Sunday, August 18, 2013

Scandinavia’s Unknown Gem: Visby, Sweden

Central Town in Visby, Gotland, Sweden
The quaint town of Visby situated on the western coast of Sweden’s largest island can easily be described as an unknown Baltic gem. Not many people would think to visit the more relaxed pace of Swedish island life, but this ended up being my mother’s favorite port city, even surpassing the Baltic highlights that are Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn. And really this small city should be better known by tourists through out the world. Visby, a city that has been given the coveted UNESCO World Heritage title, is unique in its preservation of medieval Scandinavia. The city had played an intrinsic role in the Hanseatic Trading League. It is impossible to miss the ancient 12th and 13th century church ruins and ancient walls while simply strolling through the town. Even though my parents and I only had the time to spend 4 precious hours in Visby, we were certainly able to explore many of the highlights that historic Visby has to offer. 

View of Visby and Baltic Sea from Klinten
From the shore, the structure that infamously dominates the Visby skyline remains Visby Cathedral. This Luthern Cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, is a most see while in Visby. It is most remarkable as a beautiful example of Swedish church architecture. The towering black spirals of the church are easily visible even from our cruise ship anchored away from shore. And just beside the church are stairs that lead to one of the best vistas on the island. Lined by vibrant red, orange, and yellow tulips, these stairs head toward the region of town known as Klinten where views from a winding walkway offer a panorama of the city, its stone wall, and the Baltic Sea. 

Santa Katarina ruins
View from thee top of Drotten ruins
Other highlights in the city include a visit to the vast array of 13th century church ruins that are interspersed between houses and boutique shops that are in use by the residents of today. One of my favorite church ruins was named Santa Katarina. This church hosted unforgettable archways that towered overhead and grass that grew in bunches on what was left of the church’s ancient roof. Even though most travel informational centers highlight St. Nicholas with its beautiful rose window as one of the must see church ruins in Visby, I personally think the ruins of Drotten were more memorable. Drotten, like Santa Katarina, showcases large vaulted ceilings and towering archways. The best part of this ruin was the stairs, still intact, that allowed visitors to climb to the upper levels of the ruins. Climbing the winding medieval staircases brought its own small adventure and will certainly last in my memory forever. I only wish we had more time to spend in Visby and the surrounding Swedish countryside, to walk along the stoned wall and to visit the neighboring cliffs of Högklint. Visby, Gotland is quite the historic destination. Hopefully, I will return soon to wander along its cobblestone streets once again. 

With this port, we had finally visited all the locations on our Baltic Sea tour. As I travel more around this world, I will continue to write about my adventures and offer more recommendations. Happy Traveling and Hello again America!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Stockholm, Sweden

Finally after almost completing our entire ring around the Baltic countries, we had arrived at my favorite destination of our two week cruise- Stockholm, Sweden.  Two full days in Stockholm just wasn’t enough. I would love to spend more time wandering the 14 islands that make up this national capital on another trip to this country. But, I must admit that we did see plenty of the main wonders to get a comprehensive view of what this northern city has to offer. 

View of Sodermalm from Gamla Stan
First stop- a self guided walking tour around the island Gamla Stan, known as old town Stockholm. One of the best parts of Stockholm is taking in the breathtaking scenery of the island city and walking along the streets admiring the beautiful architecture. And that is exactly what we did. We explored the cafe lined cobblestone streets of Stockholm where the Swedish blue and yellow flag hung from every corner. We made sure to stop by all the historic highlights of this small island, including the residential Royal Palace (we even witnessed the changing of the brightly colored Swedish guards as they road on the Stockholm streets on horseback). Then it was off the the royal cathedral before we walked upon a square in Gamla Stan on which the Nobel Prize building is located. Since we were visiting on a Monday, the building where Nobel Prizes are awarded each year was unfortunately closed, but on any other day it is possible to take a tour of the interior halls where some of the world’s peace keeping leaders have walked. The most memorable aspect of my time exploring Gamla Stan was most definitely the view of Stockholm from the southern and eastern sides of the island. From this vantage point, it is possible to see the large brown Parliament complex across a small canal and the Royal Palace perched upon a sloping hill above the cobblestone streets of Old town. And across the major waterway, a bridge connects Gamla Stan to the beautiful region known as Södermalm, where impressive Swedish architecture, quaint seaside cafes, and strikingly beautiful spires dominate the landscape of the city. Most of all, we were lucky to have visited the city on such a nice day; the suns rays glittered in the blue waters of the surrounding water, allowing the natural beauty of this northern capital to be more easily admired. 

Vasa War Ship as seen in Vasa Museum
After lunch, it was time to visit one of the most highly recommended attractions in Sweden - the Vasa Museum. To be honest, before our trip to Sweden I wasn’t too excited with visiting the museum. However, almost every Swedish travel site demands a visit, so I felt obligated to check it out. Let me tell you, it was worth it (even for the $30 per person price). The Vasa Museum’s entire focus is centered around the Swedish Vasa warship which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628 (pictured left). For more than 300 years the ship sat on the bottom of the Baltic Sea’s floor until 1960’s when the ship was resurrected and found to be 98% preserved. This massive 17th century ship is now housed in the Vasa Museum as a testament to ships dating back to the age of exploration. It was really neat to see a warship from the 1600’s up close and personal; the ship was very similar in size and style to ships seen in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean. Very cool indeed. The museum offered information about how the ship sunk (it was top heavy- the ship held too many canons and was decorated with heavy ornate statues). I also learned about the harsh and draconian treatment of the Swedish people during this time period. Punishments onboard ships were extremely harsh and often deadly. Plus ships from this era were constructed from oak trees. As a result, Swedish citizens who were caught chopping down an oak tree three time were given the death penalty. This museum was highly informative and interesting- I definitely recommend a visit to this unique attraction if in Sweden. 

