Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 14 (6/28) - To Oslo

I left the hotel at 6:15, a little later than I wanted to but still too early to get their breakfast. I took the metro to T-Centralen, then the Arlanda Express to the airport. I had some trouble figuring out which terminal to go to, but I was through security in plenty of time (partially because the flight time had apparently been changed from 9 to 9:15 without my knowledge) to grab some yogurt with muesli and an apple juice as a reward for being up so early. While I was waiting around, a father from a family from Colorado that I ran into a couple days prior at the Royal Palace came over to say hello - they were headed to Rome. After boarding the plane I rewarded myself some more by passing out for most of the flight.

In Oslo I took the Flytoget express train from the airport toward the city. Unfortunately, there was some work being done on the train tracks so the train only took us part of the way (to Lillestrom), then we took buses the rest of the way to Oslo Central Station (but at least the price was reduced). The Thon Hotel Astoria was not very far from there, and I was able to find it on foot relatively quickly despite the location on Google Maps being off by a couple of blocks. After checking in and putting my things in the room, I headed back to Central Station and crossed the covered walkway over to the opera house (officially the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet). I found out that the next English guided tour was at 2, giving me 1.5 hours to kill. The building was free to walk on and inside the main foyer, but I decided to go check out the Oslo Cathedral.

I walked over to, and through, the cathedral, and then still had time to grab a quick lunch. I walked further down Karl Johans gate, the main road of sorts which is a pedestrian street for a long section, and came across a MAX Hamburger, a fast food burger joint that I had seen in the other Scandinavian countries, and decided to give it a shot. I ordered a small (apparently the burgers come in multiple sizes) in Cheese 'n' Bacon burger, some "chili cheese" nuggets (more jalapeƱo than chili) that came as a pack of 4, and a small drink. The total came out to 114 kroner, which is something like $19 USD! And they charge 10 kr (over $1.50) for drink refills - though I think that would be hard to monitor with the self-service. At least the burger was pretty good (it also had a thousand island like sauce) and they separated out their trash bins by type (which doesn't help too much with language-challenged tourists like me).

After eating I made it back to the opera house with over 15 to spare before the tour. The tour was pretty interesting and took us inside parts of the building that are normally inaccessible to the public. After the tour I went outside and climbed up to the top of the building, then enjoyed the great view and atmosphere for a while. Up there I encountered a Californian family that was visiting Norwegian relatives - they had some good Oslo advice for me, including notifying me that the ski tower was closed due to a concert at the venue (featuring Rihanna) the next day.

After leaving the opera house I headed to Akershus Castle. When I arrived at the information center around 4:10 there was a delayed (originally scheduled for 4) English guided tour soon to leave so I tagged along since the main castle building was closed. The tour lasted about an hour. After that I wandered about the city for a while, including stumbling upon city hall. I then took the metro (known as the T-bane there) one stop over and headed back to the hotel. I stayed in for the rest of the night, initially planning activities for the next day, except for a brief trip across the street to grab a kebab pita right before the Germany/Italy semifinal.

Observation of the day: I recently acquired a Capital One checking account and debit card especially to use on international trips since they do not charge an international transaction fee (or, it seems so far, an ATM fee). So far it has been a great call...except for the fact that the first few PIN code purchase transactions I attempted failed, even though I could use my PIN to get money from ATMs without problems. Since then (the second or third day in Moscow) I decided to sign for every purchase. It has worked well every time except for once at the hotel in Tallinn - I had to use a different card there (and accept the fee).

Bonus observation: The wifi availability has been pretty good on this trip. In addition to free (or perhaps better stated: included) wifi at all but the first hotel (though the hostel in Helsinki only had wifi on the ground floor, but ethernet in the rooms), the airports in Helsinki and Stockholm both had free wifi. And so did the airport express trains in Stockholm and Oslo.

Bonus observation 2: A single metro ride in Oslo cost NOK 30, or about $5. This was about the same as it was in Stockholm - SEK 36 (though I was told SEK 44 the first time). In contrast, it cost less than $1 per ride in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, and those metro systems were the most impressive.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 13 (6/27) - Stockholm and Drottningholm

This morning began much like the day before - I had a similar breakfast and departed around 10. I took the metro to T-Centralen then walked over to Stadshuset (City Hall). I first inquired at the port next door about the boar to Drottningholm, and was told that they leave on the hour. It was 10:30, so I walked over to Stadshuset to look around. I bought a ticket for the 11:15 entrance to the tower, figuring that I could do the 35 minute tour (10 minutes to go up, 15 to look around, and 10 to go down) and still have 10 minutes to catch the noon boat. I took some more pictures of the impressive building and courtyard while waiting (and some Asian women took a picture with me), and then went into the tower at 11:15. They give you the option of taking an elevator halfway up, but encourage anyone who can to walk since the elevator is so small - it holds only 4 or 5 people, and they let 30 people up the tower at a time. I don't think anyone in our group took the elevator. The climb up was probably one of the most interesting that I've had (and I've climbed a few towers in my day) - first it was concrete steps, then a cool sculpture room, then brick steps, then a winding brick ramp, then wooden steps. I stopped so often for pictures that I began to worry whether I would have enough time at the top. The view at the top was equally impressive, and I completed a circuit of pictures quickly enough to head back down a little early.

