Posted in Living in Helsinki

Helsinki Airplane Museum

One of the main advantages of being an expat is having other expat connections. It was one of these wonderful ladies who made me aware of the Airplane Museum in Helsinki, a museum that seems to be little-known, even among locals. Of course, as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to go. Aviation really gets in your blood, and even though it’s been three years since I’ve worked for an airline, the pull is still strong. Plus: Airplanes!!

Getting there

The museum, called the Suomen Ilmailumuseo in Finnish, is located next to the airport. From the train station in Helsinki, you can take either the I or P train (the P train is faster in this direction; I take the I train home), and get off at Aviapolis. Take the exit toward Aviabulevardi and when you eventually make it to the surface, turn right and walk along the Clarion hotel until you can look left and see an airplane on display. Don’t let the fencing fool you, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk through the gate to the museum. It is housed in an old aircraft hanger, after all, so it makes sense that it would be fenced if it used to be part of the airfield.

The Museum

The 10€ entrance fee is totally worth it (children under 7 are free), and I was giddy when I walked into the first exhibition room. I should probably point out that I went twice; once with Little Man, who had a great time running around all the planes and climbing the stairs (which are old air stairs used for boarding planes from the tarmac), and once on my own, so I could actually look at the planes. The hangers may be spacious, but they are packed with aircraft. There are two main rooms, separated by a “family relaxing room” (including a couch, small play area with aviation-themed toys, a tv showing something about flying, and a hot air balloon basket), as well as a decent-sized cafe near the entrance.

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Ready to board his next flight!

It’s recommended, especially in the winter, to wear appropriate clothing as the exhibition halls are not heated. For more information about the museum, click here. Okay, now on to the planes!

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The worlds smallest flying boat

This plane made its first flight on 23 February 1949. It was originally designed by Torolf Eklund as an amphibian with a 28 horse power engine. However, it was found to be under-powered, so a 40 HP engine was installed, the landing gear removed, and it became the worlds smallest flying boat. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of a flying boat!

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Finnish Air Force jet engine

This plane was the first jet engine trainer in the Finnish Air Force (FAF). Nine of these beauties were in use between 1955-65. It was also the first aircraft in Finland with ejection seats. Have you ever thought beyond the ejection? I’m a little disappointed to say that I never did. Until I saw the supplies these planes were stocked with.

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Ejection seat supplies

This was supposedly everything a person would need to survive until rescue after ejecting from an aircraft. Do you think it’s sufficient?

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This one is older than my grandparents!

This little guy was built in 1922, making it the oldest surviving aircraft to be built in Finland. It is classified as a three-seat license built maritime scoutplane. The FAF had 120 of these in use from 1922-36. I can’t imagine fitting three people in here; I stand at least two feet higher than the roof.

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Record breaking!

This is the only Finnish aircraft to have achieved a world’s record. Designed and built by engineer Juhani Heinonen in 1954, he then made a record long distance flight on 10 July 1957. The flight from Madrid to Turku was 2,844 kilometers and took 17 hours 1 minute to complete. This took the world record for a single-engine land plane with a maximum take-off weight of 500 kilos. The record stayed with this aircraft until 1974.

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Convair Metropolitan

I do believe this is the only commercial aircraft in the museum. It was amongst the first three Convair airliners ordered by Aero Ltd in 1951. It was manufactured in San Diego, CA in April 1953, and flown to Finland a month later. Originally built as a 44-seat Conavair 340 type airliner, it was later converted to a 52-seat Convair 440 “Metropolitan” in 1956. This is the longest serving aircraft in the history of Finnair. It flew its last flight on 30 April 1980, after which it was donated to the Finnish Aviation Museum.

But the best part of this plane is that you’re allowed to go inside! There are only a few seats open to be sat in, and you’re not allowed in the cockpit, but it’s super cool to see how much planes have changed over the years!

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Inside the Convair Metropolitan

I think my favorite part was the purple seats. It also still smells faintly of smoke, since smoking on flights was fashionable when this aircraft was in service.

Last but not least:

 

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Two Seat Unarmed Fighter Trainer

I’ve saved this plane for last for a couple of reasons: One, it’s got a pretty fascinating history, and two, anyone notice the swastika painted on the side? Yeah, I’ll get to that.

Firstly, this is the sole surviving aircraft of this type in the world. It was designed and built in the Soviet Union in 1937. The FAF used it from 1941-42. It is also the only remaining plane of the 90 Soviet aircraft captured during the war.

It is NOT, however, the only Finnish plane with a swastika. Finland’s use of the now notorious symbol predates that of Hitler’s Nazis by a good decade. In 1918, the Finnish White Army was fighting a battle against Soviet-backed Red Guards in hopes of establishing an independent Finland. A Swedish count, Eric von Rosen, had a swastika painted on the wings of an aircraft which he donated to the White Army. After the Whites won, the swastika became a symbol of freedom and independence, as well as the official symbol of the Finnish Air Force. This remained the case until after WWII. As you can imagine, not many people were fans of the swastika at that time and, having signed a post-war armistice with the United States and the Soviet Union (and probably a few other countries), Finland agreed to no longer paint the swastika on their military aircraft.

Interestingly, it is still a part of the FAF emblem and can be found on numerous wartime monuments around Helsinki. There is quite a debate about whether or not that should change. (The best article I found on the subject is this one. It freely shows both sides and is very informative.) I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the subject. I for one don’t think it’s a black and white issue.

Questions: Which was your favorite airplane?

What do you think of the Finnish swastika?

 

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Posted in Living in Helsinki

The Hidden WWI Park in Helsinki

In an attempt to get out of the apartment more, now that Little Man is attending daycare three days a week, I’ve been looking for places to explore nearby. While searching Google maps, I stumbled upon a park with a camera icon. I clicked on it and found a hidden treasure. It was labelled in Finnish, so I didn’t know exactly what it was, but the posted photos showed some sort of structure in the park. I told Hubster about it and he (tech wiz that he is) went to the website and discovered that it was a park containing bunkers that were used during WWI. *insert astonished face here* How could there be a park with WWI bunkers this close to us that I’ve never heard of?!

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There were also great opportunities to practice my nature photography

I decided to investigate. As it was a Tuesday, and therefore no daycare for LM, the two of us hopped on the bus and rode about ten minutes. This is where I admit to my embarrassing lack of navigational skills (yet again). Let me share a story with you:

When I was about eight, my brother and I spent the summer in Arizona with my grandma. We had gone to some church camp in the middle of the desert and were staying in an RV. Rather than forcing an 8 and 10 year old to sit through two hours of preaching in the Arizona heat, my grandma let us wander. (I’m still amazed at this fact. I mean, we must have been somewhat responsible.) I followed my brother blindly through the vast openness, happily searching for lizards and other wildlife. After what felt like days, I decided that I wanted to go back to the RV. (I was probably thirsty. Hmm, not responsible enough to bring water.) My brother, likely tired of having to watch his little sister, told me to follow a pipe along the ground and that that would take me back to the campsite. Ha! A likely story. Frightened of dying alone in the desert, I insisted he escort me back. He did so, grudgingly. Covering my eyes with his hands, he walked me goodness only knows where, planted me facing a tree, and ran off. By the time I opened my eyes, he was nowhere to be seen, and I was staring at pine needles. I was just about to start crying when I turned around and saw our RV. I was so mad, I could’ve screamed.

Fast-forward to the day LM and I went in search of this park. GPS had been invented and I no longer needed to persuade my brother to escort me places. Luckily, LM has an adventurous spirit and happily went along as I too-trustingly followed the map on my phone. Oy vey. Suffice it to say, I felt like I was back in Arizona, minus the heat. (And not really afraid of dying alone, seeing as we were in the middle of suburbia.)

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I’m pretty sure the left-hand dot stops in a driveway

Knowing that I was circling the park, but unable to get to it without traipsing through backyards (very possibly that’s perfectly acceptable here, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it), I eventually found a sketchy set of stairs leading into a field. This was our best bet, so, kicking LM out of the stroller, we made our way down and found a path.

Thanks to my fearless sidekick, who doesn’t understand that paths are there to be walked along, we actually found the exact place I was looking for. (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have found it before giving up if it weren’t for this little adventurer.) Aside from having a bit of difficulty pushing the stroller through the forest, we had a great time simply wandering.

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My faithful sidekick

Okay, so what is this place?! Good question. The website Hubster found, this one, from the National Board of Antiquities, was very informative, not to mention lengthy, so I’ll try to give you the short version.

This is part of a defense chain built to protect St. Petersburg from the Germans. The chain consists of land and sea stations around Helsinki (which means there are more of these!) and was devised in the 1910’s when Finland was still part of Russia. The Russian Revolution and ensuing Finnish independence disrupted construction in the fall of 1917. Only two of the fortifications were used during the Finnish Civil War in early 1918, after which, the naval fortresses were taken into use by the armed forces and used as prison camps, also in 1918. The earth and sea fortress structures have since been classified as “fixed ancient monuments” under the Antiquities Act of 1971.

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Natural stone was a main component of the structures

It seems like this area of the defense chain has been all but forgotten. Houses surround it, and even though there was lovely weather both times I visited, it was mostly deserted, with only a dog walker or two passing briefly through. It’s also a bit tricky to photograph as it just looks like a rocky forest area. I did, however, manage to find an actual bunker.

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That’s me! In a WWI bunker!

How cool is that?! My inner history lover was absolutely giddy. I’m still shocked that this park is there and more people don’t know about it. It makes it that much more special if you do visit. It’s like a hidden bit of history, just waiting to be explored.

Little Man and I trekked out the way we came (because I didn’t want to get lost again and I knew I could get the stroller out), and made our way back to the bus stop. I was apparently being incredibly unobservant that day because I didn’t bother to look behind the bus shelter. Do you want to know what was there? Another entrance to the park.

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Maybe not an “entrance”, but certainly access

And yes, that is exactly how I walked into the park on my second visit. It was so much faster!

Question: Are there any hidden gems where you live?

 

 

 

Posted in italy, Travel

Climbing Mt. Etna and Touring Aci Castello

I never really wanted to visit Italy. Sure, I’d seen pictures of the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum, but it seemed so overdone. I mean, who’s been to Italy and hasn’t seen those things? (Answer: Me.) I guess I’ve always been more of the road-less-traveled type. Oh, you’ve already done that? That’s cool, but I’d rather do something different. Something less common.

The fact that we decided to stay in Sicily, rather than mainland Italy, was a big help. One of the first things I came across while planning things to do there was Mt. Etna, an active volcano not far from our lodgings. The more I researched it (and you know I hate research, right?) the more excited I became. You mean I can climb an actual volcano?! Sign me up!!

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The view of Mt. Etna from our rooftop balcony

So, on our last day in Italy (which was also the last day of our vacation), Hubster, Little Man, and I set out to do some light hiking. (Saba and Oma were having a well-deserved rest day and stayed home.) If you recall from my previous post, A Warm Welcome to Greece, I had to do the driving as Hubster had left his license at home. I was more worried about this in Italy than on Crete; the roads were narrower and the drivers much more aggressive. Luckily, the drive up the mountain was an easy one, with wide lanes and hardly any traffic. (Turns out those wide roads are there to accommodate tour buses, many of which were already taking up places at the base of Mt. Etna.) As this is a photographers dream, the multiple pull-outs came in very handy when we wanted to stop and take some pictures. Little Man had fallen asleep on the curvy roads, so Hubster and I took our time getting to the parking lot.

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Wide, easy roads up to Mt. Etna, lined with volcanic rock and ash

I may have grown up around volcanic mountains (Mt Saint Helen in Oregon last erupted in June, 1980 during my parents honeymoon, causing them to evacuate), but I’d never actually seen lasting evidence of an eruption. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the black rock we saw lining the road. This gave off a sort of surreal feel. Everything was black. It was pretty cool to see in person. It made me feel small because it just kept going. Kind of like the ocean, but at the same time, completely opposite. Apparently it’s difficult to explain. Let’s move on.

When we arrived at the base of Etna, we discovered all of the tourists. I knew before going that this was a tourist destination, but it felt like all the tourists on Sicily had converged here. Multiple coach buses, along with endless cars, were taking up the parking spaces. There were pay-to-park spaces, but we hadn’t figured them out and, luckily, managed to find a free parking space along the road. At this point, we had to wake up LM, who was not happy about that, and protested the idea that we should attempt to make him walk. Eventually, we made it to one of the two craters you can trek around for free and began walking. However, we quickly realized that this would take longer than expected, and the going was more difficult than we’d anticipated as we were walking on lava rock. So we decided to turn back (leading to a meltdown from LM) and head instead toward the cable car that would take us to the mountain station.

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View of the craters from the cable car

It was a bit of a wait as there were so many people, but the cable car runs continually which helped move the line along. We payed 30€ per person (LM was free) and thoroughly enjoyed the ten minute ride to the mountain station. Here you will find a large gift shop, a cafe, and a rental place offering coats, boots, and hiking and climbing gear for those brave souls trekking to the summit. The coats are definitely a necessity since the temperature drops drastically at the summit. There was still snow on the ground at the mountain station and the summit is another couple hundred kilometers up! (We were told the summit was -2C when we were there in April.) We had decided before getting there not to go any further since the shortest trek you can do is about 40 minutes and requires a drive up in a jeep. The cost of the jeep didn’t seem worth it with a toddler, so we enjoyed the views from here, grabbed a snack at the cafe, then took the cable car back down.

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The sunny but cold mountain station at Mt. Etna

For all the information to plan a trek around Mt. Etna, check out this super detailed website. They made it incredibly easy for me, and I hate planning. Prices, opening times, and how to get there are all in one place.

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This is the 2nd generation cable car. The first was destroyed by lava flow in 1971

There was exactly one other thing on Sicily that I had honed in on and was determined to see: Aci Castello. It was a castle on the sea. That’s all I really knew about it, but it was a short drive from Etna, so off we went, yet again not really knowing what to expect. It was perfect. One of those gems you find that you could easily skip but are so glad you didn’t.

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Aci Castello

It’s actually a museum. With a reasonable entrance fee of 3€ per person (again, LM went for free), we enjoyed looking at the interesting architecture and lovely sea views. As far as museums go, this one is not very good. They do have some interesting archaeological finds from the sea surrounding the castle, and what was boasted as botanical gardens (which is really just a small garden area), but LM had the best time running up and down through a tunnel, climbing stairs, and looking for birds. It was a great way to spend an hour, and, if you know me, you know I’m a sucker for a castle, so I was happy.

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The clear water surrounding Aci Castello

The only way we were able to tear our little adventurer away from his tunnel was to tempt him with chocolate. (He’s definitely my child.) We had yet to try gelato on this trip, so we stopped by a place called Slurp and gave it a taste. Yes, it really is as good as it’s made out to be. Little Man adored it.

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Enjoying chocolate gelato outside Slurp

A small cup was just the right size, especially when served with a waffle cookie.

After a day of sun, snow, castles, and chocolate, we went home on a sugar high for a relaxing final evening in Italy. LM gifted us an early night, falling asleep by 8:30pm which allowed me to pack. This really was an excellent end to a long, at times exhausting, and fun-filled holiday.

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Aci Castello is narrower than it looks at first glance

Question: What hidden gems have you found while on vacation? What made them so great?

Posted in Life, Living in Helsinki

What I’ve Learned from 2+ Years of Expat Life in Finland

Two and a half years ago, Hubster, Little Man, and I packed up our lives and flew to the other side of the globe. I’d never set foot in Finland prior to arriving here as an expat. To do so with a four month old baby and two dogs might seem a bit crazy, and, looking back, it was. But it’s also been incredibly educational, not to mention a wild ride! Here are some things I’ve learned from life as an expat:

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Moving day, 2016!

You’re going to miss out on things “back home”

Marriages, babies, and all the other fun life events happen, whether or not you’re there to help celebrate. And that hurts. Sometimes you can see it coming. Sometimes it’s like a sucker punch that takes your breath away. It’s even harder when you want to be happy for someone but you can’t help feeling left out. Imagine seeing pictures of your entire family at one event without you. All you can really focus on is the blank space in the photo where you know you’d be standing. That gaping hole no one else seems to notice. Ouch, right? That’s the worst part about expat life. I haven’t found any way around it, so I bite my tongue when I feel a snide remark coming on, and try to let it pass. Because truly, I am happy for my friends and family. And I know, given the chance, they’d want me to be there too.

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And when you do make it back, you’re overwhelmed with joy

True friends stick around

It’s hard to leave a place where you have good friends. Sure, you can (and should!) make new friends, but some people have known you so long, you can’t tell a story without them already knowing it (or being in it), and you just can’t replace that. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve kept most of my friends from the States. And it truly is states, plural, as Hubster and I moved from Oregon to Wisconsin a year after we married. Eight years there, and we’d dug our heels in pretty well. I figured if my friends in Oregon kept in touch over those eight years, moving to Finland wouldn’t be an issue. And it hasn’t been. Two of my Wisconsin friends have actually flown out to visit, so talk about being invested! Let’s not leave out Colorado in this list. Hubster grew up there and had/has an amazing group of friends in the mile high city. (I think I actually keep in touch with them more than he does. Thank you, Snapchat!) It might sound time consuming to keep in touch with so many distant people, but it varies person to person. Some people I talk to almost everyday, others get a text once a month. Honestly, I’m glad they put in any amount of effort; even a little bit goes a long way when you’re thousands of miles apart.

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Besties since we were 12, living in different states since 18

You become more of your true self

This was quite an interesting lesson, and one I didn’t realize I was learning. When Hubster and I first got married, my dad told me that the best advice he’d gotten was to move a thousand miles away from your family. Not being the type to do things halfway, we moved two thousand miles away. Then, we more than doubled that distance to move to Finland. When you can’t physically spend time with your family, you no longer pick up their habits. Sure, some things are ingrained in who you are, but adaptation can occur organically, and without your notice. I’ve picked up habits, mannerisms, and words that my family have never used and find quite strange. I caught myself just the other day referring to a popsicle as an “ice lolly”. I’ve left my sleeping child in his pram (stroller?) outside restaurants without a second thought. I now know to always weigh my produce at the grocery store. These are things that never would have crossed my mind had I stayed in the US.

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Just napping outside the restaurant

On the parenting front, this forced me to find what was important to me, and also highlighted my parenting style. I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by judgy moms (it was a real fear before LM was born) because the expat friends I made also had foreign customs they were adhering to. I felt supported in my decision to buck certain Finnish parenting standards (like always having your child nap outside) and went with the flow of what worked for my son and I. (And Hubster, because he’s here too.) That’s not to say that everything worked, but I felt more free to pick and choose from a much wider variety of options than I would’ve had Stateside.

Loving the pink sand beach in Crete, Greece

It does get easier

Thank goodness, right? Those first days, and even weeks, in Finland were new and exciting and I definitely viewed everything through rose tinted glasses. I was living in Europe! I was surrounded by a foreign culture! I could walk outside and hear a multitude of languages! It was everything I’d always dreamed of. And then…it wasn’t. All those exciting things turned into frustrations: this was a culture I didn’t know and wasn’t sure I could navigate. I didn’t actually understand any of those other languages, so where did that get me? (Okay, the living in Europe part never bothered me.) There were days when I’d come home from the grocery store and cry tears of frustration because nothing went right. Yet, somehow, I made it through. I was lucky enough to know another expat (living in a different country) and I can’t remember how many times I texted her telling her about what a crap day I was having. She would always respond by saying she knew exactly how I felt, and would usually share a frustrating/funny story of her own. That one connection made everything seem manageable. Knowing that I wasn’t alone made all the difference. Eventually, mostly through mom meetups, I found other expats, also with babies, and we bonded. On so many levels. It’s one thing to be a first time mom, but to do that in a foreign country really compounds so many feelings. Those ladies became my main support system and now, almost three years later, I’m so glad they did.

Mom night dinners are a sanity-saver for all

I would do it all again in a heartbeat

As exasperating as some days have been (and let me tell you, I’ve had some doozies), nothing widens your perspective like living in a foreign country. You not only get to fully experience another culture, you get to see the world from a different angle. I don’t have the words to properly explain it, but I did stumble on a quote by Mark Twain that really resonated with me: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” It’s just so true.

Teaching LM all the ups and downs of travel

So, if you’ve ever thought about moving abroad, or even traveling somewhere new (and you find that a little scary), take the leap. I promise, you will be better for it.

If you’d like to hear more about expat life in other countries, check out the Big Dreams Bold Moves pod cast here. You can also hear my take on it verbally as I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Malia.

Keep adventuring!

Posted in Within Finland

Turku Castle

If you thought we were capable of sitting still, you’d be mistaken. Two weekends after coming home from our two week whirlwind trip, we took a train to Turku. (The only reason it was two weekends is because last minute train tickets for a Sunday were almost twice the price as the following Saturday.) Nevertheless, we boarded the “big train” at the station ten minutes from our apartment (it has two levels and therefore looks pretty massive compared to the regular commuter trains). We had booked seats in the family compartment for no extra cost and were able to stretch out a bit more than in regular seats. (This compartment has four standard seats, luggage racks, coat hooks, and electrical outlets. There are also two little stools for kids next to a play table, but I’m not sure there’s a limit to the number of kids allowed; they don’t need a ticket until the age of 7 and don’t show up in the booking.) Plus, Little Man had more room to play. The family compartment is also located just below the play area, so we could easily climb the stairs to the slide.

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Coffee in the family compartment on the train

Less than two hours later (and only four stops!) we arrived in Turku. We attempted a visit to the cathedral, but that was an absolute disaster. Entrance to the cathedral is free, and it looks stunning, but LM was having none of it. Silence was requested at the time we visited due to the choir practice taking place, but “silent” is a skill that LM has yet to master. After a total scream-fest while we bundled him in his outer gear (it had started snowing while we were inside), we finally managed to get outside and start walking toward the castle. Not long after we started walking, Little Man dozed off. Wanting to let him sleep, and not willing to risk another tantrum, Hubster and I decided to stop for lunch. We found a restaurant along the waterfront, and totally lucked out: There was a window seat available so we could park the pram outside and keep an eye on LM while he slept. (Leaving a sleeping child outside in a pram is such a Scandinavian/European thing to do! I still get a little worried, but it’s so normal here that no one thinks twice about it.)

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One of the only ways to eat in peace these days

The food was delicious, if a bit pricey and…unique. I think we stumbled upon a higher end place without realizing it. I saw pizza on the menu and didn’t look much closer. Have you ever had strawberries on a pizza?! I hadn’t either, but it was surprisingly tasty.

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Strawberry and goat cheese pizza at Nerå

If you’re ever in Turku, I highly recommend Nerå. Quite aside from the food, the cocktails are yummy, and the service is excellent.

Little Man woke up and saved me from a slice of mouthwatering chocolate cake. (Had he slept for another five minutes, he could’ve had some!) We finished eating and proceeded to walk the remaining ten minutes to the castle. As it was only a little after one in the afternoon, we planned to see the castle, then head to the maritime museum. Little did we know, the castle is HUGE. It took us two and a half hours to walk through the entire thing. At 12€ per person (and free entrance for Little Man), it was totally worth it.

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Main Castle

A Little History

Construction on the castle began in the 1280’s. It was originally on an island, situated in an estuary of the River Aura. In the 1500’s, land uplift caused the island to expand and eventually connect to the mainland. Throughout the Middle Ages, the castle grew into a magnificent stone structure that guarded the sea route into Turku. Today, you can still visit the dimly lit rooms from the Middle Ages, located on the lowest levels of the castle.

The castle continued to expand throughout the Renaissance in the 1500’s. This can be observed in the bright, spacious rooms on the castle’s topmost floors. During this time, fortifications around the castle grew into the bailey. The bailey was used in the 1600’s as the Governor-General’s office and the center of regional administration. Later, it served as a prison up until 1891. Currently, the bailey houses exhibitions on the history of the castle, the Children’s Castle, and model rooms decorated to represent different eras.

The Tour

Okay, cool. But what does that all look like? Lucky for you, I took pictures.

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Model of Turku Castle

This model shows the castle in its current state. The outermost section is the bailey, with the rounded bit being the prison. As you walk through the castle, that’s the last part you tour. At that point you’re astonished that there’s still more to see.

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Middle Ages room

The majority of the castles rooms are empty and look a lot like this one. This is one of the older rooms, but to go further back in time, you have to go to the lower levels. Unfortunately, the lighting there is quite poor (as you can imagine) and photos don’t turn out so well.

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Model of original Middle Ages castle

I love it when museums have models! I like seeing the whole picture, but oftentimes that’s hard to do when the building is so large. This is what the original castle looked like. This particular room had models of the different times of construction, even including the seasons!

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The castle during the Renaissance

As is the case with most castles, the rooms were large and there were many staircases. Little Man had fun running around, but he was not in a mood to stand still or wait, so I was unable to read (any of) the plaques explaining what things were. According to Hubster though, most of the rooms did not have an explanation, which was a bit of a bummer when you want to know which era a particular room is representing.

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Sitting Room

Unbeknownst to me, the map I was handed upon purchasing our tickets had all the explanations. Now it is not quite so useful as many of these rooms are listed simply as “Regency”. Still, it was fun to see how they could have been decorated at different periods in history.

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Kitchen from the 17th Century

It was like walking back in time, which is my absolute favorite thing to do.

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Gustavian Dining Room

I particularly enjoy the various outfits of the times.

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Music Room

It wouldn’t be a museum in Finland if there wasn’t a part for children! They did an excellent job of including their younger visitors in the fun. There are interactive exhibits in the bailey and I believe there’s also a day when children can dress up as knights. Little Man didn’t stop long here, however. Apparently he was in a hurry to see the prison.

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Model of the castle yard in the childrens area

I think we walked every inch of this castle. Some more than once, as LM ran back and forth as Hubster and I tried to take turns looking at things. There’s an exhibition of the full history, excavation, and renovation of the castle, but we were unable to stop long enough to see it. Needless to say, you can easily spend the day exploring the castle.

Once out in the sunlight again (it had stopped snowing and was now sunny, if a bit chilly; welcome to spring in Finland!), we checked out the rest of the courtyard. There wasn’t much besides cobblestones, but the facade had been neatly painted.

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Impressive, even from the courtyard

Since there was not enough time to go anywhere else before we needed to catch the train home, Hubster found the quickest route back to the station. There’s a bus stop right outside the castles main entrance, and after figuring out how to buy a ticket on his phone (3€ for a single ticket; I went free with LM and the stroller), we waited about five minutes before boarding the bus to the city center. Turku is such a lovely city! Even on a sunny spring Saturday, the main shopping street was hardly crowded, there’s a plethora of restaurants, and it had a nice, relaxed vibe. Much slower paced than the bustle of Helsinki.

The train ride home was much like the ride there; although we had seats in the family compartment again, LM spent the majority of the ride playing on the slide in the children’s area. It’s a nice way to pass an hour and a half and soon enough, we were home, already longing to return to the calm of Turku.

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Courtyard balcony

Question: What’s your favorite thing about castles?

Posted in italy, Travel

Welcome to Sicily

Every trip we take is an opportunity to check something off of my “I’ve always wanted to do that!” list. (This list is updated every time I find something new and exciting that I want to do/see.) So far this trip we’d checked off the following:

  • Go to Greece
  • See the pink sand beach (Elafonisi)
  • Visit the Parthenon
  • Go to Malta
  • Try pizza in every country I visit
  • Also try coffee in every country (it’s surprisingly different!)

Not too bad for just over one week! Next up was flying on Ryanair. I know, I know, it’s a silly thing to put on that list, but I was so disappointed when we had to cancel our Ryanair flight from Barcelona to Palma de Majorca two January’s ago, mostly because we ended up skipping Majorca all together. Major bummer! (Find out why in Cava, Paella, and…seriously?)

As it was time to move on from Malta to Italy, however, Ryanair had the cheapest flights and one that worked with our schedule. (Saba and Hubster seriously scouted ferries, but the times were awful. Like having to arrive at the dock two hours before a four am ferry. Not with a toddler, crazy people! So we flew.) We did run into a snafu with the boarding passes; not being EU citizens, we were unable to obtain mobile passes and were required to print them. You know, on paper. Well, Ryanair charges 25€ PER PERSON to have them printed at the check in desk. And no, you can’t do this at a kiosk. Not willing to shell out 125€ for the five of us, we went through quite a bit of stress trying to find a printer to use. (Okay, Hubster and Saba shouldered the stress, I went to find souvenirs.) In the end, our Airbnb hostess saved the day.

With that settled, we loaded our bags in the back of a taxi and piled in for the ride to the airport, slightly illegally as Little Man was perched on my lap. (I think it’s interesting how I’ve become more lax about the need for a car seat in certain situations. When he was first born, I would’ve told you that he’d never ride in a car without a properly installed child seat. Now it doesn’t seem to be an issue, at least for short rides while on vacation.)

We made our way directly to the gate for the 25 minute flight to Catania, Sicily. (I think boarding took longer than the entire flight.) I was in stitches when I saw the safety card was printed on the back of the seats and there were no seat back pockets. I knew Ryanair was a budget airline, but still! Where was I supposed to put my phone?! That being said, the plane was very clean, and the flight attendants were some of the friendliest I’ve had.

EasyJet planes at the Malta airport

As we had carried everything on the plane (which we almost always try to do), we were able to walk straight from the gate to the rental car pick up. When we finally got to the car, we struggled to install the car seat. I’m not convinced we ever actually figured it out, but it worked well enough for the week. Finally, we were off! We drove straight to the Airbnb, an amazing apartment with a separate guest house and rooftop terrace. LM fell asleep on the drive, and was able to get a decent nap.

View of Mt. Etna from the rooftop terrace

After asking all the relevant questions of our host and getting settled in, we walked to a nearby grocery store to pick up some essentials, as well as dinner items. And wine. We were in Italy, after all. We had a quiet night in and planned our trip to Taormina for the next day.

Taormina

We drove the winding seaside roads to Taormina, opting for the views over the tolls. The drive took about an hour and we parked in a garage in downtown. Rather than take the eight thousand stairs up to the historic city center, we took a free bus provided by the car park. The ride took about ten minutes. Admiring the adorable streets, we checked out a couple restaurants before deciding on one with outdoor seating for lunch. Pizza and wine was just the ticket to fuel us up.

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Prosciutto, tomato, and arugula pizza

We had a grand time exploring this beautiful town, especially admiring the pure Italian-ness of the alleys. Everything was very picturesque. Little Man was in his element, running around the pedestrian street and chasing pigeons.

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I love this little courtyard!

Eventually, we made our way to the Funivia, or cable car, that takes you down to the beach area of Mazzaro. Four cars run every 15 minutes, so the wait wasn’t long. A one way trip is 3€ with no discount for a round trip. LM was under the required height, so he traveled for free. (For full prices and opening hours, check here.)

Not having any plans to go swimming (I think it was mostly British tourists daring the cold of the water) we took turns relaxing in the sun and keeping LM  out of the water. He very much enjoyed throwing pebbles into the sea and watching the resulting splash.

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Throwing stones with Saba

We spent about an hour this way, before heading back to the cable car. On the ride up, there was an older couple in the cab with us. I was doing something on my phone when I heard the lady say “kissa”. My ears perked up, knowing this word, and I asked (in Finnish!) if they spoke Finnish. (Silly question, really, as “kissa” is Finnish for cat. LM was carrying his stuffed cat with him, as usual.) We had a short conversation, using up most of my foreign language skills, before switching to English. I was so proud of myself! It’s somehow so much easier to speak Finnish when I’m not in Finland. Maybe because I know the person is not likely expecting to speak their native language when traveling. It was pretty cool to meet (and talk to!) Finn’s while exploring Italy.

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View from the pedestrian street

Back in the downtown area, we walked around a bit more, enjoying views of the ocean, and even popping into a small church for a peek. (My mom loved going in churches while she was visiting us in Helsinki, so I really wanted to get a picture inside an Italian church for her.)

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An Italian church!

On the way back to the car park, we took the giant staircase down. LM was super excited about this, while I was impressed he was still awake. I lost count, but I don’t think it was even 300 stairs. Definitely better to go down than up though. Having taken the scenic route there, we decided to check out the tollway on the drive home. It was a grand total of 1.70€ and totally worth it. The scenic route was moderately curvy, but rather narrow in parts; the tollway was much straighter and hardly had any traffic.

As was our modus operandi on this trip, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up dinner. (We went to so many different grocery stores! From a tiny corner market with only the essentials, to a massive two-story hypermarket that had more than I could possibly need.) Even though we had a relaxed evening, we decided to have a down day on Wednesday. LM definitely needed it; he took a two hour nap, the first one in a bed this entire trip! As we didn’t do anything all day (seriously, nothing), we splurged and went out to dinner.

Nannetti

Nannetti is a highly rated restaurant two doors down from where we stayed in Catania. This fit perfectly with our down day vibe. Being Italy, they didn’t open for dinner until 8 pm and it was a slooooww meal. Delicious, but if you’re impatient, this is not the place for you. Our waiter was incredibly helpful, translating the menu, and listing vegetarian and vegan options for Saba and Oma. I, of course, channeled my inner coasty and went with the seafood pasta. (I’ve never met a clam I didn’t want to eat.)

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Seafood pasta and white wine

As much as I love these shelled critters, I was a bit daunted by having to pick every single one out of the shell. I mean, that’s a lot of clams! But they were so good. The seafood was  fresh caught that day and displayed in a case as you entered the restaurant.

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Seafood display at Nannetti

We walked the three minutes home after finishing our meal, all of us ready for bed as it was almost 10 pm. Thursday would be another busy day and we wanted to be ready.

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Mazzaro beachfront

Question: What’s the coolest cable car you’ve been on?

 

 

 

Posted in Malta, Travel

The Blue Grotto and Gozo

Malta is, as you all know by now, an island. (It’s actually three islands, but we’ll get to that later.) That being said, no trip here would be complete without going on a boat ride. And what better place to be on a boat than the Blue Grotto? Therefore, Saturday morning, we could be found waiting for (yet another) bus. This time, we caught it just down the road from our apartment. Even though we flagged the bus coming toward us, it didn’t stop. Thinking maybe it was the wrong one, we waited for the next one to come around. This one stopped and, upon boarding, we realized the first bus was probably too full to pick up more passengers; this one too, was quite crowded. Hubster managed to get a seat with Little Man, Saba and Oma disappeared into the depths of people, and I stayed at the front of the bus, where there was just enough room for the folded stroller to be stashed at my feet. Oh, this would be a fun hour. (I feel like every bus ride we went on took an hour.)

I seem to have sufficiently blocked this particular ride from my memory as the next thing I recall, we were disgorging from the bus at the top of a hill. (No, wait, I do remember some pretty insane downhill switch backs. Great views, terrifying journey.) Anywho, after disembarking, we had to trek quite a ways downhill to get to the dock.

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View from the cliff-side near the Blue Grotto

Of course, it started to rain just as we reached the bottom of the hill. The boats don’t run if the weather is bad (they actually go into the caves, and it’s not safe if the water is too rough) so we decided to ask the ticket lady if they would be running that day. She said they were, but we decided to wait out the rain as the boats aren’t covered. It was the perfect time for lunch, so we snagged seats at the restaurant situated just above the docks, where we had a nice meal. The rain cleared up right before we finished, and, full and happy, we made our way back to the boats.

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Boat to the Blue Grotto; only the captain is covered

Upon spotting the prices (8€ for adults, 4€ for children 3-10) Hubster pointed out that maybe kids under three weren’t allowed to go. We couldn’t very well ask, and alert the ticket booth lady to Little Man’s real age, so we decided to pay for him. (He was one month shy of turning three at the time, and is tall for his age.) Tickets in hand, we made our way to the line of boats, where we were directed to climb in to one where another family of three was already seated. Expecting to be told to put on the life vests hanging on the side of the boat, I was rather surprised when the captain took off without a word. (We were legit the only people not wearing life vests. Note the picture above.) The water was choppy, but not too bad as we set out.

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On our way to the caves!

It was a short ride to the first cave, and I think we were all in awe. Each cave has a name, and specific characteristics, that set it apart from the others. This one had a high ceiling and was quite long. Another had a ceiling that looked perfectly domed at the top. Some had purple and orange coral growing along the waterline, others had particularly blue water, and one had a white sand bottom. The water is so clear that you can see up to depths of 6-12 meters (~20-39 feet).

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Entrance to one of the caves at the Blue Grotto

We went in and out of about five caves, the captain expertly maneuvering the little boat as the water became choppier. Hubster was on picture duty while I maintained a death grip on Little Man who, luckily, was content to sit still and enjoy the ride, until we safely returned to the dock. (He definitely had fun riding the four foot swells on the way back in!) Tipping the captain is not expected, and ours seemed rather surprised when we handed him 3€ in coins. He did such a wonderful job, I would’ve been happy giving him more, had it been easily accessible. (Saba is not a fan of all the coinage that comes along with the Euro, and was constantly trying to get rid of it. It was not uncommon, at the end of the day, for me to have 10€ in coins in my wallet.)

For the bus ride back to Valletta, we didn’t have to hike all the way back up the hill, but caught the bus closer to the restaurant. Good thing we found out about that stop, as it was pretty crowded getting on there. I actually saw a lady walk past this stop and get on at the next one. I’m pretty sure she didn’t get a seat because the bus was full. The driver intermittently told people standing in the aisle to “move back” to make room.  After about three stops, he’d tell people “no more, bus is full” and two or three people would still manage to squeeze on. (I got to see all of this from my seat at the front.)

A rather terrifying 50 minutes later, we disembarked in Valletta, where we took the ferry to the Three Cities. It was a poorly planned venture and I don’t think any of us had a very good time. The ferry docks between Senglea and Birgu, and we should’ve walked more toward the tip of the Birgu peninsula instead of inland, like we did. After an hour or so of wandering fairly pointlessly, we made our way back to the ferry for an early evening in. I think we were all happy to be able to relax after a taxing day.

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The facades of Malta

Sunday we took a day trip to Gozo. (Reading this now, I feel like everyday was a day trip.) Gozo is the second largest island in Malta and SO fabulous. The bus went via the airport, and I’ll give you one guess as to how long it took. That’s right: an hour! We didn’t have long to wait for the Gozo ferry, thank goodness. The lobby was crowded and the epitome of what it was like to wait for any form of transportation in Malta. We couldn’t find where to pay because, interestingly, you buy your ticket in Gozo before you board the return ferry. (Round trip is 4.65€.) The trip took 20 minutes and after disembarking, we hopped on a bus to the Ggantija Temples. Hubster and I bought a Family Sunday Ticket for a total of 18€; this included entrance to any three of 20 museums for two adults and two children aged 6-11 years. (It was cheaper than buying two adult tickets, which Saba and Oma got stuck doing as they didn’t have a child tagging along.)

The Ggantija Temples are a megalithic temple complex from the Neolithic period. Honestly, I don’t know what that means, but they’re older than the pyramids of Egypt, so I wanted to see them. There’s a really cool museum that you walk through before getting to the temples, which showcases artifacts that have been found there, and includes some hands-on things for kids. As much as Little Man can be a pain in museums, I recommend this one for families.

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Sculptures at the Ggantija Temples Museum

When we had finished exploring both rooms (perhaps that’s why I liked this museum so much; it was small but packed with information while not being overwhelming), we headed outside toward the temples. This is when Little Man tripped and landed face first on the pavement. He had a scar on his forehead for the rest of our trip (great for photos!).

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Ggantija Temples

Full discolsure: I am kicking myself for not getting a larger picture of the temples. I can’t believe I only got close ups! I mean, if you’re not into history, it’s a pile of rocks. But these rocks were piled in 3600 BC. Pretty impressive when you think about that. (Not that you can see it from my photos.)

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“Historical graffiti” on the temple stones

This was one of the coolest things we saw on this trip. As for history, it’s definitely the oldest structure I’ve ever seen. If you visit Malta, this is pretty much a must (as is the Hypogeum, but since we couldn’t get tickets, I don’t want to talk about that).

From there, we walked to the Ta’Kola Windmill, which was also included in our ticket. This is one of the few surviving windmills on the Maltese islands that dates back to the Knights Period. It was built in 1725 but dismantled and reconstructed in the 1780’s.

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Model of the Ta’Kola Windmill

The museum consists of a workshop area on the ground floor, living quarters of the miller in the middle, and the actual mill area at the top. The staircase to the mill was incredibly narrow and worn. Little Man had qualms about going all the way up, and he’s usually fearless. (Granted, he also had a hanger meltdown, so he wasn’t exactly himself.)

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Living quarters in the Ta’Kola Windmill

While supplying Little Man with every possible snack I had available, we waited for a bus to take us back to Victoria. We happened upon a cute little cafe called Coffee Break, near the bus station and decided to stop for lunch. The sidewalk seating was crowded so we opted for an indoor table. Again, luck was on our side as it started to rain not long after we sat down. We had a delightful meal and I had the best coffee I’ve had in years. Seriously. Apparently Finland has changed my taste in coffee. All the lattes I’d had on this trip so far had tasted watered down. When I saw that Coffee Break offered flavored cappuccinos, I jumped on that opportunity. (I had always thought that cappuccinos were too strong.) The amaretto cappuccino was everything I hadn’t realized I’d been missing. I ordered two.

Now that we were fed, caffeinated, and the rain had stopped, we made our way to the Cittadella. This structure was first built in the 1500’s and now houses the baroque cathedral of Gozo, along with multiple museums, including the Cathedral Museum, the Museum of Archaeology, the Folklore Museum, the Old Prison, and the WWII Shelter, among others. It’s a fascinating place to wander. Unfortunately, many of these things were closed as we were there on Sunday, but we had a great time exploring the alleyways and views.

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Great views, terrible scar

I could’ve spent a whole day just exploring the Cittadella, there’s so much history wrapped up there. (And apparently a lace shop! Too bad that was closed too.) Even with multiple staircases, we were able to get around with the stroller, and elevators have been installed to give even more people access to this wonderful site.

We walked back to the bus station where we were some of the first to await the bus to the ferry. Not that that mattered, I still had to elbow my way in between two people to get on. The bus was jam packed when we started backing out and were stopped by another bus driver. I think he had arrived late and stopped our bus to ask the driver to let on four more people. Not just any people, four people with huge back packs and climbing gear. It was comical to see them crowd on and lay their packs on the floor. I’m glad they made it, but this bus system is something else!

The ferry ride back to Malta was a bit rougher than on the way to Gozo. I was determined, however, to get a picture of the famed St. Mary’s (or the Chateaux d’if if you’re a Count of Mont Cristo fan, as I am) which sits atop Comino, the third and smallest of the Maltese islands. I was successful, mostly because LM was happily enjoying the rocking of the boat and watching the waves.

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The Chataeux d’if, but in reality, St. Mary’s, on Comino

We were lucky enough, upon waiting for the bus at the ferry terminal, to read the signs and realize, unlike most of the other people there, where the bus would actually stop. That means we got seats for the hour ride home, LM was able to fall asleep halfway there, and, amazingly, we put him straight to bed without a fuss.

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The sun had set on our time in Malta, but the journey continues!

Question: Are you a history buff, or do you just see rocks?