FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Cats of Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Take a wander through the streets of Varna and you are highly likely to find yourself in the company of a feline friend or two. The street cat population in Varna had been steadily increasing in the opening years of the 21st century. I haven’t see any recent figures, but a census in 2016 recorded 2000 stray cats and 630 stray dogs in the municipality. Through my tourist eyes it was rather lovely to see the cats everywhere, but I can appreciate that the local perspective might be a little different.

One of Varna’s delightful cats

On our visit, it was rare to turn a corner and not find five cats waiting on the other side. It was a delight to see cats chasing birds through the Roman ruins, appropriating museum exhibits as perches (such as a boat and gantry in the Naval museum) or the rather charming sight of a cat waiting patiently alongside an angler for the occasional fishy treat from the end of a fishing rod.

Thankfully, we didn’t see the famous green cat of a few years back, apparently the result of a cat sleeping on tins of powdered paint and steadily absorbing more and more of the colouring. It’s never good to see a painted cat, no matter what the circumstances.

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Socialist Varna: The Pantheon

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

Another striking sight from the Socialist era is the Pantheon in the Sea Garden, officially titled the Monument of the Fallen Fighters against Fascism and Capitalism from the City of Varna and Varna District in the period 1923-1944 (Паметник на загиналите борци против фашизма и капитализма от град Варна и Варненски окръг в периода 1923-1944 г.).

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was initially constructed as an ossuary to hold the remains of the fighters who fell between 1923 and 1944. Their remains had originally been buried on Turna Tepe hill, where the massive park monument now stands, but re-located to the new location on the completion of the structure in September 1958. However, there was general agreement that the new structure was insufficiently impressive. As a result, new designs were drawn up for a sculpture of two fighters to sit atop the structure – one carrying on the fight alongside his wounded comrade. The revised monument was inaugurated on 6th November 1959.

Underneath this eye catching composition a series of seven scenes depicting the fighters in their struggle against fascism are presented on stone reliefs around the monument. It’s a little hard to make out some of the scenes, but these seemed to range from the sabotage of railway lines to an enthusiastic welcome home (or is that a stoic farewell?) for a soldier. I’m sure there must be a more accurate description of what the scenes actually show but I certainly couldn’t find one.

Today, the eternal flame no longer burns and the honour guard has long since gone. The Pantheon no longer holds the remains of the fighters, which were returned to their families for burial in 1995. Nevertheless, after some years of crumbling the authorities have recognised the importance of the monument, allocating money for repairs and illumination.

For many, the idea of spending money on the Pantheon and the other communist era monuments is appalling, arguing that they should be turned to dust. Others take the view that such a dark history needs to be remembered through these monuments, with a bit of explanation, lest history be allowed to repeat.
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Socialist Varna: Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony.

It is hard to imagine how impressive (or oppressive) this monument must once have seemed when it first appeared on the horizon. The authorities picked their spot well, building the monument on the Turna Tepe Hill where the Russian army positioned its headquarters during the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish wars. It is visible from a long way out and can clearly be seen even as far away as the lighthouse guarding the entrance to Varna’s port.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

On our visit we walked from the centre of town, through the Sea Garden. At one time you could have crossed the busy roads that surround the monument using a pedestrian underpass but this has long been shuttered off and the steps down quite overgrown. Once we made our way over we began our climb of the 300+ step ‘ladder of victory’ to take a closer look. In theory the sun should illuminate the monument best in late morning, lining up perfectly along the staircase, but we were a bit unlucky with the clouds.

The concrete steps are steadily deteriorating, missing chunks here and there, but still perfectly climbable. Along the way we could see some of the 180 floodlights that used to illuminate the monument, quietly rusting in the undergrowth. In similar fashion, the loudspeakers that used to blast out Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) look they have been long silent. The eternal flame, once fed by four gas cylinders below, has been extinguished and the bronze looted.

The rusting loudspeakers

The sculptors Evgeni Baramov and Alyosha Kafedzhiyski worked with the architect Kamen Goranov to create the monument. On one side you have four Soviet soldiers bearing arms and on the opposite wing you have three Bulgarian mothers greeting them with bread and salt. It is a striking, if somewhat brutal, composition.

Today, the once immaculate lettering between these two sculptural compositions is falling apart and quite indecipherable from what is left. One of the soldiers has been daubed with red paint in recent times and graffiti surrounds the lower part of the monument.

At one time you could enter the monument and climb the internal stairs to the top to inspect the figures at close quarters and get an even more impressive view across Varna. However, the staircase (located through an opening inside the arch, on the left hand side) is now protected by a locked gate and every other opening is barred by metal grills.

A couple of surveillance cameras paid for by the Varna Regional Administration now keep an eye from the top of the monument. Although this was a disappointment, it is an encouraging sign that there is now more interest in the future of the monument and perhaps this could lead to action on the proposals to adapt the monument into a cultural space.

A view of the monument from the port

We were far from alone on our visit. I reckon around a dozen visitors were making their way up and down the steps, mostly fitness fanatics and joggers. The only exception were a couple of old ladies who slowly made their way up the steps and settled down at the top underneath the watchful gaze of the four concrete Soviet soldiers. At the end of our visit we headed back to the main road and took a 409 bus (runs every 15 minutes) back to the centre of town.

I read a few sources before my visit, but one of the most interesting was the account from The Bohemian blog detailing a couple of visits to the interior in 2012 and the associated entry on the terrific Monumentalism website.

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Eight highlights from Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

On our long weekend in Varna we made it to a selection of the tourist attractions in the city, but by no means all. These are my personal highlights…

The Archaeological Museum

The importance of Varna (or Odessos as it was known) in the ancient world is really apparent as you explore the rich collection of the archaeological museum.

The exhibits in the collection of Thracian gold are astonishingly intricate, including a couple of beautiful gold appliqué horned bulls. At well over 6000 years old these are the oldest known gold treasures in the world. It’s no wonder to learn that the ‘Varna Gold’ has toured the museums of the world in the 47 years since it was discovered at an archaeological dig at the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis. Alongside this, there are other exquisite exhibits from the time, such as a clay anthropomorphic head.

The Archaeological Museum

The first floor rooms take you on a chronological tour through the periods of Thracian, Greek and Roman history. There are so many wonderful finds that it is hard to pick out individual items from the long list of highlights, but these would include a panther shaped fountain from the late 5th/early 6th century; three animal headed drinking cups (rhyta) from the Borovo treasure; ceramic lamps in the form of theatrical masks from the 3rd century; a limestone altar with a striking horned bulls head dedicated to the Thracian horsemen from the 3rd century; and a bronze votive hand from the 1st/2nd century.

One of the most surprising (perhaps shocking) exhibits was an incredibly graphic, crude and very rude relief from a brothel at the Roman baths dated to the 2nd/3rd century. I would blush to describe it in any more detail than that.

As if this was not enough, the upper floor includes a striking collection of Bulgarian icons including a good many that depict the fate of martyrs in gruesome detail.

It’s an absolute bargain at 10 leva for admission (approximately £5 at current exchange rates).

Roman baths

The Roman Baths of Odessos (2nd-3rd century) make an impressive sight, despite their ruined state. In their brief spell of active use these were the fourth largest public baths in the European provinces of the Roman empire, taking up 7000 square metres (the largest three were located in Rome and Trier). As the empire fell into decline these maintenance-heavy baths were abandoned and the building materials robbed to build a smaller, more economical, set of baths.

