Dec 14th - 22nd
14.12.2009 - 22.12.2009 -17 °C
December 14th : Krakow -> Warsaw
This morning we packed and stowed our bags. I am not too keen on leaving Krakow because I really love it here and I have not heard a fond word of Warsaw from any of our fellow backpackers (I have preemptively named it; Bore-saw)...but we have Tomasz to visit so it should be good. While I attempted (again!) to upload some photos onto the internet, Cam went to the station to buy us a ticket for the 3:23pm train to Warsaw. After his return we went for a walk to have some 'Zapikankie' for lunch, which is basically glorified cheese-on-toast, Polish style. It was really nice. Wandered about the lovely old square one last time and then got our bags and went to the station. It is -5c today and we are definitely starting to feel the cold! We went to the chilly platform and waited. And waited. And waited. Alas, no train! When we asked the ticket lady she told that the train has changed and is no longer coming, they made a mistake. But, we could wait in the -5c weather for the next train in 3.5hrs. Oh, good!
We went to the warm shopping mall close by and sat there for a while, had a hot chocolate and lamented the fact that we had another wait for another form of transport in another country.
It is times like these when we really feel like we could be doing something more productive. We were both feeling a bit worn out by it all, Cam is feeling a bit sick with a cold and there was a strange juxtaposition of our grey emotions against the back drop of sparkling Christmas lights, a fat 'n' happy Polish Santa and carols singing “We will all be together, it's Christmas tiiiiiiime!”[i/].
I am an avid lover of Christmas, but at that moment it felt exceptionally nauseating.
Needless to say, the 3.5hours passed (involving us glaring at any person with bags full of Christmas presents looking even remotely happy) and we made our way back to the station and to the chilly platform. After a while waiting we learned that the train was delayed by another hour. It appears that although we paid significantly less zlotys getting the local public regional train rather than the high speed intercity one, we were paying significantly [i]more in time and energy! Bloody Polish trains, everything you've heard about them is true! Ha!
Eventually the train came, we boarded and got comfortable. Once the wheels screeched and ground into motion, we were feeling in much better spirits.
We arrived at Warsaw just before 11pm and bumbled our way out of the train station to a bus stop. The bus we wanted took a while to arrive so we huddled with our feet in the snow amongst the other cold, tired looking people at the bus stop, feeling very Soviet.
When the bus arrived we were greeted by a very friendly man who, along with smelling suspiciously of recent faecal matter, appeared to speak every other language but English. Thankfully French was among that list and we (and by we, I mean, Cam) were able to work out where we should get off. He was lovely and made us feel all the better being here.
The bus drove through the quiet Warsaw streets, looking like a winter wonderland with snow covered paths and twinkling Christmas lights and we couldn't help but cheer up. The architecture here it quite interesting, much of it is relatively new. 80% of the city was bombed and destroyed during the war so there is a real mix of buildings, thanks to architects who tried their hands at something new and interesting.
We got off the bus, thanked the driver and found our way on foot to the hostel. We were greeted by a friendly Brazilian guy who showed us to our dorm.
Now, boys and girls, when travelling there is a certain rare specimen of traveller that one should, if possible, avoid at all times...
This particular dorm housed that very specimen: the snoring, coughing, hocking-up-phlegm-ing, farting, stopping-breathing-until-just-when-you-think-he-is-dead-he-suddenly-gasps-and-grunts-loudly, smelly, old man.Jolly good!
We dumped our bags, went to the common room, had a cup of tea, looked through the map and thought about where we would like to visit tomorrow before slinking to the den to sleep with the 'troll-man', ear plugs at the ready.
December 15th : Warsaw
This morning I was awoken by the troll-man performing some sort of ritual/prayer at the base of my bed. There have been some moments that are just so ridiculous you can't make them up, and opening my eyes to a wheezing old man at the end of my bed, staring at me wild-eyed whilst vigorously waving his hands in the air, was one of them.
Peculiar alarm incident over, we hopped out of bed. Poor Cam was feeling miserable with a cold. So we had a very slow start! We met a Jono from Brazil who had been staying at the same hostel as us in Krakow, and, surprise, surprise, he was full of cold too. The virus must have been lurking in the dorm there. I feel okay, perhaps my resistance is built up from the cold I had in the UK.
