#Columbus ‘Discovered’ America and We Discovered #PortoSanto

Pretty Porto Santo

Pretty Porto Santo

Across the dark blue waters of Atlantic, north of Madeira, lies a quaint little island Porto Santo. I knew little about it, except that it was supposed to have beautiful sandy beaches and could be reached by ferry from the Port of Funchal.

Always one to explore new territories, I had wanted to go during our previous visits to Madeira but John had refused to budge.

This time around in May 2016, I became more insistent and persuasive. “The ferry is fairly big and stable and it won’t be as bad as the one when we crossed the English Channel a few years ago,” I assured him. Besides, I need a photographer.

So on Wednesday morning, we rose early to board the ship to Porto Santo. During the two and half hours’ crossing, no motion sickness; instead we enjoyed a coffee and sweet treats, popping onto the sunny deck from time to time to snap pictures of the ever shrinking island we left behind and the one we were sailing towards.

Sailing away from Madeira

Sailing away from Madeira

Miles of yellow sandy beach on the other side

Miles of yellow sandy beach on the other side

On approaching the shore, what greeted our eyes were that of a marvellously pure, yellow sandy beach, curved along the bay, stretching endlessly.

Although the biggest industry for Porto Santo is tourism, compared to her richer and bigger cousin Madeira some distance away, Porto Santo is a serene picture of peace and calm, a rare gem of get-away-from-all, far far away from the hassle and bustle which constantly confront the city dwellers. Even after our fairly large ferryful of people debarked, the island seemed to have absorbed them without efforts. On the long stretches of soft sandy beach, we saw only a handful of people sun bathing.

Following our brief consultation with the woman in the Tourist Information office, we found a little church. Under the noon sunshine, the white church with lovely blue pottery tiles depicting the death of Jesus shone brightly and inviting. We went in and saw a set of most usually wood sculptures of Jesus and his twelve disciples. From my mind’s eye, I saw many a fishermen, explorers, and perhaps even pirates who would go in praying for safety during their missions on the dangerous and unpredictable ocean. Once they set sail, they never knew whether the waters would be friend or foe.

Beautiful Church

Beautiful Church

Jesus and his Twelve Disciples

Jesus and his Twelve Disciples

We visited Columbus’s old House next, which is now a museum. On the courtyard, a picture of sailing ship was built into the ceramic ground. A little rose garden was in full bloom and naturally I stopped to appreciate its beauty and to smell its fragrance.

After feeding ourselves with a tasty Madeira brand of local bread with bacon and cheese, we found a spot on the beach. I was not going to pass the opportunity to have a splash in the sea. The waves came rushing to shore and then ebbed away, with a power to thrill and to cool, to excite and to sooth. As always when I was by the sea, I felt my spirit soar, like an eagle flying high and free, and a pure joy filling my heart and soul.

Enjoying the cool waters and waves

Enjoying the cool waters and waves

The photographer was captured without his knowledge

The photographer was captured without his knowledge

Later, we hired a tandem which took us along the wondrous coast, all the way to the tip of the island, where we stopped for a coffee and cakes. En route, we feasted on the changing scenery as the breeze caressed our faces, energising our legs and pushing us forward. There was a cycle lane along part of the ride but very few cars passing us by. We were one with nature.

On a Tandem

On a Tandem but not cycling

I think that John was pleased that I ‘dragged’ him to Porto Santo.

We will return.

Smell the Roses

Smell the Roses

Eating Limpets from the sea

Eating Limpets from the sea

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Detective Kirk Solved Murder Mystery in #Madeira

Detective Kirk at Royal Savoy

Detective Kirk at Royal Savoy

In 1925, two English families and their friends gathered together at the posh Royal Savoy in Funchal, Madeira, to celebrate the engagement between Tarquin Sinclair-Smythe and Clarissa Quartermane. John and I were going back in time, to attend the special occasion, among 50 honoured guests at the engagement party. Our host for the evening was Investment Banker Peregrine, father of the prospective bridegroom.

During the Reception lubricated with bubbling cocktails, Peregrine revealed that he was ‘forced’ by his wife Imogen to take various pills, white ones, yellow ones and red ones, and he had found that red pills had been making him feeling confused and sick, while the others had been harmless. So for a while he had been getting rid of red pills behind his wife’s back, and had asked us to help him reassuring his wife that he had taken them during her absence.

The family party arrived as cocktails were poured and consumed. Together with the happy couple were Clarissa’s mother Fenella and her godson Sigismund Pointdexter. Apparently Fenella’s husband disappeared many years ago when Clarissa was still a baby but nobody knew the true circumstances of that disappearance.

Engagement Party for the Sin

Engagement Party for the Sinclair- Smythe and Quatermane Families with Guests

As congratulations were offered and drinks continue to go around, Sigismund, who grew up together with the bride-to-be, suddenly knelt down in front of Clarissa and declared his undying love for her in front of all guests. In return, she told him that she had loved him all along too.

Proposal from Sigismund

Proposal from Sigismund to Clarissa, watched by Tarquin and his Mother

All of a sudden, the cheerful party took a surprising and dramatic turn. The prospective mother-in-law went into hysterics with a shouting match starting between the two families. For a moment, it looked as if the gala dinner would be scrapped before we got to the starters.

I was an honoured guest to the candle-lit dinner

I was an honoured guest at the candle-lit dinner

Not quite as planned, the dinner went ahead and we were duly seated on our table, sharing the same space with another couple of guests from Leicestershire, and Fenella. We were a curious bunch, especially my husband John, since his passion and side job is as a private detective.

Fenella told us that her husband ran off with another woman when she was pregnant with her daughter, and she now had no idea where he was or whether or not he was alive. Sigismund, the godson she raised, because both his parents died when their ship to America was wrecked en route. According to her, Sigismund’s mother was her best friend and she was looking after him as the parents set off to America. That seemed to me a little mysterious, don’t you think?

Detective Kirk at work questioning Fenella

Detective Kirk at work questioning Fenella

When asked about what she thought of the unexpected proposal from her godson to her daughter, her answers were contradictory, to say the least. Clarissa should follow her heart, she said at one time. Then later, she said that Clarissa should do the right thing, marrying Tarquin and have a good and stable life. During our conversations between the first course and second one, it appeared that Clarissa will be marrying into a wealthy family, secure for life. As for Sigismund, he studied chemistry at University and was now working as a pharmacist apprentice. He had no money, but his love for his childhood sweetheart.

During the meal, Clarissa was being pressurised to make up her mind by everyone, both inside and outside her family. She promised to make her decision known by the end of the evening. However, by the end of the second course, as we were finishing off our tasty Madeira Rockfish with tomato sauce and sweet basil fragrance, Clarissa stood up to make an announcement of her choice of future husband. Before she could finish her sentence, she felt unwell and drank a glass of water which Peregrine handed to her. She clasped at her seat, and died instantly.

The family feud continued as we, the guests, continued our dinner. We got to meet the other members of the families at our table and questioned them, about their backgrounds and their intentions, and why Clarissa died so suddenly.

Fenella with Sigismund on the right, Imogen with her son Tarquin on the right

Fenella with Sigismund on the right, Imogen with her son Tarquin on the right

The rest of the courses were duly consumed as John continued to ask pointed questions.

Whodunnit?

Sigismund who was a chemist, or Imogen who had threatened that if Clarissa did not make a right decision about her son, there would be consequences? How about Peregrine who had all those red pills hidden away from his watchful wife? Fenella? She obviously lied about her husband’s mysterious disappearance and other things about her life? She also had a private chat with her godson and told him that he could not marry her daughter. Period.

Surely it couldn’t have been Tarquin, the mummy’s boy who had no interest in the family business as an investment banker and more interested in hunting and having fun. He told his mother that he had met Clarissa at the Pink Pussycat club, although his mother strongly disbelieved that her son would have gone to such a low class place.

As we were finishing our lovely desert, a delicious black current cheese cake, Sigismund made a toast, ‘to my godmother who ruined my life’. He drank his wine and made his way to the exit. He fell on the floor and died, just like that.

Body of Sigismund

Body of Sigismund

Our four course banquet

Our four course banquet

For a moment, we thought Fenella died too, but she only fainted. So by the end of the meal, we had two dead bodies. Were they both murdered? Or was one of them a suicide? Who was the murderer? Were we witnesses to a real life Romeo and Juliet?

All the guests were asked to write down their findings on a piece of paper.

Seven individuals solved the mystery and found out who was the culprit and who was the victim.

Out of the seven super detectives, only one came out the winner. The star detective of the night, proud winner of a bottle of Portuguese champagne , was none other than Detective Kirk, who had worked harder than anyone at the party by asking lots of questions and making several pages of notes.

As for who was murdered and who died of other causes, I’ll leave that to my readers to solve the mystery. You can either leave a message below or let me know on other social media platforms. There won’t be any champagne prizes but I’ll tell you exactly what happened that night in the beautiful hotel of Royal Savoy!

Detective Kirk was given an award by Sigismund for solving the Mystery

Detective Kirk was given an award by Sigismund for solving the Mystery

The Engagement announced on the Socialite Journal

The Engagement announced on the Socialite Journal

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Finding the Pulse of #Finland (2): The Helsinki #Vappu and Island of #Suomenlinna

The former fortress now a tourist haven

Former fortress now a tourist haven

Following my previous post on feeling the heartbeat of Helsinki, experiencing some profound spiritual elevation, I am sharing a few cultural discoveries about the Finnish capital and her people. There was no better timing than the last week of April, witnessing how the Finns celebrated one of the biggest festivals of the year, Vappu as it was known to all locals and visitors of Finland.

There is no direct translation into English for Vappu, Walpurgis Day in Finnish. It is basically a combination of International labour Day (May 1st), Youth Day (May 4th, celebrated in China)), Arrival of Spring, Carnival and Beer Festival – Lots of beers, Sima, sparkling wine and alcoholic beverages are to be consumed during Vappu. Extra characteristics included hordes of students and prep school alumni, wearing their dirty but colourful clothes, decorated with the glorious records of their collections of parties they had been to over the years. Apparently, the dirtier they appear, the more proud they should be. Interestingly, students from different subject areas tend to wear different coloured trousers, although they all wear a cap (usually white, but I have seen people wearing beige too)

The cap is a symbol

The special cap

Can you see whose trousers are dirtier?

Can you see whose trousers are dirtier?

Imagine my delight when I found out that my visit coincided with this celebration, a chance to see more Finns than I had seen all week, and witness how they let go of their usual shyness and reserve and have the time of their lives.

Earlier in the week when I met with the teachers at Confucius Institute (CI) at University of Helsinki, they informed me of the forthcoming Vappu on the last day of April. It was a Saturday, the day before I was due to leave Finland. Haixia Wang, one of the young Mandarin teachers agreed to accompany me to one of the islands nearby.

‘Suomenlinna is Unesco’s World Heritage site and is well worth a visit,’ Haixia told me.
Better still, the sun was shining beautifully on Saturday and the cruise ride from the Helsinki South Port only took us 15 minutes to across the lovely calm waters of the Gulf of Finland. As we sat on the deck headed to the island, we saw seagulls singing and chasing after us, probably after food which we did not have. Nevertheless, they provided cheerful company and ample opportunities for photo shoots.

Looking back at Helsinki and listening to the cheerful songs of seagulls

Looking back at Helsinki and listening to the cheerful songs of seagulls

Some of you may know that Finland was once an integral part of Sweden for around 6oo years (from the late 12th century to the early 19th century), which in part explains why Swedish is still widely used in Finnish universities and in the population at large. Suomenlinna was constructed as a fortress including a naval base in 1748 and it was known as Sveaborg (Fortress of Sweden). Later Russia defeated Sweden to occupy Finland in 1808 and became an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire.

Under Russian rule, the fortress was extended and reinforced. Following the Russian Revolution, the fortress became a part of independent Finland in 1917, and the island was renamed Suomenlinna, aka Fortress of Finland. It became a prison camp after the Finnish Civil War. Nowadays, Suomenlinna is no longer a military base and one of the most popular daytrip destinations for the city dwellers of Helsinki and on that particular day when we visited, a site for groups of university students, both former and current, to enjoy food, alcohol and gearing up to the Vappu carnival that evening.

Groups of students were hanging out and enjoying picnics

The day was perfect for the students to hang out and enjoy picnics

Haixia had been there before so she was my guide, together with her maps in English and Mandarin. We followed a trail to interesting places to visit, from the main quay, stopping at the Church Park, Great Courtyard, the Cannons and fortification, and the King’s Gate. En route, we took in rolling landscape which made me immediately thought of the Hobbit’s dwellings from Lord of the Rings. Check out the pictures below and see if you agree with me?

Did the hobbits used to live here on the island of Suomenlinna?

Did the hobbits used to live here on the island of Suomenlinna?

Two hours later, we completed our island walking tour and returned to the mainland. We were ready for the main event of the day, the crowning point of Vappu, when thousands of Helsinki inhabitants gather around the Harbour, in a ceremonial capping of the Havis Amanda, a nude female statue in Helsinki. Legend has it that some students once put a graduate’s cap on the granite sculpture of a mermaid, symbolising the rebirth of Helsinki, modelled by a young Parisian and completed by Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren in Paris. It has adorned the Market Square in Helsinki every May since 1908.

There was almost no one around earlier on the day

There was almost no one around earlier on the day

At 6pm during the capping of Harvis Amanda

At 6pm during the capping of Havis Amanda

The harbour and Market Square at the Port was heaving with more Finnish people than I’d ever seen. Another teacher, Ying from the CI joined us so three of us stood by the fountain statue, as music started to boom out of the loud speakers and the capping ceremony began in earnest. We each had a strawberry beer thoughtfully supplied by Haixia, as everyone near us, mostly young and energetic students, were drinking from their large bottles and laughing and joking with their friends. The air was electric, filled with cheer and good humour, perfect for a warm sunny Saturday.

Haixia with Ying, and thousands of Finns

Haixia with Ying, and thousands of Finns

Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square were packed with party goes

Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square were packed with joyful party goes

It was a pity that I had to leave the following day, when all the Finns and my colleagues at CI were gathered in the parks and open spaces in and around Helsinki and beyond to enjoy a picnic and more sparkling wine. However, I was with the people I met during my trip to Helsinki in spirit, and I took away with me their sense of fun and the jovial spirit of Finland.

Goodbye, Helsinki! Finland, I'll not forget you!

Goodbye, Helsinki! Finland, I’ll not forget you!

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Last Frontier of Northern #Europe: Heartbeat of #Helsinki in #Finland (1)

With Professor Julie Yu-Wen Chen in front of the White Church

With Professor Julie Yu-Wen Chen in front of the White Church

Helsinki has a white church, a red church, a rock church and a wooden church, someone said to me the day before I left the city. Have you seen them all?

I have, indeed seen more churches than these four during my one-week stay in the Finnish capital.

I was visiting University of Helsinki as an academic visitor on an Erasmus staff exchange. In this first post about my Finnish experience, however, I am not going to write about work stuff as I already had to do a few formal reports over the past few days. I will tell you, instead, of my impressions of the sights, sounds and smells of the city, and the people I came to meet.

The White Church, is in fact the Helsinki Cathedral right in the historical centre of the city, making it one of the most distinctive landmarks and top tourists attractions in Helsinki. Luckily for me, I saw it every day as I walked past on my way to the University campus, so I got to witness its full glory against beautiful blue sky, framed by white clouds and colourfully dressed tourist from afar. Even when it was shrouded in a thin mist of rain and dark clouds, its sheer stature and pure whiteness brightened up my day, reminding me that I was in a country in which the colour white is constantly present, most notably during its relatively long snowbound winters. Doesn’t Santa Claus, with his long curly white beard, come from this part of the world?

Fabulous Senate Square and University of Helsinki Campus

Fabulous Senate Square and University of Helsinki Campus

I had to go in one day to have a peek. I like visiting churches, I admit, and I have been to too many to count now, and I was curious about what I could see inside Helsinki Cathedral. Would it be different from, say Lichfield Cathedral five miles from where I live, or famous York Minster, or even the more famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona? While the Spanish Catholic church was designed by Antoni Gaudi, the Helsinki Cathedral is an Evangelical Lutheran model, with a simple and elegant style. It was one of the crowning achievements by the famous German architect Carl Ludvig Engel, who designed a number of significant buildings which are the heartbeats of Helsinki, including the Senate Square and the main buildings of University of Helsinki.

The whitest church I have ever seen. Magnificent!

The whitest church I have ever seen. Magnificent!

My gracious host from the University Julie told me that I had to pay a visit to the famous Rock Church near my residence. With a little effort, I walked by the side and took a couple of shots outside. It is built directly into solid rock, hence the name and the fame, setting it apart from the norm. It was also very modern (built and opened in the 1960s) in comparison to the White Church (1852).

Outside The Rock Church

Outside The Rock Church

Inside the Rock Church

Inside the Rock Church

“Did you go inside the church?” Julie asked me.

“No, I didn’t have time today.” I felt a little guilty. I should have left my accommodation earlier to make time.

So on my final day in Helsinki, I decided to go there before my taxi pick up to take me away, for God only knows if I’ll ever return. It was the 1st of May, in the middle of the Finnish Vappu celebration. The sun was shining brightly, and it was the warmest and driest day since I got there.

There was hardly anyone in sight, so quiet that you would not think that you were in a Capital city. I expected that the Finns were nursing their hangover from the night before, or getting ready for the big picnics that day, as the teachers of Confucius Institute were. Perhaps the church was not open.

It was. After all it was a Sunday and worship time for those who still go to church. I found the unremarkable front entrance below the rocks. A few tourists were taking pictures. I saw a couple of people walking in, and I followed inside. A service in Finnish was on, so we stood by the door, listening to the hymns bouncing and echoing against the rough rock surfaces, creating amazing acoustic quality. No wonder it is often used as a concert venue.

I did not go in the other two churches, although I took pictures of the Red Church and Wooden Church from a distance. I have to save some discoveries for a future trip.

The 'Red' Church is called Uspensky Cathedral, Russian Orthodox

The ‘Red’ Church is called Uspensky Cathedral, Russian Orthodox

Kamppi Chapel of Silence, constructed from curving strips of spruce opened in 2012

Kamppi Chapel of Silence, constructed from curving strips of spruce opened in 2012

Apart from the four famous churches, for added bonus, I went to an amazing ‘Black’ church the Sunday after I arrived. On the day, I met with Julie for the first time face to face and it was her day of rest and worship, but she kindly gave me a tour of the city centre and how to find my way around. Then I followed her to the English speaking church she went to, Lighthouse Christian Centre, where I experienced something truly magical.

I was greeted by a number of church members, the majority from the African Continent, Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya and so on. They were very friendly and made me feel welcomed. What touched me most were the songs they sang and the passion and devotion in their voices, their clapping and their prayers. I remember watching some Hollywood films with scenes inside black churches where powerful choirs resonated with joyful clapping and dancing, and I always thought: how lovely it would have been to be part of that wondrous celebration of a blessed life.

On the last Sunday in April 2016, my dream came true, in the heart of Helsinki!

Joyful and touching service by LLC (Lighthouse Christian Centre)

Joyful and touching service at LLC (Lighthouse Christian Centre)

To Be Continued, so pop back in soon!

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