Archive for May, 2012

Europe just keeps getting better and better. Despite the fact that there was a slight language barrier when I went to go pick up my bus ticket to get to Tori so I could get to Jõesuu so I could get to my accommodation just outside Soomaa National Park, I did arrive to Tori in time to both pee and catch my bus to Jõesuu. And then walk about 3-4 km from Jõesuu to my accommodation with 13-14 kg on my back and another 7 on my front. Too much information? Perhaps. However, one thing you learn when you travel alone is that you have to strategically plan your restroom breaks as there is no one to watch larger bags or stall buses for you. You are on your own. Therefore, my scheduled break was in Tori and I didn’t think that was going to happen with the scheduling mishap.

So before I go into my wonderful experience at Soomaa I have a few words of advice for anyone traveling there. As you may have noticed, I like lists, so I’m going to put it in list form. What can I say, I’m a Capricorn.

1. There is not a lot of information out there on places to stay in English. I highly recommend staying as close to the park as possible (if not in the park) if you aren’t driving. The top place to stay, despite the cost would be Riisa Rantso. It’s directly in the park, you are able to get a bus there from Pärnu in the early afternoon, giving you time to get to Pärnu if you aren’t already there and once you are there pretty much everything is within walking distance. Alternatively, you can probably borrow a bike from the lovely staff there.

2. If you can’t stay directly in the park, there is a great place I stayed at about 5 km from the park entrance called Põnka Puhketalu (try saying that 5 times fast). It’s very simple accommodation, you have use of a full kitchen (bring your own food) and if you are traveling alone they have a bike you can borrow to get into and out of the park. I chose to walk, which was fine, but I ended up doing about 30 km that day and it was an hour to and from the park entrance walking. They also have a Finnish sauna and lake that you can use (complete with stork and fish) and are set on a large plot of land so you pretty much never see anyone. I saw the other guy who was staying there twice in 3 days.

3. Go food shopping before you go. Other than Tori and Joesuu, which are a ways away if you don’t have a car, there is nowhere to get food and the accommodation places all charge an arm and a leg to provide meals for you.

4. If you are taking a bus, message them and ask which bus stop you should go to that will get you closest to your accommodation so you don’t end up carrying a massive pack or suitcase 4kms. Alternatively, if you can afford it or there are a few of you splitting the bill, rent a car.

5. If you are going between May and September, take DEET or some other excellent form of mosquito spray. Soomaa is made up of a number of bogs. The mozzies will attempt to eat you alive. I promise you.
Soooooo, Soomaa. This is what I was REALLY looking forward to when I decided to go to Soomaa. I was not disappointed. Wow. I would definitely put this national park in my top 10 landscapes I have ever seen. I don’t even have 10 landscapes on that list yet, but it is going on there for sure. Over the course of 30ish km I walked through meadows, forests, forest bogs, bogs and swamps/marshlands. Oh yes, and the farmlands I had to walk past to get to the park itself. I decided to spend the first day hiking and would decide what I would do from there the next day. I didn’t venture very far into the park, but that being said, the park isn’t very big. With a car, you could probably easily do most of the hiking trails in one day due to the fact that they aren’t arduous (Estonia is notoriously flat. Their highest point is only about 350 metres above sea level and it’s not in Soomaa).
I hiked to a walking trail about halfway into the park and was able to go through the swamps, the bogs, the forest bog and the forest (I wasn’t really sure where the 2 differed to be honest, but the sign says they do). I also spent a lovely, relaxing lunch sitting on a platform floating on one of the rivers that run through the park and watching the fish jump out of the water to catch the water skippers. If you enjoy fishing it is legal to fish with one rod within the park and it seems to me to be pretty good fishing as I was seeing fish jump left, right and centre.

I was actually a little disappointed because there are many tours you can do (guided or self-guided) where you can go “bogging” which is where you put on bog shoes and you actually get to walk on the bogs and you can go canoeing on the rivers, which is the best way to see the park, however, I was unable to do these tours as I am traveling alone and no one will do the tours unless there is a minimum of 2 people. I actually offered one company to pay for 2 people and the guide just for me to go (probably wouldn’t have been able to do the canoeing but tried for the bogging) and no one would do it. So if you want to do these activities, plan on taking a friend.

