Sunday, July 31, 2005

reminder to readers

Just want to make sure folks remember that when we post, we often post mulitple entries at one time. So whenever something new appears, be sure and keep scrolling down until you get to entries you have read before.

Also, when we have to post a bunch like this but haven't found a place to upload the related pics, we'll let you know when they are linked later and you can go back and check them

Mr and Mrs. Type A. :-)

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Nuns in Backpacks, Zakopane

Nuns in Backpacks, Zakopane
As Brian mentioned, we did a couple of fairly strenuous hikes. And let me tell you, when you are already struggling and feeling frustrated about your (lack of ) conditioning, nothing rubs it in your face more than getting smoked by nuns. That's right, the hills over Zakopane were chock full of nuns out for hikes, dressed in their full regalia. Some of the habits were black, some brown, some blue, and some gray, but they all had all the trimmings. (Hopefully one of our readers who knows more about this sort of things than we do can explain the color variations...different orders? different ranks or stages?) I guess I shouldn't be that surprised that they were so good. After all, most of them have probably grown up traipsing around the mountains, and as far as I know, that's actually one of the nunly duties. (At least that's what it looked like in The Sound of Music). Still, on one of the steepest parts of one of our climbs, when we were digging our toes in for traction and (I at least was) huffing and puffing and struggling, I looked up and saw two middle aged nuns in full habits tripping along briskly towards us and couldn't help it: I was about to utter a pretty disgusted "God Dammit!" when I decided that that might be a little sacriligious, even for me. Maybe they're flying nuns..... Becca

Hiking to Slovakia.....

some pics loaded...see the rest on flickr

Ok, on to the good stuff. Upon arriving in Zakopane and scoring an incredibly helpful map from the TI (tourist information office; the green i goes with the @ [internet] and WC [toilet] as the most useful symbols to know in all countries), we grabbed some breakfast and then were able to check into the Pension Jurek, our home for the next three days. After taking a quick little siesta, we elected to get out on the trails and start exploring.

Our hostel was an approximately 30 min walk from the start of a number of trailheads (much closer here than from many of the places we could have stayed). Over the last three days we've done our best to cover as much ground on the trails as possible without a) getting completely exhausted and b) falling off any ledges, getting impaled, etc. Seems easy enough.

And for the most part, we survived. The first day we did a three hour hike consisting of a loop that peaked out at Sarnia Skala (the picture isn't ours; just gives you an idea as to where we ended up). It gave us a beautiful view of the city, provided some pretty scenary on the way up, gave Becca a chance to feel like the queen of the world, and was a great way for us to get out of the pension and get the legs warmed up on moderately challenging trails without killing ourselves after the overnight bus ride. The highight had to be the guy who blew past us hiking the bumpy trail in flip flops. The foam version. Talk about feeling wimpy :-)

The second day was our most ambitious. We decided that we wanted to scale one of the peaks and chose Kasprowy Wierch. The main reason we chose this was because it was the most direct route and it also had a cable car in case we got to the top and ran out of gas. This ended up being just an amazing hike; the whole thing took us about eight hours with lots of difficult climbing and just as difficult descents amongst quite rocky trails. We knew we were in for a long day when the hike to the trailhead took us about an hour and averaged a six or seven percent grade.

It's really hard to put into words how fulfilling this hike was; for me at least it was really one of the first times I've ever done any sort of higher altitude hiking. It was very cool to eventually pass the tree line and then know that we still had a ways to go (though after the 3rd straight hill hidden behind a hill Becca let off an unmentionable word; can't say I blame her because I was thinking it). The view at the top made it worth the trip though as you could see the peaks and scenery in both directions for miles and also were able to cross over into Slovakia (the border posts were on each peak). So although we don't have any stamps to prove it, we can say that we hiked from Poland to Slovakia in one day!

The final day was spent doing a medium length (about five hours) hike that had a lot less elevation gains (though still went up about 400m) but was very pretty, including one stop in a valley between two of the peaks (which Becca says we'll see plenty of in Switzerland) and lunch at one of the huts on the way back down.

The last three days of hiking have just been amazing and a good primer for us heading a two week trip to the Alps (Swiss and French) at the end of August. It was just really nice to spend a few days in pretty nice conditions outdoors exploring the beautiful "rustic" trails and getting our hiking legs ready for Switzerland and France. At least in Switzerland, we'll have this to sooth our angry, tired legs...

Brian

some typical viw

PS Zakopane itself is a cute little alpine town complete with plenty of kiosks selling food, souvenirs, etc. It also was the home of a nice courtyard complete with a ton of tables where Becca and I spent two of the evenings resting our tired legs playing cribbage and taking ample advantage of the beer garden and surrounding eats.. Overall certainly touristy but we heard almost all Polish during our stay there; definitely a holiday location for locals more than anyone else.

PPS. (from Becca) This was also the location of a number of interesting food moments. We have been trying hard to use our meager Polish vocabulary (we have hello, thank you, one, two, how much, where, and please down cold!) as much as we can, and ordering food is often one of our best chances. For some reason in Zakopane I kept getting myself into trouble. Nothing too major (and probably not as funny when I write it), but things like 1) thinking I was ordering a slice of bread to make a cheese sandwich out of and getting the entire half of a loaf of peasant bread (about the size of a soccer ball) or 2) thinking I was ordering two gyros sandwiches and getting two mammoth platters of all the sorts of fixings you'd expect inside (like meat, lettuce, tomatos, sauces, etc.) but no actual bread. Oh well....it all tasted good.

Congratulations are in order...

To my brother Kevin and his wife Sarah who are now proud new homeowners! They just closed on a place in Sandy, Oregon on Wednesday. Man... getting married and buying a house in the same year; I guess my little bro is offically grown up :-)

Of course, I think they really just bought it because of this. Seriously though, congratulations!

Brian

Friday, July 29, 2005

Poland's Switzerland and Bus Agony

(pictures to come)

Zakopane is yet another location that we most likely wouldn't have come to but are so happy to have made the trip to. Located in the southern-most part of Poland (just north of the Poland/Slovakia border), it's considered the Switzerland of Poland. The locale has not disappointed. A ski bums heaven during winter, it's quite the hiker/tourist location during the summer. More on the hikes in a bit. Thankfully for us we decided to come mid week so the crowds haven't been too overwhelming. Somehow I think by Saturday (when we leave for Krakow) it will be quite a different story.

The trip here from Vilnius was one to forget. We took an overnight bus from Vilnius to Krakow. Seemed like a decent enough idea; get a bit of sleep on the bus. save some $ for lodging and we get into Krakow early enough to take an early bus to Zakopane so we can get an extra full day there.

Needless to say the end result wasn't quite as ideal. The bus (like so many in Eastern Europe) was lacking air and the Aussie next to us made the executive decision to shut off our roof vent early on. Still a manageable trip until they decided to show the double feature of Night at the Roxbury and Meet the Fockers in dubbed Lithuanian. Pain does not accurately describe the feeling of having this drown out my iPod's attempts at keeping me in a Zen like state.

Finally about midnight Becca and I tried to get some sleep. We finally got a few hours only after a lot of fidgeting. Of course at 3:30am we were awaken by our mandatory stop at a truck stop that had a McDonald's and a 24 hour Kebab place. Yes, a 24 hour Kebab place whose friendly chef on the sign looked like the Milkman Dan from Red Meat) Not even my love for the Egg McMuffin could sucker me into eating at this hour. At that point no more sleep was to be had the rest of the trip.

Upon arriving in Krakow all sleep deprived we went searching for the first available bus to Zakopane. Difficult to do however when the bus inexplicably drops you off at the train station. Thankfully it was just across the way and we were able to suffer through another very hot (but scenic) ride to Zakopane.

Amazing how painful this bus ordeal really was. When I traveled Australia I twice took the bus for over 24 hours and I wasn't nearly in as bad of shape. Guess that's what 8 years will do to you...

Ok, just realized that this post took way too much real estate. Back with part 2 (the actual fun stuff of Zakopane) shortly!

Brian

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

yawn...

Only got the briefest look at Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. Here's why

Ironically, writing the previous blog (about how relaxed Nida made us) took longer than expected (flickr was misbehaving) and so our last 2 hours in town was stressed and frantic. Typical. But still a wonderful experience. We hopped on the bus in the afternoon and took the 6 hour ride to Vilnius with super cranky bus driver guy, who almost got himself arrested when he tried to run over/bump the guy directing traffic off the ferry (evidently he wasn't letting us go soon enough).

Arrived in Vilnius a little after 9 pm, and, as appears to be par for the course for us, realized (though we already knew it) that our sleeping place was on the opposite side of the downtown/old town from the bus/train station (same as in Klaipeda, Sigulda, Kuressare, etc.). 30 + minutes and two steep hills later we made it to the youth hostel. Stayed up until midnight writing postcards and trading travel ideas with 3 cool brothers from France (who highly recommend the area around their home town) and a nice lady from the lake country in northern England. Both offered to show us around/let us stay with them if we passed their direction. I love hostels. Crashed into our beds around midnight in our 9 person dorm. Was kept awake most of the night by coughing (one of the other travellers must have had bronchitis). I hate hostels. Despite the really far location for 1 night's stay, we are glad we stayed there. The hostel is in the U┼żupis neighborhood which has (somewhat jokingly) declared independence from the rest of Vilnius. Once a year the mayor stamps passports coming in and out and they even have their own constitution (which has line items like a person has the right to celebrate his/her bday or not, and that cats have full rights of roaming and should be taken care of). It's a bohemian neighborhood with lots of galleries and would have been fun to explore further.

Stumbled sleepily back down the hill and walked all the way back to the station to drop off our bags so that we could sightsee until our 5 pm bus. However we ended up spending most of the rest of the day trying to figure out how to send our first souvenir home (as we have no room to take anything with us). We loved Nida so much that we wanted a reminder of it, and really liked the fishing license weather vanes that I took so many pics of. So we had a mini one of those. Plus Brian was ready to buy himself a new jersey so the Ajax one needed to go. Anyway, after an hour plus of walking we got to the DHL office and found out that it would cost us $85 to get our goodies home. Hmmmmm. After more walking and some creative packing, we found the central post office and figured out a way to send it home for $10. Better.

Walked in a daze through the rest of old town and got groceries and picked up our bags and climbed on our bus for the 14 overnight trip to Krakow. We had been dreading the trip and it was pretty much as awful as we had expected. The two biggest issues were probably the fact that the seats were sooo small and the fact that in the middle of the night the air conditioning must have been turned off so we couldn't sleep/couldn't breathe/felt sick. And that was after they had subjected us to Meet the Fockers and Night at the Roxbury!!!! (dubbed in Lithuanian...even better) Eventually someone opened the roof vent and things got a little better so we got a few hours of sleep (probably about 3 hours total?) broken up by a 45 minute stop at 3:30 am at a McDonalds somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Poland.

Arrived in Krakow at 5:45 am, and managed to negotiate our way to the train station, find an ATM, and push our way onto a bus for Zakopane that left about 6:15 . 2.5 hours of a beautiful drive and full Brian crank/crash mode later, we were dropped off in Zakopane. Brian will cover all this in the next entry..

Becca

A couple more funny stories from Nida before we go:

1) As you will have picked up by now, we have managed to book ourselves into places that require long (mile plus) walks from the bus/train stations with our packs. (Of course most of these places tell you how to get there (and recommend) by tram/bus/taxi/etc., but we're a) too cheap, b) too stubborn/proud and c) enjoy walking too much to ever take that advice. Anyway, we arrived in Nida and we're trying to figure out how to find our rented flat. The joy on Brian's face was a sight to see when he realized we were across the street and over one house from the bus station. Saying that he was giddy would probably be putting it too mildly. The location ended up being super convenient and nice (albeit a little louder than we would like) and certainly made a nice change from our average commute (which we promptly got back to again in Vilnius)

2) Our clothes were getting pretty nasty by the time we got to Nida and needed more than just sink washing (plus the water stunk of sulpher and was kinda brown, so I wasn't super keen on trying to wash clothes in it). So when we got going on our first morning, we took a big bag to the (only) laundromat. It's not self-service, it's the kind where you leave it with them and then come pick it up all folded. We hadn't really prepared for that, and so were a little dazed (and feeling a little silly) when we walked out of the place 5 minutes later with no clothes and a receipt that said it wouldn't be ready until after 5 pm the NEXT day. All of a sudden we found ourselves with pretty much no clothes but those on us at the moment. It actually was a good thing that it rained most of that next 24 hours, as all we had were pants and long-sleeved shirts. It really was a helpless feeling to know that if anything happened we would have nothing clothes-wise, so we were pretty happy to get them all back (clean smelling!!!) the next evening.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Thank you, Nida

With somewhat of a heavy heart we leave Nida in a couple of hours. This has just been a tremendous place. We are so grateful to Danielle and Ryan for sharing one of their favorite places from their world tour and urging us to come here. We can wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody else.

What makes Nida so special? See...here's the deal. All you who know us know that we are a Type A personality married to a Type A plus personality (I'll leave it to all of you to decide who is who..... (though honestly, I personally believe we take turns)). Relaxation is not one of the things we're good it. We constantly have to organize and plan. I know that many of you have been wondering whether or not we'd be able to be spontaneous enough for this trip. And it is a tough road to walk at times...you don't want to be so regimented that you can't act on new opportunities and ideas, on the other hand, at least in July and August if you don't do some planning ahead you will find that buses and trains no longer have seats and that there are no rooms to sleep in.

More to the point for us, we've really struggled with the fact that (especially in northern europe), living (and sleeping!) is expensive, so you feel like you can only be in a town a limited amount of time and that you need to use that time productively to see all the things you're supposed to do. We've worked hard to feel like sitting in a park reading a book is an okay use of time...and we don't always succeed.

So I guess that's one of the reasons I like it here so much (aside from the fact that it's so gosh darn pretty). This is the first time in almost more time than I can remember that I have felt totally relaxed. We have walked, and biked and explored, but we have also slept in and read and relaxed and lounged. And we have felt good about all of it. And for that, I'm very grateful. I'll try hard not to lose that as we continue...

A couple more closing thoughts:

1) we are total cribbage fiends. we starting playing with each other a bunch after Lori started organizing game nights back in Portland at the Lucky Lab (we think she was just trying to lure Jon in..) and it's been a common social thing for us to do with each other back home in MN. But we've really gone crazy with it here. We play on buses, on trains, at bars, at restaurants, and now, on beaches. We play sets to 7 games, and while Brian is killing me 4 sets to 1, he's only beating me on games 33 to 32. I just have to get better at that endgame!

