A Travellerspoint blog

August 2009

Week 26, 22.Aug.09 - 28.Aug.09

Minsk, Belarus to Gdansk, Poland

View Week 26 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Minsk, Belarus
I'm sitting along the banks of the Svislach River in Janki Kupaly park here in Minsk, taking a rest from touring around this afternoon. I wandered around and saw some more sites - I'm not sure I can say Minsk has loads of "great" sites, but it sure has its fair share of "interesting" sites. Started here in Janki Kupaly; there is a small museum on the founding of Minsk (I think... museum wasn't listed in my guidebook, and it was all in cyrillic).

Next I noticed in my monthly Russian/English glossy mag map a couple Orthodox churches I wanted to visit. The first, St. Alexander Nevsky, was over in a cemetery, which I had to pass through to reach the church. Pretty interesting cemetery, I must note... about 90% of the tombstones had an embedded photograph (not carving/statue, but photo) of the deceased.

Not sure if the majority of these deaths were premature (i.e. during military conflict), or if there is a common practice to select a photo of the person when he/she was young & healthy even if they died old and unhealthy (maybe a combination?). Next passed through a really unimpressive photo display in the Modern Fine Art Museum - glad it was free! - then reached what seemed to be half of the entire city's singles getting married around town hall, which is equidistant between the Holy Spirit Cathedral with its hordes of begging babushkas,

and the impressive St. Peter & Paul.

Well, that's Minsk in a 3-day tour - off to Brest tomorrow!

Brest, Belarus
I'm somehow checked-in/registered to a hotel in Brest, about to turn-in. But it wasn't an easy feat to get here! I checked-out of my hotel in Minsk this morning, and since the city has 4 different bus terminals, had to ask the hotel receptionist if she knew which station the buses for Brest depart from, since my worthless guidebook failed to include this bit of info! But when I asked her, she seemed to understand initially what I'm asking, but ultimately the conversation goes backwards and she seems to forget, or gets confused, about what I'm asking and after like ~5 minutes we start over and reestablish what I'm asking. Now, I've experienced this already a few times here in Belarus (couple days ago asking directions to a supermarket nearby the hotel, yesterday wanting to telephone a hotel in Brest to make a reservation, etc.) - and granted, I am asking in English, not Russian, so I'll give them all the credit for trying to help me, but when I say, "Brest. Bus.", then point to the map of Minsk and the 4 different bus stations identified and putting up my hands, "Do you know which?", it shouldn't take an interpreter to figure out what I'm asking! And, as I would later find to be all-too-true, there is a big difference - the 4 are spread way far from each other. Now, Minsk has an extremely limited network with their Metro system (makes "The People Mover" in Detroit seem like a commuter's best friend), and - not speaking Russian - taking a public bus without a route map would be likely to get me lost, plus as a foreigner (again, not speaking Russian), I'm almost guaranteed to be charged minimum $50 for a taxi ride no matter how short the distance. So by the time the receptionist eventually reconfirmed my question and answered by pointing to the Vostochny Bus Station, realized it was roughly 3k away, which I'd have to walk. Not horrible, but not ideal. So after I start out, consulting my not-so-great map, and walked down a pretty deserted long side-street with factory buildings around (wouldn't want to be here at night!), had nearly come to the end when I realized there was no outlet to the next street beyond the river - damn! So backtracking about 1k, then around the other side of the river, finally made it soaked with sweat to the station! I got on a crappy uncomfortable minibus and read most of the 5 hours (too uncomfortable to sleep), passing, for the most part, average-looking countryside (although like the random buffalo thing),

until we reached the station and everyone got out. It was about 15 minutes earlier than the trip was supposed to take (according to the receptionist) to get to Brest, which was no big deal. And even though I normally confirm just to be sure, especially in a place where I don't see any signs, "This is Brest?", but since everyone got out, didn't feel like chasing down and look silly, so just grabbed my pack and went inside the terminal to see if there was a map since my guidebook didn't have one of Brest (there wasn't), or anyone who seemed friendly enough to ask where the street was for the hotel I called yesterday to make a reservation (there wasn't), so then I noticed a hotel, and by saying "noticed", mean that there were actual English letters on the side of the building "Hotel", across the street and around a river from the bus station. So I headed over there with the expectation that the hotel receptionist will speak some broken English. When I asked her if she'd tell me "Where Bulvar Shevchenko was, I have a reservation at Hotel Belarus". Granted, it would be more convenient to just stay at this hotel next to the bus station, but thought to myself, this can't be the center of town, it seemed exceptionally dreary and devoid of any parks, statues/monuments, etc... not that I knew what Brest has to offer, but still... anyway, she first points down the main road to the right, so I think I'm good to go - at least I can get on a local bus for a ways and keep my eyes open for a sign (cyrillic or otherwise). Then she tells me, "But Hotel Belarus finished." Of course my initial thought is she's trying to scam me into staying in her hotel instead, but then again, this isn't Central/South America with its touts earning commission for extra reservations. So when I told her I spoke with the hotel yesterday and made a reservation, handing her my guidebook with the name and phone number, she asked, "Brest?", to which I confirmed, and asked, "This is Brest?", to which she shook her head, "Kobrin". WTF! This city wasn't even showing up on my guidebook map of Belarus! Thanking her as I started running back to the station, saw the crappy minibus was long gone. Going inside the station, asked a couple people working there if they knew if there was another bus to Brest, trying to explain my situation of getting off at the wrong stop by showing my ticket stub. The first woman apparently didn't sell tickets (and didn't want to hear what I had to say), pointing to the next booth. The lady at the second booth, after I tried to explain what happened and need to get to Brest, just said something in (a not-so-pleasant tone) Russian and shrugged her shoulders then folded her arms, turning her head to the side. Bitch! So I went to the next booth, and this woman was able to sell me a ticket on the next minibus to Brest for 5 Belarusian Rubles (about $1.75), leaving in 10 minutes. I leaned over to the second booth and said a couple less-than-pleasant words to the woman who, although not speaking English, knew exactly my message when I held up my new ticket to the window - bitch! The next bus ride took a long time, around 1/2 hour, so I'm still not exactly sure where Kobrin is, but doubt I'll be coming back to visit anytime soon! Entering Brest (which looked much more like a lively city), luckily spotted a sign on one intersection in both cyrillic and English for the "Hotel Belarus" pointing down the road, so I hopped off before the station, got checked-in/registered, had dinner at an overpriced diner across the street, now I'm crashing!

I'm sitting outside at a cafe along the main pedestrian strip Vulitsa Savetskaja, enjoying the best meal I've had so far in Belarus - pizza!, being served by a waitress with amazing eyes. Today I went over to the Museum of Railway Technology, which had only 1 sign (in cyrillic) of anything that might have been educational on the technology/history, but nevertheless, there were a lot of locomotive engines and cars that you got to climb around on/in, so it was still fun!

Next continued down Praspekt Masherava, about 1k long lined with memorial plaques leading up to the Brest Fortress.

Entering Brest Fortress Memorial, is a long sidewalk path leading up to a towering rock with a giant star carved out, blaring on loudspeakers militaristic commands, diving bombers, followed by somber music - felt as though I may be entering not just a memorial, but maybe a time machine back to Soviet Union days!

Inside the memorial were really impressive displays like tanks, oversized soldiers carved from rock,

an orthodox church,

and museum displaying the history of the Fortress, from back in colonial days. Also got to watch a film being shot, appears to be a WWII movie, with a really cool scene of an armored car driving over a bridge that had been bombed out!

Now, if I can pull myself away from the waitress' eyes (since I've been done with my meal for a while!), I'll head back to the hotel & get ready to head out and check out Brest nightlife.

Back at the same pizza place (surprise surprise... but unfortunately different waitress!) and today, for the most part, has been uneventful. Did manage to wander around and see some more impressive Orthodox churches,

and visited the Museum of Confiscated Art, containing art pieces/icons seized by border guards.

Also wandered around and saw some of the town's parks & statues, a couple of which were a bit quirky...

Finally, bought my (overpriced) train ticket tomorrow for Warsaw - 05:32.. ugh!

Warsaw, Poland
Sitting at a sidewalk cafe near Saxon Gardens/Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,

with beer in-hand after a very full day touring Warsaw. After a few hours sleep last night back in Brest, made my way to the train station (with convenient on-site customs & immigration), and was able to get another hour or so sleep on the train before arriving here in Warsaw, and instantly back to "easy" travel with English-speakers pretty much all over, and on-site tourist information center at the train station complete with booking a hostel reservation right near Old Town. Got checked-in then set out along Krakowskie Przedmiescie, the main road leading into the Old Town. First visit, after an unsuccessful stop at the Frederic Chopin Museum (closed for renovations), went to see at least something significant related to the famous composer's life... that is, the pillar in the Church of the Holy Cross containing his heart (bizarre).

Next visited a couple more churches, none of which contained any major celebrities organs (that I'm aware of). I really liked St. Anne's church from the 15th c., but of course more recently rebuilt like everything in this city, following WWII destruction.

And went up the adjacent tower offering really nice views (but not too close to the edge!) of the Old Town.

After, visited the Royal Castle next door, which has some really nice displays/rooms,

and most important - the place was manageable and well laid-out.. not too overwhelming, only took about an hour to get through & see everything. Then continuing on to the Barbican (Old Town Wall),

and Rynek Starego Miasta, Old Town Market Sq, where the Warsaw Historical Museum is located. Now this place was completely overwhelming! Six floors loaded with artifacts, paintings, maps, etc...

too much! Now relaxing and looking through my guidebook, it seems like there's still a lot to see tomorrow!

About to turn-in after another full day. First stop this morning was yet another unsuccessful one, this time to the National Museum - closed for renovations. Why wouldn't they think to renovate these museums during the off-season?? Anyway, made my way up to Marie Sklodowska-Curie Museum, which was open, to learn all about the great scientist & her discoveries of radioactivity.

Next went over to the massive Warsaw Rising Museum, where I spent a couple hours looking at the exhibits, video, photos, displays, etc., that chronicled the 1944 event.

I could have easily spent more, but this was another museum that was just too overwhelming with stuff everywhere in seemingly no order/path to follow. When I left, went west to the old Jewish Ghetto part of the city, with a monument and markers all around for a reminder of the area boundaries erected by the Nazis.

Gdansk, Poland
Spent a majority (7 hrs) of the day - marking 6 months of traveling - appropriately enough, traveling on a bus, from Warsaw to the Baltic Seaside-city of Gdansk (I may be able to pronounce the name of this place correctly by the time I leave!). Got checked-in to the really dumpy (we're talking Central American standards!) hostel & wandered around a bit. As it is already late, I didn't see much as most tourist spots were closed, so found a pizza place for dinner, now I'm getting ready for sleep. But first, a few habits/customs I've adopted over the past six months to note: (1) I've certainly become less concerned (anal) with sanitation/hygiene... for better or worse. (2) Somewhat related, more and more, I've started doing my wash by hand in a sink (or shower!), almost daily... yes its cheap, but also helps to not have dirty clothes build up and be stuck in a place that I can't find laundry service. Although, not sure if some of these articles will make it another six months... (3) Everyday, I automatically go to the supermarket and buy a couple beers to end the day/before going out at night, regardless if I even want one. Well, at least I'm not buying bottles of vodka yet! (4) Speaking of purchase options, I find myself always going for the bottled water "with gas", vs. without. Never preferred it before, but now I really like it! (5) More of an observation, but seemingly always tired lately!... I must say if you're not just sitting on an island somewhere, traveling around is demanding on you physically.

Posted by rd wrld1yr 09:28 Comments (0)

Week 25, 15.Aug.09 - 21.Aug.09

Nida, Lithuania to Minsk, Belarus

View Week 25 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Nida, Lithuania
Having a beer out on the balcony of my hotel room here in Nida, after another awesome day on the Curonian Spit. This morning I wandered around this town of Nida a bit, as I haven't really explored the immediate area much since arriving. Well, after visiting a statue or 2,

and passing by the market, it didn't take very long to say I've seen Nida!

So next headed south of town to the massive sand dunes rising out of the water, hiking around them for a while,

headed further south along the Curonian Lagoon to the (Kaliningrad) Russian border, which shares equally the total Spit, around ~150k long.

As my Russian visa was already expired, started headed inland on the Spit parallel along the fence. About 1k in (the area is probably 2k wide), there was no longer a fence, but a "Do Not Enter" signpost every ~100m or so. Well, let's just say that while hiking through this amazing fairy tale-looking forest without another soul around, maybe... just maybe... I headed a bit further south, instead of west -- but only long enough to set the timer on my camera for a quick shot, then headed back north!

Continued west and came out overlooking the Baltic Sea and -- naked sunbathers all over! The beach was really nice (as were 50% of the views), and after deciding to take a dip in the frigid sea, sat down and soaked some rays. Of course, since everyone around was nude, I decided when in Rome... but that only lasted a few minutes. Feeling the sun "down there" for the first time in probably ~33 years or so, didn't relish the thought of getting burned, so back on went the suit!

As I was leaving, came across signs distinctly forbidding nude sunbathing... apparently its felt to be optional here!

Kaunas, Lithuania
I woke up early today and after breakfast, hopped on the bus back up to Smyltine, ferry across to Klaipeda, and bus to Kaunas, Lithuania's second city. The hostel I'm staying at is a bare-bones structure way on the outskirts of center... had to take a trolley bus from the bus station to get here. And since there's literally nothing around the hostel but some industrial parks, had to take the trolley bus back into town to visit the supermarket. Of course I should have checked the conditions a bit better back in the hostel before my purchase of a big bag of pasta and jars of sauce - no stove in the kitchen?? Luckily, I bought a large baguette as well, which became dinner -- was too annoyed to have to get back on the trolley bus again! But I really thought I might be the only person staying at the place (which would not be a surprise - completely dark, all lights off, and entire dorm room to myself, plus not listed online booking sites nor travel guide), but in the kitchen walks Annette, German woman I met back in Vilnius, who I just had emailed about 5 minutes earlier - random! Also joined by some crazy Portuguese guy who has been traveling for the past 5 years - whoa - then later by a guy, Bill, now living in Lithuania but originally from Detroit - random! Having too long a distance to go back to buy some beer, we proceeded to open up Annette's vodka bottle (no mixer)... after a while of that, I'm off to bed!

I'm here in Vienybes Aikste, Solidarity Square, relaxing for a few minutes before heading over to Laisues Aleja, the main pedestrian street, to meet up with Annette & possibly Bill for a coffee. Already have done quite a bit of walking today -- after taking the trolley bus to Old Town center, walked over to check out Kaunas Castle, which has an interesting history... built in 1361 AD as a defense against the Crusaders (as Lithuania was one of the last European countries to become "Christianized", having a long Pagan history).

Nearby was a really crumbling-looking Church of St. George from the 16th century. It says a restoration is planned to fix the neglect during the Soviet-era (it was apparently used as a warehouse), but I think the Gothic views in its current state are really neat - seems like something out of a vampire movie!

Next went to Rotuses Aikste, Central Square, dominated by the 16th century Town Hall on one end,

and 17th century Church of the Holy Cross on the other. Wandered down the ~1.7k-long Laijves Aleja to Church of St. Michael, followed by a climb up Zaliakalnic Keltuvas hill to the base of Church of the Resurrection, a skyscraping church, which I climbed (132 steps!) to the top for views of Kaunas.

Next descended here to the Square, need to catch my breath a bit!

