How a Bronze Mouse Made My Wishes Come True on a Baltic Sea Cruise

How a Bronze Mouse Made My Wishes Come True on a Baltic Sea Cruise
One of three gardens in the estate of the Royal Palace of Sweden. (Carol Ann Davidson/TNS)
Tribune News Service
By Carol Ann Davidson From Tribune News Service

Despite my initial concerns about traveling to the Baltic Sea because of the nearby war in Ukraine, my 10-day, six-country cruise turned out to be one of the most illuminating travel experiences of my life.

I must confess, at the outset, that I did encounter personal injury; I tore ligaments in my right foot when I stepped down from a curb in Copenhagen two days after arriving in that captivating Denmark capital. After entering a hospital there, I exited on crutches.

Two days later, I embarked, along with 124 guests, on the elegant ship Champlain, which is part of the fleet of Ponant, a partner with the award-winning luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent.

Now, please don’t go out of your way to inflict harm on yourself, but I must say that the excellent care I received from my shipmates—in particular the ship’s doctor, Matthieu Barres (who applied a leg brace)—was both comforting and restorative. That same standard of care was evident on all levels, from the meticulous staterooms to the well-executed meals designed with an abundant variety by the talented chef and served by the impeccable staff.

Equally significant, the multiple excursions curated by Abercrombie & Kent’s 14-member Exploration Team, headed by the inimitable Suzana Machado D’Oliveira, deeply enriched our knowledge of and experiences in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Sweden.

One of the lecturers, historian Dr. Ronald Wixman, set the stage with vivid tales about the Vikings and marauding tribes that left an indelible imprint on Europe. It was a timely introduction to the ever-shifting geographical, cultural and political lines drawn and redrawn across Europe over the centuries of war and peace—not least of all currently.

In Gdansk, Poland, two tours revealed the tragedy and triumph embedded in its history: the World War II German concentration camp in Stutthof and the Solidarity Centre at the Gdansk Shipyard where, in the 1980’s, an independent union became a key catalyst in the eventual collapse of the former Soviet Union.

That same evening, Lech Walesa, the leader of that Solidarity Union, was the guest speaker on our ship. The former president of Poland and Nobel laureate is blessed with a robust sense of humor and an even greater sense of himself. Walesa spoke to us through an interpreter. “The world now seems as if we have removed all traffic and road signs,” he said and then pointed to his rapt audience, challenging us to elect “smart leaders.” A statement laced with irony and longing, perhaps.

On another day, the Champlain slowly wended its way around thousands of verdant Precambrian islands on its approach to Stockholm. I marveled at the diamond-dimpled sea and summer homes peeping through the conifer trees as I sat in the sun on my stateroom’s private balcony, savoring the scene and my breakfast.

The first sight of Stockholm from the sea is magical. She soon unveils herself through 57 bridges crisscrossing 14 islands. On one of them sits City Hall where four of the five Nobel Prizes are bestowed each year (the Peace Prize is given in Oslo, Norway). The site of the Nobel ceremony in the grand hall embedded with gold leaf is a dazzling backdrop to the stellar achievements of the laureates.

On my second day in Stockholm, I boarded a local ferry that passed through locks to arrive at Drottningholm Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and permanent home of the Swedish Royal Family. The palatial residence with its three gardens (one resembling Versailles) was impressive, but the unique gem was the estate’s theater. Built in 1766, it’s considered one of the best preserved of its kind in the world. Plus, it is still actively used for plays and concerts. What a treat we witnessed when a baroque orchestra was rehearsing for that night’s performance of Henry Purcell’s “Fairy Queen.”

Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) is known for its thoughtful pairings of lectures and actual experiences. Susan Langley, a lecturer of vast knowledge and humorous anecdotes, regaled us with stories about famous shipwrecks in the Baltic Sea. Then, off we went to Stockholm’s Vasa Museum with its meticulous restoration of a Swedish ship that had sunk in Stockholm’s harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628 after having been mired there, in silt, for 333 years.

