Europe

Madrid

Well, that's it for Europe. I'm writing this from the plane, on our way to Austin after our 4 hour layover in Newark. In just a couple of days Walter will start back at school for exactly a month before we head to South America.

We really didn't do Madrid justice. We didn't even make it over near some of the major sights, like the Cathedral and National Palace. Part of the reason was because we squeezed in a bit of shopping, but the biggest reason is that Jie and I were both feeling worn down and a little sick. So we kept it casual and relaxed in Madrid, and our trip went out with a whimper instead of a bang. So it goes, you've got to roll with the punches. And hey, the only time any of us got sick at all on this trip was in the very last couple of days, so I count us very lucky.

We did get to explore some of the city, walking through some of the central squares including Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol. Interestingly, Madrid has apparently allowed Vodafone to sponsor the biggest and most central square in the city, Puerta del Sol, so it actually shows up in many places as Vodafone Sol. Apparently some Madrilenos don't appreciate this, as in many places the Vodafone is scratched out or graffitied over.

We spent our first afternoon checking out the expansive Retiro Park and then the second day our major event was the Prado Museum. To the best of my recollection, the Prado is our only dedicated art museum of this entire trip. And I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure we picked the single best art museum of any city in our itinerary (in other words, any European city not Paris, Rome, or London). It was far more enjoyable than I would have expected, in large part because of the sheer number of masterpieces that I had actually seen pictures of or heard of prior to going. And Walter was a real trooper as well, armed with a map and list of masterpieces he did an excellent job leading us around the place. I wish he would have spent a little more time looking at the art instead of his map, but I'll absolutely take a happy and engaged 7 year old on a ~2 hour museum visit.

Madrid had a great vibe and I would love to come back one day. People were pretty friendly, there was a lot to see and do, and there were plentiful food options beyond Spanish food. This had become an issue for us, since we left Slovenia it's been hard to find anything but local food. Croatian, Greek, and Portuguese dinners are all seafood heavy and we were done. Spanish food was different and welcome, but we longed for good Indian or Asian food to mix things up, and we found it in Madrid. The highlight of Madrid for Walter was probably the Polish cab driver who took us to the airport. He spent the entire ride alternating between cracking jokes and teaching Walter words in Spanish and Chinese.

Over the next month I expect blogging to be pretty sparse as we ramp up for South America. I do want to put together some best-of posts, including maybe top 10 memories and top 10 photos. We'll see, it's all dependent on time and the clock is already ticking...34 days to Rio!

Estonia

We had a fun couple of days exploring Estonia. The Viking Line Ferry over from Helsinki went really smooth. After hustling on board we quickly found the kids play area and claimed a table there so Jie and I could relax while Walter played. We then spent about a day and a half in Tallinn and then rented a car and took a day trip out to a little town called Haapsalu on the western coast of Estonia.

The free shuttle from the ferry port drops you at Hotel Viru, right on the outskirts of the historic old town in Tallinn, the well-preserved medieval city that goes back at least until the 1200's. Indeed, you can easily get sucked into the wikipedia vortex by reading through the history of the region. Apparently Estonia and Latvia were the last European areas to resist Christianity and thus were the focus of the Northern Crusades which forcibly imposed Christianity on the local population. Doesn't seem like it took; per Rick Steves Estonia has the lowest rate of religious affiliation in Europe. Anywho, if you want to delve into Estonian history you can start with the wikipedia entry for Terra Mariana. It contains all the requisite elements of a good medieval story: pagans, papal decrees, crusades, Teutonic Knights, Knights Templar, German traders, etc.

Walter and our waiter inside Old Hansa

Back to modern day Tallinn: the walk from Hotel Viru into the medieval old town is very impressive. As you walk past flower stalls you come upon two old watchtowers that formed a city gate in medieval times. Through the gates the crowds increase and so does the level of activity, as restaurants on both sides compete for customers (in a casual way, not with shouting and breaking of plates as in some parts of Europe). Then, just before you get to the town square you run right into the two biggest and best medieval-themed restaurants, Old Hansa and Peppersack. The outside of both restaurants are thoroughly decorated and Old Hansa has a stage with performers playing and singing period-accurate songs. Indeed, the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff as they sing and dance in character is a sight to see, especially when paired with the environment all around.

We spent a full day and a half exploring the Tallinn old town. Mostly this involved walking around and poking our heads in the various churches and old buildings in the town. Walter and I hiked up to the top of one church to get panoramic views and at another spot walked around a restored area of the medieval city walls. The food in Tallinn was good and generally more reasonable than the Nordics. We ate one night at Old Hansa, where for a small fortune we had the "Royal Feast", a set menu that included elk fillets and heavily-sauced bear meat. Another night we had Indian food that was very good. See below or on smugmug for pictures of Tallinn:

On our 2nd morning in Tallinn we got up and took the city bus to the airport to pick up a rental car. I booked through rentalcars.com and got some sketchy rental agency called addcar. They didn't appear to have a rental desk and when we went to airport information it turned out we needed to talk to the person at the Aeroflot information desk to get our rental. Then we had to walk 3 blocks from the airport to find the lot where they kept their cars. And then our VW Golf smelled strongly of body odor. But hey, I saved $40! (Not worth it.)

