Finland, the country where I quite want to be

We took yet another ferry back across the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to Helsinki. This one wasn’t overnight as the crossing only takes 1.5-3.5 hours: we had time to spare so opted for the 3.5 hour ferry which was cheaper than the others. (Funnily enough the 1.5 hour ferry is sometimes the cheapest, but we’d heard that it was a smaller vessel and the crossing could be rough enough to toss it around so we avoided it just in case.)

We had one week in Finland (17-23 September). Rather than split it over two cities like we have been doing for most of this trip we decided to spend it all in Helsinki so we could take some time out to organise ourselves. Our next stop would be Russia where we have a faster paced itinerary so Helsinki was an opportunity to relax and regroup before the next stage of our adventure began.

Yellow Fiat in Helsinki

And, it was lovely. A few fellow travellers we’d met in the Baltics warned us that there wasn’t much to do in Helsinki but this actually worked to our advantage because it took the pressure off to see and do lots of things. We stayed at a beautiful self contained Airbnb apartment on an island just to the west of central Helsinki, spent a lot of time just hanging out, and we cooked all of our evening meals there too. This saved us from the other point the backpackers warned us about; that Helsinki was expensive. But thanks to Airbnb and quite a bit of self catering we saved a lot of money. We didn’t find Helsinki outrageously expensive anyway, in fact I think it was probably slightly cheaper than Denmark and Stockholm. (Except for alcohol, which of the Nordic countries was cheapest in Copenhagen supermarkets.)

Lobster dishes at an antique shop

So what did we get up to apart from relaxing, organising and commissioning a beautiful engagement ring? Here are the top 10 things we enjoyed doing in Helsinki:

  1. Wandering around the design district.
  2. Admiring buildings and architecture such as the central train stationFinnish National Theatre and Helsinki Cathedral.
  3. Going to a Finnish sauna.
  4. Learning about the history of Finnish design at the Design Museum.
  5. Admiring a very cool exhibition called Camouflage at Kiasma, Helsinki’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
  6. Visiting the Finnish Museum of Photography.
  7. Alex also enjoyed the Computer and Game Console Museum (but note that unfortunately there isn’t much English signage).
  8. Browsing the Old Market Hall.
  9. Checking out the graffiti wall and old power station buildings at Suvilahti. (Although the rest of this area felt slightly dodgy… saw a few drunks (or worse?) being carted off by uniformed men and women in the middle of the day…)
  10. Taking arty snaps of the Sibelius Monument.

Sibelius Monument

We found almost all of these spots thanks to the excellent Like A Local Helsinki map. I highly recommend picking up a copy if you visit! (You can also get them in Tallinn.)

Cheap eats in Helsinki

  • UniCafe (for lunch). Filled with students but non-students are welcome. Pick up a tray and cutlery then follow the aisle collecting along the way: 1 glass of water, 1 glass of milk or cordial, bread or crispbread with spread, a plate of salad, 1 hot main, wholemeal grains (brown rice, brown pasta or boiled potatoes), and depending on which main you pick this will cost about €6 (just under for a soup main and a little more for the premium main of the day). The mains change daily and we ended up eating here twice.
  • Kitchen & Co (for lunch). Each day 3 different soups and 3 different salads are on offer and they cost €8.50-9.50 including really lovely breads. We had the delicious and filling bouillabaisse (which seems to be available almost every day).
  • Cafe Regatta. A super cute cafe on the water near the Sibelius Monument. There’s plenty of outdoor seating but I couldn’t pass up the tiny and cosy interior which is filled with the delicious smell of freshly baked cinnamon buns. There are free refills for the tea and coffee and they actually give you  €0.05 back with each refilled cup!

Cafe Regatta

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After Helsinki we took our last European ferry (on this trip ;) overnight to St Petersburg in Russia. We spent three days there before taking a rather plush overnight train to Moscow, which is where we are at the moment. I’ll write more about these cities later, but tomorrow is our last day in Moscow before we take the first official leg of our Trans-Mongolian journey: 80 solid hours on a train sharing both day and night with two complete strangers, with no access to a shower (only a toilet and washbasin), and possibly no access to powerpoints either. It certainly will be an interesting experience! After that we stop off at various points in Siberia and Mongolia before arriving in Beijing on the 12th of October. I’m not sure if we’ll have internet access between now and then so… wish us luck and we’ll see you on the other side!