2) Of course, after 4.5 days of the sky looking like this, and of downpours that even Noah would have had trouble with, we woke up on our last day to beautiful sunny skies. We took advantage of that for a last dune trek (and fun) and will leave with sunny memories. I'm not bitter though, because we always found enough dry (if not sunny) skies each day to do something, be it a hike or walk or bike ride.

3) Finding out after you have purchased canned foods that your new flat doesn't have a can opener can be a bit of a challenge, but not if you're willing to be creative. Despite the a few touchy moments, we got the can open, Brian kept all his fingers, and we decided that probably wasn't the best way to attempt this in the future.

4) One of the things that make the area so pretty, is just the traditional houses. They often are colorfully painted, and have all sorts of detailed woodwork. Other examples: 1, 2

Off to Poland via Vilnius now...

Hugs to all

Becca

Sunday, July 24, 2005

More Random Notes from Nida

Just some quick thoughts before Becca and I go out to spend the afternoon here out exploring the beaches and dunes one last time...

- Evidently the torrential downpours we've received every morning we've been here aren't normal. Thank goodness; it's been bizarre to be trapped inside the house every morning only to have the sky clear up and have beautiful weather right around lunchtime. Certainly has made our schedule pretty basic; get up, have breakfast, do some reading/trip planning/internetas, have lunch, spend afternoon/early evening exploring (including Becca doing 40km yesterday on a old school granny bike), have dinner, go to bed.

- Because of the rain, we've been tempted by the TV in our room, hoping to catch part of the Tour de France. Instead we get four channels, three of which show Lithuanian dubbed Spanish soap operas all day (with the occasional Baywatch thrown in) and classy movies, such as these (1, 2, 3) in addition to a wonderful number of badly done US TV Movies. What did the Lithuanian people ever do to deserve this?

- And what of the fourth channel you ask? It's the Lithuanian National Channel. Basic national programming except that right now they're showing the European Youth Athletics Championships. All of it. Ok except for when you're making dinner and they're showing 40 minutes of the race walkers . (Dad, you'll be happy to know they showed the men's javelin in its entirety...)

- On a much less flippant note, the natural beauty of Nida and the Curonian Spit is amazing. The hikes and bike rides we've taken around the area just continue to amaze us. On Friday evening we took a hike up the biggest dune closest to Nida. We were able to just wander around in a certain area (or run around) and after about five minutes, you were surrounded by nothing but sand and silence. You know how silence itself can be noise? That's what I felt in this area. Give me some food and a good book and I could be up here or here all day. Just amazing. A lot more to write about how they were able to build the dunes back up over time, but I'll leave that for Professor Rebecca :-)

- Two last pics for everyone. The first is not native to Nida. The second... well feel free to leave you own thoughts in the comments section...

Brian

Hungry?

We forgot to post about one of the most interesting things from Riga. Just behind the bus station, the city holds its gigantic central market in and around a number of fomer blimp/dirrigible hangers. Inside they have permanent booths set up and then merchants come in and set up their wares. There's one entirely for fish (very reminiscent of Pike Street Market), one for fruits/veggies, a couple for meat, and then a 3-4 that seemed to be mixed. Then all around outside there are stands selling fruits and veggies and clothing and CDs, etc. It's pretty overwhelming.

We came away with a couple of overall impressions.

1) We were astounded at the redunancy of the things being offered. Instead of 20 meat stands selling different cuts, they were all selling the same things, including a couple of parts of pigs that we don't normally see and your choice of organs. Same thing with the 15 fish places and the more than 50 produce places. We had 50 choices of where to buy blueberries, or tomatoes..

2) So that made us think a couple of things: a) it was clear what the local and available produce and products were and what had to be imported from farther (we only found grapes in one stand). Also, despite the fact that there were huge crowds, we had to wonder about the turn rate of the food. If I can buy liver at 14 different spots, how old do you think the liver gets before someone buys it? And how cool is it really kept in these cases? (I wasn't quick enough to catch the picture of someone wheeling a half a pig (comeplete with head, etc) in a wheelbarrel across the floor....I felt like I had my Mom on one shoulder and my neighbor John on the other both counseling me that maybe we would be vegitarians for this market trip....

3) It was a great view into everyday life of these eastern europeans. People brought containers from home to buy amounts of jam, and there was a long line for what must have been the best dairy place to buy milk that was ladled into whatever people brought for containers, including plastic bags! Plus there were little cafes, or places selling amazing looking cakes for not very much money (Brian needed to drag me away from those) or other prepared foods. We ended up buying some delicious meat-filled and cheese-filled blintzes for our picnic lunch.

4) Since I have no idea what I want to do when I get back, I might consider a second (or is it third by now?) career as a spy. I didn't want to be obnoxious taking all these pictures of the food, so I got very good at having the camera on, then casually holding it down along my leg, walking by the display case, and taking the shot while looking the other way. Spy vs. Spy has nothing on me!

Mostly, we really enjoyed this slice of Latvian life, though it was a little overwhelming at times (and we had to get good at dodging and weaving or we would be run over by the crowd).

Becca

Friday, July 22, 2005

Quick Update from Nida...

Since we've evidently hit Nida at the same time as a massive storm of some sort (we woke up to the local folks cutting down a large tree across the street from us this morning) so we're spending some time away from the beach and updating the site.

Why does this matter to you, oh faithful reader? More pictures of course! Previous blog entries without pictures now have them plus you can always check them all out in flickr.

In the meantime, this is what happens when you pay the two krooni fee at the WC in Kuressare, Estonia...

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Klaipeda...

Just a quick stop in Klaipeda on our way to Nida. Our bus didn't get in until 9:30 at night and looking at the map, we realized that the bus station was a ways from old town and that our hotel was out of old town the opposite direction (for those keeping track, this is the third out of the past 4 places where we have managed to arrange that). Oh well....it's good exercise and keeps us from being tempted to try and squeeze more in our packs. With some help from some friendly Lithuanians (who already seem to be more outgoing than the Latvians or Estonians), we did make our way to the Hotel Aribe, which turned out to be a very nice little hotel. For a reasonable price, we got a small, nice room with toilet/shower and tv, with towels folded like flowers on the bed, very friendly staff (though little english speaking), and a nice breakfast, which thrilled me by adding some cooked to order food to the usual toast, meat, cheese choices. We would certainly recommend it to anybody who was travelling to Nida and needed to spend the night on the way.

I was also recovering from casualty number two of the trip. With a couple hours to burn in Riga in between the bus from Sigulda and the bus to Klaipeda, we were doing some errands like checking email, buying groceries, and searching for some english language books to read. We were running to make a light and I missed a particularly sticking up cobblestone and took a header. Luckily many years of being clumsy (and two broken wrists) have taught me to roll rather than try and break my fall with my hands, so I escaped with only some scrapes and bruises and wounded pride. (And no Lincoln, no pictures of that either. )

The next morning in Klaipeda we walked 30 minutes to find a Eurolines (the bus company) office to try and get tickets from Vilnius, Lithuania to Krakow, Poland. The bus only runs 3 times/week and we were afriad that if we waited until we arrived in Vilnius it would be full. I'll write a whole separate entry soon about bus travel in Eastern Europe. It's been an experience.

Klaipeda seems like a nice town to wander a little in, but we were on a mission. After having to find the new temporary location for the ferry across the harbor (because the usual harbor were full of yachts particpipating in this), we did the 7 minute crossing to the Spit and got on the bus to Nida.

More on that in a couple of days......

becca

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Latvia's Switzerland

No, not tasty cheese, huge mountains and dubious financial accounts...

After leaving Riga, we took the "bus" (more like a converted minivan with about 10 more people on it than seats) to Sigulda, Latvia. It was nice to visit the "Switzerland of Latvia" and get away from the so-so location of Riga. For me especially certain parts of Riga were nice but there was just way too many strip clubs and gambling establishments and general unsavoryness hovering just on the perimeter of Old Town to get real excited about the overall quality of the town. (Becca's take: Surprisingly, I actually liked Riga better than Tallin despite the strip clubs, etc. Though the old town is no where near as preserved or complete as Tallin's it just seemed to have more energy and vitality.)

Anywho, back to Sigulda. It was a nice getaway location for two and a half days as we spent the time out hiking the various hills (including one that included a stairwell that was 456 steps high!) and exploring the various historical locations along the paths (more on that shortly). Both days included hikes of at least 20k and left us hungry for the tasty pizzeria we found in town. (thanks for the recommendation, D&R!)

Sightseeing highlights included visting the Gutmanis Cave, the largest cave in the Baltics and home of quite a few pieces of folklore. The particularily impressive part was seeing all the family shields and initials carved into the cave from as far back as the early 1700's (though then seeing the JD loves RT on the same wall lost some of the effect). The spring water is also known for curing wrinkles. Becca decided to splash some on both of us; we'll let you know if it works in about 20 years; now only if there was some magical tonic to get rid of gray hairs...

The other two highlights were two very different set of castle ruins, both across the Gauja River Valley from one another. The first we visited was the Sigulda Castle Ruins. Built by German Crusaders in the early 1200's, these stood as a barrier against the Teutonic invaders until it was destroyed during the Great Northern War. It was amazing to see ruins that had been untouched (save for some basic preservation work) for over three hundred years. Quite impressive to see also what parts of the castle had survived and what had not over the 800 plus years of existence.

From there we moved on to the Turaida Museum Reserve, which included the Turaida Castle (built as a fortification for the Gauja River Valley) and a variety of other historical buildings. This was quite a contrast to the Sigulda Castle Ruins as the Turaida Castle has been rebuilt (or in many cases just built upon the old ruins) which loses quite a bit of his historical impressiveness. Much like Riga's Old Town, it's hard to get as excited about places that have historical importance when much of the historical presence there has now either disappeared or has been built over. As the link above describes, it is much more impressive from a distance than up close.

We even found some time during the trip to Sigulda to have an actual "nice" dinner. Upon arriving and hiking about a mile (thank goodness for reasonable sized bags!) to our hotel (Hotel Aparjods), Becca and I both crashed out (it had been pretty hot) and found ourselves spending the latter part of the afternoon watching the german feed of the Tour de France after which point it was dinner time and neither of us felt particularily inspired to head to town. So we cleaned ourselves up, put on our Sunday Best (which is the same as every other day) and went to the nice restaurant at the hotel where we split a bottle of wine and I had a tasty Elk dish that was a local delicacy. (Becca had decided it had been about a month since she had had a 'real' sit-down meal and wanted to feel like a grown up again. The hotel was nice, but smaller than you expected and in a random location behind a strip mall. Since it was 1.5 km to the town (with groceries and pizzeria) and about 3 km to the trail heads, we got lots of extra exercise.

We're off via bus to Klaipeda, Lithuania and then via ferry and bus to five days here.

Jealousy may commence in three, two, one...

Brian

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Sell! Sell! Sell!

No stock advice here. Just a few links to some quality advertisements we saw in Sweden. Hope to add some more along the way...

a sign outside a Stockholm Travel Agency

Doesn't everyone love bottoms?

Wonder what the Swedish word is for ye royal tourist trap?

Important things to know to survive here.

Reminder! We are posting multiple posts at a time so make sure and scroll down and see if you've missed anything new!

Riga!

(Pictures to come)

We've had a nice overnight stay in Riga, Latvia. The capital of Latvia, it is an interesting mix of the Old Town (most of which is 800 years old) and the new town, which is straight out of the urban development playbook of some US suburb. We spent the evening wandering the Old Town admiring the Art Noveau architecture prevalient throughout the old city. We were quite impressed with the town hall and Riga's 14th century House of the Blackheads.

Impressed of course until we found out that both had been competely rebuild about 4 years ago and were far enough away from the previous plans that UNESCO threatened to pull their World Heritage Site designation. Evidently the citizens of Riga weren't to happy with the "inspired" redesign as well. Seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the town though. Somewhere where hundreds of years of history is butting heads with the explosion of modern commerce. And unlike a lot of countries, it seems that Latvia is torn between the two and it will be interesting to see in the future what direction the city goes.

Not much else to say other than Becca put the kibosh on us spending the afternoon at this to head out to Segulda. For those of you rusty with your Latvian, it says that the European World's Strongest Man Competition is on in Riga this weekend. Oh well, I guess we'll be too busy storming the castles of Segulda ;-)

We stayed at Elizabeth's Youth Hostel, right by the train station. It ended up being significantly cleaner and nicer inside than the walk to the building and through the building to the hostel door led us to expect. They didn't have any doubles left, so we got beds in a room with eight. Happily, this hostel had coed dorm rooms so we at least got to be in bunk beds in the same room. Staying here reminded us of all the things we like and don't like about hostels. It was really nice to have people to talk to again. Most of the places we've been at have been hotels or other situations where there are no common rooms or opportunity to interact with others. Here we got to talk to four guys from the Basque country in France and then got all kinds of trip advice from two guys from England who were making our trip in reverse. We miss interaction with others, so we really need to keep finding places like this. However, it is nice having a room to yourself and not having to worry about the security of your stuff or what time the others will go to bed or get up or how much noise they will make. It actually wasn't too bad here, though our roomates came back after 3 am...they were pretty quiet. So I think our preference will be hostels with doubles. That gives us something less expensive, often with a common room to talk to others and a kitchen to make food in (something else we're coming to really value), but we still have our privacy and often a toilet and shower in our room.

That's pretty much heaven for us at this point. Interesting how things change on the road...

A Little Island R&R

After the craziness of Stockholm and hitting Estonia running in Tallin, we decided to spend a few days away from the city in Kuressare, Estonia. Kuressare is located on the island of Saaremaa, considered by many to be an untouched (by Soviet influence back in the day) part of Estonia.

We spent our three days sleeping in, walking around the cute town (only about 14,000 people live in Kuressare), renting bikes and exploring the outdoors (they have an amazing nature preserve and evidently it's quite the spot for bird watching) and just soaking in normal day to day life in Estonia. We also were lucky enough to stay at the Piibelehe Puhkemaja, a holiday home run by Aime and Viljar. (Thanks again to Danielle and Ryan for the recommendation)We lived the high life with a junior suite (still only about 40 euros/night) which had it's own porch and cooking area. As a result, evenings were spent cooking up cheap dinners, playing cribbage and watching the night slowly take hold. Like this. (We did have our first casualty here. Becca woke up the first morning with her right eye swollen shut. Brian was just grateful that it wasn't black and blue, so she couldn't blame it on him. Never did figure out what bit her or what happened, but we spent the first morning icing it and waiting for the antihystimines to take effect so that she could see enough to go exploring)

No real amazing pictures or highlights; just a few days spent relaxing and just kicking back enjoying Estonia and it's people. Well I guess the only highlight was the SWAT team worthy moves Brian had to make to ditch a bee stalking him during our bike day. No pictures of that unfortunately...

Next is a 6 hour bus ride to Latvia's capital of Riga for an overnight stay and then on to Segulda, Latvia for a few days of hiking in Latvia's castle country.

Monday, July 11, 2005

And they say the Swedes are leggy...

From the politically incorrect desk (aka some internet/gaming facility with house techno blasting along while 20ish Estonians play shoot-em-up games) of Brian Davis.

You always hear how Swedes are the be all and end all of genetic engineering. After 30+ hours in Estonia I'd have to beg to differ. We saw plenty of attractive Swedes in Stockholm but the women here in Estonia have LONG legs. The Daisy Dukes/short skirts obviously help accentuate the look but it's like all Estonian women were hung upside down from birth or something.

Both Becca and I feel like dirty old curmudgeons but we've lost count on how many times we've just done the double-take as a local walks by.

And for you dirty men out there... no pics for you!

Brian

(ed. note from Becca: this is not just Brian letting his hormones talk for him. The women have UNBELIEVABLY long legs here, and since you can see pretty much all of them (since the shorts/skirts are so short) they look even longer. Definitely some nice (or at least interesting) scenery)

Tallinn

In Eastern Europe at last. In some ways, it doesn't feel much different but in others it's very clear. One of those latter ways is probably just the Russian influence here and the slavic features in a lot of faces.

We spent two days in Tallin and it was a good introduction to the region for us as well as a needed chance to organize and actually plan ahead a little (something we hadn't been able to do up to this point).

The ferry from Stockholm arrived about 11, and after mastering the art of buying and using a phone card, we were off to our hotel. Danielle and Ryan had recommended it to us (much of our itinerary and lodging for the next few weeks will be based on their recommmendations and experiences here a month or so ago. Thanks again R&D!!!!) though they warned that the website made it look nicer than it was. No kidding. The website showed a fancily dressed doorman ushering you inside. Actually, the hotel itself is through a regular door off a grungy hall on the third floor of a soviet looking office building. Though once you get onto the floor it's clean and nice and our room is large and clean and very crisply Scandanavian looking. (Brian points out that instead of a doorman or porter bringing you to your room, we had the drunk Finn trying to get into our room for 10 minutes, convinced that it was his room despite the fact that the key didn't work and in the door said a different number than his key. Brian finally convinced him of his error and sent him toddling unsteadily back down the hall)

We spent the afternoon making a walking tour of Tallin's old town, evidently the most historically accurate medieval town in Northern Europe. We enjoyed exploring and really getting the feel of a medieval town. One of the things that helped that feel was the fact that most of the folks working in the service/tourist industry were dressed in various medieval/renaissance/old costumes. I couldn't decide it that was too precious and touristry or whether it was a nice touch. It had the most impact in the town hall square, where there was a bustling market set up, complete with old fashioned craftsmen (potters, fortune tellers, blacksmiths, etc) among the stalls for old-looking souvenirs. In the background there was live costumed folks singing. It definitley created an atmosphere.

For the rest of the time, however, we focused on planning our movements for the next two-three weeks, trying to make hotel and bus reservations and also updating the website. Hopefully that'll give you all a lot to read while we're off having all the fun.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

A Night to Remember

(PICS ARE HERE!)

While in Stockholm, we made the decision to skip Finland and go directly to Tallin, Estonia. Nothing against the Finns; we just decided we wanted to get the Eastern European leg of our trip started post haste (and we had used up extra time in the fjords).

To get there, we had to take a 17 hour boat ride upon the Regina Baltica, a ferry/cruise ship. This is a huge business here, with two huge fancy ships going between Stockholm and Helsinki and then another set of ships going between Stockholm and Tallin. Tallink, the company that runs that route had one boat that matches the Helsinki boat for luxury and then a much, much older one. Given our budget, you can guess which one we chose.

Since we were trying to book cabins two days ahead of time on a weekend, we had to get a lot more expensive cabins than we had wanted (more bread and water for dinner!), but even then, they were steerage class. But more about that later.

Of course getting to the boat itself was the hardest part. We took the metro out to the dock only to find out that we'd gotten off at the wrong dock. Given the fact that we had about 15 minutes before boarding concluded (they shut it down 30 minutes before leaving), we were a little worried. After Becca stopped two separate cars in the middle of the street and got conflicting directions, we happened upon a stroke of good luck. She flagged down a taxi and uttered the magic words "How much would you charge to get us to the Tallink boat on time?" The taxi was off and running. The taxi driver, taking great pity on the two wayward backpackers, gave us the 5 min ride free of charge. We made sure to tip her well and then we were safely aboard the boat.

The boat trip itself was quite an adventure. First of all, Becca discovered that she must have watched Titanic too many times, as she had a total irrational fear for most of the trip (I bet none of you who know her can possibly imagine that). Of couse, this wasn't helped by the location of our cabin.

We were on the first (that is, BOTTOM) deck. That would be under the three levels of cars (as this cruise ship is also a ferry), under the water line, and down in an area where you had to push a button to release the airlocks between compartments (as that is how the ship contains water to avoid sinking in case of accident...unless of course you are the Titanic)

Our cabin itself was probably slightly better than standard issue submarine quarters (we'll have to check with Earl on that). Let's just say that one of us had to stay in the bunk if the other one was up. On the plus side, for the first time in a month we didn't have the problem of light keeping us awake all night, and got a good long night's sleep.

The cruise itself was remarkably uneventful. Though Mogens had helped me get some seasickness patches from a Danish pharmacy and I had duly put one on, the sea really was like glass all the way across the Baltic. The first 4 hours of the trip were the best... For that entire time we were sailing through the Swedish archipeligo (another thing I didn't know about Sweden before this trip.)...just hundreds of small and medium islands with forests and some houses or small communities and occasional harbors. We sat on deck, ate our picnic, and watched the sun set behind the islands. Pretty perfect.

The sun set just as we reached open water, so we went inside to play a couple games of cribbage then crashed for the night. After a long night's sleep, we woke up in time to eat our breakfast on deck and watch Estonia glide by. The trip was capped by a picture perfect parallel parking job by our captain as we entered Tallin's harbor. Pretty impressive.

On to Estonia!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Stockholm

We sadly said goodbye to Balestrand and the fjords and then spent the next 23 hours getting to Stockholm. It felt a little like planes, trains and automobiles, even though it was just boat, train, train and more trains.

We almost didn't come to Stockholm, as we were trying to figure out how to go cheer on Michael and Jannie at the Euro Championships. However the logistics to get down to Rostock were even uglier from the fjords than getting to Stockholm. While we were really disappointed not to be able to spend more time with them and to get to watch them play (especially as Michael's team ended up with Denmark's best ever finish, losing to Clapham, England in the finals. Tilykke, tiklykke! Runner's up across Europe, not bad at all!), we are really glad that we made it to Stockholm.

We had heard that it was a pretty city and that there were a lot of islands, but we really hadn't pictured it correctly at all and had no idea of how nice it was or how much we'd like it. The city is built over a series of islands -- some big, some small -- with canals cutting between them all and bridges across some of them (with ferries going across others). It's kind of like Venice except on a much bigger scale.

The city was a great mix of things to see and enjoy. One of the islands is the old town, with the palace and narrow streets and museums and cobblestones and cafes that you would want to see. Another couple islands are mostly parks and greenspace and museums, some of the others then have the downtown and business and shopping, etc.

We thought it was a great combination of cosmopolitan city and outdoorsy park. We probably wouldn't feel this way visiting in the winter, but in the summer it looked like a place we would enjoy living. Strolling around the city parks and island parks, we passed group after group picnicking, enjoying strawberries and a glass of wine, or beer and a game of boules. In addition to Boules, the other similar game that we saw being played everywhere was called Kubb, and involved knocking down wooden blockes instead of trying to get metal balls close to a target.