The fourth largest Roman baths in Europe

Today, the baths sit in a residential area, ringed by apartment blocks. You can get a good view from the exterior fence but its worth paying the modest admission charge of 4 leva (approximately £2) to get a closer look at the fallen building blocks. Unlike many Roman sites there are few explanations here but plentiful illustrations showing you what each chamber would have looked like in use.

As an added bonus, the local cats treat the Roman baths as their playground and could be seen stalking birds and each other through the grounds.

Sea Garden

The Sea Garden is said to be the largest landscaped park in the Balkans, occupying a four kilometre stretch of prime coastline with a footprint of 90,000 square metres. It’s much loved by the local population, which generated a campaign to protect it when development was threatened. There are museums, restaurants, fairground rides and monuments inside the park but it’s just as lovely doing nothing more than taking a relaxed walk.

Monument to Yuri Gagarin in the Sea Garden

Among the sights to look out for in the park are the Pantheon, a monument to the fallen fighters of 1923-1944; a bust of Yuri Gagarin; an alley of trees planted by cosmonauts; and a monument to the border guard (built in 1918 to remember the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers of the 15th Border Brigade of Varna’s Eighth Infantry Regiment). There’s even a wall made up of old Bulgarian motorbikes at one spot!

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

The Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral is one of the most familiar landmarks in the city centre. The first stone was laid by Prince Alexander I of Battenberg in 1880 and the structure was complete by 1885, but interior painting and decoration would go on for decades (for example, the colourful floor tiles were added in 1911 but the large stained glass windows were not added until 1960). It was modelled on a temple at the Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg.

The cathedral was mostly paid for by public donation and a lottery of 150 000 tickets. On top of this, Russian Tsar Nicholas II donated 45 icons in 1901.

Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral

Today, the cathedral sits at a major traffic junction so it seems perpetually busy as you approach (not that this is particularly visible in my photos – most of these were grabbed in the split-second change of lights). However, all that disappears when you step inside.

Naval Museum

The Bulgarian Navy is headquartered in Varna (in a rather splendid baroque building on Preslav Street) and there are many buildings around the city associated with this, including the Naval Academy, Naval Hospital and the Navy Club. The Naval Museum, established in 1923, focuses upon the maritime history of the country; the wars fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the modern navy.

Torpedo Boat 301 outside the Navy Museum

It’s a relatively compact museum so doesn’t take long to walk around, with some interesting exhibits on display in the yard outside and a little farther beyond. These include the torpedo boat Drazki (1907), torpedo boat 301 (1957), a Mil Mi-4A helicopter, a Kamov Ka-25Bsh helicopter, a S-2 Sopka coastal defence missile and the record-breaking Cor-Coroli yacht.

Admission comes to 5 leva (approximately £2.50 at current exchange rates) but a look inside the torpedo boat outside costs an additional 2 leva (though it didn’t seem to be open when we visited).

If you are interested in the modern fleet you can also get a good view of the Bulgarian Naval vessels in port from a wander along the pier to the Varna Seaport Lighthouse.

Park Monument

The Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna is an astonishing structure, constructed by 27,000 workers using 10,000 tonnes of concrete and 1,000 tonnes of re-inforced steel between 1974 and 1978. It was a design that was 20 years in the making, from the first design competition to the opening ceremony, but would only last 11 years in actual use. In its day it would have been an impressive place to visit, including a bookshop and library in its apparently spacious interior.

Park monument of Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship

Today, access is blocked off and the site is monitored by surveillance cameras. I’ve covered the detail of our visit in the next post, but in short – it’s well worth seeing close up to truly appreciate the extraordinary scale of this monument.

City Art Gallery of Boris Georgiev

I found it a little hard to pin down what we were seeing at the City Art Gallery in Varna, which seemed to be almost entirely taken over by displays of very recent art when we visited. However, there are some cracking pieces hidden among the halls, including sculptures by the likes of Ivan Funev.

The highlight of the collection is a hall containing 13 exquisite artworks donated by the family of Bulgarian artist Boris Georgiev (1888-1962). Although Boris was born in Varna his life took him far across the globe and into the orbit of some of the most famous individuals of the 20th century. His work was championed by Albert Einstein, who became a close friend, and he later became close with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on his travels to India. Portraits of all three are among those exhibited here.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

The colourful red and white striped church of St Petka is a little off the main tourist trail, but still only a short walk away from the Archaeological Museum. The construction of the church began in 1901 and the first service took place five years later. The interior is beautifully painted and the decoration is quite stunning.

Sveta Paraskeva Petka

Other sights we checked out that are worth seeking out included the Monument to Tsar Kaloyan, the Portal-Monument to the 8th Coastal Infantry Regiment of Varna and the church of St. Nicholas the Thaumaturge.

There are other attractions in Varna that we didn’t get around to, including the Retro Museum, the small Roman Baths, the Varna City History Museum, the Ethnographic museum and the Museum of National Revival. Beyond the confines of the city you can also find the Aladzha cave monastery and the natural wonder of the Petrified Forest (also referred to as the Stone Forest).

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Three days in Varna

Posted in Bulgaria, Varna by folkestonejack on October 7, 2019

A long weekend in Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast seemed like an increasingly bonkers idea the closer it approached, but turned out to be a perfectly timed opportunity for a break from an extremely busy autumn at work and an ideal escape from the ongoing madness of Brexit, which seems to have left no stone unturned in its quest to permeate everyday life in the UK.

Welcome to Varna

A big part of the appeal for me was the opportunity to see one of the most striking monuments from the socialist state, but there is plenty more to Varna. Must see sights range from a museum chock-full of archaeological discoveries to the strikingly beautiful Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral. I am also reliably informed by my better half that the many cats of Varna were a highlight too, though I can’t claim to have planned the visit on this basis!

Our visit came at the beginning of October, which is either the end of the Summer season or start of the Winter season as far as the main attractions go. This distinction is more important than I realised at the time of booking, as the winter schedule sees many museums close over the weekend and on Mondays. However, aside from that, it was rather nice to visit at this time of year. The sights were relatively quiet, the first signs of autumn colours were visible in the Sea Garden and there was no problem getting a table at any of the restaurants in the city centre.

The economical cost of a trip to Varna was a big plus. Over a long weekend we spent around £100 (excluding accommodation) on a couple of three course meals, all our museum tickets, bus fares and an ice cream or two. Our accommodation at the Rosslyn Dimyat hotel was on the luxurious side – a stay in an apartment larger than my flat in London cost no more than I would pay for a budget hotel in the UK. The hotel was situated in a quiet-ish location opposite the Sea Garden that might not suit everyone but plenty of more central options are available too.

The clocktower

Flights from the UK can be a bit tricky, with many scheduled to arrive in the early hours of the morning. We opted to fly with Austrian Airlines via Vienna which got us into Varna around midday.

On our arrival, in early afternoon, we took the 409 bus from the airport to the city centre. The transfer was quite straightforward once you worked it out. The same bus stop outside the terminal buildings serves buses in both directions so you have to pay attention to the bus signs, lest you make an unplanned trip to Aksakovo rather than Varna city centre. The 409 runs every 15 minutes and a ticket costs just 50 pence (1 leva) which you pay to an official on the bus rather than the driver (they tear off a paper ticket from a wad). Surely the cheapest airport transfer anywhere?

