Ye Olde Booze Cruise

As far as I remember, my trip to Tallinn marked the first time I had intentionally bought a ticket and not used it. After being told that I could get cheap ferries I was dismayed to find that on a Friday everything was at least €35 single, until Petri – who is a legend – managed to find me a day return for 18.  I stayed in Tallinn for two nights, though my ticket told me I should have gone back to Finland four hours later laden down with cheap alcohol (no really, the actual boarding pass had the alcohol customs limits printed onto it).  I’ve had an email from the company since which was all in Finnish, so either they were saying ‘sorry you missed the boat, would you like another ticket?’ or ‘we know you broke the rules, you sneaky foreigner, and we’re going to track you down and drag you back to Helsinki’

Despite being back in Europe and close to home I have to admit that I know almost nothing about any of the Baltic countries – my facts for Latvia and Lithuania equal zero, and just edging ahead of them my facts for Estonia are:

1. The Finnish go on booze cruises there (yes, I learned this the day before)
2. They hosted Eurovision not too long ago.
3. They have lots of knitwear.

image

Somehow I don’t think the centres of knitting tradition are in the capital, but it does mean that if you’re cold you can buy some nice factory produced souvenirs from well dressed shop mannequins.

image

image

image

The centre of Tallinn is the old mediaeval town, and while there are things to see outside of it, this is where to go if you only have a day and a half available.  I lucked out and got gorgeous weather for both days which meant lots of nice free walking, just aimlessly wandering around, mostly mapless, popping into whatever shops and galleries caught my eye. If you manage to avoid the usual tacky tourist shops there are actually quite a lot of interesting handicraft shops here, which probably means it’s a good thing that I didn’t have any cash as I don’t really have space in my bag for a leather bound photo album. Or a sheepskin rug. Or a wrought iron wine glass rack for the wine glasses that I don’t own because I don’t drink wine.

(Logic doesn’t count with souvenirs right?)

image

I managed to miss the free tour here, so I don’t have a lot of information about the old town, but I learned from the map that this well used to be associated with evil spirits who had the potential to completely destroy the city. In order to appease the spirits, the super smart residents used to throw dead cats down the well. And then they had to close it because the water got contaminated. Genius.

image

The town hall, right in the middle of the old town, was started in the thirteenth century and finished in 1404, back in the days before they knew how to make flat floors. This is the hub for all the tourist activity and the town square is crowded with the kind of restaurants that have people standing outside with menus to lure indecisive tourists in for overpriced mediocre food.

image

Right in the town hall however is Ill Draakon, which totally belongs to the mediaeval theme park of old town with food in clay pots and staff in traditional costumes with ye olde banter BUT, completely unexpectedly, the food is cheap and really good. I got myself the advertised ‘decent bowl of elk soup’ and an apple pie for all of €3.

image

On my second afternoon I went on a walk beyond the old town to see what else the day trippers were missing. If I’d had more time and more money there are a few places to visit – open air museum, seaplane hangar, observation tower etc – but being broke I decided to go into the free contemporary art gallery near the ferry terminal. Hmm. Well. The creepy doll heads were the most normal thing in there. Generally it was six rooms of the worst examples of I’m-better-than-you art.

‘Oh, you don’t like my installation of a rock and a jar of human fat? Well no, I wouldn’t expect someone of your level of consciousness to get it.’

So I took my level of consciousness off to the park and read War of the Worlds on the grass with an ice cream. Pfft.

image

And then just to prove that not all Estonians are up their own arse fat, I stumbled onto a mini festival/craft fair/jumble sale on the way back. No idea what these guys were singing but they were happy and enthusiastic and popular with the kids. And had great trousers.

Nice one, Estonia, I’ll be back to see more of you some day.

Resisting the urge to Finnish this one with a terrible pun…

Three and a half hours after leaving St Petersburg I was back in a wholly European country for the first time in 11 months, landing in Helsinki station. I might have chosen one of the most expensive countries possible, but luckily I happened to meet an accommodating young Finnish gentlemen in Lake Toba back at Christmas.

(I’m very grateful to people who grant me free sofas, so even if you’ve previously asked me to smell your mouldy finger, you still get identified as a gentleman)

When I announced my itinerary on Facebook one of my friends helpfully told me that Helsinki was dull, so I asked Petri if he was going to prove him wrong. His response was ‘Errr… yeah, he’s probably right’. Hopefully that just means Finns are modest. I have to say on day one that didn’t bother me much as I hadn’t slept much before having to get up at 5 to catch my train, so once we got to Petri’s apartment I more or less fell straight to sleep.

image

After I was back in the land of the living we headed into the town centre with a couple of his friends to go out drinking in Kallio, the red light district cheap drinking district.  Cheap drinking in Helsinki means that your pints only cost the bargain price of €4.50, so it’s a good thing I’m a lightweight.

Important cultural note: Finnish for cheers is ‘keppis’, which conveniently sounds like everyone is instructing you to get pissed, which we did our best to obey.

image

The next day, feeling surprisingly perky (or at least I was), we headed out for the sea fortress of Suomenlinna, set on a couple of islands in the harbour.

image

It was built in the 1750s, and still has people living there, but doesn’t have much of a successful history as a military base – back in the 1800s, the Russians invaded by land so the soldiers on the island were stuck watching Helsinki being taken over and just decided ‘Ahh, bugger it, we may as well give up’, without firing a single gun.

image

It’s a pretty (and most importantly, free) place to walk around – the northern half looks like a little country town and the southern half is all hobbit houses and massive guns looking out to sea.

image

Bit windy this day – we were feeling cold and increasingly tired by this point so we headed back and ended the visit in style with plentiful gin and tonic, homemade macaroni cheese and The Big Lebowski.

Next stop Estonia, where the Finns go for their cheap booze cruises! (Hopefully this means my wallet can recover from €5 bus tickets)

Rain stops play

Raaaain.

Rain, rain, everywhere rain.

Apparently the lovely weather I had in Moscow is being paid for in St Petersburg.

image

It’s a shame because this looks like it would be a lovely city to wander around when it’s sunny, but that wasn’t to be, so instead I’m left trying to find affordable things to do indoors. Generally this means churches and museums, which I imagine I will be seeing a lot of in Europe. Is there anything else you can do without money or sunshine? It’s a good thing I’m nearly home or I might have to resort to selling one of my kidneys to pay for tourist attractions.

image

St Petersburg does at least have a rather impressive church – with domes almost as cartoon coloured as St Basil’s, this is the Church on Spilled Blood. A charming name, I’m sure you’ll agree.

image

Unlike Basil’s gaff, I did actually go inside this one, which is very much recommended as the mosaics covering the walls are totally amazing.

image

Including: Mary in the burning bush?? Now admittedly I’m not that well up on my bible stories, but I definitely don’t remember this one.

image

The other big (BIG) thing to do in St Petersburg is the State Hermitage museum, which I spent a good 5 hours in and didn’t come close to finishing. I assume this means it’s the country’s biggest art museum, and as well as the exhibits, the building itself is pretty dang impressive.

image

The bottom is full of antiquities, and then the exhibits get newer as you work your way upstairs to the more familiar Monets and Picassos and Van Goghs.

image

My favourite item in the whole museum though was this tiny little wooden box from the 16th century with the most minute carvings all over it. For scale, this is about the size of a wine glass. I got told off for leaning on the case to get a better look. Booo.

Aside from this, I spent a lot of my time in the hostel, where I tried to be sociable, but most people only spoke Russian and the only guy slurring at me in English told me that he liked the simple beauty of my aesthetics because he could see that I had a lot of blood.

Um.

What?

So in between rain and avoiding undesirable company I had plenty of time to finish planning out the last two weeks of my trip. I know! The last two weeks! It’s gone so fast!  As I’m writing this I’m sitting in a flat in Helsinki (drinking lots of gin), and from tomorrow I’ll be going through Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Berlin and Paris. Any suggestions and recommendations would be great!

Not too many churches and museums though.

Spontaneity, with the bruises to prove it

I was in Moscow on the 9th of May. I didn’t know this before, but this is Victory Day, the celebration of the end of the Great Patriotic War (WWII). This is, according to both my tour guide and my hostel owner, the biggest celebration in Russia, bigger than Christmas or Easter. Being here on this weekend has its ups and downs. On the downside lots of things are closed, including the Lenin mausoleum, so after skipping Ho Chi Minh and Mao I’ve missed my last chance to see an embalmed communist. Mind you, I’d quite like to come back to Moscow, and as my tour guide said, he’ll still be dead.

On the upside, massive military parade!

image

image

These two photos are from the rehearsal two days before, as ordinary peasants aren’t allowed in to see the real parade, but you can stand on the streets around the Kremlin to see all the armoured vehicles pouring in and out.

image

Look how happy they are! Who said soviets don’t smile? Just give them a tank.

Also note the difference in weather there – it hasn’t rained in Moscow on Victory Day in decades, and that isn’t an accident. Just to make sure they have clear skies for the parade the government spend thousands in the lead up on cloud seeding – which means releasing chemicals into the clouds to force them to rain on command, thereby clearing the sky for the next few days. It totally works, I was on a walking tour on the 7th and they made it snow on us, then that afternoon and the next two days were absolutely gorgeous.

After the parade I went to Ismailovo Kremlin on a souvenir shipping mission and stumbled across another celebration, which was mainly based around kids singing and dancing in adorable outfits. (The Ismailovo Kremlin by the way, as well as having a bunch of tiny museums – which were shut, has cheaper souvenirs than Arbat street, though sadly not cheap enough for my budget, so the boyfriend will have to go without his fur hat)

image

image

After my tour, (which was good despite the snow and half the things we were trying to see being closed!), our guide Elena advised me to go to the Kremlin (the proper one) that afternoon as it would be closed for the rest of the time I was in Moscow.  I have to say I knew almost nothing about the Kremlin – I had the impression it was a fortress for some reason and was expecting something stark and forbidding inside.

image

Instead, there’s a beautiful square with SEVEN different cathedrals round it. (Mind you, if Mr. The Terrible is anything to go by, Russian rulers had a lot of confessing to do)

image

If you want military strength, there’s also a comedy giant cannon inside the grounds, which is too big to ever work.

image

Obligatory photo of St Basil’s. Also closed. Pah. But the outside’s more interesting than the inside right? I’m going to assume so.

image

One of the things I told myself I absolutely had to do in Moscow was see either the ballet or the circus (guess which I ended up doing?). Elena had said it was sometimes possible to get last minute tickets to the ballet for as little as 500 rubles, which is about £9. Sadly when I went to check the only tickets available were 9000 rubles, so I quickly made the decision to go to the circus instead! And I’m so glad I did!

It’s a shame the only photos I could get were of the animals posing in the lobby, as the big cat act was the only disappointing part of the circus. It got the least applause from the mostly Russian audience so maybe it’s not just wannabe politically correct Brits feeling awkward about potential animal cruelty. Let’s be honest, even if they’re the happiest tigers and leopards in the world, they’re still cats and cats are inherently lazy, so they don’t really do the most interesting tricks.  On the other hand, the other 90% of the circus is filled with incredible bendy, bouncy magic people juggling rings and twiddling on trapezes and… um… changing their clothes. Very quickly. I remember going to a traveling Moscow circus when I was quite young and being astounded by that act. I still love it.

It makes me wonder what all the furore about gays is about. Russians are famous for circuses, ballets and gold medal gymnastics, how can they still be anti gay when a good proportion of their population is bendy and sparkly and downright fabulous?

With all this stunning weather I had to spend some time outside, and luckily Moscow has great parks and my hostel (Houseton, available on Hostel Bookers) was in a fantastic location less then 5 minutes away from 2 of them.

image

The Art Muzeon Sculpture Park started of with a few abandoned sculptures of communist leaders, then gradually filled up with more and more weirdness, including a wall of faces, several individual giant ears, and a ferryman with bunny ears transporting rabbits pretending to be in Titanic. After you’re done with the statues, this is right next to the New Tretyakov, a really good contemporary art museum. While I was there they happened to have a temporary exhibition on Bolshoi theatre design, which would have made me almost wish I had seen the ballet or the opera, if the circus hadn’t been good enough to make up for it.

On the other side of the Tretyakov is Gorky park, an enormous park which makes up for what it lacks in statues with activities instead. All around the park people are skating or biking or riding strange pedalo carts, all of which are available to hire. Alternatively, if you’ve been on your feet too long, you can choose:

image

A sea of hammocks!

Brilliant!

I honestly thought that was it for that day. I came back to the hostel, showered, made some dinner, ambled around Facebook and was sat in the kitchen when the owner Kiri, who I hadn’t even met yet, came in and said ‘do you like to skate?’. This was around 10.30. I haven’t been on rollerblades since I was 8.  All my sensible boring voices were saying ‘laugh and say no thanks!’ For once, I didn’t listen to those voices, which was how I ended up sort of waddling, clutching on to Kiri’s shoulder and occasionally gliding off in the wrong direction straight into a wall on the way back to the park.  Thankfully getting to the park was the hardest bit and once I got there I had sort of got into my stride again, though the downhill parts still made me nearly pee myself with terror. We skated until well past midnight, when I eventually had to give up because my left ankle had gone beyond blister to no skin left , but I can honestly say that I had a lot of fun!

image

(Edited to add wobbly proof of me on skates!)

And in all that time I only fell on my arse four times!

Shut up, I’d like to see you do better after 20 years.

An ode to my one true love

O heed ye and learn ye, on all of life’s journey
Explore every country for things that taste nice
My taste buds are fizzing for all Asian cuisine
My eyes have been opened by noodles and rice

I won’t be in a hurry to forget about curry
Rambutans, mangosteens, weird fruit galore
I’ve gone way beyond Pad Thai from Bangkok to Shanghai
I just couldn’t stop myself tasting some more

Ramen and maki and sweet teriyaki
The flavours of Asia may make my heart sing
But despite all my eating, devotion is fleeting
A holiday romance, a short spicy fling

Now homelands remind me of good things behind me
To my one true love I must pen this homage
Although I did leave thee, I’m back to retrieve thee
My constant beloved, my pure sweet fromage

O glorious feta, you make the world better
My daydreams are filled up with stiltons and bries
I just Camembert-y a life without dairy
Ah Europe is Gouda, the land of the cheese.

So yeah, I’m back in Europe, where sadly I have to limit eating out to once a day lest I run out of money to get home and have to live in a box in Latvia, but happily where self catering involves plenty of cow based goodness.

Hostels are somewhat easier to feed yourself in than long train journeys – there’s only so much fresh food you can take, so on the almost 3 day trip out of Irkutsk I started off gleefully stuffing myself with fresh bread and cheese on the first day, but by the third day had discovered that the only thing more depressing than instant noodles was instant mashed potato. I have however had people sharing my compartment this time – the lady I shared with for the first day didn’t speak a word of English but kept babbling on to me for ages anyway. She also insisted on sharing her food with me but didn’t want to take any of mine in return. I considered it a personal victory when I got her to accept a single cherry tomato.

On my way West I’ve stopped in Yekaterinburg and Perm. They…aren’t the most cosmopolitan places, and the tourist attractions are somewhat lacking in English so I probably stayed too many nights in each, but they’re decent places to break up the journey for a day each. Both of them have self guided walking tours (painted on the pavements so you can’t get lost), which mostly walk around the historical buildings in the cities, with bits and pieces of street art in between.

image

image

image

image

image

image

Now if you don’t mind there’s half a wheel of brie in the bridge calling my name.