Here is an interesting bit of trivia for you: the xxx symbol that you see in, well, “exotic” shops is actually derived from Amsterdam. “XXX” has been the logo for Amsterdam ever since the city was established, and it is still everywhere! At first I was a little worried and thought the city must be way too proud of its red light district, until I got my facts straight. The police uniforms are printed with xxx, its on all the local busses and the Amsterdam flag is black and red striped with the xxx logo. Amusing.

The Netherlands was never on my list of places to go, until every traveller I met kept telling me how it was their favorite city (and usually for more reasons than just smoking pot). I also made a Dutch friend in Croatia who told me all about his city and how everyone rode bikes everywhere. Despite my reluctance to spend time in Western Europe, I figured that if  Amsterdam was as great as it sounded and I could ride a bike everywhere, I might be sold on the idea.

Ruud picked me up from the airport and welcomed me by telling me to get on the back of his bike, we were going to ride to his apartment. “Uhhh…what?” I asked. I must have heard him wrong. There was no way me and my 25 pound backpack were going to ride on the metal rack that normal people use to carry groceries, strapped to the back of his bike.

“Get on!” he insisted, as he started to pedal away. I began to realize it wasn’t a joke and reluctantly jumped on.

Riding bikes in Amsterdam is like being part of the circus. You jet through traffic, dodge oncoming trams and weave in and out of pedestrians. The bikes come in all shapes and sizes; big, small, trailer attached, half falling apart, crappy, crappier, and crappiest (no offense Amsterdam, in a city where 1/6 bikes gets stolen, why would you ride a nice one?). My favorites are the bikes that look like a wheelbarrow has been inserted between the handlebars and front tire. People fill the bucket with groceries, lumber or small children.

Things I saw on bikes in Amsterdam that I never expected to see:
  • A man riding with a five-foot ladder attached to his front handlebar
  • A mom riding with four children in a bucket
  • A student riding with one hand, while holding a 5x5 foot board in the other
Things I did on a bike in Amsterdam that I would have NEVER done elsewhere:
  • Took the bike in an elevator
  • Took the bike on a train
  • Rode through a “z” shaped maze meant to keep bikes out
  • Rode through a muddy field
Ruud was an excellent tour guide and showed me around Amsterdam the first night on the back of his bike. The next three days we spent cycling all over Holland. We rode to a small village on the first day, took the train to a town 30 minutes south on the second day and rode along the beach, and spent the third day exploring the streets and canals of Amsterdam.

It has been a busy week, but definitely a unique way to see a city and a well needed break from the usual tourist activities! I must say, my friends were right,  Amsterdam definitely tops my list of must see cities in Western Europe.
Bike parking
The small town we rode to
My bike taxi!
Liden, a small town we explored. An evil swan kept trying to bite me while I was taking this picture, so Ruud had to distract it!
There are only a few things in my life that I’ve seen that are completely mind blowing. If I were to make a list of Ember’s Wonders of the World, Xilitla, Mexico would be number one and Petrodvortes would be number two. 

Alex and I made the trek outside of the city on a whim. Mike had to leave early in the morning for a trip to Finland and mentioned in passing that there was a cool palace with some fountains that we could check out if we had time. I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular, heck, I wasn’t even expecting that we would actually make it to the palace (the directions seemed a bit confusing) but since we had time to kill and were looking for adventure, we threw the Lonely Planet guidebook in the backpack and jumped the metro.

My apprehensions about making it to Petrodvortes were soon pushed aside. We make a sign in Cyrillic that read, “Petrodvortes” and everything else was a piece of cake. Of course no one spoke English, but at least they could point us in the right direction. We caught a mini bus (yes another sketchy white van) and actually tried to argue with the driver about the price…according to the price listed in the guidebook, we were being overcharged. I suppose I will never know if I was taken advantage of for not being able to read Cyrillic.

Anyway, we made it to the palace with no problems and spent several hours wandering around the grounds, and taking pictures of the most perfect autumn afternoon. A Russian tradition is to walk through the forest and gather stacks giant golden leaves. They make hats from them, take pictures and throw them up in the air. The scenery was beautiful, but watching the children and parents running between the trees and playing in the leaves was even more so.
Front view of the palace
A church next to the palace
There are hundreds of fountains behind the palace
Perfect autumn day
When in Russia...
I have so many thoughts about my time in Russia, I don't know where to begin. In a way, Russia was everything I expected and everything unexpected, also. We were fortunate enough to stay with Mike, a friend of Alex's from Seattle who has been working in Saint Petersburg for the past nine months. We learned so much about the history of the city and Russian Culture from Mike and had a personal translator to top everything off. 

If it weren't for Mike, the trip could have been real interesting. Virtually NO ONE in Russia speaks English, not even a word. The Cyrillic alphabet doesn't help Westerners either. Needless to say, I got really good at miming, so watch out for a game of charades when I get back to the U.S!

The one piece of advice I got before the Russia trip was to never EVER ride in a taxi. I was told that driving there is a zoo and riding in a taxi is a sure sentence to a near death experience. Needless to say, that was the first thing we did upon arrival. In order to enter the country without a visa, we were required to purchase a "city bus tour" aka "swerving in a sketchy white van through Saint Petersburg to be dropped off at the center" tour. It was a real welcoming gesture on the Russian's part.

Ironically, the Russian taxi system turned out to be one of my favorite parts about the country. If you stand on the side of the road and hold your hand out, literally the first car to pass will pull over. If they feel like giving you a lift, you settle on a price and are soon on your way, at what feels like an 80 MPH high speed chase toward your destination. We found this service to be extremely helpful en route to and from the bars each night.

Alex and I spent our first day visiting the Hermitage and seeing all the other major sites in the city. There are some truly spectacular and out of place looking buildings. For example, the church below. For some reason, I couldn't get over the fact that it looked like it belonged in a plastic amusement park, but I was seeing it as a real cathedral in real life.

As a whole, I would not consider Saint Petersburg a beautiful city. It has a very industrial feel with overcrowded streets, traffic in a constant state of disarray and practical looking cement style high rise, state-owned buildings. I couldn’t help but have communism lingering in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t hard to imagine what the city may have been like 20 years ago.

There are however, a few random and out of place gems in the city, that just make you scratch your head and ponder. For example, a subway stop with mosaic walls and chandeliers, mind blowing cathedrals built for each of the major churches (yes, I’m still wondering why a communist government would be so interested in building churches) and gorgeous women clad in fur coats, fur scarves, fur hats and high heels.

It wasn’t they type of city I would want to spend a day wandering the streets and taking it all in, but the culture and history definitely made Russia an interesting place that fascinated me. Despite their current “democratic” state, the government is still very corrupt. The police take bribes, elections are rigged and students pay teachers for grades.

It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago everyone had a closet full of the same outfits, each kitchen had the exact same appliances, there were only a few restaurants and multiple families shared a flat with each family in one bedroom. A Russian girl told me about a movie where the main character travels from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and wakes up in a foreign flat, but cant tell if it belongs to him or someone else, because everything looks the same. Totally believable.

Today, the city is more cultural and has become infused with western staples such as McDonalds, Subway and a variety of coffee shops. The transition process is continually moving forward, but a part of the society still clings to the nostalgic past. This is evident in a giant monument for Lenin topped with the communism star in the city center and the menial jobs that still exist, such as attendants at the bottom of the escalator in the metro and waiting at the top of staircases in public places.

During our three day visit I did see a few “hardened criminals” and begging babushkas, but was also entranced by a society rich in history and culture. I cant say that Russia is at the top of my list of places to return to, but it is definitely one in which I am intrigued by and am anxious to learn more about. 
Church of the Savior on Blood
Inside the Hermitage
Russian Military
View of St. Petersburg
Mike, me & Alex
Communism Star statue
My good friend, Alex, from high school is studying in Finland for the semester and a few months ago we decided to plan a trip to Russia. Not knowing anything about the country (other than the normal stereotypical stuff) we thought it would be a crazy adventure. I think we are both drawn to sketchy, corrupt and slightly dangerous places, so this definitely sounded like an amazing adventure.

As the departure date for our trip drew nearer, I began to question our rash decision to visit Russia. My image of the country was a tall, skinny man with pale skin, jet black slicked-back hair (and a matching goatee), clad in tight black leather pants, a leather jacket and army boots, standing on a rainy sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I guess you could call it the hardened criminal look, all I knew was that as the departure day grew nearer and said image continued to replay in my mind, I was afraid of Russia. On the night of our ferry departure, I'm busy envisioning the worst case scenario for our trip to the land of hardened criminals and begging babushkas, and Alex makes some comment about getting deported to a labor camp in Siberia. At least we were on the same page. 

If this stereotype image wasn't enough, all the laws Russia has regarding visas and loopholes you have to jump through to enter the country are enough to discourage any tourist. Regardless, we were drawn to this mysterious land and nothing could deter us from investigating the strange place.

On the day of the trip we had to make a two hour trek from Alex's town to Helsinki to catch our ferry. We decided any trip to a land as epic as Russia must have an equally epic start, so hitchhiking to Helsinki was really the only option.

Finland is an extremely safe country, however, Finns aren't very trusting people, and hitchhiking is virtually nonexistent in the country. Alex's Finnish friends advised us against the idea saying we would never get picked up, but we had to give it a try! I made a giant "Helsinki" sign on cardboard and we staked out a spot alongside the freeway entrance. Five minutes later, a black SUV pulled up on the sidewalk and stoped to pick us up. We were ecstatic!

As luck would have it, Harry, the man who picked us up turned out to be the ex-CEO of a company in Moscow. He was married to a Russian woman and had traveled and lived in Russia for many years. Even though he wasn't going directly to Helsinki, he was willing to go out of his way and drop us off at the ferry terminal! Talk about front door service, he had hitchhiked around France in his younger years, so I think he empathized with us.

Alex and I were so proud of our hitchhiking endeavor that we decided "Helsinki" would be our mascot for the whole Russia trip. Below are a few highlights of our adventures with Helsinki...
Hitching our way to Helsinki...
Of course we HAD to take Helsinki to the casino.
Helsinki was a real hit in the nightclub!
Stockholm definitely tops the list of gorgeous views while descending in an airplane. The area is made up of hundreds of green islands, throw in a few colorful aspen trees and you've got some breathtaking scenery. 

During this trip, I have enjoyed getting to know cities and playing the, "let's wander around for a few hours, then find my way back with the map" game. My newest hobby seems to be flying to a new city and finding my way to a specific address without a map. You can probably imagine how that game goes.

I decided to try my hand at Couchsurfing-a website that connects you with locals who you can stay with for free. I was staying with a girl named Alex and had an address and the metro stop where she lived, but nothing more. I had to ask about five people in order to actually find the metro station, but luckily virtually all Swedes speak perfect English. 

After an exhausting two hours of wandering Stockholm and stopping strangers to ask for directions I managed to make it from the airport to Alex's apartment! Alex is an engineering student at the local university. We had a great conversation about Sweden, and I think this is one of the few countries that does things "right." Education is free (the system is competitive, but many students get paid to go to school), everyone learns English, the city is clean and loaded with parks and has some of the best air quality for a city in the whole world! 

I spent my first day wandering the streets admiring the red, orange and yellow buildings and browsing in Sweden's famous design shops (all like mini IKEAs). I must admit, I went a little crazy with the Swedish design stores. The colorful pop-art prints captivated me, and I decided right then that when I return to the States, my kitchen will be done in Swedish Design style (that started me thinking about doing each room in a different country style...I'll leave that for another blog post, though). With that being said, I had to purchase a few inspirational elements for my new kitchen!

For such a small country (only 8M) they are famous for quite a bit: Volvo (they're everywhere...yippee!), Swedish massage, Swedish healthcare, IKEA, Swedish fish, H & M and Swedish design. 

The only downside? If you are looking to go bankrupt, this is the place you can make your dream a reality. Prices are out of control. A bottle of catsup runs $7, I bought a plain coffee and muffin today for $10, and any meal under $15 is a steal. Needless to say, I will not be eating out anytime soon. The ironic thing is that Stockholm is famous for it's shopping. Really? What planet do you come from to be able to afford this place?

Never again will I complain about American prices. Go out and buy a $1.79 bottle of catsup and $.99  hamburger for me!
Yours truly braving the cold Stockholm weather!
I am currently en route to Stockholm and in my favorite place, the airplane. The flight was a tight squeeze-overbooked by five people, I was imagining the worst case scenario...another night in Prague? Buying a last minute ticket? I waited at the gate, the anxiety continuing to build. 

Suddenly, the gate agent motioned for me to come over and held out a boarding pass...good as gold. I couldn't believe it! I wanted to do the happy dance and hug him all at the same time. Flying standby is a real adrenaline trip. I spend the majority of my time in the airport anxiously pacing the terminal, and a small amount of time manically rejoicing with that, "ha, I won!" feeling. Probably the same kind of feeling a bank robber has when he actually gets away with the bag of loot. I'm not saying this from personal experience or anything, I'll stick to flying for my adrenaline rush thank you very much.

Saturday was my one month anniversary of being a nomad. Looking back, this trip was the best decision I could have made. Already, I have met so many wonderful people and had some of the best experiences. Every time I think about all the places I still have left to see and all the people I am going to meet, I am elated. 

I read a magazine article yesterday encouraging women to take a trip somewhere alone. It said that going somewhere by yourself is a great way to increase your confidence and learn about yourself since you won't be influenced by the needs and opinions of other people. Bingo! I guess I'm on the right track?

Regardless, I could not be happier traveling alone. I'm on my own schedule, have flexibility to go where I want when I want and it really forces you to be outgoing and meet other people. With that being said, I'm off to explore yet another city, and see whose paths I cross today...
Before I left on my trip, there seemed to be a popularity war between Budapest and Prague. Half of my friends said to avoid Budapest and spend my time in Prague and the other half said that I would fall in love with Budapest and Prague would be nothing more than a dot on the map. I decided that with all this controversy I would have to investigate the two cities for myself.

I took the nigh bus to Prague and instantly felt at home when I saw billboards and skyscrapers-something Budapest was devoid of. What a strange thought, I never knew such urban nonsense could be so appealing. 

I managed to visit almost all of Prague's sites in the first day. The city is very lively and gorgeous. It was Hitler's favorite hangout, so it remains untouched from both world wars. One of the city's biggest industries is tourism and there are tourists EVERYWHERE! The streets are jam packed with people reading maps and street vendors, a little stressful if you ask me. 

Interestingly, The Czech just emerged from communism a mere 22 years ago and is already a top European tourist destination. They have a very different past from Hungary. 

The communist government lasted for 40 years until a group of students assembled a protest in Wenceslas Square. Thousands of people gathered shoulder to shoulder in the square and held up their house keys and began to shake them. Right then and there, the government was turned over to the democratic party. Not a drop of blood was shed hence the term, "Velvet Revolution."

On my second day, I wandered the city wondering what I should do. I settled down at an outdoor restaurant and decided to sample some typical Czech food-a pork skewer and some beer.

I was surprised when the waiter returned with a skewer at least 18 inches tall loaded with pork, bacon, peppers, potatoes and onions. It was the single largest serving of meat and potatoes I have ever seen, and I quickly became Czech food's number one fan. As for the beer, it costs less than a bottle of water which is a plus, but the bottom line: its got nothing on Colorado beer!

Feeling completely satisfied from my feast, I set out wandering the city again. I stumbled upon an exhibit for Prague's Design Week and decided to check it out on a whim. It was called Design Blok and from the ticket attendant's broken English description I  had no idea what to expect, but I was about to discover the Czech's best kept secret.

Design Block had turned an office building into an exhibition of interior, fashion and graphic design. Each designer had a room that she decorated to display her product. The designers held nothing back. They supplemented the rooms with new flooring, curtains, painted walls and lighting. My favorites were a room where the designer sodded the floor and hung lights made of plants from the ceiling, and another where the room was turned into a meat market selling jeans with actual meat and blue jeans on a butcher block. 

I spent a good portion of the day wandering around the exhibition and even got to attend a fashion show in the evening. 

Design Blok and Prague definitely didn't disappoint. My final assessment? Both Prague and Budapest are lovely and offer stunning scenery and great attractions, however, I've got to give it to Budapest for the authentic borozo experience, grand parks and excellent wandering streets.
Charles Bridge, Prague
My GINORMOUS skewer...and that's only half!
A designer's room with a plant lamp and sodded floor...impressive!
A jewerley display, the designer is in the red outfit dancing.
Fashion show in Prague
One of the most interesting and devastating parts of my visit to Budapest was the Museum of Terror. I was debating whether to blog about it or not, but I think it will be good to document my experience and hopefully teach you something about Hungarian history.

The House of Terror is a gorgeous ansturbingly eerie building on Budapest's famous Andrassy Street. It was the headquarters of the secret police during Soviet rule in Hungary. It has since been turned into a museum documenting Hungary's decade of communism. 

The museum takes you chronologically through Hungarian history during the 20th century. Hungary had a very high standard of living and a thriving economy until the wars hit. After WWI, Hungary was left with only one third of its original land. This breakup had tremendous economic, political and social effects, so when WWII rolled around, the Soviets promised the Hungarians the return of their land if they agreed to side with them. This led to an 11 year span of a communist government where thousands were killed, jailed or deported, food was scarce, religion was oppressed and people worked menial jobs.

The museum did an excellent job of setting the mood with music that made your skin creep and dimly lit exhibits. The control that the government had over the people was astounding, and to imagine living in such a society was devastating. 

In 1956 there was a revolution against the government and the popular Hungarian party regained control and established a democracy.

Today, Hungary remains-still  landless-and has made excellent progress moving forward
as a democratic state, but is still marked with many signs of their tragic past. Bullet holes from the wars and Revolution of 1956 lace many of the buildings, the last Soviet police didnt depart the country until the early 90's and the last Hungarian prisoner in Soviet territory wasn't released until the year 2000.

The scariest thought for me is that a society can be running perfectly well, then with the slip of a hand everything can be turned upside down; people are deported, executed, jailed, forced into labor and starving-not something any citizen wanted, but happening merely because of a few corrupt officials. That leaves me with one final question: we go about our everyday lives thinking we have so much freedom and control over what we do, but in all actuality do we, or is  our fate in the hands of the government?
I have been having a field day in Budapest! Everything here is very cheap, so I've been eating my way through the city. The dollar slice pizza and falafel sandwiches are my favorites, not to mention the bakeries with pastries and cake slices for 80 cents and one of the highlights of my visit, 70 cent glasses of delicious Hungarian wine. I couldn't be happier.

On Tuesday I went for a walking tour on the Buda side of Budapest. I met an Australian named Andy who has been traveling Europe for four months now. We started talking and really hit it off. Wine tasting in Hungary was something we both really wanted to do, so we asked the guide about some places to check out. She drew a map and informed us that anything with "borozo" in the name was a local wine cellar where we could find some authentic Hungarian wine.

Finding a borozo was a bit of a scavenger hunt, but we finally spotted "borozo" gleaming off of a hanging sign on a side street.

Talk about authentic Hungarian experience, the borozo was full of old men smoking and playing cards. The walls were covered in dark wood paneling with bright green curtain accents and shelves lined with kitchy nicknacks. I felt like I had been deported to a hunting lodge in a desolate town in the Midwest. The only thing that could have made this exclusive dive bar better would have been deer heads mounted on the walls.

Andy and I instantly fell in love with the place and knew we were in for a real treat! We asked the owner if he offered wine tasting and he muttered something in Hungarian and broken English and dipped a ladle into three metal buckets pouring us wines to try.

We settled for a sweet white called Oliver and received two large glasses of the stuff for about $1.50 total. I must say, Oliver was good to us that night, and borozo became one of the highlights of my trip!     
The lovely interior of our dive bar
Andy, me & Ollie
I met an American the other day and we were pondering the abstract and totally mature topic of being hungry in Hungary.  We started making jokes, and he commented, "In Hungary there are no all you can eat buffets, you would have to leave Hungary" and we carried on with the Hungary jokes for quite awhile, our Hungarian friend staring on, completely unamused. Apparently they're not as in to the hungry jokes as we are.

I must say, as a child my dream was to visit Hungary, Turkey and Greece...just because they had such funny names! Coincidence or not that I've seen all those countries in the past several weeks? Some dreams you never let go...

Enough of my ranting, I have found a temporary home in Budapest! Coming in, I had no idea what to expect and the city is quite larger than I would have imagined, but for some reason it feels really comfortable. I can't put it into words, but I feel at home here and like I really fit in, despite my inability to speak Hungarian. 

The streets are wide and lined with old time cafes and coffee shops.  The buildings are grand and there are a few nice parks and viewpoints. Something about the city makes me feel like I have stepped back in time into a slow paced world where locals drink wine in the grass and spend afternoons wandering streets lined with tall trees and littered with leaves.

The city is actually divided into two parts by the Danube River-Buda and Pest. I am staying in Pest. I spent my first day on a walking tour of Pest and a boat tour down the Danube. My second day, I visited one of the main attractions in Budapest-the thermal baths. People come from all around the world for the "healing waters."

My day at the baths was an interesting and impressive experience.  There is an elaborately designed building with a huge courtyard where the baths are. There are two main outdoor baths with about 12 smaller indoor pools. Each pool contains different minerals recommended to treat various illnesses. I mostly enjoyed jumping in and out of each one, experiencing the different colored water, scents and temperatures.

It was a wonderfully relaxing experience after a few busy days! To top things off, I scored a $5 ticket and spent my evening at the Ballet!

It has been two days now, and I think I know my way around the city pretty well. There are still a few things on my list to do, but mostly I am excited to take things slow, wander the streets and absorb the Hungarian culture. Although there are tons of sites to see, this is really a people city rather than an itinerary city. I plan on doing a little writing, eating some falafel from my favorite hummus bar and seeing where the day takes me.
The Chainbridge-linking Buda and Pest
Castle on Buda side
Part of the city