A Cyrillic Experience: Russia!

Looking out the window of the plane as we flew into St. Petersburg, the buildings somewhat resembled Legos. Block like structures all similar in color creating a monochromatic feel against the backdrop of the gray sky. There we were…in Russia.

Landing in St. Petersburg

Even though Russia no longer considers itself a communist state, the impression that its communist past has left on not only the architecture but also its people is still very evident.

Remnants of the G20 Summit

We spent four days in St. Petersburg and four days in Moscow before embarking on our week long rail journey across Siberia.

Our hotel had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport in St. Petersburg, which we very grateful that we wouldn't be braving a Russian bus or Cyrillic laden metro toting all of our bags. We stayed at the Rennaisance Hotel which was in a great location and had a very stern yet helpful staff. I initially interpreted their sternness as not being very friendly. Scott assured me that they were indeed friendly and that the sternness was just part of the culture. It turns out he was right. Most of the people we met while in Russia turned out to be very friendly.

Cheers to our first night in Russia

Anyhow, we spent most of our time in St.Petersburg exploring on foot. We walked a huge length of Nevsky Prospect, the main drag containing lots of shops and restaurants.

We were so excited to find a Starbucks!

Inside of a fancy shop on Nevsky

We spent almost an entire day walking through the Hermitage museum. We took a walking tour of the city and made some new friends Vanessa and Ellena. We also walked by the Church on Spilt Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and even through a small market.

In front of the Hermitage Museum

Inside the Hermitage

Scott resting while listening to an audio guide

If your coin lands on this rabbit post it means good luck

At the Fortress

Random balloons floating into the sky

Some sort of military band was playing near our hotel

We also experienced some of the local cuisine including beef stroganoff, borsch, and piroshkis. Borsch was not exactly our cup of tea, but the stroganoff and piroshkis were delicious!

A cozy little restaurant we found near our hotel

A selection of sweet and savory piroshkis

At the end of our time in St. Petersburg we boarded an overnight train to Moscow. Our train compartment was extremely comfortable (we were hoping this would be similar to the train we'd be on for six nights…you'll have to read our next blog to find out).

The crowded train station

Map of the Russian railway system

At the train station waiting to board to Moscow

When we arrived at the train station in Moscow, we planned on walking to our hotel hoping we wouldn't get lost. However, when we got off the train we could see our hotel towering over all of the other buildings. We would be staying at the Hilton Leningradskia which was one of the seven sky scrapers that was built under the rule of Stalin.

The view of our hotel from the train station

The Hilton at night

The view from our room

We spent our first day wandering around taking in the sights of the Red Square, St. Basils Cathedral, and the Gum which is a huge shopping mall with a historical background. It used to be the store where people would stand in line for hours to buy all government produced goods during the communist days. Now it houses mainly high end designer stores.

Inside the GUM

It was interesting seeing the extremely different Russian viewpoint on international affairs

The next day we spent the entire day doing a walking tour of the city, a tour of the Kremlin, and a tour of the Moscow metro.

Mosaics of past communist dictators even reside in the metro

Everyone pets this dog statue in the metro for good luck!

Scott loving hoodie weather

Entrance bridge to the Kremlin

It was very clear that they had no English brochures at the Kremlin

Picture with Paul our tour guide

Another day of overcast skies

Could possibly be the best purchases on our journey yet!

Scott captured me wearing my new hat while relaxing in my bath robe

The next two days in Moscow were cold and rainy. We still managed to do another tour all about the communist history. Our guide was awesome and really nice. After the tour she even took us to a local restaurant that was delicious.

The day before we left on the Trans-Siberian we ventured out to a really cool grocery store to stock up on snacks for our train ride. The grocery store had guilded ceilings and even a painted portrait of the store founder hanging on the wall. The store was actually reasonably priced considering how fancy it appears to be.

That evening we attended a ballet. The ballet was amazing, however Scott claims that it was the soft music that lulled him to sleep.

