Latvia's Baltic Coast: It's Nice

Late June, 2019

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While staying in Latvia, I made sure to include a trip to the country’s Baltic coast during my visit. It turned out to be a really easy destination from the capital Riga. All I had to do was take a 30 minute train ride for less than 2 euro to the stop (NAME). And since there were trains going about every half an hour, I had plenty of options as to when to go. For this trip, I went with Hana (see Awesome People and Lido Festival pages). Once there, we walked about 7 or 8 minutes down a trail through a forest. Eventually, we got to a clearing at the end, and suddenly the scenery opened up to reveal the Baltic shore and all its glory.

Surprisingly, the area was pretty developed, but thankfully in a way that did not hinder the natural beauty and overall feel of the place. The water was so clean and blue and the sand was clear and smooth (unlike the beaches of Long Island Sound, which I had grown up alongside), and garbage was nowhere to be seen. There were numerous little pavilions and cafes, many of which happened to be modestly priced, and Latvians from seemingly all backgrounds were out enjoying the day. Some were relaxing, others were swimming, a few were playing volleyball, and some were even riding bicycles… on the sand.

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Just a side note to my readers. The Baltic is not the Medeterranean. It’s much further north, and as a result, significantly colder. That said, if you can handle the temperature, there are far less tourists here and you can really enjoy the waters without having to dodge screaming families. Just don’t expect bath-like conditions. Instead, brace yourself for an exciting adrenaline rush.

Also, you can walk on clear sands as far as the eye can see. It was pretty interesting since the sand began right as the forest ended. It was almost as if it were a clash of two different geographical areas. Sandy beach meets northern birch tree taiga. I, personally, hadn’t ever seen anything quite like it, but it was pretty fascinating and provided a nice calming effect. And on the way back, Hana pointed out the tree in which she made our leaf crowns out of (see Lido Festival story again). So, for now, that’s all I have to say. Go there. You’ll like it.

We came across this on our walk. It was awesome. Whoever made this, you’ve got skill and my utmost respect.

We came across this on our walk. It was awesome. Whoever made this, you’ve got skill and my utmost respect.

Lido: Honoring Latvia's Pagan Solstice Traditions

23 June, 2019

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Surprisingly, I had made it 28 years on this planet without attending a pagan summer solstice festival. By now, you’d expect it to be my annual tradition, but somehow it had eluded me… That is until this year when I went to Latvia - a place where such a celebration is an official national holiday. Naturally, I made absolutely sure to attend. Here is my story of how that went.

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Every year on the 23rd of June (yes, I know the solstice is technically the 21st) the entire city of Riga shuts down to hold a festival to honor their pagan roots. Rightfully so, it goes from 5:00pm to 4:30 in the morning the next day. I got there around 8:00pm with Hana (see Awesome People page) while the sun was shining as bright as mid day. Earlier on, she had gone to the forest to make crowns out of leaves for the two of us. Upon entering, we saw a makeshift structure that reminded me a lot of True Detective (see above), and in the distance, we could hear horns and strings playing what I assume to be traditional Latvian music. We walked through the entrance and saw what looked like the whole city along the river. A conga line zipped past us and massive wooden pyres could be seen in every direction. We then both decided to go to one of the many beer tents in order to better fit in with our fellow festival goers.

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Drinks in hand, we walked over to the main stage and listened. All five members of the band were dressed in traditional attire and were really getting into the mood. They were fun and their sound perfectly fit the occasion. Best of all, most of the people around us seemed to be enjoying their drinks and the music, as opposed to being on their phones. Unfortunately though, the second band did not live up to the first’s performance, and instead decided to play tacky modern pop music. Because of this, we chose to make our way down to the river instead of hanging around the stage.

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We stayed for a few more hours, in which some random guy swiped one of my beers when my head was turned (props to him for being quick and disregarding sanitation). Around midnight, the wooden pyres were set on fire and everyone began throwing their leaf crowns into the flames. The sun wasn’t fully down yet due to our far north location. We decided to check the main stage one more time, but it was another tacky pop band killing the authentic vibe (if only the first band stayed on all night), but the crowd still seemed to be in good spirits, probably due to the tremendous amounts of booze available. We then left and decided to walk around the empty city.

It all made me wonder, ‘why did we give up paganism?’ Why did we replace drinking and dancing celebrations of joy with solemn ceremonies of restraint, self guilt, and judgment of others (western monotheism) or the dull perspective that everything is meaningless (atheism)? I mean, with paganism, you get to give thanks to awesome things like the sun, nature, animals, water, and all that good stuff that keeps us alive in a daily basis. We’s be more grateful for everything, instead of plundering it all as if its just something to be exploited (damn it Des Cartes and your mechanical view of everything non human). Anyway, I digress. Overall, the event was pretty fun. Food and booze were very affordable and the crowd and location were awesome. I just wish the first band stayed on longer.

Welcome to Riga (Photos)

Following Estonia, I took a 4 hour bus ride to its neighbor Latvia. I arrived in the capital, Riga, just in time for a summer festival Ligo. Naturally, I kept it as my base during my visit through the country. Most of the shops and businesses were closed down during the festival, so everything felt calm, relaxed, and open, as you will see in my series of photos. Please Enjoy, and stories will soon follow.

