Monday, September 27, 2004

Summer 2004: Northern Exposure (4th part).-

One more city/country to visit in this trip: Estonia. Just 1,5 hour by boat across the gulf from Helsinki and we found ourselves in the beautiful medieval and fortified capital city of Tallinn. We were rather surprised to see that the city was not too big; it was picturesque, with beautiful and colorful buildings and full of restaurants, cafes and tourists. Sort of a smaller version of Prague. This came as a surprise as Estonia is virtually unknown in Greece and it's a shame. By the way, although Estonia was part of the former Soviet Union, one can hardly notice it, as both the lifestyle and everything else (such as signs for example) have nothing Russian about them. (Well, if one notices some details such as the sewer taps one can see that they are made in Russia and bear Russian letters on them)..

Returning from our trip to the North, we only stayed for a day in Athens, heading this time southeast, to Rhodes. We spent a couple of weeks there enjoying the sun and the sea and seeing (Maria's) family and friends. We even went on a 24-hour trip to the island of Nisyros (quite pretty and reminiscent of the Cyclades, despite being part of the Dodecanese complex of islands. It even reminded us of Iceland -see our 2003 summer vacation description- as we visited the island volcano's crater, to see again the earth boiling and releasing steam and ...ugly smells!)

Finally we returned to the (Olympic!) city of Athens, to get a taste of the Olympic metamorphosis of the city and watch a few sport events, too.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Summer 2004: Northern Exposure (3rd part)

Having Helsinki as our base for the next days, we were planning to visit first Saint Petersburg in Russia and then Tallinn in Estonia.
This is the most exciting and unfortunate part of our journey; so if you managed to read this far, don't give up now!

By train to Russia... this was our first visit to Russia and we had a few things to be concerned about: Would we be able to receive our train tickets? (the ticket cashier in Helsinki had told us that the tickets were not ready yet and they would be delivered to us by the train ticket conductor) Were our visas OK? (There was a mention somewhere on our visa about a 'tour group', which of course we were not) What would Russia be like?

The bureaucratic part went on smoothly. What are our comments about St.Petersburg? We had been told that this was the most Western European city of Russia-and we think it is indeed rather Western European, at least on the surface. It is a city with many majestic sights and certainly impressive. Not really a 'Venice of the North' but many canals and the river are also interesting features of the city.

Some things that gave us a hard time:
  • the distances are enormous; it takes forever to cross an average square...
  • The public transportation system (?) was chaotic, relevant information was scarce and a large part of it was left to private entrepreneurs with minivans!
  • Despite the similarity of the Cyrillic and the Greek alphabet, the Russian language was rather different and difficult for us.
  • One of the worst problems was the warning we had had (by our travel guides) that the water pipes of the city were unclean and dangerous and that we had to use mineral water in bottles even to brush our teeth! (The advice: 'cook it, boil it, peel it or forget it!') As the hot water from the tap was rather ...brownish (despite the generally good standards of our hotel) we even showered with cold water (brrr!).
  • Not unlike their Greek counterparts, civil servants were not very helpful or polite - but the people were in general friendly and helpful.
The Metro was impressive: four lines of VERY fast trains crossing the city. Probably the DEEPEST metro system we've ever seen (it took about five minutes to reach the platforms level from the ground despite the fast escalators - another Russian first: the escalators had an employee sitting in a booth at the bottom of the escalators to them!).
And here comes the exciting part of our journey: we (actually Stathis) were the victims of pickpockets at the St. Petersburg! A very unpleasant experience as Stathis was 'sandwiched' between two bulky Russians while he was 'relieved' of his wallet, which was, foolishly enough, placed in his pocket. Just before the doors of the train close, the group of the (three, as one more was holding the doors) pickpockets ran out of the coach, leaving us wondering what had happened...
Fortunately enough, we realized immediately that we had been robbed. As the wallet contained just 50 euros but many credit cards we were terrified at the thought of us been charged enormous amounts to our cards. Again, we were fortunate to call immediately to cancel our cards (it took us less than ten minutes) and to block them. This had been a big lesson for us (thankfully not a very costly one). Next time we will return to methods of carrying our valuables that we had abandoned (waist belt-wallets etc) and to change also the type and amount of cards we will carry with us (just a few and prepaid ones).

Right after this incident we visited the Greek consulate to see if there was something they could do for us. Not that we needed much (we still had some cash left and Maria's cards), but they didn't do much to help us in some way either. The staff was friendly and sympathetic though.
Contacts with the (very efficient and helpful!) bank call centers reassured us in the meantime that efforts made by the thieves to use our cards had failed as the cards had already been blocked.
Somewhat relieved to hear that, but still in a rather bad mood, we headed for the famous Hermitage museum. Needless to say, this is indeed an amazing collection of art (the paintings are marvelous) housed in (more than one) impressive, both internally and externally, buildings. A word of advice if you ever visit it: bypass the long lines to the booths selling individual tickets and ask to participate in one of the museum-organized guided tours: it costs 35% less than the individual ticket, you have a guide speaking English to show you the most important exhibits for about 1,5 hour and then you can wander in the museum on your own! We still haven't figured out why people are buying individual tickets! One more remark: prices are different for tourists and for locals, obviously because of the differences in average incomes. Keep in mind that St.Petersburg is not a cheap city although one could tell that its citizens are not rich.

