Colorful Comuna 13 and the Escaleras Electricas

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Not too long ago, Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cites in the world primarily due to the violence of drug cartels, gangs, and guerrilla warfare. But today, it’s frequently named as one of the most innovative cities in the world thanks to progressive urban planning initiatives and the resilience of its people.

Go back fifteen or twenty years, though, and the city was a far cry from what it is today. Comuna 13, a neighborhood high above Medellin on the valley’s western mountainous slope, is where the majority of the violence and homicides occurred. It was known as the most dangerous neighborhood in the city in its day (albeit most neighborhoods were pretty dangerous back then, I think). But like the city of Medellin as a whole, Comuna 13 has made some tremendous strides and is now home to a plethora of beautiful street art, talented street performers and the famous Escaleras Electricas (escalators) that have allowed residents to more easily ascend and descend the steep streets leading to and from the community.

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You can see the orange-rimmed escaleras to the right

A few days ago, Johnston (a friend from California who’s riding his motobike all the way down to the tip of Argentina and just so happened to be in Medellin the same time I was – small world, right?) and I set out to explore the neighborhood of Comuna 13. We took the metro to San Javier station then boarded a bus that took us to the top of the escalators. Once at the top, we explored the colorful streets filled with exquisite murals, watched street performers take their turns at showing the crowd their breakdancing moves, and sampled snacks from the street food vendors lined up along the sidewalk.

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From there, we descended the 6 escalators that, together, zigzag down the steepest part of the neighborhood. It was quite remarkable, actually, to have such modern conveniences right alongside some of the poorest homes in the city. Like the metro system in Medellin, though, I could tell that the residents are quite proud of these escalators. They’re clean, they’re well maintained, and they have no doubt improved the quality of life for the residents of Comuna 13. If you ever find yourself in Medellin, I highly recommend checking out this incredible neighborhood!

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Seven Memorable Adventures From Spain and France

It’s been about a year since I traveled around northern Spain and southern France for three weeks with my then boyfriend and I’m still thinking about the fun times we had. I wrote up three separate posts (here, here, and here) but I wanted to do a recap since I feel like I left some things out. We started in Barcelona – doing all the touristy things like visiting Park Güell (a definite must) and eating lots of jamón and cheese in the markets (inevitable). We then we headed north to Cadaqués and Parque Natural Cap de Crues, which was unexpectedly fantastic. From that small, rocky peninsula, we booked it west to Logroño for delicious wine tasting and pinxtos eating. Then we moseyed north to explore Basque country (by donkey!) and drive along the stunning Bay of Biscay coastline from Elantoxbe to San Sebastian. For the second half of our trip, we entered into France and slowly made our way along the scenic north slopes of the Pyréneés until we reached the Mediterranean. Then it was back south to Barcelona where we started, completing our epic loop. There were lots of memorable adventures along the way – as can be expected – but these seven really stand out in my mind when I revisit our journey.

BIKING THROUGH BARCELONA

On one of our days in Barcelona, we decided to rent bikes and see the city on two wheels. It was a GREAT decision. Bikes – in my opinion – are one of the best ways to see a place because you can cover some distance, but still have the flexibility to go (mostly) where you want at a slow pace. Cars, buses, and trains simply move too fast to actually see and enjoy a location. We started out in the narrow stone streets of the Gothic and Born quarters, swerving and weaving our way through people, and then made our way down the busy La Rambla to the paved pedestrian pathway that lines the Mediterranean coastline. Once we hit the ocean, we steered our bike handles to the left and slowly pedaled down a wide walkway decorated with palm trees. The sandy beaches that we passed on our right were mostly empty because it was too cold and windy for sunbathing, but we did see several incredibly detailed sand sculptures including a fire-breathing dragon! As we continued on, we had no destination in mind, we were simply enjoying the fresh, salty air and the freedom of being on bikes. When we got to the deserted Parc del Fòrum, which was built for the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures, but now stands mostly empty, we turned our bikes around and headed back to the city for some early tapas and wine.

