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Estonia, Finland, and Sweden - The Holiday Trip


 


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When we sat down to decide where we should go for our Christmas holiday, we both thought it would be fun to do a "snowy-cold-Christmasy" place and to hit a few countries we have not been to - so we picked Tallinn-Estonia, Helsinki-Finland, and Stockholm-Sweden.


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At this time of year, mid December, snow is iffy in these countries.  Wow did we hit the mother load!  Record snowfall in all three!


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First stop - Tallinn - Estonia:


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We knew very little about Tallinn before arriving, other than it was supposed to be the quintessential Christmas town - and that it was!


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Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and the largest city.  It is a very quaint old town with old world charm.  The snow made it extra special.  The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Tallinn as a city goes back to 1154 and has quite the history of who ruled it from Denmark to Sweden to Russia to Nazi Germany and back to Russia. Finally, on Aug 29, 1991 Estonia declared independence and Tallinn became its capital.


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Today Estonia considers itself a European/Scandinavian country with close ties to Finland (ethnic, language and culture).  On January 1. 2011 they will officially begin using the Euro.  We bought Kroon but found out we could have used Euros.


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I loved the romantic boutique hotel we stayed in, the Three Sisters, built into three famous medieval houses which, were originally built in 1362.    The room was very modern yet had the backdrop of the medieval times.  Our bed had a billowy canape and in the room was a huge claw-foot tub.


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Two days before we arrived they received a foot of snow.  We did not get to see the quaint cobblestones, but the snow made the town magical.


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They really do not clear the roads so the snow stayed very clean and white.  Donald made a little friend in the snowy street. 


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The Kadriorg Palace is set in a beautiful park where the Prime Minister's house is located.  The Prime Minister is the actual political head of state, and their President is mainly a symbolic figure, who does not hold any executive power. 


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We are pretty sure he was there as the flags were up, the red carpet was out, and guards were walking everywhere.


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It was a lovely walk through the park.  The Palace and park were created by Tsar Peter I in the 18th century for his empress Catherine.  The name, Kadriorg, means Catherine's Valley.


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We toured the Royal Palace, which is now an art museum.  The outside was under construction so the photos of the full palace were not very good. 


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We also toured the Kumu Art Museum.  It was very modern structure and had some interesting exhibits of Estonian art from the 18th century on.


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I had fun posing D for a few artsy shots.

 

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But the most interesting part of the museum was on the way out - there was a baby stroller, or as they say in Europe - a pram, just sitting there...no one was around. 


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AND the baby was in it!  First of all, it was around 20 degrees, and second of all - who leaves a baby alone in a park?  Well... in Scandinavia and Estonia this is fairly common because the crime rate is so extremely low.  Baby prams are often left outside of stores with the child bundled in blankets.


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On our walk back to the hotel we went through a neighborhood and found the houses to be quite charming and very colorful.  Not what we were expecting in an ex-soviet country.


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My ever-helping husband!!  Here he assists the locals in pushing a women's car who was stuck in the snow.

 

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A drink of the local hot wine, Glogg.   It had the flavors of blueberry and black current.  It was very good, but we prefer the Gluhwein in Brussels.  But as cold as it was ANY hot beverage would have been great!


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Christmas Eve is the highpoint of the season.  They used to put out clean straw and place it on the floor and table to bring good luck,  After dinner, the family would leave the food on the table for the souls of ancestor.  It was believed that ghost moved around freely on Christmas eve.  Santa is a modern day character to them.


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As to the food???  They served lots of savory pancakes with fillings of cheese shrimp, bacon, etc.  One night we ate at a Russian Restaurant, Cafe Pushkin, where we felt like we were in an old cafe in Russia in the early 1900's. 

 We thoroughly enjoyed our three days in Tallinn. 


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Onto our next adventure:  Helsinki - Finland

To get there, we took a two-hour ferry ride.   Looking back on the  picturesque town of Tallinn from the ship.

