Innovative Scandinavians and going behind the iron curtain
The Contents Highlights:
1. Copenhagen: seeing the city by bike and ship while getting to know a revitalized neighborhood
2. Sweden: a week in the dynamic south and passing through the barren north
3. Finland: a great stereotypical weekend in the cold north and discovering overrated Helsinki
4. St. Petersburg: just a nice little stop on a cruise in the Baltic Sea
5. The Baltic Countries: road-trippin through Estonia, Latvia, & Lithuania
1) Last time I left you we were finishing up an amazing 10 days in Germany. We stocked up on groceries in Lübeck, German before taking the ferry across to expensive Scandinavia. Our introduction to these thriving European countries was via Copenhagen and what a great place to start. We had a great centrally located hostel that encouraged using their bikes to get around town and with good reason—Copenhagen’s downtown biking network rivals that of Amsterdam and was by far the best we’ve seen on this trip.
There were easily more bikes parked around town then cars. We also gave into a touristy canal boat tour to see a city interwoven by sea, river, and canals—it was a wonderful way to learn about the different neighborhoods that collectively make up the Danish capital.
One particular urban neighborhood called Christiania had a pretty unique revival story: in the 1970’s the area was a deselect military base that welcomed a flood of squatters (people living in abandon buildings). After failed attempts to revitalize, the local government gave into the idea of free workforce and communal housing that fueled the already thriving hippie movement going on in the neighborhood. That night Peter and I caught a Blues show at the famous Christiania Loppen Theater and chatted with some locals to get a true sense of what is was all about. I was happy to experience first hand how a neighborhood could become such a special place with just common people wrapping around a revolutionary idea to an open-minded community.
2) The next day we took the large bridge over to Sweden from Demark and I convinced my brother to make a pit stop in the city just on the other side called Malmo. This growing city is Sweden’s second largest and is home to one of the most sustainable neighborhoods in the world. When I was working with the Denver Housing Authority, doing sustainable development I had the opportunity to learn about best practices in the industry while working on some great projects of our own. I was granted the opportunity to go to the Eco-District Summit in Portland, OR last year and saw a presentation on the redevelopment of Malmo’s Western Harbor and was blow away by the kinds of sustainable measures they were able to achieve, so naturally I had to see it for myself! Since I don’t want to bore all of you who aren’t as dorky as I am when it comes to development, I’ll give you the cliff notes…60 acres of an old run-down industrial harbor redeveloped into a net-zero (all buildings consume and produce enough energy to not tap into the grid over an annual period) 1,300 unit mixed-use (residential + commercial) project that incorporates a district-wide thermalmass storage system (for heating and cooling) and uses an open storm-water network that feeds rich bio-diversity to naturally clean the water before emptying into the harbor.
The community was rich in parks and bike trails and created a great mind-set about being green on the individual level. After a night and day of me geeking-out, we headed for Stockholm. The expensive Stockholm wasn’t all we cracked it up to be but we did manage to meet with some locals that were friends of friends and they did a great job showing us around. I would say the highlight was the Vasa Museum. It was one of the most impressive museums we’ve seen in Europe because they reconstructed a 17th century merchant ship almost entirely out of the wreckage preserved in Stockholm’s muddy harbor.
On her maiden voyage in 1628, the great Vasa sank just 1,300 meters off the dock because it was built too top-heavy. Centuries later and multiple efforts pieced back together this 226ft behemoth of a ship, making it one of archeology’s greatest feats. We continued the road trip north, driving through a very different forested and rural Sweden. We had to find a midway point to our destination in Finland and chose Umeà, Sweden because you could sleep in a hostel that is an old remodeled prison—fun staying in your own private cell knowing you can leave anytime you want. We also had to stop at a random IKEA to eat some Swedish meatballs before crossing the boarder into Finland.
3) When my brother and I were Zanzibar, Tanzania we met a very sweet Finish couple that were more than happy to host us when we came through Northern Finland. We are so happy we met them because they showed us an amazingly authentic Finnish weekend. They put us up in a cozy cottage house right on the coast of the cold Baltic Sea. After eating homemade elk meatballs we followed them out to feed the fires that heated the hot tub and sauna. Pete helped stir up the homemade hot tub- it was really something else.
We stayed up all night (really it was light all “night” being that far North in May) talking about the differences of the “southerners” and our two unique cultures. We learned how a relatively small country can be so different from one end to the other and were amused at the many ways they keep from boredom in the winter. It was hard going south to Helsinki after getting spoiled in the North especially because the Capital is pretty bland and didn’t have much character. We did take advantage of the World Hockey Championship that came through Helsinki and supported good old USA against Slovakia. There were few American fans to the thousands of Slovakians that came out to support their underdog team.
The Scandinavia trek ended with a ferryboat ride across to Tallinn, Estonia with the car and I remember thinking as we left the harbor, no wonder why so many Scandinavia’s travel: they have great working social governments with safe, healthy and educated communities but for most of the year there are many other places in the world that must be more fun. Some of the best people we’ve met on our travels were Scandinavians finding fun far from their homes.
4) The gorgeous and well-preserved old city of Tallinn became our home base for our excursion over to St. Petersburg, Russia. It is difficult and expensive to get a visa for mother Russia but there is one loophole we took advantage of. By taking a “cruise” on a massive ferryboat you can get a pass to enter and exit without having a visa as long as your trip is less than 72 hours. Even after the overnight cruises from and to Tallinn we still had enough time to visit a lot of the city Peter the Great built. I was surprised to see blight (run-down buildings) in many of the downtown neighborhoods despite the City being Russia’s gem but it all had a unique charm about it. It was like a European splash over traditional Soviet simplicity that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The huge River Neva nits all the important structures together and is connected by a series of impressive 18th century bridges.
The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood is probably the most notable structure with it’s brightly colored multiple domes and Peter & Pauls Fortress/Cathedral where all the tsars are buried was equally remarkable but only the Louve in Paris could beat St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. Set in the royal Winter Palace, the museum shows many of the original rooms and collections of the Royal Families and holds some of the best 17th-19 century art (take a look at more photo’s in my travel blog’s library). Overall we enjoyed our quick exertion to Russia and I must say it did make me appreciate living in a place where people smile at you, are genuinely friendly and willing to help because it seemed like almost everyone there was sad and cold…maybe they’re still hung-over from communism.
5) Estonia was a good start to our exploration of the Baltic countries because we got a taste of both a historic and thriving capital (Tallinn) and the countryside. We took a day trip to the Lahema National Park that had amazing bike trails that took you through lush pine forest, the Baltic Sea coastline, and daisy-filled open meadows.
We cooled down with a round of mini-golf at one of the coolest courses we’d ever seen. Each hole represented and explained a landmark in any of the three Baltic Countries. The next stop on the road trip was Riga, Latvia and I can safely say this became one of our favorite cities in the world. It helped that we were there for a beer festival and the weather was awesome but everything was cheap, people were so friendly, the cobble stone old town was a delight, food was amazing, and the nights weren’t boring at all! I also fell in love with the art nouveau architecture that the city is famous for (see more in the photo gallery)
We met a crazy Irishman and a wild Aussie at our lively hostel and let them hop in the car because we were all headed to Vilnius, Lithuania anyway. The one condition was they had to come checkout the Curonian Spit just off the Western coast of Lithuania before we headed to the capital of the largest Baltic state. The long thin sliver of an island is owned half by Lithuania and half by Prussia. It has one of the best bike trails we’ve rode on in Europe and large sand dunes that look out over the Baltic Sea.
After out quick nature fix we jumped right back into the excitement of another happening old town/city (Vilnius). We stayed at a great hostel with smart, edgy travelers willing to start up a conversation about anything and locals who worked there that were very knowledgeable on what is worth seeing. One directed us to see the intense Museum of Genocide Victims. All the Baltic countries had some form of occupation museum that told the story of the oppression each faced when the Soviets and Nazi Germany took away their independence. Each is equally atrocious but the Lithuanians had it a bit tougher with almost all of their 120,000 men of the resistance army being wiped out by the Soviets. The Baltic Countries stayed under the USSR regime from 1940 to 1990 when their autonomy was finally given back. One of the most amazing peaceful demonstrations leading up to this point was called the Baltic chain where over 2 million people joined hands to link Tallinn to Vilnius as a way to express their desire for freedom from Soviet rule. This last Baltic country had a special place in our traveling hearts because it was where our great grandfather came over from in the mid-1800’s and although it was such a beautiful country with wonderful people I’m happy the Spelke’s escaped the turbulent history that followed shortly after that time period. We headed south from Vilnius with a full car and before dropping into Poland stopped to see a proper castle surrounded by moat and all.
Pete and I are currently getting some quality time with the Mama in Greece and I can’t wait to share with you our amazing June finishing up Europe.
• June: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Munich
• Mid-June: Greece (with the mommy)
• July: Nepal (Everest Base Camp), Japan
• End July: Hawaii (a good friend’s wedding)
Less than two months before we’re home sweet home. Hope your summers are going well and you’re not missing us too much.
“Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Jalaluddin Rumi