A Travellerspoint blog

June 2006

"The wedding" and Midsummers in Sweden

Friends fellowship and fun.

After a couple of weeks travelling alone, it was great to know I would be spending two weeks in Sweden with friends.
I entered Sweden from the north, on a bus from Finland. This was just part of a 27 hour train, bus, bus, train marathon that would get me from Actic Circle Rovanemi in Lappland, Finland to Stockholm, Sweden over 1000 km to the south.

Before leaving Lulea, I had a red duck curry, my favourite dinner at a Thai restaurant before getting to the station and my bag for my 9pm overnight train south.
The cold that had been brewing as a tickle in my throat attacked with a vengeance and my ideas of seeing the Swedish countryside disappeared into thinking that I should have got a sleeper bed on the train. Otherwise all good. The landscape between northern Finland and Sweden is not much different - birch forests, grain fields, lakes and red barns. So little difference in fact that whilst I like long distance train travel, this is one trip I needn't do again.

Arriving in Stockholm, on Tuesday 13th June, I was met by Quenten and Christina. It is their wedding on Saturday that started this whole Scandinavian Sojourn. I committed to being here for their wedding and then built the rest of the holiday around it. Quenten and I have been friends for over 15 years since we worked together as apprentice chefs. He's cheffing on international yachts so I haven't seen him in awhile.
We spent the arvo in the city. Having visited Stockholm in 2004, it was a case of reaquainting myself with this most beautful of cities. Later in the arvo, some of us went to Skansen, an open air museum. I found the old buildings, moved there from other parts of Sweden, lacked a sense of place. As for the exotic animals? Kittens, guinea pigs, ducklings and chickens don't count. I was underwhelmed. They did have koalas, but they cost more. Exotic for Swedes perhaps, but not for this Aussie wanderer in a kangaroo skin hat!

The wedding was to take place near Arboga, about 2 hours west of Stockholm. All the visitors who'd travelled to be there stayed in Sorby. This was a rural resort sporting spa, sauna, pool, gym, and just for the girls before the wedding, a solarium. The views out over the surrounding fields of wheat, scattered with red barns, gave a beautiful sense of space and despite the close confines of our living, it was a good place for all.
We had a relaxing few days prior to the wedding as new people arrived daily.
Lazy mornings reading in the sun might be followed by an afternoon in the town of Arboga itself, or BBQs and beers on the balcony at Sorby followed by a spa.
Quenten had a wedding cake to make on Thursday, and spending several hours peeling hazelnuts was part of my contribution to what was the most delicious wedding cake ever. Each of three layers consisted of a chocolate brownie base, hazelnut praline layer and Mississippi mudcake top, all smothered with ganache. MMmm! Nice change from fruitcake with plastic icing.

We were going to have a quiet night before the wedding, but heading into town 'for a few drinks' always risks more. It was the Arboga Featival and who were we to miss out?
We ended up at a bar on the riverside, and the Swedes, who put up with a winter of complete darkness, make up for it in their summer of 24 hour light. They do like to party! As the table of Aussies in a non-tourist town, they made us very welcome and we were quite the minor celebrities. There was a band and we danced, drank and had fun until late.

Sat the 17th of June - Wedding Day!
The wedding was not until the middle of the afternoon, which gave everyone a sleep-in and then plenty of time to get ready. Being asked many months ago, "Can you take a few photos at our wedding?" morphed into me being their offical wedding photographer, so I slipped into 'work' mode for the the day.
I had so much fun, photographically and creatively. The weather was fine and bright and the light was gorgeous - the bride even more so. They wanted 'natural' photos and when you have a couple who are 'soul mates' getting married, their joy and love for each other just shine through. These are the weddings I love as a photographer as it makes my job easy. All I have to do is capture the moment, not create it. As a travelling backpacker, I didn't have my big flash, but I needn't have worried. With the 24 hour daylight and a digital SLR that can go to 1600 ISO if necessary I shot the whole wedding without flash.
The reception and party that followed went until late. Our bus back to Sorby was at 2am. Just for the record, we did drink Absolute vodka while dancikng to hits from Abba. I would expect no less at a Swedish wedding!

The morning after, we viewed the photos on the big TV and the bride and groom were extremely happy. I took many can say that I too am pleased.
We spent an enjoyable afternoon at a nearby lake we nick-named 'Snake Lake' because the banks were crawling with snakes. I have never seen one place with so many wild snakes. Cricket games and cold lake swims rounded off a nice afternoon under a mild Swedish sun.

Monday = travel day. Today we go to Gottland, a large island SE of Stockholm. It's the largest island in the Baltic with a VERY long history. Two hours by car, then a 4 hour ferry ride, with cars. This is a HUGE ferry. There are 12 of us in 2 cars, one of which is a van. This is Quenten and Christina's honeymoon and they are taking us with them! On the ferry across, knowing Quenten, none of us were surprised when he came back to us from the toilet to say his new wedding ring had falled down the drain of the washbasin!! Fortunately the maintenance man fished it out!
The old walls towers and battlements of the old town greet you on arrival at the dock at Visby and it reminded me of Tallin.
What a location! We are staying right on the beachfront just a couple of kilometers north of the town. 3 chalets, each with a full ocean view through the bay window. There are even swans aswimming in the water out front. MMmm! Photogenic sunsets coming up methinks.

We went into town for dinner and Quenten was keen to share his favourite Swedish dish - plank steak. Steak cooked on a piece of wood that's been bordered with piped mashed potato. As twilight set in, sitting there with friends, at a restaurant in the cobbled main square of Visby, in the shadow of a 13th century church was memorable.

I'm sharing the chalet with Lisa, Beverly and Jennifer, 40 something friends of C&Q. This morning we took a pleasant walk along the beachfront. The water is freezing and this is the only time I have ever stayed on a beach, in summer and not swum. There were many flowers to photograph, so I was happy.
We spent the afternoon exploring the town of Visby. This is like Tallin in many ways: UNESCO heritage listing, ancient walls and battlements, medieval examples aplenty.
The big difference and the one I loved the most - NO TOURISTS!
How they keep somewhere so cool a secret I'll never know. Put it in your plans - Visby, Gottland, Sweden. (The Swedes fill it up for July, but right now it's June, and quiet.)
With a rendezvous planned, I took the chance for some time alone, for the first time in over a week. As I do, I wandered the narrow cobbled streets and ancient alleyways of Visby.
I discovered the solution to the skateboard 'problem' - cobblestones. Guaranteed to piss off any skateboarder. There were none.
I explored 800 year old churches and again had them to myself. One church had gargoyles galore, which I dutifully photographed for my gargoyle-collecting friend Natia. What's a gargoyle? Here is her link if you are interested in gargoyles http://www.aboutnatia.com/art/gargoyles.htm

Late afternoon saw our chalet indulging in all sorts of gourmet nibblies, including: salmon gravadlax, pickled herrings, cornichons, pates and terrines, and a selection of Swedish crispy breads. We have picked up the name Charcuterie Chalet and I think it fits. All 4 of us are 'foodies' and we're loving the variety of different things available. Herrings in mustard sauce? MMmm!
That night we had a communal barbecue followed by the Sweden WC soccer game on TV. Tonights sunset was an amazing shade of magenta unlike any I have seen.

Quenten's brother and wife left today and after seeing them onto the ferry, we wandered through the old town as a group of now 10. The highlight was a glassblower's studio and gallery.
Our chalet offered to cook dinner for all tonight and the actual job fell to me and I was happy to oblige. More than just the enjoyment of cooking, I cook because I get pleasure from other people enjoying the food I've cooked. A charcuterie platter (see above) was followed by Dill-baked Salmon fillet served with sauteed vegetables and fresh fettuccini in 3 colours. I know I'm in the right job, when not only do I enjoy doing it, others enjoy the fruits of my efforts. We had a really fun night and shared some drinks and good times together in what turned out to be a noisy night in our chalet.

Exploring Gottland Day
Gottland is actually quite a large island and over 100 km north to south. We took the cars and headed north from Visby to the island of Faro off the north tip.
On the way we stopped at Bunge, an open air museum featuring runestones and buildings from all over Gottland. There are many Viking ruins on Gottland as it was a major trading centre for them and other conquerers since. I loved Bunge and not only was it very interesting, it was very photogenic and I took one or two pix.
There's no bridge to Faro, so after crossing on the regular car barge, we continued exploring. Attractive churches surrounded by mortarless stone walls caught our attention, as did a cluster of old fisherman's shacks on the waterfront. One of the things we did aim for were some limestone pinnacles on the beach of the NE corner. Interesting and a much-photographed part of Gottland, bound to appear in any promotional pictures. There were photogenic, but the overcast light did me no favours.
We all had a quiet night tonight, as tomorrow is..........

Midsummers! Friday the 23rd of June.
This is the BIG one for Swedes and we weren't going to miss out.
The four of us in our chalet had a lovely champagne brunch to kick-start our festivities.
Early in the afternoon, we all headed into Visby to the botanical gardens for the traditional May-pole dance. Glorious weather, and as we sat in the sunshine with our picnic, one of the things I really appreciated was that this was the 'real' Swedish culture, not some dress up acting show for bus loads of tourists, as there were none.
Our evening was spent 'at home' in the traditional Swedish manner of a 'family' meal of pickled herrings and other nibbly goodies. Oh! and Absolute vodka of course!
We had a great evening as a group and as enjoyed another beachfront sunset as we sat together outside and enjoyed the beautiful weather while having a few drinks, as you do on Midsummers. Later we headed into town to continue the party. The rest weren't as energetic as me, so I left them and went nightclubbing. I haven't danced this much in ages. There was one entrance fee to two clubs and each and different music and vibes in different areas. I said hello to Red Bull and enjoyed the up-tempo area most. On closing at 2am, everyone got thrown onto the streets together, making a wait for a cab needlessly long.

Saturday and back to Stockholm.
i would have liked to sleep off my hangover, but with bags to pack and a chalet to clean, it was not an option.
Safely on our 11am ferry back to the mainland, I was not the only one of our group who slept at least part of the 4 hour journey. We then had an hours drive north to Stockholm.
Tonight we watched Sweden drop out of World Cup contention. Quenten Christina and I stayed with a good friend of hers, Anna. (I stayed with Anna and Michael in 2004 when I came to Sweden the first time.)Match over, we had a quiet evening catching up in the kitchen of their small 1 bedroom apartment. I slept on the couch and Q & C had a mattress on the floor.
They were up and gone by 5am to fly to the USA to begin their 2-year round-the-world adventure working on a billionaire's luxury boat. Quenten is their chef and Christina is the stewardess.

