The dead celebrity scavenger hunt – a fitting end for the end

I keep forgetting to write this post. I’m back home now and in between moving to a new flat (yay) and looking for a new job (boo), living out of a backpack already seems so long ago.

*sigh*

Anyway, last stop Paris, which I’ve already been to a few times as a teenager. Since this means I’ve already seen the EiffelSacreDameD’OrsayLouvreVersaillesPompidou de Triomphe I was planning to just spend a couple of days wandering aimlessly and eating croissants. Which would hopefully be cheap because this is my most expensive hostel of the whole trip, including Tokyo.

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I stayed in Belleville, just round the corner from the Parc de Belleville which is the highest park in Paris. It’s not much of a climb since the area’s already pretty high in general, but you get a sort of view of the Eiffel tower from here. (On the right, looking less than majestic)

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About 5 minutes further down the road is the Pere Lachaise cemetery, which conveniently is probably the only big tourist sight in the city that I hadn’t seen before. Strikes me as a bit of an odd tourist attraction, but it is a mite more fancy than your average cemetery. You can pick up a map of where all the famous people are buried and go searching for the tombs of your favourite artists and politicians (eh, I didn’t care about any of the politicians).

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Edith Piaf, from that one song that everyone knows, and apparently a bunch of other stuff too

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Jim Morrison – buried in a tiny out of the way grave, which seems to be so popular that it’s the only grave here (that I saw) which is barricaded so you can’t get up close to it. Bit sad really. There’s a tree next to it that’s had to be protected with bamboo fencing because people keep sticking chewing gum to it. Eww.

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Speaking of over zealous fans, Oscar Wilde’s spot now has signs asking people to stop kissing it.

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Clearly these signs are doing a lot of good.

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Don’t blink

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After I took a photo of this one, an old guy asked me if I knew about Raspail (well, he was French, so I assume from my mostly forgotten French lessons that that was what he said). He told me this is the tomb of a chemist who was imprisoned for political reasons and the figure is the ghost of his wife, who died without being able to see him again. Nice to have a bit of extra knowledge, I just thought it was a cool statue – it appears I have good taste as he also told me that it appears on a Led Zeppelin record cover.

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Next day I met Tatum in my form room who invited me out for a walk with her friends to the nearby Parc de Buttes Chaumont. This isn’t as high as the Parc de Belleville, but it’s way bigger and very pretty – a lovely place to wander around in the morning dodging all the joggers and tai chi practitioners. I have painfully few photos, but I did get the waterfall in the middle!

After we’d said goodbye to Katie, who was leaving for Poland that afternoon, I stuck with Tatum for the rest of the day. Neither of us really had plans, so we just walked. And walked. And walked. There was a lot of walking. We ended up by the Moulin Rouge, then decided to head up to Sacre Couer since we were in the area before heading back to our hostel – that added up to about 6 hours of walking!

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The first time I ever came to this area, I was about 13 on a school trip and I remember our teachers asking us not to look out of the coach windows until we got closer to the Sacre Couer. I must have had some vague idea that there were naughty things out there, but I handed realised quite how much until I returned this time – I swear every other doorway is a strip club or a sex shop! I love how stubbornly inappropriate that is next to one of the big family friendly tourist draws of Paris.

The rest of the day was spent enjoying the treats of Paris of course! Although we wound up having a very bog standard bistro lunch, we made up for it with almost hourly diversions into bakeries, patisseries and creperies!

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For one last hurrah before getting the train to Cherbourg ferry terminal the next day we spent the evening at a tiny pub, drinking cider (of course), and watching a Scottish band we’d met in the hostel play their first international gig.

So, that’s it then. 343 days later I’ve visited 27 countries, amassed almost 6000 photos, probably doubled my Facebook friends and achieved backpack warrior status in the art of packing light.

Today it’s a bit strange to think that that ended over two weeks ago as I’m sitting surrounded by boxes waiting for an employment agency to call me back and a plumber to come round and look at the boiler. But let’s not end this on a depressing note. Yes, the year was amazing, yes, I’m looking forward to my next (albeit somewhat shorter) holiday, but for now let’s focus on all the things I can enjoy being back home – feel free to join in with your own ideas:

Having my own kitchen
Jammie dodgers
My paddle hairbrush
Walking past a taxi stand without being hassled
The smoking ban
Jaffa cakes
Not having to wonder if the water’s safe to drink
Nail polish
Roast chicken
Catching up on all the TV I’ve missed
High heels
Sleeping on a familiar mattress every night
Buying a block of cheese and being able to refrigerate what I can’t finish
Understanding the local transport
Malteaster bunnies (my local Argos is still selling these in June)
Not being charged conversion fees for taking out money
A skincare routine that I don’t have to fit into a tiny washbag
Heinz baked beans
Being able to flush toilet paper
Mini battenburgs
A computer that actually works with flash websites
More than 4 t-shirts
Hand cream
Proper British sausages

Oh, and people. Being back with my people is quite nice too.

