Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Eastern Europe - Days 11 through 16 - Russia

Our first stop in Russia was St. Petersburg - home to most of the Russian nobility. St. Petersburg itself was a gorgeous city - I think it looked like a wedding cake with beautiful pastel buildings and white scroll work around the outside of each one. On our first day, we had a sightseeing tour of St. Petersburg, stopping at several churches and the main square. We were all pretty tired from the overnight train, so it was back to the hotel and then out to a ballet. Getting to the ballet required negotiating the local metro system. St. Petersburg has some of the longest escalators on the lines in their metro system and the line we were on was no exception to this. I don't think you could see the bottom of the escalator from the top, and it was a bit scary not knowing where you were going.

The ballet was wonderful - a very modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet. It was a very classical style of ballet, but the setting and costumes were more modern, making for a wonderful evening. What a treat to be at a ballet in Russia!

The next day we were off sightseeing. The first stop was the Church on Spilled Blood - a beautiful onion domed church which was the sight of the shooting of one of the Czars. The church had been restored recently after falling into disrepair during the communist era. Many churches in communist Russia were "secularized", and used as skating rinks, swimming pools or warehouses instead of churches. This church was no exception, and the beautiful mosaics that lined the inside of the church had recently been restored to their original state.

That evening we boarded the last of our overnight trains. We didn't know it at the time, but a bombing and derailment had occurred the previous night on the same train line, so security was extra tight on the train. Fortunately our train journey was uneventful.

We arrived in Moscow and were escorted on another city tour. Most of Moscow's tourist attractions centre around Red Square and the Kremlin, so the city tour wasn't as exciting as in St. Petersburg, but it was a wonderful city to visit. The next day I got the chance to visit both sites again. We started out by visiting Lenin's mausoleum - a bit creepy and very strange. It was very dark in the tomb, and there was very little time for your eyes to adjust to the change between sunlight and darkness, so I just about ended up tripping down the stairs in the tomb. After re-emerging from the tomb, it was over to St. Basil's cathedral. Although St. Basil's is probably the most famous cathedral in Russia, it's fairly simplistic on the inside - nothing like the ornate tile work in the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg.

After that, it was off to the Kremlin. I was fortunate enough to arrive at a time when they were performing a military exercise, and got to see a few of the soldiers who still work at the Kremlin in their duties. From there, it was off to see some of the churches at the site - there are 5 that are open to the public, and most of which were still in their original state. Someone did point out that it was fairly ironic that the churches inside the Kremlin, which was supposed to be the secular head of state, were the best preserved churches in Moscow. The Kremlin also had a fantastic exhibition of Cartier jewellery. Given the remarkable lack of obvious security around the site, we had a discussion over dinner as to whether the jewellery was real or not, as there were hundreds if not thousands of carats of diamonds and other precious gemstones. (All of which was very sparkly!)

After that, it was back to the hotel for a farewell drink and some dinner. I had an early flight out, so I called it a night pretty early. I'd arranged for a cab to pick me up at an insane hour of the morning, and drove to the airport. Of course, what was supposed to take 1 1/2 hours only took half an hour without traffic, but I got to the airport with plenty of time to make my flight. I had a *long* layover in Frankfurt, which doesn't have much entertainment in the airport, so I ended up spending $30 on a sandwich and coffee, but at least the staff at the restaurant let me sit for a couple of hours without too much hassle. After 6 hours, it was finally time to board my flight back home, and I arrived in Calgary 9 hours after that.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Eastern Europe - Days 9 and 10 - Lithuania

Our next stop was Vilinus, in Lithuania. Vilinus was a gorgeous little town which had a dark history through the war and through the Soviet regime. We came to Vilinus by day train from Poland, arriving in the early evening, just in time for a late walk around town and some supper.

The next day was a full day of sightseeing. Vilinus is about half a million people, which meant that the town centre was very walkable and easy to get to. We started with some of the churches in the town centre, and then climbed up to the top of the Vilinus castle to get some panoramic views of the city. After that, we walked a short distance to a museum that explained the occupancy of the town during the war by the Nazis and following by the soviets. It was an interesting museum as the bottom floor was a KGB prizon which had largely been untouched since the time it was used - very interesting, but hard to see. Most of the towns that we went through had some sort of record of either the Nazi or Soviet occupation - we certainly didn't go to them all, but I thought it was important to learn something about what the area went through in the recent past.

After sightseeing, it was time to board another overnight-train to Russia. We passed through Latvia, and so got woken up by border guards twice through the night - once to cross into Latvia, and the other to cross into Russia. The Russian guards were interesting - we had one set of guards to pick up the paperwork to exit Latvia, one set to check under the bunks for stow-away passengers and one set to complete the paperwork to enter Russia. Entering Russia requires that you have a visa, which is filled out in advance, and is sealed into your passport. Even so, the guards scan the visa under a black light to make sure it's a valid visa, and then check the visa against a central register of visas for the week. The central register of visas is a big stack of paper in a binder, and one of the guards calls out your name, while the other one flips furiously through the binder to find your visa in the registry. Once found, the other guard confirms that you are in the register, and shuts the large binder. This procedure is repeated for all members of the group, despite the fact that our visas were all registered together, and should be in the same part of the binder.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Eastern Europe - Days 5 through 8 - Poland

We took the overnight train from Prague to Poland - it was the first time in a long time that I'd been on an overnight train, and it was hard to get adjusted to sleeping on the overnight journey.

The first stop was Krakow. We arrived very early in the morning, and wandered around the square for a bit while eating some breakfast. It was lovely to have such a public space all to ourselves - just us and the pigeons.

After breakfast, we boarded a public bus to take us out to the Auschwitz museum. The site preserves what is left of the concentration camp, and it was a fascinating and moving experience. I learned a lot about what happened during the war that day, even though it was emotionally draining to experience. Its one thing seeing pictures or a movie and quite another to actually be there. I didn't take very many pictures when I was there, and so the few that I have are of the momument to the victims at the far end of the concentration camp.

The next morning we headed out again on another day trip - this time to the Salt Mines outside of Krakow. The salt mines are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site because of all of the gorgeous carving and sculptures that are underground. THe highlight of the salt mines is a huge underground cathedral, where even the chandeliers were made of salt. The trip took a bit longer than we thought and we ended up back in the city of Krakow just in time to make our second overnight train to Warsaw.

Warsaw was extensively bombed during the war, and as a result, has been undergoing constant restoration to bring the city back to its former glory. We saw some lovely churches and buildings that had been put back together in such a way that you'd never guess that they were actually a restoration. In the afternoon, we set off to see a Chopin concert in one of Warsaw's public parks. About half way through the concert, the sky started to blacken, so we made our way back onto the bus that we'd came from to get back into town - it was a good decision, as about 5 minutes into our bus ride, the heavens opened, and a huge downpour occurred. We managed to find a small archway to duck into, and then opted for the nearest restaurant, which turned out to be the best Thai food I've ever eaten.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Eastern Europe - Days 1 to 4 - Prague

I'm back from Europe, after sampling the local beverages and being on far too many trains. I started in Prague with a couple of days on my own before the tour that I was on started. I've found that a couple of days at the start of the tour were good, as it helped me to get over jet-lag and get orientated to wherever I was. It's also nice to have a couple of days to feel like you're really on vacation - to read a book and relax without a schedule to adhere to.

The first day after I arrived, I wandered around Prague Castle. The heart of Prague Castle is the cathedral at the centre, which is gorgeous. Prague received relatively little damage during the Second World War, and so the city of Prague and the castle are relatively intact. I also got a chance to do a short trip out to Karlstejn castle, which is about an hour outside of Prague. To visit the castle, you have to do a guided tour, and our tour guide locked us into and out of every room that we visited. The castle did have some very old objects, including medieval glassware and plates which were in their original condition.

On the third morning, I met up with the organized tour. There were 9 of us on the tour - 3 Irish, 2 New Zealanders, 2 Australians and 1 lady from South Africa. Our first stop was to head back into Prague for a walking tour. It was nice to be guided around for the first time in a couple of days, and not have to worry too much about where I was going or how I was going to get back.

The fourth day was another sightseeing day in Prague - I went to a few of the less notable churches and climbed the watch tower on the Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge connects the Prague Castle with the rest of central Prague, and is teaming with street vendors and tourists. It provided some interesting photos to see the amount of people on the bridge from the air.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Away from home....

It's now officially 4 days into the vacation, and this is the first serious internet time I've had in a while. I'm just killing a little time this afternoon - our overnight train isn't scheduled to depart until later in the evening, and we had to check out of our hotel this morning, so I'm trying to find something to do that isn't outside (too hot) or on my feet (they're sore from 4 days of pavement pounding and stair climbing). Fortunatley, internet time is both indoors and takes place on a chair, so is perfect for keeping me busy for a couple of hours.

I managed to sort out most of my personal email today and catch-up on a few websites, so I feel back in touch with the life I lead on a day to day basis. It's nice to know that other people are able to carry on without you as you drink coffee in cafe or drink a beer on a hot afternoon.

It's been a great couple of days - Prague is very charming, and the views here are breathtaking. I've had a great couple of days sitting in small cafes or visiting the many churches and monuments that exist in a city with Pragues' history. It's also clearly August here, which means that all of the tourists are out in full force, being everything that only tourists in the heat of summer can be - climbing up a monument to get the best photo or choosing to sort out a map in the middle of everyone else's way. Fortunatley, our hotel is located outside of the central part of the city, and so taking the metro in and out is a nice way to shift in and out of the "tourist" part of life.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Exchange Received

Julianne, from the SBEBB let me know she received her "Freebie" exchange this week. The heart was a freebie from the gift of stitching, and the bracelet and fob were made to match.