Estonia and Latvia

I had one final night, alone, in Naples, Italy before I headed to The Baltics.  I walked in the door of my hostel to find a flight of stairs going down with no elevator in sight.  Dead on the top step was a giant cockroach.  It was evident that I was back on my own, facing yet another unique challenge.  I waited for about ten minutes, hoping someone would come along to help me down the stairs, or even better, to show me an elevator.  No one came.  Alright, here we go.  I strapped my bag to my chest and hopped onto the first step, as far away from the dead bug as I could get.  I pushed my wheelchair in front of me and bounced it down the first step, my bag and me following.  I did this the rest of the way down, hoping and praying that I wouldn’t encounter any more bugs.  Fortunately, it was the only bug I saw that day, in the hostel and in my private pod, which turned out to be quite clean.  I’m learning to tackle things with less fear, and just jump in, bugs or not.

My flight left around 7 am the next day for Tallinn, Estonia.  I was meeting my mom – we’ll call her Amelia – for a ten-day tour of The Baltics.  She had been traveling for something like 20 hours, so was pretty exhausted when we met.  We found our AirBNB, and after climbing two long flights of stairs up, made a collective decision to move to a hotel which was much more accessible.  We were just 15-minutes outside of the Tallinn Old Town and our hotel was much more comfortable and spacious (and we got most of our money back from the AirBNB).  We had dinner and slept for 12 hours that night, a much needed rest!

The next morning, we ventured out to explore Tallinn.  Estonia declared their independence in 1991, and much of Tallinn was new.  The total population in Estonia is just over 1.3 million, and less than half of that population lives in Tallinn, so it’s a very small city and can easily be seen in a day or two.  We took it slow, stopping by a produce market for some fresh fruits, and slowly wandering through Old Town, which was full of classic Estonian buildings and restaurants.  Oh, it was also full of cobblestone, so when I suggest that we wandered through it slowly, I mean slowly.  It was not an easy journey.

Estonia is one of the most educated countries in the world, and their people know more languages, on average, than any other country in the world.  They are also the least religious country.  The people are very blond and light-eyed.  The culture appeared to be one of respect as the streets, public spaces, and the people themselves were well-maintained.  The sun set each night around 10:30 pm and rose at 4:30 am.  It never got completely dark outside, given the position of the sun with Earth at this time of year, and fortunately, the hotel had blackout curtains that blocked most of the light.  The weather was rainy and sunny at the same time, with smatterings of rain coming and then going, just like that.  It was not a hot place and we wore jackets most of the time, realizing that it was summer and we were lucky not to be trapped in the brutal cold that comes in their wintertime.

Overall, the city itself was very accessible, aside from Old Town.  It was a quiet city with little traffic and commotion, and we enjoyed the peacefulness.  On our second full day in Estonia, we made a decision to try as much local food, mostly meat, as we could.  We found a local restaurant that had a variety of meats and made an afternoon of sampling the various animals.  We had elk, deer, bear, wild boar, cow tongue, goat liver pate, and quail eggs with some ginger turnips and barley as sides – all of this local to Estonia.  To finish the meal, we ordered an apple dessert that came with a sweet almond milk dipping sauce.  I tried – and finished – all of the meats, something a bit out of my comfort zone.  My pants are still a little tight a few days later, but it was well worth it!

We had a 12:13 pm train the next day from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga, Latvia.  And we missed it.  We missed it by three minutes.  We were having coffee near our hotel and left in plenty of time, but the cobblestone in Old Town slowed us down and Google Maps was getting lost in the stone structures and concrete buildings of Old Town.  So, we missed our train, by three minutes.  Oh, and it was the last one of the day.  We each calmly sat our bags down outside of the train station and started coming up with Plan B.  It took about 30 minutes before we finally found a bus that left four hours later and went direct from Tallinn to Riga.  We booked it, had a few coffees at the train station Burger King, and made our way to the bus station (we were at the train station about 30 minutes away).

The bus itself turned out to be quite glorious!  It was better than any train I’ve been on and even better than an airplane.  We sat comfortably as we drove through the very flat and green land of The Baltics, and when we arrived in Riga, Latvia, we walked 20 minutes to our hotel.  Nearby was a street lined with restaurants and we both enjoyed a light dinner before a good night’s sleep.

Riga is a bit larger than Tallinn and even more accessible, outside of their Old Town, which is also covered in cobblestone.  There are green parks on every other block and the food is equally as good.  There are less blondes in Riga, although that doesn’t seem like a hard feat since virtually everyone in Tallinn was blonde.

We spent the day just walking the city, seeing the churches and monuments, walking through parks and side streets, enjoying the local cuisine, and even napping for a bit, something we both needed and haven’t had a chance to do together.  Our hotel is quite noisy, and we leave the window open at night since there isn’t an air conditioner (there’s no need given how far north this country is).  I’ve read a few reviews that the hotel itself, which sits in a former Soviet building, is haunted.  It makes sense given the sudden bangs and noises that we hear, if you believe in that kind of stuff.

Latvia, like Estonia, declared their independence in 1991.  Unlike Estonia, which was very modern and new, Latvia definitely has the feel of a former Soviet country.  It’s evident in the buildings and the culture, and a reminder of how large the Soviet Union really was.

My time in The Baltics is not over, as we will spend the rest of today in Riga and make our way to Vilnius, Lithuania tomorrow.  But I must say that I am pleasantly surprised by both Estonia and Latvia.  The countries are accessible and the people are friendly.  As I was attempting to find a laundromat today, studying the map on my phone, a man walked up and asked if he could help.  I pointed to where I needed to go and he spent the next 15-minutes helping me through a mall, down an elevator, across a parking garage, and into the laundromat tucked away quietly in a basement.  During our walk, he asked where I was from, and when I told him America, he said, “What are you doing here?  It’s a shit country.”  I told him I thought it was quite lovely, and despite his feelings toward Latvia, which I’m sure has corruption and troubles like all other countries – America included – I was grateful for his kindness.  He won’t know it, but his gesture that afternoon is what, I believe, makes a country less of a ‘shit country’ and more of a ‘wonderful country.’  Like the many, many people I’ve written about on this journey, it is a reminder to be the person we all need when we are lost and can’t find the laundromat.

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