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Monthly Archive: September 2018

9/26 A few days in Krakow

Our next stop was Krakow, Poland. Susan was in Krakow about 5 years ago with her Mom on a tour, loved the city, and thought Mark needs to see it. Off we go from Riga to Krakow.

No problem taking the tram to the bus station and taking Bus 22 to the Airport for about $1.25 each for a ticket. The bus wandered through the city and country and dropped us off right in front of the terminal. We were first in line to check in at LOT airlines. The one hour flight from Riga to Warsaw was OK.

Come boarding time for the Warsaw to Krakow flight, we went to the gate (Shared door for Gates 36 and 37) and stood by the group 1 sign (Group 1 was on our boarding pass.). At our boarding time, a plane came into Gate 37 – we are at Gate 36.  The gate agent put a Disney line strap up to separate the gates but Gate 36 didn’t/couldn’t board until all of the Gate 37 people got off or at least that was our explanation.  THEN there were no boarding groups called – everyone just used 2 machines to have the boarding passes checked.  I got behind some old lady who had to quiz the gate agent about, I’m guessing, her bags and where she would get them.  Even in Polish I could understand “baggage” and “Krakow” repeated several times.

We FINALLY got through the gate and ended up boarding a bus to be taken to the plane.  No matter how many times I have to use this bus boarding system, it rarely gets more efficient and this was one of the MOST inefficient boarding we’ve done. Once the bus arrived at the plane on the runway, they only had steps up to the front entrance on the 737 (Using front and back entrances with good directions for which rows should use which door works pretty well – SAS in Stockholm for example).  Polish LOT passengers carry as much, if not more, luggage on board than Americans – hard to believe, right??

The first bus of people boards the plane only to find out there’s ANOTHER bus of people we’re waiting for. It shows up in about 15 minutes and the inefficient boarding starts again but now there’s even less overhead space than before.  The flight attendants actually went through the bins and made anyone who put items that fit under the seat do just that – put the items under the seat in front!  We finally got out of Warsaw and landed in Krakow about 40 minutes late after the pilot landed the plane at a pretty fast speed and bounced it on the runway.  Mark sat next to a LOT pilot who said nothing during the flight or landing.

Luggage took a while to show up so we opted for a taxi to the AirBnb. The taxi driver could rival Paris taxi drivers.

We’re in Krakow!

Mark went to Auschwitz and Birkenau on Thursday morning. Susan passed because I saw it with Mom and visiting this concentration camp more than once is more than I can handle. We’ve been to Dachau in Germany and Terezin in Czech Republic and three concentration camps is overwhelming. Visits to them are mandatory for school children in their respective countries.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp Entrance

Entrance to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. Over 1.1 million men and women lost their lives here.

The remaining buildings of Birkenau Concentration Camp.

The next day we took a tour to the Wieliszcka Salt Mine. The tour took us down to 136 meters underground, using 800 steps to get there. Yes, we took an elevator back up!  The tour took about 2 hours underground and we walked 4 km.  It’s a fun place to see!

Our deepest point in the mine – 135 Meters. It took 800 steps to get down here and a mine elevator to get out.

Chapel in the Salt Mine

This chamber of the Salt Mine was made into a Chapel after the salt was gone. Mass is said here every Sunday about 7:30 AM.

Carving of the Last Supper

This sculpture of The Last Supper is only a few inches deep and took 7 years to complete. It’s in the chapel in the mine

Pope John Paul II sculpture

Pope John Paul II is quite popular and the chapel in the Salt Mine had this salt sculpture of him.

Saturday was our day to wander around Krakow hitting all the hot spots and who knows how many churches.  Poland is VERY Catholic with more churches per capita than any city outside of Rome.  In the countryside 90% attend Mass on Sunday; only about 40% within the cities.  At one point we could see 5 churches from where we stood! We walked up to the Wawel Hill to see the Cathedral and Castle Grounds overlooking the Vistula River.  Had to check out a few markets, too, and do a little jewelry buying.

Cloth Hall at nigh

Cloth Hall and Square sitting under an almost full moon.

Saint Maria Church

St. Maria’s Church. The day we tried to visit the church was closed for renovation work.

Wawel Cathedral. You can tell from all the different spires that it was added to over the years. The kings of Poland are buried here but we skipped that part of the church!

The old Cloth Hall now filled with stalls selling all sorts of Polish merchandise and souvenirs.

wheat beer

The weather was perfect for sitting outside and enjoying a wheat beer from a local brewery.

Today, we walked to Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter, where only about 3,000 – only 5,000 out of 60,000 people survived from the German Occupation.

