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By this Author: alexchan

Moving on to Estonia

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large_5550_14713334941945.jpgGloomy and damp introduction to Tallinn Old Town. View from city wall.
Today I bussed from Riga to Tallinn [Tallinn-travel-guide-944187] in Estonia. The 1000 departure meant that I could have a leisurely start, walking from the hostel to the station at 0930.

The 4h30 Lux Express bus ride was smooth and went quickly with two movies. Surprisingly the entire journey was on 2-lane roads (one in each direction) and not on motorways as with the journey from Vilnius to Tallinn.

Arriving in Tallinn, I braved the rain to go to the nearby tram station. I waited for the #2 tram to my hostel. The driver of the #4 tram saw that I wasn’t getting on and signalled to me that the #2 wasn’t running. So I had to take a taxi as the bus alternatives were good in wet weather. It was a little pricey at EUR8 and I realise that there is overcharging going on as in Vilnius.

The weather seemed OK after I had checked-in, so I ventured out for a walk around the old city, including a walk on the city wall. It drizzled on and off. Having only had a pastry and bread on the bus, I was famished. A lot of options were rather pricey compared to what I’ve become accustomed to in Riga and Vilnius. I settled for Indian. My tummy welcomed the chance to have rice and spice again!


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Wet day sightseeing

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large_5550_14712884869481.jpgWet morning at Kalnciema Street Market.
The Kalnciema Street Market across the river came highly recommended so I decided to make my way there by bus after breakfast. Buses, trolleybuses and trams were all free today (and tomorrow) due to the city’s festival day. The weather was drizzly and I needed my poncho.

The market was more intimate than I had imagined. There were a collection of craft stands that didn’t interest me, some produce and best of all some food stands. I tried out the pickled herring, pickled anchovy and fresh-salted salmon. All were mouthwateringly delicious.

I bussed back into town and walked to the Art Nouveau district to admire some of the richly decorated buildings. With the rain, I didn’t hang around too much and snapped a few pictures on my phone.large_5550_14712884892712.jpgFreedom Monument in Riga.

I walked back into the old city and lunch at Pipar’s Bistro which again came highly recommended. It was pre-cooked food all laid out in the warmer but of very high quality. I ended up eating here three times, each time for EUR2.5 to 3.00!

I was more than ready to retire to the warmth of the hostel. Even though it wasn’t cold cold, my hands were getting the chill - even though my body was warm enough with two thin layers plus a poncho.

Back in the hostel, I had a chance to chat with the receptionist about race relations in Latvia. Based on my own experience, I asked how Latvians would react if spoken to in Russian by eg. an ethnic Russian Latvian (since looks are not 100% foolproof). It kinda touched a raw nerve with how some Russian Latvians refuse to integrate etc.large_5550_14712884917000.jpgBeautiful architecture of the Art Nouveau district.I repeated my enquiry with two other receptionists on their shifts and one out of the two shared the same viewpoint. Based on this, one could say that race relations in the country scores about 6.7 out of 10.

Later in the afternoon, I did venture out again. I caught a bit of the basketball game in front of the opera house as part of the city’s festival. I believe the two sides of the river were playing each other. I had dinner back at Pipar’ again.

Late in the night, a few people wanted to go out to see the fireworks. I walked out of the building with them but when I realised the rain had heavy again, I decided to give it a miss.

My hostel “Riga Hostel” was nice enough but the one upstairs called “Big Bed Hostel” has had average reviews but ran into some difficulty lately. They had their power and water turned off by the authorities and were also overbooking. We were having lots of enquiries from travellers wanting a bed but we were full ourselves. Poor people.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Outside the Old Town & to Jurmala

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large_5550_14712881605309.jpgRiga's Central Market is housed in blimp (zeppelin) hangars.
As in Lithuania, I made myself a breakfast of fruit, muesli and kefir. I wandered out to the Central Market housed in blimp (zeppelin) hangars bought from post-war Germany which needed money. I enjoyed the variety of food in there and it gave me an insight into the local cuisine and specialties. Mushrooms are in season now and there was plenty of smoked fish.

Lots of fruit stalls were outside of the buildings and I was tempted by the cherries selling for EUR1.20 per kg. They turned out to be a little soft and sour. I actually didn’t mind it at all. Also, at that price it would have been good for juicing or baking but that wasn’t an option for me at the hostel.

At midday, I joined the free walking tour which convened under the steeple of St John’s. It was a very large crowd and with the other guide being sick, the solo guide did tremendously well.large_5550_14712881517888.jpgInside Riga's Central Market.This walking tour focused on things outside of Old Town. We wandered to the Central Market, the last remaining Soviet-style building around (Stalinist style, fomerly home to the Latvian Academy of Sciences), the Belarus embassy (which was unremarkable but formed the venue of some interesting insight) before finishing at a park.

It wasn’t a picturesque sight-seeing affair but it was very informative. The guide, being a historian with architectural focus gave me some good insight:

1. A lot of old town is recreated rather than simply renovated.

2. Riga isn’t typically Latvian; it was built by the Germans and seemingly everyone else except Latvians. One needs to get out of Riga [Riga-travel-guide-1045008]’s old town as much as possible to see the real Latvia.large_5550_14712881545340.jpgInside Riga's Central Market.Even now, Latvians are nearly a minority in Riga.

3. Generally, he says that Latvians and Latvia’s ethnic Russians (imported as factory workers during the Soviet era, and also their descendents) get along fine. Hairline cracks in the society show up on two dates each year when one group celebrates and the other commiserates.

4. Unlike in Lithuanian guide, the guide here says it is quite easy to distinguish Latvians from ethnic Russians. Perhaps they have more experience as Russians are in far greater proportion than in Lithuania.

5. It is compulsory for the tour guide to show his tour members his license at the beginning of the tour. And the police have the right to ask for his license.large_5550_14712881578604.jpgAt Riga's Central Market.There is a fine if he is not carrying it and after three such incidents, he would lose his license.

We finished the walking tour without getting wet; it had been hot, cold and a little drizzly. The weather seemed OK enough, so I decided to take the train to Jurmala [Jurmala-travel-guide-1309699] 30 minutes away.

Jurmala is a spa town on the Baltic coast. I walked down the pedestrian mall lined with some hotels, restaurants and spas. It started to drizzle heavily enough for me to seek shelter. It did past and I went off the main pedestrian mall to the posh residential areas which took me out to the beach. I noticed lots of expensive Russian-registered vehicles in the area; the spa town is popular with them. The beach was wide, flat and sandy. Unfortunately the water wasn’t as nice.large_5550_14712881631233.jpgFormer Latvian Academy of Sciences Building.While it was clear, it did appear stained and brownish perhaps from rotting leaves from rivers; who knows?

Back in Riga, I had dinner at a branch of Cili Pizza at the railway station. I was famished. I tried the pancake filled with chicken and mushrooms. Interestingly the menu here appears to have been photo-shopped to remove the brown-ness of the pancakes, compared to in Lithuania. I wonder if Latvians prefer their pancakes less cooked. Also, Latvian pricing is slightly higher. I was also parched from all the walking and washed my meal down with a large glass of kvass which was very dark, perhaps flavoured with some berry of other fruit.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Moving on to Latvia

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large_5550_14712871444745.jpgRiga (Lutheran) Cathedral.
I had been undecided about walking 30+ mins to the bus station or taking a taxi. I’ve read that hailing a cab here leads to a rip-off and one should really book it online, using the app or call up. With the wifi at the gueshouse down, the decision was made for me. Fortunately the weather cooperated and I got to the station on foot and dry.

The Simple Express bus was a dream with wifi and PTV loaded with lots of multi-lingual content and also a web browser. Surprisingly the higher-standard product, Lux Express (which I’m booked for a few days later) only gives water and hot drinks as additional features. I had bought a pirozhki along for lunch and it wasn’t quite enough.

The 4.5h journey was largely on motorway through woods and fields. We stopped at Riga [Riga-travel-guide-1045008] airport briefly before arriving at Riga station which was near the old town and my hostel “Riga Hostel”.large_5550_14712871506217.jpgRiga (Lutheran) Cathedral.I dropped my bag at the hostel and wandered out to grab some food. I found a Pakistani kebab shop which did EUR1.50 mini kebabs which would tide me over till dinner time.

Having learnt about the crazy Baltic weather, I thought it would be wise to explore Old Town a little since the weather was good. It was very nice but very touristy and a lot of it has been rebuilt anyway.

In October, when I was in the Tibetan Plateau, some European bus-mates cried out when they saw a church with a cross. They said it must be Catholic. I asked "Why?" They said: Because it has a cross on it; Protestant churches don't have a cross on the steeple but a cock. I was in disbelief but that's what it is like where they come from. Now I know it is true. Lots of churches have cocks on the steeples here.large_5550_1471287155728.jpgHouse of the Blackheads.

I found a simple pub-like place for dinner and ordered pork chops cooked in mustard and mushroom sauce. It was so so awesome. A group of five Brits walked in towards the end of my dinner. They were courteous enough but I got the feeling they were preparing for a good night out. Riga is a prime stag-party destination for Brits, fuelled by cheap booze and Ryanair fares. It has made Rigans a little “over” tourism, I’ve been told.

Back at the hostel, my room was by reception. It was a little noisy as people spoke softly after quiet time of 2300. But it wasn’t enough to stop me from having a good night sleep.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Latvia Comments (0)

Outing to Trakai

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large_5550_14712867885681.jpgCardboard Karaim and their cardboard kibinai.
I woke early to a gloomy morning. I had planned to go to Trakai [Trakai-travel-guide-1318702] for the castle today. It was a toss up between cheap public transport or a tourist bus at 1100 at EUR20. As I was up so early, I decided on the public bus which only takes 30 minutes. It was the walking to/from the station at both ends that makes it a little more of an effort.

The Trakai Island Castle wasn’t yet open when I arrived. I walked around it and waited briefly before it opened at 1000. It was starting to drizzle.

I explored the inside for about 35 minutes reading the various information sheets in English. The castle is largely rebuilt (as with many things “restored” for tourism). I found the information on the Karaim and Tartars interesting though.large_5550_14712867918905.jpgHouses in Trakai.Both groups are Turkic, the former being adherents of the Old Testament but not Jewish (which spared them from the purge as they “did not kill Jesus”) and the latter Muslim.

I donned my poncho (purchased in Machu Picchu) and walked back to the bus. I saw the remains of Trakai's Peninsula Castle which only has part of a facade with modern offices behind. The couple of kibinai (Karaim pie like Cornish Pasties) stands were not yet open and I was hungry. Fortunately there was one open when I finally got to the bus station.

Back in Vilnius [Vilnius-travel-guide-1046243], it was still wet. I found a branch of Cili Pizza near the bus station and tried out baked dumplings with lots of shredded ham, topped with white sauce and cheese. So good and so so bad. Heart attack material I think.

The market was nearby. There was also a supermarket. It was funny to see locals selling produce in very small quantities, all lined up outside the supermarket in competition with them.

I rested for part of the afternoon before walking up to Gediminas Castle (but didn’t enter). The hilltop vantage point offered a good view of both Vilnius’ old and new towns.

I knew I shouldn’t but I did. I had dinner at Cili Pizza again, this time at another branch, trying out their crispy potato pancakes. They do make a variety of authentic Lithuanian food at reasonable prices so it was a good choice as far as I was concerned.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

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