Sunday, November 27, 2011

Copenhagen and a Dane in Sweden

It was actually just as cheap to fly from Bergen to Copenhagen (on SAS) and much more convenient and timely (1 hour flight) versus an overnight ferry or a 12+ hour train ride. I had spent several days in Copenhagen just two years ago, as a prelude to our vacation in Eastern Europe (Greg was still working and couldn't take as many days off so we met up later in Berlin). Despite liking the city, I was less keen to spend much time there. However, with our now-limited travel schedule, we agreed to spend four nights in the capital so Greg could get a taste of Denmark.
The Little Mermaid - overrated tourist attraction in Copenhagen
The only budget accommodations in the city center are around Istedgate, the main street near the central train station, where a private room with shared bath goes for about $100 per night. However the area is particularly seedy, with multiple porn shops & erotic dance clubs as well as hookers and drunks sharing street corners. While I never felt threatened, I probably would not recommend this location to anyone other than world travelers like ourselves, who, having been exposed to just about everything, can more easily turn a blind eye.
Istedgade looks pretty tame from here
The one positive aspect of Istedgate, other than its convenient location within walking distance to all the sights, is that it offers many budget dining options, especially of the Turkish kebab variety. You can find doner cafes on nearly every block, along with a large number of Asian restaurants, interspersed with an interesting mix of trendy cafes & higher-end eateries. Amazingly, one of the best beer bars in town, Mikkeller, is also located here (at Viktoriagade No. 8).
taps at Mikkeller
Our hotel's breakfast buffet, while only featuring cold items (meats, cheeses, pate, boiled eggs) was still of very high quality. We maintained our routine of eating a big breakfast around 9:30am, thus allowing us to skip lunch and just eat an early dinner. Food & drink, as elsewhere in Northern Europe, is expensive. Ethnic foods, like the aforementioned Turkish kebab platters, are much more reasonably priced (~$10), so that is generally what we ate, saving our kroners for good beer.
chicken platter at Konya Kebab
There are actually some very good Danish microbrews so Greg & I included a few "sessions" on our self-guided walking tours of the city. At Norrebro Brewery we had the Westlev 4 Grain Stout & Ravnsborg Red. At Olbaren (a tiny beer bar) we drank Beer Here's Ammestout & Ra Urt. And at Mikkeller Bar we had the Monk's Elixir & Sorachi Ace IPA.
Norrebro Brewery
Having spent all of our money on beer (just kidding!) we limited our Copenhagen sightseeing to only what was free. Thankfully, the excellent National Museum fits this criteria. You can easily spend several hours exploring the museum, where the exhibits are organized chronologically and feature good English descriptions. Another interesting detour is Christiania, a "free city" established in 1971. The hippy, laid-back atmosphere is a window to another world but note that there is a strictly-enforced no photos policy because marijuana is bought, sold & smoked out in the open.
Nyhavn - harbor area of Copenhagen
We also took a side trip to Roskilde, 30 minutes by train from Copenhagen. The town was deserted at midday Sunday in late October but we were there for the UNESCO World Heritage List cathedral. However we were shocked when we discovered admission was 60DKK ($11) per person when all of our research had indicated it would only be 25DKK. Since we had already spent $48 for our train tickets we reluctantly coughed up another $22 to enter the cathedral.
Roskilde Cathedral
While the history of the Roskilde Cathedral goes back to the 12th century, it is primarily known for housing the tombs of 38 Danish kings & queens. Unfortunately, the free brochure provided with our admission had little in the way of explanation of the history of the church but simply mapped the location of the tombs. Still, we spent over an hour examining the royal burial chapels. I was most intrigued by the modern design (in contrast with the rest of the cathedral) incorporated in the recently (c2010) installed Chapel of St Andrew and King's Door as well as the sarcophagus that has been designed for the current (living) queen of Denmark.
a tomb fit for a queen - Margrete I
The following day we traveled across the Oresund Bridge to Malmo, Sweden where my friend Henrik greeted us at the train station. Henrik and his wife Birgitte were both born & raised in Denmark (and still maintain their Danish citizenship), but actually live in Sweden with their two children, Emma & Emil. We spent the first afternoon exploring the area near their home in Vintrie, picking up a few groceries for dinner along with a requisite stop at System Bolaget for an assortment of beers. We then enjoyed a long and relaxing evening of drinking, music and great conversation.
many spreads come in tubes in Sweden
On our final day in Scandinavia, Henrik provided some historical background on how Sweden took the land around Malmo from Denmark, with stops at Holy Cross Church in Dalby and Lund Cathedral, followed by lunch and a walk around the newly developed Western Harbor area of Malmo, topped off with a quick stroll around the historic city center. Too soon we had to say goodbye at the train station, where we caught a train back across the bridge to the Copenhagen airport for our flight to Amsterdam.
Calatrava's Twisting Torso and the Western Harbor area of Malmo, Sweden
It is always nice to visit with friends when we travel. After weeks of being together 24/7 with little interaction with other people, I am thankful for someone else to talk to. Plus we learn so much more about the place we are visiting by staying with people who live there. Henrik & his family were wonderful hosts and it was the perfect way to wrap up our travels in Northern Europe. It also set the tone for the week to come, when we would spend seven out of eight nights with friends in two countries.
view of the Oresund bridge from an airplane
Here are the links to my photos:
Copenhagen & Roskilde
Malmo, Sweden

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Oslo & Norway in a Nutshell

We arrived in the Norwegian capital after a scenic six hour train ride from Stockholm. The area around Oslo's central train station is, somewhat surprisingly, a bit seedy. On the short walk to our hostel, we were approached by several people of dubious intent. Even the receptionist told us that lots of drug addicts "live" in the hostel where we were booked so we were thankful to be "upgraded" to their sister hotel next door. Note that drug addicts are allowed to hang out around the train station because the government has realized it cannot eliminate the problem so thus tries to confine it to one small area of the city.
outside Oslo's train station
The following morning, we were pleasantly surprised by the huge breakfast buffet offered by our hotel. We had booked the cheapest accommodation we could find in the city center ($125 per night including breakfast) so had not expected anything more than the typical cold meat, cheese & bread. But we were overwhelmed by the scrambled eggs, sausages, roasted potatoes and baked beans, not to mention the wide assortment of cold salads, yogurts, pickled herring, etc.
a "budget" dinner
This turned out to be quite a blessing because food in Norway is heart-stoppingly expensive. For starters, you have to pay more to eat in a restaurant versus takeaway (25% tax for eating in versus 12% for takeaway). Trying to save money, we bought pre-made sandwiches and a can of Pringles at the grocery store; the total cost was still $20. We did find a budget Vietnamese restaurant near our hotel where the average entree cost 90NOK ($17). But most restaurant entrees (still not high-end ones) were priced from 129NOK ($23) and up.
the cheapest  restaurant we could find in Oslo -- thankfully it had very good Vietnamese & Thai food
As in Sweden, the sale of alcohol is controlled by the state, so you have to shop at Vinmonopolet if you want something stronger than 3.5% ABV. They have a great selection, but unless you want to pay, for example, almost $100 for a one liter bottle of Jameson (versus about $25 at home), I would plan on abstaining while in Norway. We did indulge our craft beer fancy one time, buying two bottles of Nogne-O (Porter & 100) on our last night in the country for 144NOK ($24).
yummy Nogne-O beers for $12 each
Besides using our Rick Steves guidebook's self-guided walking tour to get a glimpse of Oslo's most interesting sights, we also found plenty of other enjoyable ways to explore the city without having to spend any money: Oslo Cathedral, City Hall, strolling the Akershus Fortress grounds, Frogner Park, the Vigeland Museum (free during winter months), the path along the Akers River gorge, and the new Opera House. In addition, the National Gallery (with it's Munch Room) is free on Sundays. We did pay 50NOK ($9) each to visit the Norway Resistance Museum. While it was interesting enough, I would only recommend it for World War II history buffs.
I loved Gustav Vigeland's sculptures in Frogner Park
One of my stipulations for our travels in Northern Europe was that we had to see the Norwegian fjords. This proved to be more difficult than I expected since we were traveling in the off season. While the standard "Norway in a Nutshell" itinerary is available year-round, is is much harder to deviate off the beaten path outside of May to September. Not wanting to rush through this beautiful area (the Nutshell itinerary can be done in 24 hours), we decided to break up the journey with an overnight stop in Flam.
all aboard!
