HELSINKI- THE WHITE DAUGHTER OF THE BALTIC

The brick built Uspensky Cathedral

The brick built Uspensky Cathedral

Ask anyone who has visited Helsinki, and they will almost certainly tell you that it’s one of the most beautiful and under rated cities on the Baltic cruise circuit. At once cool, chic and edgy, Helsinki is also a gorgeous confection of art nouveau architecture and broad, tree lined boulevards that make it more than a little reminiscent of Paris.

That said, Helsinki is a city deeply suffused with a sense of unique, Scandinavian flair and finesse. There are nods to outside influences, most notably in the enormous Uspensky Cathedral. Constructed entirely of red brick and topped by a set of ornate golden onion shaped domes, it would sit just as easily in the centre of Moscow’s Red Square as it does here, looming above a small inner harbour full of yachts.

The original, 1850’s built Lutheran Cathedral still dominates Senate Square; it’s a cool, neo classical kind of structure, with elegant, fluted white columns that lead up to a soaring, simple cupola, visible from anywhere in the city.  Set atop a run of broad steps that are invariably packed with sightseers, it offers a soul inspiring vista out over one of the most beautiful harbours anywhere in the summertime Baltic.

The harbour is broad, sweeping, and speckled with small, pine clad islands. The old fortress of Suomelinna looms across the entrance; a craggy old brute festooned with fearsome battlements, it was constructed as early as 1748. Today, this petrified colossus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can take a ferry directly from the harbour quayside; it’s a jaunt worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

Quayside market produce

Quayside market produce

That quayside itself is worth strolling around, because the local traders set up a fantastic, eclectically vibrant market here every day. From exotic spices to fur hats, via matryoshka dolls to cheap and delicious eateries full of local delicacies such as fresh herring, it’s a scintillating and entertaining stroll. You might just as likely see a gang of bikers cruising past on their Harley Davidsons as you will see some stunt walkers on stilts. There’s always live music; you’d expect nothing else in the home city of Sibelius.  The place is a constant, mesmerising throng of humanity from all walks of life, refreshed at intervals as large ferries from Tallinn arrive to disgorge a new tidal wave of curiosity into this lively, beguiling morass.

Helsinki is compact, and relatively easy to walk. It has some rolling, graceful parklands near the waterfront, speckled with the black and copper tainted spires of ancient gothic churches here and there. The city boulevards open out onto some truly spectacular fountains and, here again, the similarities with Paris are all too obvious. Bars, restaurants and open air cafes flood the pavements under grey stone, art nouveau buildings graced with delicate, laced wrought iron balconies.

This is a city brimming with light, life, and cutting edge Scandinavian design. Check out some of the art and furniture shops on the streets that lead up to the central station, and you’ll see what I mean. That station itself is something of an aberration; a vast edifice that looks like a mish mash, where Stalinism meets Mussolini modern; the four huge, human styled figures at the entrance are simply mind blowing, but when I was last there (August 2013) this lurid, compelling facade was undergoing renovation.

The harbour and Lutheran Cathedral

The harbour and Lutheran Cathedral

Of course, Helsinki looks- and feels- at its best during the long, hot days of summer, when the almost restless Baltic twilight means that it never gets totally dark here. The city is an alluring, compelling draw under such surreal, serenely beautiful conditions. But I have a hunch that it might also look wonderfully atmospheric and inviting under a coating of glistening white frost and clear, crisp winter snow.

I would hesitate to say that Helsinki is a city for all seasons; not having experienced it in the depths of a deep, dark Finnish winter, I’m just not qualified to judge. That said, what I have seen and sampled of this roisterous, cool and fun Baltic capital has certainly fired my curiosity to maybe return for a long weekend in winter, and get a cold (very cold) hard look at how it stacks up.

Given time I will do it. And I have the feeling that the ‘White Daughter of The Baltic’ might just have a few heartwarming surprises in store. Lovely city, highly recommended.

Surprises at every turn in Helsinki

Surprises at every turn in Helsinki

VISBY- A LITTLE SLICE OF SWEDISH HEAVEN

Fairytale spires of Visby

Fairytale spires of Visby

Visby is a small, walled seaside city on the gorgeous Swedish island of Gotland. It has the most amazing series of intact, walled fortifications anywhere in the Baltic, with the possible exception of Tallinn.

The difference here is that these amazing, ramparts flank a string of beautiful beaches, thronged with bars and waterfront cafes, and enclose a stunning, wondrous swathe of glorious botanical gardens. The ghosts of the past stand guards on the battlements, while brightly coloured butterflies flit skittishly through the ramparts once designed to accommodate archers of old. The place has a stance and a serenity that make it quite unlike anywhere else in the region.

The fortifications date from the thirteenth century, when the island was a member of the ancient Hanseatic League. Visby was walled in, garrisoned and gifted with a series of gaunt, great grey watch towers from where any marauding pirates could hopefully be seen.

In the event, no attack ever materialised. Hence, all dressed up and with nowhere to go, the fortifications survived, tried and tested by nothing more pressing than time. The remarkable state and scale of their preservation led to the whole complex being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Maiden Tower, Visby

Maiden Tower, Visby

These walls, turrets and towers seemed to preserve everything within them, too. There’s a wonderful church in wedding cake white, with twin, gracefully tapering spires in black wrought iron that loom against the sky. Houses, shops and restaurants have a cookie cutter, gingerbread look and feel. Set amongst bubbling streams and dark, silent lakes, it all looks like a theme park designed by the Brothers Grimm. if the makes of Kodak film had ever designed a perfect stage setting for their products, I think it would have looked a lot like Visby.

The gardens themselves are lush, tranquil and expansive. A technicolor tour de force that showcases a tidal wave of amazing colours, sights and scents within an easily traversed, difficult to forget few kilometres. Bars, cafes and open air tea houses dot the rolling expanse of vibrant, multi coloured rose beds- the island is famous for its roses-to create a singular, distinctive environment that is quite unlike anything you might expect to find in the region. Though only three hours’ sailing by ferry from the Swedish coast,  Visby enjoys a surreal sense of detachment that makes it seem a million miles removed from anywhere else on earth.

Best of all, the island is relatively small, and inaccessible to larger cruise ships. That obviously means smaller crowds, which in turn equates to a more intimate, personalised experience. The locals are friendly and welcoming and, while the island is not cheap, it is an experience that you are never likely to forget.

Gardens and stone guardians, Visby

Gardens and stone guardians, Visby

Of course, these perceptions of Visby are ones formed in the long, warm nights of a stunning Baltic summer. Winter would make the island a very different proposition;  with the early nights and the eerie mists of that season, it would probably look like something more out of the pages of Hamlet.

But, walls and all, Visby is an enchanting, endearing little proposition. if you’re lucky enough to be on a cruise or shore itinerary that stops here, then do yourself a favour, and enjoy every possible moment of it.

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN NORTHERN EUROPE

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

This short piece is mainly for the benefit of my American friends who might be thinking about coming to visit northern Europe in the near or distant future. Whether you’re on a cruise, or just working through some self devised itinerary, these are five of the great buildings and attractions of the continent that I would argue deserve your attention. They are not listed in any particular order of preference; the impact of each upon the individual is too damned subjective for such a superfluous kind of batting order. But each is uniquely compelling in it’s own way…

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli is the jewel in the crown of Scandinavia’s most boisterous and exuberant city; a shimmering, ethereal, twenty three acre wonderland of a theme park that dates back to the 1800’s. Here, a Chinese pagoda towers above a lake where a giant pirate ship provides the perfect grandstand for the twice nightly midnight fireworks each week in summer.

A wondrous maze of fountains, fairy tale lights and fun fair rides, Tivoli was beloved of the immortal Hans Christian Andersen. It’s also the place where one Walter Disney got the idea for his own, subsequent string of theme parks. He visited Tivoli in the 1930’s, and fell in love with the place. Chances are, you will too.

Geiranger Fjord, Norway

God blessed the twelve thousand miles of Norwegian coastline with an almost obscene level of beauty, and most people agree that Geiranger Fjord is pure, platinum chip scenic porn.

Sailing between the silent, towering, pine carpeted walls of rock is an incredible adrenaline surge. The silence is almost deafening You’ll see meadows in forty shades of electric green. Butterflies and jagged, snow capped mountains. Cows grazing by water so still that the scenery is reflected to mirror like perfection. There are vibrant, splashing streams that tumble down the mountain sides, and gaunt wooden stave churches, some of them hundreds of years old, scattered about a landscape that looks like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Petrodeverts Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

A monumental, swaggering statement in gold, gilt and marble, Petrodeverts was the summer palace of the Tsars of Russia. Built to exceed even Versailles in terms of beauty, scale and grandeur, it’s epic Italianate facade is the prelude to a stupendous spread of public rooms, each one almost awash in gilded opulence. Vast, impossible chandeliers hold sway above galleries lined with floor to ceiling mirrors.  Lacquered Chinese cabinets frame rooms filled with a glut of silver banqueting ware set on tables the size of the Titanic. The staircases are sweeping, magnificent, marble accented ascents.

