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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

It's Baltic

LATVIA | Wednesday, 1 December 2010 | Views [785]

[We are sorry to report we are having technical difficulties, the blog will of course continue, but the laptop is snarled up and we may not be able to fix it until we hit the UK. Updates may be even further behind than usual!]

Here we are - in Schengen, free from visas and the expense, wasted hours and form filling that goes with them! In this wonderland, one can skip between countries without nay a border check, without even showing a passport.

Our 5 day romp through the Baltics was an impulsive decision based on very little research and a large dose of whimsy. It meant jumping through countries at a rate of knots and spending only a short amount of time in each of these picturesque capitals. But, gidddy with our new found freedom, that was half the appeal. That, and a budget dented from the days in Russia and Finland, we booked a cheap ferry to Estonia.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have a lot in common, and historically the borders have been very flexible. Lithuania of course was once a largest power in Europe, but that was a very long time ago. As tourist destinations, they are appealing with kitschy shops and pretty old town areas.

But it doesn't take much to see past the snow-sugar coating, they all have a difficult recent history, having been ripped apart and fought over by both Nazis and Soviets, rampaging through like children fighting over a prized toy and ripping it to pieces. The Nazis scorched earth policy left very little in tact, then followed the years of fear and scarcity under the Soviets. It's hard to beieve that it was only 20 years ago that they gained their independence. Images of a chain of people holding hands from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius to campaign for independence reflect the shared history, unity and similarities of these three countries.

We spoke to a couple of people along the journey about occupation and visited the Museum of Genocide in Lithuania. The Genocide Museum is a a well put together history of Lithuania's time under occupation and documentation of the numbers (and stories) of people who were killed, starved or forcefully re-located. Housed in the former KGB headquarters, it included a spooky execution room, an eavesdropping room, and access to the prisons and exercise area below.

One Lithuanian train companion explained that Christmas was banned in Soviet times because it was a religious festival (do you remember being told the Soviets would take away Christmas?), while a Polish girl told us her parents had not been able to learn Polish or proper history in school. Small examples of a living European history that is very different from ours.

The tensions between Russians and locals remain - in Helsinki we'd seen a short film about the removal of a Russian war memorial about 2 years ago, which ended in riots and deaths. Oli sensibly took the soviet badge off the Cherkessian hat.

As a tourist, the horrors are easy to forget while wandering around the chocolate box old towns. Especially in Tallinn, which was probably the prettiest with its turreted city wall and steeply gabled roofs. Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius would all fit nicely on a Christmas card, especially as they were iced in sparkly snow, and all played up their 'ye olde' atmosphere. Riga boasts some wonderful Art Nouveau, built in the 1920s with lovely stuccos of people hanging from the pillars and supporting window sills. Vilnius is home to a castle on a hill which was sadly shut when we got there. Everywhere we went there were Christmas markets with wooden stalls, gluhwein, sausages and all kinds of wooden toys, jams, and glittery decorations. Some of us were more taken with the festivities than others.

Food wise, the traditional Lavian food is very similar to the traditional Lithuanian and traditional Estonian food. All are heavy on the meat, especially pork, potatoes and pancakes. All have various red soups and pea/bean and bacon dishes. All go extremely well with beer. In Tallinn we ate snacks in Hell Hunt, followed by traditional food in front of a not so traditional dvd fake fire. In Riga we dined in a sadly empty medieval cellar on hunks of meat with potatoes and bread and in a xmas pub with yet another fake fire. Our favourite meal was probably a pub in Vilnius, where Oli devoured a huge hock of ham.

Money wise, we raced from Euros to kroons (which will probably have become Euros by the time we post this update), to Lats to Liti to Zloty, debating the exchange rates with every payment as the same cup of coffee seemed ludicriously cheap to one of us and expensive to the other depending on who'd lost the zero.

Our stomp through the baltics was at times baltic, with frequent back pack laiden trudges through the snow.  Old towns were also cold towns. We've lots of pictures of sun rising and setting, since it spends a couple of hours climbing up, hangs around for 5 minutes and then spends a couple of hours cllimbing down again. We didn't spend enough time there to do anything more than get a taste of each place, hopefully we'll be able to return one summer and see it all in the sun.

If you're going:

Central Hostel in Riga - very good, perfect staff.
Lux buses - wifi and good customer support for snow delays
Jumping Jack's in Vilnius - really childish hostel


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