Saturday, 28 August 2010

St. Petersburg (28th & 29th of July)

My birthday began in style with one middle-of-the-night wait followed by another at the Estonian and Russian borders. At the Russian border we had to get out of the coach and queue up to go through. There was not a lot to it. In the early morning we arrived at the bus stop in a busy St. Petersburg. Everyone was rushing to the metro with great purpose and after a bit of observation, police avoidance and purchasing our chips for the metro we followed suit. We figured out how to use the lockers in the underground maze of storage and left to explore the city. The police were everywhere and since our guidebook advised us to do our best to avoid them that's what we continued to do. Crossing the roads was a challenge but we just followed the flock and remained unharmed by the police and traffic. Tiring quickly from walking the long Nevsky Prospekt we took a trip on the sightseeing bus. This turned out to be a bad idea and we slept our way around St.Petersburg. The bus stopped all the time and every time it stopped the temperature would rise, resulting in us nodding off. What we did see of St. Petersburg was rather nice, if somewhat pompous.

After retrieving our luggage we took the trolleybus to the 'Graffiti Hostel', a colourful yellow, red and blue square of a hostel. In the buses you pay a lady who has her own reserved seat, often with a coat (leopard print or otherwise) hanging on it. An evening walk took us along the river past the ballet, which was closed, poodles, drunks, a few soviet style cars and some pretty onion domed churches. Watching the sightseeing and wedding party boats zoom under the bridges in front of the hostel was quite entertaining.

Queueing in order to deposit our bags back at the station ready for the evening's train to Moscow, we saw Julie Walter's Russian counterpart in the queue. Maybe she was the real McCoy and is incredibly good at pretending to be Russian. We took the bus back up Nevsky Prospekt and wandered across the river. In a park there were lots of wedding parties taking pictures in all the scenic spots. One bride sat herself on the back of a bench with her husband sitting on the bench underneath her dress, swinging his legs in the air. It was pretty funny and the description doesn't do it justice.

As it was a Thursday there was no entrance fee to the Zoological Museum, so we had no excuse not to visit. Housed in a long hall with a small space upstairs the museum is really impressive. There are about 40,000 specimens in there with displays of animals in their habitats on the right hand side and glass cabinet after cabinet of species grouped by family on the left-hand side. There were just so many animals, particularly birds, that it was no wonder that we ran out of time. Upstairs there was a small exhibit of origami animals on a little tour of Europe, some photos and quite a few moths and butterflies. And to my joy, after all those animals, I discovered a few leaves (they did have leaf miners on them though!).

In the evening we decided to treat ourselves to a boat trip along the canals of St. Petersburg. The route wasn't great and we didn't get to see the youth hostel from the water as we had hoped. However, Dimitri the guide who had learnt his English from listening to music, was hilarious and his commentary kept us entertained.

Monday, 16 August 2010


We're in Mongolia at the moment and won't have internet access for the next 12 days so we'll be getting even further behind. Hopefully we can catch up sometime after that but it doesn't seem that likely, sorry. We have some stuff about Russia typed up but a few gaps so we'll have some something ready when we've filled in the gaps.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A lazy Tallinn day

The night bus didn’t leave for St.Petersburg till 11.30 p.m., so we had time to waste and little to do. Others evidently had an itinerary and the streets were buzzing with groups of tourists who had come off the cruise ships. Having seen the Estonian knitwear photographs on the Internet before we’d left we had to look at the real thing. There were stalls lined against the town wall where ladies (and one man) displayed their items on tables and up high on hangers. We would have liked to have peruse them all at leisure, but every time we got near one they tried to coax us in to buy something. Jenny ingeniously decided to sling her camera over her shoulder and video the selection so that we could browse in peace. There were yet more stalls in the craft market and an old lady was trying to sell some hand knitted children’s gloves on the street. In the end I opted for a knitted jumper and Jenny a ridiculously big two-in-one hat-scarf with polar bears on it.

At the post office we sent home an accumulation of stuff we didn’t need. The stamps were very pretty with flowers, moose and other animals, but all they gave us for our postcard was a boring blue stamp with an E on it. Maitsev and Tervislik, the vegetarian restaurant I’d got excited about from the long list of cheap dishes on the internet, was a bit of a disappointment since they didn’t really have much to offer. It was very tasty though. In the evening I was dragged to watch ‘Inception’, which Jenny thoroughly enjoyed and I tried to sleep through, but it was so loud it was impossible.


