Saint Petersburg, Russia

 

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Travel

For us, getting to  Saint Petersburg really was half the fun. We took an overnight cruise ship from Stockholm to Helsinki. We spent the day in Helsinki, including a five hour bike tour, then took a different overnight cruise from there to Saint Petersburg.

We stayed in Saint Petersburg for a couple of days. Jana’s ability to adapt, linguistically, to most everywhere we go is phenomenal. But she felt the Russian language was just too complicated for an independent tour on our first trip. To offset this, we hired a guide to take us around and show us the sights. This turned out to be a good decision for us. But there were a lot more people that spoke English than we would have thought, so next time, we could opt to go independent if we wanted to.

Saint Petersburg

This is the first Russian town (that Russia still holds) that I have ever been to. It is the second largest city in Russia (with only Moscow being bigger). It was the capital of Russia until 1918.  The capital was moved further inland to Moscow due to the looming German forces.

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As with other European cities, Saint Petersburg’s history is a long, bloody tale of wars, politics, and assassinations. What I found intriguing about Saint Petersburg was the history of its name. Most people don’t realize that it used to be named Leningrad.

So let’s back up a second. It was originally named Saint Petersburg. But in 1914, after the outbreak of WWI, it was renamed Petrograd in order to expunge the German-sounding words from the name. In 1924, following Lenin’s death, it was renamed to Leningrad, which translates to “Lenin’s city”. Then, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was renamed back to Saint Petersburg.

Another interesting tidbit on Saint Petersburg is that during WWII, the city remained under siege by German forces for two and a half years. This proved to be one of the longest, most destructive, and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history.

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Above is the Winter Palace. This was, from 1732 to 1917, the official residence of the Russian monarchs.

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Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, above, is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city. It is the largest orthodox basilica and the fourth largest cathedral in the world. During WWII, the dome (plated with pure gold) was painted grey to avoid attention from enemy aircraft.

 

Absolutely fascinating story of the construction, and of the breathtaking art presented inside. Some time after the completion, much of the artwork began to rapidly deteriorate due to the moisture in the air from being so close to the ocean. So they began the absolutely painstaking process of converting all of the artwork to mosaics, which would last infinitely longer. The effort was never completed.

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The breathtaking Church of the Savior on Blood. Taking the lessons learned from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, all of the artwork was originated in mosaic. If you have been following The Travelin’ Man, then perhaps recall from our travels in Helsinki where I discussed how much they loved Alexander II there and all the work he did to raise that city to greatness. Not everyone was happy with his philosophy of modernizing Russia. This church was built on the site where poor old Alexander II was fatally wounded by an assassin’s bomb. He was whisked away to the Winter Palace, where he died a few hours later.

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If you zoom in closely, you can see the millions of individual tiles used to complete the artwork.

Peterhof Palace

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There were a lot of famous people tied to the history of Saint Petersburg, and it would take years to study and document them all (or you could just go read Wikipedia). But there were a couple of exceptional importance that left a considerable mark on the city, and in fact, the country and even beyond. One was, of course, Peter the Great. I mean, they did name the city after him! So you should definitely stop by his old digs while you’re in town.

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We spent the good part of a day here, and still didn’t see everything. As with all great palaces, it’s not just the breathtaking beauty, or draw dropping excessive over the top expensive construction and decorating that you want to see; it’s also about the surrounding grounds and gardens:

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Catherine Palace

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Catherine I of Russia was married to our friend, Peter the Great. The original structure was built in 1717 as a summer palace. You know….. just a little summer palace to hang out with your girlfriends while Peter is out conquering the world.

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Then came Empress Elizabeth, one of twelve children to Catherine and Peter. When she became Empress of Russia, she felt the old summer palace was just too outdated and small. So in 1752 she had it torn down and rebuilt on a much grander edifice in a flamboyant Rococo style.

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Next was the Empress Catherine II of Russia (no relation to Elizabeth…. long story). She disliked the flamboyant gold plating and extravagant styles of Elizabeth. So she remade the palace in a more modest vision, if that word can even be used in this context.

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But after Catherine the Great passed away in 1796, the palace was not used by subsequent monarchs, who preferred the nearby Alexander Palace as a residence. After the Great Fire of 1820, Catherine’s grandson, Emperor Alexander I decided to refurbish the place to restore it back to the condition it was in while he was growing up there (Alexander I was raised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great… also a long story).

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The palace was targeted and gutted by the Nazi’s during their retreat in WWII. Fortunately, the Soviets had documented the place in great detail, which was very useful during the restoration. Although the largest part of the reconstruction was completed by 2003, much work is still required to restore the palace to its former glory. This effort is still ongoing today.

Hermitage Museum

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This is an interesting place. It consists of six buildings total. Five of these buildings are open to the public, namely the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage, and the Hermitage Theatre.

I cannot convey to you how big this place is. It comprises over three million items! This includes the largest single collection of paintings in the world. And it is, overall, the second largest museum in the world.

As you wonder around in this vast museum and encounter room upon room upon building after building, it is truly information overload.

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You could literally spend several weeks exploring all the displays. Here’s an image I copied from google that will hopefully put this into perspective:

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It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great initially to house the impressive collection of paintings she had acquired from the Berlin merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky (yup, another long story).

 

But the museum wasn’t opened to the public for nearly another one hundred years, in 1852. Hence the name “Hermitage” – it was given this name because of its exclusivity – in its early days, only very few people were allowed to visit.

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Now, having said all that, how I cannot possibly even begin to show you any pictures that would scratch the surface of what is observed in this museum city!

