Traveling Home with a Stop in Prague

9 07 2011

After expressing our gratitude and saying our goodbyes, we headed for the Parnu bus station where we hopped on a LuxXpress bus for our two hour ride back to Riga. The bus was the nicest one we had ridden on the entire trip and even had complimentary Wifi. We just wished we had the very back seats as the noise from the motor and bumps in the road added a few sighs to our ride. The ticket we purchased included a transfer from the Riga bus station to the airport which made for convenient (seimi direct) transportation to the airport. Finally we were flying over Riga, reminiscing on how quickly time was “flying.” Two hours later we arrived in Prague where we had around a 23 hour layover. After withdrawing some Kroons and catching the airport express bus, we found ourselves near old town and walked for about twenty minutes until we found Prague Square Hostel in which we had two beds reserved in the 5 bed dorm. Surprisingly, the other three beds were occupied by three brothers from Washington state (during our time in the Baltics we really didn’t come across hardly anyone from the states). After a quick check in and meditation, we took our cameras and map and quickly stalked the streets of Old Town Prague competing with the obnoxious tourist crowds. I think Charles Bridge and the Astronomical Clock were my favorite highlights. A delicious dinner with potato pasta with local sheep cheese, a sandwich, a mushroom soup, and a Pilsner beer filled us with much contentment and provided the opportunity to people watch. As the golden light continued to quickly set, we ran through the cobblestone streets like maniacs trying to capture some visual memories. Cathedrals, castles, and palaces almost escaped our lenses but the light lingered until around 10 and soon we were returning to the hostel with sore feet and filled memory cards.

Photo gallery!

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Parnu

9 07 2011

Now we only had two official full days left of our trip and planned to visit summer seaside town of Parnu. We took a tram (unfortunately in the opposite direction) to Tallinn’s main bus station and caught the next bus to Parnu. After an hour and half we arrived in Parnu and Rock asked a stranger for their cell phone and called Evelyn, our possible couchsurfing host. She quickly met us at the bus station and we walked about ten minutes to her family’s house. Her mother, aunt, and grandmother all live in the house in which Evelyn grew up in. A quaint fruit garden provided their family some beautiful space between neighboring houses. Evelyn walked with us to the beach where we met some four guys from Spain who needed a place to camp. Soon we were heading back to Evelyn’s house with them. After setting up a tent commune in her backyard, we went to one of only several main streets in Parnu and had dinner at a bar. The next morning the guys from Spain left and Rock and I went on our own adventures. The beach and The Tervis Waterpark filled the first part of our day. In early afternoon, we saw a couple film that were part of the Parnu International Film Festival. One film was about the Ostional Community in Costa Rica who harvest sea turtle eggs for their livelihood and explored the controversy surrounding such a project. The other documentary highlighted the story of a convicted American “eco-terrorist” (I disagree with such a term!) and his association with the Earth Liberation Front. Afterwards, we visited two different art museums/galleries and strolled through a few more streets and parks before stopping off at the bus station to buy our bus tickets to Riga. Since we were starving, we ran over to the grocery store. Here we picked up some chicken and potato salad from the deli and chowed down on a bench outside (imagine stinky hunched backpackers gnawing on greasy chicken bones☺). When we began our walk back to Evelyn’s we no longer felt like vagrants and paused to enjoy a modern dance performance on a bridge in a park near her house. We both entered our dreams content and tired.

Photo gallery!