Vilnius, Lithuania
I'm back in Vilnius, this time staying in "AAA Hostel", and for the second time in as many hostels, there isn't a stove in the kitchen - what's up with that?? I'm improvising with using some electrical plug-in burner to v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y boil water to make my pasta that I've been carrying around now 3 days, sauce will have to be microwaved. Of course, I should've just ditched this food and gone out to eat, but I'm running low on Litas (local currency) and trying to avoid using the ATM again before I leave Lithuania in 2 days... I think of the 24 countries I've visited so far on this trip, maybe 1, I've guessed correctly the amount of money to take out initially from the ATM, without having to withdraw extra and/or too much, leaving me to be screwed at the Exchange place in the next country. Earlier today I took the bus from Kaunas and got checked into the (other than lack of cooking facilities, really nice, actually) hostel & set out to see the more "touristy" sites I missed the first time around in Vilnius. After visiting the Egg Statue/Monument (bizarre)

passed through Ausros Vartai, Gates of Dawn,

for a glimpse of the black & gold, supposed miracle-working Virgin Mary icon,

and then entered Old Town, where the uneven cobbled streets are lined with church after historic church - very cool! Made a detour slightly out of the way to check out the random Frank Zappa bust,

before hiking up Gediminas Hill to the castle on top, which offered some really nice views of Vilnius.

Now I'm having my crappy pasta dinner while talking to the 2 Belarusian chicks staying in the hostel, gathering some tips!

Trakai, Lithuania
Sitting at the bus station in Trakai, roughly 30k from Vilnius, enjoying the brief "off again" period of rain for today. Despite the weather, had a really nice day trip out here to Lithuania's ancient capital. There are a few notable churches in town, along with being home to a rare Middle-Eastern religious sect, "Karaites" (named after "Kara", or "To Study the Scripture" in both Hebrew & Arabic), who settled here around 1400 AD and have a Kenessa, Temple, and museum I visited. But the main highlight of Trakai is the fairy-tale "Island Castle" (14th c.), which has a pretty interesting history and interior interactive museum...

but a castle on an island, now that's pretty f-ing sweet!

Minsk, Belarus
Wow -- if I didn't know better, I'd swear the Soviet Union was still alive & well, at least here in Minsk! This place is really how my guidebook described - "Come here if you're wondering what life would be like if the Cold War never ended". Everything here is Stalin-istic circa 1950's in design (since, from what I read, the city was virtually razed during WWII, then built back up from scratch). This morning's bus ride into Belarus from Lithuania was pretty uneventful; although, not since crossing the Russian/Latvian border over a month ago have I had to go through customs/immigration, but it was the full deal here -- including the extra scrutiny of the Belarusian immigration officer inspecting my passport. The Belarusian countryside is really nice... rolling hills and hayfields, with an occasional forest here & there. Entering into the outskirts of Minsk the environment quickly changed to construction cranes all over, looking to expand the seemingly endless rows of Soviet-era looking block apartment buildings (although, the more recently built ones are colorful at least). I got off when we stopped at the train station, before the bus station, since I read there is locker storage at the former & I didn't want to lug my pack around while trying to find a hotel (no hostels here) - my back is really hurting lately! The locker "tokens" are 15-kopek USSR coins! Exiting the train station to the large buildings still adorning the Hammer & Sickle in ploshcha Privakzalnaja,

and after taking some time to orientate myself - which was not entirely easy; in fact, much more difficult than say, Moscow -- no tourist information office, no one - and I mean that - speaks English (I have no idea how the 2 girls I met in Vilnius do.. but I guess that's why they're traveling, which - other than Russia/Ukraine - is apparently not common), and everything is in cyrillic here.

I am trying to relearn like in Moscow how to read the alphabet, but its not easy. Plus, my guidebook has everything in English instead of cyrillic, but its not matching up. Further, I did find an English/Russian (mostly, around 90%, Russian) monthly glossy, with an extra map in English which is almost making things more confusing, because it has different street names than my guidebook! But eventually, somehow I made it to my first-choice (of only 3 listed in my guidebook as speaking "passing" English) hotel & got checked-in, and of course registered, as is required with the Belarusian visa process. Made my way to ploshcha Peramohi & the giant "Victory Obelisk" (with Hammer & Sickle, naturally), commemorating the WWII liberation of Minsk from the Nazis. Tomorrow I'll have to explore this really interesting city!

Getting ready to head out & check-out the Minsk nightlife, after a full day of touring around. Started out the morning with a stop just across the bridge over Svislach River to Vulitsa Kamunistychnaja 4, as my guidebook is listing this the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald, who apparently lived here in the early 1960's before returning to the States and, well, you know.

Next strolled through Janki Kupaly Park,

en route to Ploshcha Kastrychnitskaja, October Square, where the imposing Palace of the Republic looms large.

Also in the ploshcha is The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, dedicated to the liberation of Minsk from the Nazis - it had some cool displays,

but also some really gut-wrenching photos. Next stop past the Dom Ofitserov, Officer's Building, with its tank memorial,

and Presidential (Dictatorship?) Administrative Building, went for lunch at a sushi (of all things) place on Praspekt Nezalezhnastsi, with a nice view of the fully-functioning KGB HQ building right across the street!

Next door to the KGB HQ was a bookshop selling Alexander Lukashenko posters... propaganda, anyone??

