The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – Floating Down to Peru

by Bob Sparrow

“Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru

In Llama land there’s a one-man band, who will toot his flute for you”

llama2

———“Float this!”———-

 Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me has been playing in my brain throughout my flight to ‘Llama land’. Frank may have ‘floated’ down to Peru, but I’d hardly describe a cramped airline seat in the back of the plane, on a full flight, with turbulence over the Andes on a ‘red eye’ then sitting in the Lima airport waiting for our connecting flight to Cusco, as ‘floating’. We didn’t see any one-man bands either, unless you count the guy sitting next to me on the plane who had beans for lunch. I’m thinking Frank traveled First Class. After 17 hours of travel and layover, our flight arrived in Cusco at 7:30 a.m. Monday morning.  Sleep-deprived, jet-lagged and disorientated, we half expect to get from the airport to our hotel on a flatbed truck filled with pigs and goats. We were wrong – the truck was filled with Llamas and chickens. Nah, just kidding, our Global Basecamp guide was there to greet us and rushed us off to Hotel Midori in the heart of Cusco for a much-needed rest.

cusco

Cusco

We’d all been watching the weather Cusco and Machu Picchu from home over the last 2-3 weeks and it showed nothing but rain nearly every day. I figured that could be a good thing, in that it’s getting the rain out of its system before we get there; or it could be a bad thing in that it was a signal of an early start to the rainy season. We are in luck, our first day is clear, mild and in the mid-70s.

The Midori, is strategically located in the center of town, so after a little rest, we head out on foot to explore the city. But wait; did we forget something? Yes . . . air!!! The first thing we all noticed was that we couldn’t breathe! After walking just a few feet on level ground, I was panting and puffing like a lizard on a hot rock. We were quickly reminded that Cusco is over 11,000 feet in elevation – the ‘two miles high city’! In spite of its rare air, we managed to make our way through much of this streets of cuscogreat city. A majority of the economy of this city is based on tourism and thus it is filled with many charming hotels, restaurants of every description, most serving local cuisine to include llama, guinea pig and a hundred varieties of potatoes. Being the jump off point for trips to Machu Picchu, there is also a lot of trekking outfitter stores and of course your requisite t-shirt shops and street vendors plying everything from alpaca sweaters to hand carved gourds. But the best part of Cusco is its people. As a group they are very friendly, hard working, nice looking and always seem to have smile on their face; they were sincerely a joy to be around.

We visited a number of museums and churches and saw some great examples of Inca stonework that, while the more ‘modern’ Spanish buildings crumbled to the ground during three major earthquakes in Cusco, the Inca foundations of mortar-less, tight fitting stone, survived them all with flying colors. This stonework is truly amazing; you couldn’t get a razor blade in the space between these giant stones and they did it all with fairly primitive tools, or with the help of ancient aliens. Amazing!

It was only a matter of time before we found what I’ve sought out in almost every city I’ve visited . . . Paddy'san Irish Pub. We stopped for lunch at Paddy’s Irish Pub, which claims to be the highest Irish Pub in the world at 11,156 feet. Even though we had to climb a flight of stairs to get there (which was no easy task!), we enjoyed a great lunch and a cold one before we continued our tour of the city.

We opted for an early dinner at a nice, second story restaurant which over looked the main town square, where a band and group of young school children were celebrating something – it was a beautiful, but short evening, as we had been going fairly strong for the last 30 hours, and we needed our rest and our bodies to acclimate to this rarified air if we expected to hike the Inca Trail in two days.  As a matter of fact, I’m getting winded just writing this, so time for a break.

Next: Outside of Cusco and Hitting the Trail

 

The Hike

by Bob Sparrow

Machu Picchu

—————-The ‘Lost City’—————–

It is the most famous hike in South America, perhaps the world; it is said to be life changing. Making the four-day trek on the Inca Trail through the Sacred Valley to the spectacular lost city of Machu Picchu is said to be the perfect travel combination of the excitement of the journey and the joy of the destination. It is an experience that is both arduous and awe-inspiring.

In two weeks our flight will take us from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru and then on to Cusco, located near the Urubamba Valley where the snow capped Andes Mountains gives way to the lush Amazon jungle. It’s also not far from Lake Titicaca, not that that’s important, I just wanted to get the word ‘Titicaca’ into the conversation.

