Monday 05 September 2016
Today we leave Tallinn just as we are starting to feel comfortable and know our way around. We had a mini-bus and trailer for our luggage to drive us through to Riga, the capital of Latvia. Till now we have stayed almost all our time in the medieval Old Town, so it was quite a surprise to drive out into a very modern city. There were a few post-war Soviet style buildings but most of the development has been in the past 25 years since independence in 1991. Tallinn is still fairly small with about 400,000 people so it doesn’t take us very long to reach the edge of the city. There are beautiful woods surrounding the city and lots of two-story predominantly wooden villas with very steep pitched roofs scattered through out the woods.
Estonia is known for its woods and bogs. It is limestone country and the bogs form in dips in the limestone. There are fields as well, but although they were full of new hay bales, we didn’t see any livestock. Apparently these are kept inside – but as much for hygiene and effluent management as for temperature and ease of feeding. There are very strict rules around effluent management – we think that NZ could learn a lot from this given current issues around run-off into waterways. There are some crops grown but the climate means that there is only a very short growing season. Further south in Lithuania they have lots of crop fields and can generally 2 crops of potatoes in a season whereas Estonia is lucky if they can get one crop harvested before the frosts return. Latvia is intermediate with a mix of woods and fields.
We learn that Estonians are from the same ethnic group as Finnish people with language that comes from Finno-Ugric roots. This is totally different from the other 2 Baltic States (Latvia and Lithuania) whose language is proto-Indo-European and comes directly from Sanskrit.
We have a 2 hour drive to Parnu, a pretty seaside town on the Gulf of Livonia. This Baltic coast spa resort has been popular with tourists since the 1830’s with people flocking to its clean sand beaches and to revitalise in the Parnu Mud Baths. In 1837, a tavern near the beach was made into a bathing establishment. The establishment accommodated 5–6 bathrooms that provided hot seawater baths in summer and operated as a sauna in winter. The wooden building was burnt down in the course of World War I. In 1927, the present stone building of Parnu Mud Baths was erected at the same site, and is now a hotel.
We first head out to the beach. The Baltic Sea is barely tidal at all, behaving more like a lake. Although being at the beach is only a short summer activity, it is very popular not just with the locals but also with tourists from places like Israel where it is too hot for them to spend a day at the beach. It is a long golden sandy beach but I am a bit taken aback by the large number of structures littering the beach: changing sheds, seats, board walks etc. Since 1996 Parnu has been known as Estonia’s Summer Capital, with a reasonable permanent population of about 45,000.
Next stop is Parnu town centre where we have a walking tour around looking at some of the interesting buildings and monuments. There is a mix of all manner and styles of building construction. A stone arch is all that that remains of the balcony of a theatre where the Proclamation of Independence of Estonia was made in 1918. A bronze statue commemorates a key figure in the Estonian National Awakening Movement, celebrating 150 years of continuous Estonian language journalism.
We then have some free time to look around and get some lunch. We wander around a local souvenir shop specialising in a vast array of wooden craft items (wood is something the Estonians have a lot of!) and handcrafted woollens – including some crazy felted hats that Dermot modelled for us. We found a cafe with seats outside in the sunshine and ordered a lunch of quiche and salad along with a local craft beer.
Our 3 hour drive through to Riga is punctuated with a welcome stop for a walk through the woods and out into a bog. For Estonians there is nothing more beautiful and there are lots of people who go out walking – there are boardwalks provided here but ‘bog-shoes’ are a popular item. It looks somewhat barren at first glance but then when you look closer there is so much more: lots of mushrooms, heather in flower, wild bilberries, and cloud berries. There is also quite a lot of wildlife in the countryside, including moose and bears but we don’t see any of those. There are lots of birds as well, many of which are migratory. Apparently we have just missed the storks who leave on the 25 August each year; how they know the date nobody knows but on the 25 August the fields are full of storks and on 26 August they have all gone.
We cross the border into Latvia but nobody took any notice of us. Sometimes they ask for passports but there didn’t seem to be anyone around at all when we passed through. Even though nothing really changed in the landscape, we did start to notice subtle changes as we got further into Latvia. There are about 2 million people in Latvia and it is a lot more urbanised. Throughout the Soviet Era, Riga was the second largest port after St Petersburg so has always been a busy city. It also largely escaped bombing during the war (except for bridges across rivers) so has many different eras and styles of buildings. Riga is a beautiful old Hanseatic city on the banks of the Daugava River and, like Tallinn, its skyline is pierced with spires, towers and weather vanes.
We check into the TIA hotel, a small and solid mid 20th century building where everything is provided and functional but there is certainly no luxury of any sort – completely utilitarian. Our room is small and compact, totally fitted out in pale wooden furniture including solid cot-like sides around the beds that made us feel like we were in boarding school, but there is little space to put anything and I balance my bag precariously on top of the mini-fridge.
After some time to settle in, we set off for a walking tour through the Art Nouveau area of town. Art Nouveau architecture makes out roughly one third of all buildings in the centre of Riga, making it the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. The early 20th century was a period of rapid economic, industrial and demographic development in Riga and this style represented the new found wealth of the upper middle classes. Although there were many local architects building in this style, one of the city’s most prolific art nouveau architects was Mikhail Eisenstein (father of the legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein who made movies including Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible). He is best known for his collection of buildings on Alberta iela (street) that is famous for its unusual sculpture, coloured bricks and tiles, geometric ornaments and uniquely shaped windows.
We walk for about 2 hours around the area marvelling at the architecture and then across to Freedom Square. The Baltic states seem to have been occupied by just about every other European country over the centuries but gained independence at the beginning of the 20th century but this was short-lived and they then had 50 years of Soviet occupation before regaining independence. The Latvians in particularly have managed to maintain many of the original freedom monuments by describing them in ways that appealed to the Soviets, such as the 3 stars at the top of the freedom monument morphing from 3 Latvian regions to representing 3 happy soviet states.
We walk through the park, across the river and into town hall square where Ieva has booked a restaurant for us. It looks very upmarket and serves some traditional Latvian dishes but is very reasonably priced. I have duck breast with pea purée and raspberry sauce. Everybody has the local beer.
On the way home we marvel at all the city lights, especially the National Art Museum. Ieva has pointed out to us all the landmarks that will help us find our way back to the hotel but we are very pleased that she is walking back with us, especially because our hotel doesn’t have any signage visible from that direction and we all would have walked straight past. Those who came back separately walked quite some distance before realising that they must have gone too far.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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