Tallinn

9 07 2011

Switching currency was a breeze at the Tallinn airport and soon we were using our Euros to pay for bus ticket to the old town. We followed directions to check in for our private room at the hostel but eventually learned they were giving us a private apartment. So after much backtracking and sweating in the sun, we arrived at our place. It was a quaint almost unfurnished one bedroom apartment on a “side” street from the bustling Vene St. An hour so later we were exploring and settled for a couple pasta dinners with chicken and a creamy cheese and mushroom sauce. After paying for our dinner, we decided we needed to reduce our food costs and scouted out the nearest grocery store which was located in a big shopping center outside of old town. Hare krishnas, buskers and trees wrapped in knitted blankets lined the sidewalks within and around the park in front of this main shopping center. The main square in old town was filled with tourists and was quite the scene. A bachelorette party lingered on the steps of the cathedral asking tired tourists to donate money to their “fund” and a pedaling pub rode past us as we stared at it all. Beggars did not seem to linger inside old town but heavily lined the sidewalks outside the old town gate off of Vene street. Armed with ear plugs, we slept soundly and awoke the next morning to a street cleaning machine. Around noon, we went on a two hour tour of the city via the “Yellow Free Tour”. After a rest and lunch, we took bus A1 from the Virus Kesvas center to the beach. We hoped to visit a contemporary art museum but missed the stop and instead ended up at the Youth Song Festival, which featured young Estonians singing in traditional dress—the crowds, talent, and crafts were all pretty impressive. A stroll down the beach afterwards and a “home cooked” dinner of rice and veggies filled our early evening time before we experienced one last stroll through old town. We discovered some new old narrow alley ways. I especially loved 12th century narrow cobble stoned Katerina street. Small windows and original wall fragments revealed the depth of history of the street. As the café’s closed, and the bars began to fill, we retired—filled with history, beauty, and tiramisu (courtesy of the grocery store)☺

Photo gallery!





Trakai and Leaving Vilnius

4 07 2011

In the morning today, we ate some more delicious waffles, and headed to the bus station. We arrived at the perfect time as a bus was leaving in five minutes for Trakai. The ticket cost about 6 litas each and the ride was a short 30 minutes or so. The bus station in Trakai is a bit removed from the end of the town where most of the tourist action was so we had to walk for about 30 minutes before reaching the footbridge leading to the castle museum. As we were walking along the footbridge towards the Castle Museum on the island, several women who looked like dignitaries from around the world were leaving the island and were escorted by security. We checked out the dimly lit museum rooms throughout the castle. We enjoyed the walk back to the bus station and stopped along the lake to watch a father and son fish and soon were laughing at a match between several ducks. We didn’t have to wait long for the next bus back to Vilnius but before it arrived we spotted a couple goats in a field nearby and of course Rock had to have his photos taken with one. And then we were back to our base and were meandering the streets of old town once more. In front of old town, several Cola costumed renegades were handing out free cokes to hordes of teens and unfortunately many of the cans soon littered the square—it was a bit outrageous. Later on, we also spotted a bride and groom with their family posing for shots at the fountain. It was quite a scene in old town that evening. The next morning we checked out of Jimmy Jumps (after I had four waffles) and visited Uzupis once more so we could have our passports officially stamped. Pete the owner of Jimmy Jumps called us a taxi (our first on this trip) and we were soon at the Vilnius airport waiting for our flight to Tallnin Estonia via Air Baltic.

Photos are here!





Vilnius, Lithuania

30 06 2011

So we arrived in Vilnius yesterday evening. After unfolding our crunched and sleepy bodies and tumbling off the bus, we managed to follow the directions to the hostel but not without a bit of help from strangers (and smiling at a couple prostitutes along the way)… An old Polish man helped guide down a cobblestone road which used to be occupied by many Jews before WWII. He spoke little English but made every attempt to communicate and was incredibly kind. Right past the main square which was lined by many baroque style buildings we saw our the street our hostel, Jimmy Jumps House was located. Our reserved private room was actually separate from the hostel and was on the top floor of the residential building next door. It almost felt like we had our own apartment except we had to share the bathroom with hostel staff across the hall:(..however the view from our room was pretty cool–red terra cotta roofs with an old church steeple occupied one window view and more quaint roofs and an ivy covered stone building filled the other. Last night we meandered around the square and various side streets. We also stopped and shared a local beer and some horribly hard cheese sticks (we felt like we were gnawing on a bone) in the square. The night was not over before we stopped at their Rimi grocery store where we picked up some snacks and food for dinner–Rock cooked up a fine chicken and rice dinner:)

