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Metros, museums and meatballs

semi-overcast 25 °C

Next we headed for Sweden's capital, Stockholm, for three days. After setting up camp in the outskirts of town, we took a resfreshing dip as it was very hot. We then hopped on the metro into town. Oddly enough, it was quite exciting using public transport again, and compared to London it was very quiet and simplistic. The plan was to get off at the central station but a rather funky looking pensioner (cream loafers, cream slacks (fly unzipped!), cream shirt and a suspiciously unreal looking hairdo) advised us to get of at the old town instead. We were pleasantly surprised by this wonderful part of the city with it's narrow streets full of bars, restaurants and shops, all being towered by the high, colourful old buildings which are clearly maintained well. Greg was very excited to discover the Ardbeg Embassey whiskey bar, where we had two drams. After perusing the area for a bit, we enjoyed a drink and bite to to eat by the water, watching the ships roll by and the high theme park rides across the bay. We made it back to the campsite just in time to catch the magnificent sunset.

The following day it was predicted to rain. Luckily Stockholm has lots of cool and interesting museums so we picked three to visit, in various locations so we would get to see more of the city too. Firstly we visited the fotography museum which had displays on from three different artists. Our favorite was the late Helmut Newton, with his provokative images of females and fashion. Next stop was the history museum, we were most interested in the gold finds and viking history. We didn't get to see the museum in full as we were in need of food, drink, and a rest. Lastly we headed for the spirit museum. This quirky museum gives, among other things, an interesting insight into the creation and launch of Abolut vodka during the introduction of Swedish alcohol regulation by the state. As we came out of the spirit museum, the rain had set in for the rest of the day. This was a shame as we would have liked to enjoy the area more, in stead we headed back to the lovely old town for a much needed meal.

We had hoped to get a ferry to Finland the next day, but the next day overnight ferry was too expensive and we had left it a bit late to get the early morning ferry, so we decided to spend another day in Stockholm. Rather than heading into town, we made our way to the largest IKEA in the world, where we had quintessential Swedish meatballs with all the trimmings. Hey, it might sound naff but this is part of Swedish culture too, so we couldn't resist. Plus navigating our way through this jungle was quite an adventure in itself! Afterwards we grabbed the free IKEA shuttle bus into town for a little bit. We had an early night as we had a 4.30 start to look forward to...

Our ferry to Turku in Finland left at 7 in the morning. We had not been looking forward to the 11 hour crossing, so were pleasantly surprised to find the boat had free WiFi, lots of comfortable seating in various lounges, good sized duty free and even free entertainment (live music, bingo, karaoke, ect). The views during the crossing were wonder full, with little rock islands all along the way, at times we got ridiculously close as the through way was so narrow. Luckily our captain wasn't Italian! As we pulled into port we patiently waited with the other travellers to get off. We were baffled when over the tannoy our number plate was announced and that we should contact a member of staff. At this point we realised all the other passengers were on foot. We had obviously missed a vehicle passenger message much earlier on, and as we entered our vehicle deck the bike stood there all alone... We hopped on the bike and made a swift exit!





Posted by The Minion 06:44 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Finnish frivolities and downright drunkenness

sunny 25 °C

I would like to start by saying that none of the drunkenness in the title involved either of us, sorry to disappoint...

Like the other Nordic countries, alcohol consumption is regulated through Finlands state controlled liquor shops. However, unlike the other Nordic countries, the aptly named 'Alko' stores in Finland seem to encourage boozing in my humble opinion!

Our first encounter of Finnish drunkenness happened on the ferry from Stockholm to Turku. We were aware that many people make this trip as a 'booze cruise' for the 'cheap' duty free and, although a midweek, daytime crossing, this didn't become apparent until the karaoke started. The Finns immersed themselves in the, to us, weird world of Finnish music, with the odd English classic. They clearly found Dutch courage at the bottom of their glasses as the later it got, the more enthusiastic the singing became (note; enthusiastic, NOT better).

