Baltic Holiday:  March 2004
by Ray Ashley
(photo of frozen Laajalahti Bay by Ola Rinta-Koski)

Far be it from me to become a bloggard, but, since I just got back from a great trip to the Baltic Region - Finland and Estonia, I'll post some memories and pictures here, as a virtual post card.  While in Finland, I was hosted by "guitar guru" Ola Rinta-Koski and his wife Satu Nahkuri, who live in Espoo, just outside of Helsinki.  All of my travels were in and around Helsinki and Tallinn Estonia, I will have to see the countryside at some later date, maybe when it's warm.

I arrived in Helsinki, via Copenhagen (an airport with really good shopping, by the way), on Thursday morning.  Ola picked me up at the airport, and though I was exhausted, immediately we went for a walk on the Laajalahti Bay , an inlet off of the Baltic Sea (still frozen over).  The cold air and bright sunshine reflecting off the ice is a sure way to stay awake.  For dinner, I made an exception to my usual vegetarian ways to sample the wild reindeer meat - lean and free of hormones and chemicals - herded by Lapplanders (more properly known as the Sami people) and readily available in Finnish supermarkets.
On Friday, we visited the beautiful and historic Uspenski Cathedral, of the Orthodox Church of Finland.  The cathedral overlooks Helsinki's harbor. 

Later, we took the ferry out to Suomenlinna Island, which is an old fort used to defend the Swedish Empire back in the 1700's.  it is currently home to the Finnish Naval Academy, a history museum, a brewpub, and the famous Cafe Chapman. 

cafe chapman(r) 
Me at the Cafe Chapman (Photo By Ola Rinta-Koski)
Also on Friday, I took in the Kiasma Modern Art Museum, which featured the exhibit "Faster than History", cutting edge multi media art from contemporary Russian, Estonian, and other Baltic region artists.  Later, after a pint of Finlandia brand Sahti at St. Urho's Pub, I partook in the Finnish national tradition of Sauna.  This wood fired public Sauna reached about 90 degrees C (190 F), which is pretty hot!  All the toxins of modern living quickly ooze out of your pores after 10 minutes in this sweat lodge.

Saturday, I visited the Ateneum Art Museum of the Finnish National Gallery, which features paintings by the great masters of Europe with a special emphasis on Finnish masters such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Albert Edelfelt.
I discuss the finer points of mashing and fermenting with Kari (left) and Juha (right) at Stadin.  photo by Ola Rinta-Koski.
Later, we trekked across a 4 lane highway to an industrial park down by the docks.  Off the beaten path for most tourists, we found the Stadin Panimo microbrewery.  Leading us on our quest was Juha Tretjakov, the secretary of the national Finnish Beer Union.  Juha had himself just returned from the "Real Ales Festival" in Chicago, and he brought with him some American micro-brews for the other Finns to sample.  The brewmaster of Stadin, Kari Likovuori, had a number of excellent beers on tap including an American style pale ale and a fine "Double Stout".  I offered up my Jersey-brewed stout, and they gave me some constructive criticism, and appreciation.  We then drove over to the garage nano-brewery (/speakeasy) of Petteri Helin and enjoyed a few of his beers.  For a day I felt like Michael Jackson (the king of beer, not the king of pop). 

That night we went to one of the best Russian restaurants in Helsinki, Galleria Hariton, where I made up for my reindeer meat gorging by eating their vegetarian specialties.

Ola and I chill out on the Viking Line.

Sunday brought the ferry ride over to Tallinn.   It is about three hours across the broken pack ice of the Gulf of Finland.  We took the Viking Line over to Tallinn, it was an older liner, but it had all the shopping, bars, and of course, gambling machines to keep the passengers occupied during the voyage.

Tallinn - the way it used to be, now and forever.

Tallinn itself is a really interesting town.  It seems to have lost any of the old Soviet trappings it may have had, except the occasional Soviet era car among the Japanese imports in traffic.  Newly constructed hotels and shopping centers abound in modern post-Soviet Tallinn.  Right near the marine terminal, you will find 24 hour liquor stores, gambling, shopping, and other vices to suit the tax-evading Finnish tourist.  We made our way past all this to the the Rotermanni Hotell, a very nice and afforable place to stay.  After checking in, Ola and I walked into the heart of the "old city", having a very nice dinner at the H.H. Ruutel restaurant, which is located right across the street from the Niguliste church/museum.  This was convenient, as the Niguliste was our objective for the  evening's concert.  Ruutel is a great place to eat, I would recommend it highly for it's excellent food and service, and it is easy to find, being right across from a major landmark.

The concert that we saw was of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, performing the Rachmaninov "All Night Vigil", or Vespers, Op. 37.  The setting for the concert was ideal.  This church, though no longer an active church in Tallinn, is a great historical stone structure in the gothic style.  This is the "home base" for the EPCC, where they have recorded many times.  Still, it is at the same time an intimite setting, not a huge Cathedreal like you would find in London or Rome.  The Choir was set up only a little above floor level, and before the concert began, I was able to walk right up to the music stand of conductor Paul Hillier, and see the first page of Rachmaninov's score, all marked up with Hillier's notes.

The concert itself was other-worldly.  The Estonians, as wonderfully as they sang, were assisted by Russian 'basso profundo' Vladimir Miller, well known for his ability to project those really low notes.  Vladimir is also a nice guy, I had a short talk with him after the show and he autographed my program.

Later that night, we found a few places to get some traditional Estonian brew, like St. Patrick's Pub  - one of the Old City's Irish bars.  Monday we did a little more shopping, at a sheet music store and a small Russian bookstore in the heart of the old city.  Other than my conversation with Vladimir the basso, the Russian bookstore was the only place in town where I spoke in Russian.  We're not "back in the USSR" in Tallinn anymore!  Like their Finnish neighbors, Estonians have taken to the English language with thorough perfection.  While shopping, I tried in vain to find a hand crafted Russian style fur hat, but it is really the wrong season, I am sure I would have had better luck had I looked in October, rather than March.

For the return Ferry we took the Tallink, which turned out to be a newer and nicer ferry than the old Viking Line ship.  The Tallink had better food service and shopping, and more of them.  Ola was sure to carry his legal limit of two cases of beer back with him, like all the other Finnish citizens on the ship.  Because of the tax differences, Beer is about half price in Estonia, for a Finn, but this two case limit will go away when Estonia enters the EU, and prices are expected to equalize.   Still, it is worth going over to Estonia to sample Saaremaa Beer.  I picked up a bottle of the 'Vana Tallinn' liqueur, and some 'Belii Aisti' Moldovan brandy to bring back to the states, as you can't find these things back home at all.

The Gulf of Finland in mid-March

Exhausted from my whirlwind tour, Tuesday I took the plane back home, also via Copenhagen.  This time I had a little more time for shopping, and I bought a bottle of Aalborg Jubilee Aquavit with the last of my Euros.  The Copenhagen Airport's tax free liquor store has a huge selection of various Aquavits from all over Scandinavia, I was tempted to pick up a sampler.  Next time, I guess!
Ferry Photo of me and Ola by anonymous Estonian guy.
Tallin and Baltic ice photo by Ray Ashley

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