Travel note: putting AUS stickers on a van is absolutely pointless. People see the D on the number plate and are blind to the bloody great AUS sticker right beside it, they still automatically start speaking German and are surprised when we don’t understand. One guy did, in fact, see the sticker and then proceeded to ask us, in German, if we had been to Australia!! Go figure!
I have to admit we were crossing the Gulf of Finland to lands I knew very little about. Though I had never travelled through Scandinavia or the Nordic countries I felt I knew a bit about them, Fjords, Vikings, vodka, reindeer, Santa Claus and dumb songs by Monty Python. My knowledge of the Baltic states was limited to the fact they had been part of the Soviet Union and, after growing unrest and something called Baltic way, finally gained independence in 1991. I certainly wasn’t aware of the secret Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazi’s and the soviets to divide their ‘spheres of influence’ over Central Europe, and while I had learnt about the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis I wasn’t aware of those inflicted on their populations by the Communist occupation. This oppression saw approximately one fifth of their population either murdered or sent to Siberian gulags, in towns we had visited only months before, Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Perm. The soviets also ‘encouraged’ hundreds of thousands Russian citizens to immigrate in order to Russify these countries. I vaguely remember the struggle for independence growing through the 80’s and the ‘black ribbon days, that culminated in the Baltic way, a peaceful protest on the 23rd of August 1989 (50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) that saw approximately two million people join hands to form a human chain spanning 675.5 kilometres from Tallinn in Estonia through Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. The three countries are now proudly independent members of the EU and after financial hardships in the aftermath of the soviet collapse they are now appear to have prosperous future, though the struggle ahead is a little more evident in the rural communities.
We picked up some pork kebabs, chicken teriyaki, lamb sausages and a couple salads, set up the barbie, kicked back and enjoyed the balmy evening with a glass of wine, a bbq buffet and watched the yachts slowly return from their weekend sail or heading off back to Helsinki.... sitting a little lower in the water!
We were booked into Ribe that evening, a restaurant known for its Nordic inspired dishes using fresh local ingredients. We headed in a little early to try to tick off a couple more site. Unfortunately as we arrived the heavens opened and we hadn’t bought umbrellas or raincoats. We slowly made our way from the bus stop in the direction of the restaurant dashing between overhangs and Porte Corcheres whenever the rain eased a little.
The nice weather had returned the next day so we made a concerted effort to get back on track with our sight seeing, a list that now included the ‘Balti Jaama Turg’ market, new ‘arty hipster’ neighborhood and a vegan chocolate shop that were recommended by the friendly campsite host.
The chocolate shop was obviously the first stop, and despite being vegan the chocolate was amazing, really intense flavors and extremely rich. Next the market with its great range of fresh, non-vegan, produce, we would be back.
Ok still had that list and we needed to plan and focus...
Alexander Nevski Cathedral, tick
St Nicholas Church, tick
Danish Kings Gardens, tick
Maidens Tower, tick
Toompea Castle, tick
Town Hall Square, tick
Town Hall, tick
St Olaf’s church, tick
Ok now back to the market for the lamb and that shop for the vegan chocolate!
That night I cooked roasted saddle of lamb with wild mushroom purée, garden peas, burnt onion and a red wine jus. Rather tasty I must admit!
We have been finding these city-camps in all the European cities they are usually set up on large areas of pavement such as yacht club hard stands and exhibition hall car parks, they are a great idea generating income from underutilized space and offering travelers easy access to explore the city.
Riga is a small, attractive, city of around 700,000 people set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava. It’s medieval old town and beautiful timber buildings have established it, like Tallinn, as a must do stop on the cruise-liner circuit.
Before leaving Riga we hit the market one more time to get some ingredients for the following days.
We headed toward Liepaja on the Latvian west coast, Tom Tom knew how to get there, unfortunately, however nobody told her that the intersection she suggested had not been built yet! She quickly recalculated and sent us on 30km detour over corrugated gravel roads that shook the bejeezers out of the van. We finally arrived and camped up in a lovely forested camp near a lake a little out of town.
We found a wonderful place called City Forest Hostel and camping right on the edge of Vilnius historic centre. It was a cool hostel, with a great outdoor bar and BBQ terrace, that had 4 or 5 spots for campers. Not sure we were their target market!
We found a statue of a mermaid under a bridge then discovered that legend has it that if you find this secret sculpture and stare into her eyes you are destined to stay in Uzupis forever... nah.. we needed dinner. We found a cliche tourist restaurant in the middle of the ‘old town’ serving traditional Lithuanian dishes, and against our better judgement decided to try it. I had quail with buck wheat and pears (allegedly a 17th century recipe) Bea had beaver stew, I never thought I would ever see Bea eating beaver!
We walked back into town the next morning with a more planned itinerary which included The Gates of Dawn, Gediminas Castle and several of its famous cathedrals along with Palace of Concerts and Sports and of course the Hales Market.
That afternoon, after swinging through the Hales Market for dinner ingredients we headed off, via decathlon for running shoes, toward Poland.