrast to dinner, breakfasts were good, with plenty of fruit.
The company of my Irish fellow travellers was entertaining. I enjoyed the couples, the singles, the chatty elderly nuns, the mothers and daughters that I encountered. They were charming, funny, glamorous and enjoying themselves. They were also giving out about the overcrowding of the ship, and the stress. Everybody else in Europe saw the bargain too; of course they did. I wasn’t over fond of this medium sized ship, and neither were my co-travellers. One just couldn’t see a corner of it for the people. On another note, the entertainment was wonderful: acrobats extraordinaire were top of the crop.
It may be remembered that that is my second “official” cruise. Last year I took my first one as part of a holiday to China, with the extension of a voyage to Japan and South Korea. The Royal Caribbean ship was better, but that whole cruise was somewhat of a disaster because of the behaviour of fellow travellers on board. I received a voucher of €200 in compensation, which I spent on a lovely trip to Iceland at Easter. The fellow guests on this cruise, though numerous, were a model of behaviour by comparison. It could be said that my first cruise was on board the Hurtigruten Norwegian Coastal Voyage, which was a most enjoyable quiet sea journey in spite of the fact that it was cut short by the failure of the propeller, and that I was fortunate to reach home in time for my fiftieth birthday party!
The morning after the departure from Copenhagen saw us arrive at the port of Visby, off the Swedish island of Gotland. Weather had been poor over all of North Europe in the spring of 2013, and this was no exception. We landed in the lovely port of Visby by tender in a sea mist. I loved the look of the place immediately. A duo of gleaming fast ferries lay in port with the moniker “Destination Gotland” on the sides. Quickly I became familiar with the stone sheep seats that dotted the town in their various designs. The town revealed itself as a delight to the eyes in spite of the gloom overhead. I had just entered the modest Botanical Gardens when a single peal of thunder resounded and the heavens opened. I made for shelter in a nearby friendly cafe which had seats and tables outside by the town wall. I remained in cosy shelter sipping coffee and homemade caramel cake. The electricity went off and on repeatedly, presumably due to the unsettled weather. There was a homely chatty vibe, where folks laughed over being able to pay when the electricity was out. I had not changed to Swedish money, and anyway Scandinavia relies on card payment for the smallest item.
I managed to pay my dues as the rain stepped and I stepped out among the delightful medieval timbered, half timbered and stone buildings around town. I could see many climbing rose plants with their withered rosehips from the previous year and with ease I imagined how glorious this place must look in the height of summer. On my walk I took many photographs, often peering into the fascinations of myriad backyards and laneways. There was something quirky to be seen everywhere. An attractive Bressie lookalike (but shorter in stature) called me into the petite hotel in which he worked, and ushered me out to the rear beer garden where a monastery ruin stood. I suggested I might stay in his hotel some day and he suggested I sleep in the ruin!
I found Visby to be a very friendly town and was delighted to be able to add to the local economy by buying some consumable souvenirs. A delightful shop sold me “Gotland Tea” consisting of a concoction of dried wild flowers from the island, as well as local chocolates for my work colleagues, and local traditional lamb and fish cooking herbs. The sun came out, bringing further delight to my visit. I yearn to return and visit other parts of this substantial island, which is famed for its rock formations, beaches, wildflowers, rune stones, churches and windmills.
Back on board the ship I took pleasure in indulging in a swim in the heated pool, though I managed to get struck in the head by a young boy kicking vigorously as he swam. Suddenly the wind blew and the air turned from being warm to positively chilly. Soon the mist emerged again and the ship fog-horned its way to Gdansk.
More accurately, the ship berthed in Gdynia, a while away from Gdansk by bus. The sky was dreary, but it did not do much to dampen my enthusiasm for Gdansk, another city on my list. My enthusiasm was enhanced when I caught sight of the famous medieval crane on the quayside. I was heartened to see that Poland had gained some wealth since my first visit, to Warsaw, in the mid 2000s. That time I observed that the behaviour of motorists was insane and cars were antiquated. Now motors were up to the modernity of our own in Ireland and humans were able to cross the road within reason.
The city is just beautiful to explore and its iconic medieval crane stood proud on the quays. I adored most especially the lovely old street with lovely tall houses, stone terraces and where the inhabitants would dine out and show to their neighbours just how fine their dining arrangements were. The street is festooned with gargoyles which today spat out the rain which poured from the heavens.
Our next destination, Kiel, promised little in architectural beauty, having been bombed within an inch of its life during the Second World War, and rebuilt to functional modernity since. I chose the optional shore excursion to visit the towns and lakes of Holstein. This proved to be a delight of an excursion, travelling through the leafy hilly countryside to the attractive medieval hillside town of Plon with its castle overlooking the lakes. This area is known as the Switzerland of North Germany, and we boarded an extremely pleasant boat ride through five glassy reed-fringed smooth lakes to the spa town of Bad Malmente, so designated for the pureness of the air quality. During a fascinating glass craft demonstration I had the front seat as Manuel, the glass blower, and a bit of a character, took delight in pretending to drop molten glass on top of me! Within a matter of seconds he artfully shaped blobs of glass into horses, swans and all sorts of objects. Before returning to Kiel we were brought to another very charming town, Eutin. The sun shone brightly lighting up the cherry blossoms in the town square. A maypole added to the gaiety of the scene. It was most enjoyable to experience this rural idyll of northern German countryside and was a nice contrast to the cities we had visited.
Following an early morning arrival in Copenhagen we disembarked and we taken on a complimentary bus tour of the city, and once more the sun shone for us although the air was cold. We stopped by the Little Mermaid, icon of the city. There were not so many tourists crowding her all those years ago when first I visited and it was challenging to get a photograph of the statue without an Asian figure in the picture! I had forgotten how handsome a city this was, and I spent free time exploring the long pedestrian street of Stroget. Cars were few on this Sunday, and bicycles ruled the streets with all varieties of pedal power, some of them with child compartments, some with dogs harnessed into boxes and others with ample cargo trailers. Bicycle lanes are aplenty and even dedicated traffic lights are provided for the benefit of cyclists. But for the visitor, Copenhagen is an expensive city, and not a place to bring your appetite. Our guide said that the excellent socio-political system common to most Scandinavian countries will not be sustainable far into the future. What a pity because the citizens enjoy the best overall standard of living on the globe.
By late afternoon I was winging my way home.