26 December 2010

CRF: Germany

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're back home. We return to Europe on New Year's Eve.
This was at the botanic garden in Bamberg. There wasn't much in bloom, but this little girl was still game to explore it all. Her father kindly (or unkindly) lent her his umbrella as she wandered through the plant maze.
Tour groups made their way through the narrow streets of Bamberg with their own umbrellas.We like to call sights like this "Day Drinking." This particular occurrence was in Berlin. You may think the reader's companion is merely sunning herself or taking a nap, but we know better. Merlin posted a great gallery of pictures of Mühlhausen doors during our time in the small town. Being as this building had a gate instead of an intricate doorframe, it didn't make the cut. This building just seemed so quintessentially German. It felt like a time warp just looking at it, especially with the old fashioned street lamp in front and the name "Adolf" plastered on.
Through this archway was Mühlhausen's main square, which was really just a large empty space. I imagine it's filled with a Christmas market right now.
With the way Germans drive (crazy fast) we were surprised not to see more of these roadside memorials. This one was in Bamberg and honored a man who looked about our age.
This is in Nowhere Specific-Everywhere, Germany. Potato au gratin, schnitzel, wursts. Germany was amazing, but we don't miss the food.Germany was the first country that we really got to explore small towns in the countryside, as it was our first full country with our car. When we'd see amazingly small tractors like this right on a paved street in suburbia, we would look at each other and feel like all the work it took to get Nilla over to Europe was well worth it.

24 December 2010

CRF: Belgium

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're back home. We return to Europe on New Year's Eve. It's so easy to walk around Ghent, snapping photos and then discover that you've damn near filled your camera card in a single day. Just look at the place. Photos like these helped us decide to skip Bruges. Our hard drives wouldn't have been able to take it. Ghent's centre is actually the largest carfree area in Belgium, adding to its charm. It's so much nicer taking photos when you're not waiting for a bus to move out of the darn way.
This was at the flea market in Brussels. Nothing like seeing someone wear a hat fashioned from the comics page.
This was on our epic bike trip to Castle Horst. The road ran right through family farms. We pulled aside to let at least one tractor pass us, at least two very serious looking bicyclists, and a few men with dogs. As the weather began to get cold and the days began to get dark recently, we've found ourselves remembering this bike ride more and more.
Down by the fish market in Mechelen, there were a row of bars and taverns. We felt really proud of ourselves for snapping this picture of our bartender without her noticing. (This was before we became a bit more unabashed about taking portraits).
An electric lawnmower!
And then there was beer. So. Much. Beer. Just recently, we went to a Belgian bar in Riga, Latvia and were so glad to be tasting the good stuff again. On the other side of the room, a woman, who had clearly been tasting to vigorously, had to be lifted up from her chair and carried out of the establishment by her friends. Oh, Belgian beer and its average alcohol content of 8% abv.

CRF: Holland

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're back home. We return to Europe on New Year's Eve.

See all Holland posts...

22 December 2010

Excuses, Excuses

So - we haven't posted in a few days. Most of you probably think we've been under a pile of snow. Luckily, we are both safe and sound, back home for the holidays. You see, I left a few days early to attend the wedding of these two amazing people. (Seriously, check out the link. It's great.) Merlin was left to hold down the fort in Tallinn, Estonia. The problem is, Merlin's shoes have no traction and I was no longer around for him to hold on to. Many slips and falls ensued and he decided that the best course of action would be not to take his camera out with him. Luckily, we will be back in Tallinn for New Year's Eve, so there should be some great Estonian capital coverage coming soon!

In the meantime - we've uploaded some of our favorite photos that we never used from our first few countries and will be posting them throughout our Christmas break.

Happy Holidays!

15 December 2010

Bus Stop/ Post Office

As we drove down the Sõrve peninsula, we noticed that each bus stop was different. We literally did not see a single bus stop that was the same as the next. After a few interesting designs, we spotted this one with lace curtains. We stopped the car and went to take some closer pictures.
Up close, we realized that it was not simply a bus stop, but a post office. Inside the house were a row of mailboxes for the surrounding houses, making it easier for the postman to come by with a delivery.
It was so sweet, the way the neighbors had gussied up the place. There were fresh flowers in a teeny vase and a small coffee table with reading materials next to the seats. It seems perfectly natural, yet perfectly delightful that they would want the spot visit daily, to get their mail and to catch their ride to work/school/etc, to be as comfortable and pleasant as possible.
After that, we decided to drive back to a few interesting looking bus stops we had passed to see if they, too, doubled as post centers. We had both remembered seeing a really colorful one some miles back and were glad to find it again.
I loved the big chunks of log used as seats. It wasn't as cute as the first, but just as unique. It's interesting to think about the different towns' personalities, judging by their decor choices.
As we moved closer to Kuressaare, the bus stops became more modern. Still, they were each different from one another. We were hoping to spot another bus stop/post office combo, but they all appeared to be bench/ceiling structures built solely for waiting.
As we drove passed this one, we noticed the mailboxes affixed to its right side. Definitely much more modern than the rest, but a bus stop/post office all the same! We had initially decided to drive around the Sõrve peninsula, because it was the site of some really bitterly-fought battles between the Soviets and the Germans during WWII. Apparently, most of the fighting happened at night, which means the two sides blindly fought at each other for hours. We had thought we may be able to get a good battlefield blog post out of it, but were so glad to have found, instead, this little piece of Saaremaa life that was completely endearing, unique, memorable, and outside of any guidebook reference.

The Kaali Craters

On a colorless, overcast day on the island of Saaremaa, we traveled up from Kuressaare to the tiny hamlet of Kaali. The town is unremarkable except for one feature - the Kaali meteorite craters. There are nine of them, in all, with one major crater in the center. It is one of the last - if not the last - major meteorite collisions in Earth's history and has inspired a number of legends and tales. The impact was comparable to the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and flattened the forest in a four mile radius around the blast. The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, mentions the blast and the island - it became known as "the sun's grave." It is apparently a huge attraction, but when we visited we found an empty village and almost virgin snow surrounding the impact site. Walking up to the edge of the crater, it was obvious that less than a handful of people had been there in the past week or so. The picture above is of Rebecca scaling the crater's edge, through deep, powdery snow.
The exact moment of impact is a debatable fact - people believe that it occurred sometime between 7,500 and 4,000 years ago. Between 600 BC and 100 AD, a wall was constructed around the lake (part of which is shown above), and the remains of ritual sacrifices dating from that period were uncovered in the 1970's. The sacrifices apparently continued until the eighteenth century. The place has retained an important significance in local mythology up until the present.
The actual crater was smaller, perhaps, than we were expecting. It was such a dismal day, with so little color, that the patch of ice where the crater sits appeared to be little more than a stretch of treeless snow in the flat light. It was deserted and quiet.
After a while in the woods, we followed the simple track back to the village where our car was parked. Along the way we saw few people - though we did see an old lady on one of these push-sleighs, which is something like a pair of skis attached to a chair. One foot remains on the track while the other pushes. We've seen them a few times on Saaremaa, and they seem like a great way to get around.

13 December 2010

The Ferry to Muhu

On our way from the pretty lake town of Viljandi out to the island of Saaremaa, we had to take a ferry from Virtsu, on the coast, to Muhu island.
The crossing took a little over half an hour - a straight shot out into the sea ice, across the channel. The land was difficult to distinguish on the horizon because it's so flat. The sea was dead calm and the ice lay still on the surface. Even behind us, in the wake of the boat, the water seemed barely disturbed, the floes sliding heavily into place around the stern.
We left the car on the lower deck and went up for a bite to eat in the cafe. Rebecca had a piece of bread adorned with these small, silvery fish that she believes are Estonian "räim," or Baltic dwarf herring. They were barely cured, without much salt, and she said that they were delicious.
I had this blood sausage wrapped in bacon, which was much heavier. I had intended to have just one of them, but the serving-lady put two on my plate alongside a huge pile of sauerkraut. They were good, but it was more food than I really wanted on our short crossing. Around us, passengers sat without talking and looked out the windows. Something about the blankness of the ocean space and the low sound of the engines made conversation seem frivolous. Being on a boat - even for a short amount of time - always seems to bring out a contemplative quietness in people.
After we ate, we went out onto the forward deck to watch the port drawing nearer. The ferries had tracked a path in the ice (which you can see in the photo). The air was surprisingly still, which was nice because the temperature was hovering around 10° fahrenheit.

12 December 2010

The Last Days of the Kroon

It's easy to assume that, with the introduction of the euro banknote, Europe moved to one, homogenous currency. Far from it. In fact, only sixteen of the fifty countries that we'll be visiting currently use the Euro (though its use isn't uncommon elsewhere). We haven't been in the "Eurozone" since we left Germany, four countries ago, and we won't return to it until Italy, four countries hence. In Estonia, the currency is the kroon, or "crown - but this is an unusual time for the official note. On January 1st, Estonia will become the seventeenth country to use the euro. So, here we are, in the last days of the kroon.
It is a pretty money, with pictures of national figures and of nature. It is a uniform size - unlike the euro and other monies that range in size - but it does come in a variety of colors, which makes sorting easier. Estonia has been trying to meet the European central bank's guidelines for economic stability and strength for a while now, and is very excited to be joining its more southern Eurozone brethren. One person, however, has reservations: prime minister, Andrus Ansip said that he is regretful about the change because the Estonian "banknotes are more beautiful than euro banknotes."
It is an interesting time to be here, especially because of uncertainty regarding exchange rates and the changeover. The current rate is about 11.8 kroons to the dollar, (making the hundred kroon bill, above, worth about $8.50, and the five hundred about $42) but that is by no means steady. Officially, businesses are not supposed to accept euros yet, but people have been asking us if we'd like to pay that way. All prices are listed in both currencies, at the moment, and even our stamps have the value printed in euros and kroons (a philatelist's dream!).
I have to say that I'm sad when a currency gets phased out. It is something unique about a place, something that other nationalities don't share and may not even be able to name or recognize. Changing money and looking at new coins is one of the small pleasures of traveling. While it's certainly understandable that Estonia would want to join the Eurozone, I'm glad that we got here before it did.

Charmed, I'm Sure

Viljandi is one of those towns that makes you struggle to find a word other than "charming" to describe it. The word implies everything that it is: small, attractive, storybookish (of course, it seems to mean something entirely different when applied to princes). The snow had let up just long enough for us to go out with our cameras, something we haven't done in days. "Let's go be charmed!" we thought, though neither of us said it aloud, because that would have been weird. A charming church next to a charming row of houses greeted us at the edge of, charmingly named, Castle Park.
The park was one snowy hill after another and we could see sled tracks from a day's worth of playing. Now and then, we'd catch a glimpse of a plastic saucer with two stuffed snowsuits on top. At the top of the largest hill, we discovered a magnificent view of Lake Viljandi and the town on its edge. Lakes automatically double a place's charm.
We ran down the hill to keep up with our sliding feet and discovered an arts center. Two people walked out carrying a handmade birdhouse, so we went in to investigate. There were musical instruments made out of gumdrops and gingerbread and a few tables putting away their crafts for sale. The place was swarming with children and a Santa-looking man in a sweater vest taught a group of them how to hand-dip candles. It was both charming and warming and after we had defrosted a bit and purchased a few small Christmas gifts, we set back out.
What makes a charming European town different than a charming American town? A castle, of course. We walked up an even steeper hill to explore some remnants we saw poking up in the distance. The Viljandi Castle Ruins were breathtaking in the snow. We walked through and around them, feeling sort of miniature amongst the huge walls, giant trees and cascades of snow. It was completely silent. The absence of sound and stark white blanket covering everything made me feel like I was anywhere and nowhere all at once.
It's amazing to think about the castle that used to be here and that these walls have been snowed on for centuries, perched up high on a hill overlooking Viljandi and its lake. I wish I could convey just how high we were and how the waves of snow sort of resembled the massive sand dunes of the Curonian Spit, but white on white on white just doesn't provide much photographic perspective. We lingered for as long as we could, which meant as long as our appendages could stand the cold, then made our way down the other side of the hill.
As we descended cautiously, finding a set of stairs mostly obscured by the snow, we saw a strip of red that emerged into a suspension bridge. Over the two hundred year old red bridge we walked, looking down at the steep drop below us. We imagined ourselves tackling the slope on a sled and were amazed that more children weren't daring to. A few feet over the bridge, we saw tracks that suggested otherwise. I have no doubt that Viljandi is just as charming in the springtime or summer or fall, but I was glad to be here in winter, when a good heaping dose of charm really gives a jolt of much needed warmth.

Blizzard of '10

We have now had snow on eight consecutive days and on most days since Thanksgiving - a streak that has spanned two countries and seven cities and towns. We've had a lot of snow, but what to call it? The "blizzard of oh-ten" or the "blizzard of ten?" One sounds like a temporal mistake, the other sounds like a martial arts movie. I have pushed for the "blizzard of the second half of twenty-ten," which I think is both accurate and informative.
The largest snowfall was two nights ago, when we were in Tartu. The city was blanketed by about a foot and a half of snow. It's quite a bit, but the people here seemed prepared and unphased. The streets were plowed fairly well - though some vehicles were still having trouble - and nobody appeared to be getting all that worked up about it.
In contrast, the rest of Europe seems to be in crisis mode! Paris reported its largest single-day snowfall since 1987, flights have been canceled everywhere, Germany issued a statement encouraging people to hoard four days worth of food, Britain estimates that it is having the most severe winter in three decades (and may have to cancel Christmas!). Arles - Arles! - experienced power outages after 30 centimeters of snow - a foot of snow in Arles! - pulled down some power lines. This is a huge thing in Europe. It's lucky for us that we're in a place that shrugs it off and is prepared to deal with the after-effects of such wintery weather.
The city of Tartu deployed a number of front-end loaders to push the snow into piles in the pedestrian center of town. The kids loved them, and I was jealous of the fun they got to have. Backpacks were commonly used as sleds, which is a great idea.
The snow clears up every now and then, giving us a break. It hasn't been all blizzard for the past two weeks - we have had brief stretches of sun and blue sky - but it's been a pretty impressive run. We've found that it's important to get out when we can, even if it's cold and windy, because the darkness descends so quickly that it's easy to lose the opportunity.
This is our car after the worst of the snow. At least we have all-wheel drive and snow tires - there are a lot of struggling drivers on the roads, which is kind of scary. It's amazing to me that people wouldn't invest in a set of snow tires when they live in Estonia.