The Jig is Up


What I thought was a closely held secret between my long-time friend Tobin and I (okay, I told Joan) is not really a secret anymore.  Tallin, Estonia is only 25 miles away from Helsinki by ferry so it’s no wonder (wander?) it has been discovered. This city, the capital of the former Soviet state of Estonia is argued to be the best preserved Medieval city in Europe.  The Europeans sort of have a “meh” attitude toward these kinds of things, but they do come here to shop for cheap  booze so I’m told.  But leave it to the Asians (especially the Chinese) and cruise ships to completely over run the place.  I wish I would have discovered it 10 years ago.  Or, perhaps as my friend Tobin did…during late winter.

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Tallin Town Hall Square

The ferry was interesting.  It’s only two hours and Joan and I (not knowing what to expect) paid an extra 12 euros to have access to what we thought would be a seat in a café.  It turned out to be a private meeting-like room with coffee and drink service with snacks. Joan thought it was the best 12 euros we spent on the entire trip but I found the people outside the room way too interesting to spend much time there.

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Leaving Helsinki, Finland for Tallin, Estonia

Tallin is an enigma and has a most wonderful history.  On our first day we took a guided walking tour of the old city center.  I loved the tidbits of history that our excellent tour guide gave.  It’s simply amazing that so much of the medieval core has survived so many invasions and wars.  The Russian influence (they’re right next door and Estonia was part of the USSR) is obvious. But it pleases me that the Estonians have kept their national identity through all these, ahem, “inconveniences.” Some occupations lasted for only hours before someone else took over. Our tour guide summed it up best in describing the significance of the colors of the Estonian flag which is blue, black, and white.  He said “they’ve beat us black and blue and we’ve occasionally raised the white flag.”  Tour guide humor isn’t usually my thing, but that one made me chuckle.My overall take of Estonia, and particularly of Tallin, is that they’ve beaten so many odds.  I give them credit for just being where they are. I’m glad I went to Scandinavia.  It’s complicated for such a sparsely populated region of the world, and, in all honesty…I can’t bear being that close to the Artic circle.   Will I go back?  Probably not.  Am I glad I went?  Definitely, yes!  Just look at Tallin!

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A place of unicorns and fairy tales

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While there are lots of tourists, you can sometimes find a quiet little street

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The history is amazing!

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The Russian Orthodox church.

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NEVER, EVER waste a sunny day in Tallin

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Quiet places can be found, but one must look.

The final place I left Ray’s ashes on this trip.

PS:  I wrote this final post on the Surface 2 Pro (maybe 3) that I left at home.  The experiment is over.  It was so much easier…while I love my Android devices for most everyday stuff, Microsoft ain’t dead yet. I’m gettin’ the new one.  Because this show must go on.

48 Hours in Helsinki


We have been working our way north. Me from Amsterdam and Joan and I together from Copenhagen.  We’ve now reached the northernmost part of this journey…just a few degrees below the artic circle.  Helsinki is smaller than the other cities we have visited and it has proved to have one of the most impossible languages I’ve ever encountered. But the people are warm and friendly and for the most part speak English, sometimes more reluctantly than in other Scandinavian cities.

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Finland has an interesting history as it was an autommonus section of Russia until the early 1900s. So you see today ornate Russian Orthodox churches mixed in the the austere Lutheran churches that most Finns attend today. Notwithstanding all that, it is still very European and we were glad to be back in the land of the Euro, a currency that we both understand better and can make a quick calculation in our head.

Frankly, there aren’t a lot of sights to see here but that doesn’t seem to keep the numbers of tourists at bay.  The Chinese especially seem to love it here.

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Lutheran Cathedral downtown Helsinki

One of the most interesting things we’ve done here is meet up with an acquaintance of Joan’s who was a Finnish diplomat before she retired five years ago. She took us on a quick tour of the center of Helsinki and then to lunch. It was fascinating to get her unguarded perspective on current world events. And she is certainly not impressed with the current US administration (ahem, the put it lightly).

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Russian Orthodox Church, Helsinki, Finland

Today we took a ferry ride over to a nearby island which was once a large fortress created by the Swedes and financed by the French back in the day that they thought Russia had eyes on the west and Finland would be the logical stepping stone.  While it was a World Heritage Site, I just didn’t find it that interesting.  But I did enjoy the boat ride there and back.

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Arriving at the old fortress on Soumenlinna 

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Soumenlinna 

Tomorrow is another ferry ride and arrival in a new counntry, Estonia.  It appears that VP Pence will be there at the same time we are, and based on the warning emails we received from our hotel in Tallin, he is even staying in the same hotel!  What luck?  It could prove to be a pain inn the butt with all the added security.

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Central Helsinki from the Lutheran Cathedral 

Of Ships and Halls


When will I learn to read more about a destination before I get there rather than once I do.  I set off, with some effort I might add, to Stockholm’s Vasa Museum. It is dedicated to a sunken ship that went down on its way out of Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage.  All aboard perished.  Now I love Viking lore and was excited to see one of their ships in such impeccable condition.  Well, I just assumed it was Viking.  Turns out the ship is actually from the 1720s and nary a Viking were in sight by that time. Regardless, it was still interesting and the museum did a wonderful job at exhibiting the ship and explaining what sea life was like during that period in Sweden.

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The Vasa sank in 1723

From the Vast museum I went to park/museum that was supposed to depict what life was like at various points throughout Sweden’s history.  A few of the exhibits, mostly original buildings, were interesting. Especially the ones that were actually functioning in their original purpose staffed by docents in period clothing. I especially liked the bakery from the 1700s and the machine shop from 1920.  However the rest was completely inundated by children….all around the age of five.

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By far my favorite part of The Skansen Museum was watching the kids on the bumper cars.

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There’s no doubt in my mind that these two are related.

The second biggest highlight of the Skansen was the Nordic animals where I saw my first reindeer.  It wasn’t until a couple days later that I actually got to taste one.

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Reindeer

Stockholm City Hall

Government buildings are often interesting to visit. They are often a symbol of national pride and showcase amazing architecture.  In most cases these are national buildings but in Stockholm the city hall building fits the bill just fine.  We met up with the mayor of West Hollywood (who happened to be visiting at the same time) and took a tour of this grand building.

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The interior of Stockholm city hall.  This is the room where the banquet is held for the Nobel laureates.

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I thought the location was special enough to leave some of Ray’s ashes here.  I know he would have loved the place and setting and since I was in the company of two of his colleagues it just felt right.

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Another eternal resting place for Ray

Stockholm to Helsinki 

If one drives or takes a train, Helsinki is just about half way around the world.  However it is just 250 miles by ship. So we took an overnight ferry to our next destination.  Sort of like a cheap way of taking a cruise. It was really fun, and the rooms exceeded my expectations.  But the most memorable part will be the gorgeous 10pm sunset from the deck of the ship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What I’m ABBA To Tell You


The sun rose this morning at 4:18am and will set tonight at 9:32pm.  We’re in Sweden, Stockholm to be exact.  Abba is BIG here still and I’m yet to see an Ikea. But I’ve only had one full day so I suppose there is still time.

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Gamla Stan is the oldest section of Stockholm

After a leisurely breakfast Joan and I met up with a walking tour of the main part of the city.  I like doing these on the first day at a new destination as it gives you a feel for what’s important, you’re left with a list of places you want to return to, and you get a good dose of history and inside information you would not have otherwise gotten.  Our guide for this tour was pretty good.  I especially liked that his voice projected so that I could hear him and his humor was actually funny.  They can sometimes be really cheesy when they crack a joke.

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The Swedish Royal Opera House (right)

The tour took about two hours then we took a ferry back to the old part of the city which is on an island.  But that’s not unusual here as Stockholm is made up of 57 islands . I enjoyed just wandering around the narrow streets and looking at the amazing old architeccture. It’s high summer and that means every European is on holiday.  I’m starting to think that perhaps most of them chose Sweden this year.  There are a LOT of people about.  It makes for good people watching, but it’s not quite as zen-like as it would be in, say, January when the day is only 71 minutes long.

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Even with all the people you can still find quite corners.

We had a great lunch at the Hairy Pig Deli.  A silly name for a place that served the best potato salad and grill provolone I’ve had in a while.  Oh, and the panacotta was simply sublime.

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Lunch at the Hairy Pig Deli

Tomorrow, Thor and Odin willing, I will indulge my interest in Viking history and mythology.

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Kobenhavn


Copenhagen.  I am finally entering the land of the Vikings and the old gods. Thor was with us today as we set out, in a rare bout of sunshine to explore this old city.

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Nyhavn district is postcard perfect in the sunshine 

As I spent the early morning pouring over maps and guidebooks I was a little daunted.  On paper the city seems large, sprawling, and complicated. Both Joan and I commented on how compact the city actually is.

Our first order of business was to visit the Central Station where Joan needed to pickup a tourist discount card she purchased online. Thus armed with that card and my three-day transportation pass we set out on the Metro…in the total opposite direction we wanted to go.

