Friday, June 05, 2009

A bit delayed, but here's the final post of the Scandinavia/Baltic trip, before I head off again.


It was nice to be back in the city even though it was rainy and cold. Since it was my third time in Stockholm, there was absolutely no agenda. We just chilled, showered, walked around, visited libraries and grabbed hot cocoa.

The city center, with a new addition:
A truck full of under-aged drinking and dancing high school seniors (on the right)! They have a grand tradition of celebrating graduation by riding around town. We saw at least a dozen of these party trucks. Hmm, maybe the Swedes aren't so reserved and proper after all. Always something new to discover.

On a more serious note, we visited the main library (above) and the royal library.

Carl Linnaeus

Celebrating the Father of modern taxonomy. He basically invented the way we name all of our speices! (Yes, I am a scientist afterall). Science aside, I did get to appreciate Stockholm in the summer for the first time. It has lots of small beautiful parks.

And that's the end of the Scandinavia/Baltic tour. Definitely what I'd hope for. Chill, relaxing, a bit of city, a bit of nature, some adventure, and off the beaten path, but also civilization and cute cafes. Most importantly, good times with Joy. I realized that we traveled in 6 countries together in the past year, and also visited each other in our two respective native California homes and current homes in NY and Sweden! How lucky are we? I'm definitely blessed to have such a wonderful friend!

Joy and me in front of a tea house down the street from our B&B in Villnius, Lithuania. Very fitting for us.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Archipelagoes in Sweden

The first stop of my two week trip is Sweden. I land in Stockholm for my third visit. People are a bit surprised - 3 times?! Yup. I do love Scandinavia. In fact, I have been to Sweden probably about 7 times thanks to my semester abroad in Copenhagen. I'm visiting Joy again, but this time we are heading out of town to the country house for a long weekend, which is only accessible during the warmer months.

The country houses of Otto's (Joy's boyfriend) family. We stayed in the cute red one.

You have to take a boat to get to the islands.

These houses are on Goose Island, which is about a 30 min drive from Stockholm. Sweden has an extensive network of archipelagoes. They are brimming with nature in the spring and summer months.

Some of the natural beauty. We went on a hike around the island. It was a bit chilly and threatened to rain.

We pick fresh chives and violet flowers.

Nope. No water in the well. Actually, there was a lack of well water overall so not only could we not drink it, we had to be conservative with water usage.

Yummy food!
We had lots of delicious food, thanks to Otto and Joy's gourmet home cooking. Roasted chicken, shrimp crepes, seafood soup, coconut flan and I got my first grill of the summer.

Grilled burgers with homemade sesame brioche buns and aoili sauce.

Starting my travels with a weekend at the country house was a perfect way to finally unwind from a crazy semseter. I have to leave NYC to relax, and this scenario was an ideal option.

Sauna house!

I was introduced to the sauna culture here in Sweden. Here's the procedure (hey, I am a scientist after all):
1. Get really hot in this sauna house til you can't bear the heat.
2. Jump into the brisk water for ~3 seconds followed by laying on the deck til the coldness settles into your bones.
3. Return to the sauna house.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 about 3 or 4 times.
This night time activity can last several hours. It truly is relaxing.

Picture taken at 2 AM!!! Twighlight nights.

One of the best things about Swedish/northern summers is that it never gets dark, and the sun sets around 10 pm and rises around 2:30 am. Midsummer is in mid June, when the days are the longest. A nice contrast to my last visit when the sun setted at 3 pm!

Joy going in for a COLD dip.

Lazy morning reading my gossip magazines. Ahh to lounge and relax far from home! So happy!
Otto and Joy also enjoyed the mags.

Sabina, Joy's friend, and I lounging under the tree. When the sun is out, you go out. That's because that Swedish sun is so finicky! Out one minute and hiding the next.

Joy and Sabina. We are sadly leaving the island.

Over the long weekend, we had lots of yummy food, saunas, mellow hikes and plenty of chill time. Now I see why the country house makes Joy so happy! It gave me a different aspect of Sweden and an appreciation for the Swedes' love of their land. Thanks so much to Otto and Joy for being wonderful hosts.
The Baltic States

So, last minute I realized that I could take a few weeks off after the semester ended. I thought I'd go for a normal chill Europe trip, perhaps Spain for a week. Somehow this trip evolved into a round trip ticket to Stockholm to visit and pick up my friend, Joy, to explore the Baltics. A week before the trip, I didn't even know what countries I was going to. A few days before flying out, Joy and I madly planned our Baltic itinerary. We decided to hit them all - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Furthermore, we were going to experience both the capitals and countryside and as an added bonus, we were going to squeeze in Helsinki too. All in 9 days!

Our travel route.
Stockholm, Sweden -> Latvia -> Lithuania -> Estonia -> Helsinki, Finland -> Stockholm.

Latvia: Baltic State #1

I head off a few days before Joy on an infamous cheap Ryan air flight at 6:45 am. My one bag allotment of 10 kg and I ride the smooth hour flight. No complaints.

Riga: the capital of Latvia (day 1)
Riga consist of an Old Town and newer city center. The buildings are mostly restored to their former beauty prior to the Soviet occupation. Latvia was free from the Soviets in 1991, and entered the EU in 2004.

Blackhead's house, the most pictured building in Old Town. It was completely destroyed by the Soviets in the 1940s, but an exact replica was erected in 2001.

The three brothers houses represent Riga's diverse architecture. The oldest is over 600 years old.

Riga's narrowest street.

The market. Hmm, should I buy tomatoes, strawberries AND that leopard blanket?
It was a rather tame market compared to the one in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Mainly, I did not see pig carcesses rolling around and signs for horse meat; only a few encased tongues.

A building in the Art Nouveau District in the city center. Art Nouveau is also known as Jugendstil, meaning "youth style." Here, architects were encourage to be creative and bring a sense of unique style to Riga.

One of the many haunting and flamboyant faces in the Art Nouveau District.

Latvian man reading the paper on the local train.

I took an hour train ride to reach the National Park of Sigulda. On the train I saw school children, teens and elders going about their day.

Note: I think the former Soviet rule in Lativa still weighs on the people; they did not seem to be a joyous bunch. I seldom saw a smile. Everywhere I went and asked, the common answer was "NO."

Sigulda National Park (day 2)
Upon arriving in Sigulda and inquiring at the tourist office (the only place where one person spoke English), another solo female traveller heard the sounds of English from me and asked if I wanted to join her for the day. Sure, why not? So Elaine, from England, and I head off to explore and get lost in the wilderness.

Turaida Castle in the distance: our goal. It was about a 2.5 hr trek to reach this castle.

Me and some castle ruins along the way.

The countryside.
We took many guesses and wrong turns navigating through the park. I don't think we were suppose to go through here, but somehow we did and it was pretty nice.

Finally arriving at the castle. The dungeon prison. Not happy.

View from the castle tower.

The day trip to Sigulda was pleasant. It was nice to explore outside the city and be in nature. I always like getting out of major cities when I travel, probably because I live in one. But these Baltic cities are quaint, small and maneageable.

Day 3: Joy joined me for a last day in Riga before we head off to Vilnius via bus. Inquiring about bus tickets was quite an experience into Lativan customer service, or lack thereof. English was supposedly spoken at Eurolines bus office. But, when I asked why there were many bus times listed and which ones were to Villnius she answered in a huff, "Not all bus can leave at 8." When I tried to ask another question, she didn't even say "No" but merely put her hand out shooing me to another counter. Lovely. The ultimate unspoken No. And of course, our seats were not next to each other; that would be too logical. And a big burly Latvian guy booted me out of my seat. I was not going to fight. But, it ended up being a deluxe bus and a smooth $24 ride.
Lithuania: Baltic State #2

Next up: Lithuania. The moment we arrived in the capital, Villnius, we noticed that the people here were friendlier. We still got our share of no's, but with a nicer attitude. This city was definitely livelier than Riga. Schlepping from the bus station to our B&B with our backpacks, we were immediately enamored with the old town.

Villnius, the capital (day 4)
Our first day here was spent wandering aimlessly and exploring all the nooks and crannies of the old town and an inadvertent long trek through the newer part of city.

Joy enjoying an afternoon in a cafe on the bustling pedestrian street in old town. Villnius has the largest old town of the Baltics and its also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

First order of business: food, of course!

Cepallinai: the one dish that defines Lithuanian food.
A potato dumpling filled with minced meat and drenched in a creamy greasy bacon fat sauce. It'll clog those arteries in a second. Despite it's unhealthy factor, it was not the most tasty meal, but you can't go to Lithuania and not try it. I just couldn't finish it.

Overall, the food was hit and miss. Of course, the potato was prevalent, as was cream. But we got our good share of pastries and blynai (pancakes). And while the milkshake hunt was disastrous, we discovered the Lion McFlurry, which ranks up there among my favorite international McFlurries.

A painting of Kazakhstan in a gallery.

The art scene here is flourishing. We stumbled upon many unique galleries while wandering the streets in town. This artist actually had a Kazakhstan influence. Needless to say, this painting reminded me of my trip to Central Asia with its horses and yurts!

Tradition crepe with strawberry jam. One of our many yummy afternoon breaks at a cafe.

Joy approaching half of a Tony Soprano.
You just never know what you are going to find! But in fact, we walked in a little further past Tony and found...
Lithuanian folk dancing!
Adults, teens and children were all dancing joyously to live music. We watched until almost 10 pm. Of course it was still light outside.

Trakai (day 5)
On our second day in Lithuania, we decided to take a short 30 minute bus ride out of the city to Trakai, a smaller town with lots of nature and a landmark castle. Our bus was definitely "local" as was the stench on it. We don't know if it was only due to the portly Lithuanian lady with many bags, or also the bus driver. Thank goodness it was only 30 minutes!

Natural beauty of Lithuania.

We desperately wanted to go row boating, but unfortunately we chose the wrong day to visit Trakai. It was unexpectantly windy, freezing, gray and rainy and we were not wearing enough layers!

Trakai castle.
I'm smiling admist the chills and threatening sky.

Joy and me inside the castle.

Lithuanian lady and a typical wooden house.

It was nice to explore this smaller town and see the surrounding water and nature. Too bad the weather wasn't nicer so that we could go trekking through the national park and boating, but alas we cut the day short in favor of returning to our B&B for hot tea and warmer clothes.

Taking it easy in Villnius again (day 6)
On our third day, we finally took out the guide book to make sure we didn't miss any of the "must-see" sights in Villnius.

St. Ann's church.
We had to see this one because it is in both of the paintings we bought. It was actually right down the street from our B&B. There were several unique churches peppered throughout town.

Non-restored buildings.
Not everything was sparkling and quaint. You could clearly tell that certain parts have not been recovered since the Soviet era.

Joy and me at the top of the tower on the top of the hill overlooking Villnius.
From up here, we could hear folk music so we followed the sound to a folk festival in the park.

Lithuania was pretty incredible. We enjoyed the leisurely pace at which we explored Villnius. We wandered through streets and parks and enjoyed observing the locals. For the most part, the old town was clean and lively with a lot of wonderful architecture and character. And we got to chill in a cute cafe and read fun books. Not bad at all.
Estonia: Baltic state #3

An overnight bus that stopped almost every hour in random deserted parking lots managed to get us to Tallin, Estonia, half an hour early at 6 am. From there we trammed around trying to find out how to get to Kasmu in the national park supposedly an hour and a half away. We got lots of "No's", but finally got help and a warm pot of tea from a classy hotel (ie. they have an English speaking person there - a good trick to get help in travels!). This was the one time that the efficiency of the bus system broke down. The internet times, listed times at the bus station and actual departures times were all different.

Kasmu in Lahemaa National Park (day 7)

We managed to arrive at Kasmu about 3 hours and many stops after we planned, but we were just thankful we were able to get out there. It was definitely worth it!

Random boulders sitting timelessly on the still Baltic waters. 10 pm.
My favorite view.

At last I got to ride a bike! We BIKED around everywhere as there was not good public transportation. There was no food in our town, so we had to bike 15 minutes to Vasu, the next town over, which had a beach. We also managed to get lost biking along the roads with an unsuccessful detour into the forest.

Joy and me at the beach.
A very brief dip in the cold questionable algae water.
Of course we didn't swim at the beach, but near a pier of crazy drunken Estonian men trying to fix a motor boat and roudy teens.

View from the gazebo in front of our B&B.
We had several meals here enjoying the peaceful scenery with the bogs (marshes) and swans.

Our favorite part of the park was going on a night hike through the forest and along the pebbly shore. We saw the sun setting at 10 pm over the horizon.

Jazz hands! We enjoyed stone hopping along the waters at night.

Joy hanging on one of the many trees in the national park.

It felt like we were at the northern tip of the earth - so peaceful and beautiful, minus the mosquitos. This was definitely one of our favorite moments on the trip.

Goodbye Kasmu.
Me and all my baggage - one backpack, one purse, one food bag and one painting. You can tell how tiny and remote this bus stop is, which was probably why it was hard to get here via public transportation!

Tallinn, the capital (day 8)

After a few busses, we arrived in the capital at 3. We only had a half a day here, but our only goals were to hit up all the cozy cafes and wander the town.

View of lower old town from the upper old town.

Meandering the streets of upper old town. It was quieter, more like a neighborhood and not completely restored which we liked better than the more bustling touristy lower old town.

Random cute statues.

One of the serveral colorful doors in the upper town.

Yummy potato mushroom dumplings cozy with cream of course in "grandma's" restaurant. It was one of our favorite meals.The bustling central square in lower old town.

The town wall.

The afternoon and evening was enough time for us to get a feel for Tallinn. We hit up 3 cafes and two restaurants and even got two ice creams. Overall, the people in Estonia seemed to be the friendliest of the 3 Baltics. Also, Estonia was by far the most western europeanized due to their proximity to the Scandinavian countries.

We didn't sleep so well in our hostel as it reeked of smoke and urine stench, but at least it was our own room and bathroom. Also, we had to wake up at 6 to catch our 7:30 am ferry to Helsinki!