FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Wet, wild and windy

Posted in Brands Hatch, England by folkestonejack on August 10, 2019

A summer saturday at Brands Hatch to see the next generation of DTM cars seemed like a terrific idea when I booked in the depths of the British winter. Who could have imagined the combination of a UK wide power cut with the threat of unusually wet, wild and windy weather!?

It was something of a miracle that the trains were running relatively smoothly to Eynsford, while other lines faced severe delays caused by fallen trees. After an hour of hiking I was once again passing through the familiar entrance to the circuit, ready to hear the roar of DTM engines reverberating through the Kent countryside.

The climb to Druids

My hike was rewarded with a fascinating morning of free practice and qualifying in very changeable conditions, followed by a thrilling race in the afternoon. One of the commentators described the conditions as four seasons in one day, just short of the snow. Free practice was a good illustration of that – starting in the dry, working its way from light rain to heavy rain, before ending in brilliant sunshine.

Qualifying started on a damp but drying track. Only a quarter of the session had elapsed when the red flags came out following a heavy shunt at Paddock Hill Bend for Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of F1 legend Emerson Fittipaldi. It was quite some bad luck for the WRT team as both their cars crashed on the same lap, leaving their mechanics with a mountain of work. Thankfully, both drivers were ok.

The session resumed after twenty minutes, accompanied by a fresh burst of rain. The remaining quarter of an hour or so was a thriller, with the drying track really mixing things up. For a long while Jake Dennis topped the times and the possibility of a first pole for the Aston Martin seemed tantalisingly in reach.

Setting fire to the timesheets early on in qualifying

Conditions on the track were clearly tricky to judge, but by the end of the session slicks were definitely the way to go and as the field switched over the times started tumbling. Marco Wittmann (BMW) timed his run perfectly to claim a last-gasp pole position with Rene Rast (Audi) alongside him on the front row. The second row was filled by Loïc Duval (Audi) and Paul Di Resta (Aston Martin).

The race itself was a thriller from the off, with Paul di Resta carrying out an audacious move around the outside of Paddock Hill bend to take an early lead and pull clear of the chasers. It wasn’t to last – the officials judged it to have been a jump-start, though it really didn’t look like that on the big screens. The result was a five second penalty taken before the pit-stop. Others had even worse luck – Jake Dennis was clouted into the wall at the start and had to retire without getting a lap in.

The race was far from dull, offered overtaking moves throughout the field – including a daring overtake by Marco Wittman through the middle of two cars at Paddock Hill Bend (taking positions from Rene Rast and Jamie Green at the same time). It was thrilling to the end, with everyone keeping an eye on the battle between Wittman in the lead and Rast in the rapidly closing Audi. At the flag the gap was down to 0.3 seconds and who knows what might have been with another lap.

Through the middle

It was a wonderful reminder of how thrilling the DTM can be and what a wonderful circuit Brands Hatch is for the spectator. It really is better to be at the race track here to appreciate the challenge, particularly the change in elevations, which never really comes across on the TV. I thoroughly enjoyed my day seeing the new breed of DTM cars and the new entries from Aston Martin. I didn’t even mind getting soaked with the high winds and sun to dry you out quickly!

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HNLMS Luymes visits the capital

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 26, 2019

On my way into work today I had the pleasure of watching a naval vessel arrive for a four day stay. It’s a while since I’ve been around at the right time to see the spectacle of the bridge opening for a warship but it certainly doesn’t get any less spectacular. The seagulls seemed much less impressed with my presence, preferring to use me for target practice!

Zr. Ms. Luymes shortly after passing through Tower Bridge

The visitor on this occasion was the hydrographic survey vessel HNLMS Luymes (A803) from the Royal Netherlands Navy. HNLMS Luymes arrived at the beginning of the rush hour, passing through Tower Bridge just after 7am. The ship, a familiar visitor to the capital, was accompanied by the tug Svitzer Cecilia, who assisted in turning the ship around to face the bridge after passing through. HNLMS Luymes is currently scheduled to be berthed alongside HMS Belfast until 1pm on Monday 29th July.

The vessel is soon to undergo a scheduled mid life upgrade in the shipyards of Damen with her classmate HNLMS Snellius, which will see the ships updated with new hull plating, the renewal of the radar and an upgrade to the communications equipment.

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Royal International Air Tattoo 2019

Posted in England, Fairford by folkestonejack on July 21, 2019

Every five years or so, I make a trek down to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire to enjoy the spectacle of the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT), the world’s largest military air show. This edition saw 245 aircraft from 25 countries, on static display or in the air, ranging from small turboprop trainers to heavy transports.

The airshow celebrated a number of anniversaries this year, including the 100th anniversary of British Airways and the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO. The first of these saw an eye-catching flypast with a British Airways 747-400 in a splendid retro BOAC livery accompanied by the Red Arrows on the appropriately designated flight number BA100. A gap in the clouds opened at the perfect moment and illuminated the spectacle beautifully.

British Airways retro-liveried 747-400 (G-BYGC) performs a flypast with the Red Arrows at RIAT 2019

I was particularly delighted to see a MiG-21 flying at the air tattoo for the first time since 2001 courtesy of the Romanian Air Force who sent over their modernised air-defence variant. These supersonic fighters are true veterans, having first entered service with the Soviet Union in 1959. An impressive 11,000 fighters rolled off the production lines and have been flown by 60 nations. I had seen one on static display on a previous visit, but it was a treat to see one in the air.

The MiG-21 was not the only Soviet creation on display. The Ukrainian air force had sent over two of their Sukhoi Su-27 (‘Flanker’) fighters from the 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade at Myrhorod and an Ilyushin Il-76 (‘Candid’) transport from the 25th Transport Aviation Brigade at Melitopol Air Base. For a jet that first appeared in 1977 the Su-27 looked as impressive today in its manoeuvrability as I’m sure it must have done for astonished audiences when it first appeared at western air shows.

The Patrouille de France take off to perform their acrobatic displays over Fairford

Other highlights included a beautifully painted C-130E Hercules from the Pakistani Air Force; an exhilerating display from the Finnish Air Force’s F/A-18 Hornet; and wonderful acrobatic displays from a number of national teams such as the Red Arrows, the Patrouille de France and the Frecce Tricolori.

Practicalities

It was a straightforward journey for me – an hour by train from London to Swindon, then around half an hour on an airshow shuttle bus to the showground. Once you are inside the scale of the show is astonishing, stretching around 2 miles alongside the runway and taking up in excess of 300 acres. Thankfully, there is a free bus inside the grounds (with 8 stops along the length of the showground) so when the feet start to give up you can take it easy.

I stayed around to the end of the show on the Saturday and discovered an absolutely massive queue for the shuttle buses back to Swindon. Once on board the return journey took an hour, without really seeming to hit any massive jams. I was thankful I was coming back to an overpriced hotel room rather than trying to make an evening train.

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Architectural treats in Helsinki II

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 8, 2019

The architectural delights of Helsinki are one of the many compelling reasons to make a visit to the Finnish capital, from masterpieces of neoclassicism to designs pushing the boundaries of modern architectural style. It’s all here and easy to enjoy on a walking tour of the compact city centre.

One interesting development is the sale of the Finnish State Railway offices (1909) at Helsinki’s Central Railway Station for conversion into a Scandic hotel. The winner of the competition to transform the station was the Finnish architectural practice Futudesign whose proposals include a beautiful new courtyard with a curving facade between the hotel and the station itself. The new hotel is scheduled for completion in 2020.

Architectural wonders can be found across Helsinki

The abundance of art nouveau treats was a highlight of my last visit and I managed to see a few more on this trip, remembering to keep looking up to the rooftops for unexpected details (such as a pair of polar bears in Katajanokka and a bat hiding under the windows on Annankatu) but I am very well aware that I have still only scratched the surface.

At the very end of my trip I discovered a marvelous new english language book, Art Nouveau in Helsinki, which was first published by Helsinki City Museum in 2019 (ISBN 978-952-331-579-2). This book presents 200 highlights from the 600+ art nouveau buildings in the city, arranged by neighbourhood, with maps that make it easy to follow in the footsteps of the authors.

I didn’t have enough time to exploit my new book purchase so that will have to wait until the next trip, along with a plan to visit the rooftop view from the Hotel Tornio to make a comparison with the 1930s panorama taken from the hotel by Olof Sundström that you can see in the Helsinki City Museum! It’s always good to have a reason to go back. My list is already getting quite long…

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Helsinki for the weekend

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 6, 2019

The last leg of our travels around the Baltic brought us back to our starting point in Helsinki on a surprisingly spacious intercity train from Turku. Our trip was set to finish with a three night stay at the Radisson Blu Aleksanteri Hotel, taking in a few old favourites and some new sights that have appeared since we visited two years ago.

Hämeenmaa-class minelayer Uusimaa with Helsinki Cathedral in the background

It is the third time that I have stayed in the Finnish capital and I haven’t tired of it yet. I guess there will always be a bit of the excited 12 year old in me every time I walk in to the Market Square and take in the view across the harbour to the Viking Line and Silja Line ferries; the restaurants on the innermost islands; then out beyond to the fortress island of Suomenlinna.

There was no shortage of vessels to admire, including the icebreakers off the Katajanokka peninsula and a warship that made a rather unexpected appearance in the harbour on our second day. The icebreakers are really impressive ships and a Finnish specialty – around 80% of the icebreakers in the world have been designed here and 60% were also constructed here. The most powerful ship in the home fleet, Polaris, can navigate through an ice field 1.8m thick without stopping and plays a vital role in keeping Finnish ports operational all year long.

Icebreakers in Helsinki

On our first day in the capital we spent a pleasant morning wandering around Katajanokka before catching up with our longtime family friend for a quite delightful visit to the Ars Fennica 2019 exhibition at the Amos Rex and Helsinki’s quite incredible new Central Library. The Ars Fennica is the biggest prize in the Finnish art scene, along the lines of the Turner Prize to make a British comparison, held this year in the Amos Rex, a rather astonishing subterranean space under the Lasipalatsi (glass palace) which opened in 2018.

The five candidates for the Ars Fennica in 2019 presented a wonderful dilemma for visitors trying to pick a winner. I loved the large screen video installation from Ragnar Kjartansson (‘Scenes From Western Culture: The Boat’), Miriam Bäckström’s javelin like sculpture ‘Psychopath’; the imagined romantic landscapes of Petri Ala-Maunus and the utterly charming creations of Egill Sæbjörnsson. At the end of your visit you are given a marble to send into a series of tubes to vote for your favourite. Wonderfully fun.

Egill presents us with a mini exhibition chamber within the exhibition, a space where his imaginary friends, Ugh and Boogar, two 36 metre tall trolls, have presented their latest paintings. You can sit down here and read about their adventures (and fear of Moomins) through a specially produced book ‘The Trolls in Hellsinki’ before taking a look at their efforts. Almost seductive enough to win my marble – but not quite!

An unexpected tale to be discovered at the Ars Fennica 2019

An unexpectedly wonderful late lunch at Fazer À la carte, on the 8th Floor of the Stockmann department store, served up a Scandinavian treat – a creamy salmon soup with huge chunks of salmon, herby cream and dill; followed up by a delicious risotto. After some persuasion (unusual for me) I ended up with an astonishingly good white chocolate panna cotta with champagne sorbet and marinated strawberries.

After parting company with our friend we took advantage of the long daylight hours to make an evening visit to the zoo on the island of Korkeasaari, which you can reach by ferry from the Market Square. The zoo charges reduced entrance fees in the evenings and offers the hope that some of the more elusive animals might make an appearance after the departure of the noisier daytime crowds. I think that worked out quite nicely.

The second day of our stay took us out on the water to Isosaari, one of Helsinki’s outer islands and a military base for over 100 years. After military use ended in 2012 the island was opened up for tourism, welcoming its first visitors in June 2017. I picked up on this far too late during our last visit, so it was great to have this opportunity to take a look around.

Helsinki City Museum

Finally, I took a wander out to the Helsinki City Museum on our last day. I had read quite a few negative reviews on TripAdvisor so was uncertain what I would make of it, but I absolutely loved it. I thought it was one of those inspiring museums that really get you to engage and offer a fresh take on a subject you think you know. I spent much longer inside than I expected and was a little late back at our hotel for our trek out to the airport!

Highlights of the museum included some interesting perspectives on Helsinki, such as a display about how skateboarders see their city; an interactive display of historic panoramas of the city; a wonderful photo library; an interactive model of the city in 1878; and a compelling temporary exhibition ‘Objection’ on stories of dissent.

The exhibition ‘Objection‘ is perhaps best described as a cross between a series of art installations and historical documentation. The most fascinating of these was the tale of Hjalmer Linder, once the richest man in Finland, who spoke out about the bloodshed in 1918 after visiting the Suomenlinna Prison Camp. The letter he sent in to the papers saw him branded a traitor and set him on a path to ruin that would ultimately claim his life. I was completely absorbed by this terrible story and the other installations in the exhibition.