Mikael Anna and I had brekkie together before they went off to play golf and I headed off to find the activity I had in mind today. Not only would I end up bobbing in the middle of Stockholm harbour it really did turn out to be bigger mission than I'd planned.
I went kayaking in Stockholm. Sounds simple enough.... The kayak rental place had a small advert on the free tourist map and I thought "Perfect!" I'd paddled regularly in Perth in preparation for my Svalbard North Pole adventure later in this trip, but I hadn't paddled since leaving home. Now was my chance.
I intended to do a 10km 2 hour paddle, but it became a 4 hour 20km lesson in why they should have supplied maps. Stockholm is a city on several islands that form part of an archipelago. Kayaking is the perfect way to see the city as canals and waterways abound. It began okay as I paddled along a narrow tree lined canal with ducks and ducklings passing by. It took me to the large body of water in front of the main part of Stockholm. I bobbed my way across because the waves from passing boats crossed waves being bounced from the concrete sides, making the water very choppy. It tested my balance skills in the kayak, but half-way across, I paused, looked around and had a real "WOW" moment as I admired the buildings that make Stockholm so pretty and got a real sense of place - in the middle of Stockholm harbour! I continued in the circular direction as planned, but on exiting this canal, I couldn't find the rental place. I circled islands and went up and down canals finding new and larger open bodies of water, each with offshoots.
Sometimes when I wander, I do get lost! Bugger!
My water bottle was long empty and I still had a boat to return, if only I could find them. Their closing time was fast approching, but I was not. Eventually I saw the Stockholm city centre town hall clock spire in the distance and knew I could find my way back from there. It was way longer than I'd hoped, but I had a fantastic day.
Dinner tonight was at a Thai restaurant called 'Pong'. It didn't and the food was tasty.
I returned to Anna and Mikael's walking along the waterfront as the city was bathed in the golden glow of a Scandinavian summer sunset.

Monday 26th June I fly from Stockholm to Vienna.

Some thoughts and observations from Sweden.

Most cultures, including Swedes, smoke cigarettes, however the Swedes have something else, called snus. Tobacco in a tiny teabag that they place in their mouth and absorb the nicotine and taste that way. Not a Rome moment for me.

Alcohol - Finland had government run 'Alko' bottleshops. Here in Sweden they are also few and far between but they are called 'System Bolaget'. On trying to buy a couple of drinks one afternoon, I found out they don't sell cold beer, "Because you might drink it straight away." That was what I had in mind!
Sweden has a real problem with a binge drinking on Friday/Saturday culture and the government is trying to get them to adopt a more Continental, regular but moderate, approach. Unfortunately at the moment they have embraced both!

I love checking out supermarkets to see what different people consider normal and to get an idea of what is available where. I love finding interesting things that are either expensive for me at home or unavaliable. I have noticed that every country, no matter how expensive, has its 'bargain' foods. In Sweden that was pickled herrings and caviar, both in many flavours. MMmm!

Having wondered how people in Scandinavia deal with the 24 hour light in summer, I started this trip glad to have my eye mask, but now I am used to the all night light, it no longer wakes me and I haven't used the mask in awhile.
Maybe I will need it at the North Pole? I'll let you know.

Swedish souvenir? If I thought my bag was heavy as a rock, perhaps my Swedish souvenir of a piece of fossilised coral has something to do with it. I found this amongst a piece of gneiss while exploring Gottland. The coral has crystalised into quartz. It will join my bowl of random rocks collected while wandering this amazing planet.


    Paying $10 for a beer seems normal.
    Every sign has 'fart' in it. (There's upfart, utfart and genomefart. Fart means exit, apparently.)
    In the supermarket there are 57 flavours of meatballs, but not one type of baked beans.
    Every barn is painted red.
    Pert is not just a brand of shampoo.
    Everything you buy has dill in it.
    Before you throw anything out, you have to decide which of 7 bins to place it in.
    The deposit on your Coke bottle is almost as much as the Coke.
    Just because summer is only 6 weeks long, doesn't mean everday is sunny.
    Chocolate bars have names like Chocolate Plopp. Hungry for a Plopp?
    They dance around the Maypole in June.

Posted by TheWandera 06:43 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Hiking to the Arctic Circle in search of Santa - Finland

Luxury in the land of the Midnight Sun. Does it EVER get dark? NO!

I left you last as I caught the train from St Petersburg, Russia to Helsinki, Finland.
They call the train 'Rapin'. If you think it sounds like 'Rapid', think again. This is a Russian train and the journey was anything but rapid. In comparison, to the journey from Estonia to Russia, this journey was much more scenic with green fields, forests and colourful houses, unlike the grey Soviet/Estonian ones.
I had a window seat and there were 5 international travellers in our compartment. (One Aussie - me, one Icelandic, two Seppos and a young Russian guy who spoke great English, and told us a thing or two about Russia and St Petersburg that we wouldn't have known otherwise.) We had interesting conversations on our way to Helsinki and the books we had ready weren't needed.
Breakfast was served on the train and in true Russian style and so as not to disappoint, They served beer with breakfast!
Gotta love those Russians and their unashamed embrace of alcohol. If you are awake why aren't you drinking?
Arriving in Helsinki main train station on the Russian train it was amazing to see the difference between the working museum piece we had travelled on incongrous amongst the modern Finnish trains also parked at the same station.

