Monday, October 31, 2005

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland

(Lithuania) Vilnius - Trakai - Siausiai - (Latvia) Riga - (Estonia) Tallinn - Paldiski - (Finland) Helsinki


TRAVEL LESSON 1: Never order a very spicy kebab before catching an overnight bus.

Clearly I wasn't thinking when, cold and hungry, I went for a kebab with extra spice. The vendor put so much chill sauce in it that I think there was actually more chilli than kebab!

TRAVEL LESSON 2: Just because you paid for it out of your little travel budget, doesn't mean you have to eat the whole thing!

A typical and illogical backpacker trait, where even though it's burning the inside of your mouth and your stomach is not taking to it AT ALL, the little voice in the back of your head is saying "but you paid for it, and you don't want it to go to waste, after all you're on a budget!!"

TRAVEL LESSON 3: Despite your best intentions and strictest vows, if you gotta go, you gotta go.

I broke one of my travel vows that night, which is for the sake of my sanity and for others, to never use the toilet on the bus! Thankfully it was one of those fancy Euroline buses and not a clattering cold dirty hunk of metal on wheels. I certainly got my money's worth that night!

Anyway, arrived in Vilnius at 3:30am (the stupid company told us 6:30am), tired, cold, and needing to use the bathroom (which there was an absence of in the immediate 1km radius of where I was).


Vilnius is quite a pretty city with the largest old town in Europe, but there's no people! I would be out on the streets at 2pm and I would hardly see a soul, and this is the capital of Lithuania! They seem to have an obsession with churches as they are everywhere. Perhaps that's where they are all hiding.

Anyway, I caught up with Cynthia, who I had hooked up with in Suceava, Romania. A funky cool free spirited New Zealand chick and partner in crime, we had so much fun last time we decided to meet up for round two and do some travelling through the rest of the Baltics together.

Discovered some pretty funky cool cafes and restaurants in Vilnius, though the food is so very rich in their potatoes and meats that even I had difficulty finishing my meals (and this rarely happens!). One such notable Lithuanian cuisine is the Zeppelins, which are basically football shaped mashed potato with minced meat inside. Very filling!

Checked out some interesting places such as the only monument in the world to Frank Zappa, the former KGB prison/torture cells, and Uzupio, Lithuania's answer to Copenhagen’s Christiania, which is another area of land in the capital claimed by squatters to be an independent republic outside of the EU!


We did a day trip to Trakai, which is a lovely little series of lakes out in the countryside containing several small islands joined together by floating wooden bridges. One of the islands contains a very well reconstructed castle. Quite a cool place to live I reckon.


We decided to head to Riga in Latvia, stopping via Siausiai, a town in Lithuania famous of it's rather peculiar hill of crosses. This hill pretty much consists of a multitude of wooden crosses, all crammed together in such a small hill. Crosses would be hanging off crosses, some crosses where enormous and lavishly decorated, all of them
memorials to those deported to Siberia after the Soviet occupation. The Soviets actually bulldozed the original hill of crosses, but the proud and persistent Lithuanians continued to rebuild it over and over again. It really is quite a bizarre sight to see, especially as it is in the middle of nowhere in the center of a cold flat field.

Crazy Lithuanians.


Riga is a joy to wonder in the beautiful art nouveau old town, although there seems to be a excess of strip joints around the place! You can be in a restaurant that would have a strip joint underneath, or wander in seemingly ordinary bars to discover scantily clad ladies dancing on poles. The hostel we stayed at is actually on top of a
strip joint itself!

What was annoying was the high number of drunken British lads on their stag parties, staggering about drunk by day, throwing up everywhere at night. Though they are generally harmless as they're only having a fun time, but it's come to the point where some bars advertise themselves as places which do not have stag parties, to attract those who want a pleasant night out rather than raucous.

One thing I did notice about the Baltic countries is the way that all the bars and clubs would have numerous places to hang coats, useful in a place where the weather is usually extremely cold (whilst in contrast the bars themselves are usually extremely hot, seems like the Baltics have no concept of moderation, it's all extremes here!).

Latvian cuisine consists of Pelmenti, which are basically dumplings reminiscent of won ton dumplings or even dim sims, fried or served in soup.


-The Estonians (and Finnish) seem to love double letters in their words. Many words contain double vowels (eg ee, aa, ii, oo). For example, the word Tallinn -does it really need the extra L and N?

-Its fun pronouncing their currency (EEK) - sounds like you're strangling a small rodent ("That would be 40 EEK!). Well actually you just call it "Kroon"...

-"Ravioli served in broth soup" is almost exactly the same as Asian won ton soup! All it is missing is the bean sprouts and chilli (and the chopsticks)!

