Monthly Archives: July 2012

Leaving Russia for Belarus

Leaving Russia for Belarus

Our wake up call came at 6:15 and luggage had to be in the hall at 6:45. We go downstairs for breakfast. It was a buffet and we had a lot of options. This was the largest Holiday Inn I have ever stayed in. Bread pudding was on the buffet and those of you that have traveled with me before know how much I love bread pudding. It didn’t look like bread pudding, it looked more like fruit cake. I only took one bite.

Ilya reminded us that we would need 15 rubles for the WC at our first stop. Ilya has been very good about letting us know when we will stop.

We stopped at the Katyn Memorial site. This memorial was a double tragedy. The Russians killed over 22,000 Polish officers and civilians during the war and the Nazi’s massacred 500 Russian officers. Our guide told us how the Russians had denied their involvement for so long and the memorial was dedicated for both Poland and Russia.

We completed our Belarus visas on the way to Moscow. We can enter Belarus from Russia without our visa but we cannot check into a hotel or leave Belarus without our Visa, so we just keep driving. You see an almost instant change in the use of the land. The whole time we were in Russia we didn’t see any crops or cattle. We saw wheat fields, Holsteins and farm equipment, every field was golden, rolling hills. You might think you were in the heartland if it weren’t for all the trees.

We learned more history about Belarus and Russia as when we arrived in Minsk.

Julie is now writing – We had dinner at the hotel, and the food was just mediocre. I am ready to eat some Mexican food. I need protein! This hotel could not accommodate for three people in one room, so Joanne got her own room. Mom and I watched some Olympics before we went to bed. We saw a South African beat Michael Phelps. It was a good race and the South Africans on our trip were happy to get a gold. We have been watching the Olympics via European channels. Some people on our trio were a little upset that even though Phelps lost he was still interviewed. They were not happy that the Americans were getting all the attention. I reminded them this was a European station we were watching, not the US. I told them the US stations rarely interview people from other countries. I am a little irritated with the reporters saying that Phelps is not doing well. Hello! A silver and two golds is not bad at all!

Lynda and Julie

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Moscow

Moscow

Today was a busy day! My whole body hurts but especially my legs. We didn’t stop all day. But it was all worth it.

We started with our city tour accompanied by our local tour guide. We stopped by a pedestrian bridge to look at a fairly new tradition of putting a lock on a tree when you get married. While we were there we got an excellent opportunity to take photos of the Kremlin. We went to Red Square and once again saw St. Basil’s Cathedral, which was built in the 16th century. It was so beautiful and I stood right in front of it!

We entered the Kremlin next. One do our fellow travelers from Australia asked me “Did you ever believe that in your lifetime you would be able to visit Russia in this way?”. The answer was NO! It astounds me still.

We went into the Assumption Cathedral (1479). It was breathtaking. The paintings ( iconography) was unlike anything I had ever seen before. I wanted to stay longer. Photography was not allowed so I left with only my memories.

All I can say about the Novodevichy Cemetery is “I still cannot get over how LARGE everything in Russia was!”.

We went back to the Kremlin for our appointment to tour the Amoury Chamber. The carriage collection surprised me the most. I felt like Cinderella was about to descend from the steps of the carriage! No photos once again. The final stop in the Amoury was the Faberge Egg collection.

We go directly from the Armoury to the circus. We laughed and enjoyed the close of our day.

Before I left home I told everyone that I was only going to visit Russia once but . . . I lied. I want to visit again there are so many things I still want to see!

See you on the road.

LYnda

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Moscow Metro and Red Square at night!

Moscow Metro and Red Square at night!

We beat the Germans to breakfast and bragged to the Australians about winning a gold medal already. I had porridge again for breakfast. Please tell me what porridge is made of because it taste different than oatmeal! I have not had any milk since we left Finland because I like my milk cold, not room temperature.

Departure time was 7:30 am. It is going to be a long drive to Moscow.

We completed our Belarus visa while we were traveling on the bus to Moscow. The only hard part was about our passports. We had to give our passports to the tour director. The hotel keeps our passports while we are in Russia. So whenever we go exploring the only thing that I have to identify myself with is my drivers license.

