13.08.2011 - 25.08.2011 21 °C
When we first left on our trip, the top three Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) had always seemed so far away but finally we were here, which also means the end is nigh. This region has been such a long time coming and we have both been very excited about what these top three ‘mysterious’ countries had to offer. We also were hoping to involve ourselves in a particular ‘experience’ that was not available anywhere else we had visited but you’ll have to wait for that.
Lithuania was the first of the Baltics to be graced with our company and our one and only stop was Vilnius, the capital. After making our way past all the beggars we found that Vilnius has a modern old town. Its old town seems to merge almost seamlessly with the newer, modern area and there is a real mix of buildings. Stopping for a quick lunch was first on the agenda and we soon found ourselves sitting next to an undesirable character who didn’t only look dodgy but smelt like a classroom full of prepubescent boys. Unfortunately for us this was the first of many weirdos we encountered during our time in Vilnius. They ranged from the twitchers to the noisemakers to the wanderers to the just plain ‘don’t make eye contact’ weirdos. By the end of our visit we had decided, without any real research, that the weirdo rate per capita of Vilnius is undoubtedly the highest in the world. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ‘eccentric’.
We made our way to the Vilnius Cathedral which looks more like an imposing government building than a church. There were renovations happening, surprise surprise, but it wasn’t enough to take away from the grandeur inside. If you are the superstitious kind, there is a square outside for you to swivel on clockwise and make a wish. We think the locals must wish to get married because in 24 hours we saw no less than eight hen’s nights and bucks parties. Vilnius has a lot of churches but we only visited a couple or just looked from the outside, which sometimes is enough. Our church quota is pretty much at its limit. The weather wasn’t great and so didn’t really inspire us to trek around too much so we headed for some shelter.
Darkness doesn’t arrive until about 9.30pm and so there is plenty of time to café/bar hop and simply soak up the atmosphere. Our second day it was lightly drizzling for most of the day so we had to skip from awning to awning because the umbrella was safely in the car. The rain made it a little chilly and so once again the jeans were pulled out. Being in these places for Sunday and Monday can sometimes work against you as lots of shops and tourist attractions are closed, although to be honest the number of museums we have visited you could count on one hand.
Vilnius was a relaxed and low key couple of days which was fine before we headed to Latvia’s capital Riga. We had a cosy little room which was an easy but longish walk to the old town. Churches, cobblestones and pastel coloured buildings lined streets and lanes every which way. Riga, however, was all about one thing for us……..shooting. In Riga you can arrange to shoot guns in old Soviet bunkers. We booked this ‘experience’ for our second day and met our guide at the Naughty Squirrel Hostel which is owned by Aussie boys Ben and Jared. Jared is a shire boy, small world. Ben’s fiancé Gunita drove the two of us out to an old Soviet bunker, which is now part of a sporting college where small children roam freely. We met up with a short, fifty-something woman who unlocked all the jail gates to lead us down some dark, dark stairs into a dark, dark room, at which point I felt the need to ask Adam if he thought maybe we should have told someone where we were going, ‘nah’ he said “They’ll work it out sooner or later if something happens”. Our lady friend, Ladna and Gunita disappeared into a room and left Adam and I alone in the shooting hall.
The shooting hall or range, was a long room probably 80m end to end with a disarray of egg cartons lining the rounded roof and walls. At the far end of the room were paper targets still stuck up on the wall, some in good condition and some looking like they had been attacked with, well a gun. Strange that. Anyway after a few minutes of us giggling like idiots at where we were and what we were doing, Gunita came out to tell us to pick our target from the choices on the table. Adam was feeling heroic and selected the baddie with the poor female hostage and I just chose the typical bad guy with circles to mark target areas. Next minute Ladna walks out with a glock, an AK47 and…….a Winchester pump action shotgun, or the shottie as we liked to call it.
Instructions were brief and had to be translated. No photos of Ladna were allowed and put your ear protection on, that was pretty much it. The Glock was first and Adam was up; ten shots and then my turn. It was a strange feeling, power and fear mixed in and after that first shot, just power. The recoil on the Glock made you feel you were missing the target completely because as soon as you pulled the trigger, slowly slowly, the kick back on the gun forced your arms up into the air. However once we went and checked our targets we were pleasantly surprised. Adam hit his target four times and I hit mine twice, once in the upper thigh.
