Rundāle Palace: The Versailles of Latvia

During my recent trip to the Baltics, I was lucky enough to have a few days in Latvia. While most of my time was spent in Riga, there was one other place I was glad I had the chance to visit while en route to Lithuania.

In the south of Latvia, about 20 km from the Lithuanian border is Rundāle Palace  — an enormous 18th century baroque palace. For those that that have seen BBC’s latest adaptation of War and Peace, you will know that the miniseries is set in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 1800s. What you may not realize is that the majority of the filming actually took place in Lithuania and Latvia, including at Rundāle Palace.

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Known as “the Versailles of Latvia,” The palace has 54 rooms, including a 1770s-era billiards room, ballroom and a library. The palace was originally built as a summer home for Ernst Johann von Biron, the Duke of Courland and Semigallia. Biron was a favorite courtier and likely lover of Anna Ioannovna, the regent of the Duchy of Courland (a state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and later the Empress of Russia. Biron was a powerful figure at court due to his influence over the Empress. This reached new heights when Biron convinced the Empress to name him regent of Russia when she was on her death bed.

The Throne Room
The Throne Room
The Duke's Bedchamber (featured as Pierre's room in War and Peace)
The Duke’s Bedchamber (featured as Pierre’s room in War and Peace)
Dining Room
Dining Room

It was through Biron’s position that he was able to line his pockets and build incredible homes for himself such as Rundāle Palace. Eventually Biron was usurped and exiled to Siberia. Some time later Imperial Russia absorbed Courland and Semigallia and Rundāle Palace became the property of the Russian Crown.  The estate would later be gifted by Catherine the Great to the brother of her lover. From there, it passed to a few other noble families until World War I when it was used as a hospital by the German army.

The ballroom
The ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
The Duke's study
The Duke’s study

From there it was used as flats for military veterans and then as a grain storehouse. When the Soviet Union took over the Baltic States after WWII, Rundāle Palace was used as a school with the Dukes private quarters being transformed into a  gymnasium. It wasn’t until the 1970s that restoration began and it was eventually turned into a museum.

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Today,  Rundāle Palace is one of Latvia’s most visited sites. The Palace itself as well as the park around it which features a French style garden complete with fountains and amphitheater  are well worth a visit.

 

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Three Bars in Three Cities

If there is one thing anyone can rely on when traveling in most parts of the world — it’s that there will always be a bar. When traveling, bars are not just a place to get a drink but a place to meet other travelers on the road and swap stories.  In my experience, it’s a place to meet the locals who can tell you more about the area you’re visiting and maybe even give you some good recommendations for getting off the beaten path. These are the places (drinking or not) that you start experiencing more of the place you’re visiting rather than just being a casual observer.

Budapest, Hungary — Szimpla Kert

I had heard about Szimpla long before I was even considering going to Budapest. Friends of mine from Germany, the U.K. and not to mention my Lithuanian husband had all been to Szimpla on their own respective trips to Budapest. So by the time I took my own maiden voyage to Hungary in October — I had high hopes for the bar.  Ruin pubs are unique to Budapest and they sound exactly like what they are, which is old buildings that are turned into bars. Szimpla is the ultimate ruin pub — it’s a massive old factory that has no roof (so everyone can smoke inside) and  multiple levels which include numerous bars. The place is covered in spray paint over it’s dingy walls, bath tubs cut in half serve as couches and old rusty bicycles hang from the walls tangled up in Christmas lights. I had never been to a bar quite like it. But, it lived up to expectation. When we were there we made friends with other pub goers who were from all over the world. People from Chile, U.K, Somalia, Romania, Italy, and of course Hungary were all happily sipping beer, sharing cigarettes as well as  stories. It was a fantastic place to go if you were looking for a friendly bar in Budapest.

Prague, Czech Republic — Hemingway Bar

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Hemingway Bar could tie first with Szimpla but it is a completely different type of experience. Hemingway was a huge highlight for my friends and  when we visited Prague in the fall of 2012. After a day of sightseeing we came upon a speakeasy style bar near the Vltava on the Old Town side of Prague.  This was a bit of a surprise as I’ve never seen speakeasy bars outside the U.S. and I admit I was skeptical. I rarely drink cocktails when I’m outside of the states because they often are over priced, way too sugary and just not as good. But, Hemingway won me over. They made a fantastic gin fizz and one of my friends couldn’t stop raving about his Manhattan which we all agreed tasted “magical.” In addition to great cocktails, Hemingway Bar offered a wide variety of cigars to enjoy with your cocktails. The atmosphere was incredibly laid back and we enjoyed our Cuban cigars and drinks on plush couches and chairs at the back of the bar.

Vilnius, Lithuania — Alinė Leičiai

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I am always on the hunt for a good home-brewed beer when I visit a new country. I find its a good cultural experience — especially if the country you’re in is renowned for it’s brew. My husband had been telling me for ages that Lithuanians make good beer and often win international brewing competitions. So when we visited his old stomping grounds in Vilnius, I was anxious to see if he was right. Leicai (pronounced Lay – chay) is a brewery in the old town of Vilnius that serves their signatures brews (light, dark and everything in between) as well as traditional Lithuanian food. Leicai is more of the perfect place to meet up with old friends (which is what we were there to do) than to go for a big night out. It’s a  place to relax and have a couple of beers and maybe a cheese/meat plate (which was enough to stuff three people).

What are some of the best bars you have been to?

Photo Credit: Aline Leiciai photo from Aline Leicia’s Facebook page; Hemingway Bar photo from Hemingway Bar photo’s Facebook page

Snapshots of Northern Wales — My Home Away From Home

Aside from being the former residence of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as some highly amusing and inappropriate sheep jokes — Wales tends to be the most overlooked country in the U.K. It’s a bit like the embarrassing relative of the family who no one wants to admit being related to but is still invited to the reunion because hey…they’re family. Some people who don’t live in the U.K. actually think Wales is a part of England. So, here I am to set the record straight for a country that is very proud, has it’s own language, it’s own flag and what’s more some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Not to mention it’s a cheap weekend getaway when you don’t want to spend tons of money to fly somewhere. Here’s a few great areas to check out in northern Wales.

Trearddur Bay

Trearddur Bay (pronounced “trather) is only a few minutes outside the small village of Holyhead, where one can catch the ferry from Wales to Dublin. The area looks a bit like something from a period drama. The bay opens up into the Irish Sea and is dotted with small white houses and Inns. If the weather is decent, it’s not uncommon to see a photographer out on the bay taking pictures of the sunset which I have been told are “some of the most beautiful in the world.” I have made it a routine to wake up early in the morning and walk around this bay with a pen and journal to write on the banks. My American accent stands out a long mile in this small area but everyone is always friendly and happy to give a “good morning” as you walk by.

Conwy

An hour’s drive away from Trearrdur Bay is Conwy. This ancient walled city boasts it’s own castle on a large bay that is always filled with colorful sail boats. The castle was originally built as a fortress as were the walls which surround the city during the 1200s as part of the English’ conquest of Wales. For a few pounds, visitors can walk around the castle and get a great view of the town and the sea. Lastly, one of Conwy’s quirky tourist attractions is “the Smallest House in Britain.” You can access the house for 1 pound, and as it only takes less than five minutes to view — it doesn’t exactly eat up much time but it wasn’t really worth looking in either.

Colwyn Bay

There are a lot of bay’s in Northern Wales (as already illustrated) but the last one to visit is the seaside resort town of Colwyn Bay. The area here reminds me a lot of Brighton with it’s posh looking little white 19th century hotels that line the beach and it’s own pier (the Victoria Pier). Colwyn Bay is a very touristy city but it’s not too overwhelming and a great place to get away for the summer.

Two Countries, Two Weeks — One Carry-On Bag!

Back in June, I pledged to take the one-bag challenge for my trip to Eastern Europe. Now having returned from my journey — I am proud to report that I managed the entire trip out of one carry-on bag.

This saved me a lot of time because I didn’t have to wait in line to check the bag and then wait once again at my destination to pick it up from baggage claim. This also provided the added convenience of having everything on me at all times; in case I wanted to change out my shirt or grab an extra sweater.

Then of course, was the ability to move a lot faster…literally. When you aren’t struggling with a bulky suitcase or having to move a luggage trolley, it becomes easier to maneuver the crowds as well as enter and exit airport buses/trains quicker.

Packing for the trip probably took as long as it would with a regular suitcase because a lot more thought went into the little I could take. I considered the practicality of what I was bringing — especially with clothes. I had roughly four outfits that I could interchange and layer up depending on the weather. But, the trip was much less cluttered and therefore keeping track of all my belongings was easier. In past trips, I constantly checked and re-checked a room before I left it in fear that I had forgotten something. That wasn’t an issue this time because I had a very clear idea of EVERYTHING I had brought and knew exactly where it was.

Challenges

There were a couple of challenges involved with bringing only a carry-on bag. The first is that my carry-on luggage comes in the form of a shoulder bag. After about 30 minutes of walking around with it, my shoulder began to ache. Having a bag with wheels in an airport is a huge benefit in this case. However, I was later walking down a lot of cobbled stone streets where wheeled suitcases would not have done so well.

I found that having one bag with you means you’re forced to wear your bulkier items whenever you’re in transit. This is a good idea, but unfortunately it is not as comfortable for the plane journey. I had a pair of Frye ankle boots that I had to wear at every airport junction because they wouldn’t fit in my bag. Moreover, they were a major pain to take on and off whenever I went through security. Lastly, I didn’t have the luxury of wearing sweatpants on the plane as it was more practical on my packing needs to wear jeans.

Helpful tips

There are numerous travel sites that will tell you rolling your clothes, as opposed to folding them will help you fit more into a suitcase and also keep them from wrinkling. I tried this out for myself and while i’m not sure how much more space I saved — I was impressed that my clothes didn’t need to be ironed after a ten hour journey in a small bag.

When flying on an airline you are usually allowed a personal item in addition to your carry-on luggage. Rather than just have my purse — I took a foldable canvas bag. The bag was able to hold my purse, two bottles of water, a magazine, an iPod, socks, eye-mask, chap stick, and sanitation wipes. My advice; don’t limit yourself to a small bag for your personal item.

One major benefit I had in this trip is after the first leg in Budapest; I was able to stay with my in-laws in Lithuania where I could do my laundry. But, even if I hadn’t been staying somewhere with a washer and dryer, finding a laundromat would have probably still been feasible.

Overall, the benefits outweighed the challenges considerably! I think for future trips I will continue to rely on a simple carry-on bag.

Trakai Castle: Lithuania’s Medieval Capital

IMG_0384Trakai Island Castle was one of the sites I wanted to visit the most on my first excursion to Lithuania. Trakai was at one time the capital of Lithuania and served as a major center for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Lithuania only ever had one king and then was ruled by dukes onward). The castle was first built in the 14th century and is unique as it sits on a small island in the middle of Lake Galve. Trakai Castle’s location gave it strategic importance during wars and military campaigns as it was very difficult to capture.

The castle unfortunately fell into disrepair sometime after the 17th century and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that preparations were made to start restoring it. It took over a hundred years to complete the restoration due to both world wars and funding. The restoration was complete by the early 1990s and today is one of Lithuania’s biggest tourist attractions. The castle has been turned into a national museum that features various artifacts from the castle as well as other items that likely would have been used there during its time as a royal residence and fortress.

For those looking to visit Trakai, it is a 30-minute drive outside of Vilnius. There are several rustic restaurants nearby where you can find Kibinai (a traditional Lithuanian pastry, not unlike a Cornish pasty). It’s easy enough to hire a boat to take you around the castle’s island as well as the rest of the lake. Lastly, there are several kiosks selling various postcards and souvenirs — including Lithuanian amber (the country’s biggest export). I did stop and pick up several postcards and considered picking up some amber jewelry but found that I could get the same quality of amber in Vilnius for a cheaper price.

Parisi Udvar: A Forgotten Piece of Budapest

During my time in Budapest, I wandered into one of the most astounding buildings I have ever seen. The Parisi Udvar or “Parisian Court” is both haunting and breathtaking. As the brain child of German architect, Henrik Schmahl — it was built during the turn of the 20th century as a multi-use shopping center.  The Art Deco building was finished in 1913 — complete with ornately carved panels, stained glass dome and even a hidden elevator. The outside of the Parisi Udvar was used for the Budapest scenes in the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I’m disappointed that I can’t find out too much more on the structure — especially why it is in disrepair. Supposedly it didn’t suffer any major damage during both world wars, but it didn’t manage as well under the communist regime. I found one source that claims under the Soviet Union, the shopping center was renovated into apartments for a little while and then back into shops in the 1980s. Apparently during both renovations, no thought was given to preservation. Whatever the history of the Parisi Udvar — the building is completely empty today and, aside from a single security guard, is an open building where anyone can walk in and take a look around.

Traveler’s Takeaways: Budapest

Sadly, my time  posting from the road was short-lived. I managed to catch the flu while I was in Budapest, so by the time I would sit down to try and write — I found myself pretty low on energy. I am currently back home in the U.S. fighting jet lag.  But, I am happy to finally be able to pen some of my biggest takeaways from the great city of Budapest.

Big city

First off, Budapest is big! At 203 square miles — it is nearly five times the size of Paris! This is helped by the fact that Budapest was originally three different cities. Buda and Pest were the larger of the two and while they remain unified in name, they are still split by the Danube river, which runs between the two. Thankfully, Budapest has an efficient public transport system that includes a metro, overground trams and buses.

Budapest’s Golden Age

Budapest has some incredible, yet deceptive buildings. The Hungarian Parliament Building for example, is probably the most intriguing structure in Budapest. It looks a bit medieval in its style and is the tallest building in the whole country. It’s also only a hundred years old. Many of Budapest’s most visited sites such as the Grand Market Building, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Opera House were all built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. This was when Budapest was at it’s peak culturally and academically. Most of the buildings however were built in a gothic or renaissance style so they look much older than they truly are.

Speaking Hungarian in Hungary

In a former post, I advised that if you’re in a foreign country — the first words you speak should be the local language. I am amazed to report that this is actually NOT advised in Hungary. There were several instances where I greeted someone with “Szia” (hello in Hungarian) and they assumed I was Hungarian. Then when they proceeded to converse with me in Hungarian — I had to awkwardly state that I couldn’t speak the language. I would then receive a confused look — almost as if to ask why I didn’t start in English.

Overall, the Hungarians I met in Budapest spoke perfect English and seemed perfectly un-offended if you began a conversation sans Hungarian. Additionally, every Hungarian I met was polite and extremely helpful. I don’t think I have ever been in such a tourist friendly city.

Lack of local color

The biggest thing that disappointed me about Hungary was that they don’t actually have a thriving local underbelly. You won’t find too many bars or shops where only the locals go.

Most places in Budapest seem to be a mix of both locals and tourists. This would usually be ideal for me because it means you’re not as likely to get funneled into over-priced places where the only people you meet are other tourists and the restaurant you’re in is some exaggerated caricature of local cuisine and atmosphere.

However, it was a down-side when I wanted to find some good souvenirs or keep sakes. The only areas there seemed to go for “Hungarian souvenirs” were the tacky shops that carry t-shirts that say “I Love Budapest” and carry Russian Babushka dolls (which have nothing to do with Hungary). So, if I wanted a nice scarf or a cool piece of jewelry made by a local artist — I was out of luck. Unfortunately, Budapest (like most former Eastern-block areas) are still in catch-up mode and it might be conjectured that there hasn’t been the time or luxury to cultivate the type of local color that you find in other major European cities.

The trip to Budapest was incredible and the five days spent there were easily filled up. I’ve already made a list of things to do for a future return trip. In the mean time — I look forward to writing more on this excursion to the Hungarian capital.

Postcard Pick: The Streets of Madrid

These are actual postcards I picked up in a small shop in Madrid two years ago. While I do favor picture postcards, these are unique in my collection as they feature the atmosphere and life of Madrid instead of a grand building or landscape. That is what made these the perfect souvenir. Madrid is not about larger than life architecture and must-see tourist attractions but about the attitude of the city and its people. Spain itself is very laid back and buzzing with energy, yet it’s particular history both during WWII and the Franco dictatorship afterwards has made it seem slightly more isolated than other countries in Europe. For instance, Madrid is filled with ex-pats, yet you will be more hard pressed in this European capitol to find locals that speak another language compared to it’s neighboring nations.  History is contentious here and you are reminded that while the rest of the world was fighting each other during WWII, Spain was undergoing a brutal civil war which has never been fully reconciled among its citizens. All of this makes Madrid a particularly different type of city to visit. It is one of experience, rather than sights and a history full of debate rather than certainty. But, one thing is for sure, you will not find any other place like it.

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