Old World Charm: Dubrovnik and Split

Croatia is fast becoming one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations. The mix of history, architecture, shops and cuisine will impress even the most hardened sightseers. If you’re on a cruise to the Adriatic, or even if you’re not, excursions to Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia’s two largest cities, should definitely form part of your bucket list.

Dubrovnik

As your liner sails towards the 12th century walled city of Dubrovnik you’ll discover one of the gems of the Adriatic on your cruise. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and those with a keen eye will spot reminders of Roman, Venetian and Byzantine rule at every turn.

Architectural highlights include Onofrio’s Fountain (part of the city’s medieval aqueduct system) as well as the world’s oldest pharmacy, established by Franciscan monks in the 14th century. You can also visit the city’s Franciscan Monastery, home to a statue of the Piéta carved in 1498, said to be one of the great examples of its kind.

Once you’ve seen the sights, it’s good to meander through Dubrovnik’s winding side streets as they’re full of shops, independent galleries and pretty restaurants. In the evening why not treat yourself to dinner at one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants — though it’s likely you’ll have to book ahead.

Split

There are so many reasons to your leave your cruise and go exploring in Croatia’s second largest city, another UNESCO heritage site. The 4th century Roman Palace of the Emperor Diocletian is a must see — it’s thought to be the best-preserved example of a period imperial palace in the world.

For natural beauty, visitors can take a trip to Krka (pronounced ‘kur-ka’) one of the country’s seven national parks just outside the city. Woodland, lakes and waterfalls abound in this 100km wide area of unspoilt beauty.

For bargain hunters you’ll find lots of small shops in Split’s old town selling curiosities as well as more mainstream fare. Lacework, oil paintings and ceramics are good buys. But be sure to carry cash with you as there may be shops that don’t accept credit cards.

Thought Venice was nice? Your Adriatic cruise will be twice as satisfying with a visit to Dubrovnik or Split – or both! These cities offer a privileged glimpse into the past with all the modern comforts you’d expect from a fine cruise holiday.

Hello Helsinki

HELSINKI, FINLAND: Helsinki is a vibrant and diverse city, where you can taste traditional eastern exotic with contemporary Scandinavian style. It’s the capital of Finland and the second-most northern capital city in the world. This youthful and relaxed city gave us a cosmopolitan experience which exists in perfect harmony with nature.  With more than 300 islands and 100 km of coastline you can’t go wrong when spending time outside the city also.

From our cabin balcony, by Helsinki coast
From our cabin balcony, by Helsinki coast
  

The city was founded in 1550 by a Swedish king. Later, Helsinki was under Russian tsars for many years, therefore, you will see lots of influences of Russia here from architecture, to food, and souvenirs.

We toured the city with Hop On Hop Off (not the red one, green buses) open top tour bus service of Helsinki. We found their representatives right after we got off our ship. It was raining badly, I mean…seriously, it wasn’t a fun rain. We quickly decided to get on their bus to escape from the rain and it was the best way to explore Helsinki in that weather. They charged us 25 Euros per adult and free for kids below 16 years which includes audio guide and is valid for 24 hours. Also, you get to be picked up from your cruise terminal, if you arrive to the city via sea.

TIME of TRAVEL: We stopped in Helsinki, Finland when we took Baltic cruise with Carnival Legend in August of 2013. It was a 12-day cruise that started from Dover, England. After visiting Warnemunde, Germany our next destination was Helsinki and then to St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, the day we arrived in Helsinki, we were surprised with lots and lots of heavy rain. We almost got soaked at one point. But overall, it was ok, eventually the rain stopped in the later part of the day…but it was almost time for us to leave then L

EATING and SHOPPING: Helsinki’s cozy outdoor cafes and terraces offer a pleasant way to rest your feet and refresh yourself. For gastronomical explorer Helsinki has plenty to discover. We saw plenty of nice restaurants in the main center, near Senate Square. But, we grabbed some Subway sandwiches from a shopping mall and went on with our journey as soon as possible.

For souvenirs, Market Square was our best option. They were very reasonably priced and had tons of options to buy something local. We bought a pair of coasters made from juniper trees, it was 10 euros each. The wood has a distinct smell and the man told us if you put hot dish on the coaster, you can really get the smell of juniper.

Coasters and boxes made from Juniper trees - some typical Finnish souvenirs in Helsinki
Coasters and boxes made from Juniper trees – some typical Finnish souvenirs in Helsinki
    

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: There are plenty museums here if they interest you…but with our short time off of the ship, that’s all we could do and visit here. Also, the rain didn’t help at all. We opt out on Olympic Stadium that is a well-known tourist spot where Olympic Games were held in 1952. We managed to visit the following in about few hours. Most of the sights and attractions are within walking distance in the city center, and getting around town is very easy. But Hop On Hop Off was a life saver for us that day.

Lovelocks on Bridge of Love while walking towards Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
Lovelocks on Bridge of Love while walking towards Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
    

1) SENATE SQUARE and HELSINKI CATEHDRAL: This is the main central square in Helsinki and a reminder for Finnish people when they became independent in 1917, immediately after the Russian Revolution. This neo-classical historical center is where we were dropped off at first from the port. In the center of Senate Square stands a statue of Tsar Alexander II from 1894. This Russian tsar was very popular here and his bold statue in the square represents Law, Peace, Light and Labor. Many merchant houses from the 18th century are lined on the south side of the square. Senate Square also houses few museums, university library, main university building, and official residence of the Mayor of Helsinki. It was raining cats and dogs; we had to change our bus here and get on another Hop-On Hop-Off to start the tour.

The beautiful and historically significant Helsinki Cathedral is an Evangelic Lutheran church. This striking white cathedral with green dome is the unofficial symbol of Helsinki and has been dominating Senate Square since 1850. Russian Tsar, Nicholas I, contributed to the exterior appearance of this cathedral by commissioning the zinc statues of 12 apostles on the roof looking down at the world. Helsinki Cathedral hosts major state and university events. Inside is very simple but elegant. The altar is non-decorative too, but the choir is grand and beautiful. Exhibitions and concerts are held in the vaulted crypt. Be ready to climb 50+ steps to get there. Entry is free to the cathedral.

Helsinki Cathedral with statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II in Senate Square of Helsinki
Helsinki Cathedral with statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II in Senate Square of Helsinki
        

2) TEMPPELIADIO CHURCH or ROCK CHURCH: This Lutheran church was literally dug out of solid rock and is the most visited site in Helsinki. It was quarried out of the natural bedrock where the interior walls are created naturally by the rock. The roof is made of 22 km of copper strips. Completed only in 1969, inside the church is very contemporary with simple altar and nave. Due to its excellent acoustics the church is a popular venue for concerts. There is no fee to enter the church.

Rock Church, the most visited site in Helsinki
Rock Church, the most visited site in Helsinki
    

3) SIBELIUS MONUMENT: Dedicated to the world-famous composer Jean Sibelius, this monument is one of the “musts” when visiting Helsinki. Located in Sibelius Park, this unique sculpture resembles organ pipes, made with welded steel with the bust of the composer on one side. It has over 600 pipes and weighs 24 tons. This is a very nice park with touch of lovely greens in the city. There is no charge to enter the park or to see the monument.

Sibelius Monument in Helsinki
Sibelius Monument in Helsinki

4) NATIONAL MUSEUM, PARLIAMENT HOUSE, and HELSINKI MUSIC CENTER: Although we didn’t go inside because of short time, National Museum of Finland is a place full of treasures. It illustrates Finnish history from prehistoric times to the present and the building is very bold too.

Only a few steps from the museum is Finland’s impressive parliament building. The façade is made of red granite with 14 Corinthian columns. Opposite of the parliament if the Helsinki Music Center.

5) MARKET SQUARE: This was my favorite place in this city…I do get excited when choosing or buying souvenirs. Market Square is located in front of the city hall and by waterfront, only couple minutes of walk from Senate Square and Uspenski Cathedral. It was a great place to do some souvenir hunting. You can find some unique Finnish items here like juniper wood coasters and boxes, minks, fox furs, sweaters, and winter accessories and best part is that they are all made in Finland.

Market Square of Helsinki, Finland
Market Square of Helsinki, Finland
           

6) USPENSKI CATHEDRAL: Completed in 1868, the Uspenski Cathedral is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe. With its golden copulas and red-brick façade, the church is one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history. This is one of the two official national churches in Finland. The ornate vaults are supported by four giant granite columns. And the fabulous painting behind the altar was done by a Russian artist. Interior is kind of small but more gorgeous and decorative than Helsinki Cathedral. We had to climb a small hill with few stairs. It’s free to go inside. With classic onion-domed Russian church is prominently located near Market Square and only 5 minutes of walk from Senate Square.

Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki
 

8 reasons why I got addicted to cruises

I have mentioned in few of my last posts that we took Baltic Sea cruise last month in August of 2013. It was one of the most unique travel experiences my family and I had this summer. The fun was unlimited for all of us and so was the excitement. Carnival Legend made sure all of its passengers had time of their lives. There were always something exciting going on at every hour for everyone.

The atrium of Carnival Legend

The atrium of Carnival Legend

There is one confession I need to make though, I am not a big water person. In fact, I am very scared of water…that can be going to beaches or swimming pools or simply standing under shower for too long with eyes closed. I don’t know how to swim, therefore, I do panic everytime I am on a boat or taking any other water rides…to the point where I almost forget to enjoy the surroundings.  First night of cruising, I kept waking up every hour just to check that our vessel wasn’t sinking or stuck or that there wasn’t any emergency sirens. I kept thinking about the movie Titanic (I know it sounds corny) and some recent cruise incidents (like the one in Italy where 40 people died). I was going through some checklist in my mind on what to do in those situations with my kids…although I know I can’t swim and therefore I can’t really do much. After the first night, I thought I would be ok…it was just getting used to sleeping in moving cabin. But no, that fear and insomnia stayed with me for the whole 12 days on the sea. It’s not that I didn’t sleep at all throughout this journey, but towards the end I used to wake up once or twice in the middle of the night.

Moonrise on Baltic

Moonrise on Baltic

Apart from that, the good news was that none of us got sea sick or anything.  Thanks to my husband who did his homework before buying the tickets and booking our cabin. Double thanks to him for booking a cabin with an extended balcony. Yep, we were on 8th deck with a nice little private balcony with 2 chairs. I managed to wake up very early in the morning few times and enjoy the sunrise right from there in my PJs. TIPS: try to get room in the mid-ship where you can feel motion the least. Front or back of any ship moves a lot and can really give you wobbly feelings if you are not used to it.

Water slide inside Carnival Legend

Water slide inside Carnival Legend

Above and all, those 12 days gave us some unforgettable memories. We were already talking about our next cruising destinations. So here are top 8 reasons why I want to go cruising again and again and again:

8) Towel folding animals: Our stewards used to visit our room twice a day. Once in the morning for regular servicing and once at night to get ready for bedtime. Every time we were back from our dinner we saw few chocolates, schedule for next day, and a cuddly towel folding animal on our bed. It made the kids giggly and we used to guess each evening what animal he would make for us that night.

 

Towel folding Monkey in our cabin

Towel folding Monkey in our cabin

7) Free concerts and musical performances everyday: There were more than just 1 or 2 of these concerts going on everyday. We attended Motown Concert on or 2nd day on the sea. Also managed to see piano performance, duet vocal singing, and DJ party by the pool. There were also, few dance classes in each afternoon that covered salsa, tango, Bollywood, disco, and many more.

Motown Concert on board in Carnival Legend

Motown Concert on board in Carnival Legend

6) Creative activities: Kids loved some close-up magic times as well as dancing by the pool. “Hairy Chest Competition” was really funny where 4 men competed and entertained a big group. Another really cool one I loved was the ice sculpture curving right in front of our eyes.

5) Friendly staffs: Our ship, Carnival Legend, had some wonderful…let me repeat, wonderful staffs and workers to serve us. From our room stewards, to all the attendants, cooks, servers, cleaners, receptionists, waiters/waitresses, officials, securities…all had smiley faces and friendly attitude. I can’t imagine to be in a place where I hated the staff. This experience alone added an extra star to our experiences.

4) Shore Excursions: Taking a cruise like this one gives you an easy chance of landing on new places. Particularly with Baltic Cruise, the major highlight was St. Petersburg for almost everyone. Other than that we had the opportunity to see Warnemunde and Rostock in Germany, Helsinki in Finland, and Tallinn in Estonia. These were some wonderful places where we’ve been longing to go for a while.

3) Unlimited food: Hehehe…yeh, unlimited food and desserts are in my top list for going back to any cruise. Starting from breakfast to dinner we were stuffed with all sorts of delicious dishes and yummy treats. Other than the 4 or 5 different sections for breakfast, in Carnival Legend, we used to have different theme for lunch in buffet service, like American, Mediterranean, Chinese, Italian, Caribbean, and some more. We didn’t go to any “Elegant Night” dinners in formal dining area, but other nights we had dinner in Truffles – a semi-formal sophisticatedly decorated sit down restaurant with lots of menu options. Other than these, there were 24-room service and pizza and ice cream bars where we could just go and munch.

