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Baltic Excursion .. November 12, 2006

Posted by stagedive in Idle Thoughts, Travel.

Break ups .. it is at times like these that either loud punk rock or a decent holiday seem to be best way to get back to a sense of normality .. I personally find Fugazi as my music of choice in such circumstances, not, I might add, that Ian M is in anyway to blame for relationship failings, but so it was .. with the bass line of ‘Waiting Room’ on the iPod that I found myself waiting on a plane ride to Vilnius to start my Baltic adventure with the ever faithful, top company, Soviet wannabee, JC along for the ride ..

We started in Lithuania for no real reason other than it was at the geographical base point of the three Baltic States & seemingly Tallinn is the jewel of the media, so it was only right to leave Estonia as the final port of call at the top.

As it turned out, and with the benefit of hindsight, Vilnius was the agreed favourite destination of all the places we visited, and in many ways the one I would go back to tomorrow. We were overcharged for the taxi ride to town, but had expected to be, and given that it probably converted to pence not pounds, we were happily played the con the tourist game with the driver. The hotel was expertly picked by moi, slap bang in the centre of the old town and bizarrely had a bowling alley in the basement. It was very good at being clean, comfortable and the only real complaint was that breakfast was fair to middling .. but a minor blemish on a top place to stay. 

We found the local bars really easily .. we were in the centre of it. We avoided the punters flashing discount strip joint cards, and made a successful trip to sample the local ales with a bunch of basketball fans (the national sport).

There was plenty to do in Vilnius. We took a trip out to the TV Tower on the outskirts of the city, past some dreary looking Communist blocks and the sobering memorial to the people that died defending the city from Soviet Tanks in 1991. Well worth a visit & a great view of the city and its surroundings. You soon spot that apart from the cities themselves, most of the Baltics is forest and farmland – we didn’t see anything approaching a hill, let alone a mountain. 

We also visited the excellent KGB Museum in the City Centre, or Genocide Victim’s Museum to give the full title. This place was shocking. The prison cells have been retained as was. the hairs on the back of your neck are permanently fixed upright as you wander past the torture cell and the execution room. It’s not a place to lighten your holiday mood, but it is a fascinating insight into what went on during the Soviet Occupation. Having visited the equivalent in Budapest & Leipzig, this one was easily the most impressive in terms of setting the scene. It must be incredibly hard for relatives and survivors to re-visit the building, but it is part of their history .. glad it wasn’t torn down.

We also took a road trip out to the Statue Park. It was quite a trek, and as the busses seemed somewhat erratic, we did at one point wonder if we would ever get back to the City alive, but all worked out perfectly in the end – it might just have been a good idea to have built it on the outskirts of the Capital if they really wanted the tourist dollar, unless you are really keen, I can’t imagine the average Joe (no pun intended) trekking 70km to see some bronze.. Was it worth the effort? Hell yes .. if there was ever a Disneyland equivalent for someone interested in the imagery of Soviet Times, this is it. A happy mass of Joe, Vlad and Felix all set in beautiful countryside. They have resturants, play areas and souvenir shops .. it reminded me of Centreparcs .. if there was a market for it in the UK, I’d happily man the tills..

The old town of Vilnius gets my vote for main attraction of the whole Baltic region. It is unspoilt enough from the Stag & Hen brigade, and if what you want is charismatic bars and restaurants that don’t cost an arm, and ooze a little bit of class, there isn’t anywhere better. The cobbled streets and boutiques that line the way, make for a really good backdrop to people watching and coffee drinking. theres a lot of reconstruction going on too, everything seemed so clean, even the oldest building had a sheen to them. Double Coffee, the Baltic equivalent of Starbucks, does a good line in Coffee and Cake that won’t line the pockets of a multi national. Also a really good market selling old Russian cameras and bric a brac that people like you and I would like .. that is if you are interested in Soviet Chic and Medium Format Film?!

The journey into Latvia from Vilnius was a breeze. The Eurolines bus route cost about £9 each for a 5 hour trip, there mysteriously wasn’t a train running from one Capital to the next .. as though someone wouldn’t believe anyone would want to make the trip?!

Riga itself looks great on arrival. The sweeping buildings that line the River Dagava indicate the enormity of the city. It is by far the largest of the three Capitals. The only disappointment at this stage was the TV Tower. An ugly 80’s rocket like lump that towers on the outskirts.

We splashed out on luxury here. The difference between 3 and 5 star hotels was about £20 a night, and despite being almost the same cost as all the other hotels on our stay combined, the Reval Ridenze, with its roof top sauna and breakfast that you really didn’t want to leave, was worth every penny.

On first impressions in daylight, Riga has it all going good. The Kronvalda Park is central park of the Baltics, and sits proud before the old town, creating a distinct dividing line between the old and new. The old town itself has all the churches you could wish for .. well probably more than you could wish for, even if you like that that sort of thing. There are also lots of cobbled side streets that lead you off to squares and greenery that are very welcoming and usually contain a bar or cafe to take the weight off your feet.

It’s only at night that Riga lets the side down. Whereas in Vinius neat bars full of locals where prominent and welcoming, Riga has gone full out on attracting the slightly seedier clientele and have done so by creating a front door advertising the fact. There are more strip clubs on the route into the old town that in Soho. Equally the touts are full on in your face and preying on anyone that looks anything but Latvian. It did get a bit tiresome. As I think I said in a previous post, as the guidebook had listed the English as the top thing to avoid, the coupling of the preying touts was a bit much to stomach.

There were sights to see. Antique shops full of Soviet Tat – I got a very nice USSR flag with embroidered Hammer & Sickle from 1965 for a paltry £9. Plus the Nazi/Soviet Occupation Museum, covered in an earlier post was definitely the highlight. There was also some neat Art Deco stylings around the city, as well as a lot of aging timber framed dwellings that line major city streets, most in need of some TLC.

We found a really good Vegetarian Restaurant called Kamala. It seemed on oddity in a city like Riga, but an Indian themed front room with a massive menu selection it was. Really helpful, pleasant staff and fantastic food. It was worthy of a second visit and a definite recommendation for anyone else heading to the city, even non-vege types would love the hip atmosphere.

On balance Riga is the place that I would be least likely to head back to. I can’t say I disliked it, as there was a lot of stuff we did there that was great, but it does seem like a city on course for Blackpoolisation. It will have its culture diluted by what sells to mass tourism, and given that it is by far the most expensive Baltic Capital, I can see it falling behind in the style stakes.

The coastal road from Riga was amazing on the scenery front. The Baltic sea was literally lapping at the tyres of our bus. It happened to be the coldest day of our trip and the icy conditions made for some interesting driving techniques by the rather rotund santa-esque driver.

Tallinn was upon us a lot quicker than expected. It was just under four hours from Riga and that was in storm conditions. The bus driver wickedly drove past our hotel on the way to the bus station just to test our resolve in the sub-arctic conditions. We stayed at the Olympic Hotel .. as the name suggests it was built for the 1980 Olympics; Tallinn was where the Sailing events took place. It was a pretty sterile affair, but neat and tidy all the same & a mere £25 a night.

If you have read this much, you can probably tell that Tallinn came between the other two for appeal. It has by far and above the prettiest Old Town. In fact the Old Town is bigger, better, prettier than any Old Town I have visited anywhere in Europe. The streets are exclusively cobbled and all twist up toward the Toompea Castle. It is like a Harry Potter set in real life. The Stag Party crowd wasn’t really that evident when we were there. I had expected it to be soaked in afro wigs and g-strings, but we only saw one the whole time we were there, and all the themed bars and strip clubs were situated in one corner of the old town, so it was easy to avoid if you wanted to.

I once again paid a trip to the TV Tower, a great coastal jaunt out of the city and fantastic view all the way to Finland from the top. The bus also took me past the Olympic Marina which I had seen the previous day on new reels so good to see in the flesh.

The Occupation Museum in Tallinn is purpose built and only opened in 2003. It was based around six movies that depicted a point in time. It was very moving to hear first hand accounts of what went on under both the nazi and Soviet Occupations. The movies were each 20-30 minutes long though and the sound quality was very poor for a new installation. I think they could have slimmed the content down to about half the length also, theres not that many people that want to spend 3 hours in a museum looking at a TV Screen .. err .. except me perhaps. The exhibits were good though with some amusing and shocking inclusions ..

JEly came out to join us in Tallinn in a last minute escape from work. He was greeted on his first night out by being offered Viagra in the Irish bar, to being offered ‘company’ by a (surely underage) prostitute in the space og 15 minutes. You couldn’t have painted a more stunned looking expression on his face, despite the sub-zero temperatures 🙂

I realised one more goal whilst I was there. Michaela had bought me the Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Guide a while back and the Three Sisters Hotel entered my list straight away. Ok, we didn’t stay there, but we did book a resturant place for our last night. It didn’t disappoint .. it wasn’t that pricey and as the Queen had stayed there two weeks previous, we fitted in fine. I can’t speak highly enough of how cool this place is .. the staff were really happy for us, well me, to nose around and I will definitely be back to stay at some point.

JC kept me drinking every night of our stay. I am not a drinker in the true sense of the word, so it was quite a feat for me. We managed three nights post 5am too, two on the bounce, both in Tallinn at the wonderfully named Bonnie & Clyde Club attached to our Hotel. I have listened to enough Techno to last a life time and promise never again to sing along to Bonnie Tyler, Queen and Bryan Adams on the dance floor again .. my throat (and ego) still hurt ..



1. Crash - November 13, 2006

Nobody ever comments on our long posts either.

2. stagedive - November 13, 2006

Haha .. I had written about 3 times as much too, maybe you wouldn’t even have commented then 🙂

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