Nikko, Japan

On our first day in Nikko it rained, it was hot and humid, all in all quite unpleasant. But without that sticky weather, this picture would not have been possible. You can simply sense the heat and humidity.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

June night in Finland

Summer nights in Finland are quite spectacular.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Summer in Helsinki

Summer is the most pleasant season to visit Helsinki, which is a city of nature, of brilliant clear colors, fresh air, and refreshing walks. The main cathedral (Tuomiokirkko) dominates the view of Helsinki with its pure white structure and green dome projected against the clear blue summer skies. The church is a good starting point for exploring the city that is at its best in the sunny season when locals crowd the terraces of cafes and tourists swarm in the farmers market in search of souvenirs.

The architecture of the Finnish capital offers an overview of the city’s history, among other things conveying the changes from the early nineteenth-century Russian influence to the search of national expression. Helsinki’s design consists of a fascinating mix of styles: Byzantine-Russian, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau. In addition to the main market square (Kauppatori) and the cathedral, both definitely worth exploring, there are other places of interest that are attractive especially in the summer.

One of them is Suomenlinna, the fortress island. A boat ride, with a spectacular view of Helsinki, takes only 15 minutes from the Kauppatori market to the island where, once landed, you can walk around the fortress, lie on the rocks sunbathing or go swimming.Another island to visit, accessible by foot, is Tervasaari, located behind the President’s palace next to the harbor with small yacht boats. This small island is ideal for leisurely walks, jogging or having lunch in the restaurant that serves typical Finnish dishes.

Temppeliaukio church is one of the mandatory visits during a stay in Helsinki. Not too far from the church, you can breathe the air of old Finland in Kahvila Hopia, a coffee house that evokes history (located on Pohjoinen Hesperiankatu 9, practically across the street from Finlandia Hall). All of their typical Finnish pastries are delicious but their karjalanpiirakka, Karelian pies, are, without a doubt, the best in Helsinki.

Those in search of something out of the tourist tracks, will enjoy a visit to the famous Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto’s home, now museum. It is located in a nice suburban area of Helsinki, on Riihitie 20, surrounded by beautiful villas. The museum dedicated to the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela is also worth a visit not only because it is hosted in a typical Finnish country house but also because of its location in a very characteristic Finnish park. You can take tram number 4 to Munkkiniemi, hop off at Munkkiniemen puistotie stop and then walk through the park, about 2 kilometers, to the museum. After you have admired the paintings collection, have a coffee and a pastry at the nearby characteristic coffee house.

After visiting some other museums, head to the shore, to Kaivopuisto where you can go for a walk, either along the sea or in the park, to conclude your summer tour of the Finnish capital.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

David Jackson, The Helper

The first case of the Helper involves a young girl, brutally butchered in a New York bookstore. The murderer has left a message on the victim’s body; it seems to be directed to Detective Callum Doyle, who is leading the investigations. The killer’s intention to be the Helper in solving the murders is confirmed when Detective Doyle starts to receive anonymous phone calls from a sinister voice that gives him clues to future homicides on the condition that he keeps the information to himself. As new murders occur, all identifiable with the hints from the caller, the anxiety of Detective Doyle increases. He has to fasten the pace to interpret the clues or more bodies will follow. Should he keep the Helper’s calls a secret and continue to conceal knowledge of the killings or could he somehow stop the manipulative “butcher” if he were to reveal what he knows? The calls become the Detective’s nightmare, intensified by the actual slaughtering of innocent people. What would you do in Detective Doyle’s situation?

The Helper is a page-turner. A cleverly created thriller that leaves you staggered.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Sweet as Cane, a debut novel from Stephanie McCoy

Sweet as Cane, Stephanie McCoy’s debut novel, is set in an insignificant small Southern town of North Carolina called Marrow. Not an easy place to grow up in. To quote Winkie Jr.: “You have to be very careful in this town…It is a trial to be a man in Marrow.”

The name of the location brings to mind bone marrow, the essential part of a human being. But the word also means strength, vitality, or essence, while, according to a reference dictionary (dictionary.com) in Scotland and North England it is used to signify a partner, fellow worker, spouse, or a close friend. The themes of the novel develop around the characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their “bone marrow” and essence, their friends, partners, and spouses—all somehow borderline between normalcy and insanity. Yes, there seems to be something mentally unhealthy about them, their relationships and interactions with one another. They seem wrapped around each other, their lives are entangled with those of their neighbors. Their existence rotates around the local cemetery; their talk spins around the protagonist, Cane Walker, supposed to be as sweet as sugarcane. Life is entwined with death and nothing is what it seems in this Southern town where young disfigured Cane learns about love, lust, and desire while working next door to her mother’s Sweet Hereafter Funeral Home as a photographer of infant postmortem portraits.

