A Travellerspoint blog

Tallinn Estonia, Riga Latvia, Vilnius Lithuania -The Baltics

the Baltics, fairytale old town, family friendly, couch surfing, Eastern Europe


From Helsinki, Finland we are travelling over the Baltic Sea to Estonia. This will be our introduction to Eastern Europe. From there we will go to the two other "Baltic states" Latvia and Lithuania. Grouped geographically on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, the three Baltic countries have their individual charms.

Tallinn Estonia

Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia is located eighty-three km south of Helsinki. We took the Tallink Line Ferry for thirty nine euros each on Sept 26.
There are over 1500 islands on the sea off the Estonian coast.
Tallinn has an intimate old town with the tallest church in Medieval Europe.
Our hostel, with the catchy name of Fat Margaret's, is walking distance from the harbour, and only a block from the old town. Our room is large, sparsely furnished, private bathroom and two window seats. One of the windows has a great view of the Old Town. It costs thirty two Euros per night, split between two people so sixteen euros each.
We had supper the first night at a pub called Hell Hunt, just a short walk into the old town. We both had fish and chips and I had a bottle of Stella Artois, a Belgian beer. Our bill came to sixteen Euros so things are definitely cheaper here than in Finland or Sweden!
The waitress was very pretty and super nice. Maybe it was just sticker shock, but Jeff, the last of the big time spenders, insisted he was paying and gave her twenty euros, keep the change, eye-tah. That is how you say thank you in Estonian but we keep forgetting. There is another word for thank you also, it might be dolmus. Anyway we have learned three other words in our travels, tak (thank you in Swedish), Keetos (thank you in Finnish) and Hej, hey, which is hello in Swedish. We use that all the time, posing as Swedes.
We like it so much here we decide to stay for three nights. English is widely spoken, the service is excellent, the people seem nice and friendly and there is a fairy tale old town.
Fairytale Old Town, Tallinn Estonia

Fairytale Old Town, Tallinn Estonia

We enjoyed our delicious morning coffee in a pretty cafe in the old town, tablecloths, fresh flowers, nice ambiance, all this for three euros twenty - it would have been double in Finland in a Tim Horton's like atmosphere (nicer places would charge more!!)
We had lunch at a restaurant with candles on the table, the waiter poured out our tonic water like he was pouring wine, we had seafood pasta, the restaurant had wifi, and the total bill was sixteen euros.
Estonia is on the Euro, but the other two Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania, also part of the EU, still use their own currencies.
Estonia is really connected, they invented Skype. Even city parks have wifi, it is everywhere, apparently, except for our room at Fat Margaret's where the service is sketchy.
While walking around the Old Town Jeff spots a Depeche Mode tribute bar. In we go and have a coffee and Jeff is stoked by all the DM music and the pictures, the constantly running DM music videos, the whole thing is strange. There are numerous pictures of Depeche Mode's visit, they played a concert in Tallinn and then spent the whole night at the bar partying with the locals.
It turns out this bar is ranked number five in Lonely Planet's top ten strangest bars in the world, but we came upon it by accident. It was a highlight for Jeff and even for me, as I would never have gone in there without him. I suggested we go back after supper to see who frequents the place in the evening. Turns out, not too many, pretty empty, it is a rainy night in late September. Maybe they do better in the summer.

Although Estonia considers itself a Nordic country and their language shares similarities with Finnish, twenty five percent of the population is Russian. Total population of the entire country is about 1.3 million. I am impressed with their history which includes the human chain from Vilnius Lithuania, through Latvia to Tallinn and the Singing Revolution. I must read up on the history of the Baltic countries.
Estonia is celebrating its twenty-first year of freedom from the USSR. It is the longest period in history when they haven't been under someone else's rule. Estonia has been occupied by Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the USSR.
They were a country of peasants, earlier than that they were slaves. Throughout Estonia's history various countries/empires invaded and took over, building fancy homes for themselves and impressive buildings. They created a beautiful medieval old town and I hope Estonia exploits it to beat the band as it really is pretty awesome.
Tallinn Estonia

Tallinn Estonia

In addition to the Baltic Sea coastline Estonia has numerous lakes and forests, a very picturesque country.
They are a loveable bunch, they call their history when Sweden was in power, "the good old Swedish days" and they use the word "normal" for awesome or incredible luck, only they say it in Estonian.
28 September - we went on a free (tip requested) walking tour of the old town and the guide spoke excellent and expressive English. The secret seems to be showing American cartoons on TV with Estonian subtitles. There were a lot of Germans on the tour and the guide exclaimed, "Are you invading us again?" They seem to have a pretty good sense of humour.
I definitely think Tallinn is a fairy tale city with one of the best preserved medieval old towns in Europe. The streets are quite wide as Tallinn was a merchant town and the merchants needed wide streets to bring in their goods. Salt, my favourite spice, was one of the major products brought through Estonia in Medieval times.
They have a great tourism program - really good brochures on the sights of Estonia. Tallinn's old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.
Estonions call Indian Summer "old lady's summer." They have one tower called Fat Margaret and another called Tall Herman. Their flag is white for purity, black for earth and blue for sky. They were the first country to use their ability to vote online. Their food and architecture is a mishmash of all the countries that invaded them but basically they love potatoes, pancakes and black bread. Beer is cheap and good, bars are abundant and kids can go in with their parents, just like in Germany. They have beautiful desserts and pastries, lots of custard and whipped cream.

Estonia came late to Christianity and is one of the most atheistic countries in the world our guide advises. However, they have some pretty fancy churches and one of them is Russian Orthodox, really ornate on the inside but we were not allowed to take pictures. I helped myself to some Holy water to bring me luck and cure what ails me.
The Danes invaded them in the thirteenth century to bring them Christianity. Denmark was losing the war until, by divine intervention, a flag with a red cross on a white background floated down and changed their fortune. Denmark won the war and they embraced the flag that appeared to them in Estonia on this fateful day.

Buy Scandinavian wooden knives here, cheaper than Finland or Sweden!!
It is warmer and cheaper here than Finland or Sweden and it looks like moving south will be even more economical I am sorry to leave this captivating city. Our hostel, Fat Margaret's, had kitchen facilities but breakfast was not included.

I am contemplating the fleeting and the lasting, moving from city to city, country to country, shopping for memories and leaving footprints and bits of DNA behind. I am closer now, than I have ever been, to my carefree life in 1969 when I moved apartments on the city bus, carrying a shopping bag.

Riga Latvia

We. are on the LuxBus from Tallinn to Riga. It is Saturday Sept 29 2012.
18 euros each, a four and a half hour journey.
We are leaving the "Nordic" countries.
This is our first venture into travelling by bus which is comfortable and has free coffee and wifi in Estonia. The wifi cuts out when we get into Latvia.
Riga is about an hour from the Estonian border. The tourist shop is closed so we wander around with some sketchy directions and basically stumble across our hostel, Fun, Friendly Frank's.

We were greeted with our choice of a free bottle of beer or a free bottle of water. Then we went on a free (tip only) walking tour of Riga with a nice girl named Sophia. The old town is near the hostel.
We saw the Freedom Monument and the changing of the guards. Latvia invented the Christmas tree. News to me. We toured the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, head covering required, no pictures allowed. All of the Baltic countries are into amber, huge displays in shop windows.

At the end of the tour we were taken to a bar where we were served a shot of the local balsam liqueur, "Black Balzam" quite powerful stuff, 45 proof. I could have had two but I wanted to be able to enjoy the rest of the evening.
Since all we had eaten all day was a piece of cake at the bus station (it was good) we proceeded to a place the guide recommended, LIDL, and had pork and potatoes and a nice salad for 14 lats total for both. That is just under ten dollars each. Then we came back to the hostel and were shown our room - it is big with two bedrooms and a private bath. However, the windows are miniscule, it is up a steep flight of stairs and I can hear the guys next door laughing and horsing around so of course I preferred Fat Margarets where our room had a great view and was super quiet except for the traffic noise.
Riga is known for the large number of Art Nouveau buildings, more than 750. We saw a few but must go to the part of the city where the bulk of these buildings are located - within walking distance of our hostel. We are booked in here for one night - I find it quite noisy. We do get a free breakfast but I'm thinking tomorrow we should move so must research that now.

30 Sept - well we spent the night at Fun Frank's, had a breakfast of coffee and toast, packed ourselves up - Jeff had found another hostel so we walked over there and they didn't have a twin room left. So now we decided to find a cafe with wifi and I was a bit grumpy and lo and behold we are just nearby a nice little cafe with ambiance and we share a good piece of cake and have a cappuccino. The owner speaks limited English, but tries, there is one other person in there who seems to be his friend and whose name turns out to be George.
It seems they don't get many Canadian tourists in Riga but they tell us quite a few Latvians live in Toronto. The owner right away says Calgary Flames when Jeff says he is from Calgary. Then he shows us a little kind of key chain that has a hockey player and Canada on it and says, "my talisman"
Regarding hockey - the men know Canada for hockey and are ticked off about the lock out.. They say NHL as clear as a bell and really even Hagar from Stockholm was a passionate hockey fan and also said "Calgary Flames" when Jeff said he was from Calgary. Nobody bats an eye when I say Victoria so now I'm considering saying Calgary as a conversation starter.
George informs us we are the first Canadians he has ever met. The weight of it all, being representative of the entire country, trying our best to make a positive impression pretty much made us tongue tied after that.
So as you read this, imagine: We have no cell phone. Nobody really knows where we are. We are in a city I had never heard of before planning this trip. George, the friend of the owner chats us up, seems nice and offers to drive us to the section on Albert Street to show us the Art Nouveau buildings. And although both of us felt a little twinge that this might not be such a hot idea, we finished up our coffee and hopped into his volkswagon van. And George did take us to see the Art Nouveau buildings.
Riga Latvia

Riga Latvia

Every once in awhile he stops and we all get out and admire the impressive architecture. What do you know on the street we run into some universtiy students from Turkey that we had met the day before. We said hi and carried on with George. He took us into an art nouvequ cafe, (just for a look) very well preserved and I took some nice pictures. It started to pour rain and George drove us to the Old Town and dropped us off at MacDonalds. Jeff says: Let's never do that again. WHAT WERE WE THINKiNG. Well for one thing I was really counting on there being nice people once I got into the back seat of the van. I tried to remember what I had read one time about getting out of a moving vehicle, but then what about my kid in the front seat. Was it open the door and roll out - do this when the car is moving slowly, what was it. Oh well, I couldn't remember, so I would not have to face the dilemma of saving my own skin or sticking it out for the sake of my child.
After we dried off we walked around and having made a booking at another hostel took our packs over there and went back to the old town. This hostel, Funky Hostel, was a bit of a hike again and was located up a long stairway. I was practically having heart failure when we got to the top and was definitely overheated with a long sleeve sweater, fleece and my jacket, the sweat was running down my back and no wonder as when we came back the second time I counted the stairs, one hundred and nine.
Every time Jeff went for a smoke he had to take those stairs. Our room was just for us two but did have two bunkbeds and a small couch.
hostel room in Riga

hostel room in Riga

We had lunch at a pancake house - really good - they do pancakes with meat, savoury types and also sweet types. We tried a few different kinds including the potato pancakes which I really enjoyed. Then we went through the Museum of Occupation which there had also been in Tallinn and we didn't go - anyway I originally was thinking, how boring, a museum about occupations. (as in jobs, not countries). But it was very touching and I had a little tear as we walked through and learned how Latvia and also Estonia and Lithuania had been screwed over by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in their agreement and how over the years Latvia lost one third of its population. They were part of the Singing Revolution in the late eighties and part of the human chain of people holding hands from Vilnius to Tallin, two million people who didn't want to be part of the Soviet Union.
We had a nice coffee at a rock coffee house and I took Jeff's picture playing a fake guitar statue.
They have lovely parks here.

Anyway Funky Hostel is nicer, quieter and cheaper and we have a window that looks right at an art nouveau building so I like the view, breakfast is included, we do not have a private bath here but oh well it is only one night. Tomorrow morning we catch the eight thirty bus to Vilnius where we have been invited to couch surf for two nights. Ciao. They say that for good bye here as well as in Italy. Now they say something for thank you that I have asked several people and tried out, it just won't stick, something like pauldeeass. They aren't as fluent in English here as the people were in Tallinn and nobody is as fluent as the Swedes. Riga, we are told, is also called "Little Paris" perhaps due to the number of Art Nouveau buildings.
Riga is a city of about 600,000 people and their currency is the lat.
One lat is 1.91 Canadian so I just double the amount to make the conversion.

Vilnius Lithuania

We caught the 830 am bus from Riga to Vilnius. Our couch surfing hostess and husband met us at the bus and took us back to their Soviet era apartment. We are set up on two mattresses in the living room, there is a big bookshelf full of books, a comfy couch and a computer set up for us to use. They also have pamphlets and maps of Vilnius and surrounding area. Off the living room is a balcony, and there were several boxes full of apples. they have an apple orchard somewhere in the country. We were served flavourful home made apple juice and apple pancakes with clotted cream and syrup.
The Ultra Modern side of Vilnius

The Ultra Modern side of Vilnius

Then our hostess took us on the bus to a viewpoint of Vilnius and we took pictures of the modern skyscrapers. There we met her 27 year old daughter who was exceptionally fluent in English and would take us on a tour.
Our hostess lent us a cell phone so that we could keep in touch.
Vilnius is called "the Athens of the North". The old town is known for its Baroque architecture although Saint Anne's Church is a picture of Gothic. Verkiai Palace is an example of neo-classical architecture.
We were only going to stay one night in Vilnius but our hostess insisted we stay two, we would not see enough in one day.. Her daughter took us all around the extensive old town where they also have had a university for something like 5 hundred years and even the University book store has paintings all over the walls and ceiling. She also took us to the area where the bohemian artists have declared a republic, tongue in cheek, they have their own constitution and statue, Uzopia Republic. We would likely never have found these places on our own.

Old Town, Vilnius, Lithuania

Old Town, Vilnius, Lithuania

Lithuanians are the potato kings, they even have potato sausages. Our kind of place, good, cheap and filling food. The national dish seems to be a potato dumpling called zeppelin, due to its shape.
Lithuanians, surprisingly, are into basketball, not too interested in football, soccer or hockey.
The second day Jeff and I went on a day trip from Vilnius to Trakai where the castle is built on an island.
Traiku Island Castle

Traiku Island Castle

Trakai was the capital of Lithuania prior to it being moved to Vilnius. Again this was an excellent recommendation of our hostess who made sure to lend us umbrellas before we embarked on the bus.

We ate a special dish introduced by the Crimean Karaites - kind of like a baked dough around minced meat. We love the coffee, they heat the milk up too and give you a little pitcher of it to go with you coffee.

We got so turned around and lost in Vilnius that evening when we were trying to meet our hosts for a beer in the old town. Lucky for the borrowed cell phone, finally their daughter had to come and find us. We joined our hosts, a friend, another couch surfer and for 8 beer and two plates of food, 2 soft drinks the tab was about twenty dollars. In addition we were served the local beer eating food, fried rye bread with cheese. It was good, I am enjoying the food, the different cheeses, the sour milk served at restaurants. We all took the bus back to the apartment and enjoyed a satisfying snack of rye bread, cheese and sliced meat.
The next morning we were served fried cheese for breakfast, maybe it was baked. I liked it. They eat a lot of dairy and black bread and pork apparently.
This family participated in the singing revolution and the human chain, 'the Baltic Way" - the chain of two million people holding hands stretched 600 kilometres from Vilnius and Riga to Tallinn, Estonia in 1989. In Lithuania large groups would gather in public places and sing Catholic hymns and Lithuanian folk songs, "the singing revolution".
Lithuania was the first of the three Baltic countries to declare independence from the Soviet Union, March 1990. Most international countries failed to recognize Lithuania as a country until August 1991. In January 1991 the Soviet army killed fourteen people and wounded hundreds who were involved in a peaceful protest in Vilnius.
Over the course of the next few days up to 50,000 Lithuanians gathered at the Parliament Buildings singing, praying and chanting. Live coverage was broadcast to the world so that they would take notice. I didn't know anything about this, so obviously my own lack of knowledge is appalling. It is poignant for me now to hear of their struggles, tucked away unnoticed in the northeastern part of Europe. I had never even heard of Vilnius til we planned our travel itinerary.

Until 1991, our hosts' entire lives had been under Soviet rule which restricted travel, religion, public gatherings, and squelched complaining about the five decades of Soviet occupation. Today they relish the freedom to travel to places like Paris and Rome. The budget airlines like Ryanair have helped with their travel as many flights are less than twenty dollars. Add in couch surfing and a trip can be very achievable.

We were so impressed by their hospitality and obvious pride in their city and country. These are strong, determined, cultured people who live in a twenty five year old Soviet apartment building that seems to be so poorly built, falling apart, slapped together in a hurry, with no pride of workmanship but was sold cheaply to the occupants at the end of their rule. A middle aged professional couple, with interests in literature, travel, arts and architecture welcomed us into the warmth and comfort of their home. Once inside their apartment we forgot about the crumbling cement and the graffiti scrawled on the hallway and elevator walls. It is true that their kitchen was small and they did not have a dishwasher, that the clothes washer takes two hours and there is no dryer, but their lives and minds are rich. In a kitchen with maybe three running feet of total counter space our hostess cooked, baked and made preserves. They had raised five children here. We in North America have high expectations for our living conditions, how new and trendy everything must look, but in this home I was humbled by the warmth, the welcome and the intelligent conversation.
If there is an art show, a play or an interesting lecture, they go. They meet for wine or beer at quaint cafes, their yard is a park either near the apartment or downtown, they walk extensively and quickly, take transit, change their outfit by changing a scarf. Same black sweater, different scarf. They don't need big closets. Still, they look smart, European.
We are going tonight, 3 Oct, on the all night bus to Warsaw, get in there at 540 am and we are surfing with Anna.
Our bus fare is 55 Lithuanian, under 20 C each.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 20:17 Archived in Estonia Tagged history budget backpacking medieval_old_town Comments (1)

Turku and Helsinki Finland

Couch Surfing in Helsinki

semi-overcast 13 °C

We travelled from Stockholm to Turku on the all night ferry. The cost was just a little over fifty dollars Canadian each which is pretty reasonable for an ensuite private cabin. The Viking Line ship is large and has casinos and night clubs but after a brief foray around to see it we were happy to spend time in our cozy cabin.
Turku is the oldest city in Finland, having been first settled in the Thirteenth Century. Today it has a population of just under 200,000. It is located at the mouth of the Aura River and is an important seaport. The city spreads out on either side of the river with the "downtown" side being the east side. Turku means something like market place in Finnish.
Arriving at the Port of Turku at 730 am on Sunday morning, we took a city bus from the ferry terminal to downtown Turku. I would not recommend a Saturday night crossing, nothing is open seemingly in Turku. We walk forlornly in the rain down the deserted streets, all the shops and restaurants are closed.
Finally I see a man walking and approach him. "Hej, do you speak English?" It turns out he does and he says, in response to my question, is there a coffee shop or restaurant open near here, "not now" and ceases eye contact firmly and with finality. We aren't in Stockholm any more. People there seemed to be helpful when asked a question.
Then I spot a woman walking through a park and approach her. She says she speaks a little English and then says, "American" no I say, Canadian. She says, I swear to God, "I luf Canada!" Well the Fins have come up several notches in my estimation, and I snuggle under her umbrella and she walks us a few blocks to a hotel where she says we can get food and coffee.
We part gayly, I give her a hug, and Jeff and I bring our wet and bedraggled selves into the hotel lobby. No sign of any restaurant being open. I approach the deskclerk, "Hej, blah blah blah", who advises me that for eighteen dollars each we can have breakfast with the hotel guests on the second floor. Although I wince at the price we agree to purchase breakfast and haul ourselves upstairs. It is a smorgasbord. Bacon, eggs, coffee, breads and sweet rolls, pickled herring, lingonberries, porridge, smoked salmon, different cheeses and cured meats, a feast. We now spend an hour and a half grazing, killing time.
The friendly lady had told me that the Cathedral would open at nine also so we decide to go there as it is now ten thirty. The service is underway when we arrive so we sit on a bench in the lobby listening to the sermon, even though it is in Finnish, I get the gist of what they are doing, it seems a bit familiar, comforting. To me it is an intimate moment in a historically significant Finnish building. The pipe organ and choir are amazing. In recent times I have mostly gone to church for funerals so I have a little cry back there in our dark corner. The tone of the choir is so sweet and haunting, we are both surprised by the quality. Finland is a Nordic country, coming late to Christianity. Turku Cathedral started out as a Catholic Church in the thirteenth century, later becoming a Lutheran church.
Turku Cathedral

Turku Cathedral

24 September, we take the bus downtown, there is a big farmers' market at the square, we wander around and marvel at the piles of orange mushrooms, huge and the enormous baskets of lingonberries. "Where do you get these?" I ask a vendor and she replies, "In the forest."
The Finns are huge coffee drinkers. Something like nine cups a day. Their coffee is good. We stop at a department store and have a cup and go on wifi. Then we walk back over to Turku Cathedral and have a tour. This is the flagship church of Finland. There is a museum upstairs that has relics going back to the thirteenth century. Turku used to be the capital city of Finland under the Swedes but the Russians made Helsinki the capital when they took over.
We can buy nice baking at the grocery store for less than half of what a cafe charges so we purchase a meat bun, good, and a sweet roll each and eat it on the street. Then we go into a cafe and have a coffee and relax awhile. It is chilly here, close to water, damp, I am wearing a jacket with two fleece tops underneath, knit gloves and a knit cap. I look a fright but nobody knows me. With all these clothes, a money belt and a neck pouch I look pretty stout.
Lots of people ride bikes, being outdoors and keeping active seems important. There are also gambling machines in corner stores and grocery stores, typically being used. There are a lot of grocery stores, even downtown. We saw two in close walking distance to the central area. Also there is a grocery store right near our bus stop, a few short blocks from "home".
Bakery in Finland

Bakery in Finland

In Sweden they use Swedish Kroner but Finland is on the Euro. I am just now getting used to the money.
Finnish is a different language, related closely to Estonian and less closely with Hungarian, part of the Uralic language family. Kiitos is thank you in Finnish. Keetos, long o.
Three shops we see a lot more of in Europe than North America - shoe stores, bakeries and flower shops.

Couch Surfing in Helsinki

25 Sept 2012
We took the ten am train from Turku to Helsinki, nice train, comfortable, smoking car oddly enough.
I had looked for hotels and hostels in Helsinki, various sites including Hostelworld and one hundred dollars a night seemed to be cheap for Helsinki. I had joined Couch Surfing on the advice of a friend before embarking on this trip. Two days ago I put out a request. We were invited by a 26 year old man, Uzair, to spend the night at his aparment. If you have never considered couch surfing, please do look at it as a novel way to meet local people and find out more about how they live. I paid twenty-five dollars to be verified but a lot of people do not do this.
Here is the deal: you stay with another member of the couch surfing community. As people get experience they get references which are posted with their profile. By reading through the references you get some kind of idea what to expect. Many of the members are University students but people from all walks of life and every age group participate. It is a mutually beneficial relationship as members are expected to be hosts as well as travellerrs. It is a way to get to know people from different countries and to share information. Go to couchsurfing.org to find out more.

Couch Surfing - apparently has been around for years. I was a bit skeptical and my son more so. What would it be like? We had no references so we were fortunate to be invited.

Since we werre totally green, Uzair took a chance on inviting us. He emailed us to meet him at the White Church at 5 pm. We did not bring a cell phone so rely on my Blackberrry Playbook to communicae with others. We arrived in Helsinki in the early afternoon and the first thing we did was find the white church. OK, walking distance to the train station, we could do it.
Lutheran church in Helsinki Finland

Lutheran church in Helsinki Finland

Tuomiokirkko, the Lutheran Cathedral, is a signature of the Helsinki skyline, visible from the harbour and from Suomelinna. It is located in Senate Square, just a short walk from the central station or the harbour. Note the green dome showing Russian influences. It was designed by the German architect, Engel. It was built in 1852 and until the Finnish independence from Russia in 1917 was called St Nicholas Church. Now it is called the White Church.
white church on skyline Helsinki

white church on skyline Helsinki

The train station is centrally located only a few minutes to the harbour and shopping. It is constructed in Art Nouveau (National
Romantic) style of Finnish granite and sports a clock tower and statues holding globes that light up at night. The station is Finland's most visited building, about 200,000 people per day pass through the facility. The metro station is here as well and buses and trams are right outside.

The Helsinki National Theatre building was completed in 1902. Located just north of the train station this Art Nouveau building is also built of granite with a red tiled roof. The square is called Rautatientori, Railway Square. Helsinki celebrated 2012 as the "Design Capital of the World."
Helsinki Finland

Helsinki Finland

We purchased a twelve euro regional bus pass which would cover our trip to Espoo where Uzair lives. We met him at the appointed time and off we went by train, getting off at the station in Espoo which has a grocery store and a shopping centre attached. We picked up a few groceries, fruit and chocolate to share with our host and he picked up some new sheets. He lived in a new one bedroom apartment, very clean and modern, the bathroom had a sauna attached. I would sleep in the bedroom, Jeff and Uzair would sleep on the floor of the living room.

Uzair, originally from Pakistan, is into mountaineering, photography and world music so he and Jeff had good rapport and I went to bed and enjoyed a restful night. In the morning he left us the keys and we were to just throw them back into the mail slot. This was very trusting, but as he said in his comments on the Couch Surfing website, he enjoyed old people and their wisdom and that is why he invited us. Now we had one good reference on couch surfing. Uzair made us student coffee which we really enjoyed. Milk and sugar heated in the microwave, add instant coffee and you have a good drink. He had gone to University in Finland to get his masters - he did not speak Finnish but was employed now in Helsinki. Anybody from any country can take their masters degree for free in Finland - in English, this has been so for many years, funny, we had never heard of it. Finnish citizens get university for free like everybody else but they also get a living allowance from the government. Education is truly free in Finland. What a great place.
We found our way back into the central city, Espoo is classed as a separate city but is really like a suburb of Helsinki.
We booked our passage to Estonia with Tallink Line and took a tram around the downtown looking at the sites. Then we took the ferry to
Suemenlinna Island, this passage was included in our regional pass.
Suomenlinna is a World Unesco Heritage Site. The fortress was constructed by the Swedish crown is 1748 to protect Helsinki from the Russians. The Russians took the fortress in 1808 and occupied Finland the following year, ending about 700 years of Swedish involvement in Finland. Tsar Alexander I of Russia moved the Finnish capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812,
Sumenlinna is home to about 900 residents and is used as a park by Helsinki residents. The naval college is here, museums, an art colony, and even a minimum security prison.

Helsinki is the most northerly city with a population of over one million in the world. It has close ties with the neighbours to the south, Estonia, the east, Russia and the west, Sweden. Although Finland is not considered a Baltic State it is located on the Baltic Sea.
Amber, or Freya's tears in Norse mythology, is a gemstone of note in this area. Fossilized tree resin from ancient forests washes up on shore, golden like Freya's golden tears, wept eternally as she wanders the earth searching for her lost husband. Still, amber is suppose to bring luck and be good for you. Old graves from Viking times, thought to be the graves of sorcerers, sometimes had amber buried along side the deceased, along with other emblems like Thor's hammer and maybe a few horses sacrificed for the occasion. Sorcerers were respected women back in the day, and sometimes they were buried sitting up. As Christianity started to seep in, around the tenth century, some women would cover all the bases and have Christian religious symbols as well. Amulets of Christian and pagan origin can be found in some of these graves. I will buy my amber further south where it will likely be less expensive.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 19:54 Archived in Finland Tagged trains history heritage ferry couch_surfing unesco_world_heritage_sight Comments (0)

Stockholm Sweden

semi-overcast 15 °C

Hej, we are in Sweden.
On the flight between Heathrow and Arlanda I sat next to a guy who appeared to be chewing snus. Snus (pronounced snoose) is more popular in Sweden than smoking and over ten percent of the men chew it. So I deducted that chances are he was Swedish. After a brief chat I learned that he was, indeed, from Stockholm. He taught me four words, please, thank you, hello and something else that I now forget. In fact, I only remembered two words, hello and thank you.
And that was all we needed.
Hello is Hej, pronounced Hey as in Hey dude, only without the dude part.
Thank you is Tak pronounced tuck rhymes with luck.
So I approach people and say Hey, pause, "Do you speak English" and they do. The Swedes switch over to English as quick as you please, without batting an eye, very little accent, very fluent. It is so smooth. I am amazed at their grasp of English and of ordinary phrasal verbs and slang. They say it is because anything in English like tv shows or movies, are broadcast in English with Swedish subtitles. This would include cartoons, so kids pick up the English.
We arrived in Stockholm at 825 pm, and found our way to the central station by bus, then took the subway system to the appropriate stop for our bed and breakfast. We took a few minor wrong turns but by eleven pm we were standing outside an apartment building, arguing mildly when a man and dog came out. Petra had emailed me that her brother was going to meet us at the apartment so I took a chance, "Hej, do you know Petra?" I asked and what do you know, this is Petra's brother. We are at the right place. So up we go to the large apartment and he shows us our room and the two common area bathrooms and explains that Petra is in Paris so she asked him to look after us as her husband is a taxi driver and works nights. This bed and breakfast is through Airbnb, I booked two nights a long time ago, about seventy seven Canadian dollars a night which, for Stockholm, is very reasonable.
Well, it wasn't the welcome I had imagined before I learned that Petra would not be home, a warm hug, coffee and fresh cinnamon buns in a cozy kitchen, talking about cats and gardening. But her brother Hagar was very lively, talking a mile a minute with a Swedish-American accent. He told us he loved Jesus right off the bat. What do you figure, in a country where ten percent of the population go to church and most of them are Lutheran, what are the odds? He explained that he had been in Scientology, seems to have been a falling out, that he drinks a lot of special water that has the PH balanced, look, they have a machine. Over the course of two hours we heard a lot about water along with other tidbits such as the special water had cured him from drinking alcohol so now all he did was some speed and prescriptions. I suggested he should try using the water to get off speed and he was enthusiastic about the idea.
Finally, after consuming about five glasses of the water, it was good and seemed to make me thirsty, I retreated to the bedroom which was right off the kitchen. We had travelled five thousand kilometres over fifteen hours, including the three hour layover in London.
Hagar and Jeff went to the living room so they wouldn't disturb me and the sound was somewhat muffled after that. Jeff begged off after another hour and then during the night got lost on his way from the bathroom and ended up sleeping on the living room couch til I woke him in the morning. What are you doing here? Well, they must think we are kind of weird as well!!
During the night I was thinking, maybe there was no Petra. Maybe Hagar was a psychopath and he lured people to a bed and breakfast with a picture of a pleasant middle aged woman who looked like she baked and made good coffee. Maybe the water was spiked and we were going to be drugged, murdered, and disappear forever. But in the morning light the apartment was large and cheerful, even though Jeff did run into Hagar in his speedo underwear in the kitchen at 830 am, but he was only getting another glass of water and went back to bed. No sign of breakfast. Jeff to mom - Let's get out of here.
We were tripping over each other to get out before anybody else woke up so started our day at nine am.
21 Sept 2012
The day is sunny, we buy a twenty four hour transit pass and off we go to Gamla Stan (old town). The subway system here is very easy to follow. We walk around the old town, admiring the narrow, twisty, cobbled streets, the tiny shops and cafes, the people. There are still lots of tourists, but families are out as well, pushing prams, walking dogs. Most of the streets are pedestrian only, and we noticed wherever we walked that pedestrians had the right of way. On the main sidewalks there are bicycle lanes and lots of people are riding bikes, even though it is definitely fall weather.
Gamla Stan, the cobbled, medieval section of Stockholm, dates back to the thirteenth century. The narrowest alley is less than a meter wide. The main square is called Storgorget.

This is Stockholm

This is Stockholm

The Nobel Museum, the Royal Palace and Stockholm Cathedral are located in Gamla Stan.
We paid six dollars Canadian for a coffee in the old town so that we could hook up to Wifi and the wifie didn't work so that was somewhat disappointing. While we were there a beggar came in and very quietly asked for money, good English too. People are so quiet here, even the beggars are quiet. A lot of them are out on the street kneeling, with their head on the ground, a money dish right in front of their forehead. I shouldn't say a lot, there were only about three that I noticed as we walked around the old town and the newer shopping area.

Stockholm Gamla Stan

Stockholm Gamla Stan

I have my Blackberry Playbook along, it works as both a camera and a computer and is small. We have no cell phone. After a time we end up going to MacDonalds, yes, that is bad, but they do have free wifi and coffee was cheaper. The MacDonalds is packed, but we can still sit and talk, people here talk quietly, laugh quietly, I swear to God the babies cry so softly you can barely hear them. I would have heard Jeff if he had whispered across the table.
Stockholm is built on 14 islands, hence it is sometimes called the Venice of the North.

We had been reading the outdoor posted menus, quite expensive, but we noticed at one establishment, a kind of nice restaurant/bar, that lunch was cheaper after one thirty. So we went there and enjoyed a salad bar, coffee, and Swedish Meatballs and lingonberries, satisfying and filling as there was also mashed potatoes. The coffee is strong and good. We have decided that we will eat one kind of authentic meal for sure in each country. Tick, we have done Sweden.

Our twenty four hour transit pass included a boat ride to Skepsholm Island where the Museum of Modern Art and Architecture is located so we took the ferry over and enjoyed a nice walk looking at all the boats before going to the Architecture Museum which is free. There was a fun outdoor park on Skepsholm Island with colourful, lifelike??? sculptures.
Park in Stockholm

Park in Stockholm

We got back to our B and B after nine and Petra's husband was there, breakfast was laid out for the next morning, he chatted with us pleasantly until he had to go to work.
22 Sept - this is Saturday, we eat a good breakfast of dark bread, coffee, different cheeses, a tube of caviar which we didn't try, and then headed out with our packs which we put into a locker at the Central Station. We went to the changing of the guard, check the schedule, it changes depending on the day of the week and the season.

The royal palace has 1430 rooms, one of the largest in the world and is still in use as offices and for official meetings. The royal family does not actually live here.
Following this free, about 40 minute event, we people watched, walked around Gamla Stan and eventually took a bus to the Viking Line Ferry - we are crossing to Finland overnight and have a cabin.

I love Stockholm. The people are so polite. Nothing is noisy. The people appear animated, talking, visiting, but not shouting or screeching with laughter. When that happens it is likely a tourist and I notice that they seem to tone down to the environment. What an incredibly civilized place and how wonderful that we started our European tour here!! We have been to Norway and Denmark in the past but either of these countries would be a good starting off point as well. Starting here, it kind of eases us in, old buildings, unknown city, foreign language all around you but easy to communicate in English from coffee shops to transit workers, they all speak English fluently and graciously. The money is the Swedish kroner.
The medieval old town, the changing of the guard at the impressive royal palace, the canals, the "Venice of the North," all pale in comparison to the linguistic ability and civility of the Swedish people. Our time here was short but I will never regret visiting Stockholm.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 18:59 Archived in Sweden Tagged boats castle budget backpacking airbnb medieval_old_town Comments (0)

Cordoba and Seville, Spain

Andalusia, Moors, Flamenco, Romans, Mezquita

sunny 14 °C

Cordoba is 244 miles south of Madrid. It is the capital city of the province of Cordoba, in the region of Andalusia. We arrived on the AVE, high speed train from Madrid, at 917 pm on 30 November. Travel time was just under two hours. Note that we sometimes in English refer to this as Cordova.
Cordoba was founded by the Romans in 164 BC. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, was born here. The Moors, medieval muslims from North Africa, arrived in 711. Moorish Cordoba became the wealthiest, most opulent city IN THE KNOWN WORLD and was made capital of al-Andalus.
The territory of al-Andalus took in most of Spain, Portugal, Gibraltor and part of France.
In 1236 the Christian army from Castile took Cordoba. The Mosque, the most emblematic monument of the Spanish/Moorish culture, became a Christian church. Later a Cathedral was erected in the centre. It may be the third largest mosque in the world.
On one side of the Mezquita-Catedral is the Guadalquiver, Andalusia's largest river, and on the other side is our budget hotel. Great location. We walked across the Roman Bridge, built in the first century.
Puente Romano, Roman Bridge, Cordoba

Puente Romano, Roman Bridge, Cordoba

The streets are narrow and twisting in the old town. Numerous small souvenir shops selling tiles and flemenco style aprons. Lots of engraved leather, tooled leather, a craft passed down from the Moors.
We are adjusting from the four star hotel in Sagovia to this one??? star hotel and from our three course meals in a dining room with linen to tapas bar fare. Do not order pizza, it is nothing like pizza as we know it, not a drop of tomato sauce, the one we had as a quick meal option at midnight was awful. We are staying two nights at Los Patios right across the street from the mosque, the location is excellent, rate for room with twin beds and private bath including tax is 33 Euros per night, no breakfast.
Do order tortilla (egg and potato omelette), or paella, rice with saffron, vegetables and either meat or seafood. You cannot go wrong with these two dishes.
Tortilla in Cordoba

Tortilla in Cordoba

Now it is December 1. The days are short. Two words I know in Spanish. Manana and siesta. There are a lot of orange trees here. I think they make marmalade with the oranges, which are in season
There are a lot of orange trees in the courtyard of the mesquita.
On Dec 2 we move hotels in Cordoba. Los Patios is very well located and less than forty five dollars a night, but our room was just over an enclosed courtyard where food is served so two things, noisy and the window did not face the outside, it faced the overview of the courtyard. Not good for me, I like quiet and the opportunity to see blue sky and the streetscape. So this turns out to be a one star, very good reviews by the way, and we are moving to Cordoba Centro, a three star, for only a few dollars more. 35 Euros per night.
Salmorejo is the signature dish of Cordoba. It is a cold soup, some similarities to gazpacho, they both have pureed tomatoes, did I say that? However, it is made differently, has a garnish of ham and chopped hard boiled egg and it is good.
Signature dish of Cordoba

Signature dish of Cordoba

We had hot chocolate with cake doughnuts while waiting to check in. This is Sunday. Our room is nicer, has a big window, therefore, lots of chilly air comes in through the glass. Nice heavy draperies though so ok, if I peak through the drapes, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. I had bull's tail and veggies for supper. It looked like a whole pot roast on my plate, lots of potatoes, but actually was not all meat, of course. The meat was tender and flavourful, I do not know if the bull was killed in the ring. Ole.

We toured the mosque (Mezquita) on 3 Dec, it is huge, converted to a Christian church, has a massive pipe organ which was played for a time while we were there. The mosque interior is free to the public between 830 and 930 am. You must arrive well before 930 though or you will not be given access. Very impressive by the way, it has 856 pillars. We are heading out for Seville today ( Monday), by train.
Cordoba has a population of 325,000.

We caught the 1255 pm high speed train from Cordoba to Saville on Monday 3 Dec 2012.
The AVE can reach speeds of 280 km per hour.
We arrived in Seville at 140 and were soon checked in to our 'boutique hotel", very clean twin room with private bath, friendly staff, no breakfast but well located and it costs 32 Euros a night, Callejon del Aqua..
A short walk, lunch at a tapas bar, stroll around the neighbourhood and then at 645 pm set out for the only flamenco museum in the world which happens to back onto our hotel.


We wanted to see a flamenco show, and with a twenty percent off coupon which I stumbled upon in the 'The Tourist' magazine, we got tickets for 16 euros apiece. The set up was intimate, three rows back from the stage, a singer, a guitar player, a female and a male dancer.

When i was about five my grandfather gave me a little plastic doll, maybe six inches high. She came in a clear cellulose tube with her name printed right on the container. Carmelitta. She had long black hair, done up in a twist, and a bright red satin dress with ruffles in the long skirt and she was soon removed from her home in the tube. She was constantly waving as one rigid arm was permanently held over her head. Her other arm was behind her back and she carried a little fan. She was a sultry observer to my games of hopskotch and jacks. When I attempted to give her a new hairdo, her fine raven coils let go from her head and now Carmelitta was bald. My mother tried to glue her hair back on, but she was never the same.

In the first dance the female wore a black long sleeve pullover and black ruffled skirt. I was engaged by the hand movements, the clapping, finger snapping and the intricate footwork as well as the interaction with the male dancer who looked like Gene Wilder crossed with Nickolas Cage in tight pants and a bolero.

In the second number the female dancer wore a long red dress, ruffles, a train. Carmelitta had come to life with rooted hair. There was passion, turmoil, salvation, determination. She was fierce, defiant, beaten, triumphant, omg she was every woman, the tears were streaming down my cheeks. I do not know if I got it....sort of shades of The Tin Soldier and the one legged ballerina, forgive me Hans Christian Anderson!! but if flamenco is music, dance, rhythm and that something else that has no name, then for me this was a moment. As my tears dried and pulled on the skin of my cheeks, I pondered this.
Seville is the beating heart of flamenco which was created by gypsies after they arrived in Andalucia in the fifteenth century. It is believed they came from a region in northern India called Sid, now in Pakistan. Guitar music and the tapping of feet were added later, and many cultures including Castillian and Arabic contributed. Fusion music and dance.
Seville, el flamenco

Seville, el flamenco

4 December
A fine sunny day, good weather for the free walking tour that started from the square near the giroldo/cathedral at 11 am. Our boutique hotel is well situated, walking distance to everything we plan to see, no central heat, very drafty. So I slept in two jackets and with my hood up, not cool. But I was frozen. Note to hotel owners:. If you provide a hair dryer and a lousy space heater the hair dryer may be used as a heat source. In the morning as I bent my stiff fingers around my toothbrush I had a eurica moment and used the hair dryer to thaw out my hands. Then I shot hot air up the sleeves of my jackets, warmed up a scarf, and wearing four long sleeve tops, a fleece and a jacket set out. It was warmer outside.
First we booked our bus tour to Morrocco, leaves from Tarifa, three nights in a four star hotel in Marakesh, stops in Rabat, fine. Company name is Calin, we found it online and totally coincidentally their office is a block from our hotel.
Churros and Hot Chocolate

Churros and Hot Chocolate

La Giralda was converted to a steeple from the original minaret. When the Christians added the Giradillo, a weathervane shaped like a woman, atop a Rennaissance style belfry, the giralda reached almost one hundred metres. There are 35 ramps to climb to the top. When the Moors used the minaret the muezzin, the guy who did the call to prayer five times a day, road a horse or donkey to the top. When the Christians took over the only part of the mosque they retained was the towering minaret and then they built the largest gothic cathedral in Europe around it.
Near the converted mosque is the alcazar, fortified palaces with orange groves in the courtyard. Clever little canals in the brick pavement provide irrigation.
Queen Isabel was married to Fernando, her cousin, a marriage based on convenience. Fernando was impotent and Isabel lusty, it is speculated she had an affair with Christopher Columbus. She had a sewing house in Seville where she sewed one month a year. In seven years she managed to sew one dress.
Christopher Columbus is buried in the Cathedral. He died thinking he had discovered the passage to India via the west indies. He may have brought an std back to Spain, it is said Fernando had syphyllis and that stds came to Europe from America.
All of the potatoes, gold, cocao brought back from America came through Saville, a tax was levied from the gold tower. Tiles on the roof of the gold tower sparkle in the sun. Torre del Oro was built as a defensive tower in the thirteenth century, its arabic name, Bury Al Daheb means golden tower. Now it is Saville's Naval Museum.
The Golden Tower

The Golden Tower

When the Christians defeated the Moors all residents were expected to convert to Christianity. The Spanish Inquisition looked after this.
The Plaza Espana was built in 1929 in a kind of semi circle facing west like an embrace to the Americas. It was not the huge tourist draw anticipated due to the financial collapse on Wall Street. Today it is the most appealing square in Seville, five degrees warmer than the rest of the city. The temperature is about forteen degrees C today, but the humidity is high. It must be an oven in July.
A lovely city park, Parqe MariaLuisa, is adjacent to the Plaza Espanya, still green in early December.
The University of Seville used to be a tobacco factory and it was the setting for Carmen. (Carmen was a beautiful gypsy, worked at the tobacco factory, she seduced a French soldier who was guarding the factory so she could smuggle out tobacco and sell it on the black market, Napolean was running the show at the time, had an affair with a bull fighter, the soldier wasn't happy, etc).
Across the river from the Golden Tower is the district of Triana, the birthplace of flamenco. In the old days there was no bridge connecting Seville with Triana, Seville was rich, poorer people like the gypsies lived in Triana.
Note if you want to take flamenco lessons go to Japan. They have over 2000 schools of flamenco.
Spanish includes over 10000 words derived from arabic. The Moors ran the show for 700 years and their influence is apparent in the architecture, the cuisine and the language. Any word starting with al is arabic origin, alcazar, for example.
Right across from the town hall is a park with a statue of the Duchess of Alba. She is currently famous for marrying a man thirty years younger, if you see her picture you will decide to grow old gracefully, google her. She is extremely rich and has a lot of special privileges. For example she can enter the catedral in a horse and buggy, has more titles than the queen of England, quite an intriguing old girl. She is something like 85 years old, her new husband is in his early fifties. Love match.
There was a demonstration at the Town Hall, seemed pretty peaceful, clapping and singing, several police on the scene. If they were civil servants wanting more money they do not have much public support with unemployment over 25 percent.
It cost seventy euro each from Madrid to Cordoba, 19.50 e each from Cordoba to Seville this was a deal, reg price on AVE is 35 and 18.50 from Seville to Tarifa by bus.

We eat several times in a tapas bar a few blocks from our hotel. I like the tortilla, served cold in a pie shaped wedge with a dollop of mayo maybe its aioli on the side and Russian Salad, potato salad with tuna. This bar closes for some hours in the evening, reopening at eight pm. Good for a late lunch or late supper. Tapas are like appetizers, we make a meal of them. In Granada the tapas are free with your drink, not so common in Seville. But at two euro each you can have a nice supper for eight euro.
Shopping - hair combs, fans, Lladros, tiles, shoes and leather.

Seville has a population of about 700,000.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 23:17 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Segovia Spain - Volunteer Teaching English

