Exploring a Scandinavian fishing village and a walled city in Estonia

Yvonne Ransel

This is the fourth in a series of essays

So, on the third morning of our very first cruise we hustled to the Conference Center on the fifth deck of the Brilliance of the Seas. We were finally going to tour a town in Scandinavia. Isn’t that why we were here? And then I felt the first real twinge of excursion quirkiness. We checked in with our tickets and were given a neon sticker with the number 39, which was our bus number. I rolled my eyes at my husband. “Here we go ... like cattle.”

We nodded at our friends as we climbed the bus stairs and flipped a mental coin on which side would give us the best views. I had never heard of Skagen, but apparently, it is an easy and favorite docking place on the northern tip of Denmark. Who was I to question its appeal? I had wanted to learn about this cooler part of the world away from the romance countries I had visited often. It’s actually a delightful little fishing village where the Skagen Artists convened every summer to paint plein air in the gardens and at the seashore. They would stay at inns and boarding houses and sit around drinking wine and beer all evening after painting all day. Some summers they would drink their boarding money away and leave paintings as collateral. Thus, lovely little museums were filled and still enjoyed.

We rode an hour to Voergaard Castle, a smallish estate surrounded by the largest moat in Denmark, where the Bishop of Borglum lived with his mistress and caused quite the scandal. Then on to a cafe where we tasted coffees and Danish, which, were told, weren’t really Danish, but Viennese pastry. In 1850 the Danish bakers went on strike and Austrian ones took over. the Danes loved the Viennese pastry and it became so popular the Danish bakers had to learn how to make them. Of course, the French claim the original flaky recipe in the 1600s.

I didn’t care. I loved the whole buttery, gooey mess. And we were serenaded while we ate by one of our bus 39 group – a lovely Mexican girl who was studying opera! To spoil the mood, we were taken to a church that was half buried in sand from the dunes. The loyal parishioners dug their way in every Sunday. We who have seen real dunes in Michigan and Indiana were not terribly impressed.

It was back to the ship for cocktails in the Schooner bar, dinner with our very attentive nightly waiters, Manish and Polvin, and after-dinner Irish coffees in the pub.

And, as I dreamed about that pastry, we sailed to Estonia ...

I must admit I had studied little of Eastern Europe and if you were to put a map in front of me, I could not have labeled the countries correctly. So when we disembarked in Tallinn, Estonia, I was pleasantly surprised by our handsome guide, Erik (Is that shallow?) and a stunning walled city of towers and churches of all denominations. We learned that in spite of its changing foreign rulers, wars, fires and reconstruction, it is one of the best preserved medieval trading towns in all of Europe. It was dominated by Russia for two centuries before World War I and after a brief German occupation, Estonia emerged as an independent state. However, World War II began a 50-year Soviet occupation until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Soon after independence, Estonian visionaries developed aggressive policies, including designating Internet access as a basic human right. Estonia is now a global trendsetter in technology and by 1998 every school was online. Estonians vote and file their taxes online and the software for Skype was invented there, to the delight (or not) of grandparents (and voyeurs) everywhere. We raised our eyebrows when Erik mentioned Estonia’s 25 percent tax rate which provided “free” education, health care and the longest maternity leave in Europe, and there is no denying their happiness with it all.

We ended the afternoon with a stop at a local café in New Town for pastries and coffee, again. Erik continued to count heads, all 28 of us. Heaven forbid he lost any of us in the charming pubs or lovely jewelry gift shops He did let us wander around Old Town a bit, but I could sense his relief when we all climbed, smiling, back onto the bus.

To be continued … in Russia.

Yvonne Ransel lives in Bristol and occasionally writes essays for The Elkhart Truth.

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