Champagne Bucket trips, Latvia, Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines

A phrase you don’t hear everyday, unless you’re on a prison tour near Liepaja, Latvia…

On the morning of June 28, 2023, Bill and I woke up to our breakfast delivery. We probably should have done breakfast in the suite every day. It was a lot more peaceful than going to the restaurants were. Not only could we enjoy the sea breezes on our balcony, but I could also dispense with putting on a makeup and bra, at least for a short while.

After filling up on breakfast, we got dressed and I put on a layer of makeup. I was kind of excited, for we were finally in Liepaja, Latvia, which was a stop I had been eagerly anticipating. Why? Because that’s where Karosta Prison is, and I had been curious about that place since 2009, when I first read about how the former Soviet military prison had been turned into a B&B for the moderately kinky, which I am.

I’m only half kidding… I seem to remember that in the late aughts, Karosta Prison, which had functioned as a military prison until 1997, had been converted into an entertainment venue for those who were curious about the experience of being incarcerated in a Soviet style prison. Back when I first read about the place in a 2006 Guardian piece, there was a very intense “reality show” available, where paying guests could pretend to be new inmates. They’d be photographed, and then put through their paces by a military “warden”, given a medical check up by a “nurse”, and spend the night in strict silence on thin mattresses in an actual jail cell. Participants had/have to sign a waiver agreeing to the conditions of the prison, realizing that they might be treated badly as part of the program.

In 2023, it looks like the reality experience has been watered down a bit. Now, it’s a three hour experience, although it is still possible to book an overnight at the prison, too, if you call ahead. My guess is that a lot of tourists were either freaked out by the original package, or conditions changed due to COVID. But anyway, even back in 2009, I didn’t think I could take the extreme package that was still being offered then. I much preferred the idea of just a simple tour, then going back to a luxury hotel room. ๐Ÿ˜‰

We had to move out of Germany in 2009, so I never got a chance to plan a land based trip to Liepaja, which is one of Latvia’s largest cities. There was a time when a person had to get special permission to visit Liepaja, owing to the fact that there are many military facilities there. Even to this day, there are military facilities operating in Liepaja, but back in the Soviet years, it was a place where there were a lot of top secret Soviet military operations. So, even though there’s a lovely beach there, and it’s well known for being the source of a lot of Latvian music and musicians, it wasn’t a top tourist spot until after the Soviet Union fell apart.

After another quick visit to the Constellation Theater, where we traded our tour tickets for group numbers, we headed out to the tour buses. Our tour guide, who confessed to being born in 1990 and spoke with a noticeable stammer, did a good job of showing us around.

First, we visited St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church that dates from 1903. We were warned to cover our shoulders and knees, and ladies should have something to cover their heads. No photography is allowed inside. Well… sure enough, there were people on the tour who either didn’t read the instructions, or didn’t care about the request for modest clothing. They showed up in shorts. The information had specifically indicated that men were not allowed to wear shorts in the church. The kind woman who was running the church tour didn’t make anyone cover their legs or cover their heads, as they do in the Wiesbaden Russian Orthodox Church.

We learned that the church was not used for its original purpose during the Soviet years. Russian officers used it as an entertainment venue– for watching movies and working out. Our guide told us that the Russian officers didn’t like the church’s amazing acoustics, because it made watching movies difficult. They closed the interior dome to eliminate the acoustics. Efforts to reopen the dome are ongoing today. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the church was given back to the Latvian Orthodox Church, under the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The inside of the church is beautiful. There is also a little souvenir shop where visitors can buy candles and light them. Bill lit candles for his dad, as he often does when he visits churches. The area surrounding the church is also home to military facilities and some housing.

After we visited the naval cathedral, we went to a beach in Karosta for a quick potty and photo stop. I took some photos of the beach near Karosta, and some of the buildings we passed on the way there.

Then, we made our way to Karosta Prison. I had to laugh when the bus stopped, and with great enthusiasm, he said “Let’s go to the prison!” There’s something you don’t hear everyday!

We didn’t get the “official” Karosta Prison tour. Our guide told us about the prison and used a teenager to demonstrate how the prisoners were forced to march for hours. We also caught some of an official tour, where a guy in a military uniform appeared to be giving visitors a little taste of the prisoner experience.

Karosta Prison, which dates from 1905 and looks it, was not a place for thieves, rapists, or murderers. Rather, it was a place where sailors who were either mutinous or somehow got into trouble– maybe they got drunk or were late to formation or something– were sent for a few days to straighten them out. And it was, indeed, a miserable place. Inmates had two opportunities per day to go to the bathroom, with very tight time limits. They spent their days cleaning, doing exercises, and marching, all in strict silence.