HIKING IN CAP DE CRUES NATIONAL PARK

I’m not really sure why we chose to make the trip north from Barcelona to Cadaqués and Parque Natural Cap de Crues, but it was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. The drive alone from Roses (where the peninsula ‘begins’) to Cadaqués is stunning – amazing views of the glistening, blue Mediterranean Sea and acres and acres of silver olive groves separated by old stone walls. The town of Cadaqués is equally lovely – whitewashed and quaint. I think many Spanish and French families go there for holidays. The best feature for us, though, was hiking in the Park. After spending the night at a great Airbnb, we explored the rugged coastline and trails for a good 5-6 hours the next day. The area around the lighthouse is great, but there’s also a fantastic network of trails in surrounding areas. At one point, we even startled a family of wild boar!

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VISITING THE WINE BODEGAS OF LAGUARDIA

I may not be a wine enthusiast (or wine snob if you will) but I definitely have a big love and appreciation for the stuff, so a stop in the Rioja region was a must. Since we were in Spain just before tourist season (late March), there weren’t many wine tours or wineries open, but that was fine with us since we tend to shy away from those kinds of things anyways. Instead, we headed to the medieval walled town of Laguardia (no cars allowed in the narrow, stone-lines streets) which is well known for its underground wine caves and bodegas. We dipped down into the underbelly of Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre and sampled wines in different stages of fermentation while breathing in the dank, musty scent of the cellars. All throughout the catacombs there were wines fermenting in open vats, wines stored in big oak barrels, and wines sealed in dusty bottles waiting for the ‘perfect’ moment to drink. We definitely drank our share of wine that day…

DONKEY TREKKING IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY

This may have been – no, this WAS – my favorite part of the trip. You see, I kind of love donkeys. A lot. So when I saw an Airbnb listing in the Basque country with ‘donkey trekking’ advertised, there was no hesitation. Momo and Django (and Phil – our host) did not disappoint. We took them out for an all day trek and it was fabulous. More than fabulous. We went at donkey speed, so I don’t think we actually covered many miles (6 or 7 maybe?), but we got to see some parts of Basque country that not many visitors get to see. Phil even took us into a deep, dark limestone cave that extended well back into the hills. At the deepest point (after wriggling our way through some scary tight spots), there was a bit of graffiti on the cave walls – some entries went back to the early 1900’s, which was pretty cool. Not that I support graffiti… When we stopped for lunch at the top of a steep bluff looking out over a valley, I had to defend my tortilla de patata from Momo who tried everything – from sneaking up behind me to extending his neck and lips to full potential – to get a bite. Well, more like a couple of bites because I couldn’t resist giving him a taste… The grand finale was riding Django back into town.

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ZARAUTZ

We had been told that the ‘gem’ of the north Basque coast is San Sebastian. And while San Sebastian is great, we thought that Zarautz was even better – more our style: small, laid back, fewer tourists. We had only planned on staying one night, but we extended that to two because we absolutely loved the place. The beaches are beautiful, it’s got some excellent restaurants, and we just felt welcome by the locals, a feeling that is sometimes missing in larger tourist towns. The hike that our Airbnb host sent us on was also fantastic. We took some back roads past vineyards that look out over the ocean, walked through a crumbling and graffitied coliseum, and descended over into the neighboring town of Getaria. Part of this hike was on the famous Camino de Real route. Hungry by the time we got to Getaria, we sat down for a splendid three course lunch and split a bottle of wine that went straight to our dehydrated heads. After lazily walking around town for a bit, we headed back to Zarautz via the oceanside walkway that connects the two towns.

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L’ANCIENNE BERGERIE BED AND BREAKFAST AND SURROUNDING AREA

What a FIND! We were driving through the middle of nowhere-France, wondering where we were going to spend the night when we happenchanced upon L’Ancienne Bergerie. Becks and Kevin – the proprietors of the bed and breakfast – had transformed an old stone barn into a cozy and luxurious bed and breakfast for off-the-beaten path tourists. Overlooking the slopes of the Pyrenees and situated in a quaint valley with a river running through it, L’Ancienne Bergerie is honestly a gem. Furthermore, Becks is an amazing chef and cooked us – and one other other couple – a gourmet three-course dinner accompanied by flowing wine and great conversation (although I assured the Spanish couple that Trump would never win the 2017 presidential election 😫). The next day, after a breakfast of local jams, cheese, and freshly made hot cross buns, Becks send us out on a walking tour through the backwoods. We got slightly lost, but reorientated ourselves and eventually came across a goat dairy where we ogled over baby goats and purchased some delicious freshly made goat cheese. Our only regret is not staying for another night (or week or month….)

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COLLIOURE

The last stop of our trip before heading back to Barcelona was the picturesque sea town of Collioure in southern France. Whenever we had asked for recommendations of places to visit in southerb France (for our travel schedule is very ‘loose’), people would always recommend Collioure first. And for good reason. It’s a beautiful little whitewashed, pastel town right on the water with great restaurants, lots of boutique shops, and plenty of room for relaxation. We played cards, walked the artsy streets, explored the royal castle, ate good food, and sipped amazing wines. It was the perfect ending to a great trip.

So there you have it – my top 7 favorite memories/experiences from our three week trip through northern Spain and southern France!

Quito – The City of Eternal Spring

When you think of spring, what do you think of? Well, in Vermont it would be fresh, crisp air, vibrant green foliage, and frequent rain. And that’s what we have encountered in our first 24 hours of landing in the Capital of Ecuador. Quito, at 9,350 feet, is suitably dubbed the City of Eternal Spring. It’s cool, virescent, and looks like it could start raining any minute. We landed at the Quito airport at around 2pm yesterday after a painless two-hour flight south from San Jose. A taxi was waiting for us (send by previous arrangement from our hotel) and we were whisked away into the heart of the city. The hotel we are staying at – La Casa Sol – is located in the new part of town, which is also, apparently, where the liveliest backpacker scene is. Thankfully, though, we’re off of the main drag, so it’s quiet(er) and less crowded.

La Casa Sol is awesome (I hope my hotel choices continue to impress). The walls are brightly painted in oranges, reds, yellows, and pinks and textured so they look authentically hand-crafted. The wall-hangings are traditionally South American and each room has a distinct “homey” quality. C and I are staying up in the “Loft” which is on the third level and has it’s own balcony that looks over the inner courtyard and neighboring vicinity. It’s so cute I could even see myself living there (maybe not in Quito, but definitely in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps).

After settling in and relishing our new environs, we set out to explore the neighborhood. We didn’t get far because we were both starving, so we landed at a table at the Magic Bean. And I don’t think we could have picked a better spot. Fresh juices, towering smoothies, plenty of vegetarian choices for me and giant portions for C. It was great. I ordered a beet-carrot-apply juice and an avocado boat with falafel. I really wish I had gotten a picture of it because it was such a good idea. Half an avocado – mashed up and returned to its shell – was topped with small balls of falafel and served with pita bread, lettuce, and tomato on the side. C got a massive Hawaiian sandwich with chicken, cheese, and pineapple and a mound of potatoes. I don’t eat meat and it even look good. I have a feeling we’ll be going back today…

It was getting dark by the time we finished our meal and had started to drizzle, so we slowly made our way back to La Casa Sol. Back at the hotel, we discovered that our flight from Quito to Guayaquil was on April 9th rather than March 9th, so I spent a stressful two hours on Skype trying to get the dates switched. I did, finally, but it wasn’t the relaxing evening in front of the fire that I had envisioned. Hopefully that will be tonight, after exploring the city some more and searching for bike shorts for our upcoming adventure.

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Well, I’m on a plane again. This time, however, I’m not only headed to a new country, but also a new continent! I’ve never been to Ecuador before and this will be the first time I step foot in South America, too. Very exciting. But before I land in Quito and delve into our Ecuadorian adventure, I have to catch up on our last few days in San Jose.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, we spent two nights at Hotel Aranjuez. We both really liked the hotel, which was a renovated old house with a network of corridors and open patios, and the buffet breakfast was delicious. We had a full day in San Jose yesterday, so after taking advantage of the free high-speed WiFi in the morning, we went out to explore the town for a bit. We didn’t have much on our agenda in terms of destinations, but we did have a map that highlighted several points of interest in the area like parks, historic buildings, restaurants, etc… After about half an hour of walking, though, I tripped on the sidewalk and broke my only pair of sandals (that had already been chewed through by an incorrigible Butters and repaired with duct tape). Our casual walk quickly turned into a quest to find new shoes. Luckily we came across a street that literally had shoe stores lining both sides and I found a “ridiculously comfortable” (their words, not mine) pair of Reef sandals.

