Tails of a Travelling Cat
The Finland-Baltic Edition
Day 5 - Riga to Vilnius
Greetings, humans! Today is our final day! How can time have gone so fast, yet at the same time our wander around Töölönalahti Bay way back in Helsinki seems eons ago. Anyway, today we left our swanky AirBnb in Riga to catch another Lux Express coach onto our final city of Vilnius and what a city it is. But before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you how we got there.
We returned to Riga Bus Station, with a detour via the statue of Roland by City Hall, seeing as we’d forgotten to take a picture of it yesterday in all the excitement of, well, life I presume.
Picture taken, we made it to the station in plenty of time and boarded another comfy Lux coach. This one was a bit noisier than yesterday’s, due to the fact that more people seemed to want to travel from Riga to Vilnius than Tallinn to Riga. We settled down to enjoy the ride which, apart from the sun being in our eyes for the majority of the journey, featured a lot of farmland (much fewer forests than yesterday), which all seemed to be rather flat – where are the mountains? I’d take a hill, I’m missing elevation.
About an hour into our journey we passed into Lithuania, I forget what exactly it was that made us realise this, as there wasn’t a border crossing (redundant or otherwise) in sight, but we felt we’d entered our fourth and final country and sure enough, we soon found some LT number plates. Lithuania is also a lot of farmland, but seems to have more towns and villages. We should know, we drove across it for three hours. Vilnius, which seems to have a variety of spellings – Vilnia, Vilnija, Vilniana – is geographically quite close to the border with Belarus. This is the second time we’ve come to a country sharing a border with Belarus and not actually visited it, due to the fact you need a visa to enter. (The first country, in case you were wondering, was Poland, in the Eastern Europe Edition).
Anyway, we drove through the least touristy part of Vilnius one can imagine and disembarked at the bus station, to the south of the Old Town. As we would be flying home in the evening, we decided it would be a good idea to eat out for lunch and so, that’s where we headed, walking through the Old Town, stopping to marvel at the many fantastic buildings on offer, including those along Pilies Street, which were exceptionally wonderful.
We arrived at the Rose Hip Bistro, one of only two fully vegan places in Vilnius and settled down in preparation for a gigantic lunch and believe me it was, my human decided a three course meal would be the way to go. Charlie started with a pink hummus platter. It was very pink, so I was indescribably happy. This platter, which could have been a main meal in itself (if you weren’t too hungry), had a pot of pink hummus for its centre and circling said pinkness like an ancient tribe worshipping a god (Charlie was reading the Viking book again), were toasted tortilla triangles, red olives, carrot sticks, pesto-drizzled cucumber and red pepper. The cucumber was arranged in a semi-circle almost like a smile, one could say it was grinning like a Cheshire Cat, seeing as we’re on the subject of pinkness. Finishing this, Charlie moved straight on to the Mexican burger and wedges. Yes, another burger. This one featured a lentil and bean patty loaded with gherkins, jalepeñoes, tomatoes, cheese, tortilla chips and sauce. This was as large a portion as the starter, but this didn’t stop Charlie wading into dessert. This was a chocolate brownie – yes another one of them as well! With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, a liberal dollop (or veritable sea) of peanut butter, goji berries and another form of dried berries. Unsure if these were edible, Charlie decided to eat them anyway. All this food went down very well and only cost 16€, not bad for a huge three course meal.
Thoroughly stuffed, we then decided it would be a good idea to walk up a hill, in quite strong wind. This was in seeking Gedaminas’ Castle, high on its own hill. Most of the Castle had been destroyed, leaving only the tower and some ruins. A lot of renovation work was going on, meaning some of the paths were closed, because of this we didn’t get to investigate the ruin but the tower was still accessible. From our windy vantage point we surveyed the city below us. It was so windy that when I ventured out of the bag for a picture, it was so strong Charlie had to hold onto me as I was genuinely taking off. No thank you, I like my flights to be well controlled, like on a plane (which coincidently, is where this Tail is being written). When we decided we’d had enough of the wind, we hurried back down the hill to investigate the grounds of the National Museum where we found a cat who was rather shy and didn’t want to say hello. Then we headed off in search of the Cathedral (that’s the only name it seems to have) via a statue of a king (sorry, I don’t remember which one). The Cathedral, made almost entirely in white, is gigantic and the belfry is an impressive sight as well. We then sat on a bench to admire the view of a rock commemorating 650 years of Vilnius and a statue of Gediminas and a horse.
We then passed through a nice garden, crossed a scary bridge over the River Vilnia and found the most inconveniently placed embassy I have ever known, located quite far off the main streets, the Dutch Embassy. From here, we ascended many, many steps to the top of the Hill of Three Crosses (Triju Kryžiu kalnas. The three white crosses are a monument to fourteen Franciscan monks who were allegedly crucified and thrown from the hill into the river. Although crosses have been on this site since 1613, they have had many reincarnations, corroding or being torn down over the centuries, but now made of concrete, they’re a city landmark and it seems they’re here to stay. The views from the hill top captivated Charlie and I, we both sat simply enjoying the view for a long time. The city is home to a huge array of architecture. A green building at the foot of the hill suggests Budapest, a pink building in the distance (probably another church) seems almost Middle Eastern, maybe something you would find in the desert. Another ornate church has hints of Italy about it and there’s clear Russian influences in some of the other churches. Yep, like the rest of our trip, there are a lot of churches here.
After deciding it was time to leave the amazing view (we could have ended up sitting there until we had to leave for the airport it was so captivating), we headed for some more hills. We visited Table Hill, which the Russians decided needed a flat top (I don’t know why), Mound Hill, Altana Hill and Gedaminas’ Grave Hill. That’s its actual name. I don’t know what they called it before Gedaminas was buried there, but I do know Gedimans was a Grand Duke of Lithuania, who died in 1341.
