Baltic States Trip - 2006

5th September - Tallinn

Heightened security at Stansted and BAA being as crap as ever and keeping half the security gates closed resulted in me barely making my plane despite getting up at 3:30am and getting to the airport 2 hours before the plane was due to take off. But can't really complain, flight was on time and I made it. So I was checked into my hotel in Tallinn by 12:30 local time. (We're 2 hours ahead of the UK). Time for lunch. I hit the Beer House. A micro-brewery set up like a German Beerkeller. Had a couple of half litres of the home brew and some garlic bread and smoked ribs. Real nice and at least I've now got a good excuse if I don't pull on the whole trip. The garlic bread was a heavy dark German type bread which had been fried in garlic butter. They had then grated about ten cloves of garlic over the top. The smoked ribs were sort of off-cuts of seriously smoked bacon (with bones in them) served with fried onions. Spent the day exploring the Old Town. Did a walking tour with Tallinn Travellers Info which has a tent opposite the official Tourist Info place. A great choice. Run by local students and gives a great personalised tour of the City. The old town(s) are well preserved but quite eclectic in style as they have been each rebuilt many times over. The City walls are the most impressive surrounding the whole City and atleast 3ft thick with a tower ever 50yds or so. A real medieval feel, loadsa churches (Lutheran and Russian Orthodox) and huge open squares and the place is really quiet. Thank God I'm here during the week and avoiding the Stag Weekend Crowd. One thing that is a bit of a downer, my ears are playing up, both of them. Feels like someone is sticking a sharp object into both of them and the knock on effect is a quite painful and stiff jaw. I'll try some pain-killers, if that doesn't work I'll have to resort to beer! The season in Tallinn seems to end on 31st August. Earlier when I wanted to climb the Town Hall Tower for a view of the City I was told I could because it was only open in season and tonight I go to the pharmacist that's supposedly open till mid-night and it's not. So plan B, a nice meal and a few beers. The Olde Hansa, a medieval restaurant. The guide books said no visit to Tallinn would be complete without, which made me sceptical but it was fantastic. Supposedly all the dishes have been researched and are as authentic as possible. There are not even any potatoes on the menu because Sir What-a-wally Raleigh hadn't invented (discovered) them yet. I went for the Wild Boar Plate with forest berries, smoked baked sauerkraut, London Merchants pickled veg and smelt (a sort of cracked wheat, tasted a bit like pasta). And it was washed down with a light beer with cinnamon and a dark strong beer with herbs. All this accompanied by medieval music and served by wenches of the top order. Marvellous.

6th September - Tallinn

Still feeling rough, but hopefully now that I've got some Ibuprofen and Paracetamol I'll be fine. Bit of an overcast day, glad I got my sight-seeing done yesterday. So some more wandering around and I suppose I ought to plan what I'm going to do tomorrow. I've a car, I've a hotel booked in Tartu and a whole day to get there. Tallinn is quite quirky. Loadsa a little details which unless pointed out you'd completely miss My favourite is this fella.

He's on top of a building opposite the ballet school. The story is that he used to spy on the girls as they changed in their changing rooms, which spooked them at first but he was harmless and after a while they came to accept he was there. When he died the girls missed him being there and they had the statue put up in his memory. Next was the trek to the top of St Olav's Church. 258 steps (yes I counted them) and every step a big one, all of them between 10 and 12 inches high. This is the tallest building in Tallinn and when it was built the tallest in Europe at 522ft. The climb was well worth it with great views across Tallinn. To save you the climb here are my photos.

The view from the front of my hotel up St Olav's and the view from the viewing platform on St Olav's down to my hotel.

A view of the City Walls and up to Toompea on the hill. And to prove that I actually am in The Baltic States and not just making this up from my flat in London, a picture of Toompea with my ugly mug blocking the view.

7th September - Tartu

Got the car eventually (it arrived 45 minutes late and I was beginning to worry!) And after saying STAY RIGHT to myself 100 times I set off. Bare in mind I'm in the middle of a city I don't know, reading signs I don't understand heading in some vague direction. Add in the fact that half of Tallinn is being dug up and there are diversions all over the place and you get an idea of the fun I had. After half an hour or so I hit the open road, and the right one at that. I like add a little bit of educational stuff in amongst waffling on about me so here is today's juicy morsel, Estonia is flat. Really flat. You just won't believe how vastly mind-bogglingly flat it is. I mean, you may think Holland is flat, but that's just peanuts to Estonia. Apologies to Douglas Adams. It's also covered in trees. Over 50% of the whole country is forest. Atleast it gives them something to burn when it gets cold in winter. Anyway what did I see apart from flat land covered in tress? Some lovely old wooden traditional homes and some horrible Russian built 'council house' blocks. Signs to warn you of Elk crossing the road. Lake Pepsi (Peipsi) which is big. Really big ... I was hoping to be able to see across the lake and see Russia on the other shore. No chance. Just lake all the way to the horizon. After a lot of hunting I found Kauksi Holiday Village expecting to find a beach resort. But the season is May till August and it was deserted apart from one lonely cat that was really pleased to see me.

The beach at Kauksi. Not a sole to be seen. As if everyone fled the area. You can see the beach-volleyball net still standing. But my lasting memory will be road works. All that money which we give to Brussels this is where it ends up. In a few years Estonia will look like Ireland with EU signs on every piece of road telling us how wonderfully generous there are to rebuild the roads. I could go off on one of my EU rants here, but most of you have heard it many times before. The roads are rough though. Away from the major highways which all seem to head to Russia it's mainly dirt track, wide dirt track but definitely dirt track. I took Route 88, it's got a number it must be a decent road right. Wrong. It's a dirt track, with road works where they are upgrading it to a dirt track with chippings on it!

Route 88.

Although the title for today is Tartu I can't actually tell you much about Tartu as I got to the hotel quite late and I just went out to the bar and restaurant in the hotel. Goat stew for tea, very nice!

8th September - Journey to Riga

Wandered into Tartu for an hour. Looks nice enough. Old, grand, lots of open space, big squares, plenty of parkland. For me it was just somewhere to use up my remaining Kroons and move on. Today's drive was far more scenic than yesterday's. First I headed down to Otpeää, in the 'Estonian Alps' (which with the highest point in Estonia being 318m the description is a little tongue in cheek). It's a nice little town on the edge of Lake Pühajärv, with the lake being the main reason for my visit. As I drive down to the lake I pass some locals in full ski gear on mini-skis with wheels training for cross-country skiing, looks very strange.According to legend Lake Pühajärv was formed by the tears of the mothers of lost sons in the battle of the Kalevipoeg epic. But what swung it for me was that the lake was blessed by the Dalai Lama in 1992. I figure if he thought it worth a visit then I'd graced it with my presence too. On the lake near Otpeää is a beach resort. Chalets, restaurants, a pier, swimming area and even an open-air concert venue (I saw a lot of them all over Estonia). But again it's September and it was deserted.

After a fairly easy border crossing into Latvia, I head for the Gauja Natural Park and Cesis and Sigulda in particular. More great scenery and it obvious I'm heading south, the forests of ever-green firs and the like have turned into deciduous woods which to me look so much better. My main reason for heading into this reason is the artificial bobsled track. But I find it's only open at weekends in September. But I still get a quite exhilarating ride, the drive into Riga. The roads get more and more busy as I hit the outskirts and then I have to contend with trains, trams and trolley buses whilst not knowing exactly where I'm going. I know the hotel is on the same side of town that I'm coming in from and about 2km out from the very centre. So I keep my nerve and keep heading straight into town. More by luck than judgement I arrive safe and sound with the damage waiver on the car living to fight another day.

9th September - Riga

Riga, what can I say great place for a Stag Weekend, but if it carries on the way it seems to be going it should lose it's Unesco Heritage Site badge very soon. A city catering so blatantly to the drunken Brits can't complain when it get swamped with them. Irish Bar on every corner, all offering Sky Sports, Fish and Chips and a happy hour (or three). Walking around the city in the evening the great British rallying calls of Wey-Hey, Down-in-one and Get Ya Tits Oot Fur t'Ladz can be heard across the old city. Bars bang out dance music and have girls dancing around a pole on the bar, although they were very much over dressed in my opinion! And of all guys on the street all promoting some bar or another. 'Alcohol, disco, striptease', 'Come, come we have happy-hour', and lovely young ladies who for some reason want to strike up a conversation with you, don't know what that's all about ... OK bitching session out of the way, what about Riga during the day when the Brits are nursing hangovers? It's a nice town, but nothing exceptional compared to many others around Europe. The Old Town is completely cobbled and pretty much traffic free (apart from those annoying pedal rickshaw things). Thankfully they haven't got a Major like Red Ken so it's not been dug up and replaced with Red and Green tarmac so that the terminally stupid know where to cross. Oops almost started ranting again. The buildings pretty standard fare for the continent, 3 or 4 story grand looking buildings (most of which look too good because they have been rebuilt since the war by the Russians or in the last few years since independence). A couple of big churches, a few big squares, trams, all the usual. A nice enough place but not a patch on Tallinn.

