Overview
Costs
Food
Hotels
Money
Mobile phones
Internet
Weather
Health
VISA
Security
Recommended
Avoid
Getting around
Photos

Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland



13.5: Munich -> Hannover
14.5: Hannover -> Kiel (ferry to Klaipeda)
15.5: Ferry -> Klaipeda -> Nida (Curonian Spit)
16.5: Nida -> Klaipeda -> Vilnius
17.5: Vilnius
18.5: Vilnius -> Trakai castle -> Vilnius
19.5: Vilnius -> Hill of Crosses -> Rundale palace -> Riga
20.5: Riga
21.5: Riga -> Latvia ethnographic museum -> Jurmala -> Riga
22.5: Riga -> Tartu
23.5: Tartu -> Tallinn
24.5: Tallinn -> Jägala juga waterfall -> Tallinn
25.5: Tallinn -> Lahemaa NP -> Tallinn
26.5: Tallinn -> Helsinki
27.5: Helsinki -> Ferry to Germany (Helsinki-Travemünde)
28.5: Ferry to Germany -> Travemünde -> Hennigsdorf
29.5: Hennigsdorf -> Munich





Planning and overall impression

I had been planning a trip to the Baltics for quite some time. One of the options included a visit to St Petersburg (three days side trip from Helsinki), another option was to fly from Helsinki above the polar arctic circle to experience the midnight sun. In the end we limited the trip to just the three Baltic countries and left the two optional side trips for the future.
The Baltic countries have developed considerably since the end of the Soviet Union. I was expecting to find some remnants of the Soviet past, but in reality found three quite advanced and dynamic countries with good infrastructure and living standards. Of the three Estonia is the most advanced and expensive one.
Plenty of pretty, tall and fashionable young girls in all three countries, especially Lithuania and Latvia.  Seems that careers in the modeling industry are quite in focus here amoung young women.
In May-June the light is special in the Baltics and there are plenty of photo opportunities. There is a lack of geographical features (except perhaps for the beaches), but this is compensated by interesting architecture in the cities. Helsinki instead is not that interesting as a city.


Costs

Costs were low to moderate in Lithuania and Latvia, still reasonable in Estonia and high in Finland. Hotels in Helsinki were about 50% more expensive than in the Baltics.


Food

Food is not exacly a reason to travel to the Baltics. Generally speaking it's quite greasy, cooked with plenty of fats. We relied mostly on Asian and other foreign restaurants and occasionally of fast food outlets when time was short.


Accommodation

We booked apartments and hotels in the 50 to 80 Euro/day range. Especially apartments were very good value - a fully furnished apartment with enough space for a family of four for as low as 50 Euro/day in some cities. Of course not in the city centre, but with a car you can quickly get into town.
For Helsinki we tried Airbnb but won't use them again. Highly complex regsitration process which almost failed, and after that we paid 120 Euro for a tiny apartment in central Helsinki. The promised parking for the car wasn't available and instead we got a fine of 60 Euro for leaving the car where the host told us to leave it. It would have been cheaper to spend 150 Euro for a real hotel.


Money  / Exchange rate (May 2016)

1 Euro ~ USD 1.12
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.
ATMs are easily available in the cities.
The Euro is used in all Baltics countries we visited.


Mobile phones and prepaid cards

Due to the substantial reduction of roaming fees within the EU we roamed with our German SIM cards and didn't bother to buy local SIM cards.


Internet access

Hotels and apartments where we stayed offered free WLAN. In addition free WLAN is available in many malls and restaurants. Otherwise we relied on the mobile phones to access the Internet.


Weather

Some rain at the beginning and end of the trip (more rain along the coast), otherwise mostly good weather with sun and blue skies. The first week was a bit fresh with peak temperatures below 20°C, the second week generally warmer with peak temperatures above 20°C on some days.


Health / Vaccinations

No vaccinations needed for the area.



VISA / Entry requirements

No VISAs needed as all countries we visited were inside the EU.


Security

No issues here, probably due to the good economic development of the region.



Recommended things

Things to avoid

Getting around

We travelled by car from Germany to the Baltics, then used the car to get around. This was the perfect solution for us, as we were travelling with two kids and had lots of luggage. Parking options are available in all Baltics capitals. In Tallinn we left the car in the hotel parking and just walked around the old city on foot.
Ferries are a good option to cover the larger distances (between Germany and the Baltics), as driving overland across Poland would take a lot of time and be tiring.





13.5: Munich -> Hannover
Hotel Novotel, Hannover. 76 Euro for a nice modern room with everything. Conveniently located next to the train station, parking costs 3 Euro/day in the nearby parking house. Free WLAN, comfortable beds, nicely furnished. The room is quite big. Separate toilets for shower/bathtub and peeing. It's possible to separate the room in two parts with a movable partition.
Weather: rainy and cold in Munich (10-13°C), a mix of sunny and overcast and more rain as we drive north towards Hannover. Clear sky in Hannover at night.

We manage to leave at 3:20pm, but later while on the motorway realise that Shirley forgot to swith off all lights at home and in fact the ventilator fan in one of the toilets is still on. Because we cannot leave the fan running for 16 days (we are worrying it migth fail if it runs non-stop for 16 days and might cause a fire) we drive back home to switch it off. When we restart driving it's already 5:05pm, i.e. we've lost 1:45 hours in the process.

Some traffic jam north of Munich starting in Eching, which we try to avoid by leaving the motorway, only to run into another traffic jam on the land road which runs parallel to the motorway. So, after a while we get back to the motorway and here the traffic, while initially jammed a bit, becomes soon smooth. Next major traffic jam around Nürnberg, later on the traffic while heavy proceeds smoothly. Many, many cars on the streets this Friday afternoon.

After some breaks we reach the hotel in Hannover at 0:16am.



