Friday 31 August 2012

Baltic Leaps and Bounds

We were really loading up on souvenir foreign notes now. Squirreling away a twenty Lithuanian Litas note for our world currency collection, we met our hostess and her young son on Kauno Gatve, before being led past a creaky staircase to the bottom of an even creakier birdcage elevator. Nervously and gingerly stepping inside, where our backpacks made for an awkward squeeze, the cables managed the rickety drag up three floors, where we passed through tall heavy wooden doors to our apartment for the next couple of nights. We took the stairs from then on.

Despite its aged appearance, the apartment came with some surprising features. For one, it had a fully furnished kitchenette, making me smile with eagerness. Cooking this year has been such a rare pleasure for me, so I raided the little local convenience store to whip up a couple of servings of a simple dish inspired from our time in Tuscany and a freshly cooked breakfast. Something to break up the stodginess of eastern european meat-and-potatoes.

Meat (slow-braised lambchops) and (mashed) Potato - Vilnius
Meat (3 types) and (baked) Potato - Vilnius
Secondly, this apartment had a fast internet connection. And I mean really fast. In fact, it had the fastest internet connection we had ever experienced in the world so far. As an unapologetic pair of Macbook-toting flashpackers with hundreds of large format photos to upload, families to video-chat with, and a tendency to leave crucial organisation efforts to last-minute online scrambling, we had developed a habit of checking the speed of every internet connection we came across. The record speed held by the bleak confines of a Vietnamese Communist government hotel room, had been unsurpassed throughout our journey so far, only to be well and truly trumped by this freaky-fast speedtest result:

Our World Record Internet Speedtest Results for an obscure Lithuanian apartment - Vilnius
Vilnius itself was a quaint city complete with Eastern Europe's largest Old Town harbouring the usual assortment of churches, town halls, public squares and streets lined with cafes and tourist shops. An interesting quest set by our guidebook was to head to the base of Gediminas Hill, find the tile marking the start of the Baltic Way in the midst of Cathedral Square, and perform some kind of clockwise-pirouette to gain a wish. I thought I found it, however the scarcity of other twirling tourists and an internet search led me to believe I may not have come across the right tile.

Cathedral Square - Vilnius
At any rate, the significance of this place was the fact that in 1989, a mind-boggling two million people joined hands to create an impressive 600 kilometre chain stretching from this square in Vilnius to Talinn in Estonia, in peaceful demonstration for the independence of the Baltic states. Can't help but admire that.

The withdrawal of the Soviet rule has also been credited with the demise of an efficient rail network within between the Baltic countries. Whether this was actually the case, the bus network was easy to navigate, with luxury wi-fi to boot!

It was to be a quick overnighter in Riga, so we cashed in some leftover Polish Złotych for Latvian Lats, dumped our bags at the hotel before hitting the cobblestone streets. Actually, there was a hell of a lot of cobble-stoning going on, and I really felt for the guys pedalling around trying to encourage tourists into what promised to be a bumpy European rickshaw ride.

Setting sunlight on Riga's alleyways
Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous sunny day, perfect for poking about the old and the new. We casually appreciated the tiny details that made the city pretty, such as overhanging lines of clothes drying above overflowing baskets of summer flowers, ...

Casual washing and cobbled-stone walking - Riga
In the flowers - Riga
... modern stonework accented with wrought iron lamps and cast iron posts contrasting with exposed brickwork and old timber, ...

Cobbled streets of Riga
Back alleys of Riga
... before scaling the tallest tower in town to capture a bird's eye view of it all.

The spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
Latvian Rooftop. View from the spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
Coloured Latvian Roofs. View from the spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
View from the spire of St Peter’s Lutheran Church - Riga
We settled for an evening of people-watching, observing the curious behaviour elicited from passers by a bronze pig/dog/cat/chicken statue, sipping beers and taste-testing shots of uh, medicinal Black Balzām, to take the edge off our cobbled-out legs.

Chilling with Latvian beer - Riga
A shot a day keeps the doctor away (allegedly). Herbal-tasting Black Balzām - Riga
Wolfing down a quick breakfast, we rode the morning bus out of Riga to Tallinn. It was unfortunate that we had already been through so many European "old towns" recently and so we struggled to find amazement in our surroundings - the speed of our journey and the sameness of each European "Old Town" had sapped our enthusiasm dry.

Beautiful Carved Wooden Clock, Holy Spirit Church - Tallinn
Artists and tourists on the walk up Toompea Hill for a view of Tallinn
Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
I suppose some things of note was how old some things were, how church architecture was starting to incorporate more Eastern Orthodox styling with their funky onion domes, and how rooftops were steepening in slope as we headed north, perhaps in anticipation of snowy winters. Clutching at straws here.

View from the Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
View from the Church of St Olaf - Tallinn
Estonia was the last of the Eurozone for us, so we burned our last Euros (bar one souvernir note) on some fancy French-Italian alfresco dining, trying to absorb some kind of energy and excitement out of where we were, to perhaps recreate that edgy tingle of displacement and foreign-ness that makes a traveller keen to continue exploring, but for some reason all we could arouse was bemusement at the dollop of fish-flavoured foam cresting my pasta, and a realisation that, my gosh there really are a lot of amber shops here!

We really need to just stop somewhere for awhile, go beyond a city's touristy old town, to have enough time to meet people and understand a place (I have not picked up a single Lithuanian/Latvian/Estonian word or greeting so far) before moving on. I really do not feel like we have done the Baltics justice at all, barely catching a whiff of it's essence, and it kind of upsets me. I hope our upcoming tour of Russia will be more satisfying.

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