24 November, getting ready to teach English with Vaughan Town

sunny 16 °C

A few months before this trip I read a blog about teaching English is Spain as a volunteer. Following up on this we discovered Vaughan Town and since Spain was on our itinerary applied to volunteer. We had to pay for our own trip to and from Madrid but from Sunday to Friday our meals and hotel bill would be gratis. On Saturday night VaughanTown hosts a complimentary tapas reception at five pm at the same hotel the bus will leave from on Sunday morning. I booked us into this hotel for the Saturday night so we would be at the right spot on Sunday.
We made it to the tapas reception at the Eurobuilding in Madrid by five past five. This is where the Anglo contingent meets each other. We are the only Canadians in this group. There is a couple from Australia, five or six from the states and the rest are from the UK. At least three of them seem to be living in Spain though. Several have done this before.
Two paid staff will accompany us to the resort and ensure everything is going smoothly.
I drank sangria, enjoyed the appetizers, this is supper. Our bus to El Rancho near Segovia leaves tomorrow at 10. We will meet the Spanish students then and we are encouraged to insist on conversing in English. No problem. Glad I have learned very little Spanish so it won't be a temptation.
The forecast for Segovia is for snow by Tuesday. Dress appropriately. Fine. I do not have room in my pack for more clothes, I will layer. And stay indoors as much as possible.
I do have a knit cap and gloves which came in handy in Finland in September. I guess we will be in the mountains. Today in Madrid was sunny, no jacket needed, just a long sleeved shirt.
25 November
We have a one bedroom suite with a small kitchen. I got up at 730, made coffee with the instant cappucinno pouches left over from Italy and enjoyed the view. The couches have such deep seats, like almost twice as deep as a sofa back home, really wonderful for tall people.
Our bus departed shortly after ten, every Anglo must sit with a Spanish person and chat. It must have been successful as I did not see much scenery and all of a sudden we were here. It is like a small village, el Rancho Resort.
I have my own room, in la posada el rancho, large room with floor to ceiling window with a study alcove. We had a three course lunch with wine and now get a two hour siesta break. Then more talking, supper is at 9. I have been voluntold for some kind of presentation maybe tomorrow night. It is a bit nerve racking, but we are all in the same boat. Everyone has been very nice, had lunch with two men from Spain and a guy from Scotland. We have to mingle and eat with different people, 2 Anglos, 2 Spanish, all conversation in English. I had swordfish for lunch with fruit for dessert. The marzipan cake looked wonderful though.
Segovia is a province in the Castile Leon area of Spain. The Iberian Penninsula. There is also a city with this name and Walt Disney's castles in Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were both influenced by the Alcazar Castle in Segovia. Isabel 1 was proclaimed Queen of Castile on the spot where the gothic Segovia Cathedral stands today. She promised the financial backing for Columbus to rediscover America in Segovia.
We are not in the city though, just in the general vicinity.
Alcazar Castle

Alcazar Castle

After our siesta we spent three hours talking one on one with Spanish participants. Supper was at 9, same drill as lunch, only choose different tablemates, 2 Anglos, 2 Spanish, talk. Both red and white wine are on the table, I drink water and sip a mouthful of red wine to be polite. I am exhausted. The Anglos are suppose to do 65 percent of the talking so the Spaniards can hone their listening skills. What does proactive mean, what is payoff, explain behaviour, wish I had lugged along a thesaurus to help me come up with synonyms. And a dictionary. Long day.
We get two wake up calls a day. The first one is at 815. Breakfast is compulsory. Then we go into our 50 minute assigned one on one sessions. It is really impressive how well some of the Spanish speak English. The lady I am with is a human rights lawyer. She started learning English two months ago. We have a complex conversation about her work with women in South America. I admire her for doing good works. She points out that by volunteering to teach English I help people like her go on to China or Africa to fight for human rights. Another man, 52, retired banker, is learning English so he can travel and talk to the people he meets along the way. He is very fluent, really good vocabulary and hardly any accent. We talked about Mark Carney leaving the Bank of Canada to head up the Bank of England. He was incredulous that the UK would hire a Canadian. Don't they have any good bankers in England? Apparently not. There are a lot of students here, recent graduates, mechanical engineering, business administration, there are no jobs, they are learning English to improve their chances, they are prepared to move, English will be their ticket. Interesting. Proactive and expensive. This will be one of four week long retreats they attend during a ten month intensive course. It is costing them twenty thousand euros. I read our dollar dropped on the Carney news, you do the math.
Most of the Spanish are in something called the Master's program. There are four of these intensive "retreat" type events in the program. As the Anglos (native English speakers) can come from a variety of countries the accents vary considerably. I can barely understand a few of the Anglos. We don't have anyone from South Africa among the Anglos or that accent would be in the mix. Thank goodness there aren't any Newfies or we would all be in a lot of trouble - well it would just add to the fun. We have a good group.
The youngest Anglo is from Wales and is not yet twenty. The oldest is at least my age. The Spanish are likely from early twenties to mid fifties at the most. A lot of people stay up partying til all hours but I am not one of them. I do not have that kind of stamina. The Spanish are great socializers and seem to be excellent dancers. So the challenges for the Spanish are daunting. First a fifty minute session with an Aussie. Then a fifty minute session with an American from the deep south. Then a Canadian. Then a Brit. We all sound different. They can party til two am and concentrate on English the next morning.

Also, among the volunteers is a young American woman who is married to a Spanish husband and lives in Madrid. She is a guitar player, singer, composer and has entertained us in the evening, very good. She is, by the way, blind - but that does not define her. We are all impressed by her huge personality, and independence. So - if you are a decent human being and speak English as a first language you might like to volunteer. You do not need a hidden talent or be a ventriloquist or anything but if you can juggle or play the guitar you may well share your talent with an appreciative audience.
The second wake up call is at 430 pm. We get a siesta or free time from three to five. Anything between ten pm and nine am is free time.
Unemployment in Spain is over twenty four percent and the recent graduates blame the civil servants. Too many, too de-centralized, too much duplication. Of course if we trim all the fat from the public service there will be more people looking for work. Did the USSR fail because they were broke, was the Ottoman Empire just too big to manage, where are the Romans now? Spain is in bad shape but Greece is in terrible shape. You would think Greece could use some tourists' dollars, why are the transportation workers on strike?? Why are shareholders more important than customers, how can Finland offer free University and free health care, why are Norwegians richer than Albertans, I ponder these questions before I go to sleep.
27 November, Tuesday
Chilly and overcast, it snows late in the afternoon. A group of us Anglos had free time so we went to the small medieval city of Segovia where a huge Roman aqueduct from the first century is the best preserved in all of Europe and the world. A very pretty, remarkably clean old town boasts a city wall, the last gothic cathedral to be built in Spain (completed in 1768) and the enchanting Alcazar castle.
Roman Aqueduct

Roman Aqueduct

Segovia Cathedral

Segovia Cathedral

Segovia is an easy daytrip from Madrid. Also, it would be a pleasant stop for one or two days relaxation. A recommended restaurant for coffee, tapas or meals is Meson Jose Maria, located between the aquaduct and the town square. A local recommended it to us and although we only had cappuccino I feel confident it is good, with reasonable prices, it was very busy with locals.
Teaching English as a volunteer was a good decision. It gave us the opportunity to meet a lot of Spanish people from all over the country, different age groups, different occupations, very interesting. Now that Spain is in the EU speaking English is more important. They are very expressive people and our job is to converse and explain the slang, the way we really talk, so that they can pick up the rhythm and the meaning. "Horsing around" "back to the drawing board' phrases like that. It is rewarding to see the improvement in the Spanish students' pronunciation and comprehension over the course of 5 days of total English immersion. A few seem to take it really seriously and allow no phone calls, texts, emails in Spanish, they eat, sleep and dream in English for the duration. Also we sample a lot of different Spanish food, the meals are large and we have selections to make every morning, what do we want out of three choices for first course, second course and dessert. Meals are lively occasions, conversing, drinking wine, breaking bread The Spanish do not use butter on their bread, use olive oil instead.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 11:18 Archived in Spain Tagged churches buildings history castle budget teaching_english_with_vaughanto Comments (0)

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