It was the first time on the trip that I felt a little lonely or isolated from people, because we so much wanted to be part of a group enjoying the fine evening with friends, drink and games.

We also noted that like Amsterdam, there was a lot of cruising on boats being done after work.

While we visited some sights, we mostly enjoyed walking around. The two touristy things that stood out the most, however, were the Vasa Museum and the changing of the guard.

The Vasa was a 17th century warship that was one of the greatest war flops of Swedish history. Built to be the crown jewel in the war against Poland, it tipped over and sank in a light breeze 20 minutes into its first sail. (It didn't even make it out of the harbor). 350 years later it was rediscovered and salvaged. (The story on that is fascinating). Because of the water temp and low salinity levels, it was extremely well preserved. So it's a great opportunity to imagine yourself back in the 1600s. You see the ship and how ridiculously (it seems to us) top heavy it was and how little ballast it had and you can't believe that this didn't happen more frequently. We highly recommend visiting the museum and seeing the film, taking a tour, and then wandering to explore all the details yourself.

The other thing we liked the most was the changing of the guard. For this we again have to give Mr. Steves a pat on the back. Normally changing of the guards are not things we make much of an effort to see. You usually have throng of tourists all packed around a guard stand where one or a couple of soldiers approach another and they switch out. It's cool, but not that exciting. Well, Rick made enough of a big deal about this one that we decided to check it out. We're really glad we did.

First of all, we liked it because it's an actual CHANGING of the guard. The guard duty switches out between one company, that are sort of the permanent palace guards, and regiments from all over Sweden who get the honor of doing it for (a couple of days? a week?). So you have one company in one color and uniform changing out with another in a different color and uniform.

It starts down by the harbor, where a marching band (navy) leads the company down the middle of the city streets about 15 minutes up to the palace. It has the feel (to us) of a special occasion or parade (since they're stopping traffic, etc) but it happens every day. There's something kind of cool about this traditional march happening in the middle of modern traffic.

Once they reach the courtyard (and the throngs and throngs of tourists) there is a lot of marching, and then an involved ceremony where the flag is handed from one regiment to the other, and the guards at each station are switched, and there is a little bit of crowd pleasing, giggle-inducing running as part of it, and lots of commands and intricate alignments. Then in the middle, once the second company has taken over, you get a full marching band performance from the band, then after that you have the original company being led back out.

All in all, a worthwhile things to go see.

The other cool things about Stockholm for us was the chance to broaden our ultimate connections. One of Brian's WashU teammates had played in Stockholm, and he hooked us up with Andreas Dimberg, one of his teammates there. Andreas was great. He opened up his home to us, showed us around, and took us out with his friends -- giving us a much better look at Swedish life. So another Tak to him...and to ultimate for creating such a cool network of people around the globe.

(I haven't had time to link pics yet. But if you go to the Stockholm tag in flickr, you can browse. One warning: there are a lot of not so good pics there...we haven't culled them down yet or tried to put good explanations on them)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Trying hard not to be the ugly American

Some thoughts from the less-hair-covered head of Brian:

As someone who is a rookie to travel in non-English speaking countries (not counting the Canucks of course), it has been very interesting for me as I try to adjust to different cultural behaviors and do my best to fit in during the first month of our trip. It has been a very up and down experience. Certainly in areas where we've been longer (or the language is easier to pick up such as French in Belgium) it has been easier while places where the language is more difficult (Estonia for instance) it's been a frustrating experience of trying to play along while not just blurting everything out in loud English like most US travelers.

I've been hit and miss on using the local language; for places where we're only there 2-3 days it tough to pick enough up to be functional before you head out the door. I have a feeling that once we hit countries for a longer time there will be more motivation to learn enough to at least order a sandwich for lunch or ask how much a coke is. Even in a 2-3 day period though it's amazing how many written words you can pick up when you're just walking the towns and you know what certain words are supposed to mean (ex. streets, hours listed on business, sales, etc.). The motivation factor is also directly tied into the difficult of the language. The Scandanvian/Nordic languages are a lot more difficult as it seems like my speech is best suited for the loose nasally words much more available in French and Spain.

The other big issue has been the English factor. Since almost everyone in the countries we have visited are at least bilingual (with English as their 2nd language) it has been hard at times to get motivated to learn the native words (esp. when they want to show off their English for you). It certainly makes it nicer as someone visiting but it also makes me uncomfortable. As Americans we expect people to speak our language when they visit; why can't we make the effort to do the same in their country?

The language issue hasn't been all doom and gloom though. There are the rare moments when I've been able to put together a sentence or two to order something, ask for something, etc. that 1) shocks whoever I'm talking to and 2) seems to produce an actual appreciation for the effort. Of course it can sometimes get myself in trouble as well. I was buying some yogurt at the Stockholm train station. I got almost the entire way through the conversation and was about to get the change before the clerk asked me a question. And asked me again. As a result, I had to stand there with a blank stare and finally admit my Swedish wasn't so good. She then breaks out a smile and says in English: "I was only asking you if you wanted spoons for your yogurt". An ashamed look and a Swedish thanks later and I was off knowing that I'd tried but again didn't quite make the grade.

Overall it has been difficult but I'd give myself a B in my efforts. I certainly haven't been assimilating seamlessly in each country but I also haven't been one of those people wondering "why they don't do it our way", asking the Brits why they just don't expand their highways to deal with their congestion problems or wondering where the local McDonald's is in a slow extremely loud voice.

By the way, you will never miss the McD's. Those suckers are in prominent locations in each city (though the McCafes with the wicker chairs and stylish Swedish-style tables in Stockholm gave me a double take as it's a direct conflict: fast food jammed into the relaxed cafe culture).

Just my two cents away from the day to day adventures.

Rules of the road

Rules of the road
Rules of the road,
originally uploaded by beccabrian.
Something we've learned already....

If the tour buses are going one way, you'll find us exploring the other way.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Billy-Goating Fjord Style

One of the things we really, really wanted to do in the fjords was hike. We both love hiking, love the outdoors, and had heard good things about the hikes here. Plus, on a practical side, we need to get some hiking practice in. Our plan is to do some serious hikes in the Alps, and we need to do some conditioning before that. Especially for me (Becca), this is important. Those who know me well know that I currently am far from my normal level of conditioning or athleticness and I'm still recovering from my double foot (feet?) surgery in April.

Anyway, we discovered some things about hiking in fjords versus just about anywhere else we've ever hiked. Namely: there's no where to go but straight up. Even in the Alps or Rockies your path goes up, but it also has down parts or straight parts in between. Here it just goes straight up, and there really aren't many switchbacks on the trails (which you also see a lot of in the Alps). You just kind of billy-goat your way up. On the other hand, you get some great views!

On our first hike, I think we climbed about400 meters (a little over 1,300 feet) up in the first hour or hour and a half. Brian kept checking my pulse when we stopped for water or to enjoy the view (or gasp for breath). I was going about 180 bpm, so it was definitely some good exercise. It's pretty much like using nature's stairmaster for an hour plus on high. This hike started up above the town and climbed to a nice view point (Panorama from right to left of fjord and Balestrand 1, 2, 3, 4). At that point you had a choice. Continue up to the peak up and over a ridge that required some technical skill and had a lot of warnings about sheer dropoffs or continue up a little more into the forest, and then come back down. We decided that discretion was the better part of valour on tired legs and chose Plan B.

