A brief stay in Riga

DSCN4044Before heading back to Tallinn, Reinhard and I made a quick stop in Riga. We were supposed to get into town in the early afternoon, but with a delay in our flight, we missed all daylight. Considering how the sunsets at like 3:30, though, we still had all of the evening to explore. After checking into our wonderful hotel (I’d totally recommend the Hotel Centra Riga), we headed quickly to find some food. We stopped at a cafĂ© and really enjoyed our food (it helped that we were starving). Reini got a delicious pasta dish and I scarfed down some potato pancakes (popular in Latvia) with a chicken fillet. With full bellies, we went out to search for the beautiful sights of Riga and to do some Christmas shopping.

DSCN4062Riga seemed to have multiple Christmas markets. We found at least one open one and another one that was being set up. I learned from my last trip to Riga (January 2011) that the popular thing to buy in Riga is amber. This time I sought out to get some nice amber things that I had been wishing for since my last visit, and some of you might find some little amber things from me under your Christmas tree 🙂 But there were quite a few shops open, and Reini and I picked up a few things. We warmed up with a couple glasses of glühwein at the Christmas market, too.

DSCN4047The night was really cold and rainy, so after regrouping in the hotel to mark the map for with things we missed, we went back out to find a place for dinner and to check off our remaining must-see buildings. We got a bit lost trying to find the I Love You bar (recommended on the internet for having tasty, inexpensive food), but we eventually found it and munched on a pizza while drying off and warming up. The cold weather had gotten the best of us, however, and we made our way back trough the town to get to our hotel. Riga was a quick trip, but I’m really glad I got to go for a visit. If nothing else, I was able to get a good part of my Christmas shopping done!


Oslo, Norway

Sorry for the delay in this post. I just got back to America after having a wonderful last trip to visit some places that I had been hoping to see. It’s been a crazy few days, and I finally now have time to tell you about them!

Reinhard, the ultimate travel partner, and I planned on going to Oslo for a couple of days, followed by a long layover in Riga before returning to Tallinn. Norway is VERY cold this time of year, but it is also very pretty. We caught Oslo on a crazy weekend. There was some sort of a soccer championship, so finding a room was difficult. But with the assistance of a travel agent, we got a fabulous room for half the price. We were so snug in our room that we were tempted to just stay in and hide from the cold. However, we were in Oslo! We had to go exploring! Walking down all the beautifully decorated streets (so much Christmas spirit), we took tons of pictures and ended up getting a little lost along the way.

We eventually found the Akershus fortress, an ancient construction on a hill, offering views of the incredible Oslo fjord. We got to see the changing of the royal guards (yes, Norway has royalty – a king and queen). The fortress was really cool. Part of it is even recreated in Epcot in Disney world! So if you’re in Disney, eat at the Akershus banquet hall and pretend like you’re in the real Norway! The real Akershus dates back to the 1200s. It started out as a castle but has served different purposes over the years (even with a brief run as a prison). Now it is just a pretty place for tourists to visit, with museums and a mausoleum.

Another important thing to do when you visit Oslo is to walk on the opera house. We could see people walking around on the opera house with our view from our hotel room, so we were inspired to give it a try. The opera house is located right on the water and has really a interesting architectural design which allows guests to walk on the roof. When we got there, many people were inside (I guess there was a performance just about to start), but we enjoyed wandering around the outside.

Frozen, we called it a day until the sun decided to come up the next morning. I really wanted to see the Vigeland sculpture park, so we took a really expensive metro ride out there (about 8 times as expensive as Tallinn public transportation… Silly Scandinavians). But the park was incredible. There were tons of sculptures all done by the same artist, depicting the span of human life. The park was huge and seemed to be where Osloites spend lots of time.

That evening we decided to spend in the Akker Brygge area. It’s an old fishing wharf that received an incredibly modern facelift. Everything was high-tech and glassy. Yet, they managed to make it look so beautifully decorated for Christmas. It was a wonderful slice of modern Oslo. We had a delicious dinner in Akker Brygge. One of the guides I looked up online for affordable dining in Oslo pointed us to an Italian restaurant in the district. Our meal was still rather expensive, but for Oslo it was reasonable. But the important things were that the food was tasty and it got us out of the bone chilling weather for a while. Oslo was such a beautiful place to visit and 2 days was the right amount of time to spend.

Pirita Beach

The days are winding down for me here in Tallinn, so I’m trying to make sure I’ve seen everything. On my list of visits was Pirita Beach. Reinhard had been there 3 times before and thankfully agreed to be my guide. We took the bus down to the beach. Sadly, but expectantly, the weather was awful and we got rained on and were blown around by the wind. It was just cool, though, getting to be on a beach. It was clear that this was probably a pretty popular spot for people to go during warm weather. It’s a little hard to imagine warm weather while being blown around by 15mph wind in 34° temperatures, but I’m sure this place is capable of being nice.

