Password management

Password Management – why do I care?

Let’s face it, password management is an annoying pain.  Unfortunately until better solutions become common it’s a necessary one.  Why?  Because:

  1. Passwords are generally the first line of defence of your digital life  (At home think photos, banking, social media, etc.  At Sotic, it’s our whole business!).
  2. People (myself included) tend to pick bad passwords so that we can remember them.  Research found that 86% of a large sample were Terrible!
  3. … or when we do pick good passwords we can only remember a few, so we reuse them on many sites.  Been there, done that.  Also not a good idea.

The answer… use a password manager

So how do you reduce security friction;  get max security for least hassle?  My advice – use a password manager.  For many readers this will be familiar ground, but if you haven’t yet seen the light this advice can be a digital life saver.

It used to be considered good practice to make users change their password frequently.  I think that just leads to forcing people to either write the password down or adopt an easy-to-guess pattern (I mean, we’ve all been there, right?).  Instead I recommend creating strong unique passwords for every service that needs them, and storing them in a secure password vault in a specialist service/application.  A side benefit of a good password manager is that they will help highlight weak passwords, reused passwords, compromised accounts, etc.  They also usually include functionality to create strong passwords.  What’s not to like!

Don’t just take my word for it; plenty of others are promoting the same approach. Respected tech magazine Wired says GET A PASSWORD MANAGER. NO MORE EXCUSES. and the response from the UK National Cyber Security Centre (part of GCHQ) to “Should I use a password manager?” was Yes. Password managers are a good thing.

Alright – I’m convinced already!   But what should I pick?

There are plenty of password vault apps on the market, paid and free.  Try and pick one that has plenty of advocates and is actively maintained.  My own favourite is 1Password;  great on OS X and iOS, well designed and easy to use.  The team also has a strong reputation on focussing on security first.  Lastpass is also well regarded and has a free version, Dashlane is increasingly popular, and KeePass is Open Source.  If you haven’t already why not give one a whirl?  Go on, try one now…

Got your secure vault setup?  Protect it with a really good password!

So with our eggs in one basket, better make sure it’s got a great lock.  Your next step is to secure your vault with a strong master password.  You will have to remember this one (but just this one – that’s the point!), and it’s worth some effort to make it good.  To help you there are great guides out there to creating a strong password such as from 1Password or the government CyberAware initiative.  A strong password makes it much harder for the bad guys to crack.  ( If you want, see how scary fast it can be to brute-search for passwords).  For all other passwords I just get my password manager to auto-generate them.

If you are anything like me then if your setup isn’t easy to use you just won’t stick with it. So if you’ve got a mobile device with a fingerprint reader see if you can configure the app to work with this;  it’s a great way to take away a lot of the pain of frequent master password entry.

For more detailed implementation advice try this great how-to guide from The Verge, or this informative deep dive with a strong 1Password focus from the SweetSetup.

It’s fine to stop here;  the above will really up your security game.  Hungry for more?  Fantastic – read on…

Getting more advanced – 2FA

2 Factor Authentication (2FA) introduces the idea of requiring another element to authenticate to a service.  So if a password is ‘something you know’ then a secure device is an example of ‘something you have’ and a fingerprint is an example of ‘something you are’.  Adding this additional factor helps protect against a remote attack – the bad guys getting your password is no longer enough to compromise your account.

So, 2FA is a fantastic extra precaution.  Use it on any account that supports it which you consider important, including e-mail (as e-mail often controls password reset for other services).  The NCSC provide some 2FA service links in this excellent password advice note.  How most easily to do this?  Well phone SMS is often a default option, but my preference is to use an app for that!  Authy is really good, and free.  Google authenticator app works well for their service, and Microsoft Authenticator for their services such as Office365 etc.  1Password can also provide 2FA in the form of one-time passwords.  This is really seemless if you already use their app.

Use of an app isn’t as ultra-secure as a genuine separate device, but I reckon it’s fine for most of us mortals who don’t work for government organisations based in Cheltenham.  (If you’d like to dig deeper on this point, you might enjoy this MacWorld article.  And if you do want to go a step further check out YubiKey and Duo.)

With 2FA it’s important to avoid locking yourself out (if say your phone is lost or damaged… arghh!).  Security vs usability is an eternal trade-off, unfortunately.  So you should prepare recovery options in advance.  Lifehacker have an article with great advice.  Bottom line is – generate and keep service recovery codes safe, and consider more than one 2FA device.  (Oh, and Authy and 1Password offer encrypted backups).

So if you’ve got this far you have no excuse – turn on 2FA and go generate those recovery codes now..   😉

Thanks for reading.




Helsinki (12 – 15 September)

Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki cathedral

Ed’s Helsinki Photo Gallery (opens in new tab)

We arrived again at Helsinki and this time finally actually stopped rather than immediately leaving again!  So this made it our final city – we’d made it to number 40!

Like the journey to Turku, the return train journey back from it was similarly pleasant and we arrived at the train station ready for some lunch.  We headed to the student refectory, Unicafe Ylioppilasaukio, where non-students can also eat, just for a higher price. It was buzzing with activity, and we enjoyed a well priced straight forward lunch amongst the student busyness. Our next job was was to buy a 3 day travel card, which proved surprisingly harder than expected as they seem to hide the sales points! Though not quite well enough, as Greg tracked one down in the basement of a nearby shopping centre, and we were soon on the tram to our hotel.

We got off outside a stern looking building surrounded by a high wall – we were literally staying in a prison! Rather more specifically we we staying in a hotel that had been converted from a prison. Hotel Katajanokka dates back to 1837, and the building originally served as a county prison and pre-trial detention centre. The prison was closed in 2002 and the red brick walls now house 106 luxurious rooms! The hotel retains a substantial number of original “features” ; so the iron staircases and walkways on each floor remain (though carpeted), the hotel rooms have original cells doors (in original door frames – each room is two cells knocked into one), the prison chapel remains, even the restaurant kitchen is the original kitchen. Our room had an extra treat – a small but well built sauna; you could tell you were in Finland! The hotel was also popular for weddings, held in the prison chapel – and it was apparently traditional for the groom to spend the night before the wedding in the one remaining cell (solitary confinement) which wasn’t converted to a hotel room!

On leaving the hotel we headed to the harbour and admired a rather impressive work of art towering unmissably over the docks – the 8.5m tall statue of a small boy peeing into the harbour is entitled “Bad Bad Boy”. I’ve seen commented that the artist felt that since lots of boys had definitely done this it was time they were recognised for their efforts!  Some also claim that it’s a statement about the lack of public toilets in Helsinki. Whatever the reason it makes quite a sight welcoming you to Helsinki harbour!

From the harbour we caught one of the regular ferries (included in our city transport pass) to the fortress island of Suomenlinna which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  First constructed in 1748 by the Swedish crown as protection against Russian expansionism, today it is popular with tourists and locals who enjoy it as a picturesque picnic site.

The island was originally named Sveaborg (Fortress of Svea), and was renamed Suomenlinna (Castle of Finland) in 1918 for patriotic and nationalistic reasons, though it is sometimes still known by its original name. It’s an interesting location comprising of a lot of natural landscape to wander around and enjoy, some buildings still in use (about 300 people live there), and many historical and sometimes derelict locations.  Some of the buildings have been preserved as museums and we started with one which is located in what used to be the official residence of the fortress commandant and which showcases the Swedish period of the fortress. The first master of the house was the builder of the fortress, Augustin Ehrensvärd. Following this we explored a fairly unique museum; a dry-docked submarine! Vesikko was a Finnish submarine, built in the 1930s, that saw action in the Second World War. Inside the restored Vesikko you realise just how cramped the working conditions of the submarine that the crew experienced were, and we admired the submarine technology of the era.

We also explored the old fortifications on the island, passing many large guns constructed by Russians at the end of the 19th century and now in various states of decay but still pointing out to sea. It was there that we saw a number of students celebrating beginning a new year. As part of their freshers week celebrations a number of strange activities were going on, which seemed to include some medieval role playing, viking sword fighting reenactment and a great deal of drinking, singing and general merriment – culminating in a few participants stripping off and jumping into the nearest pond (or bit of ocean) in true Finnish fashion!

Dinner was interesting and unusual that evening. We visited Perho Restaurant which was part of a catering college and is used as part of their teaching programme. So we were served by a very young and earnest looking team plus a Maitre D’ who also seemed to be a student, all overseen by some adults keeping a keen but discrete eye on proceedings. This made it a bit different and I am pleased to say the food was very good;  so clearly the trainee chefs were being well taught. We left the restaurant impressed on all counts.

The next day we got up bright and early for a visit to Helsinki Cathedral, previously known as St Nicholas (as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia) until the independence of Finland in 1917.  The building was quite ornate from the outside; a bright white building in a neoclassical style, in a commanding position at the top of a huge flight of steps.  The large broad steps before the church are very steep and present a formidable challenge to those ascending them to visit the church.  From the top the steps remain hidden until you are almost atop the first step – so much so that locals often refer to the top step as the “cliff edge”. Inside was quite modest by comparison, appropriate for a Lutheran building we felt but apparently a disappointment to many a tourist (especially American it seems, judging by Trip Advisor) who expected more after seeing the ornate exterior and climbing the steps to venture inside.

Next up was the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, located on a hill within the city which offered good views over nearby neighborhoods. The Cathedral itself is an Eastern Orthodox (like Russian Orthodox) cathedral with red brick on the outside, and inside is an extravagant, ornate gold church in a different layout to a Catholic church. It has much more bling on the inside compared with it’s Lutheran counterpart and some devout visitors queued up in order to kiss one of the sacred relics which they appeared to consider significant.

We then journeyed to a different part of the city, taking a bus to Seurasaari island which is used as an open air museum and houses over 80 old Finnish buildings which have been collected together and which span the 18th to 20th centuries. The buildings are rural, giving a nice overview of life in the Finnish countryside. It was another nice day, with blue skies and and plenty of sun, so wandering around this museum in its attractive natural setting was a pleasure. It was quite quiet, with only a few other visitors and a small number of attendents at the few buildings open to explore (who were passing the time by engaging in original crafts such as knitting and weaving). One of the more notable buildings was an old church, which is apparently still in use on special occasions. Alongside it are a number of boat sheds that came with the building, as in it’s original location many people would row to the church! There was also a stable with a room above built by the congregation so they had somewhere to change into their church finery after their trip there. We also visited the farmhouse of a weathly land-owning family, which slept a startling number of people under one roof and in few rooms. Several of the houses reminded us of the ones we’d seen in Norway although a number were closed for winter so we couldn’t enter to explore them properly.