-They love their pancakes here, and they are so big I have trouble finishing them (which is becoming the norm for me in the Baltic countries, and many of you know how much I can eat (a helluva lot)) so you can imagine how big and filling they are!)

-Tallinn is not as pretty as Riga, but more interesting in it's layout, featuring huge city walls with towers and turrets, and a hilly section containing the palace and beautiful Russian basilica comparable to the big one in Moscow.

-Estonians are a lot more reserved and introverted than the lively Latvians and Lithuanians. This is probably due to their conservative Finnish-Ugaric roots, whereas the Lithuanians/Latvians are a derivative of Indo-European and lively extroverted Russian roots.

Did a day trip to Paldiski, which was a Soviet Military training town, closed to the public until recently after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before, only relatives of the people training there could visit.

It was quite remarkable braving the cold and visiting the ruins of the military school, where much of it is being demolished now, but you can still see the main buildings, the training grounds and some of the barracks where the soldiers slept.

Helsinki isn't the most exciting beautiful town to be in. There's no real pretty old town, it's cold, dark, the people are a little more reserved, there is nothing open on Sundays.. There are a few churches and some boat trips around the surrounding islands, but that's pretty much it. In fact Helsinki doesn't really have much going for it except the nightlife, though the nightlife seems to finish up early. But despite all this, I am quite fond of little Helsinki, chilling out in it's warm atmospheric cafes, bars and restaurants, walking the empty cold streets (everyone is inside away from the cold - as I would like to be - but the sightseeing must be done (observing the Finnish philosophy of Sisu)!), and observing the way the city lights up at night wonderfully.


1. Estonians (OH MY GOD!! They are the stunning blond blue eye equivalents of the olive skinned dark haired girls in Beirut!)

2. Lithuanian (here the girls are either really attractive, or really ugly, some actually have moustaches and manly figures).

3. Latvian (though they are still slightly better than average looking compared to other countries)

4. Finland (quite shocked at this, but then I wasn't too impressed with the Swedes either, so I guess it's beauty in the eye of the beholder)

Tomorrow I head back to Tallinn, then leave Cynthia behind when I fly the following day to London, where I will begin a whirlwind tour of England, Scotland and Wales in the 26 days I will have left to go before flying home to Melbourne on the 27th Nov(?) So hopefully I will be able to catch up with all your people in the UK while doing so..

And then I'm planning to go on a two year travel stint in Asia...

Monday, October 10, 2005

The North Poland

Berlin - (POLAND) Poznan - Gdansk - Sopot - Westerplatte - Warsaw

Dzien Dobry,

Aaahh! Less than two months left before I have to go home, after an amazing and educational two years travelling Europe and the Middle East! Plans for travelling the rest of the world for the next 5 years are in the making though, so will keep you posted!


One thing I must say about the Germans is how adorably childlike and innocent they can be. For example, a traveller recounting an experience where he was in a movie cinema:

"The cinema showed an advertisement of happy people eating ice cream. When the advertisement was over, the lights went up and a guy emerged from the front with a tub and saying something along the lines of "so, anyone for ice cream?" Several happy eager German hands went up."

Bless them.

Another example was when I boarded a train to the bus station. Unsure if the train was going the right way I ask a dignified middle aged woman for assistance. Looking at my metro map she proceeded to trace the path of the train with her finger whilst making little choo choo train noises to the destination.

Bless them. Bless them all.


Spent the last nights generally chilling out in cafes, eating currywurst from a stand punningly titled "Checkpoint Curry", and even went to eat in a Vietnamese restaurant (you don't see many of these) to see how it compares to Melbourne Vietnamese restaurants (it doesn't - not to be biased but there is nothing like the quality and diversity
that is Melbourne food. Melbourne cafes also makes the best coffees!). Also went out on the town with hostel folk, drinking at a squatter owned bar, avoiding the numerous black leather corseted prostitutes on the streets, and ending the night by hooking up with one Aussie girl whilst at the same time keeping her friends head out of the toilet
bowl due to too much vodka...

Gotta love Berlin!


After having to help push the bus to get it started, I finally made it to Poznan. Poznan is a lovely large town filled with pedestrianised streets, restaurants, shopping malls, cafes, and bars/clubs. Discovered a funky cool little cafe called "Cacao Republika" where I spent much time drinking the best thick hot chilli chocolate with cream and chilling out in the predominantly red cosy upper floor of lush carpets, soft sofas and black and white abstract art paintings on the walls; where one can look out the window and watch people walking below looking cold and miserable on the dark wet cobbled streets while feeling mightily pleased with yourself.

