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AF 380, then Scotland, Finland, the Baltics and Liechtenstein

AF 380, then Scotland, Finland, the Baltics and Liechtenstein

Old Sep 5, 11, 2:01 am
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Location: HEF
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AF 380, then Scotland, Finland, the Baltics and Liechtenstein

DAY ONE: Thursday, August 18, 2011

I arrived at IAD’s main terminal at 1430, after leaving an appointment in Alexandria 60 minutes before that. Pretty much the south and west portions of the Capital Beltway are torn up due to various construction projects, including the new Metro Silver Line which is being built in the median of the Dulles Access Road between Route 7 and Route 828 and is scheduled to open before the end of 2013. An accident which occurred somewhere around the junction of the Beltway and the Dulles Access Road backed up traffic all the way back to I-66, which I ended up taking to US 50, and then onto VA 28—a 30 minute drive with a 20 minute delay. Anyhow, the shuttle bus reached me within 30 seconds of my parking the car.

Other than having to avoid a Voyageur family group trying in vain to use the Affaires check-in line, check-in was friendly and efficient, as was the Dulles Diamond security entrance on the baggage claim level. I immediately went out to the United gates on Concourse C to take pictures of Air France’s BIG bird, ship number F-HPJE . The A380 is big, if nothing else. A KLM A330-200 was parked at an adjacent gate, and it looked puny by comparison. A United A320 parked next to the window where I was taking photos was miniscule compared to the A30.

Taking the Aero Train back to concourse A, I spent an hour of quality time at the Air France “salon” (the former NW World Club), particularly enjoying the ham and butter sandwiches on crusty bread; however, in my haste to pack up and board the flight when it was called at 1600, I left my little pouch behind containing the power cord to my Dell mini netbook and the battery charger for my Canon camera (which I didn’t realize until I had to unpack my backpack to go through security at terminal 2E at CDG).

At Dulles, two loading bridges are used for the A380; A20 services the lower deck; and A22 services the upper deck. On this version of the A380, a nine seat “La Premiere” F class (in three rows, 1-4-4) is immediately behind the flight deck, which is on the lower level; the Y cabins are behind F. The upper deck accommodates about 80 J seats, in two sections, with 2-2-2 seating; with “Premium Voyageur” behind them, and a small section of Y at the back. I was seated in Row 60, the first row of “Affaires” class. A large restroom was in front of me to my left, and a “gallery” stand up area with three TV monitors was in front of me to my right. A partition separated me from the staircase leading down to the area between the flight deck and F class.

I’ve posted a few pictures at the following link:

My impression of the flight is that Air France placed some of their best flight attendants on the A380; AF has always been good to very good, and they upped their game with the service on this flight. I came in contact with four flight attendants, and all of them were terrific.

My section of J was maybe 66% full. The seat next to me was empty.
The only disappointment, if you can call it that, with AF’s pre-departure service is that it is timed to begin when the doors close, rather than when you board as on Delta. At the very moment that the doors shut, one FA rolled out a trolley containing newspapers, and two others were passing out champagne or orange juice. Pushback was right on the number at scheduled departure time of 1640.

As someone who likes the air show, the A 380 has a fantastic set up. There are three different cameras, one somewhere on the nose, one mounted in the tail, and one somewhere on the belly. The monitors mounted on the bulkheads showed the taxi and takeoff from the tail mounted camera. Once aloft, as I recall, there were seven different maps the user could call up on the individual monitors, showing different levels of detail, and one showing where night and day were located in the world.

The taxi out and takeoff from runway 19L were fascinating. The wings on the A380 are so much bigger than any other aircraft out there. The outer engines actually were over the grassy areas on either side of the runway. We took the runway at 1655, and without explanation were ordered to taxi off on the first ramp and make a 360; finally we started our takeoff roll at 1709, were in the air 30 seconds or so after that. We banked to the right and made a U turn; the A380 headed up to Williamsport in central Pennsylvania, then northeast to Springfield, Massachusetts, then over BOS to the ocean, then up the east coast of Nova Scotia, crossing over the French possession of St. Pierre island (I think we flew north of Miquelon), then on across the open ocean to the route into CDG crossing over the island of Jersey and near the city of Rouen. Upon landing, we had a very quick taxi and park at the gate. Three different loading bridges were used at CDG; I was invited to go down the stairs and use the F exit. The first clock I saw in the terminal read 0605 (CET). Time en route was about 6 hours 45 minutes, which was a little longer than normal (the eastbound run IAD-CDG usually is around 6.5 hours), but, given the wonderful surroundings, not long enough.

I played around with the AVOD system a bit. I started watching “The King’s Speech”, which everyone I know thinks is great, but which I found ponderous, and I gave up on it after 20 minutes in favor of rugby highlights.

I really enjoyed the food service on this flight. Nothing like a steak and lobster night on the upper deck of the world’s largest civil aircraft. The Affaires menu indicated that Lanson black label champagne would be the bubbly on offer, but catering substituted a golden nectar called Champagne Philiponnat Royal Reserve Brut (an online search revealed that this retails for $29.99 per bottle), which was very drinkable and very enjoyable. The cocktail service was from a fully stocked cart operated by two FAs, and was accompanied by the one ounce AF box of cashews and almonds and an “amuse bouche” consisting of a cube of smoked duck on top of a cube of pear within a delicate flaky pastry lightly filled with some kind of cream cheese; this was really good.

The next course was a green salad served with vinaigrette dressing, and a cold plate of a poached Maine lobster tail accompanied by a wasabi mayonnaise and by a sort of relish made from different peppers.
The main course was a filet steak with a good flavor, served with whipped potatoes and a vegetable. I was offered sauce Bernaise, but declined. The FAs let me taste each of the three still wines they were serving, a red and two different whites, while refilling my glass with champagne a few times with a smile each time.

Dessert was in two parts—a plate of two cheeses, one a wedge of Camembert, the other possibly a Jarlsberg (or the French equivalent) (I think some grapes were served with this); and then a sampler of different sweets. I ordered a port to go with this, and got a big smile from the male FA who was working the dessert cart, as it turned out he was Portuguese.

My seat was comfortable. It was not a complete lie flat (like on the Delta B777-LR), but it seemed to recline further than the J seat on the large aircraft Delta inherited from Northwest. I did wake up once during my 3.5 hour siesta; and went back to one of the two buffets which are positioned between the two sections of J. When a passenger took a can of Perrier, for example, an FA put a new can in its place. There were bottles of Glenlivet and the AF house cognac on the buffet, along with water and soft drinks.

One really nice thing about the interior of the A380 was the soft purplish lighting in the cabin, as opposed to glaring bright white lighting in other aircraft. Very comfortable and very easy on the eyes.

After 2,000,000 miles in the sky, I was embarrassed to have to resort to an FA helping me set up my tray table. On the A380, the tray is not opened by flipping up the armrest, but rather opens up from along the right side of the seat module. Tray table was large, and had good movement from front to back.

AF is still using their brownish wallet or “clutch” style amenities kits. The contents are pretty sparse beyond the usual eyemask and socks.

Lastly, I wanted to re-emphasize how professional the AF FA staff were, and how much they added to my enjoyment of the flight. Unfortunately, AF crews do not wear name tags. That’s a shame, because I like to praise airline staff when they do a great job, as was the case on the A380.
ND76 is offline  
Old Sep 5, 11, 2:10 am
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Friday, August 19, 2011

I happen to like CDG; it is a fascinating airport—one sees many airlines there he would not see in North America, such as the Lebanese flag carrier MEA and Air Algerie, to name two. The one thing I don’t like is having to reclear security to reach a connecting flight, particularly, as on this trip, when I didn’t have access to my checked bag. Even though AF has an “Acces 1” line for J class travelers, security requires one to remove all of his electronics from the carry on and place them in a tray for xray inspection. So, I had to pull my netbook, I-pod, Bose headphones, smartphone, camera and transistor radio out of the backpack, and then repack all of this stuff at the other end of the magnetometer. Somehow I managed not to set off the magnetometer (which I had done a year ago by not taking off my belt, leading to a robust pat down), got repacked, and headed for the AF lounge, which is just a short walk from security by two left turns and down a staircase (or elevator).

There was a male AF employee acting as a “maître d’” in addition to two concierges at the desk, and he recognized my J boarding pass and quickly admitted me with a smile. I had about 25 minutes before needing to leave for A21, a bus gate accessed by an escalator from the main level of 2E, for AF5050, the flight to EDI on AF’s short haul partner, Ireland-based CityJet.

The bus ride out to the aircraft took at least 15 minutes, as the bus circumnavigated a new midfield terminal which appears to be at least 80% completed (the people mover that connects 2E to an existing midfield building housing gates E51-E76 will continue on to this new building). CityJet flies the AVRO RJ85, the aircraft with two engines underneath each wing. The first three rows of this aircraft were reserved for J class, although there was no partition or curtain between J and Y. I sat in 1A; 1C was unassigned (there were only 2 seats in this row). The bulkhead was closer in row 1 than it was in row 2 DEF.