It was nearly time to catch our flight, so we left the hill by our incredibly steep path, that noun I use as loosely as the ground we walked upon. We had climbed up this way, but failing (mostly by not looking) to find any other route down, took the precarious route. Needless to say, we both survived and headed to the bus stop, via the Užupis Republic, an area of Vilnius which has proclaimed independence although from what I’m not sure as several buildings still flew Lithuanian flags.
The Republic might get its name from Užupis Gate (Street), or it could be the other way round, who knows which is the cause and which the effect. The Republic had a chilled atmosphere to it, but soon we had to cross back over the river and visit the Gates of Dawn, located conveniently right next to our bus stop, from where a bus would take us to the airport.
Unknown to us previously, the Gates of Dawn were the entrance to (another) church meaning we walked passed them at first, without realising what they were. Mistake corrected, we had an observation, then headed across the road to the bus stop. We were impressed that a single ticket cost just 1€, contrast that with the 6.90€ we paid to get from Helsinki Airport into the city!
The bus took us via Ikea and pulled up in front of the fanciest airport façade we have ever seen. We queued for only a couple of minutes at security, passed through straight away and on checking the departures board for our gate were horrified to see our flight was boarding already, an hour before take-off. Fortunately, the airport is tiny and our gate wasn’t far away. Horrid airport needlessly worrying us, there was still a long queue of people waiting to have their boarding passes and passports checked and once we were through that, we then were stuck in the tunnel type thing for at least half an hour. We were then cramped into the world’s slowest moving buses which took us in a loop around the terminal, passed the cargo section and the private jets until we began to wonder where our plane actually was. Finally we saw a WizzAir plane and eventually we were allowed off the buses to queue on the tarmac. After another long time, we finally made it onto the plane. Despite boarding beginning an hour early, we took off thirty-five minutes late. How is that possible? It seems quite an achievement.
Anyway, the flight was uneventful and we settled down for a nice nap. We landed almost on time and then had to queue for far too long at a ticket machine to buy train tickets before we were allowed on the coach to take us to the train station. As a result, we missed the first coach and a few trains, but finally we made it onto a coach. After a wait of fifteen minutes, we finally got on a train which took us from Luton into St Pancras, a train that took surprisingly longer than we had expected. We then had another half hour wait for our connecting train but finally we were on our last leg of the journey home. And then that train was late.
I’ve decided I don’t like British trains, only those in mainland Europe, they’re nicer. Anyway, that’s the end of our latest adventure. We’ve seen and done so much!
Here’s to the next adventure!
Until then folks,
Day 4 - Tallinn to Riga
Greetings, humans! So, today we left Tallinn in search of another new city and another mode of transport – the coach. Now of course, Charlie and I have both been on a coach before, such as the Flybus which took us into Reykjavík in the Iceland Edition and Charlie has vague memories of coach-based school trips to France and Belgium where the vehicle was old, noisy, smelly and always either too hot or too cold. Not so with the Lux Express. These coaches lived up to their name and as we boarded the 9:00 number 14 from Tallinn Central Bus Station which actually isn’t very central at all (and in fact was just across the road from the AirBnb), we knew we were in store for a pleasant and mostly comfortable journey and that was only because my fidgety Charlie was incapable of sitting still for 10 minutes, let alone the four and a half hours this coach journey would last. So, after taking a good look out the window and assessing that Estonia is just one large forest (if a farmed monoculture), I settled down for a nap.
Charlie watched the trees and made use of the free Wifi – we hadn’t had any Wifi since yesterday’s scary ferry and the human had the internet to catch up on, such as checking us in for our flight home from Vilnius tomorrow. What a lot we’re packing into this trip – we’ve not even arrived in Riga yet (or Latvia for that matter) and we’re thinking about leaving Vilnius!
Around half way through our journey I woke up long enough to watch us cross the border. Not that there was much of a border crossing, the coach slowed down slightly and to our left were some long-disused customs points, which looked like a toll booth but with the roof of a petrol station and then we were into Latvia, into the land of LV number plates, although a few EST plates had followed us and then promptly overtook us. I said the coach was comfy, I never said it was fast.
Estonia might have been the land of endless forest with the odd thoroughly disconnected houses appearing suddenly out of the trees and towns so rare they had to be announced with a sign showing a city skyline, Latvia seemed to be all farmland. There were even hay bales in the fields, which seems entirely the wrong time of year to me. Maybe they were left there since last harvest?
Whatever the hay bales’ origins, the farmland was quickly swallowed back up by forest. I’m assuming Estonia and Latvia produce a lot of timber? And amber, it’s in all the gift shops but I don’t really know why.
As much as I like trees, when all I can do is look at them, they quickly lose my interest and so I returned to napping, Charlie eventually joined me and then we were driving through Riga, unbeknownst to us at the time passing several of the landmarks we wouldn’t visit later. The coach pulled into the bus station right on time and with trains rattling over the bridge above our heads (the train station was right next door) we headed off to the AirBnb to check in.
Just outside the Old Town, located in a rather unlikely place – set so far back from the road it was behind a rather rundown apartment block – we found our AirBnb, a surprisingly large apartment with a comfy purple sofa. I was happy.
In the kitchen-lounge we found a large collection of maps and guides. We only needed the City Map but on it we found a wonderful route, marked in orange and yellow, giving us an excellent walking tour of Old Riga’s landmarks.
