"So far I have travelled just
only through the western Europe; but what theres 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 its 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 doesnt
A bunch of hours by train theres Warsaw that with its soviet modern mixed style
didnt 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. Its
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
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 its 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. Its a
cute town but the influence of the wealthy tourists coming from the near
Finland was quite evident, thats 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
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 youll 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 didnt 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
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 theres
a sort of quietness: few cars in the streets, trains at 30 km/h
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 itll 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.
Ive 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 didnt seem to have still sold his soul to the capitalised
world: the tourist didnt 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.
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 (theres
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, didnt 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 doesnt 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!!!!!!!