A Travellerspoint blog

Brave New World - Lithuania

overcast 8 °C

We all have stereotypes about peoples and places that are often extremely difficult to dispel. For instance: Russians are rude; Japan is expensive; English food is terrible and it is always sunny in Paris. None of these statements are true today, in fact the opposites are nearer the mark. But, unless you travel to these places and meet the people it is unlikely that you will be convinced. So – for many people the ex-Eastern Bloc countries are probably still grey, dour and controlled by dangerous men. This is the Lithuanian Presidential Palace in Vilnius – not a jack-booted guard in sight and the twice-elected President is a woman, Dalia Grybauskaitė
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The Baltic countries that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain a quarter of a century ago are now thoroughly modern Western democracies with first world infrastructure.
However, with few exceptions, our sightseeing is dictated by online travel guides who steer us to the historic hotspots and we rarely visit the places where ordinary folk live, work and play. Would we visit Rome if it weren't for the Colosseum and St. Peter's? Would Paris be a draw without the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame? But in a few centuries time will future generations stare in awe at today's modern apartment blocks in Vilnius?...
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Maybe they will take guided tours of this giant shopping mall...
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and wonder what madness led us to believe that we needed 15 different shoe shops?...
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Or will they question our need to have 40 different coffee makers and more than 60 different electric kettles on offer in a single store...
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Beyond the old city centres of Tallin, Riga and Vilnius there is a new world that is, if anything, more advanced than our own. All three Baltic countries have world-class internet, a well maintained network of roads and excellent public transit. There are giant new factories, big box stores, dealerships of Audis, BMWs and every other car maker and the farmland seems well utilised. There are still vestiges of the recent past. Not all the old buildings have been renovated or demolished but, unlike in our own cities, we have not witnessed beggars on the streets or the homeless sleeping in shop doorways. We have been impressed by the cleanliness of the streets and the neatness of the parks and people's gardens. We have certainly been impressed with the food and our Thanksgiving Dinner in Vilnius started with stuffed Lithuanian potato dumplings, followed by Pork loin in mushroom sauce...
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For desert we had fruity black bread pudding – delicious.
Tomorrow we tour old Vilnius.
Happy Thanksgiving to all our Canadian friends and family.

Posted by Hawkson 11:02 Archived in Lithuania Comments (9)

Sausages Rule in Riga

rain 7 °C

On the edge of the old walled city of Riga is a pristine indoor food market of monumental proportions. Pork is the staple of the meat section with hundreds of stalls offering every inch of pig from the snout to the tail together with dozens of stalls laden with pork sausages of every size and shape. These sausages were truly elephantine...
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Some of the fruit in the outdoor market were equally huge...
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But there is much more to Riga than food, (though it is plentiful and good), and its strong point is its architecture. It has a wealth of well preserved Germanic edifices from the 17th and 18 centuries ...
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This is the 14th century facade of The House of Blackheads – a guild of unmarried merchants...
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And this is one of the many quaint alleyways...
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There is also an entire district of ornate art nouveau from the Roaring 20s...
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The burgeoning Baltic cruise industry has swamped Riga with boatloads of foreigners in recent years and English is de rigeur for anyone serving tourists. But fifty years of Soviet domination takes more than a couple of decades to dispel and many people still speak Russian.
English and American TV and movies are rarely dubbed into Latvian and young Latvians worship Bieber and Adele. However, Riga's excellently presented war museum inside the medieval fortifications, (the Powder Tower circa 1330), has almost no English explanations. The modern 14 screen cineplex however offers all the latest English language movies with both Russian and Latvian subtitles and we spent a pleasant evening avoiding the rain watching Meryl Streep's portrayal of Florence Foster-Jenkins.

Modern stores and upscale shopping malls abound in Riga and one innovative boutique sells all its fashions by weight...
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While the hotel staff both in Tallinn and Riga are friendly and extremely helpful, the shop workers appear generally dour and disinterested. If only the weather would cheer up maybe the locals would have something to smile about. This enormous statue dedicated to the animals that lost their lives in the early days of soviet space exploration certainly made us smile...
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Posted by Hawkson 05:47 Archived in Latvia Comments (6)

The Highway to Riga

overcast 9 °C

Tallin was still overcast when we took our last look across the old city's skyline to the docks and ferries this morning before heading to the coach station for our trip to Latvia...
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We had booked tickets in advance but could not reserve seats, so we went early to beat the crowds and sit together. But where were the crowds? When our 50 seat luxury coach arrived, (offering WiFi, audio and video entertainment, refreshments and a toilet), we were the only ones waiting. But we guessed the hordes were coming when the conductor carefully labelled our bags and gave us receipts before loading them...
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We were still awaiting the rest of the passengers when the doors closed and we took off – just us, the driver and conductor. “We will probably stop to pick up at the airport,” we said to each other, but we didn't. We are very close to Russia here and with all the sabre rattling going on over Syria we figured we had been kidnapped by a remnant of the KGB. Either that or we had booked the world's longest stretch limo...
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Travelling off season has its benefits. We usually pay much less than peak-time tourists and never have to queue. However, it can be a little unnerving to be the only guests in an enormous hotel or to dine alone in a two hundred seat restaurant – or to be the only passengers in a 50 seat coach (especially as we only paid twenty dollars each). We have at times been the entire audience for a theatrical performance and sole watchers of a movie; and we often stroll through deserted tourist attractions without being accosted by guides or touts. We have even been the solitary passengers on ferries and boats, and on one occasion James flew solo on a transatlantic jet. So we just sat back and hoped that we weren't on a one way ticket to a Gulag. (Not that we minded – we really enjoyed Siberia).

However, the Soviets left the Baltics 25 years ago and, apparently, all we had to fear was the driving. Why else would there be a green plastic vomit bag conspicuously hanging from every seat pocket...
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Our worries over kidnapping and crazy driving came to nought and we smoothly
sailed the 300 kilometres of perfectly flat, and largely straight, road to Riga, the capital of Latvia, through a never ending avenue of boreal forest that stretches all the way to Easten Siberia...
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Five hours later we arrived in Riga – still the sole passengers – and the conductor carefully checked our baggage tags before handing over our luggage. The Ruskies may have gone but Soviet bureaucracy lingers on!

Posted by Hawkson 10:59 Archived in Estonia Comments (8)

“Païkest” from Estonia

overcast 5 °C

Estonia is a small country perched on the very edge of Western Europe and it has had a long and checkered history under the thumbs of the Danes, Germans, Poles, Swedes and Russians. All of these invaders have influenced the architecture and culture, and Tallinn, the picturesque capital city, has been left a rich legacy of buildings dating from medieval times...
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Today, the invaders have gone and the ancient cobblestone streets are reserved for locals and tourists on foot. However, many sections of the medieval wall that once surrounded the city are still intact...
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Touristy restaurants and cafes have taken over almost all of the buildings in the old city centre and offer a wide range of local game including bear, moose, elk and wild boar. This is Estonia's oldest coffee house...
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We've only been here a couple of days but we're getting to grips with the important words...
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We live in Canada - a country where bear, elk, deer and moose are hunted in abundance, yet none of these lean wild meats ever appear on our menus. Judging by the numbers of tourists tucking into these healthful delicacies here it may be time for our restaurants to start getting beyond the burgers and fries. The moose was delicious but how about this for our hotel's breakfast buffet?
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Only 1.4 million people live in Estonia and nearly a third of them call Tallinn home.
Estonians are probably the most techno-savvy people in the world and there are more cellphones than people in Estonia. They are generally smart cookies, (many speak three or four languages and they invented Skype), and they have a capital city that has excellent shops, a wealth of well preserved ancient buildings and interesting museums. This is Tallinn's medieval central square...
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And these are some of the many churches that dot the old city...
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Estonia finally broke away from Russia after the First World War only to be re-colonised during the Second. They have been independent since 1990 and part of the EU since 1994 so you would think that they would be happy. However, despite having a beautiful little capital, excellent food, casinos and sex shops galore, and oodles of inexpensive booze, Estonians rate themselves as the most unhappy people in the whole of Europe. Maybe it's the frequently overcast skies; the frigid arctic winds; or the thought that in a few weeks it will only be light for a few hours a day. However, it's more likely that they simply don't realise how lucky they are.
Riga in Latvia is our next stop. Winter is rapidly approaching and we must hurry south to avoid the chills. So, as the Estonians say, “Païkest” – here's wishing you sunshine.

Posted by Hawkson 00:27 Archived in Estonia Comments (5)

On The Road Again

semi-overcast 17 °C

While every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, ours usually starts with a long haul flight. But, although we are headed to the furthest fringes of eastern Europe, we began with a relatively short hop to our nation's capital – Ottawa. These are the parliament buildings...
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And this is the KitKat themed cake that James made in Ottawa to celebrate our friend Trudy's significant birthday...
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Canada is vast and the "short hop” to our capital city took us four thousand five hundred kilometres by ships, buses, cars a train and a plane – a distance greater than we will travel over the next few weeks when we pass through 15 countries from Tallinn in the northern Baltics to the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean. But first, a trip around southern Ontario to visit friends and see the breathtaking Niagara Falls...
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Visitors from all over the world are enthralled by the spectacle of the Falls, but not so many realise that just 20 kilometres away is Niagara-on-the-Lake - Canada's prettiest town. This is the historic high street where many of the buildings are 200 years old...
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Southern Ontario lies adjacent to the United States and before the American War of Independence (1775 – 1782) there was no effective border. However, in 1812 the two countries were at war and fortresses were built on both sides. Fort Niagara on the U.S. side is just a short distance across the river from Niagara -on-the-Lake...
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And this is one of the many canons in Fort Henry, Kingston, aimed across the border at the United States. These fortresses and canons haven't been needed for over 200 years but we keep them just in case a lunatic ever becomes the President of the United States!!!
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It is fall in Canada and the Ontario maples are beginning to take on their fancy vermilion plumage. ..
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The countryside will be aflame with colour in a week or so and then will come the deep freeze with temperatures plummeting to minus 30 degrees celsius or lower. So – it's time to for us to push on southward to the Mediterranean. First, a brief stop in England. See you soon.

Posted by Hawkson 13:35 Archived in Canada Comments (9)

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