A few years ago (early 2007) Jo and I went on a DIY tour of the Baltics. When I came back I posted the following to a forum as a guide to a few friends that were planning on visiting soon. Anyway, I thought I’d post it on my own blog just in case it was of use to anyone else in the future, but mainly so I had a permanent record of our adventures.
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Seeing as a few of you are going to the Baltics on holiday, and for long weekends, I thought I'd do a little holiday diary thing with lots of hints and tips. Hopefully it’ll be a useful resource for someone someday. So here's what we did on a fortnight in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia…
We arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, a day late. Courtesy of AirBaltic c0cking up our tickets. Still, at least I got to watch the first leg of the Liverpool-Chelsea semi-final in a Gatwick hotel!
We'd got really cheap flights and knew the cost of living out there would be fairly low so thought we'd treat ourselves to nice hotels. And even then we were only paying the price of a Travelodge in London (about 60-70 quid a night). We arrived at the Ramada Vilnius to a much higher level of plushness than we anticipated. Gorgeous hotel, beautiful rooms, lovely facilities, and this was the view from our bedroom when we checked in late that night:
We spent the next day wandering around the beautiful old town. It's small and can be done in a day if you rush it but the weather was gorgeous and we took our time. Tons of old buildings. Everywhere is *spotless* (as were Latvia and Estonia) and the very occasional fag butt or sweet wrapper was a real surprise after a few days. We went to the cathedral, bell tower and up to the castle, which a great spot for getting a fantastic view of the city and getting your bearings.
We basically just mooched around for a few days, eating drinking, checking out cathedrals etc. There seems to be a huge beautiful church on every corner. And most of them aren't even deemed worthy of being included in the guidebooks. Some of them would be major tourist attractions in most countries:
The nightlife in Vilnius seems really cool. Lots of nice, relaxed bars with great atmospheres. Everyone's very trusting (bags, phones, coats etc are left lying around) and it's all very chilled. Our particular favourite was "Briusly" (pronounced "Bruce Lee" and an alcoholic homage to the great man). We spent an evening in there getting bonkersed-up on cocktails:
Our hotel was so posh that on every floor there was a mini-reception with wall-hangings, gilt-edged chairs and all that malarkey. Certainly too good for a pair like us.
I won't go into too much further detail about what sights there are to see in Vilnius, as it's all fairly central and a basic guidebook (download one for free from the indispensible In Your Pocket will guide you easily around them all. Some quick recommendations though – the Frank Zappa statue (apparently for no other reason than someone thought it would be a good idea) is probably not worth going to unless you're in that area anyway. It's just a head on a stick in a carpark – funny though; definitely eat at Lokys a subterranean medieval restaurant – amazing food, crazy atmosphere, anyone over 5'4" will have to duck to get down the tiny winding stairs; The KGB Museum is a grim, but essential experience – a reminder that it was only 15 years ago that this was a Soviet occupied country, with many thousands being shipped to camps in Siberia, being "interrogated", executed and treated appallingly by the KGB.
On our final day in Vilinius we spent much of it chilling at a riverside pub in Užupis, a hippy/student district which has (only half-jokingly) declared itself independent of Lithuania, and has its own constitution.
The only way to travel around the Baltics (other than hiring a car) is by bus. Trains are apparently unreliable and they don't even link up across borders in some cases. Between Estonia and Lativa (i think), you'd have to get off at one point, walk with your bags for a few miles then get on another train. So as it was we got on a five hour bus journey to Riga. It was with the main operator in the area, Eurolines and cost about a tenner each. Perfectly comfortable. Just like a National Express but with a little more leg-room.
Sadly we only had two nights in Riga as we'd decided to avoid it on a weekend as we'd heard it was getting over-run with British stag nights and the like. Again we got a lot better hotel for our money than we expected. It's seriously worth paying the extra fiver-or-so a night for the old-town views. But only if you're not afraid of heights. The view from our room…
We were on the 22nd floor, and the glass elevator ride up there is something seriously spectacular. There's a famous bar up on the 26th floor so you're often packed in there with loads of tourists and someone (normally Mrs Raygun) steadfastly refusing to look out the window, grabbing the railings like their life depended on it. Here's a video what I done maded:
We were pretty knackered after our long journey so we ate at one of the hotel's two or three restaurants (it's a huge place!) and had lovely grub. Early night and then up first thing to do the tourist bit. We'd picked up a free copy of In Your Pocket at the bus stop and it had a suggested walk around the old town that takes in all the major sights. Seeing as we were on a bit of a tight schedule we thought it'd be a good thing to do. Unfortunately the temperature had plummeted to near-zero temperatures and all the museums, cathedrals etc are closed on a Monday. So we basically did it in about 45 minutes, when it should have been a leisurely 3 or 4 hours, plus stops for drinks at street-side cafes etc. As a result of the weather and being there on pretty quiet days we didn't really do it justice and spent a fair bit of time in shopping malls and coffee shops (keep an eye out for A.L.L. Cappuccino coffee shops – great tunes, great coffee, lovely staff). Riga's a completely different city to Vilnius. It's much more "Soviet", with grandiose buildings, wide avenues etc. Quite grey as well, once you're outside the old town.
On our second day we went for a look around the market, which is housed next to the bus station in massive zeppelin hangars. A real eye-opener. There's about five of these huge hangars. Some have really tightly packed stalls in them selling everything from electronics to clothing, to honey, to pets etc etc. Others are more spacious (like the one below which exclusively housed the meat-sellers).
You could do all your shopping at this market and never need to go anywhere else. The clothing stalls were a particular eye-opener. I was very tempted to treat Jo to a whole new wardrobe….
To avoid the cold again we spent an afternoon relaxing in the gym/health center on the 27th floor of the hotel. It's inspiring spending half an hour several hundred feet up in the air, running with a view like this (note that I'm jogging higher than several cathedral spires:
After my run I went for a sauna (one wall was made of glass so you’re 27 floors up, sweating, and enjoying the view) and had a surreal conversation with a naked German sauna-enthusiast who told me about rubbing honey and salt into your skin whilst drinking schnapps. At one point he was stood in front of me "helicoptering" his towel around his head to circulate the heat. I've had nightmares about that image ever since. Here's the sauna, sadly without my fat, teutonic friend:
Knowing it was our last night there we went out for some great food (really cheap too!) and headed back to the spectacular Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the hotel, taking in some beautifully lit churches on the way back.
We were getting pretty blasé about the views by this point but it was felt pretty classy sipping cocktails to a soundtrack of deep, jazzy grooves with this nightime view (not my photo, btw)
So, another five hour bus journey brought us to our hotel in Tallinn. Thankully the temperature had risen a couple of notches and so we took a brief stroll around the streets, before settling into the brilliant African Kitchen where we chilled out for a few hours with gorgeous food (don't miss the honey bread and peanut sauce starter) and a soundtrack of afro-beat, reggae and African jazz. We really didn't want to leave.
Again, I won't bore you too much with the tourist options in Tallinn. There's loads to do and see in the old town and we spent a good few days exploring. I totally recommend buying a Tallinn Card, though. Every museum, activity, public transport etc is either free or seriously discounted. One of the highlights was St Olav's, a huge church that allows you to climb (a long way) to the top for spectacular views of the old town. Being separated from the huge drop by a bit of chicken-wire was funny though!
Our visit to Tallinn was slightly coloured by the riots that happened the nights before our arrival, basically due to a statue being moved. The Soviet population (about 25 percent of Estonia) views it as a symbol of their victory over Nazism, whilst the Estonians view it as a symbol of the Soviet occupation and just didn't want it in their town centre any more. Cue huge clashes, looting etc etc. So there were police *everywhere* whilst we were in town, but at least we felt safe!
We'd been up some pretty high buildings during our visit to the Baltics, but nothing was to prepare us for the heights of the TV Tower. You go 170 metres up in a proper rickety old lift (don't watch the display if the sight of it rapidly flicking from "16" to "4" to "9" to "22" etc etc is going to give you the willies). Quite disturbing really. We had a coffee at the top, took some photos then went back down to get some oxygen!
One day I got a text from a guy we'd DJ'd for in Tartu (Estonia's second largest city) several years ago. He invited us up for a night in his club. We obliged. Apart from more time on a bus we had a great time and stayed in a cheap, clean university hostel, seeing as we were already paying for a hotel back in Tallinn as well. the next day our friend Mac, and his girlfriend drove us up to the north east of Estonia to a mining museum. Now it's not often my idea of a good-hangover cure to drive for two hours through poor Estonian villages to the Russian border, with a view to going to damp, underground caves but it turned out to be hilarious. The Baltic sense of health and safety is non-existent. In other words – "See that big rusty drill and that crumbling limestone rockface? Get stuck in….". Our good friend DJ Mac was first up!
We laughed at the overhead, exposed electricity cables, dripping with water. We marvelled at the massive, ancient rock harvesting machines, noisily clunking and hewing away mere inches from our soft, squishable heads. We politely refused the offer of an "authentic miner's meal" down in the dank catacombs…
So, we bid a fond adieu to our Estonian buddies and head back to Tallinn for one last night. We pushed the boat out and went for pretty much the most expensive meal of our trip (3 courses, bottle of wine, *huge* frozen vodka to start off in traditional style – 40 quid total) in the fantastic Russian style restaurant, Troika. We hadn't booked (advisable, apparently) so got the only table left in the place. Right underneath the "balcony" where the dude with the guitar belts out Russian folk hits. It was funny for a while… For the first time we genuinely struggled being vegetarians. There was only one starter and one main that we could have (luckily both were flippin' delicious!). Mostly everywhere else in the Baltics we'd had to be a little selective about which restaurants we went in, but had got by with a pizza if the worst came to the worst.
So, we stumbled out into the night air and the gorgeous central square of Tallinn. A whirlwind trip around the Baltics. We loved every minute!