Warszawa and the Baltic capitals
For starting my first journey into Post-Soviet space back in September 2004 I decided to go to the Baltic countries. In summer Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (like many others) had recently joined the European Union and I wanted to go there and see the countries and cities before they alter due to massive investments. My goal was to see the still existing differences as I knew that these would change. Because this automatically happens when companies bring their uniformed style everywhere in the world and transform the atmosphere and architecture to look and feel all the same. Or do you recognise any differences when you go along the (main) shopping streets of any bigger city and look at Starbucks, H&M, Nordsee, Mango, D&G, Ikea etc.? Or watch at the skyscrapers in London, Dubai, New York, Moscow etc. - these areas are more or less all the same, even though they try to compete themselves in bringing uncommon styles like twirled towers and so on. But in the end they are still skyscrapers consisting of glass and metal. In my opinions this is one of the negative aspects of Globalisation: Individuality gets lost...
However, I planned with about 2 weeks to reach Tallinn as my last destination in this journey. As a student with low budget I accommodated in hostels and stayed about 3 days in each capital. Being Tallinn as my main goal, I even considered going to Helsinki as this would be by ferry just around the corner:
Flying was not automatically an option in 2004 and rather expensive (crazy how cheap Air Baltic is nowadays). As far as I can remember there was no direct connection from Vienna to Vilnius at that time. So I had a stop over in Warszawa for a couple of days and could have a look around. I knew the history of the capital, its devastation and loss in humans due to the 2nd World War and was curious to find out how the city developed in its changing history and past.
Somehow I have in mind that the connection between the Austrian and the Polish capital was partly rather slow, especially in the southern part of Poland. Anyway, I have no idea how long the ride took and I think I was sitting in the wrong part of the train as they divided the train somewhere already in the Czech Republic or after the border. In Krakov I had to change the train to get back on track to Warszawa; the ticket inspectors were so kind in assisting and did not make any troubles because of the wrong and an additional ticket. Arriving in Warszawa was also a bit exciting because this was my first bigger trip and all on my own. I remember that people (or at least the one I asked for the way to my accommodation) was quite nice. I spent some nice sunny summer days in the capital and enjoyed wandering around (descriptions in the pictures):
I took the night train from Warszawa to Vilnius and unlike the route displayed above I did not cross the belarussian border. Even though I think there were some trains (or at least one) and you had to pay attention not to take such train because of the Visa you need for that route. Unfortunately I cannot remember where I crossed the border; and I think the track width for trains changed as the Baltic countries had (still have?) the width of the Soviet Union/Russia. We did not have to leave the train but it took some time, so I guess they lifted off the wagons in the night. What I also can remember is that I forgot my sun glasses in the compartment because I was in a hurry in the morning when we were woken up and told that we'd arrive Vilnius soon. I remember this because this were my one and only expensive sun glasses I ever bought - and because of that experience never bought expensive ones again ;)
In comparison to Warszawa you realise that it's a smaller capital and more remote. But I have to say that this fact makes it nicer and you notice the more "medieval" history - and luckily was not massively destroyed unlike other neighbouring capitals and areas (desciptions in the pictures):
After spending some days in Vilnius, I prepared to go further north. As I did not have planned anything, I realised that my assumption in simply taking the train would not work. I have to mention, that we are pretty spoiled in Austria due to our really fancy public transport. Back then I thought that the Baltic countries, due to the shared political and economic past and the simple fact that the cities are not really far of each other, would be simply connected by train. But the railway system in the Baltic countries is not really developed and I was told that it is possible to go by train but it needs MUCH longer than going by (shared) car (which was something completely new and strange for me) or by bus. In the end I organised a bus ticket and next stop:
I arrived in Riga by Bus. I do not exactly remember any more, if it was then or on the way from Riga to Tallinn where I got to know a guy from the US studying in Europe and talking about studying in general and the differences in studying in Europe and USA. He told me that studying in the US is pretty expensive and when you finish University you usually start with debts. So, when you start your "career" in the beginning you just work to pay off your debts first. He was astonished to hear that in Austria it was completely free. However, he enjoyed studying in Europe as he hardly had to pay something. And in the hostel where I was accommodated, I again met a guy from Spain I got to know already in Vilnius (last fotos at the bottom). Even though not planned, this happens when backpackers have the same route: you often meet again, especially at the common sleeping spots ^^
Riga did not "impress" me that much like Vilnius. It has its sights and spots but somehow it had (and I guess still has?) a more industrial touch, meaning that Latvia, respectively Riga, was in the decades before concentrating on industrial production and this you could realise when going around. I can also remember that Russian (writing) was quite common as a lot of Russians settled there in Soviet times (unlike Lithuania, where hardly Russians went). And in fact, about at least 25% of Latvian population is Russian what causes up to day some issues, what is in my opinion a shame in our internationally promoted values within the EU. We are so proud of humanism, our rights and freedom etc. and point to others (countries and regions in the world) to implement virtues like "right to vote" etc. But here these Russians are so called "non-citizens"...meaning that they do not have the citizenship and are not allowed to vote etc. and hardly anyone knows about that fact.
After spending couple of days in Riga I left to reach my last spot on my trip in the Baltic region.Again taking the bus I arrived in Tallinn - and I loved the capital of Estonia!
I was not aware about the history of the city being a so called "Hansestadt" (hanseatic city) in medieval times, meaning having a connection to German history and being a trading town between the north, east and west. You recognise this in how the buildings, the whole city was looking like and you can say that luckily a lot of buildings and areas survived changing and moving times. When I arrived, like in the other 2 cities I have been before, a lot of repairs and renovations were going on. A lot of transports were entering and leaving the center to bring material or remove demolished things. In comparison to Vilnius they repaired/renovated what still existed, whereas Vilnius (in my opinion) often had to start from zero to arise new what was destroyed or did not exist any more. This might sound strange "criticising" this but still there is a difference in this. One is preserving something existing, the other way is to copy or reproduce it leaving the impression of missing authenticity.
Back to Tallinn I have to mention that a pleasant circumstance was that tourism at that time was hardly existent and wandering around was delightful and like exploring a castle and/or ancient town by yourself:
I wonder how popular Tallinn is nowadays. Back then I already heard that Tallinn was popular for Scandinavian people because alcohol was pretty cheap there. Now with Air Baltic as cheapy I wonder how tourism is looking like now.
In my trip to Tallinn, the weather unfortunately worsened the further north I got. In Warszawa it was even pleasant going around in T-Shirt in the evening; also in Vilnius I had sunny days or at least hours. In Riga the weather started to change (on the fotos above you can see that the sky was mainly cloudy) but at least it was not raining, what changed in Tallinn. The weather forecast did not look promising what was the reason why I decided not to take the ferry to jump over to Helsinki and instead heading back to Vienna.