Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Socialized healthcare – a nightmare?

I regularly watch political shows, and often in US media the term “socialized healthcare” is used to refer to something negative and something that US consumers should be afraid of.  Remember the "Death panel" discussions that Sarah Palin started several years back in the US? Having lived in Finland for more than 3 years with my family, I now have some experiences within a socialized healthcare system and perhaps it is time to address the big question – is it a nightmare?  In my experience, not so.  Once we moved to Finland, everyone in my family received a Finnish social security card (Kela), which entitles us to the benefits in the public healthcare system.  Of importance, the Finnish system is not entirely reliant on the public system, as there are several large private health providers, who are typically sponsored by employers.  Both me and my wife have the supplemental employer sponsored private health care, so we have also used that for our healthcare needs, especially for quick health check-ups, e.g. for cold and flu symptoms etc.  In essence, we have a choice between the private and the public system, however, the private system does have limitations so that e.g. all surgeries are referred by the private doctors to the public system.

How does the system work?  Our kids are school-aged so they receive regular health check-ups either by a nurse or a doctor through their school.  The cost for regular check-ups for kids?  None.  :)  Recently one of my kid had a regular check-up and during the visit we discussed the need to have her tested for certain allergies.  The original appointment with the doctor at the school premises was on Tuesday afternoon and on Friday we received a letter in the mail indicating that she had been scheduled for an allergy test at a hospital approx. three weeks later.  We did not get to choose the date and time for the test as in the Finnish system typically the providers will do the scheduling without input from you (yes, I can see how that would be considered inconvenient to many), but this was certainly quick and efficient. 

Dental care is free for all until age 23.  Our kids receive letters in the mail for their dental check-ups.  Again, we do not get to choose the time and date, but the system makes sure every child gets their appointments at certain grades/ages.  Cost for kids’ dental care?  None.  Adults pay for dental services, however, the Finnish social security administration (Kela) still subsidizes a portion of the costs.  I have done e.g. dental cleanings via the public system.  Perhaps a bit inconvenient is that it usually will take about 2 months for an appointment, but then again dental cleanings can be planned ahead of time.  Dental care in the public side in our experience has been just fine.  Of course, Finns in general are not very emphatic, or at least they do not hold your hand at every juncture, so I don’t have a warm or close relationship with my dentist, but rather I receive the care and they provide it.  Cost for adult dental care?  Yes, there is some depending on what you need.  Dental cleaning at the public side costs about 30 euros.   My wife has done dental cleanings as well as other procedures at the private providers and paid a bit as well, again with partial Kela subsidies.  Nevertheless, to our surprise the cost of dental care even with private providers in Finland is no more expensive than dental care in US with (good) employer sponsored dental plans. 

Surgeries in Finland are typically handled by the public side.  Even if you visit a private doctor who determines the need for a surgery they will give you a referral to the public hospitals for the actual surgery.  I know some friends who have had surgeries in Finland and my wife recently had one as well.  As far as I have been told, all of them have been happy about the quality of the care they received.  Again, they did not get to pick the date for the surgery, although certainly if the original date does not work you can reschedule it, in which case it will be rescheduled for the next available time the hospital has.  For my wife, the wait time for the surgery, which was not time-sensitive, was approx. 2-3 months.  Cost for surgeries?  Yes, there is some, but they are ridiculously low.  Surgeries involve a day-charge for the use of hospital beds, and that is all that is charged from the patient.  So, if your surgery requires you to stay overnight in the hospital, you would pay 2 x approx. 30 euros ($40, i.e. $80 in total).  For my wife, she did not get to choose the surgeon (or the date), but she had a meeting with one of the two operating surgeons prior to the surgery and as a result had no concerns about not knowing the surgeon or what would happen during the surgery.   Another friend we know had cancer while in Finland, and many of her friends asked if she would have rather been in US to receive care there.  My impression was that she felt that she received timely and appropriate care, and most importantly, she fully recovered from cancer.  So, from our experiences, there are no delays, long lines or other inefficiencies, at least not with respect to serious illnesses or procedures. 

