Archive for July, 2012


Of course I wanted to fit in as many countries as we could before Annemarie had to be grounded to await the birth of our first child. So Russia would be final stop before that happened, and it was nice finale….for now. Russia, yet another country growing up I never thought I’d go to, but how things have changed, with myself and the state of Russia itself. They want visitors now to dump money into their economy, yet they still make it a challenge to get visas and go through quite a bit of unnecessary bullshit to make it happen, but all good things are tough.

We had an extra incentive to make this trip happen, as my cousin and her hubby were embarking on a summer travel tour, that started in Russia, so it worked out quite well. We decided on St. Petersburg as the city of choice for a few days, and only did that because we heard there was more to see there versus Moscow. I’d of course like to see the Kremlin and Red Square, but I’ll keep that for another time. We headed off, met up at the airport, and our adventure began…as soon as we got in the cab, as usual! Annemarie says I have a welcoming face, which could be true, but scam artists in every city at the airport are widespread, so it’s not that I’m the only one being taken. At least this time we were able to push back a bit, as the driver threatened to take us back to the airport…at no cost? Ok you fool, but we’ll carry on. He showed us a rate card, but it was self-made? Then threatened to call the cops if we didn’t pay? Ok, you just struck out buddy. Take this money, which is still more than we should pay, and take off. And he did, and that was the scam of the trip put behind us.

The Winter Palace

We dropped our things at the hotel, and hit the town for dinner. For having no clue where to go, and where we were, we found a decent spot with some decent food. Closed that place down, walked around a bit more, but wanted to get a good night of sleep for the next day of touring. St. Petersburg is quite a nice place, but things are very spread out. Kind of reminded me like Beijing, except every other person wasn’t touching you. Our hotel was on the main drag, so we could direct ourselves pretty easy based on that. We saw everything we could, and walked forever. We even took a hydrofoil out to the Summer Palace, which is more like a compound just to show off wealth, but it was amazing. I’ll describe the city in pictures as talking about it won’t do it justice. I thoroughly enjoyed the city, even if it was a bit too much like continental Europe. Nice people with a melting pot feel, and is building up to be quite a great place to visit.

Peterhof – The summer palace of Peter the Great

The Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood

Saint Isaacs Cathedral

Our transportation over to Peterhof

The view sitting in front of Peterhof….just a bit of water!

 

Next up for business and not leisure travel: Israel & Belarus

 

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After we started our mass traveling back in 2006, and stepping in only my second European country, Vatican City, I of course became intrigued with all the tiny countries in Europe. In 2009, we visited Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, and then last year we visited San Marino. As far as continental Europe, this only left Andorra, which is not the easiest place to get, but we always seem to find a way. I found some tickets to Toulouse in France, which would be our home base, and then rented a car to make the 2.5 hour journey to Andorra. I knew there wouldn’t be a ton t see or do after researching, but in typical fashion, it has to be visited….or it would bother me forever.

the road to Andorra

We make it into Toulouse, which is nice little French town, and was recently in the news for that shooter that took out quite a few people while riding around on his scooter. Well, thankfully that was over and we could relax. We walked around the city center, hit a great bistro for dinner, using every bit of french I could remember just to get by. Hit the sack, got up early, and we were off to Andorra. I had read the drive would be nice as we approached Pyrenees, and it didn’t disappoint. The drive for about an hour is dull, but then once off the main highway, you begin weaving in and out of small mountain villages until you reach Andorra. We finally got there, and there’s a border town there which is pretty much a duty free tax haven for the French. It’s not memorable, it’s not pretty, it’s just there. We drove right through and headed to Andorra la Vella, the capital, and pretty much on the other side of the country. It’s small, mountainous, but extremely pretty. It’s also a ghost country once the snow disappears, and you drive through empty village after empty village on your way to the capital. Kind of strange, but we made good time at least.

St. Esteves Church from the 12th Century

Once arriving in Andorra la Vella, you realize it’s the heart of the country. Simply because there are actual people walking around, they have a few stoplights and stores are open. The capital is more of a tax haven and duty free area for the Spanish, since it’s only about 15 minutes from the border, which we accidentally crossed over when searching for some alpine slides. Anyway, we parked and walked around, only to see the same shops replicated about 20 times within the same mile. All electronics, watches, shoes and clothes, over and over again. Pretty boring if you ask me, nothing unique. Again, Andorra is mostly known for skiing, but also as a tax haven, so there’s plenty of money in the country, but it’s very isolated, unlike Monaco. The homes up in the hills were amazing, but after the views, which are phenomenal, there’s not much else.

Andorra la Vella

Sites? Not many, but I’ll show some pictures below of the most well known. The one thing we had to do while there was hit the alpine slides, in which Andorra has the largest one in Europe. The run is 5km long, and gives you an amazing view of the Pyrenees. It went pretty fast, so again, Annemarie couldn’t join because of our little one growing in her belly. But I’m a big kid, so of course I went. One word: fantastic. I checked that off, and only had one more thing to do while there, was to get the rare passport stamp that you can get at the border once crossing back into France. We headed back, hit the border, and…..nothing. The agents all went home for the day, literally. It was empty, with cars flying through. The border control is more there for duty free goods I guess, and if you catch them when they’re working, you can ask for it, but to no avail.

The Caldea Thermal Spa in Escaldes Engordany

So that’s Andorra. Will we be back? No, no need unless it was for skiing, but there are other places we can do that. Duty free worth a trip? No, same stuff is in every airport in Europe. Glad we went? Yes, since we want to see every country in Europe, but would I recommend making the trip to see Andorra la Vella….don’t think so.

My vehicle for the alpine slides at Tobotronc

Next up….Russia!

When we spoke about Norway in the past, we really wanted to visit Stavanger, and visit the fjords. That being said, that deemed to be a little too much seeing Annemarie is carrying our little gal, and the fact that tickets to Stavanger are rarely considered “cheap.” So, we headed off to Oslo for the weekend, which was our final piece in the Nordics. We visited Helsinki, Denmark & Sweden back in 2009 on our RTW Trip, and hit up Iceland back in October for my 34th birthday. Tickets are always cheap to get to Oslo, so it was more about the right weekend and lucking out with the weather.

The famous ski jump of Oslo…yup, that’s about it.

Now, we always though the most expensive city we visited was Tokyo, until we visited Denmark, and now that award goes to Norway….but a kilometer! The cheapest beer I could find was equivalent to €10…yes, euros, not even dollars! Everything was over the moon, even public transportation. The train from the airport to downtown was 22 minutes….and costs the equivalent of €25 per person. Unreal if you ask me. The odd fact about Norway…the have more oil on reserve than anyone in Europe, and they don’t use any for personal consumption….just in case the world runs out of oil. The taxes are through the roof, it has more darkness than sunlight, and it’s pretty remote. Oslo is also the heroin capital of the world, and has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Unique city to say the least…but on to the good stuff.

The Oslo Opera

Oslo is uber expensive, uber clean, uber modern and….kind of boring. I was warned about this from none other than my father, who had visited years before. There’s the ski jump, wow! Yeah, not really. There’s the fortress, which I guess is cool, but no great battles happened there and it’s practically 100% intact. There’s the waterfront, but unless you want the priciest of pricy restaurants and drinks, no reason to really bet there. They have a pretty cool opera house, but just the building is unique, as I don’t care much for opera personally. The only thing I really wanted to see, and it lived up to expectation, was Kon-Tiki. The raft that made it from South America to the Polynesian Islands. Although anthropologists and scientists now think that what they proved by sailing actually proves nothing, it’s pretty amazing they made it 4,300 miles on a raft made out of balsa logs.  There was also a boat in Oslo, a Viking ship, which is about 900 years old, and very well preserved. It actually was brought back from the Northwest Passage where it was frozen in ice. Not bad if you ask me.

Kon-Tiki

One last highlight, or let’s say experience, was Frogner Park. I’ll just add some pictures of the sculptures, and this was one unique park, and probably R-Rated for most families in the USA 😉

The monolith in Frogner Park…400 naked people, circle of life!

Ya, ok….ride’em cowboy?

Will I be back in Oslo? Probably not, but I will get to Stavanger to check out those fjords one day. Next up, Andorra!

We originally tried to get to Portugal a bit earlier back in December, but due to family reasons, we were unable to make it. This time our trip was almost canceled as well because of an error made by TAP. I would suggest always double checking your bookings when flying with TAP since their online system is sub-par and leaves no room for error. Anyway, we made it to Porto and embarked on our weekend.

“the Sandwich”

Still amazed we never made it to Portugal earlier, but it’s not exactly the easiest place to get to, but none the less I booked these cheap tickets after I drank about 15 beers. Yes, when I’m tipsy, I book plane tickets. Landed in Porto, walked around town a bit since it was late and not much to see, and ended up getting one of those famous sandwiches called the Francesinha. It’s considered one of the top 10 sandwiches in the world, and Porto is the only place you can find it, at least a real one. It was tasty, but then again anything would be at 1am when you’re starving. Crashed for the night, and started our weekend.

Croft Tasting Room

While in Porto, of course you have to do what else, port tastings. Annemarie is pregnant of course, but did that stop me…no! I think I hit about 5, and ended up bringing home a bottle from Croft, which was my favorite. Completely different from wine tasting, and gets you loopy just a tad faster. We had quite a good time, definitely more me than her, but we can’t win them all. We proceed to walk around the area, Villa Nova de Gaia, for the rest of the day. It’s actually a different town than Porto, but they stare at each other with only the Douro River separating them. I honestly think most tourist spend most of their time sitting on either side of the river staring at each other, since it’s prettiest part of Porto by far. We followed suit, and spent the rest of the day sitting at a cafe with beanbags, and just relaxed with drinks staring that river and the bridge that you can’t ignore.

The best way to enjoy Porto

Our trip to Porto was quite short, only about 40 hours, but I drank enough port to have a reason to visit again, and hopefully travel down the coast to Lisbon as well.

Original Porto Homes

On to the next country as always…Norway!