Returning in Helsinki was rather a pleasant thing after all we had suffered. Once again we were impressed by the small things that prove that the Finnish are good and civilized people: as we had lost the parking card (it was stolen with the wallet) they accepted without hesitation our (honest!) declaration that the car had been left for three days in the parking lot and we paid accordingly. Had we been dishonest, we would have paid less and they wouldn't know...

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Summer 2004: Northern Exposure (2nd part)

When we arrived to our destination (Oulu), we were pleasantly surprised to find a nice house with a large garden waiting for us. It even had a sauna, which would be, in the days to come, an amazing experience and a source of pleasure for us! Rather different from the landscape of Athens, we were surrounded by equally pretty houses and a forest. The city centre was a 20 minutes ride by car and our first afternoon and evening in Oulu were spent to orienteer and familiarize ourselves with the city. In the next days Oulu proved to be, rather unexpectedly, a quite pleasurable place. It has a picturesque harbour with a small market and some renovated cafes and restaurants in wooden (former) warehouses. We also visited the small islands of the port (Hietasaari, Pikisaari) and even found (again...) some sandy beaches (Nallikari).

A good thing about the North in the summer is that it doesn't get dark until it gets very late. So we had many-many hours of sunlight to do things.

But, as we were so close to the Arctic Circle we were tempted to cross this virtual border: a two hour drive away was the city of Rovaniemi, rather famous in Greece in recent years for being 'the home of Santa Claus'. So we visited Santa's village (took some pictures in Santa's post office, where we left some letters for friends and nephews to be delivered just before Christmas) and an interesting museum, called Arktikum, devoted to the culture and nature of Lappland.

One more interesting experience in Rovaniemi: we had reindeer meat for lunch. Not bad... (A funny incident: we were served beer -in bottles- that it had expired. When we told that to the waitress she was very polite in apologizing and quick to add: 'if you feel sick after you've left, please let us know!...)

On our way to Rovaniemi we even crossed an actual (not that one can really tell the difference between this and a virtual one) border, the one between Finland and Sweden (the cities of Tornio and Haparanda are next to each other).

Next day was devoted once again to the beauties of Oulu: the parks, the little islands and the nice outdoor restaurants. And we used the bikes our hosts had left for us to wander around on the special street zones that were devoted to pedestrians and bicyclists.

And then came the day of ...the animals: we visited a nice zoo in the city of Ranua (the most interesting moments were the sight of the polar bear and that of two little brown bears playing in a pool). What's more, on our way to the zoo we encountered reindeers roaming freely on the road! Maria was driving at the time and she got rather upset...

The time had come for us to start our return to the south of the country. We crossed the wonderful area of the lakes, so full of green and water. The city of Kuopio is worth mentioning. We definitely plan to return some time to the area and spend more time there.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Summer 2004: Northern Exposure (1st part)

Once more we decided to spend our summer vacation's largest part 'up north'. This time we thought of visiting Finland, a country we thought would be cool in many ways (including of course the climate!). Most of our (Greek) friends keep asking us why not spend the whole time by the beach, in Greece. Well, a simple answer would be that we like to see new things and that we like to experience not only different places but different cultures as well.
So we tried to arrange an exchange with a Finnish family. We did find a suitable exchange partner that lived in the northern city of Oulu. 'Fine', we said, 'we'll have a chance to travel through the Finnish countryside and visit many cities along the way'. Searching for the best and cheapest flight (not an easy task as the Olympics were approaching and prices kept rising), we decided to fly Finnair. The first leg, to Zurich, Switzerland, was in a Swiss code-sharing flight, which meant that not even water was served for free...

Our first night in Helsinki gave us the opportunity to have a first walking tour of the city centre and enjoy some sights, as the Kaupatorri (market square), the churches Uspenski (orthodox) and Tuomiokirkko (lutheran). We met a friend and had dinner together and exchanged home and car keys with our Finnish exchange partners. Next day we continued our visit to Helsinki by visiting the Hietaniemi beach (the very fact of the existence of a Helsinki beach may come as a surprise to us Southerners, but it was a pretty nice beach, too) and the wonderful Tempeliaukio church, a modern church that is built inside a rock.
And there we were on our way to the city of Oulu. The roads were fine and the only unusual sign was the one warning drivers of ...reindeer/elk crossings! More on that later...

The first town we visited that is worth mentioning was Rauma: most of the (old) town buildings were made of wood, surprisingly left intact from fires through the years. Walking in the town streets seemed like a stroll in the past- towns from 'western' movies came to mind. (And we also found a nice pastry shop to sweeten our teeth).

Next was the town of Pori, at the time celebrating its world famous jazz festival. The weather was good, the music plenty, the streets crowded and the street food nice. Add some water and there you have it, a fine afternoon: certainly worth buying a couple of t-shirts to remember it. A wonderful sandy beach in the area was that of Yyteri, quite popular with the Finnish, and for a good reason.

Arriving late at night in the town of Vaasa, we spent the night there and left early in the morning continuing our way to Oulu. We had a brief stop for a light lunch in Kokkola and a 10-minute shopping stop at the Lidl supermarket of Raahe.