Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Spectacular St Petersburg

We have had a wonderful visit to St Petersburg visiting most of the key sights in the city.

One highlight is the magnificent St Isaac's Cathredral. We marvelled at its grandeur. The Kazan Cathredral was beautiful and we heard choral singing resonating through the whole place. We walked up next to Catherine's Canal to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood where Alexander 11 was assassinated. We were fascinated by the multi coloured onion domes on the roof and its mosaic interior.

St Pete's is a magical place for art lovers. We spent the entire day yesterday at the Hermitage Museum. It incorporates the Winter Palace and is arguably the best art collection in the world. On Monday we visited the State (art ) Museum with its extensive collection.

We have been to many wonderful places but a few were not up to expectation including the Marble Palace with its 36 different coloured marble. Many of the floors are covered over and some of the marble walls are painted.

We visited the famous Summer Gardens. This will close next year for refurbishment. It needs it.

We spent 2 days beyond St P., the first at Peterhof built by Peter the Great. We went by boat around the Gulf of Finland 29 km to the west. This is known as the Russian Versailles. We loved the Grand palace which contrasted with the much more modest Mon Plaisir, his first abode. The gardens and fountains were amazing. The following we visited the palaces around Pushkin. Catherine's Palace and Park were magnificent including one room lined entirely with amber. This contrasted with Alexdander palace, home of the last Tsar and his family. It was a real family home.

We leave in a few hours on the train for Moscow.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Need to Go?

Walking back over the Neva River in St Petersburg, we passed a bank of toilets. These are set up at various places round the city for which you must pay for the privilege to use them. They were overflowing, ripe and not the place you would visit even if they paid you.

With our family fixation on toilets, I thought you might like this report on a toilet in Turku, the beautiful old city in Finland.

The pub - restaurant Puntorin Vessa, is located in a building that served as a public convenience for over 50 years.

It is tastefully decorated including a collection of potties and an imaginative artwork by Eila Puumalainen, with a theme on this most basic human need. The menu also has a special focus on toilet humour. Not much different to dinner at Conjola!

Report from Russia

Since we arrived in St Petersburg on Wednesday afternoon, we have not stopped exploring this wonderful city. Our apartment is right in the centre of the city on Nevsky Prospect so we are close to everything.

We have admired the huge bronze statue of Catherine the Great - with her statesmen and lovers at her feet, explored the baroque Stoganov Palace and there was no beef in sight and examined the gilt windvane on the top of the steeple on the Admiralty Building. This ship shaped vane is a symbol of St Petersburg.

Yesterday afternoon we visited St Peter and Paul Fortress built in 1703 by Peter the Great. In the centre is the stunning cathredral where nearly all the Tsars are interred - including the whole family of the last Tsar only placed here in 1998 after their remains were located. Several other museums were located in the fortress including the History of St Petersburg inside the very large former Commandent's house. Looking for one of the other museums, we accidentally wandered into the office of the Secret Police but were promptly removed. We also visited the Museum of Space Exploration which includes the descent capsule from the joint mission with Apollo in December 1974.

Jeanie rejoins us this afternoon flying up from Prague.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Ecstatic Over Estonia

Tallinn was terrific. We had a wonderful day but started with checking in the car and then rushing for the ferry. Ferries to Tallinn take between on and a half hours and three and a half hours. We went on the superfast one and was it a rough ride! It was drizzling rain and windy and the waves were up. The jetcat found every pothole.

On arrival in Tallinn the sun was out. We walked up to the old town and spent the day looking at the castle, the city walls, churches and cathredrals, and souvenir shops and antique dealers.

The highlights included the city hall dating from the 14th century, the Raeapteek - the old pharmacy operating in the same spot since 1422; the Kick in de Kok (no rude comments please - it was an interesting and challenging place to visit); several of the churches and the city walls and gate. It wasn't just one or two interesting things. It was the total picture of a beautiful old city wthout a McDonalds in sight.

We returned on a much calmer sea and are almost finished packing as we catch the early train to St Petersburg in the morning.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Back to Helsinki

With our final day in the car, we continued back to Helsinki. Before leaving Vaasa, we drove over to an adjoining island where Tropiclandia (a water park) and Wasalandia (a scaled down Disneyland) are located.

We stopped off at Rauma on the west coast and walked around the old town which has 400 to 600 timber buildings that date from the 1600s. Many are now full of tourist souvenirs but regrettably our bags are fully laden.

Turku, Finland's second and oldest city was our next stop. We walked the waterfront, strolled the market and possibly set a record by visiting 6 churches in the one town. The castle was huge and took ages to walk around the many corridors and up and down the stairs. It was not nearly as impressive as many others that we have seen as the restoration was too "perfect".

Finally back to Helsinki and managed to find our hotel. The car is parked outside the nearby car rental outlet as we have to finalise this first thing in the morning before we head off to Tallinn.

Drive into Finland, Slice into Sweden

We headed south after our visit to Santa with a detour on the way to Tornio. It is located at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia, a northern extension of the Baltic Sea. The town sits on the border with Sweden and we drove across to its twin town of Haparanda. The 2 items of interest are the church that looks like a grain silo and the golf course. In the normal course of a round, you cross the border 4 times, but with a few slices or hooks, you could easily add an extra border crossing or two.

Other stops included Oulu with its interesting old timber buildings around the harbour and Pietarsaari with more old buildings dating from the Swedish period. We stayed overnight at Vaasa where we had an interesting time checking into our hotel.

To save on labour costs, lots of things in Finland operate without a person in sight. Many petrol stations are fully automated. You put in a credit card or bank note, indicate your bowser and pump away - then drive off. The hotel was without reception. We booked in on a touch screen, paid on line, were given a room number and a door code with not a human in sight. When we walked into our room, the tv screen had a personalised message to welcome us. Any contact was via the screen - order up a security guard or report a faulty toilet. Fortunately we did not need either service.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

More Things We Won't Be Doing in Finland

As we walked back to the hotel from dinner, several sights reminded us of some more things we won't be doing in Finland. These are all Finnish activities.
  • Eating at the world's most northern McDonalds . The Rovaniemi McDonalds has this dubious honour. Perhaps it should suffer the same fate as Starbucks in Beijing. We are not in a very strong moral position to comment on this as we did eat Chinese tonight. We did consider the stir fried reindeer but just could not quite bring ourselves to it.
  • Playing in the Swamp Soccer World Championship. We will have to admit to watching this on Finnish tv and we will certainly not be competing. The only "sport" that could match it would be the world bog snorkelling championship held in Wales. Bog Man would be a natural for this!
  • Competing in the mobile phone throwing championship. Again I will have to admit that my Finnish Nokia has nearly driven me to it a few times.
  • Enter the world championship in crowbar walking
  • Suffer the world sauna championship
  • Attend the Festival of Twangy Guitar Music
  • Participate in the Aqua Jogging World Championship
  • Attend the Kurikka Matchmaking Festival
  • and finally visit the Lordi Rockaurant that we saw on our way home tonight.

The Dash to the Pole

We fueled the polar vehicle and took on a full load of provisions as we set off north on the dash to the Pole. Actually it was a sunny day and we were wearing t shirts!

We had several stops for reindeer on the road but a major encounter with the widlife was at Ranua. Yes we went to the zoo. We saw the feeding of the polar and brown bears, saw moose, elk, reindeer, mink, lynx, wolverine and lots more.

We rested the huskies while we had a picnic lunch. We finally selected a base camp, the City Hotel at Rovaniemi. We then made the dash up to the Arctic Circle and Santa's Village. The Arctic Circle is clearly marked and you can go through the same antics as you do at the Meridian of Greenwich.

Yes we had our photo taken with Santa and gave him up to date information on who has been good. We also visited about twenty of the souvenir shops! It was very commercial but after all it was Christmas in July.

The Bog Man Beats the Woolly Mammoth

On our way north, we made a detour to Kerimaki to visit the world's largest wooden church. It was built in 1845 to seat 3,300 people. It was impressive as was the Bell Tower that we climbed. This is the third or fourth wooden church that we have visited over the past few years that claims to be the world's largest. Just where is the world's largest? I guess it depends on your criteria. We think this one was on seating capacity.

We continued to Kuopio, visiting the Museum of Natural History to see the woolly mammoth. It was good...... but not a match for the Bog Man!!! We also visited the market before going to the lakefront. This area was once totally dependent on water transport and this has left a great legacy of lake steamers, now mainly used for sightseeing.

Kajaani was our overnight destination. We stayed at the Karoline Berg Manor House, described in our guide as the most romantic place to stay in northern Finland. Wevisited the castle ruins, an excellent Lutheran church and the tar barge canal and loch system. All impressive and some even romantic.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Finnish Rally Driving

We have our set of wheels and are rallying in the Finnish Lakes District. We actually have a very sedate Honda Jazz automatic and given the number of speed cameras that we have seen, we won't be exceeding the speed limits. We drove along the border with Russia and at one point were only 200 km from St Petersburg.

We picked up the car this morning and headed for the Savo Lakes Region. We drove past beautiful lakes, some covered with water lilies with white and yellow flowers the size of twenty cent coins. We enjoyed a picnic lunch by a lake and managed to avoid the showers.

Savonlinna, the main town in the area, was a hub of activity. It is the height of the Opera Festival season so everything was packed including the hotels. There was not a seat available for the opera tonight - and there were 2,200 seats. We are staying at a hotel in Punkaharju which is about 25 minutes drive from Savonlinna. The hotel is set between a number of beautiful lakes but it is rather ordinary and expensive! At least it has a 25 metre heated swimming pool, a spa and a sauna.

We enjoyed looking at the Olavinlinna Castle, reputed to be the best mediaeval castle in Scandinavia. It is excellent and marked the eastern edge of Sweden and the border with Russia when it was built in 1425. At the moment, it is the setting for the Opera Festival.

We also visited the museum, including a few ships that once plied the lakes. We were able to go aboard and inspect them. The lakeside is packed with old steam ships and market stalls. Savonlinna is a picturesque but touristy spot.

We head for Koupio in the morning.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Day on Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

We spent today visiting this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage listed site. It is especially fascinating as it has been a fortress for Sweden, Russia and Finland at various times.

We went by ferry for the 20 minute trip to the island just off Helsinki. When we arrived, we visited the Suomenlinna Museum. By the time we left, we almost had the picture of who was fighting who over the last 300 years.

We visited the fortifications, tunnels, terraces etc. We also saw the old dry dock dating from the 1700s. We also saw possibly the only building in the world that combines a church and a lighthouse. It started life as a Russian Orthodox church and later the Lutherans converted it by pulling off the onion domes. I do not know who added the lighthouse.

On our return, we listened to a jazz concert in a park and visited the Ateneumin Art Museum. Yesterday we visited the Orthodox and Lutheran cathredrals with their contrasting architecture, the market square and the old market hall - Helsinki's answer to Harrod's Food Hall as well as lots of parks and squares with unusual outdoor sculptures.

Things We Don't Plan to Do in Finland

  • Attend a Lordi concert. Finland is the home of this heavy metal band that won Eurovision last year with an act featuring meat and exploding dolls as stage props.
  • Visit Sonkajarvi for the Wife Carrying World Championships. This is conducted over a 253 metre course with obstacles and a 15 second penalty if you drop your wife. First prize is your wife's weight in beer.
  • Visit Oulu for the Air Guitar World Championships.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

To Sleep or Party?

We made a last minute booking on a super ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. We boarded for our overnight trip without a cabin being available. Should we try to sleep or should we party?

We selected a quiet bank of chairs around a table at the very back of the ship. The sun was bright and sparkling on the water. We spent hours watching an almost endless string of islands. We dozed in the sun. It was still bright and we were wearing our sunglasses at 10.30 pm.

We enjoyed drinks from the bar and later adjourned to dine. The ship was obviously packed and so were the restaurants. We settled for a tapas bar with interesting snacks and good wine. (It could not have been Spanish).

Near where we were sitting was a stage. Early in the afternoon we glided on silver seas past islands scattered like pearls in the sea. We dozed. Then suddenly the children's entertainment began. We no longer dozed. We endured for an hour.

After dinner just as we were thinking of dozing off, the karioke began. If you are at a pub, you can always walk out the door. What do you do on a ferry? Actually they were of a good standard even if there were a lot of Tom Jones soundalikes.

After dinner just as we were leaving the last of the Swedish islands behind, they opened an extra bar. Sleep was looking less of an option. The professional performers hit the stage. We found ourselves applauding as we sat in the evening sun, still wearing our sunglasses. Just as well there were a few good jazz numbers. We fitted into the scene.

Just as the pink horizon showed the last traces of light and the reflections of the night club were lighting up the ocean behind us, the magician came on the stage. He lacked the necessary magic for a top act.

We arrived at the Aland Islands and stopped at Mariehamn. We were in Finland and our watches went forward one hour. Now it was really night club hours but there were still no cabins available.

The drinks kept flowing... Lapin Kulta beer with Jagermeister, cocktails and shots. The poker machines rattled, the roulette wheels spun and the blackjack cards were slapped onto the table.

We gave up and searched for somewhere quieter. We found a conference room and crawled amongst about 30 others to take the last two floor spaces. We are too old to be true party animals. Sleep had won.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Royal Party

When visiting Copenhagen, we were a little disappointed that Mary was not there to greet us. After all when we we visited Oslo, Queen Sonia had a birthday to mark our visit.

Mary did leave the key under a flowerpot and we were able to look round the palace. We found the Royal Copenhagen tea set but no scones, jam or cream.

In Stockholm, things were much better. We visited the royal palace on Crown Princess Vistoria's 30th birthday. There was all the pomp and ceremony that you would expect. Cannons firing a royal salute, soldiers marching, bands playing. It was a spectacular occasion.

Later we were able to visit the royal apartments, the guest apartment (we did not stay as we had booked a hotel), the royal crowns and other regalia.

We also visited museums including the spectacular Vasa, a royal warship that was launched in 1628 and sank 20 minutes later. It was raised in 1961 and now is a wonderful museum. We have also walked the narrow streets of the old town and taken in all the sights.

We are off to Helsinki this afternoon and arrive tomorrow as we are travelling by ship. Next posting from Finland.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen

We have just spent a couple of days here and yes it is wonderful. We travelled up the canals by boat and revelled in sights such as Andersen's Little Mermaid, several palaces, a new Opera House right on the harbour (not as good as ours though) and outdoor restaurants with tall ships floating gently on the water in front of them. We arrived in the middle of a jazz festival so when our canal trip finished we listened to some great jazz while Rob tried the local beer and I tried some wine.

Yesterday we visited several museums with amazing sculpture, paintings and artefacts from the ancient world. Today we continued our cultural education by visiting a beautiful marble church, several palaces, the Royal Library (where we are now) and the Museum of Design. Copenhagen is a beautiful city and we are staying in an apartment a few minutes walk from the Little Mermaid. It has been raining but this has not deterred us in our quest to admire, absorb and delight in all the sights. We keep wanting to act like Danny Kaye and burst into song.

Tomorrow we will catch a train to Stockholm so will be up early as the train leaves at 8:30 am. The trip is about 5 hours and we hope the sun will decide to show its face again.

The Bogman Versus Hamlet

As the Danish train travelled from Aalborg to Arhus, we grew excited. We saw definite evidence of bogs.

We reacherd our destination and found a great apartment that looked a bit like an ad for Ikea (except that is Swedish). We had a quick cuppa and off on the bus to Moesgard Manor, the address for the Bogman.

As we entered the Museum, we made our way through the Iron Age Exhibits then rounded a corner. The sign said Grauballe Man and we rushed for our first sighting. It was confirmed. The Bogman had beaten Hamlet.

