Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Finland

 I had arrived in Finland with no particular itinerary in mind, other than eventually making my way to Vilnius, Lithuania for my flight back to the states at the end of my trip. I had entertained thoughts of hanging out in Russia but it turned out the visa issues would take too long to sort out so after Finland I decided to head south through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and then back to Lithuania.


The sun literally doesn’t seem to ever go down in Helsinki. The Scandinavian city sits on the Finnish coast along the waters of the Baltic Sea. Nighttime during the summer months basically consists of an extended twilight and although the sun does technically set around 11PM and rises around 4 AM it never actually turns completely dark at night. During the day the sun shines bright and people head to outside to enjoy the fresh air. Helsinki is clean and the people seem very pleasant. The numerous parks in Helsinki are filled with people on picnic blankets drinking beer and wine, strumming guitars, and getting all the sun they can get before the cold dark days of winter set back in.

Helsinki is full of curiosities; one of the funniest was a seemingly spontaneous gathering of the Helsinki Camero club in a parking lot by a pier on the Baltic Sea. I’m not sure how so many 70’s and 80’s era Cameros ended up in Finland but there they were coalesced in a Helsinki parking lot in all their splendor with some even blasting heavy metal. Most impressive, in the true free spirit of the Camero, was the fact that some of the Finnish drivers were sporting very impressive mullets (you know the haircut….business in the front and party in the back). I counted perhaps 20 or so Cameros parked in the weekly gathering of the Camero club but unfortunately I did not have the foresight to tally the number of Scanda-mullets.

Not far off the coast of Helsinki lies a  series of small islands in the Baltic sea. One of the more interesting of these islands is Suomenlinna, a former naval base where Helsinki residents take a ferry over for summer picnics and walk around the base built on 6 islands.

Parvoo is a quaint village about an hour and a half away from Helsinki by bus. Riding out of the city the rustic country roads of Finland are amazing. Along the trip were endless fields of yellow flowers with idyllic wooden houses surrounded by woods and pastoral barns. The bucolic roads all seem to have a bicycle lane and you would be hard pressed to find a more pleasant way to ride a bike.

 Parvoo’s residents congregate in a delightful plaza where vendors peddle fresh produce and flowers.  The diminutive plaza is an  ideal place for lunch or breakfast with its outdoor cafes.  A small river is fronted by a series of darkly stained wooden boathouses. The hilly cobblestone roads make for a enjoyable stroll. The highlight of the town is an centuries old large cathedral that unfortunately had recently been damaged by a fire, but even under restoration it looked amazing.

Everyone in the town was friendly. I was sitting on a park bench reading and I was approached by a group of three burley drunk vagrants. They spoke little to no English but were hilarious and seemed to be very friendly, even offering me some of their grain alcohol in a plastic bottle. The alcohol seemed to be doing a decent job of providing them hydration on a hot summer day. I snapped a few pictures of the garrulous gang of Finnish vagabonds and laughed it up with them. The scene was quite amusing because they were adorned with all manner of hardcore homemade tattoos but they rode around in a gang of sorts on these little country bicycles that a farmer might use to bring fruits to market. The inebriated group rode around drunkenly with little wicker baskets on the handlebars and rang the little bike bells when they were passing others……. funny site.


Just across the Baltic Sea, a couple hours away from Helsinki by hydrofoil, lies the beautiful city of Tallen, Estonia. As would be the case with other Baltic towns I would visit, the city seems to congregate on a large central plaza. Walking from the pier, Tallen had a crumbling eastern European feel to it until I got to the old town. I walked around the cobblestoned old town and looked for a large spire where my hostel was located according to lonely planet. The medieval old town is surrounded by high walls and replete with spires and a massive entrance gate. Raekoja Plat is the splendorous town center and is surrounded by a medieval town hall, various other gothic buildings, and restaurants with outdoor seating on the plaza. Tallen is filled with churches and cathedrals but probably the most impressive is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a greek orthodox catherdral capped by a series of onion shaped cupolas.

Parnu is a pleasant seaside town where Estonias go to enjoy the sun and sea during the warm summer months. The waters of the Gulf of Riga gently splash on the expansive beaches of Parnu where throngs of Estonias spend the day relaxing. The beach is packed as far as you can see with beach chairs everywhere, changing stations, kites flying overhead, and lifegaurd towers. The brown waters aren't the most beautiful in the world but Parnu still has a fun feel to it. The town seems to be centered on a small prominade surrounded by shops and cafes. I spent half an hour there watching an old man playing vituostic melodies on his accordian as they echoed hauntingly along a  small alley. Although he had a small cup for donations he did not seem to be so much a street performer as a man who just enjoyed playing music and entertaining pedestrians as they walked around.