We left Estonia early and you’ve guessed it – in the rain. The one and a half hour ferry journey was soon over and we found ourselves in the middle of Helsinki. Blueberries, cherries and mange tout were purchased at the busy and inviting market. Fruit and some veg. is purchased by the litre and measured out in a glass jar or plastic jug. The mange tout looked tasty but weren’t. However the fruit were a delight. Shortly after I realised I’d lost my waterproof trousers and retraced my steps, later looking in the bins as though I was someone looking for bottles with refundable deposits.

We turned up at what we thought was the Marimekko outlet store but wasn’t and made our way onwards to the actual outlet store. Located in an industrial estate we didn’t really know where we were going. We managed to take the Metro to the right station and found the street on a map. There were boxes and boxes and rails and rails of colourful t-shirts and Jenny was bored and I was enthralled.

Helsinki didn’t appear to be a very touristy place and there isn’t much to see as far as we could gather, so we took a small boat to an island and had a wander around it. In the town we looked in the actual Marimekko store to confirm that I’d purchased some bargains and walked up and back down the main shopping street.


Tallinn, the capital of Estonia is given the nickname of Disneyland of the North. It has a busy ferry port with boats to Scandinavia and is visited by many cruise ships. They claim to have invented marzipan in Tallinn, but Lubeck also claims to have invented it. We appreciated the small streets and beauty of the old town heading to a view point on arrival and witnessing a mighty fine sunset.

After our National Park adventures and bites still itching ferociously we decided to give yet another bog forest a miss. We took it easy looking at the Tallinn flower festival, visiting the beach on a rainy and blustery day, stumbling upon an overpriced eco-shop and seeing the park where the president resides. Fish head upon fish head could be seen along the high tide mark and we decided this would not have been our site of choice for a swim. In the wood above the beach was an impressive set of exercise equipment almost on a par with that in our park in Norwich. Jenny was not all that impressed and managed to turn herself upside down on one of the pieces of apparatus. Similar apparatus could be found in the town and we started to think that Estonia must be a bit wealthier than its neighbours.

The drivers in Estonia were a pleasant surprise. We had become used to zebra crossings just being road markings with no apparent purpose, dicing with death at every crossing. In Tallinn drivers actually stopped and waved you across as if it was abnormal that we hadn’t stepped into the road already. Estonia is also a Lotte haven. Lotte is an Estonian children’s animation character, she’s an inventor and can be found on drinks cartons, exercise books, pancake mix packets, cereals, ice creams/lollies and iced bar things with gelatine in them (so we never did find out what they were). You can also get cuddly toy Lottes on keyrings or on their own. We were slightly tempted to buy mum a silver spoon with Lotte on that we spotted in a jewellers shop window. There was a Lotte disco and treasure hunt at the flower festival on the 18th and they’ll be having a Lotte musical there sometime in August. All that was missing was the real life Lottie from our small corner of Devon.

With the marzipan museum, which was actually just a small room, ticked off there was not a lot left to do in Tallinn so we decided to go day tripping to Finland in search of Marimekko t-shirts and adventure.

Another bus, another country

I originally wrote this blog entry from the ‘Lux Express’ bus from Riga to Tallinn, with the hope of posting via the bus’ Internet connection, but we’re currently in Siberia so that didn’t happen. Our apologies for being behind we are trying to catch up! And the lack of photos, it takes time to pick the best from about 5000!

Everyone had booked tickets next to one another but the computer system didn’t seem to be in sync with the actual numbering in the bus, so our seats were actually in different rows. One of a couple was sitting in one of our seats so we just sat behind them. Two people were waiting at the first bus stop and we feared this would make everyone have to move since there was only one seat at the back and another further forward.

Everyone started moving seats. The lady behind us moved into my seat and I would have had to move into the seat in front, but the man there wouldn’t leave his wife and the lady wouldn’t leave her friends. Because I don’t like a scene, I became the sacrificial Brit and moved forward to the front. The Norweigan lady sitting next to Jenny was confused by our taste in architecture saying ‘you think that’s pretty?’ as Jenny photographed an old house with peeling paint. Apparently the houses are much nicer in Norway, more colourful and with intact paint-work.

Gauja National Park

Gauja National Park known as Latvia’s Switzerland, is best known for its Devonian sandstone scenery and its winding river the Gauja. Most parts being relatively inaccessible by train we headed for Sigulda, the biggest tourist hotspot.

This time we knew where the station was, but hadn’t left early enough and cut it pretty fine. Sigulda was full of tourist buses although mysteriously there weren’t many tourists walking around. The cable car ride over the Gauja was not as scenic as we had hoped. We’ve been spoiled by frequent visits to the real Switzerland. The lookout points didn’t offer much of a view either due to the tree cover. At the bottom of about 360 steps we came to some of the orange caves and their cold waters, which we would have liked to have drunk had we had the water purification tablets with us. A man was washing in the stream and as soon as enough tourists had gathered assumed position in the cave and played music on his recorder. When the tourists had disappeared he sat down and waited for the next influx.

After we’d refuelled on water and a peanut butter fudge like substance with a bat on its wrapper we adventured into the less trodden territories of the riverside ‘cycle path’. Mosquitoes were surrounding us and this time we squirted ourselves with ‘Mosi Guard’, a genuinely effective formula against these northern rascals. We heard lots of birds and lizards scurrying away, seeing them wasn’t as successful. There was a dead mole and some dead shrews. On the other side of the river the path became more overgrown. We scrambled over beaver felled trees, ditches and gullies, and across extremely rickety bridges. The best way to tackle these was to walk across with legs wide apart in a constipated like manner, avoiding the middle of the rotten planks. Most of the way the path didn’t appear to be a path and we bashed our way through the undergrowth. We must have missed the turn off but met up with where we wanted to be in the end. After walking the 389 steps back up the valley we realised we should have gone to the caves at the bottom. This look out point actually had a good view of the national park and almost deserved its name which was something along the lines of ‘Paradise Lookout’.

A train was waiting at the station but we needed water and ran into the first shop we could find. There was water and a fine discovery, carton drinks with a long nosed dog called Lotte on them (our dog is called Lottie). We left Riga the following day, just as the heavens opened and the rains began to fall.

Kemeri National Park

The one-hour train journey (once we’d found the station) from Riga to the former health resort of Kemeri was very cheap. Kemeri is acclaimed for its healing sulphurous water, but now it’s all a bit run down in an endearing kind of way. We found maps at the station and headed off through the large and well tended, but not well visited park. There were many birds and flowers, with a crumbling pagoda and rusty bridges. Kemeri seemed to be deserted, but for several lone people in wheelchairs. In Riga we had seen no wheelchair bound people and had thought it near impossible for them to cross any roads as they would be hampered by all the underground passages and their many stairs. In Kemeri it seems they have found a haven with normal crossings. Perhaps the sacred waters have drawn them there.

As soon as we had got to Kemeri the mosquitoes began to bite us, so we smothered ourselves in insect repellent. On entering into the National Park itself mosquito numbers got higher and we found ourselves dashing between pools of sunlight in an attempt to avoid them and their bites. Along a track we passed an electricity substation and a building with more people in wheelchairs sitting outside it. Were Latvians sending their wheelchair bound to the National Park where they would be out of sight and out of mind?

The bog forest was nice but would have been more appreciated was it not for the 60 or so itchy blotches that covered my body- further testament to the ineffectiveness of ‘The Mix’. Amongst plenty of other things blue butterflies, birds, other butterflies, a few toads, yet more bilberries (which the information boards told us we were very welcome to pick), trees, mosses and fungi were to be found. Yet again, no moose. Midst in the wood was a set of exercise equipment, which we imagine no one would be foolish enough to use with all these bloodsuckers around.

In Kemeri village we admired the old church and buildings. People walked around with buckets of water and bilberries, and a lady stood in the garden washing her clothes in the sink. Back in Riga a man came off a train with a few buckets of bilberries, he must have been out picking. We also came to the conclusion that supermarkets in these nations are far ahead of England and the rest of Europe. The fridges are found round the outside of the shop and have backs that slide open so that products can be restocked from the back, with the newer dates at the front. Stop the refurbishment in the River Cottage shop (if it’s actually happening) and put a few of those in. Oh actually maybe not, wouldn’t that just make life a little too easy?