The ‘us’ on this trip include, of course my hiking buddy and good friend, Patrick ‘Trail Boss’ Michael, newbie Steven ‘Yogi’ Bernardy, a friend of Patrick’s’ since childhood and Steven’s son, Graydon (No Nick Name Yet), a recent graduate of University of San Francisco, who is headed to Med School.

Ironically, we arrive in Peru on Columbus Day and since Columbus’ explorations led to the subsequent colonization of the New World and specifically to nefarious Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizzaro and his three barbaric brothers’ conquering of the Incas, it is not a particularly joyous day in Peru. They celebrate Columbus Day in South America with the same enthusiasm the British celebrate the 4th of July in England.

Our first order of business upon arriving in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire which sits at 11,000 feet in elevation, will be to ‘acclimate’ to the altitude; as our four-day hike will take us to nearly 14,000 feet. Below is a graphic that’s been haunting me ever since I saw it . . .

Inca_Trail_Elevation_Profile

–After seeing this, I started looking at bus schedules–

Our hike is scheduled as follows:

Day 1 is about 7.5 miles of slightly up-hill hiking, that evening we will sleep in a tent and have no shower facilities.

Dreaded Day 2, as you can see by the graphic, has a lot of ‘up’ in the 5.5 miles we cover going over ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ (more on that later) – it is by far our toughest day. We will try to keep in mind that getting there is half the fun! We sleep in a tent that night and have showers, but there is no hot water. I suspect we all may be a bit ‘gamey’ after two days of no hot showers.

Incatrail_in_Peru

–Mist Shrouded Inca Trail–

Day 3 is a little up and a lot of down, covering about 8.5 miles; our tent accommodations do have warm water showers after the hike – for a price.

Day 4 is only three fairly flat miles, but we’ll be getting up between 4:00 – 5:00 a.m. so that we can see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. The remainder of Day 4 will be spent exploring the lost city with our guide.  At the end of the day we will board a bus that will take us to the train station where we will head to the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley is a collection of small towns and archaeological sites that offers both a glimpse into daily Peruvian life as well as a full picture of the accomplishments and operation of the once-glorious Inca Empire.

After a night’s stay there we will head back to Cusco and try to find all the things we left there before we embarked on our hike. We will spend the night and then leave for home the following morning.

It shouldn’t surprise any of you to know that there are no cell towers, Wi-Fi or any other kind of connectivity along the Inca Trail, so this will be the last blog you’ll get from me until I’m back in some form of civilization. I promise to take notes with a pencil and pad (if I still remember how to use them) at the end of each day and get them into the blog when time and connectivity allow.

I know that some of our readers have been to Machu Picchu, so please let me know if there is anything I should make sure to see or anything I should make sure to avoid. Thank you!

THE “OTHER” WINE COUNTRY

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The Beautiful Central Coast

The Beautiful Central Coast

Each year we spend some part of the summer in the Central Coast region of California.  It’s beautiful beaches, oak-studded hills and temperate climes make it the perfect place to escape the heat of Scottsdale in July and August.   Well, let’s face it, anyplace that has temperatures less than 105 is the perfect place.  But literally, the Central Coast has been designated as having the most consistent weather in. the U.S.  In the last dozen years it’s also become known for something else – wine!   The San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara county wine-makers are giving their northern brethren a run for their money.    They have a long way to go, but having grown up in Northern California, I can remember when Sonoma and Napa were best known for dairy farmers and ranchers.  The Gallos were the biggest wine makers back in the day, generating their huge bottles of Italian reds that were cheap even then.  Once the Mondavis and Beringers began cultivating serious wine grapes, well, the rest is history.

On the Central Coast our ventures out to the wine trail usually take us to the vineyards of Santa Barbara County for reasons that will become evident later.  The first recorded wine-maker in the area was none other than Junipero Serra, who planted the first vines back in 1872.  I must say, between founding missions and exploring the El Camino Real, Father Serra was a pretty busy guy.  In any event, over the following 100 years the area gained  sixteen more vintners and grew to over 260 acres of grapes.

Sadly, during the Depression the Prohibition buzzkills burned many of these historic vineyard sites and mostly put an end to winemaking in the Central Coast.  Fortunately,there are always those that find their way around any ridiculous law so the passion for wine making was carried on by a group of scofflaws.  From that small seed, or vine as the case may be, grew the abundant grape-growing region that exists today.  In large part, the recent popularity of Santa Barbara County wineries can be attributed to the wonderful little movie, “Sideways” which was filmed in and around several of the local venues.  The popularity of the movie turned out to be a boon for tourism and local wine, especially the Pinot noir that the region is famous for.  (For those of you who have seen the movie I can attest that it is possible to get a bottle of Merlot here too!).