After completing our circuit of the museum area we left on one of the many trails to the remainder of the island which formed a nature reserve. We took a path which wended it’s way around the circumference of the small island and gave us some time to enjoy the very beautiful surroundings. There were few others walking along, so we often felt that we had the island to ourselves as we strolled hand in hand in the sunshine amongst the trees, squirrels, birds and occasional pool. About half way round we passed the old outdoor swimming beaches. These are private fenced off beaches with changing facilities but were unfortunately closed for winter, as otherwise we’d have been tempted to give them a whirl!  All in all the island proved to be a delightful diversion from the urban city proper and a great green space to which city residents can escape.

Our final stop for the day was to the historic Yrjönkatu swimming bath, an Art Deco bath which is one of the oldest in the country. Originally planned for demolition it was saved by local outcry and it is now a listed building. Inside it has one of the few remaining wood fired sauna (most are now electric, which is much more environmentally friendly). We enjoyed our swim, steam and sauna here and I even braved the top shelf of the rather fierce sauna rather than the lower “tourist shelf”; resulting in being mistaken for a local by another visitor!

Dinner was at HOKU, a Hawaiian restaurant (yep, in Helsinki), and absolutely excellent. It reminded us of the food we’d had in Japan and it was interesting to discover how heavily influenced Hawaiian food is by Japan – apparently due to the vast number of Japanese immigrants to Hawaii in the late 19th century. All the dishes we sampled were really great; I had some exquisite fish (Kuha fish stuffed with snow crab, prawn, lup cheong (sweet Chinese sausage), steamed, and served with a tomato-lemon beurre blanc) with a Hawaiian craft beer, and Greg enjoyed Bi Bim Bap (thinly sliced beef teriyaki, lightly cooked with pickled vegetables, steamed rice, a fried egg and spicy kocuchung sauce). It proved to be an unexpected treat exceeding what we’d expected when walking in the door as it looked more like a neighbourhood bar.

Our final full day commenced with a visit to the Kaisaniemi Botanical Gardens, which truth-be-told were rather unimpressive (especially when compared with the awesome gardens in Gothenburg). The only real point of interest was noting that we’d ended up following a line of fresh chalk – something which made a lot more sense when we crossed the finish line a short time later, well in advance of the runners of the half marathon that we’d stumbled across!

From here we caught one of the very regular (and clean) trams to the intriguingly nick-named “Church in the Rock” (real name Temppeliaukio Church), which turned out to be exactly that. It was a stunning space carved into natural rock, and gifted with wonderful light which reflected off a domed copper roof, together with perfect acoustics. We arrived as some music was playing at the end of mass and stopped for a while to listen, just enjoying the extraordinarily peaceful atmosphere. Staying with the religious theme we then headed towards a completely different kind of chapel in a very unlikely location – the edge of a local shopping center. The Kamppi Chapel of Silence is a very beautiful alder and ash structure that has been deliberately created to provide some respite from the consumerist world. From the outside it looks a little like an oversized orange, but made of wood.  The lack of windows, together with the natural light flooding in from skylights, helps it perfectly achieve it’s isolationist calming aim.

It was now time to eat and we headed to the famous Klaus K hotel for it’s equally famous brunch, which is apparently regarded as something of a local institution. This proved to be thoroughly enjoyable, and began with a buffet element for starter including such delights as crayfish, hot smoked trout and lemon poached salmon, charcuterie, eggs, bacon, smoothies and a divine lobster bisque (which I still have very fond memories of).  Main courses included roast flank steak with dauphinoise potatoes (which Greg had) and Artic Char roasted with butter foam, served with spinach-potatoes and lemon hollandaise (for me). The dessert buffet topped it off with cheeses, croissants, cookies, brownies, cheesecake, berries and other fruit. The setting was splendid and it was over all too soon, when we rolled out completely stuffed.

Next up was a visit to the Museum of Worker Housing, a tenement housing museum. We’d visited one of these in Glasgow, the first city of The 40 Project, so visiting another in Helsinki – the last city – seemed somehow fitting. It was a fascinating visit, and as well as the museum itself we enjoyed chatting to the very friendly lady guide.  She was fairly young and our conversation included such diverse topics as local housing prices (she felt she was part of the last generation who would be able to afford to buy a home in the city) and the local custom of flat parties with friends where a visit to the sauna facilities within their block of flats was considered almost obligatory.  The museum that we visited had a sauna too;  it seemed very Finnish that even a tenement housing complex had its own sauna block.

Dinner that night was near the harbour, at the bistro side (Sundmans Krog) of a famous and very highly rated old restaurant (Ravintola Sundmans). It was very good, with the cold fish buffet a particular standout.

For our final morning we enjoyed a sleep in (a rare treat!) and decided to head into town to do a little shopping. We visited Stockmans, a famous Helsinki department store, and happened to see a rather fine coat of the type that Greg had been looking for for a while – an outdoor wool frock coat, this one made by Tiger of Sweden. So I bought it for him as a 40 Project thank-you gift.

Our return journey was smooth, and was helped by having access to the SAS lounges at Helsinki and Copenhagen (where we changed). Greg had managed to get us “SAS Plus” tickets for the princely extra sum of 1 Euro more than economy would have cost us. Both lounges were very fine – calm, spacious, plenty of power points, wifi, free food and drink (including several kinds of fizz – proper champagne of a variety of labels). A great finish to a fantastic trip and an absolutely wonderful adventure.

So we returned home, and the 40 Project was sadly over.

Turku (9 – 12 September)

We arrived in Helsinki fairly early in the morning, but didn’t stop and headed immediately for the railway station. Helsinki had a surprisingly small train station for a capital, and we were soon on the train travelling to our next destination of… Turku.

Although I’d never heard of Turku before it was effectively the capital of Finland for hundreds of years, until shortly after Finland joined the Russian Empire when the capital was moved to Helsinki (all the better for Russia to keep an eye on the place from nearby St Petersburg). Turku continued to be the most populous city in Finland until the end of the 1840s.  It was a cheap travel ticket, yet the train was modern, quiet and very smooth. We had a table on the upper floor and admired the trolley lift which we later saw in use (so that the refreshments lady could move between the lower and upper floors!)  We also remarked on the view which was much less full of towns and developed land than the UK, instead we passed a few fields and significant woodland; something I’d love to see more of in the UK.  All in all it was a nice journey.

Turku was an even smaller train station than Helsinki, with just a couple of platforms (though it does have two other train stations, both which we stopped at on the way in). We were staying in a Radisson Blu; unusually for The40Project a chain hotel, but apparently Turku doesn’t offer a wealth of options. It was in a nice location on the riverside in a central part of the city, just beside a path which was popular for locals to walk and cycle along. But it was a somewhat aging design and the interior reminded us of the Hotel Viru in Tallin; very 70s! A small display cabinet showed items from it’s history dating back to 1974 showing it had changed hands and names several times. Unfortunately it appeared that the decor did not keep up. We also found that the advertised “super” breakfast really wasn’t that super (just expensive!). All reminding us why we prefer individual hotels.

Our first stop was to visit Turku Cathedral on the Great Square, which was small but interesting. The cathedral was apparently originally built out of wood in the late 13th century, and was dedicated as the main Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral of Finland in 1300 (referred to as the Mother Church), the seat of the archbishop of Turku. It was badly damaged during the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, and was substantially rebuilt after. It is well known around Finland as it’s bells are broadcast live on national radio at noon daily. It had some nice stained glass and an impressive organ.  A number of relatively minor luminaries are buried in the cathedral, but in the small chapel to the left of the main altar is the monumental sarcophagus of Karin Månsdotter.  She is relatively unknown by most people,  however she did manage a number of firsts in her life. She is considered to be the first official royal mistress in Sweden (with her own apartments, expensive clothes and retinue), she was the first royal mistress to become queen (of Sweden), the first commoner (her parents were a soldier and a peasant) to be ennobled and become queen, and they were the first royal couple to have their children present at their royal wedding (they had previously married morganatically before she was ennobled).  She was popular in Finland and very successful in managing her affairs, making Liuksiala Manor (her retirement property) the most lucrative estate in Finland. She died at the manor aged 61 and was buried in the cathedral.

Next we visited the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, a unique outdoor museum. The museum is located in the only whole area of the city surviving the Great Fire of 1827. The wooden houses, many of them dating to the 18th century, are in exactly the original sites they were built, and in summer the place is manned by craftsman demonstrating some of the traditional crafts associated with the original buildings such as watch makers, bakers, furniture makers etc. As it was officially winter far fewer buildings were occupied, although we did enjoy chatting to a nice guy who manned an information room who told us some of the history of the museum, as well as drawing our attention to the photo on the wall of the time Queen Elisabeth II visited.

We returned to the hotel to grab a short sauna break, and relaxed for half an hour or so. We chatted to a nice Danish guy in the sauna, who was a guest at the hotel on business and also noticed a couple of young Finns (we presumed) who were enjoying a beer in the sauna before going out for the night. On the subject of food we ate in a restaurant called Pub Niska specialising in Niska Åland flatbreads; very much like pizzas. They were very tasty and I enjoyed an excellent local craft beer with them whilst enjoying the atmosphere of the lively restaurant (which had an intriguing interior décor using packing crates as tables and chairs).

In the morning we ambled through Turku market hall, which sold a wide variety of lovely local foods and Hansa Emporium – a shopping centre which has a splendid, but expensive, outdoors shop (Partioaitta). We couldn’t stop however as we were destined for the bus station and a journey to the seaside town of Naantali. Naantali is apparently a very popular resort with the Finns in summer time, but we arrived to find the place almost deserted. It seems that out of season, like much of Scandinavia, there are hardly any visitors and most shops and facilities were closed. It felt quite special to have the place almost to ourselves, and with a beautiful blue sky and some sunshine we walked to the tiny island of Kailo – joined to the mainland via a bridge at the harbour. It was here that we stumbled across Moomin World – very popular with Finns, apparently;  but not off season, as it was closed. However we enjoyed wandering around the paths on the island and admiring the expensive looking holiday homes on our meandering return to the bus stop.

In the remains of the afternoon we visited the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova, part archaeological museum and part contemporary art collection. Original plans were to build a contemporary art museum, but during the construction they discovered a number of artifacts and structures going back to medieval times. In fact an archeological dig uncovered much of a 14th century street with a surprising amount of artefacts with which they have been able to reconstruct detail about how life was lived there. It was interesting being able explore the excavations alongside the interpretation of the findings in the museum built over them. Dinner was Viking food at Viikinkiravintola Harald, which was not bad, though rather by the numbers and not as good as the similar restaurant we visited in Stockholm. The décor was like an overlay of Viking theming by IKEA and it came as no great surprise to later find out that it was part of a chain aimed at tourists.

For our next day we hired (well, borrowed as they were free) bikes from the hotel and set off along the path outside the hotel, following the river. After a pleasant ride of about 30mins we came to our first stop – Turku Castle. It was a large and prestigious building reflecting the Turku of it’s time, having been built and expanded before the Russians moved the Finnish capital to Helsinki in the days of the Empire. It is one of the oldest (of the same vintage as Turku Cathedral) and largest medieval buildings still in existence in Finland. It was originally built in around 1280 as a Swedish military fortress and administrative centre for Eastland (what Finland was known as while a province of Sweden). The castle was considerably extended during the 16th century under Prince John (son of Gustav Vas, King of Sweden) who ran the administration of Finland. Since then the castle has not been added or extended, just refurbished.  The importance of the castle waxed and waned, being ruled in different stages of its history by the castle sheriff, commander, regent, duke or governor-general. Not particularly figuring in the defence of the realm it was more a significant player in internal Sweden-Finland power struggles. The castle has seen it’s fair share of disaster including being destroyed by fire in 1614 during the visit of King Gustav II Adolf, and in 1941 during the Continuation War of World War Two the main castle was hit by incendiary bombs.  The current renovation was finally finished in 1987 and although it is owned by the Finnish state it is entrusted to the city of Turku. The castle is first and foremost a museum but also includes banquet / conference facilities, a church for the local congregation and a restaurant.

We’d originally allowed between one and two hours for our visit, but I think it took almost three; we’d not fully appreciated the vastness size of the place. We left our rucksacks in the cloakroom (very good move with hindsight!) and began our tour with the Renaissance Bailey which has been restored in the style of the period. It had a large number of rooms with a very impressive amount of information for visitors, including multi-lingual information panels. We were also really impressed by the amount of material aimed at keeping kids engaged, including dress up options (which “Knight Ed” enjoyed), puzzles (which Greg enjoyed) and a series of audio tracks of “Tales from the Castle Elf”, which we both enjoyed.  After the historical information rooms we moved on to the second section of the bailey which focused on furniture, showing rooms furnished in the style of different periods of the castle’s history, including a very intricate dolls house which was a detailed replica of the castle. We thought our tour was concluded at the end of this, but the very cheerful ticket lady waved us onto an entrance we hadn’t spotted earlier, to take us into the keep proper. This proved to be a further sequence of rooms almost as large as the ones we’d visited already!  The keep is medieval and like the bailey is restored in the style of the period it was built. The vast rooms felt much more traditional castle like with thick stone walls and small windows. The “attic” rooms contain an interesting display of traditional Swedish accessories (shoes, fans, handbags, etc) and jewellery, followed by a display of small, decorative interior furnishings and also a room of traditional toys.

By the end of the visit we’d enjoyed the experience, but definitely felt in need of refreshment and visited a food kiosk shop over the road. The lady there was rather elderly and very chatty, with reasonable English. She told us that it had been such a hot summer that her kiosk had reached 35 degrees one day! Happily it was a lot cooler for us, which made our subsequent cycle ride very pleasant.

After the castle we travelled much further afield, as our destination was a small island just over 10 km away called Ruissalo. This wasn’t far on a bike, but we did have to go over a couple of bridges and the fact that the bikes had no gears didn’t particularly help the climbs. However shortly after the bridges we were on the island and were able to take a cycle/walking path through it. The path wended itself along fields and through forests generally away from the road, and ending up feeling somewhat like the vehicle-free Sark. It was nice to explore the island in this relaxed manner and from time to time we passed other cyclists or joggers sharing the tranquil experience. The sun was out and it was a pleasant journey as we continued through the island passing various small buildings including a farm and a golf course. At the far end we cycled through a camp site, and ended up on a small rocky beach overlooking the sea. We sat for a while by the shore, mostly by ourselves but occasionally with other visitors (from the campsite it seemed) walking past, and watched some ships sail past. After an hour or so we returned to our bikes and retraced our steps back to the hotel.

Dinner that night was in a cellar restaurant, Wanhan Paronin Kellari (The Old Baron’s Cellar) which exceeded our expectations and offered particularly nice food. We both had splendid fishcakes as a starter, and for mains I had lamb shank and Greg veal; both excellent. My dessert was an interesting orange creme brûlée, which proved a tasty end to a very enjoyable meal.

One last night and then first thing in the morning we were back on the road to … Helsinki (again!).

St Petersburg (6 – 8 September)

Ed’s St Petersburg photo gallery (new tab)

So, Helsinki… or really St Petersburg and Russia!
Quite an adventure indeed…

We caught the return ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, but didn’t even leave the ferry building, we just switched ships and departed on another ferry bound for St Petersburg a mere couple of hours later. It was quite posh, but a little older than the Tallink ferry that we had been on between Stockholm and Tallinn (and the express Tallink ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, which takes the same amount of time as the train from Bristol to London and costs considerably less). It contained a few different internal offerings, such as the Cuban cigar bar (which served as the entrance hall to the disco and cabaret lounge) and a slightly stern sounding lady doing the announcements with a Russian accent who rather threateningly ended every statement with “you are welcome”, such as “the restaurant will close in one hour;  you are welcome”.  We speculated that even “we have re-routed to Siberia and you will have to walk for months through winter snows to reach St Petersburg” would end with “you are welcome…”!

We enjoyed a buffet dinner (which in typical Russian style started off with a complimentary shot of vodka) and visited the spa on the ship to enjoy the sauna. It was very quiet compared with the Tallink one, but we met a pleasant young American with whom we got into conversation. It turns out that he was visiting as much of Europe as he could whilst on a 3 month holiday, so we swapped notes on various destinations which we’d either been too, or were considering visiting. We also discussed our respective St Petersburg itineraries, to find that his plans were even more ambitious than our own! (and as you will have gathered, Greg hates to waste time and doesn’t idle well..). So we wished each other luck and headed back to our cabin to get some sleep before a busy next day. The breakfast the next morning was very good, with an excellent make-on-demand omelette station being a particular standout. But what really caught my attention was the entry to St Petersburg itself. It took us almost half an hour to go from the first outskirts of the city, though the docks to our destination quay. During that time we passed an absolutely vast amount of port machinery – cranes, shipping containers, storage warehouses, forklifts, etc. The scale was utterly vast and absolutely mind-boggling. I’d never before seen anything previously which even came close.

As you would imagine I was a little concerned at the prospect of visiting Russia without a visa, but as ever Greg had a plan. Step 1 was the discovery that because St Petersburg significantly values it’s tourist traffic it likes to make life as easy as possible for the many cruise ships which wish to visit the city (bringing lots of high-spending tourists with them). So it offers a 3 day visa-waver to anyone visiting on a cruise ship, providing that they are on an official tour.  Step 2 was the further discovery that the Russian ferry company, after much lobbying to St Petersburg officialdom, had managed to have the daily ferry from Helsinki classed as a “cruise ship”. So, putting these together meant that by catching the ferry to St Petersburg and having a return ticket for 3 days time we were able to qualify to enter Russia visa-free!  Of course we had to be on an official tour, but again Greg had a plan for that.. the crafty ferry company had designated their bus transfer from the port to the city centre as an official tour!  So the net result was that we were able to go through Russia passport control with a return ferry ticket, an official “city tour” ticket, our visa waver forms and a smile :-). We also had ready our (pre-paid) hotel details, as apparently these can be required too, but we weren’t asked for them and in the end the entry process was very straight forward; quicker and simpler on balance than entering America generally is. Amusingly my immigration officer went through what seemed like a very prescribed set of actions including punctuating them with a rictus grin at a specific point almost like she was following a script.

So, we boarded a small minibus and got out about 15 minutes later in the center of St Petersburg, opposite St Isaacs Cathedral. We were now free to roam St Petersburg, just as long as we didn’t miss our ride home in three days time!  Our first stop was to our hotel, a small boutique hotel on one of the embankments of the Moika River called the “Domina Prestige”. We were greeted very warmly by the staff and shown to our room which looked very comfortable.  The lobby had been simple, almost austere, but the room was a riot of colour in deep red and vibrant green. Apparently each floor has it’s own distinct, vivid colour palette for the rooms (and the dining room looked like it was a combination of all of the colours!)  The only slightly odd element that I noticed was that the “in event of a fire” advice appeared to suggest that we donned the supplied harnesses, broke the window to the inner atrium, and abseiled down to safety; an approach which certainly seemed novel to us..

St Petersburg has been described as too Russian to be European and too European to be Russian. And it did indeed feel like a typical European city in many ways, but with a difference which is difficult to describe. It felt quite vibrant, confident, very big and clearly has a very rich and proud history.  Our first day took us to a key element of the rich history of the city, the Peterhof palace – the summer palace of Peter the Great;  sometimes referred to as the Russian Versailles and built to it’s current grandeur by Catherine the Great. Having once been well outside the city it was still quite a journey, and the most efficient way to get there was by boat, or more specifically by high speed hydrofoil. They left every 30 minutes, and took about 45 minutes to get there, the journey to which provided a different perspective of the city as we admired the many impressive buildings which lined the waterfront.

Our first impression of Peterhof was somewhat like it’s host city – it was big! The impressive scale began with the extensive garden and we quickly realised that we needed to purchase a map in order to find our way around at all efficiently. So armed we headed to our first destination – the Royal bathhouse, in the Monplaisir part of the palace garden. This proved to be an interesting tour of somewhere which felt quite different to European palaces we’d visited – the complex was somewhat of a royal spa complete with saunas, baths, resting facilities, even a lavish dining room and associated kitchen, with separate wings for the women and gentlemen. We started with the female wing built for the Tsarina and were very impressed with the facilities, which included a splendid sunken wooden shower with steps down into it with it’s shower head built into an ornate chandelier above, an extensive boudoir and small sauna.

However it was overshadowed by the Tsar’s wing, which contained not only a much larger sauna but also an exercise room, dressing room and bedroom and the most splendid bath and shower we’d ever seen. What was particularly impressive was that it was all still in working order, as delightedly demonstrated by one of the many lady attendants who motioned for us to move to the corner of the room and get our camera ready before she enabled the mechanism. When you walk into the room you face a hot tub sized bath with a central pole topped with what looks like a large golf ball, surrounded by a wide wooden walkway. Once the mechanism is activated, the golf ball started spouting water like a gigantic shower head, then previously hidden jets all around the edge of the tub began to spout creating a fountain of jets into the pool. Finally, after we were already completely impressed, the entire wooden walkway turned into a large fountain as jets hidden between the boards began to spray water, until almost the whole room was a massive indoor fountain!

