Hitting the Beach on the Baltic Sea in Estonia

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Located on the eastern coast of the Baltic SeaEstonia has a coastline of 3700 meters.   Surprisingly, the Baltic is not very salty and rather shallow, so it is warmer than you would expect.  I’m not saying its bath water warm, but it’s not Lake Superior cold.

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We traveled from Helsinki to Tallinn by boat in about an hour and a half.   During the Cold War with Finland so close, the Soviet Union zealously guarded its western coast and Estonia became heavily militarized under communist rule.  They were afraid people would defect.  Also, large parts of the country were off-limits to all but the Soviet military.

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With Finland so close,  most of the sea shore was declared a “border zone” meaning they were heavily fortified and citizens were prohibited from entering the water.  They monitored the sand to see if there was tracks headed out that did not return.  Most beaches were forbidden for Estonians. No one could even travel to the beach on a summer day for some fresh air, non-residents required a permit to visit them.

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Our guide told us that under communism this beach had barbed wire, concrete block observation posts (which must have been freezing in winter), other armaments and patrols.  Today, they are hugely popular in the summer.  Cool young Estonians and families flock to them to swim, play, cook out, camp, and watch the sunset.

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It probably didn’t help that the Soviets had one of their three nuclear submarine training facilities not far from there in the city of Paldiski.  Its nuclear reactors functioned continuously for twenty years.  In addition to the nuclear submarine training center (complete with a full-scale model of a nuclear submarine with working nuclear reactors), it was a support base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet‘s submarines and several other large military bases.  A former sailor on a submarine said “I’ve seen the whole world, just not above the water.”

 

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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The Soviet Union brought hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants to Estonia to assist with their militarization.  This forced migration resulted in an increase of about half a million people in 45 years!  The Soviets built Soviet-style buildings apartment buildings for them.  The styles are nicknamed after the Premier in power at the time of construction.  Apparently you want to live in a Stalin or a Khrushchev and not a Chernenko or a Gorbachev (they were actually General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and/or President of the Soviet Union, not Premier), because the quality of the building materials degenerated. By the end, it was pretty shoddy.  Once our guide pointed it out, it was easy to see the difference and tell when they were built by their state of decay.

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After the end of the “Cold War” the facilities passed to Estonian control in 1994 after the last Russian troops left the country. These Russian Immigrants were given the choice of returning to Moscow or remaining.  Many chose to remain in their apartment blocks in former military towns; they’d spent most of their lives there and didn’t want to leave their home.  As a result, today there are pockets of people who haven’t integrated into Estonian society, don’t speak Estonian and don’t have employment as the bases closed.  Ethnic tensions linger and it is a significant problem for Estonia.

 

From it.wikipedia.org

 

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Terriffic Tallinn

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Learning about Tallinn’s history I heard a phrase I haven’t heard since my high school Western Civilizations class, The Hanseatic League.  Huh?   What does that have to do with anything?   Learning about it was pretty cool.  The Hanseatic League was middlemen/traders.  For about 500 years (from 1250-1750), they controlled most of the commerce in northern Europe.

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Before the rise of powerful kings and the modern nation-state, local leaders ruled small fiefdoms, kingdoms, dukedoms and probably other –doms.  Local governments were small and relatively weak.  City dwellers were interested in trade, but paying taxes and tolls to each and every feudal overlord was excessive and impeded trade.   Rulers and the various -doms were too small to develop an effective coordinated response to pirates on the seas.   It was difficult to conduct any sort of large-scale commercial activity in such an environment.

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Enter the Hanseatic League.  Prominent merchants banded together, forming a merchant guild to defend themselves against pirates.  They hired armies to protect their ships and ports.   It worked well and they began establishing trading posts in abroad where they bargained with local leaders for discounts.  The Hanse (which in German means trading guild) would trade fish from Scandinavia for grain from the Baltics or luxury goods from Flanders or English wool.  It worked well and trade flourished.  Everyone got something out of it and the League got rich off of their cut.  Not only rich, in a time before strong nation states, they became powerful.  In their heyday, they were a dominant force and stabilizing influence.

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If it worked, what happened?  Rising nation states, particularly their kings, didn’t want to compete for power and were jealous of the League’s wealth.  Plus, the post-reformation religious wars tore apart old Hanseatic alliances.   By the 16th century, trade moved decisively to the south and west as countries like Portugal, Italy, Spain and France set ships to explore and return with treasures from Africa and the Americas.

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We took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia.  While it was a short ride, it had a culture that was distinct from Scandinavia, both Nordic and Russian.   After the decline of the Hanseatic League, it experienced two centuries of Tsarist Russia rule before World War I and 45 years of communist rule after World War II.  In September 1991, Estonia left the Soviet Union and declared independence (along with the three Baltic states of Latvia, and Lithuania).  The U.S.S.R. recognized Estonia as being independent on September 6, 1991.  In November Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party throughout Russia.

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While independence was natural for many Estonians, it has an enormous Russian population, many of whose families came during communism and never fully integrated.  Nevertheless, many Estonians think of themselves as part of the Nordic and European sphere and Estonia is part of the European Union.

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It was a quick walk into the old town Tallinn from the ferry terminal and an easy cab ride to the airport.  While we saw old wood buildings in the areas surrounding the old town, the walled city has an Old World ambience.  Tallinn’s old town medieval center is amazingly well-preserved as there wasn’t a lot of building there during communism.  The old town has watchtowers, colorfully painted medieval houses, cobblestoned lanes, and old Lutheran churches.

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Tallinn, view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post-communism, Tallinn modernized quickly and prices have risen with the development.  Even so, being used to Swiss prices, we almost cheered when we saw Tallinn’s rates.  The food was great and we enjoyed dinners out, something we don’t do often in Geneva.  We weren’t the only ones, the streets were filled with people eating, drinking and making merry.  There was a general relaxed, happy summer vibe.  Scandinavians, especially Swedes and Finns, come for a night away and cheap alcohol as it is very highly taxed in their home countries.

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The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tall...

The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tallinna raekoda. Français : L’hôtel de ville de Tallinn, en Estonie. Русский: Таллинская Ратуша. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Town Hall Square has served as a marketplace since the time of the Hanseatic League. The 15th century Town Hall dominates the square.  There are lots of impressive churches like the Cathedral of Saint Mary o, but the best part about Tallinn is the Estonians who inhabit it and how well-preserved it is.  Enjoy wandering the streets, talking to people and taking in all the details.

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea)

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea) (Photo credit: rlanvin)

What Do Finns Bring Back From Vacation?

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In Scandinavian countries, alcohol is HIGHLY taxed.   Not surprisingly, they are always ready to take advantage of a deal on alcohol.  He says that he’s never seen anything like the Swedes with an open bar.  Yes, I realize that I’m overgeneralizing a bit here.

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Alcohol is not taxed at the same high rate on the cruises and ferries in the Baltic. As a result, Booze cruises are popular and people take advantage of ferries to lower tax countries to buy alcohol. While waiting for our ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, we saw people disembarking with their souvenirs.

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If you’re travelling in the Nordics and want to drink. You might want to plan ahead and take advantage of the deals from duty-free. The natives do. DSC_0371 DSC_0372 DSC_0373 DSC_0374 DSC_0377

 

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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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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Stockholm’s Archipelago

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Archipelago – ar·chi·pel·a·go. noun \ˌär-kə-ˈpe-lə-ˌgō,

  1. An expanse of water with many scattered islands
  2. group of islands

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There aren’t that many true archipelagos; Stockholm’s archipelago is the real deal.  It has more than 30,000 islands!  I guess it’s not all the surprising.  Stockholm itself is made up of 14 islands that are connected by 50 bridges on Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.  It’s definitely a maritime city.  When we visited in March, I took a boat tour of the area, but it was too cold to really enjoy the outer islands in the Baltic.

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For Stockholm’s residents, the archipelago is a easy escape and their holiday retreat.  There’s an island for everyone.  Partiers, those looking for peace and quiet, sunbathers, woodsy hikers, campers, B&Bers, luxury hotel lovers…there’s an island for everyone. The archipelago is easily accessible via ferry.  There are two main ferry companies.  One with larger, faster boats (Cinderella Båtarna), the other (Waxholmsbolaget) with charming smaller boats that make it feel less like a commute and more like a pleasure cruise.

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We took the Waxholmsbolaget boat to Vaxholm.  The journey was half the fun.  The boats are adorable with wood interiors and brass details.  It’s the perfect place for a picnic.  We sat outside and watched the hustle and bustle recede.  I was worried about not hearing our stop.  The boat docks, people disembark and it pulls away with remarkable speed.  I shouldn’t have been, locals (who all speak great English) volunteered to let us know when we got close.

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The Cinderella boat back was larger and a bit faster, but didn’t have quite the charm.  My advice, take either one.  You can’t go wrong.

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Stockholm’s archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It consists of 20,000-50,000 islands off the coast of Sweden that offer a buffer to the Baltic Sea.  “Skärgården,” as the area is known to the Swedes, was formed by glaciers that carved out and deposited granite that protrudes from the water.  As a result, it is full of reefs and shallows The islands get progressively less rocky, sandier and smaller with fewer trees the further you get from Stockholm.

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Vaxholm  is an idyllic archipelago town with well-preserved wooden villas from the turn of the 19th century.  Everything about it says cottage cute. It has nice restaurants (especially if you like fresh fish), a wonderful bakery, charming cafés, and way cooler shopping than your average resort town.  I wanted to decorate with and wear things from just about every shop.

DSC_0234DSC_0247DSC_0232Although you can rent bikes, we spent an afternoon doing a big walking tour of the area.  There are plenty of trails, sidewalks and quiet streets.  We tried to get away from the business district to get a look at how people live there.  Even without the cute shops, restaurants and hotels, it was very picturesque.  I loved the brightly colored houses and cute gardens.  We saw backyard meals, people walking their dogs, mowing their lawns and cleaning out their garages.

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The have a decent sized marina and with the essential nearby farm stand and ice-cream stand.  Across the narrow strait is the historic Vaxholm Fortress.  From the shore, you can see several small islands with adorable but solitary houses and a dock.  Vauxholm is the last easily accessible place in the archipelago by car from Stockholm and is even accessible by bus.  In fact, it is the most populated archipelago town and people live there year-round.  Tiger Wood’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren grew up there.  Don’t worry through, there’s no hustle and bustle, it’s perfectly tranquil.

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We Liked The Cut Of The Vasa Museum’s Jib

The Vasa Museum in Stockholm houses the Vasa, a sunken 17th century ship.  Finished in 1628, the Vasa was top-heavy and too narrow for her depth/weight (the king dictated the measurements and no one was about to correct him).  The Vasa sank in Stockholm’s harbor, not even a mile into her maiden voyage!   Giant oops.   333 years later, in 1961, she was salvaged almost fully intact.

How the Vasa looked when she set sail

King Gustav Adolf built the Vasa for a major role in the Swedish navy.   Sweden had been at war with Poland since 1625 and embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War.   To advance its interests, Sweden needed a strong navy.  Sweden had recently lost twelve boats.  They desperately needed some new, fancy ships.  Unfortunately, the Vasa’s designer died without leaving written records, the king changed some of the specifications and the completion date was looming.  It was a rush job.

Recreation of the interior

How the ship’s interior was organized

Fanfare surrounded the Vasa’s launch.  Hundreds watched from the shore.  Crew members’ wives and children were on board for the first leg of the journey to an island with barracks just outside the bay (where soldiers would board the ship).  Small boats towed the Vasa from the dock.  After firing a farewell salute, she tilted took in water and promptly sank.  Small boats in the harbor picked up most of the 150 people on board, but about a third went down with the ship.

This diving bell was used to salvage some of the cannons in the 1600’s!

Salvaged cannon

The captain was thrown in jail and an inquest to determine the cause of the sinking was immediately undertaken.  It wasn’t long before it became clear that the king himself did much of the decision-making.  King Gustav Adolf determined the measurements, added a second gun deck and larger cannons.  The inquest instantly dropped and crucial paperwork vanished.  Hmmmm.

Today, the Vasa is the centerpiece of a colossal museum.  The real star of the museum is the Vasa itself.   The enormous strategically lighted ship is the first thing you see when you enter the colossal, dimly lit main area.   Prepare to be awed.   It is enormous and it’s intricate timber carvings are impressive.   You can view it from every angle and it is extraordinary.  Sorry, the pictures don’t do it justice.

Normally, sitting around looking at boats is not my idea of a rockin’ good time and he gets seasick.  It doesn’t matter if boats or history is your thing; it is one of the coolest time capsules ever.  Thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least fifteen passengers were recovered.  Clothing, weapons, cannons, tools, coins, games, dishes, cutlery, food, drink and sails are all on display.  The museum does an excellent job of displaying these items and giving them context.   Without lecturing or boring visitors, the museum educates them about naval warfare, shipbuilding techniques and everyday life in 17th century Sweden.

95% of the original ship survives.  There are several reasons why the Vasa is in such good condition:

  • The ship was brand new when it sunk.
  • The Baltic Sea has a Saline level of 0.4%, which prevented many of the organisms that destroy wood from living in the water.
  • It sunk in an area where neither ice nor currents damaged it.
  • The water temperature remains relatively consistent (and cold) ranging from 1-5 degrees Celsius (33.8 – 41 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • The ship was built from oak with high iron content.
  • To prevent cracking when exposed to air and sunlight, the wood was wrapped in plastic sheets as soon as it was lifted from the water.
  • It was treated with polyethylene glycol.

We weren’t the only ones interested in the Vasa.  It is Scandinavia’s most visited museum.  While we were there, we saw the King and Queen of Sweden, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles.  They actually got to go on the ship.  Lucky ducks.

 

Dinner in Malmö

 
Our last night in Copenhagen, we went to dinner in Malmö, Sweden.   To get there, we took Øresund Bridge. It is not just any bridge. At 7,845 meters (25,738 feet), it is Europe’s longest road and rail bridge (the rail is on a second level below the road) and a pretty impressive engineering feat. To keep shipping lanes unobstructed and avoid interference with planes from the nearby airport, the first portion of the bridge is a tunnel!
 
The tunnel

You emerge from the tunnel on an artificial island (created from the earth dug out for the tunnel).  From there, the suspension bridge starts.

Artificial island created from the earth excavated for the tunnel
The bridge from the island
View of the Øresund Strait from the backseat

The bridge made getting from Malmö to Copenhagen quick and easy (you can still take a ferry). It created a renaissance in Malmö and some people who live there commute to Copenhagen. Prior to that evening, my knowledge of Malmö was almost entirely derived from The Millennium Trilogy, sorry Sweden.


Beautiful landscape on the way to Malmö, it is traditionally an agricultural area. 
We had dinner in the Old Town. It was great to walk around the old streets and window shop. There were lots of very trendy looking people grabbing dinner and drinks outside.
We drove from Denmark to Sweden, ordered in English, ate Spanish Tapas and followed it with Italian espresso. Next time, we will try to be more international, but it’s definitely not a bridge to nowhere.