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Vilnius Travel Blog

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Blog:  June 16-July 18, 2017

From Lithuania to Berlin by Tessa Hill

Countries Visited: Jun. 16 - July 18, 2017

Lithuania- Vilnius, Trakai, Siauliai (also Kernave', Kaunas, Palanga, & Klepeid

Kaliningrad- Kaliningrad
Russia – St. Petersburg
Sweden - Stockholm
Finland – Helsinki
Estonia – Tallinn
Latvia – Riga
Denmark – Copenhagen
Norway – Oslo, Flam, Bergen, Alesund, Geiranger, Andalsnes
Germany- Berlin

Pictures:  (Also listed within the blog on the appropriate day)

6.18.17  Vilnius, Lithuania:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/WJ3QQePMVj1FbVa63

6.19.17  Trakai, Lithuania:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/3h4v6NHIwCU0OXxZ2

6.20.17 Kernave' to Sialai, Lithuania:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/u3H1b3BCZSisJjOw2

6.21.17 Sialai, Palanga, Klepaida, Lithuania:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/zVzWtZYT6h67H8Jw2

6.21.17 Kaliningrad:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/SFXTD55YY8pJqzTq1

6.24.17 St. Petersburg  https://photos.app.goo.gl/hGtpL1JKDdIXg2Hq2 

6.28.17 Stockholm (and a little on 7.6.17): https://photos.app.goo.gl/nhQjCrRbF9ZZhVBO2

7.1.17 Helsinki, Finland:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/QkP6nTdHaOZk6u2h2

7.2.17 St. Petersburg  https://photos.app.goo.gl/n0z0QPCJbA1ccsGx1

7.3.17 Tallinn, Estonia:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/ur1u60j356l9BqHa2

7.4.17 Riga, Latvia:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/IUCKtqgP5eeJCL5e2

7.6.17  Stockholm (after cruise):  https://photos.app.goo.gl/TPAi527DAUMtgZIo2

7.9.17 Copenhagen, Denmark:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/BLK4Ijp7VNpE5C4H3

Norway July 9-16: 

7.9.17:  Oslo  https://photos.app.goo.gl/PnyD0z1rdsI0fCrb2 

7.11.17 Oslo to Flam (Norway in a Nutshell Part 1):  https://photos.app.goo.gl/fGGIe642npaR9PxX2 

7.12.17 Flam to Bergen (Norway in a Nutshell Part 2):  https://photos.app.goo.gl/1QssDDykiQRcpLRS2

7.13.17 Bergen to Alesund:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/OuQ90Bhut1DrCVvJ3

7.14.17 Alesund to Geiranger:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/xF9Xo1ldpNi3Mi4q1

7.15.17  Geiranger to Andalsnes:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/9r84fvXaDYncKbVh1

7.16.17  Andalsnes to Oslo to Berlin:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/uvB8NNNpMXPOYgkm1

7.16.17 Berlin, Germany:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/WSwX0ONo9arszxdg1 

Saturday, 6.18.17  Vilnius, Lithuania:

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/WJ3QQePMVj1FbVa63

I made it to beautiful Vilnius, Lithuania! Nice Lufthansa flights, Atlanta to

Frankfurt (8hrs overnight) to Vilnius (2 hrs). Vilnius ("vil nus") was so green flying in. This is a

beautiful, small, European city with outdoor cafes, blooming flowers, umbrellas, beautiful old

architecture, cobblestone streets, police on horseback, and a very big old town.

While I studied a few keywords of Lithuanian in advance, nearly everyone speaks English.

They seem nice. This is a beautiful weekend and there are people from all over, including

Italy, a tour group on my plane from Germany, etc.

My hotel, the Radisson Blu Royal Astoria, Is a beautiful historic building right in the middle of

old town. I caught the bus here from the airport and was so proud of myself! I used tourist

information in the airport and then two angels on the bus helped me, along with the driver. It

is easy enough to get around when you don't speak the language as long as there are others

there who help, which there always seem to be.

Since I adjusted my schedule the week before to Lithuanian time, I really did fine after about

five hours sleep on the plane. So I took a shower in my room and headed out for a vegan

dinner, since there are about six vegan/vegetarian restaurants within walking distance of my


It was really awkward when I got there because they were a group of about five who work

there, hanging out at an outside table, and they looked at me like maybe I did not belong

there, and I suddenly couldn't remember any Lithuanian, so I finally blurted out "Hi! Is this a

vegan place?" And when they affirmed, I said with a smile, "Well I'm vegan! Here I am!" And

they started laughing and then someone who spoke English helped me. Very kind. As I've

said before, the nicest most compassionate people are in vegan/vegetarian restaurants. The

Lithuanian blonde beer was great!

I loved walking around in this beautiful Old Town after dinner, down the cobblestone roads,

past artists selling their works, amber jewelry stores, and some very high end designers. It

seems like a small city until you remember it's the capital of a country! Their best and

brightest are showcased here. Of course the party beer bike went by, and it is just the perfect

Saturday evening, probably 73 degrees! People are sitting in the outdoor cafes having drinks

and laughing. It is great to be back in Europe!

It is 8 PM and I am going to sleep! I think I missed a night in there. I feel good but I can't

think straight. I did put in my "pillow order" and got a cherry pit filled pillow bag. That's right, a

little pillow apparently filled with the pits from cherries. And I got a neck roll pillow. Tomorrow

I'm going on the free walking tour that starts nearby and Monday I have scheduled a bike

tour. So tired, must go to zzzzzz....

Sunday, June 18 - Vilnius, Lithuania

First, Happy Golden 18th Birthday to my precious Lia! A new friend in China bought her a panda cookie and I wish I could be there to celebrate with her! She is doing very well, and will start her volunteering assignment tomorrow. Apparently, she will be staying at the rural

school for special needs kids, which has rather difficult conditions. Not all the volunteers are sticking it out like she is. I am very proud of her!

I could spend hours telling you how wonderful Lithuania is! Vilnius is a European city full of delightful cafes, interesting architecture, food, and people. However, it is late and I have lots of pictures for you! So this will be quick:

I went to bed at 8 PM, I woke up in middle of the night for several hours, but then slept until 10 AM! If you put the little cherry pit pillow under a soft but flat pillow, that offers excellent

neck support :-) very comfy. So I missed my first walking tour at 10 AM, but managed to go to the vegan falafel place up the street and return for the noon walking tour.

There were so many people for the free English (yay!) walking tour that we had to split into two groups! My group had 25 people in it. We had people from Ukraine, Italy, Germany, and only me from the United States. However a girl from Ukraine had lived in Augusta, GA for a year.

Our free tour (which is a wonderful way to see a city and is offered in most cities of the world- the guides are tipped at the end whatever you think is appropriate) lasted 2 1/2 hours and was fantastic! I learned so much!

Lithuania has really had a tragic history between the Nazis and Soviets. Truly the country is only 27 years old. There are so many interesting facts like that on one day in 1989 the Baltic people formed a 2 million person long human chain from here to Tallinn, Estonia, for 600 km! You will see a picture of the tile that was laid in front of the Vilnius cathedral of the start of that sign of peaceful resistance.

Lithuania was first to declare independence of the Soviet states in 1990, a very brave move indeed. I will not tell you all the gruesome things that happened prior to that due to Soviet, then Nazi, then Soviet occupations, but one sad fact that stood out was that 40% of Vilnius was Jewish until after World War II when only 5% of the entire Jewish population remained. Totally tragic. I will not visit Panerei (sp?) where it happened -nor visit the KGB museum where one can pretend you are in a gulag. Ugh!

After the tour, I hiked to the highest point in the city, the Gediminas Tower from the 14th century I believe. Fabulous view of the city from there, both The old part with the red roofs, and the sparkling skyscrapers of the modern city. I exited through a gorgeous park along the river with botanical gardens, fountains, a carousel. Picture perfect!

I have actually had a really great time being on my own. I made several friends on the walking tour and have spent time communicating with all my family via Viber. So I have not been lonely. People seem to be very nice. It is somewhat refreshing getting to do whatever I want to do, whenever. I think I will be long ready for company though with Ned joins me on Saturday :-)

Then I returned to the independent country of Uzupis (See a picture of their constitution in English) – lots of stories with that quirky suburb, very similar to Christiana in Copenhagen. There I had a giant beer that I could not finish and some beet root soup which is one of their special soups here. Then I got to swing on the bridge swing, which is just a classic.

Then I got dinner from Raw 42, which is just near my very convenient hotel. Delicious!
On the third try I was able to get money out of an ATM - they use Euros here since in 2004 they join the EU and NATO. One bank that they have here does not like my card.

I spent the rest of the evening prepping the rest of my trip with what I think is the app of the year! If you travel and do not have this app, you must download it immediately! If you knew about this app already and did not tell me, I will get you later! It is called Maps.me and it downloads maps AND shows your GPS location on that map, just like Google maps, but totally without Internet! You must get this app if you travel! OMG! If only! App of the year!!

That wraps up a sunny, beautiful day in Vilnius. It was 78° today! Totally beautiful! They normally have 70% of the time rain and clouds. We were very lucky this weekend!

A few more little things: The tour guide today said that I came "very well prepared" and when she asked for Lithuanian words, I knew more than anyone! And she said my pronunciation was spot on! That week of practice, listening on the Internet, has paid off. What a big compliment for a traveler! I am all puffed up!

Also, in 2016, Lithuania got second place in both upload and download Internet speed competitions. It is apparently well known for its blazing fast Internet, which is one reason banks want to set up here. Who knew?

Also, their President is very popular even in her 9th year (she was reelected). She has a black belt in karate and is called the "Iron Lady of the Baltics."

Come see Vilnius- it is fantastic!

I'll start tonight by sharing Lia's China drama:

Lia Hill was taken to her IVHQ volunteer assignment, in a very rural area outside XiAn, to an orphanage for children with special-needs. We love IVHQ and will not say anything negative about beautiful China, but the conditions at that location were more difficult than I think anyone in our family has ever experienced before. That's what I'm able to share. It sounded very tough. One volunteer refused to stay.

But after Lia described the situation, and how much better the other assignments were in XiAn, and noting that she would definitely rather be elsewhere since she felt "very distraught," Lia said this:

"However, I of course will not leave this place. I came to volunteer and help disabled children. And I signed up for unknown conditions. Yes I wish I could've stayed at IVHQ house. Or transferred to the English teaching sector because that's where all my friends are. But I haven't. I want to, but I think the kids here need major help."

Wow! On her 18th birthday. That's my Lia!

A report on the first night? "So last night was hell." Mosquitoes and heat made sleeping ...challenging.

And yet she still she found things to be positive and grateful about. And she spent all day helping the children there.

And then things changed! Without any complaints from the three volunteers who had agreed to stay, IVHQ came at the end of the first day and took them all back to the IVHQ house in XiAn for a different assignment, having felt bad about taking them to their most challenging place. Please pray for those sweet children who remain.

A person close to the situation said of Lia, "She got hit with a real challenge and she did not crumble! Instead, approached it with a very realistic and compassionate approach. What internal fortitude to take that approach for just turning 18!"

We could not be more proud of Lia! She is a Badass with a heart of gold!

Monday, 6.19.17  Trakai, Lithuania

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/3h4v6NHIwCU0OXxZ2

I woke up and my usual 7:45 AM time this morning! Maybe I'm already on Vilnius time! I checked out of my room and asked them to hold my backpack for me.

I was pleased to hear last night that two other people signed up for the 11 AM bike tour today, so that it was a go! I got coffee at a little coffee shop, a spinach-filled pastry in another, and joined two Americans from Austin, Texas, (one now in Norway, having been kicked out of Moscow after 2016 US sanctions-was working there for a company- note, this does not bode well).

It was great fun biking through the old town! However, I learned much more from the walking tour. Nevertheless for 17 plus a tip, it was a good experience. (I know we Americans tip more than we should, but it is fun to spread love and cheer!) It did take, for the "short 2.5-3 hour tour," close to forever(!) with too much downtime, and by the time I finally got to my vegan pizza at Cafe La Familia, it was 3:30 PM!

Then I took Uber to the airport. With my data plan, I am not able to call or text via the Uber app. I need to make sure I know exactly where the pick up point is when I order it. My Uber driver's sister has lived in Miami for 20 years so he enjoyed practicing his English. The total charge was only 3.61.

Lithuania is quite inexpensive. The average wage is 780 a month, and the minimum wage is I think 350 per month. But 7% of the population make 3000+ per month.

From the airport I rented a car from Hertz. There is a 700 deposit on it! Wow! Charged to my credit card! Wow! Anyhoo, the Hertz Gold service at Vilnius airport involves extensive counter registration, after which one is sent on your way with a finger point: a long, lonely trudge around construction, and then a wander through the big parking lot looking for the car. No numbers on parking spots to find the car, no car lot attendant- you just search and leave.

5pm traffic is everywhere apparently! But I made it the approximately 15 miles to the very first capital of Lithuania in the 14th century-Trakai!

Trakai is just lovely with an amazing castle on an island in a big lake! I did not make it for the 7 PM closing because a huge truck with a trailer went across the very narrow footbridge in front of me with special event equipment and they shut the gates 10 minutes early! Still, I got to peer in through the iron gates and walk all around the amazing Castle! It is just mind- boggling that it is that old! My hotel is right across from it!

This hotel room is one of the prettiest I have ever seen! It has lovely wallpaper and massive curtains, a tea set, lots of velvet pillows, and is appropriately fit for a princess! Ha!

I had salad and wine for dinner at my hotel restaurant, waterfront, overlooking the castle! Exquisite! We had more delightful weather today as well! I just cannot believe how good it feels!

Now if you have survived this most boring blog today, I will tell you a funny story! So I pulled into my parking spot at the hotel and went to back up my cute little stick shift car, only to discover that I had no clue how to put the car in reverse!

I could not figure it out because the stick shift would not go over to where it needed to be. I pushed, I pulled, nothing! So I went inside and using my best Lithuanian (ha ha!), explained that I had done a terrible parking job because I could not figure out how to get the car in reverse!

A kind lady, probably half my age, came out and moved the car for me. Embarrassing!! But she was really sweet about it, and while it's likely they are still talking about "that dumb American," I did learn that on the stick shift, you simply pull up with your fingers on just the top few inches of the stick shift, to enable the stick shift to move over and put it in reverse. I am glad I only needed to learn that in a parking lot! I actually thought it was pretty funny- no harm, no foul!