We stopped for lunch at a hotel, got back on the bus and stopped long enough to take pictures of the Volga River. While we are moving on we listened to classic Russian music.

It was a long drive. We learned more Russian history. Ilya is very patient with us and has an excellent sense of humor. Moscow has a population of around 20 million.

We arrived at the hotel and we were on our own for dinner. I had cheese curd pancakes and Julie had pancakes filled with chocolate hazelnuts and raisins, for dessert our little group shared poppyseed cheesecake. We walked back to the hotel and got on the bus. I believe what happened next was going to be the highlight of the trip. But I am going to let Julie tell this part.

Lynda

About 8:30 pm we let for the Metro excursion (it was still light outside). Our guide told us, that we needed to be quick and stay with the group, so we didn’t get lost on the subway in Moscow. He said if we did get separated from the group then we should either 1) catch at taxi back to the hotel, 2) get off at the station nearest our hotel, if we wanted to attempt reading Russian, or 3) just keep riding the subway, until we met up with the next Trafalgar tour group which would be about a week.

We headed down the very steep escalators, it must have been at least a 60 degree angle if not more. There was some serious leaning. Joanne might have been a little scared if she went with us, but she opted to stay at the hotel. I am not sure how far down the metro trains run, because our guide Ilyia said this was a Russian secret. We saw several stations, and they all had beautiful artwork depicting Russian history. Stations featured mosaics, stained glass, and sculptures. We jumped on and off the metro trains several times, until we reached Red Square.

When we got back to the ground level, the sun had gone down and the city was lit up. In Russia, much like other European countries they have several huge square sections where people can walk around. It is much different from the squares in The US, where we have a courthouse in the center of the square and just sidewalks to walk on. We walked down to Red Square and saw the most beautiful site on the whole trip, the St. Basil Cathedral. The cobblestone square was surrounded by beautiful buildings and the Kremlin wall. I can’t explain how awesome it was. Seeing this sight had quickly moved Moscow to my favorite city on the tour. I hope you enjoy the pictures, but it does not even come close to capturing it’s beauty.

Julie

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Peterhof, Pushkin, Novgorod

Peterhof, Pushkin, Novgorod

We slept in late this morning because departure time was at 10:00. Nadia is providing us with information as we travel. There are no individual houses in the city limits of Saint Petersburg, people live in flats, condos or apartments. Most people have summer homes outside the city.

Our journey today takes us out of Saint Petersburg to visit the summer palace of Peter the Great, Peterhof or Petrodvortez. This palace was completely destroyed by the Germans during World War II. Russia discovered the original plans and rebuilt the palace. The fountains were impressive, they do not use a pump and use natural spring water. The Gulf of Finland is near the palace so you get a view of the water as well. We didn’t go inside because we going to Pushkin, but the exterior statues and gardens were so beautiful it was worth the walk.

We stop and eat lunch right outside the grounds. The menu was in Russian and when the waitress realizes we do not speak Russian she brings us an English menu. Julie didn’t want anything so I ordered a “brynza” cheburek, which is a crispy dough stuffed with sheep cheese brynza and Gauda cheese. It was so good. Julie even ate half of it. Time was running out and we had to get to the bus.

Having a tour guide paid off because we were allowed to go to the front of the line. She really took good care of us. We really saw the difference at our next stop. We had an appointment to see
The summer residence of Catherine the Great. This palace was also occupied by the Nazi’s and the damage was great. This palace has been beautifully restored! The amber room had to be completely redone because all the amber was stolen. The palace was so beautiful, the art work, the gold and the floors. I couldn’t believe the detail work on the floors. We had to were slippers over are shoes to protect the floors.

We said goodbye to our tour guide and left for Novgorod. We were so tired at this point. The days in Russia are packed with so much traveling and so many excursions. On our way to Novgorod we get to see the Russian countryside. Traditional Russian houses are easy to see, many have gardens.

Novgorod is the oldest city in Russia, established in 859. Yes, I said 859. We stop and get our new tour guide. We are going to the Kremlin. I was really confused whenI first read about the Kremlin in Novgorod because I thought there was just one Kremlin in Russia. She explained that Kremlin means “fortress”. When we entered the fortress I was amazed at the number of people there. It was a very nice place to relax. It was peaceful and beautiful. While we were taking photos of a statue, a Russian gentleman started talking to me. I spoke to him in English and he continued in Russian, pointing at his camera then at mine and at the statue. He wanted me to follow him. So I did. Don’t panic! He wanted to show me a great photo op and when I realized what he was trying to communicate I followed where he was standing. I did get some great photos and as he walked off he turned and gave me the thumbs up! I held my thumb up and smiled. It was very different.

Back at the hotel we have a buffet dinner but because the Germans ate first there is it much food left. We plan to beat them to breakfast.

See you on the road!

Lynda

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Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg

Now that we are in Russia we no longer get free wifi so we are only going to post every couple of days. Today we are posting our last three days.

I missed our Scandanavian Buffet today. We still had a big breakfast buffet but I missed some of the options we got in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. I had porridge in Finland and Russia. What is porridge made of?

We were on the move constantly today. We start with our city tour and we have the same tour guide. Nadia said she was a tour guide during Communist Russia too. She is doing a great job providing information. We start with souvenir shopping. I wanted a traditional matryoshka (painted dolls within painted dolls). Ilya (our tour director said that there were many to choose from and the price could range from several dollars to 5,000 dollars. He then told us you would know which one to buy when it winked at you. Lol. The ones that winked at me didn’t have other dolls inside, the had vodka! I finally found a regular one with other dolls inside. We bought more post cards and souvenirs for Katy and Amy.

We run across the street to visit the oldest pharmacy in Saint Petersburg. We have to buy a photo permit, take a few pictures and run to catch the tour bus. On our way through the city we get a special treat, the Russian Navy was being honored and we saw a ship with the crew on deck. We also saw a submarine. We stop to take some photos and then are back on the bus.

The Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood is are next stop. This church was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The domes were beautiful, we didn’t have time to go in but we have more to see! We load the bus and about five minutes after we leave, Lisa ( our Australian elementary school teacher) tells us we left someone behind. Our tour director gets off the bus to grab a taxi and our bus driver circles back. We got there about the same time and Nikki ( a Canadian) is waiting on us.

You really need to learn about Peter the Great before you visit Saint Petersburg. He was responsible for sooooooo many of the things here. We saw the statue of the Bronze Horseman. Everything is huge here. I have never scene such large statues.

We visited the privately owned Yuspov Palace. The palace is where Rasputin was murdered. It was an interesting story because he was poisoned several times and he didn’t die, so the shot him and he still didn’t die, so as he was running away from the palace the shot him in the head. They thought they had killed him so the hauled him away to throw in the river. His body was found a few days later and an autopsy revealed that his cause of death was drowning. He was still alive when they threw him in the water. Aside from the gory murder mystery, the palace was amazing! Everything was so beautiful. Joanne got a special treat when we visited the palace’s private theater. She got to sit in the balcony.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral becomes our meeting point as we spread out for lunch. Julie and Joanne opt for McDonald’s while Jay (a Canadian science teacher) and I hunt for some Russian food. We find a restaurant where people were playing dominoes. I have Ukranian dumplings stuffed with pork and Jay had chicken skewers. The food was good. Julie will fill everyone in on her McDonald’s experience.

When I did research on Saint Petersburg everything said to visit the Hermitage. I am so glad I did. It is one of the world’s largest art collections but it is stored in the Winter Palace. I could not possibly do justice to the beauty of the interior of this palace. I could have visited multiple days there was so much to see.

We pick up the rest of the group at the meeting point and we take a river canal cruise. We have our own boat and beverages are served. When we finish the bus drops up off at the hotel. Joanne goes out to dinner with the Australians while Julie and I go sightseeing with Jay and Fiona. We stop at a large plaza to see a statue of Stalin before we try a Russian fast food restaurant. We were on our own here. No one spoke English and the menu was in Russian. We managed pointing a pictures. Julie and Fiona ate burgers while Jay and I had wraps. We finish our day by visiting a World War II memorial in honor of the 900 day siege of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg).

I really needed more time in Saint Petersburg! I didn’t think I would ever come back to Russia but there is such much more that I wanted to see.

See you on the Road.