Back to Helsinki a city I spent some time in only a week ago. I dropped my bags back at my room, right near the city centre, and then spent awhile at the central train station booking my trip to Sweden. When you have to connect 3 trains, 2 buses and another 2 trains to get where you want, each little change in plans has a cascading effect. Then one of the buses you need runs every day EXCEPT the day you want! Gotta love Murphy! The travellers friend. I did get it all booked and headed back outside. It was then that I realised that just because the sun is out does not mean it is warm.
Why am I the only person in shorts and a t-shirt?
I popped back to my room for more layers, then headed to Kiasma, Helsinki's museum of contemporary art. If the Hermitage in St Petersburg is all about beautiful art, Kiasma is more about art that challenges your way of thinking, or perhaps for me some of the displays were just the artist's self expression, whether anyone else 'got it' or not.
I was reminded of a whole unit of study during my Certificat of Photograpy that was called "What is art?" Of course, there is no real definition, but it challenged us to think about that, and so did Kiasma. The contrast to the Hermitage was what I needed and there were pieces that were inspiring in their own way. A favourite installation, and the one I returned to, until they were closing and kicked me out, (I see a pattern here) was a video of the "Helsinki Complaints Choir".
The composer took a list of complaints from the people of Helsinki and composed a beautiful song with them. Then got 100 people to rehearse the piece and sing it in various locations around Helsinki. What a crack-up. The gripes ranged from the universal, "Why are vacuum cleaner cords so short?", to the uniquiely Helsinkian, "Why did our ancestors choose such a cold place to live?" To hear these complaints sung with such enthusiasm and joy took all the 'complaint' out of them and it had me laughing in many places. (It was song in Finnish but subtitled in English.)
If you can laugh at the niggles in your life perhaps you are on the way to real happiness?
I like Helsinki and despite being the world's second-most northen capital and one of the coldest, I like it a lot. Perhaps they should call it Heavensinki instead? I think so.
I must admit though, the cobble-stoned streets make me glad I didn't bring my high heeled shoes.

Let's go on a long-distance train journey north to Rovaneimi, the capital of Lappland. Yeah! Let's! Midnight Sun? Count me in!
I could have flown for less money, but that's not the point.
At 10am, parked by a window seat, I settled in for 10 hours of Finnish country-side passing by.
Some of my best travel experiences have been long distance train rides and I think that trains are a great way to travel.
This journey nearly 1000km north offered a countryside rich with birch forests and wheat fields studded with barns and farmhouses. They were all postcard-perfect red wooden buildings with white trimmed gables and window frames. We also passed many lakes, including some with white swans. Apparently Finland has 187,888 lakes. I think the person who was paid to count them, made up the number and took off with the money, knowing no one would really know, or bother to check.
Have YOU ever counted to see that Kleenex really give you 500 tissues in that box? Or 1000 sheets of toilet paper? Thought not.
Unlike the boring monotonousness of a plane, 10 hours on a train passes by quite quickly. In addition to appreciating the passing views, which were the majority of my time, I had a good book, some Sodokus(thanks mum), meal and beer in the dining car, and there's always looking out the window and daydreaming.
Those who only dream at night don't know what they're missing.

Arriving in Rovaneimi (pronounced rover-near-me) I caught a cab to the Hotel Santa Claus, my luxury **** abode for the next two nights. I'd pondered on the train why most hotels don't have baths, when guests have more time than usual to sit and soak. Hmmm!
Bingo! Santa Claus answered my wish and there was a lovely big bath just waiting to be filled, which was the first thing I did! I enjoyed that bath a lot.
The second thing it did was refill it and use it to wash all my clothes! (They have a hotel laundry service Mon-Fri = no use to me.) How good is a big bath for a bit of hand washing? Very good and the heated towel racks were even better for drying everything on. Priorities sorted, dinner and drinkie-poos followed.
Bonus! Dinner came with salad buffet. After Estonia and Russia with their dearth of any fruit and vegetables, I wasn't sure if it is a cold or scurvy I am coming down with.
Small world moment - the first person I got talking to in the hotel bar was an Aussie from Perth, from the next suburb to me! She's staying a the Hostel Rudolf next door!
I had a fun night out on the town and went to a few places and met some nice people. Midnight sun at the Arctic Circle? It does your head in when you are changing bars at midnight, and it is still fully daylight!

WOW! I've seen a few hotel breakfast buffets, but this one is the best ever! Sides of cold cooked salmon, fresh berries, MYO waffles. If you could wish for it - it was there.

Cheesey town? Santa's Village. Santa's Cave. Santa's School and Santa Park. There's even Santa Lotto downtown.
Yep! This town has taken over ownership of the fellow with the red suit a beard and made a tourist industry out of it. Not minding the odd bit of tourist cheese, this town promised some and had served it up in droves. Santa peeks out at you from every street sign and shop name and it was then that I realised that this town has sold their soul to Santa. I wonder if they realise santa is an anagram of Satan!