The first segment of the Nutshell itinerary involves taking a scenic five hour train ride from Oslo to Myrdal. The "best" scenery started about 2.5 hours into the trip, when the train began to wind its way up through the mountains, passing forests & lakes. We reached the snow line about 1.5 hours later and by the time we passed through Finse (at 1,222 meters the highest point on the Bergen Railway) we were in a winter wonderland.
near Finse on the Bergen Railway
In Myrdal we transferred to the Flam Railway (Flamsbana). It takes about one hour to descend the 20km of track from 866 meters to 2 meters, criss-crossing the Flam valley. The breathtaking Norwegian mountain landscape is replete with waterfalls; the train even stops briefly at one so you can get out and take pictures.
view from the Flamsbana
Flam in the off-season is about as quiet as you can get. It's a tiny village at the head of the Aurlandsfjiord with just a handful of hotels & restaurants. As it was mid-October, virtually everything was closed (or else had very short opening hours). With limited options, we had to fork over $160 for a night in a budget hotel and a whopping 365NOK ($65) for two simple fish & chips dinners (along with Aegir beers - yes, Flam has it's own microbrewery!).
view of the Aurlandsfjord from the village of Flam
Our Nutshell journey continued the following day with a two hour fjord cruise from Flam to Gudvangen. It had been raining off & on all morning but luckily cleared up a bit for our afternoon cruise through the Aurlandsfjord and Naeroyfjord, both arms of the Sognefjord. Still, we wore our full Goretex rain gear to stay warm in the damp & chilly fjord air as I couldn't resist standing outside to take photos of the beautiful scenery during most of the trip.
cruising the Naeroyfjord
From Gudvangen we traveled by bus (1 hour) to Voss where we caught a train (another hour) to Bergen. The sun had long since set, so I can't say much about the scenery on this leg of the journey. Luckily, it was barely sprinkling when we finally arrived in Bergen around 8:30pm. After a steep uphill hike from the train station to our hotel, we were rewarded with a huge room overlooking the lake (perhaps because I had notified them in advance that we were on our honeymoon).
steep streets of Bergen
One day was all we needed to sightsee in Bergen. We weren't particularly interested in the museums, having visited so many around the world over the past year, so we simply took a long walk around the university area near our hotel, then down to the harbor, along the historic Hanseatic quarter (Bryggen), circling the Bergenhus (old fortress), wandering through the residential area near the Domkirken (12th-13th century cathedral) and back to the train station. We bought dinner provisions from the grocery store, supplemented by a vegetarian entree from a Thai restaurant, then enjoyed our feast in the beautiful dining room of our hotel. The total cost of our budget meal, excluding those two Nogne-O beers I mentioned earlier, was still $40.
Bryggen rooftops
Despite our multiple cost-saving measures, Norway turned out to be the most expensive country we've ever visited. The transportation alone for our Norway in a Nutshell itinerary cost $450 for two people. We only spent six nights in Norway, but burned through $1650, an average of $138 per person per day. By comparison, in Japan, the most expensive country we visited independently during our round-the-world trip, we only spent an average of $105 per person per day. As with Sweden, though, if you have the time & money, I would still recommend a trip to this beautiful country.

Here are the links to all of my Norway photos:
Mountains & Fjords
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The Splendors of Stockholm on a Budget

It is hard not to write about how expensive everything is in Northern Europe. As mentioned in my previous post, we stayed with friends in Finland and thus had minimal expenses; over five days & nights we only spent $250. We had planned to spend more than a week in Sweden, but opted to cut everything but the capital city out of our itinerary in order to save money. Stockholm is a lovely place to visit but it is easy to let the cost of traveling in this part of the world overshadow how enjoyable it is.
crossing the bridge to Reimersholm
We arrived in Stockholm at the pre-dawn hour of 5:45am. By 6:15 we were off the ship and walking to the nearest subway station where we took the T-bana then a bus to our hotel on the small island of Reimersholm. While not exactly in the city center, we had chosen our hotel primarily in regard to budget, as it still cost $120 per night for a private room with shared bath compared to well over $200 per night anywhere else.
the T-bana
Public transportation in Stockholm, while efficient and expansive, is not cheap either; one ride on a bus or subway costs around $5 (compared to New York City, where even after recent fare increases a ride still costs only $2.25). We saved money and gave ourselves more flexibility with a 3-day transit card which covers unlimited local transport for 250SEK (approx. $37 per person). While Gamla Stan, the historic core, is compact and walkable, the modern city and other sights of interest, like the museums on Djurgarden, are spread out amongst the various islands that make up the capital.
