Riga, Latvia. 14th June 2014.
The history of Latvia has much in common with Lithuania and Estonia but there are some key differences. The common themes relate to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when all three Baltic states were affected by religious wars, Russian invasions and finally independence, achieved after WW1. But its earlier history has many differences, especially to that of Lithuania. Missionaries arrived in the 12the century but didn’t have much success, leading to a German Crusader invasion (Teutonic Knights). Large parts of the country then came under German influence and, along with some parts of Estonia, formed the crusader state of Livonia. They were involved in forcing Christianity onto other parts of the region, particularly Lithuania.
Riga, on the Baltic coast, became an important trading city and was able to join, along with other Latvian cities, the Hanseatic League. Trade grew and Western European influences came to Livonia along with the trade. But by the time of the reformation Livonia was weakening and fell under the rule of the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Livonian war. Tables turned! Sweden eventually became the regional power The Swedish and German influence grew and Lutherism became the predominant religion in most of the country.
During the 18th century most of what is now Latvia became part of Russia although it retained a high degree of autonomy up to WW1. Latvia enjoyed an economic and construction boom and felt able, post WW1, to define its borders and declare independence. This lasted until the Soviet takeover in late 1939. Like all the countries in Eastern Europe, it suffered first Nazi, then Soviet occupation. It finally gained independence again in 1991.
One thing that was very noticeable as I crossed the border was how rural and forested the countryside had become. Latvia has huge areas of undeveloped forest, intermixed with smallish farms. The roads were quite good though and I made decent time to the main road direct to Riga. I’d booked myself into a place called Two Wheels Hostel/Hotel. It is owned by a keen overland motorcycle traveller and is themed accordingly with a Touratech catalogue in the toilet, a Harley Davidson in the hallway and a sidecar outfit in the yard. Sadly the owner was away adventuring so no chance for a chat. Even though the hostel wasn’t in the town centre it was close enough and I was obviously drawn by the name. I also realised later that none of the town centre hostels wouldn’t have had parking.
The drawback with a hostel that’s really a hotel is that it doesn’t have a kitchen for guests to use so I had to ask the girl at reception if I could cook the pizza I’d bought in their oven. She was quite happy about it though.
The advantage of such a place is that breakfast was included so I took enjoyed that next morning before heading off on the twenty minute walk across the river into the Old Town area.
Riga lies just inland from the coast and its success depended on trade. The River Daugava has been a trade route into Byzantium for many centuries so there was plenty of trade to be had and the city thrived. This is reflected in some of its buildings and institutions such as the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation and the House of the Blackheads. (Yes, really!) The old town area is quite self contained and has a number of interesting buildings to see although not as many as some other cities I’ve been to. There is a cathedral and a couple of other large churches and plenty of Art Nouveau buildings. Many of the buildings near to the old town are wooden fronted and carry a certain charm, the ones that haven’t become too dilapidated that is. The area is delightful to walk around with two nice large squares and lots of small streets that suddenly appear in front of you, usually with decorative 18th century buildings to examine. There was an entertaining Trad Jazz Combo busking in one of them so I stopped to listen and filmed them too. The video can be seen here. http://youtu.be/J0Iafh3FFGk I gave the churches and tower a miss this time as I’d left the hostel later than intended. I wanted to visit two of the museums – the History of Riga and Navigation and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia were on my list.
The first one is in a building that forms part of the cathedral complex. I enjoyed wandering around the exhibits and learning something of the city’s history but I actually thought that the building was the best exhibit of all. The main part of it included a central atrium with balconies on two levels. The ceiling had a nice painting on it and the balconies are supported on very slender columns. A very nice setting for an interesting display.
The second museum is just outside the old town area and has a much sadder tale to tell.It’s displays document the suffering and resistance of Latvia while occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets, both of whom brought immeasurable cruelty and hardship to Latvia’s population. The story is told in a timeline format, with plenty of pictures, documents and information boards. I always believe in seeing these displays, not only out of historical interest but also as a reminder. The museum is run by a benevolent NGO and admission was free. I was more than happy to drop some money in the collection box on the way out.
Walking back to the old town I stopped to admire the Freedom Monument, erected once independence had been gained, and to take a walk past the Swedish Gate, the only remaining gate from the original fortifications. It gets its name from the defence of the city against the Russians in 1710 when the Tsar was so impressed by the Swedish defenders’ bravery that he let them leave the city unharmed. Nothing was said about what happened to those who weren’t allowed to go!
So who are the Blackheads? Their proper title is The Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants from Riga. Their building in the town was destroyed by the Nazis but has since been rebuilt to its 18th century design.
Making my way back to the main square I sat outside in the rather chilly breeze for a Latvian style meal. The first course was a very nice soup, with meat and vegetables but served in a ‘soup bowl’ made from very hard bread. Of course, the bread softened from the soup so became edible as well. The second course was a kind of pork based stew. Both dishes were very tasty. A final walk to the Castle of Riga and quick look around the outside of it followed by a stroll back to the hostel. That was my day in Riga done and although I know I’d missed out on seeing some things, I felt I’d a good flavour of the city.
It was nice to get a breakfast supplied next morning and when I left the girl on reception wanted to take a photo of me and Doris for the owner’s collection. So I took one of her and Doris too.
Riga to Tallin, Estonia, is almost a straight line. But I diverted slightly to go and see Cesis Castle. This was the headquarters of the Livonian Order and the Masters lived here from 1237 to 1561. It was in use, with some upgrades, until 1703 when it was partially destroyed by the Russian army in the Great Northern War. It was left as a ruin which makes it more honest somehow. Most castles in Eastern Europe seem to have been rebuilt as show pieces. Nothing wrong with that but there’s also nothing wrong with a good ruin either. And this was a good one, with plenty of access to the remains. The first thing that happened after I paid my entrance fee was that I was given a lantern, with a lit candle inside it. ‘That’s for going up the Tower’ I was told. Ooer! And it was certainly needed as there was no other lighting. The stairs up were very steep and narrow but, as always, it was worth the climb to get the view. And in this castle I was also able to climb down a ladder into the dungeon.
There are other buildings in the complex, including a museum, but I didn’t have time to explore them. I had better things to do, namely going across the road to a café for a coffee and a portion of cheesecake. Well, it was raining and I needed the motivation.
The route I took to the border was on little used roads, winding through the pleasant countryside. I didn’t see a single truck and very few cars. Almost as soon as I crossed the border the rain stopped and the sun came out. ‘Welcome to Estonia Geoff’ I thought.
The Hanseatic League.
I’ve mentioned this organisation a couple of times now so I thought some background would be useful.
Formed in the 13th and lasting through to the 17th century, it was a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and trading cities which dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe, from the Baltic to the North Sea. Its purpose was to protect the economic interests and diplomatic privileges of the countries, cities and trade routes used by the merchants. The name comes from the German word ‘Hansa’, meaning ‘Guilds’. They were answerable to the Holy Roman Emporer, thus reinforcing the German influence. The cities negotiated their own laws and customs duties and often raised armies to protect their privileges. Up to 170 cities were eventually involved, including some on the East coast of Britain. The league started to decline in the 15th century as merchants who weren’t members persuaded their rulers to abandon the treaties they’d made. This was especially the case in England.
The third of the Baltic States is markedly different to the other two in its early history. The people share heritage and language with the Finns and their early history is more concerned with countries across the Baltic Sea than their landward neighbours. During the 12th century there were frequent attacks by Estonian Vikings on Denmark and Sweden. As Denmark’s power grew it took action to stop these attacks and eventually laid claim to the whole country. A century later Tallinn was the established capital of the country and joined the Hanseatic League.
There was a rebellion during the 14th century when native Estonians tried to rid themselves of German/Danish rule and their foreign religion of Christianity but they failed and the country came under the rule of the Livonian Order. Following the reformation of the 17th century Estonia was ruled by Sweden until, at the end of the 18th century the rise of Russia meant that it became part of their empire. From there onwards Estonia’s path was similar to Latvia’s and Lithuania’s. It declared independence after WW1 then suffered Soviet/Nazi/Soviet occupation until the early 1990’s.
When I crossed the border all I could see was trees – and plenty of them! Luckily in amongst them was a petrol station but they asked me for money first. Was this a sign of things to come? Further on I stopped at a shop/café and had a cheeseburger which was nice despite being heated in a microwave, normally a sure sign of soggy disaster.
When I got to Tallinn I sought out the home of Kalle and Janc. This couple had volunteered to help me by providing a place where I could service my bike. How did I know them? Let me explain.
Horizons Unlimited (www.horizonsunlimited.com) is a website which is probably the worlds biggest and most useful resource for overland travellers by road. It was set up by a Canadian couple 1n 1998 after they had spent eleven years on their own round the world motorcycle journey.They decided to help other people by providing a space on the internet for advice on all aspects of motorcycle travel and inviting others to contribute via a forum. Fifteen years later it is the go to website for all motorised travellers although it’s true to say that the majority are still motorcyclists. One of the very useful features, and the one that led me to the home of Kalle and Janc, is the groups that are set up in different countries or regions where help and advice are likely to be obtained simply by posting a message detailing what you need , when and where.
My needs were quite simple. A place to work on Doris and a way of disposing of the old oil. Kalle had a garage I could work in and because he and Janc owned several bikes he had all the necessary equipment.
They are a very nice couple, with two lovely young children. They did plenty of travelling around Europe and Russia on their bikes after they first met but the kids have put that on hold for a while. Kalle rides a Honda ST1100, imported from the USA and already ten years old. Ten years further on it has over 200,000kms on the clock. Janc rides a TDM and there are several other bikes in their stable including a specially built Honda ST1100 outfit, made up from six different bikes. They are used to travellers passing through and have helped many people over the years. I think I was in good hands here!
Having made arrangements to come back the next evening I headed into the centre of Tallinn where I had a hostel booked for two nights. After that I’d been invited to stay with Kalle and Janc for a few days. Excellent!
This was a nice hostel with plenty of youngsters working there, many of whom seem to use this kind of work as a way of funding their travel. One of them was an English girl who told me she came from London. Whereabouts? Well, Basildon actually but she always says London because no-one’s heard of it. How cute. A courtyard to park Doris in completed the picture and it was five minutes walk from the Old Town and had a supermarket opposite. Bed, parking and a ready supply of Pizzas – who could ask for more? Well me in fact. How about some night time peace and quiet? The courtyard outside my window seemed to be the late night home for a crowd of noisy teenagers who kept going until 3 am! Next day I insisted on a room change and found some peace.
Next morning I set off to have a look around the town and swiftly changed my mind when I found out how cold it was. The wind was biting and it was clearly about to rain. I retreated indoors and caught up with writing and other things. Later I walked across the road to a large mall where I bought a new SD card reader as my old one no longer worked. It cost me EU20 but when I got back to the hostel it didn’t work. ‘Right’ I said, ‘that’s going back tomorrow’. And thereby hangs a tale!
About 5pm I headed off to meet Kalle and he took me to his garage. He’d bought me some oil too so I was ready to roll. As well as changing the oil, and giving Doris a general checkover, there was another job I needed to do. The engine sounded generally noisy to me. I’d had reason to take the clutch out before I left so I’d decided to take it out again to check that all was well – no loose bolts inside or anything. So having drained the oil I took the engine cover off and removed the clutch. All was well, that was until this heavy handed idiot overtightened a bolt while reassembling it. It was only a small one but even though there were six all told, I couldn’t manage without it. My heart sank and I could see my trip ending with a duff bike even before I’d got out of the EU. I envisaged needing a replacement clutch basket, probably unobtainable these days. Kalle, who’d been out shopping while I worked, came to the rescue. I took the clutch basket off again and the remains of the bolt came out with no problem. Phew! That was half the battle won, no need for rare-as hens’-teeth spare parts. Kalle set to, rooting through his box of spare bolts, something that every good mechanic will have. And Bingo! After a short while he came up with a perfect replacement. And this one looked to be made of metal rather than cheese.
So everything went back together, oil was put it and all was well. With a deep sense of relief I followed Kalle back to his house where we chatted for a while before I headed back to the hostel – and actually got a good night’s sleep too.
This far north and this time of year it doesn’t stay dark for long. At 23.00 it was only just getting dark and the sun is up again by 04.00. Very strange to experience. When I was planning the trip I had thought about going far enough north to cross the Arctic Circle but as it would have involved an extra 1600 kilometres I gave up on the idea. But experiencing only four hours or so of darkness did make me wonder what continual daylight would have been like to experience.
After breakfast I sorted all my gear out and the hostel let me leave it in their luggage room while I went out to see the town. First job was to return the SD card reader I’d bought yesterday so I went back to the shop and asked for a refund. The guy who served me was there but told me he couldn’t give me a refund. He could replace it or give me credit against something else. Well, you can imagine my reaction! After some verbal to-ing and fro-ing, with me insisting on a refund and him telling me he couldn’t, he finally made a phone call to accounts and they said all they could do was to refund the money into my bank account once I’d supplied them with the international version of my bank account details. It seems that their accounting system didn’t allow them to issue cash refunds once the tills had been closed for the day. Had I gone back the day I bought it there wouldn’t have been a problem. So we exchanged email addresses and, in fairness to them, the refund duly arrived albeit about four weeks later. It goes to show how different customer expectations can be in different countries, although at the same time I’m very surprised there was so much hassle relating to faulty goods.
Time to hit the town and the first thing I noticed was the hordes of tourists walking around the streets in large, almost threatening groups. They were sometimes wearing something that identified them as group members and were often following a similarly ‘badged’ guide. I realised later, when I could see the harbour, that Tallinn is a busy cruise ship destination, accounting for the phenomenom. The old town is quite small and compact, with the usual crop of churches and a nice range of old buildings. The Town Hall is fairly unassuming, with a nice clock tower and an arcaded front. The square has plenty of stalls around it and there are many nice cafés and restaurants to take a break at. And, to do Tallinn any justice, you’d need to walk far enough to need that break. On one side of the town is a steep hill where the cathedral sits, along with another large church and the presidential palace. Reaching this area from where I was involved climbing up several flights of steep steps. But first I visited the Guildhall which houses the Estonian History Museum. I went in for a look around and was slightly annoyed to find that, having paid for an audio guide, all it did was repeat what was on the signs anyway. These all had Estonian, Russian and English on them. Luckily it wasn’t very costly in the first place. But I learned alot about the early history of the country and how complex it is. Also how pulled about the country was over the centuries with regard to what other country had control over which parts of it. I felt quite sorry for Estonia by the time I’d finished. Post communism though, Estonia quickly developed its economic strength, in part thanks to its Finnish connections. Tallinn had always been one of the busiest Baltic ports and this helped the city to flourish.
Time to go up that hill and as I approached the steps I was amazed to see a memorial plaque to Boris Yeltsin, commemorating his role in restoring Estonia’s independence.. It’s the first such memorial I’d seen anywhere and wondered what it meant in terms of Russian/Estonian relations. I’m sure the other Baltic states must have had similar support but they didn’t appear to display such gratitude. At the top of the hill were a couple of viewpoints, one of which gave a good view out to the harbour and the cruise ships moored there, explaining the tourist hordes.
This area included the cathedral and another large church. The cathedral is Lutheran, the biggest religion in Estonia, and the other is Russian Orthodox. The cathedral wanted money for going in, so I didn’t, and the Russian Orthodox one allowed me to look inside but not to take any photos. One good thing to say about the Catholic buildings is that they don’t mind you looking around, taking photos and usually all for free. Also on the hill is Toompea Castle, now home of the Estonian Parliament. A baroque building from the 18th century, it was built on the site of an earlier castle.
Back down at the lower level I walked along Laboratorium Street, which runs alongside the ancient city walls. Most of these walls and its towers are still standing and it’s here that some of the more architecturally interesting buildings can be found. In particular there was a small Ukrainian Catholic church. It’s tucked away in amongst the bigger buildings and is dedicated to Mary of the Three Hands which is a reference to her role in looking after natural things which can’t look after themselves -disadvantaged people, plants, animals etc. There is some interesting iconography and a display of Ukrainian crafts. It was the first time I’d ever heard of this concept.
Enough touristing for one day. I went back to the hostel, picked up my gear and headed out to Kalle and Janc’s place about 8km away from the centre of the city. They’d very kindly moved their two kids out of their room and into their own so I could sleep there. It seems the kids quite enjoy it so I didn’t need to feel guilty about it.
