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Welcome to the Exotic Hanseatic Days!
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The Russians are back and this time they're welcome!
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Exotic Hanseatic Days is the event of the year in Tartu
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Clowning around

At breakfast, in the outside courtyard, three bikers were already getting pretty drunk and looked set to remain that way for the rest of the day. It nearly turned into a fight when one of them was messing around trying to push one of the others from his bench. The other guy reacted suddenly and had his drunk mate pinned against the wall in a flash. It looked like he was used to the odd fight by the way he had reacted.

Baltic buffet breakfasts have scored a hit with me: tasty dark bread, herring, gherkins, onions and sour cream, along with the usual cheese and ham fare. Before heading into town we arranged to swap rooms for a cooler one overlooking the courtyard and got some much-needed laundry with the hotel (too lazy to find a launderette). We spent a bit more time at the hotel, me writing my diary in the hotel courtyard, Ness sorting out stuff in our room.

We had hit Tartu at a very opportune time as it was the annual Exotic Hanseatic Days festival, a weekend of medieval fairs, the highlight in the Tartu calendar. We soon found out how much people got into the spirit of it when we walked into the town centre. Ness had already had a taster of this yesterday of course. Lots and lots of little stalls and stands, selling all kinds of things but with a medieval theme, with suitably dressed up stall owners and a good many people wandering around in medieval costumes on their way to or from somewhere. We had a map in the festival brochure which showed that there were four different areas around town where things were happening. All this was aside from the fact that Tartu itself looked like a lovely old town, with a cobbled market square and an imposing town hall, and imposing, colourful but understated merchant houses, not like the baroque of Gdansk’s ul. Durga.

Rough Guide told us that Tartu is Estonia’s second city, but it reminded me more of, say, Wageningen in the Netherlands, or Hameln in Germany, provincial medieval market towns. A stage had been erected at the main square in front of the town hall. When we first hit it there was a large group on stage led by a jester, who were doing their best to get the crowd going with a bit of audience participation, chair dancing, like aerobics. Our festival brochure included a timetable of performances and events taking place throughout the town.

We headed down to the riverfront in time to see bikers parade, big shiny motorbikes, the single non-medieval event. From her we walked through a green square/parky bit which had lots of kids activities, including a jumpy-up-and-down-contraption, and then went for a drink and a bite at one of the rows of food stalls. After waiting a long time in the queue at the Armenian shaslik stall we gave up and instead went to the Irish Wildlife Café one and had sausage and fried potatoes, very tasty. Across the river was another area with various crafty bits such as a blacksmith. A replica ballista was launching bucketloads, filled with harmless water. Some musicians on a small stage below the trees, and there was dancing, women in traditional Estonian dress, and the Estonian equivalent of the British Morris men, etc.

Back across to the main town we took a wander through another area, which was more low-key, with various handicrafts and plenty of opportunities for kids to get involved. This took us through some lovely old town streets. It’s a colourful beautiful town, and it’s also quite obvious that there has been a lot of energetic and sympathetic restoration, from days of Soviet neglect. We headed back towards the area where the main action was taking place, to the area behind the town hall where on a small stage there was a succession of traditional acts, dirgey Estonian singing, a Russian women’s choir, Uzbek dancing and singing, Chuvash singing and dancing (from a region deep inside central Russia), etc. It also made you realise that whilst Estonia may now be a paid-up EU member, facing west these days, that for a long time, and even now, it also has an eastern face. Older people especially seemed to recall the memories of bygone days as members of Mother Russia.

We had another bite from a stall, a beer and a plate of sausage and potatoes, and then took a look at the baby goats, the pigs and the rabbits and tiny ponies, and from here made our way to the main square again, where after a little looking we found some good seats at a café from where we could continue to watch the acts, including an excellent Russian trio and singer. Balalaika, guitar and accordion. They spoke Russian and found a resonance with the audience. There were many other acts, including the same Estonian dancers we had seen earlier and more of the same kind, and also the Uzbeks and Chuvash dancers, although they looked a little lost on the bigger stage, and it didn’t help that the wind whistling across the microphones now and then produced a booming rustling sound. Belly dancers, two clowns, and more. We stayed here for a while, drinking beer, until they closed the main stage, around 8-9pm.

We knew there would be some fireworks and some sort of parade around midnight, but weren’t sure whether to stay out that late, especially as suddenly a lot of the entertainment was shutting up, so we started walking back, had another bit from a food stall, and walked back along the main road to our hotel. Away from the old town Tartu was a mixture of sparkling new bits, such as the shopping centre and a gleaming office tower, as well as white-brick apartment blocks – they do look tidy but you know it’s constrained living in unimaginative dull surroundings. Oh, and the cars on the roads, not just here but pretty much everywhere we’ve been so far, from the eastern parts of Germany through Poland and the “Baltics”, but especially the latter, the traffic consists of a lot of second-hand Audis in various states of second-handness, as shown by the model as well as the odd assortment of tyres, etc.

At our hotel we a final coffee and vodka in the courtyard. The other customers consisted of a large group of thirtysomethings, someone’s birthday party. Whilst there was another two-piece playing none of them got up to dance, too self-conscious too look untrendy in front of their friends. The only ones who did dance were an elderly couple and one of the drunk bikers with his female friend. The two-piece left early and the large group started a quiz or something, with the birthday boy orchestrating. They just seemed so much more serious than the older people from the other night. They carried on until quite late, but by the time we hit our beds we were too tired and pickled to notice the noise much.

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Estonian Smurfs?
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At Lake Peipsi, Europe's fifth largest lake
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Traditional Estonia

Today we went for a bit of a tour of some “typical” villages scattered along the western, Estonian, shore of massive Lake Peipsi, Europe’s fifth largest lake. The eastern shore lies in Russia, and the border runs through the middle of the lake. We started the day slowly, a relaxed breakfast by the courtyard, and got ourselves ready to go out, also making use of the free wireless connection.

Then we drove out of Tartu and headed northwest along the small rural roads, through some beautiful countryside. Unspectacular but beautiful flat rural landscape with golden waving wheat fields (imagine Canada like this!) as well as green fields, from olive green to rice-field green, and lots of slender thin silver birch trees. We passed a farm building of some kind which looked like a big mushroom.