For those of you who are logically minded, it might hurt your heads and hearts to hear that, although the points on the routes were numbered, we started at number 29 (which wasn’t actually included in the official route), picked up the tour at number 9 then walked the route in reverse. Now let me explain why we did it this way and I’m sure you’ll agree it was not just the only logical way to do it, but also the right way. Points 8 and 9 didn’t actually fit into the vague circle the route made, jutting out of the Old Town, meaning we would have had to double back on ourselves if we’d started at any other point. Secondly, we were starting from our AirBnb, and points 29 and 9 were the closest starting point - economy of steps with limited time! – and we did it in reverse because point 12, which I’m very excited to tell you about, would have been almost at the end if we had gone in ascending order and we wanted to be sure we saw it before the day got dark.
And so, I’m sure you’re as excited as I am to begin the tour. Our first stop, point 29, was the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, which did look very Russian, but also a bit Middle Eastern, with hints of the Taj Mahal in its domes. Here there was also a monument to a military sort of prince who had Scottish ancestry but was Latvian or possibly Lithuanian – there was some debate. Our next stop was the Freedom Monument, dedicated to the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-20), spring boarded by the February Revolution in Russia, which due to the old Russian date convention (seventeen days behind much of the rest of the world) actually took place in March. Anyway, onto the Laima Clock. Besides being great advertising for the Laima Confectionary Company (named after the Latvian goddess of fate), it has a bit of history behind it. During the time of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic or SSR from 1940-91, excluding 1942-3 while it was occupied by the Nazis (independence didn’t last long) when Latvia was a USSR puppet state, the clock was used to distribute propaganda. Since independence it’s been reconstructed twice, its current renovation being completed in 2017.
Next up was a square full of beautiful, colourful buildings, including my favourite point 12, the Cat House! Yes, that’s really its name! There are two versions of why the Cat House came to be and who am I to tell you which is fact and which a fiction? Anyway, there are two cats on turrets on the roof of this giant yellow house, facing the Great Guild on the other side of the street, tails up and backs arched. Version one of how they came to be here is that the wealthy trader who commissioned this fine building, for unspecified reasons, was refused Riga Tradesmen’s Guild membership. In revenge, the trader wanted the cats built with their tails to the Great Guild, but later they were ordered to be turned around so today they face the Guild instead. Version two is that the trader instead pointed the cats’ butts towards the Town Hall after a dispute with the City Council, the Town Hall at the time (1909) being near the Great Guild. Whichever is true, Rigan souvenir shops are now full of cat paraphernalia, something I highly approve of. For a local tale (or do I mean tail?) born just over a century ago, the cats have taken over the city’s tourist shops in force – as we rightly should.
Now it’s time to leave the cats and continue on our tour. Next up was the Powder Tower, which housed the Latvian War Museum. As interested as we were to learn about the country’s history, the museum would take the best part of two hours to complete and with few precious hours of daylight remaining, we decided to keep touring.
We passed Jacob’s Barracks which was under renovation but had the crests of many things on the end wall (counties or military units who knows). Once used by the army (unsurprisingly), it’s now home to bars, salons, craft shops and other markings of 21st century commercialism. It was once the longest building in the city, so after a quick detour to survey Riga from the squat little Bastion Hill and another detour down a quaint side street to find the Swedish Gate (which is now more accurately described as an arch), we wandered along the building’s length. Hidden in the old city wall, we found a ghost, but I maintain it looks more like a Dementor. Wait, can I see Dementors? Holy guacamole, I’m a wizard, Harry!
Anyway, the Swedish Gate was built in 1698, allowing access to the Jacob’s Barracks which were outside the city wall. After this, we visited the Parliament Building, St James’ Cathedral and the Trīs Brāli (Three Brothers), three nicely coloured houses.
We then crossed the horrifyingly wide Daugava River in plans to visit the old wooden houses of the Kipsala Island but half way across the bridge we decided against it because it was raining (oh horrors!) and we could see the houses well enough from where we stood. With the time restraints we decided to return to the Old Town but not before taking some stunning pictures of the Castle which we visited next. I was rather disappointed to see it was one of these new-fangled castles and not a proper medieval one, but I know I can’t always get what I want. It’s a hard truth, I should be able to. Unfortunately, most things are quite resistant to becoming pink, which we all know is my deepest desire.
Anyway, moving on, we investigated the outside of the castle and the blue church, unidentified on the map, to visit Lielaps Kristaps (Big Christopher) on the 11th November Embankment. Big Christopher was a ‘tall strong man’ (but apparently not a giant) who carried people across the big scary river before Riga even existed. One night he carried a super-heavy child across the river, who in the morning had turned into a chest of gold (or just left behind a chest of gold). When the Big K died, the money was used to build Riga, the first building was built where Kristaps’ shack used to be.
Next up was the Riga Dome Cathedral in Doms Square. Dom comes from the Latvian for dome (doma) and isn’t named after someone called Dom. In the shadow of the Cathedral was a large compass with four wonderful statues surrounding it. There was a unicorn, an owl, a dragon and my absolute favourite the armadillo!
Onwards to the City Hall (the one these cats may or may not have been meant to snub), and a café called the Fat Cat, the Blackheads House and the Statue of Roland. Those last two may need some explaining. We’ll start with Roland as some of you may remember, I have a buddy by that name. Anyway, this Roland was one of the twelve paladins of Charlemagne’s court. He was also a confidant of the Holy Roman Emperor (not sure which one), but died in 778 at the Battle of Roncevaux pass. The Blackhead’s House has nothing to do with acne (officially) and relates to another Guild, this one of merchants, ship owners and foreigners, who were unmarried. Very specific.
We then continued our quest onto St Peter’s Church and St John’s Church between which was a sculpture of a chicken, standing on a cat, dog and pig (the Musicians of Bremen). We then passed through John’s Yard and investigated the Konventa Sita Hotel, made up of lots of old buildings around a very thin courtyard. We then finished up our tour along Gleznotāju iela (Painter’s Street) and R. Vagnera iela (Wagner’s Street). What was so special about these two places I’m not entirely sure, but the buildings were nice.
