August 98,    30 days


"So far I have travelled just only through the western Europe; but what there’s eastward?". So, me and a sweet girl called Sara decided to buy an inter rail ticket and leaving from Milan headed north-east. An inter rail ticket is a special ticket that lets you travel throughout Europe by train for one month without any limit on the number of the travels; for sure it’s the best way to do a real (and cheap) travel in the old continent.
Frankly I had no idea about how far we could have got in one month, but I was very attracted by the small unknown countries called the Baltic Republics, and I would have done everything to get there.

Moved by the enthusiasm, we left from Milan with a big rucksack and a pair of rollerblades on our shoulders. We got on and off a bunch of trains before getting in our first leg: Budapest. It took more than 20 hours including a long night on the train, right during the conflict in the Kosovo region (ex-Yugoslavia), that, in Slovenia, led to find a dangerous travel mate quite interested (unsuccessfully) in our money. After some days enjoying the capital rollerblading and having so cool thermal baths we jumped on the train to head north. We crossed the Slovakia and entered Poland to stop in the cute town of Krakow. This nice small town made me begin feeling the different and interesting atmosphere of the East, less intense in Budapest.
The quietness of the people playing violins, violas and flutes in the streets are my best Krakowian memory, along with the visit in the salt caves. It was freezing but worthwhile going down through the tunnels and suddenly coming out in huge halls dug in depth to get the salt. The last day in Krakow we got impressed by the sad but proper visit to Oswiecim (Auschwitz), a town two hours far from Krakow whose fame doesn’t need explanation.
A bunch of hours by train there’s Warsaw that with its soviet modern mixed style didn’t charm me that much, but it was funny sleeping on a floating hostel, I mean a quite rusty boat moored on the Vistula bank. Anyway it was cheap and not too swinging.
The real part of the travel came when we reached the Lithuanian border in Suwalky, eight hours from the polish capital: the desert train slowed down till at walking pace when passed through a barbed wired gate opened by some armed soldiers. It was the gate of running along the border a long barbed wired fence. Not very far from the border we arrived in at the Sestokay station where there the gauge change. In fact the gauge (the distance between the rails) in the Baltic republics and in Russia is larger than the European one, hence you have to change train.
I felt definitely in the very east when I got on the Lithuanian wooden train, and also when I realised the train travelled at 30 km/h!!!!!! It took a while but we arrived in the capital, Vilnius. I liked the simplicity and the quietness of such green cute town. While we were waiting for our visa at the Latvian embassy we decided to hang around the country, and we ended up in Aukstaitija National Park northward of Vilnius nearby Ignalina. From the station we hitch hiked to reach a kind of cottage in the middle of the park where we spent a bunch of wonderful days. This was, and I hope still is, absolutely an uncontaminated huge labyrinth of small river, swamps and lakes. We rented a kayak and tried to have at least a taste of the wildness of the place. It’s still perfectly focused in my mind the image of the woman washing the dishes in the river near the village, or of that pulling an old trailer loaded with salad along the unpaved road.
Unfortunately I cannot say that much about Latvia, since we just stayed half day in Riga. However in that clear sunny morning I got a positive, even not very representative, impression of the empty snoozing town. The nice and windy view from the high steeple of the cathedral and the women at the market standing per hours with just their hands as stall are my images of the Latvian capital.
Few hours by bus and finally we entered in Estonia!!!!!!!
We directly headed to the Estonian island of Saaremaa in the Baltic sea and we spent some days having a deserved rest. I cannot say such island to be an unmissable touristic highlight. In fact other than the cute town of Kuressaare it’s wood, wood and wood, with same road snaking through. However it turned out to be an interesting off the beaten track divert where we had fun moving around the island hitch hiking and experiencing the Estonian kindness.
Retrieved the energies we got in the northmost point of the travel: Tallinn. It’s a cute town but the influence of the wealthy tourists coming from the near Finland was quite evident, that’s why I preferred the more typical Vilnius. Anyway it was extremely nice wandering on the cobblestone streets of the old town inside the walls, or looking the view of the red roofs from one of the towers. You can spent a lot of time poking around the stalls that sell craftsmanship and "matrioscas". Here I fell in love of a huge one and I bought it, without really thinking how much I would have cursed to carry it back home, but somehow I managed.From Tallinn we had planned to reach Gdansk by boat, but despite Lonely Planet suggested it, there was no boat connection between Estonia and Poland.
Two hours westward of Tallinn we explored a former russian nuclear submarine base placed on a peninsula called: Paldiski. The base was closed to the civilians till 1994, and the last soldiers withdrew in 1995. Just got off of the train we found abandoned and even burned high buildings, I guess the old accommodations of the soldiers. The area seemed quite desert, and further we were going wilder the place got, till being in a kind of wood, where hidden by the trees or by the high grass we glimpsed former checking turrets or entries of underground passages. Then coming back we hanged out in a small market near the station, where people were queuing to buy the bread; the atmosphere in this area seemed one step back from the Estonia we had seen since that moment. This my impression was confirmed several years later while I was living in Sweden and I knew an Estonian guy, who freaked out when I said him I had visited Paldiski. He insisted Paldiski was not Estonia and I had to forget about it.
Returning to Poland we diverted to Klaipeda to visit the Curonian spit (Neringa), a 100 km long thin strip of sand between the Baltic sea and the Curonian Lagoon. It was extremely nice walking on this big sand dunes till the russian border of the Kaliningrad region, where signs in the middle of nothingness warn you can be shot in case of proceeding. From Klaipeda we counted to reach Gdansk by boat, but with big upset (I had been cursing for two days) we found out that there was no boat connection with Poland.
It took two days by train to reach Gdansk passing by Warsaw, but there was no other alternative unless we passed through the Kalinigrad region by a night sneaking J
After one of the tirest train travel of all my life being crowded for 6 hours among drunk smelling polish guys we finally got to the picturesque Gdansk. I remember with pleasure this town with his typical colourful spire roofs, where we spent a bunch of nice days including a boat trip to the harbour, in particular till the point from where the first bullet of the Second World War was shot, where a huge sign stating "Never more" was placed.
Even more nicer was the day trip to sand dunes on the Baltic cost near Leba; I recommend you, unless you have visited Klaipeda in Lithuania that is similar but its dunes are definitely bigger. Leba is a very well known place among the Polish and you’ll see a lot of families spending the week end there, in fact its dunes are inside a National park where there are several trails and a lake.
From Gdansk we travelled to Prague, our last leg where we spent some days. With the real east still in my eyes frankly I didn’t get so impressed by the Czech capital, whose beauty is unquestioned, but I missed the humble quiet eastern atmosphere that I felt and charmed me in the Baltic republics; somehow it helped me to get aware I was coming back home.


Impression about Baltic Republics

Definitely my memories about such small hidden countries are one of the best among my travels in Europe. I liked the atmosphere either I breathed in the town like Vilnius and Riga, either the one of the countryside like in the Aukstaitiia National Park or in Saaremma.
The pride and the humbleness are the characteristics of such countries that after having fought hardly for their freedom, now, that they have got it, they feel proud and work for their future. In the country there’s a sort of quietness: few cars in the streets, trains at 30 km
/h…..it’s a pleasure to enjoy.
It also turned out to be safe; we traveled by night train or night buses, we even hitch hiked in Saremmaa and we have never had problems. I appreciated the variety of landscapes: from the sandy coast of Klaipeda to the lakes and the woods of the inland areas till the Estonian high coasts. And what you cannot miss is the train travel from Suwalky to Sestokay crossing the Lithuanian border: first of all the summer green landscape through the hill is wonderful and further the cross of the barbed wired border, if still there, is funny.
A lot of things are changing; I hope it’ll be an improvement for those living there, and meanwhile not a loss for those hunters of "diversities", that I call travelers.






The train travel from Venice to the Hungarian capital was quite tiring, but it was worthwhile seeing the huge Balaton lake and the sunflower fields decorating the landscape.
Once arrived  in Budapest to find an accommodation turned out one of the simplest thing of the whole travel; in fact at the station we were approached by a kind middle aged woman proposing an house for 8$ per night (08-99). To trusted her asking to have a look turned out to be the right thing. It was a clean and nice two beds room with a bathroom very near the city centre where we stayed for 3 days.
I’ve a nice memory of this city, divided in Buda and Pest by the large Danube, that it's the symbol of the capital since being the main connection with the rest of Europe. Watching the boats moored at the bank I fanced about going downriver reaching Bucarest and then the Black Sea.
Despite the western influence turned out to be quite evident, fortunately Budapest didn’t seem to have still sold his soul to the capitalised world: the tourist didn’t crowd the capital and it still maintained its east style.
The castle, the chain bridge are its main highlight, but definitely the thermal baths were what we more enjoyed. You cannot miss a wonderful outdoor bath lying for hours in a super hot smoking pool, also because the summer temperatures here can be quite unbearable. Anyway if you are really short of money you can swim in the fountains :-)





Prague was our last leg after one month travelling troughout the east of Europe; just arrived we were so tired that we settled down at the cheap hostel above the station, hanging around the town rollerblading.
Definitely I cannot deny the beauty of this city, with his typical narrow streets, the river, the S.Carlo bridge and the castle at the top of the hill overlooking the town, but (there’s always a "but") I got a little disappointed. Coming from the real east in an out-off-the-beaten-track travel, to me Prague seemed having sold his soul to the west. For sure waiting pressed with hundreds of other people in a square for a tiny steel bird to come out from the clock tower or being treated in a restaurant like the last shit in the earth, didn’t help to appreciate the town. I was missing the atmosphere I had breathed a thousand of kilometers eastward with my thoughts still travelling in the charming humble Lithuania.
This doesn’t mean I despised the town, but through my eyes it represented the evident sign about how things were changing in the east, and how this change was slowly going eastward. Definitely a positive change for those living there, but a kind of loss for the traveler hunter of "diversities". Since then severals years have been passed and things are even more different now, but one thing is even truer: if you are looking for the east of Europe, Prague is not your place, if you wanna just enjoy a very nice town, go straight there!!!!!!!