Anyway, back to bogging. These special shoes keep you from sinking into the bogs, thus allowing you to stay dry (assuming you have enough balance not to fall over) and are quite a popular family activity I’ve read. During certain seasons (autumn I think) it is very popular to go bogging to pick cranberries and a delicious berry native to Estonian bogs that they call cloudberries. Note to self- google cloudberry. I was lucky enough to be able to try some jam made out of cloudberry when staying with my couchsurfing host in Tartu. Apparently it is not only difficult to get this jam, but it is also expensive. Most jars of jam here cost between 2 and 4 euro for a decent sized jar. A jar of cloudberry jam usually costs around 8.50 euro. That’s a $10 jar of jam. Totally worth it.

If you are going to Soomaa, I recommend taking a couple of days for a bit of hiking and taking a friend so you can do the canoeing and bogging. Next time I go (and mark my words, I will definitely be back), I don’t plan on just taking a friend, I plan on going during what they call the fifth season. This is a time of the year when the snow melts and the flooding is so bad that about the only way to get around is via canoe. Traditionally this is how the Estonian farmers would get around to check on their cattle and crops (if they had them) within the park area. It was also the only way to get to/from their houses. The last highest flooding was in 2010 I believe when it flooded about 4 ½ feet above ground level. That would make for some spectacular canoeing and sightseeing.

What I’m reading now: Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey by Ahmet T Kuru (or for the kindle version, click here).

What I’m listening to now: Triple J! (Staying at an Aussie/Latvian hostel in Riga, Latvia and they are playing Triple J). Digging it.


So in this particular post I’m going to be sort of, somewhat covering Narva and Tartu. Two more different places in one extremely small country you could never find.


Narva is Estonia’s third largest city with something between 60-70,000 people. I never would have guessed. If I had to give a guestimate of the population based on my experience there I would say maybe 30-40,000. Despite the decent weather the only people I really saw out were parents and their children in the evening after school.

Narva was possibly one of the most confusing cities I have ever been to in my life. As Lonely Planet says, “Is it Estonia’s easternmost point or Russia’s westernmost town?” Seriously, almost the entire population is ethnically Russian (most hold both Russian and Estonian citizenship), everyone speaks Russian, all but one school teach all classes in Russian, all the signs are in Russian and Estonian (but only because it is required by law to have all signs in Estonian and apparently there are some hilarious grammatical errors). It also has more soviet style buildings than pretty much anywhere else in Estonia due to the fact that it was hit (see what I did there?) by Russia and literally 2 buildings survived the air raids.

I’ll be honest, there are very few reasons for heading over to Narva if you are not Russian. My particular reason for heading over was to see the brother castles. Narva Castle is on the Estonian side of the river and Ivangorod Fortress (which looked infinitely more imposing) is on the other side of the River. One could easily spend 1 full day in Narva and see everything. I personally got there in the late afternoon, had a little adventure, spent the next full day in Narva (and saw absolutely everything there is to see probably), and left early the next morning. That was plenty of time.

I started out walking up north of Narva (everything is in walking distance, including the Russian border, I really have no idea why they have cars here) to visit a German cemetary. Really wasn’t that exciting but offered a great view of the even more melancholy, despondant and impoverished side of the Narva river. It was also very relaxing. I was kind of wishing when I got there that I had brought a little picnic. Alas, I had no peanut butter for my sandwiches :(. Peanut butter is shockingly difficult to come by in this country. You can get American hickory bbq sauce, but not some chunky peanut butter. I had to go on a man hunt just to track down some Dutch peanut butter, which isn’t that great.

Anyway, from the cemetary I literally walked along the river/border to the Castle, bypassing the Old Town as I had visited the Old Town the previous night when wandering around. I did visit the castle and had one of the most expensive lunches of my trip so far enjoying the view of the Narva Castle courtyard. Despite the expense, I highly recommend it. If for no other reason than to just look at the ridiculous names of meals on the menu. My meal of pork, apples, onions, potato and salad was called “Knights Templar Seal”. For that, wine and tea it was less than 20 euros. Still insanely expensive for where I was, but good all the same.

