European Capital Hop: Vienna

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What I would guess is the belltower, St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Next up, we catch a train from Budapest to Vienna, our first foray into Western Europe and a bit of a sticker shock. Food, places to sleep, and things to do cost almost twice that of neighboring Hungary and there really aren’t many cheap options. Still, it’s part of travel, and we adapt to the circumstances: we adjust our budget to $80 USD daily for food and board for the two of us.

And the food…well, the desserts are absolutely lovely. The rest seems to be mostly fried meat/cheese/sausage and it’s not great, although with our limited funds we’re obviously not eating the highest-quality stuff. When we’re tired of fried things, the only other affordable thing is Doner, now ubiquitous as the cheap-and-fast choice in nearly all of Europe.

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The escalators down to the platforms at one of the train stations.
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A street in Vienna.
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Ah, Leibniz: co-inventor of calculus and the butt of Voltaire’s jokes.
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Equality pedestrian walk signs. Don’t worry, they had female/female and female/male ones too.
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Owl figures on the side of the Secession.
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An ancient tree near the cathedral, said to give good luck if you drove a nail into it. This worked out badly for the tree, which died a while ago and is kept in this glass tube.
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Mural on a building in the tourist area.
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A poster that translates roughly to “Don’t talk to the police.”
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Hanging gardens in an apartment courtyard.
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Mushroom foraging and idenfication books.
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An interesting building outside of the tourism zone.
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Vienna’s famous cow-and-wolf playing backgammon mural from the early 1500’s.

 

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No need for Google Translate–I think I got this one.

 

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral
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Tourists pause outside of a museum.
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Some architecture near the Museums Quartier (I think).
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Mmm, lunch: SPAR pasta and Mozartkugeln.
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Hungary Hike

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Cornfields in Pilisborosjenő.

In our brief time in Budapest, I’ve somehow found a nearby hike and gotten us on a bus to an area nearby where we can supposedly pick up the trail. We’re dropped off by the side of the road, where the whirlwind from passing cars buffets us every few seconds as we hike up to the trailhead. Then it’s through the woods, into the village of Pilisborosjenő, and up the hill to the summit Nagy-Kevély. It’s a gorgeous, hot day at the end of summer and we’re not letting it go to waste.

Want to do the hike yourself? Budapest Hikers have some details on their website about the Pilisborosjenő hike, including some instructions on how to get there by bus that are slightly different from ours. Our hike is delineated on the map below and started at Bus Stop Solymár, téglagyári bekötőút:

What did we find on our hike during this beautiful summer day? Well…

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Cars and trucks pass us at high speeds near the trail entrance.
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Snails wait out the heat of the day.
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A beetle struggles to stay upright. There were dozens of these beetles along the trail, all struggling to walk or on their backs with their feet in the air. I’m not sure if it’s just because it’s the season’s end or some kind of chemical/disease exposure.
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Strange squat sentinels sit along the trail. What are they for?
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An interesting seed hanging from a vine.
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Ants excitedly scuttle around a sticky puddle on the surface of a mushroom.
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Probably a wild Pink (Dianthus)
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Wild Chicory flowers; the plant can be used as coffee substitute, and is also where your endives and radicchio come from.
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Wild Barberis (barberries) growing from a bush.
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The Camel Rocks, a climb-able limestone/sandstone formation.
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An odd tuft growing on a wild rosebush. I’m guessing it’s some kind of parasite. Oh, I’m right; it’s a wasp larva home.
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A European Green Lizard (Lacerta viridis), now reddish-brown at the end of mating season.
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A shallow cave in the cliff.
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A view from near the top of the hill.
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A stamp near the top of the hike! BYO stamp pad, though.
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Stoytcho at the summit.
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Another wildflower, possibly a variety of Spotted Knapweed (Centauria maculosa).
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Hmm, I don’t think so.
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A European Green Lizard, still green for mating season.

European Capital Hop: Budapest

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The Hungarian Parliament Building behind the silhouette of Rákóczi Ferenc lovasszobra, a national hero who led the uprising against the Hapsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire.

Over the next three weeks we’ll be European capital-hopping, where we have a few days in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague before ending up in Linz, Austria for the 2017 Ars Electronica Festival.  Like Riga, we have little time to get to know each city, but hopefully it’s enough to get a feel for what makes it unique.

First up: Budapest, capital of Hungary and the fusion of two prior towns – Buda, and Pest. Stretched across the Danube, the city is a mix of beautiful architecture, verdant parks, and busy car-filled roads. The most beautiful time for photography is dusk, when the city lights up its most iconic buildings.

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The Hungarian Parliament Building, as viewed from utilitsa Alkotmany.
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The moon rises over the southern wing of the Hungarian Parliament Building.
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Visitors pause to read signage at the the impromptu protest memorial in front of the German Occupation Memorial. The protest memorial accuses the government of rewriting history to make Hungary seem like victims rather than supporters of the Nazis.
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Memorabilia laid out at the protest monument, which argues that many Hungarians participated willingly in the murder of Jews, Roma, and homosexuals during World War II.
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St. Steven’s Basilica at night.
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Moonrise over Buda, on the other side of the Danube.
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The stairwell leading up to our hostel.
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Graffiti drawn on the side of an ornate building.
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A sad robot.
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Possibly some kind of revenge.
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A team  of students participates in a scavenger hunt across the city.
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Protesters occupy the edge of Varosliget, where the city has proposed to remove green space and replace it with a museum.
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A stuffed animal watches over a donations box for the protestors.

 

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A man pedals a Ferrari boat around the pond in Varosliget.
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A typical day at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths in Varosliget Park. They were nowhere near as warm or relaxing as a Japanese onsen.
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Men play cards on a patio at Szechenyi Baths.
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A tour group wanders by a bronze statue in downtown Pest.
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Lunch – lemonade, chicken with spaetzle, and strawberry soup.
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The bank of the Danube.
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A plant grows from a discarded bucket, washed ashore from the Danube.
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Budapest Central Market Hall.

Bialowieza Forest

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A plaque at the entrance to Bialowieza National Forest.

Bialowieza, the last old-growth forest in Europe, is the real reason we’re in Poland. About a month ago, when we were deciding between visiting Chernobyl in Ukraine and Bialowieza, we heard that the Polish government had green-lighted some logging in the forest. We figured, ‘Well, time to see it before it’s gone.” It’s not like Chernobyl is going anywhere soon.

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A tree on one of the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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Moss and lichens growing on a low roof in town.

We caught a train from Warsaw to Hajnowka, and a bus from there to Bialowieza, the eponymous town on the park’s east side. From here, we ended up doing two hikes: one along the Nordic tracks on the East side of the town, and the Bialowieza National Park Nature Tour for Scientists. The former winds confusingly through state forest (where the logging is taking place), while the latter takes you into the actual national park and requires a hefty 550 zloty fee (~$161 USD) for the guide. Overall, both hikes were nice, with two caveats: an absolute boatload of mosquitos, and a fairly ‘touristy’ feel to the National Park hike—you’re walking a well-worn path, occasionally past another tour group. It’s not like hiking open and free in the wilderness.

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Resident wildlife.
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Logging in the state forest, along the Nordic Ski Tracks.
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A logged clearing in the state forest.
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Untouched fallen trees in the National Park.

That said, the park does have an impressive array of mosses and fungi. Because they don’t remove dead and fallen trees, there’s plenty of material to support the growth of saprophytes, in turn hosting tiny insects and insect predators like spiders. You might catch glimpses of animals from afar, so bring the camera with the nice zoom lens. And you may even see wild boar if the population has recovered by the time you arrive—we saw none, because most were wiped out by swine flu a couple of years ago. Our guide reported that summer, you could smell the rotting boar carcasses every time you got near the forest. But that’s the course of nature for you.

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The trail of an animal through the morning dew in a field near the forest.
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Late afternoon in the fields.

A few tips for when you go:

  • You could easily stay in Hajnowka and hike from there if you’re not so interested in the national park. The town was adorable and untouristy, and we found their tourism information center to be super helpful – they’re open 9-5 Monday-Saturday, and 9-1 Sunday.
  • We stayed at Dwor Na Otulinie in Bialowieza and loved it because it’s on the outskirts of town, nearer to the forest. The hosts are lovely folks and they’ve got a mini-kitchen downstairs to prepare meals for yourself.
  • We tried a handful of restaurants in the town and found Bar Biesiada Jolanta Żłobin to be hands-down the best for cheap food, even compared to the ‘supposed best’ Bar Leśna Dziupla. It’s partly because they have amazing pierogi (though I suppose you could order something else), partly because they have these delicious sodas under the brand Vilnele, and partly because the cook/barman/waiter at Biesiada looks a bit like an overweight Harrison Ford. He speaks almost no English, so arm yourself with Google Translate.
  • There are mosquitos. Not just mosquitos, singular at a time, but whole swarms of them that will relentlessly follow you as you hike. Try early on to make peace with the fact that you’re going to lose some blood.

