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Baltics cruise - Tallinn

Estonian pigeon-chasing


Paris, Tallinn and Helsinki


Ah, fair Paris, in only a weekend it seduced us so. We caught the metro to the Place de la Republique Sunday morning and checked into our cute hotel with a pokey yet stylish room and three resident cats. We wandered down to Place de la Bastille for lunch at an amazing Italian restaurant and first encountered the small serves of food served in France, just enough so you are not hungry any more (possibly explaining the paucity of obesity).

We saw the beautiful old apartment blocks, which have an amazing classical effect when the entire boulevard is matches height and is flush with the street, but with each house having its own theme. The uniform precision of Paris apartments dates back to Louis XIV, who made laws stating that private houses had to be built of stone no more than 8 toises (15.6 metres) high, flush with the street. The town planner Baron Haussmann in the Second Empire (1852-1871) increased the maximum height to 20 metres, created wider boulevards and enforced the building code throughout the city, giving all of residential Paris a charming classical theme.

After lunch we wandered down to the Seine and across the many bridges to the islands of Ile St-Louis and Ile de la Cite. On Ile de la Cite we spent the afternoon in Notre Dame. Note Dame was started in 1163, but has been continually rebuilt and remodelled since, creating a hodge-podge of ages and architectural styles.

The outside of Notre Dame is in a gorgeous gothic style. Lines of gargoyles and grotesques line the building, although oddly they seem to be more comedic in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer way than serious gothic art. I would have thought that more people would think they are cute, rather than a serious threat of the consequences of not believing in the Catholic God. The building also has flying buttresses which the different guides seem to be split on. Some state that they are to support the walls of the cathedral (the normal reason for having flying buttresses), while others contend that they were actually added as gutters, citing the latter addition as an indication that they are not structurally required. Personally I think it is more likely that they are structural, and that the later addition coincided with the modifications increasing the height of the cathedral or decreasing the wall strength (such as the additions of stain glass windows). It just seems peculiar for an architectural style renowned for its elaborate attempts to appear to defy gravity to add buttresses simply to drain water away, when additional gargoyles could have served the same function.

Our guide told us that the cathedral was designed in the shape of a cross to venerate Jesus, but actually it is a direct consequence of the inverse square law of light diffusion, since an analysis of church design over time showed that originally all churches were built as rectangles and kept down to a smaller size. The upper limit of size was determined by lighting, as the volume increases more rapidly than the surface area (window area) with building size, reaching a point where it becomes impossible to counter the diffusion of light with candles. Only after the breakthrough in design of a cross (increasing the surface area for the same volume) came did Churches become any larger, and this design was still kept only for the large churches. The light issue was also reflected in the fascination the Church had for stain glass, the massive rose windows in Notre Dame contain some of the oldest stain-glass in the world, dating back to the 13th century. The purple colour apparently symbolised waiting for the rapture.

The most impressive aspect of Notre Dame is the main façade, covered with intricate carvings and statues. The main image is that of Jesus seated over a line of dead people who are having their soul’s weighed and being lead off in chains by the devil. One of the more interesting statues is that of the headless St Denis. Denis was sent to convert the Gauls to Christianity and was executed by the Romans ~250 CE. The legend has it that after being beheaded he picked up his head and walked for several miles while preaching a sermon. Apparently he only had enough miracle in him to defy death temporarily and he died again very soon. The statue of St Denis on Notre Dame chose to portray him headless as part of his fame, but this caused major problems for the sculptors (well, more the theologians) - where to put his halo? Around his severed head? Or around the place in which his head once was? Obviously a very important question for a group that once debated for decades whether people have belly buttons in heaven (they decided yes - on the grounds that people would look silly without them) and whether severed limbs would be reattached in heaven (again they decided yes, making the headless St Denis possibly heresy, but this only brought up the harder question of whether a limb severed and eaten by someone else stays with second person or is regenerated with the first). St Denis is also one of the fourteen Holy Helpers - saints that are thought particularly useful to pray too in times of sickness - however his dominion seems rather poor compared to that of Christopher (Bubonic plague) or Elmo (intestinal disease), being a specialist in curing headaches.

The interior of Notre Dame was less impressive than the exterior, having decayed after the Catholic Church lost its iron grip on France in the 1789 Revolution. It required Victor Hugo's publication of Notre Dame de Paris in 1831 (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to get it restored, but it is still not as ornate as Westminster.