I was glad to visit the prison, although I might have enjoyed a more in depth tour than what we got. Nevertheless, my curiosity is now satisfied. I’ve seen it, and I don’t know that I need another visit there. I got lots of pictures, too.

We loaded up and moved on to Liepaja’s city center, where we visited Liepaja Beach, which was pretty inviting. I miss beaches! Our guide pointed out the skeleton of a structure that was meant to be a Soviet era five star hotel.

We then went to the Seaside Park, a beautiful, leafy area, where there was a sort of musicians “walk of fame”, and a metal tree sculpture called Spoku koks (Tree of Ghosts), where visitors could push a button on a bench and hear the music of one of Latvia’s most famous rock bands, Lฤซvi, which formed in 1976. At night, the tree has special lighting. Around the city, there are also musical notes everywhere in the sidewalks. It reminded me of when we went to Dinant, Belgium, and learned that was the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the man who invented the saxophone.

On our Riga tour, our guide mentioned that it’s customary to plant a tree whenever one is cut down, and for parents to plant trees for their children. It looks like a lot of people have heeded that custom, as Latvia is very forested. When I lived in Armenia, I saw the devastation of deforestation, as locals cut down trees to keep warm in the winter. I’m sure there are more trees in Armenia now. It didn’t look to me like the Latvians had the same idea about staying warm. However, they did have the familiar Soviet style apartment buildings I’ve seen all over the former Eastern Bloc and Soviet countries. Indeed, I lived in two such apartments myself. It was one of those life experiences worth having once or twice, but not necessarily anything I’d want to repeat. Kind of like when I took a bus from Yerevan to Istanbul for three LONG days… Cool story now, but not something I want to do again.

We visited a lovely Lutheran church, where two women with luminous voices were singing like angels. I wasn’t sure if that was part of the plan, or they were just rehearsing. They sounded wonderful, though. It was peaceful listening to them sing.

Then we went to the Great Amber Concert Hall, where we were able to see a brand new facility for Liepaja’s musicians. It was a welcome stop, not just because it’s an impressive building that highlights amber, one of Latvia’s best known products, but also because it also offered a place to pee. Below, you can see the amber color from the inside.

While we were visiting the concert hall, the weather suddenly changed. Blue skies were replaced with clouds. After we got on the bus, the skies opened up, and there was torrential rain! We watched one guy somehow miraculously avoid getting soaked while standing under trees. However, after a short time, the rain finally found him and he had to move to a safer spot.

That brief rainstorm was really the only bad weather we had all week. We were very blessed with mostly sunny and pleasant days. I understand the current passengers have not been as lucky.

Bill and I went to La Veranda and had lunch, then went back to our room to get cleaned up. Our dinner was to be in the Pacific Rim Asian restaurant, which appeared to me to be the most popular of Regent’s eateries. Below are some photos from that, as well as a couple of pictures of the “designer” cocktails offered in the Meridian Lounge on Deck 5. We didn’t discover that bar until well into the cruise, which. is a real pity.

The cocktails in the Meridian Lounge are not offered anywhere else on board, and they’re really interesting, although a couple of them are insanely expensive to order (like over $25). Our concierge status would get us a slight discount, but not enough to justify the expense. One drink was over $40. I also liked the art deco/jazzy vibe in there. If we ever sail on Splendor again, we’ll have to visit that bar more often. It was better than the Splendor Lounge and the Observation Lounge.

And another batch of photos from the lounge and dinner… I tried edamame for the first time. We met another German couple in Pacific Rim– folks who live in Dusseldorf, and have tried a lot more luxury lines than we have. They seemed to be enjoying Regent very much, and we surprised them when we told them we live in Germany.

Our waitress was a very pretty young blonde woman with striking green eyes. She said that if she could cook like they do in Pacific Rim, she’d be already married. Bill noticed that she spoke German, and understood that she came from Ukraine. I think a lot of people don’t realize just how smart and accomplished many people in the service industry are. Everyone from the wait staff to the housekeepers to the guides were multi-lingual and practiced with dealing with difficult people. They definitely deserve more respect than a lot of people are willing to give them.

It was a good day… to be followed by over very last full day on the ship. More on that in the next post. For now, I’ve got to stop blogging and make Bill’s birthday cake!

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Champagne Bucket trips, Regent Seven Seas Cruise Lines

A warm welcome back to Tallinn, Estonia!

In June 2009, Bill and I visited Tallinn, Estonia for the first time, as Vision of the Seas pulled up to the rather primitive looking harbor. I remember getting off the ship and being serenaded by a local brass band. Royal Caribbean had local bands playing at each stop, which I thought was really cool. In fact, I even recorded some of their performance and put it on YouTube. Check it out!

This was a nice welcome to Estonia in 2009.

On June 25th, 2023, we were back in Estonia, having signed up for a “free” beer tasting excursion, courtesy of Regent Seven Seas. I immediately noticed, as we pulled in, that the port looked a lot more developed than it had in 2009. There was a large cruise terminal that I donโ€™t remember being there when we visited 14 years ago. I also noticed what appeared to be an AIDA ship in port. It was unusually rusty. I didn’t think much of it, though, as we made our way from the Constellation Theater to the tour bus.

Our excursion was in the morning. I had a tough time choosing which trip I wanted to do. They were also offering a tour to a local museum dedicated to Estonia’s Soviet years. Since I spent two years living in Armenia, another former Soviet republic, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, I am especially interested in the history. But I needn’t have worried. We met our hilarious guide, Raul, who seemed to effortlessly channel the late comic Robin Williams as he delivered witty one liners and told us about Estonia. He added a fair amount of commentary about the Soviet years, making it very clear that the Estonians were delighted to be rid of that regime, even though the ensuing years after the Soviet Union fell apart were quite difficult.

When we visited Tallinn the first time, Bill and I walked from the port to the old town. It’s not that far as the crow flies. However, since 2009, there’s been a whole lot of construction. I think the walk today, while technically possible, would be more dangerous, due to all the traffic.

Raul explained that Estonia doesn’t have many inhabitants and, in fact, the COVID crisis was probably not so bad for their society, since they naturally “social distance”. He said that large families were not very common, and that their population is aging.

We started our tour in the “upper town”, which is different from how Bill and I did our self-guided tour in 2009. In fact, the one thing that disappointed me about Raul’s tour is that we missed the entrance to the old town, where “Fat Margaret” is. This tower, which dates from the early 16th century, is now home to the Estonian Maritime Museum. I remember taking some good pictures in that part of town. I also got a video of some Hare Krishnas!

Hare Krishnas in Tallinn, back in 2009…

And here are some of the more interesting photos I took in 2009…

But Raul did hit the highlights, including the beautiful Russian Orthodox church, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I distinctly remember that when we visited in 2009, it was a Sunday, and there were many women with scarves on their heads in the church. I remember the heavy smell of incense and old ladies standing outside the church collecting donations from men.

It was Sunday when we visited this time, too, and we were reminded not to take pictures inside the cathedral. Those who did try to sneak pictures were quickly spotted and reprimanded, as a service was going on when we visited.

We also visited a Lutheran church, just before a service was to begin. Raul was talking when the organist erupted into a rendition of “Amazing Grace”. It was actually very beautiful. I left the church with tears in my eyes.

The organist played beautifully!

We had a chance to view the lower part of the town from a picturesque spot in the upper part, where we got some photos and shopped for souvenirs. We picked up a new beer stein for our collection.

After our potty and shopping stop, we went to the lower part of town, where we stopped by a chocolatier and bought some chocolate. I still haven’t opened the box to see if they’re any good. A lovely young lady was playing a key harp (Nyckelharpa)– an instrument from Sweden that looks like a combination of a violin and a keyboard. I dropped a couple of euros in her hat, because I have a soft spot for buskers. She played well, and her music added to the atmosphere.

At the end of the tour, we went to a restaurant to taste local beers and eat fresh local sausages. It was at this point that Bill and I met Lynn and Ron, a very nice couple from Dundee, Scotland. The beer tasting was a treat for me, since I liked the three beers that were offered. Not everyone did. Especially the delicious cherry beer! No one discussed the beers or even mentioned who made them. They were simply served with the sausages.

As we made our way back to the bus, I thought to myself that we really do need to come back to Tallinn and spend a couple of days in the city, then maybe venture out to the countryside. Maybe after the train is ready, we can do that. Tallinn by itself is a really cool city– literally and figuratively. But I think the country as a whole is interesting, as I watched a great documentary years ago about Estonia called The Singing Revolution. I happen to own this film and found it fascinating.

A trailer for The Singing Revolution.

Raul did a great job of telling us about Tallinn and showing us the sights. I was sorry to be leaving Tallinn, as it really is such a neat city, with so much color and personality! The beer is pretty good, too!