14.5: Hannover -> Kiel (ferry to Klaipeda)
Overnight on the ferry to Klaipeda. We have a cabin with window. Beds are relatively comfortable, but Shirley gets stung once by something, perhaps a bed bug? The cabin has a small clothes hanger place and a toilet with shower. Plenty of water. A/C power socket in the cabin. The cabin is small, but it's possible to arrange things in such a way that the stuff (suitcases etc.) does not block the place. Drinks are surprisingly inexpensive in the bar (soft drinks in a can for 1.20€), and probably food is not expensive either. Big car ferry with four decks for cars, two (or three?) for people. No lift - you need to carry your bags up and down staircases.
Weather: mostly overcast, some rain, every now and then some rain. Windy and quite fresh (around 10-14°C).

We get up late, pack our stuff and get ready. A bit after 11am we get out of the hotel looking for a bakery where to have breakfast. We discover an entire shopping mall complete with a Kaufland supermarket attached to the hotel and the train station. So we have breakfast there. Then shortly before 12pm we check out of the hotel.

After checking on Google Maps and the Internet, it appears that driving to Kiel via Bremen is only a small detour and Bremen is a much more interesting place than Kiel. So initially we drive to the motorway for Bremen. On the way we stop at a petrol station and refuel the car. As soon as we reach the motorway it becomes quickly obvious that we won't drive to Bremen today. There is heavy traffic on the motorway, plenty of cars, not so many traffic jams but we progress very slowly. And, although the ferry leaves at 8pm, you are required to check in two hours before by 6pm.

So we just drive to Kiel, planning to have a nice late lunch there and briefly look at the city. We arrive around 3:30pm and park the car in a car park (1€/hour). The historic core of Kiel (or let's say, whats left of it following the bombings of World War II) is not that impressive. It's also not such a big place. After some walking we find a Chinese restaurant where we have some late lunch/early dinner at 4:15pm. The food actually sucks a bit (plenty of glutamate, plenty of meat in a thick brown sauce, not that many vegetables), and is not cheap either.

At 5 something pm we leave the restaurant and walk back to the car. The idea is to buy some food for the trip to Klaipeda. Not that easy to find a supermarket - they are all concentrated in the centre of Kiel. After some driving around we park in front of the train station and walk to the Kaufland supermarket inside the train station. It appears that this is a small supermarket with stuff for people who do a train trip. So we walk to the mall across the street and there find an Edeka supermarket and plenty of shops selling fresh food.

After shooping for food we drive to the Klaipeda ferry in Ostuferhafen 15, arriving there around 6:25pm, quite late. We first check in at the DFDS office, where we get the tickets for the ferry. Then we proceed to the ferry boat. Once on the boat, we drive to the lowest deck (deck 1) and leave the car there. Then we get the keys for the cabin.

In the evening everybody is watching the Eurovision song contest. Ukraine wins after including the votes of the juries, but Australia wins the popular vote.



15.5: Ferry -> Klaipeda -> Nida (Curonian Spit)
Hotel Jelita, Nida. 70 Euro for an apartment with two rooms, attached bachroom with shower. Nicely furnished with a bit old-fashioned furniture. Free WLAN in the room. Refrigerator, TV, heating, no A/C. Not too high-tech, but comfortable.
Weather: sunny with clouds, windy the whole day. Quite fresh (temperatures around 13°C). No rain, but the forecast for tomorrow is rain.

We get up late and only leave the cabin at noon. In the early afternoon I go out on the upper deck. Great sunshine, beautiful views of the sea, very windy. Around 3:30pm we approach the harbour in Klaipeda. Then it takes almost another hour until we actually are in the harbour. Once there, first the upper level trucks disemabark (lots of trucks on this ferry - I wonder if it's more economic to send a truck by boat rather than let it travel the same distance by road). Finally at 5:30pm we are able to drive out of the ferry and get into Lithuania.

The first impression of Lithuania is that it is not a poor country. The infrastructure is in a good shape, the streets are clean. There is no old-Soviet era feeling, perhaps Lithuania left that behind some time ago.

We drive to the ferry for the Curonian Spit. 13.45€ to use the car ferry to cross the short channel separating the mainland from the spit - very expensive, I was thinking the passage would cost around 2€. Once on the other side we drive towards Nida.

Beautiful scenery of forests, sand dunes and villages. This is a place where you can spend a couple of weeks relaxing if you have the time. After a couple of stops along the way we reach the hotel in Nida around 7pm. Surprisingly swarms of large mosquitoes everywhere. Quite big mosquitoes, I wonder if these are real blood-sucking mosquitoes.

We check in and later have a dinner in a restaurant around 8pm. Quite heavy Lithuanian food with plenty of cream and fat, but not too expensive.

After dinner I get on the other side of the spit. There is a great, endless white sand beach. Would be a nice place to relax if the temperatures were higher.




16.5: Nida -> Klaipeda -> Vilnius
Victoria's apartments, Vilnius. 65 Euro for a beautiful modern apartment with everything (fully equipped kitchen, toilet with shower and washing machine, modern rooms nicely decorated). Free WLAN. The apartment is in a newly built apartment block, about 2-3km from the centre of Vilnius. Parking space included for free. Clean rooms, spacious, very elegant. Good value.
Weather: rainy and stormy in Nida and Klaipeda, temperatures around 7°C. Strong winds and rain until about 100km after Klaipeda. Close to Vilnius the weather changes: it stops raining and the sky opens up. Beautiful sunset, dry, no wind. Amazing how a distance of 300km changes the weather.

In the morning it is raining, so we are not in a hurry to leave the hotel. I was thinking to explore the Curonian spit, but with a weather like this it's pointless. So around 12pm we leave the hotel and start driving towards Klaipeda. Along the way I make a brief stop to take some photos of the beach and the forest. When we reach the ferry to the mainland, this time it is free (apparently the 13.45€ I paid yesterday cover a two way trip).

 We reach Klaipeda at 1:25pm and stop at the Akropolis shopping mall, which we already had spotted yesterday. It's immediately facing the road to the ferry. This mall is elegant and quite high end. Inside there are plenty of cool shops, many selling designer products, a big ice rink which is still open and many restaurants. We have a lunch in a Chinese restaurant, then explore the mall a bit and buy some groceries in one of the supermarkets.