We spent the first two nights in the harbor town of Turku. My friend Anna lives here, but unfortunately she was not around as traveling herself (the cheek of it)! We found a nice waterside campsite about 10km out of town, in the green and quiet Ruisallo peninsula which used to be popular with the bourgeois. Shortly after arriving, having headed to the beach to soak up the evening sun and take a cooling dip in the sea, we were impressed with our second encounter of Finnish drunkenness: a middle-aged woman was sat there, visibly over-intoxicated, in just a branded bacardi tshirt. Her trousers were flung over the seat next to her. Moments later, she had been helped to the toilet, where she remained for the next half an hour or so before an ambulance was called in to deal with the mess she had got herself in. Greg was particularly impressed by this achievement of public drunkenness, especially in a country where booze is anything but cheap. Although we spent some time exploring central Turku, the former capital of Finland, it was just too hot (we were in our bike kit!) so we spent most of our time chilling by the beach, which was ace.

Next we headed to Helsinki. After setting up camp in the busy city campsite, we grabbed the metro into town. We did some exploring but as it was another humdinger of a day we hopped on the public transport ferry to Suomenlinna, a fortified island just off the coast of Helsinki. The former army base is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and is even home to a thousand or so people. We were told it was a must see, and it was. The history of the previous fortifications was interesting, lots of nooks and crannies to explore, pretty buildings, great views and perfect picnic spots. The place was buzzing, lots of locals came to chill with a few cold ones in hand. The following day, after picking up the replacement exhaust gasket, with thanks to the Strazdina sisters, we headed back into the centre. And after visiting some markets, sites and cafes we ended up grabbing the boat to Suomenlinna again, we had enjoyed it so much the previous day! As we headed back to the campsite in the evening, we experienced the ultimate in Finnish drunkenness. We walked past a bum and his two humongous, mean-looking dogs. As we looked past the dogs, we not only noticed the bum slumped over enjoying a booze induced nap, but he had his crown jewels on display through a hole in his pants! For those note aware of this terminology: he had his 'manhood' on show, his balls and some... This experience, the visual memory, will stay with me for a very long time.

Our last morning in Helsinki was spent fixing the bike with the new part. Greg did a sterling job with minimal tools and improvised well where necessary. My role was of a supportive nature: handing tools, propping up parts and, most importantly, making coffee. We were very pleased, and proud, when the part had been successfully fitted, and hit the road again.

Our final stop in Finland was Vaalimaa, a sleepy village on the Russian border. We hadn't expected much from this area and had picked it purely for its location as we wanted to hit the border crossing early to avoid long queues. Along the way we spotted a sign for a bunker museum, so we pulled in. After paying a token amount (reduced 'unemployed' rate!) we duly learned about the Salpa line and wartime history of the area. In short, the huge Salpa line fortification was constructed by Finland along the border to take on an imminent attack of their Soviet neighbors. The attack never happened, many say the USSR signed the peace treaty after being scared off by the Salpa line, knowing they would not make it past the barricades. For more info see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salpa_Line

We decided to stay in Vaalimaa an extra day, to allow for some 'Russia planning' and just to enjoy the simple peace & quiet...


Posted by The Minion 11:49 Archived in Finland Comments (1)

Revving it up in Russia

Truth be told we mainly just walked around St. Petersburg ;-)

