This week we had a couple of days doing the touristy thing in Tallinn before taking the ferry to Helsinki to start the Scandinavian leg of our travels.
We said ‘cheerio’ to the friendly Finns we’d met at the campsite which was way too far from Tallinn to visit the city…..
…after chatting to them about Vdub stuff because they have a fleet of ’em. Well, the winters are long in Finland, you need a hobby, they told us.
We parked right on the harbour front….
…next door to Mareika from Germany. (Ah now I see it… we wondered why the Jehovah Witness collared us in Turku because he thought “the black cross” on our van was a sign we were religious. He did look a bit crestfallen when we told him it was just a duct tape repair over a broken window.)
We headed into the Old Town….
….which is very compact and easy to explore and has good pubs….
…including this Scottish one which brought back memories of ‘One Team in Tallinn’, the story of the most bizarre football match in history. In the Hell Hunt pub, the barman told us he was supposed to be going to that 1996 World Cup qualifying match between Scotland and Estonia except Scotland had already played the match earlier that day. All by themselves. I believe they won…..
Tallinn has some good restaurants …..though maybe not this one…….
….including the ‘Chakra’ where we had our third curry in our travels this year. You know after family and friends, curry is what we miss most. We’ve packed enough teabags to make sure we can always have a decent cuppa because even in ‘Maiasmokk’, the oldest cafe in Tallinn which serves excellent cakes…..
…you can’t be sure of getting a decent cup of tea.
I present the evidence.
And for the rest of our time in Tallinn, we had a wander among the exhibits in the city’s flower show, browsed in the vintage shops inside the very smart Balti Jaama market…
….and had a walk along the harbour front where in 1980 the sailing programme for the Moscow Olympic Games was staged…
…..though today the enormous Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport constructed for the Games is looking pretty desolate…
….but still spectacularly Soviet.
At the Troika Russian restaurant overlooking the central square, our Texan neighbour was desperate to chat. But the frown, the hands over the mouth…it’s not going too well. Maybe his ‘Make America Great’ hat should have given us a clue.
At first it was strangely fascinating to meet someone who actually voted for the creepy clown currently inhabiting the White House. But the novelty quickly wore off the longer his bonkers rant went on.
We made our excuses and left for another bar beside another beautiful Tallinn building….the city’s oldest cinema.
So goodbye to the Baltics after more than six weeks travelling through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The verdict? We found the history of these three still young independent countries fascinating and the story of how they gained their independence from the Soviet Union genuinely moving. It was hard not to have a lump in the throat watching footage of the 1989 ‘Baltic Way’ when two million people – two million!!! – held hands in a human chain stretching from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn to protest against Soviet occupation.
And we’ve really enjoyed seeing the capital cities but, but……we were left seriously underwhelmed by the flat and unchanging landscape and we are now ready for something new in Scandinavia.
And now to Scandinavia:
Our first stop is Finland. We took the two-hour ferry crossing from Tallinn to Helsinki….
….which was like a cross Channel booze cruise complete with live band….
..and paying 3 euro for a bottle of water on board prepared us nicely for the sky-high Scandinavian prices we’ve been warned to expect.
The campsite a few metro stops from the centre of Helsinki charged 35 euro a night, the same price we paid for a hotel room in Albania. It was time to put strict new budget measures into effect. So lunch next day consisted of homemade sandwiches sitting beside the city’s most famous landmark Havis Amanda….
….the mermaid who provoked controversy when first unveiled in 1908 because of her nudity and the sealions which looked a bit like leering lusty men….
That did mean we missed out on the platters of fresh salmon being served up at the harbourside stalls which was a shame as they looked delicious as well as being reasonably priced.
We’ve only a short time in Finland and our chief mission was to have a traditional Finnish sauna – or sow-nah as the locals call it. Luckily Helsinki has just the thing – a traditional wood-fired one which has been operating as a public sauna since 1928.
We headed to Koltijarn which you couldn’t really miss….
