Asur­prise voy­age back to the Nordic con­ti­nent was truly re­fresh­ing and ex­cit­ing. Af­ter the swel­ter­ing sul­try trop­i­cal months, it was worth the long flight to a cooler, in­vig­o­rat­ing cli­mate. The tem­per­a­ture lev­els ranged from 120C on cool clear nights to 260C with glo­ri­ous sunny days.

A few years ago, a sim­i­lar voy­age had been cloudy, rainy and cold dur­ing the same month. There were only a few days of sun­shine. One could not go to some of old towns be­cause of the heavy rains.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, the sun would peek through the clouds and the land­scape would light up like an en­chanted tableau.

It was al­most sur­real, re­turn­ing to the same places but be­ing able to see the other cities and ex­pe­ri­ence them — this time in per­fect sum­mer weather.

Each city has main­tained her dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tics — lan­guage, cui­sine, peo­ple, and zon­ing. But there are on­go­ing con­struc­tion and restora­tion work in some ar­eas. The me­dieval towns have re­mained frozen in time bub­ble — well-pre­served and pro­tected.

In Copen­hagen, the royal botan­i­cal gar­dens, parks, and side­walks were abloom with thou­sands of flow­ers, trees and shrubs. The mer­maid on the rock is al­ways the star at­trac­tion. The Tivoli gar­dens at night are en­chant­ing. The rock and rap con­cert drew thou­sands of young, gor­geous blonde fans. The Dan­ish Royal Bal­let per­forms there in au­tumn.

Bi­cy­cles were used ev­ery­where. Some bik­ers had rolling prams that could carry four tod­dlers. The cars, buses, and taxis were strictly lim­ited and reg­u­lated. It felt safe to walk and to breathe clean air. How­ever, the dif­fer­ence was the pres­ence of some wan­der­ing, di­sheveled gypsies pok­ing through the bins.

An im­por­tant des­ti­na­tion was his­toric Ber­lin with the Wall, Check­point Char­lie, the mon­u­ments and mu­se­ums. Fi­nally, there was the long- awaited visit to the Bran­den­burg gate and the fa­mous wall that di­vided the city and fam­i­lies. There is a sec­tion where well known artists have painted on the eastern side sur­face. It is street art at its finest. This city is spe­cial be­cause of the gra­cious hos­pi­tal­ity of Ber­liner friends.

The pic­turesque Tallinn is a Her­itage site. Its cob­bled stone streets and pas­tel col­ored build­ings have col­or­ful and unique doors, win­dow ledges that hold red blooms. The cobalt blue sky has streaks of white and sil­ver — air­planes that criss­cross above. The quiet tran­quil­ity clears the mind.

Fi­nally, one sees the fa­bled city of St. Peters­burg, the cul­tural cen­ter and home of the tsars on the Baltic. This en­core trip was truly serendip­i­tous.

One has the chance to re­trace the steps to mag­nif­i­cent palaces and see the mir­rored ball­rooms with chan­de­liers, the am­ber wall

pan­els, the frag­ile porce­lain col­lec­tions and del­i­cate fur­ni­ture, paint­ings, ta­pes­tries, an­tique desks and clocks.

The best ar­chi­tects de­signed the struc­tured, sym­met­ri­cal French gar­dens rem­i­nis­cent of Ver­sailles. The spec­tac­u­lar foun­tains have golden sculp­tures. The wa­ter flows from the moun­tains and these are run by grav­ity, just like the Ro­man foun­tains.

The an­cient for­est is filled tow­er­ing pine trees, ev­er­greens. There were bril­liant tulips, roses, irises and flow­ers and birds. In sum­mer, the tsars lived in the small royal vil­las over­look­ing the Baltic.

The ri­val of the Lou­vre in Paris is the Her­mitage. It is prob­a­bly the largest mu­seum in the world. The five in­ter­con­nect­ing palaces con­tain hun­dreds of thou­sands of art­works. If one could spend a minute ad­mir­ing each paint­ing and sculp­ture, it would take about seven years to ac­com­plish. Only a small frac­tion of the col­lec­tions can be dis­played.

A new blitzkrieg 5-hour tour of the mas­ter­pieces of the Re­nais­sance and the Im­pres­sion­ists, the Fau­vists, Cu­bists was even more im­pres­sive. The Im­pres­sion­ists are housed in a sep­a­rate palace with mod­ern light­ing and walk­ways. Cather­ine the Great (orig­i­nally a Ger­man princess mar­ried to the ill-fated Peter II) had started the vast col­lec­tion cen­turies ago. One can only have a quick glimpse of the cul­tural trea­sures that go back to an­cient Egypt.

The Or­tho­dox basil­i­cas with golden domes and in­tri­cate mo­saic art­works. The ex­quis­ite painted icons of gold on wood, the or­nate al­tars, golden chal­ices and del­i­cate stained-glass win­dows are in­de­scrib­ably stun­ning. It was awe­some to watch Swan

Lake by the Kirov Bal­let. A live orches­tra played Tchaikovsky’s mu­sic. The ex­pe­ri­ence was breath­tak­ing. Odette/Odile and the Prince were out­stand­ing grace­ful per­form­ers. The corps du bal­let flut­tered their arms like swan wings. They danced with near per­fect pre­ci­sion and dis­ci­pline. The for­mer min­i­mal­ist set of shim­mer­ing shades of blue has been up­dated to a more elab­o­rate back­drop with a video for spe­cial ef­fects. There are no su­per­stars. All the lead and al­ter­nate lead dancers were ex­cel­lent. There were three new dancers from Asia who blended well in the en­sem­ble.

At mid­night, the sun sets, and the blue sky turns to sil­ver in­digo. In June, the leg­endary “white nights” grow longer. It is a pro­longed twi­light. Then the sun rises at four o’clock. Peo­ple are happy be­cause they rarely have sun­light dur­ing the win­ter months.

The skies were ablaze with fire­works to cel­e­brate the 315th birth­day of St. Peters­burg founded by Peter the Great. The city is called the “Venice of the North” be­cause of its nu­mer­ous is­lands and draw­bridges. There are mo­tor­ized boats that take peo­ple around. One has a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive see­ing the city ar­chi­tec­ture from the wa­ter.

It takes time for the mind to store and digest all the over­whelm­ing images. Soon the imag­i­na­tion will trans­form the mag­i­cal mo­ments — fiery sun­sets, seas­capes and skies — into new dream­scapes.

MARIA VIC­TO­RIA RUFINO is an artist, writer and busi­ness­woman. She is pres­i­dent and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of Mav­er­ick Pro­duc­tions. mavrufino @gmail.com

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