When I was looking at the map of possible places to go on this trip I looked at these Baltic countries and thought about how no one ever really talks about going there. So I decided to go there.
I found a place to stay in the Old Town near where our ferry was to depart two days later. The bus from Riga took us within a few miles away and as we walked through modern Tallinn the buildings from shiny glass high rises (actually reminded me a bit of parts of downtown Salt Lake City) and then things began to be made of stone and colorful stucco.
We dropped our stuff here, the Airbnb was built right into the ancient city wall. It was a beautiful flat with sleek modern artfully mixed with history.
Right away Justin and I took off exploring to see what Tallinn had to offer. This city is like a fairytale. We didn't expect this so much but it really was castle and turrets and spires at every turn.
I can only imagine how old everything here is and the battles this wall has seen. Everything in the USA is just a baby, only a couple hundred years of history - nothing compared to these places!
Before leaving the states I went to the Illiad Bookshop near my home to see if they had any travel books (and to pet the cats that hang out there). The guy said he had just put what was left of their travel books out in a box in front of the shop free for the taking because they don't sell well, and there was one for Estonia! Amazing luck.
I learned from the book that Old Tallinn was once divided into two kingdoms. This view (same as above, we went back in the morning) is of the lower kingdom which was constantly bickering with the upper portion of the city for power, where I was standing.
Crazy to think about the hands that built these city walls and towers to keep out the citizens of the lower portion of the city as well as enemies approaching from the coast. This is not a set for Game of Thrones, this is real life.
I liked how the guide book told the names of the towers, this one is Fat Margaret. Obviously fat because of the way the structure was built, but I can't help but wonder how Margaret felt about that.
I mean, it was probably an honor to have a tower named after her but can't help but wonder if she was cool with going down in history as "Fat Margaret".
This is from the little pub/cafe across the street from our flat. Enjoying hot chocolate on a chilly day! Our place was through those blue doors which opened into a courtyard, much like our place in Riga.
Just as everywhere else so far, Europe wins for most intricate doors ever.
The fairytale illusion slowly faded as we wandered the city. It became apparent the the USSR had a big presence here once upon a time. A lot of Old Tallinn has been restored but the facades of some buildings are still a work in progress.
Interesting enough, it was the upper portion of the city that was the most pristine.
This clock, reminding us to keep our feet moving because the sun would be going down in two hours!
Tallinn is full of old churches, this one had biblical scenes painted into each frame along the walls.
A broken bell from 1577. All I could think about was how heavy is must be and I hope it didn't drop onto anyone on the street below.
The old KGB headquarters. This place has a lot of unhappy history to it. Notice the windows bricked up in the basement where torture interrogations took place.
The town square gearing up to open a market for Christmas.
The old architecture beginning to mix with Soviet influence.
In the middle of this medieval land, a giant Russian Orthodox church was built to let the citizens know who was really boss.
This structure is MASSIVE. It was difficult to get the whole building into one frame. I needed a wider lens.
And next to the the church is a baroque palace built as an addition to Toompea Castle. It is now where Estonia's parliament meets.
Out back this guy was about half way done with blowing leafs off the lawn... he still had a long way to go, poor guy.
We scaled town the castle city walls to the lower portion as it started to rain.
Evidence of past destruction and war is a lot more obvious here.
BUT restoration is actively taking place and we saw these guys work on fixing the cobblestone street.
Justin wandering down some tiny side street. The roads are not uniform at all and bend and twist in unpredictable ways.
This is our favorite piece of graffiti that we saw :)
I love how the tops of the tall church spires would disappear into the fog.
Here you can see Old Tallinn, New Tallinn in the back to the right, and our ferry off to the left that we were are our way to board.
Tallinn was special to us I think because this was the most (coherent/not jet-lagged) time we had in any city so far. We went into it with zero expectations and walked out big fans! This last photo is as our boat is pulling away leading us to Sweden.
Puddle jumper time! I snapped this outside my plane window and later realized it's a perfect ad for Norwegian Air.
Early, early early in the morning, Justin and I hopped on a quick flight from Bergen back to Oslo where it was snowing as we were getting on our plane to Riga. Thankfully that was the only time we got snowed on, seeing as it was borderline winter and all. Rain is another story. After they de-iced the plane we were off!
And very shortly (less than an hour if I remember) we landed in Latvia with Riga being our main destination for the next 24ish hours. Justin snapped this photo of where the river meets the sea. To get to the city center from the airport we had to take a local bus where we gave up our seats to a couple of old babushkas who were being grumpy with each other (in an endearing sort of way.) That bus ride through the countryside into the city sort of shocked me. Whoa. There was a war here. Actually, probably quite a few wars. That was my thought as we passed old USSR apartment blocks and bombed out buildings that never quite recovered. The Cold War may have ended a few decades ago but here it looked like it was a very recent memory.
We were staying right in Old Town Riga so it was easy to find our place and drop our stuff and start exploring right away. This is St. Peter's Church. You know a church is old when it has it's own lengthy wikipedia page. 1209 AD in this case.
Riga immediately struck me as strange juxtaposition of a fairy tale land with a large dose of Soviet influence. Seriously, many areas look like something out of a Disney princess movie and then you turn a corner and the next building is crumbling to pieces. Very unique, but actually quite beautiful. A lot of the pre-war buildings are undergoing renovations to restore them to what they once were. Shops advertising items made in amber were very common all over the Baltic countries.
This guy was just hangout out on the corner. I think that's a restaurant set in the Middle Ages, maybe he was on his 15 minute jousting break.
