Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Fall 2019 - Part One The Baltics

This is the last time I plan to visit multiple destinations in one trip so I crammed in seven countries in six and a half weeks.  I was joined by my sister for the first three weeks and we started with two days in amazingly expensive Helsinki visiting the Design District, the incredible new public library and Suomenlinna Fortress before taking a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. We followed the usual Baltic itinerary - Tallinn, Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania and my sister suggested we visit two smaller towns which really added a lot to the trip.

It is really easy to travel in the Baltics.  Lots of people speak English and the train and bus stations are within walking distance of the city centers.  We were able to pay for almost everything with our phones which greatly reduced the chance of my dropping and losing my credit card and there were good discounts for booking bus and train tickets online.  Lots of free WiFi made it easy to navigate our way around.

Tallinn is famous for its Old Town, Riga has tons of amazing Art Nouveau buildings and Vilnius is full of Jewish history. All three cities have wonderful museums, great shopping and some really incredible restaurants. There are castles and churches around every corner.

Best Museums
  • In Tallinn - Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour Museum, located in an old seaplane hanger, the Baltic Chain exhibit (more information here:, Puppet Museum and the Patarei Communism Museum.
  • Tartu - Estonian National Museum
  • Riga - Art Nouveau Museum, Art Museum, Ghetto and Holocaust Museum, Jews in Latvia Museum
  • Vilnius - Palace Museum, Holocaust Museum and Samuel Bak Museum

Ghetto and Holocaust Museum

Animated film depicting life on a submarine, projected onto a submarine -
Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour Museum

Puppet Museum

Best Markets, Shopping and Neighborhoods
  • Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn - there were "creative districts" in other cities but this one was the best.
  • Riga Central Market located inside reused German Zeppelin hangers
  • Cold Weather ( designer winter clothes) and Farmer's Market in Riga
  • Uzupis District in Vilnius - a self-declared republic with some nice stores, great outdoor art and an amazing fish restaurant.
We had a fantastic time in two smaller cities -- Tartu, Estonia and Cesis, Latvia. Tartu is home to Tartu University, several weird sculptures, the Estonian National Museum and some really beautiful parks and buildings.  Cesis is the place everyone goes to for fall colors and we were just in time.  We went on a great hike just outside of town and took a bus to Sigulda to explore more castles and see the leaves.  We also took a day trip to Trakai, just outside of Vilnius. Trakai is one of the places settled by members of the Karaite sect whose religion is based on the Old Testament and we visited the small museum in town.  We finished with shopping and a walk to yet another castle -- it was the only nice weather day we had in Lithuania.


Trakai, Lithuania

Art Nouveau Building - Riga

Tallinn, Estonia

Cesis Castle

Autumn leaves - Sigulda, Latvia

Train station - Helsinki, Finland


We couldn't find the salt licorice ice cream I wanted to try but I did find this tar flavored licorice on the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn.  It supposedly one one of the "ten most brutal candies" available in Finland.

I made this candy at the Laima Chocolate Factory in Riga.  It doesn't look too good but it was delicious and came in handy when I was on a train with no food.

Clavis Riga cocktail at Neiburgs hotel in Riga -- Riga Black Balsam, rhubarb liqueur, apple juice, white chocolate syrup and pomegranate syrup. Tasty!

Kybinai - traditional Karaite cuisine.  Traditionally they are filled with meat but I had one with spinach.

Thanks to my sister we ate at some really amazing restaurants.  This fish entree is from Dziaugsmas Restaurant in Vilnius.  Absolutely fantastic and after the opera, we went back to the restaurant for dessert - potato ice cream.

A nerve tonic from Tallinn.  I purchased the herbs and bottle at the oldest continually operating pharmacy in Europe (in 1422 the place was on its third owner).  I added vodka when I got home but I haven't tried it yet.

Great Ideas/Interesting Things

This is a "reverse vending" machine for recycling plastic bottles.  This picture was taken in Helsinki but the machine is made in Germany.  The user inserts a plastic water bottle and once it is accepted by the machine, the machine dispenses money to the user.

One of only two public drinking fountains I saw in Estonia - there weren't very many in Latvia or Lithuania either.

According to the law, everyone in Estonia is required to wear a reflector on their clothes so they can easily be seen by cars. I didn't see too many people actually wearing them even though I read that the Estonian government has distributed enough free reflectors so that each citizen should have received at least three.

 When people have too many apples, they leave the extras for people to take.

Umbrella locker -- I know they have these in Japan but I have never seen one before.

Most restaurants, including the small ones, have a play area for children.

When you buy a ticket at the Estonian National Museum, you get a ticket with a language chip - obviously I got the English chip.  When you get to a display, you wave your ticket and this happens:

My sister contacted a relative and found out that some of our ancestors came from a small village in Lithuania.  Our bus happened to drive right by it and I managed to get a picture.

