Madelyn Given at the Sibelius Sculpture, made in honor of the famous Finnish composer, in Sibelius Park in Finland.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Finland

After my travels to the Baltic States and Poland, I was excited to continue my journey to another Scandinavian country, Finland. I took a ferry from Tallinn, Estonia to Helsinki, Finland. The Baltic Sea is not deep, and yet it is a busy port crossing. It was a short day trip on a nine-story ferry.

One of the first things noticed after landing in Finland is that life is much more expensive here. The standard of living is good and very modern. They are proud of being coffee drinkers and the 600,000 people of Helsinki and 5 ½ million in Finland are also proud of their connection with Nokia. They do not seem concerned with Russia as a neighbor.

I stayed at a centrally located hotel near the grand central train terminal; my hotel was within walking distance of museums, restaurants, and trendy shopping centers.

Kamppi Chapel, Helsinki, Finland. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Kamppi Chapel, Helsinki, Finland.

From my hotel room, I could look down on a large unusual structure with no windows, trim, signage, or doors. It was round with a flat top, like a giant canister, except it was larger at the top than at the bottom. It was like the curiosity that got the cat; I needed to know what this was. I went down and walked outside the plaza surrounding the structure, but saw no signs, nor any sign of people near it. I finally came inside the hotel and asked at the desk. It is the Kamppi Chapel—with the entrance inside a passageway to an underground mall nearby. It is a place for meeting people and appreciating peace and quiet in the center of Helsinki. This simplistic chapel is 11.5 meters tall and made of three types of wood: the lightest colored wood is on the outside, coated with a special type of wax as a sealer and preservative. Inside there are a few wooden benches to sit. No services are performed here and no religious symbols are displayed.

I took a ferry to Suomdinna, an island fortress off Helsinki. Finland was once part of Sweden and this fortress was the largest in the entire Swedish realm. After the 1808-1809 war, it was controlled by Russia for 110 years. It is now a recreation area with parks, museum, and shops, with 850 remaining inhabitants still living there.

I toured Helsinki, going to the marketplace, the Art Nuevo section of the city, and the great and quite plain Lutheran Cathedral with 44 large wide steps up from the plaza. It was worth seeing Sibelius Park and the monument there, which is a stainless steel sculpture erected in honor of the Finnish composer, Sibelius.

The old Olympic Park still is in use for ice skating and track. Hockey is the number one sport for both men and women.

From my hotel, I took lots of short walks to nearby parks, to the Church on the Rock carved into bedrock, and to the Amos Anderson Museum. I was given a small book to solve the mystery at this museum, which is the mansion townhouse of the famous owner, Amos Anderson. There are five floors, and there are benches to sit and read throughout the entire building.  As I passed a numbered piece of art, I would study it to find a clue to help me solve the mystery, and at the end, the mystery was solved.

Each evening, our little group gathered for dinner. The last night was a farewell celebration, and then all would head their separate ways: back to Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Canada, India, and Malaysia. I would sail on an overnight ferry to Sweden.

(posted February 7, 2016)

Old town in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Part 3

By the time I reached Tallinn, Estonia, having driven from Poland through Lithuania, Latvia, and part of Estonia, I had developed a nice feeling about the Baltic Countries. The countries are beginning to prosper and there is so much history. According to my guide, the Baltic States were the last to be “barbaric.” Estonia is the smallest state, and Tallinn, on the Baltic Sea, is the capital. I enjoyed seeing the friendly people, busy with their daily lives. Some were farmers, some were craftsmen, others were professionals; all seemed happy with life in their Baltic States.

From the time I left Vilnius, Lithuania until I reached Tallinn, Estonia, I kept being reminded of the historic Baltic Chain of Freedom. It was a peaceful demonstration, held on August 23, 1989, against the rule of the Soviet Union. Approximately two million people joined hands to form a human chain spanning 419.7 miles across three Baltic States. In 1989, this human chain drew global attention for the independence and solidarity of the three countries. Can you imagine the emotionally captivating and visually stunning scene? Within seven months after this demonstration, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet Republics to declare independence. August 23rd is now an official remembrance day in the Baltic Countries and the European Union for victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

In Tallinn, I stayed in the tallest building, a restored former KGB headquarters. There is a trendy three-story mall attached to this high-rise. Across the street was the entrance to Upper Town and Old Town, with ancient walls, narrow cobblestone streets, and buildings with great character. There were museums to visit, cafes with great hot chocolate, and tiny shops with many souvenirs.

For dinner one evening, our guide arranged for us to go to an interesting place, as he called it.  That night, we decided, was the time to dress more elegantly.  The ladies had on open-toed shoes and even stilettos, with their silk scarves on bare shoulders, and the men were in dress shoes and ties. To our surprise, our driver drove us far out into the country and parked at the end of a muddy dirt road.  We walked to this little farm with a few chickens, a pig pen, and a few cows out in the pasture.  We went into a quaint rustic building and sat down on old wooden benches and were served a humble, so-called Viking dinner. After a while we began to laugh about this unexplained situation. And as we swatted flies and sat with muddied feet, we created our own entertainment. It was an evening to remember.

Soon it was time to leave the Baltic Countries and say good-bye (Head-aega in Estonia) and thank you (Tänan).

(posted January 23, 2017)

Open Air Museum, Latvia. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Part 2

Our small group and guide traveled from Lithuania, north through Latvia, to the Baltic port and capital of Riga, where we stayed several days. Riga is almost completely surrounded by the Daugava River. The city center is Old Town, and they also have an Art Nouveau Quarter, in addition to the new city with its high rises and modern living.

An hour’s drive from Riga is the Latvian Open-Air Ethnographic Museum established in 1924. Built in an alpine forest on the shores of Jugla Lake, it is one of the oldest and largest open-air museums in Europe. The museum is beautiful, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog. There are 118 old buildings from all the historic districts of Latvia. It’s fascinating to examine the farmsteads, craftsmen’s sheds, and fishermen’s shacks with their tools and antique interior furnishings. I spent part of a day walking around and studying early pioneer life.

Riga is an old city; in 2001, it celebrated its 800th anniversary. Many of the Hanseatic Guild Houses buildings have been restored. Old Town is small and easy to see on foot, as it’s separated from the rest of the city by canals. I walked across the boulevard from my hotel and though an existing ancient gate and I was in Old Town. Along the sidewalk, many florists had set up their business, and the displays of colorful arrangements were waiting for customers to take home. It was my favorite place to pass by.

There were many landmarks to explore: the Powder Tower, now the Latvian War Museum, and the Riga Castle, which was built in the 15th century, then destroyed and rebuilt. Along the Daugava River is the History Museum, as well as the President of Latvia’s residence, a large structure with beautiful grounds. The Freedom Monument (1935) is more recent, and in the next block, there used to be a statue of Lenin, but it has been torn down. In any of the three Baltic States, anything to do with Russia is taboo. They fear an invasion by Russians and are not happy to be neighbors and openly speak about this situation.

In Old Riga is the Navigation Museum. Latvia has a close association with the sea. I wished my husband, a classic car enthusiast, was with me when I went to the Riga Motor Museum, the largest antique car museum in the Baltic Countries. The Kremlin collection, which was Stalin’s personal collection, is kept here. Riga Cathedral is one of the largest churches in the Baltic States with an organ of 7,000 pipes. I sat and listened for a few minutes as it was played.

Back outside, the Swedish Gate, part of the Old Town wall, is very beautiful.  For the best view of the city go to the Television Tower: it is 1,211 feet tall, the highest building in the Baltic States. The Observation platform is 325 feet.

It was fun to see and experience the Baltic States. I enjoyed the clean restaurants and good food in the cafes. Fish, potato, and cabbage dishes are popular, and Karums are favorite cheese snacks. The three countries are prospering and are happy to be part of the European Union. Since the 1990s, they have rebuilt their countries from scratch, taking them from outdated to very modern. The people are happy, thankful to be free from Russia, and hardworking. It was a great experience to travel to these three beautiful and safe countries.

(posted January 12, 2017)