Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 16-21 2014 - Helsinki and Tallinn - I ate all of the Frusen Glädjé!

Geese crossing the road during our bike excursion
Our Helsinki friends Ron and Olga
After saying goodbye to 13 friends and family members who had traveled to Helsinki to visit with us, we had a couple of days to explore the town by foot, go shopping for new Nordic-style outfits (everything is brightly colored audacity), and explore the brewpubs of Helsinki. Panimoravintola Bruuveri - located in the modern Kamppi mall - tries really hard to look like a classic Finnish venue with old-looking wooden walls and a basement feel (although it's on the second floor of a modern mall). We tried the Plevna Dry Stout and Smokehouse Porter. Both were very tasty, and after a bit, the taste of smoke drifted from one to the other and I couldn't tell them apart. The Finns have really mastered the smoked porter (along with smoked fish, cheese, and pretty much anything else that will fit into a smoker).

Australian pop heartthrob Cody Simpson
(blonde guy in black hat and shades)
teenage fan club mob at the Helsinki airport
Danya and Olga waiting for the ferry to take off

The next day we took a bike ride around the coast of Helsinki (Seurasaarenselka Sound). It kept threatening to rain during our week here (there were even some reports of snow), so when there was a dry moment, we rented bikes and split for the islands! A few scattered drops attempted to dissuade us, but we knew better than to fall for those old tricks! The ride was a lovely mix of urban cityscape, car-free paved island roads, and off-road rails. Then we treated ourselves to Bryggeri Helsinki and their amazingly refreshing Hefeweizen. I don't know if it's just because of the bike ride, but that beer quenched a serious thirst and deep primal need. The Bryggeri Stout went great with their vegetarian stuffed cabbage. So it turns out there are great vegetarian options in Helsinki!

Tallinn is so photogenic

There's some Disney in Tallinn
and a lot of Tallinn in Disney.

After a few days in Germany, Kostya's girlfriend Danya rejoined us for our final leg: ferry across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn Estonia. The cruise was a short two hours - enough time to have a drink, write a few postcards, and sip emails from the intermittent internet connection as we left Finland and connected with Estonia. The vessel had a ton of amenities: cafeteria, air hockey, casino, and bars loaded with drunk Finns and Russians.

An exhibit on fishing in
Tallinn's Maritime Museum

Stepping into Tallinn's town square

Estonia, occupied sequentially by the Danish, Hanseatic League, Swedes, Russians, Germans, and Russians again, finally gained its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The country and its savvy people pride themselves on their tech savvy (having programmed Skype) and ubiquitous wifi. The old town in Estonia's capital of Tallinn is well-preserved, much like Prague, yet has more of a feel of authenticity with pop-up shops, 'free' donation-based walking tours, and vegetarian hotspots. The cobblestone streets, red roofs, and various museums blend effortlessly into the modern architecture outside the old city wall.

Locomotion - old and new

Architecture - old and new

One thing is curious about Tallinn, though. When checking in to the hotel, they wouldn't give Danya a key to the room because "keys are for adults only" (she is 22). The next night at dinner, she was given a children's menu (it worked out well - the best food was on that menu!). And the following day, Olga was offered a "family ticket" when bringing Danya to The Museum of Occupations. A most fascinating people! Other than this peculiar predilection, the Kalev Spa Hotel & Waterpark was wonderful - I've never stayed at a hotel that has a full indoor waterpark downstairs. Numerous pools, slides, hot tubs, and saunas were there to greet weary travelers after a tiring day of city walking tours, underground bastion tours, and beer tasting.

Cold sobering moment during the Bastion tunnel tour

View of the city during the walking tour

Though a little hokey at times, the underground Bastion tunnel tour did a great job of immersing us in the various occupations and wars Estonia was dragged into. At one point, during a brief film on the Soviets bombing Tallinn during WWII, a little boy on the tour repeatedly asked why the city was being blown up. When the film showed Nazis surveying the damage, he asked if they were the bad guys who bombed the city. No, not those bad guys, the other bad guys. Sometimes you're so popular that all the bad guys want you. He asked "why didn't they think it was a bad idea to blow up the town." That's a question for the ages.

Tunnels: repaired on left,
recently discovered on right
Flower market leading in through the city wall

Tallinn has its share of great breweries too. Hansa Brewery Ōlleklubi in the old town has a sweet sippable live (unfiltered, unpasteurized) honey beer on tap and tangy maroonish live "dark beer" in bottle. By the waterfront in an old salt warehouse, Kochi Aidad serves up their very tasty Ronk stout in generous 0.5L glasses. Three cheers for local brewing in Estonia and everywhere! Terviseks Terviseks Terviseks! Check out Olga's blog for more history and culture of Helsinki and Tallinn!