Just look at this magnificent painting of the coronation of Alexander III:

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Collections include inspiring works from renowned artists. See above, Michaelangelo and Van Gogh. This entire floor is mosaic:

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While you will never cover it all in a single visit, you should definitely set aside some time to visit this incredible place. Everywhere you look, from floor to ceiling, is art and beauty, not just the displayed items.

 

In Summary

We enjoyed our stay in Saint Petersburg and would definitely come back again. Tons of things to see and do. We barely scratched the surface. While I had never really considered Russian food before, I must say it was quite delicious. Saint Petersburg is loaded with great bars, restaurants, and parks. I will say, it felt a little weird knowing we were in Russia….

 

Helsinki, Finland

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Helsinki was originally established as a Swedish trading town in 1550. It existed as a small and inconsequential town plagued by wars, poverty, and diseases for the next 200 years. The Swedes built the Sveaborg sea fortress (which we visited, see further below) in the 18th century. While this helped improve the city a little, it wasn’t until the Russians defeated Sweden in the Finnish war in 1809 that things began to turn around. Russia annexed Finland as the Grand Dutch of Finland. The Russians used Finland as sandbox for testing neo-political and financial concepts in hopes of eventually upgrading their own outdated ways. Thus, the Russians invested heavily in the infrastructure of the city. That is why most of the city has Russian architecture.

Bicycle Tour of the City

We took the overnight cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki. We met our tour guide at the main square and did a five hour bike tour of the city. It’s a great way to learn your way around and get to know the city. Funny thing about the square. If you look closely at the picture (above), there is a restaurant on the left called Memphis! Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to try it out. Maybe next time….

The Three Magnificent Churches of Helsinki

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There are three must see churches in Helsinki. This (above) is the Uspenski Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It was finished in 1868. Note the Russian architecture.

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This one (above) is officially the Temppeliaukio Lutheran church. But it is commonly known as the Rock Church. Inhibited by the high costs of building on such rocky terrain, the architects decided to go with the natural flow of the rocks. At the time, it was highly controversial and many frowned on the idea of a church built in a rock. But the architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen did not back down and completed construction in 1969. Once people saw the end result and went inside, they loved it!

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This (above) is the Helsinki Cathedral. It is the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki. While it has undergone several “facelifts” over the years, the original church was built from 1830-1852.

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And here it is again from the direct front. The fellow with the bird on his head is Alexander II. He was the Emperor of Russia at the time and was largely responsible for building up Finland. Incidentally, he met his demise in St. Petersburg, Russia, where an assassin blew him up. We visited that site later in our trip.

All the Rest

Great restaurants and pubs, beautiful parks, and amazing artwork abound throughout this city.

 

Suomenlinna Island

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This is the island I previously referred to as the Sveaborg fortress. It was constructed during the Swedish occupation in the second half of the 18th century to defend against the ongoing war between Russia and Sweden. But it ultimately surrendered to the Russians in 1808, ending some seven centuries of Swedish occupation of Finland. Over the next 109 years, the Russians occupied and improved upon the fortress as it became a significant defensive resource for the protection of the then capital of Russia, St. Petersburg. As late as 1917, it was fortified with massive artillary units and anti-aircraft defenses and used as a small submarine base.

 

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There is actually a submarine on display on the island. But not a Russian sub. This sub was built in 1933, so it pre-dates even the u-boats. In fact, it was ordered by the Germans and built by a Dutch engineering firm.

Now I’m not saying the Germans copied this model for their earlier u-boats, but she does bear a striking resemblance.

she was used by the German Navy as CV-707 for about a year, but then purchased by the Finnish state in 1936 and christened Vesikko. She served in the Finnish navy, including during the Continuation War through 1944.

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She began her life as a museum exhibit in 1973 and has since entertained around one million visitors.

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But the island was not only a substantial fortress of the time, it was also a city within the city. Even today, there are nearly 900 people that live on the island.

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We spent well over half of a day walking around and taking in the beauty and history of this amazing fortress. Many of the ammo bunkers and caves are open. And no, that’s not a hobbit house!

Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland

Ageless City

There is something eternally young about Krakow. The city literally dates back to the stone ages, and it wasn’t bombed during WWII (a little bit, very minor damage). It was rebuilt after the Mongol invasion razed it in the thirteenth century and has, for the most part, remained intact.

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Thus, it is technically a very old city. But there is just something about it as you are wondering around, admiring its many historic styles of architecture, beautifully landscaped parks, and its eloquent and distinctive old town. It just feels young, vibrant, and thriving. Would that any of us could age as well as Krakow!

 

So many things to see and do in this great town. Just walking around, you will experience the beauty and art that is everywhere. Around almost every corner is a shady park with some music or dance festival underway.

 

 

St. Mary’s Basilica

As with most European cities, it also has some of the most beautiful, old churches.

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One of the churches here is particularly famous. It is called St. Mary’s Basilica.

 

 

We went inside this one and it is chock full of amazing sculptures, paintings, and lots of gold.

Wawel Castle

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On the south side of the old town, the Wawel Royal Castle presides over the city. We walked up to it and toured the gardens, but didn’t go inside.

 

Polish Food!

 

And then, of course, there is the food! Polish sausage, pierogi dumplings, potato pancakes (and with pork goulash), yum yum yum!

 

We even tried some Polish craft beer. And as you can read, above, it was the BEST beer in the world!

 

Wieliczka Salt Mine

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We took a tour bus out to see the Wieliczka salt mines. This is one of the oldest and largest salt mines in history. It began commercial mining in the thirteenth century. It halted production in 1996 because the price of salt fell too low to continue mining it.

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It is 287 kilometres (178 mi) long! There are nine levels. We only went down to the third level, which put us 135m (442 ft) underneath the surface.

 

 

It was extremely interesting to see whole caves, walls, statues, and steps all carved directly out of the salt down there.

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They even had a salt statue of Pope John Paul II (in case you didn’t know, he is from the Krakow area).

 

There is even a full chapel, made completely from salt.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp

 

We also visited the concentration camp. This is a very emotional topic and locale, so I won’t dwell on it, other than to say it is definitely worth seeing. It is important to remember our past in hopes that it will never be repeated. It is presented as a museum and was extremely well done and educational.

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We also went by Schindler’s factory as part of a bicycle tour, but we didn’t go inside. The tour went by each of the places that were used in the movie.

We Love Krakow!

 

There is so much to see and do and love in Krakow. We had a really good time and would absolutely come back here.

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And….we were so honored that they named a street after Jana!

 

 

More Portugal

More Portugal

When we visited Portugal with our friend, Marie, we did a lot of things there. So many, in fact, that The Travelin’ Man almost couldn’t keep up. I KNOW, right? It’s true. I did publish articles on our experiences with Lisbon, Porto, Belém, and Sintra. In case you missed those or want to see them again, click on these links:

  • Lisbon, capital city of Portugal
  • Porto, city on the river Douro
  • Belém, Royal retreat
  • Sintra, magnificent castle and palace

We also explored some other areas that I am not going to do a full article on. But they were special and fun, and I got some great photos that I wanted to share. So here is the final submission for Portugal…

The Vineyards of Pinhão and Alijó

We hired a van to take us out into the Pinhão and Alijó areas. This is deep into the vineyards of Portugal where much of the port wines originate, as well as other Portuguese wines.

 

We took a rabelo boat up the Douro river, which cuts right through the middle of the amazing vineyards. The area is absolutely breathtaking. Magnificent rolling hills that fold into the Douro river. Enjoy:

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Venturing Out

We hired a driver from Choice Car to take us from Porto to Guimarães. Then we went from there to Braga.

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Our driver was Miguel Carvalho. He was friendly, professional, and knowledgeable of the area. Thank you, Miguel!

Guimarães

 

Here, we visited the very distinctive medieval Castelo do Guimarães:

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Braga

 

The beautiful and divine Bom Jesus:

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On our way back in, we stopped and walked along the beach:

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This is on the Atlantic side; we were waving to all our friends in the US.

 

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

We met up with our friend, Marie, in Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal. Our time in Lisbon, including a fantastic day-trip out to the Sintra mountains is documented in previous articles.

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After touring in and around Lisbon for a couple of days, we relocated to Porto via a three hour train ride. The above picture was some of the tiled artwork inside the train station at Porto. Just amazing. A small example of the culture of Porto.

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While in Porto, we ate at some great restaurants, took a magnificent food tour, and took in the beautiful city. We even went to a Port wine tasting. While we really enjoyed our stay in Lisbon, there was something about Porto that appealed to us more.

 

We also did two separate day-trips. One was out into the unbelievably beautiful vineyards deep in the foothills of Portugal, and the other was out into the less traveled towns of Guimarães and Braga. Both of these excursions are documented in a separate article (or will be soon).

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Porto sits literally right on the banks of the Douro river. Like Lisbon, it is a very hilly town, so you may want to hit that stair master a few times before coming out!

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The food in Porto, very much like Lisbon, is excellent. We did splurge on one really fancy restaurant while we were there. It was on the top tier, overlooking the city (see above). It was called Yeatman’s. Spectacular views from up there! Great food and drinks as well.

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While we’re on the subject, there is a drink they make here that is named after the town itself called Porto Tónico. We noticed that each bar or restaurant had their own version of the drink, and some were better than others. It’s a cocktail made with white port (a fortified wine made from white Douro Valley grapes), tonic water, and usually a citrus garnish, most often a dehydrated orange slice, but this varies by bar. The porto tónico tastes like a cousin of the gin and tonic, but refreshing like an aperol spritzer. Simply delicious and low in alcohol.

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There is artwork scattered throughout this creative city. We encountered this giant rabbit during our travels here. I had no idea why it was here, so I looked it up online. It was done by a man who goes by Bordalo II. You can see his signature there on the bottom right. He made this completely out of things he found in the city. And as it turns out, the guy is actually pretty famous. He has also done similar artwork in Paris, Dublin, San Nicolas (Aruba), Tallin (Estonia), and Hamburg. It makes me mad because I have been to some of those places and had no idea. If I had known I would have sought them out. Oh well. But we are planning a tour in Ireland later this year. Maybe we’ll swing by Dublin for a quick photo op!

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Check these boats out (above). These are called “rabelo” boats. They were used way back in the day before railways to transport the port wine (and people) from vineyards in the Douro Valley. They are unique to Portugal. We rode on one that is similar, but bigger when we visited the Douro Valley. That article will be coming soon.

The Great Porto Food Tour

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One of the highlights of our stay in Porto was the walking food (and wine) tour. Jana always says there is no better way to get to know a city than to take a guided walking tour. And the food, she says, is part of the adventure. With a walking food tour, you get to do both of those things at the same time. And if you are lucky enough to get a really good, local guide, as we did, you will not only experience the food, but you will go where the locals go to get it. We enlisted Porto Walkers as our expert local guide to show us around. Our guide, Alex, not only showed us these great food treasures, but also briefed us on the history of the area and of the food itself. It was very enjoyable and educational.

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Our first spot was the local marketplace. All manner of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and breads. Alex took us to several different places within the marketplace where we got to taste some of the loacal snacks, breads, and cheeses.

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There is a restaurant within the marketplace that specializes in sausage. They bring it out on this special plate-grill. Unfortunately, the flames didn’t come out well on the iPhone picture, above, but if you look closely you can see them. The fire is coming from the special plate-grill. You turn the sausages yourself, cooking them the way you want them. The one in front isn’t burned, it’s a blood sausage. I’ve never been a big fan of blood sausage, but Alex convinced me to try it, and man it was awesome! It was paired with some great vinho verde. We all enjoyed this so much that we vowed to come back on our own for a sit-down meal here.

 

When Alex brought us to this place (above), he asked if this was a place we would have come on our own. Well, we probably wouldn’t have gone in, even if we had been able to find it. Once you step inside, your nostrils are rewarded with the smell of great cooking, and the place was packed with locals. We got some very traditional Portuguese dishes here and some refreshing vinho verde.

 

They love the pork in Porto. I should say they love the pig, all of it; that plate on the left has two treats on it. One is pig’s ear, the other is pig’s intestines! Um, ok, a little too fancy for my palate, but no one leaves this place hungry…

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They also brought out the traditional ham and cheese sandwiches, YUM, and some fish sandwiches. And a nice glass of espadal to top it off – fantastic. And uh, for the record, Jana did eat some of the pig’s ear which she said was great, but she passed on the intestines. I find that surprising, considering she ate some haggis while we were in Scotland.

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We stopped at a cute little side cafe for some espresso. I am a big fan of espresso, I just love the flavor of it. In Porto (and Lisbon), they add just a spot of milk to the top of the espresso. It’s called ‘uma bica’, and even though it’s just a drop of milk, it really smoothes out the espresso. I drank it that way the rest of our stay.

 

Every place we went on this tour was delicious and entertaining. The food was the very best of Porto. The cod cakes (above) literally just melt in your mouth. And there were three or four places where we got to try out some of the port wines.

There was this one place we went to where we all just sitting there, enjoying our food and drink when, suddenly, one of the waitresses just busted out into song! It was fabulous and completely unexpected.

 

And of course, what food tour anywhere in the country would be complete without a taste of Pastel de Nata!? We watched as they made them right in front of us got ours right out of the oven. Exquisite!

I could just go on and on about all the things we did in Porto. Be sure to check for ‘Portugal’ under the ‘Destinations’ button on the web site to see other places we went while in Portugal. I do still have a couple of more articles coming in for Portugal, so be sure to follow me on the site so that you will get notified when these stories are published. It was a wonderful, magical place to be. We really enjoyed our stay and will probably be going back with some other friends as part of a riverboat wine tour that begins and ends in Porto. That’s gonna be awesome!!

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

During our vacation in Portugal, we toured with our good friend, Marie, from New York. We all met up in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. During our stay in Lisbon, we took a day-trip to Sintra. It was a relaxing one hour train ride through the beautiful Portuguese countryside.

Sintra is a small resort town in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains. While we were there, we visited the Palace of Pena and the Moorish Castle. Both are spectacular sites to see and should definitely be on the top of your list if you are ever in this part of the world.

Spoiler alert: following is some really fine photography! No drones or helicopters were used for these pictures. I don’t even have a selfie-stick. But if I did, I’d be using it to pat myself on the back. But seriously, amazing pictures considering they were all done with just my iPhone. It was also helpful to have such perfect weather! You should definitely be viewing these on your PC or tablet.

The Palace of Pena

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It began in the Middle Ages, as just a simple chapel on top of a mountain. In the 15th century, King Manuel I had a monestary built around the chapel. (I took the above picture by hanging out of a watch tower window at the Moorish Castle. Hey yall, watch this!).

For the centuries that followed, it became a quiet, peaceful place that housed about twenty monks. But the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 reduced the monestary to ruins. All that remained was the original chapel.

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In 1842, King consort Ferdinand II began constructing the palace around the chapel. The palace was to be the summer home for the royal family. Construction continued through 1854. Throughout the construction, he and his wife, Queen Maria II, frequently intervened in the matters of design and architecture of the palace. These choices are clearly evident in the end product. It manifested into a beautiful Ramantic style castle that looks part royal palace and part Disney.

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This is easily one of the most photogenic palaces I have ever been to. It has been a public museum since the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910. In fact, the last ruling queen of Portugal, Queen Amélia, spent her last night here, at this palace, before leaving the country in exile.

Over the years, this has become one of Portugal’s most visited monuments, and it is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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After visiting the palace, we stopped at a cute little cafe and had a light lunch while sitting around the old well. Then it was off to the Moorish Castle!

The Moorish Castle

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I got the above picture by hanging over the balcony off the Queen’s bedroom in the Pena Palace on an adjacent mountaintop. Worth it.

While the Palace of Pena is one of the most photogenic places I have been to, the Moorish Castle has to be about the most unique castle I have visited. It was built during the 8th and 9th centuries during the Muslim occupation. Not only is it perched high atop a mountain, but it is literally imbedded into the mountains and surrounding terrain.

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And on the inside, it’s not like a traditional castle with a keep in the middle. Once inside the castle walls, there is a vast, open area.

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There are beautiful trees there now, but back in the day it was cleared out. The formal keep is further inside, to the north, and the stables and other buildings are scattered around the edges. The castle is essentially a 450 meter (about 500 yards) perimeter situated atop and within the mountainous cliffs.

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This is a view from the outside. It took us about a half an hour to make it up the hill this far, and there was a lot of huffing and puffing. I can only imagine soldiers back then with all their armor and weapons. Significantly heavier than my iPhone and a water bottle.

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Not to mention, imagine coming all this way to attack and then being confronted with these massive boulders and cliffs (above). You could forget getting any siege engines up here.

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And the views from up here are just spectacular! Well worth the climb up. Almost in the center, at the bottom of the mountain is the cute town of Sintra. Over to the right, up on the hill is yet another palace. It isn’t the Palace of Pena. I tried to find it on maps but it isn’t marked. Like I said before, palaces and castles dot the horizon everywhere you look.

