The Baltic: Many ports — and a storm

Despite a wind-affected schedule and tales of Nazi horrors, David Smith is left feeling lifted on a Baltic cruise.

If you want to get a good idea of how well a cruise is going, head to the elevators.

After a few days the conversations overheard as passengers travel between decks will give you at least a hint of the mood on board.

A couple more days of eavesdropping, or prompting the discussion, and you will have a good impression of whether cruisegoers are happy with their experiences on the ship and at the ports of call.

The feedback I gathered in the confines of Celebrity Silhouette’s elevators after the first half of our 14-day Baltic cruise was all favourable.

Passengers were enjoying the port stops and were positive about the ship, its crew and their dining experiences. It would have been particularly pleasing for Celebrity that their investment in lifting the quality of shows was being noticed. There was no clear favourite among the ports, some loving all that the big cities of Copenhagen and Stockholm had to offer and others preferring the quieter charm of Bruges and Tallinn.

Estonia’s capital, was a surprising gem. We did a free walking tour there (it was an easy 10-minute walk from the port to the old town) and loved hearing about the country’s colourful history as we meandered through. The huge Russian Orthodox Church was a highlight.

Our next stop was to be the much-anticipated St Petersburg, considered the jewel of the Baltic, and the cruise had an overnight stay scheduled.

Unfortunately Mother Nature intervened. Cue the next hot topic of conversation in the lifts. High winds meant our ship was unable to get through the channel into the St Petersburg port. The captain made several attempts over two days but unfortunately they had to be aborted — safety was the first priority.

The lift talk had us grinning … some passengers obviously thought they could have got the ship in if they were at the helm, and others suggested there was a Russian conspiracy to keep us out.

I was satisifed with the Master’s explanation. Silhouette has a beam of 40m and the channel is 100m wide. In high winds — the gusts were over 50 knots across the channel while we were trying to get through — a large ship needs to turn into the wind. This means the ship effectively becomes wider, too wide to make safe passage possible in our case … especially when noting that the sides of these waterways are invariably silted up.
Passengers I encountered were at first surprisingly accepting of the situation and, though like ourselves were bitterly disappointed, most spared a thought for the crew who were forced to work extra hours and make all sorts of last-minute adjustments to accommodate what became extra sea days with all on board.

The crew on Silhouette were excellent and, considering the contingencies that had to be adopted, the standard maintained in the restaurants was a credit to the staff.

However, this was definitely a cruise of two halves. The first half went without a hitch, but to lose the two featured port days of the second half and end up with five sea days was always going to dampen overall appraisals.

It was a relief to all on board that we arrived at the final port stop of Warnemunde on a beautiful day, the small German town pretty as a postcard at our doorstep.

It would have been tempting to stay for the day but we had booked a long day trip to see a concentration camp and Berlin. The Sachsenhausen/Berlin excursion meant lengthy bus hauls (about three hours each way) but was well worth it.

Our guide, Jens, was knowledgeable and had a passion for conveying not only facts, but the story behind how these camps came into existence and how they became an integral part of the Nazi strategy to cement power.

He let the first fact sink in. Sachsenhausen opened as a working camp in 1936, three years before World War II started. I had always thought of the concentration camps as all being built after the war started to house Jews and those who opposed the Nazis. In fact, the three major camps in Germany, including Sachsenhausen, began as camps for criminals and the homeless. Then the Nazis began to use them as their big stick … or like the headmaster’s cane hanging on the door.

“If you don’t go along with the regime you will end up at Dachau or Sachsenhausen,” people would be warned.

It worked. The Nazis, who had gained power as the biggest party, had been opposed by the majority of the population until the SS-run camps became the destination for those who questioned the leadership. Later, Jews and other ethnic and religious groups were sent to the camps.

Once the war began, prisoners of war, many of them Russians, were also sent.

Jens then made another point that he returned to repeatedly through the tour. “These were not aliens doing this. These were our parents, grandparents doing this to fellow Germans.”

Jens went through the bigger picture and smaller stories of the camp.

It was used by the SS as a training base for young recruits, who would work as guards and henchmen. The camp gave them the opportunity to become hardened to torture and killing.

When the camp started it offered bearable conditions, with shelter, meals and a small wage for the working inmates … some of whom volunteered and paid their own way to go there. The front entrance was an impressive facade with well-kept gardens out front.

By the time the war started, conditions were sickening, with overcrowding, disease and the continual threat of torture or death. In 1942, the camp added an extermination component — a gas chamber and ovens — as the Nazis, now losing the war, tried to kill as many Jews as possible.



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