Differences

Last Day in Sofia

 

Greetings one last time from the Bulgarian capital! Today is our last day in Sofia before moving on. It’s been a short but memorable time in Bulgaria and we’ve managed to make the most of it.

One of the real highlights has been the food. More specifically, three knockout dinners in a row at three different restaurants in Sofia- all a short walk from our hostel. Last night, we ended up at a bistro named Lubimoto which had recently received, of all things, a write-up in the New York Times. Man, what a meal! Run by a trio of brothers, a dinner at Lubimoto allowed us to sit outside and pace ourselves over a nice long meal. One of the brothers had spent considerable time in America and doubled as our host (so much more than a waiter) for the evening. We finally relented and began the meal like Bulgarians do -with Rakia! A clear, potent, traditional aperitif  that tastes like some devilish mix of paint thinner, jet fuel and bad whiskey. Okay, it’s a bit more palatable than that, but it is certainly an eye-opening way to start any meal. From there, we enjoyed another local staple that’s become a fast favorite and a daily must of ours: A shopska salad.

Brooke gives Rakia a taste

someone call a service to just roll us back to our hostel, please.After that, our host brought us two made-to-order entrees that were out of this world.  One pork dish and one chicken dish that I would only shame if I attempted to describe the deliciousness. Brooke is calling it one of the best meals on the trip and I’m inclined to agree. A couple of pints of Staropramen and a dessert of cake and pecan ice cream (compliments of our host) rounded out the evening. And the final bill left us wondering if the printer was broken or someone sliced off a few zeros. Great stuff, but not an isolated incident! We also had tasty meals at Divaka and Izbata where we dined among locals, had some Bulgarian dishes and walked away with our Leva (Bulgarian currency) in tact. In summary, great eating in Sofia!

I mentioned it before, but Sofia has been a incredibly easy city to get around (crumbling sidewalks aside). There is the occasional post in the middle of the walkways which I’ve done a poor job of dodging. But if walking is not your thing, there are street cars everywhere. These trams run over a thorough network that seems to cover most of the city, arrive frequently, and are a cheap way to get around. They can run a bit slow, but we’re usually not in a hurry. And some of the older models have steep, giant steps into the cars that are best tackled by those who are part billy goat. But the most unique part is that, in general, no one checks your ticket. The driver’s main responsibility is just to drive. That was until three of the notorious ticket checkers quickly and quietly boarded the street car today. It was the first time in any country that we’ve seen anyone actually come in and check tickets on these types of self-check bus and trams. The ticket checkers meant business and you got the feeling they weren’t interested in friendly banter. We’ve been warned of problems and scams in these cases, but Brooke and I didn’t face any issues. However, there was drama and a shouting match with two other passengers. Not sure what was happening  (language barrier and all), but man was it entertaining! I know that we keep comparing our time in Bulgaria to an Indiana Jones adventure, but it really did go down a little something like the video clip below:

Today we took some time to do what Brooke and I do best: Take our own self guided tour of the city. We managed to catch the very cool changing of the guards outside the presidential palace. Impressive pomp and circumstance that happens every hour on the hour. We stumbled into the former Royal Palace turned Art Museum and while we were in the city center, we found ourselves next to a loud (but organized) protest march. Again, we had no idea what they were marching against, until one of the participants came running up to us pointing and shouting at our plastic bag that contained today’s souvenirs. We later learned that it was a march for the government to take more action on environmental concerns and, you guessed it, ban all plastic bags.

Not far from the museum, there was an outdoor market selling communist era medals, clocks, clothing and more. You get the impression that when the socialist era ended, a lot of these “collectibles” were left behind. We visited two of the more noteworthy and historic churches in Sofia including a massive Russian Orthodox Church and the church for which Sofia gets its name. So far, no shortage of churches (and statues! So many statues!) in Europe, but each one has grandeur, individual detail and a stunning, peaceful quality that makes it worth the visit. I’ve learned that I prefer the Lutheran cathedral – so many of the Russian Orthodox churches are magnificent and stunning, especially from the outside, but are dark, uninviting and cavernous sterile places of worship on the inside. Just my opinion though.

So, as we wrap up our few days in Sofia, we’re ready to say goodbye to the sensational weather, street side cafes,  friendly faces and move on. Tomorrow morning, we take two buses a combined six hours to Belgrade, Serbia. The rest of our time in Europe includes stops in Budapest, Dubrovnik, Munich and then a 10 day stay in Scotland and England. Can’t wait for what’s next!

-Phil

Bulgarian Environmental Protest

Brooke with Morning Coffee and the changing of the guards. This might be my new favorite photo!

For reasons we never quite understood, some of the Sofia police cars were Audis and BMWs. Nice.

Categories: Budget, Bulgaria, Differences, Eastern Europe, Eating, Self Guided Tours, Tours, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Missed the bus by two minutes

Today we missed the bus from Bucharest to Sofia by about two minutes.

I’m not exaggerating. The long-haul luxury bus left two minutes before we arrived at the station. And, yup, this 4:00 PM bus was the only bus making the seven hour run to Bulgaria’s capital today.

Old train station turned bus station- legendary spot where missed our bus

I kinda knew that something like this would happen eventually on the trip. It is the nature of travel. However, I take pride in being that guy who never misses a flight, is never late for a train, and is never frantically chasing down a bus. I would like to blame the lackadaisical, cell-phone-chatting driver of our “Maxi Taxi” transport from Brasov to Bucharest earlier today. The minibus/oversized van certainly was in no hurry and the driver taking a self-declared five minute break at a roadside stand to buy a soda and a new fishing lure (!) didn’t help matters. But, honestly, it can’t be blamed on a single thing. It’s a life lesson I keep learning: you can do everything right and still come up short. Two minutes! I would have preferred to miss the coach by three hours instead of our heartbreaking sprint and frantic taxi ride just to see the tail lights fade into the distance.

Bucharest Metro GrafittiSo, we shake it off and we suck it up. It is not a big deal because we do have other options to get to Sofia. Our new plans involve booking passage on the night train. It costs a bit more and takes a bit longer, but it should be a cool ride. Plus we’re still on this sensational Round The World trip, so we’ve got that going for us.  Soon after our minor bus debacle, we found ourselves back in Bucharest’s Old Town feasting on some solid Greek Food, sipping a couple of Staropramon and sampling some gelato all of which helped to put everything right back on track. Plus, with some time on our hands, we were able to venture onto yet another city’s subway system. The Bucharest Metro was simple enough to navigate and a mere $1.25 allowed both us to ride. We weren’t exactly shocked to see that some subway cars were just caked in graffiti from bow to stern, inside and out, while some newer cars were clean and untouched. That dichotomy of grime and shine is just about par for the Romanian course. The subway fulfilled its purpose but was largely forgettable; I think I’m still drooling a bit over those incredible stations in the St. Petersburg system.

As seen in Romanian Grocery Store: 2.5 Liter of Beer for Sale in large plastic bottle just like soda. Price? About $2.50

As we waited at Gara De Nord for our 11:00 PM train, Brooke and I rounded up some final impressions from our time in Romania. We’ve concluded that Romanian food borrows much of its menu from nearby nations and, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions, the majority of our meals qualify as nothing special. Slow meals are the order of things so if you’re in any sort of a hurry, restaurant dining is not your best bet. Menus almost exclusively feature lots of chicken, lots of pork and a lot of bread. Man, we’re talking baked bread, pastries, pretzels and more. And while the cuisine may not be unique, those fresh-baked, giant, inexpensive pastries are a sensational way to start the day. Although they are not helpful when you’re trying to avoid ending a RTW voyage as large as a double wide. Also on the plus column, we’ve found that the local tomatoes, heavily used in most dishes, are pretty incredible. We think it must be the right time of year.  As for adult beverages, we prefer Ursus of all the local beers and marveled that we haven’t spied a single American beer- bottle or draughts since we landed in Eastern Europe.

Slightly more questionable than the quality of the Romanian food was the quality of the Romanian taste in popular music. Namely the endless amount of Europop we keep hearing. That repetitive, decidedly poor club music is everywhere. And a confoundingly high percentage of it features an accordion. I have no answers, my friends. Only observations. On the upside, the sights certainly outweighed the food and the music. Visiting Bran Castle yesterday, sometime summer home of the Romanian Royal, made me want to go looking for ceremonial scepter in my family! THAT was a cool castle. In fact, our visit generated a genius money-making idea for kitchen ware: Vlad The Impalers Skewers! For all your shish-ka-bob needs. It’s a Macabre Kebab! In stores by Halloween!

Our faux submission for a photo project. We call it “Old Romanian Guy Waiting on Bus.” Artsy!

However, the most important reflection from this trip is that every day- from little things to big things- I’ve managed to see something new, interesting and novel. Every day. As Brooke and I we’re writing some post cards home earlier tonight, I was greeted with the images on the front of all the places we’ve visited and seen first hand. And just over the last three weeks. Seeing those memories collected and laid out like that really hit me. It felt like an accomplishment. Of course, having an exceptional travel partner goes a long way.

Gara De Nord – Bucharest Train Station – at Night

As we boarded the train just a bit earlier this evening, we found a Romanian conductor who spoke broken English. We then managed to talk our way (along with 50 Euros…totally worth it) into a berth on one of the sleeper cars on the Russian section of the train.  Apparently, since this is a long haul train originating out of Russia, there is a separate Russian run section of the train. We’re pretty sure that the Romanian Conductor and Russian Conductor split and pocketed the money we gave ’em for the room, but who are we to judge. Is this the nicest train I’ve ever been on? Not even close. But it is all kinds of awesome. The room itself feels very 1960’s. Instantly our ten hour journey in coach evolved into a nice, and roomy private cabin where we can spread out. A little privacy goes a long way.

Missed bus be damned, we end the day with a hell yeah and two comfy sleeping berths to speed us on our way to Sofia.

