July 8, 2008

Travelogues

I'm back from a fantastic Nordic vacation with my parents who were visiting for two weeks. We covered Norway, Finland and Estonia and experienced Stockholm's amazing archipelago. I must say, Norway is definitely one of the most beautiful countries I've ever visited — I'd love to visit again if it wasn't so freakin' expensive!!

The wonderful thing about living in Europe is that you can travel such a short distance and be immersed in another world of a different culture, language and people. Oh, and who can forget the 5-6 weeks of vacation per year? :)

Here are some recaps of a few more of my past trips...

Swedish Lappland (mid-April)

Christian came to Sweden for a week to visit me and we took a 3-day trip up to Kiruna in the arctic circle. We took an overnight train up north and right when we arrived in Kiruna at 10am we were taken straight into the wilderness for a serene dogsled ride with Alaskan huskies. For lunch we stopped in a forest camp and had a delicious Sami meal of reindeer meat and potatoes with lingonberry sauce while sitting around a campfire on warm reindeer fur. Our musher, Stefan, recalled a story of when he was hiking in the area and just encountered Mats Sundin in the middle of the arctic woods!

In the afternoon we suited up for a snowmobile tour to the town of Jukkasjärvi, home of the original Ice Hotel. We were joined by 4 others, who just happened to be from Toronto as well (small world!) I only rode in the back on the way there, but it was an exhilarating experience. The Ice Hotel is built along the Torne River, from which all the ice for its construction was farmed. There's a huge ice factory right next to it that farms all the ice for next year's ice hotel as well as for exporting to the Absolut Ice Bars in Stockholm, Copenhagen, London and Tokyo. Inside the hotel we saw the Ice Church, where many couples get married, the original Absolut Ice Bar, and of course, the artist-designed rooms and suites, which were really amazing.

I had the chance to drive the snowmobile back, but we hit a lake with really deep snow so when I tried turning, we started leaning over too much and toppled into the snow. And it happened again. And again :P Whoops. After making Christian faceplant into the snow 3 times I decided it was time for him to drive again. We arrived back to our base camp at Lake Alta and had a dinner of more reindeer, potatoes and lingonberry sauce (yum!) Because we were so far north, the sun didn't set until 10pm and even after sunset there were a few hours of twilight. That meant we had to wait until midnight to even have a chance to see any glimpse of the Nothern Lights. So after dinner we just hung out in the sauna and socialized with two other guys visiting from Germany until our tour guide came by at midnight to pick us up to take us to some mountain for a better view.

Our guide was pretty skeptical of our chances of seeing it that night though so he just brought us back into town to our hostel. I had been pretty much resigned to the fact that we probably wouldn't be seeing because 1) peak season was only November - March, 2) we were only staying one night and nighttime only lasted 2 hours 3) the last occurrence was 2 weeks prior. Once we got to the hostel, I got out of the van and made a beeline to the door — that's when our guide told us to look up. Lo and behold, it was the northern lights dancing above our heads!! At first when I looked up I didn't think it was anything since it just looked like a streak of milky clouds, but then it turned into green curtain streaking the sky. It was sImply amazing!

The next day we just explored the town of Kiruna, which didn't have much to see except a nice Sami-styled church that was named the most beautiful building in Sweden in 2002. We had an overnight train to catch back to Stockholm but when we arrived at the train station, we encountered Slovak signs all over the place and even the train station sign said Bratislava. It was really quite confusing until we noticed a film crew further down the tracks!

Russia (early May)

During Valborg Sweden had another super long weekend so I took advantage of the extra days off and headed off to Russia with Melissa. We spent 2.5 days in St. Petersburg and visited Peter and Paul Fortress, Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, and the Hermitage, and explored the Nevsky Prospekt and Mariinsky Theatre areas. We took an overnight train to Moscow and I must say I was highly impressed by the comfort level of our couchettes. I was actually really apprehensive about the overnight trains because I read that they were pretty dirty and ghetto, but this train was actually the fanciest one I've ever been on: plush carpet, 4 beds (instead of 6) ready-made with nice linen and real pillows, free toiletries kit with slippers, breakfast box in the morning, and a car attendant serving free tea and coffee.

Moscow was beautiful and unbelievably clean, despite everyone from St. Petersburg telling us that it was dirty and there was nothing to see. On the contrary, I enjoyed it more than St. Petersburg, and it seemed more Russian to me, whereas St. Petersburg felt too European. Our Moscow sightseeing included the must-sees like the Kremlin and Red Square, touring around the metro system and visiting the ornately-decorated stations, window shopping at GUM, and exploring most of the central districts on foot. I ventured on my own to the New Tretyakov Gallery, the modern art museum, to see the the famous works of Russian avant-garde artists Malevich, Tatlin, and Kandinsky.

Since the entire country was preparing for Victory Day on May 9, Lenin's tomb was closed off so we couldn't visit it. We also tried getting ballet tickets in both cities but they were all sold out :(

Copenhagen (mid-May)

I absolutely LOVED Copenhagen — it is by far one of my favourite cities: lively atmosphere, vibrant art and design scene, amazing contemporary architecture, and super friendly people (they don't even seem Scandinavian!) Whenever my friend or I were looking at a map on the street there was always someone stopping to ask whether we needed help. One couple even directed us to a huge outdoor flea market nearby, where I snatched up some cheap finds: a scarf, tank top, and bag all for $9! The vendor that I shopped at suggested us to lunch at a popular patio restaurant on the canal so we rode our bikes over for an amazing meal out in the sun. The rest of the weekend in Copenhagen involved the obvious tourist sites like walking along Europe's longest pedestrian street, Strøget, visiting the colourful Nyhavn harbour, exploring the community of Christiana, riding bumper cars in Tivoli Gardens, visiting the The Danish Design Centre, checking out all the contemporary architecture dotted throughout the city, and of course, making the trekk to see the Little Mermaid sculpture.

Posted by mich at July 8, 2008 12:44 PM
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