Hot dog menu

Kazimierz is also an up and coming area of the city. We ran into a field of food trucks and had a hot dog for lunch. It was really a sausage and tasted nothing like a U.S. hotdog.

One thing we’ve noticed in Krakow is a lack of traffic signals and walk signals to control people crossing the street in front of cars, trucks, buses, trams.  People pretty much walk where and when they want creating traffic havoc.  We can’t figure it out!

Next stop is Munich for Oktoberfest.

9/22 Five days in Riga, Latvia

We are wandering our way across the Baltic states and central Europe on our way to Munich for Oktoberfest, moving from expensive Scandinavia to less expensive Estonia and Latvia to MUCH less expensive Poland before reaching reasonable Germany.

We heard good things about Riga so it was on the list to visit.  This time we decided to take the bus from Tallinn to Riga and chose Lux Express after doing a bit of research.  The ride was 4.5 hours long, cost 28 E each, express from Tallinn, with comfy seats, wi-fi, power in the seats, and videos to watch. We opted for the slightly higher priced tickets only so Mark could have more leg room. The bus left on time and arrived on time; the scenery was good – lots of birch forests and wooden house; nothing we would call a city between Tallinn and Riga. Note also… the Tallinn bus station is very nice with clean toilets and a few shops to buy sandwiches.

Luxe Express bus seats

Inside of the Luxe Express Bus, complete with video monitors to watch movies in a variety of languages and wifi.

Tallinn is charming –  a medieval Old Town still in good shape. Riga, on the other hand, is much more cosmopolitan even though it, too, has a small, charming Old Town.  Parks abound in the city filled with beautiful gardens and interesting sculptures. A canal winds through the city as does the Daugava River. The leaves are falling and seem to be raked up daily.

paddle boarders

This group was paddle boarding on the canal on Sunday afternoon and then started doing yoga on their boards.

One of the many gardens in the parks.

Riga has over 600  Art Nouveau buildings which are beautiful, hiding in plain sight all over the city. Looking up became a pastime to find all the magical and mysterious touches to buildings. The pictures below were all from one block full of buildings near where we stayed. I’m sure the people who live on this street get tired of everyone staring at their homes and offices.

He/she has a matching partner on the other side of the door.

Riga has embraced the shopping culture since shedding the Russian influence. We passed numerous shopping malls in our bus rides around the city.  They still make use of the old Central Market with fish, meat, and veggies. It was packed on a Sunday afternoon.

We have no idea what these fish are even when we went for a translation. At the price, though, they must be plentiful – about $1 per pound.

The Central Market is housed in 5 German Zeppelin Hangars for indoor space. There’s space outside where the veggies seemed to be. Watermelon was a big seller this time of year.

Smiling is not big in this ex-Russian dominated city. After what they went through with the Russians, Germans, and Russians again, a serious demeanor could be expected.  The younger people are a bit more genial although we’re still waiting for the mid-20’s lady in the Costa Coffee shop to crack a smile.  She didn’t even ask us what we wanted to order but we noticed she didn’t ask the locals either!

One day we took the bus out of town to the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum to see buildings from all over the 4 distinct areas of Latvia. This building collection began in the mid-30’s, quite a forward-thinking idea at the time. This preserved old buildings from destruction and allows everyone (school groups included!) to understand a bit of life in earlier times.

We visited in the middle of the week during the off season and had the place pretty much to ourselves.  That being said, we missed any demonstrations of  life in the villages that may be done during the peak season, according to friends and the website. One fact we took away was bath houses and saunas have been popular for a LONG time!

The Open Air Museum is set in the woods next to a lake. Walking around was calm and peaceful in the middle of the week.

Wooden building with thatched roof

Just a sample of the buildings you find at the Open Air Museum

Laundry … our AirBnb had a lovely washing machine and a lovely 4 hours wash cycle if you’re so inclined!  We opted for a shorter one – about 1 hour this time. Did  I mention the elevator?  The building in the Embassy part of town had an elevator, too!  I love those when it comes to carrying the suitcases in!  We were around the corner from the Greece embassy and about 2 blocks from the Russian embassy – noticeable by the fence, guard box, and cameras all around!

Here are a few other highlights from our visit to Riga.

champagne cocktail

Black balsam is a spirit made in Latvia – very traditional. We think it’s like moonshine with a bunch of different herbs and roots added. At 47% alcohol, it’s strong! I tried mine in a cocktail mixed with prosecco. (It’s the back stuff floating on top of the prosecco before I stirred it all together.)
Mark had his in coffee.

High seat in a city bus

This seat was in a city bus. We have no idea who it’s designed for but it was used by a variety of people from old to young and short to tall.

Ore new favorite snack – dark rye bread grilled in butter and covered in smashed up garlic. It’s a common snack to go with beer.

St. Gertrude's Church

Susan’s grandmother’s middle name was Gertrude so I dragged Mark around Riga to find St. Gertrude’s Church. She is also a patron saint of travelers. How appropriate!

Nativity of Christ Orthodox Church

The Nativity of Christ Orthodox Church in Riga is the biggest Orthodox church in Riga and has been completely restored since the Russians left. They used it a a restaurant and a planetarium at various times.

9/17 On to Tallinn, Estonia

Rather than fly, we took the Viking ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, about a 2.5-hour ride across the Baltic Sea. The ride was good and the ferry provides lots of entertainment in bars, night club – not so much on Monday morning with a ship full of old people!  One ferry worker told us the ship is rocking on weekends when it’s full of younger people heading to Tallinn for a cheap weekend. The drinking starts BEFORE they even board the ship.  On our sailing, coffee was the drink of choice for most people.

The highlight of the ship for many was obviously the duty-free shop full of wine and alcohol.  Given the prices in Helsinki, we understood the attraction.  All we bought was a bag of licorice and pepper candy that Juhis and Noora turned us on to in Finland.

Finish people seem to love black licorice and sell it in all sorts of forms. We saw at least 25 different types in the hypermarket. This one is licorice and pepper mixed.

The Old Town part of Tallinn is beautiful, full of stone walls, old buildings, churches, cobblestones everywhere on the street and the sidewalks. We needed to kill some time before we could get into our AirBnb so we opted for lunch and picked the Texas Honky Tonk for some Mexican food. Surprise!  The Mexican food was the best we’ve had outside of the U.S. by far and better than a lot we’ve had IN the U.S.  Turns out the Estonian owner visited Austin, loved Mexican food and opened this restaurant. We ate there twice!  We also ate at Vaike with great service and better food.  It’s a partner restaurant to Rataskaevu 16   that  was recommended by several friends and TripAdvisor! We didn’t plan ahead so couldn’t get a last minute reservation at Rataskaevu 16 but could get into Vaike – around the corner and serving the same menu.


Yes …Mexican food!

Window into Broccoli pizza

Who would ever name a restaurant “Broccoli”??

One thing we’ve noticed in both Estonia and Latvia – smiling must not come naturally to almost anyone, including people in the service industry.  Being grumpy or dour is the modus operandi in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, shops. The service people who smile definitely stand out!

One note – For those who wonder how we can travel at “such a pace”, we are NOT traveling at the Tour group pace! We spent at least 4 nights in Bergen, Stockholm, Tallinn, Riga, and, soon, Warsaw.  Our typical day is:

  • Sleep until we wake up unless we have a train, bus or plane to catch and have to set the alarm
  • Eat breakfast and drink coffee
  • Sightsee – try to walk at least 10,000 steps and that’s not hard!
  • Around 4 PM, come back to the apartment and rest, nap, read, work on blog, pictures, etc.
  • Find dinner about 7 PM or eat in the apartment if we ate lunch out
  • Go to bed whenever
Tallinn Town Hall in city center

The sun came out one day! This is the town hall in the city center.

City Hall at night in the rain

The city hall looked good at night, too, even in the rain.

Orthodox church in Tallinn

Russian Orthodox church in Tallinn

Most of Estonia is either Lutheran or Orthodox. There’s one Roman Catholic Church in Tallinn (population of about 500,000) and it’s the Cathedral, about the size of a small parish church in the U.S. There’s also one Ukrainian Orthodox Church and we visited that, too. Pope Francis is visiting the Baltic countries at the end of the month, including Tallinn on Sept. 25. Posters hang everywhere and the Ukrainians are hoping he will make a visit to their church when he’s in town. The schedule seems to be in flux.

Saint Catherine's walk in Tallinn

St. Catherine’s walk with lots of shops along the way.

City Gate

The biggest city gate still standing in Tallinn. We had to walk through it to get from the ferry port to our AirBnb.

Tallinn city gate at night with lights

Tallinn city gate at night

The flower stands were open until late at night.

City view over the roofs

View of the city from one of the overlooks. Rain started falling shortly after this to drive us to a coffee shop to escape!

City street

Old town city street in Tallinn along the walls

So far, we’ve with stayed in AirBnbs or with friends.  When we pick an Airbnb, we always find an entire apartment so we can eat breakfast and one other meal in AND make coffee AND do our laundry.  Prices vary, of course, from about $90 U.S. dollars per night in Stockholm to about $35 U.S. per night in Riga.  We’ve had great places so far and have seen all sorts of little showers built into renovated bathrooms, washing machines in all languages (This trip has had all English language machines.), walked up flights of steps to apartments, used elevators to get up to the 3rd floor, etc. We’ve picked up keys in lock boxes, met the owners to get keys, used key pads to get in the buildings and apartments, etc.  The one in Tallinn had the most interesting entrance. The 4 floors of apartments shared a building entrance with a strip club – Gentleman’s Club.

We had a great AirBnb in Old Town of Tallinn. The only quirky thing was we shared an entrance to a “Gentleman’s Club” .

9/12 Two weeks in Scandinavia

After we visited Mom, we headed off to Scandinavia to visit some friends and see a few new cities.  Miraculously, the flight from DC to Munich to Copenhagen to Bergen went flawlessly and our luggage even showed up at the end in Bergen, Norway, second largest city in the country. Bergen is a nice city right on the water and on every Scandinavian Cruise itinerary, we think.

Panorama of Bergen from the castle at the top of the hill.

We made Bergen the starting point for an all-day excursion “Norway in a Nutshell” – gorgeous scenery on a rail, bus, boat, and the steepest railway in the world trip.  Yes, Dave, we rode the Flam Railroad and found a Norwegian brewery along the way.

This was the view from the bus on the road from Voss to Gudvangen.

I took the picture from the bus. Yes, the road was really 18%  grade  Needless to say, the scenery was spectacular.

The next few pictures are taken when we rode a boat for 2 hours on the Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord between Gudvangen and Flamm. No pictures can do the scenery justice. Spectacular doesn’t come close to doing it justice.

This was some scenery from the train between Myrdal and Bergen after we rode the Flam RR.

After 4 days in Bergen, we headed via train to Tonsberg, Norway (Oldest city in Norway) for a weekend with Per and Lise. We met them on the Pacific cruise earlier in the year and they were kind enough to show us Tonsberg , feed us EXTREMELY well, and take us on a daylong boat ride along the Norwegian coast. Yes, the sun was out for the entire weekend.  If you’ve heard rumors about Norway being expensive, you heard right! Just bring your CC and vow not to drink much (or any) beer or wine.

Per and Lise swear they’ll come to FC next Fall so we’re taking suggestions for uniquely Colorado things to do – Bruce’s Bar???

Strawberry Cheesecake

Lise made this cheesecake from scratch. It was beautiful and tasted even better.

Stockholm was our next destination, this time via plane.  Another 4 days of sunshine and a visit to the Vasa Museum was the highlight of the week.  We enjoyed finding out about life in the 1600’s aboard a boat but the story of how the ship was raised and preserved was even more fascinating.  Stockholm looked affordable after Norway.  We stayed in an AirBnb and bought food at the little Thai food cart down the street.  It was yummy and only cost about $8.50 per meal.

Cans of Fat Tire beer

Made in Ft. Collins! Found in Stockholm at the liquor store in the middle of the city.

Boat from 1628 in Vasa Museum

This boat sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage of 1500 meters. It was recovered in about 1970 and preserved. Great museum!

In Stockholm, besides the Hard Rock, we also went to a cash free coffee shop.  Payment is only done with a card. We saw more cards used in Scandinavia that we saw cash exchanged.

When we visited the Seychelles last November, we met Noora and Juhis from Helsinki, Finland, on a trek from hell across an island.  They invited us to come for the weekend in Helsinki. As one friend said, “Never invite Susan and Mark unless you mean it because they WILL show up!”  We did show up and had a marvelous weekend with them and Lilly, the poodle.

In Helsinki yoghurt is sold in what looks like American milk cartons. This makes it easy to store in the fridge.

shelf full of wine in a box

Box wine is very popular in both Helsinki and Stockholm. This was the selection in one Helsinki wine store.

We had dinner in Helsinki at a Lapland restaurant and ate Rudolph. We told one niece that Christmas is cancelled this year since we ate Santa’s deer.

Gin and grapefruit juice long drink in a can

Gin and grapefruit Long drink was created in Helsinki for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. We want to make one with ice and fresh grapefruit juice next summer.

We saw lots of houses in Helsinki with these useful boot brushes in front of them.

Observations about Scandinavia …

  • Norway is expensive!
  • Norway, Sweden and Finland have a monopoly of wine, spirits and strong beer. You can only buy them at state monopoly shops. The name of the shops has what looks like “monopoly” in it.
  • Finland is WAY less expensive than Norway.
  • Many (most?) people in Norway, Sweden, and Finland speak English as well as, if not better than, our fellow Americans. We had a lovely discussion with a 14-year-old Norwegian girl in English and she wasn’t at all shy about speaking to us.
  • I cannot pronounce Norwegian, Swedish, nor Finnish language correctly… but I make people laugh when I try!