I (perhaps unnecessarily) hustled over to the boat ticket counter and had a ticket for Drottningholm in hand by 11:50. I boarded the boat a bit after noon and sat through the hour long ride over. After arriving at Drottningholm, I walked over to the castle and bought an entry ticket. I found out that there was an English guided tour at 2, so I walked around the garden for a while then returned for the tour. As with the Royal Palace in Old Town, pictures were not allowed within. After the tour I headed to the boat dock, and was there barely in time for the boat at 3. However, I did not have a ticket, so I decided to go figure out where to buy a ticket for the boat (there was no ticket stand at the dock) at 4 and then perhaps grab some food while I waited. I felt a bit stupid when I found out at a nearby convenience store that I could buy a ticket on the boat...especially since I could still see the boat floating away. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I remembered seeing that Drottningholm could be reached be bus from a metro station. With the help of a kind Swedish couple I got on the bus that went to the Brommaplan metro station. The man was the second person to suggest that I check out the Vasamuseet (a museum about a 17th century Swedish warship that had sunk on its maiden mission and was recovered 300 years later), so I decided to do that instead of one of the other items remaining on my list - it would be more unique to Stockholm than, say, the modern art museum. I didn't actually know where the Vasa museum was but after asking a couple more helpful Swedes I found out (and remembered) that it was next to the Nordic Museum, which I had walked by the day before. I took the metro to Karlaplan again and walked over to the museum, where I lucked into catching the 4:30 English guided tour, then watched the documentary film in the main theater at 5. After looking around a bit more, I left to go catch the same tram as the day before (only further down the line). After taking the tram to T-Centralen I, for some unknown reason (considering how full my big backpack was), went up to check out one of the seemingly 12 H&M stores in the area as well as an Intersport. After (thankfully) not buying anything I took the metro back to the hotel.

I asked a lady at the hotel reception where I could get a nice Swedish meal, and she suggested a restaurant. I walked over to the place, which wasn't exactly close, but found it a bit too expensive for my taste. It did happen to be close to a park where some soccer was being played, so I stopped by that. After watching for a bit I headed back to a restaurant I had initially passed by on the walk. The service was really slow, and when a waiter finally came to take my order he informed me that they were out of meatballs - I immediately left, a bit annoyed. I wandered around trying to find a place that looked like I would have some Swedish meatballs (there are apparently a lot of foreign restaurants in Stockholm), but eventually settled on a bar that had soccer on. When I tried to order the Swedish Hash, I was informed that they were out. Since I was too tired and hungry to leave by this time, I just ordered the lamb sausage instead (which turned out to be pretty good). I finally was able to eat again at 8:30, 10.5 hours after finishing breakfast, then I watched the first half of the Spain/Portugal semifinal match. At halftime I walked back to the hotel, where I watched the rest of the game before turning in.

Observation of the day: The Stockholm T-Bana may not quite match the metro in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but it is still a pretty good system. The trains seem to come pretty frequently (every 4 or 5 minutes) and the area covered seems pretty expansive (it got much closer to Drottningholm than SPb's metro did to Peterhof). The Helsinki metro is nowhere close to any of the others - its 1.5 lines are comparable to the St. Louis Metro link - but at least they have trams.

Bonus observarion: Speaking of trams, the buses in Stockholm sometimes drive in the tram lanes and share the same stops, especially close to the city center.

Bonus observation 2: While we're discussing transportation... Stockholm is a very bicycle friendly city - there are bike lanes pretty much everywhere. If I had more practice and confidence on a bike, it would have been a good idea to rent one and ride it around (as a lady on the flight over had suggested).

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 12 (6/26) - Stockholm

The breakfast buffet at the hotel was pretty varied and bountiful. In addition to some bacon, a couple of meatballs, and a small salami and cheese sandwich, I finally tried some yogurt with corn flakes (and some fruit) like I have seen people eating from time to time - I liked it. After eating, I left by 10. It was sprinkling a bit outside, and the rain was off and on through the afternoon.

I took the metro (a.k.a. T-Bana, I think for something like Tunnelbana, or Tunnel Road) to Gamla Stan (Old Town - apparently the name of both the metro stop and the island) and then walked to the Royal Palace. I bought a full ticket, then hit the Royal Apartments as my first of the 4 stops. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed inside the palace.  I waited around for the English guided tour of the Royal Apartments at 11, and that lasted about 45 minutes. After walking through the apartments for a few more minutes on my own, I headed outside to catch the parade of the guards at 12:15 (which wasn't dampened by a brief sprinkle of rain). The band was still playing when I left at 12:30 to quickly walk through the nearby Storkyrkran (also known sometimes as the Stockholm Cathedral), which was a bit more impressive than I expected. I then hustled over to the Treasury (the second museum on my palace ticket) to join the 1:00 guided tour. I did not make it through the full 45 minutes (there aren't enough crown jewels for that, in my opinion) and left to check out the remaining 2 palace museums on my own. Gustav III's Museum of Antiquities had a bunch of Roman statues, so I enjoyed that more than expected. The True Kronor Museum showed the history of the castle that stood (then burned) before the palace, and I thought it was OK. I walked around the palace grounds for a little while then headed to the Nobel Museum.

The Nobel Museum is pretty small (they are going to build a bigger one to be opened in 2018) - if I had not joined the guided tour at 3 it would not have been worth it. The museum is on a square with some restaurants, so I went to one of them for a late lunch after I was done. I overlooked the rainbow flag in front of it until a guy who had been staring me down struck up a conversation with me and pointed it out. Despite being a little flustered, I needed somewhere to sit (the outdoor area was pretty full) so I joined him (Patrick) and ordered a broccoli and blue cheese pie (which wasn't that great). While I was eating the rain picked up pretty hard, but luckily it subsided before I was done.

Afterward I said goodbye to Patrick and walked over to Fjallgatan to take some pictures of the nice view. I then picked up an ice cream cone and walked to the Folkungagatan metro station. I initially planned on going to SkyView at the Ericsson Globe, but changed my mind after reasoning that I shouldn't pay money for a view that was probably less interesting (since it was farther from the city center) than the one that I had just seen for free. So instead I headed to Skansen, which is billed as the oldest and largest outdoor museum. They informed me that all the cultural buildings had closed at 5 (it was after 7), but I could still walk around and see the animals (and there would be a concert at 8). I still bought the ticket, and immediately headed for the Scandinavian animals. I didn't get to see all the animals I wanted to (some were in hiding), but I was reasonably satisfied (as much as could be expected for me in a place like that, at least) by the time I left. At the exit I was sick of walking so I bought a ticket for the tram, without realizing that I could have used my metro pass. I took the tram to Central Station (actually T-Centralen) then took the metro back to the hotel.

Observation of the day: According to one of the museum guides, this June in Stockholm had been the coldest and wettest in something like 100 years.

Bonus observation: Sunrise in Stockholm on this day was officially at 3:34 AM and sunset was at 10:09 PM, yielding 18 hours and 35 minutes of daylight.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 11 (6/25) - To Stockholm

We had planned on going to the Olympic Stadium and maybe the nearby amusement park, but my laundry fiasco prevented either of those things from happening. I started the single load of washing without issue around 11 and then we checked out around 11:30, 30 minutes late. I then put my clothes in the dryer around noon. When I returned about 45 minutes later, though, they were not any drier. I thought this was because I had chosen too cool of a setting (I had uses the second warmest), so I chose the hottest setting and tried again. By the time I found out that this didn't work any better (the dryer was spinning without any heat), the other two driers were occupied, and more people were washing clothes. I basically had to wait around in the laundry room for another hour in order to snag a drier that worked, and then wait for the clothes to dry. Steffi eventually gave up on waiting around for me, and rightfully so, and took a taxi to go see the Olympic Stadium.

I wasn't done with my laundry until about 3:30, and by then it was just about time to head to the airport. Steffi met up with me after failing to get into the stadium - it was apparently closed for the European Athletics Championships. Since it was raining, we decided to take a taxi to the airport instead of walking to the train station and taking the Finnair bus. On the ride I realized that I forgot to return the laundry room key to the hostel front desk (and reclaim my €10 deposit) - I gave it to Steffi to send back to the hostel for me. At the airport we had time to grab sandwiches for a late lunch before Steffi had to board her plane a little after 6. After saying goodbye I walked 3 gates down to prepare to board my 6:55 flight.

After landing I took the Arlanda Express to Stockholm's Central Station, then took the metro to Radmansgatan. In the process, I bought a metro pass for 200 Swedish Kronor/crowns (~$28) which allowed up to 8 rides - so as low as 25 SEK per ride, vs. 44 SEK for a single ride. I had another flirt with fame when the lady at the metro ticket counter asked if I "played something" (music or sports), commenting that I looked like I did. In any case, I was able to find Hotel Birger Jarl fairly easily using my phone, and was checked in by 8:30. I stayed in for the rest of the night - I hung up my still mildly damp (from the nonfunctional dryers) clothes to fully dry and planned out some activities for the next day using guides that I had picked up from the airport tourist info center.

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 10 (6/24) - Helsinki

We woke up in time to get a quick breakfast at the hotel before taking a taxi to the Linda Lines terminal at the port. I also found out that the sole of my right shoe was coming off, but it thankfully was not too bad just yet. We took the 10 AM boat (the same catamaran) back to Helsinki. It was pretty cold (perhaps 50 °F) and windy out when we arrived, but we braved the weather to walk to the Uspenski Cathedral. After that we walked to the nearest metro station, with a stop at the Helsinki Cathedral so Steffi could go inside this time, and took that 2 stops to Kamppi before walking back to the hostel.

After freshening up in the room and eating Joe's leftover pizza that was in the fridge, Steffi and I asked at the front desk for a nearby shoemaker/cobbler and we were directed to Kamppi again. We walked over there and found the place (Kamppi Suutari), and the guy there was able to fix my shoe in about 20 minutes for only €11. We swung by the movie theater and decided to return in about an hour for the 5:15 showing of Prometheus in 3D. We went to the nearby frozen yogurt place (JoGo) and then walked up to the Rock Church, just like Joe and I had done a couple of days prior. After checking out the church, we wandered in search of (Sokos) Hotel Torni, which has a bar that afforded some great views of Helsinki. We couldn't find it, despite getting directions from a souvenir shop worker who seemed excited about the place. We eventually asked some police officers, who gave us directions again, but had to return to the theater for the movie (which was super expensive - €29 for both of us - and had assigned seating). After watching the movie we did eventually find the hotel, and we went up to the Ateljee Bar. We checked out the balcony view and then Steffi also checked out the women's restroom, which was hyped as having a similarly spectacular view.

The next order of business was finding dinner. We looked and asked around for a Finnish restaurant, but we couldn't find one that was open. So we settled on a Nepalese and Middle Easter restaurant - I went the Nepalese route with the butter chicken, a misleading name since the sauce is tomato based. After dinner we walked back to Elmo Bar,which was packed this time, to watch the England vs. Italy quarterfinal game despite their €3 cover charge. The match went to penalty kicks, with Italy triumphing, so we didn't get back to the hostel until after midnight.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 9 (6/23) - Tallinn

Our activity for this day was motivated by 2 things. First, we had already knocked off a lot of the interesting Helsinki attractions the day before. Second, most things were closed in Helsinki that day due to the midsummer holiday and festivals. We asked the hostel worker at the desk for recommended day trips, and she mentioned Tallin (the capital of Estonia) and Porvoo (a medieval style town with old wooden buildings). We decided to walk to the bus terminal to check out the bus schedule for Porvoo, and to the boat terminal to check out the schedule for Tallin. The bus terminal at Kamppi was first - we found out that the Porvoo bus leaves every hour on the hour. We then walked to the Makasiiniterminaali to check on the Linda Line boats. The next boat to Tallinn was to leave at 12, but the last boat back that day was at 5 (due to the holiday). Since the ride takes 1.5 hours, that left us about 3 hours to explore the city. The boat schedule was to return to normal the next day, but the seats were all sold out in the directions we would want to go (to Tallinn early, and to Helsinki late). But then Steffi, in a typical stroke of brilliance, suggested that we take the 12:00 there that day and a morning boat (10:00) back the next day. Tickets were available for this, so that's exactly what we did.

We boarded the boat a little before 12 and arrived in Tallinn a bit late - closer to 2. It was raining fairly hard when we arrived, so we almost began regretting our decision (especially since it apparently had not yet begun raining in Helsinki). After taking a moment to gather ourselves and take shelter from the rain as much as we could, we took a taxi to the city center. I think this taxi driver also wanted to be a Hollywood stunt driver, but he eventually got us to the tourist info center in the middle of the city. We were glad that he took us to such a convenient place, but we later found (the next day after taking another cab back to the port) that he apparently took us the long route to squeeze an extra €4 or so out of us (~14 vs.~10). At the tourist center we found out that a bunch of things were also closed in Tallinn due to the holiday (though I'm not sure if it was the same holiday). We thought about changing tickets to head back to Helsinki that evening, but decided against it since the rain was about to hit Helsinki as well. Instead we headed for a nearby shopping mall which was open.

The mall had a Vapiano restaurant, which Steffi likes (and I had never been), so we ate there. After eating and drying off a little bit we went out to proposition a taxi driver to drive us around town for a flat fee, but he declined (or didn't understand what we were asking). So we went back into the mall and looked around a bit. We bought a dry shirt for Steffi and then started looking up some potential hotels for the night. By that time the rain had mostly subsided, so we headed out to check out some sites that Steffi had looked up on the tourist map. We walked through the Old Town past the Nilguliste Museum, then through the Town Square (next to Town Hall), then found St. Catherine's Passage, then went up and walked the longest remaining section of the town wall. From the wall we spotted the Baltic Hotel Vana Wiru, so we went to inquire there. Their price of €99 for a twin room for the night was better than we had been offered at another place (and than we had seen online for other nearby hotels), so we took it.

After checking out the room we went out again in search of some supplies. We found another mall that was even bigger and got a bit distracted by shopping. We eventually regained focus and found the supermarket in on the bottom level and bought some supplies (toothbrushes, etc.) for the the night as well as some food to snack on. We left the mall as they closed around 7 and walked back to the hotel to lounge around in the room for the rest of the night. The TV had some channels that were in English, so we watched part of a movie and ate some of the food we had bought. We also watched Spain beat France in the Euro quarterfinal match before going to bed.

Observation of the day: Both Helsinki and Tallinn have bus terminals beneath their main shopping malls. It's kind of a neat idea.

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 8 (6/22) - Hello, Steffi

Our room in the hostel was equipped with a mini kitchen and cooking/eating utensils. So we used the provider bowls, spoons, and glasses to have a breakfast of cereal and juice. We were feeling a bit lazy this morning, so we didn't get going until 11:45. We first walked to the Rock Church, which was free to enter. We then headed over to Senate Square and the Helsinki Cathedral. The cathedral was not terribly impressive, especially after seeing the Russian ones, but it was free to enter as well, so I have no complaints. After that we wandered back to the hostel around, arriving around 1:45, to wait for Steffi.

We met up with Steffi around 2:15 in the hostel lounge. After introducing Steffi and Joe, the three of us then went wandering around looking for food. We settled on an Asian buffet. We ate there until they kicked us out when they closed at 3:30, then went wandering some more. We went by the parliament building, then decided to go to Suomenlinna, an old sea fortress on a group of islands just southeast of Helsinki. We walked through Senate Square, with a stop for Steffi to buy us all ice cream, and then on to Market Square, where we took the ferry to Suomenlinna. We wandered around the islands for a couple of hours and then took the ferry back to the city. From Market Square we walked back to the hostel, arriving around 7:30.

We all met up again at 9 and walked to the nearby Elmo Bar to watch the Germany vs. Czech Republic game. Steffi "forced" Joe and I to wear some Germany t-shirts that she had brought us. The bar had a €3 cover charge, which was a bit ridiculous, but we paid it anyway. We got a table in the corner and ordered dinner (I had a burger) before the game started. The bar was pretty empty until about midway through the first half of the game, but then started to fill in a bit - though pretty much everyone was able to sit. We watched Germany administer a beatdown to the Czechs, then returned to the hostel to turn in for the night.

Observation of the day: Sunrise in Helsinki on this day was officially at 3:55 AM and sunset was at 10:51 PM, yielding 18 hours and 56 minutes of daylight.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 7 (6/21) - To Helsinki

We woke up a little earlier because we wanted to hit up a couple of sites before catching the train to Helsinki. We were just about ready to head out when they brought in breakfast a little after 9. This time they gave us a small pancake stuffed with jam, a peach, yogurt, and a flan-like (only not as disgusting) thing with cream that I couldn't identify. After eating, checking out, and stowing our big bags, we left the hotel around 9:45, about 15 minutes later than planned.

We took the metro to Gorkovskaya and walked to the nearby Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress is apparently free to roam about, but we bought tickets for the SS Peter and Paul Cathedral and the Trubetskoy Bastion prison. We first headed to the cathedral, but we found the entry queue too long for our liking so we walked over to the prison instead. After touring the mostly unimpressive prison (except perhaps for the exit door that I couldn't figure out how to open because I temporarily forgot how to read signs), we headed back to the cathedral and joined the long line. We eventually went through and took some pictures, then headed to the Neva Curtain Wall. We noticed that there were a lot of people on top of and around the wall looking at, and even filming, something to the west, but we didn't know what was going on. We climbed the stairs to the top of the wall, but didn't go through the turnstile since we chose not to buy tickets for the walk around the curtain wall. We were just hanging out up top when we noticed that some music that had been playing stopped. Then suddenly there was a super-loud boom - they had just fired a blank round from one of the big artillery guns on top of the wall. We were slightly stunned, as we were not expecting that at all. When the church bells began ringing a few seconds later, we reasoned that this was something that was done daily at noon. After sufficiently recovering our senses, we headed over to and through the Neva Gate to check out the river below. This was the last thing we did before leaving the fortress.

After the fortress we trekked across the Neva River, through Marsovo Pole (the Field of Mars), and to the Church on Spilled Blood. Though impressed, Joe still maintained that St. Basil's Cathedral was better (mostly because it was on the Tetris cover). We then walked down to Nevskiy Prospekt and found a restaurant near the metro station to have lunch. The place was classier (and more expensive) than we had been frequenting on the trip, and the food was good (though the portions may have been a bit small). I has some beef stroganoff and mashed potatoes while Joe had the hot borscht with sour cream. After eating we took the metro back to the hotel, arriving a little after 2:15. We immediately gathered our bags and headed back to the metro station to go to the Finlyandskiy train station. There, we boarded the 3:25 train to Helsinki.

Both the Russian and Finnish border patrol didn't let me slip through very easily. The Russian officer kept looking at my passport picture, and at me, and even had another officer check it out. Both of the Finnish patrolmen asked extensively about my/our travel itinerary, but Joe was able to placate the first one by asking about the Chicago Blackhawks tattoo on his arm. The train ride took about 3.5 hours, putting us in Helsinki around 6 PM (since they are one hour behind SPb).

When we arrived in Helsinki we walked from the train station to our hostel, the Domus Academica, which took about 20 minutes. We checked into our private room, and then went searching for dinner. We found a kebab restaurant, where Joe and I each had a huge kebab meal (though I had garlic potatoes as my side dish while he had rice). We then walked to a frozen yogurt shop, making it 2 minutes before they closed at 9. I had €3.35 worth (not that much, really) of frozen yogurt, even though I was stuffed from the kebab that I didn't even finish. We walked over to Temppeliaukion Church (the "Rock Church") just to scope the outside, knowing full well that it would be closed. On the walk back to the hostel we stopped at a small grocery store across the street to pick up some cereal, milk, and juice for breakfast the next couple of days (instead of each paying the hostel €7 each day). After putting the stuff away we went downstairs and eventually found a couple of seats in front of their tiny CRT TV in the lounge to watch Cristiano Ronaldo go beast mode again on the Czech Republic in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal game. After that we went up to the room and went to bed.

Observation of the day: This is nothing unexpected but...Helsinki has a totally different (and way more Western) feel to it than the Russian cities. There was a lot more change going the shorter distance from SPb to Helsinki than from Moscow to SPb. This is totally understandable, but for some reason was a bit jarring (not in a bad way) for me - I had become used to being a complete foreigner after 6 days in Russia.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 6 (6/20) - Peterhof

Our hotel stay included breakfast, and it was served with a personal touch - which is easy to do when you only have 5 rooms. We made arrangements the night before to have it served around 10 AM. Our host brought in the tray to our room at about 10:15. On it were two identical meals that each consisted of 2 small pancakes (i.e., thick pancakes, not crepes) with cream, a berry pastry, a tiny wedge of cheese, and a cup of yogurt. We had already finished getting dressed, so we ate and then were soon on our way. That day was the first pants day of the trip, as the temperature was a bit cooler - around 60 °F.

Our plan for the day was to see the Peterhof palace estate in Petergof, which is about 20 miles west of the city center. We had read that a fun way to get there was by hydrofoil boat, which departed from the river dock by the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. We took the metro down there, and after a quick stop at the Admiralty Gardens to admire the bears some more, we found where the hydrofoils normally left. However, the boats were not operating that day because it was too windy and the water was too choppy. We initially contemplated trying a different boat company, but returned to ask one of the girls out front how to get to Petergof by train. She told us to take the metro to Avtovo. When we got to the metro station and looked at the map, we noticed that there was no train station at the Avtovo stop, though there was one a couple of stops away from there. We asked one of the policemen on duty, and he also directed us to Avtovo and said that we could take a bus from there to Petergof. Since their stories seemed to match up, we hopped on the metro and headed over.

Once we reached Avtovo, though, we were completely clueless what to do next. We weren't quite expecting a big bus terminal with flashing signs for Peterhof (in English), but since that wasn't the case we didn't know what to do. There was indeed a bus stop there (with both regular and mini buses stopping fairly frequently) but we saw no signage (that we could read, at least) for Peterhof. We spent the next 20 minutes aimlessly circling between the metro and bus stop, silently hoping that someone would help us out. I finally went inside one of the cafes (from the Teaspoon chain, which we had dined at the night before) and asked one of the servers how to get there. She told me to cross the street and take a bus on the other side. Sure enough, pretty soon after we emerged from the tunnel which crossed under the street there were people selling rides to Peterhof. We hopped on the first minibus that offered a ride, and then rode about 20 minutes to the palace entrance.

After arriving at the palace grounds, we crossed through the upper garden to the ticket counter. We couldn't get there without a picture request, though - I forgot to expect this when visiting tourist attractions where people are walking around with cameras. We bought tickets and then entered to explore the lower garden (which extends out to the bay) for a while. We also had some more "Russian pancakes" for lunch - this time going with the savory (chicken, cheese, and bacon) and sweet (chocolate and banana) combination suggested by Joe and a Mirinda (which is starting to rival Fanta as my favorite travel soda). We then went in search of the Pyramid Fountain, which Joe found, and then headed up to buy tickets for the Grand Palace. The palace was pretty impressive, though the (unguided) tour seemed a bit short. We also could not take pictures or videos, and had to wear slippers over our shoes.

After the tour we headed back toward the street and took a minibus on the other side back to Avtovo, and then the metro back toward the hotel. On the walk back to the hotel we stopped at a Pizza Hut to pick up a couple of small pizzas for carry-out. We took them back to the hotel where Joe immediately at his while I saved mine for a bit since I wasn't hungry - it was about 6 PM at this time. I eventually ate half of mine about an hour later, then we went out in search of some ice cream around 7:30. We couldn't find a proper creamery (though Joe thought he had seen one), so we settled for some pre-wrapped ice cream instead. After this, Joe went back to the hotel room while I took a stroll around the area. I walked through the neighborhood and stopped by a small park where there were some good pick up soccer games being played, in addition to some basketball, gymnastics, working out, and boxing/martial arts. I then walked down to Nevskiy Prospekt, headed west, and then cut back up and around to the hotel. I got back around 10, lounged around, finished my pizza, then went to bed at midnight.

Observation of the day: Sunrise in St. Petersburg on this day was officially at 4:36 AM and sunset was at 11:27 PM, yielding 18 hours and 51 minutes of daylight. There was still some light out at midnight, though.

Bonus observation: In general we've been able to get by alright without speaking a word of Russian. Most people who you deal regularly with tourists (e.g., at ticket counters or in restaurants) know enough English to fulfill our requests or help us out. Some are even apologetic when they don't speak English. It's a little more hit or miss with police officers, and then the general population mostly seems to not speak any English.