We had a slow breakfast and chatted about South America (we are planning to go to the Olympics in Rio in 2016.....although that's a while off yet, I am already excited, haha!).
Went to get a big bottle of water for Cam (the desk clerk shuddered at the thought of drinking tap water, so thought we'd play it safe) and then he had a lie down for a bit, while I did some writing.
After a while we decided to venture out into the unknown of Warsaw and went to a local cafe for some lunch. I got some lentil dumplings which tasted a little bit strange, but filled me up nonetheless. From there we went to the famous Mermaid statue. She is the protector of the city, since being rescued (from something?) by a sailor back in the day she vowed to guard Warsaw and now stands proud with sword, shield and particularly pronounced nipples, permanently defending the capital.
From there we headed to the old town, which is very picturesque. The Stare Miasto (old town square), which was completely rebuilt to replicate it's former glory after being completely destroyed in the war, had a little Christmas market inside from which I bought a pair of big red earrings. Cam was feeling pretty rough and fluey, so we headed back to the hostel. I was feeling a bit nauseous...perhaps those dumplings were a little off....
Back at the hostel we had a nap for a little while before we headed out to meet Tomek. We met Tomek way back in April in Ubud, Bali. We have tried to keep in contact with all the wonderful individuals we've met, and Tomek is another guy we got along with really well and are looking forward to seeing. He met us at a little bar after his tango class. We had a nice night drinking beer and talking. A couple of his Polish friends insisted on providing Cam with lots of Polish vodka, insisting it would make him feel better I tried a special vodka which has a blade of grass in it, from the fields on which bison graze......cool! It was not terrible, but the dodgy lentil dumplings weren't doing too much for my stomach so I was happy to call it a night and myself and the snuffly one said goodbye to Tomek, arranging to meet tomorrow if we're still around, and headed back to the hostel.
December 16th : Warsaw
Both feeling pretty flat today. Those dumplings came back with a vengeance, I am feeling very nauseous and ill, poor Cam still stuffed with a cold. We make a delightful pair to share a dorm with, that's for sure! Thankfully we are in Warsaw and no traveller with any sense comes here unless out of necessity, so the dorm is not surprisingly empty, bar our bubonic-plagued-selves.
Side-note:[/i}** I should mention, Warsaw isn't actually that bad at all, it is quite a pretty old town with a rich history and a number of sights. But, given the fact we are both feeling like death warmed up and I have already given it the title 'Bore-saw', I find it necessary to insult it at any given opportunity. Sometimes there just needs to be a scapegoat to perk up your day. Like Vegans! Ah, Vegans....my funny, fruity, even-lower-down-the-food-chain-than-me friends **.
We both spent the day mostly inside, laying around feeling soviet, I mean, sick.
Tomek came for a cup of tea and visit in the afternoon. We hung out with him and Jono from Brazil, talking about South America and the different 'sorts' of poverty that exist there and in the East. Tomek kindly bought me some bath products from his pharmaceutical job, after saying thanks I nipped out the room again to barf up more lentils. All class. I said sad and sorry farewells and crawled back into my den, straight back to sleep, Cam followed soon behind.
December 17th : Warsaw -> Vilnius (Lithuania)
I remember a dandy young couple saying but a mere 5 or 6 months ago: night buses are a BAD idea. They are good in theory (transport and accommodation in one) but it never works because no normal human-bean can sleep on a bus, and you end up sleeping most of the next day away anyway. “We will never take a night bus out of choice again!”, they had confidently told one another.
This thought was conveniently removed from our memory upon waking at 6am this morning, when we had to make the decision as to whether we would go and plough through the snow in the dark to the train station, Cam coughing and sniffles, me vomiting and nauseous. As you can probably guess (you look like the intelligent type), we opted to go back to sleep, see how we feel when we wake up and then take the night bus tonight. One day lost sightseeing in a city is not as important as our health....................