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Banksy in Croydon

Posted in Croydon, England by folkestonejack on October 3, 2019

The overnight appearance of a Banksy ‘shop’ generated a lot of attention in the media. It’s not often that Croydon gets in the news for the right reasons, so it made a nice change. It’s also not often that you get to go out for your weekly shop and admire some Banksy artworks along the way!

The pop-up-shop, named Gross Domestic Product, has been set up by Banksy as part of a legal action with a greetings card company over the use of his trademark. The result is an extraordinary shop that never opens its doors and never switches off the lights. It will only be with us for a couple of weeks but in the meantime it was great to have the opportunity to take a look at the products on display and the accompanying descriptions.

Banksy in Croydon

I thought the cot continually observed from above by a set of moving surveillance cameras was particularly accurate and chilling. The label next to it described it as a Baby Mobile, stating: Banksy has created the Ultimate ceiling mounted stimulus toy to prepare your little one for the journey ahead – a lifetime of constant scrutiny both state sanctioned and self imposed. Other favourites included the three wall display drones (instead of the more familiar ducks) and a toilet duck leading a series of yellow ducks.

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Energy Observer visits London

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on October 3, 2019

The experimental Hydrogen powered ship Energy Observer arrived in London tonight at the end of a Northern European tour, part of a six year long odyssey that is set to take in 50 countries (with 101 stopovers). I thought she made an impressive sight as she passed under Tower Bridge, though this was probably not the most popular of bridge lifts, coming mid-way through the rush hour!

Energy Observer approaches Tower Bridge

Energy Observer is the first ship in the world to be powered by hydrogen generated on-board through seawater electrolysis. The ship also uses a mix of renewable energy technologies (solar, wind and hydropower) and two types of energy storage (li-ion batteries and hydrogen). The project is a French initiative to develop a more environmentally friendly method of ship propulsion with zero greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s not the first innovative renewable energy powered vessel that the Thames has seen (the Swiss solar powered ship Planet Solar visited in August 2013) but it’s never been more welcome to see ground breaking ships like this in the face of the urgent need to tackle climate change.

Energy Observer is set to stay in London until the 13th of October and a travelling exhibition about the ship and her technologies can be visited in St Katharine Docks, Marble Quay.

Open House London 2019

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 21, 2019

The annual delight of Open House London has once again delivered with an impressive list of over 800 interesting buildings to explore, ranging from private residences to skyscrapers. I made a rough plan for a circuit to three sights in the City of London and then added another three on the fly, taking up roughly five hours.

My wanders through the city took in the modern art on display at the ING UK offices at 8-10 Moorgate; the brutalist masterpiece at Salters’ Hall; St Bartholomew the Great, the oldest parish church in London; the recently re-opened Butchers’ Hall; the tranquil St. Michael Cornhill; and the stunning interior of Lloyd’s Register Building at 71 Fenchurch Street.

Salters’ Hall

One of the more intriguing buildings in the city is Salters’ Hall, a brutalist masterpiece unveiled in 1976 – one of the last buildings conceived by Sir Basil Spence. The building has undergone extensive redevelopment by dMFK from 2013 to 2016 to bring it up to date and help ensure continued returns from their income generating office space. The revamp also saw the restoration of the interiors designed by David Hicks. The fluted ash paneling in the hall is particularly gorgeous.

The theme of salt is repeated throughout the building in many ways, from a top floor lobby intended to resemble a salt mine to a striking staircase chandelier with lumps of salt rock crystal. The dMFK revamp saw the re-orientation of the building and the creation of a new entrance pavilion, with a reception design inspired by salt formations, echoing the work of Hicks. It is wonderful to see.

The Worshipful Company of Salters has its origins in the medieval salt trade and their first hall was constructed in the 15th century, close to the city’s salt trade in Bread Street. Today’s hall is the seventh. An interesting display in their small basement museum space presents models of the fifth, sixth and seventh halls – all strikingly different. There are no known images of the first four, the last of which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The sixth hall was demolished after suffering substantial damage in World War 2.

A small part of the last hall survives in the form of wrought-iron gates with birds and beavers in front of the entrance pavilion. These were originally to be found in St Swithin’s Lane and date from 1887. The gates were originally commissioned for an exhibition so the animals have no particular significance for the Salters, though their arms were added later.

Stained glass in Butchers’ Hall

Another unexpected highlight was Butchers’ Hall. This is the home of the Worshipful Company of Butchers, one of the oldest livery companies in the city. The current hall is the sixth and relatively young, built on the footprint of its predecessor after its destruction in the war. It has been closed for for four years while a significant volume of demolition and construction works took place all around it, re-opening in September 2019. The closure allowed an upgrade of the hall to make it fit for the 21st Century and they were understandably proud of the results.

Butchers’ Hall holds plenty of surprises. I particularly loved the stained glass and representations of the company arms throughout the building. It’s not often that you get to see pigs and cattle represented in stained glass!

A short walk away from the hall brings you to the Smithfield General Market buildings, once home to the largest wholesale meat market in the UK. It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this place was in its mid-nineteenth century with hydraulic lifts to being meat up from the underground railway to the market floor. I hoped to get a place on one of the tours here, but they filled up very quickly. I’ll settle for a return in 2024 when this place re-opens as the new Museum of London.

Wanders around West Smithfield reveal many other buildings that were added to serve the market, such as the Port of London Authority cold store (1914), which had capacity for 78,000 carcasses, and the geometric designs of the modern Poultry Market, replacing the Victorian original after a terrible fire lasting three days in 1958. It’s an area I know very little about but there is clearly much more to discover.

Contrails over the city

I walk to work through the city five days a week, but rarely do I look up and see what is around me. One of the beauties of the Open House weekend for me is that it encourages you to look at your surroundings in a new light. On this occasion, some of the most enjoyable moments were the simplest – such as navigating my way through some of the tallest buildings in the city and looking up to see the reflection of the Lloyd’s Building captured beautifully by one of its newer neighbours.

One of my regular commuting routes through the alleys and lanes of the city takes me past the church of St Michael, Cornhill, but I have somehow never stepped inside until today. It hadn’t occurred to me that what I was glancing at while commuting was a 17th century church given the George Gilbert Scott treatment with the addition of a Franco-Italian Gothic styled porch and extensive interior re-decoration. The colourful circular stained glass of Christ in the east wall is stunning.

In similar fashion, an unplanned stop at the ING UK offices at 8-10 Moorgate gave me a chance to see inside a building round the corner from my workplace. I hadn’t expected the gallery of modern British painting on display on the top floor rooms with artists that include Lowry, Stanley Spencer, John and Paul Nash. The open air terraces front and back offered some interesting perspectives on the neighbourhood too – having spent decades walking along Moorgate at ground level it was strange seeing the rooftop level view of the street!

Stained glass in the Colcutt Building

Another unplanned stop on my circuit took me inside the oldest parish church in London, St Bartholomew the Great, with the unexpected and arresting sight of Damien Hirst’s gilded sculpture ‘Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain’, which is on long term loan to the church. The image of the apostle with his flayed skin is not easily forgotten. I suspect I have visited the church in the past, but it was well worth spending time to admire the detail afresh – especially with the sun beautifully illuminating the tomb of Rahere (1143), the courtier to Henry I who founded the priory.

