On this adventure, I’m already running out of superlatives. Despite this literary difficulty it fills me with joy to be able to use so many. This post comes in threes: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania; Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius; The Red Emperor, The Naughty Squirrel and The Downtown Forest. Having entered mainland Europe again the drinks became cheaper and the wonderful people I met ensured I drank my fair share!
Arrival in Tallinn was probably my most blissfully easy entrance to a city. I cruised off the ferry from Helsinki, drove to a ‘Park and Ride’ (aka a random free car park next to a bus line ;) and strolled straight to the Red Emperor hostel. Without question this was my finest introduction to a hostel – the staff (Tom, Shelly and Luke in particular) were friendly, warm and full of insightful information on the city and the places you just had to go. It was such a great intro; I went crazy and immediately booked another night on check-in.
With the best of intentions I’d planned to admin the hell out of sequel.world: pictures, posts and social media were on my sitemap. Joyfully and unaware of my intentions, some fellow hostellers swiftly embroiled me in a monstrous game of Ring of Fire - a drinking game loosely orientated around cards for my older readers. It would have been rude not to take advantage of super mega happy half hour €1 beers in the hostel bar after all. Still, I did manage to get all my photos done :)
Before I forget, my embarrassing moment for this post was achieved while on the ferry to Tallinn. I’d sat down to process some photos, stuck on some banging tunes and put my headphones in. Little did I realise that I hadn’t plugged the headphones in and my fellow passengers ‘enjoyed’ at least 10 minutes of cracking hip hop before I realised. Passenger politeness prevailed and I still don’t know why nobody pointed it out to me.
After a haphazardly skipped dinner and my evening of cheap beer fuelled joviality, it’s not hard to imagine that I was somewhat worse for wear the next day. To your and my surprise, I was up before 7 and into town for what is swiftly becoming a thing for me: coffee and cake breakfasts.
Yet again, the advice of ‘Just Say Yes’ served me well as one of the previous night’s drinkers invited me to join her and another girl on the free walking tour. Cat and Andie are two Australians and now lifelong friends - one, an 12-year expat living London soon to return to Oz and the other, touring Europe leaving many broken hearts in the process respectively. They proceeded to delight and entertain me for the next week or so as we travelled forth in the Baltics. In fact, in Tallinn I spent nearly the whole time with a rogue bunch of not-so-rare Australians on tour. Nik and Emily, I’ll come on to. Sami, Dan and Victor from that first night also made multiple excellent appearances in my adventures.
Andie, Cat and I overlooking Tallinn
Some rogue Australians - Mitch, Jared, Nik and Emily watching the sunset over the Gulf of Finland
Tallinn is a wonderful city. Actually, in my opinion, all the Baltic cities are all excellent places. Where Tallinn is historic, calm and peaceful, Riga is all party (including copious Brits on stag dos). Where Riga is very metropolitan, Vilnius is classy in its vintage. Where Vilnius is quirky and compact, Tallinn is the most beautiful and touristy due to easy access for cruise ships. They each have their own uniqueness and yet are all united with some common aspects.
All 3 have an old town with enchanting cobbled streets and majestic churches or castles. Vilnius’ is the smallest city with the biggest old town, while Tallinn’s is the best preserved. All 3 were under communist rule and have emerged as their own individual entities. With a combined Baltic population of just over 6 million this harkens back to the Italian city-states in Europe during the renaissance. And all 3 have burgeoning hipster districts with street art, fine food and interest in abundance – Kalamaja in Tallinn, Miera Iela in Riga and Užupis in Vilnius.
In a month where the London club Fabric was shut down and people have praised its contribution to the Islington area’s renovation, these hipster districts are massively elevating new parts of the Baltics cities. I’d highly recommend getting out of the old towns if you can venture to these upcoming areas. If nothing else, there’s some great art plastering the walls.
Incredible street art lines so many walls in Kalamaja, Tallinn
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Vilnius and Riga in the past. As a result, Tallinn and Estonia were something new to me. Here’s some lovely little facts I picked up about the place:
The establishment of an independent Estonia lasted one day initially – it declared itself independent from Russia one day and the next Germany invaded – a difficult start!
In order to restore a prominent central church during secular Soviet rule, the Estonian people sort funding for a museum of atheism; the venue for which conveniently happened to be the church
Saying this, Estonia is the most secular society in the world with around 70% of the modern population claiming they are not religious
All political voting is done online – they have a complete and fully functioning ID card system that manages everything from universal internet to voting to travel in the EU
The current Estonian president is nearly always seen sporting a full tuxedo with bowtie and happens to both rap and DJ – although the Estonian people have just voted for their first female president this week
Estonia’s biggest mountain is 318m high: not really a mountain then. The importance is that it is 6m taller than Latvia’s tallest mountain – very important to national pride!
Apologies if I’ve spoiled the walking tour for some friends that I know are visiting later in the year!
My drive from Tallinn to Riga was delighted with the presence of Andie in the passenger seat and started a series of lifts with new friends in Pico through the Baltics. We traded life and travelling stories as the journey flew with Frank Ocean on the stereo and the beginning of another podcast, Serial. Word of warning on Serial, if you listen to it with someone else, the conversation tends to dry up – we were compelled to listen. The Naughty Squirrel hostel was our destination and what a set of parties that tuned into.
Our arrival was greeted with a shot of Black Balsam, which the hostess with the mostess, Liva, purported as a healthy Jagermeister. It may have been herbal based but it was certainly not healthy. That began an evening of immense oddity as we linked up with Nik and Em from Tallinn at their hostel. As a beautiful Australian couple on a 10-week excursion across Europe they undoubtedly made me smile a lot. To be honest, Nik and I may have become too close as Vilnius had me drinking shots out of his belly button: these things happen you know.
On this particular evening, what followed was a very strange wet t-shirt competition. Firstly, the foam machine was set off too early filling the underground basement, soaking everyone. Secondly, having never been to a wet t-short competition, it is a grossly sexist event. What was I expecting! Thirdly and comically, a lesbian contestant was disqualified for excessive drunkenness and pulling all of the other contestants. Her final act was to collapse off the stage into the foam remnants while kissing the final performing contestant sparking a scuffle with the other girl’s partner. Nik, Em and I delighted in the confusion and carnage. It was the kind of night where you wake up with one contact lens still in.
Daylight in Riga bought an adventure out of Riga. A carful of would-be beach seekers, Andie and Cat plus Victor the man from Lyon, joined Pico and I for a trip to the seaside and Jurmala beach. We would have spent all day there but for a slight issue with getting Pico. As Andie and I had parked a fair way out of the city the day before I’d said I’d grab the motor and be back in town for 12.
Even after waking up slightly jaded from a late night hotdog discussion with a new Russian friend, Anton, and a very drunk Latvian who fervently supported Putin, I was on my way by 10:45 – plenty of time. I knew I had to get the number 14 bus out of the city, as that was the bus we’d taken in. Unfortunately for me, it turns out Riga has two number 14 buses on different routes leaving from the same location. Cue a very confused British man arriving at the end of the bus route well out of town, desperately trying to establish where he was with the cigarette-smoking driver. I arrived 2 and a half hours late for our midday meet-up. Apologies again everyone!
Once on the road, we drove the short distance to the 33km white-sand beach with only a few hiccups. The best was driving the wrong way down a one-way street after a rogue direction from Cat – I didn’t see a problem, I was only going one way.
Arrival at the beach was sweet. Who knew that Latvia had beaches and great beaches at that? Predominantly set up for relaxing Latvians and Russians I’d recommend it in the summer for anyone visiting Riga. You can catch the train if you are minus a Pico.
A walk up the fine sand with no shoes on and a pirate-like tourist ship blowing its cannon left us ready for an early dinner. Once consumed, we headed back to the capital and immediately up to the top of the Radisson Blu hotel to watch the sunset over cocktails. Having headed there in Pico and with an insistence that I needed no more alcohol that weekend, I sampled a few non-alcoholic beers: they were passable.
After much protestation that I absolutely would not be going out, a quick shower and a few card games in the Hostel bar bought out the best in me. Another moment of not saying no ;) A short cab ride out of the centre to Miera Iela bought a couple of fine craft beers brewed in-house and across the courtyard was some hypnotisingly delicious techno. It’s fair to say that some of my other partners-in-crime were rather non-plussed and confused at the rhythmic stage gazing that absorbed the crowd. Having not heard any live DJs play out since I’d packed up Pico, I couldn’t get enough of it.
Two of my handlers that evening were Eric and Melissa – both fine sorts of the American variety. Melissa was chasing down her family tree in Scandinavia and was finishing up in the Baltics. Eric had recently finished his degree in engineering and was experiencing the world for everything that it had to give him. He proceeded to join me for a couple of journeys south to Vilnius and then on to Warsaw in Poland.
Unsurprisingly our journey south was slightly weary and full of slightly curious experiences. En route we had one planned stop: the Hill of Crosses. This place is incredible. It’s in the middle of nowhere and I only know about it because my mum studied it as part of an art and textiles A-level she did a few years ago. The site is one of incredible interest where pilgrims have placed cross upon cross of every different incarnation you can imagine. Seeing is believing so check the picture below or Google it – it’s amazing. Don’t ask me how a hill of crosses came into the remit of an art and textiles course – these creatives eh!
The Hill of Crosses
Eric and I at the Hill of Crosses
Have you ever enquired what a foreign restaurant’s soup of the day is? Eric and I attempted this activity while we dined after visiting the Hill of Crosses. Nobody in the restaurant really spoke English so it made for an interesting conversation involving hand signals and ultimately us just taking a punt on it. The soup turned out to be cabbage: something neither of us had ever had and with the right balance of seasoning was rather delicious.
This whole episode was rather more interesting as the restaurant we dined in was part of a tremendous shopping centre that looked like a distribution warehouse. There were no windows to this building. On the inside it was even more curious with fascinating water sculptures and toilets that would have been more suited to a nightclub with their blue neon glow.
Additionally, we were on a hunt for a padlock for Eric; hence our visit to the shopping centre initially. Describing a padlock is another challenging task to achieve without using the word lock. Even if they speak English, if the person you’re talking to doesn’t know the word lock it’s almost impossible. A padlock – you know, to lock things – like a locker, in a locker room. Ultimately, we settled on a cupboard that you could shut with a removable object. Upon eventual comprehension, they didn’t have one.
Having visited last November, Vilnius was supposed to be a bit of a catch-up for me – I’d chosen a lovely hostel, which I thought was a fair way out of the city: the Downtown Forest. Turns out it was a 10 minute walk from the centre and I was not quite as cut off as planned. Still, they handmade croissants for breakfast, provided exquisite blankets (one of which I negotiated to purchase from the hostel) and had a veranda perfect for writing on.
The Downtown Forest hostel
Again, having promised myself a quiet life, a few beer-drinking evenings occurred, as I was that close to the centre. Shout-outs go to 3 enchanting girls from home for their one night of company before their Russian adventure – lovely to meet you Naomi, Amy and Char – I enjoyed our conversations on Sebastian Faulks, programming and whether Google or Apple would take over the world. Also, big up to Shaun (aka Father John Misty) for his tremendous banter ;)
I did have one rather unsettling evening in Vilnius. It was on a very unsuccessful hunt for food: so unsuccessful that I didn’t get anything to eat at all and I ended up way out of the centre with no idea of my location. I was walking dark streets and strangers were throwing dark looks. Truth be told, I was a bit scared (rightfully or not!). Still, I managed it back to the hostel after a couple of hours walk due to a lucky turn at a road underpass.
Sometimes, travelling on your own is like travelling between bastions of safety. Each time you set out, be it a long way or a short distance, you take a leap of faith. It’s why solo-travelling works – if you are willing to put yourself out there the rewards can be boundless. The key is to put yourself out there.
Tuesday 6th September – Red Emperor, Tallinn, Estonia
Wednesday 7th September – Red Emperor, Tallinn, Estonia
Thursday 8th September – Red Emperor, Tallinn, Estonia
Friday 9th September – The Naughty Squirrel, Riga, Latvia
Saturday 10th September – The Naughty Squirrel, Riga, Latvia
Sunday 11th September – The Downtown Forest, Vilnius, Lithuania
Monday 12th September – The Downtown Forest, Vilnius, Lithuania
Tuesday 13th September – The Downtown Forest, Vilnius, Lithuania