Feeling a little bit better later in the morning after some breakfast, we packed up our bags and set out to slip and slide through the ice and snow to the bus ticket office to buy seats on the night bus to Lithuania tonight. After that we grabbed a hot chocolate and then Cam was feeling pretty rough so we made our way back to the hostel where we stagnated in the common room, reading and drinking tea for a couple of hours until we needed to catch the local bus to the international bus station. This was a close call because, thanks to the heavy snow, all those people who usually walk are now catching the bus. This, plus the fact the roads are clogged thanks to too much snow and not enough ploughs, we managed to get to the station just in time. Hopped aboard the bus and got comfortable. Was quite a nice drive, sadly we saw a number of accidents coming out of Warsaw, people who got caught out on the frozen roads. But other than that, all was well. I found it fascinating to watch the snow whipping across the road, just like sand. I always think of snow as wet and slippery, but here it blows across the road like sparkly sand or sugar...
December 18th : Vilnius (Lithuania)
Due to the nasty weather, the bus was delayed a little. Once in Vilnius we waddled off the bus bleary eyed into the cold outside.
In Scotland there is a saying which references cold weather: “It's Baltic out!”, meaning: 'It is very cold outside'. Having now experienced the sort of weather winter in the Baltic States has to offer, I am fully aware of where this saying came from. Today was a balmy -16c. With the nice added touch of icy wind whipping your face. The sensation of having your nose run from cold and then freeze on you scarf is not so nice. Thankfully, Vilnius IS nice, so we pushed through it to walk from the station, through some parks to our hostel. A nice little place, we chucked our bags and had a quick nap for an hour or 2 (hadn't slept much on the night bus).
After waking up we headed out to visit some spots, ignoring the sensation which was slowly draining from our cold tootsies. We found a neat little underground vegetarian fusion Lithuanian/Indian place and had a tasty bite to eat and then headed onto the most important site in all of Eastern Europe:
- The Frank Zappa Monument!* Yep, that's right! A devoted Lithuanian fan who heads the fan club had sent many letters to Frank himself and actually received personal replies. After Mr Zappa's unfortunate demise, the fan took it upon himself to raise funds and construct a monument for him. Frank's big brass head now stands a top a big marble pole in front of a wall graffittied with his face.....in a hospital carpark, of all places! We took a couple of happy snaps and then went to the town square, where we took in the Bell Tower, cathedral and Grand Duke Gediminas Monument. Vilnius actually has a pretty cool story of how it came to be: Once upon a time, many years ago, a young Mr Gediminas had a dream of a big wolf howling from the top of a hill over yonder. He told this to a dream reader who told him that it meant a town built at that sight would be prosperous and successful. So, there Vilnius was built.
Obviously....! The dream has proven to be relatively accurate and the pretty little place is still going strong today.
By this many hours we were completely frozen stiff so, having survived our coldest day out yet, we made our way back via the supermarket to the hostel for hot showers, tea and dinner.
December 19th : Vilnius
To be completely honest, I am not 100% sure what we did today. Typing this now, weeks after the fact, I can only go by my notes in my diary which word-for-word states:
“Today is -14c, BRR! Saw monuments, went to yum vego place, found underground student coffee house (totally smelt of anarchy) [very poorly drawn anarchist 'A' symbol here], hung out with nice guys at hostel, made loose plans for rest of the Baltics, bought bus ticket to Latvia”
So....there you have it. Obviously the monuments were none too interesting because I cannot for the life of me remember what they were....but I'm sure it was an overall good day!
December 20th : Vilnius -> Riga (Latvia)
Cam made a mistake when setting the alarm last night and set it for PM rather than AM. We slowly came to about 10:30, 1hr after the bus we'd bought tickets for had left town! It is an easy mistake to make, and unfortunately makes for a very poor excuse when trying to weasel another ticket out of the stern Lithuanian clerk at the station. Unfortunately we had no such luck, and had to fork out for 2 more tickets. Oh well, our first proper stuff up of the trip, it was bound to happen! We grabbed a coffee and some picnic ingredients from the shop and then hopped on board the bus. It was a nice journey, we had lunch on board and admired the snow-white scenery.
Side Note: We've decided that we won't do the Trans Siberian in the middle of winter. Just a couple of buses in this kind of weather has made us appreciate that, although the first hour or so of pure white plains are quite beautiful, from then on it gets a bit monotonous. The short dark days and lack of activities to do on the way (stopping in towns to do horse riding, kayaking, trekking etc), along with the breakdowns in the snow, have made us decide that we'll take it at another time in the summer, when we can spend longer exploring the countries, rather than just sitting on a train for a week. It's another thing to add to the future travel list!
