Fleeting drive across Finland and on to the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania

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July 14th 2019
Published: July 14th 2019
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27th June - 14th July 2019

After our great clean up in Nikkala we crossed the border into Finland. No border controls were in evidence so it was very speedy and smooth.

As in Norway and Sweden the roads are decorated with signs warning of elk (called moose in Alaska) every couple of kilometres but we never saw one. Jim read that in Sweden each year some 35,000 elk are killed by hunters.

Finland is a flat country and if you like lakes, forests and mosquitoes you would love it. It is beautiful in places but the forests make it difficult to see very much as you travel. We chose a road which runs along by the Gulf of Bothnia for fifty miles or so and we did not view the sea once, only forest alongside the road. Because of this and the lack of interesting stopping places we found ourselves travelling south very quickly. It felt as though we were not giving the country a fair chance so we identified a nature reserve right by the sea and headed there.

It was a good place to park up for the night and we thought some wildlife might appear. It was quiet as we were alone. I went off for a stroll along the path to the water's edge and was back in fifteen minutes covered in bites, even through my trousers. I had been silly enough to go without repellent. Jim had wisely stayed in Astrid. Despite watching from our comfortable hide for the next eighteen hours we saw nothing. Not a bird, squirrel, mouse, rabbit or even stoat although we did hear a couple of birds high up in the trees but Astrid was constantly covered by mosquitoes and larger insects. Thankfully she kept most of them out.

The next day we moved to another national park, not willing to admit defeat. Again it was a good overnight stop by a lake but with no sign of life apart from humans. But it proved a brief insight into Finnish behaviour. The weather was good, bright sunshine but not warm enough for us to dispense with lined trousers and fleeces. The lake looked cold. However until nine at night there was steady activity in the car park. A car would pull in, families, often three generations, would erupt out in swimming gear with floats, run down to the lake and jump in the water, which was quite shallow, play around for a couple of minutes, climb out, dry off a little but not usually changing into dry clothes, get back in their cars and depart. All this activity rarely took more than fifteen minutes in total. It hardly seemed worth the effort especially as we were some distance from nearby towns or villages so they must have driven some way but it was clearly a very popular activity. Watching was the most entertainment we had in Finland.

So we headed on down to Helsinki and then to the ferry terminal. We had not booked a crossing to Tallinn partly because we had had no wifi since Nikkala and rarely a phone signal. We pulled into the ferry car park and Jim went to the office where they told him just to join the queue of cars and we could buy a ticket in line. I had been watching the huge line of vehicles moving onto the ship while I was waiting for Jim and thinking that it was going to take some time to board.

But we drove along the slip road into the queueing area to discover that everyone had gone. The cashier in the pay box asked if we wanted a ticket for the next sailing, we said yes, she gave us one and we drove straight on board. Fifteen minutes after arriving at the terminal we were in the restaurant and were ordering our first meal out for nearly two months. The Viking Line ship was packed with people so we headed straight for the table service restaurant avoiding the self service one to escape the crowds. We had a lovely unhurried meal in pleasant surroundings.

The crossing takes two and a half hours but there was only an hour left when we left the restaurant and then we had an unpleasant surprise. The ship had a whole deck given over to shops, two decks to cabins which seemed unnecessary on such a short route, another deck of food outlets, one for games and children's activities and an open top deck with seats. It was so cold and windy out there that I lasted long enough to take one photograph before I had to go back inside. There was no seating area inside other than in restaurants. I could not believe that so went to check at the information counter. It was true, the ferry has no seating inside and that is why people were milling around in huge numbers. Perhaps it is to make people spend more? Anyway, we spent the rest of the journey perched on a low window ledge and were lucky to find that spot free.

On arriving in Tallinn we drove to the small Marina at Pirita which was the base for sailing events in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and booked in for our stay.

Tallinn is one of the loveliest towns we have visited. The medieval Old Town is divided in two with the higher citadel of Toompea looking down on the Lower Town. The mix of churches, two cathedrals, wide squares, narrow lanes, and well preserved and restored buildings from various times but mostly medieval and all set within the fortified stone town walls makes for a fascinating walk. Although quite busy with the usual dawdling groups being lead around by bored looking, flag waving guides it still has a lovely atmosphere added to by the number of staff in bars and restaurants dressed in medieval costumes.

I tried to read up on Estonian history but it is complicated. Surprisingly (to me anyway) it was the last pagan country in Europe as Christianity did not arrive until the 15th Century. The Livonian Order of knights who had acted as protectors for fighters en route to the Crusades eventually came to try to convert Lithuania. Pagan practices are still evident in some of the countries celebrations and rituals.