It's probably 3:30pm when we finally leave the mall. Now we drive to Vilnius, the next stop in our trip. There is a good motorway all the way from Klaipeda to Vilnius, but the weather conditions are horrible. Strong lateral winds which push the car to the side and rain for the first half of the trip. Quite tiring to drive the car, because you have to hold the steering wheel firmly in your hands and watch out for sudden wind bursts which push the car to the side. Every now and then there are speed limits of 100, 80 and even 60 km/h on certain sections of the motorway.

Around 6pm the host of our hotel in Vilnius calls to tell that there is no hot water. We could stay a a friend's place, but only for two nights (we were planning to spend three nights in Vilnius). I purchase a mobile data package for Shirley's smartphone and ask her to look for a place in Vilnius. And Shirley manages to find a place, so we cancel the original booking. Technology is great - we manage to search and book a new place while driving on the motorway. And the booking works fine - within minutes we receive the confirmation and I call the new host.

I enter the new address into the navigation system and reach the new place in Vilnius before 7pm. Before smartphones and navigation systems existed, travelling around like this would not really have been possible. We would have had to use paper maps, ask people for directions, call one by one hotels in a paper directory or head to a tourist information centre. Now instead everything works fine effortlessly.

Lithuania makes the impression of a quite developed, technologically sophisticated country. It's not the ex Soviet republic kind of place. It seems more wealthy than Poland, the cars on the streets are quite good. Good infrastructure, free WLAN everywhere, many new buildings.

After checking in the apartment, we drive into town to the Vilnius cathedral. There we park the car (1.80€/hour parking fee between 8 and 24 hrs; later I discover another parking just 200m from there for 0.90€/hour from 8-22; free after 22 hrs) and have some quick food in a nearby KFC restaurant. Small portions in this place, compared to portions in KFC restaurants in Munich. After dinner we walk around a bit, making it to the top of the old castle.

It's now 9pm and I drive Shirley and the kids back to the hotel. Then I immediately drive back into town for some blue hour photography. Great views from the top of the old castle hill. I'm back in the apartment at 11pm.




17.5: Vilnius
Victoria's apartments, Vilnius.
Weather: sunny in the morning until about 11am, then a mix of sunny and overcast (more overcast than sunny). Clear skies again in the evening. No rain. Quite fresh, temperatures probably not much higher than 10-13°C.

Because the weather is not good, we only leave the flat at noon. We walk to the nearby supermarket, where we buy some food. Then we have a simple lunch in the Japanese sushi restaurant in the mall and head back to the apartment. There we wait half an hour for the laundry in the washing machine to get ready.

After 2pm we drive into town, parking the car near the Vilnius cathedral (90 cents/hour) at 2:45pm. Finally the sun comes out. We explore a bit the adjacent park, then head to the old town of Vilnius.

 The old town of Vilnius is definitely cute, with its historic core with baroque style buildings and old houses. Lots of tourists today. We spend the entire afternoon until 7pm walking around the area, stopping every now and then in cafes and restaurants to have some food. The food here is definitely not bad ('eatable' as Shirley puts it), although in one place where we stop the staff manages to mess up totally my order of pancakes. First they serve pancakes with bananas instead of apple & cinnamon as I ordered them. Then the pancakes come dry, without maple syrup, honey or some other liquid.

I must say that the women in Vilnius dress mostly stylish. Lots of girls in 'model-size': tall, slim, many pretty ones, suitable for a modeling career. Not that many stunnigly beautiful, to-die-for girls, but quite a good standard. In other cities girls are quite careless about the way they look, but here girls and women are quite fashion-conscious and have good body shapes. I wonder if it is just Vilnius or the whole of Lithuania.

Another thing I noticed already yesterday is that car drivers here stop for pedestrians at street crossings. That doesn't happen in many countries. Overall this seems to be a country of people who follow the rules and are polite.

After 7pm we drive to the Rimi shopping centre near our flat and have some dinner there. In the evening after 9pm I head back into town for some blue hour photography.




18.5: Vilnius -> Trakai castle -> Vilnius
Victoria's apartments, Vilnius. Today the battery of the mobile phone we use to open the garage door is empty. Great technology, but what if the battery is empty? We call the administrator lady and she brings a new phone with a charged battery.
Weather: a mix of cloudy, overcast and sunny. After 6pm the sky opens up and the evening is beautiful. Quite fresh (10-13°C) until the sun comes out. 6°C at night.

Again we stay in the apartment until late because the weather is not that great. Around 2pm we get out and have lunch in a Chinese restaurant which Shirley had spotted yesterday. A full meal for 3.50€ - unbelievable. Together with a soft drink the cost is 5€, and the taste is not bad.

After 3pm we leave the restaurant and drive by car to the Trakai castle. This is a beautiful castle on an island in a lake, surrounded by forests. Beautiful setting. Trakai is about 25km from Vilnius and getting there by car takes about half an hour. The castle and the surroundings (forests, a village) are stunningly gorgeous, especially if the sun is shining. Parking costs 1€/hour between 8am and 10pm.

This 16th castle was in ruins at the beginning of the 20th century. Then in a series of restoration works which extended over a period of 80 years the castle was completely repaired and brought back to its state in the 16th century. I guess this place is not in the UNESCO list because so much of it was rebuilt in the last century.

The entrance costs 6€ for adults and 3€ for children. Inside the castle there is a nice museum with several exhibits. It's also possible to practice archery and crossbow shooting (2€ for six shots). After visiting the castle, at 5:15pm the kids and I rent a paddle boat (7€) for one hour. Some fun getting around the lake.

It's 6:40pm when we finally drive back towards Vilnius. On the way we stop at a Maxima shopping centre to buy some groceries. The Maxima centre consists of a large supermarket with some additional small shops and a restaurant.

