Thursday, 20 January 2011

Pre-Christmas - Tallinn

The last leg of our pre-Christmas holiday was in Tallinn in Estonia, which we reached via a short ferry trip from Helsinki (which we only just made it on time for, being unexpectedly held up in the Helsinki traffic).
I have to say I was a bit sceptical of this last part of our trip, since most guide books seem to brush Tallinn off as a day-trip from Finland, but actually it was one of the nicest part of our whole trip.
Linda had found us an apartment just off the main square of Tallinn (although finding it at first was a bit difficult, thanks to an unhelpful taxi driver and a confusing numbering scheme). On the main square was the Christmas Markets, which were really nice and suitably snow-covered.
Tallinn is famous for it's crafts and so we spent some time going from shop to shop, buying more presents and more Christmas decorations.
In between shopping we had plenty more Glogg to keep us warm, and even managed to figure out the Sauna in our apartment to help thaw us after spending too long in the freezing outdoors.
Since the old town of Tallinn is medieval, they have some medieval themed cafés and restaurants and we dined on some delicious (if sometimes heavy) meals, including pastries and game meats. The beer was also excellent!
We took the time also to head out to another open air museum, which always sound tacky in theory, but in practice they are fantastic because they have lots of cute historic buildings covered with snow, and in Tallinn they even had re-enactments of life from the respective period.
We were lucky enough to find some hearty pea soup for lunch, and getting back into Tallinn was no problem because a friendly Moldovan diplomat gave us a lift back into town!
We finished our stay in Tallinn by taking a stroll in the upper part of the town, where we found some fantastic views back over the historic centre.
We flew back to Switzerland via Copenhagen relatively stress free, which was lucky because all across Europe airports were blocked because of snowstorms!

Pre-Christmas - Helsinki

We hopped off the Ferry in Helsinki to find another snow-covered and very cold city. Here too they had experienced unseasonably cold weather and the harbour had a significant amount of ice in it and there was plenty of snow on the ground.
Fortunately our hotel was located very centrally, just a short walk from the Christmas markets along the main esplanade of Helsinki, and just across the road from a fantastic café where we visited several times during our stay.
Aside from spending time at the Christmas markets, we also visited the local sites, including the Russian and Lutheran cathedrals and the National Museum.
We also visited a church that was carved into a rocky hilltop, where we were lucky enough to see a choir practising (the Finns are famous for their singing, and the church had fantastic acoustics).

Finland is also famous for it's design, and we spent a lot of time wandering through the design district, buying presents for ourselves and family. Linda also sought out the best in Christmas decorations from the country that practically invented it.

To escape the markets and shopping, we caught the ferry out to nearby Suomenlinna, which was a somewhat Arctic experience, with a strong wind blowing the snow around the old houses and fort located there. It really gave us an idea of how cold it was outside of the city!
The ferry ride itself was amazing, as we had to barge our way through ice in our little boat. On the way back it was warm enough to stay outside and we took plenty of pictures of the ice on the harbour.
Lastly, we had plenty of good food in Finland, whether in Cafés, Markets, or Restaurants. We ate Reindeer and Elk but stayed clear of the Bear meat. We were lucky also in that although the days were short, we had quite clear whether during our stay, and even some sun!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Pre-Christmas - Stockholm

Just before Christmas Linda and I headed off on a trip around the North of Europe to grab a taste of such places in the thick of their Christmas celebrations.
We started in Stockholm, which we've visited previously but later in the year. This time we turned up just after they'd had some unseasonably cold weather the week before, and Stockholm and Sweden were featuring heavily in the news because of the Wikileaks drama, an attempted terrorist attack, and the Chinese boycotting of the Nobel prize ceremony.
Linda had found us a really nice apartment in the old part of town, just across the river from Gamla Stan which is the real historic heart of Stockholm.
In Stockholm we visited the Christmas Markets in Gamla Stan, which were picture perfect in the old square with snow all around. We learned all about the Tomten (precursors to Santa Clause), and kept warm on Glogg, Saffransbullar, and Pepparkakor (mulled wine, saffron buns, and ginger biscuits).
We also went to Skansen to see the Santa Lucia celebrations in the open air museum. The history of the Santa Lucia tradition seems to be a bit vague, but the modern interpretation is of lots of singing and the crowning of a girl who is elected to play the Lucia role.
We also saw groups of people singing in the streets all around Stockholm, in less formal performances.
At the end of our stay we caught an overnight ferry to Helsinki. At the markets we had bought a salami and cheese, which kept us well fed through our ferry trip and beyond!
Actually the Ferry trip was both fun and weird. Fun because we were catching a ferry through the Swedish Archipeligo and ice towards another icy location, but weird because of the strange captive-audience/b-grade entertainment atmosphere of the ferry.