sunny 27 °C

large_IMG_20130814_085513.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085616.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085830.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085705.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085548.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085427.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085729.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085805.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_085220.jpglarge_IMG_20130808_074504.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084432.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084400.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084321.jpglarge_IMG_20130808_074348.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084229.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084150.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084117.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084048.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_084005.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083927.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083827.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083849.jpglarge_IMG_20130809_081157.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083659.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083633.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083600.jpglarge_IMG_20130809_075559.jpglarge_IMG_20130809_075520.jpglarge_IMG_20130809_075620.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083410.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083332.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083258.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083213.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083122.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083043.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_083013.jpglarge_IMG_20130814_082900.jpgSo with much excitement we left the camp site and headed to the border crossing a few miles away. We had already filled up with petrol and theoretically had enough to get to Saint Petersburg in one go as it was only about 220km away. Just before customs we decided to buy some Roubles and 3rd party insurance for the bike. Money changing was easy enough, to get insurance was a detour of 30km, mmm, guess I will just blag it and get it at the first petrol station across the border. As this is what the guide books said could easily be done.
So we rolled into the short queue and waited our turn. It seemed we had to hand our passport to the woman in the window... seems simple enough. Haha! We tried this but got an irritated look from the scowling woman sitting in her little box. She then blurted something out in Russian and tried to shoe us away. Let the fun begin! So we met the stereo typical Russian and prepared ourselves for the worst. Luckily a border guard came over and walked us to the woman and got some forms from her and handed them to us. Curses, both pens we had were packed deep in the Givi box somewhere. Then the Russian guard came over and gave us both a pen. We managed to fill out the form, both part A and B for when you return and is not to be lost. We had sorted out visas already. We headed back to the surly woman and handed in the forms and passports, I think we got a stamp each. We then stood around trying to figure out what to do next. I see the Russian border guard and try to return the pens and thank him. He smiles and insists I keep the pen, maybe he knows something I don't? Yes, he then gets some more forms and beckons me inside, he sorts out a chair for me and then sits down next to me...oh is this when I am supposed to bribe him?! Luckily not. The forms are in Russian and might as well be in hieroglyphs as that is as much chance as I would have deciphering them. We go through it all together, VIN number, motorbike model etc. He shows me what to put where. When we are done I try to return the pen again but he gets some identical forms and says make copy and also gets a spare in case I make a mistake. Once complete we head to another window and hand it all in, the lady checks it all and then enters it in the computer. I then ride the bike up for a once over and the barrier is lifted for us to enter. I thanked the guard, who was a true ambassador for his country and without his help we would have had a very bad day...
So finally we are in the mighty Russia, behind the Iron Curtain, in the USSR. Whatever you call it, it has always been a fascinating place for me and since being a boy I have always been keen to check it out but in those days it would have been close to impossible plus it was on the other side of the world coming from South Africa. The Russians were always the baddies in movies and TV, worse than even the Germans! No offence, but just imagine the years of properganda us westerners have had rammed into our ears and eyes about these far away scary places. I want to see for myself...
Well things were different all the way to the border in Finland and you could see it getting more rural and rougher. Then once on the other side you could see the difference, people looked poorer, selling potatoes and other home growns on the side of the road. The road itself was in bad condition. But to be fair they were building a bigger better one. I rode into the first petrol station, long drop toilets, nice. Pretty girls in hot pants attending the petrol pumps, nice, pitty I still had a full tank! I head inside to enquire about insurance, I can't speak Russian and nobody there speaks English... mmm to hell with insurance, I am sure the Russians are careful and considerate drivers?
We head back out to the road and speed past a cop car on the side of the road with the copper fast asleep in the front seat! Cool I like this place already. Riding becomes like a TV game, dodge trucks, dodge trucks over taking cars overtaking other cars plus the guy in the BMW X5 overtaking everyone. Similar driving style to Albania, cool, I know how to do this. Turn machoness up to ten and show no mercy. Sure enough along the road there are immaculate grave stones with pictures of the deceased and then bits of the car as well, sometimes a bumper and a wheel or two. Hilarious!
There are a good mix of younger well dressed people in western branded clothing waiting for the buses and then people that look like they belong in a jar of formaldehyde in Peter the Greats Kuntskamera (more on this awesome places later) you can see they have been left behind and are still ticking on soviet time, they missed the capitalism bus and now probably have an even worse existence than the good old days. We marvel at the people and mainly thick forest for a few hours until we hit the outskirts of St Petersburg. I didn't pull over and stop anywhere as there was nowhere to do so without risk of getting flattened by a truck plus there wasn't too much too see but mainly as I didn't want the Guzzi messing with my mind by doing a not starting trick or similar. It has been running pretty sweet since the new gasket and it was fun gunning it full throttle past slower moving cars and in between trucks and bouncing over the bumpy roads.
As we came into the fabled city of 500 palaces, there were people swimming and sun bathing all along the river Neva and Baltic sea. The weather was cooking. The highway was modern and lots of high rise apartment buildings and big western brands like burger king polluting the sidewalks. I followed the open maps that I had downloaded onto the Garmin straight to our hotel in the Petrogradskay area right on the Bolshoy Prospekt, maybe a 20 walk North from the Peter and Paul fortress. Lots of trams to dodge now as well, but it is fun running the red lights and speeding up to try run pedestrians over... well when in Rome, er Russia! Tip, don't think a driver will stop for you or slow down if you are on a pedestrian crossing.
The hotel had a small sign next to a big metal door in a rough looking wall. We pressed the buzzer and the door opened, we headed down the dark threatening passage and found an old type of lift at the end. We climbed the steps to the first floor and approached another door where the friendly Russian lady welcomed us in. She took us to or room and I enquired about secure parking, she walked me to the landing and motioned for me to park in the space next to the lift. Mmm OK... not sure how I would get the bike up three steps. Cool parked behind the metal doors in the passage, try that in London!
We unpacked and headed to the metro 5 minutes walk away, which would then whisk us wherever we wanted to go for a few pennies. No luck the metro station Petrogradskaya is closed for renovations for a few months. Aaargh. We walk instead. Its better we get to see more. This city must have been incredible before the communists got hold of it. I guess the decay is still part of the charm and you can imagine how grand it must have been. The detail and scale of the bridges and buildings is something to admire and easily matches and exceeds other capital cities. From the heights of the Alexander column and the huge square surrounding it, to the brightly coloured church on the spilled blood and the kaleidoscope of mosaics inside to saint Isaacs cathedral, the Winter palace, St Nicholas cathedral, the Hermitage, Kuntskamera, St. Peter and Paul's cathedral/fortress...the list goes on. You could spend weeks here trying to see everything. We made a list of some things we had to see then also left time for random encounters and just exploring. We headed to the Soviet version of krispy kreme, number 25 Bolshaya Konyusshennaya, since 1958. Only one type of donut here and one type of coffee, its tasty and super cheap...maybe this communism thing isn't so bad after all! We see a flyer for a collection of soviet era video arcade type games. Have to investigate further. We find the place and enter, first we try a USSR soda machine that produces luminous green soda type drink, not bad. Next we hit the games with a pocket full of coins. Mostly practical type games, simulating shooting, torpedo aiming and strength or memory improving games. All to make you a better communist I suppose? We have a blast and kill an hour or two. Highly recommended. Next we check out the Kuntskamera, Google it to see some photos as you are not supposed to take any. Two headed calf anyone? Maybe some two headed babies or other delights? Row upon row of grotesque human deformaties and mangled aborted freak fetuses in jars of formaldehyde line the walls. Its like being in a Marilyn Manson or Rob Zombie video. I love it. So horrible but you can't stop looking. This personnel collection by Peter the great is incredible and pretty freaky but was used to educate people that the cause of these deformities was not witchcraft but can be explained by science. The rest of the museum is extremely absorbing just wish we had more time to explore it. Church on the spilled blood was another highlight. The interior has recently been renovated and is magnificent and almost magical. I hope you get the idea from the photos. We have seen hundreds of churches from all over Europe and the inside of this one is truely special. Although it is strange how theses churches could be so opulent and full of beautiful objects and then at the same time try sell you a seat in heaven or torture you until you admit that are in league with the devil then burn you at the stake?
From Wednesday to Saturday we sampled all the delights of saint Petersburg, well not all we didn't try the prostitutes or seedy gentlemen's clubs but did somehow pay just under a thousand roubles for two beers, around 16 quid! To add insult to injury the waiter insisted on pouring the beer into the glass without tilting the glass. Then looked confused when it went foamy from the bottom to the top. WTF!? Haha
We also ended up at a HOG meeting, that's Harley Davidson owners group, which was pretty cool. We checked out some local markets and rode the underground, which is impressive and much deeper and grander than London. The escalators go on for miles. I was thrilled to be singled out by the Stasi... I mean metro police and searched and scanned. Must be the beard!
All in all St Petersburg and the small part of Russia we travelled trough was a great experience and we highly recommend it. It definitely changed our perception on the surely type Russian with no emotion. We had no problems and the people were generally the same as in any big city, selfish bastards, haha just kidding. But you do tend to have more of those special human connections with strangers the further away from cities you get.
It is also very cool, to get the biker wave no matter where you are or where you are from, as long as you ride a motorcycle you are made to feel welcome...
Saturday morning I hooked up the drift camera to my helmet, in case of any altercations, all the bikers seemed to have one, and we headed towards Estonia. We passed some proper old soviet type monuments and buildings on the way. It took us hours to get through the busy border and back into the EU, but we were glad we made it. Russia is big, scary and awesome and I would love to go back and ride its breadth one day...

Posted by XJR1300 12:17 Archived in Russia Tagged saint_petersburg moto_guzzi Comments (1)


semi-overcast 20 °C

This morning we left Estonia and headed south to Latvia. We rode the E61/A1 all along the coast until we reached Riga. We were in need of a shower and some luxuries like electricity after our wild camping in the forests of Estonia. Along the way we stopped at a shop for some breakfast and to change our money into the local currency - the Lat. Luckily the shop had some WIFI, so while we ate some fresh meat/potato & veg dish we surfed for an apartment with mod cons within Riga. We found something that was good value for money and booked it for two nights. We then spent a few hours riding to Riga in some heavy rain. But it didn't worry us as we knew we had some proper accommodation. We arrived early afternoon so had time to kill. After playing in the traffic and catching every traffic light possible we decided to pick up some supplies before checking into our apartment.
We eventually found the apartment after getting lost in some one way roads and circling around a few times. There were tram tracks everywhere and one is never quite sure if you are on the road or the railway line? We parked the bike and found a doorbell. we rang it just as a well dressed couple also walked up to the door. The guy from the apartment opened the door looked us up and down and the turned to the other couple and said Jennifer? No sorry mate that's us, the dirty bikers with a 2 liter beer bottle in each hand! After an initial shock he recovered quickly and invited us in and showed us around.
That night we just scrubbed up and had a drink and a meal and watched some VH1 Classicson the TV. We wanted to research what to see in Riga and where to go next but as usual after an hour or so the internet just stopped working. No surprises there then as this has been a reoccurring theme throughout our travels.
Next morning we got the tram into Riga. We were staying opposite the old town, over the bridge in a suburb that was clearly up and coming as some of it was really old and soviet like. Our apartment was clearly a recent development. Some of the locals looked like prostitutes or maybe that is just how they dressed here? Anyways most people turned out to be friendly and helpful. We rode the tram for free as we thought it would be possible to buy tickets once on board. I was keen to get a free ride home as well but Jennifer insisted we buy tickets, lucky we did as our tram got stopped and everyone was checked for tickets on the way back, haha! As with most places there is the old town and new town. We like the old towns, and this one was pretty much the same as all the others, except some of the buildings had been reconstructed. Maybe it was the windy/rainy weather but we were just not feeling the magic here in Riga. We both felt that Tallinn had set the benchmark and Riga did just not cut it...But to be fair after visiting some museums about the Soviet times and checking out the art nouveau buildings on the other side of town. It started to grow on us. The history about the soviet occupation is especially interesting, how it wasn't even that long ago that they were rounding people up and sending them to Siberia and worse. Caught listening to a western radio station, you get sent to the arse end of Russia. Well there is only so much people can take and they eventually got their freedom back. The museum of occupation is actually very good, I highly recommend going in order to get an understanding of this place. There are also plenty of drinking places and restaurants etc in the old town and a huge market by the train station. Another highlight was trying the local booze called Black Balsam.
"Riga Black Balsam (Latvian: RÄ«gas Melnais balzams) is a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur made with many different natural ingredients mixed in pure vodka, giving a 45% abv (90 proof) drink. It can be had as it is, on the rocks or mixed with schnapps, akvavit, or vodka, or warm, in tea, coffee or black currant juice, or mixed with soda water or a soft drink, or in any variety of cocktails. It is also occasionally enjoyed as a topping on ice-cream. The drink itself is black and very bitter, but with a distinct sweetness.
Riga Black Balsam is made by JSC Latvijas Balzams. The traditional recipe was created by Abraham Kunze, a pharmacist living in Riga, and is based on a composition of 24 different plants, flowers, buds, juices, roots, oils and berries prepared in oak barrels. It is sold in ceramic handmade flagons. Over time, Riga Black Balsam has been acknowledged also internationally, as it has received more than 30 awards at international fairs.[1]
Black Balsam is also used in traditional medicine. It is considered to be a good cold remedy and is used to treat digestive problems.[2][3] It has been made in Riga since the middle of the 18th century. According to legend, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, became ill during a visit to Latvia, but was cured after drinking Riga Black Balsam. Name changed to Ole balsam after the pope Olegius for a brief moment."
This stuff is fantastic, better than Jagermeister!!