Narva castle also has a museum and you can climb the tower, but either the tower is the museum or I just could not find the museum to save my life (the signposts were not terribly clear) but I chose not to climb the tower as I’m getting really sick of stairs at the moment. Just south of the castle there is a little beach that the inhabitants of this tiny city can use to swim in during the summer without breaching the natural border into Russia. I imagine it’s still probably pretty cold though. There are a couple of Orthodox churches, a warehouse district that used to house one of the USSR’s largest and main manufacturing districts and a random lion statue that you can also see.

As I said, not a lot to Narva. Still a quiant little town and for a blast from the past of USSR history (it really is like walking into Soviet Russia, excepting the couple of shopping centres I saw) and I’m glad I went. Though if you don’t speak Russian, the people who don’t speak English really weren’t that friendly, so learn a few basic phrases, if nothing else.


Tartu, on the other hand, was a complete 180 from Narva (and quite different from Tallinn as well). Somehow Tartu managed to escape too much sovietisation and the Russians missed (not subtle at all) burning the entire city to the ground and rebuilding, so a large chunk of the city retains it’s 17t h century style architecture. Now, while I’m well and truly ready to be gone from Tartu (a mere 3 days of being here is still too much for me), I really enjoyed it. If I liked smaller cities (about 100,000 people, 1/5 of which are university students) I would not mind coming back here regularly. There is something about it that draws you into it that just can’t be explained. It really reminds me of a very mini version of Sydney.

The people here are also noticably friendlier than in the rest of the country that I’ve encountered so far. My couchsurfing host very kindly took me on my first night to his colleagues house out in the middle of nowhere where I met many other colleagues and experienced a traditional Estonian sauna (make sure your sitting down for this one, Mum) in the nude! When in Rome. Kids, colleagues, wives and all joined in the ridiculously roasting sauna experience. While it was enjoyable and good for you, I prefer my Turkish hamams. I think I’ll stick with those.

The people watching and wandering aimlessly around has been spectacular. I can literally spend hours (and have) just sitting in cafe’s watching people, blogging, eating, drinking tea, reading, looking up stuff for my gap year, watching people…

Before I go on about the excellent places to visit in Tartu I just need to make a couple of recommendations on places to chill out and have a drink.

1. Crepps- a very delicious and well priced Crepe restaurant. They do have other food, but I ordered a cinnamon apple, chocolate and almond crepe with vanilla ice cream that was bigger than my head (it was actually bigger than the plate it was on). It was a delicious restaurant and you can order pots of tea (instead of just cups), beer, wine, etc. No trip to Tartu is complete without a trip here. I went more than once. Apparently they also have a bar/nightclub for evening shenanigans just above the restaurant.

2. Vein ja Vine- Vein means “fermented grape juice” aka wine. really not sure what Vine means, but the ja is “and”, I’ll let you make your own deductions. This is a neat little wine bar that reminds me of “Unwined” wine bar back home in Lane Cove. Cheap and delicious wine, tapas, friendly staff that speak English and a great ambiance. I was won over pretty darn quick.

3. Caffe Truffe- The ambiance screams “tourist with money who’s not willing to leave Reakoja Plats”, but the food is delicious, even if slightly overpriced. It’s not as overpriced as some of the other cafe’s directly on Reakoja Plats, but still expensive for Estonia. They also have free internet connection (frankly, most everywhere does).

4. Habib- Shisha bar! My wonderful, amazing couchsurfing host took me here with his mate and we sat for a few hours smoking wild cherry shisha and drinking beer. Both my couchsurfing host and his mate are very well travelled so there was a lot of story swapping and advice giving for some of my future travels. The lady was even nice enough to hang around of over an hour after it closed to let us just sit and chat.

So places in Tartu to visit. I must admit I was so enjoying sitting around people watching, eating and drinking that I did not visit nearly as much as I could have.  However, I did walk around (a lot) and did see a little bit to be recommended.

First off, start at Reakoja Plats and visit the Town Hall and the kissing students fountain.

The famous kissing students fountain in Reakoja Plats, Tartu.