Next came the AK47, the assault rifle. OMG this was like Rambo stuff now and we were only having six shots. Push the gun back into your shoulder, lean your face to look down the barrel and close your left eye. There’s no need for slowly slowly on this one, just shoot. The noise is probably the worst part of the activity, or the waiting for the noise, as the ‘bang’ seems to send an echo around the room that hits you from every direction. When you are shooting though, the noise doesn’t exist because you become so focused on your target, or is that just us? We both did better with the AK (that’s our nickname for it), me hitting my guy with five out of my six shots and Adam getting four. This was exciting, so we had a little jump and down on the spot with pride, joy and pure fun.
Finally, the big man, the one we had been waiting for, the pump-action shotgun. The bullets alone are enough to worry you. In red casings, as big as my little finger, they leave little doubt as to the kind of damage they could do if they hit something. Anyway Ladna loaded them up, six again, showed us how to do the pump action and off we went. Pulling the trigger with your right and pumping with your left, you don’t even notice the smoke coming from the barrel or the casings popping out onto your feet as you pump the next bullet into the chamber. Boom, Boom, Boom into the target where little paper men can run no more. After we had shot our six bullets we casually raced over to our targets to check how brilliant we were. Results showed that shooting with the bigger guns gave us better results and also, hopefully this doesn’t sound sadistic, was more fun too.
We were allowed to take home our targets as souvenirs and intend to keep them for prosperity or until we have a really big clean out. Strange or scary as it may sound, it was a really fun experience and something we will never get to do again. We both enjoyed the sensation that shooting the guns gave us and were surprised how powerful they made us feel, plus the big ones are pretty heavy too. After our adventure we were invited back to the hostel for a beer and had a chat with Ben, the Aussie. Our three days in Riga were great even if it was a little chillier than we had been experiencing.
The last of the Baltic Three was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. With a population of 400 000, it is a reasonably small capital city and has an average summer temperature of only 20 degrees. Having only a small window of opportunity means that every man and his dog visit at this time which is why the ONLY accommodation we could find was a $200 a night spa and conference centre. We ended up calling it Terry Towelling Tosser Town because all these European specials walked around the hotel in their robes (terry towelling of course) after being in the fishbowl swimming pool downstairs. We made it part of our regular routine to stand at the glass and just stare at them, sometimes pointing and laughing. Even though we had access to this oversized toilet included in our price, the sight of hairy European men and abnormally large breasted women all squeezing into the spa didn’t seem all that inviting. We can wait to swim.
Anyway Tallinn was gorgeous, very picturesque and even though there was freshness in the air it was definitely overshadowed by the ambience of the old town. Again we spent our time roaming the lanes and café hopping. Pizza is still the number one cuisine which means you don’t have to eat the chicken brains wrapped in bacon if you don’t want to. The tourist tent was helpful and so we even managed to see a little bit of live music during our visit. We did find two quirky bars which deserve a mention. The first one was DM Bar, with the DM Bar standing for Depeche Mode (the 80’s band), which was an underground bar that is dark and musty smelling. The quirkiness however is that the owners just love, or loved, Depeche Mode and so play ONLY their music in their bar. If you’re thinking that one drink would be enough then let me assure you that you are correct. The second quirky bar was the Eco Bar which was an old red double decker bus on a disused barge down at the port. The bus became the bar and the rest of the barge is covered in furniture made from recycled materials; mats from car tyres, those kinds of things. Another rare indulgence for us was when we were lured into a dimly lit room by the delicious smells wafting in the air. It turned out this cavernous shop sold elk pies and soup so because we have been craving a good ol’ Aussie meat pie for quite a while now we felt compelled to chow down. The sweet, rich tasting meat certainly hit the spot.
I am also starting to think that maybe all these maps we have been using can become an enriching lesson back at school so am stashing, storing and hoarding them (in Adam’s bag of course) in anticipation of continuing my job as teacher extraordinaire.
We had another plan formulating for our stay in Tallinn and that was a visit to Helsinki on the ferry. This was something we had been considering since we chatted to some Dutch boys in Varna but weren’t sure if we were going to be able to make it happen. Things were looking good though and after checking accommodation and baulking at the price, we decided a day trip was sufficient. We booked our tickets for the 8am ferry for the 90 minute ride. Early to bed, just like on Christmas Eve, meant we were as fresh as daisies when we arrived at the terminal to check in. However in true European style there was a queue, with only one person serving, which we had no choice but to tag on the end of. My toenails grew in the time it took us to move one metre while waiting for whatever it was they were doing behind the glass.
We did notice however some surreptitious movement from behind us as they tried to pretend they knew the group in front of us…..these buggers were trying to push in. Now if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about Europeans is that they don’t like to wait, whether it be for coffee, buses, tickets, entry, you to cross the street or ANYTHING. Some wannabe sneak of a woman and her daughter were pretending to be friends with a group of twenty-somethings about three in front of us and then edged their way in to the line. Now normally we would voice our disgust, however due to our proximity the only thing we felt was appropriate was to give stinkeye to the culprits and to comment on how the guy behind them has a soft piece of anatomy to allow such atrocities to occur.
Being the brainiacs we are though, we noticed the arrival of a staff member and some slight movement behind one of the curtains. Keeping a keen eye on the shadows, the absolute millisecond that curtain moved I was over there while Adam kept our spot in the original queue, in case of a false alarm. Success!! We were now number one and we were told that, due to a storm, ferries were cancelled for the day so we received a full refund. A glance over to our pusher-inner buddies noticed that they were still waiting, Ha ha ha. Is it wrong to be happy about that? Maybe all these church visits are not doing us any good.
We trudged back to the hotel, in time for breaky, or ‘shove your way to the eggs’ as we like to call it and now had another full day in Tallinn up our sleeve. It turned out to be a beautiful sunny day, maybe even 23 degrees, and we decided to explore the ‘modern’ town centre of Tallinn. This turned out to be a non-event when we found ourselves wandering the streets and being told this deserted areas was the city centre. Hmmm perhaps it was time to head back to old town.
Four nights in Tallinn ended with us not having to pay for parking at the fishbowl hotel, which we consider a win. From there we headed back to Riga for two nights with a stop in Parnu. Parnu is considered Estonia’s ‘Summer Capital’, they even have a ceremony and a procession of cars where the mayor of Tallinn gives some certificate to the mayor of Parnu for the summer. Adam desperately wanted to say he has swum in every body of water so we stopped for a dip. It was cold, wet and drizzly but in he went anyway while I, having no such lofty aspirations, sat on the beach wrapped in two towels to keep me warm from the wind. He frolicked around for a few minutes and then out he came with a real sense of achievement.
We wandered for a while and then continued the drive back to Riga for two nights where we returned to the same accommodation as on the way up. We felt better the devil you know. When we left Riga we had a mission to complete before our next town…The Hill of Crosses.
The Hill of Crosses is just outside Siauliai in Lithuania. Peasants started placing crosses on a random hill in 1831 as part of their uprising. It soon became an important religious site and became a mix of memoriam and prayer or hope. When the Soviets took over they resisted the existence of the site by bulldozing it three times, once in 1961, 1973 and 1975. After each time the Lithuanians returned, sometimes in the dead of night, to replace the crosses, risking their lives. Now that’s dedication. By 1985 the Soviets finally gave up the destruction. Pope John Paul II visited in 1993 sealing its fate as a Christian pilgrimage and sacred site.
The hill itself is a wonder, with over 50 000 crosses of all sizes and materials. There are some carved out of tree trunks that stand over three metres high and some out of pencils that people have bound with string. It is a strong symbol of faith and walking through the pathways is a solitary type of experience. People from all over the world have left their mark here, including us. I made a little cross out of stones while Adam scratched one into some wood. Thousands of sets of rosary beads delicately dangle from the crosses that are placed in a haphazard manner all over this relatively small area. It reminds me of a game of ‘pick up sticks’. The irony though is that after visiting what feels like a gazillion churches it is a jumble of crosses on a hill that has a more profound effect on your faith and beliefs, whatever they may be, at least for me. To see and feel the passion as you are walking around gives you the warm and fuzzies. It is certainly an impressive sight and was well worth the short detour. Make sure you check out the pictures.
Now it’s back to Poland on our way to Germany. Handing the car back on August 31st is emotional for both of us and we don’t like to talk about it except to say we will miss our ‘little girl’. However we are now looking at accommodation in the Greek Islands and that is super exciting. Six weeks to go!!