Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Quick Week in Saxony

This week I had the opportunity to visit Dresden on a work assignment for a few days. I chose to fly into Berlin, hire a car and drive the two hours on the autobahn (A13 and A4) to Dresden in an effort to save time (no direct flights available to Dresden from London) and to see a bit of Germany that I haven’t seen before. This was my fourth trip to Germany and Dresden my sixth major German city, but my first time in the Saxony region.

Dresden is located in the far eastern quadrant of Saxony within the former East Germany, not far from the Polish and Czech borders, and the architecture reflects this, reminiscent of some of the Baroque styles I saw in Prague as well as some remnants of Soviet-inspired structures I saw on my recent trip to Russia. Most of what comprises central Dresden is divided into either the Neustadt or the Altstadt, the new city and old city respectively and separated by the Elbe River. Unfortunately Dresden was almost entirely destroyed by Allied bombing towards the end of the Second World War, but there are enough structures remaining and some even subsequently rebuilt after German reunification that make this little city on the Elbe beautiful enough to warrant a visit if you happen to be in Saxony. Unlike its more popular Saxon counterpart Leipzig, about an hour west, Dresden maintains its small village atmosphere with fewer imposing modern structures distracting from the overwhelming Baroque landmarks.

We stayed in the Altstadt, or old city, which is where the main sights are located such as the Zwinger and Frauenkirche. Because it is winter and brutally cold, this area was eerily quiet with mostly only business travelers like ourselves wandering around. The week was extremely busy, so unfortunately we never saw the Altstadt during daylight hours, but these are a few snapshots I was able to take around the main square that we stayed. While I’m not sure the photos turned out too well, the darkness and emptiness you see actually capture the mood and feeling of being in Dresden in the dead of winter. I can imagine that in the spring this same place transforms into a vibrant square spilling over with outdoor cafes and crowds of people, thereby living up to its title as the “Florence on the Elbe”.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

31 Places to Go in 2010

The New York Times published a feature on "31 Places to Go in 2010" with Sri Lanka taking the top prize as the #1 destination this year. Exciting! We've been to six places on this list - Los Angeles, Mumbai, Marrakesh, Las Vegas, Istanbul, and Vancouver, and in the pipeline is a trip to South Africa in April. Hopefully, we can add Montenegro to the list on a combined trip with Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Damascus, which we hope to visit at the end of the year along with Beirut (who took the top place on the 2009 list), Amman, Petra, and Jerusalem. It looks like Keenan is scheduled to head to Dresden next week and will try to make the drive on the "no speed-limit" autobahn to Leipzeg if time permits. A new year, a new decade, and a lot of new adventures to come!

And, please put on your list to come visit us in London! We would love to see all your happy faces; just make sure you don't come all at once. =) Happy Travels!

New York Times - 31 Places to Go in 2010:

1) Sri Lanka
2) Patagonia Wine Country, Argentina
3) Seoul
4) Mysore
5) Copenhagen
6) Koh Kood, Thailand
7) Damascus, Syria
8) Cesme, Turkey
9) Antarctica
10) Leipzig, Germany
11) Los Angeles, CA
12) Shanghai, China
13) Mumbai
14) Minorca, Spain
15) Costa Rica
16) Marrakesh, Morocco
17) Las Vegas, NV
18) Bahia, Brazil
19) Istanbul, Turkey
20) Shenzhen
21) Macedonia
22) South Africa
23) Breckenridge, CO
24) Montenegro
25) Vancouver, Canada
26) Columbia
27) Kitzbuhel, Austria
28) Norway
29) Gargano, Italy
30) Kuala Lumpur
31) Nepal

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Brgggggh...from Helsinki

A few months before his unexpected death in 2006, R.W. Apple Jr., the globe-trotter and political journalist for the NY Times, wrote a glowing article of Finnish capital, Helsinki. Of course, he wrote this article during the height of summer when the sun never sets over Scandinavia, and the city enjoys endless hours of sunbathing along the Esplanade, or at one of Helsinki’s 400 city parks. Against his advice: “Don’t try Helsinki in the off season, no matter what the brochures say,” we sojourned to Helsinki on the last leg of our winter adventure.

