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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not long after that, another boat arrived.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
We did, however repeatedly cool off. Many take a cold shower. If there is snow, people will go roll around in it.
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.
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 (Zermatt, Saas-Fee, Megeve, Les Baux de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, Vence, St. Paul-de-Vence, Eze, Les Baux de Provence, Courmayeur, Avignon, Gimmelwald, Gruyeres). 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.
The tomography reminded me of Maine‘s coast. Like Maine, there’s plenty of wilderness. Grinda has nature reserve.
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.
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.
Grinda 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.
It’s hard to tell from the picture below, but the tables were crowded. The food and drink there was surprisingly cosmopolitan.
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.
Serene, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We had great views of the city towards Stadhuset and Gamla Stan. This is the
giant Västerbron bridge that links Södermalm to Kungsholmen.
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.
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.
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?
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 Ryś, ORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.
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.
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.
Archipelago – ar·chi·pel·a·go. noun \ˌär-kə-ˈpe-lə-ˌgō,
- An expanse of water with many scattered islands
- A group of islands
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although 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.
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.
Have you ever eaten something and then regretted it? Since moving here, I’ve occasionally eaten horse. I buy it for American visitors to taste. If you’ve watched the news lately, you can understand why I might be regretting it. If you haven’t seen news stories about Europe’s horse meat scandal, here’s a recap. Horse meat has been discovered in European beef products sold in supermarkets in countries including Britain, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Ireland. Here, eating horse (particularly in countries like France and Switzerland) is commonplace; it’s estimated that each person in Switzerland eats between 600 and 700 grams of horse meat each year.
There are two types of horses, ones that are given the powerful and dangerous veterinary drug called phenylbutazone (also known as Bute and banned for human use because to cases severe side effects) and those without who are issued health certificates certifying they can enter the food chain. Can you guess what happened?
Spanghero, a French company, labeled the horse meat it received from a Romanian slaughterhouse as beef. According to officials, Spanghero should have identified the meat as horse from its Romanian customs code, as well as its appearance, smell and price. The company said it acted in good faith, never ordered horse meat, and never knowingly sold horse meat. Parisian prosecutors are now investigating it as fraud.
The geographic scope of the scandal expanded this week. While the quality of food and the food chain in Switzerland is quite high, Swiss company Nestle (the world’s largest food company) is now embroiled in the scandal. It suspended deliveries of all products supplied by German subcontractor H.J. Schypke alleging they sold the contaminated meat to one of Nestle’s suppliers. German discount retailer Lidl pulled products from Finnish, Danish and Swedish stores after finding horse meat in products labeled as beef. German ministers met in Berlin earlier this week to discuss the scandal.
But, wait, it gets worse…. The Swiss program, Kassensturz, showed emaciated horses being beaten, neglected and transported in cramped conditions without food or water before being slaughtered. Apparently it was pretty disturbing. In response, several grocery stores, including Coop, Denner, Aldi, Spar and Migros, pulled most horse meat products off their shelves. Coop and Migros continue to sell some from suppliers (mostly in Canada or France) in whom they have confidence. It’s almost enough to make me a vegetarian again. It’s definitely enough to reduce my meat consumption and be choosier about where I purchase it.
Most Americans don’t know the Eurovision Song Contest exists. Most Europeans have watched at least a bit of it.
Eurovision is a singing contest started in 1956 and is one of the longest-running television programs in the world. It’s a bit like a schlocky, international American Idol in which each country gets to put forth a contestant and they compete against each other.
Developed by the European Broadcast Union, on the belief that music (along with sports) could unite a multi-lingual continent, Eurovision was content for a new technology of television. Today, participants are broader than just the European Union countries; 43 countries take part. Switzerland participates although it is not part of the EU. Former Soviet republics and even Israel participates. The contest is broadcast further Europe, Arab countries, Hong Kong, India, Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, and Vietnam all can watch it. In fact, the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the most watched events in the world with audience between 100 million and 600 million internationally.
Each country chooses a singer or band to represent their country and they compete against each other. Residents of a country cannot vote for their own country. For example, Swiss cannot vote for the Swiss entrant.
Before the days of internet and cable, Eurovision was huge. Today, it faces increased entertainment competition has lost some of its luster. Nevertheless, it is still popular enough that he has learned all about it at work.
Famous Eurovision contestants include:
- Sweden’s ABBA, who won with Waterloo in 1974. Olivia Newton John placed 4th that same year.
