Jordan and Israel provided more religion than we’ve experienced our entire lives. Well, you get the drift. So, Turkey was postponed once again in an effort to rejuvenate the religious theme in August. Geographically, it worked better to visit Istanbul after spending time with Neda & Jeff in Bulgaria. The downside of this plan is that Turkey is super hot in August!
June turned into our most ambitious month in terms of the number of places visited. We toured most of Israel, the Baltic Region,Vienna, Austria and finally the countryside in Eastern Czech Republic. In the end, June yielded 14 cities in 30 days. Phew!!
Unlike Asia & the Middle East, Europe offers a stellar railway system. We also spent quite a few days on nice big buses with a toilet. Speaking of the bathrooms, it is still hard to appreciate paying to use the potty. Good news is that the flow of paper products is starting to increase as we head West. One great thing about the European Union is moving freely between countries. We were only stopped one time at a checkpoint between Latvia and Estonia. Managing currency between countries can be a pain in the booty. Less than half of the countries visited are on the Euro (e.g. Estonia, Austria).
AirBNB.com, CouchSurfing.org and friend connections have provided several great opportunities to meet local people and learn about their daily lives. In Tel Aviv, we spent a week getting to know Roee & Maya. They treated us like family and showed us modern Jewish life on the Mediterranean Sea. Our favorite day with them involved walking through the antique markets. They packed us homemade Tahini sandwiches for our trip around the Golan and Galilee. Our first stop in Lithuania was the capital city of Vilnius. Sigita & Vidas opened their home to us near the Neris River. We talked about life after the Soviet Union, their children living in London and our Lithuanian ancestry. This was by far our best AirBNB experience to date.
We had this big adventure planned for a small town called Cekiske. This is where the Finkelstein family lived in the mid-1800’s. We spent time with Justyna & her friend Laura in Kaunas on our way there. Both women grew up in Cekiske and provided their enthusiasm and perspective on our quest for more information. It was in Cekiske where we visited the old Jewish Cemetery buried deep in the pasture. Lithuania provided such a genuine experience that we are very proud to both have ancestry there. The Curonian Spit was the most peaceful place we’ve stayed this year. Oh, and finding authentic 50 million year old Baltic amber jewelry helped keep our relationship nice and smooth.
It wasn’t until Latvia when we really felt the after effects of Baltic Soviet rule. Sigita did explain how the Russians broke many Lithuanian families by forcing them to Siberia. Conversely, many Russians were “moved” to the Baltic countries in an effort to remix each culture. Latvia felt a bit depressed as we learned about recent economic issues related to affordable milk products. We met a very nice young man named “Krisjanis” while visiting Sigulda outside of the capital city Riga. He hiked with us all around the Gauja National Park. There, we learned about a few traditional folk tales and the importance of adventure sports like the bobsleigh. We felt a sense of Latvian national pride for the first time. Riga is dominated by Russian residents and appeared very sterile. Tourists come for the beautiful art nouveau architecture and multi-national restaurant chains. We struggled to find a vibrant urban local scene with forward thinking personality. We left wishing Riga was “Riga” and not the “Paris of the East”.
Tallinn, Estonia is a fairytale world built around Skype and Garage 48. There are some serious tech folks proud of their independence and Scandinavian affiliations. We met Kristel on CouchSurfing and spent a wild night out before the big “Midsummer’s Eve” festivities in the countryside. This is where bonfire jumping and old Pagan tales are passed along over generations. Bad weather followed us from Tallinn to Vienna as we moved closer to see Pearl Jam in Prague. To be fair, we only spent one full day in Vienna. That said, we didn’t enjoy the stiffness of its people and grossly underestimated the size of the city. Vienna goes down as the most expensive city in Europe so far. And then there is tiny little Mikulov and the surrounding Moravian Wine Country. This town is a gem for a nice relaxing week mixed with good cycling activities. Olomouc ushered in the Czech beer and quirky medieval experience known throughout the country.