Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Tram Fine

I like buying the annual tram pass in Brno.  The yearly pass costs 4.750 Kč ($238) for unlimited transportation in Brno on all of the trams, buses and trolleys.  It's way cheaper then buying individual tickets.  Plus, with an annual pass, one person gets to travel with me for free on the weekends.

The only odd thing is that when you purchase an annual ticket, rather than giving you one ticket for the year, you receive four quarterly tickets.  Each ticket says that it is part of an annual ticket but you must carry the current quarter's ticket with you on the tram.  Well, I goofed up.  I forget to replace my previous ticket with the current ticket and was stopped yesterday by the undercover tram police.

Normally, riding without a valid ticket is a fine of 800 Kč ($40).  I was issued a ticket that said I was traveling without my current ticket.  With this, I had three days to go to the main office to show my valid pass and pay 50 Kč ($2.50).  Otherwise, I would have been liable for the full 800 Kč fine.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tünde's 1st Birthday

On Sunday, a few people came around so that we could celebrate Tünde's 1st birthday.  I can't believe that my beautiful goddaughter is already one year old.

Katka and Natalie


Godmother Natalie even made in over from London for the occasion.  There was no way she was going to miss this.


Claudia found a candle that was more like a firecracker.  Tünde liked it.  I thought it would set my kitchen on fire but as long as the birthday girl is happy then it's all good.


Like any child, getting presents seemed to be her favorite part of the day.  And she got lots of toys and books to keep her good and spoiled.

Dolls from St. Petersburg



She seemed to enjoy the Russian nesting dolls I brought back for her from our recent holiday.  Of course at that age, most of the time kids enjoy just playing with the wrapping paper.

Helena, Fero and their favorite girl

It was a really nice afternoon.  It's always fun to get together with good friends but it's even better when you can get together to celebrate something special. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn Trip Summary

Our trip to Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Tallinn was great!  We had 11 days off and we thoroughly enjoyed them.  Now we just have to figure out how to get back soon.

This was the first time taking AirBaltic.  It's a low-cost carrier but more like a real airline.  Way better than Ryanair but not quite Air Berlin or Czech Airlines.  No matter where one flies to there is a connection at the hub in Riga, Latvia.

Our first stop was in Helsinki.  I was surprised that things were not more expensive here.  Don't get me wrong, everything in Scandinavia is expensive (especially hotels, alcohol or cigarettes) but it wasn't as tragically over the top as I had braced myself for.  And there are ways to economize after all.

Saunas are a big deal in Finland and our hostel offered a free morning sauna.  Believe it or not, sitting naked in a steam bath each morning really does energize you for a day of sightseeing. 

Helsinki was super clean and everyone spoke English.  Everyone there was really friendly.  A few times while looking at a map, people going by would stop and just offer assistance. 

After a few days in Finland, it was time for our overnight ferry to St. Petersburg.  The ferry tour package was a great deal.  We got two nights on the ferry (there and back), plus three nights in a center hotel in St. Petersburg with breakfast, and we didn't have to deal with getting a visa.

With the current situation in Ukraine, I know that my mom wasn't exactly thrilled about me going to Russia.  But let's face it, it's not like I would get off the boat wearing a rainbow gay pride t-shirt that said "Crimea is Ukraine."

St. Petersburg was absolutely stunning!!  Three days here is no where near enough time.  Sooner or later, I'll have to break down and get that 3-year multiple visit visa so that I can go back whenever I feel like it. 

The Hermitage was brilliant.  I actually preferred it over the Louvre as it was far less crowded.  But then again, that may have to do with the fact that it is much harder to get here than it is to Paris

I used to speak Russian fairly well.  However, after almost five years of Czech I think that it is about gone.  When I was in the Caucasus last year, I noticed that at times I would blend Czech and Russian but for the most part I was able to keep them separate.  Not so much this time.  I was fine with reading the signs.  But anytime I spoke with someone then Czech kept coming out first.  It was a struggle for me to suppress my česky.  My Czech teacher will be so proud of me.   

St. Petersburg really is my new favorite city.  Plus I got to finally check Leningrad off of my bucket list.  I'm sure that my family back home will ask me what I thought of Russia.  The truth is that I really don't know.  I know that I loved St. Petersburg but I don't think that the rest of the country is anything like this city.  The same way that you can't judge the USA based on a single visit to Los Angeles or New York City. 

After we arrived back in Helsinki, we had a couple of hours to kill before our two-hour ferry to Tallinn.

The ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn is quite popular with tourists who want an easy day trip to another country.  It's also very, very popular with Finns who go to Estonia to buy super cheap alcohol without having to pay Finnish taxes.

We spend several days in Tallinn which was nice.  The original plan was to take a day trip to Narva but after so much running around the option of taking it easy in Tallinn was too good to pass up.  Narva will have to wait until next time.

Tallinn was nice.  We really enjoyed it there.  However, it was a little bit of a let down.  Every person I know that has been there has gone on and on about how great it is.  It's the most awesome super place ever.  Yeah, not really.  Don't get me wrong, I liked it and I would for sure go back again.  But it's not the best place ever.

It was kind of like when your friends build up a movie so much that your expectations are set so high that invariably you're in for a let down.  I'm sure that I would have been more impressed with Tallinn if I hadn't heard that this was the best thing since sliced bread. 

So overall, it was another great holiday.  And somehow we managed to visit three countries that neither of us had ever been to before.  That in itself was an accomplishment.  We flew back in to Vienna and made it back to Brno early Saturday evening.  Just in time because, I needed to be home Sunday to celebrate Tünde's first birthdayThere was no way on earth that I could miss that.

Showing up in a stranger's photos on FB
I went in to the office on Monday and one of my colleagues mentioned that he saw a holiday photo online.  Apparently, a couple of his mates were on our flight from Prague to Riga and took a selfie while on the plane and posted it on Facebook.  My colleague just happened to notice that we're in the background and sent me the photo.  (A) It's a small world and (B) with all of the social media out there you never know where you will turn up online, just like how I ended up on that Czech blog.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hotel Viru and KGB Museum, Estonia

The Hotel Viru opened in Tallinn in 1972.  It was the first high-rise building in all of Estonia.  It was built by a Finnish company but the Soviet government made a few modifications.
Officially the hotel had 22 floors.  No one knew about the 23rd floor which housed a KGB radio unit that was used to spy on hotel guests.  Sixty of the rooms were equipped with listening devices.  

The museum is a one-hour guided tour of two rooms.  One contains various memorabilia and the other is the radio room which is said to be just as the KGB left in back in 1991.

Our guide, Marie, used to work in the hotel way back when.  She had several humorous stories about what life was like working in the hotel during Soviet times.  The red desk phone (with no way to dial) was a direct line to the "fire brigade".
"Here is not anything"
On the 23rd floor, behind the door with the sign that says "there's nothing here" was the secret listening room. 

The tour was interesting and worth the €9 ($12.25) entry fee.  Plus you can get a really great view of the city.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn sits on the Gulf of Finland, 80 km (50 miles) south of Helsinki, and 324 km (201 miles) west of Saint Petersburg.  It is Estonia's capital and, with +430,000 people, it's also the country's largest city.  Almost 1/3rd of the country lives in Tallinn.



In 1219, the original town here became known as Reval.  In 1917, the year before Estonia gained independence from the Russian Empire it became known as Tallinn.


Tallinn is about the same size as Brno.  It's a lovely little city.

The Viru Gate








The historic Old Town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The Viru Gate was once part of a larger 14th century gate system.  It's the main entrance to the Old Town.



St. Nicholas' Church was originally built in the 13th century and is dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen and sailors.  Today, the medieval building is used as a concert hall and serves as an art museum.

The Town Hall, I heard, is the oldest town hall in the Baltics.  On top of the tower is the "Old Thomas" vane which is one of the city's symbols.  It's been there since 1530.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox cathedral that was built, between 1894 and 1900, when Estonia was still part of the Russian Empire.

In the days of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, the communist government tried to use the building as a museum of atheism.  I don't quite know what kind of exhibit one would display to support atheism, especially one that was inside of church.  Oh well.  The Russian church just so happens to sit exactly across for the Estonian parliament.  


Toompea Castle sits on Toompea Hill.  The castle dates back tot eh 9th century and today it is the country's parliament building.



Tall Hermann is the tower connected to the parliament building.  The Estonian flag has been flying here since independence was declared in 1991.


The artillery tower, built in 1475, is called "Peep into the Kitchen".  It got the name because those in tower could see into the kitchens of the nearby houses.  The tower is 38 meters (~125 feet) tall and its walls are 4 meters (13 feet) thick.  Today it is a museum and photo gallery.

St. Olaf's Church was built in the 12th century.  In the 15th century, a new 159 meter (522 feet) tall Gothic spire was built.  From 1549 to 1625, St. Olaf's was the tallest building in the world.  Over the years there have been a few fires and the current spire is only 123 meters (403.5 feet) tall.

From 1944 until 1991, the KGB used the spire for surveillance.

St. Mary's Cathedral is also known as the Dome Church.  It was built in the 13th century and is the oldest church in mainland Estonia.  It started out as a Roman Catholic church but became a Lutheran church in 1561.

Linnahall was built by the Soviets for 1980 Moscow Olympics since Tallinn hosted the sailing events.  It's pretty shabby now, with a fair amount of graffiti, but it's a good place to enjoy a sunset.


St. John's Church is a Lutheran church that opened in 1867.  It's located at Freedom Square across from the War of Independence Victory Monument.

The War of Independence Victory Column was unveiled in 2009 as a memorial to those who died during the Estonian War of Independence.  It stands at 23.5 meters (77 feet) tall and is made up of 143 glass plates.  The column is in the shape of the Liberty Cross.

There have been many problems with the column and most are blamed on the Czech company that built it.  Within its first couple of weeks, a corner piece fell down.  Then some of the glass panels were defective.  At one point, dust got inside that created stains and made the thing glow pink.  The Estonian government has been happy especially since it cost over €7 million ($9.5 million).


The Tallinn TV Tower is 314 meters (1,030 feet) tall.  It opened in July 1980 in order to provide better coverage of the Olympic sailing events.


The Museum of Occupations opened in 2003.  It covers 1940 to 1990 when Estonia was occupied during WWII by Germany and then by the Soviet Union.

Kadriorg Palace was built by Peter the Great for Catherine I.  Construction was completed in 1725.  Today it's an art museum and there are some lovely gardens.

The Russalka ("Mermaid") memorial was erected in 1902 to commemorate the 9th anniversary of a Russian warship that sank in 1893 en route to Finland.  The angel holds the Orthodox cross in the direction of where the ship sank.

At the Hotel Viru is the KGB museum.  The hotel was the one modern hotel during Soviet times.  It was also the prime surveillance center for the KGB.  It makes for an interesting visit.

Here's a Rick Steves video I found out on YouTube that tells a bit about Tallinn.