Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Weekend touring Helsinki, Tallinn & Porvoo

Last Wednesday our friend Bernadette came over from the States to visit with us!  We didn't really have much of a plan on what to do, but ended up having a fantastic weekend traveling in Finland and Estonia!

Thursday we woke up and decided to go to Tallinn, Estonia for the day, but the weather didn't really cooperate with us!  We were booked on the Linda Line - fast boat to Tallinn - but the sea was too rough so all the trips up to 2 pm were cancelled.  We made the executive decision to tour Helsinki instead and rebooked our trip to Tallinn for Friday.

We started out our Helsinki tour with Old Market Hall and Market Square - two of my favorite places for Finnish goods and foods!  I had to laugh at the sign below - we obviously missed seeing this when Sarah and Zann were here - because a seagull almost took off with Zann's reindeer sandwich!

Seriously - these seagulls are as big as dogs - and very aggressive!  They will definitely rob you of your sandwich!

The food inside Old Market Hall is gourmet - doesn't this look super appetizing?:)

Both Bernadette and I had read about the Finnish Cloudberries (the orange ones above) in our research on Helsinki (mine back in May and hers more recently).  They are supposed to be sooooo good - so we bought some to go along with our reindeer sandwiches.  However - note to self - they are not good to eat out of the carton like other types of berries because they are really tart!  I guess that is why people usually mention cloudberry ice cream or some other treat made with cloudberries.  So we spent the rest of her time in Finland searching for some of this elusive Cloudberry Ice Cream - unforunately to no avail!:( 

Next we headed to Senate Square, Uspenski Cathedral, and Suomenlinna - my typical sightseeing tour of Helsinki:)  Bernadette and I did go into the Sederholm House - a Branch of the Helsinki City Museum - which is across the street from Senate Square.  I felt a little more cultured on Helsinki when we came out:)

This is my favorite pic in Senate Square - thank you random other tourist - you rock!

Love this photo of Bernadette at Suomenlinna!

We finished up our day with a beer at Kappelli in Esplanade Park and shopping at Stockmann and other other shops not in the States, before meeting Nathan for a traditional Finnish dinner at Lappi. 

Lappi was suggested by some of Nathan's co-workers as one of the best places to get reindeer - which Bernadatte HAD to try before leaving Finland!  Although the restaurant was a little pricey, the food was amazing!  I definitely recommend it for anyone who wants traditional Finnish Lapland treats like reindeer and elk - this was our best reindeer meal by far!

Outside Lappi

The interior of the restaurant is very "woodsy" - for a nice cozy "I feel like I'm at the North Pole" kind of atmosphere.

From top left - reindeer, deer sausage, and elk. It was even served with "game gravy"

Tallinn, Estonia
Friday morning we got up at 6:00 am (so much for vacation!) to get to the Linda Line ferry on time.  The Linda Line ferry is the shortest boat ride to Tallinn from Helsinki and only takes 1 1/2 hours. 

Once arriving in Tallinn we weren't 100% sure where to go, so we took the 1 Euro bus into town.  This was a VERY short bus ride (as we found out - you can easily walk to the old town from the port) but if nothing else we got a map with a great walking tour from the bus driver:)  We got off at the first stop near the Viru Gate and started our tour there. 

Viru Gate is the once grand entrance to the town of Tallinn

It wasn't long after this that we started seeing "Closed on 8/20" signs on all the museums and some of the churches.  What was going on?  Estonia Independance Day.  Who knew?  We still had a great time walking around and looking at the architecture from this quaint medieval town though.  And of course all the souvenir shops and restaurants were open - they weren't about to turn away the hundreds of tourists from all the cruise ships!:)  We had a great day in Tallinn and I would definitely suggest it as a day trip from Helsinki if you are headed this way!
Catherine's Passage

I had to take a pic at the Three Sisters - a typical dwelling house combination from the 14th century

Part of the old city wall that is still standing today.

Bernadette had read that there was an amazing view from Toompea Hill, so we asked a local where it was.  He said to walk straight, climb the "ladder" to the top, and there it is.  We both looked at each other as if saying "I'm not climbing no ladder" but this is what he was talking about:)  I guess I can see how the two words could be confusing!

The View!
(You have no idea how long it took to get this pic! I've decided that cruise tourists are the worst - very rude.  Obviously they didn't know I'm not above throwing elbows:)!)

