Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stockholm Clean, Bright and.... Warm??

What a difference a period of three weeks makes at the start of spring! Arriving in Stockholm today, it was 60F – a 30 degree increase from when I arrived at the start of this trip! I packed away the down coat, hat and gloves for my last day, and took to the streets of Stockholm, exploring one of the outer island/suburbs that sees few tourists. I was in search of a bakery/cafĂ© owned by the confectioner who supplies the Nobel banquets. I found it and was not disappointed (remember how in my first blog entry for this trip I said I might live on desserts alone? Well, that’s almost the case!). Along the way I could see that everyone was out in the sunshine – some in shorts and t-shirts, and the neighborhoods reminded me a bit of San Francisco: young, urban, hip.

Stockholm is such a change from Riga (which is only a one hour flight across the Baltic Sea). During the Soviet occupation, large numbers of Russians emigrated to Latvia, changing the ethic makeup dramatically. Today, Riga is about 60% Latvian and 40% Russian. To me, it felt very eastern – more so than Estonia, which shares a much longer border with Russia.

On my last night in Riga, I went to the National Opera House to see a ballet. I had read Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov both started their careers with the Latvian National Ballet, and it inspired me to see a performance. I had hoped to see an opera too, as the National Opera is the pride of Latvia, but unfortunately my timing didn’t work out. For such a small country, Latvia seems to have an extensive arts culture, and getting to witness a part of it in the gilded glory of the 100 year old National Opera House was a treat.

Friday, April 15, 2011


The recent (last 100 years) history of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) is largely the same: Long awaited independence and national pride is crushed by Soviet invasion, followed by Nazi oppression, and then handed back to the Soviets where they remained behind the Iron Curtain for over 45 years.

Riga also has a Museum of Occupation, housed in one of the few remaining Soviet structures (Latvians tore down the rest) – a kind of fitting house for the horrors chronicled inside. Needless to say, I am becoming extremely familiar with history of this region (including Finland). Learning history first-hand (so to speak) is one of my goals in traveling, and hitting almost the whole region this time has made that a lot easier.

Riga itself is an interesting jumble of medieval, modern, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and numerous other kinds of architecture. The old town was not preserved as well as in Tallinn, and here you have modern shopping malls next to 16th century buildings. The Art Nouveau district is the most celebrated, and I took heaps of photos of the various nymphs, ghouls and dragons adorning them.

I am happy to report that the weather is warming even more, and today is the first day I didn’t have to wear hat and scarf (and gloves for the second half of the day). Tomorrow, my last day, is supposed to get into the 50’s!

I’m not sure if anyone is reading this, but I’ll do a couple more installments before I draw this episode to a close. I hope you have enjoyed coming along with me!

Left: Soviet-era bunker houses Museum of Occupation in Riga

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


My first full day in Tallinn, and the sun disappeared, leaving grey, freezing weather in its wake. I just couldn’t get any decent photos, sorry.

After a self-guided audio tour walking around the Old Town, I took in both the Tallinn City Museum and the Museum of Occupation, which was devoted to the history of Soviet and Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1991. The City Museum covered some of the same period, particularly Stalin’s reign. The combined information detailed the sad story of a young, free Estonia being swallowed, then oppressed, by a much mightier country. When I finally read about the “Singing Revolution” that bloodlessly ended the Soviet occupation, it brought tears to my eyes.
Tomorrow I have half a day in Tallin before taking a bus to Riga, Latvia, my last stop before flying back to Stockholm to catch my flight home.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Beautiful Tallinn, Estonia

As most of you reading this blog know (or just look at the archive of posts), I’ve been quite a few places by now. But it’s been awhile since a place made me go “Wow!”

Welcome to Old Town, Tallinn, Estonia! Now THIS is a medieval town, where most of the buildings date from the 14th and 15th centuries, on a site that has been inhabited since at least the 11th century. Many of the buildings have been re-worked over the centuries, with some of the original architectural details being incorporated into 17th and 18th century facades, but the overall look and feel as you stroll the cobbled streets is one of stepping back 600 years. The original city walls are surprisingly intact, adding to sense of preservation in this beautiful little town within a city.

Estonians share common ancestry with the Finns, and their languages belong to the same group. Unfortunately, Estonians historically suffered a similar fate as the Finns – being always occupied or governed by another country (the Swedes, then the Russians). As you are probably aware, Estonia was swept into the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, reportedly against the wishes of the Estonian people, who longed for independence. The 50 or so years as part of the USSR were not kind to Estonia (to say the least), and this medieval gem suffered from disuse and neglect.

Independence and forward thinking government brought Estonia back to the world in 1991, and they are now part of the EU and NATO. However, tensions with Russia remain.

I arrived late in the day today with less than ideal light for photos. More tomorrow!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Turku and Rauma

I’ve spent the last couple days exploring the southwest corner of Finland, specifically the towns of Turku and Rauma. Turku was the capitol of Finland until 1812, when the Russian tsar moved it to Helsinki. Some of old Turku remains, including a rambling castle begun in the 14th century, which is still standing due to may restorations and additions. The rest of the town is a mish mash of 18th and 19th century and modern buildings, lots of university students, and, it seems, all of the riff raff of Finland. Notwithstanding this lack of focus, the city dishes up great food, and I continue to be impressed with the innovation. Who would have thought a cepes (mushroom) brulee would work? Or that I would enjoy deep fried beef tongue with my celery root soup? My least enjoyable meal was at the Viking themed, over-the-top kitsch restaurant that was much recommended in my guide book and the tourist office.

On the second day, despite 32F weather and freezing rain, I took a bus 90 km to the north to visit Rauma, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as a unique example of medieval architecture. Such a billing made me think of dark wood and stone huts. But the town looks remarkably like Porvoo, a blend of architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries. (I always thought of “medieval” as being a bit before that…) It was charming nonetheless, and I had a tranquil (dry) walk along the cobbled streets, with stops only for coffee and Rauma biscuits (which taste just like gingersnaps).

Tomorrow I take the train back to Helsinki, then right onto a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia – a short 2 hour hop across the Gulf of Finland.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Joo Joo Joo

It sounds like yo! yo! yo!, and means yes yes yes. It’s the one Finnish word I recognize, maybe because it is the same in Saami (the languages are closely related), and I heard Pere-Nils use it many times.

Today, amazingly, the sun came out. It came OUT! In less than 24 hours the city was transformed from grey, huddled masses hurrying to and fro from Stockmann’s (reportedly Europe’s largest department store), to sun worshippers basking in the 45 F sunshine (I noted at as of 4:30 pm today it was warmer in Helsinki than in San Diego – crazy!). Every sunny park bench and step was taken by stunned looking city dwellers soaking it up. Even the cafes put out chairs, and it seems that Helsinki is catching up with spring. Finally.

I haven’t visited Stockmann’s, despite being told that I should by various sources. I feel like it’s telling a foreign visitor to visit the Mall of America in Minneapolis – just to go because it’s the biggest (plus, they are having "crazy days" right now, which I take to mean a massive sale, and the place is packed). I did visit the massive Stockmann’s book store to supplement my guide books since I have added Latvia to my itinerary, and was impressed with the Alvar Aalto 1969 building, custom designed as a bookstore. It maximizes natural light with an inverted atrium extending up 3 floors, reflecting light off the white Carrara marble interior.

In fact, it’s the little shops in the Helsinki Design District that are the most interesting, as they showcase the superb Finnish design that was unknown to me before (although my sister the designer is a long-time fan).

Friday, April 8, 2011

This is Spring?

With the pots of daffodils lining shop fronts and the display cases full of Easter eggs and bunnies, you would think that spring was in the air. But a trip outside of the city showed that here in the north, “spring” still means several feet of snow on the ground, and ice-fishing.

Helsinki, with 500,000 residents, is the second most northern capitol in the world (after Reykjavik). It is much farther north and east than Stockholm, which I didn’t appreciate until I found myself locked in cold and fog for 3 days in a row. Today, however, I decided to take a side trip to the historic town of Porvoo, about an hour to the east. It was there that Tsar Alexander I in 1809 proclaimed Finland to be a Russian Grand Duchy, having just won it from Sweden (which had occupied Finland for 650 years). It was only after that declaration that the capitol of Finland was moved from Turku (where I am headed next) to Helsinki.
The town of Porvoo, from what I could see underneath the snow, is charming, with a tranquil riverside setting. It is another place that bears visiting in the summer, as its charms were mostly obscured.

Another day of great food! Not to mention the hand made chocolate from the tiny shop opposite the 15th century cathedral in old town Porvoo.

The highlight today was seeing my sister on live video via Skype for the first time she arrived in India. She is doing really well!

Above: The largest Russian Orthodox church in Western Europe/Scandinavia makes an appearance out of the fog.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

To Market

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the 120 year old market hall on the waterfront is still very much in use, with the original carved mahogany stalls in good shape, and most of the stalls open for lunch. I can only imagine how it is in the summer when the expansive concrete in front is lined with tables and stalls, as I saw in photos. It has become clear that I am missing the best of Helsinki by not being here in summer (I didn’t have that feeling in Stockholm). From the market to the esplanade to the 18th century island fortress of Soumenlinna, winter is an effective shut down. This hasn’t been helped by cold fog and rain for the last two days.

