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Germany (I)

germanyI co-wrote this monster of a guide along with Andrea Schulte-Peevers, Steve Fallon and Anthony Haywood.

I covered Bavaria, the ever-lovely Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, half of Lower Saxony (maybe the bigger half), half of Baden-Wurttemburg (the smaller one), Saxony and Saxon Anhalt.

And while Steve covered Berlin, I wrote the Trabant joke.

All told, probably my favorite parts of the country were the ones I thought I’d least like: Saxony – Leipzig is one of the hippest cities I’ve ever visited, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where they grow trees along both sides of the road so that in summer it canopies all the highways.

This originally protected the horse-drawn fish carts as they made their way from the Baltic to markets in Berlin.

Florida

Florida_2Tackling the entire state of Florida with your wife is a great way to test the strength of a marriage, and Corinna and I had not just one but two books – this and Lonely Planet”s Miami – to do!

We managed not only to stay married, but to produce one hell of a guide – if we do say so ourselves – to a state most think offers little more than South Beach and Disney.

We went crazy on the outdoor activities, museums and art galleries to try to get away from the golf courses (which we didn’t include at all), condo-lined beach resorts and the madness of Kissimmee.

As a bonus, we ticked off loads of people who felt different – Jay Clarke roared in the Miami Herald that we’d inexplicably excluded the city of Naples from our guide (we left it out because it’s a golf-course packed, condo-lined beach resort), though he relented a bit and said that our book offered “more than most”

Golly, thanks, Jay

But the second edition of the book promises to be a kinder, gentler, Florida. There’s improved coverage of native American activities and history.

And of course, newly updated sections on all the state has to offer, from Disney to Drag Queens.

And yes, we’ve included a nice fat section on Naples which, truth be told, is a perfectly lovely city with some exquisite restaurants.

Brazil

brazil-2What a blast. I covered the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, as well as updating the history, flora and fauna, and all that stuff in the front of the book, while Andrew, Chris, Robyn and Leo tackled the rest of the country.

The basic assignment I got was, “Cut the book by half the length. And make it funnier.” That’s the kind of job I love. So I went. I’d always wanted to go to Brazil, but by the time I got there I had been writing LP books for about five years, and frankly I was burned out. I called my wife from a pay phone in Minas Gerais state.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “basically everything is the same here as it is everywhere else, except that here I get to look at beautiful girls on the beach while I plod by with all my crap, as opposed to looking at ugly people in a city. So not much difference.”

Brazil, though marked the first time that I wrote a book entirely on the road, using a handheld device of the sort that used to be called a Personal Digital Assistant and is now called a “phone”. It was a WinCE machine that allowed me to type all my notes and corrections into the chapter file at the end of each day and send it via Internet home to Spain. For the first time, I wasn’t lugging all my notes and guidebooks and pamphlets and magazines.

Just half of them.

What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

IF YOU GO . .
The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

…And Scattered Jehova’s Witnesses

A late-night Australian nationwide television program has broadcast a “weather report” showing the five-day movements of door-knocking missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [LDS], entitled “The Mormon Report.”

LDS missionaries, in Australia since 1850, are a common sight here, riding bicycles and travelling door-to-door to hand out literature and discuss their religion.

The satirical report on NBC sister station Channel 7 placed cut-out symbols representing Mormons, including black-suited figures riding bicycles and rowing boats as well as knocking on doors, over a weather-style map of the country. “High” and “Low Pressure” area symbols were also used, with “predictions” such as “Mormon Norman is predicted to reach the north coast today, causing extreme depression; the state Early Mormon Warning Center expects Norman to cross the coast early this morning and residents are advised to lock their doors and pretend that no one is home.”

A portion late in the report offered a five day extended forecast of Mormon activities, which included statements such as “Scattered one to two meter Mormons” and “[good weather], with a chance of Jehova’s Witnesses towards evening”. It also spoke of “Amway ladies”, who are travelling salespeople.

A spokesman for the LDS, Alan Wakeley, said that in Australia, the LDS can’t afford to take itself so seriously that it would get upset over a good-natured spoof on a well-known satirical program. “We don’t mind the organization being sent up every now and then,” he said. “It would be “over the top” to react in any other way.”

While the LDS admits that its missionaries are a unique phenomenon, Mormons are generally well-tolerated and there are very few complaints about their methods here.

Mr. Wakeley went on to say that had the incident been a serious comparison of the group’s strategy to a sales organization, the LDS would have taken offense, but that satire is satire.

Both Mr. Wakeley and a spokesman for Channel 7 have stated that there have been no complaints received as yet.

A Day With Russia’s Most Hated Public Servant

GAIguyIn the United States, it’s the IRS. In the Soviet Union, it was the KGB. In England it’s Manchester United fans, but in the new Russia, motorists and passengers alike loathe, fear and despise the ubiquitous members of the Gosavtoinspektsia: GAI.
GAI (“gah-yee’) are traffic officers who stand at intersections throughout the country looking for signs of vehicular misbehaviour. Actually, they can pull you over for anything they want.

And they do.

But what makes them really annoying is that theyE’re entitled to impose on-the-spot fines. Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you don’t stop when they wave you over, they can shoot at your vehicle.

On my last trip I got pulled over twice in one day, while riding in two separate vehicles. I thought, “What makes these guys tick? How do they decide whom to pull over? And is it exciting to be an armed traffic cop?’. I mean, their New York City counterparts would give a limb for the opportunity.

In the interests of fair play, I spent a rainy Monday morning with some of the guys at St Petersburg GAI Central.

7 AM: Roll Call

No big surprise, kinda like Hill Street Blues with shabbier uniforms. Hot sheet covered, accidents discussed, criminal element lamented. I learn that GAI guys work two days on, two days off, and they have regular beats.

9 AM: Meeting with Captain Sergei (not his real name)

“Yes, we can shoot at your car. No, I can’t tell you how many officers we have, but there are enough to keep control of the situation.” I asked him what a foreigner can do if he should disagree with an officer’s charges against him.

“Well, his documents will be confiscated and then he can go to the address on the ticket the officer gives him and get them back…”

Oh.

10 AM: Parking Lot

Sergei leads the way to his spanking new Ford Escort GAImobile. We’re off to check out the boys on patrol. Obeying the seat-belt law, I fasten mine. Sergei ignores his, peels out of the parking space, turns on the revolving blue light and, in blatant violation of every St Petersburg traffic law, does 120 km/h (80 mph) through narrow city streets; he runs all red traffic lights, honks and shoots truly terrifying looks at motorists he passes – which is all of them.

10.30 AM: Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Murmansk Highway

There are GAI checkpoints at all major roads leading out of the city. We arrive in time to see one incoming and one outgoing car being tossed by Kalashnikov-wielding officers. They salute Sergei, who leads me into the checkpoint station house where he proudly shows off the station sauna (it’s a four-seater). Has another officer demonstrate the state-of-the-art computer system (it’s a 386 running MTEZ). They dial in to the GAI Server and the officer stumbles through the log-in (so clumsily that I was able to write down the telephone number, login name and password) and after five minutes he gives up and instead proffers the hand-written hot-sheet.

11.15 AM: Racing Through The City

Screeching through residential neighbourhoods, Sergei is explaining how the officers we’re whizzing by are trained professionals – they spend six months in the GAI academy after their army service.

We pass about half a dozen stopped cars, and Sergei is saying, “He’s checking documents… This one’s checking insurance…that one’s investigating a stolen car…” He can tell all that by passing them at speed.

Amazing.

Sergei says he’s been in ‘many” high-speed car chases and I believe him totally. Not out of idle curiosity, I ask him how long it takes to fill in an accident report. He says a minimum of one hour.

Checkpoint on the St Petersburg-Vyborg Highway

This is exactly the same as the first checkpoint, except this one is on the road leading to Finland and there’s no sauna. There’s an enormous pile of cash on the desk.

The checkpoint officer tells me that their radar gun is ‘out for repair’, but helpfully points out one of the other pieces of crime-fighting equipment present: the telephone.

Sergei says that radar detectors are E’unfortunately not prohibited here’.

That’s Russian cop lingo for: ‘They’re legal’

12.15 PM: Racing Home

As we careen home, Sergei spots a stalled pick-up truck at an intersection. His face a mask of pure anger, he screeches to a halt, tickets the hapless driver, radios his number plates (to ensure follow-up action) and we drive away. As we tear back to the station house, Sergei suddenly stops to let a dump truck, for whom the signal is green, pass through an intersection, and (I swear) says solemnly,

‘You know, even though I have this siren on, I still have a responsibility to maintain safety on the roads’.

And people say these guys aren’t dedicated public servants.

Welcome Home In Germany!

angry-waitressIt’s the second week of our family holiday, and we have driven north from Italy, through Austria and into southern Bavaria. We decide that a lovely place to spend a night would be at the Panorama Campsite (“Directly on the Lake!”) at Prien am Chiemsee*, one of those idyllic little Bavarian towns that looks as if it has been created for GermanLand, a new theme park in Abu Dhabi.

We go into the restaurant (“Fresh fish! Straight from the Lake!”) and consult the menu. Now, I should mention that I lived in Germany for about seven years; my wife and son were both born in Munich. My German is passable, and my wife’s is native.

On the menu it says, “Pan-fried lake trout,” and describes in typically flowery German how they take a lake trout and filet it and fry it in a frying pan with butter and spices.

Another offering is “Grilled lake trout” which describes in equally flowery language how the lake trout is taken and fileted and placed on a grill over a flame. In their online menu, they say,

“To feel the Bavarian atmosphere, we offer regularly knuckle of pork and other Bavarian specialities from the charcoal grill on our cozy terrace (their translation, not mine).

One thing I hate: pan-fried fish. One thing I love: grilled fish.

My wife knows this. Whie I am back at the campervan futzing with my contact lenses or something, my wife has a conversation with the waitress, who explains the difference between the two fish dishes – they are as described in the menu.

 

I order the grilled fish. It arrives. It’s been fried in a pan, and swimming in butter.

We call over the waitress. “In the menu this says grilled fish,” we say, “This is pan fried.”

The waitress, her face a mask of anger, her outrage at our interrupting her evening visible through her pancake makeup, says “I’ll be back.”

Two minutes pass. She comes over to the table and now, in English, says, “The chef will be out to explain it to you.”

“Explain it to me?” I say in English. “I don’t need an explanation, I need you to take this fish back and bring me some grilled fish,” but she’s off like a shot to…

…To sit down with her friends two tables away and smoke a cigarette, and drink a beer, and bitch about the tourists.

The chef comes out – he’s actually a pretty nice young man. “A pleasant good evening to you sir and madam,” he says in formal but not smart-assed German. “I understand there is a problem?”

“Yes,” my wife says, “The menu says that this is grilled fish, but it is pan- fried, and my husband doesn’t like fried fish, doesn’t like fish cooked in butter.”

“Ahh,” says the chef, who now understands he is speaking with someone quite foolish indeed. “You see, we use the butter to esure the fish stays moist and tender. It is quite normal in Germany.”

My wife points out that she is (a) from Germany herself and (b) sufficiently literate to read the menu, on which it states that the fish is grilled, as opposed specifically to the previous entry which is fried in butter. The chef says, “I see. Well, we will make him a fish that is not fried in butter.”

Wonderful. Five minutes later the waitress comes out.

“Next time,” she says in English, “You should tell us if you have a special order,” she lectures, then turns on her heel to walk away from our reactions.

My wife and I both ejaculated simultaneously:

“Next time you should read your own menu, lady, don’t tell me how to order,” and “Next time? You silly arrogant woman, there will never be a next time.”

The next morning, as we were ready to pay at the camping ground and leave, my wife walks in and says to the chain-smoking, obviously alcoholic cashier, “Good morning, I’d like to pay, please.”

He does not look up from his desk, but rather says, “Yeah, I have a different problem now.”

 

Gemütlichkeit [geh-mOOT-likh-kite] (1) An environment or state of mind that conduces a cheerful mood and peace of mind, with connotation of a notion of belonging and social acceptance, of being cozy and unhurried.

 

________

Why is it that on traffic signs for ‘Prien am Chiemsee’ they abbreviate the ‘am’? Not the ‘Chiemsee’. Not the ‘Prien’. The ‘Am’ Yes, ‘Prien a. Chiemsee’. It’s an abbreviation that saves literally no space on the sign.

London…On The Cheap

Americans staggered by British price especially after the dollar’s summer plunge, may find it hard to associate the word “cheap” with a vacation here.

“It’s more expensive than Norway here,” said shell-shocked Chicago resident Tom Day. “Gas is almost $7 a gallon!”

Americans find they’re charged extra for things that are free in the States – such as packs of ketchup and vinegar, or toast, rather than bread, with breakfast – adding insult to injury.

But London on the cheap is possible, and you don’t have to be a college student to find it. In fact, it’s easy. The more flexible your time, the cheaper it gets.

A good starting place is at the airport: From Heathrow, the Paddington Express costs £21 and takes 15 minutes to get you to Paddington Station. Just follow the signs that say “Underground.” (From Gatwick, take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station.)

Fall is a great time to go for several reason not the least of which is increased availability of airline seats. Every summer, millions of backpackers and other visitors swoop into the city on the Thame where the tourist industry is lying in wait like a bear trap. Waiting until fall lets you beat the crowds and gives you a better chance of finding cheap lodging.

Accommodations
Time Out: London (Penguin), Western Europe: On A Shoestring (Lonely Planet) and Let’s Go: Britain and Ireland (St. Martin’s Press) are three of the most valuable reference guides for cheap accommodation. Consult them before leaving the States – the cheaper the place, the more imperative reservations are. Most hotels will take a U.S. traveler’s check or a credit card as deposit for a room.

If you show up without a guidebook (or a clue), take the tube to Earl’s Court station – in the center of “Little Australia” or “Aussieland” – and you’ll come across a slew of rock-bottom crash pads (if breakfast is included in one of them it’s likely to feature Vegemite, a black, noxious goo made from yeast extract and eaten for breakfast by many Australians).

Follow anyone with an Aussie accent to the nearest backpacker, where, if you’re of the it’s-just-a-place-to-crash school of hotel selection, you can get away with spending as little as $25 per person per night.

You may also be accosted by any number of cheap-digs hawker who may or may not have a real room. Be careful, and don’t pay anyone anything until you’ve seen the room and gotten the key.

Many of the cheaper standard hotels in and around the center can be had for around $60 double. In the inexpensive hotel bathrooms are usually not inside your room but shared by those staying on your floor. That said, they’re usually spotlessly clean, and almost every room contains a wash basin and towels.

England’s famous bed-and-breakfast which are usually located outside the center, are far cheaper than a hotel, but be careful when looking at prices. They usually list a price per person, not per room. “En suite” means the bathroom is in the room and usually costs $15 to $30 extra.

Changing Money
A great option is cash from ATM which allow you to get cash from your Visa or MasterCard, as well as from bank accounts on the Plus or Cirrus network. Exchange rates on these transactions are generally much better than those for cash, and Lloyd’s and Midland bank machines tend to be connected to many U.S. networks.

In the center, money changers can be found everywhere, and rates are very competitive. Shop carefully; commissions can run high (some charge minimums of £3), while the more disreputable operations will lure customers in by posting rates at which they sell, as opposed to buy, other currencies. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Traveler’s checks will often get a slightly better rate than bank notes. If you’re changing more than $1,000 of either at one time you can – and absolutely should – negotiate for a better rate. Rates in the airports and train stations are generally worse than those in town, so change just enough to get away from there.

Getting Around
Immediately invest £13 ($20) in a one-week transit Travelcard, which covers buses and the tube (but not night buses) in transport zones 1 and 2, which include almost everywhere you’ll head in the city (except Heathrow airport, which is an extra one-time fare). One-day Travelcards cost £2.70 ($4.25), and either is a great saving, as a ride on the tube starts at about £1.

Taxis have a fantastically complex fare system, which can be summarized as a minimum of £1.20 ($1.90), with a fare that zooms up at a jolly clip depending on time of day, traffic, distance and other seemingly arbitrary factors. But you’ll get what you pay for: London cabbies are perhaps the best in the world, having to prove they know the fastest way to get to every single street in the city before they get their license. They’ll also talk your ear off if you let them. Tipping is expected; 10 percent is plenty.

Getting out of London is cheapest on buses (coaches). A round-trip ticket to Leed for example, can cost £15 ($24) on a National Express coach (telephone 071-730 0202) and up to £50 ($79) by train. Another option is a sort of formalized hitchhiking service provided by the National Lift Center, which brings together drivers and passengers. Call the center at 091-222 0090 with details of where you want to go; the staff will try to match you with a driver, with whom you’ll share or pay the cost of gas.

Pub Clubs & Restaurants
Time Out magazine is the frankly-written weekly London happenings bible, which offers the most current and complete listings of pubs and clubs for all taste in addition to shopping bargains of the week; film, dance, music and comedy club reviews and listings; and a helpful “Student London” section. It’s available at newsstands everywhere for £1.50 ($2.40).

Choosing a pub is a tricky matter in London’s center, but a basic rule is the farther from a tube station it i the cheaper the prices and the more interesting the clientele. While Londoners rant incessantly about the price of a pint, the going rate this summer is about £1.60 or around $2.50.

London offers a fantastic array of inexpensive food option and some of the best Indian food on the planet (averaging $5.50 an entree). Other cheap eats include the ubiquitous fish and chips (about $4.75); Japanese (about $8); pizza by the slice (about $1.60); Thai (from about $11 per person); and vegetarian (including the phenomenal stuff at Food For Thought, where light lunches for two can be under $8, including soft drinks). Avoid anyplace calling itself a steak house.

Another cheapie is the “jacket potato,” or potato skin on sale at stands and in restaurants. Fast, filling and deliciou these stuffed things start at about $2.35. (See the box for more on food.)

Theater Tickets
These day good and cheap West End theater tickets are awfully hard to come by, and if the price is under $15, you’re probably sitting behind a column.

Same-day tickets can be had, however; your best bet is the Leicester Square Half-Price Ticket Booth in the clock tower building in Leicester Square. It sells half-price tickets to many shows on the day of the performance; service charge is £1.50 (about $2.35) per ticket.

Museums
Admission is free to the British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and Tate Gallery. A great deal on 13 others (including the Barbican Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum and Victoria and Albert) is the £10 ($15.80) White Card, available at Tourist Information Centers and the museums themselves. The more you see, the more you save – average admission to each museum runs £3.70 ($5.80).

Doing London cheaply is an art, and the longer you stay, the better you’ll get at it. Time Out and the above guidebooks are but a start. The real fun is finding that fantastic Thai place, discovering “pie and mash,” and feasting on London’s budget cornucopia.

DINING ON THE CHEAP

Here are 10 cheap dining ideas for travelers to London:

Food For Thought

Vegetarian staples with good stew curries and excellent broccoli quiche in a tiny space just off Covent Garden. Very popular. Too bad about all the styrofoam these “environmentalists” use for take-out orders. Average $4 for main course $2.50 for salads. No alcohol. 31 Neal St., phone 071-836 9072.

Wagamama

Japanese health food in a very stylish and funky noodle house-cum-trend spot. Average meals run $8 per person. Wine ranges from $10 to $15 a bottle, sake $3 for a large tokkuri. Streatham Street at Bloomsbury Street, phone 071-323 9223.

The Stockpot

Several branches haven’t diminished the great value of the Italian and Italian-influenced food served here. You can have a full meal (without wine) for $8, and house wine is under $10 a bottle. 6 Basil St. (071-589 8627); 18 Old Compton Court (071-287 1066); 273 King’s Road (071-823 3175); and 50 James St. (071-486 1086).

William Price

This small cafe in Neal’s Yard serves up basic sandwiches and bagels and English breakfasts all day. It also features some very nice cake scones and pastries. Average breakfast is under $5, sandwiches up to $3.75; no alcohol. 7 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-379 1025.

Neal’s Yard Bakery Coop

Right next to William Price, this spot sells amazing breads and cakes and serves pizzas and snacks to eat in the lovely upstairs dining room. The costliest item is just over $3. 6 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden, phone 071-826 5199.

Mandeer

If you take “all you can eat” to be a personal challenge, head to this vegetarian Indian restaurant for a set lunch buffet for a mere $5.50. House wines at $12; 10 percent service charge. 21 Hanway St., phone 071-323 0660.

Diwana Bhel Poori House

Similar to Mandeer, only slightly more expensive. No alcohol, but you can BYOB. 121 Drummond St., phone 071-387 5556.

Upper Street Fish Shop

Good fish and chips in a bistro setting; traditional (deep-fried) cod and chips for about $10; fish can also be grilled or poached. BYOB. 324 Upper St., Islington, phone 071-359 1401.

Fish & Chips Stands

Any number of places sell generally superb examples of this British standby. Dousing the chips in vinegar will make you seem like a local. Average price throughout the city is $4.75.

Pie & Mash Places

These are also scattered about the city, with classic meals of mushed-up English things inside pastry. They’re definitely a London tradition, and can range from “what’s that”” to heavenly. $3 to $4.50.

IF YOU GO …

For budget accommodations in London, try these organizations and services:

The Youth Hostel Association produces a booklet listing all hostels in England and Wales. Write to the group at Trevelyan House, 8 St. Stephen’s Hill, St. Albans ALO 2DY England.

The London Tourist Board and Convention Center publishes “London Accommodation for Budget Traveller” available by writing to the British Tourist Authority, Thames Tower, Black’s Road, London W6 9EL. It contains listings arranged by area for flat-sit B&Bs and small hotels.

London Accommodation Guides publishes a similar listing arranged by price. Information: 071-865 9000.

The British Hotel Reservation Center at Heathrow books B&Bs and hostels. call 081-564 8801 (Terminals 1,2 and 3); 081-564 8211 (Terminal 4).

 

London Homestead Services offers B&Bs just outside the center but convenient to public transportation, from 14 and up per person a night, with a minimum stay of three nights. 081-949 4455.

48 Hours In Helsinki

Helsinki swings in summer, when its northern locale gives it 23 hours of daylight, and Helsinkians stay out for most of it. And celebrations commemorating the 250th anniversary of Suomenlinna, Helsinki’s stone fortress on an idyllic little green island at the city’s south, are in full heat this summer. Both Suomenlinna and the city’s breathtakingly charming portside market are chock-a-block with festivals, open air concerts, tall ship celebrations and wonderful food stalls.

Get Your Bearings
Helsinki, with its delightful mix of Scandinavian, European and Russian architecture, was established in 1550 as a market to compete with Tallinn, across the Baltic Sea. Held by many to be the real gateway between east an d west, Helsinki offers the best of European, Baltic and Russian cultures.

Because the compact centre grew up round the port and market area, Helsinki’s easily walkable; 15-minutes walk from the central train station brings you to the port, where ferries and charter boats await to bring you round the city’s more than 300 small islands. From the port, too, are ferries and cruise ships leaving for Tallinn, St Petersburg and destinations in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Finnair coaches connect the central train station with the airport every half hour; the journey takes 35 minutes.

Check In
One lovely surprise is that all hotels – and even most hostels – in Helsinki have free saunas for guests’ use. The city’s Hotel Booking Centre is a terrific source of help, especially when large events book out the city’s somewhat limited hotel space. They’re in the west wing of the central railway station (tel from the UK 00-358-9-171-133, fax 00-358-9-175-524), and book rooms for Helsinki and all of Finland. They’ll also fax you a price list, or do on the spot bookings.

The Arctia Grand Marina Hotel is one of the city’s finest secrets and a personal favourite. A four star hotel in a renovated former port warehouse, rooms are large, staff attentive and friendly, and weekend deals can get you snuggled up with a view of the harbour for under GBP55 (tel 16-661), Katajamokanlaituri 7.

Another pleasant place near the water is the Seaside Hotel (tel 69-360), Ruoholadenranta 3, with weekend double room rates of GBP66 for singles and doubles.

The best tip for a cheap room – if you are prepared to forego an en-suite bath – is the friendly and spotless Eurohostel, right near the port, which has private single and double rooms for GBP22/28.

Night on the Tiles
Helsinki starts hopping early, and people head for discos around 11 pm. Happy Days, Pohjoisesplanadi 2, is a yuppie hangout with mainstream hits and a fun crowd, and Nylon, Kaivokatu 10, is a small but jamming dance and hip hop club with a younger and much wilder crowd. Opposite Nylon, 10th Floor, Kaivokatu 3, is an upmarket flashy late night club. Too wild? Throw on some nicer duds and take a friend over to Vanha Maestro, Fredrikinkatu 51, for some wildly popular Finnish Tango (you read that right).

Take a Ride
The TourExpert desk at the excellent Helsinki City Tourist Office (tel 169-3757), Pohjoiseplanadi 19 near the port, sells tickets to sightseeing tours throughout the city and surrounding islands. The cheapest way to get your bearings is by hopping on a tr am No 3T, which makes a 45-minute figure-8 orientation loop through the heart of the city. Too pedestrian? In the evening hop on the Bar Tram which offers much the same plus beer!

The greenest way to take a tour is through TandemTaxi (tel 040-540-0400), which guide you round on tandem bicycles. And if money’s no object, charter one of the tall wooden sailing ships that gather in port for a lunch or dinner cruise (from GBP200).

Take a Hike
The most popular place to get away from it all is Suomenlinna, the fortress-village on an island off the centre where celebrations and special events continue throughout the summer. Walk through the villages streets or in the outskirts for nice walks along the shore. Helsinki residents – especially lovers – hold Kairopuisto, another island at the city’s southeast corner, dear to their hearts. It’s great for summer outdoor concerts and picnics in the park.

Lunch on the Run
Tops for a delicious and quick lunch are the food stalls around the city’s excellent covered market. Inside are dozens of options from smoked raindeer meat to excellent vegetarian; from authentic Italian and superb Vietnamese to the more pedestrian doner kebab. Outside, along the waterfront, do sample some of the heavenly smoked fish sold from small boats.

Cultural Afternoon
Invest in a Helsinki Card (GBP13), for unlimited use of city public transport (including the Suomenlinna ferry), tours and admission to most of the city’s museums.

Kiasma, the city’s new contemporary arts museum, opened with a bang in May; along with the prerequisite multimedia installations, don’t miss Christian Steel’s immensely popular scent installation, Babylon: a series of intricately-shaped porcelain pots from the Royal Danish Porcelain factory filled with oils scented with everything from birch tar to galbanum (through December). The Cygnaeus Gallery, in a lovely villa, has a great collection of 19th and 20th century Finnish paintings and sculpture. There are fine industrial and fine arts exhibits at the Helsinki City Art Museum, and transport buffs love it here: there’s a good aviation museum at the airport and a fascinating tram museum in the centre.

Window Shopping
The best shopping is right in the centre, around the enormous Stockmann’s department store. While it’s heavily touristed, the market near the port is not a tourist trap, and there’s a fine selection of Finnish handicrafts on offer, with good value for the money.

An Aperitif
Throughout the city you’ll see sidewalk cafes overflowing into the streets at the first sight of good weather: Helsinkians love drinking outdoors. Do try Koskankorva, a vodka-like firewater taken in shots or mixed with fruit juice.

Dinner
One place not in most guidebooks is Helsinki’s outstanding Garlic Restaurant (tel 651-939), Fredrikinkatu 22, a must stop for any garlic fan, with fine service, sensational homemade bread and herb butter and a very creative menu. Try the stupendous fish-kebob: pike wrapped in fresh salmon, char-broiled then served in a garlic-cream sauce over home-made seafood ravioli. Wash this down with a garlic beer (much, much better than it sounds) and you’re guaranteed a seat alone on the flight home!

For traditional Lappland specialities of salmon, gorgeous fish soups and tender raindeer steaks, head for Lappi Ravintola (tel 645-550), Annankato 22.

There are lots of places to get expensive, stylised Russian food, but when Russians come to town they go for the delicious down-home (and reasonably priced) Russian food at Babushka Ira (tel 680-1405), Uudenmaankatu 28 right in the centre.

Early Hours
A fun place to start a night out is Molly Malone’s Irish Pub (tel 171-272), with good beers and live Irish music on weekends. Then head for the Kallio district, about 1 km from downtown and packed with typical Finnish pubs and beer gardens, or for the flashy and trendy pubs that line flashy and trendy Uudenmaankatu, in the centre.

Sunday Service
The city’s premiere Lutheran church, in Senate Square, is currently closed for renovations, but its main competitor, the Temppeliaukio Church, Lutherinkatu 3, is worth a visit for its unusual architecture: built into rocks, it looks for all the world like a downed UFO. The best bet is to attend Russian services at the largest orthodox cathedral in western Europe: the glorious brick Uspenski Cathedral, Kanavakatu 1.

A Walk in the Park
There are bits of green throughout Helsinki, including Goff park at the southern end of the centre. And to get away from it all – or from what passes for hustle and bustle in Helsinki – head straight for Pihlajasaar, a wild island where you’re immediately immersed in the quiet of the countryside (except on weekends, when you’re immersed in crowds of Finns looking for the quiet of the countryside!).

Seurasaari’s yet another island, a combined historical park, picnic area and swimming spot. Lined with 19th century houses, the island’s also got some small beaches.

A Warm Welcome In The Russian Far North

Though it’s been open to foreigners for a while, getting travel information on Russia’s Arctic Kola Peninsula remains a little tricky.

Bureaucrats walk an unfamiliar line. Trained by Soviets, they’re unwilling to divulge information, but a desperation for foreign visitors and their cash requires openness. The results are often amusing.

“Camping,” booms Vladimir Loginov, chairman of the Murmansk Regional Sports Committee, “is legal anywhere on the Kola Peninsula. Except in the places in which it is not.”

The Kola Peninsula is an enormous knob of tundra, forest and low mountains between the White and Barents seas. It is one of the most ruggedly beautiful, unspoiled and desolate areas on the planet – an adventurer’s destination that’s accessible to everyone.

Travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow has become commonplace, but the Russian wilderness, the stuff out of Dr. Zhivago, remains mysterious and alluring. Such is the attraction of the Kola Peninsula with its herds of wild reindeer, dramatic mountain formations and fishing villages.

Its first tourists were Lapp herders, but the discovery of a northern sea route in the 16th century turned the tiny settlement of Kola into an arctic trading post.

Thanks to an eddy from the Gulf Stream, the Kola Inlet from the Barents is ice-free year-round, making it the ideal site for the port of Murmansk, and now, at nearby Severomorsk, for the Russian Northern Fleet’s home base.

I arrived in Murmansk with feelings of both elation and dread: elation that I would be among the first post-Soviet Western travel writers to explore the peninsula and some of its tiny towns, and dread because, though the temperature had dipped below freezing (this was in August), the famous arctic mosquitoes were huge and dive-bombing.

Location, Location
Perhaps the most novel thing about Murmansk is its location – halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, and 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Because of the Gulf Stream, temperatures are more moderate than you’d think, ranging from 8 to 17 degrees in January; 46 to 57 degrees in July.

Despite the isolation, Murmansk and many other cities in the region are remarkably bustling and modern. Because of its military importance, Murmansk was always a privileged city in terms of supplies and consumer goods. But today the entire area is swimming in Western-made foods and goods.

Murmansk’s suburbs tower above the city. No suburban sprawl here. Instead, large, colorful and clean apartment buildings are built on the mountainsides. The city center, where Prospekt (Avenue) Lenina meets with Five Corners (Pyat Ugla), teems with bundled shoppers. Stores have names like Northern Lights, 69th Parallel, Penguin and Polar Star.

The winter cold isn’t as bad as the darkness – “polar night” means non-stop dusk through December and most of January, though locals say they feel the impending gloom by the end of October. Outside the city there is just tundra; little wonder that the population turnover is 20 percent a year. People leave because of the darkness and cold, and new ones arrive seeking the higher wages that those conditions bring.

Sightseeing
What’s a tourist to do in Murmansk” See the harbor, St. Nicholas Church (Svyato-Nikolskaya Tserkov, named for the patron saint of sailors) and the new Fine Arts Museum and go for a swim in the municipal pool.

The best harbor tour, weather and sea permitting, is on the Kola Inlet. You’ll go south toward Kola (you won’t see the Northern Fleet but you will see the city). Mostly you see shipyards and tundra. Go to the Passenger Ferry Terminal and hop a ferry to Mishukovo. Ferries leave six times daily, and the 30-minute journey is about 75 cents each way.

St. Nicholas Church would be impressive enough, even if it didn’t have such a colorful history. In 1984, the congregation from the little wooden church that was on the site decided to build a cathedral, and began doing so in secret. It’s hard to hide a cathedral, and when the government found out about it in 1985, miners were sent in with orders to blow it up. This raised a holy stink, and demonstrators sat around the site, blocking the miners; simultaneous protests were held in front of the Moscow city executive committee.

The government capitulated to some extent, letting the part of the church that had been built stand but forbidding any further work on it. After perestroika greased the country’s religious wheels, construction resumed in 1987 and continued over the next five summers.