Perhaps we should have listened to R.W. Apple --- we arrived to freezing temperature of a cool -18C. To our Californian friends, you don't want to know what -1F feels like. Brgghhh… And, for the record, I will never complain about the weather in London again. It was so cold that a thin layer of frost covered my scarf from the condensation forming from my breathe, my face felt like shattering glass, and as my loveable husband pointed out, I had icicles in my nostrils (thanks love). Despite the Arctic chill, it was a beautiful sunny day in Helsinki, giving the city a gentle pink glow against the soft snow. Dreamy indeed; it was exactly what we imagined Scandinavia to be in the dead of winter.

The FinnAir City Bus dropped us off at the city’s main train station, located adjacent to the ultra-modern Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (kind of looks like the Nike swoosh if you asked me). We quickly made our way to our hotel, The Radisson SAS, to strategize our sightseeing plan for the day and add yet another layer of clothes to cope with the freezing cold. Our trip to Finland would be a new experience for us since neither of us have been to the Nordic countries before. Maybe this will be prelude to future visits to Stockholm, Oslo, or Copenhagen? I hope so! But maybe not during the winter season.

Founded in the 16th century by King Gustav of Sweden and later conquered by the Russian Czar Alexander I, Helsinki’s architecture is strongly influenced by both its former rulers. The city is sprinkled with a mixture of neo-classical design by German architect Carl Engel, Art Nouveau of Eliel Saarinen, and functionalist architecture by Finland’s most famous architect Alvar Aalto, the 'Father of Modernism,' who designed the Finlandia Hall, among other über-cool buildings throughout Scandinavia. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition between old and new, classical and modern, and the unique blend of different architectural styles.

Our walking tour of Helsinki was cut short due to bitter cold (again), but we manage to take in the sights as the city center is fairly compact. We walked along the Esplanade, the city’s main commercial road filled with cute boutiques, cafes, and restaurants to the frozen harbour. No joke, frozen! I was disappointed to find both the Kauppatori (Market Square) and the Kauppahalli Market closed for New Years as I was set on trying Finnish culinary delights of herring and salmon, or maybe even reindeer?

Continuing on, we visited the 19th century Finnish Orthodox Church, the Uspenski Cathedral, on top of a small hill. By this time my feet were beyond numb, and I desperately needed to seek refuge in a café along the Esplanade for an afternoon cup of coffee and biscuits.

We then visited Senate Square, adorned with pastel blue Italianate buildings and a statue commemorating Czar Alexander I, a legacy from the then Russian Empire. While Finland was under the control of the Russian Czar during the 19th century, the Finns identify more with its Scandinavian roots than with Russian culture.

We finally made our way back to the hotel where we indulged in an hour-long session of the sauna, a health practice perfected by the Finns of sitting in 80C (176F) temperatures on wooden benches to induce relaxation whilst sweating out the toxins from your body (Well at least for us, toxin meant the large amounts of vodka we consumed while in Russia). It was a welcoming relief from the cold, blistering weather.

We were sad that our winter adventure was coming to an end, but eager to get back to London where I thought would be a lot warmer, relatively speaking. Unfortunately, we brought the Arctic freeze with us to London. Sorry! Next year, we'll head somewhere warm and bring back plenty of sunshine...promise.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Здравствуйте (Hello) from St. Petersburg!

Continuing our Russian adventure from Moscow, we boarded an overnight train from Leningrad Station to St. Petersburg in a four-berth coupe shared with two other strangers, both were Russian. There is common stereotype that Russians rarely smile, which to us foreigners, may be perceived as cold, hostile, and unfriendly, but this is completely cultural so don’t take offense. In typical Russian fashion, no introductions, smile, or eye contact were exchange between the four us during our 8 hour train journey; instead, we crawled into our respective beds and fell asleep whilst listening to our I-Pods. Tchaikovsky, Puskin, Dostoevsky, the Russian ballet...I couldn't want to get to St. Petersburg.

Palace Square on NYE:

Saint Petersburg (Russian: Санкт-Петербург) is a beautifully planned city built by Peter the Great as his window to the Western world. Having spent time in Western Europe, and inspired by the elegant architecture of European cities, Peter the Great set an ambitious plan to build the grandest Russian city upon the swampy land on the Neva River in 1703. His perfectly planned city with straight geometric lines flanked by Baroque palaces would later become the imperial capital of the Russian Empire for the next two hundred years. As the birthplace of Russian literature, classical music, and of course the ballet, St. Petersburg flourished as the cultural centre of Russia. Like father, like daughter, Tsarina Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, continued her father’s love affair with Baroque architecture, so much that she commissioned her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, to design the exquisite Winter Palace. Then came Catherine the Great, who was a prolific collector of artwork from around the world which would later developed into the world-renown Hermitage Museum housed inside the Winter Palace.

The Admiralty:

Regal, beautiful, and fairytale-like indeed, however, St. Petersburg have also witnessed its share of war, famine, and revolution during its brief history. The tragic events of the 20th century -- Decemberist Movement of 1905, Russian Revolution of 1917, and the 900-day seige and blockade by the Nazi forces, coupled with three name changes -- Petrograd, then Leningrad, and then back to its original name, St. Petersburg will always be part of the city’s identity. It is a fascinating city with amazing history.

Along Nevsky Prospekt:

Upon arriving to Nevsky Prospekt Metro Station on the city’s main artery around 9AM, we were greeted with pure darkness, a thick blanket of snow, and below freezing temperatures of -11C (12F). Goodness, it was COLD! However, St. Petersburg did not disappoint. I was immediately captivated by the elegant Baroque and neo-classical buildings that adorn Nevsky Prospekt. St. Petersburg and Moscow are two contrasting cities, yet each has a very distinct “Russian-ness," and both unique in their own ways.
Kazan Cathedral:

Church on Spilled Blood:

After a quick nap and a hot shower at the B&B, we went on a walking tour to explore beautiful St. Petersburg, stopping along the way to admire the Stroganov Palace, the 96 Corinthian column Kazan Cathedral, and the Church on Spilled Blood which sits on a picturesque location on the Moika Canal where Tsar Alexander II was murdered. We took a stroll through Mikhaylovskiy Garden and around Arts Square all covered in snow -- a winter wonderland.

Mikhaylovskiy Garden covered in snow:

Along Art Square:

That evening we treated ourselves to an evening at the ballet, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, one of oldest ballet and opera houses in Russia. It would be wrong to come to Russia, and not see a ballet! I loved the whimsical production and the music to The Nutcracker – it was the perfect way to end the holiday season, or for the Russians, start of their festive period leading up to Orthodox Christmas on 7th January.

A Winter Wonderland:


Encore ~ The Nutcracker Ballet:

The next day we meant to explore Peter and Paul’s fortress, but the bitter cold weather deterred us from walking beyond Vasilevskiy Island, so we stopped at the Dvortsovvy Most bridge to snap of few photos of the frozen Neva River, Peter and Paul’s fortress in the distance, and the stunning sea-green Winter Palace.

Peter and Paul's Fortress 


Frozen Neva River and the Winter Palace:

We spent most of the afternoon at the world-renowned Hermitage Museum, which housed some of the world’s best art collections second to the Louvre in Paris. The staterooms were impressive, as was the sweeping Jordan staircase.

Gorgeous Winter Palace:


Home of Doestoysky, we had to pay tribute to Russia’s most notable literary figure who wrote extensively on the social context of 19th century Russian society. So we spent the late afternoon at The Idiot, a café/restaurant located near the St. Issac’s Cathedral for an afternoon break of blini (Russian crepes), beer and vodka. It has a wonderful, cozy atmosphere with plush couches and quirky decorations. Vegetarians rejoice! -- The Idiot
has an extensive fish and vegetarian menu, hard to come by for this meat-loving country.

St. Issac's Cathedral:

It was also New Years Eve in St. Petersburg. This would be our fifth consecutive New Year Eve abroad (we like to keep this tradition going as long as possible!) and like every New Year before, we looked forward to an amazing year ahead. We had a quiet dinner at a Georgian restaurant called Karvaz Bar. Following dinner, we braved the cold with several hundred of reverllers on Palace Square to ring in the New Year 2010. Of course, we toasted the New Year with what else…Russian “champagnesky” and vodka. I couldn’t think of a better way to ring in the New Year.
From Russia with Love!

Happy New Year!:


Next stop...Helsinki!