At 7:15pm we drive back to Vilnius. There we have a dinner in the same place where we had lunch today. We're back in the apartment at 8:40pm. At 9pm I get out again and drive to the Trakai castle for some blue hour photography. I'm back at 11:30pm.



19.5: Vilnius -> Hill of Crosses -> Rundale palace -> Riga
Neretas apartments, Riga. About 50 Euro/night for an apartment with everything (dishwasher, washing machine, fully functional kitchen etc.). Free WLAN. There is a parking area for cars, but parking is not always available. There is even an electrical heater you can use. Fríendly and helpful host. The only problem of this place is the location: 4km from the centre of Riga, i.e. you can't walk there. This apartment is good, but the one in Vilnius was even better. Good shower, with plenty of hot water.
Weather: first (relatively) warm day of the trip: lots of sun, from time to time overcast, otherwise many clouds in the sky. No rain, temperatures up to 18°C.

Quite intensive day: we leave the apartment in Vilnius at 11:30am and drive to the Hill of Crosses site, 220km northwest of Vilnius near Siauliai, arriving there at 2pm. This hill of crosses is quite cool, as there are countless Christian crosses planted there on a small hill surrounded by meadows and trees. The whole setup is also quite photogenic. Not too many tourists today.

We spend 20-25 minutes in this place, then drive to the nearby Girele restaurant where we have lunch. Quite decent food, relatively inexpensive. It's finally 3:30pm when we start driving to the next place.

The next destination is the Rundale palace in southern Latvia. It's a distance of 75km and according to the Lonely Planet guide this place closes at 5pm, so we have to be there as soon as possible. The drive proceeds smoothly. It's all a single lane per direction road, but because there is little traffic we proceed quickly and reach the Rundale palace by 4:25pm.

The Rundale palace is a beaufitul palace similar to the Versailles complex in France or the Nymphenburg castle in Munich. Big palace with two wings with a large garden. The family ticket costs 13 Euro for the long tour of the castle interior + 2 Euro for the photo permit (50 Euro if you want to use a tripod). It's another 2 Euro per person to visit the park. The rooms inside the palace are nicely decorated and there are paintings of the Curland family who have been owning this place in the past.

At 5:45pm we are done with the palace and after a brief stop in a nearby cafe for some snacks and icecream drive to Riga. It's an 80km drive, which takes about an hour. After arriving at 7:30pm, we head straight to the old town. The idea would be to have dinner and a quick look at the old town before heading to the apartment.

The problem is to find a parking, that is an affordable one. The cheapest one I find says 2 Euro for the first hour + 2.5 Euro for each additional hour. Plenty of places for 5 Euro/hour. We waste about 40 minutes, a couple of times being told that it's not allowed to park here. It's surprising that parking in Vilnius was so relatively inexpensive and here it's so pricey. Finally at 8:10pm we leave the car in a place and then find out that parking in this place after 8pm is free.

So we walk into the old town of Riga. Narrow cobblestone streets, renessaince/baroque era palaces, very touristy place (at least for what concerns this area). Lots of tourists everywhere. We have a dinner in an Italian restaurant (surprisingly good food, considering where we are, and moderately priced). Finally at 10pm we are at the flat where we meet the host. The host suggests to take a taxi into town tomorrow, because parking is expensive in Riga.



20.5: Riga
Neretas apartments, Riga.
Weather: in the morning until about 11-12am sunny blue sky. After that overcast. Later in the afternoon after 3pm spotless blue sky and great sun until about 8pm. Then for about an hour the sky is cloudy again.

We leave home late, only after 1pm because the weather is not so good. Initially we head to a Maxima supermarket where we buy some groceries. Then we drive to the nearby Riga centre mall in order to have some lunch. On the first floor of this mall there is a food court with many fast food restaurants and some other restaurants (for instance an Asian one). After lunch, we head again to a supermarket to buy some stuff, then drive into town.

The challenge is now to get into town. We've decided not to take a taxi, because it's 12 Euro to go and come back and anyway it's already 3pm, so even after paying 2-2.50 Euro/hour for parking until 8pm we would spend more or less the same if we went by car. But I did some research this morning and found some less expensive car parkings (1 Euro for two hours by Europarks), so I key in the address and drive there.

After some exploring we find one place. It's a parking in a Statoil petrol station, but all parkings are already taken. So I drive out and end up in a road to a parking and notice that there are empty spaces on the side of the road where people leave their cars. We ask several people if we are allowed to park there. All say yes, and in fact there are no street signs stating that parking is prohibited here or costs money. In fact there is no parking ticket machine anywhere. Looks like we found a free parking. We leave the car there and start exploring the city.

We spend the next hours until 7:15pm walking around Riga. Right now the sun is shining and the combination of blue sky and great light make the city look beautiful. There is a green belt of parks surrounding the city on the outside. Lots of renessaince, baroque and neoclassical buildings everywhere. Practically all buildings in the historic core are in a good shape, probably because of restoration activities which took place over the past years. Here and there a modern building has been constructed in the historic core. Lots of shops, restaurants and cafes. Many tourists on the streets.

We get to the top of St Peter's church (adults 9 Euro, kids 3 Euro) for some nice views of Riga. Overall the historic core is sufficiently compact that in a few hours it is possible to explore it all.

At 7:15pm we walk to the same Italian restaurant of yesterday and have dinner there. At 8:30pm we walk back to the car. There is no fine for the parking. We drive back home. Later in the evening around 10pm I'm back in town for some blue hour shots.




21.5: Riga -> Latvia ethnographic museum -> Jurmala -> Riga
Neretas apartments, Riga.
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day. Some clouds in the late evening. Temperatures up to about 20°C. No rain, some wind.

We leave the apartment in the afternoon after 2pm and first drive to a petrol station for some fuel and a car wash, then briefly stop at a photo store for some camera equipment. Then we drive to the Latvia ethnographic museum. This is an open air museum located about 10km east of the centre of Riga in a large wooded area along the Juglas lake. Inside there is a collection of old Latvian houses. Somehow this place is interesting, but many houses, actually most of them, look the same and there could be more exhibits in the houses and more explanations in English.

Anyway, when we arrive at 3:45pm, immediately a lady shows up who sells us a parking ticket for 2 Euro. Then we purchase a family ticket for 8.50 Euro and walk into the open air museum. It's houses spread in a forest which extends along the lake. In some houses there are people in traditional clothes, performing some tasks. We spend the next two hours walking inside the park, then at 6pm are back in the car.

 Now we drive to Jurmala, the seaside resort of Riga which is located about 20km west of Riga along the Baltic sea coast. Getting there from the ethnographic museum takes a bit less than an hour according to the navigation system. But then we first stop in a supermarket for some food (we have skipped lunch today). Then later when we are about to drive into Jurmala the police stop us.

 Turns out that we should have purchased a 2 Euro entry permit. The guy says that he must prepare a protocol and the fine will be 55 Euro. Seems a bit steep, especially considering that we are foreign tourists who have no way to know about this entry permit. Well, there are street signs with some text in Latvian but they are easy to miss, especially when all cars are ignoring them. The guy then reduces the fine to 20 Euro.

Once in Jurmala we lose some time driving around looking for the city centre. We don't find it, but after some time we park the car in a place with shops and restaurants (Tirgou street, next to the Redbus cafe). From there it's a short walk to the beach (near the five star Baltic Beach hotel). It's an amazing view, wide open space, evening sun, beautiful white sand beach extending for kilometres. Much less developed than the beaches on Rügen island in Germany, but even more beautiful. It's a pity it's so windy and cold today.

After some time on the beach we walk back to the street and after some searching find an Uzbek restaurant. This has some quite interesting food and a nice central Asian setting. After dinner we drive back to Riga.



22.5: Riga -> Tartu
Gildi 4 Külaliskorter apartment in Tartu. 80 Euro for the apartment on the top floor of an old building in Tartu. The good thing about this place is that it is 100m from the town hall square and right behind the university and has its own free parking. Two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, free WLAN (but slow), separate shower toilet with clothes washing machine and peeing toilet (as was the case with the Riga apartment). The shower is a bathtub, but actually the attachment for the shower head is broken, so you can only take showers if you hold the shower head in one hand. Water boiler system for the shower: there is barely enough water to finish one shower. Otherwise the standard is much lower than that of the apartments in Riga and Vilnius. Everything is old, the quality of the furniture is so-so, the windows of the sleeping rooms can't be darkened properly. Shirley's first comment is that this place is overpriced. But the good thing about this place is its location - no need to drive by car into town, because we are already in town.
Weather: sunny, blue sky, some clouds. Temperatures up to 21°C, the first really warm day since the beginning of this trip. No rain.

We leave the Riga apartment at 11:25am and first drive to the Nativity of Christ Russian Orthodox cathedral in Riga. This is surrounded by a large park and today because the sun is shining, the sky is blue and because of the spring everything looks beautiful. Shirley and the kids, because they don't care about old buildings, head to the playground area in the park, while I walk to the cathedral and take some photos. Photography not allowed inside the cathedral, but then the interior is not that photogenic either. So after I'm done photographing this building I walk back to Shirley and the kids.

We then start driving towards Tartu. On the way, just outside Riga, we stop at the Alfa shopping mall which today is open, even if it is Sunday. There we shop a bit around and have a lunch in the Chilli Pizza restaurant. Should have taken the pizza, because my Asian fish dish with rice is not that good. At 2:15pm we continue driving to Tartu.

The road in Latvia is not very good. For the largest part of the trip it's one lane per direction. In about 70%-80% of the Latvian section of the road the tarmac is in a poor shape. On the Estonian side the road is in a much better shape, with a quite smooth surface.

After a couple of stops we reach the apartment in Tartu. There we meet out host, a young Estonian girl, blonde and pretty as many girls in Tartu. She shows us our flat and we check in.

Around 6pm we get out and start exploring Tartu. There is actually not that much to see in Tartu. It's basically the university and the town hall square. Otherwise it's a pretty city, with beautiful parks and nice buildings, but not that much to see.

     Shops and malls close earlier than in Latvia. Compared to Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia seems to be more developed but more regulated. Lots of pretty girls and women on the street (many blondes), and many of them like to wear sexy (or perhaps they do so because today is a sunny day).

We have dinner in the Vapiano restaurant of the Kvartal shopping mall. It's 7:15pm and the shops of the nearby Kaubamaja mall are already closed and so are most shops in the Kvartal mall. Quite a difference from Lithuania and Latvia, where there are malls open until 11pm.

After dinner we head back to the apartment. After 10:30pm I'm out again for some blue hour photography.



23.5: Tartu -> Tallinn
Old House apartments, Tallinn. 80 Euro for an apartment in the centre of the old town (300m from the town hall square). Parking included in the price. Fully equipped, the only thing which is missing is the washing machine for the clothes. Only one toilet for peeing and taking a shower and it's not clear if there is a fan which sucks the smelly air out. Free WLAN available. One of the rooms is facing the street where there are people and cars passing by. Also here it is not possible to properly darken the rooms (it seems these people do not know that dark curtains exist).
Weather: sunny, blue sky with some clouds (thin high altitude clouds layer). Temperatures up to 22°C, quite warm during daytime, more fresh at night.

In the morning around 11:20am I'm out again for some photos of the old town, then at 11:50am we start driving towards Tallinn. Today is a wonderful day and the drive proceeds smoothly on the good road to Tallinn. It's mostly one lane per direction, with only a couple of sections (in the middle of the trip and the last km before Tallinn) with two lanes per direction. Not clear to me why they don't build motorways in Estonia.

At 2pm we stop in a mall a few km from the city centre of Tallinn. There we have some lunch and buy some groceries in the supermarket. Price level higher than in Latvia and Lithuania.

Around 3pm we drive into Tallinn and first stop at the office of the OldHouse apartments. There we register and then drive to the apartment. We unload our stuff and settle in the flat. The car parking is out of the city walls, a 500m walk from the apartment.

