Stockholm

 

Moaritisk Absorbent 2

Reeling from Russia’s awesome attractions, we cruised into our next stop, Stockholm, Sweden.  Since we’d delved heavily into history in our Russian tours, we decided to start our Swedish sojourn with some modern art.

Swedish Subway Station Tour

Buried beneath Stockholm’s streets are stunning subway stations, cavernous and colourful.  Desperate to see them for ourselves, we followed the tour. Our guide Marie got round trip tickets to show us some of the most sensational stops. With 100 stations to choose from, it was no mean feat.

Kungsträdgården

Kungsträdgården

Among the most memorable was Kungsträdgården station, underneath Stockholm’s public park. The station’s rough walls are forest green, with water trickling down them into pools, complete with marooned- marble statues, looking like sunken Greek gods.

While obviously engineered, the water features have allowed nature to flourish, as the station hosts a fungus with a unique DNA structure, the first of its kind discovered there in 2016.

T-Centralen

T-Centralen

Travelling back in time, to the first of Stockholm’s art subways, we visited the T-Centralen. Decorated in blue and white motifs of wheat and industrial scenes; it is a surprisingly static station design created by Scandinavia’s prima kinetic artist, Per Olof Ultvedt.

Citybanan

Citybanan

From the old to the new, we moved to the recently completed Citybanan railway tunnel, complete with celestial cloud ceiling and dazzling domes. Designed by Ahlqvist and Almqvist Architects, with illumination from WSP Sweden, the station is intended to shift its visitors from warm to cool light as they ascend the escalator.

Also on the city line was the Moaritisk Absorbent disco light feature wall and ceiling, by artist Mikael Paulin. With gorgeous glows, it makes the perfect selfie stop!

Solna Centrum

Solna Centrum

Next we saw Solna Centrum subway station, designed by Karl-Olov Björk and Anders Åberg to be a sunset of red huges, with political murals marking poignant points of Swedish sociology, such as rural flight, deforestation and environmentalism.

Stadion subway

Stadion subway

Ideology continued in the Stadion subway, which welcomes visitors with its rainbow colours and blue sky walls. Although perfect for Pride – which is celebrated in the nearby Östermalms IP grounds  –  the colours were chosen by Enno Hallek and Åke Pallarp to represent the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Changing Guard

Changing of the Guard

Heading back to the city centre, we finished our subway station tour in time to witness the daily Changing of the Guard. Around noon, we followed crowds through the streets, up to the palace Outer Courtyard to see The Royal Guard and Music Corps complete their procession. Although it was busy, we squeezed to the front capture photos of the gold and blue bonanza.

Bee Shop

Breaking off from the crowds, we walked down the pretty street of 111 29 Stockholm, catching a break at a Texas grill. Sampling the local lager – and not so local food– we speculated about souvenir shops nearby.

It was then I spotted the bee produce shop, Sverkstan (door number 10 on the street). Venturing in, I was delighted with its beeswax candles, soaps and Manuka honey. With friendly staff and a wide range of goods, I would have spent more time and Kronor there, but with cruise departure impending we made a beeline for the port.

St Petersburg


The Hermitage 1

Rushing into our Russian adventure, my family and I grabbed a taxi to chase the tour bus. We were on a group visa, so it’s a miracle they let us through the port. But, after passport and ticket checks, they sped us to The Hermitage, to join our fellow cruisers.

The Hermitage

We found our group, just one of many, queued round the block to witness the world’s second largest museum. With pillars and a mint façade stretching 233, 345 square meters, The Hermitage stole the breath we’d just caught.

Once inside, our tour guide Yevgenia directed us past classical statues, up marble stairs and to Winter Palace Small Throne Room. Here we saw the stunning silver guild throne built for Tsar Nicholas I, in 1833.

Travelling back in time, we walked through The Military Gallery, marvelling at the 332 portraits of generals who thwarted the 1812 French invasion of Russia. These included a large depiction of the Duke of Wellington.