Changing of the Guard
We primarily spent our time on foot using our Rick Steves guidebook's self-guided walking tours to explore Gamla Stan, where we enjoyed watching the Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace (free), and the modern sights of Norrmalm & Ostermalm. Because entrance to museums and other attractions is hard on the wallet, we chose to visit only one out of dozens of possibilities, and paid 110SEK ($16.50) per person for the privilege of seeing the Vasa, a royal warship which sank in Stockholm's harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628. The well-preserved wreck was salvaged in 1961 and the now-reconstructed vessel is 95% original. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the museum's six floors of exhibits but the most awe-inspiring sight was the ship itself. We ultimately decided the admission fee was reasonable in light of the money they are spending to figure out how to continue preserving the almost 400-year-old wooden ship.
Another way to save money when traveling in Sweden is to eat your main meal at lunch. While this poses a problem if your hotel provides a complimentary buffet breakfast, allowing you to eat enough that you won't be hungry until dinner, we still modified our eating patterns to take advantage of the "dagens ratt" or daily lunch specials. For an average of 85-95SEK (~$13) per person, you usually get an entree, salad, bread, and unlimited drinks (water & coffee or tea). Otherwise, if you wait until after 3pm to eat, prices increase to more than 150SEK per entree (not including anything else).
a Thai version of dagens ratt
By saving money on food, we allowed ourselves more leeway with our drink budget. Sweden has a surprising number of microbreweries, not to mention a large number of bars in Stockholm that feature local beers. However, the average .5 liter of draught beer is 80SEK or $12 (tax is a whopping 25%). Outside of restaurants & bars, any alcohol over 3.5% ABV can only be purchased from Systembolaget, the state-run liquor store. While cheaper than drinking "out", prices are still more than twice as high as you would pay in the U.S.
Despite the cost, we did our best to try as many Swedish microbrews as possible and were impressed with the overall quality & variety. At Akkurat we drank Narke Black Golding starkporter and Sigtuna South Pacific Pale Ale. At Glenfiddich Warehouse #68 we had the Oppigards Starkporter and Gotland Brewery's Wisby Red October, then got free tasters of Nynashamns Brannskar Brown Ale, Wisby Stout and Helsinge Porter. At Monks Porter House we drank the Monks Maddeleine Stout and Monks Dark Lager after tasting Monks Enbars. Note that the total cost of all this liquid gold (equivalent to only six beers total) was $60 and no, we did not drink it all in one day!!!

tasters at Glenfiddich Warehouse
Not wanting to limit our Swedish adventure to the capital city, we took a side trip to Uppsala, a university town about 40 minutes by train from Stockholm. Round-trip tickets cost us $24 per person. The city center is walking distance from the train station and two of its main attractions are free. The Uppsala Cathedral is Scandinavia's largest and tallest church built between 1270-1435. The nearby University Library (Carolina Rediviva) is the oldest in Sweden, founded in 1620, with a small exhibit space displaying the famous 6th century Silver Bible, the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnu (the earliest largely correct map of the Nordic countries) and Mozart's own draft of The Magic Flute, amongst other interesting treasures.
Uppsala Cathedral
Greg & I really enjoyed our time in Stockholm, and not just because of the great beer. However, despite our cost-saving measures, our average cost per person per day in Sweden was still $120. But if you have the time & money, I would highly recommend a visit to Scandinavia's heartland.
