Go to the day by day view here...

Intro

Here's my diary of our East Europe Tour. (No, this diary is not intended to replace the excellent Lonely Planet or Rough Guides that anyone intending travelling should drag along with them.)

Here's the route Matthew and I took:

Location Date of stop-over June 2004
Stansted, UK ...
Ljubljana, Slovenia 12
Ptuj, Slovenia 13
Balatonfüred, Hungary 14
Budapest, Hungary 15
Bratislava, Slovakia 16
Brno, Czech Republic 17
Prague, Czech Republic 18, 19
Kraków, Poland 20, 21
Warsaw, Poland 22
Vilnius, Lithuania 23, 24
Rīga, Latvia 25
Tallinn, Estonia 26
Stockholm, Sweden 27
Copenhagen, Denmark 28
Esbjerg, Denmark 29
Harwich, UK 30

Saturday, June 12, 2004

I collect Matthew from Cambridge and head over to Bernie's. Bernie drives us to Stansted Airport.

Courtesy of Easyjet, and a 2 hour flight, we're in Ljubljana.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

MountainsLjubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is on a plain, surrounded by mountains.

We board a coach at the airport  to get to Ljubljana bus station. Curiously, the driver detours via an obscure route though a forest. We soon realise why: he's giving a lift to his mates.

We spot the Hotel Lev as we drive in to Ljubljana. This is the hotel Matthew had previously booked. The hotel's fine, comfortable and modern. Yes, I said modern. Ljubljana is definitely in 2004. Any pre-conceived notions I had of entering East Europe and stepping back into the past were soon gone.
 

I have a new toy with me: a Blackberry. It's a mobile phone with email, Internet web browser, and note making facilities. But the mobile phone company in Ljubljana doesn't support GPRS! I can't play with my toy! This means emailing folks back home is not possible. I'm not connected to the Internet!
 
Arcus BarNew copper roofWe're amused by the Bar "Arcus" around the corner from the hotel. "Arcus" is such an odd name, it's also my compatriot's surname. (Matthew's Shetland ancestry.)

We never did get to have a pint there - it was always closed.
Francisan ChurchvineWe wander to the three bridges in the centre of Ljubljana. Decent rock guitar is played in the Franciscan church.

We investigate the monastery courtyard attached to the church - and get locked in! That will teach us for being inquisitive.

It's a steady walk up to the castle. There's toy train to take you up the hill, if your legs are past it. We declined.
 
Ceiling emblazoned with the heraldic devices of the upper ranks of mediaeval Germanic chivalryCastleDon't walk on the grass! (You get shouted at!)

The castle, like many places we visited, would make a great Quake level.

Matthew enthuses over the chapel's ceiling: "Oooh, look, Thurn und Taxis, Ulrich von Lichtenstein, very nice". The ceiling is emblazoned with the heraldic devices of the upper ranks of mediaeval Germanic chivalry.

There are good views of the town and surrounding mountains from the tower.

I look down longingly at the toy train.
 

CastleTower at twilightWe found that most of the castles, palaces etc. along the way were very much Germanic, with the Slavic peasantry confined to towns below. (The name "Slav" is cognate with "slave".)

Back in the town below we enjoy some mighty fine Union Beer and steak. (£24 all in) (Fortunately, we don't have any vegetarians with us: the veggie options do seem limited.)

It begins to rain.

Pivo (beer) is about £1.42 for 500mL, around half the price of beer at home.

GraffitiNot warning about coffee, but rising bollardsDuring our evening repast the weather worsened - lightening and downpour.

May be I should have brought a coat with me. (Idiot! Fancy expecting fine weather!)

Back at the hotel there's a pleasant dark beer on offer. Soon we're in bed (separate single beds, if you must know) listening to the thunder rolling around the city.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Raining. Still!

We enjoy a good breakfast - continental style buffet with a good selection. (Every hotel we stay at during this tour we get a similarly good choice.)

We head off to the railway station to get our rail tickets organised for our next stop, Ptuj. (£11:30 ea)
 

3D model3D ModelShops don't open on Sunday. I need a light, easy to carry rain coat! I've had enough of this "getting wet" novelty.

The city is quiet, other than the church bells. There are smartly dressed folk busy on their way to worship, no tourists. The place is fairly well shut up, other than the churches.

Finally we find an open coffee shop.  We're drenched - I need to change back at the hotel.
 

Eyes on forksRubble on 13th floor
A trip in the lift to the 13th floor is interesting. This floor is obviously being refurbished from scratch. All the interior walls have been demolished, rubble everywhere!
Railway platformWe catch the train to Ptuj. This is the first train journey of our holiday.

An immediate observation is how much wider the carriages are. The railway gauge is the same as the UK, but the distance between tracks is wider. (Loading gauge, apparently.) This means more room, and that means more comfort.


Ptuj, Slovenia

Town TowerKurent CarvingOur train takes us to Ptuj, an old medieval town in north-eastern Slovenia.

A short walk to the centre, passing by the Town Tower, and we book a hotel on the main high street.

Apparently real travellers don't use taxis to transport themselves from railway stations to hotels. (There is so much I have to learn!)

School Children sign River, castle and restaurant

The river Drava is in spate, flowing strongly with the recent rain.

Matthew and I enjoy a fish course at a German speaking restaurant by the foot bridge crossing the river.

We retire to the hotel bar for some pleasant Union beer.

Monday, June 14, 2004

RoofsWe prepare to leave Ptuj, but first we make time to visit the fine castle looking down on the roofs of the old city.

Matthew's plans to drag me round the old Dominican monastery are foiled by it being closed.

Hungary

Train

We take the 09:44 train to Zalaegerszeg on our way to Lake Balaton. Goodbye Slovenia, hello Hungary.

Here we meet East Europe in the form of a dumpy woman in the information office. No English is spoken. (Proudly so!) She lists the times and connections for the train to Balatonfüred on Lake Balaton. This she does by consulting printed timetables and giving us a handwritten slip. No computers were used in that exercise, not one line of SQL was executed. I'm impressed.

We have an hour to walk around the town. There's a hospital nearby. Formidable nurses in starched white uniforms walk the grounds, some pushing wheelchairs.

We return to the station. Folk are very casual about walking on the tracks, the platforms are low so it does make sense to be able to walk straight to the platform you want. (I'll have to start doing this in the UK!)

Train to Ukk... A railway junction in the middle of nowhere. The station has beautifully tended gardens, and swifts nesting in the eaves. We wait there for an hour.

Wheel-tappers. Who remembers them? They're alive and well in Hungary. Men with poles strike the carriage wheels at each station we stop at.

There's another train change at Tapolca.  The train pulls away... doors still open!

The lavatories are straightforward: beneath the seat is a 4 inch diameter pipe, with the rushing track visible beneath. I imagine the breeze would be most pleasant.

The train passes many bungalows, campsites and resorts as we get near to the lake.

The Hungarian stations have a cheerful 7 note jingle that accompany the announcements. (Sometimes they're a bit random. Is it artistic license, or buggy firmware?)
 

Balatonfüred

Round ChurchMermaidsBalatonfüred is a small resort on the north of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe.

We arrive at 17:27, walk down towards the lake, and settle for the second hotel we see, near the Round Church.

The Hotel Blaha Lujza, which turns out to be recommended by Lonely Planet too, has a pleasant little balcony where Matthew can smoke and look at the stars.

The round church is modelled after the Pantheon in Rome (or possibly the Church modelled on the Pantheon in Esztergom (which we later pass on the hydrofoil)).
 

StatueBronze handWe sign ourselves in at the Hotel, dump our bags in the room, and set off exploring.

The lake side park is very genteel. Not busy at all.

It's geared up for German tourists - spoken English is not so common.

Balaton was a great holiday destination in the Soviet era, when the Mediterranean was out of bounds. Folks from all over East Europe go there, not just Germans. (I suspect the majority of the visitors are Hungarian though.)

 

LakeWe choose a restaurant over looking the lake, selecting a "Bella platter" - a selection of meats and fish.

And beers!

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

We start the day with the ubiquitous buffet breakfast. A waiter asks about working in London or Dublin. We warn him about being exploited, but wish him well.
 
SpaFlagThere's a spa in the town. My advice is to not taste the water: it's metallic and disgusting!

We take a mid-morning boat trip on Lake Balaton. Only four passengers book up. All very pleasant and un-crowded.  The captain refunds us half the charge - he will make this a quick trip and return early to catch more punters. (We each got a glass of Hungarian Champagne on the boat too.)

The sun's out - I buy some sun tan lotion. Real travellers do this. 

Boat

TrainBy afternoon we're on the train to Budapest.

 

 

Budapest

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.ParliamentBudapest is a sprawling city bisected by the river Danube, with Buda on the hills to the west, and Pest on the plain to the east.

From the main railway station we walk though a park; then along a fume laden tunnel under the castle; finally we see the Danube and the splendid city.

We walk across the Chain Bridge, one of the three major bridges crossing the Danube.
 

ChurchTourists on Castle Hill
The Marriott and other large tourist hotels were full. A tourist information office finds us the Hotel Pest that has rooms available. (After charging us a referral fee.)

A 15 minute walk finds us at Hotel Pest, which despite its name, turned out to be remarkably salubrious.
PrincessStatue on Chain Bridge
We investigate tomorrow's hydrofoil boat journey to Bratislava. There's only one boat a day at this time of year, and that means getting to the boat at 07:00. Ridiculously early!

