Monday, 2 July 2018

Tickle my Baltics: A journey through Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Two weeks, four countries, four capital cities and so many  delicious Baltic beers.

We started out in Helsinki, staying with Rob (thanks Rob!) for a few days. A fine city, especially at the end of a sunny May with super-long days to spend outdoors. One particular highlight was an all you can eat sushi buffet. I'd never put to the test how much sushi I can eat before and am happy to report it's quite a lot.   

After Helsinki, it was on to Tallinn, Estonia, by ferry. It only take a couple of hours and the ferry has a band playing slow waltzes and foxtrots which prompted a lot of the older passengers to take to the dancefloor.

I liked Tallinn a lot, it was probably my favourite of the cities we visited. As well as an Old Town you could happily spend a couple of days exploring it has a fun hipster district called Telliskivi, with some great places to eat. We also had a look round the Estonian Open Air Museum, a real must-see if you're a fan of Estonian rural history. I mean, who isn't? (Seriously though, it is worth a wander round.) 

A couple of days in Laheema National Park was next. Renting a car is fairly essential to properly explore Laheema as buses looked scarce and the park is huge and sprawling. Plus, driving on Estonian countryside roads is a lot more fun than British road because there are hardly any cars getting in the way slowing you down. The highlights of Laheema for us were Palmse Manor and a 15km hike through woods and along the coastline. 

Once we'd had enough greenery and fresh air, it was back to Tallinn to catch a coach to Riga. I liked Riga but on a Saturday night it has a strong stag/hen party vibe and does court those groups with a mixture of the good, bad and ugly of bars and pubs. Still, like Vilnius it has a picturesque Old Town and isn't short on places to explore beyond the more touristy areas. Such as Saulkrasti, a beachy getaway to the north.

Vilnius was our last stop on the trip through the Baltics, but with a couple of planned day trips out of the city. One was to Trakai, a large expanse of lakes and woodland with an amazing castle right in the middle that you can row your way out to (or just walk there over a few bridges). The other excursion was to Ukmerge (pronounced uk-mer-ge), a small city I'd never heard of but was a pilgrimage of sorts for Harriet, as her grandmother's family emigrated from there in the late 19th century. It's not somewhere you'd be likely to visit on a trip to Lithuania unless you had a reason to, but it had a certain charm of its own.

I'd say the end of May into June is a pretty great time to visit these four countries. It's warm but not overly hot; it's not high season for tourists yet and there are a lot of local festivals happening to celebrate the beginning of summer.

Onto the photos...

Impressive greenhouse in the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden, Helsinki

Helsinki Cathedral and its big green domes

Looks like the start of one of those "why isn't this hosepipe working" slapstick sketches. But with a cannon instead of a hosepipe. One of many cannons on Suomemlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage island off the coast of Helsinki.

One of the three monks Ambrosius, Bartholomeus, and Claudius in Tallinn. Look a bit like the Ringraiths in Lord of the Rings

The church in the main square of Tallinn's Old Town

We were in Tallinn during the festival Old Town Days, when they have lots of live performances popping up around the Old Town, like this chamber choir

 One of the stranger bits of the Old Town Days festival was the appearance of Joseph Stalin during a musical retelling of Estonia's history

I love slightly creepy animatronics, like these in the Estonian Open Air Museum near Tallinn. This scene was meant to be telling the story of how, in days of old, men in the countryside would try to impress the local women by telling them jokes and playing some music

The doorway of the House of the Blackheads in Tallinn. It was the former headquarters of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a group of medieval travelling merchants

Inside Palmse Manor in Laheema National Park

Totally unplanned and casual rock-sunset pose

When we arrived at our AirBnB in Laheema National Park, we were greeted by some very loud barking from a very big dog who turned out to be a complete softy within 10 seconds of us getting out of the car
One of Estonia's best art galleries is hidden away in a small town on the coast in Laheema National Park. And this was one of my favourite paintings. It's certainly got a message

Onward to Riga in Latvia and Harriet is stood in front of the Three Brothers in Riga - three houses built 200 years apart, from the 15th to the 17th century

Inside the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. All the lamps told stories of residents of Riga that lost their lives during WW2

The Brotherhood of the Blackheads also had an HQ in Riga back when they were trading their way round the Baltics, earning the big bucks

The beach at Saulkrasti. Really beautiful long stretch of sand about an hour north of Riga by train. We had pretty much nothing but warm sun up until the day we went to the beach, when a gale came out of nowhere and forced us into a retreat

As mentioned above, Baltic beer is excellent, and the brewery bar Labietis in Riga has plenty to try

Just outside Vilnius Cathedral, when a group of Hare Krishna came by singing and playing their drums and bells. Just out of shot, a nun was lurking nearby, keeping an eye on them. Probably wondering whether to call for backup in what would have been a street-fight worth watching

The 'Feast of Muses' on top of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre
This statue of the Vilkmerge (wolfmaiden) wins the award for best statue in a random office car park. She's the emblem of Ukmerge, formerly known as Vilkmerge

Trakai Castle, about an hour from Vilnius. Well worth a day trip here, where you can rent a boat, pedalo or many other kinds of water-bound vessel
Working the guns hard on holiday

The immaculate gardens of the Presidential Palace, Vilnius

And a shot of Vilnius Cathedral and its adjacent bell tower to finish with. Thought you might like to see what it looks like without a menacing* gang of Hare Krishna in the foreground
(*Not very menacing at all)  

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Ola Portgual: A few days of exploring Lisbon and eating pastries

At the beginning of March when the 'Beast from the East' had frozen Britain to a standstill, we fled for a long weekend in Lisbon. I was hoping for a bit of winter sun, but instead exchanged the British ice and snow for Portuguese rain. Museums and plenty of indoor things it would be then.

I ate a lot of pastries in Lisbon, about which I have no regrets. It's the home of pastel de nata (custard tarts) so you're really just helping the economy by eating as many of them as you can. Make sure you check out the bakery Pasteis de Belém (famous in Portugal) for the finest pastel de nata you'll likely ever stuff your face with. Same secret recipe since 1837, finest ingredients, that sort of thing. I should have taken a photo of the baked goods but got distracted snapping some ducks nearby that didn't even make the blog. 

There are loads of good museums, galleries and other touristy places in Lisbon - we could definitely have done with another day or two. But it's also a cool place to just wander round and see where you end up. Probably even more so when it's not raining. I'm told Portugal is usually quite a sunny country.

So many buildings in Lisbon are covered in brightly coloured tiles. Wes Anderson should probably make a film here.

In the National Tile Museum - actually a much more interesting place than it sounds.

 Don't know what's going on with this flower beast-thing. Looks happy enough though.

 More sensible (and more impressive) tile display in church within the museum. Also, the museum's cafe does a brilliant baked apple.

Sheltering from the rain again - we went into the Money Museum where you can see what you would look like on an old Portuguese bank note. It kind of looks like I'm doing an impression of the MGM lion here.

 Lisbon's parliament, Sao Bento Palace. Home to many a dodgy politician, said our host Manuel.

The trams in Lisbon are pretty cool and do provide another place to shelter from the rain.

Walking through one of Lisbon's botanical gardens, shortly after devouring a couple of delicious pastel de nata.

 Ler Devagar bookshop - basically a hipster bookshop on an industrial estate in Lisbon that's been turned into a hub of trendy cafes, bars and shops. Liked it.

 The main reason I liked the bookshop so much was this guy giving tours on the top floor. He has built all sorts of weird and wonderful machinery and takes you round them all, telling you a story that doesn't make much sense.
 This botanical garden in Eduardo VII Park made me think of the raptors pen in Jurassic Park. I didn't see any raptors though.

Standard manly stance. (Wouldn't be a blog post without me posing next to/in front of/on top of something like an idiot.)

I'm not sure if fountains get much more phallic than this one at the top of Parque Eduardo VII but if they do, it's probably best they aren't put on public display. It even has water spurting out the top, which you can't see so well because of the cloudy background. Shame.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

AMERICAAA, F*CK YEAH: Los Angeles and a four-state road trip to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park

During the summer of 2015, I was best man at the wedding of Nick and Bee. They moved to America shortly afterwards. "Yeah, I'll come visit you soon," I said...

Fast forward two years and had I visited yet? No, I had not. Well this was the trip to rectify that and also my first visit to the USA of legal American drinking age (I went to New York when I was 18). The ability to buy a drink was going to be needed because part of the holiday would include a night in Las Vegas. Having been there now, I can safely say no one should ever visit Vegas sober.

My hosts, Nick and Bee (and their dog Buttercup) live in Culver City so the plan was to explore LA for a few days when I first arrived, then Nick and I would rent a car and head to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. That's four states - California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah - and even a second time zone when we entered Utah.

It also meant a lot of driving, albeit through some incredible big open American country scenery of  mountains and never-ending cloudless skies. Luckily, petrol is really cheap in America and it needs to be because most cars out there are big gas-guzzling bastards. I'm sure there's plenty of dodgy reasons why American petrol has been kept so cheap over the years, but let's not get into that – this is a travel blog, not a foreign policy and world economics essay...

However, attention spans in the internet age grow ever-shorter so let's dive straight into the photos. First half is LA and Vegas, second half is more nature-based in the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.

Day one: Around LA

If you've seen the TV show Westworld, you've seen this church before, on the outskirts of LA.

Day two: Santa Monica Beach and Venice

Piano intro... "Some people stand in the daaaarkness, afraid to step into the light..."

A skater at Venice Beach doing his skating thing.

A mural for the film White Men Can't Jump, which was shot in Venice.

Day three: The Getty Centre

The Getty had some interesting South American art exhibitions and a bit of David Hockney when I visited. It's a great place to spend half a day just wandering round and checking out art and architecture.

Day four: Hollywood and the Griffith Observatory

I wasn't going to visit LA without a pilgrimage to Arnie's star on the Hollywood walk of fame. Hollywood was exactly as tacky as everyone warned me it would be.

Me below the Hollywood sign in the distance. It has been remarked (by my brother) that my hair is looking a bit hipster in this photo but I'd been wearing a hat all day so if I had hipster hair, so be it.

Day five: Leaving LA and heading to Vegas

Mine and Nick's road trip began with lunch at Peggy Sue's 50's Diner. Our waitress had been working there since 1989. It was a pretty glorious place with a cabinet full of many pies.

Nick bonds with a giant metal ape.

We arrived in Vegas around 4pm, where we checked into the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, just off Fremont Street. It's the older, and in my opinion way more interesting, part of Las Vegas. Just has a lot more character than the mega-casinos of the Strip.

Anyone who weighs over 350lbs (about 25 stone) gets to eat in the Heart Attack Grill for free! Me and Nick combined didn't even tip 350 so you'd need to have some serious dedication to all things artery clogging to get there.

VIDEO: One of my favourite things on Las Vegas Strip, The Bellagio Fountains.

The swimming pool at the Golden Nugget has a shark tank next to it, with a water slide that shoots you right through the middle of the shark tank and out into the pool. And why not? 

Very illuminated shot of the old town in Vegas.

Day six: On our way to the Grand Canyon with a stop-off at Bedrock City, a low budget (like, really low) Flinstones theme park 

Fred's had better days.

Day seven: Time to hike the Grand Canyon

We started our hike at 6.30am in warm clothes because it was pretty chilly until the sun came up. But within an hour or so it warmed up and it was time to get the legs out on our way down the South Kaibab Trail.

Sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Oh how fresh our legs felt at this stage as we strolled casually down towards the Colorado River.

A mule train takes supplies down to the Phantom Ranch near the Colorado River. This is still the only way to get supplies in and out of the canyon except helicopter and the national parks don't have the budget for that, so it mules all the way.

More epic Grand Canyon scenery. Sights like this really helped when we were both finding it hard going towards the end of the day's hiking.

Made it down to the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Half an hour for lunch and we were on our way back up again. The way down took about three hours and the way back up about 5.5 hours. The climb was tough going and there were other hikers looking like they'd seriously underestimated how much effort it was going to be.

Pretty amazing natural archway caused by a tree curving over the path back up the Bright Angel Trail.

After sunset on the rim of the canyon. The day's hike was 17 miles over nine hours and was tough but absolutely worth it.

Day eight - onwards to Zion!

As soon as you enter Zion National Park by car you are overwhelmed by incredible scenery such as this. And it's like this all the way through. Really took me by surprise.

We walked a short way along The Narrows, but had neither the waterproof gear or the energy in our legs to go further after the previous day's hike.

Picking my way through the river. The water was pretty damn cold, which is why you need the proper river-walking gear.

The Narrows goes on for miles but we just went far enough in to get a sense of it and take some pretty photos.

Sun setting over the Utah mountains as we drove to St George and our motel for the night.

The Dixie Motel, in St George, Utah. I really wanted to stay in an American roadside motel and this place fitted the bill perfectly. 

Day nine: Four states in one day, plus the Hoover Dam, as we head home from Utah through Arizona and Nevada into California
I just liked the Arizona sign and wanted to take a photo of it, as we made our way home through American highways that stretch out for miles in front of you and disappear over the horizon.

The Hoover Dam. I wasn't aware of how many people died making this thing in the early 1930s but it was at least 112, and almost certainly more because of the number that were recorded as pneumonia to avoid paying compensation claims to the workers families.

Coming to the end of our road trip, we worked out we has covered something like 1,200 miles in four days. I saw a good chunk of America. I also feel like it'll take more than a orange fascist like Trump to ruin a country this vast, diverse and full of kind people.

Thanks to my hosts in LA, Nick, Bee and Buttercup (under the table). On my final night we went for cocktails at the Culver Hotel, which makes a damn fine pomegranate Mojito.

Day 10: Manhattan Beach and flying home

 On my last day I had a choice between downtown LA or the beach. You can see what my choice was. Manhattan Beach was really picturesque and it was something like 35C outside so downtown LA seemed like a bad idea.


Leaving Los Angeles. Seeing the city from the window of the plane really gives you a sense of how frickin huge it is. It's way more spread out than London, which for the record was oppressively grey for about three days when I got home.

If you've got the Instagram, you can see a few more of my photos from the trip here: