Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Country 29—Latvia

I departed Tallinn for Riga, the capital city of neighboring Baltic country, Latvia.  Although I’d been to Lithuania and Estonia before this trip, I’ve somehow always missed the middle sister.  Go figure. Counting up, Latvia is now the 29th country I’ve been to in the world.  By the end of this trip, I’ll have hit 31 countries, (although I’ve still never been to Canada).

The Riga Old Town has some beautiful streets

And they open up into lovely little squares

The old Powder Tower was home to a lot swallows today

There were lots of beautiful church spires, too

I could have taken pictures of all of the buildings around town (and by the end of this post you may think that I did)

My host family in Akhalkalaki was especially excited that I was including Riga on my itinerary.  Host uncle, Pavlik, studied at the Riga University and Emilia and Akop took a long vacation to visit him and get him settled in at some point (I don’t know the exact date, but it would have been between 1989 and 1991).  Emilia would often reminisce about those days, about how difficult things were for the family then, and about how much she loved that vacation and Riga in particular. (As an aside for background, in 1988 there was a devastating earthquake in Armenia that also affected Akhalakalaki, then Emilia’s husband passed away in 1989 or 1990, while she had two sons in college.  It was a tough period, even without considering the 1991 collapse of the USSR, the only country Emilia had ever lived in.  Given all of this, I'm surprised she could keep it all together and move forward, but she did and this trip seems like it was one of the first highlights after a very dark, difficult time.)  I got tips from Emilia about what to see and do and where to eat, which the others would chuckle at, because things have undoubtedly changed in the 22-year interim.

Another beautiful square in the old town

An old wooden church that was burned down and reconstructed 8 times in its 400+ year history

The ruins of a synagogue.  Riga's Jewish population was almost completely decimated during WW2

Of course Riga has its nice, Stalinist buildings as well.  They call this one "Stalin's Birthday Cake"

Another cool old town building, now a bank, but with the coats of arms of all the regions of Latvia decorating the side

Emilia was absolutely right about one thing, though—Riga is a beautiful city, with lots to do, see and eat.  It has a very different feel from Tallinn.  It lacks the medieval wall and watchtowers, for starters, and has many more buildings with distinct styles.  From my Riga Free Tour guide, I learned that about 40 percent of the buildings are designed in the Art Nouveau style, thanks to a British mayor of the city in the early 1900s.  Like Estonia, Latvia has been invaded, conquered, occupied, and overrun for centuries, and has a lot of different cultural influences that have shaped it. 

A cool Art Nouveau building

The House of the Blackheads, an old German merchant guild house

St. Peter's Cathedral spire

One of the main parks.  There are apparently beavers living in this canal, but I didn't see any of them

In this park, it's tradition for newlyweds to lock a lock onto a bridge and throw the key into the canal, to symbolize that their union will never come undone

The parks were beautifully landscaped and overflowing with flowers

Laima is one of the biggest chocolate companies in Latvia.  The Freedom Monument is visible in the background

The flower market was incredible

Since I didn’t have the chance to do a day trip out to the countryside, I did the next best thing: I went to the Open Air Ethnographic Museum on the outskirts of town and spent a day wandering around.  The museum includes over 100 houses and buildings from all over Latvia, ranging in age from 500-100 years old, and typical of all different types of building styles across Latvia.  It helped that there was beautiful weather and a beautiful natural setting, and that the cafeteria served up really tasty traditional Latvian cuisine (I got a big bowl of beet soup with rye bread and a big plate of fried squash with carrot cream sauce, with a Latvian beer to drink) at non-museum prices (all of my food and drink together cost about $3) didn’t hurt either. 

The faux-baroque alter inside an 18th century church

The ceiling had paintings of angels playing drums

Typical grave markers for 18th century Latvia

A roadside Mary-Jesus monument that looks like it was made by the creator of Beavis and Butthead

There were lots of cool old houses and barns

I definitely prefer modern conveniences to 19th century peasant houses, but these were cool to see

It's hard to imagine how they moved all these buildings to the museum

Cool cross on top of one of the museum's churches

A locomobile!

They had an art display of old wooden carvings done by a Latvian from the western region of the country

A 17th century tavern

Self portrait by the lake

I’ve mentioned that I camped while in Finland, and I camped in Latvia as well.  The campsite in Riga is just outside of the Old Town, on an island in the middle of the river.  It takes about 15-20 minutes to get downtown, and for that small price I get some spectacular views across the river at the town.  The island itself is home to a bunch of 19th century fishing and shipping related buildings that have been transformed into some really swanky houses (or are awaiting renovation and high selling prices, I’m sure). 

One of the old wooden houses just begging to be renovated

Not too shabby a view from the campsite, huh?

In planning this trip I saw a lot of options to take about 2 weeks to bike through the Baltics, hitting up different natural wonders and cultural events, as well as seeing all of the major cities.  There have been a number of tourists doing this as I’ve made my more meager trip.  As I leave one country for another and continue my journeys, I’m already hatching a plan to come back and try out the Baltics-by-Bike adventure.  Maybe I can convince my brother to join me?

These buildings make up the central market of Riga, a very cool covered market where you can get all kinds of fresh produce.  The buildings were supposed to be zeppelin hangars, but once they started to crash and burn, the idea of housing a huge number of blimps suddenly became not so ideal, so they transformed the building into a bazaar

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Lahemaa National Park, Estonia

On Saturday, I signed up for a tour around the Lahemaa National Park in Estonia through my hostel.  I went out for a run in the morning and it was beautiful.  I congratulated myself on my forethought to choose this day to go out traipsing through a swamp and to the beach and so on.  My group was set to load up a van at 11am to leave, and at 10:59am it started to pour.  Great.  I had my raincoat packed, though, just in case, and we braved the cats-and-dogs weather.

We drove for a little while through the outskirts of Tallinn, talking with Richard, our tour guide, and getting to know the other 7 people on the tour.  Oddly, there was a group of 5 Canadian school teachers who had only just met one another because they happened to all sign up for some tour package through the Baltics and had been thrown together to travel for the past 8 days. It was just a weird Canadian coincidence that they were all teachers.

Our first stop on the tour (it was our second stop overall because everyone was hungry and asked to stop at a convenience market to buy some snacks) was the Jagala Waterfall.  I was expecting something really grand because this is supposed to be the largest waterfall in Estonia.  They call it the "Niagra Falls of the Baltics" for crying out loud.  This is it:

A HUGE Waterfall, right?

Well, not too huge.  Kinda not so big at all, in fact.

But it's taller than me, so it wins!

In asking about the falls, I did learn that they're usually much larger, but that there's been some drought conditions lately and that it's always biggest in the spring with the snowmelt.  Mostly, though, the tides make the biggest difference in the size of the waterfall.  We showed up at low tide, so the falls were small.  Had we been there later or earlier, at high tide, the whole shelf would have been falls, not just the little part we saw.  Weird, right?

Our next stop was an old manor house that had belonged to one of the ruling German royals during the 17th century.  It hasn't been inhabited for a long time and is falling into disrepair, but can be yours for the low, low price of 1 million euros!  (Our tour guide estimated it would be another 3-4 million euros to renovate the place and bring it up to being habitable again.)  Also, it's apparently a haunted manor house.  The ghosts get thrown in for free!

Some local kids in the art school made ghosts and put them inside the manor house windows.  Since no one really owns it right now, no one has cared to move them out.

After the manor house, the weather started to clear and we were able to go through with our hike through the big swamp.  Lahemaa is right near the Baltic Sea and has lots of marshland and swamps and bogs (is there a difference between those three things?  I don't know, but I like all three words).  There's a narrow single track walkway to help tourists make it through the swamp without ruining their shoes.  It was really beautiful.
Heading into a quagmire

There were some pretty pools throughout the swamp

They built a big watchtower in the center of the swamp so you can see further

It was an odd landscape, and strangely beautiful

There is one big pool that's really deep near the end of the swamp, and locals all go swimming there.  The water seemed clean, but was really dark.  It was still too cold for any of us to jump in.

After all the walking and talking we'd been doing, we were all hungry (even those who stopped for food at the convenience store).  We stopped at a traditional Estonian roadside tavern and ate some delicious food.

Estonian Cracker Barrel?

After lunch we drove by a renovated manor house.  This one charges a hefty admission fee, though, so we contented ourselves with some clandestine photos from outside the gates and skipped the tour.

Last of all, we headed out to the beach.  It was a breathtaking spot.  The mainland winds out to a little spit that becomes an island during high tide, but has a narrow path you can follow out to the end during low tide.  Our tour guide said he used to start this tour with this beach and would walk out with his groups to the end of the spit, but that after he got two tours stranded out there during the tide change his bosses won't let him take people out to the island any more.  He said it's really silly because you can actually walk back, as long as you take off your shoes and don't mind getting wet up to your thighs.  We just looked out at the island, though, and didn't risk the walk.

You can see the island in this picture: the little stand of trees in the back left

Apparently the big rocks are boulders deposited by glaciers at the end of the last ice age

I don't know what I was doing here, but one of the Canadian teachers took this picture for me

I came back into a dried-off Tallinn, and after resting for a little bit, took off wandering the city some more.  I spent the evening in the common room at the hostel, talking with a Dutch girl, an American girl, 4 Norwegians, and a Portuguese man.  The Norwegians decided quickly that Norway is the best country in the world because they've got the best drinking songs.  They then proceeded to sing all of their drinking songs to us, punctuating their cheers with chugs.  I ran into the group again in the morning, as I was getting ready to go out for a run and they were coming back from the bars.  I think I liked my variant better than theirs.

My hostel was just on the corner on the right, smack-dab in the middle of the old town.  Pretty decent location, I think.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Tallinn-- A Seriously Cool City

On Thursday morning I left Helsinki for Tallinn, just an hour-and-a-half ride across the Baltic Sea.  We landed in the Estonian ferry port and I headed into the Old Town to find my hostel and get settled in.  It was a beautiful day, and I spent the better portion of it just wandering around, completely enchanted by the medieval buildings.  I visited Tallinn once before, in 2006 during a short break from classes in St. Petersburg.  That visit happened in February, however, so I kept my aimless rambling to a minimum that trip.
Just after arriving in Tallinn

The main square in Old Town

Tallin's medieval wall, now complete with handicraft dealers

Old Town, Tallinn

Tallinn has, I've learned, the longest, most complete medieval wall in the world.  The red-shingled rooftops are incredibly beautiful against the sparkling blue Baltic when viewed from the (one) hill in town.
Skyline of Tallinn

Now with me, in true self-portrait style!

I took a tour of the city on Friday, led by a very bubbly and entertaining college student, who made sure to poke some fun at the Estonians and all the nations that have conquered Estonia at one point or another.  Even she was a little at a loss for words, though, when we came upon this wedding of a young wedding couple at the Russian Orthodox church at the top of the hill:

Just what every bride dreams of: getting a wedding photo taken with Shrek and Donkey.

I could have walked through the city for days and days.  I did, in fact, do a lot of walking.  It's a good thing I did, too, because Tallinn has a fantastic cafe culture, with a different cute boutique coffee shop on each corner.  And I just wouldn't be a very good, responsible tourist if I didn't test out a cup of coffee and chocolate rum cake at each one, now would I?  So, yeah, I ate a lot of cake.  Good thing I walked a lot, too, to counteract it.

The Katherine Passageway

Another view of the city wall

The Tallinn Flower Festival was ongoing, and local landscapers had all set up cute little concept gardens all around the outside of the wall.  This one looks like it belongs in a Chilko household, doesn't it?

The flower festival just added to the beauty of the city

And I just realized that I haven't loaded up all of my pictures, so stay tuned: I've got more pictures from Estonia coming soon!