Down of course was just as steep as up (so we hated it even more) but for a part of it at least, we went through a way cool forest with a mossy ground cover. Once we got 2/3 of the way down we wanted to add to the hike, so we detoured on to 2/3 of another hike, which was easier (it stayed pretty flat with some minor ups and downs) but added another 4-5 km.

All in all, not a bad first effort!

We took the next day off to let our legs recover a little and did the ferry trip down another fjord arm (see "and we only bought one...")

Our second hike started from the town directly opposite Balestrand on a small fjord arm. (picture a really thin elongated U with the two towns on either end. It was silly, it felt so close that you could just swim it (it probably was only about a few hundred meters), but you had to go all the way around the U. Not trusting ourselves to rent a boat and paddle over, we caught the bus.

Right when we started we found a fantastic secluded little spot and just sat and enjoyed the view for a half hour or so. (See...we are getting better at relaxing). We watched the ferry we had been on the day before head around the corner from Balestrand and off down the Fjaerland fjord.

Then we got going again. This hike didn't seem quite as insane (in terms of steepness of the grade), but it was still steep and we actually went higher, probably more than 600 meters (approximately 2,000 feet) up. The views along the way were incredible (here are some from our lunch stop: 1, 2, 3,) and gave us a good sense of where Balestrand sat in relation to the rest of the nearby Sognefjord.

We also were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the rare wild Norwegian sheep. . Actually, there was high entertainment value in watching Brian try to get close to them while clearly being fairly terrified that they were going to charge him.

Again, this hike had an option to continue up to a point where technical climbing ability was recommended, so again, we went until my legs finally started cramping and then again had the fun (not!) task of going back straight down. Really, really not our favorite part. Still, we were fairly proud and pumped up and tired when we got back down.

After a brief rest by the edge of the fjord we went back up to catch the bus. Slight problem. No bus. We don't know whether Becca read the schedule wrong (very possible), the bus missed the ferry to get to this spot (also possible) or they changed the schedule just b/c they had to get home to pick up the kids (highly possible in this small of a community), but it meant we had three options to get back to Balestrand: swim, steal a boat, or walk the 5 miles back around the fjord. While walking 5 miles on a 1.5 lane road with light, but still occasionally large, traffic didn't sound like a great idea at 5 pm after a killer hike, it turned out to be a wonderfully serendipitous occasion. The scenery was amazing, it was very peaceful (except when the large trucks went by), we got up close and personal to a lot of scenary we would have otherwise missed, we met Etienne (mentioned in a previous post) and as we finished walking up into Balestrand with the sunset behind the town, we thought it was a perfect farewell to a wonderful place.

Monday, July 04, 2005

And we only bought one...

In between hikes in Balestrand, we took the ferry out to the Fjaerland fjord, home of the Jostedal glacier (the glacier is one the far left and the right middle). The Jostedal glacier is the largest in Europe and from a distance it was quite an impressive sight. We decided not to take the tour up to it (mainly b/c the tour only allowed 15-20 minutes at the actual glacier itself though having the cost equal 2x what we paid for the ferry over didn't help). The ferry ride was enough for us anyway, it was wonderfully relaxing to be sitting watching the views as we slowly (especially compared to the express boats) glided by waterfalls, and little hamlets on the shoreline dwarfed by the mountains, and huge cliff faces.

Instead we explored the town of Fjaerland (aka Mundial) and it's 2.5 miles of books (nested in bookshelves in nooks and crannies of 30+ used bookstores). I'd hate to be the person who had to measure that but they weren't kidding. Here's the map of all the stores in town. Needless to say this town's calling card as Norway's "Book Town" is well deserved. Becca managed to drag Brian away from the used book stores enough to go for a walk to the end of this fjord arm and back, meeting up with the rest of the crowd coming back from the glacier tour at the ferry.

As the title of the post hinted though, thankfully we're packing light. Despite the heavy amount of Swedish titles, we definitely found more than enough books to keep us busy for the rest of the trip. As it was, it was one so-so paperback for Becca and back onto the boat to Balestrand!

During the trip home the weather clouded up and gave us much different views of the same awesome scenery, and scenery.

PS Becca highly recommends you DO NOT read this book . Her quote was something along the lines of "this isn't going to even set the Irish literary world on fire"

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Bliss in Balestrand

So we've really got to hand it to Rick Steves. We would never have known about Balestrand with out his suggesting it (our Danish and Norwegian friends hadn't heard of it). And it was EXACTLY the type of place that we want to spend time in.

As we mentioned in our previous post, we got away from the Norway in a Nutshell crowds (of which there were many!) on his advice and made tracks to Balestrand. Balestrand is a little fjordside village (pop 1,850) on the Sognefjord that feels light years away from the crowds (click on this link just to see the fantastic photo of the town it opens with before it turns into the hotel's website. Rick Steves highly recommends this hotel for any of you thinking of visiting..it just didn't fit our budget). You can walk from one end of the main town in less than 5 minutes.

We couldn't afford either of the hotels in the town, but we happily got rooms at one of the hostels, the Kringsja Vanderhjem. One of the nice things we've been discovering in our travels is that in the last 10-20 years, as hostels have evolved from focusing solely on youth travelers to any budget travelers, they have been adding more and more double rooms and family rooms in addition to the traditional dorm-style rooms. So we have been able to get our own room (with it's own toilet/shower) in these places. Granted it's a little more than paying for two beds in the dorm rooms, but it's still usually far less than a hotel room and that way we aren't sleeping in different rooms and worried about our bags, etc.

Anyway, we didn't know what to expect of this hostel. Rick didn't make it sound that great and our Oslo hostel, while perfectly functional, was either previously a bombshelter or the old USSR embassy. Boy were we blown away. We had a large room of our own with big windows opening out to our own balcony overlooking an unbelievable view (gotta show that to you again). Add on a kitchen (good for cooking cheap, if suspect dinners), a generous breakfast (included in the price) and an internet connection in the common room and we were in heaven.

After researching Balestrand, Becca had decided that it sounded so good that she stole a day from the Oslo visit and from the Stockholm visit in order to have 3 full days plus an afternoon and a morning in Balestrand. It was definitely worth it as we filled our time with hikes and excursions (see the next entries). (We ended up giving a day back to Stockholm by stealing it from Finland/Helsinki and just going straight to Estonia...but more on that later)

In short we highly highly recommend this location to anyone looking to experience the beauty of the fjords, to get away from the crowds, to do some glacier hiking/canoing/learning, and who enjoys outdoor activities and reading a book/relaxing in front of unbelievable scenery.

Some more scenes of life in Balestrand: relaxing on the balcony, enjoying a picnic-style dessert, and trying to figure out how to sleep up here near the land of the midnight sun.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Fjord me Seymour!

Excitedly left Oslo for the fjords. We took Rick Steves' advice and went west instead of trying to get up north to the artic circle and all the fjords up and down there.

The train ride between Oslo and Bergen is supposed to be one of the most beautiful (or at least dramatically scenic) in northern Europe. The whole railway is 300 miles long, goes under 18 miles of snow sheds, travels over 300 bridges, and passes through 200 tunnels in just under 7 hours. We rode about 60% of the way.

