Pocahontas State Park, VA to Kings Bay, Ga

October 21, 2020 – Pocahontas State Park, VA. the most beautiful setting is how I will remember this park. Huge wooded sites and quiet. We settle in, and go out to Fredericksburg National Battlefield. The park ranger gives us a lunch spot recommendation down the road some so we check it out. Wonder of wonders its poutine, french fries smothered in good stuff. Our first experience with poutine was in Vancouver, CA where the fries were drowned in delicious seafood. This version has the fries smothered in pulled port, bar-b-q sauce and cheese, all slathered in sour cream with scallions sprinkled on top. I know what your thinking, as my friend Carla Hollingsworth would say, that’s a heart attack on a plate. Yes indeed, but it was delicious!

October 22, 2020 – Pocahontas State Park. Out to see the world, at least this corner of the world. We visit what else, another Civil War Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield. The visitor center is open under a tent outside and I get my book stamped. We walk on the short trail at the visitors center itself and then follow the shorter of the two driving tours. This is exhausting, stop the truck, get out, walk, walk uphill, walk downhill, walk across streams, make all 8 of the stops to read the informational signs and soak up the history.

Back at our campsite I try and start a fire but the wood is wet and I fail. Oh well, a glass of wine and leftovers instead of the hot dogs that were on the menu will have to do. We had a great day, walked almost 10,000 steps during that driving tour and are happy to use the microwave and tap that box of wine sleeping quietly in our refrigerator.

October 23, 2020 – Pocahontas State Park. We have no agenda today, I tell Carl to take a hike so he does, around Beaver Dam Lake in the morning while I hang out in the trailer enjoying my solitude. In the afternoon we drive into neighboring Chesterfield to the Food Lion for provisions and gas. Later in the day Carl hikes a second time and I write.

October 24, 2020 – KOA Fredericksburg, VA. What a zoo, we had no idea this park would be hosting an early Halloween trick or treat event for local kids. We lay low and watch TV.

October 25, 2020 – KOA Fredericksburg, VA. Rain rain go away….Kathy and Carl want to play. No luck, we drive to Robert E. Lee’s childhood home in the driving rain. On the way Carl has some kind of event with his left side of his face, primarily his eye. We pull over and it passes but scares us. The Lee family home is the quintessential plantation home. Wide staircases, huge rooms for dancing and an outside kitchen and laundry. All of this set on the Potomac River, wow. The gift shop is wow too and I spend a happy hour in there deciding what I would like to purchase. Two bee plates, replicas of plates that would have graced the table at Lee family soirees.

October 26, 2020 – Ft. Belvoir, VA. The showcase of the Army in the DC., no WWII buildings here! The most upscale Exchange and Commissary, Starbucks and restaurants you would never see at any other military installations. Housing, Officer quarters are small McMansions and the enlisted quarters are smaller versions of those, not like anything I ever got to live in. The RV park is perched on the north side of the Potomac river, with a stunning view. Big concrete spaces a good distance from your neighbor and every amenity, wifi, cable TV, laundry room, bathhouse. George Washington’s Mr. Vernon is right down the road. We are very comfortable here and can’t wait to get out and visit DC.

October 27, 2020 – Ft. Belvoir, well that’s disappointing, nothing (park service wise) is open on the George Washington Parkway (31 national park sites). Despite what their web site says and their voice messaging service says, it’s a nogo. So we drive back to Virginia and pass Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (technically in DC). Not open but the venue itself is worth the time we took. Walking around I spot a park ranger driving a golf cart. He stops for me and I ask him if he has access to a stamp for my passport? He not only produces the stamp but bags of free stuff for the kids. Here take as much as you want, nobody else is..

Next stop is Manassas National Battlefield Park (Bull Run). I called and actually got a human on the phone who assured me their visitors center was open. In addition to the site stamp, they also have a “hallowed ground” stamp, I opt for that one.

We walked the entire site, ate our lunch and watched the short film in the visitor’s center. From the 1860’s photos of the battlefield it looks as if nothing has changed, I can see confederate troops hanging at the tree line, Stonewall Jackson sitting atop his horse.

It is supposed to be cold, windy and raining for the next several days so we stop and pick up a space heater on our way home. When I plug it in and turn it on it runs for 30 seconds before it dies and takes the TV, water heater and who knows what else with it. I know to check the fuse panel and when nothing is wrong with that I yell for help. Carl comes in, checks the fuses and gets out the iPad for some uTube help. The inverter, what’s an inverter and why do we have one in our RV? Moreover where the expletive is it? We go to bed before we crack the case. It’s under the mattress, in a hole with a screwed down panel, a difficult location. It took literally 1 second to push the correct button and animate everything. Hallelujah!

October 28, 2020 – Ft. Belvoir. At breakfast this morning Carl tells me he thinks the episode he had in the car on the 25th could have been a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or mini stroke. He also confides that wasn’t the only time it happened. So, although he seems fine, we make a difficult decision and decide to head home. We will both feel better when we know all the facts.

October 28, 2020 – Ft Bragg, NC. We drive to Lazy Acres Campground just off I95 near Ft. Bragg. Nice site with wifi and cable so we just chill for the remaining part of the day. When we checked in, the staff informed us that President Trump is due to hold a rally here tomorrow, argh. We don’t even put out the door mat preferring instead to hedge our bets and make our escape as soon as is humanly possible in the morning.

October 29, 2020 – Kings Bay, GA. Carl has a telemedicine call today at 1530 so we drive to the submarine base at Kings Bay and barely get there in time to park and make the call. It’s mostly good news, the cardiologist can’t rule out stroke but thinks the more likely culprit is an ocular migraine.
Carl agrees to be in Tampa on Monday for some cardiac diagnostics and on Tuesday for an appointment with his ophthalmologist. He is also advised to see his rheumatologist. Sigh.

Since we are relatively close to home and very comfortable here we book this site for two additional nights and resolve to just chill until Sunday.

And, it’s warm, a fringe benefit of that hard decision. It was starting to get cold in Virginia.

October 30, 2020 – Ft Caroline National Monument was closed on our way up so we try again and make the 30 minute drive to Jacksonville. Yeah it’s open. Reading the information, a “Le Gaule” was one of the original Huguenot settlers, I wonder… My family name is “LeGalley” and written family history attributes our presence in this country to Huguenot ancestry. I’ve always suspected I was a heretic!

Kings Bay GA ‘Living in a Tin Can’

To quote Jimmy Buffett: ‘They’re ugly and square, they don’t belong here. They looked a lot better as beer cans’. Our Airstream is aluminum but not square. Actually it’s got pretty nice curves, ‘aerodynamic’ they claim. Either way I’ve probably finished off enough cans of beer in my life to build at least one trailer so I’m okay with Jimmy.

Acorns are loud. Laying in bed at night they sound like big rocks hitting the roof when they fall from the oak trees overhead. The sound is amplified by the acoustic qualities of our tin can. This is the second site where we’re bombarded by acorns but it’s the season. The squirrels are busy gathering acorns for the coming winter. They get stuck in the treads of our aggressive oversize all terrain truck tires (acorns, not squirrels) and crunch as we roll.

The changing leaves in Virginia are beautiful. We’re told we missed the peak for red leaves but yellow leaves are everywhere. They drift gently to the ground like snowflakes when the wind rustles the tree branches. It rains one night and yellow leaves fall and stick, covering the truck and trailer. We look like a big mottled yellow school bus. But then the sun comes out to dry us off. The leaves stream off when we drive down the road.

I really like our trailer. It’s compact (23’) with the head in the back, galley and dining in the middle, and bedroom in front. The shiny metal interior makes it seem like we’re inside an airplane cabin. We have to pass single file whenever we move around. It’s an upscale hotel room on wheels with everything we need to live comfortably on the road. We limit ourselves to essentials. It’s a work in progress but we rely on the experience of numerous worldwide backpacking trips to keep stuff to a minimum.

Food is part of the adventure. We don’t eat out in restaurants very often, especially in these Covid times. When we do we seek out local or unique places, like Frogmore stew at the Foolish Frog in Frogmore SC, or shrimp and grits at Virginia’s in Charleston, or buttermilk fried quail with collards at the Glass Onion in Charleston or fried flounder in Nags Head NC or ham platter at the Taste of Smithfield in Smithfield VA. So we end up preparing most of our meals. Coffee and cereal for breakfast. Sandwiches for lunch while we’re out. Insta Pot, skillet, or microwave dinners in the evening, along with a glass of wine or two. Our portable induction plate works great for our skillet meals. Microwave rice, curries, and chilis in pouches are delicious.

Trick or treat at the Fredericksburg KOA is interesting. We’re there on the Saturday night before Halloween and the campground is full. It’s a family oriented Holiday park and they’re holding their own trick or treat. Most of the campsites are decked out in pumpkins, spider webs, spooky lights and sounds. People are giving out treats to the pirates, cowboys, princesses, witches traipsing around. We don’t participate, not because we don’t want to but we didn’t know. The next morning the campground clears out. Sunday night we only have a few neighbors. It starts raining that evening and continues all night long. We break camp in the morning in the rain and cold. We’re really looking forward to our next stay at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia. But of course that doesn’t quite work out as expected.

Camp Lejeune, NC to Ft Story, VA

October 12, 2020 – Camp Lejeune, NC is a massive Marine Corps training base. On the drive out to the Onslow Beach campground we see Marines doing what Marines do, training. The well used “tank crossing” signs we pass on the road, field sites complete with camouflaged nets, and the V-22 Osprey aircraft we hear overhead all conspire to bring back memories, some good, others.. There are experiences in life you feel so acutely that for the rest of your life you never forget. Like the taste of camouflage grease smeared all over your face for example, bugs stuck in it or the stench of your battle buddies who have not showered in a week. The past is the past, I know, I know, but I can still taste that grease.

The campground itself is just across the street from the beach and our site is closest to the beach. This is a good thing because our neighbor, Mike, retired Navy whose life position is he’s in charge, of everything all the time comes over as soon as we turn the truck off. Look what I found! He produces a very large fossilized Megalodon shark tooth he found on the beach. Wow, this is very cool, Carl spent many happy hours on the beach looking for his own shark tooth.

October 13, 2020 – Up early for the drive to Moores Creek National Battlefield. We have a cool crisp autumn morning to visit, leaves falling all around us as we walk the well maintained historical path. This is the site of the first decisive defeat of British troops by Americans in 1776. The bridge is the where the action took place and I try to imagine the Americans as they carried out their sabotage work, prying up every other plank then waiting in ambush for the British to cross. It was all over in three minutes.

October 14, 2020 – Cape Lookout National Seashore. When we arrive we are pleasantly surprised when the visitors center is open. Wow that almost never happens. More often, a park ranger is sitting outside with park brochures and a few souvenirs for purchase. Sometimes they will stamp my passport, sometimes they have pre-stamped pieces of paper that I cut and paste into my book. The two islands that comprise the park are a ferry ride away but we decide not to visit. None of the historic buildings are open on the island. There is also a pretty good size crowd waiting to board the ferry so we reason it’s a risk not worth taking.

Instead we take the short walking trail along the water but I feel like, what’s the point? I can’t stand still to read anything for more than 5 seconds before mosquitoes break through my defenses and start their attack! I cannot do the sunscreen, bug repellant thing so my only defense is long sleeves/pants. Not a good enough strategy I know, but lotions smeared on my skin, nope!

October 16, 2020 – Today we visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore and we plan to eat out so don’t pack lunch. At home we almost never eat out, preferring instead to cook at home and drink a little wine without having to worry about the drive home. Carl is the cook in our family and I am usually perched across the bar doing odd jobs for him. Pour me some more wine, can you get me the big roasting pan? I love that arrangement.

The lighthouse at Bodie Island and Pea Island are the only things we visit. The lighthouse was closed for climbing and at Pea Island we walk the nature trail.

In the car and on our way back to North River the clouds that have been threatening all day finally begin to drop rain on us. The rain continues all night.

October 17, 2020 – We woke up this morning to a much cooler day, around the 50 degree mark, but cloudless and beautiful. Since we only have to get to Ft Story, VA today we take our time getting ready to go. Carl and I walk and get in around 5000 steps, about half what we shoot for on a daily basis. We’re ready by 0900, set the GPS and head out.

Arriving at Ft. Story, VA we pass through the guard shack with no problems and proceed to the campground with some anxiety. I have read the campground is horrible and I have read that it is wonderful. Which is it? Driving to our site, I’m leaning towards horrible. The sites are all haphazardly laid out and not remotely level, the utilities are wrapped in insulation and look like they have been here since 1950. The WWII bunker down the street is masquerading as a bath house! And the neighbor, OMG, I tell Carl if I go missing on my way to the bathhouse look there first.

October 18, 2020 – First up today is Ft. Monroe, VA. This is a new National Monument site signed into existence by President Obama. We walk across the moat in a dungeon like corridor not tall enough for Carl to stand up. It discharges us into the belly of the fort where soldiers lived and worked. It’s Sunday morning and nothing is open so we pick out the main points of interest, General Lee’s quarters to name one and then just wander around reading the informational signs. I enjoy the history very much but the thing that I find the most poignant, that speaks to me and the humanity of the soldiers that served here is the pet cemetery. There are easily fifty graves on top of a battlement, all tucked among the old gun emplacements. Tippy, Sarge McFerren and Ginger are all marked with granite headstones.

Leaving Ft. Monroe, Yorktown is our next objective and it takes around 40 minutes to get there. This is a huge site and not easily condensed, so we just check out the Freedom Monument and Yorktown itself. One of the buildings, the custom house has been restored by the Comte de Grasse DAR chapter. How cool, I want to be a member of that one. But since there are no Revolutionary War icons in boring Brandon I’m stuck with the “Brandon Chapter”. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War have all been fought here so many of the buildings have been destroyed. Still there are quite a few to admire. We were lucky enough to catch the local Fifes and Drums of Yorktown performing on the town green. These are kids that spend their free time learning, practicing and performing Revolutionary War era music, they were outstanding.

Jamestown is up next, we get in line behind a couple arguing with the clerk about the price of admission. The man says, you won’t take our pass? No sir, this is a private enterprise, the park service doesn’t own this, that will be $25.00! No thank you@$^*. OK then… We get in with our Golden Access pass and enjoy our visit.

All our wandering today has led us about 75 miles from home. It takes well over an hour to get home, but the day was worth it.

October 19, 2020 – Oink y’all! Today we visit the town of the pig, Smithfield, VA. I was expecting pig art on the streets, in shop windows and touted on every restaurant menu. Huh, no ode to the pig anywhere. Just a sleepy little town with a few open shops and not many more restaurants. Carl has done some homework and steers me into the “Taste of Smithfield” cafe for lunch. I had, wait for it, a ham sandwich and Carl ordered the ham steak!

After lunch Carl goes to take pictures and I to shop. We head home and build a fire, its not really cold but a good way to relax, eat dinner and drink a little wine.

October 20, 2020 – Today is an admin day that we use to catch up on blogging, laundry, cleaning and any maintenance issues that have cropped up. We discovered that if we sit at the picnic table outside the park office we can log onto their wifi. We have been without cable or wifi since we arrived. We get a little work done but the wooden benches get old fast and there is no shade so its hot.

One last thing about Ft Story. Every morning at 0800 and every evening at 1700 we could hear the colors. Reveille at 0800 and retreat at 1700 brought back a lot of memories from our time in the Army.

October 21, 2020 – Ft Story is situated at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Early this morning, maybe around 0400, I could hear ship based fog horns, it was so cool. We got up to drink coffee around 0700 and the fog was still so thick it fell like rain out of the trees. We packed up in wet conditions, not fun.

Outer Banks (OBX) NC

Left Camp Lejeune Onslow Beach campground after one last walk on the beach for sharks’ teeth and crushed shell to hide them in for Zane and Sienna to find later. And a few pictures and video clips that may come in handy for the blog. Military stays are interesting – Ospreys (VTOLs) flying over us along the beach, hovercraft throwing spray offshore, tanks and troops chugging through the woods.

So here’s how we got here. We wanted to get away for a bit. Every other attempt to travel this year got canceled because of Covid-19 so we’d take the opportunity to head out for a couple of months in our camper. Since we planned to spend Thanksgiving in Illinois with Richard and family, we worked up a loose itinerary to get there. We also needed to place grave markers for Kathy’s pioneer ancestors in Sturgis Kentucky. And head to Apalachicola for a family reunion in December. To tie it all together we’d visit as many national parks as we reasonably could along the way. We’d vary our stays between military campgrounds, state parks, national parks, private campgrounds, and possibly Harvest Hosts. We’d head up the East coast as far as Virginia then wind our way west to Kentucky and Illinois before turning south back to Florida. We’ve been to a lot of the national parks in the southeastern region and we’ll be able to visit a lot more on this trip. The passport book is filling up for this region.

Even though we’re well into Fall, we’ve encountered a lot of annoying insects – mosquitoes, gnats, flies, and now ticks. Well we didn’t actually encounter ticks, they just deterred us from staying at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore campground at Frisco. Most of the reviews for Frisco mentioned sand spurs and mosquitoes. Coming from Florida those weren’t really a concern. But then Kathy noticed some recent reviews that mentioned ticks, and lots of them. While we were looking forward to a couple of days of boon docking at the beach, the threat of ticks convinced us otherwise. We had a bad tick experience at Sturgis last year so the mere thought of them was enough to change our minds.

Mosquitoes however were a real nuisance. They swarmed us at Kingsley Plantation with a few managing to sneak into the truck to keep us busy the rest of the day. One beautiful sunny day at Cape Lookout National Seashore, we set off on the seaside trail. When we entered the tree canopy they were waiting. I immediately noticed four on the back of Kathy’s left leg. Stopping to swat them off we played right into their trap. Those four were just a decoy. The main force were ready and waiting and descended on us full strength. We took off at a brisk pace. When we came to a fork in the path, we separated hoping to confuse the swarm. It sort of worked as long as we didn’t slow down. We met back at the truck and compared welts.

Gnats can be really annoying. Walking around with a cloud of gnat bastards zooming around your head is bad enough but breathing them in is really insulting. And then they manage to get stuck in your food or even worse, swim laps in your glass of wine. Ugh.

Joe Biden signs have been few and far between, about as scarce as Teslas in this part of the country. If the election is decided by the number of flags, banners, signs, posters, and folks yelling from the bed of a roadside pickup truck, Trump will win handily.

We’ve had a good trip so far but like always, we manage to stay too busy and not schedule enough down time. There’s so much to do, see, eat, drink that we can’t help ourselves. We like staying active, then coming back to our trailer in the afternoon, usually to a glass of wine.

Kings Bay, GA to Camp Lejeune, NC

After a disappointing start to 2020 that saw us cancelling two international cruises, a family reunion to Lithuania and many other smaller trips, we are finally on the road in our International Globetrotter. This trip we will try to visit as many National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, etc as we can. When we’ve had enough American culture we will head over to Illinois to spend Thanksgiving with family, then down to Apalachicola, FL for a scaled down but still eagerly anticipated Gedmin family reunion.

My inspiration to write this blog comes from the Fitz Perfectly’s Grand Loop Adventure. My friend Jan did a very skillful job of sharing the trip she and husband Mike took following their 2018 retirement. Congrats Mike and Jan on a retirement well earned.

Oct 7, 2020 – Today we are heading for the submarine base at Kings Bay, GA. Eagle Hammock is one of our all time favorite campgrounds. We arrive around 1600, check in with the camp host and drive to our site. After we set up we head out to the paved walking trail to get some exercise. About 10 minutes into it my blood sugar takes a dive and I fall down, try to get up and fall down again. Carl gives up on the walk and leaves me on the trail, talking to the alligators. He heads back to get the truck and hopes the security police don’t spot me, think I’m drunk and transport me to the pokey. They don’t, he rescues me and one juice box later I’m recovered. We relax for the rest of our first day and eat leftovers we rescued from the refrigerator at home.

October 8, 2020 – Our second day at Kings Bay we are up early and head south, back across the FL line to spend the day visiting FL state parks. We also sneak one National Park into that itinerary, Timacuan Ecological and Historical Preserve. We drive out to Kingsley Plantation on a heavily rutted, muddy dirt road. It takes about 20 minutes to go 2 miles. The plantation is closed but we were hoping the grounds would be open, they’re not. Out of the truck the mosquitoes attack. They’re voracious and we’re fresh meat. We don’t stay long. The visitor center is at the Ribault Club, a cool 1920s building. We get passport stamps and walk the grounds.

From Timucuan we head to Little Talbot Island State Park, stopping at Huguenot City Park on the way to check out the campground and beach. Little Talbot and Big Talbot have nice beaches that we walk along, taking in the views and driftwood. Fort Clinch State Park is a beautiful example of Fort architecture and we were glad we made time for it. The park ranger is what you hope for at every park visit, welcoming, knowledgeable and obviously enjoying her job. We spend about an hour admiring the fort and then head out to see the battery on the water. Its down a wooded path where the mosquitoes lay in ambush so our walk was brisk.

During our visit I get a phone call from a representative from DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) letting me know that the person I worked with to get all my paperwork together for membership has fallen ill and I will have to submit and/or verify everything again, ugh. It’s a tedious process and I thought I was finished with it. Moral of this little story, you can travel far far away but your cell phone can always find you.

October 9, 2020 – We said goodbye to Kings Bay and headed north to Charleston, SC stopping along the way to eat Frogmore stew in Frogmore, GA. We sat outside at the Foolish Frog with a view of the marsh and a cool breeze. The food was delicious and such sizable portions, we will have a second meal at our Charleston campground.

We checked into Lake Aire Campground just outside Charleston for three nights. The site is big enough but a little uneven. We got out the leveling blocks and the small error we were trying to correct became a much bigger one. We tried again this time backing the trailer toward the pond a little further, yikes. That was the answer so now we can set up our camp and have that much needed glass of wine. We devote the rest of the day trying to figure out how to use the new MAC books we purchased for this trip. Carl fought the VPN (virtual private network) but finally got it installed on both computers. Now to figure out why I can’t get my photos out of the cloud, I would like to put some visual to this narrative.

October 10, 2020 – Hungry for some low country food we head into Charleston to the Glass Onion. We have eaten several times at this unpretentious restaurant and are going back for more. I have buttermilk fried quail, collards and beans (with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc) and Carl, he wants pork belly, but they don’t offer that today so he orders the fried catfish instead. We shared bread pudding with whisky sauce and leave feeling blissfully full. Folly Beach is right down the road so we went for a walk on the beach looking for sharks teeth and interesting shells. Back at camp we relax with some dark beer, enjoy each others company and fade away to sleep with no cat interruptions or outside noise of any kind.

October 11, 2020 – Walking around Charleston today we are once again delighted with the Georgian architecture that fills this beautiful city. I suggest that if we get to build another house while we are still young it is in the Charleston style with big side porches and a front door to nowhere. Carl agrees, I think. At any rate some of you reading will remember my sister Penny spent a great deal of time in Charleston working for Cameron & Barkley Company. She went on and on about how beautiful Charleston was as I only half listened. Now she is gone and I painfully understand what she was talking about. Miss you Pen.

Warsaw Poland

Warsaw, Poland May 6-7, 2018

Leaving Vilnius on May 6, we got a ride to the airport from our Airbnb host, Vitas.  The 1 hour 10 minute flight from Vilnius to Warsaw on Wizz Air wasn’t bad (164 Euros for both of us, $190). We prefer ground transportation but we couldn’t find anything that worked so we opted to fly.  The train or bus would have been cheaper but taken anywhere from 13 to 28 hours (keep checking though if you’re traveling between these two cities since things are constantly changing but make sure you have the latest information). Warsaw was a late addition to our itinerary as well. We knew we wanted to visit Krakow but didn’t know what to expect in Warsaw since it had been so devastated during WW2. However we’re glad we spent a couple of days there.

We took Uber from the airport to Zofia’s Airbnb apartment at 4/6 Elektoralna Street (21 zloty, about $5.50).  Once again the entrance to the apartment complex was a bit scary. Another Soviet style housing block with a small arched entrance off the street onto a large courtyard. There was roof construction going on in the adjacent wing so there were building materials and equipment scattered about. Our apartment was on the top floor of the wing right next to the street entrance. We were a little early and our hostess was still there cleaning and getting the place ready for us so we dropped our bags and headed out to find some lunch. We didn’t really know where we were in relation to the old town/historic district area but we ended up walking past the Ratusz Arsenal metro station to New Town Square where there were lots of places to eat (‘New Town’ dates back to the 14th century). The weather was sunny and just a little cool so it was a pleasant walk. Along the way we passed the Warsaw Uprising Memorial – an impressive tribute to the resistance fighters who took up arms in a desperate revolt against the German occupiers. In New Town we had bigos (cabbage and meat stew), mixed pierogies and a couple of beers at Polski Pierogarnie Zapiecek restaurant right off the main square. We especially enjoyed the bigos. The first few pierogies were good but we kind of got tired of them after that. The beer was good. The cost was around $25.

Airbnb entrance at Elektoralna 4/6

Check out the tile floor in the airbnb

Polska Pierogarnie Zapiecek

Bigos and pierogies at Zapiecek

We grabbed a couple of soft serve ice cream cones in the square and walked through the Barbican towards Old Town but didn’t do much exploring. Just a quick look at the wall and the shops along the narrow pedestrian zone street then back to our Airbnb. Our place was ready by the time we got back so we unpacked and did a little research for the afternoon. The apartment was small, clean, nicely decorated, but complete. The only problem we had was that one day we came back and the door was wide open (fortunately nothing was missing). It was most likely our fault since the electronic lock and latch were tricky and we probably left that morning and didn’t close it properly. Needless to say we triple checked it (and every future door) every time we left after that.We headed back to Old Town for some sightseeing that afternoon. We enjoyed walking around Old Town Square (with the mermaid statue) but it was a little too crowded for us with lots of tables set up in the square and hordes of people dining al fresco. Further along the Royal Route we checked out some of the historical buildings and Castle Square which was much more wide open and didn’t feel near as crowded. We climbed the tower at St. Anne’s Church for a cool view of the square, city, and across the Vistula River where the Soviets waited during WW2 until the Germans basically annihilated the remaining Jews and destroyed the city. A sad chapter in history. We popped into the Bristol Hotel for a look at the opulent venue that served as a brothel for the Germans during the occupation. Back on the Royal Route (so called because it connected the palaces), some interesting things we noticed were the playable piano benches and the seeming love for Herbert Hoover (apparently he led efforts to provide relief to the region between WW1 and WW2 and afterwards). Its a great place for a stroll with street performers and lots of food and drink options along the way. The weather was sunny so we thoroughly enjoyed ambling around.

Market Square was crowded

Castle Square view from St Anne’s

Herbert Hoover tributes

That evening we headed to Falafelove restaurant just down the street from our apartment for some take away food. We picked up a couple of beers at the Carrefour Express next door and ate dinner back in the apartment. The food was good, the portions were large, and it was inexpensive (about $10 for shashlik, fattoush salad and falafel wraps that left us with plenty of leftovers).

One thing on our to do list in Warsaw was to visit holocaust sites. We’re both interested in WW2 history, especially Germany and the Jewish trials and tribulations.  The next morning we started off with a visit to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. It was really impressive, housed in an incredible modern building. The exhibits are well done with descriptions in English to include a representation of a village with synagogue. Kind of just moseying through the museum we got a pretty good understanding of the Jewish experience in Poland and the larger picture. Afterwards we hiked over to the Mila 18 (Anielewicz) bunker memorial – a pile of rubble that marks a resistance fighter headquarters during the ghetto uprising. Kathy had read Leon Uris’s book titled Mila 18 and it left an impression on her that prompted our interest. It’s a poignant tribute to the resistance movement, their struggles, and the lives lost there. From there we followed the trail of markers to the deportation site (across from Gestapo HQ) where Jews were loaded onto trains destined for concentration camps. It’s hard to imagine the anguish and uncertainty of the families on that platform.

Jewish museum – peaceful rest area

at the Mila 18 site with mound of rubble in background

“Grave of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising…” at the Mila 18 memorial

Part of the ghetto wall.

Deportation Site where Jews were loaded on the trains to the camps

near the former Gestapo HQ

Warsaw Ghetto uprising memorial

We headed to the Hala Gwardii market I had come across the day before for lunch but it was closed. So we searched Google Maps for nearby restaurants and found Folk Gospoda. Google Maps recommendations can be hit or miss but this one was a winner. We had potato pancake with goulash that was delicious and so much we couldn’t finish it. Of course we had the obligatory two dark beers that were as good as the food. It was a bit pricey (around $35) but well worth it for the food, setting, and service. We headed back to Old Town to continue on the Royal Route for a few other sites before heading back to the apartment for the day.

potato pancake smothered in goulash and Kathy working on a cutlet at Folk Gospoda

On our final day in Warsaw (only two nights there) we walked about 30 minutes to the train station stopping at Aromat cafe for coffee and pastry. It was a nice ramble through some pleasant residential areas. We got a good look at the Stalin era administrative center (affectionately nicknamed ‘Stalin’s Penis’) across from the main train station. At the station we picked up a couple of sandwiches for the short (2.5 hour) ride to Krakow and departed Warsaw.

Soviet-era on left and modern Polish architecture on right

Stalin’s legacy

One last interesting experience was purchasing the train tickets. I had walked to the station the day before we left to get the tickets so we’d have them in hand the next day. I lined up at one of the satellite ticket windows that had two women attendants. The women appeared to be holdovers from the Soviet era. Thanks to their dress (buttoned up jackets) and reddish hair (colored by the only dye supposedly available back in the day) but even more so because of their attitude. They didn’t seem very interested in helping me (or anyone else). Ah the good old days. Actually we came across a very small number of people in each of the former Soviet states we visited that seemed to long for those days but by far the vast majority acknowledge they’re much better off now than then and glad for it.

heading out from Warsaw Central to Krakow – do widzenia!

Vilnius Lithuania

Lithuania has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up my grandparents lived with or near us and all spoke Lithuanian. They talked about our roots in the old country. We hosted Tamburitzan dancers. We ate Lithuanian food at home. And our surname was derived from the great Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas who established Vilnius as his capital. So now we were heading there in our rental car.

On the way from Kaunas we stopped at Kernave, a site of ancient settlements, hilltop forts, and an early Lithuanian capital. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and simply spectacular. Set on the Neris River, there are steps up the hilltops with beautiful views of the valley and river below. There’s a recreated medieval village. The site is well maintained and great for just wandering around, maybe having a picnic.

hilltopping at Kernave

We arrived in Vilnius and drove to our Airbnb. Our host Vitas met us and helped Kathy haul our luggage up the four flights of steps while I returned the car to the airport. Not surprisingly the drop off location at the airport wasn’t well marked and I ended up in the wrong lot (after a few wrong turns) but got it eventually. I had no problem with the bus ride into town and Google Maps to get me back to the apartment. The apartment entrance is a little scary. The gateway into the courtyard is dark and dingy with graffiti and an old mattress. Once through the gate it opens onto an enclosed courtyard with a green space in the middle and parking along the sides. It seems like a holdover from the former Communist times. But the apartment is nothing like the building. It’s on the top floor of the building, warm and welcoming, very tastefully appointed and large with our hosts on the upper floor and us on the bottom floor. We have a bedroom and WC and access to the kitchen and living room on our floor. There’s a view of the city from our bedroom.

Vitas toting my backpack upstairs

view from our bedroom window

Our hosts are wonderful. Sigita is a psychologist and professor at Vilnius University and Vitas is a semi-retired TV camera crew director. Sigita’s English is excellent so we have many interesting conversations. Besides providing tips on what to do and eat in Vilnius, they tell us about growing up in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and eventually participating (with their children) in the movement to restore the Republic of Lithuania. Their first hand experiences and recollections are fascinating. They’re proud and fiercely independent. We feel very fortunate and honored to spend time with them.

Gedimino street our first day in Vilnius

We do some tourist things and wander around Vilnius during our five days there. Vilnius feels more metropolitan but the historic center is great for walking and sightseeing. The old town is a bit busier than Kaunas but not bad for a capital city. We hike up the Hill of Three Crosses on the other side of the river for a nice view. The Hill is a microcosm of Lithuanian religious history. Legend has it that seven proselytizing Franciscan friars were beheaded on this hill in the 14th century for badmouthing the local pagan gods. Eventually Lithuania embraced Christianity so crosses were erected on the hill to memorialize the martyred friars. However the communists tore down them down in 1950 only to have them rebuilt when the Republic was re-established. Currently Catholicism is the predominant religion (like 77% of the populace) which probably explains my family’s Catholic roots. It’s also reflected in crosses everywhere, especially wooden ones, which are recognized as national monuments. They’re scattered all over the countryside, some simple, some elaborately carved. The National Museum has an interesting cross display. We didn’t get to the famous Hill of Crosses at Siauliai (too far out of the way) which is an impressive testament to perseverance and resilience. Next time.

 

descending from Three Crosses

hanging out with Gediminas the Great in the Palace square

We visited the Palace of the Grand Dukes with audio guides. It’s a great exhibit packing in a lot of Lithuanian history. I found the early history really interesting (up to and just after Gediminas) and listened to every audio description in the beginning. But when we got to the 16th century and later I was a lot more selective about what I clicked on. All in all it’s well laid out and worth a visit. Unfortunately Gedminas Castle on the hill above the Palace was closed for renovation so we didn’t get in there. We got some good views from the top floor of the Palace and street but we’ll have to return to get inside. The National Museum is next to the Palace so we visited that as well. It’s small and manageable offering another good history lesson. There was a group of singers and musicians in costume rehearsing for something in one of the rooms so we got to watch that for a while. The square that holds the Palace, Cathedral, and National Museum is worth just hanging out in and people (and busker) watching.

We took a bus out to Trakai to visit the island castle there. The weather started out cold, windy, and rainy but cleared after we left the castle and turned out to be a nice day. The walk from the bus station to the castle is a bit of a hike (a couple of kilometers) but worth it. The approach to the castle is spectacular. We booked an English-speaking guide for the castle tour so we had to be at the entrance at a specific time. The guide was good but we felt a little rushed through the castle (always a challenge when you’re not on your own). The courtyard has cool things like stocks and cages that you can climb into for photos. We had the local specialty, kibinas (baked pastry stuffed with meat, vegetables, cheese, etc brought to the area by the Tartars way back when they allied with the Lithuanian dukes) at Kybynlar Restaurant. We were able to dine alfresco since the weather had improved by then. It was good and filling, especially with salad and dark beer. The bus ride back to Vilnius was interesting. We sat towards the rear of the bus. Once underway a disheveled (read: grungy) young man in the seat across the aisle from me asked if he could use my phone to call ‘Mama’. He seemed a little out of it and of course I said no. He bugged me for a few minutes then gave up. He approached a Lithuanian man sitting a couple of rows ahead of us and asked him. After a couple of denials, the man’s wife lit into the guy. He gave her a little lip then slunk back to his seat. A few minutes later he got up and headed forward, aggressively bumping into the guy ahead of us. The guy ripped out his ear buds, jumped out of his seat, and went forward to punch and tackle the ‘assailant’. He held him down in the seats right behind the bus driver and I’m pretty sure I heard him mutter ‘Russia’ a couple of times. I got the impression he was telling him to go back there. The bus driver pulled over and made the bad guy get off. He tried to shake hands with the guy who beat him up but his extended hand was refused. When we mentioned the incident to our Airbnb hosts they confirmed there’s no great love or respect for some of the Russians left in Lithuania. That was the only time we had any negative experience during our time there. Overall it was great. The people were welcoming; English was prevalent; things were not expensive; the history and culture are interesting; and the food and drink were delicious.

caged at Trakai Castle

lunch at Kybynlar in Trakai

Some other interesting things we did in Vilnius were visit Writers Lane, a twisting road with plaques on the walls recognizing writers with a Lithuanian connection. There are a couple of markers that describe the plaques so you can tell what you’re looking at. The other unusual site we took in was the occupation museum in the former Nazi/KGB building. The former cells have exhibits that describe the Nazi and Soviet times. Those were depressing times for Lithuania but learning about the activities and atrocities where they were planned or actually occurred was eye-opening. It’s also a testament to the populace that threw off those yokes to become the vibrant country they are now. [On a side note, we came across a few KGB buildings in the former Soviet republics that are now museums and worth seeking out]. We had a flight to Warsaw from Vilnius. Our Airbnb host Vitas gave us a ride to the airport even though it was early and inconvenient for him. Huge thanks to him and Sigita for a memorable stay. Next stop Warsaw.

yummy, 13 Euros for beaver stew

kugelis and rabbit stew at Berneliu Uziega

it’s good to be queen

Travel thoughts from Bratislava/Nuremberg

This is an interim post from Bratislava (finalizing now in Nuremberg) to get some thoughts out while working on a longer post for Vilnius, Lithuania. We’ve been inundated lately by tour groups so it seems like a good time to talk about our travel philosophy. So here are some ramblings about how we travel.

First off we’re an older couple (ie, grandparents), recently retired, who love to travel independently. We don’t generally participate in tours, cruises, groups, or other collective travel gatherings. We enjoy planning our trips, based on our own interests and research. We like the freedom this gives us to put together our itinerary, be flexible, and be responsible for our trip. Sure we make mistakes but consider them part of the experience (they provide some of our fondest memories). We struggle with aches and pains that sometimes slow us down a bit but don’t stop us from doing what we like. We deal with medications for chronic conditions. To get around we take advantage of varied transportation methods, including rental car, train, plane, boat, subway, tram, bus, Uber, taxi, whatever makes sense at the time (no more hitchhiking, aka, ‘autostop’), but generally prefer our feet. Being on our feet lets us more closely experience our surroundings. Because of this we usually get in 20k+ steps a day (8-10 miles or so). Local public transportation is our preferred secondary option. We almost always take advantage of inexpensive buses, metros, or trams if we can’t comfortably walk all the way from our hotel. We’ve used Uber and taxi a handful of times this trip when options 1 and 2 weren’t feasible (such as, rain or too complicated). One of the reasons we can maneuver that way is because of our luggage.

We each carry two carry-on-sized bags. My primary bag is a Rick Steves 45 liter backpack (22x13x9 inches) that I’ve had for 15 years. It weighed 14 kilograms loaded when we started this trip in March and is down to about 10 kilos now. It’s comfortable and rides well. I could carry it all day with no problems. Kathy has a Tumi roller bag, about 35 liters, with similar loaded weight. Her only real challenge is cobblestones. We’ve traveled in Europe quite a bit so we knew what to expect. A quality bag was essential for her since she’d have to drag it over some of those cobbles so she opted for the Tumi. It’s holding up well so far (fingers crossed). We both have small backpacks for secondary or day bags. Mine’s a Nike bag, about 25 liters that I picked up in Korea when my Rick Steves day pack started wearing out. I like the fact the Nike pack is tall and shallow since I’m 6’2″ and I don’t like a pack that sticks out too far from my back. Kathy has a matching Tumi backpack that she uses mostly for storage. She bought a string bag at the Bolshoi that is her go to day bag now. I usually take along a bottle of water, camera, raincoat, notebook and pen, maps, hand wipes, and snacks in my day bag. Kathy keeps snacks and acquisitions in hers. We don’t carry much clothing (we may go into clothing specifics and gear in a separate post) so we have to do laundry occasionally – either self service in our hotel (5 or 6 times on this trip) or in the sink or haul it to a self service laundromat or pay to have it done (once). This hasn’t been a problem at all in the 3+ months we’ve been on the road.

That’s a few of the basics on how we travel. We often get asked by folks in tour groups that we meet how we do it. They think they need someone to plan out the itinerary and details, and to carry way more luggage. One of our goals with this blog is to show that older travelers can travel independently and the experience is actually much richer for it. Our generation may be a little technology challenged but basic internet access and simple navigation skills are all that’s really needed. Couple those with a smart phone with international service and you’re all set (Wifi is pretty widespread so that accounts for most of our internet usage anyway). Most of the world is safe for travel. Information (in the form of guidebooks, apps, articles, blogs, and vlogs) is prevalent. English is common among tourist service workers and lots of ATMs (aka ‘bankomats’),  ticket machines, and menus usually have an English language option. Credit cards are widely accepted. Renting a car and driving around is perfectly feasible (at least in Europe). Google Maps has consistently delivered us to where we want to go. All in all it’s definitely way easier to travel like this currently than when we hitchhiked around Europe 40 years ago. So traveling on our own makes sense for us. It allows us to linger when we want and change plans if we find something we’d rather do. It’s about our experience.