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We claimed a round table at the front of the ship.  I took advantage of this time to catch up on my sleep!


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Helsinki is in the Baltic Sea.  Founded in 1550, it is the capital of Finland.  It was ruled by Russia from 1089 to 1917, the year it proclaimed independence.  Today it is a very prosperous city and has a high standard of living.  


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It is one of the World's northernmost capitals and has a lengthy and very cold winter, which lasts from October to April.  Winters are also very dark with the sun setting around 3:15 the days we were there. 


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Our hotel, Hotel Katajanokka, was an old prison dating back to 1837.  It served as a prison up until 2002 and then converted to a hotel in 2007.  Our room was the equivalent of two prison cells and was very quiet, as it should be with those thick walls!


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At breakfast they served us on plates like the prisoners would have eaten off of.  All of the workers and maids wore striped black and white shirts.  Hokey, yet it was fun.


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One cell was kept in its original state so you really could see what it was like.  Guessing the prisoners were not smiling like D is here.


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They also had a fun outdoors Christmas Market and a special art show going on the weekend we were there.  We bought two beautiful coffee cups made of ceramic with a felt cozy they sit in.


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In Finland they believe Joulupukki (Father Christmas) lives in the northern part of Finland called Lapland.  They are one of the only countries where children see Father Christmas in the act of giving the presents.


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And interesting food at the market such as potato dogs.  What, you ask - is a potato dog?


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Basically a hotdog wrapped in tater tots.  I'll pass, but D enjoyed.


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I preferred the muikku, a small fish, fried in rye flour and eaten whole along with potatoes.

 

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Plus a big glob of garlic mayonnaise!  And the big round ball.....reindeer meatball!  Yes, I actually ate Rudolph.


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And glogg to wash it all down.


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Our stay in Helsinki was short (one night, so we did not get to see many of the tourist sights.  This is the Usponski Cathedral built in 1862;  unfortunately, it was closed when we went to see it.  It is the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe.


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We did have time for fur shopping.


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I did not buy anything - way too expensive (several hundred Euros).  But oh so lovely!


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Now comes the traumatic part of the holiday - our 14-hour cruise to Sweden (well my opinion). Here is a photo of the actual boat we were on, taken across the port near our hotel.


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Looks like fun, right?  I thought so...look how happy I was getting on the ship.


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It started out great - we had a glass of wine and sat at the front of the  ship as we pulled out of the very frozen port.  Out into the black of the night. 

 

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Seeing the night skyline of Helsinki as the ship pulled away from shore was striking.


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Check out our little teeny tiny room.  Twin beds and one pulled out from the wall into our walking space!  As you can see D is laughing and thought it was very funny.  On the other-hand, I was not amused.  Okay, it is only one night - how bad can it really be?


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We enjoyed a few variety shows just like a long cruise. 


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And games....D's favorite little game and he wins all the time - but not this time.


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About three hours into the cruise I started to feel the motion of the boat.  I could not move.  Just had to sit for a few hours where we watched a band and some very drunk people dance.  Just for the record, I was not drunk although this is how I felt. 


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D enjoyed tracking our journey on the tracker map on the ship and on his GPS on his Blackberry.


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I was a mess all night long.  Of course D found the motion to be very soothing.

 

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The last few hours of the trip, when we were close to land, was stunning scenery and very enjoyable.  The photos have a blue tint as the sun was just beginning to come up.


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Will I ever take another cruise - NO WAY!  I am a city girl.


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 Here we are on arrival - dragging our suitcase through the snow a mile to the metro.  D finally stopped to see I was not behind him.


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Stockholm was a pretty city but it did not have the quaint feel of Tallinn. 


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Lots of snow here too and it snowed everyday we were there with temperatures around 18 degrees.

 

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For some reason doughnuts seemed to be a big seller on the streets.  Notice the American flag at the stand.  We figured we needed to try one - the verdict, okay but not great.  Not like a Belgian waffle!