The idea of having to wait for long lines is often portrayed as something that certainly happens in socialized healthcare systems.  We tested this recently as well.  Few weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon my wife suddenly lost hearing in one of her ears (due to what turned out to be an ear infection).  With no private health care providers open late on weekends, she went to the on-call (päivystys) at a local hospital.  She provided her social security card and explained her issue at the front desk.  They logged her in and told her to go to the waiting room to be called.  This is where the long wait times come in, right?  It was a large room with lots of chairs, tables, magazines and TV-screens, and it was after all Saturday evening almost 9 pm.  The patients are called in to see the doctor based on priority.  So, the more urgent your matter the quicker you are seen.  Given that her symptom was merely inability to hear and pain in her ear, she pulled out a bunch of magazines and prepared for the wait.  Long?  No, in about 10 minutes she was called to see a doctor, and within another 10 minutes she was done equipped with an antibiotic prescription.  Since pharmacies were not open, she was given the first two antibiotic pills free of charge by the doctor to get going before the pharmacies would open the next morning.  Cost for urgent on-call appointment?  Yes, approx. 30 euros ($40).   This was certainly just one experience and I am sure there are more busier times than others when patients with less urgent matters have to wait. 

We have had few urgent check-up needs (for our kids) over the years as well.  In each case, we have received an appointment for the same day.  With an appointment we are seen when the appointment is scheduled for, so there are no lines or extensive wait times.  Cost for urgent or same day appointments for children?  None.   My son recently fell at school at recess at approx. 11:15 am.  The teacher called us when my son complained about his teeth hurting.  My wife called the urgent same-day (public) dental care, and received an appointment for 1 pm, which really was the earliest she could do after picking him up from school and driving to the dentist.  Efficient and no waiting.

Filling out form after form.  That is one thing I recall from US health care visits.  Most every time you visit a doctor’s office you have to fill out few forms about your health history and few disclosures as well.  The amount of paperwork required at doctor’s offices in Finland seems to be quite minimal in comparison.  I think the reason for that is a centralized system where all of one’s health information is stored.  Typical doctor’s examination rooms in Finland include a computer, and the doctor always enters some information into the computer during the visit.   Prescriptions are entered by the doctor into the computer system as well and during the visit they will print a copy to you which you can present at the pharmacy.  However, only on few occasions have we been asked to fill out extensive forms about health history. 

Medicine and pharmacies are closely related to health care.  Medicine costs are subsidized by the social security administration.  The costs vary depending on the medication, and the cost is often described particularly by the elderly as being expensive.  Finland in general is an expensive country.  By way of an example, we have seen e.g. antibiotic prescriptions cost anywhere from 10-25 euros (13-35 USD).  I am sure there are more expensive medicines in Finland, but our experiences are quite limited.  Getting a prescription filled in a pharmacy in Finland is in itself one of the most efficient operations I have seen.  Some prescriptions nowadays are electronic, but regardless of the format, you show up at the pharmacy and wait few minutes to be seen by the next available pharmacist.  You proceed to the counter, present your prescription and social security card.  The pharmacist types in the information on the computer and while she/he is still typing, the medicine you need is either dropped off at the counter by another clerk or dropped from an automatic tubing system (think of those systems used e.g. in Costco by cashiers to send a stack of bills via the tubing system into some office).  I have never seen them handling individual pills and counting how many to place in a bottle to be prepared for the patient.  Instead the clerk finds the packaged drug from behind-the-counter shelves etc., and it is brought to you.  I remember having to wait in US in Safeway or Longs for 10-15 minutes even without anyone else being there so that they can confirm the prescription and then prepare it by getting the actual pills, sorting the quantity etc.  The total process for getting medicine in a pharmacy in Finland is finished within few minutes. 