“Ah-ha”, you may be thinking, “you can travel like that because you’re retired and have time. I’m working and need to squeeze in as much in a short period as possible. Besides I don’t have time to plan. So a tour is my best option.” Well we’ve been traveling like this since 2003 while we were both working full time at demanding jobs with the usual American vacation allotment (2-3 weeks at a time). All of the planning for our current around the world trip was done while Kathy was still working with the bulk of it before I retired (I exited the work force before she did) and we started this trip the day after her last day at work. Also don’t be deterred by the amount of walking we do. We realize that takes time, especially if you’re trying to fit in multiple activities that aren’t clustered (besides the fact that may not be a physical possibility for certain individuals). If that’s the case, public transportation is convenient and Uber/Lyft/taxi are available. In major cities we usually purchase transportation passes and zip around to various points of interest that way (sometimes just riding is a good option for sightseeing. For instance, on this trip, we took in the metro station artwork in Moscow and rode the tram around Helsinki with our passes). Okay, I could go on but that’s enough rambling for now. Please comment if you have any thoughts or questions. And as always, thanks for reading.

Kaunas Lithuania

Our next destination after Riga was Kaunas, Lithuania. The bus seemed like our best transportation option. We were hoping to get another Lux Express since we were impressed with the ride from Tallinn to Riga. However no Lux so we ended up on Ecolines. The cost was 38 Euros for both of us and the ride took about four hours. Ecolines wasn’t as nice as Lux but the ride was uneventful and fine. It got us there on time. Google maps showed the walk from the bus station to our hotel (Best Western Santakos) a little long so we opted for a taxi (3 Euros).

So we were in Lithuania. This is the land of my ancestors, paternal and maternal. I’m third generation American (of Lithuanian descent) and interested in traipsing around the ancestral homeland. Following the common immigrant pattern, my grandparents and parents were busy blending into America and never returned to Lithuania once my grandparents settled in the USA. This is my first time here. Kathy has done a bit of research on my ancestry so we’re hoping to follow up on some of that and maybe find out a bit more about my heritage. I’ve reached out to my cousins, Mick and Karen, who have done some deep digging into the maternal family tree. We’ve gotten some invaluable information from them, including detailed notes from Mick’s trip to Lithuania with his father (my uncle Jay who was my mother’s brother) and Karen’s trips and findings. Armed with the family connection and that knowledge we were excited to explore Lithuania.

every town has a Gedmin street

The Best Western Santakos was inexpensive (about $50 a night with breakfast) but definitely showing its age. The location is great, right off the main pedestrian zone (Liberty Boulevard), with easy access to the old and new parts of the city. The first room we had was spacious but a little shabby. After our first day out when we returned to our hotel we noticed a distinct odor in the lobby and staircase. Making our way up the stairs we were stopped by a maid cleaning up. So we headed back to the front desk where they informed us there had been a ‘small’ fire. Great. Since the stairs were off limits, we took the elevator to our floor. No apparent fire damage there or in our room. Apparently the electrical system had caught fire in a closet at the end of the hall and the smoke affected that whole wing. It didn’t really affect our stuff. The hotel staff were stressing over shuffling folks around since the hotel was fairly full. But they got us into another room. We packed up our clothes and moved to another wing of the hotel. The room was a little smaller and slightly less shabby but fine. Breakfast there was interesting. The room is in the labyrinthian basement, twisting passageways, up and down steps, ducking under low vaults. Once there the breakfast is underwhelming. The hotel caters to groups so it was crowded. The food selection is mediocre and not well restocked by the staff. The single coffee machine is tricky to operate and overworked. But it was enough to start the day.

My mother’s family has ties to the Kaunas area. Mick hooked us up with Linas Zabaliunas of Baltic Holidays (Nemunas Tours) who had assisted him and Uncle Jay with guide and translation services when they stayed at Linas’s parents B&B years ago. We enlisted Linas for an all day tour of Kaunas. Once we got going he remembered lots of details about his time with Mick and Jay even though it had been 13 years before so we were able to pick his brain quite a bit for that knowledge. The tour of Kaunas included an overview of the city from a hill across the river with Linas providing a great history lesson. We drove back into the city for a walk around the castle area, through the market square, and some of the Old Town landmarks. Along the way we chatted about my family history in the area, especially Great Aunt Franciska (my maternal grandfather’s aunt). She was an amazing woman. She owned two major properties in Kaunas – a boarding house (apartment building) and the Hotel Roma – in the 30s and 40s. However Franciska was deemed an ‘enemy of the state’ in 1941 for ‘exploiting the populace’ (ie, employing people), her properties confiscated by the Soviets, and she was exiled to Siberia. She returned to Kaunas in 1946 and lived her life out in Soviet housing but never recovered her property.

We had the hotel and boarding house addresses from Mick’s research. He and Uncle Jay had tried to find the buildings but could only locate a parking lot and an empty lot at those addresses. When we first arrived in Kaunas we walked around and confirmed Mick’s findings. Ah but this is where Linas comes back into the picture. During our day with him we opted to visit the Kaunas government archives office to see if anyone there could help us determine the disposition of Franciska’s properties. Besides Kathy had read that addresses changed during Soviet times so maybe we were looking in the wrong places. We were fortunate to catch the manager of the archive right before lunch. She was extremely helpful and confirmed that indeed addressing had changed. She produced city maps from 1939 that showed the actual locations of the boarding house and hotel. And told us both buildings were still standing. Incredible! She also offered to dig deeper into the property records and let us know the buildings history. We weren’t in that much of a hurry for the additional information so we decided to formally request it later instead of having her drop everything to get it for us right then (for a fee of course). For now we were interested in taking a look at the buildings. Linas took us to each. Hotel Roma is now a government prosecutors office building right on Liberty Boulevard, near one of the main squares. The boarding house is right next to a funicular linking lower and upper Kaunas, and still apparently used for apartments. Even though we couldn’t enter either building it was cool just finding and seeing them. Huge thanks to Linas for his help. There’s no way we could have found all that on our own. The funicular was fun to ride. All the equipment is original, including the cars. The operator ‘drives’ the cars from the control house. He was thrilled to show us the mechanism, including the motor in the basement. It was fun.

Linas and the record custodian poring over records in the Kaunas archive office

the plat showing the actual location of Franceska’s properties

Franciska’s boarding house next to the funicular station

Hotel Roma, now civil offices

funicular riding

inside the original funicular car on the ride

hand-carved angels, we bought five

We also visited Rumsiskes with Linas. It’s an open air museum a little ways outside of Kaunas that’s a collection of 19th century buildings from around the country. It’s divided into four sections that correspond to the four regions of Lithuania. Each region has its own distinctive architectural style and the people in each region have their own characteristics. For instance the folks in the southwestern region (where our family is from) are stubborn.

recreated Siberia exile ‘house’ at Runsiskes

We returned to both of Franciska’s buildings the next day for some pictures and to see what else we could find. Nothing further at the boarding house. It looked like a fortress and there were no distinguishing features on the exterior to indicate its past or its former 15 rooms. However we were able to enter the Hotel Roma building during business hours. We struck up a conversation with the building superintendent who spoke English and explained the situation to him. We showed him an old video Kathy had found on YouTube that depicted the Hotel Roma. Even though we could only look around the small lobby area (the office areas were restricted) we at least got inside. There had been 18 rooms in Hotel Roma and the sup mentioned there are something like 41 offices now. The building exterior was identical to the video to include the wrought iron decoration over the entrance. Of course we shared our findings with Mick since he was the driver behind all of it. A lot of his information (including the property addresses) came from the KGB files on Franciska that he and Uncle Jay had uncovered. Thank you Mick.

near Franciska’s boarding house

Regardless of the family connection we thoroughly enjoyed Kaunas. Walking up and down the pedestrian zone we didn’t notice that many tourists but lots of locals strolling around. We had a couple of great Lithuanian meals at the Berneliu Uzieca restaurant. I was in search of some of the dishes we ate growing up, primarily cepellini (zeppelins or ‘clotzkies’), that are stuffed dumplings, served with sour cream or bacon. The ones we ate in Lithuania were good but somewhat different than the ones our grandmothers used to make. What was very similar another traditional family dish – kugelis, a grated potato casserole. Additionally we had wild mushroom soup in a bread bowl, potato pancakes, pickled herring, fried dark bread, stuffed cabbage. All good but definitely heavy. Every Lithuanian meal left us pretty full especially since they usually included a great dark beer (or two).

first cepellini at Berneliu Uzeica

ice cream on Liberty street

more cepellini

What else in Kaunas? Besides just wandering around the castle and park, we visited the Ninth Fort with Linas. The fort was part of the Nazi plan to eliminate the Jewish population (and other ‘undesirables’). At least 3,000 Jews were killed there, after having been marched up from the town below, lined up along the killing wall, and shot. Though the Ninth Fort murders were the work of Germans, there are indications of Lithuanian atrocities as well. There’s a well documented incident in which the ‘Butcher of Kaunas’ and others brutally beat to death dozens of Jews in a garage parking lot while towns folk (including women and children) stood around and watched and even jeered them on. A dark chapter in human history, showing once again the depths people can be led into, not so unwillingly it appears.

Linas and Kathy at the Ninth Fort memorial

Ninth Fort killing wall

wooden crosses in Kaunas

On a more upbeat note, we rented a car and drove out to a couple of ancestral villages west of Kaunas. First stop Simkaichai, a collection of old wooden houses. We located the church and cemetery in search of Franciska’s family (Dubinski). We found a few markers with her family name (various spellings). We didn’t have Franciska’s birth date but we figured it must have been around 1870 to 1890-ish. She apparently died and was buried somewhere in Kaunas but we thought there might have been parents, uncles, aunts, siblings or their descendants in Simkaichai. We found about 6 Dubinski tombstones but none we could definitely link to Franciska. There were a few people in the cemetery planting flowers on the graves but no one spoke English and we don’t speak Lithuanian so we couldn’t ask anyone for help. The church was closed and no priest around to question either.

maternal grandfather’s village

maternal grandmother family’s village

From there we drove another hour west to Zemaiciu Naumiestis, the apparent home town of my maternal great grandparents. This part of the trip is thanks to information provided by my cousin Karen. The records are incomplete and misspellings abound but she managed to piece things together and trace the family back to this town that she also visited a few years ago. Once again we found a central church however the cemetery was a lot larger so we didn’t search for any relevant tombstones. The town itself was more modern so we checked out the old square with a building that showed up in some of Karen’s old family photos that appears to be a family dwelling.

Between Kaunas, Simkaichai, and Zemaiciu Naumiestis, it was really cool to learn a bit more about my mother’s ancestors and walk in their footsteps. Thanks a million to Mick and Karen for all they’ve done and send along their findings. We’re on the hook now to follow up with the archive office in Kaunas and poke around Ancestry for other pieces of the puzzle.

at the Best Western Santakos

wild mushroom soup

on Liberty Boulevard

Gediminas tower symbol in red

 

 

 

 

 

Riga Latvia

Rainy Riga. The weather finally caught up with us in Riga. It’s been cold, windy, and intermittent rain pretty much every day here. When the black clouds part, the blue sky and sunlight are beautiful for a couple of minutes until the next black cloud covers them up again. However we spent our time doing exactly the same things we would have done if the weather were better, we were just cold.

typical attire outside our hotel

Riga Cat House

We stayed at the Dome Hotel, right off cathedral square. Cool old building renovated with modern amenities, a good breakfast, and very helpful staff. Our room was large, the bed comfortable, and included a Nespresso machine (we found Nespresso in many of the rooms we had, either that or Nescafe and hot water pot). However something that set this stay apart from others was access to the hotel’s hammam in the spa and sauna on the top floor. We took advantage of both by reserving the hammam for two hours one day then the sauna for two hours on the following day. Not that we’re particularly weather wimps but the heat sure felt good as we recovered from the hard work of touristing in the cold rain. The staff were very helpful with our questions about Latvia and recommendations for things to do and places to eat (they all spoke English well).

in front of the Dome Hotel

Dome Hotel creaky staircase

hotel sauna at our disposal for 2 hours

hotel hammam available for guests

On the recommendation of our hotel we had dinner at the 3 Chefs Restaurant our first night.  It was excellent. The starter was a drizzling of various bread dips on a large sheet of parchment paper on our table and a basket of dark bread. There were about 8 different dips including pesto, sea buckthorn, strawberry, and hemp. We had very well prepared meals there and ended up going back for our final dinner in Riga. Our favorite was the black quinoa with trumpet mushrooms and vegetables. We are by no means vegetarians but that dish was an amazing complete meal.  Another dinner was at the Czech beer hall, Stargorod, that I had read about in the In Your Pocket Riga guide. The food and beer were okay. We shared a flight of five beers to start then a dark beer with dinner. We had goulash and pork knuckle (typical beer hall fare). The portions were large but we weren’t impressed with the quality. Stargorod’s big selling point is their all you can drink beer for 7 Euros so we probably shouldn’t have expected much from the food.

preparing the bread ‘sauces’ at the 3 Chefs

dinner art – lovely and tasty

Stogorod’s pork knuckle and g(h)oulash

We visited the site of the old Jewish synagogue and memorial in Riga. As in so many other places in Europe the synagogue was destroyed and the Jews eliminated, just for being Jewish. Reflecting on their plight throughout history and especially during World War 2 always makes us wonder how the Nazis and others committed those atrocities. But there are also examples of people taking the right and honorable actions in those circumstances that give us pause to think how they could find the courage – the best and the worst of mankind. We also attended an organ and saxophone concert in the cathedral one evening. The music was contemporary (avant garde) and rather boring but it was worth it just to hear the organ in that setting. The market in Riga is unique – it’s spread across four old zeppelin hangars from the early 20th century with meat in one, seafood in another, produce in another. The hangars are massive so it was cool just checking them out. All in all we enjoyed our time walking around Riga despite the rain, wind, and cold (the hotel staff claimed the weather was ‘refreshing’). Off to Lithuania next to visit the ancestral homeland.

synagogue memorial

market in old zeppelin hangars

the Three Brothers

grocery shopping and lunch at Stockmanns

bus from Riga to Kaunas