Fess, in his Davy Crockett days

Fess, in his Davy Crockett days

So why do we frequent the Santa Barbara County wineries? Because our brother, Jack Sparrow, works for the Fess Parker Winery.  Lucky?  You bet!  But we have a long history in our family of having fun retirement jobs.  When our dad quit his day job he worked at Sonoma National and then his local golf course as a starter until he was in his early 80’s.  Our mom, who was rivaled only by the Queen of England in her love for jewelry, retired from the local school district and worked at a jewelry store until she was 90.  Brother Bob helps people, which is his passion, in both volunteer and part-time jobs, and as a life-long fiber enthusiast, I have been lucky enough to work part-time in a knitting shop for 13 years.  But it is brother Jack who really lucked out.  He spent most of his career in the restaurant business, even owning his own place in Tahoe for a few years.  So he knows his way around food and wine (as opposed to the rest of the family that just consumes lots of both).

Jack, displaying his wares

Jack, displaying his wares

Ten years ago when Jack and his wife Sharon moved to the Central Coast Jack went in search of a fun retirement job.  He was hired at Fess Parker Winery and soon met “the man” himself.  For those of a certain age, we remember him best for his portrayal of Davey Crockett.   Jack spent many hours with Fess, hearing about his days in Hollywood and with Disney.  But it was Fess’ love of wine-making that captured Jack’s attention.  He absorbed all that he could until Fess died in 2010.  Now, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday you can find Jack behind the bar in the tasting room, regaling customers with stories about Fess, the winery and the wines.  Jack’s great oratory skills (we have another name for that in the family) are evident in the rapt attention that his audience gives him. Seriously, although I’m the one working in a knit shop, it is Jack that spins a good yarn.  My husband says that the most fun he has is sitting quietly in a corner of the tasting room, watching Jack work his magic.  It is no coincidence that he has been the top seller of wine club memberships for several years running.

The Fess Parker Winery

The Fess Parker Winery

By the time you read this we will be home inspecting our remodeling project and, thus, drinking lots of wine.  If your travels take you to California I highly recommend a stop in the Central Coast.   Just one warning:  if you go to the Fess Parker winery when Jack is working, reconcile yourself to walking out of there a wine club member!

 

 

 

 

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Epilogue and ‘Don’t & Dos’ of a Baltic Cruise

by Bob Sparrow

Home at last after 13 fun-filled days – OK, maybe only 11 were fun-filled; the getting there and coming home weren’t that filled with fun. But the fun included traveling with three most enjoyable couples (Billhams, Budds and VanBoxmeers),

Mary

John & Mary at Peterhof, Russia

 

Jack & JJ

Jack & JJ in Tallinn, Estonia

Judy

John & Judy in Copenhagen

visiting six very interesting and diverse countries, ‘sneaking’ into Russia, cruising on a great ship with so many restaurants that we couldn’t get to them all, imbibing on the ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ and of course, meeting up with our former Finish au pair, Mira in Helsinki.

no photos

Photo of the ‘No Photos’ sign at Russian customs

We enjoyed such a variety of experiences, from our two pre-cruise days in Copenhagen, to the sobering experience of visiting a concentration camp in Germany, to the antiquity of Tallinn, Estonia, to the historical grandeur of St. Petersburg and the pristine waterfront cities of Helsinki and Stockholm.

But if you’re planning a Baltic cruise in the near future, I’ve asked my travel mates to help me put together a list of ‘Don’t and Dos’ to help make your trip more enjoyable. Here you go . . .

 

Don’t:   Bring your workout clothes

Do:      Buy and bring clothes a couple of sizes larger; you’re going to gain weight

cannon

Me getting an up-close look at a cannon in Finland

Don’t:   Go to the public WC (Water Closet)(bathroom) in Estonia  – it cost me 2 Euros          Do:        Go in Stockholm, it’s free (if you can hold it that long)

Don’t:   Expect the Russians to understand anything you say

Do:      Understand that they started learning English in the first grade; they just don’t want to give you the satisfaction of knowing that they learned our language. Yes, the old Cold War is heating up.

