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.
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!
First stop - Tallinn - Estonia:
We knew very little about Tallinn before arriving, other than it was supposed to be the quintessential Christmas town - and that it was!
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.
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.
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.
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.
They really do not clear the roads so the snow stayed very clean and white. Donald made a little friend in the snowy street.
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.
We are pretty sure he was there as the flags were up, the red carpet was out, and guards were walking everywhere.
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.
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.
I had fun posing D for a few artsy shots.
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.
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.
My ever-helping husband!! Here he assists the locals in pushing a women's car who was stuck in the snow.
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!
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.
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.
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.
We claimed a round table at the front of the ship. I took advantage of this time to catch up on my sleep!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
And interesting food at the market such as potato dogs. What, you ask - is a potato dog?
Basically a hotdog wrapped in tater tots. I'll pass, but D enjoyed.
I preferred the muikku, a small fish, fried in rye flour and eaten whole along with potatoes.
And glogg to wash it all down.
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.
We did have time for fur shopping.
I did not buy anything - way too expensive (several hundred Euros). But oh so lovely!
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.
Looks like fun, right? I thought so...look how happy I was getting on the ship.
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.
Seeing the night skyline of Helsinki as the ship pulled away from shore was striking.
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?
We enjoyed a few variety shows just like a long cruise.
And games....D's favorite little game and he wins all the time - but not this time.
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.
D enjoyed tracking our journey on the tracker map on the ship and on his GPS on his Blackberry.
I was a mess all night long. Of course D found the motion to be very soothing.
Will I ever take another cruise - NO WAY! I am a city girl.
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.
Stockholm was a pretty city but it did not have the quaint feel of Tallinn.
Lots of snow here too and it snowed everyday we were there with temperatures around 18 degrees.
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!
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.
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.
We had read Sigtuna was one of the prettiest towns and the oldest living town in Sweden, dating back to 980 ad.
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.
The town was so picturesque.
And had great market food! Grilled plump sausages -
I know D would have preferred to eat his this way! Is this the life or what?
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.
In Stockholm, I preferred the Gamla Stan, the old part of town. It dates back to the 13th century and was very picturesque.
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.
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.
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.
These shots were taken looking out of the cafe in the museum at dusk.
We were glad we selected Estonia, Finland and Sweden for our winter vacation. As you can see, there were so many lovely sites.
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.