 At 4:50pm, while Shirley and the kids are resting in the apartment I start exploring the old town of Tallinn. It's indeed very cute - traditional middle ages / renessaince type of European old town. Actually a bit almost too cute. Everywhere there are restoration works ongoing to fix buildings and streets, the way a medieval old town is supposed to look like. There is a certain atmosphere of Disneyland fantasy castle here, in the sense that they are trying to make this city as cute as possible. It's a very, very touristy place. Probably the entire historic core heavily depends on tourists and therefore is targetted at them.

I spend the next three hours walking around the old town. Around 8pm I meet Shirley and the kids at the apartment. Together we walk to an Asian restaurant which Shirley spotted when we were driving to the apartment office earlier today. It's the Monk restaurant in Nunne street. There we order some fried noodles and a tomato soup. All dishes are not that good (Shirley complains that this is the worst Asian food she every ate; in fact my dish is quite tasteless and this restaurant isn't cheap either).

After dinner it's already 9pm. We walk a bit around Tallinn, having a look at the place. Since the kids are still hungry (they didn't finish the food in the restaurant), we buy some stuff in a McDonalds restaurant, before heading back to the apartment.

At 10:30pm I walk out again for some blue hour photography. The sky starts getting deep blue after 10:45pm. Lots of people on the streets. I'm out until after midnight. The cool thing is that the sky doesn't get black. It stays blue, even after midnight. I'm back in the apartment after midnight.



24.5: Tallinn -> Jägala juga waterfall -> Tallinn
Old House apartments, Tallinn.
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day. Temperatures up to 22°C.

Around noon we look for hotels in Helsinki. Prices are quite high (above 120 Euro) if you need a room in central Helsinki with free parking. There are hotels out of Helsinki or hotels in Helsinki without parking for less than that, but if you factor in the cost of a car parking for 24 hours the cost gets quickly quite high. So we give a try to Airbnb, a platform we haven't used so far. We find a place with parking in central Helsinki for 120 Euro (the initially shown price is much lower, but it climbs to 120 Euro if you add all fees).

We contact the host and ask some questions about the flat. Everything looks ok, so we proceed with the booking. The mess starts when we try to set up an Airbnb account. First it requests a telephone number. Never mind. Then it requests a photo of us. None of your business, so we just upload a black image. Then it requests scans of an ID or passport. Ok, this is still understandable, because also in a hotel you need to show a passport or ID when checking in. But the real problem comes when it requests a Facebook, Google+, LInkedIn or Weibo account, which I don't have. Shirley has a Facebook account, but we can't use that because I'm registering with my name and in any case there are lots of photos of our kids up there which we don't want to share with Airbnb.

There is also an option for completing the registration without Facebook & Co. You make a short video of yourself, explaining who you are and why you want to book a room with them. But honestly, why would I make a fool of myself just to book a room?

What happens is that the booking expires after 11 hours. The problem will be fixed the next day (see below).

Leaving home after 2pm, we spend the day in Tallinn having a look at the city. At 5:15pm we climb up the clock tower of the St Olav church for some views of Tallinn. Right now the sun is in a not so suitable position, so I guess I will return tomorrow morning. Then we slowly walk back to the apartment.

In the evening at 8pm we drive to the Jägala Juga waterfall, which is located about 30km east of Tallinn. By car it's a half an hour drive. The road is partly motorway and partly land road. The waterfall is quite cool - not that high (less than 10m), but wide and with plenty of water. As soon as we get out of the car, we are attacked by a swarm of big and very aggressive mosquitoes. Never seen anything like that, except perhaps in the jungle of Tioman island (Malaysia), but there the mosquitoes were smaller. In Germany there are also mosquitoes, but these are smaller, don't attack in swarms and are much more discrete (they don't jump on you like here). I have to wear a jacket to protect myself at least partly. These insects attack every patch of uncovered skin and even sting through the trousers.

Because of the mosquitoes we only spend 10-15 minutes in this place. I wonder how the people who live in the nearby village cope with the situation, because covering yourself with mosquito repellent every day for 3-6 months of the year is not really an option.

After the waterfall we drive to the Ülemiste centre shopping mall, arriving there at 9:25pm. We find out that the mall has already closed at 9pm, so drive to a nearby Prisma hypermarket where we buy some food. We are back in Tallinn at 10pm.



25.5: Tallinn -> Lahemaa NP -> Tallinn
Old House apartments, Tallinn.
Weather: same as yesterday, sunny, blue sky the whole day. Temperatures up to 22°C.

I get up at 9am and reopen the Airbnb booking which in the meantime has been cancelled. I remember that years ago I had set up a Google+ account, but never used that. So I try providing that to Airbnb. The curious thing is that Airbnb does not take that. It rather wants the details of my Gmail account. I had stopped using Gmail after the Snowden affair due to privacy concerns. There are still some old mails stored there and apparently some contacts, which Gmail must have extracted from my smartphone.

Since Airbnb requires access to my contacts in Gmail (none of your business, Airbnb!) I just delete everything in my Gmail account (all old mails and all contacts), before granting Airbnb the right to browse through my Gmail contacts. Once everything is done I'm registered with Airbnb and can finally book the damn apartment in Helsinki. Booking accomodation with a standard hotel booking site is much less of a hassle, so in the future I'll try to avoid using Airbnb.

At 10am I get out and walk to the St Olav church. There I climb again on the tower, hoping to get some better shots of Tallinn than yesterday. And indeed this time the photos come out better than yesterday. I'm up there for 20 minutes, then go down again because I'm done and because the viewing platform starts being very, very crowded. It's full of people and when I walk down the staircase there are masses of people climbing it up. Luckily I went up straight after 10am, when the tower just had opened and there were few people.

Back home at 10:40am Shirley and the kids are still sleeping (last night the kids fell asleep well after midnight - happens sometimes when kids are on a holiday and the school discipine is missing). Around 10:50am everybody is awake and the day slowly starts. Breakfast, school exercises, plans for the day.

We leave the apartment at 1:20pm. The first stop is the Kadriorg palace, a Baroque palace with gardens at the eastern outskirts of Tallinn. This is quite cute (free entry, no ticket). Especially the gardens and the adjacent park are very nice. Tallinn is a very green city in May, with beautiful gardens, parks and greeneries.

 Around 2:10pm we drive to the Ülemiste shopping centre, which is located near the airport of Tallinn. This time the mall is open. Beautiful, modern mall, perhaps the nicest I've seen so far in the Baltics. Lots of high end shops, but also many shops catering to the middle class. Here we have some lunch in an Indian restaurant on the first floor. Then, after buying some drinks in the Rimi supermarket inside the mall, we start driving to the Lahemaa national park around 3:40pm.

Driving to Lahemaa takes around an hour. After a section of basic road, it's mostly a motorway-like road with two lanes per side and a 110 km/h speed limit. We first drive to the park visitor information centre in Palmse. There I buy a map for 1.90 Euro and discuss with the lady about the options for 2-3 hours.

The Lahemaa national park is located about 75km east of Tallinn north of the motorway to Narva and is rather big. It's a park with coastal forest, and is supposed to host wildlife and have interesting rock formations on the coastline. Then there are old manors, built by rich people in the past, which nowadays are either museums or hotels.

We drive from Palmse to Oandu. There we do the yellow trail (i.e. a trail with yellow markings). This is a circular trail in the forest which brings you back to the parking. I must have misunderstood something,     because I had understood that this is a short trail with a total length of 1 km. In reality, walking speedily it will take us over an hour to complete this trail (we walk between 5:15pm and 6:25pm), so the total length must be more than 3km. The reason we walk speedily are the mosquitoes: also this place is full of mosquitoes and if you don't move the mosquitoes will try to sting you.

Beautiful coastal forest, very well maintained trail with elevated plankways for large sections of the trail (useful in case it rains). Bushes of blueberries everywhere, although now the blueberries aren't ripe yet.

Once back in the car we drive the next place, the beach of Vosu. This is only a few km away and we are there at 6:50pm. Now this is a beach, but is not as nice as the Jurmala beach. It's actually quite small and the seawater is dirty (there is some yellow stuff in it, perhaps pollen of the trees?).

The kids immediately start playing with the sand and the water. Probably they wouldn't even mind to swim in the sea water if we didn't stop them.

 After this place we drive to the Käsmu promontory. Also here there is a good trail which from the parking loops around the promontory. I meet some Russians which are camping here and grilling some meat. Not such a bad idea, would be nice to spend the night here. Photogenic boulders in the sea water at the promontory tip.

It's 7:45pm when we finally start driving back to Tallinn. At 8:40pm we stop again at the Ülemiste mall. We buy some groceries and some take-away food at the Indian restaurant, then drive back to the apartment in Tallinn.



26.5: Tallinn -> Helsinki
Apartment of Dima (Airbnb), Helsinki. 120 Euro for a small apartment. It seems that the host usually lives here, and moved out to make place for us and earn some money. The apartment is ok for one night, but the toilet is very, very small (about the same size as the toilet in our ferry cabin Kiel-Klaipeda, although perhaps the ship toilet was bigger). It's amazing that you can put a kitchen, toilet, living room and bedroom into such a small place. The apartment is advertised as having free parking, but in reality there is no allocated parking space and you have to put the car on the street (and hope there is a parking available).
Weather: overcast in the morning in Tallinn. Quite heavy rain and cold. We've been really lucky with the weather in Tallinn - three straight days of good sunny weather. Overcast also in Helsinki and some rain there as well. Temperatures around 16°C in Helsinki.

We leave the apartment shortly after 10am. We return the keys and the parking card to the OldHouse hostel, then rush to the harbour, to the Eckerö terminal. There we walk in and want to check-in. We are told to drive straight to the ferry, lanes 7-8. There we queue up and wait for some time. We'll only get on the ferry around 11:20am. It's a big, car-only ferry with nine decks (decks 3-5 reserved for cars). No trucks.

The ferry departs early at 11:45am. We sit in the front area of the deck. Olf-fashioned Finnish music playing. After some time a band shows up and plays some Finnish songs. Some old couples dancing on the floor. The ferry reaches Helsinki on time around 2:30pm and we disembark.

We drive to the apartment of Dima. On such a grey day, with an overcast sky Helsinki is even less appealing than it already is. Lots of not so cute streets with brick buildings. Unimpressive, old streets, which have been built years ago and never renovated.

In Dima's place it's his mother who opens the door and hands over the keys. We move in and I find a place where to park the car. I was thinking of visiting Suomenlinna, but with such a weather I prefer to take a rest in the flat.

After 5:30pm we drive to the Itis shopping mall outside Helsinki. This is supposed to be the largest mall in the nordic countries, and in fact it's huge and flashy. Lots of high-end but also middle-class shops and outlets. Not too many restaurants and no food court with affordable food. We have some dinner in an Indian restaurant, then buy groceries in a supermarket (there are two supermarkets, a Lidl discounter and an S-Market). Quite a fe
w black muslim women covered with hijiabs in this place.

We are back in the apartment at 8:30pm. Later in the evening, around 11pm, I'm in town for some blue hour photography.



27.5: Helsinki -> Ferry to Germany (Helsinki-Travemünde)
Cabin on board of the Finnlines ferry Helsinki-Travemünde. 500 Euro for the car and the ferry cabin. This ferry cabin is much more luxurious than the Kiel-Klaipeda one: it's bigger, has a TV, refrigerator, cupboard for the clothes, window, double-bed + two stacked beds. All beds have soft mattresses. 
Weather: sunny, blue sky with a few small clouds, relatively warm (18-20°C), no rain.

