Month: September 2016

The Baltics Are Waking Up: Vilnius, Lithuania

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Friday 9th September Cont…
I mostly napped on the long drive with a bit of writing for this blog thrown in just so I could try to convince myself I hadn’t totally wasted the long drive. The journey was however nicely broken up and with proper tourist sites to keep it interesting and not just stops at service stations as provided by some tour companies on their “long drive days”.

Our first stop was the ‘Hill of Crosses’, and El explained it was a Busabout tradition to leave a cross on the hill. The site has become symbolic of the endurance of Catholicism in Lithuania, especially as a way of peaceful resistance during Soviet Occupation and Pope John Paul II visited shortly after the country regained independence. It is difficult to describe the scale of the site and stating that there are approximately 100,000 crosses on the hill just doesn’t do the place justice. The site had a powerful feel about it, especially once on the hill and surrounded by crosses on all sides of different sizes.

Our second stop was at Trakai which is most famous for Trakai Castle Island. We had lunch at Kybynlar where I had fried bread with cheese and a cold cucumber soup both of which were nice. The fried bread in particular was very moorish especially with a Svyturys beer however I’m not so sure it was good for my arteries. There was a “Head in the Hole” cardboard cutout which meant Christine and I were able to get a particularly funny picture.

Christine and I decided to hire a peddle boat whilst Matt and El hired a row boat however negotiating a price with “The Captain” proved more humorous than expected. He seemed to get quite irate and I honestly thought he was going to push El in to the lake. We started having a race towards the castle which Christine and I decided we comfortably won because it appeared the other two had ended up stuck on a bank. We navigated our way around the outside of the island where we saw Jayde and Giulia before we returned the hire boats no doubt to the relief of the captain.

We arrived in Vilnius and outside the hostel a large group of bikers appeared to be taking part in a religious ceremony. We could hear the ceremony up in our room as it was incredibly loud and so I was unable to nap any further. Eventually there was a huge roar from the engines and they all sped off. Later on El explained that these had been the Gates of Dawn which contains an icon of “The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy” which has become a shrine as it is said to have miraculous powers and the bikers were probably wishing someone a safe journey.

Our Orientation walk walk started outside the Gates of Dawn where the bikers had been when we’d arrived. We then made our way in to the main square where on the Town Hall there was a plaque unveiled by George Bush (Junior) which stated that the USA was a friend of Lithuania and that if they were attacked, the attacker would become the enemy of the USA (which has recently been re-affirmed). We saw other sites including a couple of churches before we saw a piece of artwork called Writers Wall which had an object representing various famous Lithuanians.

El said she had a surprise for us, and after making our way down a road which was being relaid we arrived at a bridge which had a sign
Republic of Užupis. The border sign also contained 4 symbols underneath including a Smiling face and a picture of the Mona Lisa. El told us that the residents of the area declared independence on 1st April and therefore it is unclear if it is a joke however the republic does have it’s own constitution which is displayed in most languages.

After the walk we made our way to a restaurant called where I had a Lithuanian pancake and then we continued to a England themed pub called Portobello. I convinced Matt to try a pint of England’s finest ale, Fullers London Pride. Alas it hadn’t traveled well and not only that it was served chilled like a lager. There were quite a bits of English memorabilia including a Red phone box and a Mini which we used for photos.

Saturday 10th September
The following morning I had no option but to get out of bed because there was a commotion outside the hostel due to a large group singing outside the gate. Jayde, Christine, Matt and I had arranged to explore the old town together and after eating some of the basic breakfast provisions made our way outside.

Jayde and I had planned to get a bagel from the market for breakfast but we were told to try Holy Doughnut instead. In addition to bagels they sold an incredible selection of doughnuts, one of which had maple cured bacon on the top. Whilst from a novelty perspective I was tempted I eventually opted for one that was covered in chocolate cornflakes.

We walked to the Cathedral via the President House and the Courtyard of Vilnius University and when we arrived in Cathedral Square it was evident that a marathon was being organised. Opposite the Cathedral and a short distance away, was the tall Cathedral’s bell tower which may once have been one of the towers of the old medieval castle. We had a quick look inside the Cathedral which had various art works hung on the walls and after leaving saw the Stebuklas Tile (Miracle Stone) marking the start of the Baltic Way the human chain from Vilnius to Riga and Tallinn that El had previously mentioned in Tallinn and Riga.

We continued to the Gediminas Tower. Those that have followed my recent travels know I seem to love nothing more than tiring myself by climbing a tall tower to get a view and so I paid the small price whilst the others waited for me below. As usual, I needed oxygen when I reached the top and other than a lovely panoramic view of the city there was a small display on the Baltic Way, where I finally saw some pictures of the event. It’s incredible feat really sunk in and it was awe inspiring to appreciate, how in an age before social media, the National Fronts could organise for two million people to join their hands in a peaceful demonstration for a distance of 675.5 kilometres (across the three Baltic states without a single gap.

After leaving the Cathedral we walked back past the President House but couldn’t find the alley leading to the Alumnatas Courtyard public garden. Instead we continued to the Barbakanas Bastian, a remaining piece of the old 16th Century city wall which also provided a nice view of the city in the distance. Jayde and I then said goodbye to Christine who needed to get her flight home and to Matt who had to check in to his next accommodation though we agreed to meet up for a drink that evening.

We were staying with the same hostel but at a different address and the room wasn’t ready so we walked to the Hale Markets which were located in a building which looked more like a train station from the outside. We had a quick look around and I had a bagel from Hales Bistro though in truth the markets hadn’t been as impressive as we had expected. Jayde had planned to go to the cinema, whilst I had planned to go to another KGB Headquaters, now called the ‘Museum of Genocide Victims’. The cinema in the Old Town didn’t have anything showing in English, or even with English subtitles, so she decided to come with me.

The walk we took wasn’t the most direct route however eventually we arrived at the grand looking building which from the outside, like in Riga, appeared perfectly innocent. We made our way around the different displays on the top two floors which focused on the impact that events during the Soviet Occupation had on the day to day lives. There was a lot to take in, some of the displays focused on the resistance of the local population whilst another more harrowing display focused on the victims.