Don’t:   Fret over what you should drink next or what it will cost

Do:      Get the ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ and try everything

Don’t:   Get Tatiana, the Alla Tour guide, for St. Petersburg, she walks and talks too fast

Do:      Get Slava, who took our friends the Houstons and Despies to the top vodka bars in St. Petersburg

Don’t:   Be an ugly American

Do:      When you’re going to do something rude or stupid, say your ‘outs’ and ‘abouts’ funny and tell them you’re from Canada

Mira Dana

Mira and Dana circa 1985

Finally, a couple of THANK YOUS . . .

Thanks to Suzanne for editing and putting photos in my blogs. Because she was in Nipomo and away from her computer, she had to use her iPad to laboriously insert photos into my blogs; I thus limited the blogs to one picture, which is why I’ve included some more here.

Thanks to Louise at Alla Tours, who, when I was apoplectic about getting my passport Russian-ready, made multiple calls and ultimately assured me that I was good to go.

I really love to travel AND I really love getting home, albeit with a pocket full of change in rubles, krona and Euros. Oh well, great ball markers for golf.

Hope you enjoyed the trip.

 

 

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 9 Beautiful Stockholm

by Bob Sparrow

The Islands of Stockholm

The Islands of Stockholm

I must have gone to bed too early the night before, or perhaps fell into bed in a drunken stupor, but I woke up alert as can be at 5:00 a.m., stepped out onto my balcony and saw the narrow channel we were passing through on our way into the harbor of Stockholm. Over the public address system, our captain was telling us that Sweden is made up of some 30,000 islands. The homes on these islands were beautiful and the grounds meticulously manicured. We were told that many of the homes on these islands are ‘summer cottages’ for the wealthy of Sweden.

Once we arrived in the port of Stockholm, we found, as you might suspect in a country with so many islands, there is not only a ‘Hop On Hop Off’ bus, but a ‘Hop On and Hop Off’ boat as well. We chose the boat. Once on board our driver tells us the name of the boat is ‘Take A Chance On Me’; not exactly a name that instilled a lot of confidence in the driver’s ability to navigate the busy port of Stockholm, until we learned that all the boats in this line were named after ABBA songs. The singing group, ABBA is still big in Sweden, very big. In fact, there is an entire museum dedicated to them. To me, it would be akin to having a museum in the U.S. dedicated entirely to the Monkees.

Our first stop for our water shuttle was the Vasa Museum. Vasa was a ship built in 1628 at the request of the Swedish king, slated to be the most powerfully armed vessel in the world. Unfortunately it was built too high and too narrow, with not enough rocks in the hull for the proper ballast and the ship sunk on its maiden voyage before it ever got out of the harbor! It remained at the bottom of the harbor for hundreds of years, until a crew in the late 1950s was able to salvage the hull. Over the next decade, 98% of the ship and all that it carried, was salvaged and restored and put on display in the Vasa Museum. The museum would seem to be more a tribute to the Swedish salvaging abilities than their ship building expertise.

We were back on the water shuttle and headed for our next stop, ‘Old Town’. Unfortunately, because Stockholm was our last stop, and thus the last of five ‘old towns’ we’d seen in a week, we were suffering from a bit of ‘oldtownitis’. But nevertheless we strolled along the cobbled streets, popping in shops and ultimately stopping for lunch. Stockholm was our shortest shore stay, so after hitting the stops along the water shuttle route, we were back on the boat for a late-afternoon departure.

The journey out of the harbor lasted over four hours as we weaved (as much as a large cruise ship can weave) in and out of the many islands on our way back out. We sat on the Budd’s luxury suite deck in the late afternoon sun sipping wine and watching the islands go by. Beautiful scenery. We had one more day on board and it was all at sea as we crossed the Baltic on our journey back to Copenhagen.

 

Next: Epilogue and Don’t and Dos of a Baltic Cruise

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 8 A Reunion in Helsinki

by Bob Sparrow

Typically any place after St. Petersburg would be a let down, and the people who we’d talk to who had been to Helsinki said there really wasn’t a lot to do at this stop. But we had a special reunion planned.

