Why Estonia? Helsinki or Oslo would have been a more typical end to my Nordic tour. But when I chatted with some Fulbrighters based in Finland, they recommended Tallinn as a cheaper and prettier destination. And I think it was a good choice.
Tallinn is an impressive city. Estonia has only been independent for 24 years, but it feels more like a Nordic country than an Eastern bloc country. The infrastructure is fabulous. There is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere, a secure and high-tech system that lets citizens do everything from voting to taxes to starting businesses online, and extensive public transit (which is free for city residents, though not for tourists). It’s not quite as inexpensive as, say, Budapest, but the prices still come as a relief after Stockholm and Copenhagen. Also, amusingly, Estonia’s president is rather infamous for starting Twitter wars with other countries. Just a fun fact.
Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in the world. It’s very small and cute, with lots of churches in various styles, a still-operating pharmacy dating back to at least 1422, and a mostly-intact wall. (Apparently, Estonia entered the wall in some sort of “additional wonders of the word” competition. It lost to the Great Wall of China. But that’s pretty stiff competition.) I took a free walking tour with a hilariously wry guide who told us lots of silly stories. For instance: one of the oldest churches was partially destroyed by Soviet bombs. When Estonia joined the USSR, they asked for money and permission to rebuild the church. Their proposal was repeatedly rejected, until they offered to make the space a museum of atheism. (What goes inside a museum of atheism? Who knows? The museum never actually happened.)
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an onion-domed Russian Orthodox church
View of Old Town (with an Ilana)
View of Old Town
This medieval tower has Russian cannonballs in it
Tallinn supposedly has the best-preserved medieval wall, though some Italian towns might argue
Whoever’s flag is flying on this tower (right behind parliament) is currently in control of Estonia
Town Hall. Notice the dragon-shaped waterspouts
Continue reading Tallinn, Estonia
Any city was going to be a let-down after Copenhagen. Stockholm isn’t quite as perfect: food costs more, the transit system is worse, and even the weather didn’t hold up as well for my visit. Also, no Kierkegaard. All of that notwithstanding, it was a really fun place to be a tourist for a day! Everything I did—touring the City Hall, visiting the Vasa Museum, touring Old Town, and attending the opera—was absolutely worth my time and money.
Lots of cities have impressive city halls, but Stockholm really stands out for the variety of architecural styles and decorative techniques used. It’s also fun to tour because of the Nobel Prize tie-in. Although the prizes themselves are given out in Stockholm’s concert hall, the banquet, ball, and reception are held here. Did you know that university students in Stockholm can enter a lottery to purchase a ticket to the banquet!? I knew I picked the wrong place to study.
Part of the City Hall, as seen from the courtyard
The Blue Hall. The bricks were originally going to be painted blue. By the time the architect decided he liked the red, the name had stuck. This is where the Nobel Prize banquet is held
A balcony in the Blue Hall
Where the City Council of Stockholm meets
The ceiling of the City Council room, inspired by traditional Scandinavian and Viking styles. The blue in the center takes after Viking homes’ “wind eyes” (where the word “window” comes from!)
The ceiling of 100 vaults, for the 100 members of the City Council (now 101, but it was 100 when the building was built)
The Prince’s Gallery, where the private reception for Nobel Prize winners is held
A painting in the Prince’s Gallery. The paintings were done by the prince (the then-sovereign’s brother) and took him five years (to cover the whole hall—not just for this one!)
Wall chandelier in the Prince’s Gallery. It’s actually only half a chandelier, plus a mirror
The Gold Hall, with a personification of Stockholm’s lake sitting between symbols of the East and the West
The Gold Hall is so shiny. It’s also where the ball following the Nobel Prize banquet is held
Some of those symbols of the West look familiar
Continue reading Sightseeing in Stockholm
(First things first: If you don’t know what the title is referring to, go watch the excellent Danny Kaye movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. This post will still be here when you finish.)
I’m in love. I’ve never felt as strong an urge to stay and live in a city as I did in Copenhagen. I can’t quite explain why. The beautiful green spaces? The good infrastructure? The fish-based cuisine? The lingering traces of Kierkegaard’s presence? I know it gets awfully cold in the winter, and I probably wouldn’t like that, but on this trip it seemed like the perfect city.
Authors, philosophers, and other famous people
Have I mentioned on this blog how much I love Kierkegaard? I know it’s one of those totally unoriginal teenage obsessions, but I can’t help it! So of course tracking down Kierkegaard-related sites was a priority during my time in Copenhagen. I didn’t go quite as far as this author, but I made sure to see his grave, his statue, and the exhibit about him in the Museum of Copenhagen. The latter was small but really cool—it organized paraphernalia from his life into different categories of love. These were paired with relevant quotes from his works (of course, Works of Love and his notes played a large part) and with objects and stories submitted by current Copenhageners. The Regine Olsen episode of Kierkegaard’s life is fascinating, so I loved how much emphasis it got. The city’s other famous author, Hans Christian Andersen, is in the same cemetery. One of his stories is also commemorated in the city’s most famous attraction (supposedly the most disappointing attraction in Europe), the harbor statue of the Little Mermaid.
The grave of Hans Christian Andersen
Copenhagen’s famous “Little Mermaid” statue, inspired by the Andersen story
The grave of Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard’s original gravestone, now in the Museum of Copenhagen
The only remaining lock of Kierkegaard’s hair, in the Museum of Copenhagen
The cupboard Kierkegaard bought to house all his mementoes of Regine. The Museum of Copenhagen also has their engagement ring (which he wore for the rest of his life when she sent it back to him)
Statue of Kierkegaard in the Royal Library Garden—which, incidentally, is so gorgeous that I would definitely recommend it as a location to sit outside and read Kierkegaard
Not an author or philosopher, but kind of important: the grave of Niels Bohr
Continue reading Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!
My train to Hamburg was packed. Not just in the sense of “it sucks that you can’t find a seat for this six-hour, early-morning journey,” but in the sense of “no one can get to the bathrooms and also we’re not sure we can take on any more passengers, because the standing room is all taken.” We can partially blame this on the Deutsche Bahn strikes (fewer trains than usual were running), but apparently it’s mostly because I was heading to Hamburg just in time for one of their biggest events of the year: the Hafengeburtstag. That’s literally the “harbor birthday,” and ships from all over the world come to parade, race, and mingle. Of course, there’s also lots of fireworks and street food. (I ate plenty of herring—both raw and pickled—and Schmalzkuchen—fried balls of dough with powdered sugar.) So I threw most of my other plans for the weekend away and helped Hamburg celebrate its harbor’s birthday in style!
I had to take a picture of this boat for two reasons: (1) it shares a name with a Wagner opera, and (2) it was in Amsterdam (moored near the boat I stayed on) during King’s Day! I theorize that it’s just travelling from party to party
The wheel of a beautiful military sailing ship from 1933
The rigging of the Gorch Fock
I love the name of this ship!
Not all the ships were pretty or old…
A recreation of a ship from 1703
The ridiculous masthead of the 1703 ship
Steering the ship!
A carved dolphin (?) on the staircase of the 1703 ship
I love the green sails
Hamburg’s Captain San Diego is on the move
But the Captain San Diego isn’t driving itself
Aboard the museum ship Rickmer Rickmers
A rescue demonstration: this ship “caught fire,” and a helicopter came to help
The fire boats also came
Why only use one helicopter when you can use two? This one actually lowered a sling and lifted some people who had “fallen overboard” into the helicopter
A big fireworks show ended the day
The other main tourist attraction I managed to get to was Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway. It’s impressive for its sheer size, and it also does a good job of conveying the overall differences in terrain and architecture between the represented regions (Switzerland, Austria, Hamburg, the fictional German town of Knuffingen, Bavaria, Middle Germany, America, and Scandanavia). It has an airport, concert halls, soccer stadiums, a space shuttle, UFOs, ships, and lots and lots of trains. There are also some fun Easter eggs in the tiny figures—everything from an elephant pulling a steamroller to a man bungee jumping from construction equipment.
Continue reading Happy birthday, Hamburg harbor!
The last leg of my journey: Holland. This is a refrain I keep repeating, but I wish I’d had more time! Two days each in two cities was not nearly enough. I didn’t get to explore the Dutch countryside, or even see all the museums I wanted to see in the cities. I guess I’ll just have to return someday…
I don’t actually remember what any of these old buildings were. I was just taking pictures, okay?
This is the large church. I couldn’t even fit half of it in the picture. It’s absurd
More pretty colors
This is the tower prison where John and Cornelius de Witt were jailed before they met their horrifying ends. And also, briefly, the fictional Cornelius van Bearle, hero of Dumas’ The Black Tulip!
William of Orange
The Hague seems to be a hugely popular destination for Dutch tourists and a relatively ignored one for international tourists. On one hand, this is a shame, because it means tours of most attractions are only offered in Dutch (with significantly shorter written or audio-guided English summaries). But it means the locals don’t roll their eyes at foreign tourists, so that’s nice! There are a lot of museums in The Hague, and I drove myself a bit crazy trying to get to all the major ones. I failed—in fact, I missed the city’s two biggest sights: the Mauritshuis Museum (home of “Girl with a pearl earring”) and the Peace Palace. But I saw a lot anyway. I arrived in the afternoon on Saturday in time to take a tour of the Hall of Knights, the ceremonial hall where the King delivers his speech from the throne on budget day. The room is impressive without being flashy. Its ceiling is made as an inverted boat, and the walls are lined with handwoven tapestries celebrating The Netherlands’ provinces. Little imps sit on the wooden rafters—a relic of the days when it was a courtroom, and the imps carried defendents’ and witnesses’ words to St. Peter, who would recall their truthfulness (or lack thereof) when he judged them for admission to heaven. In the center of the room is the still-used gold-and-velvet throne.
Stained glass with the crests of various families who have ruled The Netherlands. (You can see Bavaria’s on the left)
Hall of Knights
Tapestries on the walls
I was really here!
Part of the building, from the outside
The Hall of Knights
Fountain in front of the Hall of Knights
A former goldsmith’s building in the Binnenhof
The Binnenhof (which includes the Hall of Knights and the Prime Minister’s tiny tower office, all the way to the left) from across the water
I started Sunday with Escher in the Palace, a museum I found doubly attractive because it’s the only palace open to the public (and it contains some of the original furnishings and details about the royal family’s life) and because it hosts a permanent exhibition of artwork by Escher. I’ve seen Escher exhibits before, but this one had more of an emphasis on his earlier landscapes and nature drawings, which I found interesting. (You could already see how he was playing with repetition and perspective, but it was subtle.) There was also a kitschy top floor with optical illusions and photo opportunities inspired by Escher prints. Continue reading Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam
Brussels was all shiny and wide-boulevard-ed like the European capital it was built to be, but small-town Belgium is very different. Much more like small-town Germany, in fact: very medieval. I spent a day each in Gent and Bruges, looking at pretty old buildings (though most of them in Gent are reconstructions), climbing far too many stairs to reach the top of belfries, and watching lace be made.
Gent is not exactly a tourist destination, except during its annual music festival. The town history explanations in the belfry, for instance, are only in Flemish. (Yes, German speakers can decipher Flemish with sufficient effort. But I didn’t want to give myself a headache in the morning.) So I took a tour, which mostly focused on old buildings, plus the occasional off-beat sight (check out a grafitti lane and the Design Museum toilets in the photo gallery below). I learned that Gent was once the second-largest city in Europe (in the 13th century, that is) because of its textile industry. I also made a friend from Mexico. (Credit for any photos with me in them goes to Nora!) At our guide’s suggestion, we went to the House of Alijn museum, which offers glimpses of life in past centuries and decades. It was kitschy but cute, though I thought there was too little about past centuries and too much about the different decades of the 20th century.
Saint Nicholas’ Church
Town Hall (neo-Renaissance facade)
Town Hall (neo-Gothic facade)
A retired dragon who used to sit atop the belfry
A lion chilling in the belfry
The bell Roland
The music-box-like mechanism for the belfry chimes
View of the old opera house from the belfry
View of the church from the belfry
Atop the belfry tower
Angels dancing on top of a building
Inside St. Nicholas’ Church
Inside St. Nicholas’ Church
Gravensteen—a castle very much in the middle of the city
Medieval decoarted facades indicating the profession and faith of the inhabitant
Jacob van Artevelde, the hero who saved the Gent textile industry
A grafitti lane (where grafitti is permitted)
In front of the old opera house
Classic view of three towers
Pretty facades above a pretty river
The bathroom of the Design Museum
The old fish market gate
Inside a recreated pharmacy in the House of Alijn museum
Inside a recreated barber’s shop in the House of Alijn museum
Gent had two highlights for me other than the views. One was Quetzal, a chocolate bar near the university that is decidedly not for tourists. (Sign of this: no English menu.) They don’t do fancy pralines, just chocolate. Pure melted chocolate at the darkness level of your choice, mixed with milk and spices. (I had super-dark chocolate with chili.) Fondue with bread or fruit. Brownies. Pieces of chocolate. I had all of the above. It was amazing. The other highlight was my lovely Couchsurfing host, Nadia. She took me to a salsa club and ensured that some of the leads she knew there danced with me! It’s been a long time since I danced salsa, and she showed me up because she was amazing. But I had fun anyway, even though my legs were tired from all that stair-climbing. Continue reading Medieval Belgium
I had two complaints about Cologne: that the city wasn’t very pretty, and that all the museums were closed. Fortunately, I headed to Brussels next. Mostly just because it was there—I didn’t really know what to expect. As it turns out, Brussels is gorgeous, with wide avenues, tons of public green spaces, and lots of old buildings. It’s reminiscent of Paris (not coincidentally). Most of the beautification of the city was done in the nineteenth century with money gathered from exploiting the Congo, so it can be a little jarring to think about history and take in the views at the same time. Nonetheless, for the combination of architecture, sights to visit, and food to eat, it’s one of my favorite cities I’ve visited.
The Royal Palace
A rainbow in the fountain of Brussels Park
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the bottom of the Congress Column
King Leopold I at the top of the Congress Column
Old Botanical Gardens
Old Botanical Gardens
Flowers blooming in the Jubilee Park
Swans in the lake of Leopold Park
Monument of Leopold I in Laken Park
The main square (Victor Hugo stayed here)
The main square (the brewers’ guild building)
The main square (Town Hall)
The main square (re-built version of Charles V’s home)
A Tintin mural, in the city where he was created
The famous Manneken Pis
A pretty Art Deco shop
Memorial of the World Wars
The Palais de Justice has just a little bit of construction going on
The imposing doors of the Palais de Justice
More imposing views of the Palais de Justice entryway
Hal city gate
View of the Mont des Arts garden
Obligatory opera house photo. Of course, my impression of La Monnaie comes from the Clemenza they streamed. But apparently it’s pretty historically important, too. The uprising that brought about Belgian independence in 1830 began at a play here
My planned host had a conflict arise at the last minute, so Ashley, a fellow Fulbrighter I met in Berlin, agreed to put me up at the last minute. She also took me to an outdoor concert (at the university) on Tuesday night. It was not at all my scene (dubstep music and lots of alcohol, smoking, and weed), but it was interesting to people-watch. The students were surprisingly casually dressed (silly hats and pajamas, in some cases), but this was the French university. Ashley assured me that the Flemish university students dress up. Which brings me to another point: languages. I was ignorant going into Belgium, but it turns out there are three official languages: Flemish, French, and German. Most people in Brussels defaulted to French. Surprisingly, no one switched to English when they heard my execrable French, so I got more practice in my two days there than in my week in Paris! Bonus points for persistence (but also negative points for creepiness) go to the man who tried to pick me up on the street and who listened to me answer his questions in broken French for twenty minutes. (I’m at least perfectly clear on how to say, ‘Je suis désolée, mais non. Je ne te connais pas’ in response to repeated requests for a date, my number, etc.) Continue reading Beautiful Brussels, Belgium