When most people visit Czech Republic, they usually just stay in the capital city, Prague. And while the architecture is pretty amazing, the hordes of ravenous tourists can leave you with a sour taste. Don’t let this be your only experience of the country. Go off into the country and replace the drunken English speakers with nature, trees, and mountains! I will elaborate on this point more in future posts, but for now, let these pictures persuade you to see more of the country. These are from August 2019 in the Bohemia region, mostly around the towns of Jablonec and Liberec. It was during a trip visiting Hanka (see Awesome People), which was incredible enjoyable, and, unlike Prague, nearly void of tourists.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve returned! My yearly pilgrimage to my old mountainous friend. We’re on much better terms since it tried to kill me back in 2016. I’ve visited twice so far this year, and was met with clear skies and calm, nice weather (and a bit of sunburn. Anyway, here are some photos from the two climbs. Please enjoy and live vicariously through my experience.
So I recently had an adventure to Russia’s Arctic north. It consisted of a 13 hour and 19 hour train ride from Moscow to Murmansk, which is not only right near the shore of the Arctic Ocean, but is the largest city in the world above the Arctic Circle. To give some background info, the city was founded at the start of the 20th century to serve as a naval base, and was actually the second most heavily bombed Soviet city during the Second World War (only behind Stalingrad). Many of the buildings are painted bright colors in order to combat Seasonal Affected Disorder, and the whole place seems to be overgrown by trees and forest. I was there for a total of four days, and since it was early July, it was during the period of 24 hour sunlight. So yeah, I went four days without a night. Anyway, here are some pictures of the journey. Many stories and a podcast will soon follow.
Seen in July 2019
When people travel across Russia, the common route is usually from west to east along the Transsiberian Railroad. Two years ago, I contemplated doing so, but at the last minute decided to go south down the Volga and into Kazakhstan instead. This year, I was also considering the trip for real, but instead got temped to do something else: travel north into the arctic. I was going to go by train from Moscow to the Arctic coast, and my first stop along the way was the capital of the Karelia region, Petrozavodsk. Here is what that was like.
Coolest Promenade Ever
The city itself is located on the shore of Lake Onega, the second largest in Europe and the inspiration for the name of Pushkin’s title character, Evgeniy Onegin. The whole city slopes downwards until it eventually reaches the water. There, you will find a large promenade stretching as far as the eye can see. Naturaly, I walked along the entire thing and quickly realized that it was amazing. First of all, the water is so clear and blue, with birch trees lining the way, adding to the whole beauty of the place. But even more, there are so many interesting and unique structures lining the way. All of which are connected to the traditions and folklore of the local people. This includes a statue of wire people fishing, a pyramid, a Nordic sailor, what I assume to be forest goddesses, and bizarre yet awesome wood carvings (see below).
Alongside that, there are also some small shops and cafes, as well as a small Soviet-era amusement park. From here, you can take a boat ride to the island Kizhi or rent a bicycle to ride around town. Finally, the one thing here that really stood out to me was a giant outdoor workout area sponsored by the Russian army. Usually these places just have one or two pull-up bars and a few couple of other things, but this one was the size of a huge gym. Pretty much everything you could imagine, it had. And there were dozens of townspeople there at any given time of the day.
Nature Looks Like Folklore
Welcome to the northern land of forests and lakes. Aside from the streets and building of the city,Petrozavodsk and the surrounding Karelia is covered with birch trees and gigantic lakes. So much so that it seems like it’s right out of Nordic legends. Clear blue water, white peeling bark, and green plants as far as the eye can see, all coupled with an ever changing sky and sporadic bursts of rain and sun. Also, since it is so far north, it never felt uncomfortable, despite being July (although I assume the winter probably feels pretty uncomfortable due to the cold). The presence of nature is everywhere, to the extent that I wouldn’t be that surprised to have come across an elf or a wood nymph during my wanderings. Plus the fact that there are only about 2 hours of darkness in the summer, all add to the feeling that the place comes right out of mythology.
Many Soviet Era Canteens.
Despite being the capital city of the region, there aren’t many standard restaurants in Petrozavodsk. However, there are actually many Soviet-Era styled canteens all over the place, which in my opinion, are really cool and give the city a unique feel. As someone who detests luxury, it’s nice to see these local spots seemingly around every corner. None of the prices are expensive at all, and for what they are (at least the ones I tried) the quality is pretty good, especially for the bakery items. It all feels very Russian, if that makes sense, which adds to the overall authenticity to the region.
Not So Much Infrastructure
Petrozavodsk, albeit small by city standards, had most of the modern amenities people use on a daily basis. Outside the city, however, it was entirely wilderness. Over 60% of the total area is covered by lakes and a majority of the remaining area consists of forests, leaving very little space for buildings or modern construction. There are no giant buildings here or luxury suites. It’s calming and seems to be a world itself away from the super modern Moscow and Petersburg. Come here and go back to nature. Get away from the noise and pollution for a bit and enjoy the green.
Very Few Travelers/Foreigners
Not only did I get the feeling that I was the only non-Russian citizen here, but it felt like I was the only non-Karelia resident too. When most people travel in and around Russia, they usually never go further north than Petersburg, and whenever they go distance, it’s almost always east. This is true for both Russians and foreigners… except me. It took a nearly 14 hour train ride from Moscow to reach the city, and almost all of my fellow passengers were Russian military heading up to the naval base in Murmansk.
Once there, I probably spoke less than five words in English throughout the entirety of my four day stay (excluding my Skype lessons). It was good overall language practice, plus since people were not used to foreigners coming, everyone I met was really nice, extremely helpful, and eager to get to know me. Case in point, I accidentally left my wallet (with all my cash, cards, and passport) in a bakery and didn’t notice until hours later. Not only did the lady who work there find it and keep it safe, but she even offered me a free snack when I came back to pick it up. We got to talking for a little bit and she told me all the best things to do and see throughout the city and region, which once again reinforced my belief that traveling to non-touristic places is the best way to go.
I’m all for respecting the animal world and nature, but there’s one thing in it I can’t stand: mosquitoes. They swarm, feast off of blood, make you itch for days, and kill more people that literally all other animals combined. I don’t see the point of them. And I know, some people will make the whole food chain argument, but couldn’t they just be replaced by flies? The worst thing they do it get slightly annoying at picnics. Anyway, I digress. The point here that I’m trying to make is that the only downside of Karelia is the abundance of mosquitoes. It’s alright in the day, but come dusk and they’re everywhere. Prepare yourself and never leave the windows open later in the day or else you’ll be in for a night of disaster.
Ill get right to the point, if you’re coming to Karelia, this is the place to stay. It was my homebase in Petrozavodsk and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The staff was incredibly helpful and friendly, always ready to assist in any way, including finding the cheapest rides to the countryside, train station, or airport. And as a nice little sentimental touch, they even take a picture with each guest and hang it on the wall for a keepsake. There is a clean, shared living room, kitchen, and various sized dorm rooms, each with comfortable beds and individual curtains. It’s also pretty quiet and does not seem to get overcrowded, plus it’s in a quiet location close to the shore of the lake. It only costs 390 rubles ($6 or 5 euro) for the night, making it really affordable. However, just as a side note, English is very limited here, so some understanding of Russian helps a lot.
After a 14 hour train ride from Moscow alongside a continuously arguing family, I finally reached an enchanted forested lakeland right out of Nordic mythology known today at Karelia. It’s a region in Russia alongside Finland, known for containing the two largest lakes in Europe as well as birch tree forests as far as the eye can see. Culturally it is different than most of Russia (as I will soon write about), but for now I’ll just show you a photographic preview of my trip. It is centered around the capital city of the region, Petrozavodsk (literally Peter’s Factory in Russian), but I made sure to wander out into nature where the real adventure exists. Anyway, please enjoy the forests, lakes, folklore statues and Soviet relics.
Late June, 2019
While staying in Latvia, I made sure to include a trip to the country’s Baltic coast during my visit. It turned out to be a really easy destination from the capital Riga. All I had to do was take a 30 minute train ride for less than 2 euro to the stop (NAME). And since there were trains going about every half an hour, I had plenty of options as to when to go. For this trip, I went with Hana (see Awesome People and Lido Festival pages). Once there, we walked about 7 or 8 minutes down a trail through a forest. Eventually, we got to a clearing at the end, and suddenly the scenery opened up to reveal the Baltic shore and all its glory.
Surprisingly, the area was pretty developed, but thankfully in a way that did not hinder the natural beauty and overall feel of the place. The water was so clean and blue and the sand was clear and smooth (unlike the beaches of Long Island Sound, which I had grown up alongside), and garbage was nowhere to be seen. There were numerous little pavilions and cafes, many of which happened to be modestly priced, and Latvians from seemingly all backgrounds were out enjoying the day. Some were relaxing, others were swimming, a few were playing volleyball, and some were even riding bicycles… on the sand.