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Flowers of Christiania 

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But that didn’t phase us, it barely slowed us down. We were bound to find Christiania, a section of Copenhagen that declared itself a separate country in the early 70s.  Its a quite large decommissioned military complex where people my age have checked out and turned on.  They just forgot to check back in. It was an odd place to start a tour of Copenhagen I suppose, but that’s how we roll.

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Northern exposure

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The rest of the day we spent basically stumbling upon the list of sights that I had made. It’s good that we did as tomorrow is supposed to be really rainy and we might be relegated to indoor tourism. For Joan that means museums and for me it means shopping. That’s not normally my thing, but I didn’t pack well for the cool and wet weather.

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A Danish classic

On the way to see a famous statue of The Little Mermaid, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the changing of the guard ceremony at the royal palace. What luck, eh?

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I love your purse, but I think the hat is too big for your face

 

We’re now back in our hotel rooms awaiting the arrival of Joan’s neice who is joining us from Berlin for a couple of days. Her flight is a little late and my feet could not be happier to get the extra rest.

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Now these guys know a thing or two about bicycle riding

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A Mercedes hearse.  Now that’s going in style

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I know it’s sophomoric but I couldn’t help myself 

My Day in Rotterdam


Well, I awoke this morning feeling revived and refreshed and also with a modicum of courage.  Although this is my last day in Amsterdam, since I’ve been here before, no need really to visit a lot of sites.  So, on a whim, I decided to take the train to Rotterdam, Holland’s second largest city.

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The Markthal, Rotterdam

While they are only about 30 miles apart, Amsterdam and Rotterdam could not be more different.  Where Amsterdam is like a living and breathing museum, Rotterdam is new, shiny, and glitzy.  Frankly, it’s not totally for me, but I could certainly understand someone who was interested in ultra modern architecture being drawn here.

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A train station entrance in Rotterdam

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Markthal interior

Markthal interior ceiling

The highlight for me was the Markthal pictured above.  It is an indoor food market with absolutely stunning design. The two ends are enclosed in glass and the surrounding shell has over 100 housing units in it.  The inside ceiling is painted in a wonderful food motif and is really eye catching.

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Watching the world go by in Rotterdam

But in all honesty what I really enjoyed was figuring out the transportation on a combination of trams and trains directly to Rotterdam Centraal.  I did it without a hitch and I always get a kick out of that.  The countryside is really pretty here and I felt rather “worldly” as we stopped at Den Haag (The Hague) station.

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Say cheese

I’m back in Amsterdam now with only a minor screw up on the way back.  Seems I got off at Amsterdam Slotenndyjk rather than Amsterdam Centraal.  I hear it happens to everyone. No worries, just wait for the next train…it was only about 4 minutes but it marred my otherwise perfect train performance today.

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Hanging out in Rotterdam

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Rotterdam Centraal Station

Back in Amsterdam


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This would be an awesome jigsaw puzzle 

I discovered Amsterdam during my around-world-trip six years ago and vowed then that I would return.  For me it has it all:  It’s visually stunning, very walkable, has a diverse population, English is spoken universally, and it’s always full of surprises.

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So when Joan and I decided to go on a Scandinavian Odyssey, and Amsterdam turned out to be a viable jumping off point, it was a no-brainer for me.  I’ll meet Joan in Copenhagen tomorrow afternoon but until then Amsterdam is all mine.

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It’s not unusual for the buildings to appear all akimbo.  They are.

I arrived at Schirpol Airport about 9:00 in the morning and the Dutch, being as efficient as they are was through immigration and customs within minutes. I then faced the choice of a 30 Euro cab ride or a 5 Euro train.  I opted for the latter. It took a while to figure out the ticket, but I eventually mastered that. After a while the ticket kiosk and I became quite intimate.

The train was quick, clean, and comfortable, but upon arriving at Amsterdam Centraal station I was a little too tired, jet lagged, and overwhelmed to figure out how to get the tram to my hotel so I chose to just walk the mile with Google Maps and GPS planted squarely in my face.

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A nice way to see Amsterdam 

I spent the rest of the day simply walking around and getting reacquainted with the city. I was pretty amazed that with only a short nap in the afternoon I was able to wander around until well after a late dinner.  I’m thinking that today I might once again brave Centraal Station and take a little trip to Rotterdam.  It’s only about 40 minutes away if you get on the right train.  But considerably longer if you don’t. Oh well, if I end up in Paris, c’est la vie. I could think of worse things.

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The view from my hotel room. 

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