A wonderful visit with Mira

A wonderful visit with Mira

When our daughter, Dana was not quite two years old, we had a live-in au pair (babysitter) from Finland, named Mira, who was about 20 at the time and attending near-by Chapman College. When I wrote my blog about Dana’s open-heart surgery two years ago, Mira, who had returned to Finland, read it on Facebook and re-connected with us. After we had booked this cruise, we wrote to her and told her we would be in Helsinki this summer and would love to see her. She responded in kind and set up a meeting for the afternoon we were in port. We disembarked in Helsinki and first took a water ferry to see the island fortress of Suomenlinna and toured there for about two hours. We then came back to Market Square in the town center to meet up with Mira.

She arrived with a big smile on her face and was simply delightful. She brought a couple of pictures of Dana and her from when she was with us in 1984. We spent the afternoon just catching up on what we had each been doing for the last 30 years!   She is doing well and lives in a very nice area just blocks from Market Square in mid-town Helsinki with her daughter Nova, who is 14. Nova’s father and Mira separated years ago. Mira had been a professional photographer, but is now working for an ‘electric company’ and is an avid tennis player. Regarding her social life, she said that after living 15 years in the U.S. then returning home, that she found Finnish men a bit wimpy compared to American men, so is not in a serious relationship.

After lunch she walked us through the Esplanade (the main street of Helsinki) and told us about her life in Helsinki and we up-dated her on our family. We stopped by the open market and she said she wanted to buy something for Dana. Linda picked out a Helsinki necklace piece that she really liked and Mira bought one for Dana and one for Linda. She took a cab with us back to the ship and we had a tearful goodbye. It made our trip to Helsinki very special. She promised to come and visit us with her daughter, but said she wants to wait until her daughter, who is an aspiring model, is 18.  Mira said that when Nova sees California, she will probably want to stay!

Next: Day 9   Stockholm

 

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 6-7 St. Petersburg, Russia

by Bob Sparrow

imageFor me, St. Petersburg is a tale of two cities; one tale of being a city filled with a rich history and unbelievably beautiful and opulent palaces and museums that are beyond compare; the other tale being a city filled with people who match the ‘modern’ architecture – dull, gray and tired. We’ll focus on the former and summarize the contrast with, “It’s a great city, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

It had been raining most of the summer in St. Petersburg, so parks were resplendent in foliage. Our private guide reminded us of how lucky we are to have two such beautiful days to explore this magnificent city.

If you ever plan on visiting St. Petersburg, let me start with a travel tip: To help keep all the Elizabeths, Catherines, Alexanders and Peters straight (I’ll avoid the sophomoric remark about keeping your Peters straight), you must read, Catherine the Great by Robert Massie; it is a wonderful book and it will not only help you keep all the Russian monarchy in order, but it will give you an appreciation for most of the venues that you’d be visiting.

Our first stop was at the Hermitage Museum, which holds so many works of art that it is said if you stood in front of each piece for just one minute, it would take you 11 years to get through the museum. We did not select that option, but we did stand in front of some Rembrants, da Vincis and Rubens among many, many, many others. Adjacent to her ‘Winter Palace’, the Hermitage was created by Catherine the Great, as she became the foremost collector of art in all of Europe during her reign. The Hermitage is magnificent, not only for the art that it holds, but for its spectacular gilded and mosaic interiors. It is truly magnificent. If you see only one thing in St. Petersburg, this is it. But it was just the beginning.

For pure iconic Russian architecture, the Church of Spilled Blood, site of the assassination of Alexander II is hard to beat. During the course of our two-day visit our tours included visits to Peter the Great’s summer ‘cottage’, Peterhof, situated on 100 acres of beautiful park grounds with water features that rival Versailles, France; in fact Peter’s goal when it built it was to build something better than Versailles.  He may have succeeded. We took a canal cruise up the Neva, Fontanka and Moika Rivers to see the ‘high rent’ district of St. Petersburg, then continued on to see Catherine’s palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul’s Cathedral and Fortress, the room where Rasputin was assassinated. We took a ride on the super subterranean subway and finally hitched a hydrofoil ride back to city center. Toward the end of our second day we convinced our tour guide to make an unscheduled stop at a Russian bar, where we not only got a taste of a local brew, but of the local culture as well. The beer was better than the culture.

It was an exhausting two days, but we absolutely got our rubles worth.