Stockholm sunset
The link to all of my Stockholm photos is embedded in this post's title.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sick with the flu in Finland

I had been looking forward to this part of our trip ever since we left the U.S., as I couldn't wait to see my friends. I had traveled to Helsinki before, on business, when I worked for Nokia but by then I had already formed a close bond with most of my colleagues because of our daily chats either on the phone or via video conference. Of course, it was impossible to see everyone during this brief visit. Thankfully, my friends stepped up to the challenge and organized a wonderful dinner party for Greg & I.
Temppeliaukio Church
Our one day to sightsee in Helsinki turned out to be very wet so we had to don full rain gear as we waited for a bus from the ferry terminal to the main train station where we could stow our luggage. Free of all encumberments, we used our Rick Steves Scandinavia guidebook's self-guided walking tour to navigate our way around the city on foot. I actually did most of the walk from memory as it was too wet to have the book out very often.
Nikki Mondschein, Irmeli Millner, me, Eija Laine, Marjut Saastamoinen at Farang
Exhausted from my continuing illness, we stopped for a beer at Hemingway Bar before meeting up with my friends at Farang, one of the top-rated restaurants in Helsinki. They had arranged for us to have the 8-course tasting menu, a fantastic and stress-free way to experience the amazing culinary talents of the chef and his take on Southeast Asian cuisine. The meal was blow-your-mind delicious and, coupled with bottles of Alsatian Fleur de Lotus wine and the company of dear friends, the evening was truly magical. It was quite late when we said our heartfelt goodbyes and left the restaurant and, after retrieving our luggage from the train station, piled into my friend Eija's car for the one hour drive to her converted schoolhouse home in Tausta.
Eijalandia, on Eija & Vesku's property in Tausta, Finland
After a good night's sleep in our cozy cabin, nicknamed "Eijalandia," I woke up still sick, now compounded by bronchitis. We relaxed and chatted with Eija's partner, Vesku, an extremely talented artist (of every imaginable medium) and musician while Eija cooked us a delicious lunch of smoked salmon & forest mushroom casserole and baked salmon & crayfish salad. Wanting to show us one of her favorite places, we drove about 20 minutes to a shop called Kasvihuoneilmio which translates to something like "Greenhouse Phenomenon," an appropriate name for the wonderful hodgepodge of arts, crafts, home & garden decor and much, much more that we happily browsed for more than an hour. Driving back through the beautiful Finnish countryside, we stopped briefly at an old farmhouse-cum-conference center where Eija once worked as a cook & waitress. I even managed to pet a sheep; they're very skittish, not at all like my mom's pet goats who come running when you pull in the driveway!
sheep at Myllyniemi farm
Back at home, Eija prepared us a traditional Finnish sauna (pronounced SOW-nah) -- using wood, not electricity -- and Greg & I luxuriated in it's warmth for over an hour. Unfortunately it did nothing to help my illness and I went to bed feeling quite horrible, with sinus congestion and a deep cough. I was sick enough the following day that I actually stayed in bed half of the day but perked up when Eija gave me a eucalyptus/menthol drink (Finrexin) and cooked us another delicious meal, this time a wonderful tasting menu of Finland including fried herring in vinegar, a local specialty pork & potato sausage, potatoes & mushrooms, beets, lingonberries, cheese with cloudberries, and a zucchini & pear meringue pie. YUM!
a beautiful afternoon in Fiskars
On Sunday I felt well enough to go for another drive, this time about one hour away, to Fiskars. Not realizing it until we arrived at the village, I have a personal connection to this tiny town. While I was growing up, my mom made her living as a seamstress and, of course, had multiple pairs of orange-handled Fiskars scissors. To earn a little spending money I often helped her in the sewing room. Little did I know that one day I would visit the place where her scissors originated!
at the Fiskars factory store
Besides scissors, the Fiskars Village is now a vibrant arts & crafts community, something dear to Eija's heart as she herself is a brilliant artist (weaving, knitting & jewelry are just a few of her talents). One of my favorite shops was the littala factory store, a company that makes porcelain. I particularly loved their blue owl design. After further wandering around the scenic river-side town, we treated Eija & Vesku to a nice meal at Martina Restaurant in Lohja, then returned home and stayed up chatting for another few hours since it was our last night in Finland.
