A Travellerspoint blog

Estonia

To Riga (Latvia)

sunny 12 °C

I didn’t quite say all I wanted to about Tartu. My first night there, the fellows running my hostel recommended I dine at an establishment called Crepp, just down the main street. After walking the length of the street to conduct an exhaustive comparative study of all the menus on offer, and popping into a pub for a pint to process all my research, I had to agree: I found myself salivating over the idea of some fancy steak dish the menu attached to the outside promised. So it was a little disconcerting to go into Crepp and find that the menu I’d seen was for their upstairs restaurant, which was not open. I was instead in their salad restaurant. I decided I would make the best of a bad situation by ordering the meatiest looking salad on offer, a meatball salad. I have to say that the salad itself was quite delicious, but the meatballs were little larger than peas. Feeling cheated, I slunk home.

I did far better the next night, at a place called Truffe, one of these buildings (apparently they lost some in the War and had them replaced by Stalinist neoclassical buildings, but I can’t tell which are the old and which the new):
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Quite apart from a lovely dinner, I found myself mesmerised by some of the music playing. I have no idea what language the particular songs I really liked were being sung in, it may have been Estonian but they were also playing English and French sons so I can’t be sure. Nonetheless I told myself it was Estonian triphop.

I have a couple of other buildings that caught my eye. These wooden ones stood out as being a bit of a contrast to the prevailing mode
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and then there was the Art Gallery (behind which was the Tartu Public Library, in which I ensconced myself for several hours work)
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In my quest to find the Tartu Barge, I had quite a wander along the river
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it was very peaceful
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and I almost forgot that I was within a half hour’s walk of the city (although the three playground were a reminder). The river itself was not behaving very well
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One other joy of Tartu is that they had a brand new bookshop, a branch of the one I liked in Tallinn, so I was in and out a few times for coffee and to enjoy
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I stayed in a hostel which was basically just an apartment in a typical apartment building, the thing that made it special was the three guys running it. They seemed to be having a great time, kind of like college room-mates (they were American, Australian and English) and running the hostel as an extension of their home, which made for a very comfortable space. One fellow visitor had arrived a couple of weeks earlier for a two day stay, and was extending it day by day.

My hostel in Riga was a far more hostel like place, although a very very good one (except for the six flights of stairs) – a ten room communal apartment converted a year ago with a clear sense of style, (when I got back to England, I read a bit of a rave about it in the Guardian), lots of black, white and red
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The building itself is an example of Art Nouveau, a movement which started around 1897 – apparently Riga has the greatest collection in the world
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Something quite a long way from being Art Nouveau is the Riga Central Market
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During the war they were used as Zeppelin hangars, but have been returned to use as a market
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with a few flowers for sale outside
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Here is where I sequestered myself to do a couple of days work, in the Riga Graduate School of Law library, two glorious examples of Art Nouveau
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(sorry about the infection my photos seem to have caught).

As I hit Riga, I finally finished the first volume (of three) of The Forsyte Saga. Soames Forsyte started out as rather a horrible man, but he found his humanity when he had a daughter, and really does lover her unconditionally. There is this whole feud going on because Soames and Irene split, and she married Jolyon and had a son. So these is hell to pay when her son (another Jolyon) and his daughter (Fleur) meet and fall in love - they have no idea of the old history. Soames is able to get over it, though: if Felur really wants to marry Jon (as he's known) he will accept it. This, combined with his outstanding probity as a lawyer makes him end the book as its hero, rather than the villain.

Posted by NZBarry 15:57 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

To Tartu (Estonia)

sunny 12 °C

By way of posting about current travels for a moment, today I left Birmingham for the last time. It was quite a journey: 4 different trains and 11 hours between quitting my home in Lichfield and arrival, but I am back in Whitby. This is one amazing spot, possibly the best in all my travels (but there have been so many great places, it is hard to say). It is the kind of place to which I would make a beeline if I was to win LOTTO or find out that my father was actually Bill Gates or otherwise come into sufficient money to retire. I have just sat in the Board Inn, which overlooks the mouth of the River Esk, and watched the light fade from the day, Captain Cook in stark silhouette observing from the opposite bank. I don’t think I have seen a more beautiful thing. Then, the light gone, I climbed the 199 steps up to my hostel among the ruins of the ancient Abbey. Who could ask for more?

I should perhaps mention as a warning that there is full frontal nudity at the bottom of this post, so go there now or stop when I say.

When I last posted, I was speaking of Helsinki. I think the one thing that lingers in my memory apart from what I have already mentioned is the buskers I encountered on my Easter Sunday walk through the near deserted city. They were not your ordinary class of buskers: one was playing the double bass, another a couple of blocks along had a clarinet and the last had an instrument I do not know the name of. It was the size of a largish zylophone, and sounded like a zylophone but with extra features, as if combined with a small pipe organ. The pipes were to the front, and by hitting a key with his plonker, the musician would make them sound.

But I was only in Helsinki until early on Easter Monday. I caught the ferry back to Tallinn, had a last look at and coffee in my favourite bookshop and caught the train south. Although brightly coloured, that did not hide its Soviet origins and the interior accommodations were decidedly Spartan
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The journey down was uneventful and unspectacular, trundling through a nondescript forested region for most of the way, broken only by the occasional factory around which a town clustered. I began to doubt my destination, which was driven by the fact that it is not possible to travel from Tallinn to Riga in one day unless one has an early start. When early came around I, of course, was in Finland. So I took some advice and people said that rather than stay in the border town of Valga, I should only go as far as Tartu. They were right.

Once again, I fell in love with a place. Tartu was also a Hanseatic town, important because it is on a river connecting two lakes, one of which borders Russia. There were several hundred barges in use, ferrying goods backwards and forwards. Sadly, they fell into disuse around the end of World War 1, and then the timbers were found to be important for other purposes and not even one survives. The extraordinary thing is that in the last few years, a group of people in Tartu has, working from old photos and descriptions and learning all the skills necessary, first made the tools necessary to hand build one of these barges and then they built one.
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It was out when I went to look at it, but the photos show it to be more of a small sailing ship than what I would call a barge. The same group is presently getting ready to make a Viking ship. They also throw quite a Christmas party: a fellow in the hostel told me of going and getting fairly sizzled, then having to spend time in the sauna prior to a refreshing dip in the river. Not so bad, perhaps, until you know the river was frozen solid and the dip was by way of a hole cut in the ice.

As for Tartu, unlike Tallinn it has not undergone all sorts of upheavals and transformations and so it is a place of quite startling formal beauty. A key place is the University, which has been around since the early 17th century after establishment by the Swedes. There was a bit of a gap during the 18th century and it was re-established in its present buildings very early in the 1800’s, becoming very important in scientific and philosophic thinking.

People like this fellow
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helped – he founded “descriptive and comparative embryology” (no, I don’t know either).
So, the University is probably the most beautiful of the buildings in Tartu
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I had lunch in the main canteen, which is in this building
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and has pieces like this inset into its walls
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Behind is the city park, which I liked because it was a bit rugged and had a touch of the wild about it and it had a ruined Abbey
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although to be fair, it could only be said to be half ruined as one end is still in use as a museum
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One thing that really features in Tartu is its street art (the third one down does feature complete nudity). The first I really paid attention to was this conversation outside the Wilde Hotel
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One is indeed Oscar, but the city is honouring the other, a fellow called Eduard Wilde. You have to like a place that has this outside its town hall, simply known as Two Students Kissing
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But there is one piece which I walked past without really paying attention, and when I did I was slightly disturbed, not because they’re nude or right in the middle of the central square, but because this is a father and son, and the son is said to be a mere 18 months old!

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Posted by NZBarry 15:52 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

To Helsinki

sunny 5 °C

The food situation did improve after the first Hesburger disaster, dramatically so. I liked this cafe
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so much I visited a couple of times. On the Thursday night, I found a lot of places were dead empty or so packed, I couldn’t get any service – I sat in the oldest pub in Tallinn, a very cool underground space, for a full quarter of an hour with no acknowledgement, so moved on. The place I ended up dining was a fashionable restaurant, chosen because it was not quite empty but it was pleasingly full by the time I’d done with my pepper steak.

Friday night in Tallinn is less pleasant – by 8:00 I’d seen one fight and run into lots of drunks. The woman running the hostel summed it up: lots of English men, looking for the cheap drinks and beautiful women (and yes, they were, very much so).

Two other cafes I liked a lot. One was underground
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The other was out of the Old Town, in a very new shopping mall, within a bookshop, a very cool bookshop as it happens, with such a wide selection of English fiction I felt compelled to buy a couple of books, along with some DVD’s. They had a different cafe on each floor, both making decent coffee and one doing proper meals, such as the very tasty lambsteak I had for lunch. Dunedin would be improved if it had a bookshop like this one.

The major part of Tallinn was built in the Soviet Era – they built half a dozen suburbs, apparently very planned and in the neoclassical style. I’d have liked the chance to go explore. In between those suburbs and the Old Town is the downtown area, a weird assortment of styles running from the medieval through 18th century wooden to early 20th century neoclassical to stark glass edifices, all cheek by jowl with each other.

I walked all over and around this building, I'm not even sure it is abuilding and not a monument
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and still have no idea what it is about – it showed very few signs of life, although it had the city heliport and a pleasant fountain
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A couple of its neighbours, I found amusing. The photo might be a bit small to reveal the sign on this old wreck
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but it is apparently the contemporary art museum. I remain a bit disbelieving about the sign on this place and all.
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Tarkovsky shot one of his movies here, Stalker, but I will have to wait till I get home to see if these are props: my nice bookshop didn’t have that on DVD but I found a copy on trademe.

I’d ventured out without a jacket, and was finding it a wee bit cool but not unpleasantly so, until I saw this
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This is probably the nicest part of Tallinn outside the walls
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Maybe I should have stayed in Tallinn for longer, because I really liked it. But the original plan had been to take a ferry back to Rostock in Germany, more of a short cruise than a ferry (it takes a couple of days) but it was going to cost a fortune, way more than I could think of spending. So I hopped on the ferry across to Helsinki. It was a bit like being in a floating night-club cum cocktail lounge - a bit odd at 9:00 in the morning.
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You'd think by now I could read a map, but i got way off course on the way to the hostel but eventually made it. Quite a big place, and iunlike any I've been in so far had big rooms with just two people in each. Kind of nice. Wandering back into town, I found a nice cafe called Engels Cafe opposite this church
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I sat and ate some wonderful meatballs and roast potatoes in a sauce which had fflavours I couldn't work out, a slight sourness and a hint of spice. I went for a general walk, but it was cold and I wasn't feeling 100% so it wasn't a very exciting day. Coming back into town for dinner, I caught the very end of the Easter Procession - they really make a show of it. There was some black and white film being shown, using the church as its screen. The steps were occupied by dancers and lots of candles, and somewhere there were some actors, acting out the resurrection, singing quite operatically as they did it.

Easter Sunday in Helsinki is quiet - almost everything is shut, all the shops, galleries and the like. There were cafes and bars, that was it. I think it was even colder than Saturday, so I didn't linger.

Since I knew I'd be travelling and not wanting to carry lots of books, I brought with me the first two volumes of The Forsyte Saga. Each is just under 900 pages, it is a trilogy of trilogies, so plenty to keep me going. I've seen it on TV of course, but never quite appreciated what a loathsome person Soames Forsyte is: his attitude to his wife is the same as to any other property, she's a chattel (or, at one point, an unnoccupied house ready for a tenant), yet he can't work out why she doesn't like him. The night he forces himself upon her is the end. The opposite strand of the Forsyte family is all kindness and sentiment, in Jolyon.

Posted by NZBarry 13:45 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

To Tallinn, via Norwich

sunny 10 °C

I was both relieved and a little queasy when I checked out the car in daylight: what had seemed to be a deep ridged scratch in the dark proved to be a line of birdshit. Eww! Leaving a bit after 8:00 it was a fairly slow drive to Southampton, lots of traffic making it so. I didn’t really panic until after I dropped the car off – only then did I realize it was due back at 10:00 and not 11:00. Makes a difference when you get to the Avis depot at 11:30.

Now the roundabout nature of my travels really took over – I caught a succession of trains to Norwich, where I stayed in a very pleasant Travelodge. I’m afraid I have little to say about Norwich, not because I didn’t like it, quite the contrary, it seemed very much like a place I’d enjoy, but because I was working quite hard – the deadline on my other project, although still months away, seems very close. So I got to see the shops near where I was staying, found a nice Italian place for dinner and that was about it.

Apart, of course, for my reason for being in Norwich in the first place. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I haven’t read as much Beckett as I should have, but enough to know the pleasure he gives me and Godot must be his best known work: it has been said to be the best play of the 20th century even though nothing happens, twice. Not only that, but the actors were a bit special as well: Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon. I had tried to see this a bit closer to home, at Malvern, but it had long sold out when I tried. Same for other places, like Milton Keynes, so I was pretty pleased to get anything at all for Norwich, even though it meant lots of tripping about. This, by the way, is what my friend from last week was so envious about.

My only regret is that I was a fair way back from the stage, so the finer details of their facial expressions was a bit lost to me. I’m not sure why I didn’t use the small pair of binoculars the Theatre Royal had thought to provide each seat with. But the play was brilliant, much funnier than I expected, given that it is about two tramps waiting for someone never shows up (I’m not sure that anyone today would go to this play not knowing that) and who are amusing each other while they wait – a “tragicomic allegory of the human condition”. Suicide is not far away at times. Beckett said he introduces the other two characters just “to break up the monotony”. I do wonder about Lucky’s one speech – an extremely long and incoherent monologue: does he memorise the same “narrative” or make it up on the night?

Anyway, it certainly made me feel pleased I took the time out to go to Norwich, even though it meant a fairly early start on Wednesday, so I could get down to Stansted and catch my plane: Easter in Estonia was the plan, and it provide to be marvelous. Easyjet did the job, getting through Tallinn customs was a breeze and I was on a bus into town in no time.

As always seems to be the way, it took me a while to find my hostel, despite having a map in my hand and a larger one on a placard in front of me. Perhaps if I had just looked around – it took a drunk sitting at the bus stop to point out that the rather large building across the road gave a vital clue to finding what I was looking for.

The hostel was quite unlike any I have been in. It looks fairly normal from the outside
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but inside, the hostel was basically a single living room – the beds were in the same space as the kitchen and the staff, who just kipped in whichever bed was spare. But it was warm and friendly.

The Lithuanian Embassy is directly opposite
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This must be pretty old,
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because they banned wooden buildings in the Old City a couple of centuries ago, because of worries with fire.

On my first night, I had a bit of a wander around the Old Town, had one of the worst burgers I have ever had (that’ll teach me for going to local competitors to McDonalds whenever I see one) and was beginning to wonder whether Tallinn was really the place for me. All doubts were dispelled over the next two days – my wanders had just taken me to the least interesting part of town.

It also revealed to me that there is a huge and fascinating bit of European history about which I know nothing. Tallinn wasn’t part of Estonia until the 20th century, didn’t have an Estonian Mayor until about 1916. The Danes were there first, then they sold it to the Hanseatic League, a German trading venture which prized Tallinn highly as a seaport - so it was basically a privately owned city and stayed that way until the mid 19th century. They put up buildings like this
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The Swedes came along and established the Lower (Old) Town was Danish, under a town council. All was surrounded by a wall
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Of course, Estonia was a bit of a football in the 20th century – the Russians took control, then the Germans, and then the Russians. It has only had independence since 1991 but is very much a place on the go.

I spent two days wandering, mostly in the Old Town, and could have easily spent another couple. Here is some of what I saw, as I wandered:
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The main street into the centre of Old Town is lined with bars and boutique shops and thronged with people
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It opens on to the Town Hall Square
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in which the Town Hall looks like none other I have seen
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The wikipedia page has a couple of nice panoamic images of Tallinn.

More next time.

Posted by NZBarry 12:48 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

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