The Travel Bug Episode 14: The Baltic States

The Travel Bug
PC @ ThoughtsDave last conquered parts of France, Germany and Poland. And by and large, he knew a lot about those places prior to his arrival.
In this post, Dave threads more into relatively lesser known parts of Europe; through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Our man finds some hidden treasures and learns more about the history of both countries.
Judging by this post, it could be fair to say that Dave’s appreciation for these countries has grown during his time here.
And so without further ado..

THE BALTICS

Next I was off to the Baltics States, specifically Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These three countries were part of the old Soviet Union and each has their unique histories around World War 2. I’m not going to really go into any of that though I do recommend visiting and discovering if for yourself.

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

It took about nine hours by train to arrive in Vilnius from Warsaw. I wanted to see the countryside and thought it would be a good way to spend the time as I was in no rush, the journey was pleasant enough and I spoke with a local for most of the trip. 

Outside my window I saw lots of dark green farmland, some forests and a few deserted railway stations, there were not many people using the train system.

Upon arriving I checked into the hostel, possibly the worst hostel I’d ever stayed in (at that moment in time anyway). The rooms smelt bad, there was not much in the way of a communal room, the staff was virtual ghosts and the toilet situation….. well I won’t go into details. You could say I was not impressed, for all the good hostels I find, occasionally I find a bad one which fails on both facilities and vibe. Some hostels will my vibe / facilities test, rarely do I find a hostel that fails both.

Impressions of Vilnius 

Vilnius itself is quite beautiful – it’s the capital of Latvia and features mainly churches as well as a central Basilica at the town square. This featured a Clock tower out the front where the old city walls used to be located.

Clock Tower

Clock Tower

I checked out the local prisoner museum which used to be KGB headquarters for Lithuania. Lots of people had been interrogated and executed in those cells, it was kind of creepy to walk The museum itself also gave an account of Lithuanians struggle against Communist oppression during and after WW II. This included a lot of detail on concentration camps which I was not aware of (but then again, I was not really aware of the country of Lithuania, apart from Eurovision song contests).

Eurovision

I decided not to check the National Museum after my Polish experience as I figured the Communists had taken anything worth seeing away.

I’m not sure that I gave Vilnius an adequate look over as I was keen to head to Riga (known as a party place). The unhelpful staff didn’t indicate anywhere that was worth seeing and I actually felt like an imposition. It may have been because I was there during the weekday and the town was quiet… Apparently Latvia is famed for hospitality, but I’ll probably never know.

After two days in a dealing with disinterested hostel staff, I jumped on another train and headed to Riga. It just goes to show that customer service does make for a better holiday experience.

 

Riga, Latvia

Riga was as much fun – if not more – than what I had been described to me. It’s quite a large city, around 1 million live there which is over half the population of Latvia itself. The hostel I was at was excellent (the place was owned by an Australian); good facilities and lovely staff which made it hard to leave. I stayed there most of my trip in Latvia and was in the country for a few weeks. I went out a few times, the first night there was pretty intense; the hostel owner took a bunch of us Aussies out to a nightclub where on the locals go. Whilst I didn’t really engage in any conversations with the locals, the bar was very dingy and played trance music just the way I like it.

Other evenings basically involved drinking around the socialising and occasionally going out to one of the many bars in town including the main square. The square consisted of a lot of bars around…. you guessed it, a square. The alcohol was relatively cheap though Latvian local currency is on the par with the Euro. Luckily they don’t charge like Europe and it was more like a couple of Aussie dollars for a pint.

A few things I noted about Riga 

As mentioned I was not particularly fond of National Museums and didn’t trouble myself with any in Riga. The town was quite pretty and the weather was sensational so I spent most of my times outdoors. This included a walking tour of the old Communist sector which included a tour of the local fish market where I was assured that the best smoked fish in Europe comes from that market.

However I was then informed that the Baltic is heavily polluted, where the fish comes from, so I wasn’t quite sure with the logic in that. I don’t much like seafood anyway and there was plenty of dumplings and goulash to be had, more of my favourite cuisine.

I also took a walk to the local television tower which was quite impressive the structure was taller than the Eiffel tower. Whilst I didn’t go up to have a look as it was not allowed it was still cool to look at.

Rigas Tower

Taller than the Eiffel, Riga’s TV tower (picture doesn’t do it justice)

I don’t condone guns, but..

Another highlight was going into an old nuclear missile silo to shoot of some rounds. This was relatively cheap and most enjoyable. I fired off a 357 Magnum (it’s not Dirty Harry’s gun, but still pretty cool), and AK47 (Communists and Terrorists favourite weapon), as well as a pump-action shotgun (favoured by rednecks and me).

Shooting weapons in a nuclear silo is great fun and again quite cheap. They also had guns for sale and when I enquired on the price, the Russian behind the counter informed me that it’s actually cheaper to buy a gun and shoot it outside the silo. I then asked if I was allowed to do this and the Russian looked at me confused and said “I don’t know why you tourists pay to shoot down here when you can buy a gun and shoot upstairs, and keep the gun”.

I did not buy a gun as I thought border control might have an issue.

Enjoying a lovely shooting experience in the Nuclear Missile Silo

Enjoying a lovely shooting experience in the Nuclear Missile Silo

 

Liepaja

I was enjoying Latvia so much that I decided to head to the coastal town of Liepaja and the beach.

Liepaja is known as the home of “Rock Music” for Latvia, in particular the Fontaine bar. The town itself is the third largest in Latvia, being that the country only has a couple of million and half of that live in Riga, it isn’t particularly large. It took a couple of hours to reach from Riga and the train like much pretty much everything else in Latvia, was very cheap.

That eerie feeling 

The town itself was pretty interesting, it was a very rundown compared to Riga and had many abandoned or severely run down houses as well as various disused factories…

Abandoned House

Abandoned House

The first day I walked about five km’s out-of-town up along the beach and into the forest where I encountered my first pet cemetery. This was quite large and an interesting experience as I can’t recall being to one before. I also came across what I thought was a gun emplacement tower, though later I was told it was a disused water tower.

Water Tower

The Water Tower

After a beautiful and somewhat eerie experience walking through the pet cemetery, past the tower though the desolate forest, I headed back into town. This involved walking through more graveyards (this time human) quite beautiful and included hundreds of tombstones were all well maintained and everyone one had flowers on them. I suspect that a lot of these people died due to the Communist and German occupation as there seems to be a disproportionate amount of dead to such a small place.

Creepy

Swimming at the local beach

The following day I took in the local port and the beach again, apparently you can swim in the water but I figure the black sludge and dead seagull was probably an indicator that this could have been a bit of a fib, also seeing guys raking up seaweed and putting it into bins was a first. This town is also the home of the Latvian navy, which appeared to consist of nothing more than three tug boats.

Fontaine Palace 

The Fontaine Palace was the main reason I went there though and this did not disappoint. The bar looks like the movie set from the movie “Dusk till Dawn” and the alcohol was ludicrously cheap – which I think added to the atmosphere of this interesting looking and somewhat creepy place.

Dusk til Dawn

I spent two nights there downing Apple pies (a shot consisting of Vodka, Apple Juice and cinnamon) as well as some quality pear cider – my first time experiencing this taste sensation.

The live music was also excellent, a mix of Rock and Electronic which also was a quite a decent motivator to drink and dance. Another highlight was also the women outnumbering the men quite significantly which I haven’t run across in a very long time. Needless to say my dance card was full and I enjoyed a lot of swing dancing and enjoyed meeting some lovely locals, not many Australians get to Liepaja.

Wrapping up Latvia 

The last day I decided to head back to Riga, I’d spent a week at the hostel there and had grown quite attached to the place. I went out raving on the last night here back to my favourite club; they had some famous Scottish dj mixing tunes, though the name of him escapes me now.

I must say I enjoyed my time in Latvia, the people are very friendly, the hostel as noted before was excellent with some excellent staff and the country is very cheap, the food and the fine sunny hot weather also rates a mention.

 

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia. It’s situated on the Baltic sea, south of Finland and right next to Russia, the population is around 1 and a half million and the city itself is absolutely stunning. It looks like something from a fairy tale, the old town is surrounded by a city wall, within is cobbled streets, multiple story apartment blocks in a variety of colours as well as towering churches including one with a rather spectacular view of the city. It also has remnant buildings of the old Soviet time including an out of use ferry terminal and the local prison.

There is also a lot of Russians here as well as Estonians and several English stag do parties. I’m not sure they all get along very well but the place is very friendly and is known as being the most beautiful city in the Baltics, if not Eastern Europe.

Roaming Tallinn 

The first day I had a look at the old port as well as the prison, both structures looked out-of-place next to the new very modern port that ferry’s between there and Scandinavia. I was offered a Russian passport for 20 Euros by one of the old Russian people who seem to inhabit the area, there we several people peddling these. I took a look at one and they were passports of Soviet soldiers in black and white.

Other days were spent walking around the gorgeous city, sampling some lovely local food in the main square, chatting with people at the hostel as well as checking out the local Russian market. There you can buy anything from old cameras, clothes, Communist memorabilia, badges, helmets, assault rifles and even gear from the Nazi’s which was somewhat strange and creepy.

Tallinn isn’t large and it did not take long to look around, the main reason I was here however the famed nightlife was. I always and still now figure that the best way to judge a country and its people is by how they enjoy themselves, and Estonians enjoy themselves a lot.

Abandoned Port

The old abandoned Port of Tallinn

Expect a lot of daylight

The trouble with Tallinn when I was there was that it was always daylight, if you’re not used to this then it kinds of mucks up your whole perception of time. If you have ever experience up here you will know what I mean.

Going out meant leaving the hostel at 11pm which to me felt more like 5pm and mixing it up in the many local bars.

The locals here are very friendly, probably the friendliest I’d met in Eastern Europe, and everyone was genuinely inquisitive in what you had to say no matter what it was…

The bars had an excellent collection of various ciders, which my taste buds loved but my stomach not really. I also made some good mates at the hostel I was at so I was having a lot of fun, probably the most since South America.

The strange thing about Tallinn is that a lot of the locals out and about are teenagers and the actual local age of consent in Estonia is 14, this was a little strange as you could be chatting to a 14-year-old or stranger still someone considered under age.

Midnight at Tallinn

Midnight at Tallinn

I loved Tallinn, you could probably see it in a few days but when you’re out socialising for 12 hours a day and then sun never going down, as mentioned it plays havoc with your senses, so 5 days seemed completely reasonable.

My time in the Baltics was now coming to an end and it was time to leave on the famed party boat to Sweden, something new to look forward to.


The Travel Bug

The Travel Bug is a collaboration project that goes through Dave’s travel journals around the world. We started this series a while back and finished somewhere in Poland in the last post. We’ll be back soon in the UK!


DavoDave
 is the Travel Writer of the Travel Bug. He is a Technology specialist by day and social butterfly by night.

He just completed another world trip and is bound to share his tall travel tales shortly.

 

PC @ ThoughtsPC likes getting the job done by day and writes, designs and codes during his spare time. He also enjoys having a drink with Dave and hearing his tall travel tales.

We hope to entertain you through this collection of stories.

 

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