Tausta sunset
The following day Vesku drove us to a bus stop along the motorway where we only had to stand about 10 minutes until the Express Bus to Turku arrived. The driver seemed surprised to see us (we had not booked tickets in advance), not least of all because we were obviously not Finnish. It rained off & on throughout the 1.5 hour drive. We caught a local bus from the Turku bus station to the harbor then checked in for our overnight cruise to Stockholm and stowed our luggage in a large locker.
Turku Cathedral
After catching another bus back into the city center, we explored Turku Cathedral, mother church of the Lutheran Church of Finland and the country's national shrine. We then ate a tasty & filling budget meal at Milan Kebab Pizzeria, which offers a Northern European spin on Middle Eastern comfort food: my gyro meat was served over mashed potatoes with blue cheese crumbles and topped with some type of French dressing. Finally, after strolling the pedestrian-only shopping street, we settled in for a microbrew at Koulu Brewery before returning to the harbor to board the ship.
the Finnish version of a kebab platter
For such a civilized country as Finland, the boarding process for Tallink Silja's M/S Europa was more like a cattle call. They literally herded all of the hundreds of passengers, in no particular order, first through two narrow lanes for scanning our boarding passes, into a large and very crowded room, then through a tiny doorway and up multiple flights of stairs to the ship. Exhausted by the effort and still recovering from my illness, I didn't even bother to explore the ship; I just took a shower and climbed onto my top bunk and tried to get some sleep.
the calm before the boarding chaos
I want to end this post on a positive note and mention that despite being sick the entire five days we were in Finland, I still had a wonderful time. This is 100% due to the generosity of my friends and especially to the hospitality bestowed on us by Eija & Vesku. This was the first time during our honeymoon trip that we actually "couchsurfed" and we thoroughly enjoyed getting a more personal glimpse of life in this part of the world. We are already looking forward to catching up with more friends in the weeks to come!

The link to all of my Finland photos is embedded in this post's title.

A Brief Tour of the Baltic Capitals

Our first taste of Vilnius was bitter and cast a shadow on the two full days we spent there. We arrived in Lithuania around 10pm after a 3-hour flight from Ireland. It took almost an hour to clear immigration and retrieve our checked bags, so it was almost 11pm when we exited the deserted airport to confront the line of taxis. I picked up a leaflet listing the different taxi companies and their starting fares to the city center. I also had noted what our hotel told me should be the approximate fare (metered). However, when we approached the drivers who were huddled together smoking cigarettes, the best offer was 80LTL ($31), which was four times what I expected. We tried to negotiate, but with no other option available and weary from our travels, we reluctantly got in the cab. When we arrived at the hotel I told Greg I would go inside to check with the receptionist but he didn't realize what I was trying to do was get someone to come out and argue the fare with the driver. By the time I convinced her we were being ripped off and to please come help, Greg had paid the 80LTL and the taxi was gone.
Vilnius, Lithuania
How much did we lose? The equivalent of about $23, which I know is quite insignificant in the whole scheme of things. But considering that we later found out this so-called "taxi scam" has been going on for years in Vilnius, I was angry with the hotel for not warning us (because I had communicated with them multiple times by email prior to our arrival so they knew we would have to take a taxi from the airport), with Greg for "giving in," and with myself for not being patient enough to call the hotel from the airport to tell them what was happening so they could help us. Lesson learned: always thoroughly research your transport options & costs in advance, especially if you will be arriving late at night and thus won't have many alternatives nor staff on hand to assist you. Have back-up plans in place and be sure you & your traveling companion(s) are in agreement as to how to handle any issues that might arise.
really good Lithuanian beer
The remainder of our time in Vilnius was enjoyable enough, but it was hard to shake that first impression. We drank some surprisingly good beer (at a microbrewery - Prie Katedros), enjoyed the mild weather as we explored the old town on foot, and had a sobering look into this country's sad history at The Museum of Genocide Victims, located in the former KGB offices & prison. On that topic I will say a bit more as history played out similarly throughout the Baltic region. Alternately occupied by the Germans & the Soviet Union for a period of more than 50 years (this is simply their recent history), in Lithuania alone more than 500,000 people were either imprisoned, deported or killed. There are comparable statistics for Latvia & Estonia.
great way to travel around the Baltics
We continued our journey through the Baltics to Riga, Latvia, a scenic 4.5hr bus ride north of Vilnius. By contrast to Vilnius, our first impression of Riga was quite favorable -- I had arranged a transfer from the bus station to our hotel (they sent a large, private van) and when we got to our room were greeted with three red roses & a bottle of Rigas champagne (congratulating us on our recent marriage). After an orientation stroll around our neighborhood, we ate a traditional dinner of pork ribs, sauerkraut & potatoes before calling it a night.
for the honeymooners
Awaking to a beautiful fall day, we completed our morning chores (laundry, hair cuts) before setting out for an afternoon of sightseeing. We decided to visit Riga's Museum of Occupation, wanting to compare the Latvian experience with the Lithuanian. It puts everything you see in these "newly" independent countries into context. After spending several hours on foot and needing a "vitamin fix" after weeks of meat & potatoes, we ate a delicious dinner at Kamadena Vegetarian Restaurant before retiring to our hotel room for the night.
Our final day in Riga involved crisscrossing the entire old town on foot to better enjoy the beautiful weather, expanses of green space, Art Nouveau architecture, the market and other historic sights. Unfortunately, I could also feel a cold coming on, and suffered through the afternoon with a stuffy nose. I still managed to enjoy my sauerkraut soup and Russian-style beef kidneys for dinner but we returned to the hotel immediately afterward so I could get some rest.
Old Town Riga
The following day involved another long bus ride, this time from Riga to Tallinn, Estonia. It was drizzling all day but had stopped raining by the time we arrived at the bus station in Tallinn. Still weary from our experience in Vilnius, I avoided the taxi queue and although it took multiple queries with random strangers, most of whom spoke little or no English, we managed to take a local bus to the ferry terminal area where our hotel was located.
at the Latvia/Estonia border
After a restless night, due in part to the loud noise emanating from the hallway and the rooms above & around ours, as well as the full onset of my illness (now feverish & congested), I opted to take a day off from sightseeing and rest in our room. As it was overcast, windy & rainy all day, I was thankful there was a pharmacy in the building adjacent to our hotel where I bought a bottle of chest expectorant. Also, I didn't mind "losing" a travel day as I had just visited Tallinn a couple of years ago so had seen all the sights already anyway.
reflections in medieval Tallinn
After another sleepless night, primarily due to the noisy teenage guests surrounding us, I went to the front desk and demanded that we be moved to another room immediately, which they did without hesitation. After re-settling, Greg & I discussed how we probably needed to consider amending our Northern Europe itinerary as a cost-reduction measure. I wanted to get some fresh air and, since it wasn't raining, we walked into Tallinn's old town for a few hours. Upon our return to the hotel, there was a bottle of champagne, fresh fruit, chocolate & nuts and a large bouquet of flowers plus note of apology in our room. Very nice!
maybe we should complain more often?!?!
We boarded a ferry the following morning for the two hour journey to Helsinki, Finland which I will write about in my next post. To summarize my impression of the three Baltic capitals, I will first say that Riga was my hands-down favorite, although each city has its own charms. Riga feels very cosmopolitan and western European with well-developed public transportation, inviting public spaces and multitudes of cultural offerings. Vilnius has less to see overall and while I love Tallinn's quaint & compact medieval core, it is a bit touristy and often filled with stag & hen partiers who have ferried over from much more expensive Northern Europe.
leaving Tallinn by ferry
While we did encounter a language barrier throughout the Baltics (the average citizen does not speak English but more likely Russian as their second language), most tourism industry employees can communicate with you well enough. Everyone was friendly, if reserved, and these three cities were the ONLY places on this trip where we received a honeymoon "gift" in every hotel room. Traveling between the capital cities was easy, comfortable and wallet-friendly on the LuxExpress bus line. As a whole, the Baltics are very affordable compared to the rest of Europe and, without cutting corners (in fact we ate & drank quite well), we only spent an average of $49 per person per day. With budget carriers like Ryanair offering cheap flights from almost anywhere in Europe, any of these cities would make a fun weekend getaway or, strung together as we did them, a nice 8 or 9 night vacation.

Here are the links to my Baltics photo albums:
Vilnius, Lithuania
Riga, Latvia
Tallinn, Estonia