Today I hiked to the Arctic Circle.
Buffet conquered, I went wandering, as I do. The river was close and that was fortunate because it was not so scenic that I would have walked any distance for. I was looking for the 3 places in town that rent bikes so I could ride to the Artic Circle, 8 kms away.
What's wrong with this place! It's a 'tourist town', but they haven't worked out that tourists are on holidays and therefore weekends are irrelevant. All three of the hiring options were only open Monday to Friday, like almost everything else in this place! It's gone to sleep.
The bike option unavailable, I took Shank's pony and hiked the 8 km from Rovaneimi to the Arctic Circle. The path was pleasant and passed through birch and conifer forests and birds chirped in the trees. Let's work off this cold!
Today I shot a reindeer.
Yep! I knew I was carrying all that camera gear for a reason and my long lens came in handy for this assignment.
It was a nice long walk and no one else was around....until some geriatrics came barrelling down the cyclepath in their campervan! That's why, in Australia, we have bollards blocking cyclepaths! Keeps the idoits on the road!
The Arctic Circle has been commercialised. There's a shopping village and all sorts of touristy stuff including Santa's Post Office. Hungry from my walk, I had an 'Arctic Burger'. Not surprisingly, the lettuce was iceberg! :-)
Santa is here if you want your photo taken, but I reckon he's from the same school of imposters that fill shopping centres at Christmas, least he looked the same. Plus, despite Rovaneimi's claim on the man with the red suit, we all know that Santa is at the North Pole. I am going very close to there later in this trip,(See first blog 'departure chat' for my itinerary.) so I will report back about the REAL Santa.
I discovered something about the Arctic Circle that I never knew. I'd seen it on maps as a dotted line, but now I have been there I know that it is actually a solid line with *Arctic Circle' written in it. Amazing but true! I have the photo of me standing over it to prove it.
Photos taken I needed to head back to Rovaneimi to see Artikum, the Lappland museum before it closed, but if I walked I would not have time. Ah! Ha! I have not hitch-hiked since doing it through Europe and Africa in 1992-1994 and this time reminded me of the emotions you go through. Frustration as motorists who could give you a life don't, despair, "WIll I ever get a lift?" and elation as not only does someone stop, they go out of their way to drop you at your destination. I spent 2 hours at the museum until they closed. Very interesting and I'm learning so much trivia that I am expecting all of you to invite me to your next quiz night table.
On leaving at 6, the sun was as high and warm as it gets around here. I took a hint from the locals and sat and sunned myself while drinking a couple of beers.
Dinner tonight was at the restaurant recommended by some people I met last night. I had a Lappland tasting plate, the highlights of which were cold smoked reindeer and smoked reindeer tongue.

I DO have a cold which is not surprising, but nonetheless an unwelcome annoyance. Today I travel to Sweden. I will take a train, 2 busses, and two more trains to reach my friends in Arboga west of Stockholm.
Dodgey bus connections aside, I am now in Lulea as I write this to you. Where is Lulea? It is in far north Sweden, at the top of the gulf of Bothnia. It is an important shipping port and icebreakers keeps the lanes free in the many months of the year that this place is %ยค#"ing cold! But today is not one of those days. I have 6 hours here before my night train to Stockholm. I stashed my pack and, armed with a map from the info office, I wandered! would you expect less of me? There was a path that meandered through the parks along the coastline and I could not believe my eyes. The Swedes were out in drove in bikinis sunning themselves on the grass by the waters edge, or just out for a jog or a bike ride. Swedish babes in bikinis?
WOW! I am liking Sweden already!
I tell you the 8 km walk was for the exercise, but I'll let you decide that one.
Two 8 km walks in two days. Time for me to spend tonight and tomorrow on trains. I am in for a 16 hour journey as of 9 pm tonight.
Sweden - here I come!

Finland is a country full of Finns and I am finished with Finland.

Posted by TheWandera 12:39 Archived in Finland Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Russian Reflections

St Petersburg surprises

As I travelled on the bus from Tallinn in Estonia, ominously, the closer to Russia we got, the more grey and overcast the sky became. By the time we got to the border, the sky matched the grey buildings and the cliche grey border post with stern uniformed women passport control officers. My Canberra-issued visa caused a little extra hassle. It was the only word I understood her say as she disappeared for a few minutes. The whole thing was done in less than an hour, and the bus and its passengers continued on its way.
I'd wondered why the bus schedule took so long for the distance, but when I felt the potholed roads, I knew why.
There are some amazing long bus trips between countries - this is not one of them.
The flat featureless landscape was mainly fields and generic forests. As we travelled closer to St Petersburg the greens and yellows of dandelion fields added a contrast of colour to the grey factories and other crumbling infrastructure.

I felt up for a challenge, so on arriving at the train station in St Petersburg, I decided to take the metro and walk, rather than take a cab. If only I'd known.....
Built on a swamp, St Petersburg has the worlds deepest underground metro, but I tackled the underground without too much hassle. Not bad considering it was all in cyrylic. One stop that way, then change lines and go two more stops. The problems began when I was pointed in the wrong direction down the main road Nevsky Prospekt. Knowing I was staying right next to it, I asked for the Hermitage. i find it hard to believe anyone here doesn't know where it is. I walked quite a distance, before realising something wasn't right. I jumped on a tram, this one didn't crash into a car, but it took me not where I wanted. I jumped off and continued back to Nevsky Prospekt. I got on a bus and this took me to the Hermitage. Woo! Hoo! I then proceed to walk nearly all 4 sides of the sprawling palaces looking for my hostel. The St Petersburg architechture had me in awe, but I just wanted to dump my backpack first, BEFORE wandering. I did find my room - 2 HOURS AFTER ARRIVING AT THE TRAIN STATION.
Okay, so sometimes I do wander and get lost!

Dinner tonight was an entre of "Cold meat served with toast." Literally two slices of salami on a piece of toast. Beef Stroganov followed.

