A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: EliseJones

Tallinn and St Petersburg

sunny 22 °C

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Travelling to Tallinn and then St Petersburg was like being the adjudicator where the big brother and little brother are having a fight and we have to decide who is in the wrong. When Estonia entered into the EU in 2004 I think they celebrated most out of all of the former eastern-bloc countries - finally they were part of a wider European community and would have support to retain their independance from their big brother neighbour, Russia.

Soviet monuments
Earlier this year after 15 years of independence, Estonia decided it was time to move a Soviet monument from the centre of the city. Soviet rule was not something the Estonians liked or wanted (and since having independence they are now experiencing a booming economy) so listening to their side of the story, moving the monument and the reminder of Soviet rule seemed like the logical thing to do. Russia on the otherhand took great offence to the monuments relocation and retaliated by attacking key Estonian government websites, in the worlds first cyber war.

Fascinating stuff!! We thought the Estonians were just super paranoid claiming without doubt that the attacks came from Russian government IP addresses and figured that upon getting to Russia we'd find that this would surely be denied by the Russians. In the first of many major cultural suprises (differences) we've experienced in Russia we learnt that the cyber attack on Estonian government sites was not at all denied, but a source of pride for the Russians.

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The bribing system
We've been lucky enough to avoid having to pay any "fines" (bribes) during our visit in St Petersburg, but they are an accepted part of every day life over here. From anything like avoiding having to do national service, to getting your desired mark at university (regardless of how smart you are) to selling produce on the streets, a bribe works.

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Paranoia
It would seem fair to us that a small country like Estonia would have good reason to be paranoid and super meticulous at their border controls, but we found that the Russians take paranoia to a new level. Crossing the border from Estonia to Russia was like a scene out of a WWII movie. As everyone gets off the bus to have their bags x-rayed, the border guards make the bus driver open up the engine to inspect inside, along with inspecting all the way under the bus with mirrors. This paranoia is not just at borders, but at the metro stations also, where it is illegal to take photos of the metro. (and yes, this is a rule that is enforced!). Not taking photos of key milatery sites and embassies I can understand, but the metro?

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All of these cultural 'suprises' have contributed to us having a fantastic time in St Petersburg. It is a very beautiful city that buzzes to the early hours of the morning as the summer "white nights" continue. Everywhere you turn there is a beautifully elaborate palace, church or building and we have loved learning about the history and very different way of life of this colourful place.

Next stop (and our last!) is Finland.

Posted by EliseJones 12:22 Archived in Russia Comments (1)

Krakow-Prague-Berlin

Lessons in modern history

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The last 10 days has seen a big change in our travels. We´ve left the sun and sea of Croatia behind and have been to 3 of central Europe´s amazing cities. Thoughts and experiences on each below;

Krakow
Krakow is a beautiful and quaint town and its not suprising that the number of tourists visiting this place has exploded in recent years. It also has a very sombre past.

We did a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau about 60km away, which was as depressing as you would imagine it to be. When we first arrived I was able to slightly remove myself from the place when were just looking at lots of buildings in the camp, however when we entered into the building that is now part of the museum that displays the personal items of the victims it really did highlight the reality of the situation and I was left with a sick feeling in my stomach for the remainder of the tour.

We also did a bike tour of the town of Krakow itself. This included about 13km of riding on flat ground, so was pretty easy and was a great way to see everything including all the main sites of the town, the jewish ghetto and cemetary and Oskar Schindlers factory (that the movie Schindler´s List was based on).

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Prague
Prague is beautiful and has a great vibrant feeling to it. Unless your into museum´s (which we aren´t) there is not too much touristy stuff to do, so it was good to spend a few days wandering about and taking in the buzz of the city.

We had a very interesting train journey from Krakow to Prague. We had settled into the cabin that we had all to ourselves for the first 2hrs of the journey, until finally the luxury was over and we had to share with others. We couldn´t believe our luck on public transport could get any funnier than kicking a nun out of our seats.....but this one does compete. We were joined by a family who looked like they were going on a Griswalds holiday, complete with the family dog and rat. I´m sure you will all have a little chuckle of this pic that Scott slyly took of me with the dog seated comfortably next to me on the train. (I wouldn´t have mind so much if it didn´t smell like wet dog.....yuk).

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Berlin
The constantly evolving city. I was in Berlin 5 years ago and can´t believe how much it has changed since then. I´m sure if I came back in just 2 years it would have changed again still. Berlin has such a massive history I´m sure you could spend years here and still be trying to understand it all. In our attempt to learn and take in as much as we could we did an 8 hour walking tour of the city, which was extremely interesting, though probably would have been slightly more pleasant if it hadn´t of rained for the majority of the day. (That umbrella we bought in Barcelona on our first stop is still getting a work-out. By far the best €6 we´ve spent on our trip).

Tonight we fly to Copenhagen to start the last leg of this tour - Scandinavia and Russia (we are loving the cheap flights on offer over here, makes getting a train seem stupid).

Posted by EliseJones 05:59 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

The nun or the drunk?