We spent the evening chatting and I learned some of their history, detailed above. They are both heavily involved in running a motorcycle club in the city, one which has a large involvement in training new riders. It seems there are few, or no, professional companies that do this so clubs fill the gap. It does mean a heavy workload for the people involved as they have a semi official status. Motorcyclists doing it for themselves it seems. Always the best way, in my opinion and Kalle and Janc were clearly dedicated to what they do.
I spent the next day doing some maintenance, finishing off what I’d started. Valve clearance adjustments made Doris a little quieter and a good clean up made her sparkle. I took the opportunity to sort through my panniers and luggage and rearrange some things. Useful timing ahead of my imminent entry into the vast territory of Russia.
I also made some decisions about my next moves. I’d decided to cross over to Helsinki and take a day long tour round the lakes in the southern part of the country. As mentioned earlier, I had considered heading north to cross the Arctic Circle and would then have entered Russia near Murmansk. I had no real need to go to Finland as Tallinn to St Petersburg is an easy journey but I wanted to have a look while I was so near. It was less than EU40 to cross over and less than two hours. The only trouble was that it meant a 7am ferry and I had to be at the terminal an hour beforehand. So I bit the bullet, booked the ferry and also booked a hostel at a campsite near the Finnish border with Russia. Then I got really organised and booked a hostel in St Petersburg as well. I was exhausted after all that decision making!
I still had some sights to see in Tallinn so I headed back there after breakfast next day. I visited Memorial Square, which has a huge cross dedicated to those who fell in the War of Independence against Russia after WW1. It’s a 23 metre high column made from glass plates and topped with the Cross of Liberty, Estonia’s highest award. I took a walk along some of the back lanes of the town and saw some interesting architecture and some very nicely decorated old buildings as well as a couple more churches. I had learned that Estonia has the lowest number of religious people of any country in Europe, with only 16% of the population professing to have any kind of religious attachment, so I did wonder who uses all these churches. Perhaps they’ve got a hit squad? It would be kept very busy. While I was in Freedom Square I called into an art gallery I’d read about, which was well known for presenting provocative exhibitions. The one I saw was by an artist who felt the move from communism to a market economy hadn’t always been good. He felt the hegemony of global companies and of consumerism had served people badly. He represented this opinion by taking the flag of each former communist country and placing in the middle of it the face of the most famous female porn star from each of them. I thought this was a good way of presenting his case but my problem with it was that he didn’t then suggest what alternative he would prefer. Interesting and provocative, as promised, but frustrating too.
My last historical site to visit was the Klein in de Kok.This is a museum dedicated to the city’s military history and is housed in two of the towers that are part of the city wall. The towers have walls over four metres thick and some of them still have cannon balls embedded in them. The first thing to find out was what the name means. It is German for ‘Peek in the Kitchen’ and the name came about because the towers allowed soldiers to see into the kitchens of nearby houses.Tallinn has certainly had some battles to fight, judging by the exhibits. There was plenty to see and the signboards were in English as well. The exhibits were spread over three floors, each round chamber being connected by narrow spiral staircases. I learned plenty about the city’s and the country’s struggles over the centuries, rounding out knowledge that I’d picked up elsewhere. Well worth the time and money spent.
But now it was time to change ancient for modern and I got back on the bike and headed out to the edge of town to the Sea Plane Harbour. This is a historical display with a difference. There are two significant displays that make it worth the visit and neither of them are fly. The name comes from the place where the exhibits are housed, a former sea plane hangar, decommissioned by the Soviets and reopened under its new guise in 2010. The display covers the maritime history of the city and has many interesting exhibits depicting various water borne activities, both work-a-day and sporting. Included is the remains of a 16th century sailing ship. One of the displays is a replica of a WW1 era Short Type 184 Seaplane, so the museum’s name is justified to some extent. Other displays include navy guns and land based weaponry too. But the pièce de résistance is, without any doubt,the 1936 submarine, Lembit. Not a replica but the real thing, and visitors can go down into it and explore it from end to end. Guaranteed to bring out the small boy in anybody and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I can safely say I did not envy those sailors one little bit with their cramped living quarters, shared bunks and hours below the surface re-breathing the same air. There were two subs made and the story behind them is interesting and, I thought, quite touching.
They were ordered by the Estonian Navy from the British company Vickers Armstrong mostly as defence against the Soviet threat.The government were short of money so they asked the Estonian people to help find it. As well as all the usual fundraising activities there was a huge campaign mounted to collect as much scrap metal as possible from around the country, to be sold to help the funds. The display has some great photos of people delivering bundles of metal into depots to as part of the national effort. In the end most of the money came from the sale of two surplus warships to Peru, which was having a bit of a spat with Ecuador at the time. Commissioned in 1936, the two subs spent most of their time in the Soviet navy once they had annexed Estonia. They were able to claim some German kills though.
In some ways there’s nothing new to be seen on board as we’ve all seen subs like this in war films. But there’s nothing quite like being there and exploring the ship from end to end. Seeing all the controls, periscope, torpedo tubes etc was still great fun and very interesting. It was odd to see the gauges and switches with their English writing overlaid with Russian. The only disappointment was that the lighting in the sub, and in the hangar, was quite dim making photography difficult.
The exhibits continued outside, down at the dockside. Moored there was an Icebreaker ship, Suur Toll. Originally from Finland but arriving in Estonia as part of a post WW1 settlement, this ship’s main purpose was to maintain access to Tallinn’s harbour in all weathers. It freezes up for an average of seventy days per year so it provided a very necessary function. Skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested in the technical details.
The German built ship has two pairs of steam driven engines, fore and aft. These were originally coal powered and each of the twelve stokers would work two four hour shifts per day during which they’d shovel 3-4 tonnes of coal. Eventually liquid fuel replaced coal, usefully reducing the number of crew required. Of the two pairs of engines, the aft engines drive the propellers, the fore engines are used to rock the boat from side to side. The method is to drive the ship forward as hard as possible into the ice until it’s stuck. Then it is rocked from side to side by the fore engines until it is freed. Then repeat as many times as necessary. During and after wars, the biggest risk to the ship was that of mines as the icebreaker was always the first ship to go out into the harbour. Suur Toll survived all conflicts and was decommissioned in 1985.
As with the submarines, I was able to go all over the ship including the engine rooms and crew quarters. It was great to be able to see the huge boilers and all the workings and was, once again, reminiscent of all those old films. These days the ship is used for entertaining, concerts etc. I am very pleased to report that the ticket price for everything was very reasonable, so well done to them.
On the dockside were a couple of smaller naval boats although there was no access inside them, only onto the decks.
This site provided a welcome contrast to the castles and cathedrals that are the staple diet of the visitor and was a useful reminder that history never stops. It’s just one thing after another isn’t it?
Back at Kalle and Janc’s we had a pleasant evening chatting followed by an early-ish night as I had an early ferry to catch. I’d really enjoyed my visit to Tallinn and the biggest reason was the hospitality and help received from my hosts. There are always ways of overcoming problems such as servicing, accommodation and so on. But it’s so much more uplifting to a traveller to receive the kind of welcome and kindness that I did from Kalle and Janc. I hope to get back to see them one day.
Thanks Kalle and Janc for all your help and kindness.
My visit to Finland was brief so my story will be too.
I got up in plenty of time and Kalle got up to see me off. I made the ferry with time to spare and waited with some other bikers to board. They were on their way to Nordkapp, a rally held inside the Arctic circle. They were then heading south to Germany for a total of three weeks. Their shiny Harley’s and BMW GS1200 made poor little Doris look decidedly inadequate and scruffy. But we didn’t care and after less than two hours, and a nice breakfast, we wound our way through Helsinki, heading north to the lakes.
Finland is a beautiful country but was cold and showery as I rode through it on Midsummer’s Day. The sun came out sometimes but not for long enough. Even so I enjoyed my tour along the back roads through some of the southern lakes and eventually made it to the campsite, and my warm dormitory, at Lappeenranta, a town near the border.. A nice meal in the campsite café rounded off the day. I was nervous about my imminent border crossing into Russia, dealing with infamous bureaucracy in a foreign language with a strange alphabet. Need I have been? You’ll find out soon.