I have 4 nights here in St Petersburg, but only 3 days. I planned to spend days 1 & 3 exploring, and day 2 at the Hermitage. The rain on Day 1 made the decision easy and I spent the WHOLE of today at the Hermitage. Location location! I can't throw stones far, but my room is literally a stone's throw from the big arch that opens onto the square in front of the palace/hermitage. I got there when it opened and did not leave until it closed at 6pm.
300 years in the making to visit what is probably the world's best art collection is my reason for coming to St Petersburg. I was naive when I described 'heaven' in an earlier blog. Today I did die and go to heaven.
Manet and Monet, Pissaro and Picasso, Rembrant and Renoir.
There's a reason their work is much admired.
A whole room of Monet's??!! WOW. I wish my favourite painter was not out of my price range. I love the way he captured colour when others saw none as in Bridge in London fog, or the subtleties light on landscapes in any of his many haystack paintings.
I had an amazing and very memorable day at the Hermitage. It's not just the paintings, the palaces themseves are awesome and the grandness of the venue contribute to a sense of place. Perhaps a one-word description will suffice. EXQUISITE.
I finished the day back in the Monet room. A print or photo is just not the same. As we were herded out of the building I had a chuckle at the way the guards didn't just have batons on their beltd they had them in their hands! It made me think twice about walking out with a Monet under my arm.
By the time I'd paid the entrance, photography fee (extra) and an audio tour (On your handset, dial in the number next to a painting or over a doorway and get a description in English. Very worthwhile in Russia.) it was not cheap, but then again, I spent the day feeling the experience was priceless.
Back at the hostel, as is the norm, I was invited to join a newly acquainted a group of travellers for "few drinks". Walking amongst the ancient streets of this city, crossing canals on little bridges, we arrived at the bar we'd been recommended.
I should have known better than to mix vodka and beer, but tell me you've never done something you knew you shouldn't. They haven't discovered 'responsible serving of alcohol' here in Russia and we weren't responsible. What's a trip to Russia without a night of vodka silliness? Late appearances the next day and sore heads all round.
On the drinking thing. I think Russians must all be alcoholics. Any walk down any street at any time of the day will show people with a beer in their hand. Not just men, you will see women, girls and boys all drinking. Hey! When you have 10 months of winter, maybe that does it to you?
Everyone seems to smoke here. They are a bit behind the West as you will see cigarette adverts on billboards everywhere. It does make me laugh the way that none of the adverts show people smoking, rather doing some other 'fun' thing that has nothing to do with smoking.

As I mentioned, my second day here began late, but that's okay when it is light almost all night. They are celebrating the White Nights at the moment. That time of the year when the street lights aren't needed.

The city of St Petersburg is 300 years old and in some places looks it. There are many buildings covered in scaffolding undergoing restoration, some completed and others waiting their turn. Canals lined with buildings. Often the fascade of the building is just that and behind it lies an ancient crumbling interior.
The Wandera wandered. I crossed bridges over the main river looked back to the river frontage of the Hermitage, wandered up and down the full length of the main street, Nevsky Prospekt and generally just went where my curiosity took me.
I've been to Russia before, having visited Moscow with my brother in December of 1999. It seems some things haven't changed and a bit of police corruption and bribery is one of them. I watched several times as a policeman with a speed gun pulled motorists over without having actually pointed it at them, show them the speed that they were being accused of, be slipped some money and go on their way.
Dinner tonight was crepes, a Russian specialty apparently. They weren't special, but the pickled herring and beetroot salad was.

Thursday 8th June - up and out to explore, all day. I went first to the Church on Spilled Blood. Sounds macabre, but the building is fanstastic, reminding me of St Basil's Cathederal in Moscow. On the exterior are ornately decorated 'onions' topped towers of tile mosaics. Inside are 7000 square metres of tile mosaics, fearuring many stories from the New Testament. It is an incredible artistic achievement.
For the first time since getting here, the sun has come out. A canal tour, seemingly available and touted with megaphones at every one of the 300 bridges in the city, was the only other thing on my list of 'must do today'. I enjoyed an hour out in the sun on the back of a boat as we travelled narrow canals under low bridges flanked by high buildings and out onto the wide river with palaces and fortresses on its banks. I suffered digital diahorrea and I think I took too many photos.
I am carrying, two cameras, three lenses covering 12-300mm, and 6 gig of memory cards. Sure it all weighs a bit, but travel photography is the thing I get most pleasure out of while travelling. (That, and eating lots of different foods.) It's not just the different subjects, but also the inclination and time to go out and find them. I could do it at home, but get busy doing other things than wandering around with a camera around my neck.
I continued exploring and found many more interesting buildings. The high point for me, literally, was climbing the golden dome of St Isaacs Cathedral. This seemed to be the only place in a very flat waterside city that offered a view. I could see many buildings and landmarks.

Later tonight, the sun came out and bathed the city in a beautiful golden light. I was 'forced' to get my camera and rephotograph many of the pictures I had taken previously with worse light. Fortunately I am staying right in the heart of the Historic District with many of the most spectacular buildings. The sun seemed to take forever to set, but eventually did, close to 11pm.
The locals started smiling too, so maybe the weather does have something to do with it.

Wandering the city, I often noticed the smell of fresh dill, but can't find a source. They cook with it a lot here, so perhaps it's wafting from kitchens. Over the days here I've noticed it often.
Could be worse - today has the "Worst toilet so far." award and I hope it is not beaten. It was a port-a-loo that needed emptying. Everything that had gone in there was on display for all. Yikes! I closed my eyes and my nose. They were charging people too!

Russian cuisine? If you come to Russia for the food, think again.
I do enjoy borscht the classic beetroot soup, but other than that, there's really not much. Chicken Kiev and Beef Stroganov perhaps?
I wondered if the local McDonalds sells St Petersburgers?

As I travelled to the station for my early morning train to Helsinki, the streets were clean and quiet and the sun was rising but still low in a cloudless sky. The city was different, and I realised that there's more to this city than all that I have squeezed into a few days, fun as they were.

It was great first getting on the train and then getting my passport stamped at the border. Like when I visited in 1999, leaving Russia comes with a sense of relief that's a bit like feeling you have 'escaped'. Despite the appearance of being modern there's a feeling of menace, with uniformed people everywhere, endemic corruption it's not like you can trust them. You must always carry your passport and the beauracracy is, well, Russian.

I had a great short time in St Petersburg and I am glad I made the effort.

Posted by TheWandera 08:41 Archived in Russia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Medieval Tallinn

I will always remember the appearance of the spires, towers and walls of this Medieval city as my helicopter arrived in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

Helicopter? What the?
Yep! I've been in helicopters before, but for sight-seeing flights, and never just for 'travel' but with a regular service between Helsinki and Tallinn, here was my chance. I like helicopters, as long as they don't crash, and this one didn't!
The 60 km flight across the Gulf of Finland took only 18 minutes, and in addition to the fantastic aerial views of Helsinki as we departed, gave me the same for Tallinn as we arrived. The steeples of churches and turrets of Medieval battlements and walls of old Tallinn stood out.
On arrival at the heliport, a new black Mercedes with driver was waiting to take me to my flash hotel, right near the Medieval 'Old Town'. Quality hotel, nice room. I think being rich would suit me.
Note to self - "Remember to buy Lotto tickets when I return home."

Thursday the first of June 2006 - After dropping off my bags in my room, I set off exploring and wandering the streets of Old Town Tallinn, as my travel name 'TheWanderera' suggests. Being my first afternoon here that is precisely what I did. Just wander.
My 'slogan' for this trip, thanks Natia, is "Just because I wander does not mean I am lost." Again, I had no map, but this is only necessary if you want to know where you are. Perhaps, by wandering, you will find things that the guide book writers did not. Actually, I will confess that I usually have a Lonely Planet, so I can at least read up on the history of a place. For Tallinn though, I have nothing, and I'm loving it.
I found cathederals and castlements, steeples and steps, and this 'old town' of Tallinn had a real fascination for me. You can 'visit' museums, but here I was going to be 'living' in one. How cool is that? I was chuffed with the idea of where I was, and kept walking the cobbled streets of Tallinn and ended up at the market Square in the middle of town.
Having walked up an appetite, I found an al fresco table in a restaurant at the edge of the square. but my 'traditional' Caesar salad came with a stone (I know it's Estonia, but I did not expect this!) which caused a dentine disaster. So much for getting my teeth checked BEFORE departure. No pain, so I hope my dentist can do the necessary repairs on my return. Of course this happens in the FIRST week of a 3 month holiday, not the last. Bloody Murphy follows me everywhere!
Minus some tooth, I continued to explore this amazing place. It's like being in the 14th or 15th century with cobbled streets, walls and battlements.
If I'd had to live in that era, this was the place to be.
Unfortunately, despite it's ability to repulse enemies of old, and it's current UNESCO world heritage status, it has now been invaded by tourists. EVERY shop in the central area is a tourist shop and speaking of tourists, they arrive by the busload, boatload , planeload and cruise ships stop here too. More tourists per annum than the population of the country, I kid you not! Not so nice.
I might be a tourist, but it doesn't mean I like them!

Souvenir shopping? If I was going to buy something, I wanted to "get it out of the way", so that from then on I could ignore the ubiquitous 'Souvenir Shops' and touts, and continue on my way.
What to buy? There were the usual fashion label clothing stores, but for a closet nudist, they're not my cup of tea.
Hmm? What would happen if you were a nudist AND liked tea?
There was glassware, perfect for a backpacker - NOT! There were antique shops aplenty and they displayed all sorts of ancient Estonian wares, some dating back 200+ years.Call me picky, but to me they just didn't seem OLD enough, so I decided to multiply that age by a factor of 25,000 !!!
I bought a 50 million year old mosquito suspended in Amber, the fossilised sap of ancient forests.It's amazing to see when you hold it to the light. A mosquito, just like the bugger that bit me yesterday, yet they have got their biting technique sussed such that they haven't needed to change in 50 million years.
Perhaps not as old as my 350 million year old Moroccan Ammonite fossils, but a lot older than a 200 year old 'antique'. Fossils - real antiques. I like my purchase and it is the perfect backpack size souvenir.

That done, I continued my exploration of the 'Old Town'. I found amazing churches with pipe organs playing, panoramic views from the 'high town' over the 'low town', and of course cobbled streets and steps everywhere. Much more walking to be done methinks.
The blue sky of the afternoon disappeared and I watched with awe as a thuderstom passed over the city and I got an appreciation of why the 156m high spire of one of the churches (for two centuries the highest struture in the world) is now 20m less because they got sick of rebuilding it after lightning strikes.
Dinner tonight was at a restaurant called "Grandmas House". After this afternoons effort at history, I felt like I had joined Asterix and Obelix as I sat down to dinner of wild boar. Shame the chef recreated what Grandmas do to vegetrables. The meat was good, but the overcooked vegetables....hmmm.
On exiting the basement restaurant onto the cobbled streets of the Old town once again, it was 10pm and the sun was still up. I was captivated by the quality of the light on the buildings around me. (Tall bellfrys and steeples were bathed in gorgeous golden light. Photographers in Oz know of "The Golden Hour", ie the first and last hour of the day, for the quality of the light. Here in these northern latitudes, it's a couple of hours and when I am far above the Arctic Circle later in this trip it might just be all day.) Murphy struck again, as I'd no camera with me to catch any of it, as I'd intended to go to some bars after dinner. I did, but not before seeking out a panoramic viewpoint high over the city to watch tonight's sunset and know where to come tomorrow night.
Bars and clubs? The most noteworthy was one called Stereo.I thought I'd woken up on the set of the movie Clockwerk Orange. White vinyl everywhere. Floors, walls and even the furniture. Perhaps a glass of milk would have fit in better?