Ice Bar, Nordic Hotel
The end to our first day in my favorite Baltic port involved a walk through the financial downtown district of Stockholm where more modern architecture and restaurants inhabited the streets. To be honest, we were lost looking for our final destination of the day- Stockholm’s infamous Ice Bar in the Nordic Hotel, but I did enjoy our time among the locals in the non-touristy area of the city where we noticed how few people drive cars and how many people bike everywhere. No wonder Swedish people are in such great physical shape. When we finally arrived at the bar, we donned on the provided parkas and headed into the wildly unique bar. Yes it was a bit touristy, but what a fun experience! For $30 we were provided a parka, gloves, and given a drink of our choice. The ceilings, floor, walls, tables, seats, the bar itself, even the glasses were all made out of ice. It was an entirely enjoyable experience which was made our time in Stockholm even more memorable. 

Drottningholm Palace surrounded by water
Our second day in Stockholm involved a long excursion to Drottningholm Palace in the suburbs of Stockholm. Technically a residential palace of the Royal Family, the palace is most memorable for its picturesque location on a remote lush island in the Swedish archipelago. To get to the Palace, my parents and I found our way to Stadshuset City Hall in Stockholm where we hopped on an hour boat ride out of the city to Drottningholm. We were probably the only tourists on the full boat, so it was interesting to interact with local Swedes who spoke English impressively well as they spent a gloriously beautiful day in the sun while enjoying the natural wonders that Stockholm has to offer. The scenic ride through the smaller islands of the archipelago offered beautiful views of the deep blue water winding between the tree studded islands. Interestingly, as we made our way the palace, 5 Swedish military vessels followed us there and then again followed us on our return journey to Stockholm. When we arrived at the palace, it was already noon, perfect timing to watch the changing of the guards in front of the palace’s front doors. The exterior of the castle was quite spectacular. Sitting on a remote island overlooking the water and adjacent to the lovely royal gardens, this UNESCO world Heritage sight is quite memorable and worth the trip if you are spending a few days in Sweden. However, I don’t know if I recommend touring the inside of the palace. Photos were strictly forbidden, the price of entrance was steep, and no where were there signs inside offering historical perspective to the palace’s significance. Overall, our second day in Stockholm marvelous day spent in the Swedish countryside among the locals. 

As we frantically attempted to make it back to our cruise ship in time for departure on public transportation, I was sad to be leaving this city so soon! Even though I want to return to this city and country one day, I don’t think I could ever live here. Prices are astronomically high. Among our many discussions with the Swedish people, we learned that the Swedish minimum wage is very high, but so are the tax rates. Yes many of the Swedish do enjoys these benefits of what can be considered European socialism, but the results of theses high wages and high taxes are high prices for everyday items and food, making it exceptionally difficult for tourists to stay in this country for too long. Along with this line of thought, it cost $17 for each of my family members to buy a 24 hour public bus transportation card. Once, we even attempted to take the metro, but we decided against it when we figured out it was a little over $6 one-way to our next destination (making Sweden 6 times more expensive than Russia). Next time though, I would love to travel on the metro in order to see some of the top ranked metro stations in the world for design (rumor has it that Stockholm’s blue line is the best).

Cruising the Stockholm Archipelago
As our cruise ship departed and we said Adjö to Stockholm, we were gifted with a three hour cruise through the larger islands of the Stockholm Archipelago. Luckily for me, the Stockholm Archipelago had been on my bucket list, and I was all too excited to see the beauty of more than 3000 islands as we made our way south to the largest island in Sweden, Gotland. As the wind blew in our faces and the seagulls followed our cruise ship, we passed beautiful scenery and took pictures of some of the archipelago’s most famous destinations: Voxholm and the large Swedish fort. The archipelago was definitely a site worth seeing and I would recommend a boat tour through the area for anyone visiting the Stockholm area. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Helsinki, Finland

The Rock Cathedral
If I could choose one word to describe my short day in Helsinki, it would be: lovely. I don’t think I had ever visited a more peaceful or calm capital city. In the city itself, there aren’t as many “must-see” attractions as there are in St. Petersburg, but Helsinki is surrounded by a gorgeous shoreline that rivals the craggy coastlines of Maine. 
In order to get a comprehensive picture of the history and culture (and easy access to the major highlights) of the city, my parents and I hopped on board a tour bus. Our first stop was the Rock Church (picture above). An architecturally distinct building, this church is made from rocks and is complete with a beautiful wood ceiling. To be quite honest, the Rock Church didn’t quite match up to marvels such as St. Isaac’s in St. Petersburg, but the church was certainly still memorable for its uniqueness (and worth the visit if in Helsinki). 
Finnish architecture in the Archipelago

The next location could be considered equally as unique: the monument to Composer Jean Sibelius. The monument was a huge cluster of stubby silver poles. I don’t know if I would ever make a special trip out to see the monument, but if you are familiar with Siberlius’ music, then I’m sure the visit would be worth it. Next stop on the bus tour: the Helsinki Olympic Stadium from the 1952 Summer Games. Unfortunately, we were unable to take a comprehensive tour of the complex. The Finns were holding the Helsinki Marathon starting at the site of the stadium. However, this might have been even more interesting to witness. To be honest I wasn’t at all surprised by the vast number of Finns who were ridiculously in shape. Yes, this was a skewed sample, but everyone in the country seemed to be in an excellent fit condition. We especially saw this at the World Festival we stumbled upon near the downtown train station in Helsinki. We were surrounded by thousands of Finns as we walked around the ethnic food tables (the most popular being Indian cuisine) and enjoyed listening to some music from a Finnish Rock band. We were most astonished by the calm nature of the rock concert and the organization of the event. All the food tables were categorized and labeled on maps for easy access to all the festival’s events. My family agreed, we were quite lucky to have been able to witness a cultural event such as this one in order to people watch and try to better understand Helsinki culture even though we were in this city for such a short period of time. 

Fleet of Finnish Icebreakers
Some of these previously mentioned Helsinki sites are deemed “highlights of the city” by many tourist organizations. Personally though, the highlight of my experience in Helsinki occurred when my parents and I momentarily left the city itself. Mid-day, we boarded onto a one and a half hour sightseeing boat cruise of the Helsinki Archipelago. Not as famous or expansive as the Sweden Archipelago, the tiny islands that surround the capital of Finland offered stunning landscapes of green alpine trees, red Finnish cabins, beaches, and craggy rock formations. On our journey through the islands, we passed bridges, the Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Helsinki Zoo (located on an island not far from downtown Helsinki), Fininish Banyas (saunas), and most interestingly a fleet of Finnish icebreakers. While on the cruise, I learned that these impressive ships can travel through up to 5 meter thick of ice and that 60% of the world’s icebreakers are built in Helsinki. 

Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
During our last few hours in Helsinki, we walked along the marina where lapping waves met beautiful shale rock formations landscapes. We walked past cafes where, interestingly, those sitting outside oriented their chairs n a line all facing the streets instead of around a table facing each other. I guess this allows for an optimum people watching setting, but we also saw cafe chairs organized in the same manner in Stockholm, Sweden. I never noticed it anywhere else while on our Northern Baltic cities journey, so maybe it was customary of Scandinavian countries? Of course, while we walked along the Helsinki shoreline, we took notice of the massive Uspenski Russian orthodox Cathedral that dominates the Helsinki skyline. Then it was off to one of our final stops on our whirlwind Helsinki tour: the Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral (pictured below). The Cathedral, which can be seen throughout the city, is perched on top of its own ledge overlooking the city. Once you get to the base of the Cathedral, there’s many staircases to climb before receiving a rewarding view of the Senate Square below. To be honest, the inside of the Lutheran Cathedral is nothing special compared with the Orthodox Cathedrals of Russia, but the exterior architecture of Helsinki’s main church was certainly memorable. 

Our day in Helsinki was certainly enjoyable. Even though, I’m sorry to say, Helsinki isn’t as breathtakingly spectacular as St. Petersburg or as eccentric and historically fascinating as Berlin, Helsinki still captivated our attention. My family greatly enjoyed our day and took notice of the little things, such as wondering why a local business added the word “probably” to the following advertisement “Probably the best disco club in the city.” We were able to glean a basic history of Finland that I certainly was unaware of before. For instance, on our Helsinki Archipelago boat tour we learned that a Swedish king in the 1500’s forced Swedish citizens to move to Helsinki in order to populate the area and build a trading city to rival Tallinn, Estonia. While our day, and the boat tour, ended with a slightly hilarious end quote “and now we don’t have to force people to live here anymore,” I can certainly see why that’s the case. Finland is filled with kind and friendly people living in a climate that may be cold and snow-covered in the winter, but offers mild temperatures and an absolutely beautiful scenic landscape in the summer. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Oh Hello Again Piter

St. Catherine's Palace and the gardens

One of our first stops was the beautiful Dormition Cathedral on the banks of the Neva River. The Cathedral with its grey and gold domes was built in the Byzantine architectural style and its interior is a smaller replica of the Church on Spilled Blood (imagine paint instead of mosaics). I had noticed this church and its domes from across the Neva before, and had meant to pay a visit. I’m glad I finally had the chance. Dormition Church had been used as an iceskating rink during the Soviet era; it was quite the experience to appreciate the exquisite restoration work on a church that had been used as a recreational facility less than 30 years ago. On another Soviet- church relations note, I learned from our tour guide that the lutheran church that stands on Nevsky Prospekt was used as a swimming pool during the Soviet Union (oh and Kazan Cathedral held the Museum of Atheism). After 70 years of the continual destruction of religion, it’s amazing that we even have these churches to visit today. And one last church fact that I’ve learned: the huge golden dome on top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral is actually made of real gold. Super extravagant and super expensive. So where did they get the money to construct the dome? from the Alaskan Purchase. The Russians used the money they received from America after purchasing Alaska. That’s a fun fact if I do say so myself. 
Dormition Cathedral

While on the tour, I had the fortune of visiting two new locations that I didn’t have the time to see during the semester. The first being an interior tour of the Summer Palace in Peterhoff. The stairs alone in the palace were gold trimmed and entirely ornate (similar to Catherine’s Palace). There were striking similarities between the two grand palaces of the St. Pete suburbs. The most noticeable similarity included the design of the ballrooms. Both were covered with large mirrors and innate gold decorations (though I learned that the “gold” was in fact gilded bronze, but this does not take away any of the brilliance and splendor of the design). Further highlights of the tour included viewing Peter the Great’s tiny bed (he slept sitting up), his toilet (that looked like a throne), and his oak office complete with his quill and office desk. We finished off our royal excursion by watching the fountain ceremony at 11:00 am. There was lovely patriotic music as the fountains slowly burst into life. 

