The First Baltic adventure: Part #1
The First Baltic adventure: Part #1
I touched down in Riga airport about 8pm feeling slightly better than death. I’d come down with something bad about a day earlier and my plan for tonight was simple. Cab. Hostel. Painkillers. Sleep. Then pray for good health in morning. It was a terribly dull plan for my first night in Latvia, but desperate times called.
I still felt freaking awful. The night before I hadn’t slept at all and had even sat in the shower for two hours hoping for the slightest ailment. In the morning I stumbled out of my little Milanese flat to the pharmacy, and the ‘cold’ air (it was only 10 degrees or so) felt like an electric drill in my ears. This wasn’t encouraging given Latvia was sitting around -3. The thought of cancelling the trip had crossed my mind, but I didn’t want too, plus I’d heard that Latvia had one of the best health care systems in Europe. Thus, it was to my great bemusement that when I went to confirm this presumed knowledge some weeks later I found that in fact, Latvia has the worse health care system in Europe (something to do with an outdated cold war plan for dealing with mass military casualties). God knows what other trivia I’ve picked up is total rubbish, or rather I’ve read incorrectly. Luckily my simple plan for recovery kept its course.
My first impression of Riga was definitely a good one; this was owing to the airport being the nicest I’d seen in Europe by far. In fact it was so nice that I just had to slow down a notch. After what had been a hectically uncomfortable day I suddenly found myself relaxing at an empty cafe by the arrival gate with a hot tea in hand, by a comfy sofa, listening to the jazzy lounge music and watching it snow lightly on what was now a largely deserted runway. I was so relaxed that I almost nodded off right there and had to stir myself to get going again. It’d been a long time since I’d last been in a comfortable, modern cafe and my headache was actually dissipating a little. Despite the health care status, Latvia has made eons of progress since it achieved independence in 1991 from its miserable Soviet squalor. The public transport system is pretty good and everywhere in Riga (and also Tallinn) you can bear witness to an infrastructure investment which has spared no expense in rapid modernisation over the last two decades. Hell, if the rest of the world had as bigger passion for progress, we’d probably have those long promised moon colonies. I’m getting carried away here but then it’d been a while since I’d gotten out of Italy – a country which garishly celebrates its disinterest in self improvement. The city is not without other serious issues though, in 2008 Forbes bestowed upon Riga the dubiously noble cognomen of Europe’s Crime Capital.
While I’d already learned there was a bus that connected from the airport to close by my hostel – it was snowing heavily and I just wanted to get to my bed fast so that I might enjoy my other 4 days in the Baltic’s. The cab cost 8 Lats (about 12 Euros) to get to the old town and after been dropped off – I spent ten minutes wandering blindly around the block in a blizzard with my bag trying to find the slightly obscure entrance to Franks Friendly Fun Hostel. I found that the Hostel was indeed friendly, with the beautiful receptionist, Liga – “I’m Liga from Riga” offering me a complimentary beer while two Australian girls pressed me to join them and catch up with the rest of a pub crawl that had just left. It took a lot of willpower to turn the beer down and go for a bottle of water instead – even more too resist the urge to simply say FUCK IT and go have a glorious night out.
As far as partying goes, the Baltic’s haven’t made it to Ibiza status but they’re getting closer. The allure is simple: cheap alcohol, hot clubs, cool bars and essentially, ridiculously good looking women. With such a winning combination, people from all over head there looking for a good time, especially the British – in particular British stag parties – and no one hates British stag dos more than Latvians. While they enthusiastically fork out millions every year on accommodation, booze, strippers and hookers, their increasingly bad behaviour has pushed the local’s patience over the limit. Loudly staggering around town in drunken groups of no fewer than a dozen, all who pass by them are subjugated to either challenges of fighting or lurid sexual harassment. As well as committing random acts of assault, arson and vandalism, hotels and hostel rooms are routinely trashed. This is simply what I kept getting told mind you, I have no problems with the British personally. Liga also told me that while Frank’s hostel was originally designed with British Stag dos in mind, it now refuses to host them altogether after several rooms were all but destroyed and guests were intimidated.
So I got to my empty 6 bunk room, downed some Panadol and was out like a light by 9:30. I barely noticed the other occupants returning from town some hours later.
I woke up the next morning around nine feeling like a million dollars. My simple plan to get well had actually worked. So I happily packed up my belongings up and left the Hostel. Riga was only a stopover – my main destination was Tallinn. Ryan air flies from Milan to Riga, but not Tallinn (*It does now). To fly from Milan to Tallinn with another airline would’ve cost many dozens of times the cost. There are however buses that cover all the obvious Baltic routes, the best of which I was told were Eurolines, who are also amazingly cheap – booking the tickets for the 5 hour trip was equivalent to 22 Euros one way. With my bus set to leave at 12:30, I did a quick power tour round the old city centre and grabbed a decent cappuccino, chicken club sandwich and fries at a Double Coffee cafe – a place whose logo is unabashedly similar to Starbucks. The biggest difference was that the food and drink were infinitely cheaper. Finishing up, I took the most scenic route through the old town over to the central bus station. Riga is really quite the beautiful city, with the old town adorned with structures typical of the Medieval, East European Gothic style. But right now I could only manage a brief glance – I’d have a whole day to see it properly on the return leg.
I got to my bus. My first thought was it was the wrong one as it was simply too nice. There were plush comfortable chairs, ample leg room, hot drink dispensers, flat screen televisions and a bathroom which I later discovered was actually good enough to use. The rest of the worlds’ coach companies should pay some attention right here. I almost giddily got to my seat and was extra pleased by the fact that the bus was only a quarter or so full. I spend most of the trip just nonchalantly watching out the window, occasionally glancing over to watch a music video on the nearest TV or grabbing another free hot chocolate. It took about 40 minutes to get outside the city and then it was just snow swept landscapes of fields and coniferous trees for the next few hours. By 4pm it was already getting dark and starting to snow. I found the trip exceptionally peaceful and relaxing, so much so that by the time we arrived at the Tallinn bus station around 6pm I was disinclined to leave my seat, especially given the rush of freezing air that accompanied the opening of the doors. I got off, jumped into the nearest taxi, extracted some basic tourist Estonian from my driver, and got to my hostel – Tallinn Backpackers. The place seemed decent. I locked up my stuff and went to call Maris.
Maris had been my first contact with Estonia and also the one who’d planted the idea in my head that I should visit sometime. I’d met her in Switzerland earlier that year through my brother who I was visiting. She was kind of odd. She looked like what I’d learn most Estonian girls looked like: Delicate features, platinum blonde hair and a default facial facade of looking totally pissed off. Brad, my brother’s friend called her Ice Queen but as it turned out she was cool – in a good way. We started talking but most of the conversation was simply her extolling the virtues of her proud little nation, while heaping piles of hate upon everything else – especially the Russians and Latvians who the later she insisted were all born with six toes. Estonians, I found out are not in any way ethnically related to their land side neighbours, but are in fact an Urdo-Finnic people, with their language closely mirroring Finnish. She also insisted that I visit Estonia sometime, promising to show me a fun time there should I go. But the idea only seriously come about some months later when I saw Ryan air offering dirt cheap fares to Riga. It seemed like a fun idea.