-Phil

 

 

 

Categories: Beer, castles, City Visits, Differences, Eating, Europe, Rail, Reflections, Romania, Transportation, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Impressions from Romania

Greetings once more from Romania! As I write this, Brooke and I are currently on a train from Bucharest heading north to the town of Brasov. This ride is our first encounter with a European train – something I’ve been looking forward to all day. Also our first time in one of those shared train compartments occupied by a group of strangers facing each other. Nifty!

So far, our time in Romania has been, quite frankly, kind of thrilling and fun. Bucharest is bustling, the gorgeous late-summer weather is a nice change of pace and makes for pleasant walks through the quality park near our hotel. Impressions so far? While I would hesitate to say that Romania falls under the category of a developing nation, I would say that it’s a nation that’s rebuilding. Hey, your country might be too if it was just over twenty years removed from an epic political revolution that ousted a diminutive, megalomaniacal communist leader. Toss on a parade of crappy presidents that followed afterwards, lingering structural damage from allied bombing during WWII and even a devastating earthquake in the late 1970’s and it’s easy to understand why this is a country trying to climb it’s way back to it’s Mid-20th century nickname of “Little Paris.”

The somewhat gross central canal in Bucharest certainly won’t be confused with those in Venice anytime soon.

Brooke mentioned the dilapidated nature of some of Bucharest, but it’s worth repeating. For every well-maintained building with a stunning facade, there is a neighboring building that’s crying out for an Extreme Home Makeover. Apparently, some of these run down edifices are a haven for squatting Gypsies, while others are owned by landlords who are just waiting for the buildings to crumble on their own (sad). Others still (like the National Theater) are undergoing overdue yet magnificent renovations. Also, there is so much graffiti on the buildings that ARE in use, we’re considering cashing in and opening a spray paint store. You can see neon colored paint on about 75% of buildings. Whether it is an apartment high-rise or a local monument, it has been tagged in one way or another. It’s just everywhere. On a similar note, you have to be heads up for random, loose wires dangling in your path when you walk. Those dangerous urban vipers are everywhere too. Yet, don’t get the wrong idea; we’ve enjoyed our time in the city. We really have. From all that we’ve heard, read and seen, the city motto here could be “Bucharest:  much better than it used to be.”

Phil enjoying morning pastry deliciousness in the heart of Old Town

In fact, it seems like the 1980’s were a particularly awful time to live in Romania for a thousand different reasons. The decade ended with a revolution that ousted Nicolae Ceausescu who was, by all professional accounts, a downright rat bastard. One impact of his regime that we hear about over and over was his destructions of several old quarters of the city in favor of building a modern, Paris-style central avenue. To many a Romanian’s chagrin, wonderful, amazing old parts of the city were toppled by hungry bulldozers. What does remain is the exceptionally cool Lipscani or Old Town. A small section of Bucharest that’s packed with truly beautiful old buildings, an endless array of tantalizingly hip bars and restaurants with outdoor seating and small pedestrian-only streets. Old Town has a pulse and flavor that makes it lively and distinct from the other parts of the city. The only shame is that 30 years ago it was a region that was so much larger!

Face of one of my favorite buildings- The old CEC Bank Building outside of Old Town. Marvelous!

Oddly enough, there are an unsettling amount of wayward dogs who are trotting around the city. Certainly an uncommon sight elsewhere, we’re told that most of these canines are harmless, but they cause enough trouble that reportedly up to 150 people a day get bitten. Straight out of crazy town is that the government has done little to tackle this issue. Apparently, the problem stems in part from the afore-mentioned Rat Bastard’s destruction of people’s homes during which time residents just set their pets loose. Also worth mentioning is the sheer volume of smoking we’ve seen in Romania. I know, I know – people everywhere smoke more than they do in the Untied States. We’ve seen it from Asia to Copenhagen. But, Holy Marlborough Man, I’m telling you do the people smoke in Romania. It is everywhere–street corners, stores and even the train. It is not just tolerated, it’s almost expected. You want to go to a restaurant with a Non-smoking section? Good luck. The law dictates that there must be one token non-smoking table somewhere in the corner, but that’s about it. And, in fact, recent legislation has repealed some of the smoking restrictions. As Brooke lamented yesterday, “Don’t these beautiful girls know they’re going to end up looking wrinkled and old by the time they hit 40?” It’s taken some getting used to. And my clothes smell like they did circa the bar scene in 1998.

Speaking of rules, we’ve learned that many laws in Romania are actually only kind of laws. There are loose interpretations on what’s technically illegal on everything from liquor sales to regulated taxi fares to parking and driving. We’ve witnessed that large parts of the world seems to have a more liberal take of road rules that we do in the United States. Silly us thought that common rules like pedestrian right of way and yielding to emergency vehicles would be universal, but as my dad has warned us, “Don’t assume anything when you travel.” (This would have also been good advice to heed when we had to visit four separate post offices in a confounding attempt to ship a box home.) One of our taxi drivers decided to cover some ground by driving in reverse for a few hundred meters down a one-way street. And the parking golden rule is “just wherever you can find a space” – which means sidewalks, driveways, crosswalks and more are fair game with nary a parking ticket to be seen. We’ve wondered how a few drivers even put the car in a particular space! This site offers some photos of the most bewildering offenders. We once again chose to blame the afore-mentioned Rat Bastard leader (although his hands are probably clean on this one).

