the Baltics, fairytale old town, family friendly, couch surfing, Eastern Europe
26.09.2012 - 30.09.2012
From Helsinki, Finland we are travelling over the Baltic Sea to Estonia. This will be our introduction to Eastern Europe. From there we will go to the two other "Baltic states" Latvia and Lithuania. Grouped geographically on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, the three Baltic countries have their individual charms.
Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia is located eighty-three km south of Helsinki. We took the Tallink Line Ferry for thirty nine euros each on Sept 26.
I LOVE ESTONIA!!
There are over 1500 islands on the sea off the Estonian coast.
Tallinn has an intimate old town with the tallest church in Medieval Europe.
Our hostel, with the catchy name of Fat Margaret's, is walking distance from the harbour, and only a block from the old town. Our room is large, sparsely furnished, private bathroom and two window seats. One of the windows has a great view of the Old Town. It costs thirty two Euros per night, split between two people so sixteen euros each.
We had supper the first night at a pub called Hell Hunt, just a short walk into the old town. We both had fish and chips and I had a bottle of Stella Artois, a Belgian beer. Our bill came to sixteen Euros so things are definitely cheaper here than in Finland or Sweden!
The waitress was very pretty and super nice. Maybe it was just sticker shock, but Jeff, the last of the big time spenders, insisted he was paying and gave her twenty euros, keep the change, eye-tah. That is how you say thank you in Estonian but we keep forgetting. There is another word for thank you also, it might be dolmus. Anyway we have learned three other words in our travels, tak (thank you in Swedish), Keetos (thank you in Finnish) and Hej, hey, which is hello in Swedish. We use that all the time, posing as Swedes.
We like it so much here we decide to stay for three nights. English is widely spoken, the service is excellent, the people seem nice and friendly and there is a fairy tale old town.
We enjoyed our delicious morning coffee in a pretty cafe in the old town, tablecloths, fresh flowers, nice ambiance, all this for three euros twenty - it would have been double in Finland in a Tim Horton's like atmosphere (nicer places would charge more!!)
We had lunch at a restaurant with candles on the table, the waiter poured out our tonic water like he was pouring wine, we had seafood pasta, the restaurant had wifi, and the total bill was sixteen euros.
Estonia is on the Euro, but the other two Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania, also part of the EU, still use their own currencies.
Estonia is really connected, they invented Skype. Even city parks have wifi, it is everywhere, apparently, except for our room at Fat Margaret's where the service is sketchy.
While walking around the Old Town Jeff spots a Depeche Mode tribute bar. In we go and have a coffee and Jeff is stoked by all the DM music and the pictures, the constantly running DM music videos, the whole thing is strange. There are numerous pictures of Depeche Mode's visit, they played a concert in Tallinn and then spent the whole night at the bar partying with the locals.
It turns out this bar is ranked number five in Lonely Planet's top ten strangest bars in the world, but we came upon it by accident. It was a highlight for Jeff and even for me, as I would never have gone in there without him. I suggested we go back after supper to see who frequents the place in the evening. Turns out, not too many, pretty empty, it is a rainy night in late September. Maybe they do better in the summer.
Although Estonia considers itself a Nordic country and their language shares similarities with Finnish, twenty five percent of the population is Russian. Total population of the entire country is about 1.3 million. I am impressed with their history which includes the human chain from Vilnius Lithuania, through Latvia to Tallinn and the Singing Revolution. I must read up on the history of the Baltic countries.
Estonia is celebrating its twenty-first year of freedom from the USSR. It is the longest period in history when they haven't been under someone else's rule. Estonia has been occupied by Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the USSR.
They were a country of peasants, earlier than that they were slaves. Throughout Estonia's history various countries/empires invaded and took over, building fancy homes for themselves and impressive buildings. They created a beautiful medieval old town and I hope Estonia exploits it to beat the band as it really is pretty awesome.
In addition to the Baltic Sea coastline Estonia has numerous lakes and forests, a very picturesque country.
They are a loveable bunch, they call their history when Sweden was in power, "the good old Swedish days" and they use the word "normal" for awesome or incredible luck, only they say it in Estonian.
28 September - we went on a free (tip requested) walking tour of the old town and the guide spoke excellent and expressive English. The secret seems to be showing American cartoons on TV with Estonian subtitles. There were a lot of Germans on the tour and the guide exclaimed, "Are you invading us again?" They seem to have a pretty good sense of humour.
I definitely think Tallinn is a fairy tale city with one of the best preserved medieval old towns in Europe. The streets are quite wide as Tallinn was a merchant town and the merchants needed wide streets to bring in their goods. Salt, my favourite spice, was one of the major products brought through Estonia in Medieval times.
They have a great tourism program - really good brochures on the sights of Estonia. Tallinn's old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.
Estonions call Indian Summer "old lady's summer." They have one tower called Fat Margaret and another called Tall Herman. Their flag is white for purity, black for earth and blue for sky. They were the first country to use their ability to vote online. Their food and architecture is a mishmash of all the countries that invaded them but basically they love potatoes, pancakes and black bread. Beer is cheap and good, bars are abundant and kids can go in with their parents, just like in Germany. They have beautiful desserts and pastries, lots of custard and whipped cream.
Estonia came late to Christianity and is one of the most atheistic countries in the world our guide advises. However, they have some pretty fancy churches and one of them is Russian Orthodox, really ornate on the inside but we were not allowed to take pictures. I helped myself to some Holy water to bring me luck and cure what ails me.
The Danes invaded them in the thirteenth century to bring them Christianity. Denmark was losing the war until, by divine intervention, a flag with a red cross on a white background floated down and changed their fortune. Denmark won the war and they embraced the flag that appeared to them in Estonia on this fateful day.
Buy Scandinavian wooden knives here, cheaper than Finland or Sweden!!
It is warmer and cheaper here than Finland or Sweden and it looks like moving south will be even more economical I am sorry to leave this captivating city. Our hostel, Fat Margaret's, had kitchen facilities but breakfast was not included.
I am contemplating the fleeting and the lasting, moving from city to city, country to country, shopping for memories and leaving footprints and bits of DNA behind. I am closer now, than I have ever been, to my carefree life in 1969 when I moved apartments on the city bus, carrying a shopping bag.
We. are on the LuxBus from Tallinn to Riga. It is Saturday Sept 29 2012.
18 euros each, a four and a half hour journey.
We are leaving the "Nordic" countries.
This is our first venture into travelling by bus which is comfortable and has free coffee and wifi in Estonia. The wifi cuts out when we get into Latvia.
Riga is about an hour from the Estonian border. The tourist shop is closed so we wander around with some sketchy directions and basically stumble across our hostel, Fun, Friendly Frank's.
We were greeted with our choice of a free bottle of beer or a free bottle of water. Then we went on a free (tip only) walking tour of Riga with a nice girl named Sophia. The old town is near the hostel.
We saw the Freedom Monument and the changing of the guards. Latvia invented the Christmas tree. News to me. We toured the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, head covering required, no pictures allowed. All of the Baltic countries are into amber, huge displays in shop windows.
At the end of the tour we were taken to a bar where we were served a shot of the local balsam liqueur, "Black Balzam" quite powerful stuff, 45 proof. I could have had two but I wanted to be able to enjoy the rest of the evening.
Since all we had eaten all day was a piece of cake at the bus station (it was good) we proceeded to a place the guide recommended, LIDL, and had pork and potatoes and a nice salad for 14 lats total for both. That is just under ten dollars each. Then we came back to the hostel and were shown our room - it is big with two bedrooms and a private bath. However, the windows are miniscule, it is up a steep flight of stairs and I can hear the guys next door laughing and horsing around so of course I preferred Fat Margarets where our room had a great view and was super quiet except for the traffic noise.
Riga is known for the large number of Art Nouveau buildings, more than 750. We saw a few but must go to the part of the city where the bulk of these buildings are located - within walking distance of our hostel. We are booked in here for one night - I find it quite noisy. We do get a free breakfast but I'm thinking tomorrow we should move so must research that now.
30 Sept - well we spent the night at Fun Frank's, had a breakfast of coffee and toast, packed ourselves up - Jeff had found another hostel so we walked over there and they didn't have a twin room left. So now we decided to find a cafe with wifi and I was a bit grumpy and lo and behold we are just nearby a nice little cafe with ambiance and we share a good piece of cake and have a cappuccino. The owner speaks limited English, but tries, there is one other person in there who seems to be his friend and whose name turns out to be George.
It seems they don't get many Canadian tourists in Riga but they tell us quite a few Latvians live in Toronto. The owner right away says Calgary Flames when Jeff says he is from Calgary. Then he shows us a little kind of key chain that has a hockey player and Canada on it and says, "my talisman"
Regarding hockey - the men know Canada for hockey and are ticked off about the lock out.. They say NHL as clear as a bell and really even Hagar from Stockholm was a passionate hockey fan and also said "Calgary Flames" when Jeff said he was from Calgary. Nobody bats an eye when I say Victoria so now I'm considering saying Calgary as a conversation starter.
George informs us we are the first Canadians he has ever met. The weight of it all, being representative of the entire country, trying our best to make a positive impression pretty much made us tongue tied after that.
So as you read this, imagine: We have no cell phone. Nobody really knows where we are. We are in a city I had never heard of before planning this trip. George, the friend of the owner chats us up, seems nice and offers to drive us to the section on Albert Street to show us the Art Nouveau buildings. And although both of us felt a little twinge that this might not be such a hot idea, we finished up our coffee and hopped into his volkswagon van. And George did take us to see the Art Nouveau buildings.
Every once in awhile he stops and we all get out and admire the impressive architecture. What do you know on the street we run into some universtiy students from Turkey that we had met the day before. We said hi and carried on with George. He took us into an art nouvequ cafe, (just for a look) very well preserved and I took some nice pictures. It started to pour rain and George drove us to the Old Town and dropped us off at MacDonalds. Jeff says: Let's never do that again. WHAT WERE WE THINKiNG. Well for one thing I was really counting on there being nice people once I got into the back seat of the van. I tried to remember what I had read one time about getting out of a moving vehicle, but then what about my kid in the front seat. Was it open the door and roll out - do this when the car is moving slowly, what was it. Oh well, I couldn't remember, so I would not have to face the dilemma of saving my own skin or sticking it out for the sake of my child.
After we dried off we walked around and having made a booking at another hostel took our packs over there and went back to the old town. This hostel, Funky Hostel, was a bit of a hike again and was located up a long stairway. I was practically having heart failure when we got to the top and was definitely overheated with a long sleeve sweater, fleece and my jacket, the sweat was running down my back and no wonder as when we came back the second time I counted the stairs, one hundred and nine.
Every time Jeff went for a smoke he had to take those stairs. Our room was just for us two but did have two bunkbeds and a small couch.
We had lunch at a pancake house - really good - they do pancakes with meat, savoury types and also sweet types. We tried a few different kinds including the potato pancakes which I really enjoyed. Then we went through the Museum of Occupation which there had also been in Tallinn and we didn't go - anyway I originally was thinking, how boring, a museum about occupations. (as in jobs, not countries). But it was very touching and I had a little tear as we walked through and learned how Latvia and also Estonia and Lithuania had been screwed over by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in their agreement and how over the years Latvia lost one third of its population. They were part of the Singing Revolution in the late eighties and part of the human chain of people holding hands from Vilnius to Tallin, two million people who didn't want to be part of the Soviet Union.
We had a nice coffee at a rock coffee house and I took Jeff's picture playing a fake guitar statue.
They have lovely parks here.
Anyway Funky Hostel is nicer, quieter and cheaper and we have a window that looks right at an art nouveau building so I like the view, breakfast is included, we do not have a private bath here but oh well it is only one night. Tomorrow morning we catch the eight thirty bus to Vilnius where we have been invited to couch surf for two nights. Ciao. They say that for good bye here as well as in Italy. Now they say something for thank you that I have asked several people and tried out, it just won't stick, something like pauldeeass. They aren't as fluent in English here as the people were in Tallinn and nobody is as fluent as the Swedes. Riga, we are told, is also called "Little Paris" perhaps due to the number of Art Nouveau buildings.
Riga is a city of about 600,000 people and their currency is the lat.
One lat is 1.91 Canadian so I just double the amount to make the conversion.
We caught the 830 am bus from Riga to Vilnius. Our couch surfing hostess and husband met us at the bus and took us back to their Soviet era apartment. We are set up on two mattresses in the living room, there is a big bookshelf full of books, a comfy couch and a computer set up for us to use. They also have pamphlets and maps of Vilnius and surrounding area. Off the living room is a balcony, and there were several boxes full of apples. they have an apple orchard somewhere in the country. We were served flavourful home made apple juice and apple pancakes with clotted cream and syrup.
Then our hostess took us on the bus to a viewpoint of Vilnius and we took pictures of the modern skyscrapers. There we met her 27 year old daughter who was exceptionally fluent in English and would take us on a tour.
Our hostess lent us a cell phone so that we could keep in touch.
Vilnius is called "the Athens of the North". The old town is known for its Baroque architecture although Saint Anne's Church is a picture of Gothic. Verkiai Palace is an example of neo-classical architecture.
We were only going to stay one night in Vilnius but our hostess insisted we stay two, we would not see enough in one day.. Her daughter took us all around the extensive old town where they also have had a university for something like 5 hundred years and even the University book store has paintings all over the walls and ceiling. She also took us to the area where the bohemian artists have declared a republic, tongue in cheek, they have their own constitution and statue, Uzopia Republic. We would likely never have found these places on our own.
Lithuanians are the potato kings, they even have potato sausages. Our kind of place, good, cheap and filling food. The national dish seems to be a potato dumpling called zeppelin, due to its shape.
Lithuanians, surprisingly, are into basketball, not too interested in football, soccer or hockey.
The second day Jeff and I went on a day trip from Vilnius to Trakai where the castle is built on an island.
Trakai was the capital of Lithuania prior to it being moved to Vilnius. Again this was an excellent recommendation of our hostess who made sure to lend us umbrellas before we embarked on the bus.
We ate a special dish introduced by the Crimean Karaites - kind of like a baked dough around minced meat. We love the coffee, they heat the milk up too and give you a little pitcher of it to go with you coffee.
We got so turned around and lost in Vilnius that evening when we were trying to meet our hosts for a beer in the old town. Lucky for the borrowed cell phone, finally their daughter had to come and find us. We joined our hosts, a friend, another couch surfer and for 8 beer and two plates of food, 2 soft drinks the tab was about twenty dollars. In addition we were served the local beer eating food, fried rye bread with cheese. It was good, I am enjoying the food, the different cheeses, the sour milk served at restaurants. We all took the bus back to the apartment and enjoyed a satisfying snack of rye bread, cheese and sliced meat.
The next morning we were served fried cheese for breakfast, maybe it was baked. I liked it. They eat a lot of dairy and black bread and pork apparently.
This family participated in the singing revolution and the human chain, 'the Baltic Way" - the chain of two million people holding hands stretched 600 kilometres from Vilnius and Riga to Tallinn, Estonia in 1989. In Lithuania large groups would gather in public places and sing Catholic hymns and Lithuanian folk songs, "the singing revolution".
Lithuania was the first of the three Baltic countries to declare independence from the Soviet Union, March 1990. Most international countries failed to recognize Lithuania as a country until August 1991. In January 1991 the Soviet army killed fourteen people and wounded hundreds who were involved in a peaceful protest in Vilnius.
Over the course of the next few days up to 50,000 Lithuanians gathered at the Parliament Buildings singing, praying and chanting. Live coverage was broadcast to the world so that they would take notice. I didn't know anything about this, so obviously my own lack of knowledge is appalling. It is poignant for me now to hear of their struggles, tucked away unnoticed in the northeastern part of Europe. I had never even heard of Vilnius til we planned our travel itinerary.
Until 1991, our hosts' entire lives had been under Soviet rule which restricted travel, religion, public gatherings, and squelched complaining about the five decades of Soviet occupation. Today they relish the freedom to travel to places like Paris and Rome. The budget airlines like Ryanair have helped with their travel as many flights are less than twenty dollars. Add in couch surfing and a trip can be very achievable.
We were so impressed by their hospitality and obvious pride in their city and country. These are strong, determined, cultured people who live in a twenty five year old Soviet apartment building that seems to be so poorly built, falling apart, slapped together in a hurry, with no pride of workmanship but was sold cheaply to the occupants at the end of their rule. A middle aged professional couple, with interests in literature, travel, arts and architecture welcomed us into the warmth and comfort of their home. Once inside their apartment we forgot about the crumbling cement and the graffiti scrawled on the hallway and elevator walls. It is true that their kitchen was small and they did not have a dishwasher, that the clothes washer takes two hours and there is no dryer, but their lives and minds are rich. In a kitchen with maybe three running feet of total counter space our hostess cooked, baked and made preserves. They had raised five children here. We in North America have high expectations for our living conditions, how new and trendy everything must look, but in this home I was humbled by the warmth, the welcome and the intelligent conversation.
If there is an art show, a play or an interesting lecture, they go. They meet for wine or beer at quaint cafes, their yard is a park either near the apartment or downtown, they walk extensively and quickly, take transit, change their outfit by changing a scarf. Same black sweater, different scarf. They don't need big closets. Still, they look smart, European.
We are going tonight, 3 Oct, on the all night bus to Warsaw, get in there at 540 am and we are surfing with Anna.
Our bus fare is 55 Lithuanian, under 20 C each.