Today I bought a "Talllin Card". Which gives me free transport and entry to most things including a few tours too. The weather is fantastic! Blue skies are here again. I began my day with an act of randomness by jumping on the first bus that came past. I rode it out into the burbs, but with nothing of real interest appearing, I caught one back to the start point and headed off on foot instead.
I'd seen a street sign pointing to "Kick in de Kok" and had to find out what it was. I was careful not to ask anyone on the street, "Can you show me Kick in de Kok?" or I might not have liked the result.
Turns out it's the canon tower of the city and it translates as "See into the kitchen" as from there the soldiers could peek into peoples houses.
The weather today is magic and I took many photos.
Someone must have told them I was coming as there is a day festival for the 4 days I am here. Lots of street theatre and outdoor bands.

Another city and another tram smash. Does no one read Socrates? If things come in threes, I best be careful in St Petersburg.

Museums aplenty. The natural history one was first, with lots of stuffed dead things including a kangaroo, then a mine museum, (Yep! a museum dedicated to bombs for ships.) and finally the maritime museum. Museumed out - I joined an organised cycle tour for two hours late in the day. There is much to see outside the city and bicycles are a perfect way to get around. We saw palaces and parks, seaside statues and other things I would now have found myself.
The sunset tonight was great and this time I had my camera ready to take advantage of it.

Another day in Tallinn. Fairly crappy weather, so I rode the three different lines of the "hop-on, hop-off" tour bus. The commentary told me a few pieces of useless information I might not have known otherwise. Did you know that the Bank of Estonia is one of the 25 oldest central banks in the world? Neither did I, but it made the tour all the more worthwhile.
Mmmm! Curry. I had an international experience at lunchtime today - An Aussie in an Irish pub in Estonia eating a Thai curry while drinking English beer. Bloody international I am.

This arvo I bought 3 different bottles of the local brew, Saku beer, from the Alko bottle shop. (Great name hey? Especially the BIG store they have near the wharf called Alko Ekspert.)
Anyway, if I thought the first botle was a killer @ 8% the second bottle was called Presidenti and was 10% alcohol. Fark! Thankfully I only had a 4% pilsner to finish and by then I was too. ;-)
$2.40 for 3 cold bottles. I knew I'd like it here. Presidenti Maybe they should call it Plasterizer? I think beers like this put the 'stone' into Estonia.
At 80 cents for 500ml of 10% alcohol beer it's no wonder I've not seen the usual city drunkards wandering the steets, or sitting begging on street corners. At these prices they can finish themselves off quickly, and save everyone the hassle.
Oops! That's not really polically correct is it. Sorry!
Maybe I'm not so far off the mark though. Why is it if everyone knows that "Smoking Kills", why do they keep doing it? It's one of those paradoxes of humanity - the way some people will do whatever it takes to survive, despite their suffering, while others will do what it takes to kill themselves despite their lack of suffering.
Thought for today from Guru Malcolm. :-) Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, my last full day in Tallinn
I went first to the national art gallery, closed on Mondays, and apparently on random Sundays if they know I'm coming. Probably rubbish anyway, not that I'm bitter. Have you ever heard of an Estonian artist? Thought not.
I used my Tallinn card to access all sorts of interesting things, including climbing the 260 steps (I counted them.) to the top of St Olav's church for an amazing city view. A marzipan shop caught my eyes, and tastebuds and I also climbed the bellfry of the town hall, overlooking the town square.
Late in the day, after a snack of crispy pigs ears in garlic sauce.I rented a bike for a few hours and used it to explore the old port industrial area. Crumbling Soviet factories, their usefullness long gone were coloured by the green and yellow of dandelions growing everywhere.

Notice they wait until you get here to tell you that in Estonia, they have two winters, the 'white' one, ie with snow, and the 'green' one, ie what I put up with today.Supposed to be summer, but with grey blanketing clouds and incessant rain, you'd never know.

Estonia backward? No! Estonia is part of the EU now and they seem determined to prove their worthiness and shake off the legacy of the Russian occupation from 1940-1991

Some people, such as my friend Mark, use "eek!" as a negative exclamation, but here in Estonia, the local currency is called kroon, plural is krooni (cool hey?) and the Estonian name for Estonia is Eesti. So in same way we abbreviate Australian dollars to AUD, they have prices as EEK!! But compared to Finland the prices actually aren't "eek!" at all. Rather good actually.

Travelling lets you do all the things you don't get to do at home, like hand-washing your clothes in the handbasin of your hotel room.

I noticed many people here in Tallinn have Dashhounds and I got to thinking. Can vagetarians keep sausage dogs?

Crazy foods I have eaten here -

Sprats for breakfast
- pickled sardines. As a bonus/curse you get to taste them all day.
Pickled mushrooms for breakfast - can't help myself. I guess I'm just a fun-guy.
Wild boar - I'll leave that one to Asterix in future.
Crispy Fried Pig's ears in garlic sauce. I liked the garlic sauce.
Moose Stew - shame it was a fricassee and not a slow cooked stew as it was as tough as boots. I think I will stick to the chocolate variety in future.

That's my Estonian wrap. Tallinn was a lot of fun.

I'm off to Russia from here. 7 hours by bus and I should be in St Petersburg. I can't wait to see what adventures await.
Check back here and soon I'll be letting you know.

Posted by TheWandera 08:50 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

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