I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part One Finland to Poland

I started my journey in Finland and early on I observed a few things about the country, such as the pastimes…

I have noticed perhaps two Finnish obsessions – saunas and electronic gambling machines – which seem to be in just about every building…and drinking in public is accepted. There is apparently even a pub tram, perfect for the drunk on the go, I guess

…the cold, and that Finland was really, really expensive. Nothing in particular stands out to me except the cold and high prices. It’s July and I am wearing a coat!

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I began my travels in Finland. This is somewhere in Helsinki. I think. It is July. I am wearing pants and a turtle neck sweater. It looks cold. It was cold. And yet I am smiling.

Despite staying in a hostel – a very nice hostel with a fabulous breakfast and sauna! – eating cheap takeaway, and walking or riding the bus, I was spending over $100 a day. I cut short my expected week there and after four days hopped the ferry to Estonia.

In the Baltics I visited Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia, Sigulda and Riga in Latvia, and Vilnius and Trakai in Lithuania. The weather was beautiful in Estonia and I have a strong memory of walking down a dirt lane from the historic center of Tartu, in dappled sunlight, to the guesthouse where I stayed. I found the place through the tourist information center. It was a regular home where a couple with young kids let out two rooms for travelers.

Transportation though seemed to be another matter.

I had inquired in Tallinn about a train from Tartu to Sigulda, Latvia and had been told there was no train. I looked at the map and saw train tracks, and went back the next day to ask again but was again told, by a different person, there was no train. Once in Tartu I went straight to the tourist info to ask about buses. “Why don’t you take the train?” she asked. “There’s a train?” I asked. Yep. There was a train and on August 1 I took the train to Valga/Valka, the border town between Estonia and Latvia, went through border control, and then boarded my train to Sigulda. No problem.

Sigulda, a beautiful town along a central Latvian river valley, turned out to be where I saw my first opera. I know I walked to the edge of town to the Gauja National Park. I know I visited a cave. But it was the opera, in the ruins of Sigulda Castle, that I remember the most. It was the Marriage of Figaro and it cost only US$4 for a ticket right next to the stage. It was an evening open-air performance and I recall it rained lightly and I did not care.

I know I unexpectedly liked Vilnius despite my disappointment in missing the Genocide of the Lithuanian People Museum located in former KGB headquarters. Yeah, it sounds like an interesting, though not uplifting museum, but it figures prominently as a frustration in my journal. I still have some pictures from Trakai Castle. It was pretty, set on a lake, in sunshine. Yet what I remember most about this trip is the really bad romance novel I found in the hostel. English language materials were somewhat scarce during my trip and I was already desperate to hang on to the books I had brought and read just about any other English book I could get my hands on.

What figures most prominently in my journal though were the cool weather and the differences between my dress and that of the Lithuanians.

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At the Daugava River in Riga, Latvia. Still kind of cold but at least it is not raining.

It is getting cool today although I do not think it is ever really hot. I usually feel a bit chilly. I am surprised by the clothing here – shorts, miniskirts, tank tops. I haven’t felt a single day in the Baltics has justified such clothing, and yet it is what I see many locals wearing. Yesterday as I walked from dinner I felt too cool in my short sleeves and long pants and yet as I shivered I saw people in the park sitting with much less covering doing a good job pretending they were warm. Perhaps they are more warm-blooded than I? I can see several people from my current seat in sleeveless tops – but they are crazy! I am going back to the hostel to get my jacket.

After the Baltics I headed to Poland where I visited the northern port of Gdansk, the castle at Malbork, Nicholas Copernicus’ hometown of Torun, the capital Warsaw, the historic Krakow, and the southern border town of Zakopane. It is in Poland (and later Romania) that I have my most vivid memories and most interesting experiences. They may not be what you are expecting.

One of the oddest predicaments I came to be in involved an overnight bus from Lithuania, the need for toilet facilities, a lack of Polish zloty and too many Lithuanian litas.

I took the overnight bus from Vilnius to Gdansk, Poland. I was wedged beside a rather large man and was thinking the other hostellers’ predictions of no sleep would come true. But at the border I saw that the last four or five rows were empty so I moved to the back where I could stretch out and lie down. I got a fair amount of sleep. The problem was using the bathroom. There wasn’t one on the bus. Oh, there was a little room, but it was apparently just for show and remained locked the entire trip.

We were all able to use the restrooms at the border, but after that it became complicated. At 5 am we stopped at a station and could use the restrooms, but almost all public restrooms in the Baltics and Poland cost money and I had not a zloty on me! Another girl from the bus offered to pay for me, but her coin (probably too large to change?) was not accepted by the surly couple guarding the restrooms.

At the next stop it was the same and again at the Gdansk bus station. So I walked with my pack to the tourist office, but it was not where it was on the map and I never found it. I could not go to the bathroom until I changed money or checked into a hostel/hotel. Many banks and exchange places did not open until 10 am and I arrived in Gdansk at 8:30 am. The ones that were open would not exchange Lithuanian litas. They would exchange Spanish money, Swedish money, Latvian and Estonian money, Hungarian money, Slovakian money – just about everything except litas. Anyway the bathroom wouldn’t wait so I pleaded my case at a nearby hotel and they (thankfully!) agreed.

I never did change those Lithuania litas. An exchange place worker in Gdansk told me in English, as he shrugged, They are paper, they are a memory, they are nothing.

I loved the immense Castle of the Teutonic Order at Malbork, the world’s largest castle in surface area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The whole reason I visited Gdansk was to put myself in a good position to visit Malbork. Unfortunately I might have got more out of my visit had there been a tour in English. Unfortunately admission includes a tour – in Polish. One is not supposed to be able to see the castle without a tour. I ditched mine for the German one in front of me as I thought I might have a slightly better chance of understanding – nope and kept moving forward, tour by tour, until I happened upon a small English tour. It was privately arranged but they let me join nonetheless. So I at least was able to hear a little of the castle’s history…

This lack of English tours issue continued to be a problem at the UNESCO World Heritage salt mines near Krakow. Yet another site where one could only go through with a tour and the English tours were few and far between.

I did visit both the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps.They were very interesting but extremely emotionally draining. What happened to the people who arrived at the camps was just horrible. I cannot understand how anyone could do this to other human beings. The atrocities are beyond belief and yet they happened. This really hit me hard. It was a beautiful sunny day, but it was not a joyful tour. I was surprised to see people there with small children and others having their pictures taken. It is not a holiday destination where one brings the whole family. I finally took a few pictures at Birkenau and then went back to take a picture at the gate at Auschwitz. I did not feel completely comfortable about this, but at the same time felt compelled to record my visit.

Finally, my trip to the border town of Zakopone. My most striking memory is unfortunately the long line at the cable car! It was a two and a half hour wait. If you are a solo backpacker who left behind journal and book in the hostel and no one else in line around you speaks English, two and a half hours can feel an eternity! Yet the view at the top was worth every minute.

By the time I left Poland I had only been on the road three weeks but was beginning to settle into a groove. Much more was still to come!

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