Category Archives: Estonia

Week 43 – From the Baltics to Scandinavia – Tallinn to Helsinki

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!

Next stop the Alland Islands.

Week 42- Estonia to Positivus Music Festival in Latvia and back to Estonia

We were finding the Estonian island of Saaremeaa a bit dull truth be told and then the sun came out.

As we had time to kill before heading back to Latvia for the Positivus music festival, we decided to stay another day and headed to the north of the island to Tuhkana beach. We parked up ….

…and followed the boardwalk through the pine forest for a day on the beautiful white sand beach.

Come in, the water really is fine.

The Baltic Sea wasn’t icy cold as we expected but wonderfully refreshing. We wild camped in the woods that night…..

…and then next morning set off back over the border to Latvia for the three-day Positivus music festival in the beach resort of Salagriva.

The prospects for the weekend weren’t too promising. It was lashing rain as we passed through Parnu…

…and the campsite was a soggy mudfield when we first arrived. We were the first there.

But you know that saying about red sky at night? It’s all true.

On Friday morning, the sun was shining. The campsite had filled up…

…and we had three days of live music to enjoy with a few beers….

…and just the one glass of Latvia’s national drink Black Balsam. All the blackcurrant in the world can’t disguise that cough medicine taste.

We wandered between the different stages and the favourites of day one were Maximo Park, JP Cooper, the Pixies and Grandmaster Flash.

Here’s a quick blast of some of the performances complete with dodgy upside down filming:

Maximo Park –

JP Cooper –

the Pixies –

The highlight of the night – or should I say early morning as he didn’t come on till 1.30 am – was Grandmaster Flash.



He put on a fantastic show…’s a quick blast of it.

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….

….and  The Lumineers.

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.

Week 41 – more Riga and on to Estonia

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….