Monday, May 20, 2013

The Rocky Shores and Islands of the Baltic

I will preemptively apologize for the long post since there is a lot to cover from the holiday to Helsinki and Stockholm. Additionally, just assume that we went to most of the main tourist places and I’ll just write up a few things that I found to be interesting.

Last Monday we set rail for Helsinki. When we searched for a hostel it was quite difficult to find vacancy, but we assumed that was because of the Russian holidays. We learned that it was because of the International Hockey Championships that were held in both Helsinki and Stockholm apparent from the many jerseys in H (although relatively few in S). However, our hostel was a studio apartment with a kitchenette (this company only had apts.), which was a pleasant change from the usual hostel atmosphere.

Helsinki itself is quite the quaint urban environment. There is not a lot to do, downtown is relatively small and public transit is mostly trams with one “metro” line that is more a commuter rail to the suburbs than for downtown. We walked the entire time except when we took the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress on an island. The fortress utilizes the local rocky environment to in constructing walls and building below the rocks. It was built in the 1750s and really is the start of Helsinki as a defense for the Swedes against the Russians. The capital of Finland moved from Turku to Helsinki in the 19th century under Russian rule (the fortress worked fine, but wasn’t enough for the whole country) before the Finns liberated themselves from Russia immediately following the Russian revolution in 1917.

The Lutheran Cathedral holds some type of concert every single day and has over 400k visitors every year. Additionally, it is clear from the architecture that it was a Russian Church that was converted, although there still is a Russian Cathedral in Helsinki that serves the sizeable Russian community living in Helsinki. The Olympic Stadium continues to host sporting events ranging from football (soccer), swimming (which we saw people casually using the pool), and of course hockey. The most fascinating church is the Rock Church built into the rocky hill.

The architecture of Helsinki is an intriguing blend of 19th century Germanic and Nordic styles mixed among modern chic Scandinavian designs. Sometimes you travel time from one block to the next, other times from one building to the next. Lastly, we had to check out what we could of the Moomins (for my American readers, this is a children’s book series quite popular in Scandinavia, Russia, England, and possibly a few other places – stories are different than Dr. Seuss style, but I draw parallels in cultural belovedness).

And of course I must comment on the language and the weather. It was quite difficult to understand Finnish, both spoken and written because it doesn’t belong to the Proto-Indo-European family, but rather the Proto-Uralic family shared with Estonian, Sumi (shall we say an indigenous language from northern Scandinavia not restricted by modern borders and not to be confused with Suomi, the Finnish name for Finnish), Hungarian, and a few other languages. The easiest to figure out was “Hej” (pronounced “Hey” which is borrowed from Swedish “Hei” and while it is formal is probably where the informal English “Hey” comes from). As for the weather, while it is spring everywhere else, Helsinki was still cold and despite the long hours of sunlight, the trees were bare of any buds.

On Wednesday evening we set sail for Stockholm. For those of you who didn’t read my facebook updates from the ferry rides, I love the rocky shores and rocky islands of Finland and Sweden. It felt paradisiacal and homey. We started the trip outside up on the deck absorbing the fresh sea air and the beautiful views. It was rather chilly on deck though, so we spent most of our waking time at chairs and tables. The price of beer aboard the ferry is also much cheaper than in Finland (4 Euro 50 compared to 7 Euros). We ended the night listening to the ship’s musicians cover various songs before retiring to our cabin, which was down on the bottom even below the car deck. I felt if Titanic happened, we would have been the poor souls trapped. I’ll jump ahead in time to say that our return ferry room was much nicer and on the 5th deck and we had a private bath and shower instead of the shared one down the hall on the 2nd deck.

We arrived Thursday morning in Stockholm, a city seriously built on islands. The Helsinki archipelago is sizeable, I think about 1,000, but the Stockholm archipelago boasts about 30,000 islands although the city itself only uses 16 of them (I think that’s what it said). Helsinki is expensive compared to Russia, Stockholm is expensive compared to Helsinki and just about everywhere else. One metro ride is about 3.60 Euros. I know this isn't bad compared to say London, but even New York is $2.50 or so. However, I rather enjoy my SPB metro of 27 rubles (say 85-90 cents). The food, both from the supermarket and in restaurants was pricey. Fortunately for our wallets the hostel provided an organic breakfast to start the day. Alvik, the district our hostel was in, reminded me a lot of Marin, just north of San Francisco with large suburban houses hidden by trees and small quaint roads and despite being relatively close to the neighbors, it has the feel of an English village out of an Agatha Christie novel. Furthermore, Helsinki dresses casual and sharp, Stockholm dresses classy and sharp like yachters and prep-school kids.