I arrived in Riga, Latvia by bus from Estonia. Riga’s Old Town is notable for its inspiring art nouveau architecture. Strolling around the small corridors and alleys in  Riga is charming  if nothing else for the random scenes you encounter. There are sculpture gardens and impressive cathedrals all around. I most enjoyed the sounds of Riga. It is enchanting walking in an alley and hearing ethereal melodies sung by a choir and realizing they are resonating from the open window of a cathedral on a random street. Elsewhere on other random corridors  the sonorous echoes of a violinist performing under the small stone underpass of a bridge draws small crowds.  Scenes like these are commonplace in Riga. To get a good view of Riga I made my way to the top of a spire at St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Jurmala is a town not too far from Riga by train. This resort town of sorts is notable for its attractive 4km stretch of beach and abundant restaurants and entertainment. I spent a day here just relaxing on the beach before heading back to Riga.


From Riga I took an early morning bus to Vilnius, Lithuania. Once in Lithuania I took the next train to Warsaw, Poland. I arrived in Warsaw around 1AM and ventured into the city to find a hostel. The next morning I headed back to the train station and caught a train to Krakow. After Krakow I would later backtrack  to Warsaw  and then back to Vilnius, Lithuania at the end of my trip.


Every traveler who I have ever met that has visited Krakow has waxed poet about the wonders of the city and for a long time I have wanted to visit. Krakow is one of the rare cities that is heavily hyped up that ends up surpassing expectations.

The heart of Krakow is its massive town square, the second largest in the world after Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The square is a hive of activity and filled with people. The inviting aroma of Polish cuisine pervades the air. Street performers mill about from jugglers and acrobats to violinists and puppeteers. Everywhere you look there is something to see. At one end of the square sits the  massive 14th century St. Mary’s basilica with flocks of pigeons lurking in its shadow.

Krakow’s architecture is a fascinating mishmash of renaissance, baroque, and gothic structures. Near the town square is the Wawel Royal Castle on a scenic hill overlooking the Vistula River. The Kazimeirz Quarter makes for a pleasant stroll in the old town. I stopped by an interesting antiques market and browsed through random pictures of people from turn of the 20th century Krakow, I wondered what these people’s life stories were before after these snapshots frozen in time. Perhaps someone will go through my random pictures too in 100 years and wonder the same thing.  Near the antiques market was a delightful produce market. Kazimeriz has a decidedly refreshing bohemian feel too it and all the restaurants and bars seemed to be thoroughly unique and architecturally interesting.

Elsewhere in Krakow there was an outdoor photo exhibition of Krakow’s native son Pope John Paul II. Krakow is quite proud of Pope John Paul II and indeed his memory lives on here where every souvenir stand hawks John Paul II pictures, key chains, postcards, and myriad other trinkets.

About an hour away from Krakow is Auschwitz, filled with large tour groups quietly touring the grounds. The compound was originally constructed as barracks for the Polish army before the Germans invaded. 


Yet another city yet another town square…..Europeans are definitely onto something, if only we had more town squares in the states. Warsaw’s town square is probably the most colorful of the handful of town squares I visited on this trip with the buildings painted bright reds, pinks, blues, and yellows.  The square was entirely rebuilt after being destroyed in World War II. Unlike Krakow most of Warsaw was obliterated in World War Two and much of the town was rebuilt after the war.  The street performers were entertaining. The most memorable was an orchestra of sorts with  10 accordion players handily performing all accordion versions of  Pachabell’s Canon, Vivaldi’s four seasons, and elaborate Bach fugues among other tunes. 


I ended my trip in Lithuania. Vilnius is another Baltic capital with the requisite old town and cobblestone streets.  I wandered the old town visiting a number of aging churches and cathedrals. A few cathedrals were holding mass when I stopped in and it was interesting to see such big cathedrals full of worshippers as most of the cathedrals I had toured on this trip were empty. Cathedral Square seemed to be the focal point of Vilnius with the Vilnius Cathedral and Gedimino Hill overlooking the square.

Trakai lies about an hour from Vilnius by bus and makes for a interesting trip. This small town is highlighted by the ruins of two castles built in the 14th century. The castles are surrounded by a number of lakes. A few of the lake have long creaky wooden bridges traversing their lengths . There were a few restaurants around the lake and  later I stopped to sample some delicious Lithuanian cuisine.










Accordion player in Warsaw, Poland

Pier in Helsinki, Finland

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallen, Estonia

View from Steeple of old town in Riga, Latvia

Spires in Vilnius, Lithuania