The countryside just outside of Oslo is very pretty with woods and trees and farms. After about three hours the track starts rising up over Norway's mountainous spine. At this point you see the barren, rocky, windswept heaths and snowmelt lakes existing into rushing rivers and streams. The track reaches the highest train station in Norway at Finse, 1,222 meters above sea level. This place looked COLD, with the snow covering a lot of the town and the lake only partially melted. An amazing thing was then seeing how many houses were out in the wilderness along the way. Especially the ones with outdoor outhouses!

We got off at Myrdal, a high-altitude (2,800 feet) train junction with a platform, little station house and bed and breakfast. That's it. (there aren't any roads to get to it). There we changed onto the train to Flam. This is probably one of the most famous railways in Norway. It goes down from 2800 feet to sea level in 55 minutes, stopping at scenic viewpoints and providing many oohs and ahs. The train represents an amazing engineering feet. It's evidently the steepest train line to use normal guage tracks (not cog wheels, etc) in the world and requires 5 brake systems. It also goes through 20 tunnels (more than 3 miles worth) and at one point does a 360 in a tunnel through a mountain so that the view through windows in the tunnel wall is first on one side of the train and then on the other. You can read more about the flam railway and see more pictures at: http://www.flaamsbana.no/eng/Index.html

One of the sights on the way down is the Kjosfossen waterfall (with over 300 feet of free fall), where legend says a siren lives behind the falls and tries to lure men to the rocks with her singing. We had gotten out of the train with the rest of the passengers and were trying to take pics in the swirling spray without us or the cameras getting too wet when all of a sudden a lovely haunting tune came out from the rocks. Then suddenly a woman with long black hair in a long red dress appeared at the window of a ruined house. She beckoned seductively then disappeared and then another woman appeared almost in the falls and completely covered in spray beckoning alluringly. They traded back and forth for a while (creating the illusion of a magic creature who could move through rock and water. Fairly touristy, but still, a pretty cool effect. We found out later that they had wet suits on under the dresses and were tethered by safety lines and in between trains would go warm up in a lodge. Good thing too...it looked like a pretty extreme job.

At the bottom we had about 30 minutes in Flam before boarding an express boat to Balestrand. Most of our fellow tourists got on another ferry to make a U around through this fjord and another one and then to head back up to the railway. This trip is called Norway in Nutshell and is one of the most famous trips in Norway. We highly recommend it for anybody who only has a day or two from Oslo and wants to experience some of the best of the fjords and maybe get out to Bergen. We would have done that too but we really wanted more time to experience the fjords and to get away from most of the tourists.

So instead of boarding the nutshell boat, we got on our express boat, left flam and the cruise ships behind, and headed farther into the Sognefjord on our way to Balestrand. The Sognefjord is Norway's longest (120 miles) and deepest (1 mile) and provided us with our first glimpses of fjords scenery and scenery and scenery. And btw, for anyone who takes on of these boats: 1) they are actually catamarans, so they are FAST, and 2) that means if you are outside it is WINDY. But they can cover the trip to Balestrand in about 1.5 - 2 hours (depending on which version of the boat you take) instead of probably 5 hours or so on a ferry.

And some people think we're a little crazy

One of the things we value most about this trip is the chance to make random connections with people. While walking between two villages in the Norwegian fjords, we met Etienne Leroux, a South African who was just beginning a three-year odyssey to bike around the world. He had a 15 kg bike and another 16 kg or so of packs (he put our packing light to shame, as he also carried camping and cooking gear and more electronic equipment in not much more volume than us.) and was covering about 100 km or so a day.

This isn't the first long distance trek he's done. He's biked across the middle east, from London to Istanbul, and other such adventures. We really enjoyed talking to him about travel and life philosophy, and look forward to following his adventures on his site. It certainly re-inspired us (not that we were uninspired) to approach this adventure with the right attitude.

And for anyone who is looking for an free and easy way to sleep while travelling around the world? Etienne highly suggests football (soccer to the Yanks) fields. Every town has one and even if they do have a security guard, they are usually more than willing to let you crash for an evening.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Statues and Shrimp Sandwiches

Norway at last! This is a place that both of us have always wanted to visit. After a little bit of replanning, we left ourselves just a day in Oslo so that we could maximize our time in the fjords, but it was a great day of exploring and getting a feel for the city.

Oslo is much smaller than Copenhagen, but like Copenhagen has the pedestrian streets, the royal palaces, and the lively scene around the harbor and waterfront. We spent the morning walking through some nice residential areas (which included many embassy or ambassadorial residences) that reminded Becca a little of Paris and a little of DC.

The highlight of the day, sightseeing-wise was the visit to Frogner Park and to see Vigeland's statues. Gustav Vigeland was Norway's greatest sculptor. He had been doing work outside of the coutnry, but in 1921 he made a deal with the city. In return for a studio and state support, he'd spend the rest of his creative life creating this 75 acre sculpture garden. From 1924 to 1943 he worked on the site, creating 192 bronze and granite statues (encompassing over 600 figures, each nude and unique) and designed the landscaping.

We really enjoyed walkingaround the garden and were really struck and touched by his ability to capture human emotion and relationships so clearly in his medium. Becca went kind of camera crazy, trying to get portraits of her favorite works.

The park features a bridte with 58 bronze statues, each dealing with relationships between people, like this, and this, and this, and this, and this. One of Vigeland's most famous statues in the Sinnataggen, the hot-headed little boy. It's said that he gave his model chocolate and then took it away to get this reaction.

The park also includes a fountain surrounded by 4 more scupltures and 50 bronze reliefs all exploring the circle of life, and a 180-ton, 50 foot tall monolith that took 14 years to carve surrounded by 36 granite statues exploring more human relationships

The other highlight of the day was the chance to catch up with Karen Borseth, a friend that Brian had met when he was traveling in Australia 8 years ago. It was great to have a chance to catch up and see each other again in person after trading emails over the years. She took us to a fun local joint, where she instructed Brian on the finer points of peeling, preparing, and eating shrimp on toast. Yum.

We were sorry to only have a day to see things, but are eager to hit one of the places we've both always wanted to go: the fjords of Norway.

Til Lykke Med Ny Hus!!

Dateline: Odense

On June 30th we regretfully said goodbye to Mogens and Grethe and their wonderful backyard and headed to Odense, on the island of Fyn. Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Anderson, and this is the 200th anniversary of his bday, so it's been a big deal. We are here not only to pay homage to HCA, but to visit Michael, Becca's former ultimate frisbee teammate and good friend from when she lived in Copenhagen 13 years ago, and to meet his fiancee Jannie.

We enjoyed walking around the old center and the pedestrian shopping streets and played proper tourist with HCA's house, but the highlight was hanging out with Michael and Jannie. After a much hilarity at dinner and a pub, we were taken out in their new (!) car to see their new (!) house. We were honored to be the first ones to officially toast the house with good wine, good chocolate, and (of course) much throwing around of a frisbee in their huge yard. (What else do you expect from 4 ultimate players?). Their new house is in the middle of some absolutely beautiful countryside with old farms and fields (and lots of cows, very important)

We were really sorry to only have an evening to spend together. We needed to head up to Oslo and they were leaving to go down to Germany and compete in the European Ultimate Club Championships (Michael on Ragnarok, Denmark's top team, and Jannie on Flying Circus). They've invited us to come down and watch the finals and if we can figure out the logistics and timing, we will. Otherwise, we wish them luck with their wedding planning and hope to have many more fun visits in the years to come.

(7/7 note: The logistics proved too difficult and so we were unable to make it down to join them. However, Ragnarok plays in the semifinals this (Friday) morning. Wish them luck!)