I must admit I was unexpectedly charmed by Helsinki. Visiting there in early March, I was envisioning a frozen Nordic capital. The weather was indeed on the chilly side but I barely noticed, having been totally amazed by the city’s stunning architecture and welcoming vibe. Above all, I was surprised – and delighted – by the “North-meets-East” feel of the place. The Northern part does not need much explanation: Helsinki is the second northernmost capital city in the world after Reykjavik. It is Helsinki’s eastern character that is less commonly appreciated. While in the common consciousness Finland, a member state of the European Union, is firmly a part of Western Europe, geographically and historically it also has strong ties to the East – namely Russia.
After centuries of Swedish rule, Finland came under Russia’s influence after the 1808-09 war fought between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire. As a result of the war, the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland was established within the Russian Empire. When Tsar Alexander I moved the new duchy’s capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to bring the capital closer to St. Petersburg, the city began its transformation into a modern metropolis. Its downtown in particular was shaped in the neoclassical image of the tsarist capital by a German-born architect Carl Ludvig Engel. Read the rest of this entry
Santo subito! – Saint now!
Crowds gathered at the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII (Image: CNN)
the crowds of faithful gathered in Rome were demanding at the Polish Pope John Paul II’s funeral on April 8, 2005. Last Sunday, these calls were answered when John Paul II, along with John XXIII were canonized by Pope Francis
in an unprecedented ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican. For Poles in particular – religious or not – this was a special day. John Paul II was “our” pope, for people from my generation the only pope we’d ever known, a source of spiritual strength in bleak communist reality of Poland at the time, and a source of inspiration to millions that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. Not surprisingly, during the days surrounding the canonization ceremony Rome became a Polish city with thousands of pilgrims from Poland
flocking to the Italian capital. Read the rest of this entry
Yes, I meant for the title of this blog to be provocative. For most people Frankfurt – the one on the Main river – has three leading associations: 1) one of the few European cities with a U.S.-style skyline, 2) the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB)
, and 3) a giant airport
that they always transit through but never leave. None of the above (but especially the airport) typically brings the word “fun” to mind. But that impression changed for me when, after countless flight connections at FRA, my husband and I finally decided to venture outside having built two days in the city into our itinerary. And it was totally worth it!
Did you know that there used to be a Roman settlement here? While few artifacts remain, the Roman heritage lives on in the name of a hallmark medieval building in the compact yet surprisingly charming Old Town (Altstadt) called Römer, or Roman, after a merchant family that used to own it. Did you know that the world-famous Frankfurt Trade Fair (or Frankfurter Messe) dates back to 1150? Did you know that German kings and emperors were elected in Frankfurt since 855 and also crowned there from 1562 until 1792 at the impressive Frankfurt Cathedral of St. Bartholomäus? Did you know that Goethe was born here in 1749? I didn’t until I finally took the time to explore. Read the rest of this entry
Juliet’s balcony in Verona
Seeing a superb performance of Romeo and Juliet directed by Aaron Posner at Washington DC’s beautiful Folger Theatre took me back to summer days in Verona. Before I went there I really knew nothing about this city beyond its association with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Verona surprised me, charmed me, exceeded expectations in every way. I was anticipating a mini-Disneyland with Romeo & Juliet-themed rides. I found a city rich in history and and points of interest beyond the famed Juliet’s balcony (which by the way is a tourist zoo).
Juliet’s house at Via Cappello 23 (Casa di Giulietta), dating back to the 13th century and owned by the family dell Capello, is usually the first stop on everybody’s Verona itinerary. Never mind that we’re not really sure whether Romeo and Juliet ever existed and that the balcony that overlooks the courtyard was added in the 20th century. Capello apparently sounds close enough to Capulet and that’s sufficient to create a tourist craze. Read the rest of this entry
Earlier this year I saw a superb adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick at Washington, DC’s Atlas Theatre. The story’s protagonist, Richard Mayhew, rescues a mysterious wounded girl he finds on the London sidewalk and he is soon plunged into an underworld of “London Below” where the struggle between good and evil, heroes and monsters, plays out among imaginary spaces with familiar names of London Underground tube stations. I had been to London before many years ago, but Neverwhere inspired me to reconnect and incorporate a few days in the city into the itinerary of a recent trip to Europe.
