Monthly Archives: July 2013

Kaunas and the castle in the lake

Kaunas is the former centre of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. Considering how beautifully the castle sits today on the island, it’s hard to imagine that there was almost none of it left in the early 20th century. Indeed, the exhibition in the castle does not only a good job presenting its own history but also gives a sound overview of Lithuanian history right until the end of the 19th century.

Besides the very busy castle – a popular tourist destination, there isn’t much else to do in Kaunas. Unless you decide to rent a bike for an outrageous sum and cycle around the lake. Luckily we had a map with us as road signs were nonexistent out there; and some general sense of going round didn’t hurt either.

I can’t recommend stopping in the forests surrounding the lake during summer time, not even for a minute as we were haunted by the most aggressive mosquitoes ever. Once outside the forests though, the bike ride was absolutely worth it: a very peaceful landscape with tiny villages, old houses and wide fields.

Plus, you get to see the castle from all possible sides and really enjoy being outside any city for a day.

Advertisements

Vilnius

is a very popular snack that goes along with beer in Vilnius. From the bit of research done prior to the trip, Vilnius didn’t seem like the most exiting of the three Baltic capital. It was good therefore we went and had a look ourselves.

 Once again, the advices from ‘like a local‘ came in very handy. Especially the free walking tour proved to be excellent, leaving the classic tourist spots aside and focusing on hidden paths instead. Combined with a lot of history and a very curious group of fellow visitors the tour took almost three hours ; topped by another two in a pub enjoying the said beer, bread and cheese.

Vilnius seemed to us more heterogeneous than Riga and Tallinn but not less pretty or interesting. That the city also appears to have as many churches as pubs certainly speaks in favour of its diversity.

Riga

We didn’t do much in Riga. No sightseeing, no museums, no guided tour. I could try and claim that it was due to the weather but being honest, we were just lazy. So lazy, we didn’t even take pictures. However, we had the best almond croissants, spent a lot of time in a nicely decorated pub with great food and good beer, read a lot, walked a lot and made fire.

Yeaaaaah fire!!! This was thanks to our AirBnB sleeping place which had not only a fireplace but also a generous wood supply. It wasn’t so generous after our two day stay but a very nice way to heat the apartment which in its former life was a pub decorated like Alibaba’s cave. Fittingly, it was in a cave – the kind that never gets warm, no matter what temperatures are outside.

Oh, and I also bought the one souvenir you are not allowed to come back without after visiting the Baltic states: amber. So much for Riga.

Across the sea

A relaxing though not exactly cheap two hours from Helsinki is Tallinn with the very pretty historic city center. Staying a little bit outside of this perimeter proved to be a good idea as apparently the city gets flooded every once in a while with tourists coming from one of the huge cruise ships. Luckily, none of these ships were around during our stay.

Still, the city was swarming with people and very animated. Having come across the ‘Like a local’ maps in the youth hostel in Helsinki, we put them to a practical use in Tallinn: First by joining the excellent free guided tour. Free, as always in these cases, means financed by tips which were given generously afterwards. Second by picking out some of the advised restaurants, one of them great, others more interesting though not in the English sense of the term.

Besides the city center, we also used one very well spent day to rent bicycles and drive all the way to the television tower and the botanic garden. Due to our poor planning (and incredibly long queues), we didn’t manage to get up the tower but the garden was still a worth-while visit.

Helsinki in summer

is not as warm as I would have liked it. 15-20°C in July simply does not qualify as ‘summer’ in my mind thought it helps to understand why Scandinavian friends find temperatures above 25°C unbearably hot.

Anyway, the weather – temperatures aside – was good, generally sunny and windy, perfect for walking a lot and enjoying the almost empty city. Could it be that any self-respecting inhabitant of Helsinki spends the summer months in a little cottage on his or her lake?

There were still enough tourists to bridge the gap but my impression of the city as being curiously quiet for a capital remains. Not that I would complain!!

We visited the Suomenlinna island, which is as much a museum, a ford and a quiet neighborhood of Helsiki; the harbor where we were lucky enough to see the dozens of sailing boots thanks to the Tall Ship race being in town; and the Seurasaari island with its collection of houses from all over Finland, some of them being several hundred years old. Besides this was a lot of walking and the realisation that Helsinki has a) no high buildings, b) a lot of water and c) is very green.

All in all, the two full days we had went by very quickly. Prices were not as steep as we had feared – coming from Brussels they seemed reasonable for most things except alcohol. Traveling on to Tallinn, I would however not recommend the trip the other way round. After all, there is a reason why Finish people pay the (expensive) ferry trip to do some cheap shopping.

What’s the Finnish word for sunset?

Helsinki.

Yes, I know: This joke only works in German but I couldn’t resist. Still, ‘sunset’ is an interesting concept so far up in Northern Europe. After months in Brazil, with a timely sunset at 17:30 sharp and pitch-black dark soon afterwards (yes, I’m living this close to the equator), a sunset around 22:00 and dusk past midnight had an irritating effet on our biorhythm. Namely that we woke up very early only to find that most shops, museum and tourists attractions opened not before 10:00, in some cases even 11:00 am.

This gave us however ample time to find and enjoy the best espresso of the city, if not the entire country. Having achieved this much, we spent our two and a half days in Helsinki by visiting the fort, the harbor, various markets, an open air museum and walking from one end of the city to another.

Baltic states and more – a summer trip

As the round trip Brazil-Europe is becoming more and more expensive, we decided to through some more money out of the window benefit from our time in Europe while we were at it. After little deliberation but a quite some planning, our final itinerary was decided to be Helsinki – Tallinn – Riga – Vilnius; with flights from Berlin to Helsinki and back from Vilnius while the remaining journey was to be completed  by either boat or bus.

With lots of water, open green landscapes and historic cities, our 10 day trip proved to be as varied as insightful as relaxing.