Sunday, October 16, 2011

Finland and Sweden

Re-posting since I forgot to insert the links to the photo albums at the bottom like I normally do. You can always go to the blog ( and look at the right hand side for a link to the albums by clicking on the slide show for each country.

It has been a little over a week since my post. Time to check in and post what we've up to since then. I am at least starting this blog post in a unique environment. We are on a train from Stockholm, Sweden to Oslo, Norway. It is getting close to dark. There isn't too much in the way of scenery left to be seen. What we have seen though has been pretty. It is mostly flat with a lot of farming land or forest. It is about a 6 hour train ride between the two cities. I even have an electrical outlet at my seat allowing me to get things done on my laptop without worrying about how much power I have on my battery.

Since my last post we've covered ground in two countries. We spent a total 3.5 nights in Finland and 3.5 nights in Sweden. I say 3.5 because to travel from Finland to Sweden we took an overnight ferry from Turku to Stockholm. It was probably the largest ship that I've been on. There may have been about a 1,000 people on board. We had a nice cabin and spent most of our time aboard sleeping since it left around 9 pm and got into Stockholm around 6:15 am. I did do a quick walk through and wasn't overly impressed. There were plenty of dining options. The casino was pretty lame. It was just a room of about 20 or so gambling machines. No tables. My dad would not have been impressed. The duty free shop was a zoo with people buying all sorts of alcohol. The crazy thing is that the prices were decent by Scandinavian standards but were a lot more than the shops in Tallinn, Estonia.

Rock Church in Helsinki, Finland
Speaking of Estonia. Let me backtrack a little bit and pick up with with where my last post ended. The first country we visited after Estonia was Finland. To get to Finland we took a 2 hour ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. It was a pretty large ship as well and probably had a capacity of 800 or so. Despite how large the ship was it wasn't really all that smooth. Alethea had a tough time with the conditions and was glad when we got to Helsinki. The views were not that scenic either plus it was raining and overcast throughout much of the journey.

Alethea & Eija with the goats in Finland
To tour Helsinki we only had about 4 hours. You would think that wouldn't be enough time to see the capital of a country the size of Finland but it is. Three hours was actually all we needed. Helsinki is only a couple hundred years old. It was just a small village at the beginning of the 1800s when the Russians who ruled Finland at the time moved the capital from Turku to Helsinki. They did this in order to get the seat of government away from Sweden who was the previous ruler of Finland. In all we spent the three hours walking another one of Rick Steves' self guided walks. We saw the Rock Church, the Esplanade, a floating and covered market, tried to see the Finish Orthodox Church, and then finished up with the Lutheran Cathedral. The Rock Church was probably the most impressive with the Lutheran Cathedral coming in second. We finished up our time in Helsinki by meeting some of Alethea's co-workers for dinner at a nice Asian restaurant. I think we almost spent more time of the restaurant than we did sightseeing. It was a very nice meal and we all had a great time.

Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki, Finland
We spent the next three nights at one of Alethea's former co-workers house about a hour outside of Helsinki. We didn't have anything planned after Helsinki so we spent some time planning, catching up on things, doing laundry, and resting. Alethea wasn't feeling too good. It was good for her to stay put for a little bit. We ended up spending an extra night at Eija's to give Alethea some more time to rest. On two afternoons we drove around the country side and visited a flea market type store one day and went to a small arts and crafts village the next. The highlight for me though was that Eija and Vesuk had a traditional sauna powered by a wood burning stove. We relaxed in it one night for a hour or so. It felt real good. I cannot say enough thanks to Eija and Vesuk for their hospitality. They cooked two meals a day for us and couldn't been nicer.

Cottage Eija's & Vesuk's we stayed at in Finland
Next up for us was Sweden. To get to Sweden we first got dropped off on the side of the on ramp to a motor way by Vesuk where we were eventually picked up by a bus that took us almost two hours to the city of Turku. We spent a few hours walking around and eating in Turku. You'll probably find this hard to believe but we also stopped for a round of drinks at a micro-brewery that Alethea had previously found while researching Turku. We then took the ferry that I mentioned earlier to Stockholm arriving early in the morning. Our hotel in Stockholm was nice enough to allow us to check in when we arrived around 8 am so we rested up a little bit before starting our sightseeing in the afternoon.

Alethea about narrate a Rick Steves' walk in Stockholm, Sweden
We essentially spent two days sightseeing in Stockholm. On the first day we a Rick Steves self guided walk of the more modern parts of Stockholm that included the town's concert hall where the Nobel Prizes (except Peace) are awarded. We also saw a market and a couple squares before visiting a pub that served locally some locally made beer. The beer was actually quite good. So much of the beer on this trip that has been locally made hasn't had much flavor but these did. I was glad they did too considering they cost about $12 per glass. I justified this expense as a cultural experience versus just another beer at a bar :-).

what a $12 beer looks like in Stockhom
The second day in Stockholm was spent doing a Rick Steves' walk in the Gamla Stan or Old Town area. I really liked this walk. Stockholm is a very picturesque town. It kinda of reminds me of a mixture of Amsterdam because of all the water and canals and Paris. After a couple hours of walking that started off with watching the changing of the palace guards at the Royal Palace we ventured on over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa Museum contains on old gigantic Swedish ship that sunk on its maiden voyage. Sound familiar Titanic fans? I think it actually only made it 20 minutes before it was tipped over by the wind. The ship was too top heavy due its guns and didn't have enough ballast. The ship sank in the 1628 and was raised in 1961 after 333 years under water. It was pretty much a pet project of the Swedish King after its initial discovery. It is well preserved and has been housed in a modern museum since 1990.
The final day of sightseeing in the Stockholm area involved a day trip to the town of Uppsala. Uppsala is a university town 40 minutes train ride north of Stockholm. We spent a few hours walking around town. The main site was the Uppsala Cathedral (Lutheran) which is Sweden's oldest (1453) and tallest church. It is also home to the tombs of several members of the royal family. We also stopped at Uppsala's University library where we saw a 1,500 year old bible that was written in silver ink.

Uppsala Cathedral 
This brings us to our final day in Sweden which includes a 6 hour train ride to Oslo, Norway. I really enjoyed this part of our trip. Finland was nice and relaxing. The countryside is beautiful. Stockholm to me was somewhat of a pleasant surprise. I had heard good things about Stockholm and it delivered. It is expensive though. I would recommend it in addition to some of the other great European cities. It is pretty easy to get around with excellent public transportation and just about everyone speaks English fluently.

Alethea excited about drinking some good Swedish beer in Stockholm
Next up for us is Norway. We'll start in Oslo then head to the Songnefjord area which is home to their world famous fiords. We plan on concluding our Norway stay in Bergen which I believe is the northern most town we'll be in on our trip. We've actually been on the same latitude line area as Alaska for some time now. After Norway we plan on continuing on to Denmark before heading in to the Netherlands. We plan on spending time with a friend of Alethea in Malmo, Sweden which is close to Copenhagen and then again in Emmen, Netherlands which is in the northern part of the country. 

As always, hope all is well back home and yes I know my Vols are doing a good of losing football games!

Link to photo albums:


Friday, October 7, 2011

The Baltic Countries

Looks like I put in the wrong link to the album for Latvia. I just corrected it but didn't make any other changes to this post. 

It has been another week and a half and we have covered quite a bit of ground. We have slowed down a little bit as we have wound our way through the Baltic countries. We followed our original itinerary and spent three nights in each in country. Our Baltic journey started in Vilnius, Lithuania followed by Riga, Latvia with our last stop being Tallinn, Estonia.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph Vilnius, Lithuania was our first stop. We had an uneventful nearly three hour flight from Dublin that only cost us about $125 for two people on Ryan Air which has to be one of the most basic airlines I've flown on. When we landed in Vilnius we actually had to clear immigration which I thought was odd since both countries lie in the border less Schengen travel area of Europe. We received a stamp in our passports for entering Vilnius but didn't receive another one in any of the other three Baltic countries. We got in around 11 pm the night we we arrived in Vilnius and spent two days walking around town. Our hotel was about a good ten minute walk into town. Vilnius is kind of light on sights. We walked around their old town area and inside a couple churches. We were taking a leisurely pace since we had been on the go so much in Ireland.

tower in Vilnius, Lithuania
The most interesting for me was the Museum of the Genocide Victims or KGB museum as the locals call it. The museum tells the story of Lithuania starting just before World War II when they were overtaken by the Soviet Union then the Germans and then the Soviet Union again after World War II until 1991 when they regained their independence. It was pretty sobering. Several thousand Lithuanians lost their lives during the World War II period while several thousand more were relocated to Russia following the war. One thing that I learned was there was an armed resistance to the Soviet Union for about 9 years after World War II concluded. I don't recall learning about that while studying history. The museum itself is housed in a building that both the Gestapo and KGB used. We even got to walk into the execution chamber where I believe about a 1,000 people were executed during the occupations. If you are ever in Vilnius I would recommend it. It only cost $3 per person.
memorial to those killed by the Soviet Union during their occupation of Lithuania (1945 to 1991)
The only negative that I can think is that we got ripped off by our taxi driver that took us from the airport to our hotel. He already had his meter running and we ended up paying twice what we should have despite having an estimate of what we should have paid. On the way to the bus station we had a better taxi driver that our hotel arranged for us who even took slightly less fair than what the meter indicated.