Sicily and Amalfi

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We decided to get an overnight bus from Sicily to Amalfi which was full mainly of Italians, and few tourists. We settled into our journey and after 3hrs arrived at the ferry crossing back to the mainland. At this point you can either get off the bus and go up onto the deck of the ferry - or you can stay on the hot bus which had the air off. So, the choice seemed obvious for us and we headed up onto deck for the 45min journey. We did think it was a strange choice for many who did stay on the bus, until it was time to get back on and our seats had been taken by a nun. She had obviously decided that she wanted a little more space to spread out and had settled into our 2 seats. Now we were in a bit of a bind, as technically they weren't the seat numbers on our tickets as to our horror, at the start of our journey our allocated seats were taken by the drunk we had seen hanging with the gypsies at the bus-stop, filling his water bottle with cask wine for the journey.

Now Scotty being a good catholic boy didnt want to kick the nun out of her new seats, however we now had to decide who would be easier to kick out of our seats - the nun or the drunk!

In the end, we copped out and told the bus driver that our seats had been taken. It was quite funny to watch Scott try to communicate that a nun was in our seat to someone who didnt speak a word of English. He was making the sign of the cross and putting his hands together in prayer to try to get the message across, whilst I was trying to hold back my laughter. It must have worked as the bus driver got on the bus and blurted a few words in Italian to the nun, who with a huff and a puff begrudingly moved out of our 2 seats and back alongside someone else.

Luckily that has been our only transport hiccup, aside from our frustrating bus trip from Catania to Mt Etna where the bus driver and his side kick decided that within a 45min journey they had earned a half hour break to have coffee, buy cakes and smoke a few cigarettes before resuming the journey. (see picture of them in action below)

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So far, Sicily definately wins the award for the craziest drivers in Europe. Mopeds and scooters rule the streets and pedestrians have to step out in front of cars in order to make them stop. This doesnt seem to phase the locals one bit who walk out with their baby in a pram hoping the cars will stop. I cringed everytime I saw this.

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We did our fair share of hiking in Sicily. We visited Taormina which is a beautiful town perched on a clifftop. The train station however is by the sea, so it was a good 30min stair climb to the top. We were rewarded in the afternoon when we stumbled across a beautiful beach called Isola Bella - Beautiful Island (see picture below). The rocks did hurt getting into the water, but the swim was worth it.

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We also did a day trip to Mt Etna, which we were a little unprepared for. ie: we wore shorts, singlets, took hats and suncream and didnt realise that it is a ski mountain during winter, so in the summer was still a chilly 12 degs. We did warm up though when we opted against the overpriced jeep bus to the active crater at the top and walked up instead. We had no idea what was at the top, or how long it was going to take, but about 2hrs later, with slightly stiff legs we made it to the top. We were 'rewarded' with seeing the steam coming out of the crater and feeling the heat coming out of the ground. I'm not sure its something we'd visit again, but the walk up their at high altitude was good to get the heart rate up.

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After Sicily we had 3 much more relaxing days in the beautiful Amalfi Coast. We stayed in a very cute little bed'n'breakfast in the town of Amalfi and did a day trip to both Positano and Ravello, along with some good hours chilling out on the beach and swimming in the nice warm water.

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In total, we've had 3 weeks in Italy and loved pretty much most places we've been to. It definately is a country spoit with lots of beautiful places.

Today we arrived in Croatia and tomorrow we board our 7 day cruise around Central and South Dalmatia.

Posted by EliseJones 06:40 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Slovenia and Venice

Ah, the serenity

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Slovenia....ah the serenity...to quote the movie "The Castle". In the case of Slovenia though, it couldnt be more accurate.

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With some spare time up our sleeves we decided to take the car to Slovenia. This was my 3rd visit to Slovenia and my love for the country grows each time. We based ourselves in beautiful Bled and stayed there for 4 days. Firstly because it is such a beautiful, quiet and peaceful place and secondly because we were staying in a great apartment with our own kitchen so very much enjoyed being able to cook our own meals for the first time since being on the road.

Slovenia is great for those who love adventure and beautiful outdoors. We did kayaking, walked through gorges, around lakes, up mountains, to waterfalls and natural springs. Personally, I could do this for days as I love just watching the power and constant flow of the waterfalls. Scotty however liked Slovenia but had seen enough waterfalls to keep him going for a while. He is a bit more of a hustle and bustle, city (shopping) kind of guy.

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So, of course he felt much more at home when we had 4 days in Venice!

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My last visit to Venice was 6 years ago on a Contiki tour, and I think I saw St Marks Square, did a overpriced Gondola ride and saw little else of the city. So my memory of it is not that great and I wouldnt be lying if I said I wasnt really that interested in going back to Venice. Scotty, however had memories of good shopping in Venice.....so was keen to go back!

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We had 4 days to explore with no schedules. A little different from my last experience. We walked all the different islands of Venice, did a little shopping (Scotty was restrained) and enjoyed being in this very vibrant city.

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They arent lying though when they say Venice is Italys most expensive city. We enjoy trying to find local places for eating and drinking that arent massive tourist spots. This is harder than you would think to do. On the second day we did find a great little coffee shop (that the Lonely Planet recommended) that served the best coffee weve ever tasted....for the mere cost of €0.70 ea. This was however a day after we paid €8.00 for 2 very average tasting coffees. Needless to say, we started each day with a great little macchiato. Nothing makes us more frustrated than places that effectively take the piss out of unsuspecting tourists. You would think we learn, but on our last day in Venice we sat down for a drink in a square before dinner and had 1 glass of beer and 1 glass of wine for €14.50!! The day before we had 2 glasses of beer and 2 glasses of wine for only €11. So, as I said, it is harder than you think not to get ripped off and it does frustrate you, but we do get a very good sense of satisfaction when we find somewhere great that the locals probably enjoy.

We departed Venice today enroute for Siena in Tuscany. Upon arriving we parked the car (outside of the town, as you cant drive into the centre) and did the hunt for accomodation. Being Saturday night, we werent having much luck as most places were booked out. So we decided to get back in the car and continue onto Rome, where we found accomodation in a hotel on the outskirts of Rome where the receptionist looks like Mr Bean, the hotel is run like Fawlty Towers and the shuttle bus driver doubles as the waiter. Its good entertainment for a Saturday night!!

2 nights in Rome and then we head South to Sicily.

Posted by EliseJones 12:49 Archived in Slovenia Comments (1)

Beautiful France

Bordeaux to Paris

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We have been in France for a week now since out last update and loving every bit of it. Having not spent a lot of time in France before both Scott and myself didn't really have set expectations of the place. After seeing some of its beautiful coastlines, experiencing some of its fantastic wineries, exploring some of its tiny towns and taking in everything its jewel Paris has to offer - we can certainly see why France is one of the most popular countries in the world to visit. It has everything on offer.

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We feel like luck has been shining on us every step of the way in France. First of all we turn up in Bordeaux (without taking 1 single wrong turn!!) on a Friday. We hadn't factored in that Bordeaux is a weekend holiday destination, so we were very happy when we got good accomodation right in the centre of Bordeaux.

We had planned to visit some wineries, or Chateuax's as they're called in France (as one has to do in Bordeaux!) and thought this process would be much the same as it is in Australia. ie: rock up to the cellar door, go inside...sometimes hear a bit about the winery and then taste some of their wine. After enquiring at the Bordeaux tourist office we are told in France, you can't just 'turn up' for a tasting - you must have a reservation. It was now all sounding a bit too hard and we were told we could visit some wineries on a guided tour booked through the tourist office. Of alternatively if we had a car (this is the lucky part!) there was a special festival on in the little town of Saint Emilion that we wanted to go to, where for this weekend only the wineries had 'Portes Ouvertes en Saint Emilion'....'Open door in Saint Emilion', meaning we could turn up without a booking.

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Most of the time on this trip we are doing sightseeing and day trips ourselves, rather than on guided tours where a lot of the time you're hearded in and hearded out on a big bus. But in this instance we were edging towards taking the easy/lazy option of the guided tour and not having to worry about finding our way there etc. So having made the decision to go on the guided tour, we return to the tourist office to buy tickets and find out that they have now been sold out (within the 2 hrs of our return).

So fate intervened and we found our way to Saint Emilion with no dramas, explored the medieval town and then started visiting wineries. One particular winery called La Rochebelle Chateaux was our favourite that used old style vats and equipment and had these amazing underground tunnels carved out of limestone, as a cellar storing all the barrels and bottles of wine. Doing the visit on our own enabled us to visit 4 chateauxs (instead of the 1 on the tour) and the money we saved on the tour we spent on wine instead. A much better investment I think!

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We made good use of the car in Bordeaux and took another day trip to L'bassin Arcachon where we climbed the biggest sand dune in Europe. That was good for the buttocks and to burn off some of the yummy french sweets we've been enjoying.

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Our initial plan from Bordeaux was to head to the Sth of France and the Riveria, however we looked up the weather forecast first and the weather in the Sth was ordinary. Having had our fair share of ordinary weather and the idea of being in the French Riveria when it was raining didn't appeal, so we decided to come to Paris instead.

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Paris is a beautiful city that is impossible not to love. We left Bordeaux early yesterday morning for the 5 1/2 hr drive here. Scott did very well driving for the first 1 1/2 hr through very thick fog that you could only see about 15-20 metres in front of you. We arrived about lunch and had pre-booked accomodation that miraculously we found within 25 mins (remember, we have no map and are taking the directions from Michelin to the tee). Yesterday was probably our biggest day so far, as after getting up at 6am, we eventually went to bed at 12.30am after the adrenalin of being in Paris saw us walk the streets for hours. We did the Notre Dame, the Lourve, the Champs Elysees, climbed the Arc de Triomphe, stopped for a couple of drinks before heading to the Eiffel Tower when the sun was going down. We sat on the grass with the hordes of others to take in the beautiful sight of the sunset and the lights of the tower being turned on.

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We had a much less busier day today and had a picnic on the grass in front of the Sacre Couer overlooking the city. Tomorrow we are going to stay with my friend Lisa for a few days who I worked with in London and now lives in Paris with her french husband.

Posted by EliseJones 10:18 Archived in France Comments (0)

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