Finnish This Brew, A Helsinki Microbrew Festival

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While exploring Helsinki, we stumbled upon a Finnish microbrew festival.  He loves microbrews, so we had to check it out.

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It was a good chance to meet and talk with Finns.  Everyone had told us that the Finns are reserved and not the sort of people to use two words when one will do.   When drinking, this does not appear to be the case.  We were repeatedly engaged in conversation by nearby Finns.  We really enjoyed chatting about their country, beer and life with them.

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While you might not be able to name a single Finnish brew as they don’t export a lot of it, they have a surprisingly good microbrew culture.  The Finns are making some fantastic microbrews.  If you’re traveling there, they are definitely worth seeking out.  There were too many participants to name them all.

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Some of our favorites were:

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They weren’t all crazy beers, but for the traditional Finnish beer drinker, the IPA’s Ale’s and Stouts were probably different than what they grew up with.  However, a growing number of Finns are choosing microbrews instead of the typical beers produced by big global brewing conglomerates.   Karhu (which translates to bear), a traditional Finnish beer, is now owned by Carlsberg.  Many people report boycotting it post acquisition, however a decline in sales cannot be verified.  Small breweries only account for about 1 percent of Finland’s total beer consumption in Finland, but it’s growing each year as Finns develop a taste for more character filled craft beers.   With such good local brews to choose from, it comes as no surprise.

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Our favorite was the Malmgård’s Brewery.  Their Dinkel and Arctic Circle Ale were exceptional.  We met the head of marketing who told us a bit about the brewery, beer in Finland.  The brewery’s products are produced by hand in small batches using clear spring water, the domestic malts, cereals from the farm’s own fields.  They don’t use any additives. Malmgård has both the standard craft beers and more adventurous products.    If you’re in the US, you can get some through Shelton Brothers in shops featuring organic and locally produced products. DSC_0179DSC_0180

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Blondes In The Nordics

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I know, I know.  The blonde Swede is such a stereotype, but in the Nordics I couldn’t help notice there were a lot more blondes around.  I took a look around me on a boat.  This is what I saw.
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Suomenlinna Fortress – The Russians Came!

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Suomenlinna Fortress is one of the islands in the Baltic Sea that surround Helsinki‘s harbor.  When we told a Finnish gal that we were going there, he said “it a great place to shoot Russians from.”  Historically, there has been more than a little tension between Finland and its close neighbor, Russia.

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In the mid-1700’s, Russia under Peter the Great was rising as a power.  Pete had just built a shiny new capital called St. Petersburg nearby and had his binoculars trained on the west.  Sweden built the Suomenlinna Fortress (christened Sveaborg by the Swedes) with French financial assistance to address the threat Pete posed.

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The second largest or of its type (after Gibraltar), it is a serious fort to counter a serious threat.    When it was built, it was high-tech and a big deal.  It had the world’s largest dry dock, over 5 miles of walls and hundreds of cannons.

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We checked out the museum to learn a little about its history (there are several others on the island, but the weather was so good that we wanted to be outside).  There, about defenses and battles.  In 1808, the Russians came, led by Alexander I, who had colluded with Napoleon, and began bombarding it (see below).

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When no Swedish reinforcements arrived, the Russians took the fortress, occupied it, and called it Viapori.  The Finnish war ended with the Treaty of Fredrikshamn under which Sweden ceded Finland to the Russian Empire in 1809.  Part of the reason Finland is an independent nation today is because it became an autonomous grand duchy within the empire.

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The Russians expanded the fortress, building extra barracks, a bigger dockyard and extra fortifications.   The English and French tried unsuccessfully to take the fort during the Crimean War.  Unfortunately, they only succeeded in damaging it.  Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the war.  In the build-up to World War I, the Russians used it as part of its defenses to designed to safeguard the capital, St. Petersburg.

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Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Suomenlinna became part of an independent Finland.  Later during and after the Finnish Civil War, the island held a prison camp.  The island’s museum has artifacts from, paintings and photos of all these events.

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Today, Helsinki’s Suomenlinna Fortress is more than just one of the largest maritime fortresses and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s a cool place to hang out.  It’s only a fifteen minute ferry-boat ride from the center of Helsinki.

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We wandered around the grounds and scampered on the rocks, enjoying the sun, picnicking and taking pictures.  While taking this one, I slid on the slick rock and fell into the Baltic (thank goodness the camera didn’t go under.  He sat there and laughed at me trying unsuccessfully to scamper out on the algae covered rocks.  Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t the only one.  Suomenlinna is the place to hang on a nice summer day.  We saw Finns lazing on the rocks and picnicking in sunny fields.

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The island is home to 850 residents, who have a pretty cool little town.  There’s a nice brewery, a bar, nice cafes, and a general store.  Many of the residents are artists who sell their wares on the island.  I bought a beautiful pair of earrings that were way cooler than their relatively inexpensive price tag.  The island is especially relaxing because there are barely any cars on the island, although I hear that people used to be able to get to Helsinki via snowmobile in winter.

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We explored the ancient fortress walls and tunnels, checked out the rusty cannons and peered through the gun holes.  There’s a submarine from the cold war to tour and the museum.  The island also houses military barracks.

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How To Board A Car Ferry

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At Vaxholm (in Sweden), we spent an hour picnicking and watching cars embark and disembark from the ferry boats that connect the islands in the Archipelago.  We listened to the waves in the Baltic Sea and watched the process.  This is what we first saw.  The ferry pulls up and docks.  You can see that the gates are just opening and all of the 4 lane lights are red.

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Cars line up on the street (which is a dead-end into the sea) well ahead of the departure time.  We didn’t see a ferry schedule and I’m not sure whether they allow reservations, but there are only so many ferries and only so much space on each ferry.  I would hate to not show up early enough to get a spot.  Plus, you wouldn’t want to miss it.

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They didn’t buy the tickets while waiting in line.  I’m not sure how they sell tickets, whether they are available online ahead of time or someone comes around during the ride to sell them during the ride.  Once the gates are open, the light for lane 4 comes on and cars drive one by one onto the ferry.

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Once the first row is full, they start loading up another row.  In the photo above, you can see a full row.  You can also see the green light has come on for row B to begin loading that row.
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The loading process was very efficient and went quickly.  Once the cars were on, they closed the gate and lowered the bar.  Immediately after, the boat disembarked.

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Not long after that, another boat arrived.

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When boats disembarked, we were sometimes surprised by what came off.  Speeding off the ferry on bicycles looked like fun.  The vehicles exited in an orderly manner.  In the lower photo on the left, you can see they have a sign with a signal that tells which row can exit.

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Can you imagine taking a bus on a Ferry.  They disembarked so quickly that I think the passengers must have traveled inside the bus.  Plus, it didn’t look as though the boat had a passenger cabin.

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Minding The Gap

Why were we here instead of on the highway?

While heading north towards Geneva, we got off the road and got to see the beauty of the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France.    It’s a good thing it was so beautiful, because our 3-4 hour drive home ended up taking over 8.

You can see why the Tour de France often rides through here.   In fact, they’re headed through there this week.  It’s near Gap and the infamous Mont Ventoux.  The views of the dams and lakes, and mountain scenery are spectacular.

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Vaison-la-Romaine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time, Vaison-la-Romaine  (which you might remember from the post about Provence’s Ironwork Bell Towers) was the capital for the Voconce people.   It is famous for its ancient Gallo-Roman ruins including a Roman bridge.

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vauclus...

The Roman Bridge at Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Le Pont romain de Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bridge is one of five remaining Roman bridges in Provence. It survived a German bomb during the World War II and the Ouvèze River’s devastating floods in 1992.   Vaison has two excavated Roman districts, and an Archaeological Museum.

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse de...

Stone houses in Vaison-la-Romaine, Vaucluse department, Provence, France Français : Maisons de pierre á Vaison-la-Romaine, département de Vaucluse, Provence, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We weren’t the only ones who got off the highway and started taking side roads.  Since it was the edge of the alps, there weren’t many alternatives and the road was packed.  Ironically, it was still less crowded and moved faster than in the south of France.    We entertained ourselves by counting the number of people we saw pulled off on the side of the road answering the call of nature (over 10).

If you’re interested in a French vacation without the seemingly ever-present crowds, this is a part of France for you.  If you’re a Tour de France fan, this is also a part of France for you.  If you like simple bucolic beauty, it’s for you too.

I think the photo below is a viaduct on the Grenoble train line  (Chemin de Fer de La Mure/the Mure railway).  We saw it on the route from Orpierre (with its nice swimming hole in Les Gorges de la Méouge) to Grenoble.   It can be reached easily by road from Grenoble, or by trains on the SNCF line towards Gap.

Saunas, That’s Hot!

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Scandinavia is known for its saunas.  While we were there, we indulged and I developed a new addiction.   They are amazing.  I want one,  maybe we should build a home sauna in our basement bomb shelter

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Traditionally, Saunas are wood paneled rooms (sometimes in cabins like the one below) with wooden benches that are heated with wood fired stoves topped with rocks.  Today, many of the stoves are electric (for the heating unit).  Infrared saunas exist, but the steam is part of what makes it so good.

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You ladle water onto the rocks/stove to create steam.   We saw shops selling fancy buckets and ladles all over Scandinavia.  Since warm air rises, the higher the bench, the hotter the temperature.  It gets really hot and you sweat out all sorts of toxins.

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Locals claim that slapping the skin with birch branches enhances circulation.  They also believe that the chlorophyll releases opens your sinuses.   Being American, we didn’t beat each other with branches or didn’t go in the buff  (although locals do both).

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We did, however repeatedly cool off.  Many take a cold shower.  If there is snow, people will go roll around in it.

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Our favorite way of cooling off spot was on the island of Grinda in Stockholm’s archipelago.  We started by walking tentatively into the Baltic Sea and ended by taking giant leaps into it.  Even though I hate Polar Bear swims, I’d jump in from the sauna every day if I could.

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Get Away From The Grind On Grinda

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Grinda is a smaller, traffic-free island in Stockholm’s archipelago (a little over an hour from Stockholm).  We got there by taking a ferry from Vauxholm.  At just over a mile long, it’s not huge but that’s part of the attraction.  It’s small enough to be car free.  I love cities, but some of the most relaxing trips we’ve had have been to car-free destinations (ZermattSaas-Fee, MegeveLes Baux de ProvenceAix-en-ProvenceVenceSt. Paul-de-VenceEze, Les Baux de ProvenceCourmayeurAvignonGimmelwaldGruyeres).  I don’t know whether it is the lack of noise so you can hear the birds or just being able to walk in peace, but somehow without cars stress seems to melt away. It’s idyllic.

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The tomography reminded me of Maine‘s coast.  Like Maine, there’s plenty of wilderness.  Grinda has nature reserve.

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Although there are several gorgeous swimming beaches, we rented a sauna.  When we started to melt, we jumped off the dock out front into the Baltic Sea (Östersjön in Swedish).  I was expecting it to be salty like the Atlantic Ocean; it wasn’t.  The Baltic is brackish and not very salty.  It’s not warm either, but that’s no surprise.  We listened to the waves lap against the coastline.  It made for a wonderfully relaxing and peaceful afternoon.

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The trip there takes just over an hour from Stockholm on the Cinderella boats.  If you happen to go, the welcome center/commerce cabin (near the ferry dock) rents rooms at the hostel, cabins, campsites, saunas, kayaks and fun thinks like lawn games and kites.  Since Sweden would probably cease functioning without coffee, they also have it there.

DSC_0115DSC_0156Grinda has a general store that sells the necessities, candy and fancy homemade baked goods.  Come to think of it, those are actually necessities on vacation.  There’s a harbor side restaurant with a deck near the marina.

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It’s hard to tell from the picture below, but the tables were crowded.  The food and drink there was surprisingly cosmopolitan.

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Walking around the island, we saw sheep and cows.   They went to town on the grass and didn’t seem to care that you could get fancy cocktails and smoked salmon just up the road.

DSC_0151Serene, rustic and uber-chill, this is a place where you can’t help but relax.  My only regret is that we didn’t stay the night.  I’m sure the stars there are amazing.

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I’m On A Boat! Our Hotel Boat In Stockholm

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He travels a lot for work so he appreciates hotel amenities.  I really don’t care too much about my accommodations as long as they are clean and centrally located.  I’m so cheap that I’m bad.  Very, very bad.  I’ve stuck him in all kinds of hovels.  Stockholm isn’t a cheap city, luckily there are some great places that are easy on the budget, centrally located, have great views (see above and below), have a great on site pub and provide a unique experience.  You can stay on boat hotels in the Södermalm neighborhood (both on the Riddarfjärden and the Stadsgardsleden sides of the link to Gamala Stan).

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They had bikes you could borrow and cool lounges, but the best part was the amazing view from the seats (some of which were in lifeboats) on the upper deck.  We sat there taking in the views, enjoying the sunset and singing The Lonely Island‘s (with T-Pain) “I’m On A Boat” from the movie Stepbrothers.

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I give mad props to people in the Navy who live like this on a long-term basis.  The room was tiny, but had everything we needed.  We even had our own bathroom (It is something that he appreciates, but I have no problem foregoing.  Just ask him about the hovel I stuck us in when we visited Dublin).

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We had some new experiences in the bathroom.  I’d never showered in a place like this.  It was tight (so tight that you can see my toes standing on the toilet lid), but workable.  Everything fit in there like a masterful game of Tetris.  It was impressive and surprisingly easy to use.

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The best part of the room itself was the view from our porthole.  Amazing!

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Our Date On The Island of Långholmen in Stockholm, Sweden

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We visited Stockholm March of last year (when I made the Queen of Sweden smile and met Camilla Parker-Bowles at the Vasa Museum).  Some places March means spring, it doesn’t in Sweden.  We decided we had to go back to enjoy the city and the nearby archipelago in summer. We chose wisely.  It was a fantastic trip.  We stayed in the Södermalm neighborhood in a boat on the Riddarfjärden, a bay of Lake Mälaren in central Stockholm.  We spent a pleasant afternoon and evening picnicking and walking around the island of  Långholmen.

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Långholmen, the long island, was rocky and barren until 18th century prison inmates covered the island with mud dredged from the surrounding waterways.  It undoubtably made the waterways deeper and more easily navigable for larger vessels.  It also had the effect of providing fertile soil.  When things start growing, leaves drop, providing more organic matter for plants.  Before long, the island was lush retreat.  Trade and merchant ships introduced of exotic seeds, making its vegetation unique.  As a result, it is a popular place for walks, picnics and a cold dip in the lake.

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We trekked around the island passing a few people walking their dogs, people singing with guitars, a group of teenagers escaping their families apartments, boatbuilders, several rabbits and even a handful of kayakers.  We enjoyed this view of Kungsholmen (complete with a beach bar) on our picnic.  It was so peaceful.

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At the Stockholm Water Festival in 1993, a JAS 39 Gripen fighter aircraft crashed on Långholmen. It caught fire but the pilot ejected successfully.  Thankfully, no one was killed and only one injury in the large crowd of spectators.  We happened upon Thomas Qvarsebo‘s stainless steel sculpture commemorating the incident.  It is paper plane with its nose drilled into the ground.  It was so striking that I took a picture and looked up what it was later.

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Boats are everywhere.  Although the Swede’s love worshipping the sun, the climate requires a cabin.  The classic wooden boats looked like a great way to experience the country.  If someone’s rented one for a day, I’d love to hear about it.

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The walk from Södermalm along the Riddarfjärden was fascinating.  Many of the larger boats were homes or hotels!  By the way, the former Långholmen Prison is now a hotel and hostel, complete with a restaurant and pub.  If we hadn’t found unique boat accommodations, we probably would have stayed there.

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We had great views of the city towards Stadhuset and Gamla Stan.  This is the
giant Västerbron bridge that links Södermalm to Kungsholmen.

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We Stormed The Kastell – Vaxholms Kastell Fortress

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For centuries, Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms Kastell) guarded a crucial entry route into Stockholm’s harbor.    King Gustav Vasa (yep, the same one who commissioned that famous ship) built a fortress here and filled in other waterways to ensure that this channel was the only way into and out of Stockholm.  He had good reason to strengthen his defenses.  In 1612, Christian IV of Denmark tried to invade.  Czar Peter the Great of Russia tried to invade in 1719.

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In the mid 19th century, they upgraded, well sort of.  Sweden tore down the old defenses and built a giant new granite fortress there.  Unfortunately for them, the technology of warfare advanced between the time the new fortress was designed and when it was completed some 30 years later.  In its first test, a shell (instead of the old technology of cannonballs) tore a hole in the wall.  The fortresses high guns couldn’t really reach the new style of lower design boats.  Oops.

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Since it couldn’t really serve as a bastion of defense, Vaxholm Fortress was used as a prison.  I don’t think I would have liked to be incarcerated here.  The citadel seemed a little cold and wet.  The uniform didn’t look particularly warm either.  Can you imagine spending a Swedish winter like that?

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In addition to covering pre-20th century history, the museum contains exhibits on its more recent uses.  During World War II, Sweden remained neutral but heightened its military preparedness by strengthening its defenses and drafting conscripts.  The Swedes placed mines in the nearby Sea of Åland.   Polish ORP RyśORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.

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The end of the Second World War in 1945 signaled the beginning of “Cold War.” Swedish military was  on high alert.  The USSR was as close as nearby Estonia and the Russians had come sniffing their way before.  The archipelago became important because it was a gateway into the country.   Vaxholm’s Kastell Fortress monitored the area.  The military stopped occupying it in 1993 and in 2000, the absence of an external enemy meant all stationary batteries were deactivated in Sweden.  Today, its museum has artifacts thoroughout its history, from royal times to the mines and radar.  The incredible setting makes it all the more interesting and it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the coolest things about it today is that in addition to functioning as a park, it contains a hotel.  The best part is that nothing is closed.  If you stay, you can wander around, picnic, sit on the ramparts with drink, enjoy the quiet and watch boats go by.  Since the rooms have no radio, TV, or internet, you might not have much else to do.