We arrived into Riga in the dark (so, after 3:30pm) and fumbled our way with the map to a hostel. 'The Naughty Squirrel' in Riga is quite possibly the best hostel we have ever stayed in. We've stayed in quite a few now, and this one was just fantastic. It was a new place, small, homely, but still had lots of facilities; a tiny bar, kitchen, free movies on the TV, etc etc. It was really cool. We had a free welcome drink of Latvian Balzam (a dark herbal alcohol) which was, well, an acquired taste I would imagine.
We went for a little walk around the streets, got some Lats from an ATM and some dinner ingredients from the supermarket, then went back to the hostel where we had a beer, made dinner and watched a movie with everyone in the common room, there are some nice folk here. A good place to stay (be in a hostel, couch surfer, friends or family) can really make a big influence on your impression of a place.
December 21st : Riga (Latvia)
We got up early this morning. Made ourselves eggs for breakfast and then set out to join the free walking tour. Met up with Marc and Jason, but alas, no tour it would seem! We all want to get a coffee and then we headed out to see the place.
Riga is a beautiful city, the old town particularly. We wanted to head to the Art Nouveau district to see the famous architecture. The snow was coming down quite a lot by the time we made it out there, on the way to escape it we nipped into a gorgeous little craft shop 'Tejas Roze'. It was really kitschy and cool! There seems to be a lot of crafty shop places in the East and Baltics, maybe it is something to do with the weather? No one wants to step outside so they stay in and do pottery, beading and knitting. Sounds alright to me on days like this! We bought a couple of pottery ornaments for Finnish Xmas gifts and looked around everything else, I got lots of ideas for projects at home!
We then continued onward to look at the Nouveau buildings. They were quite beautiful, but had nothing on the buildings we saw in Antwerpen (Belgium). After looking around there for a while we went to the Freedom Monument and then to a big park with huge snowmen. There were also little bridges over streams, the railings of which are absolutely covered in padlocks. If you look closely the padlocks have names inscribed on them. It is a Latvian tradition to put a lock on a bridge over stream when you get married! I thought that was a pretty novel idea & the bridge looked really pretty all covered in snowflakes and ice.
From the park we wandered back through the old town, past the big Latvian Orthodox Church and into an Amber shop. The Baltic region yields 80% of the world's amber (regular orange amber as well as the more rare green, opaque and blue varieties). So for Christmas, Cam bought me a lovely green amber ring. We also found an art shop which had locally made recycled notebooks so he got me one of those too (he's the good sort ). I can now start up my art/craft diary. I have been keeping bits and pieces as we have been travelling; from street press, leaflets, magazines, photos, bits of fabric (etc...) of design/art/textiles and things that I like, so I can scrap them into a book for inspiration for projects when we get home.
We were absolutely freezing (I quite like the fact that I can actually accurately say that now, thanks to the below zero temperatures) after a day traipsing about, so went back to the hostel to make dinner, and hang out with the peops in the common room. A couple of guys are heading in the same direction as us to Finland, we're going on the same bus tomorrow.
December 22nd : Riga -> Tallinn (Estonia)
Up early for our bus we walked to the station and met Marc and Jason there. We had a quick coffee and then hopped on board. It was a really nice bus, with a coffee machine and tables at the back. They are trying to encourage people to 'Go Baltic' (or so the bus slogan says) and have put on these really nice '1st class' buses. We clambered aboard and enjoyed the first part of the trip. Midway through we all reconvened to the table at the back of the bus to play a few games of cards until we eventually made it Tallinn.
We found a tram to take us to the old town and hopped on board. We found our way through the city walls to the hostel and chucked our bags inside. It was already getting dark, so we set out to see what we could of the pretty old town. We changed some money, perused the Christmas markets for some gifts to take to Finland and then went to an Estonian pancake house for dinner. It was amazing! Marc and Jason joined us. After dinner we went to the 'DM Bar', a bar which plays only Depeche Mode songs, and has drinks all named after their song titles. The place is covered, floor to ceiling, in pictures, posters, set lists and all sorts and whilst it seemed like a good idea at the time, was a bit lame after a short while. We drank our beers and then headed back through the town the long way, to take in some more of the narrow colourful streets. Back at the hostel we checked our emails, hung out with Marc and Jason, had showers then hit the sack ready for the ferry to Finland tomorrow!