Today St. Nicholas Church is the Kola Peninsula’s religious administrative center. To get there from the railway station, take trolleybus No. 4 for four stops, walk past the pond and up the stairs, then along a dirt trail to the main road. The cathedral is on the right. Services are held Monday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The new Fine Arts Museum at ulitsa Kominterna 13 finally got a permanent collection two years ago. The small but interesting collection includes graphic arts, paintings, decorative applied arts and bone carvings, all on an “image-of-the-north” theme. Admission is about 50 cents for foreigners, 25 cents for Russians and students. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.

It’s hit or miss, but in the summer there’s a chance to see one of the Murmansk Shipping Co.’s four atomic-powered ice-breakers at the dock (they’re enormous and very orange).

Photography, except in the port itself, is legal now, and you can photograph anything you see from the railway and passenger sea terminals or on board the ferries.

Murmansk’s municipal swimming pool, at Ulitsa Chelyuskintsev behind the central stadium, is just amazing: 50 meters (55 yards) long, with three-, five-, seven- and 10-meter diving boards. There are two kiddie pools downstairs plus a banya or two (steam baths, see accompanying story). It’s open June to October from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is about $1.

Lappland Nature Preserve
Buses and trains from Murmansk to towns along the peninsula’s western corridor are cheap and frequent. Heading south, our first stop was the Lapland Nature Preserve near the ecologically devastated city of Monchegorsk.

This UNESCO-protected preserve consists of 1,860 square miles of almost pristine wilderness. About half of it is virgin tundra; the rest, alpine grasslands, marshes, rivers and lakes. It was founded in 1932 to protect the area’s reindeer herds, still among Europe’s largest.

The park can be visited by individuals or small groups (fewer than 12 people) under limited conditions by advance arrangement. You can trek through the wilderness or traverse it on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Costs vary but are generally very low. The preserve is run by a non-profit organization.

Apitity
We continued south to Apatity because some Swedes living there had offered to show us the area. When we arrived, we found them running the godsend-to-tourism Scandinavian Study Center, which acts as liaison to Western groups and individuals who want to explore the area.

“This is one of the most beautiful areas in the north,” says Peder Axenstein, who has lived in the area on and off for four years. “We just hope that people will come and see what’s here, and not be afraid to explore the wilderness outside the cities.”

Indeed, Apatity, the Kola Peninsula’s second-largest city, founded as a geological studies center in 1966 on the site of a former gulag, isn’t very attractive to those outside scientific circles.

But it’s an excellent jump-off point for hiking, climbing and skiing expeditions in the nearby Khibiny mountains, and for hunting trips. Who knows, you may even get a chance to see Yeti, the Bigfoot-like creature who locals say pops into the region now and again (16 1/2-inch footprints have been found).

Apatity is also a cultural center for arts and crafts. The wonderful Salma Art Salon, at Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo 1, is a true cooperative venture: It’s privately owned by, and shows and sells the work of, more than 200 Kola Peninsula artists. Prices are low, and the management can arrange for customs papers to get the merchandise out. And musicians and music lovers from all over the region gather for the free bi-weekly concerts and recitals held here.

Kirovsk
There’s not much to do in Kirovsk, 17 miles east, except ski, but the skiing is the finest in northwest Russia. The city hosts the annual All-Europe Downhill Freestyle Competition.

Kirovsk and its suburb, known not by its Russian name but simply by the moniker “Kirovsk-25” (signifying its distance in kilometers from Apatity) are nestled in the Khibiny mountains, separated by a winding mountain road. The center is tiny and easy to navigate, and all the skiing takes place near Kirovsk-25.

The slopes may look easy but those mountains sure are steep. The 17 lifts are mainly tow ropes, and lift tickets are 50 cents per ride, or $4.50 for a day pass. There are eight trails, as well as a children’s trail and lift.

The Kazanskaya Church, just outside Kirovsk-25, was built on the site of another church that had been moved from Kirovsk. The inside is lovely, with an impressive iconostasis and the reputedly miraculous Icon of St. Nicholas. On the night of May 21, 1994, the icon incredibly restored itself, and now works its miracles Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a break between 2 and 3 p.m.

Take bus No. 1, 12 or 105 from Kirovsk center toward Kirovsk-25, and ask for the church. From the bus stop, walk west (back toward Kirovsk), turn south (left), then turn east (left again) and the church is 600 feet on the right side of the road.

The best sight here, at the northern end of Kirovsk-25, is the surrounding mountains, or rather the lack of half of them. (They look like those models you used to see in school of a cutaway section of a volcano).

Local scientists insist this was accomplished by the use of earth movers and heavy equipment (though some say it would have taken a nuclear blast).

Portions of this piece were extracted from Lonely Planet’s Russia, Belarus & Ukraine guide, with permission from the publisher.