Also in Pirita is the grand Pirita Convent. It dates back to the 1400s and was home to many monks back in the day. However, the Russians bombed the convent. So the area is now a museum rather than a flourishing convent. The exteriors are still interesting, though. The convent is very big so even traveling through the area, I’ve been able to see the impressive facade.

My first Marine Corps Ball

I went to my very first Marine Corps Ball this past Saturday. My invitation was a bit of a surprise, but I was glad to be invited! I had to scramble a bit for a dress, but ended up with a pretty one in blue. Dress shopping was more difficult than I thought. The regular department store that I was so sure would have dresses ended up not having long formal gowns. I was lucky enough to find a series of bridal shops all located closely together. Many of the ladies in the shops had a difficult time with English, but we somehow made it work. I was a little discouraged by the very high prices until I found a shop with some more reasonably priced bridesmaid dresses. Also a problem was sizing. European sizing is very different from American sizing. I ended up figuring it out, though my size was a bit too small for the dresses hanging on the rack. The dress I got was a bit too big, but it had a lace up back so the size was less of an issue.

The actual ball was wonderful. The location is a very special venue that was a meeting place that is often photographed by tourists, so it was a really wonderful treat to be able to go inside this building. There were arched ceilings and wooden beams, chandeliers and stained glass windows all around. I got there for a cocktail hour and was able to mix and mingle with all my coworkers and other fancy guests. There was quite a ceremony for the happy birthday celebration for the Marines. Next was followed with a delicious 3 course dinner and then dancing. It was so nice getting to be around everyone in their prettiest dresses and handsome tuxedos. I hope it won’t be my last ball!

Ukrainian Cultural Center in Laboratoriumi 22

I was invited by Vitali to go to the  Ukrainian Cultural Center today to participate in a sort of a workshop for making handmade paper and learning a little bit more about the culture of Ukraine. Before we made paper of our own, we were taken up to a big room with a large table where children (mostly Ukrainian) were doing different drawings (Vitali said it was a sort of a Sunday school class). Once they were finished, we plopped down on the table and started to write up stories with fancy calligraphy pens. The stories were supposed to be of happy events that we remembered. The event stories were supposed to go into a big book, constructed with handmade paper. I wrote my story about the Marine Corps Ball I went to yesterday (post coming shortly, I promise). Hopefully my story will eventually make its way into the book. We will see!

After we creatively drafted our happy stories, we moved down into the studio where they were making paper. We were making paper out of old blue jean pants, so the paper will be a pretty blue color. The lady teaching us how to make the paper was a little scary, especially because I messed up, but Vitali said that she was actually very reassuring (it’s hard to tell when someone is speaking with you sternly in a different language, particularly in Russian). But everything worked out fine and I even got to add some flower petals to my paper 🙂 It should be finished in about 3 days, after it all dries out.

A little after we made our paper, we were given a tour of parts of the city where the Ukrainians had influence. We got to have some delicious snacks in the Ukrainian center. There was a special Ukrainian stove with potatoes cooking on it. Tasty things. There was an Orthodox church we saw that had a floor that pushed back and revealed 2 secret staircases. It was like a secret passageway. Underneath was a little bit of a museum/archive of Ukrainian and Russian toys and other things. Really cool.

Thoroughly impressed by secret tunnels, we went to one of the towers that surrounds the city of Tallinn. The Ukrainian man who was showing us around the Cultural Center was also in charge of one of the towers. The European Union gave funds for those hoping to assert cultural elements into the surrounding areas. So the Ukrainian man works in the tower and builds incredible wooden toys. The toys all tell stories that the tourists that visit the tower tell. The stories are supposed to represent the cultures of the different continents. So there are elaborate series of wooden puppet toys that tell stories of European, Asian, African, North and South American cultures.

After the nice Ukrainian man left us, my group of guys went to the grocery store to buy supplies to make sushi. Apparently one of Vitali’s Ukrainian friends is a master sushi maker who agreed to make sushi for Vitali and some of his buds. So I invited the guys over to my apartment to make some sushi! It was quite an involved process (only bottled water acceptable for boiling rice…).

Christmas is here already

Christmas starts pretty early here in Tallinn. The grocery store has had its display of Christmas ornaments up for a couple of weeks. Certain stores with Christmas decorations and trees have been popping up. But today, as I walked through the Town Hall square, the biggest display of Christmas spirit was being constructed. The giant Christmas tree was being set into its prominent place in town. Santa and his elves (or tree set up guys wearing orange vests) were walking through the square. I was lucky enough to be able to take a photo with Santa after my work event in the square. I’m so ready for Tallinn’s Christmas market to get set up! Just another week!

Island hopping (part II)

Day 2 of Saaremaa began more peacefully than day 1. We enjoyed a nice breakfast in the hotel, wandered through the streets of old Kuressaare, and went back to the Bishop’s castle. Kuressaare looks much different during the day. The little buildings along the main street were lit up by the sleepy sun, so their pastel hues glowed against the blue and gray background of the sky.