Finally, my circuit of the city concluded with the stunning interior of Lloyd’s Register Building (the Colcutt building) at 71 Fenchurch Street which features a committee room with an incredible painted barrel-vaulted ceiling influenced by the Sistine Chapel. It was quite an architectural highlight to end my Open House weekend on!

The barrel vaulted ceiling by Gerald Moira that took 17 months to complete

So that was a few more of the 800+ buildings on the Open House London list ticked off, but many more still to see. Roll on Open House London 2020!

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Ships in the September sun

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on September 14, 2019

A late burst of September sunshine conjured up a very summery feel on the Thames, drawing plenty of folk out for riverside walks, sunbathing and even the occasional barbeque. It looked like a lovely day to be out on the water too, which was just as well with over 300 small boats taking part in the Great River Race from Greenwich to Richmond.

RFA Lyme Bay leaves the Greenwich Peninsula behind

I took the opportunity to enjoy the good weather too, with a walk along the Thames and see the departure of some of the unusual ships to have visited these waters for London International Shipping Week. The first of these was RFA Lyme Bay (3007), a Bay-class landing ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, whose departure was assisted by tugs SD Shark and SD Seal. A little later Pharos, a lighthouse tender operated by the Northern Lighthouse Board, followed downstream en route to Dundee.

There were a few unexpected surprises, most notably the sudden appearance of a US Army Chinook (13-08132) and an Apache gunship (09-05582). These helicopters were heading home after attending DSEI 2019, the controversial defence trade show. Another surprise was the appearance of Ocean Dreamwalker III, a one year old luxury yacht complete with its own helicopter.

Pharos spent a week berthed alongside HMS Belfast

I haven’t walked around the Greenwich peninsula in a long while and it was a bit of a shock to see how many new high rise apartment blocks have appeared. The whole development is planned to take 20 years, with work on the tallest buildings at Meridian Quays not expected to start until 2028-2029. It already feels incredibly densely packed so goodness knows what it will be like then.

In a similar fashion, I spent quite a bit of time staring at the northern stretch of riverside between Trinity Buoy Wharf and the Thames barrier trying to recall what industrial buildings had existed where the first two phases of the luxury apartment blocks of the 40-acre Royal Wharf development now stand. There are still further changes to come with work progressing on the distinctive buildings of Mariner’s Quarter in phase 3 of the project.

Some reassuringly industrial sights along the Thames Path

It was astonishing to see how a few decades of development have erased the industrial riverscape here, but such is progress. It was almost a relief to find that the Thames Path still winds through through the unpolished industrial scenery of Angerstein Aggregates Wharf!

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A test of geography

Posted in England, Lithuania, London, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 27, 2019

The last day of our short stay in Vilnius disappeared in a whirlwind of churches and museums, while still leaving plenty behind that we could slot into a future trip to Lithuania. Soon enough it was time to head to the airport and we decided to take the quick and cheap option of travelling by train, with the bonus of a quick look at the plinthed L class steam locomotive at the station.

L class 2-10-0 freight steam locomotive plinthed at Vilnius Central Station

The journey from Vilnius Central Station to the airport station took just seven minutes, with a short walk across the parking lot at the other end to reach the terminus building. The departures hall is located in a modern extension to the 1950s airport building – still relatively small by European standards, but not particularly crowded when we passed through. There is talk of building a new mega airport midway between Kaunas and Vilnius to cope with the anticipated increase in passenger traffic.

Our homeward flight with LOT, the Polish national airline, once again saw us boarding an Embraer 190 but this time we were lucky enough to have a seat that lined up with the windows (not entirely sure if this was down to the individual plane, or the fact that we were towards the back of the plane on this occasion). This was much appreciated as our flight took us on a loop around Vilnius, giving us one last splendid look down on the old town before heading west. I was struck by how green the city looked from the air.

A last look at Vilnius

The routing today took us over Berlin (instantly recognisable with the distinctive shape of the former Templehof airfield and hexagonal terminal building at Tegel) then on to Rotterdam, before taking us across the North Sea.

Our progress was sufficiently good that air traffic control deemed it necessary for us to get a closer look at the London array on two loops of the North Sea. I don’t recall having seen the 175 turbines of the London array before on my flights, which is odd as it is the second largest operational offshore wind farm on Earth and an incredibly impressive sight.

A closer look at the London Array

I always enjoy the test of geography that any homeward flight brings, trying to spot familiar landmarks that will tell me which approach to London our flight is taking. Today was no different. After completing our North Sea crossing I could see a distant view of the Sheppey Crossing, then the distinctive shape of Coalhouse Fort, the Sikh temple in Gravesend, but then…. where were we? I couldn’t see any of the landmarks I expected along the Thames.

A large stadium loomed into view and I was struggling to think what that could be until I recognised the swimming pool next door, and then – much more obvious – the Crystal Palace Transmitting Station. Suddenly the unfamiliar seeming landscape clicked into place and I could see my local park, my old primary school, the local railway depot and my childhood home! We had clearly veered south and I hadn’t even realised…

After heading further across South London we made a turn over Battersea Power Station for a westerly approach to London City Airport, landing a few minutes early. Fifteen minutes after disembarking I was on the DLR platform, ready to head home by train. The wonders of London City Airport.

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Nine highlights from Vilnius

Posted in Lithuania, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 26, 2019

A three night stay in Vilnius gave us enough time to see many of its highlights, helped by the extremely compact nature of the old town. It only takes around 20 minutes to walk from the Gates of Dawn, the only surviving 16th century gateway into the city, to the banks of the river Neris at the northernmost fringe of the old town.

A view of Vilnius from the bell tower of St John’s Tower

Although it has seen its share of damage and destruction, Vilnius has suffered less from the ravages of war than other cities in Europe. It is still easy to see how it has charmed visitors throughout history, including Napoleon. It is said to be Europe’s largest baroque old town, though in truth there are plenty of architectural treats in gothic and classical styles too.

Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

The scale of the Lithuanian empire at its peak, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, was vast. The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania lay at its heart, having evolved from a sprawling castle complex into a renaissance marvel, until it was torn down by Tsarist Russian occupiers in 1801. Two decades of construction culminated in its impressive re-creation in 2018, on top of the foundations of the original buildings.

Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

There are four routes that you can the through the Palace, allowing you to pick and choose exactly what you want to see. We opted for the complete ticket on this occasion, but can easily see ourselves coming back to do only the new exhibitions on a future visit. Personally, I enjoyed the first route the most (history, archaeology and architecture) with its comprehensive walk through of Lithuanian history and fascinating exhibits (my favourite would have to be the 15th century floor tiles depicting a whale swallowing the prophet Jonah).

It was interesting to read about the overlaps in European history, such as the involvement of Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) in the siege of Vilnius in 1390 or the installation of a member of the Vasa dynasty as Grand Duke of Lithuania in the 1580s. It has to be said that there was plenty of detail to absorb, but the unfamiliarity of this history made it worth spending the time. I didn’t feel the need to take so long on the second route (imagined historical interiors) or the third (weaponry, everyday life and music).

