Sunday, 30 October 2011

Fine Finnish Cycling

Nothing beats the bike as a means of exploring, and I've been especially fortunate that, every Sunday the past two months, the weather's been dry, sunny, and generally pretty pristine for a long ride in the roads to the west and northwest of Helsinki.
My very first ride, northwest on 110 at Veikkola, I saw a guy standing with his bike and on his phone, so I went over to ask if he was OK (yep). Later on the ride back towards Helsinki, we bumped into each other again and got to talking (this is rather rare - it's almost impossible to get a simple wave from a Finn when riding or running!). Juha Makela's a lawyer and we ended up getting in a few amazing rides together talking about tons of things when we weren't hammering each other silly, and our family also had a fabulous dinner (reindeer for appetizers and salmon for entree, plus my first real and good cup of espresso since I've been here!) together this past Saturday. Kiitos for the company and being my personal GPS!

The bike path network in Helsinki is mind-boggling. Pretty much every road in the city and surrounding areas have wide bike/pedestrian sidewalks on at least one side if not both sides of the road. The paths are very wide, so there's almost never problems with crowding with pedestrians. There are underpasses every so often under the main road so that you often don't have to cross traffic at all. The paths are nice enough that I can keep a pretty decent average speed going throughout. If anything, there are TOO many bike paths, such that it takes a LOT of time to become familiar enough with the routes to not get lost or waylaid.
The one downside of cycling here in Finland is that we've gone through 5 flats and 2 tires! Today's flat while riding with Juha was nuts - I actually rode over a small piece of branch and a pretty large perpendicular sub-branch jabbed right through the rear tire and the branch was just sticking out at 90o! I spent a lot of effort pulling bits of wood out of the tire while fixing the flat to make sure it didn't re-puncture. 

Once you get out about 25 km from the city, then you wind up on some really gorgeous roads. My main routes have been west to Bembole, and then north up around Veskola where these pictures are taken. The fall colours, the canopy of trees, the excellently-paved roads, and the lack of cars plus very courteous drivers, make the fall cycling a complete treat. No crazy steep hills, but it's also not really flat either.
Finland has about a billion lakes, so you're never too far away from a nice view. This one on the left was also towards Veskola. The one on the right was near Bembole. The fall colours here haven't been too much in the reds or oranges, mostly yellows. Longest ride was today at 100 km, luckily with a strong tailwind the final 35 km!

Tuesday, it's onwards to Brussels and the Belgian heartland of cycling!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Bear Essentials

Had an interesting chat this afternoon with this gentleman down by the harbour, where he was carving small wooden bears. Carving these particular style of bears is a Finnish traditional craft, and actually is shared across much of the north of Scandinavia and Russia. Each country region has a slightly different style with their bears, and it's an art form that is re-emerging in popularity. The bears are magical and powerful creatures in many legends in these parts. One story he told was of how after hunting a bear for food, the skull would be placed up high on a tree so that the bear's spirit would return up to Ursa Major constellation, signalling more bears to the area and to protect the tribe.

Other things we learned: the Russian style of bear tends to be more aggressive in appearance; willow is a great wood for doing the carving, because, while it's not necessarily a soft wood, it's very "even" and doesn't crack or chip. Also, his best carving knife has a harder cutting edge on a softer blade. Finally, the knife is from Sweden, marking one of the few times I've heard a Finn speak favourably of anything Swedish!

This has nothing to do with this particular post. But since we got a picture of the Canadian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, why not get a picture of the Canadian embassy here in Helsinki?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Bowling FINN-ale!

