Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Part 1: Back to Britain – Henley-on-Thames to Highbury.

Saturday, August 4th, 2018

October 30 and 31, 2017. Melbourne, Australia to Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.

Late in the day we caught QF9 to London Heathrow – we were back in Britain again.

On arrival we went straight to Hertz and picked up our rental, another Renault Captur. 

This one was deep teal with a silver roof and a much lower spec that the one we had from Renault Eurodrive. 

It was also a right hand drive and had a five speed gear box instead of six, which made it much easier to drive on the English roads. 

It was only about a 40 minute drive to the Phyllis Court Club, a very posh establishment right on the Thames. 

The room price was reasonable but there was a strict dress code, of jacket and tie for dinner. 

We ate at one of the many pubs in town, which was much more to our liking and suited our available wardrobe. 

To quote from a book on the history of the Phyllis Court Club. 

‘Phyllis Court Club was established in 1906, to provide a headquarters for social and sporting life on the river for those of good social standing. ‘

I am not sure of our ‘social standing’ but we certainly enjoyed our brief stay there.

 

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November 1, 2017. Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.

With the railway coming to Henley in 1857 the town began to promote itself as a fashionable resort on the Thames. 

It was was originally made famous by the first Oxford and Cambridge boat race in 1829.

Then the Royal Regatta was established in 1839 and held on a stretch of the Thames River, just outside our room at the Phyllis Court Club. 

It became an international event for the Summer Olympics of 1908. The site was also used for the Olympic Regatta during the Summer games of 1948, making Henley the first town in the world to host two Olympic Rowing Regattas.

Henley-on-Thames is a quintessential English village with pubs every few yards and surrounded by fields of verdant green pastures.

Established by King Henry II in 1179, it is now a thriving market town with the Town Hall at one end of the market square and a church at the other.

The banks of the Thames is the focal point and where the locals walk their dogs, push their prams, walk, run and relax. 

The town has also been host to the popular TV series of Midsomer Murders and the Vicar of Dibley. 

In the afternoon we made a side trip to Pangbourne, the former home of our friends Rob and Lorraine. It is also on the Thames but much smaller and sleepier. 

 

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November 2, 2017. Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, to Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom.

It was about a 1.5 hour drive to Milton Keynes with most of it on country roads. 

We did stop in Aylesbury, another quaint old market town, for a coffee but the rest was driving. 

I had forgotten just how narrow the English country lanes can be. 

Milton Keynes was created as a ’New City’ in 1967 after the British Government decided that London was becoming too congested.

It is situated in Northern Buckinghamshire and equidistant from Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge.

Milton Keynes was designed with a Modernist approach and often features in design journals in the late 60s and early 70s. Many talented young architects were attracted to work on the project and it became a model for future cities. History has not been kind to the city and it is now seen as rather boring and bland.

Having arrived at our hotel, the Best Western in Milton Keynes, we were told we were too early to check in. 

Two hours too early. 

So we headed to Willen Lake and went for a walk. 

The lake is on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, next to the old town of Willen.

No sooner had we started our walk, than we came across a large hot air balloon preparing to take off. 

We were part of a small crowd that had gathered to watch proceedings. 

We then continued on our walk around the north part of Willen Lake, finishing up in the old village of Willen.

Willen is one of the ancient villages of Buckinghamshire, first named in history in the 12th century. It has a beautiful old church, St Mary Magdalene, which was designed by Robert Hooke, (1635-1703) a compatriot of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and built in 1680.

 

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November 3, 2017. Milton Keynes, Bedfordshire, to Hitchin, Hertfordshire, with a side trip to Bletchley Park, United Kingdom.

Bletchley Park was the centre of British and Allied code breaking during the Second World war.

It was at Bletchley Park that the codes were broken for the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.

At the height of it’s operation, there were nearly 9,000 people employed at the facility.

Even before the invasion of Europe, by the Germans in 1939, Polish cryptographers had an understanding of the Enigma code. 

It has been claimed that the work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by two to four years. 

At the centre of the park is the ‘Mansion’ a concoction of architectural styles including Victorian, Gothic, Tudor and Dutch Baroque.

The site was chosen because of its proximity to Bletchley railway station, which was on the Varsity Line connecting Oxford and Cambridge.

It was home to Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and computer scientist, who worked in Hut 8. He was responsible for breaking the codes of the German Enigma machine. 

Despite his wartime actions he was prosecuted in 1952 for ‘gross indecency’ and subjected to chemical castration.

Turing died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, just days before his 42nd birthday, and was given a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II in 2013.

His life story is told in the 2014 movie ‘The Imitation Game’ staring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Morten Tyldum.

It is interesting to compare the approach the British had to shortening the war, compared to the Americans. The Brits used brain power and code breaking, while the Yanks, also used brain power, and developed an atomic bomb, but then dropped it on Japan.

After our visit to Bletchley Park we went just up the road, to the National Museum of Computing. This houses a rebuilt Colossus computer, similar to the ones used to break the Lorenz ciphers. By the end of the war there were 10 of these purpose built computers.

After the war all but two were broken down and destroyed. The remaining ones were used to try and break remaining code that could be used in gaining convictions during the Nuremberg trials of 1945 and 1946. 

The Colossus is thus regarded as the world’s first programmable, electronic, digital computer. 

We arrived in Hitchin late in the day and got settled into the Lord Lister Hotel. 

The hotel building was constructed in the late 18th century and later became a Quaker school. It was responsible for educating many 18th Century scientists. 

One of that eminent alumni was Joseph Lister, 1st Baron of Lister. As a surgeon he became famous through his discovery of antiseptics. 

Where possible we like to stay in old hotels or pubs in Britain. Despite the fact they aren’t usually as well appointed or luxurious as the new ones and they rarely have a lift.

It’s their history that’s the attraction.

 

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November 4, 2017. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom.

The morning was cold and wet, which wasn’t a real issue as I had work to do. 

We did get out a couple of times during the day and wandered around the small village of Hitchin. 

It it believed that in 673 Hitchin was the place where the fledgling Christian church first formed in Anglo-Saxon times.

In the evening we visited friends in the area and had a well needed, home cooked meal.

 

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November 5, 2017. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, to Highbury, Greater London, United Kingdom.

We had arranged to have a Sunday lunch in Highbury with Cam, who is the son of our friends Rob and Lorraine.

The pub was in walking distance from our hotel, which was good as it turned out to be a long lunch.

Apart from catching up with Cam, one of the the highlights of the day was to discover that the pub, the W.B. Yeats in Finsbury Park, had Brew Dogs craft beer on tap. 

The night silence was continually punctuated by the sound of fireworks. 

Well it was November 5. 

Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) was a member of a group of English Catholics who, in 1605, was a part of the failed Gunpowder Plot. The group planned to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne of England.

He was captured in Westminster Palace on November 5, while guarding the explosives. 

This event has been commemorated in Britain since 1605. First by burning his effigy on a bonfire and then a fireworks display.

One night in Holland and a brief stay in Britain.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

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September 18, 2017. Berlin, Germany to Oldenzaal, Netherlands.

It was just over 500 kilometres from Berlin to Oldenzaal in Holland. Again we encountered rain and roadworks on the way. This made the trip over six hours, rather than the five the TomTom had estimated. 

We were deep in the Dutch countryside. 

Our hotel was the Erve Hulsbeek Koetshuis and it was surrounded by the Hulsbeek, a large recreational park. This was a Dutch summer resort in ‘the nature’. 

Late in the afternoon we went for a stroll around the Hulsbeek, it certainly catered for a variety of activities. 

It was originally an estate and in the 70s it was transformed into a recreational park. Three lakes were created by sand excavation and the sand was then used to make the De Thij residential area in Oldenzaal.

The Hulsbeek is 230 hectares that’s been set aside for sailing, fishing, swimming, skate boarding, table tennis, basketball, soccer, cycling, rowing and horse riding.

These were a few of sports we identified, there were a number that we couldn’t. 

 

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September 19, 2017. Oldenzaal, Netherlands to Great Bromley, Colchester, United Kingdom.

The Hotel Erve Hulsbee was shrouded in fog when we left. 

It was about a two hour drive to catch the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. 

No rain and no roadworks. 

The trip was easy until we discovered the complexities of Dutch roundabouts. They seem to go out of their way to make them difficult to negotiate. 

I got confused and ended taking the same, wrong exit twice. 

We then encountered further problems when we went to check the Renault onto the ferry. 

The customs official believed that our red French number plates were only for cars that were being exported. 

Of course our paperwork didn’t support this. 

After an hour of waiting and numerous phone calls, he finally let us drive on. 

We had no plan B. 

Unlike the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, the cross channel boat was relatively empty. 

There was gambling but no live entertainment. 

Trucks seemed to be the main cargo and the ‘truckies’ even had there own area. 

It was a much longer voyage than the trip across the Gulf of Finland. 

Six hours as opposed to two. 

We arrived in Britain late in the day and we had to very quickly get used to driving on the left of the road with a left hand drive car.

Thea felt rather exposed, sitting on the right of the Captur, especially as all the oncoming drivers thought that she was in control and looked at her.

That night we had dinner at our accomodation, the Courthouse Hotel. It was a typical English pub and very different to what we had got used to over the last few months in Europe.

Duck Liver Pâté, Deep Filled Pies, Hand Carved Roast Beef, Home Cooked Eggs with Chips and Spotted Dick with Custard.

We hadn’t had food like that since we were last in Britain.

 

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September 20, 2017. Great Bromley, Colchester to Lowestoft, Suffolk, United Kingdom.

A ‘light’ breakfast at the Courthouse Hotel was a mountain of scrabbled egg on a slab of toast. 

I’m glad we didn’t order the full English one. 

The hotel was actually a court house that witnessed the trials of witches, who, if found guilty, were strung up on the gallows, that were just over the road. 

Built in the 1600s, it was first a pub then the court house and now a pub again. 

That night we were staying at a B&B in Lowestoft and couldn’t check-in until 4pm. 

We therefore had some time on our hands. 

The drive from Great Bromley to Lowestoft was only 111 kilometres so we diverted to Colchester to do some shopping. The main task was to get a new SIM for the travel phone. 

We then reconfigured the TomTom to take the country roads. That’s when we discovered the Snape Maltings.

Situated on the River Alde at Snape in Suffolk, the Snape Maltings is an art complex, best known for its concert hall.

The maltings were originally built by Newson Garrett in the 1800s. The site ceased to be a malting by the 1960s and after the concert hall was opened there in 1967 it became the home of the Aldeburgh Music Festival.

 

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September 21, 2017. Lowestoft, Suffolk, United Kingdom.

We ask the owners of the Corner House, our B&B in Lowestoft, for some touring suggestions. 

They gave us quite a list. 

One trip looked very interesting. It was a boat ride up Lake Lothing to the Mutford Lock. 

Unfortunately it didn’t run on Thursday and it was Thursday.

We did get to do a few other things, like walk along a wind swept beach into Lowestoft and then on to Ness Point, which is most easterly point in England. 

We then walked back into town via the Stanford Arms. This is supposedly the best pub in Lowestoft, especially for craft beer.

We were hoping to go there for dinner that night and wanted to check it out. 

It’s also closed on Thursdays. 

We did do a lot of walking that day and managed to tick a few things off the list of things to see. 

Late in the day we drove, rather than sailed, to Mutford Lock and walked around the park that’s at the end of Lake Lothing. 

The lock separates the fresh water, of Oulton Broad, from the salt water, of the North Sea.

Lowestoft is a seaside town in the very east of England. It is also one of the oldest, with human habitation dating back 700,000 years.

Lowestoft has been settled by people from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age as well as Romans and Saxons.

Dogs are really appreciated in the UK – especially in the pubs. 

On our last night we walked a little further down the road from our B&B and found the Oddfellows Hotel – the place was packed. 

The dining room was full so we ate in the bar and there we met a number of people and their dogs. 

Dogs were very welcome in the Oddfellows, so long as they didn’t sit on the seats. 

A very reasonable request, if you like having your best friend drinking with you. 

One chap literally drank with his King Charles Spaniel. The dog had a tiny drop of his beer in her water bowl. 

Politically incorrect but they were both very content.

 

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September 22, 2017. Lowestoft, Suffolk to Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, United Kingdom.

Our next stop was at Great Yarmouth, which was only 17 kilometres away. 

We had to be out of our B&B in Lowestoft by 10:30am and couldn’t check into the next one until 3:00pm, so there was plenty of time to do some local touring. 

After walking around Lowestoft and enjoying the better weather we headed off. 

First stop was Beccles, a market town in the Waveney area.

The main feature of Beccles is a detached church bell tower, dating back to the 16th century. 

It dominates the small town. 

From there we did another short drive to Burgh Castle. We thought it was a village but it actually turned out to be a castle as well. 

And a very old one at that.

It is situated on the River Waveney and was developed as a fort town, by the Romans in AD300, as a defence against the Saxons. At that time it was believed to be known as Gariannonum. 

There are only a few of the massive walls remaining at Burgh Castle but you could get an idea how impressive it once was.

That night was our 44th wedding anniversary, so we were looking to find somewhere special for dinner.

Our hosts suggested that fish and chips was an iconic meal in Great Yarmouth. I don’t think they understood the significance of the celebration.

We ended up at the Imperial Hotel, a posh pub on the outskirts of town.

It was full of people who had obviously eaten there many times before. They all knew the menu off by heart and the waitress, Andrea, by name.

 

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September 23, 2107. Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, United Kingdom.

Breakfast in the UK isn’t easy. 

People stare at us, as if we have two heads, when we don’t want a ‘Full English Breakfast’ or a ‘Pot of tea’ or ‘Mug of coffee’

After the simplest breakfast we could get we boarded the ‘Vintage Broadsman’ for a two hour trip on the Norfolk and Southwark Broads. 

Travelling up the Bure River the captain delivered an eloquent description of our journey. All entirely in English, as you would expect, but not what we were used to. 

The weather wasn’t great but most people chose to sit on the top deck, in the open air. 

The Vintage Broadsman was crowded and so was the river. Leisure craft, yachts and small, self guided, tourist boats we constantly passing by. 

It seems that boating on the broads is a very popular pastime. 

And, as seems to be so common in the English speaking world, everyone waved to each other. 

Google let us down in Great Yarmouth. 

We searched for coffee and Mocha was the best rated, with great reviews. 

We should have gone to Starbucks. 

We searched for a good pub with food and Google found the Mariners Hotel. The place was empty and they no longer serve food. 

Should have gone to KFC – no, that’s going too far. 

Mobility scooters are more common than push bikes in Great Yarmouth. 

It probably has something to do with the demographics. 

These coastal towns are relatively poor. This is evident in the hotels, restaurants, food and entertainment on offer. 

Great Yarmouth is a hybrid of Coney Island in New York State and Blackpool in Lancashire.

It lacks the charm of Brighton in Sussex and has the tackiness of Vegas, but is much more forgettable than both.

There are some grand old Victorian mansions and terraced houses behind the gaudy facade of gaming machines, fast food outlets and strip clubs.

On the way back to our B&B in Great Yarmouth, we found Fastolff House in Regent Street. This beautiful office building was constructed in 1908 by RS Cockrillin, in the Art Nouveau style.

In Britain Art Nouveau is also known as Arts and Crafts.

 

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September 24, 2107. Great Yarmouth to Norwich, with a side trip to Cromer, Norfolk, United Kingdom.

We weren’t that sad to leave Great Yarmouth but it had been an experience that will remain with us. We stopped for coffee in Cromer, which is about an hours drive away.

The contrast between the two towns was amazing.

Cromer hadn’t forgotten about the fact that it was a seaside town and that people like to be beside the seaside.

The beach was full of families and the town wasn’t clogged up with commercial distractions.

Cromer is the crab capital of England.

The Cromer Crab is the commercial mainstay of the town and the tourists love them as well. 

The Cromer Pier is the centre point of tourist activity with many families trying their hand at catching the local delicacy.

Most of the crabs caught are very small and part of the ritual is to take them from the pier, in your crab bucket, and then walk down to the beach and put them back into the North Sea.

There are many menacing seagulls, hovering overhead, hoping to get an easy feed.

The crabs are a bonus to local business as the surrounding shops sell crab caps, crab buckets and crab nets, all to make your crabbing that much more enjoyable.

I am sure that time spent, in the less commercialised Cromer would make for a much more rewarding family holiday experience than staying at Great Yarmouth. 

It would probably also be a lot cheaper than constantly forking out for rides, mini golf, slot machines and fast food.

Apart from the crabs, Cromer has the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, dating back to the 13th century. As well as the Hotel de Paris which was originally built as the residence of Lord Suffield in 1830.

That night we found the, weirdly named, Unthank Arms in Norwich. It was about 10 minutes walk away from our hotel, the Best Western George.

It was great and vast change from the previous night.

Good food, wine and beer with an excellent ambiance and great staff.

 

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September 25, 2017. Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom.

Lens issues, yet again.

There was a nasty rattle in my 7-14mm wide angle lens and it didn’t sound good.

This meant that we had to find a Olympus repair centre, as well as a laundry, while we were in Norwich.

Google let us down again, just as it had done in Great Yarmouth. We were trying to find a place for breakfast, this time Google maps and the TomTom didn’t know one end of a road from the other. We eventually went to a shopping mall. It was easy to find and you can always get a cup of coffee and a croissant in a mall.

After finding a local laundromat, we went in search of a camera repair centre. The good news was that the guy in the shop didn’t think the problem was terminal. The bad news was that to get it fixed the lens would have to be sent away, to Portugal, for the repairs.

Frustrated with laundry and camera issues we went for a long walk around Norwich.

Norwich is one of the most important cities in England. From the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution it was the second largest city, after London.

Besides the obvious standouts of Norwich Cathedral and Norwich Castle there are other delightful areas in this Medieval city.

One of my favourites was the Royal Arcade. Designed by architect George Skipper, in the Arts and Craft style in 1899. The arcade has a humble single storey exterior but a stunning two storey interior. There are decorative tiles featuring flowers and peacocks as well as exquisite stained glass windows  of trees and birds.

Late that night we got the very sad, sad news regarding Phil, Thea’s younger brother. He had tragically passed away in his sleep, while watching the Brownlow Medal on TV.

Suddenly all our future plans were thrown into confusion.

Our immediate priority was to get back to Australia as soon as we could. 

 

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September 26, 2017. Norwich, to Sutton Bridge Spaulding via King’s Lynn, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom.

We arranged a late check-out with the hotel so we could start to make arrangements for our return home.

The original plan was to drop off the Renault Captur at Orly Airport in Paris, so that had to be reworked. Fortunately Renault Euroddrive were very understanding and arranged for us to drop it off at Heathrow.

Qantas were also excellent and so were our travel insurance company, so we went ahead and made all the arrangements.

We couldn’t get a flight to Melbourne immediately, as it was the Grand Final weekend, so we had a couple of days to fill in.

On the way to Sutton Bridge Spaulding we made side trip to King’s Lynn. This was a good move as there was nothing at Sutton bridge.

King’s Lynn was known until 1537 as Bishop’s Lynn and is a seaport and market town. The River Great Ouse is a central part of the town as is the Purfleet Quay. There are some other attractions such as the King’s Lynn Minster or Saint Margaret’s Church, which was built in the 12th century. Plus some wonderful municipal architecture like the Town Hall or Trinity Guild Hall which was built in 1421.

At Sutton Bridge Spaulding we were staying at the Anchor Hotel. This was a typical English pub, in the middle of nowhere.

Fortunately they had a restaurant, that served good English fair and some good draught beers and wine.

 

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September 27, 2017. Sutton Bridge Spaulding, Lincolnshire to London Heathrow, United Kingdom.

Relatively easy drive to Heathrow. There were some roadworks, something we haven’t seen since we have been in the UK. 

We stopped at Saint Neots for a coffee and arrived mid afternoon at the Park Inn by Radisson. 

The location of the hotel was excellent as it was 50 metres from where we had to drop the car off and only 600 metres from Heathrow Airport. 

September 28, 2017. London Heathrow, United Kingdom.

This was our last full day in England and we needed a long walk.

What better place to have one but along the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park.

It was only about 12 kilometres to Windsor, from our hotel in Heathrow. 

The stroll was relaxing, about 8.5 kilometres from the castle to Copper Horse Statue of King George III and back.

The sun shone as the jets thundered overhead – we were right under the flight path.

As we passed through Deer Park we could see the deer in the distance. Then suddenly one buck broke out of the woods and came straight towards us.

It was a tense few seconds until we realised that he was heading to a muddy hollow for a wallow.

After a coffee for me and lunch for Thea in Windsor, we headed back to the hotel to pack.

This was the last drive in the Captur. We had travelled 8,931 kilometres in the Renault and 925 kilometres in the Opel Mokka.

We had started in spring, missed summer completely and now it was autumn. 

September 29, 2017, London Heathrow, United Kingdom to Melbourne, Australia.

After some final packing we dropped the Captur off to the Renault Eurodrive depot. They then drove us, in the Captur, to Heathrow to catch QF flight 10 to Melbourne via Dubai.

Part 3: Along the Baltic Sea – Berlin again.

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

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September 11, 2017. Poznań, Poland to Berlin, Germany.

We were returning back to Berlin to relax, catch up on things and spend some more time with Hayden and Andrea. 

On reaching Berlin we detoured to Templehof Airfield.

Up until 2008, when it ceased operating, Templehof was one of the main airports in Berlin.

It is now a vast playground for the Berliners, and is now known as Templehofer Feld.

It was a cold and windy afternoon when we arrived at Templehofer Feld but there were hundreds, if not a thousand people walking, riding, playing, kite flying or just hanging out.

Because of its vastness it was difficult to estimate just how many people were there.

Currently there is 386 hectares of open space available to the public.

The original terminal was constructed in 1927 and in the mid 1930s the Nazi government started a massive redevelopment.

As part of the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, Templehof became the lifeline of Berlin. For 11 months vital supplies were airlifted into the isolated city. The Berlin Airlift is now regarded as one of the greatest feats of aviation history.

To keep West Berlin supplied, over 200,000 flights delivered 8,893 tons of necessities into the city.

September 12, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

Over the next few days we took off our tourist hats and just became Berliners.

We did have a walk around Volkspark Friedrichshain and Alexanderplatz but that was about it. I didn’t even take any photos for two days.

September 13, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

The highlight of the day was a haircut and visit to the Post Office, not to post anything but to get money. There are very few banks near Hayden and Andrea’s apartment.

 

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September 14, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

It had been raining on and off since we returned to Berlin so we were confined indoors for much of the time. We really didn’t care as this was our time for R&R.

I took a photo for the first time in days it was of the rain in Saarbrücker Straße from our apartment window.

 

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September 15, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

We were back to being tourists, but only for a few hours. 

After getting the Renault washed, and it needed it badly after the bug splattering of the last six weeks, we headed off to do some sightseeing.

Berliner Mayer East Side Gallery is a 1,316 meter long section of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved as a memorial to freedom.

The gallery contains 105 paintings of artists from all over the world. Sadly many have been damaged by vandalism and tagging. This is a shame as the gallery attracts over 3 million visitors a year.

Some sections have been removed and others partly demolished. 

There is still a major conflict regarding the gallery.

One of the most famous pieces is the Socialist Fraternal Kiss between Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev, titled: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love.

On the other side of the gallery is part of the Wall Museum. This currently has on display a series of documentary style installations recounting experiences of victims from East Berlin.

September 16, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

It was the weekend, so after a late breakfast we went strolling around the area near Hayden and Andrea’s apartment.

This was not the tourist areas but the places that Berliners frequent on the weekend.

 

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September 17, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

The sun was out and so were the people. 

Our tourist outing for the day was a visit to the Reichstag or German Parliamentary building on the edge of Tiergarten Park and next to the Brandenburg Gate.

Hayden and Andrea had booked us passes to visit the dome. There is no entrance fee but you have to book in advance.

We did and so did many others – the place was packed.

There was a touch of irony in our visit, as next week the Germans go to the polls. 

A very important vote for both them and Europe. 

The Reichstag was originally built in 1884 and designed by architect Paul Wallot, after a competition.

It housed the German Parliament until 1933, when it was badly damaged by fire that swept through the original dome.

Hitler blamed the fire on the Communists and this was a catalyst for many reforms that gave him the power to rule Germany as a dictatorship.

After the war it fell into disuse as Germany was now divided between the east and the west.

When Germany was reunified in 1990 it was decided that the German Parliament should again sit in the Reichstag.

In 1993 again a competition was held, calling for new designs, and was won by the British architect Norman Foster. The building then underwent reconstruction between 1995 and 1999.

The new dome was a feature of the design.

Foster, under a brief from the German Parliament, built the new dome as a symbol of Germany’s unity and ‘Transparent Politics’ in contrast to the Nazis and the Soviets.

The large glass and steel dome has great views of the surrounding city and you can look into the space below.

The new dome covers the main debating chamber of the Bundestag and incorporates a number of high-tech features. A mirrored cone, in the centre of the dome, directs sunlight into the chamber, reducing carbon emissions by saving on power. While a sunshield tracks the sun and blocks out the direct sunlight and associated heat.

Norman Foster has been responsible for many ground breaking designs over the years.

Some that I recall and admire are the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, the ‘Gherkin’ in London and the world’s tallest bridge, the Millau Viaduct in France.

He was also involved, with the late Steve Jobs, in designing the new Apple Park, or ‘Spaceship’ in Cupertino, California. 

After the Bundestag we walked to the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten. It was constructed just after war ended in 1945 and designed by Lew Kerbel. It is in remembrance of the 2,000 Russians who died fighting to ‘free’ Berlin.

These were our last days in Germany and Europe. 

It was the end of our Baltic adventure, we were now headed to a more familiar place – England. 

Part 2: Along the Baltic Sea – Lithuania and Poland.

Friday, July 20th, 2018

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August 31, 2017. Kuldīga, Latvia to Klaipeda, Lithuania.

I put on shorts for the first time in weeks and it was a good feeling. 

How long the better weather would last along the Baltic Sea, was questionable, but I wanted to make the most of what little summer we had left. 

On the way to Klaipeda in Lithuania we stopped in Liepāja for a coffee and then went to the beach. 

Another stretch of wind blown sand. 

There were more people in the water, as the temperature had climbed into the mid thirties. 

You can certainly see while people from this part of the world are attracted to the Adriatic. 

Wind turbines are a sure sign of wind and Liepāja is regarded as the windiest region in Latvia. There is a plan to construct a wind farm of 19 generators in the area.

We had come to Klaipēda, which is the gateway to the Curonian Spit. However the town offers more than just a stepping off point, with a relaxed, stylish lifestyle and many good bars and restaurants. 

Klaipēda is the third largest city in Lithuania and situated on the confluence of the Kurškju and smaller Danēs rivers.

The most impressive part of the town is the Theatre Square and the Klaipēda Theatre. An attractive Neo-Classical building from 1857.

Surrounding the square are many bars and restaurants and the square itself is home to the local handicrafts stalls.

The square has seen some history.

On March 23, 1939, Adolf Hitler made a speech from the balcony of the Klaipēda Theatre. This followed Lithuania accepting the Nazi German ultimatum to surrender the region.

We had dinner in one of the many restaurants on the square and afterwards visited Nesé, the Irish Pub that was opposite. During dinner there were roars of delight and groans of displeasure coming from the pub and we wondered what football game was on.

It turned out to be a basketball game between Lithuania and Georgia.

Unfortunately for the locals, Georgia won by two points, in the dying moments. (Georgia 79 defeated Lithuania 77)

 

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September 1, 2017. Klaipēda, Lithuania.

The Curonian Spit is a 98 kilometre long sand dune thats stretches from Klaipēda in the north to the Russian state of Kaliningrad in the south. It varies in width from 400 metres to nearly 4 kilometres. 

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared by Lithuania and Russia and has an interesting history. Baltic mythology suggest that the Curonian Spit was created by a giantess, named Neringa, who was playing on the seashore. Apparently she scooped up sand and brought it there to shelter the local fishermen from violent storms on the Baltic sea.

There is a ferry that leaves Klaipēda every 20 minutes and crosses the Curonian Lagoon to Neringa on the Curonian Spit – on the other side of the spit is the Baltic Sea. 

My faith in the weather improving was mistaken, as the morning was dark, overcast and cold. In defiance I stupidly put on my shorts.

Even that didn’t help.

 

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September 2, 2017. Klaipēda to Šiauliai, Lithuania.

The drive from Klaipēda to Šiauliai is about two hours, or 160 kilometres, depending on the roadworks. 

The main reason for our one night stay in Šiauliai was to visit the Hill of Crosses. This is a pilgrimage site, about 12 kilometres out of the town.

It is believed that the first crosses were placed on the former Jurgaičiai or Domantai Hill Fort after the 1831 Uprising. (Also known as the Polish-Russian War of 1830-31)

All sorts of religious icons, large and small, have been placed on the hill by Catholic pilgrims.

Over the years they have come and gone, as political entities flexed their muscles.

In the late 1800’s there were an estimated 9,000 items on the hill and in 1922, just 50.

In 1961 the Soviets destroyed 5,000 and in 1975 a further 1,200 more.

During the years of Soviet occupation, the Lithuanians used the hill to demonstrate their allegiances to their original culture and identity.

By 1990 there were 55,000 items placed there and it is estimated that there are well over 100,000 there today.

There was certainly a lot and I wasn’t about to start counting.

It’s also a popular place to visit for locals, especially wedding parties. Two groups turned up while we were there.

The city of Šiauliai was said to have been founded in 1236. It was named Saule, after the Battle of Saule, or Sun, fought in the same year. 

We found no sun in Šiauliai. 

In Šiauliai we were staying at the Hotel Turnê. This was another Soviet era pub with the mandatory USSR Green walls. 

After trolling through TripAdvisor I found what looked like good place to eat. Black Bar described itself as a gastropub and they had 12 draught beers on the menu. 

Things were looking great.

When I went to order one of the beers, I was told that they only had two available. 

The food was good. 

We had just finished our meal and the reality TV, that was in the background and mute, was turned off and the Eurobasket was turned on. It was live, loud and suddenly the pub was full. 

We didn’t stay to watch the game but later discovered that the locals had a good win against Israel. (Lithuania 88 defeated Israel 73)

They love their basketball in Lithuania.

 

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September 3, 2017. Šiauliai to Kaunas, Lithuania. 

Kaunas was first mentioned in history in 1361.

Over time It has been invaded or occupied by the Russians, Swedes, French and Germans. 

It is Lithuania’s second largest city with a population of over 300,000. Up until the Second World War there was a large Jewish population living in Kaunas. Under the Nazi occupation many were exterminated. 

We arrived in Kaunas mid afternoon and our accommodation, Hotel Hof, was just meters from the main walking street. 

It was a Sunday afternoon yet the place was buzzing, especially compared to Šiauliai, where we had been the night before. 

We found Green Cafe, a free trade, eco-sustainable coffee house. It was stylish and the coffee was good. 

In the afternoon we visited Vytautas the Great War Museum. 

The weather was still overcast with intermittent drizzle. What better place to go than a museum on a foul day. 

The museum was established in 1921 and in its current location since 1930.  

It was named after Vytautas the Great, a ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Born in 1350 he is regarded by modern day Lithuanians as a national hero. Posthumously he was an important figure in the 19th century national rebirth.

This museum is part of a complex containing, the War Museum, which is by far the largest and the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum, the Ethnography Museum and periodic exhibitions. 

They were designed by the eminent architects of the day, Vladimiras Dubeneckis, Karolis Reisonas, and Kazimieras Kriščiukaitis. 

The theme of the museum is war, conflict and weaponry. 

Something the Lithuanians know a lot about. 

It traces the history of Lithuania, from the Stone, Bronze and Middle Ages to the current day. 

The dioramas, in the early part of the exhibition, were a great way to see how fortifications developed over the millennia. 

Another fascinating display was the  Exhibition of the History of Weapons. It displayed swords, rifles and handguns from the 16th to the 20th Century. 

The Main Street in Kaunas was alive and the blare of the TV sets in the bars and pubs was deafening. 

Lithuanian sides were competing in both basketball and football, so there was no escaping the excitement. 

We did manage to find a local restaurant, off the main drag that was quiet. 

They didn’t have a TV. 

In fact it was so quiet, that apart from the two of us, there were only four others in the place, at various times during the night. 

The food was great but, as to be expected, there wasn’t much ambiance. 

 

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September 4, 2017. Kaunas, Lithuania.

Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania and is on the confluence of the Neris and Nemunas rivers. It is a cultural, economic and academic hub. It has been named ‘Little Paris’ due to its rich heritage and architecture.

It was a Monday and everything was shut, especially the museums, so we decided to walk.

Our first stop was the Bank of Lithuania which was built in in 1928,  in a Neoclassical style, as a result of a competition held in 1924. A French company initially won the tender but the plans were deemed to be far too complex and expensive. The responsibility then passed into local hands and M. Songaila, the only Lithuanian professor of architecture at the time, was appointed.

He also happened to be the chairman of the jury judging the competition.