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 5 (6/19) - St. Petersburg

Our train arrived in St. Petersburg right on time at 8:35 AM. Our first task was then to find the 5-Rooms Hotel (so named for its total of 5 available rooms). We took the metro one stop to the nearest station to the hotel, then got a little turned around, but we eventually found the hotel by about 9:30. Unfortunately, we could not check in at the time, and were asked to return at 11, which was still 2 hours before normal check-in. Joe and I stowed our big bags, and headed out to cross off some sights in the meantime.

Our first stop was the Russian Museum, which we almost confused with the Russian Ethnography Museum (housed in the east wing of the former), but it was closed - Tuesday is its day off. So we instead headed to the Hermitage, a huge museum in the style of the Louvre. Along the way we stopped at Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and strolled through Palace Square and by the Alexander Column (apparently the world's largest freestanding monument). We also ran into the mother/daughter pair from the train on the way over - they were at Kazan and were also headed to the Hermitage. The line at the Hermitage was ridiculous, and took about an hour to get through. When we finally did, we wandered semi-aimlessly through the bottom 2 floors for another hour or so before tiring out. After leaving, we headed to the first food provider that we saw, which happened to be a (light meat) gyro place.

After satisfying our hunger, we wandered toward St. Isaac's Cathedral, but were distracted by a small park that had a bunch of bears arranged around the central fountain (I later found out that this was the traveling United Buddy Bears exhibit). We found out that each bear represented a country, so we had to get pictures with certain "meaningful" ones. Once that was accomplished, we rejoined our path to St. Isaac's. At the cathedral, we bought tickets for both the museum (i.e., general entry) and the collonade (a trek to the outer balcony of the top dome, which offered some nice views of the city). After finishing both of those activities we walked back over to Nevskiy Prospekt and took the metro back toward the hotel. It was also on Nevskiy that I got my first picture request in St. Petersburg - according to Joe this young lady had been following us/me for a few blocks before finally gathering up the courage to ask for the picture when we stepped aside to look at a map.

When we arrived at the hotel a bit after 4, we were pleasantly surprised to find that they had started the check-in process for us and moved our bags to our room. We finished up checking in and settled in for a bit. We then decided that we had done enough exploring for the day, so our only venture out for the rest of the evening was a brief walk down the street to find some dinner around 6:30. We eventually settled on a cafe that served crepes (I went with minced meat this time), where I also tried out (and enjoyed) some hot borsch. The rest of the evening was spent lounging lazily in the room, and resting my weary feet.

Observation of the day: The metro system in St. Petersburg is just as great as the one in Moscow. Although it doesn't have the same extensive coverage (I suspect due to the smaller population), it went everywhere we needed it to, and was just as timely, if not more so. And the stations are just as beautiful. One definite improvement over Moscow is that the signage includes the English spellings in addition to the Cyrillic lettering. The cost of a single trip is 27 rubles in St. Pete, as opposed to 29 in Moscow. I also noticed (and later confirmed via the Internet) that the stations are even deeper in St. Pete, thus making for longer escalators (3 minutes to ride).

Bonus observation: Russians call crepes pancakes. They must not have the thicker variety of real pancakes over here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 4 (6/18) - Last Day in Moscow

We were up around 9:30, and lounged around until I realized that breakfast ended at 10 on weekdays. I made this realization at 9:57, and we rushed up to the 8th floor, scarfed down some food, and were back in the room at 10:11. We then got dressed and lounged around a bit before checking out 15 minutes before the noon deadline. We were able to stow our big bags there and head out for a day of activities - our train didn't leave until 11:40 that night.

Our original plan for the day involved a couple of museums, but it turns out that there are no museums open on Mondays in Moscow...FAIL. So we decided to try to go to the Kremlin Armoury for real. We took the metro down there and were at the ticket counter around 12:45. The lady said that there were currently no tickets and to return at 1:45 when the next batch of tickets (for the 2:30 entrance) would go on sale. A bit annoyed, we needed to find a way to kill an hour. We strolled over to GUM, then by St. Basil's, and then the Kremlin tombs, before heading back to the ticket building. There was a long line this time (almost as long as the day before), and we joined the end around 1:40. It took us about 20 or 25 minutes to get through the line, and when we got up to the counter the lady informed us yet again that there were no more tickets for the Armoury. This being the third strike, we gave up on trying to get in there...more FAIL.

After a bit of discussion and indecision, we eventually settled on checking out the All-Russian Exhibition Centre (VVTs). We took the metro up there (the VDNKh stop) and walked over to the VVTs. It was kind of like a toned down theme park, but you didn't have to pay to get into the main section, where there weren't really any rides - though I'm not sure if you had to pay for the other sections. We also got some crepes (I had 1 ham & cheese and 1 chicken & gravy) for late lunch, which I followed with an ice cream cone. After about an hour, we headed back toward the metro, with a stop at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics (which was closed) for some pictures outside of the Monument to the Conquerors of Space.

We took the metro down to Kitay Gorod and walked through the area toward Red Square. We stopped in at GUM yet again in search of milkshakes, but were unsuccessful in our quest. Next we walked to the Bolshoy Theater and took a couple of pictures. Then we walked back to the square, where Joe and I parted ways for a bit. He took the metro back to the hotel to rest his feet, while I decided to walk the scenic route back and meet him there in a couple of hours (around 8).

I first crossed the bridge over the Moskva River, where I got a few good shots of the Kremlin. I next swung by the Tretyakov Gallery just to check out the building (since it was closed), but finding it uninspiring from the back I abandoned that plan and instead walked the opposite direction along the river toward the Monument to Peter I (Peter the Great). After snapping a few pics, I crossed into the Socialist Sculpture Park (a collection of abandoned statues) to take some more. From there I walked by the New Tretyakov Gallery and toward Gorky Park, then cut across down the street to the hotel, where I beat the meeting time by a few minutes, but with aching feet.

After lounging in the hotel lobby for a little over an hour, we left around 9:15 for the train station. We were at the station before 10, and stopped in a cafe to have some pierogies for dinner. After eating we made our way to the train, mostly due to Joe asking people for directions, and boarded about 15 minutes before the train departed at 11:40. Joe and I shared a 4-bed compartment with a Russian mother and daughter; although we communicated with them very little, they seemed pretty nice. Unfortunately, none of us except Joe (who brought earplugs) was able to get great sleep during the 9 hour ride to St. Petersburg because of some loud rattling going on in our compartment.

