Monday 16 July 2012

What To Do in Giverny ...

When You Don't Want to Visit Monet's House?

I was in Normandy for a couple of days in June with my parents.  I suggested to them that they should visit Monet's house and garden at Giverny, which I visited a couple of years ago.  Instead of going in with them, I had a coffee next door and then wandered through the fit-for-a-landscape village.  At the far end, I discovered the church of St Radegonde (patron saint of skin afflictions) and the grave of Claude Monet, lui-meme.

Both the church and the graveyard were so charming and interesting that I was sorry I'd missed them the first time I was in Giverny - but then, I suppose if I had I wouldn't have had the pleasure of stumbling across them this time.

Friday 13 July 2012

I Am a Runner Because I Run I am a Runner

For, oh, three or four years now, I've had secret dreams of becoming a runner.  I would see girls running by the sea or in the park and think, 'why can't I be like that - all free and easy and like someone in an ad?'  Every now and then I would go so far as to embark on an ACTUAL run, but it never really took.  I'd run three or four minutes and then need to stop to expire on the footpath. A few fainting fits were almost enough to convince me I would never be a runner.

But, about this time last year, something changed.  It may have been the influence of having a housemate who was a runner (the fabulous Bernie - who when she wasn't running at 6am was doing Bikram and seemed to have the energy of five people as a consequence).  I decided I needed to give running a red hot go - and this is what I did.

I downloaded Couch to 5k.  This was recommended by many people and it works, mostly because it's based on common sense and building up gradually.
I bought new, cool running gear that I felt good in.  (Thank you Lululemon.)
When I got past the first few weeks without incident, I found a running partner.  I discovered that the ideal running partner is someone who has just a bit more stamina than you and so will push you to go a leetle bit further when you're ready to give up.  Also one who'll distract you with celebrity gossip to take your mind off the pain.  (Thank you Máire Áine.)

It's taken a full year and a few false starts but I can now (and I can hardly believe I'm typing this) run 5k comfortably. I had a bit of a Rocky moment last Saturday when I ran 7k (I know!) around the Phoenix Park in Dublin, winding up at the monument to the Duke of Wellington.  I took a photo to record the occasion (and yes, I did run up the steps for full Rocky effect) and realised that the plaque I was photographing depicted Waterloo.  Which was appropriate, given that I'd just conquered my own personal Waterloo.

This isn't a blog about running.  I won't be giving you blow by blow accounts of my ever increasing mileage and my split times.  I have no plans to sign up for a marathon or other painful feat of endurance (personally I think if you're going to push your body to its limits and be racked with pain for hours on end you ought to at least get a baby out of it.)

However, I may from time to time discuss the joys of running in a new place.  For I have discovered that running in a city you're visiting is a great way to feel connected to it; to feel, if only for an hour or so, like an inhabitant and not a tourist.  It's also a great cure for jet lag.

Where's that Life List?
47. Become a runner

Thursday 12 July 2012

3 Hours in Copenhagen

Please see previous post for origins of title etc etc.

I had a 5-hour layover in Copenhagen on my way home from Helsinki and was advised that, rather than kicking my heels in the airport, I should take the speedy (and cheap) train into the city centre.  We landed at 11.20 and I was in the city before noon, so you can take that as confirmation of the ease and speediness of the trains.

The central train station is within easy walking distance of many of Copenhagen's sights, so I amused myself by walking around, more or less at random.  I didn't buy anything (apart from a sandwich) because I had no idea what the exchange rate was ... (turns out this was a wise decision: Copenhagen is expensive) but I did take lots of photos.  Here's a selection.  My top hint for those of you who may have 3 hours to spend in Copenhagen in the future is to go to the new Royal Library, locally known as the black diamond.  There are free deckchairs on the water-side of the building (see below) and really beautiful secluded gardens behind the original library on the other side.  I'd also recommend seeking out the cathedral which is very pared back but no less beautiful for all that.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

36 Hours in - wait, what?

The New York Times has a regular 36 Hours In ... feature which I was planning to link to because 1. it's given me many helpful hints in the past and 2. as a nod to it, I was about to write a post called '3 Hours in Copenhagen.'

But then when I went to the site, I discovered they had just updated the list of cities to include Helsinki.  Were they there at the same time as us?  They seem to have gone to many of the same places ... I guess those are just the places to go.  They also, helpfully, supplied the name of a cool bar we went to on my birthday, whose name I neglected to record.  It's Liberty or Death - where we drank cocktails out of tin mugs and struck up conversation with Paola the waitress (also an industrial designer).

I swear to you that my post and hints were written before I saw the NYT's guide - but they are eerily similar.  Clearly there are certain kinds of things that Lady Travellers and NYT writers will be drawn to on a visit to Helsinki.

Also: remember when I said that Helsinki was the cool place to go? If the New York Times agrees, it must be so.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Like a God in France

While I was in Provence a few weeks ago, hanging out with Adorable Nephews #1 and #3, I paid a return visit to St Remy.  I went hoping to replace my beloved swallow earrings (emblems for a Lady Traveller) that were taken when my house was burgled.  Sadly, they proved to be irreplaceable - but St Remy was just as beautiful as I remembered.

