Archive for May, 2018

Travel thoughts from Bratislava/Nuremberg

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

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

Friday, May 25th, 2018

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

Monday, May 21st, 2018

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

Congratulations Jan!

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Champagne toast to you

I want to take a minute to toast my friend Jan as she gets ready to retire. Job well done Jan. If you work as hard at retirement fun as you did for PEO-SRSE, it will be fabulous!

Tallinn Estonia

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

We arrived in Tallinn on the Viking XPRS without event and used Google maps to get oriented. The hike to Hotel Telegraaf from the ferry was about fifteen minutes according to Google. However we got off track a bit and it took us twice that long. Along the way I managed to drop my phone while doing the ‘Google map walk’ (you’ve seen people with their head down staring at their phone, shuffling along, with a confused look on their face as the voice assistant says ‘head north towards Slzyskivskiychy Street’ when they don’t know which way is north and what the hell the voice said for the street name) when my day pack slipped off my shoulder and took the phone with it. The phone hit the cobblestone pavement face down and cracked the screen. I panicked because a phone is pretty much essential for our travel (this wasn’t always the case but we’re hooked now). Kathy panicked because I had let out a couple of choice words and apparently appeared a little upset. I checked what I could think of and all the phone functions appeared to be working, at least for now, whew. We switched out of panic back to normal travel mode and continued on to our hotel. At the hotel I looked around on line and contacted Google to find that my service contract doesn’t cover overseas replacement, only in the States. I figured some kind of lens cover might help at least keep everything together so I asked the concierge for anywhere that might have something. He pointed me to the nearby mall. There was a line of telecommunications stores at the mall so I asked in the first shop. The two young women there just said ‘This is Estonia. There’s nothing here.’ They weren’t very helpful. And the next three stores were pretty much the same – all kinds of iPhone and Samsung accessories but nothing for Motorola and no one seeming to want to help. In the last store one young man at least was willing to work with me to try to figure something out (real customer service, finally). We looked at various thin plastic films for Apple and Samsung phones and found one that could be modified for my phone. So I bought the pack of two, borrowed scissors from the front desk when I got back to the hotel, and cut the cover to fit my phone. So far, so good (fingers crossed).

Moto phone takes a licking and keeps on ticking

Old town Tallinn is still a medieval city in 2018, quaint and cobbled with narrow winding streets all twisting and turning. Streets that are wonderful to wander around on. The weather could have been better for those four days but we still managed to sit in the square for a drink the first day (wrapped in blankets) and visit a lot of the sites in the city over the next three days.

bundled up in Tallinn’s Market Square (notice the red blankets)

So the beer in the market square that first afternoon did me in. I had taken two motion sickness pills before we boarded the ferry in Helsinki just to make sure I wasn’t sick during the crossing. That turned out to be totally unnecessary because it was really calm all the way. But alcohol and meclizine apparently aren’t a good match. I was really drowsy that afternoon and spent the rest of the day and night in bath and bed. At least we got to walk around a little and have a drink in the main square on our first day in Tallinn before I passed out.

Tallinn food – breakfast was great at the hotel, including eggs made to order (Benedict, yum) and a great spread of fruit, pastries, yogurt, etc. with lots of coffee (very important). That usually lasted us until late afternoon so we generally ate a lunner (?) instead of trying for a lunch and dinner.

Hotel Telegraaf Eggs Benedict

Our first full meal was at Restoran Vanaema Juuris (Grandma’s Place) on the recommendation of the very helpful Tourist Information office. We had herrings in cream sauce with black bread and chicken liver pate with crusty bread for appetizers, followed by mains of roast chicken breast with cream sauce and groats and beef goulash with potatoes and pickles. In our ‘research’ to try different foods and drinks we had to have a couple of Estonian beers – dark of course. They were excellent. Actually the whole meal was quite good and cost about $40 total. The next night we had a reservation at our hotel restaurant. Kathy wrote a post about our most excellent paired tasting menu in the Tchaikovsky Restaurant. It was a fantastic seven course meal with live chamber music and wine. Truly magic.

wine and great food in a fabulous setting

We ate twice in a brew pub, Olleklubbi, that had excellent dark beer (one of our weaknesses). The first time we had an extra large ‘snack’ platter served on a large wooden board so we could try various local specialities. It was good (except for the fried pig ear strips which may be an acquired taste that we weren’t interested in acquiring), especially the chicken wings, onion rings, fried rye bread, and sausage (well, except for the blood sausage). Okay our American stomachs weren’t up to task (or, as our parents would have said, ‘our eyes were bigger than our stomachs’) and we left quite a bit of food behind. But it really was good. Our other dinner there was grilled meat and that was excellent as well.

XL platter of beer snacks at the brew pub

speaking of pig ears

nothing like a good grilling

We did a few tourist things in Tallinn. We walked up to Toompea Hill, hanging out in the Danish King’s garden. We climbed two of the towers and ramparts, Kiek in de Koek (scary name, I know) and the Maiden’s Tower. We also did the underground/tunnel tour which was better than we expected. The guide walks you back through time in each section. It’s fascinating, highly recommended. We also visited the cells in the former KGB building. They were used for ‘prepping’ prisoners for interrogation in the offices above. Creepy but worthwhile. Another highlight of our stay in Tallinn was mailing home a box of stuff we had collected along the way. The post was inexpensive (like $25 for 10 pounds or so to the USA), at least compared to Finland. It’s always good to lighten our loads. We also enjoyed evening liqueur and cake at Cafe Maiasmokk, opened in 1864. It’s a beautifully maintained interior from that period. The drink of choice was Vana Tallinn with our honey cake – delicious. You won’t be disappointed if you go there.

in the Danish King’s Garden

a big {k}night in Tallinn

Vana Tallinn and cake at Maiasmokk Cafe

Our last day we attended the Estonian Veteran’s Day celebration, Veteranirock, in Freedom Square. There were several Estonian bands, military vehicles old and new for kids to crawl around in, soldiers, and a fly over. The music varied from heavy metal to 60s pop rock and Estonia’s Karl-Erik Taukar Band headlining. The music was good. The crowd was rocking, young and old. Everyone was singing along. It was fun. We chatted with an American Army officer in the crowd in an official capacity. Good to see the Baltic nations actively participating in NATO and embracing it, best for them and the West. They’re very aware of Russia’s aggressive tactics in light of the recent Ukraine and Crimea moves, and feel they’re always on Russia’s radar as well. Bus ride to Riga, Latvia coming up.

Veteranirock in Liberty Square

Go Army!

cool historical displays at Veteranirock

Market Square bench

Market Square

bag drag at the Bussijaam

How Much Do You Really Need

Friday, May 11th, 2018

(Kathy here) As an admitted fashionista and maybe a little vain, packing for this trip was a real challenge. I limited myself to a cabin-sized carry on and a small backpack that doubles as a day bag. I had to fit all the clothing I would need for three to four months, in temperatures ranging from tropical to frigid in those two bags. Mix in a little rain and snow and I had very little room for anything other than necessities. You will see me wearing the same two pairs of pants the entire trip. The one dress I packed has to do regular duty and be appropriate for more formal dinners and entertainment venues.

everything in those two black bags

But so far I have been pretty happy with my clothing choices and we have experienced all the weather that we expected. Now that we are past the northernmost city we will visit (Helsinki) and it looks like the weather has improved significantly on the continent, I am looking forward to ditching some of the heavier stuff I won’t need again and maybe picking up a cool piece or two of European fashion.

Finnish fashion courtesy Stockmann’s Department store

You know I had to do it. Carl left me alone one afternoon to take pictures on Suomenlinna Island. I jumped on the ferry back to Helsinki and headed straight to Stockmann’s, Helsinki’s equivalent to Dillard’s. It didn’t take long to find a couple of things I couldn’t live without. The last time we traveled I got a big shout out from my beautiful daughter-in-law GG about the pink and black I was wearing. This one’s for you GG.

3 Wonderful Air B&B’s in a row

Friday, May 11th, 2018

Starting with Vilnius, Lithuania. I have to say that from the outside I wondered what we were in for. It was in a typical European apartment block, four buildings joined at the corners to make a square with green open space in the middle, think a very large courtyard. These spaces are used in a variety of ways, parking, dog walking and play areas.  What made this building different was it was obviously Soviet era and not at all visually appealing. Our host, Vitas, met us on the street to help with luggage and orientation. The flat itself was on the fourth floor and as is typical, no lift. Despite the pictures that had been published on line I couldn’t help being a little apprehensive. No need, when Vitas opened the door it was everything it was advertised to be and more. We had the entire first floor of the flat and our hosts were upstairs in the attic rooms they have so beautifully renovated. Two stylish, comfortable and completely separate living areas. Our bathroom came with a washing machine and heated floors! It was lovely and the cost was around $35.00\night. Vitas and Sigita were wonderful hosts and we spent one evening drinking wine, eating crudités and getting some insight into their years living under Soviet occupation. It was a wonderful experience. I would recommend to anyone that wants more than just a hotel room.