There was a breakfast service for the business rows. I was presented with a tray including a thin ham slice, some scrambled eggs, a cherry tomato, a roll, a portion of "fromage frais", served with a cup of tea. They made a second beverage run, but when I asked for a club soda, they told me they were only doing coffee or tea.

Flying time was 1 hour 40 minutes; we were scheduled to depart at 0715 CET and to land at 0820 BST. We took off to the west from the runway nearest to CDG Terminal 1; the cloud cover dissipated just as the southeasternmost point on the island of Britain came into view, with the white cliffs of Dover visible to the west of that point. Our flight took us over the eastern suburbs of London; the distinctive cable-stay Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford was out my window. About 25 minutes later we flew over Sheffield, as I could see Bramall Lane (Sheffield United) and Hillsborough (Sheffield Wednesday) stadiums below.

A few minutes later, I got a geography lesson, as the Solway Firth, on the west coast of Britain, the boundary between England and Scotland came into view northwest of Carlisle. I didn’t realize it then, only after looking at a map, that Carlisle is just east of due south of Edinburgh. We must have passed near Gretna and Lockerbie, the first two towns on the rail line between Carlisle and Glasgow, as we started our descent into the Scottish capital. Musselburgh race course and Easter Road, the home of Hibernian F.C., came into view off the left side of the AVRO as we flew up to the Firth of Forth; with the famous road and rail bridges off to the right, we made a smooth landing on runway 24 and reached the terminal building on schedule.

I was supposed to have reached Edinburgh the day before, as my plan was to attend the Europa League soccer playoff game between Celtic and Swiss side F.C. Sion on Thursday 18 August; I ended up having an unavoidable meeting on Thursday—fortunately for me, the Delta Diamond Desk fixed my reservation to change the dates of my travel without penalty, as I had non-refundable air and hotel for my travel in eastern Europe.

Handing in my UK Border Agency landing card to the immigration officer inside EDI, I was met with a bit of disbelief; after all, who in their right mind books a trip from Washington to Helsinki via Paris and Edinburgh. I explained that I was supposed to have been there the day before, and I had a non-refundable ticket on Blue 1 to HEL. It turned out that he was a Celtic supporter, and I must have said the right code words to him, as we then commiserated on the dour 0-0 draw fought out in front of over 51,000 at Celtic Park in Glasgow without either of us in attendance. He then poked fun at his grim faced partner, who was a Rangers supporter, and waved me through. My Hartmann roll-a-board, my gift from Delta for 2 million miler status, joined me after about 10 minutes, and I was through the green lane and out the front door, where the very nice Airlink (bus 100) double decker bus with limited stops was waiting.

A friendly female staffer of the bus line actually walked up to me with a portable ticket printer in hand, asked me what kind of a ticket I wanted; I took the round trip priced at £6, and reached the street outside Waverley railway station at about 0915, 30 minutes from the airport.

There are four separate “hop-on, hop-off” tour bus services in Edinburgh. I got on the red “City Sightseeing” bus, which offered a recorded narration in several languages through headphones. I wished that I had gotten on the green and white Edinburgh Tour bus, which features a live narration by a tour guide. Both cost the same, £12. I had two main objectives for the day; one was to take a tour of the Scottish Parliament; the other was to make it out to the Forth bridges, which are real landmarks. I was also on the lookout for a store to buy a replacement power cord and a replacement battery charger.

The Scottish Parliament is at the bottom of the Royal Mile, east of the center of Edinburgh, and across the street from the Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. It is a modern building, opened within the past 8 years or so, and while not having the majesty or ornateness of state capitol buildings in the USA, it has a very friendly staff (including the security guards at the entranceway magnetometer ) who are very proud of Scotland and proud of its parliament. When in session, the Scottish Parliament consists of 129 members, the leader of which is known as the First Minister (currently Alex Salmond). I was told that the concept of the building was to resemble a tree with branches. If you are interested in governmental institutions generally, you will enjoy your visit here.

Back on the bus, now on the second lap through Edinburgh, I found a computer gadget store in close proximity to a well known watering hole, “The Grayfriars Bobby”, named after the famous Skye Terrier who guarded his master’s grave for 14 years until his own demise. I was able to get a universal cord with several attachments, one of which fit my Dell machine, and I was back in business—which was actually a curse, as I didn’t have an excuse for an angry client who was jealous that I was in Edinburgh and he wasn’t—I’ve worked for this particular individual for over 30 years, and I wasn’t going to turn him down. The amazing thing about computers and on-line databases is that I could go to a spot in Waverley station next to a Costa coffee shop, get some wifi and a mocha with whipped cream, and start researching the WESTLAW on-line Code of Federal Regulations database in order to answer a question for a client. By 1500, I was through working, and bought a £5 round-trip train ticket to North Queensferry, about 20 minutes away on the north side of the Firth of Forth, so that I could ride across the Forth Rail Bridge and then take pictures of it and the adjacent suspension highway bridge.

The rail bridge was opened in 1890, and consists of three cantilever structures roughly diamond shaped, supporting two cantilever spans of 1710 feet each—a total distance according to Wikipedia of 2.528 km (about 1.6 miles). The road bridge was opened in 1964, and features a suspension span with two towers somewhat reminiscent of the suspension towers on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. According to Wikipedia, the suspension span is 1006 meters (3,298 feet) , which puts it between the Bay Bridge suspension spans (at about 2,300 feet) and the Golden Gate Bridge span (4,200 feet), and just short of the George Washington Bridge span (at 3,500 feet) and Mackinac Bridge span (at 3,800 feet). The Firth Road Bridge’s suspension span is twice as long as the suspension spans of the twin Chesapeake Bay Bridges east of Annapolis, which are only 1,600 feet from tower to tower (even though the total length of the bridge is about 4.6 miles).

The vertical drop from the North Queensferry rail platforms into the town of North Queensferry and the north shore of the Firth of Forth was at least 150 feet. The walk back up the hill to the train put a real hurting on my hips and calves. However, the pictures I took were worth the pain. Returning to central Edinburgh, I was able to finish my shopping, as I found the Celtic merchandise store on 34 Frederick Street and bought a soccer ball for my grandson; and then found a Jessop’s camera shop and was able to buy a battery charger.

Pictures from my day in and about Scotland's capital city are found here:


Finding the westbound Airlink bus stop, I hopped aboard, but had to stand most of the way back to EDI, as the bus is used by commuters who live along the road to the airport. Edinburgh is constructing a light rail system, which someday will connect the airport with Princes Street, but which is having significant cost overruns and significant construction delays; it looks like the bus will be around for a while longer. I got back to EDI just after 1800, in plenty of time to check in with the SAS-owned LCC Blue 1 for its Friday night flight to Vantaa airport outside Helsinki.

Blue 1 flies twice weekly EDI-HEL. Not having status with the Star Alliance, I had to wait in the regular line for 15 minutes or so until my turn came. Check in was easy; the relatively cheap one way price for this run of approximately 1,700 km/1,050 miles (£139=US$227.27) included one checked bag. The flight on an B717 turned out to be slightly more than ½ full, and I scored a row of three to myself near the back. Although there seemed to be a decent number of departing passengers on various airlines at that hour, security was a breeze, with only two people in front of me when I joined the queue; I only had to take my laptop out of the backpack, and did not have to take my shoes off.

I made a beeline for the Servisair Edinburgh Lounge near gate 5, where I thought my Skyteam E+ status would get me in, particularly as I had flown in on an Air France affiliate the same day. Unhappily, I was denied admittance, as the lounge matron ruled that I had to be on a Skyteam airline departing EDI to be able to use the lounge. As I had a decent amount of UK coinage burning a hole in my pocket, I found a Wetherspoon pub at the other end of the terminal, where they had pints of a microbrew cider from Cornwall for £2.49 each, which were low on carbonation but high on flavor. The inbound B717 from HEL was about 15 minutes late, but it did touch down at dusk, and I drank up and headed for the gate.

Boarding for KF562 commenced immediately after the last passenger from the inbound segment had deplaned, and was done the old fashioned way, with those sitting in the last 7 rows invited to board first. Unhappily, a faux velvet rope was strung across the jetway near the boarding door, and we were stuck in the loading bridge for several minutes until the crew decided to let us on. Otherwise, the passengers took their seats quickly, the door closed, and after a quick taxi we were in the sky just prior to 2100. Announcements were made in Finnish, Swedish and English; the estimated travel time was 2 hours 20 minutes (the schedule called for arrival at 0105 EET, 2 hours ahead of BST).