- Julio Iglesias placed 4th for Spain in 1970.
- Israel’s Dana International was the first transsexual to win in 1998.
- Celine Dion won for Switzerland in 1988 with “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.“
- In 1997, Katrina and the Waves won with “Love Shine A Light” they are best remembered for their 1985 smash hit “Walking on Sunshine.”
- Scottish singer Lulu won in 1969, with ‘Boom Bang-a-Bang‘. I can’t explain how France, the Netherlands and Spain also won that year.
- The English group Bucks Fizz won in with the song “Making Your Mind Up” and their whip-off skirts.
- Sandie Shaw who sang “Puppet on a String” (we’d never heard of it).
- Engelbert Humperdink‘s “Love Will Set You Free” is the UK’s entry this year. I think my dad may have an album of his from the 60’s tucked away somewhere.
Songs with overtly political messages are banned. Notable songs that premiered at Eurovision include:
- “Nel blu dipinto di blu,“ better known as “Volare“ (it didn’t win)
- Toto Cutugno‘s “Insieme“, is a song that many Germans still know by heart.
- You might remember Gina G’s 1996 dance-pop entry for the United Kingdom, “Ooh Aah…Just a Little Bit.”
- Luxembourg’s France Gall‘s 1965 song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” was a sensation. Written by famous French singer Serge Gainsbourg, it became in international hit. It was one of the handful of Eurovision songs that radio stations played and people bought.
Some countries tend to do well:
- Ireland holds the record for the highest number of wins with seven. The even won three consecutive times in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
- France, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom are joint second with five wins. Nevertheless, Brits have generally prided themselves on not taking Eurovision seriously and often strike out. It was still poplar viewing in the UK, due in large part to the Terry Wogan‘s cynical commentary. He barely suppressed guffaws over the quality of the acts/presenters and the kitsch. Outraged at the politics behind the scoring system he stopped in 2008 and vowed never to return.
The scoring/winner is likely to change as blocs of countries have started banding together to vote one of their region a winner. This has lead to frustration about the winner’s worthiness. Andrew Lloyd Webber even visited Moscow met Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ask him to call on all East European countries to refrain from block-voting for each other.
Historically, some countries have done poorly:
- Until Finnish band Lordi won with their rock song “Hard Rock Hallelujah” in 2006, Finland had participated since 1961 but never even made it into the Top 5.
- Norway has scored no points in four separate contests.
- Austria, Finland, Spain, Switzerland aren’t far behind with three null’s.
Many self-respecting musical acts stay away to preserve their dignity. Garish outfits are mandatory and gimmicks used in the contest include:
- In 2008, Russian entrant Dima Bilan sang “Believe” while Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion Evgeni Plushenko ice skated.
- Ukraine’s Kseniya Simonova‘s sand-painted clouds, planets and angels in sand while singer Mika Newton howled into a wind machine.
- A Moldovan act once included a woman dressed as a fairy on a unicycle and digital gnomes flying across the stage’s LED screen.
- Sweden’s Eric Saade smashed through a glass door onstage.
- Boy band Blue (kind of like the Backstreet Boys) was big in the 90’s. They staged a comeback in Eurovision, while it brought them some attention, it didn’t result in the desired comeback.
- Turkey’s Sertab Erener sang “Every Way That I Can” (a song about a woman in a harem in the 19th century, who wants to win back a Sultan that had expelled her) with a troupe of belly dancers performing enthusiastically.
- This year, Russia’s song is from Buranovskiye Babushki a girl band whose name translates to the Buranovo Grannies. These singing grandmothers from the Udmurt Republic have an average age in the 80’s. Two years ago, they failed to qualify with the hip hop produced track “Dlinnaja-Dlinnaja Beresta I Kak Sdelat Iz Nee Aishon.” This translates into “Very Long Birch Bark And How To Turn It Into A Turban”.
- Austria’s entry this year is by Trackshittaz. I’m not kidding. That’s really their name. They have dancers with their buttocks highlighted with fluorescent paint. Again, I’m not kidding. I couldn’t make that up. They have promised to “learn a little bit of English” before the contest. Will this lead to a name change?
- Montenegro’s Rambo Amadeus‘ (no joke) song has a video in which he surprises two topless women with a donkey.
Azerbaijan won the contest last year so they have to host this year. Countries have been known to put forward a lamentable contestant to avoid the expense of putting on the contest the next year. Yes, Ireland I’m looking at you.