I have also been pleasantly surprised at how friendly and helpful the Finnish have been so far. From what I heard in Sweden I was expecting a cool reception (a la Bolivia), but have had quite the opposite experience. And I have enjoyed the food much more, especially the savory pastries (piirakka) and seafood options; food seems to be a bit more flavorful here.

Unfortunately, it seems like a lot more people smoke here than in Sweden. But not inside, which is a life/lung saver!

Above: Soumenlinna Fortress, constructed in 1748, shut down for the winter.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Helsinki Grey and Slushy

After on overnight ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, I jumped on a city tour – not a bad idea in the freezing drizzle. After that I set out walking to see the sights but quickly tired as it had been a hard night on the ferry and I hadn’t slept much.

Unbeknownst to me when I booked the ferry, it is a 2800 passenger cruise ship, with gambling, nightclubs, and crowds of Swedish and Finnish revelers. Being during the week, the crowds were less, but in my basement cabin (below the car deck), I could hear my neighbors partying long into the wee hours. Add that sound of the hull crashing against ice frequently, and it was a fitful night!

Arriving in Helsinki, it was like going back a month as far as weather is concerned, The many harbors are choked with ice, and there is snow on the ground everywhere. It is grey and snow is expected tomorrow.

On my first day in Finland I learned some interesting facts about the Finnish: there are 2 million saunas in Finland – approximately 1 for every 2 ½ people and Finnish drink more coffee per capita than any other country.

This is clear: the country straddles both Scandinavia and the east, combining elements of both in a fascinating jumble.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Return to Stockholm

The flight from Kiruna to Stockholm is only 1 ½ hours – about the same from San Diego to San Francisco, and I think the length of Sweden may be about the same as California. Compared to its neighbors (Norway and Finland), so many Swedish brands have been a big hit in the US, including IKEA, Volvo, Saab, and H&M. Swedish fish, Swedish meatballs, Swedish massage – I tried all of these while in Sweden. Unfortunately, I learned that the planned ABBA museum never materialized, so I didn’t get to sample that famous Swedish export.

Arriving back in Stockholm was coming back to spring that sprung while we were in the north. Sidewalk cafes have appeared, and pots of daffodils are everywhere. The ice on the lake is breaking up and rapidly disappearing. It’s brisk but comfortable walking weather and I went all over town looking for good food, coffee and chocolate.

I also visited 3 more of the many museums in the city: the Vasa Museum, the Nordic Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. I can highly recommend the first two. The Vasa Museum houses a nearly intact wooden ship that sunk in Stockholm harbor in 1628, together with around 12,000 objects found with it. The wood-boring worms that usually destroy wood don’t like the low salt content of the Baltic and as a result the ship was incredibly preserved in the clay bottom of the harbor. A massive effort from 1957-1961 raised the ship and now it sits in a custom built museum dedicated to the history of the ship and the period of its construction.

The size of the Vasa is simply stunning: 62 meters long and several stories high. It sunk just setting sail and it is now believed that the ships design of being too tall and narrow caused it to capsize.

Almost next door to the Vasa Museum is the Nordic Museum in a grandiose purpose-built building that I first mistook for a cathedral. It houses interesting exhibits on the history of Scandinavian design, 300 years of clothing (quite different that American clothing), Scandinavian traditions, and had a temporary exhibit on the history of “Men in Bathing Suits”, which was just hilarious, although presented in a completely serious manner.

Last night in Stockholm, and I am on an overnight ferry bound for Helsinki.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Swedish Meatballs

A note about the food. When we first arrived in the north, I did my best to keep up with the meat consumption, trying to do as the Saami do, but my stomach rebelled after a couple days of moose and reindeer for breakfast lunch and dinner. I scaled back and luckily there was another person on the trip not wanting to eat so much meat, so sometimes we had a vegetarian option. The fare was pretty much meat (with fish a few times) and heaps of potatoes. Sometimes we would get some frozen vegetables, but as you can imagine, it’s slim pickins in the Arctic! One of the nice perks of Arctic life is the lingonberries, which are somewhat sour but make a wonderful jam and juice. We also tried some cloudberries (frozen as they are picked in summer), a unique product of the area. Also sour, but different and wonderful as jam. Our last meal in Kiruna was, you guessed it, Swedish meatballs with gravy and potatoes. I had a few, but was glad to get back to the variety of Stockholm!

