A Blast Through the Baltics
I’d never actually intended to go anywhere near the Baltic countries – my plan was to come down through Finland, get the ferry over to Stockholm and then back to Germany. But everyone just kept talking about Tallinn – they made it sound like some kind of magical fantasy city that it would be a crime to miss. In Norway I’d realised that I really enjoyed travelling to places without really knowing what to expect – going to France or Germany, for instance, I had a pretty accurate idea of how it would be, but Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania… who knew what they’d be like? Seeing how I was also keen to spend a bit more time where I could spend a bit less cash, it seemed like a good idea.
Walking through Tallinn when I arrived was amazing – here I was, beautiful medieval building all around me, the sun really shining for the first time since Oslo, and delicious food available for a couple of euros. I had the good fortune to be staying at a cheap but really nice hostel, where the owners really cared about getting the people there together – although I was a bit disappointed to find that “free breakfast” meant “take a maximum of two eggs out of the fridge”. Two eggs? That’ll last me like 30 minutes. Grrr! At the hostel I met a trio of Italians who I spent the next couple of nights going out with, along with a pair of Australian guys that they knew – for a while we had a pretty good wolfpack going. Amusement was provided by the fact that two of the Italians didn’t really know much English… which was always a big barrier at the start of the night but seemed to fall away as the number of drinks consumed increased. Also amusing was watching them try (and succeed) at picking up Estonian girls, despite only knowing a few words that could be understood by their targets.
The wolfpack, poised to strike
One of the best but most overlooked attractions of Tallinn has nothing to do with well-preserved medieval buildings and everything to do with dilapidated modern ones. A short walk north of the main tourist strip is an old Soviet prison that was in use up until 2004, and has now been turned into a museum.
Even before you go inside you can feel that something's wrong here
By “turned into a museum” I mean “there’s an old Estonian lady outside who charges you two euros entry”, because the charm of it is that it’s just frozen in time – there’s still medical equipment lying around in the sick bay, paperwork sitting on desks in the offices, prisoners’ posters stuck to cell walls. It’s an amazing but creepy place to walk around, and it really does impress this feeling of bleakness knowing that prisoners would stare at these neglected walls, probably knowing that they’d be the last walls that they’d ever see.
But how is this still preserved?
I do wonder how much of stuff left around is actually real though – some of the rooms seem composed, like someone’s come along and arranged them for maximum effect. Given that you’re completely unsupervised as you walk around, I’m surprised that more of the artifacts lying around haven’t been souvenired by misbehaving tourists.
Stuff like this seems just a bit staged...
Estonia also gave me a chance to take advantage of the lower prices and finally replace my heroic front Pirelli MT60. Despite being a motard compound that was supposed to last about 6000km at the most, it had been with me from the very start and trooped on for around 16000km – it still even had a bit of tread left, but it was starting to get very low indeed. I turned up to the local motorcycle dealership to see what they had, and low and behold they had another MT60 in the right size for the Versys’ weird 17″ front. And so my weird dual-sport-tyre-at-the-front-street-tyre-at-the-back setup would continue. With the front tyre changed, and hopefully good enough to last the rest of the trip, it was time to ride south, out of Tallinn and towards Riga, capital of Latvia. It also provided a rare opportunity to hit some unsealed roads while still actually getting somewhere – I got the location of some other nice Estonian towns to go through and gave George a weird route that took me through forests and forgotten villages, down highways and eventually into Riga.
Road of Bones here I come
I was always a bit skeptical that the 95%-road-5%-dirt Scorpion Trail actually helped me at all off-road, but the difference between that and the Diablo Strada I’d picked up in Finland was night and day. The groovy new MT60 cut through the gravel fine, but the smooth rear tyre tended to slip all over the place. Nonetheless, I slowed up a bit and made it through. Riding out of the picturesque old town in Tallinn is interesting – similar to the way everyone describes Bruges as “beautiful”, everyone describes Tallinn as “Disneyland” – and it’s not really a complement. As you leave the city, the cobbled streets turn into rough, poorly sealed bitumen and gravel, and the beautiful girls in fancy dress trying to lure you into theme restaurants give way to surly alcoholics sitting on the kerb who glare at you as you go past. This is also apparent in the country – there’s plenty of beautiful views, but also plenty of abandoned buildings. It’s clearly a country that’s on its way up thanks to economic freedom and EU membership, but this contrasts heavily with the relics of what used to be, and in some cases still is.
And sometimes beautiful views and abandoned buildings at the same time.
If I had to pick a word for Riga, it would be *soviet*. Just like Tallinn there’s an old town with beautiful old buildings, museums, walking tours but the atmosphere and the attitude of the people is a sharp, sharp contrast with the jollier, Finnic Estonians. I think that comparing Tallinn and Riga is a bit like the comparison between Glasgow and Edinburgh that I made back in the Scotland post – Tallinn hides all its problems and its Soviet past way outside the old city walls, whereas a walk around the touristic area of Riga will take you past abandoned buildings, a massive Stalinist skyscraper, and even in my case a queue for food from the Red Cross. Perhaps it was all too real for me – I didn’t really enjoy the city at all. The entire time I felt on-edge, like attack could come from any direction at any time (and indeed it could – I came back to my hostel one night to find someone holding frozen peas to his face where someone had drunkenly sucker-punched him out of the blue).
It's a bit silly to show a picture of a train station tunnel, but this is basically what Riga feels like
The one amusing thing about Riga is that they have a Kiwi bar… I’d never before in my life seen a New Zealand themed bar, but Riga has one. Apparently they wanted to open an Aussie bar but the government was concerned it’d get a bit too rowdy. When they proposed opening a New Zealander bar instead, no one had any idea what it’d involve so it went through… so all they really did was change the colour scheme. The other thing I will say about Latvia in general is that the countryside is nice to look at… but I was pretty done with it. So south I went again to my third and final Baltic stop.
The nice thing about Latvia is that all of its coastline faces west, so the sunsets are really beautiful
It’s really easy to think of the Baltic states as one big lump of post-Soviet country, but there are massive differences between them. Lithuania was a whole different experience to Estonia or Latvia – and I loved it. First stop was at the Hill of Crosses just south of the Latvian border. It’s a hill with a dense forest of crosses and crucifixes that have been planted in it over the years – even from far away it’s quite a sight. Once upon a time it was a monument to plague victims, but it was knocked down by the Soviets (something about a whole hill full of religious icons just didn’t seem too atheistic, I’m guessing). But that was far from the end of it – by destroying this symbol of religion, the Soviets created a far more powerful symbol of rebellion as people would sneakily plant crosses, forcing the Soviets to empty the hill again and again. Now that they’re gone, the hill has been allowed to grow naturally, and people come from across the world to plant their own cross (or even, in one case, a Star of David). As a result, there’s crosses holding up crosses, holding up more crosses (yo dawg)… it’s quite a thing to be up close and read all the places that these have come from.
Every time I look at photos though, I can't help but squint a bit from a fear that my eyes are going to be pricked by them
Entering the capital Vilnius, I was reminded a bit of small-town Italy or Greece – narrow cobbled streets and sunny days. Lithuania’s an interesting place – where Estonia and Latvia have forever been the victims of various bigger and nastier countries (Sweden, Russia, Germany etc), Lithuania (when combined with Poland) was once one of the most significant powers in Europe, and I feel that perhaps this prouder past seems to have shaped more of a feeling of national identity in the country.
This is relevant because I just mentioned the middle ages, and there's a castle in the background
There are a number of other things that separate Lithuania – the whole nation has a peculiar love of basketball that no one seems able to explain – I suspect it has something to do with the rather high average height of people in the country. Vilnius has its own artistic nation, similar to Christiania in Copenhagen, except that where the Danes take it ridiculously seriously, the Lithuanians are happy to appreciate that dividing off a suburb of a city and declaring it its own country is better off as a joke. As such the Republic of Uzupio, as its called, is a functional part of Vilnius that pretends to be seperate only where it’s amusing to do so – there’s a constitution (consisting of rules such as “everyone has the right to die, but it’s not an obligation”), and on April Fools day every year passport booths are set up at every road in, everyone gets their passports stamped upon entry and a separate Uzupio currency is issued, valid only for that day for that day. Compared to Latvia you get much more of a sense of optimism in the air… it’s just a nice place to be.
The flag of Uzupio - the hole in the hand represents that no one should hide anything. There is literally a hole in the flag.
I had a great time at the hostel… I was getting a glass of water from the kitchen when the owner came in, turned around to everyone in there and said “hey, you guys want a shot of vodka?”. Well why not. The result was a whole night of the owner finding every bottle that had ever been accidentally left behind by someone and giving us all a shot from it. I was actually quite proud of my ability to keep up with an Eastern European at vodka drinking… but Tallinn had given me a lot of practice. It doesn’t matter how much I like a place though – if I stop moving I don’t enjoy anything quite as much. And so it was that I loaded back up and headed west – next stop, Warsaw.