Back in the UK

Here we are back in the UK for a month. We are of course most excited to visit with our girl Kristin, but also looking forward to a journey to Scotland.

We spent the first two nights in London – or to be more specific, at the Heathrow Airport Holiday Inn Express. This was a great hotel – brand new and we could redeem our IHG points at a much more reasonable rate than in London proper. The Piccadilly underground line runs directly from the airport into the city so out came our Oyster cards.

After the overnight flight from Calgary, we arrived at Heathrow, checked into the hotel and decided that taking a rest would not be the best way to conquer jet lag. So off we went on the tube to Kings Cross Station. At the station we needed to purchase our “Two Together Railcard”. We had booked all of our rail transit in the UK using the two together rate. This railcard cost only 30 pounds and provides a significant discount (at least 30%) for two people traveling together. I would recommend that anyone planning UK rail travel look into the various railcards that are offered. We accomplished this task (including having pictures taken in a photo booth for the pass), picked up our reserved tickets to Cambridge, got a little cash from an ATM and all our required tasks were done.

Wandering down the street, we came upon the British Library and stopped in for a visit. I just love that the majority of British Museums have no fee for entry. British citizens must find it quite annoying when they visit museums in other countries.

The historical documents housed in the library were quite fascinating. Everything from the earliest evidence of the written word to John Lennon’s scribbling of the lyrics for “Help” – on the back of his son Julian’s birthday card. And most amazing – the Magna Carta! Of course no pictures were allowed in the galleries to protect the documents.

After the library, we wandered through the Bloomsbury neighbourhood (which is where our hotel was when we visited in December) and stopped at a pub, the Marquis of Cornwall, for an early dinner. Quite a traditional meal – fish & chips for Harv and chicken & mushroom pot pie for Bev – and our first pints of the trip!

We then strolled down Oxford & Regent Streets (sadly more dreary than December with the Christmas decorations gone – but on the upside, not as ridiculously busy) to Piccadilly Circus. We reminisced about our first visit to Piccadilly in 1983, when we so intrigued by the first pink & spiked hair youth that we had ever seen. We then caught the tube back to the hotel – with both of us nodding off on the journey.

After a bit of a sleep-in and hotel breakfast on Wednesday, we hopped back on the tube and headed to the British Museum. We had walked by it many times in December but hadn’t stopped in. Not having any specific plans for the day, we thought this would be an interesting activity. And it most certainly was. There was only a short line up for bag inspection and the museum was busy but not overly crowded.

The museum is a huge building that houses a vast array of antiquities. Items spanning the ages from 1000 years BC to current days chronicle the journey of civilization. Featured are Egyptian mummies, Assyrian lions, and a large hall featuring the best parts of the frieze that once ran around the exterior of Athens’ Parthenon.

Other exhibits include artifacts from all corners of the globe, including an African cloth made from soda bottle caps, a seal gut parka from the Canadian Arctic, gold from the Rothschild collection and an intricate two-headed snake from Mexico.

One of the premier exhibits is the Rosetta Stone. Found in 1799, the Stone proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, thereby opening a window into ancient Egyptian history.

After spending about 3.5 hours in the museum, I declared that I had seen enough artifacts for one day and we made our exit. It was an amazing place to visit and I can only imagine how fascinating it must be for a true historian.

We wandered from the museum through the Covent Garden and Seven Dials areas and stopped for tea and a pastry at a delightful little bakery. We then continued on through Holburn to the area around St Paul’s Cathedral.

For an early dinner, we chose the Bread Street Kitchen, one of Gordon Ramsey’s 15 London restaurants. It lived up to the standards that we would expect from Gordon, in service and food taste and presentation. We shared a Caesar salad, Harv had a burger & chips and Bev enjoyed the grilled Skrie cod with artichokes and mashed potatoes. For dessert, we shared a delicious custard tart, topped with rhubarb and passion fruit sorbet.

To settle our dinner, we strolled back along the Thames, up to Trafalger Square and across to Piccadilly Circus where we once again caught the tube.

Two great days in London (over 20,000 steps each day). Now off to Cambridge and our girl!!

Cheers,

Bev & Harv

Europe 2017 – Final Thoughts & Tips

Four weeks in Europe – six new countries (7 if I count Iceland) – what a great experience!! I thought I would share some final thoughts and a few tips & recommendations that may help someone planning on visiting any … Continue reading

Here we are in Finland

We are on another adventure of our long and winding journey!

To start the journey, my daughter Kristin, my niece Justine and I flew to Helsinki, Finland. We were there to partake of our favourite event – the World Figure Skating Championships. This is the 7th time we have been lucky enough to attend this event – and this is definitely the farthest we have travelled.

We flew on Icelandair. They were great. We changed planes in Reykjavik. As we actually walked on the tarmac AND Telus welcomed me to Iceland, I’m counting it as a country that I’ve visited.

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I do hope to actually visit Iceland at some point in the future and explore the homeland of my maternal grandmother.

We arrived in Helsinki and after a torturous experience of carrying our luggage down a very, very long non-operating downward escalator, we hopped on a metro train to the Helsinki main railway station. From there, we caught Tram #3 to the apartment that we rented. We have rented a number of apartments in North America and Europe from VRBO and Airbnb – and my opinion of them has varied a bit. Unfortunately, this one is at the lower end of the scale. However, it did offer us more room than a hotel room would and really, we were mostly just there to sleep so it was fine. It’s even kind of grew on me as the days went by.

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Our first couple of days in Helsinki were split between watching a few skating practices and seeing the sights.

The skating championships were held at the Hartwall Arena, which conveniently was only a brief walk and train ride away for us. Our 7 day metro passes served us well. Practices are always a great way to get into the spirit of the event and see how the skaters are looking leading up the competition.

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On our first day of touring, we set out on our version of the Rick Steve’s Walking Tour of Helsinki, with Justine as our guide and Kristin as our photographer. We started in Market Square. I imagine this square next to the harbour is a bustling place in the summer, but this time of year, there were just a few hardy vendors. In the centre of the square sits Czarina’s Stone, with its double-headed eagle of Imperial Russia. This was the first public monument in Helsinki, erected in 1835 to honour the visit by Czar Nicholas I and Czarina Alexandra. Across the street from the harbour is Helsinki City Hall and Finland’s Presidential Palace.

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We visited Market Hall where we had some delicious soup for lunch.

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We climbed up to the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral. This church was built for the Russian military in 1868 and now is actually Finnish Orthodox. The Cathedral was closed on Monday, but we returned on Tuesday to view the interior, rich with many images.

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Crossing back by Market Square and approaching the Esplanade, we viewed the Havis Amanda fountain. When this statue was unveiled in 1908, the voluptuous figure was a bit racy for many of the townspeople, but it still stands and has become the symbol of Helsinki.

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Rick’s tour led us away from the Esplanade to Senate Square. When Finland became a grand duchy of the Russian Empire, the czar commissioned a make-over of this square, resulting in the finest Neoclassical square in Europe. Towering over the square is the Lutheran Cathedral. In stark contrast to the highly decorated Uspenski Cathedral, the interior of this building finished in 1852, is austere and unadorned. The emphasis is obviously on the pulpit and the music from the massive organ.

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In the centre of Senate Square is a statue honouring Russian Czar Alexander II. Although not that popular in Russia, he was well-liked by the Finns as he gave the country more autonomy. We returned to Senate Square the next day and after Harvey arrived and again climbed the impressive set of stairs to gaze upon the square and Czar Alexander.

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Senate Square is surrounded by the Senate building, the University of Helsinki and the National Library. We visited the library, which claims to have the finest collection of Slavic books in the world.

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We returned to wander down the Esplanade, bordered by Helsinki’s high-end shopping area.

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A stop on Rick’s tour is the Stockmann Department Store. This is the biggest, best, and oldest department store in town. We were already familiar with this landmark as we had visited the Starbuck’s location, as well as the extensive food and wine store on the bottom floor of the store. Justine feels that she could live in the store. This continued to be our go-to store during our trip and on our final day in Helsinki, we experienced Hallut Paivat – which loosely translates to Crazy Days. The sale in the store was indeed crazy – so much so that there were 7 police vehicles parked outside. We are unsure if this was just crowd/traffic control or some sort of force against anyone considering causing damage.

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On the corner next to Stockmann is the Three Blacksmiths statue – most say this statue celebrates human labor and shows the solid character of the Finnish people. We feel it shows that they are very brave – naked blacksmithing doesn’t sound fun!

We travelled through the Train Station every day. It’s a busy place with a very nice main hall, and four statues on the facade that symbolize peasant farmers with lamps coming into Helsinki.

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The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is a tranquil stop on a tour of the bustling city centre. The tea-cup shaped wooden structure was opened in 2012 to provide a place to escape to a sense of tranquility. Although it’s technically a church, there are no services and it is open to anyone needing a pause in their day.

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Travelling down the busy street of Mannerheim, we came across the Carl Gustafson Mannerheim statue – this Finnish hero led the Finns in resistance of the Soviet advances in both Finland’s Civil War for independence and WWII and later became Finland’s first postwar president.

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We spent some time relaxing in the Musiikkitalo – the Helsinki Music Centre, a beautiful building with two-thirds of it underground. It is decorated inside and out with bold art and houses seven venues.

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One afternoon, we stopped in at the Helsinki City Museum. This quirky museum offers an interesting look at the history of Helsinki and includes exhibits such as a time machine and virtual reality. Especially fun was the top floor – entirely devoted to smell. You are invited to relax on large cushions with noise-cancelling headphones, while you determine what the smell of the day is. It was very relaxing – we almost fell asleep!

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Another interesting church in Helsinki is the Temppeliaukio Church – or the Church in a Rock. We weren’t able to visit the interior but found it interesting that the structure was blasted out of solid granite.

After a couple of days of sightseeing, we settled in to four solid days at the Arena. The venue was good, the organizers did a great job and the skating was for the most part exceptional! We were happy to see our Canadian skaters perform well and most especially, to see Kaetlyn Osmond (from Edmonton) claim the silver medal with teammate Gabrielle Daleman taking bronze. Two Canadian women on the world podium was something that has never happened before and came as a totally unexpected result – a great accomplishment for these two young stars. Of course, we were also very proud to sing O Canada when Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir claimed the  world title in Ice Dance – a wonderful comeback for our favourite ice dancers, after a two year hiatus. The other World Champions – Yuzuru Hanyu, Evgenia Medvedeva and Sui & Han are amazing and their skates were magical to watch! There are always disappointments for some skaters at the championships and those tug at your heartstrings.

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While we were at the World’s Gala, ending the skating week, Harvey arrived in Helsinki – ready for our vacation to begin! We gave him a quick tour of the major sites.

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Then we spent a great afternoon at the Suomenlinna Fortress. This fortress was built on an island in the mid-1700s to guard Helsinki’s harbour and has served as a strategic fortress for three countries – Finland, Sweden and Russia. It’s now a popular park as well as being home to Finland’s Naval Academy. It’s interesting to stroll along the ramparts, above the bunkers and over the coastal rocks as well as to view the imposing cannons.

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We enjoyed everything we ate in Helsinki – including the arena food (which was tasty and not terrifically overpriced). We has pizza & pasta at Leonardo’s Restorante and Bar –

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Great burgers at Friends & Brgrs –

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Comfort food at Zetor (described by Rick Steves as the Finnish answer to Cracker Barrel) –

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Trendy seafood dishes at Memphis –

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Pub Food at Cafe Bar 9 –

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Rooftop drinks at the Hotel Sokos Torni –

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One place we returned to a number of times was Cafe Roasberg – here we enjoyed coffee, sandwiches for lunch, quiche for brunch, and wine just for afternoon fun!

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We also frequented Starbucks for our morning coffee/latte/tea and muffins/bagels/croissant.

That recaps our time in Helsinki.

Stay tuned for a look at our day trip to Tallinn, Estonia. And now we are off to Russia for a couple of days!

Cheers,

B&H

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