Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Girona and Barcelona

The worst thing about taking weekend trips is that the weekend is never long enough! But I have to admit, the weekend trips we can take here are pretty amazing. This past weekend, we visited Girona and Barcelona, Spain, and I didn't want to leave!

Ryanair, the low-cost airline based in Dublin, flies from Turku (an hour south of where we live in Rauma) to Girona, which is an hour north of Barcelona. Since we arrived late Friday night, I decided to stay overnight in Girona. I'm really glad we did, because Girona is a beautiful medieval city with one of the most well-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. Girona has a busy history, having been attacked 25 times and captured at least seven times. Today, Girona is a quiet oasis with a huge square filled with outdoor cafes, and a lovely river lined with pastel-colored homes reminiscent of similar landscapes in Lyon and Copenhagen.

La Boqueria Market
After spending the morning strolling around the Jewish quarter and the Old Town and exploring the magnificent cathedral, we took the train to Barcelona, which provided a nice look at the Catalan countryside. We were lucky that one of the train stops in Barcelona was a short walk from our hotel on the famous Passeig de Gracia street.

I like old hotels with lots of character, but I also like modern conveniences. Our choice, the Hotel SixtyTwo (named for its address at 62 Passeig de Gracia), wasn't spectacular on the outside, but the inside was definitely a 21st-century showpiece. Everything in the room operated with buttons, including the black-out shade. The bathroom was huge by European standards, with separate rooms for the toilet, shower and even a bathtub! Americans take bathtubs for granted, but they are luxuries in Europe! Plus, we had a small balcony with great views over the city.

Anyway, we walked around a bit, "ooh'ed and aah'ed" at everything we saw, and tried to get into the Picasso museum, but the line was too long. We were quite surprised at just how packed with people Barcelona was. I know summer is tourist season, but Barcelona seemed even more crowded than London or Paris. The weather was another jolt for us, even though we knew it would be hot, especially coming from chilly Finland. It was 32 degrees C. (about 90 degrees F.) and sunny the entire weekend. I loved it! We haven't had a real summer, and I have been craving sunshine and warmth.

We had  a "Cava and Tapas" walking tour scheduled at 5 p.m. I'm so glad we did this, because it was tons of fun and we met some great people from Houston, Honolulu, Toronto (by way of South Africa and Holland), and Australia. Our guide, Sophie, was excellent, and she took us to the famous Boqueria Market and to three restaurants to sample different tapas and Spanish wines. We had so much fun that we stayed at the last restaurant with our new friends way past the time the tour ended!
Inside La Sagrada Familia

The next day was devoted to seeing as much as possible as we could cram in. We had tickets on the Hop-on, Hop-Off bus tour, which I recommend taking in any new city. These bus tours provide recorded commentary and give you a great overview of a city. You can exit at any stop or just stay on for the ride.

Most people associate Barcelona and Catalonia with Picasso, Dali and Miro, but the most famous native son is Modernist architect/artist Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi lived from 1852 to 1926, and his work is seen all over Barcelona. Gaudi was a Modernist, very religious and very imaginative. His work reflects nature, light, use of non-traditional materials, mosaics, curves, and new techniques. His buildings are true works of art, and many are deservedly UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We visited his most famous projects: Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, Park Guell, and of course, La Sagrada Familia, the cathedral which is the most famous landmark in Barcelona, and which has been in construction since 1882. Gaudi worked on the project until his death in 1926, even living at the site the last year or so of his life. (Gaudi was struck by a tram, and because he was dressed like a beggar with no identification papers, he did not receive proper hospital care; by the time his identity was discovered, it was too late, and he died.)

Bench at Park Guell
La Sagrada Familia is fascinating, because it is being built entirely with donations and proceeds from ticket sales. That is why it is taking so long! Gaudi's detailed plans are being followed to this day, and latest estimates state that the cathedral will be completed between 2026 and 2028. Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the church in 2010. But as Gaudi once said, "My client is in no hurry," referring to God.

In the afternoon, while on the bus tour, we visited Gaudi's Park Guell, which is 50 acres on top of a mountain. There are magnificent views, more great Gaudi masterpieces and way too many hills to walk up and down! On the way back to the bus, though, we had a Coca Cola Light and a bowl of fresh fruit, which was refreshing. Later, we stopped at the coast to see the beach, and also to visit the casino. There was a European Poker Tour event going on at the casino, and we watched a bit of the goings-on.  we

Seafood Paella
Our last night in Barcelona, we had a nice dinner, and I finally got some seafood paella, which was wonderful. Tom had sea bass, which was also good. The next day, we took the airport bus back to Girona, during which our bus driver practiced his karaoke the entire trip, singing or whistling to every song on the radio.

And, naturally, when we got back to Rauma, it was 10 degrees C. (50 degrees F.), which was depressing. I think summer is over in Finland, although I don't think it was every really here! No worries, though -- there are more trips to plan! And I definitely want to return to Spain -- I sure wish Tom's employer would built a power plant there...

Here are the links to all the pictures:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Stockholm -- City That I Love

Stockholm -- one of my favorite cities

This is my submission for the '3 Things in the City' I Love contest by Velvet Escape, Traveldudes and

 Ask people to name their favorite city -- or the city they would most like to visit -- and many likely will say New York, London, Paris or Rome. After all, the world's capitals have much to offer, and I agree that visits to those places are wonderful.

But after living as an expat American in Finland for almost a year, I have had the opportunity to visit lesser-known cities -- cities that are just as beautiful, historic and fun -- but maybe not on everyone's list of "must-sees." Places like Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn, Estonia; Stockholm, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; Brussels, Belgium, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

One of my favorite places is Stockholm, a city I certainly never would have visited if I wasn't living in Finland. It's probably best-known as the setting for the late author Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy and the home of IKEA and the pop group ABBA, but Stockholm is much more. Stockholm is exotic, yet accessible. It has a rich history, but it also has developed into a 21st-century leader in culture, technology and environmental issues.

The city known as the "Venice of the North" lies on a range of islands connected by bridges and canals. The city's origins date at least to 1252, and it has survived sieges, famine, plague and recession. Today, Sweden is ruled by a democratic parliament headed by the prime minister and a ceremonial king, Gustav XIV.

While a trip to Stockholm deserves at least a week, there are three things every visitor should see:
Gamla Stan

1. Gamla Stan -- Narrow cobblestone streets and colorful medieval buildings are a photographer's dream in Stockholm's Old Town. Set on an island, Gamla Stan is home to the Royal Palace, the Alfred Nobel Museum, a pretty town square with a bloody history, and a 700-year-old cathedral. Wander along the streets, stopping for a rest at one of the many cafes and restaurants. Shop in stores specializing in Scandinavian crafts or any of the myriad of tacky souvenir stalls.

Walking tours are a good way to enjoy Gamla Stan; the tourist office at Vasagatan 14 or at Arlanda Airport can help. Also check the official tourist website at

The Nobel Museum looks fairly mundane on first glance, but take the free guided tour (tours are offered throughout the day in different languages), and it becomes an intriguing history lesson of the greatest achievements of our time. For more information, visit

Don't miss a visit to the Royal Palace, especially the State Apartments and Royal Treasury. There is also the always-popular Changing of the Guard ceremony. Check for times and information.

The Vasa

2. Vasa Museum -- I'll be honest -- if a friend hadn't told me to visit this 17th century warship, I probably would have skipped it. Thank goodness I listened to my friend, because the Vasa is one of the most fascinating sights I've ever encountered in years of travel!

The Vasa sank 20 minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628. It sat at the bottom of Stockholm's harbor until it was rediscovered in 1956. Raised in 1961, a museum was built around the remarkably-preserved wooden behemoth and has become one of Sweden's top tourist attractions.

There is an interesting free film (shown throughout the day in different languages) that helps the visitor appreciate the massive undertaking to salvage the ship and the exhaustive restoration work. The museum also offers guided tours in different languages that are included in the admission fee.

It is remarkable that 95 percent of the Vasa's wood is original. The intricate carvings along the ship are works of art. The ship was so well-preserved, because the water in which it sank does not contain the wood-destroying saltwater clam that is prevalent in the oceans.

The Vasa has an excellent website. Even if you don't get to visit this marvel, you can read all about it at


3. Skansen -- I was really torn between selecting Skansen, a boat tour of the harbor or the Nordic Museum for my third choice. If you have more time, I recommend all of them! But a trip to Skansen, Europe's first open-air museum, is a trip back in time and fun for the entire family.

Opened in 1891, Skansen is a huge park filled with 150 original buildings -- farmhouses, schools, windmills, homes, village halls, mills, etc. -- that have been transported there from all over Sweden. It is a wonderful mix of architectural styles and culture that truly embraces the term "living history." The best part of the park is the costumed employees who will tell you everything you want to know. I particularly enjoyed talking with the "school marms" in the 1910-era schoolhouse. One room of the house was devoted to the school, while the other half was set aside for the teacher's living quarters.

Besides the buildings, Skansen offers a variety of events, such as the opportunity to help out with farm chores, learn traditional dances, or watch glassblowers at work.
The lemurs at Skansen's Zoo

The other major component of Skansen is the zoo. There are bears, moose, elk, spiders (yuck!), snakes (double yuck!), boar, seals, you name it, in both indoor and outdoor enclosures. My absolute favorite animals were the lemurs, who hung out on the walkways, the little ones piled on top of their mothers, while a zoo employee stood nearby to make sure visitors didn't get too close. 

I spent over two hours at Skansen, and you could easily enjoy an entire day there. For information, visit the website at

Of course, there is much more to see and do in Stockholm. There are great restaurants, shops, food halls, museums, parks and more. Just writing this makes me want to go back (and fortunately, I am returning very soon!). I hope you get to visit soon, too!

Modern Stockholm