The gardens at Peterhoff
Our second day in St. Pete led us to another new location- Yusopov Palace on the Moika Canal. Distant relatives of the Romanovs, the Yusopov family owned 4 palaces in St. Petersburg alone, but the palace we visited remains the most famous. In the basement of this dwelling, Felix Yusopov poisoned and then shot the infamous Rasputin. We saw the room in which Rasputin was poisoned. The fascinating part of the story is that Rasputin didn’t die after being poisoned and shot; he only died after the Yusopovs threw him into the icy Neva. According to autopsy results, it was determined that Rasputin died due to water in the lungs. It’s unbelievable to think that he could withstand two gun shot wounds and arsenic. One of the most memorable rooms in the palace was the Moor themed room. The room looked as if the Yusopovs had built a mosque right in the middle of the palace. At first I asked myself: why? The Yusopovs were Russian Orthodox just like most people living in Russia before the October Revolution. Well our tour guide explained to us that the Yusopovs were a wealthy Muslim family that had originated from the Islamic Tatar region of Russia hundreds of years before. The moor room honors their heritage as Muslim Tatars even though they actually practiced Christianity. 
Moor Room at Yusopov Palace

It was interesting to glean a new perspective of St. Petersburg by exploring her wonders with my parents. I particularly found it amusing when my parents pointed out certain aspects of Russian life that had taken me more than a week to realize. The most obvious being the perpetual feeling of dehydration. After about 5 hours of tour, my parents began complaining about their thirst because well safe water isn’t readably available in the city. You have to learn to always carry a bottle with you, otherwise you may be out of luck. I feel like that tidbit is only funny to those on my program, but dehydration was a facet of my time in Russia. Now at home I can drink water whenever I’m the least bit thirsty. 
Location of the front between Nazis and USSR during WWII

And now it was finally a good-bye to Russia. Our two days in Russia went by in a flash, but I know my parents appreciated the ability to see and experience the location where I lived for 4 months. They were able to briefly see the street on which I lived and my campus that is situated directly across from the beautiful Kazan Cathedral. Visiting the marvelous sites of the city was an experience of a lifetime, but the cultural immersion and friends I made create even longer lasting memories. As I said До-свидания to St. Petersburg for the second time, my parents and I were able watch as Russia passed. We even happened by Kronstadt island where Russian naval ships and submarines were docked in the small port only a few meters from the beautiful golden domed Kronstadt Cathedral. My four months in St. Pete were truly and officially over, but I know I will return again. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Off to the Baltics: A Day in Estonia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Tallinn is the unknown gem of the Baltic Sea. Americans don’t seem to know very much about this small country that recently gained independence immediately prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. But maybe that’s why. Estonia’s history may date way back to the thirteenth century when the sea port was a trading powerhouse in the Hanseatic League, but Estonia’s history as a recent independent nation reaches back only 21 years. Heck, I’m even older than the post-Soviet Estonia (only by a month but still). Even though this locale doesn’t seem to hit many Bucket List radars in America, I personally feel that a visit to this Baltic city can not be missed. 

View of Old Town from Toompea Hill
As a Russian major with a particular interest in Soviet Union history, this sea side city did offer some intrigue. First stop: the Tallinn Song Grounds. As the Soviet Union’s time as a united nation quickly dwindled at the end of the 1980’s, Tallinners took to this open air concert hall to sing, hold hands, and unite in defiance against the Soviet yoke. What may be even more interesting is the lesser known Soviet related attraction that still exists in the city- the Sokos Hotel Viru, a 30 floor sky rise in downtown Tallinn. On the highest floor of the hotel remains a former KGB office. Unfortunately, my parents and I were unable to visit the museum due to time constraints, but our table mates at dinner were able to pay a visit. According to our friends, the KGB had the entire hotel under wire tap surveillance. Dinner plates had built in microphones and many of the hotel staff were paid to provide personal surveillance for the KGB. Staffers were told to give any lost items such as wallets directly to the KGB headquarters. Apparently, even though the elevator didn’t reach the top floor and the sign on the headquarter’s door read in Estonian and Russian “There is nothing here,” most everyone knew that the hotel was being surveyed. Our friends really enjoyed their tour of the headquarters, and during my next visit to Tallinn I will have to make sure to stop by to see the remnants of the Soviet Union in the city. 

The highlight of any trip to Tallinn is a visit to the city’s well preserved Old Town. The Old Town is essentially a walled city, and there are even segments of the wall that date back to the 1300’s. Personally I love walking along cobblestone paths in an ancient part of any city, but Tallinn’s Old Town was particularly charming. As we walked along, exploring the cafes and various shops, I could smell a wafting aroma of gingerbread and at times chocolate. I even stopped into a chocolate shop called Annelivik on one of the cobblestoned side streets that wound through the city. There I bought hot chocolate that was so thick that I could almost stand a spoon in the cup. It was so rich and so delicious. I think the waiter literally melted dark chocolate and added about an once of milk. I never thought I would get overpowered by such a rich chocolate, but by the end of my small cup I had enough of that delicious goodness. 

Even though strolling through Old Town was enough to create a memorable day, there were some specific highlights in the region that need to be commended. The first being Toompea hill, which boast fantastic views of the Old Town. The hill is also home to the Russian Orthodox Church called Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the rose-pink parliament buildings. Alexander Nevsky Church was particularly memorable with its colorful onion domed rooftops and Byzantine style fresco interior. My favorite section of the Old City was town plaza where medieval styled buildings and cozy outdoor cafes completely surround a cobblestoned plaza. My parents and I ate an Irish pub on a patio overlooking the plaza. We enjoyed our food (and I continued to nurse my hot chocolate) as we people watched, soaked up the sun, and enjoyed the eastern European atmosphere. As our day in Estonia was slowly coming to an end, my parents and I walked along the sector of the ancient wall in order to capture our last glimpses of the city. Tallinn was certainly an enjoyable and memory filled day. I can’t say that I loved the city as much as St. Petersburg, but I would most certainly return to the city if the opportunity presented itself. Ideally, I would love to see the city during Christmas Time when Winter Markets and Christmas lights and wreaths make the city sparkle in the snow. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Berlin: Beyond Expectations

Before visiting Berlin, I had always heard of the architectural oddity and the eclectic nature of the city. Because of this, I wasn’t all that excited to visit the city itself. I was immensely more interested in visiting the locales of historical signifance like the Brandenburg Gate, remnants of the Berlin Wall, and Check Point Charlie. However, after spending a day in Berlin, I am more than pleased to say that  the city was without a doubt a highlight of the cruise. I would love to return one day to explore some more. 

