It’s Saturday night and party time on the Baltic Sea. The Silja Serenade is packed with all kinds of people. Families with little children staying in special Moomin Family cabins, teenagers ready to party in the disco, locals on their way to tax free shopping and tourists who want to visit pretty capital cities and have found out that this cruise is a fun way to do so.
For all of them, the Silja Serenade is the place to be. My jaw drops when I embark on the boat and find myself in an in-boat shopping center, complete with boutiques, restaurants and a high skylight ceiling. The thousands of passengers that walk past me seem to know where they want to go in this floating city. They all take elevators to their cabins, while I try to take pictures that can’t do justice to the awesomeness of the place.
Silja Serenade partyboat from Stockholm to Helsinki
The boat leaves Stockholm at five o’clock in the evening, to take us across the sea to Helsinki, Finland, by morning. If you think that this is going to be a long, slow boat ride, think again. There is nonstop entertainment here. It starts with enjoying the late afternoon sunshine in a Jacuzzi on the sun deck. When the amazing views of Swedish houses and coastlines have faded, dinner is served in the form of a buffet which includes all Baltic Sea specialties like salmon, herring, scrimp and caviar, as well as Asian dishes. All relaxed and full, it’s show time in the night club, where a group of African artists treat the crowd to happy music, dancing and acrobatics. All this and it’s not even 8 o’clock!
That’s when ropes are tied in the middle of our floating shopping mall, because it’s time for “The Wheel of Death.” The woman at the information desk who earlier explained the program warned that I shouldn’t miss this event, despite its ominous name. The giant contraption that has been tied up in the middle and passengers assumed was a decorative piece, turns out to be what looks like a giant hamster wheel. Performer Gengis van Gool bounds around the outside and leaps off at will, jumping around for fun and at one point doing so with a black sack pulled over his face. There is no end to the things you can organize on a boat.
While the crowd then disperses to tax free shopping, more dining, drinking and dancing, I call it a night at retreat to the cabin. Because the next morning, I am ready to change ships, and spend the day in Helsinki.
This turns out to be a beautiful city on a misty Sunday morning. The ship is right on time, luggage can be stored in the terminal and out we go. Helsinki is the biggest city in Finland, but still there are just over a million people. This is a compact city where most sights and attractions are within walking distance and getting around town is easy.
On this Sunday morning the churches are in use for service. The little stalls on the market square in the harbor sell reindeer skin, bear meat and other exotic products from Europe’s most Northern capital.There is everything from art-glass necklaces on leather laces to thick, heavy, colorful, wool-felt boots, side-by-side with beautiful and tempting fruit, sandwiches and sausages.
It’s just all prettiness and serene beauty and easy to understand why this place is always in the top ten of world’s most livable cities. Established by a Swedish king, but never developed until it was taken over by Russia before becoming independent in 1917, the city now has influences of both countries and cultures. This starts with the downtown core, the first thing we see after the market, which was built in neoclassical style to resemble St. Petersburg. But Finnish Art Nouveau also thrived, which is clear at the Helsinki Central railway station. The station is mostly clad in Finnish granite, and its distinguishing features are its clock tower and the two pairs of statues holding the spherical lamps, lit at night-time, on either side of the main entrance.
My walk through the city ends at Temppeliaukio or Rock Church, which architects for some unexplained reason decided to excavate directly into solid rock. Because of its special architecture, the church, completed in 1969, is one of the main attractions in Helsinki. The church hall is covered with a dome, lined with copper and supported on the rock walls by reinforced concrete beams. Before noon, the light spreads from the row of windows surrounding the roof periphery to the altar wall, where an ice-age crevice serves as the altarpiece. I walk back through the center, where shoppers are now swarming all over the many local department stores. Winter is finally over, and sales have started.
Silja Europa from Helsinki to Tallinn
“I used to take this boat all the time, when I worked in Tallinn,” a Finnish passenger tells me on the next boat, this one called the Silja Europa. It’s similar to the Serenade, minus the skylight shopping mall in the middle. It’s also a lot quieter. The distance between Helsinki and Tallinn is only 80 km, and the boat arrives in the harbor already at 10 o’clock at night. However, the passengers can stay in their cabins and sleep, to be refreshed in the morning for another day of sightseeing.
Silja Europa is built in 1993 in Germany and is one of the largest ferries ships in the world when you count the number of cabins and its passenger capacity of over 3000 people. The people in the waiting room before boarding look like a crowd, but are swallowed up on the ship and it doesn’t seem crowded at all. The Finnish passenger, like many others, is here to shop. “I have a party coming up, and the tax free shopping, as well as the shopping centers in Tallinn are great, “ she says, and points out some malls and a street that is known for handicrafts. “Walk around the Old Town. You will see how pretty it is.”
Fairy Tale Tallinn
She is right. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is like a fairy tale town that was frozen in the Middle Ages and never fully thawed. This might be the birthplace of Skype, amongst many other digital innovations, most visitors to the city come for this blast from the past. Tallinn’s extraordinary Old Town was once enclosed by a 2.5km-long stone wall, punctuated by 45 towers. Large sections remain, including 26 of the original towers, which conspire with the steeples and onion domes of various churches to give the whole town this fairy-tale appearance.
We spend the day wandering the Old Town’s cobbled lanes and admiring the medieval streetscapes. In Raekoja plats, the picturesque main square, costumed girls and peasant lads invite the tourists to come sit outside on their terraces, complete with fur blankets and real fire heating elements or find some warmth in the medieval themed taverns.
Instead, I head up to Toompea, the upper part of the Old Town. From here the feudal nobility could literally look down on the traders and people of the town below – a couple of wonderful viewpoints allow me to do the same. The Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) inhabits what remains of Toompea Castle, although most of its remaining fortifications are hidden behind the pretty pink baroque palace built by Russia’s Catherine the Great.
The larger than life black statues of monks in black robes are a favorite with tourists here. A medieval staircase leads up to the old town wall, to a pub selling coffee, hot chocolate, hot wine and a whole array of cakes. Further on through a small passage a second sign promises a cozy fire place, and I end up in a dark watchtower, which has indeed a fire going and candles on small wooden tables. If ever you wanted the feeling of staying in a medieval Inn, you should go here. On the way back the Old Town’s Vene, or Russian street gives way to some great little passageways and courtyards, filled with excellent handicraft shops.
Victoria I from Talinn to Stockholm
During yet another excellent buffet dinner on board, this time on a ferry called the Victoria I, the dinner place mats show how it is possible to cruise around the Baltic Sea and visit the cities here. While I am about to go back to where I started from four days earlier, I also could have continued and taken boats to Latvia, or to the Swedish place of Visby in Gotland, which has a PippiLongstockingthemepark. It is also possible to book overnight stays in the cities as part of the trip.
The company that is operating these ships, TallinkSilja, certainly developed the ferry boat, which has been around for a long time in these waters, to that of luxury, fun ships that serve more than just people who want to cross the sea. They managed to make the ferries into shopping opportunities for the locals and cruise lines for international tourists. Since there are daily departures, you can hop from city to city, like I have done. Or you can take a longer cruise on the Baltic, enjoy the sea and scenery and follow the routes.
On the final voyage, there is an excellent Cuban band and dancers, who try to teach some enthusiastic passengers to dance the salsa. The dancing can be watched live at the nightclub, or on the TV in the cabin. Another channel shows what a camera at the front of the boat picks up. Wide open sea during the evening, and in the morning, we are back in the idyllic Swedish landscape along the coast, a series of islands that form an archipelago surrounding the city of Stockholm. Yes, it is faster to fly from one country to the next, but then you will miss all the great views from the sea and certainly all the fun on the ships.
The Baltic-Scandinavian Roundtrip Cruise goes from Riga-Stockholm-Helsinki-Tallinn or vice versa during 7 days. Short cruises include Stockholm-Helsinki, Stockholm-Turku, Helsinki-Tallinn, Stockholm-Tallinn and Stockholm-Riga. There are also short day cruises to Aland Island from both Stockholm and Turku. In the summer 2017 TallinkSilja offers special cruises to Visby in Gotland.