Monthly Update – May 2019
May flew past surprisingly fast. After a pretty easy-going first half of the month which we spent with Cindy’s family in France, we managed to pack a whole lot into the second half of May.
We spent a couple of days exploring Paris and then followed that up with a very fast-paced tour of the Baltics. After that, we headed back to Paris briefly before flying across to Quito, Ecuador to begin the South-American leg of our trip.
The Rest of France
The first half of May was spent with Cindy’s family in their village near Le Mans, catching up with friends and relatives and being really-well fed! We had a fair bit of time in between to catch up on a backlog of work on Free Two Roam.
We managed to fit in a day trip to Le Mans with Cindy’s brother where we walked around Le Mans’ Old Town and visited the Cathedral. It had been a while since we’d last been there and I’d forgotten how nice the Old Town is. In particular, the interior of the cathedral is really impressive.
The Saga of the Replacement Card
One thing that we spent a fair amount of time worrying about was our replacement debit card. I mentioned in last month’s update that we’d had to get my card replaced because someone had somehow got hold of both the card number and my pin number.
We had the new card shipped to my parents who then forwarded it by international express mail which should have taken only about five business days. But for some reason, it took three whole weeks to arrive at Cindy’s parents and of course, it arrived the day after we left for Paris. We then had to arrange for our second hotel in Paris to receive it after our return from the Baltics. What a pain. Fortunately, it was there when we arrived and everything worked out.
Lesson learned: don’t trust express mail and definitely don’t trust the French postal service! In the future, we’ll be using a courier service for this sort of thing.
Wandering around Paris
After saying goodbye to Cindy’s family, we headed up to Paris. We took Ouigo which is the cheaper version of France’s TGV. It was actually pretty comfortable and it only takes a little longer than the TGV and for a fraction of the cost.
We based ourselves in the Montparnasse area of Paris and were walking distance to major attractions that are nearby. Over the course of the next three days, we did a whole lot of walking.
Paris is such a great city to walk around. But one thing I noticed since my last visit is how much rentable electric scooters have taken over the city. They were everywhere and I counted at least half a dozen different brands of scooters that you could rent with your smartphone. I couldn’t convince Cindy that we should try them out though and with Paris’s crazy traffic, it’s probably just as well!
We were fortunate to have some beautiful weather while we were in Paris which made walking around the city really enjoyable. We also paid for a two-day hop-on-hop-off boat ticket which allowed us to use the river as a means of getting around as well. That worked out really well and we’d highly recommend doing it if you’re visiting Paris.
The Baltic Tour
Off to Helsinki
Leaving Paris, we took a short flight with Norwegian Airways to Helsinki. It wasn’t the greatest flight as it was delayed for over an hour which meant we arrived at our Airbnb in Helsinki at around 1.30 pm in the morning.
The pilot also decided to inform us that one of the auxiliary power units had failed and that they were going to have to use external power and air to start the plane’s engines. You don’t really want to hear that they’re having trouble starting the engines just before you take off. It would have been better if he had kept it to himself! But anyway, the flight was uneventful albeit late.
Arriving at our Airbnb, we had to be very quiet as we dragged our bags up four flights of stairs because apparently, the Fins get very grumpy if you’re noisy after 10 pm. We soon discovered why because, at 4 am in the morning, bright sunlight streamed in through our Venetian blinds. Yes, we’d forgotten how long the days are in Scandinavia.
So we ended up having a very early start to the day which was just as well since we only had one full day in Helsinki and it turns out there’s actually quite a lot to do there. We’d only budgeted two nights there because it’s so expensive but we probably could have done with at least an extra day.
Maybe we wouldn’t have felt the same if we hadn’t had such amazing weather but we really enjoyed Helsinki and are quite keen to go back and see more of the city. Another time!
On to the Baltics
The next morning we took an Uber down to the port to catch our ferry across the sea to Tallinn, Estonia. The ferry was huge and packed with people but I quite enjoyed the ride. The only problem was that unless you book a cabin (a bit pointless for two hours) there is not a lot of space to sit with your bags. We ended up camping ourselves in one of the cafes where we were pretty much the only ones not playing the on-board Bingo game being held there. Fortunately, Bingo was short lived and was followed up with some live music which was actually pretty good.
I even managed to find Cindy a Bernese Mountain Dog to cuddle on board which made her very happy.
Catching up with friends in Tallinn
Arriving in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, we took an Uber to our Airbnb which was slap-bang in the middle of the Old Town. It was such a good location. Fortunately, the owner was there to help us get our bags up the stairs because the second flight of stairs was a doozy. It was a stone spiral staircase that was about 500 years old and made for people half our size. Even Cindy kept hitting her head climbing up!
We were very fortunate to have our friends Brendan and Susanna to host us in Tallinn as they live there in the Old Town. It was great to see them again and have them show us around Tallinn. It turns out there’s a lot more to see in Tallinn than just the Old Town. Tallinn is slowly redeveloping old Soviet-era factories and warehouses closer to the waterfront into bars, restaurants and workspaces. There are some quite hip and trendy areas to hang out in.
