Adventures in Norway

a photograph of Naerofjorden, Norway

You don’t have to see many pictures like this one before you become fixated with the idea of going to see the fjords in Norway. We never made it to Norway when we lived in the UK ten years ago, so it topped my list of summer vacation ideas when we decided to move to Finland.

This spring, I borrowed a Lonely Planet Norway from a friend, read through it, took notes, and was ready to book something for Matt’s two week holiday in July. So I marched down the local travel agency and tried to put something together. Their first recommendation was to take the Hurtigruten up and down the coast (13 days round-trip with the opportunity for lots of trips to shore). Although that certainly would have let us see the largest cross-section of Norway in the least amount of time, the idea of being trapped on a boat, however large and luxurious, with the children for 13 days really put me off.

Instead, I asked for a quote to do something that would hit the highlights of south-western Norway: Oslo – Ă…lesund – Bergen – Stavanger – Oslo, with a few cruises up the various fjords on the way. Like Finland, Norway is a very long country from north to south, but not terribly wide, so I thought this tour would be very doable in the time allotted. Read more

Tallinn with Children

photo of the medieval wall around Tallinn, Estonia
A tower and part of the medieval wall that surrounds Vana Tallinn.

About 80km across the Gulf of Finland lies an interesting counterpoint to Helsinki: Tallinn, Estonia. A country that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain only 20 short years ago, Estonia has done much to modernize without losing site of its long history. A major shipping port for hundreds of years (Helsinki was originally founded by the Swedish monarchy to attempt to compete with Tallinn’s power and wealth), Tallinn still boasts a major harbor and medieval ramparts that are amazingly well-preserved considering its turbulent history.

In 2011, Tallinn was one of three European Capitals of Culture along with Turku and Sarajevo, and the economic vitality that the title brings is evident both in the hoards of tourists leaving the hourly boats from Helsinki and the flourishing artisans selling their wares from within the ancient walls of the old city. Hand-knit woolen goods, carved wooden bowls, plates, and utensils, and amber jewelry are plentiful and there are good bargains to be had, especially if you’re used to Helsinki prices. And although many from Helsinki venture to Tallinn to take advantage of the much lower taxes on alcohol, there are many other reasons to visit Tallinn with children.

The gates into Vana Tallinn
You can see the gates into Old Tallinn from the Sokos Viru

We stayed at the Sokos Viru, which is right outside the gates of old Tallinn, making it a perfect jumping-off point for exploring the city. However, we were unable to take advantage of one of the 40 “family rooms” they advertise on their web site, which left the kids rather crammed in to two roll-away beds. Whether this was because I booked through the Tallink web site when I booked our boat fares, or whether there just weren’t any available was not entirely clear to me. Affordable, clean, and full of amenities (nice buffet breakfast, sauna, play room for the children with nearby bar, restaurants, and even a night club), this hotel was a good choice for our family.

Although a day-trip like the one we did when we first visited Tallinn in January is certainly an option if you’re traveling from Helsinki, you could easily spend several days exploring the old walled city and its several excellent historical museums. The Tallinn City Museum, Kiek in de Kok, and St. Nicolas’s church in particular are worth seeing for the historical light they shine on an area about which many English-speakers know little. Note that many museums are closed on Monday, and some are closed Tuesday as well.

Tallinn sky line in January
Don’t let the snow and the slate-gray sky detour you–Tallinn is marvelous during the Christmas Market!

Little warriors are likely to love the ramparts, arrow slots, and goofy dragon-themed water spouts that sprinkle the city, while little princesses should enjoy the many artisans, shopkeepers and barmaids who sport period costumes during the tourist season.

A steady supply of interesting things to watch, from archery lessons in upper Old Town to groups of tourists traveling by Segway, to the bicycle taxis that buzz through the narrow streets, can entertain children who might otherwise get antsy as their parents ogle the architectural sights in Tallinn. If they get restless waiting for food at one of the many restaurants around the Town Square, there is, just like in Helsinki, ice-cream on just about every corner to bribe entertain them.

The Tallinn Official Sightseeing Tour offers a short 2.5 hour tour of the major sites in the city without being too unreasonably long for children. If any sort of guided tour is out of the question with your children, there is an iPod Tour of Tallinn available for a fee.

