What an anticlimax coming home to lashing rain and colder temperatures this morning than we had in a week of travelling through Latvia, Estonia and Finland.
Looking outside at the rain I can’t get inspired to write anything about canals today so here’s a few jottings about our holiday instead. Personally I can’t see the attraction of sitting on the same beach for a week, so we tend to do the opposite and sit on buses and trains instead, which I can understand will not appeal to many especially those who prefer to relax on hols!
However we had the most marvellous time, starting in Riga, thanks to Ryanair. I find Ryaniar’s use of technology to be superb and rather than complain about being charged extra for using their automatic check-in terminals at Stansted (as opposed to free online check-in) I will actually praise them for thinking out a radical new solution to preventing check-in queues. It took no more than 2 minutes to find a free terminal, collect our boarding passes and hand a bag in to the baggage drop desk.
Riga was wonderful but surprisingly desserted. There was no traffic, no noise, no pedestrians in many streets – altogether a little bit eerie. The old town centre is very attractive with a mixture of quaint and very grand buildings. Every corner has a coffee shop – no queues – and free wifi is the norm. The cheaper restaurants offer self service menus till late into the night and we especially liked the Pelmeni – self service bowls of different flavoured ravioli style dumplings – a great feed for a couple of quid. You are charged by weight, which is a very common feature in Latvia – pile it onto the plate and pay only for what you take, weighed at the till.
The day’s highlight for total relaxation turned out to be a tea shop with hundreds of teas to choose from and a first floor piled with cushions to lie on with a view of the park, all within a couple of minutes of the town centre.
The river Daugava was perhaps 400 yards wide through Riga and with at least a three foot swell I was pleased to be visiting by land and not arriving by boat on a river with breaking waves. A narrowboat here would have no chance of staying upright but boat trips do exist, although like so much aimed at tourists here, the operating season will only be May to September. The tranquility of Riga was only interrupted by three or four groups of rather stunned looking British lads being escorted by their stagnight guides. How very sad that such a grand city has stooped so low as to promote this type of behaviour, which was beginning to turn just a little rowdy before we departed, and as demonstrated by the same guys next morning sporting various dressings on their black eyes, must have led to some altercations later in the night.
Leaving Riga by bus we headed north and crossed the border into Estonia without any border formalities at all. We arrived at Parvu on the Estonian coast which is the country’s number one seaside resort. The beach was indeed lovely although a bit chilly for sunbathing, and the town quite charming. To get here from Riga we had covered a distance of London to Bristol and passed only the occsional farm house without even a village. The Baltic countries are among the least populated in Europe and it certainly shows. Parvu is one of the largest towns and it has to be said, apart from the beach, there is not a great deal to do here! After a delicious lunch we jumped on another bus to Vijlandi, an attractive inland town by a lakeside, but so unused to visitors that we had to phone the local hotel receptionist at home. She arrived and unlocked the hotel for us – possibly the only guests this week!
This was a lovely place to stay with lakeside walks and an enormous ruined medieval castle to explore. Dinner was in a local pub – the only place open apart from pizza or Armenian restuarants, which seemed a little eccentric. We were of course the only customers between 8pm and 11pm when it closed, but the food was home cooked and very good indeed.
Next morning off to the bus station via the cake shop, which is a must in Estonia. The consumption of coffee per capita is the highest in Europe, and the selection of cakes and pastries is amazingly good and cheap. The bus to Tallinn was uneventful and passed through a couple of immaculate villages. Latvia and Estonia are the cleanest places I have ever visited.
Tallinn was a bit larger than I had imagined but turned out to be a gem of a city. Unlike Riga it was quite busy despite still being in the off-season. The solid blue sky had not one single cloud during our whole visit, and the main square of the walled medieval city was undergoing its annual transformation into one enormous outdoor cafe. All around was free WiFi (see my post about WiFi in Estonia) so it was very easy to keep in touch with work, just in case anything needed urgent attention.
A couple of days in Tallinn is about right – a little more expensive than Riga but there were plenty of local bars as well as tourist traps. However the biggest tourist trap of all was still well worth a memorable visit. If you do visit Tallinn you will be unable to miss Olde Hansa, with its flames lapping around the doorways and medievally clad servants and minstrels. The place is enormous, but divided into small rooms decorated in incredible detail and lit by candles and flames only. The beer – try the Dark Honey beer or Herbed strong beer – is absolutely wonderful and the somewhat unusual food is all made according to medieval recipes and served with wooden platters and hand made pottery – even hand made glassware! It may be a little expensive but no visitor to Tallinn should miss this place – and actually despite appearances, they are quite happy that you only order a beer rather than a meal.
Tallinn ferry terminal is within walking distance of the town so after leaving our rented apartment (very good value off season) we were eating breakfast on board the Viking XPRS within the hour, as we did the most amazing high speed reverse turn from our berth, through 180 degrees to end up facing the sea, between two other monster sized ferries. I doubt whether many narrowboats could make this manoeuvre but this enormous ship did it with ease.
The two and a half hour crossing to Helsinki ends with the massive ferry squeezing through an incredibly narrow passage to arrive at the ferry terminal – only a couple of hundred yards from the town. What an absolutely marvellous arrival this is, joining the two even larger ferries from Stockholm which arrive around 9:30am.
Helsinki was another gem. A busy working city going about its business with just a hint of tourism. It is said that the Finns are amongst the happiest nations, enjoying their short summers in pavement cafes and rooftop bars. The sunshine this week had been a surprise for everyone and it reached a dizzying 17 degrees which was quite unexpected for April.
We sat in the harbourside market for breakfast each morning, watching the towering ferries arriving, and by day explored the city by foot and tram. The transport system here is about as good as it gets and should become a role model for any city planning a tram system. Timetables can be downloaded to mobile phones, progress of each tram is mapped online, they are very modern and comfortable too, with WiFi onboard and run every few minutes. The ultimate tram system.
How could I visit Finland without sampling a proper sauna? The Finns are so helpful that while examing the map we suddenly found ourselves joining in a huge group all heading for the same place. Outside the famous Kotiharjun wood fired Sauna, unchanged since 1928, it is customary to grab a cold beer and sit out on the wall clad in nothing but steam and a towel. Faced with joining a queue of over 20, all of whom knew each other, we chickened out and went back to town, much to the horror of our new friends, but I couldn’t leave it at that, so went off to the other sauna in the centre, the incredible art deco Yrjönkadun Uimahalli.
Opening on alternate days for men and women, I had only two hours remaining, after taking ages to identify the well disguised building, so literally plunged in at the deep end. This establishment is virtually unchanged since the day it opened, after a recent restoration, with an indoor pool and four saunas plus a steam room to choose from. English signs make it very clear that bathing costumes are optional in the pool and absolutley forbidden elsewhere. Finns have absolutely no inhibitions with nudity and whilst I managed to sneak into the wood burning sauna alone, within minutes it was full of jovial Finns happily beating themselves and others with bundles of birch twigs and throwing ladle after ladle of water onto the fire. This was the hottest sauna I ever had – it actually said 85C on the door! How wonderful it would have been to plunge outside with a beer and sit on that wall after this, but here the choice is a dip in the pool, a cold shower or a cold pressure hose, followed by beer served at your own table on the balcony – altogether rather civilised!
The experience was thoroughly enjoyable and after cooling off and relaxing for a while in my personal cabin, I reluctantly got dressed and headed back into the town, feeling like I was walking on air. Before we left to fly home I was almost first person in the queue for it opening at 8am, inhibitions cast aside and ready to take on the world by breakfast time!
Finland – definitely worth another look after this gentle introduction to such a huge country. I looked longingly at the overnight trains to Rovaniemi in Lapland and dreamt of fields of Elk. If only we had another day or two …. – but somehow I think we will be returning!!