Tag: European travel

Vilnius, Lithuania

Why Vilnius?

Since we had previously visited Tallinn, Estonia and Riga, Latvia, we felt it was only right to finish off the Baltic countries. We are also interested in the history of the former Soviet states. This is an aspect of history that Americans do not normally encounter. I have attempted to simplify it in the Tortured Soul section below.

Unlike Tallinn and Riga, we did not take a cruise ship across the Baltic Sea, but chose instead to fly from our home port of Stockholm as part of our four-day Easter weekend.

Tortured Soul

Throughout this section, I will sprinkle in pictures of the city that we experienced during our stay. Most of them will not be in context of my narrative.

Vilnius has a deep and rich history that goes back to the 14th century. But even in more modern times, it has been the victim of several tug-of-wars by some very powerful countries. And this has left lasting damage on both the city and its citizens.

The city was occupied by the Germans during WWI. They were eventually driven out by Soviet forces. Vilnius became part of Lithuania. But as part of the Soviet-Polish war, the city quickly became occupied by Polish forces, only to fall yet again back to the Soviets. But as part of its retreat from the battle of Warsaw, the Red Army ceded the city back to Lithuania.

By the end of WWI, both Poland and Lithuania laid claim to Vilnius. But in a sneaky operation known as the Żeligowski’s Mutiny, Poland ultimately gained formal ownership of the city.

In 1939, Vilnius was again seized by the Soviet Union (who subsequently invaded Poland). The USSR and the Lithuanian governments entered into a treaty, unbeknownst to the Lithuanian citizens, that would allow the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country. Thus, the Red Army withdrew from the city proper to its suburbs and Vilnius was given over to Lithuania. Lithuanian government saw this as a grant of independence and a victory for Lithuania.

The Soviets later demanded that more and more troops be permitted to enter the country. Lithuanian government pushed back, under the perception that they were independent.

This did not bode well with the Soviets. They set out to make sure Vilnius would feel their wrath this time around. They installed their own government and began deporting some of the city’s inhabitants to work camps in the harshest areas of the Soviet Union. Most were thought to have perished; none were ever seen again. The people targeted were primarily those with higher education or critical job positions. These were, for example, doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, and engineers. All told, between 20,000 and 30,000 citizens were deported. Basically trying to cut out the entire intellectual sector of their population. Next, they devastated the city’s industries and even relocated a highly successful radio factory to Belarus.

Vilnius KGB Detention Center

Much like the KGB headquarters in Riga, this one is located in the heart of the city. The horror of being taken to this place, from which you will never return. To be held and tortured, and in many cases executed, just feet from where your fellow citizens and your family are walking and working.

Anyone suspected of spying, which included discussions of any kind against the Soviet Union, were arrested by the KGB and tortured and in may cases executed at the KGB main facility right in their own downtown Vilnius.

Today, the building is a museum, and we did spend some time there. I highly recommend it. Like Paneriai it is highly emotional.

So as you can see, the Soviets had totally crippled and completely demoralized this city. This entire process is formally known as ‘sovietization’. How to beat down an entire city, or country until its citizens hang their heads low and swear allegiance to the Union.

At the beginning of WWII, Germany bombed the city repeatedly, destroying Soviet aircraft and killing thousands of soldiers and citizens. Following this, the German ground troops encountered little Soviet resistance and were assisted by the Lithuanians. Since the Lithuanians viewed the Soviets as their oppressors, they saw the Germans as their liberators and hoped they would grant them independence. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The Nazi occupation compounded the cruelty and unspeakable suffering of Vilnius and Lithuania.

The Paneriai Memorial

About 100,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis, many of them in Paneriai, about 10 km (6.2 mi) west of the old town center. The murders took place between July 1941 and August 1944.

The victims were brought down into the pits wearing hoods, then lined up and shot. Their bodies fell atop the other corpses that had been shot before them. When the pit was full, they were all buried and a new pit was started. There were six pits in total at Paneriai. We did visit the Paneriai Memorial. It is well presented, albeit emotional.

Towards the end of the war, the Nazis realized they were losing. They became paranoid that their heinous crimes would be discovered. They selected additional Jews from the ghettos to form work groups. These groups were made to dig up the corpses and relocate them to a different pit where they were burned. In many cases, people of the work groups recognized the bodies of their own family and friends.

Following WWII, the Soviets reestablished their dominance over Vilnius, essentially picking up where they left off. This time, their occupation lasted from 1944 to 1990.

As you explore the city today, you notice lots of open squares. These were not part of the original design of the city. They are areas that had been bombed as part of WWII. Since the Soviets moved back in immediately following the war, it was their decision not to replace any of the damaged infrastructure or buildings. They serve as a constant, bitter reminder of the abuse this city has suffered.

The war and Soviet dominance prior to the war had gouged a deep scar upon Vilnius the likes of which would take decades to recover. Some aspects of Vilnius will never recover. WWII was a terrible time for all, but Vilnius continued to suffer long after the peace treaties had been signed and the tanks had gone home.

Even through 1987, the terrorization by the Soviets continued. Sovietization and the dominance and horrors of actions carried out by the KGB in the name of communism continued throughout all of the Baltic countries.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, all three Baltic states were finally able to achieve independence. This, in essence, is when Vilnius began its long journey back to the free world. Their infrastructure had been utterly destroyed. Living conditions were barely above third world. They had no experience in the commercial, industrial, or even the banking world. Anyone who possessed key knowledge in these crucial areas had been deported and killed. It was like throwing a baby bird out into a hurricane.

Indeed, one could write another entire volume on Vilnius’ recovery from freedom to stability. But it is human nature to survive, and the people of Vilnius never gave up. It wasn’t until 2015 that they got their first directly elected mayor.

Today, Vilnius is a major tourist destination for the region. It is part of the European Union, and with the help of the banks of Scandinavia, it continues to rebuild its infrastructure and its business community on the global scene. Although they have made great strides, the rebuilding of a civilization is a long and arduous road upon which their journey continues even today.

Like many European cities, it is chock full of cozy cafes, pubs, and restaurants. The food was absolutely exquisite.

Succulent venison, and several dishes unique to the area. Like delicious fried bread with cheese:

While we were there, we also visited the Trakai island castle. Beautifully restored castle from the 14th century. Very well presented and I strongly recommend you go here if you are in the area.

Most of the stone walls are original. Red brick was used in the original castle. They kept as much of that as they could.

I know it felt like a bit of a history lesson this time, but I just couldn’t explain how this city felt without the historical perspective. It is evident everywhere you go. You can see it in the infrastructure, and you can see it on the faces of the citizens and hear it in their voices. It is a city that has endured incredible hardships. And although it has a tortured soul, it also has a strong and determined heart that continues to speak to the world: “I will survive.”

Bruges, Belgium


We took the train from Ghent to Bruges (Ghent article here). It was a little over a half hour ride. The train going out on Saturday morning was exceedingly crowded, e.g. standing room only, literally. Coming back around 4pm same day, much more relaxed and plenty of seating.

This town had a different feel. It had the same medieval architecture, and it is absolutely beautiful, but it was more more crowded. It felt more commercialized than Ghent. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It had more bars, restaurants, and shops. This felt like most of the other popular European places we have visited.

We spent the day walking around and taking in the sights. Sort of a self guided tour, if you will:

A stunningly beautiful park. Their Spring was much further along than ours was in Stockholm:


The Church of Our Lady (13th century)


The Markt (Market Square) & Belfry Tower (Tower and most of market 13th century or older):


While in the square, we enjoyed some Belgium fries and some chocolate covered Belgium waffles on a stick!


Some live street music, which was pretty good, I must say. Check out that outrageous guitar thing! Imagine if Jimi Hendrix had played one of those! But seriously, it only has three strings and they’re so thick that she had to wear special pads on her fingers to press them. So sounds to me like some sort of bass instrument.


We visited Begijnhuisje (easy for you to say). This is a convent and it’s still active today but we didn’t see any nuns while we were there:


While we were in Bruges, we also had a boat ride around the canals:



And later, we stumbled into a parade:




If you’re debating whether you should go to Ghent vs. Bruges, my advice is to do as we did and go to both of them. Otherwise, choose which venue suits your travel style better. The time warp back in time to the laidback medieval Ghent, or the fast paced big city feel and shopping of Bruges.

We had a great time on our first adventure of the year, and I hope you enjoyed tagging along with us! Next stop will be Vilnius, Lithuania this Easter. This is the only Baltic country we have yet to visit.


Ghent, Belgium


Hello there! What? Hey it’s me, The Travelin’ Man! Don’t you remember? Wow, yes, it has been a while hasn’t it? I feel like I lost the Travelin’ in Travelin’ Man. Guess that makes me The Man!

We’ve been huddled under the blankets watching the snow come down and pretty much just enjoying the beautiful Swedish winter in Stockholm. But not to worry, we are officially back on the road again, or in the air again. We’re headed to Belgium, where we’ll catch the high speed train to Ghent. So dust off that hat, grab your walking shoes, and journey with us for our first trip of the year!


For our first adventure of the year, we decided on a weekend getaway. Brussels is a quick two hour hop on a direct flight from Stockholm, then a one hour dash to Ghent on the high speed train.


Certainly not a world renowned glamorous spot chocked-full-o-people. And perhaps that is its biggest draw. The more I travel, the more I yearn for secret gems tucked away from the stampedes of tourists. And Ghent is definitely one of them.


The thing that really struck me about this place was that upon arrival, I immediately had this strange feeling of having stepped back in time. Yes, I get it, tons of old medievaly European cities; but this was different. It didn’t feel like a place that was restored or even preserved. Instead of being pulled through time and put on display, it felt like it had pulled me back in time.


I fully expected to see nobles clip-clopping down the cobblestones in their fancy carriages; and men with their puffy trousers and jackets with voluminous sleeves and crisp linen shirts strolling along the sidewalk with their better halves decked out in long silk gowns garnished with lace. But I digress.


Most of the taverns and shops do not break the immersion once inside. Cozy, warm interiors with low ceilings. Strong timber supports and beamed ceilings, often with dark red brick walls. There was one glaring exception.


While we were there, we stayed in the Marriott (above) right in the center of town. And even it looked like an Inn from the days of yore. That is, until you stepped inside.


Whoa! You immediately crossed back over the magic time warp and back into the present.


I will speculate about the timeless mystery of this place. While it was occupied by the Germans in both world wars, they did not destroy or vandalize the city during their occupation or on their exit. Which is unusual, but fortunate. Furthermore, it was never bombed during WWII. Thus, there is not the feeling of a town partially original and partiality restored. It is fully authentic and untouched other than normal maintenance and upkeep.

As you can see from the pictures thus far, we enjoyed galavanting around this cozy medieval town. The canals were so beautiful that we just had to get down in them and do a canal boat ride. Why didn’t we think of that before all that walking around?



We also stumbled across a 12th century castle. It was in spectacular condition inside and out. This shot was taken from the boat:


The castle also features wedding services and a fully intact torture chamber. There is a joke just sitting there, just waiting to be had. Travelin’ Man knows better!

The day we arrived, we only spent a little time in Ghent. The following day we ventured to Bruges (click here for that journal). So it was actually the third day that we spent entirely in Ghent.


If you’re debating whether you should go to Ghent vs. Bruges, my advice is to do as we did and go to both of them. Otherwise, choose which venue suits your travel style better. The time warp back in time to the laidback medieval Ghent, or the fast paced big city feel and shopping of Bruges.

We had a great time on our first adventure of the year, and I hope you enjoyed tagging along with us! Next stop will be Bruges, Belgium, so stay tuned!


Cheltenham and the Cotswolds of England





As part of our 2018 UK tour, we spent a couple of days in Cheltenham, England and surrounding area. As the home of the flagship race of British steeplechase horse racing, the Gold Cup is the main event of the Cheltenham Festival, held every March.


Fortunately, we missed all that hooplah, and it was a quaint, peaceful, cozy town, or borough, as they call them in England.


We stayed at the most adorable bed & breakfast you ever saw (above). In all honesty, they sold themselves as a hotel (The Beaumont House Hotel), but it had a very B & B feel to it.


Checkout the view from our bedroom window. That’s Jana relaxing out back at the table.


As part of our time here, we took an excursion out into the beautiful Cotswolds. The Cotswolds is a rural area of south central England covering 2,038 km2 (504,000 acres). It’s roughly 25 miles (40 km) across and 90 miles (140 km) long. The area of the Cotswolds is the second largest protected landscape in England (second to the Lake District).


When you close your eyes and think of the rolling hills of rural England, this is it! Grassland harbour thatched medieval villages, churches and stately homes built of distinctive local yellow limestone. Time seems to stand still here.





I half expected to see Frodo and Gandalf emerge from this house (above).


Some of you may actually recognize this house, above. Try and picture the scene covered in snow. This was Bridget Jone’s parent’s house in Bridget Jone’s Diary. Parts of Braveheart were also filmed near here.


But be sure to book a professional tour guide if you want to find all the most beautiful and interesting spots. We really enjoyed our time here.


Bath, England


Beautiful and historic Bath. Known for it’s 18th century Georgian architecture, hot springs, and of course Roman-built baths. It’s located about a hundred miles west of London and is situated in the valley of the River Avon.

The Baths of Bath


These extremely well preserved baths were built around 70 A.D. and are a must see attraction. The presentation goes well beyond just the main bath area itself.

All of the ancient artifacts that were uncovered are also displayed here. Wander through caves where the springs and private bath areas were.


You also need to swing by the Royal Crescent. Amazing architecture by John Wood built in the 18th century. Oh yeah, that grass is supposed to be green this time of year. It’s been an unusually hot, dry summer in Europe.


The No.1 Royal Cresscent (above) is the very first one that was completed and it’s open to the public. It is decorated in the style of the time to give you an idea how the wealthy lived in downtown style back then. Definitely worth an hour or so to visit.

The city of Bath just seems to have a natural, inherent beauty:


And of course, being on the River Avon is a big help:


With all this, plus great restaurants and shopping, this is a no-brainer if you’re ever looking to escape London for a day or two.

Spend some time just wandering around this beautiful, relaxing town as you take in all the sites and shops. This was our second visit to Bath, and we wouldn’t hesitate to go again.




Kew Gardens


The Royal Botanical Gardens, located in Kew Park are the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world”. Founded in 1840, the exotic garden at Kew Park in Middlesex, London, is a beautiful 300 sprawling acres of greenhouses and gardens.


Each of the greenhouses is meticulously maintained and elegantly presented. There are a dozen plant houses in total.


Unbelievably beautiful and immaculate interior gardens. And well documented with detailed descriptions of each presentation. But who reads that crap anyway? Oh wait, is that Bryan down there reading the plaque?


And is that Melissa photo bombing me?! You see her there? What a punk!


And speaking of photo bombing, if you look closely in these great pics, above, you should be able to see the giant koi fish.

And it’s not just the greenhouses that are beautiful. The entire 300 acre park is absolutely amazing. It takes 750 employees to maintain it all.



That’s the pagoda tower in the backdrop, above. We didn’t go to it, but supposedly you can climb up it and get a great view of the surrounding area. But the Treetop Walkway also offers a great view, and we did go up there:


The pictures kind of speak for themselves. And the view was just incredible!

In addition to the dozen or so greenhouses, there were also another dozen buildings that weren’t greenhouses. The pagoda tower, restaurants, museums… you could easily spend an entire day here. We really enjoyed it.


St Albans, England


The Cathedral

St Albans is a small town in  the commuter belt north of London. It is also the sight of a famous cathedral, you guessed it, St Albans Cathedral. St Albans, the man, was executed on this site about 1700 years ago for proudly standing up in the name of Christianity.


Let me start by saying this place is a photographers dream. The cathedral is probably the most photogenic place I have ever been to. The cathedral  and grounds are absolutely beautiful.

Inside are breathtaking art presentations and architectural wonders.


The Roman Theatre of Verulamium



Not far from the cathedral is the amazing ruins of the 2nd century Roman theatre.


You can see in the artists rendition, above, how the theatre would have looked back then.


You can still hear the ancient clapping and feel the ghosts wandering around this rare excavation. In addition to theatre, it is believed the site was also used for sporting events and public executions.


Right behind the ruins is a huge park. Within the park are remnants of the old Roman city wall, a museum displaying ancient artifacts uncovered at the site, and a beautiful lake. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon.



Helsinki, Finland


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


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.


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!


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.


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


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.



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.


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


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.



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.


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.


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



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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


Venturing Out

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


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



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







The beautiful and divine Bom Jesus:




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


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