Tallinn may be the most beautiful city you’ve never heard of. The capital of Estonia, Tallinn is a small city in a small country with a turbulent history, particularly with respect to relations with Russia. On our walking tour of the city our guide noted that for Estonia, “NATO is everything”.
There are about 1.5 million citizens of Estonia, and about 435,000 people who live in Tallinn. Located on the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, Tallinn has close historic ties with Helsinki, Stockholm and St Petersburg.
The city proper dates back to the first half of the 13th century, but humans settlements are estimated go back 5,000 years. The first recorded claim for the land was made by Denmark in 1219 after a successful raid. After a couple of centuries of fighting between Scandinavian and Teutonic rulers, Tallinn became an important commercial hub because of its strategic location.
Tallinn is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cities and is counted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the largest number of star-ups in Europe, and is the birthplace of Skype. It houses the EU’s IT agency and is the home of NATO’s Cyber Defense Center of Excellence. It is also ranked as one of the world’s top 10 digital cities.
We went on a walking tour of the city with a local guide and took lots of photos in the process. A few are posted below.
Among the many mind boggling things to contemplate is the fact that the Russian aristocracy didn’t just have one enormous and opulently decorated and designed palace. They had several of them; each one elaborate and ornate. In fact Catherine actually put a halt to all the gold being used to decorate her palace that had begun by order of her predecessor, Empress Elizabeth.
Here, below, are some photos of Catherine’s Palace located in Pushkin, not far from St Petersburg. Please note that while some photos link to Evocative Photos for licensing, photos taken inside the palace may not be used for this purpose, so they are not linked. JFB
It would take years to see all there is to see in St Petersburg; actually it would take years just to see just the important stuff. So we picked our spots and saw all we could, including the winter and summer palaces. This post includes photos taken at the summer palace, located in Peterhof, about 40 minutes outside St Petersburg proper.
The physical scale of the place, along with the wealth on display, is almost beyond belief. The main palace has about 1,000 rooms—big rooms. The rooms we saw, and we saw quite a few, typically were decorated with gold inlays on the walls and ceilings. Classical paintings and sculpture abounded, including collections by Russian, German and French artists.
Outside the palace there were gardens, an elaborate set of cascading fountains and a smaller gold domed castle. And this was just the summer palace. There was a winter palace as well, in some ways even more over the top. Note that in the photo of the throne room below, there is no furniture in the room other than the throne. That’s because protocol demanded that supplicants either stand or kneel in the presence of the King.
A political scientist from Johns Hopkins who was on the trip with us (as a lecturer) made the point that while we refer to her as Catherine the Great, the serfs would be unlikely to do so. Their lot was arguably even worse than that of black slaves in the South of the United States. It’s something you can’t help thinking about when confronted by the staggering wealth on display in the palaces of the aristocracy.
Helsinki, with the highest urban standard of living in the world, is, not surprisingly, one of the most livable cities in the world. It is refreshingly clean; the architecture is magnificent; the city is very walkable and friendly to tourists. With its metropolitan area population of 1.25 million people it is the third largest municipality of the nordic countries after Stockholm and Oslo.
The city was the site of the negotiations that led to the signing of the Helsinki Accords by then President Jerry Ford. Initially thought to be a sop given to the Soviet bloc, the Helsinki Accords, with their emphasis on human rights, turned out to be a powerful weapon in the hands of Soviet reformers and dissidents.
Finland became a member of the European Union in 1995, and it is flirting with the idea of joining NATO in 2025.
Anyway, we went on a walking tour of the city, during which we wound up at the Rock Church, so called because it was built into solid rock by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen—brothers and architects. By denomination it is a Lutheran Church in the Toolo neighborhood of Helsinki. It opened in 1969.
Below here are some photos from our walk around, including photos of the Rock Church. JFB
Banff deserves a priority listing on any to do list. The place is a natural wonderland, with spectacular mountains, valleys and lakes. It is full of good restaurants; it has wonderful hotels, the service is first rate and there are numerous tours lasting from a couple of hours riding a tour boat on a lake to weeks long camping trips. Among other things, we booked a tour that allowed us to walk on a glacier.
We also booked an all-day tour with a guide named Sam who took us all around Banff, Lake Moraine and Johnston Canyon, where we did a considerable amount of hiking around. One place was more spectacular than the next. (Thanks Sam!)
Now we are back in the airport in Calgary waiting to fly back to DC. It was a great trip and belongs on everyone’s to do list. Here below are a few shots from the tours.
Banff is nestled in the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, Canada. It is a place of spectacular beauty, which may explain the proliferation of one of the banes of modern life. I refer to that most horrid of devices: The Selfie Stick. It seems like everyone in Banff has at least one, ever ready to snap a photo of the owner with a mountain or lake in the background. Which is not to short change go-pros; they are everywhere as well, if only slightly less obnoxious.
But even the ever present selfie stick fades into insignificance in the midst of the breath taking beauty of Banff. The Canadian Rockies are ever present; the lakes and rivers are a clear gorgeous turquoise, and there are massive glaciers all over the place. Our initial outing included a trip to Lake Louise, Peyto Lake, and the Athabasca Glacier, which we got on chance to walk on. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Here are some photos below. More will be posted in the coming days.
After spending some time in Ireland doing some sightseeing and visiting family, we made our way over to England to visit (and stay with) with our good friends Michael and Sally Oxlade who live in the country side. They were kind enough to take us on a 2-day whirlwind tour that included Winchester Cathedral, Highclere Castle (where Downton Abbey is filmed) and the Winchester Museum that, among other things, includes a re-creation of King Arthur’s Round Table. These are just a few of the spots we visited. Perhaps most importantly we all went to the village pub to relax and share some memories before having one of Sally’s delicious dinners.
Thanks, Sally and Michael (and your son Charley) for a wonderful time.Here are a couple of photos of places we visited on the too short visit.
Well, here we are in Key West, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, also known as the Conch Republic. It is quite a scene. In some respects, it bears a faint resemblance to Nashville’s honky-tonk scene. There are lots of bars and restaurants with working musicians playing guitars looking for a break. Like Jimmy Buffet. But Key West is far more upscale.
Located in the Straits of Florida, Key West (Cayo Hueso in Spanish) is an island city at the Southernmost point of the North American Continent. It is closer to Cuba than it is to Miami. He island is very small—only 1 mile long and 4 miles wide. If you walk the length of Duval Street (the main street) you will have walked from the Gulf of Mexico at one end to the Florida Straits and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
The permanent population is about 25,000, and tourism is a very big deal here. And the tourists arrive by plane, auto, ferry and cruise ship. In the first three months of 2018 alone, cruise ships brought about 275,000 tourists to the island and airplanes brought about 120,000.
Key West is (or was) home to quite a few notables, including Earnest Hemmingway, John Dos Passos, Tennessee Williams, John Dewey, Winslow Homer and Calvin Klein to name a few.
Anyway, Key West is a more than a bit bohemian with an independent streak and a live-and-let live attitude that is kind of refreshing. More than refreshing, actually. There may be a lesson here.
Here (below) are some photos taken during our too short stay.
St. Bart’s, St. Barth’s, St. Bartholomew—take your pick, the names are used interchangeably—is one of the 4 islands that make up the French West Indies. The other three are Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the French side of St. Martin. Most notably, St. Bart’s is where the beautiful people come and play, including the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and Mick Jagger. (Mick sends his best).
St. Bart’s is deservedly big in reputation, but small by area and population. There are only about 9,300 full time inhabitants, and its total size is just under 10 square miles. Tourism is its most important business. The small island attracts over 200,000 visitors each year. The island and its visitors are well-matched: they are relentlessly upscale. Upmarket shops dominate the capital city Gustavia, the harbor is full of yachts and the hotels tend toward the boutique.
About the hotels: there are about 25 of them scattered around the island. Most have 15 rooms or less. Instead of regular hotel rooms, most hotel accommodations take the form of villas. One of the most notable is Eden Rock, where we stayed about 15 years ago. Then again there is the Hotel Le Toiny where the rooms / villas start at $2,000 per night in January.
We spent our time in St. Barth’s wandering around the beautiful town of Gustavia, which is right on the water. Here below, are some photos taken there.
After traversing the Panama Canal, we arrived in the Caribbean Sea, leaving South America behind us. Our first stop in the Caribbean was Aruba. It is a small island, just 19 miles long and 6 miles wide and a population of about 104,000.
The geography of Aruba is very interesting. One side of the island is the Caribbean. That is the side with the large tourist hotels and white sandy beaches. The other side faces the Atlantic Ocean where the sea is fairly turbulent. The Atlantic here is violent enough to have carved out from the cliffs the highest and most spectacular natural bridge in the Caribbean. (It collapsed in 2005).
We went touring mostly on the Atlantic side of the island, visited the rocky shores of the Atlantic side as well as desert-like areas and a butterfly farm. Some photos are below.