The following morning we ate several fresh waffles at the hostel before heading towards town square for Vilnius’s free walking tour which began at noon. With a funkily yellow painted suitcase, two Lithuanian students sat waiting. Soon we were off with them and began our two hour tour. We also picked up two other tourists (a girl from Scotland and a guy from Australia) from another hostel and began our tour weaving through narrow streets. Our tour guides stopped at several churches pointing out things of historical importance. Many of the churches were baroque in style with one gothic cathedral made with bricks (which was my favorite). They also took us through what once was the Jewish ghetto during WWII and Vilnius’s narrowest street which contained a trace of the Nazi occupation. An identification number painted in red remained outside what used to be a Jewish family’s house. This part of the tour was in stark contrast to the graffiti filled bohemian district, Uzupis. This “state” has its own constitution and “politician.” A couple times during the year, they set up mock border checks and stamp tourists passports:)…Anyway, the area reminded of Asheville and its Lexington Arts area. There were plenty of funky murals and sculptures, including as our tour guide described, “the world’s first backpacker, JESUS!” A couple hours later and a few more churches and cobblestone streets, the tour ended and we went back to the hostel for an early nap and late lunch. I sat on our floor eating tuna and crackers…I felt too much like a hungry cat:)…Now we’re hoping to meet up with some fellow travelers for a beer and tomorrow were taking a bus for day trip to the Trakai Castle, Lake, and Museum.





Leipaja, Latvia to Klaipeda, Lithuania

29 06 2011

Leipaja

We arrived in Leipaja where it was fairly chilly and extremely quiet. Most of the town was still somewhere in the countryside jumping over campfires or recovering from a hangover from celebrating the Jani festival. We stayed at Traveller’s Beach hostel which was most conveniently situated between the beach and Old Town. A Riti grocery store was just around the corner and we visited it several times during our three night stay in the city. On our first full day in the city we went to the beach and wandered through several beautiful parks and discovered several public sculptures glorifying the rock music scene in Leipaja. Rock particularly enjoyed posing in front of an enormous drum set. Along our meandering, we discovered the European International Junior Tennis Tournament. Since Rock is into the sport (I however am fairly clueless) we watched several games. Afterwards, we headed to the dunes and beach where despite sunny skies the wind caused goose bumps on our skin. So we lingered between dunes and people watched several brave souls bare more than we dared with such wind. Then we walked through a mini carnival and some more art nouveau buildings. We ate a pasta and veggie dinner courtesy of the Rimi and leftovers in the hostel. Rock wanted to see the movie Super 8 and went out with a guy from Australia while I stayed in editing photos.

The following morning after a yummy omelet brunch, we went to the tourist information office. It was about a 10 minute walk from the hostel. For about 5 Lat (~$10) each, we rented a bike for 24 hrs and pedaled away towards Karosta, a former secret military town. The bikes were probably from the 1960s with heavy frames and wide handles bars with the rider having to pedal backwards in order to brake. And so we with a cycling map were off. We thought the route to Karosta was only a couple miles roundtrip but it turns out it was about 6 miles from the center of Leipaja. Along our journey, we stopped at a cemetary. It was interesting to see how others remember their deceased. Many plots and stones were covered in ivy or flowers in such a way that the mound looked more like a garden plot. As we left the shaded refuge, an old wirey lady with a head wrap walked towards the gate from where we were about to head out. She frowned and spoke something in Latvian and seemed to dismiss or curse us with her hand but was quickly off and so were we. After passing a few monotonous brick buildings and a couple food shops, apartment buildings and fields we came upon the Kalpaks bridge which is the only bridge in Lativa that can be rotated open on either end.

