Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thursday, September 24, 2015

a day in paris (again)

Posted by Hippobean at 7:47 PM 0 comments
6am flight meant getting up at 3 with only 3 hrs of sleep. L was there to see me off, bloodshot eyes and all. Poor thing. The half hour ride to Pulkovo was in semi-darkness. St Petes still asleep with few cars on the road. Totally unlike Moscow Sheremetyevo which was completely soviet style, Pulkovo was a modern airport, not very big but with a glass ceiling, and duty free and shops, with TGIF of course. 4 hours later I arrived at CDG, again. Deposited my luggage at the 'left luggage' and trained to central Paris. Since my cc even with the chip (it's chip and signature) still wouldnt work at the european ticket kiosk, had to wait a long time at the long line at the ticket office. when will America become state of the art.

It was still early but multitude of tourists were already out and about in central paris. The air was cold, cloudy but no rain. Hopped on the FoxCity bus and did a 2 hr ride through all the familiar sites, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Place de La Concorde, Champ d'Elises, arc de triumph, the Opera house, the eiffel tower, and back to the Louvre. Wanted to walk around a bit but after 2 weeks of walking in the baltics and St Petes I was bone tired and it was very cold (even colder than St Petes), so had a lasagna lunch at a local joint and headed back to CDG.

Check out Paris in 2015.

Checked in to the CitizenM hotel next to terminal 3 and oh, this place was awesome beyond expectation. Decor totally modern, self check-in, long tables with outlets for the businessmen laptops, and banks of Macs to use, an awesome bar and small dinning area. The room was what sent me to the heavens. 4th floor with a direct view of the runway, planes parading in front of my window every 3 mins. Small Snowie perched himself on the windowsill counting the planes going by. Small room but everything adequate. The shower and toilet were located inside the room in an oval glass compartment with different color shades ambient lighting. King size bed up against the window, 48 in flat screen tv with free movies. Everything controlled by a tablet. I could set the ambient lighting to display alternating colors of the rainbow. Loved this room. After a shower beneath faded orange lighting, headed downstairs intending to grab some supper material from terminal 2 but spotted the hotel buffet - orange duck, curry chicken, mushroom beef, kale salad, scallop potato, so went for it. lemon pudding and drink came with the dinner, so I carried it all to my room and enjoyed the sumptuous meal watching 50 Shades (again) while Small Snowie watched the planes go by and occasionally stole looks at the TV and at my food. Had a most relaxing invigorating sleep accompanied by the lime green ambient lighting. I've really enjoyed this room and the hotel. Next CDG layover, guess what. citizenM again! forget the Ibis, although closer to the terminal. price the same and citizenM's rooms were a bit bigger and excellently modern.

Double decker Air France Airbus again and this time on the upper deck. A dutch with perfect English sat next to me. Not much conversation between us but he conversed quite a bit with his colleagues sitting behind us. Dutch not a very pleasant sounding language but good background noise to my sweet slumber. Finished up Brimstone and really loved the Diogenes trilogy of the Pendergast series. Did the trilogy in backwards order. Fun to already know what happened later in the story. hee hee.

Another great trip. Loved the lovely Baltics, stormy adventurous ferry acrossing the sea, the smooth elegant Allegro train, completely blown away by St Petes. A trip of grand chandeliers, palaces with enough gold, rivers and cathedrals, great meat (reindeer, moose, wild boar, elk), good strudels and pies, pleasant hotels. Just the weather was not nice but hey, it's Mother Nature and she's in control, always, and one cannot complain.

My room at the CitizenM hotel:

Planes parading in front of my window:

Air France double-decker Airbus to SFO:

Our plane coming:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Tsars' palaces

Posted by Hippobean at 8:59 PM 0 comments
I saw rows and rows of soviet apartment blocks but new modern ones with glass and steel were getting built. with a population of 5 mil, I was wondering where all those people lived since the city proper was not that big. the hour drive to Catherine's palace in Pushkin was a nice way to see the greater st Petes. Good tram system connected the outskirts to the city center and the city had a nice underground metro with chandeliers and marble columns, although not quite as ornate as the moscow ones. We didnt try it though. pity.