Panorama in the Helsinki City Museum

Our weekend in Helsinki was mostly focused around seeing the ‘new’ sights on offer and catching up with our family friend, rather than visiting what might normally be considered the top tourist sights. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more there was to see in the city since our last visit and we had no trouble filling up our time. In fact, we’ve already started a wish-list for our next visit…

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Warships on the Aura

Posted in Finland, Turku by folkestonejack on July 5, 2019

The corvette Karjala is one of the museum ships on the Aura, moored alongside the minelayer Keihässalmi, a short walk away from Forum Marinum. The Karjala was one of the first Finnish built warships after World War II along with its classmate the Turunmaa, constructed between 1963 and 1968. I took a look on board and was astonished by the fascinating story waiting to be discovered…

The Karjala

Although the Turunmaa class gas-turbine powered gunboats were originally designed to suit the needs of the Finnish archipelago their state of the art electronics and propulsion systems drew much international attention. The design was seen as a terrific export opportunity for the Wärtsilä shipyard, but despite talks with Ethiopia and Venezuela this led nowhere. The authorities did not grant Wärtsilä an export licence, fearing how the Soviet Union would view Finland muscling in on their territory.

The Karjala had a massive crew for its size (a total of 70, split between 30 regulars and 40 conscripts) and a wander around the decks soon revealed beds everywhere that it was possible to squeeze them in. The ship was preserved just as it was when it was decommissioned in 2002, bar the personal possessions. Today, the extensive accommodation is a plus point with the bunk beds seeing use for volunteers during big events such as the Tall Ships race.

The ship has certainly had its moments of drama. On the positive side they successfully shot down a missile they had fired themselves. On the negative side the ship had a near disaster in 1970 when a shell exploded while being loaded in the Bofors 120mm gun. The explosion sent part of the shell flying backwards through the ship and into a recently vacated toilet at knee level. Astonishingly no-one was killed. Three crew members were injured.

The Karjala saw service with the Finnish navy from 1969 until 2002.

The minelayer Keihässalmi

Other warships on display nearby, on the water and in the open air shed of the Forum Marinum, include the Wilhelm Carpelan (a transport vessel built for the Imperial Russian Navy, which served with the Finnish navy until 1977); the motor torpedo boat Tyrsky (built during WWII and later converted for use as a patrol boat); a 1930s coastal defence ship, the Ilmarinen.

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Eight highlights from Turku

Posted in Finland, Turku by folkestonejack on July 5, 2019

Our stay in Turku was packed full of museums, art galleries and historic sights. Our pick of eight highlights reflects what we found the most interesting – sometimes quite unexpectedly so!

Turku Castle

Turku Castle has a history stretching back over 700 years, guarding the mouth of the Aura river and the approach to Turku. At its peak Turku Castle was the centre of power in Finland and the entire Swedish Empire, as well as being one of the most impressive castles in the Nordic region.

The castle followed the familiar path from medieval stronghold to renaissance palace, peaking in the late 1550s with the creation of richly decorated salons for the 18 year old regent, Johan, Duke of Finland. Once all the renovations were complete in 1588 the castle boasted 165 rooms. The glory days of the palace were remarkably short lived. The castle went into a steady decline following a terrible fire in 1614 that destroyed all the wooden interiors and fittings.

Turku Castle

The castle would go through a series of new uses that saw it adapted as a crown distillery, prison, garrison and storehouse in its later history. It was converted into a museum in the 1880s but plans for a full restoration were thwarted by the Soviet bombing of the castle on the first day of the Continuation War in 1941. The incendiary bombs spared little, destroying the roofs, the wooden structures of the interior and the 18th century castle church. The castle was once again left in ruins.

The restoration between 1946 and 1961 largely adopted a minimal modern Finnish design, though the chapel was fully restored to its original appearance. It makes an interesting change from the well-preserved or heavily restored castles that I have seen in other locations. We spent a good few hours wandering around the medieval and renaissance wings of the castle.

The Queen’s Hall

A terrific display of models helps explain the development of the castle and the displays in the bailey add to this with plenty of historical detail.

The latest temporary exhibition in the castle, A few words about Women, runs from 8th March 2019 until 8th March 2020. It’s well worth spending some time discovering the fascinating life stories of six women in 17th century Turku who ran successful businesses and worked as notable employers. One of the women featured was the ancestor of our family friend in Helsinki, adding an extra element of interest for us!

Turku Cathedral and Cathedral Museum

Turku Cathedral was consecrated on 17th June 1300 and since then has been the most important religious building in Finland, befitting of the most important city in the country for most of its existence (the capital only moved to Helsinki in 1812). The fire that ravaged the city in 1827 made no exception for the cathedral – the interior and the roof of the cathedral were destroyed.

The cathedral was refurnished after the fire, so much of the interior decoration can be dated to the next three decades – such as the beautiful ceiling frescoes in the altar choir painted by Robert Wilhelm Ekman between 1845 and 1854. The cathedral museum holds some of the rare items not to have perished in fire or pillaged in war, included a 17th century funeral coat of arms salvaged from the fire.

Turku Cathedral

Many important figures from Finnish history are buried inside the cathedral, including military commanders, bishops and royalty. However, we were looking for the Schulz ancestors of our longtime family friend in Helsinki – discovering their tombstones on the floor in front of the altar and just inside the entrance. It was hard to imagine a more prominent position!

Forum Marinum

Forum Marinum is a pretty extensive maritime museum by any reckoning, comprising two exhibition halls taking in an impressive sweep of maritime history that covers the ferries of the Baltic Sea, the Finnish navy and much more besides. The museum also has a collection of over 100 ships and some of these can be visited at the riverside in the summer months, including the tall ship Suomen Joutsen, the the barque Sigyn, the passenger ship Bore, the corvette Karjala and the minelayer Keihässalmi.

One of the museum curators took some time to tell us about the astonishing collection of in-board and out-board motors. If you told me that I would pick this out as a highlight of our visit to Turku before we arrived I would have suggested that you were nuts, but it really is quite something else to enter a three storey tall room and see motors on display in every inch of space available.

A small selection of the 300+ outdoor motors

One collector is behind this incredible display, Jouko Kurri, which spans 17 countries and a period of over 70 years. When the collection was first presented here there were 150 motors, but today there are 312 and no room for any more. It is apparently a devil of a job to catalogue and it’s not hard to see why!

The collection holds so many interesting stories, from Soviet attempts to copy successful western designs through to motors that double up as chainsaws. However, my favourite would have to be the rarest – a wooden outboard motor created by a farmer in the early 20th century. The farmer had watched rich city dwellers heading to their summer houses by motor boat at the weekend and thought – why should they be the only ones to be able to do this? Impressive stuff.

Amphibian 3000 hydrocopter

The museum is overflowing with ships – outside the museum, throughout the museum halls, on the river and in a sheltered open air gallery. One of my favourites was the Amphibian 3000 border patrol vehicle which could be used on water, land and on ice! The hydrocopter on display was built in 1979 and saw service with the Hiittinen coastguard station until 2002.

Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova

The Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova is a museum of history and contemporary art, built around the Aboa Vetus’ archaeological site. Once you descend to the basement level you find yourself wandering the ruins of six medieval buildings, once home to the wealthy merchants whose grand houses were prominently positioned near the waterfront in the Convent Quarter (including the preserved vaulted cellar of the Schulz family).

Biological Museum

The Biological Museum was one of our quirkier visits from our trip and one that we were lucky to be able to get into, as the museum has only recently re-opened after water damage that saw it close for renovations for around a year.

The Biological Museum

It’s a small museum housed in a beautiful wooden building (constructed in the National Romantic style) which presents 13 dioramas that show the wonders of Finland’s natural world from the Turku archipelago to Lapland. It doesn’t take long to walk around. A large part of the charm of the museum is that it hasn’t changed since it opened in 1907. Some might not see this as a plus, but so long as you don’t mind seeing stuffed animals in beautifully set out landscape scenes you should be alright.

Museum diorama

A sheet with the English names for the animals is available from the reception desk and we had fun learning some of the Finnish names for animals along the way.

Kakolanmäki Hill Museum

The Kakolanmäki district is currently undergoing a hefty amount of transformation as the former prison buildings (out of use since 2007) are in the process of being converted into luxury apartments. There is a brand new funicular up the hill, with something of a troubled history, but when we visited it was out of order so we took the zig-zagging path up the hill. At the top the locals we spoke to denied any knowledge of a prison museum, leaving us scratching our heads for a bit.

In the end we stumbled across the museum by accident. It turned out that we needed to ignore the main prison block and head to Cafe Kakola (Kakolankruunu) and speak to the cafe owner. The museum, open only in the summer months, is located in a stable block in the grounds of the old prison director’s house which the cafe owner has to unlock for you to get inside. Three rooms explain the fascinating history of the museum, illustrated with photos and a few exhibits.

Kakolanmäki Hill Museum

The story the museum tells is fascinating. The prison was built by convicts imprisoned in Turku Castle with the first detainees transferred in 1859. The prisoners were employed quarrying the distinctive Kakola granite and when this ended the quarry was filled in with water and used as a pool, complete with springboard, nicknamed ‘the Kakola Riviera’. The prison closed in 2007.

St Michael´s Church

St Michael’s church (Mikaelinkirkko) is an unusual mix of styles. On the outside you have a red-brick, neo-gothic design, but on the inside you have a much warmer art nouveau design.

The church was the creation of Lars Sonck, a 24-year-old architectural student, whose successful design caused much consternation when it won the competition to design the new church in 1894. Although little known at the time, Lars Sonck would go on to be one of the foremost proponents of National Romanticism alongside Eliel Saarinen. Sonck was responsible for many of the most significant buildings in Finland including Tampere Cathedral and Kallio Church in Helsinki.

Interior of St Michael’s church, Turku

The church was damaged in the Winter War of 1939-40, depriving us of the original art nouveau windows, while later works in the interior saw other art nouveau features painted over in an attempt to match the interior to the gothic exterior. Thankfully, these changes were reversed in the restoration of the 1960s. The interior is quite simply stunning and well worth seeking out.

Luostarinmäki handicrafts museum

The open air museum at Luostarinmäki allows you to wander the streets of nineteenth century Turku and step into some of the oldest wooden buildings in the city. Unlike most other museums of this type, these 200 year old buildings are still in their original location, an area spared by the great fire of 1827.

The long term survival of these buildings was not guaranteed. The town planners charged with re-building Turku saw the district as a fire hazard and planned to demolish the cottages. The slow progress with this work provided the opportunity for preservation.

Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum

The first proposal for the museum was made in 1908 in the wake of the loss of other wooden buildings in the district, but it took a while for the idea to gain acceptance and it was not until 1940 that the museum opened to the public. Unusually, when the museum first opened there were still people living in some of the houses that their families had occupied for over 100 years. Over time these passed to the museum as generous bequests.

Sometimes these places feel like deserted ghost towns, but not at Luostarinmäki. Most of the buildings we took a look in had costumed museum staff on hand, ready to explain the crafts they were engaged in.

In addition to the sights listed here, we made visits to a couple of art galleries (the Turku Art Museum and the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art) and enjoyed a visit to the Sibelius Museum. All very enjoyable.

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Two days in Turku

Posted in Finland, Turku by folkestonejack on July 5, 2019

Our two day stay in Turku gave us a good opportunity to see most of the sights, armed with a Turku museum walk card (available at a cost of 38 euros from the Tourist information centre). It was a little too ambitious to fit everything in to the time we had – we could really have done with a little longer to wander round the museum ships and there were a couple of museums we never made it to. However, we thoroughly enjoyed what we were able to see.

Harmonia (Achim Kühn, 1996)

On our first day in the city we took the number 1 bus (a handy bus which runs from the airport to the harbour, via the city centre) to Turku Castle to start our day of sightseeing and then steadily worked our way back along the sights on the western side of the river taking us to the Forum Marinum, Kakolanmäki Hill Museum, St Michael´s Church and Turku Art Gallery. I was hoping to try out the troubled new funicular up the Kakolanmäki Hill that received global media attention for all the wrong reasons, but it seemed to be out of order when we stopped by.

The Museum Walk card worked out pretty well, though we discovered that it didn’t cover the museum ships at the Forum Marinum, so we needed to pay a bit extra to see the Karjala corvette and the Keihässalmi minelayer. If we had wanted to see all the museum ships it would have been cheaper to pay for a full museum and ships ticket, but it worked out fine for us as we simply didn’t have time in our tight schedule to see all the ships.

Along the way we caught some of the sights from the Sculpture Trail, such as Harmonia by Achim Kühn, which resembles the tail of a whale diving underwater. The 280 hand-forged stainless steel plates that make up the tail were specially treated to show variances in colour, making it stunningly beautiful when it catches the light. One of the more surprising sights was a statue of Lenin which was apparently a gift from Turku’s twin city, unveiled on Leningrad Day in 1977.

One of the art nouveau marvels in Turku

In addition to outdoor artworks, there are many architectural marvels around the city. I was surprised to see just how many art nouveau buildings could be seen around the city, including the Market Hall (1896), an apartment block on the Aura that housed the Turku City Offices for a few decades (1908) and the former bank (1907) designed by Frithiof Strandell. There is a good walking tour of the art nouveau buildings described in the article Kävelykierros jugendtalojen Turussa from the Turun Sanomat.