The ship was going to be leaving Estonia in the early afternoon, as our next port was Riga, Latvia, which is quite a distance when you’re in transportation that moves as slowly as a cruise ship does. So, we sadly bid farewell to Estonia that afternoon. As Bill and I watched the skyline disappear, I looked up the rusty looking AIDA vessel that was sitting in the harbor and learned that it was a ship that was sold to new owners and is now flagged in Liberia. But it’s been sitting abandoned in Tallin’s port since November 2021. Another AIDA ship was also sitting in the port for over a year, but finally left.

We decided to enjoy the afternoon on our balcony, drinking some of the beers brought by the steward the night before. Unfortunately, they weren’t very cold. I think it’s because when no one is in the staterooms, the power is completely shut off. Anything plugged in is unplugged, and you have to use a card to get the lights to work. But it was still a pleasant afternoon’s cruise. We were blessed with nice weather, which I understand is not the case for those who are cruising this week!

After awhile, we decided to visit the Splendor Lounge on Deck 4, then have dinner in the Compass Rose restaurant. Aldo and Dimas– a singer and pianist– were there performing, playing slow hits from the 70s. I commented to Bill that I thought the playlist was a little depressing. Nevertheless, we enjoyed their performance, and then met another couple from Germany, who actually live near Wiesbaden and know Breckenheim (our village), because they go to a restaurant there.

George and Claudia were interesting to talk to. Claudia spoke some English, but was delighted when Bill spoke some German. I think she was very happy to talk to someone besides George, who was in a wheelchair and appeared to be profoundly physically disabled. I had first noticed them in the dining room. Claudia said that she and George had traveled all over the place together, and she loved America, because there was so much consideration for people in wheelchairs. For instance, in Germany, a lot of facilities have toilets upstairs or downstairs, making it hard for physically disabled people to access them. But in the United States, most modern buildings have ramps, wide doors, and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. I noticed that Regent Splendor, more than any other ship I’ve ever been on, also catered a lot to people in wheelchairs.

Claudia did not let George’s disability slow her down. She got up and danced, holding George’s hand as she sashayed to the music. She said she loved American rock n’ roll, especially Elvis Presley. And she reminded us that Elvis spent time in the Frankfurt/Wiesbaden area, back when he was in the Army. We will have to visit where he once lived!

Taken on June 24th, just before the lounge opened.

After we had dinner in the Compass Rose, we came back to the Splendor Lounge, where Aldo and Dimas had picked up the tempo considerably. More people joined us and there was soon much singing and dancing. It was a nice way to end a great day!

Bill and his cheese!

A little singing and dancing in the Splendor Lounge!

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churches, customs

A visit to St. Elizabeth’s Church, the Russian Orthodox Church in Wiesbaden…

Although we will have lived in Wiesbaden for four years at the end of November, there are still a lot of places in Hesse we haven’t yet seen. A big reason for that is COVID-19. Things have really only been somewhat normal since April of this year. There are a few other reasons, too… one of them being sheer laziness and feeling slack because not that many people read my travel blog anymore. Nevertheless, I still enjoy writing it and taking photos, and I know there will come a day when I’ll look back on these memories with fondness. So, with that in mind, I let Bill talk me into another excursion today.

St. Elizabeth’s Church is also known as the Greek Chapel. It was built between 1847 and 1855 by Duke Adolf of Nassau, to pay respects to the death of his 19 year old wife, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna of Russia. The couple had only been married a year when the duchess died in childbirth, as did their baby daughter. The duke was so bereaved that he decided to build the church around the duchess’s grave in her honor, using money from the duchess’s dowry. It is now the site of the largest Russian Orthodox cemetery in Europe, outside of Russia itself.

I had long been wanting to visit St. Elizabeth’s Church, a beautiful golden domed Russian Orthodox church on Neroberg, a hill overlooking one of Wiesbaden’s most tony neighborhoods with very grand homes owned by wealthy people. This church is the only Russian Orthodox church in our fair city, and besides being lovely, it offers some beautiful views of the city. There are also other things on Neroberg, to include a vineyard, a couple of restaurants, a pool, a climbing forest, and lots of walking paths. To get up to the church, one can either drive and hope to find a parking spot, or hope to find a spot at the bottom of the hill and take the Nerobergbahn, which is a funicular that goes up and down the hill. It’s also possible to walk or bike up there, but that’s definitely not for people like me. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Especially in August!