Street in the old town.

Street in the old town.

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Midsummer Festival

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This is after 11pm

This is after 11pm

True Detective?

True Detective?

Hana, maker of the leaf crowns

Hana, maker of the leaf crowns

7 Impressions of Tallinn, Estonia

I first landed in Tallinn in late June at about 10:30pm after 20+ hours of travel and 30+ hours without sleep. Being so far north, the warm sun was still shining bright in the sky. With a mix of excitement and exhaustion, I exited the airport and got on the tram, which was conveniently located right outside the doors. I looked around me and noticed that I was the only one on board that did not have bond hair. Four stops later, I got off and headed for my hostel. The road was fairly quiet and lined with trees. Everything around me looked fresh and green.

After a much needed night’s sleep, I dedicated my next two days to exploring the city and seeing all it had to offer. Here are some of the highlights of that (filtered through my own arbitrary perspective, of course).

Medieval Meets Modern

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While this is a pretty common balance most European cities aim for, Tallinn has mastered it. As I first walked down to the old town, I was surprised by how many tech centers and pristine modern buildings were all around, lining the streets. Likewise, all the facilities in which I stayed were in great condition. Wifi was very fast, things were clean, and nearly every product could be found in shops. But then when I entered the old town, it felt a little bit like I was walking back in time (well, except for the two modern horrors of McDonald’s and tourists with selfie sticks).

Very Walkable/Not Crowded

So open!

So open!

Even in the old town!

Even in the old town!

Tallinn has all the charm and beauty of the classic European cities There are historic sites, a medieval old town and castle, green parks, and a rich cultural history. There’s just one thing it doesn’t have: crowds of people. Estonia as a country only has only 1.3 million people, and Tallinn only has 400,000. And despite being named Europe’s cultural capital just a few years ago, large scale tourism hasn’t quite caught on yet. or me, this made the experience much better and significantly more pleasant. There were few crowds to dodge, small lines at bars, and open seats on public transportation. Plus I didn’t have to wake up early to take awesome shots of the old town.

Tons of Green Space

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While there are some things I do admire about cities, such as architecture, culture, and collective artistic expressions, I have always preferred nature to urban slabs of concrete. Therefore I really like it when a city has ample green space. Tallinn happened to be such a city. Parks, green squares, and trees can be found just as much, or even more than pavement and buildings, and never once does it feel like the city is trying to conquer or dominate the land (in the way monstrosities like Manhattan and east Asian mega cities do). Instead, the structures and natural world seem to grow together and complement one another in Tallinn. Never are you overwhelmed by pollution or smog, and its never hard to find a place of solitude or silence.

Amazing Old Town

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So I may have found a new favorite European old town center. Tallinn’s was so cool and fascinating that it overshadowed all others I can remember. It may not be the biggest, nor the most famous, but it’s substance is second to none. Everything from the ancient stone gate entrance to the large open square in the city center to the the spiderweb of narrow winding streets that are scattered about. Buildings have been kept looking in old traditional styles, and some places even tried to recreate old style eateries and breweries. Unfortunately though, there were still some tour groups with selfie sticks (the horror) and one McDonald’s (again, the horror), but these were far less than pretty much any other such city. Plus many of the overlooking views and lookout points offer incredible views of the city below. Case in point how much I enjoyed it: I decided to spend midnight on the solstice wandering about this area. It was absolutely time well spent.

Everybody is Blond

One of the first images from an ‘Estonian people’ google search. Notice anything?

One of the first images from an ‘Estonian people’ google search. Notice anything?

I first noticed this once I exited the airport after landing, and then had it reinforced everywhere I went. And I mean everyone. Tall blond people as far as the eye could see. I felt as if I was the only brown haired person in the entire country. Kind of strange to think that I, a white American of Polish descent could be the darkest one in sight, but here that was the case. Even Scandinavia had more hair color diversity.

Candied Nuts are Everywhere

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So this I found to be pretty cool. All throughout the city (and especially in the old town), there were street vendors selling candied nuts everywhere. Apparently it was an old tradition started by monks (according to the story I was told) and the city decided to keep it as a tradition. Typically speaking, this would consist of several different kinds of almonds and peanuts, each sweetened in different flavors. Some were spiced in cinnamon, others in chocolate, and many in other things I couldn’t quite distinguish. Nonetheless, all the ones I tried tasted good, and I would definitely recommend getting some if you happen to go there. And as an added bonus, they weren’t expensive either.

Very Artistic City

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Some people may say art is dead, but this is not true in Tallinn. From the architecture to the odd statues, to bizarre yet amazing murals, to eerie looking manikins at store fronts, Tallinn knows how to express itself artistically. And there’s not just one style either. In just a quick hour of wandering around, you’ll be able to see such a variety of creation, all intertwined with nature as well. Some places will seem extremely modern, while other classical, and many without any specific category. Likewise, even restaurants and cafes have creative flares as well, each trying to establish their own unique layout, music, and menus.