Sweet as Cane, or the story of Marrow, is told from a continuously shifting viewpoints as each character is given a chance to voice their fears, hopes, and superstitious beliefs; they all have some secret to add to the rumors circulating the 1950s Marrow. The dark side of every character dominates their lives, in this unsettling narrative about Marrow and its residents, whose language is said to be gossip. As they sip their sodas, they spy on each other and gossip about the pitiable lives of others; their talk is about vegetables and human life rotting in the Southern heat.

Sweet as Cane turned out to be a wonderful new discovery from Stephanie McCoy, who excels in masterful use of language as she explores the darker side of human marrow.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The divine voice of Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) in the heavenly setting of the Villa Bellosguardo in Tuscany

The Enrico Caruso museum that has recently been opened, only a few months ago, is hosted in Caruso’s magnificent Tuscan villa in the suburbs of Florence. The famous tenor chose the Villa Bellosguardo in Lastra a Signa together with his adored partner, Ada Giachetti. The soprano, however, left the tenor abruptly, running away with their driver! Caruso, instead, lived in the villa the last years of his life, from 1906 to 1921.

The villa is surrounded by an enormous park and a lush garden where scented flowers bloom amongst lemon trees and olive orchards. Antique statues decorate the wide paths that lead to the villa, making it an ideal setting for artistic life.

The rooms of the Villa Bellosguardo offer a glimpse into the life of the remarkable tenor. Film clippings, recordings of the most famous arias, photographs, costumes, and personal items are displayed in the private quarters of the singer. An overview of Caruso’s life is exemplified in the various rooms: the Music Room, Figurative Art Room, Memorabilia Room, Record Room, and the International Theatres Room that exhibits the highlights of Caruso’s international career – his performances in Paris, Hamburg, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, and Havana, at the Metropolitan in New York and at various theaters in the United States. Since Caruso was an enthusiastic and keen follower of the technological innovations of his time, closely studying the early recordings of his own voice, the museum also exhibits various models of gramophones from the early 1900s.

(Image: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-61522). After visiting the museum, which is about a twenty-minute drive from Florence, you are inspired to re-listen to the recordings of the unique, insuperable tenor.

Let yourself be carried away into the world of magic by the divine voice of Enrico Caruso.

Posted in Italy, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ken Follett: Winter of the World

The second volume of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, Winter of the World, picks the story up where Fall of the Giants ended. The main characters are the same with the addition of a new generation of protagonists. The dark years leading to and covering the Second World War form the time period of what can accurately be defined the “winter of the world”. Unimaginable cruelty and complex political maneuvers are woven together with human tragedy as the events leading to the Cold War years are played on international stage.

The dark shadow of the future is cast immediately on the first pages of the novel set in 1933 Berlin where Carla von Ulrich, age eleven, struggles to comprehend the tensions building up between her English mother, Lady Maud Fitzherbert, her German father, Walter von Ulrich, and brother Eric, age thirteen, who is the only member of the family supporting Hitler and accepting his destructive ideas. The events that shook the entire world – from the brutality of Nazism to the unforeseen attack on Pearl Harbor to the devastating destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – change the course of several lives, steering them into unexpected directions.

A fascinating way to follow history on a more humane level that involves personal passions and tragedies as they unfold in the Winter of the World. Another outstanding epic of human struggle in the midst of one of history’s most brutal global conflicts, from the pen of Ken Follett.

Publication date: 18 September 2012

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Café Culture in Helsinki

One of the relentless habits of the Finns is drinking coffee. It is not farfetched to talk about Finnish coffee culture, which manifests itself in the large number of new and old cafés in small towns and big cities as well as in the constant reference to coffee in everyday social interactions. It is common to meet friends for coffee, offer a cup of coffee when friends drop by, and traditionally you would also bring a package of coffee as a gift when visiting friends or relatives. This well-established tradition appears also in Finnish legislation making Finland a country where a coffee break is one of the rights granted to every working person.

Finns are known to drink coffee in large quantities. For example, it was estimated that in 2010 they consumed about ten kilos of coffee per person. Brazil, Columbia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Kenya are the biggest importers of coffee (for more statistics, click here). It has been calculated that a Finn, in average, drinks about four cups of coffee every single day. Usually you would have a ‘pulla’ or a ‘korvapuusti’ pastry with your coffee during a coffee break at work, which you would take either in the morning around 10am or in the afternoon around 3:00pm.

This social custom of drinking cups and cups of coffee during a typical Finnish day is clearly noticeable in Helsinki where new trendy cafés are continuously popping up next to more sophisticated established coffee houses. Among the new attractions that bring color to the streets of the Finnish capital and set new trends for local coffee culture could be named Brooklyn Café, a taste of New York, where you can choose between espressos and cappuccinos or more traditional Finnish coffees. With your steaming hot beverage you can taste their mouthwatering muffins, brownies or fresh bagels with cream cheese. This small, cozy, informal place with a friendly and relaxed atmosphere is located on Fredrikinkatu 19, a part of Helsinki that is fun to explore.

Another quite cute café is right in the heart of Helsinki, next door to the famous Stockmann department store. La Torrefazione (Aleksanterinkatu 50) has a Mediterranean flavor as their selection includes Italian coffees and croissants.

Café Succès with its famously huge ‘korvapuusti’ pastries is one of the old-timers, located on Korkeavuorenkatu 2.

 

 

 

On Bulevardi you can stop in for a cup of coffee at Café Ekberg, founded in 1850. It represents the traditional Finnish coffee culture at its best. It still has the charm of the nineteenth century, that touch of style and class associated with sipping coffee in a nineteenth-century à la mode place. Their pastries are out of this world; delicious, high-quality, petite delicacies. They also serve light lunches. You find them on the fashionable boulevard Bulevardi at number 9.

When visiting Helsinki, you will not want to miss Café Ursula in Kaivopuisto area, right by the sea. It was founded at the time of the 1952 Olympic games that were organized in Helsinki. On their outside terrace you can enjoy the sun, the sea, and the superb Finnish summer. After your coffee, take a relaxing walk in the Kaivopuisto park or along Huvilakatu, one of the charming streets of old Helsinki. 

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Irasshaimase – welcome to Yanaka, the ancient Edo in central Tokyo!

During your visit to Japan, you will repeatedly hear ‘Irasshaimase’ – which means ‘welcome’ – as Japanese girls greet you with a delightful smile at the airport, in department stores, restaurants, hotels, and ryokans (Japanese style hotels). When you yearn for an authentic Japanese experience, away from Tokyo’s modern noise and neon lights, the place you are looking for is Yanaka. We spent some time there a few years ago and loved it. It is the nucleus of the old shogunate capital Edo, which is centrally located, within a walking distance from some of Tokyo’s most important museums like the National Museum of Western Art or National Museum of Nature and Science. Two steps away from Ueno Park you enter into a world of the past.

The ancient culture is visible in the low wooden houses where local people sell gorgeous Japanese kimonos or shoes.

The tiny restaurants serve deliciously tasty noodle soup in traditional style. You will immediately realize the inexpensiveness of Yanaka neighborhood when you pay merely a few hundred yens (a few dollars) for your steaming hot bowl of soba soup. The narrow streets are crowded with hole-in-the-wall style restaurants whose menus offer – in addition to soba, ramen, and udon noodle soups – fresh sushi, lightly fried vegetable and shrimp tempura, and various curry dishes served with rice and Japanese vegetables (tsukemono).

When you are ready to fully emerge in Japanese life – and wish to pay little for comfort and authenticity – book your room at one of the attractive ryokans of Yanaka. The fascinating atmosphere of Yamanaka Ryokan will greet you already at the outer door where suggestive lanterns line the path that leads to the tatami-covered lobby. Another, equally fascinating Ryokan is Sawanoya. If you wish to find a room there, you need to make your reservation well in advance. A somewhat more modest accommodation is Ryokan Katsutaro, but even there you will find your bedroom separated from your living room area where you can enjoy your cup of green tea in peace and quiet after a day of sightseeing. In Yanaka district you can visit the Yanaka Cemetery, the Tokugawa family shoguns burying ground. If you yearn for the hussle and buzzle of modern Tokyo, you can take a walk around Ueno Park. Afterwards, you will feel so satisfied to retreat to the quiet calmness, the serene atmosphere of the ancient Edo. Sipping green tea in the living room of your ryokan is a perfect way to end your day in Tokyo.

‘Sayonara’ for now and ‘Irasshaimase’ again!

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Memories of Morocco

a very characteristic scene

 

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , | 2 Comments