Coming Up Next - a visit to Ukraine, volunteering in Romania, and another trip to Sofia and the Riga Monastery

Monday, May 13, 2019


I hadn't been to Western Europe in a long time so I decided to treat myself as a reward for surviving the sale of my house.  I also had a half price mileage ticket from Lufthansa but "half price" meant that I had to choose from a short list of destinations.  I chose the place with the best weather in March and April and headed to Sicily's "second" city - Catania.

According to Lonely Planet, Catania has a "strong magnetic pull" but I never felt it.  It was a decent place to get over jet lag and a great place to start sampling the food.  I managed an arancini (rice ball stuffed with cheese) and a cannoli on my first night and I really never stopped eating until I got back to Milwaukee.

Catania's fish market
I visited the major tourist attractions during my one full day in Catania and headed to Syracuse.  I stayed in a really nice hotel (free wine!) in Ortigia, the old part of the city.  The two full days I spent there were not enough -  churches, piazzas, fresh tuna with pasta, a fantastic market, fountains, a beautiful seafront and a wonderful Caravaggio painting located inside a church - all amazing. I also visited what is described as the oldest mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) in Europe.  It is located underground and was found by accident when an old residence was being converted into a hotel.  I wasn't allowed to take pictures but there are pictures and more information here:

Next stop was Modica, one of the three main cities located in the Noto Valley.  I chose it over the other two because of its location and reputation for amazing chocolate and gelato.  My two nights were spent in the upper town in a converted palazzo (the owner still occupies part of the first floor) and I splurged for a meal at the hotel's gourmet restaurant.  More churches, piazzas, and fountains.

Baroque is big in Sicily and the Cathedral of San Giorgio is one of the best examples.
View from Modica Alta

After sampling and buying chocolate, and eating the best gelato I have ever tasted at Cafe Adamo, I headed to Piazza Armerina and the nearby Villa Romana del Casale, known for its beautiful mosaics.  The piazza was built as a country home possibly for one of Rome's emperors and the mosaics were stunning.  I had not planned to include this stop on my trip but it turned out to be one of the highlights.  It is possible to visit the Villa on a day trip from almost anywhere in Sicily but I decided to spend two nights.  Piazza Armerina was a great place to wander around and it has some excellent museums, most of which are free.

Some of the floor mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale.  I like the bloody ones the best but the "bikini girls" are the most popular.

"Bikini girls"

My next to the last stop was Palermo, primarily so I could visit the Cattedral di Monreale and the Palatine Chapel.  Both places are known for their gold and black mosaics and were absolutely breath-taking.

Cattedral di Monreale

Palatine Chapel

The creation of Adam and an amazing wooden ceiling
I loved Palermo but I spent way too much time running around and visiting places I could have easily skipped.  One place I was glad I visited was the Inquisition Museum, located in the former prison.  The only things remaining are the cells and graffiti made by the prisoners using blood and urine.  The graffiti was plastered over when the building was converted into offices but it was discovered in 1906 (restoration did not begin until 2005).

My last three days were spent in Aci Trezza where I did nothing but walk, read and stare at the Ionian Sea.  A perfect way to end a very busy trip.

Four of the actual missiles hurled by Cyclops at Odysseus

Hike to the village of Santa Maria la Scala

Aci Trezza Harbor

Things I Learned
  • The food is amazing. My favorites were gelato and granite, especially the gelato in brioche  - I followed the local tradition by eating it for breakfast. I brought back lots of Modica chocolate, ginger and lemon jam, and pistachio pesto.  The hotel breakfast buffets were colorful as well as delicious; the hostel breakfasts were terrible.

Its kind of hard to see but this is a scoop of coffee/chocolate gelato in a freshly baked brioche.

There was always a green cake for breakfast and sometimes a red one.

  • There are a lot of gatherings.
Moderately angry group of "pensionati" waiting for their monthly government checks

My two-car train was packed with people going to a demonstration in Ragusa. 
There was a short press conference at every stop which made the train late.
The balloon man

The balloon man gets paid
  • Do not, under any circumstances, forget to validate your train ticket before boarding.  I forgot and had to run back to the station with all my luggage to punch my ticket.  I still missed the train but there was another one in 40 minutes.
  • I really don't like running around for two or three days trying see a bunch of things.  I am going to transition to spending a week in every city.
  • Although I am still learning how pack fewer things, I am really happy I switched to a backpack. I don't have to check my luggage and so far the backpack is much easier to use than my wheeled suitcase.  
  • One country + one currency + one language = a very easy trip.

Fall 2019 Part II - Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria

I had a week before I needed to be in Romania for my volunteer assignment and after considering northern Romania and Serbia, I decided o...