Baltica

Tallink, 27.05.2019

The ferry has just left Tallinn, bringing the chapter through the baltic states to an end. This is probably the cleanest, most modern and best organized ferry I’ve taken in my entire life. As I drove the Mini up the ramp I thought about the many summer ferries in Greece or the boats in Southeast Asia I’ve used recently. Worlds apart.

– Caution: long post ahead –

In a different way, Tallinn is also worlds apart from Minsk, where I left just 48h ago, and that from here seems to be on another planet. I just had to check if it was really just 2 days ago, as it seems an eternity since In the “early” morning I left the hotel, got into the car, and drove a few blocks into the old town to go have breakfast at a place I had googled the night before. It was 09:30 on a Saturday morning, downtown Minsk was deserted, and the place I had seen me splurge in a breakfast “a la Russe” – was closed. As was pretty much every other place in the area, fortunately I found a coffee shop and got a cappuccino. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that, no matter what progress there has or has not been east of Berlin, a few things work everywhere: contactless credit card payment and electric scooters a la Lime & Bird. So far I survived without having to withdraw any non-Euro cash, the only disadvantage being that I couldn’t tip in a few restaurants. So I toured old Minsk a bit, and in a way the emptiness gave me more space to appreciate. Around the town hall a folk market was being set up, and a few early birds (10.00 in the morning!) were strolling the artisan’s stands. Looking a bit kitsch, I wasn’t sure if these were genuine artisans, of a government sponsored display of “official folklore”. Although I personally in my short drive through wasn’t impacted in any way, a constant reminder followed me that I was in one of the most unfree countries in Europe. And in a way it seems the Soviet Union hasn’t really ended here. Yes there is modernisation, even electro music in clubs full of hipsters that look like the ones in NY, Berlin or London, contactless visa, electric scooters, giant shopping malls and cinemas and a lot more. But there is also the bureaucracy, of which I only got a very small taste during visa procurement and border control. And driving through Minsk the Soviet legacy is everywhere. And not as a thing of the past, but it lives on. New “Plattenbauten” are being erected, Microrayons are being added, the 1980’s metro line keeps growing the same way as before. And, when I finally got a good breakfast at the Grand Café, a western café across the street from town hall, there were more waiters than guests. Breakfast was impeccable though, and the coffee so good I had three before I got back into the car.

Folk Market in Minsk.
Old Minsk.
Old Minsk.
Behind the facades, life is less glamorous in Minsk.

Leaving Minsk towards the border with Lithuania, the in-car device kept beeping regularly as I passed the toll gates. Shortly before the border then it started to beep twice, I had exhausted my credit. At a perfect Lukoil gas station I filled the tank, the best Diesel here costs almost half (!!) of what I paid in France. They had Wifi, so I could quickly catch up before heading to the border. Giving back the in-car device was a 2 minute thing. Contract, passport, device, click, click, “money back on card”. “Thank you, that was all?” “Da”. Wow! Same at the border: in 45 mins I was done on the Belarus side, incl. waiting in line. The truck drivers had a different fate, there was a two lane line for about 5km before the borders of trucks waiting. As I approached I had to avoid hitting a truck driver chilling on the side of the road or fixing his vehicle.

Entering Europe was also easy: passport, car docs, quick car check, and off I went. In under 1h I got through. A forest of roadsigns greeted me, a common experience when you enter the EU by car. Roads got a bit better, but not too much. The structure of the roads is still the same as in Belarus, with entrances from dirt tracks from the woods straight to the road, pedestrian crossings and speed cameras. 4G roaming was back, no more Google map downloads for a while.

Old Vilnius.
Old Vilnius.
Old Vilnius.

Vilnius is just 40 km from the border, I reached it for lunch. Roads in town are pretty bad, and the low cruising Mini passed the beating straight on to my back. I parked close to a market hall, and went in to look for a restroom. The market was a perfectly clean, EU food safety standard compliant operation, selling the same sausages, bread, sweets, cakes etc like I probably could have found in Minsk. Then there’s an annex to the market, the less chic one, where all kinds of merchandise were sold, especially clothes. It felt like the Thai markets, just that the clothes were less colourful and the brands less evidently fake. The restroom costed €0,30 as the lady running behind me explained as I was about to walk in. I had no cash, so no restroom. WTF! Off to the old town. Vilnius probably must have been a charming old town before WWII and Soviet re-construction and enlargement. As I travel I read a lot on Wikipedia about the cities and countries. If you’re interested in more background about Baltic history, I highly recommend to take the time to read through Wikipedia. It’s very interesting, and I had to correct a lot of what I thought was the history of the places I crossed. The main take for me was that between Berlin and Moscow, history has been a constant handing over of control between mostly Poles, Germans of different flags, Russians, further north also Swedes. But the population, no matter who ruled, has always been a mix of peoples, languages, religions. Until 1945, when the Jews were mostly exterminated, a whole lot of other people of all sorts dead, and the Germans kicked out. A few ethnic corrections by the Soviets have then put the final touches on what today are a lot less diverse, less vibrant societies.