Floor tile showing Jonah being swallowed by a whale

The fourth route took in the temporary exhibition ‘Wall Stories. The Disappearing Heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A Photography Exhibition‘ (18 May–1 September 2019) which was absolutely fascinating. It was quite sobering to see the photographs Raimondas Paknys has taken of so many churches, monasteries, castles and manor houses in such an advanced state of decay in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. It certainly made me view the sights we have enjoyed in a new light and appreciate the ongoing battle to maintain them.

Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle

Gediminas’ Tower is the only surviving tower of the brick built Upper Castle, albeit damaged and re-constructed many times in its long history. It offers a terrific rooftop platform with 360 degree views across the city and an audio-visual presentation of Vilnius through the ages.

Improvement works are taking place on the hill at the moment, so the panoramic views of the city can only be observed from the top of the tower. The gently sloping route up the southern side of the hill is closed during the works so the only options are the steeper cobbled path and wooden staircase on the northern side or the funicular (if it is running).

Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle

At the time of our visit the tower also included a small but fascinating display on the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, an astonishing political protest that saw two million people create a 419.7 mile human chain across the three Baltic states. The photographs on display include one showing the chain in front of the Gediminas’ Tower.

Cathedral Basilica

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladislaus is another sight that has seen much re-building. The current classical cathedral is the sixth re-build of the church on this spot since the first cathedral was constructed in 1251. The alterations to the cathedral can be traced all the way to the twentieth century, when the Soviet authorities converted the building into a picture gallery.

Cathedral Basilica

The baroque-styled chapel of St Casimir is a highlight of the interior, including an unusual three handed painting of St Casimir. The story goes that the painter had intended to change the position of the hand in his composition and painted over the surplus hand, but despite his efforts it re-appeared three times. Finally, he decided that it was as St Casimir wanted and left it in.

St Casimir is the patron saint of Lithuania and his statue is one of three that was placed atop the cathedral in 1792 only to be removed by the Soviet authorities in 1950. The three statues were restored to their position in 1997.

Church of St Anne
Šv. Onos bažnyčia

The gorgeous red-brick gothic confection that is the church of St. Anne is one of the images that first drew my attention to Vilnius and it was every bit as stunning as the pictures had suggested. The church dates to the turn of the 16th century and uses 30 different kinds of brick to create its elaborate and gracefully soaring form. It is said that Napoleon, who spent 18 days in Vilnius in 1812, voiced a desire to take the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand.

Church of St. Anne

Next door is another gothic church and monastery, dedicated to St Francis and St Bernardine, which shouldn’t be overlooked on account of its more restrained exterior. The combination of wooden baroque fittings with rib, star and crystal vaulting is stunning.

Three Crosses Monument

The three crosses, sited atop the tallest hill in Vilnius, are visible from many spots across the city, including the square outside the cathedral. The sight is not new – wooden crosses appear in drawings as far back as the 17th century. A more permanent version was created using concrete by architect and sculptor Antanas Vivulskis in 1916 after funds were raised by the residents of the city. The Soviet regime blew this up in 1950 and the remains are scattered below the current monument, built in 1989.

Three crosses monument on Crooked Hill

The terrace in front of the three crosses provides a splendid view at sunrise and sunset. I chose the later, taking the sloping road up from T. Kosciuškos g. (which runs alongside the Neris river) and then made my descent via the steeper wooden steps to the south (taking care to navigate the occasional broken step) and along the narrow path beside the river Vilnia until the bridge near St Anne’s church.

The view was certainly worth it, but if the walk up seems far too daunting there are plenty of places to get good views in Vilnius with less effort – and a few with lifts!

Church of St Peter and St Paul
Šv. apaštalų Petro ir Povilo bažnyčia

There are no shortage of churches in Vilnius, but it’s really worth making the effort to visit the church of St Peter and St Paul, a short walk away from the old town. The external appearance of the baroque styled church, completed in 1701, gives only a few hints of the splendour of the interior decoration. An astonishing 2000 pieces of stucco decoration have created a stunning visual spectacle that hits you the moment you step inside. As you wander around, soaking up the detail, that first impression deepens.

Church of St Peter and St Paul

The detail that artists P. Perti and G. M. Galli have worked into the interior is quite extraordinary. You have columns borne on the shoulders of figures dressed in classical outfits, battlefield scenes, fantastical creatures like winged mermaids, biblical stories and so much more.

You could quite easily spend hours here trying to pick out all the stories on display in stucco form, from early Christian martyrs to the last judgment. In addition to all this, there are some rather wonderful later additions including a pulpit shaped like a boat and a chandelier representing Noah’s ark.

The stunning creations of P. Perti and G. M. Galli

It seems that all these artistic wonders did not go unnoticed by the Soviet authorities, who repaired the damage caused by the Second World War and then carried out considerable renovations from the late 1970s to early 1980s.

National Museum of Lithuania, The New Arsenal

The museum in The New Arsenal had not been in our plans at first, but the lure of an exhibition of artwork by Bronius Leonavičius drew us in. I was glad that it had, as we wouldn’t otherwise have seen a rather extraordinary collection of historic carved wooden figures and crosses, by far the most interesting room in the museum and worth the price of admission on its own. It has been a while since I have been followed round the museum by one of the museum attendants – something that I became quite familiar with in Eastern Europe on my visits a few decades back (thankfully without the loud sighing when I didn’t spend long enough in a room!).

The exhibition of works by Bronius Leonavičius was small but stunning, presenting his wonderful illustrations of agricultural life for the classic Kristijonas Donelaitis poem about the seasons. These draw particularly on the landscape of Vištytis, where it is said that when the crow cries it can be heard in three countries. It was sufficiently compelling that we found ourselves visiting a second exhibition of his works at the Kazys Varnelis House Museum. Both exhibitions run until 10th November 2019.

St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower

One of the best viewpoints in Vilnius can be found at the top of St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower, right in the middle of the old town. It is both the highest and oldest belltower in the city, re-built with baroque styling after a fire in 1737. A small lift with capacity for 4 people takes you almost to the top, with just a wooden staircase and a slightly awkward brick step to navigate to get to the open air viewing terrace.

Looking up towards the higher floors of St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower

Given the slightly tricky route up to the open air terrace I was surprised to find a bride up there in a long white wedding gown – it certainly put my own clumsy clambering up to the top into perspective! I’m sure it must have made an amazing backdrop for the wedding photographs as would the university below (we could see couples in a couple of the courtyards posing in their wedding outfits).

Tasting Menu at Amandus

I am not a foodie, but I do enjoy a good tasting menu to explore local flavours and creations that I might not choose on my own. One restaurant caught my eye – Amandus. I made a booking and thought nothing more of it, which made the surprise of the evening all the greater. I had stumbled on the very best meal of my life…

Amandus is the creation of a young award winning Lithuanian chef, Deivydas Praspaliauskas, and has been open in the heart of the old town for just a couple of years. The atmosphere in the basement restaurant was rather wonderful and throughout the evening there was a frisson of excitement each time a dish came together at the pass (all diners are served each course at the same time).