After the bridge, we finally started to see signs directing us towards the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Down a street that was lined with old apartment buildings, towered the cathedral with it golden cupolas. (Interesting note-at the end of WWII, Soviet used the cathedral for recreational activities including a “red room” :))…I didn’t take photos inside due to lack of sufficient light. Some of the cathedral was under construction as well. However, Rock saw a little girl with her parents who were talking to an orthodox priest. He decided to sneak a shot but was spotted by the priest who immediately waved at us and spoke angrilly. We looked at him and left calmly out of the church but he followed us out. As we descended the last step, he stood above with his black robe billowing and his mouth moving quickly; I bowed apologetically and Rock and I walked briskly back to our bikes. However we did not leave the grounds until we had explored the area around the church and took a few more shots. When we were about to leave and I was waiting for Rock to take a photo, a girl who was playing in the playground outside the church area suddenly stood up from her sandbox and ran over to near where I waited on my bike. She threw a glass bottle which shattered only inches away from where my bike and I stood. I was shocked. I heard giggling and when I looked at the group of kids who were probably around 8 or 9yrs old, they stared back. When I took my camera out to “document” their mischief they ran away towards the shade of a tree…I was furious!

We rode back and stopped for Rock’s sweet tooth and got some icecream from the grocery store. When we arrived back in Leipaja, we discovered freaking awesome Hotel Fontaine Royal, which we decided to visit later for dinner. We continued to bike along the canal. A path to a beach we had not visited before appeared and we decided to explore the area which was just past the military port zone. On our way towards the beach we encountered a towering windmill and more sand dunes. As we walked along the waters edge, we started to look for amber and sure enough we found some. It became a scavenger hunt. About 30 minutes later, we biked back to the hostel for a nap and meditation. Then we returned to Hotel Fontaine for dinner and an hour in their sauna/Turkish bath area.

Headed for Klaipeda
The next day we checked out of the hostel around noon. It was Monday so Rock was fasting and he stopped at the Rimi one last time to pick up some fruit. We returned our bikes and when we did, we were amazed at how bustling the streets, squares, and sidewalks had become. Mothers with their strollers, teens with their high fashion, and lovers with their limbs wound around each other seemed to fill the square. After figuring out when the next bus for Klaipeda was departing, we headed out to the bus stop. We had an hour or two before the bus arrived and so checked out the market and some more side streets along the way. Around 2:40 we paid a couple Lat and hopped on a small bus that went towards Palanga, Lithuania. The ride was about an hour or so. Once in Palanga, we dodged a hotel tout and exchanged some currency and caught another small bus towards Klaipeda, our final destination for the day. This ride was about 5 Litas and took around 30 minutes or so. At the Klaipeda bus station, we found an information desk and inquired about a map of the town and where the street on which our guestouse was located. The lady was friendly and helped point us in the right direction. After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached the Liternerp Gueshouse. As we were quite tired and Rock was fasting, we took a nap and meditated; then went out to their Riti grocery store a block away in which we picked up a microwavable pasta dinner and snacks for the next day.

On Tuesday morning in Klaipeda, breakfast (cheese, yoghurt, bread, jam, and juice) was delivered in a picnic basket outside our room…How cool! We made peanut butter sandwiches for lunch later and headed to the Baltic bike shop abut two blocks away where we rented bikes until 10pm (paid about 30 litas (~$13/each) for very excellent mountain bikes). It was now almost noon and so we cycled on over to the ferry port and paid for our roundtrip ticket (~$2/each) to Smiltne on the Curonian Spit. The ferry trip lasted no longer than 10 minutes and soon we were disembarked from the ferry . We didn’t know where we were going but followed some bike signs and were soon pedaling through rows of pines. We saw a path to the dunes and beach which we walked up (leaving our bikes below) and took some shots. We continued riding between the pine forest and dunes. We saw another path and took our bikes to another section of the beach where we road along the water for about 30 or 40 minutes occasionally pausing to take a photo or scavenge for washed up ocean treasures. We struggled to bring the bikes up the stairs and dry sand. Rock was my hero and lifted my bike through the sand and up the stairs☺ Soon we were riding along the forest path and came to a bar/conveinence store and bought an energy drink and bottle of water and rested. I asked the guy behind the counter to point to where we were on the map and we started to plan where we were going to head. At this time it was around 1:30 and we biked a bit further south and then hoped we were heading towards our ferry port but after walking/cycling up a hill we discovered it was unnecessary and we had arrived at a different ferry port—one in which cars were being ferried over and so we looked on the map to check the routes. After several long stretches of hilly paths we arrived at a wonderful vista from which you could see the Baltic Sea and the pine forests. Here we ate our peanut butter sandwiches and enjoyed the nice breezes and sun on our backs. Afterwards, we headed towards the correct ferry port. From there we were better oriented and biked north towards the tip of Smiltyne and hoped to see the Dolphinarioum but when we arrived we learned it was closed. We watched a couple seals show off their slothfulness and took some photos of horses and carriages against a background of rigs and industrial buildings along the coast.