Some more photos of Bialowieza:

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Bar Biesiada’s counter, where they also sell fried jelly donuts.
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A brown puffball grows in the grass.
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This is a woodpecker, but you probably couldn’t tell because we didn’t bring a DSLR with us.
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King of the hill: insects climb on a mushroom in the National Park.
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Mushrooms on a log.
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A monument to those killed in the forest during the World War.
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Yellow coral fungi on the forest floor.
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Little snails, probably the most common animals you’ll see in the forest.
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This is what a hazelnut looks like.
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An orb weaver (Agriope); our guide was excited about this because she had never seen them in this part of the park before.
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Another snail, snailing along.
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And sunset.

Warsaw

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We’re in Warsaw after an uncomfortable overnight bus ride in which I had food poisoning, but that’s ok because Poland has amazing food for cheaper than your average European country. Pierogi and golonka, here I come.

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Veal Pierogi with fresh pickled slaws.
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Golonka (pork knuckle) with sauce and mashed potatoes.

As we wander the streets of Warsaw, though, I can’t help but ask myself “Where are all the people?” Except for a handful of tourists and the occasional homeless person, the parks we find are empty. The trolleys ferry only one or two souls at a time.

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An empty bridge over the highway.
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Graffiti laced statue base. It probably once held a Soviet monument.
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Trolley rails embedded in the grass of a park.

The only crowds we see are at the local farmer’s market (which is a bit livelier, but not until about midday) and in Warsaw’s “Old Town”, reconstructed after bombing in the Second World War leveled 80% of the city. Even here, the crowds of tourists aren’t dense and on a rainy day, everyone disappears.

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People line up for fresh Chineve/Vietnamese food at the farmer’s market.
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Tourists stop to listen to violinists play in the Old Town.
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The Old Town on a rainy day.
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Men waiting out the rain in the Old Town.

The dearth of people, especially young people, isn’t surprising in Warsaw. First, we’re not wandering the financial/downtown district, where everyone actually works. Second, a lot of younger working-age Poles have left for Western Europe. Since Poland joined the EU, over 2 million Poles have emigrated, many of them young people looking for better-paying jobs.

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A young woman checks her phone while waiting outside her store.
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“The Little Insurrectionist”, a statue in the Old Town that commemorates the child soldiers who died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

But not everyone has left. One evening, we go out for a walk along the Vistula River and find ourselves part of a steady trickle of people in that direction. They’re all young and dressed up, and many are carrying bottles of wine or packs of beer. The trickle becomes a stream of people, and when we reach the riverbank there are dense crowds of people milling around, drinking, laughing, and socializing. Food trucks and ice cream carts line the sidewalk. We ask a couple of English-speaking Poles what’s going on; “Is this a special event?” we ask. “No,” one of them replies, “This happens almost every night in the summer.” So this is where the people are.

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Warsaw nightlife on the riverbank.
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Crowds of people, sitting and standing and drinking on the riverbank.

Lahemaa National Park

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The view when we got off at the Loksa Tee bus stop.

We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.

If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:

Now, motivation for you to go:

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Wood planks form a narrow trail through the wetter, boggier parts of the hike.
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A European Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) perches on purple heather (Calluna) – we last saw this in New Zealand, where it was invasive.
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The little mushroom that could #1.
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The little mushroom that could #2.
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A dense bed of lichens (light yellow) grow on the forest floor here in Lahemaa.
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What I suspect are cowberries, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t eat any of them.
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An interesting leather-like foliose lichens grows among moss on the forest floor.
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Be yourself, tree. Be yourself.
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Putative chanterelles. We encountered a few women in the park collecting ‘gribui’, or mushrooms, mostly of the chanterelle variety.
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A resting point along the path. You can supposedly take this trail all the way to the sea, but that’s several days of hiking.
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A patch of mushrooms among the moss and decaying pine needles.
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An Alder Moth caterpllar (Acronicta alni) munches on summer’s bounty.
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Fresh wild blueberries hide among the foliage. They’re delicious.
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A salticid in a patch of grass.
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Pine trees grow at the edge of a bog pool. The water here takes on a dark brown hue due to tannins seeping out of the dead plant material beneath. The same thing happens in your tea.
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A lone tree grows on an island in the bog.
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Fruticose lichens growing on the forest floor.
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A polypore fruiting body grows from a fallen tree.
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The color of moss.
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The caterpillar of an Emperor Moth (Saturnia) hangs out between planks along the trail.
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Lengthening shadows in the forest.

And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge:

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Made possible by Google Photos.