I meandered around for about an hour, admiring the luxurious shops and beautiful nougat coloured buildings.  The German idiom for living in the lap of luxury is 'leben wie gott in Frankreich', literally: living like (a) God in France.  Certainly, you could be forgiven for thinking that St Remy had been designed expressly as a playground for the rich and/or godlike.

Serendipity took me to this charming cafe where it struck me that, as much as the faux vintage / shabby chic look is getting tiresome because of its ubiquity, it really works here.  Perhaps because of the setting of (genuine) aged stone, faded (but original) ads pasted on the sides of buildings and - let's face it - the fact that the bright blue sky makes everything more appealing.

Because the cafe's order of croissants had yet to arrive, they pointed me to the bakery at the top of the square where I could buy my own and bring it back.  (It occurs to me that since their name 'Les Filles Du Patissier' translates as 'the baker's daughters' they may have an in with said bakery.)  Les filles promised to have my coffee ready by the time I came back and, indeed, they did.  This has happened to me often in France and I love how easy cafe-owners are about it.

Although I was unlucky in my earring quest, I was more fortunate in my attempt to locate Joel Durand, the amazing chocolatier I discovered on my first trip to St Remy.  The 'P' for Provence chocolates (with a salty-sweet olive filling) were just as good as I remembered.  Truly fit for the gods.

Monday 9 July 2012

'The Catholic Olympic Games'

(I'll get back to raving about Finland later, but I wanted to post about the Eucharistic Congress before I forget all the details.)

My mother accused me of going to the International Eucharistic Congress to mock, but this is not so.  I went because I have never forgotten (and who could?) the description in my school history book of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress - the last time it was held in Dublin.  The textbook described it as a kind of 'Catholic Olympic Games'.  Who wouldn't want to go to that?

If you're still in the dark, the Eucharistic Congress is a kind of über-conference for Catholics, with talks, exhibitions, symposia etc.  Oh, and lots of prayer and frequent saying of mass.  You might walk in thinking it looks like any other big conference / trade show - and then you notice that there are a great many people dressed in religious habits.  (There were nuns in all sorts of exotic habits I'd never seen before: it was like the Nun Doll Museum come to life.)  There was even a retail hall, selling all sorts of religious artefacts, vestments, books etc - and offering information about becoming a priest or member of a religious order.  There was an exhibition about the 1932 Congress - this was a HUGE event, with people sleeping outside in the Phoenix Park so they could attend the big masses there.  I also learnt that there were separate masses held for men and women, which - is just a bit bizarre but also typical of Ireland in the 1930s.  There was also an immersive exhibition that offered to take you 'through' the village of Capernaum in the time of Jesus.  This was immensely popular; so much so that we had to queue for stand-by tickets ...

The truth is, if you were inclined to mock, there was a lot of material that lent itself to mockery.  (The merchandising, for example ...)

But at the same time, we spoke to a great many interesting, open-minded people, who are genuinely trying to find a way of practising Catholicism in the 21st century.  Oh, and spotted an archbishop.

So while the 2012 event may not have reached the athletic heights of 1932 (500,000 people attended the final blessing of the Congress), it was certainly a different - and very interesting - kind of day out.

Friday 6 July 2012

Helsinki Hints

Lots of people in Helsinki asked what made us want to visit and the truth is that the trip was equal parts based on whim, opportunity and two chance encounters.  1. I read in Monocle last year that Helsinki was their choice of 'most liveable' city in the world 2. a vintage shop owner I talked to in Melbourne told me that Helsinki was a great place to go if you were interested in mid-century design - and to go before all of the vintage lovers of the world cleaned it out.  Lucky for me, my lovely friend Megs was up for an adventure into the unknown (because, seriously, I knew nothing about Helsinki beyond those two things).

The following list of hints is by no means an exhaustive guide to the city.  I've left off almost all museums and heritage sites - mostly because I figure you'll find those anyway.  It is distinctly design-orientated.  And there's quite a bit of shopping on there too ...

1. Get a copy of the 'Design District Helsinki' map.

It's available at the Tourist Info at the airport, and at other locations around the city.  The map has an excellent listing of galleries, shops, bars and restaurants, all within easy walking distance of the central train station / city centre. (Although the map itself is on the sketchy side, so you'll probably need another map for actual wayfinding.)  Map in hand, go on an architecture / design walking tour of the city centre - either self-guided or on one of the tours listed.  The king of Finnish architecture is Alvar Aalto (responsible for the central train station and the Finlandia concert hall, among others) but there are many gems to discover, from Art Nouveau through Nordic Classicism (and a dash of Soviet realism) and on to Modernism.

We had hoped to take the Helsinki font tour (yes, that's fonts as in typefaces) but the gallery that runs it was closed for holidays.  For future reference, the font tour is available from Napa Gallery - and the period around midsummer isn't the absolute best time to visit because many businesses take a summer vacation then.

Being the creative, resourceful types we are, Megs and I invented our own font tour.  Step 1: walk around Helsinki.  Step 2: exclaim every time you see a beautiful sign, house name or number.  Step 3: go for drinks.

The World Design Capital app is another useful guide to fun design-y things happening around the city.

2. If experiencing design overload, go to the Lutheran Cathedral to refresh your palate.  The cathedral is visible from almost everywhere in the city: white domes, copper roofs and just a hint of gold.  The interior is equally pared back.

For contrast, the nearby Russian Orthodox Cathedral is considerably bling-ier.

3. Have a cloudberry and black pepper martini at A21, Helsinki's coolest cocktail bar.  You do have to ring the doorbell to get in, but this is the only hint of pretension about the place.  The staff were super friendly and the atmosphere was very relaxed by comparison with similar style bars in most big cities.  (Oh, and the combination of cloudberries with a suggestion of pepper was sublime.)

4. Go for a walk / run along the seafront and admire all of the boats.  You can either start from the Market Square and walk south and west; or start near the Eira district and walk east and north.  An excellent spot for a drink and a chance to admire the view is Mattolaituri (address is Ehrenströmintie 3 A).  In the morning they serve coffee and in the evening they serve Moet and at any time they offer you fleecy blankets to wrap around yourself.

We kept finding ourselves magically drawn here - it's a beautiful spot to gaze at the water.

5. Have dinner at Teatterin grilli on Pohjoisesplanadi (main shopping street),

for the food, the decor but most especially for Piipa, the sweet waitress who served us.  Piipa was straight from a Disney movie: pixie dust fell from her shoes and bluebirds followed her around the restaurant ... On hearing it was my birthday she offered heartfelt birthday wishes, refilled our champagne in the biggest glasses available and - we discovered when we came to pay the bill - gave it to us on the house.

6. Try to contain your excitement at the Marimekko outlet shop.  The address is Kirvesmiehenkatu 7, Helsinki 00880.  You can get there by public transport: take the Metro to Herttoniemi, going in the direction of Mellunmaki or Vuosaari (in actual fact, there is only one Metro line, but it bisects after Herttoniemi.)  Once you get to Herttoniemi, the Marimekko factory/shop is an easy 1km walk.

7. Find Moomin-decorated mugs, beautiful Iitala ceramics and Alvar Aalto-designed glass at the Arabia factory, north east of the city centre.  There's a museum where you can learn about the history of ceramics manufacture in the city and (wait for it) another outlet shop.  The number 6 tramline goes all the way to Arabia.

8. Head to Kallio, the former workers' district just north of the centre.  Hakaniemi indoor market sells all sorts of Finnish delicacies and has wonderful vintage signs on the roof.

From the market, you can walk west around the little inlet where lots of boats are moored and over to Lake Tooloniahti.  If you follow the path around, you'll come to a little wooden house, painted blue.   They'll sell you a tea bag and point you to an urn of hot water.  You drink your tea looking over the lake and a breathtaking view of the Finlandia concert hall.

9. Make friends with some locals.  Courtesy of some friendly Helsinki natives (Helsinkers?) we were introduced to the most amazing pub in Kallio, run by a delightful Bulgarian called Peter.  The decor doesn't appear to have been updated since 1955 and the jukebox (!) certainly hasn't.

I gave my word I wouldn't publish the name of the pub here - and it's true that part of its magic was the serendipitous way we came upon it.  My advice is: pick a pub (any pub), getting talking to the natives and you too will find yourself - if not here, then in some equally special place.

10. Visit the thousand-and-one shops specialising in mid-century modern design.  Looking for a Scandic sofa, a retro radio, collectable ceramics?  You will be spoiled for choice.  Prices in the antique/secondhand/vintage shops are not cheap - but they are cheaper than in many other countries.

11. One of the things we truly meant to do but didn't quite manage was to take a trip to Suomenlinna, an island in the harbour with a walled fortress.  We did gaze at it from a bench on the mainland and many people we met recommended it.  My suggestion would be to go to the main food market in Kauppatori (Market Square), at the eastern end of Pohjoisesplanadi, buy a picnic and then take the ferry to the island.

12. The other thing that we truly meant to do but were unable to do was take a sauna.  Our chosen sauna was the Art Deco palace on Yrjonkatu ... but it was very firmly closed - for summer holidays, I think.

We'll just have to try again next time.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Helsinki: A Taste of Things to Come

This week's Helsinki coverage is brought to you by the letter 'A',

and the number 25.

With additional support from a friendly reindeer.

Helsinki is SUPER cool and I fully expect to appear on many must-visit lists for 2013.  It is the city of light (at least in summer), the city of beautiful design, the city of gloriously friendly people, the city of a thousand hairdressers ...

Tomorrow I will blog a full list of Helsinki Hints - don't miss it.