Bundled up to head to the ballet

After the ballet we took some pictures of the Red Square, which is beautiful all lit up at night.

On our last morning in Moscow we walked the length of Old Arbott Street and had lunch at a My My (pronounced moo moo), which is an old fashioned Soviet cafe.

That night we headed to the train station to board the train that would end in a completely different world…China.

Waiting to board the Trans-Siberian train

 

Amsterdam and Brussels

Our stops in Amsterdam and Brussels were only a couple days long, but both cities were enjoyable and easily walkable. Amsterdam is also bike-able if you are willing to brave the other crazy cyclists…lots of them. In Amsterdam we stayed at the Movenpick near the city center, which was an easy walk to the main train station. The hotel also offered a free shuttle to the center of town and also had a tram stop across the street which made getting around super easy.

We spent three nights in Amsterdam, which was plenty of time to stroll the canals, visit a piece of history, and also explore the unique yet controversial night life.

The daytime strolls along the canals were quite enjoyable and picturesque. This is a place we would love to come back to in the winter months when people ice skate on the frozen canals.

We spent one morning visiting the Anne Frank house, which was really interesting to see. We walked through the hidden apartment that the Frank family took refuge in for two years during WWII. The line to get in was long, and unfortunately we hadn't bought our tickets online ahead of time, so we patiently waited and had a nice conversation with a cute American elderly couple that were next to us in line. Out of respect, no photos were allowed inside, so I only got one photo of the monument that sits outside in a nearby park.

At night, the city transforms from quiet canals to something rather different. The smell of pot wafts out of the coffee shops, the red light windows light up, and a completely different crowd seems to emerge as the sun goes down. One of the wonderful things of Amsterdam that highlights the night are all of the little food carts and shops that are open for late night munching.

The train ride from Amsterdam to Brussels was short and easy, and the walk to our hotel was only ten minutes and a straight shot from the train station.

Brussels is known for their fries, waffles, chocolate, and Belgian beer. We lucked out with the last of these items because unbeknownst to us, the Brussels beer festival was just starting when we arrived. Although a little crowded, the streets were lively and entertaining to walk through.

We did a three hour walking tour of the city which was a great way to see the main sights and also counter act the damage to our waistlines we would be doing with the food items discussed above. On the tour we got to see the famous Mannequin Pis, some beautiful architecture, and learn about Belgian beer and cuisine.

We also had an interesting experience in the breakfast room at our hotel. As we were serving ourselves at the breakfast buffet, an older woman tripped and fell directly into a small Asian lady taking them both down in the middle of the breakfast room. They both hit pretty hard and were knocked out cold. They were immediately swarmed with other guests checking to see if they were ok. Fortunately after about half an hour of shenanigans, the older woman walked away with a very large bump on her forehead and the Asian lady with a make shift ice pack on her head. Somehow in all of the chaos we also lost our table to an old man wearing a safari like vest that just strolled right into the restaurant past the hostess and made himself comfortable at our table while we were getting our breakfast. He also refused to move when asked, so we ended up having to move all of our stuff and eat on the other side of the restaurant.

These two cities were both a fun and relaxing way to prepare ourselves for our next bucket list destination…Russia!

 

Berlin: Beyond the Wall

The train ride from Krakow to Berlin was long, cramped, and extremely too warm, so you can imagine how relieved we were to get to Berlin. The Wombats hostel we stayed in was in a great location, not to mention our private double room was actually really comfortable. The area was a fun neighborhood with a young, hipster-ish vibe with lots of quirky little shops and a wide range of restaurants.

We packed a lot of activities into the time we were in Berlin, and we had a fabulous time. Berlin is a city that is so packed full of history, and endless things to see and do.

We opted to do a free walking tour that is offered by a company called Sandemans (they are offered in most large European cities and have all been great). The tour covered some of the key historical sites in the center of the city starting at Brandenburg Gate. We walked by Checkpoint Charlie, a segment of the Berlin Wall, the Jewish memorial, and we also saw where the book burnings took place during the Nazi influence at Humboldt University.

Aside from the tour, we walked through The Topography of Terror museum and also the Wall on Wall exhibit at another section of the Berlin Wall that has murals on one side and images of walls that still exist around the world on the other side

We spent one morning strolling through a huge flea market. We had a great time looking at all of the interesting things and eating at some of the booths. We also came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, people collect a lot of junk!

One evening we walked down to the Sony center, and stumbled upon a red carpet premiere of the movie “White House Down,” and yes both Channing Tatum and Jamie Fox were there to promote their new film. We didn't get to meet the celebrities, but it was still kind of fun to see nonetheless.

We enjoyed trying the Berlin favorite, curry wurst. We also enjoyed the impressive chocolate displays and a delicious treat at Fasbenser & Rausch chocolate shop.

Our last night in Berlin we discovered a delicious little Korean restaurant just a couple blocks from the hostel and enjoyed a spicy dinner.

 

The City of Music, the City of Bridges, and the Eastern European Gem

From Munich we hopped on the train headed into Austria. We decided to stay a couple days in the city of music, Wien (Vienna). Vienna was beautiful in it's own way, however still crowded with tourists. We spent an afternoon walking the streets of the city center taking in all of the talented buskers playing classical music and singing opera. We also took the opportunity to enjoy the quintessential Viennese schnitzel.

Our second day in Vienna we visited the Schonbrunn palace gardens, not quite as elaborate of those in Versailles, but nonetheless a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. We also visited the zoo that is on the palace grounds. The only downfall was we did get rained on, but not too bad.

Later that evening we took in a classical symphony/opera that mostly played music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Musik Verein concert hall was beautiful.

The next morning we were up bright and early and headed on our way to Praha (Prague).

We arrived in Prague at a decent hour and checked into the Hilton. We spent the next couple of days wandering the charming streets of the old world city, with its elaborate bridges (specifically Charles Bridge) and interesting blend of European culture.

We spent an afternoon at the Prague Castle and walked the Golden Lane.

We definitely did our fare share of walking, lots and lots of walking. We even walked for over forty minutes opposite the city center to get a glorious apple strudel from a hole in the wall shop that we watched on a Samantha brown episode…and it was totally worth it.

From Prague we took the train into Poland. On our way to Krakow we had to change trains in a town called Katowice. We got off the train and nobody spoke english and insisted that we needed to get onto a very shady bus. Thankfully we figured out our way and got on the right train, although it wasn't in any better condition than the bus.

Since we are both big WWII history buffs, we had planned on passing through most of Poland and making our main stop in Krakow, where we would do a guided day tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. However, when we arrived in Krakow, we realized that the small city was super charming, lively, and really a little European gem!

As expected, our day trip out to the camps was a sobering experience. Having a tour guide made for a much more informative and personal experience. Our guide was an English speaking young Polish woman, who gave a lot of insight from a Polish perspective.

We had the rest of the evening to spend wandering around the small Eastern European city. The streets were lively with food vendors and sidewalk cafes. We took the opportunity to feast on one of my all time favorite dishes…pierogis! We had to leave Poland early the next morning to catch a train to Berlin, but Krakow is definitely a place we would recommend stopping if you are ever in the area.

 

Beer, Brats, and the Bavarian Scowl!

Our first stop in Germany was the quintessential Bavarian city of Munich. The city is lively with tourists and locals alike enjoying the traditional Bavarian fare and soaking up the summer sun in the many bier gartens that are sprinkled throughout.

We spent a total of five days in the not too large city, which we probably would have been better off only spending three days. Our first day was a rainy one, so we used it as an opportunity to take in some of the museums which were surprisingly much less crowded than all of the other cities we'd been to thus far. We walked the corridors of the Residenz (palace) which was partially ornate and mostly bland due to the majority of the reconstruction that took place after WWII. We also walked through the Munich City Museum.

We spent an entire afternoon walking around the beautiful English Garden/park that is in the middle of Munich. We ate a couple of our meals at the Viktualienmarkt, a great outdoor market that was a block off of Marienplatz. We had fresh baked pretzels one day and bratwurst on a bun another day. Delicious!

We visited the Hofbrauhaus a couple times to test out the retention of our drinking capacity that had been built up during our college years. Unfortunately, we found that the lack of practice left our bladders in a state that wouldn't allow it. One night at the Hofbrauhaus we were joined by a guy we met that was from Northern Germany and a girl from Canada who was also traveling around for a couple months. It made for some interesting conversations, and our butchered German speaking was kindly corrected by our new friend.

We also tried out the Augustiner, which is another famous brauhaus. The food there was pretty tasty and served by an older, stout woman in full lederhosen with the typical Bavarian scowl on her face, who actually turned out to be really sweet. We found that majority of the locals in Munich wear the scowl on their faces and look a little mean, but were usually really nice once we talked with them.

One thing that is for sure, the city of Munich and the surrounding areas are steeped in history. Unfortunately, most of the history is dark and at times eerie.

I found it a little hard not to think of some of the dark history while trying to enjoy the sights in Munich, especially after seeing some of the images at the museums of Hitler giving speeches in the Hofbrauhaus and images of SS troops gathered in formations on Marienplatz with Nazi banners hanging from the Glockenspiel behind them.

We spent one day paying our respects to those who were the unfortunate victims of the dark times in Germany. We took the train out to Dachau and visited the site of the concentration camp that once existed. Now there is an extensive museum in one of the old buildings that was part of the old camp, remnants of the barracks that the victims were housed in, the crematorium and gas chambers that are still standing, and the beautiful memorials that were erected after the war to honor those that were not spared. A heavy day, but important to remember nonetheless.

On a lighter note, we spent our last day by taking a little day trip to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle. the weather was beautiful and perfect for the hike required to get up to the castle. The views were amazing. It was a great way to end our time in Munich.

Overall, our time in Munich was a little longer than planned, but we left a little fuller figured than we arrived and learned a lot about the city.

 

Switzerland: Is this real life?

The train into Switzerland was a beautiful ride. The further into Switzerland we got the more beautiful it was. We arrived in Interlaken in the late evening. We had about a fifteen minute walk from the train station to the hostel, Balmers Herberge. The town was peaceful and quiet and the cool, fresh air was such a relief from the previous weeks of heat on the Mediterranean.

We checked into our eight bed hostel dorm, which was actually pretty comfortable, and luckily our roommates were friendly. Balmers seemed to be a decent hostel, but definitely had a younger “party” crowd, which made it quite noisy at night.

The next morning we took the local train up the mountain to the village of Grindewald. We walked through the village and then took a gondola further up the mountain to First. We had planned on doing a hike down to a little lake, which should have only been a less than two hour round trip hike on a fairly easy trail. It took us about an hour to get to the lake which was about what we expected. Once we got there, we looked at our map and saw that there was another route that would take us to a different stop on the gondola that was only about half an hour longer of a hike, so we decided to be adventurous and give it a go! So, about four hours into the hike, we realized we had gone down the wrong path, which was a much longer and much more difficult hike than we had planned, but the views we got were amazing! We walked alongside some herds of cows, with their chiming bells. We came across some mountain goats munching on some flowers, and crossed some beautiful little streams on rickety, wooden bridges. About halfway down, we arrived at a beautiful little cafe up in the mountains, which seemed to be the hikers hangout. We shared a sandwich and some water, and then hit the trail again. Once again, we chose the more intense path. Instead of taking the smooth trail that went around the side of the mountain we ended up on a path that basically went straight down the side of the mountain. At the end of the day every inch of our bodies were sore, but we enjoyed a cold beer and felt that we had earned it.

The next day we had planned on going up to Jungfraujoch, but the train tickets had sold out the night before. Instead, we spent the morning doing laundry and getting our bags reorganized. While we were waiting for our laundry we met a really nice guy from Seattle who was traveling by himself. We ended up talking with him for the two hours it took to do laundry. By the time our laundry was done it was lunch time, so we ended up walking to town and having lunch with our new friend. After lunch he was catching a train to his next travel destination. Although it was a short amount of time, it is always nice to meet other travelers that are on a similar yet completely different journey than ourselves.

We spent the rest of the day walking around town, looking in shops, and planning what we were going to do for the next few days.

The events that happened later that night changed my entire outlook on what I thought was a great hostel. We were getting ready for bed, I had just climbed up on my top bunk when I noticed something climbing up the wall directly next to my face…instinct set in…smack…splat! It was the dreaded hostel nightmare…a bed bug!!! I grabbed my flashlight and shined it in the cracks of the paneling on the wall and sure enough there were several more. In disgust I jumped off of the bed and was grateful we had put our bags in lockers that were outside versus having them be infested with bugs in the room. Scott went down to the front desk and explained to them what happened and what we saw. The guy quickly apologized and offered to move us to a private room on a different floor at the other end of the building. He told Scott that they would be removing the beds that we had been in and would be spraying the room to take care of the problem.. Originally we considered leaving the hostel and trying to stay somewhere else, but being the small town that it is, basically every hostel and hotel in Interlaken were booked for the night. When we got to our new room I spent an hour doing a thorough inspection of every inch of the room with my flashlight to ensure there were no bugs that would be feasting on us. I hardly slept all night thinking bugs were crawling on me.

Early the next morning on our way down from our room Scott poked his head in the infested room to see if they had moved the beds out like they had told us they would do. We were in shock to see that there were already two new people sleeping in those beds!!! We asked the girl at the front desk about it when we got downstairs and all she told us was “It's Saturday. We get anyone to come spray for bugs on a Saturday and the beds in the entire hostel are booked.” It is understandable that bed bugs can happen, but it is unbelievable that they didn't do anything about it and would allow two unsuspecting victims to check into a room when they knew there was a problem. It was sickening! We asked for a refund for our last night since we had originally planned on staying one more night, and then we booked a room at the Renaissance in Zurich, where we would be going after our day at Jungfrau. There is a definite point where we draw the line on budget traveling.

After we checked out of the hostel, we hopped on a train up to Jungfraujoch since we hadn't gone the day before. The train ride to the “top of Europe” was extremely pleasant and the views were breathtaking. Once we got all the way up to the top we sat and had lunch to allow ourselves a little time to adjust to the elevation. We went all the way up to the Sphinx viewing platform, which is at 11,716ft above sea level. We wandered through the alpine exhibit and the Eispalast (ice palace), which was formed in the inside of a glacier. After the exhibits, we went out and walked around in the snow and got some great pictures.

We rode the train back down the mountain, which took almost two hours. Once we got back down to Interlaken we grabbed our bags and headed to the train station. We got to Zurich around 6:30 pm, checked into the Renaissance, ordered some room service, and had the best nights sleep we'd had in days. Next stop…Munich!

 

Dolce Vita!

Our time in Italy was short and sweet! Since we both had previously spent quite a bit of time in Italy on previous trips, we opted to quickly jaunt through Italy in trade for more time in other places. However, the little bit of time we did spend in Italy was “perfecto!”

We landed in Roma and took a shuttle to the Hotel Artemide where we stayed for one night. The hotel was great, the location was great, and the staff was great, with the exception of the evening desk attendant whom we think may have been boozing it up behind the desk, due to his slurred speech and bloodshot eyes.

Since we had less than twenty four hours in Rome we decided to hit up one major feature, and spend the rest of the evening relaxing and enjoying the delicious cuisine.

We both had been to Rome multiple times before, however I had only ever seen the Colosseum from the outside. So we braved the heat and the worst of summer's tourist lines and had a great time touring the Colosseum.

We had a delicious, overpriced pizza margherita for lunch and a bite of gelato walking back from the colosseum.

Later in the evening, we took a stroll to the Trevi Fountain and made some wishes with American pennies. We had done some research on Tripadvisor for dinner restaurants, but when we got to the restaurant we had chosen, it was closed. We were a little bummed, but we ended up having a delightful dinner at a little restaurant we found walking back towards our hotel. The food wasn't the best food we've had in Italy, but it wasn't bad, and the atmosphere was nice.

In the morning we headed to the train station to catch the train to Firenze. We ended up having to wait quite a while in line at the train station, to get our Eurail passes validated and reserve our seats on a train.

When we got to Florence we walked from the train station to the Relaiz Uffizi. The Relaiz Uffizi is an older, but nice, hotel we had stayed at a few years back. It sits above a restaurant overlooking the Piazza del' a Uffizi, which is a great location. We spent the day strolling the leather market, the Ponte Vecchio, passed by the Duomo, and ate lots of gelato. Florence has always been one of our favorite cities, and still is. It is so charming just to stroll the narrow streets and busy piazzas (however, we would definitely never come back in the height of tourist season).

The next morning we hopped on a train to Venizia. The train ride was pleasant and entertaining. We had another young American couple just across the isle from us, and an EXTRA friendly Italian man that sat next to Scott. The couple we sat next to were from a small town in Texas, and it was their first time to Europe. It was interesting to hear about their experience, and what their perceptions were about being out of the U.S. for the first time.

The extra friendly Italian guy sitting next to Scott, was a whole other experience. When the train attendant came by, we all were given a packet of cookies, a beverage, and a wet wipe. The Italian man opened up his wet wipe and proceeded to wipe down his hands, his face, and his entire hairy arms. Then he looks at both of us, holding the wipe up to his nose and says “Perfume! Perfume!” We both politely nodded our heads in concurrence that the wipes had a fresh smell to them. He then kept insisting that we smell our wipes. We both just continued to smile and tried not to laugh. He then took the wipe he had just finished using to practically bathe himself with and held it up to Scott's face insisting that he smell the “Perfume!”. At this point Scott is hanging half way out into the isle trying to avoid the guys insistent gesture. For the rest of the train ride the Italian guy continued to look over Scott's shoulder to look at his ipad, to see Scott's cards while we played Gin, and he seemed to be intently listening to our conversations even though he didn't seem to speak a word of English. It was reminiscent of a scene out of the movie Euro Trip.

When we got to Venice, we dropped our bags at the Novecento, which was another great hotel that had been recommended to us by Scott's sister. We headed to a restaurant for lunch that had been recommended to us by the concierge at the hotel. It was a fabulous little restaurant that seated no more than twenty guests, not one other person at the tables around us was a tourist, all of the pasta was freshly made, and the chef even came out to talk with guests.

After lunch we ended up going into a Venitian mask store that was just a couple doors down from the place we had lunch. All of the masks were so beautiful and all hand made and painted in the store. We ended up purchasing two beautiful masks that we had shipped home. Come to find out, the place we bought the masks was the place that made all of the masks for the movie “Eyes Wide Shut”, they had also made some masks for Leonardo DiCaprio, and were the number one recommended mask shop in our guide book. We completely lucked out because neither one of us knew about it and unknowingly chose the best!

We spent the rest of the day strolling along the canals, browsing in shops, and eating pizza by the slice at little pizza shops. It was perfection! We were so glad we did so much strolling the first day, because the next morning we woke up to thunder and rain. We spent the morning enjoying our nice comfortable bed because we knew we would be staying in a few hostels for the next couple of weeks.

Italy still truly is one of the best places to visit. The food is great, the people are friendly for the most part, and it is always so charming.