Taking it easy in Tallinn

We took a bus from Riga to Tallinn. It took about 4.5 hours but it was a double decker with food and drink service which was pretty neat. (We didn’t take advantage of the service though – we stocked up on sweet and savoury pastries from our beloved Rigensis before we left so we had plenty of food. Possibly too much. But that cherry strudel was WORTH IT.)

Like Riga, we spent four days in Tallinn (13-17 September). Tallinn’s old town is bigger than Riga’s but they definitely have their own distinct personalities. One small example of this is Riga’s old town is surrounded by a man-made moat and Tallin’s a wall dotted with those famous towers with the red pointed tops. On the whole things cost a bit more in Tallinn than they do in Riga but it’s still cheaper than most western European countries. Free wifi is extremely plentiful; almost every single place we stopped for food or a drink offered free wifi. And there are some preeetty cool places to do that in Tallinn.

Olde Hansa anticipation

Our top 10 favourites things and places in Tallinn:

  1. Free walking tour. You may be sensing a pattern here. ;) We don’t always kick off our stay in a city with a walking or cycling tour but they are such a great way to get your bearings and an overview of all the main sights. I tend to find the free (tips based) ones are usually more interesting than the ones with a set fee because you get more than just a standard script: personal stories, debunked legends, reliable recommendations and usually quite a lot of laughs.
  2. Olde Hansa. So, we did a Viking restaurant in Stockholm, why not a medieval restaurant in Tallinn? It was brilliant. Again, the staff really seemed to be enjoying themselves and the food and drink were original and exceptional. We opted for the mid-range banquet, which was quite a splurge at €40 each (plus drinks) but definitely worth it. Also, we got to taste bear (in a sausage with elk and wild boar). Highly recommended as a treat! (PS make sure you check out the toilets too! ;)
  3. III Draakon. The Third Dragon is a smaller eatery run by the same people as Olde Hansa, so if you can’t afford to splurge (or even if you can) you can get a taste of the same atmosphere here for a fraction of the price: all food is €1 each and all drinks are €2. There are only two things available to eat: elk soup and fluffy pastries; both delicious. Be prepared for a bit of an act from the staff – it’s all part of the experience!
  4. African Kitchen. Another tasty eatery and reasonably priced. African food with a good range of vegetarian dishes, and the cave-like rooms are decked out with some pretty cool decor.
  5. Must Puudel. A lovely and cosy cafe with lots of rooms and retro mismatched furniture. A great spot to stop for tea or coffee.
  6. Depeche Mode Bar. A must for any fans of the band and fun for casual listeners: non stop DM music and all the drinks are named after DM songs. It’s open late every night.
  7. Tallinn Backpackers’ Lahemma Day Trip. Even though we weren’t staying at the hostel that runs this tour we were able to tag along. A very fun day trip that takes you out of Tallinn to see ancient circle graves, the biggest waterfall in Estonia, an abandoned manor house, a giant bog park and a beach on the Baltic coast. We also got to have lunch at Viitna Kõrts, an excellent roadside tavern renowned amongst Estonians.

Jägala waterfall

  1. Tallinn design shops. Skip the tourist shops where half the items were manufactured in China and support genuinely Estonian handmade items and design. You can pick up a hard copy of the black and yellow map at an info centre, view it online, or just keep an eye out for any shops marked with a black and yellow D sticker in the window.
  2. Russian Market. Next to the main train station is a sprawling market filled with second-hand goods; cheap (not in a good way) new goods; and some fruit, veg and meat. Sometimes recommended to visitors as a dose of “shock tourism”, I can’t say it was particularly shocking by my standards but if you are interested in picking up some Soviet era souvenirs, or perhaps some broken appliances or strange forest mushrooms that looked like the kind in cartoons you’re not supposed to eat, it’s well worth a browse.
  3. Raeapteek. A very old pharmacy in a corner of the Town Hall square. You can buy conventional modern medicine there as well as some (fun but somewhat gimmicky and overpriced) medieval remedies. In the second room there is a small museum of old pharmaceutical items (entry by donation).

There are plenty of other things to do in Tallinn too: visit the Kiek in de Kök tower and tunnelsclimb a tower for a panoramic view of the city, visit the art museum housed within St. Nicolas’s Church, or check out any number of other museums or churches, but we enjoyed taking a break from hardcore sightseeing while we were in Tallinn.

Tallin's old town

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Across the Baltic Sea to Riga

More than a year ago a friend recommended taking an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Riga so we arranged this part of our trip specifically to incorporate it. The reason the crossing came so highly recommended is that unlike many ferry departures, you don’t just sail away from Stockholm out in the open water: you have a whole archipelago of islands to negotiate first. These islands are of varying size; some are quite large, some are quite small, and many are covered in cabins regardless of size. The ferry weaves its way in between the islands providing not only beautiful views against the sunset but also the occasional surprise, such as a couple of brave souls swimming off the edge of one island (on what was not a particularly warm autumn’s evening).

Stockholm archipelago

I do enjoy these ferry trips (falling asleep in one country and waking up in another is pretty darn cool) but a reoccurring theme is starting to grate on my nerves. While boarding our last two overnight ferries crew members wanted to take our photo (so we could buy a copy later). Now, I could understand this if we were embarking on some kind of big long cruise – but we’re not. We’re just taking a form of transport to get from A to B. We didn’t get dressed up for it – in fact we’re probably not looking our best covered in sweat and backpacks. No one tries to take my photo when I board an airplane, train or bus, so why should a ferry be any different?!

But maybe that’s just me being boring and difficult. :P

Minor gripe aside, it was a good journey and Riga turned out to be a delight. We had four days there (9-13 Sep) and took them at a relaxed pace, alternating between a bit of sightseeing and booking future travel arrangements. We also met a couple from (the Australian) Newcastle (Alex’s home town) on a walking tour and spent a couple of evenings with them swapping travel stories over delightfully cheap beer (a welcome change after Scandinavia!).

Old town square

If you’re in a hurry you probably don’t need four whole days in Riga but however long you decide to spend there here are the 10 things we enjoyed the most:

  1. Free walking tour. It’s kind of cheating to list this as one thing as it kills quite a few birds with one stone. The tour takes you out of the old town pretty early on and shows you some of the less touristy (but still historically interesting) parts of Riga.
  2. Old town. While it’s not especially old (most of it was destroyed and rebuilt after WWII) Riga’s historical center is picturesque (if you ignore the chain restaurants), compact and enjoyable to wander.
  3. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. A very sobering account of Latvia’s extended period of occupation: first by the Soviets, then they were “rescued” by the Nazis, then absorbed into the USSR until they finally gained their independence again in 1991.
  4. Saint Peter’s Church tower. Excellent views of the whole city and you don’t even have to climb 300 steps to earn it because there’s a lift.
  5. Rigensis bakery. A fabulous bakery in the middle of the old town. We ate here every day and still weren’t able to sample every different pastry and cake on offer.
  6. Lido. Delicious Latvian food with a kind of self service set up where you pay for each plate you take from the buffet. It’s a great way to try out lots of different things and it’s super cheap! There are several different branches but our favourite was Vērmanītis. (Avoid Alus sēta, it’s more expensive because it’s in the old town and they have less variety because it’s smaller.)
  7. Stock Pot. Cheap and honest international food perfect for lunch or a light early dinner. Get the full portion if you go for a soup but a half portion is enough if you get a rice dish.
  8. No Problem. A cool open air beer garden/bar in the centre of the old town with a huge variety of beers on tap and free live music.
  9. Albert Street (Alberta Iela). Worth a visit if you’re interested in art nouveau architecture but be prepared to dodge bus loads of tourists.
  10. Bastejkalns Park. A nice place to stroll on a sunny day. You can start at the Freedom Monument and follow the canal that surrounds the old city. If it’s a really nice day you could hire a pedalo or go for a boat ride.

Bonus points: Hobbywool is a lovely yarn and knitting shop marked by some pretty excellent knit graffiti out the front. They sell gorgeous Jawoll Magic Dégradé amongst other yarns, tempting Latvian mitten knitting kits and other lovely wooly things.

Stalin's birthday cake and the Central Market

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Finding my perfect engagement ring

Before Alex asked The Question I had hinted rather heavily that – should he ever propose ;) – I would prefer to be able to choose my own ring as I am, to put it politely, quite particular. It wasn’t that I had something specific in mind, but I had some pretty specific ideas about what I didn’t want: nothing showy or ridiculously expensive, and certainly no giant flashy diamond. (I’ve read that some people have engagement rings that are so expensive they get cheap copies made just so they can wear them on holiday! No offence intended if this is you or your fiancée/wife, but that’s not me at all.)