Grauballe Man is the world's best preserved bog man. He was found in 1952, 55 km west of Arhus. He was so well preserved that his hair, his beard stubble, fingernails, fingerprints and even his skin pores were clearly visible. They carried out a post mortem and it confirmed that he was dead - for at least 2000 years, had been 34 years old had a tooth ache and had cereal gruel for his last meal. he died a brutal death with his throat cut ear to ear - and thrown into the bog as a ritual sacrifice.

It was outstanding. We might have missed out on Hamlet's castle but we had seen one of the most remarkable sights - as impressive as the Egyptian mummies.

We made our way back to Arhus, Denmark's second largest city and they think it is the oldest, felling very contented.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Viking Valhalla

We left our hotel in Goteborg in Sweden and caught the ferry across the Denmark and then the train down to Aalborg. The scenery through Jutland was rich grazing and cereal crops. We were surprised just how flat the area is.

Our purpose for visiting Aalborg was to go to Lindholm Hoje. After checking in to our hotel, we caught a bus back over the Limfiord, the massive waterway that dissects the entire Jutland peninsular and up to Lindholm Hoje. This is a massive Viking burial ground with over 700 graves. Most were laid out in the shape of viking boats although there were some pre viking graves in a circular pattern. This was a unique experience and we thought it was better than dropping in on Hamlet.

The museum nearby had lots of artefacts from the graves along with wall murals depicting viking life.

Tomorrow we will continue down the peninsula and hope to meet up with the Bog Man at Arhus.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

It's Sunday. It Must Be Denmark.

We have just realised that with our ferry trip tomorrow to Fredrikshavn, it means that we will be in 3 different countries in 3 days. This is something we said that we would never do - but it is not as bad as it sounds.

On Friday we farewelled Norway and travelled by train to Goteborg in Sweden which only took 4 hours. We had planned to travel south in Sweden to Helsinborg before the half hour ferry trip to Helsingor in Denmark. Instead, tomorrow we take a 3 and a half hour ferry trip to Fredrikshavn in Denmark and will travel by train through the Jutland peninsula to Copenhagen.

We decided to trade Hamlet's castle in Helsingor for Aalborg's Lindholm Hoje, Denmark's largest Viking burial ground with 700 graves from the Iron Age and Viking era along with Arhus' 2000 year old Grauballe man more commonly known as the Peat Bog Man.

For those of you who think that the Prince of Denmark should have won over the Bog Man, I can demonstrate that I have retained my knowledge of the classics with the following extract from Polonius' speech.

Give every man thine ear but few thy voice,
Take each man's censure but reserve thy judgement.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy
Rich not gaudy
For the apparel oft proclaims the man.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and a friend
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all
To thine ownself be true
And it shall follow as the light the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Thank you to Mrs Nay, my grade 5 teacher who taught me that more than 50 years ago.

Why can I remember this but not remember where I packed the corkscrew yesterday?

Day Out in Goteborg

We decided to stay an extra day in Goteborg as there is a lot to see in the city. First we went down and booked a ferry for tomorrow morning to Frederishavn in Denmark. Then we started on the museums.

The first was the Art Gallery. As you would expect, we liked the Impressionists but we saw lots of works by well known painters from Rembrandt to Picasso.

Then we moved on to Sweden's Museum of Design and Decorative Arts. This was particularly interesting with exhibits ranging from a special exhibition on colours, a display of 13 dresses actually made from floral printed paper in the styles from 1800 to the present day. We saw furniture, design and glassware as well as exhibits from Japan and China and lots more.

We moved on to a nautical theme starting with the Maritiman, the world's largest floating museum of historic ships. We were up and down ladders, through narrow passages, you name it, we did it. We crawled through a submarine, explored a destroyer, investigated a fire fighting boat and lots more.

After that we caught the ferry across to Alvsborgs Fastning, the fortress at the entrance to the river. This fortress dated from 1700 but there has been one there since 1300. It was a most interesting ferry trip.

Our final museum was the City Museum, housed in the old Swedish East Indies building. We explored it chronologically starting with the Stone Age and a fascinating 4,500 year old skeleton. There was an interesting display on the Vikings including the remains of a boat. We then went on to Mediaeval times and up to the present day. The vacuum cleaner that we recently threw out from Conjola was on display.

