Saturday, July 31, 2010

Short And Wide, Long And Narrow

From Ventspils I continued south through Courland passing the towns of Kuldiga and Liepaja on my way to Klaipeda in Lithuania. The former is a rather unremarkable, little provincial town were it not for its rumba. No, it is not the Baltic capital of raunchy Latin dancing - rumba is the Latvian word for waterfall. With a maximum height of only 2m it may not be particularly high - even for a country as topographically challenged as Latvia, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in girth, claiming the title of Europe's widest waterfall at 250m (and I have it from several reliable sources that girth, apparently, is everything). Kuldiga was also home to Jakob Kettler, duke of Courland, who in the 17th century not only managed to maintain the region's autonomy between the rival forces of Sweden, Russia and Prussia, but also got in on the colonial boom of the time, acquiring the island of Tobago in the Caribbean and and island at the mouth of the Gambia, making Courland probably the smallest colonial state ever. Liepaja, on the other hand, was strategically important for the Russians (both Tsarist and Soviet) who built a huge naval base, called Karosta, there. In Soviet times particularly the town almost doubled in size and yet, paradoxically, became a closed town, with non-residents requiring permits to visit family there. Today the naval base and its residential areas are a virtual ghost town, with half the buildings abandoned, empty, stripped, and returning slowly to the earth. To get an idea of what the world would look like after the Apocalypse Karosta does a pretty good job.

One of the many Tsarist barracks buildings left abandoned and boarded up in Karosta. Notice the trees growing through the roof.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Whilst travelling I usually find accommodation via Couchsurfing or through people I already know. When that doesn't work or when I am out in the countryside then I freecamp. Such as on Thursday night when I arrived at Cape Kolka, which separates the Baltic Sea from the Gulf of Riga, at 9pm. I had enough time to take some sunset pics but not enough to get any further. I didn't see this as a problem as the cape forms part of the longest stretch of beach in Europe (which is also, thankfully, supremely underdeveloped) and so I just walked along it for a few kilometres until I came to a suitably isolated spot, spread out my mat and sleeping bag, and went to sleep (the cape is part of a national park where it is forbidden to camp in a tent, but nobody said anything about just going to sleep). I have, however, come to the conclusion that sleeping on a beach is vastly overrated. Sure, the wide open beach and constant sea breeze are pleasant and keep the mozzies at bay, but I woke up playing host to a business of flies and with enough sand inhabiting my various nooks and crannies to stuff an obese gopher. The next day was spent walking among the fishing villages of the cape, which are home to the Livs, an obscure minority related to the Finns and Estonians desperately clinging onto their identity. Their language is already almost a lost cause with only a dozen or so native speakers.
A boat in a traditional Livonian boat graveyard. Livs neither burn nor break up their old boats, instead they bring them onland and leave them in the forest so that they return to where they came from.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Problems Of Becoming Solvent

Poste restante is a great idea, and, before the advent of the internet, was the only way for people to keep in contact whilst travelling around like I am now. The basic premise is that letters or packages are sent to a post office in a given location and the post office will then keep the letter or package for a given time until the addressee comes and collects it. Courier services, such as FedEx and DHL, are also very useful in that they can deliver mail to pretty much anywhere in the world in just a couple of days. Sadly, as I found out whilst in Riga, the two systems are not mutually compatible.
A sumptuous Jugendstil door in a turn of the century house that has unfortunately been neglected.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Baltic Heights

The area around Otepää in the south of Estonia is famed for being the skiing capital of the Baltics, which, quite frankly, isn't saying much as the highest "mountain" in the region is a meagre 318m - although it still dwarfs the tallest "peaks"of both Latvia and Lithuania. Nevertheless it is a pleasant place, with gently rolling hills and forests dotted with lakes both large and small, perfect for a bit of strolling and relaxing by the water (whilst swatting away the mosquitoes and horse flies) to recharge the batteries. I was lucky enough to be staying there with an inspiring couple: Sigrit and Helgur. Avid travellers and environmentally conscious, they decided to actually live their convictions and not only built their own home in the country from scratch, complete with dry toilet and recycled building materials (yet not without your essentials such as broadband wi-fi), but are also setting up a hostel in Tartu which they are furnishing entirely with second hand and recuperated fittings and furnishings. It was very encouraging to see that it is possible to follow through with your principles and properly live by them, even in the face of doubt and ridicule from others.

DIY eco-house in the forest.

The silver lining to losing my debit card is that at least I lost it in the Baltics where it is possible to pay for the majority of things by credit card and the few that require cash (my credit card does not permit me to make cash withdrawals), such as bus travel, can be circumvented, for example by hitchhiking. Unlike in Scandinavia, hitching is still relatively common here and I had no real trouble getting rides to take me all the way to Sigulda in Latvia. The two countries are very similar in appearance and, with both being part of Schengen, crossing the border is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it event, but there was one big difference I noticed almost immediately as I entered Latvia: people are far more willing and happy to speak Russian and less likely to know English, and so I had to dust off my memories of the Caucasus and start to tentatively govorit po ruski (speak Russian). There are sizeable Russian minorities in both countries, but in Estonia language is a nationalist touchstone and ethnic Estonians will often refuse to speak Russian. They have also imposed stringent language tests for citizenship, leaving many ethnic Russians who came over during Soviet times in limbo with no legal citizenship. In fact the two communities rarely seem to mix in Estonia, with Estonians (not without cause) resentful of historical injustices suffered under the hands of the Russians and the latter unwilling to learn a new, difficult language causing them to turn inwards and to the east and to congregate in monolingual towns and neighbourhoods.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The (Un)Talented Mr Jelinek

I believe I possess certain talents and character traits that help me in my travels: I am adaptable and have a pretty cheery disposition, which means that I view setbacks as just another exciting challenge to be overcome; I get on well with almost anyone; I have a reasonable ear for languages and am able to pick up a few basic words pretty quickly; and I have an affinity for maps and orientation so I generally know which way I am going. One useful skill I don't have, quite the opposite in fact, is a sharp, on-the-ball, presence of mind. And so, last week, whilst extracting funds from a cash machine in Tallinn, I just walked off leaving the card to be sucked back into the bowels of the dispenser. I, of course, was blissfully unaware until a few days later when, in a small town in the northeast of the country, I needed to replenish my funds and discovered that my card was gone. There followed 10 mins of stressing alternated with me (loudly) cursing my stupidity again. since it was a Sunday night I wasn't going to get anywhere fast and so I decided to calm myself down by going to a local bar to watch the (dismal) World Cup final instead. The next day required a radical change of plans. Initially I had wanted to go for a hike in the national park where I found myself before heading south to Estonia's second city Tartu via the town of Kunda (Czech speakers will know why). My Kunda plans, however, had to be shelved and I scurried back to Tallinn with the aim of finding the offending cash machine and retrieving my card - it was a long shot but had to be tried. Unfortunately I was out of luck and so had to phone my bank and cancel the card so that a new one can be issued. The only problem is that the card will be delivered to my home address in the UK and so I will need to co-ordinate with my mother and get it sent out to me somewhere along the road, which will give me an excuse to see whether this poste restante thing really works. At least I still have my credit card (for the time being anyway).

But back to the travelling. As well as the historico-cultural shift from neat Northern Europe to ex-Soviet Estonia (intriguingly many Estonians consider themselves as being part of Northern Europe in a bid to distance themselves from the perceived negative label of Eastern Europe) there has been an ecological change as well, as the more temperate climate has loosened the birch-conifer monopoly on forests, which are now more varied. The landscape is permanently green as the one thing that Estonia does share with its northern neighbours is a sparse population for its size. Summer is also unequivocally here as Estonia is currently experiencing a minor heatwave as every day I've been here has topped 30 degrees. Summer brings with it welcome trappings, such as swimming in one of the many lakes that dot the country and an abundance of forest fruit just begging to be picked, such as tiny, yet delicious, forest strawberries and blueberries. But along with the good comes the bad, and the hot weather heralds the sound of summer too: the slapping of exposed flesh as another mosquito or horse fly finds its mark. The latter are particularly persistent here and I've seen some that are up to 5cm long, veritable B-52s of the insect world and slightly nightmare-inducing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


From Helsinki I hopped aboard the express ferry (which, surprisingly, was cheaper than the standard, slow ferries) to Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland. Despite zipping across the water at some 60km/h the waters of the Gulf were as still as a mill pond, giving the crossing an otherworldly feel. And although the physical Gulf is only some 80km across the difference between Finland and Estonia is far greater. As soon as I stepped off the ferry I could sense that I was in an ex-Communist country - I don't know exactly what it is, perhaps the slightly overgrowing vegetation or the liberal and unimaginative use of concrete pretty much everywhere; either way, I have seen enough of it whilst in the Czech Republic to recognise it as soon as I see it.

Ethno-linguistically the Estonians are related to their northern, Finnish neighbours, and also share some of the latter's abruptness and standoffishness: I have learnt not to ask an Estonian how they are feeling unless I am prepared to really, honestly, find out. Although never really conquered by Germany (except for a short period during WW2) there is a strong German influence in the city as it was, for most of its history, essentially a German town, having been a major depot of the Hanseatic League (honestly, I swear, they're following me around). In fact a wander round Tallinn's old town is like being transported to Central Europe, with its well preserved Gothic buildings eerily reminiscent of many a provincial Bohemian town. At the other end of the architectural spectrum are the ghastly remains of Communist power and hegemony: Stalinist grand works; swarms of sprawling tower-blocks; giant heavy-industry complexes that now lie dormant; and abandoned secret (now not so secret) military bases that are gradually being reclaimed by mother nature. Wandering amongst the ruins of the latter, in places such as Paldiski, a town that was off limits to all but the inhabitants during Soviet times, makes you realise how far we have come since those grim times.

Communism has, of course, left a deep scar on Tallinn and Estonia, and it is impossible not to notice it, be it in the large Russian minority who form a separate population within the country and who rarely mix and interact with the Estonians, or the many memorials, museums or even personal stories of the hardships and deportations brought on by the occupation. But that is also now firmly in the past and Estonians can make fun of the Soviet times and look forward with relative confidence as the country has managed its capitalist transition better than most and will be adopting the Euro from next year (although possibly not the best timing for that as far as they are concerned).

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Country Where I Quite Want To Be

I have now reached Helsinki, which marks the end of the western Europe leg of my trip and in a couple of days I will head across the Baltic Sea to Estonia. This first stage has been a relatively gentle start to get me warmed up with no major difficulties: everybody speaks good English; the culture shock is, at most, mild; and things, generally, work. The biggest challenge was keeping costs down (which is working out better than expected - so far I've spent an average of £12.50 per day, all included). That's not to say that it has been boring or mundane, but it is time to move on to pastures new and push myself a little more.

Evening on on of Finland's many lakes.