Thursday, September 27, 2012

Life Lesson #49 - What Not to Do in Helsinki

Helsinki is just two hours from Tallinn by ferry. But, if you're planning on making the trip, I really must tell you two things.

Firstly, Linnanmäki, the wonderful-awesome-looking amusement park is really easy to get to from the centre of Helsinki.

But don't make this trip unless you're sure it's open.

And, even if the big illuminated sign says it will open at 1pm, unless you speak Finnish you'll probably miss the part that says the illuminated 1pm sign is actually for the rather-staid-looking-compared-to-an-amusement-park aquarium next door.

So don't bother coming all the way back a second time at 1pm, because Linnanmäki is only open on weekends.

Secondly, if you find yourself incredibly disappointed because a wonderful-awesome-looking amusement park is closed, consider your move carefully before opting to make up for it by visiting a traditional Finnish sauna. Even if the Lonely Planet says it's really cool.

Because it turns out that traditional Finnish saunas happen to be filled with chubby Finnish geriatrics doing laps in their birthday suits. And you won't know where to look.

So, may I instead suggest the following options to fill your time in Helsinki:

1.  Have a look at all the odd communist-style buildings
These sculptures on the main train station reminded me a lot of Moscow. Which is interesting because Finland has always valued its neutrality. But visiting Helsinki I couldn't help but notice that a lot of Soviet symbolism appears to have snuck in.

2. Check out a knitted police car
Kiasma Art Gallery has one in the lobby, by Kaija Papu. And it's awesome.

3.  Eat real IKEA food
IKEA's meatballs may be proudly Swedish, but the Finnish variety are surprisingly similar - in a good way. Engel restaurant, near the Lutheran Cathedral, makes particularly good ones.

4.  Become a Lutheran
This is what Tuomiokirkko Cathedral looks like. Need I say anything else!?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tastes of Tallinn

Tallinn is what I wanted Prague to be. Pastel-coloured. Medieval. Charming.

But whereas Prague has been considered a gem of Eastern Europe for long enough to have reached British stag-party destination saturation point a decade ago, Tallinn has only been featuring on bucket lists for a few years. So the people are welcoming, it's easy to find authentic Estonian food, and outside the main square you rarely hear a language besides Estonian.

Raekoja Plats; Tallinn's main square inside the UNESCO World Heritage listed old town.

Did I mention that the food was amazing? So many of my treasured memories of Tallinn take place inside restaurants that I've decided to dedicate this post to the varied tastes of Tallinn.

4.  Hot wine
It gets pretty cold in this part of the world, so Estonians embrace mulled wine, which they call simply 'hot wine', more than any other European nation I've visited. Well, outside of a Christmas market anyway. Aiming to orient ourselves on our first night in Tallinn, we settled in the outdoor area of a restaurant in the main square to sample some. To help us keep cosy on the fairly icy night, our waitress brought us blankets to snuggle up in.

3.  Hell Hunt
Though it sounds like a death metal band, 'Hell Hunt' means 'gentle wolf' in Estonian. And this is where the locals come to get their fix of Estonian beers. Though, I have to admit I'm no fan of beer and opted instead for a nice blackberry ice wine. The prices are far lower than in the main square, and the bar snacks are pretty good too. Plus, if you're lucky one of the comfy armchairs out the back will be free.

2.  Pancakes at Kompressor
If savoury crepes are your thing, you have to drop by Kompressor for an enormous Bacon and Smoked Cheese, or Smoked Chicken and Feta. Though it'll set you back a mere €4, you won't be able to finish it - I promise.

1.  Medieval Feast at Olde Hansa
Welcome to 1400 AD. At Olde Hansa, the rooms are lit with candles. The music comes from minstrels playing in the corner of the room. The walls are lined in tapestries. The waitresses are dressed appropriately for the era. And this isn't some (dare I say it) hokey American-style themed restaurant. You're eating in a historical building that has actually been around since at least 1400.

The menu is like reading an old storybook.

Dinner is game sausage with Bear, Wild Boar and Elk. Plus a delicious smoke-grilled salmon with nut sauce, roast rabbit, Wild Boar plate, ginger turnip, saffron spiced spelt, and a lentil dish that tasted like risotto.

Here goes!

I can sometimes be a fussy eater. But I can honestly report that every single dish was delicious. I loved every  bite, and only regretted not being able to finish the enormous feast that took up our entire table!

But I found room for dessert: rose pudding. A creamy mousse-like dish with actual rose petals. Heaven on earth.

From now on, Olde Hansa will be my one recommendation to any friend I hear is visiting Tallinn. It's not cheap, but it's the most wonderful taste of medieval Estonian life I could have imagined.

Also in Tallinn...
Though this is a post about the tastes of Tallinn, it'd be a crime for me to hit 'publish' without including these gorgeous pics of some of the other highlights:

Autumn in Kadriorg Park.

Kadriorg Palace; now an art gallery (though closed until early 2013 for renovation).
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Church. In the early 20th century it was scheduled for demolition because it was seen as a symbol of Russian oppression, but it survived due to lack of funds due to the sheer scale of a removal project.

Old Town Tallinn as seen from St Olaf's Cathedral, which was the tallest building in the world for 75 years.

Tallinn from the air. (sit on the right hand side of the plane for this view from flights departing Tallinn airport).

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Weekend in Ireland

If your knowledge of the Emerald Isle consists mainly of Guinness and leprechauns, you need to check out Shamrocker Adventures’ Southern Rocker trip. In three packed days, you get the chance to discover why everyone says they love Ireland.

For such a superstitious country, what better number than 13 for a list of things to check out on your Southern Rocker adventure.

1.  Drink a Guinness in Temple Bar
The Southern Rocker departs from Dublin, the home of Guinness. And the best place to taste your first brew is Temple Bar, Dublin’s hippest bar district. The first sip tastes like caramel, the second like garden mulch. But it’s an experience you can’t miss!

2.  Marvel at the Rock of Cashel
The first scenic stop is the Rock of Cashel. It’s an odd name for a castle if you ask me. But perched up high on its hill it makes for a breathtaking sight. And it’s nearly 1,000 years old!

3.  Kiss the Blarney Stone
Ever wondered why Irish is the most beautiful accent in the world? It’s undoubtedly because they’ve all kissed the Blarney stone. As you’ve probably heard, this slab of bluestone built into Blarney Castle endows with the gift of the gab all those who slide backwards and pucker up.

The castle itself is spectacular and well worth the visit.

4.  Visit the biggest Irish shop in the world
Near the castle, Blarney Woollen Mills is the largest Irish store in the world. Which, if you ask me, is a little hyperbolic (like Miss Universe... surely we're only entitled to pick Miss Earth?) . Personally, I was slightly overwhelmed by the range of woollen things and disappeared for a drink next door – but not before purchasing a new sticker for my now-well-travelled suitcase.

5.  Devour an Irish stew
By the time you arrive in cute wee Killarney, you’re bound to be famished. Good thing the main street has a number of great options. It doesn’t matter too much where you choose to eat, provided you order the Irish stew! And if it’s not cooked with Guinness, keep looking.

6.  Pose with the dolphin statue in Dingle
Day two is all about the Dingle Peninsula. This tiny seaside town is filled with pleasant pastel colours and little gift shops. A dolphin adopted Dingle Harbour in 1983 and is still hanging around and performing. The townsfolk are so smitten with Fungie that they’ve erected a statue of him. Visitors to Dingle are obliged to take a picture of a strange pose with the statue.
Photo credit: Kat Pullman

7.  Fudge from a coffee van on Coumeennole Beach
A steep path leads down to Coumeennole Beach, which means that when you first arrive you’re overwhelmed by your bird’s eye point of view, and everything about this patch of smooth sand and rugged black rocks appears remarkable. The highlight for me was a tiny little traditional coffee van in the parking lot that made a great latte and sold excellent almond fudge.

8.  Stand on the westernmost point of Europe
Dunmore Head is the westernmost point of Ireland. Locals like to call it the westernmost point of the entire continent, claiming that Iceland, though politically European, is on the American tectonic plate and therefore geographically American. Whichever way you look at it, the realisation that the violent ocean in front of you is unbroken before Newfoundland is staggering.

9.  Eat Murphy’s ice cream
Kevin, our guide, wouldn’t shut up about the wonders Murphy’s ice cream. So we knew we must be on to something good. And it sure is! Perhaps I was paying too much attention, but I could swear that Irish ice cream is creamier and more flavoursome. Try the Guinness flavour, but buy the Baileys one.

10.  Eat at the Rowan Tree café in Ennis
County Clare has been hit hard by the recession, and there are a lot of boarded windows in Ennis, where we spend our second night of the Southern Rocker. But this one restaurant appears entirely untroubled by the financial woes of Europe. With an eye-wateringly delicious menu like theirs, it’s no surprise business is still booming!

11.  See the Cliffs of Insanity with your own eyes
Princess Bride muggles may not understand why the cliffs of Moher caused me to immediately don a poor Italian accent and bemoan the six fingered man who killed my father, but these cliffs are unmistakeable as the Cliffs of Insanity from the 1987 classic movie. It’s also the #1 suicide spot in Ireland, we’re told. Beats the Golden Gate Bridge for beauty, that’s for sure.

12.  Get blown about on the Burren
The Burren is one of Ireland’s six National Parks, and it’s certainly a unique spot. More popular with rock climbers and cavers than hikers, this barren rocky area inspired Edmund Ludlow to say “there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him”. It was blowing a gale when we visited, which I'm told is not exactly uncommon.
Photo credit: Michael Pullman

13.  Meet a leprechaun in Galway
My one regret in Ireland is not being able to spend more time in Galway. This wonderful town had a great artsy vibe and I could have stayed for several days. We were lucky enough to meet up with our own lovely leprechaun – a friend we met on Busabout’s Sail Turkey trip.

If I had to summarise Ireland in one word, it’d definitely be green. More than anywhere I’ve visited, the grass really seems to glow. Anyone spending a decent amount of time in Europe should visit the Emerald Isle to see for themselves.

Shamrocker Adventures are offering free accommodation for all 2012-13 Southern Rocker departures. So there’s really no reason not to go! Here's the link to the offer.

Andrew travelled to Ireland as a guest of Shamrocker Adventures.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Istanbul in Two Days (part 2)

I had a dilemma back in June. How can you possibly explore a city as vast, as cosmopolitan and as interesting as Istanbul in just a day?

I decided you couldn't. So I didn't try to. I was fortunate enough to know I was coming back for another day a few months later. So I ticked off half of my hit list in June (see the post here), and now I'm back for more!

Here's the Antipodean's guide to Istanbul, part two:

7.  The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque feels relatively modern in a city with history as rich as Istanbul. After all, it's only 500 years old - constructed more than 1,000 years after the Hagia Sophia. Unlike Hagia Sophia, this is still a functioning mosque. So you can only walk through outside the hours of prayer, and you have to take off your shoes.

The gold and iridescent blue on the inside is stupefying. And because it's still a functioning mosque, you can only walk around part of it - which strangely adds to the charm.

8.  Topkapı Palace
All you kids who have dreamed of seeing the prophet Abraham’s saucepan, look no further. It’s right here in Topkapı Palace, along with other relics like Moses’s staff, Joseph’s turban and Muhammed’s footprint. Though the relics are fascinating, one can’t help but consider them a little far-fetched, so the real highlight of a visit to Topkapı is undoubtedly the palace itself.

And specifically, the harem. Back in the day, being a wife or concubine of the sultan was a pretty desirable job. With intricate İznik designs covering every wall inside the harem – it’s an environment not unlike walking around inside a kaleidoscope. Compared to the world outside the palace, the women of the harem had a fairly good deal.

Make sure you set aside at least half a day for the palace. It’s enormous, and just about all of it is remarkable if you know what you’re looking at – which is a good reason to buy the guide at the gift shop before you go in.

The detailed walls of the harem.

The view of the city across the Bosphorus alone is worth the entry price.

Some of Istanbul's mosques, visible from the palace.

9.  The Spice Bazaar
The second largest covered shopping complex in Istanbul (after the Grand Bazaar, naturally) has a smell that hits you the moment you walk in, but is impossible to describe accurately because of the way it evolves as you walk around. I found myself musing over whether blind people would be able to navigate the bazaar by smell alone. One step and your nostrils are overwhelmed by mint, and the next, some exotic blend of spices that the shopkeeper assures you is his grandmother’s secret recipe – certain to make every meal delicious.

And there’s Turkish delight everywhere. After far too long (two months, to be exact), I’m reacquainted with the most wonderful creation in the history of confectionary: pomegranate and pistachio Turkish delight.

I’m sorry to leave Istanbul. If only because I failed to find any new restaurants worth recommending (despite choosing carefully based on independent reviews).

Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to come back.