Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Feel the rhythmn, feel the rhyme, give it up....its bobsleigh time!!*in Latvia*

(The apostrophe  does not work very well)
The home of art nouveau,a Russian black market and stag party central. Riga is an interesting and beautiful place which feels richer than Lithuania and definitely more Russian. One of the first things that we noticed was that many things are displayed in 3 languages: Latvian, English and Russian. This is, I guess, hardly surprising when around 40% of Riga's population is from Russian descent.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon to the naughty squirrel hostel. The hostel had a really friendly atmosphere and was sooo clean!! On arriving we were given the chance to try the Rigan shot of choice, black balsam. It tasted like cough medicine and I definitely wouldn't want it on a night out.

We decided to spend the afternoon in quite a chilled way and simply went for a quick wonder around the streets. The signs of the English stag party were everywhere with numerous bars, happy hours and of course strip clubs. After a while we stopped at an Irish pub (I know) that had been recommended.... this was called Paddy Whelans. Inside were a couple of stag parties and sport was on the tv, it wasn't much of a travel experience but the beer was cheap!!

Upon return to the hostel we booked dog sledding for the following morning and were told to be downstairs for 9.30am sharp.....I do not know how we managed it the next day as the evening consisted of Foosball with 2 Lithuanian girls. Beer, Chats about the EU with a French guy, beer, ring of fire with a group of Spanish peiople and a Sri Lankan guy, beer,beer,beer...

Dog sledding was absolutely incredible and definitely worth doing if you ever get the opportunity. Although Adam had the reigns I would quite happily say that it was definitely the dogs that were in charge. At times we deviated from the road and flew over the snow. With dogs racing to following the car up ahead. At one point myself and the sled were airbourne and Adam had to run alongside to catch up. The rest of the day was spent chilling.

Riga has100s of art nouveau type buildings all over the city and the key is to look up. To be honest I wasnt entirely clear what art nouveau was but after seeing all the architecture I have a clearer understanding, even if it isn't my cup of tea. The Rigan skyline is also dominated by what is known by locals as Stalin\s biurthday cake, which is very similar to the massive building that he constructed in Warsaw.  Another key area is the freedom building, built following WW1 when Latvia was first announced as an independent state. There are guards constantly as the statue and is a very important symbol to many Latvians.

We went on a free tour whilst in Riga and I thought that the guide was  brilliant. She gave us loads of information about the city and took us outside the touristy old town. As part of the tour we were very pleased that she took us deep into the part of the city known as Muscava or little Moscow. This is where it gets seriously Russian. The beginning of little Moscow is dominated by 4 Zepplin hangers, which in WW2 were built by the Nazis to build Zepplins in. Happily this never happened and today they are used to host a massive central market. People were quite pushy shovvy to get to all the babouskas selling their various goods.

As we got further in to Muscava we visited a once beautiful synagogue that had been burnt down during the German occupation, sadly this is a very common tale in Eastern Europe. Surrounding this are lots of wooden houses which have been built and burnt and built and burnt over the centuries. A particular tale that the guide shared with us was during Napolen's time, the Latvians had been dreading his entry to Riga. One night, a guard called the alarm that he could see Napoleon and his armies in the distance. As a result all of the wooden houses surrounding the centre of Riga were burnt to the ground in attempt to thwart Napoleon anf to prevent him from gaining any supplies from the outskirts, it turned out that the guard was drunk and Napoleon never entered Latvia.... Our final stop in little Moscow was the black market. This was mega dodge and we had been warned to hold on to our valuables.  We couldn't really take any pictures inside as the sellers don't like it whilst they hawk their junk and stolen goods. It looks like a cross between a tip, junk shop with a sprinkling of Lenin and Stalin statues.... The joke in Riga is if your bag is stolen to go their the next day and buy it back for a reasonable price!!

After our epic tour of Riga we decide to take the tram to the legendary Lido. We had been told by several Latvians that this was the place to try Latvian food and that to make sure we were hungry when we went. Lonely planet had described it as if Latvia and Disney had a lovechild. The food was excellent with an absolutely massive choice and big, big helpings. The decor was interesting with various statues and waitresses in milk maid type outfits. It was the outside which was ginormous!!There was gun games, random lit up animals and a really big ice rink. Lido was clearly the place to be seen by Latvian teeny boppers!!

 From Riga we decide to visit Sigulda, an Eastern Latvian town. Our main purpose was to visit the Bobsleigh track. There are under 20 Bobsleighs in the entire world and only a handful of these allow tourists the privilege of going down. WE could either go down on the rather chunky tourist bob or book in advance and go down on a proper bonb. We of course went for the proper one. It was amazing. You get thrown about and have to try really hard to keep your neck down. The speeds reach around 105 kph and you feewl it as you hold on to a tiny metal bar and go very high on the walls of the track. I have to say that though really fun, you definitely need to be a bit of a daredevil!!!

Apart from the awesome bobsleigh, Sigulda is on the edge of a national park and a lovely place to walk around and relax. I imagine this would be a great place to visit again in the summer when there are even more walks open and the opportunity to bunjee jump and kayak open up.

Next up, Estonia.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Never drink in an English pub in Vilnius

After a couple of travelling days we arrived in Lithuania's beautiful capital city, Vilnius. The city has a massive old town which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

We made our way from the train station to our first hostel, Hostelgate. This was very central and very near what we were to discover was the best coffee chain ever.......

Unfortunately the hostel was the worst we had stayed in so far... we were across the courtyard from the main building and it smelt. The room we were in was shared with a very odd German man who we couldn't work out why he was there.....