From the impressive bath house we moved back outside, briefly enjoying the Japanese style garden which surrounds it. Our next stop was the royal chapel, which definitely wins the bling prize – the main chapel itself contains a significant amount of gold leaf decoration, all looking as shiny as the day it was installed (thanks to the fact that the buildings close once a week to allow a legion of cleaners to carefully polish everything!). I think it was at this point that we decided that, for us, Peterhof palace was more impressive than Versailles.

This judgement was confirmed when we entered the main building of the Palace proper and enjoyed the sumptuous surroundings, which were surprisingly quiet in terms of other visitors (sometimes we had whole rooms to ourselves). We also were really impressed by the decoration and especially the furniture, most of which we’d have happily had in our own home; something we don’t normally feel even for pieces of historical or other significance. We were impressed with how new and in good condition everything seemed, something which was explained when we found an information panel detailing how most of the building had been burnt down during the Second World War and had been completely renovated subsequently with most major structures rebuilt by 1947. The work was only finally completed in 2011 and is absolutely stunning. Fortunately much of the art and furnishings had been removed for safekeeping during the war, so can now be seen back in situ.

The palace, from the outside, looks large and grand but is actually much smaller than you would imagine for a palace of it’s importance;  easy to forget from the sumptuousness that it was only a summer palace. The rooms are large, very ornate and beautifully decorated and some are particularly interesting such as the Picture Hall which contains 368 paintings – head shots of variously dressed women, differing in appearance and even age (though most were drawn from a single model) covering the wall almost like wallpaper. There were also two Chinese cabinets (small rooms) decorated with extraordinary art works imported from the far east in the 18th century, and very impressively Peter’s original study which was relatively small but a stunning example of amazing wooden panelling, marquetry and other woodwork.

The palace also continued the trend established by the bathhouse of every room being manned by a Russian woman; normally on the older side and on several occasions we noticed some room to room discussions and gossip going on, which was usually hurriedly curtailed when we entered the room so that the lady could return to her seat to keep a close eye on us (and any other tourists), returning to their conversation as we left.

After the buildings we took a wander round the Grand Cascade, which is a large section of the garden adorned by numerous golden (genuine gold plate and lots of it) statues alongside a fountain cascade; all of which were also very shiny! There is also an extensive grotto behind the cascade including a dining room where the Tsar could entertain guests, though sadly we did not have time to see it. We strolled around the vast gardens visiting the minor palaces of Monplaisir (a small palace not much bigger than a large family room, which was Peter the Great’s favourite place to stay) and Marly (a very small modest palace surrounded by fish ponds rather like a moat) and the Catherine Block (built for grand receptions, banquets and balls). There is also a very small moated palace called the Hermitage, which was designed for the Tsar to show off at intimate dinner parties, as it had the State Dining room on the first floor overlooking the bay (the kitchen and pantry below). At that time there were no stairs so the only way up was by a specially contrived stairlift (seating two); more amazingly the entire dining room table would be lowered down into the kitchen to be set and food laid out, so the privacy of the guests was utterly maintained. (The chairlift was apparently replaced with a staircase after Pavel I was stranded in mid-air due to a snapped cable in 1797!).

After taking the hydrofoil back to the center of the city we sought out a restaurant for dinner which turned out to be a rather hip burger joint called the Clean Plate Society located in a basement near the hotel. We enjoyed a very nice burger in pleasant surroundings with great service. A nice end to a great day.

We had a big day planned the next day – a visit to the Hermitage!  I knew only a little bit of history of the place and primarily knew of it as a somewhat mysterious and world class museum.  What I hadn’t appreciated was that it was housed in a number (six) of interlinked historic buildings, of which 5 are open to the public. The buildings include the Russian Emperors Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and Hermitage Theatre.  The result is an absolutely huge museum.  We spent about 7 hours there and looking at the map we estimate that we covered less than 10% of the overall area!  The museum has more than 3 million items on display (and it is estimated to see everything they own, including stored in warehouses, would take years). The museum was established in the Small Hermitage in 1764 by Catherine the Great to showcase her and the Russian Royal Families collections to guests and only opened to the public in 1852. It is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world, and alongside these main buildings has eight other museums in other parts of the world.

The museum has grown to include all the main buildings in the complex and recently has begun to include the Menshikov Palace and part of the General Staff Building. Catherine the Great was an immense collector and in her lifetime acquire more than 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection. Her successors continue voraciously collecting resulting in an almost continuous expanding of the museum and the buildings it was being housed in. The collection grew to include, sculpture, bronzes, vases, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other antiquities, Medieval and Renaissance artefacts and arms and armour. Often entire existing collections from other institutions were simply acquired wholesale.  Immediately after the October Revolution of 1917 the Imperial Hermitage and Winter Palace, former Imperial residences, were proclaimed state museums and eventually merged. During the revolution which saw much of the wealth of the rich redistributed the collections at the Hermitage were carefully protected, as the revolutionaries recognised the cultural value of the collections within the palaces. The Hermitage’s exhibits were further expanded when private art collections from several palaces of the Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were nationalised.

To get in we had to queue for a while before going through security.  The security checkpoint was airport style, manned by gruff looking security guys who looked rather serious.  We left our backpacks in a cloakroom (in keeping with the size of the place it was one of many, each with hundreds of coat hooks and bag spaces) and were soon at the bottom of the initial staircase which would take us into the palace proper.  Rather than purchase a dedicated audio-guide at the ticket booth we’d noticed that the museum had an official iOS app, so we downloaded that and used our iPhones as audio guides.  This worked very well on the whole, although in a couple of sections the visual description and the audio narrative got out of sync, so we had to go forward or back a step or two from the relevant listing to hear the correct sound track.

The museum contains a great many stand-out exhibits.  There are vast halls of priceless artwork and I am quite sure that we walked ignorantly past many major pieces which would take pride of place in a lesser gallery, but here were just another exhibit amongst many competing for attention with works from the likes of Michalangelo, DaVinci, Reubens, and Rembrandt, Raphael and Tintoretto.  I was particularly impressed by the remarkable golden peacock clock made in the 18th-century by James Cox, which is housed in a very roman villa-like hall.  We also very much admired the Rembrandt “Old Man in Red”.  In addition to the main museum we paid for a ticket to the Diamond Room (there is also a Gold Room), which is only accessible via guided tour.  Our guide spoke excellent English and was clearly very knowledgable about the items on display.  The tour took just over an hour with the guide narrating our visit for most of that time at a brisk pace.  The diamond rooms themselves were full of amazing pieces of art from throughout Europe, with stunning workmanship and materials.  I particularly remember a horse blanket which was a gift from the Sultan of Turkey and was encrusted over 8 thousand brilliant cut diamonds!  All in all I think that only the Vatican has impressed us more.

After our visit we were quite peckish, so we went down the road to a cafe called Chainaya Lozhka known for it’s delicious fast food – made to order pancakes!  These were splendid and we enjoyed a fresh cranberry juice with them, together with a pot of tea (from a choice of about 10 varieties – you get a pot and cup then go and select your tea leaves from the pots on offer and fill with hot water).  After out snack we headed back to our hotel, changed before heading out for dinner at Tepló, a resaurant which was highly recommended, though noted for it’s sometimes slow service.  We did note when we arrived that there was a bookcase of books to read whilst we waited, together with the fact that the table next to us had broken out a deck of cards and was in the midst of a game!  All that said we didn’t find that the food took overly long to arrive, and when it did it proved to be delicious.  I enjoyed some splendid pumpkin soup to start, followed by very tasty goulash for mains and some moist honey cake for desert (and they sent us on our way with a bag of free cakes)!

On our last day in the city we started by tackling the public transport, more specifically the subway.  It was a fun trip;  we found it fairly straight forward to navigate and the halls were absolutely magnificent – huge, grand creations adorned with various artworks in a starkly communist style.  It felt quite Soviet and rather splendid (and reminded me a little of wandering around Rapture from the Bioshock game, only without the mutants).  Our primary stop that morning was Degtyarniye Baths, a traditional local, Russian banya, where Greg had arranged for us to have some authentic treatments. They only spoke a small amount of English, but enough for us to understand what to do and soon enough we were seating in the cooler sauna as a warmup whilst the attendant prepared the main sauna. Then one at a time we went into the main sauna to be given a treatment which consists of having your circulation boosted in a searingly hot sauna (they can get up to 120°C, but I am sure this one was less than that) by being softly beaten by leafy birch twigs (called venik) which have been soaked in water for a while in advance to often them.  It was surprisingly pleasant though very hot, and as soon as it was done I hurtled straight from the sauna to leap into the cold plunge pool to cool down – as did our attendant!  I should add that this was the first sauna in which I’ve worn a felted sauna hat, which keeps your head insulated and protected from overheating.  Our attendant had a special one – tall and very colourful – which made him look rather pixie like!  After a second round of the birch treatment we had the second part of what we’d arranged – a soap massage.  With vast amounts of soap and exfoliating mitts a full body massage ensued;  by the end of which I’d never felt so smooth or so clean!

Our final stop before returning to the ferry, I mean our cruise ship, we visited the Saint Isaac’s Cathedral which is now a museum.  Originally the largest Russian orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world, it is dedicated to Saint Isaac of Dalmatia; a patron saint of Peter the Great, who had been born on the feast day of that saint. It is a monumental neoclassical building which took over 40 years to build, opening in 1858 and was incredibly costly at the time. Under the Soviet government the interior was utterly stripped and it ceased to be a consecrated cathedral.  In 1931 it became the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, before becoming the museum of the Cathedral in 1937 (The exhibits of the previous museum were transferred to the Museum of the History of Religion – located in the Kazan Cathedral). At that time regular worship activity resumed in the cathedral, but only in the left-hand side chapel which was the only part reconsecrated. The cathedral has an impressive interior and some displays which chronicle it’s history.  The highlight for me however was the tour around the colonnaded rotunda on the roof below the dome, which allows panoramic views over St Petersburg.  A great way to end our visit of this impressive city.

Leaving Russia proved as straight forward as arriving; and in fact I recognised the same border guide as who granted us entry.  She even smiled at a similar point in the process!  And soon we were aboard the ferry back to Helsinki and heading towards our next city..

(I should also add that whilst leaving the ferry we bumped into our American acquaintance from the sauna.  He hadn’t managed as much sightseeing as intended as he’d ended up drinking on Saturday with some Finns he’d met, and as a result Sunday was apparently somewhat of a write off..)

Tallinn (3-5 September)

Just before boarding our ferry to Tallinn we noticed a sign warning us of enhanced security and possible long queues entering Tallinn. It seemed that someone called President Obama was visiting to talk about some organisation called NATO and rigorous border control checks would thus be in place. So, forewarned we headed on board.