Turku offers many maritime treats, including riverboat restaurants, tourist boats and museum ships moored all along the river Aura. It makes a walk along the riverside a pleasure. I took a walk out one morning from our hotel, the Radisson Blu Marina Palace, along the eastern bank of the Aura as far as the expensive apartments at Viimeinen ropo 2, which gave some superb views over the museum ships, the Viking Line terminal and Turku Castle. I hope the residents have hard hats as the seagulls that attacked me here were pretty vicious!

It is easy to switch between each bank using the bridges in the city centre or Föri, the free foot/bicycle ferry, which is roughly ten minutes walk away from the maritime museum. Föri shuttles back and forth between 6.15am and 11pm in the summer months, taking just a couple of minutes to complete the crossing. I would never have guessed that the cute little orange ferry is over 100 years old and was originally steam powered (switching to diesel in 1953). It’s a neat way to get a different view of the river.

Föri

Our second day started at Turku Cathedral (and the Cathedral Museum) and then took us on to Luostarinmäki handicrafts museum (an open air museum of historic buildings spared from the Great Fire of Turku in 1827), the Biological Museum, the Wäinö Aaltonen Gallery, Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova and the Sibelius Museum. As we had to catch the train to Helsinki in the late afternoon it was a little bit of a squeeze.

Overall, our trip worked out well but was inevitably constrained by the need to keep our travels in Estonia and Finland to around a week. I had also rather underestimated the time you need for a visit to Turku! If I were repeating the trip I would look at a minimum of three full days and perhaps look at some of the boat trips to the fortress island of Örö or to Naantali. Maybe we’ll make a return when the planned interactive Museum of History opens in 2029 to coincide with Turku’s 800th anniversary!

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Ferry through the archipelago

Posted in Åland, Finland, Mariehamn, Turku by folkestonejack on July 3, 2019

Our short stay in the Åland islands came to an end all too quickly. We picked up our cases from the hotel in the city centre and made the fifteen minute walk to the ferry terminal at Västerhamn, checked in and waited for our ships to arrive. You might think that the middle of the afternoon would be a relatively quiet time at the terminal, but not a bit of it. There is actually something of a mini rush hour which sees four ships comes and go within a half hour window.

A view of the Amorella at Mariehamn from the top deck of the Viking Grace

Two Tallink-Silja ships were in when we arrived – the Baltic Princess, bound for Turku, and the Silja Galaxy, bound for Stockholm. Fifteen minutes after they left their berths were taken up by two Viking Line ships – the Viking Grace, bound for Turku, and the Amorella, bound for Stockholm. The boarding gates for both Viking Line ships opened at the same time, with a brief pause on the passenger walkway while the connection to the ships was established.

Our travels would take us on the Viking Grace to Turku, a journey which takes around five and a half hours. It was notable that there were more passengers and cars on this daytime crossing than we had seen in the early hours of the morning, but we were still only talking about something like 30 foot passengers. On this occasion we had booked a cheap but rather smart inside cabin to store our bags and as a retreat for the less enthusiastic ship-goer! We were on board at 14.10, ready for the 14.25 departure.

The Amorella heads away from Kobba Klintar towards Stockholm

The Amorella left first, closely followed by our ship. It was lovely to get a daylight view of the harbour, which I have only seen in the low light of the evening and early morning. A few teenagers sprawled out on the concrete towers along the coast watching as our ship passed by. We followed the Amorella as far as Kobba Klintar and there our paths diverged, with the ships going either side of the famous rocky outpost.

The Viking Grace is an interesting ship with a number of measures designed to minimise her impact on the environment, powered by sulphur-free liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hydrodynamic design of the hull helps to minimise waves which makes a big difference in the five hours or so that she spends in the Turku archipelago. However, the The most most visually impressive feature of the Viking Grace is a 24 metre high rotating sail.

The rotating sail uses the Magnus effect to reduce fuel consumption. I was astonished to learn that this technology was originally devised in the 1920s and that the first rotor ship crossed the Atlantic in 1926! The winds were quite blustery on our crossing, resulting in the rotor sail spinning faster and faster. As we set off you could easily read the words printed on the sail but once we were midway that became an impossibility. Perfect conditions for a bit of fuel saving!

The impressive rotor sail on the Viking Grace

It slightly screwed with my head that we were starting in a location running on Finnish time, heading to a destination running on Finnish time, but had a late-lunch (or was it early dinner!?) sitting timetabled in Swedish time. Our meal was booked in the Aurora, one of seven restaurants on board, which serves a buffet. If you have booked in advance you get a meal coupon at checkin which has your table number printed on it, so there’s no need to worry if you are not part of the initial surge into the restaurant on opening. So far I have been impressed with the food offering on every crossing we’ve made in the Baltic and this was no exception.

The Viking Line buffet offered a vast and utterly marvelous array of dishes – lots of variations on herring (such as aquavit and juniper flavoured dill herring; pickled fried herring with leek; and blueberry herring) and an assortment of fish, meat and vegetarian dishes. Alongside this were some tasty specialty breads (such as nettle+buck wheat crispbread and black bread from Aland), cheeses (great with the sea buckthorn and apple marmalade on offer); small desserts and macarons. All washed down with lingonberry juice and Lapin Kulta beer. It all seemed much better organised and replenished than the Tallink equivalent we had experienced a few days earlier.

The rocky islet of Loistokari in the archipelago

The Turku Archipelago made quite a sight, so much so that I found it hard to stay away from the upper decks to soak up the view. The archipelago is made up of between 20,000 and 50,000 islands and skerries (estimates in the sources I read seemed to vary wildly), which stretch all the way from the Åland Islands to Turku. Many are in a pristine natural state, while others were populated with wonderfully positioned summer homes a few steps away from the water.

On our passage through the archipelago we caught sight of a few interesting ships such as the FinFerries commuter ferry Stella which operates between Korpo and Houtskär. In these waters FinFerries and Rolls-Royce have been conducting some fascinating work, leading to the launch of the first autonomous ferries in the archipelago. The first autonomous ship, Falco, can conduct its voyage without human intervention but a captain monitoring the autonomous operations from an office in the city centre of Turku can take over at any point if required.

Other ships we saw in the archipelago included the tourist ship M/S Rudolfina, the vintage steamer S/S Ukkopekka and the cargo ship Fjardvagen. On our approach to the port of Turku we could also see the Silja line ship that had left Mariehamn just before us, the Baltic Princess.

The Viking Line terminal at Turku

Our ship arrived in Turku just before 8pm and for convenience we jumped in a taxi for the relatively short ride to our hotel – the Radisson Blu Marina Palace. I would like to say that I chilled out in our room but the evening light was too perfect to resist. I walked back nearly all the way to the port to take some photographs of more ships!

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Highlights of Mariehamn

Posted in Åland, Mariehamn by folkestonejack on July 3, 2019

Over one and half days we found time to visit the sights of Mariehamn, slotted around an outing to Kastelholm. The compact nature of the capital, positioned on a narrow peninsula, makes it very easy to get around. Indeed, it takes just 15 minutes to walk from one side of the city to the other. It’s a charming city too, with many pretty nineteenth century/early twentieth century wooden houses to admire.

The only place we didn’t spend much time at was the Maritime Quarter, though we did get a chance to wander the shoreline here in the early hours of the morning. We attempted to take a look at the small seafarers chapel at the end of the pier here until a dive-bombing seagull stopped us in our tracks. A second attempt 24 hours later was no more successful – we took the hint from a series of low-flying swoops and some pretty loud screeching!

Model Town Mariehamn
Modellstaden Mariehamn

The scant information I had discovered online for the Modellstaden Mariehamn had said that it was located in Mathis Hallen’s basement in the corner of Norragatan-Ålandsvägen and operated fairly limited opening hours. I conjured up a vision of a model town in the basement of an elderly gentleman, so I was highly amused to discover that Mathis Hallen was actually Mariehamn’s largest supermarket!

The entrance to the model town

The set up that awaited in the extensive basement was far more impressive than anything I could have imagined. The entire space was filled with glass cabinets that presented a vision of the city in the 1920s that includes more than 600 detailed buildings. I soon discovered that this was the result of 30 years work by a group of pensioners in Mariehamn, which has been only been on display to the public since 2015.

I could see that the enthusiastic volunteers were proud of their masterpiece and rightly so. One chap took the time to point out to us the school he attended and recalled that the doors were locked dead on 8 o’clock each morning and if you were not in on time you had to wait outside in the cold. After five years he had enough and went to sea!

Mariehamn in the 1920s

The city was founded in 1861 so most of what you can see was constructed in the architectural styles of the late 19th/early 20th century, much of which is still very recognisable. We had not seen enough of Mariehamn to appreciate what we were looking at when we went in, but once we started walking around the city afterwards we started to spot the beautiful buildings that we had seen in miniature. Quite marvelous.

The model town is open to visitors this year each day from 1st June until 31st August between 12pm and 4pm. Entry is free.

Aland Maritime Museum and Museumship Pommern
Ålands sjöfartsmuseum och fartyget Pommern

The Pommern is the star attraction of Mariehamn. A four-masted and iron-hulled merchant sailing ship built in 1903 by by John Reid and Co of Glasgow. The first owners of the Pommern were the the German shipping company F. Laeisz of Hamburg whose ships acquired the nickname of the Flying P-Liners on account of their speed. The company sold off many of their older ships in the 1920s and the Pommern was acquired by Åland shipowner Gustaf Erikson in 1923.

Museum ship Pommern

Once on board the rather enjoyable audio commentary talked us through the story of the Pommern’s voyages to Australia on the grain run. The Pommern won the grain races twice, in 1930 and 1937, with many of the other races going to other Flying P-Liners in Finnish ownership. Inside the ship there are a few more interactive displays and an audio-visual re-creation of a storm at sea.

The maritime museum next door holds plenty of interest too. Among the highlights is the preserved cabin of the Herzogin Cecilie, a four time winner of the grain race, which was inexplicably beached off the coast of Devon in 1936. Attempts to save the ship failed and the ship was wrecked. The ship owner, Gustaf Erikson, had the salvageable parts of the ship transported back to Åland, including the captain’s saloon.

Other exhibits on display include one of only two authentic skull and crossbones pirate flags known to exist (a real curiosity, at 200 years old and now faded from black to light brown) and yet more of those porcelain Staffordshire dogs that seem to be everywhere in Scandinavia!

Åland Cultural History Museum and Åland Art Museum
Ålands Kulturhistoriska Museum och Ålands konstmuseum

Two museums in one – one telling the history of the Åland islands and the other presenting the art collection of Åland. It was fascinating to discover the complex path the islands have taken to the autonomous and demilitarised status of the present day. There are enough exhibits on display help to tell the story in an engaging way without it being overwhelming. The importance of the passenger traffic between Stockholm and Helsinki is mentioned again here and I never tire of seeing models of Viking Line ships (there were plenty in the maritime museum too).

Ålands Kulturhistoriska Museum och Ålands konstmuseum

I wouldn’t say that much of the art grabbed me, but there were individual pieces that grabbed my attention. There are only a couple of rooms to wander through so it doesn’t take long to have a look around.

Ångbåtsbryggan Adventure Golf

I always enjoy a good game of crazy golf and this course is among the crazier that I have seen. There are 2 courses of 9 holes, each with some challenging holes, which together make for a very enjoyable game. The cost of entry was 8 euros per adult for 18 holes, payable at the bar (the course is in the grounds of a pub).

Ångbåtsbryggan Adventure Golf

Quite a mad course with many crazy and near impossible shots which ends with a shot to get your ball through a tunnel up and over a bridge onto an island. The fact that a net is provided to fish balls out of the water gives you some indication of the failure rate! I reached the maximum allowed shots on a few holes, failed to get anywhere near the hole on a few others and my ball had to be fished out of the water twice at the final hole. However, I still only narrowly lost!

Robot man and dog

One of the coolest surprises on our wanders through Mariehamn was the discovery of a robot man and dog standing guard outside Övernäs school. The robots are the work of artist Johan Karlsson and have proved a popular addition according to news reports. Another of his creations was on display in Ålands art museum at the time of our visit.

Robot man and dog in Mariehamn

St Görans church

The church of St Görans was completed in 1927 and sits at the very heart of the city, on Norra Esplanadgatan, surrounded by green spaces. The building was designed by local architect Lars Sonck with striking ceiling paintings by Bruno Tuukkanen, perhaps better known for designing the Finnish flag.

St Görans church in Mariehamn

One of the three bells in the church was originally to be found in the garrison church at Bomarsund, but was taken back to England as a trophy of victory after the surrender of the fortress. The bell remained in the Tower of London until it was returned to Åland in 1925.

Post Office

Åland has issued its own stamps since 1984 and they make great souvenirs. It’s worth dropping in to the Post Office to see what stamps are on sale. The designs are usually rather splendid, such as the sets showing the passenger ferries familiar to the waters of Åland.

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36 hours in the Åland Islands

Posted in Åland, Bomarsund, Kastelholm, Mariehamn by folkestonejack on July 3, 2019

A day and a half in the Åland Islands was never going to be enough to cover much ground, but we made the most of our time in the islands to cram in some historic sights, museums, art and a game of minigolf.