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The downtown area was like any city with lots of chain stores and restaurants.  There were a wide variety of international foods (Italian, Chinese, Thai) to choose from, but really nothing local.


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On Sunday we took a train 45 minutes to the little town of Sigtuna. This photo was taken from the window of the train.  I love the feel it has with the scratches from the train window.


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We had read Sigtuna was one of the prettiest towns and the oldest living town in Sweden, dating back to 980 ad. 


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They had a Christmas Market on Sundays or as they call it Julmarknade.  In Sweden Santa is called Jultomten and is a cross between a little gnome and a German/British Santa.  The kids leave him a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve.


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The town was so picturesque.


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And had great market food!  Grilled plump sausages -

 

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I know D would have preferred to eat his this way!  Is this the life or what?


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And of course being Sweden - grilled herring  This was one of my favorite dishes of the trip.  As we were eating it, a local started talking to us about it.  Said it was a very traditional dish, but from long ago.  We asked him a bunch of questions about the town.  Funny enough, a large aviation population lived there.  He was a pilot and his wife was an air traffic controller.

 

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In Stockholm, I preferred the Gamla Stan, the old part of town.  It dates back to the 13th century and was very picturesque.

 

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We walked (schlepped in snow over a mile) across the bridge to get a pretty view from across the harbor.  We took the bus back.

 

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It was very beautiful looking back onto the skyline of Gamla Stan.  There was also a new Photography Museum, Fotografiska that just opened in May of 2010.  It was  on the waterfront in a refurbished Art Nouveau building from 1906.


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They claim it is the largest museum in the world dedicated to modern photograph. We thoroughly enjoyed this museum and spent several hours wandering around in it.  


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 These shots were taken looking out of the cafe in the museum at dusk.

 

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We were glad we selected Estonia, Finland and Sweden for our winter vacation.  As you can see, there were so many lovely sites. 


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And we were lucky to have snow in each country.  We were also lucky to get home, as this was the week all the planes were cancelled across Europe.  But we skated through the cancelled flights with only a one-hour delay.

A great way to end an exceptional year of travel. 

 

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The Butcher, Ascot, and Henley-on-the-Thames

 

Warning:  Parts of this blog are not for the faint-hearted!


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D&A invited us to their new house in Ascot, England for Thanksgiving.
  We arrived on Wednesday and A swept us of for a tour of their new little town.  Ascot's claim to fame is the very famous horse races which date back to 1711. 


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The Queen still attends the races today during Ascot week.  Our first stop was the butcher to pick up the turkey. 

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Here is a before photo of mr turkey...

 

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and after photo.   He was a biggie and cooked to perfection!


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But even more interesting than the turkey was the cold storage room the butcher invited us to see.


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He told us that many people in town hunt their own animals (box below) and they bring them to the butcher to clean them up.


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He is explaining to D2 about the rabbit.   He had me pet the dead rabbit!  EEEEKKK


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D was very excited about this tour and the butcher was impressed with D's knowledge of various meats and the cuts of steak.  The boys picked steaks out for us for Wednesday night.  They were delicious!

 

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The goose was unbelievably huge and so soft.   

 

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Yep - had us pet this one too.

 

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Four little piggys all in a row.  Poor piggys!

 

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Dave took this photo - what a classic!  The butcher carrying the full pig while chatting on the phone.

 

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Back to Thanksgiving.  D2 and A prepping the turkey.

 

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 I am not a list maker, journaler or planner of any type, so I was quite amused when I found A's map for the dinner - impressive!  But then again, she IS an engineer!

 

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I was given the job of setting the table.  Now this is more my speed.  Easy to do with A's beautiful china.

 

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Emma kitty loved getting her photo taken - but not her sister, she was no where to be found!

 

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Friday we set out to visit Henley-on-the-Thames. 


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This medieval town dates back to 1179.  We ate lunch at a sweet little pub on the edge of town,  The Little Angel.  It had modern updated pub food.  Much better than the old stuff!


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Henley is world renowned for its rowing and holds the annual Henley Royal Regatta. 
The town was lined with very old Tudor style house, now housing quaint little shops. 


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It was a chilly day so we stopped for a coffee break at an old bakery converted into a coffee shop.  Complete with old wood burning stove.

 

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I love this photo A took of the two of us!

 

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Good friends, good food, another wonderful Thanksgiving weekend at D2 & A's!  On Saturday we all hopped on the plane to Marrakesh - what an adventure - watch for this post....coming soon!

 

 

 

 

 


Singapore - fun fun fun - hot hot hot

 
 

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Asia is not part of D's region so we were extra excited when he found out he had meetings in Singapore in november.  It was a long flight (12 and a half hours) for such a short visit (six days) - but oh so worth it.

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Interesting tidbits about Singapore:

  •  English is the official language.
  •  The population is extremely diverse.  We (Caucasian) were definitely in the minority.  The government recognizes four languages; English, Chinese (Mandarin), Malay, and Tamil.  All four are represented in the sign below.

 

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  • Singapore is an island off the tip of the Malay Peninsula.  It consists of 63 small islands.
  •  It has a tropical rain forest climate - whoa mama was it HOT!  On an average day, relative humidity is around 90%.  November and December are know as its monsoon weather and we had rain every day, at times very heavy.
  •  Their currency is the Singapore dollar and is about 75 cents to our dollar.  Food was cheap, but that was about it.

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SLEEP * EAT * PLAY

 

SLEEP

Our hotel, The St. Regis Singapore, was amazing!   I normally do not show our hotels - but this one you have to see. 


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It had one of the largest bathrooms of all the hotels we have stayed in.  It even had a walk-in closet.  It also had a very large shower with showerheads coming from all angles....oh and look at the tub!  If you look closely there is a TV screen in the bottom of the mirror by the tub faucet.

 

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One morning, they hotel had a red carpet out and the entire staff was lined up at the door.  We waited for 20 minutes but no one came and we were hungry. 


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We asked when we go back who was coming and they told us the Prime Minister of Singapore and the President of China.  There was security all through the hotel.


 

 EATS:


We ate every meal in Hawker stalls.  These are individual stalls selling inexpensive food.  They are everywhere, in every mall, large office buildings and many open air stalls just outside of the main part of the city.


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We wanted to hit an authentic one so we took the metro out 45 minutes to check out this Hawker Stall.  It was the best and no tourist but us!

 

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There was one old guy at this table (blue striped shirt) who was intrigued with us.  I asked to take his photo then he wanted to take one of us.

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As we were eating, one of the women who owned a stall came over with a glass of sugar cane water (popular drink) and said, "your friend bought this for you."  He then came over and talked to us.  Very sweet.

A sampling of what we ate in Singapore:

 Tea-eggs or marbled eggs


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A dish of the region, chicken-rice.

 

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Two different versions of duck with noodles.

 

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Radish dumplings and although they do not look that good, they were delicious.

 

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And the unusual desserts, shaved ice with fruit - fresh and canned mixed.

 

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Yes, it was yummy!

 

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Another dessert we bought on the street from the motorcycle vendors, scattered all around the city were ice cream sandwiches.


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Most of the ice cream vendors were seniors and husband and wife.  Cost - one Singaporean dollar, about 75 cents.  We wanted to help the seniors...so we ate several the week we were there.


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The ice cream comes in a big cardboard box and they slice it with a big knife and place it in rainbow colored sweet bread.


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They had several flavors, the basics - chocolate, chocolate chip, strawberry and lots of other more exotic fruits - mango, honeydew, durian, and sweet corn.  It was best when the ice cream softened and melted into the bread.

 

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One evening we met up with Dave and Fatima (they live in Germany) and went to the popular Glutton's Bay Hawker Market. 


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 We ate the black pepper crabs and grilled stingray - both are specialties of Singapore.