Hard to believe that we've just marked SIX MONTHS since we moved out of Fonthill! It's also 10+ weeks since our arrival in Helsinki and it's almost time for goodbye here! After giving a talk about what I hopefully learned during my stay, Heikki treated us and the lab to a celebratory night out. First up was some bowling, adding to the list of activities (outdoor rock climbing, frisbee golf, running, floorball, handstands!) I haven't done ever or in eons!
Group picture of my Finnish friends. Juha Peltonen's on the far left, Heikki Tikkanen's is on the right next to me, and poor Harriet Haglund (far right) had to put up with my 80s music fetish in our shared office.
It's been a while since the last "Daddy's Feet" picture, but at least I got one in from Finland! And no, that shot was planned and not from me falling on my butt sliding down the bowling lane! Zachary is either practicing his All Blacks "Haka" or else doing some advanced yogic body english to get the ball to curl! Debbie just missed cracking 100, but at least we all kept our balls in our own lanes and didn't drop the balls on our toes.
Next up was a fancy meal at "Motti" restaurant. Here's my artsy picture of Jacob.
As farewell presents, the lab also dressed us up as proper Finns. The hats should keep us warm in Belgium!
The meal was terrific if a tad slow (as in about 3h delivery for 6 courses!), but it gave all of us lots of time for conversation. The meal was very fancy and haute cuisine. Some notable dishes included grilled river lamprey, which was certainly a first for us and which led to me getting a lot of extra lamprey - not bad at all really! There was also cabbage rolls with duck meat in a cherry compote, which was awesome. And up above, Santa has one less reindeer for his sleigh this Christmas, but it was delicious with vanilla cabbage on top.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Kindness of Strangers...

Getting dropped off by the ferry's bus at St. Isaac's Cathedral, we were perusing a large city map when an older gentleman asked in broken English where we were going. When we told him the Hermitage, Anatoli's eyes lit up and he insisted on taking us on an extended walk around the Embankment, pointing out historic buildings like where Doestoevsky and Nabokov used to live, where Rasputin was ambushed and murdered, the famous Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, around the Admiralty, and around the exteriors of the different Hermitage complex to show us some out-of-the-way gems like these giant statues. He also pointed out all the buildings on the other side of the Neva.

How large were those giants? My fist is the size of their big toe to the first knuckle!
Our gigantic St. Petersburg flickr album!

Then on Wednesday, we saw this young mom and her adorable boy on the canal next to the Church on the Spilled Blood. She took our picture too and, when I had finished killing myself with the handstand, came back to us with a present of a fridge magnet for the boys! Spaseeba! (Grazie pa-Russki) Thus, we ended up with a pleasant slap to the face of our preconceptions of "foreigners" and the Russian stereotype of being tough to get to know. Of course, I have a history with Russians and know that they're wonderfully open and friendly people, but some of you out there already know that story...

Monday, 24 October 2011

My Finnish Commute

Sunrise from our apartment
The fall colours are making for a beautiful walk to the lab. I really think the fall is my favourite time of the year. Something about the brisk air, the rustle of your feet kicking through the falling leaves, the bright colours made more dramatic by the lower sun on the horizon. Plus, compared to the "endless" days of summer, you're reminded to enjoy each and every day of nice weather because it might be the last for many months! So here are some scenes from my daily 15 min walk to the lab...

I'm a sucker for ivy on buildings and fences, especially in the fall. This is right outside our apartment.
I start by going down to the end of the block on our street of Hesperiankatu, then turn right down the fairly busy (by Euro city standards) Mechelininkatu road. You can either walk/bike on either of the wide sidewalks, but I prefer to wander down the very wide centre green strip under this wide canopy of trees.
About 700 m down Mechelininkatu, I then veer left through Sibelius Park where the big monument to the composer is. Even early in the morning and throughout the day, hordes of tour buses disembark here to see the Sibelius monument. Right now in the mornings the monument looks awesome with the colourful trees in the background.
Took this picture on the walk in this morning before sunrise (sun rises at 0820h now!) while the nightlights were still on the monument and before the hordes of tourists.
From the park, the rest of the walk is through a quiet residential area. One street has a massive series of chestnut trees dropping chestnuts all fall. Not the good-to-eat kind unfortunately!
And so I wind up here, at the Foundation for Sport where our lab has their offices, usually ready for a second coffee of the morning! Our offices are on the ground floor, but the main sports med clinic and lab is in view in the middle floor.
Another view of the sunrise from our bedroom way up on the 11th floor. Not a bad way to get to work, and definitely beats biking up crazy-busy Keele St in Toronto or through downtown TO during my Ph.D. days!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

House of Horrors - Luckily Not!

