Friday, July 1, 2011

A Baltic Cruise

The daylight was never ending. The sun set after 10 pm in the evening and rose again before 4 am. And in between it was not so much dark as a penumbral light grey. I was in the Baltic during the summer solstice.
The journey began with a flight from Washington to Amsterdam. I always try to fly KLM/ Air France. I made the mistake one time of flying across the Atlantic on United. Big mistake. The food is crappy, no free alcohol and the video system was state of the art in the last century. Long air trips are stressful enough without the mediocre service and shabby décor that United provide for their transatlantic customers.


Amsterdam is one of the most accessible cities. The central area is a living legacy from the seventeenth century golden age when the city was the hub of a vast mercantile empire that stretched across the globe. My cruise started from the very place where once ships arrived laden with spices from the Far East and furs from the North American interior.

The first stop was Rostock, a beautiful Hanseatic League city with many of its medieval churches and most of its walls still intact. Sitting at an outside café table sipping coffee, eating a rich German cake and looking at the people in the market place reminded me again of how much I miss living in a European city. I live in the banality of the US suburbs where accessibility is purchased at the expense of lively public spaces where you can simply sit and watch.

Rostock: old city walls and tower

Stockholm was a bit of a bust. It rained the entire day, sheets of grey rain clouding the city and undermining plans to walk the streets of the old town, Gamla Stan. Spent most of the day at the Museum of Modern Art. The Swedes have that easy embrace of modernity that makes their public spaces so smoothly elegant.

Wandered around the medieval city of Tallinn. With its finely textured urban form and beautifully colored buildings, it is an urbanist’s delight.


A day in Helsinki where I visited the railway station designed by Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero, and wandered around the inner city dominated by gorgeous art noveau buildings. Then a day in Copenhagen–if its Saturday it must be Denmark– where I wandered down the pedestrian streets and visited the National Museum and then the modern extension to the National Library.

Eliel Saarinen's railway station in Helsinki

Flew back to DC and completed the US-Scandinavian modernist encounter and experience by arriving at the terminal designed by Eero Saarinen.

As my memory quickly edits out all the petty annoyances of the trip I only recall the joyful experience of the walkability and sociability of the Northern cities where public space and the civic realm are respected and treasured.

(All Photos © John Rennie Short)