May 01, 2013

Trip 52: Šiauliai (Hill of Crosses), Lithuania

Trip date: Saturday August 25, 2013

The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania is located near the town of Šiauliai. It is estimated that more than 100,000 crosses have been left at this location.

All in attendance: Kristen and Eric

We left Sigulda and returned to Riga where we hopped on a bus to Šiauliai, Lithuania. There we stayed a single night in a pleasantly over-green room at Simona Guesthouse. We would stay only a quick night here since this was a short stop to see the Hill of Crosses.

The Hill of Crosses is a short bus ride from the main bus station and a few blocks from a stop. People have a long tradition of leaving crosses on this hill from all over the world. On this day, we saw many newly weds leave an engraved cross among the mass piles of crucifixes and Jesus status.

The weather was gloomy and cloudy this day which makes the photos look like they were taken at a graveyard for hoarders. The crosses are not placed into organized rows and sections but more so piled on in giant heaps. I found it really whimsical to see crucifixes nailed upon larger crucifixes nailed upon larger crucifixes and so on. A substantially large Jesus status would be donning at leave 4-5 rosaries and there was even a section just for Mary paraphernalia.

This was a quick stop enroute to our next destination near the Curonian Spit.

Trip 51: Gauja National Park, Latvia

Trip date: Thursday August 23- Saturday August 24, 2012

Sigulda and Cēsis are towns located in Gauja National Park - Latvia's largest national park. Here we stayed in Sigulda, enjoyed the sights of the park and dodged the presence of a sneaky cat.

All in attendance: Kristen and Eric

We walked to a guest house in a residential neighbourhood from the train station. The adorable old couple only spoke Russian and Latvian but a few hand gestures and a Russian thank you from Eric was all that was needed.

The first night, we arrived late enough that we could do little more than stop at a grocery store. We ate a Cili restaurant - a chain we had seen multiple times throughout our trip. Highlights included impossibly delicious kiploku grauzdini - a sort of fried dark garlic bread covered in garlic goodness.

The walls of the bedroom had a tiger-carpet-print and we had access to 100+ channels on satellite TV but the only English channels were radical-evangelical-american broadcasts. We comfortably settled for martial art movies dubbed in Italian all the while trying to coerce the landlady's cat to come cuddle with us.

The next morning we started our day before any sort of tourist information center open and began our hike with only a cartoony-billboard map for reference. We had to walk along a highway for most of the time but ended up by the Erglu (Eagel's) Cliff where we had a quick lunch on a giant brötchen.

We continued on the mossy path through the park. Never in my life had I seen so many different type of  mushrooms! A lot of elderly people were at the beginning of the trail mushroom picking. I went on a personal mushroom safari and Eric was patient enough to wait for me to take unnecessary amounts of photos.

We saw the red Turaida castle at a distance and saw the Gutmanis Cave. The sandstone walls of the cave are very soft and it's easy to make inscriptions on it.

We continued through the park and stop to see the Sigulda New Castle at the end of the day. We stopped by a wasp infested cafe and rested our feet.

We stayed an extra night at the guesthouse where a cat, who wouldn't give us the time of day the previous day, mewed adorably at our door to come cuddle. Although Eric and I don't typically have cat allergies, there was something suspiciously off about this particular cat!

April 19, 2013

Trip 50: Rīga, Latvija (Riga, Latvia)

Trip date: Wednesday August 22 - Thursday August 23, 2012

Riga is the capital of Latvia and the most populated city in the Baltic states. It lies on the Gulf of Riga and the Daugava River flows through it. Along with a picturesque old town, Riga is bursting full of beautiful romantic Art Nouveau buildings.

All in attendance: Eric and Kristen

After getting off the bus from Estonia, we walked the maze of streets and malls to our apartment flat we got through Cheap & Good Apartments.There, we met a zealous host who insisted on filling us full of of Riga Balsam liquor in our tea/coffee. He even knocked on all the other apartment doors to get everyone out to drink with us.

A quick nap and we set off in the post-rainy old town. We ate dinner at a garlic restaurant named Kiploku Krogs where I probably ate the equivalent of 3 whole garlic heads to myself.  I was not exciting enough to try garlic beer or garlic coffee. Here, Eric got a soup in his first ever bread bowl - a concept that I have grown to become desensitize to but found out that this is not necessarily the case if you're German.

Nearby to the restaurant are the Three Brothers - Riga's oldest residential homes which were whimsical and beautiful in soft pastel colours. However, due to narrow streets, all the photos I got of them were awkward but that's how it is sometimes.

We walked around the old town. We saw the Riga Cathedral and all its scaffold glory and walked along cobblestone walking streets until dark. Eric had an early night and I went to an internet cafe to look for Couchsurfing hosts for or upcoming next few stops. At the grocery store that night, I investigated these curiously packaged sweets that are found in dozens of flavours in the dairy section in all the grocery stores we encountered in the Baltic States. They almost look like ice cream treats but unfrozen. The result? Something that taste like the liquid in a cottage cheese container. Probably an acquired taste.