Next stop up for was the country of Latvia. To get to Latvia we took a 4 hour bus ride from Vilnius. We used the services of Lux Express and had an uneventful trip. Our bus had a toilet, free tea & coffee, and even free wi-fi on board for all for around $21 per person. Buses are by far and away the best method of transportation in this part of the world. They have a train network but service is limited. At the Latvian border we actually stopped for a few minutes while a border guard inspected everyone's passport. He barely looked at our US passports but looked at other individuals passports more closely. Not sure what he was looking for but we have experienced this in other countries too. Guess we are a low security risk :-).

view of Riga, Latvia from St. Peter's Church
Our time in Riga was spent like it was in Vilnius. We arrived at our hotel around 6 pm on the first night. We walked around a little bit and found a nice Latvian restaurant for dinner. We spent each of the next two days strolling around town. Riga is much larger than Vilnius with more to see. Vilnius has a population around 500,000 while Riga is I believe around 2 million. We walked around their old town area, the canal park, an art nouveau building area, and their market which bills itself as the largest in Europe (it actually might be true). We also toured Riga's KGB museum which was similar to Vilnius's and is worth the visit. Their occupation museum is free although they have a box for donations. We ate at some nice restaurants including a pretty good vegetarian one. The vegetarian one came along at about the right time considering all the meat and potato meals we have had recently. I think both of our bodies have been craving some more vegetables.

Alethea holding up a menu for a restaurant in Riga, Latvia
I enjoyed our time in Riga more so than Vilnius. There is more to see plus it feels a little more like a western European city while still being different. It also earns a few more travel points since it wasn't too difficult for us to get haircuts and do our laundry at a self serve laundry facility that our hotel helped us out with. Self serve laundry facilities are not easy to find in Ireland or Vilnius for some reason.

Tallinn, Estonia old town area
The last stop on our Baltic tour was Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn was another four hour bus ride. The journey from Vilnius to Riga was flat and agricultural whereas the journey from Riga to Tallinn was more wooded but somewhat similar. We spent three nights in Tallinn. We got in around 5 pm and managed to take a public bus to our hotel instead of a taxi. We toured Tallinn a little differently. Alethea had actually been here just three years ago while she was working for Nokia. She wasn't feeling too good on our first full day so I toured Tallinn myself using the self-guided tour found in the Rick Steves Scandinavia book that we are carrying. Estonia isn't in Scandinavia but Rick includes a chapter on Tallinn. In case you are wondering Lithuania and Latvia are no longer included in his book.

Russian Orthodox Church in Tallinn, Estonia
In all I spent about 3 hours walking from site to site. Tallinn has the best preserved old town area of the three countries It has cobbled stoned streets, old churches, and other old buildings with some dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. On our second full day Alethea was feeling better so we ventured back in to the old town area for a little bit in the afternoon. Alethea also discovered that right behind our hotel is the largest alcohol store in the Baltic area. We both toured the store. Alethea went in by herself while I was in the old town and saw people buying alcohol by the suite case load. They appeared to be mostly from Finland where alcohol is more expensive.

Town Hall in Tallinn, Estonia
The only real negative that we experienced outside of Alethea not feeling good was with our hotel. There was a group of teenagers staying at the hotel who were very loud. We didn't say anything the first night but did on the second night. It was so bad that we changed rooms to a different floor for the third night since they still had another night at the hotel along with us. I tweeted and sent a long but civil email to the hotel management complaining and by the time we got back from our walk into the old town they had left a gift package in our room apologizing. We got a free bottle of champagne, flowers, chocolates, fruit, and some nuts. More importantly it was quiet for our final night and at least I got a decent night's sleep.

our apology gift basket from our hotel in Tallinn
That wraps up our journey in the Baltic countries. I enjoyed it. It was interesting for me to be able to go into three countries that were once a part of the Soviet Union. They are more western and developed than what I thought. If I were giving any recommendations I would visit Tallinn and Riga but would probably skip Vilnius. There isn't really anything wrong with Vilnius it is just that Riga and Tallinn do a better job of representing the region while being just different enough. I will say the best beer I had was in Vilnius. It was a honey lager type that was both unfiltered and unpasteurized. 

Up next for us is Scandinavia. Our plan is to start in Finland which I know isn't technically part of Scandinavia. It is Nordic. We'll then move west over to Sweden then Norway and Denmark. In Helsinki, Finland we'll get together for dinner with some of Alethea's work friends from Nokia. So far we've reduced our time in this part of the world by a week. We knew Scandinavia was going to be expensive. When we got closer to beginning this stretch of traveling and were looking at the cost of accommodations it really hit home how expensive it was going to be. We'll actually be spending a few nights with some of Alethea's friends in Finland, Sweden (close to Copenhagen, Denmark), and then hopefully again in the Netherlands before returning to the US.

Link to photo albums: