Hi ho, folks. I usually do a “ten things I learned” post after our trips. Since this was a comparatively massive trip that was divided into a few segments, I’ve decided to compose slightly more than double the usual list. I’ve found that the “things I learned” posts tend to get read more than the “blow by blow” posts. So, in the interest of engaging people, here’s my latest list of things I learned while traveling. Some of these things I mention will seem silly or irrelevant. Nevertheless, they are still things I learned on our trip. I hope some of you enjoy it!
22. In Northern Europe, you are encouraged or even obliged to forgo housekeeping for charitable purposes.
We stayed in four hotels. In three of them, there were signs encouraging or even requiring guests to skip having their rooms cleaned. In Oslo, it was a choice, which we did opt for, since we only stayed two nights. In Bergen, it was automatically skipped unless we requested it by 10 PM the night before. And in Copenhagen, it was encouraged. All three hotels claimed that they donated money saved by not cleaning rooms to environmental or women’s causes. I was actually surprised by how environmentally aware the hotels were. In Copenhagen, they even had a daily 6 AM jog sponsored by the hotel where people could jog together and pick up trash.
21. When you check into a hotel in Northern Europe, don’t be shocked if you’re asked to pay when you get your key, if you haven’t already prepaid.
We had to pay upfront for both Norway hotels and our hotel in Denmark. It didn’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things, but it was kind of surprising at the time.
20. At the moment,it’s hard to plan a land based trip up north. But that’s changing.
I had originally wanted this to be a land based trip because I like to stay at least a night or two in places I visit, especially when they are in countries I’ve never visited in the past. We ended up cruising on this trip, because it was simply more practical. I have a feeling that even though we were on a luxury cruise, it might have also been somewhat cheaper. The Rail Baltica project is making a land based trip to Baltic countries more feasible. I hope we’re still living here when it’s completed, or will be able to visit.
19. Sometimes, Norwegians are indistinguishable from Americans.
Or maybe we were just in places where Norwegians don’t have thick accents. I was often shocked by how much Norwegians reminded me of my countrymen! The one difference was that they tended to be taller, blonder, and a lot more beautiful. Especially the women.
18. Helsinki, Finland has an Armenian restaurant!
I noticed it on the bus ride from the port to the city center. No, we didn’t have a chance to visit it, but I did look it up. Apparently, it’s currently temporarily closed, as they are moving from their old location to a new one. I took a look at the menu and it appeared to be a great place to dine Armenian style. Maybe, if we go back to Helsinki, we can give it a try. As some of you know, Armenia is important to me, because I lived there for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
17. Most Finnish people have saunas, second homes, and boats… some women even give birth in saunas!
The ladies who did our harbor cruise tour told us that many Finnish people have their very own private saunas at home. They are considered very clean, so some women even have babies in their home saunas. That doesn’t seem appealing to me, but what do I know? The ladies also said that many people have their own boats and second homes, and that it doesn’t require a lot of money to have either. That’s just part of their culture. I clearly need to explore Finland more!
16. Estonia had a comparatively easy time during the pandemic, because people there naturally “social distance”.
Our tour guide, the hilarious Raul (Robin Williams come to visit in another life form), told us that most Estonians don’t have big families (same as in Finland). And when COVID-19 was especially terrible, it wasn’t so hard for the Estonians, because people up there are kind of solitary. He said the government would like to see more babies being made and is trying to encourage it, but Estonians aren’t so into the idea.
15. There’s an old AIDA cruise ship stuck at Tallinn’s harbor…
As we were entering and leaving Tallinn, Estonia, I couldn’t help but notice the loudly painted AIDAvita, docked at the pier. It looked a little rusty, but I paid it no mind until I got back on our ship and did some Googling. The AIDAvita was sold and is now known as Avitak. But it still looks like an AIDA ship, even though it flies the Liberian flag and has been stuck in Tallinn since November 2021.
14. Everybody up north celebrates Midsommar… It’s a big deal!
I didn’t know about this holiday, which is celebrated in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and other northerly countries. This year, it took place on Saturday, June 24th, and I noticed lots of women wearing flower crowns on their heads. Raul, our guide in Estonia, said that starting on Midsommar Eve (this year, the 23rd of June– the shortest night of the year) people party all night and spend the next day recovering. When we visited Tallinn, it was Sunday, June 25th, and Raul said we probably wouldn’t see too many locals, since people still needed to recuperate from the festivities. Summer doesn’t officially begin until June 21st… but, of course, they’re going by the Summer Solstice. Midsommar represents the time between planting crops and harvesting them.
13. People in Estonia and Latvia are GLAD to be running their own countries now.
I’m not totally surprised about this one, of course. It makes perfect sense that people would take pride in their cultures and want to run their countries the way they see fit. Still, as an American who grew up in the 1980s, it was very interesting to hear about the Soviet times from the locals and how, on the whole, they were very happy not to be part of the Soviet Union anymore. When I lived in Armenia, I think the sentiment was probably similar, although I was there in the mid 90s, when times were more difficult. I did hear some people say they missed the Soviet Union, but probably only because they were tearing pages from books to wipe their asses when they went to the toilet. I’m sure they no longer long for those days.
