Tuesday, December 30, 2014

- The Baltic Adventure: Latvia --

Only an hour after crossing the border, the buzz of the Latvian capital is seen as the bus enters busy motorways, roundabouts and bridges.
Apartment blocks are everywhere to be seen until a sharp needle-shaped building, which is the main TV station tower, announces the arrival into Riga, the largest city in the Baltics with over one million inhabitants in its metropolitan area.

The wide Daugava River has defined the shape of the city and divided it into two before finally flowing into the port area and the Baltic Sea.

The bus arrives into a some sort of makeshift bus station. Not particularly the best welcome sight of Riga. However, conveniently located besides the main train station and also next to a busy local market.
Across a series of underground passes where little shops sell everything from electric appliances to freshly baked bread, the 'Old Town' has retained its charm and iconic style, mainly due to massive efforts of the German empire in reconstructing this part of the city after the World War I, which resulted in a well-balanced combination of art noveau houses, impressive cathedrals and ample squares.


Independence Square with its tall obelisk becomes the setting for a quick selfie. In the end, it is not every day that one reaches 70 countries!
It is dry and no snow can be seen, despite the wind chill coming from the nearby Baltic Sea cutting through the skin like a sharp knife.

I check into my hostel, situated in the Old Town and comments I had heard about Riga are confirmed. A place mostly cataloged as the 'party capital of the Baltics'.

Considering the larger size of Riga and with yet another early start (and with many needed layers of clothing being worn), I walk through the wide and windy Akmens bridge to explore the Western side of the city, with the brand new and colossal cruise liner-shaped National Library as entry point and following a wide road into the suburbs.


Along the way, busy drivers sip on some hot drinks while queuing outside a trolleybus depot in order to start their shifts, dusty factories buildings with red bricked chimneys and some broken windows await for busy loaded trucks to enter the premises and a lonely dark cemetery silently sits under bare trees.
Old white-and-blue Soviet trams loudly transit through narrow-gauge railroads, whilst commuters wait at improvised stops carrying groceries and shopping bags.


I have suddenly been transported through time to the 1970s. The famous 'commieblocks' are everywhere to be seen with their plain white-green tiles and square shape.
Inside these apartment blocks, the last bastion of Communism and Russian heritage remains alive. A different sight of the Baltics and an element that needs to be seen and studied in order to understand the history of the region at its best, and it is just that Soviet occupation played an important part in the culture and development of Latvia, placing the region as an important industrial key player, importing laborers from as far as Siberia and providing them with free healthcare, education and housing.



I get lost and walk through a maze of apartment blocks, cars and rubbish bins trying to picture the life of those living inside: an old-fashioned TV tuning the latest news from Moscow, a noisy white Dnerp-brand refrigerator, shelves stocked with pickled everything and a burgundy-red sofa underneath a rather outdated picture of St. Petersburg. One can always dream.

On the return leg and after a rapid Mc Donald's lunch (romanticism momentarily over), I spot a train cemetery, the frozen lagoons of Arkadijas Park where two young dreamers are shooting a video and, almost by accident, I encounter the concrete-based Victory Memorial to Soviet Army.


Old Town is last but not least, with the classic Riga postcard views: the colorful art nouveau House of the Blackheads, the St. Peter's Basilica, Opera House and the Dome.


As if it wasn't enough walking for the day, I venture across the underground passes to the main market, where fresh fruit are sold next to cheap falsified electronics, and fur coats are hanged next to night gowns and pink women underwear.


I visit the Latvian Academy of Science, kindly nicknamed 'Stalin's Birthday Cake' due to its layered architecture and yellow bricks, which is also a building that can be climbed to the very top.

At the ticket office, the interaction seems bleak:

                                                          -- Interaction begins--
- Me: Hello
- Ticket officer: Hello.
- Me: English?
- Ticket officer: Mumbles in Latvian, looks around and points to a sign in English with every single instruction possible on how to get to the top ,including which button to press in the lift.
                                                          -- End of interaction --

From the icy top, Riga looks like a foggy metropolis with a manicured Old Town just beneath and apartment blocks getting lost in the wintry horizon.



My last evening in Riga unfolds as I meet a local friend who used to live in Dublin. An opportunity to experience the hipster side of the city (despite being mainstream), which apparently has set a strong influence in the country's young party schedules, Black Balsam-based drinks, cheap beers, shots and burgers.
We continue to one of his friend's apartments located right in the 'hood' and where my 'commieblock fantasy' is somehow fulfilled because in the end, I had never seen a bathtub placed in the kitchen.

The rest of the night is a blur of beers, good laughs and a row of hilarious streamed Japanese TV ads before napping for a couple of hours and leave for the coach station.