Our early start, arriving on the early morning ferry, gave us an opportunity to wander the streets before most folk were up and about. It’s not exactly the busiest during the working day, so it was eerily quiet at this time with just the occasional cyclist and dog walker to give us any indication that people lived in the city! It was a good way to get our bearings and pick up on some sights that our information had omitted.

Kastelholm

The first day’s sightseeing began in earnest with a trip to Kastelholm in Sund district, half an hour by bus from Mariehamn. This was fairly straightforward, but I had misread the timetable. The schedule for buses from Monday-Friday includes a note that shows that the first bus of the day on this route is at 7.55 on a Monday and 9.30 on Tuesdays-Friday. Thankfully a friendly bus driver put us out of our misery and we returned at the right time.

Take the bus to Kastelholm

The buses are actually very comfortable coaches and the no 4 bus towards Hummelvik deposited us at Kastelholm at 10.02, just after opening. It was a terrific way to see a bit of the countryside with the occasional treat, such as the medieval St. Olaf’s Church in Jomala, possibly the oldest church in Finland. You couldn’t miss the stop for Kastelholm either – the stone buildings really stood out against the surrounding countryside.

Kastelholm offers three sights in close proximity – a castle, a prison museum and an open air museum. On their own all are fairly modest attractions but the combination works quite nicely, especially if you factor in some food at the rather lovely Jan Karlsgårdens Wärdshus (a cafe associated with the highly rated restaurant Smakbyn). The infrequent bus timetable makes timings a little tricky – we had a choice between 1 hour or 3 hours and opted for the latter. Too much time, rather than too little.

Kastelholm Castle

The origins of the castle at Kastelholm are a little unclear, but a first reference to ‘Kastelholm House’ in 1388 is thought to be the first evidence of the existence of the fortified stronghold. In its time it has seen some famous visitors, notably Gustav Vasa, the founder of modern Sweden, who stayed with his family for a couple of months in 1556. Gustav’s son John later chose to imprison his deposed brother Eric here for a while.

Kastelholm Castle

The castle was dropped from the royal property portfolio in the 1630s and its steady fall in importance eventually saw it used as a grain store. Only in the twentieth century did the castle get the love and attention it needed, making the ruins one of the most recognisable tourist attractions in the islands. It doesn’t take long to follow the circuit around the castle and get a sense of how it all fitted together.

The Crown Prison – Vita Björn

Vita Björn was constructed around 1783 and served as a prison for almost 200 years. It’s the oldest building of its type in Finland and today presents four custody rooms furnished as they would have been in the early 1800s, 1850s, early 1900s and the 1950s.

Inside the Crown Prison – Vita Björn

I was astonished to learn that it was part prison and part family home, with the warder’s family living in the opposite end of the property. You can get a little sense of that in the presentation of the warder’s dwelling, bedroom and children’s playroom as they would have appeared in the late 19th century. Even stranger, we learnt that one of the custody rooms was used by the family when empty. Strange to think of a family home expanding and contracting depending on the level of crime in the area!

Jan Karlsgården open air museum

The open air museum, established at Kastelholm in the 1930s, was rather lovely. The museum gathers together around 20 buildings from across the Åland Islands, including three windmills arranged on the rocks overlooking the site.

The museum takes its name from the most impressive building, a farmhouse from Jan Karls of Bamböle, Finström parish, which was moved to the site in 1934. It’s worth taking a good look inside to see the parlour which is painted with wonderful painted landscapes, copies of 19th century originals from Västergårds in Bamböle. It’s beautifully light and feels incredibly liveable, unlike many of the dark spaces you tend to see in open air museums like this.

Jan Karlsgården open air museum

Other buildings around the site included a granary on posts, a loft shed, a kiln with a horse-drawn thresher, a smoke sauna, a boat shed, a splashmill and a brightly decorated midsummer pole featuring the colours of the Åland flag.

Jan Karlsgårdens Wärdshus

A mid-morning stop at the Jan Karlsgårdens Wärdshus gave us an opportunity to try some of the wonderful pastries baked on site, such as a lemon and elderflower filled doughnut-ish delight. The welcoming host in the cafe took the time to explain the background to the dishes and drinks to us which we really appreciated. Everything looked really good!

It was a measure of how good the cafe was, as well as how much time we had to kill, that we came back for lunch. On our second visit we opted to try the Åland pancake. Not really like a pancake as we would think of it in Britain, but instead a chunky baked pudding made with semolina porridge and cardamom, served with cream and stewed prunes. Not exactly sweet, but tasty and very filling. A one off taste sampling I think.

We washed this down with a couple of bottles of Åland Munkcider, a non-alcoholic drink made with apples and gooseberries by Peders Aplagard. This was apparently inspired by the Franciscan monastery on Kökar Island, one of the outermost eastern Åland islands. A surprising but very refreshing taste.

Aland Pancake

Mariehamn

The afternoon bus dropped us back in Mariehamn just a little before 3pm, giving us time enough to visit a handful of sights – the Modellstaden Mariehamn; St Görans church; Ålands Kulturhistoriska Museum; Åland Art Museum; and Ångbåtsbryggan Adventure Golf. We probably wouldn’t have picked up on the latter if we hadn’t spent hours wandering the city in the early morning light, spotting the striking crazy golf course on a walk down to the Lilla Holmen park/bird sanctuary.

On our second day in Åland we visited the Åland Maritime Museum and the Museumship Pommern. Our wanders allowed us to see the city afresh, spotting many of the buildings we had seen in the model town. At the time it felt like the model town was from a distant time, but increasingly we saw that the city had not changed as much as we might have first thought. Our wanders also revealed one of the quirkier sights of the city – a robot man and dog outside one of the city schools.

I will explore the sights of Mariehamn in a bit more detail in the next post. However, our overall impression was that a couple of days in Åland works really well as a stopover and we loved the calm feel of the place. I still can’t quite get over the considerate nature of the local road users in the islands and can see why cycling holidays are really popular here.

With a bit more time, would have been good to work in a visit to the ruins of Bomarsund, a Russian fortress, just a short way down the road from Kastelholm. The original plans for a grand fortress never came to full fruition, but the part that was built – a main fortress with 162 casemates and a floorspace of 18,000 square metres, is still the largest building ever to have been constructed in the Åland islands. The construction works continued over a 23 year period from 1830 to 1853.

Bomarsund was put to the test with the outbreak of the Crimean War. In August 1854 the fortress was surrounded by a combined Anglo-French fleet of 25 warships. The uneven battle saw 21,000 British and French soldiers pitted against 2200 Russian and Finnish soldiers inside the fortress, eventually culminating in a brutal bombardment of the main fort. The commander had no choice but to surrender. As the victors did not wish to maintain a force in the region the decision was made to demolish the fortress.

Today, the ruins can be explored and a small exhibition can be visited in the old pilot house on Prästö. It should be possible to combine this with a visit to Kastelholm by bus but it only really works well with the current timetable on Mondays (with the 07.55 morning bus from Mariehamn to Bomarsund, then the 10:08 bus back which gets to Kastelholm at 10:14). Unfortunately we were visiting on a Tuesday, so we were out of luck!

It would also have been quite nice to visit Kobba Klintar, a small island in the Åland sea with a pilot station which makes a popular boat trip from Mariehamn.

Practicalities

Around 2 million tourists visit the Åland Islands each year and 88% come from Finland or Sweden. Hardly surprising given the ease of the transport connections between the two countries.

Our itinerary was planned around a weekday stay in the Åland Islands as the bus schedule at the weekends is very limited. We took the number 4 bus from the bus station in Mariehamn (in essence 4 bus lanes and a modest shelter at the northern end of the city) to Kastelholm at a cost of 3.40 euros each way.

The scenic bus stop at Kastelholm

Kastelholm Castle and Vita Björn is usually only open in the summer months. In 2019 the schedule saw the museums open from the beginning of May to mid-September. We picked up a combination ticket for 10 euros that covered both attractions and the Åland Museum of Culture and History + Åland Museum of Art in Mariehamn (a saving of 5 euros).

It was a little hard to gauge the number of tourists in town during our stay as two cruise ships were in port at Mariehamn – a relatively rare occurrence with just 24 cruise ship calls scheduled for 2019. Still, it didn’t feel too crowded despite the cruise ship passengers on our first day equating to around 12% of the population of Mariehamn.

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Next stop: Mariehamn

Posted in Åland, Mariehamn by folkestonejack on July 2, 2019

One of my travel ambitions as a 12 year old was to visit the Åland Islands, an autonomous region in Finland made up of over 6,700 islands and with a Swedish speaking population of around 30,000. If that seems like a rather peculiar ambition, it has to be said that this came off the back of a trip across Europe to Helsinki that had an enormous influence on me at a very impressionable age!

It has taken a while to get around to this, but our travels around the Baltic this year gave us an opportunity to enjoy a short stay in the capital, Mariehamn, and see a little of the surrounding countryside.

Our ferry from Tallinn to Mariehamn: The Baltic Queen

Ferries from Stockholm to Helsinki, Turku and Tallinn all make a stop in the Åland Islands. The stop was handy for us, but its primary purpose is to allow the ships to take advantage of the special tax status of the islands and offer duty free goods to passengers. Needless to say, all the ships plying this route have massive on-board stores!

Our journey to the Åland Islands began with the 6pm sailing of the Tallink ferry Baltic Queen from Tallinn to Stockholm. It’s a big ship with the capacity to take 2800 passengers. It probably wasn’t at its busiest, but it was by no means quiet. Yet, when we reached Mariehamn at 4.40 in the morning just 5 passengers (including us) walked off!

The view as we approached Mariehamn in the early hours of the morning

The terminal is a very short walk from the city centre so we took this at a leisurely pace and then stored our bags at the hotel, ready for an afternoon check in. Time to explore…

Practicalities

We were a little unclear about some of the detail of our ferry trip, so I hope this is of some use to our fellow travelers…

The Tallink ferries depart from Terminal D in Tallinn. At the time we traveled the terminal was being re-developed, which makes it pretty crowded just before a ferry sailing. In effect, this work means that most of the floor space is closed off until Summer 2020 so it’s not a space you want to arrive too early at.

Boarding for the Stockholm sailing of the Baltic Queen opened at 16.30 (i.e. 90 minutes ahead of departure). The self-service machines were easy enough to use to print our boarding passes which double as cabin passes. Ours never worked in the cabin doors so we had to get them re-printed at the information desk when we were on board. All very easily done.

All the information we had seen in the build up to our trip had stressed that there would be no announcements on board the ship for our arrival at Mariehamn and that it was down to us to be at the disembarkation gate ten minutes before our arrival. In practice, a member of staff knocked on our door and shouted Mariehamn five times!

Once we were up and about we were soon directed towards the door that would be used for disembarkation. Another member of staff was checking off names against a list. I suspect that they would have worked out quite quickly if someone was missing.

Display board in the terminal at Mariehamn

The ship really doesn’t stay very long at that time of night – just ten minutes at most. By the time we had made our way into the terminal building the ship was already heading off to Stockholm.

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Unexpected discoveries in Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

Every trip has its unexpected moments – a new taste, a new discovery or a new perspective on something familiar. Our trip to Tallinn had all three. I thought I would pick up on a few of those.

Ice yachting

I had never come across ice-yachting before I visited the the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour. The yachts on display looked fascinating, and the moment I saw some footage I was completely enthralled. I was left wondering how I had never been aware that such a thrilling sport existed. The way that the yachts glide so gracefully over the glistening ice is quite extraordinary.

Porcelain dogs

Scandinavian sailors had a thing about buying pairs of porcelain Staffordshire dogs when they stopped off in English ports as a sign of devotion to their wives. I’m not sure this was entirely in the interests of the sailors if the caption in the museum was true – apparently dogs arranged in the window looking out to sea were a sign that a wife was on her own and in need of some company!

The must have purchase for Scandinavian seamen

I had never heard this before and certainly not seen any mention of it in maritime museums I had visited in the British Isles. However, it clearly was a Scandinavian tradition as we would go on to discover porcelain Staffordshire dogs on display in museums in Mariehamn, Turku and Helsinki. Strange how something familiar turns up in a completely different context.

Surprising tastes

In our short stay we sampled some incredible dishes at two rather wonderful restaurants which I would recommend without any hesitation.

The first of these was Kaks Kokka which served up an incredible five course tasting menu which managed to make a dish out of five variations on cauliflower. However, the absolute star dish was undeniably a juniper creme brulee served with gin and tonic gel.

The second was Rataskaevu 16 which served up the most remarkable frozen blue cheese cake (yes, it’s really made with blue cheese!). I would never have guessed that this could work so well. It was a very subtle but unmissable flavour and is absolutely divine. The rest of the meal was pretty superb too, but the dessert was definitely the highlight.

Gelato Ladies

A hot day prompted a frantic online search by my heat-averse travelling companion until the nearest source of rescue was identified – Gelato Ladies. This small shop did more than just revive with some rather incredible home made ice cream. I opted for two scoops – rhubarb and elderflower+mint – which were simply incredible. It’s definitely worth seeking out.

Traces of Soviet Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

Estonia has a complex history which has seen it occupied and invaded by many forces over the past centuries, with just a short lived spell of independence between 1918 and 1940. It was not until August 1991 that independence returned with the restoration of the Republic of Estonia.

In common with the other Baltic states Estonia has removed many of the more obvious monuments of Soviet domination, but I was curious to see how much remained.

Architectural survivors

In the preparations for our trip I got the impression that Tallinn had acted faster than other places to remove the symbols of its communist past, so I was slightly surprised to see the familiar communist star in place on a number of apartment buildings and freshly re-painted atop the MyCity Hotel. The neo-classical Russian Cultural Centre (formerly the Naval Officers’ House) from 1954 sports a hammer and sickle high up.

Apartment block (1954) on the Tartu Highway

Symbols or no symbols, nothing could disguise the surviving works of stalinist architecture in the city such as the Soprus cinema (designed 1951, built 1955) and some of the crumbling residential apartment blocks on the Tartu Highway.

In a similar fashion the concrete structures of Linnahall (formerly the V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sports), the heavily planned apartment blocks of Väike-Õismäe (which we accidentally visited after catching the wrong bus) and the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds are other examples that will be very familiar to anyone who has traveled in the former Soviet republics and their neighbouring eastern bloc countries.

The Bronze Soldier

The statue of the Bronze Soldier, officially unveiled in 1947 as the Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn, was originally located in a prominent city centre location. In 2007 the authorities undertook what has to be one of the most contentious removals in the Baltic region, with the overnight move triggering a two day long riot and a diplomatic rift with Russia.

The Bronze Soldier at the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn

Today, you would be hard pressed to guess at the violent upheaval that surrounded the move. The Bronze soldier occupies a quiet and leafy spot in the Defence Forces Cemetery of Tallinn, alongside the graves of fallen soldiers from other nations. The only clue to the sensitivity of the spot is a surveillance camera on the approach.

The cemetery includes a memorial to the submariners who died on the M-103 in 1941; a monument to the fallen soldiers of the Estonian War of Independence; a monument to the 52 victims of the explosion of the Männiku ammunition stores in 1936; the graves of the recipients of the Estonian Cross of Liberty; and the burial place of the aviators of the Estonian Air Force.

To my surprise I found a small Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot containing the graves of British Naval Officers killed in Estonian waters during the War of Independence from 1918 to 1920, with wreaths from the recent visit by Princess Anne).

The fifteen British Naval graves were bravely protected during the Soviet occupation by Linda Soomre, who turned their burial place into a maintenance area overnight to prevent their remains from being desecrated. The graves were restored in 1994.

Statues and sculptures

A display of impressive Soviet-era statues can be found on a grassy area behind the Maarjamäe Palace, framed by the chilling words of Estonian President Lennart Meri in 1999: “It is dangerous to think that the time of Stalins and Hitlers has passed.” Appropriately enough, there is one statue of Stalin (1950) here which is thought to have been removed from its pedestal in the 1960s and stored out of sight for 30 years.

Soviet era statues at the back of Maarjamäe Palace

The most impressive of the statues on display (illustrated in the photograph above) would have to be the group of 4.5 metre tall figures depicting armed workers and revolutionary fighters, originally part of a monument to the attempted communist coup of 1st December 1924. The figures were installed in 1975 in a prominent spot opposite the Baltic station in July 1975 and removed in February 1993.

There are four statues and busts of Lenin, including one in white marble which was completed just as Estonia gained independence. As it was now surplus to requirements it languished in the studio courtyard until it was donated to the Estonian History Museum in 2008.

Summer Hall at Maarjamäe Palace

Maarjamäe Palace was originally constructed as the summer house of Count Anatoly Orlov-Davidov in 1874, but the property was sold by the family after the collapse of their fortunes following the revolution. The palace has seen use as a hotel, restaurant, army aviation school, communal apartments and finally as a museum.

The mural in the Summer Hall at Maarjamäe Palace

After restoration the palace was re-opened in 1987 as the History and Revolution Museum of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The only trace of this can be seen in a mural by Evald Okas in the former summer hall. It is a marvelous piece filled with agricultural workers, astronauts, factory workers and red army soldiers alongside the inevitable communist flags and symbols. Lenin is in there somewhere too.

Today, the Summer Hall can be visited before climbing the stairs to the highly recommended and thoroughly engaging exhibition “My Free Country” which takes visitors through the complex history of the country over the past century.

Memorials

The crumbling Soviet era Maarjamäe Memorial now sits alongside a new Memorial to the victims of communism. A 35 metre tall obelisk stands at the centre of the Soviet monument which was constructed in 1960 to remember those who had fallen defending the Soviet Union. Today, parts of it are closed off with a warning stating ‘No passage – danger of collapsing’.

Maarjamäe Memorial

The neighbouring Memorial to the victims of communism was officially opened on 23rd August 2018. It is simple in design – a long black walled corridor depicting ‘the journey’ and which symbolises the mercilessness power of the totalitarian system. The walls are lined with the names of 22,000 individuals known to have lost their lives under the communist regime and with a call to remember all those whose names we do not know.

The statistics are sobering – on another panel an explanation reminds us that at the current count there are 141,145 victims who are known to have been deported, imprisoned and murdered between 1940 and 1991.

Patarei Sea Fortress

The Patarei Sea Fortress, built between 1827 and 1840, was turned into a fearsome prison under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. This year an exhibition ‘Communism is a Prison’ opened in two storeys of Patarei’s eastern wing and in the walking enclosures in the inner courtyard. No-one would expect it to be a cheerful place, but it was far grimmer than anything I could have imagined.

One of two entrances to the exhibition at the Patarei Prison

Most of the individuals who passed through the gates of Patarei wound up in distant forced labour camps, or died in the prison. The terrible stories of some of the individuals who passed through these fates are told in the former cells. The fiction of the Soviet judicial system is never clearer than in the story of one poor soul whose execution was carried out before the verdict in his case was given.

The grim interior of the Patarei Prison

There are other sites in Tallinn associated with the brutality of the Soviet regime, including the KGB Dungeons and the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum, but we didn’t seek these out during our three day stay.

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Seven highlights from Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

In a country that has the highest number of museums per citizen it is re-assuring to discover that many of them are among the best museums I have encountered anywhere. It is also blessed with some beautiful churches and restaurants serving up some surprising culinary delights. I have picked a few of the highlights from our three day stay in the city.

Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour

The seaplane hangar that houses the Estonian maritime museum was originally constructed in 1916-17 as part of the defensive system to protect St Petersburg, but after Estonia gained independence in 1918 it was used by the Estonian Air Force until the Soviet invasion in 1940. It languished as a military depot during the Soviet occupation, falling into disrepair, until its inspired conversion into a museum in 2012.

The interior of the museum, formerly a seaplane hangar

The sea hangar is an engineering masterpiece that is every bit as awe inspiring as the exhibits it contains – among the first buildings in the world with such large concrete domes unsupported by pillars.

The exhibits are terrific but the presentation is first rate, including some neat tricks to get visitors of all ages to engage. The most impressive of these was a clever set of animations projected onto the submarine Lembit, the museum’s star exhibit. Each animation takes a different aspect of submarine life, though it’s well worth taking a look at the Museum Night animation for their fun take on what the ship would look like with a skeletal crew!

Other engaging exhibits included seaplane flight simulators; remote controlled model boats; an artillery fire simulation; a virtual reality fly-through of the history of the hangars from their construction through to their conversion to a museum; and a somewhat mad but fun immersive yellow sub adventure. The museum ships on the outside were great fun to explore too, including the steam powered ice-breaker Suur Tõll (1914) which has seen service for the Russian empire, Finland, Estonia and the Soviet Union.

The interior of the Estonian submarine Lembit (1936)

Perhaps most importantly, I learnt quite a bit – always a sure sign that a museum is fulfilling its function. I certainly had no idea about the role that the British navy played in the early stages of the war for independence, defending Tallinn and giving the Estonian forces time to organise their navy over the winter of 1918/1919. One of those moments when history could have taken a very different turn.

Estonian History Museum at Maarjamäe Palace

The complex path of Estonian history is not easily explained, but the exhibition ‘My free country’ at the Estonian History Museum in Maarjamäe Palace was quite simply brilliant at breaking this down and presenting it with the help of an impressive array of exhibits.

The Estonian History Museum at Maarjamäe Palace

This is one of those wonderfully engaging museums that keeps you hooked through various ingenious means, rather than burying you under a ton of explanation. The displays ranged from cute little dioramas showing the changes to the palace through time to interactive displays encouraging you to go on a cycle ride through Estonia towns. My favourite, inevitably, would have to be the railway themed pinball machine!

I was struck once again by the bits of history I didn’t know. In some cases this was understandable, such as the tale of British involvement in the Estonian war of independence, with British military aid ranging from uniforms to heavy tanks, which I suspect has now faded from widespread memory outside of Estonia. However, I was taken aback by how little I knew of the history of my own time – had I understood so little of the story played out on our tv screens in the late 80s/early 90s?

In particular, I was fascinated by the story of the remarkable Baltic way demonstration which saw two million people across the Baltic states form a 675.5km human chain stretching from Tallinn to Vilnius. It was good to be reminded of the power that people can exercise in an increasingly uncertain age.

Holy Spirit Church

The old town has a number of wonderful churches, including the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, the Russian Orthodox church and St. Nicholas’ Church (Niguliste Museum).

My favourite church would have to be the 14th century Holy Spirit Church with its gorgeous 17th century painted clock. The plain white exterior gives no clue to the beautiful wooden decoration inside. A series of panels towards the front of the church remember the British seamen who fell during the First World War, including the crew of the submarine HMS E18 who were lost in the Baltic Sea off Hilumaa on 2nd June 1916.

Museum of Estonian Architecture

The promotional material about Tallinn does a good job of emphasising that the city is a medieval gem, which meant that the remarkable variety of architectural styles on display in the city came as something of a surprise. The Museum of Estonian Architecture is a good place to get your head around this, presenting a decade by decade walkthrough of the changing styles.

The Museum of Estonian Architecture occupies the historical Rotermann Salt Storage building

I loved the wonderful array of architectural models on display on the ground floor as part of the permanent exhibition ‘Space in motion: A century of Estonian architecture’. I spent quite a bit of time poring over the detail and was thoroughly absorbed.

Along with many familiar buildings there were some interesting ideas for the future, such as a striking proposal (2011-13) from Kadarik Tüür architects. This would see the waste products from the Aidu open cast oil shale mine stored through the construction of a series of pyramids of which the tallest would be 130 metres tall.

It’s also worth taking a look in the basement at the exhibition focusing on what architecture is about, based on the approach used to teach architectural students. It was quite good fun and certainly made us think.

Tallinn Town Hall

The Town Hall is only open to visitors in the Summer months, usually from late June or early July until the end of August. It is said to be the oldest surviving town hall in the Baltic and Scandinavian region, but it is also a building that has undergone quite a transformation over 700 years.

Interior of Tallinn Town Hall

The builders of the original Town Hall might have been rather surprised to return in the early 20th century and see the rooms carved up into smaller office spaces, many more windows punched through the walls and a rebuild of the eastern façade in Gothic Revival style. However, the damage caused by a Soviet air raid on 9th March 1944 provided the catalyst for a restoration that would return the building to its former glory.

It doesn’t take too long to wander the restored rooms or explore the attic, but it is well worth taking a look around.

Estonian Open Air Museum

The Estonian Open Air Museum first opened to the public at Rocco al Mare in 1964, collecting and preserving historic buildings from across Estonia and the islands. Today, the museum presents visitors with 74 buildings over a 72 hectare site. These range from the modest conical pole tent from Harju district that started the museum through to the baroque styling of the Sutlepa chapel, one of the oldest wooden buildings in the country.

One of the many charming buildings in the Estonian Open Air Museum

Armed with a map and a list of highlights we set off on a walk through the grounds that took us to most of the buildings, with the occasional encounter with the friendly cats on the site. At one of the farmhouses we found a ginger cat basking in the sun on the balcony of a property whose relaxed demeanour was quite deceptive. The moment we opened the door he took advantage of our appearance to sneak into a property and take up a prime position on a bed. He looked very pleased with his achievement!

Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom

The last of the museums we visited on our visit to Estonia was one of the most thought provoking. The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom sets out to encourage every visitor to ‘sense the fragility of freedom’ so while it looks at the events of recent history, it has one eye on the future.

To get the most out of a visit it really needs the time to listen and reflect on the brilliantly scripted and thoughtful audio commentary. The commentary was perfectly pitched and not at all judgmental about the decisions people make under an authoritarian regime, challenging the listener to think how they might act in the same position.

Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom

The commentary revealed just a few of the terrible stories from the Soviet occupation that illustrated the slender thread of freedom, from the university student picked up off the streets and deported to the gulags by mistake (instead of another individual with the same name) to the mother who knew she was about to be arrested and gave her 3 month old son to her sister knowing that it was his only chance for survival (she saw him again 28 years later).

The most haunting tale was of the escapee whose last image of Soviet Estonia was a shoreline littered with opened suitcases, abandoned furniture and all the other possessions that people realised they couldn’t take with them. Among them was an old lady, clutching a clock she couldn’t give up and had consequentially been left behind with. Such a terribly sad position to be put in. Such a sad last image of your homeland to take into exile.

