Lithuania

Our time in Lithuania started with a day in Palanga.   It’s the Lithuanian summer hot spot so the beach was packed with people for miles, no exaggeration.
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There’s a nice pedestrian boulevard leading to the beach and is lined with bars and restaurants. It’s at one of these that we tried one of the popular local beer snacks, pigs ears. One bite was enough to put us off for life, chewy and gristly and not very pleasant.
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The beach caters for all, theres trampolines, bouncy castles and even sauna trailers.
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We were amazed when we turned on the TV that night as we found a re-run omnibus of NZ Police 10-7, complete with Lithuanian audio.

Transport between major towns is pretty good, generally there’s a mini bus that leaves once it’s full of people rather than at a given time, although it’s not too long to wait for the next one. Palanga was a bit packed with tourists for us so we took one to Klaipeda (quite a speedy trip), our final stop in the Baltics.  

Klaipeda is a city with a huge port business, around 60 percent of the population work in sea related industries.
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The city itself has a small old town which like the other Baltic cities is the main tourist attraction.

Our accommodation was in a great location, easy walking distance to most things.  It came with the use of a bike and we hired another and biked to the largest mall in Lithuania. In terms of size it probably isn’t as big as Riccarton Westfield but it does have an ice skating / hockey rink in the middle!

It turns out that this day with these bikes was to be our last because when we went to get them the next day the lock had been sawn through and they were gone. It turns out that bike theft is a major problem and people go to great lengths to secure their bikes even hiding them up trees!  The ironic thing is that we then realised we were pretty much in the same car park as the police station, a lot of good that did.  

Not letting the experience deter us we hired bikes another day (not from the same company) and biked a 53km track down the Curonian Spit to a town called Nida.  The track itself reminded us of Bottle Lake forest in ChCh, it runs behind sand dunes and through forest.  We were determined to make good time and completed it in just over 3 hours, no wonder it took a day to recover.  Nida is one of the southern most parts of Lithuania, in fact the Russian boarder (the area of Russia where Kaliningrad is) is only 4km away, Matt was contemplating the swim.
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Again smoked fish is a staple food here and we bought some from a truck that had this cool smoking hut.
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A short ferry (5-10min) from Klaipeda across the lagoon is the settlement of Smiltyne.  Not so much a town as just a gateway to the beach.  The beach is long and has beautiful sand, the main deterrent would be the pretty constant wind that whips along it.  The solution is to find a good sunbathing spot among the sand dunes which is nice and sheltered and you can still get a view of the water.
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We’ve enjoyed our time in the Baltics, we both agree that we would definitely go back to Estonia but probably not to Latvia or Lithuania. Estonia just seemed to have a bit more life to it, people more optimistic about life and it seemed to be much more well kept. 

Lessons from the Baltics:

1) Always take money to the toilet, it usually costs 40-50cents.

2) Don’t bike through cobbled streets, too hard on your backside.

3) Hide your bike up a tree.

4) There is no such thing as a laundromat, dry cleaning is available at 7 euro per item of clothing.

5) Estonian women have very good genetics.

Now we board another ferry and begin our time in Western Europe.  To Germany we go.
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Big City vs Beach Town Latvia

Our first stop in Latvia was the capital of Riga. After a little confusion between trolleybus and regular bus (who knew?) leading to 2 buses and a taxi we finally found our accommodation.

Our first impression if the city wasn’t a great one.  It seemed a but grubby and run down, especially compared with Estonia,  and everyone on the street seems just a bit down. Apparently they just haven’t bounced back from Soviet rule even though they gained independence over 20 years ago.

Again its a city with a popular old town which is ok for wandering around. 

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Also great for the price of beer, 2 x 500ml for Lat1.69 (=NZ$4), can’t argue with that.

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We also came across this weird contraption where there’s a driver of the beer cart and all the patrons have to peddle power it around in order to get a drink. Drink driving?

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Riga is near the northern coast of Latvia so one day we took a short train to the beach (jurmala). We thought Jurmala was the name of the town but after seeing it numerous times we realised it just means seaside. 

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Matt was pretty pleased because we just happened to go there on the weekend of the Blonde Festival where apparently most of the blonde women of Latvia congregate.  Unfortunately it looks like we missed most of the festivities although we did get to see Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff lookalikes.

