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)