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Three days in Tallinn

Posted in Estonia, Tallinn by folkestonejack on July 1, 2019

We thought that three days in Tallinn would give us plenty of time to see the highlights of the city, so we were surprised to find that we still had to leave out plenty of stuff. In some ways this should have come as no surprise. One of the facts we learnt on our first day was that Estonia has the highest ratio of museums per citizen in the world. The official figures from the Ministry of Culture show that there are currently 249 museums in Estonia.

The sinimustvalge

On our first day we concentrated on the sights to the west of the city. This took us to Maarjamae Palace (for the outdoor exhibition of Soviet monuments and the exhibition “My Free Country”), the Memorial to the victims of communism, the Soviet era Maarjamäe Memorial, the memorial to the victims of the Russalka shipwreck, Kadriorg Palace and the House of Peter the Great.

The second day took us out to the east to see the incredibly impressive hangars of the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour, the museum ships outside and the chilling new museum that opened in the neighbouring Patarei Sea Fortress on 14th May 2019. These two combined took up a good chunk of the day (a little short of five hours).

Finally, the third day took us much farther out of the city to see the Estonian Open Air Museum at Rocco al Mare, followed by the Estonian Defence Force Cemetery (to see the Bronze Soldier) and the VABAMU Museum of Occupations and Freedom on the way back.

A view across the Old Town from the Patkuli viewing platform

On all three days we visited the sights of Tallinn’s old town at the beginning and end of the day. The logic behind this was to avoid the large crowds that we expected to see in the streets from the cruise ships (the quietest day of our trip saw 3000 cruise ship passengers in town while the busiest saw 7500) and slot our visits in around them.

Our Tallinn cards covered all of the entrance fees and the buses/trams that we needed to get about the city. A little advance planning to take account of Monday closures ensured that we saw all the museums we wanted to visit. The only unexpected problem was the degree of roadworks near the Russalka monument which required quite a lengthy diversion to get across to Kadriorg Park.

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The indirect route to Tallinn

Posted in England, Estonia, Finland, Helsinki, London, Tallinn by folkestonejack on June 28, 2019

The first day of our Baltic circuit took us to Tallinn by an indirect routing through Helsinki that would take us on two trains, one plane, one tram, one ferry and a taxi! Our original plan was to spread this over two days but after British Airways moved our flight forward by 3 hours it made sense to take the hit and get all our travelling done in one day.

The Heathrow Express started our multi-transport day for a short hop between terminals, having spent the night at an airport hotel (that in itself was a little problematic – our original choice of hotel cancelled our room shortly before our arrival, saying they had overbooked). Thankfully our flight from London Heathrow went very smoothly and delivered us to Helsinki airport with splendid views over London, Denmark and Sweden along the way.

A view of Wembley Stadium at the start of our journey

On arrival in Helsinki we had a bit of a wait for our luggage, but once we were on the move everything turned out to be quite straightforward (an airport train in to the central station, switching to a number 7 tram at the stop just outside). We stepped off the tram into Terminal 2 at the West Harbour almost exactly two hours after our flight landed.

Our transfer to Tallinn was to take us on board the Tallink Megastar, one of the new generation faster shuttle ferries operating between the Baltic capitals. It’s also pretty large at 212 metres in length and with a capacity of 2800 passengers. Fast seemed to the operative word – boarding started just 20 minutes after the ship arrived (3.30pm) and the ship left ten minutes before its scheduled departure time (4.20pm).

It was pretty clear that we were among many seasoned Tallink customers so just followed the crowd to the sitting lounge and found a couple of spots to rest up for the two hour crossing. The ships are pretty well geared to the needs of foot passengers with an extensive number of storage lockers of different sizes (most requiring a couple of euros) near the main seating areas.

Tallinn: A room with a view

The Megastar gave us a terrific view of the Estonian coastline as we closed in on the Port of Tallinn in the early evening, not that you had any strong sense of the approaching night with sunset not too far short of 11pm. We should probably have used public transport to get to our accommodation but settled on a short hop by taxi at the end of a long day. Time to chill out and enjoy a view over the harbour from high up in our hotel room.

Tip

The Tallink ferries sell Tallinn Cards on board, saving time and effort to find a sales point in the city. We picked up a couple of 3 day cards at 47 euros each and calculated that it would saved us at least the same again – terrific value.

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A circuit around the Baltic

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on June 27, 2019

A successful trip to Stockholm and Helsinki in 2017 revived plenty of fond memories of my first foreign adventure in 1984, but also reminded me of the many places I wished I had seen. A plan slowly came together that would allow us to visit some of them on a circuit around the Baltic, starting and finishing in Helsinki.

On our way to Helsinki

After a bit of juggling with ferry timetables we found a way to fit everything together and still give us time enough in each location to see the sights. The plan almost unraveled when British Airways shifted our flights by three hours, but in the end the necessary adjustments actually helped us to improve the plan.

The finalised itinerary would take us by ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn in Estonia, followed by an overnight ferry from to Mariehamn in the Åland Islands and then onward by ferry to Turku in Finland. The last leg, a two hour train journey, would bring us back to Helsinki.

Above, below and inside Clifton Suspension Bridge

Posted in Bristol, England by folkestonejack on June 8, 2019

The iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol is one of the engineering marvels of the nineteenth century that has gone on to become one of the most recognisable symbols of the city. It was a daring project at its conception and yet despite the passage of time has still managed to surprise and impress us all over again in the 21st century, as we discovered on a visit today…

The Clifton Suspension Bridge

The idea of bridging the Avon Gorge had been cherished for nearly a century, encouraged by a bequest from a Bristol merchant by the name of William Vick in 1753. The will specified that when the interest on the initial bequest had reached £10,000 it should be used to build a stone bridge across the 91 metre tall Avon Gorge from Clifton Downs to Leigh Woods. It was not to prove a straightforward exercise.

A competition held in 1829 to design a viable stone bridge failed to produced a design that everyone was satisfied with on the grounds of cost, appearance or feasibility. Among the entries were four ambitious designs from a 23 year old engineering apprentice looking to make his mark on the world – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In the end the highly respected competition judge, Thomas Telford, produced his own design for a suspension bridge and the committee sought approval to change the terms of Vick’s bequest to allow it to be built.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was not to be deterred, proposing an alternative to Telford’s design which picked up much public support. The ensuing arguments and debate prompted a change of plan, leading to the announcement of a second competition in October 1830. The winner on this occasion was a design by Smith and Hawkes of the Eagle Foundry in Birmingham, but Brunel somehow managed to persuade the lead judge to change his mind at a private meeting.

The foundation stone was laid in 1836 but progress with the construction was exceedingly slow. The two abutments were completed by 1840 followed soon after by the towers. Although most of the ironwork had been manufactured, the money to finish the job had run out. A decade of proposals and alternative thinking could not find a way to complete the bridge. Some wanted to see the abutments demolished to remove the stigma of failure, but in time the Clifton abutment took on a new life as a viewing platform.

Brunel died in 1859 without seeing his ‘first love’ completed. However, the death of the great engineer galvanised his peers and led to a renewed effort to complete the bridge as a fitting monument. The money was raised in a surprisingly short time and the bridge eventually opened on 8th December 1864. It is now hard to imagine Bristol without the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has taken on a life way beyond the hopes of its initiator, William Vicks.

The bridge is indeed a great monument to Brunel and to the foresight of Vicks (wonderfully remembered in the playful latin inscription on the bridge ‘Suspensa Vix Via Fit’).

Looking down into the Avon Gorge

Our reason for visiting the bridge today was to take a look at one of the most surprising discoveries from its more recent history. It had been long assumed that the Leigh Woods abutment was solid but as the plans from the early phases of construction had not survived no one could say that with any certainty. In 2002 a worker replacing the paving slabs above the Clifton abutment discovered a small void and repeated the exercise on the Leigh Woods side out of curiosity, discovering a much deeper void.

The experts lowered in by rope discovered an amazing double-deck arrangement of 12 vaults connected by small tunnels. The surprises didn’t end there. The vaults were surprisingly well finished for a space that no-one would ever have been expected to see again and despite traces of the construction scaffolding it was pretty clear that everything must have been removed through the access shafts at the end of the job. No mean feat in itself.

In the last few years the Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust has opened up two of the larger chambers (vaults 4 and 5) to members of the public on hour long hard hat tours and we eagerly snapped up a couple of tickets at the second time of trying (it’s well worth subscribing to their updates by email to get notification of the next batch of tours on offer).

After a quick orientation exercise on the bridge we made our way down, descending a caged vertical ladder to a new entrance that has been bored into the side of the abutment. No matter how many photos I had seen of the newly discovered space I found stepping into the first vault to be a real wow moment, exceeded only by passing into the larger cathedral-like vault.

The dimensions take some believing – the walls are two metres wide at their thinnest and the height of the chamber we had entered was equivalent to three double decker buses. It is a little hard to comprehend that an equally tall chamber lies underneath your feet, accessible by ladder. Quite extraordinary.

Inside the first vault

An hour passed incredibly quickly as we absorbed the fascinating story and the sights of the chambers on our wonderful volunteer led tour. It also has to be said that the trust have done a terrific job in telling the history of the bridge in the permanent exhibition on display in their visitor centre. It was fascinating to see the alternative designs for the bridge and consider what might have been.

We combined our visit to the bridge with a visit to the Clifton Observatory which offers an unusual perspective on the bridge through the 360 degree camera obscura installed in the roof of the tower. The museum in the tower is also well worth a look, particularly the displays that explain the early adoption of photography here. The historic Clifton Rocks Railway site is also located nearby, though this is currently only open a few days a year.

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Cream of Chantilly

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 27, 2019

One of the most extraordinary collections of art and rare books in France can be found at the Château de Chantilly, around 25 miles north of Paris, in a beautiful palace surrounded by forests. The collection of old masters is the second largest in the country. You might think that this would attract the long queues and crowding that the Louvre often sees, but not a bit of it.

This place is relatively lightly visited and you can often find yourself alone in a room filled with gorgeous paintings that include works by Raphael, Delacroix and Poussin among others. It has to be one of the best kept secrets among day trips from Paris, which is appropriate as I first learnt about the place through the marvelous Secrets of Paris blog many years ago!

Château de Chantilly

The magnificent Château de Chantilly and the art galleries that we can wander around today were the creation of Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, son of the last King of France, Louis Philippe I. The Duke was one of the great collectors of his age and built up an astonishing collection of artworks and rare books over his lifetime. It’s a striking echo of the past activities of the Bourbon-Condés, the owners of Chantilly from 1643 to 1830, whose collections were confiscated during the revolution and transferred to the Central Museum of Arts (later to become the Louvre).

The Château is the work of the architect Honoré Daumet who was commissioned by the Duke to rebuild the Grand Château after the destruction that took place during the revolution. The new building was constructed on the foundations of the medieval towers and designed to integrate with the Petit Château, a renaissance survivor that somehow made it through the revolution intact. From the outset the new building, constructed from 1875 to 1885, was designed with the needs of the Duke’s collection in mind. This is most obvious in the large picture gallery which is illuminated by natural light coming through massive overhead windows.

The Duke was predeceased by his children and bequeathed the Château to the Institut de France in 1886 with the stipulation that it be opened to the public as a museum and that the artworks be presented just as they were in his lifetime. It is strange to walk around the galleries knowing that nothing has changed in over a century and that you are standing exactly where others have gazed in decades past. Equally, it is a pleasure to see a gallery presented quite differently to how it would be arranged today – a little like stepping back into the 19th century.

The Cabinet des Clouet

The astonishing nature of the art collection is perhaps best encapsulated by a small room known as the Cabinet des Clouet which displays the portraits of 90 French Kings from the 16th century – more than you would find at the Louvre!

On a wander round there are many delightful stories to discover. One of the most curious was the tale of The Madonna of Loreto which can be found in the Rotunda. The painting was originally considered to be a copy of a lost work by Raphael from 1509 until restoration in 1976 revealed the number 133 in a corner of the painting. This matched the inventory number marked on the original when it was part of the Borghese collection in Rome. The discovery saw the work rightly recognised as an original work by Raphael.

The collection of rare books is equally impressive, even if this is a little less obvious to the visitor. The Cabinet des Livres is the largest library in the country outside of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Inside the Cabinet des Livres

A short walk away from the Château you can discover the Great Stables (Grandes Écuries), now home to the living museum of the horse, adjacent to the famous racecourse with its gorgeous nineteenth century grandstands. The impressive stables were commissioned by Louis-Henri, Duke of Bourbon (1692-1740) and may, in part, be down to his belief that he would be re-incarnated as a horse. Whatever the reason, this is one of the masterpieces of 18th century architecture and a delight for us to enjoy today.

The area is the centre of the horseracing industry in France with over 2500 horses undergoing training in around a hundred stables. The first thing that strikes you as enter the great stables is just how much the space lives up to its name. These stables are the largest in Europe, built to hold up to 240 horses and five hundred hounds.