We enjoyed our overnight ferry experience, which proved much more pleasant than the overnight Spanish train journey earlier in the year. Greg had booked us a private cabin, which had a proper bed and a complimentary minibar with two half bottles of ship’s Prosecco. We were booked into the early buffet for dinner and enjoyed a good selection of food including some particularly fine cold smoked and warm smoked salmon. After dinner we went out on deck in order to watch the evening sun slowly setting as we left through the Stockholm archipelago. It was an enchanting sight and we admired many small (and some not so small!) homes built on the many islands that we passed. The ferry also had a small sauna on board and we used that for almost an hour; you could tell it wasn’t an English creation as the temperature was properly hot and no-one bothered with costumes. As we toured the boat we also noticed the supermarket on board was very busy – seemingly with Swedes stocking up on cheap cigarettes and alcohol. We then retired to our cabin and enjoyed our fizz together with a movie – Midnight in Paris, which I’d rented ahead of time on my iPad (after our recent visit to Paris!).

In the morning we enjoyed a nice breakfast – after being greeted with a glass of fizz we went on to enjoy a nice selection of cold meats, cheeses and hot food. We then went back to our cabin to collect our things and headed down to the disembarkation deck to head in to the city. We were prepared for the publicised long wait at border check, so were pleasantly surprised to find that we were seen almost immediately by a border agent. She looked at our passports briefly before cheerfully waving us through; a much shorter wait than when ever we return to the UK!

It was only a short walk to the hotel, but the old streets and the many cobbles were rather tough on our suitcase. On the other hand the excellent travel rucksack I’d purchased (the fantastic Osprey Farpoint) proved it’s worth and was a lot less trouble. Our hotel, the Hotel Telegraaf, was built in 1878 as an exchange station for the Estonian Telegraph company and had also been a Post Office. It’s located in the medieval Tallinn Old Town next to the Town Hall Square, which dates back to the 13th century. The hotel has a proud history – being the scene of a heroic saving of the city in 1924, when a passing soldier and his friends stopped a Russian military squad from sending a message to reinforcement troops that the coast was clear for invasion using the telegraph. Several Russian squads had snuck in during the dead of night and taken over key points of the city, but with the message not getting out the reinforcements never arrived, saving the city. We were early to check in and our room wasn’t ready, but after a quick check the hotel moved us to the room next door which was available immediately.

After that we went to explore the city. We started with a visit to an old Soviet-era prison called Paterei, which had remained in use up until about 2004. Since then it’s fallen into disrepair and is now an incredibly spooky location. On the way we briefly explored the semi ruined Linnahall, a once magnificent concert hall, nightclub and ice rink built in 1980 and closed in 2009 and left to ruin. Standing on the top you can see the express Helsinki ferry port, the cruise terminal and on a good day you can just about see Finland across the bay.

You can buy a cheap ticket to wander round Paterei prison and that is the extent of how visitor friendly it has been made. It’s not very busy so we only encountered a very few other people as we explored;  this lack of other visitors added to the atmosphere as we walked through old corridors, and rooms. It gave the impression of having been left in a hurry, as a random variety of stuff was left abandoned – some books in the library, paperwork in some of the offices, old medical equipment in the medical wing (including a surgical theatre with the broken anaesthetic equipment and operating table), discarded magazines, and so on. It is not dressed up, neatened up or even made safe. All in all it was a very surreal experience and felt more like exploring a location in a post-apocalyptic computer game than a real place. I think our godsons would have felt that it would make a good place for airsoft, and certainly I found it rather photogenic in an odd way.

After leaving the prison we were rather peckish, so we headed straight to a place that Greg had found recommended called Kompressor, that served local style pancakes which were reputed to be on the generous side (advice is to only order one even if you are hungry). After making our choices from the various savoury and sweet options on offer we found that the reputation was well deserved – they were both huge and delicious! In the afternoon we visited a local sauna (Kalma Sauna), which is the oldest in Tallinn dating from 1928 and much loved by the locals. We found that the Estonians followed the Russian tradition of using birch twigs in their saunas – there were lots of them soaking in boxes of water so that they would soften enough to use. Russian style saunas are often a lot hotter than their counterparts in other parts of the world, so after even a short time the plunge pool feels really good. It was nice to see it such a social place with groups of friends (including young people) and even a father and son having an afternoon out for a sauna together.

For dinner we headed out to a local cafe, F-Hoone.  It was only about 15mins walk, but away from the main tourist area and the neighbourhood definitely felt more suburban. It was located in an old factory block, in a redeveloped brownfield area, with an interior decorated with fixtures and furnishings made from recycled materials or up-cycled. The place felt quite trendy and was pretty full of locals, no obvious tourists to be seen (except us). I enjoyed some very tasty lamb dumplings – they were local style, and a bit like tortellini – in a creamy mushroom sauce. To drink I sampled a nice local craft beer which was recommended, made with rye. After dinner we spent about an hour in the hotel spa, which turned out to be rather nice. It was fairly small, with a small sauna, steam room and pool but was very refreshing and sparklingly clean.

We enjoyed a reasonable breakfast in the morning, but found it fairly generic compared with some of the very fine breakfasts that we’ve enjoyed. It did have Prosecco on offer, so we made Bucks Fizz with the freshly squeezed orange juice. The weather was still being kind to us with bright sun and blue skies so we started our day by visiting a couple of the local chuches. We began with St Olaf’s which is believed to have been built in the 12th century and to have been the centre for old Tallinn’s Scandinavian community before Denmark conquered Tallinn in 1219. What really attracted us was the tower, which I duely climbed to be rewarded with a fantastic view of the Tallinn old town. The spire is now over 120m (it was originally over 150m, before a few lightening strikes!) and the view from the top of the tower is spectacular as there are very few other tall building in the old town; primarily because they are forbidden by local building regulations to be taller than St Olafs!

We also visited St Michael’s (one of two of the same name, the other has more recently been turned into a museum following rebuilding after its almost complete destruction during World War II bombing), which is a Lutherian church used by a local Swedish congregation. Next up, having walked up Toompea hill to the Upper Town we visited the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was apparently built to a design by Mikhail Preobrazhensky in a typical Russian Revival style between 1894 and 1900, during the period when the country was part of the Russian Empire. It is an extravagant orthodox church with a lavish golden interior and was much hated by the Estonian people. So hated that once the Russian occupation ended it was planned to be demolished, but it’s size saved it as it was too expensive for the city to afford the demolition. Our final religious stop was St Mary’s Cathedral which is a Lutheran church in a stark Gothic style with a very austere interior. Building started in 1219 and continued for more than 100 years, and then burned down in 1684. It was completely rebuilt and then extended and remodelled over time to the church it is today.

We took a distinct change of pace next and headed to a 70s era hotel called Hotel Viru. It was first opened on 5 May 1972 , the first high-rise building in Estonia, and is a very noticeable part of the Tallinn cityscape. Upon entering it’s a little like stepping back a couple of decades and the refurbished interior still feels very much like a 70s or 80s creation. However what brought us to the hotel was a very special museum on the 23rd floor. When the hotel was opened it was widely known to have 22 floors, however there were in fact 23… with the hidden final floor being occupied by the KGB! They left the hotel in 1991 after the cold war, and more than a decade later a secret listening room was discovered which now forms the heart of the museum and related tour. The KGB in the hotel was apparently widely known with the local joke being that it was constructed from a new material called micro-concrete, because it was more microphone than concrete. Interestingly it was actually built by Finns because it was felt that they were more reliable than the locals who were considered to be rather lazy and unreliable. Once completed though it remained mysteriously unopened for a number of weeks, presumably whilst the spying equipment was installed.

It was a fascinating tour, with some added flavour as a few burly Americans with some apparently insider knowledge were also on our tour. They were in the armed forces and on a day off, and we wondered whether they were in some way connected with Obama’s visit of the day before. Our tour guide had interviewed many members of staff who had served at the hotel during the Cold War and was able to tell some fascinating tales of the extent of the KGB surveillance operation, which included having cameras as well as microphones built into the fabric of the building before it opened.

One of the more amusing stories regarded a man who stayed quite regularly in the hotel and always got up and had breakfast in his room at the same time every day. One day breakfast turned up half an hour early. He noted that he hadn’t asked for breakfast early and was effectively told that as he’d been heard rising early early that day they thought he might like to eat sooner (despite the spying supposedly being a secret). On another occasion a member of staff was instructed to place an ashtray on the table in front of a couple in the bar. As they weren’t smoking they moved it away. The member of staff was sent to replace it and once again they moved it away. A third time the staff member went to put it back in front of them and they asked him not to. He told then to please just let him do it as he had been told they had to have this particular ashtray in front of them (I wonder why?!). All in all this turned out to be a quirky and intriguing insight into a particular part of Estonian history, and very different to the churches of the morning.

We left the hotel for lunch, and headed towards a small local cafe (Cafe EAT) that Greg had seen recommended. It is a cheap and cheerful student cafe which specialised in local style dumplings where we enjoyed a satisfying and pretty cheap meal. After lunch we toured the city walls, of which a section is available to walk along. We climbed up a precipitously steep spiral staircase in Helleman Tower and walked down the the walkway to the next tower. It gave us a very different viewpoint to being down in the streets below and it was interesting to spend a few minutes just watching those below as they went on their way. The walls included two towers which we explored, one of which had some fascinating old photographs of Tallinn in what looked like Victorian times.

From this section of city walls we headed to what was known as the Tower Museum, housed in the Kiek in de Kök (Look in the Kitchen) Tower – so named because the soldiers could look into the kitchens of surrounding homes when in the tower. Here we planned to take a tour of the famous bastion tunnels.  Unfortunately the remaining tour that day was fully booked, so we settled for exploring the museum itself which contained an interesting history of the city. We found the section on the Second World War particularly memorable.  Huge damage was inflicted during bombing raids, the most notable of which was by the Soviets in March 1944 when 300 aircraft dropped over 3000 bombs of which over 1000 were incendiary; as a result much of the old city was destroyed, particularly by fire.

We decided at this point that it was time for refreshment, so we tried a local café (Maiasmokk café) which turned out a nice piece of Sacher Torte and some great rich and bitter hot chocolate. (The cafe is also home to a rather peculiar collection of decorated marzipan figures in the guise of a marzipan “museum”). We also ambled a little down the road to see the very ornate door of the House of the Brotherhood of Black Heads, which was an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners that was active in Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) from the mid 14th century till 1940, somewhat like the Freemasons. It was originally founded as a military organization, but gradually became a predominantly social organization after the end of the Great Northern War. The Brotherhood was founded in the 14th century and was split into local autonomous Houses in different towns. The Houses tended to be magnificent buildings and the one in Tallinn was occupied from the very early 15th century until 1940 when the Soviets invaded. These days the completely restored building is used for conferences, events and concerts.

