Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wieliczka Salt Mines

Today, I visited an enormous church, dripping with decorations.

The difference? The church was 101 meters below ground, in a salt mine, and the decorations were all carved out of salt. It was beautiful.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I thought I would write a general blog post about the whole backpacking process (for me, at least) and how my life in general is going on.

As many of you noticed, I could only bring a small number of things with me.  This means that every other town, the first thing I do upon arriving is wash all my dirty things.  I usually do this in a tub, filling it with soapy water (detergent, shampoo, bodywash...) and stomping on the clothes.  They then get rinsed, wrung out, and hung up quickly to dry in the hopes that they will actually do so before it's time to move on.

I've showered virtually every day, but I still sort of feel like I smell bad.  My feet have become... less than lovely.  Callusses, though, prevent blisters, so I'm happy to have them.  My feet are also tanned in fun triangles due to my near-constant wearing of walking sandals.  For the most part, though, I end a full day of walking without too much foot (or any other) pain.

Speaking of walking, my pedometer tells me that we are averaging about 15000 steps a day.  It's quite a bit, and fairly often done with the bag on.  The bag is getting a lot easier to put on and carry, despite the accumulation of a few small souvenirs, and I generally feel like my back is getting a bit stronger.

Souvenirs have had to be kept to a minimum due to space and weight issues.  We've bought a postcard or two in every town except Tartu, where we couldn't find a single one!  Beyond that, I've bought the following: a small wooden viking from Tallinn, an amber necklace from Riga, a set of amber studs from Vilnius, the above-pictured hugging salt and pepper shakers from Warsaw, a few kitschy pins from various places, a pair of gummy bear earrings and a set of traditionally-decorated coasters from Wroclaw, and gifts.

I am covered in insect bites, small cuts, and unexplainable bruises.  I am very, very tan.  Perhaps as much as I've ever been.

We spend a lot of time on trains.  Sometimes this is comfortable, but usually it is not.  An Ipod can solve most of those problems, though.  Plus, the landscapes passes by us and is lovely.  Right now Poland is full of giant fields of sunflowers.  It's like something out of a movie.

We are sometimes given breakfast, in which case we eat quite a bit and do not eat again until dinner.  If not, we eat a few slices of bread with peanut butter, and then eat only a late lunch and a maybe a snack in the evening.  We've gotten very adept at hunting down the self-service counters and cafeterias of each city, and thus eating with local people for a quarter the cost.

We try to see the main sights of every city we come to but don't worry too much if we miss a church or two.  We've kept museum visits to a minimum.  For one, they are very expensive, and for another, you can only see so many archaeological objects before you want to commit random acts of violence.  So our museum visits have been mostly limited to those dedicated to modern history, all of which have ripped my heart out.

I feel very alive.  Time is passing very slowly, and it honestly feels as if I've been traveling for at least a few months.  Every day is new, exciting, and long- in a good way.  Except those train rides, of course!

Poznan and Wroclaw, Poland

Poor Poznan.  It got to be a stopover city for us, chosen to break up a long train ride from Gdansk down to Wroclaw.  And we were tired, and it was rainy.  So I fear that Poznan was given rather the short shrift by us.  Upon arrival we checked into our hostel, where we miraculously had a room to ourselves.  We wandered the lovely old town and out to a monument (again, towering crosses) to the victims of various uprisings against the Soviets.  Later, we enjoyed a simple dinner of delicious soup in the old market square and a home-brewed beer at the Proletaryt Cafe, decorated with old Soviet kitsch, before heading off to an early bedtime.

We had grand plans to wake early the next morning and troupe several kilometers out of the center to a cathedral on an island.  Instead we slept, ate a leisurely breakfast, and enjoyed a left-behind magazine in the sun-drenched common room.  It was a good choice.  After this we visited the main square one last time for the daily goat display.  The church in the town hall has tiny mechanical goats that come out every day at noon and butt heads a dozen times, in memory of a local legend where two goats escaped from the nearby royal kitchens and fought each other near the town hall tower.  It was very cute.  There were also some fellows on horseback, bugling and chanting, so in all it was a very festive noon time.  Then it was off to the train station again and on to Wroclaw.

We arrived in the evening and danced our little hearts out at a retro party, enjoying watching the other dancers and their ridiculousness at least as much as the music and dancing ourselves!  It was a rather late night, but a lot of fun.  The city is lovely at night, all lit up.

Today we wandered the city, admiring the old town square (the second biggest in Poland).  The city has many small rivers and canals running through it and thus has dozens and dozens of little bridges to stroll across.  It's also a very green city, full of small and large parks.  We visited a cathedral and took an actual elevator up the tower to admire the view over the city.  We visited another church, and saw maybe the most bizarre thing I've ever seen.  There is a small chapel off to the side of this magestic church dedicated to the blind, deaf, and dumb.  Inside this chapel are thousands of small toys, all set up to dance, sing, and spin when you drop a coin in the collection box.  It was like the Christmas house in Scranton, only... inside a giant, old church.

