Friday, November 30, 2007

Lost In Translation: Krakow, Poland

KrakowhotelwelcomesheetHotel Welcome Sheet

Krakow, Poland

December 2007

Doh!... So close!

I hope they enjoyed my visit because it certainly was memoriable!

Lost In Translation: Krakow, Poland

LongicelandicedteaRestaurant Drinks Menu

Krakow, Poland

November 2007

I had just been thinking about the fact that I haven't posted a "Lost In Translation" in a while when I saw this on the drinks menu at a restaurant. I'll bet that's a cold drink!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dram: Universal Health Care

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later, and today was the day. What was a bit of a stuffy nose when I went to bed last night was a full-blown head cold this morning. So for the first time in 478 days on The Voyage I'm having a "sick day." I certainly can't complain... and won't. In some ways it's almost just as well, because it's been a blizzard here in Krakow for the past two days and there's not much to do besides hang out in my little room and enjoy a little iLife. So, that's what I've been doing: drinking fluids, watching videos, catching up on email, Skyping the world, taking naps and taking care of myself. There is, of course, an aspect of exploration to everything -- including being sick in a foreign country -- so here's a little story that I thought might be worth a Dram:

UniversalhealthcareAfter a hot shower and a little breakfast this morning, it was obvious that I really did have a raging head cold and that it was going to persist for a while. So, I decided to go out and get myself a large supply of fluids -- juice, tea, water, bullion, etc. -- so that I would be well stocked and could stay in for the rest of the day. I bundled up and went downstairs where I greeted Diana -- the nice lady at the desk -- then put on my best pouty face and said "I have a cold!" She expressed her sympathy and told me that if I wanted anything from the kitchen -- like chicken soup -- all I had to do was call her and she would send it right up. I told her that was very nice and that I appreciated it very much, then walked down the block to a supermarket. There, I had an unusual shopping experience in that I don't usually buy things like orange juice and hadn't had to try to figure out which -- from the astonishing array of products -- I might like best. In the end I just picked a couple of containers that had pictures of oranges and other citrus on them -- along with an encouraging "100%" figure -- because, frankly, "z miazszem bez dodatku cukru" really doesn't mean anything to me.

On the way back to my hotel I stopped in at a pharmacy and -- again with my best pouty face -- told the lady behind the counter about having a cold, to which she replied: "I'm sorry... Welcome to Poland!" I had no hope of figuring out what was what on the shelf, so asked if she could recommend something. Seconds later she had a package of Sudafed in her hand which I said that would do nicely and paid my tab. As I was leaving she called after me and said, "I hope you feel better soon!" How nice is that?

When I got back to my room, two ladies were in the process of making it up. When they saw my "bags o' fluids" and took a look at me, they immediately got the picture. They proceeded to inspect what I bought, give their approval, check my forehead for fever, turn up the radiator, get an extra blanket for my bed and generally make a fuss. One of them went on at length -- in Polish -- with what must have been her version of cold therapy instructions, playing charades that were pretty obviously along the lines of "Drink all of this, sleep all day, stay warm, etc." At one point I swear she said the word "hospital" and I assured her that was unnecessary. They really went out of their way for me and couldn't have been more attentive.

Finally, because I had scheduled with Elke and Gustavo -- my friends from the "Gdansk Gang" who also happen to be here in Krakow -- to get together for dinner tonight, I called them to say I was sick and ask about rescheduling. Elke, bless her heart, said "I'm so sorry! Of course we can reschedule. If you need anything, anything at all, don't hesitate to call. We're only a twenty minute walk from where you are." Do I need to say more?

So, there you have it, a whole different kind of "universal health care." It seems like there's something different everyday that illustrates the kindness of strangers and the goodwill of all people. Even a "sick day" is full of insights on The Voyage.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Logbook: Torun (and Bydgoszcz, By Gosh!)

Torun1One of these days I'll write something special about Polish trains, but for now I'll just paraphrase Forrest Gump and say that they are "like a box of chocolates... You just never know what you're going to get!" With that little teaser in place, I will report that my ride from Gdynia to Torun was a pretty typical mixture of confusion, stress, uncertainty and boredom. Nevertheless, I arrived in Torun more or less unscathed mid-afternoon on Thursday. The train station is located across the Wisla (Vistula) River from the town, so I got my first real glimpse of the city as I walked across the bridge. Once one of the most important Hanseatic capitals -- with history dating back to at least the 13th century -- Torun has had the good fortune of never having been destroyed in any of the many wars that have raged throughout the region. As a result, centuries of architectural evolution can be seen -- intact! -- in its many, many impressive buildings. The weather was pretty lousy, but I took advantage of the fading twilight to take a pretty long, brisk walk around town before surrendering to the dark and gloom. Because it was Thanksgiving, I made a little game out of trying to find some turkey for dinner but ended up, of course, with the usual plate of meat and potatoes. There are some excellent Polish dishes such as Zurek soup -- which is not to be missed! -- but the mainstay of the diet around here is pretty basic. Fatigued from my day of train travel, tired from my long cold walk and with my belly full of grub, I hit the rack pretty early.