All that being said, Bucharest has been a very safe city boasting an impressively low crime rate with apparently pickpockets accounting for the most dangerous threat. Combine that with a large number of people speak at least a small amount of English and we feel as comfortable and safe as New Yorkers strolling through central park. We’ve had some great meals, made a few wonderful new friends, and seen some impressive sights. While we can point out all those unique differences, we also can gush about how interesting it is to visit a corner of the world that doesn’t attract tons of tourists. Just…watch out for the dogs, smokers and loose wires.

-Phil

Just a littttttlllle bit of a bird poop from a boatload of crows on the park benches.

Brooke enjoying dinner at Caru’ Cu Bare – a really can’t miss meal in Bucharest!

Hey, The Cranberries are coming to Bucharest! WAIT, the Cranberries are still around as a band?

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Europe, Exploring, Rail, Romania, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Last Day in Copenhagen

 

Brooke enjoying some wine in ole 4026Our wonderfully relaxing and easy-living nine day Baltic Sea cruise has come to an end. The time has come to leave the boat. We started the day with one final delicious breakfast buffet at our favorite spot on Deck 11 of ye olde Norwegian Sun. And, for the last time, walked away from the table without worrying about  settling a check or removing a single dish. After docking in Copenhagen, Brooke and I attempted to remain onboard as long as we could but around 9:00 AM the crew pulled us off kicking and screaming. It was quite a scene that disturbed some of the older passengers. In all seriousness, we’ve enjoyed the cruise but we’re ready for what’s next.

Copenhagen's most famous art musemSo, we find ourselves back in Copenhagen for one last day before we close the book on our Northern European leg. Now off the boat and away from the all-English all-accomodating lifestyle, we’re back to the little things being a touch more difficult and occasionally frustrating. Today’s particular challenge was our attempt to spend some time in the local library. We figured a Copenhagen “bibliotek” would be a good place to cool our heels for a few hours, flip through some travel books and hop online. We were able to pinpoint the location, determine walking directions, and check the hours. But what the Danish language website did not make clear is that this funky library is open on Sunday only to library card holders who must swipe their way in via key card. See? Frustrating. Also, please don’t alert the Copenhagen Transit Authorities, but due to issues with the ticket machine, we managed to take a pair of rides on the local trains without forking over a single dime.

Philospohical Phil!We did manage to make a visit to the renowned Glyptotek museum in central Copenhagen. The museum offers free admissions on Sundays and boasts an impressive art collection started in 1882 by beer baron Carl Jacobsen of Carlsberg fame (see our post mentioning Carlsberg here). Jacobsen also donated, among others, the sea-side dwelling Little Mermaid statue that is forever associated with Copenhagen. We strolled through a handful of the galleries, enjoyed some of the architectural features of the museum building as much as the art and took in some great paintings and sculptures. There was art by Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Rodin, Gaughin and two dozen other European artists and painters I should probably know but have already forgotten. The sculpture gallery was loaded with marble and bronze creations and was positively great, although I wouldn’t want to be there at night. My personal favorite was a sculpture of Perseus severing Medusa’s head in action. We were kind of thrilled when we saw that the museum was the home of Rodin’s iconic “The Thinker” as part of a comprehensive Rodin gallery. But that was until we learned that there are like twenty other “original” casts of the statue throughout the world. Maybe not as special, but the Glypoteck is still a great museum.

Amazing lunchOf course, for lunch, we couldn’t resist one last hot dog. This time we asked around for the best hot dog in the city. We went gourmet with arguably the best deluxe wiener in town from Nimb. These dogs were a bit more expensive, but they delivered the goods. Gourmet taste-bud satisfaction from one end of the bun to the other.

Final impressions of Copenhagen? It’s kind of a great city. Locals give off a vibe of general contentment – they seem especially merry whilst mounted on bicycles. The town is sophisticated, forward thinking and awash in eye-brow raising design. Highbrow, but accessible. Expensive, but doable. The town even managed to surge my own bit of creativity. Growing up, my friends and I used to watch a lot of professional wrestling. We were always coming up with ideas for new gimmicks for the wrestlers to use in the rings. I now have a fantastic concept: The Angry Dane. He’s big, he’s blonde and he rides a bicycle to the ring which he locks to the ringpost once he arrives. During his match, The Angry Dane illegally uses the Bicycle as a weapon against his opponent. The announcers will call that move the “Twelve Speed.” Pure gold. Someone get me Vince McMahon on the phone.

The Denmark Airport Bids Adieu

Now, we’re off to Romania and Bulgaria as we open the door on our Eastern European segment. We start by visiting yet two more nations that we know virtually nothing about. (As always, we’re open to suggestions!) A pair of flights from Copenhagen to Vienna and then Vienna to Bucharest and yet another quick time change where we jump ahead two hours. We selected a landing spot in Bucharest in part because of it’s Eastern European location in relation to points Westward and in part because, well, it sounded like an interesting place to visit. It’s so cool that this trip has allowed us to point to a strange, new location on a map and just go. By tomorrow, we should have some new insight into yet another town that seems to be begging to be discovered. We’ve already begun reading up on Romania to prep a bit for our visit by taking a sneak peek at the culture, food and airport taxi scams.

For the next month, our schedule gives us much more flexibility on where to go and when. Our next scheduled flight isn’t until Mid-October. Little by little, I’m discovering that the world is such a big place, but it is also a finite place as well. Who knows what we’ll see, but the odds are that it will be worth sharing.

-Phil

Brooke studying a painting in the Glyptotek’s French Impressionist wing.

 

Our final dinner in the Norwegian Sun! Ah, we’ll miss meals like this.

Another look at the outstanding sculpture gallery in the Denmark museum.

Our exceptional bartender Maxwell from the Windjammer of the Norwegian Sun. He took good care of us many nights.

Categories: City Visits, Copenhagen, Destinations, Differences, Eating, Europe, Flights, Museums, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

St. Petersburg!

Naval ShipOne of the main reasons we chose to embark on a nine night Baltic capitals cruise was to take advantage of the opportunity to visit Russia. Obtaining a Russian tourist visa on your own is actually quite difficult, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and book shore excursions organized by Norwegian Cruise Line for our two days in the old Russian Capital of St. Petersburg.

Immediately upon arriving in St. Petersburg we started to hear talk of Peter the Great. He is the founder of the city which he modeled off other European cities like Amsterdam. Because of this, it doesn’t have a lot of traditional Russian architecture, and instead has several canals, fountains and brightly colored buildings reminiscent of old cities in Western Europe. We learned so much in our two days and only wish we would have had some time to explore it on our own.

Originally called St. Petersburg (after Saint Peter, not the Russian Czar Peter the Great), this city has been known by a few different names. It was called Petrograd for about ten years in the early 1900’s, until the name changed to Leningrad when Russia became the U.S.S.R. and was ruled by the Bolsheviks. It stayed Leningrad until 1991 when the local government finally decided to let the people decide on the name. Apparently there was some surprise that the people voted for the name to be changed back to St. Petersburg. Our tour guide quipped that her grandmother was born in St. Petersburg, lived in Petrograd, also lived in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg and she never even moved homes!

Our first day began with a river cruise through the center of the city. Everywhere you turn there is another museum, cathedral, park or historical monument. Most notably is the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world with over three million pieces of art. We would have loved to see it, but each excursion included a visit allotted 4-8 hours inside, and that is just a bit too much art for us. The museum was originally built for the nobility, but has become public over the years. It is housed in the Winter Palace, and its surrounding buildings where the Romanovs as well as other nobility used to reside. It is said to be impossible to see it all in two days, but we met several art enthusiasts who were willing to give it a try.

Entrance to the subway. We were actually allowed to take pictures of this!

We did not go to the Hermitage, but after visiting other landmark institutions we discovered that they are very particular about people taking photographs here. All of the museums charge tourists an additional fee to take pictures – once you have paid they give a colored sticker to place on your camera, otherwise you are liable to get fined or have your camera taken. The policy is even more strict on the subway – here, photos are not permitted in any of the stations! You can take them on the train, but none on the platform or in the buildings. This is such a shame, because their subway stations are absolutely beautiful. They are artfully designed, with huge marble columns and detailed decorations along the ceilings. It reminded us a lot of the beauty of Grand Central Station in New York City. There is even a large sculpture of Peter the Great which is set up like an art exhibit, blocked off by a velvet rope. Phil and I couldn’t help but think that this would last all of two hours (tops) in a New York subway without being vandalized and ultimately destroyed.

Probably the most iconic place we visited taught us an important lesson: It is very dangerous to be a czar. Sure, there is something appealing about the idea of being the leader: you get to rule the country, you have power and money and influence, but I don’t think it is worth it. Every other story we heard was about the killing of one czar or the brutal murder of another. One of the most notable stories is the centerpiece for the Spilled Blood Cathedral. Among a small number of buildings in St. Petersburg to look “Russian”, it was constructed on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Inside the cathedral, visitors can see a memorial directly above the spot where his blood was spilled–hence the colloquial name Spilled Blood Cathedral. The building itself is magnificent. It’s walls are lined with painstakingly detailed mosaics telling the stories from the Bible. In fact, this cathedral holds the largest square footage of mosaic art in the world. There was a notable absence of pews and when we inquired we were informed that parishioners are expected to stand or bow on their knees throughout the length of the service. Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

Besides the plethora of cathedrals, museums and stories about Peter the Great, one of the most prominent topics of discussion was the weather. It is drab, dreary and depressing much of the year. Both of our tour guides emphasized the fact that St. Petersburg is on the same parallel as Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, it gets extremely cold and snowy, but even worse than that, they have less than 55 days of sunshine per year. Yikes! In the winter there is very little daylight, therefore finding distraction is important for the local people. Stereotype or not, drinking vodka seems to be the favorite distraction of most of the people here, and we got to experience it first hand.

