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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.

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.

First Day Of School: Dear Parents

kid-with-allergiesAs you know, one of our students, Edgar, has a number of allergies and we ask that you be understanding in ensuring that the classroom remains free of certain materials and foodstuffs to assure that all students are able to enjoy the most nurturing learning environment possible.

Edgar is allergic to ground nuts, so kindly refrain from bringing peanuts, peanut butter, or any variant, including but not limited to earthnuts, ground nuts, goober peas, monkey nuts, pygmy nuts and pig nuts. It’s not commonly known that peanuts are not nuts at all, but rather legumes – so it is imperative that your child not bring to class any food containing legumes such as bambara groundnut, black eyed pea, chickpeas, common bean, cowpeas, fava or broad beans, hyacinth bean, lablab, lupins, moringa oleifera, peas, pigeon peas, soybeans, sterculia, velvet beans, winged beans, yam beans and several species of vigna. Green beans should be fine. however please avoid at all costs allowing your child to bring alfalfa, arachis, albizia, clover, lupins, stylo or, of course, vetch.

We’re sure you understand and will be considerate of Edgar’s condition.

Additionally, as you know, Edgar is highly sensitive to tree nuts, or “true nuts”, so kindly refrain from bringing almond, beech, black walnut, brazil nut, candlenut, cashew, chestnuts (including Chinese chestnut, malabar chestnut and sweet chestnut), coconut, colocynth, cucurbita ficifolia, filbert, gevuina avellana, hazelnut, hickory (and shagbark hickory), indian beech, kola nut, macadamia, mamoncillo, maya nut, mongongo, oak acorns, ogbono nut, paradise nut, pili nut, pistacia, walnut, and water caltrop. Naturally, acorns, brazil nuts, candlenut, cashew, chestnuts, chilean hazlenut (Gevuina), hazelnuts, hickories, malabar chestnut, mongongo, pine nuts or pistachio are also highly problematic, as are derivatives, such as pesto sauce. And please ensure that, if you make chili, that you use no beans, or meat, or tomatoes (see Appendix A, Nightshade Variants) and certainly refrain from using peanut butter in the chili.

Feel free to use nut-like gymnosperm seeds such as Monkey puzzle or juniper, but please, no pine nuts especially including single-leaf pinyon or of course, Mexican or Colorade pinyon.

Edgar’s sensitivity to certain fabrics will require slight changes to the classroom environment, as his extreme sensitivity to pile and nap mean that needlefelt, knotted, tufted or flatweave, plain weave or tapestry weave carpets are problematic. Specifically, damask, haircloth and of course double-cloth, two-ply, triple-cloth, hooked or embroidery can cause discomfort or bloating. Armenian carpets, especially including artsvagorgs and vishapagorgs (though not otsagorgs) are of particular concern. Please also avoid polyethylene terephthalate and Polytrimethylene terephthalate, acrylic, wool and wool-blended or acrylic carpets.

Sisal or Berber should cause no problems.

We are also concerned about chert, flint nodules and carbonate, especially calcium carbonate as found in traditional classroom chalk. This can cause chafing and other irritation; additionally, the aerosolized version of this, typically found in the dust trapped by the felt fabric of the chalkboard erasers (felt is another material to which Edgar has exhibited possible signs of allergic reaction) is also problematic. Unfortunately, Edgar’s sensitivities to alcohol based ink solvents 1-propanol, 1-butanol, diacetone alcohol and cresols
typically found in dry-erase markers make whiteboards unusable (also note that the xylene or toluene found in permanent markers is highly irritating to Edgar and can cause an immediate reaction). Finally, the active matrix color or TFT LCD screens on most contemporary computers cause Edgar light sensitivity and increased blinking and eye dryness, so please refrain from using computers of any kind in class.

We thank you in advance for your understanding and consideration. And we’re looking forward to a year that is exciting, educational and most of all, FUN!

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.

Headhunters Down Under

kontrollerThe team of plainclothes agents moves in, and takes position. The suspect is in the corner, the gentleman with the pierced face, shaved head, tattoos and a scuffed leather jacket. He is almost 2 meters tall.I’ve seen this kind of thing before, riding shotgun with cops in New York and St Petersburg, but Munich’s kopfgeldjaeger, “head-hunters”, are different. They’re despised and mocked: I met one who’d appeared on a TV talk show as having one of the, “worst jobs in Munich”.

But the MVV Transit Ticket Controllers I met are, for all the world, a bunch of pussycats.

“It’s a game,” says Wolfy, amiable team leader of this 8-person crew which prowls the city’s public transport system in search of scofflaws. “They see us coming, and we see them see us coming.”

It certainly appears that way during the afternoon I spent sniffing out crime with them aboard Munich’s subways and trams. The affability of this group was was something of a let-down. I’d somehow expected (as had my editor, who also had hoped for tales of terror from below) that these folks would would be a right hard bunch.

Maybe they’re friendly because they’re hardly necessary: of almost 300 million riders last year on the Munich underground, only a paltry 3% to 5% actually ride “black”, or without a validated ticket. Those who do risk a fine of DM60 – money the MVV, Munich’s Mass Transit System, says you’d be better off spending on beer.

There’s really no “black riding” culture here as exists other cities like Amsterdam, where rider’s groups defy the law en masse. In Munich, most cough up. So relaxed was the control team I rode with that they told me I could say anything I wanted to about their methods, patrol tactics and procedures.

The Basics
Your chances of getting caught, and the patrol schedule, change like the wind. But one static figure is that there are 22 teams of eight agents on staff at the MVV.

They’re not cops – indeed their powers of arrest are identical to yours as a citizen. But they have the power to inspect your ticket, and issue fines. They can hold you until police arrive if you’re recalcitrant or they don’t believe you’ll pay (thoughfully, though, if you live in Germany, a bill will arrive at your house).

The Day
I met the team at the Hauptbahnhof, the central railway station, under which their headquarters is located behind one of those mammoth steel doors you pass daily and never notice. As we boarded the U4 Wolfi and I chatted about statistics and the risks.

“Most people are polite,” he said. “It’s not really a dangerous job. And people know who we are – you see five or eight people standing clustered on the platform talking, and carrying no bags, you figure they’re us – and you’re right.”

Sometimes teams lurk at the top of the stairs to the subway, doing “border checks” to nab passengers alighting from the U-Bahn.

One thing these folks have done is heard it all. There’s little you can say to them that’s not been tried before, probably tried in the last hour. For the record, the most commonly used excuse is, “The machine was out of order,” followed closely by “I lost my ticket”, both of which go over about as effectively as the old yarn involving your homework and your dog.

These are, however, reasonable folks. “We understand that this is a difficult system for foreigners to grasp,” says Gaby, a 20-year veteran and another huggably amiable – when she’s not asking for your ticket – agent. “If people don’t understand and we believe they tried to, we’ll give them a break.”

But mess with them and you’re in for it. “If we don’t believe you,” says Wolfi, “we’ll fine you, and if we think you won’t pay we’ll hold you for the police. A mistake is a mistake, but ‘paying’ is international.”

And don’t try the old “I-don’t-speak-German” dodge – all teams have an English speaker and many a French speaker, and all are armed with Wolfi’s custom-made chart which gives you the bad news in languages from Czech to Spanish, and Italian to Serbo-Croat.

We board another train, and the doors close. Instantly all scatter, whipping out their ID cards like Kojak at a raid, their presence going over like, well, Kojak at a raid.

The skinhead I discussed earlier bristled, and I thought we were in for some action.

“You got me,” he says, smiling.

Willi, the rookie of the group with just a year on the job (and the subject of that episode of the Sabrina show) tickets the perp, who politely hands over all documents requested and signs on the dotted line.

When it was over, the skinhead says something which convinces me the rest of my day is to be rather dull. He says, “Thank you.”

Desperate for some action, I tried one last question: “Do people ever run?”

“Sometimes,” said Wolfi.

Ah ha! “So, do you give chase?” I asked, breathlessly.

“No.”