Lynda

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Russia

Russia

After a good night’s sleep at the lovely Radisson Espoo I was ready to celebrate my birthday. I turned 51 while most of my family was still asleep in the USA. Julie said she slept well too but Joanne said she couldn’t sleep because I was snoring. She later said that she was nervous about going into Russia.

We have another great breakfast before we loaded the bus at 7:00 am. We had to apply for a Russian Visa and a letter of invitation. Our first day in Copenhagen our tour director checked our passports for our visas. Nandi, from South Africa, was unaware that she had to have a Russian Visa! We had to leave her in Finland. She is going to catch up with us in Belarus. It was so sad because we are spending five nights in Russia.

Before we leave Finland we make a stop and I get to try some Mustikkapiirakka (blueberry pie) and it was delicious.

Lynda

Julie’s take on the day:

We had to get up super early this morning to leave for Russia. Finland was nice, but so far my favorite country is still Denmark. Joanne seemed a little nervous this morning about going through Russian customs, but we told her it would be fine. I mailed out some postcards, hopefully y’all will get them before we return. I have began to pick up other accents. It is subtle, but I catch myself mimicking others. No one will know where I am from, sometimes I sound like the Aussies, other times the Canadians, and most recently the Finnish.

The food so far has been good, but I finally had to open up the jar of peanut butter I brought from home. Oh, we got our laundry done by the hotel yesterday. A prize will be given to whoever can guess the cost of that in Euros. Ever country we have been in has used different currency (JT, mom is saving currency from all the countries).

We got through Finnish and Russian customs. The tour guide said it can take up to four hours, but our group did it in about an hour. We have changed time zones again.

Lynda again:

So far all we have seen are trees. When we came through passport and customs check in Russia we saw their border fence. It has all been very interesting so far. Our tour director and bus driver grew up in Russia. We are getting a lot of history. We have been able to figure out some things on our own in other countries but Finland and Russian words are really different.

End of day:

Saint Petersburg is huge! I believe our tour director said the population was 4.5 million. People are everywhere and it took a while to get through the city. At first it looks like a regular city and then all the sudden it is different.

Our first stop was quite an experience. There have not been very many public restrooms on our trip and so you go when you find one. It had been a while since our last stop so we go to a public port o potty bus looking thing. We had to pay, and they didn’t care what kind of money you paid with so I give them an dollar and a get back ruble back! You could here all of the Americans and Australians laughing while we were in there. Oddest thing I ever saw.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral was built in 1712. The Orthodox church’s are common in Russia. I think all but two of the tsar’s are buried here. We see a lot of gold.

We are learning so much world history on this trip. I wish I had a textbook with me. Lol

We make it to the hotel, check in and have dinner. The theatre is next as we have a traditional Russian folklore evening. We saw Cossack dancing, heard Russian songs and the costumes were beautiful. We were entertained.

Time for bed these time changes are wearing me out. Big day tomorrow.

See ya on the road.

Lynda

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Helsinki

Helsinki

We survived the mini cruise to Helsinki and immediately started our guided tour of the city. We had to stop by the hospital because one of the Canadians had an infected bug bite. We are not sure what bit her, but it happened in Copehagen. We then saw some sculptures in a park. One looked like the sculpture of the Great Benini we saw on a South Texas trip with Aunt Theresa. We drove by the Olympic stadium, used in the 1952 Olympics. At this point I was thinking, “this town doesn’t have much to offer.” However, I was wrong.

We saw the outside of the beautiful Tuomiokirko (Lutheran cathedral). It was time for lunch, but we had to go to the WC aka restroom first. As I went to the bank, Joanne and mom watched a short video in the bathroom sitting area. It was not on when I got there, but apparently it was really weird, something about a baby and vampire fangs. After that, we went to the farmers market for lunch. Mom ordered reindeer (yes, like dasher and donner), and Joanne and I had crepes. Everything was very good, even the reindeer which was very similar to deer meat. Mom and I then took a short walk to the Uspenski Cathedral Russian orthodox church. Both the inside and outside of this church was amazing! Photos do not do it justice.

We then headed to the hotel, which has been the best one so far! The beds were super comfortable and the pillows were the best! For dinner we ate at a Russian restaurant. We ate borscht (beet root soup), and it wasn’t bad. I ate some vegetables! It was good, but I think I am going to miss Scandavian food, especially the breakfasts.

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Stockholm

Stockholm

We haven’t seen a lot of overweight people in Denmark or Sweden. Which is surprising considering the size of the breakfast they served us. I loved the Swedish pancakes! I am trying to remember what they are called. They are flatter than our pancakes, have the texture of a crepe, only thicker. The pastries are great too.

We meet up wIth our morning tour guide for a tour of old Stockholm. The Denmark and Sweden tour guides liked to talk smack about each other’s country. The rivalry has been going on for a looooong time. The Swedish guide informed us that out of the 42 battles fought between the two countries Sweden won 38.

We visit city hall but we didn’t get to go in so Julie and I add that to our afternoon list. We make a few stops and take some photos. We learn more about the history of Stockholm. We stopped in the old Stockholm. I love the cobblestone streets, hard for me to walk on but they are so quaint.we get to see the outside of the Noble Museum and that started a discussion about who had won a Noble prize. The streets were narrow, the buildings colorful and it all added to the charm.

The bus drops us off, Joanne continues on a guided tour, Julie and I join Nandi on a trek through old town. We want to see the sculpture of St. George and the Dragon inside the Stockholm Cathedral. It was carved out of oak and was consecrated in 1489. I am sorry that Amy and Katy were not there to enjoy it with us. The cathedral was also beautiful.

We stopped at the Royal Palace but missed the changing of the guards. The guards outside looked too young to be guarding anything.

insert from Julie: Bright colored pants is all the rave with European men. And not just young men, even 50 year old men are wearing bright green or red pants. I am not really sure that US men will catch on, but maybe.

We walked over to the city hall to go up the tower. Nandi and I take a lift to a hallway point and then we follow a brick path that goes to the wooden tower. This brick path made me feel as if I was in a maze. Julie meets us at the wooden portion and we climb the remaining steps to the top. We are both winded but the view was worth it! We can see the Baltic Sea and the skyline. A good day.

We had problems using our credit cards in Denmark because we didn’t have a pin number. We had to tell the storekeepers that we didn’t have a pin, it was kind of a pain! Julie speaking: when I was purchasing some food on Sweden, I told the store clerk that I was American and didn’t have a credit card pin, he said “I know.” I was like well the people in Denmark didn’t, and he said ” that is because they are stupid.” I don’t think the Swedes ands the Danish like each other.

We met back up with our group, got on the bus and get on a ferry. I was expecting a smaller ferry. It was actually a large cruise ship. We had very small rooms and we got out of there quickly to go sit on the deck. We had so much fun, we laughed so hard and enjoyed watching islands go by in the Baltic Sea. I decided to stay up and watch the sun go down in hopes of seeing the stars but it wasn’t to be . . . at midnight the sun was still setting and when I got on deck at 3 am it was still there!

We changed time zones again and currency again but this time it is Euros which we will be able to use again in Germany.

On a side note I was stunned by how much other countries citizens seem to know about our country. We had some good discussions and they were very interested in how much time is spent on the presidential campaign, why do we only have two parties, what did we think about our health care system, etc. It was very interesting. But I kept thinking where is Tommy Long when you need him.

See you on the road!

Lynda

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Scenic drive

Scenic drive

We left Copenhagen at 8:00 am. We took a ferry to cross over into Sweden. No passport check. This has really surprised me. We have one stamp in our passport and it says “Zurich” yet we have now traveled into our fourth country.

Julie loved Copenhagen. We were amazed at how active the citizens of Copenhagen were. Everywhere we went there were pedestrian lanes and biking lanes. I stopped to take a picture and suddenly Julie jerked me into another lane as three cyclists zoomed past. She claims to have saved my life. She probably did.

The police sirens in these countries reminds me of movies. Julie and I laughed about it the first night because we knew Amy would have loved the sound. Was it a Val Kilmer movie that we liked? Only Amy would know.

Sweden is beautiful. When we first entered the country it appeared to be flat, crops growing in every field, golden grain and lush greenery but as we drove further into the country trees appear along with the crops. I saw a small heard of cattle and each one had a bell around its neck. Stress free traveling, leaning back in my seat and watching the scenery.