So, in response to the overall question – is socialized healthcare something to be afraid of and would it be the end of the world?  Based on our experiences of over 3 years in the Finnish health care system, I think the words socialized healthcare and nightmare should be used in the same sentence only in late night entertainment shows.  Regardless of the system, some people will always complain.  I know some Finns who complain about the Finnish system as well.  However, based on the experiences we have had, I think (Finnish) socialized health care system works quite efficiently and well, especially considering that it is universal and almost free.  And those Finns who complain, have not really given me any specifics as to what in particular is worth complaining about.  Seems like those who I know who have needed care have received it in a timely manner and with sufficient quality.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Weekend escape to Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, which is the capital of Denmark is another city that I hadn't visited in over 20 years since I was a post college graduate backpacker.  Copenhagen is a wonderful Scandinavian city in the tiny country of Denmark. This beautiful city features a little for everyone and is fairly compact and pedestrian friendly.  Copenhagen is smaller than Stockholm, but definitely larger than Helsinki.  In comparison to Helsinki there was much more action downtown, including many famous restaurants, shops and street musicians.  In fact, Copenhagen is known for having the finest dining in all Scandinavia, including the most Michelin starred restaurants.

During our brief stay we walked around the city, focusing on the touristic center.  We strolled down to the harbor to see the famous Little Mermaid statue based on the story from Hans Christian Anderson.  This statue has gained status as the most recognizable monument in all of Copenhagen and Denmark.  The area was full of tourists snapping pics at breakneck speed.  The Mermaid will always get her share of attention.  Later, we walked over towards what is perhaps the most famous church in Copenhagen, "Church of our Saviour".  This church is unique in that you can climb up to the top of the tower which features a unique outside staircase with only brass rails stopping you from plunging down almost 300 feet to the ground.  I decided to climb up on my own and enjoyed the scenic views of the city from the outside staircase.  I am glad it wasn't windy that day while I walked the final 150 of 400 total steps to reach the top.

Church of our Saviour

Perhaps the most interesting but controversial site we visited during our stay was the area called Freetown Christiana.  This little (84 acres) self proclaimed autonomous area was started by hippies in the early 1970s.  There are many artists, shops, food vendors and housing units here.  Around 800 people actually live here, but their claim to fame is that they live by their own rules.  This means that marijuana is sold and smoked here out in the open. Marijuana is not legal in Denmark, but it seems that it is highly tolerated in Christiana.  When we walked through, we noticed that probably 75% of the people here were either purchasing or smoking it.  It felt a bit like walking through Amsterdam's seedy red light district or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California.  I won't get into the politics of this place, but it was definitely an interesting site.

Overall my impressions of Copenhagen were very good.  This liberal and free spirited city is Scandinavian in appearance but feels a bit more closely related to the Netherlands in tolerance and culture.  I feel and after talking to a local that even semi-liberal Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki are not as progressive as Copenhagen.  It was pleasant to explore this city again after 21 years since my backpacking days.  I have now visited all 5 Scandinavian capitals in the last decade.  They all have their charms and interesting sites.  I would definitely put Copenhagen towards the top of the list as it seems there is much to offer for everyone here. So, it is another city that I highly recommend to any traveler looking for Scandinavian exposure. Allow yourself  at least 2-3 days to see the city non-rushed.
Christiana's artwork

Monday, September 15, 2014

Summer vacation part 8, 3 days in Prague, Czech Republic

The final stop in my family's Summer trip was Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.  Prague holds a very special place in my heart since I spent 4 months living here right after graduating from college back in 1993.  For a young and impressionable traveler back then, Prague was just magical.  The iron curtain had recently fallen during the Velvet revolution of 1989 and the city was exciting and growing into the capitalistic ways of the West while retaining it's Bohemian charm.  It simply was the trendy "place to be" in Europe during that time period. I worked part-time as an English teacher while living here and I got to really know the city's soul beyond the touristic old town.  Tourism was already hitting Prague fairly hard even back in the early 90s, however little would I be prepared for the dramatic change that has taken place recently.  Turn the clock ahead to 2014 and the city now has been completely over run with tourists and fancy shops lining most streets near the old town.  Prague is known for it's beautiful architecture and the famous Gothic buildings are in their original state since the city was not bombed, and therefore spared damage after World War II. The center piece of Prague and main attraction is the Charles Bridge which is nearly 1,000 years old and is one of the most famous walking bridges in the world. As I strolled around the city, I was still in awe of it's charm and the architecture, though I became increasingly annoyed at the high end shopping and massive amounts of tourists marching like cattle through the cobblestone streets.

Since this was the very end of a long and busy vacation throughout eastern Europe, my family didn't have the energy for doing all that much. Most of our days were spent casually walking around the old town and seeing some of the nearby sites. We covered most of the famous old town and lesser town, and later my daughter and I hiked up the hill to the Prague castle. My daughter and I also explored a bit off the beaten path which included a 300 step walk to the top of the mighty St. Vitus cathedral. We also took in the gorgeous view from the mini Eiffel tower at Petrin hill. On our last full day in Prague, my daughter and I peddle boated around in the Charles river, taking in the views from the water. I had absolutely no regrets visiting Prague again 21 years later, though I was a bit saddened that my magical city had gone through such dramatic changes. I guess a romanticist/idealist always wants to dream about a city in a certain fashion, while a realist understands the changes and influences that occur when a city rapidly goes through a metamorphosis. The strong Western influence over Prague is not necessarily a bad thing for the locals as the city is thriving.  I still recommend a visit to Prague, however I do think an off season trip here is optimum. Also, do try to explore a bit outside of the city's touristic center so you can experience some little gems that lie outside the beaten path.  Prague is still fairly cheap by Western standards and there are budget accommodations/food to be had.  Last but not least, try to enjoy a few pints of Prague's famous beer which should only set you back about $1.25 per pint.  :)

Charles Bridge

View from Petrin Hill
Prague's Astronomical clock

Church of our lady Tyn

St. Vitus Cathedral
Dancing house

Magical Prague from high on Petrin hill

Monday, September 1, 2014

Summer vacation part 7, Three days in Krakow, Poland

After our stay in Vienna and a very short visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, we took an overnight train to Krakow, Poland.  Poland is another country that neither my wife nor I had ever visited.  I had heard many great things about Krakow and had wanted to visit the city for a long time. Krakow was very interesting in many ways and has the largest medieval square in all of Europe.  It is a city for walking around and people watching throughout the enormous square.  My family was quite surprised how reasonably priced everything was in Krakow. The city had a very Western feel to it and the service and quality were top notch at just about every place we visited.  We had some very nice and gourmet meals for fractions of what they would cost in Helsinki, Finland.  We had three full days in Krakow and made it a very cultural visit.  

The first day we ventured all around the city and in the afternoon saw the famous factory that was formerly owned by Oskar Schindler.  Schindler, who was immortalized in the Spielberg film, "Schindler's list" was famous for employing Jews during the Holocaust in his factory in order to save them from extermination by the Nazis.  The entire factory has now become a memorial and history museum about the German invasion and occupation of Krakow during World War II.  Krakow was fully invaded and Poles just like Jews were persecuted and even put to death in the extermination camps.  The second day in Krakow was a somber day because we took a tour of the infamous Nazi extermination camp that is in Auschwitz.  The extermination camps Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) are known as the world's largest graveyard as up to 1.5 people million perished there. It was a very heavy and depressing subject and tour, however also a very important and educational experience that I feel should be experienced at least once by everyone in their lifetime because we should never forget and never repeat history again.  The last day was spent in a more uplifting and fun fashion as we visited the Wieliczka salt mines.  This incredibly deep and humongous salt mine was an amazing experience for the entire family.  First, you must walk for at least 10 minutes just to get down the flight of stairs to the very bottom of the mine and then you walked around countless tunnels and rooms in order to see all the different passages and art that is in the mines. The tour only covers about 1% of this cavernous and interesting place. There was an underground church carved out of Salt as well as theaters, gift shops, exhibitions and even a restaurant well underground.  At the end of the tour we were luckily able to take an elevator that raced up to the top of the mine back to solid ground again. Overall, I really loved Krakow, Poland and it's surrounding areas. In fact, we found Krakow to be one of the highlights of our entire Summer tour of Eastern Europe.  I would even recommend it over my former favorite Eastern European city of Prague, Czech Republic which has suffered a bit from over tourism during the last 25 years.  More on that to come in part 8, which will be the final chapter in our summer tour of 2014.