The Haapsalu "beach"

We drove about 90 minutes to the western coast and a little town called Haapsalu. Supposedly there was a beach, but all we found was a grassy area leading up to water. It was...not scenic. But Walter didn't seem to care and had fun collecting and stacking rocks. We did have a really good lunch in a cute little restaurant on the central street and had fun walking through the castle ruins (the castle was built to head a state of the Holy Roman Empire as part of the Pope's realm in the late 1200's). The castle had a pretty nice playground as well where we had some fun:

And it turns out our VW Golf had some magical engine, as we used less than 3 gallons of gas on the 120 mile round-trip. Or at least that's all it would take at the gas station...

And now we are on our Lux Express bus headed south to Riga, Latvia, for destination #2 in our Baltic tour!

Helsinki

We're finishing up three nights in Helsinki. It's been a really nice break in the trip after our rapid spin through Sweden, Norway, and Denmark over the last ~3 weeks. All of our clothes are now fully cleaned (machines work much better than sinks!) and we've even shipped home about 7 pounds of heavier clothes as we're through with the cooler portion of our journey. We are in another Airbnb rental and this one is significantly nicer than our stay in Oslo. The owners have taken care of all the small details here, from meeting us at arrival to providing dish/washer/bath soap, etc.

Happily not getting ripped off ;)

The city itself has probably been our favorite so far. While the diversity of food options is not nearly as large as the other Scandanavian capitals, the streets are clean, public transportation is ubiquitous, and the city generally feel like a Western European capital but with significant Russian influence. Ironically, it feels very historic despite being the most recently established of the cities we've visited (founded in 1550, but there was not significant development until the mid-1700's ). It also feels less touristy. For example, when visiting the fish market by the harbor you don't feel like you're getting overcharged for being a tourist the same way you do in Bergen.

While here we managed to take in many of the popular sites: Suomenlinna Island/Fortress, a trio of churches (Church of the Rock, the Lutheran Cathedral and the Finnish Orthodox Cathedral), the amusement park, and of course the harbor area. Suomenlinna island was a lot of fun to hike around and wade into the freezing cold Baltic Sea. And back in the city it was really neat to be able show Walter the Lutheran Cathedral with it's very plain interior (and statue of Martin Luther) and then walk right over to the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral with it's abundant iconography, so he can see one very tangible difference between Christian denominations. (Sadly, I did not get any good photos of the interior of the Orthodox Cathedral.) Regardless of one's position on religion I think it's interesting in a cultural and historical context to see how differently they build and decorate their places of worship. Made me want to show him the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul with its Islamic decor and older Christian decor present in the same building.

Finally, we squeezed in some real life into this stay as well: two "home"-cooked dinners and a visit to the theater to see Ant-Man in 3D, complete with Finnish and Swedish subtitles.

Oh, and a funny coincidence. We ran into the cruise ship that we will be boarding in Valparaiso, Chile for our trip to Antarctica, the Seabourn Quest. It was in port for the day today in Helsinki! We'll see it again on December 20th!

That's the Quest there on the left. Our future room is somewhere on the starboard side.

Sir Walter, knight of the realm

Kalmar Castle

Our train arrived in Kalmar yesterday at about 1p, giving us 5 hours to drop our bags at the hotel and see what Castle Kalmar was all about. We stopped off at a grocery store by our hotel and picked up snacks for a picnic lunch and then had an informal picnic both as we walked and on a park bench shortly before arriving at the castle. It was certainly our most economical meal in Sweden (I even bought the store brand prociutto!).

Walter completing a boring task

Jie had read that the castle had a neat children's program, so after we paid our entrance fee we ignored the just-starting english tour of the castle and went straight for the central courtyard. In summary, we were positively blown away by the scale and enthusiasm of the children's activity at the castle. Upon check-in Walter was tasked with 10 different activities he must complete in order to be eligible to become a knight, prince, princess, etc. It was his choice, and I'm proud to say he instantly chose knight. ;)

Some of the activities were extremely basic and, frankly, exactly what I expected. But others were elaborate and very cool. Two in particular: Walter had to sit on a fake horse that was mounted on rails. He was given a lance and as the horse went down the rails had to joust with a plywood dragon:

In the primary challenge they dressed Walter in semi-realistic armor (his leather vest was fitted with interlocking metal plates inside), and he fought the dastardly black knight. The level of engagement and enthusiasm from all of the staff, from the black knight to the armorer to the princesses and, especially, to the court jesters was incredibly fun for the kids. They get it and they do it right. Made the whole diversion to Kalmar 100% worthwhile.

After completing all the tasks Walter had to pull a sword from a stone, King Arthur style. Unfortunately I don't have any photos or video, but again they got this one right. The stone contains an electromagnet which they keep powered up. If someone randomly pulls on the sword it won't come out. Even when a grown-up does it (believe me, I tried!). But when a child has completed the challenges they let them try for a second and then lower the power to the magnet and the sword slides out. Very, very cool.

Finally, there is the knighting ceremony. When you complete your challenges they record your name and so during the ceremony they can call you up by name and in the right language (or at least in Swedish, German, and English) they pronounce you knight or prince or whatever.

I can't say enough positive things about the production at Kalmar. It was an incredible experience for Walter. And for me, honestly. I was such a castles and knights geek as a kid it was a ton of fun to live vicariously through him for a few hours.