Alexander Nemsky Cathedral
This church reminds you of the Russian influence on Tallinn - it definitely looked like something that could have been in St. Petersburg!

We had lunch at Bossanova in Raekoja Plats (Town Square).  Here's Bern with her Estonian beer - Saku (even though she has a smile on her face the beer wasn't that great) - I think we will stick with the Finnish beer Karhu from now on!

We had to take the 3 o'clock boat back so we could be up at Nathan's work as close to 5 pm as possible.  Nathan's coworker, Jukka, and his wife, Katia, were so nice to invite all of us to their summer cottage to experience a traditional Finnish crayfish dinner!  The Finn's are known for their crayfish - and it is all I've been hearing about since Nathan had some last summer so I am very grateful that I got to have some before leaving Helsinki. 
The view from the summer cottage - not too shabby!

I think we burned more calories opening up these little guys than we consumed:)
They were boiled in a dill/salt water brine - soooooooo freaking good!

Girls - don't play with your food!:)

What a fantastic end to a great day - even if the toilet was outside in a hut instead of inside the house:)  Thank you so much Jukka and Katia - you were amazing hosts! We definitely owe you one!

Saturday morning we got up and decided to hit Finland's second oldest town, Porvoo, which is about 1 hour from Helsinki by bus.  Once arriving at the bus station in Porvoo you will find a very nice (I was impressed) tourist book of medieval Porvoo with a walking tour filled with facts about the old town.  Most of the Old Porvoo buildings house restaurants, antiques, and souvenir shops.  You must stop by Brunberg for some chocolate - they give the Swiss a run for their chocolate money! 

Porvoo is well known for the red ochre painted wooden shorehouses linng the river banks (they are on all the brochures).  Here is the picturesque view from the bridge at Mannerheiminkatu Street.

Everyone told us about the amazing snail restaurant so we had to try it out!  We highly recommend Restaurant Timbaali - try the rouquefort escargot it was to die for! 

After our meal, we rushed back to the bus station to catch the bus to Helsinki so Bernadette could get on her cruise ship to Stockholm.  We cut it really close and hope she made it (we figured we'd have heard by now if she hadn't:)!)  Thanks Bern for coming - we had so much fun!  Of course I probably gained 5 lbs since it seems all we did was drink and eat, but it was worth it!

Much love,

p.s. - to see the rest of our pics from the weekend click here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Trip to New York City for the Retail Excellence Awards

Nathan and I headed to NY, NY on Friday August 13th for the Retail Excellence Awards (REA) 2010 where Swagger Gifts was a finalist for an award in Branding/Integrated Marketing. 

When we got to the Helsinki airport we were a little bummed to see that our KLM flight was cancelled, but we were quickly rebooked on a Finnair direct flight into JFK, and as we were getting on the plane we were upgraded to FIRST CLASS!  No Friday the 13th bad mojo for us!  Woo hoo! 

You have to go for the Champagne when you are suddenly now seated in 1st Class!

Cheers to already having a great weekend!

The best part about Finnair's 1st Class?  The seat laid down completely horizontal to sleep - no jet lag for us!

Nathan's cousin, Georgia Lee, picked us up at JFK and took us back to the Original Becker Homestead in New Hyde Park.  We had planned from the beginning to spend two nights with Nathan's Grandpa, but it was even more special to be there and spend some time with him since Nathan's Grandma passed away only a few short weeks ago.  We wish we could have seen Grandma Becker one last time as she was an amazing woman, but you could definitely still feel her presence at their home.

Going out for the first of many walks that Saturday!

We were so excited that Nathan's Dad and Aunt Noelle also flew in for the weekend.  All of us travelers coupled with the Becker's that still live on Long Island made for one heck of a good time - as always!  The Beckers sure do know how to party:)  Great weekend hanging out with Grandpa - he even stayed up later than I did - going to bed around 11 pm!  I guess we know who the original Becker Party Animal is!

Family Photo!

Sunday we headed down to NYC for the REA Gala.  We stayed with our friends, Anne and Troy, and their two adorable kids, Michael and Elizabeth.  Elizabeth is only 3 months old so it was great to be able to meet her!  We also saw our friends, Paige and Danny, and their new 3 week old son, Clayton, but I was so excited to be holding the baby that I forgot to take a picture of their family!  Duh!  Anyway, you have to take my word for it - he was so cute!

Can someone say Troy's mini me?:)

Elizabeth was so sweet!

Finally it was time to head down to The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers for the awards ceremony.  The venue was beautiful and I'm sure the view would have been great if it wasn't pouring down rain.:)  The Retail Excellence Awards Gala is put on by Gifts & Decorative Accessories Magazine, and the entire event was top notch - from the catering (so good!) to the story boards about each of the finalists - it was a night I won't soon forget!  There were about 250 industry professionals in attendance - everyone from manufacturers, to rep groups, to store owners.  I was a little worried we wouldn't know any one since it was NYC and not Atlanta, but we mingled with people from some of the companies Swagger purchases from and had a great time! 
You know I had to wear a zebra dress if I was going to be accepting an award for marketing!:)

The awards were announced after dessert (seriously could they make us wait any longer!), and I was SO excited when they called Swagger Gifts as the winner of the Branding/Integrated Marketing Award!  After a short video they put together on Swagger, I had to make my acceptance speech!  This was the part I was dreading - I'm not an extemporaneous speaker - but Nathan helped me put something together in case Swagger did win and it was a hit.  I even had a couple people come over and tell me it was the best acceptance speech:)  Yeah for Nathan being a Toastmaster and for his coaching!

Yeah - Swagger Won!  I have to give a shout out to Lisa Jeffries at Raleighwood Media - because without her I know we wouldn't have received this award!  You rock Lisa!

Either sister seriously needed some powder or there was a major glare off the huge silver platter!  Let's go with the glare:)

Great weekend in NYC which was topped off by getting first class seating on the way home too!  Now I know how the other half lives and I don't think I want to go back:)  An unforgettable weekend for sure!

p.s. - If you would like to see the rest of the pics from the weekend - click here!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I can't believe we went to Russia!

I've always wanted to go to Russia - honestly with the same passion as most people want to go to Italy or France.  Some of this comes from the fact that I am (partly) of Russian descent - my great grandparents (my dad's mom;s family) were from there .  But I think it is even more than that. I've always had a yearning to go - an unexplained attraction to the country.  Maybe the desire stemmed from the fact that I never thought I would actually get to go (you know how us women are - we always want what we can't have - ha!)  But seriously, I can't explain it - I just know that I really wanted to travel to Russia at least once in my life.  And although it was very short (only about 7 hours), my dream was fulfilled last weekend with a trip to St. Petersburg on the St. Peter's Line!  But of course the only thing that this did was make me want more!  I LOVED IT!

Mr. William's Party
This past weekend our friends, Sarah and Zann Hawkins, joined us in Helsinki before we all hopped on the cruise to St. Petersburg, Russia.  We met them through Jamie Durham Pfister's great connections (thanks Jamie!) while we were living in Zurich.  Together we make up 2/3 of Mr. William's Party (we missed you Sara and Josh!), a nickname we got for our group while traveling in Egypt together.  We love "Mr. William's Party" and hope to have many more years of traveling together in our future!

Mr. William's Party from L to R - Zann, Sarah, me, and Nathan

Sarah and Zann arrived last Wednesday night, then the three of us - Nathan had to work :(  - went into Helsinki on Thursday to check out the sites. We got a bit of a late start, so we headed first to Market Square to check out the Finnish goods and then over to the delicatessen stalls in the Old Market Hall to eat reindeer (okay - only Zann got reindeer but all of our lunches were really good!).  After this we started on a "Walking Tour of Helsinki" that I downloaded from the website VisitHelsinki. We started the tour in Senate Square with a look at the Helsinki Cathedral.

The size of the Cathedral does make it an impressive site. 

Then we went on a rather boring 45 minute walk where the "tour" pointed out stuff like "a sculpture of two horses in a small park entitled, Maternal Love" - okay really?  And the "small park" was a bed of flowers - no seriously.  I think I might have said this before, but there really isn't that much to see in Helsinki (not trying to offend any of the Finnish here - sorry guys!). So we finally decided to ditch the "tour" to see the one last site I hadn't made it over to yet - the Uspenski Cathedral - the largest Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe and one of the clearest symbols of the Russian impact on Finnish history. 

Uspenski Cathedral
After this I HAD to take them to the Suomenlinna Maritime Fortress - it is the #1 thing to do in Helsinki on Trip Advisor you know:)  (I covered Suomenlinna in this post if you want to find out more about it.)  By the time we reached the island, we only had two hours to look around and get back to our apartment to meet up with Nathan, get our luggage, and head to the cruise ship to St. Petersburg, so we only hit the "highlights"! 

Of course we had time for a panoramic picture!

The Cruise
I'm not sure what it is about these overnight cruises that turns Nathan into a drunkard, but this trip was no exception:)!  And of course he brought Zann down with him!  Sarah and I did partake - but definitely not at the same level - after the beer, lonkeros, champagne and wine we held off on the whiskey, vodka, and shots of jager.  We kept saying "you'll regret this in the morning on our ONLY day in Russia" - but to deaf ears!  I think I even got an "I see your lips moving but I don't hear nothin' coming out!"  Needless to say the cruise over to St. Petersburg was fun - at least that night:)

Oh yeah - did I forget to mention that all 4 of us were in a 9 square meters room with no window?  Mr. William's Party only travels in style:)  The cruise (back and forth) and the bus ride into the city was only 62.50 Euro per person - what can I say - my husband likes a deal!
Later, after many more drinks, Sarah and I got kicked out of this bar by two very large Russian security cops.  Note to self - don't try to reason with these people.  There was a point where I thought we would be in "Russian Cruise Jail" and Nathan and Zann wouldn't even know it because they had left us to get more Jager shots!
Is this place packed or what?  How do two sweet American girls get kicked out of an empty bar?  I'll never tell.:)
We were stoked to have made it out alive and we even got to take our drinks - woohoo!

The rest of the night, including gambling away our money in the casino, was a bit of a blur for some of us (not naming any names), but we finally got back to the room for a couple hours of sleep before our big tourist day!

St. Petersburg
So as you might imagine, the next morning wasn't super fun trying to get everybody "up and at 'em".  I was actually fine when I woke up and was the first to get up to take a shower - until much to my horror - I found out that that wasn't a hair dryer in our room!  Now I know some of you are thinking "drama queen" - but you have no idea - if I don't dry my hair I basically look like a stringy short haired dog!  So I went with the other option - no shower - for the possible "greasy homeless person" look.  I of coursed hoped this wouldn't be the case, since I just bleached the crap out of my hair and it is still pretty dry from the trauma. ANYWAY - I digress... I just wanted to set the stage for how we all felt in St. Petersburg - tired, hungover, unshowered, greasy, and ready for a great day!!!:)

Oh yeah - and the whole time the trip was planned (until mere hours before getting on the cruise) - we all thought we were going to be chained to a tour bus with all the other suckers who didn't get a Visa to enter Russia (the St. Peter's cruise line is the only way that I know of to go to Russia without a Visa).  But not so much.  We found out the night before that we were free to roam the streets unattended.  Of course this was good news, but also kind of bad because none of us had done any research or put together an itinerary on what to do or where to go!  Thank goodness Nathan was able to visit our friends over at the trusty Trip Advisor website (seriously our BFFs) while the rest of us were gallivanting around Helsinki.   He actually did a great job of finding a walking tour of the city and info on all the "highlights".  Thank you Nathan!

The cruise provided a bus from the dock to a couple points in the city.  We chose to be dropped off at the State Russian Museum as it was the fartheset point on our walking tour.  From here we went to the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood.  What a sight!  Coming upon it - I thought it looked a little like Candyland or something!  It was so ornate and colorful!  Absolutely beautiful on the outside and inside!  The inside was covered  with the most beautiful mosaic interiors which were completely restored by 10 mosaic artists over a 14 year period. This was after being used as a warehouse in Soviet times, and having been bombed in WWII. I read that there are over 7,000 Square meters of mosaics inside - it was VERY impressive!  (Side note - on top of everything else - my camera was doing something weird where all my pictures were turning out blurry!  It was so frustrating!  And because of this I didn't get very good pictures in Russia at all:( So sad! But here they are anyway...)

I've decided that I want to go back to all the places we've been in about 10 years - hopefully then all of Europe won't be covered in scaffolding!:)

View from the side of the church

This is ALL mosaic artwork! Unbelievable!

The larger head in the middle is actually in one of the "onion domes" that you see from the outside.  I thought it looked really cool!

 The entrance side didn't have scaffolding - yeah!

Across the street was a huge market full of Matryoshka/Russian Nesting Dolls.  I already knew that this was what I wanted as my Russian souvenir so I was super excited to find this market. It was a bit overwhelming but I love the one I chose!

Next up was The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan (also known as Kazan Cathedral).  It is St Petersburg’s major Russian Orthodox cathedral. It is located near the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood - on the city’s central street, Nevsky Prospect. Built in the early 1800s to duplicate the Vatican's Basilica of St. Peter, this huge cathedral served as a monument to Russia's victory over Napoleon in the War of 1812.  During the Soviet era, it was used to house the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, but now it is an active church again.  Someone was even getting married when we went inside!

Had to use the panorama setting to get the whole thing! 

The people in the center are the bride and groom - everyone around the sides are tourists.  Must make for interesting wedding photos later - ha!:)

Then we just strolled along the streets, visited the Mikhailovsky gardens, and had lunch.  I will have to say that St. Petersburg was not what I expected at all.  Basically I was expecting a run down, sullen, kind of dirty city that looked like it had gone through many hard years - more Budapest than Vienna for example.  But that isn't what we saw at all.  I thought that the streets were very clean and everywhere you looked there were huge churches and beautiful ornate sherbet colored buildings.  And when I say the buildings were ornate - I mean ORNATE!  The architecture was amazing (you'll see when I get to the Hermitage later).  We all wondered though what it looked like about 10 miles outside the city.  Was it pretty there?  Unfortunately we didn't get to see that, but that is another reason I want to go back and tour the whole country! 

Next we visited St. Isaac's Cathedral, which was once the main church of St. Petersburg and the largest church of Russia. The church was designed to accommodate 14 thousand standing worshipers - it was huge. But by this time, we were over churches, so we didn't go inside - I will have to "google image" what it looks like - ha!:)

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Finally onto the State Hermitage Museum which is housed in the Winter Palace.  This museum is among the most famous in the world, so we had to go inside - I just wasn't sure if the boys were up for the excitement.:)  Good thing I didn't tell Nathan there were over 2.7 million exhibits inside or we would have found him later drinking a beer on the river:)!  I'll have to admit - I wasn't sure I was up for a ridiculously huge museum either but I am SO glad we went inside.  The artwork was fabulous - yes - but the part I really loved was just looking at the architecture inside.  Pictures were strictly forbidden (although I did get 2), or I would have taken pictures of everything including the floors - the inlayed wood work was so detailed - my grandfather would have loved it! I also liked how it wasn't "just an art museum" - several of the rooms were set up like a Palace (like visiting Versailles) so you could see how the Russians had lived here back in the day.  Absolutely a must see when in St. Petersburg!

The outside alone was beautiful!  And it was HUGE!

The entrance to the entrance to the museum.

Several of the rooms inside looked like Wedgewood!

Nathan thoroughly enjoying the artwork.:)

After the Hermitage we only had about 1 hour left before having to get back on the bus to go to the ship, so we decided to hang out on the river and have a beer and some Russian pancackes (which were basically just crepes but they were yummy!)  I wish we would have had 1 more day in St. Petersburg or at least another couple hours so we could have seen Peterhof's Palace and Garden - but again I guess that just means we have to go back:)!

View of the Hermitage (on the right) from the river

Back to Helsinki
So after our whirlwind tour of St. Petersburg we were back on the boat.  We were all exhausted, but Sarah and Zann found the energy to "ice us".  Have you guys heard of this?  You "get iced" when someone hands you a Smirnoff Ice and you have to get down on one knee and chug it.  Pretty brilliant marketing ploy on Smirnoff's behalf (although Smirnoff is denying being any part of it) - because let's be honest - why else would you drink a Smirnoff Ice?  I googled it because I wasn't sure if I fell for a really bad practical joke, but seems as if it is going on around the country and especially in the south (of course)...

You've been iced!

Saturday in Helsinki was basically just a chill day.  We did the "3B/3T" tram tour of Helsinki, had an impromptu picnic/rest near Töölönlahti Bay, and then stumbled across the Helsinki Beer Festival!  What a great end to the day and trip!  We met some nice Finnish people, tasted some great Finnish beers, and got a recommendation for a place to get reindeer stew for dinner, Zetor Restaurant!  I love it when a plan comes together.:)

Imagine our luck to have stumbled upon the Helsinki Beer Festival!

Before heading to dinner Zann had the brilliant idea to buy these nasty little fried fish - which we were then all forced to eat.  But the good thing was that the heads were cut off and they were gutted - because sometimes they aren't - gross! 

Great Mr. William's Party Weekend in Finland/Russia.  Next up - Greece in October!!!

Thanks for reading!  Love you guys!
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