We made our way downstairs in to the basement and saw the remains of the prison and the execution room. Some of the cells represented how prisoners would have been treated and displayed items such as straight jackets whilst objects that had been found in various mass graves were displayed in glass cases located under the floor of the execution room.

We returned back to the main hostel and then continued on to our new room which was a short walk away. Our new accommodation was more in the style of an apartment block however it was a rather odd set up with a downstairs communal kitchen next door to our room and further more, whilst we hadn’t necessarily expected en-suite we were disappointed to discover that there were only two showers in the whole building.

I’d been growing a beard for a month having been challenged to do so my my housemates Jess and Orla. I had asked if there were any recommendations on where I could get it trimmed because I wanted to return to work looking less scruffy, I thought it would be memorable to have my first beard trimming experience abroad and ultimately I thought it would be cheaper than London. I was given two recommendations and as the first was fully booked I ended up at Herr Katts €7 which was in Užupi. I felt a bit nervous and vulnerable as I sat down, wondering if I’d end up in a Sweeney Todd/Mrs. Lovett, meat pie.

As I walked back through the town I had a quick glance at the football scores and saw Watford were losing 2.0 though I was determined not to let the score affect my mood. By the time I got back to the room it was 2.1 but I didn’t anything more as it was half time so I went up for a shower. By the time I returned it was 3.2 and amazingly the final score was Watford 4 West Ham 2. Whilst I wouldn’t have let defeat upset me, victory had me practically doing cartwheels.

That evening Jayde and I went to a Restaurant close to the accommodation called Forest where we enjoyed a final evening dinner including a starter of more fried bread with cheese. After we’d finished we walked a short way to a bar called the “King and Mouse” which was one of the oldest and popular during the time of Napoleon. It really only sold whiskey which neither of us fancied drinking so we continued to a bar El had pointed out the day before called “Who Hit John?”

Matt joined us for a small beer having randomly bumped in to a friend from another tour before we said a final goodbye to him and returned home. Due to the time difference Match of the Day was still playing and I managed to catch the Watford highlights which was a bit of a bonus.

Sunday 11th September
Jayde and I had quite a lazy start because our flight was quite late in the day and we had explored quite a bit of the old town but didn’t have the appetite to explore other parts of the city. It had been quite an intense trip as I thought it would be visiting 5 capital cities in such a short period of time. We were quite hungry by the time we were ready to leave but first we had to drop our bags out at the old hostel.

After a very lazy start we walked to a Chaika a Soviet styled coffee shop however unfortunately they didn’t really have any breakfast or lunch options. Fortunately we were fairly need a main street so we soon found another restaurant and we then continued on to Doughnut Lab however by then I had no space in my stomach so I resisted the temptation.

We then spent a bit of time looking around souvenir shops and at a local market before we made our way back to Holy Doughnut where we took a seat and watched the marathon whilst I ate a doughnut as I was feeling peckish again. There was at least one runner that looked longingly at me as they ran by and I admit I felt rather cruel. We returned back to the hotel, picked up our bags and made our way to the train station and arriving at the airport.

After 5 capital cities in 10 days our Scandi-Baltic adventure was finally over and whilst it had been an intense trip which meant both of us were tired by the time we arrived back at Gatwick we were already planning where to go next so watch this space…

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Wild World – Riga, Latvia

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Wednesday 7th Cont…
After disembarking from the ferry we waited in the arrivals area whilist El went to order us two taxis. After a while it appeared everyone had left and although we weren’t told by security we had to move, someone came along and started to turn off the lights so we quickly moved to a different area near the main exit. El returned and we made our way to the taxis which took us to our accommodation which was a large apartment style room. Chris took a bed in the mezzanine which Matt decided to sleep on a sofa in the lounge area and the rest of us took a bed in the main room.

Once we had sorted ourselves out we went back downstairs so El could take us on a short walking tour of the city. We started off at the House of the Black Heads (I’ve explained the significance in my Tallinn blog), before continuing on to the Catherdral had a Rooster rather than a cross on top of the spire which signified it was Lutheran, but also had the purpose of being used as a wather vane.

Opposite the Cathedral was the Latvia Radio Broadcasting house which played a part in the modern independence of the country. In January 1991, following an attack in Vilnius by the Soviets, the Popular Front used a broadcast to call for people to gather in Cathedral Square and to build barricades to protect the city from another Soviet invasion.

We passed the Power Tower, once part of the cities defensces before we reached the Freedom Monument where the Guard of Honour was just taking place. El explained that the Monument honoured soldiers killed during the 1918–1920 Latvian War of Independence and that the Soviets had threatened to demolish the momument after occupation in 1940 because it represented freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia.

After the walk El, Chris, Matt and I went to a traditional Latvian dumpling restaurant called Pelmini XL for lunch called. There were a variety of types so I took a sample of each and then paid based on the weight of the food I’d taken. Matt had jokingly said he craved a burger so once we had finished we then went to Hesburger. At the time I’d assumed this was a Soviet Union equivalent of McDonald’s, especially as the cheese burger seemed no different however I later learnt it was a Finnish chain.

Later in the afternoon, all of us but Jayde went to a KGB Prison which had been turned in to a museum. From the outside “The Corner House” appeared an inconspicuous building from 1912 as did the Reception Area, where the public could make enquiries about the fate of individuals. Even the interior of the main entrance hall which could be seen from the street was adorned with chandeliers and large mirrors.

Once we were inside however and turned the corner from this hallway the atmosphere changed dramatically as we saw the chilling decor of the corridor to the cells and the true horrific nature of the buildings purpose during Soviet Occupation became obvious. Our first stop was the interrogation room, where it was possible to stand behind the window which would have appeared to be a mirror to those being interrogated. It was scary to think how normal the building looked from the outside in comparison to what went on inside.

Everything about the prisoner experience was designed to break the human spirit. Sitting in an example of a cell, which were always over crowded, we learnt that the prisoners in the cell were allowed nothing but a bucket to use as toilet and this was only emptied daily. During the tour we visited the Registration Room where prisoners were completely stripped in order to degrade them, the exercise yard where prisoners were allowed 20-30 minutes day light as an armed guard sat above and the kitchen where food was made from spoiled and unwashed products.