It’s a good place to start and then branch your way out. There isn’t much point in heading to Kesklinn (city centre) because it’s just a couple of shopping centres, but there is an excellently disturbing statue thing on the way there. Trust me, you couldn’t possibly miss it. For a photo, go through the facebook album posted below.

I personally went away from Kesklinn and walked down a walkway (where I found most of the cafe’s mentioned above) until I came to the University main building. It’s a beautiful building and just to the left of it there are some other buildings which have paintings on either side. One side is a really cool painting of old Tartu and the other side of the building are paintings of windows with people in them doing rather random and hilarious things.

From there you can either continue south to Toompea Hill, which is a rather English style park with a beautiful old church on top that is nice to look at and apparently houses old church art from Estonia’s history. I didn’t go in because it was rather late in the evening and I couldn’t be bothered, but it is a nice bit of ground to walk upon.

Alternatively, you can walk west of the University building and come upon St. John’s church which is particularly odd due to the terra cotta figures decorating the outside of the church (hundreds of them). You can go into the church and for a very small fee climb the 138 or so steps to the top for a view of Tartu. At this point, I’m rather sick of climbing steps so I decided to skip out on that and don’t really regret it.

I also highly recommend visiting the University botanical gardens. This botanical garden, which is tiny in comparison to the one in Sydney, is nonetheless pretty awesome. It’s a beautiful little garden to wander through, sit around in, have a picnic, or just generally enjoy yourself. Plus there are lots of tulips and the occassional cat running around. I probably spent 1-2 hours there just sitting or wandering or snapping pictures.

Another must see is the aptly named “Leaning Tower of Tartu”. It’s an old building which now houses an art museum and has a significant lean to it. Apparently it was built partially on bedrock and partially on wooden slats that eventually collapsed, hence the lean. Somehow, this doesn’t seem terribly stable to me, but it’s a great little oddity.

And for you beer lovers out there (here’s looking at you, Rob), there is a 200 year old brewery just a 5-10 minute walk from Reakoja Plats. It’s the A Le Coq brewery and every Thursday and Saturday you can do a 2 hour guided tour of the brewery and for only 3 euro you can also do a beer tasting. If you unfortunately cannot make the guided tour (or just don’t feel like it), they have a beer museum which covers about 6 floors. That’s a lot of beer related paraphenalia. Great value.

Last but not least I can not recommend anything more than the KGB cell museum. This museum is housed in the basement of a building that remained standing after the USSR came in. It is a depressingly grim museum but fascinating and gives a good history of German and particularly Soviet occupation in the Baltics. There are numerous artifacts and a significant amount of information of the occupation and resistance is given in Estonian, English, Russian and Finnish. They also have restored it to most of it’s original lack of grandeur. If you see nothing else in Tartu, I recommend you go here. For such a tiny museum I spent over an hour in there.

Tartu is litered with an insane amount of museums all over the place and you can find something for everyone here. I spent a good couple of hours looking for the literature museum before giving up (probably should have looked up the address). There are signs everywhere pointing toward museums of science, literature, history, geology, etc, but they aren’t always easy to find. Look up the address first so you can get in.

For photos see here.

What I’m reading now: Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe: Latvia

What I’m attempting to listen to: Liis Lemsalu. Having difficulty finding her music online to download as I have no cd drive and didn’t want to purchase the cd  for that reason. Her debut album won best female artist of the year in the Baltics. She’s an Estonian artist.

I’m also listening to” target=”_blank”>Iiris: The Magic Gift Box. This is also her debut album and she has a much different (and slightly darker) style to Liis Lemsalu, who is very much a future pop princess. If you want to purchase the music please use the available link as it will help minimally with funding my travels!

Aside from some pole dancing and some drinking til 2 in the morning with randoms and my couchsurfing host, I kept things pretty tame. Even those can’t be considered being very wild.

My first real stop (Frankfurt was just an overnight layover in which I did nothing) was in Tallinn, Estonia. After about 2 days in transit I finally made it. Woohoo! I met up with my lovely couchsurfing host, had a quiet dinner getting to know each other and then very rudely buggered off for a pole dance class with the beautiful and amazing Natalja at Euphoria Dance Studio. That was Friday. It is now Tuesday. I’m still sore. I hadn’t actually done any pole for about a week so I was guaranteed to be sore as it was, but holy buckets was it painful. There is a reason Eastern Europeans have a reputation when it comes to sport. I was in sooooo much pain by the end of class!