Wroclaw is an impossibly charming city.  Almost every building has some unique ornamentation on it.  The bridges lead from one charming road to a magnificent church to a peaceful island and back again.  The city is also covered in small brass garden knomes, hiding in corners, hanging from lamp posts, peeking out of gutters.  It was a lot of fun to try to find them, and always funny to see what they would be doing.  Some rode pigeons, others ate pierogies... I loved it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Gdansk (and Gdynia), Poland

After Warsaw we headed back up to the Baltic coast, where we stayed our first night in the bustling, young industrial town of Gdynia. We had a beer and enjoyed a torrential (really!) downpour that at least washed our clothes for us.

The next morning we headed to Gdansk, a surprisingly beautiful city for one known for shipyards. And indeed, we spent much of our day at the shipyards, ogling a giant monument of three crosses, touching the wall where the first successful stand against communism took place, and visiting a museum dedicated to the solidarity movement. It was all quite powerful, and found me choked up, for what felt like the 9th time so far on this trip! There was also a little piece of the Berlin wall to poke at.

Read more about Solidarity, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarity

We also visited The Museum of Amber and Torture, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Then we wandered the old town, admiring the beautiful buildings, churches, and squares, before spending the evening in a retro basement bar decked out with psychedelic paintings of icons from the 60s and 70s.

Thus far, at least... Poland is where it's at. I'm loving this country.

Warsaw, the rest

Our second day in Warsaw led us to the old Jewish ghetto, where we first ate a giant vegetarian lunch of delicious vegetables and soy products. In WWII, the Warsaw Jews were starving to death in a ghetto when they decided to stage a fight against the occupying nazi forces. The sources all indicate that they knew they had no hope of winning and simply looked for an honorable way to die.

Later that day, we visited both the Jewish cemetery, absolutely full of graves, including one by the inventor of Esperanto, and the oldest cemetery in Poland, where over a million people have been buried. It was an impactful day.

Needing a lighter evening, the lovely Dorota (a friend a few times removed, and now just a friend) took us to visit a park, where we watched peacocks climb over statues and strut, and then to a library that is absolutely covered in greenery. It was really astounding, you'll have to see the pictures when I put them up.

Day three was spent again wandering the old town, and again getting rained on. It seems that old towns are destined to be rainy for us. Nevertheless, it was a good day. The old town is just astoundingly beautiful. I also enjoyed a nice sushi lunch. In the evening we crossed the river with Dorota and her friend Magda to head to the Praga artists' district, where we drank designer beers and sat under the now happily rain-free sky.

Our last morning in Warsaw was spent at the museum of the Warsaw Uprising. In this, the citizens and home army of Warsaw staged one last-ditch attempt to defeat the nazis in their city. Meanwhile, the Red Army watched from across the river. The city was utterly destroyed, thousands and thousands died, and finally, when the uprising was defeated, the entire civilian population was deported from the city. The museum was very... visceral. There was a large wall that had a pumping heart beat, and the sounds of bombing and national songs also swelled from it. I left the museum feeling drained and weary, which is, I suppose, how one should feel after visiting such a place.

Warsaw though! What a wonder it was. Such a faithfully restored old town, a towering monument to Stalin, parks and monuments around every corner. I loved it. Don't let anyone tell you it's less than amazing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Warsaw, Poland, Day 1

This morning we arrived to Warsaw. Finally, in Poland. Unfortunately we arrived at 5 AM, and then there were crazy people on our bus. We finally got to lay down and rest, though, and then it was off to the old town.

More appropriately, it was off to pierogies. That's right, not even 8 hours after arriving in Poland, Lyla and I were tucking into happy little puffs of joy (and slight indigestion).

Then we wandered the old town, undaunted by a constant heavy mist. Tremendous churches followed tremendous churches, each tucked between quaintly decorated buildings. It's a colorful city, full of interesting small touches such as antique signage, painted walls, or impressively scary gargoyles.

Speaking of signage, Warsaw is impossibly well signed. It's so lovely to actually know where I am and where I am going!

Vilnius, Lithuania

Poor Vilnius came at an unfortunate time for us, as we were finally becoming a bit worn-down by two weeks of travel. As the first day of sightseeing took place in a torrential downpour, our spirits dropped slightly lower. Fortunately, Vilnius was saved for us by one simple factor: Lithuanians.

We met more Lithuanians than any other nationality thus far. They were warm, happy, funny people. Stumbling into a group of young folks our age at a lake, they invited us to their flat for a dinner. Expecting beer and potato chips, we arrived to a lovely four-course dinner of traditional foods (and some beer, of course). We talked, laughed, and they asked us many questions about why Americans would choose to live in Central Europe and love it so much. Later in our visit, we invited them for a pot of curry and repeated the process on our tab.

