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Tallinn to Riga Sep 29


sunny 17 °C
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Tallinn - Riga - Sep 29

While the Estonian language is supposedly very difficult, there are many words that look almost like English probably because their alphabet is like ours. They do however like to double up letters particularly vowels (woels!). 

Eero our guide yesterday while pointing out that the export of 'wodka' to Russia was very good business for Estonia admitted that it was the drug of choice for the old folk. Marijuana does not grow naturally in Estonia but it's use is increasing amongst the young. Still illegal. "Weed is the spawn of the devil but it is OK to be unconscious on vodka!"

Departed Tallinn at 8 am for our run south down the Baltic coast to Riga in Latvia. Tim (our guide) is vey keen on history and has been providing us with booklets and manuscripts about this part of the world over the WWI to present time. It is very moving to read about the oppression of the Baltic states, the occupations, the mass deportations of men women and children and then interact with people who had immediate family involved. What a terrible, "confusing" time it must have been. These "states" were probably very significant in the fall of communism as their proximity to Finland meant that they people had "illegal" access to Finn TV which provided clear and regular evidence that the propaganda promoting the wonders of communism did not live up to the standards of the west. 

Highway again very smooth and straight (2 lanes) for the most part  running parallel to the coast through green glades of pine and birch forests and open areas of farmland. Topography very flat no doubt the result of continental glaciers a few thousand years ago. Countryside not heavily occupied. We first hit the coast of the Baltic at Parnu. An untidy spread out town. Called in at a beach on the Baltic Sea - clean sand but lots of fine dark kelp and no swell and reeds growing in the water - in past times they used these reeds to thatch their homes. Lots of small holiday homes with outside saunas. 

Arrived in Riga for lunch and a walking tour of the old town. This city was a battleground between the Germans and Russians in WW II. Visited the Occupation museum which shows the lives of the Latvians during the war and up to 1990 when they finally gained independence from the Soviets. The city has buildings similar to St Petersberg but they are run down and there was lots of graffiti. The economy is apparently quite strong but as a relatively new  independent nation, restoration is probably not high on the todo list.

Tomorrow we travel to Vilnius in Lithuania with another currency. No news of food and wine as the Russians left us a legacy of e coli  which we will get some drugs for this evening. Basically the food has been good? Probably more chicken than beef and lamb which we think comes from NZ. Wines that we have tried are not local. Meals have been lamb and veg, chicken and veg, etc, lunches whatever is in the local bakery with cheese and tomato.

Posted by suengarry 10:24 Archived in Latvia Tagged baltic states Comments (1)

Tallinn - Sep 28


rain 12 °C
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"Terre - Hello" from Estonia.
A city of 415,000 out of a total population of 1.500,000.  Dating from the 13th Century it is heavily fortified having been passed from pillar to post for centuries. Old town, low town and new town with fortified walls and bastions - everyone who conquered made more fortifications. Had an Estonian guide Eero who spoke quietly of Russian oppression and proudly of how his people have stood to regain their independence. 

While we talk of them being one of the Baltic states they do not as they are one of the Finobric nations more aligned to Finland and with a language which is related to only 4 other languages in the world. It is also economically advanced - after the break from Russia it moved straight into high tech and next year will vote in national elections using mobile phones. They have no national debt and pay a flat 20% tax. They are not dependent on any one Industry and only resource is shale oil.  Every souvenir we have seen is made here - beautiful linen and pure wool clothing, crafts, amber jewelry  Clothing in shops is very stylish and beautifully made. People are very helpful and again there is no problem with language as they speak excellent English. No monuments to Stalin and Lenin as they were removed very quickly when the Russians left. It has been a hard road for the Estonians and we have no idea what they have suffered under both Russian and German occupations. 

 It is a beautiful city and we feel very safe here. It does get busy in the summer but is very pleasant now although our warm sunny morning turned very quickly into cool light rain this afternoon. Eero said that weather is very unpredictable at this time of year,  that October is cold with some snow, November is just terrible and he wishes it would disappear as it is very depressing and that December to April is snow when he does cross country skiing in the dark to stop getting depressed. 
Tomorrow we are off to Riga in Latvia for one night. They do not use the euro so if we need to spend we will have to get Lats. Food prices are very reasonable but most of our meals are provided. Great breakfasts and very pleasant dinners start and finish each day.

Posted by suengarry 08:05 Archived in Estonia Tagged cities Comments (0)

St Petersburg to Tallinn - Sep 27

Into the Baltic States

sunny 14 °C

St Petersburg to Tallinn - Sep 27 Tuesday

Respectable starting time this morning - 7 am bags out. Raining. New coach and driver (Alexander). Again a modern, spotlessly clean coach. Traveling out of the city on the Moscow Prospeckt towards the Summer Palace before turning onto one of the ring roads heading towards the Baltic Sea to the west. 

Final impressions of St Petersburg - beautiful city, virtually untouched by the ravages of the war. Younger, happier, trendier/less pretentious demographic (universities and military). Successful mix of history and modern living. Some of the obvious problems of alcoholism and drugs amongst the young but no more so than elsewhere. Some graffiti and vandalism but not so obvious. While smiling at strangers is still obviously a cultural no-no, we found it much more user friendly. Younger people with better English and more signs in English. 

Most obvious difference to Australian cities is the apartment living. The city does not have suburbs. You move directly from high rise apartments to farmland. Typical apartment living space 50 square meters for two to four people. Less shared facilities now but young married couples will often share with parents. Cant imagine how they get any privacy. Streets are full at night as apartments are too small to entertain. Village houses also quite small.  Not as small as summer houses (dachas) but nothing like the size of the Australian suburban house. 

Road network shifted from the superb ring road infrastructure to a typical two lane highway - quite well surfaced but busy. Average speed 100 clicks but often down to snails pace. No overtaking lanes so some hairy  manouvres. 

Countryside very flat and swampy.  Natural vegetation still spruce, birch, elm and pine trees. Expansive cleared paddocks remain from the days of the state collectives. These are now company farms  Private plots much smaller Forestry is major industry. Potatoes, Cabbages, turnips and wheat  Forest berries and mushrooms. Animal production tends to be indoors so animals are not obvious in the paddocks. Pigs, beef and diary with some sheep and poultry. Interestingly much farming land throughout Europe is returning to the wild as the European Union is paying more and more farmers to not produce. This is a counter point to the argument that production of biofuels will lead to an increase in food costs due to competition for land. 

Narva (Estonias border town
Our border crossing went very smoothly and in record time by all reports. About an hour on the Russian side and another 30 mins in Estonia  Had to take all our luggage off the coach which was then thoroughly searched. First ten of our group had to run our gear through the scanner but everyone else was waved through. That was on the Russian side. The river marks the border with an old fort on both sides (13th Century)  On the Estonian (European Union) side they simply checked our passports to make sure that we were tourists and not locals looking for work. The only way to be an Estonian is to demonstrate that you speak Estonian. 
Estonia dates from the early 13 th Century when the  Teutonic knights arrived - they dominated for several centuries then there was brief Swedish rule in the 17th century followed by Russian and German oppression. Became a Republic in 1991.

The countryside now clearly more closely farmed and maintained, at least along the highway. Paddocks more substantial with miniature pine  hedgerows along the road  More substantial stand-alone farm houses, cultivated gardens and modern outbuildings and machinery. Much less forest. Extensive hectarage of canola yet to be harvested. It is already apparent that despite it's very difficult history of conquests and occupations, that Estonians know how to make way in the modern world. Several large wind farms dominate the horizon. 

Rain and chill has given way to beautiful afternoon. Even the trees less inclined to adopt their autumn foliage. 

Posted by suengarry 08:26 Archived in Estonia Tagged buildings Comments (1)

St Petersburg - Sep 26

Fortress Peter and Paul

rain 14 °C
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St Petersburg Sep 26

Marshall version of Russian history - name should be Catherine or Peter, if you don't like son, daughter, cousin, uncle or wife there are several options: stab,  poison, or send to a nunnery. Nunnery option means you can remarry and the ex can build an opulent mansion complete with monastery covered in gold. If you are a popular alpha male you send your armies off to battle your neighbour's (or one of your relative's) armies and following victory build another great monastery as a memorial to your success. 

No wonder that after the revolution no one really knew what to do, confusion reigned and new leaders behaved like Ivan the Terrible.

Interestingly the early Russians were not into statues (the craven image hang-up of early Christianity) hence the monastery/religious icons proliferation. But somewhere around the time of Peter the Great Reformist bronze and marble statues became popular. Nowadays, like everywhere else in the world, if there is a bronze horse head, boar, dog, griffin or penis, it is highly polished as a result of all the 'rubbing for good luck!! .... Even if it is high on a wall with protective barriers. 

 This city is magnificent because it is relatively new (300 years) and it is just continuous significant buildings, very few run down buildings, big open spaces with original cobbles, big statues and gardens. Peter planned it to be like Amsterdam but different. Built on the swampy delta, they created many canals to deal with the excess water. Many of these have been filled in over the last century to provide more roads but the width of the avenues remains. 

Very clean, people very patient with non-Russian tourists and respond well to a smile. The buildings are not on the canals as in Venice but have a road between them and the granite embankments therefore the buildings aren't rotting or sinking.

 Visited the Peter and Paul fortress and church where all the Tzars and wives are entombed. Fortress Island sits in the fork of the Neva River which flows in from the Gulf of Finland. Ideal location originally to best defend the city from invasion. Later became a prison and place of some nasty deeds. Now, of course a museum (what else would one expect in St Petersburg) but also still a functioning mint which however is not so important as coins are virtually useless. One ruble is less than 5 cents Aus. 

Toilet facilities are interesting - we are taken to souvenir shops where they attract buses because they provide clean workable facilities. Have some difficulty with having to put used toilet paper in a bin by the toilet - even in the theatre  last night which was very modern with lots of marble and glass. No such demands in our hotels......so far!

There are a lot of advantages to doing Russia 5 star! We are going to explore the city on our own tonight as every building has lights on all night - they turn off when the sun gets up - electricity is cheap here. Oil based power stations appear all over the place even in the middle of the cities. Russian oil. Locals a little bit upset with their politicians as they do pay the same price for petrol as the US who are also using Russian oil. Pollution however not a serous problem as the Westerly winds blow the smog to other parts of Europe. 

We are off to Estonia tomorrow - the border crossing will take at least 2 hours and maybe 5! We are all taking lunch with us in case. Our tour leader is very good with all the paperwork. Getting out of Russia we have to have a registration paper for all hotel stays and our custom slip and visa. The strange thing is that when we arrived in Moscow we walked straight through customs with no bag inspection just showed our passports at the customs counter.

Posted by suengarry 08:22 Archived in Russia Tagged buildings Comments (0)

St Petersburg Sep 25

Tzara Village

rain 11 °C
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St Petersburg Sept 25

After breakfast we bused to Pushkin  (Zarskoe Selo or Tzar village) to Catherine the Greats Summer house. Amazingly opulent with magnificent gardens. On the way out we drove through the battlefield where the Russians defeated the Germans. St Petersburg didn't suffer building damage during the war but one million people died of starvation during the siege. 95% were civilians living on 125 grams of bread a day at the worst part of the siege.

 The palace was almost totally destroyed in 1944 however the communist regime had almost completed restored it. Historical restoration of many such structures continues throughout Russia but particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg  Some items were kept in safe keeping but the majority are meticulously produced replicas based on samples of the original. Why this restoration, which has to be very expensive? We suspect to remind the people of how things were and the sacrifices that have been made. 

Returned to the city for lunch at the Hermitage Museum (ex Winter residence of the Tzar) which is as opulent as Catherine's Palace. We decided to miss the extensive art collection in the palace (one the worlds great collections with some 42 million pieces) and instead wandered along the streets and sides of the canals. The hotel Astoria that we are staying in was built for Hitler to celebrate German victory over Leningrad but it didn't happen.

Tonight we went to the ballet - Swan Lake performed by the St Petersburg Ballet Company and Russian Orchestra.  An 'interesting' performance but still very enjoyable. 

Posted by suengarry 05:07 Archived in Russia Tagged buildings Comments (0)

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