30 November 2009
We arrive to the central train station but are certain there must be a mistake. There’s no real “station” to speak of. Certainly we must be in a small village en route to Bucharest and not, in fact, in the capital of a medium-size country that is a member state in the European Union. I locate the one ATM while Matt helps the only other woman on our train get her bags into a taxi. We then hop into our own taxi and zip off to our hostel. Every single building we pass is covered in graffiti and that is no exaggeration. Literally EVERY single building has been tagged in an array of colors from the ground to about six feet up.
Our hostel is on the eighth floor of an old Soviet-style block apartment. There is no internet or oven and the hot water comes and goes despite the fact that we are in “one of the nicest buildings in the city” located on the main avenue. This is the part of the story when Bucharest gets ridiculous. That main avenue is six feet longer and one foot wider than the Champs Elysses in Paris. Why? Because Romania’s ridiculous communist dictator from 1965 to 1989 (before he was executed during one of Romania’s several revolutions) decided he had to build the world’s premiere communist capital in a tiny, destitute country located in Southeastern Europe.
This grand avenue ends at the Parliamentary Palace, which is the world’s second largest building after the Pentagon. Yes, the second largest building in the world is located in Bucharest, Romania. It is made entirely of Romanian natural resources and is comprised of 1,000 rooms that include 1,200 crystal chandeliers and 100,000 tons of marble. I know what you’re thinking: that is just “so communist.” It was quite possibly the most elegant, beautiful, awe-inspiring building I have ever seen, and we only visited 5% of it on our 1.6-mile tour. One last tidbit: To build this monstrosity the dictator destroyed 9,000 buildings and relocated 40,000 people from central Bucharest. The cleaning bill is $1500 a day and the electricity costs $2 million a year! When it was being built the costs equaled 80% of the nation’s GDP at $12 billion dollars. What a winner.
This massive-ness is set against a near-deserted old town that appears to have been under construction for at least a decade. No sidewalks, no streets, no working signs and no people. There is just nothing going on. In a city of 2 million it was oddly devastating. In similarly new EU member states life has exploded since accession. Take Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as prime examples - small countries with vibrant cities that have been reborn. It seems that for whatever reason, Bucharest is the European capital that Europe forgot about. That really is a shame because the people, the culture and the history deserve better than that. Thankfully, the food is divine and the nightlife raging, though I’d prefer - for the city’s sake - street lamps and sidewalks.
27 November 2009
Traveling always has its hiccups, especially when it comes to planes, trains and overnight buses. Having survived the TransSiberian, however, I really felt that anything - literally anything - would pail in comparison. We had wanted to take an overnight bus from Krakow to Budapest, spend a night in Budapest then carry on into Romania by bus from there. Apparently, however, people only need to travel from Krakow to Budapest on Wednesdays and Saturdays because these are the only two cities relatively close to each other that have TERRIBLE transportation links. Because of this bizarre anomaly we were all but forced to travel by rail (which - while more expensive, meant a good night of sleep and lots of fun compartments, buttons and gizmos to fiddle with).
It all seemed well and good until people started telling me about how this route Krakow to Budapest) and our next route (Budapest to Bucharest) are “the most dangerous train routes in the world.” Stories like “yeah, my friend was robbed at knife point” and “first they put sleeping gas through the window then came inside and stole $400 from my money belt, which I was wearing at time. WHAT? A quick google search confirmed these stories and with that, I became incredibly paranoid. Not wanting to be alone in this paranoia I decided to share it with Matt, who really really appreciated it (read: sarcasm).
How did we overcome this fear? Oh well, that’s easy! I’m writing this on the top bunk. The window is closed despite the radiator having created a Sahara Desert environment inside. We’ve frenetically sealed the window with duck tape, committed to not using the toilet at all, locked both deadbolts and strung a bike lock around the handle and through a D-ring that’s hanging from the wall (for this purpose, perhaps?). I’ve evenly distributed my cash and credit cards among all of shoes, pants and coats and am wearing my passport in my money belt with is secured just below my neck around my chest.
I’m sure everything is going to be totally fine, right? Right?
26 November 2009
I contemplated whether or not to write a post about Auschwitz because I really have no idea what to say. We learn about the Holocaust and about what was done to not just Jews but Poles, Roma, Homosexuals and the disabled by the Nazis. We visit museums that tell this story but nothing - nothing - can possibly compare to bearing witness to these atrocities. Most people believe that Jews were actually kept in the camps. In practice, just 5% of inmates were Jews. Why is that? Because the other 95% of them were taken immediately upon arrival to the gas chambers to be killed. Of those that were seen to be “fit for work,” they survived on average three to six months in the hard labor “concentration” camps. The Nazis also kept Jewish children to use for atrocious experiments as well as a few women to experiment with different sterilization techniques. The master plan? To kill every Jew, Roma and even every Pole to make available more land for the supreme German race. Utterly disgusting.
The Nazis would tell the Jews upon arrival that they were going to be washed before being assigned a new home. They would enter into a preparation room, tell them to undress then escort them into the gas chamber. To keep up the charade they even installed fake shower heads on the ceiling. The door would be sealed and poison gas would be dropped into the room. Fifteen minutes later up to 3,000 people would be dead. That’s right, they killed 3000 people at a time. From there they would shave their heads (the hair would be shipped back to Germany to be used to make fabric), pull out gold teeth (it would be melted down and reused) and even harvest organs if they seemed usable. Then it was on to crematorium. Who was made to do all this work, you ask? Other Jews who were threatened with their life if they did not comply. Of course, once a month they would kill all the assistants just for good measure.
I could go on and on about the atrocities and what I saw on my visit, but I always try to find a lesson or an “action item” from my experiences and throughout the entire tour I kept saying to myself, “after this the World said ‘never again’ and yet, since World War II there have been at least three more large-scale genocides including one that is happening AS I WRITE in the Sudan. If six million dead Jews in the span of just three years didn’t wake us up to the immediate need to stop such malicious acts, what will? Nearly two million dead in Cambodia. Over a million dead in Rwanda. Right now, estimates of three million dead in Sudan. This is a systematic extermination of an entire race and I ask why. Why aren’t we up in arms about this? Why aren’t we sending in the troops? Why aren’t we living up to those two powerful words that are so very clear? Never Again. The time for action is now. The time for change is now. It is already late, but it is never be too late.
25 November 2009
Delicious. At least that’s one way to describe this town. First it was the delectable donor kebab. For three dollars you’re full for days. Then came the bagels. One word: otherworldly. it turns out the bagel was actually invented in Krakow, which explains the New York City-style bagel carts lining the streets. For about 65 cents you can gnaw on the most delectably oniony bagel you’ve ever set your lips on. Perhaps the crowning achievement of bagel majesty came in the form of Bagelmama, “where the bagel was born.” Filling fresh bagels with everything from smoked turkey and sprouts to the traditional schmear, you could easily have three meals a day at this place (and I did).
Needless to say, I entered Krakow through my stomach and while the rest of the city is indelibly charming - cobblestoned streets, the oldest market square in the world, clock towers, ornate churches and a castle on a hill (obviously) - you can’t help but feel a deep sense of history and strength of a city that somehow managed to survived undamaged after four years of Nazi occupation and another 45 of Soviet occupation. This is a city with a story.
Pair that city with spectacular countryside and some of the most incredible (and overwhelming) day-trips and you’ve got plenty to keep you busy. While we went on a day-trip to Auschwitz (more on that next time) that shook me to the core, we were also able to make it the Salt Mines. Believe it or not, at one time salt was so valuable and so rare that it acted as the catalyst for numerous wars in Europe! This particular mine has claims as the deepest in the world, snaking over 1,000 feet into the earth. On our tour we went more than 400 feet underground, which was both odd and fascinating. I kept thinking, “if these braces snapped we’d be trapped over a football field deep underground (thank you Dad for permanently implanting any comparison of distance and depth with football fields). A Polish friend also told me that “everyone just walks up and licks the walls!” No one - no one - on my tour did that, but maybe it’s because I was with all foreigners and we don’t know the “do’s and don’ts” of the Salt Mines?
Because of the intense conditions and religious heritage of the Poles, workers built incredible underground churches and chapels to pray - each and every day - for a safe return that evening to the surface. What material did they use? Why, salt of course! Salt walls, salt reliefs, salt baby Jesus, salt Mary, salt Pope, salt chairs, salt stairs and, perhaps most incredibly, salt chandeliers! To blow your mind just a bit more, these Salt Mines were selected as one of the first twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. Visit NOW.
24 November 2009
23 November 2009
Ukraine’s vibrant capital city, in 2004 Kiev played host to perhaps the most significant event in an emerging democracy during the Orange Revolution. People camped in Independence Square demanding a fair and free election and in the end, they won. Politics is a near constant topic of conversation for Ukrainians as they take their role as vote very seriously. Combined with perhaps one of the most interesting histories in Europe, Kiev offers a fascinating glimpse at both rise and fall of a once major Empire. Fortunately, the grand avenues and exquisite buildings have survived the generations, making it one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The Lay of the Land
Kiev is situated near the meeting point of Ukraine’s two main rivers. A majority of the city is west of the water, with Independence Square marking its epicenter. The main churches, shopping and “scene” are north and west of the square, while the monastery lines the hills along the river.
The Must-Sees and Must-Dos
Take in the unmatched architectural wonder of this world capital. Don’t miss House with Hymers (Bankova 10) with it’s intricately detailed carvings making it one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukrainian), The National Opera House and Mariinskyi Palace are also must-sees.
“Chuch-hop” from St. Sophia’s Cathedral to St. Alexander’s Church and on up the hill to St. Andrew’s Church. They’re all spectacular.
Stroll the cobblestoned streets of Andrew’s Descent. A daily market of clothes, food, bric-a-brac and tourist “necessities” line the cobblestoned lanes from St. Andrews Church at the highest point and down the street to the north.
Instead of exploring Kiev’s cave monastery, opt for a day-trip to Chernihiv (mini-buses leave whenever they’re full from the Lisova metro station at the end of the red line, $4). A larger monastery and more extensive caves make for a very unique life experience. Chernihiv offers half a dozen other churches as well as a stunning World War II memorial and ancient Cossack “hill cemetery.” The bigger the hill, the more important the man.
Plan an organized trip to Chernobyl. Yes it’s the site of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster but the Atomic Energy Association says it’s now clear to visit and the experience is out of this world. Get within 700 feet of reactor number four then wander the once vibrant streets of Pripyat town. Once home to more than 60,000 people, the city was deserted nearly overnight following the incident, leaving everything still intact. From lessons half-written on the chalkboards to an amusement park that never opened, it’s a chilling reminder of what human being can both create and destroy.
Eat Chicken Kiev, Borsch soup and fried potatoes. It’s not necessarily the most delicious meal, but it will get you in the Ukrainian “mood.”
The Tips and Tricks
Half of Ukraine speaks Russian and half of Ukraine speaks Ukrainian. You’ll probably speak neither. Both, however, use the cyrillic alphabet so take a few hours to learn to read it before you arrive. It will make your visit quite a bit easier to be able to pronounce where you’d like to go.
Petty crime and obsessive alcoholism remain problems in the city center. Watch your bags and avoid projectile beer bottles.
Upon arrival, fill out both the arrival side and departure side of the immigration form. Otherwise, you’ll be sent to the back of the line just like in fifth grade. Not fun.
20 November 2009
On a whole, I’m pretty good at not losing/misplacing/destroying things. When I do, however, I don’t fool around with worthless objects like a pair of socks or sandwich (though I did lose a sandwich once, but that’s another story). Instead, I go big. You know, like the only expensive pair of sunglasses I’ve ever had or my car for a few hours in an enormous parking lot. I can now safely say those are all small beans compared to my little oopsy-daisies in Ukraine.
We deplaned and I was standing in the immigration line waiting to be “inspected,” form filled out. I get to the front, say hello and the guy says to me, “you do it wrong. You must fill out departure side the same as arrival side (which makes no sense because I am arriving and not departing, but anyway). Go to back of line and do it again. While waiting the second time around I flipped through my passport looking at all the really neat stamps I have. “I should really make a copy of the whole thing, just to have it in case anything ever happens to this one.” Cue tragic foreshadowing.
Having been bumped to the back of the line, Matt was ready to roll by the time I got through which left me near running to grab my bag, meet the taxi driver and head into the city. I had my passport, a city map and a few other odds and ends in my hand. Normally I would immediately put the passport back in my money belt, but it slipped my mind in all the chaos. Also, it was nearly midnight and we were EXHAUSTED.
I take the front seat and begin to flip through the map trying to figure out where we’re staying while Matt chats about I don’t know what with the girl who is sharing the taxi into town with us. We get to thee hostel, grab our bags and head inside. As we’re registering to stay the woman asks us for our passports. I grab my money belt. Nothing. I dig through my pockets. Nothing. I flip through my pile of maps. Nothing. My passport is gone. Immediately I begin to rifle through every one of my possessions and run through what’s going to happen now that I have LOST MY PASSPORT IN UKRAINE. Definitely no Chernobyl tour, definitely not leaving on time in three days, possibly going to jail and maybe never surfacing again. I will have disappeared.
The hostel woman starts dialing numbers and talking to people on the phone. I have no idea who she is talking to. The police? The Consulate? Her mother? “I called my boss. He is coming.” I start wondering if he’s on his way to help or to kick me out. We sit in silence and wait. I re-check every pocket of everything I have ever owned. Still nothing. Just as he arrives I remember the whole “pile of stuff in my hands, flipping through maps while sitting in the car incident and inform the hostel woman that my passport is, in fact, in the taxi.
Just then the boss bursts through the door looking very concerned. He is accompanied by a broad-shouldered Ukrainian woman wearing a down vest, leather heeled boots and leggings. That is all. She heads straight for the kitchen and starts peeling apples for everyone while the owner decides to play a game of twenty questions with me. “So, where did you last see it? Can you empty your bag again? I have a car so we can search the streets all night if we have to.” The whole time I’m trying to get him to simply call the taxi company. . “Lets be absolutely sure first,” he tells me. Dude, I am totally absolutely sure.
He has me go downstairs with him and - by the light of his cell phone screen - we retrace my steps from the taxi to the hostel. Nothing. Why nothing? Because it is in the taxi and I am - at this point - certain of that. Finally, nearly an hour later, he coalesces and calls the taxi driver. They chat for several minutes before he surfaces to tell me that “he says it’s not there.” I am now getting agitated because I know it’s there and am questioning if this is some kind of deal where they say they don’t have it, I randomly produce a $100 bill and poof, it is found. “Tell the driver to come back here now and I will pay for his gas. Otherwise, you and I are driving to him and if it’s not there, then we’re driving to the airport and if it’s not there, we’re going directly to my Embassy.” He laughs at first and then sees that I am 100% serious.
Thirty minutes later the driver pulls up to the hostel shrugging his shoulders. I swing open the passenger door, reach down between the seat and the gearshift and produce - you guessed it - my passport. Relief. Everyone looks totally shocked and I finally realize that they think I have been acting insane the past two hours insisting that I do, in fact, know where it is. We head back into the hostel. I am completely exhausted but slightly overjoyed that I don’t have to spend the next several days proving my identity at the US Embassy in Ukraine. Hey, at least I would have been able to stare at a photo of HIllary Clinton, right?
19 November 2009
Throughout my years traveling and living abroad I have sometimes passively and sometimes actively found or acquired “parents” and “family.” There are, of course, my birth parents. Then there is my “DC Mom” in the form of Aunt Robin. Then there’s my Belgian family from when I studied abroad and my Shanghai parents - Jim and Deb - from when I was living in China. Most recently, I acquired John and Lois as my London “Rotary parents.” Needless to say, having the change to connect with an old friend from college and meet her “Ukrainian parents” from Peace Corps sounded like a wonderful time.
As usual, it started with a two-hour mini bus ride from Kiev to Chernihiv northeast of the city. It involved detailed instructions from Gretchen that included things like: “When you get off the metro, turn left and go through the doors and down the escalator into the station. You'll go through a turnstile to exit. Once you're out the doors, turn right. The first set of doors on your right is the entrance back into the metro, so walk past that. After that you should see a set of stairs going up. Take those stairs!” That is, it was an adventure.
Upon arrival we met up with her 14-year-old, 6 foot 2 host brother Aleksei who would act as tour guide extraordinaire. Gretchen had just set him up with an email address and the usual sibling bickering was happening. “No, you write the email and I’ll proofread it,” she said. “No, you jut write it. It will be much faster,” he countered. “But it’s YOUR thank you letter. YOU have to write it,” she reiterated. “But it’s hard and I don’t want to,” he pouted. “Oh, alright,” she coalesced. The only thing missing was some name-calling and hair-pulling.
After towning around and seeing the six million churches as well as a canonization in action Gretchen suggested we nip back to her host parents’ place “just to grab her bag.” Yeah right (in a very good way). Two minutes in the house and we’re all staying for dinner. I’ve also been invited to spend the night “but not in Gretchen’s room, silly. No boys allowed!” Gretchen is in her late twenties. I mention in passing that I’d like to see a village and ten minutes later we’re trudging through town to catch our bus to the village where Gretchen’s Ukrainian grandparents grew up. She and I look like American tourists. Meanwhile, Mom looks like she’s about to head down the catwalk in Milan.
Mid wander through the village we approach a farm and see a man waving at us. “Do you know him,” I ask her. “Oh yes, that’s my uncle. He lives here. He is also a communist, but don’t say that to him.” And the day just got way more interesting (as if it wasn’t before). We pop in to say hi, everyone is introduced, I stand there with a smile plastered on my face while they all talk in Ukrainian. After he gave us enough apples to feed a small country, we head for the cemetery and cow pastures to literally “watch the Cows come home” and come home they do. In fact, they march out of the pastures in a single file line, walk right through town to their house then “moo” until someone comes and opens the gate. Seriously. It’s remarkable. How come Ukrainian cows are so much smarter than American cows?
We get home just in time for dinner. I bring a bottle of vodka as a “thank you” without knowing Ukrainian tradition states that a gift of vodka must be finished completely with the guest present. Thank goodness I bought the smallest bottle! We talked about home and family, we picked on Aleksei, we drank vodka. And when it was all over we ate an upside down sweet apple cake thing that was simply divine. My bus departure time was fast approaching, which meant a quick - albeit sad - farewell with tidings of good luck, an open invitation and, hopefully, an adopted set of Ukrainian parents as long as Gretchen doesn’t mind sharing!
I love Ukraine.
18 November 2009
Probably the first thought on your mind is: “People can go to Chernobyl? Didn’t a nuclear reactor blow up there?” The answer to the latter is yes and while you might think that would make the former a big “no,” you’d be wrong. People can - and do - visit the site of the worst nuclear disaster in world history. The Atomic Energy Commission says it’s totally fine in low doses and hey, who doesn’t want to glow in the dark?
In all honesty, the radiation levels are no higher than you’d expect flying a Trans-Atlantic flight from Europe to North America (yes, you are exposed to radiation while flying) except for the brief moments when you’re standing 100 meters from the reactor. Oh yeah, I stood 100 meters from the reactor.
The whole experience was incredibly surreal. My travel buddy had mentioned the idea in passing and I sort-of thought, “hey, who goes to Chernobyl? Sure, I’m in.” Little did I know it would involve a tram to a bus to a plane to a taxi to a bus to a bus to a subway to a bus to a flight to a bus to a tram to get there and back! We fortunately managed to find a smaller tour company, which meant are group was just eight-strong comprised of Frenchmen, Italians and Americans (that’s us!) not to mention our Ukrainian driver and tour guide (who was the most amazing person I have ever met. I would follow this guy to the ends of the earth if he asked me to, he was just that good).
The ride from Kiev to the exclusion zone took just under two hours. Now 23 miles from the reactor, we had to present our passports and be checked off a list. From there it was another 10 miles to “Chernobyl Town” (how original, no?) where we picked up our guide and signed away our rights on the back side of a flimsy piece of paper. Yuri our yellow-goggled guide hopped in the van and away we went. Five more miles and we reached the inner exclusion zone, where there was another passport check before they lifted the road block for us to pass. I felt slightly important and slightly terrified all at once. Approaching the reactor was otherworldy, especially because the other reactors were active - yes ACTIVE - until 2000. That’s right, even after one of them blew up and spilled radiation all over Europe they allowed the other three to plug along.
While it looked rather drab and harmless in its now cracking sarcophagus, the blaring “beep beep beep” of the Geiger counter reminded us of just how dangerous this site once was (and still is if you’re, you know, climbing around on top of it, which we saw people doing). After visiting the reactor we headed to Pripyat, the town that once housed all the workers and their families that was designed as “the model Soviet city” to be shown off around the world as a perfect example of what Communism brings. Oops?
This is the part of the tour that was somewhat shocking because while some people stayed in the town for years afterward working on clean-up, nearly 99% of the 60,000 left within days, leaving everything exactly as it was. The local athletics center was littered with flat basketballs and broken tiles in a now abandoned pool. The town’s amusement park - set to open the very next day - is now a perfect set piece for a horror film. Perhaps the eeriest of all was the school, where lessons were half-written on the chalkboards, papers were scattered across desks and library books had been worn and tussled by the weather.
We closed with a non-radioactive meal that had been imported from outside the exclusion zone then a run through the contamination reader to make sure we were “all clear” before heading back to Kiev amid a light glow of neon green. As we drove out of the exclusion zone I noticed that the old sidewalks had been completely overgrown by grass, trees and other elements of nature. It appeared that the planet was actively “retaking” this charred earth perhaps in an attempt to return it back to how it once was. In just 23 years of removing humans from the equation our creations and our “modernizations” were slipping away, soon to be gone without a trace. It appears that instead of trying to be a part of nature we have perhaps been trying to fight it. How might we alter that mode of thinking? How might we once again try and be part of our planet instead of destroy it? I’m not entirely sure but I do know that zucchini are not supposed to be four feet long and as far as I can remember, human beings don’t have three nipples or eleven fingers. Oops...
Video of the day's happenings here:
The video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNsWoy-tlKE
More photos here:
17 November 2009
I love Poland. It only took about six hours but I am in love with the country, the food and the incredible people. We arrived in Warsaw after another grueling overnight bus ride. Following a much-needed morning nap I headed to what was billed as “one of the best museums in Europe.” For whatever reason it is known as “The Occupation Museum” in English despite it actually being dedicated to the The Warsaw Uprising against their Nazi oppressors in 1944. How that got lost in translation I will never know.
Now begins the part of the story where I realize I am incredibly ignorant. It turns out that on August 1st of 1944 the residents of Warsaw launched a full-on armed offensive against their Nazi occupiers that lasted 63 days during the course of which they retook nearly the entire city while the Nazis bombed and destroyed 83 of all buildings. For 63 days men, women and children said “enough is enough,” took to the streets and defended their very right to exist. Why, might you ask, weren’t they successful?
After 63 days they were completely out of ammunition, heavy artillery and food. Why, might you ask, did they run out of these things? Because the US and Britain refused to acknowledge the Polish army as part of the Allied Forces in an effort to appease Stalin since Poland would become part of the Soviet Union at the end of the war. In short, we sold them up the river for reasons I cannot comprehend. Of course the Soviets put on a good show pretending to help. They dropped heaps of supplies over the city, there was just one problem - they didn’t attach parachutes so in the end, food and ammunition became bomb-like boxes falling from the sky and hurtling towards the earth. In fact, most drops either destroyed existing buildings or actually killed people. Good one Stalin. Good one.
Following the Uprising the Nazis cleared the entire city of every living soul. That’s right, it became almost completely deserted. This is, of course, after an additional uprising in the Jewish ghetto where the Nazis forced Jews to live 10 people to a room in an area populated with 250,000 people per square mile. While they sent the non-Jewish Poles to work in German labour camps, they just killed all the Jews. All 400,000 Jews that were living in Warsaw before WWII were killed. Today there are just 500 Jews living in the entire city.
And yet, through it all, the city and the country trumpet on. This year Poland is Europe’s only economy to grow. The entire city center has been rebuilt to look and feel as it did before the Nazi and Soviet bombardment. The streets are bustling and the nightlife is happening. There in an energy and a spirit in the air that I can’t quite describe. People have hope for a better future and a better life and they should. After all, the Warsaw Uprising was probably the single greatest act of defiance in World War II. It’s a shame I never learned about THAT in history class.
16 November 2009
It all began with an intense talk the night before about the role of religion and faith in humanity and in the world. It was heated. It was engaging. It apparently doomed us.
The next morning started off fine. We left almost on time, we reached our first destination - the Hill of Crosses - in good time and the clouds even seemed to “part” while we were there. After a delectable picnic lunch we headed west for the coast. Just seconds into the drive it started POURING rain. Visibility slipped to about ten feet. Fortunately I wasn’t driving, which meant nap time in the back seat while Matt and Nigel dealt with the bad weather and insane Lithuanian drivers.
We pit-stopped for gas and a bathroom break somewhere between Creepy-ville and Spooky-town. Save for a few truck drivers, a squatter toilet and the lovely man drinking vodka and smoking a cigarette behind the counter it was just like every other gas station I have ever been to.
Westward-ho and we arrive at the ferry terminal just as the other cars are exiting. “Perfect timing!” I scream. “We’ll be just in time to see the sunset from the island!” Wrong. Forty minutes later it’s our turn to board. Now, having had very little stick-shift experience Matt and I were both a bit weary about hurtling the car up a wet metal ramp set at a 30-degree angle in drizzling rain with cars in front of us and behind us. Things just got worse from here. We stalled the care NINE TIMES before Chris - a manual transmission pro - slid into the driver’s seat and zipped us right up and on.
Across we went on our 4-minute ferry ride (seriously) followed by a mad dash to the coastline where we took in one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen before heading directly south to our evening destination of Nida - a beachside resort town. Just miles from arrival a deer appears out of nowhere and BOOM, just like that his body hurtles into the car in front of us. Fortunately we were traveling at a safe distance but it still shook us up. Nigel got out to assess the situation. The deer had miraculously hopped into the forest and the front of the guy’s car was completely damage free.
Now with that on our minds we arrived to town to find EVERYTHING (save for the grocery store) dark and closed. I checked my watch, It was 7:30pm. After stopping at every hotel on the tourist info center’s list we resigned ourselves to the possibility that we just might have to sleep in the car. Fortunately, the wonderful waitress at the only restaurant that was open directed us to an apparently super secret hotel nestled back behind the street and surrounded by forest. We checked in as THE ONLY GUESTS IN THE ENTIRE 100-room hotel and after running through every possible bad hotel pun (“you check in...but you don’t check out!”) we went for dinner at the same and only restaurant in town before calling it a night.
What. A. Day.
14 November 2009
13 November 2009
Nearly right at the center of our trip, Lianne her brother Nigel and his fiance Chris joined us in Lithuania for several days of non-stop fun and excitement (minus the fun and excitement). Just kidding!
We rented a car so as to cover as much ground as possible despite their traditionally British intuition of thinking a 20-mile car journey is some great distance. After pick-up at the Ryan Air airport located in the middle of nowhere we headed back to Vilnius via the spectacular Trakai Castle which is set amidst a collection of islands in the middle of the lake.
For whatever reason, this nation’s gorgeous capital - Vilnius - was oddly deserted over our stay. By deserted I mean there were no people anywhere at all. Anywhere. At all. Anywhere. I have been in remote African villages with more happening on the streets. Fortunately, it made it feel like the city was our own - a comfortable sensation for Imperialist Britons who view the entire world as their plaything (just kidding!).
A big night out and a lovely day wandering the Old Town set us up nicely for a day of adventure on the road. Our first stop was the Hill of Crosses, where - as the name so obviously suggests - a hill is in fact covered with more than 200,000 crosses. It was completely surreal and unlike anything I have ever seen. We even contributed to the collection with our own cross that was both names and dated (that’s a shout out to my date-loving father).
From there it was directly west to the Curonian Spit, where a small island less than a mile wide runs along the coast of Lithuania and into Russian’s mini me - Kaliningrad. We arrived just in time for sunset then cruised down the enchanting land of forests and dunes to Nida at the southernmost point of the Lithuanian side. A near empty town meant we were had the pick of the litter for lodging, food and fun (read: we were the only people in the hotel).
Day four found us trekking on mile after endless mile of sand dunes (yes, sand dunes in Lithuania! Amazing!) and through mile after endless mile of magnificent pine forests before heading back to the Ryan Air airport located in the middle of nowhere. It was an excellent visit that came at just the right moment! A few other highlights:
Photo Shoots - We did lots of them, most of which included people jumping in the air. What really changed was the location. First a town square, second a beach and third a mysterious sand dune.
Nigel’s Positivity - While he wasn’t the happiest camper when it came to long journeys, every city and site was followed with a comment like “this city has charmed me. I love it.” or “this place is just beautiful. Lets stay here all day tomorrow.” It was much appreciated.
Picnic Lunches - It’s the only way to eat on the road. A quick stop at the grocery store and - for about $2 a person - we had a feast of deli meats, cheeses, chips (crisps), fruit, juice and delicious deserts. If this isn’t perfection I don’t know what is.