It was in Stockholm, at the Mathias Dahlgren restaurant in the Grand Hotel that I had the best meal I have had in a long long time. I had my first experience with herring, and it was the best possible in a kind of herring tartare, which was herring side by side with whitefish roe, yellow beets, capers, potatoes, sour cream, and topped with a raw egg yolk. On the advice of my server, I mixed it all up into a salty, fishy nectar and ate it with fresh crusty sourdough bread. That was followed with croquettes of forest mushrooms and salt fried green asparagus, baked Bolivian wild chocolate with toffee ice cream, and lemon verbena tea (with tiny tangerine Madelines for good measure). I could come back to Stockholm early just eat there again!

And I have righted the coffee wrongs and found mostly excellent coffee after my first day in Stockholm. This includes Jordana’s wicked brew that made my hair stand on end!

Ice Ice Baby

On April 2nd we said goodbye to the dogs and checked into the world famous, original, Ice Hotel. It was much more impressive than I thought it would be, and I admit I spent little time looking online to prepare myself for the experience.

There is a heated, regular construction portion of the hotel, which stays in place all year round. This abuts the lobby, Ice Bar and sleeping rooms, constructed new each year from blocks of ice from the Torne River. The temperature inside is a steady -5C, which must feel quite warm in the dead of winter, was but was quite chilly since the outside temps were approaching +10C when we visited.

Since the operators of the Ice Hotel have been at it for nearly 20 years, they know how to prepare guests to sleep in the ice rooms, handing out warm sleeping bags, liners, and assigning warm changing and storage rooms for before and after the cold night.

Our tour had booked us into the Ice Suites – each with a different theme carved by a team of artists in the ice (there are also cheaper plain ice rooms that are all the same). Mine was entitled “Flow”, and I invited Jordana to share it with me, since she was without room and I didn’t want to have the experience alone (she has slept there many times as a guide and gave us expert advice on staying warm through the night).

So we had our farewell dinner, with the Dutch buying us all drinks first in the Ice Bar, then in the heated lounge (I finally had great coffee, yippee!) The surroundings invited much silliness, and it was only with a Benedryl that I settled down to make it through the cold night sleeping, literally, on a block of ice.

We were awakened by staff bearing hot lingonberry juice to warm us up, and after a hot shower and lavish breakfast buffet we were on our way back to Stockholm. Goodbye Jordana!

Note about dog sledding: the trip I did is no longer being offered, so check out if you are interested in doing one yourself!

Aah, Saunas!

Above: Sunset in the Lapland wilderness

As I mentioned in my last post, every wilderness cabin has a wood-fired sauna. The Saami house also had one, and I reluctant tried it on day 2 as I am not a big fan of saunas and steam rooms. Much to my delight, I found that it is standard in the country to have a water cistern attached to the stove, which heats hot water for bathing. Indeed, this was the only way to bathe the entire week (I had been prepared to go without the whole week so I was pleasantly surprised). After spending a couple days in minus temperatures, I immediately understood the draw and function of the sauna (which is a Finnish invention) in northern Sweden. It provides much needed heat and moisture, and a comfortable environment for getting clean!

Going back to civilization, I saw that all the saunas are electric, with no hot water, the same as we have the U.S. It’s just not the same without the cistern of hot water and the open slats in the floor showing the snow below. Despite this, Jordana and I (we were referred to by the others as “the girls”) took one last sauna on the last night (electric), but went outside and did snow angels in a snow bank before running back to the stifling heat.

Above photo: Wilderness cabin with sauna cabin in background.

Four Days of Dogs

After saying goodbye to Brit-Marie and Pere-Nils, we toured the countryside for almost four full days with our dog teams, crossing frozen rivers and lakes and staying at “wilderness cabins”, which are huts with wood-burning stoves but no running water or electricity. They were quite cozy, and all came with a separate sauna, warmed by another wood-burning stove. Another stove would warm the changing room, and yet another would warm water for the dogs’ food.

Lubos, our Slovakian guide and dog master, handled everything and even cooked for us too, with the help of our other guide, Jordana. I helped feed and clean up afte our 28 dogs morning and night and was impressed with the food quality (raw) and rations.

It was interesting to see the life of working husky, which can be summed up by 3 words: eat, sleep, run. In northern Sweden they use Alaskan huskies since they are hardier and run faster than other breeds. Mine were the fastest 4 dog team - 3 big males and one female: Adam, Herman, Tiger (who ran the Iditarod), and Tina. They all had such distinct personalities, and they all looked very different too. What I learned is that Alaskan huskies are not really a “breed” but a real mix, and they can vary greatly in appearance – just look at the various dogs in the photos.

The procedure was to put the harnesses on the dogs, then clip them to the pull lines of the sled. The sled has to be anchored in the snow, or else the dogs will just take off! They only have only 2 settings when harnessed: stop and go. To stop them or slow them down you have to use a brake on the sled. They love to run, needless to say, and just getting the harnesses out causes them to start whining and howling in anticipation. They’ll start the noise again if you stop for too long on the trail. They only rest after a good run, and it’s satisfying to see them conked out in their beds of straw or doghouses at the end of the day (one of the big cabins had about 50 dog houses for dog teams).

The dogs thrive in really cold weather. When it starts to get over 0C, they get too hot and slow down greatly. The whole concept of them sleeping out in the snow took some getting used to for me, but everyone assured me that they are happy out there, and overheat quickly, even in wooden doghouses. The dogs do have to adjust somewhat to a so-called life on the run: they poop and pee while running, and scoop up bites of snow for drinks of water.

In the 4 days I became quite fond of my team, especially the goofball Herman, who loved to be petted and give kisses. I will miss them. Photo: Herman tries to clean my face.

Above: Adam and Tina, my lead dogs.

Right: Tiger enjoys the dog house.

To see a video of the dogs in action, click here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Reindeer Games

The plan for the second night was to spend the night in the laavu (tee-pee) outside the house, as this was the traditional type of dwelling for the Saami before they settled down in modern wood houses (see photo below with snow-mobile and laavu in background). They used to take reindeer sleds out to a laavu in the wilderness for the night, but have moved it back to the house to provide visitors with an escape route if they get too cold. We all bunked in, except one of the Dutch gentlemen, who steadfastly insisted that -25C was too cold for sleeping outside. The other 3 Dutch were game, which was impressive given that they are all over 65! Pere-Nils built a huge fire in the middle, which smoked terribly, but it did little to abate the cold. Freezing in a borrowed light-weight sleeping bag, I only last a couple hours (at the most) before I high-tailed it inside. Jordana was right behind me, a victim of the smoke, which was billowing in her direction all night. The others lasted longer, but we were all inside by morning.

Not a great night’s sleep, but we were all ready to go reindeer sledding in the morning. After a hearty breakfast and plenty of coffee, we helped Pere-Nils harness 3 of the reindeer he had brought down from the herd that was off grazing elsewhere. They don’t use the reindeer so much for pulling sleds anymore, and let’s just say that the reindeer aren’t too crazy about doing it. Each of the Dutch couples had a reindeer and sled, and I rode with Pere-Nils behind the wildest one. The method for going, if you can get the sled attached to the harness, is to stand holding the head, then let go and jump on as the reindeer takes off full speed and the sled races by. Full of opportunities for injury, to say the least!

Once going the reindeer calms down and the ride is peaceful. I had to take video as I was amused at their light-footed gait that keeps their wide-spread hooves from sinking in the snow. See it on Youtube:

Each reindeer typically carried about 120 kilos, and the Saami would use about 15 to move a family and their belongings from place to place. The front one would be led by a Saami on skis, since there is no steering mechanism. This was shown when the Dutch-driven reindeer took off in a different direction on the way back. Pere-Nils and I chased them down on a snowmobile and he led them back while I drove a snowmobile for the first time! All in all a nice day, where I learned a lot about reindeer and the Saami way of life.

Introduction to Lapland

Let me catch up with last week, and my time in Lapland. On Sunday morning, March 27, we took a one and half hour flight north to Kiruna, which is north of the Arctic circle. Jordana, our guide, collected us, gave us our snowsuits, hats, gloves and boots and drove us further north to the Saami village of Ovre Soppero (only 50 km from the Finnish border). The Saami people have lived in the north of what is now Norway, Sweden and Finland for thousands of years as nomadic reindeer herders. Now they have wooden houses and some of the modern conveniences, but they still rely on reindeer to provide a way of life.

Brit-Marie and Pere-Nils, our Saami hosts, cooked for us and instructed us on the Saami way of life. A hard life it was, and is…. but more on that later. Amazingly, the Northern Lights made an appearance the first night! Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos, as I watched them from the window of the sleeping loft in the top of the house. And even though I checked every night after that, they never again appeared, so I guess we were lucky for our one sighting.

The next day we took a snowmobile and sleds to the river to go icefishing and have lunch (reindeer sausage and flatbread). The temperature was a balmy -10 C. Seriously, it felt warm after a night of -25C! Pere-Nils made a fire on the snowy river bank, and brewed strong Saami-style coffee – the most common drink in Lapland.

People lost interest in ice-fishing and only one small fish was caught (and thrown back), but we enjoyed seeing the countryside and getting a taste of the weather in preparation for the coming days.

Above: Me and Jordana relax on reindeer skins by the fire