Brandenburg Gate and surrounding buildings
On May 21st we arrived in Warnermünde, Germany where we hopped on board an early morning bus heading toward Berlin. As we traveled through the rain and countryside, I couldn’t help but notice the green rolling hills and the same bright yellow patches of field that we had seen while in England. Our tour guide said the yellow fields were canola, so next time I use canola oil in my cooking I will remember how beautiful its plant form looks in the countryside of western Europe. Upon arriving in Berlin, we immediately passed the yellow tinted walls of Charlottenburg Palace before further proceeding into the city. After a brief stop at the Palace, we drove past Victory Column, a tall golden monument near the center of the city that commemorates the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. Then the remarkable part of the city tour began at the Reichstag, home to the German parliament. The building itself was quite impressive to behold- colossal columns and a massive German flag. The anthill like glass dome on top of the building didn’t quite match the impressive facade of the old parliament building, but it was interesting to learn that: 1) the white adjacent building that houses the offices of the mp’s is connected to the Reichstag by underground tunnels and 2) Hitler never made a speech or worked in the Reichstag. Afterwards, we only walked for about 5 minutes before we came upon the highlight of any trip to Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate. As a personal fan of President Reagan, it was quite the historical experience to stand at the location where he gave his famous speech “Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” On a slightly humorous note, after passing from west Berlin into east Berlin through the Gates, we stopped in front of a glamorous hotel on the plaza. This hotel was the location where Michael Jackson had held his son Blanket from over the balcony. Another fun fact about Michael Jackson and Berlin- during the height of the cold war, West Berlin brought in famous “western” musical artist to play in concerts. West Berliners would purposefully turn the concert speakers to the east Berlin side in order to spread the prohibited western music in the east. The West Berliners even did so with Michael Jackson’s music. 

Our next stop included a visit of remembrance to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate. This was one of the most thought provoking memorials I had ever visited. The memorial included over 1700 large grey stones of varying heights. While walking through the paths between the stones, eventually the grey stones overshadow you until you reach the other side. Interestingly, the creators of the memorial never provided an interpretation for the meaning behind the stone memorial. Personally, I believe that the ever increasing height of the stones represents the annihilation of the Jewish people. As you walk through the stones and disappear into the greyness, the stones represent the Jewish people. Their humanity and life were taken from them with ever more frequency as the war and genocide continued. On our way out of the memorial, our tour guide pointed out a tall tree not too far into the distance. She informed us that this tree marked the location of Hitler’s bunker where he supposedly killed himself alongside his wife at the war’s end. 
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The next three stops came straight out of a history lover’s dream. First, my parents and I got to see a large section of the Berlin Wall where we were able to stand with each foot on either side of the line that marks the location where the Berlin Wall stood over 20 years before. I was fascinated to learn that the Berlin Wall was built in less than 24 hours in 1961 while the city was at work. This original wall was simply made from barbed wire (no cement yet), but those who worked on a different side of the wall from where they lived were separated from loved ones until the collapse of the wall in 1989. Successful attempts to escape from the East were infrequent. The creativity of Eastern Berliners was especially impressive: people made underwater one-manned submarines, they jumped from buildings, and they escaped through concert sound equipment. Those who attempted to run, we learned, were often mowed down in what was known as the death strip where barbed wire, machine guns, and land mines served as deadly obstacles to freedom. Second, we drove through the city to see the small, yet infamous historic locale known as Check Point Charlie. We were able to see the check point (which served as an important barrier between the east and the west) only from a distance. Swat teams and police officers had barricaded the street on which Check Pointe Charlie was located. As we learned later, the authorities had discovered an old bomb from the WWII era in the Check Pointe Charlie area while we were visiting. What a way to remember this historical site. Third, we visited an old library, now home to the Humboldt Law School. In front of this library, Hitler had the Nazis burn any books that did not support support/complement his propaganda. On the location where all the books were infamously burned, there exists a memorial built into the guard. If you look into the glass portal of the memorial, you will only see empty book shelves symbolizes the books that were burned and forever lost. 
In the east and west with the Berlin Wall behind

The final 3 hours of our day in Berlin were spent in the trendy east Berlin. To make the experience even more memorable we stopped at a traditional German restaurant where we sampled German dark and light beer, pretzels, bread balls, sausage, sauerkraut, ham, sour potato casserole, and so much more. This was by far the best German food that I have ever eaten- absolutely delicious. Plus, we had a spectacular view of Gendermenmarkt plaza complete with identical cream and green Lutheran and Huguenot Churches from the restaurant. From the plaza, we walked to the absolutely colossal and magnificent Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) where we enjoyed strolling around the park and embankment on the nearby river. We briefly passed by Museum Island as well. There, five large museums in Neoclassical architectural style offer varying museum themes from ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean antiquities to 19th century art collections. The architecture alone of these museums is worth the visit- the cement and stone structures are islands themselves- the walls of the buildings are grounded into the large river, giving the impression that these buildings have recently emerged from the depths of the water. Unfortunately, we didn’t have to visit Altes Museum which hosts the infamous bust of Nofretete. One day I will have to return to Berlin in order to explore Museum Island further. 

Berlin Cathedral
In many ways, Berlin surpassed all of my expectations. I thought that the varying architectural styles of the city would be off-putting, but I found that to be the contrary. It simply added to the historical significance of the city. I was surprised to discover the number of vast Cathedrals that exist in Eastern Berlin, yet these Cathedrals stand alongside some drab Soviet buildings and even more modern buildings that were constructed post 1989.  Then there is Western Berlin, which has also undergone some changes. We learned that during the time of the east-west split, the area of Western Berlin that had been close to the wall had practically been a worn down ghost town. Now expensive department stores and high rises command this once empty area. Berlin has undergone drastic changes within the last 20 years. It would have been quite amazing to be able to compare the city from its divided days to the present. Berlin is rich with history, and quite a remarkable place. I didn’t think this city would touch my heart quite like it did. The history nerd in me loved this city; I hope I have the opportunity to return soon. 

Copenhagen: The City of Copper

Frederiksborg Palace
After one day at sea, our cruise ship brought us to the capital of Denmark, Copenhagen.    As we rode our taxi to Copenhagen’s Central Train Station, I couldn’t help but notice that the city was entirely trash free and practically squeaky clean. Even public trains were completely spotless and state-of-the-art. But as I soon learned, these perks from being one of the cleanest and greenest cities in the world came at high price. Not only was it about 6 times more expensive than in St. Petersburg to use the public train system, but the high tax rates in Denmark literally blew my mind. Apparently when a Dane purchases a car, he or she pays a mandatory 180% sales tax on the vehicle. Clearly this is the Danish country’s method for discouraging vehicle ownership. I guess Denmarks dedication to the green movement is more important than economic growth in the auto industry and accessibility of transport to work. 

Once we traveled by train for 40 minutes to the city of Hillerod, we walked through the pristine streets of the city to the impressive 16th century palace Frederiksborg Slot. The castle was built for Danish King Christian IV. Now the palace hold the Danish National History Museum. Hands down, the most spectacular aspect of the palace was its location. The beautiful red tinted royal dwelling comes complete with its own moat. Entering the territory of the palace was really special. We passed under a large brick gate, crossed a medieval bridge that remained suspended over the moat, and entered onto the courtyard of the castle that displayed its own fountain. The interior of the palace was also splendid; the Great Hall and the Danish King’s private chapel were beautifully and ornately decorated. The most memorable moment while at the palace occurred when we went around the other side of the structure and discovered that Frederiksborg Castle actually sat on an island in the middle of a picturesque lake. And across the lake: a baroque garden with yellow and white flowers, bright green hedges, and stunning waterfalls. I decided that Danish Kings and Queens knew how to live in blissful opulence. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit Kronborg Castle on the northern tip of New Zealand Island. We were, however, fortunate enough to see it from the cruise ship as we were sailing back to Dover on the return voyage. From the ship, I could see that the castle was quite large. It dominated the Baltic Sea coastline as we sailed between Denmark and Sweden (and yes we could see both shores). The grey walls of the square shaped castle are most famous as Shakespeare’s inspiration for the castle in Hamlet. A neat castle to be sure, but I believe that Frederiksborg Palace may have been even more picturesque. Both castles sat on a gorgeous landscape. Frederiksborg on a beautiful lake surrounded by fountains and gardens. Kronborg on the coast of the Baltic Sea with the beautiful green hills of Sweden in close view (and even what looked like a medieval church or castle opposite Kronborg on the Swedish coast). Hard to choose. 
Nyvan Street
Tivoli Park

Amalienborg Palace
Back in Copenhagen, we had about 5 hours to explore the city before our cruise ship departed. Our first stop on the express tour of the city was the infamous Tivoli Gardens Amusement Park (one of the oldest amusement parks in Europe), which yet again opened my eyes to the expensive nature of Danish living. My parents and I decided that it was more economical to spend an average day at Disneyland (at $125 per day) than it was to buy a multi-ride pass at Tivoli. My parents and I enjoyed fruit flavored slushies while we meandered through the vibrantly colored gardens and listened to Danish performances such as Pippi Longstalkings. Then it was off to city square where I began to notice a common theme of Copenhagen and maybe even of Denmark: Danes love to use copper in their architecture. Anywhere in the city, you can just look up to the city skyline and see maybe a dozen towers or domes made entirely of copper. For about an hour, my parents and I enjoyed strolling through the copper laden buildings of Copenhagen’s Old Town District. 

The highlight of our self-guide tour through Copenhagen occurred during the last 30 minutes in the city. We walked along the shores of one of Copenhagen’s most famous canals which ran along Nyvan street where brightly painted buildings brightened up the seaside cafes and sailboats. Then we turned left. After about another 10 minutes of walking we came upon the spectacular highlight of the day: Amalienborg Palace. Amalienborg Palace is the current home to the Danish Royal Family. Consisting of 4 separate buildings (one with a large dome), a massive square, a central monument, and more than a dozen Danish guards - this place was truly special and more spectacular than could be expected. The palace itself was grand, but I found the activities of the guards to be particularly memorable. We visited the palace at 6pm. At this time there was a small changing of the guards ceremony. But even more intriguing, the Danish guards acted differently from their British counterparts at Buckingham Palace in London. The Danish guards could move their heads and even speak. When my mother decided to take a break from our long walking tour by sitting on the ground in the Palace Square, a guard walked about 200 meters to her and told her that sitting was prohibited. 

As we left the dock after a full day in Denmark, I couldn’t help but dwell on the beauty of the historical buildings and the pristine quality of the Danish landscape in the cities and countryside. Denmark was an expensive, yet memorable day. I could definitely see myself returning to see more of the castles and attractions that the country has to offer, but overall the country didn’t hold my heart as much my favorite foreign nation so far Ireland or my favorite country of cultural and historical fascination- Russia. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

British Tea Time

Castle Comb, Cotswolds
My study abroad experience in St. Petersburg may have ended, but I know I have many more adventures in my horizon. So, I decided to continue writing this blog to chronicle my travels after my time in St. Petersburg and even in the far future. I am mostly continuing to write this blog in order to preserve the memories of my travels for years to come, however I hope many of you will read my blog in order to consider how to best conduct your own vacations from my experiences. And now to begin...