Observation of the day: Muscovites apparently really enjoy roller blading. I saw more rollerbladers there (especially at the park) than any other place I had been.

Bonus observation: The metro system in Moscow is pretty great, for several reasons. The trains come every 2 minutes. There are some really beautiful stations. There are some really long escalators (that take 2 minutes to ride) - though this ends up being not necessarily a great thing after a while. And the tunnels double as methods of crossing their really wide (and busy streets).

Bonus observation #2: Joe is a gentlemanly fella. For example, he helped some lady carry her bag up the stairs while walking in the metro tunnels today. He does this kind of stuff fairly frequently.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 3 (6/17) - Red Square

I woke up around 8:45, and didn't really feel like going back to sleep (though I certainly could have), so I took some time to post to this blog and do a little reading until Joe's alarm woke him up at 10:15. We then headed up to the top floor for breakfast (which was included with our room). They had a pretty decent spread, and I partook of some bread, salami, cheese, rice, crepes, and juice (both orange and apple). They also had eggs, sausages (more like hot dogs), yogurt, granola, and some other things I didn't recognize. After eating we returned to the room to lounge around a bit before getting ready to head out.

We left the hotel around 12 and took the metro down to Red Square - a total of 4 stops on 2 trains. Our first destination was St. Basil's Cathedral, known to Joe for being on the cover of Tetris. On the way through the square I was stopped a couple of times by other tourists who wanted to take their picture with me. I didn't realize what was going on the first time this happened, so I declined and kept walking (I now feel really bad about this), but I obliged when I was asked every time after that. We wandered around its various mini-churches for a while before heading out.

As we exited the cathedral, I realized that I couldn't get back to the makeshift souvenir shop just inside the entrance (I wanted a figurine to add to my collection) so I headed back to the entrance with the hope that they would let me in again with my spent ticket, even though I had no way of communicating this. And that was when the picture madness started. A group of middle-school-aged girls came up and asked for some pictures - I really don't know if this is simply because I look so different or if they think I might be somebody famous. Since I couldn't understand what they were saying I thought it was only going to be one or two pictures with the group. Instead, it turned out that each one wanted an individual picture with me. One even pulled out her brush to fix up her hair for the picture! After about 6 or 7 pictures, the scene attracted a bit of attention and other people started showing up. Soon I was taking pictures with people from multiple groups, males and females from young to old. It was getting a bit ridiculous, but I tried to oblige every request. In all, I probably posed for about 15 to 20 pictures before I was eventually able to slip away to the cathedral entrance, where they thankfully let me in again.

After St. Basil's we headed across to the Kremlin. We couldn't see an entrance so we walked halfway around it (probably a mile or so) to find one, and then got in line for tickets. When we reached the front of the line the lady told us that there were no more tickets for the Armoury, the main attraction we wanted to see, at the time, and that we would have to come back at 3:45 - in about an hour. We accidentally elected to go with the cathedral ticket instead, which at least got us in the gates. We walked over to the entrance and went through security, then wandered around for a while. We went into a couple of the churches, including the Annunciation Cathedral (though the Assumption Cathedral was closed), and took pictures by the Tsar Cannon and the Tsar Bell. We then headed back toward the Armoury to see if we could get in. A guard let us in the side door and pointed us toward the ticket counter. We then bought tickets for 500 RUB (~$17) each then went downstairs to stow the stuff that we couldn't bring in the cloak room. When we went back up they were letting the 4:00 group in, so we went along. When we entered, we realized that we were in the wrong place - we had bought tickets to the Diamond Fund instead of the Armoury proper. The exhibit had a few cool jewels, but it wasn't nearly worth what we paid to get in (to me at least), and I was very disappointed to have missed out on the real Armoury.

Next we left the Kremlin and walked to Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. We arrived a few minutes before it was scheduled to close at 5, but we were not allowed in because we were wearing shorts. So we headed back toward Red Square to find some food in GUM (the State Department Store that had since been privatized into a glitzy mall). We had dinner in an upscale cafeteria-style restaurant on the top floor (I had champignon cream soup, rice, bread, meatballs, a kebab (on stick), a fruit medley, some water, and an apricot drink - my eyes were hungrier than my stomach. After dinner we took one last stroll by the "Tetris building" before taking the metro back to the hotel, where we arrived around 7:15.

We relaxed in the room for the rest of the night, turning in after Christiano Ronaldo's masterful performance over the Netherlands (though Joe was asleep a little after halftime).

Observation of the day: Sunrise on this day in Moscow was officially 4:45 AM and sunset was officially 10:18 PM, yielding 17 hours and 33 minutes of daylight. I feel like there was light from the sun up until almost 11 PM, though.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Eurotrip 2012 - Day 2 (6/16) - Moscow, Finally

We were able to lie down across some seats and catch a few winks when the airport departures area cleared out a bit around 1 in the morning. By 3:30 or so, though, I couldn't really sleep any more and instead did some reading. Check-in for our flight began a little after 5, after which we breezed through security. We again took the bus to the plane (the last jet bridge we had used was back when we arrived in Warsaw) then boarded the tiny plane a bit behind schedule, around 7:15. The flight to Moscow (Sheremetyevo - SVO) was thankfully uneventful (no clapping in Russia upon landing, though) and we were able to get through immigration without too many issues (though we did have a little trouble filling out the form - we left the invitation organization portion blank).

We took the Aeroexpress train into town to the Belorussky train station. After some searching and asking a police officer, we found the adjoining metro station. As Joe had previously heard, the signage in the metro system was all in Russian, so we had a rough time finding the correct train - the brown circle line (it runs in a circle around the city center, and connects the three rail terminals with train connections to the three airports) . We eventually found the circle line, and took it 4 stops to Oktyabraskaya. When we got out to the street, I tried to use my phone to navigate to the hotel (Warsaw Hotel) but my phone battery died on me. Joe's phone was also on the verge of running out, but we found the hotel after getting turned around a couple of times - it was in the back of the building where we exited from the metro.

We checked into the hotel around 12:30 and went up to the room, where we both passed out. We initially only intended to power nap for a couple of hours, but we ended up sleeping until almost 5. We then cleaned up and then headed out to Gorky Park, which is literally right down the street from the hotel, around 7. We walked through the park for a while, half crossed a pedestrian bridge over the Moskva River, walked back beside the river to the main street, then down to the corner where our hotel was located. We were back around 8:15, but immediately headed down to a restaurant in the building where the hotel offered a discounted dinner - 350 rubles (about $11 USD) for 3 courses and tea. The meal consisted of a salad w/ bread, a burger-like meat ball (w/o bread) and fries, and semisweet fried pierogis for dessert. It was not amazing, but was still pretty solid, especially for the price.

After eating we walked down the other street a short way just to check it out before heading up to the room around 9:30. There we killed a little time (including watching the end of the third Star Wars prequel with a Russian voiceover dub - you can probably imagine that no Russian voice can come close to adequately replacing Samuel L. Jackson's) before the Euro games started at 10:45. It wasn't until around that time that it really started getting dark outside. We watched Greece beat Russia and then turned in for the night.

Observation of the day: Unlike in the States, Russian faucets have cold water on the left and hot water on the right. UPDATE: This appears to have been the case only in our hotel.

Eurotrip 2012 - Days 0-1 (6/14-15) - Airports

The trip did not get off to a good, or even decent start. You know things are bad when there are events related to the flight...

I made it from STL to Chicago OK, but was annoyed at having to exit security to get to the international terminal, and go through security again. Joe caught up to me while I waited at the gate for the flight to Warsaw. When I went to board the plane, I was told that I had to go back to the ticket agent to get a stamp. They had apparently been announcing my name (among others) over the PA system - I had suspected that the "O" name I had been hearing was mine, but the PA system sucked and the pronunciation wasn't anywhere near correct. When I went back through the boarding line, a plane-side agent asked to check my big backpack since the plane was full. I was hesitant at first, but acquiesced when she assured me that it would be checked all the way to Donetsk. This seemed like an even better idea when I boarded the plan (as one of the last ones on) and saw how much people were struggling to fit their carry-ons.

The flight itself was less than ideal, mostly due to the lack of a decent entertainment system. LOT's ancient 767 had one screen in coach, and was based on cassette tapes.  I didn't even bother trying to watch the crappy programming they had on. Also, they did not have electrical outlets at the seats, so I couldn't use my phone, which had a dying battery. At least they gave us 2 meals, though they didn't compare to the Qantas meals (but, to be fair, nothing does).

The worst came when we landed in Warsaw and arrived at the gate at 10:35, 40 minutes late. Coincidentally, 10:35 was the departure time for our connecting flight to Donetsk. So...we missed our plane.  And the soonest they could get us there was 9:00 PM, so there was no way to make the 6:00 soccer game. Needless to say, we were not very pleased. We considered changing to fly straight to Moscow (instead of flying to Donetsk only to fly to Moscow 10 hours later), but eventually elected to continue to Donetsk via Kiev since we weren't sure where my bag was. We then had to go through passport control to go get my bag...which didn't show up at the baggage claim. There was another guy from our flight, Anthony, who was in a similar situation (missed the flight to Donetsk and bag didn't show up) so he tagged along with us in our search. We went to the baggage lost & found and they directed us to the baggage services office next door. The baggage services people were able to locate our bags and have them sent to a nearby conveyor. Anthony's bag showed up in the first batch, but mine did not. We went back to the office and they directed us to wait a little longer. My bag thankfully showed up in the second batch.

After exiting customs (where nobody was checking anything) we went looking for the appropriate place to check in. We eventually found it around 12:15 (with some help from the info desk) but would not be able to check in until 1:20, two hours before the flight. So we walked to a Marriott Courtyard across the street to lounge in the lobby for a while.

We headed back to the airport around 1, and waited in line for check-in to start. When they finally started, Joe and I went up to the counter to check in together. The lady seemed to find my info pretty easily, but had some trouble finding Joe in the system. She eventually did, and sent us on our way. But after walking a few steps I realized that she had given me the wrong boarding pass - mine belonged to a Johan O-something-not-my-name. Thankfully I noticed this before going to security, and was able to get it corrected easily and quickly.

We eventually caught up to Anthony on the other side of security, and the rest of the trip to Kiev was mostly uneventful. Kiev did happen to be the site of the other game that night (England vs. Sweden), and seeing fans headed to that game on board the plane made me a bit depressed to be missing the France v. Ukraine game). As we had heard, the airport in Kiev was a bit chaotic, especially for its small size, but we got in and out OK. Anthony did not have any more problems checking his bag, and I made sure not to check mine.

We continued to hang with Anthony after the flight to Donetsk, where we arrived around 9 PM. He needed to get to Lugansk, a 2 hour drive from Donetsk, while we decided to try to use the beds we already paid for at Hostel SK Dax. A taxi driver approached us as we exited the airport and convinced us that he could take us to those places for a reasonable price, so we all hopped into his "taxi" - really an unmarked car for hire. This was the first of a string of questionable decisions on our part.  When he took us to where he the hostel was, we were on kind of a shady looking back road, with no clearly marked hostel anywhere in sight. So we freaked out a bit and asked him to take us back to the airport, where we would spend the night. There was a lot more traffic on the way back (due to the game, which had completed soon after we landed), so the going was very slow. The driver called up another guy to come pick up Anthony to take him to Lugansk - we pulled over for a few minutes while waiting for him. Then the driver became fed up with the traffic and decided that he wanted to be a movie stunt driver for the rest of the drive - instead of just weaving in and out of cars, he now started driving on the opposite side of the road for clear stretches and then cutting back into traffic when oncoming cars approached. It was a bit exciting at first, but then I became a little scared for my life. In any case, we made it back to the airport, and we paid him in US dollars - $20 for each direction, and $10 for his troubles. We arrived around 11:30 and our flight was due to depart at 7:10. So we made ourselves as comfortable as we could for the next few hours.

Observation of the day: Eastern Europeans love clapping when the plane touches down - they apparently are super glad to survive every flight.