Bill had warned me that today there would also be a large climate change protest in Wiesbaden, with many people riding bikes to rally for Earth friendly policies. Remembering last week’s Stau on A3, I was hoping we wouldn’t be hindered by the crowd. Fortunately, as you will see in the photos at the end of this post, we were leaving Wiesbaden, as they were coming in. Based on what we saw in Wiesbaden itself, there’s going to be quite a party going on. I know there was a food truck festival going on, too, but after last week’s shenanigans at the wine fest, we decided the church was a better bet today.

It took us a few passes to score a parking spot near the Nerobergbahn, and when we did find one, Bill had to parallel park. That shouldn’t have been hard in a 2020 Volvo with parking assist, but I don’t think Bill trusts it. Fortunately, he was able to park the SUV, and we made our way to the funicular, where we purchased tickets going up and down the hill. It’s important to note that the current 9 euro train passes don’t work on this funicular. You have to buy tickets, which at this writing, cost 5 euros per adult. If you just want a one way ticket, it’s 4 euros. They also have special rates for groups, families, and kindergarten groups with children. The ticket can also be combined with tickets for the climbing forest, which appears to be an adventure/tree climbing/zip line park for people more fit than I am. ๐Ÿ˜‰

The funicular runs until 7:00pm at this writing, and there are two wagons that continually go up and down. The car is enclosed, so face masks have to be worn. As much as I hate masks, it makes sense, since it gets kind of chummy in there. If you score a standing place on the caboose, you don’t have to wear a mask. The ride is about three minutes or so, and you don’t see much as you go up and come down. Still, it beats walking.

When we got to the top of the hill, we went to a nearby Biergarten and had a snack, since I was a bit hangry and needed a bathroom. There were lots of people there, and I heard several different languages. I felt a lot less grouchy after Bill and I shared a Flammkuechen (Alsatian pizza) and washed it down with beer. I don’t even like Flammkuechen much, but I didn’t want a Schnitzel or a piece of cake. It was just enough, and after we ate, we walked around and got photos. I really just wanted some pictures of the view of downtown Wiesbaden, and the beautiful Russian church.

I already had Russia kind of on my mind, thanks to an advice column I read yesterday in the Washington Post. A woman wrote about how she’d married someone from Eastern Europe, and his family shows love by pushing food on guests. She explained that she has a lot of food issues, and isn’t comfortable eating a lot. I noticed a lot of the comments from Americans, most of whom either have no experience with Eastern European cultures, or no appreciation for other cultures. I commented that I empathize with the letter writer, since I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia, which is a formerly Soviet country. Food is a big part of their culture, which is all about hospitality. One of the first phrases we learned as Peace Corps Trainees was how to say “I’m full.” in Armenian. We were also taught how to signify that we were appeased, so the host(s) didn’t feel the need to keep bringing out food. Leave a little food on the plate.

Someone else commented that they had also been an Peace Corps Armenia Volunteer, years after I was there, and was going to write the very same thing! And I had also mentioned that Armenians would always comment when I lost or gained weight, too. That was another aspect of that culture I remember with somewhat less fondness. Sigh…

Anyway, I thought of that exchange as we decided to visit the inside of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s two euros per adult to go inside. One thing I had forgotten was that Orthodox churches don’t allow people to go inside with bare legs. Bill and I were both wearing shorts, so the lady behind the counter apologized and asked us both to put on wrap around skirts. It was a little embarrassing, but then I remembered the Armenians (and Greeks, now that I think about it) were the same. We had to cover our legs to enter the churches and not wear revealing clothes. I also told Bill to be careful not to cross his legs. That was another caveat we got in Armenia, lest some little old lady chastise us for being disrespectful. I smiled at Bill and said, “It’s taboo.” And now that I have looked it up, I see that my memory serves me correctly. Of course, it didn’t come up anyway, since the church doesn’t really have anywhere to sit. I mean, there aren’t any pews or anything. Maybe a couple of chairs.

Photography isn’t really allowed inside, but I snuck a few photos anyway, since I had to wear a skirt. No one noticed. I did appreciate the smell of incense and the beautiful Russian choral music. St. Elizabeth’s Church really is a very lovely church and well worth a visit. I’m glad we finally made the trip to see it.

After our visit to the church, we walked back up the hill to the overlook, where we saw a World War I memorial and gazes at Wiesbaden from the vantage point of the hill, in view of the vineyards. It was very beautiful. I might have liked a few fewer clouds, but given how dry it’s been here this summer, I’d say the clouds were probably Heaven sent.

Here are today’s photos…