After flying out of St. Petersburg, I met my parents in the London Heathrow Airport in order to board our 2 week long cruise Baltic Cruise aboard the Holland American ship The Ryandan. Before our cruise ship’s departure, we had a full two days to explore the quaint English countryside. We loaded our rental car and made the hour trek to Stonehenge. Without a doubt the English countryside was magnificent. On the road, hundreds of fields covered with bright golden yellow flowers dotted the landscape and magnificent trees with white and pink flowers bloomed throughout the countryside. Immediately before arriving at Stonehenge, we ate the obligatory fish and chips with malt vinegar before driving up one last hill and gaining our first glimpse of the towering gray rocks of Stonehenge. At first glance, the rocks simply seem like large stones set in a gorgeous field landscape. However, I really enjoyed listening to the unknown history of these mysterious stones. Apparently sometime between 3500 and 1000 BC, the residents of the southern British region transported many of the Blue stones found at Stonehenge from mountains 300 miles away in Wales. They then placed these rocks in a ring formation that perfectly reflected the summer solstice. The rock formations were even used as a calendar; one could tell the month of the year depending on the which rocks were covered with rays of light. My mom joked that maybe Stonehenge was used for witchcraft, but nobody knows and the rocks remain as mysterious and beautiful as ever.
The Roman Baths in Bath

Next stop on our English country tour: the city of Bath. I really enjoyed our short stay in this city. At first glance, Bath is a medieval English city. Cars wind between stone buildings on narrow cobblestone streets, spirals are readily visible towering about the city rooftops, and gothic styled churches appear around many corners. Even though simply strolling through the parks and winding alleyways of the small city is pleasant, the highlight of any trip to Bath is the archeological site - the Roman Baths. Discovered a few centuries ago, this Bath that dates back to the Roman empire is amazing to behold. The baths are formed from hot water springs, and they were considered by the Romans to be a sacred place. I was surprised to discover that the Romans dedicated the baths to the goddess Minerva, and even wrote letters and curses to the goddess on thin lead parchment, which they flung into the hot springs, hoping their desires were granted. At the site, there was even a small archeological site with Roman archaeological finds on display. The greatest of these being the Gorgon, which many archeologists believe to be an emblem that infused Celtic traditions with those of the Romans. The Baths were not only a historical lesson on the influence of the Roman Empire in present-day England, but it was also quite the experience to see the classical Roman architecture juxtaposed with the grand medieval architecture of the city of Bath.

After our morning in Bath, my parents and I drove north to the quaint English region known as the Cotswolds. In the Cotswolds, you will find idealistic English villages. The regions is filled with small english villages where thatched roof houses, gardens, small doors, and beautiful fields. Since we only had a half a day in this tranquil location, we only had time to visit two of the Cotswolds most beautiful villages: Castle Comb and Bibury. For a quick lunch break, we stopped at a local farm in the Cotswolds- Allington Farm. Tripling as a farm, store, and restaurant the place was packed with locals. And I think I know why- the food was delicious. One of the best and unique burgers I have ever tasted: goat cheese, beets, caramelized onions. The burger literally melted in my mouth. Then it was off to Castle Comb. We simply strolled around the town, taking pictures of the cutest little house I’ve ever seen and listening to the birds chirping. The town had a running brook through the central square. The entire experience reminded me of England’s own Shire (but for normal sized people, not hobbits). Then it was another 45 minute journey north-east to my favorite Cotswolds city (well at least so far my favorite): Bibury. Bridges, walking trails, quaint cottages, gardens filled with vividly colored flowers, and an ancient church- This was the magic of Bibury. It’s hard to describe the truly idealistic nature of this village. My parents and I spent an hour or so in complete bliss, eating ice-cream cones and marveling at the wonders of the English countryside before making our way to our hotel closer to Dover. The Cotswolds might not be the most exciting destination in the world, but simply relaxing and enjoying the scenery of the quaint English villages in the region will forever be ingrained on my memory. The region is simply magical. 

Dover Castle and the beginning of the White Cliffs
Our final day in England before embarking on our cruise ship involved a brief exploration of the wonders of Dover. The city can only be described as an English sea port town. Board walk, fishing villages, and British flags abound. What really puts Dover on the map though is the White Cliffs and Castle. The city of Dover itself is situated below the infamous White Dover Cliffs. And sitting on top of the cliffs is no other than the imposing figure of the Dover Castle. Before boarding, my parents and I explored the grounds of this 12th century Castle famous for its secret wartime tunnels and strategic significance for defending the borders of southern and eastern England during the medieval ages. The most memorable image of Dover occured when we said Bon Voyage to the city on our cruise ship. When we left the port, we were graced with a view of the white cliffs stretching along the shore for miles with the Dover Castle perched upon the edge. I immensely enjoyed my brief stay in the countryside of England. My parents and I were reunited after 4 months, ate delicious English food, and laughed at our impaired sense of direction. However, I know that I must return someday to London and the English countryside. There’s just so much more history, landscape, and culture to appreciate in the country of my ancestors.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Until Next Time St. Pete

