Upon leaving Greece began our whirlwind journey through Scandinavia, mostly because we wanted to see a lot in a short amount of time, but also because those countries are freaking expensive. What followed was an actual 3-week European "trip" though Finland, Russia, Estonia, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Yes, you read that right. It was a lot.
We began our time in the city of Helsinki in Finland. Helsinki is known for being the coldest major city in the world. To Travis’s detriment, there was a heat wave that made it the hottest it had been for the last 150 years, naturally. We biked and explored the city, enjoying the architecture and laid-back nature of the city.
As we walked around, we realized how nice it was to be back in true northern European cities again. Quiet, calm, and with beautiful things to look at that make walking bearable for a sweating Travis. Helsinki was definitely a “vibey” kind of city, where you just hang out and enjoy the summer instead of ticking off lists of sites to see. Travis also couldn’t get over the Airbnb we stayed in, where the host’s young son was singing along with Frozen, because children are the same everywhere.
After a few chill days in Helsinki, it was time for our ferry ride to St. Petersberg, Russia. Holy mother, Russia is absolutely incredible. We loved literally every thing about it: the architecture, the food, the beer, the people, it was absolutely gorgeous. Our only complaint was that we couldn't stay for longer than 72 hours, due to a loophole that even allowed us into the country without a visa to begin with.
We started our time there by walking around the city, taking in all the sites we possibly could. Everything about St. Petersberg was opulent. The Church of the Spilled Blood was an intricate and detailed spectacle, with the inside COVERED in tiny mosaic tiles. It was stunning from the inside out. The opulence continued with the Faberge museum (from Ocean’s 12!), Smolny Cathedral, Peterhof Palace and the Winter Palace. You just walk around in constant wonder at the gilded casings. It was like being in Paris, but richer. The Winter Palace was a labyrinthine madhouse of people, and since we can’t really handle crowds like that, we bolted through and peaced out. We went to Peterhof (St. Petersberg’s answer to Versailles) just in time for their fountain display, where they turn on the fountain to bombastic and moving music. The music was so empowering, we were like, Yes! Go Russia! by the end.
In addition to the gorgeous buildings and delicious food, we wanted to see a Russian ballet. Henceforth, we promptly bought tickets to see La Selphide in the Mariinsky Theatre (where the very first Nutcracker was performed in the 1800s). We’ve seen some nice ballets, but you can see how dedicated and superb these dancers were. They were simply mesmerizing. We then feasted on caviar and champagne, because go big or go home, right? Also, SUPER interesting to drink Crimean wine, where they list it under “Russian wines” on pretty much every menu. Also, the craft beer was amazing. I mean, there honestly was nothing wrong with our time in Russia. We have to go back.
After the 3 days in St. Petersberg, we hopped aboard our ferry again to venture a 2 day journey to Stockholm, with a brief stop in Tallin, Estonia. With a short afternoon in the cute old town, we wound our way through the cobblestone streets, admiring the Byzantine architecture and stone masonry. As per usual, we wanted to try Estonian beer, and boy are we glad we did. Truly, some of the BEST beer we have had in Europe. Also, the borsch – so good! Yet again, we felt our time was much too short to enjoy the quaint and charming town.
Another overnight on the ferry took us to Stockholm’s port, where we stayed for a few days before venturing on our 12-day road trip. Stockholm definitely took us by surprise. What a beautiful capital – we didn’t expect to like it as much as we did! First off, the archipelago is stunning, with gothic buildings and sweeping water. Second, Stockholm is home to the Vasa ship, which was the COOLEST THING WE’VE SEEN IN A MUSEUM. I kid you not, it is a perfectly preserved, 300-year-old ship that sank in the Stockholm harbor and was brought up in the 60s. Why do people not make a bigger deal out of this thing? It was freaking awesome! Naturally, a viewing of the first Pirates promptly followed. To get a taste of the local fare, we dined on Ikea meatballs (had to), pickled herring (delicious) and reindeer stew (sorry Bambi, but also delicious).
In Stockholm, we picked up a car to begin our 12-day road trip through Norway. Much like we did with Iceland, we got a 4x4 and a mattress (thanks Ikea!), so we slept in the car as we drove around. This afforded us ultimate freedom over where to go and when to see. And Norway was a feast for the eyes. Fjords, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, cliffs, glaciers, it literally has everything. We spent most of our time in nature, with a brief stop in Trondheim to take a shower and feel like people again. Also, Norway is apparently stuck in 1996, because they have an abundance of SURGE. Travis drank waaaaay to much of it while there.
After Norway, we drove through some of the coastal towns of Sweden and around the Zealand island of Denmark, where we visited the white cliffs and Helsingør, home to Kronborg Castle, the supposed location of Hamlet.
We then spent two weeks in Copenhagen, where my mom came to visit (hi mom!). We enjoyed the city together, wandering the wide avenues and canals, chatting in cafes and seeing the Little Mermaid.
Finally, as our whirlwind time came to a close, we returned to Antwerp for three weeks of familiarity and a wedding. It truly felt like a homecoming. We love Belgium just so much. Our friend’s wedding was just lovely, and for the rest of our time there we relaxed, caught up on work, went to one of the best beer fests in Brussels, and finally went to Ghent! Also, every Saturday, we visited the downtown market and feasted on fried cheese and cava, which is truly a match made in heaven.
The second half of our summer was absolutely incredible, but man are we tired. And hot. After the last nine months we’ve had of going going going in summer heat (we’ve been in summer since February and South Africa), I for one am excited about crisp fall days and warm winter coats, and I think we’re going to take step back from the overly ambitious travel schedule we’ve taken on this year, and settle back to our leisurely pace.