We walked around the castle and the surrounding decorated grounds. There is a series of moats and bastions that go around the castle, making for an interesting sight. The inside of the castle had a bunch of different exhibits. One floor was something about Soviet times; another floor was filled with fabric art pieces of some sort; our favorite floor had a bunch of different wildlife (giant moose included). It was an odd mixture, but somehow all worked. The coolest part was just the architecture of the insides of the castle. There were beautiful arches, pillars, and wooden beams that formed large interior halls.

Windblown and cold, yet again, we hopped in the car and headed for the Kaarma church. It was built some time between the 1200s and the 1400s. Basically, it’s really old. I was a little surprised that the church wasn’t open, especially because we visited on a Sunday during the early afternoon. Regardless, we used the church as a picnic site, eating our lunches purchased from the Kuressaare grocery store.

We left Kaarma for Panga, famous for their beautiful slate cliffs. We walked around a little through what was sort of a park. The cliffs came into view as we walked out to the sea. Had we been in a helicopter, we would have been able to see the cliffs a bit better, but seeing them even from a limited perspective was still impressive.

Absolutely frozen by this point, we got into the car once again and made our way over to the ferry location. Quite some time later (apparently everyone on the islands of Saaremaa and Muhu like to leave their islands all on Sunday evenings), we finally got back to the mainland and to Tallinn. It was a crazy weekend, but we got to see so many beautiful things.

Island hopping (part I)

This past weekend was not only a holiday weekend (Veterans’ Day) but also my birthday weekend, so it was naturally a good excuse to take a trip to the island of Saaremaa with my favorite travel partner, Reinhard. we set out Saturday morning, picked up a rental car, and headed straight for the town of Virtsu where we would catch the ferry for Muhu Island. Once we arrived at the coast, we could already tell it was going to be a rough journey on the water. The area was littered with windmills, indicating that there is a constant supply of wind. Sure enough, the ferry was battered around. Thankfully the trip to the island of Muhu was short. We knew finding a place for lunch on the small island would be just about impossible, so we stopped at a grocery store for a makeshift picnic lunch which we ate in the car along the way to the Koguva village. The village was very charming. There were little huts with grass roofs and moss all around. Many of the huts had little exhibits inside that you could peek into. Of course the museum running them was closed, but we were still free to wander around. Beyond the cluster of huts, the Koguva port was situated. The rustic port was really just some closed buildings and a few forgotten fishing boats. Frozen, we got back into the car, got through the rest of Muhu, seeing a couple windmills and churches along the way.

There’s a a bridge between Muhu and Saaremaa. As we drove past, we saw some guys windsurfing in the water along the bridge. I sure hope they had some warm wetsuits on! I certainly can’t imagine wanting to go into that cold water, but those brave guys seemed to be enjoying it. Our very first stop was at the Karja Catherine Church. It is a beautiful church built in the 14th century. After a quick photo session, we left for the Angla Windmills. The island of Saaremaa is known for its beautiful windmills. There used to be a large amount of them, but now there are only 5 windmills left. The wonderful windmills of Angla are located in an extra windy spot on the island near a “main” road, so they were easily accessible by the workers. Luckily, that also means they were easily accessible for us, too! We were driving along the road and all these beautiful windmills popped into view. We stopped on a little path on the road, got out of the car, were greeted by a friendly dog, and started exploring. We found that there was a museum house and a real parking lot on the other side of the windmills, so we moved on over there. We learned a little about the history of the windmills while warming up over some coffee. We spent some good time wandering around the windmills (4 typically Estonian, 1 Dutch styled). We were even able to climb inside 2 of the windmills – the big one had an exhibition of children’s artwork.

Next on our list was the Kaali meteoroid crater. Scientists think that the meteoroid struck the area around 4,000 years ago. The big one in my video below is actually a part of a series of craters. There are 8 more smaller craters in the area, all from debris that broke off of the main meteor.

Before checking into our hotel, we stopped at the Kõljala manor house. This manor house is very different from the other ones I have seen. The others have been very well maintained and preserved. The Kõljala manor house, on the other hand, has not been so lucky. Though the pink and white paint was clearly peeling, the manor house was still beautiful.

After a long day on the road, we wound up in Kuressaare, where we were to spend the night. The people at my work told me we absolutely had to have dinner at the La Perla restaurant, and I’m so glad we went. Apparently the man who owns the restaurant is an Italian American who used to work at the same place I am right now. But he fell in love with an Estonian woman and decided to stick around and open an Italian restaurant. I had the most delicious pasta carbonara ever and Reini really enjoyed his lasagne. After dinner we walked to the Bishop’s Castle, a key landmark of not only the city, but the whole island. It was a really eerie site at night. Cold and windblown, we called it a night and promised to go back the next day.