My impressions of London were not unlike those of Richard Mayhew:
“Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with color. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries.” Read the rest of this entry
A Romanian city of Arad doesn’t get many blogs written about it and that’s a shame because it’s definitely worth a visit even though it may not be among the top tier destinations in Eastern Europe. But such off-the-beaten-path places are precisely where you get to experience the country in a more authentic way, removed from throngs of tourists. Arad in a way felt very familiar, easy. The language is a relatively simple to decipher mix of Romance and Slavic influences, plus Turkish words like the delicious ciorbă soup but that didn’t quite help me =) And the architecture – except for Orthodox churches – made me think of my Polish hometown, Kielce (and right now I’m realizing I still haven’t blogged about it – shame!)
The third largest city in Western Romania after Timişoara and Oradea, Arad is an important transportation hub and urban center. The city straddles the banks of the Mureș River that arches in an inverted U-shape around an expansive park with the 18th century fortress. It was built after the 1699 Treaty of Carlowitz that ended 16 years of hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and a coalition of Austria, Poland, Venice, and Russia. As a result of the treaty Transylvania and much of Hungary were transferred from Turkish control to the Habsburg Empire. The Mureș became a boarder between Habsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey and Arad a frontier town in need of fortification. Read the rest of this entry
Budapest: breathtaking views of the lazily flowing Danube river, artful bridges connecting the buzzing urban Pest side on the east bank with the steep, green, royal Buda hill to the west, expansive Parliament Building and imposing St. Stephen’s Cathedral… I loved them all and I’ll write about them – some other time. Right now, with the memories of my trip to Budapest I am, well, hungry to recapture some of the culinary highlights. Let the journey begin!
The day starts with a fortifying breakfast buffet at a charming boutique place, Three Corners Hotel Art‘s La Perle restaurant. My favorites were various Hungarian salamis, duck liver pate, and delicious pickled herring – perhaps not universally appreciated as a breakfast item but what can I say, that’s where my Polish roots show =) Read the rest of this entry
Just two hours south of Zürich a charming, tiny mountain village of Flüeli-Ranft sits high above lake Sarnen at the entrance of the Great Melch Valley. This is Switzerland as idyllic and picturesque as it gets: wooden houses with bright window shutters scattered on green slopes, colorful patches of wildflowers clinging to rocky paths, and distant sounds of cow wells carrying through the valley. In the morning the air is sharp and fresh, and dense fog envelops the surrounding mountain peaks. Warm noon sunlight magnifies the glow of the white-walled 17th century St. Karl Borromäus Chapel centrally perched upon a hill. And the evening stretches elongated tree shadows across the valley, and reflects crimson sun rays in the windows of the magnificent Hotel Paxmontana, the Art Nouveau masterpiece that has been the local hallmark since 1896. Read the rest of this entry
Today I found a fascinating post on BuzzFeed
featuring photos of the 33 most beautiful abandoned places in the world. It’s hard to pick favorites but I have to say the one of the sand-filled house in Kolmanskop, a ghost town in the Namib Desert, is the most striking to me. The blues, yellows, and oranges are striking. And the multiple door frames captured in this shot make the image self-referential, reminiscent of the hall of mirrors.
It made me look through my own photo collection to find beautiful abandoned places I’ve come across. Here are my top five. How about you? Have you taken any photos of desolate yet striking locations that you’d have to share? If so blog about it and link back – which I guess would officially make this my first-ever travel theme post! Read the rest of this entry
Grand Hotel in Starý Smokovec
Full disclosure: I’m not a skier. This makes visiting areas popular among enthusiasts of this sport kind of awkward since I’m just an outside observer. What is more, all the skiing-relevant aspects of a place like the specifics of the slopes, depth of snow coverage, quality of lifts, or – crucially – the price tag – are entirely oblivious to me. I’m fully content with simpler pleasures: hiking and food. Starý Smokovec
in Slovakia’s High Tatra (Vysoké Tatry
) Mountains is such a place. We visited last winter and stayed in cozy and hospitable Pension Tatrasport Zampa
Starý Smokovec was founded in 1793 and the early settlement grew around the local mineral water springs. Now it is a popular tourist destination adored by skiers and hikers alike, conveniently located on the Tatra Electric Railway line that connects it to the city of Poprad and fellow resort towns Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso. Read the rest of this entry