Ironically, we also passed by the Hemingway Inn. Eight or nine years ago my family took a vacation to Costa Rica and we stayed at the Hemingway Inn for several nights while in San Jose. It was funny that C and I just happened to stumble across it while aimlessly walking about. It brought back memories of my brother drinking his first Pina Colada and me leaving the table because I was so embarrassed for him (sorry Will :))

Before heading back to the hotel, we stopped at a market and picked up some fresh fruit, cheese (for C), and bread for lunch. Then we challenged each other to find our way back to Hotel Aranjuez sans a map. We could consult one another, but couldn’t look at our map. Thanks to a good sense of direction on both sides, we made it back in no time and spent the rest of the afternoon snoozing, enjoying WiFi on demand, and playing a game of Scrabble.

For dinner, we dined at the same place as the night before. Tin Jo – a beautifully adorned Thai, Indian, and Japanese restaurant – was pretty much everything I could ask for. They had a separate vegetarian menu complete with curries, sushi, salads, and sauteed greens from all over Asia. The previous night I ordered a vegetable Thai green curry with coconut milk that was served with brown rice, which was delicious, and last night C and I shared a vegetarian Pad Thai and sauteed bok choy with hearts of palm and shiitake mushrooms. Yum! We also tried the vegetarian spring rolls and pakoras as appetizers. Good thing we’re spending the next week and a half biking and hiking through Ecuador!

Stay tuned for more posts from South America…

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2011 In Review

Looking back on 2011, it seems like I was a pretty busy chica, in terms of traveling at least. 13 countries, 7 states (not including the ones I drove through), and too many airports to count. And now I’m back where I started! 2011 began with a four week contract aboard the NG Sea Lion in Costa Rica and Panama and it ended in the midst of another (albeit longer) contract in the same place. I wanted to do a re-cap blog about all the places I visited and wrote about this year, and share some of my favorite moments.

So to begin, after spending two months in Southeast Asia at the end of 2010, I flew straight to Panama to begin working on the Sea Lion for four weeks. Karen, a good family friend, joined me on board for the last week and then we both flew to Mazatlan, Mexico for a relaxing week at the Emerald Bay Resort, thanks to my grandparent’s timeshare.


I then took a ferry across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz where I embarked the NG Sea Bird for three weeks. Baja will always be one of my favorite places because I have so many fond memories there – swimming with whale sharks, petting baby gray whales, snorkeling with sea lions, and evening BBQ’s on the beach while the sun sets over the desert. After my three week contract, I spent a week in La Paz at Casa Tuscany and explored the small town and surrounding area. I even got to see La Paz from above!

And then I found myself, once again, on a plane to Costa Rica to do another four week contract on the Sea Lion. I have to say that I was getting a bit tired of the Panama Canal and I hadn’t been home for six months, so I was a little antsy to get of the ships for awhile. After that contract, I returned home (Vermont) for a few weeks before setting off to Seattle to begin our Alaska season up north. The cruise from Seattle to Juneau is one of my favorite voyages and it was a nice change of scenery after being in the the tropical rainforest and desert for the past six months. In Petersburg, I got to go flight seeing over the LeConte Glacier, which was incredible.


I returned to Alaska once more for another contract this past summer, and then I flew straight to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to visit my brother while he was doing one of his medical school rotations. Jackson is a pretty cool town and I enjoyed getting outside to do some hiking – Amphitheater is awesome! – and I did some yoga at Inversion Yoga. While in Jackson I found out that I had the opportunity to to a 15 day cruise in the Baltic Sea aboard Lindblad’s NG Explorer. Of course I said yes, but had to scramble to get everything together in time.