The city was founded in the 13th century and most of the main island (read old island where the city was first founded) is 15th century medieval: beautiful buildings and small cobblestone alleys. Thursday was a national holiday (May 9 - Ascension Day for when Jesus ascended and it is a public holiday - Sundays everything is closed too - same in Finland - so get your shopping done on Saturday; secular Europe with fewer Christians than the US, at least like they want us to believe, has more public observance of both the Sabbath and other holidays than the US) so there were lots of people around on the streets, but that did not prevent us from visiting the Vasa Museum which has the world’s only surviving 17th century ship – it was quite large and survived because it sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and retrieved in 1961 – in normal seas a wooden ship lasts only a few decades, but the Baltic is much less salty than any of the oceans and the brackish water around Stockholm is an even less salty environment because of the mixing between the local lake and the sea. The ship has had some reconstruction, but is 98% original and it was built for the 30 years war between Sweden and Poland. The experimental construction made it too tall and narrow and without enough ballast rock so a good gust on the sea would have destroyed it. However, it never made it that far as a small breeze a kilometer from the harbor sent to the depths right there in Stockholm.

Stockholm certainly leads the way for environmental protection and lots of green space. Most of the city is rife with large parks and the city boasts water clean enough that people can swim downtown, a feat few if any other European city can claim. This is the result of the 1990s and a good water treatment plant. This cleanliness is more apparent in the ability to use it and not in the clarity of the rather dark water.

Both Helsinki and Stockholm can claim quality European lagers, Helsinki on the expensive side, and it’s probably the only thing cheap in Stockholm. Both also claim pear ciders, which are supposedly high quality, but a little sweet for my taste. I poked fun at the British a few weeks ago for some of their language, but I’d like to give a nod to their apple cider tastes. Americans could learn from the Russians and Scandinavians (although we didn’t try theirs) in mead, and from many Europeans in ciders.

Lastly, I’d like to give a shout to both cities for their "zoos" in the protections they do for animals and their conservation projects not only to have animals in the zoos, but to actively strive to return animals to the wild once through careful planning where species are threatened or endangered. They are diligent in not having inbred species, but also to release only when and where possible. The zoo in Stockholm is part of a larger compound where one can view old Swedish, Norse, and Finnish houses from 14th-early 20th centuries, “native” Sumi structures, animals, and many other things as the world’s first open air museum from 1897. They border on "zoo" with exotic animals, wildlife preserve for threatened and endangered species, and educational centers for their local animal and plant populations. And they have historical aspects like the old homes that I wouldn't consider zoo-ish at all, but good for the traveller to learn about their history.

Oh, and the Nobel Museum is cool. As is walking through the life of the characters out of the Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

I think that does it and the pictures can tell the rest.

The forest of Finland as we crossed the border. Not particularly stunning compared to other pictures of nature, but I just wanted to mark that point and you can see how lush it is (although Helsinki was not as lush as here).

First meal in Finland at Harald's with some of their finest brew (Daria has cider). In the menu was a wonderful fantastical tale of medieval Harold (completely fictional to suit the purposes of the restaurant)  and then below was how life really was. Each page had a small addition to the story. I'd also like to point out that we all played into the viking hat with horns (Scandinavia, restaurant, and us), but according to a college class this was not their helmet since it would be very impractical when wielding a sword. They had regular cone helmets like one thinks of for the Germans or British or anyone else. Horned helmets are a result of opera.

So we ate at Harald's and I couldn't even get their own brew on tap. It was good beer, but I do wonder if you make your own beer why is it only in a bottle?

These are the Moomins.

The Lutheran Cathedral of Helsinki. You can see from the architecture that it was once Russian Orthodox and was converted.

And the Russian Orthodox Cathedral (almost looks more Germanic).

The Church on Suomenlinna has converted to Lutheranism (was built Russian - don't ask why since the Swedes built the fort), but the architecture completely changed. Now, only the bell remains Russian and up close the script is old Slavonic (although I don't know if zooming in on this picture will show that).

Some of the rock wall on one of the islands of Suomenlinna. This narrow inlet divides the main island of the fortress almost in two and has a few bridges, but it does not completely separate it all the way. It became the harbor of the fortress.

Some water is leaking through the man-made stone roof of a storage area and stalactites are starting to form.

The fortress. As you can see there is grass over the rock wall in the distance. The "hill" on your left can actually  be crawled into from the other side. I am standing between a row of "hills" and the sea. Between the hills and the wall is just regular grass. This area is not an extensive bunker.

A view of the city from a high point in Suomenlinna. The spires on the left are St. John's. The small blip in the middle is the green dome of the Lutheran Cathedral and on the right is the Russian Orthodox Church.

Daria next to a canon. It is Russian made so we believe it goes back to World War I when the Russian still controlled Finland and therefore they fought. Neither Finland or Sweden participated in WWII and Sweden also did not participate in WWI.