Learned a lot of awesome new moves, but my goodness did they hurt. I woke up the next day with bruises on and around my armpits, on my stomach, my thighs, top of my feet, bottom of my feet, shins, etc. Like I said though, I learned lots of really cool new moves. They definitely have a different style of dance here and Natalja was an amazing instructor. She didn’t speak much English, but there were a couple of other girls who were able to help translate for us. Alternatively, she would point to a body part and say “What is that called?” If you are looking to do dance classes in Eastern Europe, I highly recommend Euphoria Dance Studio. They do all sorts of Latin American, ballroom and Pole dance classes.

Anyway, enough of dance, back to Tallinn. My hosts unit was less than a 10 minute walk to Old Town, which is where most of the action happens. The most difficult part is figuring out how to get into Old Town. The streets in Tallinn aren’t planned and you kind of end up all over the place. When I did get to the main entrance with the old stone gate though I noticed the lovely view of it…which was completely ruined by the big McDonald’s on the other side of it. Seriously, only Macca’s could spoil a view like that. Maybe an Apple store would have as well though. No bias here.

I spent the day meandering through Old Town in the FREEZING (6 degree celcius/42 farenheit) weather. The wind was absolutely biting, coming directly off the baltic sea. However, I layered up and braved it. I’m pretty sure I spent most of the day wandering in circles as well. It’s okay though because there were pretty much no tourists around in that weather. I started out going to Raekoja Plats, which is the town square and has been since about the 11th century. I very briefly gazed upon the oldest remaining gothic town hall in Europe before deciding it was time to go find a warm cup of tea. I was warned not to order at any of the restaurants/cafe’s around raekoja plats unless I wanted to pay 4 euro for a cup of tea. Fair warning.

So I started wandering along one of the many winding cobbled streets leading away from the town square until I came upon a lovely old church which is now the Niguliste museum. I didn’t go into the museum as it houses artwork from medieval Estonian churches adn I wasn’t feeling it. Plus I didn’t want to pay the 2 euro museum fee. So I kept wandering, taking pictures and checking out the exteriors of all the little medeival houses until I came upon the other side of the old town bastions (guarding walls). Along this wall I found a wonderfully cozy little cafe with decent prices (for Old Town) and went to have myself some tea and breakfast. I think I ended up sitting there for nearly 2 hours it was so cozy, filled with big, squashy red armchairs and allowing the use of free wireless internet.

After a couple hours I once again braved the wind and cold to wander the twisting walkways. I ended up visiting the Tallinn City Museum, which was pretty cool. It’s a museum housing the the history of Tallinn in the residence of a former merchant. I find it interesting to walk through these places and see the dimensions and how they compare to what we would consider large today. The ballroom, for instance, was smaller than my living room in Sydney. That being said, I had a massive living room, but most people today would look at it as a really nice, sort of large, dining room.

I also visited St Olav’s church, which used to be the tallest building in Europe, at 123.7 metres high. As a tourist you can climb about 60 metres to view all of Tallinn from the roof. That was one of the scariest experiences of my life, and I’ve been bungee jumping.First I had to climb 258 steps just to get to the roof, and you technically could double that as the stairs were so steep and high that you could have halved them to make normal steps. Each step was about a foot high and if you fell you were screwed. I am very proud to say that I made it all the way to the top without stopping and resting, despite the fact that halfway up they had a rest area with benches. Once I climbed out onto the roof I truly feared for my life though. The roof was very precarious looking aluminium and at a very steep angle and the only thing keeping you from falling to your death is some wooden slats nailed to the roof to walk on and a chain link fence surrounding you. It’s amazing the church has survived in the wind that was up there. On 2 sides of the roof the wind was so strong I had to lean into it to avoid being thrown over. I imagine it was about -20 with the wind chill up there.

I also visited Toompea, which is still part of Old Town, but that was the part where the hoity-toity rich people lived. Understandably so, as the views were beautiful. There’s a Russian Orthodox Cathedral (Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) up there that I wanted to see and it did not disappoint. For the people who brought us soviet era concrete atrocities, they build some seriously beautiful structures. The guilding was EVERYWHERE! I don’t think there was a single surface that didn’t have some sort of gold or silver on it. That includes paintings and artwork. I had a look around there for a little bit and watched some people lighting the prayer candles and just as I was about to leave I saw a priest, or whatever they are called in the Orthodox church (don’t have internet at the moment to look it up) rushing past followed by a group of people. I found this rather intrigueing so I stuck around for a bit and was rewarded with the opportunity to watch an Orthodox baptism! It looked like one of the most confused and random ceremonies I have ever seen. One would think that after hundreds of years at least of ceremony they’d have it a bit smoothed out, but no. The priest was going in and out of doors, grabbing the baby and taking him in and out of a room, handing him to other people, blessing people, opening doors to what I think must have been the baptism room, closing them, taking the baby, giving it back, taking it again, blessing people again. I wish I could speak either Russian or Estonian (whatever they were speaking) so I could have followed along. Oh well.

From there I wandered down to Kiek in de Kok museum. Yes, it is really Kiek in de Kok and I am immature enough to find that absolutely hilarious. It’s low German for “Peep into the kitchen” apparently. They have a bunch of tunnels you can tour, but you have to book ahead. I would recommend booking online as I tried to book with the lady at the desk and she was an absolute witch. I’ve not met someone quite so rude since arriving here, and Estonians aren’t exactly the most open and welcoming people in the world. So I never got to see the tunnels, which was a shame. I did go up the tower though where they house an excellent little museum on the military and some torture history of Tallinn.

From there I went to go seek out one place in Old Town I really really wanted to see but had trouble finding, thanks to the labyrinthine walkways. I really wanted to see the former KGB headquarters of Tallinn! Apparently they sealed the basement windows (probably with concrete) to conceal the sounds of ‘interrogations’. I finally made it there and lo and behold, it’s under refurbishment or renovations or something so the entire outside of the building was completely covered in tarp! So devastated.

That night, my couchsurfing host, who is an assistant coach for the Estonian cricket team (possibly the most surreal thing I’ve heard on this trip), had a team dinner with all the teams who were there for the Baltic Cup that weekend so we went to an Indian restaurant that had an excellent fish curry and then headed out for the night to enjoy some drinks and chatting. Ended up not getting home until 2. Time really flew that night. Crazy stuff.

Kadriorg Park

My next day was even more tame. I spent the day walking up to Kadriorg Park (don’t bother taking the tram if the weather is nice). It was a lovely little 30 minute walk (if even) to the park where there were actually people sunbathing! it was about 12-13 degrees out! I meandered along the park until I came to the house (mansion) that was built for Catherine the Great. Kadriorg actually means “Catherine’s Valley” in Estonian. The house is in serious need of some touch up work. Despite being used as a museum, it has fallen into some disrepair. I walked around it until I came to the back gardens where I got to see tulips! I love me some tulips, in case you hadn’t gathered that from other blog posts. I will have to google photos of the garden in summer as I imagine it would have been spectacular, surrounded by green forest-like grounds as it was.

I decided to wander towards the Baltic Sea and this park is amazing. You feel like you are in the middle of a Disney forest. A nice one, not the freaky one from the beginning of Snow White. Everything is so vividly green. It was so hard to believe that it could be so vividly coloured after the previous days dreary and depressing greyness. I did eventually get to the sea and came out at a beautiful statue representing the deaths of those who died in a shipwreck in the late 19th century I believe. From there, I walked back to Old Town, hung out, uploaded photos and drank some seriously terrible wine that I hope to never drink again. Word of wisdom, don’t order the red wine at Reval Cafe. Great food, great tea, terrible wine. Needless to say, if you want to see all that Tallinn has to offer, you really only need 2 days to do it. I would recommend going in summer when it’s warmer, if you are willing to put up with tourists, but mid-may saw some nice days while I was there and I thought there were too many tourists as it was.

Off to Narva! Estonia and the EU’s easternmost town (or Russia’s Westernmost, you be the judge).

Check out photos here.

What I’m reading right now: Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe

What I’m listening to now: Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows