Jetted off from Dubai at 1am on Thursday morning to Amsterdam. Flew KLM, first time flying a european airline and a bit different after flying on Emirates, Singapore airlines etc. for the past 7 years.
Landed into Schiphol at about 6:30am local time, cleared customs and then caught the train to Amsterdam Central station for a reasonable 4.5 euro's. Amsterdam was about 7C and a steady drizzle, so much for summer. Put on my rainjacket and caught the Tram down to Ceinturrbaan, near to my Hotel. Only about 8am and too early to check in so dropped my bags and went for a walk into town.
A lot of bicycles here, way more than cars:). Quite difficult crossing the road too, since there always seems to be steady flow of people on bikes. A lot of people even managed to hold an umbrella to keep off the rain as well as bike along at a steady pace:).
Quite a picturesque city, with the canals, bridges, row houses, and abundance of bicyclists. Very easy to wander around aimlessly and just take it all in.
Walking the dog.
After a decent walkabout, went to the de oude kerk, or old church, to see an exhibition of the winners of the 2013 world press photo competition. The church is in De Wallen, or better known as the red light district.
Man and a dog.
Diet Coke and cigarette.
Hand in hand.
Grabbed some lunch at stall by the canal, Cod and tartare sauce for 4 euro's. Then walked to the Anne Frank house. The queue was pretty crazy, over 300 meters long! Luckily I bought my ticket online and skipped it though:). Quite a moving place, with a good mix of multimedia and the original building and diaries etc.
Caught the tram back to the hotel at 2pm and checked in, had a shower, and had a bit of a nap.
Went out for a walk again at 4:30pm. Brouwery.
The sun was out thankfully too. Then walked further noth along the streets and bridges over the canals.
Rush hour, so twice as many people on bikes about too:)! Then went to FOAM, an art photography gallery. A bit more arty and out there to normal photography, i.e. lots of blurry out of focus shots:), but still very interesting to see and admire.
Then walked to the Bloemenmarkt, or flower market. Lots of tulip and bulbs for sale, thankfully the mania had long passed though:).
Walked further to some shops and grabbed some dinner.
By the Canal.
Then caught to tram to Central station and then walked through the alleys to check out all the Coffeeshops. They must have the same marketing strategy as those Lush soap shows, since you can smell them a mile away:). Looked like any normal coffee shop, except people were smoking joints instead. Wandered further through the alleys until the red light district to see the famous shop windows. Really bizarre and surreal. No photo's allowed though:(.
Walked back to the tram station, and back to the hotel to catch some sleep after a big day.
Got up at 6 on Friday morning and braved the 4C cold morning air and went for a run along the canals in Amsterdam, very picturesque:). Came back at 7 and the guy on the night shift at reception had fallen asleep so I was locked outside in the rain:)! He managed to arouse from his slumber after 15 minutes with a sheepish grin on his face however.
After a shower and packing up, went for a walk to the Van Gogh museum. Got to see everything from his self-portrait to landscapes. He did a lot of 'copying' too, practising his technique with other artists work he had admired, and they often had the artists work beside his painting. He even did some Japanese paintings with Japanese writing he had copied. He often ran out of canvases, and would scrape off the paint to start a totally new painting. He then realised it would be better to use the back of the canvas instead, and had some 'double sided' ones with a painting on each side of the canvas.
I then went for one last walk around Amsterdam.
Black & White.
Went back to the hotel and picked up my bags, then caught the tram to the central station then onto the airport for the 2.5 hour flight to Helsinki.
Check in was totally self-service at Amsterdam airport, even had to print out your own luggage tags, put them on yourself, and put your bag onto the conveyor belt.
Got into Helsinki airport at about 5:30pm, and managed to find the right bus for the 40 minute ride into town. After getting my bearings, found the hotel, dumped my bags and went for a walk through the city. A bit warmer than Amsterdam, can get away with just a t-shirt:).
Had some chicken for dinner, and then found an outdoor concert playing. Didn't understand the Finnish lyrics, but sounded not too bad though:).
Went for a run in the morning along the coast and then had breakfast back at the hotel, before heading out again. Found a flea market where everyone was selling odds & ends. Apparently it is 'Second hand' day in Finland today.