We buy the tickets and, mindful of our early start, attempt to "do"  Budapest in five hours. (What a daft thing to attempt: we'll do it properly next time!)

PalaceChain Bridge

We walk across the Danube via the Elizabeth Bridge, reaching the Buda Palace by using the funicular railway.

Our evening meal involves goats cheese and dead cow, very good potato and paprika soup, all washed down with mighty fine beer!

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

06:00 start. This is really unfair to Budapest: we've spent only a few hours here - there is still so much to see!

We grab food from the hotel's buffet - the staff are helpful since we're early and the restaurant isn't really open yet.
 

Hydrofoil

Moored at BudapestPassing the Parliament BuildingsWe're at the dock by 07:00, having our passports inspected.

The hydrofoil is styled from something from the 60's, with solid Russian engineering.

By 08:00 we're on our way, Budapest soon behind us. My GPS measures its speed to be a steady 33 mph. The boat has a very smooth ride.

LockMountainsWe meet some Aussies and Yanks. English speaking travellers comparing notes... where they live, where they've been, where they're going.
"Of course the the Thames is far wider than this piddling stream!" I lie, referring to the Danube.

We sample liqueurs and "special coffee" at the hydrofoil bar. Unicum has an acquired taste - and that's being polite!

We pass through a colossal lock, just before arriving in Bratislava.
 

Bratislava, Slovakia

BratislavaBratislava is the capital and largest city of Slovakia.

Tonight we're staying at the Botel Gracia (£47:63) The tourist information office charges 60skr (£1) for the privilege of making the reservation.

The Botel is a moored boat converted to a hotel - never really a boat, but a purpose built floating hotel.

BirdsOwlThe Blackberry has been used to keep us in contact with friends back home.

Email GPRS was fine in Hungary with Vodaphone, but here in Bratislava the local telephone network "Orange SK" doesn't support the Blackberry's email.
StatueChurch with River DanubeWe go to an Internet cafe to check email. Configuring a Slovak version of Outlook with the Slovak keyboard with a missing enter key is a delight. We decide that wading through emails from home is "sad", and decide not to waste time in an Internet cafe again during the rest of our holiday. 
Indoor market

bridgeWe walk to the castle, but find it closed - the Band of the Army Air Corps from Middle Wallop are performing there for the local great and good!

Bratislava has several universities... there's a feeling that this place is not so much of a tourist trap as some of the other cities we had visited.

One of the many street side cafe restaurants provides us with good food and cool beer.

Vlado's Virtual Photo Gallery

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Bratislava CastleGraciaWe take it easy in the morning.
StatueTown HallI take a final look around Bratislava before we head of to the Czech Republic.

A solid wall of Soviet-era high-rises looms across the river. What a contrast to the old town. Gangster country according to the bandsman Matthew spoke to.

Why he should have known I don't know.
Man At Work

At the railway station we queue for our tickets. An Australian couple in front are rummaging for ten Koruna notes. Matthew and I intercede. The Real Travellers' code: "help out your fellow travellers." We offer the couple the difference. Much thanks is offered. (And it gets us to the head of the queue quicker!)

This generosity does not extend to beggars. Any requests are either ignored, or returned with Paddington Stares. (Matthew attempted to give some money to someone in Vilnius, but the would be recipient  ran off.)

The train leaves at 13:00.

Our passports are inspected as we cross the border into the Czech Republic .

 

Brno, Czech Republic

Cathedral of St. Peter and St. PaulSt. Michael's churchBrno is the second largest town of the Czech Republic, famous for its slender gothic spires and being the home of the Bren Gun.

The Tourist information office suggest we try the Hotel Omega, a 15 minute walk from the centre.

We forgo the castle. (The novelty of castles has worn somewhat thin.)

 

 

SkyBeer! Food! Brno is quite civilised: it has a lively centre, not just tourists having an evening out.

The locals certainly know how to snog! It seems that part of the Czech life cycle is making passionate embraces in full public view, preferably while clinging on to a parapet hanging over a 40 foot drop. (This seems to be a more general feature of East Europeans... they were doing public displays in Estonia too.)

Friday, June 18, 2004

Brno CastleWe tried to work out a timetable for the route to Prague. Matthew has taken it into his head to take the scenic route on the train to Prague; it turns out that this will require about eight changes and take twelve hours, so we decide to go direct, which takes three and a half.

We say goodbye to Brno, catching the 10:25 train to Prague.
 

Prague

King Wenceslasastronomical clock

Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic

We arrive at the main station, Hlavní Nádraží, where the information office directs us to a pension €60 per night.

