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Trip 6 -- Scandinavia, the Baltics, and Greenland

Message 4: Tallinn to Copenhagen

Date: 28 Jul 2002 22:35:59 -0000 
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein) 
Subject: Scandinavia update #4: Tallinn to Copenhagen 

This installment will deal less with sightseeing and more with the deceptively simple, yet deceptively complex, task of getting from the train station in Klaipeda (the western port of Lithuania) to Copenhagen. We left off in Tallinn, Estonia's beautiful capital with its medieval buildings and cobblestone streets. A rather painful overnight bus ride (which confirmed my stipulation that bus seats shouldn't recline) brought me to the even more stunning, similarly medieval city of Riga, Latvia. Most noteworthy in Riga was the immense central market, with several airplane-hangar-sized buildings and equal amounts of outdoor space devoted to the sale of fish, meat, produce, flowers, etc. A very pleasant overnight train ride took me to the more sprawling city of Vilnius, Lithuania, and after a day there, a day in Kaunas, and another overnight train, I arrived in Klaipeda at 7:40 Thursday morning. And we're off....

An agent at the shipping company DFDS e-mailed me in June: "I think there is a possibility that you can take our ship Siauliai from Klaipeda to Copenhagen on Friday the 26." As the Siauliai was a cargo ship, not a passenger ship, DFDS would confirm the booking no more than 24 hours before departure. Therefore, on arrival in Klaipeda I immediately headed for DFDS's office, since if I couldn't take the cargo ship I'd have to make other arrangements.

The address for DFDS's office was Minijos gatve 180, and, with nothing better to do at 7:40 in the morning, I decided to walk there. Finding Minijos gatve was easy - it was only 20 minutes from the train station. The 180 was the problem. In New York City, from 1 to 180 is two blocks. In the Soviet-built streets of Lithuania, one number is about one block, and after 15 minutes, I was only at number 30.

I still had plenty of time (I figured the office wouldn't open until 9:00), so I pressed on, trudging past open fields and car-repair shops and characterless Soviet-built apartment buildings and more open fields. A half hour later, number 80. Past a small residential area, past industrial parks, past more open fields. Another half hour, number 140, and I was getting tired.

After 172 there were no more buildings, and I almost gave up. I passed another field - with a cow! - but in the distance I could see a traffic light. Sure enough, just before the light was a sign pointing to the DFDS port.

Now, this isn't like a travel agency, where you go in and say, "I'd like a ticket to Copenhagen." First I had to wend my way past the trucks with all their cargo, and then explain to the port guard what I was doing there - the DFDS office was beyond the port's passport-control checkpoint. He was very friendly and waved me through.

The DFDS agents were also friendly, but they couldn't find the reservation. It turned out that there was no reservation because Friday's ship had been canceled - and in fact the ship I needed to take was leaving on Thursday, that very day, in just two hours!

Glad I had hied myself to the port, and doubly glad I hadn't stashed some luggage in the train station's lockers, as I had considered doing, I paid for my ticket. There was another problem: The ship was going not to Copenhagen, but to Fredericia, a two-hour train ride away. I decided that was close enough.

The Lithuanians may have lost all love for the Russians, but they haven't lost their love for stamps and paperwork. Before getting on the ship I had to obtain three stamps: a Lithuanian exit stamp, a customs stamp, and a boarding stamp.

Problems arose when I visited the police checkpoint for the exit stamp: The policeman didn't believe my passport was real. Three things aroused suspicion. First, my passport is almost ten years old, and a little air bubble has developed in the lamination over my picture, making it look as if it's been doctored. Second, all the lettering on the cover has worn away. Third, new pages were added a few years ago, and they don't look like the original pages. It took a half hour of phone calls to a superior, magnifying-glass scrutiny, and interrogation ("How long did you spend in Latvia?") before he finally stamped it.

It took 15 minutes to obtain the second stamp, only because the people working in the customs office decided that those of us waiting for stamps weren't worth helping.

Obtaining the third stamp took about ten seconds.

There were only two other passengers: a Latvian going to work on a Danish farm, with whom I shared a cabin and played cards; and a Methodist pastor from Connecticut who'd spent three years building churches in Lithuania. The three of us also had close connection with one of the head crew members, who told dry Russian-humor jokes and encouraged us all to join him in bottles of brandy to celebrate his upcoming vacation; another crew member, who painted paintings in his cabin during the off-hours; and our stewardess, who kept us exceptionally well-fed, with lunch both days at 11:45, dinner both days at the southern-Florida-retirement-home-like time of 4:50, and breakfast on Friday, which I very nearly slept through. It was a beautiful, calm 30-hour ride, and we were able to visit the captain's controls and ride past the mammoth eight-kilometer bridge recently constructed to link Denmark with Sweden.

On arrival in Fredericia Friday night, we waited a half hour before the police bothered to show up to stamp our passports. Then I rushed to the train station, where I attempted to use the ticket machine (the ticket office was closed) to buy a ticket to Copenhagen using my credit card, but I tried two cards and both were denied - the Danes have an irksome fetish for requiring PIN codes for many simple credit-card purchases. No one ever asked me for a ticket on the train anyway, so it was moot - and I considered a free train ride appropriate compensation for being delayed at customs.

I'd booked accommodation in Copenhagen only for Saturday and Sunday nights (since I'd expected to leave Klaipeda a day later), so I had no place to stay when I arrived shortly after 11 on Friday night. Fortunately, the City Public Hostel took me in, and while I wasn't keen on sharing a dorm room with ten other people, the price was right - about US$18 - and it was in a convenient location. At least I wasn't in the room with 72 beds, though I did poke my head in - a tourist attraction in itself!

Highlights of Copenhagen included

  • a superb tour of Christiania, the quasi-communal-living 85-acre former abandoned army barracks taken over in 1971 by bohemian squatters who declared it a free state and were allowed to remain living there, setting up only the most essential laws and openly smoking marijuana and hashish on the main drag, Pusherstreet (the tour was given by a 28-year resident of the place who, appropriately enough, was in a production of _Hair_ just before moving into Christiania)
  • getting scolded by a cop for jaywalking (thanks, officer, but I have better things to do during my vacation than wait for lights to change when there's no moving traffic in sight - and the lights here don't give any warning before they change!)
  • the National Museum, which has hands down the best prehistory section of any museum I've ever been to
  • an evening at Tivoli, the central public gardens that house restaurants, an amusement park, and indoor and outdoor concert stages, among other things.

I hope everyone had a pleasant Sleepyhead Day: In Naantali, Finland, 27 July is a public holiday on which the town's laziest person is awakened by being thrown into the sea.

Cheers,
Seth

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