Sunday, December 7, 2014

Through the Baltic States (...where's that?)

Had you asked me this question 6 months ago, I would have been at a loss. But honestly speaking, the three Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) are hidden gems of Europe and well worth a visit! Each capital, a mere 4-5 hours apart, holds a unique culture and history.
(Side note: I put all the places I recommend in bold letters, in case you want to visit them too!).

St. Anne's church, Vilnius

After a LONG bus trip from Krakow to Warsaw to Vilnius, I excitedly hopped off the bus to explore the capital of Lithuania. A thick morning fog hung over the city, making the atmosphere seem a little dark and uncertain. I was really relieved when I navigated to my host's home, even though it was only 10 minutes from the station. As I watched the sun rise from his apartment window, I gradually saw the skyline of a really beautiful and majestic (though small) city.

I meant to take a little nap before going out, but I ended up waking an hour late for the city walking tour! Actually, I thought I was right on time but I had no idea that I crossed over one time zone and an hour (?) ahead. Fortunately for me, I caught the tail end of the tour just as they crossed the main square and sprinted after them. The guide took us to the independent artists' republic of Uzupis. This "country" actually has its own constitution and national holiday (April 1st)! Vilnius is sort of known as the eccentric sibling of the Baltic States, but in the awesomest way.

Jesus, the world's first backpacker

I also loved the Literatai (literature) street, a collection of artwork depicting quotes and images of Lithuanian writers (or anyone connected to their country in any way).

I was soon joined by my travel friend, and we spent the rest of our time in Vilnius enjoying the view from atop the Gediminas' Tower, walking about the Old Town area, and...

... and drinking! We had to take advantage of the cheap prices before we got to Latvia & Estonia, since both use the Euro. Sorry future travelers, but Lithuania is also joining the Eurozone in 2015 so we were lucky.

į sveikatą from Snekutis Bar!

Bidding farewell to Vilnius, we set off for the largest of the Baltic capitals - Riga, Latvia! Riga definitely was a big change from Vilnius. The whole area felt busier, more people and sound and presence. I especially loved the architecture in Riga! One street in particular, Elizabetes Iela, is an ornate masterpiece of Art Noveau design.

Love the design of House of Blackheads

Outside of sightseeing and nightlife (we did spend Halloween in Riga, after all), there was not much else we saw in our brief 1.5 days there. However, I will never forget how happy I was to find this LIFESAVER of a buffet. Lido is a chain restaurant that serves traditional Latvian food in a self-serve style, so you pay for as much as you eat. Delicious food, good prices, and charming decor! A+

Our last stop, and sadly the shortest, was Tallinn, the charming capital of Estonia. Out of the three Baltics, I liked Tallinn's Old Town the most. However, the weather did not reciprocate my feelings because as soon as we stepped into the city, it started POURING. I've never seen it rain so hard in my life! By the time we sloshed our way to the Tallinn city museum, we were soaked from head to toe.

The city museum was really great (especially since I've grown a little tired of city museums), and featured interactive and detailed exhibitions of the city's history. Another place I highly recommend! To dry off even more, we went to this chill restaurant called Must Puudel. The decor was a little tongue-in-cheek throwback to Communist times, with an artistic twist. I ordered a delicious beet soup - sounds strange but it's perfectly sweet and salty (and warm!).

It was completely dark outside by the time we finished eating, but we wanted to see more! Tallinn is the perfect place to wander about and get lost, with it's winding cobblestone streets and little shops.

We also stumbled upon the Luscher & Matiesen Wine Museum, a wine cellar + exhibition room that provided the perfect hideout from the cold. I think they usually charge admission, but the guy just waved us in (maybe we looked really sad and cold). There was nobody inside, so we just took a bunch of pictures and even sampled some glögi (mulled wine). 

Our wandering soon came to an end, and we faced a looong night ahead of flying, overnight layovers, and running out of money (me). I actually was alone and stuck in the Copenhagen airport, just 10 krona short of buying my train ticket to Lund because the currency exchange screwed me over. That situation sucked, to say the least, but I was so incredibly thankful when one man gave me his leftover change and sent me on my way. I have never been so glad to fall in my bed and sleep soundly, knowing I finally made it back home.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Wowed by Krakow

Sorry I couldn't resist turning the title into a rhyme. But Krakow was honestly an amazing city, and I didn't have nearly enough time to do everything I wanted to do!

To begin with, Krakow was a very cold and foggy change from Prague. I was freezing the whole time, no matter how many hats I layered on my head! However, this also paved the way for some awesome late-night adventures and cool photos (check the one above - main market square by night!).

My one true Polish love, PIEROGI

My first official day in Krakow was packed to the brim. I went on an amazing free walking tour (highly recommend!), made lunch with my CS host, and went exploring by night. She showed me Krak's Mound, which would've been a great view...except the fog was so thick we could barely see in front of us!

It was definitely thrilling (and kind of scary) to stumble around the hill area in the dark. We even found an unfinished church and some rainbow stairs with inspirational quotes, which I absolutely loved!

Next, my host took me to my first pole dancing class at Fly Away studios! Okay, laugh all you want but pole dancing is not easy and my host was definitely better than me. It's been several months since I've been in a dance studio, but I love learning all forms of dance and enjoyed the challenge. :)

Lover's Bridge

On my second day, I went on a poignant and thought-provoking tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial site. Though I didn't have much money left, this was a place I felt was very important to see and understand. The museum and tour did not leave me in tears, but I definitely was shocked that any human could have survived those conditions. It was impossible for me to wrap my mind around the sheer scope, the number of deaths and the severity of the situation at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

How can a beautiful sunset light up this terrible place?

This trip basically occupied the entire day, but I still had time for one more walking tour before I left Krakow for good. The free Jewish Quarter tour, offered by the same company, took me on a very informative walk around the Kazimierz area. We saw some of the filming locations for Schindler's List, and learned about the quarter's role in isolating the Jewish people prior to their deportation to concentration camps. This tour basically concluded my trip (well I did spend one more crazy night dancing at a club), but I left with some food for thought as well as a greater appreciation for the city of Krakow.

Future Krakow to-do list:
1) Schindler's factory
2) Rynek Underground museum