Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm is wonderful.

There may be cities as pretty around the world, but none are prettier. Stockholm is laid out on a series of islands connected by bridges, etc. The effect is that from above, it looks as if there are plenty of parks and plenty of rivers for everyone to enjoy.

The Swedes also have placed more than 600 statues around town, and the architecture is frequently colorful and interesting. The city also makes a great entrance by ships. It takes a few hours, literally, for vessels to work their way in from the Baltic Sea, passing pretty little islands along the way. It's sort of like sailing through the Thousand Islands in upstate New York before arriving in Montreal.

There are plenty of attractions, some of which are listed here. I didn't make it to the ABBA Museum and Ice Bar, sadly. As an added bonus, many people speak enough English to be helpful to tourists. So that's not a major issue during a visit by Americans who only know English.

The winters are long and dark, and it's a big city, so living here might not be the best option for some. But I can understand why anyone would want to come for a long visit in the summer.

Here's an introduction to the city:

For more on this vacation, click here.
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Nacka Stand, Sweden: God our Father on the Rainbow

When entering the harbor of Stockholm, this greets ships. Passengers on those vessels immediately start asking, "What the heck is that?"

It turns out it's a work of art. Go surf the Internet sometime, and you'll find that it's on many lists with other odd but fascinating sculptures.

It's called "God our Father on the Rainbow," although I've seen another reference to it as the arch of heaven. Look carefully and you'll see a figure on top of the arch. That makes the title a little more rational.

Supposedly, artist Carl Milles thought in 1946 that this would look great in the back yard of the United Nations building in New York. It took years, but the idea finally died there. In fact, Milles died too before he had the chance to see the dream realized in suburban Stockholm. Marshall Fredericks picked up the ball, or at least the idea, and ran with it. It's 60 meters tall and was finished in 1995.

When I saw it, I immediately thought of the automatic car washes they have at the rest stops of the Florida Turnpike. You pull in and your car gets sprayed. Were they using it for ships? No. It's good to know Milles had a more spiritual goal in mind, with water a symbol of life.

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Stockholm, Sweden: The Royal Chapel

Think of the word "chapel," and the idea of a small religious area comes to mind.

This is not it.

However, this chapel is located in the midst of Stockholm's Royal Palace. So you wouldn't expect a great deal of modesty.

This is where the Royal Family attends church. It's been around since 1754, part of a remodeling plan after a big fire. Part of the pre-1754 relics that survived the fire are on display here.

Cue the Dixie Cups: "We're going to the chapel, and we're gonna get married..."

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Stockholm, Sweden: Stortorget

Welcome to the oldest square in Stockholm, which means the idea of having an actual city on this location probably started pretty close to here.

The Stock Exchange building, now used for the Nobel Museum, takes up one side of the square. As you can see, they like their buildings colorful here. Really adds atmosphere.

The next question should be, what's the big thing in the middle of the square? It's a water well. The facility was used until 1856, when the water dried up because the well was up on a hill. The well was moved for a while, but moved back to the original spot for decorative purposes and reconnected to the water supply.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Nobel Museum

I know. You're disappointed that you haven't won a Nobel Prize yet.

But you can at least learn about what has to be one of the great honors in civilization by visiting the Nobel Museum in Stockholm.

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite late in the 19th century. Its effects on society were many - where would tunnels and canals be without it?

The stuff also made Nobel a rich man. He decided to fund prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peacemaking. (What, nothing for sportswriting?)

Everyone who wins gets a portrait here in the former Stock Exchange. You can pick up a chocolate Nobel Prize if you'd like. Or, you can have a seat in a cafe and have a snack. Along the way, turn your seat upside down. Apparently visiting Nobel winners are asked to sign the bottom of a chair during visits.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Sankt Goran statue

Stockholm is a lovely city, and one of the reasons is that there aren't any dragons running loose on the streets. Sankt Goran has taken care of that.

He's saluted with this sculpture, which has been in place for a little more than 100 years. Goran is shown battering one of those pesky critters in a small square in Old Town. A wooden statue preceded it, and that must have been a remarkable site considering the detail involved.

Look for it in Kopmanbrinken, a street in the district.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Iron Boy

It's Stockholm's smallest tourist attraction!

Say hello to Iron Boy. This is the smallest statue in a city filled with them. The full Swedish name for this translates to "little boy who looks at the moon." Little indeed.

As you can see, the residents of Stockholm like to leave little hats for the tyke, not to mention coins. Visitors are also encouraged to rub Iron Boy's head, either for luck or wisdom depending on which story you believe. I'll settle for either after touching it.

Iron Boy isn't far from the Royal Palace, but it is in a courtyard and might be a little hard to find. Look behind the Finnish church.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Stockholm Cathedral

It's another two-fer photo opportunity, this time in Stockholm's Old Town (Gamala Stan for those who prefer it in Swedish).

The main attraction here is in the background slightly, the Stockholm Cathedral. It's the oldest building in the city, with parts of it dating back to 1306. The Bishop has his office there, and a variety of activities have taken place there over the years. And why not, since the Royal Palace is next door. Services are held every Sunday.

In the middle of the square is an obelisk. I had to find a travel book to find out that this object honors the people who helped Sweden in its 1788 war with Russia. Thank you, Rick Steves. Further research translated the inscription: "King Gustav III decided after the peace was gained MDCCXCIX this memory of the citizens of the citizens of Stockholms loyalty and ardour during the war." A tax hike might have gone over better, but it's something.

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Friday, July 10, 2015

Stockholm, Sweden: The Royal Palace

It's a nice place, but I wouldn't want to clean it.

The Royal Palace is where all of the official business of royalty takes place. It's been in the same place for centuries, and the major revisions more or less stopped in the 1770s.

There are 1,400 rooms, about half of them with windows. This is billed as one of the largest palaces in Europe, and I have no reason to doubt it. The place is complete with guards (and they change them every day, naturally), museums and a gift shop. In other words, the owners don't mind showing off the place a little.

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Stockholm, Sweden: King Gustav III statue

King Gustav III of Sweden no doubt would be happy to know that he is still remembered fondly in his homeland. He couldn't ask for much more in a memorial.

His Majesty is right down the steps from the Royal Palace, and on a prime location on the waterfront. He is shown returning to Sweden after a war with Russia in 1790, offering an olive branch to the Swedish people.

Alas, it wasn't taken. Times were turbulent in Sweden around then, and the King was assassinated as a masked ball two years later. Gustav is known for taking power in a coup in 1772, and he was working with other nobility to try to stop all of these pesky revolutions of the time.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Nordic Museum

Tourists who come to the Vasa Museum - and they come by the busloads - sometimes notice the nice building right across the parking lot. Well, at least we did, prompting this picture. As for knowing what it was, well, that required some investigation.

The Museum decided to study Swedish history in the Modern Age, putting the starting point at 1520. Then curators started collecting items, and collecting them, and collecting some more. As a result, the Museum now has more than one million items under control.

It's a big building, but not that big. Wonder where the warehouse is for the rest of the stuff?

Now, I couldn't fly around the building to get the best possible look at this building. But you can.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Vasa Museum

On August 10, 1628, the Vasa was released into Stockholm's harbor. It was a state-of-the-art warship, complete with 64 guns and a 300-man crew. Surely it would be a fearsome sight for opposing forces.

And so it was. For an hour and a half. Then a gust of wind came up and the Vasa started to list. From there, it was straight into the sea. An investigation showed that the boat was built to be far too top-heavy. By the way, the architect was not shot at sunrise the next morning for this, although the idea probably came up.

The boat stayed on the harbor floor for more than 300 years, when it was discovered. From there, the country raised it from the fresh water (a key to the fact that it was well preserved) and started the task of putting it all together again.

And they did it. The Vasa went on display in its own museum in 1990, and quickly became a top tourist attraction. It's the oldest ship of its kind to be so well preserved.

Reading about this is one thing. Seeing it in person is another. I was unprepared for its dramatic structure upon entering the main room. It's amazing to see it. The rest of the museum has exhibits on the ship, including a room that simulates what it was like to be on board below the top desk. (Note: tall people will have to bend a lot.)