Despite the light drizzle, we decided to do the paddan boat trip on a canal boat and explored the canals that give the city its name as the Amsterdam of Sweden along with the harbour. We saw lots of places including the Fish Church which is actually the fish market but it loooks like a church. One couple even got married there. Fancy getting married amongst that smell.

Off to Denmark tomorrow but we will return to Sweden in a week.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Soaked in Sweden

The sun was out in Oslo - back to t shirt weather. We travelled by train across the border into Sweden and stopped at Goteborg. Just before we arrived the heavens opened.

Just to make matters worse, we had extreme difficulty finding anywhere to stay. Goteborg is Sweden's 2nd largest city and home to Liseborg, Scandinavia's largest amusement park. School is out and everyone is here. There were lots of kids with beach gear getting off the train along the way. Perhaps they did not notice the floating ice we thought we saw.

Perhaps we can't afford to stay here but we can afford to eat and drink here - unlike Norway.

Wherever in the world we have travelled, we have found good Italian restaurants. Whilst we did not find one in Norway, we found a great one here in Goteborg - frequented by locals with the pasta served in bowls big enough to take a bath in.

Tomorrow we will visit some of the local museums but plan to avoid the amusement park.

We are thinking of changing our plans and catching a ferry tomorrow afternoon to Frederikshavn in Denmark and then making our way down Jutland to Copenhagen.

Outstanding Oslo

We arrived in Oslo via train from Bergen - described as one of the great train journeys of the world - and it is. Wonderful mountain scenery, frozen lakes and fast rushing rivers.

We stayed in a modern apartment just out of the city centre. We have eaten cherries from the laden trees in our street and red currants from a garden at the Folk Museum. This has helped defray the cost on food in Norway... it must be the most expensive place to live.

What a city of museums! Among the great museums we have visited have been
* The Viking Ship Museum with its 3 fabulous traditional viking ships.
*The Flam Museum with the "Flam" in which Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole; the "Gjoa" in which he discovered the North West Passage
* The Kontiki Museum with Thor Heyerdahl's "Kontiki" and "Ra 11"
* The National Maritime Museum with Norway's oldest boat from the Stone Age and an entire hall with great old boats
*Norsk Folk Museum with 140 old buildings including a stave church from 1200
* National Gallery including Munch's "The Scream"
* Akershus Castle and lots of associated museums
* Nobel Peace Centre
* Royal Palace - we were there on Queen Sonia's birthday
* Historical Museum - great display on vikings
* City Hall - excellent with the main hall as the venue for the awarding of the Nobel peace prize
* Vigeland Park with its great sculptures
* Oslo Harbour - a living museum of shipping on Oslo Fiord

This afternoon we catch the train to Goteborg in Sweden. We have had an outstanding visit to Norway and have enjoyed every minute.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Beyond the Arctic Circle

Cruising has been very pleasant and on flat seas as we follow the Norwegian coast northwards. At no time have we been out of sight of land and at most times we have been sailing inside the chain of islands along the coast.

Passed over the Arctic Circle as we had breakfast - could hardly feel the bump. At Bodo we donned our survival suits and goggles and boarded a zodiac powered by 250 hp outboard. Saw sea eagles nests with chicks and survived the wild rapids of the Saltstraumen.

Sailed the Strait of Raftsundet with 1000 metre high cliffs dropping straight into the water. After midnight we travelled up the Trollfiord - exceptionally narrow and beautiful. We even managed to see a few trolls.

We are in the land where the sun does not set and it is total daylight every 24 hours.

Travelled up to North Cape from Honigsvag. On the way we stopped at a Sami (lapp) camp and trading post complete with reindeer herd. We had the mandatory photos at the globe marking the most northern point of Europe.

The turn around point for the trip was at Kirkenes located on the Russian border. On the return trip to Tromso we passed the beautiful mountains with fingers of snow reaching right down to the water's edge.

We have spent last night in a hotel in Tromso and today we fly back along the coast to Bergen. Tomorrow we take the train to Oslo, described as one of the great journeys of the world.