As I don't fly Airtran, I had never been on a post-McDonnell Douglas 717, so this was a "first" for me.

The flight attendants consisted of two males and one female. I had no contact with the female FA who worked the front of the aircraft. With respect to the two males, one was creepy and the other was hostile. The creepy guy walked up and down the aircraft like a poor imitation of Kommandant Klink from Hogan’s Heroes, bent over at the waist, one arm behind his back, staring pruriently at each person’s crotch pretextually for a seatbelt check (the only thing missing was the monocle). The other dude just about flew off the handle when he saw that I had raised the center armrests in my row prior to takeoff. In 40 years of flying on my own I have never had one FA make any comment to me about the position of the center arm rests at any time during the flight. After wheels were up, I put the armrests up again, positioned my neck pillow and laid down to take a nap. About midway through the flight we hit some rough air, and the captain put the seatbelt sign on. I didn’t move fast enough to sit up and reattach my seat belt; the hostile FA came along and gave me three sharp and vindictive pokes to the ribs to make me sit up. In the USA, this would have been simple assault. I’m not sure about this, but I surmised that Blue 1 is a Ryanair type operation in that all onboard drinks and snacks are charged for. I was neither hungry nor thirsty en route and didn’t need anything, and was glad of it. On approach to HEL, the nasty FA came around and gave me more grief for not having returned the armrests to their horizontal position. Why he had such a jones for the armrests is anyone's guess.

The plane was clean and the seat cushions were comfortable, but I wouldn’t fly Blue1 again.

We landed shortly after 0100 local time, quite a bit earlier than originally indicated. Blue1 apparently does not use loading bridges at HEL, as we parked at a spot on the tarmac and were bussed to the terminal building. I was one of the last persons off the plane, but was able to get a position to be the first off the bus and first in line at immigration.

To complete this efficient but bizarre travel leg, I encountered perhaps the least friendly immigration officer I’ve ever seen away from the USA-Canada border. I greeted him courteously and with a smile; he asked me what the purpose of my trip was, and I explained my goal was to do a country a day, spending Saturday in Finland, then taking the high speed ferry to Estonia on Sunday morning. He asked about my profession, and somehow he just didn’t believe that I was a tourist with a short amount of time to try to see a lot of things. He then demanded to see my airline itinerary, which I had at the ready and handed to him. He told me “we just want to make sure you’ll be leaving Europe next week”. He stamped my passport without welcoming me to Finland. He then pushed a button which released the steel bars that blocked me from walking past his stand and into the passenger concourse.

At HEL, after leaving immigration one has to walk the length of the passenger concourse at the T1 building, then downstairs to baggage claim. I had booked the Sokos Hotel Vantaa, which was 7 km away next to the Tikkurila (Dickursby) railway station, served by an all night bus, #61. My bag reached me at 0134; I looked up at a monitor and saw that the next 61 bus was to depart at 0138. I ran outside, and, lo and behold, the bus was driving up to a stop outside the terminal. Fantastic timing for once. Not knowing much Finnish, I spoke English to the bus driver, and he responded in German. I have a few words of high school German, two of which are “Wie viel?”, and he responded “zwei funfzig”. Fortunately I had some Euro on me, and he made change, and we drove off into the Finnish night at 60 degrees 19 minutes north of the Equator (in North American terms, just south of Whitehorse, Yukon).

Figuring we’d get to the hotel in 7 or 8 minutes, I started to worry as the bus kept on driving through birch forests and anonymous commercial districts. Finally, after 18 minutes, the hotel was right in front of us, as was the station. I received my first friendly greeting in Finland by the female night auditor on the stroke of 0200. A disco was taking place in the hotel’s second floor nightclub, and a bouncer was preventing some young guys from entering the building (although he stepped aside to let me enter). Fortunately for me, I got a quiet room on the 5th floor. Time for some blessed sleep.

Last edited by ND76; Sep 9, 11 at 11:31 am Reason: Additional information and pictures
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Old Sep 5, 11, 2:12 am
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August 20, 2011

I’m awake by 0830; my room overlooks the main line of the Valtion Rautatiet (state railways), now known simply as VR, and a steady stream of trains in both directions stop at the Tikkurila platform to my left as I look out the window at an evergreen forest interspersed with commercial enterprises.

I booked my room through Orbitz at a non-refundable rate of US$119 per night, which included a breakfast buffet featuring mounds of American/Danish style streaky bacon, cold cuts, fish dishes, fruits such as bananas, watermelon and kiwi, dry cereals, the densest black bread I’ve ever seen, and various beverages. I took a room outside central Helsinki because of my late arrival (the hotel has a 24 hour front desk) and because an airport bus was reputed to be able to drop me off in front of the hotel (which is what happened). This hotel was clean and comfortable, unmistakenly Scandinavian in style, with a bathroom that turns into one big shower stall (like at hotels I’ve stayed at in Denmark and Sweden).

I got a €12 all day ticket to ride the trains, buses, trams and ferry in metropolitan Helsinki. A commuter train marked “N Helsinki” making the eight local stops between Tikkurila and Helsinki stations pulled in. The VR right of way is very well maintained, and a video screen in our car indicated that our speed was as high as 118 km (about 67 mph), not bad for a commuter train. 20 minutes later I was walking through Eliel Saarinen’s masterpiece train station, which opened in 1919.

Upon alighting from the train, I saw the National Parliament (Eduskunta) building fairly close by, and, after stopping in the Tourist Information office for some maps, walked over there to take pictures (sadly the building was closed). Kudos to the young woman who helped me at tourist information—she had just got done speaking Russian to a man and woman, and then started speaking flawless English to me.

Based on the materials I looked at, I decided that the island complex in the Helsinki harbor known as Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) was most interesting to me, and after walking around the Parliament and nearby National Museum buildings, I hopped on a tram that I hoped would take me to the ferry slip. I missed the stop for the ferry slip (about two blocks away), rolled past the impressive domed Evangelical Lutheran cathedral in Senate Square, and got off when I saw the gold onion shaped domes of the Finnish Orthodox cathedral perched above the harbor. It was wedding day in Helsinki, as I must have come across at least 10 wedding parties at various points during my wandering through the Finnish capital. As a result, I got barely a glimpse of the inside of the Orthodox cathedral (which was beautiful), and I got the door shut in my face at the Lutheran edifice (a woman bluntly told me “no sightseeing”). So I walked through the open air market which was going on near the water’s edge (you could buy anything from local handicrafts to Arctic cloudberries to smoke reindeer). The ferry ride over to Suomenlinna took less than 15 minutes. Helsinki harbor takes some knowledge and skill to navigate because of the many “skerries” (small islands, many little more than slate-like rocks sticking out of the water) there.

Suomenlinna consists of four major islands, some of which have fortifications that date back to the 18th century when the King of Sweden and the Czar of Russia vied over control of Finland. One of the islands was the campus of the national Naval Academy, and at the very end of another island was an “open prison” (a penal institution without guard towers surrounded by little more than a picket fence and signage warning the public to stay out). There were a number of museums, including a Finnish submarine, the “Vesikko”. There was a large wooden drydock, and also a Finnish coast guard post. A Lutheran church in the middle of one of the islands had its steeple double as a lighthouse. There is a restaurant/brewpub located near the ferry dock, where I enjoyed a pint draft of a craft brewed Pils for the outrageous price of €7.50 ($10.80). Oh well, what are you going to do after you’ve just walked about three miles and need a beer break?

After returning to the mainland, I decided to ride on the Helsinki metro and then walk back to the center of town. What happened was that I managed to ride underneath the route of the Helsinki Marathon, which was being contested that day, and had thousands of participants, 4,345 of which managed to run the entire 26.2 miles (the winning man ran the race in 2:23:24 and the winning woman’s time was 2:38:05). So I got stuck for close to an hour, which I managed to kill by buying a 1.5 liter bottle of Vichy brand sparkling mineral water (slightly brackish but really refreshing) and watch the runners make their way around the streets south of downtown.

As it turned out, the big race ended on the running track within Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium, where the 1952 summer games were contested. I was finally able to cross a street, and three blocks further down I was able to catch a tram, which took me past the famous Rock Church, and then I was able to transfer to another tram, which dropped me off near the stadium. Passing the statues of the famous Finnish running stars Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren, I was able to join a crowd of maybe 5,000 within the stadium (reported capacity 40,000) and watch those brave and hardy souls who had no chance to win the race but ran for the joy of running and completing an incredibly difficult feat; I saw the 1000th placed runner finish in slightly less than 4 hours (a lot better man than me).
Having been on my own “marathon” (I probably walked somewhere between 6-7 miles), and with my hips and calves begging me to stop, I got back to the main railway station about 2000, caught a train, and was asleep by 2100.