St. Catherine's Passage
St. Catherine’s Passage retains its medieval feel all year long.

Whether you choose a tour or head out on your own, be sure to wander through St. Catherine’s Passage and some of the other winding medieval streets that snake through old town. You can almost imagine narrow carts navigating the cobblestones and will marvel that any car attempts to drive in old town! As you wander all the market stalls that line the inside of the walls around the Viru gates, look for arrow slots and for one of the many funky drain-spouts that have survived and captured a bit of medieval fancy.

Along with the drain spouts, many artisans have funky wrought-iron signs marking their shop-fronts, and I found fun Art-Nouveau buildings interspersed with much older fare more than once. As a spinner and knitter, I have to point out that Tallinn is a woolen paradise. Not only can you cull project ideas from all the amazing lacework, but there’s plenty of fleece and yarn available to build up your stash, at prices that seemed amazing to me after my time stalking the Novita shop in Helsinki!

picture of medieval rain spout
Many of the rain spouts in Tallinn take on fanciful shapes.

Although each church of the major churches in Old Town Tallinn offers something interesting, Alexander Nevsky is the must-see for it’s amazing onion-topped towers and all-around difference from the cathedrals of Western Europe. But be aware that this cathedral is interesting for its history as well; it was built in the 19th century as part of an unpopular attempt by the Russian Empire to bend the Tallinn skyline to its will in the same way it had done its people. Its careful restoration after Estonia won independence in 1991 has, perhaps, made it a symbol of beauty emerging from turbulence, which seems like a good motif for Tallinn.

Nevsky Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Turku with Children

Turun tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral)
Turun tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral) is the center for Finland's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

When we announced that we were moving to Helsinki, we got quite a variety of reactions, one of which, sadly, was “Where?” Admittedly, Finland is not a typical vacation destination for Americans, but that’s a shame considering all it has to offer. Likewise, stopping off in Helsinki for a day on the way somewhere else–which is common practice for tourists who pass through here–means missing out on one of the gems of Finland: Turku.

Turku was Finland’s capital city from its founding in the 13th century until Russia decided to move the capital east to its present location in Helsinki in 1812. As such, it contains much of the medieval history of Finland that is absent from much-newer Helsinki. Situated on the coast at the outlet of the Aura River, it is accessible by the boats that travel between Helsinki and Stockholm and a short & scenic 2-hour train ride from Helsinki. The small scale of the city, as well as the abundance of parks and green-space, makes it easy to explore Turku with children on foot.

The immense tower of the Turun tuomiokirkko (Turku Cathedral) dominates the center of town and both the interior and exterior of the church tell of the long history of the cathedral and the city itself. Started in the 13th century, and rebuilt multiple times during fires, the cathedral sustained significant damage in the Great Fire of 1827, which destroyed most of Turku’s town center. This allowed German architect Carl Engel, already famous for his work on Helsinki’s Cathedral and Senate buildings, to participate in the reconstruction by designing the high alter and the pulpit of the newly-remodeled interior in the mid 1800s, and necessitated the reconstruction of the church tower. Over a period of years, the tower was rebuilt to 101 meters above sea level, making it visible from quite a distance and reinforcing its importance to Finland and to its Evangelical Lutheran Church. Read more

Paris with Children

Considering what a huge role travel has played in my life, it was with a surprising amount of trepidation that I booked our Winter Break tickets to Paris. Trying to live in a foreign country with a four- and a six-year-old somehow felt less daunting to me than trying to enjoy a vacation in a foreign city, especially when that city is one that holds so much meaning for Matt & I.

We were pleasantly surprised, however, and have some tips to share with regards to visiting Paris with children in tow. Read more

Moving Abroad Again, This Time with Children

For the third time in my life, I am about to leave the United States and move to another country. This time, I’m Helsinki bound (previous trips were to France & England). Unlike my previous two adventures, this time I’m not just uprooting myself, but my two young children. We leave for Helsinki next month and although I am about six months away from being an absolute expert on this topic, I’ve been researching it like crazy. There are lots of good tips out there, so I thought I’d share our experiences and the resources I’ve found. Read more