Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Back to the Blog- Part I

After a (very) long hiatus for no good reason other than laziness and extended procrastination, I'm attempting to revive the blog.

It's been a crazy few months since September... starting with a Baltic trip to Latvia and Estonia... then Gothenburg, Sweden for a friend's birthday... Christmas in Dresden with my niece + her family... Brno (Czech Rep) for the hell of it... onto Vienna for Mozart and schnitzel...then a very full time Hungary for the New Year, finishing up with London last weekend for Sam's 30th.

Here's a quick rundown of some images, thoughts and observations of it all, beginning with the Baltic. I took this trip at the end of October with 4 Hungarians and an endless supply of vodka. We rented a car and took in the sights of the region.

All roads lead back to Riga: this odd city was the start and end point of the trip, and unfortunately we didn't have time to see much else of Latvia than Riga. However, it's a city worth visiting for its art-nouveau architecture, dumpling buffets, Russian market and cheap vodka. The only place I have been when the hostels advertise tours to fire rocket launchers in World War 2 bunkers. Ethnic conflict between the Russians and Latvians is still rather raw, in a country which has suffered so many occupations they even have a museum dedicated to it. Downsides: its popularity as a stag party town. And Black Balsam, a horifficly bitter tar-like liquor, invented by Latvians to torture tourists. Pure evil.

The majority of the trip was spend in Estonia and included:

* Parnu- a Baltic sea esort town in Western Estonia. We only spent one night here and the weather was incredibly bad, but it's supposed to be beautiful in summer. My addiction to metal-tubed Baltic mustard began here.
* Tallinn. It was my second time in Tallinn and it was as beautiful as the first time. Built on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, it is one of the prettiest cities I have been, with cobbled streets, stunning Russian Orthodox cathedrals. The hometown of Patsy the stuffed Dutch cat and Vana Tallinn (the sweeter and better Baltic rival to Black Balsam). Also home to the worst hot dog I have tasted in my life: soggy bun, cucumber and mayonaise! My coat still bears the scars.
* Paldiski. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paldiski .... One of the most bizarre towns I have visited. A former Soviet submarine base, it was nicknamed the 'Soviet Pentagon' as it was the most important nuclear facility in the Soviet Union. So important that the whole town was sealed off until 1994. Driving through the town is an eerie experience. Many crumbling relics of the Soviet past remain, grey and decaying. The town has little else than a pizza restaurant and more grey Soviet apartment blocks. The town has starred in 2 of my favourite movies- Lilja 4 ever and Tarsk pa Tallinn.
* Narva. Narva lies right on the Estonia-Russia border, and it's population is almost 95% Russian speaking. Most of the signs are in Russian and the supermarkets sell vodka by the crate. Narva's castle is mirrored across the river (the border) on the Russian side by another castle. Worth checking out, if only for the giant Lenin statue.
We found a hostel in the nearby Narva- Joesuu, where we enjoyed a 3am sauna, Estonian style.
* Tartu. Estonia's famed university town, and the second largest city in the country. A very pretty, quaint town, with a fantastic hostel, Hostel Terviseks! It also houses the toy museum (better than it sounds) and the KGB cells museum, where you can track the history of occupation in Estonia. Tartu was definately a highlight of the trip.

Verdict: The Baltic is beautiful and bizarre all at once. I would like to see it again in summertime.

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