Sunday, July 20, 2008

Baltic Capitals and Estonian nature

From Liepaja we catched a bus to the Latvian capital Riga, which turned out to be a nice two-hour ride through the Livonian countryside. Arriving in Riga, it was directly visable that it is a completely different city than Vilnius. The Latvian capital is more cosmopolitan, has a art-nouveau center (unlike the baroque style in Vilnius) and is far more touristic. Riga used to be a Hanseatic (Hanze) city back in the 12th century and now it is the big boy of the Baltics.
Jurjen, Stephan, Davey and I spent the first night in the 'Old Town' Hostel, which is situated above a bar, where we tried the local spirit Rigas Balzalms together with a Scottish tourguide James. The second day we moved to another place, the 'Argonaut' Hostel, which actually is one of the best hostels I ever stayed in. It is ranked as the 8th best hostel in Europe, which I defenitely can confirm.
After a day of walking through town, including Riga's TV-Tower for amazing views over the Daugava river and the city skyline, we spent the evening watching some cheap movies with some fun older British travellers. On the last day in Riga, I did some more walking in the city center with Davey, adoring the beautiful churches and cozy squares.
We left Riga by bus (using busses is the most efficient way of getting around in the Baltics) to Parnu, Estonia. Parnu is a beach town on the shore is the Gulf of Riga and the town has a cozy atmosphere. We stayed in a hostel which used to be a hospital, where we made ourselves some spaghetti. In the evening we had numorous 'apple-pies' (vodka, cinnamon and apple-juice) in one of Estonia's better clubs, club Bravo.
From Parnu we continued our journey north to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Arriving at Tallinn's busstation, we had a long walk towards the city center, where we stayed in a bad, but cheap, hostel. Tallinn probably is the most beautiful Baltic city, as it is like a fairytale city with a beautiful old town, full of white churches. We went to Toumpea hill for some amazing views over Tallinn's red roofs and we walked past numorous churches, the nice city wall and other historical buildings.
At the time we were in Tallinn, there was a festival going on named Ollesummer (Beersummer), which is like the Estonian version of Munich's Oktoberfest. We visited Ollesummer for one afternoon, trying out local breweries and listening to live music. There even was a poker-stand, where we played Texas Hold'em with 6 Estonian guys. Jurjen won the table by the way.
Comparing Estonia with the other Baltic countries, it feels much more Scandinavian than Latvia and Lithuania. Estonian language is very similar to Finnish (unlike Latvian and Lithuanian which are close to Slavic languages) and I found the Estonians a bit more reserved. The landscape is in a couple of ways more like Scandinavia, with lots of lakes and pineforests.
From Tallinn we travelled eastwards, along the Tallinn-St.Petersburg highway, to a small village called Viitna. The reason we visited Viitna is because it is right in the middle of Lahemaa nature park, a quiet area full of forests and lakes. We stayed there in wooden huts, next to a beautiful lake. After all the cities we visited, I really enjoyed staying in a nature area for a while, it was a good opportunity to relax for a day. And although we enjoyed walking the forests a lot, the highlight of Viitna actually was a stand with the most amazing shashlyk. We enjoyed their shashlyk (kind of kebab, Soviet style with unions and lavash) for both dinner and breakfast.
Travelling to Viitna was easy, but leaving the town is another story. We intended to travel to Estonia's second largest city, Tartu, which turned out to be quite difficult. We changed busses a couple of times, to arrive in an uninspiring town called Tapa, where we catched a train to Tartu. In Tartu we just spended the night, cooking some fish and pasta, because we left early the morning after towards the Russian Federation.