One of the main features of Kaunas is Laisvės Alėja. It is supposedly the longest pedestrian avenue in Eastern Europe, measuring 1.6 kilometres. 

Walking the entire length, there and back, gave us some exercise and an excellent opportunity to see the city.

At the start of 2017 Kaunas was chosen as one of the European Capitals of Culture and it’s easy to see why.

Stunning street murals are everywhere.

One that particularly attracted my attention was the giant wall painting entitled Wise Old Man. This 440 square metre artwork, on the side of an abandoned factory, was created by Gyva Grafika in 2013.

We then crossed over the Nemunas River to ride the Aleksotas Funicular Railway. Opened in 1935, it’s not the oldest funicular in Kaunas, that honour goes to the Žaliakalnis Funicular, built in 1931.

The weather turned balmy in the afternoon and we actually took our coats off.

That didn’t last as it was raining again that evening.

 

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September 5, 2017. Kaunas, Lithuania to Reszel, Poland, including Wolf’s Lair.

It was a long day of driving and sightseeing.

It’s approximately 280 kilometres from Kaunas, in Lithuania to Reszel, in Poland. The famous hideout for Hitler and his henchmen, Wolf’s Lair, was on the way.

We were also loosing an hour of daylight, as there was a time change moving from Lithuania to Poland.

Wolf’s Lair was Adolf Hitler’s first Eastern Front military headquarters. It was a high security site hidden deep in the Masurian woods. Hitler spent more than 800 days at Wolf’s Lair and it was there that the most famous assassination attempt was made on his life on July 20, 1944. 

The name ‘Wolf’ was one that Hitler gave to himself in the early 1930s.

The forrest complex is 6.5 square kilometres in area and at it height of use housed about 2,000 people.

Hitler departed from the complex on November 20, 1944 when the Red Army’s Baltic Offensive reached Angerburg, (now Węgorzewo) which was only 15 kilometres away.

Wolf’s lair was demolished by the Soviets on January 24 and 25, 1945. It is estimated that it took 8,000 kilograms of TNT to partially destroy the buildings.

What remains there now is a mass of reinforced steel and concrete that’s slowly disappearing back into the forest.

We arrived in Reszel late in the afternoon and had a quick walk around the castle. As we were actually staying in the Zamku Reszel, the hotel within the castle, we decided to do a more comprehensive tour the next day before we left for Gdansk.

 

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September 6, 2017. Reszel to Gdánsk, Poland.

The castle in Reszel, apart from being our accommodation, was the town’s main tourist attraction. Reszel is dominated by both the castle and the Peter and Paul Church, which is practically next door.

The castle was built by the Teutonic Order between 1350 and 1401, while the church was built in much the same time from 1360 to 1402.

Both are in red brick and built in the Gothic style.

Apart from climbing the castle tower, which gives you an excellent vista of the town, it’s the Reszel Tower Museum that’s within, that holds the most interest.

The main theme of the museum is Medieval torture.

There are 30 plus methods of inflicting pain in the torture tower and a further 25 methods were on display in the dungeon.

The Virgin of Nuremberg, or Iron Maiden was a standout.

Used in the 16th century to torture and extract confessions, this 2.2 meters high casket could accommodate a man standing. The victim was tied inside the Maiden and when the doors were shut spikes would penetrate the flesh. The spikes were strategically places so as to not damage the vital organs. 

They didn’t want the victim to die immediately – just suffer.

Once the doors were completely closed their screams couldn’t be heard from outside and concurrently the victim couldn’t see any light or hear anything from the inside.

Talking of torture.

Summer and autumn in Europe is wasp season. Whenever you eat outside these flying pests, with a nasty sting, want to sample your food and drink. Especially if what you are consuming is sweet.

They hover around the table and the more you try to wave them away the angrier they get.

We have found that the best strategy is to just ignore them and, like most pests, they give up and leave.

After our castle experience in the morning we started the drive to the Baltic coast and Gdansk. It was a good trip until we got to within 30 kilometres and then we struck roadworks – again. 

When we arrived in Gdansk it was raining – again. 

 

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September 7, 2017. Gdánsk, Poland.

Gdansk was first established as a Polish stronghold in the 980s and over the centuries has been ruled by the Prussians, Germans, Russians and Poles.

We were in Gdansk to try and get an understanding of this famous Polish port city. I first remember hearing about Gdansk in the early 80s. It was the home of Lech Wałęnsa and the Solidarity Movement – a movement credited by many, with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Solidarity was the first independent labor movement in the Soviet-bloc and spawned an anti-communist social movement that, at its peak, claimed 9.4 million members.

What set it apart was the fact that it was non violent.

The morning was spent dodging the rain and exploring this beautiful old town.

We were staying in another apartment but unfortunately couldn’t find a good supermarket. This meant that we couldn’t self-cater for breakfast as we normally do.

We had to eat out yet again.

In the afternoon we joined a free 2.5 hour Solidarity walking tour around Gdansk.

Kasia was our guide and she made it very clear, right from the start, that she expected a tip. 

So it was free in name only, which wasn’t an issue as it was worth every Złoty of the tip. 

The tour was designed to put the Solidarity movement in context. It traced the the Polish freedom movements growth from 1945, culminating in the Revolution of 1989.

The tour covered a lot more than Lech Wałęsa. 

We were taken around the city and shown how it had been restored after the Second World War. The restoration of Polish cities like Warsaw and Gdansk was a miracle, especially when you see what was left of the them after 1945.

Many parts of the city were rebuilt during the 1950s and 1960s. Any trace of German influence and tradition was suppressed and only Flemish/Dutch, Italian and French influences were revived.

Fittingly the tour finished at the European Solidarity Centre, near the Gdansk Shipyards. Opened in 2014 the museum and library is dedicated to the Polish Solidarity Movement and other opposition movements in Communist Eastern Europe.

The design is intended to suggest the hulls of a ship built at the Gdansk Shipyard.

Both the interior and exterior are made of steel which have oxidised to produce a rust effect.

There is a rooftop terrace with views of the Gdansk shipyards on one side and the a city-scape on the other.

The building is an impressive example of contemporary architecture.

Supposedly Lech Wałęsa has an office there.

We didn’t see him.

Kasia did share her views of the current state of Polish politics. She did take care to mention that she really shouldn’t discuss political issues. But…

One of the things that disturbed Kaisa most was the demonising of Lech Wałęsa by the current right-wing populist government in Poland.

Many fear that Poland is on the road from a liberal democracy to authoritarianism. There is a push within Polish politics to re write the history books regarding the Second World War and the rise of the Solidarity Movement. The Polish government is also turning its back on many of the liberal values and democratic principles that are a core part of the European Union, to which it belongs.

 

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September 8, 2017. Gdánsk, Poland.

We took a day trip by train to Gdynia, Polands largest port on the Baltic Sea.

We actually got off by mistake at Sopot, which is a seaside and spa town. We then hopped on the next train to Gdynia. 

The trains were running every fifteen minutes so we didn’t waste much time. 

I was very impressed with the tourist facilities provided by the city. The Observatory of Change in Gdynia was a viewing platform. This was free to visit and gave the tourist a great view of the city and port area.

There was also an InfoBox at the top of the tower that allowed people to discover more of the city. You could find out where the public parking and city bikes were located and see the trolley bus routes.

We then took the two minute ride on the Kamienna Góra Funicular to the top of the Kamienna Góra Hill, which is near the centre of the town. Again it was free and we got another good view. Unfortunately the weather was rather grey.

Gdynia is one of the youngest cities in Poland, only receiving its rights in 1926. Before that it was only a fishing village. 

Because of its young age the architectural style of the day was chosen for many of the buildings. This has led to it becoming the Modernist capital of Poland.

Even now, many of the contemporary buildings have adopted elements of Modernism.  

Modernist is the most important new architectural style of the 20th century. It turned its back on ornament and embraced minimalism.

Steel, glass and reinforced concrete are the most populate building materials in Modernist architecture.

There are a number of leisure craft on Passenger Ship Alley, some still sail, but most don’t. 

There was one ship that impressed me the Orb Błyskawica. This destroyer was built in England between 1935 and 1937 and certainly saw some action during the Second World War. 

It was involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Normandy landing, as well as operating in the North Atlantic, the Pacific and Bay of Biscay. 

On returning to Gdansk we wandered down to the Motlawa River again and took a few snaps of The Crane.

Built in 1444 this Medieval ship’s loading crane used hemp rope and a system of blocks and two wooden turnstiles. The crane was powered by men walking inside the turnstiles to load cargo and erect masts onto the ships moored by the river’s edge.

On the last night we discovered a proper supermarket, just around the corner from our apartment. The one we found on our first night was very average. 

And much to my horror we also discovered a Craft Beer Pub, Labeerynt, also nearby. 

We had been looking in the wrong direction. 

At least we found it before we left. Imagine discovering it as we drove away. 

 

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September 9, 2017. Gdánsk to Poznań, via Toruń, Poland.

It was 299 kilometres to Poznań. Not a long drive but considering our luck with roadworks, we expected the worse.

We stopped for lunch at Toruń but once we got there, finding the Old Town wasn’t easy.

Both our satellite navigation systems (one in the car and the other in our travel phone) sent us to an obscure part of the city, certainly not the centre. We have discovered that the Tourist Information Office is usually in the centre of most towns and cities and near the main town square, if there is one.

This is definitely an area that Sat Navs can improve on. I must talk to Hayden about that.

This was definitely a town on the tourist map as the streets were bulging with tour groups. 

Toruń is a UNESCO World Heritage City, but more than that it is the City of Copernicus.

Copernicus monuments, street names, houses and souvenirs are everywhere.

Born in Toruń in 1473, Copernicus was a Renaissance Man, in every sense. He was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, governor, diplomat and economist.

His greatest claim to fame was in developing the Copernican Revolution, that put the sun at the centre of the universe (Solar System) not the earth.

The foundation charter for Toruń was signed in 1233 by Herman von Salza, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. It was managed by the Knights until 1454 when it became incorporated into the Polish Republic.

 

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September 10, 2017. Poznań, Poland.

Poznań is one of the ancient cities of Poland. 

It’s earliest remains can be traced back to the Stone Age. It was first written about in history as early as 966 and became a city in 1253.

On our first night we just wandered into the Old Town to find some dinner. This wasn’t as easy as we had imagined.

Everyone was drinking and there seemed to be very few people eating.

The next morning we walked down the length of Stary Browar. This is a huge mall and arts complex, just opposite our hotel. 

The architecture was strikingly industrial, with red brick and steel. Not surprising, as it was built on the site of the old Brewery Huggerów. 

The award Winning design of Stary Browar, or Old Brewery, has preserved much of the architecture and many elements of the original brewery. 

The first brewery was constructed on the site in 1844, by a brewer from Württemberg, Ambrosias Hugger.

The walk through the mall kept us out of the rain, at least until we reached the Póhwiejska, the walking street.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around Poznań.

Firstly to the Old Market Square, one of the most attractive in Europe. The main feature is the Renaissance Town Hall, designed by the Italian architect, Giovanni Baptista Quadro.

Like many Polish cities the buildings surrounding the square have been painstakingly reconstructed, after the destruction of World War Two. The building facades are painted in subtle shades of creams, greens and browns and many of them also have intricate decoration.

Then to the lavish Baroque masterpiece, the Parish Church of St Stanislas.

We took the King’s route, which is a tourist walking path, to the see the Cathedral Basilica of St Peter and Paul on Cathedral Island. Originally built in the 10th century but rebuilt after WW2, when it was badly damaged.

The cellar holds the relics of the first rulers of Poland from the 10th century.

Apart from old architecture there are some modern buildings in Poznań. One of the most striking is the  Poznań Gate Ichot. This is a history museum that is linked to the Old City by a suspended footbridge over the Cybina River.

Back in the Old Town we discovered the Nikon Polish Press Photography competition, which was at the rear of the Parish Church of St Stanislaus.

That night we went back into the Old Town and again found very few people eating.

Poznań is a draw card for tourists, especially from Germany and Britain.

It could be the lower prices and excellent shopping or the fact that there are so many places to get a drink.

Part 1: Along the Baltic Sea – Estonia and Latvia.

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

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August 20, 2017. Tallinn, Estonia.

We were back in Tallinn to start our trip along the Baltic Sea. Being our second time in the Estonian capital we decided to stay on the other side of the old town. 

This time at a hotel, the Park Inn by Radisson, rather than an apartment.

Little did we know that there was a new office building being constructed, right next door. 

And buildings sites work on Sundays in Tallinn. 

After getting up earlier than we had planned, we walked to Kadriorg Park to ‘smell the roses’. 

We discovered that nature also works on a Sunday as the bees and butterflies were hard at it.

Estonian flags were everywhere and we wondered why there were so many. They were on buildings, cars and some people were even carrying them. 

Then we discovered that it was the Day of Restoration of Independence. This was the day in 1991 that the Estonian Supreme Soviet in association with the Estonian Congress proclaimed Estonian independence from the Soviet Union.

As a result of the festivities there were no museums open so we just had to walk around.

We did visit Kumu, the Art Museum of Estonia, but that was just for coffee.

The museum is housed in a very impressive, contemporary building on the edge of Kadriorg Park.

Like so many public buildings the architect, Pekka Vapaavuori, was the winner of a competition in 1994.

It was constructed between 2003 and 2006 and is built into the limestone slopes on the side of the park.

Again built on the edge of the centuries old Kadriorg Park is the Kadriorg Art Museum. In total contrast to the glass and steel of the Kumu Museum, this one is housed in the grand baroque palace, that was built for Peter the Great in 1718.

Designed by the Italian architect Niccolo Michetti it’s a fine example of Tsarist extravagance. 

Unfortunately we didn’t get to go inside either as they were also shut.

 

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August 21, 2017. Tallinn to Pärnu, Estonia. 

It was meant to be 1.5 hours from Tallinn to Pärnu but due to roadworks and more rain it took a little longer. 

The receptionists at the Hotel Carolina told Thea, when she enquired about the rain, that it had been a ‘light summer’

When we walked into Pärnu there was a removals’ van taking away the umbrellas from one cafe. Then we saw workers removing the summer veranda from another. 

I’m afraid we have missed summer completely in this part of Europe. 

Pärnu Beach is regarded as the best beach in Estonia, so we walked down to have a look. 

There was no one bathing at this section of the beach but a number of people were wandering around on the sand. 

I think they were looking for summer. 

 

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August 22, 2017. Pärnu, Estonia.

This was adventure day. 

Thea had booked a day trip that involved a walk in a peat bog, lunch and a canoe ride on the Halliste River. 

We didn’t know much more than that.

It turned out to be a great experience and a chance to “enjoy the nature” as the locals say.

The entire excursion was set in Soomaa National Park, with the walk on the Ingasi nature trail.

Soomaa means ’The Land of Mires’. Over time these mires developed into bogs.

The trail was a combination of boardwalks, soil trails and a bog walk that required special ‘bog shoes’ that were provided.

At the end there is an 8 metre high observation tower that allows you to overlook the bog and the forests beyond.

Lunch was provided and certainly part of the experience. 

It was traditional Estonian fair, that consisted of potato porridge, homemade barley bread and desert (Kama) that was made from curd cheese.

After lunch it was time for part two of our nature adventure, canoeing on the Halliste River.

There was a lot of serious instructions on how to go about canoeing, especially the possibility of ending up in the river.

I decided that my camera and equipment would be better off remaining behind.

It was probably a wise decision as the bottom of our canoe did start to fill up with water. This was a combination of bad paddling, on my behalf, and rain that that started when we were about half way through the trip.

The Halliste River is one of four rivers that separates the mires within the national park.

The other rivers are the Navesti, Raudna and Lemmjögi.

The Soomaa National Park was created in 1993 and is 359 square kilometres in size. It is situated in what’s called Transitional Estonia and has been created to protect the raised bogs, grasslands, flood plains and rivers.

 

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August 23, 2017. Pärnu, Estonia to Cēsis, Latvia.

An elevator. 

It’s only when you don’t have one that you appreciate them. 

I thought this as we descended the five levels to the ground floor as we were leaving the Hotel Carolina in Pärnu. 

Most of our hotels or apartments are booked through bookings.com and we always have standard requests such as free off-street parking, WiFi and non-smoking. 

On the Eastern European stage of our trip, most of our accommodation has been in old cities and therefore old buildings. 

Carting our bags up has become a pain, literally, so we now include a lift as standard request. 

It doesn’t always work out that we get one, but when we do it’s much appreciated. 

Before leaving Pärnu for Cēsis we made good use of the hotel’s free parking and left the Captur there and wandered around the town. 

Pärnu is the fourth largest city in Estonia and situated on the coast of Pärnu Bay. The Pärnu River flows through the city and into the Gulf of Riga.

Perona, which was very close by, was founded in 1251 but was destroyed and replaced by the current town in 1265.

On our walk we discovered Villa Ammende, which was built in 1904. This mansion house is a fine example of the Art Nouveau style. It is now a luxury hotel that serves the resort area of Pärnu.

Another architectural discovery was the Church of the Saint Martyr Catharina.

Built in the baroque style, 1765-1768, by the architect Peter Yegorov and named after Catherine the Great.

Our apartment in Cēsis was a bit of a walk from the centre of town. But it was raining, again, so we found a restaurant close to home. 

2 Locals had good food and service at a reasonable price but they only take cash. 

This we discovered at the end of the meal. 

I am very uncomfortable with cash only places, as they are probably cheating the system in one way or another. 

I complained that there was nothing on the menu to alert me to their policy and was told that there was a sign on the front door. 

It was back to front and almost invisible. 

In Finland, Estonia, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, credit cards are the norm and you always get a receipt, whether you ask for it or not. 

I can only assume that fraud, corruption and tax avoidance are still prevalent in this part of the former Soviet Union. 

 

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August 24, 2017. Cēsis, Latvia.

It rained all night and was still coming down in the morning. It was also cool, with the temperature hovering around 11°C. 

With our lantern in hand we took off to explore the Cēsis Castle complex. 

The lantern was so we could climb to top of the Western Tower, without being in complete darkness. 

It wasn’t really necessary but it was a nice Medieval touch. 

Cēsis Castle was built in the 13th century and the ruins are regarded as some of the most impressive in the Baltic states. It was once the most important castle of the Livonian Order. The Livonia Order was formed in 1237 and were a autonomous branch of the Teutonic Order.

During the Soviet occupation (1940 – 1990) Latvia, like the rest of the USSR, erected statues of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. One such statue was unveiled in Cēlcis in 1959. This particular statue was created by one of Latvia’s most talented 20th century sculptors, Kärlis Jansons (1896 to 1986). As a result, in the 1990 break-up of the Soviet Union, the statue was not destroyed but just dismantled.

It now lies in a wooden crate in the castle grounds.

Since 1949 the Cēsis History Museum has been situated in the New Castle of the Cēsis Castle estate. The Museum covers the history of Cēsis and the Latvian people.

A very interesting exhibit was the wax reconstruction of a woman, aged in her mid 20s, who was found after the siege of 1577 by Ivan the Terrible.

After visiting the castle we went for a walk in the Gauja National Park and Sarkanãs Cliffs. The Gauja National Park is the largest national park in Latvia with an area of over 917 square kilometres.

Everyone was there for the water, which must have had some healing powers, and not the walk. 

The options for dinner were limited. After finding the main hotel was full, with tour groups, we discovered a local Latvian restaurant. 

A much better option. 

We ordered our meals but they were served to another table. Then they tried to get us to accept what the other table had ordered. We refused and then had to wait so that they could prepare what we had ordered in the first place.

The meal was worth the wait.

 

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August 25, 2017. Cēsis to Rīga, Latvia.

On the way to Rīga we visited Sigulda Castle. Built in 1207, this was yet another the castle of the Livonian Order.

The Sigulda Castle Complex was under renovation as was the entire town. Road works and reconstruction was everywhere.

In Rīga we were staying in the Bearsleys Downtown Apartments. Getting to our apartment was a complex task. It did have a lift but we also had to negotiate stairs, a walk, more stairs and a second lift before we reached our rooms.

It certainly wasn’t that bad, as just opposite our apartment was Bierhaus, a gastro brewery. 

How unfortunate. 

All the staff at Bierhaus were ‘hipsters’ who had a great command of English and a wonderful sense of humour.

The brewer is an American architect, turned brewmaster, Gordon Van Houten. After abandoning architecture, fifteen years ago, Gordon studied brewing in Germany then brewed beer in both the States and now in Latvia.

His wife is Latvian, hence the connection.

 

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August 26, 2017. Rīga, Latvia.

After breakfast in the apartment, which was a rare pleasure, we went looking for a coffee. 

Miit Coffee was recommended by Triposo and right opposite our apartment. 

This area is fantastic.  

Great beer and coffee, just over the road.

We were in Rīga for five nights so we will be visiting both places more than once. 

The day was spent discovering the city of Rīga.

It was about a 25 minute walk from our apartment, which was in ‘Downtown’ to the Old City.

Rīga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has a history going back to 1201. 

It was set up by Albert of Bremen as a port city and a base to convert the local Livonians to Christianity, which he did by 1206.

Rīga has a diverse population, due to its rich history, which has been influenced by the many nationalities who have called it home over the centuries.

The Old Town is very compact and easy to get around.

Rīga is the capital of Latvia and has a population of over 700,000 inhabitants. One in three Latvians live in the city and its surrounds.

During the Soviet occupation Rīga was a popular destination with the Russian tourists and many Russians were living there as well. A lot of work was done to restore the Old City and make it more attractive. 

In 1989 only 36.5% of the population in Rīga were Latvians.

Having eaten at a Brewpub one night, it seemed only fair that we go to a gastro wine bar, that was just around the corner, the next. 

It was a Saturday night and they were shut. 

It was a great area for beer and coffee but not for restaurants. 

We did find an Armenian restaurant that was close by and ok. 

The food was fine but the service a little gruff – all part of the great Socialist experiment that spread the Russian’s lack of humour from the Baltic States through Armenia, Georgia and Central Asia. 

 

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August 27, 2017. Rīga, Latvia. 

We drove 25 kilometres west from Rīga to Jūrmala. This is a resort town with a population of about 57,000, making it the the fifth largest city in Latvia.

There is a toll of €2 to get into the town. 

I think all the money goes into hanging baskets – they were everywhere. 

Jūrmala has a 33 kilometre stretch of sandy beach which is long, flat and very, very shallow. You would have to almost walk to Sweden before the water got over your head. 

When Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, Jūrmala was a popular holiday resort for the high ranking Soviet officials.

Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Kruschchev graced their shores.

Not a pretty sight I am sure.

After an ice cream and a coffee on the beach we drove, west to the Kemeri National Park.  There we had a choice of two walks – the floodplain forest or forest trail which are both on the Vēršupīte River.

They were only about 1.2 kilometres in total, so we decided to do both.

The Vēršupīte River is fed from sulphur springs, which is obvious to the nose and a boom for the many therapeutic health resorts in the area.

There were wheel chairs everywhere.

 

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August 28, 2017. Rīga, Latvia.

Today we went in search of the Art Nouveau district, which wasn’t far from our apartment. 

There are about 800, so called, Art Nouveau buildings within Rīga. 

This architectural style comes from the early years of the 20th century. And unlike other, older styles, many of these buildings were designed by Latvian architects. 

Art Nouveau in Europe was popular between 1890 and 1910 and inspired by natural forms, particularly plants and flowers.

In Latvia it’s known as Jugendstil.

Art Deco replaced Art Nouveau in 1910 and I think that there are many buildings that have been attributed to the wrong era, as I didn’t see that many authentic Art Nouveau buildings on our city walks.

Because of the decorative nature of Art Nouveau, there is a lot of surface sculpture and floral moulding on the building facades. 

If not properly maintained, this has a habit of coming lose, so a number of buildings were covered in protective netting. 

Rīga Central Market is the largest in Europe and part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Listing. 

It was constructed from 1924 to 1930 using old German Zeppelin hangars, as a basis for the design. The architectural style incorporates both Neoclassicism and Art Deco.

It measures 72,300 square metres with over 3,000 traders.

Traders have been operating on the banks of the Duagava River since 1571, so the area is no stranger to commerce.

 

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August 29, 2017. Rīga, Latvia.

About 300 metres from our apartment was Gastranome, a gourmet food store, delicatessen, café, patisserie and butcher. 

Yes, on one side of this huge store was a purveyor of fine meat.

In large refrigerated cabinets were, what looked like, quality cuts of dry-aged beef.  

On the other side was everything else.

And upstairs was an upmarket seafood restaurant. 

While we were in an apartment we decided to eat in one night and availed ourselves of the wide selection that Gastranome had to offer.

The selection was huge and the quality top class.

As our apartment didn’t really have any condiments or ingredients to look after ourselves and cook, we decided to go for the pre-prepared take-away options.

Our last day in Rīga was spent just wandering around and revisiting some of our favourite sites. Especially those that had been difficult to capture, when the weather was foul and the light poor.

I was particularly taken by the Central Market and felt that I really hadn’t done justice to the place.

That, and the Dome Cathedral, definitely needed re-visiting. 

We also discovered a monument to George Armitstead, who was the Mayor of Rīga from 1901 to 1912. 

Born in 1847 to a British merchant family he became the fourth Mayor of Rīga. George was responsible for the cites rapid transformation from a regional town to a major city.

He was involved in the development of many of Rīga’s current building,s including 13 schools, 3 hospitals, the National Museum and the Zoo.

Many of these developments would have been during the Art Nouveau style, as his time in office was during that short period in architectural history.

At one point he was asked to become Mayor of St Petersburg by Emperor II of Russia – he refused.

On our final night we returned to the Brewpub across the road and again we weren’t disappointed.

The beer, was still, good and the food innovative, fresh and well presented.

It wasn’t nearly as busy as the first night we visited, so we got chatting to one of the owners.

He was one of four that have set out to create a real Gastro Brewery in Rīga.

Three of the owners are Latvian while, as I have mentioned, the brewer is an American guy, married to a Latvian woman, who needed to return home.

Originally an architect he decided to turn his hand to brewing. Latvia is better off for his change in occupation, as his beer is the best we have had in the Baltic States.

The current name of their restaurant is Bierhaus, which is very German. Which isn’t surprising as this is the origin of the original restaurant.

They are now trying to tun it into a contemporary Brewpub, under the name of ‘Alķīmiķis’ but are realising that time, and money, are involved.

I think they will succeed, as their ideas are sound and their product is exceptional.

Most of the local breweries are very traditional and a quality craft brewer will give the market a shake up.

I just hope that they can turn beer into gold.

Miit Coffee, which were next door, are also innovators. They have developed a confectionary, that looks like chocolate, but is made from coffee. Each segment in a bar has the equivalent hit of a double shot espresso.

 

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August 30, 2017. Rīga to Kuldīga, Latvia.

It was about two hours to Kuldīga, west of Rīga. We extended the drive by going to the coast, which is further north, and stopped in Ventspils. 

This is a Blue Flag Beach. Blue Flag is certification by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). It is only designated to those beaches, marinas or tourist boating that meets its very high standards.

The temperature had finally decided to rise above 17°C and managed to get to 25°C by the time we reached Kuldīga. 

In the afternoon we wandered around the town. One of the features is the Kuldīga Bridge which was built of brick in 1874 and runs across the Venta River. The Alekšupīte River runs through the centre of town while the Venta Rapids are the widest waterfall in Europe, measuring 164 metres. 

Kuldīga is an ancient town, with interesting architecture and a history dating back to 1242.

Being much warmer that night we ate at the hotel – outside.

Part 2: Finland – Savonlinna, Imatro and Porvoo.

Friday, July 6th, 2018

August 13, 2017. Helsinki to Savonlinna, Finland.

Savonlinna is 350 kilometres north east of Helsinki and is surrounded by lakes. Not surprisingly it’s in an area known as the Finish Lakeland. 

Finland is a country of forests, 70% of the country is covered by them, islands and lakes. We had certainly seen the trees on our trip to Lapland and some of the islands in Helsinki.

Now it was the lakes. 

There are over 168,000 lakes that are larger than 500 square metres and 179,000 islands.

Most of the Finish landscape is a result of the last Ice Age. The glaciers were thicker and lasted longer in this region, compared to the rest of Europe, leaving the landscape flat with few mountains.

As we left Helsinki we detoured to visit the Kallio Lutheran Church. We had seen it while touring around the city and were interested to get a closer look.

It was completed in 1912 and designed by Lars Sonck in the National Romanticism style with Art Nouveau influences. The grey granite structure is 65 metres high, and dominates the flat Helsinki landscape.

The Estonian coastline can be seen from the tower.

While we were in our long pants, jackets and jumpers, the local tourists were in T-shirts and shorts. 

I think they are living in a false sense of summer. 

 

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August 14, 2017. Savonlinna, Finland.

We were running out of clean clothes and the hotel didn’t have a laundry service.

Therefore our first job was to find a laundrette.

This took us to parts of Savonlinna that tourists wouldn’t normally go. There we found a commercial laundry and they had one small machine, so we left our clothes to be washed and went off sight seeing.

Olavinlinna Castle is the primary tourist drawcard in the Savonlinna area, apart form all the lakes.

And it was also only 200 metres from our hotel.

Olavinlinna Castle was started in 1475 by Eric Axelsson Tory (1415-1481) and renovated by the Finnish State between 1872 and 1877. 

The castle has been a constant battleground, as Finland has been under the control of both the Swedes and the Russians, for centuries.

In 1912, Aino Ackté, a world renowned Finnish opera singer started the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Olavinlinna Castle. She gave more performances in 1913, 1914, 1916 and 1930, after Finland’s independence. 

The festival was restarted in 1967 and has just celebrated its fiftieth year. It is now held annually, within the castle walls and had just finished. A temporary stage and seating allows the performances to continue, despite the weather.

About 60,000 people come to Savonlinna for the festival. That’s a lot more people than we ever saw in the town.

In a weird twist of culture, the festival season ends in August with a boxing match.

When the town is surrounded by lakes you don’t use a Hop-on Hop-off bus, you take a boat. 

We took an hour long cruise around the islands in the MS Leva.

This gave us yet another opportunity to view the Olavinlinna Castle, this time from the water.

One of the strangest sights we encountered was on our way into Savonlinna. There was a rather large bridge under construction and instead of metal scaffolding supporting the works, it was all timber.

I guess when 70% of your country is covered in trees, you need to use them.

 

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August 15, 2017. Savonlinna, Finland. 

After breakfast we set off to visit the wooden Lutheran church in Kerimäki, which is about 23 kilometres from Savonlinna.

Kerimäki is the world’s largest wooden church.

Designed by Anders Fredrik Granstedt and built between 1844 and 1847, it can hold up to 5,000 people. It measures 45 meters in length, 42 meters wide and 37 metres high. 

The reason that it’s so big is that Frederik Neovius, who held office at the time, believed that the church should be able to hold half the townsfolk of Kerimäki at any one time. 

When winter comes in Finland you don’t want the faithful standing out in the cold.

The rest of the day we negotiated the narrow stretches of land, between the lakes, and just drove around.

We had no particular plan other than look for some good photo opportunities.

We found these at Lake Puruvesi and Lake Enonvesi.

The constant threat of rain has produced some spectacular clouds as they constantly moved across the sky.

Fortunately the rain had held off for the last couple of days, which was good considering that most of our activities were outdoors.

In the evening we walked back into harbour area for dinner. We discovered that the best place was the Bistro Ŵaahto. 

They only had two draught beers but the food was excellent. 

On the way back to the hotel we walked past Olavinlinna Castle, yet again, and took more photos. 

I think I have take more photos of this Medieval castle than anything else on our travels. 

 

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August 16, 2017. Savonlinna to Imatra, Finland.

The Imatrankoski or Imatra Rapids were formed around 5,700 years ago, during the stone Age.

Water from the higher Saimaa lake penetrated the Salpausselkä Ridge, causing the river to flow into the lower Lake Ladoga, gouging out the ravine where the rapids run.

The rapids were so spectacular that they put Finland on the tourist map.

Since the 1700s’ people have come from around the world to visit the Imatra Rapids.

In 1903 a stone hotel, the Valtionhotelli, was built overlooking the rapids. This was after several smaller wooden ones burnt down.

Now the tourists and the dignitaries had somewhere grand to stay.

The Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, visited in 1772 and Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, in 1876.

Fourteen trains per day brought people to Imatra from St Petersburg to see the wonder of the rapids. 

In the 1920s’ tourism declined, as a result of the depression. So, in 1929, they dammed the rapids and built a hydro electricity plant. 

Now there’s nothing left except a dam wall, dry river bed, power lines and ‘graffiti’ carved into the rocks by famous visitors. 

As a compromise the dam gates are opened daily in the summer months and also on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Presently they are closed completely due to renovation work on the Imatra Hydroelectricity plant.

 

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August 17, 2017. Imatra, Finland.

Even though this was the high season Imatra was very quiet. 

The rain held off again so we decided to go on another forrest walk. This time to Lammassaari Park on Mulikionselka Lake. 

We only walked 4.5 kilometres but it took us two hours. 

Again the track was clearly marked, this time with white dots on the trees, not yellow. 