12. Riga, Latvia has many beautiful art deco buildings!
I hadn’t known much about Latvia before this trip, other than what Bill told me about visiting there. I didn’t know there were so many beautiful buildings in Riga that managed to survive the Soviet era. I do remember some nice buildings in Armenia, too, no doubt built before the Soviet Union existed and imported a lot of industrial tackiness and weird architecture. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see that there are still many gorgeous old buildings there.
11. Visby, Sweden is a beautiful place, but I think I’d hate to own a home in the old town!
As we walked through Visby’s historic old town within its medieval walls, I couldn’t help but think I’d probably dislike living there. The local government is very strict about how locals can decorate or improve their properties, and as I saw and experienced firsthand, there are MANY tour groups coming through there. But I’m still really glad we visited. And luckily, we probably could never afford to live there, anyway. 😉
10. Liepaja and Karosta, Latvia, are still big military areas. But Liepaja has potential!
I had heard of Karosta before our visit there, to see the big naval military prison. I had not heard of Liepaja, which is one of Latvia’s biggest cities. I was surprised by how nice the town is. There are many trees there; music is a focus of the city; and the beach is surprisingly inviting. I hope we can visit again sometime.
9. I learned the tragic story of the Rose of Turaida…
And you can learn it too, by clicking here and reading up about it.
8. Religious people in northern Europe are typically Lutherans…
In 2023, I don’t expect *that* many people in Europe to be especially religious. Those who do practice religion tend to be Lutherans, although there are also Catholics. We visited several Russian Orthodox churches, too. There are still some Russians living in the Baltic areas.
7. Latvians love their “biggest” cave, which isn’t very big at all, and is more like a grotto.
Our guide explained that Latvians love the largest cave in Latvia, which is not a big cave at all. Gutmana Cave is not very deep and lacks the typical exciting formations one tends to see in caves. What it does have is very pure water, which locals claim bestow eternal youth and good health. Also, on the sandstone walls, there are many carvings and inscriptions dating back hundreds of years.
6. Norway has many, many electric vehicles…
I was very surprised by the sheer volume of electric vehicles in Norway. The cabs we rode in were all electric. We actually rode in our very first Tesla there. The train from Oslo to Bergen is electric. The gas stations have places for people to recharge their vehicles. Gas is expensive, and Norway has many rules regarding emissions and pollution. I read that as of 2026, a lot of cruise ships won’t be able to explore the fjords anymore.
5. If you visit Sigulda in Latvia, you might want to buy a walking stick… or jewelry.
I was surprised by the excellent handcrafts in Sigulda, especially given how reasonably priced they were. One of the items people typically buy there are ornate and colorfully painted walking sticks. We bought a small one for Bill’s granddaughter. I got myself some beautiful silver earrings. That reminds me… I need to look up the boutique online and see if I can order more. 😀
4. There is no more fishing in Bornholm, Denmark…
Bornholm is an island south of the Swedish coast. It belongs to Denmark. You’d think there would be many fish there, but the area has been overfished by humans, and lots of seals call the island home. So now, although there once were fish factories in Bornholm, they are now closed. The locals get their fish from other places. This trip really made me more aware of the environment and how our choices affect everything.
3. Only one restaurant on Bornholm still smokes fish the old fashioned way.
We visited Hasle Smokehouse, a “museum restaurant” in Bornholm, where the proprietor still smokes fish over an outdoor open fire. His establishment is the only one that still operates that way. It’s allowed because the place is also considered a museum, but he told us that the government sends him warning letters every year about public health/foodborne illness dangers. I can attest that the smoked herring is delicious, health risks notwithstanding!
2. Copenhagen, Denmark is fabulous…
I already had an idea that it was fabulous, as this was our third time in the city. But, we clearly need to go there and spend a few days. A couple of nights at the end of a long trip, a night on the way to Rostock, and a few hours as part of a cruise is not sufficient to really appreciate how cool that city is. We need to do a long weekend there. We also need more time in Stockholm and Helsinki… Hell, all of the places we went to were great! I wouldn’t change any aspect of our trip.
And finally, 1. It wasn’t a bad idea in 2023 to go to Northern Europe instead of Italy, France, England, or any of the biggest European hot spots.
Granted, it seemed like everyone was on vacation when we were, but I don’t think as many people came to Northern Europe as some of the most touristy European cities. I’ve been reading a lot about how many people have descended upon Europe this summer. It didn’t seem so bad where we were, with the exception of Bergen. But even Bergen wasn’t that bad… A bonus was that the weather, by and large, wasn’t that hot. However, we did encounter hot weather and a couple of chilly days. I read that the weather last week wasn’t so great, either. So, you take a risk… Still, we were very lucky on our trip, and got to see most everything we planned to see. I still want to see more of the fjords. Hopefully, we’ll get the chance.
Anyway… I could probably add even more to this list. You learn a lot when you go on two week trips to half a dozen countries! But I’ve got some other stuff to do. Noyzi needs a walk; I need to practice guitar; and I have at least one more blog post to write. So I’ll wrap up this post now… I’m glad our big trip worked out the way it did, hectic as it was. We had a good time.