View outside on the Fontanka
There are many mini-hotels in St. Petersburg that are established in apartment building that were built in Soviet times. There apartments would be divided into sections that contained several rooms (up to 10 or so) that an entire family would live in and then a shared kitchen and bathroom. Now these have been converted into small hotel rooms that still use the shared kitchen and bath.

Our "not so mini" St. Petersburg flickr album!

It's always nice to have your stereotypes and pre-conceptions shot down in flames. We had read reviews of dirty, dark stairways to micro-hotels on the 5th floor because the hotel doesn't actually own the stairwell and with more than a little trepidation booked at Hotel Adagio - it had no reviews at all and was cheaper than several others with dodgy reviews! We were well pleased though - it was located within walking distance to the heart of Nevsky Prospekt along the Fontanka River. It had a large, nicely decorated room with 3 beds and a sofa. Although the bathrooms were shared they were very clean and there was a large shared kitchen where we were served a small continental breakfast in the morning. There was even a washing machine and bath tub in the bathroom.  The hotel administrator Xenia was friendly and spoke reasonably good English.

We would stay again or recommend our friends to stay at Hotel Adagio ($96 CDN on Expedia). What could have been a bit scary turned out terrific! But to live here as a family in a communal apartment of maybe 20-40 people total, with no choice in neighbours, could be another matter altogether! Apparently that's still common practice even post-USSR in St. Petersburg, with some of the areas outside the city amongst the worst slums in Europe.
Big Ears, Jaybob's new cuddle friend, seems to quite like it at the Adagio!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Sauna Mania!

This is a picture of me before the sauna!
At the apartment every Saturday the saunas, and the observation deck are open (from 6:00 to 8:00). So on Saturday we usually make cookies, cinnamon rolls, or buy something at the market and share them with folks.

This is a picture of me and daddy after the sauna. 
Last Saturday I made cookies (they usually go quite fast!) and finished our maple syrup, and then went out to the sauna with daddy and Zach. Zachary was the first to go in so right when I was coming in he turned up the heat, I don't know why but the last four time I walk in someone is turning up the heat! As you can see from the picture, Daddy and I were tempted to pull out the fire hose after a bit too much sauna - everyone sure sleeps well Saturday night!

Live update: one person just fainted and collapsed in the sauna, and Daddy the world-famous thermophysiologist and we helped get the ambulance and the situation under control. Not all fun and games!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Alexander's Column

Alexander's column and Rossi's arch!
Alexander's Column (Aleksandrovskaya Kolonna) stands in the middle of Palace Square in between the Hermitage Museum and Rossi's arch. It was built after 1812 as a triumphal monument to commemorate the victory of Russia over the French when Napoleon was in power. The funny part is that the person who won the contest for the best design was a French architect named Auguste Montferrand, who also designed St. Issac's Cathedral. The column was made with a granite monolith that came from the north shore of the Gulf of Finland.

Look up there! It's a giant 'Peter' flickr album!

The base of the column with
Rossi's arch behind.
In 1832, supervised by the craftsmen who put in the columns at St. Issac's, 2000 volunteers (who were mostly veterans from the war) and 400 other workers raised the column onto the base using a big system of scaffolding, ropes and pulleys. The column is one of the highest of its kind in the world. It is 47.5 meters high. It is taller than most of the its rivals including the 44.5 meter Trojan column that is in Rome and the 46 meter Vendome Column that is in Paris. The bronze angel that is on the top of it symbolizes the peace that came over Europe after the final defeat of Napoleon.

Here is the base of the column, where the
round part is is where the balanced top starts.
Rossi's Arch
The base is decorated with bas-reliefs of people representing the rivers that the Russian soldiers had to cross while fighting Napoleon as well as allegories of Wisdom, Peace, Plenty, Victory and Justice. The top of the column is not attached to the base, so I don't want to be standing under there during an earthquake! It stands on its own 650 ton weight!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Our Young Backpacking Padowins

Walking down Nevsky Prospekt (the main street) in St. Petersburg, I had this wonderful experience watching Zachary and Jacob walking a metre ahead of me and a decade ahead of their times. Here they were with their backpacks, wandering down the street chatting away as brothers do. Just another day like every day for young boys, right? Only they were wandering down St. Petersburg in RUSSIA and not thinking of it as anything crazy or unusual! They've already been to the other St. Petersburg in Florida too. So when it comes time that they want to backpack through Europe as young twenty-somethings, we can show them this picture and tell them they've already done it! Indeed, later at a cafe, the boys said that they should go into business planning homeschool tours in Europe for kids! One option would just be to sell their tickets to our next sabbatical trip!

Your homeschool guides to Europe!

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Hermitage Museum

The Hermitage Museum is one of the world's largest art collections housed in a magnificent palace and inspires awe in the 3 million visitors who come here every year. The halls and hundreds of rooms of the museum cover 20 km and can only display 5% of the 3 million piece collection. It is said that if you looked at each item in the museum for only a few seconds it would take over 11 years to see it all.

Our big St. Petersburg flickr album

Entry was only 400 rubles (~$13 CAN) for adults (Russian citizens 100) and free for kids. Since forever, there's been a huge price discrepancy in Russia for citizens vs foreigners. I read that a group of foreigners actually won a court case about this, but many places still keep the practice going. Anyway, there were treasures everywhere you turned in the Hermitage. On the right is a shot of a basement hall, where there were all these storage boxes crammed in amongst the displays!

The Hermitage Museum is made up of 4 buildings. The first and largest is the green, white and gold Winter Palace (Zimney dvorets), build on the banks of the Neva River. It is the grandest building in St. Petersburg and was commissioned by Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth and designed by the Italian architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The other buildings are called the Small Hermitage, the Large Hermitage and the New Hermitage. The buildings themselves are as much masterpieces as the art housed inside of them.

Obviously, it is impossible to describe it all but suffice it to say we have never been in such a place as this or seen so many art masterpieces. Here are some of the highlights:

This beautiful twin curved staircase was designed by Rastrelli in 1762.  Jacob counted 79 marble stairs leading to the top. It is made of Carrara marble and has decorative balustrades, mirrors, gilded trim and statues. It was once the staircase used by ambassadors and diplomats visiting the Tsars and Tsarinas here. It has survived destruction by both Catherine the Great (who didn't like the Baroque style) and the fire of 1837 that destroyed parts of the palace.

Nicolaev Hall, known as the Great Hall, is a magnificent gold and white room with huge crystal chandeliers. It used to be the scene of lavish balls. The blue and white Concert Hall currently displays Russian silverware and the centrepiece is Alexander Nevsky's silver sarcophagus. This room connects to the Malachite Hall which is the smaller but possibly the most impressive. It was desined in 1839 as a drawing room for Nicholas I's wife, Alexandra. It is decorated with more than 2 tons of green malachite from the Ural Mountains. It was also where the counter-revolutionary Provisional Government had their final meeting in 1921 before they were arrested by the Bolsheviks in the dining room next door. We wandered through the Portrait Gallery of the Romanov's, Field Marshall's Hall, The Small Throne Room

On the left is the Chamber of Columns, for obvious reasons. On the right is Nicolaev Hall.

Considering that the Italian art collection from between the 13th -18th century spans over 30 rooms, a short description isn't going to do justice to all that we saw. I was just amazed by the amount of incredible artwork that we saw. During my "formal education years", I somehow missed out on learning anything about famous art or artists and it is only now, during our homeschooling years that I am learning to appreciate great art. Needless to say, by the end of the day, I was overwhelmed and things started to blur together but I was thinking that it would take years just studying the history, stories and people portrayed in this gallery.

The Italian Rooms included works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Caravaggio. In the Flemish and Dutch room there are an astounding collection by Rubens and Rembrandt. Unfortunately, we realized at the end of the day we had missed room 254 (Rembrandt) in our meanderings and were all too footsore, foggy and headachy to make the 1/2 km trek back there. We did see several painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which I recognized instantly thanks to our art appreciation classes with Karen. Also thanks to Karen, I had an idea about what is meant by French rococo, with works by Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard.

The Impressionists and post-Impressionists take up most of the third floor - Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne. There are rooms each full of paintings by Gauguin (15), Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky.

And I haven't mentioned the ancient artifacts  from Egypt, Greece, Rome to Siberia on the first floor. One of the most remarkable things was an ancient Scythian woolen carpet from approx. 400 BCE that was large enough to cover an entire wall up to the vaulted ceiling. It had been preserved by a thick layer of frozen ground over the burial mound it was recovered from. Although we kept an eye peeled for it all day, I don't think we saw the 19-ton Kolyvan Vase, although we did see immense vases made from malachite and lapis lazuli among other precious stones.

The Hermitage is a place you could go again and again and likely never see everything. I am just glad that we were able to spend a day here and to see as much as we did.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

St. Petersburg: closed on Wednesdays!

We didn't plan out our Tallinn posts very well so we are planing these St. Petersburg posts a little bit better.

I am calling this post St. Petersburg: Closed on Wednesday because we had a big laugh when we noticed that everything was closed on Wednesdays. These are some of the things that were closed: the Church on the Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Issac's Cathedral, and many others places!

Our flickr album is never closed!

We took the Monday night St. Peters Line ferry and got to St. Petersburg Tuesday morning, then we had from 12:00 to 6:00 at the Hermitage Museum. First though, we had a tour of the city courtesy of Anatoli (see Daddy's future post). The Hermitage is one of the largest art museums in the world but it isn't just all art there (but more about that later). We got a really nice room in a micro hotel where we were pleasantly surprised after reading some reviews of other hotels on the web (more on THAT later too!).

Although there was hard rain on Tuesday while we were at the Hermitage, it was sunny on Wednesday while we were walking around the city, and the fall colours made it really pretty. We walked around the city all day and saw lots of cathedrals, monuments, and important sites We found a great restaurant for lunch me and dad had Russian style fish and Jacob and mom had Chicken kiev.

We also went to Peter and Paul fortress to walk around. We took the metro and took that 1 stop and then we walked around the fortress then we walked back near St. Issac's cathedral and found a coffee shop and had dinner. The escalator at the metro was the longest one I have ever seen and it and the metro were very fast. Then at 6:00 we had to head back for the ferry and it started to rain. We got the last bus for the ferry and the driver really wanted to get us there on time. It felt like we were going faster than on a highway through the crowded streets.
On the left we're all together (upright) with St. Isaac's Cathedral behind - 200 kg of gold on that dome! On the right we're on the Peter and Paul beach with the Neva river and the Hermitage behind us.
This picture is to show the mix of cars with the old Lada on the left (like Uncle Steve had) and the limo
hummer on the right side of the picture and on the far side of the limo hummer there
is another limo. Some people really wanted to keep their nice cars safe because they some of them
were actually parking them totally on the sidewalk like they're in Greece or something!
Here is a picture of Jacob's chicken kiev. OK so Kiev's now part of Ukraine and not officially Russian, but it's still authentic and yummy!  
Here is the huge escalator at the metro. It was crazy long, and makes the one at Kamppi in Helsinki seem like a toy slide! The Metro is just packed with people, and only cost 25 rubbles (80 cents)
Another un-Daddy perfect handstand in front of the statue to Catherine the Great, with the Alexandrisky Theatre behind.
I really like the picture on the left, where it looks like the lion figurehead on the ship's prow is leaping over the Winter Palace. The two-headed eagle is the symbol of the Romanovs, the family of the tsars, and are everywhere in the city.
The famous Bronze Horseman statue of Peter the Great, made in his memory by Catherine the Great. Here on the right I'm tree-hugging this huge column at the Kazan Cathedral.

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by guess who? Peter the Great of course! Many people were forced into labour and died to build the city, so it was not always a happy memory of Peter. It was the capital of Russia until the Soviets moved it to Moscow. There was so much to see in St. Petersburg that we'll have at least one more post of just the sights - stay tuned!