Historically a crossroads between Europe and Asia, and later influenced by the West and the Soviet Union, the Baltics offer a marvelous mosaic of architecture, art and history for travelers on Baltic cruises.
The region’s stunning architecture includes Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Classical examples. Lubeck, Germany, known as the City of Seven Spires, greets travelers with a dream-like maze of churches, alleyways and courtyards. Denmark’s islands of Christiansø and Bornholm showcase churches and castles, including Hammershus Castle—the largest in Northern Europe, built in 1260. A visit to Tallinn, Estonia, reveals a spiky skyline of orange-topped castle towers and pastel-colored houses that seems right out of a fairy tale. Other architectural marvels include St. Mary’s Church in Gdansk, Poland—the world’s largest brick church—as well as St. Peter’s Church and the Jugendstil buildings in Riga, Latvia.
To get from the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, your ship will cruise through Kiel Canal, a 61-mile architectural feat that took eight years to build and is now one of the busiest human-made waterways in the world.
The Baltics also offers natural wonders, like the shifting sand dunes of Germany’s fragile Sylt Island. Although the fourth largest German island, Sylt is little more than a strip of sand and may one day be reclaimed by the sea. Visitors come to enjoy the sunshine, seawater and pure air that are reputed to have healing effects. The Baltic region also has one of the world’s largest deposits of amber. Learn about this unique natural resource at the Palanga Amber Museum in Klaipeda, Lithuania.
The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the world’s great art destinations. Housed in Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace, the Hermitage includes over 2.7 million works of art from throughout history and the world. This gem is just one of the wonders of St. Petersburg (and one of more than 200 museums). You’ll also be enthralled by the massive columns of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the scenic Neva River, the architecture along the Nevsky Prospect and more—in one of the most beautiful cities and most important cultural centers of Europe.
The best time to visit this extraordinary region is between April and October. Visit in June to participate in the magical St. John’s Night festival during the area’s “white nights.” One of the largest festivals takes place in Stockholm, Sweden, a “floating” city built on 14 islands.
The Baltic region has for centuries been of great commercial importance to Europe—bringing people, languages and goods through overland and sea trade routes between Asia and Europe. And for nearly as long, this strategic location has been the site of seemingly endless territorial disputes. The city of Tartu, Estonia, for example, has been sacked and burned to the ground 65 times since its founding in 1030. At one time or another, the Danes, Swedes, Poles, Germans and Russians have dominated the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Amazingly, these three countries have managed to keep their languages and cultures intact despite the onslaught of foreign influence.
The history of trade in the Baltic States reaches as far back as the years 200 – 500, considered the Golden Age, when the Baltic tribes developed a trading empire throughout all of northeastern Europe. Foreign influence began to take hold when German merchants founded the city of Riga, Latvia, in 1158 and then went on to found Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), and Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia). By the early 13th century Germans nearly had a monopoly on trade in the Baltic Sea.
Around the year 1300, German merchants banded together to form the Hanseatic League, a trading group united to protect ships from pirates, build light houses, and train captains. The Hanseatic League dominated Northern Europe until the 15th century by using its influence to win commercial privileges and monopolies. The league was eventually dissolved as more powerful nations began to emerge in Europe.
Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Lithuania flourished as a powerful empire spanning from the Black Sea to Moscow. In 1629, Sweden took control of Latvia and Estonia. By 1721, the Baltic region was part of the Russian empire and remained such until the early 20th century. Around 1918, the Baltic States each enjoyed a brief period of independence before being absorbed by the USSR in a secret agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.
In 1938, Hitler demanded that the city of Gdansk, Poland, be given to Germany. Poland’s refusal to do so lead to Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939 and is regarded as the spark that lit the powder keg of World War II. Gdansk would later play an important role on the world stage in the 1980s as the birthplace of the Solidarity labor movement.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic States found themselves in unfamiliar territory—they finally had the ability to independently govern themselves. Centuries of turmoil have left this region battered, but rich in historic and cultural treasures and a renewed sense of identity. Efforts to maintain the unique languages and cultures of each country and restore many of the historical buildings that were damaged in conflicts have met with success and are ongoing.
Today, the brackish waters of the Baltic Sea—with about half the salinity of the Atlantic Ocean—are the site of scientific research, including projects to create policies that will balance the area’s vital shipping economy with environmental preservation. The local economies also sustain themselves with agriculture, fishing, oil shale mining, machine building and metal fabrication. The region is recently gaining popularity among tourists who are more frequently choosing a Baltic cruise, Northern Europe cruise or Scandinavia cruise over some of the more traditional cruise circuits in Europe.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER