Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Snowshill: "I've never been so uninteresting to bees"

On Sunday we had some folks over for brunch to celebrate the birth of a friend's baby boy, Jonah. By mid afternoon, still coming down off the high of a good time, and barely organised to begin the clean, we dropped it all and hit the road for Snowshill. We'd been last fall, after the lavender harvest, and didn't mean to miss the spectacle of the flush fields a second time.

The website said mid July was the best time to see it -- when we were in London -- but even a week later, the harvest had only just begun. So many varieties and shades of lavender: fully 25, according to the flyer we got at the gate. It was surreal, to be honest; those sights, smells and sounds. I'll break it down: it looked like some big-budget sci-fi flick, with server farms interpreting some 50s dream of Mars. It smelled like the bath, according to Tea, particularly as we passed their distillery. (Other folks have since raised "like Gran's." Yup; full points.) And I've saved the best for last.

So - many - bees.

You couldn't call that sound buzzing. In the furrows, Tea's 50mm-equipped Rebel in hand -- she isn't a fan of bees, and her hair smelled like candy -- I can best describe it as a thrum; almost a pressure on your skin, and certainly like a constantly shifting one in your ears. Not unlike swimming underwater.

And - so - relaxing.

I've never been so uninteresting to bees. Ever.

Not repellent. More like I ceased to exist. And, yes, that even topped those beautiful views.

We decided to have supper at the Plough Inn in nearby Ford. While Tea navigated the small cart paths, I happened to catch sight of the sun as it topped an arc of these thick interwoven contrails, for all the world like the grand finale of a fireworks display at its apex, before it bursts in jaw-dropping blindness. (I'm reading The Book of Awesome right now. I'll leave my one word description of that moment as an exercise for the reader.)

We'd heard good things about the Sunday roast at the Plough Inn, and with good reason. (Thanks, Stew!) They have a lovely outdoor space, which is just perfect for days like this one, and the staff are super friendly. But it's the food that knocked our socks off: that pork was so tender, the homemade apple sauce just sweet enough, the dressing (stuffing to most of you, I guess, but the Newfies know what I'm on about) bready-herby heaven... We've had a lot of Sunday roasts and carveries, as faithful readers will know, and this one skyrocketed to the Top 3 after just a few bites. It may be the best. More testing is required. But don't worry; we're up for it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Copenhagen: the long-awaited return to Tivoli!

Tea, enjoying the ferris wheel at Tivoli Gardens
[These last few posts of the cruise were written as we sailed back to Amsterdam. We now continue on Thursday, July 7...]

Our last stop was Copenhagen, Denmark. Just a skip from the ship and that famous mermaid was lost in heartache before us.

Uh, no, the other one...
That's better

The walk along the waterfront to the Nyhavn was lovely. I have a soft spot for cities on the water, so by the time we'd stopped for coffee (slash cough pint), taking in those old wooden ships, I was near swooning for Copenhagen. The bill brought me closer to earth, mind -- Copenhagen is probably the most expensive city I've visited. Still, on a cruise littered with jaw-dropping canal shots -- in Amsterdam, of course, but also in Warnemunde and Stockholm -- these pictures are stars for me; particularly the ones from later in the day, when the sun came out.


The Amazing Race shot on this very location a few days later!

Refreshed once more, we continued on. Our destination? Tivoli Gardens. Said to have inspired Walt Disney, it truly is a magical, lilliputian kingdom, nestled in the bustling city. It's founder, Georg Carstensen, said Tivoli would never be finished, and while the roller coasters and towering drop rides are anything but nineteenth century, the intricate open-air stages, elaborate fountains and rides like the tour of Hans Christian Andersen's works pleasingly harken back to what I see as a time of simpler pleasures.

The highlight of the park -- and the whole day, really -- had to be Tea's reactions: she'd been building Tivoli up so much, leading up to the cruise, and then during it; I couldn't see how it would live up to those special childhood memories. But it did; exceeding them even. It's so great to finally see all these places she's talked of for as long as I've known her, and just adds to the surreal nature of our time over here. I can't believe how these two years have flown by!

Speaking of time flying, such was the extent of our Tivoli fun that, by the time we left, we were entering that all-important "missing the boat" buffer we've learned to give ourselves (expert cruisers that we are /sarcasm). Still, there's always time for one last pint -- in this case, at the fantastic Brewpub København: beautiful, secluded outdoor space, excellent beers -- a must-see for beer lovers!

There was a real vibe to the city as we quickly walked back to the ship: whether it was the late afternoon visit from a previously-absent sun, the more respectable hour, or both and more besides, outdoor seating in the plazas and patios we passed was at a premium, and smiles and laughter abounded.

And so ended another fantastic trip. We all agreed it was our best cruise to date. Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the day. And if you've stumbled here first, check out the other posts from the trip. (Finally, Stephen put together a movie of the trip; just write me or him if you'd like to see it.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tallinn: Canada rocks the archery contest

Entering Old Town
[These last few posts of the cruise were written as we sailed back to Amsterdam. We now continue on Tuesday, July 5, returning from our two days in Russia...]

Our next stop was Tallinn, Estonia. Unlike many of the earlier stops, the Old Town -- one of the most beautifully preserved in Europe, we're told -- was but a short walk from the port. While we'd arrived very early, we did manage to find some coffee in the sleepy Town Hall Square, right in the impressive hall itself. (Which was a good thing, as it was a bit chilly.)

Town Hall, in the square of the same name
The highlight of the day was an archery contest we stumbled upon: Tea did well initially, as did I -- so long as you count perfectly lining the arrows up along the left-hand edge of the target as "well" -- but the star of the show was Stephen, who nearly doubled the top scores on the leader board with back-to-back 43s. We left with a nice bottle of Estonian wine, Canada dominating the standings.

Apparently I need rebalancing

Take that, Pepe!

Old Hansa
Archery works up a good appetite, so it was lucky that Alla had recommended a traditional restaurant, in the medieval style, right off Town Hall Square: Old Hansa was even better than we'd hoped, serving all sorts of interesting meats like bear, elk and wild boar, as well as their own beer, flavoured with honey or strong herbs.

We finished the afternoon with a spontaneous rock 'n' roll show near the pier -- the band was Ketikoerad, and they played a mean Born To Be Wild -- a bottle of the local porter from Saku in hand.

Up next: Copenhagen, Denmark

Check out our Picasa album for more pictures from the day.

St. Petersburg: Day 2

Outside the Hermitage on our first day in the city
[These last few posts of the cruise were written as we sailed back to Amsterdam. We now continue from our first day in Russia's second-largest city...]

The second day started with a ride on the metro. St. Petersburg's Metro stations fall under three distinct categories: Stalin's "Palaces for the people" of the 50s; the utilitarian ones built after his death, in the 60s; and, finally, a return to finery -- if with less controversial murals (e.g., of Peter the Great's favourite regiment).

The statue of Pushkin in the Pushkinskaya metro station

From there, we made our way out of the city proper, to Catherine's Palace. As we passed more communal housing, Alla explained its origins: before the Bolsheviks, whole floors of these beautiful buildings were rented or owned by nobility and those of means. After the revolution, accommodations were allocated based on family size: these apartments of old could now house dozens of families, all sharing bathroom and kitchen facilities, utility bills, etc.

Alla grew up like that, and attributes her parents' divorce in later years to those difficult conditions; and they only shared with one other family, who weren't alcoholics or loud students -- a rarity, according to her. Fourteen percent of the population still lives this way; ownership was transferred to the residents as part of Perestroika. Alla said that you can always pick out the communal spaces by the old windows in the once-beautiful façades.

Catherine's Palace
The Great Hall

Catherine's Palace -- Catherine I, not Catherine the Great -- was very busy. Still, seeing the Amber Room, fully restored -- at great expense -- was well worth it. Peterhof (Peter's Court) Palace was also busy, but as the tour covered the grounds as well, it was relaxing and enjoyable overall. As many of you will know, the highlight was the astounding fountains:
Fountains were intrinsic to Peter the Great's original plans for Peterhof -- it was the impossibility of engineering sufficiently powerful jets of water that prompted him to move his attentions from the Strelna site to Peterhof -- and subsequent generations competed with their predecessors to add grander, and ever more ingenious, water features [all without pumps!] to the parkland surrounding the Grand Palace.
Peterhof Palace
Us in front of the famous "Samson and the Lion" fountain
Part of the Grand Cascade

Absolutely stunning; and they must've been nothing short of miraculous in the 1700s!

Up next: Tallinn, Estonia

There are more pictures of our time in Russia in our Picasa album.

St. Petersburg: Day 1

[And so, the big day arrives...]

July 8, 2011

It's been a busy few days. We're now sailing back to Amsterdam. Sunday, July 3, marked a historic day in my life: my first steps on Russian soil.

That's Alla on the right
We hired a private tour guide and driver for the two days through DenRus, a course I cannot recommend highly enough. Our guide, Alla, a young woman in her late twenties, was old enough to remember life in the Soviet Union. While we really appreciated her commentary in the Hermitage Museum and the various palaces we visited, she grew up in St. Petersburg, and it was those windows on life -- both as a child there, and then as a young woman travelling for the first time, after Perestroika -- that gave the visit such humbling significance.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to know our driver, Mikhail, as well. Alla said his English wasn't good, but I think it had more to do with his taking a while to warm to us: late in the second day, Nancy was asking about typical working hours -- we questioned Alla constantly on such seemingly mundane subjects throughout the two days, and her patience, and, as I've said, insights on ordinary life there, is something I'll treasure -- when Mikhail suddenly spoke up (pretty much for the first time), "Well, I can tell you that this factory on the left finished work at 3 p.m. sharp, as I used to build tanks there."

As it turned out, he was a military engineer, building tanks under the Soviet regime, and then industrial-grade tractors and earth-movers after its fall. We all lamented that we didn't have more time to tease out his memories of a life lived mostly behind the iron curtain.

From the port, St. Petersburg was daunting. Soviet-era apartment complexes formed a wall on the horizon. As we drove to the UNESCO-protected portion of the city, a sense of oppression descended upon us. It wasn't until later in the day that we realized that it was the unrepresentative lack of locals (even for a Sunday), typical signs, businesses, etc. that was getting us down -- in spite of the beautiful architecture and views on display. By that first afternoon, we were in the heart of local life, aware that St. Petersburg (now) offers a lifestyle closer to home than anywhere else in Europe (e.g., huge supermarkets with ready-to-serve food, their own version of Home Depot: Castorama, etc. -- all on a scale unknown in Spain, France or Italy, for example). [I've since learned that Castorama is a French company, which does hurt my argument a bit; I'll amend it to "anywhere else in Europe that I've visited."]

I even picked up some unpasteurized beer at their supermarket chain, O'KEY; they were bottling it right there in the store, in plastic. It was an excellent ale, in the English style, so I guess you could argue that they live better than I did in Ottawa. [Again, since then I've had excellent ales in Ottawa -- cask-conditioned in one case, and IPAs that'd knock your socks off (e.g., Flying Monkeys' Smash Bomb Atomic IPA and Muskoka's Mad Tom IPA) -- so I'm looking forward to living very well when I return, thank you very much.]

Our first major stop of the day was St. Isaac's Cathedral, one of the biggest domed churches in the world. Alla explained that under the Communists, all religions were banned, and so began an inventory of all places of worship. Any that were not deemed to be of architectural value were slated for demolition. Those that passed muster, such as St. Isaac's, were converted to new purposes; the Museum of Anti-religion in its case, or warehouses, etc. Alla remembered skating in another church as a young child.

Our next stop, the Cathedral on Spilled Blood, faced worse than that ignominy: despite being just about the best surviving example of the fantastically colourful Russian medieval architectural style, the Communists wanted it destroyed. Luckily, however, it was surrounded by so many sites to be preserved, and with demolition techniques so imprecise at the time, it was converted to a warehouse instead; before long, locals began calling it the Cathedral of Potatoes, according to Alla.

All the mosaics inside have now been beautifully restored, and a museum in one corner gives you an idea of the extensive work that was required. It also gave Alla an opportunity to point out that while city life under the Soviets was very secular, both her grannies, out in villages like those depicts in the museum, never stopped attending mass, even as they were excited by the possibilities under the new regime; such dichotomies rested easily on their shoulders, she said. (Similarly, the irony of Lenin's legacy, according to her, is that his body -- on display, and looking three days dead at most -- is worshipped, like some patron saint of anti-religion; a state of affairs Alla claimed most of her generation deem ridiculous.)

Inside the Cathedral on Spilled Blood
You really got a sense of a place in flux. Alla said even up until 2000, the old style of shops selling two types of overcoats, two types of shoes -- and the rush to grab new stock as it arrived, even if it didn't fit, so you could barter for something more suitable with your neighbours -- was still prevalent. She said that the changes between then and 2005, and again between 2005 and today, have been nothing short of exponential.

Up next was a boat tour, finishing at the Peter and Paul Fortress. It was there that Peter the Great's vision of a cultural centre and a "window to the sea" for Russia first began, back in 1703. Here the movie-set or abandoned-city feeling began to dissipate, as many locals sunned themselves on the fortress' rocky beach. (We were very lucky with the weather both days.) After visiting the cathedral of the same name -- housing the remains of most of the Romanov tsars, including Peter I himself -- it was time for lunch.

"We always have soup at home," Alla explained. And while we had to wait 'til the second day for our first taste of the traditional borscht, a beetroot soup, it was well worth it. Speaking of traditional foods, we'd asked Alla about vodka early on, of course: the younger generation drinks anything but, she said. Vehemently so! (I feel a bit like a prophet, transcribing the words of Alla... Wocka wocka wocka!) But if they waver in this, it's only for Russian Standard -- this really surprised me, as they heavily advertise it in the UK; apparently television isn't all lies! (Smirnoff is crap, apparently.) [I've since heard the same thing about Russian Standard, incidentally. And I learned to take Alla's opinions with a grain of salt as we spent more time together; those on the 2002 Nord-Ost siege were colourful at best -- almost revisionist, in truth.] That said, while I did sample this vodka in a few shops, it was their champagne that they were eager to showcase. (It was very good, for all my opinion is worth on such matters.)

Inside Peter and Paul Cathedral
We spent the afternoon at the Hermitage, a museum on the scale and grandeur of the Louvre. It was very, very busy, as it always is in the summer, Alla assured us. (Tourism dips in the winter, for reasons I can't fathom!) The extensive Rembrandt collection was the highlight for me.

A final comment on the first day: Celebrity took the opportunity of overnighting in port to invite the local Moroshka ballet on board. They put on a fantastic show, singing and dancing; it was probably the best entertainment I've ever seen on a cruise ship, and the perfect cap on the day.

Up next: St. Petersburg, Day 2

There are more pictures of St. Petersburg in our Picasa album.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Baltic cruise: Helsinki: sauna nation

[We pick up my travel journal on the eve of our historic first steps on Russian soil.

The post title comes from the two million saunas in Finland; enough to house the 5.1 million Finns simultaneously, with room to spare.]

July 2, 2011: Helsinki

Back on the boat, docked in Helsinki. What a fantastic day! Not a cloud in the sky. We passed a sign before midday that read 29℃; hilarious, when you consider that we thought this'd be our coldest stop. (It is our most northern one.)

♫ One of these things is not like the others ♪
Sailing into Helsinki was very reminiscent of the approach to Stockholm, with the many treeds islands and islets. As we entered the port -- which is rare amongst the Nordic countries for its tendency to freeze in the winter, and explains Finnish expertise in the manufacture of icebreakers -- sailing vessels lined the horizon: while we were too early for the regatta in Warnemünde, we docked smack in the middle of one in Helsinki. They're very serious about their boating: their oldest yachting club began in the mid 1800s and is still in operation.

The day began with markets: first, the covered Hakaniemi Market Hall, built in 1914. It sold all sorts of food -- including amazing fish, of course -- and I loved all the old photographs of its early days, displayed throughout. Then we took in the nearby, open-air kauppatori (market square). There were all sorts of vendors again, including fishmongers selling their catch right from their boats, those selling all manner of woollen garments -- later, I picked up a pair of wool socks from a woman who spoke very little English; a rarity, I can assure you (at least in Helsinki, despite the two official languages being Finnish and Swedish) -- florists, painters, jewellers, and many, many food stands. We made a note to come back for lunch.

Uspenski Cathedral
So began the religious segment of the day: first, the Eastern Orthodox church, Uspenski Cathedral. Oddly, it was open to tourists during a baptism; tourism trumps all in Helsinki, apparently. Next up was the Lutheran church, Helsinki Cathedral. The dramatic white steps leading up to it, and the cobblestone square and fountain before it, make it a natural congregation point for the Finns, it seems. On this day, it was the start of their gay pride parade, Helsinki Pride.

We could feel the energy building as we made our way to one final church, and the last sight on our list: the famous Rock (Temppeliaukio) Church. (Unfortunately, it was closed for a wedding; scrap that tourism trumps all bit.) This energy reached Notting Hill Festival proportions as we headed back to the kauppatori. All the city's green space -- plenty enough to rival Stockholm, incidentally, which has been widely lauded on that point throughout our cruise -- was lined with picnickers, out to show their support, enjoy the sun, have fun, or all of the above.

Helsinki Cathedral

Frequent readers will know the weight I give a city's vibe or pulse. Helsinki has it in spades, as well as a sense of conviviality and community (if that milktoast term means anything these days) that I hope extends beyond the celebrations of the day; that's the problem with day stops to new places, of course: I don't know. Frankly, residents might risk cardiac arrest, displaying such joie de vivre on a daily basis.

I suspect much of what I felt is there year round, because there was plenty of evidence unrelated to gay pride: one intersection was strung with many laden clotheslines, whether as art or in fun (or both, of course), I couldn't say. In a park, a band included a cardboard box drummer -- and a good one at that!

Everywhere you turned, people were out enjoying themselves, in groups big and small. After seeing a few hen dos in full swing mid afternoon, it came to us that the seasons may have a lot to do with this: in the winter, parts of northern Finland never see the sun, and even Helsinki is limited to three or four hours of daylight for long stretches. Best get out and enjoy that (almost endless, at times) sunlight when it comes then!

I'm forever relating new places to those I've seen. With Helsinki, I struggled. Much of it reminded me of what I'd imagine the southern USA is like, along the coast. (But I'm relying on television for much of that, I hasten to qualify.) The public transportation is all European, though, even if the street cars hint at San Francisco. We really enjoyed Stockholm, but, particularly for a short stay, you can't beat Helsinki's accessibility; it's a walker's city. (I do see a long weekend in Sweden in our future, however, when we have the time to explore.)

We rounded out the day with a (late) fish lunch in the kauppatori -- even tastier than we'd been imagining on our long walk back -- and a boat tour of the harbour. The latter may have squeaked in as the highlight of an amazing day, as it allowed us to take in the sights (and a load off!) in a fully licensed environment.

I met two lost ladies from St. Petersburg earlier in the day -- they were looking for the bus terminal; luckily a passer-by spoke Russian and was able to direct them -- and tomorrow I get to see it. Can hardly wait!

Up next: St. Petersburg, Russia

There are more pictures from the amazing day in our Picasa album, as usual.