Lithuania is the land of white storks, there are loads of them in the fields. Latvia has some too but not quite as many. The Riga hostel, in Riga funnily enough, was big and we were in a small 15 bed room on the 7th floor, right at the very top. There was only a small kitchen, but not many people used it, preferring to go out and eat beefsteak. The old town was small and pretty and quite hard to navigate. Jenny with her map prowess got us lost on occasion, which got me worried a little bit. On day 1 in Riga we decided to take a trip to a Latvian openair museum on the 1 bus. It was a long bus journey that took us into Riga’s outskirts and to the edge of a lake. After paying 2lvl entry and 0.20lvl for a map we set off with great enthusiasm to explore the traditional Latvian houses relocated from different parts of the country. There was a quaint church and a lady in one of the houses weaving baskets. We soon discovered that there is a limit to the number threshing barns and locked bathhouses that you can see before it gets a bit tedious. The bilberrys were tasty though, although I was not allowed to eat many as time was pressing on.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


The tourist streets of Vilnius, Lithuania were deserted at 6.30 in the morning, but the buses were packed with people going to work. For the first time since leaving England we actually had to put on another layer and even a raincoat, wow! We saw more buildings, a cathedral, some towers and a dying rat/mouse. We walked up a hill and a tower with a view of Vilnius and headed back for the bus, as it started to rain.

Baltic Buses

I awoke with a start to find the bus veering over the wake up strips. Years of driving through Europe en route to Switzerland with weary parents has made us finely tuned to this sound. Jenny was awake too and I asked her if the driver wasn’t. This however seemed to be common practice on the roads of the Baltic states. Vehicles would career to the right deep into the hard shoulder, so that others could overtake. At one point on a road with single lanes in both directions there was a lorry overtaking another lorry with us on the other side. Not much room to play with and pretty hairy. It’s best to book seats at the back of one of these buses if you can, because then at least you are more oblivious to what’s going on. In the middle of the night on a road full of potholes we observed another interesting driving practice of driving straddling the middle of the road, and going back to the right side just seconds before we would have hit the oncoming vehicle. Most people had the right idea of sleeping through the night. Jenny spent the night hoping to see a moose and getting first hand experience of dodgy driving, she did see a fox though.

Kampinoski and the rest of Warsaw

On the first full day in Warsaw we escaped the city and headed to the village of Truskaw. Taking the icy cool metro to the end stop and then the 708 bus. The man at the tourist information told us to once again get out at the end stop. There we looked expectantly out the window for the National Park information boards we’d been told would be there but couldn’t see. We got out anyway and thought a visit to a polish village wouldn’t be a wasted day anyway. Wandering down the street we did however find some signs, took photos of the map and devised ourselves a route. The Kampinoski National Park prides itself on being the closest national park in the world to a capital city. There you can find lynx, wild boar and moose . It is apparently crowded with tourists at weekends but we didn’t see much evidence of it this weekend.

As we started on the path we began to get bitten by mosquitoes. There were lots of butterflies and birds in a clearing before the wood, but we didn’t have time to linger because of the mosquitoes. Being fools we’d forgotten the repellent and got what we at this time believed to be ravaged, later national park forays proved otherwise. We were hoping to spot a moose but all we found was a Tesco carrier bag and later some actual real life moose droppings! But alas no moose! There was a rather handsome lizard though.

On our way back we went shopping in the very polish supermarket, Lidl, where there was a powercut and the lights and tills stopped working. No one appeared too concerned and we could only presume that this was a regular occurrence. Didn’t last too long to get really exciting.

On heading back to Warsaw old town I told Jenny we really should look at everything as we’d only be there this once. Five minutes later I’d changed my tune and decided I’d had enough for the day.

The next morning we visited a park on the other side of the river where there were meant to be Polish landscapes in miniature. Took some finding but we think we reached the mountains. There was a pleasant waft of chocolate from the nearby factory.

We also went down a street that featured in ‘The Pianist’ and looked at a Russian church that was built near the station so that the Russians wouldn’t feel lost when they got to Warsaw. We got a free Chopin apple juice when we decided to take the tourist tram. Half of Warsaw (plus the tourists) seemed to be spending Sunday evening in a park where grandiose buildings and peacocks were to be found. Walking back to the tram the torrential rain started and people sheltered in doorways dashing along the street when their tram came. It had cooled down nicely but we had to go to the sweltering station to get our backpacks. We spent our last zlotys and traipsed through the rain to the bus stop to catch the overnight bus to Vilnius.