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D stood in line for 30 minutes for the black pepper crabs. 


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Worth it?  Not really.  Good but expensive and a long wait.  We actually enjoyed the grilled stingray more, and the coconut juice fresh from the shell.


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Seaweed Pringles anyone?


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We took a 4-hour cooking class with Ruqxana, the one on the right.   The class was in her home. 

 

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She used all fresh ingredients.  We made a Cambodian dish - chicken curry with young jack fruit, one Indian - spice mutton with caramelized onions and one Indonesian - fish curry in coconut and tamarind gravy with basil.


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The caramelized onions were cooked to perfection!

 

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Okay Okay - I know I have pretty much shown you every meal we ate...but I have just one more to show you.  Handmade noodles.  The best, and very fun to watch the chef make them.


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PLAY

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Visit to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum

 

Except for the weekend, D worked every day we were there.  So a lot of the Play is me playing!  The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum houses the sacred tooth relic composed of 420 kg of gold.  No photos allowed in this room but I can share that it was a special room and had a very spiritual feeling.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the authenticity of the tooth - was it really from the Buddha?  Many say it is too long and looks more like the tooth from a cow or buffalo.


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Below is the hundred dragons hall where they hold their meditation ceremonies.  I was lucky to be in attendance while meditating/chants were taking place.  I asked the guard if I could photograph the inside and she said yes.  I felt like I was imposing on such a sacred time, but also thought how cool it would be to share this with my blog readers. 

 

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One day I visited the National Orchid Garden, that is part of the Botanical Gardens. 

It was extremely impressive.  I thought it would be indoors, but Singapore is so hot and humid, they grow beautifully outdoors.  They have over 60,000 species of orchids, many of them rare.


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To see more photos of the beautiful orchids, CLICK HERE TO VISIT MY ART BLOG MA VIE TROUVEE.

 

Neighborhoods

As I mentioned there are many ethnicities that make up the population of Singapore, which creates very diverse and interesting neighborhoods.

Chinatown

The Chinese community is the oldest and goes back to 1330.  Up until 1961 Sago Lane had death houses, where people went to die.  Today they house tourist shops like the stores below.

 

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Chinatown is a colorful mix of old and new.

 

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From family run stalls and medicine stores to textiles and jewelry supplies to dim sum shops.


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Beautiful handmade brushes.

 

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While I was checking out the EXTENSIVE jewelry supply stores, D decided to relax and get a foot massage.  Was it relaxing?  When I came back to meet him, the lady was pounding and I mean POUNDING on his legs.  But he looks pretty relaxed here.

 

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Oddly enough, the largest Hindu temple is in Chinatown, the Sri Mariamman Temple.  It is also the oldest temple, founded in 1827.  Sri Mariamman is the goddess known to help people.

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It is free to enter the temple, but you must remove your shoes.  I think this is such a cute photo of D.

 

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Since the temples inception, it has served as a refuge for new immigrants.  Today it is also used for worship and community events.

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The decorated roof is known as Vimana and is dedicated to the various Hindu deities.Singapore 112

 

In the Muslim neighborhood, a man preparing himself (washing his feet) to enter the temple.

 

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Singapore at Dark

 

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The Merlion is the city's most famous icon.  It is part lion and part fish.  The lion head represents Singapore's original name Singapura meaning "lion city".

 

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Hindus celebrate the annual festival of lights called Diwali.  It is one of the most important festivals of the year and lasts for five nights.  We were lucky as the night we visited Little India, the lights were still up, it was the last night for them.


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Little India has a very robust night market.


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And the colorful purple Christmas Street lights on Orchard Road, the main shopping street in Singapore.  They were not going to be turned on until the weekend after we left, but for 15 minutes, they were testing them so I got to enjoy them.  Beautiful but odd.......Christmas lights in 90 degree weather?


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Singapore was interesting to see, but too hot for me!  Wish you could see a few more photos?  Click on the slide show below.