21 March 2007

The Great White North

I'm coming to you a few dozens miles south of the Arctic Circle in Kemi, Finland. I spent the last few days in Rovaniemi, town right on that line of latitude. To give you a better idea of how high in latitude that was think of it like this: I was farther north than most of the state of Alaska.

Tallin, Estonia surpassed my expectations. The jewel of the city is its well-preserved regal historic center. The charm of this old town would set even the heart of even the coldest person ablaze in flames. While in the city I also paid a visit to one of the Estonian saunas and received what could be the most memorable experience of the whole trip. I must wait until I have time to properly share that story with you though.

From Tallin I took a ferry to Helsinki, Finland, where I expected to spend a few days. However, as the ship entered the ice choked waters of harbor my desire to see the Arctic grew irresistible. I decided to forgoe Helsinki altogether and continue on to the North with an overnight train. A winter wonderland greeted me as I awoke on the train the next morning.

Surprisingly the weather around town was not too inhospitable. The temperature hung around the freezing point, and only a couple feet of snow remained on the ground. People told me time and time again how unusual it is; they did not even receive permanent snow cover until December.

On my second day in Rovaniemi, this southern boy tried his hand, or feet rather, at downhill skiing for the first time. My initial speedy advancement in the learning process impressed my instructor, and she questioned me about my interests in order to find a connection. Then it came time to learn turning, which took a little longer for me to get down. Eventually I did make it to the real slopes. I always knew skiing must be fun, but now I better understand how people can spend thousands each year for a week of it in the Rockies.

Walking back from ski area I decide to take a trail through the woods. A little ways into the forest I rounded one bend and there before me stood two wild reindeer. I stood in silence for a few mintues and watched them dig through the snow for food before they noticed me and darted off through the trees.

Returning to town, I too felt the need to search for food and ate some of those reindeers' brethren for dinner. I must say that Rudolph with a side of lingon berries tastes pretty good.

Yesterday offered more winter fun activities.

To start things off in the morning, I went to the 'official' Santa Village at the Arctic Circle. It fit my imagination perfectly, that is if I was eight years old. The tourist spectacle alone was worth the bus ride. I even spoke with bearded man himself, in English and German.

In the afternoon I went with a Russian guide to a reindeer farm to see how the workers raise the animals. The owner of the ranch took on me a ride through the forest in areindeer pulled sleigh. He spoke no English, so the only sounds were those of the sleigh's runners gliding over the snow, the silence of the forest, and the occassional reindeer snort.

At night another guide, this one French, took me snowshoeing through some of the forest north of town and we kept our eyes directed toward the sky in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Very unfortunately, the Lights never appeared. The sun and its radiation must have not been in cooperation with us for the evening. However, the guide's fire cooked crepes with cloudberry jam helped make up for it.

This morning in Kemi I visited this season's famous ice castle and hotel that sits on the Bay of Bothnia. The early warming has caused the outside to melt past its prime, but impressively the staff keeps the inside around -5 degrees celsius.

Tonight I will take a bus over into to Sweden and continue south toward Hamburg, Germany. Believe it or not, there I will meet my parents for a few days. Together we will travel to a small town outside of Frankfurt supposedly from where my distant paternal ancestors originated. With any luck we will find a small church in this town where our family crest, if it exists, reportedly rests on a wall. I will feel a bit like Indian Jones.

After that my parents will go to London, but I will head to France. I will visit some friends in Angers, see Mont St. Michel, and of course spend a nice chunk of time in Paris.

The finish line of the Odyssey is within sight. Then again, when standing at the top of the world what isn't?

14 March 2007

Change of Plans

Last minute change of plans and train ride later find me in Warsaw instead of Kiev.

A half hour before my planned departure from Krakow I called ahead to a tour agency in Kiev to organize an excursion out to the ruins of Chernobyl and the disaster area, a visit here was my main reason to go to Ukraine. The man on the other end of the line surprised me with the news that entrance into the "exclusion zone" is out of the question until after April 2. This would be far too late in my schedule to wait around, so I thought quick and considered my options.

I recieved a refund for my ticket and bought a new one to the capital of Poland. Today I plan on taking a bus out of town and begin the journey to Tallinn, Estonia.

Warsaw is a modern city dotted with skyscrapers, including one left over from the communist era. I have not explored the city yet, but will do so today.

In Tallinn I hope to find a beautifully preserved city along the Baltic Sea. At least that's as how I have read this city described.

13 March 2007

The East

The past few days have been a quick paced tour through Eastern Europe and my understanding of hospitality has reached a new level in that time as well.

In Cluj Napoca I stayed two nights with Eszter, a friend from Eichstaett who studies in that Romanian city. She refused to accept anything less than me sleeping in her bed, while she slept on makeshift one on the floor of her apartment. We spent most of the second night with her friends then slept for only one hour before heading to the station to catch my 5:30 AM train to Budapest, Hungary.

I enjoyed spending my time with Eszter and speaking in German once again.

Szylvia and Ildiko, again friends I made in Eichstaett met in the train station in Budapest. I stayed three nights with Ildiko and her family. Budapest is a beautiful city, perhaps the most beautiful I have seen on the Odyssey so far. I don't mean that in the sense like Bucharest and that it could be beautiful, it already is. It surprised me that I hadn't heard more about this grand capital of the East.

The highlight of my stay in that city was visiting the one of the famous mineral and thermal baths. Ildiko and I took a dip in the most lavish facility in Budapest, imagine a swimming pool gilded and decorated like a royal palace.

The hospitality of Ildiko's family was amazaing. Her mom alone cooked so much food for me, even a bag full for my train ride out of town.

Today I explored Krakow, Poland as I waited for my train. From this internet cafe I will head to the train station and journey on to Kiev, Ukraine. Americans have only been able to enter that country unrestricted for two years now.

08 March 2007

Nothing Went Bump in the Night

I'm using Eszter's computer here in Cluj Napoca, which means I will take the time to post some pictures so far from the Odyssey. First, let me write about my visit to Bran and ''Dracula's Castle.''

The real Dracula was Vlad Tepes, a ruler of Transylvania in the late 1300s. Dracula means blood of the dragon, a nickname alluding to the fact that Vlad's father was a member of a military order in Nuremberg, Germany which used a dragon as its symbol. Vlad developed a very unique execution method which involved driving a wooden stake through his captured enemies' spines and avoiding any major nerves or arteries. This technique ensured an agonizing slow death over a couple days. He would leave the bodies or heads of his victims on the stakes to leave a message for any would be invaders or attackers. This earned him the nickname, Vlad the Impaler.

Bram Stroker toured Transylvania in the late 1800s and the local folklore fascinated him, especially the stories about vampires. He embellished the legends, warped history, and arrived at his classic horror novel, ''Dracula.''

Towards the end of his life, the real Dracula was imprisoned when he lost control of his region. A mere two weeks of his imprisionment took place at the castle in Bran. This is the only conection between ''Dracula's Castle'' and Dracula. I knew beforehand that Vlad never truly lived in his namesake castle, but I thought he at least commissioned its construction. This weak link in the reality of the legend was but one of the disappointments in Bran.

The other main one was the village itself. I anticipated to find the kitschy souvenir hawkers and other foreign visitors, but I also believed I would be able to wander to an untouristed side of town and allow it to take me back in time. In reality, the village is so small there's not really anyother side of town to visit. Dingy houses only from the fifties, and hotels for the tourists line the three or four roads that spur out from the center, which lies near the entrance gates to the castle museum grounds. While a few old buildings existed, the curbless streets and utility poles helped to obscure any possible quaint views of the village. However, not all was bad.

The castle itself, while lacking in any truly interesting or spooky history, was one of the best castles I have visited due to its authentic look and feel as how one would imagine such a residence. Turrents and towers dotted the walls and roof lines of the fortress. Dark wood furniture and even one Transylvanian black bear skin rug decorated the enterior with other classic castle decor. I even walked up one secret set of stone stairs hidden behind a wall. The castle, as well as a short hike in the Transylvanian woods, helped to give my visit to Bran something of a worthwhile feeling.

The tourist numbers were not too high, but then again I wouldn't expect as many tourists in this part of the world as in London or Paris. Although they tell me that this is the low season for tourists. Yes, apparently Romania has a low tourist season.

After three hours, more than necessary, I left Bran and began my way to Cluj Napoca. Another four hours and a very rude dinning car attendent later, I arrived. Eszter, along with her warm greeting, met me in the train station and we walked to her aparment at around midnight.

Considering I had not seen any familar face in nearly a month, it felt very good to finally see a friend.

Tomorrow I leave for Budapest, Hungary, where I will also meet and hopefully stay with a couple other friends I made in Eichstaett.

Here are some of the photographs from my travels:

One more view of the Parthenon and the Acropolis in Athens.

One of the few streets of Bran, Romania.

A delicious gryo in Greece.

Part of the complex from the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

One of the enzones guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens.

Riding the rails through Bulgaria.

The castle of Bran in Transylvania.

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

The trulli of Alberobello, Italy.

Gjirokastar, Albania as seen from its castle.

A monastery amongst the clouds in Meteora, Greece.

The Porch of the Maidens on the Acropolis in Athens.

A plaster body cast in Pompeii.

A Margarita pizza in Naples.

The Colosseum in Rome.

Ruins of the the Temple of the Vestal Virgins in Rome.

The Trevi Fountain in Rome.

06 March 2007

Sitting On the Edge of Transylvania

Bucharest has surpassed my initial expectations of it. I presumed it would be a few levels above the cities I witnessed in Albania. In reality, it is more on par with the grand capitals of Western Europe. After a few more years of development and fine-tuning it may even rival them.

This is the first country I will visit which experienced a Communist and Soviet influence in the past. I find it interesting to see how the society and country have progressed since those days.

I can easily sense a wave of change in the air. Romania joined the European Union on January 1 of this year, and now EU flags fly alongside those of Romania. The country still uses its original currency, but the transfer to the euro should come eventually. Restuarants and stores of the West, like Pizza Hut or Hugo Boss, fill the shopfronts along the main boulevards. This is the first place in Europe where I have seen a Hummer or a Cadillac Escalade driving next to the more typical Eurpean compact cars. One finds construction projects around every corner in Bucharest, which already displays many recently finished buildings. This city juxtaposes Victorian age relics, bleak Communist era apartment towers, and sleek modern highrises all together along its streets. The cleanliness and city basics do not yet meet the standards in more developed parts of the world, but work is clearly moving along to narrow that divide.

Underneath the layer of age and dust lies a beautiful city. Imagine if Paris had been abandoned for several decades and people are only now returning. In fact, Bucharest contains a copy of the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees. The latter is actually wider and longer than its Parisian inspiration, and was one the projects of Romania's former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

Today I visited the grandiose Palace of Parliament. Ceausescu commissioned this mega building in 1982. In terms of floor area, the Pentagon outside of Washington D.C. is the only larger administrative building in the world. In terms of volume, the Palace is larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. I had no idea such a structure existed here. Engineers and architects used only building materials from Romania. Its rugs, tapesteries, and carpets were all handwoven. One certain pair of window curtains in the Palace are 30 feet high and weigh around 1,600 pounds. Workers razed much of Bucharest's historical town area for the building's foundation. Perhaps only Ceausesco's ego can match the Palace's size. The dictator built the structure as the seat of his government and as his personal office.

However, Ceausesco never saw his project finished. The dictator and his wife were captured during the Romanian Revolution of 1989 and executed a few days later. A public referendum decided to carry on with the remaining construction, which at that point included only the interior decoration. Three percent of the work remains today. The building houses the Romanian parliament and other government offices.

Tomorrow I journey to Bran, located in the famous region of Transylvania. In Bran rests the castle built by Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Dracula. At least for one day, I will believe in monsters. In the evening I will move on to Cluj Napoca in norther Transylvania. There I will spend a couple of nights with Eszter, a friend from last semester in Eichstaett who lives in Romania.

04 March 2007

Ancient Athens

I believe I have found a city that I prefer over Rome. Athens has a similar vibe as that Italian capital, but not quite so chaotic and perhaps even better looking. The city is full of history and activities. I feel rewarded to finally be here.

I arrived Wednesday night and went to dinner with an Austrailian guy I met on the bus from Kalambaka. As we were eatting dinner a Canadian walked by and we invited him to join us. Then a group of three American girls, whom the Canadian had previously met, randomly passed by and the Canadain invited them to sit with us. It surprises me how easy it is sometimes to meet people.
My first full day in town I visited the Acropolis, the walled hill you see behind me in the photo above. On the Acropolis rest the ruins of the Parthenon, a temple to the Goddess Athenia, patron god of Athens, built from 447 - 432 BC. While walking up the rough marble steps of the Acropolis I again could not believe I was about to view the Parthenon, a site I have wanted to see for years now.
After the Acropolis I visited the National Archealogical Museum, supposedly one of the finest in the world.
During the day there were a series of student riots and protests in the downtown area of the city. I stayed clear of the action when I saw police in full riot gear marching down the street. That Australian I might later told me that he unknowingly ran into the path of tear gas fumes and suffered for a bit of time because of it.
The other sites I've taken in are the ancient Agora, the Greek Parliament building, the changing of the guard in front of the , and many more.
Yesterday I visited the stadium that held the first games of the modern Olympiad in 1897. Then I rode the subway out to the complex which hosted the 2004 Games. Aside from a handful of hours early fans for an evening soccer game, most of the complex was empty. I would like to go to the Olympics someday, I only missed this series by about two and half years. Maybe I can time it better for the 2008 Games.
My hostel is located in the Plaka neighborhood, which lies on the northeast side of the Acropolis. The Plaka is also one of the nicest sides of the city. The narrow streets lack cars, are lined with outdoor resturant and cafe seating, and some are even paved with slats of marble.
The food is fantastic and it must be fattening. Most street vendor food includes fried filo dough and cheese in some fashion.
Actually, I did have one bad food tasting with a local dish: tripe soup. The main ingredient is cow intestines. It never occurred to me what it would taste like until the bowl of soup arrived at my table and I smelled the first whiffs of steam rising up from it. Think of it like this, what goes in the toilet is the same thing that sits in intestines. After an entire animal's life it does not matter how well one cleans the intestines, they will still smell and taste of feces. I took a spoonful of the brothy liqued with floating chuncks of intestines and prepared for the worst. I was only able to finish two-thirds of the bowl before I left the cafe. I had no feelings of disgrace walking away from that table.
On a brighter note, I couldn't ask for better weather Athens. I didn't bring any shorts because I didn't think I would need them, but I could use them in this city. I would guess the temperature has been between 60 and 70 degrees during the day. From here though, the themometer will go down as I continue my travels.
Tonight I leave this wonderful city for Bucharest, Romania. The train ride to get there will take 23 hours, then my stay in the city will last only a day or two before I head deeper into the country and to Transylvania.