Category Archives: Travel

WELCOME!

Welcome to my blog!

I am a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).

My latest posts are from my summer trip to Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia.

Before that are my posts from my spring travels to the Upper Midwest, U.S.A., including Michigan and Ohio. In Michigan, I visited Mackinac Island for the third time, the scenic Lake Michigan town of Petoskey, and a stop at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids. Previous posts include a link to my story about last summer’s New England cruise, and my visits to Ohio cities that begin with “C” — Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Canton, and a fun time on the Lake Erie Islands.

Next month I travel to Greece and Turkey. Stay tuned!

My updated published clips list with some of my stories from over the years is on the right. To see even more of my published clips, visit my website at http://www.richardvarr.com

Thanks for your continued interest!!

(Header image is my photo from St. Barth, view from the Colombier Lookout; head shot in Krakow, Poland.)

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My novel of international intrigue, Warming Up to Murder, is available as an ebook, and in Kindle and Nook formats.  It’s about a TV reporter who finds himself chasing the “big story” spanning two continents.  See the links below.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/richard-varr

http://www.amazon.com/Warming-Up-Murder-Richard-Varr/dp/141344976X

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Helsinki, Finland: ‘White City of the North’

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

Finland’s largest city was founded in 1550, but surprisingly has no medieval past. That’s because it remained only a small village and was actually made the capital in the early 1800s when, under Russian rule, they decided to move the capital closer to St. Petersburg, from Turku to Helsinki. Thus the city is northern Europe’s youngest capital with 19th through 21st century buildings lining its streets and overlooking its scenic waterfronts. And what’s behind the name White City of the North?  That’s because many buildings sport light-colored facades, constructed from white or pale granite.

Uspenski Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

One example includes the landmark and stately Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square, a gleaming white columned structure in neoclassical architecture that looks more like a capitol building sitting atop a steep flight of stairs.  Another church dominating the skyline and just a few blocks from Senate Square is the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, designed in Byzantine Russian architectural style and topped with typical “onion” domes.

Sibelius Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Other must see Helsinki sites include the pipe-like tubes making up the Sibelius Monument, a tribute to native son and composer Jean Sibelius. The Temppeliaukio Church, with its rock walls and domed roof, was dugout of a granite mound. It’s perhaps the city’s sight most visited by tourists.

 

Inside the Temppeliaukio Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Helsinki Island Hopping: Suomenlinna Island Fortress

Suomenlinna bastion walk. Photo by Richard Varr

King’s Gate, Suomenlinna. Photo by Richard Varr

Island hopping off the shores of Helsinki is easier than you might imagine. And you don’t really need a boat – except for a 15-minute ferry ride to Suomenlinna. This group of six islands, most attached by footbridges, is still Scandinavia’s largest sea fortress. Sturdy brick walls, ramparts, courtyards and cannons remain, but today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a park and an attraction where hundreds come on any given day to walk its gravel paths, many now shaded by trees, and to learn about Finland’s maritime history. There are museums, a church, great waterside views and more.

Suomenlinna bastion walk. Photo by Richard Varr

“Some historians say that Suomenlinna might have been one of the factors leading to Helsinki becoming the capital later on,” explains Helsinki tour guide Heidi Johansson. “There were more inhabitants on the islands than in Helsinki proper in the beginning.” Because it was inhabited by military including officers, it was a center of culture for the region.

Suomenlinna bastion area. Photo by Richard Varr

Fortress walls, Suomenlinna. Photo by Richard Varr

“When Suomenlinna was built in the 1700s, that’s where the magic happened,” Johansson continues. “Suomenlinna was really a flourishing place, where all the social events happened, where all the trends came in.”

FINNISH DESIGN: Simple, Practical, Colorful and World Renowned

Fiskars scissors in the Design Museum, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

It took a trip to Finland for me to realize that I have perhaps the most iconic item representing Finnish Design in my own home – orange-handled scissors that I have used for years. As it turns out, the Fiskars Scissor brand is now more than 50 years old and more than a billion have been sold worldwide.

Finnish Design furniture in artek store. Photo by Richard Varr

Artek, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

Fiskars scissors in the Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Finnish Design emphasizes simplicity in everyday life with practical and timeless – yet colorful and unique – household items such as tableware and furniture like classic stools, but also clothing styles and artistic expression. Think IKEA with flair.  Popular names include Artek, Aalto, Arabia, Iittala and the Marimekko clothing brand once worn by Jackie Kennedy.  Several Finnish Design brands came about in an effort to brighten décor after the war years and to enliven the diluted colors and grayish scale. In Helsinki, stores can be found in many neighborhoods selling Finnish Design household items. I also visited the Design Museum which showcases and explains the history behind the simple coffee cups, saucers and other tableware for example – many still sold today.

1933 creamer in the Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Finnish Sauna: Hot Rocks and Steam like No Other

There are saunas, and then there are Finnish saunas. What’s the difference you might ask, considering steam and relaxation are all part of the process? The answer is tradition, national pride and benefits to one’s health. “My grandfather was completely convinced that any ailments or diseases he was suffering from could be cured in the sauna,” says Johansson. “And he was not completely wrong as there’s such a thing as sweating it out.”

Sauna ladles on display in the National Museum of Finland. Photo by Richard Varr

Finnish saunas date back 2,000 years as a means of keeping warm during Scandinavian winters. But they became an integral part of Finnish culture beginning in the 19th century as more of a ritual. The Finns do it in groups: there are sauna sessions on holidays, on Friday nights and more. “For just about every celebration, there’s the ritual of going to the sauna,” says Johansson. For Finland’s 5.5 million inhabitants, there are 3.3 million saunas – one sauna for every one or two residents. Even Helsinki’s SkyWheel has the world’s only sauna gondola. “Sauna is an important sort of rite of passage,” she adds.

SkyWheel, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

Hotel Katajanokka, Helsinki – A Former Prison Now a Hotel

Photo by Richard Varr

I stayed four nights in one of Helsinki’s most unique hotels with an interesting history. That’s because the hotel was once a prison with guest rooms renovated from former prison cells, some with obvious lower doorways, and hallways and stairwells that were clearly constructed for a prison setting.

Photo by Richard Varr

Original jail cell inside the hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Now a Tribute Portfolio Hotel by Marriott, it’s also a museum of sorts. On the bottom floor just down the hall from the hotel’s Linnankellari Restaurant, which serves Nordic dishes with a Finnish-Scandi accent, is an actual prison cell that was not refurbished. Upstairs is Helsinki’s second oldest chapel which is now a hotel function room. According to the hotel’s website, the oldest part of the building dates back to 1837, with the main building back to 1888. Closed in 2002, the former prison was reopened in 2007 as a hotel and was further refurbished in 2017.

Courtyard. Photo by Richard Varr

The hotel is surrounded by a high brick wall and the inner courtyard, where prisoners once enjoyed moments of sunshine, is now a delightful green space with the hotel’s outdoor café. As for location, the hotel is just a 10-minute walk from central Helsinki and the tram stops just outside the brick wall. I highly recommend considering it for your next Helsinki visit!

For more information: https://www.hotelkatajanokka.fi/en/

Old Town Tallinn: A Medieval Playground

Old Town Tallinn from atop the City Hall Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Viru Gates at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Yes, Tallinn is a medieval playground of sorts because with cobbled streets, stone towers and more than 600 year-old churches and town gates, it’s like walking in an open air museum. It’s one of the most memorable and well-preserved European old towns that I have visited in recent years.

Niguliste Church. Photo by Richard Varr

The stone walls of St. Catherine’s Passageway. Photo by Richard Varr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Must see places include the 15th century Niguliste Church with its Danse Macabre or Dancing with Death frieze; the twin stone towers of the Viru Gate, especially when illuminated at night; and the cobbled St. Catherine’s passageway, a narrow alleyway seemingly from 13th century Tallinn, and now home to artisan and craft shops. The so-called Three Sisters consists of three adjoining medieval merchants houses.

Three Sisters medieval homes. Photo by Richard Varr

Town Hall at night. Photo by Richard Varr

And in the Toompea District or Upper Town, the Kiek-in-de-Kök meaning “peek in the kitchen” was one of northern Europe’s strongest cannon towers in the 16th century. Now housing Tallinn’s history museum, its name stems from the belief that soldiers could actually see into people’s kitchens when looking down onto Old Town below.

Kiek-in-de-Kök tower behind the town wall. Photo by Richard Varr

“Normal Estonians would probably know the former KGB headquarters in Old Town,” says Tallinn tour guide Jaan-Laur Tähepõld. “But for me, I see medieval houses, citizens and craftsman, horse carriages and dirt streets because they hadn’t been cobbled yet. It makes me glad to live in a modern time because it was difficult back then, to fight for your life every day.”

Town Hall Square. Photo by Richard Varr

Tallinn from Above: A New Perspective on Old Town’s Medieval Glory

It didn’t take long to really appreciate the many aerial views of Old Town Tallinn – the faded red roofs, stone church towers, winding streets and courtyards. In fact, Tallinn has maybe a half dozen such places to see the medieval Old Town from above.

View of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral from atop St. Mary’s Cathedral in Toompea. Photo by Richard Varr

Yet getting to those viewpoints surely involves a bit of huffing and puffing. For example, I climbed the 115 twisting and uneven steps up the narrowing tower in the 15th century Town Hall. As I neared the top, the stone stairwell’s steps became higher with the walls inching closer every step of the way. But the view at the top was worth every grunt.

Town Hall Square from atop Town Hall Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

After my ascent up Toompea Hill, also known as Upper Town, I also climbed the 140 stone steps up St. Mary’s church tower and was again rewarded with stunning views of the Neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the faded pink façade of Toompea Castle. Toompea also has two hillside lookouts directly over Old Town, where I clearly traced the medieval streets lined with muted Baroque green and faded ochre hues on facades of Old Town homes.

View from a Toompea lookout. Photo by Richard Varr

Another view from a Toompea lookout. Photo by Richard Varr

Tour guide Tähepõld recalls his thoughts about the view from St. Olav’s Church (which was closed for renovations during my visit): “I’ve seen it on the ground a thousand times, and have seen houses from the inside and have been to courtyards. But from up there, it was breathtaking and amazing to see terraces on the roof, some with a garden or a beautiful balcony.”

Old Town Street. Photo by Richard Varr

The Power of Song: Estonians Singing Their Way to Freedom

Communism may have outlawed freedom of speech, travel and the right to protest, but it couldn’t stop Estonian pride and nationalism expressed through song. That’s because thousands gathered to do it. Leading up to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Estonians came together to sing their way to freedom. “This tradition survived the Soviet occupation with the songs about Lenin and Stalin that we had to sing, but to also sing the songs we like and love, when Estonians were still free,” recalls Tähepõld. “We came together in the 80s when Estonians started singing songs that weren’t really allowed and they spontaneously started singing Estonian hymns during the festivals.  The Soviets didn’t know what to do with people who sing,” he adds.

The tradition actually began in the 1800s during the many years of Russian occupation. Today, singing festivals are held every five years in Tallinn’s outdoor amphitheater known as the Song Festival Grounds, where 100,000-plus continue to celebrate their cultural identity through song. Similar singing movements for freedom took place in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, where at one point a chain of singers joined by hand in 1989 stretched 360 miles to form the “Baltic Chain,” from Tallinn to Vilnius.

 

Riga, Latvia: From Medieval Old Town to the Freedom Monument

And, reminders of Soviet times…

Old Town view from atop St. Peter’s Church. Photo by Richard Varr

House of Blackheads and adjacent Schwab House. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town Riga has many memorable and well preserved medieval buildings, cobbled squares and churches – a few with stunning views from atop their stone towers. Old Town is home to some of Riga’s best museums, including a fine arts museum and the impressive Museum of History and Navigation with an extensive collection of artifacts, paintings and documents.

Powder Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Swedish Gate. Photo by Richard Varr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Swedish Gate from 1698 is the only remaining stone portal of eight that once allowed entry into the walled city, and the 1650 cylindrical Powder Tower now houses the Latvian War Museum.  During summer evenings, Old Town restaurants come to life with people cramming outdoor cafes that serve both traditional and eclectic cuisine.

Old Town street with cafes and restaurants. Photo by Richard Varr

House of Blackheads and Schwab House. Photo by Richard Varr

House of Blackheads. Photo by Richard Varr

Yet amidst the medieval infrastructure, reminders remain of the city’s World War II destruction and subsequent Soviet occupation. One clear example of this juxtaposition is perhaps the city’s most noted pair of architectural marvels: the 16th century Dutch-gable Renaissance-styled House of Blackheads, named for a medieval merchants guild, and adjacent Schwab House. The buildings were finally reconstructed in 1999 after bombing during the war. And in the adjacent square, the stoic Latvian Riflemen Monument pays tribute to soldiers supporting the 1917 Russian Revolution, but is seen by many today as a reminder of Soviet oppression.

Latvian Riflemen Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

‘Stalin’s Birthday Cake’ building in the distance. Photo by Richard Varr

On the outskirts of the Old Town lies the so-called Moscow Suburb, now home to the Riga Ghetto Museum and Riga’s Soviet-style skyscraper referred to as “Stalin’s Birthday Cake,” similar to Moscow’s Seven Sisters buildings with their layered top levels and pointed spires. And next to a leafy park and peaceful canal, the 42-meter Freedom Monument built in 1935 is a symbol of Latvian independence. Yet during the Soviet era, people were forbidden to place flowers at its base.

Peaceful canal view just outside the Old Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Freedom Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

Riga’s Art Nouveau Architecture

Art Nouveau architecture. Photo by Richard Varr

Art Nouveau architecture. Photo by Richard Varr

Goddess-like figurines stand atop curved arches next to elaborate carvings of faces and other decorations adorning building facades, doorways and portals. On some buildings, such carved decorations stretch all the way up to the roof. Others have stern figures seemingly supporting balconies with castle emblems and flower petals adorning the tops of windows. This grand Art Nouveau architecture began at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and it seemingly exploded with growth in Riga.

 

 

Art Nouveau architecture in Old Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Today, it’s found in many neighborhoods with some streets in particular showcasing beautiful designs – enough so that they are recognized by UNESCO as the most extensive such display worldwide. Examples are also found in Old Town.

Art Nouveau architecture. Photo by Richard Varr

Petoskey, Michigan: On the Shores of a Great Lake

Hemingway statue, Petoskey. Photo by Richard Varr

Following the Footsteps of a Young Hemingway

With views of Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay, Petoskey is an upscale and scenic town with a rich history. It’s named after the 19th century Odawa Indian Chief Ignatius Petoskey, originally Petosega, born to a French fur trader and Ojibwa Indian mother. His statue – looking ironically European – centers a small square opposite the 1899 Stafford Perry Hotel.

Petoskey Statue. Photo by Richard Varr

Walloon Lake. Photo by Richard Varr

The history in which I’m most interested is that Petoskey and surrounding areas were once the old stomping grounds of a young Ernest Hemingway, where the famous American writer spent his summers after his parents built a cottage on nearby Walloon Lake. While in the town center, I take a self-guided tour of several of Petoskey’s more than century-old buildings that Hemingway would recognize today.

Hemingway statue. Photo by Richard Varr

I start my tour on the town center’s stretch of green space with a stern-faced bronze statue of the writer modeled from an old photograph. “It’s Hemingway waiting for a train to take him to his first writing assignment,” explains Peter Fitzsimons of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau. The statue, however, is not an exact representation of the actual photo in the town’s Little Traverse History Museum. “When the photograph was taken, he had a wine bottle in his pocket,” Fitzsimons continues. “In the statue, they replaced it with a book.”

Book instead of a wine bottle. Photo by Richard Varr

Hemingway photo in the City Park Grill. Photo by Richard Varr

Bar inside the City Grill, with Hemingway’s seat second. Photo by Richard Varr

Hemmingway frequented a 1875 billiards hall which is now the City Park Grill, housed in one of Petoskey’s oldest buildings which is just a stone’s throw from his statue. In the 1910s and 1920s, the fledgling writer would jot down ideas for his stories while sitting on the second seat from the end of the century-old, 32-foot mahogany bar.  The bar was once called the Annex, which Hemingway mentions in one of his books with short stories of Nick Adams. The Annex is also mentioned in the author’s short stories, “A Man of the World” and “Killers.”

I follow Hemingway’s footsteps to a home at tree-lined State and Woodland streets where he briefly lived, once known as Potter’s Rooming House. Other buildings Hemingway would recognize today include two former railroad station depots, one now an office plaza and the other housing the history museum; the Perry Hotel, and the stately Carnegie Library building often frequented by Hemingway.

Carnegie Library, Petoskey. Photo by Richard Varr

Stafford Perry Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

A short drive from Petoskey leads to the Oden State Fish Hatchery dating back to the 1920s and still in operation today. The hatchery produces nearly a million brown and rainbow trout every year that help restock inland lakes throughout Michigan. On the grounds is the Visitor Center and a small museum within a re-created 1914-1935 Wolverine train car which depicts how employees once transported and restocked fish across the state.

Oden State Fish Hatchery train car museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Oden State Fish Hatchery. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the shop at Lavender Hill Farm. Photo by Richard Varr

Another unique attraction to the area is Lavender Hill Farm with its 33 acres of fields that grow the purple-tinted delicate flowers from June through August. Stocking its store’s shelves are a myriad of products erupting with fragrant scents in locally made lavender maple syrup, lavender teas, honey, gin, and spa products including soaps and moisturizers, to name just a few. “I think in our area, such a farm is unexpected,” says co-owner Bill Mansfield. “People come here for the water and beaches. The ability to come out and see a farm this large with 13,000 plants is unexpected.”

Lavender Hill Farm. Photo by Richard Varr

“You’re initially lured to lavender because of the fragrance,” he adds. “And then you realize the medicinal and pharmacological benefits, and the anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.”

Lavender plants, Lavender Hill Farm. Photo by Richard Varr

Clock tower, Petoskey Harbor. Photo by Richard Varr

The area is also home to the official Michigan state stone known as Petoskey Stones – shiny, 350-million-year-old fossilized colony coral found along the rocky shore beaches of Little Traverse Bay. “You can tell by the six-sided fossilized coral patterns,” explains Fitzsimons. “When they’re dry they have a chalky look. But when wet, they look like they’re polished so they’re easier to spot.”

Accommodations

Boyne Highlands Resort, Harbor Springs, MI

I spent one night in this comfortable Bavarian-style lodge and resort with its multiple golf courses, ponds and sprawling forested grounds. And in the winter, it’s a colossal ski resort.

https://www.boynehighlands.com/

Stafford Bay View Inn, Petoskey, MI

Stafford Bay View Inn. Photo by Richard Varr

With stunning views of Little Traverse Bay from its old-style porch – especially on cool summer nights – this hotel offers simple yesteryear charm and a wonderful Sunday brunch!

https://www.thebayviewinn.com/

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Here’s a short post on my visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, when taking a detour of sorts on my way back to Detroit from northern Michigan. I’m a fan of U.S. presidential museums and homes, visiting many over the years.

Statue of the 38th President. Photo by Richard Varr

I actually met Gerald Ford when he was president during a summer job as a student. I was working backstage at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, where he came to greet his campaign supporters right after his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Before taking the stage, he was nice enough to stop for a minute and say hello to me and two other colleagues, wishing us luck at the hotel which was previously in the news because of the “Legionnaires’ Disease” outbreak. It was a thrilling moment for me!

Replica Oval Office. Photo by Richard Varr

The museum highlights Ford’s life from childhood and college years as an exceptional student and athlete, attending Yale University Law School and his service in the U.S. Navy. And that of course was followed serving in the U.S. House of Representatives in leadership roles, as Vice President and then President.

U.S. Embassy stairwell. Photo by Richard Varr

Museum highlights include Ford’s statue outside the building, his replica Oval Office, and the actual metal stairwell once atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, used to evacuate the building by helicopter after Ford ended the occupation in Vietnam.

https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/

Grand Rapids. Photo by Richard Varr