Friday morning I got in touch with my friend Krzysztof -- who was part of the staff at the Acarsaid Hotel in Pitlochry, Scotland back in July -- and he invited me to visit him for the afternoon in nearby Bydgoszcz where he is now a student. After making my way to the bus station in Torun, I stood in line practicing what I was going to say to the ticket-woman. Okay, see if you can picture this: I could see that she was an older woman, so I knew it was unlikely that she was going to have much English to add to our communication. With this in mind, I wanted to be sure I said "Bydgoszcz" properly and clearly so as to improve my chances of getting the right ticket for the right bus to the right place. Now, Polish spelling and pronunciation are still virtually impossible for me to handle, so I try to come up with homonyms -- or whatever you call them -- to help me out. For example, to help remember "Bydgoszcz" -- which is more or less pronounced "Bid-gosht" -- I had plugged "By Gosh" into my brain. As you might imagine, the first words out of my mouth to the ticket-woman were, in fact, "By Gosh!" She looked at me just as you also might imagine and I quickly went through my mental conversion process, eventually spitting out "Bid-gosht." In exchange, I got not a ticket but a slip of paper with the number "6" written on it and accompanied by a hurried, dismissive wave of her hand. This, my fellow voyagers, is the universal communication for "Hurry to platform number six, the bus is about to leave and you can get your ticket from the driver." So, off I went to find the platform and hop on the bus just as the driver was about to close the door. I spit out the word "Bid-gosht" and held out my handful of change from which the driver selected the appropriate fare of 9 zloty -- about $3.50 -- then took a seat next to a bundle of overcoats also known as a Polish woman on a local bus.

Torun2About 40 minutes later the bus pulled into the station in Bydgoszcz and I hit the streets. The only GSM chip which currently works in my phone -- at this point I have a real collection of them -- is one from T-Mobile with a UK number, so when I called Krzysztof to say I was in town he had a good laugh at the +44 number that showed up on his caller ID. Anyway, about 15 minutes later he and his girlfriend Paulina arrived at the station and we went on our way. Bydgoszcz is a pretty large polish city with a concentration of commerce and universities, so Krzysztof was quick to point out that it is not much of a town from a historical or tourist perspective. Nevertheless, we walked around for a while to view a few interesting sights and get the gist of the town then found a nice place to have lunch. Krzysztof and Paulina are both very bright young people and I enjoyed our free ranging conversation. Like many of their generation, they believe things are getting better in Poland and are hopeful that progress will continue, but they are also eager to explore opportunities beyond their borders. It is a story I have become very familiar with and, as you know, I hope all the best for them and Poland. A quick tour of his school and a quick cup of coffee at his flat later, we went back to the bus station where I was just in time to catch a ride back to Torun. It was a brief but very nice visit with Krzysztof and Paulina, and I very much appreciate their hospitality and friendship. Thank you!

Torun3It was once again very dark -- and have I mentioned cold? -- by the time I got back to Torun, so I had dinner then huddled in my cozy little room before calling it a day. Yesterday was a bit clearer in the morning so I hit the streets in earnest and pretty much devoured the little city of Torun. To be in a Polish city where the old, original buildings so outnumber the new, concrete variety is a real treat. You get a real sense of the wealth and importance that the region once had and it gives you both a better sense of history and more hope for the future. Besides enjoying the architecture, there isn't that much to the town. It was the home of Copernicus and that is a pretty big deal, but the museum in his honor is only so-so. Most of the Old Town is pedestrian-only, so it is a treat to walk around and it is a very popular place to be not only for locals but for many Polish people who visit for weekends and mini-breaks. One of the things I especially enjoyed was the variety of statuary, ranging from typically serious and elegant to more whimsical and casual. There are a few pictures in the Photo Log that you may enjoy. If you visit Poland, a stop in Torun is more than worth it even if only for a day or two like I did. Actually, a day or two is just about perfect.

I was up early this morning, had coffee and a bite to eat then made my way back to the train station. While making my rounds yesterday I had stopped by to get my ticket, so I didn't have to deal with that and was able to concentrate on "train track roulette" instead. (I promise, I'll write something about the trains soon!) I am now on the train to Warsaw where I will connect to Krakow for arrival there mid-afternoon. Although I am definitely heading south, I can't say that the weather is any better or warmer... At least not yet. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Logbook: Goodbye Gdynia

Goodbyegdynia1When I got up last Saturday morning, I was feeling a little lethargic and a brief mental recap of my Baltic excursion pretty much explained why: In three whirlwind weeks I had changed countries, languages, currencies, accommodations and modes of transportation six times. No matter how much experience and expertise I accumulate on The Voyage, there is still a certain amount of exhaustion -- perhaps fatigue is a better word -- that goes along with this kind of exploration. Being back in Gdynia -- a city I already knew pretty well -- and particularly at the Villa Admiral -- a familiar, comfortable place were I was so welcome and well cared for -- meant I could totally relax and I decided to make the most of it. So, I gave myself the weekend "off" and just hung around, chilled out, read books, watched movies, went for walks and had leisurely meals in my favorite cafes. It was a quiet weekend for the hotel as well, so I especially enjoyed having coffee chats with Dominique, Anya and the other lovely ladies who have been such kind and thoughtful hostesses during my stay. My special thanks to all of them for their gracious and much appreciated hospitality!

With that rejuvenating weekend behind me, I was "back at work" on Monday, doing all the things that are involved in catching up with myself and making arrangements going forward. I know this may sound crazy, but when you're in a foreign land it can take a whole day to do your laundry, find a new book in English, buy toothpaste, sort out your gear, etc. It can take another whole day to research and select your next destinations, arrange your transportation and make accommodation reservations. It can also take a whole day to update your website, catch up on email and make Skype calls to all your friends and family who want to know where you are and what you're up to. I certainly don't mind doing any of it -- I actually enjoy it -- but it does continue to amaze me how much time and energy are involved in maintenance and planning rather than exploration. Nevertheless, that's how I have spent the last three days. (Note: Also, my friend Greg -- after his experience on The Voyage in BeNeLux -- says I "make it all look too easy" so I want to make sure I give you "the rest of the story" from time to time!)

Goodbyegdynia2This morning dawned bright, clear and calm, so I grabbed my coffee and went for one last walk around the city that I have become so fond of. After breakfast I checked out, grabbed my gear and shared fond farewells with all my friends at the Villa Admiral then walked to the train station. My last glimpse of Gdynia is the photo you see here, showing the dingy, old gray train station with a bright, shiny new train parked in front of it. If there is one picture which tells the story of Gdynia -- and Poland -- I think this is it. The hardship of the past and the hope of the future is how I look at it. At this moment I am on one of the older variety of trains heading to the ancient city of Torun, the first leg of what will be a more-or-less continuous migration to the south. I will spend the next couple of weeks making a few stops in southern Poland and probably into Slovakia on my way to an arrival in Vienna early next month. At this point I plan to spend a few weeks in that favorite city of mine while I plot my course further south to somewhere in the Aegean, Adriatic, Med, etc., sometime around the first of the year. Meanwhile, it is back to exploration on The Voyage, so stay tuned!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Logbook: Finnish Finish

Finnishfinish1Sunday dawned with the prospect of decent weather for my day-trip to Helsinki, so I got up and moving pretty early. I've never been much of a "morning person" but the first blast of freezing cold wind woke me right up and I had a very brisk walk to the ferry terminal. Because I only had a day for my excursion, I opted for one of the "fast ferries" which is a smallish catamaran -- about 200 feet in length -- driven by some kind of "jet" propulsion. Looking off the back of the boat I saw what looked like a lot of steam but figured it was just water mist being kicked up by the "jets." On closer inspection I realized that it was indeed vapor caused by the relatively warm water being churned up and hitting the freezing cold air, just like your breath in winter. The thought of the Baltic Sea water being that much warmer than the ambient air was a bit of a surprise to me, but there you have it. As for the boat itself, with a cruising speed of about 40 knots it is indeed very fast, but I also found it to be very uncomfortable. You know how much I like being on the water, but I didn't really enjoy this ride. Instead of the usual "rolling" that ships do, the fast ferry does more of a side-to-side and twisting motion. I suspect this has something to do with the nature of the wide set hulls, the lack of ballast and who knows what else, but the highly touted "stabilization system" didn't impress me. Nevertheless, an hour and a half later I arrived in Helsinki, cleared immigration and hit the streets.