Fortified with chocolate we visited a couple of the well known city viewpoints, which gave good views of various sections of the city. We also tried a few of the shops selling local amber, and purchased a small piece as a gift for one of our Godchildren. We’d walked a fair distance by this point so opted to head back to our hotel for a quick rest before heading back out again for a relatively early dinner. We chose a well regarded restaurant which had a reputation for being quite romantic with excellent food, von Krahl Aed (Embassy of Pure Food). We found it busy, but managed to bag a table downstairs in the basement and thoroughly enjoyed the meal. I had some excellent soup as a starter and a very tasty lamb dish for main course. For dessert we shared superb berry sorbets; a great end to a very pleasant meal. We finished our day with another visit to the hotel spa, which we again enjoyed as we had the previous evening.

On our final morning in Tallinn we visited the big church in the centre of town (the other St Nicholas), which is now a concert hall. More interesting was the old pharmacy on the Market Square, which is currently still a working chemist shop and has been continuously since 1422 (well that is when still existing records show it was on it’s third owner)! Some of the original history of the building has been recorded in a book which is available for visitors to peruse, and captures some really interesting details about the early owners; for most of it’s history this was several generations of the same family, as the business was handed down from father to son, and in at least one case, daughter.

And then, it was back to the ferry port and on to our next city of… Helsinki!

Stockholm (30 August – 2 September)

We were due to catch a train to Stockholm from Gothenburg and had about an hour before it was due, so we hoped to squeeze in more of the delicious food offerings at Feskekörka. Sadly we discovered that it closes early on a Saturday so we found another restaurant a few minutes walk away.  It was a decent and suitably quick meal, where I opted for Swedish meatballs which seemed homemade and were very tasty.  The train journey itself was a pleasant and smooth trip.  We admired the countryside as we travelled and couldn’t help but note that there was lots and lots of forest; a much higher percentage (compared with grassland or urban landscape) than I’ve ever experienced on a journey in the UK.  Though we did admire one man-made sight that we passed – a busy skateboard park, which looked both well designed and well used.

Some hours later we were in Stockholm and checking into our hotel.  The Miss Clara Hotel is a converted girls boarding school and certainly seemed to have plenty of character.  The rooms were all in stripped wood with furniture evoking boarding school (but really comfortable!), including bent wood chairs; like school ones but a kind of icon in the hotel.  We were given a room on the first floor initially which we were assured was quiet, but being woken up by builders outside very early in the morning soon proved that wrong so we got ourselves moved to a lovely room on the 6th floor, which was a nice size and where the furniture included a comfortable chaise longue!

After a tasty breakfast spread, our first stop was the Vasa museum;  a museum built around  the Vasa, a 16th century Swedish warship (literally built around it – the ship was restored in dry dock and the museum built over it, creating an educational resource surrounding the vessel itself).  In this respect the museum reminded us of the Fram museum in Oslo, but the provenance of the boat was more intriguing.  Rather than preserving a successful vessel, the Vasa was uniquely preserved due to it’s lack of success; it sank a few minutes into it’s maiden voyage, while still in Stockholm harbour!  The cold brakish water of the harbour preserved the ship for hundreds of years, until it was found and carefully recovered in the 1960s and is now a major tourist attraction.  We spent a good couple of hours here, where we enjoyed a short tour by a local guide and then a longer audio tour, using an app on our iPhones.  The boat tells a somewhat sad story, as many hands went down with the ship and were drowned.  It also allows a unique glimpse into the past due to these same circumstances, which wouldn’t otherwise have been possible.  Before moving onto the next location we took advantage of the cafe to have some lunch, where I enjoyed a different style of Swedish meatball and Greg had a fine mushroom stroganoff, both served in traditional lunch style with a salad buffet and huge loaves of lovely fresh bread that you could cut as much as you wanted from.

Our second stop of the day was to a sculpture garden called Millesgården, an art museum and sculpture garden located on the island of Lidingö.  It is located on the grounds of the home of sculptor Carl Milles and his wife artist Olga Milles, and contains work they created and collected.  It’s an impressive setting for an impressive range of sculpture which is displayed throughout the extensive garden, as well as inside their old house and studio.  Carl Milles had commissions from all over the world, mostly to make monumental designs for public buildings, squares and fountains.  Copies of many of these now grace the garden, and the house includes some of his smaller works together with collections of antique sculpture.  I especially enjoyed some of the larger garden pieces – such as Pegasus, which looked spectacular against the blue sky.

From the sculpture garden we headed to the old Royal church – The Riddarholmen Church – which is the final resting place of the Swedish kings and Stockholm’s only preserved medieval monastery church.  The congregation was dissolved in 1807 and today the church is used only for burial and commemorative purposes. All Swedish monarchs from Gustavus Adolphus (d. 1632) to Gustaf V (d. 1950) are entombed here with the exception of Queen Christina (who is buried within St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), as well some earlier monarchs. It has fairly recently been discontinued as a royal burial place in favor of the Royal Cemetery in Haga Park.  It was quite a small church, not as visually striking as many that we visited, but it had quite a considered atmosphere and we were impressed by the many heraldic shields on display which represent the members of the Order of the Seraphim, including the Swedish Royal family (including all of those buried in the church and the heads of state from other nations). The shields on display represent only dead members of the order. The living members shields are on display in the Royal Palace.

We walked from the church through the old town, and stopped at a bath house that we hoped to visit.  Greg had read that it opened “after summer”, without any indication of when summer was!  We now know that summer is a very specific period in Sweden – from mid June to end August.  As we were visiting at the very end of August, we found that the baths weren’t open until the start of September; opening the day we had to leave for our next city. 😦  So instead we wandered around the old town for a while and consoled ourselves with an ice-cream, which we purchased from a shop which hand-made sugar cones on a special machine they had placed by the window so that you could watch the process.

We returned to our hotel to change and headed out for dinner at a restaurant called Nybrogatan 38, named after it’s street address.  This turned out to be a splendid meal, which we both thoroughly enjoyed.  It was clearly very busy, but the service was good and the menu offered a lot to tempt us.  I ordered some Arctic Char, which was excellent.  Greg ordered a pasta dish and then spotted a very fine looking steak salad served to the table next to us.  After clearly drooling over this I caught our waitress and managed to have Greg’s order changed… and he was delighted to discover that the salad tasted even better than it looked; proving to be the best steak salad Greg had ever had, and possibly his favourite salad ever!

The next day was an early start as we had a very important first stop… the ABBA Museum!  This is one of Stockholms most popular museums, and we spent a good few hours there.  It proved to be very comprehensive and we really enjoyed the experience.  The information and exhibits were very well presented, with plenty of written material in complement to the good audio guide (narrated by ABBA themselves, of course).  We were also impressed by the number of interactive exhibits, where you could do such things as remix an ABBA track (and attempt to emulate the original audio engineer), sing karaoke to a selection of tracks, star in your own ABBA video and even perform on stage alongside (virtual) ABBA, watched by other museum visitors!  One of the major take-aways for me was to discover that Sweden has a very rich musical heritage and music seems much more important to the country and its history than I had appreciated.  All the members of ABBA had been successful in the own right locally within the Swedish folk music circuit before eventually getting together to form ABBA, and shooting to international fame and fortune on the back of winning the Eurovision Song contest with Waterloo (in Brighton no less).

After our visit to the world of ABBA we stepped away from musical Sweden and into older Sweden, visiting a park called Skansen where many old Swedish buildings have been collected together.  We started with some lunch (meatballs, of course, with the standard lunch accompaniments of salad and bread) in an authentic tavern, followed by cake from the historic bakery whilst we planned our visit.  From our assessment of the map it became quickly apparent that the place was huge!  It was also a slightly odd mix of.. a park for old buildings… craft centre… and zoo!  The old buildings were like other similar locations that we’d visited, with very fine old houses including an interesting old school house, a hardware store, grocer, windmill, bell tower and church.  The craft buildings were also interesting, with modern day craftsmen practicing old crafts such as glass blowing, wooden furniture making and metal working. The zoo element was also interesting, with a pure focus on a selection of animals native to Sweden including some wolves and bears in imaginative large enclosures.

Dinner that evening was back in the old town, at a Viking tavern (called Aifur)!  We enjoyed this unusual experience, which was strongly themed in terms of both menu and decor.  We certainly felt as if we’d entered a Viking feasting hall as we were sat at our long shared table, and gazed up at the animal hides and weapons which adorned the walls.  For our starter we shared an excellent seafood soup, then for mains we ordered a selection of feast meats, which turned out to be some fantastic poussin, flank steak and lamb;  all cooked very well with a smokey bbq flavour and served with some great sauces.  I tried some of the house mead to drink, which although not really my thing did seemed to go well with the food.  After dinner we ambled back to the hotel and our evening was finished on an unexpected note (pretty literally!) when we passed by a busker in the street playing the cello;  and he was really very good indeed.  We stayed and listened for a good 10 enchanting minutes, along with a small crowd doing the same.  Definitely a higher quality of busker than we normally hear on the streets of Bristol or Bath!

The next day saw us visit the Swedish Royal palace.  We started with the Treasury, which was small and although it contained some impressive pieces it didn’t really do it for us before making a brief visit to the almost cathedral sized Royal Chapel.  We found the next section much more engaging; a tour of the royal apartments.  We particularly enjoyed the tour guide, who had perfect English with a cut-glass accent and reminded us slightly of Penelope Keith!  She also rigorously enforced the no-photos policy, loudly berating a transgresor (and after very pointedly instructing them not to do it again added that the royal palace was protected by the army!).  She proved to be a very knowledgable guide and we enjoyed our tour of – as she emphasised – a working palace, not a museum.

The first building in the palace location was a small castle in the 13th century which over time was updated and enlarged before beginning a slow evolution into a palace.  The great austere Roman baroque northern row was built in 1692.  In 1696 an New Royal Chapel was inaugurated which created an architectural quirk in the palace design. The new chapel was the same size as the previous one, but it was too large to fit the austere baroque lines of the exterior design (baroque style requires all windows in a row to be the same size – no matter what the layout of the rooms is). To get round this the architect added an additional mezzanine floor with much smaller windows just above the lower windows. The chapel has since been moved into the southern row (all its decor and furnishings moved with it), but in keeping with Baroque the mezzanine row of windows continues around the entire building, a remnant of the previous location of the Royal Chapel.

All of the original castle burned down in 1698 leaving only the newly built northern row which just needed repair. The palace as we saw it was built from that point, culminating in around 1770.   Since then only minor alterations and redecoration have changed the palace. After our rather wonderful tour of the palace we stepped out to the sound of a band and paused to enjoy the pomp and incredible flamboyance of the changing of the guard; they go for a full-on show lasting around 45 minutes with a marching band – partially on horseback – which stops for a solo show in the middle, playing popular tunes before going back to more military music. Our final stop in the Palace was Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities, which was rather disappointing.  It is a collection of antique sculpture but there were a lot of broken parts and some had had body parts rearranged to suit more recent (the period of Gustav II) social mores with scant regard for historical accuracy! It has been preserved as laid out when opened, mostly as talking point for guests of the royal family during the period when prestige was more important than how authentic something was.

After the Royal Palace we had a short time before our onward journey, so we found a fast food restaurant specialising in burgers and mussels (possibly unsurprisingly called Bon Moules & Burgers);  Greg had a burger and I had mussels!  We had a quick run to Alewards Outdoor & Sports so I could try out Fallraven walking trousers, followed by an equally quick dash to StikkiNikki for huge cones of delicious gelato before heading back to the hotel and grabbing our bags.  We then took a short tram ride to the ferry port, and boarded our transport to city number 37 – an overnight ferry to… Tallin.

Gothenburg (27-30 August)

Feskekôrka - The Fish Church

Ed’s Gothenburg photo gallery (new tab)

Our first impression upon arriving at Gothenburg airport was very positive.  The airport felt remarkably airy with a really interesting design, a welcome change from many airports we travel through and baggage claim featured a wonderful children’s play area, as well as a tree bench rest area powered by 100% green energy.

To get to Gothenburg city center we caught the airport bus, which ran every 20 minutes. It was a pleasant journey, mostly on motorway (unlike the myriad of country roads from Bristol airport!).  The bus stopped just outside our hotel, which was housed in a large building called Gothia Towers.  We strode towards the check-in desks we could see in front of us, but were quickly redirected to a private lift;  we were apparently staying at Upper House, a hotel within the hotel occupying the upper floors!  Our reception was up on the the 25th floor, and we were quickly checked in to a wonderful room on the 22nd with a fantastic panoramic view of the city spread out below us.  It was a very comfortable room and we got a great night’s sleep that evening.

Breakfast in the morning turned out to be a fantastic spread.  We enjoyed a selection of fine local produce from the buffet, which included some great local cheese (which we hadn’t expected, as we didn’t have much familiarity with Swedish cheese).  There were also a small selection of dishes cooked to order which we sampled and we were very impressed by both the amazing scrambled eggs and the hot chocolate cake with berries (yes, for breakfast!).  Our first stop that day wasn’t far away.. we were visiting the hotel spa two floors below.  🙂

Although complimentary for hotel guests it exceeded our expectations of a hotel ammenity by proving to be a fine and fully featured spa.  It contained no less than two indoor pools, as well as one outdoor pool projected off the side of the building, enveloping the glass outside lifts, with a glass floor!  In addition there was a steam room, a turkish hamam (with three steam rooms at different temperatures, the largest of which included a huge warmed “belly stone”) and a sauna with floor to ceiling windows looking out across the parkland outside the hotel.  We finished in the relaxation room, with soft drinks, including fabulous fruit syrups, fruit and light nibbles (champagne apparently on order; just ring the bell!).  What really impressed us was that they provided a free set of spa products together with a suggested treatment sequence; effectively forming a spa ritual.  We selected the Swedish product set which included a body scrub, facial mask, moisturiser and body mist using traditional Swedish west coast ingredients like seaweed and lingonberry, and we really enjoyed using this as the focus of our visit.  A great idea that we hadn’t come across before.

After enjoying the spa we headed down to the city proper, bought a travel pass and hopped on a tram to the old town (initially in the wrong direction, but that was soon fixed!). We alighted near a street called Haga Nygata, which was one of the original parts of the town and which still boasts predominantly wooden buildings. We enjoyed ambling down this street, which was filled with local shops selling a variety of items including locally made clothes, hats, toys, groceries and food.  Greg was particularly taken by the bakery with the gigantic Kanelbuller (cinnamon buns), though we did not succumb to buying one.

From here we headed towards our plan for lunch, and a building the locals call the Feskekôrka (Fish Church).  It’s a very distinctive building by the canal which does feel rather religious in design, somewhat like a cathedral.  Inside however is a more earthly place – full of fish vendors selling a huge variety of locally caught produce.  Greg purchased a splendid prawn and crayfish salad and I found a wonderful hot fish stew (they called it a soup) served with some homemade bread.  We sat on the banks of the canal just outside, thoroughly enjoying our lunch in the sun.  A fantastic, fairly inexpensive, find – no fuss; just really tasty local seafood

Next up we signed onto a city ‘must do’ tourist experience – the Paddan boat tour.  This was an interesting hour long tour of the canal and harbour, showing Gothenburg off from the perspective of the many waterways which form part of the city.  Of the many bridges that we passed under one is nick-named the ‘cheese-grater’ and to travel safely underneath you have to get off your seat and crouch down – we then watched as it passed only a few centimetres over the top of seats on the boat!  The tour proved to be a great way to see some of the local architecture, including one large building aptly named ‘the lipstick’ (a tall tube, white all the way up except for the top few floors which are bright red).

After the tour we headed to the Gothenburg Botanical Gardens – created in 1923 to celebrate the city’s 300th anniversary – for a quick wander round before closing.  We only had about an hour and a half by the time we arrived, which was nowhere near enough time to fully explore what turned out to be a wonderful and vast garden.  We started with the green houses, which housed a variety of species and specialised in orchids – with some amazing specimens within the many (over a thousand!) on display.  From there we plotted a scenic walk around the greater garden, taking in some notable sections including the border gardens, a fabulous (and very well regarded) rock garden, the waterfall and a wonderful and extensive Japanese glade which rivaled some of the gardens we visited in Japan.  The size of the gardens meant that we were often out of site of any other visitors, which added to our sense of exploration.  We really were very taken by the place and the impressive botanical garden proper at 40 hectares turns out to only be a small part of a larger green space, as we discovered as we reached the upper end of the garden.  It forms a mere corner of the national arboretum – which covers more than 170 hectares (430 acres) in total!

Dinner was at the restaurant at Upper House and on due reflection definitely makes my list of top 3 meals during The40Project, which is no mean feat!  There were, as you might expect, many courses and what struck us was the fantastic attention to detail, not just in terms of flavours but also of textures.  This included some fun touches, such as an ‘ice-cream’ cone within the cheese course (filled with a goats cream cheese) and a rye flat-bread which was baked at our table.  Other courses wowed us with the flavour combinations, and there were very few elements which were weak enough to only be ‘great’.  We were also lucky in that the Chef himself served two of our courses, so we were able to thank him personally for the very splendid meal and talk about his herb and vegetable garden on the roof of the hotel.  After about 3 hours we finished eating and rolled ourselves downstairs to bed (we had to save the handmade chocolates for the next day as we were too stuffed!).

The next morning we managed a smaller breakfast and again visited the hotel spa.  This time we opted for the Asian inspired product set, which has a different ritual associated it – involving an exfoliating scrub atop the belly stone in the steam room – and we were impressed at the different experience that this changed sequence provided us with. After finishing here and checking out, we visited the Cathedral which was unfortunately largely closed as it is undergoing a massive restoration.  We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for a small classical music recital with a violinist and a pianist.  This led to an unexpected and very relaxing half hour treat.

From the cathedral we caught a tram to the edge of Gothenberg and arrived at the ferry port in order to catch a ferry to one of the islands in the local archipelago (unexpectedly the journey is considered part of the public transport system and thus included in our standard city transport ticket).  It took about 30 mins to travel to Styrsö and upon arrival we walked down the only road in sight to a guesthouse where we were staying, overlooking the bay. Styrsö is tiny – with a mere 1400 inhabitants – and we were staying in Pensionat Styrsö Skäret, a delightful small old fashioned bed and breakfast.  Upon arrival we were greeted warmly and treated to a pleasant tea with scones on the terrace.

It was still early afternoon with a few hours before dinner, so we decided to take a walk round the island; which is half sparsely inhabited and half nature reserve.  This was a fantastic adventure, which felt like we were exploring a mysterious island straight out of a Jules Verne novel or a computer game such as Myst!  We passed just three people on our wandering over the next couple of hours, during which we meandered through a wide variety of different landscapes including woodland, coastline with a small beach used for swimming in summer, heathland, grassland – with the odd sheep – and some large rocks to scramble over!  Dinner was at the guest house and rather more gourmet than we expected from the somewhat modest setting.  The venison was particularly good, as was the local cheese;  we were definitely becoming unexpectedly impressed with Swedish cheese.

We awoke late the next day, and enjoyed a smörgåsbord style breakfast complete with freshly squeezed orange juice, cheese, wonderful smokey bacon and a selection of flatbreads.  We then spent the morning walking around the more inhabited sections of our island and our direct neighbour Donso – connected by a bridge.  There were a surprising number of residential houses on Styrsö – more than we’d expected.  I suspect some are holiday lets, but most looked to us to be family homes.  There were a couple of other guest houses, but fewer than we would have expected for somewhere visited by tourists.  We were also surprised by the lack of shops – compared with similar locales in the UK there were very few gift shops or restaurants (which reminded us a bit of Sark).  We saw a couple of galleries and two cafés but not much more.

The island did contain a couple of very small supermarkets and two churches. The larger of the two churches, clearly a fairly old church which dated back to 1782, had a very impressive graveyard where most of the graves were decorated by fresh flowers, which overall made for a very colourful impression.  When passing the church again on our return loop it appeared to be gearing up for a wedding, and seated outside it we could see a guitarist with some music, ready to play for the occasion.  It also explained the man in a suit who was hurrying down the road ahead of us, together with a smartly dressed lady.

Of the islands Donso was rather more industrial.  It has a fishing heritage and still has a large harbour, it seemed to us that the houses were slightly simpler and slightly smaller on average than the ones on Styrsö.  We spent about an hour walking around, before heading back to “our” island and returning to the guesthouse to retrieve our luggage.

Our time in Gothenburg seemed to go very quickly, and I really enjoyed our visit there.  Some of this was because we’d chosen a number of outdoor activities during our visit, and it was great to explore both the large botanical gardens and the island so accessible from a major city.  We both felt at home there and I could easily see us enjoying happy summers in Gothenburg if circumstances allowed.

From there we returned to the mainland and began our journey to city number 36… Stockholm!

Paris (Aug 22-26)

We arrived at CDG airport and after a short battle with the ticket machine we soon managed to catch a train to Central Paris.  The airport appears to be at the end of a major commuter line, so the trains aren’t optimised for luggage but they are very frequent.

