The Baltics, Russia, and Scandinavia


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July 26th 2012
Published: August 2nd 2012
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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind in terms of traveling. I've been trying to see certain places in time to go to Sardinia and Rome, where I'm trying to coordinate visiting friends amid their vacation season. This blog might not be as personal as some of the others. The Baltics, Russia, and Scandinavia run off of cafes and restaurants and just walking around. Though I did meet some great people, I didn’t have the close interactions I had with people like I did in Asia. I suppose it’s because a lot of the people just live there normal lives and let the tourists do their thing.

Lithuania:

Vilnius – After spending a day in Warsaw I headed to Vilnius in Lithuania. The train ride took about 8 hours total. I had to switch trains twice. I noticed that the tracks in Lithuania were wider than in Poland, a result of the Soviet era. I met a guy from Tasmania, Allen, on the trip who was heading on the same route I was. Luckily, he had printed out the itinerary for all the train switches we had to make.

Vilnius was a nice town. Like most cities in Europe it has a town square that offers a variety of cafes and restaurants. I’m starting to think that the entire European economy is based on cafes and restaurants. I met Allen for dinner and we walked around town a bit. One thing that stuck out was how late it stayed light out.

The next day I walked around town. I headed to the Cathedral and then to the castle. The castle was built on the top of a hill that gave a good panorama of the city. Across the river you could see more modern buildings. Vilnius seemed like a quit town for the most part. The weather was cooler than what I had experienced in Eastern Europe, which was much welcomed. It even rained.

Later that night I met Allen for dinner. He had planned ahead and bought some beers at the local store. The next day I was heading to Latvia. I had bought a bus ticket on the luxury bus for 12:00. The main thing I wanted to see in Vilnius was the Genocide Museum. The museum was a former KGB torture chamber. It was well preserved. The history of the Baltics has been one of countries being squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both of which were extremely cruel to those who didn’t cooperate. The KGB torture house had a prison in the basement. The conditions were pretty bad for those who were incarcerated. Two things that really stood out were the padded soundproof room and the execution room. Glad I never had to stay there!

Latvia:

Riga – The luxury bus to Riga was great. It was WIFI and free movies. I watched Horrible Bosses on the way and got caught up on the news using my iPhone, along with talking to friends in Skype.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in Riga. Of course there is the old town with all the cafes and restaurants. However, the more modern part of the city is right there as well. Riga seemed bigger than Vilnius and like there was more going on. I walked around the first night there. The hostel I stayed at gave me a key and a code to get in the building. When I came back the first night I had totally forgot about using the code. I was able to pick the lock. It wasn’t till the next day when I told the guy at the front desk that the key didn’t work that I realized I had forgot the code.

There wasn’t really a major site to see in Riga. Allen had made it up the next day and we had dinner and walked around the old town and had a beer at a bar with live music. The next day I did laundry in the morning and walked around while I waited. When I got back to the hostel two girls that worked there were heading in. I went to open the door (my way) and they thought it was pretty funny that I was able to pick the lock. I guess there are things about me some people don’t know.

Estonia:

Tallinn – I took another luxury bus to Tallinn, Estonia. I really like the buses here. I don’t know if buses in the US are equipped with WIFI but it’s a nice luxury to have on long trips. Certainly it was something I didn’t have traveling through Europe 13 years ago. In fact, I don’t think WIFI existed then.

Getting to Tallinn was a nice drive. I watched Inception on the way up. The only problem with that movie is that a lot of the scenes are dark and viewing it with light shinning in makes it hard to view. The ride was about 6 hours.

I got to my hostel by taking the tram. A girl I met on the tram told me the stop I had to get off. I was surprised how good her English was. She had an American accent but was from Estonia. I was really impressed with how well everyone spoke English in Estonia. My first day there I just walked around the old town and then went down to the port where all the cruise ships come in to dock. I wanted to see the Baltic Sea and plan out my next few days. Upon reading the map there was something about being able to go to St. Petersburg, Russia for a day if you take the boat from Estonia. I couldn’t believe it! I had wanted to go to Russia this whole trip but thought I wouldn’t be able to since I didn’t have a visa. In Hong Kong, the travel agency the Russian consulate told me to work with said I couldn’t get a visa since I didn’t have Hong Kong residency. In Beijing I didn’t have time to get the visa because I wasted a day trying to get a visa for India, which I didn’t get either, and was just frustrated with the whole process. I basically had given up on the hope to go to Russia. My top travel goal now is to take the Trans Siberian Railway across Russia.

I decided I would take advantage of this one-day stopover in St. Petersburg. The cruise liner I took issued a one-day pass that would allow me to stay in St. Petersburg for the day. I couldn’t wait. My only regret was that I was going to be in St. Petersburg on a Monday and the Hermitage and Winter Palace would be closed.

The next day I took a walking tour of Tallinn. There were a lot of people in the free walking tour. It didn’t seem like we covered much ground though. After the tour I went to a café. A guy that was staying at my hostel in Kiev came up to me and said hi. This guy, Mathieu from Paris, was doing a world trip as well – though going in the opposite direction. We ended up going to a medieval Estonian restaurant. I had elk soup and elk jerky. After dinner we went for a drink at a local bar.

The next day I got up and headed to church and then had lunch. I also checked out the KGB museum. This museum had more items from the Soviet era than the one in Vilnius. There was no torture chamber at this museum either. They did have a bunch of statues in the basement of former Soviet leaders. It reminded me of the scene in James Bond Goldeneye when he goes to this junkyard of old Soviet statues.

It was now time to catch my ship for Russia. I book a cabin for myself and went to the store to buy some groceries for the trip. It was a crystal clear night leaving Tallinn. I finished off the food I bought rather quickly and headed to the restaurant to get a little more to eat and drink.

Russia:

St. Petersburg – When I woke up in the morning we had docked in St. Petersburg. I exited the boat and when through immigration and caught the free bus to St. Isaacs Cathedral. I couldn’t believe I had finally made it to Russia. I walked right to the Hermitage and Winter Palace just to see them from the outside. I only had about10 hours to see everything I could in St. Petersburg. There is so much history there. I couldn’t believe that this was where the October Revolution started. The Bolsheviks had overthrown the Czar and put them into captivity. So much of the world as we know it because of the Cold War had started right there.

To celebrate my presence in the former Soviet Union I headed to McDonalds for lunch. I remember as a kid after the Berlin Wall and Communism fell that McDonalds opened a restaurant in Moscow. Through it wasn’t Moscow, I did want to try it out. It tasted great!

The next few hours involved me walking around to a few sites. I walked to The Church of the Savor on Blood and the train station. Part of me was tempted to see if I could take the high speed train to Moscow, see Red Square, and head back in time for my boat. I decided that would be a bad idea. The last thing I wanted was be in a Russian prison until everything got straightened out. Plus, if I missed my boat then my bags and access to money would be gone. I figured I would have to come back someday anyways so I would leave Moscow till then.

The last thing I saw was the fort and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. I didn’t go in any of the buildings at the fort because I was trying to conserve the Rubles I had left. St. Isaac’s is one of the nicest cathedrals I’ve seen. After the cathedral I went to a coffee shop to spend my last Rubles before heading back to the ship.

Finland:

Helsinki – Like the Baltics, Finland had been between two powers that claimed it on and off over the centuries. The Russians and Swedes had both laid claim to it at one point or another. Helsinki reminded me a bit of San Francisco with its proximity to the water and trolley cars that run up and down the streets. One thing for sure that you’ll notice once you get to Scandinavia is how much more expensive everything is! Everything! It’s easy to blow $25 on a simple meal. Water can run you around $3 for a bottle.