Next: Day 8 A Reunion in Helsinki

 

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 5 Estonia and Getting Through the ‘Iron Curtain’

by Bob Sparrow

Day 5 – Estonia   In the morning we find ourselves docked in the city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia where we can get off the ship and walk into town for the day. I must admit that, prior to this trip, if someone had asked me to locate Tallinn on a map, I might have been looking around Saudi Arabia. Fortunately I wasn’t driving the ship. Because it is strategically located on the Baltic; countries like Russia, Germany, Sweden and Denmark have all had their turn at occupying this country. We walk past the gates in the wall that once encircled the entire city and walk the streets of ‘Old Town’. John Billham, the Canadian member of our group has done his homework and guides us through the history of this picturesque town with the help of his Rick Steves guidebook. Lunch is in an Irish Pub; yes, the Irish seemed to have occupied every county we visit – thank goodness!

Getting In   With my soon-to-be-expired passport in hand, I sheepishly disembark in the port of St. Petersburg and head to customs and get in line. I check out the Russian immigration officer who is working the line I’m in. I walk up and hand him my passport – he gives me a stare that could chill beer; he says nothing and doesn’t smile; it appears to me that he’s having a bad day, but as I look at the other immigration officers, they all look like they’re having a bad day. They’re Russians for crying out loud! Contrary to popular belief, being an immigration officer in Russia is not all kicks and giggles. I fear that he’s going to take one look at my passport, see that it doesn’t have the required six months on it before it expires, blow his whistle and have me thrown back on the ship or who knows where. My heart is beating out of my chest, I feel like I’m reenacting the scene from Midnight Express, trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey.

I search his face for a clue as to what’s going through his mind. He looks at my passport again then looks back at me, then looks back at my passport again. Oh shit, I knew it; I’ve been caught! I try to look exactly like the picture in my passport, but it was taken ten years ago, so that’s not happening. I’m sweating and I’m sure he can hear my heart beating from inside his little glass box. These guys are highly trained to notice people who are nervous. I know he knows I’m hiding something. Again, he looks back and forth between my passport and me several times, expressionless. I put on an encouraging smile as I start to wonder what they will do to me if I’m in violation of their passport/visa laws. Will they just send me back to the ship, or will they make an example out of me and let everyone know that I was trying to get into the country on an invalid passport and . . . OK, I can’t think about what they’d do. The inspector now seems to be studying my passport in depth. How long have I been standing here, twenty minutes? An hour? I wonder if I should run, I look for an escape route. I consider the possibility that perhaps I’m over-reacting. No, I know I’m breaking some Russian law and they are not going to just let it slide; these people don’t let anything just slide. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my vacation is going to end with me breaking rocks in some Siberian gulag. Then I hear the word, “Next” and my passport is stamped and passed back through the window to me. I try to act casual, but I’m frozen in place, I’m pale white and the sweat rings under my arms are now down to my waist. “Next”, he repeats giving me a stare that was colder by several degrees from the one he first gave me. I smugly walk through customs – nothin’ to it!

As I finally walk onto Russian soil, the first question to myself is, will St. Petersburg be worth all the anguish I went through? Absolutely!

Next: Day 6-7   St. Petersburg, Russia

Baltic Cruizin’ – Day 3-4 On Board & Berlin

by Bob Sparrow

image

Guard Tower at Sachenhausen

All of Day 3 is essentially used up getting on the boat and to seeing how well our ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ works. We take a bus from the hotel to the port, get on our ship, the Star, and head to one of 15 or so bars on board. Sorry, I’d like to tell you more about it, but I don’t really remember too much more after that. But I do know that Norwegian Cruise Lines got the raw end of the deal when they allowed each of us couples to purchase unlimited cocktails for 9 days for only $250. We spent that before we waved goodbye to The Little Mermaid.

The morning of Day 4 we cruised into the port of Warnemunde, Gemany, where we got on a train and went to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which is about an hour outside of Berlin. I’m sure most of you have read accounts or seen movies or documentaries on TV about German concentration camps.  I will tell you, and those who have been to one know this, it is noting like being there. The feeling I got as we were toured around the camp and told the many gruesome and heartbreaking stories, was visceral.   As I stared out over the expansive grounds, saw the weathered watchtowers where machine guns mowed down anyone trying to escape and learned of the harsh day-to-day agony that these people went through, I tried to imagine myself experiencing what they went through. We visited the gas chambers and crematorium, saw the gallows where dissidents were publicly hanged and walked through the barracks to see the unlivable living conditions in which the prisoners lived. I could not imagine this example of man’s inhumanity to man, and yet, it wasn’t that long ago. These Nazi bastards were some sick sons-of-bitches.

Sachsenhausen was not just a camp for Jews, it held any enemy of the state, foreign and domestic, which included gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, enemy soldiers and essentially anyone who was not in lock step with the Third Reich. It was a very moving and disturbing experience.

After nearly three hours there, we got on our bus and continued on into Berlin where we made several stops along the Berlin Wall, including ‘Check Point Charlie’ which is now Tourist Trap Charlie.   As we traveled along ‘The Wall’, our guide told us of the many stories of families being separated and people being shot as they tried to escape East Germany. We toured through the city stopping at several iconic landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag government building and the Holocaust Memorial. Because much of Berlin was destroyed during the war, many of the buildings are new and the city was bustling with both locals and tourists. But for me, the atrocities of Sachsenhasen still lingered and hung like a dark cloud over the rest of the day.

The ‘Unlimited Drink Package’ came in handy as we arrived back at the ship for dinner.

Next: Day 4-5-6 Estonia and Russia

 

Baltic Cruzin’ – Day 1&2 – Passports to Nowhere

by Bob Sparrow

The Golden Tickets

Will they get us in?

Day 1 – History is rampant with examples of people struggling to get out of Russia; ironically this journey begins with a struggle to get in. The day before we are scheduled to start our Baltic vacation, I discover that Linda and my passports expire Feb 5, 2016, which at the time we booked this trip seemed like the next millennium. It did, in fact, cover the extent of our stay, however, unlike other Baltic countries, which require traveler’s passports to have at least three months before they expire, Russia requires six. To my horror, I discover that we’re two weeks and a couple of rubles short of six months. The stressful exercises I went through for the next 24 hours are too long and painful to recount; suffice it to say that they included, but were not limited to: a) talking to all the ‘express’ passport renewal companies that are only too willing to charge exorbitant prices to take advantage of distressed travelers like us, b) sending pleading emails to ambassadors at the Russian, American and Denmark Embassies, c) asking our cruise line if there was some sort of ‘work-around’, and d) calling our St. Petersburg tour company and begging and pleading for a remedy to my stupidity. As it turns out they did say they might be able to help us get into Russia, but as for my stupidity, they said they couldn’t help me with that. Clearly it was the wrong day to quit my crack cocaine habit!

As of this writing, while we are still in Copenhagen, we’ve been told by our Russian tour company, Alla, that our tour tickets will act as a temporary visa and will get us into St. Petersburg. Praise be to Alla.

Palace Guard - told us to "back off"

Palace Guard – told us to “back off”

This next event comes under the heading of ‘It’s a Small World After All’. After arriving in Copenhagen and resting up from hours of sitting, which seems like an oxymoron, and meeting up with our travel partners, the Budds, the VanBoxmeers (heretofore to be referred to as the ‘Boxes’ and the Billhams, we have an enjoyable walk through and dinner in ‘Old Town’ Copenhagen and are heading back to our hotel, when, on a crowded sidewalk in this foreign city that is 5,590 miles from home, we run smack into good friends, Mark & Barbara Houston, who, along with other friends Denise & Shirley Despie have just completed the same tour we are about to begin. We spend the next several hours in our hotel bar grilling them about their trip.

Little mermaid - back view

Little mermaid – back view

Little Mermaid - front view

Little Mermaid – front view

Not-so-little "R" rated mermaid

Not-so-little “R” rated mermaid

Day 2 – The forecast was for rain, but we had beautiful weather in the low 70s; our itinerary for the day reads like a Rick Steves ‘Copenhagen in a Day’ Guide Book – we visit the shops and restaurants of Old Town, take a canal cruise (see the Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid sculpture from the back), see the royal family palace, see the capital building,

Segway Riders - half of these people would fall and be injured before the day was over

Segway Riders – half of these people would fall and be injured before the day was over

take a Segway tour (see the Little Mermaid from the front), see a military fort, administer First Aid to the three who fell off their Segways, have a beer, go to dinner in a quaint Old Town restaurant, then finish with an evening stroll through Tivoli Gardens. Throughout it all, as all our tour guides spoke 3-4 languages, we were reminded of how lazy we Americans are by not even learning our own language so good

Tivoli Gardens

Tivoli Gardens

. . . er, well.

Tomorrow: Baltic Cruizin’ Day 3-4 On Board & Berlin