From Halles station stop Google estimated that it was only about a 15minute walk to our hotel which was named for its street address – 123 Sebastabol. Although first we had to navigate our way out of a rather intimidating shopping mall with sparse and sometimes contradictory signage, from which we considered it an achievement to have escaped! The hotel was an interesting place themed around French movies, and each floor was dedicated to a major French movie star. We were shown a 1st floor room, before settling on a 4th floor room as being quieter. It had a nice view overlooking a park opposite the hotel, and also featured good double glazing, which meant that the road outside was reduced to a dim quiet rumble.

We went out for dinner almost immediately, as I was quite hungry by now. Greg had selected a fast food burger bar – French style called Big Fernand. They were reputed to serve the best burgers in Paris, and our view is that that accolade was well deserved.  We had the house combination (rather than make our own) which consisted of a beef patty and a topping of French cheese, smokey bacon, chives and caramelised onions. You could also choose how your burger was cooked, and I went for rare (avoiding blue), which it was!  It tasted devine, and went very well with the supplied paprika salted chips and the French beer I’d opted for (to the approval of the cashier). The music which was playing was just as well matched to us as the burgers – Greg remarked that it could have been straight off one of his 80s play lists! The chirpy wait staff were also pretty easy on the eye which only improved the atmosphere. After our meal we returned to our hotel and watched Despicable Me 2 from the hotel free movie selection, afterwards falling asleep quite early.

We were up quite early the next day and enjoyed a nice breakfast. The hotel offered a particularly good cold selection including hams, a good range of excellent cheeses and smoked salmon. As the reputation of France would suggest the bread was also impressive with fresh baguettes, excellent croissants, pain au chocolat and madeleines.

Our first stop was Musée Rodin, based in Hôtel Biron since 1909. The building was originally built for a wigmaker in 1731 in a rococo style. Many years later and after significant changes Rodin rented some of the rooms to store his sculptures, in which then became his studio, and enjoyed entertaining friends in the overgrown garden. In 1909 Rodin decided that he wanted the building to be a museum of his work and made a bequest of all his property and work which the French government accepted in 1916 and the museum opened in 1919. Since then the museum has been acquiring the original decorative furnishings of the property that were stripped out when it was a school.

The museum contains most of Rodins significant creations along with models and designs for them. For a number of them they are not necessary the originals, in a way…  Rodin willed that plaster casts could be made of his work resulting in numerous copies being made. Until finally the French government put the breaks firmly on this allowance, having realised that they were losing potentially a lot of money by people simply making copies of priceless artwork in their care. The museum also contains a selection of works by Camille Claudel, a sculptor and artist who worked in Rodin’s studio and subsequently became his lover. It was an enjoyable museum containing many examples of his genius, particularly impressive was the sculpture garden, which we found to be a very nice stroll on a sunny day and where we found the sculpture more accessible in natural surroundings.

We also found the Robert Maplethorpe exhibition of great interest, which compared many aspects of his work to Rodin’s but executed in a more modern style (primarily through the medium of photography). It was an interesting exhibition and fascinating comparison.

By the time we left there was a queue outside the museum, something which was to become a Parisian theme. We walked for a while heading towards the Eiffel Tower, at one point along a street with an excellent boulangerie (Nelly Julien) where I got a fantastic croissant and Greg enjoyed a tasty apple turnover. We also bought a few macarons from a chocolate shop (Lemoine) that Greg knew was well regarded, and sure enough they turned out to be exquisite.

We reached our next destination – the catacombs – a little later than planned, to find a gigantic queue which we were advised was about 2 hours long!  After some consideration we decided we to wander around some of the local streets instead and headed towards Le Marais, a locale Greg understood was quite pretty. We also did a little shopping, including visiting the biggest underwear shop in Europe; which true enough had a startlingly large collection over two large floors!  We also stopped by Uniqlo which is in a converted gold smelting factory (the furnaces can still be seen in the basement) and I succumbed to a merino wool jumper in a more interesting colour (teal) than we normally see in the UK. By the time we got back to the hotel I was regretting not also getting the rich pink one, so just before heading to the airport at the end of the weekend we did a mad dash back to get one.

Dinner was at Boco, which proved to be very interesting. This was a unique proposition where Michelin starred chefs had designed fast food recipes in glass jars, and so you selected a range of little jars to form your meal. We picked some very tasty selections including cod in parsley butter with mash, a cheese risotto and a fantastic salmon and lentil creation, together with some nice Sauvignon Blanc white wine. The meal was further livened up by the failure of the POS terminals shortly after we arrived, which meant that the stressed looking staff closed the restaurant to the many attempted newcomers whilst they called for technical support and tried to fix the situation. Our greatest immediate concern was that we may not be able to buy dessert, but they were happy to take cash for that and also gave us free drinks to apologise for the disruption.

We were up very early at 6:45am (5:45 UK time!) for a long day the next day.  We caught the train to Versailles, about a half hour journey. Even arriving at the palace as early as 9:15am the queues in the outside courtyard were huge. Greg had, of course, planned ahead and we headed straight for the guided tour section where we were immediately admitted and shown to a comfortable and relaxed waiting area until our tour commenced. Armed with ear pieces we then proceeded to be shown round the private apartments.  The tour guide was an interesting character and commented that she didn’t always understand the restoration priorities, giving as an example that the museum had spent over £1m on a piece of original furniture which came onto the market, but there was apparently no money available to fix the leaking roof.

The tour finished with entry to the Grand Chapel (escorted past the normal visitors who had to stay behind a barrier as they watched us enter!). This was a very spectacular sight and an impressive end to the tour.  Talking to the guide we were sad to hear that tours are becoming less common and in future may stop entirely.  There is also a lot of Verseilles not open, and our guide explained that in many areas the roof leaks and they simply don’t have the budget or staff to open up anything more. This is a real shame as apparently there are large swathes of the place configured as huge galleries with magificent furnishings and thousands of priceless works of art lining the walls with no-one able to appreciate them. We then headed to the Kings public rooms (happily without having to get into the main queue). These were certainly very impressive, but no more so than the royal palace in Madrid, or the Munich residence and less so than the Vatican.

After the inside visit we ventured into the garden. I had had no idea how huge this was; apparently a significant element of what makes Versailles so famous. There is a formal 40 hectare garden, a larger park of 600 hectares and there used to be a greater park of 8000 hectares, which was sold off after the French Revolution. I really enjoyed our time in the garden. It’s size was quite something to behold first hand and we began our journey with a walk to visit the Trianon palaces (Grand and Petit – which is really not that small at all).  It took about half an hour to get to the Grand Trianon, and to be honest I liked it more than main palace;  certainly I’d have preferred it to live in it. It also had a really beautiful garden, with an abundance of colourful wildflowers.

From here we walked to the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet), a trip which took us completely out of sight of any other visitors for some minutes (remarkable considering that this is the top tourist destination of Paris, receiving many thousands of visitors very day). The hameau is a somewhat bizarre model village created by Marie Antoinette, apparently so that she could dress up and play at being a shepherdess with her friends!  It was very pretty – picture postcard perfect in many ways; obviously having been designed to be just that!

We visited Petit Trianon briefly which is the smallest of the palaces and more like a large manor house.  It was originally built by Louis XV for his mistress Madame de Pompadour, and after she died her successor Madame du Barry wasted no time moving in.  Louis XVI gave it to his young bride Marie Antoinette who used it as a refuge from the main palace with minimal staffing and few visitors.  It does feature one fascinating curiosity in the main bedroom (which is dual aspect) in that with a turn of a crank all of the windows can be covered with large mirrors which come sliding in from the floor.  A small room adjacent to the kitchen holds the mirrors when not in use. There were plans for a similar design of dining room table so that the servants would not be seen, but these did not progress beyond building the foundations.

After this we headed back to main garden in time to see the the musical fountains. The garden has 50 fountains incorporating more than 620 jets (which caused a great deal of plumbing problems when they were created;  at one point they used more water than the whole of the city of Paris).  In the time of Louis XIV only the fountains visible from the palace were kept on.  Those hidden in the garden would only be turned on when the king approached, with fountaineers whistling to each other to indicate his approach allowing fountains to be turned on before he arrived and turned off immediately he had passed (of which he was allegedly unaware).  Even with electrical pumps the garden still has trouble serving the fountains, usually only the main fountains visible from the palace are put on but occasionally the full display is put on with a grand musical accompaniment.  This is managed by putting a small selection on at a time, following a published timetable through the day.   The Saturn fountain was probably my favourite of this set, with an impressive opera soundtrack to complement it’s imposing design. We left the garden after about 3 hours exploration, and headed back into the central city.

We needed a quick dinner, which went somewhat astray from Greg’s planning and so we ended up back at the burger restaurant of the first night. This time Greg created his own combination with goats cheese, which he thoroughly enjoyed. We then went to the Moulin Rouge, where we had tickets for their post dinner show. It was quite spectacular and energetic, particularly in terms of costumes (and in some numbers the lack of them..) and we could imagine a similar show running 100 years ago, though probably with less good lighting!  We went home to bed straight after, with Fitbit having congratulated us for having walked over 25,000 steps that day – over 19km.

The next day I remembered that the room didn’t have the promised half bottle of champagne when we arrived (which had been in the original room we were checked into, but had not been moved when we changed rooms).  We had asked in the morning our first day at breakfast, then in the evening when before we headed out to the Moulin Rouge.  I had a word with reception who promised to send it right up, though seemingly in France ‘right up’ sometimes means ‘maybe today’ and it took a second reminder call to actually get it to arrive.  However it was nice when it did, and we enjoyed the romance of champagne together in France.

The next day we visited Paris’ most famous cathedral – Notre Dame.  It’s suitably impressive in real life and has an atmosphere which derives from it’s huge age (it was started in 1163 and finished in 1345). We joined the long queue to get in, which moved remarkably quickly.  The interior was impressive and it was interesting to see how it had evolved over time (illustrated by some good information displays). Curiously the church is actually owned (and has always been) by the French state, the Catholic Church is merely allowed to use the premises. I decided to climb the tower and joined a fairly short queue but which moved pretty slowly. The view at the top did reward my patience however, providing a great vista not only over the cathedral itself but of Paris.  On our way out we passed by the famous Pont des Arts bridge, which enjoys a picturesque view of the cathedral.  It is here where romantic couples leave a symbol of their love in the form of a padlock “love lock”, and the weight of the locks recently caused part of parapet to collapse.  A small detour took us via Bertie’s Cupcakery for a snack of cupcakes from an American cook in Paris.

It was now time for us to head back to our hotel (via the short detour to the Uniclo shop to buy another rather fine merino sweater in a fabulous hot pink than I referenced earlier).  And to make us feel at home the heavens opened and heavy rain poured down on us.  It continued to rain heavily all the way to the airport and back home.  In fact the rain in Bristol was complemented by a (presumably deliberately) humorous choice of music playing in the airport arrivals lounge – Crowded House – Weather With You …  “Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you”!