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Segovia Spain - Volunteer Teaching English

sunny 16 °C

While planning out trip I read a blog about teaching English is Spain as a volunteer. Following up on this possibility, 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 leaves 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 mee each other. We are the only Canadians in this group. There is a couple from Australia, fiveI 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 goes 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 are expected 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 called Segovia and Walt Disney's castles in Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were both influenced by the Alcazar Castle located here.
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.
Monday
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) 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 excellent dancers.
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, and 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, do not use butter on the bread, use olive oil instead.
Also drizzle olive oil on vegetables - it is the Spanish way.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 16:12 Archived in Spain Tagged churches buildings history castle budget teaching_english_with_vaughanto Comments (0)

WARSAW and KRAKOW, POLAND

sunny

We took the all night bus from Vilnius to Warsaw. We left in the pouring rain at 1030 pm. Anna, our couch surfing hostess, had emailed that she would meet us at the bus, she would have to get up before five am to accomplish this!!
Believe it or not the bus just lets you off on the street at Centalnya which we assume means Central Station. Anna was a bit late and we were unsure if we should walk over to the building or stay outside hanging around this side street. We did go in briefly but no sign of a stranger looking for us so after a little argument we went back out to the deserted side street and there was one person walking in our direction so we eyed each other in the dim light and she said "Are you Cheryl?". And I just hugged her I was so relieved.
It was 540 am. She lives in her own two and a half storey townhouse near a forest in the city of Warsaw. Pronounced vawrsavah. Chin-quee is how you say thank you. Not as easy as Lithuanian which is achoo.
Anna works part time so as soon as we got to her house she gives us coffee, buns, two kinds of cheese, cold cuts and then tells us to rest, she has to go to work but will be back at 10 and take us on a tour.
Warsaw Today

Warsaw Today


Our beds are all made up in the living room, we lay down for awhile and then Anna comes home with muffins. 'Energy' she says. Now she takes us on the subway, we will have a tour. These people are great walkers. We must have walked ten miles. We stopped at a pretty patio and Anna ordered a selection of perogies. Potato and cheese (Russian), meat filling, and cabbage and mushroom as well as dessert perogies filled with cottage cheese, served with whipped cream and a raspberry garnish, a perogie sampler.
Dessert Perogies in Warsaw Poland

Dessert Perogies in Warsaw Poland

Besides taking in the views from the thirtieth floor of the Palace of Culture and Science we walked through the old town and a really large city park that used to be the king's garden. Lazienki Park is located in central Warsaw. The Royal Park was built in the 17 Century and covers more than 100 acres.
Royal Park in Warsaw Poland

Royal Park in Warsaw Poland


Along the way we came upon the end of a free walking tour. We tagged along with them, into a bar where everyone was served a free shotglass of vodka and the local bar snack of bread and fat. I liked it and had two snacks, one ice cold vodka. In Poland they drink their vodka neat, and say that they invented it.
We got back to Anna's place around 5, she prepared a gourmet cheese soup with herb garnish from her garden. We ate sweet grapes that grow in her yard.
Then we all went to a jazz concert, Anna had noted an interest in music in our couch surfing profile and made sure we would see a show. We were all exhausted by the time we got back at 11 pm. Anna put out bread, cheese, cold cuts and served tea from a pretty pot with cups and saucers. We chatted like old friends. After our refreshments we fell into bed.
Warsaw is an interesting city. 85 percent has been built since 1945 as it was reduced to rubble by the Germans in the second world war.
In 1939 it had a population of 1.3 million people. By the end of the war in 1945 it had 1000 inhabitants. The old town was destroyed but you would never know that today.
They rebuilt it. They used old bricks and put it back together. Today over 2 million people call Warsaw home. 100 percent of the infrastructure was pretty much blown up (like street lights and bridges) but they were determined people.
Mermaid in Warsaw Poland

Mermaid in Warsaw Poland


I cried so much at the statue of the boy soldier and thought about how terrible it was, the Germans were burning everything, Poland expected the Russians to come, they were just across the river, but no help came. Then. after the war Poland became a part of the USSR.
Lots of people say, don't bother to go to Warsaw, all the buildings are new. This is precisely why you should go to Warsaw. I was so impressed with how they rebuilt it, their old town may be only sixty odd years old, but it looks authentic.
Warsaw's Old Town

Warsaw's Old Town


Warsaw is the birthplace of Chopin and his heart is here. I am not that interested in body parts so we didn't bother visiting Chopin's heart.
Madam Currie was also born in Warsaw, her maiden name was Sklodowska. She married a man from France and did her research on radium in Paris. Poland, polonium, who knew. She actually died as a result of radiation exposure and none of her body parts are in Warsaw as far as I know. She won two nobel prizes. Between her and other members of her family there are five Nobel prizes.
On October 5 at 230 pm we took the train to Krakow. We had spent the morning with our wonderful hostess, walking around Warsaw, we took the entire free walking tour, and had a free drink of vodka at the end. These free walking tours are excellent and give a real overview of the inner city.
Before we left Anna gave Jeff a book about Warsaw - Destroyed and Rebuilt. It will be a treasured reminder of this city which is now a favourite in our memory.
If a traveller just dropped into Warsaw and had no knowledge of history, lived in a bubble, did not read guidebooks or google, whatever, took a quck turn around the charming streets, tick, saw the capital city of Poland, and left, they might not realize that nothing much is older than sixty odd years. Really this amazes me.
One Polish Zloty is about thirty two cents, so divide by three and get the rough conversion. If the meal is fifteen zlots then you have paid about five dollars.
We took the train from Warsaw to Krakow, ended up standing for three hours as we had not reserved seats. Advice - reserve a seat.
Krakow October 6,7,8,9 Hejnal Meriaki, St Mary's Dawn

Historically Poland has been an agriculture based economy. Translated, Polish means country people.
Krakow is pronounced krack-awv.
The main market square, Rynek Glowny is the largest square in Europe. It is surrounded by medieval buildings like the Cloth Hall, the town hall and Saint Mary's Basillica with the two towers. We saw the barbican and the main gate where all the kings of Poland entered the square and proceeded to the church to be crowned.
Since medieval times someone has played the trumpet from an open north facing window in St Mary's tower to announce the top of the hour. There is a famous urban legend about why the trumpet plays - an American wrote a book about it in the 1920s, but it is not true.
Krakow Poland

Krakow Poland


Eric Kelly wrote the children's book "The Trumpeter of Krakow" in 1928. It is still cited as an important historical book. The trumpeter plays the Hejnal Meriaki - St Mary's Dawn. In medieval times it was played at dawn and at dusk when Krakow's gates were opened and closed. It is a traditional five note Polish tune. Very haunting I might add. Every day at noon Polish national radio broadcasts the Hejnal live from the tower of St Mary's Basilica.
They have been broadcasting this bugle call daily since 1927 - well it did stop for a few years during the Nazi occupation. During WW2 a Polish bugler played this tune from the battlefield to announce the Polish victory at Monte Cassino in May 1944.

For lunch we went for perogies and sausage to a milk bar, a holdout from the Soviet era, state subsidized no frill eats.
Milk Bar in Krakow Poland

Milk Bar in Krakow Poland


Sort of like a cafeteria and no English subtitles we got 12 russkie perogies, potato and cheese, the other customers and the lady behind the counter were helpful, one old lady was getting perogie take-out and she told me "yum, yum" and I hugged her for her effort as not everyone has been so friendly and helpful. So they gave us two plates and we split the perogies and then we each got a plate with a large sausage on it, so we ate that with mustard and I super enjoyed the tomato wedge garnish as I am not eating enough fruit.

We had Italian for supper. Mainly because it was the only nicer restaurant we found when we ventured out again in the pouring rain. A bit fancy for us, kind of a formal place, but they served us, bedraggled as we were. Still, for two people, the bill was 60 zlots or 20 dollars. My pasta had a white wine truffle sauce and Jeff's seafood pasta had octupus and entire shell fish. We got a small plate of crudites and I again enjoyed the tomato wedges, very flavourful, there was carrot, zucchinni, red pepper and a chive dressing as well. I am explaining this to give an example of what ten dollars gets you in Poland. The waiter pours your tonic water as though he is pouring wine. Real flowers on the table and a nice lamp.
I enjoy the atmosphere and looking at the other guests sipping wine. We had the cheapest meal on the menu and the cheapest beverage and it was all very relaxing and nice, even though my hair was a fright, even my socks were wet as it is pouring rain. I haven't seen makeup now since 19 Sept, I do think a little foundation and mascara would improve my look but what the hell, I am 63 and it is what it is.
Beer is cheaper than pop here. At the store a big bottle of beer is about one $ C or 3 zlots.
We have a twin room with private bath - total per night is 144 zlots or about 45 dollars Canadian. These rooms are pretty plain and the mattresses leave something to be desired, the sheets are thin but we are comfie, snug as a bug in a rug. No I don 't even look anymore. They do have a nice breakfast room and although breakfast is not included you can purchase it or make your own.
So my budget is fifty dollars per day. Twenty three for the room leaves me twenty seven to spend on food, and a bit leftover. We had a late lunch yesterday afternoon of perogies and cabbage rolls and that cost about four dollars each. We spend a fare amount on coffee and I pay for ambience, usually have cappucinno for a treat.
We have whiled away time in a lot of atmospheric konditoris and chocolate shop cafes.

Oct 9 - When the Sun is Shining in Stare Miasto
Our last day in Krakow is sunny. Thank God or I would have missed the true charm of the Old Town.
We managed to hook up with the free walking tour at noon and took in the castle and touched the wall in the Wawel Castle courtyard which is a chakra site, one of seven in the world apparently, for those who are into that type of thing. I really need to recharge my batteries but did not feel anything, maybe it is subliminal.
Krakow Poland Chakra

Krakow Poland Chakra


The Tale of the Krakow Dragon
Long ago a king built a castle on a beautiful hill. It happened that a dragon lived in a cave near by. The dragon ate sheep and goats but if there was not a sheep or goat to be had the dragon had to dine on virgins.
The king had a young daughter and he did not want the dragon to eat her so he called upon the noble warriors and offered the reward of his daughter's hand in marriage to whoever slayed the dragon. Many tried but none were successful. A tailor approached the king and asked if he would qualify for the reward if he slayed the dragon. The king thought the proposal absurd but agreed. The taylor killed a goat and then stuffed its stomach with sulpher and sodium, sewed the goat up and laid it at the mouth of the dragon's cave. Sure enough, the dragon woke up hungry and gobbled up the goat. The dragon felt its throat was on fire so ran to the river where it drank so much water it exploded.
This is why Krakow has a statue of a flame-breathing dragon near Wawel Castle.

Krakow Poland

Krakow Poland


Poland is a Roman Catholic country. Germany was predominantly Protestant. Russia was Orthodox.
Being Catholic in Poland is a statement, but it is rude and too personal to inquire about religion.
Their native son, Pope John Paul II, was allowed to visit Krakow during communist times.
On June 10, 1979 Pope John Paul, held an unpublicized mass in Blonie Field on the outskirts of Krakow, advertised only by word of mouth. Two million people gathered to hear him even though, our guide told us, public transportation was shut down that day in honour of his visit and working hours were extended. It was the largest crowd in Polish history.

Did you know that Krakow is the new Prague? That's what they say!! We are not going to Prague this trip so we are glad we came to Krakow. It has the best preserved medieval old town in Poland, in stark contrast to the rebuilt old town in Warsaw. Each has its beauty and appeal for entirely different reasons. One is preserved, the other was decimated and rebuilt. I have a bias to the one in Warsaw as it was so feisty of them to put it back together, but of course, it is not "authentic." Visit both.
Besides having excellent beer and very reasonable prices, Poland has a lot of charm. It wasn't on my bucket list but should have been.

Shopping - Amber is very big in the Baltics. In Poland they have green amber as well. Typically amber is set in silver. Amber is said to bring good luck and protection, and to be really active should be charged by the sun. It is not a crystal it is fossilized tree sap from ancient pine trees. So there you go, wear amber for luck and love and rejuvination if you are into metaphysical, which really, I am not but I love amber.

Krakow has a population of about 800,000.
We fly tonight with Ryanair to Budapest - nineteen dollars Canadian each for the flight.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 15:22 Archived in Poland Tagged history budget backpacking Comments (1)

Tallinn Estonia, Riga Latvia, Vilnius Lithuania -The Baltics

semi-overcast

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.
I LOVE ESTONIA!!
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 nouveau 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 THINKiN?’.
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 five 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 14:27 Archived in Estonia Tagged history budget backpacking medieval_old_town Comments (1)

Madrid Spain

sunny 17 °C

We flew from Rome to Madrid. Our ryanair flight has been booked for months. Five euro to take a direct bus from Rome Termini to Campiano pronounced champano, from MAD we took a bus and two subways to our hotel. We pass churches that look like wedding cakes, they are iced with elaborate detail, lots of spires, Rome was more into domes.
We feel we are in the lap of luxury, nice hotel, less than a block from the metro station, TRYP Washington, 52 Canadian a night on Expedia, Since I have been up since five all I want to do is rest today. It is November 22, gorgeous sunny day, but I am worn out from all the walking in Rome for the past four days, plus my right shoulder and right knee are bothering me, taking some kind of pill from Turkey for it but not as good as ibuprofin. So for the first time in two months I have a hot bath. Luxury. Showers are quick and efficient but a hot bath is heavenly.
There is a bakery right next door so Jeff brings us coffee and cheese croissants, and we watch the news on BBC. I have a little nap and then we go out for a tapas supper. To a neighbourhood Tapas bar. I have a wineglass of beer and wish I had ordered a bigger one. The owner cuts us off a slice of ham from a big hanging ham, looks like a side of pork, it is good. The whole thing, plate of olives, some meatballs, bread, backbacon, salami type sandwiches was twelve euros. On budget. We stop at the bakery and eat our dessert in the hotel.
Our room is large and quiet, does not face the busy street, there are lots of towels in the bathroom, the linen is nice and the bed feels softer than the board I was sleeping on in Cristina's Residence, that bed was so hard.
Nov 23
We are going on the free three and a half hour walking tour at 11 am and tonight, when the galleries are free we will go to see Goya, Valesquez, Titian, el Greco and Picasso. The Prado is a world class museum and I am getting wiser and have our route all planned out. Las Meninas, Death of a Virgin and The Garden of Earthly Delights are on my must-see list, then on to the Reina Sofia to see Picasso and Dali. Guernica and Woman in Blue are my must sees there.

Alfred Adler said, 'The chief danger in life is that you may take too many precautions.'. Quitting my job, moving to Victoria and going on this trip may be a new leaf for me. Throw caution to the wind, life is short, reality will set in come January. 'Freedom's just another word for...nothing left to lose' ..... rock on Janis Joplin, your song is stuck in my head.
Well she didn't write the words, but her version is great.
TRYP Washington Hotel does not include breakfast but has a good coffee machine and is walking distance to Mayor Square. Right next door is a nice deli restaurant/bar with good and cheap food and we are eating a lot of tapas, appetizer type food, so are on budget.
Yesterday on the plane from Rome I set my watch ahead an hour. So today we were an hour early for the free walking tour because the time did not change. We started out in Mayor Square which is all set up as a Christmas market. During the Spanish Inquisition they used to kill people right under Mayor Square. The Spanish Inquisition gets a bad rap though, as in 350 years they killed, at most, 3000 people. Various methods were used, one was the garotte, a wire placed around the neck, tighter, tighter.
The last time Spain used this less than humane method was, can you believe this: 1974.
1492 was a banner year in Spain, they got rid of the Moors (muslims from northern Africa), Columbus rediscovered America and the Spanish Inquisition started. One reason Spain has such good pork and ham is a result of this. To prove they had converted to Christianity the moors and Jews remaining in Spain would hang up legs of pork. Now there are numerous delis and tapas bars with hams hanging in rows.
Hams behind the bar

Hams behind the bar


The Austrian empire ruled Spain for centuries and the Hapsbergs were the royal family. To keep the bloodline royal they would marry their cousins. Finally they produced a king and heir who had numerous health problems, and besides being mentally retarded was also impotent so then the Bourbans took over.
Palace in Madrid

Palace in Madrid


We saw the oldest restaurant where Hemingway and Goya hung out. We did not dine there, but we did have paella for lunch. Very good.
The weather is good, lots of buskers, street entertainment, etc. How do they do this:
IMG_00001849.jpg
Tonight, 23 November, we spent three hours looking at art. At the Prado, saw all the works I listed and also Raphael's The Cardinal.
The Reina Sofia took the longest as it doesn't have as good of a map and list of favourites like the Prado. Besides The Woman in Blue and the Spanish Civil War Guernica masterpiece we saw Dali's Woman at the Window and several other works including Picasso's Woman with a Handkerchief Crying and Table With Musical Instruments.
We have now seen enough art to hold us for awhile. What is so amazing about these galleries is how close you can get to the paintings. You are close enough to touch them. And both are free in the evenings. Amazing. We just saw the highlights, it would take a whole day to see everything.
My favourite for some reason was The Cardinal. It was small and very vivid. Of course, Rome was loaded with Raphael but for some reason this painting was so personal, probably because you could get right up to it, so close.
The weather has been wonderful. People are still sitting on patios and outdoor cafes. They do provide a kind of fake fur blanket at some. Pansies are blooming. A lot of deciduous trees still have green leaves but the maples have turned to gold and lots of leaves crunch underfoot.the
The subway system in Madrid is great. Second only to Stockholm on this trip. People speak with a lisp. Grathiouth.
The streets are alive at night. Old, young, all walking around, eating in tapas bars, going out, kids on skateboards doing ollies off ancient steps, two words that are important here, siesta and manana.
The siesta gives them the energy to eat late and stay up to enjoy a visit. Supper starts at nine pm, friends meet up at 11 pm, the clubs are open all night, hot chocolate and churros in the early morning, energy to get back home.
Starting tomorrow we will be teaching English as volunteers. We have been accepted by Vaughantown to participate in their program. In return we will receive free upscale lodgings and meals for five days at the ElRancho resort near Segovia. This works for us because our trip is lengthy and Spain was on our itinerary. 17 Anglos and 15 Spanish will spend time together speaking English. English must be your first language to qualify as a volunteer. We learned about this on the internet completely by accident and decided to register.
24 Nov - We do not have to check out of TRYP Washington (near Spanya station in Madrid) til noon, so we sleep in. This is Saturday. We move hotels today and since we missed the hotel's laundry service yesterday we must do laundry. We are going to be with the same thirty odd people for six days so we need to start out clean. At noon we trundle off on the subway with our packs and get off at Via and by 130 we have located the laundromat. It was not that far from the station, just hard to find. We asked for directions a few times and did a bit of sightseeing along the way.
Almudena Cathedral is a newer church, started in 1882 and completed in 1993 it gives a whole new meaning to manana. In front of the Cathedral you can see the old city wall from the ninth century.
Madrid Cathedral and old city wall

Madrid Cathedral and old city wall


When we finally arrived at the laundromat we threw our jackets in with everything else, they have not been washed since we left home.
We drink take-out coffee and eat pastries while we wait.
A lady from Boston, of Japanese decent, strikes up a conversation so the time passes quickly. She is in Madrid to take flamenco lessons. She tells us the highest quality flemenco shows are in Madrid. The shows in Saville are very geared to tourists. Who knew? She gave us some good suggestions of where the best flamenco dancers could be viewed, quite close to this laundromat actually. I will try to book tickets for next Friday. Flamenco is really popular in Japan.
At three our laundry is all packed up, two trains to Eurohotel in the embassy district, by now it is four and the tapas reception is at 5. This is the most expensive place we have stayed in, 77 Canadian. It is a suite. Huge. Living room, dining area, six closets, mirrors everywhere, cute little kitchen. Bigger than my last apartment, on the thirteenth floor, great view. Now I dye my hair. I am not about to meet 30 strangers with an inch of grey roots. The fact that I traipsed across a continent this way didn't bother me.

Posted by CherylGypsyRose 13:56 Archived in Spain Tagged art history budget backpacking Comments (0)

Turku and Helsinki Finland

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 we were happy to spend time in our cozy cabin.

Turku is the oldest city in Finland, 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 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 400,000 people per day pass through the facility. The metro station is here as well and buses and trams are right outside.
It is considered one of the world’s most beautiful stations.

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. The Espoo station 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 northern 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 11:24 Archived in Finland Tagged trains history heritage ferry couch_surfing unesco_world_heritage_sight Comments (0)

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