Alex proposed after we had been together for more than six and a half years on the 15th of July 2012 (my dad’s birthday, coincidentally) at Rhaeadr Nantcol Waterfalls in Snowdonia National Park, during our farewell tour of the UK. Our big 5 month journey back to Australia was due to begin later that month and we thought it would be such a wonderful souvenir if we found my engagement ring on our travels: not only would it be the usual symbol of commitment but it would also forever be a reminder of what has been the biggest adventure of our lives (so far!).

Just after I said yes :)

I was quite taken with the idea of finding something in Scandinavia as we’re both big fans of good design and the
Scandiwegians are very good at that indeed, but we decided to keep our eyes open in the countries leading up to the Nordic leg of our trip as well. If I was looking for anything in particular it was something modest, contemporary, and ideally with a green stone – I’ve never been too keen on emeralds but was intrigued by the idea of a green sapphire or amethyst.

It took one Croatian jewellery store to realise we weren’t going to find what I was after there: too old fashioned and ostentatious. (There may very well be some great contemporary Croatian jewellery designers out there but unfortunately we didn’t find them.) I can’t remember browsing any jewellery stores in Germany… we may have been too busy drinking beer. (Although a quick Google search has revealed some lovely pieces by Oliver Schmidt.)

We started seriously looking in Denmark. We saw some interesting handmade rings at a craft market in Odense but nothing really suitable for everyday wear. We found a really lovely studio in Copenhagen where one of the designers personally talked us through the concepts behind each of their beautiful designs but they were unfortunately just a little out of our budget. (i.e. more than I was happy for Alex to spend!) I’d admired Efva Attling’s rings online but they were another step up in price again. Nothing else really jumped out at us in Norway or Sweden and before we knew it we had finished our travels in Scandinavia.

Next on our itinerary came the Baltics, famous for their amber. We saw some beautiful pieces of green amber and I rather liked the ancient connotations of fossils (and dinosaurs ;) but the perfect ring design didn’t present itself in combination with green amber.

I think Alex was starting to get a bit concerned by this point, but I had a good feeling about our next destination: Helsinki, World Design Capital 2012. Central Helsinki is packed with design shops which we would have browsed anyway, but we had that ultimate goal of finding this elusive ring powering our browsing as well.

The very first store we walked into was that of jewellery designer Anna Heino. After a cursory browse I spotted the first ring that has really held my attention since we started searching. It stayed with me throughout the day and we returned that afternoon to ask whether it would be possible to customise the stone (from memory I think the one on the shelf used aquamarine). Anna expertly talked us through the pros and cons of the different green gems available and showed us some that she had in stock: an emerald, a green sapphire, and something I never even knew existed: a green diamond. The green diamond stood out from the other two by a mile for its colour and sparkle.

We went away and thought about it for a day and the more I thought about it the more perfect it felt. We decided this was the one and went back yesterday morning to commission our own version of the ring using the green diamond. Anna took my measurements and we discussed customising the width of the band and other details. It was going to take four weeks to make but as we’re only in Helsinki until Sunday we asked if Anna could look into how much it would cost to ship the finished item to my parents in Australia. We agreed to meet again later that day to finalise the details.

We returned shortly before closing and Anna said there was good news and bad news. We asked for the good news first but we should have asked for the bad: I’ll deliver it to you first for the best dramatic impact!

The bad news was it isn’t possible to send precious metals to Australia by any means, including registered and insured post and international courier.


But the GOOD news was, because she saw how much we loved the ring and she wanted us to be happy, she had as an exception and ever so wonderfully made it for us that very afternoon!! It was a huge favour which we deeply appreciated and the ring is perfect: I’m absolutely delighted! Not only is it the perfect memento of all our European travels, from a city we enjoyed from the moment we arrived, it’s exactly what I wanted: something simple but elegant, no big gaudy rock but a beautiful diamond nonetheless, and one that’s my favourite colour at that. Designed by a lovely Finnish jeweller and handmade specifically for us, there isn’t another ring like it in the world. I love it. Here it is!

My engagement ring

My engagement ring

My engagement ring

So of course, if you happen to find yourself in Helsinki do stop by Anna’s shop to admire her work. Many thanks again to Anna for completely making our day (week? month?) and of course much love and thanks to Alex who I am lucky enough to be able to look forward to spending the rest of my life with. ^_^

Viking it up in Stockholm

From Gothenburg we continued on to Stockholm (4-8 Sep). After so much rushing around in Gothenburg I was a bit museum’d out and content to spend time just catching up on the kind of general admin that accumulates while you’re travelling (email, photos, etc), but Alex was keen to get out there and devour as much as possible, so we took time to do the things that interested each of us the most at our own pace.