Krakow's grand square

Pope John Paul II, Church in Wielickza salt mines


Monday, August 18, 2014

Restaurant Day in Finland

So you have a great idea on a food dish?  You always wanted to share your special recipe with others but never had your chance?  Well, you can in Finland, because Restaurant Day, which takes place approx. 3 x per year means that you can set up and advertise your "restaurant" and you don't need a license to do it.  The awesome concept of Restaurant Day is sweeping across Finland and other countries in rapid pace.  "Restaurant Day is a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day. It can happen anywhere: at your home, at the office, on a street corner, in your garden or inner courtyard, at a park, or on the beach – only your imagination is the limit". - Restaurantday.org 

My wife and daughter always wanted to try to sell their own cupcakes, so they finally decided to make a batch of 100 for the final Restaurant Day of summer 2014. The menu for their cupcake stand in Espoo was 1) vanilla and lemon, 2) chocolate hazelnut, and 3) raspberry.  The cupcakes turned out very well and were purchased steadily during the few hours the stand was open.  To our surprise, even on a slower Sunday afternoon they sold 100 cupcakes in just 2.5 hours time, exceeding our expectations.  My son and I journeyed over to Helsinki for part of the day.  We went to one of the parks in downtown Helsinki where we saw at least 50 pop-up restaurants.  Countries from all over the world were represented in Helsinki.  There were treats from Turkey, falafels from the Middle East, bratwursts from Germany, tapas from Spain, burritos from Mexico, chorizo sausage from Argentina, Cuban food, ribs, sushi from Japan as well as many Finnish dishes and options. You name it, you could find it.  My son and I only covered a park which is just one city block in size, but that was plenty for us to choose from. The Restaurant Day map showed hundreds of pop-up restaurants all over Helsinki, so we barely scratched the surface.  This really cool concept is perfect for new entrepreneurs or folks just trying to have a bit of fun selling what they love to make.  The great thing is that you don't need a permit and can set-up shop just about anywhere you want during the day - even in shopping centers and other commercial (but public) areas.  I am excited that this Finnish invention started and is spreading over to other countries.  However, I would be pretty surprised to see it enter the United States, which has much stricter laws about who can sell what and where.  This grassroots organization is not for profit and definitely is giving back to the community in great ways.  I really hope that this amazing concept continues to grow and continues to encourage others to participate.  If you live in Finland or another country that participates, I definitely recommend that you visit during the next Restaurant Day.  For more information check: 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Summer vacation part 6, a quick waltz through Vienna

The next stop on our tour of Eastern Europe was Vienna, the capital of Austria.  Vienna would be the only official "Western" European city on this trip and it is a city that I had always wanted to visit since my post University European backpacking/Eurail days.  Vienna will always hold a special place in my heart as it was featured in one of my all-time favorite movies, "Before Sunrise".  Vienna is known as the capital of classical music of the entire world.  Mozart, grand coffee shops, elegant buildings and tourist shops are lurking around every corner. We would only have about 30 hours in Vienna, so we had to plan our days with laser like precision.  The first day we arrived in the afternoon and after checking in to the hotel and orientating ourselves, we journeyed by metro to the downtown to stroll around and later visit the Music museum (Haus der musik).  The museum was a "hands on" treat and featured several interactive exhibits as well as information on everything to do with classical music and classical composers.  We started the second day in the downtown and made our way to a classic cafe for some Austrian sweets.  Soon afterwards we ventured over to the famous Prater amusement park which features a classic Ferris wheel built back in 1897.  Of course we "had to" take the Ferris wheel up and enjoyed the amazing views of the city from the top.  Later the kids did some carnival style rides and then a bit later we went to see the gardens of the famous Schonbrunn palace.  This grand palace is known as one of the main highlights of Vienna.  We enjoyed strolling through the gardens and going through the human maze with the children.  After literally racing through Schonbrunn, we walked to the nearby Vienna Zoo.  The Tiegarten Schonbrunn is known as the oldest zoo currently in existence and was originally established in 1752.  Although we barely had time to scratch the surface of Austria's grand capital, we really enjoyed the sites and sounds of the city.  Vienna is a charming city and another capital city that I can thoroughly recommend.  Just make sure to give this city at least 3 days or you also will be racing through like our family.

Gardens outside Schonbrunn palace

Schonbrunn garden's maze

Schonbrunn Palace

Inside the Vienna Opera house

Ferris wheel circa 1897

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer vacation part 5, Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled in Slovenia's Julian alps is a little piece of heaven on earth. Slovenia was quite different from the other former Yugoslavian countries that we visited on our Summer trip.  It has been in the European community the longest and it's location close to the alps near Austria certainly makes it feel like the most Western of the 4 former Yugoslavian countries we visited on the trip.  Lake Bled is a picture perfect lake in the mountains near the Austrian border.  It features a fairy tale like castle on the top of a steep cliff as well as a little island in the center of the lake complete with an old church.  During our brief stay here we hiked around the lake to the castle and rented a row boat to get to the little island in the center of the lake.  Our children had fun taking some chairlifts up the mountain in order to bobsled in tracks down to the bottom.  The views, peaceful nature and clean mountain air made this a perfect respite from the busy cities we had already visited.  We only spent around 24 hours in Lake Bled, but it was totally worth the visit and highly recommended should you decide to visit Slovenia yourself.  Lake Bled is around a one hour train ride to Slovenia's capital Ljubjana.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Summer vacation part 4, Plitvice National park in Croatia

After visiting various old towns, monuments and touristic cities in Croatia we were ready for the nature portion of our vacation.  We had been very excited about visiting this park in Croatia which had been on our target list for a long time.  Plitvice National park is a UNESCO world heritage site which features a large network of gorgeous lakes and waterfalls in the North Central part of Croatia.  Words don't do justice to describe such a beautiful place, so I will attach some photos we took from the hike.  Our family hiked 8km (5miles) through the park and followed a route which 4-6 hours of time is recommended.  The middle of the hike featured a boat ride which took us across one major lake and to another next set of smaller lakes.  The hike was literally a network of lakes and waterfalls surrounded by lush greenery.  The turquoise blue water of the lakes was stunning and the water was so pure an unpolluted as they do not allow anyone to swim or fish in the area.  If you ever decide to plan a vacation to Croatia, I highly recommend a stop in this wonderful place. It is easily reachable by car or bus from the coastal city of Split.  It is also fairly close to the capital of Zagreb. Our family made the drive by rental car from Split which made it easy and flexible to get to the park and nearby hotels.  Plitvice National park is truly one of Croatia's greatest treasures and a place everyone should get a chance to visit.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer vacation part 3, side trip to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzgovinia

Perhaps the most interesting side trip and most unique place we visited during our entire vacation was the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  This interesting country has a very complicated history and was  involved in a bitter war in the mid 1990s.  The country is actually divided into 3 distinct areas, The republic of Srpska (Serbia), Bosnia and lastly Herzegovina.  The geographic area we visited was west Herzegovina. The city of Mostar is the main city in the republic of Herzgovina.  Mostar was known as one of the major campaigns in the brutal war which rocked this area for several years. The war is now over but the psychical and mental scars of the city and people remain.  The damage was apparent as we noticed many buildings with large bullet holes which had been shelled during the war.  The highlight of the trip was a visit to the famous Mostar bridge which divides the city in half.  This 500 year old bridge was completely destroyed in the war in 1993, but now it is beautifully reconstructed to it's original dimensions.  The bridge is a tourist magnet today and many young locals stand on the bridge collecting money and later when they have collected a total of 25 euros will jump into the icy river below.  It is a thrilling and scary plunge of 24 meters (80 feet).  Bridge diving has been a tradition of Mostar for hundreds of years.  The old city was very interesting and featured cobblestone streets and vendors selling local goods everywhere.  Mostar has many different ethnic groups and religions now attempting to live together and there is even a strong Muslim presence with minarets and Turkish mosques in the city.  The old town itself is relatively small and can be covered in a day on foot.  Mostar has only been on the tourist path for about a decade and is still relatively cheap. Mostar has had a painful history and the local economy is still hurting, but you can see change happening as the locals are proud of their city and background.   We really enjoyed the day trip into this historical old city situated beautifully on a river.  I would suggest it for any adventurous traveler who is considering a trip to the former Yugoslavia.


Mostar bridge

War torn past

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Summer vacation part 2, side trip to Montenegro

Have you even heard of Montenegro?  You might not have because this tiny nation just South of Croatia recently  received it's independence from Yugoslavia (Serbia) in 2006.  Montenegro means "black mountains" and it is apparent when you see the mountains from above almost spill into the sea.  At one point you might think you were exploring a fjord in Norway, however that is not the case as they are coastal mountains. Montenegro is currently known as the newest country in Europe.  Our family did a day trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia to explore the Montenegrin coastal cities of Perast, Kotor and Budva.  The views were absolutely stunning on the Southern Dalmatian coast and through the Bay of Kotor to our first stop in Perast.  In Perast we took a small ferry to visit the man made rock islet containing the "Our lady of the rocks" church.  Rumor has it that an icon of lady Madonna was found at this site and then sailors laid rocks down in the Bay over many years until finally an islet was formed. The island featured an interesting chapel and museum.  Soon we ventured back to our bus and traveled to our next stop which was the old city of Kotor.  Kotor is unique walled city quite similar to Dubrovnik, but a bit smaller and even older.  We walked around the old city while fighting the cruise ship passengers at the same time since their cruise ship was docked in the harbor.  After a tasty lunch and stroll around the cobbled old town we made our way to our final destination in Montenegro.  The last stop was a city called Budva.  Budva is more touristic than Kotor and also featured a small old town surrounded by a medieval wall.  All of these little coastal cities were scenic and unique in their own rights and definitely worth a visit should you have a chance to get down here.  Tourism is starting to pour into little Montenegro and it should be positive for the people and the economy.  I know we enjoyed our visit and would hope for more time in the future for a longer stay.

Inside "Our Lady of the rocks" church museum

City of Perast in Kotor Bay

Church of "Our lady of the rocks"

Kotor Bay

Back streets of Kotor

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer vacation part 1, Dubrovnik, Croatia

My family recently completed a nearly three week tour of Eastern Europe.  We spent the largest percentage of our time in Croatia, which included an entire week in Dubrovnik.  Dubrovnik is sometimes called the pearl of the Adriatic and it features a beautifully preserved city with medieval walls built along the seashore.  We stayed in a wonderful villa just outside the downtown (Lapad district) with my extended family.  Old town Dubrovnik is relatively small and can be explored in one day, however the Southern Dalmatian coast is very scenic and stretches a long distance and can take several days to see. The prices were cheaper than Finland and central Europe, but not as cheap as you might expect considering it is the former Yugoslavia and suffered a major war just over 20 years ago.  During the week in Croatia we relaxed around the pool and beach most of the time, although we did a few day trip excursions to both Mostar in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina and a trip to a few beautiful coastal cities in the small country of Montenegro.  We had a wonderful stay in Dubrovnik and enjoyed several trips to the medieval walled city soaking in the gorgeous seaside views and spending equal time relaxing by both the villa's swimming pool and nearby beach.   Capitalism has hit this area hard since the war tragically rocked the city in the early 90s.  68% of the city was destroyed, but it has been beautifully restored now. Now you can expect fairly expensive cab fares, souvenirs on every corner and vendors ready to sell you a trip to a nearby Island or day excursion to a neighboring country.  However, relatively speaking Croatia is still much cheaper than Finland, but you probably already knew that.  :)   Stay tuned for more blog posts from Eastern Europe.