We also admired the freedom statue, where in Soviet times if anyone put flowers at its base, got a one way ticket to Siberia.
We eventually warmed to Riga and had a decent time. (It does sometimes get difficult to get excited about a place when you have just seen twenty towns before it that are similar)
That evening we enjoyed using the internet for 20 minutes before it died again, but not before we had a plotted a route to Kolka, which is a northerly peninsula that juts out into the sea where the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga meet. Sometimes turbulently! It was a pleasant enough ride a mere 150km away. We rode through Jurmala which is supposed to be like the French Riviera, rammed packed with the Rich/Famous/wannabees and plenty of expensive hotels and spas and hot trophy wives of Russian tycoons with bad haircuts, in speedos!! No thanks didn't even slow down, Where we are heading used to be strictly off limits, the entire area was all top secret soviet military base, so even today it is just huge forest all the way to the coast, there are one or two small fishing villages but thats it. Sounds perfect to us. We rode through some violent thunder storms but dried up quickly as the sun would pop out. Where we did stop for coffee the lady in the small shop was selling home made food and drinks. No English spoken here, I order some coffee with milk, this is better, starting to feel like an adventure again. I don't mind getting the wrong order in these situations, in fact I thrive on seeing what we will get and will give it a try always. This time we got coffee and milk, perfect. We headed on further, the traffic has really thinned out now and it is more rural. We eventually hit the village of Kolka and setup tent in this guys back garden, well he does run a guest house and has some basic facilities in the garden, long drops, shower, and two basins. It is just great, we pitch out tent and then decide to walk to where the seas meet.
Wow they were not kidding when they said this is Europe's longest beach. Picture it, Lush green pine trees, a couple of meters of white sand and then the glass like sea and it goes on for miles. Even better we were lucky if we saw maybe ten people in an hour. There had been a storm of biblical proportions a year or two ago and you could still see all the ripped up trees scattered around the beach. Once we got to the point where the seas met, things changed, this area was exposed and the wind was tearing along the beach, the sea was frothy and muddy and not inviting. There was a monument here for some people that recently drowned here and various ship wrecks. You could see this was not a good place to swim. although further down near our campsite was OK. So lots of natural beauty, sunshine and no crowds all for free. This place is a winner.
That evening we made a fire with wood so dry I just had to hold a lighter under the log for a few seconds to get it going. We had some sausages bought from the local shop that had a handwritten label saying 'Premium' so after much pointing and gesticulating the girl behind the counter managed to get the right ones for us. They were huge and not too bad. I think some of the people were still a bit shy of foreigners and the language barrier so maybe that is why the act with no emotion sometimes?
A German dude was also camping in the garden and we got chatting, he recommended a place to us further South in Lithuania on the Curonian split, but that is another story.
So next morning after a pleasing plop in the long drop we headed South along the other side of the peninsula along the P124 until we hit Irbene. Now this was what I had been waiting for there was just a sign pointing down a derelict overgrown road. We headed down it. This was proper Soviet top secret stuff back in the day, totally off limits. There were some maybe 4 or 5 story buildings totally dilapidated where they would have housed the army workers. Further along the path there were remains of some bunkers and barbed wire fences. We headed down a sand road on the Guzzi and past some guard houses until we spotted what we were after. Rising, Majestically above the forest the parabolic radio telescope, 32 meters in diameter. That was used to spy on the rest of the world. There used to be 3 but today there is only one left. It is huge, the eighth biggest in the world. Cool we walk around and take some photos. No entrance fee, no gift shop to exit through, no audio guide, sweet this is how it should be.
We then headed South to a national park that housed a secret missile silo from the cold war days in Lithuania. We took plenty of back roads, some dirt and painstakingly edged our to the border, at least there were no trucks on these roads. Almost no traffic at all. At the old border crossing we spent our last Lats on some beer and snacks for the day and then bid farewell to Latvia, which actually turned out to be a pretty cool place if you know where to go. (We did spend an hour riding around Riga looking for a place to fire some automatic weapons in an old bomb shelter but I think the place had closed or moved. I was really bleak that we couldn't find it as I am sure we would have enjoyed this)


