Latvia and Estonia

Living near London gives me access to several airports and many cheap flights all across Europe. I decided to take advantage of this situation by planning a visit to two of the Baltic states – Latvia and Estonia. More specifically, my friend Joel spearheaded the trip and took on most of the planning.

Also joining us was our friend Peter, which made for a trio of Irish-Canadians. We all met during our days skiing with the nordic team at McGill University in Montreal. We planned to visit Riga and Tallinn before continuing on to ski the Tartu Ski Marathon. Unfortunately just hours before our departure we learned that the event would be cancelled due to a lack of snow. In hindsight it was nice to leave our skis behind which made travelling much easier.

We kept our original plan of visiting Riga and Tallinn, but left out the Estonian city of Tartu because Peter had (through the magic of Facebook and Google Translate) managed to secure us three spaces on a kayaking trip with a group of Latvians.

Keep reading between the pictures below to find out how the trip unfolded!

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Riga skyline.

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Academy of Sciences aka Stalin’s Birthday Cake.

Riga was a very interesting city to walk around – especially the market place which is housed in old Zeppelin hangars. I was surprised at how much Russian is still spoken here and how “post-Soviet” the city still feels. We got some good views of the city by walking over a major bridge and taking an elevator ride up the broadcast tower – the tallest structure in the European Union!

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Broadcasting tower.

After a day in Riga we took an evening bus to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. There was a huge contrast between the two cities – Tallinn seemed much more modern and prosperous. We spent part of the next day exploring the city, and part of the afternoon preparing ourselves for a kayaking trip. The most important items we bought were:

  • extra wool sweater and rainpants from a second hand store
  • dishgloves to keep our hands warm and dry
  • garbage bags to waterproof spare clothes, or wear
  • a sponge, to dry out the seats of our boats
  • an emergency candle
  • chocolate
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Old town Tallinn.

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Always an Irish pub to be found!

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Getting outfitted for the kayaking trip at a military surplus shop.

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Looking north, ferries departing for Finland.

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A well kept harbour.

Still in Tallinn, while Joel explored a museum and eastern parts of the city, Peter and I found a strange building to the west of the old town. Initially appearing as just a large set of stairs to nowhere, we discovered a run down complex which used to house a concert hall, Olympic sailing facilities and heliport!

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Tallinn hosted the sailing events of the 1980 Olympics from this complex.

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The legendary Peter O’Connor.

Peter and I also had an authentic cultural experience by visiting a public sauna. I could not photograph the interior, but let me try to describe the scene. The antechamber was full of Russian speaking men drinking beer and eating dried fish. The next room was a general showering area where people were also soaking bundles of birch branches to soften them. Next there was a room with a cold water tank and finally a very large sauna. The sauna contained five tiers of cedar benches arranged in a right angle around a large brick wood fired stove. Inside the locals wore felt hats (now I know why), and beat themselves with bundles of birch branches. All this activity of course takes place while completely naked – no prudishness here! Many cycles of heating in the sauna and dunking oneself in the frigid water tank were undertaken, leaving us indescribably refreshed and invigourated – not an experience to be missed.

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Visiting an authentic public sauna.

After our day in Tallinn our trip became more uncertain. We were coordinating to meet the kayaking group near the river the next morning, while they were arriving from Riga. We took an evening bus south to the town of Salacgriva where we discovered an acute lack of accommodation, so we made a quick decision and took the last bus of the night back north to the village of Ainazi just along the Latvian/Estonian border. Fortunately the pub was still open and we were able to arrange a room in the local guesthouse.

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Catching a late bus back to Latvia.

The next morning we took the local bus back to Salacgriva and hiked about 3km east of town to our arranged meeting point. Fortunately the group arrived as planned. Shuttling of cars was quickly organised, and we left most of the cars at the meeting point – where we would be ending the kayaking trip – and we all drove away upriver.

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Lighthouse in Salacgriva, Latvia.

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Strong maritime history in this area.

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A canning factory.

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Walking off into the unknown, hay rotting in the fields…

At the put-in, I was disappointed to see that the kayaks were tandem boats (aka. divorce boats) with huge gaping cockpits just waiting to fill with icy water. As it was Valentine’s day we were each paired up with a young Latvian lady to accompany us in the boat. I must say I was lucky and was assigned a very competent paddler.

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Preparing to launch.

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And we’re off!

The river had a moderate current, with occasional swifts and small obstacles to avoid. The trip was definitely run more laxly than I would expect from the Canadian outdoor industry for example, but I still felt very safe. We spent about five hours on the river, only getting moderately damp, but I was certainly happy to change into dry pants and socks at the end – though unfortunately I only had one pair of shoes with me!

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Stopping for lunch and a campfire to warm up.

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Joel demonstrating cutting edge paddling gear. Please note the stylish dishgloves, and garbage bag diaper.

After the kayaking trip, we joined the group driving back to Riga and spent the following day seeing more of the city. We visited the museum of the occupation of Latvia, and because many things were closed on a Monday we spent the afternoon at the cinema watching The Revenant. I found the film to be over-hyped, and despite being lauded as hyper realistic – I have to report that, as someone who has spent a lot of time outside in the wilderness in winter – that a lot of it was simply rubbish. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to hear exactly why. Let’s see if it wins many Oscars this weekend!

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Back in Riga.

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