My impressions of Helsinki was that it was, in the main, a pleasant but not terribly interesting city, with excellent public transportation, and incredibly high prices. Gasoline was selling for $8.70 per gallon; a double deck hamburger combo (w/ fries and a Coke) went for $14.00 at a “Hesburger”, the largest hamburger chain in the country (bigger than Micky D’s there). A bottle deposit on a 1.5 liter bottle of soda runs €0.40 (almost 60 US cents). I laughed at the name “Hesburger”, wondering whether Father Theodore Hesburgh, longtime president of Notre Dame, had come out of retirement at age 94 to flip burgers in eastern Europe.

Given the remarkably high prices in Finland, my hotel room, with breakfast included, was a relative bargain.

I was fascinated by the Finnish language, which is basically impenetrable to an English speaker, and has relatively few words which are intuitive to Indo-European languages in the region such as Swedish or Russian (Estonian is close to Finnish). One thing a visitor to the country notices is that pretty much all signage is in both Finnish and Swedish (perhaps owing to the allegiance of Swedish nobility with common Finnish people who threw off Russian rule at the end of the First World War). The language does not use the letters b, c, d, q, x or z, and has eight different vowels (a, ä, e, I, o, ö, u and y) which are long vowels when they are doubled. There are no articles or prepositions, with suffixes attached to words, such as an “n” or “in” indicating possession, or a “t” or “at” indicating plural. It was only a spoken language until about 200 years ago. By the end of my day, I was able to count to two (yksi and kaksi) and to say thank you (“kiitos”).

Pictures of my day in Helsinki are found here:


Last edited by ND76; Sep 6, 11 at 2:20 pm Reason: Add trip report and link to pictures.
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Old Sep 5, 11, 2:12 am
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Sunday, August 21

Up around 0730, but by the time I’ve dressed, gone downstairs for breakfast, and got back to my room to get my things to leave, it has become 0845. There is a non-stop commuter train on Sunday mornings that leaves at 0858 and arrives at Helsinki station 14 minutes later, and I manage to get onto the platform 4 minutes before its arrival. The ticket office is closed at this time, and an automated ticket selling machine only accepts “chip and pin” credit cards, which my cards aren’t. Fortunately, I can buy a €4 ticket from a conductor, which is also good on Helsinki public transit for 90 minutes. Quickly through the Helsinki station, I reach the tram platform across the street just before the “3T” car comes, which takes me five stops to “Eteleränta” and drops me off in front of the “Makasiiniterminaali”, a fairly small ferry building which services both the Linda Line high speed catamaran ferry to Tallinn and the much bigger cruise ferries operated by the St. Peter Line on the Helsinki-St. Petersburg route. I’m cutting it close, as I get into the building at 0925 for the 1000 departure of the cat ferry “Karolin”.

A one way ticket on Linda Lines to Tallinn is €36; one gets a 10% discount if the ticket is bought on line, so my ferry ticket cost €32.40. Finally reaching the clerk after a 10 minute wait, I give her my reservation number, and she produces my ticket, which is a cash register receipt with a bar code stapled to an information card. I’m one of the last to board at about 0940. So far as I could tell there was no checked baggage; I simply placed my rollaboard on one of the racks just inside the gangway (and opposite the duty free shop laden with low cost alcoholic beverages and cigarettes), and took my backpack with me upstairs to the main seating area (there was actually a first class section on the boat, but I had a case of the cheaps and sat in economy). Seating is fairly tight row to row, but I found two facing rows of four seats each, with just two people near the window, so I claimed an aisle seat with (for me) unlimited legroom.

We cast off three minutes ahead of schedule. I’m not sure how far the ferry actually traveled, but a distance calculation program I use shows that the geographic coordinates of central Helsinki and central Tallinn are 81.974 km (50.936 statute miles) apart. Tallinn is on a bearing of 188° from Helsinki. The ferry has to proceed slowly (maybe 10 knots) out through Helsinki harbor before reaching the open Gulf of Finland, when full throttle is reached. The weather was just about perfect, sunny skies and calm seas, and the two attendants on our deck (a young man and a young woman, both Estonians) were working hard serving passengers drinks and snacks at their seats (these were not included in the ticket price); they both spoke English and were very personable. From time to time I would go out on the open air back deck of the ferry, where a group of Japanese businessmen were drinking beer and having a good old time.

In an on-line search, it appears that the ferry was constructed in 2000 in Henderson, Western Australia, and Linda Lines is the fourth owner of the vessel (it had previously been operated by a company called Oceanfast, plying the waters of the Philippines. Its top speed is reported at 44 knots.

On approaching the Estonian coast, we had to abruptly slow down as to minimize the effects of running through the wake of one of the humongous cruise ferries that call at Tallinn. We pulled up to our dock, which is not near the terminals used by the big ferry/cruise ship companies, but rather next to a structure known as the Tallinn “Linnahall”. Linda Lines advertised a 90 minute crossing; we arrived after about 105 minutes, but who cares, the trip was professionally operated and really fun. Pictures of the “Karolin” and taken on the trip are found here:


Upon disembarking, I found the ferry terminal there to be something like a hole in the wall, and I did not go into it. As Estonia and Finland are both part of the European Union and the Schengen treaty, there were no immigration or customs formalities. A bus was waiting to take passengers into town; it cost €2. I got on and the bus pulled out. Not even 5 minutes later my hotel, the Sokos Hotel Viru, came into view.

The Viru is reputedly the tallest building in Estonia (other than a broadcasting tower east of Tallinn). I reached the check-in desk on the stroke of noon, but was told that I couldn’t get into my room until after 2 pm. I was able to leave my bags in a storage room off the lobby. One of the interesting things about this hotel was that it was constructed in the early 1970s for Intourist, the former Soviet Union’s apparat for foreign visitors, and that the KGB’s specifications for spying on western visitors were included in the plans. In the spirit of Tallinn serving as this year’s European Capital of Culture, the hotel offers tours of the KGB spy headquarters on the 23rd floor. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I was told that all tours for Sunday afternoon were sold out. This is a tour I wish I could have gone on. It would have been interesting to know how many westerners were blackmailed by the KGB through indiscretions that took place in this hotel. The Sokos people appear to be quality hotel operators, and this property was more than adequate for me. I ended up on the 12th floor and had a great view of the harbor. I got my room through the Sokos website for €73.

The Viru is located on Viru square, which is a traffic circle at the northeast side of Tallinn’s old city, “Vanalinn”. In the Hanseatic days, there was a wall on the east side of Vanalinn, and a moat on the west side, with the city occupying the slopes of Toompea (Cathedral Hill). Today’s Vanalinn sparkles, as one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It is a geographically compact area, comprising not much more than one square mile. Like Helsinki to the north, two cathedrals, Orthodox (Alexander Nevsky) and Lutheran (St. Mary’s), dominate the top of the hill. The national parliament, Riigikogu, is across the street from the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, and is resplendent in pastel pink. The national government is headquartered at Stenbock House, on a significant bluff overlooking north Tallinn and the harbor.

My visit to Tallinn was at an interesting time—the 20th anniversary of Estonia’s independence from the former Soviet Union was the day before, and the anniversary of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (August 23, 1939) was in the same week. Therefore, visiting Freedom Square (Vabaduse Väljak) was a must. The square is at the south end of the Vanalinn, between St. John’s Lutheran Church and the base of Toompea. The cross that is there commemorates the Estonian war for independence from Russia during 1918-1920.

I bought an all day ticket to ride on a double decker bus tour. This company operated three lines; one that toured the coast line to the east of central Tallinn, passing a stark concrete monument and obelisk memorializing Estonians who fell in defending their freedom; a concert venue which the narration described as the national “singing stadium”; and the previously described broadcasting tower (where the observation platform had been closed by the fire marshal). The second line took us through the western suburbs of Tallinn, including a residential/commercial district with the Italian name “Rocco al mare”, and an outdoor preserve/museum dealing with rural Estonian life. The third line took us through the commercial districts east of Vanalinn, and then looped around to the west of downtown. I got off that bus at Baltic Station (Baltijaam) to take pictures of the Estonian railway, and got lucky and saw the boarding of the overnight train bound for Moscow.

During my day I had a good laugh as I saw a procession of Hare Krishnas—I used to see them on a daily basis in Washington in the late 1970s. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis making fun of the late John Candy in “Stripes” came immediately to mind.

As far as dinner was concerned, I could have had Elk at one of the restaurants in the old city, but settled instead for a small steak at a tourist restaurant called Goodwin, where a metal sculpture of a bovine creature sitting on a park bench attracted tourists who wanted to have their picture taken. Food was fine here, and I wandered back to the Viru and after watching an Estonian newscast fell asleep in anticipation of my bus journey the next morning.