A better view of some of the grass covered bunkers on Suomenlinna. Or are they hobbit houses?

I think this shows how they incorporated the natural rock formations in the construction of their wall.

The King's Gate. Quite small and honestly I think the most impressive thing is the short moat that goes between the staircase and the wall. From a defensive point I think this gate was very well designed.

Back to the Russian Church (I just like there's a cross built into the brick column in the center).

The best picture to capture Germanic architecture on the left, modern in the center, and Russian imperial on the right.

Bikes are often just locked up with a lock around the wheel, but not attached to anything. Sometimes they aren't even locked (completely unlike Berkeley where many cables and locks are necessary). However, this picture has the bikes locked to the dog ties (notice the sign) seen in the black dot on the right. Many stores have loops to tie your dog to while you go into the store. It's almost like a hitching post for your horse except you don't ride your 5kg terrier to the store.

Probably the only place uncivilized in Helsinki was the bathroom at the mall where apparently there's a war between the Nazis and the Soviets. This has both and they're crossed out, but not painted over suggesting they're negating each other and it's not the staff of the mall. Further evidence of this was many more CCCPs or Sickle and Hammers or Swastika's or even in big Russian letters "LENIN." Teenagers or serious prank? I laughed anyway.

The Rock Church. Like the Fortress, it uses the natural formations supplemented by local rock constructed into walls.

A different view and an attempt to capture their organ. The Church is circular and light comes in from all sides. The roof is a very shallow copper dome.

From atop the Olympic Stadium Tower, a good view over part of the residential part of the city extending out into the sea (or a bay or inlet of some sort) and islands, and in the trees there is an open air museum we did not go to because it would take too long to get there (plus we had just seen the one in Novgorod).

Trains on a collision course? Probably not, but looks like it might be so. I was just randomly shooting the city as we walked through a park.

Back to the steps of the Lutheran Cathedral. Proof that I was actually there and not someone else's photo. You might wonder why some pictures seem out of order with the others, but honestly these are coming chronological. We passed the churches without going in on the way to the ferry for the fortress, but then returned to experience the churches. Some of the pictures from the earlier time were just better. Inside this Cathedral wasn't that interesting. Lots of white walls and a white dome where the Lutherans clearly painted over whatever the Russians had. Big, spacious, still quite pleasing, but nothing worth sharing in photo form.

Inside the Russian Church. Black marble column on the left and a short iconostasis compared to the cathedrals here in Russia.

Locks of love. Apparently the tradition left Russia and is found in Finland. If you haven't read all the previous posts, lots of people when they get married have a lock with their names and date and then throw the key into the water.

Oldest stone building in Helsinki from 1757.

And we're off to Stockholm. From the top deck of the ferry.

A view of Suomenlinna Fortress from the ferry as we pass by. I like how the walls are jagged with the shore of the island.

Some of the islands further out to sea.

And a sunset over the Baltic. If you look closely the dark line between the water and the sky is still land.

The night owl descends upon us as the sun sets. Well that or a hawk were both my thoughts when taking this picture.

The outskirts of Stockholm welcome us the next morning.

And downtown welcomes us as well.

Just another part of the city. I think these are modern constructions trying to mimic the old style, but with their own flavor.

Our ferry dock (we were practically a cruise liner, although compared to modern cruise ships we might still be small). I note this more for the rock cliffs than the dock. Some were blasted away to make room for the dock, but I believe it was still quite clifflike before blasting commenced.

I think someone misinformed them of who we were when we got off the boat. I have no idea what it says, but really it was preventing us from entering a shipyard.

Ahh spring. Blossoms and a park full of people relaxing and enjoying the hot sunny weather.

How perfect that the Diplomat hotel had the Russian, Swedish, and American flags out for us.

And they say Oxford is the city of spired buildings?

Daria with spires on the left and a row of wooden yachts on the right. We are walking along one of the harbors to get to the island with the Vasa Museum.

The Vasa: in all its blurry majestic glory. Our camera did not want to take good pictures in the poorly lit museum (to protect the ship) and the flash didn't want to work either. This is the port side.

Another shot of port side, but trying to get the bow in this one.

The stern. While you might not be able to make out details, this once painted stern was extremely ornate and has the royal crest among other things.

And you couldn't see it above, but this replica is of the lion from the bow of the ship (original still on the ship and in about the same condition). I believe it is about 3 meters in length.

And back outside to the blossoms. This is in the King's Gardens.

On the left are some buildings from old town (some obviously being repaired). This is the medieval section of the city. The Church in the center from the 13th or 14th century and is the church where the coronations of the Swedish king still take place (still a monarchy, although like the rest of Europe the government is pretty much the parliament with the king having little to no power). On the right is the palace (apparently the largest baroque palace in Europe) built after a fire in 1697 destroyed the previous one.