Scrumptious dessert

Scrumptious dessert

2) Stunning beauty: May be it’s not so stunning when we were just sailing in the middle of blue ocean where we couldn’t see any lands nearby…it may get a bit dull after looking at the sea hours after hours. But my favorite part was during docking in a city and sailing off to a new destination. Amsterdam was probably the best because our ship had to get inside their small canals to anchor. And when we were leaving the city, it took couple hours of scenic canal ride before we were back on the ocean again…which was fantastic. But with most of the cities, as soon as the ship used to come closer to the city and later to the port…I loved to stand on our balcony to see look at other cruise liners, port life, and the whole city from a distance.

Amsterdam Port, as our ship was leaving the city

Amsterdam Port, as our ship was leaving the city

1) Sunrises and sunsets: This used to excite me the most before boarding the ship. I even bought a lens to capture the sunrises and sunsets on the horizon from our ship. I managed to wake up few times before sunrise and run to the upper deck to enjoy and capture some shots. Same with sunsets, some of them I just enjoyed it from our balcony, some from our restaurants during dinner, while for some sunsets I had time to go to sundeck to get a panoramic view. Capturing or looking at sunrises and sunsets still thrills me when I think about our future cruises. The way water glimmers as the sun rises or sets is a unique experience which I wish could see every day.

The most beautiful sunrise I saw, near Helsinki, Finland

The most beautiful sunrise I saw, near Helsinki, Finland

Overall, it was an unforgettable journey for us and we did maximize our fun on the ship and on the shore by engaging ourselves in different things. Everybody’s festive and holiday mood cheered us too. We met an elderly family there who said this was their 15th cruise…wow. I know they are addicted to cruise. I didn’t forget to ask them what their favorite one was; the answer was Alaskan cruise…hmmmmm. That must be an adventurous one, going thru snow-capped mountains and glaciers and solid rock icebergs on the water. Wherever we take our one should be fun…can’t wait til the next cruise.

Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

We were lucky enough to get many chances of visiting Amsterdam from time to time. Different times we visited different sections of this city. Last time we were in Amsterdam was when we took Baltic Sea cruise in August of 2013. Our ship was docked near the city for few hours and we managed to visit only this museum which I’ve been longing for quite a while.

Van Gogh Museum is a must see when in Amsterdam, even if you are not into arts and paintings. It has the largest collections of world-famous Dutch artist Van Gogh’s many early works and iconic well-known paintings which he painted before his death. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see his famous “Starry Night” here (it’s in a museum in New York), but some of his other famous works, such as “Almond Blossom”, “The Potato Eaters“, “Sunflowers”, and many others are hanging in this museum walls of Amsterdam.

Last self-portrait by Van Gogh painted in 1888 in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Last self-portrait by Van Gogh painted in 1888 in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
      

To give you a little bio on this famous artist of all time, Van Gogh was born in 1853 and was only active as an artist for 10 years, from 1880 until his death in 1890. In those 10 years he produced about 800 paintings and more than 1000 drawings, as well as large number of watercolors, lithographs, and sketches in hundreds of letters that he wrote to his brother, Theo. He was a self-taught painter with few art lessons from Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium. His dramatic life story, unhappy romances, apparent lack of recognition, illness, and finally his attempt of suicide are some of the events that were great deal of interests after his death, as well as his exceptional use of colors and characteristic brushworks.

"The Potato Eaters" by Van Gogh from 1885 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
“The Potato Eaters” by Van Gogh from 1885 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
     

It’s a very organized museum with information written both in Dutch and English. It’s a wonderful place to get to know Van Gogh up close and personal. His depressed life, incomplete education, what inspired him, love and relationships, and finally why he was dead at such an early age…all are portrayed here in a very nice sequential way.

Another famous painting by Van Gogh "Almond Blossom" from 1890 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Another famous painting by Van Gogh “Almond Blossom” from 1890 in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
     

The museum is located in Museumplein near the city center of Amsterdam where you will find many other different types of museums. Our taxi charged 20 euros for one way from Amsterdam cruise port to the museum. It’s open daily from 9 am – 6 pm. Be ready to stand in the ticket line for a LONG time. We were standing there about half and fifteen minutes, even those who bought tickets online were moving like sloths. Ticket is 15 euros per adult and kids visiting below 17 years are free.

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