(The following is a guest article by noted journalist and travel writer Si Liberman)
By Si Liberman
Lithuania had long been on my bucket list.
It’s where my mother was born and from where she emigrated to the U.S. well before World War II, leaving behind a sister with three children and a brother, all of whom perished in the Holocaust along with about 190,000 other Lithuanian Jews.
Visiting the small independent nation of 3 million residents plus seven other countries, including Russia, is what sold us on a 10-day luxury Oceania Nautica Baltic Sea cruise.
My wife, Dorothy, and I boarded the sleek, white 684-passenger vessel in Copenhagen, Denmark, on a blustery late August day. Three days later we were in Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city.
Quite a revelation -- not at all like the struggling, impoverished country I had envisioned.
A quiet old town with cobblestone streets and chock-abloc, box-like structures dating back to the days of German and Russian occupations coexists with a seemingly thriving new area of ultra modern buildings, lots of greenery and clean asphalt roads.
The port city of 170,000 is a short drive to Palanga, one of the Baltic area’s most popular seashore resorts and an hour or so away from what was a Cold War deep dark secret -- Russia’s first underground nuclear missile launching site.
The nuclear missile launching area is now a major Lithuania tourist attraction, and $105 bought a five-hour Oceania Nautica guided tour of the historic, forested park site in a village called Plokstine.
The Soviet nuclear weapons base became operational in the early ‘60s. For at least 15 years, we learned, its 40 ton missiles hidden under four silos targeted major European cities.
The R-12U missiles were more powerful than the one that leveled Hiroshima, and some were deployed in Cuba, touching off the Cuban Missile Crisis.
You enter the silo via a trap door and 90 feet below find yourself in a labyrinth of rooms that served as communications and operations centers, a crew station, rest area and commander’s office. A 1,700-volt electronic security fence had surrounded the area, and its operational/security military force of 300 was secretly ensconced in another town. Looking around and inside the former nuclear arsenal one can’t help thinking “what if. . .”
No missile was launched from the area, and Russia shut down and abandoned the site in 1979 in compliance with the SALT II U.S.-Soviet Union arms reduction treaty.
The area beneath one of the silos was restored two years ago by a European firm and turned into the Cold War museum. Photos, charts, videos and artifacts tell the story with a chilling postscript, noting that today’s nuclear missiles are much more powerful.
In St. Petersburg, the mini cold war over Moscow’s slicing off a section of the Ukraine was a subject Russian guides carefully avoided.
“I don’t know how Russians feel about it and President Putin,” our female guide insisted during a tour stop at the famous 231-year-old Mariinsky Theatre. “Everyone has his or her own opinion.’’
Other Nautica passengers said their queries about the tense Ukrainian situation also brought non-committal responses from Russian guides.
At St. Petersburg’s Grand Choral Synagogue, however, Cantor Gregory Yakerson, a 43-year-old city native, said he hopes his country‘s Ukraine involvement “doesn’t mean we’re going back to the Soviet Union days.” He added in fluent English, “Jewish life here now is open and burgeoning.”
The 131-year-old Byzantine/Moorish-style synagogue recently underwent major renovation. In the lobby a placard displays several photographs of Putin posing with congregation officials.
Besides Denmark, Lithuania and Russia, the Nautica also dropped anchor in Warnemundt, Germany; Helsinki, Finland; Riga, Latvia; Tallinn, Estonia, and Stockholm, Sweden. We leisurely took in the sights on our own in most of those cities.
Enlightening, relaxing and luxuriating are how best to describe the Nautica cruise experience.
Our seventh deck concierge stateroom had a balcony, very comfortable kingsize bed with cushy, memory foam padding, sofa, desk, chair, 30-inch flat TV, large closet and a small bathroom.
Having read rave reviews of Nautica meals by previous Oceania passengers, we weren’t disappointed. Dining in the ship’s elegant Polo Club seafood specialty restaurant was a rare gourmet treat. Maine lobster and Dover sole were our entrée choices.
Open seating at meals and Oceania’s policy of no formal nights and a simple casual country club-style dress code were also big pluses. Opting for tables of six to eight at dinner, we made friends with interesting passengers from Australia, Iowa, Oregon, Washington state, California and New York.
A string quartet of four young women and a talented singing/dancing foursome provided nightly entertainment. Most memorable, though, was a very enjoyable, spirited folkloric show staged by a couple dozen Russian soldiers in St. Petersburg and what followed.
The building had no elevator. To reach the third floor music hall you had to climb two flights of steep marble stairs. My wife had bruised her right foot before the cruise and negotiating the steps was painful.
When we were exiting the music hall after the show, a young uniformed soldier, noticing her difficulty and my trying to assist her, gently took her other arm and slowly helped her down those two flights of stairs.
Dorothy couldn’t thank him enough. “You’re my Russian angel,“ she gushed.
The soldier smiled. I think he understood.