Finished off the day's tour at ploshcha Nezalezhnastsi, with a lot of locals hanging around enjoying the nice weather. Almost feels like a normal, pro-democratic city... until you turn around and notice the large Lenin statue looming in front of the Belarusian Government building!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 11:18 Comments (0)

Week 24, 8.Aug.09 - 14.Aug.09

Copenhagen, Denmark to Nida, Lithuania

View Week 24 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Copenhagen, Denmark
Had another full day of sightseeing today here in Copenhagen - there's so much to see & do here! First stop was Rundetarn (Round Tower), an astronomical observatory from 1642 with its cool spiral walkway up to the top for some great views of the old city.

Next went over to Rosenborg Slot, the impressive 17th century castle with glorious marbled and painted ceilings in all the rooms.

It also houses a nice collection of crown jewels and wine in the cellar (the wine dates from 1615 - wonder if its aged enough??).

After a visit to Statens Museum for Kunst, the Danish National Gallery with some pretty cool displays (that I went ahead and made interactive),

I went up to and strolled around the Citadel, an exceptionally well-preserved fortress and spectacular adjacent churches and fountains.

Then went over to Amalienborg Palace, current home of the royal family - but I gotta say, really not that impressed with this one!

Next, I took the bus and headed south to the islet "freetown" Christianshavn (Christiania), the famed alternative community. Not sure what I expected, exactly, but it was actually pretty tame - no one selling/doing anything controversial (at least not out in the open)... action maybe picks up after dark? Anyway, while there I went over to Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Saviors Church).

Now, I have visited some cool cathedrals in my travels, but this place absolutely takes the cake. Climbing up the tower are crazy-steep stairs/ladders that get you to the base of the spire...

From there, the last ~200 steps run spectacularly and dizzyingly along the outside rim (with only the chest-high old iron bannister between you & a lot of sky), narrowing until they disappear at the top - soo scary, and at the same time, soo fun!

Safely back down on solid ground, I guess I must not have had a big enough heights-fix, because I went straight over to historic Tivoli Gardens - 165 year-old amusement park right in city center.

Fun times!

Odense, Denmark
Having about all the death-defying excitement I could handle in one shot, took the train earlier today over Funen Island to visit the small town of Odense. If calm is what I was searching for, I've definitely found it in this sleepy town! I did wander around a bit and stopped in the Carl Nielsen Museet, chronicling the composer's life. I also stopped by Montergarden, an open-air renaissance building museum.

After I wandered a bit more, but now getting ready for an early nights sleep!

Its been pouring on-and-off all day here in Odense - thus limiting my willingness to go explore much more of the town! But I couldn't possibly stay in Odense and not visit the Hans Christian Andersens Hus, museum dedicated to the fairy-tale life of the famous author born here.

Dodging the next shower, headed over to Saint Knuds Kirke, gothic cathedral right in the center of town with a huge gilt alterpiece with ~300 figures, from 1521.

While in the neighborhood, & with the rain temporarily stopped, headed to Odense Redhus (City Hall), which had some sort of cool flower show going on. Well, that's all for Denmark... tomorrow, off to Lithuania!

Vilnius, Lithuania
I'm relaxing out on the balcony at the hostel here in Vilnius, and about to turn-in --- early! Long day started out back in Odense, had to wake up extra early for my 03:45 train ride back to Copenhagen, hop aboard a connecting train to the airport in time for my 08:40 flight. Once I arrived in Vilnius and got checked-in to my (second choice) hostel, went straight over to the Belarus Embassy to apply for a tourist visa (knowing it may take some time, ala Russia visa application while in Mongolia, wanted to start the process early), but was directed to the Belarus Consulate a few blocks away. After finding the Consulate and filling out the 2 page visa application, was told I had to go through a tourist agency for invitation/sponsorship, which conveniently was right across the street, open for business (ala Russia visa application while in Mongolia). After filling out an additional 2 pages of application and paying the (expected) service fee, was told to check back in tomorrow to see how long it will take, barring any problems!

Its pouring rain tonight in Vilnius, thus I think I'll again be staying in tonight. Earlier today, started out the morning with a walk to old town center to visit St. Casmir's Church - very cool light-pink/salmon colored with a big gaudy crown on the top.

Also caught a bit of a Bollywood film being shot around the town hall area - seems like it'll at least have a good leading lady in the movie!

Then I joined up on a free "alternative" guided tour of Vilnius, visiting places off the typical tourist routes - which involved a lot of walking, somewhere in the neighborhood of 9k, in about 3 hours. Our first stop was to the ancient (1387 AD) St. Nicolas Church, the oldest building still standing in Vilnius.

We wandered around the old Jewish ghetto, and heard accounts of the difficult living conditions in the past.

We next crossed Uzupio Gatve bridge to enter the "Republic" of Uzupis, an area made up of resident artists, squatters and drunks that declared a breakaway state in 1998 (that no-one recognizes) - complete with their own flag, national monument

and constitution posted on a wall in several languages.

"Back over" in Vilnius, we then headed up to the northern section of the city, and got to see the remarkable contrasts between leftover Soviet-era housing projects, and flashy new skyscrapers the locals are calling "New Manhattan"... hmm... I think it still has a ways to go!

Nida, Lithuania
I'm chilling out on the balcony of my (own) hotel here in Nida, southern end of the Lithuanian-side of the Curonian Spit way over on the Baltic Sea coast. After I secured my Belarus visa yesterday (starting on 20-Aug), I booked a bus ticket today over to Klaipeda (port town), which when arriving had to take a taxi (since I couldn't figure out the local bus schedule, nor was anyone willing to help me figure it out!) to the pier, where I boarded the ferry across the Curonian Lagoon to Smiltyne, town on the north end of the Spit. From Smiltyne I boarded yet another bus the 1 hour south to Nida (this crap reminds me of trying to get to Fire Island back in NY!... but along the way, I could tell early on this is a really special place - looking forward to exploring tomorrow!).

Once again, here on the balcony of my hotel room, getting ready to head out. Today was awesome - rented a bicycle here in Nida, and rode up the Curonian Spit nearly the whole way. First, rode up to Bulvikis Cape,

the widest part of the Spit (I think the map said 3.1km wide), with a great view of the Lithuanian mainland, some 8km across the Curonian Lagoon.

After crossing to the other side of the spit to check out spectacular views of the Baltic Sea (which seems to be much more rough than when I last saw it in Latvia),

biked up to the tiny town of Preila where I stopped to have lunch - smoked mackerel!

Soon after I finished lunch to continue north, off slips my bike's chain. Now, I had fixed a bike's chain or 2 back when I was a kid, but it has definitely been a while. So after about 1/2 hour of fiddling around with nice grease-covered hands, was finally able to slip the darn thing back on and continued up north. After biking through some pretty amazing forests (unfortunately without seeing any wildlife - but there were these random small fenced-off areas every so often, that I never really understood what their purpose was...),

pulled over in Juodkrante, about 35km north of Nida. I had initially planned to bike up to Smiltyne, but there were some ominous looking clouds coming (which, by the way, never amounted to anything... its been pretty tough to judge the weather so far in Lithuania!). So having the opportunity to drop off my bike along the way and bus back to Nida, and not wanting to push my luck further with the shotty chain, decided enough for today and took the bus (easy) way back!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 00:09 Comments (0)

Week 23, 1.Aug.09 - 7.Aug.09

Narvik, Norway to Copenhagen, Denmark

View Week 23 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Narvik, Norway
I'm having a picnic lunch sitting on some rocks along a clear-as-glass river that leads out to a lake dwarfed by the mountains surrounding it - these are the renowned Norwegian fjords, and are living up to their reputation!

The peaceful and vastness setting is multiplied by the fact there's not another soul for who knows how far. This morning I took the train to Katterat Station, then followed a nice 6k path passing along rivers, waterfalls, sign posts marking various historical spots along the Rallarveien Railroad track-building, and lots of mosquitos! Now I'll take the ferry boat back to town, maybe wander around a bit before getting ready to head out to the bar - pretty nice way to spend a Saturday!

Sitting out on the balcony here at the hostel having a coffee (for a change), enjoying the really nice weather today - sunny and warm - and about to hop on a Skype call with the family. Today, after a pretty late start (courtesy of the 3 local guys buying me pints last night at the pub until 02:30, which was nice and light outside when I left), went over to check out the War Museum.

I didn't realize the significance of Narvik in WWII, but there is a lot of history here with the Germans. After, I wandered over to the Ofoten Museum, which is dedicated to the history of Narvik.

Since most everything else is closed on Sundays, just spent the rest of the afternoon wandering up the hills for views of the town & mountains.

Also went over to see an elk petroglyph rock carving, dating back about 3,000 years - and its right in the middle of town!IMG_0407.jpg

Oslo, Norway
I'm thoroughly soaked from the 10 minutes it took to walk from the train station to the hostel! I left nice sunny weather in Narvik, and after the 2.5 hour flight, arrived in rainy Oslo, and boarded the train from the airport to city center. I haven't said this much so far on the trip (not seriously, anyway), but I literally did nothing today, with the exception of laundry - not by choice, though! The machine took 2.5 hours to wash, then the clothes were left in a dirty-colored puddle of water in the machine (no spin cycle??). Took forever in the drier, so then hung them up outside to semi-dry until I caught the bus to the airport - which was still a couple hours until the flight, so went ahead and hung them back up on the guard rail outside at the airport's loading/unloading zone. I got some funny looks from people, including one couple who took a picture of me -- but it seems the longer I continue to backpack, the less I care about how I look to others.. no way I'm doing laundry again if these clothes don't dry!

I'm getting ready to turn-in, the Slovak couple staying in my dorm room and I just went out for a(n expensive!) beer at a nearby pub.

Today was another cloudy and rainy one - not so impressed with the weather so far in Oslo! Despite that, did head out today for sightseeing, focusing on indoor museums. First I visited the Nasjonalgalleriet for views of some famous paintings like Edvard Munch's "Scream" (which I couldn't manage to sneak a photo), and Van Gogh's "Self Portrait" (which I did!)

Next went over to Historisk Museum, with some really good displays of the history of Norway, including artifacts from the viking age.

Later I made my way to Nobels Fredssenter (Peace Center), to view a special photo gallery & see the cool interactive displays of past Nobel Prize Laureates.

I'm about to head over to the bus station here in Oslo, to take the overnight to Copenhagen. I would've like to stay maybe another day in Oslo, but this place is insanely expensive - at the 7-11 today, a plain hot dog cost me US$8 - wtf??! Anyway, today turned out to be a really nice sunny day (for a change!). First the Slovaks and I went over to the Bygdoy Penninsula to Vikingskipshuset, to see the three 9th century ships excavated from the Oslofjord region...

really interesting story behind these; they were drawn ashore and used as tombs for nobility, who were buried in blue clay with everything they needed in the hereafter (jewels, furniture, horses) - very cool!

Bid farewell to the Slovaks (until I visit Slovakia, perhaps?), then made my way back to the city center to get a tour of the Stortinget (Parliament),

which was really informative, detailing the history of Scandinavia intertwining (funny, seems a tweak different that the Swedes' version I heard.. will need to be sure to get the Danish perspective while visiting!). After Stortinget, went down to Akershus Festning (Fortress) for a guided tour of the medieval palace, then over past City Hall, the Royal Palace and iconic Vigeland Park, with naked statues in various poses as far as the eye can see... pretty impressive indeed!

Copenhagen, Denmark
I'm chilling out back in my military barracks-style hostel here in Copenhagen - there's not much to speak of privacy here, especially in the shower room! After probably not more than 3 uncomfortable hours sleep last night on the bus (annoying lady with her 4 kids, huge man sitting next to me, inflatable pillow left in my pack stored in the luggage compartment below - take your pick!), arrived in Centralstation about 06:30. Had a coffee at the station then headed over to drop off my pack at the hostel and headed out sightseeing. First stop was over to Stotsholmens peninsula to check out Christiansborg Palace, which buried way underneath are the visible ruins of Absalon's Fortress from 1167 AD.

Next stop was Thorvaldsens Museum with really grand marble statues, mostly from Greek mythology.

After passing a protest, with 5,000 pairs of shoes lined up in front of the Danish Parliament (it was pretty well thought-out and displayed, even though I didn't understand the message!),

stepped inside the very same Parliament for a tour - the "guide" was really an unstimulating security guard who didn't say too much, but rather waited for people to ask questions... fortunately the open-door, constantly-moving, elevator provided for some entertainment!

Thankfully, it ended early enough for me to head over to a guided tour of the Royal Reception Chambers - the Ornate Renaissance halls where the Queen entertains Heads of State,

requiring the visitors to don "booties" to protect the floors:

While on the tour, met a really sweet girl, Sherri, from China. We both left Stotsholmen back to the mainland city center and to the next stop - The Little Mermaid! Hopped out onto the rock in the water for a photo op:

then stopped off along The Latin Quarter & main promenade for a drink!

Getting ready to head out and see the famed Copenhagen nightlife (since I didn't make it out last night!), after another really good day touring the city. This morning's first stop was right next door to the Museum of Copenhagen, history of the city. Next went over to Nationalmuseet to check out some really impressive displays on Danish history - I had to be ruthless passing through the halls; there were too many and not enough time!

Heading back out onto Slotsholmen, and after a quick stop to the famous (or infamous) Royal Library ("Black Diamond" - for the ultra-modern black granite extension),

headed to the vast Tojhusmuseet, Royal Arsenal Museum, with weapons ranging from medieval times, to state-of-the art 21st century types.

The next stop was an unusual but much-needed one - nap before heading out!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 13:30 Comments (0)

Week 22, 25.July.09 - 31.July.09

Stockholm, Sweden to Narvik, Norway

View Week 22 on rd wrld1yr's travel map.

Stockholm, Sweden
After a few hours sleep last night sailing from Turku, woke up to some great views of the Stockholm harbor as the cruise ship Isabella pulled into port.

Got myself checked-in to the hostel (fortunately only needed to try two places for availability this time!), then started hitting the sites -- and there are many in Stockholm! First stop was a visit to the Nationalmuseum (no typo, this is how it's spelled); awesome collection of paintings and sculptures like the ivory relief by Magnus Stenbock (1710), and Edward Hall's "Skyglobe" (1929).

The Nationalmuseum, as I learned, also had one of the world's most famous art thefts in recent history (I decided against trying to bring home the globe). Next went over to Gamla Stan island (Central Stockholm is an archipelago of some 14 different islands) for a visit to Kungliga Slottet, Royal Palace. From the outside, I must say the Palace was thoroughly unimpressive (how could royalty think this was beautiful??), but the elaborate interior apartments more than made up for this.

Adjacent to the Palace were the Treasury, Hall of State and the Royal Armoury - the latter of which I really liked with the historical exhibits and artifacts of the past kings & queens.

Quick stop for lunch (hot dog, mashed potatoes & fried onions wrapped in a pita - actually pretty damn tasty!) in Kungstradgarden, then over to Riddarholmen Island for a tour of the Riddarholmskyrkan (Riddarholmen Church) and the various tombs such as Gustav II Adolf and Count Torstenssof.

Riddarholmskyrkan is ultra medieval looking (built in the 1200's) - really liked this one!

After crossing back to the mainland, I got signed up for an historical canal tour on a tourist boat... normally not the thing I'd probably do, but since I bought the Stockholm Card for free entrance to museums & sites including this boat trip, decided to get my money's worth! It was actually pretty entertaining to look at sites not easily viewed from land,

and included was an audio guide with some added history of the city. So I definitely got to see enough for one day, now going to head out and checkout Stockholm nightlife!