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Stockholm, Sweden: King's Garden

Welcome to the oldest park in Stockholm, which is saying. King's Garden dates back to the 1400s, where it served as the royal vegetable garden. Then it became a private garden, and was opened to the public in the 1770s.

King Charles XII is the guy in the middle of the picture in statue form. He is shown pointing toward Russia, as that country and Sweden had some memorable battles. He and Peter the Great got to know each other well that way.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Gustav Adolfs Torg

You must be a pretty good leader to get your own square, let alone a statue. Therefore, let's salute King Gustav II Adolf, the subject of the big statue.

The King led Sweden from 1611 (when he was 16, for crying out loud) to 1632, and is considered a military genius. Gustav led Sweden to some great victories, and helped the country become a major European power. He was killed in action.

By the way, Sweden's Opera House is behind the statue. The building has been around since 1773 - America was still part of Great Britain then - and you can still tour the place or hear a performance. It looks pretty fancy.

And it has an odd place in pop music history. The King was getting married in Sweden, and ABBA debuted a song for the happy couple here - it was written just for them. You might recognize it as the band played the song wearing throwback uniforms from the 1700s.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Stockholm Waterfront building

Yikes. What the heck is this?

It's called Stockholm Waterfront, and is something of a convention center. It offers hotels, offices and meeting space in a unique package - right between the rail station and City Hall.

It's a relatively new building, as construction only started in 2008. No matter what you think of the design, it makes an impression ... and turns up as a famous example of unusual city architecture.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Parliament House

Here's a building that knows how to make an entrance.

Parliament House takes up a great deal of the Old Town district in Stockholm, as you could imagine. It's not far from the Royal Palace and other attractions.

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Stockholm, Sweden: City Hall

One night a year in December, this room becomes the intellectual center of the planet.

This is where the Nobel Prizes are handed out. You are looking at the Blue Room. In the original design, this was supposed to be an open-air room. The plans changed but the name stuck. They jam 1,300 people into this room for the banquet. Not much elbow room, I suspect.

Up the stairs is the Gold Room, a fabulously ornate room that's on the dark side even in day time. Therefore, the pictures don't do it justice. The building has a tower that you can climb for a view of this beautiful city.

For the full effect, a video is definitely in order:

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Stockholm, Sweden: Parliament House Archway

Around 1900, the Parliament building and the Swedish National Bank were right next to each other. A pedestrian area connects the two buildings, and so someone decided to put up an archway to mark the start of that little "road."

The history is a little murky on this as websites disagree on what happened when. But at some point the National Bank left, and Parliament took over the other building.

If you want to sound like a native, call the main legislative structure "Riksdagen." If you walk around the building, you'll probably see some lawmakers. And there are tours available.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Riddarholm Church

Let's start with the fact that the Riddarholm Church is one of the oldest buildings in Stockholm - it dates back to the 1200s in part. The structure is located on the island of Riddarholmen as part of metropolitan Stockholm.

You'd think that such a beautiful place would still be active. Alas, that part of the building's service ended more than 200 years ago. Now it's mostly a burial ground for old Swedish royalty. Those who pass away now wind up in a royal cemetery.

There are tours of the place, but apparently the window for visits can be small at certain times of the year.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

After making it through two hectic days in St. Petersburg, Helsinki was a nice change of pace. It has less than one million people, and seems like a very livable city based on a day's visit.

Helsinki became the capital of Finland only about a century ago, so it has a different feel than a place like Tallinn. Still, it's clean and modern.

The Senate Square, shown here, is a major gathering spot for residents and tourists alike. Our bus is in the crowd somewhere.

I didn't make it to all of the city's attractions. Here's a video:

For more on this vacation, click here.
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Helsinki, Finland: Bad Bad Boy

It's fair to say this blog has all sorts of unusual attractions. This was one of the first such places we found in Europe. As you'd expect, everyone has gotten a laugh out of it.

Tommi Toija’s sculpture was originally down at the harbor, but apparently it was recently moved away from the waterfront. (Check out pictures at its old home here.) It now stands in front of a large store along the lines of Best Buy.

Just wondering - would you really want to sit at the dining tables behind the Bad Bad Boy for lunch?

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Helsinki, Finland: Mannerheim Statue

Say hello to the George Washington of Finland, even if I didn't know it at the time when I snapped the picture. This is Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannherheim.

Here he is on his horse, ready to head for battle. Mannerheim served as the commander-in-chief for Finland during World War II. But he must have faced other battles as Finland's sixth president. As you'd expect, this is sacred stuff in Finland. The statue went up in 1960.

Mannerheim was voted as the greatest Finn in history. He's even been on a stamp - in America.

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Helsinki, Finland: Olympic Stadium

Say, who is that guy in a hurry?

Why that's Paavo Nurmi, one of the great athletes in track history.

They didn't call him the Flying Finn for nothing. He won nine gold medals and three silvers at the Olympics during a spectacular career in distance running. Nurmi once held the world record for the mile, 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters at the same time. He pretty much dominated the sport in the 1920s.

Paavo runs past the Olympic Stadium, which was used for the summer Games in 1952. The facility also hosted the first world track championships, and has been used for concerts, etc. A major reconstruction will take place in the next few years, ensuring that Finland will have an up-to-date facility.

Here's a better look at the stadium, with some nice music to go along with it:

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Helsinki, Finland: Seurasaari Open-Air Museum

This is a rather interesting idea for a museum - put one in a park.

Helsinki has an island devoted to that purpose. Finnish cities packed up some historical structures and shipped them to the nation's capital, where they were reassembled and placed on a hiking trail. Not only can residents go for a nice walk, but they can learn something along the way.

The windmill might have been the most impressive job of reconstruction, but there are other nice areas as well. The facility does have a small snack place if you get hungry along the way.

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Helsinki, Finland: Church of the Rock

Now here's some out-of-the-box thinking.

There was an unused plot of land in Helsinki that someone thought would be a nice spot for a church - in spite of the rocky nature of the site. World War II got in the way for a while, and the idea didn't receive any consideration until the 1960s. Finally, construction crews started digging into the rock, and a church opened on the spot in 1969.

Temppeliaukio Church has a copper dome and uses natural sunlight for illumination. As you might expect by the rock walls, the acoustics are rather interesting. That makes this a natural spot for concerts, etc.

One last point - there are no bells in the church. They use a recording.

I found a video on YouTube of an Emerson, Lake and Palmer song. Couldn't resist.

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Helsinki, Finland: Havis Amanda Statue

The fact that this is such a distant shot of the statue is not a commentary on the fact that the depicted woman has no clothes on. It's a commentary on the fact it was taken from a bus window.

Say hello to Havis Amanda, a mermaid who is coming out of the ocean with fish at her feet. It is supposed to represent the rebirth of Helsinki, and it created some controversy when it was displayed in 1908. Now, it's considered one of the top public artworks in Helsinki.

According to a Wikipedia writer, there's a great story that goes along with this statue. According to legend, men can increase their sexual potency by washing one's face with the water from the fountain and saying "Rakastaa" (Finnish for loving someone) three times. I did not have the chance to give this a first-hand test.

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Helsinki, Finland: Sederholm House

It's fair to say we picked the wrong time to drop in on central Finland's oldest building (1757).

The structure, which houses a children's museum, is going through a large renovation. A new city museum is part of the overall plan.

Children's Town will reopen in 2016. That's too late for a 2015 tourist, but at least we got to see the place, which is on the edge of Senate Square. The kids will be playing there again before we know it.

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Helsinki, Finland: Government Palace

Finland isn't a huge country, so it doesn't need to fill Helsinki with government buildings. But the one shown here is the important one: the Government Palace.

The Finnish Senate moved in to that location in 1822, and the building has gone through a variety of changes over the years. Still, the space in front of it is still known as Senate Square.

These days, the Prime Minister works out of that building, and some other government agencies such as Justice and Finance are also there.

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Helsinki, Finland: Senate Square

This is something of a two-fer: two good-sized attractions in one picture. Both are located in Senate Square in Helsinki, following the European tradition of gathering places.