The first village we came to was Kalaste. We turned off the “main” road and into the village, which at first sight looked rather deserted. Pretty coloured wooden houses surrounded by small plots of veggies, onions, cabbages, etc. and usually at least one apple tree, sometimes even a little mini orchard. Other houses were more ordinary but still exuded rural calm. We parked at the empty main square, with a large and official looking town hall-cum-police office-cum-everything else on one side looking in need of a fresh lick, and across the green square another similar building, a school perhaps. At the end of the square we could see the lake. The other shore, the Russian side, was completely out of sight, and it reminded me of the Great Lakes in Canada, an inland sea rather than a lake. A few other daytrippers were around, but we all but had the place to ourselves. No terrace cafés here, in fact nothing even resembling a shop. There was a small cliff, five metres or so, that backed onto the rocky and sandy beach, and we found some rickety steps leading down to it and strolled up and down. A few people, probably just locals, were sat on the beach and kids were mucking about.

It wasn’t exactly toe-dipping territory, with slimy rocks and organic stuff along the waterline. Very clean but not conducive to paddling, and I seem to recall a pretty wiffy, boggy odour that accompanied it. After a short stroll up and down we left again, got in the car and slowly cruised round, back to the main road and then we realised we had probably missed the main village, and took another loop round, into more inhabited parts, with a few locals and workmen, their eyes following our car “with the steering wheel on the wrong side”, and some very typical looking locals here and there, like the little old woman sat on a bench in front of her house, with her head covered with a shawl, and the wild-haired ginger/blond beardy guy in overalls and leaning on his pitch-fork.

We to’d and fro’d a few times, in search of decent pictures and whatever sights Rough Guide had mentioned. Failing to find it we carried on to the next village, Kolkja. At the turn-off for the village we first went to the nearby castle, Alatskivi. A small castle, more a manor house, modelled on Balmoral, and still in the process of being restored. There was a steady stream of visitors and for a fee of ??? EEK we were free to wander round. Most of the house was still in a lamentable state of half-ruin and utter neglect, but a lot had already been done and some parts were totally restored, giving us an idea of what it might look like when finished, very swanky. It did make me wonder what use places like this were put to during the Soviet years. Next we took a short drive round the village of Kolkja, this was more of the same, even more so, looking even more “typical”. In fact it was here that we saw the little old lady sat in front of her house, one of the few locals.

These villages were still home to some so-called Old Believers. Another pocket of an unusual population, along with the Setu in Estonia’s south-eastern corner. I was hoping for some good “people pictures” but there simply weren’t that many people around. Besides just cruising through these villages, without (thankfully!) any tourist shops or cafés, we weren’t really sure what to “do” so we just continued to tour round and back to the main road, and then back to Tartu.

The countryside, well, more of the same really, beautiful, etc. In many parts there are sections of road that are being upgraded. It’s only a minor inconvenience for us as there is so little traffic that trundles along. Other bits of tarmac are still rather lumpy with the odd bump or hump. We returned to our hotel in Tartu, making a pitstop at the McDonalds in town, “naughty but nice”. After that we were quite happy to spend the evening at the hotel and not go out into town again. We did stuff, pictures, diaries, reading, and had dinner at the hotel restaurant later on and an early night.

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Tallinn's main square

We had our final “push” north today, to reach the most northerly point of this part of our incredible journey (I checked and it’s also the northernmost point of our entire trip). We left agreeable Tartu, and onto the smooth Estonian roads we drove north-west. Along the way we passed through yet more lovely gentle Estonian landscape, with what I have started to call “Baltic skies” overhead, consisting of intense blue today with some puffy white clouds marching off overhead, curving down towards the horizon, in similar fashion, on a small scale, to Southern Africa, especially Namibia. Golden wheat fields, green ripening grain, fields of yellow flowers (rapeseed?) Jasper was sat on the dashboard, and we were playing the Russian CD, bought at Tartu from the Russian musicians. The passionate Russian melodies were a perfect accompaniment to the scenery that was floating by.

After driving several hours we arrived in Tallinn, and made our way through the roadworks into the town centre. It was very useful to have the thick Insight Europe Atlas with town plans in the back! Tallinn looked rather like Vilnius, a different layout but the same combination of medieval town surrounded by more recent areas around it. We could already see a variety of towers and churches but focused on getting a hotel sorted first and parked near the tourist info office. They couldn’t help with accommodation but at the Booking Estonia office just down the road we were quickly fixed up with a hotel, near the old town and reasonably priced, that’ll do nicely. Without further delay we drove to the hotel, just outside the old town area and right by the railway station. It looked rather boxy in that clean modern way, cheap and no frills. I wasn’t too impressed with our town “view”. From our second floor (i.e. first floor, but here the first floor is the ground floor, ok?) we basically just saw some trees and at the front of the hotel were very close to the noisy traffic, and was close to suggesting we swap or something, but having checked in that would been tricky so left it.

After dumping our stuff (Ness “Beccie’d” me again – it’s the game we play at each hotel, whichever one of us manages to get their toilet bag into the bathroom first) we went for a walk into the old town. Of course it was still very sunny, pleasantly warm, somewhere in the mid-twenties at most and with a nice little breeze, and we could count on daylight until at least ten o’clock, probably later than that.

Through little park, lying below the cliffs on top of which lay the upper town, the past preserve of Tallinn’s rich, and along some cobbled streets with a sympathetically restored old houses which wound and meandered into the centre of the old town, and led naturally to a large main square. In true touristic fashion there were cafés with terraces on decking platforms arranged round several sides of the medieval square. Houses were painted in varying pastel colours, and tourists wandering around the square. We picked a café, waited for a while but after not getting any attention swapped to the terrace next to it and ordered drinks, then realised that the prices were exorbitant (up to £4 for a pint), and quickly downed our drinks in disgust. A lovely setting but the blatant pricing left a rather sour taste. On the little side streets surrounding the main square there were more cafés, not wall to wall, and we noticed that the price level for a pint had dropped to a more acceptable 35EEK (£1.75), compared to 75EEK earlier.

We strolled along some of the old streets, admiring the beautiful old buildings and stopped for another beer, and a snack, at terrace on a small triangle in front of a church, the Hell Hunt bar, which had its own very tasty beer. For tonight we felt more like going to the pictures than just going for another meal + drinks, and after checking with the waitress about cinemas we made our way to the aptly named Coca-Cola Plaza, just outside the old town, to go and see the just released Pirates of the Caribbean. As a new blockbuster, everyone wanted to go and see it and there was a nice buzz, people queuing for the tickets. Armed with a bucket of popcorn we trooped into the cinema and enjoyed the film, not as good as the first one but not bad either. After the film we sauntered back to our hotel, neither of us really hungry and quite happy to head straight for bed.

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Estonian parliament. What's Estonian for "casa rosada"?
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Tallinn is open for business
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Cyclos, Estonian style

Breakfast was in the hotel restaurant above the train concourse. The Go group which owns the hotel has several other businesses all joined up, including the restaurant which I think also functions as the station cafeteria, besides a travel agency, a spa-cum-hairdresser, and various others. The train tracks run just behind the hotel, although there are so few trains you’d hardly know it. Along the walkway and corridor, past the connecting bridge, there are some old black-and-white pictures of the station. Especially interesting were the ones from the Soviet 70’s and 80’s. Now it’s totally transformed into a smart stylish station with lots of straight lines, white, and a wi-fi zone. The restaurant had a red colour theme, with a tour group atmosphere. Along the way I made an appointment for a haircut tomorrow morning. Before going into town we asked whether we could swap rooms for one on a higher floor and/or at the back of the hotel as we both slept rather badly due to the fumes and noise from the traffic.

We walked through the small area of parkland across the road, below the upper town, Toompea, and took the steps that climbed up to the higher lying upper town, behind the parliament building. At the top we had a good view over the port side of town, not the old town which was behind us, but looking out towards the Baltic Sea. Below us was a pretty city, green, and with fresh clear blue skies and, despite the summer heat, a nice fresh breeze which made us resort to our fleeces. The small area of the upper town had some quiet cobbled streets and grand houses, simply and soberly decorated, in many cases now housing embassies. We took a look in the imposing Lutheran Cathedral. Inside there were large ornate coats of arms fixed to the walls, and rather than pews or chairs there were enclosed rows of benches, which reminded us of the “snug” at the Barley Mow pub off Baker Street in London.

Lots and lots of tourists, being escorted round in tour groups, some with colour-coded hats. Girls were selling Tallinn guidebooks and we didn’t expect their sales patter. “Look, nice guidebook”, etc. Further along we visited the onion-domed Nevsky church, with richly gilded inside decorations and a wall of icons, and a small service was being held off to one side. Across from this was the parliament building, rather like the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires but a more medieval version, or parts of it at least. Round the corner was a small green area, and a tower at one end, and a “perfect” bench for bums, with sunshine all day, and a nice curvature to it so if you lay on it you weren’t in danger of rolling off asleep/drunk! From the upper town we made our way along Pikk Jalg into the centre of the old town, stopping for a coffee at a small café in a little side courtyard.

We continued to walk around the old town, roughly following our Rough Guide, and ambling in and out of little cobbled streets which opened to reveal surprising or interesting perspectives, more old buildings, turrets and walls, a lovely city to stroll around. As it was Tuesday most museums, or at least the ones we were interested in, were closed so that rather limited our options but we were content to just stroll around and soak up the atmosphere of old Tallinn, also advised by our Rough Guide that away from this central area Tallinn wasn’t all that picturesque, more an urban anonymous area of concrete blocks. We spotted a café called “Svejk”, with a picture of the little soldier, and stopped for a beer, an excellent Czech beer, and a plate of tasty meatballs.

At some point we ended up on the main square, just in time to see the line-up of a vintage rally, with an eclectic assortment of cars, from a very large shiny American car with massive tail fins (a Cadillac?) to a lovely MG-A, a large solid black Volga, a US army jeep (WWII?) and many more. We were just in time to see them get ready to head out of the square. So, we ambled along just admiring the views and atmosphere. There were rows of stalls against the old town walls, selling woollens and knitwear and stuff. One of the town wall towers was a huge round squat solid tower called “Fat Margaret”. From here we passed a smart hotel housed in a trio of lovely large old houses, “The Three Sisters”, and gradually made our way back towards the train station and our hotel. We took care of swapping rooms first. Much better, cooler, with air-con and a view.

A bit later we went out again as we had figured we had enough time to visit the Ethnographic Museum (which was open on Tuesday, until 8pm!) Rather than drive there we decided to take the bus. Nothing should have been easier as the bus went there directly from the train station, but it seemed we had just missed one and had to wait a long time, half an hour or more, for the next one. We sat on the little bench by the stop, watching other buses come and go, trams trundling behind us and in proximity to the train station, which made me long for the bus journeys over the past year. It made me reflect on how much of a part of travel your mode of transport is, and there is no more direct and immediate way of connecting with a country than to use the bus or train, what used to be called “public” transport. Of course, travelling by car has many rewards too: we can go where like when we like, we can stop to take pictures, we can turn back if we missed something, we can easily change plans, but even so, seeing the buses and sat here at the stop I was just imagining for a little while we were “back on the buses”. Oh, they’re buses with overhead power cables, trams without rails, that kind of thing. In this world the Soviet legacy is lingering a little longer I believe.

Finally our bus turned up, and we validated our tickets, with help from an older Estonian woman, and the bus took us to the outskirts of Tallinn and through some areas of leafy lanes with smart large villas set among pine trees. At the Ethnographic Museum, an open-air collection of recreated old Estonian farm houses, much like the Acadian village in New Brunswick, there were tour buses lined up outside. Just as we were going in several large groups filed out. There was a sing saying farm buildings would close at 6pm but we soon found out that everything had already started to close earlier than that. Fortunately not the old inn, a solid wooden log cabin, very rustic and fortunately now also devoid of large groups, just us and a few others. On the background played some low-key rural ditties over the speakers, a man singing and burbling in Estonian with the accompaniment of an accordeon, and you could almost imagine a beardy local sat in the corner. We ordered at the low window, two glasses of cider, a bowl of bean soup and of bread soup, the former a tasty broth, the latter more like apple sauce, both very tasty, as was the light and fizzy cider. Two Russian women and their kids were the only other customers, although a few walked in and out. After this we walked round the park, a mock village with paths through the green trees and various buildings and enclosures here and there, all closed, only just, and we only got a quick peek in the little wooden church before that too closed. Never mind, by now we were quite tired anyway and just glad to just stroll around and take pictures of the buildings. I don’t think there would have been period actors here, only exhibits of old tools and furniture.

We caught the bus back to the station and spent some time in our room working on diaries and internet, before going out for the evening. Rather than head for the obvious, mega-touristic and pricy main square area of the old town, we went for an area on the edges of the old town and found a cellar bar. Only the door visible at street level, but below was a large and welcoming beer cellar. We settled at a nice table, and most (or at least some!) of the customers did appear to be locals, Tallinners rather than tourists. I had a mega beer, a litre stein, and tasty food, pots with bacon, peppers and cheese for Ness, and I had a nice pork chop with blue cheese pots and Ness’s salad which had ended up on my plate. A super day out, and super night out to wrap it all up. Love Tallinn! Love Estonia!

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Lahemaa national park, along the northern coast of Estonia
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Excalibur? Here?
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After breakfast I had my hair cut, well… number two’d, and felt fresher for it as it had been long overdue. Today we had planned (and did) a day at the Lahemaa national park, along the north coast of Estonia, a short drive to the east of Tallinn. We drove out of Tallinn on the main road/motorway in the direction of Narva. This took us through some stretches of anonymous apartment blocks, on a wide road with three lanes each-way. If it wasn’t for the poorly marked pedestrian crossings you could have mistaken it for a motorway. A legacy of Soviet town planning. They haven’t got round to “restoring” this bit which the tourists don’t see. The road was smooth in parts, and lumpy with tracks in others.

Out of town we were back into forest, fields, and further on we reached the turn-off into Lahemaa national park. It was not a national park in the strict sense of the word. More a mixture of different types of “zones” with only 0.1% of the relatively small area designated as strict wilderness and 18% as “special management zone”, with the majority as a rural/agricultural zone supporting “sustainable economic activity”. We drove to the little village of Palmse, a grouping of a few houses and a manor, and a visitors information centre. This was excellent, in Canadian terms, with a friendly lady who suggested some trails. We bought a hiking map and watched a fifteen minute slideshow with some stunning nature photography. I wish I could take pictures like these, of mysterious greens with early morning autumn mists, intense clear blue still lakes reflecting the landscape above, and fantastic close-ups of plants, flowers, berries, animals, and beautiful seascapes, aerial photos of the fingers of the peninsulas jutting out into the Baltic with seabirds and reeds. The only other visitors were a group of six grey-haired Germans.

After the slideshow we went across the road to the pood, the shop, which had some basic supplies for camping and picnics. Well, quite a decent selection actually for such a small shop. We bough some black bread rolls, cheese and sausage, and two patties of something, along with some juice, water and fruit. Then we got back in the car and drove further into the park. The woman from the visitors information centre had suggested a few short hikes in different areas.

First stop was a small village on the point of one of the four peninsulas, Kasmu, also known as The Captain’s Village. There used to be a maritime school here and a lot of the graduates chose or ended up living here, or something like that. It felt more like a quiet secluded summer village rather than a national park. Well, a collection of summer houses at any rate. We parked at the end of the road, by the pine trees. There were several other cars as well as two coaches. We were clearly not the only ones here! Off to our right, wandering along the path, was a small bay off the Baltic, with a shoreline with reed beds and lots of scattered boulders of varying sizes, “glacier pooh” as Ness calls it. The path was sandy, threading through pine and birch trees, and there was a bit of a fresh breeze, just enough to lift the head and make things comfortable. One of the features of Lahemaa are scattered boulders lying all over the place. Some are enormous solid lumps of stone, twenty or more metres in diameter, and over five metres high.

We followed the coast round to the west, now looking out across the Gulf of Finland, a chunk off the Baltic. There’s a fringe of organic flotsam, just twigs and grass and stuff, which floats in the water along the shoreline, making it unappealing to dip toes in many places. There’s a line of this stuff which lies drying a little higher up, and the combination results in a very boggy pong, not everywhere but in most places. We cut inland, into the forest, to follow the “yellow” trail (after having doubled back once already) and felt hotter among the pine trees without the benefit of the sea breeze. We saw more boulders, wandered around on what we though was the trail but turned back when it petered out, and completed the circuit to bring us out into the southern end of the village.

There was a little chapel, now bare but with several panels with black-and-white portraits of the villagers, with some interesting faces among them. These gave the clearest indication we had had of Estonia’s Scandinavian relations, well, they just looked more Scandinavian than Slavonic. Some little houses with plants, people pottering about, but no “village” as such, just a strong out settlement. Along the waterfront there was a rather old-fashioned summer camp type set-up, a mini “Hi de hi” Butlins affair, probably a legacy from the Soviet days. A group of several large wooden buildings, dorms maybe? The layout just made you think of early morning calls for exercises, etc. A knackered swimming pool lay empty. We had a drink, berry juice, and a snack (me) of rather off-smelling herring bits with tasty yellow spuds and sour cream. By a shed an old “Russian” lorry was parked. It all just added up to a little time-warp.

We returned to our car, and drove on to the next suggested area for a walk. A small car park at junction and a statue of a large wooden sword. A short little walk brought us out by a greenish river, and a bit further along a tiny waterfall/weir, nothing more. The scenery here was just green woods and after taking a few pictures we returned to the car and drove on. The next stop was towards the western part of the park, an area with peat bogs. We parked the car along the road and walked through the pine trees and to the start of the boardwalk that led into, and eventually across, the bog. Ness quickly felt uncomfortable, in the knowledge that a wrong step could land us into the bog and potentially into trouble. I was less troubled about it but it did feel odd to know that effectively we were walking on a big sponge. 90-95% of the surface below our feet consisted of water, even though it looked like forest.

The further we walked into the bog, the wetter it got, with areas of shallow “lakes” on either side, with lower trees and stunted growth, mosses, and an altogether unusual atmosphere. We carried on until we reached some kind of viewing platform that had been erected at one of the still bodies of water and then walked back, all in all a good 5km walk (the earlier walk had probably been about the same length). We drove through the western part of the park, back towards the motorway to Tallinn, but somehow we missed the junction and drove a little more along the small country lanes before finally getting back on the main road and re-entering Tallinn’s suburban sprawl of apartment blocks.

After returning to the hotel and relaxing we went out in the evening back into the old town. We went to a “famous” but touristy beer hall, a large drinking establishment on a side street off the main square, with its own micro-brewery and lots of large heavy wooden tables, some with their own beer taps. We sat near the gleaming copper vats and had several of the beers (Helles Golden and the Spezial, a honeyed, sweeter one) and tasty nosh. Feeling very good after a lovely day out. Both in relaxed moods, and the sun is (still!) shining, a super day!

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Catching the ferry to Saaremaa
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Kaali meteor crater

After a tasty Baltic breakfast (herring!) we tried to arrange a hotel in Kuressaare over the internet but had no luck, frustratingly (sites that only provide the facility to “send a request”). Anyway, we hit the road again, making our “turn” and now beginning to head south, slowly.

Today we headed out to the island of Saaremaa, off Estonia’s west coast. It was smooth, pleasant but also a little boring, monotonous driving along Estonia’s smooth low-traffic roads. After a couple of hours we reached the ferry crossing, where there was a long queue of traffic. I got out to see how far it stretched. It was long and stationary, although some cars were zipping along the inside (opposite traffic lane), bypassing the queue, local traffic or booked ahead, or more likely queue jumpers – the latter were sent back. I played a little dumb and bought tickets at the little kiosk and walked back with them, reckoning that in this way we could go in the “booked ahead” queue. At least Ness had moved ahead significantly in the meantime, and with a little queue jump of our own we were soon parked ready for the next ferry and went into the rather grey 70’s style building for the toilets and a drink and snack. It reminded me of the little ferry to Schiermonnikoog, this little place. After waiting patiently we finally boarded the next ferry, a mid-sized thing. We found a spot on the front, outside, where conveniently there was a small coffee stall, and we just let the wind blow pleasantly over us, having dug out our fleeces in anticipation!

Saaremaa wasn’t far, less than half an hour, and clearly visible the whole time as a low strip of green landscape. On arrival we first tried to buy return tickets but just came away with a booking confirmation, and then we drove the length of the island, towards Kuressaare, the principal town on the island, on its south-eastern, “inside”, shore. The scenery en route was green, more of the same though with hardly any agriculture or industry. In fact, it was rather like driving through a national park. Like all good Estonians we stuck largely to the speed limit and trundled along.

Halfway we made a stop and a small detour to go and have a look at a little sight, an oddity, the small meteorite crater at the tiny village of Kaali. There was a small touristic complex consisting of a little museum, which we ignored, and a café and some stalls, and plenty of visitors. Cars from the usual countries – other Baltic countries, Poland, Germany (naturally), Finns. The crater was a short walk from the village main street, a curious formation of raised hillocks surrounded by trees, and a small green pool at its centre. The water was low, revealing rocks around the edge, but in the wet season the pool would more than double in diameter and depth. After taking a look at the crater we had a drink at the café and then continued on our way to Kuressaare.

Earlier we had called one of the hotels listed in our Rough Guide, and had booked ahead, taking the pressure off a bit. The “hotel hunt” is sometimes a pain, but in high season even more so. We arrived at Kuressaare before I had any idea, travelling through the grey dull outskirts of a town. I was just thinking “I'm glad Kuressaare won’t be like this!”, glad it was just somewhere we were passing through, when Ness told me we should be keeping an eye out for our hotel. Fortunately the town centre was far more attractive, with far fewer of the Soviet-style apartments and charming colourful old buildings, some single story wooden affairs, others grander. We found our hotel, the Arensburg, along the quiet main street, a smart elegant place, thoughtful without being “chic”, more comfortable and a place to feel at home. The room was rather small, as Rough Guide had warned, but it was still a good deal. Eddie was parked at the back, looking out over the gardens. We unpacked, “Beccie’d”, and went downstairs for a drink, and ended up staying at the hotel, not too bothered about exploring the town (it looked pretty small) but preferring a good meal and an early night to be fresh for a day of walking tomorrow. In the end we still had a fair amount to drink and a super meal, sat on the patio outside. The staff came round with blankets for our legs, another thoughtful touch. Nice place to have reached at the end of the day.

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Leaning lighthouse on Saaremaa
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Nope, it's not water - not much call for it here!

We had an early-ish start and another excellent “BB” (Baltic Breakfast?) in the elegant homey but very simple dining room. Then we drove north-west towards the small Vilsandi national park, along Saaremaa’s Baltic coast. Along quiet and small empty roads through the forests – pine and birch I guess – and we headed for the park info centre. No-one here but the door was open and we made enough noise to attract a girl who was very helpful suggesting a good walk and sold us a map. With her directions we managed to find the start of the walk, along gravel paths that snaked through the fields and past some abandoned old wooden farm houses. Maybe they weren’t all abandoned but there was no feeling active agriculture here. Pretty corn blue flowers and deep-purple thistles along the road, with golden yellow grain providing a nice backdrop. The scenery was very much like heath land, with sandy soils, pine trees, low shrubs. Shame it was a little overcast today, muting the colours, but also making it better weather for walking. Without the girl’s directions we would have had a tough time to find the start of the walk – at several forks there was no indication what direction to take.

At the barrier across the gravel path we parked and set out on our walk. The first part was through pine forest along a wide white gravel path, flat, making for good walking. It felt good to stretch our legs, and walked up a bit of a sweat. The trees got shorter, the path curved a little but it didn’t really feel like we were making progress as there were no viewpoints. Just trees and more trees and the flat path, but if felt bloody good to be walking properly. The sea was just off to our right but remained out of sight for now. On our left we passed a lagoon with reed beds along its shore. Further on, several kilometres into the walk, the landscape opened up and we got views of the sea, behind the low dunes. The endpoint for our walk was the “leaning lighthouse” at the headland.

The girl from the info centre had described the scenery as beautiful. It was certainly fresh and green and you could smell the delicious aroma of the pine trees. The scenery was pretty without being spectacular (not that it needed to be!) Towards the end of the walk we started seeing more evidence of this area’s former use as an “early warning” station, along with the rest of the island off limits to most people. Bits of rusting metal here and there, and the chimney and a few bits of wall were all that remained of a building. We walked through the low dunes on the path and reached the beach. An improbably leaning lighthouse was the main sight here. It’s clearly not going to last very much longer, with its concrete base right on the waterline. We had a little mini-picnic and watched another couple of walkers attempt to climb the tower. They made it about halfway up, and we could see their heads poking through one of the little windows. This would be a super place to be on a grim foul weather day (“gun metal seas rolling in” as our Rough Guide described another Baltic spot).

After a little break we wandered along the beach and then cut back towards the path, berating ourselves for treading on the fragile flora and trying to avoid the slow growing lichen. It was a long walk back. It seemed longer because we now knew not to expect any variation in the scenery, at least not until the last bit through the forest. We were feeling pretty knackered by the time we got back to the car.

We drove back to Kuressaare, back along the meandering gravel road past empty farm buildings, the “cornflower blue” of the erm… blue flowers, and the deep purple thistles. Looking at the map I had imagined this part of the island to be rougher, more rugged and windswept, but in summer it was very calm and gentle, with a little breeze making things feel pleasantly fresh. I imagine that for most of the year this would be a pretty windswept place though. Back in Kuressaare we went to the hotel and tried to book online for a ferry from the southern tip of the island to Ventspils, on the coast of Latvia, which would have saved us a long drive round the Gulf of Riga. The web site was of the “send a request” variety (i.e. no reply) so instead we went into town, and after a bit of searching found the travel agency (where earlier today I had seen a poster advertising this route). Unfortunately the ferry was fully booked for tomorrow and our tight schedule meant we didn’t fancy spending an extra day here, as lovely as it was, just to catch the next ferry. I bought two CD’s with Estonian music from a shop further down the main street, at the point where it gradually started to change from picturesque olde towne to less imaginative architecture. The other stretches were in fact just pretty bland white brick apartments and houses, legacy from the Soviet days.

We stuck to the centre of Kuressaare. It was “terrace weather”. We bought postcards to write and went for a coffee and a cake at a café, picking a coffee place to avoid the temptation to have “ein grosses bier”. While we sat there, inside, we heard a parade of bikers outside. We had seen them trickling into town and now they were filing out en masse, a very large group, hundreds of bikers, some on very exotic contraptions of chrome and black. Next we walked through the little streets and the leafy park towards the bishop’s castle. At the entrance there were two wooden smart houses, one a hotel and the other a museum (?), a wealthy merchant’s house. Beyond this was the moat and on the bridge across it stood an odd white car, a custom limo or something, intended for the wedding – we could see some of the guests inside the castle walls. The castle would certainly make a great reception venue. We didn’t go in (closed, or was about to), but just walked around the outside of the castle, and on top of the remains of the thick defensive walls. Beyond this was the sea, the Gulf of Riga, but you’d hardly know it was there. A circus had been set up at one corner outside the walls and we could just see the brown bear being led in/out of the tent. We ambled back into the centre and bought some water and then returned to our room to zonk out for a little while, feeling the walk. Later we ventured out again, to try the local beer, just another pils as we didn’t find the stronger local beers. For dinner we went back to the hotel – rather than the pizza jobs on the terraces – and had another tasty meal sat outside, and the added benefit of just walking up the stairs to hit the bed. It felt good to have had a “proper” walk today.

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One for J & N
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Latvian pancake stand in Gaujas
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Wooden carved posts abound

We managed to make an early start for the long “bus day” to head south into Latvia. We zoomed across the pretty and tranquil island. Only a few other cars were on the road. The Volvo behind us seemed to give chase as we neared the ferry port at the other end of the island. We had feared long queues and had taken the precaution of “booking” on the way up a few days ago. When we got to the ferry port we were the first car, although it did build up a little later. On the cosy ferry we found ourselves a spot at the front and sat by the windows looking out over the bow, with a coffee/drink and both doing our diaries as we made the crossing to Estonian mainland.

A smooth drive down towards the border with Latvia, passing through Pärnu. Glad we didn’t bother to stay there as it looked rather ordinary (Rough Guide informed us it’s the Estonian beach town for partying). Scenery – green, fields, trees, etc. Border crossing – uneventful, just a quick glance at the passports and car papers. Possibly it was my imagination but Latvia looked much less tidy, less “finished” than Estonia. The road just headed south, along the coast of the Gulf of Riga on our right for a good part (but not visible because of the trees). Large chunks of the road were under construction, other parts were in a rather poor state, with tracks or holes. Then again, other parts were just as smooth. Latvian drivers and their cars also felt less polished, whatever…

While driving we called ahead to Siguldas to book a hotel room. Siguldas was to be our pitstop for one night before continuing on to Riga, and perfectly positioned to take a look at the nearby Gaujas national park. Siguldas itself was just a small and rather leafy little town, reminiscent of Druskininkai in a way (but not so leafy and minus the spas). Our hotel, or in a town like this, “the” hotel, the Sigulda, was a converted/upgraded old hotel with a modern extension bit. In front, on the parking area, a small market was in the process of closing down. We upgraded to a better room (i.e. not in the roof) for an extra €10 – many prices wherever we’ve been (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) have been quoted in euros. Then we went out to the national park.

We drove out to the east. After a few kilometres we noticed rain clouds and it started to rain so we turned back to pick up our coats, the temperature having dropped from high twenties to 19°C in the space of a few kilometres. On the way back into town we had to wait in a long queue for a long freight train to slowly crawl its way through town. It was pretty big but not quite the 100-plus of Canadian Pacific! Then we headed out again. Turned out that we had almost reached Gaujas on the first run, and later it also turned out we didn’t need the coats anyway.

Within the national park we headed for the Legatne nature trail, a trail through the park that took you past various animal enclosures, including moose and bear. Along some twisty little roads through forest, turning off at a pretty little pond, and further into the forest, past some wooden houses dotted here and there, and then we reached the small car park. We weren’t the only ones! There was a small visitors centre in a log cabin. The lady behind the counter had rehearsed the English version of the welcome patter and pointed out the start of the trail, which was about to close at 5pm, not long after we got there. We walked up to the first enclosure which had a moose (no antlers – a female probably?) lying below the wooden raised platform from which we could look into the large enclosure, where it was surrounded by buzzing insects. As were we, and this together with the time constraint convinced us to do the trail by car instead.

We walked back to Eddie. Windows and air-con were very welcome, though we did feel a bit like cheats. We drove slowly along the narrow tarmac path that curved up and down through the pine forest. We headed straight for the bear’s enclosure, not too fussed about the others in the limited time. Somewhere we passed a pancake stand, an informal little stand with a small queue of pancake lovers, and I was very tempted… At the bear enclosure we could look down into the bear’s den from a raised walkway. Behind the green metal fence a single rather sad brown bear was lying between the trees. I think I got a good shot of him with the big lens. On the way back we stopped to take some pictures of the pretty little pond, with a yellow mini-house (bird-house?) on a mini-island in the centre.

Back to Siguldas. We went to have a look at the river valley, densely wooded and therefore not easy to get a wide view. Across the valley we could see the red turret of a castle, one of several castles, in various states of repair, dotted along the river valley. Brides were being carried by their grooms across the bridge over the river, obviously some kind of local tradition to start the marriage off on a good footing. Back on “our” side of the valley we found the “new” castle, now a smart restaurant and the venue of choice for functions. A wedding was in progress, with guests out on the balcony terrace in front of the imposing red building above which the Latvian flag was flying. Next to it were the ruins of an older castle, a proper medieval job. We walked around its walls. In the former courtyard there was a semi-permanent wooden stage for the annual summer operas being held here. Work was being done on the paving. Russian or Polish lads were showing off to their girlfriends, climbing the walls of the castle. Rough Guide described a “knobbly hillock” from which we were supposed to have excellent views over the valley, but the thick summer greenery made it look all the same, except for the red tower in the distance.

At the hotel we went for a relaxing sauna, lovely thick warm heat, and we were sweating within seconds. Followed by a cool dip in the pool, which had bubble jets at either end of the pool, for underwater massages, one horizontal, the other coming up from the floor. For an hour we switched back and forth and afterwards felt great and totally relaxed and wonderful. Would love to have one of these in our house! Afterwards we went out in search of an RG-recommended eatery but we weren’t sure we found it as it looked rather basic, a pleasant terrace outside, under the trees, but inside it was a self-service cafeteria (re-reading RG later, this apparently is typically Latvian, but at the time we hadn’t appreciated that), so after a few drinks we headed back to the hotel for dinner instead. At the hotel we had wonderfully presented dinners, “à la John”, in the courtyard and then headed for bed. A function was in progress at the suite forming part of the hotel and when they were loudly leaving at about 3am I had to shout out of the window, which was totally ignored.

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Art Nouveau architecture in Riga, "Paris of the north"
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Traditional farmsteads recreated
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Exuberant Russian mural

Undoubtedly there was more to Gaujas but the nature trail did seem to be the main attraction so we were happy to wend our way to Riga today, a short little hop by comparison to yesterday’s drive. Again we called ahead to book a hotel for two nights. Entering Riga it was obvious that this was a larger city than Vilnius or Tallinn, a larger urban sprawl surrounding it, and a larger city centre at the heart of it.

We found our hotel, a renovated smart large building in the New Town district with its Art Nouveau buildings, alongside some smaller old wooden buildings. The girl behind reception seemed more interested in showing off here large silicone boobs than dealing with hotel registration, but we checked in and got directions to the car park round the corner.

We were still too early to occupy our rooms so we left our bags in the luggage room and went for a wander round the nearby area, which had some stunning examples of Art Nouveau architecture along the Parisian streets of Riga’s New Town. Riga was sometimes also known as “Petit Paris”. The streets were empty and quiet on the Sunday. Except for a few cafés along the streets, and one or two groups of tourists on a tour. We stopped at one of the cafés and had a drink and a bite below the trees and then figured it was probably time that we could occupy our room by now, as it was 1pm. A friendlier receptionist got us into our room, with very soft spongy beds, by design I think as it all looked brand-new.

Next we drove out of town, east, back the way we had come, to go and visit the recommended Ethnographic Museum, another open-air collection of old farm houses. A few kilometres east of town we found the Ethnographic Museum. It was a larger setup than the one in Tallinn, with a map pointing out different parts of the park with houses from the four different regions of Latvia, from Latgale in the south-east to Vidzeme, Kurzeme and one other. We walked in and out of the various buildings. Traditionally the Latvians lived in semi-isolated farmsteads, loosely grouped together in the forest, rather than in large villages and the setting reflected this. At each there was an attendant in period costume but our communication was rather limited to lapa diena (“hello”) and paldies (“thank you”), a shame as it would have been interesting to hear a little bit of explanation. The wooden buildings looked snug and cosy, with colourful little gardens of flowers, lupins and the like, and apple trees surrounding them. We toured around with just enough time to see a good cross-section before they closed at 5pm, and finished with a zeppelmai (?), a tasty snack of doughy pastry with bits of bacon, from an informal stall at a wooden house, and munched on it at one of the picnic tables under the trees.

From here we drove south to the site of the former Salaspils concentration camp. It was in a forested area off the main road, marked by a large concrete sign. At a large empty car park there were just a few other cars. A path of concrete slabs led through the forest up to the memorial site with more concrete, and a tilted long concrete corridor, with a tiny museum housed in a black block at one end, and beyond a large expanse of concrete slabs covering the area of the former camp. Along one side was a large black block and coming from inside it you could hear the slow loud ticking of a metronome. Further back there were massive Soviet-style statues with titles like “Red Front” and “Unbroken Spirit”. After Salaspils we tried to find another war-related site somewhere, something in a forest, but we must have missed it, and we just drove back into the city centre and returned to our hotel.

In the evening we went out locally for dinner and found a cosy Russian restaurant, full of atmosphere, in a semi-basement along one of the streets of the art nouveua district. Lots of wood inside, and a colourfully decorated samovar on each table, with a large colourful and exuberant mural at the far end (I think I have a good picture of it). A great little find and a refreshing difference from the touristic terrace cafés. We had an excellent Russian meal. At one corner there was an odd foursome, an older man with long dark hair (wig or dyed?) and three giggling women in sexy dresses. I took him to be a pimp treating his girls to a slap-up meal, or an older man who was having some fun and had treated himself to some fun company for the night. But maybe it was just a mum and dad out with their daughters. A super find for a restaurant and a memorable night!

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Colourful gates by the House of the Blackheads in Riga

The breakfast room at the hotel was a typically Swedish affair, very Ikea but better quality, and homey in that unforced manner yet still very plain and simple. Ness had a bad night’s sleep – hot, people upstairs in the middle of the night. I didn’t sleep much better for that matter. Another pleasantly hot day. From the occasional weather news updates on TV it seems we’re in one of the better parts of Europe to be in at the moment, with high 30’s weather “back home” and everywhere else.

We went for a walking tour of Riga today. Most museums are shut on Monday and Tuesday and this rather limited our options for sightseeing today. We followed the meandering trail described in our trusty Rough Guide, starting from the main square. A short walk into the Old Town. This confirmed Riga’s superior size, compared with Vilnius and Tallinn, with more traffic and people to and from work out on the streets. Past the small but ornamental opera house and round the corner into the warren and medieval layout of streets. Trolleybuses with overhead cables trundled along the streets, as in other Baltic cities such as Tallinn.

The large square had an imposing cathedral along one side (the largest in the Baltics?) and the ochre and green building of the stock exchange on one of the other sides. A few cars slowly trundled across the square and a few terrace cafés along another side of the square were open for business. From here we looped round the back of the square and back round, reading the descriptions for various buildings in our Rough Guide. It was a nice way of seeing the sights of the Old Town. Guided groups were also doing the tour, large groups of twenty or thirty gawping tourists huddling here and there to be pointed out bits of architecture along with historical anecdotes. On some street corners buskers were playing, a saxophonist in front of a cathedral, and a duo of horns oompah’ing on a street corner.

We reached the House of the Blackheads, a reconstructed richly decorated and quirky building, next to which was the rather modern and stark Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, 1940-1991. Inside it was an excellent exhibition covering that period, covering the Year of Terror (1939?) during which the Soviets occupied the country and sent many to their death in the gulags, followed by the German occupation later that same year, with the extermination of the Jewish population, only to be followed after the war by reoccupation by the Soviets, until the 1991 break up. Panels covered all sorts of aspects, from the harsh conditions in the camps to the wartime period, to the Soviet “elections” and lots more. Cases showed basic utensils, music instruments, clothes, etc. manufactured from scratch by prisoners in the camps using simple materials. It was an excellent account of Latvia’s recent history, also covering the tacit agreement of the Allies to the USSR’s reoccupation of the Baltic states after the war despite agreement to restore occupied territories to their own sovereignty.

By the time we left the museum it was already coming up to 4pm and time for a drink so we strolled back through the streets of the Old Town and found a café for a beer, picking a rather expensive one so after one drink we carried on. Further along we hopped into a Latvian eatery, a self-service canteen affair, with bowls of different kinds of dumplings, like pierogi, and all the trimmings and gherkins, sour cream, cheese, beetroot, etc. A Finn in the queue behind me helped a little, telling me to “be sure to have Moscow salad”. He meant a tumbler of vodka, which was lost on me at first so he bought me one “because otherwise you will understand nothing [of all this]”. Oh, at the first bar, a pair of boring Brits. Next we found a proper bar and this also had a self-service buffet counter inside. This bar had more of a theme-bar feel to it but still feeling very genuine and convivial with lots of wood and an atmosphere of good food and good beer. The weather had changed and it had started to rain a bit so we switched to a table inside where we stayed for the rest of the evening. By the time we left we were both pretty full of food and drink, and slowly waddled back to our hotel and finished off with another coffee and vodka, which was served Swedish style, at room temperature.

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Fields of ripening grain
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Kryžių kalnas, the curious Hill of Crosses
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Ferry to the Curonian Spit

We both had a crap night’s sleep, very sticky and plagued by a few mosquitoes. I managed to splat two of them, leaving big blood splatters on the wall. A tasty Swedish breakfast helped a bit. We checked out and loaded up Eddie, shouldering our packs to walk the two blocks to the car park, another reminder of our “proper” bit of backpacking on the buses. We drove out of Riga, wishing we could have spent another day here. We did try to switch flights but couldn’t. At least we have had a taster of the metropolis of the Baltics.

Out of the centre we drove through the greater urban area, missing our junction as there were no signposts due to the roadworks, but managing to pick it up after a u-ey. We had hoped to see Cape Kolka, at the northern tip of Latvia’s western half, and also the town of Kuldiga, a small pretty town, but with time not on our side we made a bee line for Nida, on the Curonian Spit, on the Baltic coast and right by the border with the Russian Kaliningrad region. It was motorway most of the way – I think – through Jelgava in Latvia, across the border into Lithuania with only a quick glance at our passports, and through rather dull-looking Siauliai in Lithuania, and then across to the western coast and to the seaside industrial port of Klaipeda. Hardly a memorable drive, partly because we were on the main roads but also because I had the impression that the more traditional and scenic rural sides of these countries lies in the interior, although we have seen too little of their coast lines to judge.

[Note 20 March 2008: I can't believe I omitted to write about the Hill of crosses, which - according to my pictures - we stopped to visit today. Better late than never, here is a small retrospective entry on that: Not far from Šiauliai we stopped to visit Kryžių kalnas, the Hill of Crosses, one of Lithuania’s most curious sights. In the middle of otherwise rural scenery we came across the site, with a small visitors car park and some souvenir stands. The latter did a brisk trade in crosses of all sizes, as well as a fine line in religious kitsch. A gravel path, lined with crosses planted along its sides, led to a small hillock which was totally covered with crosses. It was a fantastic sight to see this “forest” of crosses, with small ones dangling from larger ones. Every bit of space seemed to have cross planted in it. The sheer oddness of the sight made you wonder. Our Rough Guide and some plaques provided explanation about the place and its significance to Lithuanians – or use the power of Google. We wandered round the site at our leisure and then pushed on to Klaipeda.]

We drove into the large tracts of grey apartment blocks that formed the greater part of Klaipeda and followed the signs for the ferry port, which led us through large chunks of rather barren looking industrial areas which lay next to the residential Soviet areas. We followed the large trucks and ended up at the international ferry port, mainly intended for freight by the looks of it. Ness asked for directions and a bit later we were on the right route, through the centre of Klaipeda, with more apartment blocks and very wide roads of four lanes or more. The correct ferry port was a much smaller setup, with a small roll-on/roll-off ferry which only took about ten minutes to make the crossing to the spit.

The Curonian Spit is an odd land formation, a strip of land, mostly dunes, stretching over 100km, with a large lagoon on its inside. It’s a protected area, or bits of it at least. In the past it was over-used and due to excessive deforestation shifting sands swallowed up some of the fishing villages. Now they have restored the balance, trees have been planted, and the ridge of dunes has been stabilised (I think). We drove the length of the Lithuanian half of the Spit, with the flat waters of the lagoon visible to our left as we drive along the inside of the spit. Past the halfway village of Juodkrantė and “up and over” onto the outside of the spit, although too far back into the trees and still behind the dunes to see the Baltic Sea. The landscape was rather like the Veluwe (Netherlands), consisting of sandy soils and “pines” (I just call any tree with needles a “pine”).

We reached Nida towards mid to late afternoon. Nida is a small former fishing village, now rapidly becoming a summer resort, but it still felt like a little discovery for us. The village was spread along the inside, lagoon-side of the spit. Entering it from the road and driving through the tree-lined roads, erm... We had again taken the precaution of calling ahead to book a B&B and found it easily enough, just away from the centre, a pretty wooden blue-and-maroon-and-white house with balconies and baskets of red flowers. Not cheap though, €72, clearly cashing in, but it was a charming little place and just what we were after. After dumping our bags in our small room we sat on the little balcony for a while. Our neighbours had a big basket full of fresh berries, a Baltic passion. Then we walked into the village for a look around.

Families and kids were strolling, cycling or driving/cycling in one of those metal jobs that looks like a car – I call them pedalos, not sure what the proper name is. Quite a few people around, and there was certainly an air of summer resort to the place, but not over the top. We walked around the centre of the village, past the stalls selling amber trinkets and other souvenirs and along the waterfront of the lagoon. The waters were flat, almost mirror-like. Some organic residue, grasses or something, floated along the lagoon-side which didn’t make for a very sea-fresh air. From the lagoon side we could see the sand dunes beyond the village, looking more like desert landscape. Plenty of convivial easy-going bars and eateries, with a mixture of Baltic, Polish and German tourists.

We walked back along the most typical street, with the colourful blue-and-brown wooden fishermans houses, now mostly performing the function of B&B’s, holiday homes or eateries, although you do get the impression that it’s only like this during the summer period and that for the rest of the year the inhabitants move back in and that this place returns to being a quiet fishing village, sheltering behind the dunes while on the other side the Baltic seas roll in.

A typical feature of Nida, or “Curonia” as a whole, are the colourful elaborate wooden “weather vanes” carried on top of the masts of the small flat-bottomed fishing boats. Markings on the vane indicate which community they belong to, to prevent fishing in neighbours waters. We found an informal little restaurant, a few tables set up on a patio in the garden of one of these fisherman’s houses, with an orchard of pear and apple trees. A little table for two just became available, lucky for us as it proved to be a popular place. A lovely setting for a couple of drinks (I think for a change we had wine) and a tasty meal. Even though we have now moved to lower latitudes a bit, it still remained clear daylight and then a very slow gradual turning to dusk until well past 10pm.