Art Nouveau is prevalent throughout the city. I learned that at one time Riga was the 4th largest city in Russia and had a really great economy going on. The bourgeoisie had cash to burn and they spent a good chunk on some really amazing architecture. The Old Town section of the city itself is a UNESCO site.
My personal favorite of the architecture was this building with an extra large door and an extra small door, I guess to accommodate people of all sizes? The small one was probably 3 feet high, if that.
We found our way into a couple of churches. Most of them required a "donation" of a few euros to go in so we just ducked in and out real quick and didn't spend too much time there. (ok really though, if it's required it's not really a donation, is it. hmm...)
Speaking of euros, Latvia is SO CHEAP, it was the best surprise. The guy who's apartment we were renting warned us that Riga was very expensive, and Justin and I just looked at each other like ummm ok... haha. The euro to US dollar isn't anything special, just everything in Riga was priced way low. We only ate at one restaurant, just to say we tried a local dish, but all our food was mostly from this market that had fresh bread and pastries and these little pizza-like things and fruit and european chocolate (yum). It was like 20 cents for this, 40 cents for that, good stuff!
One of my favorite observations was that even though it's an "Old Town" part of the city and you'd expect it to be a total tourist trap, it's NOT. I would say it's more like 30% geared towards foreigners, and 70% were just normal businesses and people living their every day lives. This became especially clear in the early afternoon when schools got out and kids were running around everywhere. I think this is the ideal for historic cities. Keep them functioning as they always have been, but welcome visitors in to enjoy it as well.
Another picturesque church, if I recall correctly, this one didn't charge us to go in.
Riga is NOT so much on a grid system like I am used to so we kept making wrong turns, going in circles, mysteriously ending up back in places we'd seen hours prior, etc. It's the perfect place to get lost if you don't have anywhere to be. :)
Politiet, policija, politsei, polis & politi. You'd think they'd come up with a universal name for it.
The Swedish Gate leading in and out of Riga. Just goes to show you how crazy thick those city walls were.
Riga is built on a river. Crossing this bridge at night I felt like I was a spy in a Mission: Impossible movie.
The Freedom Monument (pretty sure that spotlight is supposed to be aimed a little higher). The country was celebrating Latvian Independence Day on November 18th (we were there Nov. 16-17) and everyone had little red flowers pinned to their lapels.
Backtracking a little, we arrived in Europe on November 13th. We were out seeing Oslo that night and fell straight into bed that night exhausted. I have a habit of skimming headlines on my phone when I wake up and the next morning was nothing but stories of a terrorist attack that had just happened in Paris. A few days later when Justin and I saw these flowers across the street from the Freedom Monument we thought it was just for the Latvian remembrance day until we got closer.
It was the embassy for France and there were thousands of flowers, notes, children's drawings and candles lit in mourning and support for Paris.
We rode the elevator to the top of a tall hotel to get an aerial view of the city at night and saw this building in the distance lit up like the French flag.
Here is the view looking down at Riga. The Freedom Monument is at the end of the row of trees and Old Town is a little further on and to the right of the monument. Justin did a good job of holding up coats to cut the glare from the elevator window. Can I get a 4x4 floppy over here? (sorry. dumb film joke.)
The next morning as we were heading out at the last minute I thought to turn around and snap a photo of the place we stayed. It may not look like much but I thought it was kind of neat. There are businesses on the streets with little gaps in between that open to these courtyards, and the apartments are behind the shops. We went through this door and up a flight of stone steps and it was just as derelict inside the building until we opened the door to the actual flat and it was a totally normal, nice living space. Just the water tasted weird, so I stuck to bottled water after that. Going through doorways the walls were these great big thick slabs of concrete.
Heading to the Central Station we wandered around the indoor/outdoor market to get some breakfast. The best words I could describe this place would be lively and colorful. The outdoor portion was similar to a swap meet with booths selling anything and everything. Clothing, jewelry, household goods, toys and trinkets, guns. Lots and lots of guns for sale.
Inside these old airplane hangers each section was for a type of food. One was full of fruit and vegetables, the next full of raw meat hanging everywhere (anyone who knows me knows why I was dying to get out of this one), and another full of every kind of seafood, yet another full of baked goods and fresh bread (this one smelled the best by far),
How does that song go? Fish heads, fish heads, eat em up yum.
Fresh bread, I don't know why I picked this one to take a picture of, it's more on the expensive side. The other booths had the same stuff for half the price.
Spices! I just liked how colorful they were displayed next to each other in bulk.
We hopped on a bus that would take us from Riga to Tallinn, Estonia in about 4 hours. It started raining as we took off and I love the rain so it was a nice cozy ride for me. There were actually only like 4 other people on this huge nice bus, I don't know how that's economical for the company, but whatever it worked out great for us!
I wasn't in a position to take any photos on the initial bus ride from the Riga airport into the city, but on the way out it was no big deal and this is very much what the outskirts of the city look like in both directions. I have a feeling they don't worry so much about buildings being "up to code" here.
A little bus stop we stopped at for .02 seconds.
Latvia has the prettiest countryside. So lush and green, forests everywhere, cool old barns and farm houses popping out every once in a while.
These towers were everywhere. Not sure what they were or are used for, but they were always taller than the trees, even in places with no trees. Radio towers? Watch towers? Cell towers? Who knows.
This church was in the middle of nowhere, I wonder how many people show up on Sunday. The bus stopped when we approached the border of Estonia and I was a little bummed when they didn't care to stamp my passport. They didn't stamp it flying into Latvia either, I guess because we were already in the European Union. Nuts.