Monday, April 30, 2012

Helsinki, Part II (Finland)

Finland ranks first in the world for coffee consumption per capita so café culture is important. One great spot where they seem to congregate in Helsinki is Esplanade Park. Two streets line a broad greenspace in the city center from the market square to the sea. There were so many cafés that it was hard to pick one. So in the end, we visited three. There was a chic hotel bar-looking one (I had tea, but it was 8 euros for a draft beer!), the quirky glass box construction with local art on the walls, and the glorious glass conservatory style of Cafe Kappeli. Rich was against such luxury until someone vacated a popular corner enclosure, which he then ran to claim. I sampled the cinnamon rolls Finns seemed to hanker for (more sweet, less bitter, and less glazed than Cinnabon). The place also happened to have the most excellent handmade apple-filled donuts, which were almost worth the 4 euros a piece. Locals seemed to get around the expensive prices by buying drinks (beer, strangely enough, at 10 am) and bringing their own snacks into the café, and none of the staff seemed to mind.

Esplanade Park and the surrounding neighborhood also seemed to be a good place to shop. There were high fashion brands and boutiques. Finnish design prevailed in the bright textiles and smooth metal finishes. If it weren't for the steep price tags (easily 2-3x what they would be in Spain) and the strict limitations of carry-on luggage on a discount airline, we would have been sorely tempted. Rich was chuffed to see an echo from his childhood - a whole store devoted to The Moomins... and alternately, exasperated at me for having no idea who they are. Created by a Swedish-Finn illustrator, they are a family of hippopotami-like creatures of a cartoon series that was popular in the U.K. and abroad. They reminded me a little of Babar the Elephant in style. We were lucky to get away from the empire of merchandise with just a magnet. There is also a Moomin World theme park elsewhere in Finland.

We checked out Finnish art of a different nature at the fabulous Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. Contents continually shifting, the exhibits during our visit seemed to be perfectly in line with our tastes. There was a three-dimensional comic exhibition from Finnish artists and a foley editor's dream of a sound installation telling a rich story with just a forest of speakers. Several floors in the labyrinthine Kiasma were devoted to "Thank You for the Music." The collection from different artists explored the relationship between music, musicians, and fans. Some were predictable (e.g. an homage to vinyl or people solemnly putting on KISS makeup) but still highly personal (e.g. interviews with concert-goers about why they follow their favorite band). A band playing traditional Turkish music improvises after hearing divergent clips of the Chemical Brothers, Nirvana, etc. A jihadi-styled video of a man reading from a Koran fascinatingly subverts expectations when he stops, picks up a guitar, and starts belting out that patriotic American hymn, "This Land is Your Land" from the depths of his headscarf. By far, the most haunting piece was a parody of Gwen Stefani's "What You Waiting For?" video. Maybe it's because the artist explores gender issues with the viewer reacting to all the careless nudity of the men in the music video with something akin to a prude's shock, yet seeing that many scantily-clad women would be a prevailing norm on TV. Maybe it's because the song recast in the locker room setting could be interpreted as a commentary on pro athletes ("You got your million dollar contract!"). Then again, maybe it's because the song is just too frickin' catchy. Could someone get it out of my head, please?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Tallinn (Estonia) and Helsinki (Finland)

Just a 2.5 hr boat ride from Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland lies Helsinki, Finland. We arrived at the Tallinn port to discover crowds of people hitting up the liquor store in the terminal. Apparently, the skyrocketing prices that would meet us in Finland are so notorious that there are ads for deals of - not six packs - but cases (!) of drinks (soft or hard variety) that come with a complementary dolly for easy portability. What kind of place was it that we were heading that normal-looking families felt the need to stockpile hand carts of energy drinks and vodka?

One surprise meeting us first off was the ferry. It was really a cruise liner. Two thousand people swarmed the 9 decks in under 30 minutes. Had you not sprung the extra for a cabin, an early boarding and rush to claim the choicest seats should be in your plans, lest you be one of the unfortunate souls who had to huddle in a corner on the floor next to the raucous children's play area. In our innocence, we were lucky and rode the tide that ended up at tables in a bar with a decent view. The pros had already booked dinners in the buffet restaurant (sold out, even at 22 euros a head, which at the time we thought was a little pricey) or the fancy Italian place with white linens and a jacket and tie requirement. We survived on mashed potatoes and meatballs from the cafeteria that Rich said tasted like Ikea. To be fair, there were a fair amount of Swedes on board, and Swedish is the second official language in Finland.

Upon docking, we discovered fairer weather in Helsinki than we'd had all trip. Chilly, yes, especially as the night drew on, but sunnier than in the rest of the Baltics. If you weren't aware already that Finnish design is internationally renown, there are signs everywhere announcing Helsinki's appointment as the 2012 World Capital of Design. At the Design Museum, you can see what it's all about. The neo-Gothic exterior is nothing very special, but the interior houses a permanent collection showcasing the history of Finnish design in furniture, textiles, and other media. Objects like your standard orange-handled scissors (made by the Finnish company Fiskars) remind the visitor of their everyday contact with Finnish design. There's also an obvious but charming bias for Nokia - also Finnish - products. One exhibit traced the process from concept to finished piece, including a highly amusing student project where childless friends can utilize mock dolls in an attempt to reconnect with their friends who have reproduced... complete with a handy dictionary! Another fascinating exhibit highlighted how contemporary design can be used to solve international aid challenges. There was a sturdy flat-pack house with a porch for refugees, water containers that can be air-lifted to drought-stricken areas with parachutes that double as tents, and bicycles that store energy and monitor urban pollution and traffic. The only downside was that the "No Touch" rules of a museum are still in effect. This seemed a little unfair where texture and feel are integral to the design. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tallinn, Part II (Estonia)

There is more to Tallinn than the Old Town. We ventured out to the wooded neighbourhood of Kadriorg Park. Meaning "Catherine's Valley" in Estonian, Kadriorg was named for Catherine I of Russia, wife of Emperor Peter the Great. Their 18th Century baroque palace now houses the foreign art collection of the Art Museum of Estonia.

The star of Kadriorg Park, though, is the KUMU. The Kunstimuuseum, or "Art Museum" in Estonian, is an impressive glass building, sharp and soaring (designed by a Finnish architect), at the end of a long, tree-lined boulevard. And we couldn't get in. One of the problems with traveling during the holidays is that places of interest - say, one of the largest art museums in Northern Europe - might not be open when they should be. We had trudged through the snow of that long, tree-lined boulevard only to stare in disbelief at closed doors. Eventually, a young German couple and an older German lady joined us in the hopes that we had all been mistaken, our watches might be a little fast, and maybe it was a little earlier than the 11:00 opening. After 20 minutes of shifting and stamping our feet to stay warm and peering into the darkness of the hallways, we had to admit defeat and retreated.We returned the next day and were triumphant! We even exchanged a nod of victory with the older German lady when we met again - indoors - at the coat check. The permanent collection is large, and we didn't see everything. Of particular interest were Difficult Choices (an exhibit on art and propaganda during Estonia's period as a Soviet state), the hall with works by Kaido Ole (an Estonian artist curiously obsessed with caster wheels), and the highly disturbing exhibit by Lithuanian artist Šarūnas Sauka. Originally drawn in by the thumbnail of his "Man with Problems" in the KUMU brochure, we quickly realized this was probably one of the only pieces they could have put on such a public piece of paper without someone being disgusted or offended. Sauka's paintings and sculptures evoke the details and religious themes of Hieronymous Bosch, except more twisted and graphic in its sexual and food fetishes. I was kinda  appalled that some parents brought their 7 year-old son in with them. That kid was probably going to have nightmares... because I certainly was! 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tallinn (Estonia)

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is a fine city. As an important port for trade in the Gulf of Finland between Western/Northern Europe and Russia, it was owned at some point by the Danes, Germans, Swedes, and Russians. The charming Old Town - much larger than Riga's - reflects its medieval heritage. We embraced it by sampling some of the culinary history. In one candle-lit establishment, you can choose a "feast" from a menu in the style of an illuminated manuscript - calligraphy and all - while minstrels in medieval dress play flutes and drums in an upper loft. Traditional recipes paraded before us: juniper-marinated smoked beef, crisp pickles, smoked salmon, grilled salmon in a savory sauce with some unidentified nut, forest berries (possibly currants or lingonberries), rabbit in a wild mushroom sauce, and saffron spelt. Our personal favorites though were the game pot (a rich, minced mixture of wild game), the braised wild boar (almost like having barbecue), and the sausages made from moose, elk, and BEAR! No wonder people in those days were always suffering from gout. In case such feasting makes one thirsty, the beers come in big crockery to put some hair on your chest. But seriously, my cinnamon beer was really lovely, probably the closest I will ever get to pumpkin ale in Europe. Ok, the place was a little touristy, but we never did get to go to Medieval Times in the States, and the food here was really pretty good.

Tallinn has more modern alternatives, too. Every corner seemed to have a chic restaurant touting haute cuisine - morel soup! - or a cozy cafe with delectable cakes and dozens of armchairs to sink into. Sure, there were still places catering to the bachelor party pub crawl crowd. Nevertheless, there are also boutiques selling one-off pieces for the aspiring fashionista. Quality Estonian woolen handicrafts (each region has its own distinctive patterns), woodwork, and ironwork are abundant in the high street shops as well. Rich was so fascinated with the latter that I suspect he'd build a forge and start a smithy if we had the space. He had to content himself with buying a sinister-looking iron knife, which the shop lady raved was indispensable in the kitchen.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Viljandi (Estonia)

The bus ride from Valka/ Valga to Viljandi was mostly uneventful, despite the promising moose-crossing signs on the roads. While the Latvian countryside had continued to evoke the Midwestern U.S. (flat, snowy farmland unbroken except for the occasional small copse or windbreak of trees and decrepit barn), the rolling landscape around Viljandi reminded Rich of a postcard England. The town helped, too. Cottagey buildings and village greens were tucked into winding, narrow streets. All that was really missing were the thatched roofs.

Castle Park (yes, more castles!) is the star of Viljandi. There are ruins of a 13th Century Teutonic Knight castle, plunging ravines where the ancient moat lay, and a picturesque suspension bridge. There is also a lake at the foot of the park - frozen currently - that in the summer sees all manner of water sports.

The Kondas Centre showcases famous local artists. The eponymous Estonian artist Paul Kondas is best known for Strawberry Eaters, an oil painting which for me looks like sunburned folks with creepy smiles all going for a bowl of fruit just before they go after YOU! It's true - you can tell by the glint in their eyes! Needless to say, we appreciated the offerings from other Viljandi artists more, including whimsical pieces from a children's book illustrator, stylish drawings from a graphic designer, and an impressive selection of traditional wooden and woolen handicrafts made by the local schoolchildren. Actually, it was encouraging that there were several places throughout our trip where we saw arts education and the learning of traditional crafts by the younger generation were being promoted. One of our favorites was an amusing series of paintings of animals with donuts decorating the walls of a donut shop (names, ages, and grades of the artists on proud display).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sigulda (Latvia) and Valka (Latvia) / Valga (Estonia)

We made our way out of Sigulda with some trepidation. In theory, we should be able to make it all the way to Viljandi in Estonia with public transportation. However, the details were sketchy at best, and our guide book had already proved more out of date than we liked. The first hiccup we had noticed when we arrived in Sigulda - the train station was closed for renovation. After wandering around a bit, we found the temporary office. We boarded the train bright and early. The carriage was never more than a third full, but as the stations ticked away towards the Latvia-Estonia border, it became emptier and emptier until there was no one left on the train except us and the two ticket checkers. Each station we passed was more remote and didn't even appear to be connected to any town or village. The only sign of civilization would be the lone station agent greeting the train in uniform and cap, holding a colored circular paddle like something out of Thomas the Tank Engine. I did get to see a couple of antelope through a clearing in the pine forests though.

Luckily, Valka (in Latvian), or Valga (in Estonian), magically appeared more town-like on the border. Of course, we had exhausted all the highlights on the visitor's map within the 2.5 hour wait for the next leg of our journey. But the slightly desperate ladies in the tourist information center were really friendly, and the cafe they recommended served us almost a taste of North Carolina - hamburgers with cole slaw! Best of all, catching the coach bus onto Viljandi ended up being relatively cheap and painless. This low season, off-the-tourist-trail plan was becoming easy peasy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sigulda (Latvia)

The town of Sigulda is an 1.5 hr train ride outside of Riga. Famous for its outdoor activities, our visit unfortunately coincided with the transition period between winter and summer sports. There is a World Championship luge and skeleton track that visitors - at the right time of year - can go down on in a tourist bobsled. Ever the daredevil, Rich was very disappointed he couldn't have a go. However, we did get to take the elevator up and marvel at the drop from the start gates on the sixth floor(!) to the finish line somewhere far off in the ravine below.

As the gateway to the castle-strewn Gauja National Park, Sigulda is also a nice place to walk around. The New Sigulda Castle, built in the 18th Century, sported a fresh exterior, and seeing it was open, we eagerly stepped inside. We started to suspect something was amiss as we passed a couple of business people in the stain-glassed stairwells giving us odd looks. We realized our mistake when we opened a door and wandered right into the reception of the City Council's office! Had we examined our guide book a little more closely, we would have noted that the New Castle has been used for official government business since the 1990's. We tried to back out of there as quickly and discreetly as possible.

We had better luck with the Sigulda Medieval Castle, otherwise known as the Old Castle. The 13th Century ruins are open to the public, but besides one other snap-happy photographer, we had the place to ourselves that day. The Old Castle overlooks the Gauja River and Turaida Castle in the distance. It also boasts a sizable amphitheater, which just cried out for someone to hop onstage and recite a Shakespearean soliloquy in the dramatic shadow of the ruins. Sadly, my memory got stage fright.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Riga, Part II (Latvia)

Snow falling thick and fast drove us indoors to the movies in Riga. The last time we'd seen a film in the theater was in the magnificent Raj Mandir in Jaipur, India. The first flick we picked after two years - knowing nothing beyond what we could gleam from the posters and that it was in English - just happened to be set in... Jaipur! The Best Exotic Magnolia Hotel was a pleasant time-killer with some of Britain's best older folks (Billy Nighy and faces from Downton Abbey) moving to India in their golden years. For only 2 Lats (2.80 €/ 3.70 USD), the assigned seats in the theater were cushy, and the drinks weren't overpriced or over-iced. Striped pork rinds seemed to be a popular cinema snack, but we had already stocked up on provisions in the bulk candy section.

Other great hidey holes from the elements were the tea/coffee houses. We found a heavenly pagoda-shaped one whose glass walls afforded a 360 degree view of the Riga Canal and surrounding park. People-watching is so much cosier from the comfort of bright floor pillows and a steaming pot of rooiboos.

Last but not least, the refuge of many Northern Europeans from the cold weather is the spa. Riga has several. We settled on a smaller one with pools of different temperatures, a dry sauna, and a steam bath. Should you over-exert yourself in making those rounds, you can retreat to the "quiet room" where an attendant will cocoon you in a warm blanket, and light snacks and herbal teas await you. A couple of hours of that kind of treatment (with a massage thrown in for good measure) is a great way to beat the cold.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Riga (Latvia)

Brr... it's cold here! Leaving Barcelona, where the tourists have already begun to appear in sunburned masses, for the snowy Baltics is a shock to the system. The upside is that visiting the former Soviet states in the low season means that British stag (bachelor) parties, which have boosted local tourism, seem noticeably absent.

First impressions of Latvia are not that promising. The landscape is flat, a thin layer of snow is on the ground and grey slush in the streets, and big box shopping malls abound. Not unlike the Midwest in the U.S. from which I fled, really.

Thankfully, Riga improves upon further inspection. The capital of Latvia has delightfully-colored gingerbread-like dwellings in the old city. The Blackheads' House could double as the face of a gilded cuckoo clock. Saint Peter's Lutheran Church has a fantastic Gothic spire, but the "Cat House," sporting a spooked black cat on the roof, is considered the most iconic symbol of Riga's skyline. The gorgeous architecture is almost overwhelming in the Art Nouveau district. Elaborate stone carvings of flora and fauna adorn the facades while human and monster faces stare down from the cornices. For a glimpse of more beauty, we also popped into the Riga Bourse Art Museum, which was hosting an exhibit of the wondrous works of Russian jeweler/artist Carl Fabergé (he of the Fabergé eggs).

Five ex-German zeppelin hangers house the Central Market, impressive even by Spanish standards. One whole hanger houses the fish market, where the catch is so fresh that the eels are slithering and the carp are still flopping. Shoppers purchase tubs of glistening caviar by the big scoop. Pastries sell for 0.30 Lats (0.43 €/0.56 USD) each, and we managed to decide on a couple of small danishes... and an almond-studded, circular concoction the size of our heads, which lasted for several days of delicious breakfasts. Cured meats and cheeses are also on prominent display in the market. The Latvian fondness for fresh milk products (including kefir, a fermented milk drink) were a welcome relief from the UHT milk (boxed milk) dominance in Spain.

Food outside the market is also ridiculously cheap. Latvia is in the European Union but hasn't yet been able to convert to the euro due to inflation issues (2014 is the predicted introduction). This made watching our budget a little easier. There seemed to be a lot of cafeteria-style joints, which also makes for easier ordering - just point - and the options are filling. Pelmeni (traditional Latvian dumplings akin to ravioli or potstickers) and pancakes (think blintzes) come with different savory or sweet fillings and are topped with a generous dollop of sour cream and sometimes jam. Most of our meals came to 5-8 Lats (7-11 €/9-15 USD) for 2 people, including alcohol and dessert!