I am about to turn-in, after another full day of sightseeing. First stop this morning was to Djurgardend Island and a visit to Skansen open-air museum (the world's first, est. 1891). It was really pretty cool how it is setup - sort of a miniature Sweden with buildings architecture & animals/artifacts in the north of the museum similar to what one finds in the north of Sweden, the same for East, West, South, etc.

The historical buildings in the open-air setting reminded me a lot of Greenfield Village back in D-Town!

They also have a pretty decent aquarium on-site.

So although I could've spent the whole day at Skansen, decided to move on and check-out the Nordiskamuseet (Swedish Cultural History) and Vasamuseet, housing the Vasa warship which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628 (and raised ~300 years later). Really interesting story about the history - it sunk due to all the gun portals being open for the inaugural firing, when a huge wind gust toppled it to one side and filled up with water.

I then crossed over to Skeppsholmen Island for visits to Modernamuseet (very cool) and adjacent Arkitekturmuseet (not so cool). Now after a pretty late night at Olssons Video Bar last night, looking forward to an early sleep!

Chilling out and people watching right now in the park next to the Observatoriemuseet, across the street from the hostel. Had a really good morning visiting Stadshuset (City Hall), getting a chance to walk down the staircase in the Blue Hall like those Nobel Prize Laureates (but without all that work!),

followed by a stop over to Gamla Stand and visit to Nobelmuseet for a more thorough tour of the Nobel Prize history.

After viewing the Changing of the Guard in front of Kungliga Slottet, visited Storkyrkan, Stockholm Cathedral, which has a great history (consecrated in 1306) and amazing details in the sculptures and paintings.

After, stopped by Cityterminalen to buy my bus ticket tomorrow to Orebro, meeting up with Alfred and Anton!

Orebro, Sweden
Just getting ready to crash on Alfred's couch here in Orebro; today marking 5 months of traveling so far. Arrived here earlier today on the bus from Stockholm, where Anton & Alfred were waiting for me at the bus terminal - the first stop we made, of course, was to the store for beer! Stocked-up then proceeded to Alfred's apartment where several games of Hearts were played out on the balcony - great sunny day it turned out here, as it was raining when I left Stockholm. Went to dinner at a local place (well, actually every place here is "local", Orebro isn't on the mainstream tourist circuit) with more beers,

then back to Alfred's for more of the same - even though we didn't do much today, it was a lot of fun hanging out and reliving memories of the Trans-Siberian! But unfortunately, Anton's had too much to drink ("I really don't like to... in fact I hate this... but I must because I'm Finnish"!), and I have to listen to him puking on the couch next to me!

I just boarded the train here in Orebro, heading up to Gavle with onward connection for the overnight to Kiruna. Today has been a struggle - way too hungover! I can say the same for Alfred and Anton (especially Anton), yet we were able to get out and tour Orebro for a few hours. After some breakfast we went to a Modern Art gallery with some cool displays. And Orebro has some "Open Art" event going on, so there are works spread out all over town, like our second stop to the Orebro Castle. One section had art on display, but walking around to the other side got to visit inside the Northwest Tower, dating back to 1364 AD, with some cool displays on-hand.

After we visited the Wadkoping open-air museum with cool colonial-style houses and shops (really liked the Blacksmith dude). Wandered around through Orebro park which I thought was great, then back to toward the station for lunch & a much-needed coffee. Definitely had a great visit, I'll have to be sure to repay the hospitality when they visit after I return home!

Kiruna, Sweden
It has been a fairly uneventful visit so far today up here in Kiruna, about 175 km north of the Arctic Circle. I'm super tired, b/c other than the really nice views of Northern Sweden with the Falu red painted houses & barns everywhere,

the train ride last night was pretty awful! In a cabin with 5 other guys so it was crowded, plus pretty damn cold, but the really bad part was the train seemingly whipping around curves & turns... not sure if the route up through Sweden winds much more than the Trans-Siberian, or if it was just moving that much faster (or a combination), but I don't recall having any trouble falling asleep those 4 nights across Siberia aboard the train -- last night I was literally getting rolled around my bed! Of course, it didn't help that the shade was broken so wouldn't stay down all the way & light started coming in around 2 AM. When I arrived in Kiruna this morning with a few hours sleep under my belt, got checked-in to the hostel and wandered around this tiny town a bit, stopped at the Town Hall and Kiruna Kyrkan (Kiruna Church),

and Jarnvagsparken (nice park with mini-waterfalls). Had a coffee at an outside cafe enjoying the really nice weather before heading back for some dinner (cooking dinner tonight - restaurants here are no joke $$$!). Now relaxing a bit before I head out to see if there's any more excitement at night around here!

Narvik, Norway
I must say, Narvik is a pretty cool town! I just returned from having some pints with a few of the folks also in the hostel here, we went to see a (really good) live band playing in a courtyard outside a pub.

The scenery here in Narvik is spectacular - nestled between the snow-capped mountains and the Arctic Ocean, the views of the women are also pretty nice! Speaking of nice views, the train ride over from Kiruna today afforded plenty - winding along the side of, and tunnels through, mountains towering over rivers leading out to the Fjords...

If it weren't so darn expensive, I'd like to stay a lot longer.. so far, I'm definitely a fan of Norway!

Posted by rd wrld1yr 01:53 Comments (0)

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