Inside, we paid the 16 euro each and parted ways. Stuart went off to join the brotherhood in the very busy men only one. I went upstairs to the women only one. I put my clothes in one of the old wooden lockers, had a quick rinse off in one of the lines of showers then pushed open the door into the huge sauna which was like nothing I’d seen before. ..a huge concrete warehouse with tiers of concrete steps. There was no one else there. Still with my towel round me, I sat on the bottom step and got hotter and hotter.
Meanwhile Stuart was enthusiastically joining in the full Finnish experience. All towels had been cast aside – the rule apparently as one young Japanese guy, still clutching one round his waist, was told firmly ‘excuse me Sir, you must be naked in the sauna’.
Following the lead of the locals, Stuart joined in whacking himself with birch twigs and occasional trips out to the street for a cool down and a slug of beer.
Back in the ladies sauna, things were livening up. I finally had some company, including the Japanese partner of the be towelled man. She was wearing a bathing costume which would have been modest in the 1950’s. Three Chinese ladies arrived, no swimsuits, but towels. And then at last a local to show us what to do…..a Finnish woman strolled in, no towel and went over to the floor to ceiling steel oven in the corner and asked us all if we’d like more heat. Yes please, us tourists chorused politely. She pulled the lever and my ears started burning.
I left the sauna for a bit and booked the scrubber….
…and for 10 euro had 42 weeks of van life exfoliated off with a mitt. Then it was back into the heat where following the local lead, I left my towel in the changing room. Why, I was practically Finnish. And now with a female ally, I too felt brave enough to join the boys in the street for a cool down beer.
All in all, we probably spent about four hours in the sauna and came away buzzing from the experience. We’ve got the sow-na bug and now want one where we can jump into the sea afterwards.
And the rest of our day in Helsinki, we filled visiting the National Gallery to see the exhibition dedicated to the work of architect Alvar Aalto.
We had a wander along the harbour front…..
…past the Orthodox Church…
….and the cathedral…
…and obeyed the sign.
On the road again next day, we headed back through Helsinki city centre, getting another view of the stunning Art Nouveau Central Railway station we’d walked round the day before.
We stopped off at museum which marks the front line in the Finnish war against the Soviet Union and then pitched up for the night at a campsite near the small town of Hanko.
First thing we walked the 8 km trail to the southernmost tip of mainland Finland….here we are….
Today it’s a well laid out nature trail though parts are still fenced off because of contamination from the Finnish-Soviet war and along the way are wrecks of the cabins which over the years have in turn housed the Red Army, the German army and up to the 1960’s women convicted of drunk driving.
We stopped off in the small town of Hanko which is charming. It’s chief attractions are the grand 19th century villas from its days when it was a popular spa town for wealthy visitors from Tsarist Russia….
…and this lovely beach where we spent the afternoon before heading off to Turku to spend the night before catching the ferry to the islands between Finland and Sweden.
We spotted another van parked up on the harbour. When in doubt about whether wild camping is allowed, join another van. We struck lucky. They pulled over to make room for us …..
….and then opened up their impressively extensive bar and invited us to pull up a couple of deckchairs.
Cheers to all though we never got round to introducing ourselves. So whoever you are, thank you so much for the whisky and safe travels!
Back at the van after 3 am, we had an unexpected visitor….a police sniffer dog poking his way round the van’s awning ‘porch’. As we are carrying nothing more exotic than Albanian mountain tea, the officers soon moved on through the campsite, accompanying a young guy I could hear protesting ‘you’ve just picked me up because I’m Estonian with long hair’ which sounded a bit like rough justice.
Next day, we had new neighbours. Two 20-year olds from Riga in their caravan rented for the weekend. Stuart helped them out by getting their gas working for them. They were there specially to see Rae Sremmurd. Um, who? Seems we may well be the only two on the planet to miss last year’s global viral ‘mannequin’ challenge which propelled these rappers to number 1 with ‘Black Beetles’.
Keen to fill the gaping hole in our knowledge of contemporary music, our neighbours cranked up their speakers. The pounding bass of hip hop sent vibrations through the van for the entire morning and by the time we saw Rae Sremmurd on stage that afternoon we were word perfect on ‘Swang’. Catchy tune, lads.