If the Polish know how to do anything wonderfully, it's town squares. Poznan is no exception, in fact I consider it one of the most beautiful squares in Poland, if not Europe! In fact:


1. Make a large squarish shaped area of cobbled stones.

2. Line it on all sides with magnificent historic coloured baroque/renaissance/art nouveau burgher (eventually, burger) houses. Turn the ground floors into bars, outdoor cafes and restaurants.

3. Place an extravagant and beautiful large building(s) in the middle of the square.

4. Surround this building with baroque fountains and statues of saints and pagan gods for good measure, just in case the building alone isn't glorious enough, and also to please any deities they may offend with by not honouring them in the construction.

5. Light the place up splendidly at night!

6. Add tacky souvenir stands, pigeons, buskers and tourists.

Voila! Your very own Polish town square!


I was planning to go to Torun, an town that escaped the destruction of WWII. However, due to the difficulty I faced trying to find cheap accommodation in Poznan* I opted for the more touristed Hanseatic town of Gdansk, a former Teutonic Knights stronghold, autonomous rich port town, and now a tourist Mecca.

*In Poland there are usually hostels open only during summer, every other time there are only youth hostels that close between 10am to 5pm; and curfew is 10pm!

One things for sure, after over two years of travelling, visiting a Germanic influenced city never fails to amaze and impress me with it's sheer beauty and design. Gdansk is no exception, with narrow historic burgher houses compressed together lining the streets and riverside. I went camera crazy!

A group of us at the hostel went to see a Polish Scar Rock band play one night, since the band members stayed at the hostel the night before and invited us. They were actually pretty good.

Tried some Bison Vodka. It is basically vodka containing a blade of grass or herb that the polish bisons eat, trample and do unhygienic things on I’m sure. Quite an interesting flavour.


A funky cool town near Gdansk, which is where the hip and the young go to party by the beach side clubs and bars. However, much drinking with some crazy Russians from Kalingrad I met at the hostel who insisted on shots after shots of tequila and rum, meant that we were always smashed before we even left the hostel, so my memory of Sopot is a little blurry...


Went to Westerplatte, which is where WWII started when Germany invaded Poland. The ruins of buildings on the seaside is still everywhere as testament to what occurred there. Inappropriately, I had decided that day to wear my new jacket with the world "Berlin" emblazoned on front, which might not have gone down too well in a historical place like this (but then I only decided to go there on impulse that day).

Left Gdansk for Warsaw with desires never to see another boiled egg for a while (long story)...

I didn't really plan to go to Warsaw, but it was the only way I could get to Lithuania. But I don't particularly regret it. Despite what many people say, Warsaw is actually a pretty cool city, cosmopolitan, great nightlife, friendly people... the old town is nothing exceptional however, and it's not really old since it is all reconstructed after WWII.

Anyway, tomorrow night I head for Lithuania... which will be nice since I’m getting sick of eating cabbage. ( I really don't know why the Polish are obsessed with it, they put it in EVERYTHING! )

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Lovely (Rainy) Slovenia

Ljubljana - Postojan Caves - Lake Bled - Piran - Berlin


Ah, Slovenia, such a beautiful diverse little country closed in on all sides by its bigger neighbours. A microcosm of Europe, featuring lakes, mountains, caves, beaches, picturesque towns, and food with Italian, Hungarian, Croatian and Austrian influences. For example, a pizza burek, which is a Croatian/Turkish pastry with an Italian style filling.

Slovenians are such lovely docile people. Only in Slovenia can, during a time where terrorism is the focus of the world, can a strange man approach a bus driver and say "hey, can you deliver this suspicious looking package in the bus luggage compartment for me? Oh, and please put it right in the center of the bus thanks!" and the driver would happily do so with no questions asked.


Is a lovely little town. Note that I said town, not city. Slovenians are deceiving themselves. The size and the laid back quiet atmosphere in this student populated town denotes this status in my mind. Ljubljana is a sheer delight to
wander though, pulling oneself up the steep winding ivy covered pathways to the pretty lame castle on top of the hill dominating over the sleepy town. Never had I seen a castle with a billboard advertising womens lingerie in the centre of its courtyard. Speaking of which, much billboard advertising in this country is rather sexual in its nature. You would see billboards of women in various states of undress being licked or fondled in a rather intimate manner. I’ve seen a girl in a walking billboard, which just displayed a naked woman’s body. Not quite sure what it was advertising there...

More stunning is the river cutting across the town, joined by several picturesque romantic bridges and promenades, with trees turning into autumn colours, and Italian and Austrian baroque and renaissance style architecture, some clad with auburn and green ivy.

The hostel I stayed at used to be a prison, recently converted into a funky hostel complete with oriental waterpipe chill out room, meditation room, bar, and all sorts of amenities to make a backpacker feel at home. The prison cells themselves have been decorated each in their own individual artistic way. In a nutshell, this is a rather hippy hostel, owned by the university and situated in the "free" hippy druggy area of Ljubljana.

This hostel is the first hostel I've ever been to where the bed I was sleeping in is on top of the fire exit, which is a trapdoor leading apparently to poles to slide down. I was tempted to set off the fire alarm so I could pretend to be Batman and utilise it but I don’t think that would go down too well with the hostel. Then again, I’m not impressed with the hostel after they didn’t believe/refund me when the first night I was attacked by bugs crawling from the wooden walls, resulting in me sleeping in the kitchen. Eventually they did believe me when others started complaining about being bitten, but I could not convince them to do the moral right thing. So, 23 euros wasted on a room I didn’t sleep in.

Did a day trip to the heavily touristed Postojan caves, touted as the largest limestone karst caves in Europe if not the world. We entered the cave to be led to an electric train, where we were whisked through like a funfair ride to the first couple of kilometres, oohing and aahhing at the stalagmites and stalactites and taking illegal photos of
everything. It felt like such a funfair ride that I was expecting to see puppets or characters popping up from behind the karst formations with laser lights and smoke screens. It was actually quite fun.

Anyway, we emerged into the main chamber, a massive area filled with stalagmites and stalactites and everything in between, in assorted colours of white, yellow, red, black and brown. In the centre sat a mountain covered with said karst formations. We reached a pool where we were told we would see the famous human fish. It wasn’t that impressive. For one thing, it was a salamander. Secondly it didn’t look human at all; just the colour is the colour of (Caucasian) human skin.

Finally, we entered what was referred to as the concert chamber, as concerts would be performed there due to the acoustics. Everyone thus proceeded to test the acoustics by screeching and screaming rather irritatingly. I must say the irritating screeching did reach my ears quite loudly and clearly even in the other side of the hall...

Did a day trip to the famous Lake Bled, on what was probably the worst day to choose to go. For some reason we looked at the dark clouds coming in and thought "hey what a great day to go visit the lake". Thus we found ourselves halfway around the 7km walking trail around the picturesque clear blue lake lined with trees turning into that lovely autumn colours when it started to pour down with rain. Adding to our misery, we decided to climb up the steep muddy trail up to the lovely castle perched up on the hill overlooking the lake, only to find that close up it really wasn't so nice after all, and you had to pay to get in, even if you just wanted to get out of the rain into the
restaurant within. Still, it was a lovely place to visit, surrounded by snow capped mountains, the middle of the lake featuring a little monastery on an island, where resides the bell of wishes - one can ring the bell and make a wish and apparently the wish will come true. I wondered who wished for the pouring rain...

I had two options, either catch a train to Bratislava to meet up with my ex-Slovakian girlfriend Jana, or go with Stephanie, a sweet bright Aussie girl studying medicine who I hooked up with, to Piran, a small coastal town on the Slovenian coast. Because Jana had not been able to confirm being able to meet me due to work and family commitments, I decided in the last minute to go to Piran.

We got to Piran just before it started pouring down with rain. Piran is a beautiful city on a peninsula, very Venetian except there are no water canals. We constantly came to the conclusion that 1. Piran is a pretty lovely town, and 2. The pouring rain is driving us #%& insane! To add to the romantic atmosphere, we both had colds that we were
trying to shake off. If going to the coast to find sun and relaxation was the remedy we were looking for we were clearly deluding ourselves. We still managed to have fun though, at one stage playing the most ferocious game of snap I’ve ever played with anyone with my Saddam Hussein pack of playing cards I bought in Jordan.

Parted company with Stephanie back in Ljubljana while she continued on to Zagreb. I had booked myself a flight to Berlin leaving the next day (it was the most convenient quickest cheapest way of getting to my next destination Poznan on the north of Poland. Besides, I need any excuse to visit Berlin my favourite city).

So, the last night in Slovenia was spent going out on the town. Me and some hostel folk ended up in a bar that turned out to be the location for a Slovenian reality TV show, where the bar staff are contestants who are voted off every week by TV and Internet viewers. The winner gets a million Tolars and a car. The bar had cameras all over the place and naturally everyone wanted to talk to the bar staff and perhaps get on TV. I'm sure my crazy dancing and ethnicity got me on if anything else.

Anyway, next morning, slightly hungover, I took off for Berlin, which is where I am now.


Every time I come back to Berlin it always reinforces my belief that it is my favourite city. I just love chilling out here in the atmospheric cafes and going out to the cool funky bars and clubs..

Tomorrow I'm catching a bus to Poznan to explore Northern Poland and
the Baltics.