Finally we went in to the main closed court yard where there was a moving display dedicated to those that were executed. As part of this there was a graphic 3 minute video clip from the 2007 movie Katyn which portrayed how the executions probably occurred. As the prisoner was shot in the back of the head the engine of a truck was left running (to hide the sound) and then the bodies were dumped in to it. Various sound proofing techniques were also used within the chamber and there was a hole in the corner of the floor to drain away the blood.

El had told us about a good view from the Skyline Bar of the Blu Hotel which we passed on the way back to our hostel. I ordered a small beer and we took some seats by the window over looking the Freedom Monument. After we left Chris and I walked home through the Bastejkalna Gardens and via a Soviet Statue which had not been demolished after independence. We deviated slightly more than planned however we arrived back at the hostel in time to meet the others for dinner.

That evening we went to a buffet at a traditional Latvian restaurant and then on to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs which initially felt like a stereotypical Latvian bar for tourists, a bit like an overly English themed pub in London. It was however a genuinely traditional bar still also populated by locals where I tried a couple of the beers and we watched the locals doing their lively folk dances.

Jayde and her friend Paul met us at the bar. We got chatting and as he had worked as a guide told us some of his tales. He then asked if I’d been on any other tours and I casually mentioned I had and had broken my arm, arm wrestling. At this point he exclaimed “So your ‘Arm Guy'”? and proceeded to explain to me how I was a scenario for new recruits though our joking about it was all good natured.

Shortly after Christine joined us as she had finished dancing and couldn’t find the others so the four of us decided to leave and go to a small club called Rock Cafe. Despite the size it was quite lively and whilst the music wasn’t necessarily my style it was still fun to pull off my (now ancient) dance moves. My phone had run out of battery just after we took a selfie which meant Christine had to guide the two of us back to the hostel and to message Matt who had tried to contact me.

Jayde and Paul had decided to stay at the club but as Christine and I returned to the hostel we saw Matt, El and El’s friend who worked there standing outside. The others were about to go to a secret rooftop view and easily convinced we decided to follow along. We climbed up the stairs to the top floor of the hostel, then up a ladder in to the attic where finally there was a hatch we had to haul ourselves through which led on to the roof. We enjoyed a couple of plastic cups of wine and admired the view of the Cathedral Square below. It had been a thoroughly random night and I can honestly say I had never expected to end up on a roof over looking the city at the end of it.

We probably spent just under an hour when Christine, Matt and I decided we were ready to go back to our room. On our return I discovered Jayde was back and after she’s expressed concern at where we had been she then immediately asked if I’d brought her food. I hadn’t and the message I’d received which apparently asked me to bring food simply read “The”. We were both slightly drunk and there was a lot of laughing especially when I told her to respect her elders when she was teasing me about something.

Thursday 8th September
It was hardly surprising that I was initially feeling slightly tired and hungover the next morning however as I was due to fire some quite powerful guns I quickly sobered up especially after a shower and some breakfast. We arrived at the Shooting Range and once inside got to choose which target we wanted to use. I opted for one that is best described as a damsel in distress, being held hostage by a villain.

The first gun was the Glock and even with ear protectors, I have to admit I still jumped out of my skin when the first shot went off and jumped again as what I assume was part of the casing ricochet off the wall and landed near my foot. I was filled with nerves as I lined up my shot convinced the gun would in a Murphy’s law way backfire. It didn’t and as the 6 rounds progressed I became more steady but was still relieved more than anything when I was done. We looked at our progress and rather unfortunately I’d hit the girl in the neck and leg, and the villain appeared unscathed. Clearly I was not James Bond.

Next up was the AK-47 which had been the one I was most excited to try. It ended up being a slightly disappointing experience because when we looked at our targets after we’d finished I realised I’d totally missed on all 6 attempts. The final gun, the Winchester 1300 Shotgun was the most powerful of the three and the motion and sound of it reloading did feel me with a bit of adrenaline and this possibly resulted in what was also arguably my best round as I finally only hit ‘the villain’.

I needed a drink to settle my nerves so it was a bonus that a free drink at the Funny Fox Bar was included in the deal. I’d taken a liking to the Estonian cider Kiss so ordered a pint of that before Matt, El and I went back to Hesburger for lunch where I tried the Big Mac equivalent. After we had finished we all went in different directions.

I walked to the central market which is situated in 4 German Zeppelin hangars and is apparently the largest market in Europe. Unfortunately when I got there I didn’t fancy really anything to eat, not even one of the cheap dessert pastries, so after taking a few photographs I returned back to the city. I continued to to a row of old houses called “Three Brothers” the oldest of which is dated back to the late 15th century.

From there I planned to visit the ‘Museum of the Occupation of Latvia’ however when I arrived I realised it had temporarily been relocated. I was feeling a bit tired and couldn’t contemplate another 20 minute walk so returned to the hostel where I planned to nap. I hadn’t been there long when Jayde and Giulia seemingly full of energy burst in and the three of us decided to walk to the district renowned for the Art Nouveaux style.

Ironically on the way to the Art Nouveaux district we passed the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which meant in hindsight I could have visited and met Jayde there. Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world however it is Albert Iela that tourists visit where most of the buildings were designed by the Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. This included Alberta iela 8 which was a rather stunning example of the Eclectic Art Nouveau, the earliest style.

Some may have decided to head back at this stage but Jayde and I wanted to visit another district called Agenskalns that Paul had also recommended. It was a long walk but quite pretty especially crossing the river and from the bridge on the waterfront we could see a large Riga sign that we planned to visit on the way back. Whilst we did explore Agenskalns we were never really sure if we reached the area Paul had recommended and if we did then it wasn’t worth the strain my feet were feeling. The walk through Uzvaras park was pleasant and eventually we reached the Riga sign which, whilst vandalised did not prevent us from getting some pictures before we power walked back to the hostel.

That evening we had another burger this time at a gourmet restaurant called “B Burger” before we continued to the Kaņepes Kultūras Centrs (Culture Centre) which as the name suggested had a decor that was quite alternative. On the way back Chrstine and I decided to get some night pictures of the House of the Blackheads and were then drawn towards a 50s style American band performing at a lively looking open air bar called Egle which was located in the market by the hostel. Whilst Chrstine managed to get two seats near the front I got the drinks and then we chilled to some Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and others though we were equally impressed at the dance moves from some of the older generation audience members.

Friday 9th September
Unfortunately with a long drive ahead there was a rather unpleasant surprise when first down to breakfast I realised there had been a misunderstanding and the hostel hadn’t provided our supplies. Jayde and I walked to a nearby supermarket to buy some cheap pastries and shortly after we arrived back El successfully resolved the issue. The stay in Riga had been brief but action packed. Far from only being a cheap party city, which is what I’d been led to believe, it was also rather pretty and packed full of interesting architecture.

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Knowing me Knowing You: Stockholm

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Sunday 4th September continued
We commenced the long walk along the gangway to the M/S Silja Serenade which appeared even bigger than the ferry from the day before. Once inside I gasped at its scale. Whilst I’d been on a small Nile cruise ship and numerous ferries to France I’d never experienced a proper cruise ship with cabins. Apparently there were 37 different nationalities on board and I read that the ship had a capacity of 2,800.

The promenade deck (that we entered on) contained all the main shops and restaurants whilst cabins hugged either side of the ship all the way to the top deck. This meant that as we were placed in a non sea facing cabin we had a view of the promenade deck below. Jayde, Giulia, Christine and I went up to the Boat Deck so we could get some pictures of us leaving. I stayed until we past the island with the fort then explored a bit on my own before returning to the cabin I was sharing with Matt and Chris to have a lie down.

We had all agreed to spend a little extra to participate in the “all you can eat/drink” grand buffet but first we sat in the Atlantis Club where El gave us some information about the history of Sweden and in particular Stockholm. I was hungry by the time we sat down to eat and felt suitably prepared to stuff myself.

As usual I was like a kid in a sweet shop, and found it an exciting novelty to pour my own beer. Whilst initially I stuck to the foods I knew I’d like I did eventually try a number of the fish dishes for example the herring which put me outside of my comfort zone though turned out to be incredibly tasty. Finally I went to get a number of the small dessert treats which included a mango flavoured mousse that Chris in particular had taken a liking to. Unfortunately an ice cream chocolate brownie Sunday I created for myself was the final straw for my stomach and I realised I’d over eaten.

Matt, Chris, El and I went to the New York Bar where karaoke was taking place expecting the others to join after they’d freshened up in their room. Matt and I got a cocktail however the karaoke was dominated by a group of school aged children who I believe were taking part in a hockey tournament and it therefore felt a bit like a school disco. The others still hadn’t arrived so we left and went to their room.

We sat listening to music before Chris and I went to get seats for us to watch the midnight entertainment show. It was already busy when we arrived and our seats weren’t the best up near what appeared to be a group of over excited lads on a stag do. I’d never seen a cruise show before but some of the music and dances got the crowd going. Christine joined up about half way through and Jayde, Giulia and El caught the end at the back where we joined them standing.

I was too tired to stay up much later for the live band and was feeling a bit unsteady from my large dinner and the gentle sway of the ship / vibrations from the engine. Fortunately lying down helped and I was soon asleep.

Monday 5th September
Whilst It hadn’t been my best night sleep I at least awoke no longer feeling bloated or sick. After a shower a took a little stroll on the boat deck to see our approach to Stockholm as we weaved through the archipelago. It was quite overcast and windy so I soon made my way inside and back to the Grand Buffet to meet the others for breakfast.

We arrived in Stockholm and due to a construction site around the new ferry terminal had quite a long walk before we actually reached land. It was another long journey for us to reach the underground station and as I’d also been carrying some of Giulia bags I felt like the kids toy Bucking Bronco. Eventually we arrived at the hostel however only one room was ready which it was agreed the girls could use.

Matt, Chris and I sat in the lobby all on our phones. I sat finalising plans to meet up with Victoria and gratefully accepted her invitation for me to stay in her accommodation because it meant we could spend longer together and because I didn’t have to worry about getting back to the hostel on my own. As a result I quickly packed an over night bag and left the bigger bag with Jayde so she would still have everything she needed.

Matt then suggested a trip to Ikea just to get the three of us out of the hostel and to actually explore Stockholm in the little time we had available. Taking street directions from El we just made it on to the free bus in time. The buses were not that frequent so once at the store we worked out how long we had to do the ‘circular tour’ and to eat the infamous Kottbullar meatballs. Obviously in truth it wasn’t any different to any other Ikea but I did end up buying a new inflatable travel pillow and the meatballs didn’t disappoint.

The three of arrived back at the hostel in plenty of time and I got changed and reorganised my overnight bag. We then left to take part in a walking tour. Until this point El had taken them all however the one around Stockholm was hosted by an external company. Whilst I wanted to do the tour I felt like a child on Christmas eve because I couldn’t wait to see Victoria.

We met our guide in the main square outside the Nobel museum. Our guide arrived wearing a Viking costume complete with a helmet with horns. We were asked what was wrong with the costume and I played the role of class know-it-all by correctly saying the helmet shouldn’t have had horns. We were then all given plastic coloured helmets to wear for the duration of the walk.

We made our way through the paths of Gamla Stan (the old town) and our first notable stop was the Royal Palace where we stopped and were told about the Royal Family who like the British Royal Family now only really perform ceremonial duties of state and attend official engagements. Our guide provided us with some information about the Hanseatic League, a way for tradesman to protect their economic interests and which sounded a bit like a medieval version of the EU to me.

There were a number of other highlights and a particularly small statue of a boy which was meant to give good luck if rubbed however we used it to get selfies and Matt even tried to do a face swap on snapchat.We also passed a statue of Olaus Petri, largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation in Sweden out Storkyrkan (St Nicholas Church) and Mårten Trotzigs Gränd,a steep narrow alley of steps. My personal highlight though was a Viking runestone which it appeared had been rather randomly built in to a wall on one of the main streets.

I waited in the square after the others had left and then made my way to the train station where I was finally reunited with a dear friend. Victoria kindly provided me with a SL card to get around the city and we then got a train and had a brief walk to Monteliusvägen a really nice lookout over the city where we had a beer.

We chatted for a while and enjoyed the view before catching the ferry to Djurgården. Victoria told me Djur meant animal and Djurgården was the hunting ground. It was quite a pretty island and home to the Grona Lund Theme park however perhaps because it was slightly outside the summer season it was closed. Instead we walked part of the way around the lake and found ourselves outside the Abba museum where we got a quick picture.