Tallinn also has lots of forest area not too far out of the Old Town. Within 15 minutes you can be wandering through the woods. It also has some lovely parklands even closer to the Old Town.
We definitely didn’t budget enough time for Tallinn. We spent three days there and easily could have doubled that and not run out of things to do. Then there’s also the rest of Estonia that we’d love to take a look at. Next time!
Heading on to Latvia
From Tallinn, we took a LuxExpress bus to Riga, the capital of Latvia. It only took about four hours and the bus was super comfortable. It even had in-seat entertainment so that Cindy could watch a few episodes of Friends during the ride!
We really liked Riga. We did a couple of free walking tours, including one that was purely focused on Art Nouveau. Riga has a huge amount of Art Nouveau architecture including several style variants that are unique to the city.
Riga is a great city for walking around. As with Tallinn, we could have easily spent a few more days there as we didn’t manage to make it out of the city and down to the beach. We were fortunate to have pretty good weather while we were there which helped us enjoy the city.
Final Stop – Lithuania
Instead of taking a simple transfer to get to Vilnius in Lithuania, we decided to use a company called Travellers Tours and Day Trips which turns your standard bus transfer into a sight-seeing day. It’s a great idea. Instead of taking a large coach, we hopped into a transit van with our driver and guide and half a dozen other passengers. If was a great way to do some sight-seeing, learn a bit more about Latvia and Lithuania and to meet some fellow travellers and a Lithuanian native.
Vilnius is an interesting city. It suffered quite a bit more damage during Second World War bombing than Tallinn or Riga so it has a lot more Soviet Era buildings mixed in with its older buildings. It also has a slightly edgier feel to it with several dodgy areas just outside the Old Town slowly becoming hip and trendy areas to visit.
It took a little while for Vilnius to grow on us but on our last day there we started to get a feel for the city. It has lots of nice parkland around it and if we’d had a bit more time we would have loved to explore further out of the city.
Back to Paris
So that was a super quick tour of Finland and the Baltics. Realistically we probably needed twice as long – at least five days in each city. But it was enough time for a taster session! We really didn’t know what we would think of those four countries but it turns out that we actually really enjoyed our time in each of them and we’re keen to go back and explore them further.
We flew from Vilnius back to Paris with Ryan Air and well, that’s the first and last time we’ll be flying with them. We missed the bit in the email that said you must check-in online or be stung with a 55 Euro fee each to print your boarding pass. What a joke! Yes, it was our mistake but charging that much to print a boarding pass is just a shoddy way to treat your customers.
Anyway, at least they were on time and we made it back to Paris where we were staying up north in the Montmartre area. We’d stayed here previously and really enjoyed it. Sacre Coeur itself was super touristy but the areas around it were less so and quite picturesque.
For our final bit of sightseeing, we took a train to the Arch de Triumph and then walked down the Champs Elysee to the Concord before catching the metro back to our hotel.
On our final night in Europe, we had dinner at a lovely little French restaurant up on the hill. It was a great way to end things.
The next day we headed off to Quito, Ecuador to begin our South American adventure.
Hello South America!
Our flight to Quito was pretty good really. We had been very hesitant to book with Joon, Air France’s budget airline because Air France doesn’t have a great reputation for reliability and Joon doesn’t get great reviews.
But apart from the fact that they left an hour late, the flight was pretty good. Well, as good as flying cattle class can be. The flight was also only about half full which was great. The staff were very friendly and helpful and the plane was pretty new as well. It was certainly a lot better than some of the budget international flights we’ve flown.
Getting to know Quito
We spent the last few days of May in Quito, Ecuador. I really didn’t know what to expect from Quito. I half expected it to be just another big, chaotic city but actually, it’s a lot better than that. It has a very large old town which is easy to walk around.
We were a little worried about safety but there is a huge police presence in the tourist areas. They seem to have about half a dozen different types of police patrolling the Old Town, including some officers riding on Segways!
Instead of taking the local taxis, we’ve been using Uber and it’s been really straightforward so far. We’ve been mostly walking around but it’s best to use taxis/Uber at nighttime.
Our biggest effort so far was climbing to the top of the spire of the Basílica del Voto Nacional. It wasn’t so much of a physical challenge as it was a mental one. To get to the top you need to climb three separate metal ladders, one of which is quite steep. Neither of us is that great with heights but we managed to get up and back down again. The views were definitely worth it. We celebrated our achievement with a coffee and a huge piece of chocolate cake in the Basílica’s cafe.
What’s up next?
So that’s it for May. We’re really excited to be in South America, especially since we’re just about to start a week-long tour of the Galapagos Islands by boat. After that, we’re taking the Wanderbus from Quito down to Cuenca, before heading into the Amazon to begin three weeks of intensive Spanish lessons. So stay tuned for our June update. It promises to be pretty action-packed!