Quilterosity

Curiosity – and Quilts!

Bergen, Norway — September 1, 2018

Bergen, Norway

WARNING: Graphic scenes ahead!

In Bergen it rains two days out of three, they tell us, but our day was brilliantly sunny and warm. The 63 colourful wooden wharf buildings lining the harbour were designed originally for storage, homes and trading. The first eight are straight, and the rest lean against each other like drunken sailors, which is how you can tell they are the originals, and have never been destroyed by fire and then rebuilt. Today all of them are shops and restaurants, with a few offices.  Because the whole area is made of wooden planks and logs, all smoking and open flame of any sort is strictly (fanatically, neurotically) forbidden.

There are laneways in between the old warehouses that lead to back courtyards and more shops. Originally the street was not numbered, but you could tell how far along the street you were by the wooden carvings mounted on the front of the buildings in the place of signs. Including the anatomically correct unicorn.

All this old area of Bryggen, iconic to Bergen and subject of many a fridge magnet, narrowly escaped total destruction after WWII. The Nazis used these buildings as their offices, and Norwegians were so heartily sick of the Nazis that they wanted to destroy every reminder of their presence.  Fortunately these buildings outlasted the Nazis, and nowadays this area is treasured.

We took the funicular to the top of Mt. Flooiban (so glad we bought our tickets in advance on line) to see the spectacular view over the city and surroundings. Then we followed a short hiking trail to a mountain lake, humming that Grieg piece about the Troll King under our breaths. It was easy to imagine trolls and fairies under the massive trees and hidden among the huge mossy rocks.

Here’s a version of that piece played by two American harpists of Norwegian heritage:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w44b6tqUd6s

The air smelled wonderful – full of pine needles and yes, just clean. A woman back at the ship later raved about the glass of water she’d had. What an awful commentary on our world that we were excited about clean air and water.

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Then it was a walk around the fish market, with its reindeer sausage and caviar in addition to all the gifts of the ocean, and into town, with a rest to watch children playing around the statue and fountain of Ole Bull, violinist and composer, said to rival Paganini for his virtuosity.

Here is one of Ole Bull’s compositions:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXqnLooMLO0

In its nineteen hours of daylight today, Bergen is magical, but I had a vision of it in nineteen hours of daily darkness, cold, colourless, and under Nazi rule, and shivered.

TOILET TALK:  This is how Lars and Linnea of Norway know which bathroom door to use:

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Return to Rotterdam — August 27, 2018

Return to Rotterdam

The Baltic part of the cruise ends and the Voyage of the Vikings begins!  Today we arrived back in Rotterdam, where we said farewell to Elisa and Cathy, who are exploring Holland for a few days before returning home to Canada.  My sister Pam, her husband Doug, the Navigator and I continue on for another eighteen days, and will eventually end up in Boston.  From there we will fly home. 

It was mayhem today on board as a thousand people were moved off the ship, a thousand more moved on board, and our ever-courteous cabin steward confessed he was “running like a chicken.”  So we got out of everyone’s way and went ashore.

I’ve never really liked Rotterdam as much as other Dutch towns and cities, mainly because it has no medieval heart and was rebuilt after WWII in a very utilitarian and modern style.  Maybe some Rotterdammers even agree, as they have a saying that Rotterdam is “de mooiste rotstad die er is” – the loveliest ROTTEN city ever.  

But I’m starting to come around.  For one thing, the ethnic diversity makes Rotterdam a very vibrant community, and I found the people very friendly and casual in a way that the more formal native Dutch people are not.  And they have a lot to be proud of.

We headed out to Delfshaven, a suburb of Rotterdam, with a small 14th century harbour, and the only part of the city to survive WWII bombing mostly intact.  My mother would have taken a full day to bicycle out there and back from her home in Rotterdam south, but we hopped onto the subway and were there within a few stops.  As we emerged, the first thing we noticed was the gabled rooftops, just like any other Dutch town.   Then the smells – the fresh baking of the Syrian bakery and the spicy za’atar of the Lebanese restaurant.  Yeah, not so typical any more!  And then we walked past the store fronts, with their hijabs and eastern-style clothing for sale.  Traditional Holland has officially evolved into something completely different.

Down a side street, we turned the corner back into history.  This is the place where the Pilgrim Fathers (and mothers and children, too, I imagine) gathered to pray before leaving for England, which is where they boarded the Mayflower to make their own trans-Atlantic crossing.  Back when it was not quite as luxurious.  (No cabin steward running like a chicken , for instance.)

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The windmill right at the edge of the harbour was the only part of this area to be destroyed by bombing, and it was completely rebuilt just a few metres from where it originally stood.  A circle in the brick paving shows its original placement.

Before returning to the ship, we went to the new (and very impressive) Markthal (Market Hall) to pick up some needed supplies (salty licorice, for instance).  Since it was Saturday, there was a market full of tents in the square beside the Markthal as well.  And if they didn’t have it for sale – you don’t need it!

Toilet post-script:  you need a euro to get into the public bathrooms in most of Holland, but they are all very clean and you get a 50 cent coupon in return, which you can redeem against merchandise in the surrounding shops.  Yeah, my father used to say the Dutch people know how to make a penny squeak.  

Aarhus is a very, very, very fine hus… —

Aarhus is a very, very, very fine hus…

Aarhus, Denmark.  Where the heck is that?  Turns out it’s less than 200 km northwest of Copenhagen, and Denmark’s second largest city with a population of 275,000.  50,000 of them are under the age of 18, and another 40,000 of them are students at Aarhus University (the biggest in Scandinavia), so it has a youthful vibe, despite the fact that it dates from the 8th century, when it was a Viking fort.

You don’t notice the Viking influence so much nowadays.   Cafes line a canal on one of the main streets, some very modern architecture (you know, the Danes are very good at everything modern) and a large department store has a glass viewing deck with a great view of all the rooftops of the city.  And free Wi-fi.  Let me tell you, we cruise passengers are all over the free Wi-fi!

Aarhus was an EU “City of Culture” for 2017, and this has carried over.  The Danes took this honour very seriously.  Even now, downtown Aarhus was awash with volunteers wearing aprons with large pockets filled with pamphlets, and every time we needed one, a friendly guide armed with maps and information instantly materialized, ready to guide us. 

One directed us to a street named the “Mollestien,” a small lane of original historic cottages, preserved from the 1870’s.  They were built over houses that dated to the 1600’s, which were built over others, and all the way back, we are told, to those original Vikings.

To live on the Mollestien, you have to apply, and then go on a waiting list for about 45 years. Changes are not allowed without permission.  But this charming street is in high demand, and as a bonus, you also get to meet visitors from all over the world, all armed with cameras and iPhones, looking for the right angles and peering in your windows.

From there we walked to the botanical gardens (by accident) and Den Gamle By (on purpose), an open air museum which brings together over 75 historic buildings from all over the country. 

There are actual working businesses here – bakeries and souvenir shops, which you might expect, but also an insurance office and at least one commune of rental apartments.  I haven’t figured out how they deal with the admission fees and closed hours.  But wouldn’t it be fun to live in an historic village!

https://www.dengamleby.dk/en/den-gamle-by/

There are three main areas in Den Gamle By (the Old Town) – pre-1900, 1920’s and 1974.  Even for those of us who think they remember 1974, this area looks very quaint and old-fashioned.

I love Denmark.  I have been heard to say that if I wasn’t already Dutch, I would love to be Danish.  And since I recently found out that my aunt’s DNA test came back 22% Scandinavian – maybe there’s a reason why I’m so attracted to the nordic nations!

 

 

Stockholm and more “hygge crap” — August 15, 2018

Stockholm and more “hygge crap”

In St. Petersburg, the immigration workers really earn their salary.  They sit in a little booth, and even though everything below their necks is hidden from view by a screen, it is obvious there’s a whole cottage industry at work down below.  First you stand in line and wait to be called by one of about fifteen officials who are on duty.  You approach the wicket, slide over your passport and wait again.   They scrutinize it, peer at you, consult a computer, stamp, staple, fold, examine, look at you once more, and finally let you into Russia.  It takes about five minutes per person.   Do not smile, as that will convince them you are demented.  And definitely don’t crack a joke.  The Russian customs agents have no discernible sense of humour and are highly suspicious of those who do.

In Stockholm, on the other hand, there’s one fellow standing by the automated doors while everyone streams past, and his chief job seems to be pointing out the bathrooms and the wifi.  If you’re good enough for a cruise ship, you’re good enough for Sweden.

There is no use getting up early in Stockholm.  Nothing opens until 10 a.m., not the museums, the bus service, or the boat service.  And you need the boat service to get around because Stockholm is built on islands – many, many islands.  In fact, if you’ve ever sailed the St. Lawrence Seaway (near where I live in Canada) and past all the cottages on the Thousand Islands, well, the approach to Stockholm looks exactly like that.

Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is on a central island, but not the biggest one.  Another island has several museums (including the ABBA museum!), and yet another island has an amusement park and zoo.

We had tea (and pastry!) in Gamla Stan, and admired the medieval architecture and items for sale in the tiny shops – knitted sweaters, Dala horses, chocolate shaped like Nobel prize medals, along with the usual tourist kitsch. 

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Swedish oat and cocoa ball, and a “vacuum cleaner” – so called because of its shape.  Contains marzipan!

Then we took a boat to the Vasa Museum, which contains a 17th century warship named, surprise, the Vasa.  The very name means “ship” – probably because next to this iconic vessel, everything else is just … a boat.

In August 1628, this marvel of naval technology was launched from Stockholm in splendid ceremony.  Special guests and nobility were invited to enjoy a sail-away party on board.   Crowds lined the dockyard to admire the cannons – TWO rows of them bristling from the open gun decks, look, 64 in total!  And over 120 life-size statues on her exterior!  Each one hand-painted in expensive bright colours.  The bowsprit, carved from iron-hard black oak into a lacy filigree – no one has ever seen anything like that before or since!

The crowd cheered as the mighty ship pulled away from shore.  Dwarfing the Dutch and English ships, more powerful than the Spanish Armada. They watched as it pulled away from the dock, on her way to Poland.  That’s where the king of Denmark was waiting to show it off to his allies.  None of them had anything as grand as the Vasa, and he had been rubbing their faces in that fact for months.

The cheering had not yet died down and the Vasa was not yet out of sight when, twenty minutes later, the first gust of wind puffed into her sails.  The Vasa rocked with it, and righted herself.  But then there was a second gust, and this time a small wave rolled into the bottom row of  open gun ports.  The Vasa rocked from side to side as the water sloshed about, gently at first, and then with an ever greater sway.  And then she gurgled – and sank.  Straight down, like a stone. Sadly, thirty lives were lost.

There she sat for the next three hundred and thirty-three years until in 1961 she was raised, restored, and put on display, 98% intact thanks to the cool Baltic waters that preserved her.  The museum displays not only the ship and its artifacts, but has exhibits on why it sank (basically, topheavy) and the efforts to raise and preserve her.  

The following day the Navigator and I were back in town, this time to visit the Swedish History Museum, which holds the largest collection of Viking artifacts anywhere.  We were assigned a Viking named Adam as a tour guide for the main exhibit.   After that, we visited the Gold Room, containing hoards of Viking gold and silver;  several kilograms of gold, in fact.  This is held in a very secure facility underground, as you may imagine.

That hygge crap” (see heading above) is how the Navigator describes my current fascination with everything Scandinavian.  In Sweden I learned about fika, which is like a coffee break, except with cake (or a cinnamon roll) and always with company, never alone.  Just google it and you will see I’m not the only fascinated person!

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Rah, rah, Rasputin… — August 8, 2018

Rah, rah, Rasputin…

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The Church on Spilled Blood (1883-1907)

The Shining Moments came fast and furious on day two in Russia.  I literally gasped at the incredible mosaics of the Church on Spilled Blood (which made Olga smile at me) – not Church OF Spilled Blood, as I originally thought. And there’s a reason for that.

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Everything you see here except for the carved wood and the candlesticks, are mosaics.

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Church on Spilled Blood would have this name because a) it’s a church and b) it’s dedicated to the blood shed by Jesus Christ.

One would be wrong. On both counts. This place, now a museum, has never been a place of worship, but was instead a very elaborate memorial to Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated on the spot on March 1, 1881.

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The monument within the church built on the exact spot of Alexander II’s assassination.  For the scale, spot the people in the bottom of the photo.  ALL of the surrounding decorations are mosaic, and the entire interior is covered with it.

On that day, Tsar Alexander II was riding alongside the canal in his carriage, when a person of strongly held political opinions hurled a grenade at him. The grenade exploded and damaged the carriage, but the Tsar was unhurt. Tsar Alex, seemingly a man who took things into his own hands, immediately jumped out of his carriage, inspected the damage, and started to give the grenade-hurler a good dressing-down. At that point, another fellow of strong opinions, seeing his chance, threw a second grenade at the Tsar, killing himself and blowing the Tsar’s legs off.   He died a few hours later too. There’s probably a moral in this somewhere, don’t you think?

Tsar Alex II was known as “The Good Tsar” by the Finns, to differentiate him from all the other ones. He was responsible for freeing 23 million serfs in 1861, allowing them to own property and businesses and marry whomever they wanted, but is mostly remembered in North America for selling Alaska to the USA, as he didn’t want it to fall into British hands. (Those evil Canadians again!)

So the Finns and Russian aristocracy loved him, but the peasants threw grenades at him.  Why?  Well, it turned out Alex didn’t do those serfs any favour.  Yes, he freed them and granted them land, but the landowners kept all the good land for themselves, so the peasants were land-starved, and the other kind of starving soon followed.  Maybe the moral here is that no good deed goes unpunished.

A shrine with roof and columns stands inside the church to mark the exact spot where Tsar Alex II was wounded, although for a long period under Communist rule, the much-loved building was used to store vegetables – yes, potatoes and beets and turnips. It’s a miracle it survived at all.

The Communists, who hated not being the centre of all worsip themselves, outlawed all religion.  Of course they didn’t turn all churches into oversized cabbage crates – some were turned into indoor skating rinks or public swimming pools instead. They were not improved by the change. Some churches have now been restored, and many Russians once again openly embrace their faith, but many places of art and beauty are lost forever. Thankfully many remain.

For instance, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with its impressive dome and colourful green columns of malachite.

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Green malachite columns.

We had just enough time left over to visit Yusupov palace, famous for being the place where a group of conspirators plotted to kill Rasputin.

I apologize that I have no photos of the Yusupov palace.  Russia has this thing called a “photo license” and if you haven’t paid for the license, you don’t get to take photos, and to tell you the truth, by the end of day two in Russia, I figured I already had enough photos!   Luckily we have a little thing called the internet, and I have borrowed two photographs from there.  They “may be subject to copyright,” but I couldn’t find out what to do about that – so I hope not.

Prince Yusupov wanted Rasputin dead to end his influence over the royal family. Olga (remember our extraordinary tour guide?) believes the Romanovs thought so highly of Rasputin because he seemed to heal their hemophiliac son.  Well, wouldn’t you do just about anything for the man who helped your sick child?  But this wasn’t public knowledge, so all the Yusupov gang knew was that the Romanovs had gone gaga for this spiritualist weirdo.

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Central staircase and chandelier at Yusupov Palace

Prince Yusupov and friends invited Rasputin over for a nice evening of music and poisoned snacks in the basement.  But while they waited for him to quietly keel over, Rasputin just kept on eating and enjoying himself, and it became obvious the poison wasn’t going to work.  So after waiting as long as they could stand it, and starting to sweat, they shot him.  Twice, just to make sure.  Well, like some bad horror film, didn’t he revive after a few minutes, and manage to escape by runing up a spiral stone staircase and out of the building.  Once they were over the shock, the conspirators caught up with him in the yard, shot him again (in the forehead this time) and beat him up badly.  Still Rasputin was alive.  Thoroughly spooked and panicked by this time, the conspirators tied him up and threw him into a hole in the ice in the river.  The only reason we know any of this is because Yusupov wrote a memoir. Which makes you wonder exactly how reliable it is, but hey, it’s all we have.

The Yusupov palace has stately rooms, chandeliers and staircases, even a theatre which is still in occasional use, but the most visited area is the cramped basement room where Rasputin ate his poison, and the twisty tiny staircase he used to escape.   No one lives there now but wax figures of Rasputin and his murderers. Creepy?  You bet.

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The basement reception room used to entertain guests you don’t really like.

I think the Russians don’t understand our fascination with Rasputin, but they’re happy to play up this part of their history for our sakes.

TOILET TALK:   Because I’m always interested in where to go when you have to go.  SPB, surprisingly, does not have nearly as many bathrooms as you would think. Not even in their churches and historic buildings.

BUT fret not, the “official” tourist stores do!  Clean, and well-maintained, and no charge for using the facilities, and you don’t have to buy your own toilet paper either.  Because, believe me, that happened to me in Moscow once before.   The official tourist stores really make a strong effort to be welcoming.  They also provide free candies, crackers, coffee and hot strong tea.  All at no charge.

For goodness’ sake, at least buy a fridge magnet!

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Matryoshka dolls for sale in the offical souvenir shop

 

 

The Hermitage Museum gets its Very Own Post — August 4, 2018

The Hermitage Museum gets its Very Own Post

 

You might imagine that the Hermitage is a small cottage suitable for, well, a couple of hermits.  Do not be fooled.  Catherine the Great named it this to make her guests feel exclusive and special when she had it built as her Winter Palace. But it was a palace even then.  Now it’s the second largest art museum in the world (after the Louvre), and has more Rembrandts than the Rijksmuseum.

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Interior of the Hermitage, at the main entry.

If you’ve heard anything about the Hermitage, it’s probably that it has fabulous artwork and that it’s not taking care of it.  No air conditioning and open windows mean that summer humidity and bright sunlight assault the masterpieces daily. True.

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The view of the Peter Paul Fortress from an open window at the Hermitage.

On top of that, 30,000 visitors per day produce even more heat and humidity. Water bottles were banned after a vandal threw sulfuric acid on Rembrandt’s “Danae” in 1985, so most people remember their time in the Hermitage as a hot, crowded, thirsty ordeal.  My sister says on a previous trip (yes, my sister has visited TWICE!) the hordes were piled up at least three and four deep before every artwork, and she was shoulder to shoulder with all the other sweaty tourists.

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The interior of the museum is as much a work of art as any of its exhibits.

But the wonderful Olga of SPB Tours (yes, I’m giving them a shout out – we were in excellent hands) got us inside 30 minutes before the museum opened, which gave us a head start on the hordes.  We moved around easily and got up close and personal with the art – with the help of Olga.  “My dear friends, come quickly, we must get ahead of this next tour group…”   Olga, it turns out, has an undergraduate degree in linguistics, and a masters degreee in Art History, is passionate about art and sharing her love, and is the perfect guide.

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Just an ordinary doorknob.  

I could use many adjectives to describe the Hermitage – amazing, gorgeous, awesome – but honestly, they all fall short.

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The throne room, where in 1906 the first Duma was held.  Nicholas and Alexandra let in commoners and peasants for the occasion, hoping to head off a revolution.  And we all know how well that turned out.  “They looked at us as if they hated us,” Alexandra is reported to have said.  

My personal highlight? Well, that story starts about 25 years ago when the Navigator first came home with a computer and told me about this new invention they were using at his work.  He told me it could take me anywhere.  It was called the World Wide Web.

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12th century crozier from Italy – the head of a bishop’s staff.  What are those animals?  A dragon, a ram, and – a squirrel???

“What do you mean it can take me anywhere?  And a web?  As in spider?” I asked. “Well, where do you want to go?” he asked. So I chose the most inaccessible place I could think of, to test this crazy invention – The Hermitage Museum in SPB, Russia. And was completely boggled to receive a virtual tour.

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The Benois Madonna, by da Vinci.  One of his earliest works, from ca. 1478.  Critics say Leonardo should have put scenery in the window, and they don’t like the ears;  but I love that the Madonna is portrayed as the young teenager she was.  

It was exactly like Star Trek!

And that day I discovered the Hermitage owned a Rembrandt. Many in fact; but one in particular called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” I had been very moved by a book of that name by Henri Nouwen, the Dutch theologian. And always wanted, but never expected, to see the painting in real life.

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The Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt.  There are better images on the internet – the lighting caused glare everywhere. 

The most poignant part of the painting for me are the feet of the prodigal.  One bare, cut and bleeding, the other only half-covered in a worn-out shoe, both feet dirty and callused. Those feet walked to foreign lands of suffering and humiliation before taking him home again to an uncertain welcome.  Add to that his shaved head – like that of a monk, convict, a diseased person – or a concentration camp survivor.  There may have been a tear or two.  I just typed that last sentence, took it out and typed it in again.  You may as well all know what kind of a wuss I am.

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Did I say personal highlight? Call it a Shining Moment instead.

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The panorama shot still doesn’t do it justice… Wow, those Russians love their gold finishes!

 

 

 

Race to the Finnish… — July 8, 2018

Race to the Finnish…

 

If this is Sunday, it must be Helsinki!

We are officially into the “white nights.” The sun won’t set until almost 11 p.m., and sunrise will be around 3:30 a.m.  Even in the middle of the night, there’s a gentle twilight outside our cabin window.  And this will be even brighter when we sail above the Arctic Circle in a few days’ time.

In Helsinki the Summer Solstice is a very big deal, celebrated with two days of festivals, drinking, and staying up late. And on the third day, everyone rests. And takes aspirin. So we could have fired a cannonball down the street (if we’d had one) as we met our old friends Timo and Kaisa, who took us on a tour of elegant Helsinki, modelled on the broad streets and expansive buildings of Saint Petersburg. In fact, several spy movies made during the Cold War used Helsinki’s main square to represent Russia.   It’s the only Baltic port that doesn’t have a medieval centre on this tour.

At the end of each school year, graduating students give this lady of the fountain a good all-over scrubbing, and crown her with a graduation cap.  Known as Havis Amanda, she is a mermaid rising from the sea who has represented the rebirth of Helsinki for over a hundred years, and fish and sea lions frolic at her feet.

The market caters both to locals and tourists, and we enjoyed the sweetest strawberries I can remember.  Just like candy.

We took a brief trip to the monument honouring composer Jean Sibelius.  A fierce nationalist, Sibelius wrote “Finlandia” to protest against Russian censorship and to honour Finland’s struggle for independence.  It was given different names in its early performances – for example, “Happiness at the approach of Spring” – so that the Russians wouldn’t censor it.

Then Timo and Kaisa took us to Hvittrask, three houses built out of town in 1902-3 by three young Finnish architects (Elio Saarinen, Herman Gesellius, and and Armas Lindgren) who wanted to get away from it all. Each designed his own house, mostly made of wood logs and granite, and even the interiors, right down to the furniture, all made by hand locally. It’s now a museum and restaurant.

The house breathes Nordic from the moment you walk in. There are cozy seating areas next to handmade ceramic fireplaces, but it’s also airy and open to views of the outdoors. Down by the lake there’s a sauna – of course. It feels like a house where you could raise a very happy family.

We came back to the city to visit Stockmann’s, which has a good selection of sauna accessories, including the felted wool sauna hat, which you need when you are taking a sauna in -20 Celsius weather; as well as household items of Finnish design.

 

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TOILET TALK:  At the risk of you all thinking I have a really unhealthy preoccupation with bathrooms, just a quick mention of the Finnish toilet. Every one that I saw, even the public toilets, contained a miniature shower head attached to a tiny washbasin. These are for freshening up – ahem – “down there.” I haven’t seen this variation on a bidet anywhere else, but I gotta say – what a good idea! Sanitation for the nation!

Okay, I’ve mentioned bathrooms a couple of times, but it’s in private spaces where cultural differences are particularly evident.  So it’s evident, in the bathrooms and the saunas, that Finns value cleanliness very highly – and that’s not a bad thing!

“My dear friends…” —

“My dear friends…”

This is how Olga, gets our attention. Olga is the name of our tour guide and Igor is our driver.  Could that be any more classic?

Russia has gone mad for the World Cup.

St. Petersburg on the summer solstice, on a Friday, while the city is hosting the World Cup (mighty Brazil vs. Costa Rica today), and it’s the annual graduation ceremony weekend, with concerts and parties – it’s exhilarating, and very busy.  Olga and Igor have us for two days, and decide it’s better to take us out into the countryside to see the sights away from downtown today.

A mosaic of Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg, decorates the Admiralty subway stop.

But first – a short ride on the subway.  Subways here are art galleries of communist pride as well as mass transport, and this subway has frescoes and mosaics and statues, and goes waaaaaaaay down deep.  Olga tells us this is because St. Petersburg was built on a swamp, and the geology demands it.  In Moscow they told us the subways go deep because they were intended to be used as nuclear shelters as well.

The church of St. Nicholas, SPB

My dear friends, here is St. Nicholas’ cathedral, still being used as a church and not a museum (which is the fate of most religious buildings in SPB – and Moscow, where some have even been turned into subway entrance points.)  Because it is a church, no photos are allowed.  A mass is in progress, and an exquisite small choir of six is singing the responses in a side chapel.  You can just barely see a priest in a huge golden cope that almost fills the doorway of the wall of icons which divides the congregation from the holy place of the altar.  An elderly woman dressed all in navy has thrown a cloth onto two steps leading up to it, and she kneels on the cloth, presses her forehead down onto the top step, gets up and does it again, over and over.

Lunch in Russia includes a shot of vodka for everyone.

My dear friends, enjoy your lunch, which includes herring on black bread, vodka, borscht, sausage and ice cream.

The many incredible fountains of Peterhof are all gravity fed. Not a single mechanical pump.

My dear friends, this is Peterhof, the summer residence of Peter the Great, The 6’8” founder of SPB – great in more ways than one.  He was a great admirer of Versailles, which was the inspiration for the gravity-fed fountains and gilded statues, many of which were saved from destruction in WWII by burial, and restored by an army of professionals and volunteers.

My dear friends, Catherine’s palace is also amazing – in that it was built in the first place, with SO MUCH gold leaf and an entire room’s walls covered in amber (no photos please, because that takes time and here are more people waiting to enter), and also that it was rebuilt after the war.

My dear friends, sleep well, because tomorrow you have more to see…

Terrific Tallinn! — July 6, 2018

Terrific Tallinn!

There were several cruise ships keeping us company in the Tallinn Harbour this morning, so we hit the ground running. By the time everyone else had themselves organized, we were already puzzling over our maps and oohing and aahing in the medieval heart of town.

Medieval Katarina Kaik, selling goods to locals and tourists since the Middle Ages.

This UNESCO world heritage site has captured tourist hearts ever since Estonia sang itself to independence in 1989. “What’s that?” you say. A singing revolution?

Tallinn, crossroads of east and west.

Yes, sandwiched between Russia under Stalin and Germany under Hitler, poor little Estonia was not allowed to wave a flag or sing their traditional folk songs. This made them very sad.

Tallinn has a large number of resident Russians, who influence the culture quite a bit.

Bur every five years there was a song festival. And in 1988, as the USSR was starting to fall apart, everyone at the festival spontaneously started singing the forbidden songs. And they wouldn’t stop.

View of lower town from upper town , with photo-bomber.

The following summer, the people ramped things up a notch by singing their songs while holding hands over 360 miles from Tallinn to Vilnius, Lithuania. 300,000 people – one third of the entire population of Estonia.

Lots of fun in town.

At this point, the Russians in effect said,

“Okay, you guys, we can’t STAND all that singing any more. Just do whatever the heck you want!” And Estonia became independent.

Craft stalls along the old town walls.

Honestly, that’s the bare bones of what happened. For the full details, there’s a moving documentary at http://www.singingrevolution.com

I bought a knitted hat from a Siberian woman at the craft stalls lining the old city walls on Muurivahe Street. We bonded over our mutual understanding of what winter cold really means, and parted as friends, even though I didn’t believe for a millisecond that she knitted that hat herself as she claimed.

One of the many narrow streets in the lower town.

Tiny little Katariina Kaik, an ancient alleyway, also had workshops and craft stores, and cobblestones, the kind my father used to call “kinderkoppies” – children’s heads. Let’s just say if you go, wear good shoes, and accept your free foot massage!

Receiving the free foot massage.
Achtung! Germany! — June 26, 2018

Achtung! Germany!

Warnemunde is the port for Berlin, a three-hour drive away. Deciding that a six-hour return trip was not the best use of our limited time in the area, we took the train into Rostock instead, a medieval town of the Hanseatic League, only 20 minutes away. Rostock will be 800 years old this weekend, so we were only four days too early for the big celebration, but saw all the tents being put up in the main market square. So sorry to be missing that!

Main market square in Rostock, 800 year old town.

We did visit the 14th century Marienkirche, a tall, white, spacious Lutheran church with an Astronomical clock from 1472 and a copper baptismal font from 1290.

Astronomical clock in St Mary’s Church, Rostock

We arrived in time to see the 12 disciples march around the clock at noon, accompanied by clockwork music. The calendar with it had made all the calculations for finding the date of every Easter from the time the clock was built right up to 2017. So I guess that means this year they just had to google it.

Detail of the Astronomical Clock

We were also lucky enough to hear a few organ pieces played on a gorgeously imposing Baroque organ. Like my Tante Rie, I do enjoy the organ!

But we lucked into a real treat just outside the church. I just happened to spy a doorway, and a courtyard, and it seemed there was a cafe. It turned out that these were buildings belonging to the church, and a group of volunteers were operating a cafe for charity. Six of us – well seven, in a way, as they brought us one extra portion (which did not go to waste) – had excellent cups of coffee (or tea) and a very delicious almond cake, fresh out of the oven, for 20 euros, which included a two-euro donation to their charity. And use of the bathroom. Always greatly appreciated.

Coffeehouse courtyard

A walk around town led us to St. Nikolai’s church, which was partially converted to an apartment complex during the Communist period, when Rostock was in east Germany.

Condos built into the church

And we found evidence in the pavement once more of those who disappeared in the Holocaust, including this four-year-old girl and her mother.

The tourist brochures treat Warnemunde very dismissively as a cheesy seaside town, a former East German relic of the Cold War with ugly architecture and nothing to commend it, but we found it charming. There’s a long beach, constant shipping traffic, and lots of little shops in a bustling central town.

Along the canal in Warnemunde
Pirates still roam in Warnemunde

We went back in the evening to take photos in the beautiful clear light. I’d happily come back again some day!