There weren’t the information boards along the way but small numbered posts with QR Codes. 

Much more high-tech, but useless unless you’re on-line. 

The walk was great. It wandered around a small peninsula, meandering along a mixture of coastal and forest tracks. 

There were many campfire spots with firewood and even axes and a bow saw, if you felt like a bit of exercise. 

One of the fireplaces was in a small cabin. Probably used in winter or when it rained, which is very often. 

We had a coffee at a lakeside restaurant and Thea got chatting to the owner. 

Apparently he is only open for four months of the year. The rest of the time he travels. 

To somewhere warmer, would be my guess. 

 

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August 18, 2017. Imatra to Porvoo, Finland.

We woke again to the sound of Eurovision style music coming from the town square.

Our hotel was the Centre Hotel Imatra and it certainly was right in the heart of the town. 

The drive from Imatra to Porvoo is about 230 kilometres, that’s if you take the longer route, as we did.

Just over the road from our hotel in Porvoo was the Porvoo Cathedral and Bell Tower. The first church to be built on the site was wooden and like most wooden structures of that time it burnt down. It was replaced by a stone sided church around 1410-1420.

Since then the church has been destroyed by fire again many times. In 1508, by the Danes, 1571, 1590, 1708 by the Russians and in 2006 by Kalle Holm, a Black Metal musician.

Porvoo has the oldest Town Hall in Finland, being completed in 1764. It sits proudly in the town square and now houses the Porvoo Museum.

Porvoo is one of the six Medieval towns of Finland with its first historical mention being in the 14th century. The original city was believed to have been founded in 1346.

It’s only 50 kilometres east of Helsinki, so day-trippers come there by the busload. 

The Old Town is famous for its Medieval wooden houses, especially the Shore Houses that run along the Porvoo River.

Porvoo is currently under consideration for a UNESCO World Heritage listing and I can understand why.

We have had two great ‘beef’ meals on our travels. The first was in Malbun, Lichtenstein, in 2012 with Hayden, the other one was in Porvoo, Finland. 

Ravintola Meat District is in Old Porvoo, about five minutes walk from our hotel and just near the river. 

Dry aged beef hangs in a large refrigerator in one part of the restaurant – proof that they knew something about their meat. 

The Meat District pride themselves on sustainability, with a focus on ecological meats and organic ingredients.

August 19, 2017. Porvoo, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia.

Today we had to get the ferry from Helsinki back to Tallinn in Estonia. 

So it was more sitting around. 

It started to rain as we arrived back in Helsinki and the sky was dark. Much as it had been when we arrived 13 days ago, and has been for most of our time in Finland.

Part 1: Finland – Helsinki and Rovaniemi in Lapland.

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

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August 7, 2017. Tallinn, Estonia to Helsinki, Finland.

The Renault was taking its first overseas trip, as we were on the car ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki in Finland.

It was only an 80 kilometre journey but it was a day of waiting, as we needed to be at the ferry terminal at least two hours before departure. 

We were in fact there almost three hours before. 

As we left our apartment in Tallinn the tourists were arriving, by the busload. If we had departed any later it would have taken much longer to get through the streets. 

The ferry pulled out right on time at 12 noon. 

The Finlandia was a huge, 100 metres long, hermetically sealed, floating casino. 

I counted five bars and countless gaming machines strategically placed around them. 

In the area where we were sitting there was a bandstand, with a band, to entertain the punters and a Finish magician to keep them amused. We didn’t understand a word of Finnish, but you don’t need to. 

Pulling the metaphorical rabbit out of the hat, is visual not verbal. 

Just as we arrived at our hotel, the Best Western Carlton, it poured down. We had obviously brought the rain with us from Tallinn. 

It cleared in the afternoon which gave us a few hours to wander around the Old City. Which isn’t really that old, as most of the buildings are from the late 1800s and mid 20th centuries. However the area does have a history dating back to the Iron Age.

Helsinki was developed as a trading town by King Gustav I of Sweden in 1550. The intention was to make it a rival for Hanseatic, modern day Tallinn. Not much came of the plan and Helsinki remained a small town afflicted by poverty and plague. In fact in 1710 the majority of the city’s residents died from plague.

Helsinki became the capital city of Finland in 1812, just after it gained autonomy from Russia in 1809. Finland didn’t get full independence until 1917, after the February Revolution in Russia.

Helsinki is the world’s northernmost metropolitan area with a population of over 1 million people. It is also the northernmost capital city of the European Union, which it joined in 1995. 

Most of the city’s growth occurred during the twentieth century, after independence. It held the 1952 Summer Olympics and undertook a rapid urbanisation in the 1970s’. In 2012 Helsinki was named the World Design Capital.

In the evening we found the Bryggeri Helsinki a Gastropub just off the Senate Square. 

The beers were great as was the food. 

We both had the smoked salmon steaks, which was on a rich roasted vegetable stew of carrots, onions asparagus and fennel. 

Beer has been brewed in Helsinki for over 500 years and over that time there have been 27 breweries in the city area.

Bryggeri is the latest.

 

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August 8, 2017. Helsinki, Finland.

We had been lulled into a false security with the low prices in Eastern Europe. 

Finland was another thing. 

Everything was more expensive than Melbourne and that’s saying a lot. In Sandringham a beer and wine will set you back $20 in Helsinki its €17 ($25.50)

On our first full day in the capital we decided to take the Helsinki Hop-On Hop-Off bus, just to get a feeling for the city. 

In the late afternoon we then walked to closer inspect some of the sites that interested us most from the bus tour. 

Temppeliaukio, or Church of the Rock is one of the most visited sites in Helsinki. Completed in 1969 and designed by the architectural brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. As the name suggests it’s built directly into solid rock.

Helsinki’s central railway station is a wonderful example of the Art Nouveau style. Designed by the Finish architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) and inaugurated in 1919. The massive, Monumental Style, sculptures out the front are a feature. 

The station is a hub of both the Finland overground and Helsinki Metro and handles over 200,000 commuters per day. 

In 2013 it was voted as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations by the BBC. 

Our next site was the Sibelius Monument, designed by Eila Hiltunen and built in 1967.

Jean Sibelius 1865-1957 was a composer and violinists. He is regarded as Finland’s greatest composer and credited with helping Finland develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia.

As usual a competition was run to find a suitable design for the sculpture. And, as usual, there was controversy over winning design. 

You can’t please all of the people, all of the time.

Using over 600 hollow steel pipes welded together, the contemporary design resembles organ pipes. It is very striking – especially set against a rarely blue Helsinki sky.

Critics of the design argued that it was too abstract and, more importantly, Jean Sibelius created very little music for the organ.

Hiltunen answered her critics by adding a figurative piece, the face of Sibelius, as part of the main design.

We heard on the bus tour that the Finns’ are amongst the world’s biggest consumers of coffee. There was certainly no shortage of good coffee to be found in Helsinki. 

 

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August 9, 2017. Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Finland.

The Renault was having yet another first today, as it was going travel on the training to Rovaniemi, in Lapland. 

After checking out of the hotel we put our bags into the car, which was still in the underground car park and walked into the Market Square. 

The train wasn’t leaving until 7pm so we decided to take a boat cruise around the islands surrounding Helsinki. 

We took the Historical Helsinki Cruise, which lasted about 90 minutes. 

It was interesting to see the city from another perspective. However the commentary was a bit boring as it repeated much of the information we had head on the Hop-on Hop-Off bus. 

After the cruise we had a coffee at the covered market, which has been turned into a food hall for the Market Square. We walked around the city a bit more and then wandered through Stockmann on the way back to the car park.

Stockmann is the largest department store in the Nordic countries and makes the claim that: ‘If you can’t get it in Stockmann, you don’t need it.’

They were right, the store is huge and has an enormous range of goods on offer.

We didn’t want to be late for the train so headed to the station early. 

Getting out of the car park was an interesting experience. 

We travelled hundreds of metres, underground, just to get to our parking spot. Then we must have driven a kilometre or two just to get out. We had obviously taken a wrong turn and finished up doing a subterranean tour of Helsinki. 

We emerged, like a mole after winter, on the other side of the city and were very happy to see daylight. 

Even getting to the train wasn’t without it’s problems. There were roadworks along the way and when we got to what we thought was the departure point, the station was being demolished. 

We finally got to there only to be told that we were 70 minutes too early. 

Oh well, so much for planning. 

At dinner on the train Thea met her lover – well he was in love. 

A very drunk Finnish guy thought he had it made when he discovered Thea sitting, on her own, in the restaurant car. 

I was off getting us a drink and when I returned the look of disappointment on his face was priceless. 

He had a minder, whose job was to make sure he got off the train at the right station. 

They were both retired electrical engineers and had been in Tallinn for a few days with some former work mates. 

I think it had been a big few days.

After dinner I had some work to do so we stayed in the restaurant car. The internet on the train was excellent and I was able to upload files with ease. 

 

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August 10, 2017. Rovaniemi, Finland.

The car train arrived in Rovaniemi at 7:10 am and it took another 40 minutes to get all the cars off. 

That was still too early, as the town was deserted and nothing was open. 

We finally found a cafe open and had breakfast. 

Rovaniemi has been the business centre of Finnish Lapland since the 1800s but the city is relatively new. 

It was destroyed by the Germans in WWII and has been completely rebuilt. As a result there is a lot of featureless concrete constructions in the main town area. 

The Arctic Light Hotel is one of the oldest buildings in the newly constructed Rovaniemi. 

It dates ‘way back’ to 1949 and was used as the new town Hall for a number of years. 

Our hotel room had a record 12 pillows on the bed. Then we found another one in the wardrobe. 

Apart from an over abundance of pillows, the room was lit up like a carnival, all controlled by a computer touch pad. 

Well it was the Arctic Light Hotel.

On the outside the building was rather mundane but the fit-out was very stylish. Everything was in black, white, grey and chrome. 

It also boasts the oldest lift in Rovaniemi. 

We were up inside the Arctic Circle to visit Santa, so after breakfast we headed north to Santa’s Village. 

As you would expect it’s very tacky, but a lot of fun. 

We chatted and even had our photos taken with the bearded one. And when he discovered we were Australians, he revealed his secret love of Vegemite.

Visiting Santa is free, having your photo taken with him isn’t. We opted for the video and digital download.

Nothing is cheap in Finland.

The Arctic Circle is defined …as the line, north of which the sun never sets for at least one day in summer, and never rises for at least one day in winter.

From Santa’s Village we travelled further north, up the road, to Vikaköongäs and the Vaattunkiköongäs wilderness area. There we had a great walk around some of the tracks. 

Just as were we’re heading back to Rovaniemi it poured down. 

The rain had caught up with us yet again. 

We wandered around the city centre of Rovaniemi, which didn’t take long and then had dinner at the hotel restaurant. 

This wasn’t plan A, as were we’re going to eat at the Finnish restaurant next door. 

It was booked out. 

As it turned out it wasn’t a problem, as the hotel restaurant was excellent and no where near as crowded. 

We had Reindeer, cooked two ways, which was fantastic. 

 

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August 11, 2017. Rovaniemi to Helsinki, Finland.

The breakfast at the Arctic Light Hotel was amongst the best we’d had. 

Lots of interesting tastes but with a Lappish touch. Even smoked Reindeer with cream cheese. The breads and cheeses were also great and they had fresh berries. 

We have been seeing berries for sale in Estonia and Finland and this was the first time we were served them for breakfast. 

Walking in nature is a common summer pastime of the Finns, so we decided to join them. 

We drove about 80 kilometres east of Rovaniemi to Auttiköngäs to do the nature trail walk. 

The road was excellent and the trip took just over an hour.  

The walk was 3.5 kilometres of stairs, duckboard (boardwalk) and tracks. There were waterfalls, swing bridges and a lookout along the way. 

At the very start of the track is an old timber log chute, which is strange as this area is not meant to have been logged. 

The track was well marked and there were interesting commentary boards describing the flora, fauna and geography of the area.

It took us just over two hours, as we had many photo opportunities and reading stops along the way. 

On returning to Rovaniemi we did some shopping for the next day’s breakfast and had an early dinner. That night we were back on the train to Helsinki, boarding at 9:10pm and arriving 12 hours later.

Again we had to be at the station early to load the Renault. 

 

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August 12, 2017. Helsinki, Finland.

After an eventless night on the train, ie: no drunken engineers, we arrived in Pasila, on the outskirts of Helsinki at 9:05 am.

We again took the car to the underground car park, as it was too early to check into the hotel.

The first task was to buy an Olympus 40-150 mm lens. We had seen one before we left to go north and decided that the price was too good to miss.

Unlike so much in Finland that is expensive this lens was well below what we expected to be paying.

In the afternoon we wandered around the newer area of Helsinki and admired the street art that’s all over the city.

There was one very impressive piece of sculpture, sitting in front of the music centre, titled Song Tree. Created by Reijo Hukkanen in 2012, it’s 13 meters high and was inspired by a poem by Aaro Hellaakoski. It tells of a pike that rose from the sea and begins to sing. The song was so beautiful that birds in the trees stopped their singing to listen to the fish.

We then visited the City Park and Töölönlahti Lake, which is very close to the centre of the city. From there is was a short walk to the National Museum of Finland.

A visit to the museum gave us a good opportunity to immerse ourselves in some Finnish history.

The exhibits covers the country’s past from the Stone Age, though the Middle Ages, the Swedish Kingdom to the Russian Empire Era.

It included the rise of Christianity, the Reformation in 1517 and the influence of Martin Luther.

There are a number cafes in Helsinki that have adopted the US system of minimal service. 

It’s counter service and you clear away your own crockery, cutlery and glassware. The big difference is, that everything is real and gets washed and reused. 

No paper, no polystyrene and no tip. 

Staff levels in Finland seem to be low, compared to other places we have been this trip. 

People do multiple tasks and work very hard. 

For instance the receptionists, at two hotels we stayed in, also looked after the breakfast buffet. And at one hotel they also serviced the bar. 

Wait staff in restaurants are thin on the ground and service a large number of tables. Even the kitchens seem to operate with minimal staff.

Self service is the norm, especially in the pubs. You order at the counter, pay and basically look after yourself. 

I have a theory that it’s all to do with the basic wage and cost of employment. The unemployment rate in Finland, as of July 2017, was 8.08%. 

In the US it is currently 4.8% which isn’t surprising considering that their average wage is US$2.13 per hour. 

In Finland a bartender gets about €11 per hour, that’s about US$13. 

Basically it costs more to employ people in Finland but they get paid much more. 

We were impressed by the pub culture in Estonia but when we discovered the Sori Brewpub in Helsinki, we were overwhelmed. 

This brewery is based in Tallinn, Estonia but has a Brewpub in Helsinki, not far from our hotel. Ironically it was started by two Finns.

The quality of the beer and the food were exceptional.

We were appreciative of a cosy environment for dinner, as no sooner had we arrived than it poured down.

Part 3: Eastern Europe – Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

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July 21, 2017. Poprad-Spišská, Slovakia to Krakáu, Poland.

The task for today was simple – drive the 149 kilometres from Poprad-Spišská, Slovakia to Krakau in Poland. This was one of our shortest drives but it turned out to be one of the slowest. 

If Slovakia was ‘slow-quick’, Poland was ‘slow-slower’. 

We added nearly an hour and a half to the estimated time. The traffic density was twice what it had been in Slovakia and they were building a huge freeway along most of the route. 

This new road was certainly needed. 

As soon as we got to Krakáu, we found the tourists – in their thousands. 

Unlike where we had been over the last days in Slovakia, Poland was a tourist destination and Krakau was a tourist city.

Multiple languages, including English were being spoken on the streets, in the hotels and in the restaurants. Touts, hawkers and buskers were trying to relieve you of your money and souvenirs stands were on every corner. There was also Segways and horse-drawn carriages, ready to show you around.

Prices were also back to their usual inflated value and this meant that there were ATMs everywhere, just in case we ran our of cash.

I think I like places with fewer tourists.

 

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July 22, 2017. Krakáu, Poland.

We were in Krakáu to try and get an understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi  occupation of Poland.

Krakáu has a rich heritage, having grown from a stone age settlement to become Poland’s second most important city. In 1364 Casimir III founded the University of Krakáu and today it still remains a centre of academic excellence.

The 15th and 16th centuries were known as the Golden Age for the city. This was the time of the Polish Renaissance when architecture and art flourished. The High Synagogue, built in either 1407 or 1492 (scholars differ), was then rebuilt in 1570 and is regarded as one of the best examples of a Fortress Synagogue in Europe. The Jewish population played an important role in the growth of the city but even as far back as 1495 they were being persecuted. King John I Albert expelled them from the city wall and they were relocated to Kazimierz.