These are no ordinary stables. A better description would be the cathedral of the horse, a description amply illustrated by the three horses thundering out of the stonework above the doorway and a vast 14 metre high stone roof above the stables. The stables are still in use today, so this is no historic relic, with visitors able to take a wander along the stables inside before taking a right turn into the museum. The museum does an equally wonderful job of capturing the magic of the horse kingdom, from historic horse carts to merry-go-round horses presented in a compelling display.

The impressive roof of the stables

On our way out of the stables we had a moment to see one of the horse in training. If you have the time, there are regular shows and demonstrations beneath the 28 metre high dome of the Great Stables, a space which can accommodate 600 people.

In short, a day trip to Chantilly is a wonderful opportunity to be wowed by artworks, a beautiful restored historic palace and artistry of the equine kind. All without the crowds of most Parisien attractions. What’s not to like!?

Practicalities

We kept things simple and purchased a Pack TER Domaine de Chantilly from the green ticket machines located around platforms 15-17 on the ground level of the Gare du Nord (not downstairs where most of the other ticket machines are located). The machines were very clearly laid out and had options in five languages. You use a dial to select your preferred option and the Chantilly tickets are pretty easily located through the menus. The machines only accept credit cards and didn’t seem to have the option to buy more than one Pack TER at a time. The price is a very reasonable 25 euros per adult (a saving of around 10 euros).

The journey out to Chantilly takes just 22 minutes. The timetable is a bit quirky, so it’s worth taking the time to check in advance of your trip. The gates to the chateau don’t open until 10 so we opted to take the 8h49 from Paris Gare du Nord in the direction of Compiègne with the 9h07 in the direction of Amiens as a back-up. After this, there was over an hour’s wait for the next train (10h37). A similar pattern emerges in the afternoon – the timetable showed trains running at intervals of 30-45 minutes for a few hours and then a surprising gap of 75 minutes between trains in mid-afternoon.

Gare de Chantilly-Gouvieux

On our arrival at Chantilly-Gouvieux we headed out by foot on the well sign-posted route to the Chateau. Some of the promotional material we had seen suggested this was a 15 minute walk but we took a good 30 minutes and while we were not racing, we were hardly slouches either! The walk was quite lovely with views of the race course, the exterior of the great stables and the chateau surrounded by water.

When we reached the chateau we had a little wait for the 10 o’clock opening. There are two ticket buildings – one with automatic ticket machines (right) and one with staffed counters (left). We had to use the latter to exchange our Pack TER tickets for Domaine tickets. All fairly painless, but with only one counter open it took a little time with a few groups to process ahead of us.

As our visit took place on a week day we thought it would be quiet, but hadn’t counted on four school parties and a pensioners coach outing. However, once inside we didn’t really encounter any crowding at all and only stumbled upon the occasional room of children listening intently to an explanation of the treasures on display. Once the initial crowd gathered at the gates had been let in at 10am we never saw any queues to get in. For most of the time we were there the area around the gates was incredibly quiet. I suspect that weekday afternoons are rather quiet!

The ticket office is located in the small building to the right

The official website states that tours of the Duke and Duchess of Aumale’s private suites were available in English at 11.30 every day but on our visit we were told that only tours in French were available. This was a disappointment at first, but as we made our way around the chateau we soon realised that we had underestimated the time needed to appreciate the historic rooms and galleries properly. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In total, we spent three hours visiting the chateau and taking in the great stables at a canter but felt we could have done with longer to explore the grounds and enjoy the museum of the living horse.

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Coulée verte

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 26, 2019

One of the most extraordinary green spaces in Paris, the Coulée verte René-Dumont, can be found high above the streets of the twelfth arrondissement on the trackbed of the long closed railway line from Bastille to Vincennes. This linear park, also known as the Promenade Plantée, was the pioneering creation of landscape architect Jacques Vergely and architect Philippe Mathieux in 1988.

The elevated park was officially inaugurated in 1993 and its ground breaking re-use of an abandoned line has gone on to inspire similar projects around the world, such as New York’s High Line, The 606 in Chicago and Philadelphia’s Rail Park. A campaign to develop something similar in the UK, the Peckham Coal Line, has already captured the imagination of the local community.

One of the routes up to the Coulée verte

Our visit to the walkway fell on a Sunday afternoon. We soon discovered just how popular the park was as we joined the relatively slow procession on the – at times – relatively narrow pathway. Everyone seemed to be up there and who could blame them? It was a lovely day and this was clearly the perfect spot to sit and read, walk the dogs or take a wander with the family. The large green space at the Reuilly Garden was busy with families, couples and optimistic sun-worshipers.

There was also another good reason for all the activity on the Coulée verte that I had overlooked – the European elections were taking place and the old station building at Reuilly had been transformed into a polling station for the 12eme arrondissement. It would have to be the most impressive place to vote that I can recall.

The station building at Reuilly was opened, along with the line, in 1859 and remained in use until goods traffic on the line ceased in 1985. Historic photos from 1900 show a beautifully maintained station with well tended green borders. The contrast with the overgrown and unloved station of 1985 couldn’t be greater, so it is lovely to see it so beautifully restored and now very much at the heart of the community.

The ancien gare de Reuilly

Our walk took us from the Viaduc des Arts to a point near Rue du Sahel (helpfully marked up on the official map) before we headed up to street level and hopped on the metro at Bel Air.

The Coulée verte turned out to be every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped with wonderful views of the neighbourhoods it passes through, lovingly well kept gardens and delightful artistic additions. At times it can be really hard to remember that this was ever a railway, particularly when standing in front of a feature like the long duck ponds.

Among the surprises along the way are an office block occupied by the local police, a relatively modern creation from the 1990s, which is topped by a sequence of statues copied from Michelangelo’s dying slave and a cheeky sequence of painted bollards in the tunnels nearish the Rue du Sahel. However, the real highlight was the walk itself. It’s so easy to let city life fall away and just relax in to a leisurely walk. Highly recommended.

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Palace of the Salamander King

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 26, 2019

Our long weekend in Paris gave us a perfect opportunity to get out from the city and see the ‘true abode of Kings and the Palace of the ages’ at Fontainebleau which has a history going back to 1137. My grasp of French history is pretty limited, so I had no idea that one of the key players in its restoration was Napoleon who refurbished the palace in a manner worthy of the ancien régime after its sacking in the revolution.

A view of the Palace from the Grand Parterre

The magnificence of the rooms in the palace can’t be overstated. There are so many rooms that simply take your breath away as you enter with their ornate decoration and craftsmanship. The rooms of the Napoleon Museum are equally compelling, albeit in a different way. It is quite something to see Napoleon’s cloak and hat, along with his travel kit and some of the imperial regalia used in his coronations in Paris and Milan.

One of the things you can’t help but notice as you explore the palace are the symbols that its occupants stamped upon the place. King Francis I (1515-1547) used the salamander as his personal emblem, accompanied by the motto Nutrisco et extinguo (I nourish and I extinguish). The symbolism of the salamander, able to walk through flames unharmed and extinguish them, was meant to show the triumph of virtue over the evils of the world.

The salamander is especially evident all the way down the beautifully decorated renaissance marvel that is the Francis I Gallery. Salamanders can be seen on the stucco decoration, carved onto the walnut wainscoting and on the chairs that line the space. From the moment we learnt about it, salamander spotting became quite a feature of our exploration of the palace. You never had to wait too long before encountering another!

A salamander on the Golden Gate

In contrast, Napoleon sought to draw a parallel with the mighty Roman empire and adopted the eagle (for its association with military power) and the bee (for its association with long life and hard work). These symbols can be seen in some of the restored rooms of the Imperial residence and in the museum, though the royals were understandably eager to remove these when they returned to Fontainebleau after the restoration of the monarchy.

Now that we’ve seen Fontainebleau, I think I will have to add the Château Royal de Blois and the Château de Chambord to my wish list for a future adventure (and more salamanders!).

Practicalities

We took a double deck TER train from the Gare de Lyon in the direction of Montargis, using a 1-5 zone Mobilis ticket costing 17.80 euros per person (following everyone else and compositing it using the square looking machines at the end of the platform before boarding). The journey takes about 40 minutes. On arrival at Fontainebleau-Avon station we took the ‘Ligne 1’ bus destined for Les Lilas, getting off at the ‘Château’ stop right outside the gardens. All incredibly easy.

The official English language website advertises a ‘Discover the Palace’ guided tour in English which includes rooms such as the Francis I Gallery, the Ballroom and the Stags Gallery, stating that some of these are otherwise closed to the public. However, on arrival at the Palace the ticket office said that there were no such tours in English – only the audio guide. It was hard to establish what you miss by exploring on your own, other than to say that you can currently see the Francis I Gallery and Ballroom on your own, but not the Stags Gallery.

We had thought that we would participate in one of the French language tours to see the the Impérial Théâtre but the timings turned out to be a bit strange with only two tours offered each day at 16h15 and 17h15. As this would have meant many hours of hanging around after our morning exploring the chateau we decided to pass up on this occasion. Nevertheless, as first time visitors we easily filled three hours with our steady progress through the rooms and would have been slower still had we used the audio guide exhaustively in every room.

The ticket prices are incredibly reasonable at 12 euros for an adult plus 4 euros for an audio guide. The nearest equivalents in the UK would easily be at least double that price.

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Le weekend

Posted in France, Paris by folkestonejack on May 25, 2019

The disruption to the railways that accompanies most bank holiday weekends is usually enough to dissuade us from travelling too far from home, but for some reason we overlooked that a while back and booked a trip to Paris. The plan for our 48 hour stay was simple enough – visit a couple of palaces, take in the Tutankhamun exhibition at La Villette and finally get round to walking along the Promenade Plantée.

Bear with wings outside the Gare du Nord

It is hard to believe that the channel tunnel has been open for 25 years. It is easy to take for granted now, but I remember only too well the time and expense of a trip to Paris in 1993. The awkward combination of a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle and a coach into the city centre makes quite a contrast to the smoothness of the journey by train from London St Pancras to Gare du Nord.

The journey between cities was as smooth as it could possibly be and before we had time to adjust we were in the French capital, standing under the wings of the ‘Angel Bear’ installed at the time of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015. The presence of this 7 metre tall polar bear, painted in red for danger, is intended to remind us of the fragility of the environment.

Our hotel on this occasion is the slightly eccentric 25 hours hotel opposite the entrance to Gare du Nord which has rooms with some pretty quirk decor, an elaborate system of light switches and balconies overlooking the entrance to the station. It’s a convenient place to stay when much of our itinerary revolves around travel to/from Gare du Nord. I quite like it, but I can see that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Farewell to HSTs in the west

Posted in England by folkestonejack on May 18, 2019

There are some iconic British designs that have taken on a life way beyond their original purpose and remain much loved as they slip out of everyday use. In time, some may well be forgotten while others cement their place in the history books. Today sees one of those design icons, the InterCity 125 High Speed Train (HST), reach its end in the west of the country.

The last long-distance HST passenger services on the Great Western Railway network today brings to an end a 43 year run. This is rather fitting, given their current designation as class 43 locomotives. The story of the last day has been captured rather wonderfully on twitter under the hashtag of #LastoftheHSTs but I couldn’t let the moment pass without adding my own farewell.

HST on the Teignmouth Sea Wall in 2014

HSTs have been a familiar sight on the western railway network since their introduction in 1976, running from Paddington to the South West and Wales. Some of my earliest childhood memories are associated with the wonder of seeing HSTs, which have been with us for virtually all of my life. It’s hard to imagine taking a walk along the Teignmouth and Dawlish sea wall without seeing a HST come whizzing past.

Thankfully it’s not quite the end of the HSTs altogether – you’ll still be able to see them for a while yet in Scotland, the East Midlands and on the East Coast Main Line.

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Chilling out in Dubai

Posted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates by folkestonejack on April 21, 2019

The penultimate stage of our homeward journey saw us land in Dubai at 5.25am after a 14.5 hour flight from Sydney, stagger through the long queues at passport control, collect our baggage and then take a cheap taxi to a hotel in the city. Our choice of hotel had a lot to do with the availability of an early check-in rate that allowed us to crash out in our room at 7am. It was good to escape the heat – it was already hot and forecast to hit 37 degrees in the afternoon.

The other benefit of our hotel was a rather splendid rooftop terrace with a stunning view of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. The Burj Khalifa was inaugurated in 2010 and has a recorded height of 828m (2,717ft) and more than 160 stories. The record might not last that much longer as the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia is expected to reach a height of 1km (3,281ft) when construction is completed in 2021.

The view of the Burj Khalifa from our hotel

Early in the planning process I imagined that we would check out the Etihad Museum, the historical district and the Burj Khalifa. As the trip drew closer we pared this back, balking at the cost of the high level views from the Burj Khalifa, then wrote off almost everything after discovering that our energy and engagement levels had been zapped. It seemed that holiday mode had been well and truly switched off, so we just took it easy from that point on.

The wind-down included one of the most enjoyable meals that I can remember – a ‘Fifty flavours of Vietnam’ brunch at Hoi An, a Vietnamese restaurant located in the Shangri-La. The combination of superb food, a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere and exceptional service from every waitress made for a perfect couple of hours. Just what we needed at this point of the trip.