Finnishfinish2My first impression of Helsinki was pretty positive. It is an attractive capital city with a wide variety of buildings from the obviously very old to the also obviously very new. Its most outstanding features -- as I have come to be familiar with in practically every other city I've been to in the region -- are its many, many churches of all sizes, shapes and styles. One slightly odd thing I noticed immediately was that there were practically no people to be seen anywhere. I chalked this up to it being a cold Sunday morning and the fact that the decent weather I had hoped for based on conditions in Tallinn did not pan out in Helsinki. It was pretty overcast and actually quite dark, so I figured people were probably just staying inside. Undaunted, I enjoyed a lengthy walk pretty much all over the city, listening to some podcasts on my iPod and snapping the occasional photo. By a little after noon I was pretty hungry and very cold, so I stopped in a cozy looking restaurant for lunch. Just about the time my soup arrived at the table, the really inclement weather arrived in Helsinki with freezing rain, high winds and really, really dark skies. I lingered over my lunch for about as long as I could, but the weather persisted so I decided to abandon my exploration in favor of an earlier than planned return ferry. Thus ended my brief but satisfactory visit -- a "Finnish Finish" to my "Baltic Bound" exploration -- and an even more miserable ride later I was back in my room in Tallinn. It has been a really great few weeks visiting very interesting places, but trust me folks, this is not the season to see the Baltic States at their finest!

Monday was a general mixed-use day and Tuesday afternoon I headed back over to the ferry terminal to catch my ride to Stockholm, the first of two legs that would get me back to Gdynia, Poland. The ship was another of those huge vessels that I have become accustomed to, made to feel even larger by the very few passengers on board. Thus, it was a bit of a surprise when I checked into my cabin and found three Russian men already there, sitting in their underwear and drinking vodka. Why the ship booked us four in a cabin on an practically empty boat I will never understand, but that's the way it was. We all grunted greetings at each other and I tossed my bag on my bunk then headed right back out to find someplace to hang out and enjoy some quality iTunes time with my Mac. (Note: I need more iTunes money!) At about midnight I finally went back to the cabin and found it unoccupied so I climbed up on my rack and went to sleep. At about three in the morning my Russian roomies returned -- obviously from their comprehensive investigation of every bar and club on the ship -- and made just about the kind of ruckus you'd expect. In due course the alcohol must have finally kicked in because the lads pretty much passed out and I got a few more hours of sleep. In the morning I got up and found coffee, then whiled away the time until our arrival in Stockholm and disembarked promptly. Although my ferry ride was pretty bad, I humored myself that it had to have been better than the bus ride would have been.

Finnishfinish3At the port in Stockholm I took a shuttle bus to the central train station and began another "Deja-Vuish" experience. I got a ticket to Nynsham and got on the train, paying close attention to the station stop where I had to make the train change that I had almost missed the last time I did the trip. Arriving in Nynasham again was similar but different, owing primarily to the amount of snow that was on the ground -- What a difference a month can make! -- and the walk to the Polferry was correspondingly similar and different. The ferry itself was almost exactly the same, except for the fact that there were even fewer people on board than the last time. To my sheer delight I had a cabin all to myself and proceeded to stretch out for a nap before having dinner, watching both on-board movies and calling it a night. I was up early enough yesterday morning to enjoy our approach to Gdansk, then disembarked from my highly satisfactory second ferry ride. After a routine stamping at Polish immigration I got a cab here to my favorite little Villa Admiral in Gdynia and enjoyed a delightful return welcome followed by a lengthy coffee-chat about my Baltic exploration.

With that, The Voyage has reached the end of another "phase." With northern and eastern European travels behind me, I will now start heading south to begin my central European exploration. Meanwhile, I'm delighted to be back in Gdynia for a few days to catch up with myself and make some plans and arrangements going forward. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Logbook: Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn1If you've viewed the "My Bus" video below, you know the gist of my bus ride on Tuesday from Riga, Latvia to Tallinn, Estonia but here are a couple of other pieces of the story: First, when we crossed the border, "The Man" came aboard and was obviously surprised to see that I was the only passenger. As he checked my passport he said, "You are the only one? You are, how do you say it, traveling like a rock star!" It was an unusual display of humor from "The Man" so I joined him in a laugh before he stamped my passport and went back out into the cold. Second, as we approached Tallinn, the driver's helper asked me if I wanted to be let off at the downtown stop or the one at the port. I told him I was staying at the Revall Inn at the port so that stop would probably be best for me, to which he replied with a thumbs up and went back to tell the driver. To my surprise, we blew right past the stop at the port and continued a couple of blocks to my hotel where the bus pulled into the drive and let me off at the front door. You just can't beat door to door service! I thanked them both for the ride, then grabbed my gear and checked in at about 1pm.