Me, Raymond, and Olivia in front of the Russian Museum
As my last days in Russia slowly dwindled down, I looked back on my experience, appreciating this Russia for what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed as a person, and what I’ve been blessed to see in this country. In a final ditch attempt to wind up my experience and say До Свидания (dasvidanya- Russia for farewell) to Russia, my friends and I took a boat tour on the canals of St. Petersburg, gaining a whole new perspective of the city. And now I know why another name for St. Petersburg is the “Venice of the North.” There are three major canals and a river (the Neva) that wind their way through the brightly colored buildings of the city, but I had no idea that there were other smaller and less obvious branches of the canals that connected the four major waterways. It was the perfect way to relax before finals began. We casually floated by worn down palaces and marveled as we passed by a large blue and gold domed church that I had never seen before. It was such a peaceful and relaxing method of transportation in St. Petersburg- seeing for the last time the Church of Spilled Blood, Mikhailovsky Castle, Nickolsky Cathedral, and the Mariinsky Theater by cruise while sipping on wine was the perfect way to end my journey abroad in Russia. After my canal tour, my experience was all but over. I finished my exams, celebrated the end of the semester with friends and professors, packed my bags, and had one last dinner with my host family. I spent my last few hours in St. Pete with Olivia and Ray eating ice cream as we walked among the gardens of the Field of Mars and the Summer Field. Just before we left for the St. Pete airport at 3:00 am, we sat in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace coming full circle. We had begun our semester four months ago by traveling to this famous local and now we ended our semester here once again. 

As we boarded our 5:00 am plane to Munich, I couldn’t help but think about how fortunate I have been to live in this city for four months. I have met some pretty incredible people, learned to live without readily available drinking water, and have been humbled by my ineptitude to make even the simplest transactions in Russian. The city itself is splendid and the culture fascinating. For me, many of the highlights of my experience involved interacting with the Russians themselves. Yes at times I became very frustrated with our cultures differences (I am mostly thinking about the times when store clerks refused to give change for bills as small as 200 rubles- the equivalent of 6 US dollars). But most of the time, I was vastly intrigued by the history, beauty, and complexity of a nation who has withstood significant periods of political and social turmoil. Even though I will forever have Catherine’s Winter Palace, the interior of the Church of Spilled Blood, and the Moscow Kremlin imprinted on my memory, I will also never forget the simple daily interactions of my life in Russia. Drinking tea around a samovar (ancient Russian version of a kettle), discussing international affairs with my host family while watching the Russian news, and learning about US-Russian foreign relations from a Russian perspective. These are the memories that have enhanced my cultural understanding and have challenged me to strive to understand major themes and events that guide the typical Russian perspective. In turn, my exhilarating experience in Russia has given me more patience, humbled me, but has also taught me to be more appreciative. I have always been and always will be an American Patriot, but  my time in Russia has opened my eyes to what defines American freedom. 

In order to better explain how lucky I am to be an American, I would now like to includes some of the tidbits about Russia that I thought were better to share after I left the country. First regards the news. Every days my host grandmother and I watched the news together during dinner. And let’s just say both her and I knew that not everything on the news could be trusted. For instance, at the beginning of the semester there was a massive scandal in Russia surrounding the death of a boy named Max Shatto in America. Max Shatto had been a young Russian boy adopted by an American family in Texas. Even before the autopsy in America had been released, Russian news organizations were claiming that Max had been beaten and poisoned. Either the Russian Intelligence Agency knew something no one else knew or the news was attempting to rile up anti-American national sentiment in order to gain support for their new law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans. My guess is the latter option...

Speaking of the Russian Intelligence Agency (FSB), I had the remarkable opportunity while in Moscow to go take a look at the headquarters of this post-KGB organization. The FSB headquarters are housed in an old prison, and not just any old prison: Lubyanka. Lubyanka was the Soviet era prison where thousands of prisoners waited before being shipped off to Siberia during Stalin’s era. In my opinion, it is very fitting that the modern day version of the Russian KGB now resides in the location where thousands of prisoners were tortured or sent to their Siberian dooms during Stalin’s regime. We of course did not dare to take pictures of the building, but it was very interesting to see four or five men smoking casually standing around the plaza smoking a cigarette. hmm, I wonder who they were? I’m thinking FSB agents keeping a check on street traffic. 

And then there were the moments during my study abroad program where my jaw literally dropped due to shock. One of these moments occurred during my political science course as we learned about the Russian judicial system and a case surrounding the Feminist Rock group band “Pussy Riot.” Several of the members of this group had been on trial for hooliganism. They had been arrested after performing anti- Putin (down with the dictator)rock music during a religious service in the largest Cathedral in Russia. Their arrest didn’t surprise me as much as their trial did. Before their trial began, the members of the band were set on display in a see-through prison cell. Jury members and the press walked by them as the members sat objectified by their piers. Can they really being innocent until proven guilty if they are seen immediately before the trial behind bars. This was Soviet era Show Case Trials at their finest. The “trial” took place and two of the women were sent to Siberia where they preform needle work to this day. Siberian work camps during the 21st century? Yes, this still occurs. At moments like this, I am not sure if the Russian Federation really is a new country or simply a newly modified version of the Soviet Union.

It is crystal clear to me that I live in a very special place- America. We are provided opportunities to advance in society and work hard in order to accomplish our wildest career goals. (Unlike in Russia were the sons and daughters of diplomats study abroad in Europe and are automatically given a coveted seat in the bureaucracy). As an American, I have the right to receive a fair trial. So yes, I love America, but that doesn’t mean that I still didn’t love Russia. The country is beautiful, the people are fascinating. Some of the aspects of Russia that I listed above both frightened and fascinated me. It helps me understand why Russia is still considered a semi-authoritarian nation to many. However, the beauty of Russia overruled all. Russia may not be as free as America and its culture may be entirely unique onto itself, but Russia’s cities, landscape, history, and people will always remain unforgettable to me. I know that St. Petersburg will hold a special place in my heart forever.