Another view of the medieval city. This is from the main square.

And the widest part of the narrowest street in Stockholm. Daria can touch both walls but further up it gets to about a meter wide.

Another view of the street. Or rather a view of how close the roofs are to each other.

This building is sinking in some parts (both left and right).

Inside the main church with the coronations. The altar is ebony and silver. Lots of other neat things, but our camera wasn't capturing things properly in here.

I forgot what was so special about this painting (also in the church) other than that there was some important date in history where the planets aligned (no seriously, not the start of a joke) and then an important event happened in Sweden/Stockholm and so it's commemorated with a painting and held in the main church.

In the Nobel Museum there is a cafe where the bottom of the chairs are signed by the Nobel Laureates. 

We took a cruise around the city to learn some history and see different sites, went through the locks that connect the lake to the bay. This is just a view of somewhere else in the city.

So the water is clean enough for people to swim in, but here we have a floating swimming pool. Perhaps clean doesn't always mean warm nature must wait for July or August while the floating pool has patrons year round? 

An old wooden ship seen from our cruise (with water splashing on our lens). I believe this was some pirates. Arrgh!

And for those times when a lighthouse on an island doesn't cover dangerous parts, there were lightboats sent out to warn ships of dangerous areas. Modern technology has put them out of service.

19th century house located in Skansen park (also the place of the zoo). This house comes from an island that is immediately south of the medieval island. In the 19th century it was the working class district and had a few farms. Now it's where lots of artsy people live and most of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo events happened. I think this was a cobbler's house, but I don't recall. Other buildings included bakers (moved the building, still functions and serves delicious pastries), the glass blower, a mechanics, and regular domestic homes not associated with a particular trade.

A rune stone from the 11th century in erected by someone in memorial to a dead relative.

While the houses from the 19th century "village" were painted and had some industry, another village in Skansen was from northern Sweden/Norway, is not painted, all wood (not sod roofs), and were are from pasture lands.

Ok, a brown bear and her 3 cubs born this march (one cub can be seen in the center of the picture). European brown bears are much smaller than American grizzlies although they are the same species. Euro are between 250-400kg while the American grizzly averages 6-650kg and the Kodiak might reach 800kg. It was really cute to see the cubs though. And overall lots of baby animals were born there this spring, some were just a few days old (obviously couldn't see them).

And it's great to be a Michigan Wolverine. Or maybe a Swedish one (although I don't know if it's great to be in the zoo or not, but the 2 or 3 in the pen seemed content enough).

The native Sami people (more related to Icelanders and Inuits than to the Euro-Scandinavian blood) used these to keep up from the snow and predators away from food, something the Euro-Scands adopted. Notice the use of the root system of the trees to help hold this up. Genius.

Yes, we did the Millennium tour. Daria looking at the advertisement for it. This was the last day so our backpacks were full with all our belongings for the trip. Oi, too heavy.

The street where "Michael Blumquist" lives. To access his flat the door is not on the ground floor, but rather along the walkway on the left, across the bridge in the center of the picture and then the front door of the entire building can be found. He "lived" in the attic with a great view of the city, but can you imagine on the "first floor," to tell someone, "hey yeah, come visit, enter the front door and go down 3 flights of stairs."

The cafe where the author wrote a lot of the books, characters frequently visited, and the actual offices of the author's work were right upstairs.

Wait, we're back in Berkeley for Tully's coffee???? Nope, seriously exported to Stockholm, as apparently Brooklyn Beer (small craft NY found in Euro). Not entirely sure how I feel about that.

And the ferry back. You can see why I love it so much.

I bought a "clay horn" as my souvenir so here I'm having a viking beer out of a viking horn on a viking ferry (we took Viking Lines) in viking waters. All I'm missing is that helm.

Yup, our ferry.

Back in Helsinki, this vulture has one large wingspan.

And a peacock in full glory. I think he stayed like that for nearly 90 minutes.

Sorry, I love bears. And my cousin's name is Bjorn, which is Swedish for bear.

Helsinki's train station.

Another view, but it is one of the architectural beauties of the city. The Four Men (two on the left, two on the right) are holding up lamps to light your way to the four corners of the word (of which north to other parts of Finland and east to Russia are the only two options from here).

We return to SPB and there are these flags at Ploschad' Vosstaniya for Victory Day.

Currently all the trees in this park are full and lush and green. Amazing what one week does from when we return to SPB and the current date. This park is near our house.

And as much fun as I have posting pictures of our trip/time in Russia, I might have to cut down on how many I put in the blog because this took too long.

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