Today Vilnius embraces tourism to a point where the old town is basically a Disneyland of a medieval town. When in probably 1993 I visited Prague with my family, we had a similar experience. My father knew Prague from the 1970’s. Coming back 20 years later after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the old town had been spruced up colourfully to cater to the pub crawl crowd, that got ferried in by the bus or trainload (Ryanair and Easyjet didn’t get to Prague back then). Every building was a pub, offering “typical Prague cuisine” on menus that looked like McD, kitsch souvenir stands were all around. The type of tourists coming there wasn’t necessary interested in culture or old Prague, but booze, cheap food and party. Vilnius isn’t Prague, it’s smaller, but the style in which the old town got renovated is a bit along these lines. Outside of the old town, nobody cares to renovate that much, and the past is a lot more present.

The day was getting late, and the road ahead still long, so I had to rush. Overland towards the Latvian border there wasn’t a lot of excitement, and it rained on and off. Also in the Baltic states bikers use motorways for excursions, sometimes a dad even takes his daughters for a family trip on a weekend there. The crossing into Latvia was easy, no border, just a road sign and 2 mins of 4G downtime as the network switches. For a fraction of a second I thought about the hours-long border crossing that I would have had to face if these countries were not in the EU. And in the EU there are people that want to “take our borders back” and put that crap back up… Insane, good luck to the British. At Panevezys (that sounds like “bread and veggies” in Italian, otherwise I couldn’t have remembered the name) i had left the main Vilnius-Riga road, and the smaller one was also a lot less tarred. The Latvian sire was very bad, like a mosaic of potholes and tar patches of all shades of grey. I started to notice ruins of what probably must have been bigger buildings or walls pre-WWII. The sun started to go down, and the window full of insects and road dirt isn’t the best sight with the light against it. but the more north I got, the later the light disappeared. I reached Jurmala, Riga’s beach town, in the last sunshine. It is a beautiful collection of datchas in the pine woods. In a way it reminded me of places like Fregene at the beach in Rome, same concept and town layout, similar pine trees, different architecture, better weather. I checked in at the hotel and asked for dinner. “Too late, it’s already 21.00”. Ouch! “But let me call a place I can recommend.” Very friendly from the receptionist. She put the name into Google maps and said “you have 10 minutes before they close the kitchen.” OK, so off I went. I reached the parking lot dotted with Bentleys, Porsches and other high end German cars 7 mins later and ran straight to the beach. The sea air was wonderful, the wind in my hair, and the sun going down on the horizon – I got emotional for some reason. After 10 days and 5.500 km overland being back at the water, and not just a lake, felt just good. At my table at the very chic restaurant everybody spoke Russian around me. Dinner was spectacular, but the sundown over the sea took all the attention.

The sea at Jurmala.

Sunday morning in Riga was even more dead than Saturday morning in Minsk. I’m not sure if the nights are so wild around here (and I completely missed that), or if there’s a morning magic at home that keeps people away from their towns. It was almost a relief to find a congregation of Harley-Davidson bikers on a square, but only almost, as that isn’t my type of crowd really. Riga as a Hanse town features some very pretty buildings and churches from that time. The “Prague effect” is here as well though, even if at my time of the day there were only a few groups of Asian tourists. Breakfast was bleak, served by super-white waitresses, but one rule of the road is to not hit it with an empty stomach. I took a short tour of the city, but felt that what I’m up to see on this trip is not the Hanse towns and the Prague effect.

Old Riga.
Old Riga.
Tourists in the morning in Riga.
Old Riga.
Before wetting a “Prague makeover”.

The road to Estonia was rather unspectacular. Woods, fields, woods, fields. Beautiful, yes, but I’ve had woods and fields now for over a week and I’m OK for now. In Masuria the hills and lakes add a special touch to it that is missing here. Driving out of one town in the middle of nowhere, I suddenly saw a police car speed towards me, pass me, then turn around and stop me. “Document.” “Car Document.” “Speed.” “Penalty.” Off the policeman went with my documents back in his car. I hadn’t said a word, and it started to rain as I waited 20 minutes, checking Instagram and Google maps. Then he told me to come to his car, gave me the documents back, and asked me to fill in my address and signature into his declaration in Latvian. €80! I was about to take out my credit card, when he handed me a second form: the bank wire instructions. He told me I had to wire the money there! I got back into the car, waved him good bye as he left, and had to laugh out loud. Wire the money? Yes my friend!