The next morning was much more sunny. We saw a great Russian Style Church and walked through the park near theFreedom Monument (honoring soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence). We ate a cozy buffet-style restaurant for lunch where the majority of ordering was done through pointing and gestures. I ended up getting a plate full of buckwheat and Eric told me a bunch of USSR-buckwheat related jokes that made absolutely no sense to me.

We walked along the Alberta iela (Alberta Street) where there was a high concentration of ornate Art Nouveau buildings. Here in Riga was the first time I saw buildings like this. Ominous faces and intricate detail ensues. The architecture in Riga is stunning.

We escaped a torrential downpour of rain in a cozy tea shop where we played chess and got a Latvian take on a traditional tea ceremony. After the rain, we took a walk along the water and stopped to have a last look at the House of the Blackheads.

One last stroll through the old town and we picked up the most delightful looking giant bread loaf to take with us on our next stop - a national park.

The owner of the apartment rentals helped up get a reservation in our next stop with the owner of a guesthouse who didn't speak English. He called everyone out of their rooms for a final time to all drink Balsam together and see us off.

We hopped on a train towards Sigulda, located in Gauja National Park.

Things to do next time:
  • See Riga Central Market
Things I learned:
  • Latvian money = Latvian Lats

    April 18, 2013

    Trip 49: Soomaa National Park, Estonia

    Trip date: Sunday August 19 - Tuesday August 21, 2012

    Eric and I had gone canoeing while we were in Copenhagen and we found it to be such a pleasant activity to do together. So, during our Baltic trip, we decided to take a 3 day canoe/camping trip through Estonia's Soomaa National Park.

    All in attendance: Kristen and Eric

    For 60 euros, we booked a 3 day/2 night self guided canoe trip through the national park. On Sunday morning we took a train from the very minimal and dated looking main station towards the Estonian town of Pärnu and got off at Tori. I spent the whole ride sleeping across the bench and missed the part where the whole train stopped just so a group of people could go to the bathroom behind a few bushes. Eric found this so incredulous that he couldn't stop talking about it.

    In Tori, we waited for to be picked up by Aivar. He gave us three waterproof bins to put our stuff into and we separated our items into categories of food, clothes and equipment. The bins made it look like we were transporting illegal chemicals or biological warfare nuclear weapons. He promised us that the rest of our stuff can be returned once we finish the 70km canoe trip. Another young couple - A German couple, naturally - was also doing the same three day trip so it was nice to have company with us each night.

    The day started out with a downpour of rain where buckets of the wet stuff kept falling from the skies and on our spirits. We waited out a bit of the rain from a spider-webby gazebo but when it looked like there was going to be no change in the weather in a while, Eric and I set off for a wet adventure. Cue: jealousy of Eric's rain pants.

    I was eaten alive by horseflies and we had to do a couple of portages across places where people had built low bridges over the Halliste river. Fallen trees and piles of logs provided challenging hurdles that could be overcome only by the correct amount of awkward paddling and upper body strength. Granola bars and chocolate definitely taste better when your clothes are soaked through and the path is difficult.

    The first night was a camp out near an old barn in the Tipu village. There was a stork nest perched high up on some power line towers. Birds had taken over the barn and could be seen flowing in and out. Eric and I feasted on couscous and a small bottle of sweet Vana Tallinn. After a horrible moment of all-the-wood-is-wet experience, we even got a cozy fire going. Wet shoes warmed up by the fire and we slept through the fist night easily.

    Waking up a bit sore but to sunny weather, we set off for day two. Cue: many relaxing waterside snacks and beautiful electric blue dragon flies. Horseflies population seemed lower on this day, maybe the 30 or so squashed dead ones in the canoe warned them off.

    We stayed in Riisa the next night near a guesthouse. We were able to have a hot shower here and warm up by a nice fire. Eric won the boyfriend of the year award when he got on a bike after rowing all day just so he could go into the nearest town and buy us a bottle of wine.

    Eric and I even walked to a nearby bog after dinner and got a great view on top of a large watchtower. On the way there, there were all these marks and indicators on the trees, building and bridges to show you how ridiculously high the water line floods to on some of the wettest days all year.

    Cue: smelling lovely like a campfire and nearly freezing through the night.

    The next day we paddled on and said our good byes to the mirror-clear river and cute water-side houses. At the end point, we met a guy who took our canoes and gave us back the rest of our backpacks. He told us crazy stories about working with biologists who were tranquillizing and studying wolves in the park.

    Then we hopped on a bus to Pärnu -  an Estonian beach town. I felt like a big bruise by this night and couldn't leave the guesthouse to explore. Eric and I feasted on hard-boiled eggs the next morning and we took off on a bus the next day towards Latvia.

    Things I learned:
    • "The middle of nowhere" in Europe is still always very close to something manmade or the highway
    • Coucous for all your camping diet needs
    • Rainpants are something to be jealous of
    • Vana Tallinn is deliciously sweet
    • Millions of horsefly bites on your legs is not a good look
    • 3-in-one instant coffee is a god send
    • Highland cattle are used to cut grass
    Things to do next time:
    • Explore Estonia's Islands
    • Go on a guided mushrooming tour 
    • More canoe/kayak trips !