The Reval Inn is nothing fancy, but for 38 euros (about $55) you get a decent room, free breakfast and -- best of all -- free wi-fi. On top of that, the Inn's modest little restaurant has a "soup bar" at lunchtime where "all you can eat" of six different soups costs you about $5 more. Although my bus ride was one of the easiest and most comfortable I've ever had, it had still been a long day of travel that started really early and I was pretty worn out. Plus, it was really cold outside and it had started blowing snow, so I had a nice soup lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening chilling out and -- okay, I admit it -- wrapping up my viewing of Season One of "24."

Tallinn2Wednesday morning was cold and overcast, but it wasn't raining or snowing so I headed out for a few hours of exploration. I walked around most of the "Old Town" and had this picture taken at a viewpoint in "Upper Old Town." As you can see, the Old Town is compact and attractive, similar to others I've been to in the region but perhaps a little cleaner and a bit less touristy. It has its share of churches and really old buildings, and is situated right near the port as evidenced by the ferry boat in the right hand background. I had read and heard so many good things about Tallinn's Old Town that I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I enjoyed walking around, but I didn't really get a sense of what is so great about it. I have to acknowledge and repeat, of course, that this "isn't the season" and it was pretty deserted and closed up while I was there. As you can see, I was pretty bundled up because it was really cold and after a few hours of exploration I was ready once again for a nice soup lunch followed by a comfy afternoon and evening.

The weather on Thursday was really lousy again, with wind, rain, snow, sleet and just about everything in between. I briefly ventured out a few times to gather information at the port about ferry options for moving on and things like that, but I mostly stayed in and spent the time online doing all the usual calling, surfing, etc. Seriously folks, it takes a lot more than you might think to research, plan, arrange and coordinate everything on The Voyage!

Tallinn3You may recall that while I was on my city tour in Warsaw I met a nice young man who lives here in Tallinn. His name is Hannes and when I called him to say I was in town he suggested we meet for lunch "downtown" in the new part of the city. So, walking from the port area and past the Old Town yesterday, I spent some time exploring modern Tallinn which, on the whole, it is a collection of steel and glass towers with more under construction. There are also the typical "old" buildings that have been converted for use by business or government, along with numerous Soviet-era structures that have been similarly put to use. Obviously, the city is growing and expanding which is consistent with what I have heard and seen pretty much everywhere in the Baltic States. I met Hannes in "Freedom Square" and we went to his favorite nearby pub where we had a lively and informative conversation during which I interrogated him pretty thoroughly about everything I could think of relating to Estonia. By and large, he has a positive outlook on the future of Estonia, though he is careful to point out that the explosive Post-soviet boom is due for a cooling off period before it stabilizes on a going forward basis. In other words, the country may have gotten a little bit ahead of itself and the economics -- especially real estate prices -- may face a little correction. Nevertheless, he is confident that it will be a "soft landing" and he personally believes Estonia -- and especially real estate here -- is a good investment. From what I have seen, I am inclined to agree because -- of the three Baltic cities I have now explored -- Tallinn seems least affected by the past and most progressive.

Tallinn4Saying that Tallinn is the least affected by the past is not to say that it has not been influenced by -- or does not reflect -- its history. On the contrary, it is a city that has centuries of history and it reflects all of them as my exploration today revealed. With a decent weather day to work with -- that is to say cold and gray but not very inclement -- I started early with a typical two-hour city bus tour that covered a large cross section of the history and geography of the city. With that orientation behind me, I set out on my own to take a look on foot at some aspects which caught my attention. One is the vast array of architecture that the city has on display. In this photo, for example, you can see a rather dilapidated wooden house from the 1800's that has a modern "functional" building right next to it. The story goes that the old wooden houses were the pride and mainstay of the city in the Pre-Soviet era but which fell on hard times during the Soviet era. After all, if you don't own it why take care of it, right? Anyway, as the wooden houses deteriorated, they were replaced by the kind of structure you see on the right. You can draw your own conclusions, of course, so all I will say is that it is fascinating to see how political and economic eras are reflected in the buildings. There are a number of pictures in Photo Log which will give you a broader view. Another highlight of my exploration was a visit to the local maritime museum which, upon first impression, looks completely run down and deserted. To my surprise and delight, a WWII era submarine is on display and I was given an excellent tour by a nice man who served on it as a cadet after the war. There is also an early-1900's steam powered ice breaker of which I was given an similarly interesting tour. A quick look at a Soviet-era prison rounded out my day and pretty much wrapped up my exploration of Tallinn. All in all, this has been an extremely worthwhile visit, consistent with my stops in Vilnius and Riga. I am very glad I decided to be "Baltics Bound" for the past couple of weeks and would look forward to spending more time here -- particularly during "the season" -- in the future.

Going forward, I plan to take a fast ferry tomorrow over to Helsinki, Finland for a quick look then come back here in the evening. Considering how long it would take to retrace the train and bus routes I took to get here on my way back to Gdynia, I decided to make it easier on myself with two overnight ferry rides. So, after spending Monday here in Tallinn, I will take a ferry over to Stockholm on Tuesday then catching the same ferry as I did before from Nynasham to Gdansk on Wednesday as my route to arrive back in Gdynia on Thursday. So, I will be pretty much on the move this week and you can look forward to the next posting sometime next weekend. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dram: Netstonia

Netstonia1 Netstonia2
Estonia really "gets" the internet, and hi-speed wi-fi connection is available practically everywhere here in the capital city of Tallinn. When I asked the receptionist at my budget little hotel if wi-fi was available, she looked at me like I was from another planet and said, "Of course, and it is free." Color me happy. Everywhere I have been in my exploration around the city, I have seen people using their laptops. Besides in the usual places like hotel lobbies and cafes, you see people who are obviously online in virtually every restaurant, pub and public area. Rumor has it that you can even check your email while you are filling your tank at the gas station. When I saw the sign above in the middle of a public green space, I had to shake my head: Free wireless internet is even available at your favorite park bench. Amazing. For a little country that has only recently begun its economic development after "the Soviet days", Estonia is way ahead of every "developed" country I have been to in terms of ubiquitous internet access. Then again, it occurs to me that a number of the smaller, less developed countries I have been to are noteworthy for their relative level of internet access. Come to think of it, the least available, slowest and most expensive internet access I have had on the entire Voyage has been in the USA. Go figure.

Dram: My Bus

You just never know what's going to happen on The Voyage and here's a little video Dram to prove it. Of all the bus rides I've taken, this was one of the most memorable -- and unusual -- for a very special reason. Seriously folks, you can't make this stuff up! Enjoy!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Logbook: Riga, Latvia

Riga1My bus ride on Friday from Vilnius to Riga was the first significant bus ride I've taken since my TICA Bus days through Central America almost exactly a year ago. As it turns out, EuroLines is to the Baltic States almost exactly what the TICA Bus is to Central America -- an efficient, no frills "people mover" between capital cities. With daily runs on the Warsaw-Vilnius-Riga-Tallinn route, the bus actually has some advantages over the trains. You can't get up to walk around like you can on the train, but the bus is even cheaper and actually a little bit faster. Besides, since you can't get a train from Riga to Tallinn without going into Russia, most folks have to take the bus for that leg anyway. If you travel to the Baltics -- which I strongly suggest you do -- your best bet is to take the bus all the way, and look into the "Baltic Pass" which can save you even more money depending on how many legs you are going to do. Then again, at about $15 for the five hour ride from Vilnius to Riga, how much can you really save?

Although the bus was pretty full, I lucked out and had two seats to myself -- no small luxury on a five hour ride! My other luxury, of course, is my combination of iPods which let me catch up on my favorite Podcasts -- both audio and video -- plus watch an episode or two of "24" which -- I admit -- I am totally hooked on! The ride itself was uneventful, with only one moment worth sharing: At the border between Lithuania and Latvia, "The Man" came aboard to check passports and since everyone except me was from one country or the other, their passports were looked at and immediately returned. Mine was looked at, thumbed through then taken by "The Man" off the bus. We sat and waited for the next ten minutes until "The Man" came back, walked down the aisle, handed me my passport without a word then turned around and got off the bus followed by our immediate departure. Although I didn't get any sense of anyone's consternation about the delay, it was a little weird to be so obviously singled out!

While planning my "Baltics Bound" exploration, I had read and hear that Riga is a beautiful city, but my first impressions were not very positive. Of course, the bus station area of any city usually isn't very nice, and it was already almost dark by the time we arrived at around three in the afternoon. Plus, the weather was really cold and pouring down a mixture of rain, sleet and slushy snow. What city could look good with all that going on, right? I quickly made my way a block or so to the edge of the "Old Town" and found a decent little place to stay, went online for a while then went out for an early dinner of hot soup and called it an early night.

Riga2The weather on Saturday was even worse, rivaling some of my time in Antarctica for cold, wet, windy and raw. I immediately declared it an "inside day" and spent most of it in my room, catching up online, reading my book and watching some more episodes of "24" which - did I mention? -- I am totally hooked on! I did go out in the middle of the day to get some more hot soup for lunch, and made a swing through the immense public market area. Situated in and around five huge WWI-era zeppelin hangars, the market was packed with people despite the terrible weather. I was practically agog wandering around, almost overwhelmed by the size of it. I've been in a lot of markets during my travels, and this one is probably the biggest I've ever seen. What makes it really fascinating is that each of the five hangar buildings seems to have a "theme" for its products -- with one containing nothing but meat stalls, another produce, another clothing, etc. -- and in between the hangars you can find more traditional supermarkets and shops. I don't know what it was like during "the Soviet days" but it certainly is "raging commerce" today. A couple of hours of that really wore me out, and I was happy to get back to my comfy room for another bad-weather-induced early night!

Riga3I pulled back the curtains with some trepidation yesterday morning, but was delighted to find blue sky! I hit the streets early and made the most of it, starting with a two hour "overview" bus tour. With that orientation behind me, I walked for hours in what really is a beautiful city after all. (I've put some of the best of the pictures in the Photos page so you can see for yourself.) The key thing to keep in mind about Riga -- like most of its neighbors -- is that it has been under the rule of foreigners for most of its history: Germany starting in the 12th century and continuing with Poland in the 16th, Sweden in the 17th and Russia in the 18th. What's different about Riga is that it has not had the same kind of destruction in wartime that many of its neighbors have had, so it has representative architecture from each period. Also, as a thriving port city, Riga did not experience as much economic devastation during adverse occupation. Thus, walking around the city is a joyful mix of impressive buildings and lovely green spaces. If you are "into" architecture, Riga should be at the very top of your list of places to visit.

Riga4As for the people -- and while I have no complaints -- Riga has a different kind of "feel" to it. Mostly, I suspect, because this is the farthest into Easter Europe that I have been, I don't look like the local folks. Despite the fact that my clothing is dark like theirs, I think my general features make me appear obviously "Western." While there hasn't been anything the least bit negative, I have not felt entirely comfortable here. Perhaps because the city is "culturally divided" -- almost 50% of the people are of Russian rather than "native Latvian" origin -- I'm picking up on those "vibes." I don't know. My point is that when you visit here -- which you should -- don't be surprised if there's a certain "feeling" that makes you go, "Hmmm." Like elsewhere in the region, most young people generally speak pretty good English so language is not a problem, but service is generally pretty poor so you need to be patient. All in all, I have really enjoyed Riga and strongly recommend it for a visit, but I'm not inclined to "invest" myself in it.

Today has been a good mixed-use day as I prepare for a "travel day" tomorrow to Tallinn, Estonia. Besides making my arrangements going forward, I've prepared for another day on the bus. I've filled my feed bag, charged my iPods, picked up a new book and enjoyed some continued good weather to walk around in anticipation of another long sit. Everything is ship shape on The Voyage!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dram: Jugendstile

Rigajugenstil1 Rigajugenstil2 Rigajugenstil3
Riga, Latvia, is known for its "jugendstile" -- a style of architecture similar to Art Nouveau -- which can be seen throughout the New Town. The most famous collection of these buildings is on Alberta iela (street) and during my extensive walking tour I checked it out. I don't know much about architecture styles, but I was pretty impressed and thought it would be "worth a Dram" to share a couple of my favorites. (As always, you can click on the thumbnail photos above for larger images.)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Logbook: Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius1I caught my train from Warsaw early Monday morning -- at about 7am -- and for the next six hours I had an uneventful ride through the Polish countryside. At the station just short of the border with Lithuania, the last two cars -- including mine -- were detached from the rest of the train and the remaining few of us were pulled across the border. Officials from Poland and Lithuania who had boarded the train examined and stamped my passports without issue or fanfare. A few minutes later we stopped at a middle-of-nowhere station where we disembarked, walked across the platform and boarded another train belonging to the Lithuanian railroad company. I've been on a wide variety of trains in my travels, but this one was easily the least modern. In fact, it was dark, dirty, dilapidated and downright antique. Reminding myself that I had entered a "Former Soviet Republic" and of the propaganda I have seen over the years about the level of infrastructure development which that implies, I settled in for a long, slow and uncomfortable four hour trip which nonetheless ended uneventfully at the central station in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania.

In the station, I put my trusty PayPal card into an ATM and was both rewarded with some local currency and delighted by the routine return of my card. It was late, cold and dark when I emerged from the station, so I was glad that I had made a reservation at the local Holiday Inn and didn't have to scramble to find accommodations. I approached the only taxi at the stand and was relieved to be able to request my destination and negotiate the fare in English. The cab was only slightly more modern than the train and, of course, the driver was unable to get it started. After a couple of unsuccessful adjustments under the hood he gave me a smile and we had a laugh, then gave the car a good push and jumped inside while he kick started it in the middle of traffic to send us on our way. A few minutes later we pulled up to a bright, clean, modern "no surprises" hotel. Thus, with the train and cab experience on one hand, and the ATM, English-speaking and hotel experience on the other, I had been swiftly introduced to the kind of contradictions that are part of what makes Vilnius one of the most interesting places I have been.

Vilnius2I was pretty wiped out from my day of travel, so I called it an early night and slept in a bit on Tuesday morning. By ten o'clock, however, I was out on the streets trying to get a feel for the city. Right from the beginning, contradictions abounded. For example, while one of the main bridges across the river has statues at each of the four corners which pay tribute to virtuous Soviet vocations -- Farmers, Workers, Students and Soldiers -- most of the other Soviet-era statues and monuments in the city have been removed, making vacant lots of former memorial squares (See Dram below). Another example is that while the main street of the city has a full range of upscale retail shops with sky-high prices, one can find entire blocks that are completely derelict right around the corner. While traffic consists mainly of expensive European sedans, there isn't much of it and the well worn buses are completely packed. A cup of coffee cost me 6 Litas (about $2.25) but I was able to get a good bowl of soup, a tasty salad and a Coke for only 15 Litas. The list goes on and on, but you get the point: Vilnius is a city in transition between old Soviet poverty and new European Union prosperity. After a few hours of this conundrum I was pretty "full" and headed back to my room for a little recovery time followed by an early evening.

I had a sense from my wandering on Tuesday that I was missing some essential parts of the Vilnus story, so I booked a half-day tour for yesterday morning. Unfortunately, the weather was really crummy with rain, sleet and cold adding to the seasonal darkness. Fortunately, Justine the tour guide was pretty fluent in English and gave me and two folks from Finland a really informative tour. By means of stories in which she consistently contrasted "the Soviet days" and "ever since independence" I was able to start getting a feel for the contradictions I had sensed the day before and for just how interesting the city is in general.

Vilnius3Like much of the region, the balance of power has shifted many times over the ages. Between the Russians, Napolean, the Scandinavians, the Poles, the Germans, the Russians, etc., the history of the country has been fluid to say the least. I'm still not entirely clear about who did what to whom and when, but it is clear that everyone left their mark and the culture is very much an olio. With buildings ranging from the 12th century and into the 21st century, the architecture of the place is astonishing and there are many places in the city from which you can view the whole spectrum from ancient red brick to modern steel and glass. Perhaps most outstanding is the collection of some forty-odd Catholic churches from all of the various eras, most of which were "repurposed" by the Soviets as museums, warehouses, schools, prisons and administrative buildings, and are only now being restored to their religious use. Of the nearly as large number of Jewish temples the city once had, however, only one survives today. This is due mostly, of course, to the fact that during WWII the Jewish population -- once almost 30% of the city's population -- was virtually eliminated. Today, less than 1% of the population is Jewish.

Vilnius4Today was cold and blustery but not rainy, so I spent most of the day retracing on foot the tour we took by bus yesterday and I really enjoyed wandering pretty much all over the city. Since today is a national holiday -- All Saints Day -- many of the shops were closed and most of the people on the street had flowers which they were taking to the numerous cemeteries around the city. The contrast between the dark clothing and the bright flowers was striking to me. I wrote about "The Republic of Uzupis" below, so I will only repeat here that it is a real gem and was a treat to explore. I will add that it also features a very prominent monument to Frank Zappa. Go figure. About the only downside to my day -- and to my visit in Vilnius -- were some of my experiences with the people. In general, older employees in shops and restaurants are pretty surly and pay little attention to you. I spoke to a few of the bright, helpful young people at my hotel about it and they said it was an attitude left over from "the Soviet days." They added that this negative attitude of older people is one of the reasons that so many young people -- at least 25,000 per year -- are leaving the country to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere. It's not just the possibility of making more money, it's also the chance to work with positive, like-minded colleagues. This is yet another contradiction I observed, and it will be a very important issue for the country to somehow address.

I am so intrigued by Vilnius that I have been tempted to stay a couple of extra days and maybe even arrange an itinerary out to some of the other interesting places I have heard about elsewhere in the country. There are five UNESCO Heritage sites in Lithuania, a lot for such a small country. There are also the "Sahara-like" dunes of the Baltic coast and the "Outdoor Museum" where all of the Soviet-era artifacts were relocated after independence. What sights those must be! In reality, though, this truly isn't the season to be here to enjoy the area. It is really quite cold and dark, with very short days. So, I have satisfied myself with reporting that I have found a gem and that I plan to return here some day to spend some real quality time exploring it much more fully. I would strongly suggest you put it high on your destination list as well!