Bagels & more.
Walked aimlessly through the city, got lost and then thankfully got my bearings again and made my way to ferry wharf. Caught the ferry at 12pm to Suomenlinna, a group of 6 islands where Russia invaded and captured Finland 200 years ago.
After a good trek around the islands, caught the ferry back to Helsinki and went to the weekend markets. Bought some souvenirs and then had a big plate of salmon and vege's, very tasty:).
Then went to the Helsinki Cathedral, which is the main symbol/icon for Helsinki.
They were having a protest on the steps against GM food.
Got some good photo's of Finnish hippies and punks:).
Went backed to the hotel at 4pm and changed into shorts and sandals as the weather was now pretty good. There was a big music/cultural festival in the square, so went out to enjoy the sights and sounds, and take in the cool atmosphere.
Bride & Groom.
Went back to the hotel at 6pm for the Intrepid meeting and got to meet everyone who I'll be travelling with for the next 15 days. 10 of us, with a Canadian, one from the US, and seven Aussies:). Our tour leader is Sonja from Austria and is pretty friendly and organized.
Then went out for a group dinner to a Finnish restaurant. Was down in a cellar with only candles for light so was really good ambience. I opted for a traditional Finnish dish, Bear steak! Was really tasty too:). Everyone seemed to get along, so will hopefully be a good trip.
Off tomorrow Sunday to catch the ferry to Tallinn, the capital of a Estonia.
Got up on Sunday morning and went for a run along the shore in Helsinki. Ran along the wharf where they had 5 massive ice breakers docked for summer, quite a spectacle.
After breakfast and packing, met with the group at 9:30am with our bags, walked to the tram station and caught the tram down to the ferry terminal. Caught the ferry across the gulf of Finland, to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
Departing Helsinki for Estonia.
Ferry ride was pretty uneventful. Mostly packed with Fins going over for a day trip. Apparently the gulf gets frozen in winter, hence the big ice breakers:).
Got to Tallinn at 2pm, and disembarked. The Ferry had these big clam shell doors on the bow/front, where all the cars were driving off. We then walked out of the terminal and our tour leader pointed out a memorial for a Ferry that sunk in 1994 after the clam shell doors opened in rough seas, with 800 people drowned:(.
We then walked to our hotel, dropped off our bags, and went for a orientation through the old city. Sonja took us through the main sights, and then we were free to roam the beautiful streets of Tallinn.
I checked out a Photo museum too, with historical photo's of the new city, and did some wandering through the city streets.
On a perch.
Quite a small city, and only about 1.3 million people in all of Estonia. For comparison the Netherlands has slightly less land area, but 10 times more people.
Caught up with the group again at 7pm by the town square, and went out for tea again. Went to a nice local restaurant, with all the servers dressed in traditional Estonian clothes:). Had the braised rabbit leg. Quite tasty:).
Went for a run on Monday in Tallinn, through the old Soviet era suburbs, past the maritime museum, along the shore, and then back through the old city. Sunshine and blue sky's today which is great too:).
After breakfast, climbed up the Saint Olaf's church. The only way up and down was a very claustrophobic spiral stair case, and got a bit squished trying to pass people going in the opposite direction:). Had a great view when I reached the top though.
Next we went to the top floor of the Sokos Hotel to see the KGB museum. The KGB had bugged all the rooms and would eavesdrop on the foreigners that visited to keep a check on them.
Spy camera for taking photo's through peep holes into people's rooms.
The guide gave us a good spiel on the days of the Soviet occupation, and how she only got to eat Banana's 2-3 times a year due to shortages, and how the authorities would tell everyone that chewing gum would be bad for your face muscles since they didn't make any in Estonia.
Had some lunch in the park, and then we went for a bike ride tour around the city to see all the local sights like the presidential palace.
Went out for dinner with everyone to a cosy place that resembled someone's dining room:). Great food though, and had Estonian Bloody sausage:).
Saying goodbye to Estonia tomorrow with an early start at 5:30am to catch the bus to Riga, the capital of Latvia.
Got up at 5:30am to catch the Tram down to the bus station in Tallinn. Had this mint 1960's(?) bus outside on display, very cool:).
Loaded up the bus at 6:45am and were on the road at 7am. The bus was pretty flash, the seats were similar to on a plane, with touch screens on the back of the seats, and all the latest movies to watch. The wi-fi was pretty handy too, and could track the progress using Google maps.
Had a pit stop just before crossing the border, and then got to Riga, the capital of Latvia at 11:15am. We dumped our bags at the hotel, and then headed to a pub for lunch. Nothing fancy, just chicken and vegetables etc, salad and some kefir (fermented mild drink), for about 7 euro's.
We then met up with local tour guide, Olga for a tour of the old city. She was born in Russia but had married a Latvian man. She was quite nostalgic for the USSR and the days of communism.
Then did a tour with her of the many old buildings and churches in the old town for the rest of the afternoon.
Had a rest back at the hotel, then caught up for dinner with everyone at a restaurant in town, 'the flying frog'. Had bilberry rack of lamb and vege's.
Afterwards we went to Radisson Blue hotel and had a drink on the 30th floor bar. The tallest building in the city, so had an awesome view of the city below:). And then walked back in the rain to the hotel.
Wednesday was a free day, so slept in abit and then headed out for a run. Had a shower and sussed out the lonely plant book on what to do for the day in Riga. Went out for a walk across the city, and across the river looking for one of the recommendations, shooting an AK-47 at a firing range in an old Soviet fall out shelter:). Took a while to find it, as part from the a small shed on the surface, as it was all underground. The atmosphere was pretty cool and authentic, dark and lots of cold concrete, and big vault like door you had to open to get in.
They had a list of guns you could try, paying by the bullet, and I picked a 5 rounds with both a Glock 17 pistol and the AK-47. I picked my target to shoot at, and then one of the instructors took me to the range, and gave a quick lesson on the Glock 17 pistol, the same gun the NZ police use. First time firing a pistol, and was quite surprised by the 'kick' or tendency for the pistol to jump upwards when you pulled the trigger. The first two shots just missed the target, but after tightening my grip the avoid the torque of the recoil, the next three shots made the target:).
Then got to try the AK-47, he said to aim for the head this time since the accuracy was much greater. The AK had bullets that were twice as big as the 5.56mm round as used by the NZ army, the biggest round I got to fire in air cadets. Grimaced abit before pulling the trigger the first time, and definitely felt the kick:)! The next four shots I aimed at the 'head' of the target, and got all 4 bullets within 3cm and the instructor was pretty impressed:). I was standing and using iron sights so all the more surprising too.
Just my target, the shots circled in red are from the Glock, and the 4 holes in the targets left eye are from the AK:
Headed back over the river to the city centre, and then walk through the central markets. Supposed to be the biggest in Europe, and were selling everything from fresh meat and fish, to shoes and sunglasses.
Then grabbed some lunch in the old city, bought a souvenir, and then went to the national history museum. Most of the displays were in Latvian, but got to see abit of the history and culture of the country.
Then went for a walk around the city centre again.
Went back to the hotel to rest the feet and then headed out again to meet up with everyone for dinner. Decided to be totally non-adventurous and just have a burger and fries:).
Group photo at dinner.
Off traveling tomorrow to another language, currency and country to Klaepedia in Lithuania.
Blue skies and lots of sun on Thursday morning in Riga, and had a pleasant run out in the city streets. After grabbing some breakfast, we caught the trolley bus down to the Riga central bus station, and then headed off on a coach at 11am to Klaipeda in Lithuania.
The bus was decidedly average this time, the wi-fi didn't work either:(! Crossed the border into Lithuania at about 1:30pm.
Got to Klaipeda, a small city on the coast, at about 4pm, went to the ATM to get some of the local currency, and we then walked to the guesthouse where we we staying. Quiet a cool place, have got a room with ensuite, and feels like a bedroom rather than a sterile hotel room.
We then went out for a walk, and had dinner at a local restaurant. Had spicy pork, although it was actually pretty mild:). Sonja our tour leader then took us to some of the local statues and their stories. Quite a few of them when Germans used to be quite common here, until they were kicked out the Russians during the war.