We've arranged to meet Irena, an old friend of Matthew's. He met Irena in Gdańsk in 1980 on a previous epic travel.

We meet Irena in the late afternoon by the statue of King Wenceslas. She is happy to be our local guide.

There are no Russian tanks in Wenceslas Square today.

The astronomical clock was pretty amazing! This  stunning mechanism was built in the early 15th century. (Matthew is crafting a replica here.)
 

CowCharles BridgeWe stroll around the old town, and along the river. There are lots of fibre glass life-size cows painted up randomly placed about the city. (There are also cows in Stockholm and currently Manchester. Some kind of virus perhaps?)

Irena's daughter (who we don't have the pleasure of meeting) is trying to find all the cows.

Irena recollects the "Velvet Revolution", November 1989. The revolution split the country off from the Soviet empire and culminated in the Velvet Divorce and the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

We choose a restaurant near the touristy King Charles Bridge, swarming with visitors.
 

StatuePissing Don't look at he prices! £36 for the three of us - reasonable for Matthew and I - but a gross extravagance for Irena. (She asks for the itemised receipt so she can amuse her friends.)

We admire a fountain with two urinating gents. Send an SMS message to +420 724370770 and a message will be remotely pissed on the ground in Prague. (Excellent use of technology - I approve!)

VltavaReal Budweiser lager, Budvar, is readily available here. Beer costs us 40p a pint. And it's damn good beer. The finest lager in the world no less. And a national religion.

(I have been chastised by friends working at the London Stock Exchange: my informal Here in this country beer costs 40p per pint! is somewhat amateurish.  OK, GDP per capita may be a better metric, or may be I should use PPP, Purchasing Power Parity?)

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Prague Town Hall - what's left of itPrague has an integrated transport payment system. 12 Kč (24p) gets you a timed ticket that works for the entire Prague transport system: metro, bus and tram. You buy the ticket; validate it by franking it on the first vehicle you enter. You can then travel for the next 40 minutes (or whatever). A ticket franked on a bus will work on successive changes of vehicle - until your time has expired.

We practice speaking Czech while on the metro to Irena's home in the Prague suburbs. We learn "Stop getting on and getting off, the doors are closing" and learn how to pronounce the station names from Muzeum to Háje on line "C".

Irena meets us and introduces us to Miša, her mutt. Irena provides us with a welcome home cooked meal.

SuburbsWe spend the day talking and walking around the local park and reservoir.

The evening finds us practising the names of the stations from Skalka back to Muzeum on line "A".

We realise that the Czech language is similar to Slovakian, and possibly close to Polish and Slovenian. I can utter a "Dobry Den", "Pivo" and that's about it. I learn that "č" has a "ch" sound. Learning the language would be difficult - it's so unlike English.

In Czech, č is pronounced "ch", š is pronounced "sh";in Polish, "sz" is pronounced "sh", "cz" like "ch"; in Hungarian, confusingly, "s" is pronounced "sh", "sz" is pronounced "s", "c" is pronounced "ts", "cs" is pronounced "ch".
 

DetailIt's tricky taking photos: you really cannot do the fine architecture in the centre of Prague any justice with snaps.  The buildings have meticulous detail. There's so much to see. It's overwhelming. Forget the camera and just enjoy what you're looking at.

Time for a beer!

As we drink our fine Czech beer, we listen to the sound of Gabrieli being played by a brass ensemble at the very top of the town hall tower. It's extraordinary how the sound carries.
 

Czechitout
Prague Transportation System - Metro

Sunday, June 20, 2004

ChurchillWe meet Irena at midday and visit the old Jewish district - synagogues and mirror image clocks. We enter the old Staronova Synagoga 'Old-New Synagogue'.

We take a tour of the fascinating Astronomical Tower. (A good head for heights is recommended: the stairs and ladders were not to my liking!) The tower, dating back to 1731 defined the Prague meridian, and was used as an observatory right up until the 1930s.

Afterwards we enjoy lunch at a restaurant Irena frequented when she was a student.

We visit the Czech Cubism Museum.

An eclectic mixWe say goodbye to Irena, thanking her. It's really good to have a resident show you around.

Matthew informs me of some old writer guy "Franz Kafka" who had a bit to say on this and that. I displayed my ignorance. "Books, read eh?"

(I am to read "The Castle" and "The Trial".)

StationWe visit the Robert Capa photograph exhibition at the Municipal House.

By the evening we're back at the main railway station, catching the overnight sleeper to Kraków, Poland.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Who in their right mind would get on a sleeper? We're so cramped in the carriage. There are 3 bunks in our compartment. A third occupant would be too much!

And who would get on a train that rides the very tracks that took Jews to Auschwitz? The horrors of Auschwitz are infamous, and the name itself is a byword for all that is bestial in humankind. Deserted sidings freight wagons in the dim dawn - it's too upsetting to reflect on what happened here.

According to Lonely Planet, occupants of overnight trains out of the Czech Republic are occasionally gassed and robbed. This makes Matthew a little nervous and ever alert for hissing noises.

At 03:00 we are disturbed by passport control.
At 06:30 we are woken with "20 minutes everybody off!" This is supposed to be a holiday!

 

Kraków, Poland

Kids in Rain Coats

Tram from Hotel WindowThe first day of summer - damp and grey. We arrive at dawn and we're told to get off the train - no chance of  a sleep till a reasonable hour. The rail station at Kraków is a dump. Well, it appears that bad when you've had no sleep.

We find hotel over the road - I sleep for a couple of hours while Matthew explores the old town. I'm restored after a couple of hour's sleep.
 

Tour of University MuseumThe city is surrounded by green lawns and flower beds where the old moat used to be.

There's a buzz about the place. Kraków is a fine university town.

Matthew climbs up the Town Hall tower. He enjoys the heights and views while I buy a coat. That will learn me for going on holiday thinking it would be sunny all the time! With my coat I'm cold no longer. I don't care if it rains: I remain dry! "It's is a very nice coat!"

We take a tour of the University Museum, led by an enthusiastic academic. The hour tour lasts for and hour and a half. I'm not bored: the tour is fascinating, giving a background to Nicolas Copernicus as well as a fascinating insight into the life of a mediaeval academic.
 

Dragon lives hereCathedral and Castle We climb up to the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill.

Kraków Castle is the spiritual capital of Poland. Matthew visits the crypt, full of vast musty sarcophagi of Polish Kings and Heroes, and sees the vast Sigismund bell.

We didn't see any dragons.
 

DeathDon't leave the tourist trail

We wander of towards the Jewish district, Kazimierz, south of  the castle.
A dubious "gent" asks us the way to the centre, clutching a tatty map.
"Try that way..."

We're interrupted by an undercover "fed".
"Are you buying or selling? What are you carrying? What's in your pockets? Turn out your pockets; open your wallets!"
The fed stops short, with a "Mind how you go..."

Fire dancerCloth Hall
After a meal and several pints later - all is well.
Kosciol Mariacki - St Mary’s Church Wieza ratuszowa - Town Tower
Moon
The sun's setting and the moon's in the right place, where it should be, where we calculated it should be!

And it's got its phase right too!

(Blame the Astronomical Clock we saw in Prague for our sudden interest in such things.)

SIGHTSEEING TOUR of CRACOW

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

ParkRestaurant in town squareWe organise train tickets to Warsaw and spend a final couple of hours looking around Kraków.

A three hour train journey gets us from Kraków to Warsaw. Reserving seats, although an extra hassle, does make sense.

 

Warsaw, Poland

PalacWarsaw is the capital of Poland. During WW2 the city was deliberately demolished. The post-war decision to retain Warsaw as Poland's capital resulted in a large-scale reconstruction.

The main railway station at Warsaw is another fine Quake level, finding the secret staircase to escape to the upper floor and the outside world. There's a warren of underground walk ways teeming with shops - but no obvious way out. Fortunately, as soon as you discover the upper level, all is obvious.

A helpful chap at the Information office soon finds us a hotel. (Be prepared to queue. You queue to talk to the helpful chap, queue again to talk to someone about train times, then again when you buy the tickets.)
 

Vistula BridgeMermaid StatueThe recommended hotel is a 15 minute walk. Warsaw's a modern city, but with a prominent communist era "wedding cake" building, "The Palace of Culture". Not so foreboding - it houses a multiplex cinema.

The modernity of the main part of the city makes a pleasant change from the other cities we have visited.

We head off towards the River Vistula - there's not a look for the tourist here. We're not so keen on the sewerage flowing into the river - although the seagulls were.
 

Zygmunt's ColumnWarsaw - Royal Palace We climb up and head towards the old Warsaw that was rebuilt after the WW2 bombing. We walk past the remains of the original Corinthian column of the statue of King Zygmunt Waza. (Don't worry - there's a new one.)

We enjoy a fine meal (£28:26) at the "Cafe Design" on the Krokowskie Przedmieście (part of the Royal Way) near to the Bristol Hotel and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

FountainChildren being shown cracked bell We observe the soldiers guarding the memorial. It's contained in a few arches of  a colonnade from the former Saxon Palace destroyed by the Germans in WW2.

We watch the guards from the Tomb marching to and from their barracks. They wait patiently at the pedestrian crossing for a green light, even though the traffic is waiting for them.
 
Palace of Culture and SciencePalace of Culture and Science
There's a fine studenty bar outside the Palace of Culture and Science that now houses a large multiplex cinema.