The statue is of Emperor Alexander II, of the 19th century. He helped make Finland more democratic and tried to inch away from Russia in a number of ways. The Russians returned in 1899, leaving the statue as something of a shrine. Finland became independent in 1917, and Alexander II remains popular.

At the top of the steps - it's a good workout - is the Helsinki Cathedral. This was built between 1830 and 1852, and got a new name in 1917 when the country turned independent. Lots of tourists pass through it, although it's still a working facility.

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Helsinki, Finland: Helsinki Central

This looks quite a bit like the Buffalo train station. Maybe Helsinki's model had some influence, since this one was finished in 1919 and Buffalo's went up in 1929.

The difference is that Helsinki's is still open for business. About 200,000 pass through every day, and they have a chance to take in the views offered by one of the world's prettiest train stations (BBC, 2013).

One fun aspect of this picture - but you'll have to click on it to blow it up. There are two figures, holding white balls, in the middle of the building as shown. I guess they have become rather iconic in Finland's culture, popping up in parody pictures in various places over the years.

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St. Petersburg, Russia

You won't find a more interesting city than St. Petersburg anywhere. There are 3.5 million people in the neighborhood, and they receive a daily treat whenever they travel.

St. Petersburg is an odd mix. It has great historical items in town, and cathedrals and statues add beauty. The Soviet era didn't do much to add to that reputation. You can see some of the really bland buildings from those days around town. Then there's the present - cranes are ever-present in the city as new structures go up all the time.

The highlight, though, is probably the world-famous Hermitage. So I save a picture of the famous peacock clock for this purpose. It was acquired by Catherine the Great in 1781, and features three mechanical birds.

Here's a video, giving St. Petersburg the once-over:

For more information on this vacation, click here.

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St. Petersburg, Russia: St. Peter and Paul Cathedral

In America, we have to drive all over the country to visit the graves of our rulers. Russia does it in a much more simple way.

Rulers dating back to Peter the Great are all in the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, part of a fortress on the Neva River. The list stops in 1917, when the Russian Revolution took place.

The whole place is worth a look, as you could guess by the background of my photo:

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Monument to Nicholas I

As leaders go, Nicholas I was more of a despot than anything. He ruled with the proverbial iron fist in the early to middle 1800s.

His memory lives in for those in the area of St. Isaac's Cathedral. Take a good look at the picture, and notice that the horse is standing on its back legs. That was a difficult feat for a sculptor back in the 1800s. What's more, that design may have saved it from demolition. The Soviets weren't a big fan of the Tsars, but this piece may have been unique enough fame for it to survive destruction later on.

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of Spilled Blood only
sounds as if it is a made-for-TV movie.

Although I'd have to admit I'd watch a movie with that title.

It seems Alexander I was badly wounded on this site in 1881, and he eventually died. The church started going up a couple of years later, although it took until 1907 to finish it.

The outside is spectacular, but the inside is great as well. I didn't get the chance to go through the building (gotta make time on the bus), but someone filled me in by video:

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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

St. Petersburg, Russia: The Literary Cafe

Bus tours aren't known for stopping at trendy places. On our trip around St. Petersburg, we were ushered into the Literary Cafe. Staffers pointed out paintings of famous authors who had dined there over the years.

Therefore, we were eating in the shadows of Saltykov, Shchedrin, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. In fact, I learned much later that this supposedly was the last cafe (under different management, of course) that poet Aleksandr Pushkin ever visited. Maybe someone knew I wrote a travel blog, and thought I'd fit in.

The food was fine, although this tradition of a shot of vodka at the start of the meal does take an adjustment period.

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Taleon Imperial Hotel

When the bus tour passed this hotel, the guide said the building was famous as the place where Beef Stroganoff was invented. That was pretty exciting to someone who loves to take pictures of obscure historical places.

However ... there's no backing evidence that the dish was first created here. In fact, the creation story is rather vague. So, while the legend probably isn't true, it's still worth a look at the place just in case.

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Tsarskoye Selo, Russia: Catherine Palace

This page is another problem for the picture editor. The Catherine Palace is filled with amazing rooms. How to pick one? I went with this room, which no doubt hosted some great dinner parties over the years.