Our shore excursion on the second day in St. Petersburg was called “St. Petersburg through the eyes of the locals.” So, we did what locals do–we shopped at a mall, went to the farmer’s market to sample pickles and cottage cheese, and rode the subway. However, the most distinctly local thing we did was have a vodka tasting. That’s right! At the end of our tour, we went to restaurant where three shots of vodka were set up for each of us. There were three different kinds–horseradish, walnut, and cranberry vodka. They also set out some small pieces of toast and pickles to help wash it down. We had about 30 minutes to down all 3 shots, which was not a problem for most of us. However, it became apparent pretty quickly that some of the people in our group hadn’t done a shot of liquor in a while (not to mention three). The vodka was decent, I personally liked the walnut flavored one the best. However, what surprised us most is that there was no water on the table. No soda, no juice, nothing to wash the vodka down. This is so much different than it would have been at a tasting in America with all of its rules and regulations. Once 15 minutes had passed, most of the shots were gone and the stacking (and crashing) of shot glasses began. The crowd was certainly livelier after the shots, feeling warmer in both body and spirit, and we all understood the important role vodka plays in a country that can have such depressing weather!

All in all, St. Petersburg was a blast. We especially loved getting to see the magnificent subway system and learning a bit more about Russian history than we knew before. I’ll leave you with one more interesting note. One of the men on our tour asked the guide if Russia is a democracy. She said, “We are supposed to be a democracy, but are we? I don’t know.” She continued to talk about Vladimir Putin and extended term limits with cynicism and candor. It definitely showed us that perhaps the country has not progressed as far as Russia would have the world believe.

-Brooke

This is the ceiling of the Spilled Blood Cathedral. There was very little space on the interior walls which was not covered with some colorful artwork.

Here’s a sampling of the mosaics which cover the walls and account for the largest square footage of mosaic art in a single building in the world.

The bronze equestrian of Nicholas I s unique because it is the first horse statue in Europe to have only two support points, its rear hooves.  Impressive?  Apparently.

To celebrate St. Petersburg, the cruise ship hosted a “Taste of Russia” complete with borscht and stuffed cabbage.

Categories: City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Museums, Russia, The Cruise, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Carlsberg, Christiana, and Copenhagen

Hello again from Copenhagen! We’ve been lucky enough to enjoy three full days of absorbing Danish culture, food, sights, fun and history. And now that we get into these older European town, there is more than enough history to go around. In keeping with one of the goals of this trip, we continue to see, learn and grow just a bit more each day. For example, we know now that the Danish flag employs one of the oldest flag designs in the world. And, finally, we’re back in a part of the world that has paper towels in the bathroom. Also, I’m slowly becoming able to sort out the distinct differences between the three Scandavian countries: Denmark, Sweeden and Norway. Until now, all three unfortunately ran a bit together like a jumbled mess in my mind.

Since day one, we’ve been resting our head in a variety of different hotels and hostels, but we’ve also had some terrific luck trying out Air BnB- a handy webstie that helps travelers find paid homestays. Currenty, we’re hosted by an incredibly gracious and friendly Dane named Thais who lives a short bus ride from central Copenhagen. We’re staying in his small, airplane-themed flat for three days; Thais has been a stellar host. His dream is to live in an old airplane, but since he is currently unable to do that, he brought the airplane to his apartment. Complete with a safety card that has important information, genuine airplane seats and an overhead compartment for storage, it is clear that he is a bit obsessed with airplanes. It is certainly the biggest theme home we’ve seen in a long time, but it works really well for him! In part, because he is a writer for several European flight magazines, reviewing aircraft, airports and all things aeronautics related. Thais has provided directions, suggestions and even pointed us to a nearby park, Utterslev Mose, where we were run in the morning. Our stay at “The Aerohotel” here has been great and we are glad the weather is finally cool enough (55-65 degrees) for us to run again.

Today we began with a tour of the Carlsberg Brewhouse and Museum. Until about a week ago, I though that Carlsberg (along with Heineken) was a Netherlands based beer. Wrong again, Phil. Turns out that not only is Carsberg one of Denmark’s biggest exports and industries, they are also the world’s 4th largest brewing company with over 500 brands including acquisitions of other European beers. While not that big in America, bottles and tap heads were common throughout Asia. The self-guided eleven dollar tour of Carlsberg (the etymology of the beer’s name is the combination of the name of the owner’s son and the Danish word for hill) was well worth it. The fact that the price of admission included a few beers didn’t hurt. While most of the main brewing facilities have been moved to the Jutland area of Denmark (just don’t ask us to point it out on the map), the company headquarters go back over a hundred years with plenty of well-perserved buildings that show off an interesting history.

I found some of the exhibits on the well-organized Carlsberg tour more interesting than some at the National Museum. The tour took us through that stables that are home to the company’s remaining Jutland Horses. This stout, large and somewhat rare breed, which resemble the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, were historically used to pull beer carts throughout the city and are still used in ceremonies today. The museum also houses a collection of 22,000 unopened beer bottles from the last couple of hundred years! 22,000 glass bottles, many donated from one Dane’s private collection, placed carefully on glass shelves in one room! Good thing we’re not in an area prone to earthquakes. They also really have kept their original buildings in wonderful shape to illustrate the brewing life back around 1900. The trip out there was worth it alone to see the entry gates complete with giant elephants and to watch the modern day brewing of small batch Jacobsen’s Ale while perched from an upstairs bar.

From Carlsberg, we took a trip to the famous Freetown Christiana: an area of Copenhagen that has been occupied by squatters on an old set of military barracks for more than 40 years. Christiana is intended to be an open commune where anyone can live and designed to encourage artists and foster free thought. But our reality was that it looked more like a bunch of burned out hippies sitting among sub-par graffiti art splattered across random buildings. The central draw is the Greenlight district or Pusher Street where they sell weed- lots of weed – openly. Just don’t take out your camera while nearby. Christiana residents declare themselves as not part of the E.U and eschew taxes, but they still receive city services such as mail, electricity and water. It has a long, complicated history and apparently the city officials conduct pre-announced raids from time to time. But for the most part, everyone is allowed to just occupy this space without much resistance. Visitors are welcome and a happy community of about 900 live carefree and proud of their little neck of the woods. It’s…odd. After a worthwhile visit, we left with more quetions then answers. We have determined that squatting is handy when you have an entire complex of well kept old buildings to live in and no one is going to kick you out, but even with understanding some of the turbulent past and issues, were still surprised that this large chunk of land is just allowed to be occupied unpaid by a collective mass.

As we wrap up Denmark for now, note that starting tomorrow Brooke and I are embarking on the most luxurious and relaxing part of our round the world trip- a nine-day Baltic Capitals cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Whilst we sail the open seas, we’ll have considerably limited internet access. For the next little bit, our blog posts may be intermittent as wifi becomes available. Off to Germany, Estonia, Russisa and beyond courtesy of the Norwegian Sun!

–Phil

So many bottles at Carlsberg!

Another photo from Thais’ Aerohotel!

Phil is showing his Denmark Pride (on Flag Day, nonetheless)

Categories: Beer, City Visits, Copenhagen, Differences, Hotels, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Vietnam: Wonderful and Strange!

Brooke and Phil at Ha Long Bay!As our time in Vietnam has come to a close, we are realizing some important things.  This is truly a developing nation.  I bet it was far different 20 years ago and I’m sure it will be vastly changed 20 years from now.  In spite of that (or perhaps because of it), it has also been a wonderful place to visit and would be a great vacation destination for anyone looking for an exciting and interesting place to go.

As we’ve said before, we have been staying in a section of Hanoi called the Old Quarter.  The narrow streets were developed long ago when foot traffic was the only transportation.  Today, the combination of cars, motorbikes, bicycles and walkers stretch the limits of these skinny roads.  In addition, the sidewalks where one might walk are filled with shops, people eating and drinking as well as parked motorbikes.  We looked at a few of the markets, seeing what souvenirs we could get from our time in Hanoi.   So much of what they sell is clothing and shoes.  At one store we saw a big pile of Tom’s, the canvas shoes which I love.  The concept with these is when you buy a pair, one pair is donated to a person in need.  When I saw this pile of shoes, my first instinct was that they are all fakes.  I considered them, and as we walked away I said to Phil, “I have a feeling that there will be no donation to the needy when I buy those shoes.  As a matter of fact, those may be the ones that have been donated.”  Now, I certainly am not getting on a moral high horse and we did buy some  souvenirs.  However, with the rumors of child/forced labor that abound in countries which manufacture goods cheaply, we have found ourselves a little more aware of what we purchase.

Four is too many!

This photo is a little grainy, but can you see the two kids on the bike with their parents? No helmets, which is very typical.

Another huge sign that this is a developing nation is the general lack of safety regulations. It isn’t that we felt unsafe being there at all.  Quite the contrary.  However, the streets are filled with motorbikes, some packed four deep and children inevitably are rarely wearing helmets.  When we asked about helmet laws we  were told they are required starting at age 8.  Age 8!  The only protection for the little ones is the arms of their parents.  On several occasions, we saw children sitting on the laps of their parents in the front seat of a car, as well.  We also inquired about the driving age and after they hemmed and hawed for a moment, they told us it is 18, but no one really sticks to that.  The road regulations are not the only place where we felt this lack of safety enforcement.  It is not at all uncommon to be walking down the street and have electrical sparks shower down from work which was being done overhead.  No fencing to block the sidewalk, no sign of warning.  On more than one occasion I jumped out of the way so as not to be right underneath the spray of sparks.

The other thing that really seals it as being a developing nation is the lack of potable drinking water and the general conditions of the public toilets.  Of course, it is not uncommon to go somewhere internationally and not be able to drink the water.  However, along with that are the scams that arise from bottles of water being reused and refilled with the local water and then being sold as new.  In order to make consumers feel safe, companies like Aquafina and Evian put safety seals around the caps which ensure it has not been opened before.  In addition, the public restrooms are by and large gross.  This was to be expected.  However, the lack of toilet paper and soap only add to the feeling that things in Hanoi just aren’t very clean and visitors have to be careful not to spread germs and get sick while here.

Amazing viewsI hope I haven’t scared you off, because even with all that said, Hanoi has been one of my favorite stops on the trip so far.  We were able to take a day trip to Ha Long Bay, a group of 1900 tiny islets about three hours south-east of Hanoi.  It was far to go for a day trip, and it would have been better if we had done a 2 night/3 day which is their specialty, but we’re working with tight timing.  We had a delicious lunch on board the boat, then traveled around the bay.  Our first stop was a traditional fishing village, with small homes permanently on the water.  These homes only have generators for electricity and the children only attend school up to 8th grade.  (There is a one room schoolhouse on the water and if they want to go to the upper grades they have to move to the mainland.)  We were particularly interested in the wide array of houseboats, including some made with brick and mortar.  Sadly, having people live in the bay means it is littered with trash; however, further out in the water it is absolutely gorgeous.  We made our way over to “Heavenly Cave” and walked around looking at different rock formations.  Honestly, the tour itself was a little underwhelming, but being out on the water made it all worthwhile.  It would be a wonderful place to come for a longer stay.

Just a small section of Ha Long Bay

Just a small section of the former prison, this was one of two rooms of exhibits on American POWs. John McCain’s flight suit can be seen in the rear of the room.

Our final few hours in Hanoi found us doing two things neither of us is likely to forget soon.  First, we went to Ha Loa Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. This was the infamous jail where many American pilots who were shot down during the Vietnam war were taken and held prisoner for several years.  What we didn’t know is that this prison was built during the French occupation of Vietnam and was first used to imprison Vietnamese nationalists in wretched conditions.  Most of the museum focused on the horrible abuses of the French towards any Vietnamese fighting for freedom.  Exhibit after exhibit spoke of the heroism of the Vietnamese Comrades and the torturous, villainous behavior of the French.  We kept waiting for any mention of the role this prison played during the war with the U.S.  Just when we thought it wouldn’t be mentioned at all, it finally came at the end of the exhibits.  Two rooms housed photos and artifacts “showing the conditions of the Americans” during their time here. It was filled with photos of them playing volleyball, basketball and putting up Christmas decorations.  It focused a great deal on the days when the American P.O.W.s were released, even mentioning the fact that they were given a “souvenir” of their time here.  We could hardly believe it.  They essentially made it look like summer camp.  There was not one picture of the prisoners in a jail cell.  At the end, it even said the Americans were grateful for the human treatment they received.  Unbelievable! That is not the same account we have heard as Americans–just read about the experiences of Senator John McCain while he was imprisoned there.  This illustrated another example of the one-sided information that we have come to expect from the museums here.

Brooke outside of Ho Chi Minh’s grand mausoleum

The final, most fascinating and most creepy thing we’ve done here is visit the Ho Chi Minh Complex, most notably the mausoleum.  Just like other important communist leaders Stalin and Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s body has been preserved, encased in glass, and is on display for public viewing.  This seemed like a unique experience that we just couldn’t miss.  First of all, the lines stretched outside the complex and down the street.  It was packed with people, partially because it was a holiday weekend.  Luckily, the lines moved very quickly and we were up to the mausoleum within 10 minutes.  We were told going in that we should wear long pants, covered shoulders and close-toed shoes.  It was very important that we be respectful.  Upon entering the mausoleum, I was instructed to take my sunglasses off the top of my head and others were told to remove hats.  As we filed around Ho Chi Minh’s body, gawking in horrified fascination, the guards moved us swiftly along.  We were not allowed to stop or walk too slowly.  The general feeling was one of excitement and intrigue.  We were afraid people would be more reverent and seem like they were in a sacred place, but there was really just a sense of curiosity.  As we walked outside, we immediately discussed what a strange experience that was.  Uncle Ho wasn’t looking too great, probably because he’s been dead since 1969.  By all accounts, this kind of fanfare is the last thing he would have wanted and doesn’t really fit with the kind of life he led.  All in all, I’m so glad we went because it is such a strange thing to do.

Adios VietnamAnd now, sadly our time in Vietnam must end.  We really wish we had more time and we are already planning to come back.  The people here are so friendly, the food has been awesome, and there is so much to see and do.  Now, we head off for a very brief 2 days in Singapore.  Interestingly, no other city has brought such a variation of opinion than Singapore.  Some people love it and say we’ll need more time.  Others have told us to skip it all together.  We met a British family living in Singapore who told us two days is just right.  We’ll go with that!

-Brooke

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Landmarks, Museums, Unusual Experiences, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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