One Week on the Baltic Sea

Occasionally in life, we come across opportunities that are simply way too good to pass up. For me, one of these such opportunities arose when I discovered a company on Facebook called pm2am Student Trips. This company offers unique traveling opportunities for students and young people on tight budgets. The premise is that the participants will travel by bus by night, and explore cities during the day, with a bit of variation in each excursion.

I had been monitoring the excursions offered by pm2am, which are usually posted a few months in advance. I had my eye on a trip up north to Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, because Norway has been on my bucket list for a long time. I had just decided to go for it and book my ticket, when I saw another announcement from pm2am: a cruise around the Baltic Sea, with stops in Stockholm, Sweden; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Helsinki, Finland.

As a US citizen, it is extremely difficult to get a tourist Visa for Russia, but this excursion offered a Visa-free day in St. Petersburg – all I needed was my Aufenthaltstitel (German Visa). The fact that I could get into Russia, coupled with the fantastic price of 250€ for the bus, cruise, and tours, and topped off by the comfort of sleeping in a bed, convinced me very quickly to book my ticket.

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These appealing factors also helped me to convince my close friend Yesenia, another CSU IP exchange student, to accompany me. We bought our tickets, and five short weeks later, it was already spring break and we were on our way to Stuttgart to catch our bus.

We had a blast on the 22-hour Wifi-less bus ride through Germany, Denmark, and Sweden to our final destination of Stockholm, where we were to board our cruise ship. First, however, we had about 5 hours to explore the city while we waited to board.

Pm2am provided us with pamphlets containing information about each city we visited, with a number of recommended things to check out. We hopped on a bus and headed for the Old Town.

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A view of Södermalm, a neighborhood in Stockholm

Our first impressions of Stockholm were mostly great: the city is extremely quiet, for having a population of close to a million. The black-roofed buildings add to the neat, well-kept appearance of the city, and the lack of heavy industry helps keep Stockholm at the top of the list of the world’s cleanest metropolises. The people are extremely friendly, and are happy to offer advice or point you in the right direction, if you are lost.

What we didn’t like about Stockholm was the public transportation. All of the participants on the trip (I think around 300?) had to wait in line for one of the two ticket machines available in order to purchase our bus tickets – no on-board ticket machines. In addition, the tickets were valid for a maximum of 75 minutes. This might not have been so bad if there was a ticket machine at each bus stop, but unfortunately, they were few and far between, and not marked on our maps. Fortunately, the locals were happy to help us locate the nearest machine.

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A view of Gamla Stan, the Old Town, from Södermalm

In the evening, we returned to the harbor and boarded our cruise ship, and shortly after, we left port. As we made our way past the islands of Sweden, we marveled at the beautiful passing scenery, hardly able to believe what we were actually doing.

We hadn’t slept much during our bus ride (I think I logged about 5 hours in total), so we crashed early that night. The next morning, we arrived at our first stop: Tallinn, Estonia.

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Estonia is a small country in Northern Europe with a population totaling around 1.3 million people, that only in the past 25 years gained independence from Russia. They have their own language (Estonian), and as they are part of the European Union, they do use the Euro. Only about 14% of the population claims a religious belief, making Estonia the least religious country in the world. Estonia is also the birthplace of Skype and Hotmail.

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Tallinn’s city center is a well-preserved medieval town surrounded by a 1.9 km-long wall and 20 defensive towers. We were able to see many churches in this small town, as well as a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is situated just next to Toompea Castle.

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After a guided tour around the city, Yesenia and I enjoyed a unique meal inside an authentic medieval pub. The map on the wall, seen in the photo above, has been maintained for centuries, and reflects the image that citizens and lords had of northern Europe in the middle ages.

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All too soon, we had to return to the ship for departure. That evening, we had a great time with our cabin mates and some friends we made on the ship. We spent some time in the Casino, where we had access to wifi, and played a game of Cards Against Humanity.

The next morning, Yesenia and I woke up early and headed up for some breakfast. We enjoyed great conversation over a not-so-great meal (cruises are not the best places for food, I have learned), and watched the outer reaches of Russia pass us by as we drew closer and closer to St. Petersburg.

By a random stroke of luck, Yesenia and I found ourselves quickly herded off the ship, swept up in a crowd of fast-walking Russians eager to return home. We turned out to be some of the first from the pm2am group off of the ship, and we got through passport control and into Russia in less than ten minutes. Stoked for our adventure, we exited the terminal, where a brass band greeted us with lively music, welcoming us to their country.

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We took a shuttle into the city with a few others who had made it out early as well, and exited outside of the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. As we headed for the ticket booth, we were approached by a woman who looked to be trying to sell something. To my surprise, she actually just wanted to let us know that it was International Museum Day (which I had completely forgotten), which meant that between the hours of 12 and 4pm, we could enter any museum in the city for free.

As it was not yet 11:00, we looked at each other and began to consider our options. That is when the woman mentioned the boat tour that she worked for, and told us that we could take a boat cruise through the canals of St. Petersburg, get our bearings and see some sights while we waited for noon. At a price of about 6€, we accepted her offer and headed towards her boat.

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The tour was held in Russian, so we simply spent the hour gazing about us and wondering what we were looking at. Russians certainly make impressive buildings, and I am sure we saw some important things, but I couldn’t tell you much about them. We enjoyed the tour very much, and we headed for Saint Isaac’s with enthusiasm.

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I have seen some impressive religious structures during my year abroad, including the Notre Dame in France and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is easily the most breathtaking, in my opinion. The soaring ceilings adorned with bright, rich colours and golden script almost moved me to tears.

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After the cathedral, we made our way over to a statue of Peter the Great, which is mounted upon the Thunder Stone, the largest stone ever moved by humans. From there, we headed over to the State Hermitage, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Founded by Catherine the Great in 1764, the museum is located inside the Winter Palace, where the Imperial Russian monarchs (including Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova, daughter of Csar Nicholas II) used to reside.

Thanks to International Museum Day, we entered the museum for free, and wandered around the massive structure for the better part of an hour. With around 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases, we knew there was no way we could see even a quarter of the museum, so we darted from room to room, absorbing what we could.

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One of the throne rooms in the massive former Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum

Exiting the museum, we found ourselves in the Palace Square, a site where many events of worldwide significance took place, such as the October Revolution of 1917, in which the Bolsheviks led the overthrow of the government. The Alexander Column takes center stage in the square, with one of each of the flags of the world forming a semi-circle around it.

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Alexander Column in the center of Palace Square

After a quick break for lunch, we headed towards one of the most unique structures I have ever encountered, with a name to match: The Church of the Savior on Stilled Blood. Unfortunately, we arrived just after 4pm, which happened to be when the interior of the church closed, but we were able to walk around and stare to our heart’s content. The church was built upon the site where Emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded in 1881, and was intentionally built to resemble St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow.

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The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Finally at the end of our day, we made our way back to the ship. That night, I decided to take a crack at the Casino, and took a seat at the blackjack table. Things did not go so well, so I walked away with a few Euros and the remains of my dignity, and called it a night around midnight.

The next day we awoke in Finland, and Yesenia and I met up with a friend that we had made in our Aufbaukurs in the winter semester at Uni Tüb. Heikki met us at the central station, and took us on a walking tour of his city, Helsinki.

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From left to right: myself, our cabin mate Margot, Heikki, and Yesenia

We saw parts of the university, as well as the main church of the Helsinki Diocese (pictured above, behind our beautiful faces). We also took a ferry out to see Suomenlinna Fortress, one of the largest fortresses in the world. Spread across six islands, Suomenlinna is still home to the Finnish naval academy, but is also a beautiful place to spend the afternoon.

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Approaching the fortress from the sea

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One of the bridges between the islands of Suomenlinna

We spent several hours exploring the beautiful island, and discovered some hidden tunnels along the way. There were several elementary school groups out having a field trip, and it made the atmosphere even more light and fun.

Once we returned to the mainland, we headed for the Old Market Hall, where locals still go to sell groceries and novelties. Here, we checked out the many stalls, and paused for some refreshment.

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Heikki, translating some of the Finnish signs for Yesenia inside the Old Market Hall

Next, we went to check out Temppeliaukio, a church excavated directly into solid rock. We arrived in time to see a live performance from a local group, playing some beautiful pieces that echoed phenomenally around the circular room. The dome ceiling is lined with copper, and the walls are partially solid rock and partially constructed of stones. As a whole, the church provides an atmosphere entirely different from any other religious structure I have entered, very calm, peaceful, and natural.

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Inside Temppeliaukio, the Rock Church

Earlier, I had asked Heikki if there were some local record shops. I am a fan of many different types of music, but if you are a regular to my blog, you will know that metal is my absolute favourite, namely black and death metal. Heikki obliged, and we headed for a store that was conveniently close to the Rock Church. The shop owner helped me pick out a CD from a Finnish black metal band, Horna, and I gleefully purchased the album, and snapped a photo outside the store.

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Outside the shop where I bought my CD, Levykauppa Keltainen Jäänsärkijä

The day ended much sooner than we would have liked, and we had to say goodbye to our friend Heikki. Back on the ship, we celebrated our last night with some games on the top deck of the ship, and went to bed rather late.

We finished our cruise back in Stockholm, Sweden. There, we had about 7 hours before our bus departed back home. Yesenia and I slowly made our way through the city with our other two cabin mates, stopping to explore a farmer’s market, and to pick up a quick lunch at a café near the central station.

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Margot on the left, Yesenia in the center, and Julia on the right.

Eventually, we met up with our other friends from the cruise at Drottningholm Palace, the former private residence of the Swedish royal family. We explored the beautiful palace, admiring the variety of decor in the rooms. The gardens that surround the palace are almost as beautiful as the interior of the palace itself.

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Drottningholm Palace, the former residence of the Swedish royal family

After we had finished exploring the palace, we headed back to Gamla Stan (Old Town) where we wandered about for the rest of the afternoon, enjoying the beautiful city. We got back on the bus at about 6pm, and began our journey back.

Pm2am did a fantastic job of coordinating the trip, and our group leader, Taylor, was excellent. She helped us with any questions or problems we had, and did her best to make sure everyone was happy (not an easy task with a double-decker bus full of young adults). If I had the opportunity, I would absolutely book another trip with pm2am, and I highly recommend them to anyone who is studying or working in Europe.

If it were not for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I probably would have never willingly gone on a cruise, but I am very glad that I did. It was a unique traveling experience, sleeping on a ship, and it is infinitely better than trying to sleep on a bus. We formed a unique bond with the other travelers, and we had a blast together partying on the ship or meeting up in the cities.

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Our cozy room inside the ship

The downside to a cruise, besides the cramped living quarters (see above), is the limited amount of time that you have on land. We had between 5 and 9 hours in each city, which we stretched enough to see as much as possible, but it still would be much better to actually stay in a hostel in the city. For this situation, however, a cruise made much more sense, as travel would have taken up way too much time from country to country. We did, after all, have only one week.

This trip was remarkable beyond words, and I made some great friends along the way. The great people really enhanced such a wonderful experience, and I am so happy that I decided to participate in this trip.

More photos are in the slideshows below. Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you again soon! Tschüss!

Stockholm, Sweden

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Tallinn, Estonia

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St. Petersburg, Russia

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Helsinki, Finland

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And some extras…

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