Not too sure about the gynaecological detail of some of the other songs we had blasted out to us that morning though.
Heading back for a second day of music, we stopped for a sneaky snap of a nearby motorhome where they were sipping champagne from crystal flutes and eating strawberries from a crystal bowl laid on a flower bedecked table.
I couldn’t resist asking. Do you do this for every festival? Turns out it was their 20th wedding anniversary. Ahh.
And for the rest of the weekend, we had soothing afternoon jazz sax from Kamasi Washington…
…even more soothing Rhye…
..Austra and the big draw for the weekend Ellie Goulding.
And on the last day, we had some time on the beach which is within earshot of the stage….
…before heading back to listen to Tina Sipkevica…
… Eska and Jose Gonzalez …here’s a blast from him….
So highlight from the festival, no question it was Grandmaster Flash (even though he didn’t play The Message ) and ones to put on the playlist for the future are The Lumineers, Eska, Rhye, Jose Gonzalez, Maximo Park, maybe a bit of Austra and maybe, maybe even a few tunes from Rae Sremmurd because, to quote Dylan Moran, I’m so home with the downies.
And that was the end of our musical interlude.
On Monday it was time to pack up and typical of the very changeable Baltic weather, the rain was pouring as we were leaving the campsite.
We crossed the border back into Estonia and are now at a campsite outside Tallinn where we will be spending a few days sightseeing before taking the ferry to Helsinki to start the Scandinavian leg of our trip.
This week our tour of the Baltics continued with a few more days in Riga before we headed off to the Estonian island of Saaremaa. In between leaving Latvia and crossing the border, Stuart squeezed in a visit back to the UK for his daughter’s graduation.
Before he went, we had a wander through the very splendid Riga Central Market.
It spreads across five pavilions in hangars which once housed zeppelins…
….and is a foodie’s paradise…..
..and the fish is so fresh…
..some were still breathing.
Afterwards we had a wander along Alberta and Elisabette streets to admire the flamboyance of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture with its use of whiplash curves, floral designs…
..theatrical masks ….
..and voluptuous women.
The Riga of the late 19th century up to World War I was wealthy from trade and enjoying a building boom hence why s0 many of it’s buildings are decorated in the artistic style in vogue at the time.
In the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, every room is furnished as it was in 1903.
Erica, one of the guides dressed to match her surroundings, showed us around….
…highlighting how everything in the household from the towels in the bathroom …..
….to the rolling pin in the kitchen was ornately decorated.
Talking to Erika about life in Riga today, we got a sense of how vulnerable Latvia feels in the face of Russian aggression.
The arguments Putin used to defend the annexation of the Crimea – that Russia was defending the rights of ethnic Russians – could just as easily be deployed against Latvia where huge numbers of Russians still live. In Riga, for example, about half the population are ethnic Russians who migrated to city when Latvia was under Soviet occupation.
As Stuart was making his way back to the UK, I headed here….
…and from my guide Violetta heard similar concerns.
There’s an English language tour every day at 2 pm at the museum but as there were no other takers, she was my private guide for a walkthrough the history of Latvia including its two occupations by the Soviet Union. ‘They wouldn’t do it again’, chipped in one tourist passing by and overhearing Violetta’s description of events. She looked sceptical at his certainty.
And for the rest of my time in Riga while Stuart was away, I enjoyed walking the city….
.. watching the changing of the guard at the Freedom monument…….
…and tried some Latvian food – raw herring, onion, rye bread and some spuds on the side.
And then Stuart was back and we were once again back in the van and crossing into Estonia.
We headed up the coast and stopped off for a night in the spa town of Parnu….
….though aside from a brisk walk along the river path, we didn’t stay long.
The campsite we were on was expecting a convoy of 20 Italian motorhomes so we could only stay one night which wasn’t a problem as we were headed here….
It’s a 15 euro 30-minute ferry ride to Estonia’s biggest island where…
….we spent a couple of nights on this campsite….
