Leaving Utrecht – From Russia, with Love

Leaving Utrecht – From Russia, with Love

St. Petersburg was definitely worth the hassle. I spent four and a half days there and could have spent much longer. There are so many museums and cultural attractions, not to mention that being in Russia is interesting in its own right both because of its history and what it is now (I was there before any of the recent developments). It’s definitely on my list of places to get back to someday. Highlights include the Dostoevsky Murder Route Pub Crawl (which traced the route that Raskalnikov of Crime and Punishment took to murder the old lady, and involved several stops for libations), the Hermitage (amazing, of course), blini, and meeting a nice Dutch boy at the hostel. Anti-highlights would be things like the breakfast cereal (flour paste held together with glue), getting yelled at on two consecutive mornings by the breakfast babushka for taking too long to eat, and surly customs officials (who really are still Soviet-style surly, but didn’t give me any hassle at all).

The trains were also interesting – on the way to St. Petersburg I was on the Russian train, complete with compartments and free food (choice between bun, sausage and beer or croissant, yoghurt and juice), but on the way back I was on the Finnish train, with modern seats and an expensive snack bar. Going into Russia my compartment mates were two Danish girls who were studying Russian and a Russian lady who spoke no English but guessed my horoscope sign without even talking to me. She and her husband (who had studied English on his own and spoke quite well) helped us all take the metro into the downtown, as the train station was new since the publication of the guidebook. Coming back I had no company so I was free to ponder how it feels coming back to a rich country from a less developed one. Everything seemed so safe and secure and sleek, like a plump domestic cat, whereas Russia seemed more like a street savvy tom – not starving, but definitely having to work hard for everything, and not so trusting or trustworthy.

I spent the night in Helsinki, and then took the ferry, no make that cruise ship, back over to Stockholm. I splurged a little on this ferry and took a sauna before heading to the elaborate smorgasbord to stuff myself silly on Swedish and Finnish delicacies in the company of my roommate, a spacy Japanese architecture student. This all-you-can eat bonanza included free wine or beer while eating, so of course I had a few glasses, and then a beer at one of the pubs. Of course, this made me a wee bit nervous when I got off the ferry and found a bunch of police officers with breathalysers. See, in Sweden, the limit is 0.02 and it’s quite possible to blow over in the morning and face harsh consequences. Luckily, I wasn’t over (I hadn’t had THAT much).

I then spent a couple days in Stockholm with a relative, and quite enjoyed it. We saw what he called Sweden’s first “gated” community, which is only gated in the sense of not including social housing, which most Swedish developments do, so only those who can afford to buy can live there. It’s also fairly green – see Hammarby Sjöstad (click on “in English”).

I then headed south. The first day was fairly long – I planned to get to Öland, and, goshdarnit, that’s where I was going to get to. Of course, this meant that I ended up on Öland at about 11 pm, without a hostel reservation or even a real idea of where one was. But again, the fates were smiling on me, as I found a very cute little hostel, and the proprietor was still up because Sweden was doing something well in the Olympic games, and he had a room left. Amazing really.

The next day I rode around Öland. Of course, when the Lonely Planet description starts “More windmills than Holland?” one can be prepared for a little wind. And in fact, it was fairly windy, but it was steady, so bearable. Stopped to see a rebuilt fortress and World Heritage Site at Eketorp, then got off the island and into Kalmar, where I stopped to see the castle, which was pretty cool – the interior is museumed and somewhat refurbished (unfortunately cameras weren’t allowed inside). Then by about 6 I got on the road, heading for Lund.

Of course, I’d spent so much time in the north that I had forgotten about night. You know, the cold dark thing. Which is even more fun if combined with rain. Before the rain started I spent quite a long time singing a song to the moon that I made up as I went along, a sort of one use only song with no real artistic merit (about her unrequited love for the sun), but it kept me occupied. Then it rained and I just focused on riding. Brrr. But I made it to the hostel, which turned out to be one of those things that seem cool in the guidebook, but are a bit lacking in reality. See, the hostel is in train cars in a park, but the cars are extremely cramped and it was a challenge to get even my meagre belongings to fit in.

The next day I strolled around Lund for a little while, catching the Philedelphia Boys Choir in the cathedral when I went in to see the amazing astrological clock, and then shopped a little in Malmö before heading over the bridge to Copenhagen. In Copenhagen I decided to follow my principles and go for the hostel that was the “greenest”. It was kinda sketchy and warehousy though, and the staff was young, looked perpetually stoned and were not so helpful or informative, and the “greenness” seemed limited to recycling and using green cleaning products. After wandering around Copenhagen the next day (including the free town of Christiana), I wasn’t too sad when I couldn’t get a bed at the green hostel, and headed for the regular one, which was huge and much nicer, though way out of the city centre. My roommate was an older Norwegian woman who was so spacy that it took her until the next morning to figure out that I was riding (somehow walking in with my gear hadn’t registered). She kept calling things (like her coffee and mangoes) “the best in the world”. The world she inhabited seemed to only briefly touch on reality, though it seemed like a very nice place.

The next day I headed for Germany, planning to spend the night in Bremen, where there was supposed to be a hostel. After riding the freeway down to the ferry, I stuck to backroads in Germany since Barney’s top speed is the minimum speed on the autobahn. It’s much nicer on backroads anyway, cruising through farmland. I made it to Bremen before 8 pm and started looking for the hostel. Of course in my attempt to avoid freeways, I’d managed to miss the centre entirely, and ended up in a suburb. After trying to get directions from a middle-aged gas station attendant (a sign of the high unemployment in Germany) who didn’t speak English but tried his best to help me anyway, a customer (and rider) who did help me.

After we’d got the directions sorted out, I asked to use the phone to call and say I was coming, only to find a message, in English, saying only that the hostel was closed for repairs until May 2005. So my new friend helped me look in the yellow pages for a guesthouse and gave me directions to there. After some circling, I found it, only to find it closed and no answer at the phone numbers provided. So, it was cold, dark, raining intermittently and I had no idea where to stay without spending a ton of money, and I was hungry, not having eaten dinner yet – I was despairing. Luckily, about then, a pair of German technicians who were staying at the guesthouse came in. They thought that the place was full, but had colleagues staying at another place, so they called them, called the hotel, and then got into their van and guided me over there and translated for me with the older proprietor. So, for only a bit more than a hostel, I got a nice single and got to spend the night without listening to anyone else. Amazing how things work out.

Of course, I really need to start learning to call and make plans BEFORE I get somewhere, but I’m always afraid that I won’t make it to where I plan.

The next day I rode to Utrecht in the Netherlands, where I’ve spent the last 2.5 weeks, with a couple side trips to Amsterdam. I’ve been relaxing at the home of the nice Dutch boy I met in St. Petersburg, and exploring Dutch culture. It’s been nice to get a more personal look at what it’s like to live here rather than staying at a hostel and only looking at buildings.

One Barney related matter here – some knob knocked off or stole the other mirror so I had to get it replaced. Found a replacement with no problem, but the guy didn’t think he could get it on that day since the windshield had to be replaced. But I just did it there. OK, it was easy, but it still felt good to prove that I wasn’t useless with tools.

Anyway, I’m leaving Utrecht now, and heading towards Paris. I probably won’t make it there tonight as it’s a bit far, and the weather is kinda overcast and windy, (which is more unpleasant because there are really only freeways in the Netherlands because of the population density). From Paris I’m going to go back to England, sell the bike and head home on Oct 1st. If something else doesn’t change.

Pics:

Quaint Tallin (you don’t see the McDonald’s behind the tower)

St Petersburg

Parked beside two of these in a row – love motorcyle parking in Stockholm.

The “ferry”

Old and modern windmills in Öland

Train hostel

Motorcycle cop in Copenhagen

Hmmmm (Germany)

Bike parking in Amsterdam – the other kind of bike

Utrecht

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