Around 4:30, we caught the ferry back to the port of Klaipeda. We rode to the Old Castle Museum. Provide link. Then we went back to the guesthouse for a nap/meditation. It was now only 8pm and we rode around what remained of Old Town Klaipeda and saw the balcony where Hilter stood and a sculpture dedicated to the poetry of 17th century German Simon Dach. We found a nice restaurant facing a water way and sat outside. We shared a glass of red wine and “funghi “pizza before exploring some parks and side streets. Around 9:45pm, we returned the bikes (and I received my passport back—hooray—I’m always a little hesistant when places keep your “document” as insurance)☺.

On Wednesday morning around 11am, we checked out of the Litnerp Guesthouse and walked to a bus stop and caught bus 8 back to Klaipeda’s central bus station. There we bought two one way tickets (66 litas/person) for our 4 hour bus ride to Vilinus….and I’m too tired to continue typing:)…

Photos here!

And more shots…





Riga to Jurmala to Leipaja

25 06 2011

Too many stories and adventures to share since my last post. I’m now reserved in understanding that I will not be posting everyday… On the second full day of our journey, we went on a day trip to the 17th centuryRundale Palace. The usual excessive facades, frescoes, and paintings adorned the massive palace along with a beautiful French garden. It took about 1.5 hours and two bus transfers to reach and was well worth it. Afterwards, we visited the central market between the bus and train station. We picked up some cherries and other snacks from the numerous vendors. Handicrafts, a meat market, and many flower stalls also lined the market rows. The evening was complete with another meal at the Lido and strolls around a couple squares.

The next morning we checked out of our hostel and met Walter, a couchsurfer at the clock tower. He was incredibly generous and paid for our train ticket to his village, Babite, which was located between Jurmala and Riga. After drawing us a map, we left Walter to explore Jurmala via train. We got off at the Majorie stop and strolled down the main drag and ate a lunch at a kitsch restaurant and continued acting like tourists photographing the old wooden houses. After resting at the beach, whose waters were quite frigid, we trekked to the next train stop and caught the train hoping to get off at the stop with a grocery store but somehow we missed it and got off at the following stop. We waited for at least 20 minutes and watched numerous people emerge from the surrounding wood.

During our bus and train rides, we’ve observed many narrow footpaths throughout forests, and fields with people walking, talking, and carrying their groceries. Many people also frequently walk along and across the railroad tracks; this is so uncommon in the states and I smiled as I saw these people following their own paths rather than concrete officially approved sidewalks…

…Anyway, after tiring of waiting, we decided we would try to walk back to the stop with the grocery store. We knew there was a bridge the train went over but we thought surely there would be footpath or walkway of some kind. However this was not the case as we discovered. When we were about a hundred yards away, an angry old soviet troll with an orange vest popped out from a station booth and yelled and waved frantically at us and we in turn hastily hopped off the tracks and started following a footpath that led around and below the “troll’s” station, through some brush and towards the bridge. I think this footpath was primarily used by homeless as it was littered and overgrown. At the end of the path, a campfire pit stopped us and from there we could see there was no way to cross the river other than catching the train. And so we headed back to our stop and caught the train to the grocery store stop Lei Lupe.