We Americans are outnumbered on our bus. There are four of us and we are all teachers. Three from Texas and one from California. We have one Scottish woman, three people from South Africa, four from Canada, two from New Zealand and the rest from Australia. The Australians have been giving us a hard time but we love them!

Our hotel in Stockholm is directly across the street from the world’s largest Ikea. Julie was so excited. I had never been in Ikea before so it was a new experience. We were told they had excellent swedish meatballs in the restaurant so we ate ate at Ikea. The meatballs were good and the mashed potatoes were delicious. We ate with two of our Canadian traveling companions. It took us forever to get out of the store. I think Ikea doesn’t want you to leave.

We have bunk beds in our hotel room and Julie cannot decide whether to sleep on the top bunk or the bottom bunk. We have a huge window in our room and no air conditioning, so we open the window, no screen and no flies. Life is good. Tomorrow we tour Stockholm!

See ya on the road!

Lynda

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Full Moon Over Copenhagen

Full Moon Over Copenhagen

We often stay at hotels because they have a free breakfast but this hotel’s breakfast was WOW! We got to sample so many different breads, meats, fruits, marmalades, cereals, etc. it was by far the best overall meal of our trip. Great way to start the day eating with other members of our group. We asked Jay, a science teacher from Canada, what they called Canadian bacon in Canada and he laughed. They do not call it Canadian bacon.

We get on our tour bus and have a two hour two of Copenhagen. We stop at the Amalienborg Palace to visit with Royal family but they were not at home. The Australian’s were very interested in all of this because the Prince of Denmark married an Australian. We learned a lot about the Royal family: one prince is a farmer and the prince is on the Olympic Team. I decided to have my picture taken with a Royal Guard and I got to close and he flicked me away, he got another member of our tour group too.

One of my favorite stops was at the Nyhavn Canal. This was built in the late 17th century and is lined with bright, colorful rowhouses, cobblestone streets and wooden boats finish the picture (only wooden boats are allowed in this canal). We have a small group photo made in front of a house where Hans Christian Andersen lived.

Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, our next stop was to visit the statue of the Little Mermaid and it was a little statue. Julie wanted to burst into song! If Amy and Katy had been with us I think they would have been sitting on the rock with the Little Mermaid singing “I want to know what the people know . . .”. They love that movie. There has been a lot of drama surrounding the statue, which was sculpted in 1913. She has been beheaded twice! She lost her head the first time and it was never returned but they still had the mold so they made a new one.

Our tour bus takes us through the countryside on our way to another palace. We find out about Danish pastries, the health care system, sales tax, etc. The sales tax in Denmark is 25%. This helps pay for free education and free health care. Julie said that a coke costs 25 kroners (equal to about $4 USD). Julie is really handy with the money. We are having issues with our credit cards. We all called our credit card companies to let them know we were going to Europe but they forgot to tell us that we needed a PIN number while we were here. Hope to resolve this with a phone call tomorrow.

Thatched roofs are still common in Denmark and we stop in a village to see the difference in a new one and an old one. A thatched roof lasts for about 60 years and it takes about 8 years to become a roofer! While in the village we wade out in the water, it is clear and cold.

Fredensborg Castle is the summer residence of the Royal family and we get out for a glimpse then have a sandwich along with a Danish pastry. Our next stop is the 17th century Frederiksborg Castle. I am so excited because I have never been in a castle before and I was not disappointed! It was beautiful! The paintings, the ballroom, the grounds and the castle itself were all amazing.

The tour bus drops us off in downtown Copenhagen for some free time. Joanne and several others go back to the hotel while the rest of us scatter to different things. We find out that public restrooms are a luxury that we Americans take for granted. Julie has to buy something at McDonalds to get the pass code for the bathroom.

Julie and I want to ride a boat in the canal and we get directions from our tour guide. Her directions did not quite get us there, but we founds some boats and asked for directions to the starting point. The canal tour was nice. The best part was when a drunk Danish man who waved and hollered at the boat, and then mooned us as we went by.

We tried to find something to eat before returning to the meeting point. Julie was satisfied with McDonalds, but I just settled for a snack. We took our photo outside Tivoli Gardens and then headed for the bus. Tomorrow, we are headed for Sweden!

See you on the road,

Lynda

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