Next we caught the tram and then walked around the Waldemarsudde gardens which surrounded next to a museum which had formerly been home to a Swedish prince. The gardens were still in full bloom and we got some photos in the pavilion and some sun flowers. It was nice to know where Victoria has been spending a lot of time and I can see why she enjoys walking around the island.

We returned back to the city and after discussing the two options Victoria had suggested we eventually decided on a Vegetarian buffet at Hermans Vegetariska Restauran. There were lovely views from the balcony of the restaurant (though we didn’t have a window seat) and the food was fresh and delicious. I also ordered myself a beer but we resisted trying any of the delicious looking desserts.

We made our way back in to the old town and went to Aifur Krog & Bar which was Viking themed. We ordered two mugs of mead and made our way in to the Great Hall. We asked one of the waitresses if we could sit on the side and saying yes we climbed up on to a ledge which made us feel like the King and Queen of the hall. It then became apparent we weren’t actually allowed to be up there so we jumped down and took our seat at a normal long table.

It was dark by the time we got back and in order to take a short cut back to the apartment we had to walk through some woods though the apartment itself wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. We sat in the lounge for a short while but I think we were both feeling quite tired so went to our separate rooms.

Tuesday 6th September
I woke up when I heard Victoria leave to get breakfast. After we’d eaten the breakfast she prepared us there was a bit of discussion as to where I should explore. Unfortunately the City Hall tours were not running so we decided to visit Vaxholm an island in the archipelago which had the added benefit of being a new experience for Victoria as well.

We had to walk along a pavement next to the highway to reach the Bus stop and whilst the weather had initially appeared cloudy it was glorious by the time we boarded the bus. The bus took just under an hour and was fairy pretty. We arrived in the town/island of Vaxholm, nicknamed the capital of the archipelago then caught a short ferry ride across the water to the fort.

We spent an hour or so exploring the island, starting with a pleasant wall around the fort and then walked on the the walls. Vaxholm Fortress was built in 1544 and the stretch of water it defended had originally been the main way to enter Stockholm. We decided to skip the actual museum and as it was approaching lunch caught the ferry back to the main town.

From there we walked to Hembygdsgårds a little cafe by a pretty little harbour that Victoria had wanted to visit with someone. I enjoyed my Toast Skagen (basically a prawn cocktail on toast) and pastry, possibly to the disappointment of a watching crow who appeared to be eyeing up scraps. Eventually it was time for us to return to the city so I could join my tour before our ferry to Riga. We said our goodbyes and even though we knew we were seeing each other within a month still felt sad to be parting.

El had explained that the M/S Isabelle had been a particular nice ferry and not to raise our expectations for our final overnight journey. Boarding the M/S Isabelle it was evidently older and smaller however it was still grand compared to the steerage conditions I had anticipated. Whilst our cabin was smaller and a bit cramped even for three people (it could apparently hold four) we did at least have a sea view.

Jayde, Chris, Matt and I explored some of the upper outer decks however unlike the M/S Silja Serenade there was no promenade deck full of shops and restaurants and the duty free wasn’t open. Jayde and I returned to the back of the boat, found a seat and rested with a coke as we departed and slowly meandered through the archipelago. Christine joined us and we stayed until the sun began to set and I waited until we had passed the island I’d visited with Victoria earlier in the day.

I quickly got ready so I could meet the others for dinner. After we’d finished eating we continued to sit at the table chatting and eventually it was suggested we play some cards. Matt provided the cards and Christine, Chris, El and we proceeded to play multiple rounds of the card game “Asshole”. The jovial competitive nature kept it fun and after a while we decided to move the game to our room after first calling in to duty free to get snacks and cider.

As it approached midnight, Christine, Chris and I decided to catch the evening show however in my opinion it was slightly odd and wasn’t as good as the one on the M/S Silja Serenade. Rather unfortunately for the dancers the highlight was probably a member of the audience jumping on to the stage and joining in with the act which initially looked part of the routine. He soon got escorted off the stage.

After leaving the show we continued up to another bar where we planned to take part in karaoke. The bar was pretty empty however there was one person singing and he sounded professional compared to the drunken attempts we had expected . El, Chris, Christine and I took the stage for the penultimate song of the night, a wonderful rendition of “Take Me Home Country Roads”. El and Christine sang “The Winner Takes it all” for the final song as I provided backing vocals and dance moves.

Wednesday 7th September
As with the previous cruise, I had started to feel slightly unsteady by the time I had climbed in to bed but I woke naturally. The ferry had noticeably rolled a bit more though the vibrations from the engines were less obvious. I had a quick shower and made my way to breakfast where the others soon joined. Soon we caught a glimpse of land and about an hour later we were in the crowd of passengers waiting to dis-embark.

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Mr Blue Sky: Tallinn and Helsinki

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Friday 2nd September
I’d met Jayde after work on the Thursday and we’d booked a night at the Holiday Inn hotel at Stansted airport. Waking up at 4.20 was still a struggle but had prevented the need to wake up at 1.45 as I had the previous week when I’d had to get to the same airport for a similar departure time. We arrived at the airport shortly after 5.15 and we were quickly through the baggage drop off and security.We arrived in Tallinn and caught the bus from the airport to the city. The bus dropped us off at the main bus terminal by the port and we walked about 15 minutes from there to our hostel in Old Town. After checking in, we were told that our room wasn’t ready so we ate at a nearby vegan restaurant called Kohvik Inspiratsioon recommended to us by the receptionist. I was satisfied with my lentil burger but Jayde wasn’t overly keen on her lentil soup.

We returned back to the hostel and went up to our twin room which looked quite cosy. We spent an hour or so resting before getting ready to go out as we had booked a local run tour around the old fortress/prison Patarei Merekindlus. The tour began from a nearby hostel also in the old town so we got to see more cobbled streets and old buildings en-route. There were more people on the tour than I expected and after a brief introduction our guide led us on the 15 minute walk to the prison.

At the entrance he showed us a model on the wall which showed how the site had looked and to point to the areas we were visiting. He also explained that whilst part of the prison is open to the public for them to explore, his tour had permission to take us to areas normally closed off to the public. The prison was originally a fort completed by 1840 however whilst it was in a good strategic location it was never used in battle. It was converted in to a prison in 1919 which is how it remained until it closed in 2004.

The prison has basically been abandoned and suffered years of neglect, suffering badly from damp in particular. The building is (apparently) listed so it cannot be demolished however there is not currently the funding to restore it. Even the areas reopened for the public are dark and eerie and cannot be described as restored. Most of the rooms had been emptied but one room still had the abandoned beds intact as well as a large painting on the wall which had been created by one of the prisoners.

We went outside, looking at some of the cells that were slowly being taken over by nature before going through a metal gate which had been pad locked. This was the building not normally open to the public and it had even less lighting and we were required to use the torches on our mobile phones to see. We saw a few more cells and climbed some staircases before we arrived at the area executions were carried out.

After the tour was over our guide explained his personal interest in the prison and then pointing out some aspects we could explore alone. I briefly climbed in to the old watch tower which looked over the yard below. Jayde and I then walked the scenic way back to Tallinn which took us past the front of the Prison and along the beach. It had been quite an unusual experience and it was refreshing to see somewhere that hadn’t been restored.

We arrived back in the old town and made our way through the cobbled streets to a restaurant called the Kompressor. which is apparently popular with locals and tourists because it sells cheap pancakes. I had mine with smoked cheese and bacon but couldn’t finish it all because it was so big and possibly because we’d been a bit greedy by also ordering some Potato balls. I also had my first Estonian beer A Le Coq which was refreshing.

It was starting to get dark when we left but we spent a little longer walking around the old town knowing we would have a proper tour with our guide the next morning. The hostel had given us vouchers for a nearby local bar called Ükskoik. Upon entering we should have left but we didn’t and I ordered a Saku (another Estonian beer) and Jayde ordered a cocktail. Neither drink tasted good and it was a typical, seedy looking backpackers bar with overly loud music considering it was just us and one other person.

We returned back to the hostel and decided to get a relatively early night so we were refreshed as possible for the start of the tour.

Saturday 3rd September
We couldn’t get breakfast at the hostel so after waking up we went to a local shop to get a pastry for breakfast. We left our luggage at the hostel and waited outside the hostel for our guide and the rest of our tour group. There were only 6 of us, Christine from Liverpool, Matt and Giulia from Australia and Chris from the US.

It is always nice to have a local guide and our guide Elo (El) didn’t disappoint as the passion for her country came across as she gave us some interesting information about the history of Estonia. Estonia like much of Eastern Europe experienced a turbulent 20th Century and was eerily similar to that of Czechoslovakia which i’d studied at University. Estonia had gained it’s independence from Russia in 1920 however the German–Soviet Nonaggression Pact meant it fell under Soviet Occupation (remaining occupied until 1991) except for a brief period in the second world war when it was occupied by the Nazi’s.

El took us to some of the main sites in the Old Town and we started at an example of a Merchant House along what had once been the main street through the old town. She explained how in Medieval times there were different guilds and told us about the House of the Blackheads, a professional association of merchants and later we saw a building with a face on the door belonging to the brotherhood. Much of the medieval architecture had been preserved

Other sites we passed included the oldest coffee shop, St Peter & St Paul Cathedral and St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest buildings in Tallinn which was destroyed during the reformation and parts were used as a warehouse in the Soviet Union as the state fought against Religion. Eventually we stopped off at the coffee shop Pierre Chocolaterie where we started to get to know each other a bit better. As we were a small group, names were easy to remember and there was less need for some of the small talk.

After a coffee we explored more of the old Town passing the town hall and climbing some steps towards the city walls which were surrounded by some rather creepy looking monk statues before we continued past the Estonian Parliament Building, to Pikk Hermann, Big tower. The Estonian flag was raised at the top and El explained the symbolism of the colours, the blue representing loyalty, and the seas & lakes; the black representing fertile soil and past oppression and finally the white representing virtue, snow, and the struggle for freedom and independence. We continued past the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which was built in the typical Russian style before we reached the Patkuli Viewing Platform which provided a beautiful view of the city and a fitting place for us to get our first group selfie.

We returned to the hostel and after collecting our bags got a taxi to the ferry terminal and boarding the boat from Tallinn to Helsinki. The M/S Star was a lot bigger than I expected considering it was only a two hour journey. We found a spot in the bar and El gave us a rundown of the itinerary for the next week. Jayde and I then got some food from Burger King before we re-joined the others and listened to the band in the bar.

The weather had been dry and sunny in Tallinn however it was quite cloudy in Helsinki and the rain was threatening though just about held off. We caught a tram from a station near the ferry terminal to the hostel where I planned to have a Finish sauna. Unfortunately the one for the men wasn’t working so I had a nap instead and met the others in reception.

Rather than a passing shower the rain that was threatening had now been unleashed. El decided to start our orientation walk and our first stop was an old prison which had been turned in to quite a fancy hotel in 2000. It made me wonder why they didn’t do the same with the one in Tallinn which would also have been able to offer pleasant sea views. To avoid standing in the rain unnecessarily El gave us some details before we made a dash. We sought shelter in an alley way before passing the home of the author of the Moomins, obtaining a umbrella from an Italian coffee shop. and finally reaching the Uspenskin Cathedral.

Eventually we sought shelter a view of the harbour where we needed to get the ferry to Suomenlinna Fort and the market which El recommended did good Salmon soup. From our shelter we could also see the Presidential Palace with a guard outside, though fortunately for him he was standing under a large metal umbrella. By the time we reached the Cathedral the rain had eased off slightly so El could talk to us under the umbrella. It seemed a festival was going on for a midnight run, and the band rather fittingly performed Purple Rain.

Rather than continuing the walk we caught a tram to the main street and from there it was only a short walk to the restaurant.As soon as we arrived we began peeling off our drenched coats and left them on the coat stand to dry. I ordered the Elk steak on flat bread with a Kantaja porter which was nice but perhaps a little expensive however that is what I had expected from Finland. As it was the first night of the tour, the meal was a good opportunity for us to get know each other.

After dinner, Jayde, Matt and I quickly went to a nearby supermarket to grab some snacks (I got cheesy puff balls and some moomin jelly sweets) for the trip ahead. Fortunately we left and made it just in time to catch the tram the others were about to get on. Unfortunately a ‘night fun run’ meant our tram took a different route to usual and in the end we were forced to walk all the way back to the hostel in the relentless rain.

Sunday 4th September
After waking, I opened the curtains and realised that the sun was shining and there was barely a cloud in the sky. I went straight to the Sauna but rather than feeling a sense of freedom, admittedly felt quite awkward as I removed my towel and sat down totally in my birthday suit as is the Finnish way. There were 2 other guys already in there and 2 others joined shortly after me which meant we were all a little close for comfort. After about 30 minutes I felt I’d spent enough time cleansing my pores?! and left. I had a quick shower and then made my way to meet the others for breakfast.

Christine, Matt and Chris and I had agreed to visit the UNESCO listed fort Suomenlinna built across 6 small islands Kustaanmiekka, Susisaari, Iso-Mustasaari, Pikku-Mustasaari, Länsi-Mustasaari and Långören . We made our way to the pier however we just missed the boat so took the opportunity to re-visit some of the sights from the night before in the much more pleasant conditions as well as a marina with yachts. We returned for the next ferry and the short journey was relatively smooth uneventful.

We arrived on the island and the maps we had been given highlighted the main sites. We therefore started off with the Prisoner of War Camp memorial which also provided us with a good view of the bay before walking through the gate of the Jetty Barracks. We then continued through the Great Courtyard and past various sites including Suomenlinna Church and the dry dockdry dock, the oldest in Finland and one of the oldest operational dry docks in Europe

We eventually arrived at the actual fort Each of us then got a photo sitting on one of the cannons which Chris said reminded him of the iconic frame from the movie Dr Strangelove. We thoroughly explored the site with Matt and I even exploring one of the tunnels. We were unable to leave using the other ferry from the King’s gate built in 1753–54 as the entrance gateway to the fortress so we slowly returned to the main harbour via the second world war submarine Vesikko .

Once we had returned to dry land Chris and I got a salmon soup, recommended to us by El, from market. The 4 of us then walked to the Cathedral and had a brief look inside. We then began the walk back to the hostel, returned the umbrella to the Italian cafe, walked past the moomin House and finally the prison. We arrived back in plenty of time, met up with Jayde, Giulia and Elo and caught the tram to the ferry terminal.

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A Design for Life: Tuscany

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Friday 26th August
My alarm went off at 1.45am which I think was even earlier my normal early starts. I made my way to the bus stop and as I’m now used to the bus didn’t show which meant the buffer I’d built in evaporated instantly. I had to change buses at Marble Arch but no longer trusted them and as the minutes ticked by I decided to get an Uber Taxi to Liverpool street. My driver asked if I’d had a good night and I explained I’d only just woken up.

The journey to Stansted was fine and the Uber had meant I’d gone from potentially missing my flight to arriving at the airport with enough time to get breakfast. I found a free table at Wetherspoons and asked the couple next to me to save the table whilst I went to the bar to order. On my return to the table they seemed overly sympathetic that I was travelling alone and I had to reassure them I was meeting friends in Italy.

I was ‘upgraded’ to the emergency row because the people on that row were too young to be seated there unsupervised. Some probably like the extra space but I was the opposite, my short legs didn’t know what to do and because I had the aisle seat it took me longer than usual to fall asleep. We landed on time and my e-passport meant I avoided most of the long queues through the airport.

A shuttle bus arrived shortly after I joined the queue and I we arrived slightly early so Edwina and Lauren were still sorting out the paperwork for the hire car when I found them. During the time I’d been in the air they’d been on a whistle stop walk through Rome. Our hire car was bigger than expected and after a quick inspection for scratches we were on our way.

Lauren successfully navigated us through the 6 level multi story car park which can be daunting at the best of times but no doubt worse when driving on the opposite side of the road to usual. Fortunately most of Rome seemed to be one way and it wasn’t long before we had left the city and we were on the main road. We made fantastic progress using the toll road but then a quest to find a grocery store put us behind schedule.

First we missed a turning, then at the next town I caused us to double back on ourselves before we arrived at where the shop was meant to be only to find an empty space. Luckily the town had two coops and once we found the second store we were able to stock up on fruit, veggies, snacks, coals for a bbq, nutella and wine.

We started making our way back to a main road but whilst we’d been in the shop a lorry had caused an accident on a side street which blocked the road. We turned around just as another lorry came down the hill which for them was a bad life choice. Meanwhile we found another route and after a while we were on the final long twisty approach to our accommodation. There was a mixture of delight and relief when we came over the final crest and saw the swimming pool with two brightly coloured inflatable lilos.

Jess, Steph, Charlotte and Erin met us on our arrival as they had arrived the day before and Jess took us on a guided tour. The accommodation, an old tobacco factory looked amazing from the outside and maintained the rustic atmosphere inside. In total it was made up of 3 apartments, each with a kitchen, bathroom, dining room and bedrooms. Instantly it was obvious that Jess had found us somewhere pretty brilliant.

After a refreshing dip in the pool we opened a couple of bottles of wines so we could enjoy the peaceful surroundings (besides a fair few irritating flies). Then after a quick shower we regrouped on the balcony for various home made pizzas, more wine and to listen to some music. I automatically felt overly comfortable with “the girls” and at one point when we were talking inadvertently said without flinching “if I was a guy…” All in all, there are worse ways to end a day when you’ve been up for 20 hours.

Saturday 27th August
We had a relaxing start to the morning and all we really had to do was make sure we were ready to leave by around 10am to visit the wine cellar Jess had booked us in to. The booking included a 4 course lunch and so I just had a light breakfast. Charlotte wasn’t joining us however kindly offered to drive one car and Edwina and I were again incredibly grateful to Lauren.

We arrived at Avignonesi and had a glass of prosecco whilst we waited for the tour to start. This was my 3rd of the year after visiting Champagne and Bordeaux however it was perhaps the most interesting. Our guide told us that the vineyard was certified organic and that they used the patterns of the moon. I was impressed. The vineyard was also spread over two valleys. In Montepulciano they could only use a particular local grape however in the other, just across the road they could make international mixes.

