Where do I even start?!

“I have seen the south of France, and it is beautiful.” Okay, that’s not really the quote, but this works for my most recent experience(s). Pictures are behind the links. Enjoy!

Our first stop, on the way, was a six hour layover in Amsterdam. I’ve never been to Amsterdam, and while I can’t realistically say that I’ve “stayed” there, we did find enough time to take a canal boat tour and walk around the area for a bit. It was enough for me to declare that I would like to come back and spend a long weekend here.

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For my birthday, and with work obligations fitting in nicely, Wellu decided that a trip around the south of France would be in order, starting off with one of my favorite cities: Toulouse. Toulouse is such a lovely city, with so much to see and do, with a very rich, ancient history. While there in Toulouse, I met the wife of one of Wellu’s colleagues, and we went out for day walks (while our dear hubbies worked!), exploring the city. Since she’d done enough shopping and I had seen the museums, this time around we focused on other parts of the city, and ended up enjoying the ‘jardins’, or gardens in the center of the city. I showed her the farmer’s market, and we bought cheeses, fruits, and vegetables, and made ourselves sick on the sweet cherries and apricots. 🙂

After Toulouse, Zii and her husband headed off to Barcelona (also on my list!), while Wellu and I boarded the train to Avignon. Once again, Avignon is an ancient city, and we stayed in a little place inside the walls, across the street from what used to be a convent, and just a nice walk from the Palais des Papes, (the Palace of the Popes) and the Avignon bridge.

Palais des Papes

Palais des Papes

We spent two nights in Avignon, then rented a car at the train station, and headed out for a drive and our next stops. First off, we stopped at the Pont du Gard, a Roman-era aquaduct in excellent condition. We thought this would be more of a ‘point and shoot’ stop, but we ended up spending a couple of hours there, crossing the bridge, climbing up the hills on one side, and taking some gorgeous pictures of the view. It really is stunning and well worth the stop.

Pont Du Gard

Pont Du Gard

From there, we went to the Chateau de Tarascon, another stop that surprised us with how much there was to enjoy. This castle was very well laid out, with one winding staircase that you go up, with stops at each floor, and another that you go down, again stopping at each floor. It was a bit on the sparse side, but still lovely.

Chateau de Tarascon

Chateau de Tarascon

Then it was on to Arles, for the roman ruins, and another museum, which was also quite interesting. So much history! We also visited the Museum of Archaeology in Marseille, which gave a fascinating history on the ‘tiny seaside town’. And then it was on to St. Tropez, where the weather conspired against me, giving me only a few hours to lay out on the beach. But the area was beautiful, and it was relaxing even under cloudy skies, to just lay there and gaze at the Mediterranean and contemplate how wonderful my life is.

Ahhh...life is good!

Ahhh…life is good!

The next day, (and my birthday!), we returned the car and then got on the train, headed to Besançon, where Wellu had some collaboration to do with a colleague. That meant that it was up to me to go explore the old city, which I did! I walked over 7 miles (from the time I turned on MapMyWalk), just wandering around. I saw some amazing historical buildings, fascinating clocks — that is what Besançon is known for, clockmaking, and so much beautiful scenery.

Besaçon and the Doubs River

Besaçon and the Doubs River

After a few days in Besançon, we then packed up again, and boarded the train to Paris! This would be our final stay, just a night in the heart of the city, right near Notre Dame (about a block away). Our hotel was situated right on a busy market street, and we got out and walked all over, finally pausing for dinner. The next morning, we checked out, left our luggage behind at the reception, and headed to Versailles. I had been there a few years back, but in the winter, so the fountains were turned off and emptied, many of the statues were covered, and nothing was in bloom, of course.

One of the gardens of Versailles

One of the gardens of Versailles

The lines were insane! Fortunately, we were only going to the gardens (no need to tour the building again), so we didn’t have a long queue at all. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the fountains were not running all day long. Apparently they run on a schedule, starting at 10am, and cycling through one side of the gardens until about 11:30. Then starting up again at 15:30, and cycling through the other half until late in the afternoon. There were a few that ran every hour. Still, the gardens were breathtaking, and I did get to see a few of the fountains running. The ones we really wanted to see were scheduled for later in the afternoon, and we would already be on our way to the airport. I suppose I will just have to go another time!

Love locks on one of the bridges in Paris

Love locks on one of the bridges in Paris

Finally, we picked up our bags, and headed to the airport, CDG, which is one of the worst airports to get through. It seems to be laid out in a way that has you backtracking or going from one end to the other, and the signage is appallingly sparse. In addition, as I found out all through France, the French don’t tend to speak English, or anything other than French, and too bad if you don’t understand it. I was able to suss through some of it, but it was odd not to have a common language to fall back on.

The trip was long, but wonderful, however there is nothing like returning home to your own bed, own shower, and own routines. We leave again July 4 to go to Oulu, where we will participate in a family reunion of sorts, and pick up Shiva, who is having far too much fun vacationing at the summer cottage!

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First snow!

December 13, 2014 (8:30am)

December 13, 2014 (8:30am)

Shiva got her first taste of snow today! I took her out this morning, and snow had blanketed the ground during the night, coming stealthily to catch us unawares. She came off the stoop and sniffed around at the white stuff, not touching it at first, until she determined that it wasn’t anything to be concerned with. She did try to roll it in it once, like she does with grass, but as soon as her shoulder touched it, she was back up like a shot, and didn’t try again.

Shiva sees snow for the first time

Shiva sees snow for the first time

Shiva hides in the snow

Shiva hides in the snow

Shiva's first snow

Shiva’s first snow

She looked quite stylish in her sweater, but unfortunately, was not going to stay that way for long. We would have walked to the dog park this morning, but I had no interest in trying to navigate that steep path with the snow and slush on the ground, so we just walked around a different way. Along this route, she went exploring amid some trees, and eventually something in the underbrush got her attention. She got her leash tangled in the branches, and as I was trying to untangle her, she was digging like crazy after something (probably a hedgehog, I figure). When I finally got her away, she was a mess!

Shiva after her dig

Shiva after her dig

So home we went, and straight into the bathroom for a shower and her first bath since coming to Helsinki! She spent the rest of the afternoon napping, apparently.

I only know from tales, as I was gone shopping at some of the local markets with a friend. There’s one in the Forums, called Ilo Joulu, and there are two places for it, on the second and on the third floor. Lots of independent vendors set up inside with their tables and wares. I simply don’t have enough money, I can tell you that! I wanted so many things, but finally settled on a few small gifts for family and friends. Still, items of just 1€ or 2€ tend to add up quickly when you are buying for a half dozen and more people!

Example of some handmade boots

Example of some handmade boots

I want to pause here and give a shout out to my rain boots. My mom bought these for me from Amazon, and they are great! With a pair of wool socks, they are warm, they fit well and they are pretty comfortable to walk in. Even better, they seem to have decent traction in the ice and snow, and they definitely get through the slush very well! And the price is phenomenally better than most I’ve seen!

Amazing rainboots!

Amazing rainboots!

Slush.

Slush.

We left there and walked down to the Senate Square, where I had been last night. She was looking for a particular books dealer, which we found. She concluded business with him, and then we were feeling a bit peckish and cold, as it was drizzling a bit while we were out.

I met Santa!

I met Santa!

We decided to head in to Stockmann’s, experience the Christmas rush, and head up to the 8th floor to the Fazer Ravintola, and grab some coffee for her and hot chocolate for me. I was glad to do it, as my feet were finally starting to hurt. We had to wait for two cars of the elevators to come and go before we got there, and  then afterwards, you should have seen the line for the ladies room!

Hot chocolate and quiche at Fazer's

Hot chocolate and quiche at Fazer’s

Afterwards, she went on to a third market, but I was worn out, so we parted ways and I came home to meet my Wellu and Shiva, and tuck in. Except…it was only like 4:30pm, and I still need to take Shiva out for her evening walk! This getting dark at 3pm is for the birds!

On my way through the Rautatientorie to get to the bus, I passed a small group playing classical Christmas music right there in the hall. It was nice to stop for a moment and enjoy the music, and they played quite well, too. I’ve seen several street musicians (I think they call them buskers?) playing around the city. I tend to have a coin or two for the good ones. And most of them are quite good. (see video at the end of post)

Concert

Concert

Day 13 Challenge: How do you feel about the holiday season?

Because I don’t have to shop for anyone, I don’t feel the crushing weight of that responsibility on my shoulders. That means I can get in to the fun and joy of the season–the colors, the music, the lights, even the crowds. I’m not pressed for time, really, so the time is what I make of it, and I really enjoy looking at this time of year anew…almost like a child again, with no other responsibility than to enjoy it.

Enjoy a snippet of Christmas music!

Downtown Helsinki

Shiva made her directorialship debut. I fitted her with the GoPro camera on the harness and took her for a walk for a trial run. The film is long and a bit monotonous at times, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be (or as good as I had hoped for). I’m still working with some software to learn how to pare it down so that I can post some canine perspective of Helsinki when we get out there ‘for reals’. 🙂

Afterwards, I made it a point to head downtown to see the Christmas windows in Stockmann’s. Stockmann’s is sort of like the Macy’s Fifth Avenue, with a Christmas window, Santa, lots of lights, and besides, it takes up practically a whole city block (and then something like five stories up and down).

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I got some pictures of the windows, and the little outdoor market there. There were probably about fifty little huts with craftspeople selling things made in Finland (mostly), as well as silver from Ireland (pretty!), roasted almonds (yum!, sweaters from Peru (llamas!), and more. Prices were a bit high, but to be expected from a holiday market, to be honest.

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I then headed over to the Senate Square to check out the Christmas market there. Here there were over a hundred little wooden huts with all manner of goods. The vast majority of these were Finnish items, and I was convinced to buy a few things, as well as mentally file some things away to come back and get next week. I tried several different sorts of gingerbread cookies, some Christmas bread (coming back next week for some to take to Oulu), and I even tried my first glöggi. While not something I would go out of my way for, it was good enough that I felt inclined to buy a bottle to share up at the cabin when we go to Lapland over Christmas. I did find these black truffle potato chips from Spain that were TDF, so I had to buy a bag of those, too. The cheese-filled 20141212_174254pastries are handmade, and delicious, and this is the place that has the Christmas bread that I am coming back for.

While I was there, I watched a young man working some metal in a small fire. It looked really interesting, and the display of finished items were certainly impressive! (scroll down to the bottom to see the video)

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There’s a huge Christmas tree in the square, as well as a carousel, which is free for the kids to ride. Even with the drizzle going on, there were still lots of people braving the wet weather to get out and shop, lending the place a festive air in spite of the gloom.

It was there I met Wellu and we wandered a bit, then headed out to eat, and then back home to walk Shiva (in the rain, of course). Walking to the bus stop through the Helsinki city streets was so magical!

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I managed to get our luminaire (from Ikea, of course), up in the window, and it looks rather homey from the street. Now, I just need to get some Christmas lights out on the balcony and the place will look festive enough. 🙂

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Quick note on the cold brew tea: Thanks everyone for the suggestions. I did a little reading up on cold brewing, since the main reason I was doing ‘cold brew’ was convenience. Plop 2 tea cold brew tea bags in a quart pitcher of water, put in the fridge, and approximately 15 minutes later, you had tea! And since I only drink iced tea, it tasted just like the stuff you get in the restaurant that has been hot-brewed. I didn’t realize that (it seems) any tea can be cold brewed, it’s just the method, not anything special with the tea. This opens up a world of possibilities for me! I had just assumed that the tea bags that I had been buying were labeled ‘cold brew’ because something special was done when processing the tea leaves. Those marketing geniuses…charging more for what is probably the same product, but just giving it a different name!

Day 12 Challenge: Are you looking forward to Christmas? Why or why not? I most definitely am! Several reasons…I will be spending Christmas Day itself with my husband’s family in Oulu, and that will be very nice and special. Most importantly, it means that my daughter is on her way, and she arrives on the 27th, and then we head to Lapland, for a very special Christmastime in the snow! I’ve missed her, and it will be so good to see her for a little over a week! The only downer is that I will be missing the rest of my family during this time.