June 29-July 8
Eight years abroad has given us a lot of time to travel the world. We move back to the USA in two days, at the same our last big European trip comes to a close. Brian finished school on June 29 and that afternoon we started the 10-day trip with a flight to Athens. We’ve been to a lot of European cities and naturally, we have our favorites. Athens is one of them. Maybe even our favorite one. It has great weather, a laid-back atmosphere, delicious food, and character to its neighborhoods. It’s streets and sidewalks aren’t perfect (especially for strollers!) but that’s what entices us.
This trip to Athens was planned as a meetup with our good friend from Rio, Martha. We spent two afternoons hanging out with her and a friend of hers who she was traveling with. She especially loved her time with Avery and he loved his time with his number one fan.
We stayed in Kolonaki, a neighborhood that has become our favorite part of the city. It has small streets with lots of cafes and restaurants and it’s a little off the main tourist path. On this trip we discovered what became my favorite spot in the city. We walked up Lycabettus hill and found a spectacular panoramic view of the city. We didn’t even need to go to the top where most people hang out, just two-thirds of the way and hung out on a bench. There were great views of the acropolis and out to the sea. The first time up, Avery took a much-needed nap, and then we returned for sunset with Martha.
We woke up before sunrise on Sunday to catch our 6am flight to St. Petersburg with a stop in Istanbul. Avery woke up after the airport security check and refused to go back to sleep the rest of the trip there. Surprisingly, he wasn’t cranky, but we knew his 7 hours of sleep would catch up with him soon. We got to our apartment in St. Petersburg around 3pm and quickly settled so that we could get out to see another friend from Rio and Mexico, David. It was his last day in Russia where he’d been for 2 weeks. We spent the evening with him watching the Spain vs. Russia Round-of-16 game. For the first 105 minutes we watched it in a low-key restaurant, and then relocated to a nearby bar with lots of Russian fans for the final 15 minutes of extra time and then shootouts. Russia won in shootouts and the bar went nuts! Two men threw their glasses up to the ceiling and on the floor and then a group of men created a small mosh pit. I covered Avery’s ears to soften the noise and one woman handed her young boy over to the bartender to be protected back there. Nothing got out of hand, it was just a bunch of really excited people. David filmed the celebration and you can see it below.
We left the bar and outside the celebrations were just beginning. Drivers honking their horns, Russian flags hanging out windows, people walking around chanting “Ru-cee-a (Russia).” If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought Russia won the World Cup final. We meandered the city center and embraced the celebrations. No photos or videos could really capture the streets of St. Petersburg that night. You just had to be there.
For the next three full days, we explored the sights of St. Petersburg and attended one Round-of-16 World Cup game, which happened to be Sweden vs. Switzerland. Unfortunately, as we predicted, the game was not a very exciting one. Neither team was very dangerous offensively, but in the end, Sweden pulled out a 1-0 victory. There were significantly more Swedes in the crowd than Swiss and we were near their cheering section, which was fun to watch.
Visiting a city for the first time during the World Cup has its drawbacks. Tourist sights are crowded. The weeks leading up to this trip were so busy with packing up our Sofia life that we didn’t plan anything ahead of time. We tried to visit the Hermitage on Monday, but when we got there we realized it was closed that day. Instead, we walked around the city visiting different neighborhoods and ended by watching Mexico vs. Brazil in a cozy restaurant pub. On our final full day in St. Petersburg we visited Peterhof, the place of Peter the Great. It’s a 45-60 minute drive out there, but thankfully Ubers were cheap. We spent half the day touring the palace and the gardens and got back in the car as the rain began. We finished off the day with a walk around the Summer Gardens and then Brian visited a Russian sauna while Avery and I shopped. We also had a dinner that consisted of dumplings from around the world at a restaurant that specialized in this.
On Thursday morning we caught our 6:45am bus to Tallinn. Unfortunately, Avery didn’t sleep as long as we’d hoped, but he did pretty well considering the confines of the bus. We got to our next apartment by 2pm and then hit the town to explore. Tallinn has a UNESCO protected Old Town that has quite the charm to it, but you can also tell it tries a bit hard to play the part of a cute traditional town. Venders at the stalls in the main plaza as well as some waitresses and waiters were dressed in traditional clothing. We saw the main sights and also ventured to the somewhat hipster neighborhood just outside the walls where we ate at a food truck/stall in Balti Jaam.
On our last two days of the trip we rented a car and drove outside the city. It’s very rural as soon as you leave the Tallinn area. One day we drove to Lahemaa National Park. It was densely forested and went right up to the coastline. We made a few stops within the park to stretch our legs and enjoy the surrounds. The weather wasn’t particularly great, but it was a nice scenic drive. The other day we drove to Haapsula, about an hour and a half away. It’s a small town on the western coast of the county. It has a fairly large, but mostly ruined castle and church at its center. Surrounding that are some nice shops, restaurants, and cafes that were all pleasant on this sunny and warm day.
With one final evening of vacation, we toured the Old Town one more time and took some fun selfies with nice evening light next to the old wall. We tried to get Avery to bed at a decent hour, which has been tough in these far Northern cities where it stays light past midnight and never gets very dark the entire night. We’ve been staying up later because of it, and I think it has affected Avery as well.
In this trip we got to experience our second World Cup and visit two new countries. St. Petersburg was a larger city than I expected, but it’s clean, well-laid out, and has a lot to see. We only scratched the surface with things to do there. We were surprised by how little English was spoken or known, although I know that it is a bit closed minded to think everyone around the world should know English. We’ve gotten used to most Europeans knowing some English, and since St. Petersburg is part of Europe, I had those expectations.
It’s been a wonderful trip and a great way to close our time living abroad. We have a day and half in Sofia and then we embark on a new journey in the USA.