Outside Notre Dame we visited Point Zero, the centre of Paris, then had ice-cream in Place du Pont Neuf. From Place du Pont Neuf we crossed over to the Louvre and Cour Napoleon. The Louvre was magnificently, tall stately mansions surrounding courtyards. It was first built in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 16th and extensively remodelled throughout, with the latest addition being the pyramids in 1989.

From the Louvre we walked along Jardin des Tuileries, the gardens landscaped by Andre Le Notre in 1664 and still closely following his design. We found the hedge garden, with little nooks designed for kissing in, and a fountain where children sent sail boats across the pool by angling their sail just right. There were beautiful statues are arches right up to Au des Champs-Élysées, which we followed up to Arc de Triomphe.

Champs-Élysées is the most expensive and exclusive avenue in Europe (the second in the world after New York’s 5th Avenue). We sat down to have a soft drink, but I balked at the €6 price-tag. We did, however, find the most upscale bathroom in Paris, replete with its own perfumes and postcards.

Arc de Triomphe was stunning. The Arc was commissioned in 1806 for Napoleon’s 1805 victory of Austerlitz. The Arc is so massive (51m tall, the second largest triumphal arch since North Korea built a slight larger arch in 1982 for the 70th birthday of Kim Il-Sung) that it needs 8m deep foundations. While the first stone was laid in August 1806, it was not finished until 1836, long after Napoleon’s exile and death, so they never knew what to put on top of it. A chariot, effigy of Napoleon, eagle, Statue of Liberty or a gigantic star were all proposed, but in the end the top was left bare. An eternal flame was lit under the arch in 1920, the oldest in Western Europe (although technically it was extinguished on June 30th 1998 when a drunken football fan urinated on it). The Arc was responsible for shaping much of western Paris, with the old medieval streets being ripped up to create broad boulevards to lead to it. Napoleon was no tactical slouch, and also designed the new boulevards as military corridors for Paris uprisings. Interestingly, to escape conscription under Napoleon they used to chop off a finger, or (less painfully) knock out their front teeth – since this disbarred them from military service as they were required to open musket cartridges.

From Arc de Triomphe we caught the metro (such a classy way to travel, with the individual Art Nouveau signs) to the Eiffel Tower, the most visited monument in the world. The Eiffel Tower was unexpectedly gorgeous. You would think that a 320 metre tall 7000 tonne lump of steal would be ugly, but Gustov Eiffel was a design genius, making it soft and elegant, with almost delicate iron filigree (actually, he said the first priority in design was wind resistance, not elegance) and engraved with the names of seventy two famous French scientists and engineers. I was surprised though at the colour, it is much more tan than I had expected. The tower was built for the 1889 World Fair as a temporary exhibit (it only had a 20 year land permit), although Eiffel had originally planned to build it in Barcelona for the Universal Exposition of 1888. It was the tallest structure in the world until the 1930 Chrysler building, and is still the tallest in Paris and fifth tallest in Europe. Eiffel was so good at metallic structures that he was also hired to built the scaffolding around which the New York Statue of Liberty is built.

Afterwards I was taken out to a charming restaurant by the tower for dinner, before heading back to our hotel for a well deserved rest.


Monday we caught the train out to Château de Versailles. Versailles was spectacular. Beyond spectacular it was actually disgustingly decadent (it is estimated that the upkeep of Versailles before the Revolution consumed 25% of France’s annual income). Most of it was built by the Sun King Louis XIV (which now strikes me as a very odd phrase to use for someone who never actually did anything productive in their life, but was rather born into a position where they could force others to build what they wanted), and was even more decadent than you would expect from someone who, at the age of four, owned a set of silver soldiers and miniature gold cannons drawn by fleas made specifically for him by a famous goldsmith.

We explored the first gardens for hours, only later noticing that they were actually on the roof-top of one of the mansions and that the gardens stretched out as far as we could see. We walked on further and further and only found more gardens, each with exquisite sculptures, and more mansions. Each statue was a piece of art in itself, but there was simply too much to take in.

The fountains, each with an individual story book theme, pumped the water vigorously into the sky. Ironically enough, Louis XIV’s passion for large spurts to impress his friends lead to one of the only benefits he gave the French people – he commissioned Arnold de Ville and Rennequin Sualem in 1684 to design water pumps to push the Versailles fountains even higher, significantly (and inadvertently) advancing hydraulics.

We had a picnic by the Grand Canal. It struck me as similar to the srahs and barays of the Khmer God Kings, enormous bodies of water with the dead straight edge and right angles, except even the God Kings built barays to control the agricultural water flow, while the monarchs of France used it as a play ground.
How odd to consider the decadence of Paris considering it is now a city that constantly struck us as being moderate. We were always given small servings of excellent food, beer or wine is served with every meal, but no one drinks more than one. The city is designed around walking and the metro, giving an egalitarian feel of small boutiques and markets. And yet this is a city that in the Second Empire had a newspaper, the Naiade, printed on rubber so that the rich could read in their bathtub.

We finished our day back in Paris by walking around Palais de la Decouverte, having a secret walk through Place de I’Institut, seeing St Michel’s Fountains, and on a misguided quest to have a picnic. We went out at night to see the Eiffel Tower lit up, then back to well deserved napping.

We got up early the next morning to look out over the bridges on the Seine for one last glimpse of the tower, before flying to Finland for a relaxing evening watching people casually strolling around with smiles on their faces in the delightful Scandinavian summer night.


The next day we thought we would nip over to Estonia. After misdirection to a port on the wrong side of Helsinki and a ticket mistake we managed to get on the Ferry, complete with napping room, for our day trip to Tallinn, the most intact medieval town in Europe.

Inside the old city the first thing we did was climb the spire of St Olav's Church (right next to the former KGB headquarters with boarded-up windows). It is now only 123 metres tall, but when it was built (in 1438) it was 159 metres tall. This was enough to make it the second tallest building in the world, then the tallest in 1549 once the spiral of Lincoln Cathedral (160m) was destroyed. It is odd to think that this tower was actually the fourth major structure to hold the title of world's tallest building (after the Red Pyramid, the Great Pyramid which held the title for 4000 years and Lincoln Cathedral). It is even stranger to consider that it held the title until 1625, when the lightning strike knocked down the spire and the reconstructed height was lower than that of Strasbourg Cathedral. So nothing was actually built taller than St Olav's Church for 450 years until the Washington Monument just pipped it in 1884 (169m, ninth to hold the title), before the Eiffel tower rewrote the records in 1889 (300m), which lasted until 1930 Chrysler building (319m). I would have thought that the world’s tallest structure would have been held by many buildings over the eons, but actually only fourteen have held that title (five of which got it by larger buildings falling down) and most of the increase in height has come in three buildings - the Great Pyramid (146m, 40% gain), the Eiffel Tower (300m, 80% gain) and Ostankino Tower (537m, 40% gain). Anyway, the view from St Olav’s spire is really good.

Wandering around the city we saw the only surviving Gothic Town Hall in Europe, constructed in the 14th century and topped by Old Thomas since 1530, and the Raeapteek, a pharmacy that has been operating since 1422. We had lunch up White Bread passage next to the Gothic Puhavaimu Kirik (Holy Spirit Church), a beautiful old church with odd post-Christian stain-glass. After wandering around the walls of the lower town we climbed by to the high town (Toompea) and saw Toomkirik, the oldest church in Estonia (1219) and the stunning Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (1894).


Back in Helsinki that evening I had a conference dinner at an amazing restaurant on the island of Klippan, while listening to Finland's best accordion player. The actual conference was quite odd, far more extravagant than a normal science conference, being a medical conference the exhibits could go beyond giving out pens. Rather it had an almost carnival feel with corny shows complete with holograms, clowns, artists doing cartoon sketches and a Photoshop booth to create fake postcards. Most of the talks were obviously by medicos rather than scientists, but a few were outstanding.

We had a lot of fun at the social occasions though, spending the conference dinner talking to a professors sailing crew (why not sail from Germany to Finland for a conference?). One of them was a science historian, and I was fascinated to hear that they don’t actually read any scientific articles when writing the history of science, rather they read through all the grant applications and progress reports that we throw away to work out the order that things actually happened in. It was a lot of fun to sit and talk to Germans (who were embarrassed to forget Moldova) and then go out with Nora to a very stylish Finnish bar.

Our last evening in Helsinki we enjoyed Nordic walking, watched the sun start to set from the iconic churches, then went to an Ice Bar to drink vodka.

A few charming Finnish sayings:
No one dies twice.
Sauna is the poor man's drugstore.
Poverty and love are impossible to hide.
The floor serves as the child's chair.

A few outdated Finnish sayings:
A man will marry a bad wife rather than none at all, as a starving pike will eat a frog.
Do not lend your bicycle or your wife to anyone.

A just plain odd Finnish saying:
A pig plows much ground, but it doesn't drink beer on Christmas.