After leaving Jackson Hole and taking a bus to Salt Lake City (and enduring a twelve hour layover) I then had to suffer through a 12 hour drive from Detroit to Vermont due to Hurricane Irene’s destructive path. Then I had a week at home, before boarding another plane, this one headed to St. Petersburg, Russia, via New York (where I visited some friends) and Paris. The cruise was amazing. We stopped in nine different countries along the Baltic Sea and got to listen to Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa give speeches to Lindblad guests.

After disembarking in Copenhagen, I had a long flight to Indiana where I spent a week with C and his family. Then it was back to VT for two months (!) before jetting down to Florida to spend several days with C and to swim with some manatees. C returned home with me for a visit (he’d never been to Vermont), and we took a few days to explore the woods and take a road trip across the border to Montreal and see Cirque du Soleil, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

After Christmas and almost four months away from the ships (working, at least), it was time to begin another contract. I flew to Newark where I met C and sat in the airport for 6 hours before finally getting on a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica. And now, just as the New Year arrived, we crossed over from Costa Rica into Panama and will begin transiting the canal tonight. What a year! It feels like such whirlwind when I write it down, but I guess I’m used to being on the road so much because it felt like a normal year. I can’t wait to see what new places I’ll find myself in 2012!

Hope everyone had a good New Years. Feliz ano nuevo!

What are your best travel memories from 2011?

Final Days on the Baltic Sea

So it’s been nagging on the back of my mind to finish writing about my Baltic trip and I finally have the time (and motivation) to sit down and do it. I also spent a week in Indiana after flying back from Copenhagen, so I’ll write a few words on that as well. Be prepared, it might be a long post!

I left off with our brief sojourns into Latvia and Lithuania, both beautiful countries on the Baltic Sea. Our next stop after Lithuania was Gdansk, Poland, also called Danzig in German. First established in the early 1200’s, Gdansk was, for most of history, an independent free state. Today, Poland is the newest member of the European Union (2004) and the port city of Gdansk is one of the greatest examples of reconstruction in Europe, as it was restored from the piles of rubble that remained after WWII. After meeting with Lech Walesa in Stockholm, it was interesting to step foot into Poland and see how he, among many others, helped to create a democratic state after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We spent the morning on a walking tour through the Old Town of Gdansk, stopping by St. Mary’s Church and Neptune’s Fountain, both located along Dluga Street where many merchant houses were reconstructed like jigsaw puzzles from the destruction. Today the street is lined with aesthetically charming apartments that are finely decorated and colorfully painted. Gdansk is a very pretty town, but after joining numerous walking tours and countless churches in 6 or so countries already, I was ready to see the city on my own terms. I broke off from the group and meandered down a narrow street along a canal, browsing the shop windows (I have never seen so much amber jewelry in my life) and looking at the boats tied up to the canal walls. Near the end of the street I found a nice cafe with outdoor seating (with blankets to cover your legs) and ordered a latte. I sat, content, for an hour or so watching people pass by and enjoying the sunshine.

When my latte was gone (one of the best coffees I’ve ever had – perhaps it was just the setting?) I continued to explore the old city. I came across a young woman sitting on a bench with her guitar, singing in Polish in a voice that was utterly captivating. If she had had a CD I would have bought it in a second. I took a seat on the bench opposite from her and listened to her sing and strum her guitar. There was another man sitting next to her with a fistful of goldenrod he was halfheartedly trying to sell to passerby’s and a can of beer in his pocket that he discretely sipped. I loved watching the interaction between the two – she politely trying to ignore him and he offering her a yellow flower in between songs. It got even better when another older gentleman sat down between them and started eating his lunch. These kinds of experiences are what traveling is all about. Rather than checking places off on a list or buying souvenirs that say you’ve been to a city or town, it’s better to create memories that you’ll remember ten years from now.

I hadn’t returned to the ship for lunch, so I was getting kind of hungry and slightly worried that I wouldn’t find anything vegetarian in a country known for kielbasa, pierogies (often stuffed with meat), and kaszanka (blood sausages). To my amazement, though, I came across a (tiny) restaurant with big letters spelling VEGETARIAN across the awning. Yay! I ordered a layered crepe pie with spinach and fresh carrot juice. It was delish.

