Sadly quite a few meathead men too
The flight from Berlin to Tallinn took only about two and a half hours with a stop in Riga, which is the central transport hub of the Baltic states. Although we didn’t know it at the time, this was to be the first of three visits to Riga. The Baltics on not on central Europe time so we had to put our watches forward and hour. By the time we got to our hotel, Hotel Portus, it was already dark. Hotel Portus was - surprisingly - at Tallinn port, which wasn’t the nicest place to walk around at night time. Not that it was grimy or anything - it was actually very clean and modern as far as ports go - it was just dark, quiet and isolated. The terminal was completely surrounded by huge 24 hour bottleshop/warehouses, which was puzzling until we remembered that tax on alcohol in Scandinavia is exorbitant so on the weekend people hop on a car ferry to Tallinn, load up the boot with booze and get on the next ferry home.
The next day we wandered into the beautiful, UNESCO listed Old City. Tallinn is a very small city but extremely beautiful. Unlike the other Baltic capitals, the Estonians seem to have torn down the grim Soviet era ‘new town’ and replaced with shining new and modern architecture. Tallinn seems safe, clean and modern and is definitely the poster child for post-Soviet development. It is also filled with some of the most beautiful people on earth. All the young women look like supermodels and the men are well dressed and handsome. Although it poured with rain that night we cruised around its bar and club scene. A particular favourite was the ultra hip and modern Stereo Bar, although its supermodel clientele were a little intimidating.
As I mentioned, evidence of Soviet era neglect had largely been swept away but near our hotel there was a museum of Soviet technology. The housing of this small collection of cars, motorcycles and military vehicles in a derelict factory was particularly fitting.
We spent two days in Tallinn before taking the bus to Riga. The trip takes about four hours though a monotonous landscape of pine forest but the tour buses serving this route are particularly flash with Wi-Fi and power points for computers and phones. About 4pm we arrived on the outskirts of Riga and the comparison with Tallinn couldn’t have been more different. The outskirts were shabby and rundown, as if the Soviets had never left. Indeed, many haven’t. 35% of Latvians are Russian immigrants from the Soviet era and many feel significant resentment of their recent decline in status. There is a constant state of tension between Russia and Latvia (as indeed between Russia and all the Baltic states). The Russian mafia have also infiltrated almost all levels of politics and business, exacerbating the already endemic Soviet era corruption. The central bus station, set beside a fetid polluted creek and an awful Soviet era market, surrounded by beggars and ancient babushkas was like something from the Borat movie. We hurried to our hostel, trying to draw as little attention to ourselves as possible (not really possible actually!) and fending off demands for Lats.
While everyone we met in Tallinn was model gorgeous, the same could not be said for Riga. There were some beautiful girls, but this was often offset by appalling Russian fashion and hooker blonde hair. The men tended to look like surly Russian meatheads. As the Riga city guide itself suggested, if lost or in trouble ask help only from young women (the authors of the independent Riga city guide were clearly extremely frustrated with the situation in Riga - it’s a furious diatribe against everything that’s gone wrong in Latvia. Amazing it ever got published).
Our hostel, the Naughty Squirrel, was right in the centre of town. It was run by a Latvian girl called Eva and her Australian boyfriend, Gerald. They were absolutely great and contributed to the excellent time we had in Riga. The first night we wandered around the old town. Riga isn’t particularly old. There are three buildings dating back to the 16th century but most of the city dates from the late 19th century art nouveau era. The city could look spectacular if more effort was spent on restoration. We visited a few interesting bars, including The Hospitale, which looks like a hospital and the staff wear ….doctors and nurses outfits (the nurses were especially fetching!).
The next day, after more sightseeing, Eva took us shooting. In an old Soviet bunker, clearly run by the mafia, we got to shoot a Glock pistol, an AK47 and a Winchester pump action shotgun. Never having fired or even handled a real gun before, this was quite a nerve wracking experience. I was surprised by the kickback on the Glock but managed to put four of the six shots through the head of the target (what can I say!). Shelly was very nervous but quickly got the hang of it. She preferred the Winchester and put all four shots through the body of her target. Note to self - don’t mess with Shelly!!
Later that evening we joined the hostel pub crawl; and I mean later as it didn’t start until 11pm at the hostel and we didn’t leave for an hour. As with the Berlin crawl, it was a great way to meet people and we had a very good night. By the time we reached the last club it was just us, the Latvia guide and her very drunk boyfriend and a couple of Portuguese lads, whom we hope to meet when we get to Portugal.
Surprisingly we were not too bad the next day - there were some sorry looking characters wandering around the hostel that morning. We bade everyone adieu on took the bus to Vilnius.
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, had a similar feel to Riga. It seemed very post-Soviet and run down. The hostel we’d booked that day using the bus Wi-Fi turned out to be a newly renovated 3-star Panorama hotel just a few metres from the bus and train stations. The girl at the counter couldn’t find our reservation but allowed us to book at the price we told her it was advertised on the internet (22 euro per person - the advertised room rate on the front counter was 93 euro). She was extremely helpful (and gorgeous). The name of the hotel wasn’t wrong either - we had a panoramic view of the whole city. We also noted that there was an underground bomb shelter in the carpark of hotel!
After freshening up we set out for the centre of town but it absolutely poured with rain. Although we had an umbrella we were absolutely saturated. We had a nice, if somewhat damp and uncomfortable, meal at a traditional Lithuanian restaurant of potato cakes, zeppelins and fried black bread with cheese sauce (absolutely absolutely absolutely cracking!!).
The next day we headed out to the airport to sort out our flight to Barcelona. We had booked a flight over the internet but the booking went a little awry when the agent refused to accept our credit cards and demanded a bank wire transfer and three days clearance. As it was already the weekend, this was impossible. Attempts to contact them on their weekend service number and email failed (fat lot of good that did!). In the end we lost that booking and had to rebook again and pay extra, as our internet booking was the last of the cheap seats. We also had to rearrange our travel days which meant we would have to fly to Riga that night in order to meet the connecting flight the next day. This was quite frustrating as we had only just rebooked and paid for a second night at the Panorama at the same discounted price. But, those are the breaks when you’re travel like us.
At least we had the rest of the day in Vilnius. It’s the least exciting of the Baltic capitals in my opinion but it is still pleasant and it certainly seemed more prosperous than Riga. There were lots of department stores and high fashion shops in the main street.
Our final sight seeing stop in Vilnius was the KGB museum. It is housed in the former KGB headquarters and has exhibits on both the Gestapo and KGB atrocities perpetrated in Lithuania (the Gestapo occupied the same building before the KGB took over!). It was grim and informative. For instance, who knew that the Lithuanians fought a guerrilla war with the Soviets from 1945 to 1958? Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were executed, imprisoned or exiled during the Soviet era - more even than under the Nazis. It is safe to say that Lithuania does not forget or forgive Russia for its treatment and relations between the countries are tense to say the least. It is even illegal to sell Russian army surplus souvenirs in Lithuania. Less than 15% of Lithuania’s population is ethnically Russian so perhaps they can afford to be a little more provocative than say Latvia.
Later that night we flew back to Riga. We didn’t go back into town but stayed in a little hotel near the airport and we flew out again the next morning. Another phase in our holiday was about to begin in sunny Spain