Sights in Europe

This rambling聽features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights聽that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.

Best Art Museum:聽National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 馃檪 The palatial building聽has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with聽mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…

Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks聽waterside, board聽to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.

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MNAC, Croatian peninsula, view from Dubrovnik’s walls.

Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix聽cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially聽if you come across聽live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.

Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.

Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior聽is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.

Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.

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Pena Palace, library at Mafra, Trinity College Library.

Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in.聽The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework聽worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.

Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.

Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.

Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.

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Village Museum, Red Bull Air Race, tombs at Cemiterio dos Prazeres, La Sagrada Familia.

Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon.聽Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.

Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.聽La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. 聽Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.

Favorite Museum Artwork: Discovering the Body聽of King Louis II by Bertalan Szekely.聽It’s a weird choice, but in person it is impressive and some parts are so realistic that it took me a while to convince myself the canvas was flat.

Most Heartwrenching聽Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but聽it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.

Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown.聽King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.

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Fortress at Omis, Romania’s royal crown, book fountain, gas canisters at Auschwitz.

Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season.聽 They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 馃檪 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.

Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest.聽Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.

Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia.聽We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.

Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.聽The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.

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Plitvice Lakes, Chester Beatty Library, Suomenlinna Island.

Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki.聽A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.

Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania.聽Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.

City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards.聽Outside the Gothic Quarter’s 聽tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.

Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:

Lisbon has a castle downtown! The ruined聽Carmo Monastery! The less ruined Jeronimos Monastery. Next door to the Pena Palace is the clamberable ruins of the聽Moorish Castle.

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Carving at Jeronimos Monastery, Carmo Monastery, Solin’s ruined amphitheater.

Barcelona’sMontjuic Castle聽has dark and checkered history, but beautiful views. Nearby, the聽Olympic Grounds聽are a great picnic/frisbee spot.

The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement聽in Split聽still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin聽add to that argument.聽Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.

The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik聽was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying聽out to聽Lokrum Island聽also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place聽to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.

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Lokrum Island, Palace of the Parliament, Peles Castle.

Bucharest聽has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.

In Dublin, the National Archaeology Museum聽and St. Patrick’s Cathedral聽聽were my other favorites. And the whole city recalls lots of great literature 馃檪 . Across the country, really just a few hours drive, are the Cliffs of Moher.聽Brave the wind and don’t get too close to the edge.

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Cliffs of Moher, inside St. Patrick’s, Dohany Street Synagogue.

Budapest is impressive all around. The quirky Pinball Museum聽is great for 5 hours until your wrists give out but the massive Szechenyi Thermal Baths聽can relieve all those arm cramps. A more sombre visit, the聽Dohany Street Synagogue聽is a reminder of how the Holocaust changed Hungary.

In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of聽Warsaw聽is a WWII memorial. Walking聽anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In聽the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.

Krakow聽crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica聽is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some聽of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.

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Wilanow, Krakow’s Franciscan Church, Lennusadam, Kadriorg Palace.

Tallinn’s聽St. Olaf church tower is a great way to view the Old Town and reveal a fear of heights. Tucked away in Kadriorg park is the impressive KUMU National Art Museum and the cute聽Kadriorg Palace (also housing art). The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor has full sized boats and a submarine to explore

Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….

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Tallinn

Tallinn is high up on the list of places I could see living after traveling gets old. Each place we’ve gone this month just makes the list of reasons why longer. (Full disclosure: it has gotten noticeably colder since we arrived and I’m not yet sure I could last through a winter. I’m pretty glad we’ve had a sauna as the weather has changed.) My favorite spots聽in the city are Kadriorg Park and the paths聽along the waterfront.

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Kadriorg Palace: all business and with its hair down.

Kadriorg Park has a prettily colored summer palace with the same name. It was built for Catherine I of Russia, but is now an art museum. We were lucky enough to be here for the end-of-the-season Light Walks. For a single night, thousands of candles line the park paths, spotlights and stages go up on the buildings and gazebos, and a large portion of the city comes to hang out, listen to music, and see the night-ending fireworks.

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Favorites from KUMU

The Estonian Art Museum, KUMU, is in a far corner of the聽Park. We went聽on an almost free day and spent a few hours. I was happy to find a聽temporary exhibition of 19th century dresses – and a War and Peace聽miniseries has been airing on TV – so I’ve gotten my fill of period clothes/drama. Intimidatingly cinched waistlines aside, it would be fun to have one in my wardrobe just because. There were some really interesting artworks trying to deal with the decades of Communism and pretty landscapes that explain why hiking is a popular聽activity. Perhaps the oddest thing was a room full of dozens of sculpture heads and busts聽– a little creepy for sure, especially the random one on the wall that was a seagull. 聽(There was also a similar set of baby head sculptures outside聽– I might have nightmares from it.)

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Main square, ghost monks, Baltic Way memorial

The Old Town leans heavily towards touristy and governmenty, and is full of souvenir聽shops, restaurants, and embassies. Its town walls and towers are mostly preserved so it feels cozy. Many buildings are pastel colors and there are churches every few blocks. I’m sure we’ve seen each Old Town street multiple times. It is fun to visit, but I’m glad we stayed outside of it where meals are cheaper and there are fewer crowds. Tourist groups can be nice if you are in them, but less so if you are trying to get down a narrow, cobbled street through a hundred people going the other direction.

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St. John’s and the Memorial to the War of Independence

Churches in Tallinn run the full spectrum of Christian decor. Several are Russian Orthodox, full of beautiful artwork covering every surface, and what feels like acres of gold. Others, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, tend more toward Nordic austerity.

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Museum of the Occupations: prison doors, Soviet statues by the toilets, spy equipment

Just outside the Old Town is the聽Museum of Occupations. Estonia spent an unfortunate amount of the 20th century under Russian and German control without聽self-determination. Especially thought-provoking were video interviews on the end of World War II. Some Estonians had been forced聽into the Red Army (Russia overran聽and occupied Estonia from 1940-1), but were OK聽with fighting against the Nazi invasion. But as the war turned and it became clear that Russia wanted to re-occupy Estonia, others joined German army units or otherwise fought to try to keep Estonia free of outside rule. Sadly, numbers were not on their side. It struck me what a Catch-22 deciding which side to fight for must have been. There was no way to know which side would win, or support your claims to independence, or how you might suffer if you chose wrong.

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2016 Marathon, getting ready for winter, Old Town towers.

We were also in town for the Tallinn Marathon. Thousands of runners show up for a weekend of races, making us feel bad for our pointed lack of exercise. The race route is definitely scenic – immediately to the left of the picture is the Baltic. Companies and individuals set up cheer squads along the route playing upbeat music – one we walked by had a live band that was really good. Other people had already stopped (not runners, just聽walkers聽like us) for an聽impromptu concert.

Tallinn is really a city that feels like a small town. We can walk everywhere and feel safe聽doing so, even late at night. On nice days, the parks are full of families enjoying the sun. But like any other city, there is a huge selection of choices for food, art events, shopping malls (Rahva Raamat bookstore has a good selection of English-language titles!). At the very least, I can’t wait to come back to Estonia. Maybe even during winter just to experience the short days and potential for northern lights…

Lennusadam

One of Tallinn’s big attractions is the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor, an interactive museum right on the waterfront.聽Our ticket got us into the Seaplane Harbor and a related museum downtown. The smaller Maritime Museum was first, in a city wall tower named, of all things, Fat Margaret.

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Sea-inspired art, ye old diving suit, ye olde mappe

Much of the Maritime’s permanent exhibit is rather dry, in part because much isn’t in English and we speak approximately no Estonian (we’ve gotten progressively worse about language learning, though we are trying to correct that for the next five+ months in the Americas). Still, I enjoyed the old (errory) maps and navigation equipment. 聽Thankfully, we were rescued by the temporary exhibit on Viking life with English-language notes. Interestingly, there were dozens of coins from Arabic countries and jewelry that looked like it might have come from H&M (some styles don’t change). The focus on coins emphasized that Vikings were mainly traders rather than plunders… unless perhaps they plundered an ancient currency exchange. Many weapons, discovered in graves, were bent or intentionally wrecked as a sacrifice or offering and to prevent grave robbers from using them. My favorite part of the museum was a tower-top cafe serving cheap wine with a pretty view of the port and the Old Town’s church towers.

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On target for the Harbor, Suur Toll icebreaker

It takes聽a short walk to get to the Seaplane Harbor from Old Town, and convenient yellow and black targets show the way. Lennusadam is definitely the more vibrant – and newer – museum. The immense three-domed building was originally meant as a construction hangar for seaplanes. Now it is full of interactive exhibits like聽mini boats to pilot, seaplanes to fly, navy outfits to dress up in.

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WWII era gun, Estonia’s first armored car, inside the Lembit sub

There are also ice boats, World War II guns, a replica seaplane, and an entire submarine. The Lembit聽sub was launched in 1936聽and is now restored to a near-original interior; it聽was my favorite part. It only took me a couple of minutes after climbing through the hatch to become nearly seasick, even on solid ground.

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Lembit’s bathroom and missile tubes, mildly creepy murals

Entry into the Lembit is via聽a narrow porthole on the top of the ship, trying not to hit my聽head while going down a stepladder. The interior doors are tiny, with high聽thresholds in case of flooding. The first room was the missile tube room, which doubled as a bedroom for sailors (maybe preferable to sleeping in the engine room?). Piping, valves, controls are everywhere, and are attached at random to my untrained eye. The walls curve with the shape of the vessel and below our feet were storage lockers. It was hard to decide what was up because there were no surfaces that followed conventional 90 degree angles. I am pretty short and I was almost too tall to move comfortably. Another inch or so and I would have gotten a few head bumps. It was dizzying. I imagine it must be what being on the International Space Station feels like, though without such a good view. I definitely confirmed that I didn’t miss my calling to work on a sub.

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The Lembit’s entire kitchen, on board the boats outside, bent Viking swords

Outside, larger聽boats are also open to the public. Smaller border patrol boats are dry-docked, but two vessels are afloat. The Suur T玫ll icebreaker, built in 1914, is much more comfortable than the Lembit sub. Quarters were cramped, but at least no one had to sleep in the engine room. Though they did have to shovel tons of coal each day to keep six boilers going… so maybe not a fair trade. The best part of its history was a takeover by a group of Finns聽during World War I. To steal the ship, they pretended to be a construction crew and simply walked on board, past Russian guards. After the Suur Toll was out at sea, they broke into the weapons store and quietly took over.

And now to completely change the subject:

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Brilliant pink kasukas salat, fruit wine, Lay’s local flavors

Estonia has much happier food than I expected. We knew we’d been in for a lot of fish. We have聽salmon and trout a lot, though聽I don’t have any photos because by the time I think to take one the meal is over. Herring is another mainstay, and shows up in聽many places. I’d had kasukas years ago when a coworker brought some into work, but the local version comes with surprise herring (in addition to beets, potatoes, pickles, onions, sour cream, and hardboiled eggs). It sounds like it shouldn’t be good, but I really like it; to me it tastes like candy, and the vibrant color certainly helps that illusion. Estonian grape wine doesn’t really exist, but local berry wines hold their own. Lingonberry wine is better in a reduction sauce than in a wine glass, but blackcurrant wine is as sweet and desserty as any riesling.