We explored a couple of the parcels in the Le Capezzine vineyards and tasted the grapes. The first Vigna Tonda was in a circle with a tree in the centre and quite unusual however the layout of La Stella was slightly more orthodox. Next we were taken on a tour to the cellars where the barrels of wine are stored

I think we had all built up a bit of an appetite by the time we were seated at our table which provided a lovely view of the surrounding valley. We were given a glass of chardonnay to go with the “Chefs Welcome” which was a mix of bread and salad before the red wine flowed. Despite being from a wine region and living with Jess for over a year, Steph had never sipped red wine. Lauren captured the historic moment and ended up with the best sequence of photos from the holiday as a result.

We had a number of options for our second course and I opted for the home made tagliatelle with a glass of La Tonda and Grandi Annate. Steph had ordered a parmesan and tomato sorbet which I was allowed to finish. Whilst It was nice, it confused the taste buds because it looked like vanilla and strawberry ice cream.

Admittedly my third course “Patata Novella al cartoccio con fonduta di parmigianio” was a bit simple and was basically just a jacket potato filled with parmesan cheese. Whilst it was tasty (and I don’t think I can only have cheddar again) the chicken and lamb dishes also looked particularly good and the others were surprised by my choice. The Grifi, 50/50 and Desiderio red wines were also good though I still prefer white wine.

Finally the dessert was selection of sweet treats, such as flavoured chocolate and biscuits all thoroughly delicious. This came with two vin santo’s (one black and one white) a type of Italian dessert wine. I’m still not sure if I can claim to be any good at establishing what drinks (especially wine) suits what foods, but I certainly enjoy both!

Once we had paid, Lauren, Edwina and I travelled straight home whilst the others called in to a supermarket to grab some more supplies. Once we were back it was late afternoon and as it was still got we all had a refreshing dip in the pool. The others joined us and we lazed around until early evening.

Edwina, Lauren and I prepared bruschetta for the others with various toppings my favourite being Pesto with tomato and mozzarella. A few more bottles of wine were drunk as we listened to music without needing to worry about the neighbours.

Sunday 28th August
There were no plans, except to relax, but eventually I hauled myself out of bed so I could nap by the pool rather than in a dark stuffy room. I got up and made myself a banana, grape and yogurt breakfast before eventually bumping in to Edwina and Lauren who had both put me to shame by going on a short run. We then sat in the kitchen area eating the nutella we’d brought, though I had it with a fresh peach and watermelon in a feeble attempt to balance out the unhealthiness.

I spread out on a sunbed and tried to get a tan, rather than going straight from white to red as tends to be my normal experience in the sun. I’d put a “Soulful Sunday” playlist and whilst I only recognised the occasional song it felt quite appropriate. The hours ticked by and eventually I decided to get in the pool to cool off. I’d struggled to get on the inflatable lilo at first, looking like a rather humorous hippopotamus trying to climb on to a piece of wood and flipping over however by now I’d mastered it. Charlotte joined me and we decided to have a race whilst sitting on the lilos and agreed that it should be added to Olympics if not for comedy value alone.

Once we were done Charlotte tipped me in to the water but she misjudged her momentum which caused her to flip in to the water as well much to the amusement of Jess who had caught the whole event on camera. The three of us then relocated to the balcony where Steph, with a bit of help from Lauren and Erin had used up all the unused food to create a almighty buffet of burgers, sausages, pasta, mini pizza and a salad.

After a number of plates I waddled back to the deck chair where I felt like I resembled a beached Whale. Edwina had been napping but joined Charlotte and I back in the pool for more Olympic Lilo Swimming competitions before we used the go pro to try and get some underwater profile pics. I then used what was left of the sun to dry out and to check the football scores. In fact, whilst realising Watford had lost on the previous day it had had resulted in no impact on my relaxed mood.

Eventually we all made our way back to the balcony where we all probably over ate. More music and wine. There were no more days to drink the latter however I don’t think any of us were overly drunk once the final bottle was finally finished. Edwina, Lauren and I had brought some exciting looking ice cream on the first day and whilst Steph wasn’t looking (because she wouldn’t let us have dessert until we’d finished “all the dinner”) we quickly broke in to the tub. Despite it being a chilled day I was exhausted when I finally climbed in to bed.

Monday 29th August
We had an early start (compared to recent days) because we wanted to visit Siena before commencing the final leg to Rome. I was in my own annex and I wasn’t sure how early the others had got up but eventually I wondered over at 7am to grab a light breakfast and to help with any outstanding errands, which mainly included taking the rubbish away.

The drive to Siena was uneventful as Lauren successfully followed Charlotte however once we were in the city we had to navigate through small winding streets and narrow gates. Both did an absolutely sterling job and whilst it was no doubt stressful it was rather exciting. We thought we’d found a street car park however a local explained it was for residents however thankfully the multi story wasn’t far.

Siena itself was rather pretty. First we visited the cathedral (Duomo) built in 12th Century and considered a masterpiece of Romanesque Gothic architecture. We then continued on to the Piazza del Campo which is overlooked by the Palazzo Pubblico. On our way we each got a coffee at II Bargello, and I was impressed with the cafe latte I ordered. Once we arrived in the square I got a mix of berry and mango gelato.

Edwina, Jess, Charlotte and I then climbed the tall tower, Torre del Mangia, where we had a stunning view of the city and surrounding area. It was quite obvious why it is UNESCO listed and reminded me of Bordeaux which had also surprised me at its beauty. Afterwards we briefly stopped at the fountain, Fonte Gaia before we ordered some food from a restaurant in the main square and I had a pizza with a beer

Siena never a city I’d contemplated going to, my only knowledge coming from the football team, however it had been perfect for a half day visit to break up the long car journey. On our exit from the city there were a number of different routes and I inadvertently caused us to lose about 10 crucial minutes. Once we joined the main road the rest of the journey to Rome was uneventful and we successfully found a petrol station to fill up the hire car. Some of the Rome streets were narrow and smart cars kept cutting us up and despite a potential mishap on the final street Lauren successfully returned the car unscathed though rather dusty.

We made our way to airport and after reuniting with the others it was clear we were all rather exhausted. As Steph shortly leaves us all to move back to Australia the holiday seemed a fitting way to send her off and to make some final happy memories.

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