Stockholm is not as expensive as Oslo and probably more on par with Denmark, but you get more SEK than DKK for your £ (at the moment, anyway). I was particularly impressed by how easy it was to get around the city: the public transport system is frequent, fast and efficient. We didn’t find quite so much evidence of cutting edge Scandinavian design in Stockholm as we did in Copenhagen (but perhaps we didn’t look in the right places), so it was more about the Vikings this time: from history and artefacts to, best of all, food (see Eats below). :D

Gamla Stan, seen from City Hall tower

10 top things to see and do in Stockholm

  1. Cycling tour. As usual, something like this is a great introduction to a new city and you can’t get much more Scandinavian than riding around on bikes that require back pedalling to brake.
  2. Gamla Stan. Wander around aimlessly and just enjoy the beautiful streets. This is particularly nice in the evening when there’s still some life around but it’s much quieter.
  3. Stockholm City Hall tower. Climb up to the top to take your postcard perfect photos of Gamla Stan.
  4. Monteliusvägen. If you visit Stockholm during a month when the City Hall tower is closed, you want to save some money, or you just fancy a walk and another nice view, get off the T-bana at Slussen and head to the left to climb up the hill for a very picturesque stroll.
  5. Vasa Museum. If you only go to one museum in Stockholm make it this one. Catch one of the guided tours and watch out the amazing documentary film about the ship’s reconstruction, then you can spend an hour or two pouring over the detailed exhibits and trying to take a photo that does the Vasa justice (good luck!).
  6. Fotografiska. When we visited Stockholm’s museum of photography we caught two excellent exhibitions of works by Christer Strömholm and Sally Mann. It’s open until 9pm every day (except Midsummer’s Eve and Christmas Eve), which is a bonus.
  7. National Historical Museum of Stockholm. This is where you can go to get your historical Viking fix: weapons, glassware, jewellery and coin hoards, even a skeleton. The museum has lots of other exhibits too, and it’s free on Fridays between 13:00-17:00!
  8. Nobel Museum. Alex did this one by himself and he raved about it and said it was inspirational.
  9. Thorildsplan T-bana station. Check it out if you’re a fan of retro gaming. :)
  10. Östermalm’s Saluhall. A very fancy market hall that I don’t recommend buying anything from, but it is nice to wander around and some of the stalls give out free samples.

Thorildsplan T-bana

If we hadn’t already been to the Norsk Folk Museum in Oslo and Old Bergen we probably also would have visited Stockholm’s famous open air museum, Skansen. And if we weren’t a bit roller-coastered-out from doing three other Scandinavian theme parks in the previous two weeks we probably would have gone to Gröna Lund too. (Although I’m not sure if I would have been brave enough to ride on Insane!)

Gröna Lund at night

Eats & drinks

  • Nystekt Strömming. A fried herring stand out the front of Slussen station that may look no more appealing than a miscellaneous kebab stand but is well worth it for a cheap, tasty and very Scandinavian meal.
  • There’s another takeaway-with-picnic-tables stand roughly in front of Ringvägen 4 that does cheap and tasty Thai food.
  • Örtagården. An all-you-can-eat, mostly vegetarian buffet overlooking Östermalm’s Saluhall. 99SEK for lunch and you probably won’t need dinner.
  • Cafe Art. A nice underground cafe in the middle of Gamla Stan. Recommended by Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet it was nonetheless very quiet when we were there. Excellent service.
  • Drop Coffee. A lovely and bright cafe next to Mariatorget T-bana station. Great tea and cardamom buns  (I’m sure the coffee is excellent too) and free wifi.
  • Airfur. Sweden’s first and only restaurant dedicated to Viking food! We went despite expecting it to be cheesy but it’s not at all: the staff are great and seemed like they were really enjoying their roles, the food is excellent and the extensive list of different meads is as impressive as the drinks are strong and delicious. The decor is fantastic – we saw originals of the authentic glassware at the National Historical Museum. It was one of the priciest meals we’ve had on this journey but it’s well worth it if you want to treat yourself.

Deer on a fork, Aifur

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