In 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Krakáu became part of the General Government. This was a separate administrative region of the Third Reich.

The Nazis wanted Krakáu to become a Germanised city which involved removing all the Jews and Poles – one way or another. They confined the Jews to a ghetto, where many died from starvation or illness. Later those in the ghetto were either murdered or sent to concentration camps.

After working in the morning, we headed out to discover the city. Our first stop was in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter and then the High Synagogue.

Having seen Steven Spielberg’s 1993 movie, Schindler’s List, we were interested to visit the factory where Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) saved the lives of over a thousand Polish Jews. Based on the Thomas Keneally book, Schindler’s Arch, most of the movie was shot in Krakáu.

The factory was built in 1936, by a  group of Jewish business men, for the Record Metal Goods Company. The business went broke at the start of the war and it was then rented by Oskar between 1939 and 1944.

The Schindler’s Enamel Factory is situated in the district of Zabłocie. In recent years the area has been redeveloped and is now a trendy new suburb, full of apartments, coffee shops and restaurants.

The exhibition, although in the Schindler factory, wasn’t about Oskar.  It was all about the German occupation of Krakáu between 1939 and 1945.

The Krakáu Ghetto was established in 1941 in the Podgórze district. This area originally housed 3,000 people but ultimately there were 15,000 crammed into its walled space. From 1942 the Nazis began deporting the Polish Jews to surrounding concentration camps.

In March 1943 the Nazis undertook the final ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto. Eight thousand, who were deemed able to work, were sent to the Plazów labour camp while 2,000 were killed in the streets of the Ghetto. The remaining survivors were sent to Auschwitz.

The Poles have had it tough and the exhibition was a stark demonstration of that. 

They gained their independence from the Austro Hungarian Empire in 1918. Then in 1939 they lost if again, this time to the German’s. Only to lose it again in 1945, this time to the Russians. 

 

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July 23, 2017. Krakáu and Auschwitz – Birkenau, Poland.

We had booked an Auschwitz-Birkenau Full-Day Guided Tour from Krakáu. 

This wasn’t our intended way to see the Nazi concentration and extermination camps but it was the only option available. 

All the tours, for individuals, were booked out weeks in advance. 

It appears that the tour companies buy up all the tickets, so you are forced to use them. 

It took us just over an hour to drive to Auschwitz. 

Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp, constructed in 1940  it was primarily to hold Polish political prisoners. Then Auschwitz II – Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution

Auschwitz II – Birkenau was the largest Nazi German Concentration and Death Camp. 

Between 1942 and 1944 over 1.3 million people were sent to the camp. 

1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, 90% were Jews.

Just as we were about to finish our tour of the death camps the rain came down.

It was a fitting end to a very sobering experience.

Later in the afternoon we went in search of something a bit more uplifting and walked around Krakáu Old Town. This area was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

We visited the The Cloth Hall, a beautiful late 15th century Renaissance building in the main market square.

We also stopped at the Town Hall Tower (1316), St. Florian’s Gate (1307) and the Barbican Gate (1498).

July 24, 2017. Krakáu to Kazimierz Dolny, Poland.

I worked again in the morning and then we drove to Kazimierz Dolny for a one night stand.

On the road we stopped at Ilźa for a break. This meant finding an ice cream for Thea and a coffee for me. The ice cream wasn’t a problem, as there were at least four places selling them, even though the town was tiny. 

Too tiny for a coffee as it turned out. 

We drove into Kazimierz Dolny and had a walk around the quaint Renaissance town.

That night it rained again.

 

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July 25, 2017. Kazimierz Dolny to Warsaw, Poland.

After I worked in the morning we then checked out of the hotel and walked into town. 

Along the way, beside the Vistula River, there’s a sculpture hanging over a wharf. It’s of a tightrope walking young boy with a kite. 

It’s by Jerzy Marian Kędzioraa, a Polish artist, born in 1947. He is famously known as the creator of the ‘Balancing Sculpture’ genre and has installations throughout Poland.

It was Market Day in Kazimierz Dolny. 

Ice Cream Day as well, as everyone seemed to be licking one. 

Apart from the Parish church and two restored town houses, Under St Nicolas and Under St Christopher, built in1615, there wasn’t much else.

We then continued on to Warsaw.

 

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July 26, 2017. Warsaw, Poland.

I worked yet again in the morning and then we walked into the Old Town, which was a lot further away than we thought it would be. From what we read on booking.com, our apartment should have been much closer. Warsaw’s Old Town appears to have grown, a bit like Brighton, and seemed to be a much larger in area than we remembered.

The last time we were in Warsaw was in 2007 and we were staying in the Bristol Hotel which was right next to the Old Town. 

Back then all the roads around the hotel were under repair, now everything was much more ordered. 

It’s not very often that coffee leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 

It did this day in Warsaw, when we found out that we were paying $13 for two double shot espressos. And to add insult to injury the service was non existent and they got grumpy when we didn’t leave a tip.

Warsaw’s Old Town has been almost entirely rebuilt following the Second Word War.

As a reprisal to the Polish resistance of the Nazi invasion, 85% of the city was destroyed. The German’s aim was to obliterate the centuries-old tradition of Polish statehood.

The rebuilding of the city included the reconstruction of the urban plan, which included the Old Market and the surrounding town houses, the city walls and the Royal Castle.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city.

We were lucky enough to see the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This  took about one minute, compared to the one at Arlington, in Washington DC, that took twenty.

The Palace of Culture and Science is a Soviet era building that dominated the city skyline and we were interested to get a closer look. Built between 1952 and 1955, in the Socialist Realism style, it has become a modern landmark in the Polish capital.

It is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth tallest in the European Union. It is 237 meters high, which includes the 43 meter spire.

It was originally known as the Joseph Stalin Palace. but after ‘Destalinisation’ its name was changed to the rather boring ‘Palace of Culture and Science’

Some less common names include ‘Stalin’s Syringe’ and ‘Stalin’s Dick’.

 

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July 27, 2017. Warsaw to Augustów, Poland.

After breakfast in the apartment we walk around the corner and got a coffee. 

12 Zloty (A$4) for both – a far cry from the 37 Zloty (A$13) the day before. And there was service with a smile. 

We then headed to Augustów, which is about 240 kilometres north of Warsaw. 

This is a seaside resort on the Augustów Lakes. 

We had booked another apartment which was in one of three old Soviet apartment blocks. 

It was small, very small, with three rooms and a bathroom. And it was painted in ‘Soviet Green’, like so much of that era. 

Soviet Green is like a Spring green but dulled down. 

After we had checked in we went for a walk into Augustów and then along the Netta River.

We only spent one night at the apartment in Augustów, which was a very Soviet experience, but well worth it.

 

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July 28, 2017. Augustów, Poland to Vilnius, via Trakai Castle, Lithuania

I have become very efficient at reverse parking onto footpaths. In a lot of places there is more room there than than on the road.

On the way to Vilnius we stopped off at Trakai Island Castle, which is on Lake Galve. 

And so did all the tour busses. 

The stone castle was started by Kęstutis in the 14th century and completed by his son, Vytautas the Great, in 1408.

Over the centuries the castle fell into disrepair and was then partially restored, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War, in 1948, that it was renovated to its current 15th century style.

The castle museum, founded in 1948, holds about 300,000 artefacts. 

There was an entire room dedicated to decorative pipes. 

Trakai is a major tourist attraction and regarded as a true Lithuanian heritage castle.

 

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July 29, 2017. Vilnius, Lithuania.

Our hotel was in a casino, but we were separate from it. 

Except for breakfast. 

This was in one of the casino’s restaurants and we had to be escorted through the casino, past the tables, to get there. Our escort was a big, burly casino security guy. 

In the casino there were people on the tables and at the bar – it was 9:30am. 

A family of three also turned up for breakfast and they were as confused as we were.  

This was Saturday and we were told that breakfast wasn’t available on Sunday. 

Why, we didn’t know, but in a way we were relieved, as we felt uncomfortable being minded by muscle that early in the morning.

We had a long walk around the city and visited Gediminas Castle Tower. The first brick tower was built in 1409 by Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania. The tower is an important part of Lithuanian history and featured on the national currency, the Litas.

Within the tower was a temporary exhibition titled ‘The Baltic Way’.

On August 23rd 1989 more than 2 million Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians made a living chain from Tompea Castle in Tallin, Estonia to Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania. This was in protest of the USSR’s occupation of the Baltic States in 1939. This resulted from the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviets and the Nazis.

After the war the Soviets denied existence of the pact and claimed that the Baltic States joined the USSR voluntarily.

Vilnius is a city to see in the morning, because in the afternoon, everything is back-lit. 

After dinner we discover the Vilnius bike racks. Each rack held ten push bikes and very graphically demonstrated that each rack could take just one car or ten bikes.

 

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July 30, 2017. Vilnius, Lithuania to Ludza, Latvia.

It was about 300 kilometres from Vilnius to Ludza in Latvia. 

Given our experiences of the last few days I thought we would be in for a very long trip. 

This wasn’t the case. 

Being a Sunday the roads were very quiet and there were very few trucks and not a lot of of roadworks.

That’s until we got into Latvia. 

The roads were better than Lithuania but that was because they were repairing them. 

It was still a pleasant trip that took about six hours, including stops for coffee and delays due to the roadworks. 

Ludza is the oldest town in Latvia and first mentioned in history in 1173. 

It has a stone built, Livonian Order, crusader castle constructed in 1399. The castle, as usual, is on top of a hill that overlooks the Lielā Ezerkrasta iela (lake)

It is located on the main Riga to Moscow road and only 30 km from the Russian border. 

The town is relatively small so it didn’t take much time to walk around. 

Diner was at the Hotel Ludza, as there weren’t many options in the town. The hotel was a Soviet era building and again there were the green walls that we had seen in our apartment in Augustów.

There was a constant babble in the rooms adjoining the restaurant. As it turned out there was a birthday party in progress. 

I got chatting to a few of the guests when I went outside to take some snaps of the hotel. The group were very Russian in their look and their attitude and were intrigued as to why two Australians could possible end up in Ludza. 

 

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July 31, 2017. Ludza, Latvia to Tartu, Estonia.

It looked like being another longish drive into Estonia, up past the Russian border. 

Surprisingly the roads were free of repair gangs and there was very little traffic. 

There were virtually no trucks as well. 

Which is understandable, as the SatNav took us on a very back-roads route. This did give us some great scenery. Forests, lakes and quaint little villages were our companions for most of the drive. 

Estonia is regarded as one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world. 

Fast free internet is everywhere. 

Our hotel was right next to the Emajögi River and was within an easy walk of the old town square. 

In the afternoon we wandered along the river and into town, then ended up at the botanical gardens. Established in 1803, they are small and built on a hilly site. This made for an interesting and varied landscape, and a good stroll. 

 

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August 1, 2017. Tartu, Estonia.

The Captur had done over 4,000 kilometres, so it was due for a wash. 

The roadkill was encrusted onto the front of the poor little Renault. And after the unmade roads of the previous day, it was looking rather shabby. 

The hotel directed to a local hand car wash. 

It was €20 (almost A$30) for a wash only. That’s a lot more than I pay at Clearwater in Brighton. 

Tartu was first mentioned 1030 and is the second largest city in Estonia, next to Tallinn.

Tartu Domed Cathedral has been partly restored and is now used as the University of Tartu History Museum. 

The University buildings have been beautifully restored and there is even an old elevator that still works.

In these eastern block countries there is a constant reminder of their Soviet past. In the foyer of the Hotel Dorpat, was a shiny red, rear engined, Soviet ZAZ-965. Produced in the ZAZ factory in Soviet Ukraine between 1960-1969, they were described as ‘Superminis.’

 

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August 2, 2017. Tartu to Vihula, Estonia.

After breakfast at the hotel we went over the road to the Taska Mall to get a coffee. 

Estonia is a very different part of Eastern Europe. The technology, culture, fashion and language all seem to be more Nordic. 

English is very widely spoken, not just in the tourist related establishments but all types of businesses. 

I had a haircut and they spoke English and in the car wash, again, English. 

We had been on the move since we left Berlin and decided to have a few days off in the country. 

The Vihula Manor Country Club and Spa was in a large old Estonian estate set within the Lahemaa National Park. 

It was spread over acres, with ponds, bridges, walkways and accommodation set within beautifully manicured gardens. 

They even have an old Dutch stone windmill at the front gates. 

Visual Vyoll, as it was then known, was first mentioned in history in 1501.

There is nothing left of that era as it was destroyed in the Great Nordic War of 1700 to 1721.

The structures that are there today date from the late 1800s.

During the Russian Revolution the Red Army Guards devastated the manor and then it was nationalised between the wars.

From 1941 to 1944 it was an Intelligence School for the German Abwehr. Then under Soviet rule it became part of the Ubja State Farm and from 1951 to 1980 it was a senior citizens asylum.

The park is set on a coastline that encompasses four peninsulas that jut out into the the Gulf of Finland. 

Lahemaa is one of Europe’s most important forest conservation areas, where many large mammals live. Apparently the area is home to moose, wild boars, brown bears, lynxes and foxes. 

We hope to see them, not meet them. 

Within Vihula Manor there is a car museum, with a small collection from the Soviet era. 

Volga (gAZ-21) 1959, Chaika (1970), Pobeda (1953) and a French Berliet (1927) and German Opel (1936). 

 

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August 3, 2017. Vihula, Estonia.

There are two nature trails around Vihula Manor, one is 3 kilometres and the other is 1.5. 

The longer of the two takes you through part of the forest, along the Vihula River and across the hay fields that are within the property. 

The property area of Vihula Manor is large, with the buildings occupying over 8,000 square meters, all set within 50 hectares of parkland.

In the afternoon we drove to the small fishing village of Altja on Vérgi Bay. We then drove further west to the much larger town of Vösu. 

There was a sandy beach and a very strong wind.

Windsurfers and sailboarders were taking advantage of the wind, while the sun bakers were hiding behind the long grass on the foreshore.

There were a couple of brave bathers actually in the Straits of Finland. 

In the evening we decided to go to the ‘swish’ restaurant. 

We were advised to book in advance. 

When we arrived there was only one other table occupied, and by the end of the evening there was only one more. 

At breakfast the place seemed full. So where are they eating?

My guess is, in their rooms. 

We have seen this a lot throughout Eastern Europe. The cities and sites seem busy, but the tourists retreat at the end of the day. 

We often see travellers, loaded down with plastic bags full of groceries, heading into their hotels. 

August 4, 2017. Vihula, Estonia.

We woke to the sound of rain pouring down the drainpipe, just outside our window.

Luckily we did our exploring the previous day, when the weather was fine.

Estonia has a vibrant craft beer industry. I don’t know how much is draught but there is certainly a lot of bottled beer on offer. 

At the Vihula Manor tavern there were 13 bottled craft beers on the bar blackboard. They were from three different breweries, Vihula, the local brew, Ollenaut and Purtse. 

They covered a wide variety of styles, including IPA, American Pale Ale, Pilsner, Brown Ale, Stouts and Porters. 

Over the last few weeks we have seen many storks and their nests. They are usually high up on a man made, purpose built, stork nest platform. 

We wondered why. 

Thea did a bit of digging and came up with a possible answer. 

Superstition. 

Apparently German peasant farmers believed that it was good luck to have a stork nest in your property. So they build places for them to do just that. 

The were originally cart wheels placed on top of chimneys, now they are metal frames on top of a specially erected pole. 

With the migration of Germans to all parts of Eastern Europe, this tradition has been maintained and stork nests are everywhere. They don’t just set up home on the man made locations but also on power poles and very occasionally in the tops of trees. 

 

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August 5, 2017. Vihula to Tallinn, Estonia.

We had our final breakfast at Vihula Manor. It wasn’t as crowded as the previous two days so the staff had a chance to be even more polite than usual. 

Then as we were leaving the hotel it dawned on me. The staff had obviously been trained in the You’re Welcome School of Hospitality. 

Wherever we went in the hotel we were greeted with “Have a nice day” and the phrase, “You’re welcome” was so overused that some of the staff actually said it before they served you. 

The weather has been very erratic over the last few weeks and suddenly it had taken a turn for the worse. 

On the drive from Vihula to Tallinn we were constantly buffeted by brief storms. We would have a few minutes of torrential rain, followed by bright blue sky. Then it would happen all over again a few kilometres down the road. 

The same pattern continued when we arrived in Tallinn. 

Our apartment was close to the old city and crowded with tour groups. 

They blanketed the road and it took me an age to wend my way through the narrow streets and alleys. 

After finding our apartment, we parked the car and went for a walk. 

Then the rain started again. 

While we were dodging the showers I noticed a graphic stencilled on the pavement. It was warning people about pick-pockets.

Well, Tallinn is a large city and there are lots of tourists.

 

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August 6, 2017. Tallinn, Estonia.

In the morning the rain was still pelting down and we were forced to stay inside. 

It persisted, so we made the executive decision to have a long lunch.

After all it was Sunday. 

By mid afternoon the skies were a little clearer so we set out to explore the city. 

Tallinn is the oldest capital in Northern Europe with a history dating back to 1154. 

The Old Town is one of Europe’s best preserved, walled, Medieval cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

It’s also only 80 kilometres to Helsinki in Finland, as the ferry flies. 

Because of its location Tallinn became an important trading centre from the 14th to the 16th centuries. As a result there are a number of wealthy merchant houses in the Old City. 

Tallinn wears its history proudly with well restored buildings and lots of tourist signs pointing to its colourful past. A large number of the old houses have been turned into museums. In fact there seems to be a museum for just about every topic. 

Just next door to our apartment was the Tallinn Museum of Estonian Drinking Culture. I think it was really a front for a bottle shop and bar. 

Tallinn a very popular destination with Russian tourists, as it’s a lot cheaper than Scandinavia and Western Europe. 

We had got a good feel for Tallinn in the time we were there but weren’t too concerned that we hadn’t done it justice, as we were due to return after visiting Finland. 

 

Part 2: Eastern Europe – Slovakia.

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

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July 8, 2017. Brno, Czech Republic to Bratislava, Slovakia.

After breakfast and a coffee with Kate and Mark we parted ways. They still had more touring to do in the Czech Republic and we were heading to Bratislava in Slovakia. 

On the way we stopped in Mikulov, which is very close to the Austrian border. This small town is known for its architecture, with many buildings having Italian features.

Sitting above the town is Mikulov Castle. This reconstruction, built over the site of a 13th century castle, was built between 1719 and 1730 – it dominates the skyline.

Again weddings were everywhere. It was certainly a photogenic town and a great background for wedding snaps. 

This is in the heart of the Moravian wine district and there were hundreds of locals, on push bikes, doing wine tours. 

Just after we crossed into Slovakia we were forced to use the motorway, which was a toll road. 

However just before the toll station there was an office where you could buy an electronic toll pass. 

It was simple, relatively fast and saved all the hassle of having to find change at toll gates. 

In fact there are no toll gates, so you have to have buy a pass. 

We arrived in Bratislava mid afternoon, about the same time as the rain. 

Our accommodation in Bratislava was at the Film Hotel. It was, as you might expect, about all things ‘film’. 

There were human sized Oscars in the reception area, while the walls were covered in black and white photos of film stars, old and new. 

Each room was named after an actor or actress, we were in room 9, Leonardo de Caprio. 

We have been travelling for almost two months and this is our first new country on the itinerary. 

 

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July 9, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.

Bratislava is the only national capital that borders two sovereign states, Austria and Hungary. 

It sits on the banks of the Danube and Morava Rivers. With a population of just over 450,000 it’s one of Europe’s smallest capital cities.

Bratislava was first mentioned in written history in 903. It became the capital of Slovakia, after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, in 1993. Then, with the help of foreign investment, the economy took off.

In 2017 Bratislava was ranked as the third richest region in the European Union. It was certainly evident in the art, architecture, lifestyle and the people. 

Street art is everywhere within the city centre. The one that got a lot of attention was a bronze sculpture of a worker emerging from a manhole.

In the afternoon we spent a few hours wandering around Bratislava Castle. This massive fortification stands above the city, overlooking the Danube River, on the Little Carpathians.

It dominates the city and has done so for centuries.

On a clear day you can actually see Austria and get a glimpse of Hungary. It wasn’t a clear day when we visited.

It was progressively built between the 9th and 18th centuries and rebuilt between 1956 and 1964, following a catastrophic fire in 1811.

Because of its location, within the centre of Europe, the site has been inhabited for thousands of years. First by the Celts and Romans and then by successive European dynasties.

The architectural style is a rich mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. There is even an English park.

There was a glassware exhibition within the castle, celebrating 125 years of Rona in Bratislava. Rona was established in Ledniké Rovne, Slovakia, in 1892 and is famous for its unleaded drinking glasses. 

Craft beer isn’t just in Germany and the Czech Republic, it’s crossed the border, and is well and truly established in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Over two days we found two craft brewpubs serving excellent craft beers. Both Zil Verne and Klubovña had a selection of imported craft beer, as well as their own brews. 

However I don’t think they were serving their beer in Rona glassware.

 

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July 10, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.

Bratislava was an interesting city, as was the Film Hotel, so we decided to stay an extra night. 

Rather than moving on we made a day trip clockwise around the Bratislava area. 

The main purpose, and highlight, was a side trip to the Red Stone Castle, which is between Píla and Častá. 

Červený Kameň or Red Stone Castle was originally constructed around 1230 as a border castle between the Bohemian and Hungarian Kingdoms. 

It has been home to many noble families, the last being Pálffy who were there from 1583 to 1945. 

The beautifully crafted ceiling frescos in the living area were a feature. 

Being designed as a fortress, the castle cellars were very impressive. The largest being 70 meters long, 7 meters wide and 9 meters high. The cellars are unique and the largest of their type in Europe, there’s even a 110 meter deep well.

Weather in this area is reliably unpredictable.

One moment there’s a blue sky, with patchy clouds. Then suddenly, all the clouds gang-up on you, and there’s a thunderstorm. After being here for a few days we realised that this is a regular afternoon occurrence. 

No sooner had we arrived back at the Film Hotel than the thunder started to rumble. Which, by now, was to be expected. 

On our last night in Bratislava we found yet another brewpub. Výčap U Ernöho is on a corner, just outside the city gates. 

Just in front of the pub was a small square, which was well used by the pub patrons. They were chilling out in all styles of chairs and there was even a fountain and water spray to help cool the warm evening breeze. 

They do know how to relax and they don’t have to pay a fortune for it. 

A round of drinks (a large beer and wine) was €4.20 (A$6.50). We would be paying $20 in Hobsons. 

 

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July 11, 2017. Bratislava to Čičmany, Slovakia.

We made one stop on our way out of Bratislava and that was to see the Church of St Elizabeth. 

Built in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style between, 1909 and 1913, this church is number six on the top ten sites of the city. 

And it’s blue – very blue. 

The exterior is covered in mosaics, much of them glass. 

The vast majority of the drive to Čičmany was on a motorway. Then we got into the ‘slow-fast’ driving of the country roads. Slow through the villages, where the speed limit is 50 km/h and then a little faster through the countryside in between. 

There were lots of villages so the going was slow, then occasionally fast. 

We reached Čičmany in the early afternoon and were able to check into the hotel. 

It was then off to explore the village. 

Čičmany dates back to 1272 and is famous for its painted wooden houses. Which are much younger.

The houses date from the early part of the 20th century. The white motives painted on the black walls are inspired by the local embroidery. 

Off to the side of the village, behind a group of trees, sits the the Baroque Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross.  

It didn’t take us long to explore Čičmany so we were glad we had only booked one night. 

Our accommodation was at the Kaštieľ Čičmany. This was a traditional old house that had been completely renovated. It retained the old exterior but the inside had been made contemporary. 

And all the furnishings came from Ikea, which was a refreshing change from all the ‘old world charm’ we had been experiencing. 

The little village is surrounded by ski runs. So when it’s not hosting tourists in the summer, it’s full of skiers in the winter. 

Not much is in English in Čičmany, so it is really catering to the local tourist trade. 

It was obviously low season there as most places, that were open, shut early. 

We found an ‘interesting’ local bar and restaurant down the road from our hotel. Come 9pm we were the only ones left in the place. 

 

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July 12, 2017. Čičmany to Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia.

On the way we stopped stopped at Bojnice Castle. This was first mentioned in history in 1013, when it was originally a wooden fort.

The most famous owner of the castle was János Ferenc Pálffy (1829-1908). He was a man who loved art, more than anything else. After a failed love affair he devoted his time, energy and money to the castle. He was one of the greatest collectors of antiques, tapestries, drawings, paintings and sculpture of his time.

The last independent owner was Ján Bata of Bata Shoes.

Ironically the Bata family were never mentioned in our guided tour. Which is surprising as the Bata Shoe story is a very interesting one. Maybe not the noblest of families but certainly one of the most industrious.

Founded over 122 years ago in the Czech Republic by Tomáš Bata, Bata Shoes have over 5,200 retail stores in more that 70 countries with production facilities in 18.

The family were originally cobblers, and to overcome a serious debt developed a new style of shoe made out of canvas.

They were one of the first shoe companies in Europe to industrialise, by installing steam-driven machines. They later introduced mass production techniques from America.

The Bata’s were the Henry Ford of shoes.

They received military orders during World War 1 but they fell into decline during the depression years that followed.

Rather than put off staff, the company reduced the price of their shoes and put their staff on a reduced salary. They also provided subsidies for their food and clothing.

They then gave their staff share options in the company, giving them added incentive to work hard and remain loyal.

This radical approach saw Bata Shoes actually increase market share during the depression and helped them to survive.

Many others went under.

The Family may not have collected art or built magnificent castles but they were certainly a family of great resolve and ingenuity.

Just as many Slovakian are early to bed, they are also late to rise. Well if our hotels in Čičmany and Banská Štiavnica were anything to go by. 

The one in Čičmany didn’t start breakfast until 9am, while the Hotel Salamander, in Banská Štiavnica, didn’t start till 8am – how very civilised. 

The Slovakian national summer pastime is eating ice cream. Everyone does it and they seem to do it with great regularity. I was so impressed with their ice-cream eating that I devoted an entire post to it.

Parking is always an issue in Europe but when you get into the small towns it gets worse. 

In Banská Štiavnica we were staying in the Hotel Salamander.

They boasted parking. 

When we arrived all but one of the five spots were taken. Apparently that was ours and it was partially on the street. So if any of the four cars in front of us needed to move, we would have to move, in order to let them out. 

The solution was simple – just leave your keys at reception.

 

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July 13, 2017. Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia.

We took the ‘Tourist Train’ around Banská Štiavnica. Unfortunately the commentary wasn’t in English as English speaking tourists don’t seem to have discovered this part of Europe. In fact most of the travellers seem to be either local or from bordering countries, such as Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

Banská Štiavnica is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s built in a caldera.

It was first mentioned in history in 1157 and has been the centre of mining, especially during the Hapsburg Monarchy of the 18th century.

The oldest mining school in the Hungarian Kingdom was set up there in 1735 and in 1846 it joined with the Forest Academy which was founded in 1808. University and college buildings are dotted all over the city.

With its many attractions and relatively few tourists this area of Slovenia might just become a new ‘Hot Spot’ destination.

The Calvary of Banská Štiavnica was built in 1774, on the plug of the extinct volcano, which is in the centre of the caldera. It was under renovation, but its 23 monuments are worth the walk from town and the climb to get to the top.

The New Castle and the Old Castle are also worth a visit. The New castle has an interesting exhibition of Turkish artefacts and documents the history of the war with the Ottoman Empire. 

It was built as a defence against Turkish invasion. 

In the evening we found yet another brewpub, ERB. Edward Rada Breweries brew on the premises and also in an old synagogue, that’s just over the road. 

The Synagogue was built in 1893 and was used as a place of worship until 1941.

It has been used for a number of business over the years, such as a sheet metal workshop and a driving school.

It has been a National Heritage site since 1955.

 

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July 14, 2017. Banská Štiavnica to Košice, Slovakia.

This was the longest drive we had done for a few days. 

And made even longer by us going down a new motorway, the wrong way, for quite a few kilometres.

The motorway was in the middle of nowhere and there were no turn-offs.

Arriving in Košice and finding our hotel wasn’t without its difficulties. The usual road works and one way streets hindered our way. 

This is always going to be an issue when we chose hotels in the centre of the old town, which is usually pedestrian only streets.

The Hotel Zlaty Dukat is in one of the oldest buildings in Košice and built over the foundations of the old city wall. There is a staircase that descends to the basement, where there is a small wine bar built among the ruins. 

After checking in we spent an hour or so just wandering. 

Košice is the second largest city in Slovakia. The old town is concentrated along Hlavná (Street). This is a long walking area that’s dominated by St Elisabeth Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic churches in Europe. 

There is a green area between the two walking streets. This is occupied with parents and children playing, two fountains, a glockenspiel and wedding photographers with their victims.

Restaurants line both sides but it’s hard to find one where people are eating an evening meal. 

Most main meals seem to be taken at lunchtime, with pizza and cake being the staple in the summer twilight. 

Maybe we should consider lunch as an option. 

Košice was originally mentioned in history in the year 1230 and was the first settlement in Europe to be granted its own coat-of-arms in 1369.

 

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July 15, 2017. Košice, Slovakia.

After a bit of housekeeping, AKA ‘washing’, we headed back into the old town. 

The weather had threatened to be horrible but then turned out to be fine. Which meant the light was in the right position for most of the historic buildings. 

We paid the ridiculously low price of €1, that was for both of us, and ventured below, into the old city fortifications. 

They were from the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, and 3 metres below the current city streets. Where we entered was the site of the original Lower or Southern Gate. 

Later in the afternoon we climbed to the top of St Elisabeth’s Cathedral Tower to get a better view of the city.

The city sprawls off in all directions from the old section. Out in the ‘burbs the architecture was very 70s, Soviet high rise and not very interesting.

It did start to rain late in the afternoon but by that time we had seen all there was to see in Košice.

 

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July 16, 2017. Košice to Viničky, Slovakia. (With a side trip into Hungary)

It was a day of ups and downs – literally. 

The drive from Košice to Viničky was very short so we arrive very early and then headed out to explore the Tokaj wine region. We were at the very top of the wine trail as most of the region is in Hungary.

We managed, even at an early hour, to check into Pension Zlatá Putňa, so we had most of the day left to explore.

Most of the vineyards are tiny plots of land huddled around small villages. 

There are the large commercial wineries but these are outnumbered by the small ones.

Out first stop was at the Tokaj Viewing Platform – our first up for the day.

The platform has been developed, with the help of some Swiss Francs, as a tourist attraction.

It’s 12 meters high and shaped like a wine barrel. It is certainly an interesting piece of architecture and was awarded so in 2015.

We then decided to make a side trip into Hungary. From the viewing platform we had sighted a cable car, and having nothing better to do, decided to try and find it.

One problem was that Hungary doesn’t use Euros, they have the Forint.

We managed to purchase tickets with our Visa card on the Nagas-hegyi Chair Lift and had our second up and down for the day.

We were in the Sátoraljaújhely area, which is an adventure playground for the locals, and they were there in their hundreds.

Apart from the chair lift there was a zip-line, cable car, stock car track and a strange style of toboggan run that was on rails.

We seemed to have been driving for kilometres but when we reached the top of the chair lift we could see Viničky, our village.

It was only about 8 kilometres away.

On our way back we stopped in Borsi to look at the castle. There wasn’t really much to see, as it was only a shell.

It seems its only claim to fame was that Ferenc Rákóczi II was born and lived there. Born in 1676 Ferenc Rákóczi is regarded as the hero of Hungary, leading the Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburgs between 1703 and 1711.

Our hotel was on the main road in Viničky and there wasn’t much else in the town.

Luckily the hotel had a restaurant. 

We seemed to be the only people staying in the Penzión Zlatá Putňa but there were certainly a number of drop-ins, all local. 

Thea had made enquiries about where we could have a local wine tasting. 

The receptionist arranged for the chef to do a tasting with dinner, which all sounded very swish. 

However it didn’t eventuate – apparently he was too busy. 

 

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July 17, 2017. Viničky to Prešov, Slovakia.

The next morning we didn’t seem to be expected for breakfast but it all happened, despite the confusion. 

We were also told, by some guy we had never seen before, but seemed to carry some weight, that we could go into town and have a wine tastings there.

Apparently the family owned a cellar in Viničky and his uncle, Attila, would show us around. 

It all seemed rather loose. 

After breakfast we headed into Viničky for our cellar tour and tasting. 

When we arrived at Zlatý Strapec, the wine cellar, nothing was open. After trying various doors, two women emerged from the adjoining building.

There seemed to be confusion as to why we were there. 

We had a taste of the wine we had the previous night and we decided to buy two 500 ml bottles. 

What else were we to do. We then headed back to our car. 

Suddenly a guy turns up and tells us to come with him, to do the cellar tour. This turned out to be Attila, the uncle of they guy at the hotel. 

Attila’s English was a little better than our Slovakian but he managed to communicate very well – especially with the help of Google Translate. 

After our very weird but confusing cellar tour we went to the Zemplinska Śirava or Slovak Sea, as it is sometimes called. The reservoir dam was built between 1961 and 1965 and covers an area of 33 square kilometres.

This is a recreational area and there was a café, resort and a sandy beach. There were also a number of rather impressive sand sculptures just near the beach.

When we arrived in Prešov the hotel felt empty, in fact the entire town seemed to be empty. We were starting to wonder if the tourist season hasn’t even started yet.

 

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July 18, 2017. Prešov to Poprad, via Spiš Castle and Spišsja Kaputula, Slovakia.

At breakfast there was only one other table – the hotel, like the town, was empty. 

We were getting the feeling that the tourist season hadn’t really started yet in Eastern Slovakia. 

When we got to Spiš Castle we found out where all the tourists were. 

The place was overrun. 

The car park was full and the overflow was lining the steep road leading up to the castle. 

And when we purchased our entry tickets we were told that they had run out of Audio Guides. 

Spiš Castle along with Calvery at Spišsja Kaputula are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It is one of the largest castle sites in Europe with an area of 41,426 square metres.

This Medieval Castle was first mentioned in history in 1249 and then destroyed by fire in 1780.

From that point forward it fell into ruin.

There isn’t much left today, although there was an attempt at a partial reconstruction before 1993.

There are still remains left of those works that were done just after the break up of the Soviet Union.

The best views of the castle are from below, looking up. However it does have a small museum and chapel in the reconstructed castle tower.

We arrived at Poprad, at the foot of the High Tatra Mountains, at 3:30pm. 

The weather was being its usual cantankerous self and the dark clouds were building. 

 

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July 19, 2017. Poprad-Spišská, with a side trip to Dobšinská Ice Caves, Slovakia.

The main destination for the day was to the Dobšinská Ice Caves, which was 33 kilometres south of Poprad.

We again discovered where all the tourists were – they visit castles and caves.

At the ice caves we had to pay for everything. Parking was €3, the tickets were €7 (with seniors discount) and the toilets €0.50. 

However the most outrageous cost was €10 to take photos.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is part of the Caves of the Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst site.

They were discovered in 1850 by Eugen Ruffinyi, a mining engineer. Although they have been known by shepherds and hunters since time immemorial.

They were known as Studená Diera or Cold Hole.

They are regarded as one of the most important cave systems in the world and have been in existence for an estimated 250,000 years.

Once you have parked your car, and paid the fee, there’s about a 20 minute hike up to the entrance. The temperature was in the mid 20s for the climb up, but plummeted to zero once we got inside the caves. It certainly was a cold hole.

There was no English speaking guided tour so we joined in on the end of a Slovak one. We didn’t understand a word, which gave me the opportunity to hang back and take photos. At €10 each we decided to buy only one ticket to take snaps.

Apparently there has to be a minimum of 30 people to have a specific language guided tour.

Thea and I were the only English speakers, so we didn’t count as a group.

The caves are only open four and a half months of the year from May 15 to September 30. So I guess they have to make their money while they can.

The rest of the day was spent driving through the mountains.

By mistake, or good fortune, we ended up staying in Poprad-Spišská, not Poprad. 

This was about 1.5 kilometres away from the downtown area of the main city. 

It was built around a long, tree lined, square. There was a church at one end and old historic homes on either side. 

There was also a surprising number of restaurants in this small area. 

We booked three nights in the Boutique Hotel Fortuna and this gave us the opportunity to do two day trips. 

One to the Dobšinská Ice Caves and another to the High Tatras. 

 

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July 20, 2017. Poprad-Spišská, with a trip to the High Tatra Mountains, Slovakia.

We initially headed to Vysoké Tatry for our Hight Tatra experience but it was far too crowded and the parking scalpers were everywhere. 

We then drove down the road to Tatranká Lominica, where parking was free and the cable cars and chair lifts were open. We went as far up Mt Ve’ká Lomnická veža as we could, which was about 2,200 metres. 

We would have liked to go to Lomnickŷ Štit, which is at 2,558 metres, but that cable car was completely booked out. 

It was crowded but a very pleasant climb along the ridge that runs from the end of the chair lift. 

After our walking in the mountains, we went driving in them as well. 

First to Štrbské Pleso, then to Tatranká Štrba and finally back to Poprad-Spišská. 

It was a very pleasant day in the fresh air, without a church in sight. 

Part 1: Eastern Europe – The Czech Republic.

Monday, May 28th, 2018

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June 29, 2017. Kreuzwertheim, Germany to Pilsen, Czech Republic.

The windscreen wipers on the Opel Mokka didn’t stop for the entire trip from Kreuzwertheim in Germany to Pilsen in the Czech Republic. The first stop on our adventure to Eastern Europe.

The hold-ups, due to roadworks, were almost as relentless as the rain along the 340 km route. 

In the late afternoon we walked around Pilsen, the birthplace of Pilsner Urquell, the Czech Republic’s  distinctive, bottom-fermented lager. It’s regarded as one of the best beers in the world and having it in it’s unfiltered form, they might be right.  

Dinner was at U Salzmannū, established in 1637, it’s the world’s oldest Pilsen Beer House. 

Not to be outdone by the beer, the wine we had at dinner came from the Habánské Vineyard, Morava, which was established in 1614. 

Prices were also from another era. Our dinner at U Salzmannū only cost us A$45. I’ve not had a meal that cheap since the 80s’. 

 

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June 30, 2017. Pilsen, Czech Republic.

Pilsen, apart from beer, has a long history dating back to 1295 when it was established by ‘Good’ King Wenceslas II. 

Our hotel, the Continental, was metres from the main town square, so everything was accessible. 

School had recessed for the Summer and kids were everywhere. There was even a small fun-fair in the square. 

We had lunch at Švejk, a chain of Czech restaurants. 

The character featured on the restaurant livery is inspired by an unfinished, dark and satirical comedy (The Good Soldier Švejk) by Jaroslav Hašek. In the 1920s the character was carved, as a puppet, by Gustav Nosek, manipulated by Ludva Novák, voiced by Josef Skupa and performed in the puppet theatre of Pilsen. 

Now this weird, distorted face is everywhere in the restaurant. 

Menus, signage, crockery, even the base of the chairs features Švejk. 

In the afternoon we visited the Puppet Museum, which is at one end of the town square. 

Puppets, like ventriloquist dolls, are to my mind spooky, out-of-this-world beings. 

The Puppet Museum in Pilsen contains hundreds of them.

They ranged in size from miniature decorations, for your beer stein, to larger than life giants of the small stage. 

In the evening, after the children had gone home, the big kids came out to play. 

There must have been a football match on somewhere locally or on TV. 

The police were patrolling the streets as were the young men in their sports cars. 

The vehicles ranged from old Mustangs to new Mercedes, with a lot of ‘try-hards’ in between. 

Apart from the famous Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus Breweries, there are at least four craft breweries in the Pilsen area. 

Unfortunately you have to go to them to have a tasting and we just didn’t have enough time.

 

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July 1, 2017. Pilsen to Český Krumlov, Czech Republic.

On the drive to Český Krumlov we made a stop at Švihov Castle. A crumbling edifice with a moat on two sides.

This Medieval castle was built between 1480 and 1510 and was the seat of the Lords of Rýžemberk.

Our next stop was at Klatovy. We arrived around midday and the wedding parties were lined up at the town hall waiting to be ‘processed’. 

The weddings were preceded by a procession of cars, honking their horns as they drove around the town square before stopping at the registry office. 

One couple even did a circuit, in a large blue Mercedes Benz prime mover, after their ceremony. 

We arrived in Český Krumlov mid afternoon, on Saturday, and finding our accommodation wasn’t without its difficulties. The centre of town was predominantly a pedestrian area, so we had to negotiate the crowds of tourists, winding unmarked streets and the fact that our Pension didn’t have any signage. 

Český Krumlov is built on several bends of the Vltava River, making it difficult to get your bearings. 

It is certainly popular with tourists, both local and international. 

Many of the international visitors vanished in the evening as they had only been in the town on a day trip from Prague, Vienna or Salzburg. 

 

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July 2, 2017. Český Krumlov, Czech Republic.

Český Krumlo is regarded as one of the most beautiful historic towns in Europe.

The settlement was built below the castle which was erected around 1240. The Castle was first mentioned in history as Chrumbenowe in 1253. This means ‘Crooked meadow’ in Middle High German, after a bend in the Vltava River. 

Český Krumlov was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 and is best known for the castle. The castle has Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements and literally towers over the township.

We visited the Castle Museum, which chronicled the daily life of the the families that lived in the castle. 

One interesting fact was that the lady of the house had complete control of its running. She even attended a school to learn how to cope with the very demanding task of its day-to-day management.

A far cry from the British aristocracy. 

Another surprising fact was that some noble families were given the right to mint their own coins. Many of these were on display. These became the common means of payment from the 15th to the 18th centuries

The Rosenbergs, Eggenbergs and Scwarzenbergs, of Český Krumlov, had that privilege. 

We had dinner at Two Mary’s, a traditional Bohemian restaurant. There were lots of grains, millet and potatoes. It was certainly one of the most interesting meals we have had – so far. 

We then had a night cap at Hospoda Na Louži Hotel, a very local local. This Renaissance building first popped up in the history books in 1459.

The patrons were singing, but not much better than Thea and me. However they were incredibly enthusiastic and everyone had song books, plus they all knew the words. 

It was a great atmosphere, a lot like you used to find in English working class pubs of the 1970s’.

Much to my delight the walls were covered with old tin advertising posters from the 40s and 50s. 

July 3, 2017. Český Krumlov to Kutná Hora, Czech Republic.

We broke the journey to Kutná Hora with a stop in Telč, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The town was built around a group of small lakes and originally inhabited in the 13th century. 

It’s main attraction is the huge, Zachariáš of Hradec Town Square.

It is surrounded by heavily decorated Renaissance buildings, painted in pastel colours. 

Despite its grand romantic history there is even a Švejk restaurant just off the square. 

The man is omnipotent. 

We had about a 45 minute hold up on route. It turned to be nothing more than a set of traffic lights. 

In the evening we had a walk around town of Kutná Hora, and then gravitated to the main square for dinner. 

There were many nationalities there but one guy stood out – he had a baseball cap on. 

Yes, he was American. 

Ten minutes later a group of five arrived at the restaurant. Two of the women were seriously obese. 

Yes, they were Americans.

 

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July 4, 2017. Kutná Hora, Czech Republic.

This is the day that we were ‘reliably informed’, we should get our Renault Eurodrive vehicle. 

That didn’t happen. 

A driver was sent from Paris to Frankfurt, on the train, to pick up our car and drive it to us. 

When he got to Frankfurt he found that the number plates still hadn’t arrived, so he had to return to Paris, again on the train. 

We were then told that we would get the car the next day in Olomouc. 

Considering the distance between Frankfurt and Olomouc is approximately 750km and he wasn’t leaving Frankfurt until 2pm, we weren’t holding our breath. 

Kutná Hora is described as the ‘Town of Two Cathedrals’. 

The Cathedral of Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist at Sedlec, founded in 1142 and the Cathedral of Saint Barbara are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

Saint Barbara Cathedral was a fine example Late Gothic architecture, with magnificent flying buttresses supporting a lofty interior, 30m high. Construction started in 1388 but wasn’t finally completed until 1905. 

Construction was interrupted for 60 years by the Hussite Wars. However the main hinderance to the building program, and its final size, was the wavering prosperity of the town’s silver mines.

As mining was such an important part of Kutná Hora we visited the Saint George Mine at the Hrádek Museum. This was an excellent display showing construction and renovation from 1388 to present day. 

Silver mining in Kutná Hora took place between the 13th and 16th centuries. It’s primary purpose was to mint silver and copper coins. Within that time 2,500 tonnes of silver and 20,000 tonnes of copper were extracted from the mine. 

After dinner at a local restaurant, that specialised in Bohemian cuisine, we walk down to the cathedral viewing point. This overlooks the Vrchlice River valley. 

Both Saint Barbara Cathedral and the Jesuit College were illuminated and stood out magnificently against the stormy night sky. 

 

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July 5, 2017. Kutná Hora to Olomouc, Czech Republic.

We had purchased a combined ticket to see the three main UNESCO sites in Kutná Hora, so on our way to Olomouc we visited the other two. 

The Cathedral of Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist and the Cemetery Church of All Saints with the Ossuary. 

Built in 1142, this is the site of first Cistercian abbey in Czechoslovakia. 

The Scwarzenbergs, who had a lot of influence in Český Krumlov Castle, also played a big part in the restoration and expansion of the Cathedral of Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist. 

Our next stop was the Cemetery Church of All Saints with the Ossuary is also known as the ‘The Bone Church’

Skeletal remains hang from the walls and ceiling as well as in the chapel niches. 

It was not surprising, given the macabre nature of the place, that it was far more crowded than the cathedral, just up the road.

There is even a skull and crossbones adorning the church spire.

The church was built in the 14th century and legend has it that a local abbot brought in soil from Jerusalem and by scattering around the cemetery made the place a ‘holy field’.

After the plague of 1318 around 30,000 bodies were buried there and a further 10,000 were also interned as a result of the Hussite wars.

In the 15th century the bones were exhumed and placed inside the church.

The current bone arrangements dates from 1870 and done by a Czech woodcarver, Franttišek Rint.

I had complete forgotten about paying to use the toilet, until we got into the Czech Republic.

I guess 30 cents is a small price to pay for a clean, well maintained, WC. 

And, unlike the USA, there are plenty of them. 

I would have thought that the idea of a ‘Washroom’ that you pay for would appeal to the American ideal of enterprise. 

Our travels took us from Bohemia to Olomouc in Moravia and again we found a restaurant serving the local cuisine.

We were hoping to sit outside on Moravská’s heated terrace, but that was full.

It was excellent food and great service and we found ourselves the last to leave – again.

People do seem to eat early.

When we left the streets were deserted, which was strange considering it was a public holiday.

 

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July 6, 2017. Olomouc, Czech Republic.

Again we were told that the Renault would be arriving. 

We were a little more hopeful as this information was coming from the driver, who was on the road from Frankfurt.

We were still in the Czech Republic and staying in the centre of Olomouc an old, historic town.

There was a lot to see but until we had the car we didn’t want to move too far from the hotel.

At 12:30 pm the Renault finally arrived.

It was only then, when we were doing the handover of the Opel Mokka, that we discovered it didn’t have a spare wheel.

We wished Jeanne good luck as he started the long drive back to Frankfurt.

We just hoped that he didn’t get a flat tyre. 

Now that we had our hands on the Renault we went about exploring Olomouc – on foot. 

The town was a work in progress, with construction and road closures at almost every turn. 

We found this out when we arrived

It is believed that Olomouc was originally built over a Roman fort from the late 2nd century.

The city is known for its six Baroque fountains, many featuring gods from Greek mythology, and its columns. The most important is the 35 meters high Holy Trinity Column, which is a UNESCO site and situated in the largest town square, Horní Námēstí.

Unlike other European cities, who removed their fountains after building water supply piping, Olomouc kept theirs as reservoirs in case of fire.

Tipping in the Czech Republic is a strange system. 

The locals don’t tip. But the tourists can be tricked into giving a tip by those waiters that understand the silly US system. 

If you speak English, you must be an American, seems to be the approach.

I really liked the unfiltered Pilsner Urquell Pilsen but the Chomout Pivo in Olomouc was better.

Chomout, a family run craft brewery, was started in 2014 and has a brewpub right next door to the brewery. There are always six beers on tap, Destíka, Pale larger, Ležál Amber Larger, two American style ales and two seasonal beers.

I had the Režná Bára, a full bodied IPA made from American hops. This beer had recently been voted as the best IPA in the Czech Republic.

I agreed with the judges.

 

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July 7, 2017. Olomouc to Brno, Czech Republic.

It was meant to be a short drive to Brno to catch up with Kate and Mark for a night. 

Due to interminable road works it turned out to be longer than anticipated. 

The rather round about way gave me an opportunity to ‘test drive’ the Renault. 

It was lunchtime when we reached Brno, so after a coffee for me and a quick bite for the others we set out to explore the town.

There’s the castle and cathedral but not a huge amount more, so we managed to do a superficial tour in a few hours. 

Kate and Mark had booked a restaurant for dinner and also found a couple of brewpubs for a pre dinner beer, and a wine of course. Nejepši Pub v ČR was a trendy bar with great beer and wine.

After all Moravia is the heart of the Czech wine growing region. 

To my mind the Nejepši Pub v ČR had one of the great brewpub logos. A guy with a beer baby belly and a graphic of a foaming pint mug superimposed over the top.