Living room in Vilnius

Next up, Warsaw, Poland. We arrived at Elektoralna 4/6 around 1:00. Our host Zofia was there to meet us and I gratefully let her carry my bag up the remaining flight of steps. She wasn’t quite finished cleaning so we dropped our things and went out to grab some lunch. Before we left I had to ask her who had designed the flat? Well, of course she had. It was so well done, no attention to detail was missed. The tile on the floor was so classy, with delineated spaces, the custom cabinetry and the art on the walls, all joined together to make the space truly beautiful. Carl and I estimated that the square footage was probably around 425sf but it was something that this spoiled American could have lived in. Two dormer windows filled the space with light and we were more than comfortable during our stay. Zofia made herself available for any questions we had or anything that we might need. A wonderful stay and recommended if you are in Warsaw. The cost of Zofia’s place was just $66.00/night.

Wonderfully light and bright room in Warsaw

Krakow, Poland. Having wanted to visit this city for a long time, I have had a lot of time to romanticize it in my mind. I hate it when I do that because so often I am disappointed. Not this time, Krakow is wonderful, an eclectic mixture of old world and new, a true smorgasbord of architecture, historical sites and good food everywhere. I have loved every experience that I’ve had so far not the least of which is the Air B&B at Miodowa 13/16. Natalia was here when we arrived and happy to spend time with us to answer all of our questions and give us her personal recommends for the Kazimierz neighborhood. She is an excellent hostess and her place is beautiful. From the minute we opened the main door on the street we knew this was special. First off, there was a lift, even though this flat was only on the second floor when you have luggage and you’re tired from an arduous travel day a little help from a lift is nice. Second there is a balcony onto a courtyard, a generously sized balcony where we sat the first night and enjoyed two dark beers. English speaking TV stations, a washing machine with soap and in a great location. It does not get any better than this for $83.00\night.

19th century stair case

Beautiful spacious tastefully decorated bath

Balcony big enough to be comfortable

Helsinki Finland

Friday, May 11th, 2018

We added Finland to the trip as a link from Russia to the Baltic countries. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were on the itinerary from the beginning so when we looked at getting there from Russia, Finland fit right in. Besides it was another country that neither of us had been to.

on the train somewhere between Saint Petersburg and Helsinki

 

Allegro comfort

As our northernmost destination we knew it would be cold. About the only other thing we knew about Finland ahead of time was that it would be expensive. That was true on both counts. We tried to fit in some northern lights viewing but couldn’t work it out so we opted for four days in Helsinki to just get a feel for the country and culture.

We stayed at an Airbnb not too far from the train station and the port. Since we arrived at the main station on the Allegro from Saint Petersburg, we opted to walk to the apartment guided by Google maps. The walk wasn’t bad but uphill and typically cobblestoney, not exactly ideal for a rolling bag, but manageable. When we got fairly near the apartment (about 200 meters away) our host Jori walked up and introduced himself to Kathy. We were a bit early for our scheduled meeting with him so I don’t know how he found us but glad he did. The streets in Helsinki have two names (not sure why, maybe to make up for U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’?) so I wasn’t really sure what we were looking for since the street name we had didn’t match what Google was showing us. Anyway Jori walked us to the apartment, showed us around, and offered a few tips for our stay in Helsinki. Jori is interesting, very well traveled and world knowledgeable but happy to hang in his garden space in Helsinki these days (or at least when the weather is nice enough to enjoy it). Actually Jori’s garden retreat was featured in a book about Helsinki so it’s quite the place.

Our Airbnb was the flat on the third floor

The apartment was small with a couch that folded out into the bed, a small table with four chairs and two plastic chairs in the main living area, small but complete kitchen, and a bathroom with toilet, sink, and somewhat open shower with plenty of hot water and water pressure. The decor was black and white with lots of interesting artwork on the walls. We were fine for the four nights we stayed there. The fold out bed was a tad small but the mattress was comfortable and the duvets cozy so we slept well.