Our first night in Vilnius, after a long hot train ride, we found our way out to a nearby state park, where the water was naturally moss-green and yet somehow clear. The lake was also surrounded by pine trees, so it was a very green scene all in all! Hot air balloons bobbed in the sky and I realized that this was something that I wouldn't ever do again: swim in a green lake in Lithuania. But how amazing to do it at all!

So we sightseed (sightsaw?) on the first full day and the last day. And Vilnius is, indeed, a beautiful city. Even more so on the last day in the sunshine. :)

Vilnius has the largest old town of the Baltics, all of it protected by Unesco. There are a lot of churches, even for Europe. A lot! One of our new friends, a student of heritage (because it seems you can study that in Europe), showed us around the town, chatting constantly in charming English about the history, local legends, and anecdotes about every sight we saw.

On the middle day we headed out to a nearby castle, Trakai, which is totally surrounded by a lake. The castle was, like most of the region, totally destroyed in WWII, and was rebuilt to a slightly disconcerting level of perfection. So we wandered through that, and through giant green mounds where wooden castles were built by medieval kings. And then we swam in lakes some more.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Klaipeda, Lithuania

Today I took a ferry across the small stretch of water seperating the town from the Curonian spit. There I swam in the (quite cool) waters of the Baltic Sea and lay on its soft sand. It was a women-only beach, and therefore everyone was in a very natural state. I'll leave it to you to guess whether I acted native or not. :)

Afterwards Lyla and I ate pizza and half-heartedly wandered the lovely old town of the city, before heading back home to our hostel.

We are happy, only slightly pink, covered in strange insect bites, and just a little bit weary! Tonight will be a quiet night in before heading to the capital, Vilnius, tomorrow.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Liepaja, Latvia

Today I breakfasted on grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches and took a luxurious shower, a good start to any day. Following that, I visited a former soviet prison, where I saw interesting sculptures made of gas masks. In the prison exercise yard, I purchased kitschy pins of soviet winnie the pooh and a fox stealing a chicken with a sneaky look on his face. I wandered the outside of an elaborate Russian orthodox cathedral surrounded by decaying block flats.

I toured the (blown-up when they were leaving) Russian bunker on the seaside. I made my way south along the coastline from there to a 624 step long break-wave, surrounded by gigantic concrete jacks, and walked to the end. On the way my feet sank deeply into warm, pebbly sand that pushed and caressed. The day was beautiful, with warm sun, cool breeze, and puffy white clouds.

Returning to town, I ate french fries with garlic sauce and homemade ketchup at a snack stand overlooking the canal. I wandered into a few churches, and then picked up a few dollars worth of groceries to make an enormous curry stew. I ended the day watching a British comedy projected onto a wall.

I think that sometimes the simplest sentences are the best ones. Simple declarations of a beautiful truth can serve much better than even the most elaborate poetry, when what you are describing is already amazing.

Riga, Latvia

Riga may well be the most beautiful city I've ever seen. To be sure, there are other cities with more beautiful features, but Riga is just consistently gorgeous. It has a rather large old town, full of chuches, castles, and ornately decorated guild buildings. The old town borders on a blue river spanned by only a few bridges. The streets are cobbled and the sound of top 40 hits and techno fills the air, pouring from little cafes and clubs. The music is a bit incongrous, but it actually fits once you take a minute to observe what's going on around you, because Riga is an alive city. The statues are interesting and unique, the art scene is complicated, and the young people dress with great flair.

Out of the old town, in the historic business center, you cannot walk for ten seconds without tripping over some example of art nouveau. There is the more typical style, with brightly colored buildings dripping with ornamentation. There is also a more Latvian style, explained by our Free Tour tour guide, where the building starts with rough, unhidden stone and brick to symbolize man coming out from nature. As it rises, the stone is gradually covered with colorful plaster and symbols of the earth, which Latvians have historically been very connected to.

There is a huge market, filling five former Zepellin hangars, full of little old ladies hawking their wares. There is a towering square building, covered in hammers and sickles, affectionately referred to as Stalin's birthday cake.

We also visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, in a modern, decidely communist-looking building left in the old town for just that purpose. The museum detailed the annexation of the country by first the soviets, then the nazis, then the soviets again. I still cannot get over the fact that these three little countries won their freedom from giant Russia, essentially, through singing in folk festivals. There was some fighting, of course, but so little. It's a very inspirational thing.

We also had a great time in Riga. We happened upon a group of young English speakers, and had some fun parties with them.