Pictures from my wanderings through Tallinn are here:


Last edited by ND76; Sep 9, 11 at 11:22 am Reason: Adding trip report and link to pictures
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Monday, August 22

I’m awake at 0515 (both the hotel wake up call service and my I-phone's alarm work), and out the door of the Viru by 0600 (although a breakfast buffet was included with the price of the room, it didn’t open until 0700). Maps of Tallinn are misleading as to the location of the inter-city bus terminal; a map I received at the hotel indicated that a bus station was located at the rear of the hotel and part of a large shopping mall there. However, Tallinn’s main bus station, the “Bussijaam”, is actually located about 2 km east of the Viru, and is reached by taking trams #2 or #4 to a stop called, appropriately enough, “Bussijaam”; the station is about one city block south of there. I saw trams running during the 5 o’clock hour out of my window, so I made my way to a tram stop, and the second tram through was a #2. I didn’t have a ticket, but got on anyway. A helpful rider told me to put money into a metal box on a pivot for the motorlady (she was in a compartment at the front of the tram separated from the passengers by a metal wall). I put a €2 coin in, and about 60 seconds later the box opened with my ticket and two €0.20 coins change. I validated the ticket, and, maybe another minute later, we pulled up to the “Bussijaam” stop.

I had prepaid €25 for a one way ticket via the luxexpress.eu site to travel in the “lounge” portion of a large inter-city coach between Tallinn and Riga. Our bus was divided into two sections, divided by a glass partition and door. The front was “economy” (at €22); and the rear consisted of two sets of two facing rows, with leather seats, tables in front of the seats, and free wifi. There were only eight passengers in the rear section, so I had unlimited legroom. Boarding started at 0645 for the 0700 departure; I was given a claim check (actually a white sticky with a number on it) when I placed my rollaboard in the hold of the bus. As a “lounge” passenger, the driver hands me a Nestle energy bar and a 0.5 liter bottle of still water.

The bus pulled out at 7 sharp, and started rolling south on Estonia Highway 4 (E67), also known as the “Via Baltica”. The first ten miles or so are a four lane divided highway; after that, a well maintained two lane highway carried our coach all the way to the northern outskirts of Riga, where we joined an expressway headed for the city.

According to highway signs in Estonia, Tallinn and Riga are 305 km apart; in Latvia, the distance is shown as 308 km. The posted speed in Estonia is 100 kmph, and our driver is maintaining that speed, and passing a number of trucks and slower vehicles on the way. If there were villages along the way, the highway bypassed them, and we have a continuous roll until we reach the southwest Estonian city of Pärnu, on the river of the same name, at about 0845; we’ve traveled about 135 km at this point. The inter-city bus station there is on the outskirts of town, as the center of town is focused on beaches on an inlet of the Gulf of Riga. We take a 10 minute break there. Of particular interest to me was that there was an apartment building across the street from the station called “Alameda” (I was born in Alameda, California).

I’m on the bus because there are no inter-city trains connecting Tallinn and Riga. The Estonian railway operates trains between Tallinn and Pärnu, and there was a single track railroad visible from the Via Baltica in both Estonia and Latvia.

Anyhow, about 45 minutes south of the Pärnu station we pass by abandoned border posts and enter Latvia without slowing down; according to signposts in Latvia we are 108 km (67 miles) from Riga. A few km south of the frontier we pass through the small city of Salacgriva, the only town that the Via Baltica, now known as Latvia Highway A1, will pass through until the Riga urbanized area.

From Tallinn south, the terrain is largely flat, with a few small rises. Forests are on either side of the road for most of the trip in Estonia, with a few hay fields north of Pärnu. The forests start to give way to farmland the closer we got to Riga; for several miles the highway actually had a view of the Gulf of Riga, with a row of trees separating the highway from the beaches. There were a number of waysides where motorists could stop and access the beaches. The drive from Tallinn to Pärnu reminded me of large stretches of Michigan highway M-37 extending south from Traverse City in the direction of Grand Rapids, and also US 141 between Green Bay, Wisconsin and Iron Mountain, Michigan.

At about 1045 we reach the outskirts of Riga, and the A2 expressway we were on gives way to Brivibas Gatve (Freedom Avenue). The first sights are somewhat depressing; dilapidated multi-story Communist-era apartment houses line the road. Then, abruptly, they end, and a number of commercial areas featuring large supermarkets appear. A few minutes later, our coach stops in front of the impressive Orthodox cathedral in central Riga, and about half the passengers alight. Our coach restarts, and loops around the center of the city to the east to position itself to enter the Autoosta, Riga’s inter-city bus station, which is located just north of the river Daugava, south of the city’s main rail station, and adjacent to the city’s central indoor market, reputed to be the largest in Europe. On the way, we pass a candidate for the world’s ugliest skyscraper, a 26 story or so “wedding cake” monument to Uncle Joe Stalin built from the ugliest building stone I've ever seen, which today houses the Latvian Academy of Sciences. We park behind the Autoosta at 1120, 5 minutes ahead of scheduled arrival.

As bus stations go, Riga’s is modern and clean, with a number of tourist services, including a hotel booking service; I don’t need that, however, as I booked the Hotel Riga, which turned out to have a great location, across the street from the National Opera and a park on the bank of the old city moat, on Aspazijas Bulvaris. I was a bit disoriented in attempting to locate this hotel, but found a large city map posted on a wall of the station that got me set straight; I was maybe 5 blocks away from the hotel. Using a pedestrian subway beneath the approach to the five span cantilever Daugava rail bridge and the adjacent January 13th street, I found Aspazijas Bulvaris, and, a couple of minutes later, the hotel materialized. This turned out to be a large hotel reconstructed by the Soviets after WWII. For me, it was a bargain at $67 per night (pre-paid on the net); the price included free wi-fi and a large breakfast buffet. Not a plush hotel room by any means, but more than adequate for me.

Again, as in Tallinn, I could not check-in to my room until 1500 (although the desk offered early check in for an additional charge). I left my bags with a bellman and set out to tour the biggest city in the Baltics. Heading through the park across the street, I am immediately attracted to the impressive Freedom Monument, constructed in 1935, and incredibly left unmolested by the war, the Communists and the Nazis. The inscription at the base translates to “For Fatherland and Freedom”. Like Estonia, Latvia had been someone else’s colony for 700 years until declaring independence one week after the end of world war I. Latvia was a victim of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, being absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940 against its will (with almost all Latvian government officials being murdered by the Communists), then coming under the horrors of Nazi rule days after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, then returning to Soviet dictatorship months after the Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad.

Like Estonia, I reached Latvia the day after the 20th anniversary of its second spell of independence due to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Many bouquets of fresh flowers, including one ironically sent by the government of Russia, lay at the foot of the Freedom Monument. Two honor guards stood like statues at attention, carefully watched from the side by a sergeant dressed in camos.

In my first couple hours in Riga, I was uncomfortable. I was tired, the city appeared drab, the weather was overcast with a low ceiling and rain showers predicted. Having returned to the USA and having thought a lot about what I saw, Riga was the most engaging and thought-provoking place I visited on this trip, and deserved a lot more time than what I had to give it. I would urge all Americans who travel in Europe to find a way to put Riga on their itineraries.

I found a double deck bus tour to give me an overview of the city while letting me take a load off. I think it cost LVL9.00 (on my visit, $100 bought 49 Lats). Riga had enjoyed two spells of prosperity, in the last twenty years of the 19th century, and in the 1930s (it is claimed that Latvia had the second most successful economy in Europe at that time). Neighborhoods north of the old city had building after building constructed in German Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) architecture, which are prized today. Riga is near the mouth of one of the longest rivers in Europe, the Daugava (known as the Dvina in Russia and Belarus), and grew wealthy due to its port. It was an extremely important city to the Russians during their illegitimate rule of Latvia; so much so that, today 40% of Riga’s citizens are ethnic Russians, compared to just 42% ethnic Latvians (the rest comprising a hodgepodge of various ethnic groups from the old Soviet Union).

I’ll write more about Riga’s old town in my narrative of my touring on early Wednesday morning; for me, the most profound thing in Riga’s old town is a stark, ugly two story modern building called “The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-41”. Every freedom loving person alive needs to visit this place; it tells a horrifying story of the effects of dictatorship, tyranny, communism and Nazism. At the time of the Soviet occupation of Latvia in June, 1940, Latvia had a population of 1.5 million. The Soviets commenced political persecutions of government ministers, military officers and other persons posing a threat to them. A full 0.8% of the people in the country, over 15,000 souls, were kidnapped by Stalin’s thugs the night of June 14, 1941, most never to be seen again. A few days later, Latvia fell into the hands of Adolf Hitler as the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union and captured the Baltic States, present day Belarus and Ukraine (Riga was captured on July 1, 1941). Prior to WWII, Riga had a significant Jewish population; an estimated 70,000 Latvian Jews were exterminated on the orders of Hitler, Himmler and their SS henchmen.