Excellent larger - albeit served in plastic glasses.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

We visit the Technology Museum where several frumpy women gives demonstrations. The famed "transparent woman", a plastic model showing internal organs, needs a bit of remedial attention.

One aunt-like woman gives gives classic demo of a cathode ray beam and bar magnet: introduce the magnet. Does the beam move away or toward the magnet? Fleming, Maxwell where are you? I should know this stuff from the top of my head!
 

It's a long way downFoolhardy kids clustering near the edge We ascend the "wedding cake", sorry, Palace of Culture and Science.
 
We get to the viewing platform on the 30th floor on what is proudly announced to be a "Western European High Speed Lift". No dangerous old Soviet technology here.

(Yet more heights for me to endure! Matthew and several groups of Polish school kids took it all with ease.)
Chopin Palace on Water
Walk to Chopin park - very nice. The Astronomical Observatory we hoped to visit was closed to the public.

We explore Lazienki Park, and The Palace on Water.


 
Rebuilt wallOutdoor theatreWe check the calibration on the sundial in the park. It seems to be about right with plausible tabulated values of equation of time plus local time offset.

Peacocks strut around the amphitheatre in the park - tormented by the odd vile teenager.
Polish MemorialBoy SoldierThe Polish Memorial was sobering.

In WW2 People in Warsaw had enough and went for it. The Russian army stood by, while the Germans wrecked havoc. 

How far do you go before “laying down your life?”

 

Wedding CakeMermaid and child... anyway the beer's fine and there's some rather tasty mince dumplings. (I can still taste the grease as I write this!)

We board the sleeper train to Vilnius. (£48:40)

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Warsaw to Vilnius couchette. Couchette? Sounds nice - it is not. Matthew and I share with a sweet elderly Polish woman. Accommodation for six - forget that - three is too many!

At 03:00 the passport control arrive. Polskis and the Lithuanians scour our passports.

At 04:30 the train is still being re-shunted. A very slow non seam-welded track to Vilnius. The rail infrastructure in Lithuania has seen happier times.

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

StatuesBrick Church - St Anna'sVilnius is the capital of Lithuania, the southernmost of the Baltic States.

A short walk from the station we find a smart fresh clean hotel. The Mikotel (£33:91). It looks brand new. The kindly receptionist welcomes us.

I grab 2 hours sleep - sheer luxury - while Matthew reconnoitres the town.

How wonderful after the night on the train - the pleasure of a shower! Some travellers think it's cool not to shower. Silly idea.

TowerThree Cross HillIt's useful having Matthew do the leg work. I utter "lead on" and he does.

We enter the old town via the Gates of Dawn and explore the main street of Vilnius. We choose a street cafe on the old street - sausage meat dumplings. Any beggars are promptly told to "move on" by cafe minders.

The view from the top of the tower is most excellent, with a fine display of arms and armour through the ages

The castle is "very nice". Just don't walk down any unmarked paths on the way down: they lead to closed gates at the bottom.

An impressive new palace, a reconstruction of the old one, is being built by the cathedral.
 

Barbed WireBarracade

Today is a national mid-summer holiday - everything is quiet and closed up.

We walk to the parliament buildings and witness the barricades, remnants of the country's fight for independence from the former USSR.

 

BarracadeFountainThe Vilnius Massacre Revisited
Standing up for freedom
 
EveningGates of DawnThere's heavy rain in the evening - this doesn't stop us. I've got a coat and I'm going to use it! We feed and imbibe under cover of a restaurant's large tarpaulin roof; entertaining ourselves by ordering food and drinks at random intervals so the poor staff get drenched as they collect each item from over the road.

Somebody on the council has organised the building illuminations just right. Mercury on white painted frontages, sodium on coloured.

A wet walk back to the hotel and prepare for an early morning (07:00) departure to Rīga.

ChurchThe Blackberry's GPRS email connection has stayed up all the way from Prague. Nice, very nice.

Jörgen Städje's Vilnius Page
Daily Baltic News

Friday, June 25, 2004

We're up early ready to catch the 7:00 bus to Rīga, Latvia. (The railway tracks in the Baltic states are, well, not too good at the moment. There's no train service northwards, so we take the bus. The roads are fine.)

There's a stop while passports are inspected. By 11:30 we've arrived in Rīga. We've crossed from Lithuania to Latvia through countryside that's green and open, although sparsely populated.

Rīga, Latvia

TracksRailway PlatformRīga is the on the Baltic Sea coast and is the capital of Latvia.

We choose the hotel Forums - it's just over the road from where the bus stops.

After an enjoyable greasy meat pasty we take a train to Jurmala, the seaside resorts on the Baltic coast.

The train is pretty amazing! - it's is a proper solidly built Russian thing. It's like a barn on wheels.

Sun Sea and Sand at JurmalaSquare
It's mid-summer holiday - the beach is busy with folk all enjoying the fresh Baltic sea air.

I endure some Balsam coffee - not recommended! (Black Balsam is a black gooey drink that should be avoided at all costs.)
ArtistsGoddess Milda on the freedom monumentBack to Rīga then rain!

That soon clears up after a couple of platters of semi raw meat and fish, steak and gravlax. And some beer.

A street artist, and accompanying girls, draw Matthew's portrait. (A very good likeness!)

Vanšu BridgeGlass clad buildingWe change the time on our watches: we're on BST minus 2 hours, and it's quite light at 23:00. We're so far north there's twilight throughout the night.

The Blackberry's Internet and email is "off line" here in Rīga.

House of the Blackheadsencyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Riga

Jörgen Städje's Latvia Page

Saturday, June 26, 2004

We reach Tallinn after a long bus drive. We covered 300km.
 

Tallinn, Estonia

Our coach at the border (The Russians let us off of a piss!)Alexander Nevski Cathedral 18th CThe city of Tallinn is the capital and principal seaport of Estonia.

We find a comfortable hotel near docks and old town.

Matthew books the ferry for tomorrow to Stockholm at 16:00. We can't get a cabin, but a few steerage class tickets are available.

We head off to explore the city. The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the Castle area is still busy, with a congregation mainly of elderly women praying along to a pre-recorded tape, while around them mill the tourist hordes gawping at the iconostasis.
 

Nut StallCliff topWe choose a restaurant in the central square serving Russian appetisers: fat, meat, pickled herring.

There's some friendly students running a nut stall - tasty - roasted with cinnamon. (The nuts that is, not the students.)

Sun settingSunset... St. Olaf's Church 13th CThere's the feeling that with left East Europe behind. We're in a Nordic country - the multiplex cinema and shopping Mall are modern and to a very high standard.
TwilightTowersThe Blackberry's GPRS is live - I can email!

We climb to the castle and watch an hour long sunset. (Matthew and I placing bets on the point of intersection and the time of the setting sun.)

The sunset was at 23:44.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Warehouse demolitionTowers and city wallRain! Lots of it!

Common sense dictates that we should stay inside. There's Harry Potter showing at 11:30. The local multiplex has a sophisticated ticket purchasing system that displays the seating plan.

Decent roomy seats.

Good film too - subtitles in Estonian and Russian.

www.superkinodm.ee

CostumeNuts
We return to reality and to the Old Town.

The nut stall is preparing chocolate covered nuts today.

A restaurant serves us mega mushroom soup and meat platter.

 

PeppersackEstonian FlagWe collect our bags from the hotel, go to the old city harbour, and check in at 16:00 for the 17:00 Stockholm sailing.

Goodbye Tallinn. Farewell Estonia.

Estonia sounds like a fictitious country out of an old Ealing film comedy. A decent place worthy of a return visit.

Goodbye!Matthew Admiring the sunset. (He's smoking too!)Flying may be fast - but ferries are a lot more laid back - bars and a chance to meet other folk. And the Regina Baltica's on-board restaurants offer good food - and beer!
I'm sure there must be a name for the structureSailing in the midnight twilightI play with the my GPS. The boat's navigation system is pretty damn accurate. For part of the sailing we're on a course due west for around 10 minutes. No deviation at all. The course is due West, with no latitude change. (Other than when I stomp from starboard rail to port rail and back.)

The things some people get up to!

Matthew rescues me and we have another pint.

Twilight remains with us throughout the night.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Aland IslandsPassing ferry near MariehamnThe Tallinn to Stockholm ferry goes via Mariehamn, the capital of the Aland Islands.

We passes hundreds of islands in the Stockholm Skärgård.


 

StockholmI get very little sleep! (No cabins were available, other than a communal lounge.) But we do arrive safely. We're in Stockholm at 10:00.
 

Stockholm, Sweden

I'm sure Stockholm is a fine place and worthy of a more fulsome report. It's not getting one as all we did there was queue up at travel agents and ticket offices. We got to know the main railway station and bus station layout pretty well.

There was no chance of an a flight home today or tomorrow. Useful internet cafes at the stations helped there.

If you ask why not use the Blackberry? We did try:

  1. DNS seemed broken on the first few times the phone registered with the network - "it got better".
  2. The Ryanair web site uses frames - the Blackberry browser doesn't support frames.
  3. We know HTML</b>! Hack to main Ryanair page. The Blackberry browser doesn't support JavaScript.
  4. Curse the Blackberry as YetAnotherProductThatsNotQuiteThereYet ™

So - no plane. All flights full, unless we wanted to pay full wack of around £500.

