Firstly apologies for the delay in posting this. It was written a few days ago – but initially problems with accessing the web site and then the fact I have been camping out for half a week have prevented posting it until now.
Ever wondered where Estonia and Latvia were and what they were like? So did I. Prior to arriving I had a vague idea they were tucked in somewhere around Finland but that was then the end of my knowledge. They’ve turned out to be a real pleasant surprise – lovely little countries having an intriguing mix of all their neighbours characteristics. Theres a strong dash of their southern neighbours Germany, their northern Scandanavian neighbours and their eastern neighbour Russia. It’s probably because all three have periodically rolled through and brawled over this part of northern Europe for about 800 years – Estonia and Latvia (and Lithuania which I didn’t visit) didn’t exist as seperate countries until just after the first world war – and then at most lasted 20 years before disappearing again in the German / Russian battles of World War 2.
My next stop after the border was the capital of Estonia, Tallinn. It is famed for its beautiful and intact old city (UNESCO Listing) but I spent my first couple of days there trawling around the newer and less elegant and more industrial parts trying, eventually successfully, to get a new battery for the bike. The old one was showing a strong aversion to the cold – and I an equal aversion to having to use the bikes kick starter (I had to once in Moscow and that was enough to make me glad I had it and remind me how much easier electric starts are).
Having got the practical job out the way I could now concentrate on being a tourist again – and this time, for the first time on the trip, in company as a friend from the UK came out to visit me for 10 days. The old town part of Tallinn certainly is pretty – the wall around it is virtually complete and within are all the tall houses and narrow streets of the picture books. For me it felt a bit characterless and tourist pretty – the latter view reinforced by the crowds (and this is very much the off season) roaming it, usually under the careful watch of an attentive and controlling guide and the various “ye olde shoppe” trying to sell stuff to them. Having said that it was still well worth the visit and I think my attitude was a bit coloured by just having spent 5 days in St Petersburg and probably having insufficient break between places.
The groups of tourists in town seemed to be mainly from an impressive array of large ferries and small cruise ships that seemed to continually arrive in the port. Until I got here I’d forgotten how busy European shipping is compared with what we’re used to in Australia.
Continuing on the nautical theme I also visited the maritime museum – but found whilst the halls weren’t open (in fact were still under construction) there were a few ships were in the water at the edge of the site. The majority were old patrol boats in various states of decay and with no access possible but one of them was this ice breaker.
Amazingly you were just allowed to wander around it – no guides and precious few off-limit areas – and wonderous it was; well maintained but little changed from when it was built. Three huge quadruple expansion steam engines (two for the aft two propellers and one for the bow propeller!) were the most impressive sight and they looked as though they were ready to run tomorrow.
Another thing done whilst in Tallin was to take a tour out to a local nature reserve / state park etc.. Whilst there I was shown this;
From Tallin it was a trip around the countries western coast and then on down the coast to Riga the capital of Latvia. One of Riga’s claims when trying to attract the tourist dollar, and one of my reasons for going there, is that it has one of the largest and most intact groups of Art Noveau buildings in the world (an economic boom at the turn of the 20th century fueled their building and the frontline in both world wars moved so quickly through Latvia they didn’t get totally destroyed and then the Soviets never spent any money modernizing them). They were also not what I was expecting – when I read “Art Noveau” in the guidebook I thought this was the same as “Art Deco” – but apparently its not, its the preceding style and is all gargoyles and flowers and Greek god details on the building facades and not the straight lines I was expecting. Irrespective they were fascinating to see and had an amazing variety of detail; but impossible to photograph well– 4 or 5 stories tall and either side of streets it was very hard to get a perspective on them.
Another of Riga’s tourist icon’s was the “Freedom Monument” erected to celebrate their first batch of independence. Its a genuinely impressive bit of statuatory.
Like all good old towns Riga also had its church spires and their best was St Peters. The original was burnt down during the war – but in an amazing bit of far sightedness when it was rebuilt in the 50′s and 60′s they included a lift up the centre. Now for a few dollars you can ride 2/3 way up it.
Whilst in Latvia I also had a cultural moment by going to both the opera one night and the ballet the next. They were probably the bargains of the trip – the best seats in the national opera house to see the national opera company cost just $30 each and lesser seats (because all the best were sold) for the ballet just $6. (As an aside – when in Moscow I looked at going to the Bolshoi – but at $681 for the cheapest seat to see Swan Lake I decided I could live without that experience).
From here I was in two minds which way to go next – south into Poland or north into Scandanavia.
(Answer to the photo question: It’s a submarine de-perming range – from which the Russians stripped out all the equipment and walked away in 1992. You can now just wander through the abandoned ruins.)