In comparison to Peterhof, this castle is a photographer's dream. Pictures are allowed in all but one of the rooms. Catherine the Great hired an architect to build her a summer palace in 1733. She was known as a relatively fair ruler as these things go, but must have been willing to spend a little money when she felt a whim. Catherine had something like 15,000 dresses on hand. No wonder the peasants eventually got upset.

This building was destroyed by the retreating Germans during World War II, but it has been slowly restored to its past glory. They aren't quite done yet, but the Russians did have the original plans and a list of the contents, so this gives you the idea pretty nicely.

Here's a video look at it:

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Triumphal Gate

Remind me to put this in my next book, "Pictures of landmarks taken through a bus window." I'm started to get good at it, although the inevitable reflection is always depressing. But if it's the only way to get the shot ...

Not too many people remember the Russians' big win over Turkey in the 1828-29 war. The winners decided to celebrate with this structure, which was completed almost 10 years later.

Stalin wanted to move it all to Moscow, but World War II got in the way. The structure was dismantled and used as a barrier to prevent Nazi tanks from coming into the city from the South. The gate was put back together around 1960.

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Neva River cruise

The summers aren't too long in St. Petersburg, so the people make sure to enjoy them. One way to take advantage of that idea is to hop in a boat and cruise the Neva River. It's the main waterway in the Russian city, and connects to the various canals around town. The cruises supply an interesting viewpoint for seeing the city.

In this case, here's what the St. Isaac's Cathedral looks like from the river. It used to be the biggest cathedral in Russia, and it still has a fascinating interior.

You can tour the place, which is mostly used as a museum now. Services are only held inside on special occasions.

As for the rest of the trip, try this video for a taste:

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St. Petersburg, Russia: The Hermitage

The Hermitage Museum probably isn't the best art gallery in the world. A handful of others might have better works, depending on how you judge these things.

But the Hermitage probably is in the top 10, and it probably has more quality items than any other art museum. That means that it's an amazing experience to walk through, and you'll never see more than a tiny fraction of it all unless you move to St. Petersburg.
I can't say I ever saw a Rembrandt before, and the place had a room full of his works. I've heard that many of the works here were more or less stolen, or at least purchased under shady circumstances.

Our visit was on a Sunday, and no matter how big the place was, it was definitely oversold. It felt like a football game, particularly when I was caught in something of a mob of Chinese tourists who surged forward as a group and surrounded me. (Rules on personal space must be different there.) Their attention was focused on the picture shown, a work by da Vinci - I think. At least, I remember it this way when dodging the crowd.

One interesting point about the place is that photography is allowed. Most galleries tell you to at least keep the flash off, but they don't seem to care here. Therefore, I've got several photos of some great areas in my album; I just felt like snapping away when I saw something interesting, and it was almost all interesting.

This video is rather long, but there's a lot to see:

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Winter Palace

The State Hermitage Museum is a huge complex, with several different parts. After entering the building, visitors have the chance to walk through the winter palace first.

Room after room is decorated in over-the-top fashion. But which one to show here? I picked a shot of this gold room, but that's not really fair to everything else in the place.

The structure went through some changes over the course of 200 years, but the finish was memorable. The Communists stormed the place in 1917 to cap the Russian Revolution.

Maybe a video will work better, especially if it comes with music:

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St. Petersburg, Russia: The Fountains of Peterhof

There are all sorts of fountains on the grounds at Peterhof. The problem is picking one.

I went with the Venus Fountain, but really I could have gone with a dozen others. There's even a trick fountain, that sprays people who happen to walk on the wrong stone that's been placed in a short path. (I made it over that path without getting wet.)

The highlight is the Grand Cascade, featuring the fountains in front of the main building. That deserves a video:

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Peterhof Park and Gardens

This entry basically is an excuse to show a nice photo. When you walk out of the main palace, this is the view from the top of the steps. The long pool runs down to the Gulf of Finland. Catherine the Great gets a lot of the credit for the layoff.

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St. Petersburg, Russia: The Grand Palace of Peterhof

Peter the Great had a problem. He was the ruler of Russia, but he didn't have a Versailles to show off.

So he built one.

That's the story behind Peterhof, one of the great palaces of the world.

It's a huge complex, as you'd expect, although the building itself isn't overwhelming in size - only 30 rooms or so. But they are decorated nicely. Ahem.

Peter died in 1725, and daughter Elizabeth picked up the ball from there. The structure didn't survive World War II well, but has been rebuilt since then. It's a top tourist attraction and deservedly so.

By the way, photography is not allowed inside the building. So try going here for a look inside.

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Tallinn, Estonia

A visitor once described Tallinn, particularly the Old Town, as Disney does the Middle Ages. There's some truth in that.

Estonia isn't exactly well known in the United States. It was lumped with Latvia and Lithuania as the small Baltic countries who were dominated and controlled by the Soviets for several decades.

But Estonia became free again in 1989, and it has followed the playbook to financial growth perfectly. The West has arrived in full force in the years since then, and it brought a checkbook. There has been plenty of building taking place in this country in the last quarter-century, and the result is a vibrant nation. You can see some of that construction in the picture from Kohtuotsa Viewpoint. The downtown mall wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco, except for the language differences.

Many of the visitors arrive on cruise ships, and they only have a day to look around. The obvious place to go is Old Town. Many of the buildings look ancient, even if they have been remodeled recently. Everything old, then, looks new again. I didn't know the capital city's name before a few months ago, but I won't forget it after a visit.

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Tallinn, Estonia: City Walls

Way back when, Tallinn had the protective feeling of having a wall that went all the way around the city to stop intruders. It stretched more than a couple of kilometers and had 46 towers.

Some of the wall is still on the job today. In fact, for a few Euros you can climb up some steps and go for a walk on part of it. The views are interesting, offering the chance to see the city's layout a little clearer and to take a peak at some yards from above.

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Tallinn, Estonia: Sweater Wall

Need a sweater for those long winter nights? You have come to the right place.

Estonia is relatively famous for its sweaters, and there are lots of them for sale here. Yes, it's an odd store - right up against the wall that rings the old part of town. It's a tradition that has gone on for years; some of the stands even take credit cards.

There aren't many bargains here any more, but the work is still impressive. You could do far worse for a souvenir gift for yourself or a friend than one of the sweaters on the wall.

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Tallinn, Estonia: Patkuli Viewpoint

You'd expect a city built on a hill to have some nice viewpoints, and Tallinn certainly qualifies. This is the Kohtuotsa Viewpoint.

This overlooks some of the old city and the dock area is beyond it. In fact, a big cruise boat can be seen in this picture, just to the right of the tallest church tower in the upper middle.

If you go about a block east from this point, you'll run into the Kohtuotsa Viewpoint. It's similar so I won't bother with a separate page on this blog, although the city skyscrapers are more apparent. You can some of the Soviet-era buildings from there including the Hotel Viru, which was big but not exactly charming.

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Tallinn, Estonia: Stenbock House

You might call this the entrance to the executive branch of Estonia's government, in a sense. You might also call this a poor picture of the facility, since the large building is best seen from a spot down the hill on the other side. (At least it's a good-looking gate.)

The prime minister works out of this building, and so does the Chancelllery that follows the orders. The land once belonged to Count Jakob Stenbock, which is why it still bears his name almost 200 years after his death. He first put up a building that overlooked Tallinn.

By the way, the building has a plaque that salutes the government leaders who lost their lives during the era of Communist domination. Nice touch.

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Tallinn, Estonia: Dome Church

Not many churches are used as churches in Estonia, as it isn't a particularly religious place. However, the Dome Church, also known as St. Mary's Cathedral, is an exception.

The site has hosted a church for at least 750 years or so, but has gone through changes as you'd expect. It even survived a big fire in 1684, the only building in the neighborhood to do so.

The Dome Church is the oldest church in Estonia, and doubles as the host of an observation desk. For a few Euros, you can walk up and look around. Concerts are often held there too, and visitors who drop by might be able to hear some organ music.

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