As well as a beautiful old town we were pleased to find that there were a couple of bits to climb, namely the Gernomius tower and the hill of three crosses. The walk to the tower was so slippy and covered in ice, but the views were totally worth it.

The hill of three crosses was thick with snow and very idyllic. The three crosses are seen by many Lithuanians as a symbol of the country's constant loyalty to their roots through oppression and occupation.

Vilnius is a very quirky place and includes a mini republic known as Uzupio. In the mid 90s, following the liberation of Lithuania, a group of artists decided to make their own very odd republic in the centre of Vilnius. The constitution is up on a wall in 9 languages and includes gems such as a dog has the right to be a dog and people have the right to be unhappy. To enter the republic you walk across a bridge which is covered with locks that have been attached to the bridge by lovers who by closing the lock will supposedly be together forever. Very cute and suitable for the entrance of a romantic, bohemian republic.

Lonely Planet listed 5 quirky attractions to visit and we decided to track them down. All were pretty easy to find except the miracle tile in the cathedral square which took us about half an hour to track down.

 1. The Frank Zappa statue- a Lithuanian super fan got permission for the erection of a statue of Frank Zappa's head which now resides in a random car park near the Turkish embassy.

2. The egg statue which once took centre stage in the Uzupio republic was replaced in 2002 by the angel (see below)

3. The angel of Uzupis which apparently hatched from the egg statue.

4. The miracle tile is situated in the cathedral square and marks a place where the baltic chain occured. The baltic chain was a protest by all three baltic nations where people held hands over 600km. It was a tool to highlight all three nation's desires to be independent from the Soviet union. 6 months after the protest Lithuania declared itself as a nation no longer part of the Soviet union.

5. The socialist bridge, which had been destroyed several times has on each corner a statue celebrating the worker.

Whilst we were in Vilnius the spring festival took place, this was the biggest market I'd ever seen and spanned the entire old town with stalls. It was packed!!!


As a day trip we went to Trakai, a castle on a hill and home to the Karaim people. I can safely say this was the coldest temperatures I have ever been in and as we were being battered by snow and wind when crossing the very frozen lake by a slippery bridge I did question both our minds. Adam was super brave and stood on the frozen lake for a piccy!!


Kaunas is Lithuania's second city, comes with a compact old town and a devil museum (yup random). To be honest the few days in Kaunas we chillaxed, ate popcorn and watched films. I finally  saw V for Vendetta and now understand the whole Guido Fawkes mask thingy!!!

Hill of Crosses

In our book of Europe that our supercool friend Eloise gave us, the haunting images stood in both of our minds and we were determined to visit. The crosses are a mixture of devotional crosses and in memoriam crosses. The place was beautiful and surprisingly peaceful. The wind caused the crosses to tinkle.

PS. Yes we did go to an English pub in Vilnius. Yes we did get tonnes of free beer from a wide brimmed hatted Lithuanian man. Yes the hangover the next day was disgustingly painful.

Saturday, 2 March 2013


So we started our 13 month long adventures in the home of Pope John Paul, Tyskie beer and dumplings......

Having been to Warsaw before, we were anticipating the grim darkness of the train station but were pleasantly surprised to find that it had been done up due to the Euros......

Our hostel, the "Oki Doki" was pretty central and had an in house bar!!! We ventured out for a  bite to eat in the snow and came across a Polski restaurant whose speciality was dumplings, we both had fried meat dumplings which were delish (though Adam's accompanying gravy (fried meat) was interesting). After a beer at the hostel and a few games of cards we hit the hay, in readiness of the next day's sightseeing...

Having seen many of Warsaw's sights the time before we decided to investigate the Pawiak prison museum which told the story of the many political prisoners of the nazis who were imprisoned and died on the site. It was very interesting to get the perspective of the other individuals  of Warsaw who died at the hands of the Nazis  rather than the Jewish quarter.

The reconstructed prison and bronze tree

entrance to the museum

The copper tree with plaques remembering the dead. The actual tree  stood throughout  the monstrosities and was the only living witness to what went on. In the 2000s it was replaced by the bronze statue. 

After this we headed to the Warsaw uprising museum which showed the tales of  resistance in Poland during WW2. Again it was very poignant and an interesting perspective to what went on in occupied Poland. The most poignant image was a picture of a dead child who had acted as a messenger for the resistance.

Sign of the resistance, still seen on buildings today

The following day we set off on a mammoth journey to the northern city of Gdansk. To sum it up, it was very much like a Polish version of Portsmouth with a few more museums. Our hostel was very close to the Hilton hotel and near to bars and restaurants. It was called the Hosel Guitarra and as you can guess had a focus on the guitar legends including Jimi Hendrix and according to our room, Eric Clapton. 

Our wardrobe
The Eric display
We were in Gdansk for 4 nights so had plenty of time to relax and read. We visited the Uprising museum which told the story of the creation of the first free trade union in Poland. 

We also visited the memorial to some of the shipworkers who had died in the 1970 strike in order to achieve a trade union
The memorial

Gdansk is also famous for it's marine museum, so we spent the day learning about boats.... there is only so many boats you can learn about, but pretending to be a sea captain was fun!!!

On our final night in Poland we arrived at the random town of Bialystok. This was simply to break up the very long journies of Gdansk- Vilnius. However when we arrived, we discovered that it was the home of Esperanto (the double dutch language.) Our hostel was super cute and looked like a little austrian cottage dwarfed by the tower blocks surrounding it. As we were in the home of Esperanto we naturally went to the Esperanto cafe and bar for dinner, where we chatting to a group of OAPS learning English- very cool.

Next up... Lithuania