Pursuing the path of the Vikings on a tour through Eastern Europe

By Denzil & Jennie Verardo
This article appears on page 20 of the February 2020 issue.

We have had a long-term passion for history and decided to act on it once again by booking a cruise titled “In the Wake of the Vikings,” with who else but Viking Ocean Cruises (Woodland Hills, CA; 866/984-5464, www.vikingcruises.com/oceans)! It sailed a portion of the world we had not experienced and was rich in Norse history.

Beginning in Bergen, Norway, our September 2018 cruise crossed the North Atlantic, stopping in the Shetland Islands; the Faroe Islands; Iceland; Greenland, and the Canadian ports of L’Anse aux Meadows, Saguenay and Québec before concluding in Montréal.

Since the cruise was only two weeks in length, we decided to book a land tour to precede it that included parts of Europe the Vikings had fought or settled in, enabling us to travel to several more countries we had not yet visited.

The land tour was arranged for us by Bestway Tours & Safaris (Burnaby, BC, Canada; 800/663-0844, bestway.com), with whom we had previously traveled. This trip began in Russia and went on to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic (Czechia). It was 17 days in length, and while it was not a history tour per se, it allowed us to experience the vastness of the Viking conquests and trade routes as well as appreciate the landscape and cultures of the people who call these lands home today.

Moscow sites

The Cathedral of the Assumption in Sergiev Posad, Russia.

Our trip began with an Aeroflot flight from Los Angeles to Moscow. After an efficient clearance through Customs and Immigration, we were met by a tour representative for our transfer to the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel for a welcome drink and dinner. The hotel is located near Red Square and was a perfect location for walking around downtown.

Our room looked out on a famous architectural feature of Moscow — one of the Seven Sisters — a Stalinist-era, Gothic-style skyscraper. Lighted at night, it was a spectacular sight.

The tour began the next day at Red Square, which is dominated by St. Basil’s Cathedral and the massive red walls of the Kremlin. We visited the Armoury Chamber, with its exquisite collection of Fabergé eggs, and watched impressive drills and parades presented by the Presidential Regiment on Cathedral Square. (These are held every Saturday and are well worth dealing with the crowds that come to watch.)

We then boarded a tour bus and were driven along the River Moskva (Moscow River), passing the Baroque Novodevichy Convent, the Presidential Palace and other significant sites. The tour felt rushed to us, but that may have been because we had been to Moscow before and had seen these sites at a more leisurely pace over a few days, getting a more in-depth look at this great city.

The next morning, we went by coach to Sergiev Posad, a small town approximately 47 miles northeast of Moscow. Founded in the 14th century, it was the religious capital of Russia and is still a place of pilgrimage.

It is renowned as a center of period art and architecture and is an important religious site, serving as the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church. Within the old walled city are the fairy tale-like blue and golden domes of the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra, one of the most beautiful and important Russian monasteries and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Together with the Cathedral of the Assumption and a 17th-century church honoring the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner, Sergiev Posad affords visitors a vibrant and spiritual experience that should not be missed when visiting Moscow and its environs.

St. Petersburg

Giving up our coach for the day, we took the high-speed train to St. Petersburg, a 4-hour scenic journey across more than 435 miles of Russian landscape. One can only wonder at those intrepid early Viking explorers who ventured out from their homeland across this challenging environment.

While early settlement was sparse in the area, beginning in the 8th century Swedish Vikings led the Scandinavian expansion there and became leaders of the Rus, a multi­ethnic group who traded with the Byzantines and Arabs. The proximity to Scandinavia also enabled the Vikings’ fearsome fleets to repeatedly raid the coastal areas of what is now Northern Europe, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, where our journey would be taking us next.

Every navigable river that we crossed had been a route of plunder, exploration or trade for the Vikings. Looking at the landscape through this historical lens provided a more in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the people now occupying this area.

Over the next three days, our tour took us to St. Petersburg’s Palace Square; Senate Square, with its monument to Peter the Great as well as St. Isaac’s Cathedral; Smolny Cathedral; the Field of Mars; Nevsky Prospekt, and the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Of course, no tour of this city would be complete without a visit to the Winter Palace and its world-famous Hermitage Museum, which contains more than three million works of art. Several years ago, we had visited the Hermitage as part of a cruise on the Volga River, and we were excited to go back.

Much like the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage’s collections are impossible to visit or absorb in a day. Masterpieces by da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, Goya and the French Impressionists made for an almost overwhelming encounter.

Another experience that we really enjoyed was returning to ChaCha (chacha.spb.ru), a Georgian restaurant near the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, just off Nevsky Prospekt. Their food and wine were still delicious, and we were treated like old friends — a perfect way to celebrate our 47th wedding anniversary!

Estonia and Latvia

A view of Tallinn, the capial of Estonia.

Bestway Tours had tailored the tour to our specific needs, and other travelers were able to join or leave the tour after specific segments were completed. We added several new travelers in St. Petersburg before journeying by coach to Estonia.

Stopping at Immigration at the Russian border, we were fortunate that the crossing was uneventful, as often, the Russian border authorities require vehicles to be unloaded and luggage checked. The drive took most of the day, but it was enjoyable.

Upon arriving in Estonia’s capital of Tallinn, we checked into the Sokos Hotel Viru, which was spartan but centrally located for easy walking around the city.

Tallinn’s Old Town is a UNESCO Site and deservedly so. Walking along the streets was like stepping back into the 14th century. And we didn’t pass up the opportunity to sample the wares inside the Kalev Chocolate Shop, established in 1806.

That afternoon we boarded our coach and drove to Riga, the capital of Latvia. No passports were needed between the two countries, since both are in the Schengen Area.

Riga is the largest capital in the Baltic States and is a very attractive city. The medieval streets of the Old Town, a World Heritage Site, are almost storybook. Riga also has one of the finest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe.

One of the many beautiful Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, Latvia.

Our guided sightseeing in Riga began with a coach tour for an overview of the city, but Riga is a city best seen while walking — and walk we did! Spanning the 13th to 18th centuries, the churches, Presidential Palace, Powder Tower, Great Guild Hall, Cathedral Square and House of the Blackheads were inspiring and represented the medieval and Renaissance delight that is old Riga.

While there were many places to choose from for lunch, most were tourist venues offering hamburgers or pizzas. We wanted Latvian food, and it was a bit ironic that there were comparatively few restaurants in the Old Town where we could get it.

We finally found Domini Canes (dominicanes.lv), a restaurant with a nice, upscale menu using local ingredients. It was located on the main square of old Riga and had outside dining available.

Appetizers consisted of oven-grilled chestnuts and green beans in a tomato sauce; a salad of greens with grilled shrimp, and scallops in “mashed swede” (rutabaga puree). Our main courses were halibut with five beans in a cream sauce and pork with mashed swede and spices. (Dishes average 7-15, or $8-$17, each.) Accompanied by a glass of wine, the meal was outstanding and the ambience, memorable.


After breakfast the next day, we left Latvia on our way to Lithuania. We drove by coach through the countryside, with a stop to cross

the border and another at Sˇiauliai’s Hill of Crosses, containing more than 100,000 crucifixes and religious items placed in remembrance of loved ones. Situated on a hill surrounded by grassland, it was very impressive and touching.

In the early afternoon we arrived in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and checked into the Radisson Blu Royal Astorija Hotel, an impressive property in the center of the city. Dinner was at the hotel, and we must say that the included meals on this tour were good but not great. While claiming to be authentic, they were hotel fare — more like a buffet than what you’d get in a local restaurant.

In a new country, we always try to eat some of our meals at locally recommended restaurants to enhance our culinary and cultural experiences. The temptation to not miss included meals is always there, but we would have had fewer enriching culinary experiences had we done that.

After a coach tour the next morning, we walked through the Old Town area of Vilnius, another World Heritage Site. The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, with its spectacular boat chandelier; the Vilnius Castle Complex; Vilnius Cathedral; the Presidential Palace, and Vilnius University were all included in our walking tour.

Care had to be taken while walking, since many of the streets were cobblestone and brick and could be uneven.

Our local guides in all three Baltic States were good at allowing time for the group members to wander while keeping to a schedule, and all were knowledgeable about the sites we were visiting.

For readers who may be planning to visit Lithuania, don’t miss the herring with onions and tomatoes or the Lithuanian catfish. Ah, the joy of local fare!


The Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument was erected in 1948.

The drive to Warsaw, Poland, the next day took eight hours, including a stop for lunch before crossing the border. The countryside was quite lovely, with green, grassy fields and rows of corn.

We crossed the Vistula, Poland’s largest river, once a major point of access for the Vikings into what today is Eastern Europe. Because the drive was rural, it was easy to get a feeling for those early Viking incursions.

Our coach tour of Warsaw began the next day with a stop at the Frédéric Chopin Monument, an impressive sculpture in Royal Baths Park. Both the monument and the beautiful grounds of the park were well worth the stop.

Next was the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which sits on the site of the former Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw. Its impressive modern architecture belied the tragic history that was presented inside.

This is a “must stop” when visiting Warsaw. It’s not fun or enjoyable, but it is enlightening and enriching.

Our walking tour of Warsaw’s Old Town was fun. We walked Castle Square and into the courtyard of the 17th-century Royal Castle itself.

Most of the architectural features have been reconstructed because all of Warsaw was demolished by the Germans after an uprising by the local inhabitants during WWII. The Nazis made an example of the city through the total destruction of its buildings and the annihilation of much of its population.

Saint John’s Cathedral, the reconstructed 14th-century mother church of the archdiocese of Warsaw, with its beautiful stained-glass windows; the Old Town Market Square and the “Warsaw Mermaid” sculpture at its center; the imposing Barbican, constructed in the 16th century to protect the city (though it was no match for evolving artillery), and the statuary looking down on Old Town Square from the building rooftops rounded the sights in wonderful Old Town Warsaw.

Of course, what would a visit to Warsaw be without sampling a lunch of Polish pierogis with local beer on the Old Town Square?!

Off to Kraków tomorrow.

To Kraków

“Grandma’s Kitchen” in Kraków was difficult to find, but the food was worth the trouble!

Late August was a perfect time for travel in Eastern Europe, as the weather was warm, with cool evenings, and the rain, minimal. Our first stop along the way to Kraków was Częstochowa and the Jasna Góra Monastery. This site is known for its Black Madonna painting, but the entire monastery was beautiful.

Next were visits to the haunting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camps. Since most ITN subscribers know well the horrors of these camps and the more than one million Jews executed there, suffice it to say that a personal visit to view the actual confines and the exhibits depicting the indescribable cruelty that occurred during the Nazi occupation was sobering.

After our visit, we entered Kraków and checked into the Mercure Stare Miasto, where we were offered a free cell phone for use while we were there. (We’d received the same at our Mercure hotel in Warsaw.)

After breakfast the next day, we began with a guided tour of the Jewish Quarter, walking the main sections of the district, which also included a portion of Kraków’s original medieval city wall. On the main square was the synagogue where Steven Spielberg spent time formulating scenes for his movie “Schindler’s List,” which we highly recommend viewing for those planning a trip to Poland.

Lunch was on our own, and we had a recommendation from one of our guides for a restaurant he enjoys when he is in Kraków. The Kuchnia Staropolska U Babci Maliny (Grandma’s Kitchen) was difficult to find, even though it was not far from the Old Market Square. Located down a covered alley, across a small courtyard and within a wooden building, our only clue to the exact location was a carving of an old grandmother on a wooden signboard outside the front door that we had been told to look for. We would have never found it without detailed directions.

It is a “cash only” restaurant, so it was back out to the square for an ATM!

The old wooden entrance reminded us of photos of American speakeasies. Once inside, we could see that the diners were all locals. Fortunately, they did have one menu in English, and we were rewarded with an outstanding Polish lunch with beer. (Dishes average 18-30 zlote, or $5-$8.)

Later, we took a tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine. At over 700 years old, it was one of the oldest and largest working salt mines in Europe until it stopped production in 2007.

The tour required quite a bit of walking, but the displays, magnificent sculptures and a chapel that can hold 400 people — all carved out of salt — provided a remarkable experience.

The next morning we were off to Prague, Czech Republic.


Our drive from Kraków to Prague took all day. We arrived in time to check in at the Angelo by Vienna House, which was quite nice, and change for our included dinner at the Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa’s Aquarius Restaurant, a Michelin-recommended restaurant close to the American Embassy. Rather than local, the food was Italian, but it lived up to its reputation.

The next day, our tour took us to the Royal Palace, Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral, which dominates the city’s landscape. The view down from the castle was nothing short of spectacular, as it overlooked the city below.

Prague’s Old Town Square was much like those in the three Baltic capitals we had visited, the main difference being the large crowds in Prague versus the relatively sparse number of people in a capital such as Riga.

For a lunch on our own, we picked the White Horse Prague (Staroměstské náměstí 20), both for its menu of local fare and for its ambience. The indoor dining was located downstairs in an elegant 12th-century wine cellar, which was quite fun. The food and beer were excellent.

Our meal, consisting of salads, one salmon entrée and one pork and a shared bottle of wine, cost about $80.

After lunch, we walked back out into the square and tried a local dessert, trdelnik, pastry dough wrapped around a tube and baked on the spot over hot coals; this one was filled with ice cream. (Try it!)

The Verardos’ journey continues next month as they board their Viking Ocean Cruises ship.