Posted by XJR1300 06:04 Archived in Latvia Comments (2)

Wild Estonia

sunny 24 °C

It actually took us longer to get out of Russia than getting in. Not because of paperwork, but queues. When we headed in to Russia, we made sure we got to the border crossing early and mid-week. Our exit however was to be on the weekend and early afternoon which meant it was busy. The most interesting part of our wait was the view from 'no mans land', the bridge over the Narva river which connects Ivangorod in Russia with Narva in Estonia, as both embankments support impressive fortifications. 2 hours and 5 queues later, we entered Estonia and with it were back on EU ground.

We had read about wild-camping in Estonia, which we very much liked the sound of. These designated areas are run by the State Forest Management Centre (RMK) and consist of basic facilities (rustic undercover picnic tables, fire-pit/BBQ, dry-toilets, firewood) set in beautiful forest surroundings. For our first night we headed to a RMK camp spot in the Laheema National Park. As it was the weekend it was being enjoyed by a few locals (BBQ) as well as a few other campers. We set up camp near the bay and had a relaxing evening: braai, walk, and watching the sun-set. The next morning we noticed some paw-prints rather close to our tent... Did I mention Estonian forests are home to an abundance of wildlife such as bear, wolf, lynx, wild boar, ect?!?

We packed up early and made our way to Tallinn. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the small capital, particularly the Old Town was a hit with its topsy-turvy cobbled streets and beautiful rustic buildings. After the opulence and grandeur of St Petersburg, Tallinn seemed simple and tiny but equally as beautiful, just in a completely different way. As we walked past the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments we just couldn't resist a visit, and spent the next hour cringing as we found out about the many horrific and 'creative' methods of torture. The old town also boasted many cool bars, unfortunately we couldn't visit them all! Our favorite was the slightly gruesome sounding Hell Hunt, which proudly markets itself as the first pub in Estonia (a.d. 1993). Hell Hunt actually means gentle wolf, and this theme can be found in all of the bar's cool, custom artwork. Besides a well priced drinks selection and chilled vibe, I was glad to see stag-do's were not welcome. All the Baltic states are popular stag destinations and I can imagine this place wouldn't be as nice with a bunch of lager-louts at the bar. After some food at the African Kitchen (I think Greg was probably the only African there!) we had a rather restless night at the campsite, courtesy of some rather rowdy and inconsiderate Polish rally participants.

For our third and final night in Estonia we decided to do some more wild-camping. We headed for a random RMK camp near the Latvia border. We ended up in a beautiful, isolated place at lake Rae. There were a few people around during the day, but we were the only ones who stayed the night. It was absolutely bliss, and the occasional showers added to the atmosphere as we sheltered: the sound, the feel, the smell... And, of course, the visual treat as beautiful rainbows appeared. Our braai and fire was enjoyed even more than usual as we had chopped the logs ourselves! RMK had provided large wood pieces in a cabin, as well as axes so we had lots of fun chopping the wood into smaller pieces. Greg also decided to keep one axe close to hand, just in case... We had hoped to see some of the more exciting wildlife as we had taken a daylight stroll through the forest but had not seen anything unusual. As dusk was setting in I headed to the toilets, before it got completely dark. Suddenly, something ran across the path, and although I had only spotted it out of the corner of my eye I could tell it was feline. Using my head-torch I tried to see where the animal had gone, and to my surprise I saw a lynx staring at me from the bushes! I'm not sure who was more surprised by the encounter, the lynx or I, but I decided to turn back rather than tempt fate... Although it had been kind of scary, I was completely excited by my encounter. I certainly wasn't expecting to see a lynx in its natural habitat during our travels! Unfortunately the lynx had disappeared by the time I had returned with Greg and a camera. It made our night in the tent even more exciting and adventurous that night, Greg kept the axe very close.

We had hoped to spot some more paw prints near to our tent, but due to the rainy night any evidence animals may have left behind had been washed away.


Posted by The Minion 06:45 Archived in Estonia Comments (1)

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