Helsinki is a beautiful northern European city. Though a little hilly, we found it a real pleasure to walk around in. It was easy to get oriented so we could always find our way, unlike some cities where it seems difficult to ever get your bearings. One day we got a transportation pass and rode the tram out to a few more distant sites but mostly we just walked.

a hometown reminder in chilly Helsinki

One of the highlights of our visit was the island fortress at Suomenlinna (ferry ride included in our transportation pass). It was cold that day but sunny, as long as we stayed out of the shade and wind we were pretty comfortable. We didn’t have anything in particular we wanted to see or do there so we just explored the island and found lots of good photo ops. That same day we also visited the Rock Church and the open air museum at Seurasaari. En route we paid tribute to Jean Sibelius at his monument and had a coffee and pastry at a nearby cafe. Actually the cafe was like a tiny fisherman’s shack with a yard full of interesting stuff, including an open fire pit that was going strong. We ate inside though because it was plenty cold and windy out. The Rock Church is different, built into the side of a hill, not cathedral like or traditional at all. We’ve visited a lot of Western churches through the years and this one is definitely unique. It’s well lit with natural light so the rock walls feel light and airy even though you’re basically in a cave (strange, huh?). The Sibelius monument is impressive with a conglomeration of pipe-like things with Sibelius’s disconnected head (bust) nearby overlooking the bay. We traipsed around there a little but it was cold so we had a coffee at the fish shack nearby. The open air museum is an impressive collection of old buildings from around Finland. The buildings weren’t open yet so we just walked around on the muddy path checking out a few buildings from the outside. It was fun but cold for a couple of Floridians. We visited nearby Tamminiemi, the house of Finland’s former President Kekkonen. It’s a modernist house with minimal Scandinavian design elements overlooking a lake. We got to put on more blue plastic shoe coverings to walk around in so that was fun. The house isn’t large but well appointed with understated furnishings (except for the 1960s egg chair that seems out of place). Since Kekkonen presided over Finland during delicate Soviet times he was courted by East and West and has an interesting collection of gifts from various world leaders of the time (cigar box from Fidel Castro, maps from LBJ, statues from Krushchev, etc).

no Elvis in the Rock Church but lots of light

 

hanging with Sibelius

 

warming up in the Fish Shack

 

at former President Hakkonen’s house

Helsinki harbor on the ferry to Suomenlinna

Eating in Helsinki wasn’t high on our list of things to do even though there are plenty of great restaurants. However we found great soup at the Soup Kitchen in the Old Market Hall at the harbor. A bowl of bouillabaise with unlimited bread and water was about $10. I thought the soup made an excellent meal – chock full of salmon, mussels, shrimp in a really nice broth. We also had some open faced smoked salmon breads that were okay but nothing special and not really worth the $5 cost each. But mostly we grabbed food from Stockmann’s and headed back to our apartment. The salad counter there had great selections that we often pillaged. Breakfast was also in our room – coffee, smoothies, muesli, fruit, more coffee.

Helsinki Old Market Hall

 

lunch at the Soup Kitchen

 

lox ‘sandwiches’ at Old Market Hall

One of the highlights of the trip so far was our afternoon at the Loeyly Sauna. We booked two hours from 4 to 6 with a dinner reservation following. It was a pleasant 20 minute walk from our apartment along the waterfront (the Sea of Finland, complete with ice). Once there we were briefed on the proper protocol and headed into the changing rooms. Since it’s a mixed sauna, clothing is required so we changed into our swimsuits. First we tried the regular sauna after showering (apparently needed to keep from immediately baking). There were three levels of benches. We sat on the top level on our little towels for about 20 minutes and got quite warm. The heat felt great, especially after being cold for the past four days.

heading in to the sauna

Now warm to the bone, we decided to take the recommended dip in the (almost frozen) sea. We went out the door and crossed about 10 meters of deck to the two ladders hanging down into the sea. The sun was out but it was a little chilly (probably around 48 degrees F) as we got to the ladders. We lowered ourselves into the sea to our necks and climbed back out. It was a quick dip but enough to immediately cool us down in the almost freezing water. Brrrr. Crossing the deck back to the sauna felt warm.

Another round in the regular sauna to warm up from our dip. Then a little cool down and relaxation in the lounge (and a couple of glasses of water from the dispenser there to replace some of what we had sweated out).

After that we tried the smoke sauna. The room was dark and foreboding and smelt of smoke. There were a few other foreigners in there with us. We all felt like we were experiencing a ‘real’ sauna and congratulating ourselves for hanging in there. It was okay until a large Finnish guy in a skimpy Speedo came in, lifted the manhole cover with one bare hand (that was a feat by itself since the cover was heavy and the handle hot as hell), and dumped a few ladles of water into the heater with his other hand. After just a few seconds the heat index seemed to shoot up to an unbearable level. It was really uncomfortable so we and the other foreigners in there slowly slunk out to cool down before we all passed out. Being from Florida we thought we could handle heat and humidity but the Finns won that round.

We decided to take one more dip in the sea since it didn’t seem so bad the first time – double dipping. Well that wasn’t such a good idea. On the second dip I plunged to my neck again. But then we figured we needed a photo for proof so I lowered back in a bit. My legs went numb as I hung on for a picture. It felt like they had fallen off. I’ve never been in water that cold before but it was extremely uncomfortable waiting for Kathy to get the picture. After a wobbly climb back up the ladder I recovered enough to stiff leg it across the deck back inside and straight to the shower and sauna. Ah, warmth. But that was it.  We ended up with a couple of beers but canceled our dinner reservation there despite the beautiful setting right on the water.

ah, a refreshing dip in the Sea of Finland

We took the Viking ferry from the downtown harbor the next morning. On the way we stopped at Robert’s Coffee in the Old Market for a giant cinnamon roll for the ride since we didn’t know what to expect on board. We departed Helsinki at 10:30 arriving in Tallinn at 13:00. However the ship had plenty of reasonable food choices. The seating seems to be limited in all areas to people who purchase food or drink there (at least the signs indicate that food purchasers have priority) so we bought a couple of coffees to have with our cinnamon bun and settled down at a table for the voyage. The crossing was really calm so the two motion sickness pills I downed weren’t necessary but, fearing potential motion sickness, I was playing it safe (though this would make for a bad first day in Tallinn). The ship was interesting with two dance floors (fore and aft) and other entertainment including an English guy playing acoustic guitar and singing soft rock from the 60s and 70s like Tom Petty, The Eagles, The Beatles. The folks dancing were from another era too. Picture disco outfits dancing to Frank Sinatra and Rudy Vallee, swinging Finn and Estonian couples. All in all the Viking ship was much better than our previous 25 hour ferry from hell (the spectacularly misnamed ‘Eastern Dream’) from South Korea to Russia. See you in Estonia!

cinnamon bun from Robert’s Coffee in the Old Market Hall

Helsinki Esplanade – Finns to the left, Finns to the right (Parrothead tribute)

Saint Petersburg Russia Notes

Saturday, May 5th, 2018

Catching up with a few notes on our time in Saint Petersburg. First we saw some beautiful things at the Hermitage, Catherine’s Summer Palace in Pushkin, churches, and the architecture around the city. We had some great food at really reasonable prices. We had a comfortable stay at the Crowne Plaza on Likovsky Prospekt. And the weather cooperated. However it was all dampened somewhat by the pickpocket attempt.

Saint Petersburg train station

Our arrival – we arrived on the Red Arrow train from Moscow at 08:00 to the Stalin welcoming music at the platform (apparently they played this music whenever Stalin pulled in so it’s traditional now). The train was cool, restored to its Stalin era glory. However sleep was elusive. We had departed Moscow at 23:55. We knew the bed routine from our six nights aboard the trans Siberian so we stowed our gear and got our bunks ready. We laid down to sleep shortly after the train pulled out. However the car connections were Stalinesque and the cars jerked constantly throughout the night. We also had something rattling in our compartment. It seemed to be around one of the bunk latches on Kathy’s side. I looked and looked multiple times but couldn’t find it. I wrapped towels around it. I pushed and pulled everything near the noise source but nothing helped.  I gave up and slept a few minutes here and there but not enough to not be exhausted the next morning. We ate our Stalin breakfast – rice pudding and coffee. We had arrived in SP.