"Dark Beer" and scallops at Hansa Brewery Ōlleklubi
"Ronk Stout" at Kochi Aidad
A giant wooden krug in the background

Monday, June 16, 2014

June 13-15 2014: A Tail of Three Fishes: Food, Family, and Friends in Helsinki

Kiasma Modern Art Museum exhibit.
Mirror image -- or is it???

Check-in terminal at fully automated attendant-free Omena hostel!

We came to Helsinki to explore the country and culture - and also in the hopes that Olga's family and friends would come visit us from Russia. And visit us they did! At times, it was like herding cats, trying to get as many people as possible to meander together through various parts of the city. Other times, particularly at dinner, everybody came together in spectacular fashion, with 17 people at dinner on Saturday night. Finding eclectic restaurants that could easily accommodate a group as large and diverse as ours wasn't easily. Most nights, we dined on traditional Finnish cuisine in stained-glass and faded wood-walled rooms.

Olga and Masha
Prykmestar Savu (an excellent Finnish
smoked Porter), World Cup, and the boys

Finnish cuisine is a vegan's nightmare. A vast array of dishes are based on pork, beef, lamb, and deer. Vorschmack is a tediously-prepared sort of gefilte meat that reminds a bit of chopped liver. Sausages are popular, as are stews, smoked meats, and cold cuts. Olga's brother Kostya and Danya are strict vegetarians - and avoid eggs too - so there were very few foods they could eat during our Finnish culinary tour. Often, we found them negotiating with the waiter to assemble a dish using a few ingredients from several other dishes. Also, a healthy portion of salad and goat cheese is offered at many restaurants.

'Thumbelina' Masha on a giant lilypad
at the Helsinki Botanical Garden
My name is Maya, don't you forget it!
Thanks to Danya for the cute nametag!

There's a plethora of fish and seafood dishes, which has been my staple during out visit. There is often a mixed fish platter, consisting of herring (sometimes sweet with berries - and always interesting and tasty), salmon (a thick smoked steak - delicious), and whitefish (boneless on the skin). A creamy smoked salmon soup is wonderful, as well as the Toast Skagen: whole grain bread loaded with small shrimps, mayo, and a hard-boiled egg.

Celebrating our friend Olga's birthday
The whole mishpocha at Ravintola N11

A pescetarian will not go hungry as fresh fish is available everywhere! In fact, I think I have gained a couple pounds on this trip as there is much more to eat than just fish. The desserts are hard to pass up: rhubarb crumble with sorbet and Crème brûlée are key. Ice cream is very popular - Finns are proud that their per capita ice cream consumption is the highest in the world despite the cold and soggy climate. And everyone wants to order a round of drinks and toast something.

Our local friend Olga loves Vorschmack (REALLY!)

How are we supposed to eat Korushka fish??
By Sunday morning, we had hugged, kissed, said goodbye to everyone, and saw them off to their trains, cars, planes, and marshrutkas. Our local Russian/Finnish friend Olga (who we also ran into in Bangkok) was having a birthday party, on an island, so we had a chance to get a taste of the archipelago series of islands surrounding Helsinki. When we were in Stockholm Sweden a few years ago, we found the city entirely empty of locals on Midsummer (June 22) as they had all sailed off to the archipelago, so the idea of being invited seemed very dreamy. We had a wonderful "brunch" at 2pm on the tiny former military warehouse island at an outdoor picnic table clad restaurant that had just opened for business the week prior.  Everything was magically perfect - including the weather, the portions of cava/herring/whitefish/salmon/rhubarb/sorbet/coffee, Olga's and Ron's friends, and even the timing as we just made the boat with a minute to spare :)

Do yourself a favor and read more about our experiences in Helsinki on Olga's blog!

The famous mixed fish platter

Herring with black currant, caviar sour cream dip, potatoes, and salad
Toast Skagen fixins in the background

Friday, June 13, 2014

June 10-12 2014: Selfie in Marburg an der Lahn

Marburg Germany is such a charming town. When you arrive by train, there is a ten minute walk past the Lahn River and Elizabeth Church to where the town really starts. That's where we stayed the first two nights at the Elisabeth Bräu Brewpub and hotel. They make three beers there: Helles (light), Dunkel (dark), and Maibock (strong). I recommend everybody try their Dunkel, but tastes may vary :)

Helles bier at Elisabeth Bräu
As you continue further into the old town, you can either walk up the gradually sloping mountainside through all cobblestone streets, or on the low flat path. The sloping mountain street has interesting shops: (used CDs, books, coins, clothes), an old movie theatre, restaurants, bars, and lots and lots and lots of ice cream. The flat path has more practical shops like drug stores and banks and döner kebaps. If you need to quickly get from the low side to the top of the mountainside part of town, there are two elevators tucked into the historic buildings.

