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Travelblog Gone with the Wine

Travelblog and lifestyleblog. Life under the Californian sun - Gone with the Wine. Trips, food and wine from all over the world. Solo and family adventures.

Filtering by Category: Europe

5 Reasons to Visit St. Petersburg in Russia During the Spring

Paula Gaston

St. Petersburg - So close, yet so far for those of us who are from Finland! At this time of the year, I often think that it would be nice to visit St. Petersburg in Russia again. For Finnish people, St. Petersburg is practically a few hours away, but still many people have not visited. Many might fear the visa process. But if it is too hard to get a visa, you can always go on a visa-free cruise like we did. When you arrive in Russia by ferry, you are allowed to stay on shore for 72 hours without a visa. Even in that time, you will get to see plenty of things.

ENJOY THE SUN WHILE IT’S STILL NOT TOO HOT

The sun has finally returned after the dark and cold winter, and will warm up not only the air, but also people’s hearts. The locals will get out to enjoy the spring time too. The snow has just melted and the sun will make the golden cupolas of the the churches shine even more than they normally do. But the best part is, that it is not too hot to tour around the city even by walking. The evening in fact, can be a little chilly, but the days can be quite beautiful.

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YOU WILL SAVE SOME MONEY BY TRAVELING DURING THE SPRING

In the summer time St. Petersburg is full of tourists, and the prices go up. During the spring you are likely to get your tickets cheaper, like the hotels and other services too. So if you want to save a little money for your future travels, offseason is the time to go. Again one good reason to visit St. Petersburg during springtime.

Happy face in front of the Hermitage in the spring sun

Happy face in front of the Hermitage in the spring sun

EXPERIENCE ST. PETERSBURG WITHOUT MASSES OF TOURISTS

No crowded places, no lines! You can access even the famous Hermitage Museum or the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood within ten minutes wait, and there is space to walk around and take photos without other people being in them. This is true luxury! Just don’t forget that most of the museums and churches are closed on Mondays.

5 reasons to visit St. Peterburg in Russia during the spring, and this is one of them: The State Hermitage Museum.

5 reasons to visit St. Peterburg in Russia during the spring, and this is one of them: The State Hermitage Museum.

FALL IN LOVE WITH THE COLOURFUL EASTER DECORATIONS

Before Easter you will find so many beautiful decorations and hand painted wooden Easter eggs sold on the streets and stores. Easter is a big celebration in the orthodox church, and it is seen in many ways in Russia. I really liked the decorative eggs they were selling and bought some to bring back home to California.

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PARTICIPATE IN ALL THE LOCAL FESTIVALS AND CONCERTS

Springtime in St. Petersburg is full of all kinds of events. Many of them are related to Easter, but there are also other celebrations and many concerts that are held during the spring months. If you like to see local traditions or enjoy different kinds of festivals, spring is the best time for that in St. Petersburg.

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St. Petersburg is an amazing city with so much to see! It is a paradise for those who are into history and historical buildings. And wow, there is so much gold in abundance in those places. Unfortunately, there is also another side of St. Peterburg. Most of the local people don’t live that way themselves. There are many faces of St. Petersburg, and it is definitely at it’s best at the spring!

 

Greetings from Rovaniemi - Santa Claus Village in Finland

Paula Gaston

Last summer we visited both SantaPark and Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland. This was not our first visit to Santa Claus Village; we have been there multiple times; during summer, winter, even at fall. Every time, seeing Santa is equally exciting. The best photos however, are hands down the ones from winter time when the snow covers the trees and buildings. So I decided to use the winter photos in this post for that reason. It makes me feel more Chirstmasy here in California too!

 
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A DATE WITH SANTA

The main thing in Santa’s Village is of course meeting Santa. The very best thing about visiting Rovaniemi in the summer time is that there are less people, and no lines to meet Santa Claus. Right before Christmas on the other hand, the line was TWO HOURS long! Meeting Santa in his office is free of charge, but they do sell a photo package after the encounter. On our first visit we did purchase the package. The photos were good quality and there were several of them with all of us or just Santa with our baby. The package also included some general photos of Santa’s Village and a video. Meeting Santa was rather pleasant. We didn’t feel rushed at all, even though the line behind us was long. So we did manage to give our Christmas list to Santa, and right before Christmas day!