Finally, we ate nicely. Several bowls of pelmeni, small dumplings either fried or simmered in soup, provided a few lovely lunches. We also hit up the LIDO, termed by the guide book and locals alike as "if Disney and Latvia had a child," where we sampled some traditional fare and balked at the sheer amount of dill used in the traditional cuisine. I also finally got sushi, and it was amazing.

One very interesting thing is how much the Latvian currency is worth. One LAT is worth about two dollars! And things still cost about on the level of Estonia (or Hungary, for that matter). So it is interesting to order a meal and then pay 2.20 for it, not dozens or hundreds of units. At one point I held a 20 centi Estonian coin in my hand next to a 50 centim Latvian coin, and laughed, because they look almost exactly alike. The only difference is that one is worth about 1.5 US cents, and the other a dollar. Currency is fun, and certainly one of the negatives of the whole continent going Euro.

Oh, and one more thing. The word for spicy in Latvian is "ass." Tell your friends.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tallinn, Part Two and Tartu (Estonia)

So the day of sightseeing in Tallinn went very nicely. We started by heading out to Kadriorg park, to see several castles, the former cabin of Peter the Great, and an art museum that started out well and ended in total pretension. Then it was back into the old town, where we wandered the narrow cobblestone streets and popped in and out of medieval churches. We ate a lovely lunch at a restaurant dedicated to garlic (!) and did some very important sitting on benches. We went to a microbrewery for dinner and wandered some more, slightly cursing our lack of foresight at not packing warm enough clothes for a country that is, after all, at the same geographical location as Scandinavia.

Sunday we wandered around some more, visiting the remaining churches and drinking hot chocolate. Then we caught the train to Tartu, in southern Estonia. The train was certainly an experience, with hard benches crammed with people, bikes, and crops.

Tartu itself is a lovely small town, wooded and containing a canal traversed by many lovely pedestrian bridges. We visited the ruins of a cathedral, the spires raising from a field of sand surrounded by trees. We also visited an old university, still in operation, and paid 80 cents to climb several flights of stairs to visit the old student lock up, where students were enclosed from one day to three weeks for naughty behavior such as taunting cloak room attendants or leaving the town without permission. The most severe punishment, three weeks with only bread and water, came from dueling.

Now we are sitting, eating cake and drinking tea. We will be up early tomorrow, to catch at 630 bus to Riga. Estonia is a beautiful, charming, clean and lovely country filled with hospitable, friendly people speaking amazing English. It's a little chilly, but the sun doesn't actually set. I'm actually a little bit bummed to be leaving it, but I am excited for Latvia!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tallinn, Estonia

The single most striking thing about Tallinn is the lack of night. How far north we are never entered my head, and I was thus very surprised to discover that 11 PM brings full daylight with it. In fact, it never gets truly dark, just evening-like for a few hours in the middle of the night. My first night here I took a photo of the sunset at 1230 and the sunrise at 3 AM, which I will share at a more opportune time.

I spent my Fourth of July with brass bands, national songs, and a patriotic parade. Just those of another country.

This weekend, unbeknownst to us in our planning, is the every-five-year celebration of the Estonian song and dance festival. The entire country gets involved. Yesterday there was a parade that lasted (literally!) over four hours, full of people from all the different regions of Estonia in their traditional dress, singing and cheering and waving flags and flowers. The parade led several kilometers into the national dance grounds, where over 25,000 singers stood under the dome of the arena and sang for hours to at least 150,000 spectators. Bearing in mind that the population of Estonia is only 1.4 million, this is very impressive.

You can learn more about the first song-and-dance festival, called the Singing Revolution, here: http://www.tallinn-life.com/tallinn/estonian-singing-revolution and you can find a trailer for a documentary on the subject here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DA9PmZo-2jo

Today will be a sightseeing day, as yesterday was so full of culture as to not allow us time for any!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

six weeks of adventure

So my family was here for two weeks. We saw almost all of Budapest, plus Eger and Szentendre. It was quite an adventure. I'm sad that they are gone.

Now, though, I get to travel throughout Eastern Europe for six weeks. I'm sure that blog posting will be spotty but I will try to be digilent.

In less than 12 hours I will be on a train to Vienna to catch a flight to Tallinn. We are then coming down through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Ukraine, and Romania to return to Budapest in time for one week of relaxation before heading back to work.

And what does one bring for six weeks in six countries? Well, I have the following, which all fits nicely into my little hiking backpack:

2 travel books

1 book

my Hungarian stuff

my embroidery stuff

Ipod and cables

camera and cables

various toiletries, which all fit into one small toiletry sack

flip flops, walking sandals, sneakers

1 pair jeans

2 pair shorts

1 skirt

some tshirts

some tanktops

2 long sleeve tshirts

2 cardigans

1 going out top

1 pair pj shorts

sleeping sheet, blanket, sarong, towel

inflatable neck pillow

some makeup

random other stuff: a flashlight, a padlock, a water bottle, etc.

Wish me luck!