Our bus ride to Tallinn, Estonia was largely uneventful, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed at the expedience and lack of difficulty of the Russian-E.U. border patrol. At the Narva, Estonia crossing, the guard simply glanced at me, stamped my passport and I was on my way. In January, I was able to tick off a bunch of visa-free countries in the Balkans. Now I was excited to do the same thing in the Baltics. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have always been virtually indistinguishable from one another, so I was excited to learn more about what separates these three countries.
It was before noon when we pulled into the Tallinn bus station, a half-hour walk from the Old Town. It was a cool day, perhaps a degree or two below freezing, so we hurried through the strip malls to our hostel to put down our bags. Our hostel provided lockers next to our beds, so we stuffed our backpacks then went wandering through the walls and medieval buildings of the city.
The city is small, so we had circled the historic district once before we began to feel hungry and ready for dinner. Being back in the EU, I knew things would be a bit more expensive and, it being early in the trip, I didn’t wish to start splurging now for fear that I would keep living it up if I did not keep myself in check. I searched “best cheap eats Tallinn” and found Lido, a Latvia-based chain of cafeteria-style restaurants that specialize in Baltic foods. This was exactly what I was looking for, as it was something different than our usual fare. Generally, when I travel I either eat at the cheapest possible places, or else the places with a certain renowned dish that I have to eat in a given country. For instance, in Paris I happily shelled out over 30 Euro for a foie gras and duck confit dinner because I was in Paris. In Eastern Europe, however, the local food usually is the cheap food. Meat pies and pastries, potatoes, Russian salads are everywhere and you can usually get a cheap lunch on the go for under 5 bucks.
At Lido, we were able to try some of the mid-range cuisine of the Baltics in small quantities and great variety. We ate beef liver (my favorite), a herring-beet casserole, and chicken in a local mushroom-cream sauce, among other things. The restaurant was situated on the second floor of a busy mall (something I haven’t seen in awhile), and took up nearly a quarter of the floor. We left satisfied that, though what we had eaten was technically Latvian, what we ate was a solid representation of normal Estonian food. We fell asleep early, in front of the hostel’s common room TV.
The following morning, we met at the city’s tourist information center for the daily free walking tour of the city. Our guide was an affable woman in her twenties with dyed pinkish-red hair, and she happily cracked jokes about Estonian culture and history. We visited the city’s independence monument, parliament, fortifications, and churches and got a greater appreciation of the country’s unique and thriving culture despite their repeated invasions. After the tour, we went to a restaurant in the basement of the town hall called III Draakon (The Third Dragon) which claimed to sell authentic medieval food in an authentic medieval environment. The basement had no lights and was instead illuminated by candles. They sold elk soup, beer, and meat pies, and had a large barrel of pickles that customers could spear with a stick (no forks in medieval Estonia) and eat to their hearts’ content. The woman in medieval dress behind the counter was doing a bit where she’d be gruff with each customer which, I was sad to see, did not come across as a bit for many of the non-English or non-Estonian-speaking guests. I found it funny, but also a little sad, when a family of Japanese tourists began shaking nervously at the Estonian barwench’s curtness.
Bellies full of liquefied elk meat, we walked to the hostel to rest before our bus to Latvia. It was the middle of the day and the lady at the front desk happily chatted away with us as there was nobody checking in or out. She was a local, and she lit up when we told her we were from ‘near New York,’ (which I am starting to think is as valid an identity as being a New Yorker). Apparently she had lived in New York for a short three-month visa stay, and eagerly wished to come back. “There’s nothing to do in Tallinn,” she explained “New York has everything.” As a near-New Yorker, I had to agree that there was a lot more going on in New York compared to Tallinn, but I realized I had begun to grow tired of the city that never sleeps in recent years. Everything worth seeing, in an ever-changing city like New York, does not stay in the same place. Clubs and restaurants go out of business and are replaced by newer, more expensive clubs and restaurants. The waves of immigrants move, first to the outer boroughs, then the suburbs. Neighborhoods never stay put, and they are never well-documented, to the point where we can safely say there will never be another ‘Chinatown’ (though there are allegedly nine). In Tallinn, and European cities like it, things stay put. Walls from the 13th century keep tradition alive in ways that would not be possible in New York or in most of the New World.
We say goodbye to the receptionist, as our bus leaves in 45 minutes. We make our way through the walls of the Old Town, and into the shopping mall district that snakes its way to the bus station, passing a limousine with a large pumpkin-shaped passenger compartment. Ralph Fiennes’ character in the film “In Bruges” perhaps said it best, though about Bruges, Belgium:
“It's a fairytale town, isn't it? How's a fairytale town not somebody's fucking thing?”
The cornerstone of the trip: Russia. Thrice my father trekked to a Russian visa processing center in New York to get our visas taken care of, and we spent a couple hundred dollars each on getting them expedited, as it took awhile to get my passport renewed six weeks before this trip even began. Long before that, though, I had begun learning Russian for this exact moment. Well, not just for this exact moment. I look forward to visiting some of the former Soviet countries where Russian is the lingua franca, and plan on touring the 5 ‘Stans (Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh) in the summer. But more on that then.
At Vyborg, the first station in Russia, approximately a dozen Russian border guards flooded our car, checking passports and asking about bags. No one looked twice at our three-day Russia visas and the guards automatically spoke in English upon seeing our blue passports. I was eager to speak Russian, but glad to speak my native language in such an important exchange. We arrived at Finlandskiy Station across from Lenin Square and trekked across the city to our hotel.
We passed a handful of drunk Russians on our way to the Ibis St. Petersburg Center, where we had secured our Letters of Invitation for free after booking a double room. The receptionist spoke English well, and as we were checking in I noticed a camera over her shoulder that said “be advised that the hotel is being monitored by security cameras.” I pondered whether this meant there were cameras in our rooms or not. They didn’t specify the parts of the hotel that were under surveillance, so I took that as a sign that the shy may want to avoid Russian hotels.
That evening we went to the surprisingly not-so-tacky Soviet-themed bar and restaurant “Kvartirka” where the portions were probably slightly better than in the Soviet Union, and old Tv screens played Soviet films. Here, also, the waiter spoke English and I was beginning to think I would never get to practice more than a couple of words of Russian. We turned in after the meal, as we only had two more days left on our visa, and we had to make the most of it.
The following day, we awoke around eight and started our trek across the city to the Peter and Paul fortress. We caught the subway which only required one transfer from our station at Ligovsky Prospekt. The trains seemed to run every 3 or 4 minutes, and only cost 45 rubles (about $.70) which quickly got us to the other side of the city in under a half hour. However, it felt like half of our travel time was spent on the escalators down into and up from the subway. When we exited the metro near the fortress, we were greeted by a great mosque, covered in blue designs and arabesques.
We spent the next hour among the graves of Catherine the Great and the rest of the dead Romanovs, and took in some of the opulence of royal life before the Soviet era. On our way to the Hermitage, we stopped in an Irish Pub which was advertising their specials on Russian cuisine, as it was St. Patrick’s day (if you can figure that one out). Here, I met the first Russian who couldn’t speak English (perhaps she spoke Irish?) and was able to use my Russian to order Chicken Kiev, Beef Stroganoff, and a couple of Irish beers.
Across the street we entered the Hermitage, a collection of miles and miles of European art. I like art as much as the next guy (who gets bored easily), so I obliged for a few hours, playing the scavenger hunt provided by the museum’s map (though found no pieces I recognized). After, we went to the Faberge museum which had a collection of the famous Faberge eggs and other accessories.
In the evening we went to the local mall, which had a central Asian restaurant called “Baklazshan” where we ordered a handful of small plates while a woman who only spoke Russian went from table to table selling makeup, or something. After an evening in the hotel watching Russian travel channel, we realized the air conditioner was broken and the room continued to grow hotter until I had to open a window to let some cold Russian wind bring the room’s temperature down. In the morning, we walked down to the bus station and took the first bus to Tallinn.
All of Scandinavia is submerged in a dense fog, it seems, as we stop in Oslo on our way to Helsinki. My dad (whom I am sharing trip #6 with) and I caught the late-night plane to Oslo, which means I am operating on 24 hours without sleep before I even land in our layover destination. The Oslo airport is nice, but we have trouble finding a nice place to sit so we float between cafes and benches for around 4 hours while I think about how great life was when I had a bed and a room and a regular sleep schedule. Why did I give that up to spend another week and a half watching my dad sleep peacefully on trains, buses, and planes? Who knows.
We are already admitted to the Schengen Area in Oslo, so by the time we arrive in Helsinki we don’t need to go through immigration or customs. We catch the 5 Euro train into the city center and eat our first real meal in over a day. A couple of blocks from the train station is a fun bar-turned-restaurant-turned-cafe called “Lost in Helsinki,” which serves authentic and auhentic-ish Finnish food like meatballs, salmon soup, and reindeer nachos. The soup and nachos were fine, but the meatballs were a step up from what you can find in Ikea. That evening we saw some of the streetlife of Helsinki, though we turned in early to our hostel so I could end the waking nightmare of being awake for a day and a half straight.
The following day was our first day of visa validity in Russia, so we planned on catching a bus some time around 11 am to St. Petersburg. My dad assured me that there would be a bunch of buses at 11:30, so we should go to the station around 10:30 to catch one of them. While purchasing tickets day-of had worked (more or less) in our previous Eastern European trip, it became obvious that tickets to Russia often sold out the day prior, so we would either have to take one of the late buses or take the more expensive train which would shave off about 4 hours. After a half a day inside some of the spectacular churches of Helsinki, and wandering through the food hall and tasting moose meat, we decided to hop on the train for about 80 Euro a person to put us in St. Petersburg for 8 pm. The train left precisely on time to the second (as had the train from the airport), and we passed the three hours and change watching the Finnish-Russian countryside below.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.