How about some pictures now? :-)

Tuesday, 20 June: Driving Across Lithuania

Pictures: Kernave' to Siauliai:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/u3H1b3BCZSisJjOw2

- Sat, Sun & most of Mon.: Vilnius explored

- Monday evening: Trakai- 13th century capital of Lithuania (LT) -T oday:

1. Kernave' -UNESCO site, 5 mounds, first known LT capital. Beautiful! The weather felt perfect! And for some reason Lithuanian grass really IS greener! I have heard something about more chlorophyll, but it almost looks plugged in when the sunshine shines on it! And I believe 3/4 of the country is green. Really beautiful!

2. Pazaislis Monastery- famous for its artwork. Sometimes the hardest thing about these places is finding your way in! Had I not asked at the restaurant there, I would not know that I was to take 2 rights around some corner and press a little doorbell on a small wooden door and smile at the camera to be let in! I thought I was going to have to do the hokey pokey or something!

3. Kaunas- 2nd largest city in LT- this city is big! I don't know why I thought it would not be big. I barely made it through alive! When the GPS said I had arrived at my vegetarian restaurant smack in the middle of downtown, I could not see any parking, nor any kiosk, nor way to pay for parking, nor the restaurant, and so I gave myself "badass credit" for even trying and kept on driving!

4. Raseinai- 1253- The Grand Duchy of LT- I drove all over this city, finally managing to find the famous statue, but basically saw no remnants of 1253 or any real old town. I would have done better to find the viewing vantage point and see the town from there

4b. Tytuvenai Monastery-Bernadine monastery 1633! Yay! This is the place of pilgrimage where devout Catholics climb up the stairs on their knees! Sadly, I saw no one doing that, as the only other person there just stood nearby.

5. Siauliai: 3rd largest city in LT
Now this city seems pretty manageable to drive in, although I've had my share of adventure here.

a. Hilll of Crosses: a place of peaceful resistance with maybe millions of crosses placed on a hill and the Pope blessed in 1993. Soviets tried twice to eliminate the hill by raising it, but the crosses continually mysteriously appeared as an independence movement. Incredible! Just as I had dreamed at sunset! With only a few other people there. I'm sure the busloads will arrive in the morning. Good to get there in the evening, since I'm spending the night in town.

b. The famous cathedral- from year 1625- stunning outside! Doors were locked, so I didn't get to go in. The city square's park next door was beautiful too

c. My first Lithuanian grocery store experience- even figuring out where to park (garage underneath) can be a challenge! I was so grateful to have my Anne Rivers scarf to load my fruits and veggies into and carry like a stylish hobo, because they don't have bags.

I am sure those are plenty of details for y'all, and pictures are more fun!

I'll tell you what else is fun! Driving in a foreign country! I have driven in my share of countries, usually in a monster-size RV, and for me, it is always stressful. But I forgot that it

is critical to know the details of the road rules and signs of each country. I should have refreshed after reading months ago about Lithuanian driving.

So details like the speed limit you are supposed to have memorized for highways, towns, when you see the city sign before entering, etc. are rather important, because they are not posted!

The highways here are perfect! They look brand-new! You'd almost think you were driving across North Carolina because it is so beautiful. The other roads are not so great. They can be pretty rough and torn up. There are (Mexican) topes (bumps) put in front of towns and schools to slow people down, so I'm familiar with those.

But there were many new things to learn today! For example, can you go right on red? Yes! But only when there is an additional green arrow beside the red light. But what if, within the red light, there is a picture of a straight arrow and a turn arrow at the same time? Can you go then? What does the yellow diamond that is sometimes above the stoplight on the right corner mean?

And let's talk road paint color. They only use white. How do you know if you're going down a one-way road? And it looked like people only pass on a solid white, not a dotted white, line. What's up with that?

Today, I learned that I was incorrect (ahem!) several times. One time, I turned right, and noticed immediately the arrows on the ground were indicating that all three lanes exit my direction! Ack! I did a U-turn since thankfully no one was coming! That was probably illegal too!

Then I made an immediate right turn, although I don't think that was legal since the guy on the sidewalk shook his finger at me! (but he sort of smiled so it wasn't mean). I gave him my hands-in-the-air confused gesture and smiled back.

And if I was supposed to go right on red and didn't, someone beeped (instructively) at me. I wish I had a sign on the car that said that I was a visiting, clueless foreigner.

But my crowning glory driving today was when I managed to stop in entire intersection from moving! I thought all 4 lanes around the center square in Raseinai we're going the same direction, but no! Apparently only the 3 lanes on the right were! But all the paint color is white, so how do you know?

So, as I was sitting in the far left lane with my left turn signal on, I noticed a truck directly opposite me at the red light. I began wondering where he was going to go. I glanced to my right and saw the same teenage driver kid who had been behind me earlier as I had headed into town (when I had been wondering if I could turn right on red), and he was sort of chuckling while looking at the truck.

I became more suspicious when no one moved. Then, the truck honked and the trucker indicated to me that I should probably turn. Then he threw his hands up, I threw my hands up in what I think means, "I don't know!" in both English and Lithuanian, then he pointed for me to turn, so I waved my thanks and then I just turned left (on red light) to get the heck out of the way, as he started moving toward my lane! Everything I did there was illegal! I can't believe I didn't get a ticket today!

Honestly, I laughed almost all the way to Tytuvenai. (Lia, I think I did the same thing you tried to do on your drivers license test! Ha ha! I get it!). Ah, there is no dignity in international travel!

So I am at a sort of bed and no-breakfast (but we can use the kitchen) in Siauliai tonight. When I arrived and greeted people in the parking lot, it turned out they too are Americans! I was so tired and shaken up after all my driving, and hungry since I missed lunch in Kaunas, that it was really nice to get a warm hug from another American!

In fact, there are two families here from Seattle (with their family in the area) and one couple from Florida, who I haven't met yet. The mom, Glenda, speaks Lithuania and translated for me with our hostess, who only speaks Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

Good grief! :-) Anyway, another angel helped me!

Big day tomorrow! I am both excited and nervous about driving to Palanga, then Klapeida, turning in my rental car, and hopping on an international bus across the Russian border to Kaliningrad, Arriving around 11 PM.

I am a little nervous about 3 specific things: the bus, the border crossing, and getting a taxi from the bus station to my hotel late at night (and paying in rubles).

But it wouldn't be adventure travel without a little adventure! :-) I've bought the bus ticket, have my Russian visa, have rubles, and have written Russian translation for the taxi driver. I'm ready! Let the fun continue!

6.21.17  Siauliai, Palanga, Klepaida, Lithuania:  

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/zVzWtZYT6h67H8Jw2

I'm waiting at the Klaipeda ("Clep i da"), Lithuania bus station for the International bus to Kaliningrad! I said goodbye to Glenda and her sweet family and we all left Siaulai this morning, drove 2 hours to Palanga.

There, I enjoyed the Amber Museum at the Botanical Gardens. Then I drove south half an hour to Klaipeda. I refused the feelings to run straight here, just in case something went wrong, but I did leave lots of extra time and needed it.

So glad I got to go to the museum! It was one of the "most visited museums in Lithuania." Amber comes from tree sap and goes down via the water, collecting bug specimens and bark, eventually to the sea where it's extracted by humans from the sea bed. Sometimes it

washes up on shore. I read that it is so prevalent here that it is cheaper to use real amber than fake plastic! (I am sure that depends on the size of the amber piece).

How to tell if amber is real? It does not burn. I hope to buy a little amber jewelry in Kaliningrad, as it is least expensive there of all the Baltic states. Berlin's Natural Science museum has the biggest amber piece in the world, and it is 10kg!

Returning the Hertz car was quite an ordeal since they were closed up, but I managed to find a downtown parking spot, begged a nearby travel agent to call Hertz for me, and told them I was returning the car and ask what I needed to put in the dropbox. I tried to call them on Viber but I did not figure out what to put dial for a valid number. Apparently, I have to add a "+" or a "0" beforehand. And they apparently have a GPS on the car, so I didn't even need to tell them where I parked it. Cool.

Anyhoo, BEFORE dropping the car, I drove to the bus station and went inside to ask at Bus Information *exactly* where the bus picks up. (there's not much English spoken in the places I've been today). So after getting the lay of the land, I drove the car to drop it off at he closed up Hertz, staggering back here to the bus station, this time with my too heavy backpack.

One hour until the bus leaves. Wish me luck at the border!

I think I'm in Kaliningrd! After FOUR checkpoints... I'll share more later. Yay! It is 7:33pm

here and no Internet service. Hmm

Weds, 6.21.17 Kaliningrad

Pictures: https://photos.app.goo.gl/SFXTD55YY8pJqzTq1

Hooray! I made it to beautiful Kaliningrad! None of my 3 biggest fears materialized fortunately.

Fear #1: The Bus

We had a "microbus" which is a sprinter van with 21 seats, of which not a single one contained a drunken or scary person. In fact, all but about three riders were women! I also think nearly everyone but me was Russian. The bus pulled in and left exactly on time.

After relaxing after the border, the woman beside me realized I was American, and was very kind to me. She knew about as much English as I know Russian, but we managed to communicate.

Fear #2: The Border

I am very grateful to be here! Even the bus driver cannot take it for granted that he will be let back in.

FOUR (4) checkpoints, including an in-person interview and luggage scan, where you could cut the tension with a knife. I've never experienced such tension at a border. (Wait, except when The Russian Swat team came in our train compartment, looking in ceiling tiles with flashlights, on the Trans-Siberian railway. Ya, that was tense too, come to think of it)

Initially, at checkpoint #1, an officer came on the bus and collected all the passports, I heard him take my passport and make a sound under his breath like "Uh huh!" at which point I put my chances of walking 3 miles back to Nida, Lithuania at about 50%. Literally. And trust me, nobody is hanging around the intimidating border, particularly no taxis! You could hear a pin drop on the bus, and through every interaction with the border authorities.

How happy I was when my passport came back with a stamp in it! The bus driver passed them out to everyone, carefully matching faces with passport pictures, and I thought I was in!

Not so quick. Three more checks to go! The bus moved like 20 yards at a time between each checkpoint.

At another checkpoint, we had to unload the bus, retrieve our luggage from the back of the van, and haul it inside. Of the two people interviewing, I chose the guy's line for the immigration interview and gave him a little smile, and he half-smiled back, so I thought that was a good sign. I had a Russian translation for why I wanted to visit Kaliningrad ready to share, but didn't offer it up since it was not needed. (Only provide information at immigration when it is needed to help. Trust me, friendly babble is evaluated extensively). They were very careful checking the passport, all their stamps, and the visa. VERY careful.

I believe all passengers made it back on the bus and we were on our way in record time! Like 20 minutes! I considered waiting in line for the women's single restroom, but the thought of spending the night at the border sent me returning to the bus at record speed!

My International Sim card internet ended the very second we crossed the border. Fortunately I have Wi-Fi in hotel.

Fear #3: Getting a taxi at the bus station at 11pm

I was checked into my hotel room by 8:30 PM! Apparently they count on a long and tedious border crossing when anticipating an 11 PM arrival time. We got lucky today!

So I did not have to find a taxi in the dark! I checked with 3 people to locate the taxis and when I did, the drivers were quite easygoing. I showed them my Russian translation for the hotel with address, I knew how to say the hotel name in Russian, and they quoted 300 rubles (equivalent of $5) so I jumped in. Well, I did first look on my XE money conversion app to make sure I wasn't getting ripped off. Easy-peasy!

I had come home from Russia last time with a selection of Rubles, so I was prepared with the funds. Huge help! I also printed a little wallet size conversion chart for myself that I need to find in my notebook.

My Hotel Keiserhof is beautiful, with a lovely view over the river! I think it is important when you have highly stressful days, to have a nice place to come back to... an "Ahh hotel." And when I asked at the front desk if English was OK, they said "Yes! Of course!" Hallelujah! That is what a nice hotel will get you, with a bellhop carrying that too heavy backpack for me to my room! (By comparison, in easy Norway, I am staying a night at a campground lodge).

At the beginning of the bus journey, leaving Klaipeda, Lithuania, the bus drove onto a small ferry to cross the river to the Curonian spit which is a UNESCO site that I really wanted to see! Half of the Spit is in Lithuania, and the southern half is in Russia (Kaliningrad). It is a series of moving sand dunes, so I was surprised to see it heavily wooded and a beautifully green! It took about 2 minutes to cross the river on the ferry from Klaipeda to the Spit.

I am having a salad in my room from the vegetables I found at the store yesterday and it is delicious! I might go down to the hotel bar though for a nightcap, as I think I could use one today! Plus, I think that sounds a wee bit intimidating, so I think I should do it.

I try to do something every day that I'm a little scared of, to make myself stronger. If we give in to that little fear, we make ourselves weaker. How's that for justifying a drink!?

Yet another day of perfect weather! I cannot believe it!
It is great to be in Kaliningrad!
P.s. I was wearing my lucky
Anne Rivers scarf, which surely helped get me in!

Lia Hill Update: her team started their new volunteer assignment at a nearby orphanage for kids with special needs and it is going great! She seems to really be enjoying helping the kids. I sensed real happiness from the one long text that I got :-)

They are staying at the International Volunteer Headquarters' (IVHQ) house. She is also making lots of friends with the other volunteers and is a little exhausted from too much fun. I think it is a great learning experience for her!

June 23, Thursday: (Kaliningrad)

It was an exciting day today! Ned is supposed to check-in right now for his flight to St. Petersburg tomorrow, while we await good news from the hospital where his father, Grandpa Hill, is in emergency bypass surgery! Please pray for him if you are so inclined. (Update: Good news! He is doing well in recovery!)

What bad timing for us and we feel terrible we are not there. Fortunately, Dr. Jazy is headed up there to New York City soon to help out. Knowing this is heavy on my heart, but that I fully expect good news any moment, I will try to keep my blog light.

Today was the first day that did not involve many goals except to relax, wander, enjoy the city, and hopefully make it to the Amber Museum. All goals were achieved! :-)

Since most people have no idea where Kaliningrad is, I will explain. It is on the Baltic Sea, between Poland to its west and Lithuania to its east. It is a Russian Oblast, which is like a province. It is not connected physically to mainland Russia.

However, it is Russian, you need a Russian visa to get in, they speak Russian, use Rubles, and the only flights in and out are via Russian territories, mostly St. Petersburg and Moscow, even if you are just flying next-door to Poland, supposedly so you remember you are in Russia. It is very small, so you have to look for that tiny place on the map.

I will share with you in my pictures, a couple screenshots of the map so you can see where Kaliningrad is.

Funny thing happened when I tried to get money today! The front desk team changed and communication in English was a little more difficult than yesterday. I wanted to get some money from an ATM, and so they drew on a map where to walk about 30 minutes walk away. I said my thanks, and as I was walking out the door, glanced left to see an ATM! It took me like 5 tries to get cash but all tries were actually my fault: using the wrong card, the wrong pin number, not remembering that the account it was coming out of had very little

money in it, etc but I got it! Tomorrow I will do better :-)

See the picture of the front desk with the ATM not 2 feet away! I believe they were trying to be helpful and send me to an International money exchange office.