Weather was nice and warm (~25C), so we went to an outdoor bar for drinks. Some locals were doing some traditional dancing, and was cool to see them dance about:).
Wet and rainy on Friday morning:(. The guesthouse though put baskets outside our doors with breakfast inside, quite cute:).
We then met up with our local guide for the day, and then took the ferry over to the Curonian Spit, a thin sliver of land shared with Lithuania and Russia.
Caught the bus down to Nida, and then did a walking tour of the town, some churches, and the forest and dunes for the day.
Caught the ferry back at 6pm, had some dinner, and then went to a local jazz festival to listen to some cool music:).
Off to the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius tomorrow for 2 nights.
Went for a run on Saturday morning in Klaipeda. Cloudy but luckily no rain which was good. Had the breakfast hamper again, then we walked down to the main bus station and caught the 10am bus to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Four lane motorway all the way and the 300 k's trip took just under 4 hours, getting to Vilnius at 2 pm.
Caught the trolley bus down to the old town, and walked to our guesthouse. Right in the middle of the old town, so a lot of character:).
We then went on an orientation walk through the old town area, checking out the sights etc.
It's the biggest old town in Europe, and very beautiful. Saw a few wedding parties, getting their photo's there. They had one group where they had guys on stilts, serenading everyone from above with lots of bubbles from bubble machines, very cool/bizarre:)!
Had some free time after that, and did some walking and exploring, and then caught up with everyone again at 7pm for dinner.
Out for a walk.
Went to a cosy restaurant deep in a cellar, and had Bhorscht or beetroot soup, which is quite popular in this part of the world.
And roast duck breast for the main, very tasty:).
Then went out for a drink in main square. Doesn't get dark until 11pm so was nice to enjoy the warm summer evening.
Went for a run around the old town in the morning. Tried to go to a few of the museums but everything was closed because of Father's Day:(.
Went up an old tower that had a cool view of the city below:
Mum and daughter.
Had Hesburger for lunch, the local version of McD's in this part of the world:).
And went for a walk through the new town area. At about 4:30pm, they had a big religious procession through town, with lots of nuns, priests, monks, and other people. Was intersting watching all the people and everyone following.
Caught up with everyone for dinner, and went to same place as Saturday night. Had the beet root soup again, and roast pork with dried plums for the main, again very tasty:).
Went to a dessert restaurant afterwards and had pistachio cake for a bit more indulgence.
Off tomorrow via train to Aukstatija National Park, staying in the village of Ginuciai for 2 nights to do some kayaking and see some of the Lithuanian country side.
Went for a run again in Vilnius on Monday morning, up through the old town and along the river. After breakfast and packing up, we met at 10am and caught the trolley bus to the train station. The bus was pretty cool, retro & 'Soviet' looking but brand new. I took a photo of it with my camera, and some lady in a Fluoro vest started yelling at me in Lithuanian:)! Then she came up to me and told me off in Lithuanian and I politely nodded my head and she seemed satisfied:).
The train departed at 11:30am, and arrived at the our destination at 2 hours later, where we got picked by a mini-van and drove 20 minutes to the village of Ginuciai. The family we were staying at had a house by a lake, with a small dock out front, very picturesque.
We dumped our bags, got changed into togs, and went down to the river and got into pairs and jumped into the kayaks. The current in the river was pretty strong so didn't have to do much paddling apart from a bit of steering. Went about 3k's down the river until we came to a lake, and then stopped on the banks and walked up a hill to get an awesome view of the lakes and forests of the national park. We also had to take up a stone up the hill for 'good luck' and the tree at the top of the hill was surrounded by a small pile of stones.
Got in the kayaks again, and paddled another 3k's down the waiting mini-van, and had a celebratory drink of a mysterious Lithuanian brew.
Had dinner when we got back, with salad, spuds, beans and a meat stew cooked by our host family, quite tasty and good to have some home cooking after eating out for the past 10 days.
Got up early on Tuesday morning and went for a run and got to see abit more of the countryside. Went for a dip in the lake when I got back, great way to cool down:).
Had breakfast with pancakes, jam, yoghurt and cheese at 8:30am and then we went for a hike in the forest. It was overcast and a bit foggy, and walked about 10k's to a Bee/Honey museum to check out some beehives and buy some fresh honey. The mosies were pretty insane too, and the bug repellant offered little resistance:(!
In the forest.
Walked back to the homestay afterwards and had a well earned lunch of cheese on toast, with ham, salami, olives & tomatoes.
After a bit of a break, went for a walk through the village, down the road and to another of the lakes in the national park, and went for a dip in the lake.
Lazed around for the rest of the day, taking it easy and enjoying the summer sun and fresh country air.
Had another home cooked dinner in the evening with vege soup, chicken & rice, and then watch the sun set over the lakes from the dock.
Leaving Lithuania on Wednesday morning with a 12 hour journey by train to Warsaw, the capital of Poland.
Just a full travel day today, first catching a mini-bus to the train station, and caught the train back to Vilnius. Transferred to another train, then to a bus due to track work, over the border into Poland. Onto another train and got to Warsaw, the capital of Poland at 7:30pm, 12 hours later:)!
Got up at 6am on Thursday morning and went for a run and went down to the main river. Saw a few Polish people running too, and a couple even waved to me, although they looked abit confused when I tried to say morning in English:).
Had breakfast at the hotel restaurant. End of the European school year and our hotel was inundated with Polish kids on an end of year school trip, so the breakfast buffet was a bit of a scrum:). Some of the other guys didn't get to sleep until midnight until the kid had finally stopped screaming down the hallways (had my earplugs from work so was blissfully unaware).
We the met up at 8am and then walked through the streets of Warsaw to the tram station.
On the Tram.
We then caught the tram across town to the Uprising museum, which covered the years during WW2 when Poland was invaded by the Soviets and Germany.
Then caught the tram again to the old town area and did a walkabout. The old town is actually mostly new, as it was reconstructed after major damage during WW2. Still looked pretty impressive, although a little 'newer' than the other cities we have visited.
Mother & Son.
We then had lunch at a restaurant, roast duck again:).
Then went to the Marie Curie museum. Even though she did her work in France, she was actually born in Warsaw. In the afternoon I went wandering around Warsaw taking more photo's and taking in the sights.
Men at idle.
We met up again at 7pm and went to a Polish restaurant, and had the Polish staple food of dumplings, some fried and some boiled. Quite tasty. Kinda like a European version of dim sum:).
Went out after at a bar in the old town, before heading back to the hotel.
Got up on Friday morning at 4:30am to get to Warsaw train station for the 6 hour journey to Berlin, Germany.
Left Warsaw train station at 5:30am, crosse the border over into Germany at about 10am and rolled into Berlin train station at 11am. Bright and sunny after a foggy morning in Warsaw so was great:).
Caught the S-bahn, or urban train and then walked to our hotel. The tickets for the public transport system is pretty cool. Basically works on honesty, with no turnstiles, gates, ticket swipes or scans to worry about. You are are free to wonder about and hop on and off the trains and buses at will. You still have a ticket, but only use it in case someone specifically asks to see it, which never happened.
Too early to check in, so we dumped our bags, and then went for a walk the east side gallery, a section of the Berlin Wall still remaining with a lot of artwork that has been painted on it.
Then caught the s-bahn to Alexanderplatz to have lunch and then caught the s-bahn to the Brandenburg gate.
Then walked to the Reichstag.
And then to the Jewish memorial.
And then just wandered the streets taking in the sights and people of Berlin.
On the couch.
Then went back to the hotel to check in, and then caught up with the rest of the guys for our final group dinner.
After dinner, we went out to a few bars, before calling a night and saying goodbye and calling it a night at 1am.
Went for a run in the morning along the Berlin Wall and along the river then caught up with some of the guys staying on in Berlin for some Berlin brunch.
Then caught the s-bahn to the Chalottenburg palace, an old palace from the Prussian era that was restored after major damage after WW2.
After saying goodbye to the everyone, I went for one final walkabout in Berlin.
Green, red & yellow.
Then caught the s-bahn out to checkpoint Charlie, the former crossing point between East and West Berlin.
Off to Berlin's Tegel Airport for the KLM flight back home today. Was an exciting 2 weeks, got to meet some cool people and share some great experiences, and getting to see 7 new countries in Europe!