Just a side note to my readers. The Baltic is not the Medeterranean. It’s much further north, and as a result, significantly colder. That said, if you can handle the temperature, there are far less tourists here and you can really enjoy the waters without having to dodge screaming families. Just don’t expect bath-like conditions. Instead, brace yourself for an exciting adrenaline rush.
Also, you can walk on clear sands as far as the eye can see. It was pretty interesting since the sand began right as the forest ended. It was almost as if it were a clash of two different geographical areas. Sandy beach meets northern birch tree taiga. I, personally, hadn’t ever seen anything quite like it, but it was pretty fascinating and provided a nice calming effect. And on the way back, Hana pointed out the tree in which she made our leaf crowns out of (see Lido Festival story again). So, for now, that’s all I have to say. Go there. You’ll like it.
23 June, 2019
Surprisingly, I had made it 28 years on this planet without attending a pagan summer solstice festival. By now, you’d expect it to be my annual tradition, but somehow it had eluded me… That is until this year when I went to Latvia - a place where such a celebration is an official national holiday. Naturally, I made absolutely sure to attend. Here is my story of how that went.
Every year on the 23rd of June (yes, I know the solstice is technically the 21st) the entire city of Riga shuts down to hold a festival to honor their pagan roots. Rightfully so, it goes from 5:00pm to 4:30 in the morning the next day. I got there around 8:00pm with Hana (see Awesome People page) while the sun was shining as bright as mid day. Earlier on, she had gone to the forest to make crowns out of leaves for the two of us. Upon entering, we saw a makeshift structure that reminded me a lot of True Detective (see above), and in the distance, we could hear horns and strings playing what I assume to be traditional Latvian music. We walked through the entrance and saw what looked like the whole city along the river. A conga line zipped past us and massive wooden pyres could be seen in every direction. We then both decided to go to one of the many beer tents in order to better fit in with our fellow festival goers.
Drinks in hand, we walked over to the main stage and listened. All five members of the band were dressed in traditional attire and were really getting into the mood. They were fun and their sound perfectly fit the occasion. Best of all, most of the people around us seemed to be enjoying their drinks and the music, as opposed to being on their phones. Unfortunately though, the second band did not live up to the first’s performance, and instead decided to play tacky modern pop music. Because of this, we chose to make our way down to the river instead of hanging around the stage.
We stayed for a few more hours, in which some random guy swiped one of my beers when my head was turned (props to him for being quick and disregarding sanitation). Around midnight, the wooden pyres were set on fire and everyone began throwing their leaf crowns into the flames. The sun wasn’t fully down yet due to our far north location. We decided to check the main stage one more time, but it was another tacky pop band killing the authentic vibe (if only the first band stayed on all night), but the crowd still seemed to be in good spirits, probably due to the tremendous amounts of booze available. We then left and decided to walk around the empty city.
It all made me wonder, ‘why did we give up paganism?’ Why did we replace drinking and dancing celebrations of joy with solemn ceremonies of restraint, self guilt, and judgment of others (western monotheism) or the dull perspective that everything is meaningless (atheism)? I mean, with paganism, you get to give thanks to awesome things like the sun, nature, animals, water, and all that good stuff that keeps us alive in a daily basis. We’s be more grateful for everything, instead of plundering it all as if its just something to be exploited (damn it Des Cartes and your mechanical view of everything non human). Anyway, I digress. Overall, the event was pretty fun. Food and booze were very affordable and the crowd and location were awesome. I just wish the first band stayed on longer.
Following Estonia, I took a 4 hour bus ride to its neighbor Latvia. I arrived in the capital, Riga, just in time for a summer festival Ligo. Naturally, I kept it as my base during my visit through the country. Most of the shops and businesses were closed down during the festival, so everything felt calm, relaxed, and open, as you will see in my series of photos. Please Enjoy, and stories will soon follow.
I first landed in Tallinn in late June at about 10:30pm after 20+ hours of travel and 30+ hours without sleep. Being so far north, the warm sun was still shining bright in the sky. With a mix of excitement and exhaustion, I exited the airport and got on the tram, which was conveniently located right outside the doors. I looked around me and noticed that I was the only one on board that did not have bond hair. Four stops later, I got off and headed for my hostel. The road was fairly quiet and lined with trees. Everything around me looked fresh and green.
After a much needed night’s sleep, I dedicated my next two days to exploring the city and seeing all it had to offer. Here are some of the highlights of that (filtered through my own arbitrary perspective, of course).
Medieval Meets Modern
While this is a pretty common balance most European cities aim for, Tallinn has mastered it. As I first walked down to the old town, I was surprised by how many tech centers and pristine modern buildings were all around, lining the streets. Likewise, all the facilities in which I stayed were in great condition. Wifi was very fast, things were clean, and nearly every product could be found in shops. But then when I entered the old town, it felt a little bit like I was walking back in time (well, except for the two modern horrors of McDonald’s and tourists with selfie sticks).
Very Walkable/Not Crowded
Tallinn has all the charm and beauty of the classic European cities There are historic sites, a medieval old town and castle, green parks, and a rich cultural history. There’s just one thing it doesn’t have: crowds of people. Estonia as a country only has only 1.3 million people, and Tallinn only has 400,000. And despite being named Europe’s cultural capital just a few years ago, large scale tourism hasn’t quite caught on yet. or me, this made the experience much better and significantly more pleasant. There were few crowds to dodge, small lines at bars, and open seats on public transportation. Plus I didn’t have to wake up early to take awesome shots of the old town.
Tons of Green Space
While there are some things I do admire about cities, such as architecture, culture, and collective artistic expressions, I have always preferred nature to urban slabs of concrete. Therefore I really like it when a city has ample green space. Tallinn happened to be such a city. Parks, green squares, and trees can be found just as much, or even more than pavement and buildings, and never once does it feel like the city is trying to conquer or dominate the land (in the way monstrosities like Manhattan and east Asian mega cities do). Instead, the structures and natural world seem to grow together and complement one another in Tallinn. Never are you overwhelmed by pollution or smog, and its never hard to find a place of solitude or silence.
Amazing Old Town
So I may have found a new favorite European old town center. Tallinn’s was so cool and fascinating that it overshadowed all others I can remember. It may not be the biggest, nor the most famous, but it’s substance is second to none. Everything from the ancient stone gate entrance to the large open square in the city center to the the spiderweb of narrow winding streets that are scattered about. Buildings have been kept looking in old traditional styles, and some places even tried to recreate old style eateries and breweries. Unfortunately though, there were still some tour groups with selfie sticks (the horror) and one McDonald’s (again, the horror), but these were far less than pretty much any other such city. Plus many of the overlooking views and lookout points offer incredible views of the city below. Case in point how much I enjoyed it: I decided to spend midnight on the solstice wandering about this area. It was absolutely time well spent.
Everybody is Blond
I first noticed this once I exited the airport after landing, and then had it reinforced everywhere I went. And I mean everyone. Tall blond people as far as the eye could see. I felt as if I was the only brown haired person in the entire country. Kind of strange to think that I, a white American of Polish descent could be the darkest one in sight, but here that was the case. Even Scandinavia had more hair color diversity.
Candied Nuts are Everywhere
So this I found to be pretty cool. All throughout the city (and especially in the old town), there were street vendors selling candied nuts everywhere. Apparently it was an old tradition started by monks (according to the story I was told) and the city decided to keep it as a tradition. Typically speaking, this would consist of several different kinds of almonds and peanuts, each sweetened in different flavors. Some were spiced in cinnamon, others in chocolate, and many in other things I couldn’t quite distinguish. Nonetheless, all the ones I tried tasted good, and I would definitely recommend getting some if you happen to go there. And as an added bonus, they weren’t expensive either.
Very Artistic City
Some people may say art is dead, but this is not true in Tallinn. From the architecture to the odd statues, to bizarre yet amazing murals, to eerie looking manikins at store fronts, Tallinn knows how to express itself artistically. And there’s not just one style either. In just a quick hour of wandering around, you’ll be able to see such a variety of creation, all intertwined with nature as well. Some places will seem extremely modern, while other classical, and many without any specific category. Likewise, even restaurants and cafes have creative flares as well, each trying to establish their own unique layout, music, and menus.
So I happened to visit Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, during the summer solstice. Being so far north, the sun didn’t set until around midnight, so I made the most of my experience wandering around the city, which turned out to be pretty amazing. This is what it looked like.