I take the first bus out of Riga, sleeping and recovering from a hectic Latvian visit, waking up two hours into the road to a derelict border point and the sign that the trip has reached its final leg: Lithuania.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

-- The Baltic Adventure: Estonia --

Passengers crowd around the main door and, mal de embarquement aside, I leave the ferry terminal finding temporary shelter in a nearby shop.
It is even colder and wetter than Helsinki and the footpaths are covered in a thin layer of ice, requiring special attention with every step taken.

Just a few hundred meters up the road, an old gate marks the entrance to the Medieval Town, which comprises an intricate set of narrow cobblestone streets, tall houses, cathedrals and an almost countless amount of pointy towers.
The Medieval town finds its boundaries in a thick wall, from where several watch towers rise in a vivid tone of red cone-shaped roofs.

It is still quiet, despite being almost midday and, following the wall, I suddenly encounter a spotless park, where children wear colourful winter clothes and queue behind their teachers in what it seems to be a school day-out, surrounded by a landscape covered in a fresh layer of overnight snow.



I climb up a large set of icy steps in order to glance a better view of Tallinn: a combination of ancient and medieval architecture predominant mainly in the Old Town and enclosed in the city walls, contrasting against a new city developed during the years, strongly influenced by the Soviet occupation, with square apartment blocks extending through miles to encounter industrial estates in a jungle of factory chimneys.



With no map available, I decide to walk around the Medieval town with no particular agenda, rambling through deserted streets, steep set of stairs and manicured sculptures.
A must see in town, I rapidly visit the Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral, which is a strong example of Orthodox architecture in the city, once again dominating the hill where it sits with its onion-shaped green domes and its elaborated architecture in different tones of red and white.


Still with a bit of motion sickness running through my body, I walk to the main square, where a typical Christmas market has been set up, covering the place with fairy lights and wooden decorations.
A perfect chance to enjoy a bit of hot glogg, this time served with berries, raisins and almonds.


My hostel is just two streets away from the Medieval town, in a neighbourhood that seems to have been almost aggressively settled outside the walls. Slightly muddy and run down, despite being almost in the heart of the city.

Once checked in and warmed up with a hot peppermint tea, I decide to venture outside again and see a bit more of the city before it gets dark, climbing up slippery steps at Freedom Square, which commemorate the Estonian War of Independence with a tall glassed cross and finishing the sightseeing with the lights of Tallinn being lit as the long night sets.


The rough ferry ride, combined with the freezing temperatures have taken its toll on my body and I surrender to exhaustion, which means I get to spend the night at the hostel chatting to fellow guests, cooking a light meal and watching streamed Family Guy episodes on the projector set in the main common room, gently sheltered from the falling snow outside.

In the morning, I leave the hostel and walk through the outskirts of the city, dodging puddles of slushy grey snow and aggressive drivers in order to make it to the coach station.
A rather abrupt lady sells me a bus ticket and checks my passport clinically. I am issued a ticket and shortly board a very comfortable bus, featuring personal television , bathrooms and onboard wifi.

A modern motorway connects the coach station with a series of neighbourhoods in which ample houses, old cars and tall pine trees are the most common sight, slowly fading through a series of roundabouts and rows of tall eucalyptus trees until we reach the snowy countryside.

An hour later, the bus stops enters the small town of Parnu, which seems to have been transported from a Siberian war tale.
Dirt roads covered in grey snow, only conquerable by old Soviet LADA cars, which seem to choke everyone's lungs with their outdated exhausts and soulless apartment blocks with windows excessively covered in rusty metallic grids.

Minutes later, the roaming settings on my phone change once again and I spot a run down 'LATVIJAS' welcome sign. I have now entered Latvia.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

-- The Baltic Adventure: Finland --

We deplane through the deserted Terminal 1 in the middle of the night, despite the clock barely hitting 15:10pm. A rather dramatic reminder of the Fenno-Scandinavian winter that surrounds us.

Snow covers the landscape ,although streets are perfectly shovelled. The bitterly cold air cuts through my airways as I breath in and walk around frozen pathways to the bus stop just behind a woman covered in thick coats and dragging a heavy suitcase over the ice.

The bus fills up with fellow travellers and we shortly seem to glide through a modern motorway into the city.
Somehow the wide streets of Helsinki look a bit dark and gloomy, framed by a mix of Soviet-like buildings which compose the outskirts of the city.

We pull out by the main train station, which dominates the street with its aggressive Constructivist-style tower which, along with the Ateneum and the high-end Keskuskatu compose the core of the city centre.
I walk to my hostel which is located in a charming area of the city, only a few steps away from Boulevardi, a street in which trams are seen cruising along the wet cobblestone streets almost in perfect sync and pedestrians dodge piles of shovelled white snow under Christmas lights placed along the neighbourhood.

As the long night drags along and temperatures outside the agressively-heated hostel drop even further, I find comfort in some soup, a sandwich and an old travel guide, placed over the wooden worktop.

Daylight has now become a precious gift and early starts are needed, so I leave the hostel when streets are still dark, despite commuters crowding the streets on their way to work.
I grab one of the first morning ferries to Suommelinna, accompanied by locals who keep the island alive either living or working there.


We sail off with the first rays of light and cross over an icy bay, leaving the lights of Helsinki behind and arriving in the island some 20 minutes later.
With the chilly North Sea winds blowing at a somehow painful rate, I rush through the streets of Suommelinna, which was built as a fortress in the 1700s by the Swedish crown in order to defend the city from any Russian expansionism.

A current UNESCO World Heritage site, the complex-fortress has been built over six different islands, linked together by tall stone walls and wooden bridges. A city on its own.
I walk around the empty snowy dirt roads surrounded by tall churches, old cannons, military barracks, thick solid rock walls, frozen ponds and an impressive shipyard.
A place where time seems to have stopped and an excellent getaway for Helsinkians during the summer months (or so I heard, despite nearly succumbing to the freezing wind right now).




I return to the city and climb up a steep hill leading to the Orthodox Red Church, an important landmark in the legacy of Russian occupation in Finland, built with dark red bricks and crowned by golden Orthodox crosses which top onion-shaped green domes.


Next is the White Church, sitting on top of another hill and reachable by a set of marble stairs, similar  setting to that seen in the Rocky movie. Whilst climbing up and inside my head, 'Eye of a Tiger' plays loudly.



A Japanese-style tour is to be done for the rest of the day, walking around a parkland full of bare trees to the 1952 Olympics stadium and its simple white architecture and the Olympic swimming pool, which at this time of the year is closed, finally returning to the city centre with a stop at the steel-piped Sibelius monument for interesting pictures.



Back in the hostel and exhausted after having walked for the whole day in negative temperatures, I make conversation with an Australian and an Argentine guy. Consensus is quickly made for the next activity of the day and a must-do in these latitudes: a Finnish sauna.

Guided by the Argentine's iPhone 6, we walk through the city centre to the closest suburbs to find closed sauna houses (it is Sunday in the end) until we find a shy doorway with a small sign just outside a massive apartment block.
It is 10 Euros per head for the use of the sauna and a couple of towels. Something that must be done naked, in which case the men are separated from the women.
Beers are also offered, as well as herring sandwiches, a Finnish delicacy which I don't even dare to get close to.

Inside the wooden sauna room, the temperature rises when water is poured over volcanic rocks, task contrasted by wrapping a towel around the waist and stepping outside, where a little wooden deck lit with candles is the hangout spot at almost -2 degrees Celsius. The temperature shock is supposed to be the main benefit of the experience.
It can be felt on the skin, the lungs and the head, although the temperature shock is mild compared to the one felt when locals step into the sauna room, pouring copious amounts of water onto the volcanic rocks, raising the temperatures even further and making us look like weak foreigners.



Once many sessions of scalding sauna room/freezing outside deck are done,  we take a tram back into the city, where I meet my Finnish friend for dinner, enjoying small yet delicious dishes of organic food in a rather hipster joint.
Interestingly enough , the bill has conveniently been divided before we even started ordering, which makes paying even easier. A truly Finnish custom, as my friend explains.

A few hours later in the early morning darkness, I face the strong winds and horizontal drizzle when walking to the port. I embark a busy Eckero Lines ferry which departs only minutes later.
The massive ferry leaves the quiet bay of Helsinki, whilst I enjoy a croissant and a coffee at the main restaurant.
Minutes later, the rough North Sea plays its part, rocking the boat side-to-side for over two hours.

I try to find comfort in sleeping and fail miserably, trying to distract myself from the sickness. Wherever I go, there are people drinking/laughing out loud, lousy singers playing bad covers or even some sort of captain playing bingo with a few customers. Boats were never my cup of tea anyway.


A snowy shoreline is finally seen and the ferry rapidly docks. Motion sickness apart, I feel relieved of having made it to firm land again. I am now in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

Monday, December 22, 2014

-- The Baltic Adventure: Denmark --

As winter sets in Ireland and nights drag for longer hours, my 'Flying Shamrock' flight leaves Dublin Airport in complete darkness, minutes before witnessing a stunning sunrise over the Irish Sea and the plane makes a sharp turn West towards Scotland and the North Sea.

A glance through the inflight magazine and a tea & scone later, we are preparing to land in foggy Denmark.
Outside of my airplane window, nothing but fog can be seen as the Airbus 320 fights the strong Northerner winds and break through thick clouds , lining up with the runway over a sea of eolic windmills and the island of Kastrup.

Upon disembarking, I walk through several passageways and halls before clearing immigration and queuing for a metro ticket into town.
Riding the Copenhagen metro seems like being on some sort of 'airtrain', similar to those in Osaka Kansai or New York JFK airports, with the difference that this one actually takes you through several IKEA-like neighborhoods and into the city center in less than half an hour with perfect Scandinavian efficiency.

I decide to disembark in Christiania and walk around empty streets. In the end, it is a Saturday morning and the city is still sleeping.
Outside the Royal Palace, a few Russian tourists gather and pose around an equestrian statue, under the striking Royal crown-shaped bell tower, whilst I rapidly take a few snaps and carry on walking, guided by an improvised map I managed to find at the airport.



Without even knowing ,I am walking around Nyhavn, a colourful street which, with its tall buildings and nautical theme, has now become one of Copenhagen's main icons.
For a moment, I travel back in time to previous visits to Stockholm or Amsterdam, and it is just that, apart from the uncanny architectural resemblance, bicycles here are also a must-have and define an important part of the Danish lifestyle.

I somehow feel jealous. Cycling is an excellent way to commute and a mean of transport I have surrendered to my little 'Edwina' (my car), since we do not have the weather nor the proper cycle tracks in Dublin yet.



Moments later, a group of tourists take photographs in movement. Almost with perfect timing, I spot the blue Royal Guard marching their way to Amalienborg, which is a complex of palaces and castles built rococo style and where tourists pile up in an extremely organized crowd whilst friendly police men take pictures and, in their almost perfect English, provide instructions on when and how to move in order to take the best photographs of the ancient and daily ceremony of changing guards.

Once this is done, I proceed to the star-shaped Kastelet which, previously working as military barracks, has now been transformed into hip office blocks, painted in a proud Danish-red, also becoming the urban joggers paradise.
Just beside it, the small (and rather disappointing) 'Little Mermaid' timidly overlooks across the canal to a bleak and industrial port area.





With lunch time just around the corner, I slow down the pace and walk back into town through wide avenues surrounded by colourful houses, bike shops, coffee houses and bare trees before crossing another canal and find my hostel near the busy Aboulevard.
The landscape has slightly changed, with Halal shops, internet cafes and Iranian sweet stores filling up the street landscape and suggesting an immigrant influence in the area.
The hostel is pricey (as everything in Copenhagen), yet very comfortable, with an ample seating area and most importantly, large bean bags which make for a perfect place to rest the legs before venturing into town for further sightseeing and a bite to eat.

The short Scandinavian days force me to see everything I can while sunlight lasts. Recharged, I head straight into Tivoli, to fantasize and feed my fetish of mechanical fair rides as holiday makers scream their lungs out whilst being thrown back and forth , or up and down in thrilling old-fashioned attractions.


Main sights covered for the day, I walk around the Old Town, rushing through tourists and busy Christmas shoppers before accidentally bumping into a beautifully lit Christmas market and pause for some mulled 'glogg' and a schnitzel.


Exhausted, I walk back to the hostel and relax for the evening under a dimmed lamp, earphones on, laptop charged, comfort food eaten and a resting on a large blue bean bag.

In the morning, with only a few hours to spare, I rush into town though the Royal Place and towards Christiania where The Church of our Saviour with its golden tall spiral-shaped tower extend its invite to be climbed.
The initial climb consists in a series of wooden staircases which, with an awful timing, vibrate tremendously as the clock marks 10 o'clock and the heavy church bells ring dramatically for over a minute.

Once the main tower is conquered, an additional set of copper steps (which are the spiral part of the tower) are challenged through the wet and windy weather, whilst vertigo sensations are forced to be controlled. As a reward, a 360 degrees view of  a flat Copenhagen can be appreciated, strongly grabbing onto the wet railings.




My short stay in this country could not be completed without the cliche 'morning black coffee and a Danish, whilst reading the newspaper and overlooking a canal' moment, just before finally taking the metro to the modern airport.


I am flying Norwegian Air Shuttle for the first time. I also have on board wifi for the first time!
As we take off, the sight of the Oresund bridge spanning in between Denmark and Sweden slowly disappears in the dense fog before a short movie is played and the 'Facebooking at 30,000 feet' begins.

We prepare to land in Helsinki over 90 minutes later. I spot vast farmlands covered in snow before landing heavily. I have now made it to Finland.