A long leisurely ramble through the Baltics has been on my wish list for a very long time. Imagine a slow journey along the cool coast in the heat of summer, stopping not only at historic cities, but at beach resorts, nature preserves, and the many islands that dot the coast from St. Petersburg in the East, all away around to coastal Poland. Time seems to stand still, and yet is all too short. What a delight!
I didn’t get to do that. Instead I had five days tacked on to the end of a delightful family trip to Berlin. But hey, it’s a start. My journey began with cheap Easy Jet flight from Berlin to Helsinki, Finland. My plan was to do a quick overnight in this modern capital city, with a ferry out to historic Suomenlinna Island, which had been recommended by numerous friends. Little did I know when I booked my trip that two of the world’s premiere despots would decide to have a romantic tête-à-tête in Helsinki that same day, shutting down the city streets, trams and ferries.
I mean, it’s bad enough that your egos are quickly drowning the world. But messing up my vacation plans is beyond the pale.
Fortunately, the tiny bits of Helsinki that were not barricaded off still managed to charm. It’s a pretty city – clean, orderly, and full of friendly people. The airport train is fast & affordable when it’s actually running, and the islands looked gorgeous from a great distance. Mostly I just did this;
After a superb night’s sleep at the Hotel Indigo (seriously great bed), it was time to board the Gulf of Finland ferry and bid Helsinki farewell.
The ferry crossing turned out to be an unexpected highlight. Finns routinely take the ferry to Tallinn to bargain shop, especially for liquor. As a result, this 3-hour ride is a miniature party cruise with live music, cheap drinks, and a convivial atmosphere for the whole family. I met more friendly, funny people on that ferry crossing than in the rest of my Baltic visit combined. I’ll stretch it even further and say it was a three-hour summer camp, with sudden intense friendships and sad goodbyes. Okay, yeah, that’s a stretch. But it is fun!
From the ferry landing in Tallinn, it was just a short walk to my hotel on the edge of the old town. My first impressions were great.
I mean seriously, that’s a very pretty old town. Beautifully restored buildings, impressive fortifications, cobbled streets, unhappy-looking touts in medieval costume, kitschy torture museums, mass-produced “local” crafts, extortionate outdoor cafes, relentless hawkers…oh wait, this has started to go off the rails. Tallinn’s old town may be beautiful, but it’s a giant touristic cash machine. I recommend walking through briskly and then getting the hell out. I should in fairness say that there are a couple of well-hidden gems, like the wonderful Koht Bar and a pancake house called Kompressor. But not very many.
So I immediately activated my traditional plan B, and headed for the more interesting (and less tourist frequented) neighbourhoods. The first of these is the wonderful Telliskivi “Creative City”, a former industrial area taken over by galleries, food trucks, restaurants, bars, outdoor activities, and oh so many hipsters. This neighbourhood is so close to the old town, but with the main rail line in between, it feels a world away. I hung out there playing ping pong with strangers, drinking delicious local beer, and capped the evening with a fantastic and affordable French bistro meal.
Tallinn is an example of how Europe proves that good public transportation is possible even in small cities. Tallinn has a population of only 400,000, but there are frequent buses and trams that will take you anywhere. A 25-minute bus ride will take you to the gorgeous neighbourhood of Nõmme. This is a verdant old area full of beautiful homes and parks, with a wooded hiking trail that takes you to a mini castle, and a year-round farmers market. There are also coastal neighbourhoods like Pirita and Viimsi, with beaches, parks, and great restaurants, and only 15 minutes by bus or tram from the centre. In other words, as soon as I got out of the old town, suddenly my time in Tallinn seemed far too brief.
But a scheduled bus trip was waiting, and I was off to Riga. It’s a 4-hour ride in a modern, air-conditioned bus. And with a good book, it’s over before you know it. Arriving at the Riga bus terminal, you immediately know you are in a former Soviet republic – grey, concrete, full of despair. But I guess by that measure, all of the world’s bus stations are former Soviet republics.
That vibe continues as you walk along the riverfront towards the old town, where Soviet monuments – both literal and architectural – dominate. I made a beeline for St. Peter’s Boutique Hotel, a wonderland for connoisseurs of 1970s furniture and enormous spiders. It was also cheap, conveniently located, and run with almost Bucharestian indifference. At this point in my journey, I really needed to do some laundry, so looked up my options on the internet. There appeared to be only one – a laundromat run by a famously (according to the reviews) angry and unhelpful proprietress. And quite expensive at that. But I gave it a go. As advertised, as I entered the owner was yelling at a customer who seemed truly cowed by her ferocity as he stared at the controls of a fairly complicated-looking dryer. As she turned her attention to me, I gently indicated a washing machine and held up my bag. “All full! One hour you come back!” was her reply.
Not one to disobey orders, I retired to a nearby brewery for some liquid moxie, and then returned. I smiled at her, and she inexplicably did a complete 180, treating me gently and kindly for the next two hours we shared, largely in silence. She even helped me fold. I am a HIT with Latvian laundresses.
The Riga old town is another beauty, though a bit less Disneyed-up than Tallinn. It’s lively, as I think a lot of groups of binge-drinking Brits head here on weekends. I was ready to be disappointed, but Riga had some charms up her sleeve. The first was music. There were some great – and I mean great – local musical groups performing at the outdoor restaurants. I had dinner listening to a smoking rock-a-billy group absolutely tear it up while people (both in the restaurant and passers-by) danced up a storm.
The next charm was their amazing, enormous, diverse, enormous, delicious, enormous, and enormous farmer’s market. It’s big. The year-round part takes up four former zeppelin hangars, and the seasonal part of it takes up the surrounding acres. It’s so big and so densely packed that I couldn’t get a photo that properly expresses it. So just use your imagination for how big that might be, and then double it. And unlike North American farmer’s markets, the prices aren’t premium. This is where local Latvians shop on their average wages of only 886 Euros per month, and manage to eat really well.
The final charm is that, like Tallinn, when you leave the touristy centre, the city is rich with beautiful and/or creative neighbourhoods. And I guess that’s the secret to travel in Europe’s every more cookie cutter capitals. Cities have geared their old towns to the tourist trade – and how can they not when there are such dramatic economic benefits. But there is so much more to these places. And we’re getting to the point where many locals are rebelling against tourism, airBnB, worldwide chain stores, and the loss of cities’ traditional character. They’re not wrong. I still believe tourism is vital to promoting understanding between peoples, and understanding in general. But I think we can find some balance. I think local governments can set some reasonable limits. I like to think that I travel conscientiously, and seek out authentic experiences. At least I hope so.
So now, see, I got all philosophical. Here’s a pretty picture of a beautiful place in Riga. Cheers!