Break on Lake Peipus, Russia os on the other side.

On the road, I’ve learned that local regulations are secondary. There are 4 things that matter, and to those I stick meticulously. The road, the weather, traffic, and my driving condition. Drive or not, how fast or cautious I drive, if I overtake or not – it all is determined by these 4 factors. Safety always comes first, then there’s the fun of driving, and of course I need to get somewhere by a certain time normally (often sundown). I’d say that 80% of the time this leads me to respect the local road rules, except for the speed. I tend to not drive faster than 120 km/h in optimum conditions on roads smaller than motorways as there’s no point and diesel consumption of the Mini goes up dramatically. So these €80 for a speed infraction on a perfect road with no rain and zero traffic while I was in great shape is something that makes no sense, and hence won’t get paid. Also, I’m fine with spending money with local communities, especially in not so well off places. But the police? ACAB, no way.

Estonian castle.
Russian castle.

Back to the road. The closer I got to the border with Russia, the darker the sky got, and it started to rain. I appreciate the free car wash, as the amount of insects and dirt is getting a bit too much, but visiting places sucks this way. As I drove into Narva, the border town between Estonia and Russia, I expected to see any sign of preparation for the threat the Russians apparently pose to the Baltic states, reason they joined NATO and hold war games around here. Big disappointment, the scariest thing the Estonians put to their defence agains invading Russians is the depressive Old Trafford pub on the square in front of the border station. And I had hoped for lunch around here… There’s a medieval castle on a rock on the Estonian side that looks very much like the ones I built with Lego as a kid. And right across the river there’s another one, the Russian side. Two massive castles staring at each other, symbols of conflict since 1492. I toured the Estonian castle in the rain, it was cold. As I entered the inner part through a big wooden gate, a babushka came towards me with an umbrella, very friendly, and “please, please” lead me straight out of the castle again. After I had exited, the showed me the entrance would close at 18.00, it was 17:20. “Kassa close five.” OK, I understand with the hordes of tourists you get on such a busy day and considering the vast amount of things to see around here you really need 1h to get everybody out on time. I was the only visitor.

Leaving Narva to the north, towards the sea, there’s a constant procession of cemeteries (Germans, Russians, others) of different wars (1700, 1918, 1945 etc) and respective memorials, incl. (of course!) a T34. The Lenin statue got deported by the Estonians into an ugly corner on a construction site inside the castle. I guess the tank is a little more complicated to move, and so it stands, facing west, with garlands from the recent May 9th festivities still fresh. All of this is on the right hand side of the road, towards east, the river that delimits the border with Russia. Death death death for centuries. I’m sorry I’m so repetitive in this blog, but somebody should really force the people that vote for nationalist parties in Europe to take a tour around here and read history books (or Wikipedia). Considering the many cemeteries and the vast destruction of our past culture and people diversity, plus the EVIDENT increase in quality of life wherever there is the EU v where it is not, incl. the free borders – how can somebody that is half sane in his mind say “no that’s crap, let’s get back to how we handled this before”?

Anyway, off to Tallinn. The Estonians seem related more to the Swiss than the Latvians or the Poles: 90 km/h limit and 90 km/h they drive, orderly in a row, with perfect safety distance between the cars. Whether it rains or not, even when it rains torrentially. And who stands out? That barbarian with the Spanish number plate, that at some point freaks out and overtakes 10 cars and speeds on. I was falling asleep at 90 km/h, remember point 4 of the rules above. Something I noticed since Lithuania, but more so the further I go north, are sudden stones or collections of stones on fields, sometimes with signs I can’t see from afar. I saw a few bunkers, also small war cemeteries and stones with the star of David, but these are different.

Raekoja square.
Old Tallinn.
Old Tallinn.
Hanseatic Tallinn.
Old Tallinn.
Night with light.

Entering Tallinn I fuelled up (diesel gets more expensive since Belarus with every country crossed, and Finland and Norway are expected to be the worst around here). It was 20.00, and no sign of sundown. I parked the Mini at the outskirts of the old town and went for a tour. It started to rain slightly again. Also Tallinn, formerly Reval, is a Hanse town. It’s better kept, and also completely empty on a Sunday evening with this weather. Still, once I toured off the evidently tourist restaurants on Raekoja square with the town hall, without a reservation I got sent away by three restaurants. Eventually dinner was delicious at Väike-rataskaevu. Tallinn is a very beautiful medieval city, that is not just well preserved (these guys must have gotten terribly lucky in WWII), but also well maintained without too much of the “Prague effect”. At 22.30 when I headed towards the hotel, it was still light. And the “sun” comes out at 4.30 again. Right on time to get the ferry to Helsinki.

Off to Helsinki, good bye Tallinn!
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