Aeri Rose? No! фея Роуз!!

Sometimes travel surprises you. In Estonia I wasn’t expecting much more than a lay over between calm Helsinki and crazy St. Petersburg. In Russia I was expecting a break from the Baltic’s high prices, and the chaos and confusion of illiteracy when faced with a foreign alphabet. In both cases, I was dead wrong.

Tallinn was the most delightful city I’ve visited in a long time. I want to repeat everything wonderful I had to say about the adorable sea fortress island in Helsinki. Historic Old Town Tallinn has the well preserved, clean, cared-for quaintness that any tourist hot spot should have, while still maintaining it’s life and authenticity. Sure, the main tourist squares have young kids in costumes hawking sweet nuts and post cards in front of a Medieval Times-esque restaurant, playing the kitschy “Preserved Medieval Village” card. But just off the main square, less than a block away in some cases, are delightful and unique cafes, restaurants, and modern art galleries that care for the historic exteriors of the buildings while not being bound by the time period.

I wandered through galleries filled with surrealist paintings and fantasy landscapes. I dined at incredibly Eco-conscious and delicious neo-Indian restaurants. And I made the most fantastic discovery in the form of a little court yard off of a side street. The courtyard itself looked like the scene out of a Wonderland Tea party, with little tables, and chairs, vintage couches, and beautiful pillows. Vines grew along the buildings and across power lines. Surrounding the court yard was a cafe, a chocolatarie, a hotel, and a few shops selling hand crafted goods like wooden jewelery, sheepskin shoes, and metalsmith fixtures. I took a break on a pink couch with blue pillows and enjoyed an incredible hot chocolate while taking in the energy.

Such a delightful little court yard

Though I only had one day in Tallinn, perhaps it was for the best, because the wide variety of high quality hand made goods available really tapped into my wallet. I would wager a bet that Tallinn as a whole will end up being that “thing that sucked me in” on this trip. I left with a much heavier bag, laden with wooden and amber jewelery, wool cloaks, furry accessories, and more.
When I left I took the bus from Tallinn to St. Petersburg, a journey that takes between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the back up at the border crossing. There, all passengers must give up their passports for inspection, collect their things, walk through passport control and meet the bus on the other side. I made it through without a hitch, and arrived in St. Petersburg a few hours ahead of my friend Sandra, who was meeting me there later that day.

Once Sandra arrived we went out for a dusky walk around town, to catch some of the sights and find some dinner. Be prepared to spend a lot on food in Russia’s big cities. Meals were averaging at least $10 (300 RUB) each in low quality Russian chain restaurants, and even there could easily climb to $20 if drinks or desserts are included.

I felt overwhelmed by the foreign alphabet at first, seeing words that just looked like gibberish with no discernible clues for translation. But by the end of the second day I had a decent grasp of the alphabet and could slowly and laboriously sound out words, many of which were very similar to English. Suddenly the Cyrillic alphabet was little more than a puzzle to work out.  I think my favorite are the ones that actually ARE English words, just respelled using the alternate alphabet.

One of my favorites…both sides say the same thing!

The next day was full of sight-seeing. We started at the Hermitage, then visited some churches and cathedrals, and ended up at a train station to buy our tickets to Moscow. In Russian tourist sites, be prepared to buy two tickets: one to get in, and one to take pictures. Though if you if you don’t plan on taking a lot of blatant pictures, it seems you can slip in a few subterfuge shots easily enough.

It seems you can hit most of the main sights in St. Petersburg in a day, so on Wednesday we headed out into the suburbs to visit Catherine’s Park and Palace. More castles, more opulence, more well tended gardens, and amazing wooden floors. If you have the time and the leisure, the park is a nice place to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy around the lake or on a bench after taking in the palace and the Amber Room. The Amber Room is, as it sounds, a room whose walls are made all of amber. It is certainly incredible. What is even more incredible is that this is the second amber room. The first one was disassembled and hidden, and then lost, during the German invasions in WWII. This one was restored between 1987 and 2003 by Germany to improve German-Russian relations.

The dress that Catherine was wearing when painted! That’s COOL!!!

That night we took a canal cruise, to see St. Petersburg by water and appreciate the well-lit grandiose buildings. It was a very pleasant little hour long tour. Now I am sitting on a fast train, hurtling it’s way towards Moscow. We have only two days and lots to see there before we again find ourselves on the train, treking eastwards on a daunting three days journey to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, our last stop in Russia.

всегда приключение

~ фея

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now you helsinki me

I have spent the last two days exploring Helsinki. It’s been a bit slower than some of my trips, but it was exactly the speed it seems I needed to travel right now. Recognizing when you need a slow trip and when you need an active action packed trip is an important skill for a serial traveler to have. Otherwise you’ll just burn yourself out.

Though it was leisurely, it certainly wasn’t boring. I started off yesterday with a brisk walk to the historic center of town. Passing my first “tourist shop” I stopped in to have a look around and was delightfully surprised by what I saw. Finland has had a great idea! They put hand made crafts in their tourist shops. All those little hand made bags, jewelery, and funky clothes that tourists and hippies love to buy are now what tourists are forced to buy if they want to get “chintzy” souvenirs. Ok, so I did see a “magnet, bottle opener, flags and socks” kiosk a little later, but at least the majority of the shops were filled with these hand made goodies.

I spent the rest of the day taking in the main sights and getting a feel for the town, which really is beautiful. I wasn’t mislead when I claimed it was clean and green. It is! And you can even drink the water! Their tap water is more delicious than many bottled brands I’ve tried over the years, which made me all the gladder to have my reusable water bottle with me.

I lunched on smoked salmon and a reindeer sausage at a dock-side tent market, tried some linden berries, and picked up a cinnamon pastry from the Old Market House. Market Houses are great, they are usually long buildings filled with little specialty vendors selling specific things like breads, pastries, cheeses, meats, fishes, etc. You get the picture.

After lunch I bought a round trip ferry ticket to Suomenlinna Island and Sea Fortress. There was a hostel I wanted to check out there, as an option for an extra night in Helsinki, and I heard the island was pretty too.

Pretty is an understatement.  It was EXTREMELY PRETTY. But it wasn’t beautiful. Beautiful landscapes are natural and wild and chaotic. This was a naval fortress so no blade of grass wasn’t consciously planted, but where the landscapers did decide to plant was well done. The buildings were adorable and quaint. The trails were well kept, and the rocky beaches and bluffs (at least, those not adjacent to a rocky wall) were just secluded enough to let a traveler think they stumbled upon a real find. Sadly the hostel was booked full for the next night, so I couldn’t stay, but I spent most of the four hours I had left hatching plans and schemes of how and when I would get back too the island and how long I could stay. I’ve decided that I’m giving myself two years to write a full length novel, and if I haven’t done it by then than I’m moving to this beautiful peaceful manicured little homestead and staying until the book is written. I am definitely adding this place to my list of 1001 places I think you should visit. I recommend planning a ghost hunters tour.  Between the hidden glens, and dark military tunnels, this island was seething with unseen energies.

Anyway, after this very pleasant day full of walking I realized another very important thing on the boat ride back to Helsinki. Pack what you know. What I mean is this. On my Mediterranean trip last winter I packed things I thought would be a good example for other travelers: comfortable flats (chucks) and a good day bag full of zippers, pockets, and clips, newly bought from Sears for the trip. The Chucks were alright…until I lost toe nails after a long day hike in Goreme, Turkey. The bag was terrible! It split a side seam less than three days into my trip. This time I knew better. I packed things I use daily, things that have seen hard use and held up just fine, things that I was comfortable in and knew I could rely on. I packed my Medieval Moccasin shoes, closed toe high tops to be exact, and my Moresca satchel.

On my walk back to the hostel I was at loose ends. I was still pretty full from my Finnish Feast, but I wasn’t ready to go home yet. Luckily, I happened to pass by a bar I remembered being mentioned in a visitors guide provided by the hostel. The bar was called Storyville, and was the “best jazz bar in town.” And it was really pretty great. I enjoyed an amazing cider called Crowmoor that isn’t in the States yet and really should be because it was amazing. Did I mention it was great? I don’t want to be cliché and say it actually tasted like fresh sweet apples but, aw hell. It tasted like fresh sweet apples! It didn’t have that sugary tartness that promises hangovers to come the way most other ciders do. The band, yes there was a live band, wasn’t too bad either. Though I arrived to an instrumental version of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prision.  “Its a small world after all.”

Dinner that night was a travel favorite of mine: warm soup, hard bread, and strong cheese from the market. This time it was carrot soup, a dark rye bread, and Prima Donna cheese. And a few more ciders. Aparently they love cider in Finland, because there were at least a half a dozen different brands. I might have picked up one of each to conduct a serious taste review. All in the name of travel research of course. I’ve been having a couple each night. There have been some wins and some misses. I’ll let you know the final results when I’m done.

A few minutes (well, the internet was slow so it was more like an hour and a half) spent planning the next few days, and I was ready for bed. And that was all yesterday.

Today I had plans to visit the open-air museum on another island nearby, but it was grey, cold, and raining intermittently; so I decided to check out the Finland National Museum instead. I’ll be honest, I’m pretty partial to a good history museum every once in a while. I always find something to inspire me creatively, and I learn a few cool new facts. This time my design idea was inspired by cave man wall paintings. I really like the thick white strokes and simple animal shapes. I think I’d like to experiment with painting white shapes and patterns on leather fairy clothes. My favorite fact? In the 1390’s there was a band of pirates who roved the Baltics called The Vitalians, or “The Victual Brotherhood.” I like that. I think it is a great name for a traveling foodie’s website, or a secret group of extremely severe food critics.

Anyway, by the time I was done with the museum it had cleared up outside, so I took a stroll back down to the docks, this time to buy a ferry ticket for tomorrow. I’ll be leaving Helsinki to spend a couple of days in Tallinn, Estonia. From there I’ll take the bus to St. Petersburg. In addition to adding another country to the trip, planning this little excursion in has saved me tons of money. Rather than a 150 Euro train ticket from Helsinki to St. Petersburg, and 46 Euro for two more nights at the hostel; I’ll be paying 33 Euro for a ferry ride, 17 Euro for two nights in a hostel, and 25 Euro for a bus ride. That’s almost 200 Euro plus food to stay in expensive Helsinki vs. less than 80 Euro plus food to stay in inexpensive Estonia. Yay!!

Ticket in hand, I felt that my brief yet wonderful time in Helsinki was coming to an end. I knew there was only one more thing I had to do…SAUNA!! I try to sample a country’s spa and relaxation customs whenever possible. In addition to keeping me stress free while traveling, it is a really fun way to get to know a new country. So far I’ve tried Turkish Baths, Swedish Saunas, Korean Spas, Chinese Massage, and now Finnish Saunas. I think that soon I should dedicate an entire post to spa days, but since this post is entirely too long already, I’ll just keep you in suspense.

Kippis!

 

~Aeri

PS- I’m sorry there are no pictures yet.  The internet is very slow here.