So many wonderful flavours. It’s hard to pick out favourites from such a consistently wonderful sequence of appetizers and mains, but among the dishes I loved were tapioca and squid ink popcorn crisps; quinoa doughnuts; cucumber with a smoked sturgeon dip; beetroot and licquorice bread; sea bass ceviche with hazlenuts, fennel and cucumber; duck and carrot broth poured over a pearl barley risotto with confit duck; steak with 60 day aged garlic sauce and flavours of rosemary and star anise.

The explanations that Deivydas gave as he served up each dish helped breathe more life into the combination of ingredients, but especially with the dessert – hedgehog in the fog. The dessert, influenced by a classic cartoon, was as much of a spectacle in its assembly as it was a delight to eat: liquid nitrogen ice cream poured over sorbet, meringue and crumb. Simply dazzling.

A parting gift from Amandus

As if this wasn’t enough, Deivydas explained that he had fulfilled a cherished dream of becoming a chocolatier and wandered round the restaurant with a treasure chest of chocolates, selecting bars for each table as a parting gift. It topped an evening that was quite wonderful from start to finish. We had no particular plans to re-visit to Vilnius, but think that will have to change now!

Observations, tips and other stuff

It is worth noting that there are some money saving options for visiting the sights run by the Lithuanian National Museum (Lietuvos nacionalinis muziejus) that we only discovered at the end of our trip and too late for us to take advantage of them. These are only mentioned on the Lithuanian version of the website.

One is a Historical Triangle ticket (7 euros) which is a one-day ticket covering three sights (New and Old Arsenals and Gediminas Castle Tower) and the other is a three-day ticket to all six of the museums they operate in Vilnius (12 euros). The latter would have been quite useful had we known about it, but it was only offered to us at one of the last museums we entered!

Most of what we planned worked out alright, but there were a couple of failures. The outdoor display of railway vehicles was open but unhelpfully swamped by equipment and advertising for a beer festival, while the famous street art of Putin and Trump we hoped to see had gone. Instead the wall had been painted pink with the message ‘Make empathy great again’. I’m not sure how long it has been gone, but visitors were still reporting visits while I was planning the trip.

One sight that got left off our schedule at the planning stage was Vilnius University Library, after reading that tours are currently unable to enter the most beautiful halls due to restoration works. Something for the next trip.

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Day trip to Trakai

Posted in Lithuania, Trakai by folkestonejack on August 25, 2019

Our travels in Lithuania have brought us to Trakai, an easy day trip from Vilnius. Trakai is most famous for its picturesque red-brick island castle, which sits at the heart of a national park rich in historical sites and over thirty lakes. It’s hardly surprising to discover that such a photogenic sight should feature so heavily in Lithuanian guidebooks and promotional tourist brochures, but there is much more to the city than this.

The island castle

The city was once one of the most important cities in the country, alongside Vilnius and Kaunas, as well as the residence of the grand dukes of Lithuania. It has long since lost its importance as a political centre, but still draws plenty of tourists to see the island castle, which was restored and substantially rebuilt in 1962. Today, the city has a population of 5,373.

On our arrival by train we took the longer and shadier route to the island castle, around the edge of Lake Berardinai, taking our time to enjoy the scenery. Despite the early hour we discovered a busy community on the little jetties dotted about the route populated with sunbathers, fishermen and wild water swimmers. One had a wonderfully improvised chair made from a car seat. It all felt very tranquil and incredibly relaxing. The waters looked incredibly clear.

A tranquil walk alongside Lake Berardinai

The first stages of construction of the island castle have been dated to the 14th century, but the castle continue to evolve for some time after. The name itself is a little misleading as there were originally three islands, with rock and gravel in-fill used to create a larger island. There are plenty of lovely views to be had by circumnavigating the exterior walls.

Once inside, you discover that the castle is comprised of two very distinct parts – the bailey in the lower part and the former ducal residence in the upper part, accessed by drawbridge. I don’t think anyone could be under illusion that this is anything other than a substantial twentieth century re-build, but the historical displays help explain what was left before that work started.

The museum in the upper part of the castle presents the history of the territory, the castle and the local Karaim and Tatar populations. I particularly liked a display of coin hoards discovered in the area. A series of rooms in the bailey provide a home for a historical museum with an array of historical artifacts from porcelain to pipes with no specific connection to the castle. It’s all interesting enough, without being good enough on its own to justify a visit.

A view of the ducal residence

After leaving the castle we pondered the option of taking a boat trip on the water, eventually choosing a shortish trip on a double deck boat from the Trakai lakefront. A half hour circuit on Lake Galvė gave us a decent view of Užutrakis manor house and a different perspective on Trakai Island Castle.

Count Józef Tyszkiewicz created the Užutrakis estate in 1896-1902 with a neo-classical palace designed by Polish architect Jozef Huss. After the Soviet occupation of Lithuania the palace saw a variety of uses, including time as a sanatorium for KGB officers, a Pioneer camp and a rest home. Through all this the park suffered, but the restoration has seen the reinstatement of copies of many of the sculptures and vases that were destroyed in that period. It sees use as a concert venue in the summer and we could still see a stage set up for this purpose as we passed by.

The palace on the Užutrakis estate

On our return to Trakai we sought out some of the other sights around town as we slowly drifted back to the station, heading first to the Trakai Peninsular Castle. It turned out the grounds were out of bounds during our visit, having been fenced off for restoration works, but the small museum of liturgical art at the entrance was fascinating. The museum holds some curious exhibits and if nothing else, you can enjoy watching fellow visitors getting spooked by a strange diorama with a priest with a swiveling head!

Other sights we visited or stopped off at in Trakai included the church of the visitation of the blessed virgin Mary, which includes a striking silver-plated image of the Virgin Mary and the oldest surviving frescoes in Lithuania; the orthodox church of the nativity of the most blessed virgin, which was undergoing considerable restoration work when we stepped inside; the statue of St. John Nepomuk, standing atop a pillar; and an old wooden post office. There are other sights a little farther away that we didn’t get to.

Overall, our day trip to Trakai offered a wonderfully relaxing escape with some interesting sights along the way. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Practicalities

Travelling to Trakai could not have been simpler. Information on the train timetables is readily available online and unusually clear. Tickets can be purchased online, at the ticket desk in the station building and I think you can get them from the conductor too. The intervals between trains can be quite significant, so needs a little thought. We opted for the 8:16 train to give us a whole day in Trakai, which the next train, at 11:30, would not have given us.

The local train at Trakai

The short journey by double-deck train to the terminus at Trakai takes just over 30 minutes, delivering you to a small terminus at the edge of the city. The bus station is a little closer, but not much. The walk from the railway station takes around 30 minutes by the direct route, along the road, or 45 minutes if you take the path alongside the lake that we chose. It is possible to switch from the lakeside path to the road just before the peninsular castle.

Our visit coincided with the last Sunday of the month, which sees many museums open to the public free of charge, and a day of ancient crafts and trades inside the castle. An unusually busy day, particularly with the fine summery weather, but never to the extent that it stopped us from doing anything we planned. It did look as though we had stumbled across rush hour for the castle though, looking at the crowds crossing the two bridges to the island castle!

There were plenty of options for boat trips on the lake – on a busy summer’s day we found a couple of options on the waterfront at Trakai, next to the first bridge; a couple of smaller boats across the bridge on Karvine island; and more options still across the second bridge just outside the castle gates (ranging from yachts and small craft to the left of the gates and the largest boat we saw on the lake ‘Skaistis‘ to the right). I don’t think you would have difficulty finding a boat trip on a summer weekend.

Boats on Lake Galvė

The length of circuits offered ranged from half an hour to an hour. Prices ranged from 5 euros for a trip on one of the smaller boats to 12 euros on one of the larger craft, with the yachts coming in at a higher price still. Everyone was eager to pick up passengers. The Skaistis advertised a regular sailing schedule, running once an hour, while other boats just left when they had enough passengers on board. We took up the option of a short cruise on the comfortable double-deck Holiday Boat which cost us 5 euros (cash) at the jetty.

There was a tourist ‘train’ running on the road between the railway station, bus station, castle and the manor house (3 euros for a day ticket). We also noted an offer highlighted on the noticeboard at Trakai station for a combined day ticket covering the tourist ‘train’ and boat to Užutrakis manor house (7 euros, excluding weekends). Tickets are available on the tourist train, at the Trakai tourist information offices or through the local hotels.

The Tourist Information office at Trakai (located close to the lakefront, near the first bridge) offers some helpful maps of Trakai and the grounds of Užutrakis, as well as a range of other leaflets about local attractions.

It is also well worth purchasing a copy of the slim but handy guidebook ‘Trakai: A guide through the Historical National Park’ by Karolina Mickevičiūtė Juodišienė, published by Briedis (ISBN 978-9955-26-417-0). The guidebook provides some useful maps and covers the history of Trakai, the sights in/around Trakai and introduces the Karaite cuisine. I picked up a copy inside the castle for five euros and it also seems to be available online through the publisher’s website.

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Summer break in Vilnius

Posted in Lithuania, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 24, 2019

I have long wanted to visit Vilnius but the flights from my nearest airports were always a little awkward or required a change of planes half way. In early 2019 this changed with the opening of a direct flight from London City to Vilnius operated by LOT, the Polish national airline. The route operates twice daily during the working week using Embraer 190s, with one flight per day on Saturday and Sunday.

Our LOT Embraer 190 approaches gate 5 at London City Airport

The new route has come about following an invitation to airlines from the state-run Lithuania Airports group to tender for the route, with the aim of linking up the financial hub with the Lithuanian capital. On top of this, the new routings that the authorities have been subsidising have helped open up a rapidly growing tourist market. The strategy certainly seems to be working. In 2018 Vilnius saw the largest increase in passenger numbers of any European airport, with a 30% leap taking it from 3,761,837 to 4,922,949 passengers.

Planning the trip proved to be incredibly straightforward. Vilnius has a brilliant tourist information website which should be a model for other cities – packed with clearly presented information, maps and smart guides for Vilnius (ranging from where to find the best coffee spots to the best photographic opportunities). There are also some handy tourist guides covering the castles and historic sights in nearby Trakai.

Our flight, LOT 272, took us from London City Airport to Vilnius in just over two hours. The plane looked pretty fresh (hardly surprising at only 7 months old) but one curious feature was that none of the seats in economy lined up with the windows, meaning that you had to look over your shoulder or lean forward to see out of a window. In spite of this, I did manage to spot the unmistakable waterways of Hamburg and the 98km long Curonian Spit on our way to Lithuania.

It was pretty easy to navigate our way through the modest airport, though it’s worth a moment to pause and admire the decoration adorning the facade of the 1950s Soviet airport terminal. The figures include children playing with kites and toy planes; an airman gathering his parachute; an engineer clutching plans in front of an engine; a workman leaning against some propellers in a factory; and a pair of aviators looking to the skies. The interior of the arrivals hall is pretty splendid too.

Interior of the arrivals hall at Vilnius airport

You are spoilt for choice on arrival with a couple of easy public transport options – a bus taking about 20 minutes to reach the city will set you back 1 euro while a train taking 7 minutes is even cheaper at 0,70 euros. We took the number 88 bus and just half an hour after landing found ourselves walking through the Gates of Dawn and into the old town. The city centre is incredibly compact, packed with historic sights in every direction. It is hard to imagine an easier European capital to visit.

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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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London from the air

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 9, 2019

On my homeward flights to London I have often caught the occasional glimpse of a sight or two that I recognise, but rarely have I seen such an extended run of the familiar as we followed the path of the Thames in to Heathrow today on our much delayed flight.

The flight took us over the millennium dome; the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf; London Bridge and the City of London; Waterloo; Victoria Station and Battersea Power Station; the National Archives; Kew Gardens; and the Cavalry Barracks at Hounslow. The last of these was especially interesting to me as one of my ancestors was stationed here in 1800-1801 when the site was still relatively new. It is currently scheduled for closure in 2020.

The Cavalry Barracks at Hounslow

The Cavalry Barracks are historically significant, being among the oldest and most complete barracks in the country. The first buildings on the site date back to the first wave of construction in 1793 and there are 14 grade II listed buildings on the Site, some of which are in a poor state of repair. In addition to this, there are 19 locally listed buildings on the site.

Earlier this year the local council released a planning brief for the cavalry barracks which sets out their vision for a new neighbourhood that will integrate new build with the site’s heritage. It will be interesting to see how this progresses.

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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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Day trip to Isosaari

Posted in Finland, Helsinki by folkestonejack on July 7, 2019

The island of Isosaari is one of the most interesting additions to the portfolio of sights in Helsinki. A military outpost at the outermost reaches of the archipelago, Isosaari first opened to the public in 2017. It’s easily reached by a ferry from the Market Square that takes about 40 minutes and there is enough to draw your attention for a full day out.

You might think wonder why you should visit another military island, given that these are not exactly in short supply in Helsinki. In my opinion, Isosaari has a completely different feel to its less remote neighbours. It’s not so obviously fortified as Suomenlinna and Vallisaari, with the military structures here more spread out and relatively well hidden in the natural landscape. It also shows more evidence of its relatively recent use for the military, including some areas that are still fenced off.

Travel to Isosaari on the M/S Isosaari!

I was keen to see the island now, while it is still relatively untouched by redevelopment, as it is likely that the transformation from military outpost to tourist destination will see some of the more interesting features disappear. A good example of this is the nine hole golf course on the island – one of the most difficult in Finland.

The golf course was built one hole at a time in the 1980s while it was still a closed military island, but has been opened to the public with the island. At the time we visited there were dedicated days or evenings for golfers, outside of general visiting hours, but once the island gets all-year round holiday living it seems unlikely that there will be a place for the golf course. A quick look around shows what makes it special with uneven ground, beaches, trees, roads, water and bunkers of the military kind!

Our day trip took us out on the first boat of the day. I had made the booking in advance, but the numbers we saw gathered on the pier at the Market Square didn’t suggest that you would have great difficulty walking up for this one. It was a lovely crossing, taking you to the island via a brief stop at Vallisaari and with a terrific view of Suomenlinna (which never gets boring). On our way out the Viking XPRS was on her way in from Tallinn and the former steamer M/S J.L.Runeberg (1912) was on her way out to Porvoo, adding to the interest.

The Torpedo Station at Isosaari

On our arrival we joined a walking tour, which is the only way that you can get to see the Peninniemi peninsular and the Torpedo station. The official website didn’t mention that the tours were in Finnish only, either in the text or on the booking form, but this was clearly indicated on the signpost before you board. I would have booked regardless, as I wanted to see that part of the island. Our tour guide bravely offered to say a few words in english at each stop, but we were very grateful when a chap who spent some time on the island while in the army kindly translated the key bits for us, throwing in his own anecdotes along the way!

The fortification of Isosaari can be traced back to the Crimean War. Although the Finnish archipelago was a long way from the battlefield, the islands saw some of the actions in the Baltic campaign of the Anglo-French fleet against the Russian Navy at their base at Kronstadt, at Bomarsund and at the fortress islands of Viapori (Suomenlinna). In the last of these attacks around 80 ships from the Anglo-French fleet anchored off Isosaari and bombarded Viapori repeatedly for 40 hours. The strategic importance of Isosaari was not forgotten and after the war the island was fortified as part of the outer ring of defence for St Petersburg.

One tangible link to the Crimean war remains on the island – the grave of 33 year old seaman George Quinnell, who was serving on the frigate HMS Amphion. It is said that he was decapitated by a cannonball fired from Santahamina (another military island, still in use by the Finnish armed forces) during a scouting mission ahead of the battle in 1855. A party of sailors from HMS Albion and HMS Exploit recently visited the grave to pay their respects to the forgotten sailor.

The grave of George Quinnell

The island was fortified under Russian rule, but after the bitter civil war the same fortifications and barracks were used to form the Iso-Mjölö prison camp which held around 1,500 of the most dangerous Red prisoners. The conditions were pretty terrible but worst for the prisoners condemned to die, held in a Russian casemate that was little more than a dug out with a dirt floor and covered with earth. Many died of diseases or were executed. In 1955 a memorial for the prisoners was erected on the island over the site of a mass grave.

Under the new Finnish administration the island continued to play an important defensive role, but instead of protecting the Russian coast the islands were now manned as a protection for the Finnish territories against the Russian threat. Many of the existing armaments and ammunition that had been left behind were re-purposed. This process of adaption continued, for example the Finns installed a gun from a First World War battleship on the island during the Second World War.

One of the more interesting locations on the island, accessible only on a guided tour, is the old Torpedo Test Station (1936). The Finns inherited Russian T/12-torpedoes upon independence in 1917 and experiments with them were carried out here from the 1930s to 1950s. This was particularly important after World War 2. Our guide explained that the Peace Treaty forbade torpedo boats but not torpedos, so this experiment was a way round that.

Inside the Torpedo Station (1933–36)

After torpedo testing operations moved to Upinniemi (1956) the peninsula was used for corrosion testing until 2017 (the corroded frames were still in evidence inside and outside the main torpedo station building). There was also a military weather station located here between 1929-1953 and 1984-2008, though some of the buildings associated with this have long gone.

The island was more than just a military base, as you can see from the infrastructure. Our tour took us past some of the terraced housing blocks built in the 1960s to accommodate around 30 families and a couple of schools. The first school building, now a dilapidated wooden building, was still in use as a school house until the 1970s despite having no running water. The second school building was in better condition. There were still a handful of pupils attending when it closed in 2002. Only one person lives on the island today – the southernmost inhabitant of Helsinki.

Some of the buildings on the island are likely to be demolished, like the L shaped barracks building that was in use until 2012, while others will be used as part of the facilities for visitors. There are a couple of restaurants on the island, including one in the Rikama Hall serving up a very reasonably priced buffet of seasonal produce that came highly recommended. There is also a public sauna included in the price of the ferry ticket!

Plaque on the stone monolith erected in remembrance of Colonel Johan Rikama (1895-1954)

The island has plenty of natural wonders, from stone fields that shows the ancient shorelines to sandy beaches. A walk along the southern shore, dodging bits of rusting iron poking out from the rocks, is rewarded with the sight of a stone monolith erected in remembrance of Colonel Johan Rikama, an important player in the development of the country’s coastal defense. A second plaque, towards the base of the monument, remembers Lieutenant General Eino I. Järvinen, who died during the inauguration of the monument in 1955.

I always appreciate the insights that a tour guide can bring to a visit. I was fascinated to learn that one of the guns was, in its day, so powerful that no binoculars were powerful enough so instructions for firing were given by spotters in Tallinn. Sticking with the Estonian theme, we were also told that Estonian refugees landed on the island in the 1940s and settled there – a bit awkward as there was also a German outpost on the island! The Germans eventually requested they be returned but the Finns refused.

On one of the last stops of our walking tour we were shown a circular gun mount at one of the Russian built casemates, completed in 1915. The Finns inherited the Russian guns after the revolution but didn’t know how to fire them. The Germans arrived and showed them how. All instructions around the gun added at this time were in German, but the next wave of army soldiers coming in didn’t know German… back to square one! After all that effort, the gun was never actually used in anger.

Old School

Our time on the island was a delight. The tour was absolutely fascinating and highlighted many things we would otherwise have missed – well worth doing, despite the little hiccup about the language. The whole Peninniemi peninsula had been closed for the public until May 2019, so we were very lucky to have the opportunity to take a walk around this part of the island.

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Helsinki’s new living room

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

The portfolio of tourist attractions in Helsinki continues to grow with a variety of new sights from art galleries to museums. The most unlikely of these new additions to the tourist itinerary would have to be Helsinki’s new Central Public Library – Oodi.

As a librarian, I quite often seek out libraries in new places (which has something of a busman’s holiday about it I know) but here there were clearly plenty of tourists and they couldn’t all be librarians! I made a couple of trips – the first to see the library in action and then to take a few photographs in its quieter moments. It didn’t get any less impressive the more you appreciated the detail of what they have done here…

Oodi

The first thing that strikes you as you approach Oodi is the prominence of the position, situated opposite the Finnish Parliament and next door to the main railway station. It is telling that such prime real estate has been used for the public good rather than sold off to the highest bidder. It shows how serious the Finns are about the legally enshrined role of libraries in the promotion of lifelong learning, active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression.

Stepping inside, you soon come across a declaration that matches this – proclaiming that everyone has the right to be in Oodi and that hanging out there without a reason is allowed and even recommended. The statement goes on to say that Oodi is everyone’s shared living room and you can really see that is true as you survey the different workspaces, seating areas and quiet corners across the library.

The ‘Book Heaven’ on the top floor is simply extraordinary with the vast open expanse of shelving interspersed with indoor trees and seating. It is a wonderfully light, comfortable and well used space. If you need a breath of fresh air you can step outside onto the citizens’ balcony for a view over Töölönlahti Park. The shelves hold works in twenty languages and even a selection of board games too.

Book heaven on the third floor!

The facilities were incredibly impressive too – 3d printers, sewing machines, massive roll printers, kitchens and even game rooms with the latest consoles. No wonder this place is as heavily used as we saw it. The librarian in me was impressed by the automated book return (complete with conveyor belts) and features like the intelligent docking stations with Hublet tablets that can be borrowed to access digital content or just browse the internet while in the library.

Throughout my visit I was struck by how beautifully thought out the space was with nothing forgotten, from the dot pattern on the glass to stop birds from flying straight into the windows to a pram park and a secret doorway into the fairy tale room. This is a really inspirational place – a sight to restore your faith in the power of libraries to make a difference at the heart of the community.

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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+ in-board and out-board 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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