So, yeah, it was a great day adventuring up in the mountains of Sintra. Climbing, hanging out of windows and towers taking pictures while trying not to drop my phone. More climbing up the towers. But then came the dilemma of how we get back down the mountain. Interconnecting bus routes (slow, hot, crowded, time consuming). We could walk back down (LOL LOL LOL). Or we could rent a car with a driver. It was a short discussion.

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Belem, Portugal

Belem, Portugal

While we were in Lisbon, and before joining up with our friend, Marie, we took a quick train ride down to Belém, which is a suburb of Lisbon. It is where the Belém palace and other notable attractions are located. And it is said that Christopher Columbus hung out here for a while after returning from the new world.

Belém is a melting pot of national monuments, historical buildings, and modern symbols of Portuguese culture. Extravagant parks and breathtaking architectural marvels abound in this small but significant area of Portugal’s coast.

This is an area that was particularly popular during the era of Portugal’s monarchy and is where the Belém palace is located. The monarchy essentially ended in 1910 and was replaced by the Portuguese First Republic, and it was completely eradicated  by 1919. Belém was minimally impacted by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 1755. So, most of the area, including the Belém palace, remains intact today.

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See above, the Tower of Belém. Completed around 1520, this is an example of some of the older structures that have survived the test of time, and the earthquake of 1755. In fact, this is probably one of the more famous towers of the world and is informally known as the symbol of Belém.

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Then there are the more modern marvels, such as the Monument of Discoveries, which was inaugurated in 1960. And check out that sky; we couldn’t have asked for better picture-taking weather!

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And take a look at the front of this thing. Is it a cross, or is it a sword? Exactly. The Belém palace is also located in this area. And of course the monastery.

 

The monastery has a full and colorful past. The original building was inaugurated in 1495. The monastery is also the origin of one of the finest and most controversial pastries in Europe, the Pastéis de Belém.

 

Lots of other places imitate these sinful tasties, but the originals come from the monastery, and that recipe is still guarded today. Even the name of the pastry, Pastéis de Belém, is unique only to those made at the monestary. All others (imitations) are called Pastel de Nata. We had them here and in other places. You really can taste the difference, albeit subtle, but they were better at the monestary.

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You would be forgiven if you thought this was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But it’s actually the 25 de Abril Bridge in Belém. Our guide claimed the company that designed this, the American Bridge Company, had bid on, but lost the bid for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. While I cannot confirm that, I can confirm that they designed the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Small world, eh?

The list for things to see and do in Belém is much longer than I have represented here. We spent about three hours just touring the things I have documented here. To see everything, you could easily spend a full day in this area. We really enjoyed our visit to Belém and would come back here again.

 


(I Apologize for the improper spelling of Belém in the title. Search engines are more responsive to Belem vs. Belém, so that is what blog writers generally use. Sorry about that. I only used the improper spelling in the title.)

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

A marvelous old European city chock full of art, statues, and kaleidoscope views. Magnificent castles, palaces, and towers dot the landscape almost everywhere you look. This is a city whose existence dates back to somewhere around 1200 B.C. Easily one of the oldest cities in the world. Older than Paris, London, and even Rome itself. It would require volumes upon volumes of five inch thick books to capture all of the history of this city.

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Conquered and occupied by all of the dominant factions and armies along the way. In the early B.C. era, these included Germanic tribes, Phoenicians, and the Indo-European Celts. Later by the Romans of course, leading into the Middle Ages. In the 8th century, the city was conquered by the Muslims, whose occupation continued through the 12th century when they were conquered by the Norwegian crusaders.

In more modern history, the country of Portugal battled against Spain for its independence, and later fought within itself to end the Portuguese monarchy.

The city has struggled throughout time with devastating earthquakes. Then, in 1755, the mother of all earthquakes hit, followed by a devastating tsunami that triggered massive fires. Over 85% of the city was destroyed, and tens of thousands of citizens perished. At that time, Lisbon had grown to be one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Europe. The impact of the tragedy of 1755 sent shockwaves of awe throughout the world.

All of this means that Lisbon has survived its past and thrived to become the great, cultural and artistic city it is today.

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The weather while we were there in May was warm, sometimes even a little hot. But the evenings were still cool enough to warrant a light jacket or sweater. Clear blue skies and no rain in sight!

Cozy outdoor bars and restaurants abound, allowing you to unwind and relax in the center of the city’s historic beauty.

Perched on the mouth of the Tagus river that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean, the food specialty in and around Lisbon is seafood. Seafood here is part of the culture.

Restaurants in Lisbon

Some of the restaurant culture here is different than what we were used to. For example, we went to one place where we had made a booking, and the door was shut and locked. There was a sign that simply said, ‘Ring Bell.’ Which we did. The door slowly opened, and the host asked if we had reservations. When we said we did, he let us in and closed the door behind us. On the inside, it was a perfectly normal and nice restaurant.

At this other place we went to, Cervejaria Ramiro, there was a mob of people standing around the street in front of it. We muscled our way through and got almost inside. We were told to pull a number from the machine and wait until our number was called. ‘But we have reservations,’ we said. It didn’t matter, get the number, and step aside. So we got our number and joined the masses out front.

Occasionally, a strange, synthesized electronic female voice would call out a number over the loudspeaker. But it would be something crazy, like 200,615. She would repeat the number about five times. Our number was 5667. Then she would call number 874. So we figured it must be some sort of a lottery. They generate a random number, then call it out, if it’s your number, you get in!

Jana and I were fortunate enough to be able to hook up with our friend, Marie. Marie is from New York. So in addition to spending some great times with our friend, we got all caught up on the happenings back in the states.

So Marie has decide this isn’t going to work for us. She pulls up the email we had received that confirmed our reservation. She muscles her way up to the front again, and insists on talking to the name of the person the email is from, and she showed them the email. The host breaths a loud sigh and gives her the eye roll. ‘Very well,’ he says, ‘come with me.’

We follow this guy through a huge restaurant area that is as loud and chaotic as the New York Stock Exchange. People yelling at each other over the noise, making it worse. Countless hammers smashing open huge crab legs. We round a corner, then follow the guy up a very narrow set of steep stairs. We get to the top and, voila, a quiet, cozy, somewhat small restaurant seating area with a great view of the madhouse out on the street!

And the food was OMG! The menu had pictures of the entrees. But it was just a picture, with no perspective on size. So Marie tells the waiter she will have the shrimp as a side item, the waiter responds with a question: Just one? It was a little confusing. Did he mean just one serving, so she said yes.

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Nope, he meant just one shrimp! Look at that thing!

Anyway, suffice to say the food was superb at every place we went to, and each one was a new adventure.

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This shot, above, is the street that leads into the square. The Comércio square is a must see. There wasn’t much left of it after the 1755 earthquake, so they decided to just tear the rest of it down and start over.

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We were there the same week as the finals for EuroVision, which is a huge annual European singing and performing competition. Since Portugal won it last year, they are the host this year. It occupies the entire square. In fact, if you zoom the pic above, you can see the banner for EuroVision on the street on the other side of the archway.

 

There is just a ton of great things to see and do in this city. There is São Jorge Castle, which we did not visit. Another great square to see is the Rossio square (above left). There is the Santa Justa Lift (above right), which is a famous elevator built in the early 1900’s and has a very colorful history.

 

We really enjoyed our time in Lisbon, and didn’t even scratch the surface on covering everything is has to offer. All the more reason to come back! While we were in this part of the world, we also visited Belem and Sintra. These are covered in separate articles. And yes, that’s a real bird in the picture, and yes I took the picture. 🙂

 

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The Great ?Swedish? Roadtrip

The Great ?Swedish? Roadtrip

Ok, so as you probably know by now, we’re Americans living in Stockholm. We use public transportation exclusively. We don’t even have a car over here! And we love it! But we do sometimes yearn for the open road, cruising down the countryside under your own power. And so, we decided to rent a car and brave the open highways of southern Sweden!

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For our first Swedish road trip, we decided on a small, but well known town along the eastern coast called Kalmar. It was highly recommended by the locals, was easy to get to, and was about a five hour drive.

Not only is it a great historic area with a still intact renaissance war castle, but Kalmar is also well known for its glass crafting. We did visit a couple of outlet stores while there and we bought some nice crystal glasses and bowls.

We really lucked out on the weather this time. For the first time since old man winter wrapped his icy fingers around Stockholm, the temperature was actually around 60 degrees Fahrenheit! By far the warmest day of the year. And since we were headed south, it would be even a little warmer than that.

Unlike most of our other adventures that begin with the subway, for this one we took the bus to the Hertz rental office. When we got to the office, there was no one there. The place was deserted. And mind you, this a work day, Friday around 9am. Jana wasn’t worried, she said she had special instructions in case this happened. So we went a couple of doors down. There was a keypad on the door. We entered our secret code from Jana’s special instructions, but nothing happened. Oh look, there’s another keypad over here. We entered the code into that one, got a confirmation buzz, then I pulled the door open and we stepped inside.

It was a small room with what appeared to be an elevator door. There was only one button: down. We pushed it. After a minute or so, the elevator door slowly parted open. It was a very small elevator. Following the special instructions, we stepped inside and pressed the button for negative three. That’s right, three levels down. There was a long pause. Finally, the inner door moaned and creaked as it slid shut, sealing us in. Then there was a violent jolt as we started our decent. I looked at Jana and said, “And they were never seen again.”

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Ha ha, we had a good laugh. After a brief argument with an unmanned kiosk, we got our keys for our fancy Volvo wagon (it even had dual exhausts and a spoiler), and off we went. I leaned out the window and raised my fist as I yelled, “ROAD TRIP!” A column in the garage nearly took my head off. I knew it was there.

Söderköping (Mayberry, EU)

We had a great recommendation for a place to stop along the way. It was about an hour and a half into the trip. It was supposed to be a cozy ice cream parlor with an outdoor area that overlooked a beautiful canal. And it was there, and we found it. And it was cozy, and it was right on the canal. And it was closed due to construction!

But because it was closed, it forced us to explore this wonderful, quaint little Swedish town, er uh village. I swear this place was like a Twilight Zone mirror image of  Mayberry. I kept thinking I would see Barney Fife (Bårnet Fifé) slapping a parking ticket on our fancy city slicker Volvo (with dual exhausts). For those of you who don’t know what the Twilight Zone is or have never heard of Mayberry, you’re too young to be reading this, so get out.

Since it was such a warm, beautiful day, we figured we would find another place with outdoor seating. We scoured the entire town, which took ten minutes. We found an area where a dozen or so people (half the population of the town) were waiting in line to get into this one place. Turns out, it was another ice cream place. I guess with the one by the canal shut down, this one was picking up the slack. But there was nowhere to sit, and I was ready for a frap or a latte. We did find a coffee shop, but it was a misunderstanding on our part, it was an actual coffee shop, as in coffe beans, ground roast, etc.

We finally found this one place that had outdoor seating (they had put out some lawn chairs). There were only six, but two were actually vacant. So I rushed to secure our territory, while Jana went inside to get our refreshments. Turns out it was another ice cream shop. This town really does love ice cream! It just added to the Twilight Zone aura. And even more weird thing, the whole time we were there, we didn’t see a single person using an electronic device.

We sat outside, eating ice cream, right off their main square. We were pretty sure we were the only tourists there. A young mom walked by pushing a stroller and chatting with her friend. Nothing unusual about that. Except that she was barefooted <play the Twilight theme music in your head>.

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But the place really did do the trick for us. It displaced us from our hustle-bustle big city Stockholm mindsets and made us sit and relax in the warm sun enjoying each other’s company and some magical ice cream.

And then we were, that’s right: On the Road Again.

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Driving to Kalmar

They say it isn’t the destination, but the journey that is special. And this trip was no exception. We had traveled many times along the waterways marveling at the beautiful archipelago scenery from a boat or ship. But this trip showed us what was behind all that, what rural Sweden was really like. And it was spectacular.

Wide open highways, gorgeous backcountry homesteads, spawling green pastures. Well, see for yourself below, but please forgive the quality as they were snapped while flying down the highway:

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And it literally just went on and on and on. One really nice thing was that, apparently, in Sweden they have some strict laws about keeping the landscape free of billboard clutter.

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A note on driving in Sweden. We didn’t really see it as being that much different than what we were used to in the US. Most of the signs were intuitive, and of course everything is in the metric system. The roads were smoother than any I had ever seen in the US. No construction to speak of, and not a single pothole. And yes, that is a warning sign for a moose crossing!

There was one oddity, however. As we were driving, the car would occasionally make a beep, like a warning tone. We checked the gauges and lights, but everything looked good. I did have my phone BT’d to the car and was streaming music and navigation, so we figured it had something to do with that. On the trip back, it started doing it again. I started exploring the visual tools in the car itself and brought up the navigation map. There was a symbol of a camera pointed at a car. I looked out the window and, sure enough, there was an automated camera taking pictures of speeders. The car had been trying to warn us of this. I can only imagine how many times the cameras must have caught us speeding. Hopefully, we won’t get deported as a result!

Kalmar

Like most European cities, Kalmar has a long and violent past. This is especially true of the cities that were on the coast. Particularly in the 1600’s, Kalmar saw a lot of war and bloodshed. At the time, it was located very close to the Danish border. The area just south of Kalmar used to belong to the Danish, but it is part of Sweden today.

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See the model of the city, above, with the castle right on the water. This is a battle castle complete with moat, drawbridges, and cannons. It was under siege 22 times, but was never taken. Also note the walls encircling the entire city itself. The mark of a true war city. We all think of Sweden as a peaceful, neutral-ish country. Perhaps it was all the wars and violence from the past that made it that way.

But today, the town is bursting with charisma and elegance.

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Stately European architecture that just takes your breath away.

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Here you can see part of the original wall that once circled the city. The tower looking over it all is more modern, but awe inspiring to behold.

Magnificent parks, bridges, canals, and tunnels. Great restaurants, bars, and cafes. What else could you ask for on a long weekend getaway?

Kalmar Castle

Definitely one of the better castles we have toured in Europe. You can see the effort they have put into keeping it in such great shape. It is integrated into the town’s landscape.

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See above, the approach to the castle from the town. Stunning. Note that you can see two of the short cannon towers. There are four total, one on each corner. Here’s a closer view of one of the towers:

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If those ducks think they’re gonna take the tower, they better think again! As I mentioned before, this castle had been under siege at least 22 times, but was never taken.

See below a view of the seaward defensive battery:

An all around fabulous castle. The interior was well done, too. Sorry I didn’t get any pictures of that. It was well presented and had lots of good information about all the rooms. Some of the ceiling work was still in its original form, but the pictures didn’t come out well (too dark).

The Island

If you recall, from the top of the article, the town is situated just west of a rather large island. There is a 6km (3.7mi) bridge that connects the mainland with the island. As you can well imagine, the island was ravaged and raided time after time during the wars. In fact, there are still remnants of old castles on the island dating back to the 300 A.D. Unbelievable!

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We did venture over to the island. It is covered with farms, pastures, and homesteads. And it’s incredibly beautiful!

See below, we even ventured off the beaten path a couple of times in our city slicker fancy Volvo wagon with dual exhausts!

 

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We stopped at one of the castle sites. Unfortunately, it had fallen to ruins. But not after hundreds of years of being the center of a war culture. It was built around 300 A.D. and was still in full operation as late as the 1200’s.

And that was really it. After touring around on the island, we returned to Stockholm. It was a great visit and a great town. Given enough time, we would gladly return to Kalmar and yes, even stopping again at Mayberry, EU.

 

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Why?

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This is one of those popular long weekend destinations from the Stockholm area. The nice thing is, you get on a cruise ship in Stockholm, cruise overnight, then wake up at your destination.

 

There are a couple of other popular locations for doing this:

  • Talllinn, Estonia – we did this one and it was spectacular! Unfortunately, this was before I became The Travelin’ Man. Which basically just means we have to do it again!
  • Helsinki, Finland – Very popular long weekend destination. Jana has been on this one and recommends it, so we will definitely do this one, probably this summer.

If your geography is a little rusty, check out the map below. I’ve drawn a line to show where we are, and I circled Tallinn and Helsinki for reference:

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So from Stockholm, all these locations are a one night cruise each way. It is so nice doing the one night cruise. There is nothing to do but party and eat. It’s a great way to get you in the mood for your upcoming long weekend!

The Cruise to Riga

The cruise takes us out into the open Baltic via the all to familiar path through the Swedish archipelago we have taken many times before. But the big difference here is that now we get to see what it looks like with snow on the ground. Yes, I know technically it’s spring, but we’re still in winter mode out here. Anyway, the same path, but it looks totally different. Take a look at these pics:

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The ice was actually a bit of a problem. Beautiful to look at with a glass of wine in your hand. But we went through large patches of this overnight, while we were trying to sleep, and the ice grinding against the hull of the boat is quite loud.

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But even though the ice cost us a little shut eye, it was so beautiful to see. What a unique and rare experience.

The next morning, while eating breakfast by the window, it was actually snowing! First time I’ve ever been on a cruise ship while it was snowing.

Things we did in Riga

Riga is a town that has been tortured by history. I get it; lots of European cities have rough histories. But this one in particular has had it rougher than most. Hostile take over by the Christians in the medieval period, violent repression by the Soviet Union, then the Nazi occupation during World War II. The city was heavily bombed during this time. The Soviets eventually got the Nazis out, but then they decided to stay. More repression, more violence. Nearly 100 people had been secretly executed by the KGB after the war (the graves were found after they left), and thousands had been deported. In both cases, their families had never been notified, the victims simply disappeared. In 1991, Latvia (and Riga) once again regained their independence from the Soviet Union and has been free ever since.

Despite this painful and heartbreaking history, the city is a strong, resilient hub of culture. Great museums, bars, pubs, restaurants, and beautiful parks. But everywhere you go, you still hear the whispers of their past.

Old Town Walking Tour

We hired a private tour guide from Riga Old Town Tours. Surprisingly, they have a web site called rigaoldtowntours.com. Our guide was really nice and very professional. It was a two hour tour spanning nearly three miles of primarily, you guessed it, Riga old town.

Riga was heavily bombed during WWII by the Soviets in an attempt to dislodge the Nazis. Many of the buildings and churches seen throughout the city were rebuilt. Some of the squares you see in old town were not actually squares, but areas that got decimated during the bombings and were not rebuilt.

It is amazing how some of the things in the city somehow managed to avoid damage from the bombings. This statue, for example. It is 138 feet tall (42m).  This is the Freedom Monument and was erected in 1935 to commemorate Latvia soldiers lost in their previous war of independence (1918 – 1920). It survived the WWII bombings and subsequent Soviet occupation. The Soviets nearly demolished it several times, but each time, fate intervened and thwarted their efforts. The Soviets never knew the true meaning of the statue. But imagine how the people of the land felt for the nearly fifty years while the Soviets occupied the area. Imagine how they felt each time they saw this monument.

There is an entire museum dedicated to the occupation, but it was closed during the  time we were there.

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Another interesting relic that survived it all. As you can see, the rest of the world has moved on, but this bar, appropriately named Medieval Bar, is determined to freeze itself in time. Can you believe it can entertain 150 guests!? That’s because it is primarily underground. The restaurant/bar is built where the old wine cellar used to be back in 1201!

Historic statues, artistic sculptures, and unforgettable art. So rich in history and culture that I could easily spend an entire week here exploring and learning.

The city is also adorned with many beautiful green areas and parks. While the frozen scenes above were beautiful in their own, wintery rights, I can only imagine how gorgeous this place is in the height of summer.

The KGB Building

I could easily write an entire article on this attraction. Notice that I didn’t call it a museum, because it’s not. It is the actual local headquarters for the KGB during the Soviet occupation. It is presented as-is, or should I say as-was, with few modifications from how it was discovered. The only changes they made were in the name of preservation.

This was a very dark era for Riga, and you take a small residue of that with you after touring this building. It is demoralizing and depressing. But it is a part of history that deserves to be remembered, lest it be forgotten and repeated. This is the building people were brought to once they were “identified”. Arrested is the wrong word there because no records were kept of the abduction and no family was notified.

They were brought here and exposed to various forms of interrogation and questioning. If the authorities didn’t hear what they wanted, it escalated to imprisonment and torture. If sufficient evidence was found that the person or persons were working against the Soviet Union, or they got the confession they wanted to hear, the victims were taken to the execution room and shot (the bullet holes are visible in the wall). If sufficient evidence was not found and they concluded that they would not be able to get a confession, then the subject or subjects were deported and never seen or heard from again.

On a side note; when the KGB vacated the building, the wall in the execution room with the bullet holes had been bricked up. The entire building was analyzed and the fake wall was discovered. At the behest of the government, the bricks were taken down and the wall was exposed.

What’s even sadder about this whole affair is that, unbeknownst to the citizens, all this was happening right in the KGB building, right in the center of town. They never knew, because no one ever escaped, and no one was ever released.

Accommodations

Jana always manages to find the absolute coziest little hotels and B&B’s, and this one is no exception. Located right next to the river, and convenient for walking everywhere we went.

It’s called ‘St. Peter’s Boutique Hotel’, and it’s located at ‘Peldu Street 23, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia’. You can get to their website by clicking here.

We were only here for one night, so we only got to experience one restaurant. We went to a place called Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs. Like many of the establishments here, it was down in the basement. Very cozy atmosphere! I was a bad Travelin’ Man cause I didn’t take any pictures. The food was delicious. I got a pork hock, which is a very popular dish here. It was splendid. It was really more of beer environment (over 50 to choose from), so don’t come here for the wine.

Modern Riga

Across the river Daugava was a thriving, bustling metropolitan Riga. We didn’t venture over on this trip, but there were tours available. We really want to come back here in the summer and see what it looks like with everything in bloom.

The End

That was pretty much it. We had a great time and will try to come back. One final note for those who do take the cruise over; this is a shipping town, meaning they make a living primarily from ship commerce on the river. If you are awake when the ship comes into town, you will see the complete shipping operation. It ain’t pretty. And it wasn’t meant to be. So take it for what it is and enjoy the rest of the city!