In the gardens, a series of stunning, stepped fountains sweep right down to the edge of the Baltic itself, each terrace flanked by pairs of gilded, golden cherubs. When you see this vast former Royal playground, you get a sense of what truly triggered the revolutions that ultimately culminated in the Communist take over of October, 1917.

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

The most commanding building in this amazing city. And quite literally in many ways, since this is the seat of the German parliament. The vast, sprawling neo classical facade is impressive enough, with elements of ancient Greek architecture on display as well. The new, magnificent glass cupola, added by British architect Sir Norman Foster, offers almost Olympian-like views out over the most vibrant city in Germany.

It was famously burnt down in a coup orchestrated by the Nazis, in order to frame the opposition and consolidate Hitler’s total grip on power after his election in 1933. Today, children sit eating ice cream on the same steps that hordes of Russian infantrymen stormed in 1945 in the face of a desperate, fanatical resistance. Nazism died on those steps in many ways.

The Tower of London, London, United Kingdom

Even on the brightest days, the Tower manages to look at once menacing, sinister and forbidding. Hardly surprising when you consider it’s almost thousand year history. A site of great pageantry and a place of unimaginable pain and cruelty, every one of it’s gaunt, bleached stones seems to have centuries of agonised history seared into it.

You can see the amazing. glittering glut of the crown jewels, and some of the fetid, one time rat infested cells where scores of doomed men and women eked out their last pitiful days. You can even walk the silent, immaculately manicured lawns, and see the spot where no less than three Queens of England- Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey- met their grisly fates. All are interred in the adjacent, small church of Saint Peter Ad Vincula, once described as ‘the saddest place in all of England’.

This is just a snap shot of some of the great sites that litter the shores and cities of Europe like so many random exclamation marks. They all have amazing stories to tell. Many are poignant, all are powerful, each one is a  pointer to the past glories-and follies- of this proud, often prolifically violent continent.

QUEBEC; CANADA’S CLIFF TOP GEM

ImageQuebec enjoys one of the most amazing settings of any city, sitting on the heights of Cape Diamond, on a bend of the meandering Saint Lawrence seaway, several hundred miles inland from the Atlantic. Quebec is the oldest and last completely walled city on the North American continent, and as such was awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1985.

ImageIt is a city overlaid with a distinctly Gallic vibe; hardly surprising, since the original colony here was founded by the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, as far back as 1608. And though the city was taken by the English General Wolfe during the famous battle on the Plains of Abraham, that French undercurrent has always remained here.

ImageYou see it in the old town of today, where ancient stone houses and shops stand on cobbled streets, awash with flowers; some still have the tricolore flying aloft to this day. 

The city’s main landmark is the vast, looming Chateau Frontenac, a massive Gothic confection of a hotel that stands like a sentinel on top of the cliffs. Now owned by Fairmont Hotels, it witnessed history as the site of a historic meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt in September 1944, when they drew up the occupation zones for a soon to be defeated and demilitarised Germany.

ImageChateau Frontenac stands on the broad, breezy promenade of the Dufferin Terasse, with its statue of Champlain staring out over the Saint Lawrence, far below. Like many Canadian cities, Quebec was once the site of a huge timber industry, and the waterway was alive with freighters at all times of the day and night. Today, it is much more likely to see the giant cruise ships docking in its shadow, during the increasingly busy summer season and throughout most of the long, languid fall season, when the whole area often bathes in the last rays of a long Indian summer.

ImageDufferin Terrasse is alive with the sounds of cool, sultry jazz during the day. There are mime artists, portrait painters, and every other genre of street theatre you can imagine here. You can walk the walls of the Old Town, just as the French general Montcalm did as he watched the approach of Wolfe’s invading fleet. The area is a warren of narrow, winding streets full of cozy little bars, clubs, and of course, some wonderful, mouth watering restaurants.

ImageQuebec feels vastly different even to neighbouring cities like Montreal, just a hundred and forty-odd miles downstream. The combination of its matchless location, staggering natural beauty, and uniquely preserved old walls makes it a hugely appealing place to visit. Brim full of style and sophisticated charm, it is in many ways one of the most alluring destinations you can visit on any cruise in this region.