Somebody is VERY excited about this
Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (black forest cake)

Most of the buildings look as they did hundreds of years ago. Marburg has a unique visual quality, when you see the Fachwerk building tucked into a mountain, you know you've arrived. Cars do not seem to be outlawed, but we saw very few of them driving up to the high side of town. Life seems to move at a different pace up there, I found it quite lovely briskly walking or elevatoring up and down the mountain every day, sometimes several times a day.

Trader Joe's in US carries some European Aldi's
products, looks like the reverse is true too!
The last few days in town, we stayed at Zur Sonne Gasthaus. Many of the restaurants in town also have guestrooms - and vice versa. The town is kind of timeless in that way. The guesthouses / cafes at the top of the mountain are all centered around the Rathaus - a Town Hall dating to 1512. Vendors sell sausages, eggs, and flowers out of carts around the Market square. Time marches on, but not in Marburg. A large clock tops the Rathaus, which loudly rings every hour for the entire town to hear. If you are nearby, you can also hear the rooster crow, watch the globe inch around throughout the day, and Death turns his hourglass. It's all so Pratchettian!

Amerikaner cookie - so nice to be famous for tasty racial hamony
Outside the Rathaus, the local theatre company put on a production of Midsummer Night's Dream every evening this week. It was a super contemporary production with tons of sexualization (although for Shakespeare it probably didn't take much embellishment). The elf and fairies performed a mixture of acrobatics and pole dancing. It was neat to watch - and Olga translated the dialogue into English so I could follow along. That's one nice thing about an open-air theatre like that - nobody can shush you!

Midsummer Night's Dream meets Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

The highlight of my stay in Marburg was the bike ride. Despite being built into and on top of a mountain, many parts of Marburg are quite flat. For two successive days, I rented a bike and rode along the Lahn River through the gardens and football fields and farm fields to the far corners of town. Bike rental is only 2 EUR per hour in Marburg and a wonderful way to spend the time. I also ran a few errands and picked up some souvenirs for home - and of course some ice cream! :)

Trying to take a good selfie along the Lahn River

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

June 7-9 2014: Vegetarian Frankfurter

View of Frankfurt from the top
Jetlag + Sauer Applewein kicking in

For our vacation this summer, we decided to head to Marburg Germany to research and get a feel for the town where Olga's novel will be set - and Helsinki Finland where we have friends and also it's super close for St Petersburg family to meet us. Before heading to Marburg, we decided to spend a day in Frankfurt since we had never seen any of it beyond the airport.

Views of Marburg...
...from the castle

Despite being a main entry point to Europe and one of the busiest airports, Frankfurt is a small town, similar in population to San Francisco. We were able to see quite a lot in one day: the Jewish Museum, view of the city from the tallest building, The old Römer square (the 14th/15th century style buildings that were rebuilt/recreated after WWII), the Main River-side bar area (perfect place to catch an hour power nap!), and Alt Sachsenhausen (the authentic old part of town that was spared destruction because it was outside the route of Allied bombers).

Live scene outside projected onto a
table inside the Camera Obscrura
Old Weidenhausen neighborhood
where 13th century tradespeople lived

Alt Sachsenhausen is also the best place to grab apfelwein, the favorite drink of the Hesse region of Germany. I got mine "sauer", which is with sparkling water added to make it more like a sour apple beer. Another local specialty is the Grüne soße (Green Sauce), which is a delicately balanced blend of 7 herbs and spices mixed into a sauce with yogurt and crème fraiche, and served with boiled potatoes and hard boiled eggs. Perfect for vegetarians! The only trick was finding a restaurant that served a vegetarian version of it - or so I thought. Every restaurant we visited, I looked at the menu and kept seeing "Frankfurter Grüne soße." I know Germans love their sausages, but I never expected to see so many hot dogs on the menu. Passed by a couple of biergartens before I realized the Frankfurter is not a hot dog but a designation of being a Frankfurt local specialty. Hah!

The only store open where we could
get groceries was a gas station

Sampling the Bananenweizen (banana beer)!
By evening, we had taken the train to Marburg, setting the alarm on our phones just in case we dozed off and missed the stop (it has happened to us before!) If you like authentic old buildings and super cuteness, you must come to Marburg. The Brothers Grimm lived and studied here, so the castle, towers, houses, and other quaint buildings feel quintessentially old world as they inspired the stories that inspired your imagination :)
Square in Marburg where this blogpost was written

It's great that the town is so charming and cute to explore because the entire city was shutdown from Saturday night when we arrived until Tuesday morning for Whit Sunday and Whit Monday holidays. Scattered things were open - including the Elizabeth Church, Castle and its camera obscura experiment where you can play with a giant pinhole camera. Most bars/restaurants/cafes were open, but all stores (including grocery and drug) were closed. Good thing we hadn't forgotten anything important!