Marg and Leigh's travels around the world

We are two retired women from New Zealand, busy travelling the world. Our quest is to experience other cultures before they are changed beyond recognition, and see endangered animals and environments before they disappear. We hope you like our blog and enjoy our exploits. We sure have had fun getting here.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Estonia and FInland

Narva fortress
After crossing the Russia/Estonia border we found a campsite attached to a hotel in Narva, and we scored a lovely spot on thick grass overlooking a lake. We did some washing, slept well, and decided it was great place to chill out before heading further into Estonia.

The weather was lovely with long sunny days, but the nights were very short as we are travelling during the period of the ‘white nights’.

This far north, the sun doesn’t set until around 11 pm and rises around 3 am - a bit of a challenge if you need darkness to sleep and are tired!

Sillamäe beach
Leaving Narva, we drove around the coast, stopping at the beachside resort of Narva-Jõesuu for lunch. However, we were moved on by the parking warden for not displaying a parking time ticket!

We then drove through Sillamäe which is touted as “a living memorial to the showpiece architecture of the late Stalinist period” and where a local uranium mine that fed USSR’s nuclear energy is leaking radioactive material into the sea – this did not seem to stop people swimming there!

Altja Fishing village house
We stopped at Valaste to view the waterfall which is supposed to be the highest in Estonia, as well as all the Baltic States. We decided we would hate to see the smallest, as this one was just a trickle and a real non-event! Maybe lack of rain?

We were headed for Lahemaa National Park and the little fisherman’s village of Altja for the night. However, when we got there, we couldn’t find the camping site so continued on around the Baltic coast.

Altja Fishing village house
We reached Võsu; still no camps. We were getting a bit worried by this time as there weren’t even any suitable places alongside the beach or road to stop. Suddenly, we spotted a camping sign and we found Camping Lepispea – yay!
This was a lovely camp just off the water’s edge and with good facilities. We settled happily and enjoyed chatting to the Austrian couple next door about their travels.

Erratic boulders at Altja

The Lahemaa Park seashore is stony and sandy, and the whole area has many “erratic boulders” (large boulders in very random places) which have been carried from Finland by continental ice.

The beach by the camp was sandy but you had to walk through a little forest first and then cane which was growing right on the shore.

Rakvere castle
By the time we arrived there, Vanni had reached the 40,000 kilometre mark, so we needed to get her serviced. Ivica, the woman running the camp, was delightful and extremely helpful. She organised for us to go to Rakvere for this (about 30 km away). Much cheaper that Tallinn, she said!
So we left Vanni at the garage in Rakvere, and cycled toward the centre of town to explore. On the way, we discovered a wonderful medieval castle of the Teutonic knights where we had a great time.

Rakvere castle sword
The castle staff were all dressed in period costume and seemed to really enjoy their roles. We had medieval style food for lunch, tried out swords of the era, and ended our visit at the torture chamber which was run by a very enthusiastic young woman who was right into role play!

That’s a lot of bull!
Next to the castle we found a huge sculpture of a bull which the locals call an “Auroch” or “Tarvas” statue. It stood on a very prominent hill, looked most imposing and is considered to be the largest animal statue in the Baltic countries. 

We then explored Rakvere town which has some very old wooden houses similar to those we had seen in other Baltic states and in parts of Russia.

Santa Claus Post Office
When we collected Vanni she was very happy and drove purringly well. We headed in-land the next day to look at central Estonia. We stopped at Jõgeva - the headquarters of the Estonian Santa Claus, Jõuluvana and Jõuluvana’s post office; but it was closed! Got the photo but that was all!
We also saw the remains of another medieval castle in Paide, a town which is known as the centre of Estonia.

Marg in Tallinn
Moving back to the coast, our next stop was Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. We found a campsite at the local boat harbour and parked where we had a great view of the boats and the water.

The next day, we set off on the bikes to explore Tallinn. What a beautiful city centre, with so many meandering old cobbled streets and beautiful old, old buildings.

Tallinn Castle towers
We had a wonderful time wandering around, but when we stopped for lunch we must have picked the worst place in town for service! After waiting three quarters of an hour, Leigh’s soup finally came but not Marg’s, despite being the same dish and ordered at the same time.

Twenty minutes later, no food and Marg was fading fast so Leigh went and demanded our money back! Onwards to a new restaurant - instant food, great service and Marg’s sugar levels back up (whew)!
Now we had more energy to explore again before biking back along the waterfront cycle track into camp.

St. Catherine's Passage
We rode back into town the next day to explore the parts we hadn’t got to the first day, and discovered a whole different side to the old town. We walked up from the Square of Freedom to a lovely park which followed the city walls and its numerous towers.

Some of the highlights were the little passages like St Catherine’s Passage, the Virtue Gates, all the towers and old wall, beautiful houses, and cobbled streets.

We thought Tallinn was a lovely city and could see why it had a UNESCO heritage rating.


Leigh in Helsinki
The next morning we headed off to catch a ferry to Helsinki, the capital of Finland. We drove Vanni to a secure parking lot we had found, and then caught the fast ferry as foot passengers. After an hour and a half, we docked right in the bustling harbour market area of Helsinki city. We found our way to our hotel, left our bags, and set off to explore.

We wandered through the Market Square which was full of lots of different food stalls as well as lots of tourist goodies. We bought a huge plate of Lapland food consisting of little fresh water fish and potatoes. We enjoyed visiting the Design Museum which displays Finnish design over the years.


Helsinki Cathedral
We visited the extraordinarily imposing Helsinki Cathedral, which is an Evangelical Lutheran Church built to honour the Russian Tsar Nicolas I. We also walked to the far end of the city to see the Temppeliaukio Church, which is built into solid rock. It was an amazing structure with the most beautiful copper roof. Having walked so far, we were glad to head back to the hotel, and a meal at a local restaurant.

Submarine on Suomenlinna Island
We caught the ferry to Suomenlinna Island the next day. The island contains the remains of a fortress built in the 1700’s as Finland’s and Sweden’s eastern-most defence. It is an interesting island full of caves, bastions, old cannons, a church, village buildings, cafes and a submarine.
It was a pleasant way to spend a few hours before heading through the Kings Gate, and catching the little ferry back to Helsinki, then the fast ferry back to Tallinn.

 Back in Latvia

Haapsalu Castle
 As Vanni’s refrigerator had been playing up, we found a Rimor dealer in Tallinn who had a great electrician who was able to fix it. After a couple of hours we were off again, headed to Haapsalu on the Estonian west coast.

Haapsalu is a pretty little town with lots of old fishermen’s wooden houses, little narrow streets and a castle. The castle comes with the legend of a “white lady” who is supposed to appear at a certain window. We didn’t see her!

Flying the NZ flag
in Haapsalu
We stayed at a cute campsite where the owner puts up the country flag of his campers when they arrive. He was very proud of the fact that he had previously had NZ guests and they had sent him a NZ flag.

The best thing was, it was a big flag, about 3 times the size of all the other countries, and really stood out. We felt very proud to see it fluttering in the breeze above all other countries!

Onwards around the coast, to Virtsu and a car ferry which took us to the very small Muhu Island. There, we visited Koguva village, which is Estonia's best preserved old fishing village. It has streets with stone fences, log houses with cane roofs, old trees and draw wells with poles. The buildings date mainly from 1880-1930.

Saaremaa Island windmills
We then drove over the largest causeway in Estonia on to Saaremaa Island. One the island, we stopped to view the very small ancient Karja Church which is Saaremaa's smallest and dates from the Middle Ages.

Then we headed to see the last remaining group of windmills that once covered the entire windswept island. They were quite distinctive in their design. We also stopped at the Kaali meteorite crater which resulted from a meteorite shower 7500 to 7600 years ago.
Tehumadi campsite @ 11 pm
The crater is huge at 110 metres wide and 22 metres deep. There are also 8 smaller craters.

As it was getting late, we checked out camping sites in Kuressaare the island’s largest village. However, they weren’t quite right so we carried on. About 30 minutes later, we found a lovely peaceful, green campsite in Tehumadi, just before Salme.

The isolated Lomala Port
We spent quite few days there just relaxing and not doing much at all apart from walking to the next village, doing a bus trip into Kuressaare, and cycling around to Lomala Port. Lomala used to be a thriving fishing port but it is now a very isolated point with a small museum in a visitors centre displaying how life used to be there.

Saying goodbye to our peaceful spot we headed back to the mainland and to Pärnu, a seaside resort town.

Busy Pärnu beach
We wandered through the pretty old town, then a promenade along the long sandy beach which was chock-full of holiday makers.
We decided not to stay in Pärnu, so moved on and crossed the border into Latvia to find our next stopping place.

Leaving Estonia, we decided that it is a diverse country in terms of its landscape, characteristics and history.
We expected it to be more sophisticated but it is mainly made up of very small towns, lots of flat land, places where villages used to be, endless forests, and deserted beaches (except in Pärnu!).

There are still remnants of the not-too-distant Soviet occupation, including some ghastly apartment blocks. In general the locals were friendly and helpful although some were understandably shy and reticent. English was spoken by quite a lot of people. There seemed to be a liking for very bright colours in women’s clothing and styles and tastes are quite different to New Zealand.

We enjoyed Estonia and are now looking forward to moving south again.

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