Ah language barriers. I'll tell you what helps though are the apps like Google Translate, but what doesn't help is when they don't work outside of Wi-Fi. My Keepgo Internet does not seem to work in Russia. Is it worth attempting to go in cell phone store and try to get a Sim card?

So I started my stroll on this beautiful day by going across the river, the wrong way of course. Kaliningrad is built along several rivers that twist and turn. I will put a screenshot of Kaliningrad as the first of today's pictures and you can see where I went today! I am currently the blue dot in my hotel.

See the little island in the middle? That is where Kaliningrad Cathedral is! It is missing a turret due to war and is so old! It is so beautiful! An organ concert was just starting when I got there, but I did not buy a ticket to stick around. But the cathedral is the beautiful symbol of Kaliningrad.

I went north through the beautiful park on the little island. Then I saw the "big bridge" the ladies at the hotel had mentioned. And it is enormous! It's at Leninsky Prospect ("Prospect" I think means "street"). It is even longer when you miss the staircase just to your right and go all the way under the overpass, halfway to the left, and then double back across it! Anyhoo, I was just wandering and having fun.

The shopping mall at the big corner had a large grocery store inside, which means prepared food! Yum! And it is so inexpensive! What a fun time to see all the unique foods and labels. It was busy at lunchtime (a bit intimidating), so I was proud of myself for ordering several foods (mainly by pointing and pantomime), which all turned out to be very tasty! Trying to communicate with no English spoken is always fun :-).

As I was checking out, the cashier talked to me and I had to confess that I did not know Russian. The lady behind me asked, "Dutch?" but still scanned her frequent shopper card for me, even after learning I was American. I think she was in shock. I didn't see any Americans today either.

Then I walked north toward those two blue lakes and just beside the skinny lake, I had a park bench picnic!

Just a little further north, at the top of the skinny lake, was the Amber Museum! I am enthralled with Amber and this museum was fantastic! And outside were tradespeople working on their designs and selling them! Inside too were shops. And the museum it was located inside an old military tower, so it was round and very cool, on three different floors!

The museum was well done because they had a variety of coverage, including pictures of how they use nets in the sea as one method of collecting amber. They had a video too (in Russian). The variety of objects on which Amber was used, or was created with, is vast.

Some of the pieces were fantastic! It was like seeing pieces at the Hermitage or the Louvre! Interestingly, there was one picture in a special room at the very end that everyone stood in line to take a picture of themselves in front of- I did not yet figure out who that was, nor did I take my picture with it :-) but I will put that picture in the photos.

As I was making my final purchase from a tradesperson outside, the man and his wife asked if I were British and upon finding out I am American, he did the "up-down look" which is where his eyebrows shot up in surprise, and then the eyebrows went down as he considered that they really don't like Americans. This made me laugh! And then they smiled and laughed. We mentioned both Obama (who instituted the sanctions against Russia in October) and Trump (who is unpopular everywhere, from what I can tell), so to get it off of politics, I indicated that I just like people, by touching my heart and reaching out toward them, and they smiled back understandingly.

That's where travel brings people together as people. It is a shame when governments and politics get in the way. Travel allows us to be humble, to ask for help, to get lost and found, all of which minimizes our ego. It is a great teacher regarding our own importance and unimportance in the world. The great leveler.

I walked back in the rain, but had an umbrella, so it was pleasant. I found the House of Soviets, but couldn't really tell where the 10am Friday-only, English-speaking, walking tour is supposed to meet tomorrow. The "blue and white fence," where we are supposed to meet, a look like a temporary construction fence that I guess is not so temporary.

Did I mention that everything in Russia is big? Does the tour meet at one end of the fence, or maybe in the middle? The fence seems about a quarter-mile long. Should I just run back- and-forth from end to end until someone shows up?

I thought this was funny: right by my hotel is a place named "Pita Bull". Wouldn't you think if you worked at that place, that you'd know what "pita" is? Ha! Fortunately, a nice customer guy figured out that I wanted plain pita with my hummus, (they pronounce it humus- close enough to figure out), so I got some pita bread! Yay! Most people will work with me to try to understand, and it just takes staying calm and being patient.

I forgot to mention that the breakfast buffet is included with my room and it is in the nice restaurant in the center of the hotel, with center hallways looking down on it. They had a full salad bar, cooked vegetables, Russian pancakes, and a cool espresso machine, along with typical non-vegan foods. It was lovely!

Also, I did not get my drink at the bar last night because I was too tired! So I got it tonight! I decided to try something with vodka, since I am in Russia, and got a screwdriver. Very good!

Did I mention that at least half the music I hear (both in Lithuania and Kaliningrad) is American? I think that is pretty much worldwide. I remember the little girl in Mongolia singing, "Let it Go" from Frozen. American music rocks!

One last thing: I wanted a bag to carry my daily stuff, but it had to be easy to pack, strong, inexpensive, and local. I found one! And it cost less than a dollar at the grocery store! It is a reusable grocery bag! Waterproof too :-)

Enjoy the pictures!
I will do a post with solely Amber Museum pictures, because their pieces are so beautiful!

Fri, June 24- Kaliningrad Lost in the House of Soviets!

"Do you want to go up? It's 200 rubles," asked my Kaliningrad Guide. She pointed to the building known as "The Monster," a huge Soviet-era building that looks like a robot arising from the ground.

"Sure!" I said, imagining the great view from the top. I envisioned a sleek elevator whisking us to the top of the 21-story building.

"You do?!" She asked in surprise. At this point I became suspicious about what I had just signed up for.

"Okay, we will see if we can get in," she said. "The guard might not let us. There is no electricity and it is a closed building." What?!

We walked over to the metal fence and she tentatively banged on the rusty fence door. Then we saw the guards in the little corner hut. After extensive discussion between a gruff guard and my Guide, I forked over rubles for the both of us (I insisted-usually guides get in free to sanctioned places).

We were led by the guard over to the building, told not to get near any windows so "they" don't see us, and he quickly led us in a maze through the dark, decrepit, destroyed, deserted, pilfered building until they then exchanged phone numbers and we continued up on our own without him.

The building is 21 stories high and we climbed multiple staircases, weaving our way across certain floors, until about Floor 18. That was a hike!

At times we had to use our iPhone flashlights, as it was in pitch darkness and we were walking on broken glass, on dirt, with cracks in the floor and open pits, and generally destroyed conditions. No windows were intact. I was taking pictures along the way, trying not to hit my head on debris or fall into a pit.

We eventually made our way outside via a metal grate that we climbed on, down to the rooftop, (I felt like spider woman) where we had a great view! We had to be careful where we stood so "they" didn't see us, whoever they is. I didn't ask. It is best not to ask in some countries.

After a fascinating discussion of the various buildings and history of Kaliningrad (she was wonderful!), we were worried that maybe it had been the guard who had tried to contact her by phone and we had missed the call.

So we headed down all those flights, only to progressively realize how lost we were! Around Floor 4, we tried multiple stairways to exit, but each one that we took led us to huge debris- blocked, closed iron gates!

I felt a fear rising in me as I realized our situation and my Guide seemed possibly close to panicking. This was a scary place, we were not really authorized to be there, and we were afraid the guard was long gone! She had been trying repeatedly to phone the guard, but no answer!

I tried to reassure her, but I was no help at all in remembering how we came in - I had been taking pictures and everything looked the same to me... destroyed!

We held it together and quickly searched for yet another dark and crumbling staircase down, when the guard finally found us!! I was so happy! They talked and laughed as we were leaving, and I could have hugged him!

My Guide had been in the House of Soviets several times previously, but never led by herself and she was embarrassed. But there were no signs, or staircase indicators, or any real way of knowing where you were, so I don't blame her. I thought she was very courageous getting us in there. It was very exciting, after the fact!

The House of Soviets was built in the 70s and was to be a government office building until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and the place was completely looted. But actually the place was never finished. The money to repair it was never there. As recently as 2015, an attempt to create a teen center on the first two floors did not work out.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/w.../House_of_Soviets_(Kaliningrad)

As for the tour, since *October* I have planned the beginning days of my trip around this Friday, English-speaking, walking tour offered by the tourist center here in Kaliningrad. My English options are very limited here. So I was kicking myself late last night when I suddenly realized on their website that they require registration in advance! How could I miss that?!

I filled out the form and awoke this morning to an email from the tourist office stating that all of the tour guides had other plans today because I was the only one to register (and I was late). Now, they were fully booked already for all July Friday Tours because they have large groups of British tourists coming, but no luck for me today!

Obviously, given the beginning of this blog, you now know that my apologies and whining about being sad must have worked! They found a tour guide just for me! We met at the Kaliningrad Hotel at noon. How awesome to have a private tour guide for over three hours! She worked for tips and was wonderful! Given the average monthly salary is 20,000 to

30,000 rubles per month ($335-500), I provided several days of pay :).

As an older gentleman from Belgium, who I met in Tytuvenai, said, "Restaurant tips are not expected, but I always do tip because it makes them happy." I just thought that was an awesome reason... "because it makes them happy."

So I asked the nice manager at my hotel front desk, who speaks beautiful English, in advance for advice on what a reasonable tip would be, and then I just quadrupled it for my Guide. That just makes ME so happy! It is part of my plan for spreading cheer and joy on my travels. I try to quietly recognize the ones who work the hardest and are the least noticed, like the house cleaners, bathroom attendants, servers, etc. Fortunately, Ned is totally supportive. It's just plain fun! (Sometimes we do "random ridiculous tips"! Super fun!)

Kaliningrad is a mix of Russia and Europe- its history having 4 empires since thousands of years BC. (A lot of info to intake). It's an important strategic military location for Russia. That is probably why it is Russian territory. It was a part of Germany until after World War II when it became Russia's who then kicked out nearly all the Germans.

Kaliningrad feels very European, with unattractive monster-sized crumbling Soviet buildings interrupting the look of the pretty architecture that was rebuilt after the war. Pretty much everything was destroyed in the war. It is just hard to fathom.

They had, for a year, offered a 72 hour visa for tourist, but the program was inexplicably stopped by powers that be (which is how things are run), but it will likely be reinstated in 2018. China has a similar thing. I do not know if it will be available to Americans. I hope so because I have really enjoyed this fascinating small city. Tourism dollars could inject much needed funds for continued improvements and infrastructure.

They do not get m(any) Americans right now, possibly because the Russian visa process is so expensive and difficult. My guide was impressed that I had finagled a three-year visa and I told her it was a six week process of studying what needed to be done. I won't be doing that again anytime soon, so I am glad I am here now before it expires next month. But I think Americans would love the city and it would be good for the city to have more tourist funds.

I was thinking about how safe I felt here, never feeling threatened or scared physically. The people I have personally met have all been kind, kinder than in Russia. They don't really seem Russian, possibly because they only became Russian in 1945. They are immigrants from Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Belarus, and other places and my Guide indicated that they seem to blend well and be accepting of each other. I sense that they are not overly happy though, but they seem to deeply enjoy their relationships with each other. I do not think it is an easy life here right now, and has gotten more difficult over recent years. They have gone through so much regarding wars, etc. that recovery can take a long time

I got to see the remains of the Kaliningrad castle that was excavated last year! It is unfortunate that funds are not available to continue with the excavation.

I had a great lunch/dinner at a pub named "London" (recommended by my guide), where the kind waiter input his cell phone number on my phone's online permission form so I could use Wi-Fi there. Just an example of how nice people are on an individual basis.

Then I walked several miles back to the hotel, stopping to take a 45-minute, sunset boat ride for 450 Rubles, which is only $7.75. The prettiest part of the area is along my hotel row, while the working ports are not at all attractive

Speaking of sunset, that reminds me that when I went to sleep last night at 3 AM (I know, I know...) the sun was already coming back out! I can't believe how far north I am. Right now it is 9:20 PM and looks like dusk. It is hard to sleep when there is so much fun to be had and it is such gorgeous weather and so much to do!

Embarrassing: I am looking at the map and Belarus is to the east of Poland, not Kaliningrad! So much for teaching a lesson last night on geography! Ha ha! Just Poland and Lithuania are on the borders of Kaliningrad.

Have you heard of the game, The 7 Bridges of Kaliningrad? The game was to cross all 7 bridges without crossing any twice. When the riddle was put to the Emperor, he said, "I can solve this" and he added an 8th bridge. Ta-da! :-) Here are just a few more tidbits:

They like to go the 180 km to Poland on weekends- but the border crossing can take 1-4 hours.

20.000-30.000 rub per month covers necessities but not enough to save up for travel or extras

Industries here are car assembly (BMW and Mercedes- there are a ton of BMW's here!!) Ann food processing that gets shipped all over Europe.

My Fitbit shows over 18,000 steps today which is about 8 miles of walking! I think I will crawl

to bed tonight :-). Nearly everyone walks around here, and some ride bikes, of course there do seem to be lots of cars on the main roads, but very few people same overweight here and it is quite obvious the comparison to home. As you know, I am concerned about people's health, not vanity.

My Guide said that there are more women than men here, and so the culture is to workout at the gym and to work hard to make oneself look nice to outdo the competition. I think that is all over Russia.

More Random Notes:
Lots of big, lovely parks
Putin's ex wife is from Kaliningrad and she helped get the Upper pond built (by the Amber Museum)
The country was essentially, due to the military sensitivity, closed to tourists until 1991 Cruise port- there's talk of putting one in
Fast walkers- you had better cross quickly at lights, 6 lanes in 20 seconds
Construction going on right now around the city for World Cup 2018. This is one of 11 venues throughout Russia. A new stadium was being built
Perfect weather today
Tourists: Mainly Germans homeland visits in 1990's, then Chinese & Koreans, then Europeans

Update on Grandpa Hill: he is still in ICU but doing well, is off all tubes, and was sitting up and entertaining visitors. Well, probably not too much entertaining, but we are happy that he is doing so well!

Ned is boarding his flight now Atlanta to Frankfurt, and then St. Petersburg. I am not sure that he packed in advance as I had suggested, just in case something came up, although I

am sure it would've been a good idea :-). Particularly since emergency surgery came up! I can't wait to see him!

I have ordered via KiwiTaxi.com an 8 AM taxi tomorrow, for the half hour ride to the airport, for my 10 AM Aeroflot flight from Kaliningrad to Saint Petersburg (1hr50 flight time). Then I emailed customer service and suggested my driver be on time, and they promised he would be. (That probably jinxed to me). If all goes well, Ned and I should arrive within half an hour of each other around 9:30 and 10 AM! Yay!

Lia is enjoying the Orphanage work, the kids, and is working hard all day long. She's really having a good time with her fellow volunteers too. She got a haircut yesterday and is excited to have bangs. It is nice that that was what she is worried about :-)

Jazy started her cross country trip today to see family and Charles is working at hisinternship in Austin. Might as well cover everyone! :-)

Let's see some pictures, for goodness sake, starting with the House of Soviets! It will take 2 posts to share all the pictures from today.

Saturday, 6.24.17 St. Petersburg:

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/hGtpL1JKDdIXg2Hq2

Ned arrived today! He flew Atlanta to Frankfurt to St. Petersburg while I flew Kaliningrad to St. Petersburg. I had just enough time to use the ATM, get by the Tourist Info desk for a map and public transport info, and buy a $4.50 2g Russian SIM card when he arrived! We had Plans A-C ready for meeting since he had customs after his international flight.

But we found each other no problem (which was sort of amazing)! All flights were like clockwork! How often do you get a perfect travel day? And my taxi guy was *early*! Wow!

Ned's Russian immigration experience was just 2 questions: Were you on the flight from Frankfurt, and are you here to be a Tourist. Done! He was in. Sort of like my bus experience from Lithuanian -haha!

Taxi was about 40 min LED airport to our city center hotel for 1050 R, fixed price from at the official airport taxi kiosk inside- and he filled out address info for our driver. That's only $17 for a long ride. We checked into our very pretty, small boutique hotel, The Nikonov, and found very closeby vegan and vegetarian cafes for lunch and dinner.

A field trip to the big grocery store on nearby main avenue of Nevsky Prospect resulted in

wine, fruit, a Russian beer, and a small bottle of vodka (we only had a little wine tonight ). Also, 2 pastries where they have a number service for ordering (take a ticket with a number), which is so awesome, so one need not jockey for position to get served. Cool!

I washed some clothes in the sink which would be easier on a daily basis. If "jelly rolled" in a towel, they should be dry by morning. Just lay down a towel, spread out the washed but wrung out clothes on top, add another towel on top, then roll up and stomp on it. Unroll and your clothes are nearly dry!

We are even further north now and it is so light outside! Ned has already conked out and so now will zzzzzzzzz

Sunday, June 25  (St. P's):

Ned and I had a great day in St. Petersburg! We did three fun activities:

1. Peterhof
2. Dinner at the Idiot restaurant 3. Ballet at the Mariinski Theater

Peterhof is a nearby royal residence that was built by Peter the Great to rival Versailles. It is fabulous! The fountains are all gravity fed, an engineering wonder.

We paid to go into the palace and although the tour was only in Russian, we got to admire the mirror room, the throne room, Catherine's boudoir, etc and the amazing gardens! We rode the hydrofoil to and from and it was just an overall fabulous experience! Absolutely breathtaking!

The Idiot restaurant is a classic! While Lia shared her free shot of vodka with me last time we were here in 2014, Ned did not! But we still had a wonderful vegetarian meal there for late lunch/dinner. We had borscht, potato pie, and mushroom dumplings. Yum!

Ballet: Only the Bolshoi in Moscow can rival the magnificent Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Since it is an old theater, the Mariinsky seating can be challenging, as it is not elevated toward the rear. So for this visit, a month ago via the Internet, I got us front row, center seats and it was just amazing!

It was the most fabulous ballet I have seen in my life! The dancers, set, lights, choreography, music, plot, and the dancers' crystal arm bands were all just incredible. I mean, crystal arm bands!! Stunning! Truly, an amazing life experience.

When we exited the theater at 10pm, the sun was setting and it was gorgeous. On the weather, it says 10:30pm sunset and 3:30am sunrise!

We have been using Uber to get around St. Petersburg, which is highly convenient and relatively inexpensive. It is so much easier than trying to take public transportation! And so much easier than a taxi as we don't have to worry with rubles, nor try to give the address to the driver, nor negotiate the price, nor worry about whether we are being taken for a long ride. It is awesome!

We are now going to walk up for some Chinese food on Nevsky Prospect! I'll leave you with some (too many) dazzling pictures of glamour in St. Petersburg.

Mon, Jun 26:

Ned and I are trying to be responsible adults tonight, and we don't like to waste money, so we are trying to drink all the Russian vodka that we bought so we don't have to throw it out when we fly to Sweden.

Our adventures today took us to Catherine's Palace, a half hour south of Saint Petersburg. We took Uber which was an adventure in itself. (865 rub = $15)

Our driver was crazy! He drove like a maniac! I think even Ned was scared! (If you have ridden with Ned, you are probably shocked to hear this!)

Well! Our driver zipped in front of a truck and slammed on brakes, the truck blew his horn, and when we immediately ended up at a stoplight, the truck driver got out of his vehicle, came to our driver's window and knocked on it! Our young driver jumped out of the car in a threatening manner and words were exchanged! I was very glad that guns are not part of the Russian culture! It was scary!

Then the truck driver went back to his truck and our driver got back in our car. When the light changed to green, our driver sat there for a good 15 seconds before he moved forward, probably to prove his point to the truck driver and make the truck driver miss the light! It was not cool. We did not give him a tip, nor a five-star rating.

Catherine's Palace was fantastic! We were so fortunate because we had bought tickets on the Internet in advance. With just a few initial words of Russian, people who worked there very kindly directed us to a special ticket office, and a special back entry.

It appeared they were only two tour groups waiting in line back there, so we went to the one where there were Caucasians, so we could appear to fit in, but were noticed. So using our best Russian and holding out our tickets, saying "please" in Russian, we were led by the guard to the front of the tour group to another entrance. The next thing we knew, we were entering the Palace!

As we progressed up the steps of the palace to start the tour, we noticed that the group behind us had an English-speaking tour guide! After stalking them to the second room, Ned kindly asked if we could join in, since the Palace did not have English headphones where we entered. The group quickly agreed and it turned out they were from Miami!

Also, we later realized that they had paid that guide for two days while in St. Pete's on their Norwegian cruise ship. That was so kind of them to let us be included! They looked out for us the entire time and made sure we got to move forward with them in crowded situations.

At the end, we tried to quietly insist on paying them, since they had paid their Guide, but they steadfastly refused to accept it. So kind! Having English on the tour made a big difference in our enjoying the Palace. The guide was from Red October Tour group, they said, and they thought she was wonderful and efficient.

The Amber room was beautiful! The guide mentioned that the only reason pictures are not allowed, "strictly forbidden!", is for time purposes. And while the guards actively swat down cameras, our Guide pre-told us that we could take pictures when we weren't being watched! So we did!

The Amber Room in Catherine's Palace, where the walls - from floor to ceiling - are lined with spectacular Amber panels, were removed during World War II and taken to Kaliningrad Cathedral, where they were displayed for 2 to 3 years before mysteriously disappearing!

The Kaliningrad excavation of the castle was in part a German effort to find the Amber Room! Since Amber does not burn, no one knows where it went! I think it will be found someday... I think that is so intriguing!!

The reconstruction of the Amber Room in the palace was indeed very stunning.

It was a sumptuous palace, rivaling Versailles, Ned thought it was even better than Peterhof, with 50 kg of gold in the rococo decorations, just amazing! It was one of 32 Royal residences! I cannot even describe it! Here is a

At the cafe at Catherine's palace, we met a couple from Baltimore who had just come over on the Queen Mary 2! We enjoyed talking with them as they described the Vintage Dancing that they do, meeting groups around the United States, and on their first European visit to Russia and Prague.

As we discussed fun things to do in St. Petersburg, they mentioned their hotel and it turned out that their group had completely booked my 2014 hotel, the 3Mosta!! I had tried to book that boutique hotel eight months ago and it was full! I even tried last week to see if I could get it, to no avail. How funny to find out that their vintage dancing group had booked that exact small hotel a good year or so in advance! (Grrr!!)

Another funny coincidence is that our friends had arrived in town on Friday, and they saw a truck that had hit a bridge because the truck was too high! The cab was much further ahead than the bed of the truck, and the driver was scratching his head. We had terrible traffic on Saturday from the airport because they were repairing a bridge that Ned said "someone must've hit that from being too high." Now we know what happened!

Finally, we found out that they had waited in line for TWO hours to buy tickets to get in the palace! They had not even been on a tour yet of the palace! We were so grateful that we had bought tickets online in advance and gotten entry into the back tour group entrance! Sometimes, everything goes right!

The gardens were amazing as well, complete with a lake, multiple buildings, a huge park, little rivers running through it, and just like you would have if you had all the money in the world!

We took an Uber back to Saint Petersburg, (535 rub = $9) which was also somewhat death- defying. I did not look. Traffic was so bad in town that we finally agreed to stop the ride and walked faster than the cars! He also did not get five stars, nor a tip! If I have to make alternate plans for what to do in an accident, no tip!

We ended up at the Church on Spilled Blood. It was raining, but the sun soon came out. The church is spectacular and an epic symbol of St. Petersburg. Absolutely breathtaking inside and out! The decorations and murals inside are completely made of tiny mosaic tiles! I have never seen anything like it anywhere else!

We had dinner at the Botanika vegetarian restaurant, where Lia and I went three times in 2014. It is that good! And it was that good again :-)

Both the church and the restaurant are just down the street from the 3Mosta Hotel.

Then we strolled just over a mile back to our little Nikonov Hotel, which is also quite nice.

I must say that without fail we have found people nice here in St. Petersburg! I do not know if it is because we are more comfortable than I was on my previous trip, and know a little more Russian language, and communicate better ourselves, or if people are just approachable and nice here. It is not like "Mexico-friendly" but it is not antagonistic nor rude. I've been very pleasantly surprised.

Regardless of the reason for such helpfulness, it is sad to think of our countries politically not being on the most friendly terms. I am glad we have had the chance to meet some really wonderful people. I hope we are equally kind to visitors to our country.

We have one more full day in St. P. with plans to go to the Hermitage, the largest museum in the world! Then we hope to do a Hop on-Hop off bus. The following day, Weds, we fly to Stockholm, and start our cruise the day after that on Thursday.

Saint Petersburg is such a fantastic city!! If you come on a cruise ship, and hire an authorized Guide to escort you everywhere, then you do not need to get a Russian visa. I highly recommend a visit to this most historical, beautiful, and intriguing city!

Enjoy the pictures!

Tuesday, June 27:  (St. P's):

The incomparable Hermitage Museum and a city bus sightseeing hop on-hop off bus tour were the highlights of the day!

We attempted to catch the sightseeing bus, for which we had ordered Internet tickets, this morning in the rain. However, we could never match the bus stop with the bus timing. So we ended up walking all the way to the Hermitage.

We had bought non-specific day, online tickets for the Hermitage and eventually found their outside "Internet line," which moved fairly quickly through a security check into the building. Huge lines outside were for those who didn't buy in advance. Definitely recommend!

Once inside, we had to exchange the paper tickets for additional tickets, even though the barcode was on the paper tickets. Fortunately, there was no line for that.

We had our top 10 art pieces defined from our St. Petersburg book - I laughed when Ned said we would need more favorites to find. The Hermitage is the largest museum in the world and it is so huge and confusing, and their map so unhelpful, that you could wander for days

looking for those top 10 items. In fact, I believe we only located 4 after maybe five hours of exploration. But it was incredible!

The architecture of the Winter Palace, where the Hermitage is located, is absolutely breathtaking. I'll share some pictures.

Upon exiting the Hermitage, we asked at nearby Tourist Information to find the hop on hop off bus pickup location, and finally caught it nearby.

The bus driver had trouble with our phone tickets, because he wanted only paper tickets, but eventually relented. Ned had bought the tickets last night online with the option offered to send to Apple Wallet. So one would assume that they would have a way to read the barcode on our phones. Assumptions in Russia are laughable, which is why I told Ned to pack his

sense of humor. :-)

While the first bus driver let us on, the second bus driver at the switchover point steadfastly refused.

So to satisfy our curiosity about how the tickets worked, we found a nearby City Tour bus sidewalk sales desk and in our best Russian tried to figure out what we needed to do.

Finally, the kind woman who worked there told us we could go with her on a seven minute walk, and she quickly led us for about half a mile around a little wild maze, into a back courtyard (we have been curious as to what was behind these walled buildings) to a copy shop! After seating us there, she had to leave while we waited our turn.

After about 10 minutes, it was our turn, and I saw the girl who works there glance at me with a look of concern on her face. So I typed a note on Google Translate app on my phone and held it up so that she could read it, asking if I could email tickets for her to print. She seemed relieved and it was done for 24 rubles for the two pages ($.40). Love that Google Translate!

Success! With printed ticket papers in hand, we headed back toward our bus again, stopping to tip the sweet woman who had kindly led us all the way there, and after a Russian pancake and Irish coffee break, we enjoyed the rest of our bus tour!

Happy Cow app again scored us a great place for our vegan dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant called Kashmir, that was just delightful! Other than when the Louis Armstrong, "Oh When the Saints" music played, (Em, I thought of you), we thought we were in an authentic, cozy Indian restaurant.

What a sweet waitress we had and when she brought our fortunes at the end, the table behind us had apparently kindly offered earlier to translate for us. It was a special dinner in St. Petersburg!

We head to the airport tomorrow afternoon to fly to Stockholm. We wanted to go tomorrow up into the dome of Saint Isaac's Cathedral and of course it is closed tomorrow!

I thought most places in Russia were only closed on Mondays and the last Tuesday of the month (which was today), but to learn that one of the only things we have left to do is closed on Wednesday...?? Well, maybe we will see it when we return here by cruise ship on Sunday. It is supposedly one of the four largest churches in the entire world and can hold 10,000 worshipers at one time! We'd love to see the inside and see the view from the top.

It has been just a wonderful visit to intriguing St. Petersburg!

Wednesday, June 28 Stockholm:

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/nhQjCrRbF9ZZhVBO2

Today was a travel day from St.P to Stockholm, but we first stowed our luggage at our hotel and walked this morning the 1.3 miles to Kazan Cathedral. As a real church, it has all the usual church activities, including a funeral viewing today. It was a huge church!

Lunch was again at the vegetarian restaurant, Cafe Ukrop, which is cafeteria-style (but small) and very fast. We know the low prices here in Russia (Lunch for two was 775 rub = $13) are setting us up for price-shock in Stockholm.

Our young server knew some English, as he studied it a little in school and practiced speaking online with English speakers. He is in Medical school and I was once again stuck by how similar our people are. American music, as always, was playing in the background.

Our Uber to the St. P airport today took about 40 minutes (455 rub = $7.64), but the estimate for similar Uber distance Stockholm is $55! Ouch!

The St. P airport is beautiful and the only issue we experienced was at Russian Passport Control. She processed Ned's passport (family units go together to the window) and then her computer froze on my passport!

I was so grateful that she mentioned to us that one little word "computer" because I would have been internally freaking out to see her frown, make a phone call, and then have to wait in silence for 8-10 minutes!

Can you imagine me not talking for 8-10 minutes?! Infinity! Finally, the computer came back online, she finished with my passport, placed them both on the counter and said a sincere "Thank you" (I guess for our patience). Whew!!

We truly enjoyed our time in Russia! I was there for a week this time, it turned out, and we found the people very nice. It is such a fascinating country with an interesting history. We return on Sunday by cruise for the day. I don't know when or if I will be back again since my visa expires, so I enjoyed the specialness of it all.

We arrived in Stockholm airport, went through passport control, got some Swedish krona, bought train tickets (350kr for 2 = $30) to the city, stopped by tourist information, and jumped on the train that went at least 120 mph right into Central Station!

Then we walked .7 miles to our cute Victory Hotel. It is right in Gamla Stan, Old Town, which has cobblestone streets and is full of restaurants, bars, and cool shops.

We went to the Hermitage yesterday and today! Today's Hermitage was a vegetarian restaurant just around the corner from the hotel. It was a delicious veg buffet dinner for 140kr each ($16).

We returned from dinner, we found that the hotel kindly left port and chocolates in our room! Rock on!

It is a bright, sunshiny day and I'll share a picture of the green Sweden as we flew in. It was only an hour flight in air.

Thurs, June 29 (Stockholm)

We got on the cruise today! The Celebrity Silhouette is a beautiful ship! We have never been on such a nice cruise. It will be in Stockholm overnight and leave at 5 PM tomorrow.

We bought tickets for the Hop-on Hop-off bus and boat, which was a comedic effort in itself. You would think that frequent travelers would be a little better with decision-making, but alas! We remain humbled.

Apparently, in Sweden you have to push the bus button if you want the bus to stop at a hop off location.

The metro ride was sleek, sophisticated, quiet, and fast. Our bumble walk all the way to the port with our backpacks was the opposite. But we made it!

As I was bumbling to the ship, I was wondering why I have no information about which port, which terminal, or what time we board- why did Celebrity not give us this info? Of course, when I later saw other people with their thick packets of information, I recognized that stack of papers and remembered that my highlighted packet was waiting for me at home in my little file. I forgot to bring it!

Regardless, they let us on the ship with little delay. We have since managed to hang out on the deck on a large hammock, toured the classy (and pricey) spa (Sheba Callaway, I will wait for your awesome massages!), and we had a martini flight with six different types. Life is grand!

We were also able to talk via Facebook messenger with Grandpa Hill and Jazy in NYC, as he continues to recover from surgery. Ned is booked to visit grandpa in New York upon Ned's return home too. It is hard being over here at the time when we feel needed and pulled to be there, but Dr. Jazy is doing a most excellent job and we are so proud of her stepping in to help! We appreciate the many updates.

Sweden is, of course, a beautiful, sparkling, perfect utopia. That we could be so lucky to have such high wages, paid educations, a pristine environmental focus, universal healthcare, and happy, satisfied citizens. Looking forward to exploring Stockholm more tomorrow!

Friday, June 30 (Stockholm):

2nd Stockholm day! We took a taxi (200kr) to the Vasa Museum. This 1600's wooden ship sank in the Stockholm harbor on its 1st sail! Bad design! They raised the ship in recent years after 333 years in the sea, and it is on display with beguiling soft light to delay its degradation. Interesting and busy museum.

We caught the Hop-on Hop Off boat there and rode it around to the Royal Palace.

A free museum of armory and carriages was very interesting, held in an authentically old building basement. It was blustery in Stockholm today so we headed back to the ship. An agreed upon taxi fixed price was cheaper than 1.9x surge pricing for Uber, so we got a taxi at a nearby big hotel.

Food on this ship is really good!! There are so many choices that I just can't eat it all. And the service is outstanding. So impressed with Celebrity.

We have met many people from all over the world on board. They are all well traveled, polite, and educated - and thankfully not snobby at all. There are some families, but mostly well traveled and fit couples. It would be difficult to go back to a low-rated ship after being spoiled on this 5.5 one!

The pool sail away deck party included rousing songs including Bruno Mars (thought of you, Pauline Kennedy Varley!) We got Miami Vice drinks, copying a fellow passenger. Not even sure what was in it except rums. What more need we know?

Dinner, the show, the silent disco (where everyone danced with music headphones on- but not all on the same music station) were all terrific. Sad to call it a night but after 5 hours of the ship winding our way out through the Swedish archipelago, we are now rocking across the Baltic Sea -and Helsinki is tomorrow! We also lose 1 hour time change.

Fellow dinner passengers get off at the last stop before the ship returns to Stockholm, in Riga, Latvia- they're meeting friends and got permission to leave from there. Very good to know that's possible on future cruises. Sadly their luggage was lost on the flights from Australia! Carry-on is the only way to go for us!

Fun times in the Baltics!

Sat., Jul 1 Helsinki, Finland:

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/QkP6nTdHaOZk6u2h2

No blog, pictures tell the story  :)

Sunday, 7.2.17 St. Petersburg

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/n0z0QPCJbA1ccsGx1

We were attempting to exit Russia- our last person, on our last Russian exit, on the 2nd (and last) day of the double-entry visa. First, the Russian immigration official scratches his forehead, then he wrinkles his brow, then he makes a phone call regarding Ned. We were trying to leave St. Petersburg for the very last time, with our ship is just yards away, when we hit a big snafu.

"You can go," the official tells me, but he then tells Ned, "You wait a minute." I ask to stay. He seems okay with that.

We wait in silence for a long time. I notice my toes curling in my shoes while I try to look calm and non-plused. Confident, but not arrogant. Unattached, but not disinterested. Ned does the same. We've discussed immigration before. Neither says a word. We are indeed concerned with this unexpected delay.

We eventually hear "click, click, click" on the floor and know that an official is coming for us. Everything seems amplified.

She enters the booth, never looking at us, and after a discussion with the other official, turns a stamp date around and hits Ned's passport with it, a good sign. She leaves, a few more scans and computer checks of Ned's passport by the first official, and we are both cleared to leave Russia! Yay! Never a dull moment!

When we first arrived on the cruise to the St. Petersburg port, it took us 3 tries to get Uber from the port into the city! The first time we did not realize there were 2 security checkpoints between us and the public area. That Uber cancelled on us ($1 charge) because he could not get to us.

Then WE had to cancel our 2nd Uber ($.50 charge) after walking 10 minutes to outside the port security area, which was now outside of our initial Uber pickup area. We could have learned about both the Uber pickup location and port security blocks initially by talking to the information desk inside the port- but we didn't. Live and learn.

Still, the 208 rubles ($3.50) for Uber into the city that we eventually paid, ended up costing far less than the 2000 rub ($34) quoted by the nearby taxi drivers. Really?? So it was worth the short walk, time, and learning experience.

It was a beautiful day in St. Petersburg! We went to the dome of St. Issac's Cathedral, with a great view of the city, and then into the church that can hold 10,000 people. Great view and amazing church!

We love the cozy Idiot restaurant and I enjoyed eating there on my 3rd and what may be my final visit to Russia. The waitress was very sweet and remembered us from the other day. We had a lovely meal there with vodka.

A boat ride on the canals was the perfect ending to our Russian adventure and lasted at least an hour- just delightful, even if it was narrated all in Russian.

It was quick and easy to get an Uber back to the port. Then we walked back through the security building at the driving checkpoint (knowing polite Russian phrases like "Dobre din" for "good afternoon" is invaluable at times like that), and they just waved us on. Then back into the port building with a bag security check and then thru the above-described Russian immigration experience.

The people on ship excursions left at 7am this morning and their names were pre-submitted to Russian Authorities by their government-approved Russian Tour companies. So I hope their immigration clearance was expedient. Most everyone uses the cruise line shore

excursions so they don't have to get a Russian visa, but it was worth it to us, given out timeframes for visiting. But it will be easy for you if you come on a cruise.

We have truly enjoyed our time in fascinating Russia. It is such a neat country with kind people, beautiful architecture, interesting history, and beautiful language. We felt a bit sad knowing we are leaving it, for what might be forever. I highly recommend a visit to beautiful Russia. Learn a few Russian words before you go, a bit of their history, and go see how lovely the people and cities are. It is a fascinating country!

Monday, 7.3.17 Tallinn, Estonia:  

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/ur1u60j356l9BqHa2

Tallinn, Estonia is a crown jewel in the Baltic states. Independent from Russia for just 27 years, like its sister countries of Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia joined NATO, uses the Euro, and promotes tourism (its biggest industry).

And with excellent results! The old town is expansive, beautiful, impressive, and you'd think English is their language (Estonian and Russian are spoken) because they are so fluent. What an absolutely charming and delightful European city! Look out Paris! Tallinn is here!

The cruise ship shuttle for $10 each round trip was a good deal from the port. Google maps now allows you to touch your blue dot on the map and then click on "I parked here," so it was easy to find the bus again at day's end. Great feature!

We participated in the free walking tour offered outside Tourist Info office in old town Tallinn. Our group of 47 people had an awesome tour guide. We learned so much! Ned had never been on a free walking tour (the kids and I used them in almost every city- they are everywhere!) and he was so impressed. We tip more than we would've paid, so it works out well for everyone.

Our awesome guide was also vegan! She recommended the vegan "Restaurant V" which was rated #2 of 776 restaurants in all of Tallinn. It took us 2 tries to get a table but was worth the effort- everything was exquisite. I cannot begin to describe how delicious!! They take reservations and many people without them were turned away from the small restaurant, so keep that in mind if you wish to dine there.

Then we paid 3E each to climb an ancient church turret, with stone steps and a rope railing, 258 steps to the most magnificent city overview. I have to admit that being plant-powered means we can do more than we think we can. It surprisingly wasn't that tough!

We have loved meeting such neat people on the cruise! Our dining room "anytime seating" means we are usually seated at a table for 2, but near other tables for 2 or 4. Most of the time, if they speak English, we find a convenient time to say hello and if they seem open, we ask about their day.

Everyone has been very nice and some people we have SUPER enjoyed and we end up talking and laughing for hours! It's delightful and then great fun to see them later on the ship. I am pleasantly surprised at how very friendly everyone has been. Such nice people on here!

It has been a fun cruise and we have had to drag ourselves away from the wonderful shows, singers, fun dancing, and the most fun...

... the ABBA singalong party in the ship center! Now that was a scream! It was like karaoke for everyone at once with dancing. Just a hoot! They moved on to songs like YMCA and it all ended way earlier than anyone wanted.

However, with a port-intensive cruise, we all need to get to sleep. Some people had 9-hour private St. Pete tours that started at 7am! We are just not early-birds. We are never leaving for breakfast before 9am.

Yes, the cruise has been delicious and close to perfection. Celebrity has 2 new fans.

Tomorrow is our last new port, Riga, Latvia. Then we have a sea day before returning to Stockholm. I can see why people want longer cruises. I'm sad to think of getting off soon.

But we still have a few more days of fun ahead!

Tuesday, 7.4.17  Riga, Latvia:

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/IUCKtqgP5eeJCL5e2

Riga, Latvia is the largest capital (500k people) of the 3 Baltic countries who became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed 27 years ago.

The order of progress, or degree European, or you could say developed, might be described in my opinion as: Estonia has it going on, Latvia is making good progress, and then possibly closest to my heart Lithuania is getting there. Even poorer Kaliningrad is equally fascinating but stymied in its tourism attempts- being a Russian oblast with the required visa is likely causing the most difficulties, with lack of funds the next reason.

We bought the reasonably priced cruise bus shuttle to ride a solid 30 minutes into Riga's old town. Ned and I caught the free walking tour from Tourist Info to places outside of Old Town. Our guide was excellent and we were tired after 3 hours.

Tragic history in Riga, but nice people, a great market in relocated blimp hangers, and the town is recovering into a nice place for tourists.

Our only day of rainy weather, but we enjoyed a fabulous vegan lunch at the Fat Pumpkin.

Wednesday, July 5 - Day at Sea

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/Or2oLjR7VciJRzvt2

Love that day at sea to play!

Thursday, July 6 - Stockholm (after cruise) & Copenhagen

Stockholm Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/TPAi527DAUMtgZIo2

Copenhagen Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/BLK4Ijp7VNpE5C4H3

We docked in Stockholm, the final morning of our cruise, and had a pleasant morning getting off the ship (first time I can ever say that for a cruise ship!)

However, negotiating for a taxi to city center is a real sport! We finally negotiated/agreed to 350 Swedish Krona that our first of three taxi drivers offered, in order to go to City Terminal station, which is not very far away. That is $41 US! This should give you an idea of the prices! I can tell you that countries that cost twice the prices of the US, are not as much fun, because everything you do is painful!

But after the negotiation was settled, our taxi driver was nice and offered up good information on the bus (40 minutes to the airport and cheaper, about $15 each) or the train (20 minutes to the airport and 350 Kr which was $41 one way for the two of us on a special summer deal ticket! Whoo-hoo!) FYI: Taxis in Stockholm accept credit cards.

Central Terminal had a terrific locker system in both the train and bus stations which were across the street from each other! So we went downstairs to the locker area, followed the on- screen directions (after putting both backpacks in a big locker), and we were free to roam until our train to the airport that afternoon.

We took a tour of the beautiful royal palace, saw the changing of the guard, saw the beautiful crown jewels, the statues in The house of antiquities room, and enjoyed a another buffet lunch at the Hermitage veg restaurant in Old Town.

Then we return to get our backpacks, took the train to the airport, and were on our Norwegian air shuttle cheap flights to Copenhagen. I think the flights cost less each than our taxi from the port!

Upon arrival in Copenhagen, we double checked with tourist information in the airport, used the kiosk for metro tickets to the eighth stop near our hotel. Then we walked a short distance

straight to our hotel! You can tell Ned is with me because I am rarely lost! :-)

Our Sknt. Anne's Hotel is very cool and hip, and while I can't really pronounce it, I enjoyed the free breakfast that would normally cost $23 per person were it not included in our Orbitz room rate! Wow! That is a lot of Muesli and coffee worth!

Copenhagen is delightful! It is young at heart, hip, happening, beautiful, full of canals, boat trips, free walking tours, Christiania free society to explore, Little Mermaid statue to admire, towers to climb, Carlsberg beer to try, and very expensive food.

We fortunately shared a regular tofu dish at a Chinese restaurant today that was $25 for the

dish! It routinely costs us $40-$45 for basic food and drink. Just have to suck it up! :-)

We also heard a lot about Hans Christian Andersen (famous children's author & former resident), and also about Walt Disney coming to Tivoli amusement park, one of the two oldest in the world! (The other one is in Denmark as well).

He spent a week in Tivoli before returning to the US to start Disney World. Today Tivoli has beautiful gardens, classic fun rides, ducks and swans on lakes, brides and grooms amongst the gardens, classic carnival games, all for just 120 kr per person ($14), plus more if you wanted to do the rides. We were stunned that the lines for the rides were quite short! Maybe Walt should've stuck around another week to figure out how to do that at Disney!

We were trying to figure out how to rent a bike using an app, recommended by our walking tour guide, called Donkey Republic. It seems like a great app where you find the bikes, unlock the bikes using Bluetooth on your smart phone (you don't even need Internet), and can repeatedly lock the bike with the app. It is only like 100kr ($15) per day. It is all done through the app, which makes it unfortunate that the app did not work right for either of us! We could not get registered enough to begin. Maybe it was operator error, but definitely try to get this set up before you go to Copenhagen!

Biking in Copenhagen is amazing! There are bikes EVERYWHERE! They have their own bike lanes, bike stop lights that are smaller versions beside the regular stop lights (and are activated independently), and I heard one tour guide say that bikes get priority, then pedestrians, then cars. It seemed no one wore a helmet and they cruise along at a pretty fast speeds, ringing their little bells. I must say that it appeared intimidating somewhat to me! I certainly would have learned it, but perhaps a bike tour first would have been most helpful.

We head out tomorrow! Ned flies home and I have a flight to Norway.

I've planned a week in Norway, 2 nights in Berlin, & then flights home (Lord willing)! More adventures ahead as I will once again be traveling alone!

Sunday, July 9:  Oslo, Norway

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/PnyD0z1rdsI0fCrb2 

Banana Diplomacy

I had not planned to go to dinner at all since it had been a long travel day, but vegan food options called! A half-mile trot down the road revealed a closed up restaurant.

But right next door, the sidewalk board said "Falafel burger – vegan", and that's how I ended up in a most special cafe!

Habits Coffee surely is a neighborhood institution, and felt like I imagine "Cheers" did. "Habits" means "my love" and customers are referred to as "friends" and introduced to each other. The gregarious Owner distributes a warm combo of introductions, big hugs, food samples, and freshly squeezed juices.

While you'll get a sample of the most delicious lentil soup ever, you will not get his secret recipe!

His store is, in a way, his gift back to the community who has embraced him. He spoke of the joy of having a place where customers could share with each other their troubles and be lifted up by the experience of having someone listen and offer perspective. One customer, a teacher, created a very cool Lego replica of his store, which he proudly displays it in a glass case on the counter.

Possibly the most meaningful part was learning that about 8 years ago, he was a Muslim immigrant from Palestine! And another customer in there, now a SAS airline flight attendant, was from Serbia.

We had a great discussion! I saw pictures of when he met the King of Norway a few years ago when he volunteered at a soup kitchen, and at one time, he walked me down the sidewalk to point out the Royal Palace!

We spoke a bit of politics and of humans being loving with each other- and in the end, I promised to try to return, and then tipped well, and he insisted on giving me a gift too.

He ran to the back area and returned with a banana, which is the perfect gift! Fresh fruit is not normally bought on fast travel days because it is heavy, bruises easily, must be washed with clean water, etc, so it is a real treat!

I walked back to the hotel, reliving in my head the neat experience of enjoying the company of someone from such a vastly different background. My banana gift was safely tucked in my coat pocket. Vegan food and banana diplomacy. Love!

Quick rundown on the rest of day: Ned left at a ridiculous hour this morning to take three flights home. He is on the final one right now, NYC to Atlanta! I was sad to see him go, but happy to continue my travels. He also took a lot of my stuff home, so my backpack is much lighter, although still not light.

I flew this morning from Copenhagen to Oslo, which took less than an hour in the air. I got a Norwegian Sim card at the airport because it was cheaper for the week then using my Keepgo universal one. (249 NOK = $30 for 3 gigs)

I then took the Flyaget train (180 NOK =$22) 25 minutes to the National Theater stop, and went to lunch! I have since read that buying a ticket actually costs 30 NOK extra. If you just swipe your credit card through as you enter, I guess you don't pay the "tourist tax" of confusion!

Breathtaking prices here! My lunch at the cafeteria style vegan restaurant, Nordvegan, was $26! While I was ravenous and had a fresh squeezed juice, that is still a fancy price tag for a cafe!

The National Museum, right next door, had free luggage storage so I could lock up my coat and backpack, and be unburdened admiring the art- as in "The Scream" and other super famous paintings. Besides, wandering around and art museum is just really awesome!

Walking toward the hotel, I went through beautiful gardens and managed to pass the Royal Palace just at the Changing of the (4) guards at 2 PM! There were about 10 people there watching, in contrast to the approximate million people at Stockholm's noon changing of the guards.

Anyhoo, the flag was flying atop of the palace, so maybe the royal family is in residence right now. I get the feeling that the Scandinavian royalty families are more accessible here than in some countries.

Finally I walk to the amazing Vigeland Sculpture Museum, where the 200+ statues were full- sized and unencumbered by clothing. I think they were involved in activities of daily living, but I'll share some pictures and you can decide for yourself. It was a beautiful day in Oslo!

Tomorrow I hope to take a free walking tour at central station -and enjoy a few more activities on my list. There is a blog called "Tripping blonde" where she gives great advice for vacationing 7 Days in Norway, with specifics for Oslo. I have copied her itinerary nearly verbatim.http://trippingblonde.com/

I'll share some pictures now! Enjoy!

Monday, July 10 (Still Oslo)

What is wrong with me? I am a bit out of sorts, but I think I've figured it out. It's hard being in a place that is damn near perfect. Norway, that is.

I love my United States, but the differences just repeatedly slap me upside the head: Free university for people of any nation, as education is seen as a human right Many weeks of paid vacation
Paid maternity and paternity leave

That the buying of prostitution services is illegal, not the selling (What? Women aren't punished?)

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize because they live peace as a value

The national values: 1. everyone is important 2. freedom of speech 3. Transparency

Punishment of lawbreakers is forbidden, and rehabilitation is instead the goal.

30% of the cars are now electric, thanks to government initiatives, free charging stations, deals with Tesla, etc.

The environment is considered important (75% of Arctic ice has gone in just 30 years).

GMO's are banned and food is healthy, and the people are active and healthy.

Kids and parents seem relaxed and happy with each other.

As in Sweden, nearly all activities close at 6 PM, I guess so people can go relax with families and friends. Such early closing is unusual for places where it is sunlight until so late!

Fortunately, my whining beyond this point got deleted when my iPhone reset, but suffice it to say that our country could be so much better with some intelligent thinking.

I enjoyed the Folk Museum, The Viking ship museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum (a raft from Peru to Fiji) and the Nobel Peace Center.

Guess who was the only one featured while I was upstairs in the Nobel room that houses everyone who has won? Jimmy Carter from Atlanta, Georgia! How random and awesome is that?!

President Obama and Al Gore (for his environmental work, which should be important only to those who breathe air), Martin Luther King Jr, and a few other Americans!

I made myself proud figuring out the tram and bus system, which were quick and easy using my 24 hour Oslo pass. Quiet, sleek, organized, frequent, clean transportation... a great system!

Tomorrow I head out from Oslo (via train) to overnight in Flam, which is on the biggest fiord! It's now picture time!

7.11.17 Oslo to Flam (Norway in a Nutshell Part 1):  

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/fGGIe642npaR9PxX2

Oslo to Myrdal, then on the Flamsbana train down to Flam.

No blog, pictures tell the story  :)

Amazing train journey!

July 12- Norway in a Nutshell - booking instructions

Pictures:  7.12.17 Flam to Bergen (Norway in a Nutshell Part 2):  https://photos.app.goo.gl/1QssDDykiQRcpLRS2

Today was the second half of my Norway in a Nutshell trip! After days of research, I have this figured out. Oh yes! So here's how to do it! (Feel free to skip the text if you don't need travel logistics)

What is it?
Norway in a Nutshell (abbreviated NinN) is a private trip that they have organized to go from Oslo to Bergen in 1-day and see some fabulous sites via a train, ferry, and bus detour along the way - so you can get out on Norway's longest fjord, the Sognefjord. (Journey described below).

Or you can go the other direction, Bergen to Oslo. (Bergen is the second largest city in Norway and is on the West Coast. You can easily fly internationally in or out of Bergen.).

You could even go Oslo to Bergen to Oslo in just 1 day, but why would you want to do that?

How can I book Norway in a Nutshell?

Easy way to book it is to go online to Norway in a nutshell site and book it! https://www.norwaynutshell.com/

What if they are completely booked?
Say, you wait until a month before your trip... you may find that the two early trains from Oslo are fully booked! That means you can't make it from Oslo to Bergen in one day because you can't start early enough!

Uh-oh! If that happens, the nice "Norway in a Nutshell" folks will not help you plan it for any price. They only do full day, complete trips, from Oslo to Bergen or the other direction. The option you want (a 2 day+ trip) won't even show on their website.

You thus must and absolutely can arrange it yourself! Do not take no for an answer! Here are the components (assuming Oslo to Bergen, as I am doing):

1. Book a train from Oslo to Myrdal (4 hrs). Book online at NBS.no (the Norwegian train company). You may need to email them for a code for people without a Norwegian phone number. Download their app too.

However, before you buy the ticket, make sure you have the next component's timing (the Myrdal to Flam train, described below), coordinated with it. You do not want to be stuck overnight in Myrdal! (You can hike the 21km down on a path- some fit folks do for fun-yet another reason to take only a backpack)

The Oslo to Myrdal trip section is a glorious ride through one of the most spectacular train trips of Norway! The National Park it crosses is amazing!

2. Take the private Flamsbama (Flam Railway) train (1hr) from Myrdal to Flam - definitely book in advance at https://www.visitflam.com/.../se-og-gj.../aktiviteter/flamsbana/

Overnight Note: if you were unable to book either of the 2 early morning trains from Oslo, and instead had to leave Oslo around noon, you are going to be arriving too late into Flam to continue with the "Norway in a Nutshell" trip for that day, so book a hotel or hostel in Flam for the night.

3. The third leg of "Norway in a Nutshell" is a boat trip from Flam to Gudvangen. This goes through fiords that have UNESCO status because they are so incredible!

Book this boat through the Flam Visitor Center online at: http://www.kringom.no - and coordinate it with both of the next 2 steps, the bus and train.

Some boats stop at four different ports first, but some boats go direct from Flam to Gudvangen, so check the times the boats arrive Gudvangen and match them up with your next bus and train.

You might even want to spend a night or two in Flam before continuing on to Gudvangen, Voss & then Bergen.

4. When your boat arrives into the tiny harbor of Gudvangen, and you are waiting to get off the boat, look left and you will see a big red city bus with the numbers "950" to Voss at the top. That's your bus!

Go up to the bus driver, when you get off the boat, and asked to buy a ticket to Voss. It costs 115 Kr and the driver had some small change for my cash.

This bus was the only section of the NinN trip that I could not book in advance. Even though it was high season, there were still a few seats left on the bus, as most of the people on the ferry were from a cruise ship and had their own buses for the shore excursion, or people were returning by bus directly back to Flam, not going onto Voss.

This public bus 950 is also the bus that all the folks with "Norway in a Nutshell" tickets take (bus says "Norway in a Nutshell" on the top front, along with "950").

The hour bus trip includes an 18% downgrade, a hairpin curvy road, amazing waterfalls, and a stop at the Stalheim Hotel with incredible view! The bus left right on time.

You can find the bus schedule at https://www.skyss.no/en/ as it is a public bus. Maybe you can buy the tickets in advance, but it may require a Norwegian phone number or special code, but you may be able to get the code by emailing them.

Otherwise, just buy your ticket from the driver there. If you do that, leave yourself time to catch a second bus before your next step, on the rare chance that the first bus will be full and you have to take the next one. Or you can just acknowledge that you may have to spend $25 for another train ticket, should you be late for the one (Voss to Bergen) that you booked (described in next step).

5. Your final leg of your "Norway in a Nutshell" is a train ride on the public train system from Voss to Bergen. This 2-hour train trip costs about $25 US and can also (along with Step 1 tickets) be booked online in advance at NBS.no If by some fluke, you miss that train due to the bus, it is no big deal to buy another train ticket for $25 Voss to Bergen. To get from the bus station to the train station, walk a short distance (100 meters?) Just ask the bus driver to point the way.

Ta-da! You just put together your own Norway in a Nutshell!

You can customize it further by spending a few nights in The National Park (between Oslo and Myrdal). Or spend a few days in Flam, and/or visit some of the little towns between Flam and Gudvangen - Rick Steves have some good information on this. (Just buy the ferry tickets individually from the Flam Visitors Info- you can email questions to them and they'll respond!)

Now you can book your own schedule because you are powerful! I hope this saves you two days of research trying to figure it out!

I will put pictures of today's adventures: the ferry from Flam, bus from Gudvangen, and train from Voss to Bergen:

July 13, Bergen to Alesund:

Pictures:   https://photos.app.goo.gl/OuQ90Bhut1DrCVvJ3

Beautiful Bergen: delightful day!

Joke from tour guide: Summer in Bergen is the best day of the year!

Grueling travel right now. Hopping city to city is logically and physically challenging. But I knew it wouldn't be a leisure trip- it's a chance to see as many areas of Norway as I can.

So I'm flying on a 4:40pm flight from Bergen to Alesund, a cute town of about 260,000, also on the west coast. With all the fiords, driving is not as efficient because rare roads wiggle around the fjords. A boat trip up the coast is easier than driving. But the flight was just $119 and a quick 30 minutes.

Let me tell you about Bergen! It is a delightful city! Very walkable, lots of students, cobblestone streets, and beautiful hills throughout down to the picturesque harbor with its red tented fish market. The old Hanseatic League started here in like the 1300's and was the last of the trade co-op (so to speak) to close.

So the "new" Bergen buildings, after lots of fires are from the 1700's! Haha! That's old to us!

I followed Rick Steve's advice and took the walking tour with the Bryggens Museum. It was 150 NOK ($18) for 1.5 hours and we visited 3 museums as well as nearby places, all in the old waterfront area.

The Bryggens Museum had excavations from the 1300's, artifacts, etc. The current exhibit was on Armory Troops, organized by, and run for, boys. It sounded to me a bit like wholesome gangs.

At Museum 2, the Hanseatic Assembly Rooms, we gathered in a big common room with a big fireplace, vaulted ceiling, and tables. Because there was no heat in the tenement houses (see pics of colorful row houses), this was the co-op room. Everyone assembled here, ate, and hung out (they also paid to build and maintain it).

In the Hanseatic Museum, we saw where the German lads, from age 14, were sent to basically boarding school there for at least 6 years. They slept 2 to a bed (which appeared only 5' long and in wood-enclosed bunks). Hazing rituals were all part of the training.

I had a good time meeting a few people on the tour. Probably 1/3 were Americans (likely all Rick Steves fans).

Speaking of new friends, I ran into yesterday's ferry friends from Iceland as I was leaving town! And then the Copenhagen friends on the airport Flybuss!

Americans behind me lit up our airport bus with their volume. Americans have never had to worry about the KGB or others listening in, with persecution following, so we culturally feel free to share our thoughts far too loudly for the rest of the world. Please, volume is worth noticing. I love how quiet most trains and buses are in Europe! People talk to each other but at the lowest volume necessary while inside. You'll see a group of French or German teenagers and they are shockingly quiet and mature as they interact with each other. Anyway, just a tip.

It is midnight now and I have had so much fun that I have not had time to organize my pictures and blog on my evening in Alesund, but I will try to catch up tomorrow on the ferry!

In the meantime, I will share some pictures from Bergen for you :-) Enjoy!

Alesund: evening of July 13, Thurs.

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/xF9Xo1ldpNi3Mi4q1

So I flew into Alesund about 6 PM, took the bus into town, and walked less than a block to my hotel.

As I mentioned, I am following the great advice of the Trippin' Blonde blog, on "7 Days in Norway," who provided a whole day's itinerary for this adorable town. So it was great fun, sort of like a scavenger hunt, to go to all these places she mentioned.

So I:

1. Climbed up 418 steps in the central town park to a lookout point: It was so beautiful, it almost made me cry! I think it might be the prettiest town I have ever seen! Absolutely breathtaking! (No pun intended regarding the climb)

2. Went to Apoteker'n Cafe and got a piece of chocolate cake (yes, I'm sure it was vegan and healthy- Not!) It is considered the "world's best chocolate cake" and I confirmed. And I enjoyed a no-handle mug of delicious herbal tea!

3. Walked along the harbor, walked through town admiring the old buildings, and took pictures from my Cityview window, which opened and even I was afraid I would fall out! OMG, the window ledge was so low! Different safety standards to be sure.

4. Tried to find my Hurtigruten ship's ticket office for the next morning, but I did not (They don't have one. Buy online on their app, which doesn't work on my iPhone, or through tourist information if you are early enough, or simply buy onboard!)

At least I found where ship is to be docked. (As I walked by a different ship there, it blew its horn loudly enough to rattle windows! They should give written notice before blowing that thing! Haha!) There is only one ship a day, so it is important to make it!

5. Ended my evening at the recommended Dirty Nelly's bar to try a Norwegian beer (taking one for the team!), where a nice couple invited me to join them after I shared a picture with them. Mette and Linda were so much fun! Great time meeting Norwegians!

I find it very interesting traveling alone. For the most part, I feel invisible. If I reach out and talk to people, they are very friendly then. But if I don't say anything, they never talk to me first or in anyway acknowledge me. Very interesting. So I'm friendly!

Norwegian language is very lyrical! I still cannot correctly pronounce "Alesund" because you go down and then back up, sort of like Chinese tones. Plus the "Al" sounds a bit like "ole" in "good ole boy". But the Norwegians are good sports, and happy to attempt to teach. While there was much less English spoken here, like the bus driver had trouble, it is still very easy to get around.

Ready for some Alesund pictures?

Friday, July 14 Geiranger to Andalsnes:

Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/xF9Xo1ldpNi3Mi4q1

What a brilliant day going through the UNESCO site of the Geiranger Fjord!

I was up really early so I could figure out the ship to Geiranger. So I was able to get a Grovkake treat from the recommended 1893 Martin Walderhaug Bakery (still family-owned) in town after my hotel breakfast, went by tourist information, and then ran by the ship where it turned out to be a simple matter to walk aboard and buy my ticket at their reception counter. It had taken a lot of work, emails and questions to get to that point.

Norwegians are so much more relaxed than me about everything! For example, they tell me I can just flag down the bus tomorrow as it drives by, but I'm not so sure about that. I am sure, however, that I look like a Nervous Ninny to them with all my questions!

I was on board as soon as the ship docked at 8:45 AM, and it left a few minutes before it's 9:30 AM scheduled time! Yikes! Don't miss the boat!

The boat was full of people who have booked a two week cruise. It made me glad I was traveling alone! My goodness! (Double yikes! They made me look positively zen.)

My fjord transportation cruise from Alesund to Geiranger (512 NOK = $62) was spectacular!

I could not believe how stunning the scenery was! Waterfalls, snow, sharp cliffs... Spectacular! Glaciers caused the U-shaped mountains, whereas rivers would have caused V-shapes.

In the pictures, notice how small the cruise ships look!

Upon arrival in Geiranger, we were tendered a short distance off the boat by a smaller boat. I walked around the tiny town for a few minutes, going to the chocolate factory, and the grocery store where they made me a vegan baguette sandwich, and then I went to the Tourist Information Center, where I asked about the bus tomorrow.

I also scored, in a gift shop, a Dale of Norway sweater for HALF PRICE!! Whoo-hoo!! Dale is pronounced "dolla" and means "woolly" and Dale is a town about 30 minutes from Bergen. While the sweater was still 1000 NOK, (no way, I'm not converting that), I should get 25% back at the airport for tax-free shopping (for all items that cost over 350 NOK).

Fortunately, only my hat and sweater qualify at this time. I have been looking at Dale of Norway sweaters since I arrived, and had wished I'd had time to go to the factory outlet at their headquarters near Bergen, so I could not believe my good fortune today! They started in 1879 and also supply the Norwegian Olympic team!

I also am thrilled to have bought some moose socks! When your socks squash down in your shoes with every step, it is so annoying! You would not believe my joy at good socks!

Tourist information kindly called my hotel for me to ask them to pick me up in town, but upon getting no answer, instead of waiting to try again, I decided to walk. I had already put on my moose socks!

Not a great decision to walk! It was 2 km, uphill, along a busy road, with my backpack. Long way! Fortunately I laughed most of the way with a nice Swedish couple who were also walking, not with luggage. (He offered to carry my backpack along with his daybag , but of course I refused). My socks did great!

Upon arrival at the hotel, I staggered up to the bellhop, who was on the front porch, and just dropped my backpack on the ground. They delivered it up to my room later! (They were quite apologetic about no one answering the phone to get me).

I'm staying at the Grand Fjord, a luxury hotel! It was over $200 a night for my single room, and would have been $300+ a night for a double! Why did I book here when it blew my budget? Because a month ago, when I booked, it was the only room available within 20 miles!! No kidding. Note to self: book early! Way early!

Just beyond the hotel, between the water and me, with a great view of the enormous fjord, is a scattering of camping cars (RV's)! The hotel seems to own a little campground right here and there are several little cabins too. They have an equally great view as my room, but doubtfully at the same price. I miss camping in Europe because it is so, so, SO fun!

Made some really fun friends today! I reach out and chat with many people when appropriate and 90% of them are great fun, while some act like they are aliens. I usually feel sorry for people like that, because they can't possibly have many friends, given those social skills. So I enjoy the fun ones!

Anyhoo, I will share some pictures with you now. Enjoy the magnificent scenery! (2 sets of pics for this amazing Fjord!).

Saturday, July 15:  Geiranger to Andalsnes - through Trollstigen

Pictures:   https://photos.app.goo.gl/9r84fvXaDYncKbVh1

After a stunning breakfast overlooking the fjord with a breathtaking view, the hotel bellhop kindly drove me the mile and a half into town, with my backpack.

I again pestered (twice more) the tourist information office about the bus and afterward they were kind enough to let me store my backpack to the side for free for an hour. Normally it is 40 NOK for the day, but for an hour and just a backpack they were flexible.

That is one of the things I love about Norway! They are kind, flexible and use common sense.

Another example: I was told that if I arrive at the train station tomorrow and they have changed it to a bus for whatever reason, they will get a taxi or someway to get me to where I need to be, don't worry!

So without having to carry my pack, I was free to hike the 10 minutes to a waterfall right there in Geiranger town, and then 10 more minutes up the steps beside the falls! So incredibly beautiful!

No cruise ships were in Geiranger this morning, so much less busy. I was able to stop at a local bakery and, for lunch on the bus, get a healthy muffin, local apple juice, and an "Almost-world-famous cinnamon roll with extra chocolate and walnuts." I actually named it that because they have some others labeled "World Famous Cinnamon Rolls," but when I asked if the "Extra Chocolate and Walnut" ones were also world-famous, she said, "No, because they have not been out very long." Ha! I think she was serious. I can assure you the "Extra chocolate and walnut" ones will be "world-famous" soon enough!

So after further pestering loitering bus drivers, fellow bus riders, etc., I actually managed to

load onto the correct bus (I did wave my arms at it just in case it wanted to drive by me Leave nothing to chance! Getting public transportation is not my forte! And the bus driver took both credit card and cash, which is good since it was like $50 for the bus!
Then we drove up the road and when we got to my hotel, there were two people in the driveway who waved at the bus driver, who stop the middle of the road and pick them up. I

guess it would work to wave down the bus! :-)


The bus from Geiranger to Andalsnes was INCREDIBLE! I mean breathtaking scenery! Hairpin curves! I sat in the front seat for great pictures and I am sure the bus driver got tired of hearing my stunned "WOW!!!" Oh just look at the pictures! I cannot even describe it!

We went through Trollstigen (my Swedish friend had said "stigen" means "Hiking path". A woman beside me on the bus said her great-grandfather helped build this great switchback road. It is so incredible that we have a Picture-taking stop at both the top and bottom!

That amazing road requires steely nerves from the bus driver, as often only one vehicle could drive at a time - and our bus used every inch of the road. There are Internet pictures of stuck buses at one of the hairpin turns! We fortunately had a great driver.

I also made new friends from Russia! Three were sitting beside me, two of whom were from Saint Petersburg who now live in Vilnius, Lithuania, and one who lives in St. Petersburg. We had a great time talking! The guy had come two summers to America to do a "work and travel program". He had spent one summer in Atlantic City, NJ, and one summer in San Francisco. See pictures of them- very sweet young people.

Speaking of Russia (the people are not the problem), remember how when traveling how we pretended we were Canadian, because it wasn't safe to be from the US? Well if I had pins to sell now to traveling Americans, they would say "I'm from America, but I did NOT vote for Trump." That's what I tell people upon meeting them - and I get immediate camaraderie, and

often sympathy. They are ALL in shock too. It's so very embarrassing for our country! That's all I'm saying right now about that.

Had dinner at the Chinese place near the hotel, and the owner's nice husband sat down and talked with me for a while about his life and Norway. That was really nice!

Did a walk around the 2 km2 town and wondered what on earth the cruise ships do in the port! With 2244 town residents, the cruise ships hold more passengers! It is a cute, historic old town.

I have cut down my pictures so much, but I have so many still! Probably will post two sets tonight.

It's my last night in Norway!

Tomorrow I take the 9:32 AM train on the incredible Rauma Railway, Then switch for a train to the Oslo airport for flight to Berlin!

Sunday, July 16 - to Berlin

Andalsnes to Oslo Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/uvB8NNNpMXPOYgkm1

Berlin Pictures:  https://photos.app.goo.gl/WSwX0ONo9arszxdg1 

Travel day! Andalsnes, Norway on the Rauma Railway to Berlin, Germany

Here's the activity, AND the special people I met along the way:

1. Train Andalsnes - Dombas - Oslo Airport
The first train ride was very famous Rauma Railway- the 2nd most spectacular railway trip in Norway. (The first is the Oslo to Myrdal section of the “Norway in a Nutshell"

I met a picture perfect Norwegian family with their 18-month-old son. If I bought a picture frame with their picture in it, I'd just leave it in there - they are that cute!

This well educated, nice couple met in University and after both getting their masters (one got a double masters), they now both work in finance and statistics in Oslo's government.

They kindly shared details of how they both care for their son. (I’ll share below)

2. Three hour airport wait: During which, I talked with another sweet family, who confirmed with the first family had said about family leave.

3. Flight to Berlin (1.5 hrs)- sat beside a wonderful Berlin couple who gave great advice for things to see and do. They shared their fresh bread, carrots, and walnuts with me and I contributed a smushed Cliff bar to the plane picnic :-)

4. Trip from Berlin airport to hotel- when we got off the plane, the nice couple I had sat beside had done a year sabbatical and travelled for much of it, some years prior. They explained that it was normal to do and the way it worked is that they notified their work for 2 years prior. Then they earned 80% pay and “banked” the rest to cover health insurance and I think some reduced pay while they were gone too. I thought that was brilliant!

Upon landing, they took me under their wing and help me buy a metro ticket, which we all took together, and then they walked me to my tram platform, gave hugs, and then they ran and caught their other tram. How nice is that?!

Without them, I might still be at airport tourist information, trying to figure out how to get into town. It was only 3.5 and was a long distance to the city center! They were angels and I will try to pass on thier helpful spirit.

It was a short walk from the train to the hotel, and if you go the right direction to start, and makes it faster, I imagine.

After dropping my stuff in my hip hotel (Motel One-Hackersher Markt), my quest to visit as many of the 156 vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the city began! A HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SIX!!! These are not “veg-friendly” places, they are real places that serve no meat within a 10 mile radius! Be still my heart!!!

The rest of the world is getting it... plants are the way to good health, care for animals, and good for the environment.

So, I need to go back to Berlin because I did not get to all of the veg places (yet). The falafel sandwich place was by the hotel and SO CHEAP compared to Norway! Wow! It was like 3.5E for a big pita stuffed with falafels, lettuce, hummus, etc.

You can safely say that I ate my way through Berlin. But I’ll end with notes on lovely Norway: Family-Friendly Norway:

Work Leave with the new baby: 10 weeks min each Mom and Dad, then 30 weeks to divide up as want (a year total)

Started kindergarten at 1 year old- mostly paid by government
Can Choose Either: 10 mos at 100% pay or 12 months maternity/paternity leave at 80% pay. She stayed home 9 mos then he was home for 3

Work is Flexible: 7-9am start, 3-5pm end
Mom works 7a-3p and Dad works 9a-5p, so baby is in kindergarten from 9am-3 pm (2 hrs of which he's napping)

Regular vacation time for all residents: 5 weeks paid time + 1 week of sick leave that can be used as vacation time if not used.

Let me find some pics for you now... okay, an album just uploaded. Enjoy!

Monday, July 17 (More Berlin)

Berlin is a fascinating, intriguing city. Edgy, fun, young, hip, sometimes scruffy, sometimes sparkling, full of acceptance for counter-cultures, historic, East & West
...the head of the German government, the end of Hitler, huge buildings, memorials, and 156 vegetarian and vegan restaurants!

One day to see it... I needed a plan! My Berlin friends had given me advice on the plane and I’d attempted to type it in my phone, but honestly, I didn’t understand most of it. If I’d had 5 days to compare my attempts-at-German names to actual maps, I may have gotten it.

But I only had 1 day and had done 0 studying. And it was day 32 and I was tired.

The plan- I wanted to:
Go on the segway tour to see the sites & learn the history Visit as many vegan places as possible
Visit Ritter Sport Chocolate factory
Figure out the bus to the airport, and
have a drink at the top of the TV tower!

The day was perfect! Sparkling 75 degrees sunshine!

Segway Tour- AWESOME! That was so fun! It was exciting too because we were zipping through busy traffic. Fun people on the tour. All my skin is still on my body, not the pavement, so it went surprisingly well! Fun, fun, FUN!

Our tour guides (2) were really good and there is SO much history to learn about Berlin that to cram it into 3 hours is admirable. Some standouts:

1. The Berlin Wall: Went up overnight in 1961 to keep East Berliners from leaving. And it wasn’t just a wall, it was 2 walls with death traps in the middle. Desperate people even zip lined in the night to get to the West. Hundreds of sniper towers along it (see pic of one). And it just came down in 1989. Can you imagine?
2. Book burnings in the square (20,000), fires that end with total power for Hitler, the parking lot (unmarked so it won’t become a place for racists) where Hitler’s final bunker was found underneath.
3. The Jewish Memorial: this is a fascinating memorial. Blocks of different sizes on rolling land, no names or engravings, shadows that throw off perception. You walk down between the blocks that are in perfect formation. You cannot hide because every point within what appears to be a maze can be seen by someone on the edges. From the top, it looks like a perfect grid. As you walk into the memorial, the columns get taller and you feel unsettled, claustrophobic, unable to breathe. It’s a very effective memorial, thought-provoking and emotional. 6 Million People... murdered.
Currywurst with ketchup comes from the airdrops that kept Berliners alive. It was a combo of the foods dropped by 3 different countries. It can be found everywhere. (They even had a vegetarian option!

Chicken Bus incident! It took a few attempts, but I finally located the stop for the Tegel Airport Bus! As I was there, a bus was just loading. I went to ask the bus driver how much the tickets cost, so I would know for the next day. When he didn’t look at anyone, I sensed trouble and just stepped on near the door to lean over and ask (I was the last one on).

He totally ignored me and instead reached to push a button. I glanced behind me and sure enough! The doors were closing! I popped back off the bus before they could ensnare me! I don’t think he spoke English, whereas everyone else basically did. He was really the only rude person I met in Berlin.

It reminded me of the Chicken Bus in Honduras (I believe) when I was asking the bus driver a question and Charles (who was about 12 at the time) had to jump on the bus as it pulled away, because the driver was tired of waiting!

Going to the top of the TV tower was great fun. By the time my Segway tour friends told me to book online, only “Late-Night” 10pm tickets were left, which I bought via cell phone. They let us up a little early though and it was crowded and great fun because I talked to some of the people around me while we were waiting and in line, etc. 17.5E to go up and only 5.5E for a glass of red wine. Not bad!

Overall Berlin was a fascinating city! I would love to go again and spend more time, learn more about the history. It reminded me of a HUGE Austin, TX. Weird, quirky, pretty, active, interesting and smart people.

Enjoy the pictures that I’ll post next as an album.

Final Trip Blog:

Tues, July 18 Heading home!

So I miscalculated and ended up at the Berlin airport three hours before my flight! Brother! I already had my boarding pass on my phone, no luggage, and had planned to be there 2 hours early. Better early than late, but that was too early- nothing was even open. Another of Tweedle-Dee’s travel (mis)adventures!

Berlin has 2 airports. They are using Tegel (TXL -which is in the city) for most international flights, I think. The other one, Schonefeld (SXF) is old, but a new one is in-process for being built and it’s continuously slow construction has been an embarrassment to the city (said my Berlin friends). You can taxi on the plane right by the sparkling new airport with glass and lots of new gates, but you can’t use it for another year or longer.

So in Tegel Airport, I looked all over for Main Security. They don’t have one! Instead EVERY gate has passport check, security with the conveyor belt, and baggage claim.

One girl I met said that she didn’t pay attention and walked right by the baggage claim area when she arrived at the airport! She had no idea that you got your bag the second you walk into the airport off the flight, so before she knew it, she was out of the secured airport area with no way to get back in! It took over TWO HOURS to have someone come to the gate to retrieve her bag for her after she went by the “Lost Luggage” desk. Pay attention if you’re flying in/out of Berlin TXL!

As I finally boarded the plane in Berlin, the pilot greeted me warmly and said, “How’d you enjoy that Segway tour yesterday?” I was speechless for a minute until I recognized him as part of our Segway tour. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I told my wife that when you said you were going to Newark tomorrow that we’d see you on the plane!"

Both United flights home were far more comfortable than Lufthansa on the way there. TXL - Newark (EWR 9 hrs) - to ATL.

I had just 1 hour at the EWR gate before the flight to ATL. Had I needed to wait on my luggage, wait in the regular passport line, and wait in the regular security line, I don’t think I’d have been on that plane, even though I had 2 hrs 10 min between flights. Carry on bags, Global entry, and TSA Pre-check made all the difference. And even the TSA-precheck line was long!

The awesome heat of Atlanta hit me when I stepped off the plane. “You don’t need that coat anymore!” the flight attendants joked! It was great to be home! Ned picked me up from the airport and we had Kung Pau Tofu and beer for dinner. Perfection!

It was an epic trip and I was proud of myself for traveling alone for some of it. I really did enjoy it! I learned how to be less anxious being alone in public situations. While I enjoy having travel companions, it’s critical to have good ones and it is better to go alone than to go with an incompatible one. I don’t have to be limited if I don’t have a good travel partner to go with me. I know that I can go anywhere and have fun by myself! That is very empowering.

One thing I would change is to slow down. My “Preview Tours” are exhausting because transportation is challenging and checking in and out of hotels is time-consuming. Then trying to eat and sightsee in the middle... I really need to plan 2-3 nights in each location in the future. It’s okay to slow down. Still, there is no place that i would give up seeing! So therein lies the conundrum. The solution is to stay longer! Like in a camper van!

Countries Visited: Jun. 16 - July 18, 2017
Lithuania- Vilnius, Trakai,
Siauliai (also Kernave', Kaunas, Palanga, & Klepeida) Kaliningrad- Kaliningrad
Russia – St. Petersburg
Sweden - Stockholm
Finland – Helsinki
Estonia – Tallinn
Latvia – Riga
Denmark – Copenhagen
Norway – Oslo, Flam, Bergen, Alesund, Geiranger, Andalsnes
Germany- Berlin

I am grateful to have had this magnificent trip! It was definitely an exclamation point in my life! Thanks for journeying along with me.

Packing Advice: Where’s your Luggage?

As I hand my Global Entry receipt to the US Immigration Officer, he demands, “Where’s your luggage?!” He thinks I have forgotten it. I’m confused, “I have my luggage,” I said, twisting to show my backpack. He replies surprised, “How long...? Never mind,” and waves me in. With no checked baggage to wait on, and Global Entry to speed me past interminable lines, I'm a huge fan of a carry-on only bag.

Want to know what was in my 13 lb pack that can provide everything one needs for a month, or indefinitely? Curious people might want to hear:

SwissGear Travel Gear, 1592 Deluxe Laptop Backpack - 15”


Location of everything in the Pack: -
Back pocket:

Eagle Creek Pack-it Folder (small): All clothes are neatly held in here. (http://tinyurl.com/y7erjgdv)

Columbia quick dry travel pants
Kuhl travel pants
3 lightweight merino wool t-shirts (no stink): (
1 mid-weight wool long-sleeve shirt (no stink): (
http://tinyurl.com/yajtaup4) 1 Anne Rivers scarf for style and flair!: (http://www.annerivers.com)
3 pairs undies
1 slip-on black skirt
1 black shorts
2 bras
2 pairs of socks
1 silk bathrobe
1 pair travel slippers from 1st hotel

Also in back pocket: Soft sided 1/2” Notebook with: Printed TripIt Itinerary
Hotel & Flight confirmations
Train & bus tickets

Activity tickets (like Hermitage tickets, Segway tour, etc)
Paperwork was arranged chronologically. I threw out everything when done. -

Middle pocket held:
Since I wore one pair of shoes, packed were either Ecco walking shoes or Choco’s sandals (I suggest Crocs instead)

Bathing suit in tiny zippered pouch (always take a bathing suit)

Travel cube converter (has 2 USB slots too): (http://tinyurl.com/ybjsp8me) A flat iron: http://tinyurl.com/ya7yqjck
A round hair brush- small 1”

My Toiletries bag: (http://tinyurl.com/yahkgo26) with highly recommended clear holder that replaces the ziplock bag at airport security and stands upright. All my toiletries stand up straight in this: (http://tinyurl.com/ydap7fcd)

Also in Toiletries bag: Tide sink packets (1 per sink load): I washed all my clothes in the sink and after jelly-rolling (roll them up in a towel and stomp on it), they were dry by morning. I didn’t want my expensive and necessary travel clothes to be dried, ruined, or lost by someone else. So I just used the hotel sink and it took very little time. Very easy. The wool shirts are not to be washed every time anyway. (http://tinyurl.com/ybdfpkgr)

Middle pocket: I always travel with a picnic kit: Silicon collapsible bowl, spork, and plastic knife in a ziplock

Outside Side Pockets held:
Disposable water bottle
Poncho-cheap but covered my legs & backpack in a downpour Lightweight rain jacket with hood that folded into its own pocket Inflatable pillow (for back on planes & trains)

Airplane footrest- love! So tiny & comfy! Goes over the lap desk- a hammock for your feet: (http://tinyurl.com/yca383xr)

2 locks for the big pockets: Many times, I put my pack in hotel luggage hold where anyone could go through it. These great locks are relatively heavy, so I took 2, even though I had 3 zippers. I'd just first move the tech bag to a locking pocket: (http://tinyurl.com/ycncj5l3)

Front lower small pocket:
Tech ziplock with:
Red i-phone 6’ cord (so i don’t leave it), and charging cube (which I broke) European converter (round & another one square)
Fitbit cord
Headphones (2)

Travel alarm (I used this 3 times. European doors never had the swing bar over the door from the inside. This tiny alarm is terrific! I bought for my kids’ travel too): If the prongs come apart, the alarm sounds. Hang over the doorknob, pull out the 2 prongs, close them in the door, and sleep in peace. (http://tinyurl.com/ydbkof84)

Anti-theft purse (slash-proof) with RFID block for passport and credit card slots.
It also locks and has a secret slip pocket for my phone (I could get phone in and out one- handed for quick pics). I wore this purse across my body at all times unless sleeping: (

When I sat down, I slid the strap down to my waist, so it was still always around me. I could not run off and leave it.

Inside zippered pocket: held extra cash

Center pocket: Pen, lipstick, & Advil, slots with credit cards directly in, medical cards, with cash (folded by denomination) and hotel key- lined up in the back slot. Super-organized.

Outside pocket back: Paper copy of passport, a napkin, & any receipts to confirm online and then throw away

Front pocket: held my glasses, sunglasses, and if needed for the day, the candy-bar sized extra battery power 5500 mAh for my phone: (Anker brand only was advice I followed: (http://tinyurl.com/y7m668ht)

However, I would have been fine with this smaller and lighter “lipstick” sized-one that I got for Lia with 3350 mAh: (http://tinyurl.com/yb2euqgs)

- -

When we pack, we tend to worry about our clothes, but I think we should worry instead about our technology. Our technology needs to work! It is THE most important packing component.

So make sure you have thought through your cords (plus backups), chargers (plus backup), converters (plus backups), and backup source of power.

Make sure you have a SIM card. We got Keepgo (https://www.keepgo.com/) and it worked in all countries, except Russia, so I just bought a cheap SIM card there. I used a little over 1g per week because i don’t worry about it. I just do whatever I want to do. There is enough to worry about on the road. I did try to be conscious about uploading pics when I had hotel wifi (they all had for free).

If you are going to one country for a week or more, I’d just buy a SIM card in the airport. Don’t leave the airport without asking at Tourist info, every little newspaper store, the pharmacy, whomever you need to ask to find the one person in the airport (at least) who is selling them. They can get it activated and working for you before you walk away with it in 10 minutes.

The Keepgo SIM lasts for a year from your last refill. It is so simple to use! When you land after the flight, turn off airplane mode, and ta-da! It automatically finds the local carrier and you can then use google maps, Uber, etc. It’s like magic. I think it was $60 for 1 gig and then $100 to refill for 3 gigs, but prices went down yesterday. We are totally dependent on our phones when traveling. It is more important than extra clothes.

Reminder: Make sure you get all the apps that will help you before you leave (although you can add as you go). You should know which the apps because EVERYONE is booking online now, well in advance. If you wait to show up for that tour, boat, plane, hotel, activity, it is going to be full because they booked ahead.

Think about popular attractions and buy tickets and fast entrance passes in advance. Museums, towers, restaurants, tours... plan it out. You cannot wing it as much now, unless you have a very flexible timetable, because booking in advance on the internet is now de rigeur.

Language apps: also try to use all the internet options before you leave to learn some of the language. You can hear it and do lessons on Youtube, etc.

Other suggested apps: Compass, You Parked Here, Maps.me, Google Maps, Google Translate, XE money conversion

JACKET: Also carried: my waterproof & warm jacket from Iceland -

I want to add (and I’ll design it if I must) a simple, foldable, 2-wheeled little backpack dolly (maybe of PVC or aluminum) that can be used to wheel my backpack when it doesn’t need to look small, so that I don’t need to always carry it.

I’m sure my pack would have gotten lighter as I went along (delete the shorts, the chocos, etc) because it was still too uncomfortable to choose to wear it around town or on hikes to waterfalls, but a wheeler that weighs almost nothing would be ideal. If anyone knows of such a contraption already, please do tell.

Okay, I hope this exhaustive (and exhausting) post helps someone. Pack light, have fun!

My new life quote: “Live life NOW.” Plan now for that experience that is going to be an exclamation point in your life. When you look back over your lifetime, what will stand out?

Enjoy the journey! 

planxty says:
31 dqys in one blog? I wish I could train myswlf to do that. I have been to a few of the places mentioned and loved them all. This is a great piece of writing and thank you.
Posted on: Sep 06, 2017
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photo by: sheylla