Our stay – getting in so early we expected to just drop our bags at the hotel and be on our own until we could check in. However the desk clerk had a room ready for us, an upgrade on the top floor with a view of the city. What a relief. We had some coffee from the Nespresso machine in our room, unpacked, freshened up, and headed out for what turned out to be a good day. We walked down Nevsky Prospekt, stopping at a cafe for coffee and pastry. It was nice walking in the sunshine but a little chilly in the shade especially with the wind.

mid-morning first day in Saint Petersburg

We headed to the Hermitage to get oriented for a visit the next day. It’s huge so we wanted to make sure we knew where we had to be (we had purchased tickets online and there’s a separate entrance for those). Then we walked around some of the churches and parks in the area and stopped for lunch at a restaurant along Nevsky Prospekt, Mama Na Dache, that we had passed earlier and looked interesting (they had khachapuri on the menu). Turned out to be a great meal – excellent dark beer, khachapuri, chicken skillet, chicken Kiev, and salad for around $30. We liked it so much that a few days later when we were in the area we ate there again!

lunch at Mama Na Dache St Petersburg – yes, food is a major part of our travel

Kathy in front of Mama Na Dache

St Isaac’s church tower descent

The Hermitage the next day was amazing and overwhelming. We got audio guides and marveled at the rooms – white with gold everything. The art collection was equally impressive – with the expected crowds around Leonardo da Vinci. We split up after our audio tour with Kathy exploring the ancient art (to get her ancient Egypt fix) and me heading off to the Administration building for the Impressionists (my art sweet spot). All in all an incredible experience. Afterwards while waiting for Kathy at the designated meeting place, I ran into our Dutch acquaintances from Moscow. They were walking down the street so I accosted them with enticements for souvenirs but Frits was quite good at totally ignoring me. We had a good laugh. It was good seeing them all again. I was targeted by pickpockets on Nevsky Prospekt on the way back to the hotel (you can read about that in a separate post).

gold at the Hermitage

Hermitage square

Next day we headed out to Pushkin for Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace. Getting there was an experience. We took a city bus from our hotel to another bus stop where we caught a regional bus out to Pushkin. Buses are one of the most difficult means of public transport when you don’t speak the language because of the stops and not knowing exactly where to get off. Google maps helps along with paying attention and trying to get the driver to let you know when to exit (fortunately for us on this trip a Russian woman understood and got us off at the right stop).  The bus ride from there was fine (though the bus itself was a bit rickety) and a person on the bus let us know when to get off for Catherine’s place. Beautiful setting, approaching along the garden, with golden domes. The ticket situation was tricky. We had read people were allowed in only in batches every 15 minutes. We purchased ticket vouchers online but we still had to queue up along with everyone else. The wait wasn’t too bad, about 25 minutes. But inside the ticket area was pretty chaotic. Four or five ticket windows are for general admission and one is for internet tickets. We weren’t aware of that and of course there’s no signage to indicate it or anyone to ask so Kathy waited in one of the lines while I walked around to try to figure it out. The guard directed me to a ticket window but it was the wrong one however I found the right one. Unfortunately there was a sign up that the attendant would be back in 15 minutes. So I waited and got our tickets. We had noticed a desk for audio guides right inside the turnstile so we entered and asked there for two guides in English. They told me I had to purchase a ticket for the devices back in the lobby. So the guard reluctantly let me out and I went back to the internet desk (which apparently is also the audio guide booth) where she told me I had to wait in the general line to purchase a voucher then get back to her. The general lines were packed and I was getting a little frustrated so I passed on the audio guides. Back at the turnstile a new attendant was on duty and refused to let me back into the palace. However with Kathy on the inside I was able to convince her I wasn’t trying to sneak in and she (reluctantly) let me re-enter. The palace was every bit as beautiful as the Hermitage. But the main attraction was the Amber Room. Not quite what we expected but absolutely stunning. Definitely worth the hassle of getting there.

Catherine’s Palace (no photos allowed in the Amber Room)

nice slippers at Catherine’s

 

in Catherine’s garden

Dinner and ballet that evening. L Brik restaurant for a great meal and a taxi ride to the Hermitage theater for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Just being able to attend an event in the theater was a treat, especially something like Swan Lake (though this version had the happy ending). There was a classical quartet playing in the lobby before the ballet which was cool. Once inside it was open seating so we got to choose where to sit. The theater is small and there aren’t any bad seats so we sat in the back where we could stretch out and stand up if we wanted. Met two gentlemen from New Hampshire who were spending three weeks in the area. It was pleasant out so we walked back to our hotel (about 20 minutes) afterwards. Really nice evening.

dinner before the ballet

waiting for Swan Lake to start

Next morning breakfast and train to Helsinki. We departed from a different station than we had arrived at from Moscow so we used Uber. I think the cost was about $2, about the same as public transportation would have cost us. The station has a separate entrance for the Allegro to Helsinki so we found that, went through security, and hung out in the tiny waiting room until departure.

omelet, yummy

our favorite part of breakfast – smoothies

off to Helsinki