I left Helsinki on a boat and in a rush. The plan had been to get to Prague by Mayday, a date that had been revised to first the 5th, then the 10th. With my flight out scheduled for the 23rd and my money getting pretty low I promised to myself that I’d not put it back any further. Unfortunately this meant I had to travel at an unseemly speed for the next week. This wouldn’t have been a problem in some places – Hangzhou or Ekaterinburg for example – but it just so happened that I was genuinely impressed with the Baltic States and could’ve easily spent a month there.
The first stop was Tallinn, capital of Estonia. A week before my arrival there Tallinn had been in the news, and not for good reasons. The moving of a statue from the centre to a military graveyard on the outskirts had sparked a few days of rioting. Depending (pretty much) on whether you speak Russian or Estonian the statue commemorated either the liberation of the city from the nazis or the invasion of it by the soviets. The Russian-speaking population of Tallinn being fairly large meant that this turned out to be a divisive issue.
By the time I arrived the rioting was long over, but the damage was done, and was continuing to be done. Many windows were smashed or boarded up, and local feelings seemed to be running high. The Russian government, meanwhile, seemed to be doing its best to stir things up even more by organising a boycott of Estonian products, canceling the train service to Tallinn and launching a “cyber-war”. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, people seemed fairly agitated. Mostly I heard Estonians complaining about “what the Russians are doing to our country” but I did also meet a Canadian who lived in Russia and proclaimed that “if the Estonians are destroyed they’ll have brought it upon themselves”.
But anyway, I had a good time in Tallinn. The hostel I stayed at was of the best kind – small, friendly and disorganised. I was only supposed to stay one night, but met a succession of interesting travelers and locals and ended up staying up drinking until the early hours, with another day needed to sleep it off. This is why I saw so little of the city, but did at least have a good time.
There was no train to Riga, so I had to take a coach instead. It was quick, comfortable and half-empty – fortunately so, as a Russian woman had been sold the same seat as me. She found another double-seat somewhere when the claimant of the next seat turned up – a German-Australian woman who I’d previously met in both Listvyanka and Moscow. I talked to her for a bit, then fell asleep, then woke up in Latvia.
By a happy accident I managed to arrive in Riga on Latvian independance day. There was a stage by the river with a surprisingly good folk-rock band playing and little Latvian flags being given out everywhere. I stuck around for a while, wandered around the old town for a bit, then retired to the hostel bar for the night to avoid marauding English stag parties.
The next morning I was on a less interesting and less comfortable coach to Vilnius in Lithuania. My first impression on arrival was that it wasn’t very impressive in comparison to Tallinn or Riga, but once I’d had time to find the hostel, dump my bag there and wander into the centre my mind was changed completely. It looked at first like there was some sort of festival on – there were various bands, buskers and performance artist, all strange, funny and talented, and none of them taking anything remotely seriously. They led a path through the old town to the central square, where a large crowd gathered around six drummers and a dancing toddler. From there a pedestrian street led up a hill, and all the way up there were food stalls from most of the countries in the EU. I sat down at the Czech stand with a klobasa and a glass of dark budvar. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, the first since Shanghai, and generally a great atmosphere, marred only by the creepy old Dutch guy who I really should’ve told to fuck off.
It seemed a shame to stay there such a short time, but I’ll be back. These three cities are three of the best that I’ve seen. With a little luck I’ll be able to pay them another visit this summer.
On the boat from Helsinki to Tallinn.
Tallinn old town gate towers.
Riga – a church…
…and a very tall statue.
Crazies in Vilnius.
Sunset over the main square in Vilnius.