The museum includes a mock-up of a Gulag concentration camp barracks, constructed based on descriptions of the survivors. In many cities in Europe, one can visit a museum where medieval instruments of torture are on display. Short of visiting Dachau or Auschwitz, this is as instructive as it gets about what happens when freedom disappears and tyrants take power; this could happen again if freedom loving people lose their vigilance. The museum also explains how the Soviets consolidated their control over Latvia—the class warfare, the propaganda, the abolition of private property the use of schools as indoctrination mills, the changes in culture (art, music, architecture), the secret police, the incarceration, torture and murder of political opponents.

I had gone around Riga almost non-stop for 5 hours since arriving. I got a phone call from California, where it was 7 am (it was 5 pm for me), and had to get back to the hotel to take care of something. The timing was good, as it started to rain; I worked for a few hours and hit the hay at 9 pm, in anticipation of the bus trip to Lithuania in the morning. There were only three channels of TV available in my room, none of which interested me. One of the incredible features of the internet is the ability to listen to streaming radio stations from around the world; one of which is WCBM AM 680 in Baltimore, Maryland, “the 50,000 watt towers of freedom”—it got a rating in Riga, Latvia this night.

Here is a photo gallery devoted to the Freedom Monument and to the Occupation Museum.


Last edited by ND76; Sep 10, 11 at 9:00 am Reason: Add trip report
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Today is the 72nd anniversary of the sinister Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which led to the murder of millions of innocent people in Eastern Europe and the enslavement of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, freeing up Nazi Germany to concentrate its attack on the west, which resulted in the conquest of Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.

One of the neat stories that emerged as the Baltic countries sought to free themselves from the yoke of the Russians is that on the 50th anniversary of Ribbentrop-Molotov, August 23, 1989, there was a "hands across the Baltic", where an estimated 4.5 million people standing along a 600 km line from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn formed a human chain.

After a really filling and satisfying breakfast buffet at the Riga, I made the 10 minute walk over to the Autoosta, and boarded the Simple Express non-stop coach for Vilnius, Lithuania. The bus is probably 40% full, and I get two seats to myself near the back of the bus. We depart promptly at 0830, and are quickly across the Daugava and heading southbound. Highway A7, the portion of the “Via Baltica” running through southern Latvia to the Lithuanian border, was undergoing significant construction, with at least three sections accommodating only one way traffic. The A7 only passed through two towns, Iecava and Bauska. After about 85 km, 20 km south of Bauska, we reach abandoned border posts and we enter Lithuania. The highway number changes to Lithuania Route A10 (still the E67); we are about 210 km north of Vilnius. We are running through an agricultural area featuring rich black soil, like one might encounter in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. One feature of note just south of the international boundary is a “Motel” with a landing strip featuring a museum (or junkyard, depending on your point of view) of Soviet era aircraft.

The city of Panevezys is halfway between Riga and Vilnius; the A10 bypasses this city; southwest of Panevezys is a fork where the Via Baltica goes to the right on highway A8 for Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, on its way ultimately to Prague; we stay straight, on highway A2, which at the 135 kilometer mark becomes an expressway (E272), with a speed limit of 110 kmph. As the truckers back home would say, it was clean and green all the way to the outskirts of Vilnius. It is quite obvious that we have entered a Catholic country, as there are crucifixes and/or shrines every few miles. We make a stop at the Panorama shopping/office complex on the north side of town, and then work our way on a by-pass road around the center of the city and reach the Autobusu Stotis, Vilnius’ inter-city coach station. We are on the south side of Vilnius, across the street from Vilnius’ central railway station, and at the top of the ridge leading down into the “Senamiestis”, Vilnius’ old town. The bus parks at the “Stotis” 20 minutes ahead of schedule at 1220.

Vilnius looks and feels more prosperous and more modern than either Tallinn or Riga. The city is in sort of a shallow bowl formed by the valley of the river Neris, with some heights near the river at the east end of the bowl. The old city is on the south side of the river; the new city, punctuated by the 489 foot tall Europa Tower (tallest office building in the Baltics), is on the north side. Although the recorded history of the city dates back to King Gediminas in 1323, the city looks very modern and clean. A nice touch is the phrase “as tave myliu” (I love you) in red on the north side of the river.
I am really deep into Eastern Europe at this point. Vilnius is in the southeastern corner of today’s Lithuanian republic (although at one time in history it was in the center of Lithuania), near the common point of Lithuania, Belarus and Poland. Vilnius is only 119 miles west of Minsk; at one time, Vilnius was a center of Byelorussian culture. Vilnius is on the rail route between St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad in today’s Kaliningrad Oblast (the old East Prussia), meaning that it has Russians west and east of it.

Walking through the old town, I passed through what was the Vilnius Ghetto during World War II, which is adjacent to buildings that belong to Vilnius University. I stopped at a Ukio Bankas, which is owned by “Mad Vlad” Romanov, the crazy owner of Edinburgh’s Heart of Midlothian FC, a rival of Celtic, and received 170.05 litas (LTL) in exchange for a €50 note. Lithuania is a member of the EU, but won’t be eligible to drop the lita and adopt the Euro until at least 2013 (in Latvia, the tentative date is 2014), dependent on whether they can reduce the local inflation rate.

I explored Vilnius pretty much non-stop for 5 ½ hours; highlights of my day were visiting the Jesuit church of St. Casimir; the twin churches of St. Anne and the Bernardine monastery; the Vilnius Cathedral, dedicated to Sts. Stanislaus and Vladislav, including the incredibly beautiful side chapel dedicated to St. Casimir; the Vilnius Castle and the Gediminas Tower, accessed by a one-car funicular; wandering along the river Neris and on Gediminas Prospect, the main street south of the river; and ending up at the national parliament building (the Seimas). As it was 1745 and my bus back to Riga was scheduled to depart at 1830, I found a city bus to take me back to the Stotis, which I reached in less than 10 minutes. There is a Maxima supermarket in the railway station, and I bought some snacks and drinks for the ride back to Riga.

There were at least four people on the way back that were on the bus in the morning; one of whom is an ethnic Russian businessman who lives in Riga, and he and I had a good conversation for a good part of the ride back. The Lux Express has wifi, and it worked well; I wanted to get some news from the USA, and was able to receive WCBM’s audio stream. Mark Belling was sitting in for Rush Limbaugh; about 2050, just south of the Latvian border, Belling told his audience that the building in New York City where he was doing his show was swaying, and there had been an earthquake; local news indicated that a 5.9 richter scale temblor had struck central Virginia and had caused damage in the Washington-Baltimore area. Amazing news; I am a quarter of the way around the world from the DC area on a bus in the middle of a sparsely populated agricultural area and taking all of this in over a tiny computer. What a world we live in.

We arrive back at Riga’s Autoosta at 2215, and I am in bed 15 minutes later.

Pictures of Vilnius cityscapes are found here:


Pictures of Vilnius churches are found here:


Last edited by ND76; Sep 12, 11 at 11:58 pm Reason: Add trip report and photo links
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WEDNESDAY, August 24, 2011

Got up before 0600 and was out of the hotel shortly after that for a two hour walk through Riga’s old city. My goal was to find and take pictures of the building housing the national parliament, the “Saeimas”. The early morning was clear, sunny and cool (temperature was in the high 50s F). I found the Saeimas; across the street from it was Riga’s Roman Catholic cathedral, St. Jakob’s (or St. James in English), established in 1225; after the first Latvian independence in the 1923, this church was given back to the Roman Catholic church by the Latvian Lutherans, who had held services there for four centuries (since 1523); the Lutherans declared Riga’s ancient “Dom” as their cathedral; it is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year.

Pictures of Riga’s old town taken on 8/22 and 8/24 are found here:

I had another very filling breakfast at the downstairs buffet, and then it was time to check-out and head for the airport.

Pictures of various things outside Riga’s old town taken on 8/22 and 8/24 are found here:

I left for the airport around 0945, a little later than I had hoped, to catch Air Baltic’s flight 641 to Zürich, Switzerland. I took Line 22 operated by the local bus company (Rigas Satiksme). The stop was fairly convenient to the Hotel Riga, maybe 600 yards away along January 13th street. The fare was reasonable, LVL 0.70 ($1.41). The bus arrived at about 1000, we crossed the Daugava and headed through some neighborhoods, driving through an industrial park adjacent to the airport, and by an aviation museum featuring a MiG. I was inside the terminal by 1020. Air Baltic maintains check-in kiosks near the front windows of the terminal, and I was able to operate it without a hitch; the bag drop off line had only a few people in it. By contrast, the line for people needing to check in was at least 30 minutes long. I was finished with check-in and bag drop in 15 minutes; security was a breeze also; and I was airside. Airside looked pretty modern; there were a few duty-free type places. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, so I wasn’t looking for a restaurant or bar.

Our flight used a bus gate, B10, and the first bus out to the airplane (with me on it) left around 1140. The equipment was a B737-36Q, YL-BBX, first flight having taken place on August 14, 1999, plane originally owned by Deutsche BA, which became “Fly DBA”; this airline was bought out by Air Berlin; and Air Berlin sold the airplane to Air Baltic on April 30, 2008. A majority of Air Baltic shares are owned by the Latvian government; with the rest owned by management. It is not part of any airline alliance at the moment; Air Baltic operates its own loyalty program called “Baltic Miles” (which I could have earned through my bus rides on Lux Express). Anyhow, the second bus load of passengers arrives, and the door closes around 1205. There is a three row business class up front; it does not appear that anyone is sitting there. However, the rest of the flight is just about packed to the gunwales; I counted 5 empty seats in coach (I think there were something like 132 seats in Y).

Pictures of the Riga airport are here:


A one way ticket purchased 7 days in advanced cost €84, plus €20 fee for one checked bag. Not bad for a flight that will cover 1,480 kilometers (920 miles). Zürich is on a bearing of 231° from Riga. We have a quick taxi to the other end of the airport (Riga has one runway, 18-36), and take off from runway 18 at about 1215 EET. I think the captain estimated the time enroute at 2 hours 20 minutes. I’m not sure what route we flew, but a look at a map of Europe indicated that Gdansk, Dresden and Nuremburg were pretty close to the straight line between RIX and ZRH. Air Baltic operates like Ryanair, in that all snacks and drinks on board were for sale, there were no seatback pockets, and the FAs made two passes through the cabin with duty-free carts. One touch on Air Baltic that I have not seen on Delta or the other USA carriers is in the lav, where there is a supply of “room perfume”. We touched down at ZRH at about 1330 CET, and taxied to a gate, parking by 1340. The first bags take about 20 minutes to reach the carousel (Air Baltic allowed for a 35 minute turn to go back to RIX). Mine comes off about 5 minutes after that, and I’m off for Liechtenstein.

There is a decent sized "Co-op" grocery store on the same level as the ticket counters for the Swiss Federal Railway (SBB/CFF/FFS), and I bought a picnic for my train ride there. Approaching the ticketing area, I have two choices: the ticket windows have a line of about 50 people; and there are automatic ticketing machines. I go for the machines. They don't accept my credit cards, which are not of the "chip and pin" type. However, they accept both Euro and Swiss Franc notes. A round trip ticket to Sargans, the gateway to Liechtenstein, costs CHF68, which I paid for with Euro notes, and got change back in Swiss coins. There turned out to be one problem with my ticket--even though I paid the full 2d class fare, my ticket was only good for travel on the 24th (I learned this from the conductor on the Zurich HB-Sargans leg of the trip).

There have to be somewhere between 8-10 trains per hour that connect ZRH with Zurich's "Hauptbahnhof" (HB); I make a train that leaves at about 1415, and reaches the HB 10 minutes later. An Inter-city express train with Sargans as its first stop and Chur as its destination is waiting on Gleis (track) 5 with departure at 1437. The car I'm in is a double decker, and I go upstairs and get four facing seats to myself. I'm not sure whether there is a prettier ride along a major rail line anywhere. As it turns out, the line leading east out of Zurich and along the south side of the lakes of Zurich and Walen is the main line between Zurich and Vienna, and there are lots of trains on it, both passenger and freight, express and locals. We reach Sargans 54 minutes later, at 1531.

Because the conductor told me that my ticket was not good for travel back to Zurich on the 25th, I went into the ticket office at Sargans station, where a very friendly lady issued me a new ticket for travel on the 25th, at no additional charge. The moral of the story is that, if you are traveling like I did, just buy a one way ticket; and then buy another one way ticket on the day you wish to travel; better yet, stay in Switzerland for a few days in order to take advantage of the Swiss passes allowing for unlimited rail and bus travel.

Pictures of what I saw along the railway are found here:


I had reserved a room through the site booking.com at the Hotel zum Ritterhof, advertised as 200 meters from the Sargans station. As it turns out, the hotel was just beyond the end of the platform on the north side of the tracks, and I found it easily. A young lady was the manager of the hotel, which contained a small restaurant and bar, and she checked me in. The rate was CHF60. The hotel was small, maybe 16 guest rooms; my room had a sink and shower, but the WC was across the hall. I may have been the only guest on my floor. By 1600 I was back at the station, where I caught a Swiss bus bound for Buchs, the Swiss town closest to the Liechtenstein capital of Vaduz. The one way fare was CHF 6.80; clearly, the only way to ride Swiss buses is to buy an all day ticket. We reached Buchs, maybe 10 miles north, in 25 minutes; I was just in time to catch the iridescent yellow Liechtenstein Bus bound for Vaduz. I did buy an all day pass on the Liechtenstein Bus system (which runs between Sargans and Feldkirch, Austria and covers pretty much all the paved roads in Liechtenstein) for CHF 12.

Maybe a mile east of the Buchs bus station we reach the bridge over the Rhine, and we unassumedly enter into Fürstentums Liechtenstein (Principality of Liechtenstein). There is actually a railway station at Schaan (the rail route between Zurich and Vienna runs on the tracks next to it), but there are few if any services that actually stop there, so the public bus is the best way to travel in the principality. Liechtenstein looked like many semi-rural mountain valley areas in the Germanic portions of Europe; it was pretty and delightful, but nothing special out of the ordinary--that is, if you don't take into consideration all of the banks that are located there. No, the banks aren't arrayed like American branch banks along a suburban strip, but mainly are located discreetly in the low rise office buildings that line the main road. After a few minutes I alight from the bus in beautiful downtown Vaduz (population 5,000), the capital. I find the national parliament, the Landtag, as well as the national cathedral, St. Florian's. Perched on the mountain above is the Schloss Vaduz, the home of the Prince, the head of the House of Liechtenstein, who bought the 160 sq. km making up today's country so that they could have a seat in the court of the Habsburg Empire. It was a beautiful afternoon, with temperatures hovering around 80F.

I walked around for a bit, and by 1830, I was hungry again, and found myself standing outside the Gasthaus Au, at the south outskirts of Vaduz. The biergarten is situated under a delightful shade tree, and I find an empty table, resting my aching bones . A couple of minutes later I am enjoying a mug of golden goodness produced by Liechtensteiner Brauhaus. A radio is playing an old local folk tune, "Surfin' USA" by the Beach Boys. I enjoyed my first beer so much that I ordered a second, and then ordered the bratwurst plate with some kartoffeln. Nice little place to stop and enjoy a beer and a snack.

Pictures of my cameo appearance in Liechtenstein are found here:


Back on the bus, I get back to Sargans at dusk, and head up to my room. I think I've done enough touring for one day.

Last edited by ND76; Sep 14, 11 at 11:46 pm Reason: Trip report and photo links
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Old Sep 5, 11, 2:17 am
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THURSDAY, August 25, 2011

All good things have to come to an end, it seems; so too this trip, which has brought me to five different nations for the first time, as well as familiar favorites Scotland and Switzerland. I am up early and am dressed and packed to travel by 0700. I go downstairs and enjoy the frühstuck, set out by the lady of the hotel who has the sunniest of dispositions. Upon leaving the Rittenhof, I don’t have far to walk. Before my train arrives at 0828, I get to watch the overnight sleeper train from Belgrade and Zagreb pass through on the way to Zürich. Before boarding, I validate the ticket in one of the little machines on the platform. Interestingly, the conductors on both my trains today walk by me without asking to see my ticket. My train pulls in on schedule, and after a quick stop pulls out for the non-stop ride to Zürich HB, which we reach by 0925. Before proceeding on to the airport, I take a short walk around central Zürich. Back on the train, I reach the airport by 1000. The Skyteam has at least one check-in station open, which is in row 2 of the check-in desks. I am able to check-in with a friendly agent, even though I am 3.5 hours early for my 1330 departure to CDG.

There are two lounges side by side. I went into the wrong one, the “Dnata Skyview”, and was quickly sent packing by the concierge to the lounge next door, which is the “Skyteam Lounge”. There were only a couple other passengers using the lounge when I arrived, and the lounge never got crowded, even though Delta had a flight to JFK. There were plenty of alcoholic beverages on offer, including champagne; I stuck to the Swiss beer Feldschlössen and sparkling water. The electrical outlets wouldn’t accommodate my converter; the concierge let me use one of the lounge’s converters, which worked, with my passport as collateral. The lounge was quiet and had wifi, and met my needs and expectations well.

