Archive | October, 2015

Finland and Estonia

12 Oct

I arrived in Finland after spending the prior 4 weeks on the road in San Jose Costa Rica, Deerfield IL and Puebla and Mexico City Mexico. When I landed in Amsterdam after my first leg I quickly started rushing towards the gate and the nearest lounge. For some reason I thought I had a quick layover. When I got to the KLM lounge I took a shower first thing which was fantastic! Little did I realize that I still had about 2.5 hours to kill before boarding to Helsinki aka HEL. While there were no beds in lounge I utilized the earplugs from the plane and napped with my phone alarm ready to go. Once on the flight I also quickly fell asleep and had a nice egg roll for breakfast where the stewardess asked me if I was going home! Ha apparently I look Finnish which I took as a huge compliment as all the Finnish people I met are massively attractive and very nice. Once safely in HEL, I headed to Avis to rent my car. Even though I had practiced my manual skills I thought it was probably best to stick to automatic. In the US that would typically mean a nearly powerless Chevy, Ford or Nissan of some sort, but everywhere else that means a BMW or some sort of nice European car with actual horsepower.

It took me a couple of days to get the hang of driving back and forth from downtown HEL to Espoo using the most direct route but I was determined to not have to rely on GPS. The first couple days I used google maps which was actually pretty hilarious because of how it phonetically pronounces every word. The first time I heard it I burst out laughing. “Turn right to exit at juvenmali juvenmalmen nippereri nippert” WHAT?! By the time it finished speaking I’d past the exit. Thankfully I got the hang of it without having to listen to google maps give me a mouthful every time I made a turn. I also had some very interesting experiences at the gym. Women wore make up and heavy perfume, and one even wore slippers on the elliptical machine. People don’t like to sweat and only spend about 3 to 5 minutes doing cardio. A guy next to me on the treadmill ate toast while he walked all of 2 mph and I was going full speed ahead trying not to sound like a beast.

Since I was working Finnish and partial US hours I didn’t get a change to take any organized tours, but every night I tried a new restaurant, mostly in the Kamppi area, all of which were fantastic, Sushibar + Wine (fabulous smoked scallop roll), Lappi (for traditional reindeer filet and whitebait roe), Putte’s Pizza and Bar (gourmet pizzas), and Bistro Kämp in the one and only spg property in Helsinki. On Friday I walked around as much as possible in order to get the “lay of the land” including walking through the Senate square and listening in on a free play, through the esplanade, and along the water.

Saturday morning I checked out of my ghetto Radisson and made my way to the Linda Line to catch the express ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. Apparently many Fins go to Estonia for the cheap alcohol, and nearly everyone started the libations as soon as they got on the ferry. I knew I was in the right place! Beer on the ferry goes for 4.90€ compared to 7€ at restaurants in Helsinki.

I met a nice couple on the ferry from Finland who hadn’t been to Tallinn in over 10 years. As a civil servant the older gentleman gets 6 weeks of vacation a year compared to the 4 weeks industries get. Wow! Once I got off the ferry I headed for the Radisson Blu Olumpia which was worlds better than the Radisson Blu Royal Helsinki, for one there was temperature control! And a fabulous view of Old Town. I then headed straight for Old town which was every bit as adorable as I had imagined. It was already late afternoon at that point and I was starving so I went to Olde Hansa, a “medieval” restaurant serving Elk and Bear and other traditional Estonian foods. I had a complementary schnapps shot, thanks to the hotels coupon, a .5 liter jug of dark honey beer and Elk filet, which was well worth the money. It was incredibly tender and came in a truffle mushroom sauce with juniper berries and spelt. After such a heavy meal I walked  all around to old town square, some souvenir shops and then to the key tourist sites, St. olaf’s church (where I paid 2€ and climbed the very steep narrow staircase to the top) and Aleksander Netsky cathedral through St Catherine’s pass. On my way back to the hotel I bought an A. Le. Coq Estonian beer to try because I couldn’t resist the name. While there was much more to see in Tallinn I decided to go for a good sauna, another thing the baltics, Nordics and Scandinavians are well known for.

Upon my return to Helsinki it was Restaurant Day! Four times a year anyone is welcome to open their own food stand and sell whatever they want. The movement started in Helsinki because of the incredible difficulty in opening a restaurant, but other cities have started to catch on. While I didn’t eat anything from the pop-up food stands, I did have some great rainbow trout during my walk through the esplanade at Kappeli, and a nice pistachio ice cream in the market square. I was tempted to buy an elk or moose rug but resisted the urge. It’s incredibly hard to buy winter items in the middle of summer.

On Tuesday, I treated myself to a three course dinner with wine pairing at Passio. The restaurant has very mixed reviews on trip advisor but that didn’t stop me and it was incredibly close to my hotel in Kampii. The first time I tried to go to this restaurant  the previous week, the kitchen was closed, and the second time they were fully booked. I’ll be damned, but I made a reservation for one on Monday. Come Tuesday, I strolled in there and proudly told the flamboyant maitre ‘d who had turned me down those two times before, “reservation for Sonya” and guess what? he showed me right to my seat without a word. Success! I was in! Except that then I proceeded to wait approximately 10 minutes for any sort of waiter to bring me water or a menu. Ah the joys of traveling as a solo female. The food ended up being fantastic and the three course menu was actually more or less a five course menu. The following day, my final meal in Helsinki was at the recommendation of the hotel, Ravintola Rivoli a French restaurant. I had the escargot and the toast skagen which is a traditional Nordic meal.

While it does tend to get a bit lonely eating dinner every night by yourself, my trip to Helsinki and Tallinn was truly enjoyable and I would love to go back at some point to really experience the northern lights and a reindeer farm. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the socialist economics that are rampant throughout Europe today, it’s always nice to see and learn about different cultures and ways of living. Some things I learned:
– maternity leave is paid for roughly one year
– everyone has 4-6 weeks of vacation and most of the country completely shuts down in July
– most people really take 9 to 5 very seriously

– there is not a lot of traffic
– awkward silence is not awkward
– quite a few people do this weird intake of breathe at the end of their sentences
– The cost of living is expensive

-tons of people are blonde. Like REALLY blonde. No bottle blondes (well maybe there are still some! see girl with makeup at the gym).
– everyone seems relatively happy, although when I told my coworkers Finland topped the list of happiest people on earth, they were shocked and couldn’t imagine why!

Smoked scallop roll

View of Old Town Tallinn from my hotel room

Reindeer at Lappi Ravintola 

Italia Adventure 2015

12 Oct

Back in January I went to a destination wedding expo and the very first vendor I saw was from Tuscany. I took this as a sign that a destination wedding in Italy was exactly my cup of tea. It was slightly harder to convince my fiancé and our families and friends that this is a fantastic idea. Fortunately, people are starting to come around, especially considering that we live in Northeastern United States where weddings are on average $50-75,000…ahhh! While hunting for marriage requirements in Italy… and St. John USVI ….and the Maldives (sometimes eloping sounds like a great idea)… I discovered the Italian Wedding Event who plan weddings in Italy and decided to inquire for weddings on the Amalfi Coast. What they sent back was a plethora of information and a whole website of potential wedding locations all over the Amalfi coastline. After many site visits and inquiries to locations in NY, NJ, CT, RI and Long Island, we decided to book a trip to Positano and perform a site inspection with the Italian Wedding event. In addition, they arranged for us to get our engagement photos while we were there.

We landed on a Monday in Rome on the Delta direct from JFK. From there we took the Leonardo Express from the airport to Rome Termini station. Once at Termini we took the fast train to Naples. We almost got on, what looked like, a regional train, but fortunately we got off in time, grabbed a prosciutto e crudo panini and waited for the fast train which was 30 min late. We arrived at Naples where we were greeted by Claude, our driver from Naples to Hotel Conca D’Oro in Positano. Lots of, what I call “creative driving,” is required in Naples and all along the Amalfi coast. The roads are tight plus there are pedestrians and no real sidewalks. There were many times in downtown Positano where a bus went by and we both jumped a little bit. When we first got to the hotel a porter was waiting for us and promptly strung a rope around our bag handles, hoisted them over his shoulder and continued up the stairs to reception. Shortly after being shown to our room a bottle of prosecco arrived which we promptly enjoyed on the balcony. Being beat from the plane and the train journey, we ate a low key dinner at the hotel with fresh fish and spaghetti bolognese.

The next day we met one of our planners, Valentina, on Via Mulino in the downtown area of Positano. Our first stop was the church on the beach followed by Rada restaurant which has a great balcony overlooking the beach as well as a club inside of a cave on the side of the mountain called music on the rocks. Right above Rada is Hotel Marincanto which has gorgeous views and spacious rooms. From there we looked at two villas which both overlooked all of Positano. After seeing these great locals how could we not get married here?!

The following day we met our photographer, Massimo, for our engagement shots. While holding two cameras, my purse and with a cigarette in his mouth, he artfully took our photos all over Positano. While it seemed strange to have everyone stare at us while Massimo clicked away, it got us used to posing and smiling.

With the “work” part of our trip out of the way we booked excursions to Pompeii, Mt Vesuvius, and Capri. The bus to Pompeii picked us up from the hotel at 7am and drove the entire coast line before getting on the highway. Of course among the last people we picked up was an 18 month old! For the rest of the bus ride we listened to crying and the adventures of Peter rabbit. Once in Pompeii we explored the ruins including brothels, a miraculously preserved bath house, amphitheaters, and the main forum. After a quick lunch at a relatively cheap tourist restaurant, Da Andrea, we went on to climb Mt. Vesuvius. We had never climbed a volcano before, let alone the most dangerous volcano in Europe. The thought was a bit daunting. Once we got to the top I half expected to see liquid magma boiling and steam rising all around us, this was definitely not the case. The center of the volcano was surprisingly tame with trees even growing inside. Once we made our way back down the volcano and back onto the bus, and to Positano for dinner. James picked a restaurant with controversial reviews, and was pretty busy, but it was one of the best meals we had. Our waiter at Da Vincenzo was also a great sales person. While it was a bit pricey, we always order the house wine which came out to 7€ for a carafe or something ridiculously reasonable.

The following day we walked down to the main beach in Positano to catch our boat to Capri. Our captain was a one man show named X and he was kind enough to break out the prosseco promptly at 10am. He brought us to the different grottos but unfortunately not the blue grotto due to rough waters / high tide. Apparently it’s only passable once every 4 days. Our next stop was the marina and a taxi ride to ana capri to take the chair lift to the top of the island. On the boat we met a really nice couple from Omaha on their honeymoon. We traveled with them from the porto to Anacapri and took the advise of the captain by buying panini’s at the bottom of the hill (and some adult beverages at the top). We had lunch with a view of Naples and the Amalfi coast and then walked through old town before getting back on the boat to Positano. More prosseco was had by all, James fell asleep starboard and we rolled into port reluctantly. After a failed attempt at souvenir shopping, James surprised me and picked another restaurant winner, da Gabrisa Ristorante & Wine Bar! Instead of walking into town we walked up the hill to a wine bar attached to a hotel with (of course) great wine and a risotto served In a lemon larger than James’ fist. The meal was bittersweet as the next day we had a scheduled fast train back to Rome.

James and I were last in Rome in 2012 after taking a Costa Cruise. Somehow we managed to do most of main attractions in Rome in one day. This time, I booked us advance tickets to the Sistine chapel in order to skip the ticket que. it was well worth it, although I do suggest taking a tour and skipping the audio guide. The last time I was In the Sistine chapel my mom was chastised by the guards for taking a picture and threatened to have her film taken away. Digital photography has made it much more difficult for the guards to catch picture takers if you are stealth. Also remember to whisper. The Sistine chapel is one of the most utilized rooms and while its recently been restored, relatively nothing has fallen from the ceiling in years which means you never know! After James took a few illegal photos we walked on to the square at St. Peter’s before heading back to the hotel. Little did we know that Saturday nights in May really require reservations as many places turned us away. We ended up at a restaurant that’s a favorite of my parents and somewhat hidden, Ristorante La Grotta Amatriciana.

For our last day in Rome, we took it easy and went to a restaurant recommended to us by the Omaha newlyweds we met in Capri, La Prosciutteria. The place is small, but we were there at about 11am so we had no trouble finding a seat. Not only was this place reasonable, but it had great music and ambiance. We went with a mixed wood platter and a couple different types of bruschetta. We then walked to the Trevi Fountain (which was under construction!), the Pantheon, and on to the Spanish steps. For our last evening in Rome we went to the roof of the hotel across the way for one last look at Rome. We walked down the street to Caffeteria Ristorante Diadema. It was one of the few restaurants that was open on Sunday and the waiter/owner was so nice, (after all we were the youngest people in the place) he brought us the bottle of lemoncello after dinner.

Every trip to Italy seems more magical than the one before. Next year we can’t wait to return to Italy for our wedding!

Positano Engagement Photo

The Pantheon

La prosciutteria

St. Peter’s 

Lemon risotto

View from Anacapri


The boat to Capri 


Mt. Vesuvius


Marina grande

Hiking up to the hotel with our luggage