Baltic Countries in Five Days: Part II – Estonia, Latvia, Europe

After a ten-hour bus ride, I arrived at the capital of Estonia, Tallinn. It was early morning when I walked out of the bus station. I had to take out my light jacket – first time on this trip. Nice and cool.

Comparred with Vilnius and Riga, Tallinn's international bus terminal is far from city center. (Tell the Euroline driver that you would like to be dropped off at the ferry terminals. It's closer to the old town). I ended up walking two kilometers, carrying my huge backpack because I couldn't find a bus, and I had no local currency. Due to ubiquitous construction works in this boomtown, it was difficult for me to find my way around.

There are a few youth hostels in Tallinn’s old town. After the overcrowded room in Vilnius, I was not in the mood to share a mixed dorm with 17 other strangers. I decided to stay at the OldHouse.

Estonia is the smallest country in the Baltics, 1.4 million population (Its land area is still bigger than Taiwan, a country of 23 million population). Four hundred thousand people live in Tallinn, located on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland, less than 100 kilometers from Helsinki. Due to the close distance, there are numerous daily ferries connecting the two. Many Finns regularly shop in Tallinn. Although Tallinn's cost of living started to skyrocket after its 1991 independence, it still remains a budget destination compared to Western European cities.

I tend to learn a few words before I visit a country, but I had not managed to memorize any Estonian phrases, other than "thank you". That language seems odd and difficult to comprehend. To my pleasant surprise, most young people (and quite a few middle age people) speak English quite fluently – a rare phenomenon for a former Soviet Union republic.

Estonia is a great success story for a fomer Soviet Union country. Not only did it join the European Union in May 2004, it also had a whopping 12% growth rate in the first quarter. The economy is doing well. I could see the high rises being constructed, hardly any beggars on the streets, as in many other former communist countries. Its recent big news is that the Estonian ferry liner, Tallink, purchased another ferry line from Sweden, to become the first Baltic company buying a company from Scandinavia (usually it is the other way around).

Tallinn's old town, Vanallinn, is small. You can walk around and see everything in three hours, and there are a lot of daytrippers from cruise lines doing just that. The central town hall square, Raekoja Plats, is a little too touristy. There are even Irish bars and a Texas steak house. Taking a few turns and walking uphill along Pikk Jaig, you can get to Toompea, the "uptown" of the old town area. In that small and quaint neighborhood, you'll find Toompea Castle, now the seat of the Estonian parliament, and the orthodox, Nevsky Cathedral. Its vantage point gives a great panoramic view of the lower town below.

The Next Prague
My next destination and my third Baltic country was Latvia, the second largest country in the Baltics. With about 2.5 million people, it is smaller than Lithuania, however, its capital, Riga, is the largest city in the whole region (though still with fewer than 1 million). The city feels more cosmopolitan than either Vilnius or Tallinn.

Riga has that strong "Old Soviet Union" feeling, moreso than the other Baltic cities. In Vilnius and Tallinns, taking a bus is more like an “honor system", common in central European countries such as Germany and Austria – you punch and cancel your tickets when getting on a bus or tram. There may be an inspector, but not usually. In Riga, there is a conductor on almost every bus and tram. Even if you don’t see them, they will locate you to take your fare – a good way to offer more job opportunities.

The city has a very large Russian population. Though most are Latvian citizens now, many are still not fluent in the language. Thus, Russian is preferred among many Riga denizens and the Cyrillic alphabet is more ubiquitous than Tallinn and Vilnius. I read that the relationship between local Latvians and Russians are not very good. The problems with the Russian minority caused complaints from Russia itself. Now that Latvia is a member of the European Union, all its citizens (Latvians and Russians) benefit from the freedom to travel and work in other E.U. countries. Investment and tourists have grown. Hopefully, good times will ease ethnic tension.

Riga's old town, Vecriga, has some nice cobblestone streets. The Cathedral Square is especially beautiful and the largest in the Baltic Region. However, the most visible church is St. Peter's. With the tallest spire in the city, you can see it wherever you go – makes getting lost more difficult. Aside from churches, there are also historic mansions, built when Riga was a part of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia has a few moving exhibitions of Soviet atrocity.

Riga is fast becoming “the New Prague". After Latvia joined European Union, several Western European budget airlines started their routes to Riga. The largest European budget airline, RyanAir, has a hub there now. Latvia's expanding national airline, airBaltic, also started new routes to Western Europe. There are organized "stag parties" or "hen parties" coming from U.K. for long weekends. New bars and nightclubs have opened, many them strip joints. Things remain reasonably cheap making it a great magnet for young people from Western Europe. It's not uncommon to see a group of drunk English speaking people hanging out on the streets.

The hostel I stayed, Friendly Fun Franks, is a famous party hostel. I did try to save money and again, ended up in a crowded 16-bed room. The 24-hour bar downstairs lets the party animals stay up as late (or as early) as they want without bothering people asleep or wanting to sleep.

In my two-dat stay in Riga, I was given a lot of fliers about various parties around town. There were so many events to go to! I saw a lot of new construction; many will be luxury hotels. This city will become very touristy, like Prague, Budapest and Krakow.

Go there as soon as you can.

Saricie Kuo is a college professor and public health researcher from Taiwan. He is also a part-time novelist and film critic. He took most of 2006 off from his career and traveled in Europe and South America. He made a wish when he was 18: to visit more than 100 countries before he turns 40. Currently in his mid-30's, Mr. Kuo is glad he has only 10 countries left to reach his goal.

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