Perhaps the most intriguing countries were the three Baltic States: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Why? Because I knew so very little about them. I somehow pictured them as a collection of worn-out Soviet cities. Boy, was I wrong! Being members of NATO, they combine a polish of prosperity with visual reminders of former Soviet supremacy and German invasions.

There is a sage Lithuanian proverb that seems apropos here: “In Lithuania you can’t spot a fool, but you can always see when a person’s face is unharmed by intellect.” The Theatre Square we visited in the port city, Klaipeda, was a case in point. In front of a balcony where Hitler once stood and shouted to the crowd is a sculpture of a barefoot girl on a pedestal who, as the story goes, was the only one to show her back to him. She is revered.

On a more whimsical note, on a nearby street we encountered a bronze mouse. Our guide from Klaipeda told us that if we rubbed the small statue and made a wish, our wish was sure to come true. No one in our group could resist a rub and a photo with this bewitching creature.

Also, thanks to Langley, our interest in amber was enhanced. The northern pine tree resin has been used as jewelry since the Stone Age, 13,000 years ago. Besides its inherent beauty, it’s been coveted as a talisman for courage and self-confidence. Klaipeda shops were filled with it in varying qualities and colors, and so were the shopping bags carried back to the Champlain.

In Riga, Latvia’s capital and largest city, A&K’s Expedition Team pulled out all the stops here, literally and figuratively. Our group was treated to an organ concert in the vast, acoustically perfect Dome Cathedral. As we walked in, organist Aigars Reinis was tuning up with a twist of Wagner, a sprinkle of the Star-Spangled Banner, and a dollop of “God Save the King” (it seems he was aiming to please all the key national attendants). Then came the main course—a soaring musical selection including Bach and Pachelbel. The sonoral vibrations remained long after the music ended.

Post concert, a small group of us took in the historic center of Riga, one of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is home to 800 Art Nouveau buildings (built between 1890 and 1910), the largest collection of this architectural style anywhere in the world. A must see is an actual apartment from that era, replete with a well-stocked kitchen and pantry, while the bedrooms and parlors showcased exquisite furnishings displaying the characteristic curved lines drawn from the natural world of flowers and plants. Immediately afterward, we strolled down the street to the Art Cafe Sienna, where I relished not only the Art Nouveau decor but the lemon meringue tart chased with a strong tea poured from the samovar.

Then, off to Tallinn, Estonia, a postcard perfect picture of a city. Climbing up (or hobbling, in my case) the cobblestone streets to the Upper Old Town to view the steepled vista and sea below rewarded the robust, while the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral crowned with the rounded domes, typical of Russian architecture, loomed over the public square. The Lower Old Town was bustling: musicians and dancers in native costumes, stores selling homemade woolen clothing, and innumerable restaurants and cafes. We lunched at Olde Hansa, an homage to the Vikings; honey beer, wild boar, pudding and mushroom soup were on the authentic menu.

Last stop on this voyage of discovery was Helsinki, Finland, reportedly the happiest country in the world. Some of the guests went to the Finnish countryside toward the medieval town of Porvoo; others boarded a private boat to surrounding islands.

I was perfectly happy to enjoy the park-lined boulevard, pop into the iconic Marimekko store known for it cheerful prints, and then stroll to Market Square. Alongside the historic Market building offering every kind of smoked and fresh fish imaginable were outdoor stalls filled with mounds of fresh fruit and flowers; kiosks laden with handcrafted wool clothing (the Viking hats were a major attraction), and cafes featuring moose burgers. I passed on the burger but couldn’t resist a finely honed metal serving dish in the shape of stylized fish.

Back on the ship for the last day, I indulged in a spa treatment and a sauna, followed by a soothing afternoon tea in the sun-filled lounge. Deeply relaxed, I reflected on the kaleidoscopic experiences of the past 10 days.

To quote Arthur Frommer, the great American travel writer: “At its best, travel should challenge our preconceptions and most cherished views, cause us to rethink our assumptions, shake us a bit, make us broader minded and more understanding.”

This was a trip that checked all those boxes and, with the help of a little bronze mouse, made our wishes come true.

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