The hostel I stayed at was an old prison or psych ward, judging by the doors. One cool thing about it was that it had a sauna. The Scandinavians are big into saunas.

To be honest at this point of the trip I’m getting a bit tired of researching every place I go and making sure I get to the right museums, sites, ect. In Helsinki I walked around a bit just enjoying the scenery. I went to the fort, which is the main attraction. I also went to the Olympic park. It amazes me how you can just walk up to the stadiums and walk in. I did this in Sarajevo as well.

Sweden:

Stockholm – I took the night ferry to Stockholm from Helsinki. I forgot that Stockholm is an hour behind Finland so I ended up getting up early. It was well worth it. The ferry was navigating through channels heading into Stockholm and had great scenery of small islands.

I took a bus from the ferry to the main terminal downtown. My hostel was only a few blocks away. That night I took a free walking tour of the city. During the tour a saw a guy running down the street with a book bag and then an older man running after him asking for help. I had always thought the Scandinavian countries were the safest so I was surprised to see a robbery. I decided I’d try to run the guy down and help this poor guy out. Another guy in the group took off after him with me. The robber had about a half block head start on me when I took off. Also, I was wearing hiking shoes and jeans. When I got to one of the turns the backpack was on the ground. The guy who got robbed picked it up but it was empty. The robber had got away. I just wish I had acted earlier.

I walked through some parks and around town on my last day in Stockholm. Stockholm is probably one of the nicest cities I’ve ever been to. It’s super clean – and super expensive. When I left I stopped at 7-Eleven and picked up some things. 2 bottles of water, 1 banana, some peanut M&Ms, cashew nuts, and a piece of carrot cake = $21.

Norway:

Oslo – I caught the train from Stockholm to Oslo. The 7-hour ride gave me time to see the countryside. It’s really green here this time of year. It’s nice to be in the middle of summer and for it to be in the mid 70s too. The train ride was cut short as they are working on the tracks in Norway so everyone had to take a bus to Oslo.

Oslo is definitely the most expensive place I think I've ever been. I was starving when I got off the bus and went to Burger King. A chicken sandwich meal, a cheeseburger, and $16.35 later it was all over. Everything in Oslo is ridiculously expensive. A bottle of water will run you around $4.25 at a 7-Eleven.

After I checked into my hostel ($100/night - without sheets) I headed to the opera house and then walked to the palace. The walk to the palace is rather nice. Behind the palace there are huge gardens. Oslo isn't as pretty as Stockholm, but there are plenty of nice parks. The hostel was pretty lively. Since you could only get Internet in the lobby everyone hung out there to use the WIFI and to watch the Olympics.

The next day I headed to the Nobel museum and City Hall (where the Nobel awards are presented). The displays at the Nobel museum were pretty moving. So many people have risked their lives to help bring a bit of piece to people who otherwise would be the victims of horrendous human rights violations. The city hall where the prize is actually awarded was smaller than what it seems on TV. There are some great murals on the walls though. After the city hall I headed to get some lunch and then walked to the main park in the city. The park looked immaculate. However, I noticed that all the statues were nudes - some in some pretty provocative poses. It felt like the artist was really trying to push the boundaries.

Denmark:

Copenhagen - I took the bus from Oslo to Copenhagen. The 9 hour ride was really nice. The bus had WIFI, which was nice to help break up the trip. The hotel I was staying at didn't have reception by the time I arrived so I had to follow the instructions on the email. Luckily I didn't have any issue. I was worried I was going to be in a situation like I found myself in Taipei, though I wasn't betting on an angel to help me out.

Copenhagen is a really nice town. I'm surprised how many people are here on vacation. On Wednesdays a lot of the museums are free so I went to as many as I could. I went to the National Museum and the art museum. I love Renaissance art. I just put my headphones on playing Mozart and just walk through and look at the paintings.

I walked to the fort and took a cannel cruise and walked around huge lakes they have in the city on my last day in Copenhagen.

Next stop - Italia!


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