So, how long is it going to take me to save up and do South America next time?

P.S. I have no idea why WordPress is saying I posted this on June 1st. That makes me sound so impressively up to date. Hey look! I finished my blog the very day after I stepped off the ferry. Clearly this is not true. I may be disorganised, but at least I’m honest. It’s actually the 16th. Shame on me.

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Germans: funny, not very organised, obsessed with sausages. Take that, 2 out of 3 stereotypes

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This is Urs. We bonded over snotty facemasks and the pros and cons of peeing in neoprene (ie. we dived together in Thailand), and I just stayed on his sofa for two nights in Berlin. That’s my last time staying with someone which makes me kinda sad really. Let’s just say it’s the last time for this particular trip.

This picture was on my second night when I was being introduced to the cultural highlight that is currywurst. It’s basically a sausage, sprinkled with curry powder, accompanied by a mountain of chips drowning in ketchup. Not the most gourmet of meals, but it was cheap. We went out afterwards in search of mai tais to reminisce about sitting on the beach in ko Tao – failed to find any, but I have now experienced shots of Mexicana. It was described as Bloody Mary in a shot, but I think they might have forgotten to add the tomato juice. It felt like I was just doing a shot of alcoholic Tabasco. Clearly this drink is just designed to give the bartender a good laugh at the newbie.

Anyway, to get back to chronological order (ha!), the wonderful thing about staying with a friend and not a hostel is that when you show up sleep deprived and grumpy after an overnight bus, they let you go straight to sleep on their sofa (this might have been because Urs was out til 3 the night before and wanted to go back to sleep just as much as I did).  When we eventually woke up at about 1 we spent the rest of Sunday driving out on his motorbike – kitted out with helmet, jacket AND gloves, what luxury – to a semi abandoned country house outside the city which he refers to as his private castle because not many people know about it.

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We can’t get into the inside (clearly the groundskeeper forgot to leave us the key), but the grounds are lovely with a big lake to laze next to while catching up.

The next day Urs, being a sensible grown up, had to go to work, so I went to see the important historical sites of the city with an excellent guide from Brewers, including the last bit of the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie (the gateway between east and west Berlin), both of which I spectacularly failed to take pictures of.

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I did get a somewhat fuzzy picture of the holocaust memorial, officially called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a very strange memorial, at first glance it gives the impression of a hill of graves, but between the slabs the floor slopes downwards so as you walk through they wind up towering above you rather oppressively.

Just a short distance away from here is the nondescript spot of pavement where Hitler’s bunker used to be hidden. Brilliantly, also within spitting distance are a Chinese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and… drumroll please… a gay sauna. Hahahahaha.

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Another stop on the tour was the Bebelplatz, where the famous book burning took place (please note, not actually attended by Adolf Hitler. Or Indiana Jones). There’s a room of empty bookshelves set into the floor as a memorial here, and not much else to see, but just over the road there are always a couple of stalls selling books in the hopes that it will never happen again.

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Among all that very serious stuff, clearly the most important stop on the tour was the chocolate shop. I’m not sure why we were brought here, I’m not aware of Germany being famous for chocolate, but I am certainly not complaining. After all, anything with the name Fassbender has to be tasty right?

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Why yes Michael, yes it does.

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I just managed to stop short of buying the enormous chocolate church.

On my last day I used the spare time before my bus to Paris to go on another tour, this time showing off the graffiti of the city – some legal and commissioned pieces, some not so much.

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The last one is by a Italian artist called Blu, which seems an odd place to end a part about Berlin, but I want to share his animations because they’re just so brilliantly weird. I wouldn’t recommend watching this after eating a large amount of cheese though.  Or hallucinogenic drugs, though I’m sure most of my readership are more included towards the cheese.

MUTO

The newest old town around

On my way to Poland I had my first of three night buses through Europe. I have to say, I really recommend Simple Express buses, which I’ve booked all the way from Estonia to Germany – they’re relatively comfortable (for buses), most of them have free WiFi and sockets, this one even had movies… but it’s still a night bus. You know how much luck I have sleeping on those. When I eventually got to my hostel in Warsaw at 6.30 and they told me I couldn’t check in until 2 I nearly cried. Not that I have anything bad to say about the hostel though, not only was I able to stash my bags, but they let me have a shower before checking in as well.

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So, surprise surprise, first thing I did was head out for another free walking tour. After the rather adorably tiny Baltic capitals I wasn’t really prepared for how big Warsaw is so I didn’t make it to the old town in time for the 11am tour I was trying to catch, but I’m going to consider this as fate since Shameera happened to be on the 12 o’clock tour as well. Our tour guide told us to call him Chris, which was nice of him since his real name is something like Krzystof and Polish pronunciation leaves me feeling like my mouth isn’t big enough to hold all those consonants. This was definitely more of a traditional sightseeing tour than the last two as we stuck mainly to the sights of old town, but that’s by no means a complaint – I knew nothing about Warsaw anyway, but even if I did, Chris was a history student so he had plenty of interesting facts.

For example, what happened to the guy who attempted to assassinate king Sigismund: they made him hold the sword he used while it was thrust into a furnace, and then when his hand was nice and crispy they chopped it off. And then quartered him for good measure. Executions were fun in the 16th century.

Old town is a bit of a misnomer as Warsaw was completely flattened in World War 2, so most of it is a new reconstruction, but I’m happy to say to everyone who told me that Warsaw wasn’t worth more than a day that it’s a good reconstruction, so it’s still worth seeing.

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This is apparently a mermaid. With feet. And wings. She’s the symbol of the city and you’ll see her all over the place, but everywhere else she’s finished her evolution and dropped off the superfluous bits.

After shuffling to the end of the tour I celebrated with pierogis (which are basically like Chinese dumplings, or big ravioli). I had spinach and cheese, with cheese and cheese sauce, and it was cheeeeese. I mean good.

By that point the world was spinning (though whether that was through lack of sleep or overdose of dairy I couldn’t say), so I said goodbye to Shameera again and made it back to my hostel where I fell asleep for about 17 hours. Clearly I had a lot of catching up to do.

Next day I met Eric again for a very quick and early lunch with his friend Michael, before he went straight down to Krakow. At this point I learned that you can get sweet versions of pierogis, which automatically makes them better than gyoza and ravioli. Take that China and Italy. You may have well loved food traditions, but you haven’t given me strawberry dumplings in custard, have you?

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After around an hour of walking around after lunch I was getting sunburnt in the tropical Polish weather again, so I sought shelter in the Copernicus science museum. Yay, robots!

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Ok, let’s face it, this is a museum for kids. But who cares. There are giant bubbles.

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I also got my portrait drawn by a robot, which was… neat. I guess.

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It seemed a lot more focused on the ceiling than my face though.

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Day three I went on recommendation to the Warsaw Uprising museum, stopping on the way at the university library which has a strangely sci fi garden on its roof. Despite the searing temperatures it clearly wasn’t blooming season yet, but it’s still a nice place to wander around (for free) and enjoy the views over the city.

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I’m in two minds about the museum. There is A LOT of information, but it wasn’t always obvious what direction you were supposed to walk and the exhibits seemed to constantly skip about from the beginning, to the end, to the middle of the war so I didn’t really get a clear picture of the order of events. Generally though, the impression I got was Nazis: bad, Soviets: bad, Warsaw: awesome Spartan style heroes (except sadly without leading to a national victory afterwards)

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There’s a huge collection of weaponry on display, including the Goliath tracked mine, which the Nazis would use by remote control to get under vehicles or up close to buildings and bridges. This led to the Poles building mini walls around anything they wanted to protect to keep the Goliaths out – the walls were called Davids.

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I’d been told by my hostel owner that there was something happening in the street that afternoon, and when I came back I was greeted by balloons. Balloons hanging from the lamppost outside always means it’s gonna be a good party right?

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This is the road my hostel sits on, as transformed into a pedestrian friendly craft fair. I’m not sure what the reason was, but I don’t care. Let’s just pretend it was a ‘yay-it’s-sunny-and-everyone’s-happy’ festival. At every junction there was a stage set up with performances ranging from someone’s mum singing badly in a sparkly T-shirt, to an enthusiastic and rather brilliant Dixie band, to fencing demonstrations. A great end to my time in Warsaw, although squeezing my way through the crowds with my backpack wasn’t the easiest.

Everyone has the right to blather on a bit

Since I am such an excellent traveling companion (read, I make it my mission to seek out good food), Eric decided he would join me on the bus to Vilnius – which is in Lithuania for those of you who, like me, were a bit fuzzy on your obscure European capitals. We were staying in different hostels this time, so we said we would go shower and get ourselves sorted and then meet up to explore. So we made it to our respective hostels, showered, got ourselves sorted… and then Vilnius exploded into the most violent rainstorm I’ve seen since leaving the monsoon countries. We were both feeling too wussy to go outside in the rain so we stayed in and made the most of the frankly bloody excellent Baltic WiFi until about 5 when the rain eased up and I got a plaintive Facebook message saying ‘I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been in my life’

I hadn’t found as many recommendations for Vilnius as I had for Riga, but I picked one restaurant that looked like good cheap authentic stodge and we set off. About halfway there our bellies got the better of us and we went for pizza instead. Damn fine pizza it was too, but not exactly traditional Lithuanian food. Continuing the trend we then headed into the centre for ice cream at Dione’s, where we meet up with Dean again, along with his couch surfing host Vaida.

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This was unbelievably good – my number one recommendation in Vilnius. We ate there twice, with two scoops each time, and I’m so upset I didn’t get to go back and try more flavours. The chocolate orange is particularly special.

We then went to find a cider bar we’d seen on the map, where we lasted for all of one drink before calling it a night in true rock and roll style (Eric and I were tired, Dean was ill and Vaida doesn’t drink but laughed at us for being so rubbish). It was a bit of an odd experience, more like a fancy wine tasting. The barman took his cider very seriously, which apparently meant that it had to be served in minuscule glasses. Sorry, but where I come from cider comes in pints, or half pints at the very least. We were also told that if it wasn’t made from Normandy apples it wasn’t proper cider. Pfft. Rubbish. Clearly this guy has never had 12% apple rocket fuel straight from the farm in a recycled plastic milk bottle with the price scrawled on in permanent marker.

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Another city means another free tour, to try and make up for our lack of sightseeing yesterday. This one was another yellow suitcase one, though the guide had dumped it somewhere by this point (like I said, a pain to carry round). She talked really fast so it was sometimes difficult to understand her, but a pretty good tour when we concentrated! Better than the Riga one I thought.  We also met Shameera from Singapore on the tour, who I coincidentally shared a dorm room with in Tallinn, though she left early so I talked to her for all of thirty seconds there.

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These fingerprints are on the wall of the oldest church on Vilnius, as a maker’s mark on the bricks. Our guide was proud to tell us that Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe – the leaders eventually decided it wasn’t a good idea to be pagan and surrounded by powerful Christians so they bribed the people into converting by offering them a brand new white cotton shirt at their baptism.

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The church next to the town hall went through some pretty dramatic changes. As well as switching between catholic and orthodox more than once it’s also been a wine cellar and, in soviet times, a museum of atheism (aka a museum of how evil religion is, with inquisition torture instruments and the like). It lost its bell in one of its non church modes, and since they were short on metal to replace it they opted for wind chimes instead. Tinkly, but possibly not very practical.

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My favourite part of the tour was the republic of Uzupis, the nutso artistic community over the river who decided they were going to declare themselves independent. They have their own flag, their own independence day, their own president and prime minister, as well as…

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Their own passport stamp – on independence day (April 1st, I’m not sure if this is a coincidence or an Uzupis joke) you can’t cross the river without getting your passport stamped, but for the rest of the year you can get one in a souvenir shop.

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They have their own constitutional rights. Some gems include ‘everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation’, ‘everyone shall remember their name’ and ‘a dog has the right to be a dog’

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They also have a lovely statue of Jesus Christ, who was apparently the world’s first backpacker.

After the tour the guide took us to her favourite micro brewery restaurant for Lithuanian food (score!), but I completely failed to remember the name or where it was (not so score). I had what turned out to be chili with cheese, which I will forever refer to by the much better Lithuanian name of ‘witches’ tears’

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After lunch, and more ice cream I was planning a nice gentle mooch around an art museum, but somehow got talked into joining Shameera and her friend Justine (who lives here) and walking up the hill to the three crosses for a panorama of the city.

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I am more exhausted than I’m letting on here. Haven’t climbed any hills in a while…

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Later we went to Snekutis for dinner (hint, if you order potato pancakes, you will NOT need two. Good God they are heavy). We walked into to be greeted by the most impressive facial hair I’ve ever seen, and then we opened the menu to be greeted by this:

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It was a whole photoshoot. Every page was different. If I thought I could fit it in my rucksack I would have tried to smuggle a menu out under my jacket.

And in case Lithuania’s next top model isn’t enough for you, I also saw the mayor suited up and riding his Segway. He’s famous on YouTube don’t you know.

I don’t think this comes close to Shameera getting lost the day before and bumping into Steven Tyler though. Damn.

Riga: Art Nouveau, snails and lots of food

Quite a few people told me I would really like Riga, and despite the fact that I saw even less of it than I did Tallinn, I entirely agree. For the record, I should say that I’m quite easy to please if you bribe me with sugar, and within my first two hours in Riga I had been given a free bar of chocolate. I had meet Eric from the States getting off the bus, who happened to be staying in the same hostel as me and we were walking around town together when a man approached us on the street. Now usually I’m quite wary of people who may be asking for money in the street, but when they’re carrying a bulging messenger bag and dressed all in purple with ‘Milka’ emblazoned across their chest you’re probably safe. He told us Milka were promoting compassion, or something, and we should hug and kiss our loved ones more often, so I gave Eric a hug and we were both rewarded with free large bars of chocolatey goodness. Then I hugged the Milka guy, because frankly anyone who gives me chocolate counts as a loved one. So really, after that how could I not like Riga?

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Riga is sort of similar to Tallinn in that it centres around an old town – here there are fewer mediaeval buildings, but around 800 Art Nouveau ones.

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We didn’t see anywhere near all of them, particularly since we were too busy chatting to notice much on the first afternoon, but the next day we went to seek out this lovely lady who (assuming we managed to find the right building) was voted Miss Art Nouveau in a city wide beauty contest.

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I don’t have a lot else to note from day one, but in the evening we meet up with Eric’s friend Dean from Israel and we went out to eat in Ala, which was a pain in the bum to find, but had unbelievably awesome and cheap food, and very strong hemp and ginger beer.

We then went out to find a sports bar at Dean’s request as Tel Aviv were playing Real Madrid in the basketball final – it wasn’t easy to find a bar playing the game as there was a local team playing ice hockey at the same time but it was worth the effort when a very last minute overtime victory led to Dean hugging the television.

(I’m not going to pretend I understand basketball now, mostly I was just staring at the players wondering how human beings can be so stretched out and gangly)

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On the next day we took a free tour (we had to look for a guy with a yellow suitcase, which I guess is a good way to stand out, but must be annoying to carry round). Mostly we were taken outside of the old town to be shown the alternative side to Riga. This would have been great if I was here for a while, but I think we were both hoping to hear a bit more about the old town as we knew nothing about it. Still, it was a decent tour and you can’t argue with free.

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This is the central market, which is freaking huge and would be awesome to buy a picnic in, if we weren’t already fixated on eating burgers for dinner (it was worth it, we went to Street Burgers, where I loaded up a beef burger with bacon, blue cheese, caramelised onions and pesto and easily could have died happy afterwards. This was a bit different to the fast food Hesburger joint where Eric went yesterday in desperation and had a burger tortilla. If it’s possible to roll up a burger, that should be giving off pretty heavy warning signs)

We bought an apple and rhubarb pastry to share for bus breakfast, which sounds pretty stingy until you realise that it was about a square foot in size. I also bought some halva in a plastic bag to take home which is rapidly crumbling and looking less and less legal as the days go by.

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A rather wistful looking snail gazing out at the new library building – one of many around the city which are supposedly raising awareness about how slowly the new art museum is being built. Nobody seems to have noticed that if they put the money they spent building snails towards the museum instead it might be going faster…

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This is a rather disappointing picture of the orthodox cathedral. Hmm. Sorry about that – we saw it twice before and the gold domes were glittering in the sun and looking gorgeous but each time we headed over there to take photos and got sidetracked by lunch or cider (oh how I love being back in the world of cider), so by the time we eventually went back the sun was a bit low.

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Saint Christopher, who is the patron saint of Riga, maybe. They claim he was a giant who used to carry people across the dangerous local river and one night he heard a child crying alone and carried him across to the other side, where the child magically turned into a sack of gold. Then because he was so selfless Christopher used the gold to build the city. This might be a bit of Latvian exaggeration, since he’s also the patron saint of a bunch of other places who also have similar legends, so maybe he just got very savvy about secretly golden children and kept repeating the process at every dangerous river crossing he found. He’s also the patron saint of travelers, so maybe I can thank him for getting me safely back to Europe.

(He looks like he’s asking for a tip for that)

As for one final piece of advice about Riga, perhaps you were wondering if your horse could join you in these lovely restaurants I’ve been recommending?

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Sorry, apparently not.