Four countries in ten days sounds like quite a hectic schedule but actually this was a very enjoyable (and educational) trip. The tour was organised by Voyages Jules Verne and took in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland.
We began by flying to Vilnius in Lithuania.
It is important to remember that these Baltic states were a part of the USSR until March 1990 (Lithuania and Latvia) and September 1991 (Estonia) and so have only been independent for less than 30 years.
The church (above), Kazimiero Baznycia, was, ironically, an atheist museum during the Communist era. The city tour guides had to be very careful what they said; frequently there would be KGB agents in their groups. When one guide was asked about the angelic face above the door he replied "Wasn't Lenin a beautiful child?"
Vilnius is not a large town but it is attractive and well worth a visit for a couple of days.
On the first evening we found a street food market selling every conceivable kind of food, much of it made up of local specialities.
The next day we were taken on a walking tour of the town which included the Palace Museum and the KGB museum. This was followed by a traditional lunch of local meats and cheeses, beetroot soup, Zepelini dumplings and apple cake.
There was a demonstration of how to make the Zepelini and when a volunteer was asked for nobody wanted to step forward. The chef in me came to the fore and I volunteered. It was not a daunting task, I just had to make a dumpling in front of an audience, but everybody seemed to think that I was very brave to do it.
We left Vilnius and visited Trakų castle on our way to Riga.
On the coach between Lithuania and Latvia I was idly gazing out of the window at the scenery when I saw, through the window on the opposite side, a deer running along the far edge of the field. Then I noticed something else moving up quickly behind it and realised that it was being chased by a wolf. This is not something that I was expecting to see in broad daylight and was a fleeting and distant glimpse of the action so unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to take a photograph. Nonetheless this was a real treat to see.
Riga is the capital city of Latvia and is much bigger than Vilnius. You could easily spend a week here as there is plenty to see and do.
In fact an old friend of mine moved here with her boyfriend and, although the relationship didn't last, she loved it so much that she stayed for three years. Gemma happened to be back visiting Riga when we were there so we met up for a meal at the Ala Bar which has traditional food and live folk music. We would never have found this gem (no pun intended) without her local knowledge.
Riga is famed for its art nouveau architecture so a walk around the city reveals some wonderful buildings.
We didn't have time for the Art Nouveau Museum, but it shares its entrance with businesses and private apartments. We stuck our heads inside the building to see the beautiful Art Nouveau staircase all the same.
The museum of occupation is very interesting and deals, not as one might expect, with the German occupation, but with the Soviet occupation which followed. The Baltic states suffered three consecutive occupations; Russian, German and then Russian again. So you might say that, after the war, they went from the frying pan back into the fire.
The 'Corner House' pictured above was the headquarters of the KGB for 50 years (minus a short break for the Nazi occupation of 1941 - 1944). This is the site of the museum and here we were guided by an ex-prisoner who was able to recount horrific stories from personal experience.
Below a single rose lies on the floor of the execution room. The dots on the wall behind are bullet holes.
Riga has a great food market and we spent a couple of happy hours exploring the halls of fresh produce. These places always offer wonderful photo opportunities and we bought fresh bread, cheese and fruit for our lunch.
Of course it would have been rude not to sample the local produce, and this vodka was very good!
Gilly demonstrates her reaction to Easyjet's policy on one piece of hand luggage per passenger (above).
Caption competition (left & right).
Coffee is the answer. . . What was the question? (below)
This monument (below) is controversial. The local Russian community call it the Freedom Monument as it was erected by the Soviet state to mark the Russian liberation of Latvia from Nazi Germany. The native Latvian population however call it the Peace Monument as they say that it marks the end of the war but their country was not 'free' until the end of the Russian occupation.
On the top floor of our hotel was the Sky Bar which offered spectacular views across the city. Of course we felt that it would be inappropriate to go there for to take some photographs without buying a drink!
You can just see our hotel, the Radisson Blu, in the background of this photo (left). It is the tallest building in Riga.
It was at about this point in our tour that the American couple in our group were heard to say "If we had known there would be museums and stuff on this tour then we wouldn't have come!" Obviously you can't educate some people, but I guess their little brains couldn't cope with the idea that Europe has more than 300 years of history.
The penultimate leg of our tour took us to Estonia's capital, Tallinn. The old town area of Tallinn is a beautiful and charming medieval city with the newer communist era architecture kept outside the city walls.
If you are going to pick just one city to visit from this blog then it probably be Tallinn. It is a relatively small town and there is not a great deal going on, but it is picturesque and definitely the right location if a romantic weekend is what you have in mind.
The local shops and restaurants trade on the historic atmosphere for the sake of the tourists but, far from being kitsch, this actually adds to the city's charm. It seems that you have the option here to pay with € or squirrels. Yes you did read that correctly (see picture below) I wonder if anybody has ever called their bluff on this?
They also seem to have a good sense of humour as this toilet sign shows.
A local restaurant also demonstrates the Estonian sense of humour. (below)
Unfortunately every city has its characters and its undesirables, but I had to admire the honesty of this guy's sign. Moments after I took this photograph the police showed up to escort him to a comfortable cell where they undoubtedly helped him to sober up.
In the evening we succumbed to the city's busiest tourist trap restaurant and we were not disappointed.
The Olde Hansa restaurant has character by the bucket full, including serving wenches in medieval dress who stayed in character extremely well, traditional food and ales and a period décor entirely lit by candles.
At the bottom of the menu it states that "The serevers will humbly and with everlasting gratitude accept any squirrel skins or ducats that the guest may generously offer". Those pesky squirrels keep on making an appearance.
Photography was quite challenging in these conditions but I persevered and was rewarded with some very atmospheric images.
The food here was great, the service attentive and the atmosphere created a real experience. I highly recommend the honey beer which is not as sweet as it sounds and has a depth of flavour which rivals any English real ale. The cardamom vodka was also surprisingly good.
The KGB museum in Tallinn was housed on the top floor of the hotel opposite ours. Now you may think this is a strange place to put a museum until you realise that this was the hotel in which all foreign visitors were accommodated. The local joke was that the hotel was built from micro-concrete; that is 50% concrete and 50% microphones!
. . . And so on to our final destination, Finland and its capital city, Helsinki. We left by ferry and I took this parting shot of Tallinn from the sea.
This leg of the tour was optional and very expensive. My advice. . . don't bother! After sampling the delights of three very different cities and enjoying the cultural shift, from western European perspective, Helsinki felt like a bit of a let down.
The city is almost exclusively made up of wide streets and modern buildings. There are one or two gems but after about an hour, even the tour guide was struggling to tell us anything interesting.
Helsinki is expensive. Have I said that already? I mean really eye-wateringly expensive! We paid €9 for a greasy reindeer burger, about €12 for an open sandwich (which was very nice) and wine started at about €14 per glass. Needless to say we didn't drink.
I managed to resist the temptation of visiting the Barbie exhibition at the local museum and so, with little else to see in town, we headed out to Seurasaari Island open air museum. This gave us a pleasant walk around a heavily wooded island studded with traditional wooden buildings which have been gathered together from all over Finland.
This was an anti-climax to an otherwise very enjoyable journey. I thoroughly recommend a tour of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia but do yourself a favour: if you travel with Jules Verne, save over £400 per head by not spending two days in Helsinki.
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