From here we walked for about 30 minutes through a eclectic old village. Some houses were covered almost entirely with ivy while others appeared extremely modern. Many of the houses were wooded with with large windows filled with curtains of old Russian lace. Gardens and strange flower beds filled their small plots of land. The street (ie large sidewalk) was the main route into town via the train stop and many people were going to and fro. After asking a couple teens where the Rimi (the grocery store chain) was located, we suddenly came upon it and a waterpark. At the Rimi, we picked up a few “unknown” sandwiches and ate outside the store. I felt very much like a homeless vagrant but nonetheless it made for interesting experience and great people watching:)…When we finished, piscean Rock checked out the waterpark and now is hoping we’ll return at the end of the trip. With a few groceries for our breakfast, we leisurely walked back to the Lei Lupe train stop and caught the train back to Babite.

After a short nap, we headed back to Riga with Walt and treated him to a beer and pastry. We exchanged some great stories and had some interesting conversation as we strolled/skipped/swayed through the filled streets of old town. Around 11:30 we headed back to the train station to catch the midnight train back to Walt’s place. Before the night was complete, Rock and Walt jammed out with some guitars. The next morning we rode into Riga with Walt (who was on his way to work…he’s a scientist investigating the properties/potential of cow manure as fuel) and said our goodbyes to our very kind host.

It was now around 10:30am and we inquired at the tourist info. center about the next train to Leipaja, which was our next destination. We bought tickets with reserved seats for the 11:05 bus and waited (yes there is a lot of waiting on this trip–it’s helping me practice patience:)) While sitting at amidst tired Latvians and hungry pigeons, I started to snack on some chips. When I accidentally dropped a tiny piece of a chip, a finch like bird suddenly arrived with his posse and the chip was no longer. I thought the birds would go elsewhere but instead one actually flew towards my chest as I was raising a chip from the bag to my mouth! I looked around and saw no one else eating 😦 and so the bag of chips was put up and I sat waiting feeling too much like a monk:)

After checking our luggage below the bus and paying an additional lat or two for such, we boarded the fairly prompt and completely filled bus and prepared ourselves for the 3.5 hour journey by snacking on some cheese sandwiches. However, our plastic bags and foil seemed incredibly loud as the entire bus was silent as we left the station. We’ve never experience such before and tried to modify our whispers into nonverbal communication so to respect the “peace.”

The countryside we passed was mostly flat with many old soviet era looking barns and a few cemeteries hidden in patches of pine forests. Several bogs and a few lakes were a blur beyond the bus window. Deep greens and yellow fields were exaggerated by the stormy blue/gray storm that followed us on the journey. A few communities contained a church or a store but much of the ride was through the vast and beautiful countryside.

After 3.5 hours and one bathroom break (public bathroom usage costs .20 Lat), we arrived in Leipaja. Our hostel did not provide specific directions so we were without such nor with a map. However, there was a large glass bulletin with a map of the city and so I took a picture and used my camera to help direct us to the street the hostel was located on. Rock suggested we hop on a tram and we did. This saved us at least 15 minutes of walking around with our heavy packs but when we somewhat randomly jumped off, we had to backtrack a bit and seek direction from passerbys. After taking photos of some buildings and bizarre sculptures, we arrived in our nondescript hostel. The building looked like all the other crumbling brick buildings but once we were buzzed inside, a very clean and hospitable place awaited us. We hand washed some clothes and then visited the nearby grocery store. Rock prepared a delicious fish/rice dinner and we chatted with fellow travelers from Germany and Australia.

I’m looking forward to checking out some churches and the beach today. The weather is looking promising and it’s quite sunny…horray for the simple things…now for lunch!

Photos here!