At the appointed time, we met back at the historic Green Gate that once served as the formal residence for Polish monarchs, but now marks the entryway onto Dluga Street and Long Market. We had the choice to return to the ship by bus or to take a Zodiac cruise back through the Gdansk shipyard. As always, I chose the Zodiac ride. Along the way, we passed enormous cargo ships and tugboats – some lifted out of the water for maintenance and others waiting their turn for service. The Gdansk shipyard was once a bustling place that provided jobs to over 20,000 people, but due to hard times and it has been severely diminished and now employes only 2,200 workers.

Back on board we said goodbye to Poland as the National Geographic Explorer sailed away from Gdansk heading east toward tomorrow’s destination – Lubeck, Germany.

Our last full day on the ship! Or off the ship, more precisely. We had the entire day to explore the beautiful town of Lubeck, Germany. Just as the sun was rising over the horizon we reached the port of Travemunde at the mouth of the River Trave. There we picked up a local pilot who navigated the Explorer through the last 20 miles of the winding river. Lubeck was once the capital and former Queen City of the Hanseatic League – “an economic alliance of trading cities and their merchant guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland during the Late Middle Ages and early modern period (ca 13th–17th centuries).” Lubeck was founded in the 12th century and prospered until the 16th century as the major trading city for northern Europe. It has remained a center of maritime commerce to this day, particularly with the Nordic countries. Despite damage suffered during WWII, the basic structure of the old city, consisting mainly of 15th and 16th century patrician residences, public monuments, churches, and salt storehouses, remains unaltered. The inner city of Lubeck is one of the finest examples of medieval Gothic architecture in Northern Europe, and as such, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

We began our tour of the city with a canal boat cruise through the waterways surrounding the town. From the water we could see the tall spires of multiple churches throughout the city and a green parkway that rings the perimeter. It’s a very picturesque town. Then we had time to explore the city by foot. I opted out of the walking tour and instead set off to find what interested me. That turned out to be chocolate and tea shop and a marzipan cafe with ungodly amounts of incredible looking desserts. I don’t think I had ever tried marzipan, but since this one cafe sold the worldwide famous Niederegger marzipan and sweets, I had to try it. And now I have a new found appreciation for everything marzipan. For the remainder of the afternoon, I wandered along the cobblestone streets and found a nice park bench to sit on that looked out over a clear pond. Then all too soon it was time to return to the ship for our final leg to Copenhagen, Denmark.

That evening we had a Captain’s farewell dinner and a slideshow that featured everyone’s best photos throughout the voyage. It was a great way to end the trip and remember what we had seen way back in St. Petersburg, which seemed ages ago!

We docked in Copenhagen early the next morning and disembarked around 8:30 for a canal boat tour of the city. Our fist stop was at the famous opera house, situated right on the shores of the harbor. Costing well over $500 million US dollars (all provided by one gentleman who was the co-founder of the container ship and supply vessel operator company, Maersk), it is quite the piece of architecture. Too bad we couldn’t stay to see a performance!

After the canal tour, which took us right through the heart of Copenhagen, we continued by foot through the beautiful city to the Museum of Natural History where we wandered through the exhibits and had lunch. Then it was time to part ways! I was flying out early the next morning and wasn’t sure where I was going to spend the night, so Louisa, another single traveler, offered to share her room at the Hilton next to the airport! I took her offer and after collecting our bags, we set off in a taxi to the hotel.

From there it was a long, but uneventful, journey back to the US of A. I flew from Copenhagen to Paris to JFK (a fiasco of an airport) to Atlanta to Indiana. Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Indianapolis (at 12:15 am), I was ready to be done traveling! I’ll save my adventures in Indiana for another post – hopefully soon. But as a conclusion I’ll just say that my trip to the Baltic was a great insight into a part of the world that I have not yet had a chance to explore. I would love to return to explore some other areas of the nine countries that I stepped foot in and learn a bit more about the history of each place. All in all in was an amazing trip and it was great to get to see life on the NG Explorer!

Latvia & Lithuania

Although there are many countries that border the Baltic Sea, the three countries that are referred to as the Baltic States include Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. We had already visited Estonia, so yesterday and today were dedicated to the other two Baltic States. We arrived in Riga, Latvia yesterday afternoon after sailing the entire morning (and previous night) almost due east from Gotland, Sweden. After lunch we disembarked the NG Explorer and took several buses to the Old Town of Latvia’s capital city. And, as you can probably guess, it’s a beautiful one! Again, cobblestone streets, cafes, small shops, and open markets. But what sets Riga aside from the other towns and cities we have visited is its distinct and distinguished architecture. Latvia has a long history of foreign occupation, from Russia to Germany to Poland, then Sweden. It gained independence in 1918 and remained free until 1940 when the Soviet Union regained control. Finally, in 1991 Latvia became its own independent nation. So you can probably imagine how all of those occupations influenced the country’s architectural styles as well as its culture and traditions. The most famous architectural style of Riga, however, is the Art Nouveau technique of the 19th and 20th centuries. Characterized by detailed carvings, especially of animals and faces, decorative moldings, towers, spires, columns, etc… Art Nouveau is quite impressive. We took a walking tour through the narrow alleyways of the city, stopping to photograph the more impressive buildings (many of which are being used as Embassy offices. Comically, though the US Embassy is housed in what our guide referred to as a drab Soviet non-architecture building) and listening to our guide recount the history of Latvia. We had two special performances arranged for us later in the afternoon. The first was a dance performance by a group of young children and older teenagers dressed in traditional custom. The music was also from Latvia as were the dance routines. They wheeled and reeled and stomped to the music just several feet in front of where were were seated. It was definitely a highlight to my trip so far! They were great and seemed genuinely happy to be dancing for us.

The second performance was just down the street in a old church. The Dome Cathedral, as it is called, is home to the worlds largest organ, built in 1883. With 6768 pipes, some as high as 10 meters (almost 33 feet!), it is a massive contraption. Besides being the worlds largest, the organ is also famous because it can produce different sounds such as waves, bells, piano, and a number of other melodies. We were treated to a half hour concert that consisted of four different musical pieces. Each one showed the extent of the organs (and organists!) capabilities. Once again, it was a great performance.

After the concert we didn’t have much time left in town, but I wandered around with a few other guests, peering into shop windows and comparing pieces of amber jewelry, of which this region is highly famous for. Then it was back to the ship for dinner and a rocky ride to Lithuania!

Lithuania

We had another leisurely morning at sea today and I spent most of it in bed (did I mention how comfy these mattresses are?), catching up on sleep.

Lithuania is the only Baltic country that doesn’t have its capital on the Baltic shores, so in the afternoon we docked in its third largest city, Klaipeda. We only had a brief few hours in the country, so we made the most of our time. We started with a walking tour of the city center, which had more of an old-world feel to me. Possibly because the buildings haven’t undergone as progressive of a restoration as Estonia and Latvia.

After the walking tour we took a bus outside of the city and north to the small town of Palanga. Along the way we could see the rural, green landscape of Lithuania’s countryside. Palanga is famous to vacationers and resort-goers for its botanical gardens, amber museum, and long sandy beaches. We visited all three. The gardens were beautiful and well manicured and the museum was interesting (especially the pieces of amber with several million-year-old insects trapped inside), but I was eager to walk along the sandy coastline. The wind was quite strong and it was chilly, but I did see one person braving the cold and waves. What I loved best, though, standing on the beach, were the clouds overhead. They were magnificent! And the lowering sun made the light great for pictures.

Too soon it was time to start walking back through the gardens to the buses that would return us to our ship. Our guide gave us a small gift of amber pieces that she said we could dissolve in a bottle of vodka (or tea) and drink as a medicinal tonic. Who knew amber had healing properties?

We had another surprise waiting for us back on the ship. The head chef had gone out and gotten local Lithuanian cheese and three types of beer while we were onshore. We enjoyed them as we headed out of the harbor west toward Poland, our destination for tomorrow!

For dinner the Phillipine crew prepared us a traditional Philippine feast. It was delicious, but I could have done without seeing the whole roasted pig.

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