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CROSSING THE ARCTIC CIRCLE AND PETTING REINDEER

Santa Claus Village is located right on top of the Arctic Circle at latitude 66°33′45.9″. So one can literally jump over the Arctic Circle line while visiting Santa. From the north of the line one can experience a phenomena called Polar night (kaamos in Finnish), when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all. At the longest the Polar night lasts for 52 days, depending on what part of Lapland one is in. And what a shock it was when we drove further on to Lapland! I felt like I couldn’t get over my jet lag at all, I just wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep.

If visiting Finland during the summer, there is the opposite phenomena to Polar night. It is called Polar day, or Midnight Sun as we Finns like to call it. During that time the sun doesn’t go down at all. It is a very special time, and big celebrations occur around the country on the longest day of the year.

After crossing the Arctic Circle, one should head behind the buildings at Santa’s Village and go meet the reindeer. They are fairly calm and docile animals who often let people pet them. We even got to take a photo with one of them. While driving around Finnish Lapland, one can sometimes see hundreds of reindeer as they herd freely around the northern parts of Finland.

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SANTA CLAUS Village MAIN POST OFFICE AND SOUVENIR SHOPPING

The holiday season is fairly busy at Santa’s Village. The stores are full of people from all over the world and one can hear all kinds of different languages. One of the busiest places is also Santa’s Main Post Office where one can buy some post cards and mail them from the Arctic Circle. Santa has his own special stamps and a postmark. Some people even stamp their passports with this special Arctic Circle stamp. We also sent some post cards to our family in the USA. They think that Santa lives at the North Pole so we had to send some to prove to them that he really lives in Finland!

There are many, many souvenir stores in Santa Claus Village, and one very small grocery store with a very limited selection. I love all the Lappish things and always like to buy something to take home, but I have to say that if you visit anywhere else in Lapland or even in downtown Rovaniemi, you will find most of these same things way cheaper. Same goes with eating. The food in Santa Claus Village is very expensive and we weren’t super impressed with the quality.

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STAYING THE NIGHT in SANTA CLAUS HOLIDAY VILLAGE

In recent years Rovaniemi has gotten many new and nice hotels, and some accommodations a little more unique too. Last summer we did not stay the night there, but on our first visit we stayed the night in Santa Claus Holiday Village. It is located behind Santa’s Village, so not far at all. We were two families traveling together, so we booked two rooms. In each cottage there are two rooms which share the same main door but are in other ways separate. So it was perfect for us. Both families had their own rooms, but we could knock on each other’s door when we wanted to hang out. Each room had it’s own kitchenette and a sauna. As you know, we Finns love to warm up in our saunas before showering. We were desperately trying to see the Northern Lights, since my husband had never seen them. So we went out a few times before bedtime to look, but we were not in luck! He is starting to think they don’t exist!

The visit to Santa Claus Village is a great memory and particularly special for kids. Santa’s Village is actually very close to SantaPark, and I definitely recommend visiting them both. SantaPark is a little more pricey, but is worth it! You can read about our visit to SantaPark from here.

TIPS FOR VISITING SANTA CLAUS VILLAGE IN ROVANIEMI, FINLAND

  • Consider visiting off season since it is less crowded, cheaper and equally beautiful

  • Downtown Rovaniemi has many nice restaurants, shops and hotels.

  • The local delicacy is reindeer stew which is served with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. A local dessert special is oven baked warm cheese with cloudberries. There are many other foods to choose from, and many international chains as well. Vegetarian food is not difficult to find and gluten free food is served in almost any restaurant.

  • When visiting during the winter, bring warm clothing since the temperatures can vary anything form 0C to around -30C. Use layers under your outer clothes. Don’t forget your hat, scarf, gloves and warm socks inside the shoes, especially for kids! Many Finns use wool socks (villasukka) to keep their toes warm inside the shoes and they are sold in most stores. They also might have wool gloves (lapanen) on top of their gloves.

  • Be prepared for the darkness if you visit during the winter. The few hours of light during the day looks more like dusk.

  • If you want to experience the Midnight Sun, the best time for it is in June. Nightless night is celebrated on the third weekend of June.

  • When visiting during the summer, be prepared to meet the local air force: mosquitos!

  • The best time to see the fall colours is September and early October

 

Finding the Christmas Spirit in Rovaniemi SantaPark, Finland

Paula Gaston

The time has now come to move on to a more Christmassy topic in this blog. Last summer we visited Rovaniemi in Finland, and we went to see Santa Claus in SantaPark Arctic World. And it was quite an experience! In my opinion SantaPark is a small piece of America in Finland. It was well made, well designed and entertaining. The entrance fee was a little bit pricey, but it was worth it. And I would go again if I get a chance.

SantaPark is inside a cavern which was quarried into the bedrock, 50 metres underground. To get into the park, one must walk through a long walkway where different kinds of elf shadows are reflected on the walls and noises echo in the air. It was very exciting, if a little bit scary for the kids. But we did make it to the entrance and got our tickets. SantaPark was first opened in 1998, and it is open from June to the first week of August, and from November to the beginning of January. Even while visiting in the summer time, we found the Christmas feeling again quickly at the park. And in the chilly, dark cavern, we totally forgot that it was warm and sunny outside.

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CHRISTMAS MAGIC SHOW AND THE ELF SCHOOL

When purchasing the tickets one should definitely check the schedule for the day in order to know what is going on. We happened to arrive right when the elves were starting their Christmas Magic Show on the main stage, so we stayed and watched it first. The show was a lot of fun and very entertaining. these elves of SantaPark are quite the acrobats, I would say! When the show ended, they walked in front of the stage to greet and pose for photos with the kids.

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Right after the show ended there was an announcement that the Elf School was starting soon, so we headed there next. The Elf School was kind of cute, but pretty long. Even so, the kids seemed to enjoy it a lot. There were two elves who ran it; one spoke Finnish and the other English. The elves told us about their lives and duties, then we sang and at the end everyone got a diploma and an elf hat. I guess I graduated then, since I also got myself an Elf School diploma! Woohoo!

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DOUBLE TROUBLE on the MAGIC TRAIN

The only real ride in SantaPark is the Magic Train which takes people into a snowy forest to see its animals, and then on to the elf workshop. The ride is not very long and will work well for smaller kids. Since there were no lines to the train while we visited, we rode it twice. It actually reminded me of Disneyland rides which are always well made. I wish that real train trips would be this much fun!

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UNDERCROSSING OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE AND MEETING THE ICE PRINCESS AND SANTA

SantaPark is said to be the only place in the world where instead of cross over the Arctic Circle, one can cross beneath it. One cool thing to do after that is to visit the Ice Princess in the Ice Gallery. Before going in, one can bundle up with a long white coat which is much needed. At least I was really chilly since I was dressed for the summer weather. The gallery is full of ice sculptures and there is also an ice bar. We didn’t stay very long, since it was so cold there, but we did talk a little bit with the Ice Princess and took a couple photos with her.

After that we went to meet the star of the park; Santa Claus. He was sitting in his office waiting for kids to come see him. Meeting Santa is always exciting, and the kids are able to tell him their wishes already during the summer. He promised he would come all the way to California to visit us! And of course we got our picture together with Santa. We did not purchase the photo package they were selling, but Santa Claus didn’t seem to mind that we took few pictures ourselves.

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The Ice Princess…

The Ice Princess…

Another princess that is about to turn into ice soon…

Another princess that is about to turn into ice soon…

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The last thing we did before leaving was a visit to the Elf’s Workshop. I loved it that they actually had this old fashioned arts and crafts corner where kids were able to make Christmas ornaments. It actually seemed to be the only place that was a little bit crowded there. We painted some elves and we nailed them on the wall of the workshop room. It was all part of the activity. We also got some elves to take home with us.

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This time we didn’t eat at SantaPark, but we did have some coffee and local pastries. While we adults were still sitting there and sipping our coffee, the kids ran upstairs to the Angry Birds Activity Park. Then it was time to say our goodbyes to the elves and start waiting for the return of Christmas. And here it is again, it came faster than we thought!

If you would like to read about Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, you can find the post from here.

 

5 Churches You Should Visit While in Finland

Paula Gaston

I almost feel like I’m stuck in Finland with my posts right now. I must be missing it even though many of my friends there have told me, that beautiful summer is only a memory anymore. Fall has arrived in Finland as well. Oh well, maybe at some point I will be able to move on, but for now, a few words about the churches there. Almost 80% of the population in Finland belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which means that every town has its own Lutheran church. We first started to visit churches, since my American husband was interested in seeing them, and I soon realised that they are actually very interesting. All of the churches have their own history and a story to tell, and I have been surprised about how beautiful these buildings are.

PETÄJÄVESI OLD CHURCH

When thinking about a church which has impressed me the most, the Petäjävesi Old Church is absolutely on the top. Thank you to our friends in Jyväskylä who took us there for a visit. Even though the church is not very big, it mesmerises with its many stories and long history. Squeaky planks on the floor and decorative paintings on the wall will take you to a totally different era. This wooden church was built between 1763-64, and next to it is an old cemetery and bell tower which was built later. Petäjävesi Old Church represents eastern Scandinavian wooden church building at its best, and is one the seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Finland.

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As you can see from the photos, our visit to Petäjävesi was some years ago when our older daughter was still quite small. This church was really interesting with many cool stories from history.

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KERIMÄKI CHURCH

Kerimäki Church is not as beautiful as Petäjävesi, but it was very impressive in other ways. It is said to be the world’s biggest wooden church. And it truly felt quite big while walking around inside with other visitors. The church was built in 1847. Some legends say the size of the church was a mistake; like mixing up centimetres with inches or mixed up architect’s papers. Most likely they just wanted to make sure that half of the town’s people would fit in at once. During that time, there were 12,000 inhabitants in Kerimäki, and the church can accommodate 4 or 5 thousand people inside it. There are 3,300 seats in the church.

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When we visited Kerimäki Church they had an exhibition of wooden paupers inside the church. We were also able to climb up to the bell tower next to the building.

TEMPPELIAUKIO CHURCH

This summer, on our road trip in Finland, we visited the Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki. In 1961 two brothers; Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen won an architect contest with their special plan to quarry the church into the face of a huge rock. The church was inaugurated to use in 1969 and it was first called Taivallahti Church. The name was later changed. While visiting the church, one of the things you definitely notice, is the copper coated dome. Some natural light will come in from a ceiling window, and the altarpiece is a cracked rock from the ice age. Because of its excellent acoustics, the church is very popular place for concerts. It is one of the most popular sights in Helsinki.

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ST. MICHAEL’S CHURCH

We visited St. Michael’s Church this summer without an actual plan to go there. We drove by, and since we had some time, we decided to go in. And wow! I had no idea that there was such a beautiful church in Finland. It was built between 1899 and 1905, and it represents Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. There is a fascinating story of how the church was designed. The architect Lars Sonck, who was only a 24 year old student at the time, won an architecture contest with his design. The older architects didn’t approve, and they even planned to expel him from the school. Even though the church is truly magnificent, Sonck himself was never happy with his design and made many changes to it during construction. Later while visiting Turku, he never wanted to see the church.

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KORSHOLM CHURCH

I visited Korsholm Church a few years ago while visiting a friend in Vaasa. I wanted to see Old Vaasa, so while there, we also went into the church. The church was built in 1786 and it was actually a building for the Vaasa court. It is one of the rare buildings that survived the city fire in 1852. After the fire the whole town was moved to a different location, and also the court moved. Their old building was retrofitted into a church between 1862-63.

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The church is very popular for weddings and very busy on weekends during the summer. Even when we were visiting, they had a photo shoot outside, and inside of the church, the cantor was practicing the wedding march. While listening to the church organs and the beautiful music, it was hard to keep yourself from tearing up.

We like visiting churches and reading about their history. Many times if visiting during the summer, there is a guide who will answer your questions. Or you can of course, read a bit about the history of the church before going for a visit. Many churches have quite colorful pasts, and many notable people have been buried in the church cemeteries. I absolutely recommend visiting some local churches while traveling!

What is the most memorable church you have visited?