Whistle stop tour completed just as the light was beginning to fade, we headed to Bio Bio with the intention of a coffee to warm the human up – it had stopped raining (finally) – praise whatever ancient Latvian god controls the weather, but it was now getting chilly. However, we never did get a coffee, Charlie got distracted by the carob and tahini milkshake. We ordered one of these, making a passable translation of the Latvian – apples, dates, carrots, vanilla syrup, tahini and what would have been banana, but due to Charlie’s banana issues, this was swapped for avocado. Surprisingly, this didn’t taste of avocado and was thick and tasted great.
We then headed to the wonderfully named Fat Pumpkin for dinner. For Charlie, this was a Hawaiian burger with a falafel patty, grilled pineapple (no surprise there), gherkins, salad and cheese with excellent chips and mayo.
Charlie was very happy with this and we headed to Māzā Terapija for some cake. Charlie chose exceptionally well here – a huge slab (and the last slice) of ‘honey’ cake with a crumble top (we never did find out what the ‘honey’ in the middle was made of – could have been maple butter – but it tasted vanilla-y) and a slice of chocolate glazed brownie. Charlie ate these while writing up the blog which made for a very happy human.
Well, we certainly crammed a lot into those few hours we had here in Riga. It’s definitely a lovely city, small enough that anything of any interest to anybody is easy walking distance and full of beautiful buildings.
So, it’s on to Vilnius tomorrow, our final stop on this jam packed tour.
Until then folks,
Day 3 - Helsinki to Tallinn
Greetings, humans! We’ve reached the halfway point of this trip! The day began early again as we had to walk to the other harbour (yes, Helsinki, scarily enough is so surrounded by water it has two harbours) to catch our ferry to Tallinn. Wait, what? We’re going by boat to Estonia? Oh, sweet doughnuts! I did not agree to this.
The West Harbour was as ice-encrusted as the East which we departed for Suomelinna from yesterday and after some confusion as to where the check in area was, we found the rather swanky Terminal 2 from where our Eckerö Line ferry would depart. After check-in, we climbed on a very long escalator which took us up the equivalent of many floors to the departure lounge which horrifyingly was glass-fronted and looked out on what was, besides the odd dotted island, a vast expanse of empty Baltic Sea from here to… well… the Baltics. At 8:30, we were allowed on board the ship, we descended like ravenous wolves (considering my general feelings on canines, I don’t know why that’s the simile that came to mind) onto Deck 6 of 9. The cars got to sleep in the lower decks, the upper decks contained passenger cabins and entertainment facilities which seemed to consist entirely of food, alcohol and arcade games. We had a two berth cabin all to ourselves which we headed straight for in the expectation of having a ‘good’ view of the sea. On entering the cabin, we discovered although we had our own bathroom and two beds, the ceiling was mirrored and they had neglected to put in a single window. Even I felt claustrophobic at the thought of spending two hours (two hours, is it really that long?) enclosed in a reflective artificially lit box, so we left in search of daylight. I realise this probably makes us seem like highly inexperienced sea travellers, but the longest I’ve spent on a ferry was the forty minute train ferry which took us from Denmark to Germany way back in the Europe Edition and the longest either of us have spent on a boat of any description was probably the Danube River Cruise in the not-so-distant past of the Eastern Europe Edition. Either way, the ferry should perhaps more accurately be termed a ship, maybe even a cruise ship, except cars don’t normally come on cruises do they?
Anyway, we took a trip around the seventh and eighth decks, I had unfortunate reminiscences of the Titanic and then we headed up to nine, the sun deck. After deciding it really wasn’t sun deck weather, we headed back down to eight where we found the pub, located at the very front of the boat/ferry/ship. Between the seventh and eighth decks, the front of the boat sloped forward quite sharply creating an extra wedge of Deck 7 which we descended to, where there was a live band warming up (oh good, free entertainment) and many chairs and tables, the tables of which were bolted to the ground in case of water turbulence (I assume there’s a proper word for that besides choppiness), but the chairs weren’t so in case of emergency, sit on a chair and hold onto the nearest table.
Charlie naturally chose a table as close as possible to the large glass window at the front of the ship and I resigned myself to hiding in my bag. Charlie was reading the Viking book when we departed and didn’t even realise the ship had taken off. Left to fend for myself, I summoned my inner Viking, in reference to a certain placard we found in Reykjavík – see the Iceland Edition (I seem to be plugging my previous Tails a lot today, I would apologise, but I’m shameless so instead I invite you to check them out) and steeled myself for a watery journey to previously unexplored lands (Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia with a population of 440,000).
My distracted human finally noticed the ship was moving, but was I offered comfort? No, Charlie returned almost immediately to reading once we had passed those island dots and moved into the open sea.
Around this point, the band started to play. They were very good, but as they sung in Estonian, Finnish or maybe another language entirely, we don’t know who they were or what their songs were about. In a way, it was nice to be in another country and hear the native language, not English, being spoken. Anyway, several couples were up and dancing on the dance floor, doing proper dancing, not the strange rhythm-less chaos people at clubs and weddings in the UK do. I could have had quite a nice time listening to the band and watching the dancing if life would just let me, but just as Estonia was sighted (about an hour into the trip), things started to get a little choppy, the boat stated to rock gently with the motion. Did this fill Charlie with the same dread as I felt? No, instead the motion lulled my strange human in to sleep. Now, I was truly alone.
Fortunately for both of us, Charlie woke up just as the views of Tallinn started to look good and there was some hope of capturing them in pictures. To the East was the modern skyscrapers, which as we discover later, are very tall indeed. To the West was the Old Town, here the skyline was broken by church spires and the towers of the city wall. We looked hopefully for Paterei Prison (Estonia’s answer to Alcatraz), but alas, we couldn’t spot it.
Not a moment too soon, we were docked and finally allowed to disembark. Our first stop was the AirBnb to dump the unimportant stuff, which resulted in us getting quite lost. After wandering several times round the Estonia Puiestee bus station, back tracking and then deciding to simply follow the compass southeast, we found our landmark, the Olümpia Hotel/ Casino towering high in the sky and were back on track. We walked through a few residential streets – we would realise later we were only a street or two away from the Skyscraper District – and finally made it to our AirBnb for the night. The apartment is a study in concrete, metal and exposed pipes, which has a strangely charming aesthetic to it. Mine and Charlie’s particular highlights are the bed on a balcony (I believe they call it a mezzanine) and a cushion shaped like a ball of yarn. The city map left for us was also a great help. We found and marked all the places we wanted to go, found a few more and headed back into the city proper.
Our first stop was Paterei Prison, on the opposite side of town, passed the Old Town. This time we travelled through the land of the skyscrapers, which towered over us, the tallest either of us had ever seen. This journey allowed us to appreciate the difference between the amalgamation of peeling-paint, concrete Soviet buildings and modern glass skyscrapers. In some cases these newer buildings simply grew out of their predecessors. We made it back to the Old Town, but after this got a little confused in trying to find Paterei Prison. After carefully consulting the map and walking in the opposite direction to where we had been going, we were back on track and soon we could see something which could only be an abandoned Soviet prison. Although we couldn’t enter the prison buildings, we could wander the grounds which, enclosed in concrete, barbed wire and razor wire walls on the edge of the land were creepy enough in themselves. The windows were all covered in bars, once to prevent escape, now presumably to stop intruders, but some of the dirt encrusted panes were broken, allowing us to peer at the gloom within. Not being able to see much, we continued walking around the building wondering what the people interned here must have experienced (as we find out later, it wasn’t the worst of the horrors instigated by the KGB).
Having thoroughly explored the outside of the prison, we set off to explore another abandoned building, the Linnenhall (City Hall) which we had passed twice on our way to the prison, the first time unaware of what it was. This concrete monster was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (when all the Baltic States were part of the USSR) to show the capitalist west what communist concrete could achieve. Well, only thirty-nine years later, the building is decayed and permanently closed, part of the wall is collapsing outwards, several staircases were fenced off, but we were still free to walk on the roof. This seems safe… the roof can be accessed from the north and south ends by a very long set of steps, but the views of the city, Paterei Prison to the northwest and the Old Town and Skyscraper Land to the southeast are stunning. It was a great spot for some photos and we were surprised by a group of tourists who found us lying on our bellies on the wall trying to capture the perfect selfie with the Old Town as a back drop.
Selfie captured, it was time to explore the Old Town. We breached the city walls at Fat Margaret’s Tower, named because of its large, squat shape, I presume, at the northern most tip. From here we walked down the wonderfully named street Pikk to St Olav’s church, a 14th century green-spired building with a 124m high tower, this was one of the steeples which so dominates the city’s skyline. From April to October, the steeple is open to visitors to experience the skyline. Having preceded April by a few weeks, we admired the tower from the outside and continued along Pikk. We then came upon the KGB prison cells museum on Pagari which we had both forgotten was on our list of places to visit. These cells had once been a residential property and although the upper floors had now been returned to their original function, the basement level had been maintained in its former state.
The cells were simply rooms in the house, leading off a singular long corridor, the windows bricked up and barred from the inside. Here we read about the conditions of the prison and individual stories. Prisoners were interned without trail and subject to brutal torture during interrogation, even though this was illegal. We know this because there was a document, written by the KGB in the event of interrogation. Citizens knew they were being spied on and could expect interrogation from their bosses as well as the KGB. Citizens could refuse to be interrogated, as they were only witnesses not criminals, and as interrogators didn’t write down an accurate account of their witness’ remarks, citizens could withhold their signature, edit the transcripts or even answer the KGB’s questions in their own writing. ‘Dissidents’, as the document referred to those being questioned, were advised not to give in to tactics such as being told someone else had already given information and that they shouldn’t be subjected to violence. Interesting. What makes this even stranger is this document was dated 1977, only three years before the Moscow Olympics. As the prison wasn’t closed until 1989, torture and internment were being carried out here when the games were being held not too far away.
So what else happened to the prisoners here? On their first night and other nights, they were locked in a cupboard barely a foot deep, sleep and food deprived and sometimes sent to Paterei Prison, which we visited earlier. Despite the grim exterior of Paterei, prisoners returned from there to Pagari claiming it was much better, earning it the nickname ‘the health spa’.
Having been inundated with modern history we decided it was time to return to the true Old Tallinn. We continued along Pikk, passing some more churches, crossed the Town Square which had some wonderfully coloured, ornate buildings and onto St Catherine’s Passage. This series of arches houses basement shops selling traditional crafts. We then ascended out of the city wall, through the Long Leg Gate (Pikk Jaig) to the city viewing platforms. The Bishop’s Garden platform looked out to the other side of Tallinn and the second area of skyscrapers. I read somewhere that from here on a clear day one can see Finland. It’s a shame I can’t remember where I read this to determine its legitimacy and we were unable to test its validity as the weather took a turn for the worse at this point, drizzling steadily.
We then crossed to the other side of Toompea (the land of Medieval nobles) to look out at the Old Town from the Kohtuotsa viewing platform to judge our lesser mortals far below (and enjoy the panorama of course). We then headed over to the third and final viewing platform, the Danish King’s Garden. What the Danish King was doing in Estonia in 1219, I’m not entirely sure, but it seems they were conquering Estonia in a crusade for Christianity. We left Toompea (unconquered) via the Short Leg (Lühikela Jaig) Gate and headed for the city wall. The rain was coming down quite heavily now so once this was explored we headed for Vegan Inspiratsioon, the café we’d planned on eating dinner at for a nice relaxing coffee to warm Charlie up. I was just happy to be out of the rain.
Feeling warmed, we headed back into the Old Town where it had (mostly) stopped raining for a quick bit of souvenir shopping before returning to the calming atmosphere of Vegan Inspiratsioon for dinner. With a vast array of options in front of us – burgers, wraps, lasagne, pizza, nacho starters and soups, Charlie once again opted for a burger. To be fair it did live up to its name, ‘I’m really quite special’ burger. The burger was bean and beetroot, the filling included tofu ‘egg’ salad, gherkins, cheese and sauce, served in a black bun, with a side of coleslaw, sweet potato fries and hummus. Charlie says it was all amazing. We then ordered pudding, three taster slices of cake, but the slices were each as large as a small slice of cake, which we reckon equated to somewhere between one and a half to two average cake slices, something Charlie was very happy with. Our first taster was the Estonian speciality ‘Spotted Dog’, which had a tiffin like consistency, but with more chocolate and less fruit. The second slice was marzipan, another Estonian speciality, cheesecake with a wonderful biscuit base. The third was a peanut butter cheesecake with a chocolate top and a peanut and biscuit base. They were all amazing and Charlie was very happy and thoroughly stuffed.
Day 2 - Helsinki
Greetings, humans! So, today is the second part of our Helsinki adventure, which is the first part of this trip. As promised, we visited the sea fortress, which as long as I pretended it wasn’t on a small island, was a fantastic experience.
Much to my disappointment, this fantastic experience started with a terrifying fifteen minute ferry trip to Suomelinna, a collection of five islands, four of which are connected by sparkly white bridges and comprise the fort, which has another name of Sveaborg, I need to find out what this second omnipresent language is, I’m assuming the first is Finnish, but on all signs and information boards in the city (and the rest of Finland I presume), it is followed by another language, a mystery.
Ok, Google tells me the official languages of Finland are Finnish and Swedish, but a small minority (about 300 people) also speak Inari Saami, they are Saami people, who live near Lake Inari.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. We woke up this morning to find the apartment’s water supply had been turned off while some building works were going on. This meant we ended up returning to Forum shopping centre to use the toilet and fill up Charlie’s water bottles.
This done, we continued through the city to Market Square which was right on the harbour edge, in fact one side of the square was the harbour wall. I was unhappy enough about this, but on closer inspection (I’m with Charlie remember) we discovered the water in the harbour (which is the Baltic Sea) was frozen around the edges and covered in a blanket of chunks of ice in the parts where the boats moved through.
Charlie bought a ferry ticket from the ticket machine, moving through the Finnish language surprisingly easily because we didn’t find the English button until the end. With twenty minutes until the ferry departed, we went for a wander around the harbour and returned in time to see the ferry returning from Suomelinna. We boarded quickly and Charlie maturely chose a standing position at the very front of the top deck. I don’t know much about boats (why would I?) but as it never turned around, it seems it made every other crossing in reverse gear (do boats have gears?).
Surrounded by a group of school children (oh, the joys), we were in prime position for some excellent photos and as the boat began to move at an alarming rate of knots, Charlie snapped away. The safety of dry land slipped away as we ploughed into open sea (sort of). We passed a handful of tiny islands, but it was the larger collection we were heading for. The fortification in a variety of shades – yellow, brown and pink (!) – were easily visible from the boat and not a moment too soon it had docked and we were released. Parts of the fortifications were still used by the Finnish Marines (or some part of the armed forces at least) for training and some people live on this island meaning it wasn’t all open to the public. Most of it was though and we spent several hours trekking all over the collection of islands. That pesky group of teenage school kids kept running into us, but this did give us the occasional piece of information from their tour guide. How else would we have learnt the church also functioned as a lighthouse? It was a rather tower-like building and was fenced using cannons as uprights and long, heavy chains to link them. Was this art, or just making use of the materials available?
We also noticed that although the school kids weren’t from an English speaking country (I don’t actually know what language they were speaking), their Finnish tour guide spoke to them in English. Take heed British teenagers! By the age of fifteen (ish, human ages aren’t my strong point), these school kids knew another language well enough to learn about history in it! While this may reinforce the idea that everyone speaks English anyway, maybe it’s time British school kids put a bit more effort into their MFL studies?
Well, I’ve digressed… back to Suomelinna. The ferry docked halfway along the coast of one of the two larger islands. We wandered along the centre of this island then crossed one of those white bridges I mentioned earlier onto the second larger island. Here were the traditional parts of a fort, a drawbridge, poorly lit partially flooded secret tunnels, bastions and cannons – my favourite! Much of the fort was constructed in the 1850s during the Crimean War to defend Helsinki. Now, I thought the Crimean War happened in the… Crimea… so why did Helsinki need defending?
Ok, the British and French forces attacked Russia through the Baltic Sea, where Suomelinna Fort helped defend Helsinki. At this point, Finland was a part of Russia and had previously been part of Sweden. It became independent following the Russian Revolution in 1917, you’ll see a similar date for independence of the three Baltic States.
Well, anyway, we got to see a sea fort! There were a lot of secret tunnels but as they were so dark and kept getting flooded, it’s hard to tell if it was really just a single long tunnel. It doesn’t matter because after the tunnel(s), I spotted some cannons! They were even big enough for me to sit in. They were all facing south towards Estonia, which is where we’re off to tomorrow. Well, at least we know Suomelinna’s cannons won’t destroy Tallinn, some of them were blocked up and those that weren’t were hollow. After this, we took some rickety stairs down to a sort of rocky beach where we began lunch. Charlie was halfway through when the mist that was rolling in from the sea and had already swallowed another unreachable island, threatened to engulf us, we decided to beat a hasty and unglorified retreat. We found a frozen lake, protected from the mist by the defensive wall (made of mud and cannons) and finished lunch here.
We then continued exploring the fort, including what seemed to be a sort of nature reserve where we found a swing of questionable structural integrity hung from a tree. We then explored the rest of the first large island (including a pink fort), then crossed to the two smaller islands. The first of these two was where the military people lived or trained (or both) and so had lots of signs everywhere telling us to keep out. So we did and walked over to the second small island which seemed to only be an area for the residents.
So we returned to the military island and found there was a single permitted path we were able to travel round. Having thoroughly explored the islands, we took the ferry back to the mainland, an experience made mildly better as we sat inside this time, avoiding the scary rain that was happening.
Back on land which would be dry if not for the rain, we ended up taking a religious pilgrimage. Our first stop was the Uspenski Cathedral, made of red stone with a green roof. Although it lacked onions, it had a distinctly Russian feel (it was designed by the Russians, and is an Orthodox cathedral). From its location on its own hill, it afforded some great views of the city, including the Evangelical Cathedral we would visit next. We had a good look around the Red Cathedral and discovered today was the only day it was closed, although we had no explanation as to why.
We considered taking a trip on the SkyWheel (a glorified Ferris wheel), but realised we could see the city just as well from Cathedral Hill and for free. So it was onwards to the Evangelical Cathedral, which was all white. In front of this Cathedral was a statue of Tsar Alexander II, who was very religious I suppose, although I believe he was Orthodox Christian, being Russian. As such, his statue should probably have been near the Orthodox Cathedral. Anyway, we climbed many, many steps (more than for the Red Cathedral, I think) to the doors of the White Cathedral, from which we could see the twin green spires of the final church in our pilgrimage. This one was also red, with a green roof and was on our list of religious buildings to see because its spires were visible as we walked to our AirBnb.
Next up, was the Hard Rock Café Helsinki, a building dedicated to a very different kind of religion. Our plan had only been to have a relaxing drink with some amazing music before dinner elsewhere, but when we discovered there was a vegan burger on the menu, we ordered that with fries and a mango berry cooler. It was only 5pm, but Charlie was ravenous from a long day’s walking and demolished the burger in no time. We then headed over to the Kampi Shopping Centre in search of pudding. Although we remembered which floor Bun2Bun was on from our search last night, we still struggled to find it. After walking what felt like the entire basement level, we found it again, but on discovering they didn’t do puddings, we returned to Story for another of those fabulous brownies which Charlie ate, like last night, while writing up today’s Tail.
On returning to the AirBnb, we found the water was working normally again (yay!) and now we’re both exhausted so night for now!
Join us tomorrow as we explore Tallinn.
Until then folks,
Day 1 - Helsinki
Greetings, humans! So, today we begin our trip around Finland and the Baltics by flying into Helsinki. Our day started horrifically early (why is this always the way with these trips?), leaving the house in the harsh light of 6am for Charlie’s mum to drive us to Gatwick. Although we did get stuck in a roadworks related traffic jam, this afforded us the wonderful opportunity to sit only several cars behind a Dorree Bonner removal van with the most beautiful three letters in the Latin alphabet – CAT – in its number plate. Anyway, soon we made it to Gatwick, it only took us two hours instead of the hour fifteen it should have done, we zoomed through security, no hold luggage, bag or body searches to hold us up and we were soon in to the departure lounge. This was what Charlie had been waiting for! Breakfast! Yes, my food obsessed human hit Waga’s (Wagamama’s for the uneducated) first for a wonderful full vegan breakfast of shitake mushrooms, tomatoes, sweet potato, sausage, maple glazed ‘bacon’ (Charlie has finally found a good vegan bacon, mostly because it didn’t taste anything like bacon) and scrambled tofu on toast with a bogey green smoothie which thankfully didn’t taste like bogeys and hopefully didn’t contain any either. Round 1 demolished, Charlie moved next door to Spoons for a huge box of chips to take away.
As our gate had now been called, we took our chips on a walk through the airport to Gate 2 (have we ever flown from a gate so close to the departure lounge, I think not) which we got slightly lost finding. Charlie maintains this is because the sign was misleading. Unfortunately, getting lost inside buildings became the theme of the day, as you will see later. Quickly we were on track to the gate where Charlie ate a few of the wonderful (yet scalding hot) chips before boarding. The plane, misleadingly named Norwegian (well, it’s a Scandinavian country I guess), immortalised the Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel who I’m sure is very famous in Norway, but alas is largely unheard of in the UK (by me at least).
We boarded and as the plane decided to be late taking off, Charlie polished off the chips. Fifteen minutes late, we were cleared for take-off and we were in the air! We’re off on another adventure! As this was a three hour flight crossing two time zones, we decided to have a nap. This worked out well for me (as a cat I am evolutionarily adapted to napping anywhere, including at 38,000 feet at a moment’s notice) but not so well for Charlie who woke up after an hour and decided to read a book. It’s a very good book, I’ll let you know, it’s a history of the Vikings, who didn’t have as much to do with Finland as the other Scandinavian countries, but as we have visited the old Viking strongholds of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland on previous adventures, it seemed fitting enough.
So despite taking off a bit late, Neils’ plane landed right on schedule at 2:50pm. We were through security quicker than it took to walk through the airport and then we were outside, officially on Finnish soil (ok, tarmac and concrete pavements…). After not being able to find the bus we should have taken to the city centre (due to the fact this bus might actually have been a train), boarding the wrong bus and wandering aimlessly for a bit, we finally found a Finnair coach which took us into Helsinki for 6.90€.
The coach journey gave us some great views as we approached the city, including Leninpark, which appeared to be a roller coaster theme park, a scary frozen lake (on which more later, to my disappointment) and arrived at the combined bus and train station. After a short walk which involved a bit of exploring (we found the Hard Rock Café Helsinki, which we may investigate tomorrow seeing as Charlie recently visited its Amsterdam cousin without me), we arrived at the AirBnb.
We’ve got the entire place to ourselves, a wonderful little apartment which includes a kitchen (which the bathroom leads off) and a dressing room which lacks both light and door. No matter, the important thing is that the bed is very comfy and like all good AirBnbs, the room contains the obligatory Ikea products.
We removed everything but the important stuff from Charlie’s bag (passport, money, tablet, book, me) and headed off to that frozen lake I promised you more on earlier. It’s called Töölönalahti Bay (Finnish words have lots of accents) and is pretty large. On the way to the lake, we stopped in a small square which had once been grassy but was now icy and smelt strongly of horse poo for no identifiable reason. Despite this, there were some headstones (but I don’t know who they memorialised) and some nice buildings around it.
Distraction over, we made it to the lake, where we found some cat art, many, many dogs and a large number of ducks. I liked two of these things. We then decided to walk all the way around the lake. Why? To admire the view from all conceivable angles? Who knows. Let’s walk around a huge lake, Charlie said. It’ll be fun, Charlie said. It was not fun. Despite my misgivings, our circumnavigation of the lake brought us in close proximity to a rather derelict but still eerily beautiful pink (!) wooden house. I’m assuming it was abandoned, but other houses in a similar state of disrepair were inhabited so who knows. Near to the house, perhaps related, perhaps not, was a memorial stone inscribed with many names and the radioactive symbol. I don’t know what the Finnish said, so I’ll have to translate it later.
Well, now is later, so this is what it was about. Its title, Itsekkyyden muistomerkki, means Monument for selfishness. It was made by Greenpeace and lists the names of the Finnish MPs who voted for nuclear power in 2010.
Our walk around the lake took an hour, by which time it was after 6pm and we decided that meant it was dinner time. We headed to Kippo, a sandwich and juice bar in the Forum shopping centre. Shopping centres are neither mine nor Charlie’s favourite places, but as it was evening it was relatively quiet on the top floor, away from potential noisy people. Charlie had the Sir Pesto sandwich – cashew and pine nut pesto with salad and cheese and a wonderful ice coffee shake. Both were fantastic, but as Kippo didn’t do pudding, we headed off in search of the sweet course. On leaving the shopping centre, we got incredibly lost, unable to find the exit or even work out if we were on the right floor… After consulting a map, finding an exit and leaving by it (by chance it was the right one) we managed to leave the building and headed off to the Kampi shopping centre (the only two all vegan places in Helsinki which were open were both in shopping centres) in search of Bun2Bun, our dinner plans for tomorrow. Completely unable to find it, we ended up buying a superb looking brownie from a place called Story. As we were on our way out, we had an epiphany, E wasn’t the fifth floor, but perhaps the initial letter of the Finnish word for basement. Although we had our brownie to take away in Charlie’s bag with me, we thought we might as well have a look for this place, at the very least so we’d know where it was for tomorrow. After searching the entire basement, we finally found it, and although Happy Cow informed us it should have been open for another half hour, it was shut up and seemed to have been for a while. No matter, if it wasn’t open tomorrow, we’ll go to Story instead because Charlie ate that brownie while writing up today’s Tail and it was apparently amazing, a beautiful gooey brownie.
So, we left the shopping centre, struggling to find the exit (again) and headed back to the AirBnb. Well, that concludes today’s adventure, join me tomorrow as we visit a sea fortress (why?) and other historical and cultural delights which hopefully don’t involve water.
Until then folks,
Before we Begin
Greetings, humans! Well, don’t my blog entries seem to be becoming more frequent?! This travelling lark is really working out well for me and that can only be a good thing. So, where did we go this time? I hear you ask. Well, let me tell you. Our first stop was the wonderful Scandinavian-ness of Helsinki, Finland. From here, we then crossed the Baltic Sea (an experience I in no way enjoyed), into the three Baltic countries (unsurprisingly) of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Here we visited their capitals, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius respectively. And what made it easier for us was, as these countries were all in the EU and all used euros, there we no border checks and no faff with carrying different currencies. Free movement and a unified currency, isn’t being a member of the EU wonderful? Sorry, I’m not meant to be getting involved in human politics, it gives me a headache…
Instead, let’s talk about this trip, which had several ‘firsts’ and superlatives. The first first being that this was the first trip where we’ve travelled between countries without taking a train at all, I missed them. It was the first time either of us had been on a ferry which could more accurately be described as a small cruise ship. Now for some superlatives. Vilnius was the furthest East we have ever travelled (only just further than Sofia), Helsinki was the furthest North we have travelled in mainland Europe (beating Oslo by a sliver), Finland would be the last Scandinavian country we had to visit and this was the longest trip we have taken as a cat and solo human. Looks like we’ve achieved some ground-breaking stuff then!
For my readers who have been to any of these countries, consider it a chance to reminisce on good times. For those of you who haven’t, it’s time to indulge in a spot of armchair travel. That’s a useful new phrase I’ve learnt from reading a blog written by Charlie’s mum’s friend, someone who’s done even more travelling than I have, and I wanted to get those two words into the blog!
I suppose we should get on with the trip then!
Until then folks,