Pushkin was a small lovely quaint town. this was where the russian government put the foreign dignitaries. Cottages, they called them, actually grand 2 story single houses crowded in the town, surrounded by green gardens with trees. Like a nice summer place to be. Loved it. Another stunning classical baroque architecture, the Catherine's palace was built to impress. enormous didnt even qualify it. we paid a brief visit to the family chapel next to the grand building. nice little intimate church. Not sure if all the imperial state houses still showed their original colors, but Cath's palace was now sky blue. I loved the vibrant colors of these russian palaces. Somehow this palace lacked a grand entrance and staircase. the staircase we've entered was not even as grand as the one in the Mikhailovsky Palace which was just a duke's palace. Gosh more gold everywhere. We just about seen enough gold. Strangely this place had all painted ceilings with no chandeliers! Walking from room to room, I began to wonder if the palace's inhabitants knew that one day chinese tourists would walk through their chambers. Katcha told us that was exactly what Cath had in mind. to tell people how rich she was. I remember my childhood friend A told me when she went back home and saw that her house in Taipa had turned into a local museum and she went it and said "oh, it's my room" and now tourists were walking in it. Must be a strange and funny feeling. Hm. We stole a few photos in the packed like sardine Amber room. What's the point of prohibiting photography only in this room? Although it wasnt the original amber, this room was still floor to ceiling in amber. amber not my thing. just look brown to me and i actually didnt find it all that spectacular. but others might disagree. This palace had the most romanovs mementos. paintings of them filled 1 room even with one of a boy Alexei. Poor kid. We strolled through the massive gardens and the leafs were just about to starting turning orange brown. On the Cameron Gallery, one could get excellent views of the back of the palace and the palace church on one side, and the English garden on the other. Very nice view of the blue palace amidst green orange brown trees.

After a buffet lunch, we drove to Pavlovsk palace, the 18th-century Russian Imperial residence built by Paul I, now part of the World Heritage site of St Petes. this palace was occupied by the Germans during WWII. The palace curators removed most of the treasures of the palace and dug holes 3 meters deep to bury/hide the statues, for the german wouldnt dig deeper than 1 meter. Other treasures, the curators hid them behind fake brick walls in the basement. For 2 and a half years the German didnt know the palace's treasures were all around them. The german burned the palace to the ground when they fled. All the palace's hidden treasures remained intact. Quite a triumphant story. Pavlovsk I liked very much. Smaller in scale, more intimate. Not many foreign tourists here. Still richly decorated and furnished, but none of the over the top extravagance as the other palaces. Here one can feel at home. A short walk in the gardens behind the palace where a small tranquil lake was situated, the pale yellow palace was reflected on it, it looked like the one in the sound of music. I really did like this palace very much. Nice way to round up St Petes visit.

Being in St Petes literally reduced me on my knees. I didnt expect it to be so westernized. Its excessive grandeur spoke of the old glorious imperial days of the tzars, with so much gold and excessive extravagance, and no wonder the common folks revolted. I've tried unavailingly to find out what the old Lenningrad's days used to be. No one would venture to speak of it. Most of the population was young and seemed to live in good times with plenty of money to spend, plenty of western commodities to buy. True the history was enormous here. One could see the architecture, grand palaces and state buildings all around. But the present is modern and western. Gone were the Lenningrad days, controlled, isolated and enclosed. Now it looks like a capitalist world. Passing by Tchaikovsky's house was a sentimental moment I didnt expect. I've enjoyed St Petes and loved it very much.

Catherine's Palace photos:

Pavlovsk Palace photos:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

the Tsars' treasures

Posted by Hippobean at 10:19 PM 0 comments
What looked depressing and sad in yesterday's cloudy weather, the Winter Palace did look a bit brighter this morning up close. Loved that green color. Again had to wait for it to open. what with these Russians. I had to walk all the way back to under the triumphant arch of the General Staff Building and still couldnt get the entire place in 1 frame of my camera. that's how wide this beast was. The Palace square was enormous. Good color contrast from the yellow of the General Staff Building one 1 side and the green Winter Palace on the other. The Aleksander column centered at the square. This place would look positively breathtaking if the sun shined. The buildings next to the palace also had marvelous architectue. Because of the imminent tourist crowd, we'd wanted to be the first ones in but already hordes of tourist buses arrived and when the palace doors opened, it was a mad dash to get in. Today was the cruise ship day. It was then a whirlwind getting through the rooms, always trying to get ahead of the chinese herd. I knew the palace was grand but the amount of gold and rich chandeliers were almost too much to take in. Room after room just made your mouth open in wonder and delight. The Jordan Staircase topped all other Grand Staircases I've seen. The 2 tons chandelier in the armory room, the gold and the chandeliers in the throne room made me speechless. The crystal room was a winter's heaven. And I even liked the mosaic room, moi who dont like mosaics that much. Enormous vases with malachite and lapis (my fav semi precious) inlaid leafs stole my heart. The amount of treasure in this palace surpassed any I've witnessed. Even the wooden floors had beautiful intricate designs. The Hermitage collections were beyond belief. I spotted my favorite Rembrandt 'abraham and Isaac'. in front of Goya's Antonia Zarate, I was literally picked up and deposited aside by a chinese tourist who couldnt wait for her turn to stand in front of this painting. I've been elbowed, knocked over, pushed aside before, but never physically picked up and put some place else. One needs at least 2 days to completely cover the NY Met and maybe the London Museum, 1 week to totally enjoy the Louvre. Possibly 2 weeks for the entire Hermitage. Others wowed to come back the next day but the Hippo has already had enough of museums for 1 trip.

We had lunch at a nearby subterranean small local restaurant. The pasta I had was delicious. Nice place decorated with russian mementos, and I spotted a very nice color drawing of Lenin in a winter field. Such treasures. We missed the hydrofoil so we drove to Peterhof instead. Another grand palace, filled with gold. no photos allowed inside. But the garden fountains were what made it famous. 7 beautiful fountains on 1 side, elaborate tiered ones ornate with statues at the back, the Grand Cascade and the Samson Fountain'. Barely enough time to snap a few photos, we had to run to the last hydrofoil. Short ride but you did get a perspective of the compact city from the river. Back at the hotel, just in time for one last afternoon tea. Glorious cakes and bakes again. yum yum.

For dinner we went to an authentic russian restaurant and had beef stroganoff. Not like the ones we had at home. This came with mashed potato. Very good though. Piles of georgian flat bread again. Yum to the max. Slept quite well this night.

See the Tsars' Treasures - The Winter Palace:

The Hermitage:


Monday, September 21, 2015

Monday, September 21, 2015

the Tsars' Capital

Posted by Hippobean at 9:07 PM 0 comments
It was coming down with freezing rain and because of my usual stupidity, I didnt wear my raincoat nor my heavy ski jacket. So I was bearing the cold and wet while standing at the strelka of the Vasileyevsky Island, gazing over the river Neva to see the Peter and Paul's Fortress. The day was gloomy and cloudy and even the bright green Winter Palace across the river looked dull and sad. Because nothing opened before 9:30 in St Petes, we drove all over town to admire the buildings and sites, and to return a bit later when the museums and state houses and churches opened. When we drove past Modest's apartment on Malaya Morskaya ulitsa 13, where Tchaikovsky died, I've wanted to get down on my knees and bow. Soooooooooo love his sentimental tunes. Just like Dostoyevsky's words illustrated the old russian lives, Tchaikovsky's music epitomized romantic Russia. For me, his music really brought out old sentimental Russia. But all I could manage was to snap a blurry photo of the building where he took his last breath.

First stop was the Baroque St Nicholas Naval Cathedral because it was a living church and thus opened early. Far from the depressing soviet colors, this russian church was painted in striking blue with white accents and golden domes. Inside, no photos allowed, typical of orthodox churches, it was elaborately decorated with every inch in the wall painted. Few people were praying. The bell tower across from the courtyard was magestic. Next, the very ancient looking neoclassical St Isaac Cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor) was an impressive site even under the cloudy sky. the gold dome supported by red granite columns, was imposing. The cathedral's bronze doors, covered in reliefs by Ivan Vitali, did not open until 10am. So we waited. the interior of the great dome painting honoring the holy spirit, had a bank of circular windows below the dome and below the windows, golden statues. and I just couldnt get enough of the gorgeous classy chandeliers. many paintings by russian artists and many colorful mosaics. the equestrian Monument to Nicholas I sat facing the cathedral. In the Senate square, next to the Admiralty, the bronze horseman, Peter the Great statue on a horse, faced the river, on an enormous Thunderstone pedestral, with the inscription "Petro Primo Catharina Secunda MDCCLXXXII" in Latin 1782. Next we went to the peter and paul fortress across the river. I was disappointed the fortress walls were now painted in red (soviet color?) but they left parts of the wall in its original stone brown which was nice. The interior of peter and paul church inside the fortress was filled with gold and pink marble corinthian columns, the sanctuary totally in gold and crystal chandeliers on the ceilings. Beautiful to say the least. Here peter the great , catherine the great, alexander I, nicholas I, and lesser romanov tombs are located. not terribly ornate, just marble slaps. Later the remains of Nicholas II, his wife and children were interred in the cathedral as well, but we couldnt see the tombs as the room was been renovated. Back across the river again, we stopped to photograph the stunning baroque Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The exterior was totally in mosaics. When I looked at it, i was stunned with no words to describe it. Over the top decoration. but stunningly beautiful. Need to go back to admire the interior.

We visited the Russian Museum in the afternoon. Located inside the splendid neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace with grand staircases, magnificent chandeliers, opulent rooms and grandly decorated doors, just the palace itself was worth visiting. The collections included paintings of Karl Briullov's 'Narcissus looking into the water' and 'the last days of pompeii', and 'the view of constanople by moonlight' by Ivan Aivazovsky. The Hippo enjoyed her time visiting this museum. what grandeur.

Dinner was at the Villa Aston, close to our hotel on Stremyannaya. Nice french decor. comfy sofas in the restaurant. We had very black sturgeon caviar, not salty at all, served with pancakes. Pumpkin cream oyster soup and wild boar. Discovered the Lambrusco that was the best prosecco I've ever tasted. very delicious meal. earlier today some of us had lunch there as well. I had the borsch that had large cubes of beef, with no sour cream. Very beety and quite good. This place was worth eating at. if I ever return to St Petes, I'd probably stay at this hotel and sample their restaurant's meal again. While some went to see the Impressionists at the Hermitage or to the Faberge museum, the Hippo went souvenir shopping at the Nevsky Prospekt. Blew many rubbles there.

See the Tsars' Capital city:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

St Petes, finally

Posted by Hippobean at 9:15 PM 0 comments

Helsinki main railroad station was small but there were shops and a market in the basement. We went in just in time for the freshly baked meat pies. We got some for the train ride. The Italian train Allegro looked brand new, all clean, state of the art everything, even came with a big bottled water in every car. The 3.5 hrs ride was smooth, with just a few stops on the Finnish side, mostly small towns. Scenery not too spectacular. Finnish Border control came and stamped our passports. Once on the Russian side, the landscape changed. more mountainous. no problems with the russian border officers. Asked where our luggage were and we just said 'there'. Stamped our passports and immigration paper, tore 1 half and stuck it in our passports. simple like that. Quite enjoy this ride. Amazed that the Italian made train could be so new and clean and efficient.

Katcha picked us up in a van that reeked of cigarettes. Our hotel was just off the Nevsky Prospekt. The front looked like an old building but renovated. The restaurant small but cozy and it offered afternoon tea everyday from 5-6. Fantastic! the back of the hotel went on and on in a labyrinth. Once out of the elevators, I had to walk up a ramp, turn left, down the hallway, turn right, down another ramp and right again to my room. Was told that old buildings could not be restructured and thus as the hotel added more and more space, they built ramps and hallways to connect the different parts of the different buildings, so the result was a maze to get to your room. The lights were auto sensored, so at first when you turned into a corridor, it was pitch dark, and then a second or 2 later the lights came on. Same thing when I exited my room. Had to wave at the sensors or just wait a second for the lights to come on. Strange and a bit unsettling in the beginning but got used to it after a while. The room was amazingly clean and renovated. Bed, pillows, duvet all acceptable. TV had 2 english channels - euroNews and BBC. No american channels.

We walked up and down Nevsky Prospekt with hotels, shops, restaurants and cafes on both sides. A long avenue with very long blocks lined with magnificently decorated buildings. Just walking here seemed like a major site seeing. So much architecture. 2 starbucks, 1 on each side of the avenue. Got the St Petersburg mug and the girl at the counter asked where I was from. I said california and she said 'wow'. why? 'not many american tourists' she said. I was surprised as I've heard american accent everywhere.

The avenue was busy and crowded with people coming and going. Mostly young people, dressed fashionably in bright jackets, tied pants, women sporting luxury hand bags and leather high heels. Almost every other building was either a restaurant or cafe or bakery. Tons of souvenir shops. KFC, Pizza Hut, H&M, and shopping centers with local markets in the basement like СТОПMAT (stopmat). Many electronics gadget stores. I didnt expect St Petersburg to be so westernized and modern. It didnt have any soviet feel to it. Long gone were the days of Leningrad I suppose. We had afternoon tea at the hotel and the scones, cakes, strudels and pies were delicious. Tea though was just Lipton. For dinner we went to a Georgian restaurant just next door. We had pork Khinkali, the fantastic georgian dumplings that had a broth inside it. You carefully punched a tiny hole, held it up to your mouth and squeezed the juice into your mouth and then swallowed the thing. Mmm, yummy yummy. Khachapuri was a flat bread with cheese, like a pizza. Some other meat pies and beef veggie soup. Delicious dinner. Georgian food was most popular in Russia, due to the fact that Stalin was native Georgian. I didnt mind, Georgian food was so good. I remember the few that we had while in Georgia.

I was beginning to really like St Petersburg and anxious to see the major sites and more of it. Couldnt wait.

Allegro train:

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Helsinki one more time

Posted by Hippobean at 9:36 PM 0 comments
The Tallinn harbor was just 5 minutes from our hotel. Inside the terminal, I spotted a souvenir shop and scanned my ticket to get in through the shop doors. Little did I know, the ticket once scanned, it wont let me out and could not be scanned again to go in to the departure hall. So someone who also wanted to check out the store, scanned, and held the doors to let me out. When the time came, I couldnt get in to the departure hall, so again someone scanned his ticket, held the door and I went through. whew! so much for shopping. Gangplank was a long walk and once on the ferry, massiveconfusion as people crowded just inside the boat and queued up for the luggage room. We stood on open deck to say goodbye to lovely Tallinn and the skyline was spectacular. the wind picked up as the ferry picked up speed on the Baltic sea. Last time I've made this journey, it was a small hydrofoil. This time, the boat was big as a cruise ship, furnished with restaurants, shops, bars and sitting areas in the aft and an enormous theater at the bow and that's where we parked ourselves. song guessing games and bingo to entertain the passengers. The boat even had sleeping cabins, and business class compartments. After exploring the entire vessel (the shop had my hippo mugs!) I settle down at the theater. but after a while, the boat picked up speed and it became quite nauseated just sitting there so I went back out on open deck with small snowie. it was cold and windy with some drizzle. The sea smelled fantastic and I throughly enjoyed the ride.


In cold and rain we arrived at the Helsinki harbor. Our hotel is soviet style and hungry we ordered ham and cheese panini at the hotel. simple ham and cheese pressed in a panini never tasted so good. Our afternoon walk through town brought us to the rock church, national museum, music hall, of which the interior reminded me of the Disney music hall in LA, the central railroad station and buzzling square, with McDonalds at every corner, up to the lutheran church and down to the harbor, where years ago, I've had some really fresh seafood, then slow stroll through the main drag, starbucks to purchase the city mug, saw the Itala store but didnt go in and finally back to the hotel. Didnt even go to the Sibelius park. Many in the group expressed their admiration of the architecture and the city. But not me. Didnt like it then and didnt like it much this time either. Not meant to be a grand city, it lacked an old town and medieval architecture that I loved. Modern city yes, lots to buy but otherwise, dull and boring.

Second best dinner we had on this trip happened here. In a small Ma and Pa place, we had a buffet (real buffet this time, all you can eat), of reindeer meat in some mushroom sauce, elk and beef meatballs, savory chicken, lamb ground meat, pancakes, beets salad, smoked salmon and herring, salmon soup. the Hippo was in heaven! I've stuffed myself to the max. At least one good thing in Helsinki.

Helsinki Photos:

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

Hippo in the Baltics - Final chapter - Estonia the Nostalgic

Posted by Hippobean at 10:34 PM 0 comments
Sped through the latvian-estonian border, again with no checkpoint. But I've already got the estonian stamp years ago when I ferried over from Helsinki.


Small picturesque town, with only 1 main cobbled stone pedestrian main drag, lined with stores and restaurant cafes. Here I bought an orange wool coat. I've been looking for these woolen coats all through the baltics and tried a few in Riga that either didnt fit or didnt have the color I preferred. Here in Parnu, I've tried one on, didnt feel quite right, didnt like the light brown color, and then on impulse, picked up an orange one and the minute I put it on I knew I have to have it. Not the latest cool 1 button style but it fit me perfectly. What's more, it's short and stylish and accentuated my petite figure. 55 euros. not bad. very happy with the purchase. Next we had pasta and pizza at a restaurant, sitting outside and watched the few towns people passing by. Small town, few locals, no tourists. Love it. tourists usually go to Tartu, the bigger university city. I prefer Parnu any day. Lovely churches, old houses, cobbled lanes. Intermittent sunshine and cloud, cold and warm. We had a lovely time in Parnu.


The outskirts had nice big houses with gardens and young people walking. But suddenly traffic, crowds, neons on buildings, 2 shopping malls, and we arrived at our hotel the Park Inn, not far from the harbor. My room faced the Narva Mnt but I dont mind the traffic and noise as I got to observe the trams coming and stopping, people going about their daily businesses and buildings across the hotel. H&M, Zara again. I even saw the Hurtigruten office sign in the building near the hotel and reminisced the lovely water journey through the Norwegian fjords and fishing island villages. Nostalgic! The hotel room had the tiniest bathroom and the tiniest sink, even smaller than the ones in the airplanes. But room was OK size and very clean. Lovely pillows and thick dovet again. Love these European dovets. They were thick enough but not too heavy and very warm. Salmon dinner was OK. it came with some veggies so we were happy with that. A brief walk on the Narva Mnt after dinner, long blocks, old buildings, lots of shops. Although Tallinn is not the biggest Baltic capital in size, it felt and looked more metropolitan than the others.

The next morning, we drove through Tallinn in the cold and rain. We've visited the 1980 Summer Olympics Sailing park (didnt know it hosted an olympic here), where the olympic hotel had the shape of a boat and across from it, a church for all religions. Next we paid a visit to the Russalka monument and the outdoor song festival hall. Really nice place with the oval open roof stage, green belt and the strange statue of Gustav Ernesaks, sitting facing the stage, papers on his hand, one hand resting on his skin, meditating? ugly statue.

Last time I was here in 2001, I've only been to the Old Town. I remember driving through many soviet apartment blocks. This time I didnt see any. Tallinn looked very big, with many districts, and hills. hills finally as both riga and vilnius were pretty flat.

Our bus dumped us in the Old Town just when the rain started to come down hard. The driver had to return to Riga, so he kicked us out. Soaked we walked through the nostalgic Old Town. Nothing had changed here. Same spires, same turrets, same city walls, some lookout viewpoints. I love this Old Town, my favorite of the 3 Baltics. It had everything an Old Town should have. Walls, turrets, churches, up and down cobbled lanes, tons of souvenir shops and cafes.

We had elk pies and soup at a local joint in the town hall building at the square. the soup felt nice in the cold rainy weather. After lunch some of us had garlic ice cream in a fancy restaurant, sitting on fancy sofas, with white table cloth and silverware. Took a bite, was very garlicky just as good as the ones in the garlic festival in gilroy. slowly walked back to our hotel which was only 15 min away on Narva Mnt. lots of shops to browse through. Bought some smoked moose sausage because the sample tasted so amazing.

Peter took us to the Restoran Peppersack in the Old Town, right on Viru st. The interior was like being in an old castle hall, tall chairs, long wooden tables, wooden barrister, chandeliers, stone walls, stone hearths, tapestries, and dinner even came with a mock sword fight comedy. The ambience was fantastic. medieval. The menu tho was out of this world. garlic and cherry sauce everything. I couldnt decide bewteen the "Pepper sack" Hans recommends" Spicy stir-fried beef fillet pieces, or the "Alderman Johan Möller's special" Grilled rib-eye steak, or the "Philipp Crusius's musings" Roast duck breast fillet with potato puree, roasted winter squash and blackberry sauce, or the "Swordsman's feast" Roasted leg of pork with beer-stewed sauerkraut, potato wedges, gherkin, marinated pumpkin salad, mustard and horseradish, but finally decided on the "Merchant Gerke's delight" Grilled rack of lamb with garlic, oven baked potato with herb butter, warm vegetable salad and cherry sauce which came with half of a bulb roasted garlic. So yummy I finished the whole thing. So full, couldnt swallow any dessert after this. Carol got the marinated wild mushrooms, with pickled garlic that was so good, she took the leftovers back to the hotel. the very peppery digestif left my mouth, throat and stomach burning. Although the meat pie and pork in Vilnius was a very good dinner, this one topped all the dinners I've ever had. Loved it.

Gosh, I've loved Tallinn the first time I was there. Loved it even more this time. Best Old Town in all the old towns I've been. Nostalgic!

Estonia Photos:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hippo in the Baltics - chapter 2 - Latvia the Bella

Posted by Hippobean at 10:15 PM 0 comments

Border crossing, eu to eu again, was simply driving through the border control booths, now empty. no stamp on the passport. No prove the Hippo's been to Latvia.


The biggest of the Baltic capitals, a sprawling city as compared to Vilnius. Even the river, the Daugava which dumped its water into the Baltic sea, was wider than the intimate Neris back in Lithuania, and bridges longer, the daugavpils railway bridge, the stone bridge, and the cable bridge vanšu, they stood on our left as we continued towards the baltic sea, to our hotel.

It was near 9PM and we had tasteless tilapia over cold lentils for dinner. Fish on lentils? Terribly horrible dinner it was, but we got upgraded to Business class room, large bed, large room, tiny but clean renovated bathroom. Room window opened to a back parking lot, no view. There was an enormous expresso machine sitting on the table but no coffee was provided. this time, there was an outlet by the table and the power chord plugged in just right.

It began to rain by the time we're done with the art noveau on Alberta and Elizabete streets. Eizenšteins' statues with shocking expressive faces, over decorated façades and windows did not necessarily pleased my eyes. interesting to look at but not really beautiful to me. Reminded me of Gauthier's creations. Somehow they thought more and excessive meant beauty. The thing was, your eyes just suffered an initial shock and then you didnt really care to look anymore. I find the beauty in simple things much more appealing. We drove through the town in rain. The Opera house was fine and the Orthodox church with its signature onion domes, well, very pretty orthodox style. Some of the embassies on the embassy road shared front yards like the italian and netherland embassies, 2 flags in 1 courtyard. It poured by the time we got to the old Town. Very pretty with churches and spires everywhere. Here in the Baltics, everything was red brick. Old dwellings very cozy. Quite enjoyed this old town. Had lunch at a local restaurant. The steak was hard and chewy. Just like the meat in Ethiopia. Tasty but made my jaw quite tired. No steak knife so the eating was hard work.


The Hippo first saw it in the Castle book that M got for xmas. That was what triggered the Hippo to visit it some day. Who would have known a tiny Baltic state castle would make it to the World's Castle book.

It was quite early when we got there, before the crowd. A cloudy day but no rain. The air smelled cold. Soon a group of small school children caught up with us and the castle touring became a nightmarish hell with kids running all over the place.

The castle resembled somewhat the Schönbrunn in Wien. Same color, smaller in size. I quite like the Rundale. It felt quite intimate, although the Grand Hall didnt lack the usual gold trimming, painted ceilings and chandeliers. The Duke's apartments were decorated in good taste. Elaborately ornate but not exaggerated. Even the garden looked similar to the Schönbrunn's, although again, in a smaller scale. and not packed with tourists, unlike the Viennese cousin. I really liked this palace.

Lunch was at an amusement park called Lido. gocar course, miniature golf course, carnival game booths and shops, and a buffet restaurant inside an enormous log cabin. I mean enormous. However, the buffet wasnt really our American style buffets. Buffet in a sense that you could select what you want but have to pay for each item, and couldnt come back for more without paying again. I was hungry so I grabbed the sausages, the first items I saw. Deeper in to the restaurant, I found meat pies and wraps, lamb shanks, buffalo steaks, pork chops and chicken in every cooked way, deep fried, in pies, croquettes, grilled, roasted. Endless desserts, cakes, ice cream, tiramasu, puddings. Endless types of drinks, soda, juices, beer. Never ending side dishes, potatoes in every form, mashed, boiled, baked, scalloped, fried. Pasta and noodles, multiple types of rice, risotto, veggies of every kind. 6 different kinds of soup. not to mention the type of sausages. The food offered in this place was overwhelming to the point of scary. The food that I've sampled was tasty but not amazingly good.

Back to Riga, the bus stopped in mid traffic and the Hippo on impulse jumped out. Had to photograph the 3 bridges over the Daugava. Walked back towards the Old Town to view the Riga Castle, now the presidential residence, and looked for St James hidden behind buildings. Back at the hotel, went for a massage and spent the last night in Latvia chatting with airline pilots in the hotel restaurant.

Quite liked this capital, Riga and Rundale, the Bellas.

Latvia photos:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hippo in the Baltics - chapter 1 - Lithuania the Intimate

Posted by Hippobean at 11:49 PM 0 comments
journey to the first Baltic capital

It's 10 past 2 and we're still havent started boarding yet. The KLM plane from Amsterdam was 20 mins late. Finally at 2:30, they've started calling the row numbers. by 3 we're still havent taken off. The pilot said they couldnt start the engine. Oh no, not again! At 3:30, the pilot announced they'd finally manually started the engine. huh, how else can the engine be started? 'and there's no safety issue' the pilot added. whew!

The flight was accompanied by a Norwegian couple. The hubbie was a skier and lamented not being able to visit Squaw Valley while in the Bay Area. We talked about skiing, snow, and the olympics in Squaw and lillehammer. They were delighted to hear the Hippo's been to Norway and loved the fjords. Coincidence had it that the hubbie was from the Lofotens. When the Hippo proclaimed the islands were her most favorite place in the world, their eyes widen with glee. dont you love Norwegians! We were stuck inside the plane for 20 mins after landing. They couldnt get the door to open. never had any trouble flying KLM before. sigh.

Getting to my next gate at Schiphol required going through passport control. 'what is the purpose of your visit?' the passport control officer asked. eh, layover? gosh, dont they know they're inside the security area? The Air Baltic plane to Vilnius was a 2x2 propeller, tiny tiny but the flight was smooth and very on time. My luggage came out quickly on the carousel and there was no passport control at Vilnius airport. EU to EU I guess. So I got no stamp on my passport to show I've been to Lithuania!


The ride to the hotel was, as always, full of curiosity. Always loved the first ride in a new country. The hotel Congress was situated by the Neris river and my room on the 4th floor faced the river and the bridge. Beautiful view. When I've turned on the TV to EuroNews, I've learned the macaca lost to Vinci in the semis. Quite a shock but a good shock. never happier to see macaca lose. This has promised to be a wonderful trip indeed.

The hotel breakfast proved to be extensive and satisfying. Croissants! smoked salmon! bacon and eggs. pickle herring too of course.


The morning was overcast and cloudy. The wind was strong and piercing on the island of Trakai. Long row of souvenir shops, elegant wool jackets! The Trakai castle was a beauty of red bricks, surrounded by the clear waters of the lake Galve. Perfectly maintained, every room stainglass on the walls, tapestries, chandeliers, gorgeous medieval paintings of the duke. Loved this castle. The town Karaites houses were wooden cottages, each with a different color. Well preserved. Very quaint. If not for the fowl weather, would have love to spend more time there wandering around the tiny dirt roads surrounded by houses of a bygone era, a step back in time.

Back to Vilnius in the afternoon, we visited the St Peter and Paul cathedral, not big but every inch adorned in white. not the Hippo's liking.
After the Trakai famous karaite dish, the Kibinai (meat pie - i had the lamb) and a cup of tea (it was so cold), we entered the old city. Probably the most un-old old city I've visited in Europe. narrow cobblestoned lanes yes, in the Jewish Quarter, but otherwise everything renovated and looked bright and brand new. One thing though caught my fancy. Every building with a courtyard!

Vilnius, like its Baltic sister cities, was full of churches. Here they were predominantly catholic. Very pretty churches but nothing too special. St Anne's in particular, was built entirely in red bricks, sight for sore eyes. Today was Vilnius marathon and the runners donned bright color tshirts. The cathedral square was packed with spectators. Dinner was inside the old town, with Vilnius famous potato meat pie for starters, followed by a savory pork dish and of course, their famous apple strudel for dessert. yummy!

back at the hotel, had wanted a cup of tea before bed. There's a kettle resting on the electric plate on the table. however, the power chord was very short and I found no outlet except one in the bathroom. I sure wasnt going to lug the entire electric plate to the bathroom. Reminded me of the hotels in the Stans. Lamps with power plugs that didnt match the outlets. some day these countries will learn to do things right in the hospitality business.


Standing on a small hill across the Nemunas river gazing across to Kaunas, was freezing. I couldnt believe it could be so cold in Sept. The small town of Kaunas was quite pretty with the river running next to it. The tiny castle was again in red bricks. Many catholic churches again. The pedestrian main drag had a few souvenir shops and mainly just restaurants and cafes. Not much to sing about.

On our way to the Latvian border, our bus anti-freeze exploded and all the coolant leaked out. We had to wait 2 hours for another bus. Thus we arrived at the Hill of Crosses just before sunset. This place was Maddening. so many crosses! big and small, wooden and metal, ornate and plain. We could skip this site if you asked me.

Lithuania? Mm, all I saw was Caucasians. No imports. Not many tourists. Small and not very sophisticated capital city but it had an intimate feel to it. The hotel and restaurant services were good, people were friendly. Not my favorite Baltic country tho.

See photos of Lithuania:


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