…but finding it a bit too quiet, we headed to the main town of Kuressaare. It wasn’t looking too promising at first…
…and the motorhome stop was a bit like the car park of Croydon B&Q ….
..but there were compensations. At least we were close to some good restaurants.
And we learned one thing this week. When camping always check your boots before putting them on. Stuart felt this wriggling in the toe of his boot…
And finally some van stuff…..when the instruction manual of our inverter said don’t put the red wire in the black hole and vice versa or you’ll blow the thing, they meant it.
It’s a really useful bit of kit for charging laptops when we have no electricity so thanks to a recent wiring up mishap it has been a bit of a nuisance being without it. Stuart picked up a replacement on his trip back and in a nifty bit of DIY, it’s now permanently attached to the van.
We’ve a few more days in Estonia before we head back to Latvia for a music festival. Yes, we will be the oldest swingers in Salagriva….
We stayed most of this week in Riga. We had intended exploring more of Latvia’s countryside but Stuart goes back to the UK for his daughter’s graduation next week while I stay on here to babysit Molly. So wherever we travelled, we still had to be back in the city for his flights. Then as the weather forecast looked so gloomy, we decided a city stay was more appealing than rain sodden walks through a national park or rural village, however quaint.
And it looked like there was plenty going on in Riga to keep us entertained. Concerts, museums, streets lined with the greatest collection of Art Nouveau architecture in Northern Europe, an amazing market, a shibari festival…..all good stuff and that last one did sound interesting. I had a vague recollection that ‘shibari’ featured in an episode of ‘The Good Wife’ but couldn’t remember what it was. I checked it out. Eh, maybe not. (Do tell your significant other if you google this to avoid funny looks over the toast and marmalade should your browsing history come to light).
Before getting to Riga, we did see some of rural Latvia. Just over the border from Lithuania, we stayed at a campsite within the Pape Nature Park.
We bumped along the rough gravel roads…..
….searching for the wild horses ….not these ones grazing in the field near our campsite…
…but these distinctive grey coloured ‘Polish wild horses’. A small number were brought to Lativa some years back as part of a WWF rewilding project. The herd is thriving and helping biodiversity in the process by chomping their way through what was previously an impenetrable grassland of reeds and bushes.
Life in the wild for horses sounds like a soap opera where the lead mare who runs the harem is the central character and plot twists are provided by the young stallions tussling with each other to move up the herd’s pecking order.
A sign on the locked gate to the meadow warned against getting too close to them so we parked up and wandered along the boundary fence to watch from a safe distance.
Then it was off to the beach. Ah, those lazy summer days by the Baltic Sea….
Pass the factor 30 please…..
…so I can pack it away. I don’t think we will be needing it.
On second thoughts…..stopping off in Liepaja on our way northwards, the sun came out for a few glorious hours. We lapped up the heat….
….before heading north to Cape Kolka via Kuldiga, a town known for its traditional architecture..
…but especially for its waterfall which is the widest in Europe.
We stopped off in the port of Ventspils for a walk along the waterfront…
…and then set off on the 50 mile journey to Cape Kolka.
The scenery all the way gave us a flavour of what a few campervanners we met recently tell us we can expect to see when we go to Finland. Miles and miles of trees on both sides with added mosquitoes….hmm.
It’s not sounding too enticing and our Scandinavian itinerary looks like it will have to be rejigged.
And here it is, the tip of the cape which under Soviet times was a base for the Red Army and blocked off to civilians.
It was dramatic to see the fierce currents made by the clashing of the seas of the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea ….
… and scary to watch this guy navigate the waves, beer in hand.
Mercifully he was back at our campsite that evening, unscathed, still with beer in hand and only slightly wetter than us.
Altogether now ‘oooh Jeremy Corbyn….’ Stuart works his Jeremy does Glasto look.
So that was Cape Kolka, an anticlimax really and we weren’t too sure if it had been worth the drive there. Next stop Riga…..
…and ‘hello rain’. We’ve been expecting you. But we are not going to complain because big motorway puddles are very good for…
….washing the van.
We based ourselves for the rest of the week at Riga City Camping which was one of the busiest sites we’ve stayed on. Every day newcomers rolled in…
…including this arrival from Finland which we gawped at in awe though not envy. Imagine navigating the narrow streets of some centro historicos in that monster?
Ok maybe they don’t have to….passing by later on, we spotted their secret weapon. A car that fits neatly in the motorhome boot.
So far, we’ve seen a little bit of Riga by day…
…but mostly, we’ve seen the city at night. The Single Malt Bar was a favourite haunt…
…and we came across this new concept bar called ‘Easy Beer’. (Easy Wine was further down the road).
So this is how it works…
….though Evita explained it better (sorry for the rubbish photo Evita!)…
….and then Stuart tried it out. The plastic card has a 20 euro limit and can be used to buy small amounts of any of the beers on tap, the idea being that you get a chance to taste one before you commit to a whole pint. I’m sure Stuart will add his considered view of the concept to the Beer Gallery page in due course (now updated to include Lithuanian beers)
We went to two concerts, both in Riga Cathedral. One was in the garden which was an impressive setting by night.
It was a double bill of Italian accordionist Simone Zanchini followed by the headline act US gospel/blues singer Ruthie Foster. We hadn’t heard of either of them and shifted uncomfortably a bit when Simone Zanchini first came on stage and said that once he started playing he would not be stopping for 60 minutes. It was going to be a journey and what he played depended on his mood and the mood of the audience.
Oh lordy, we were in for a 60 minute jazz improv. Nice. We braced ourselves….
…but aside from some a few exceedingly surreal riffs (was it meant to sound like a fly buzzing a bear?) he was great as was Ruthie Foster who belted out some fantastic music, especially her acapella encore.
The following night we were back to experience the cathedral’s acoustics at a concert of organ and saxophone.
Most exciting of all though, we went on a kayaking tour of Riga at night. There were eight of us on the tour, two to a kayak following an 8 kilometre route down the Daugava river and along the city’s canals.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so dry-mouthed with nerves as when our guide delivered his safety talk. We were reminded that ‘might is right’ on the water and to watch out for the boy racers borrowing daddy’s speedboat. Setting off trying hard to paddle in sync, I wondered why this had ever seemed like a good idea.
For the first while, when the guide made us huddle our kayaks together like a raft in the river so he could point out the city’s landmarks, I was finding it hard to focus on his chats.
All I could think about was all that deep water beneath us.
Stuart, as you can see from the photos, was also finding it hard to focus though it was pretty hard to retrieve his phone from the dry bag and take decent snaps while at the same time hold on to his paddle and manage the rudder pedals.
We eventually settled into it and managed an efficient speed to keep up with the others though it was a bit disheartening to get back to base and discover that it hadn’t actually been raining. We had just drenched each other with sloppy paddling.
Driving over the bridge into Riga city centre the next day, I looked down at the river and was wildly impressed that we had actually rowed across it. In the dark. In a little kayak.
‘Weren’t we really, really brave to do that?’ I said. Stuart was having none of it. ‘Brave? No. It’s not a fast flowing river and we were wearing life jackets.’
Ah don’t rain on my parade. I’ve had enough of rain. Thankfully though it is looking a bit better for next week when we can see more of Riga by day before we set off for Estonia.
It’s not that we aren’t getting on. Aside from the very occasional bust up – the night my art box was hurled at force out the van door, scattering its contents over the Mani Peninsula springs to mind – we’ve been doing pretty well on the living-in-each -other’s-ear front.
And as for that little incident, I plead the defence of provocation. There’s a tipping point when good humoured teasing (in this case about why I’d packed something so big and so annoying because it has to be moved every night to make the bed and so far barely, if ever, used) becomes really, really annoying and that was it. Anyway, that blew over after I’d sheepishly retrieved everything and we’d agreed that the words ‘your feckin art box’ shall never again be uttered on this trip.