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And why not join in on the foam party, when in Latvia…

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It’s great to go to the beach for the day and catch the train back to town in time to see the sun setting.

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Another Baltic city another busy market. This one is set up in 4 or 5 old aircraft hangers right in the middle of town.

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Have we mentioned they love smoked fish here.

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There’s nothing better than getting bread, meat (we think it was ham), and cheese from the market and having a little picnic lunch by the river.
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They’re really good at the market if you ask for a little bit (mainly by gesturing with thumb and forefinger) they’ll give you a small taste before you commit to buying.

A lot of the housing in the city (at least what we saw) was older apartment buildings. We’re sure they wouldn’t pass new Christchurch regulations with visible cracks running through the plaster and bricks.
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Although we didn’t like Riga we were keen to see more of Latvia so headed for the beach town of Liepāja. It’s a beautiful beach that just happened to be only 5 minutes from our accommodation.
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Its a great place to relax in the sun and even have a run along the waterline to work off some of that market food.
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There’s an old prison on the edge of town that’s a recommended visit for tourists, you can even stay a night as a ‘prisoner’ or play the interactive game ‘Escape from the USSR’.

We’ve realised that we shouldn’t take all recommendations because after seeing Alcatraz in San Francisco the buildings looked a lot smaller.
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During our walk to find it though we came across this church that was glistening in the sun, a pretty magnificent building to be settled amongst derelict housing.
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We saw lots of stereotypical Russian looking older women, although this one was actually quite colourful.
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Our time in Latvia quickly came to an end and we hopped on board another bus en route to Lithuania.

Taste of Tartu

Tartu is another Estonian city with a quaint Old Town area, although not as big as the area in Tallinn, and is affectionately known as the ‘City of Good Thoughts’. Again there are some beautiful old buildings dating back hundreds of years like the Town Hall in Raekoja plats (town square).

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Also in this square is Estonias answer to Pisa (no need to go there now) , this house was built in 1793, half on the medieval town stone wall  and half on piles (the slumped side).

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Tartu is home to one of Northern Europe’s oldest Universities which was founded in 1632, and there are a lot of traditions that students today continue on such the ritual of burning study notes on the sacrificial stone after exams.

Because the university has had such a big influence on the city there are lots of statues scattered around, mostly of scholars, but this one of the kissing students is much more fun and more popular to get a photo beside.
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That’s not to say you can’t have photos and imaginary conversations with others.
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We knew that Tartu was a river town, what we didn’t expect was to find beaches on the banks of the river.
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They were really busy each day with young and old sunbathing and swimming, we got in on the action one afternoon before it got too cloudy.
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The first day we were in the city it was the Wimbledon finals and we managed to find an English pub to watch it at. They could put it on for us but they wanted us to tell them what channel it was on, how would we know? We left despondent but luckily when we returned a Swede had it all sorted and was personally in charge of the remote as we saw Andy Murray finally take one for the Brits.

It seems that the daily market is one of the most popular places in these Baltic countries, each one has the not so much overwhelming but certainly noticeable odour of gherkins . Although temping we didn’t go home with one of these big bags full.
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We did pick up a few things, this plus fresh & smoked fish meant lunch and dinners for a bargain. Smoked fish and meats are huge over here.
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We did go out for a couple of meals, its the first time we’ve eaten green cheese. It tastes just like a lettuce salad.
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Sweet pastries and cakes (koogid) are everywhere here so despite Matts usual non-sweet tooth we went out for dessert, eyes definitely bigger than stomachs.
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The custard square type with berry jam in the layers won out as the favourite.

We must have been thinking of home when we were wandering the streets because we both thought this was the spitting image of the Fletcher family in about 18 years time, maybe dropping Mackenzie to university for the first time.
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Then later that day on the news it was another friend Scott Chappel lookalike, just with a bit more of a tan.
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The city has a hill in the middle, Toome Hill, which is a favourite place for students to meet up but it also has some of the older buildings like the University observatory and these ruins of the Dome Cathedral. The Cathedral has been in this state since the 1500’s.
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There’s a great view of the clay tennis courts below.
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Matt was quite impressed to see an old Lada around town, we’ve actually seen a couple since. Only problem was it brought on bouts of singing the Salada cracker ad from TV some years ago, ‘ver-sa-tile sa-la-da’.

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We really enjoyed our time in Estonia, being our first decent length of time in a non – English country it was made much easier by a lot of people speaking English. It is still kind if fun when you have to use hand gestures to explain what you want, I’m sure we’ll get a lot more practice at this.
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It was time to put our € away and get onboard another train to cross the border into Latvia.

Tan-lines in Pärnu

As much as we’re enjoying being in Europe and visiting towns with so much history we liked the idea of getting away from that a little so we went to the beach resort town of Pärnu for 5 nights. It’s on the south coast of Estonia only a 3 hour train from Tallinn.
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We had much nicer digs this time a cute holiday apartment in a complex

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What a great place to relax. The beach is long and wide with nice sand and the water’s not blue but is so calm and warm at no less than 20°. It doesn’t have a very steep gradient, it took 130 steps from the waters edge until the water got over our knees!

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Because we were visiting in the summer holidays the beach was pretty busy most days but there was a lot of time when there were more people in the water than sunning on the beach. 

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Done well here is the activities that are available on and around the beach.  Beach soccer is super popular, there was actually an organised soccer tournament on, there’s always groups of people kicking a ball around.  Volleyball is another popular one,  I think Matt needs to embrace some speedos in order to fit in around here.

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There’s slides for kids to go into the water, mini golf, beach buggies and more importantly the closest icecream / food / drink / smoothie / suntan lotion shop is never far away.

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The bars /restaurants keep open late so it’s a great spot to watch the sun go down at around 11pm.

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When the wind gets up the kite surfers come out, at one stage there were 20 in a really small area.
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Although we did spend the majority of our time at the beach we also hired bikes to get around and have a look at the town. Matt really loved his cruiser…
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Although it’ll never match up to the real deal.
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One thing we did notice around the town is that 90% of the dogs are full or part sausage dog, must be the national dog of Estonia, they’re everywhere. We think we only saw about 4 ‘normal’ size dogs the whole time.

When our time in Pärnu was done we boarded a bus for our next stop, Tartu. I didn’t manage to be quick enough to get a photo but from what we saw on the bus trip if the weather’s good it’s common to do the gardening and landscaping in the Estonian countryside in your bikini / speedos. Wonder if that would catch on at home?
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Old and New Town Tallinn

We’ve mentioned in previous posts that we like ferries, well we like them even more when they’re a cruise ship!

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Our overnight trip between Stockholm and Tallinn was heaps of fun. On our 10 storey ship there were about 8 restaurants/bars, a supermarket, duty free store, casino and a nightclub. We were right at home in our cabin, the porthole mirror was a bit annoying because we kept looking in it expecting a view.

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The open deck was a great place to take in the scenery.

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A lot of Finnish people take a ferry to Estonia to load up on duty free to take home because doing that is so much cheaper than buying in Finland.

Was a really smooth trip and the Baltic Sea is more like a lake, we hardly knew we were moving most of the time – maybe some of that was to do with the duty free “Ship Schnapps” vodka.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and has so much history. The main tourist attraction is the Old Town, an area of cobbled streets and historic buildings surrounded by the stone town wall which dates back to medieval times, around 1200ad.

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There are lots of beautiful churches dotted around, St Olaf’s held the title of the worlds tallest building from 1549 to 1625 with its 159m high spire.

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The town square is always bustling with people and is much nicer at night when there’s no tour groups that have scuttled and shuffled their way off the cruise ships around.

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We spent a lot of time just wandering through the streets and little lanes going in all directions.

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Our accommodation was the Squirrel Shack Hostel which was 1 floor of an old 3 story house. Unfortunately not very flash digs more like the Addams Family home.
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The owner of the house was doing renovations so each morning we woke to the sound of him sawing bricks.

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Not the most elaborate of places but it was a good location and the right price.

Out of the centre of town we went to the popular Kalamaja markets. There were all sorts of things for sale from fruit and veges to bras and undies (hopefully not second hand), old phone chargers and odd bits of plumbing.

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Rach bought a new wallet and Matt was tempted to buy this watch…

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Leading up to Estonia gaining independence from the Soviets in 1991 Estonians would gather together at the song festival grounds and sing songs for their freedom.  The tiered stage itself can hold 30,000 singers.  The grounds are still in use and it’s here that we decided to go to the Elton John concert.

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Sophie (“Who?”) Ellis Bextor was the intro act and we were surprised to realise she has more than just the 1 hit that we could think of. The crowd was pretty reserved and she struggled to warm them up much.

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We loved the concert, Elton is such a good performer, he played solidly for around 2 hours, cranking out hit after hit. Sounded fantastic and really handy on the ivories too. 

We did hope that there were medical personnel close by because by the looks of them all the band members were over 70.

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Considering we were in the ‘dance floor’ section we thought people would get into the music but everyone was pretty subdued, although Rach got positive comments about her moves from an Irish girl with a buzz cut.

We had a few meals out, everything pretty reasonably priced. Our schnitzel at the German restaurant took up the whole dinner plate.  We tried Elk at an Estonian restaurant, not as rich as venison, and we really enjoyed it.

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The pork was pretty good too.

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There’s a section of the Old Town which is on a hill so gives a really good view over the city.

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You get to see the mix of the older buildings and the modern ones. There’s a total of 6 ‘skyscrapers’ in Tallinn, building regulations state that you can’t build higher than St Olafs church.

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When we were here there was a group of guys that turned up with this helicopter’ish contraption with a camera attached. 

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We weren’t sure weather they were part of a not so covert intelligence operation or just having fun but it was cool to watch it fly around.

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Because Tallinn is so far north sunset is around 11pm. For this reason when we went to the rooftop movies they didn’t start till 11.30pm.  There was such a good set up of chairs, beanbags, a bar and the all important blanket.

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The movie was played on a blow up screen and you listened through headsets.

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The sky never got fully dark, there was still a glow from the west, maybe this is the reason that most young Estonians would never think of going out to town before midnight. We couldn’t compete!

Anyway we loved Tallin had much more to it than we expected and everything was great value which does make a difference.

From here we decided to spend more time in Estonia so next stop Parnu, the Estonian beach resort equivalent of maybe Kaiteriteri.

Cycle friendly Copenhagen

Our departure from the UK led us to Copenhagen, Denmark. We quickly realised that things were going to be very expensive here when we got 2 coffees at the airport for 80 Kroner (around NZ$18)!

The city seemed to be bustling with people constantly, there is a great town square area and lots of activity around the river.  One of the more photographed parts of the city is Nyhavn, with it’s colourful buildings most of which are restaurants and bars where people can enjoy the sunshine beside the water.

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There was a sand sculpting competition on, amazing the detail they could manage with sand, they must have had really big buckets.

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On our first day we stumbled across a cafe near our accommodation which had the Danish snack Smørrebrød, a type of open sandwich.  We didn’t opt for the traditional versions with herring or shrimp but the ones we did have were very tasty.
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There are lots of beautiful old buildings and statues dotted around town like the Town Hall, Old Stock Exchange and Rosenborg Castle.

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Copenhagen is such a cycle friendly city, there are separated bike lanes all over town. Often shops have bikes parked up outside which aren’t locked at all, can’t see that happening at home. The trains have sections with bike racks too and where usually a park’n’ride means to drive/park the car/bus,  here it means cycle/park bike/train so there are huge cycle racks at each station often 2 levels high. 
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Bikes aren’t the only thing left unattended.  We learnt that it’s very common in Danish culture to put your babies outside to sleep, so it’s not unusual to see prams outside restaurants while the parents dine.

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Another odd tidbit we came across was so many people were wearing sailor hats.  We didn’t know why to start, but the guy we were staying with said it’s just a craze with teenagers, not sure why it’s caught on.

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Tivoli Gardens is a mix of theme park and manicured gardens with lots of restaurants and souvenir stands.  It’s a beautiful area for young and old.

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The central square holds different concerts throughout the week and would be a great spot to relax.

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Over the river from the central town there’s an area called Christiania, an alternative ‘free community’ which was set up around the abandoned military buildings. Part of the community is the ‘Green Light District’ where cannabis is freely sold, although still illegal in Denmark, so no photos are allowed.  The whole area is a popular tourist spot but its a bit eerie walking around because the buildings still seem abandoned even though around 1000 people live there.

It was just a quick 3 days in Copenhagen, from here we boarded a train to Stockholm (you can even take your cat on board), and from there our ferry to Estonia.
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