 

A Weekend in the Urban Hotel Verso in Jyväskylä, Finland

Paula Gaston

A couple weeks ago when we were still in Finland, I drove to the city of Äänekoski and Jyväskylä with my little girls. We had all kinds of activities on our schedule and I will tell you about them later, but now I would like to show you where we stayed. I was finally able to stay in a hotel that I have really wanted to visit for a long time now, Hotel Verso.

*Our trip was made possible by Hotel Verso, but as always, all opinions are my own.

A MODERN URBAN HOTEL 

Before going to Hotel Verso, I read a little about it from their website. They kept calling the hotel an modern urban hotel, and I was wondering what that really means. I found out quickly after arriving there. They have really managed to create a totally different kind of vibe than in most hotels. With the colorful decor, fresh flower arrangements, local products and cleanliness, they have built a very unique place from this former chain hotel. I liked it!

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When we walked in, we saw a dad in a rocking chair reading a book to his son. What an idyllic sight in a hotel! Well, of course my daughter wanted to try out those rocking chairs which were in a lobby on every level... and of course, every single time we walked by. 

Hotel Verso is located in the city center of Jyväskylä where the old Hotel Jyväshovi used to be. The Verso is a boutique hotel which offers something different to those who are tired of all the same hotels. The key word in this place could be locality or Finnishness, since both of these things seem to be highlighted in the hotel. The Verso was opened in 2016 and behind it is a family company who also owns Hotel Yöpuu and the Restaurant Pöllöwaari in Jyväskylä. There are 128 rooms in the Verso. 

A CLEAN AND CONFORTABLE ROOM

Our room was clean and comfortable. With some fresh textiles and wallpapers, they have applied a new look to the old hotel room. Our 6 year old slept on the sofa bed and there was a crib for the baby. Still there was a lot of room to walk around. The bathroom looked recently renovated, and since there was a bath tub, our kids were able to take a bath just like at home. Most Finnish homes have a sauna and showers instead of a tub, so having a tub in the room was a pleasant surprise. 

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We love taking baths and the bath salt in the bathroom was a big plus

We love taking baths and the bath salt in the bathroom was a big plus

When staying in this room though, you should keep your curtains closed during the morning. I guess this doesn't apply if your room is located on another side than ours was. I like to open up the curtains in the morning and let the light come into the room, but after I had been walking around the room in my pyjamas, I noticed that outside our room people were having breakfast. The view from the breakfast room was straight into our room! I hope no one choked on their bread when they saw this tired mama in pyjamas and hair sticking up.

TOP NOTCH BREAKFAST 

The breakfast at Verso is served in the Silmu Restaurant, and it is the pride of the hotel. When my friends heard where I am staying, they immediately mentioned the "awesome breakfast at Verso". There were all kinds of Finnish products and foods, and definitely a lot of things an average hotel breakfast doesn't have. There were many local treats, seasonal products and fresh baked breads. I especially fell in love with the apple juice from Åland Islands and the lingonberry pudding. That is something I don't often get, since we don't have lingonberries back at home in California. The kids seemed to love the blueberry juice and the bread baked with Verso's own bread root with cold smoked salmon. 

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There are also omelette chefs in Silmu who will make an omelette of your choice. This is one thing I always miss with a hotel breakfast. I also have to give a big thanks for the kids plates and cups they provided with the bibs. I got the feeling that everything was planned extremely well. For example they served some delicious overnight simmered porridge, but since it was made with milk, it wasn't suitable for our baby yet. I asked about the other options and immediately they gave me some oat meal made with water. Baby's breakfast was saved, thank you!

Finally a hotel with my size coffee cup!

Finally a hotel with my size coffee cup!

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After having this breakfast I understood what my friends had been talking about. This is a meal I would gladly offer for my foreign guests.

THE DECOR TEMPED US TO SIT IN THE LOBBY

Hotel Verso's bar has a lot of personality. Among the drinks, the bar in the lobby offers some lunch during the weekdays. Unfortunately we were travelling on the weekend, so we didn't get to try it out, but we were sitting in the lobby just for fun. They also offer dinner during the weekdays. We loved the colorful decor and interesting furniture they had. And my daughter wanted to write something in their guest book.  

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My daughter enjoyed writing in the hotel guest book.

My daughter enjoyed writing in the hotel guest book.

Thank you to Hotel Verso and their friendly staff for the great weekend!