No, the reason we’ve been feeling a bit flat and generally unenthused about travelling this week is down to a combination of the weather which has been grey and wet for a lot of time and the fact that it has been hard to get very excited about Lithuania when we have spent many miles driving through some very boring scenery.
Well it’s hard not to be just a teeny bit glum when this is the view out the window…
That’s not to say we haven’t done and seen some interesting things this week.
Like visiting the Hill of Crosses, for example, which was our first stop after leaving Vilnius the morning after I’d flown back from Dublin and Mary had flown back to the UK. Located near the town of Šiauliai, this Catholic pilgrimage site is as the name suggests a hill of crosses, thousands of them….
…the occasional one with English inscriptions.
The tradition of ‘planting’ crosses on the hill goes back to the 1800’s after the imperial Russian army crushed a rebellion by Polish and Lithuanian forces and those who lost loved ones and had no bodies to bury wanted something to honour their memory.
Under Soviet rule from after WWII until 1991, the government tried on numerous occasions to destroy this symbol of Lithuanian independence. The army was sent in to level the hill, burn or melt down the crosses and cover the land with rubbish and sewage. But the crosses kept reappearing till finally in the 1980’s the Soviets decided to leave the hill in peace.
The hill felt like a very special place….
…and provided an unexpected opportunity for yet more wedding stalking.
And we had another surprising evening when we parked up near Lake Plateliai in Žemaitija National Park. The lake was very scenic…
…and we virtually had the place to ourselves when we first got there.
On the first night, Stuart, feeling more energetic than me, headed off to explore the area and came upon this Jewish Memorial site created by the Jakovas Bunka Charity.
The metal apple trees mark out a map of Lithuania and highlight all the former Jewish communities in the country which historically had been a hub of Jewish life in Europe.
By the end of World War II, 95 per cent of the community had been wiped out. That’s some 200,000 people murdered by the Nazis with, inexplicably, the enthusiastic help of many locals.
The charity’s project also celebrates the lives of famous litvaks or Lithuanian Jews like, for example, Al Jolson who was born near Kaunas.
The following day, the car park started filling up around us and more and more campers pitched up, all here for the midsummer night Saint John’s Day celebrations.
When he wasn’t dancing….
…..or, one of the main rituals of the festival, reading fortunes based on which nine flowers you picked from the nearby field….
…we asked this man to translate the programme for the night’s events for us.
It was going to run till sunrise at 4.42 when it was traditional to wash your face in the dew. We didn’t quite manage to stay up till then but had a fascinating evening watching the fortune tellers in action..
And the other highlight of the week was visiting the Dvina Missile Base nearby. An ex-Soviet missile base, not something you’d expect to find in the rural tranquility of a national park.
Beneath these mounds are these massive deep silos which once housed nuclear missiles aimed at Europe. To keep the construction of the compound secret, the Soviets used teams of five working on a rota with all materials for construction transported at night. None of the locals knew what was behind the closely guarded perimeter fence and the base was only discovered in 1978 by a US reconnaissance team.
It was a really eerie place to walk around ….
…and especially unnerving to peer into the massive silo which once held one of the nuclear missiles. You could just about see the bottom of it….
…and the projected image of a mushroom cloud going up was a reminder of the destructive power it had.
In the museum in the compound’s underground tunnels, there was a quote from Einstein on the wall which was apt…
…and some interesting photographs from Lithuania from the Cold War era,….
..including this photograph of local school children being taught how to use weaponry to protect against invasion from the West.
That photo was particularly interesting as before coming to the missile base, we had a chat with Aurora, the lovely tourist office lady in Plateliai. She recalled her schoolgirl days as a Communist youth Pioneer when, among other disciplines, they were taught how to use a kalishnakov.
And also this week, we ate out once again, sampling more potato based dishes…
…and deciding that our research into Lithuanian traditional dishes was now concluded.
Just before crossing the border into Lavia we stopped off in the resort area of Šventoji and watched the kite surfers in action.
So that was our second week in Lithuania some good bits but in between lots of driving in the rain through flat landscape. Still tomorrow is another country. And if it rains, so what. Plenty of time to do some art.