On being seated we were presented with a menu and at first expected that we would need to choose. Instead, waitresses brought out small dishes of every starter from the menu, followed by a traditional noodle soup with chicken, then small dishes with every main (including an exquisite and incredibly tasty portion of sea-bass marinated in onion and ginger) served with a large bowl of fried rice and finally a couple of desserts. I guess you could say that it was a bit like a Vietnamese tapas or an 18 course banquet.

The Dubai Metro

Although we didn’t go to the top of the Burj Khalifa we certainly got a terrific view of the building from the rooftop terrace of our hotel as the sun set and the lights of the city switched on. It was ever so slightly terrifying looking over the edge and down to the Dubai Metro line crossing the spaghetti like tangle of the motorway!

Our time in Dubai might not have been as packed as we expected, but this proved to be the perfect chill out ahead of our final leg – an eight hour flight to London.

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Cockatoo Island

Posted in Australia, Sydney by folkestonejack on April 19, 2019

The highlight of our day trip to Australia was a visit to Cockatoo Island, a remarkable island in Sydney Harbour packed with a fascinating history that has seen it used as a prison, naval dockyard, industrial school and film set. The dockyard closed in 1991 but was opened to the public in 2007 following remediation work by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. Today, it is one of Sydney’s newer sights and clearly still one of its best kept secrets if its relatively low position in the Tripadvisor rankings is anything to go by.

Administrative Building ‘Brindabella’ (1930) forms the entrance to Cockatoo Island for arrivals by ferry

The island is just 21 minutes by ferry from the crowds and bustle of Circular Quay, yet we hardly saw a soul for most of our three hour long wander around the island. There is no charge for admission and maps are freely provided in the visitor centre, though you can rent an audio guide for a fuller experience. It’s a very photogenic place so a camera is a must, especially to capture the dark and brooding silhouettes of the restored cranes that you can find around the island.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of a visit to Cockatoo Island is that it has been left in a state of apparent industrial abandonment since its last use as a commercial dockyard. Although there has been plenty of demolition (around 50 buildings disappeared between 1991 and 2010), mass disposal of industrial machinery and site clean up you can still get some sense of the past life of the island as you wander the vast industrial turbine hall, machine shops and workshops thanks to the informative panels located throughout.

If my sense of imagination failed anywhere, it was at the slipways as I simply couldn’t fathom the scale of the ships that were being launched here until I saw some pictures in the excellent museum in Biloela House. Some of the largest vessels built in the world (in their time) were launched here, such as the 12,037 ton Empress of Australia and the 18,221 ton oiler HMAS Success. To be fair, my impressions might have been affected by the relatively small wooden vessel currently sitting on the slipway.

The mess hall in the convict precinct (c. 1847-51)

The upper level of the site holds the historic convict precinct. The first convicts, who arrived in 1839, were set to work constructing their own prison from sandstone quarried on the island. As galling as this may have seemed, it was preferable to the wooden boxes the convicts were locked in each night until the work was complete. The prison was soon home to the worst of the worst, a combination of hardened criminals and repeat offenders.

There are so many fascinating stories to be uncovered on the island, but my favourite would have to be about how the sheep on the island had come to learn that the four o’clock end of shift siren was the signal for the workers to go home. Apparently, the sheep would make their way down the steep steps from the top to raid the bins for goodies!

Today, Cockatoo Island offers a wonderful slice through the history of Sydney and Australia. It’s also an interesting place to stay (options include luxury camping and heritage houses) and an occasional film set (recent films shot here include Wolverine and Unbroken). I loved every minute of my time on the island and would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different in Sydney.

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Twenty four hours in Australia

Posted in Australia, Sydney by folkestonejack on April 19, 2019

It is quite possible that I will only spend 24 hours in Australia in my entire life, so I figured that I would have to make the day count. Unfortunately, almost every museum and attraction was closed as we were visiting on Good Friday. At first I thought this was a disaster, but in fact it was the making of the trip as it forced me to look a little harder at the options.

I found three sights that made for a pretty splendid day in Sydney – a morning on Cockatoo Island, a walk through the Rocks to the Pylon lookout at midday and an afternoon walk around the coastal perimeter of the botanic gardens. The forecast was for a full day of cloud, but this luckily proved far too pessimistic.

The classic view of the Opera House from the Pylon Lookout

On our arrival by train from the airport last night we had seen the magnificent sight of the Harbour Bridge lit up. Up close in daylight it looked a little less romantic, mainly on account of the curved mesh fences, barbed wire and fumes from the passing traffic. However, as a feat of engineering it was indisputably impressive. I wouldn’t like to have been one of the workers on the bridge during its construction – the description of showers of molten metal that shredded overalls sounded quite terrifying.

The south east pylon of the bridge has been a tourist attraction since 1934, a couple of years after the bridge opened. It’s not hard to see the appeal when you step out onto the terrace at the top and take in the wonderful 360 degree view of the harbour, the bridge and the railway line that crosses it. In the past there were other attractions to draw visitors to this spot, including a roof top cattery that was home to a pair of white cats owned by the manager of the souvenir shop!

Our walk back through the mass of people gathered at Circular Quay and on to the Opera House looked like a bad move at first, but the crowds soon thinned as we entered the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Our walk was broken up by the little visual treats of the gardens, like a fallen Dracaena draco tree and a nineteenth century replica of a Greek monument. It was quite lovely, especially with the bonus of sun. Plenty of folk were out sunbathing in the grounds.

On the whole it was quite relaxed – although a long queue had formed to get a photo in Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a seat carved from sandstone in 1811 by convicts for the then governor’s wife. It looked like a popular coach tour stop and a tick-box photo. No-one really seemed to be looking at, or appreciating, what they being photographed against!

HMAS Hobart (DDG 39)

On turning the corner a superb view of the naval base at Potts Point opened up, including two Royal Australian Navy destroyers HMAS Hobart (DDG 39) and HMAS Brisbane (DDG 41) plus the Canberra-class landing helicopter dock HMAS Adelaide (L01). There was another warship beyond, but I figured that I had already stretched my luck with a walk through the blazing sun to see this much!

The return walk took us back through the gardens with a brief stop off at an exhibition about Plants with bite in the Calyx. I squeamishly passed up on the opportunity to pay 5 dollars to feed a live cricket to one of the plants, but enjoyed the atmospheric display. Finally, our walk took us past Government House (usually open to visitors on Fridays, but not on Good Friday) and back towards Circular Quay.

Our 24 hours in Australia had come to an end. My travelling companion reckoned that was more than enough time to spend in the country, but if I never make it back this way I have at least seen a tiny bit of what the country has to offer and just how different it feels to New Zealand.

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Farewell to Auckland (again)

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 18, 2019

Our time in the city of sails has come to an end once again. The last few days in the city gave us a chance to check out exhibitions at the Auckland Art Museum and OrexArt, watch the beginnings of the field of crosses in the domain ahead of Anzac day, play a couple of rounds of mini-golf, meet some lovely horses, eat a final ice cream at Giapo and say an extended farewell to family. The last day is always a little strange, but a relaxed morning at the Pah Homestead was a good way to finish up.

One last sunset at Orakei Wharf

As ever, the end of one trip also means a bit of homework for the next. In the last day or two I visited the tourist information office near the ferry terminal and came out armed with a collection of DOC leaflets that have already helped shape the outline of a possible adventure for our return. I always find that when one trip closes you have the freshest sense of how to make improvements for next time. Our return flight routing definitely falls into that category!

I had come up with a clever plan to counter the jet-lag that usually floors me by flying to Dubai via Sydney, thereby getting in at midnight for a decent night of sleep. This strategy fell apart when the original flight was cancelled, due to the closure of a runway for maintenance. All the advantages of flying indirectly disappeared with that schedule change, but the airline showed little interest in a sensible adjustment. This left us with the best part of a day in Sydney.

It was perhaps a little cruel to see the Emirates A380 that had brought us to Auckland three weeks ago sitting on the apron as we boarded our Qantas A330 bound for Sydney. Nevertheless, I was determined to make the best of our new schedule, especially as it is unlikely that I will ever spend much time in Australia. Time to begin our slow four day homeward trek.

The Qantas A330 waiting to take us to Sydney

Our flight (QF146) took off on time, flying over the Manukau Heads with a superb view of the impressive line of cliffs we had been admiring from Whatipu just a few days earlier. The flight was relatively short, which was perhaps just as well with a malfunctioning in flight entertainment system and one of the blandest airline meals I have ever sampled. The sun was already setting over Sydney as we landed.

The day finally drew to a conclusion with a lovely meal at a glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the Sydney Opera House in perfect time to see a short firework display. Maybe it was always meant to work out this way.

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The desolate beauty of Whatipu

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 15, 2019

Our last adventure on this trip brought us to the spectacular and desolate wilderness of Whatipu, a black sand beach on Auckland’s rugged west coast. The drive out to the beach from central Auckland takes about an hour, with the final stretch from Little Huia on a particularly windy gravel road. It’s pretty remote so there was not much in the way of traffic, though it was something of a surprise to find temporary traffic lights (sensor operated) in the middle of nowhere after the road had been narrowed by some washouts.

Whatipu Beach and Paratütai Island

It is hard to imagine many people coming here at the best of times, but there are likely to be even less at the moment as many of the tracks in the area are closed due to the threat of Kauri die-back disease (entrances to the tracks are sealed off and signage blanked out). Thankfully, the beach and the track to the caves were still open (though not the camping ground near the caves). There were about five cars parked up when we arrived and that number stayed pretty constant throughout our 3 hour visit.

The reward for our slightly awkward drive was a wander through the scientific reserve with its beautiful combination of black sands, volcanic rock, wetland, dunes and wild sea almost undisturbed by other humans. It’s a popular spot for visitors of the flying kind too. As we explored we came across plenty of birds, including fantails, a spur-winged plover, black oystercatchers, paradise shelduck, pūkeko and some juvenile black-backed gulls.

Bluebottle at Whatipu

The black sands looked at their most desolate against driftwood that had been twisted into strange positions, including one that looked a bit like a crocodile waiting to pounce. There was a real threat here, albeit somewhat less deadly, in the form of stinging bluebottle jellyfish (otherwise known as the Portuguese man-of-war) that had been washed up onto the beach where they lay half buried in the sand ready for any unwary souls walking barefoot.

The waters here at Whatipu are pretty treacherous for all. The strong rips and currents mean that swimming is inadvisable and the threat to shipping from the constantly shifting sand is signalled by a lightbeacon (one of seventy five around New Zealand) situated atop nine pin rock. It is also worth being a little cautious around the land-locked cutter rock which half collapsed in 2007.

New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster occurred here with the sinking of the Royal Navy corvette HMS Orpheus on 7th February 1863. The corvette had ignored the signals issued by the Paratutai Signal Station and took an ill-fated course that saw her break up on the Manukau Bar with the loss of 189 souls. After further incidents the Royal Navy withdrew permission for their ships to enter the Manukau Harbour.

Driftwood at Whatipu

After exploring the beach we headed back inland and along the volcanic rock cliff face to the Whatipu caves. Hard as it is to believe, the largest of the caves (Te Ana Ru cave) once reverberated to the sound of music as revellers danced the night away on a kauri ballroom dance floor now buried underneath the sand.

There is more information about the history of Whatipu in the Whatipu Heritage Walk booklet provided by Auckland Council along with a map showing which tracks in the Waitākere Ranges Regional Park are still open.

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Takahē on Tiritiri

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on April 13, 2019

Our visit to Tiritiri Matangi island coincided with Takahē awareness month. The critically endangered takahē, are flightless birds with a large red beak and feathers in a beautiful combination of blue, green and turquoise. It is astonishing that they have survived given that how easy prey they are for predators, particularly stoats which began to decimate the bird population in New Zealand not long after their introduction in the 1880s.

Takahē on Tiritiri

The Takahē were thought to be extinct until a small population of the birds was discovered clinging to life in the remote Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948 by Dr Geoffrey Orbell. The difficulty of the terrain, not ideal for a bird that would be more at home in flat wetlands, played a key part in their survival. The predators which had wiped out most of the species had been deterred by the harsh mountains and unforgiving climate.

The Murchison Mountains were closed to the public in the wake of the discovery and a conservation programme initiated to help save the species. Predator free island nature reserves like Tiritiri Matangi play an important part in this process as safe places for breeding and also act as a safeguard for the species if something catastrophic should occur to the wild population in Fiordland.

The very real threat to the species was illustrated by a near catastrophic loss when stoats breached the natural and man-made barriers in the Murchison Mountains in 2007, resulting in a loss of nearly half of the Takahē population within a few months. The official takahē population count for 2017 recorded a total of 347 birds across the country, including 100 breeding pairs.

Tiritiri Matangi is currently home to eight takahē. On our visit to the island we were able to see the family that tends to stick around the Lighthouse compound, a place they associate with safety. It was an absolute privilege to see these beautiful creatures at such close proximity and appreciate just how lucky we are that they have survived.

The beautiful colours of the Takahē in the midday sun

Throughout April the Department of Conservation rangers are feeding the takahē at approximately 1:30pm each day, but they were easily seen long before this offering plenty of photographic opportunities (all taken at a respectful distance using a zoom lens). I took a fair few photographs and then put my camera down to watch these charming creatures, seemingly wandering with barely a care in the world. A joy to behold.

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