Then passing another throne, we reached the most magical room, the Pavilion Hall. Here architect Andrei Stakenschneider had combined pale marble, gilded mouldings and crystal chandeliers to awesome effect.

Centre stage in Pavilion Hall was the Peacock Clock, a feat of engineering art. Its shining silver and gilded bronze animated a peacock, cockerel and owl, which moved as it chimed. Created by James Cox in the 1770s; the clock was procured for Catherine the Great, by her lover and ally Grigory Potemkin.

Tearing ourselves away we moved out the Hall, past Italian masters and gazed up to the Raphael Loggias – replicated ceilings of those in Vatican City’s Papal Palace.

The Italian theme continued as then we met Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy, a marble statue, bent over as if with foot pain. Intended for the Medici family tomb, the statue was created when Medicis regained rule of Florence, following the failing of the Republic.

Next we basked in the Small Italian Skylight Room, with 16 and 17 Century artists such as Veronese, and Carracci.

Finally, we reached the Rembrandt Room, where we discovered the dramatic Danae painting, depicting the mother of Demi God (Perseus) as she awaited Zeus. Remarkable from the first, Danae was styled on Rembrandt’s wife, before being altered after her death, to reflect the features of his mistress.

In 1985 Soviet Lithuanian Bronius Maigys slashed and chemically burned the painting’s canvas, in an act of madness. Restoration started on the day of vandalism and now the painting is faithfully repaired.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Imaginations ignited, we headed back to the bus – to our next stop – The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.  Safeguarded in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Cathedral contains the tombs of the tsars including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and the Romanov family.

Each Russian ruler brings sensational stories, including Peter I, who built the capital from swamp; Catherine II– who overthrew her husband to gain the throne- and the Romanovs who were killed by Communist revolutionaries.

As we heard their history, we paid homage to the Cathedral’s characters, as well as its icons, wood- carvings and canopies.


Heading back outside, we heard one final fable of The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, that of its roofer. In 1829, the spire’s angel was damaged by lightening and could only be repaired by expert Petr Telushkin. Petr climbed the spire without any scaffolding to complete the job. As a reward, Peter the Great gave him a flagon for free alcohol in any Russian Empire tavern.  Rather than carry the tankard, Petr got it tattooed on his neck – so he just had to tap it to get free alcohol. In today’s Russia flicking your neck with your fingers still remarks upon drunkenness or desire to drink.

Thirst awakened – we headed for lunch. After driving over the Dvortsovyy Most and Birzhevoy bridges, we circled back round the Winter Palace – for vodka shots at a barn conversion. Being the youngest of the group – and a fan of liquid lunches – all unwanted nips were passed to me. Thankfully potato salad and stroganoff soon arrived to soak up the booze.

Yusupov Palace

Spirits high we headed to our next stop, Yusupov Palace. Named after its once residents the Yusupov family, the Palace includes over 40,000 works of art and its own ravishing Rococo theatre.

The Palace started life as a gift to Peter the Great’s niece, before being bought in the mid-18 Century, by Count Shuvalov – whose heir commissioned Vallin de la Mothe to renovate it – in a similar style to the Small Hermitage. Then, in 1830, Prince Yusupov bought the palace, and it remained in his family until seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

A year before, the palace was the sight of a dark drama, the murder of Rasputin. We relived the mad monk’s final night, as we we walked through the Arab living room and down to the Garrison, where wax figures recreated the scene.

In 1916, in a bid to save the Romanovs from ruin, Prince Yusupov and nobleman Purishkevich invited Rasputin (advisor to the tsars) to Moika Palace, before poisoning him, shooting him and drowning him in the river outside.

 

The Moika River Tour

Retracing the murders’ steps, we went from the Palace to The Moika River. Here we piled onto a tour boat, with blankets on knees, to experience the capital’s lighter delights.

From the Moika we sailed along the Kryukov Canal, with views of St Nicholas Cathedral, Mariinsky Theatre, the Stroganov and Mariinsky Palaces, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the General Staff Building on Palace Square.

While soaking in our surroundings, we noticed a teen wave from the blue bridge, so we waived back. Then, the next bridge we came to, he was there too. He was racing the boat to greet us from every crossing. Our mascot’s marathon stretched over an hour, so when the trip finished we rewarded him with rubles.

Charmed by our first day in St Petersburg, we headed back to the ship to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures…

Tallinn

Tallinn Town Hall Square

 

Sailing two days East from Copenhagen, our Capital Cities of the Baltic Cruise closed in on Estonia’s historical haven, Tallinn. 

 

Tallinn Freedom Square

Freedom Square

Gangway cleared, we hopped in a taxi to the World-Heritage Site of Tallinn’s Old Town.  Detouring, we passed the colossal concrete Freedom Square, featuring a 23.5m high glass Cross of Liberty (Victory Colum) honouring those lost during the Estonian War of Independence.

Running from 1918–1920, the War of Independence saw Estonia fight for freedom first from Russian, then German occupation, before the Tartu Peace Treaty recognised its sovereignty.

Now a selfie hotspot, the square is bordered to the East by St. John’s Church, to the South by an underground shopping center and to the West by the Victory Column.

Keen to see more, we headed North inside the walls of the Old Town.

St. Mary's Cathedral Tallinn

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Starting at the top, we entered St. Mary’s Cathedral, a sublime structure complete with many Med Evil coats of arms and a 69-metre Baroque bell tower.  After an awesome ascent we reached the best view in town, which showed Tallinn’s hidden gems shining in the sun; none more so than the golden tops of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Tallinn

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Lured by its striking sight, our next stop was to the Eastern Orthodox build. Here stately steps lead to chequered floors, fabulous frescos, chandeliers, and inspiring iconostases. Such splendor made it difficult to focus on any one feature, but soon all heads rose to the sound of the Cathedral’s bells.  With 11 bells in its ensemble, Alexander Nevsky’s tower boasts Tallinn’s largest bell, which weighs an impressive 15 tonne.


Tallinn Town Walls

Tallinn Town Walls

Seeking a quieter spot we headed away from the Cathedral, to trace the Town Walls. Giving the UNESCO site its fairy-tale façade, the Town Walls feature terracotta turrets, arches and walkways sublime for snaps. 

As well as being beautiful, these features allow Tallinn to claim status as one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval fortifications, with its structure dating back to the 14th century and 1.9 km of original wall remaining.  To further examine the walls visitors can climb up Nunna tower, but we chose to admire them from afar at the Patkuli viewing platform.

The Raeapteek

The Raeapteek

Down the steps, 10 minute’s walk from the platform, is the Town Hall Square, where modern market stalls are edged by ancient architecture, such as the Raeapteek (Old Pharmacy).

The Raeapteek’s unassuming threshold leads visitors upstairs, before revealing two rooms, a working chemist and a museum of Apothecary. The latter room holds ornate wooden cabinets and glass displays of herbs and medicine books from the Middle -Ages.

Dating back to 1422, the building is the oldest continually operating pharmacy in Europe. Its early days saw it function not just a place of healing, but of socialising, where town folk would meet for a gossip and goblet of wine.

Restaurant Troika

Thirsty for our own refreshments, we headed to the nearby haunt Restaurant Troika.  With tables overlooking the plaza, this Eastern eatery was perfect for people watching.  Once set with tankards of beer, we pondered passers-by and the delectable dishes being served around us.

Then, as musicians struck up from the restaurant doorway, our attention was drawn to the décor within.  As we entered, a stuffed grizzly bear stood arms outstretched, ready to greet us. Then, next to it, a life-sized Matryoshka doll stood, begging to be cuddled. The old eastern décor was complete with the waiting staff’s sarafan costumes and hearty hospitality.

Mercado De Flores

Reinvigorated we headed back to the ship, making one last stop at Mercado De Flores.  Just three minutes walk from the plaza, the Flower Market was well worth the detour. Bright botanical bunches assaulted our senses, with posies for every price range. Tulips, carnations and wildflowers were just some of the delights on offer. In the end I opted for a bouquet of velvet red roses, accented with cornflowers – the symbol of Estonia.

Once back on the ship we swapped tips for Tallinn travellers: bring walking shoes, a tourist map and spending money for the beautiful boutiques. 

Fools and Heroes Glasgow

LARP

  

LARP or Live Action Role Play is latest form of gaming to capture the UKs imagination. Using improv, costumes and outdoor settings, it is literally a breath of fresh air.

“It’s similar to games like Dungeons and Dragons, but instead of sitting around the table rolling dice you put on costumes and become the characters,” LARP veteran Claire Main said.

Main works as Glasgow Branch Liaison Officer to LARP group Fools and Heroes, in which she has gamed for four years.

She said: LARPing has been around for quite a long time; in the eighties we spotted the first groups in the UK. In the nineties the Cuckoos Nest was set up as part of Glasgow University LARP society, but it has now become its own separate entity. Lots of LARP groups have now sprung up in Glasgow.”

Although one of many, Main explained that the Fools and Heroes group works as part of a wider network.

She said: “The society, as a whole, works by allowing members of one local branch to play in the games of others throughout the country. So you can play as your character and travel as them throughout the UK.”

Main recalled: “I had a phone call this week from a couple in the Plymouth branch of Fools and Heroes, wanting to match our LARP session dates with those of their holiday, so that they could join the game while on their break.”

She added: “I have friends all over the UK now that I wouldn’t have met otherwise; it is a wonderful social network!”

Although part of a national scene, Fools and Heroes Glasgow branch practices most in Mugdock Country Park.

Main set the scene: “The park has a lot of terrain to play with. It has an old World War II bunker that can be adapted to be a trap in the game; it also has open fields and marsh that can be farmland, battlefields or graveyards. Nature can set a wonderful backdrop to get your mind going. Some of the best games that I have had have been when the mist has come rolling in or there has been snow on the ground.”

She added: “Nature is however, only a starting point. Its up to the player to get immersed into the character and for the referees to set each situation up well, so that the game feels authentic.”

This authentic vibe is created by splitting the game and group in half; the first half sees one lot of fools and heroes assume characters on a noble quest, while the second lot will play the villains and damsels in distress. Then after lunch participants swap around, so that everyone gets a chance to play both signature and supporting characters.

Signature characters have become synonymous with LARPing, as many players use the medium to become their idols. However, Main explained that is not quite how it works in the world of Fools and Heroes.

She said: “All LARP groups are different, but Fools and Heroes sees you play one main character of your own design. You will start of as a primary character, such as a squire, then as your character grows in experience and wealth they can progress. For instance, after a while your character can join a guild, join a church, learn magic and develop into an epic hero.

“This development allows you to learn as the same time as your character, for instance the first time your character encounters a troll they won’t know what to do, so a more experienced character will need to step in and show you. Then as you learn and progress you will help those less experienced.”

This learning also expands players’ life skills.

Main explained: “It gets you exercising and encourages you to develop other skills on the side. I have learned to sew, knit, crochet all through LARPing.”

While the game is progressive, it is high contact, so not suitable for everyone.

Main cautioned: “Fools and Heroes LARP is a physical game, it involves running and combat so it would be more challenging for people with mobility restrictions, however there are all kinds of LARPing out there, so it is up to the player to find one that suits them.”

Likewise Fools and Heroes only allows full membership at the age of eighteen, due to its adult content, but Main explains that there are other groups out there that will cater to younger players.

She concluded: It is hard to describe what LARPing is, so I would say to anyone that is curious about it to just come along and give it a go. It would lend itself well to team building and an alternative day out.”

 

 

Lisbon

L cover

With our hearts set on a music festival, seven friends and I booked a week in July to Lisbon. Liberdade was our area of choice for its proximity to the venue; but there was a catch, it was ‘save- a- year-ahead’ expensive.

Being Portugal-virgins we had unwittingly booked accommodation in its premier shopping district. So bedraggled from the plane, we did the walk of shame past Gucci to reach our hotel foyer.

Staying

Since none of the group was shopaholics, our motive for choosing NH Lisboa Liberdade was simple, it had a pool. The thought of a city break in 30 degrees heat was too much for my Scottish soul so, like a prima donna, I pushed for a pool.

Having assessed the competition, we decided that Lisboa Liberdade had not only the best pool (for our budget) but best balconies. However, we soon realised not all balconies were created equal (two of our crew hit jackpot with room 803’s huge terrace).

Contending with balcony envy, the hotel staff consoled us with travel advice and charm in excellent English.

This charm extended to the rooms, which had spacious interiors, comfy beds, decent bathrooms and mini bars.

Mini bar prices were enough to make us shudder, but the hotel’s surrounding shops had surprisingly cheap fare to substitute.

L dining

Dining

Cheap prices continued in Lisbon’s pubs and bistros. With a beer around three euros, bottles of wine for ten, and cocktails for five; Lisbon’s bars were a joy.

To digest both drinks and cityscape we headed to Bairro Alto (an alfresco area). On Bairro Alto’s plaza we chose the further of two open-air bars, to enjoy sugar cane cocktails while listening to buskers. The music perfectly complimented the plaza’s fountain and vantage point.

Across the road from the plaza we found The Decadent a bistro that, despite its name, was a reasonably priced. Its earthy interior provided respite, along with tasty cornbread, cocktails and seafood.

Seafood also stole the show at Pinóquio, a restaurant across the road from Restauradores Metro station. With packed tables, Portuguese dialogue, and tanks full of crabs it provided perfect taste of local life.

Another local treat surfaced near Cais do Sodré Metro, where we tracked down Mercado da Ribeira: Lisbon’s fab food fete. Here deli, drinks and dining units offer visitors a choice of global cuisine at cafeteria tables.

With a huge range of stalls as well as desert, wine and chocolate shops, we enjoyed post- dinner shopping.

L Music

Music

High spirits continued at Nos Alive music festival, which filled three of our seven nights in Lisbon. Situated in Passeio Marítimo de Algés (a 15 minute drive from Liberdade) the festival had four stages, indoor toilets, food, bars and walking beer tenders.

With headline acts including: The Prodigy, Muse and Mumford and Sons, Nos Alive 15 tickets were surprisingly cheap (costing £90 for all three nights). Each night ran until 3am, providing miles better value than a UK festival.

L Traveling

Travel

The only disadvantages of the festival closing at 3am was fighting competition for a taxi home; and suffering a post- midnight fare hike.

Aside from post-festival fares, Lisbon’s taxis were by large cheaper than those of the UK. As were its trams, buses and trains. While only the taxi’s had working air conditioning, each mode of transport had its appeal.

Aero-buses acted as punctual transfers from Lisbon Airport to the districts, while trams offered a vintage view of Lisbon’s ‘seven hills’. For travel outside of Lisbon centre, the trains offered quick and spacious speed.

L Art appreciating

Art appreciating

To escape the city, my boyfriend and I boarded a train to Sintra, Lisbon’s neighboring old town.

With regal buildings, museums and cliffs, the area had plenty to see. But we bee-lined to the Quinta da Regaleira, a World Heritage Site complete with chapel, underground tunnels, grotto and Gothic mansion. It really was the stuff of dreams.

The mansion house offered Portuguese history briefs, as well as drawings from the architect’s restoration. With multi-coloured tiles, intricate wooden paneling and fresco painting, signs explained that António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro (Monteiro the Millionaire) bolstered the manor’s splendor, as testament  to Portugal’s golden age.

After two hours of exploring my boyfriend and I resigned ourselves to the journey home, but not before scouring Sintra village’s crafts and wine shops.

As the trip drew to an end the group reflected on all we had done and all that we would have done, had we booked more time. Turns out a week isn’t long enough to see all Lisbon has to offer.

Gdańsk

gdask start

One of Europe’s best kept secrets is Gdańsk, Poland’s principle sea port. Bursting with culture and not stag-do in sight; it is literally a breath of fresh air.

On a frozen February 2014 my mum and I visited my Dad (a marine engineer) as he worked in Gdańsk. We stayed in an apartment with views of the river and echoes of clock chimes.

These chimes led us to beautiful buildings, eclectic art and cheap cuisine.

So here’s my recommendation for finding the best of the city.

gdansk town hall

Art appreciating

To cast your eye over Gdańsk’s heritage there is no better place than the Main Town Hall (Ratusz Głównego Miasta). This public building (restored from WWII bombing) is part art gallery, part domestic museum.

After crossing its threshold a multi lingual guidebook explains its Gothic Renaissance paintings, sculptures and  wooden replica ships.

This mix of high and low brow art continues as you move upstairs, into an antiquated household, complete with vintage clothes and kitchen items.

Finally a photo exhibition of Gdańsk, pre and post WWII leads you to the exit.

gdansk amber

Old and new meet again in the Amber Museum (Muzeum Bursztynu) as contemporary jewellery showcases with historical. Here visitors can see amber finely carved into items, from around the globe.

Muzeum Bursztynu documents Gdańsk’s connection to the material, sourced in Baltic countries and circulated through its hub of merchants. This attraction is a must see for anyone who appreciates sculpture.

 

gd neptune

Traveling

Aesthetic treats are not confined to galleries; Gdańsk’s streets are awash art and architecture that deserves a walking tour. Moving through them, visitors can’t miss Neptune’s Fountain (Fontanna Neptuna) an icon of the Greek sea god, holding his trident poised.

Neptune is situated in the heart of the ‘Long Market’ a bustling street of cafes and stalls, flanked by the Golden Gate on one end and the Green Gate at the other. Like most of Gdańsk architecture these Gates have Mannerist and Dutch influence that transports you back to a grander time.

Alternativly, for a working class tour, take the ferry across the river to The Crane. One of Gdańsk’s iconic symbols, the Crane was once used to transfer cargoes, erect ship masts and defend the city gates.

Defending the city from ideological attack was the Solidarity (socialist) movement. This movement, which saw shipyard workers fight for better living conditions, is recalled in the Maritime Museum (just next to the Crane).

While these attractions are a wandering distance from the town centre, further ones can be reached via the town’s metro. With cheap tickets, regular trains and colour co-ordinated maps, the lines are easy to navigate.

gdansk pyrabar

Dining

Just as easy to navigate are Gdańsk’s eateries; with cafes and bars on every street, all cheaper than their UK counterparts.

The best bargain my mum and I had was at the service of the Pyra Bar, on Garbary Road. This Ikea chic diner transformed potatoes into masterpieces. Its portions were big and included saucy casseroles, potato pancakes and stews. We ordered two casseroles and three pints of beer, getting change from 56 złotych (a tenner).

Then, for fancier fare, we headed to Goldwasser, a bistro overlooking the river. With outdoor seating, lanterns and a gothic interior, it was the perfect place to fine dine. Named after the famous liqueur (containing gold flakes) the aperitif was the perfect end to a seafood chowder starter and steak main. And if all the rich food is too much, you can walk it off – as we did – along the promenade.

gda l

Staying

Directly across the river from Goldwasser was my Dad’s working accommodation, where my mum and I stayed during our trip. However, if you stay on the Goldwasser side of town, and walk into its centre, there is a horde of accommodation to choose from, ranging from hostels to hotels.

With so much to see, eat and drink, Gdańsk really does spoil its visitors.