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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Worth Raising A Glass, I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid

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The Louvre is the world’s largest museum.  It is housed in an old fortress that became a palace and converted to a museum.  Buildings connect in a U-shape with a courtyard, Cour Napoleon, in the center.

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As the number of visitors grew, it became clear that the Louvre needed renovations to accommodate all the visitors.  In 1983, the Louvre developed and President François Mitterrand supported a renovation plan known as the Grand Louvre.  Among other things, it called for a new design for the main entrance that would be climate controlled, and provide space for a ticket office, security checkpoint, visitors center (for things like audio guides, toilets, sitting areas, information centers, cafes and shops).

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When Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei‘s modern glass pyramid structure in the courtyard was unveiled, most critics gave negative reviews.  They deemed it an unwelcome intrusion of modernism into  traditional architecture.  Still, it provided 650,000 additional square feet of much-needed support spaces for the Louvre.

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Inaugurated in 1988 and opened in 1993, his design of The Louvre pyramid, met the need and then some.   It appears strikingly modern and sophisticated against the baroque façade.  It guides  visitors’ movements between the three immense wings (Richelieu, the Sully, and the Denon) of the museum.  As a Louvre visitor, I find this as  genius as any part of the design.  The Louvre is immense and it is easy to get lost.  By following the signs to the exit, you can get to a guide who will point you in the right direction for your adventure in the next wing.  Plus, the glass provides wonderful light to the underground lobby.

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The complex inter-linked steel structure sheathed in clear, reflective glass.  This transparency allows an unobstructed view through it permitting vision across the pyramid to the palace on the opposite side. This allows it to float lightly in the space.

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While its style differs drastically from the original palace buildings, its transparency and simplicity allows it to sit among them without taking anything away from them.  It just becomes another interesting focal point.

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It didn’t take long for Pyramid to become integral part of Paris’ center and another one of its iconic buildings (Eiffel Tower, Pompidou Center, Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Les Invalides, Sacre Couer).  In the New York Times,  Paul Goldberg wrote: “…the design provoked international controversy and accusations that an American architect was destroying the very heart of Paris…the news from Paris is that the Louvre is still there, although it is now a dramatically different museum. The pyramid does not so much alter the Louvre as hover gently beside it, coexisting as if it came from another dimension.”

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The movie ‘Da Vinci Code‘, which had scenes set inside the Louvre included several minutes of dramatic video shots of the Pyramid. It’s also appeared in The Dreamers,  Prêt-à-PorterThe Rape of Europa and Fire, Plague, War and Treason.

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One of the cool things I noticed about it is that the pyramid is inverted below ground into the interior space below.  It comes to a point, immediately below that point is a sculpture, a pyramid.  Their apexes are only centimeters apart.  I’m not sure these pictures do it justice, but trust me when I tell you that it looks sweet.

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If all this isn’t enough, check it out lit up at night.  Definitely worthy of the City of Lights.

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Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

St Bernards, A Whole Lotta Love

I love dogs, but I especially love big dogs.   The St. Bernard (also known as St. Barnhardshund, Alpine Mastiff and Bernhardiner) is one of the world’s largest.    They range from 25.5-27.5 inches ( 61-70 cm) and weigh 110-200 pounds (50-91 kg).   The are most likely a cross between Tibetan Mastiffs with Great DanesGreater Swiss Mountain Dog and Great Pyrenees. Initially, they had short hair; long hair coats collect icicles.

Augustinian Monks living in the treacherous St. Bernard Pass (the western route through the alps between Italy and Switzerland) bread the dogs.  8,000 feet above sea level, the pass is 49-miles long and is notorious for its changeable weather and high winds.

The St. Bernard pass was well travelled before St. Bernard de Menthon founded the famous hospice in the Swiss Alps as a refuge for travelers crossing the treacherous passes between Switzerland and Italy around 1050.  There are even remains of a Roman road there.  If you were a pilgrim headed to Rome, this is a likely route you would have taken.  You wouldn’t have been the only one.  Napoleon famously used the pass to cross the alps to invade Italy in 1800.

Image from Stories About Animals on http://www.zookingdoms.com

In the 17th century, St. Bernards were used to rescue people from avalanches and other dangers in snowy alpine passes.    Saint Bernards have many features that make them well adapted to this task.   They can smell a person under many feet of snow.  They can hear low-frequency sounds humans cannot, possibly alerting people to avalanches.   Their broad chests helped clear paths through the snow.  Their large paws helped spread out the weight and worked like snowshoes to keep them on top of the snow.  Their large paws helped them dig through the snow.  Upon finding someone, they lie on top them to provide warmth.

The most famous rescuer was Barry (1800-1812).  He is credited with saving the lives of more than 40 people.  Today, Foundation Barry (named after the famous pooch) works to educate people about and preserve the breed.  They also do alpine hikes with the pups!  Both Foundation Barry and the St. Bernard Museum are located in in Martingy, a village down the mountain from the pass.  Both have the adorable pups on site.

Italian Unification

 

Although Italy has a long and storied history, think the Etruscans, the Romans, etc., it is easy to forget that it has been an independent nation for less time than the United States.  We learned some about Italian unification at the Risorgimento Museum in Milan. Since it was all in Italian, we could do some research after returning home.  Being history buffs, we found it interesting and liked the museum anyway.

Napoleon Bonaparte kicked out the Austrians and the Spanish out of Italy in 1796.  Until then, Italy had not existed a under a central power since the Romans.  It was a collection of city states that had been, for the most part, ruled by foreign powers (Austria, Spain, France).

Initially, Milan welcomed Napolean and built the triumphal arch, the Arco della Pace, for him.  They hoped that he would bring the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality and brotherhood) to them.  In their eyes, he turned out to be just another narcissistic megalomaniac.  To express their dissatisfaction and disappointment, they turned the horses around.  Nevertheless, under Napoleon, Italy experienced it’s first taste of unification and it proved impossible to unring that bell.  It awakened hopes for Italy to become an independent nation.

The movement toward unification grew in the 50 years following Napoleon.  It started out as a revolutionionary movement on the fringes of society.  Since membership in this group (the Carbonari) was punishable by death, it was a secret society.  Understandable.

Giuseppe Mazzini led this professional revolutionary group.  Mazzini traveled extensively, spreading revolutionary propaganda, influencing Italian radicals and revolutionaries throughout Europe.  He was involved in the failed revolution 1848–49.

Giuseppe Garibaldi had a long military career before Victor Emmanuel convinced him to conquer Sicily.  In 1860 with 1,000 volunteers known as the Red Shirts, Garibaldi landed in Sicily, (which had rebelled against Francis II the king of the Two Sicilies), and conquered the island in a spectacular, daring campaign.  He then took Naples, and won a decisive battle on the Volturno River.  This led Victor Emmanuel’s proclamation as king of a united Italy.

Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Sardinia and the first king of united Italy.  He was the rallying point around which the movement coalesced.  These men were so fundamental to the formation of Italy that in virtually every Italian town, you find streets, squares, piazzas and buildings named after Victor Emanuel, Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour.

Camillo Cavour (statesman, premier of the Kingdom of Sardinia), pulled a fast one on France.  In a brilliant sleight of hand, he convinced them to drive Austria out of Italy (Franco-Austrian War).  One occupier down, one to go.   He convinced France to take part of Savoy and Nice in exchange for getting out of the rest of Italy.   Clever.

After Garibaldi’s victories and Victor Emmanuel’s coronation, when Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and the Romagna voted for annexation to Sardinia, Cavour sent Sardinian troops into the Papal States, which, with the exception of Latium and Rome, were soon annexed.  And presto, you have Italy.

 

We Rocked The Boat – The Second Part Of Our Trip Up The Rhine 2

Castle Pfalz (Die Pfalz or Pfalzgrafenstein) sits on the island of Falkenau in the middle of the Rhine.  Not surprisingly, it was a toll castle built for the sole purpose of generating revenue.  The Baron would raise and lower chains across the river controlling traffic.  It worked in concert with Gutenfels Castle (Burg Gutenfels) and the fortified town of Kaub on the other side of the river.  They kept those who refused to pay in the dungeon, a wooden float in the well, until they were paid.

Apparently it has an impressive view from which you can watch ships travel on both sides (take the ferry from Kaub).  As it was never conquered, destroyed, it is in good shape even though it doesn’t have electricity or a privy.  The little extension was the outhouse; it uses gravity and rainwater.

Kaub is known as the spot where Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher  crossed the Rhine with the Prussian and Russian armies, on New Years eve 1813-1814, in pursuit of Napoleon.  During the war against the French, Blücher moved 50,000 troops across a Russian-built pontoon bridge. It was an extraordinary achievement.  It was also an important step toward the final defeat of Napoleon…well, until Waterloo.

Oberwesel is a pictoresque town.  He thought that it’s church, the  Gothic Church of Our Lady (Pfarrkirche Liebfrauen), looked like a larger version of the church built by German immigrants in his hometown.  The Günderrode House is famous in Germany because it featured in TV Series “Heimat.”

Schönburg, also known as Schloss Schönburg (beautiful fortress in German), is another impressive castle.

The Loreley Bend, before modern navigation systems many ships sank here.  Immediately around the bend sits Loreley Rock, a infamous, steep rock 132 meters high.  Legend has it that a pretty, naked blond woman sat on the rock singing and brushing her hair.  She distracted the boatmen from their work and caused ships to crash (described in a well-known folk song).  Today, a statue of a woman sits on top of the rock.

If you look hard, you can see the statue in front of the red train car.

A likelier explanation for the large number of accidents is the narrowness of the riverbed and many rocks around a sharp curve in the river. Even with modern navigation systems, that section of the remains dangerous.   When the water level is low, treacherous reefs appear here (if you believe the fable, they are seven hard-hearted virgins who were turned into rocks).

When we told some Germans where we were headed, they said “oh, the dangerous section.”  Just last year a ship transporting sulfhuric acid overturned there.  Luckily they were able to right it and get it under control before it leaked.  Unfortunately, two crew members were swept overboard and drowned.

Founded in the 6th century, the village of St. Goar is the former capital of the area and the most heavily fortified town on the Rhine.  It is a vibrant town in a picturesque setting, which isn’t surprising given their economies are based on tourism and wine.

In Rheinfels Castle’s heyday, it was the most powerful fortress in the area.   The Baron who built it arbitrarily increased the duties and 27 towns formed an alliance (with 1000 knights and 50 ships) to stop him.  The fortress withstood the siege and they gave up after about 16 months.

The scene of numerous bloody sieges, it has a storied history filled with violent changes of ownership. Napoleon took unchallenged control of the castle in 1796 and promptly blew a good chunk of it up.   Today, it’s only a fraction of its original size.  It’s still one of the coolest of the Rhine castles to tour.

Burg Katz, across the river from St. Goar above the town of St. Goarshausen, was bombarded in 1806 by Napoleon and rebuilt in the late 19th century.  Don’t think about hiking up there.  Some rich guy (or gal) owns it and it’s not open to the public.

Our Favorite Trees In Geneva

Geneva has Platanus, planes, or plane trees.  They are a hybrid of a couple of different types of Sycamore trees.  These ornamental trees are common here in Europe.

Their umbrella like branches provide shade and line country roads, promenades and town squares.  If not pruned back, they can grow quite large.

Everyone who visits remarks on the trees.  The produce lush foliage, are majestic and lend an elegant air to the lakeside.  However, most visitors are intrigued by/interested in its bark, which has a mottled, scaly appearance.  Mature bark peels off in irregularly shaped patches.

Plane trees have a storied history along roadsides in this area.  Napoleon ordered their extensive planting on roadsides so that he could take advantage of their grand canopies to keep his marching army cool.

Unfortunately, a fungus is attacking them.  During WWII, US soldiers brought munition boxes made from a US version of the tree.  They carried with them a fungus that has been attacking the trees and has spread.

Geneva’s trees look unaffected.  They prune them back in the fall after their leaves have fallen.  With their interesting bark and elegant shape,  we like the look of them in winter too.  Heck, we like them in spring and fall as well.