Having a meal on the ferry must have gone to our heads as we decided to have lunch in a small restaurant in Tallinn. We chose it because of the menu. We both had a delicious pasta dish with courgettes, elk and reindeer meat, followed by a home made pistachio mousse desert. We sat watching a machine blending the pistachios while we ate. I had wanted to try elk and reindeer in Norway but it was four to five times the price we paid in Tallinn.

As in most tourist destinations there are lots of stalls selling souvenirs and warm hats and scarves but also nuts, especially almonds, prepared with a variety of flavours. They must grow an awful lot in Estonia.

The site at the marina did not have showers but the receptionist explained that there were showers for 2 Euros in the sauna. Luckily this was only fifty metres from Astrid and was a combined cafe/sauna. Just off the spacious lounge seating area was a door to the changing rooms similar to a gym with lovely large showers and use of the sauna so it was better than most of the facilities we had encountered on our commercial sites. Jim said the utility facilities were basic but for such a pleasant setting so close to the Old Town we were very happy on the site.

Slowly we drifted south to Soomaa national park finishing up, very slowly, on 9 kilometres of gravel road. Fortunately we managed a walk soon after we arrived as it started to rain later and did not stop for thirty-six hours. The reserve is a bog area which has five seasons. After spring is the flood when most of the area is under anything up to a couple of metres of water. It rained so much we wondered if there was going to be a second flood this year.

Our walk took us by the river and streams where beavers live and build dams. I saw lots of logs across the water but could not tell if they were a result of the floods or feverish beaver activity. I would have loved to walk more of the trails but although dry with some boardwalks when we arrived the heavy rain soon washed out the paths. We did not catch sight of a beaver but as we drove out of the park we saw deer, a couple of hares, lots of storks and even a pair of common cranes. Much more in that one area than in the whole of Finland.

Our journey south continued on a good new road, the E4, which seems to run right across the country and was funded by the EU. The road continued across the border into Latvia as the E67 and we thought it was probably funded from the same source but there was nothing to say, whereas there had been a few signs in Estonia acknowledging the source of funding.

After a slight hitch, when Kate was telling us to follow a road that was not there and which would have had us going over a cliff edge if it had been, we arrived at Zagarkalns camp and reserve, in Cesis, north east of Riga. It is a lovely spacious green site by the river where you can choose where to settle in the open parkland. Unfortunately we had another day of non-stop rain but it was a pleasant place to be with the added benefit of a shower. We stayed two nights and the third day we visited the nearby ruined Cesis castle on our way out of the town.

A short ride along the coast soon brought us to Riga and the Riverside campsite positioned on an island in the river just over the bridge from Riga Old Town. Again the site is at a marina so we were parked on the jetty alongside the boats. The facilities are good even though it is a pop up site and they even have a washing machine so we managed to clean our clothes. Astrid has an extendable clothes line in the bathroom so as there was no drying machine available we hung the damp clothes there to dry while we were sightseeing. Unfortunately we could not risk washing the bedding in case it did not dry before bedtime. Once back in the UK when we have used up our rapidly reducing food store we will have plenty of storage to allow us to carry a change of linen and towels.

Bright and early the next day we caught the bus into town for our day sightseeing. We enjoyed Tallinn so much we had convinced ourselves that Riga was going to be an anticlimax, partly because it is the largest of the three Baltic capitals. Luckily we were misguided. Yes, it is very different but in its own way just as enthralling as Tallin and a wonderful place to wander around. The architecture is more mixed with the Old Town housing Riga Cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltic started in the 13th Century and still being added to in the 18th Century so comprising elements of Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque features. The Byzantine styled Nativity of Christ Cathedral has gilded cupolas. During the Soviet era it became a planetarium but is now restored to its former use. There are lots of other churches, a castle, a convent, monuments and beautifully restored and brightly painted buildings all joined together by restaurants and bars decorated with flowers and umbrellas, and pretty gardens. Linking the streets are narrow alleyways that appear little changed from medieval times.

Then a few minutes walk from the Old Town is the Art Nouveau architectural district, also known as Jugenstil or youth style after a Munich based Magazine, Die Jugend. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, is responsible for most of these elaborate and flamboyant creations and the street was a gift to Riga on its 700th anniversary (1901). Art Nouveau tends to be a style people either love or hate. Have a look at the photos and see what you think.

Another fascinating building is the Blackheads House. It was built in 1344

as a kind of residential club for unmarried German merchants. The guild provided these houses in a number of cities and we had seen the one in Tallin. However the original house was severely damaged in 1941 and then totally destroyed under the Soviet regime a few years later. Unbelievably the original plans survived and an exact replica was completed in 2001 for Riga's 800th anniversary. It is very elaborate and highly decorative. Supposedly it was the Blackheads who started the Christmas tree tradition. One Christmas they went out to celebrate and brought back a tree, decorated it with ribbons and then set fire to it. From then on it became a ritual but without the incendiary finale.

That day in Riga we walked over 12 kilometres.

Continuing our journey south we next stopped at Rundale Palace, very close to the border with Lithuania. It was built in the 18th Century to provide an impressive residence for the Duke of Courland. The designer was Bartolomeo Rastrelli, known for his baroque 'genius'. He also designed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Only 40 of the 138 rooms are open to the public and much restoration work is still taking place. It would have been good to have more information provided in English but as we found in Estonia and even Scandinavia this is rarely the case.

The gardens around the Palace are formal in a style similar to Versailles but never having been there I could not compare the two. The rose gardens are huge with a good variety of other flowers and flowering trees but obviously they are not all in bloom at the same time. A huge amount of work must go into controlling growth to retain the style and precision of trees and shrubs. The highly manicured appearance of the rounded 'lollipop' style of tree looks so unnatural that I had to test the leaves a few times to be sure they were not plastic.

Far and away the best thing about Rundale was that we were allowed to park overnight for free just near the palace. We definitely felt that we had gone up in the world when we looked out at our next door neighbour until we were awoken at 7am by the large army of outdoor staff arriving to start work in the garden. However, it did not dissuade us from staying another night.

From there we headed across the border into Lithuania and stopped for lunch at the Hill of Crosses, a very strange but intriguing sight.

It seems that it has been a place of pilgrimage since the Polish Russian war of 1830/31 when there was an uprising against Russian domination which was quickly subdued. It was the site of the battle and families could not find the bodies of the defeated so started to put crosses in place as a memorial. In the 1800s there were 9000 crosses, in 1990 55,000, and 2006 over 100,000. The Polish born Pope John Paul II presented a marble based statue of Christ on the Cross in 1993. The site has come to represent the 'peaceful endurance' of Lithuanian Catholics through the years of oppression by different regimes. During the Soviet era thousands of crosses were destroyed but some people risked their lives to replace them. Crosses were placed in memory of people sent to Siberia and lost in battles at sea. In addition to crosses there are thousands of rosaries and other religious or personal objects hung there and when the wind blows there is an eerie whistling rustle as they move in the breeze.

Eventually we reached Vilnius, the third of the Baltic capitals. This was the long expected anti-climax. A pleasant town with some interesting buildings and public spaces but nothing particularly outstanding. Vilnius Cathedral, more properly called the Cathedral of St Stanislav & St Vladislav and which also contains the chapel of St Casimir, is in the main square. Originally it was the place where Perkunas, the Lithuanian god of thunder was worshipped. At the end of Soviet occupation the Cathedral was reconsecrated. There are photographs on display showing the ceremony and the people who came to worship. The Cathedral is an important symbol of national identity.

The suburbs seem larger around Vilnius than the other capitals and they reflect the Soviet style of grey/beige concrete housing blocks in need of lots of repair not improved by the dismal drizzle falling as we drove through them on the bus.

We had lunch in a local restaurant where the waiter recommended a few traditional dishes which were tasty and very filling but most dishes make use of the same basic ingredients, potatoes, peas, curd cheese, sour cream, crackling and more even potatoes enhanced with small touches of pork or bacon. Jim had potato sausages that were good and fried black bread that was delicious. A very fatty cuisine and not something I could eat daily.

Our last stop in Lithuania will be Trakai castle when we leave here tomorrow but as I am not sure when we will be back online I hope to post this blog today. Driving across the Baltic states has been pleasant with scenery not unlike England but also with areas of huge wheat and maize fields. The roads are variable with rural ones having more holes and hillocks than flat surface. The towns are difficult to navigate as there are always lots of roadworks. Plus, Astrid HATES cobbles and tramlines which are plentiful in Tallinn and Riga. There is no escaping them. I have to say I am not keen on them either especially when I had to drive half a mile along tramlines. The only thoughts in my head were, should I be here? And more critically, where are the trams? At the end of the half mile a tram was sitting at a junction waiting for me to pass. As the driver was not shaking his fist I assumed it was a legal manoeuvre!

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