 We sleep late and only manage to leave the apartment at 11:50am. There is a fine of 60 Euro for wrong parking on the car. Actually this apartment was advertised on Airbnb as with free parking, and in fact I parked where Dima told me to park the car (under the bridge), and now there is this 60 Euro fine.

We drive to the market square and park the car in a nearby parking. We could also have walked, but we are short of time. While Shirley and the kids have a walk in town (they've never been to Helsinki), I take the ferry to Suomenlinna. It's 12:25pm and the next ferry is at 12:45pm. I check with another company, but their ferry is only leaving at 1pm, so I buy a ticket for the 12:45pm ferry (JT-line).

When the ferry arrives, there is a cute blonde girl who is doing all docking manoeuvres, i.e. fixing the ferry with ropes to the harbour dock. First time I see a girl doing this kind of work. Everywhere else I've been this task is done by muscular men, but here in Finland it's done by young blonde girls. And this girl is even slim and good-looking.

The ferry leaves punctually at 12:25pm, then makes a stop at a small island, then finally arrives in Suomenlinna at 1:10pm. But this is only the first stop, as I'm supposed to get out at the second stop (King's gate) and walk back to the first stop. The ferry waits 10 minutes in this place, then continues to King's gate and arrives there at 1:25pm. I now have 20 minutes left to explore Suomenlinna and walk back to the first stop. Had I known the timings and the distances, I would have walked from the first stop to King's gate and back, as this would have given me 15 more minutes in Suomenlinna.

Anyway, Suomenlinna is a 18th-19th century fortress on an island, initially built by the Swedes, then taken over and further used by the Russians. It's a UNESCO world heritage site on an island near Helsinki. The site is not terribly interesting, but the island is quite pleasant.

At 1:45pm I'm on the ferry back to Helsinki. I pick up the car (these two hours of parking have cost 12.50 Euro), meet again Shirley and the kids and together we drive to the Itis mall. The idea is to have some lunch and buy some more food for the trip. It's actually already 2:45pm and we should check in at the ferry at 3pm already, so I just buy some sandwiches at a Subway restaurant and some drinks and drive to the Finnlines terminal.

The Finnlines terminal is located about 19km east of Helsinki. This time you don't have to walk with your documents to a building where to register. You just drive with the car to gates. After showing our IDs/passports, we are given the access cards and can proceed to the ferry. Much simpler than the check-in in Kiel for the Klaipeda ferry.

We park the car on the 8th deck of the ferry. Our cabins are just one level higher on the 9th deck and there is even an elevator. Compare that to the Klaipeda ferry, where the car was on the 1st deck and you had then walk with the (heavy) bags/luggage up to the 5th deck and there was no elevator.

The ferry leaves on time at 5pm. Today the weather is good and the sea is quiet. We spend the rest of the day relaxing in the cabin and on the ship. There is not that much to do here. There is a bar/restaurant/shop area on the 11th deck, but it's quite small (just one shop, a couple of bars and a restaurant). On deck 12 you can ago outside and catch some fresh air and sun. All bars and restaurants close at 9pm which is amazingly early (on the Klaipeda ferry the bar closed only at midnight).



28.5: Ferry to Germany -> Travemünde -> Hennigsdorf
Ibis budget hotel Hennigsdorf, Hennigsdorf. 46 Euro for a budget room. The room is simple, no frills, but fully adequate. There is a table, washing bowl, TV, two beds one over the other. Small toilet with shower. Free WLAN.
Weather: overcast day with some sun at sea in the morning, blue sky in the evening. Quiet sea, very smooth.

Second day at sea. We sleep until late. At 11:30am we walk to the restaurant area where there is a brunch buffet (9:30am to 1pm). Adults pay 23 Euro, kids until 12 years of age pay 9.50 Euro. I have a quick look at the buffet. It's not really that appetising and I'm not sure if I would want to eat here even if this buffet was free. For sure I wouldn't want to spend 23 Euro for this food. Shirley isn't that impressed either, so we walk back to the cabin.

The buffet dinner will be much better (adults 27 Euro, kids 13.50 Euro). We basically spend the day not doing much (and there isn't much to do anyway on this ferry).

The ferry arrives on time in Travemünde and we are able to leave the boat by 9:50pm - just 20 minutes after our arrival in the harbour, much faster than I expected. Then we lose some time because the Navigon car navigation system uses old maps and directs us into a road which is closed to the traffic. We reach the hotel in Hennigsdorf near Berlin around 1am.



29.5: Hennigsdorf -> Munich
Home, sweet home.
Weather: sunny, temperatures up to 30°C. In the late evening heavy rain in Bavaria, temperatures drop to 15°C.

We leave the hotel at 11:50am and initially refuel the car and wash it in the nearby petrol station. There are now around 600km to drive to get back home. If there was no traffic, these 600km would be doable in five hours (six hours with breaks). In practice it will take the whole day to get back home, becuase of countless traffic jams here and there. It starts with a horrible traffic jam at the junction of the A115 and A10 motorways (caused by the high traffic and road works on the motorway). After over an hour in the jam we decide to get out of the motorway and make a big detour on land roads to avoid this jam area.

 In practice we run into another jam on the land road, because we are not the only ones who have tried to avoid the traffic jam on the motorway and there are lots of cars on this land road. And then there is a traffic light with 10 seconds of green followed by one minute of red at the entrance to one small city. Possibly the small city uses this traffic light to reduce the traffic flowing through it.

There will be more traffic jams later. In the evening, south of Nürnberg, it starts to rain very heavily and it gets dark. Very poor visibility, lots of water on the road, strong wind. Difficult to drive fast. Even after 10pm there are still so many cars on the road.

I tell myself that I won't be driving again at daytime during peak holiday periods through Germany. There are just too many road works on German motorways going on at any given time and traffic on German motorways collapses when there are too many cars.

If I knew about this traffic situation, I probably would have continued driving last night after 1am and would have arrived much further south. At least at night there is much less traffic on German motorways and virtually no traffic jams.

We reach home at 11pm in the evening after almost 10 hours of driving.



Copyright 2016 Alfred Molon