An agent suggested a route home via Berlin using trains, a ferry and a flight.  We rejected that offer after a few moments of disbelief.

We went with the next option: cross Sweden using the X2000 train to Malmo; get the "bridge" train to Copenhagen, cross Denmark to Esbjerg, then ferry to Harwich. We should be home on time!

With the plan in place we didn't have the time (nor, bluntly, the inclination) to took around Stockholm. We took the next high speed train (15:20) to Malmo (19:45).

We had a "quiet" carriage, inferring mobile phones were verboten. We joined 3 other sleepy travellers and a family of yelling kids. The kids were eventually gagged, and we had some sleep. I was most impressed by the train - the ride was very quiet. The tilting action was excellent - you could see the carriage was tilting but couldn't feel a thing.

The connection from Malmo (20:04) to Copenhagen (20:39) took us over the new Øresund bridge, that runs between Denmark and Sweden. (I wish we had a few more spectacular pieces of infrastructure like this back home!)
 

Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli GardensTivoli GardensWe find a hotel near railway station, the Astoria. (£68)

We grab fast food at the Tivoli Gardens opposite the station, finally a chance to relax. Yes, the gardens are a bit tacky, but they're fun. They're like Alton Towers on a smaller scale. Well worth a visit. Lots going on. Scary rides, live music, restaurants.

Tivoli GardensTivoli GardensAnd finally a bed on which to sleep!

"If you don't suffer mild sleep deprivation when you're on holiday, you're not doing it right." remarked Matthew.

Another packet of cigarettes gets secretly lobbed out of the window.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Copenhagen in the rainBusy platformWe slept the night through - woke as humans.

It's raining in Copenhagen.

Book train and ferry. Train to Esbjerg, then ferry to Harwich, using DFDS Seaways.

There's time to do an hour's walkabout before we checkout from the hotel.

Post with high tides markedEsbjerg
It's still raining in Copenhagen as we leave at 12:30.

At 15:22 we reach the port, Esbjerg. It's bright and sunny.

 

StatueEsbjergAlthough we have 3 hours to kill we don't have the inclination to walk back to the rather pretty town centre. We've had enough rather pretty town centres for the time being.

We find a bench near the terminal, and relax in the sun, until we're called to board the boat. It sails at 19:00.

We're due in Harwich at 11:00 next morning.
Container FerryOn board there's a fine buffet and beer. And this time we have a cabin! We are sharing with a few backpacker types who retire early and are inoffensive.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

ShotleyBooking a ferry and cabin was a good idea - you can actually sleep. Our 6 berth cabin is full - but totally adequate. (The en-suite is a plus.)

It's a pleasure to see Sizewell's dome glowing on the distance. The Martello Tower at Aldeburgh can be just picked out.
 
Passing boat under sailFelixstoweHello Felixstowe Docks!  On the opposite shore is Shotley Marina, where part of Jenny's fleet is moored. A welcome familiar sight. We're home!

The boat docks and we're soon at customs. The officials wave us through quickly and we're booking train tickets to Cambridge by 11:30.

The UK integrated transport system!  The 12:20 train to Cambridge via Manningtree, Ipswich, Norwich, Ely, Cambridge. Ridiculous. (There is a tube strike - so we decide to avoid London, a potentially faster route.)

We decide to take a later train from Ipswich, direct to Cambridge.

Yesterday we were in Copenhagen on platform 6 - over 200 people waiting to get on. And they did. Reserved tickets meant they each had a seat. Their system seems to work well. Here at Harwich there's Matthew, a lad with a bike, and I (3 passengers).

"..and the width of the carriages is narrower!" I continue to whinge. (The track gauge here is the same as on the continent, I am informed.)

"Why is the London bound train a diesel? Have the overhead wires failed in London?" (Whinge whinge!)

We have a couple of hours to kill in Ipswich. We spend them pleasantly at the Station Hotel, enjoying proper fish and chips, and proper beer (Wherry).

And we're soon rattling our way home in a cramped narrow carriage to Cambridge.

But it's great to be back home!

Conclusions

  • I would do the whole tour again - but spend at least a week in each country. Spending only a few hours in a city is ridiculous, almost a discourtesy to the places we visited.
     
  • The white bread we have in England tastes of cardboard.
     
  • Chocolate in England is an insipid paste. (Yes I know we're used to it, but continental chocolate is really good!)
     
  • Being on the move for 19 days is exhausting!
     
  • A basic familiarisation of European history before I went would have been useful.
     
  • You do need a passport to cross each border. (Except Sweden to Denmark where there was no check made.)
     
  • We achieved our aim: to have a pint in each of the 8 new EU accession countries.

All images © N G Hubbard June 2004