10th September - Journey to Kaunas

Quite a long day driving, not helped by a total lack of signs in Riga resulting in me getting very lost trying to leave. Add in the now all to familiar diversion so that Brussels can spend more of our money and two hours are added to the trip. Within the first half an hour on Lithuanian soil I had spent more time with policemen than I have in the rest of my life put together. Firstly crossing the border. I couldn't find my passport, I knew I had put it somewhere safe but I'd be buggered if I could find it. After about ten minutes I had convince the guard to let me through on my driving license, he knew I'd have to find it or get some sort of replacement document to leave the country so he was just passing the problem on. (I found it when I unpacked at the Guesthouse in the evening.) Next I get stopped for speeding which really pissed me off. I had been so careful on the trip. I've been in no hurry so was taking it easy. But I'm pulled over. In broken English I find out the in Lithuania when inside the town boundaries (between the town name sign and the sign of the town name with a line through it) the speed limit if 50km/h. There are no signs telling you of the change of limit. So I was pulled over on entering the first town in Lithuania, on an open straight road with not obviously a town at all. Over to the cop car, takes my details etc and tells me he will charge me the minimum 300lats (£60). I tell him I only have 200lats. He says that's enough, takes the dosh and I'm on my way. I figure that's a very profitable business catching tourists as they come over the border. Lithuania follows the same progression that Latvia took from Estonia. Still flat and wet, but less forest and more open farm land. Also looks a bit richer but that may just be the area I was passing through. I made a small detour to visit the Hill of Crosses, which is sort of loads and loads of crosses on a hill!. But following the same principle that took me to Lake Pühajärv if it's good enough for the leader of a church then it's good enough for me. Pope JP II this time he was so impressed he told them there should be a place of worship nearby. And as his word is like the word of God they built one. As can see from the photos there are a lot of crosses.

The goal of the days journey was to arrive in Kaunas in time to catch the West Ham game. I made it at about 5pm for the 6pm kick-off. But in the words of the song, 'Fortunes always hiding, I looked everywhere', not a single place showing it. The second city of Lithuania, the 4th biggest in the whole of the Baltic States, there are direct flights from the UK to Kaunas with Easyjet and they haven't got Sky Sports. It's a disgrace.

11th September - Around Kaunas

Today's main event was The Journey to the Centre of Europe or Centras Europos as they call it around here. Yes, the centre of Europe is in Lithuania or so it is according to some Frenchman at their National Geographical Institute. Or it would be if they hadn't forgotten the include Malta. For the full story click here.

Next I headed over to the Aukstaitija National Park. Described by Lonely Planet as 'The natural paradise of deep, whispering forests and blue lakes bewitched this once pagan country.' For me it was a 3 1/2 hour walk with lots of trees and water. So pretty much like my average round of golf!

12th September - Vilnius

Headed into Vilnius and I say bye-bye to the car, delivered safe and sound which is always a relief with a hire car. BTW it was a Fiat Punto with 55000 on the clock. Had all the mod-cons power steering, central locking, electric windows that my car hasn't. But it hasn't got any power which was so frustrating over-taking on the A-roads that I was travelling on. As always on hitting anew city I head for the main square and it is a building site. Completely dug up, I find the whole city is under construction. 2009 is a 1000 years since Lithuania was first mentioned and Vilnius has been designated the European City of Culture 2009 so the tarting up is under way. I'm sure it will look great but I hope the job isn't done too vigorously turning this into a chocolate box city.

Vilnius is small. Little more than a provincial town. The Old Town can be walked end to end in 15 minutes but is full of little cobbled streets and courtyards that kept me occupied for hours. The pace of life seems slow and this is the perfect lazy end to my holiday.

13th September - Vilnius

Another slow relaxing day in Vilnius. Sitting around people watching. With the University being in the heart of the Old Town the viewing was good on a par with Riga and much less tarty. My one exertion for the day was a walk up to the castle which gave views over the whole of Vilnius.

So what have I learnt from my trip? The Baltic States are flat, very flat and wet and covered with trees. Tallinn is a beautiful fully enclosed walled Old Town, medieval in tone and a romantic city. Riga is more up to date, modern, and ideal for a stag weekend. Vilnius is a sleepy provincial town, great for a relaxing break and only £1 a pint in the centre of town. In the Baltic States you have to drive with your lights on by law. The food is heavy and meaty with a lot of game on the menu including Elk, Wild Boar and even Beaver Stew. And best of all Fizz, a pear cider, can be found on draught almost every where!