At about 1245 I left for the bus gate for AF5103, our CityJet Avro85 flight to CDG. Security was once again a breeze, and I was in position to board the bus at about 1305. One busload was all it took on this run, and we reached our equipment, EI-RJX, the “Scattery Island”. A look at airfleets.net indicated that the original owner of this plane was none other than Mesaba Airlines, who flew it between May, 2000 and September, 2007 as N536XJ. Once again, I had seat 1A. This turned out to be the first commuter jet I had ever taken which served champagne (I didn’t note the label; Tott’s or Andre would have knocked me over). After takeoff, the flight attendant, Mari, speaks to me and offers me a beverage. She does so with an Irish brogue. I ask her what county she hails from, and she tells me, Finland. She had been living in Dublin for seven years and learned how to speak English there. Really pleasant person to have as your flight attendant. There is a full lunch service for those sitting in “business”, which consists of a sandwich plate. Our time enroute was 57 minutes.

At CDG, our flight pulled up to something I was unaware existed, a “Terminal 2G”, which services commuter flights. Here, I passed through passport control, and boarded a bus for Terminal 2E. Upon reaching terminal 2E, we parked at about the same position that we used to board the bus for the flight to EDI six days ago. We went up the same escalator, and emerged into the middle of 2E. This is the first time through CDG where I was not forced to endure security before reaching a connecting flight.

After 30 minutes or so of pleasant (if uneventful) time in the AF “salon” on the lower level of 2E, it was time to board the Air France 777-228ER, F-GSPR, making up AF26 (DL8358). AF is the original owner of this aircraft, which it acquired on October 19, 2001. Boarding started at 1550; I reached Gate 37 at 1600; and pushback was as scheduled, 1635. Champagne reached me before the door closed. This flight appeared to be packed. There were no empty seats in Affaires class so far as I could tell.

The seat modules on the 777 didn’t seem terribly much different than those on the A380; I’m sitting in row 8, the sixth of 7 rows in Affaires, and the TV screen is in the back of the shell seat in front of me. All I want to do on this flight is sleep, drink and eat (and not necessarily in that order). I doze off before our flight is in the air, and I wake up just as we are getting Ireland in our rear view mirror, when cocktail hour reaches our row.

The champagne is as listed in the menu—Lanson Black Label Brut (which Bevmo in California sells for $39.95 the bottle). It was fine, although I liked the champagne served on the A380 better. Still, there is nothing quite like drinking decent champagne at 35,000 feet.

The “amuse bouche” was two scallops with a spice marinade. The appetizer consisted of a goose foie gras terrine, a plate of four spiced shrimps with a curry sauce on the side, and a green salad featuring “vegetable batonnets” and “baby spinach” served with a vinaigrette with Indian spices.

There were four main dishes to choose from: pan seared leg of lamb filet served with a demi-glace sauce with dried fruit, bulgur wheat an sautéed green and yello zucchini; Indian style chicken in a spicy sauce with basmati rice and a sun dried tomato; grilled Hake in a scallion vinaigrette, Chinese-style sautéed vegetables, saffron basmati rice with mixed nuts; and a buckwheat pasta with chanterelle mushrooms, cream sause, sautéed mixed mushrooms with shallots, crushed tomatoes with Italian cheese. I went for the chicken, which was ample for me, although not as good as the lobster and steak on the eastbound run.

Dessert started off with the cheese plate featuring a wedge of camembert and a long thin triangle of Comte. This was followed by a trio of “mini berry crumble”, “mini lemon shortbread” and “chocolate mousse”, which my flight attendant presented to me along with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I finished my meal with the AF house Calvados.

In addition to the champagne, AF offered three wines: a Burgundy white, Saint-Veran 2008 Joseph Drouhin; a Languedoc red, Domaine de Villemajou 2007 Gerard Bertrand (the discovery of AF sommelier Olivier Poussier); and a Bordeaux red, Haut-Medoc Chateau de Villambis 2007 Cru Bourgeois. I stuck with champagne during dinner.

Flight attendants smiled a lot and gave very good service during the relatively short time I was awake on the 8 hours we were aloft.

Three isn’t much else to tell. I put my seat into sleeping position, and I managed to snooze until our flight was about at the Susquehanna River between York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania (I missed out on the second meal service, which was OK with me). 20 minutes later we touched down at IAD, and we parked at the gate at the scheduled arrival time of 1900 EDT. I was one of the first in line at the USA citizens’ line at immigration, and got through very quickly. Baggage delivery was slow, however, and I had to wait probably 30 minutes for my rollaboard to appear, priority tag notwithstanding. Nothing exciting happened in the customs line, and I was free to catch the parking shuttle out to the car and drive home.

VERDICT: I had amazing luck with all my travel arrangements—all of them ran essentially on time. My hotels worked out well. The only bit of bad luck was losing my little kit bag with my cords in it, but I was able to replace them on the road. Saw a lot, did a lot, walked way too much. Now that I am back home, I can’t wait to go back on the road again. I am inspired by trip reports by fellow flyer-talkers about exotic places like Mongolia, Kazakhstan and west Africa. I am in mind of the final scene in “Up in the Air”, when Ryan Bingham stops in front of a giant destination board. Till next time.

Last edited by ND76; Sep 15, 11 at 1:12 am Reason: Final Installment of Trip Report
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Old Sep 6, 11, 1:36 pm
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Really enjoyed reading the first instalment, keep it up!
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Old Sep 6, 11, 4:43 pm
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Can't wait to try AF. Seems like a solid product.
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Old Sep 7, 11, 4:57 am
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Originally Posted by ND76 View Post
The language does not use the letters b, c, d, q, x or z, and has eight different vowels (a, ä, e, I, o, ö, u and y) which are long vowels when they are doubled. There are no articles or prepositions, with suffixes attached to words, such as an “n” or “in” indicating possession, or a “t” or “at” indicating plural. It was only a spoken language until about 200 years ago.
... and that is the reason Finnish is so logical in it's spelling.

All Finnish words are spelled (and pronounced) letter by letter, so the fathers of the Finnish language found no use for the letters 'c' (which is pronounced in English and Swedish as either a kind of s or k, depending on the word and position), 'z' (which is pronounced 'ts') or 'x' (which is pronounced 'ks'). You are wrong about the letter 'd' though, unless Finland has decided to eliminate words like fifth (viides), sixth (kuudes) or 'rakkaudella' which means 'with love'.
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Old Sep 7, 11, 4:23 pm
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Originally Posted by tsastor View Post
... and that is the reason Finnish is so logical in it's spelling.

All Finnish words are spelled (and pronounced) letter by letter, so the fathers of the Finnish language found no use for the letters 'c' (which is pronounced in English and Swedish as either a kind of s or k, depending on the word and position), 'z' (which is pronounced 'ts') or 'x' (which is pronounced 'ks'). You are wrong about the letter 'd' though, unless Finland has decided to eliminate words like fifth (viides), sixth (kuudes) or 'rakkaudella' which means 'with love'.
I stand corrected. I saw the letter "d" in Estonian, but not on any Finnish materials that I looked at.
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Old Sep 9, 11, 3:38 am
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Originally Posted by ND76 View Post
One thing a visitor to the country notices is that pretty much all signage is in both Finnish and Swedish (perhaps owing to the allegiance of Swedish nobility with common Finnish people who threw off Russian rule at the end of the First World War).
Nice trip report! How were Tallinn and Riga? (I prefer Riga, the Old Town is bigger and nicer...)

One clarification, though. The street names etc. are in Swedish because it is the second official language of Finland. If more than 3% (I think that's the threshold) of people in a municipality speak the "other" language, street signs must be in that language too. If the majority are Swedish-speakers (some municipalities on the western coast), the Swedish names are first. Up in Lapland you have signs in Finnish and Saami language.
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Old Sep 13, 11, 10:46 am
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Originally Posted by ND76 View Post
about 20 minutes away on the north side of the Firth of Forth, so that I could ride across the Forth Rail Bridge and then take pictures of it and the adjacent suspension highway bridge.

The rail bridge was opened in 1890, and consists of three cantilever structures roughly diamond shaped, supporting two cantilever spans of 1710 feet each—a total distance according to Wikipedia of 2.528 km (about 1.6 miles). The road bridge was opened in 1964, and features a suspension span with two towers somewhat reminiscent of the suspension towers on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Great report so far. Just had to point out that the bridges are formally the Forth Bridge and the Forth Road Bridge. Writing 'Forth Rail Bridge' may cause stut to come along and get upset with you Similarly, up at Dundee, you have the Tay Bridge and the Tay Road Bridge. I need to get back up to Edinburgh so that I can get some proper photographs (i.e., not from on board trains) of the bridges at the Firth of Forth. Thinking of using iPhoto to make an all-bridge 2012 calendar, since I have a think for photographing bridges.
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Old Sep 15, 11, 1:20 am
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Report is Finally Finished--Links to Lots of Pictures

Sorry that it took me so long.
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